The Great Gatsby Review

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If I had to do the Desert Island Discs thing and be stranded on a desert island with just a single book for the rest of my life I think it would have to be The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. (that or Anasi Boys, I haven’t decided yet…) It’s not the largest book in the world, my rather battered copy is about 150 pages long, but it packs a lot into a very slim package, tackling some of the biggest themes possible all while enchanting the reader in it’s magnificent prose. The book is narrated by young twenty-something Nick Carraway, who has recently moved from somewhere in the Mid-West to New York to become a bonds salesman, and details the meteoric rise and fall of the titular Gatsby as he tries to win the affection of his teenage crush and neighbour Daisy Buchanan. In previous posts I’ve described something as Gatsby-esque, if I really liked it so I’ve decided to give my thoughts on The Great Gatsby proper.

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My own copy, rather worse for wear…

Something very noticeable about the Great Gatsby right off the bat is how Nick describes things. It’s this beautiful, flowing, prose that verges on the edge of purple occasionally but always shows just enough restraint to keep things from becoming ridiculous. A great example of this is the description of the first of Gatsby’s many famous parties that Nick goes to: “The bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside, until the air is alive with chatter and laughter, and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names.” It’s a really engaging style and immediately gets across how charming, hyperactive and ultimately quite hollow high society is.

Not that Nick Carraway would notice the final point. He is possibly the most interesting protagonist of any novel I’ve ever read. For all his wonderful descriptions he’s completely contradictory. He’s effortlessly charming, an gives off the impression of being able to keep a clear head and analyse other people’s actions, but it soon becomes clear that he’s little better then the menagerie of scarred, barely functioning people that surround him. He says he hates Tom’s brutal and misogynistic behaviour towards Daisy and yet he himself is a serial womaniser; casting off the unnamed ‘Girl Back West’ in pursuit of the glamorous Jordan Baker. Strangely of all he dismisses Gatsby as “representing everything for which I have scorn,” and yet Gatsby is the person Nick idolises most and one of the most likeable characters in the story.

It might be Nick’s narrative but it’s Gatsby’s novel. For much of the novel he’s half-seen, swathed in a mist of drunken fantasises and rumours provided by his guests, but when the layers of myth are stripped away near the end of the novel the Great Gatsby is revealed to be just another normal man; helped along in life by a little bit of luck and a portfolio of dubious dealings. Unknown by many of his ‘friends’ and barely trusted by many of his colleagues Gatsby is the eponymous figure of the American Dream’s failures: All of his wealth, property and social connections are merely an after thought compared to Daisy but to him she was, is and will always be just out of reach. She will always choose her openly unfaithful husband simply because he’s ‘better bred’ than Gatsby.

The anger at the American Dream doesn’t stop with Gatsby either. One memorable section of the novel is Nick’s first narrated journey to mainland New York, passing over an ash wasteland created by the refuse of the city which effortlessly melds into one of the poorer districts of New York, presided over by the gigantic eyes of T.J. Eckleburg, an opticians advertisement turned God. The story also covers two some-what minor characters; Myrtle Wilson, Daisy’s Husband’s mistress and her husband George. Both of these characters attempt to better their lowly position in life and both ultimately, tragically, fail.

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Can the film live up to the book? I’m not so sure

I’m sure you’re wondering what’s my opinion of the upcoming film adaptation starring Leonardo Di Caprio aren’t you? Well frankly I’m not that hopeful. I’ve recently decided to try to avoid becoming hyped for things until they come out and reviewers whose opinions I respect begin talking about it, but I don’t particularly like Director Baz Lurhmann’s previous films and it’s being advertised as a 3D movie, which can only be a bad thing. Some of the shoots certainly look pretty but just look to last year’s Prometheus for proof that strong visuals cannot carry a rubbish film. Also there’s the casting: I think Carey Mulligan could make a good Daisy; from what I’ve seen in Drive she has the right balance of fragility and drawing power needed for the part and Toby Miguire certainly have the out-off-his depth fascination that Nick has towards Gatsby’s lifestyle down to a tee. My biggest problem with the casting is Di Caprio himself. I just feel that the man just a little to commanding and, well, Hollywood for my interpretation of Gatsby as a man that doesn’t live up to the myths that surround him. I also have a problem believing that he, Miguire and Mulligan are all the same age. I also hate the score of the film, which seemed to be a modern pop soundtrack rather than anything period-based. Quentin Tarantino has licence to do that kind of stuff because of the movies he makes, that doesn’t mean everyone should be able to do the same.

Anyway rant over. I haven’t covered everything I wanted to talk about, Gatsby’s diary say, but if I did that I’d be here forever and there wouldn’t be much point in you reading the novel, would there? Anyway I really really really really recommend The Great Gatsby, it’s a truly fantastic book, one of the greatest American novels ever and just about perfect in every way. As a budding writer myself if I ever wrote something one-hundredth as good as The Great Gatsby I’d die a very happy man. Now go away and read the bloody thing!

 

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Jesus’ Son Review

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I was recently listening to an old episode of The New Yorker’s excellent Fiction podcast a few weeks ago on which Tobias Wolffe read Denis Johnson’s story Emergency from the collection Jesus’ Son. I enjoyed that story so much that I decided to buy the whole book. I think it’s wonderful, conservative Christians mistaking the collection for a series of stories based around a follower of Our Lord almost certainly won’t.

No, the book’s title has nothing to do with religion (although spirituality does feature in the novel) it’s is actually a quote from the Velvet Underground song Heroin and a larger section of the song is the book’s epigraph. The reference to Lou Reed and Co.’s paean to Smack is quite literal, as the book concerns the rather muddled life and times of an unnamed protagonist who is defined by his addiction to Heroin, as well as LSD and a cornucopia of other pill-based drugs. This is where the book really shines because Johnson’s strength is his ability to narrate through a lens of intoxication, something many writers (including myself) struggle with. The narrator delivers ridiculously purple prose with a true sense of conviction and his descriptions feel wonderfully authentic. Not only that but space and time seem mere inconveniences to Johnson’s narrative as the protagonist delivers his anecdotes with little regard for cohesion, locations shift instantaneously love affairs are over before they’ve really begun and one character dies only to be resurrected in the very next story. A perfect example to this is the second story in the collection Two Men, which only deals with the first of the ‘two men.’ The story with the second man doesn’t appear until well over half the book has passed, beginning with “I never finished telling you about those two men, did I?”

Another excellent aspect of this book is that Johnson knows exactly how much to reveal and how much to keep in the dark. The protagonist is married and his wife features prominently in many of the stories but the protagonist really doesn’t give us much to go on in terms of her character. One of the most revealing description of her is “She was a woman, a traitor and a killer.” which, apart from sounding like a Leonard Cohen line, is deeply mysterious. The woman part is obvious, she leaves him for another man so treachery is explainable but killer? Johnson never gives us an answer for this question and the narrative is stronger for it. Mysterious too is the fate of a character the protagonist has at gun-point. The chapter simply ends and we are left to make up our own minds as to the outcome.

It’s breathtaking work, the topics it chooses to deal with are naturally melancholic and upsetting but Johnson imbues the narrative with a sense of hope and possibility for redemption while also underlining everything with a brand of dark humour that will bring a smile to your lips even as you read about the death of new-born baby rabbits. A microcosm of the entire book’s power can be seen in the very first story. The protagonist is involved with in a car crash which kills a man and he describes the woman’s scream as “wonderful,” immediately follows that with “there’s nothing wrong with me” and then seamlessly transitions into telling us about a terrifying hallucination. I urge you to check this book out for yourselves, it’s tries for the Kingdom and it definitely can reach it. Having said that it demands you to listen to that Velvet Underground record over and over again, so be warned.

 

A Clockwork Orange Review

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I recently finished reading A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, which I really enjoyed. A Clockwork Orange is probably the most well-known piece of work I’ve reviewed on this blog, mainly thanks to the almost universally praised Stanley Kubrick film of the same name. Before I start the review I should say that I’ve never seen the film. (Sadly the only Kubrick films I’ve seen are 2001 and The Shining.) I’m not completely ignorant of it, I’m aware of the ‘Singing In The Rain’ sequence and I’ve seen the conjunctivitis inducing gadget used on Alex during the brain-washing scenes, but I’m outing myself here to avoid complaints in the future.

A Clockwork Orange is a fable-come horror story about protagonist Alex, an almost cartoonishly evil teenager, who is the guinea pig for a new government brain washing initiative after a long spell of committing atrocities in a somewhat dystopian near-future. I know several people, many of them far more widely read than I am, who have given up on A Clockwork Orange , not only because of it’s tirade of disgusting imagery but also the language that Burgess uses throughout the novel. The book is narrated in English, but augmented with a bizarre parlance named Nadsat, the language of teenagers in the book. It’s new language that uses elements of Cockney Rhyming Slang and Romany language but is dominated by Russian words, explained by the book as a side-effect of propaganda and cultural colonisation by the USSR many years before. It’s a very interesting technique, because it obscures some of the grossest moments of the novel behind a translucent wall of Slavic-ness, giving the text a dream-like feel as the “red red crovy” (blood) and “ultra-violence” (rape) are diluted and blended together into a soup of strangely childish violence. It also goes a long way to contextualise and create a setting for the book, as the entirely self-obsessed Alex rarely gives us any information outside of his own experiences. Don’t be fooled though, Burgess doesn’t hold your hand through this new language barrier and if it’s your first time reading it (unless you speak Russian or have a Nadsat cheat-sheet to help you) you’re probably going to get lost. I might have already known moloko is Russian for milk, (long story) but it took me a long time to realise what the difference between a nozh and a britva was, and I’m still not sure how to tell a Malchick from a Patitchka .

The really strange thing to grasp about Clockwork Orange is the empathy you’re supposed to feel towards Alex. He is by all accounts a viscous little shit but the people you’re meant to side against are the scientists and government officials that try to cure him. The novel waits until roughly half way through to play it’s hand, wherein Alex is subjected to the aforementioned brainwashing, which destroys his ability to not only do violence, but to effectively make his own moral decisions, and he shambles around the books third act in constant misery, unable to function in normal society. This book, which up until then had been reading like the script of a cheap ’70’s exploitation movie, has the sheer brass balls to lecture the reader on state-directed morality and Pavlovian conditioning. That I kept reading and didn’t hurl my copy across the room in frustration is proof of Burgess’ skill.

The only problem I had with the book is the ending. If you’re familiar with the Kubrick film you’ll know that it ends with Alex being cured of his ‘correction’ and vowing to continue his spree of mayhem. This is also how the American print edition of the novel ends. However in the original English print there is an extra chapter, removed by Burgess’ American editors, which details Alex’s life after being released from his hospital bed. The problem with this chapter is that Alex ‘grows up’ no longer wishing to ruin other people’s lives but to raise a family of his own instead. In his introduction to the book Burgess discusses in great detail the reasoning behind this change in character. His argument is simply that Alex changes because he has the opportunity to and his change is the victory of free will over totalitarianism, as well as playing into the very Catholic themes of sin and redemption. That said in my opinion this change is far too sudden and abrupt to be effective, it happens over a period of days rather than the many years it should have taken Alex’s character to reform, and that makes it a little ridiculous for me.

The ending chapter aside I really enjoyed A Clockwork Orange. If nothing else it’s a wonderful example of a unique and engaging use of language and literary style, but it’s so much more than that, calling up all sorts of questions about the consequences of modern morality and state control which are as if not more relevant today than in 1963. Basically read A Clockwork Orange, because it’s real horrorshow.

Norwegian Wood Review

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Haruki Murakami is one of Japan’s most successful writers. He’s also one of the strangest, his novels often take bizarre turns and mix elements of magical realism and traditional narratives together. A character in Dance Dance Dance has psychic powers, while his latest novel, IQ84, contains exploding dogs. (as well as a scene nominated for Britain’s prestigious Bad Sex Awards) Norwegian Wood, however, is a relatively traditional book. Toru Watanbe hears a cover of Norwegian Wood by the Beatles and this song transports him back to his university years. The narrative focuses on this period which contain plenty of music, drinking and casual sex but more importantly the choice between loving two girls. Naoko and Midori. Naoko is an old friend of Toru’s though her feelings, although they seem to be genuine, are clouded by serious mental health issues. Midori, on the other hand is a girl that Watanabe meets on his course. Confident and impetuous ,(not to mention incredibly frank) she is the mirror image of fragile Naoko.

I loved this book, and what Norwegian Wood lacks in spontaneously combustible canines it makes up for in interesting characters, wit and a lot of big themes that it tackles well. Just like Roberto Bolanõ’s Last Evenings on Earth that I reviewed a few weeks ago, Norwegian Wood gives me strong Great Gatsby vibes. This is a far more personal story than The Great Gatsby but it still seems like Toru is a footnote in his own story. He’s more of a listener than a talker, and as a result dialogue is almost always one-sided with Toru’s character being seen through his poeticish narration. As well as their similar narrating styles both Toru and Nick share a sense of unreliability (he even has a ‘girl back west’, who he abandons when he travels to Tokyo). Luckily for Watanabe he isn’t quite as slippery as Nick. He seems far more introspective and questioning of his own actions as an older man, without the arrogance that Nick brings to the table. There are also are a number of scenes (a certain hospital scene comes to mind) which prove he can be sensitive and caring. The roles of the girls can also seen to be influenced by The Great Gatsby. Midori, with her masculine haircut, frank way of speaking and discomfort at being surrounded by the wealth of her peers, is a dead ringer for Jordan and Naoko shares the fragility of Daisy. The other thing that defines Norwegian Wood is death. Early on in the novel we learn that Kizuki, Toru’s best friend and the ex-boyfriend of Naoko, killed himself at 17. His presence hangs over Toru and affects him in a similar way to Gatsby and Nick’s relationship. Death’s presence is reflected in the wintry feel of the book. Although the book takes place over roughly three years or so, most of it’s action is concentrated in Autumn and Winter, with pages and pages devoted to single days. (in one case it takes over a hundred pages to describe a three day period) While Spring and Summer are brushed over very quickly. Possibly the best thing about the book is that despite all of that it manages to steer away from becoming depressing or morose and it’s actually a pretty funny, charming book in spite of all the tragedy contained within it’s pages. It’s also one of those books that really nails describing the transition from adolescence to adulthood and all the awkwardness and navel-gazing that comes with that monumental change. Norwegian Wood is pretty much perfect and deserves pride of place on your bookshelf.

Cidade de Deus (City of God) Review

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I recently watched a Brazilian gangster film; Cidade de Deus (or City of God in English) and was left feeling this strange mix of enthralled and completely horrified. It’s possibly one one of the most engrossingly tense and unsettling films I’ve ever seen. Before I leap into specifics how about a general overview? City of God is set in, well, the City of God, one of the largest of Brazil’s infamous Favela neighbourhoods. Essentially a gigantic slum, the City of God’s labyrinthine, poverty-stricken streets are a haven for drug-dealers and corrupt cops. The film is narrated by Rocket, a resident (or prisoner, depending how you look at it) of the City of God and his struggle to use his photography skills as a means out of the Favela. Although Rocket is the narrator his story takes a back seat for most of the film, which mostly revolves around the development of crime in the ’60’s and ’70’s and a gang war that comes close to levelling the entire Favela. One thing about this movie that I really enjoyed was it’s direction, which is shown really well in the opening scene as a bunch of gangsters chase a soon-to-be-cooked chicken through the streets. It’s frantic and faced paced, using a lot of steady cam shots and close ups that add to the sense of urgency. This picture also takes a lot from early Tarantino flicks, particularly Pulp Fiction, in terms of it’s narrative style. Rather than one continuous narrative the movie is comprised of multiple chapters each one a series of flashbacks within flashbacks that follows a single or a small group of characters. This technique is used very effectively, it never becomes confusing or hard to follow because the narration acts as a guiding hand through the transitions so the audience knows exactly when and where each scene takes place, and it’s used effectively, creating little moments of intrigue and then leading the audience to believe minor characters are central and vice versa. Another trick the movie uses is pop music to establish time and place, particularly in the 1970’s, when Rocket enters his teenage years and he becomes much more central to the narrative. Any film that features Kung-Fu Fighting has my approval.

However, as much as I enjoyed this film it’s one of the most terrifyingly uncompromising films I’ve ever seen. I was honestly shocked at the violence in this film. The reason why I was so affected by the violence in this movie wasn’t it’s graphic content or the body count (believe me I’ve seen enough fake blood to last a life time) but how realistic it seemed and the age of most of the victims and victimisers. Almost none of the casualties in City Of God are older than 18, and a lot of them are children. At first it might strike you (as it did me) as a faintly ridiculous notion that drug-dealers, even completely sociopathic ones, would stoop to violence of this kind. (After all even Tony Montana refused to kill kids when he wasn’t snorting mountains of cocaine or playing Oedipal Jeopardy with his sister.) But by the end of the film, largely thanks to some fantastic acting by an almost completely amateur cast, you completely believe that this kind of carnage is possible. That’s when the words ‘based on a true story’ appear super-imposed over the ending. My mind was blown. Is the degree of violence depicted in the film accurate? I’m not sure but it’s damn well believable.

City of God is an incredibly good film and, although I’m not entirely sure I enjoyed it, I would strongly recommend you give it a watch.

Cliff Yates workshop and some poetry

Instead of a regular poetry session last week we had a guest seminar/workshop type thing from respected poet and English teacher Cliff Yates. The workshop itself was pretty fun and interesting, especially when Cliff caught up with a ex-pupil of his in the middle of the seminar. More importantly, it was actually a very helpful workshop, because with poetry I tend to find writing poetry somewhat forced and artificial (this poem has to have a certain number of line-breaks in it or it won’t work, that sort of thing)  but this workshop really helped me ease out of that stuff, although what I’ve written seems to be much more like prose poetry than anything else. So here are three poems I wrote on Wednesday, because God knows there isn’t enough poetry written by teenagers on the internet.

We feed rats near the entrance

to the supermarket car-park to stop

them from attacking us.

We sit there beside the sign and wish we could put bleach or cyanide into the sausage rolls so the rats would die.

We listen to appalling pop-punk,

pretend we don’t live in fear.

Later Adam will steal a balloon from a shop front display.

It advertises artificial snakeskin in optimistic block capitals.

On the way to meet you I fell into a well and died there. As my soul fell and flew through the sky I was terrified of what my fate could be; would I go go to Hell? Is there an eternal torment I must suffer from some unknown sin? Or would I go to heaven and meet the equally terrible fate of being glumly content for the rest of infinity? Instead my soul fled both my body and the earth. It moved past our solar system and continued onwards through supernovas and nebula and the limitless spaces in between these objects. We hang in space like broken glass tumbling from a skyscraper. I came upon a garden, despoiled and beautiful, where I met the others that had died before me. They came in their hundreds of billions but each would know me and I would them all by name, in time.

I need to piss so I stumble away

a cliché move I know: I’m half expecting to see a man

clutching a chainsaw

and what he could find of his family to him in the darkness.

I was concerned, I didn’t know which junction to take,

but the alcohol and my friends have seeped in

and now I know which way to turn and I forget

that I only have three hours left.

I hope you enjoy it, ( and I apologise unreservedly if you don’t)  please feel free to leave comments and feed back if you want.

Roberto Bolaño’s Sensini Review

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I recently read Roberto Bolaño’s collection of short stories Last Evenings on Earth. Bolaño is an enviable writer, throughout his short ten year tenure as a published writer he produced a whopping thirteen books and has been described as a “super-nova of creativity” by Giles Harvey. And I have to review one of his stories. Yikes.It’s a good thing I really enjoyed it isn’t it?

Sensini is the story of a young writer who begins to write to another, much older writer whose work he admires and the psuedo-friendship that develops between them. The story is steeped in this melancholic feeling that permeates throughout the entire book, as Bolaño uses a first person form that isn’t nostalgic but certainly reflective, rather than the colder third person form found in many other stories in the collection. One interesting thing about Bolaño’s writing in this book is how little information he gives about many of the protagonists in his stories. They are either the first person narrator, as in this story, or they are referred to only as ‘B’. This seems to indicate that much of Bolaño’s work is at least partly autobiographical. This technique is very important in Sensini as the reader soon realises that they are given almost no information about the story’s protagonist and any information they are given is couched in ambiguities. For instance, when the character talks about the first time he writes to Sensini he says this“…and one night, after a dinner or a light meal or just a snack, I wrote him a long letter…” which is such a strange way of describing the event and it throws the character into this unreliable light so that the reader cannot trust a word the man says. We can’t even decipher his age, he’s just “twenty-something”, or “over-thirty” I really quite like it and it makes us question everything that this character says. The story is not so much an examination or retelling of their friendship but rather what they want from each other and the way they hide it behind the façade of their letters. Sensini seems set on transforming his protégé into a replacement for his own son who disappeared years before in Argentina (named, tellingly, Gergorio after Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis), while the protagonist is interested in meeting Miranda, Sensini’s daughter. I think the reason I like this story so much is the ways in which it resembles The Great Gatsby. The young, unreliable narrator and his pride that becomes a veiled form of self-consciousness, the themes of mentor-ship and manipulating one person to relate to another. (not to mention the protagonist’s interest in women) I’m a sucker for it.

So, in short, read it I promise you won’t be disappointed.