Monthly Archives: October 2013

65% done with Shaman

There’s a moment when Loon looks around at his new surroundings and realizes that he, and his people, are poor. It’s an interesting scene on a number of levels because so far the story has been describing an idyllic world, somewhat dangerous, but beautiful, mysterious, and pleasant. All that changes with this new perspective and, though this is fiction, you can’t help but realize we’re not descended from Loon.

The Long Ships: Read from August 01 to October 31, 2013

I think the best way to approach this book is not to think of it as a modern novel but instead imagine that you are being told this story by a grandfather or a bard in an inn on a stormy night.

The Long Ships falls somewhere between epic poetry, an oral story, and a history of the Vikings; the book is not, however, a study of complex characters with deep psychologies and nuance. What you’ll find here is a rip-roaring yarn about the various heroic adventures of Red Orm and his friends as they travel into Muslim lands and even as far away as modern-day Russia, and they’ll fight and kill and marry and get religion and behave much more like regular people than what preconceptions about Vikings tend to describe.

The only real complaint I have about many of these adventures (and the book in general) is that too often there is very little sense of danger for Orm – I never felt like anything really bad was going to happen to him and so even though the book is very well written (it moves at a great clip) there is no real tension moving the action forward. Basically we know Orm is going to be alright and so we just need to sit back and enjoy learning how he became alright. And that’s not really a bad thing, but even Homer was able to place Odysseus is much tighter spots whose outcomes didn’t always feel inevitable.

Bengtsson’s strength in the book is portraying the Vikings as real, living, breathing people and not just blood-thirsty killers bent on raping everything they see. Orm is a generous king, one who even converts to the strange and foreign (even undesirable) religion of Christianity. He treats his friends well, is fair to everyone fair to him, and is basically the ideal of a great warrior king – sort of like a Camelot but with more beards. I got the impression that Bengtsson wanted to celebrate his people’s heritage by lending his characters all the good qualities other writers and historians have managed to overlook when dealing with these people. Of course this means the pendulum swings hard the other way and so this book can only be taken as entertainment with a heavy dose of ancestral pride.

Yet it would be unfair for me to require Bengtsson to do anything more than what he has. He has written a story that is, above all else, fun to read and hard to put down. I mean, we’re talking Vikings here and that’s a subject nearly impossible to screw up. Is it uneven? Sure, but so what? I had fun with it.

I would like to add that I find it really strange that this book is not more well known. This book deserves a much wider readership outside of its native country. Thankfully the New York Review of Books have created a wonderful edition (and they always do, too) and hopefully more people will discover this hidden treasure.

50% done with Shaman

I loved the story of the traveler who tells the story of the man who wondered what was in the east and walked and walked and walked, walked for years and years and the land just went on and on and on and so he turned around and came back because he was lonely and now that he was back he wanted to go east again.

It’s a wonderful way to explain the loneliness and restlessness of people.

43% done with Shaman

I couldn’t help but get the impression that the chapter where Thorn is teaching Loon how to paint the animals on the cave wall that Robinson had had this image in his mind when he first started the novel. Thorn even has the line where he says ‘you have to think how it would really be’, and that’s what Robinson is doing – the whole novel is a thought experiment inspired by those beautiful and haunting images.

94% done with The Long Ships

This final adventure has a cautious, but also a needlessly unnecessary quality to it. Everyone is older and comfortable so it makes sense to test the waters one more time and prove everyone is still a warrior, but Orm is spending more than he’s making and he’s taking no chances. He’s much different than he was at the beginning of the saga and it shows.

23% done with Shaman

Though Robinson is making nearly all of this up he nevertheless has done a good bit of homework, especially on wilderness survival. Catching trout by damning a stream, making clothes, starting a fire – he handles Loom’s wander carefully and with common sense attention to detail. When we find out Loon is only 12, all the other details that went unexplained make much more sense.

This is very enjoyable so far.

13% done with Shaman

One of the things I loved about the Mars trilogy, and so far the beginning of this novel, is Robinson’s ability to turn seemingly insignificant details into a story. His skill at explaining the process of how things work has the effect of slowly creating an entirely real and living, complex world all around you, one small detail at a time.

And I LOVE the idea of who the ‘Old Ones’ are.

The Kid Stays in the Picture: Read on October 24, 2013

Wisely, Evans begins the book by talking about how there are three sides to every story: yours, mine, and the truth. And while I have no doubt what Evans talks about in this great book is what he believes to be the truth as best he can tell it, I have no doubt that that the other side to many of his stories are just as interesting.

The one truth, however, that can’t be denied to Evans are the films he produced and his influence on the quality of those films. Strangely, many of his biggest films are also not exactly films of any high cultural of cinematic virtue, but rather are popular films that spoke to the times and appealed to a wide audience – ‘the people out on Kansas City’. Evans had no pretensions, but like any complicated person even this isn’t wholly true because nobody can deny the greatness of ‘The Godfather’ even if they can argue about who actually made the film (Coppola is no hero in this memoir).

‘Love Story’, which starred his then wife (and probably only long time female friend), Ali MacGraw, best exemplifies Evans. The film is a train wreck of cliche, melodrama, silliness, and banality, yet it’s also a hugely successful film that as the years have gone by is largely forgotten by the public at large, just like Evans. Yet that success allowed Evans to produce some great films, too: Chinatown, Harold and Maude, The Godfather, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Conversation.

But who is Evans? What does this book really reveal about him (and the audiobook is probably the only way to actually experience this book)? I’d say he’s a hustler, a tough as shit, smarter than you, lucky, Hustler with a capital ‘H’. He’s slick, he’s shady, he did all the drugs, but he managed to head a studio that was at the height of its power during the greatest era in American film making. That’s no bull-shit.

As far as the book itself, well, it’s just a collection of great stories told chronologically starting from when he was a kid, to his first break as an actor, to (and I’m still a little fuzzy on this next detail) head of Paramount Pictures (though still an employee with a boss to answer to). And if I hadn’t listened to the audiobook I’m not sure I would have enjoyed this nearly as much aside from the chapters dealing with The Godfather and discovering Al Pacino because it’s the character of Evans that comes through in the reading that adds a layer of depth you just can’t get with the printed page.

Yet as a cultural touchstone (one Bob Odenkirk has been channeling into comedy gold in one form or another for over a decade), the book represents the best and worst of pop culture at the end of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Everything from excess to economic depression to political intrigue at the absolute highest levels of government (hello, Kissinger, you strange, strange bedfellow) is here, as are the contradictions: Evans makes sure to talk about film as a collaborative effort but then makes sure his stamp is all over every last detail (he even calls himself a dictator) is at once at odds with ‘the truth’ but also in keeping with the man.

Evans is hard to pin down, even in his own voice, but he does convey the sense that when he was in his prime he could run a studio and he makes you want to work for him, even if you know full well you’re going to get a lousy deal out of it (I think only Jack Nicholson ever one-upped Evans, and that’s why they probably remained friends).

Very interesting book, great to listen to, and a unique bit of insight as to how movies are really made. I doubt much has changed, either.

78% done with The Long Ships

I know it’s not fair to judge a book on what I want it to be, but it would be nice if it felt like Orm was in at least a little danger. As he is he is never really in any threat and when something does happen he escapes mostly unharmed and unchanged. It’s the lack of any real arc for Orm that sort of lessens an otherwise great epic tale of viking culture.

One Man’s Initiation: 1917: Read from October 14 to 15, 2013

“But after the war we’ll be free to do as we please,”

“We’ll never forget [it].”

The very beginning of the novel, on the transport ship out of NYC, Dos Passos introduces a symmetrical repetition on images and words. At first it seems as if he is doing it to capture the rolling, lolling motion of the ship over the waves, but later, when the story is much broader in scope than just a mere ocean, this continual repetition and reworking of the same images captures that sameness of civilization and all its problems and terrors that repeat generation after generation.

At one point Martin looks out over the men and thinks about how all the previous generations of mankind had been struggling for this terrible moment, as if we knew it was going to happen all along. Fate and time play an important role in the story and Dos Passos writes beautifully to connect the themes of timelessness and the passage of time. In one passage as Martin recites Blake’s poem, Ah Sunflower, to see how far he can get before another shell flies overhead, we get the double image of the endless procession of sunflowers tilting with the sun through the day with the image of the men in darkness listening to the shells fly overhead, their full attention, like sunflowers, on the possibility of death coming from above.

He also looks at Europe as now a corrupted, filthy version of its former self – streets filled with whores, stage lights too bright, and unimpressive orchestras – a far cry from that beautiful culture of 1000 years. Dos Passos describes these intemperate desires that prowl around like cats in the night and only the foggy shadow of Notre Dame cathedral looming into view and then disappearing again as if it’s an image of fading morality and fading power, too.

The images of the inhumane are on every page, first with the description of the young man with no nose and mechanical pieces for a jaw. Martin lingers on the sight of the the man with no nose and Dos Passos links this to the rest of the novel by continually describing what things smelled like which marks the worst of the dangers, the poison gas. He also uses the imagery of ripe and overripe fruit and vineyards to subtly remind you of the terrible devastation to a human body hit by a shell.

All this makes for compelling and unforgettable imagery and Dos Passos comes very close to creating a real masterpiece. However, he falls short. He falls short in his main character, Martin who though not surprisingly is idealistic (as many young people) I never could actually believe as a character. Martin never seemed to be truly effected by the war, he doesn’t really seemed changed by anything. The title would suggest that he is ‘Initiated’ at some point, but other than being introduced to the terrible sight of war, I never could really believe a lot of what he had to say or even his own thoughts – they seemed to be too much of a writer trying to “SAY SOMETHING IMPORTANT” but not stay true to a real character.

Hemingway, who, like Martin, drove an ambulance during the war, in his novel ‘The Sun Also Rises’ gives us all we need to know about how the war changed his main character, Jake, with an injury that is only ever implied. Dos Passos never does anything with Martin except move him around and have him look at the war. I felt very disconnected at times to the tragedy going on on every page and really wanted Martin to act.

However, in the end, all we get is a very long sequence where the young men sit around and argue about a socialist revolution after the war. We get a lot of moralizing from Dos Passos (though his characters) about the evils of the rich and the glory of the working class. And while I don’t necessarily disagree with him, it was boring and felt out of place. This was the section of the book where he should actually have given something for Martin to do, not just sit there and listen some more.

Yet as a first novel (novella) there are clear signs of the genius of the writer Dos Passos would soon become. This is a very strong work stylistically and he really put you into the theater of the war, if, unfortunately, not so much emotionally.

48% done with One Man’s Initiation: 1917

Dos Passos does away with the formality of moving characters around and, like jazz, just plays the notes that really sing. New York is left in a blur, the deck of the ship, a river, Paris, the camion’s carrying the men to their death, the abbey, the ripe fruit … and always the smell. The man with no nose,the smell of artillery, death, poison gas, roses, wine.

Old culture is corrupted and replaced with war, sin.

73% done with The Long Ships

The meeting at the stone gives a very different impression of the vikings than what we’ve had up to this point.

Even with a couple of dead goats still hanging from the stone, these men all sit around judging the matters before them a civilly as any Christian nation (and that juxtaposes nicely with Toke’s impression of the god-lovers), but they also seem very poor, too. These were hunters and trappers, not rich men

68% done with The Long Ships

Knowing less than nothing about viking culture I can’t speak to the historical authenticity of the rituals Bengtsson writes about here. However, they are so vivid and seem so natural that I would not be surprised if much of what goes on in this book is based on actual data.

It’s too bad we don’t know more about Viking culture, but maybe that’s part of their appeal, too. They are a lot like the magister here.

The Trial: Read from October 09 to 13, 2013

I think about how often this novel has been imitated, especially in film. So much of the imagery, scenery, situations, and nightmare-like qualities has been copied and parodied to the point that it’s amazing the (somewhat pejorative) term ‘Kafkaesque’ actually has any meaning at all.

Yet even though some of these bizarre images are well known to us now, they are nevertheless still as powerful as they were when Kafka fever-dreamed these words onto the page. And the reason why is that you have to experience this novel as a whole, get caught up in it, go on trial with Joseph K., and judge him page after page. The spell is in the words, in the way Kafka immediately arrests you in the very first sentence of the novel and never lets you go. No homage or parody even comes close to conveying the frightening paranoia, the claustrophobic closeness, the gloomy heat and fog, the grinding and wearing down of K (and us), the confusion, and the logic that has no logic.

Of course Kafka wasn’t onto anything exactly new; bureaucracy and all the complaining about its red tape goes back as long as there has been a civilization. But what Kafka does bring new to the table, a table set by Gogol, waited by Dostoevsky, and later cleaned up by Solzhenitsyn, is describe the insidious hilarity of the proceedings of modern life.

Gogol, in Dead Souls and The Overcoat, saw the absurdity in the bureaucracy of ‘the system’. Dostoevsky saw how the man was judged by it, and Solzhenitsyn experienced first-hand the oppression of ‘the system’. Where Kafka fits neatly in is that he predicted how those in power could obfuscate what the rest of us took for granted as a clear and moral system (the law) and pervert it towards their own end. Gogol’s hero in Dead Souls merely took advantage of a loophole but wished to make good on the deception, he wasn’t out to hurt anyone. Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment, was guilty as hell and the system used cunning, clever and a big stick to get him to admit his crime, but the law was still just even if it was oppressive. Solzhenitsyn (Ivan Denisovich), was innocent, but Kafka had foreseen the future where the guilty were all innocent (and in charge) and the innocent were all guilty (and powerless). Kafka bridges the gap not only through art and literature, but in reality, too.

But Kafka does much more than his comrades; he manages to capture much more than a snapshot of a system gone bad, he captures the irrationality, the total labyrinthine and convulsed logic of the gatekeepers, and the out-of-control nature of the machine. No other writer has been able to capture the very feeling of a dream, to hold together a series of disjointed ghosts that connect in a foggy logic that totally falls apart the moment you wake up. And that’s what Kafka was hoping for too, he wanted the reader, and to a greater extent, the entire world to wake up from the nightmare.

Yet that was not to be, and he was never that optimistic. He understood that even those who were in power were totally helpless against the system anymore. Nobody is in charge of the system because the system runs itself.

The best way to explain it to modern readers is to imagine the recent financial crisis and how impossible it has been to actually figure out whose fault it all was. The homeowners blame the banks because the banks gave cheap, poorly vetted loans. The banks claim they did nothing illegal and were only providing for their customers who wanted loans and whose paperwork was, legally, in order. Besides, the people who own the banks were, in fact, the homeowners who had 401k’s and stocks and other financial products in the banks that were in everyone’s best interest to continue out-performing last year’s numbers. And the lowly bank clerk would not turn down a loan because he was afraid he’d lose his job for not making quota – and same for his boss. And the men at the top? They had to keep reporting to the share holders who demanded better returns.

And on and on and in a circle and nobody was to blame because it was all out of control by slight degrees.

And that’s what Kafka was getting at here in the Trial. That’s why the Trial was not a legal proceeding in the way we understand it, but a social one, a trial of one’s own character, a trial where the only was to be declared innocent is to admit you are guilty because we are all guilty of one thing or another. It’s like littering: one person tossing their coffee cup out their speeding car window does not make a major difference, but 100,000 drivers doing it one just one highway everyday for 10 years makes a huge mess. Oh sure, YOU might not be the problem because it’s all those other people, but we are all the straw the breaks the camels back.

We twist our own knife, either by never taking responsibility or by never changing the system, hard as that may seem. Yet if there is any doubt how terrible it can all turn out for each of us, look no further than Solzhenitsyn who suffered so much in the Gulag, or even Kafka’s own family just a few years after his work was published – they all died in the concentration camp. Who stepped in to change those systems? Nobody. And they couldn’t help themselves, they were truly innocent, but the world sat on its hands and did nothing. We were all guilty.

And we will be guilty again, too. We may never see concentration camps and wars like the 1940’s again, but we still live in an absurd world with absurd rules and we don’t really struggle against it too much because we’ve learned to be complacent, we’ve learned to sit on that stool next to the door and let the doorkeeper keep us out solely because he said we cannot enter.

One final thought: like Dead Souls, this novel is also an unfinished work and though it would be impossible to predict what Gogol or Kafka would have accomplished had they finished their masterpieces, the way they are left to us seem almost more complete than had they had been all wrapped up with a nice ending. I like that there is no real resolution, or, at least in The Trial, I love the disjointed nature of each scene, how characters come and go and how one thing that is important on one page is utterly forgotten on the next. It’s as imperfect and incomplete as the world we live in.

66% done with The Trial

It’s funny how after awhile nothing that happens to K is surprising. Stepping over a dirty artist’s bed to go out another door, a door that leads to more law offices obviously, or how (it’s hinted at) Leni is prostituting herself to all the defendants. After a while you just sort of accept it – which, of course, is the whole point.

In order of how the world really works Gogol->Dostoyevsky->Kafka->Solzhenitsyn

62% done with The Long Ships

the broad strokes that Bengtsson writes in really does work nicely in this book. For example, even though he doesn’t spend much time describing what it was like for Orm and his men to build a new town by the river, when you put the book down and think about that scene, and scenes like it, you sort of get caught up in it the way you do with Homer in the Odyssey. It really is a lot of fun.

48% done with The Trial

It’s interesting how much our lives are based around not taking responsibility. We are never responsible when we do something wrong because there were extenuating circumstances. We work for people who aren’t responsible for the orders handed down to them. Banks aren’t responsible for the economy, parents for their kids, companies for their corruption. K is not responsible for his ‘guilt’ … yet.

53% done with The Long Ships

This book is at its best when there is a lot of action and the stakes are clear. Orm is a man of action and of few words so that when he’s in a situation where the greatest controversy is christian conversion (a matter of considerable words), Orm is sort of wasted as a character. Luckily Father Willibald, though just as fiesty, is a great partner and foil, however, there needs to be more for him to do.

32% done with The Trial

I loathe to read anything Freudian into, well, anything, however, the sexual imagery of the photo in the law book, Joseph kissing his neighbor on the mouth, and the student with the clerk’s wife … there is at least the idea of exposure and rape being toyed with here.

His guards seem more like modern prisoners whose only lot is to remain slaves to the powers that be even though there is nobody in charge anyway.

16% done with The Trial

What’s striking with the opening of the novel is not how quickly Kafka gets right to the point (why other writers can’t do this is beyond me), but how annoying and sort of unlikable Joseph K. is. I almost get the feeling that we’re supposed to feel a sort of empathy with the machine responsible for the arrest. But we’re also seeing the first signs of him second guessing himself and that will soon break his attitude.

At the Mountains of Madness: Read from October 04 to 07, 2013

Only 10 years after the publication of this book Europe had been nearly completely destroyed, the Soviet Union controlled most of the east, America controlled the rest, the atom had been split, and the technology needed to take men to the moon only needed perfecting. Computers, radar, jet engines, women in the workplace, a Jewish state inside Palestine, the neutering of any meaningful monarchies in England and Japan … a total change in civilization. All within about 10 years.

There’s a scene near the end of this book that stood out for me more than almost any other and that is when they first hear and them come upon those albino penguins. The image is at first somewhat comical, then a little sad, too. The scene stood out for me because those penguins seemed to make for a wonderful metaphor for our own existence – blind, pale, helpless, easily frightened chattel to be trampled over by far, far greater powers. The birds were totally indifferent to their surroundings, utterly incapable of comprehending their fate or that anything of any greater importance was going on around them, aside from the inconvenience of being disturbed.

I felt as if Lovecraft had somehow felt the pulse of the times and was able to create a vision of what we as a species were about to do to ourselves during the late 1930’s and into the 1940’s. That dread that is on every page of the book is palpable and captures what some, but not nearly enough people, must have felt when visiting Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Russia before war broke out: a terrible helpless feeling of unease all around that nobody could escape from and a feeling that tragedy was about to happen again.

And the book’s warning to all future adventures to leave well enough alone and to not explore to deep into regions that are best left unexplored, though a theme that crops up in science fiction very often, is more than just a trope here. Lovecraft seems to be intuiting the dangers of man meddling with things he can’t control by foreshadowing nuclear war with those terrible visions beyond the mountains. Lovecraft is saying that the old way of life will forever change if man proceeds on its current course, that poking our noses where they don’t belong will, though not unleash the darkest horrors of the ancient universe, somehow corrupt us from within.

Lovecraft is saying that science and reason can only take us so far before we get lost in a labyrinth of confusion, causing us to splinter as a society and species, forcing us from one extreme to the other, slowly eroding our own sense of self and art and culture, that all the greatest learning will eventually lead to an even greater forgetting; a forgetting of ourselves. Lovecraft seems quite content to stay put, to not pass that terrible boundary we charged right over in the 10 years after this book was written.

It’s very pessimistic in its conclusion, however, I can’t say I blame him either; he knew which way the wind was blowing. And I should be careful in reading too much into this book because after all he was trying to just write a damn entertaining page turner with some first-rate horror that Hollywood is still trying to copy to this day (either great films like Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ and Darabount’s ‘The Mist’, or failures such as Ridley Scott’s beautiful but deeply flawed ‘Prometheus’). Yet the best stories, the ones that resonate with each generation are more than just fun reads, there does have to be something more to the pie than just a pretty pie crust.

Lovecraft writes very simply, clearly, and is a master at teasing out splinters of information at just the right time as to build the for boding. And even when there is really not much actually happening, he still manages to fascinate, such as the telling of the strangeness of the Old Ones and their life on early, ancient Earth. He doesn’t bog us down with needless emotional scenes, rather, he uses Danforth as the emotional sounding-board to juxtapose with Dyer’s cool, clinical, detachment. The rest is all supreme imagination and, honestly, horror so well written that I was genuinely scared and kept looking over my shoulder. It’s really quite uncanny.

But there is much more here than a writer’s wonderful imagination creating a mythos just for fun, Lovecraft has tapped into a vein that still resonates because he not only knows how to write a great story, but also because he knows what frightens us and because he intuited so much of what was just about to happen to the world in the coming years. Lovecraft is sort of a mile marker, a sign post, a line in the sand on which one side is all that came before and on the other is all that he warned humanity not to cross over less it destroy itself.

And so here were are looking back at a base camp we can never return to; only madness awaits us ahead.

60% done with At the Mountains of Madness

One of the real strengths of this book is how it greatly resembles old travel diaries/memoirs and 19th century scientific primers. The language is precise in scientific detail, yet personal, too.

And even though the whole concept of elder ones and their great, ancient cities (and even some of the science) is totally preposterous, it’s so damn entertaining that I really get freaked out while reading it.

20% done with At the Mountains of Madness

First of all I will make sure to kick myself repeatedly and furiously for never having read this book before. As I’m writing this update I’m actually feeling a terrible sense of dread and vague horror lurking somewhere just beyond my door. It’s uncanny how Lovecraft has been able to build a sense of isolation and unimaginable lurking fear. The ice, the mountains, the scientific precision of the updates … wonderful!

The Pledge: Read on October 4, 2013

Years ago I went to the theater and saw a film that has never really left me. The film starred a grizzled and haunted Jack Nicholson, was directed by Sean Penn who seemed to be channeling his inner King Lear and elderly Akira Kurosawa, and was filmed by the criminally underrated cinematographer Chris Menges. That film, The Pledge, which is based on this book, was not a huge success and though it is well reviewed by critics, I’ve not met many people who liked it – especially the ending.

Half a decade later I saw another film in the theater that while also well reviewed was also not a success and contains a scene that when many people see it are first shocked and then dismiss as being something you’re not supposed to do in movie (or any fiction). That movie is Rescue Dawn by the great Werner Herzog and the scene I’m talking about is the beheading.

Between these two film, The Pledge and Rescue Dawn (and since all of Herzong’s films), I came to reassess my opinion on what art can and should do. In fact I would consider the film version of this book to be one of those moments that, while at the time I was unaware of its influence, completely changed my outlook and opinions on art and aesthetics.

I had been previously of the opinion that art, be it story telling in a novel or a film, has to play by certain ‘rules’ and that to break those rules means that you are no longer really creating art. But the problem with ‘the rules’ (tropes, to be honest) of storytelling is that it all gets really predictable and never takes into account ‘reality’ or ‘truth’. Chaos is never really a factor in storytelling because you can’t control chaos, you can’t fit it into a neat, tidy narrative that follows the ‘rules’ as laid out by the story.

But then what is the point of art? Is art supposed to be a container in which we can put some of the otherwise messy elements of life into, clean them up, file them down, and then make them fit together so that they all play nice with each other? Why can’t art have moments of pure chaos and chance? And I’m not talking about deus ex machina, I’m talking about what this story is trying to get at and what Herzog was telling us when he chopped of his character’s head.

The genius of this story is in its subversive take on the crime story (it is, after all, sub titled Requiem for the Detective Novel) and in its labyrinthine structure where we are being told a story to a run-of-the-mill crime writer by a man who watched the events unfold to yet another person. We are, in effect, three steps removed from the events of the story, a story that relies heavily on interpretation of evidence, some of which is the artistic fantasies of a drawing by a 9 year old girl in pig tails and a red dress.

In short, what Dürrenmatt is trying to say is that art cannot actually faithfully represent reality and that do attach truth to something that is made up can, perhaps, make you go insane. You’ll go insane looking for clues and patterns in everything you see until you totally lose your mind, lost in a labyrinth of confusion and chaos.

Better, in a way, to be like Henzi, the other detective, who grasps at what seems to fit the facts, the innocent Peddler, and just be done with it. Why over complicate everything? So what if it costs an innocent man his life?

Right?

Well, of course that isn’t right. And that’s what Dürrenmatt is trying to tell us through our once-removed narrator, but how do you show people the true nature of the world through art? Can it be done and still be a satisfying artistic experience for the audience/viewer/reader? Can the whole shambling beast of truth be paraded out on stage, taught to sit and dance and give its paw on command and all the while entertain the crowd? Or are we only ever going to gets dim shades of truth, little sheddings of that beast’s fur for us to collect and try to piece together the nature of the whole, unseen animal it came from?

Most people would not find that very entertaining.

In the end, however, we can either look for truth or we can look for art. The two are not the same, in my opinion. You can either wrap up a detective story where the murderer is apprehended, or it can end where the murderer is killed in a car crash on his way to commit a crime and leaves the entire investigation in the air with no resolution at all. Or, like Herzog, the man whose life you’re trying to save all of a sudden gets his head chopped off. Both are most senseless and inartistic acts, but they much more true than a satisfying, tidy tale.

Maybe in some way art hurts us in our comprehension of the universe, maybe because we are, as a species wired to look for patterns, to create narrative, that we do ourselves a disservice when we try to tame the cold, vast, chaotic, and unfeeling reality. Maybe that’s why we are prone to go insane when confronted with chaos and horrible, random chance, why we turn our backs on the face of these terrible events that at can and do happen. When bad things just suddenly happen to us we are not really prepared to deal with them because we’ve been conditioned to believe things will work out in the end, that everything should make sense, that there is a greater, higher power controlling everything and when we are forced to face a situation that seems to say there is nothing controlling the universe, we shrink away, we retreat, we lose ourselves – or we find a scapegoat, pin it all on an easy solution, even if it’s not true, and place the blame just somewhere, anywhere, so that we can get on with our day and our lives. Why shouldn’t some drifter, some outsider we don’t know or care about pay so that we can sleep? He’s a nobody, right? He’s not one of us!

It’s so much easier to not hear the bells ringing in the background, to not pay attention to the noise, the chaos of people coming and going, the crowds, the chaotic web of incomprehensible life going on all around us. Why worry about one bad person, why not just be like the vast majority of people who are decent and good? Why obsess over something we can’t understand when we could just go for a drive in the country?

This story, like pretty much all of Werner Herzog’s films, is a glimpse of what it really means to confront reality, to see chaos and how someone might deal with situations that make no sense whatsoever. However, not everyone will be satisfied with the story here because it doesn’t behave like a good story should, it’s untamed but it’s also more true than the truth because it gets at the psychology of human existence and how irrational the universe really is.

In a way this isn’t just a requiem for a detective story; it’s also a horror story. And it’s brilliant.

The Picture of Dorian Gray: Read from September 27 to October 03, 2013

This would have made a better play than a novel.

I love a book that gets me thinking about ideas that I was either dimly aware of previously or gave me an insight into something completely new. On the other hand, I love a good story, too. When one of these concepts so outweighs the other I feel let down and Wilde let me down with Dorian Gray in the way Dostoevsky almost let me down with ‘Crime and Punishment’: too much philosophizing and moralizing. All the characters talk too much and we wind up sitting around stuffy rooms listening to someone who won’t shut up. It’s tedious and makes me feel like the author is just trying to show off.

I will say that I liked Wilde’s humorous cynicism because unlike ‘Brideshead Revisited’ which was full of hateful people who all hated each other, Dorian Gray’s hateful people are fun and interesting and are content knowing how debauched they all are – in fact they revel in it.

Yet the problem with the book is that it’s not really a book, it’s just a collection of stage pieces for the characters to talk inside of. We move from one room to another without much sense of place (something Dostoevsky at least managed to do a much better job at) and all the action pretty much happens off-stage. The best parts of the story were when Dorian went down to the wharf to find a quiet opium den – that whole sequence was well written and interesting. However, not much really happens and we’re forced to take the word of everyone that Dorian is a total monster.

And here’s the thing with Dorian – aside from his vanity, what do we really know about him that would convince us he’s a horrid person whom all good society would sneer at and leave the dining room when ever he entered it? Yes he became a murderer, but that was after we learn people have despised Dorian for years. Wilde does nothing to show us why everyone hates him other than assume we’ll believe people are all just jealous of his eternal youth. To me, Dorian was shallow and vain, but that’s not enough for me to believe he corrupts people to the point of suicide. The whole idea of him is presented poorly.

Funny as this might sound, but this book would have been much better had Stephen King wrote it. King would have made Dorian more realistic as a human being, we would have seen his flaws and his good points, and we would have been drawn much further into the Gothic setting of London and this macabre idea of the painting as the soul. In fact, King’s ‘Pet Cemetery’ comes sort of close to this idea, but that had more to do with greed than it did with anything to do with vanity.

But it’s not fair to talk about the book I wanted; I can only talk about the book I have in front of me.

And Dorian Gray is not that great of a book. I enjoyed the banter for what it was, enjoyed how Wilde tows the line between cold cynicism and cold reality (a distinction many people still can’t make), but it all sort of felt empty and the ending was weak, too. I didn’t feel like it led up to that moment more than I felt Wilde just wanted to get the book over with and decided to end it with a predictable scene.

Still, there is a lot to think about here, especially for someone, like myself, who is no longer ‘youthful’. There is much good in youth and much folly too, however it does get a little to easy to play ‘the grass is always greener’ game when comparing youth to age. Besides, people are more than any one snapshot in time, they ‘contain multitudes’ and can’t be judged only one way because of a single youthful indiscretion. People are allowed to change, and even though Dorian was the same on the outside, he grew on the inside; he was not the same person whom the portrait captured 20 years previously and so Dorian was not bound to some hellish existence where he was static and never changing in all aspects of life – just in appearance. So then why did Wilde condemn Dorian so badly? Was Wilde saying every bad decision we make in youth has to haunt us forever? I disagree.

The other point I’m sure WIlde was trying to make was on of the meaning of art. Art, unlike people, is a snapshot of a moment from the artist’s mind – art is eternal, it’s subjects never aging or corrupting while we, the audience, grow old, cynical, and die around it. The idea of turning a piece of art into a human being, while a fantastic idea, is not explored as well as I hoped by Wilde. Wilde had an opportunity to explore how people really interact with art and how more realistically they would have grown more fond and nostalgic over Dorian as time wore on and not grown to despise him.

I will add that the book is worth reading even if it isn’t all that great – the ideas are interesting and the humor first-rate, it’s just not a really well written novel – it’s a play masquerading as a book and it would be a very fun play if staged well, but here, as a novel, it feels too Socratic in its otherwise Gothic, foggy, mysterious, London setting.

85% done with The Picture of Dorian Gray

A few questions: is what we know of Dorian his true nature? Had not his youth been eternal would he have become so wretched? And how much choice did he have in all this? Yes, he did ask for it in a moment of passion, but have any of the events in his life been within his control? Has he not been corrupted from without? Or is this what Wilde is saying: beauty corrupts and fleeting passion is eternal regret?

65% done with The Picture of Dorian Gray

In the book Wilde tells us Dorian becomes obsessed with, he writes at great length about all the material trappings of opulence and great wealth. At first I was confused why he was going on and on and on about it but then the total obsession of Dorain begins to lull its spell on me, too.

The murder is handled quite nicely and seems so dramatic that it’s almost laughable in how fake it feels. Nothing here is real.