Mount Helicon Revue

Crude book surgery

Month: October, 2012

Tristram Shandy – Laurence Sterne (1767)

It’s rare to find a book (let alone read one) so full of warmth, friendliness, and gentle humour. Sterne’s Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman confesses to all of these qualities. The tone and style the original anti-novel stands alone in the world of Western literature, which has made the book a classic.

Of course, Tristram Shandy is known for turning convention on its head, then defenestrating it from the 5th floor. There is no plot as such, and it seems as though Shandy (who is the narrator) has set out to write an autobiography, but he barely gets past his own birth by the end of the book. Frequent digressions into almost everything imaginable pervade the book, but mostly lead to fun anecdotes about his father’s strange opinions, and his Uncle Toby’s shenanigans.

Another thing that stands out, and has become a huge influence on literature, particularly amongst the post-modernists, is the self-relfexive and self-aware quality of the novel. The book knows it is a book, and Sterne (via Tristram Shandy’s narration) comments and ponders on the nature of reading, and what a book is exactly, making it a wonderful early example of metafiction. Sometimes chapters will be a sentence long. Sometimes chapters will be blank. Sometimes Tristram will remember that he’s diverted from the main narrative (if there even is one) and will begin talking about why he has done this.

Everything considered, this is certainly one of the masterpieces and cornerstones of the Western canon, a fantastic novel, on the unfortunate life, and friendly opinions of Tristram Shandy, gentleman.

“But of all the names in the universe, he had the most unconquerable aversion for Tristram.”

The Public Burning – Robert Coover (1977)

The Rosenburg trial of the ’50s isn’t something I can claim extensive knowledge of, so perhaps some of this sharp satire was over my head. And it is sharp, for the most part. Coover grabs a scalpel to conduct a hysterical and horrifyingly surreal post-mortem of the events surrounding what was the first death sentence passed by a civil court for espionage in American history (if my facts are correct).

As well as some clean incisions, Coover will occasionally put away the scalpel and start beating the corpse with a Louisville Slugger. No need to be alarmed: he pulls it off with confidence and style, which stem, no-doubt, from his extensive research. To someone ignorant of the details like me, it indeed seemed researched to a T.

A good deal of the story is told in the first-person by a forty-year-old Richard Nixon. This was a great achievement of the novel. Nixon finally seemed like a human being (though still not a particularly good one) instead of a cautionary caricature,  and his array of character flaws seemed, for once, to have reason. The X-rated epilogue, narrated by Tricky Dick himself is jaw-dropping, the final couple of pages are especially… climactic, to say the least. The jaw drops further when one takes into account it was written only a few years after Watergate.

Though Robert Coover’s damning, intelligent, and self-aware satire about the ugly side of the American psyche and political scene is an excellent read, it is definitely not for everyone. Despite this, I would certainly recommend it to anybody interested.

“‘It’s… it’s all right,’ I said. ‘Don’t be afraid. It’s just me, Richard Nixon.'”

The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon (1966)

Everyone has woken up feeling like the heroine of this uncharacteristically short novel from that master of illusion, the talented Mr. Pynchon. Oedipa Maas wakes up one Californian morning to find her self the executor of her wealthy ex-lover’s estate. From here, she and of course, the reader are given a little tour of Pynchon’s world, a place which has gained self-awareness and exists only to laugh at itself and its inhabitants.

The characters are all part of some kind of dusty conspiracy involving ancient European postal services that continue into the present day. Arcane symbols point to evidence of their existence, and Oedipa is buffeted around past an unbelievable cast, including her ex-Nazi therapist, Dr. Hilarius; Mike Fallopian, a member of an organisation to the right of the John Birch Society; her own LSD addled husband, Mucho, a DJ for KCUF; the list goes on. The novel is described as a great triumph of postmodernism, in that it is a perfect parody of the style. I hope this gives you readers an idea of what you’re working with if you decide to give The Crying of Lot 49 a whirl.

I remember how I felt when I finished reading this book. Bewildered, taken aback, yet, nothing seemed to resolve itself by the end of the story. After I finished reading, the alternate California in the novel seemed to go ticking on, somewhere, somehow. Maybe Oedipa was only imagining things, hallucinating, and poisoned with paranoid thoughts. And right there is why I read Pynchon. You never know for sure, and nobody would ever believe you anyway.

“High above the LA freeways

And the Traffic’s whine

Stands the well-known Galactronics

Branch of Yoyodyne.”

Metamorphoses – Ovid (8 AD)

“Beauty” isn’t a quality I tend to appreciate all too often. But Ovid’s Metamorphoses as translated and introduced by Mary Innes, taught me what beautiful literature truly is. From the invocation of the heavens, to the destiny of Augustus, this narrative poem in 15 books took me on a journey from the creation of the earth, ocean, and heaven, to the foundation of the great city of Rome, and it was beautiful.

Metamorphoses has everything: spine tingling descriptions of mass destruction from the heavens, tales of true love (often unrequited), political intrigue, speeches from the greatest heroes and warriors of the ancient world, and of course, people turning into other things.

Ovid himself is an excellent storyteller: one thing that especially kept me reading was the structure of the narration. An “unbroken thread of verse” winds sinuously through the mythical ages Magnolia style, and often characters within stories will tell their own tales within tales. A new and tasty story every few pages, which somehow managed to flow sinuously from the previous meant that several hours passed before I realised that I’d been utterly drawn into Ovid’s world.

Shakespeare himself is said to have drawn volumes of inspiration from this work of Ovid’s, and inspiring it surely is. These are no mere bed-time stories: there are morals, vivid allegory and metaphors, terrors, love, hate, and of course, graphic depictions of strong and bloody violence.

A must for anyone who loves the printed word.

“I grabbed a pile of dust, and holding it up, foolishly asked for as many birthdays as the grains of dust, I forgot to ask that they be years of youth.”

Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut (1969)

It’s strange: I only realised the worth of the book once I had finished reading it. The language I couldn’t stand at first, it seemed childish, a little flat, but perhaps it was simply shock, as nothing in this book is as I expected it to be.

At first the anti-war message seemed a little unsubtle. When Dresden went up in flames and terraformed into something like the lunar surface, I understood why. Vonnegut was there; he had been in that eponymous slaughterhouse. The allied fire-bombing of Dresden had claimed more lives than the infamous nuclear assaults on Japan, and Vonnegut, a POW, had seen it happen. He wanted to make his message clear: never again.

Aside from this, the feeling of jumping through time was perfectly simulated (not that I’ve ever become unstuck in time, but here’s hoping). Billy Pilgrim’s stoic attitude in the face of everything that happens: his abduction by aliens, marriage, foreknowledge of his own death, is written in an unerringly entertaining way.

Once I put the book down, I stared at the ceiling for a few minutes to try and process the book in my mind. Ultimately, it’s no mere anti-war tale (though an exemplary anti-war tale it is), it’s a story of unflappability in the face of destiny, calm acceptance of fate, whether favourable or not, and smiling lovingly at the unsettling machine of determinism.

“So it goes.”

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