Tuesday, February 13, 2018

It, by Stephen King

Stephen King builds tension by intermixing scenes of normality, if not banality, with scenes of violence and terror. In the opening of his novel It (1986), a little boy is following his paper sailboat as it floats on draining water from a storm down a suburban street.  He is having a great time, but then sees his boat swept down a drainage culvert.  He bends down to look for his boat and sees the face of a clown.  Moments later he is dead, his arm ripped off. This is pretty much the method of It (1986), though none of the subsequent scenes is quite as horrible as this one.
The edition I read was 1477 pages long.  This is long.  The book could probably have been shortened, as much as by half, without sacrificing tension.  We don’t need as many details as King offers.  We don’t need the overflow of information about each major character (there are seven of them—six boys and a girl, all the same age)).  It’s perhaps not necessary for every character to tell his or her own story (or to have it told).  And each of these individual stories is over long.
King deftly maintains two more or less parallel story lines: that of the main characters as children, and that of the main characters as adults 27 years later, trying to finish off the creature. I admire the skill with which King handled the two narrative lines, moving back and forth between them.  But I felt the children’s story line was more interesting.  And, as is the case with the novel as a whole, we learn far too much about every aspect of the characters, their backgrounds, and so on.
King writes well and with intelligence.  His prose is clear and clean, lacking in excessive subordination.  I read through several pages looking for passive verbs and didn’t find any.  This is one sign of an effective writer.  As with all his novels, he often alludes to other literary works.  In this one, many if not most of the chapters begin with epigraphs taken from William Carlos Williams’ long poem Patterson (1946-58). 
One mistake that King makes in this book is to offer literal explanations for supernatural or other-worldly occurrences. He tells us enough for us to suspect that the creature that gives the novel its title may have come from another world or dimension.  But his occasional narratives from the creature’s point of view don’t work. And in the final faceoff between the main characters and It, it’s not exactly clear how they are able to defeat the creature simply by punching it (which in itself is supposed to show the creature that they don’t fear it and therefore aren’t vulnerable to it—a kind of horrific version of the scene in Peter Pan where the audience has to announce its belief in Tinkerbell to prevent her from dying). In one improbable scene, the children build an Indian sweat lodge and, stoking a fire within it, they breathe smoke in hopes of having a vision that will assist them in some way.  The vision that two of them have provides information about It, its arrival on earth, and its awakening every 27 years to feed on whatever flesh is available. Is this information, interesting though it is, really necessary? Wouldn’t It be more horrifying if we knew less about it’s background? Would knowing less about It make It more horrible?
At one point after the children have successfully defeated (but not killed) the creature, they begin to lose “the bond that had held them together all summer.”  To restore the bond, the girl character, Beverley, who is 11 years old, decides to have sex with each of the six boys.  Her reason for doing this is not convincing.  Exactly why it has the desired effect is not clear. King describes the sexual encounters in excessive detail (maybe any detail would be excessive, given the subject), especially her orgasms with two of the boys for whom she has special feelings. King implies these are the moments when she begins to become a woman, that she attains a knowledge not yet available to other girls her age, and so on, blah, blah, blah. I thought, to be honest, these scenes were, for lack of a better word, creepy, and that they turn the reader into a voyeur. I refrain from using the term child pornography. Should I? I certainly don’t think King meant these scenes as pornographic, but maybe it’s the reader who decides whether they are. I should stress that he describes sex among the children in broad euphemisms and abstract language.  At any rate, sex, adult sexuality, is still ahead of these children until this scene, which all but one of them (incredibly) forget.  King links adult sexuality (referred to as “It” in this scene) to what the creature “It” represents.  “It” is, among other meanings, the future—adulthood.
King seems to take pleasure (or at least he gives this impression) in describing how people die violently.  This is especially the case in his description of the destruction of the town of Derry, where the novel occurs.  The destruction itself is magnificently narrated.  But I’m not especially interested in how unimportant characters meet their violent ends.
I enjoyed this novel but the experience of reading it was exhausting. King maintains the reader’s interest over 1477 pages, building tension and mystery so that, in the end, despite the length, one doesn’t want to put it (the book) down.

Friday, February 02, 2018

La Belle Sauvage, by Philip Pullman

In La Belle Sauvage (2017) Philip Pullman offers backstory to events and characters of his Dark Materials trilogy.  Some of the same characters appear, along with new ones, and the infant Lyra, who as a young girl was the central character of the trilogy, plays an important role. The focus of this novel is an eleven-year-old boy named Malcolm.  He’s bright and resourceful and not entirely aware of his innate intelligence and talents.  He’s the owner of a canoe, La Belle Sauvage, which he uses to travel from place to place, especially during the flood that dominates the novel’s latter chapters. La Belle Sauvage is the first installment of a new trilogy called The Book of Dust.
This novel is more earthbound than the Dark Materials books, which is not a criticism.  The plot concerns a darkening political situation as the government is increasingly dominated by people and ideas associated with the Magisterium, which is gradually imposing a police state. (The Magisterium is a thinly veiled version of Catholicism, which itself stands for Christianity, and which is also representative of repressive, authoritarian religion in general).
The novel is very readable.  Pullman delineates characters effectively and deftly develops a mystery that gradually becomes a full-blown crisis.  A budding attraction between Malcolm and a sixteen-year-old girl named Alice who works at his father’s pub is an important element.
My problem with the Dark Materials trilogy centered on its attempts to make religion the central enemy of a just and reasonable world.  The second and especially third installments grew increasingly strident and polemical. While I do not disagree with this notion (current events--not to mention two thousand years of history--make it credible), I don’t like novels that attempt to indoctrinate young readers.  This was my complaint against C. S. Lewis’ much over-rated Narnia novels, each of which in succession grew more tedious and didactic. 
Pullman in La Belle Sauvage does not overblow his antagonism against the Church.  Instead he allows characters and events to develop on their own terms.  We can see that sexual harassment and pedophilia may become elements that he will attack in later novels in this new trilogy. And there’s no doubt that the danger of a theocratically governed world will be at the center of the developing crisis.
Pullman is not opposed to religion per se.  We see a convent of nuns whom he treats sympathetically, even though many of them die in the flood.  He portrays pagan religion to an extent, the old religions and legends of the British past.  What he does not care for is an institutional religion that imposes control over how people think and act, an authoritarian religion that becomes the basis of an authoritarian, tyrannical government. He’s opposed to fascism, clearly enough.  And the government that is developing in this novel is one that shares many affinities with the rise of Nazism and its persecution of Jews and other minorities. It also has affinities with our current American situation.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

The Water is Wide, by Pat Conroy

Pat Conroy’s memoir The Water is Wide (1969) describes his year teaching poverty-stricken black children on Dafuskie Island, off the coast of South Carolina, near Beaufort. (He refers to the island as Yamacraw in the memoir). One can find much to commend in this forcefully written, enthusiastic, and heartfelt book, but it is dated.  That’s nothing Conroy could have helped, really, because sooner or later everything becomes dated.
In part, the book is an account of how Conroy grew from a young boy educated in the ways of the white supremacist South to a young man concerned with racism, economic disparities, and social injustice. In part, the book also is about how his ambitions to help the children on Yamacraw Island were doomed by the segregationist mentality of other teachers, the schoolboard, and the surrounding country side. The Water is Wide is about his encounter with what real poverty means, the isolation it imposes, the disabilities on human development that it inflicts.  At first Conroy tries to bring all of western civilization to the children, playing music for them by the great composers of classical music, exposing them to great works of art (Picasso gets him in some trouble), taking them on trips to the outside world: he arranges for them to spend Halloween in Beaufort and later takes them on a week-long visit to Washington.  He works hard to connect with them, to recognize them as individuals.  It’s never clear what he accomplishes, other than the relationships he develops with them and their parents.  These relationships are important and meaningful. He is outraged by the decades of neglect that have denied the children a meaningful education and consigned them to limited lives.
Conroy tends to view the children through white paternalistic eyes.  There’s a white savior at work in the narrative. He becomes increasingly aware of this as the book progresses.  He’s profoundly shocked at the illiteracy and ignorance that afflict residents of the island. It takes him much of the year to come to realize that despite poverty and lack of education the residents do have a culture, a set of beliefs, that are important to them.  He refers to, but not more than superficially, the problems of poverty that consign many of the adult residents of the island to alcoholism, violence, and subsistence level living. Although he exposes his students to the outer world, the outer white world of South Carolina and Washington, he never thinks much about what their situations will be after he leaves his teaching position (he is fired, partially because of disagreements with the superintendent, partially because of his teaching methods, and partially because he is regarded as an outside agitator).  What I mean here is that he opens up to them the fact of the outside world’s existence, but then leaves them with no way of accessing it.  Maybe a few children with ambition will move to success off the island, but we never know that.  (In the year following his experience on Yamacraw, three of the children come to live temporarily with him in Beaufort.) In the last paragraph of the book, he basically throws up his hands in helpless despair over the future of the children: “Of the Yamacraw children I can say little. I don’t think I changed the quality of their lives significantly or altered the inexorable fact that they were imprisoned by the very circumstance of their birth. I felt much beauty in my year with them. It hurt very badly to leave them. For them I leave a single prayer: that the river is good to them in the crossing.”
What is important about his efforts to connect with and teach these children is that he makes the effort.  He does connect with them, on a certain level, and they connect with him.  One of the great moments in the book comes when one of the parents (actually, a grandparent) tells him how much the children like and talk about him. But, again, what comes of this?  Conroy himself matures a bit, learns about his own shortcomings, how better to navigate the bureaucracies and bureaucrats of his world, how to stem his temper and his own bombast (bombast is an aspect of the book’s rhetorical style—the memoir is at its best in descriptions of people and of the island). The children remain, in fact and in metaphor, on the island.
The title points to a cultural divide that is an underlying foundation of the book—the divide between Conroy and the world of the children, the divide between the old and new south, the divide between the segregated world and the new order that is coming.
It’s depressing to read this book and to realize that many of the problems and issues Conroy describes remain unsolved in the present world.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

American Made

American Made (dir. Doug Lyman, 2017) is one of several films and books I’ve encountered recently that highlight the early 1980s and the murky moral climate of the U. S. conduct of domestic and foreign affairs.  In this film, a pilot for TWA named Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is recruited by the CIA to fly to Central America and take surveillance photographs of sensitive areas, mainly in Columbia, Panama, Columbia, and nearby countries.  He’s successful at this mission and draws attention to himself.  Members of the Medellin cartel recruit him to deliver drugs to the U. S. The CIA overlooks this activity because he’s so successful at reconnaissance.  Then the CIA recruits him to deliver weapons to the Nicaraguan Contras, and to ferry trainees from that country back and forth to a location in Louisiana for training.  Seal ends up working with Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, delivering drugs and accepting payoffs.  He diverts some of the weapons intended for the Contras to the cartel.  The CIA is aware of all this activity and tolerates it, keeping the Drug Enforcement Agency and FBI and other law enforcement off Seal’s back because of his success as a reconnaissance photographer. Seal finally manages to deliver photos to the CIA of Columbian drug lords and the Contras accepting drugs and money. However, when these photos are leaked, Seal becomes a liability, and the CIA cuts him off, disavows all knowledge, and leaves him defenseless—he’s later assassinated by the cartel.
The film frames Seal’s experience as an American dream narrative—a man makes good, becomes rich, his family enjoys the wealth.  But what lesson is being drawn? Seal and his wife seem indifferent to, unaware of, the moral issues of what he does and of their newfound wealth—the film suggests that his involvement in these affairs played into the larger Iran-Contra scandal of the mid-1980s (Oliver North makes an appearance). For Seal, this is all a rollicking turn of extreme fortune, a windfall, an adventure. The film is somewhat toneless in its portrayal of Seal. Events are shown as if they're part of a home movie--without irony or satire or condemnation.  This may be the film's method: to let the story stand on its own and to rely on the audience to draw obvious conclusions.  This is not necessarily a safe strategy: many viewers may applaud Seal for taking advantage of opportunities as they come to him.
Tom Crews plays Seal.  Crews is a good actor, though most of the roles he’s played recently in Jack Reacher and Mission Impossible films have been fairly generic. His role in this film is somewhat more specific and textured, but he struggles a bit to fill it.  His wide, toothy grin does suggest the vacuity of Seal’s character, his inability to recognize what he has become.  Domhall Gleeson (who played one of the Weasley brothers in the Harry Potter films) is effective as the soulless CIA agent who recruits Seal.
Barry Seal is based on the actual person who did become an informant for the CIA and drug enforcement, but the details of the real Seal’s life vary significantly from the life shown in the film, which is entirely fictional. The film may have been inspired by real people and events, but it doesn’t present them.