Friday, March 6, 2015

Writing Styles and Other Stuff ("Another ramble")

The more I read Catcher in the Rye, the more I understood why it is seen as one of the great novels of the 20th century, specifically in American culture. It deserves all the credit it is given. I found Holden to be the most relatable character I've ever read. I also "understand" Holden better than just about any other character I've ever read (the only character I feel I understand more is Bob Slocum from Joseph Heller's "Something Happened", and that's probably because its 600 pages of stream of conscious instead of 250 pages of personal narration).The prose of Catcher is what makes it such a genius work. The story/plot itself isn't top-tier, and it shouldn't be. However, I think critics of Catcher may dismiss the plot too quickly. It's not like Holden is going to school for 200 pages. He's doing some pretty crazy things for a teenager. Going to bars, walking the streets alone, paying a prostitute, etc. If we had a book with a page turning, mechanically calculated, precise and stunning plot (Great Gatsby comes to mind as well as several Stephen King novels and some Fantasy novels), we would lose what makes Catcher Catcher.

I think if most authors tried to write the plot of Catcher, it wouldn't be that great. However, one of my favorite quotes by my second favorite Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson is something like "a terrible writer can take a genius plot and make it suck. A great writer can take a terrible plot and make it great". (Warning: slight tangent!) For an example, he used the fact that his friend got into an argument about what makes a great author. His friend's basic argument is that writing is mostly about mechanical skill, not crazy epiphanies and seemingly divine inspiration (sort of contrary to Stephen Daedelus, eh?). His friend then said something similar to the above quote, that great writers could turn a crappy idea into a great novel. The person he was arguing gave him a challenge: write a decent novel who's plot was based on two things: (1) Pokemon (2) The Roman Empire. Sanderson's friend took the bet and tried to write a novel. And he got published. I'll try to find the novel (I've found it before but have never got around to reading it).

I think JD Salinger is a perfect example of a great writer. This guy could literally narrate a baseball game in Holden's voice and I would love it (and so would millions of other people). He achieved a state of both commercial success and academic legitimacy, which I think is the hallmark of a great book (something that's not pulp fiction or purely academic jargon).

Plath's and Joyce's writing styles are also very good, but I don't think they're as universal as Salinger's. Well, maybe Joyce's was in his day. Ulysses, for example, still has some amazing lines.

Check out these two, for example, and see if they resonate with you.

The first is when Leopold is riding along in a carriage to a funeral, and there's this really awkward moment where another guy is talking about how bad suicide is (very bad for catholics) and he doesn't know that Leopold's dad killed himself. Anyways, during the ride Joyce drops this on us (it's a memory of Leopold's):

"That afternoon of the inquest. The redlabelled bottle on the table. The room in the hotel with hunting pictures. Stuffy it was. Sunlight through the slats of the Venetian blinds. The coroner's ears, big and hairy. Boots giving evidence. Thought he was asleep at first. Then saw like yellow streaks on his face. Had slipped down to the foot of the bed. Verdict: overdose. Death by misadventure. The Letter. For my son Leopold. No more pain. Wake no more. Nobody owns." 

Jesus christ that's almost as emotionally heavy as Plath!

And an example of how he makes a newspaper machine interesting (and somewhat deep):

"Sllt. The nethermost deck of the first machine jogged forward its flyboard with sllt the first batch of quirefolded papers. Sllt. Almost human the way it sllt to call attention. Doings its best to speak. That door too sllt creaking, asking to be shut. Everything speaks in its own way Sllt." 

Plath also has amazing prose for her heavy hitting, grey style. But I'm not sure if she's as universal of an author. I definitely wouldn't want to watch a baseball game narrated by Esther. It would probably just depress the hell out of me (GO AWAY HOLDEN!). The thing I like about Plath's prose it that it really does feel poetic. There's lots of imagery, colors, etc. I find it somewhat similar to White Boy Shuffle in that sense (although the tones are very different, I find the prose to be very poetic in both). Bell Jar definitely has a more complete plot than something like Catcher though.

So I'm not really sure what I'm trying to say with all this. Just that JD's prose is amazingly universal and that I think that the ability to write good prose and turn anything (such as pokemon in ancient rome) into good fiction is the defining trait of a good author.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Lady Lazarus Analysis

This is not a strict analysis but just some dotted thoughts. Feel free to comment your own thoughts or disagreements on any points I make.

Lady Lazarus feels like it belongs with Daddy. I don't mean that they cover the same subject, but that they feel like chapters in the same book. While Daddy illuminates facts about the narrator's life through the lens of talking about another person (her father), Lady Lazarus takes a much more direct approach.

It's mostly about suicide.

At the beginning:

"I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it--"

What has she done again? A suicide attempt.

And then we have a few stanzas which show how... uneasy she is about herself? About life?
Lines such as: "A sort of walking miracle, my skin / Bright as a Nazi lampshade" Are certainly not positive feeling images. Sour breath, peeling skin, it all has a quality of death and uneasiness. Then she says "soon, soon the flesh / the grave cave at will be / at home on me", basically saying she's close to attempting suicide again. The "peanut crunching crowd" feels like it's Mr Gordon, "unwrapping" the narrator.

There's some dark humor halfway through: "Dying / is an art, like everything else / I do it exceptionally well". Of course we know she doesn't do it exceptionally well.

Crudely, in the second half of the poem the narrator talks about how she dreams(?) of committing suicide: burning herself alive ("Melts to a shriek / I turn and burn") and letting others find nothing left of her but ash and the jewelry she was wearing.

The last stanza also seems very important:

"Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air"

This sort of resembles the discomfort Esther has for men in a more extreme way. It feels like the whole red hair rising out of ash could be a allusion, or maybe she just used red hair because it relates to fire.


rambling thoughts about Esther's father's place in The Bell Jar

One of the main causes that triggered Esther's depression in the Bell Jar. Earlier in the novel she said the last happy moment of her life was when she was running along the beach with her father. She was about 9 years old at the time.

In chapter 13 when Esther visits her fathers grave she states that neither she nor her mother cried over her father's death. Her mother didn't even allow her children to attend her father's funeral. This sort of... repression of emotion is certainly a huge cause of Esther's depression later in the novel. It's almost as if her mother tried burying this sad emotion by pushing it down in water, and now it's bobbing back up to the surface in the form of depression. As Plath writes in her poem Daddy: "Daddy, I have tried to kill you."

Esther says her father came from "some manic-depressive hamlet in the black heart of Prussia" and we also saw her view the German language as a dark and barbed language. Her mother describes her father as being a "bitter atheist" towards the end of his life. In her poem Daddy, Plath writes:

"I have always been scared of you
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You--"

Which supports the dark picture of an authoritarian father.

Oddly, this might not seem to line up with the fact that Esther was clearly happier when her father was alive. Obviously I'm comparing Plath's poem and her novel and assuming the father is the same in both, thought that doesn't necessarily have to be the case.

One interesting way I think the poem and the novel line up is that the last line of the poem: "Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through." echoes Esther's mental state after visiting her father's gravestone because the very next scene is her pill ingestion suicide. 

Part of me wonders if he himself was depressed. It would certainly fit the dark picture of a bitter man, and the "manic-depressive hamlet in the black heart of Prussia" is impossible to ignore. Furthermore, serious depression can be genetic, so Esther's own depression is further evidence that her father may have been depressed. I'd be willing to bet a lot that he was depressed.

Do we ever get the exact reason he died? All I remember and all I can find by re-reading certain chapters is that he was admitted to the hospital and died there. However, there is a very interesting line that gives us some clues. In chapter 13 Esther is thinking about her mother's handling of the situation (her father's death):

"She had just smiled and said what a merciful thing it was for him he had died, because if he had lived he would have been crippled and an invalid for life, and he couldn't have stood that, he would rather have died than had that happen."

My theory is that he shot himself and then died later at the hospital. Or maybe he was never admitted to the hospital (I can't remember if Esther visited him there or not. If not it's possible he succeeded in killing himself instantly). Think about it. Just a little while ago we were on the beach and Esther was talking with that other dude about suicide. What was the "man's way" to kill yourself? Gunshot. What was Esther specifically worried about in regards to shotgun suicide? Not shooting the right place (blowing your face off, something not necessarily fatal) and having surgeons save you. What if her father--who we have strong evidence was depressed--had tried to kill himself ("crippled and invalid") and had later died at the hospital? Her mother didn't want her kids at the funeral. Why? She didn't want them to find out their father tried to kill himself. Further evidence for this theory or evidence against it would be greatly appreciated. 

So this blog wasn't very well organized or anything, but I have a lot of things to think about and possibly a basis for a critical analysis paper, so I'll call it a success!