STILL A Short Story Collection

(Through chapter 7 in A Visit from the Goon Squad)

Tim: Ok, remember (way back) when I said the first couple chapters felt like short stories? I READ ONE OF THESE CHAPTERS AS A SHORT STORY!!! I don’t remember exactly what class it was or when, but I know I read chapter four, entitled “Safari,” for a writing class sometime in college thinking it was a short story, and nothing in that reading dissuaded me from the notion. It is only now that I am made aware of my folly…if it was one…

And I realize there’s not much to talk about there, so maybe we can retitle this post from “STILL A Short Story Collection” to “Playing Hopscotch Through Time And Space” and talk about the structure at large. Because each individual chapter fires off in a new direction, and even some of the chapters, such as the safari one, play fast and loose with the characters, launching off into digressions about what will happen to them in the future.

Debby: Don’t you find it interesting that the book keeps jumping to the future, when all the characters seem to live very in-the-moment? I feel like each chapter hones in on one really specific, defining sequence of an individual’s life, yet it doesn’t always give us an accurate picture of what the next chapter/their future holds.

Tim: Well, it was interesting because for a few chapters it kept tunnelling deeper into the past. There was Bennie and the gang in high school meeting Lou, then back to Lou on the safari with his kids, and especially the safari bit shoots into the future a lot. Like, “All these things will happen to the characters sometime in the future.” But then subsequent chapters have been building back towards the “present” of the first couple chapters – which seemed to take place at roughly the same time.

Debby: So what’s the point, then? Is the author trying to emphasize how people develop over time? Or how little changes? Is she trying to underscore the different time periods that her characters are experiencing? What’s the point of jumping around?

Tim: The deeper we get into the book, the more these little vignettes make sense to me. It’s still a structure way outside the norm, but the effect is that we get to see the characters from a lot of different perspectives. We get to see what’s enduring and what’s not, because we see them old and young side by side. We get to see what’s really at the core of each person because we see both what they think of themselves and what others think of them. When you start this book, the chapters seem so disconnected, but the deeper we get in, the more you get to see of each character, and it’s just fun. I don’t think it’s particularly emphasizing any one thing, it just feels like the author is having fun with the characters, and I don’t think we can count that motivation out. The title of the book is A Visit From the Goon Squad, after all. That’s pretty playful.

Debby: Playful is a good word. Do you feel like the author was almost using this book as a writing exercise? Creating one realistic character, then asking them how they would “see” another character? (Maybe it’s something we should try!) I understand that it’s interesting, but do you think it makes this work important as a whole. As in– is there some sort of overall picture being painted that is worth viewing?

Tim: I guess that’s sort of the key question in evaluating the lasting worth of the book, isn’t it? I think to the degree that we find the characters interesting the book is successful in its goal to be a social experiment. Part of what each chapter exposes is the difficulty each one has relating to the others. Bennie and Lou both have failed marriages. I think one of the girls from Bennie’s high school group did as well, and another still lives with her mother after a drug habit. The safari chapter is all about the interlocking relationships among Lou, Rolph, Danny, and Mindy, and we see it from the perspective of each character at some point. So maybe part of what makes the book “important” (it’s the right word to use, but I hate it nonetheless) is that it makes us think about our own interconnected personal society.

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“Don’t Listen to Them”

(Through Chapter 5 of “A Visit from the Goon Squad”)

Debby: One of the things I like most about this book is it’s raw honesty. Everybody, in some sense, is messed up– and admits it to at least a degree. But I think the interaction between Lou and Rhea on pages 56-57 truly sums up the mentality of this book as a whole. First, Rhea asks Lou: “Do you even remember being our age?” to which he responds “I am your age” (56).Lou blatantly disregards fact in order to stand by what he feels. Then, just moments later, Lou tells Rhea, “The world is full of sh*theads, Rhea. Don’t listen to them– listen to me.” Rhea reacts by acknowledging: “And I know that Lou is one of those sh*theads. But I listen” (57). Again, there is this emphasis on living by what you feel, even if all facts and truth and wisdom point the opposite direction. Each character acknowledges this as a fault, and yet lives by it without complaint.

Tim: Yeah, the chapter I’m in the middle of right now absolutely does the same thing. It’s from the perspective of Stephanie, who’s Bennie’s wife at the time of the chapter. They talk about how they don’t fit in, and at one point Bennie acknowledges that he hates everyone, but won’t leave. The implication is that it feels like defeat, feels like he’d be admitting to the stereotypes they’ve laid upon him. He’d be happier if they moved, but he’d rather be sorta miserable just to feel like he’s “winning.” I think it’s a great character trait, and part of why all the characters so far feel very authentic. In a lot of stories you get that one person who’s cold and calculating to the exclusion of all emotion, and I love that there aren’t any characters like that here.

Debby: I want to change the nuance of one of your statements: I don’t think Bennie needs to feel like he’s winning. I work at a country club that boasts a membership of some of the most “prominent” society people in Southern California. It is called a “club” for a reason: there is a strong current of exclusivity running through its core. Bennie is trying to earn the respect of these socialites that he’s surrounded himself by. That is the only way that he can feel that his work– the money he has made and the records that he’s produced– are actually of value.

Tim: Absolutely. He needs a yardstick by which to measure his worth so he can get an emotional response rather than just an intellectual understanding of the numbers that make up his life. And you see it with Rhea, and Sasha, and Lou, and all the rest, too. The emotional core of characters is always important, but this book is sort of putting them on display.

Debby: I certainly think that one of the most interesting aspects of this novel is the interaction between emotion and action: one doesn’t necessarily drive the other. More often than not, the characters act out what they deem is “expected” of them, rather than how the really feel (but we get to be privy to these feelings). And it is so inherent in our generation, especially in the world of pop culture, which all of these individuals seem to be connected to in one way or another.

Tim: So let’s bring that back full circle. How does the fact that there are behaviors expected of them link back to their acknowledgements of their own shortcomings?

Debby: Well the answer is kind of in the question, isn’t it? They can’t fulfill expectations, especially when they are expectations set by themselves. The way to earn respect isn’t by joining a country club or wearing the right clothing. People like Bennie and Stephanie know this innately, yet are still so determined to “look” the part and satisfy the checklist of the rich and powerful. Yet they don’t feel like they are part of this group of people and that insecurity is inevitably what keeps them set apart from the club. If they were willing to take a step back, move to where their real friends were, spend money on things they like to do, they would be happier and more satisfied with life. But our culture is all about appearances rather than feelings– they picked their master.

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(Short) Stories

(Two chapters into A Visit from the Goon Squad. Don’t judge us.)

Tim: Ok, so we are not yet very far into A Visit From the Goon Squad, so there’s a limit to the amount of stuff se can talk about. One thing that’s already really stood out to me, though, is the structure of the chapters. Each chapter takes on the perspective of a new character, one who is only tangentially related to the others, and moreover each chapter feels very complete. I mean, there’s more story that COULD be told, but there doesn’t necessarily need to be. Each chapter feels very much like a short story, the book thus far simply the collection. I’m really interested to see what the book does with this, and how I feel once (I’m guessing) we come back around to re-visit some of the same characters again.

Debby: Well “we” is not exactly the correct pronoun, Tim. “You” are only two chapters in and “I” read the book two years ago… and haven’t opened it since.

Tim: Fine. Be all technical about it.

Debby: I am just clarifying for our extensive readership. Anyways, to return to your original point, I completely agree with your take on the individual chapters reading as short stories. I particularly like the way the book starts: “It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel” (p.1). There’s something simplistic, yet fulfilling about this statement– and yet the following story is utterly surprising. we find out that Sasha, our protagonist, is a kleptomaniac. She gets a thrill from stealing people’s personal effects.

Tim: Yeah, I love how that’s handled. She’s talking about stealing a screwdriver from a plumber, and she goes on about how alluring the screwdriver is. But then as soon as the plumber leaves – nothing. It’s all this emotion that seems to tie back to the person, but it’s transferred into the object.

Debby: I just like how the present and past are interwoven so smoothly. We see Sasha inhabit her present date-scenario, but also get a glimpse at of her on the couch at her therapist’s office, and also interacting with the plumber. We get a very deep glance into the life of a character we have only just met, and are given a chance to understand her disorder from the moment we open the book.

Tim: Yes, exactly. But also we get to see enough of her, particularly through those bits with the therapist, to believe wholeheartedly that she’s a real, existent person. And that’s a huge part, I think, of why it felt so much like a short story to me. You don’t usually see novels give that much of one character so quickly. I’ve seen lots of short stories pull similar tricks, weaving back and forth between past and present from one character’s perspective. And I don’t mean that disparagingly towards the book. It’s really well done here, and I didn’t feel like it was a played out trick at all. It’s just a really unexpected one for a novel, so I’m super-excited to see where it goes with this idea.
Debby: Well, I hate to be a “spoiler” but…. your patience will be rewarded! Lots of characters/short-story-sequences to come. Maybe you won’t feel so thrilled when you get to the end of the 30th? But who knows?

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End of Innocence

End of “Giovanni’s Room”

“But the end of innocence is also the end of guilt” (p. 112)

Debby: This line stood out to me– quite profoundly– amidst the flowery, thought-filled language that describes David’s state midway through the novel. There are two points to address here, I think. The first, is that David believes he is no longer innocent. That despite his experimentations in high school and all of his time in Giovanni’s room, only at this moment– when the knife is literally over Giovanni’s neck– he has moved from innocence into experience. There is something about the finality of Giovanni’s life that imposes hard, cold truth on David. He can no longer convince himself that he is “messing around” and faces the fact that he loved Giovanni in a way that he will never love someone else.

The second point this statement makes, which I find much more disturbing, is that this space in which he comes to terms with his experience also releases him from guilt. He felt guilt during the entirety of his stay in Giovanni’s room; guilt for the “unnatural” life he was leading with Giovanni, guilt for lying to his father, guilt for cheating on Hella, guilt for not providing for himself. While I think the “guilt” in this statement is, in fact, referencing the guilt associated with his homosexual interactions, the word still encompasses all of these other parts of his life. The end of his innocence and the breakthrough of experience is making him more jaded than ever before: he truly doesn’t feel anything is wrong with the way he has gone about his life.

Tim: Ok, let me start with the first of those. I thought this was a really interesting passage also, and I think it’s telling that you used the phrase “convince himself.” I’m very unconvinced that David’s not still lying to himself here. He’s saying that he sympathizes with Giovanni, that his “executioners are here with” him. Which is nice and metaphorical and may reflect the real love that he claims. But it’s also true that Giovanni is the one being executed, not David, and despite the fact that this is back in the “present” rather than a flashback, the position of this passage in the book combined with some of the melodramatic language with which David describes his anguish leads me to believe his pain over Giovanni is, at least in part, just a story he’s telling himself to make himself feel better about the way they parted. And that’s maybe where we get into the second point you made, that he’s absolving himself of his guilt. He can tell himself he’s no longer innocent, that he acknowledges his relationship with Giovanni (as we learn later he was pretty well forced to when Hella catches him with another man), but he uses it as a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to his guilt, and I’m not sure such a thing exists.

Debby: At this point in the novel, I definitely agree with you. I think he is shrugging off his guilt much too easily for it to be, in fact, true. However, I do think he begins to grow into his guilt-free lifestyle. While Hella does discover him with the sailor and he is forced to expose the truth about himself, he no longer feels guilty at all. He is sorry that Hella feels humiliated and bitter, but he simply asks that she “try to forgive [him]” (p. 165)

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The Moon Also Rises

Still halfway through “Giovanni’s Room”

Tim: It’s been a little while since I’ve read The Sun Also Rises, so I’ll actually say this in a far more general sense than the title would imply, but I was strongly reminded of Ernest Hemingway while I was reading through Giovanni’s Room. Hemingway and James Baldwin were writing at about the same time, they both (at least in this book) focus on American expatriates in Europe, both deal with protagonists that in many ways just seem to be sliding, foggy, through life one drink at a time. I’m not sure if I have anything more profound to say than that, but similarities in both setting and style were striking to me. Baldwin seems to be given a bit more to wordiness, but that’s not saying much when you’re making a Hemingway comparison.

Debby: Unfortunately, my Hemingway knowledge is disparagingly slim. What I do know of his works, however, strikes as profoundly opposite from Baldwin’s style. Hemingway was, to his core, a “man’s man”. The Old Man and the Sea is a great, heroic battle between an old man and a fish. It is absolutely, unabashedly masculine in both tone and texture. Baldwin’s story is looking at the other side of the spectrum, or rather where the masculine stereotypes intersect with an alternative, carnal nature. Obviously, the protagonist of “Giovanni’s Room” struggles with his sexuality– he desires to rise above the nature of Jacques and various others whom he deems “despicable”, yet it is more for the sake of pretense of societal norms that he defers from that path. What I’m essentially trying to say is that sexuality is something Hemingway never questions, and it is at the very heart of Baldwin’s work.

Tim: Absolutely, their subject matter is very different. No, I’m trying to get more at the style of their actual prose. Baldwin is definitely more ornate than Hemingway, but he’s still fairly direct with the way he writes, and combined with the setting and the plot (Hemingway’s Jacques would be a boisterous man who needed to be put in place, and his Giovanni would either be an old friend or a woman, but there are structural similarities), it’s definitely the first comparison I leapt to. Although I am more familiar with Hemingway, and that is how we analyze new things: by comparing them to what we know well.

Debby: I’m sorry to disagree, but I think Hemingway’s “masculinity” is an absolutely essential part of his style. I think both “directness” and lack of ornate language speaks directly to that. His terse, compact writing style also creates a more manly, no nonsense atmosphere. The subject of masculinity has been at the heart of nearly all the scholarship and critical responses to his work. What’s interesting to note is that as of this day and age, the consensus is that Hemingway’s approach is now being interpreted as masculinity “in crisis”: as in, his extreme machismo grew out of his desire to protect traditional male roles.

Tim: Ok, I think I can get on board with just about everything you said there, but I don’t think it’s an argument against the comparison between Baldwin and Hemingway. If you watch Baldwin’s David, to this point he’s behaved in a way that’s incredibly similar to a Heminway protagonist. There’s nothing about David’s homosexuality that’s made him less manly. He goes to a bar and drinks, he gets annoyed by preening individuals of any sort. He seems caught in the morass of trying to live well, to be a man, in a society that’s judging him by one particular action rather than the whole of himself. He’s still finding himself, sure, but so are plenty of Hemingway’s characters who start off boyish and relatively unempowered.

Debby: Well, in that instance I was simply emphasizing that Hemingway exuded that machismo in both his style AND subject. I see what you’re saying, but you’re referring to the subject again, rather than tone and style. I think Baldwin has a much more poetic, romantic form of writing. From the very opening line we see a more gothic, flowery language exhibited: “I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life.” He goes on to describe his physical reflection, before letting his mind trail down the list of possible future circumstances. It is much more detail-oriented and poetic than Hemingway! I’m not trying to say that poetry is feminine, I simply think Hemingway works hard to cast a very masculine pall over his works by the way he writes, whereas Baldwin is not so concerned with that image.

Tim: Hmmm….it’s absolutely possible I made the association based on a sense of some of those other elements rather than the writing itself (which I’m recalling an impression of far more than any detail I can bring to mind). And I agree, Baldwin is DEFINITELY more given to ornamentation. I’ll have to pay closer attention for the second half, and maybe we can revisit this at the end of the book.

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This Is Uncomfortable

Midway through “Giovanni’s Room”

Tim: There’s something I feel I have to address with this book. Some of this discussion may reflect badly on me. I don’t know. But it was the thing I thought about most as I was reading, so it needs to be talked about.

    I felt really uncomfortable for most of the time I was reading Giovanni’s Room. Not in any way that was definitively negative. But there’s no getting around the fact that part of this book made me squeamish. As a straight male, it was so hard to get inside David’s head even though he’s the narrator. I think I’m generally pretty empathetic when it comes to seeing anything from another person’s point of view. But I feel no attraction whatsoever to other men, and I am completely at a loss to understand it in others on anything more than a conceptual level. Much of the rest of the book Baldwin got me to feel what was going on on a visceral level (which is what stories are good at). But for whatever reason, I just completely failed to make that particular jump.

Debby: I find that really interesting. I’m trying to place myself back in that moment when I was reading the scene between David and his first male partner, Joey. I think because I knew from the tone and the setup what was going to inevitably occur prepared me for the encounter. What I am most impressed with Baldwin for doing is capturing the complexity of emotions that fill David’s head and literally transferring them to the reader’s own mind. David isn’t comfortable with this experience either. In fact, he runs away from it and acts cruelly towards Joey, hoping to make that discomfort disappear into the void. I think what you’re encountering, Tim, is exactly the issue that Baldwin hopes you engage with: that society/religion/nature have created within human beings this definition of how we are supposed to feel about homosexuality, but ultimately that isn’t how everybody actually feels.

Tim: Yes, I agree that Baldwin’s doing exactly that – and pretty effectively – but I am going to push back a little. Because even in that moment, I didn’t share in David’s confusion over right and wrong according to the confines of the society in which he was raised. I disconnected from the act and then watched his reaction. It’s a really fine line, perhaps, but that is exactly what happened as I read it. I was intrigued by David and by how he dealt with society, but at the same time I had a marked disinterest, or perhaps better, a disengagement from the particulars of what caused that turmoil. I saw it taking place but found myself utterly unable to experience the moment, only to understand the results.

Debby: But do you think that’s an innate reflex? Or culturally/religiously incited? I’m being reminded of another circumstance in which I felt extremely uncomfortable: watching James Franco’s documentary “Interior. Leather. Bar.” at the Sundance Film Festival. It was essentially a re-imagined homosexual porno from the 80s. I had never seen anything like it before and, sitting in that dark theater, I felt extremely uncomfortable with the images on the screen. In that circumstance, I could not relate at all… not with the desire, the emotions, the acts, etc. Now, I think much that can be directly attributed to Franco’s lack of taste. But looking back, I would completely agree with your feelings of “disengagement”. However, in Baldwin’s book while I was not appreciating the sexual encounters with any sort of eroticism, I really did engage with the human elements and thoughts processes that coincided with the events. I have had experiences where, at the time, I was not at all convinced it was the right thing. But even when some part of you says “no”, there is still an overwhelming desire to drown that voice out and do exactly what you feel. I thought Baldwin captured those emotions perfectly.

Tim: I agree, and that’s why on the whole I’ve stayed engaged with the book. But it was one of the more bizarre experiences I’ve had because there’s such a sense of distance despite the closeness engendered by other elements.

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A Room With a View

Halfway through “Giovanni’s Room”. End of Part 1.

[Debby titles blog: “A Room with a View”]

Tim: Hahahaha well, I’m not sure we’ve gotten too much of a view (in that sense at least) although I guess you could call that scene in the diner at the end of part 1 a room with The View.

Debby: What can I say, it was the first thing that popped into my head! I certainly had no expectations for what this book would be like. Or what it would be about. “Giovanni’s Room” is only 169 pages long, so given its brevity I expected to dive right into a story. The book feels very novella-esque, in that the characters are quite rich, but the story is simple, compact, and leaves you with an impression rather than a grand scope. My initial “view” was of delight: Baldwin’s protagonist is an American living in Paris– a scenario lending both romance and loneliness to the initial plot. The mood is heavy, every character feels rather grimy, but the view is still, in my opinion, greatly alluring.

Tim: Absolutely. But isn’t it so interesting the way Baldwin brings us into this narrative. The book starts with a voice that’s sort of vaguely ruminating in the present tense before launching into a personal history and then coming around to the story it means to tell. And then – like you said – so simple. We’re halfway through the book, and aside from a few peripheral events that have been more hinted at than discussed, the entire narrative has taken place in one night (and morning, I suppose.)

Debby: I like how you used the term “peripheral”… this book seems to focus on various activities, but not on the main event. Obviously, Giovanni’s impending doom has been referenced since the first page, but there has not been a single direct, comprehensive statement about it the rest of the time. This night at the bar, the memories of high school, David’s interaction with his father, all of those things are on the periphery. In fact, it seems to me that David feels his entire life is lived in the periphery– he always seems to be missing something both in his core and in his surroundings.

Tim: Yes, and the other thing about them is that they only feel marginally important. Or at least the ideas are important, but not the events themselves. Well…actually I’m not sure I believe that, because the events of a troubled childhood do seem like they’d be significant. But then, it’s a troubled childhood like any other, so are the particulars of it that important, or just the oeuvre they’re building up around the character? Help me, I’m arguing myself in circles.

Debby: I wish I had a life raft for you, but you’re absolutely right: it is impossible to say whether it is thoughts or events that are more important. I mean, remember “The Emperor’s Children”? Several times we addressed how the parents were to blame for the faults of their children, yet we’ve also seen how children grow into adults who can overcome certain issues. It is unfeasible to point to one life event and say “this is the most important thing in this person’s life”, because who knows what it will inspire said person to do?

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A New Narrator

(Finished with The Secret History)

Tim: I’ve been thinking a lot about the way this story is told to us: through the retrospection of an involved party, a first person narrator who is by design flawed, subjective, and likely delivers some rather inaccurate information despite the idea that time and contemplation allows him to be more objective. I’ve been wondering if I actually would have enjoyed this book more told by a limited third person narrator. I think I would, I think it would have been more interesting to have an omniscient narrator who was better able to reveal some of the paradoxes of the Greek club’s existence. I think a lot of what prevented me from really getting into this book was the constant feeling that I was being kept at arm’s length from the entire story.

Debby: That’s what I was talking about in our previous conversation. Elite societies maintain their status by keeping others out. Richard is constantly running into brick walls, as he is kept from some of the darkest truths that the group holds. As he is slowly let in, so is the reader. But even up to the end, we don’t know what role everyone is playing, or even what true “game” is being played. I think Tartt did a particularly impressive job of maintaining that distance while using a first-person narrator. I’m sorry you felt left out, Tim, but that really just means she did her work well 🙂

Tim: But I was kept at too much of a distance to lose myself in the proceedings, so she didn’t do her job that well. Let the narrator tell me what Richard is thinking and stay confined to his point of view, but, I don’t know, I think it’s very possible that by having a more objective look at this one aspect of the story, the entire story might have been more accessible. I didn’t need to know the intricacies of Henry’s mind, or anyone else’s, but I might have needed the opportunity to observe them for myself and compare that to Richard’s observations to attain Tartt’s desired effect.

Debby: I particularly liked how much of a mystery Henry was. He was this large, imposing young man with a powerful mind and unclear intentions. He always seemed to be getting his friends out of trouble; in general he seemed the most “stable.” Yet his compulsions were what bonded the group together. I feel like I have a great understanding of Henry, in retrospect, without ever witnessing him discuss his thoughts directly. It all seemed very Sherlock-Holmes-esque… but without the redemption.

Tim: Yes, for the most part I though Henry was a great character, and I don’t think a different narrator would have changed him much at all. But what I felt limited by was that there wasn’t a good way to tell what was actually true about him, or anyone else, and what was just Richard’s color. All the way up through the end of the book, there are a few too many seemingly unrelated threads. We’re getting away from the initial topic a little, but one of the things I did really like was how alive their world at Hampden seemed. Everyone did have their own lives, not all of which we saw, and I thought that was great. Having an omniscient or shifting narrator would have created an entirely different book, one that relied much more on mystery and surprise. It would have been perhaps a more exciting book, but also probably an inferior one. But I do think that having some sort of standard (i.e. objective descriptions of the action to measure Richard’s reactions against) could have made a big difference, even if we still spent the vast majority of the book embedded in Richard’s perceptions. I could be wrong. That’s not the book we’re presented with.

Debby: I think you make a great point about how realistic life at Hampden seemed. Looking back on my college experience, I am very aware of how much my life revolved around me. I was absorbed in classes, parties, sports, and other various activities. People shifted around me; I was not an integral part of any one person’s day-to-day life. Richard serves as a great representation of how college life really works. He gets to peek into the lives of a tight-knit group of friends, but he splits his time between that dynamic group and the constant movement that is college. I think that’s one of the reasons Richard is such an excellent choice for narrator; even if his voice is subjective, it is his reality.

Tim: Yes, I love that the story is Richard’s story, and I think as is the book does a very good job of displaying Hampden. But particularly when it comes to the main intrigue of the plot, I felt pushed away from parts of the story by having Richard as the only voice rather than being drawn into his experience. It’s very possible that a different narrator would have made that worse, but I’m curious what it would’ve been like.

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The Secret History: Debby’s First Love

(Finished with The Secret History)

Debby: If my heart could write a novel, it would beat to the rhythm of The Secret History. Dianna Tartt and I are most certainly kindred spirits. She has written the most tantalizing (and often harrowing) novel that I have read in years. I love the classical mythological elements (unlike the mid-century-mythos-drudgery that Davies toyed with). I love how elevated her characters appear, as if they are gods among mortals. But the way she casts shadows in her story, the way each individual struggles with their personal reality, is simply brilliant. I was engaged from beginning to end.

Tim: Let me begin by saying this: I do not hate this book. I have a feeling that I’m about to be playing devil’s advocate a lot, so I want to be absolutely clear that I like this book, I enjoyed reading most (but not all) of this book, and none of the following should be construed as me bashing on a book because I didn’t like it. THAT SAID, I do not see how you can say this is the most tantalizing or harrowing novel you’ve read in years. But even that’s more a matter of taste than anything else, so let’s start with the characters. Go with me, for a moment to the first Greek class that Richard takes part in. Let us watch as Julian descends from his sepulcher to bless them with a lecture of airy nothingness. The entire exchange just struck me as super fake, an idealized version of a class that had little relation either to reality or the particular people taking part in the exchange. “And what is beauty?” “Terror.” What is this?

Debby: {Takes her book back from Tim’s dastardly hands and flips to the pages she heavily underlined} I can tell you, without a doubt, that that class was what first made me realize how much I identified with this book. I literally looked at my roommate, reading nearby, and told her “You know those classes in college where you realized just how brilliant your professor was and could listen to him/her for days? Yeah. This book is exactly like that. And it’s a BOOK. So I can experience it over and over again!” Take this passage for example:

    “We don’t like to admit it,” said Julian, “but the idea of losing control is one that fascinates controlled people such as ourselves more than almost anything. All truly civilized people– the ancients no less than us– have civilized themselves through the willful repression of the old, animal self. Are we, in this room, really very different from the Greeks or the Romans? Obsessed with duty, piety, loyalty, sacrifice?” (p. 40)

Debby (cont’d): This passage not only alludes to the compelling twist in the novel, but it also perfectly encapsulates something every college student/young adult must deal with. We are released from the supervision of our parents and suddenly find the world at our feet. I saw so many college friends “lose control” (as adults liked to call it) because they found freedom so tantalizing. Particularly being raised in a conservative, Christian community, the bounds of religion seemed to become more opaque as we moved further from home and parental influence. What are drugs and alcohol, if not means by which we loosen ourselves from our natural hold and abandon our bodies to instinct and desire?

Tim: Ok, but stop for a minute. Personally, I think you’re reading way too much into a passage that’s lacking context coming that early in the book, but that’s not even my point, exactly. The class felt, I don’t know, idealized in a way that was super removed from reality rather than drawing it out. You said the characters seemed like gods among mortals, and I got the same sense, but I didn’t pull that much enjoyment from it. It made sense to the characters, how that’s sort of gradually eroded, but long before that I was annoyed with how elite they were made to be – not just talked about being, but actually came across as somehow better than their classmates. Again, didn’t hate the book. I acknowledge that it did some of what it was trying to do, I just think that execution didn’t work for me in the same way it did for you.

Debby: Hmm… I can understand why that could have the potential to annoy. But I think it’s the same “elitism” that fascinates me about secret societies. Obviously, they’re not better people, but they do have something that no one around them has. It’s the same with privileged socialites– it’s why “Gossip Girl” and “Revenge” are such ridiculously popular shows. They are (for better or worse) literally living in a world removed from our own. It is the only reason the climax works in this book. What group of students would condone the killing of stranger and then their best friend? They are living by their own rules, their own morals. I’m not saying that it is something to strive for or desire, but it is a fascinating experience in and of itself.

Tim: Yeah, I guess…but I never felt wholly placed within that group, I guess. Do you remember when Richard found out they killed the farmer? There’s a section where he starts to reconcile odd details from the past with this new information – except that they’re details we never saw. I realize this isn’t a murder mystery, per se, but it bothered me that I couldn’t identify with Richard when he started putting these details together. I was removed from his experience, not party to it.

Debby: The short answer is: I responded to this book very differently than you did. This book worked for me. It pulled me in from the very beginning, while you felt left out. Obviously, we can’t change each others feelings about this. I look forward to discussing positions on this novel that we shared.

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Least Compelling Book of All Time? (Aka a disagreement)

(Halfway Through The Manticore – Book 2 of The Deptford Trilogy)

Debby: Only once in my life have I quit on a book*. I wanted it to stay that way; I wanted to give every book the fair chance it deserves. But Davies is killing me. He is robbing me of all the joy of reading. I want characters, imaginative settings, a PLOT for goodness sakes. This book keeps bumbling on.

Tim: It’s got characters! Characters that keep me amused with their cleverness. Or maybe it’s their bumbling. They’re fun to watch. But I’ll grant you that there’s very little plot, in the proper sense of the word. 90% of the plot is flashback, looking at a story we kind of already know from a different perspective. It’s kind of like Ender’s Game versus Ender’s Shadow.

Debby: WHAT!!!! How DARE you make such a comparison!!! This is completely unlike that situation. Game versus Shadow are brilliant because they show how what is “real” is all based on perspective. It is two different stories, but identical settings.

Tim: And I argue that this one does as well. They’re both books driven by the specter of Boy Staunton, but explore how two different characters related to him. The characters both appear in both books. Very similar structurally, you just like one pair of books better.

Debby: Not a chance. Boy Staunton is certainly impactful in both Dunstan and David’s lives, but he doesn’t create the story. He is a rich, pompous ass who affected them, but I would say he is wholly irresponsible for the development of any part of the plot.

Tim: He’s no less active than Battle School, or Ender’s and Bean’s similar mental and physical capacities. Structurally, we’re looking at two characters tested against a common measure in both situations. Why should he need to create the story. He is an element of the story, one that both Dunstan and David employ heavily in their mythmaking regarding their own lives. And I think that’s why I’m enjoying this book. I like the mythic quality of both Fifth Business and The Manticore (thus far). Watching the layers of David get peeled back is compelling. The Manticore isn’t of the same quality as Ender’s Game or Ender’s Shadow, I agree, but I’m finding it an interesting, and often quite amusing read nonetheless.

Debby: Okay, look. I’m Greek. I know a thing or two about “myths”. I grew up reading the adventures of Heracles, or the tale of the Trojan War. {Tim: Is that pulling the Greek card or the geek card?} These are mythological tales that I can readily get into!! Where is the adventure here? Where is the desire to explain some basic question about nature or human desire? No. Boy Staunton did some nasty things, but he is not worthy of the title of mythical being.

Tim: He’s not the mythic being, though! And this is a myth of a very different sort. It’s not about gods and titans. It’s about the way we create the stories of our own lives and get so wrapped up in them that we almost can’t see straight. That’s what I think is going on with David. His prior mythic structure for the way he looks at his own life can’t hold up, and now he’s working with the psychologist, Dr. Von Haller, to try to construct a more viable one.

Debby: I can’t believe I’m even arguing about this. Our argument is more interesting than the book! I’d rather sit and read you talk about the book all day long than Davies’ nattering.

Tim: Well I’m glad you find me so compelling.

Debby: Oh, endlessly. Next book, please?

*That “one book” that I speak of is Lolita. I felt so unbelievably creepy for weeks after just the first few chapters. Nabokov is brilliant, but also one twisted fellow.

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