Please allow me to introduce the first “contemporary classic” on That’s Classic!: Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina…
I confess that I have been trying to avoid this next story, due mostly to its symbolic subject matter. It isn’t exactly a racy story, but it is definitely more sensual that any other Story of the Month selection I’ve made (other than Lolita). But it is one of the finest short stories I’ve ever read, and I would be remiss if I didn’t share this wonderfully written story with you. Now—finally—please allow me to announce That’s Classic!‘s Story of the Month for November 2010: “The Storm” by Kate Chopin.
Let me start off by saying that “The Storm” is way, way ahead of its time….
(More to follow soon! Please check back for more about “The Storm.”)
For as long as That’s Classic! has been around, I’ve tried to avoid choosing stories for the Story of the Month that match the current season or holiday. However, there is something inescapably magical and enticing about autumn, especially right around Halloween. No writer has known or captured that magic better than the prolific storyteller Ray Bradbury, a man who has devoted much of his writing career to the fantasy and wonder of this special time of year. As my tribute both to the autumn season and the writer who loved it best, I have selected Ray Bradbury’s “Homecoming” as the Story of the Month for October 2010.
This month, I decided to highlight a story that is a universally celebrated and frequently discussed, as well as a seasonal favorite. For as short as it is, it surely packs a mean literary punch and leaves you thinking about it, long after you’ve finished reading it. So in the spirit of brevity, without further ado, allow me to introduce That’s Classic!’s Story of the Month for September 2010: “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe. (I have included a link to a full-text version of the story at the bottom of this post, so you can refresh your memory about the story!)
I think that at some point in our lives, each and every one of us has read this classic short story. In fact, I believe I read it in both junior high and high school. Which, to be perfectly honest, was too early for me to grasp the many layers–or at least what I think are the layers–of this story. Having dappled in flash fiction (also known as “sudden fiction” or a “short short story”), I can appreciate how difficult it is to set up a story, develop characters, and create a satisfying conclusion in 2,500 words or less. But to set up an interesting story, to develop dynamic characters, and to create a truly surprising yet satisfying conclusion in 2,500 words or less is admirable, and something to certainly study.
Normally at this point in one of my Story of the Month reviews, I would give a boiled-down plot summary of the story. But what do we truly know about the characters in this story, or even what’s really going on? There’s the protagonist, an unnamed man (actually, do we even know he’s male?), and the “old man” he…lives with? Cares for? Is related to? We’re never told the relationship between the main character and the old man. It’s one of the great mysteries of literature. But the even greater mystery is why readers don’t let that glaring point stand in the way of them accessibly reading the story!
Usually, when we read stories, we want to know: Who is the story about? Where does it take place? When does it take place? What are the circumstances? Why is that important, and why should we care? (In other words, why should I want to keep on reading?) And how is all this relevant to the meaning of the story? In the case of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” we know that there are only a few characters: the protagonist, the old man who for some reason trusts the protagonist, and a handful of police officers that have little more impact on the story than to indirectly make the protagonist go crazy (even more than he already was, but claimed not to be). We know that the story takes place in a building, perhaps a house where the old man and, presumably, the main character live. When the story takes place is not clear, but I would assume it is sometime around when the story was written or published (1843).
Even with all of those points unclear, the “what,” “why,” and “how” of the story are much more clear. The main character–who is also our narrator–sets up the circumstances of the story from the very beginning. He claims not to be mad, yet accuses us of thinking and calling him crazy. It reminds me of the ubiquitous college drunkard, who repeats over and over, “I’m not drunk. I swear I’m not drunk!” And, as we all know, that only asserts the fact that the person is, in fact, completely drunk. In a similar manner, the narrator adamantly defends his sanity in such a frantic manner that we can’t help but find him to be completely insane. He confesses to us right away, in a cool, removed sort of manner (but certainly not in a calm manner) about how he killed the old man, how he plotted for a week about killing him. But what I find more interesting than the “what” is the “why” and the “how.”
“Why do we want to keep reading?” is simple enough: the story is interesting. From the get-go, we like the idea of a crazed murderer telling us a story, especially about how he committed murder. We want to know what happens next. We want to know how the protagonist kills the old man. We know that he hates the old man’s blue, filmy eye (what he calls the “Evil Eye”), but what actually brings him to the moment of murder? Will he confess? Will he be caught? We know when we pick up the story that it is short, and that a lot will happen in a short amount of time (both in the time frame of the story and in the time it takes us to read the story), and we’re curious to see how Poe will (honestly) do anything worthwhile in such a short story. We trust that he will, we just want to see “how.”
How Poe wrote this story is really how we get that the narrator is crazy. More than the way the protagonist denies being mad, it is how Poe composed his sentences–as if they were coming straight out of the protagonist’s mouth–that shows us that the denials are clearly false. First on a more syntactical level, the length of sentences lends itself to the narrator’s sense of urgency and insanity. Poe writes short sentence after short sentence, build each one off the energy of the one that came before it. Then, just when the reader can’t keep up with the sheer velocity of the sentences, Poe throws in a long, grammatically-sound sentence, separated into phrases and clauses, bookended with commas. But instead of the occasional longer sentence slowing down the tone of the story, instead it shows the wandering and almost manically-detailed mind of the self-proclaimed murderer. The long sentences show us how intelligent the main character is, but the short ones (which extremely outnumber the long ones) reaffirm our assertion that he must be crazy to be so calculated to kill someone so close to him.
The other important “how is this all relevant?” is in what Poe chooses to focus on. If you were to print out “The Tell-Tale Heart” single-spaced on standard letter-sized paper, it would be less than two full pages. Most of those two pages is spent with the narrator standing in the doorway of the old man’s bedroom, carefully watching him sleep, waiting for the time when he’ll catch the old man’s Evil Eye open, and then when the narrator finally scares the old man, pushes the bed on top of him–thus killing him–and stashes the body in the floorboards. The time before the murder, when the main character is planning to kill the old man, is told quickly and is pretty much just glanced over. Once the murder is over, and the police arrive to investigate, the narrator resumes his quick-paced storytelling again. But it is the waiting, the agonizing waiting for that Evil Eye, and the ultimate destruction of that Eye that dominates the length and power of the story. It’s what shows us the true maniacal nature of our increasingly unreliable narrator…which is the most unnerving type of narrator to have. Because if we can’t trust him to tell us the truth about his nature (his sanity or, rather, his insanity), can we really trust anything of what he tells us?
Poe doesn’t give us very much information in this story, but what he does give us is full of answers, of layers of subtlety to sift through. We may not know who this narrator is, but we know what he’s like and what he’s capable of. We may not know his relationship to the old man, but we know what becomes of that relationship. We don’t really know where or when the story takes place, but that doesn’t matter. The dynamic quality of the story isn’t in the passage of time or the change of location. Actually, it’s in the sheer lack of movement in space or time. The “end” of the story happens only a few short hours after the murder, which begins almost at the beginning of the story. The end, which is ushered in by the arrival of the police officers, occurs literally in the very same room where the murder was committed. And that is necessary for Poe to be able to “end” the story, to give us the sense of “conclusion” that he does. Poe needed the place to stay the same, and for little time to pass, so that the main character has no time–other than the week of pre-mediation–to deal with the murder. Otherwise, the frantic pace of the story would be lost and there’d be no way to end the story in the same manner with which it began. Like a good piece of flash fiction, Poe remains consistent, while creating incredible amounts of change.
Now, lastly, to address the “tell-tale heart” itself. Without giving away the ending of the story, in case there are some of you out there who haven’t read the story yet, allow me to put a little bee in your bonnet: The story is told in such a way so that you believe the beating in the narrator’s ears, the loud drumbeats are that of the old man’s heart, both before and after the murder. But I propose that the rhythmic thumps are none other than the beating of the main character’s own heart, a way for him to share with us his own anxiety for the circumstances of the story. We’ve all felt that, the pulsing in our ears when adrenaline is coursing through our veins, for whatever reason, be it good or bad. Perhaps we could read into the “tell-tale heart” as being the narrator’s own heart, the “tell-tale” sign to the reader that the narrator is, in fact, mad, and that he is too far gone to ever realize it.
But I’d like to hear your opinions on the sounds the protagonist hears, and what you think they might mean or signal. And, if you still haven’t read the story, then please click here to read a full-text version of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” please click here. (Thanks to Literature.org for posting this story.)
The Story of the Month I’m about to present to you, I confess, is not one of my all-time favorites. I probably shouldn’t start out my review by admitting that, but I don’t want to lead you on–because, after all, you have stuck with me for almost two years now! To be honest, I don’t particularly like the characters and some of the plot makes my innards swirl like spaghetti. But even through all that, I have to admit that the story has merit. It has value. It has survived for over 400 years and that must mean something. So let’s take a look at this month’s Story (or Play) of the Month and see what wisdom and brilliance we can glean from it. So here it is, my whole-hearted selection for the Story of the Month for August 2010: King Lear by the illustrious William Shakespeare.
King Lear is perhaps, aside from Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet and Macbeth, one of the more well-known plays of Shakespeare’s canon. What is so interesting about it is that it has two plot lines: one major and one only-slightly-less-major.
The major plotline is that of King Lear and his three daughters. King Lear is a steadfastly vain king. He asks his daughters to profess their love for him, and only then will he carve his kingdom into three equal parts and pass them on for each daughter to rule. His eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, are evil to the core and declare false love for the sheer purpose of securing their inheritance. They try to outdo each other, saying that they love their father more than the other ever could. Though clearly false, the professions satisfy the vanity of Lear. Cordelia, however, who is one of the truest and most “good” characters I’ve ever encountered in literature, refuses to outdo her sisters by saying that she could only give all her love to her father until the day she gets married, when she’d have to split her love between him and her husband. She even criticizes her elder, married sisters for declaring all their love to Lear, sparing none for their spouses. While Cordelia’s honestly should have been rewarded handsomely, instead it brings about her banishment. Lear disowns her and then forces his other daughters to take him in…much to their chagrin.
The second plotline is that of the Earl of Gloucester and his two sons: Edgar, who is good, and Edmund, who is evil. (See a similarity in the plotlines yet?) Edmund is actually the illegitimate son of Gloucester, and is therefore entitled to nothing of his father’s inheritance. He is, clearly, envious of his good-natured brother who is set to inherit everything because he is the only legitimate son. And, in true Shakespeare-villain fashion, Edmund immediately sets out to bring about the downfall of both his unassuming brother and his ignorant father.
In case we couldn’t see the similarity in the relationships between the two fathers and the children, Shakespeare makes a point of unraveling both stories simultaneously. Both plotlines are set up for failure almost immediately, and the children’s deceitful natures are revealed at the same time. Goneril and Regan swindle and reject their father just as Edmund turns his father against Edgar and leaves the former to the cruelty of Regan and her husband (who, in the most graphic and disgusting display I’ve encountered in literature, gouge out the poor earl’s eyes) and the latter to the harshness of the elements. And, ultimately, the evil will all fall at the same time, as will all those they plotted against. (Not that I’m trying to give away the ending. It is a Shakespeare tragedy after all, so you can assume most of the cast of characters will die!)
So why did I chose this tragedy as the Story of the Month? Allow me to quote from a journal entry I wrote a couple years ago when I read this play in a college-level Shakespeare class:
Usually, in Shakespeare’s plays, there seems to only be one malevolent character, or at least one character that stands out as being the most evil of them all. But in King Lear, there are multiple villainous characters. In fact, there are three: Gloucester’s [illegitimate] son Edmund and Lear’s daughters Goneril and Regan. As far as I’m concerned, they’re all equally evil.
And, plot-wise, we need all three of these characters. Really, King Lear compares the relationship between Lear and his daughters and that between Gloucester and his sons, and how the child that each father should love and trust most is the one he is convinced to turn against (convinced by his [remaining] evil children, no less). Lear should respect his daughter Cordelia’s desire to love first her future husband and second her father, as it is the honorable thing for a woman to do, but he instead condemns her for being disloyal. Meanwhile, Goneril and Regan falsely declare their love for their father, and thus by their falsehood they turn their father against their true and good youngest sister.
Similarly, Edmund turns his father against Edgar, Gloucester’s good son, so that he might be the only heir of Gloucester’s estate. His motivation, though, differs greatly from Goneril and Regan. Although all three seek to increase their fortune through their fathers’ demise, Goneril and Regan already have a decent inheritance after falsely professing their primary love for Lear; by their falsehood and trickery they hope to inherit and split Cordelia’s share of the inheritance.
Edmund, on the other hand, being the eldest son, but still [an illegitimate] son, stands to inherit nothing from Gloucester. By getting Edgar out of the way, Edmund would become Gloucester’s sole heir and thus would inherit everything. His desire to get Edgar out of the picture is far more understandable than Goneril and Regan’s seemingly unnecessary need to get rid of Cordelia, especially since they could have used her to pawn their father off on (since neither of them actually love him, but Cordelia truly does).
But common sense is something that Shakespeare’s characters often lack. In fact, they are rather passionate and impulsive, quick to act on inklings and fleeting emotions. Even though the three evil characters could be considered guilty of such a [reckless] crime, there is no doubt that all three of them are necessary and integral parts of King Lear, and that they are the most important catalysts of this story. Really, without their plotting and successful trickery, then none of this play would be as it is.
After reading that, for the first time in two years, something struck me. There is something in Edmund that is reminiscent of Othello’s Iago. He is the quiet conspirator that lurks in the shadows and uses wit to plant paranoia in the minds of those he wants to suffer. But unlike Iago, who is the only true villain in Othello other than the paranoid Othello himself, Edmund isn’t the only–or even the main–antagonist in this play. Goneril and Regan are the true evil villains, the super villains, whose diabolical actions bring about the downfall of everyone in the entire story. Sure, Edmund’s plotting affects Gloucester, Edgar, and even Edmund himself.
But Goneril and Regan’s betrayal extends beyond themselves and their father to Cordelia, her new husband, their own husbands, their servants, Lear’s knights, the Earl of Kent, Edgar, Edmund, Gloucester…literally everyone. While Edmund’s plot against Gloucester is–simply put–evil, it is nothing more than a jealous reaction to his brother’s social station and disappointment and sadness caused by his father’s neglect. But Goneril and Regan’s deceit is just downright inexcusable and completely unwarranted. If anyone should feel dissatisfied, it’s Cordelia! Yet she accepts her maniacal father’s wishes and is banished, but all the while she still maintains love for her father. To me, Goneril and Regan are so evil that they become almost one-dimensional; they exist solely to offset the kindness and gentility of Cordelia. That being said, they are the true catalysts of change in the storyline and set about the entire turn of events culminating in the positive development and evolution of half a dozen critical characters.
Unfortunately, not even that is enough to save them. But it is a Shakespearean tragedy, so what do you expect? But think about Romeo and Juliet: Even though we know what happens at the end, don’t we read and re-read the play, and cherish it all the more with each read? Apply that same mentality to King Lear and, even though the characters might never win you over, and the eye-gouging might send your stomach juices into a whirlwind, the intricate plot will certainly be enough to capture your attention and hold your interest. And, if you give it a chance, you might even be surprised what you (begrudgingly) can glean from it.
In one of the last courses of my undergraduate career, I was assigned William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished. I admit that I was unsure how I would fare reading one of the greatest American authors of the twentieth century. But, after a few initial bumps, I soon found myself joining young Bayard Sartoris as he navigated a Reconstructed South. That was the first time that I had come face to face with the great William Faulkner. And now, almost a year later and more than a dozen promptings from my writing colleagues, I finally sat down with one of his most recognizable and beloved short stories of all time. And it is that story that I proudly present as That’s Classic!‘s Story of the Month for July 2010: William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” (I have included a link to a full-text version of the story at the bottom of this post.)
“A Rose for Emily” takes place in Faulkner’s fictional Southern town of Jefferson in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. (In fact, the story even references the Sartoris family I read about in The Unvanquished!) It follows the story of Miss Emily Grierson, but is not told in her point of view. Actually, in a rather radical move, Faulkner writes the story in the first-person plural form. In other words, it is told from the “we” point of view and not the “I.”
The story opens with Miss Emily’s funeral and the townspeople only attend out of a sense of obligation (something the town had felt toward her since her father passed away decades ago) to her memory and curiosity to see the interior of her house, which had been kept private for over a decade. The house is garish and monolithic, an “eyesore” left over from the days when the street her family lived on demanded respect and recognition for their name and money. But now the house, like the deceased woman inside it, seems out of place among the gas stations and cotton wagons. It is as much an imposition on the town of Jefferson as was Miss Emily herself.
Then we jump back in time, back to when Miss Emily was a woman in her twenties or thirties, and we learn that her father prevented her from accepting any marriage proposals, thus ensuring her a position in society as an unmarried woman or, if you will, an “old maid.” The townspeople pity her, especially after her father dies and she is left without a spouse, money, or even a name; all she has in the world is the large and empty house. That is, until a construction company moves into town with foreman Homer Barron at the helm. A big, strong, and dark Yankee, Homer starts taking Miss Emily out in a horse and buggy on Sunday afternoons, and the town is somewhat glad to see her romantically linked to a man. But after time goes by and no marriage proposal is made–and Homer is overheard saying that is not a “marrying man”–the townspeople start to pity her once again. Their curiosity is at a peak when Miss Emily goes out to buy arsenic, her relatives come to town, and Homer suddenly leaves. Will her love ever come back? And is the arsenic meant for herself…or someone else?
Faulkner gives away the ending in the opening line: “When Miss Emily Grierson died….” We know, right away, that the main character of the story died. So why read on? Because we’re intrigued by the second half of that opening sentence: “…our whole town went to her funeral; the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house….” That sentence established the point of view (first-person plural) and the situation of the story (that the townspeople feel more a sense of obligation toward and curiosity for Miss Emily than they do any real fondness for her). We only ever see Miss Emily through the biased lens of our storytellers, the townspeople, and the “rumored” perceptions they have of her.
It’s sort of like how, in high school, we see people live us to the rumors placed upon them. We don’t really know who they are, what their motives are, or anything about them; we stop at the things we’ve heard about them or what we thought we saw or what seemed to happen and so the persons themselves have no chance to set the record straight. Similarly, in “A Rose for Emily,” we only see Miss Emily as the person the town describes her as. So, really, the point of view of this story directly affects the character (more specifically, the perceived character) of the main character. As an emerging writer, I can say that that’s a pretty nifty storytelling technique, one that I’m sure took Faulkner many drafts to fully realize.
As much as I seem to be praising this story, let me assure you that I do have some questions about it. I’m still not sure what the title refers to or what it means. I’m left a bit confused by the ending of the story, which I can’t explain further without risking ruining the final image of the story for you! And I’m not quite sure who was the dynamic character, the one who underwent a change based upon the events of the story: Miss Emily…or the “we” storytellers? (That’s Classic! readers: If you have any ideas about or answers to any of the above questions, please feel free to comment below!)
Those few things aside, I found “A Rose for Emily” to be one of the tightest and well-crafted short stories I’ve ever read. And while I wouldn’t expect anything less from Faulkner, it is still always a wonderful surprise to find another literary treasure and to delight, even for just a few minutes, in its long-lasting splendor.
To read a full-text version of “A Rose for Emily,” please click here. (Thanks to W. W. Norton and Company’s LitWeb for posting this story.)
This month’s highlighted story has been right under my nose for years. It was one of the first short stories I was assigned to read at the start of my undergraduate study as a writer, and it has been a personal favorite ever since. This story really needs no other introduction, other than for me to name it, Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” as That’s Classic!‘s Story of the Month for June 2010. (I have included a link to a full-text version of the story at the bottom of this post.)
Along with three other short stories, I read “In the Penal Colony” in my writing workshop course that focused on structural parodies. The idea was simple: by reading and breaking down a story into chronological plot points, and then using that for your own parody (which need not be comical in nature) of the story, then you could discover how stories are told, how they work, and how you can craft your own complete story. Right away, I gravitated toward Kafka’s “Penal Colony.” I don’t necessarily have a taste for dream-like fiction or magical realism, but as a long-time first-person writer, it was eye-opening to read such a powerful and evocative third-person story.
“In the Penal Colony” is all about a torture device that is used to execute prisoners. (Interested yet? Keep on reading!) Well, that’s somewhat misleading. The visual focal point of this epic short story is in fact an execution machine, but the literary focal point is more in the hands of the four characters, aptly named the Explorer, the Officer, the Soldier, and the Condemned man (plus, there are the often mentioned but never-seen Former Commandant and New Commandant).
The story is told in third person, but is relatively told from the vantage point of the Explorer. In other words, we see the story unfold almost as if we are over his shoulder or somewhere close by him, and we listen to the Officer as he reveals information about the “apparatus” works, as well as how the former Commandant favored it and the new Commandant abhors it. We listen, or rather read, with interest as the Officer paints the horrific picture of how this three-part machine actually works. (Basically, a condemned person is strapped down on the Bed and above him is the Designer which powers the Harrow, a field of sharp needles that elegantly carves into the condemned person’s back words, like “Honour thy superiors” or “Be just,” that literally spell out the person’s sentence. The whole process takes no more than twelve hours…if the condemned person can actually survive the sentence.
But more horrific and terrifying than the apparatus itself is the way the Officer believes so adamantly in its use. He was in close contact with the former Commandant before he died, and together they perfected a “justice system” in which all accused parties were automatically tried, convicted, and sentenced for crimes on any scale (including falling asleep on the job, which was the Condemned Man’s crime). The condemned were never made aware of their crimes, that they had been found guilty, or that they were sentenced to death by the apparatus. Even as the Officer explains the apparatus and the old ways of the penal colony to the Explorer, he is using a language that neither the Soldier nor the Condemned Man understand.
The Officer is maniacal in the way he praises the apparatus, the whole justice system, and the former Commandant. He is a zealot, so intent to sell the Explorer on the idea of the apparatus that he ultimately begs the Explorer to speak on behalf of its use or against it to the new Commandant. The Explorer refuses, trying to not get involved at all with anything, really, in this penal colony. And, finally, when the Officer sees that the reign of the former Commandant and the practice of the old ways are truly at an end, Kafka delivers one of the most surprising and memorable endings I’ve ever read in a short story.
I will admit that the “conclusion” to the story was a bit confusing and, I suppose, open-ended, but that’s one of the reasons that this story has stuck with me these past few years, and why it has stuck with readers across the world for the past few decades. This story is, I think, meant to be a little confusing, a little out there, and still entirely accessible. And by that I mean that although I was left with a big question mark over my head regarding the meaning of the “conclusion,” I felt that I grasped the overall story enough to sit and really dwell on what Kafka was trying to say and what he was trying to get us, me, to think about. A story with this much detail about the politics and justice system of a community undoubtedly is making some sort of commentary.
But what exactly is it trying to say? I’ll leave that up to you…just like Kafka left it up to all of us. So be the judge yourself. Give “In the Penal Colony” a read and see what you think. Even send me an e-mail with your thoughts, and I’ll post your responses. But it all starts with a click of the link below. So enjoy!
To read a full-text version of “In the Penal Colony,” please click here. (Thanks to horrormasters.com for posting this easy-to-read PDF version of the story.)
I wish I could tell you why I’ve been holding off on recognizing this month’s Story of the Month, but I have no good reason. I suppose I was simply intimidated, both by the novel’s sheer genius and how I could possibly give you an adequate taste of the book, enough to tempt you to find a copy and have yourself a good read. But it was the idea of neglecting this book, of not promoting, that finally pushed me to stop making excuses and simply to choose it. So, without further ado, allow me to present That’s Classic!‘s Story of the Month for May 2010: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.
I read this book the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. It was on the required list for my AP (Advanced Placement) English course. And, to be honest, if it hadn’t been I might never have picked it up. It is a novel that takes place during World War II, not one of my preferred subjects to read about. But the novel is told and built up in such an interesting way that suddenly the subject matter became more accessible to me. Plus, the cast of characters is nothing short of entertaining.
Catch-22 focuses in on the 256th squadron of the Army Air Corps where they are stationed in Italy during WWII. It predominantly follows a young bombardier named Yossarian, but it touches on the rest of the men in the squadron, as well as a host of other characters located in and around their base.
The most difficult aspect of this novel is simply that there are so many characters with quirky names, from the protagonist Yossarian to Appleby to Major Major Major Major (yes, that’s his official name), that it is often difficult to keep track of what is happening to which character. So I suggest using a reference, such as Cliff’s Notes or Spark Notes or Wikipedia, with a character list and a breakdown of each character, in order to keep them all straight. If you can do that, then you can enjoy this book!
But now that I have all the disclaimers out there, let me tell you what a truly genius piece of literature this is. Catch-22 is all about the “lunacy of war” and the actual catch-22’s that go with it. For example, there is the issue of trying to get a Section 8–a discharge from the military on the basis that the person is, for lack of a better term, insane. Heller writes that if a person is wants to get out of the military (which is a sane thing to do), then he is too sane to warrant a Section 8. However, if a person tries to act (or actually is) crazy enough to want to stay or even to extend his service, then he could receive a Section 8, but he wouldn’t be sane enough to take it. So, really, Heller is saying that there’s no way out. There are countless other catch-22’s in the story, including trying to make an appointment to see one of the military officers and the number of flight time to log in order to get discharged, but the most pervasive and memorable example is that regarding the sanity of the men in the squadron. As you read through the novel, you start to wonder if Heller is right after all: Is war truly this insane? And is there any way out of it?
Perhaps one of the reasons I liked this book so much was because it reminded me of a television show I grew up watching with my dad: M*A*S*H. Yossarian reminds me a lot of Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce. And most of the other Catch-22 characters can be loosely compared to those from M*A*S*H. Of course, the TV show is a much more comical look at the “lunacy of war,” but it is also about the camaraderie of the men and women in uniform. Catch-22 is also comical, but it is much more in the realm of dark humor and satire than the TV show could allow. The novel truly gets as dark as war can be, or at least as dark as civilians could suppose it to be. It shows us the side of war we know exists but, since it isn’t easy or pleasant, we tend to overlook it or wish to overlook it. But that is no reason to overlook Catch-22.
Although many times I felt like the book was over my head, I was certainly impressed to read an undoubtedly intellectual and mentally-stimulating book for a change. So give it a chance. Give it a read. Just know going into it that it is a complex novel–both in the sheer volume of characters as well as sensitive subject matter it covers. It is probably more complex than anything you’ve read in a while. So perhaps that is precisely the reason it is time for you to stop making excuses and to simply choose to read it.
Until I started in a writing program, I thought that literature could only be considered “classic” if it was written before 1940. But in my very first semester of the writing program, I was assigned a novel by Vladimir Nabokov that was written in 1955—and it rocked my world. There was no doubt that it was written in the tradition of classic literature (writing that speaks to something greater than itself), and that many people would argue that it is a classic in its own right. Having read it and studied it quite a bit, I must say that I would have to agree with them. So let me introduce you to That’s Classic!‘s Story of the Month for April 2010: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.
The novel follows Humbert Humbert, the intellectual and charming man with an affinity for young girls. Ever since his first love died at a young age, Humbert has been obsessed with the idea of courting young girls; although he ages and matures, the objects of his desire stay frozen at the age in which his love died. We assume that he never really did anything but look at the girls that catch his eye…until he meets the feisty twelve-year-old Lolita who reminds him intensely of his first love.
Humbert first meets Lolita when he moves in to her mother’s home as a boarder. He is instantly enamored with her, but instead her mother Charlotte falls in love with him. Charlotte forces Humbert to either marry her or move. He is so taken with Lolita that he begrudgingly agrees to marry Charlotte, as it will keep him closer to her daughter. Not soon after the wedding, Charlotte finds and reads Humbert’s diary, which reveals to her his lust for Lolita. And even though Charlotte is not all that fond of her daughter, she is appalled by her husband’s true character. In an attempt to obtain help, she flees the house but is struck by a car in the street and is killed. That leaves Humbert as Lolita’s sole guardian. The two embark on a one-year cross-country journey that brings them to head-to-head with Humbert’s unquenchable lust, Lolita’s manipulative ways, and the eerily omnipresence of a man named Quilty.
There are a lot of layers in Lolita, beginning with the narrator Humbert Humbert. He is the epitome of the unreliable narrator. He speaks both in English and French (having been born in France), so unless you are reading from the annotated version of Lolita you have no idea what he is actually saying half of the time. (NOTE: While I read the annotated Lolita and enjoyed the English translations of Humbert’s narrative, I want to stress that Nabokov intentionally wrote half in English and half in French, so that we only understand a portion of what Humbert has to say.)
The fact that we, as readers, don’t understand everything Humbert says is a brilliant move on Nabokov’s part. It depicts Humbert as clearly intellectual to be bilingual, but it also shows him to be arrogant, that he is purposefully exhibiting his superior knowledge. He is unreliable because we are not privy to everything he has to say, as well as because he is a crazed man, obsessed with Lolita. His exaggerated speech and perceptions of reality–including his opinion of Lolita, his lust for her, and even himself–is in direct conflict with how we see Humbert: a pedophile. But because of Humbert’s wit and ease, we start to see him as a charming man…with a despicable obsession.
The whole novel is written as a court document for Humbert’s trial. He narrates his own story of how he came to be associated with Lolita, and he fills his telling with word play, sexual innuendos, and French idioms. Nabokov, through Humbert, somehow manipulates us as readers to juggle our contempt for Humbert with a growing interest in the relationship between him and Lolita, actually getting anxious and excited for the moment when they first consummate his unrequited love. Meanwhile, Nabokov is leaving a trail of clues surrounding the mysterious Quilty, culminating in a showdown between the two men who seek out Lolita’s companionship.
Lolita is indeed one of the more scandalous books I’ve ever read, certainly one of the most scandalous classics. But it is witty and charming, just like Humbert, and Nabokov sucks you into this world that you could never conceive of, and leaves you remarkably breathless by the end.
Whenever I am at a loss for which story to pick as the Story of the Month, the first author that comes to mind is Ray Bradbury (which, my loyal readers, you could probably have guessed since I’ve already reviewed one of his novels and one of his short stories). I was fortunate enough to take a wonderful course that solely focused on Bradbury and his work, taught by his very own biographer. I’ve never read as many stories written by a single author before. Even so, I can safely say that he is one of the best writers I’ve ever read. For that reason, I have no qualms about naming another of his stories SOTM. So, without further ado, That’s Classic!‘s Story of the Month for March 2010 is Ray Bradbury’s “Kaleidoscope.” (I have included a link to a full-text version of the story at the bottom of this post.)
“Kaleidoscope,” which appears in Bradbury’s remarkable short story collection, The Illustrated Man, is a story that literally propels you into outer space. It is the story of about a dozen men, not far from Earth, whose spaceship blew apart and now they are accelerating further and further apart from each other, the headsets inside their helmets their only means of staying in contact. All these men, including the main character Hollis, know that they are inevitably going to die, and most can assess by what means. The captain is going to hit the moon. Stone is going to be bludgeoned in a meteor shower. Applegate is accelerating toward Pluto. And Hollis is propelled toward Earth, the atmosphere of which will undoubtedly incinerate him. Their shared, yet disparate, fates are all unavoidable.
As these men hurtle toward their fate, feeling helpless in preventing their own deaths, they understandably bicker and find fault with each other. There’s a particularly compelling argument between Hollis and Lespere, an apparent womanizer who has no regrets at the end of his life, and who lets Hollis know about it. And Hollis retorts that it doesn’t matter, that they’re all meeting the same fate now, and Lespere’s “life experiences” doesn’t make his life any better than that of Hollis. But, as Lespere explains, “I got my thoughts, I remember.”
It’s the knowledge of having affected someone else, of having meant something to someone else, that plagues Hollis. We can infer from the storyteller that Hollis has never really meant anything to anyone, and that he doesn’t feel like his life was worth anything. But at the very end of the story, in death, Hollis is finally able to mean something to someone. (But I won’t tell you anything more than that. I don’t want to end the beautifully-written ending for you. You deserve the treat of the surprise!)
Now onto the writing:
“Kaleidoscope” really is a simple story, plot-wise. The story begins after the ship has already exploded. Most of the story takes place from a vantage point close to Hollis, so we can see what he sees as Earth’s gravity is pulling him in. And soon Hollis is alone, his fellow astronauts rocketing off to the farthest reaches of space or into a collision-course with a planet, moon, or meteor. And then at the end of the story, only a few pages after the story begins, Hollis is dead.
At first, the men can see each other, but after only a few seconds they are traveling so fast they are out of sight, their headsets the only reminder that they’re not alone. This story is told unlike most other stories. Instead of having all the characters in a single location, talking to each other face to face, most of these characters are conversing without being near each other or being able to see each other. It’s an unconventional way of handling a scene and dialogue between characters, but Bradbury pulls it off.
What I love so much about this story—besides the fact that it takes place in space, a subject that has always fascinated me—is that it is so telling of the human condition. We as humans, by our very nature, become incredibly reflective when we know the end is near. We might even become bitter and spiteful and lash out. But even more than that is Hollis’ desire for his life to mean something to someone other than himself, to know that he made a difference in someone’s life. It’s just tragic that he had to die for his wish to be realized.
Bradbury, like his character Hollis, certainly makes an impact with this story. So please don’t make it to the end of your life before reading this story. It is sure to make you think about your influence in life—as well as in death—quite a bit differently. It’s certainly worth the read.
To read a full-text version of “Kaleidoscope,” please click here. (Thanks to scaryforkids.com for posting this story.)