by Nick Hornby
read: circa 2001
Guardian 1000 Novels
I read High Fidelity in college and liked it. I liked the movie, too, though it bothers me that we have to Americanize everything set in England.
The very fact of a person's otherness to you means that there is always something fundamentally hidden about them. And that arises from the simple difference between one consciousness and another.Perhaps this is the fundamental problem of writing, and perhaps this is the fundamental challenge of being a human. We always spend infinitely more time in our own heads than we do in anyone else's, even those we are closest to. Roth gets this, and arguably the loose trilogy which The Human Stain concludes (also consisting of American Pastoral and I Married a Communist) is thematically linked by the attempt of narrator (and Roth alter-ego) Nathan Zuckerman to understand another man he admires. Professor Hungerford notes some homoerotic undertones in The Human Stain, but Zuckerman's infatuation with Coleman Silk parallels his idol worship of Swede Levov and his son-like affinity for Iron Rinn. Zuckerman is attracted to these men in a (mostly) non-sexual way, and his attraction manifests itself in his efforts to put himself in their shoes, to imagine their thoughts and feelings, to create their life stories out of his research and his imagination. Roth is exploring why literature even exists, and by employing Zuckerman as an intermediary he makes an argument for the noble futility of the craft.
This makes the character of Judge Holden in Blood Meridian puzzling, or maybe terrifying. Holden is the most sadistic and ruthless member of a sadistic and ruthless band of scalp-hunters riding across Mexico killing Indians. He is also the most learned, the most well-spoken, and the most ingenious. Holden appeared in the desert to the group to aid them in making gunpowder and killing enemies, but each member also had a prior encounter with the judge as he roamed throughout North American sowing chaos and evil. He is not explicitly superhuman, but as a character he has a mythical presence. This isn't Anton Chigurh, who acknowledges (and is ultimately undone by) the pivotal role of chance and fate in our lives; Holden is beyond such things: "He says that he will never die."You're somewhat constrained in writing a novel, I think. Like, I'm not a fan of some of the Latin American writers, magical realism. You know, it's hard enough to get people to believe what you're telling them without making it impossible. It has to be vaguely plausible.
Such details are merely accidental. Who could know but us? And since their thoughts were bent upon other ghosts than ours, other darknesses than we had seen, why must we be left, the survivors picking among flotsam, among the small, unnoticed, unvalued clutter that was all that remained when they vanished, that only catastrophe made notable?Things help us remember those we've lost. But memory itself is a curse. Ruth altruistically decides to become a transient with her Aunt Sylvie, because she can't bear the thought of becoming a ghost in Sylvie's memory. She spends much of the last chapter envisioning how her sister Lucille, who believes Ruth and Sylvie dead, might imagine or not imagine she sees them. Ruth's and Lucille's mother committed suicide when the girls were young, and Ruth blames her not for abandoning them but for haunting them. She never addresses her feeling of loss; instead her mother's suicide falls like a shadow over the whole story.
"... A great and lasting story is about everyone or it will not last. The strange and the foreign is not interesting - only the deeply personal and familiar."
Samuel said, "Apply that to the Cain-Abel story."
And Adam said, "I didn't kill my brother -" Suddenly he stopped and his mind went reeling back in time.
"I think I can," Lee answered Samuel. "I think it is the best-known story in the world because it is everybody's story. I think it is the symbol story of the human soul."I didn't really understand that - the idea that the Cain-Abel story is universal - at the time. Looking back, it's a powerful statement, but I don't think it's true. Maybe if I had a brother, I might think it was true. And the larger sentiment here - that only familiar stories resonate - I think isn't quite true, either. I'd say only the familiar parts of stories resonate, or the parts that can touch on familiar feelings. Ultimately, we are always piecing together a story out of our own experiences and our own feelings.
One problem was centering the weight of the novel's inquiry on so delicate and vulnerable a character could smash her and lead readers into the comfort of pitying her rather than into an interrogation of themselves for the smashing. My solution - break the narrative into parts that had to be re-assembled by the reader - seemed to me a good idea, the execution of which does not satisfy me now. Besides, it didn't work: many readers remain touched but not moved.There are two things of interest to me here. One is the notion that I as the reader should be interrogating myself for the "smashing" - which Morrison elsewhere in the introduction refers to as "psychological murder" - of major character Pecola, as her self-image and sanity are destroyed under the pressures of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse and the way society perceives her. The second item of interest is that the arrangement of the story factors into how I feel about the fate of this character. Taking the second part first, it is interesting to hear an author talk specifically about this element of the craft. Whether in novel or in film, I often feel that showing the narrative out-of-order is a cutesy trick that makes the story more confusing without really adding more depth. Morrison's explanation is convincing, though; in linear order the sequence of events that conspires to Pecola's downfall would have felt like a runaway train out of control, almost fatalistic. Instead we can treat each individual malady that befalls her separately, and wonder what kind of environment she exists in that this can happen to her.
I believe literature's not likely ever to manage abstraction successfully, like sculpture for example, [...] because wood and iron have a native appeal and first-order reality, whereas words are artificial to begin with, invented specifically to represent. [...] Well, well, weld iron rods into abstract patterns, say, and you've still got real iron, but arrange words into abstract patterns and you've got nonsense.Barth explores this concept throughout Lost in the Funhouse: "Frame-Tale" invites the reader to literally make a Moebius strip; the Author's Note says that "Autobiography" was written "for monophonic tape and visible but silent author"; "Menelaiad" is written as a nested dialogue with seven sets of quotation marks at points; the title story is peppered with sentences like "Description of physical appearance and mannerisms is one of several standard methods of characterization used by writers of fiction." Barth takes the rules of the short story form and twists and breaks them throughout.
McCarthy has stated in interviews that he doesn't think much of literature that doesn't "deal with matters of life and death." I disagree with him on this front; once we move past concerns of life and death, we can engage what Faulkner called "problems of the human heart in conflict with itself." My issue with The Road, and with McCarthy in general, is that he doesn't take us there.Having just finished my fourth McCarthy novel now, All the Pretty Horses, I realize that I was wrong. McCarthy is dealing with many of the same themes and issues as the other great writers, but he's coming at things from a different angle. To McCarthy, talk is cheap, and thoughts are even cheaper; it's action that reveals character. He's not always going to spell out what going's on in the characters' heads, but their actions open a window to their minds and souls.
Rawlins lay watching the stars. After a while he said: I could still be born. I might look different or somethin. If God wanted me to be born I'd be born.
And if He didnt you wouldnt.Fate, God, and destiny show up repeatedly in the story. Blevins is petrified he will be killed by lightning because his family members were all killed by lightning. Cole himself is a born horseman, who "if were begot by malice or mischance into some queer land where horses never were he would have found them anyway." Alejandra's aunt notes the trouble her families women has with men and hopes it's not "tainted blood" or "a family curse." When Cole returns to the ranch towards the end of the story, the workers tell him "that it was no accident of circumstance that a man be born in a certain country and not some other." However, Cole later tells Rawlins that America, his land of birth, "ain't my country." There is a capriciousness to birthrights.
A tossed coin that was at one time a slug in a mint and of the coiner who took that slug from the tray and placed it in the die in one of two ways and from whose act all else followed, cara y cruz.She suggests in the next breath a "puppet show" where the puppet strings "terminate in the hands of yet other puppets, themselves with their own strings which trace upward in turn, and so on." All the Pretty Horses is open to the idea of a Christian God, but it doesn't matter. Because if God exists, His will is virtually indistinguishable from nihilistic randomness. And ultimately, how can we know if something was fated to happen, or whether it just happened to happen? The aunt makes this point also:
In history there are no control groups. There is no one to tell us what might have been. We weep over the might have been, but there is no might have been. There never was.The closest McCarthy gets to laying out some sort of theory, some method to God's madness, is Cole's thought that pain exists as some sort of currency to create beauty. "The blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower." It's not clear whether this is a blessing or a curse; Rawlins says early on in the novel that a good-looking horse or woman is "always more trouble than what they're worth."