A Mind @ Play

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Category: Literature Page 1 of 3

The Time Traveler’s Wife

Time Traveler's WifeThe gimmick in this book is deliciously simple. The lives of two lovers, Henry and Clare, and bound together by destiny. They meet, fall in love, get married, have a child… so far so normal. The interesting bit lies in the opening of the book describing their first meeting: she first meets him in her parents’ garden when she is 6 years old; but he first meets her in a library when she is 20.

Welcome to Audrey Niffenegger’s quirky science fiction romance. Henry suffers from a genetic disorder that causes him to move around in space-time, usually to the past, occasionally to the future. There’s no grandfather paradox here, but a very deterministic view of space-time that would probably irritate physicists and philosophers alike. When Henry meets Clare for the first time, she has already known him most of her life, essentially forming the basis for his future trips to her past.

There’s a lot of potential for confusion here, with sometimes multiple versions of Henry appearing in the same scene, and a fair amount of to-ing and fro-ing in time, but there’s nothing overtly complex about the storyline. The book is really well structured, to keep the little bits of information dripping, looking at events from different perspectives, and gradually driving the story to its inevitable conclusion. Because of its nature, I imagine the book would make a lot of fun to read a second time.

Many other reviewers accuse the book of being dull and overhyped. Both charges are merited. On the first count, if you took out the time travelling and straightened out the storyline, there wouldn’t be very much to tell. This may seem like unjustified criticism – like suggesting that Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs would be a humdrum version of The Swiss Family Robinson – but the novel really doesn’t have very much substance. There are a couple of violent episodes, a few deaths, and lots of sex, but otherwise the plot can be summed up on the back of an envelope. The time travelling pretty much revolves around their love story, and the rest of the world turns in blissful silence. In fact, the one time our protagonists act to watch something from Henry’s future, it’s that gag-inducing must mention of the 11th of September attacks.

Nevertheless, for an ’empty’ novel of 500-odd pages, it is extremely entertaining. The author has delivered a touching, times heart-rending love story with an interesting twist, and presented it well. As long as you don’t open this book expecting mind-altering philosophy or sky-splintering fireworks, you should be pleasantly surprised.

Aspects of the Novel

Aspects of the NovelThere is something unerringly endearing about Forster’s way of expressing himself that makes this series of lectures on the makeup of the novel so easy to read. His disarming admission of his own unscholarly nature (“True scholarship is incommunicable, true scholars rare. There are a few scholars, actual or potential, in the audience today, but only a few, and there is certainly none on the platform.”) puts him firmly on a par with the reader, and his conversational, nay chatty style, opens this little book to anyone who appreciates a good read.

These series of lectures were not an investigation into the history of the novel, nor a prescription of how to write good prose, but an attempt to describe the novel as an art form. Starting from the rather open definition of the novel as “a fiction in prose of a certain extent”, Forster tackles a different component each lecture. The story, that satisfies our thirst to find out what happens next, is covered distinctly from the plot, which is the embodiment of our curiosity as to why things happen. He covers a novel’s characters, explaining how they can be ‘flat’ or ’round’, and how they differ from real human beings. The realm of ‘fantasy’, the author’s rights in his own universe, are considered, as are matters of pattern, rhythm and viewpoint, with one particularly interesting heading of ‘prophecy’.

In terms of whether the book is still relevant, Forster ended his lecture series with some conjecture on what the future may hold for the novel form, whether television would eventually make it even disappear altogether (thank goodness for Riepl’s Law). His conjecture that whilst history and society move on, art remains static, is extremely interesting in light of the fact that these lectures were being given at the height of the modernist period, and pertinent works are only lightly touched upon. Furthermore, whilst he provides plenty of written examples, there are of course many references to classic works, which it probably helps to have read, but also references to authors who have been buried by posterity or are no longer so accessible.

On the whole, however, Aspects of the Novel remains fundamentally readable today. It is not a high-brow scholarly affair; rather a well-thought out observational piece, taking a broad look at that vast field of literature we call the ‘novel’. Forster makes some extremely astute remarks, and his witty and conversational style bring these across in an easy and comfortable way, that makes you feel his observations are frankly obvious. He does not encompass the full gamut of literary inquiry, but instead picks and chooses to highlight his points and support his argument that there are no fast and steady rules for what defines ‘the novel’. This is probably required reading for students of English literature, but it’s easy accessibility and thought-provoking titbits should appeal to just about all keen readers with a fascination for the novel form.

A Passage to India

Passage to IndiaIn a world far removed from the one in which Forster was writing, is there any place for a novel like A Passage to India other than as an idle curiosity of a bygone era? Written based on first hand experience of the British Raj, this open critique of colonialism caricatures the Anglo-Indian in his element, questioning the morality and justification of the British presence in the subcontinent.

A Passage to India is built upon its characters, who are the led through a fairly mundane plot, a jejune stage for the actors to perform upon. Yet through their actions, we discover this world of Empire, where Anglo-Indians hold themselves aloof from the population, where relationships are grounded on the basis of ruler and ruled. Forster challenges the British Raj as it was then. But he also poses questions relevant to our everyday lives: can the cultures of East and West ever truly understand one another? is it possible even for two individuals to truly understand one another? can anything good ever come from a relationship in which one party dominates the other? and what can we really understand about ‘identity’ through the prism of nationhood?

There is no doubt much in this book which can be analysed and overanalysed to the nauseating degree that only a literature class can provoke, and I can imagine that many who studied this novel in a classroom environment learned only to hate it. Where the simplicity of the plot provides only a thread for the characters to follow, the imagery of India’s weather and terrain, her townships and cultural diversity, combine to provide symbolic tapestry lending itself to interpretation. Alone the echoes of the Marabar caves and its allegory in the evil of Empire doubtless provide enough discussion for a few hours of lessons. Yet there is no need to take a magnifying glass to this book to see its implications. Similarly, there has been plenty of criticism about using a work by an English author and mere traveller to the subcontinent as a lens through which to view the British Raj and colonialism in general. Whilst this may be for true scholarship a half-way justifiable charge, it retains its relevance as a novel and for providing insights into the British mindset of the time.

Finally, a quick comment about the style. Some other reviewers have complained that the book hasn’t aged particularly well, and that the writing gets a bit muddled in conversation. On the former point, it would seem fair criticism, in as far as that this book clearly has more in common with books written in the half century prior to its publication than after it. That doesn’t make the book’s style particularly less readable today, but the content might need some occasional explanation.

Despite his modest assertion that he was ‘not a great novelist’, A Passage to India lives up to its reputation as one of the more important works related to British colonialism. Alone for its historical portrayal, the book is worth a read, but the questions posed (and the answers Forster subtly implies) with regard to issues of cultural identity, acceptance and understanding, are still as relevant today as they were at the height of the Raj.

The Dinner

The DinnerTold through the eyes of a decidedly unreliable narrator, The Dinner is an elegantly simple novel served up over five courses. From the casual opening aperitif to the grittier, questionable digestif, the book layers on the story over a meal in a swanky restaurant.

The story revolves around two families who meet to discuss a problem with their children. The two men are brothers: the one being our narrator, who seems to have little time for the second, who we soon learn is a high-flying politician likely to become the next prime minister. During the course of the meal, details are filtered in, largely via flashbacks, as we learn the nature of the ‘problem’ the couples are having with their children, as well as becoming increasingly suspicious about the motives of our initially amiable narrator. There are plenty of shocks and twists to get the book through to its conclusion, and leaves the reader posed with the question on the book’s cover: just how far would you go to protect the ones you love?

The writing style is very colloquial, each course easily digested, with the whole meal edible in one sitting. At times humourous, occasionally shocking, there is an interesting moral question being posed, but I think the book would like to be taken more seriously than it deserves. For me, it was an enjoyable read, but nothing more than entertainment.

Still, it remains a great little tale, light bite size portions gradually building up a satisfying meal, which depending on your palate might leave you feeling a little queasy – and nevertheless thanking the chef for it.

Atlas Shrugged

Atlas ShruggedPerhaps the most significant book in post-war American literature, one which has regained popularity since the start of the economic crisis, Altas Shrugged is the embodiment of an ideal society, the ultimate vehicle for Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism. Weighing in at over 1,000 pages of tightly-packed print, it’s also one of the longest novels in English literature. Is it any good?

Well, as a novel, Atlas Shrugged unfortunately falls flat, in ways that Rand’s first novel, We the Living, didn’t. There is foremost no humanity in the novel, the characters are dismembered, dessicated mouthpieces to Rand’s philosophical diatribes, with everyone fitting neatly into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ camps. Rand herself claimed that using characters as symbols was never her intention: “My characters are persons in whom certain human attributes are focused more sharply and consistently than in average human beings.” But what we are left with are flimsy apparitions, lobotomised automatons fulfilling the roles required of them to extol the virtues of her philosophy. Even this is taken to extremes, with one of the proponents delivering a 60-page long theoretical speech around which the rest of the novel might well be seen as scaffolding.

To complement this set of lifeless characters is a plot which similarly confounds understanding. In an America which technologically resembles the period in which Rand was writing, yet industrially feels set in an earlier period, and borrows heavily from the Great Depression, the main events and the decisions of the characters jar heavily with what the reader knows and expects from society. As another reviewer pointed out, what’s missing is the overt understanding that the story takes place in a parallel world or a different timeframe, to create a genuine sense of credibility. True, there are some hints that push this novel into the realms of science fiction–a super metal alloy, power derived from static electricity, weapons based on sound waves etc.–but the world is definitely our own, even if the people and their decisions are alien. Key to the story is the gradual collapse of the economic system, and the disappearance of the champions of industry. What happens in Rand’s universe when the creative minds of the world go on strike? Apparently, they settle down on the frontier and, working one month a year, create a fully-fledged miniature utopia. Personally, I imagine they’d starve.

A bad book can still be a good delivery vehicle for an interesting message. Yet this unwieldy book fails even to achieve the latter. For its mammoth length, Rand’s message could have been relatively concise, but for the plot’s repetitiveness. If you are interested in Rand’s philosophy, there are plenty of other places to turn which will provide a far more succinct and detailed explanation, without the repetition or padding necessary for its delivery in novel form. Whether you find place for Rand’s philosophy in your own, or like Gore Vidal consider it “nearly perfect in its immorality”, there are simply better summaries available. For the converted, this is probably a wonderful book, but for anyone else it simply isn’t worth risking the investment of time and energy.

No one can deny this book’s enduring popularity. That alone gives rise to curiosity strong enough to keep it fresh in the public consciousness. But it is a far cry from a great piece of literature, and as an allegory, a philosophical harbinger, its ponderous and verbose nature should have the curious turn elsewhere. The novel opens with the question: “Who is John Galt?” A thousand pages of largely disappointing text will reveal the answer, but you’d be better served just reading the appendix.

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