Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sunday's Smattering of Books Recently Read

The trinity in literature seems to be everywhere, a human universal inherited from the ancients.  We usually quote Emerson, as here, regarding this, and we delight in discovering such trinities as the furies in literary works, old and new.

Body, mind, and spirit.  Child, adult, and parent.  Id, ego, and superego.  A tool of interpretation with many variations, many parallels.

Peter Matthiessen, on page 41 of The Snow Leopard (Penguin Classics): "One "I" feels like an observer of this man who lies here in this sleeping bag in Asian mountains; another "I" is thinking about Alex; a third is the tired man who tries to sleep." Matthiessen tells the same tale three ways in his Pulitzer-winning Shadow Country (Modern Library Paperbacks), divided into three parts but all are one.

Robert Penn Warren showed the three "I" viewpoints in different ways in his greatest novel All the King's Men, as in this passage:
"It was like the second when you come late at night and see the yellow envelope of the telegram sticking out from under your door and you can lean and pick it up, but don't open it yet, not for a second. While you stand there in the hall, with the envelope in your hand, you feel there's an eye on you, a great big eye looking straight at you from miles and dark and through walls and houses and through your coat and vest and hide and sees you huddle up way inside, in the dark which is you, inside yourself, like a clammy, sad little foetus you carry around inside yourself. The eye knows what's in the envelope, and it is watching you to see you when you open it and know, too. But the clammy, sad little foetus which is you way down in the dark which is you too lifts up its sad little face and its eyes are blind, and it shivers cold inside you for it doesn't want to know what is in that envelope. It wants to lie in the dark and not know, and be warm in its not-knowing."
"The end of man is knowledge, but there is one thing he can't know. He can't know whether knowledge will save him or kill him. He will be killed, all right, but he can't know whether he is killed because of the knowledge which he has got or because of the knowledge which he hasn't got and which if he had it, would save him for another time. There's the cold in your stomach, but you open the envelope, you have to open the envelope, for the end of man is to know."
When we read a novel and identify with the protagonist and feel the emotions of the novel, we do so with one "I."  When we observe the protagonist, reflecting on the novel, interpreting its meaning, we do so with a different "I."

The Lust for Blood: Why We Are Fascinated by Death, Murder, Horror, and Violence by Jeffrey A. Kottler (2011), 310 pages, including notes, bibliography, and index.

Jeffrey A. Kottler, PHD, "is a practicing psychologist, professor of counseling at California State University, Fullerton, and the author of more than seventy-five books, including the New York Times bestseller, The Last Victim: A True-Life Journey into the Mind of the Serial Killer."

Too often less of an argument than a survey of the way our culture is entertained by violence, The Lust For Blood is good but for my taste a bit too windy and too circumspect (as if to go easy on the pop, soundbite audience) to forcefully answer the question that the subtitle poses.  Dr. Kottler concludes:

"It is indeed the fear of death, the need for stimulation, and instinctual aggression that are at the core of our fascination with violence. There may come a day when human beings no longer require such stimulation in excise of our demons and purge ourselves of hostility. In the meantime, we live in the prisons of our own making, defined by our personal codes of honor and morality, as well as the choices we make for how we entertain ourselves."

I like what he says, but of course the need for stimulation and escape is also caused by repression, the denial of death.

Such entertainments as Reservoir Dogs and The Wild Bunch are briefly discussed. When, in the sub-chapter discussing these two, Cormac McCarthy gets mentioned, it is not Blood Meridian that gets quoted, but instead The Road.  And Dr. Kottler too separates the "I" of the observer from the "I" of the vicarious protagonist:

"Sam Peckinpah, who laid the groundwork for the violence in cinema of his generation, heartily agrees with Tarantino. In his films Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, the public outcry only fed greater interest. Audiences appeared to clamor for the privilege of paying money to be horrified. Peckinpah claimed his films were actually antiviolent since they portray human behavior at its most base, primitive, and awful. 'And yet there's a certain response that you get from it, an excitement, because we're all violent people, we have violence within us."

"As previously mentioned, there is also a control element to the experience of viewing such films. You have the power at almost any moment to moderate the level of arousal you are feeling. If you become too terrified by what is happening on the screen, you always have the option to remind yourself that it is only a movie. Look at your watch. Close your eyes. Sneak a peek at your phone. Stretch. Reorient yourself. It's not real. It's not happening to me."

"If, on the other hand, you are feeling bored and disengaged from the film and want to ratchet up the excitement, then you can pretend that it is real. Jump in with both feet. Imagine that it's you who is running, hiding, or fighting. What would you do in this predicament?"

"This happened to me recently while attending a horrifying and disturbing movie about the end of the world as we know it. I think at one point I started to shut down because I was so freaked out. I kept looking at my watch and yawning. I started thinking about the set design and the camera angles, admiring the acting, wondering about how the special effects were designed. I was in perfect control--or so I thought at the time."

"But with an hour left to go, feeling restless and bored, I thought, What the hell, and slipped back into the narrative without my seatbelt attached. The film became so real for me that when the lights came back on, I was still there. I couldn't stop crying and couldn't even explain to my son why I was so upset."

"The film was The Road , based on Cormac McCarthy's story about a father's legacy to his son in a post apocalyptic world. I couldn't stop thinking about what I would do in such circumstances, what I would do to survive and protect my own family against marauding killers. And I couldn't stop crying because, for me, even a week later, the movie hadn't yet ended; I was still living it."

"Did I get my money's worth from an entertainment experience that still haunts me and invades my dreams and fantasies? You betcha. But I also lost control and I'm still paying for it."

Lately I've been preoccupied with Stephen Greenleaf novels.  I began back at his first novel, Grave Error, and studied all of his novels straight through again.  I read them mostly with my observer eye this time, noting the nuances, the language, the little things, and recalling my first experiences of immersing myself into these novels, one by one, gladly forking over hardcover prices as soon as they appeared.  Greenleaf was a stylist too, with a wonderful sense of humor.

Stephen Greenleaf said (in the interview at this link) that his first novel was as much like those of Ross MacDonald as he could get it ("I'm surprised he didn't sue me.").  His narrator was mostly impersonal consciousness making its way into the case at hand, with no ego to get in the way of observing others.  As the novels progress, Greenleaf's protagonist/first-person narrator develops more and more of his own identity and personal motivations.  The great attraction of these novels (for me, at least) was his civilized voice.  Unlike so many private eyes, he wasn't a self-interested capitalist, nor a macho tough guy, nor a Sherlockian puzzle solver.  He was a seeker, a blue-collar social critic, reflective, introspective, and humble.

A lawyer himself, Greenleaf mostly made fun of lawyers in these books.  Tanner points out an occasional exception, including an old friend he goes to see in Past Tense.  The lawyer's office had been totally redecorated since the last time Tanner was there, with everything now in the western motif.  Tanner asks his friend, why the change?

"Cormac McCarthy," his friend says.  Tanner says that his friend acted surprised that he even knew who McCarthy was.

I had to laugh out loud when I first read that passage, back when Past Tense came out in 1998.  That same year McCarthy came out with Cities of the Plain.  McCarthy had won the National Book Award but was still a relatively unknown recluse back then--except to a core of loyal readers.  I remember going online to the Cormac McCarthy Society Forum and posting that excerpt there.

Stephen Greenleaf's books were always a special treat for this reader.  Highly intelligent and written in a sparkling style, they were always well reviewed as such.  But they didn't sell well.  Greenleaf tried different things and different publishers, but finally after  sixteen novels (fourteen Tanner novels and two stand alones), Greenleaf reluctantly quit writing and went back to lawyering.  He still doesn't even have his own wikipedia page.

Forgotten?  Not by his core of loyal readers, and good gosh, we miss him.  In his last novel, Ellipsis, he said goodbye to his readers with a satire on the publishing industry--before his own ellipsis.  This novel is written with his usual humor and asides and it also includes some special little things that you have to read very closely to catch.  I think I'll devote a Friday's Forgotten Book blog to it soon.

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