John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of WrathOn my self-assigned course called “Books I Should Have Read Years Ago,” I recently finished Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I’m not going to write about the characterizations or images or plot, because I think they’re all pretty straightforward and I think it’s easy enough that pretty much anyone could read it, so I think it’s justifiable how frequent it’s listed as required reading.

What interests me about The Grapes of Wrath is how hopeless the situation of the Joad family seems to them, and indeed how hopeless it becomes. I won’t spoil the ending image because it’s exceptionally powerful and I count myself fortunate that I managed to run in the circles I’ve run in without hearing the ending before I finished it myself. Suffice to say that the Joad family manages to steadily lose or have taken from them everything over the course of the novel, and find themselves destitute and helpless by the end.

The reason I find this interesting is that their helpless situation represents a low point in a string of highs and lows throughout history, and one that is more or less caused by the previous high. Farmers irresponsibly farmed wheat where it didn’t belong, resulting in loose soil that was picked up by the plains’ high winds and the Dust Bowl, which resulted in cataclysmic crop failure at the first major drought. Things were not helped by the Great Depression, and migrants from the Dust Bowl found little relief when the moved to California. Continue reading

Explaining the Great Concavity/Great Convexity controversy in Infinite Jest

One of the very small details that has tripped me up on my rereading of Infinite Jest is the name controversy of the Great Concavity (as the U.S. calls it) or Great Convexity (as Canada calls it).  A wide set of motives are given for the events that lead up to the territory being ceded to Canada, but the gist of it is that territory in northern New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine was discovered in the late nineties to be heavily polluted and subsequently given to Canada. Continue reading

Haruki Murakami – 1Q84, volume III

The final character and concept chart for 1Q84 is below.  Most noticeable about this one is the addition of a new branch from the title—Ushikawa gets his own distinct branch as the third volume does not alternate between Aomame and Tengo, but cycles through Ushikawa, Aomame, and Tengo until the final chapter.

This addition is necessary in order to show the investigative aspect of the final events, but there are drawbacks.  With three separate narratives running, the narrator rather quickly loses track of their relation to each other as each character’s story is told, each episode confined to the pre-determined chapter length limit.  As a result, events are related out of order and, rather than giving the effect that this was intentional, it comes off as rather clumsy.  Instead of being Pulp Fiction or 21 Grams, it’s more like a child’s ghost story or a poorly-told joke. Continue reading

Haruki Murakami – 1Q84, volume II

The character and concept chart as revised for volume II is posted below.  In addition to the concepts outlined therein, I have two major points to discuss about this middle section.

The first involves something of a trope I’ve observed in a number of works of fiction, namely the idea that people choose to die as they grow old.  In 1Q84, the doctor caring for Tengo’s father speaks of growing old, past the age of 7o specifically, as a process of deciding when to stop living, and Tengo takes this assumption as granted.  I’ve seen this idea elsewhere, including in a rambling lecture for a completely useless Anthropology class.  (Don’t take that as a shot at Anthropology; this class was useless because the lecturer had evidently given up on being a professor and abruptly retired after two or three lectures, giving everyone unearned A’s.) Continue reading

Haruki Murakami – 1Q84, volume I

Below you’ll find the character, concept, and image chart I’ve made for the first volume of this three volume novel.  Apologies for the lack of notes and page numbers, this is due to technical restrictions with the software I’m using.

As the novel alternates between chapters that follow the two main characters, Aomame and Tengo, each character’s narrative has its own collection of characters and images that branch off from their name.  Aomame’s branches are blue, Tengo’s are yellow, and when an item becomes cross-referenced by being mentioned in both, I change the branch to green and connect the two with an arrow.  (The different-colored connection arrows are only changed for aesthetic reasons; there’s no special meaning attached to the purple arrows as opposed to the blue ones.)

Note that the two characters are also linked, not only by the novel’s title in the center, but also by the fact that each character has remembered the other, independently and albeit anonymously, so far. Continue reading

Jaroslav Hašek – The Good Soldier Švejk; part I, chapters 1-6

I usually prefer to wait until I have a bigger chunk of a piece before writing a post about it (sometimes too big, to which my recent lack of posts can attest), but something I noticed about this first section jumped out at me so much that I just had to stick my pretty little nose in here to point it out.

The events of the first section revolve around a plainclothes police officer named Bretschneider fishing for subversives in a nearly empty pub.  He arrests both the titular Švejk and the pub’s owner, Palivec, neither one for saying anything particularly subversive, and accuses both of them of treason.  The primary point of interest here is that the German-named Bretschneider is a plainclothes police officer entrapping Czechs, which anyone old enough to remember the late 80s conflicts at the close of Soviet Union (e.g., not me) will recognize as very similar to the protests at Wenceslas Square.  Video is surprisingly hard to come by, but in the late 1980s, youths’ protests were violently quashed by riot police aided by plainclothes police among the protesters who pointed out particular members of the crowd.

The Good Soldier Švejk‘s first chapter makes it clear that Czechs were in this paranoia-fostering position even before communist control.  As a member of the Austro-Hungarian empire, they were just as under control of foreign powers as Czechoslovakia became in the post-war era, and were just as wary of secret police looking to take their comments out of context.

From one John’s bed to the next. Continue reading

Lev Tolstoy – War and Peace; epilogue & appendix

So now, at last, we are finished with War and Peace.  The two-part epilogue consists of a few chapters with the characters Natasha, Pierre, Nikolai, and Marya, eight years after the war with Napoleon, aging and changing; and lots of Tolstoy-essays about the nature of war, history, freedom and power.  The Appendix, published originally partway through the final text’s publication in a respected journal, consists of Tolstoy himself explaining some of his intention and outright stating that he blames a sense of predestination on the events of history—which I view as something of a cop-out and resist.

As these last sections are for the most part underwhelming and unnecessary and lack passages that jump out to a close reader and as the novel itself is so bloody long, I think I’ll take a page out of Harry Bagot‘s book and opt for general appraisal of the novel rather than summary.

Last week, as she watched me near the end of this book, my girlfriend asked me if it was very difficult.  I thought for a moment and answered that it wasn’t; that it’s grouped in with other extremely long white whales of literature for other reasons:

  • Its length
  • Its scope and therefore the time-span it covers and large number of characters
  • The fact that a lot of people consider it to be one of the greatest novels ever written.

Continue reading