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The Sorrows of Young Werther, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. 144 pages,
Penguin Books, New York (1989).

Picked up on a whim whilst perusing dusty shelves of dog-eared,
forgotten and oft-maligned second-hand books, I came to Werther
totally oblivious to its historical impact in the genre of Romantic
literature. I figured it might give me a small doorway into a better
understanding of Goethe's writing style and thought before tackling
his deeper works. I ended up flying through this book in a few
whirlwind hours - it was utterly captivating.

The resonance that echoed in the hearts of those who read this book
upon its initial publication in the late eighteenth century was
widespread and overwhelming; a rash of suicides (which were never
truly linked to the subject matter of the book) followed in its wake
as it crossed national and cultural boundaries. The book is equal
parts a cathartically autobiographical recounting of certain events
in the author's life, and the incorporation of the tale of an
individual and the events which prompted him to commit suicide, a
story that had become widely known at the time: it follows the
(modern-day) cliched story of a young man (Werther) who, in his
written correspondence with a close friend, relates his sudden
evocative infatuation and developing love for a woman (Lotte), one
who is unfortunately promised to another man. A friendship between
them arises nonetheless, and due to the hopelessness of Werther ever
realizing his desired outcome of their deepening companionship, he
eventually flees the town; unable to sufficiently distract his
heart's yearning for long, he returns, albeit to a dual joy and
despair - ecstasy at her returned presence in his life, coupled with
his renewed dejection at his powerlessness to change the fate which
kept her outside of his embrace. Suicide becomes his only hope of
release from the self-destructive cycle.

This scenario has been played out innumerable times, both in
literature and real-life; the differences which allow Goethe's tale
to stand out from his predecessors and imitators are significant.
Much depth of philosophical interest can be found within Werther's
narrative of the lengthy arguments carried on between himself and
the other characters concerning the epistemological, religious and
metaphysical issues of the day; the other difference lies in the
format of the writing itself - it utilizes the character of a
fictional "editor" who has posthumously compiled the letters sent by
Werther to his friend into what constitutes the main body of text
for the book, with some follow-up commentary describing what
happened to Werther once the letters cease their recitation of his
life events. Ostensibly, this would create the impression of nothing
more than a lengthy newspaper article, but the way in which Goethe
manipulates the text brushes such irrelevant categorizations aside,
and draws you into the sentimentalized reality that gnaws at
Werther's soul.

It is a beautifully written work (the author was only twenty four
years old at the time of writing), one which set a large precedent,
not only for the literary genre it spawned, but also for the way in
which the form of the novel was approached by future authors. An
enchanting read, and an insightful glimpse into Romantic literature
and thought, I recommend this novel highly for a view into how
something as simple as the form of a novel can be treated in the
hands of a master. - blaphbee


The Butcher Boy, Patrick McCabe. 240 pages, Bantam Doubleday Dell,
New York (1992).

Recommended to me by a friend with no prior introduction to the plot
given, The Butcher Boy left me with a mixed bag of reactions. I took
the plunge and started into the story: Francis Brady, only son of
his remote, alcoholic father and neurotically unhinged mother,
dealing with the trials he faced while growing up in a rural town in
Ireland around the time of the Cuban missile crisis, as narrated by
himself much later in the future. It centers around perception,
specifically how a young boy with no father figure to learn from
copes with the pretense of his peers, the dynamics of friendship,
and growing up in a social world, a world Brady largely ignores as

Many people seem to make a great fuss over the apparent onset of
psychosis in the main character, but I never noticed it until
someone pointed it out, that the thoughts and patterns that emerged
from Brady's mind were typically taken as encompassing the
conventional definition of "crazy." To me, they seemed more like the
thoughts and reflections of someone who lived in a world of memories
and fantasy - memories which meant more than worthless social
play-acting, fantasies which fired the intellect and let the
imagination soar - who used these methods to cope with a town which
had branded him as an outsider, but one whom they pitied,
impotently, all the same. 

The plotline of the story itself is rather simple, and executed in a
very adept, if easily predictable fashion. Brady's behaviour is
related in a detached manner by the narrator; no moral judgments or
over-emotional sentimentalizing colour the events where one would
expect them to be present; the only emotion that occurs is when
Brady experiences something "beautiful." The text is written
strangely - a great deal of slang is incorporated into sentences
which do not distinguish between characters speaking, acting or
thinking. It took a couple of pages to catch up, but once one falls
into its rhythm the book becomes quite easy to read, and it fits the
identity which is conjured of Brady relating these stories to the
reader through a haze of cigarette smoke. The ending was seen coming
for miles.

This book gave an illuminating look into the mind of a young boy who
behaved and acted the way he did because certain things mattered
more to him than what everyone else valued in life; there could be
no moralization of his actions, as they fit into his system of
valuation in an integral manner. Trivial things like death didn't
mean much to him, but the friendship he so desired from his friend
Joe meant the world - he was prepared to give anything to lead the
simple life they shared when they were younger. Brady's mental space
is atypical for certain, but this is in no way an anomaly of his
possession alone; look no further than the values which rule the
town for insight on how Brady ended up where he did. When that is
understood, Brady's thoughts become quite understandable, and the
story becomes something more than a punctuationally-challenged
vehicle for provoking moralizing shock in a reader. - blaphbee


Underworld, Don DeLillo. 827 pages, Simon & Schuster, New York

It's fortunate that DeLillo gives a nod or two to Melville, deep in
this labyrinthine text, with a white whale reference, because
really, I blame this whole genre on Melville: the religious
unification of all disciplines of information into a belief system
tied around a symbol, perhaps even a white whale meaning the purity
of personal dominion over reality. After that came James Joyce, who
really nailed the technique, and following the brief interlude of
actual writers in the heroic sense of the word "artist," we had
Nabokov and Pynchon. The latter produced his epic "Gravity's
Rainbow," which tied together every type of learning known to man in
a spiritual metaphor which got hazier as the pages went on and the
author inhaled more of that Northern California hybrid.

DeLillo's book is very much in the tradition of "Gravity's Rainbow,"
even down to a lap-compacting page count, winding together personal
stories in the full-blown neurosis that only a fin de ciecle
civilization can provide, and tying them to large, emotional events
such as baseball and nuclear warfare. As such, the book isn't
"about" anything; it's about everything, in the theme that while
politics occupy the powers that be, there is an entire underworld of
life in opposition to these empires of death, as told through the
lives connected to two people who had brief, meaningless, vindictive
sex back in the 1960s. Are you excited yet? Neither am I. 

Although it's a well-written book, in parts, and as a whole, it
conveys a good deal of learning on many topics, mostly it's fluff
designed to hide the author's opinions "artfully" between a raft of
metaphors related to its main symbol. Naturally, it being a product
of our modern time, it can have no other ground of theme than the
elites versus the masses, and per the postmodern dictum, it looks
behind the text of all events for subtext and thus finds conspiracy
an easy friend. It's saturated in racial inequity, drugs, authority
figures confusing penises with power, unfaithful partnerings and the
lives of Italians, Jews and Irish in the New York ghettoes. So far,
very straightforward, which is why one wonders how it took 827 pages
to convey what slides very neatly forth from 300. 

Where DeLillo triumphs is in the deep-reading sense of the
postmodern genre; he gets into every detail, and has text to match,
bringing out a richness in vocabulary that is normally unseen, and
like an acidhead bending his metaphors to the solos on forgotten Led
Zeppelin albums. That the contortions of the text seem at all
logical is a tribute to his artistry, and he includes every
large-headline event related to his thesis with a relish that
sometimes drowns the content in its own lack of relevance. As with
any good postmodern text, metaphor is free, freer than free jazz,
and no topic or diction or style can constrain the elements to which
he reaches. Back in 1997, the Internet was new, so there's some
awkward mention of that at the end. There's some fine text here, and
that's why one reads it, although I heartily recommend skimming much
of the pointless dialogue and tangential stories which reveal
nothing an experienced reader couldn't already guess.

If you want to plot this book's course emotionally, turn to
"Ulysses" and "Gravity's Rainbow," both of which feature the
downtrodden everyman fragmenting his ego and "transcending" his will
to power, eventually becoming submissively at peace with a world
which is still as diseased as his own neurotic mind - and, come to
think of it, his author's neurotic prose. As such, the philosophical
content of this novel is really friggin' forgettable, and we're left
thinking DeLillo would have been better off hammering some of his
themes from "White Noise." Like the white whale, every aspiration in
this book that isn't submissive brings its characters to somnolent
decay, and so there's really no hope in it, nor any iteration of
themes outside counterculture versions of the dominant idea of this
past millennium. Still, if you don't mind skimming five pages for
every one you read, there's some phenomenal prose in here. - vijay


Mason & Dixon, Thomas Pynchon. 773 pages, Henry Holt & Company, New
York (1997).

Pynchon is truly a great writer, when he's on, because he cuts past
the illusion of a modern time to point out that most people are,
underneath the web of justifications and power structures that
justify and thus "fulfill" a life in this era, miserable and
searching for something which is not recognized in public.
Addressing hidden mortality: good. Also good is his extensive use of
occult and Eastern and transcendentalist knowledge to suggest where
an alternative might lie, as a way of saying "look within, not
without." Also good, as are his inventive sentences and specialized
research manifesting itself in an uncommon richness of vocabulary. 

Good, good. Where he falters is by writing to an audience that has
traditionally supported him, and in doing so, restraining himself
from fully indicting the emptiness because he has already selected a
certain perspective within it and embraced its psychology. Thus,
much as Joyce met a fate of futility and sublimated mental
instability, Pynchon is locked in a cage of his own creation,
pleasing the crowd of cosmopolitan, hip, leftist readers but failing
to simply spit out what he means as if he did, he'd come into
conflict with his audience. The other grim side effect: endless
pages of clever and cute puns and conventions and "in depth"
explorations of small metaphors linked in suite to his overall
motif, proving him witty and cultured and in possession of the right
opinions to socialize in upper Manhattan's rough-looking village
crowd, but neutralizing any point he was going to make with the
burden of a giant tome that, while amusing page to page, gets lost
in its own cleverness and thus dissipates its point.

Mason & Dixon, being among the later works of this author, is a step
up from the cartoon/sitcom-like Vineland, but does not reach the
heights of Gravity's Rainbow, which was helped mainly by (a) its
topic matter, the prediction of death and our attempts to evade it
through grand political schemes disguising business as usual, and
(b) the time in which it was written, when there was a clear "evil"
that wasn't a country (say, the Soviet Union) or a belief system,
but the condition by which modern politics held us all hostage to
death-fear and uncertainty. It also falls short of his least
competent but most enduringly popular work, "The Crying of Lot 49,"
which directly attacked the loss of mystery and meaning in modern
life, and therefore speaks most directly to his readers. 

Written in the metaphorical experience of the famous journey across
America undertaken by British explorers Charles Mason and Jeremiah
Dixon, the book contrasts their individual spiritual outlooks with
the task before them, which is to survey the land so that it can be
sold and conquered and politicized by a bureaucratic system that
even antagonizes them as they attempt to do this. It's an insightful
metaphorical setup, and as Pynchon writes in the style of his
once-instructor Vladimir Nabokov in constructing an unreal book
around a hidden central symbol, it affords him room to tie in the
elements of his thesis, namely the certainty of death and the
ambiguity of life, the human spirit as affected by pacifism and
anger in contrast, and other delvings into the varied paths of a
philosophical labyrinth. However, to see this, the reader must
assume a populist-utilitarian viewpoint, which places this book
beyond the tolerance of most of those who would understand it fully.

It effectively makes his point, however, that in fear of an Absolute
death humankind has gridded and divided up the earth into cause and
effect, subject and object, owned and owner, and thus is spreading
destruction wherever it goes without facing its own mortality. In
this, Pynchon is savant, because such a thing needs to be said, and
at that level of abstraction, before the cancer of humanity entirely
consumes its environment and its own culture and people, leaving
nothing but wasteland, as elegeically portrayed in certain parts of
this novel. The characters are cariacatures; while they have
complexity, they lack depth, in part because they are like all
things in this novel almost pure allegory, and pure symbol. The rest
is Pynchon the man exerting his strong personality upon us, and we
get glimpses of an everyman character who has the wit of an
archacademic but none of the spirit to go further. 

With that expression, the novel is weakened, and seems more like
propaganda couched in the elaborate symbols and social references,
like marijuana smoking or hilarious sexuality or the repugnance of
slavery, and thus preaches to the converted and fails to articulate
the far side of the issue he raises, namely how to get over this
abyss without giving in, making token nods to eastern philosophy and
continuing our paths as good hipster liberals just trying to earn a
living, get laid and have a good Saturday night. Although the
journey he makes through the characters of Mason and Dixon is a
profound one, the sidetracking of playing his audience makes it a
long and ultimately tedious one; if you get through this book, there
is little reward that cannot be had from thinking on the concepts
raised in chapters one and two. In that spirit, a great author
passes from relevance to a neat pigeonhole, dividing himself from
the rest of philosophy much as his characters slice up America. 
- vijay prozak
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