The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

This fantastical little story was my first experience with Gaiman, and it wasn’t a super good one for me.

The story is about a middle aged man who, after attending a funeral, goes back to his childhood home to walk around and remember stuff. The rest of the book is him remembering some crazy things that happened when he was 7.

This post contains spoilers.

My first problem was with the writing. Reviewers consistently call this beautifully written, but I found the prose somewhat annoying. The author stubbornly refuses to use contractions, and insists on using the characters full names (Letty Hempstock did this, Letty Hempstock said that) every time they are mentioned. This may be in an effort to give the prose a childlike, fairytale feel, or maybe it’s just to inflate the word count of this already very short book.

Another problem was with the way the story is framed. When you start with an older man remembering his past, the story can’t be held up by tense action, since we know the character is remembering all this from far in the future, so everything is obviously going to be okay. I assumed the viewpoint would be going back and forth between memory and present day, and that the character’s recollection of the strange things that happened to him as a child would affect his present life and help him get over the death, or help him decide some hard choice. But the book was all just one big memory, with a little bit of an epilogue to make it not a completely pointless story.

And the story did seem to be pointless. The character (an obvious self insert) did not change or learn anything, in fact after the story is over he immediately forgot everything again (and since the story is told in first person this is a bit of fourth wall breaking confusion). There is no arc, the character doesn’t make any sacrifices or change himself or learn anything about himself in any way.

The best part of the story was when the character (who is never named, and though this is done better than most books, it is still annoying) is trying to escape his new nanny/babysitter, Ursula Monkton (never Ursula, never Miss Monkton, always Ursula Monkton) who is terrible and also a manifestation of some kind of demon or otherworldly creature. It is exciting and intense, despite us knowing that since this is a memory, everything obviously turns out okay.

But even that escape was not done by the character. He gets in a bind and is saved by the neighbor girl Letty, who just happens to be some kind of diety(?)

Maybe it’s just me, but most of these fantastical stories, I just have a real hard time caring. When anything can happen at any moment, it’s hard for any of it to have any weight or meaning. I would probably have enjoyed this story a lot more if it had been told from Letty’s point of view, since she was the one who took action and made a sacrifice and changed.

To sum up this novel, its about a guy who had some weird dreams when he was seven, remembered them for a minute when he was older, then forgot them again.

 

 

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The Castle, by Franz Kafka

This is the first writing by Kafka I’ve read that I haven’t been impressed by. And unlike the Trial, when they say it is unfinished, they really mean unfinished, like it cuts off in the middle of a sentence. I don’t understand why this was published, or why people continue to read it today.

The story is about ‘K’, who arrives in a nameless town, and at the center of this town is a ‘the castle’ which may or may not be an actual castle, but contains offices and officials who may or may not have influence over people in the town. K wants to get into the castle for a reason we never learn, and makes nearly zero progress toward this goal for the entirety of the writing.

think the point of it was the paranoia and confusion of impenetrable bureaucracy, but I’m not totally sure. Similar to The Trial (which also features a character called ‘K’) K is overwhelmed at every step by incomprehensible rules, but unlike the Trial, in which he is trying to find out what he’s been accused of, or at least be done with his trial, in the Castle we have no idea what his objective is other than ‘get to the castle.’ We have no idea who he is or where he came from, what was his life before.

The only part of the book that I really liked was when the story of Frieda’s father trying to remove what he sees as a ‘black mark’ on his daughter because she did not meet an official who asked her out for a drink. After she does this, every wrong thing that happens to the family, he perceives as being because the officials have them on some kind of the list. He expends all his energy trying to contact these officials in the castle (which he, like K, cannot get into) and spends all his money trying to bribe them, all when they have not even confirmed that the family has any black mark at all.

In the end, I wouldn’t recommend it. There was too many long, seemingly meaningless conversations, and not enough of K being foiled to make it as claustrophobic as The Trial was. Mostly I was just bored.

The Third Policeman, by Flann O’Brien

The end saved this one a bit for me. I really was not a fan of a lot of the middle, so much of it seemed disconnected from everything and meaningless and confusing, but maybe that was the point.

The end was really surreal and creepy and dark, but the kooky humor of the rest of the book sort of undercut the effect of it I think.

I feel there was probably some meaning I was missing in this one, as nothing seemed to have any connection to anything… a strange read, but not recommended unless it’s your brand of humor.

Out, by Christine Brooke-Rose

What did I just read? I’m not quite sure.

At the end it became slightly intelligible that the POV character was of some higher or lower form of consciousness, and had a brain procedure performed on him. So that sheds a bit of light on the bizarre and confusing way this story was told.

One way to describe it is as a stream of consciousness of someone who is mentally unstable.

Some of the descriptions and ideas are quite beautiful and thoughtful, but they take a bit of work and thinking to figure out what the heck is being described sometimes.

Definitely not a book you can read without some effort, but I found the trouble to be worth it in the end.

The Stranger, by Albert Camus

I’ve broken my streak of giving up on French classics!

This was a short, and somewhat disturbing read. The story opens with the character, Meursault, stating that his mother has died, though he’s not exactly sure when, and then describes her funeral.

We soon find that the Meursault does not seem to have any emotional connection to anything that is happening around him. He does not cry at his mother’s funeral, or seem to feel much at all about it.

The only thing that seems to get much of a reaction out of Meursault at all is the heat. He feels more about the heat while walking during the funeral procession, than he does his mother’s death.

As the story progresses, Meursault ends up helping a friend, Raymond, exact a pretty gross revenge on his lover. He does this without really thinking about it, and only on his second time meeting Raymond.

This cruel revenge leads the lovers brother to attack Raymond at the beach where they are vacationing. Meursault is present for the altercation, but doesn’t seem to feel or care much about it, except that he doesn’t want to be around the women (Meursault’s girlfriend and another guest) who are very upset by the incident. Here too, the heat is the only thing that phases him. The hot sun reflecting off the water and burning and oppressing him makes it hard for him to think. But he’d rather be outside in the sun, than inside with the upset women, so he goes for a walk out in the sun, which leads eventually to his predicament.

He finds, that in blind delirium brought on by the sun, he’s shot the man Raymond was feuding with.

The novel then continues with his arrest and sentencing, and time in prison. During all of it, the only thing that that seems to illicit any kind of reaction from him, is when the courtroom is over hot.

The end of this book, and Meursault’s thoughts on the inevitability of death had a anxious, upsetting affect on me, and I found myself connecting with this empty character in several ways. Mainly, his fear not of death itself, but his frustration with the inevitability of it, the lack of hope or means of escape.

There were many parallels to Crime and Punishment in this story, but unlike Roskolnikov, whose paranoia and guilt and nervousness lead to his capture, it is exactly the opposite for Meursault–his coolness and emotionless reaction to everything and everyone around him are his demise.

Very interesting, and somewhat upsetting read.

my mother is a fish, or, As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner

Why have I never read Faulkner before? This was a great story of a terrible family full of selfish people, told in many different voices from at least a dozen points of view.

Faulkner claims that he wrote the novel from midnight to 4:00 AM over the course of six weeks and that he did not change a word of it. This is a little fact I’ve thought of now and then for a long time, even though I’ve never read Faulkner before. I find that idea amazing, if true.

This book told a lot in what it didn’t tell. Mainly , the character’s complete lack of consideration for their recently dead mother. Only the youngest character, Vardaman, even seemed to think of her at all. Jewel made a daring rescue of her body from the fire, but his POV chapters still didn’t have much thought about her, and no one really seemed to mourn at all. They all had their own things on their minds.

I find their perceptions of each other interesting, too. All the family seems to perceive Darl as the ‘slow’ or ‘off’ one, but his chapters are the most lucid and eloquently written ones.

The end of the novel pretty much sums up the entire book in a single event in the final pages. Brilliantly written, and I’ll have to get some more Faulkner in my life very soon.

do i hate french authors?

I usually finish a book if I make it past the first chapter or so, but I just couldn’t do it for Madame Bovary.

Something about the way the story is told made it just impossible for me to pay attention or engage with the characters. The imagery and prose was really nice, which kept me hoping ‘maybe it will get going here’ for nearly half the book. But in the end I just kept zoning out so often I had to give up.

I think the problem for me is the story is told from such a ‘zoomed out’ point of view. I felt I was observing all the characters from afar, in a detached kind of way, like they were specimens in a terrarium, instead of living the story through their eyes. Every description of events or scenery surrounding the characters was described in a detached way, from the narrators view, instead of being described through the eyes of the character. It made it very hard to care about anything that was happening.

The last book I gave up on, last year, Swan’s Way by Marcel Proust, also a French classic. Do I hate French novels?

Who knows. I should have quit on it a long time ago though instead of wasting so much time with it.

Now I’ve started ‘As I lay Dying’ and am already feeling much more engaged and interested in what is going on.

Yay.