Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Curious Incident of a National Bestseller

Mark Haddon's novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is a national bestseller. Congratulations to Mr. Haddon; however, the congratulations are due to Vintage Books for clever marketing. After reading this novel, the most perplexing part of it is: how did this book become so popular?
The fifteen year old narrator is an autistic fellow named Christopher Boone who, initially, is on the detective hunt for the murderer of Wellington, the neighbor's dog. If readers nationwide who spent $13.95 on this novel are interested in autistic narrator, that's one thing. For all I know, most folks might find autism entertainment. In 1988, at the height of the success of the movie Rainman, it would almost be understandable that this novel could have gathered a little acclaim. However, during the 224 pages of the novel, I felt like hiding in the closet and “doing groaning,” too, because like Christopher I felt like I was subjected to too much noise.
If not autism, perhaps it's the clever written word by the hands of this narrator. This book doesn't necessarily need to be elegantly written. It is the narrator's story and in that way it is understandably written as such. Writing an entire novel like this reminds me of Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. Mr. Haddon has attempted to put his readers into the mind of his narrator simply by writing like a fifteen year old autistic boy. I don't think he failed entirely, but it became tiresome. Mr. Keyes's narrator, Charly, was much more of a success. At least, the point of Flowers for Algernon was clear, and the reader really felt profound sorrow for Charly. Not to mention the writing style of the latter was designed for a more sophisticated audience, adult readers, for example.
If not the above points, perhaps it is the numerous illustrations in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time which qualify the novel for bestseller status. Again, not being a master of “maths” myself, I really didn't care for the explanations. Lewis Carroll, or Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, was a mathematician by training. In his stories, any problems of mathematics were solved by a more magical process than simply hard mathematical equations on the page. Besides the math, even the illustrations were cumbersome. I failed to see how any of the pictures helped me to understand the story or the settings. Edwin A. Abbott's Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions used illustrations too, only with more success.
So, why has this novel made the bestseller? Mark Haddon has not used any element never used before. It's a painful read, so painful in fact, I doubt I'll be able to look the man who recommended the book to me in the eyes. It makes me wonder if the recommender of the this book has read some of the books mentioned above. If he had, would be have spent the $13.95 on this one?

Haddon, Mark. The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night-time. Vintage Books: New York, 2003.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Rest Described in “The Dead Man” (Annotation G2-3/Goddard)

Horacio Quiroga’s “The Dead Man” is less than 1500 words. The text describes an ordinary day in a banana grove, a landscape intimate to the writer. The only character in the story, of course, is the dead man. After a fall onto his machete in the second paragraph, the rest of the story has one logical conclusion. The subtext of the story is the idea of rest, work, and obligation. The beauty in this dark, macabre, little story is the obligation of rest at the end of life.
“Consequently the man cast a satisfied glace at the brush he had cleared out and started to cross the wire fence so he could stretch out for a while in the grama grass” (Quiroga 5). In his last hours of life, the man works his banana grove, it is morning, and he always works mornings. Being satisfied with his work, he is simply looking for a place to have a little siesta. “Every day he has seen the same things” (Quiroga 7). “Doesn’t he come every morning to clear it out? Isn’t that banana grove his banana grove?” (Quiroga 6) In this text the reader sees the man lying on his side, hears his thoughts as he surveys his world. As the man falls from the fence and lies dying on his machete, he sees the everydayness of the work he has always done.
Insidiously, the machete plays a huge roll in this short piece. Obviously, the man has fallen on it. Craning his neck to see the steel blade through his belly, he sees the handle: “still damp from the sweat of his hand” (Quiroga 5). The handle comes up again as the life drains from him, “the handle of his machete (it’s worn down now; soon it will have to be changed for another)” (Quiroga 7). Despite the rest, he was searching for before the fall he is unable to rest seeing all the things needing to be done.
“Everything, everything, exactly as always: the burning sun, the vibrant air, the loneliness, the motionless banana trees, the wire fence with the tall, very thick posts that soon will have to be replaced....”(Quiroga 6).
In this short-short account of the dead man, the sweetest rest comes in the final four words: “who has rested now” (Quiroga 8).

Quiroga, Horacio. “The Dead Man.” Trans. Margaret Sayers Pede. A Hammock beneath the mangoes: Stories from Latin America. Ed. Thomas Colchie. New York: Plume, 1992. 4-9.   

Friday, July 6, 2007

Personification of Wild Cats (Annotation G2-2/Goddard)

Through shifting alliances, plot turns and the perfect murder James M. Cain creates a suspenseful story in his novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. The strongest alliance between Cora Papadakis and Frank Chambers is compelling enough, as they form their bond, which wavers plenty throughout the story. Frank is a wanderer, and Cora is desire. Their relationship and their characters are elegantly summed up in Cain’s descriptions of wildcats.
As Frank Chambers and Cora Papadakis develop passion for each other, Frank makes the first mention of wildcats. “She was snarling like a cougar. I liked her like that” (Cain 13). Subtly, the comparison between Frank and Cora to wildcats comes much later in the novel.
Later, Cora leaves for a funeral and Frank is left at home, alone. He meets a second woman who he goes to Mexico with, and this woman keeps large cats. She explains to Frank how she goes to Nicaragua to catch wildcats. Being in the wildcat business, she is able to make a distinction between Jungle Cat and Outlaw Cats. “Jungle pumas. Not these outlaws you see in zoos. If it were people he would be a crazy person. These cats you see, they look like cats, but they’re really cat lunatics” (Cain 95). The implication here is about the behavior of zoo cats, caged animals will behave as such. The term outlaw in human terms has a different connotation altogether. Not coincidently, these outlaw cats, born in cages, represent Frank and Cora.
Once Frank returns home from his sojourn in Mexico with the cat trainer, he resumes his life with Cora. As time goes by, the wildcat woman returns and pays a visit to Frank by way of Cora. “It was gray, with spots on it. She put it on the table in front of me and it began to meow. The puma had little ones while you were gone, and she brought you one to remember her by” (Cain 105) Of course Frank had not told Cora he went away with a strange woman, and tried to deny it afterward. Their relationship becomes the kitten, once they no longer trust one another; they focus on the animal like a child. “Most of the time it meowed or slept” (Cain 107). The development of the animal is directly incidental to having both Cora and Frank. Once Cora is killed and Frank goes to trial for her death, he meets the animal once again. Mr. Katz, the lawyer trying Frank populates the courtroom with witnesses. “He even had the puma in court. It had grown, but it hadn’t been taken care of right, so it was mangy and sick looking, and yowled, and tried to bite him” (Cain 114).
Assuming a cage puma is an outlaw, the story concludes with Frank in jail. Subtle, but the use of wild cats, and big cats as a personification brilliantly develops James M. Cain’s characters.

Cain, James M. The Postman Always Rings Twice. New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1992.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Beauty and Squalor Compared (Annotation G2-1/Goddard)

As cliché as it may be Henry Miller’s Quiet Days in Clichy cannot be judged by its title, because days filled with sex and prostitutes, booze and crowded cafes hardly qualify as quiet. In the opening pages of the novel Miller makes beautiful the squalid conditions of his Paris. Since Miller was living in New York during the writing of this novel, the richness of his Paris is the comparison of the two cities.
“Montmortre is sluggish, lazy, indifferent, somewhat shabby and seedy-looking, not glamorous so much as seductive, not scintillating but glowing with a smoldering flame” (Miller 7). The description here in itself gives the reader an idea of life along his walking route from the Place Clichy to Aubervilliers. Montmarte when compared to his description of New York’s Broadway between 42nd and 53rd streets become even more squalid. “Broadway looks exciting, even magical at times, but there is no fire, no heat- it is a brilliantly illuminated asbestos display, the paradise of advertising agents” (Miller 7). Elements in these two descriptions are not subtle: Montmarte is lazy, Broadway looks exciting; Montmarte is glowing with smoldering flame, Broadway is asbestos. These two streets may serve the same function for their respective cities, but the feeling is completely different: Paris becomes his setting: “It is, if anything, repellent rather than attractive, but insidiously repellent, like life itself” (Miller 7). Broadway is the paradise for advertising agents. In the comparison Miller, also point out differences in culture of their respective locations.
A far more subtle comparison is in the color gray. “and yet even the word gray, which brought about the association, has little in common with that gris which, to the ears of a Frenchmen, is capable of evoking a world of thought and feeling” (Miller 5). The position on gray for Miller simply stated: in Paris gray is definable in too many ways, in moods, in thought, and in passion. “In the realm of watercolor, American painters use this made-to-order gray excessively and obsessively. In France the range of grays is seemingly infinite; here the very effect is lost” (Miller 6).
In these opening pages, Miller has set the scene for both where he writes and comparing that to the place he intends to write: the Place Clichy, Paris. Though this comparison is a small part of the novel, it’s very clear the adventures of Quiet Days in Clichy have to happen in the squalor and beauty of Paris.

Miller, Henry. Quiet Days in Clichy. New York: Grove Press, INC, 1965.