So far this year I have read two prize-winning ‘novels’ – The Sell Out by Paul Beatty (Man Booker) and The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Pulitzer).
Both have been widely praised for their craft and cleverness. Both left me wondering what happened to good old-fashioned storytelling. These are driven by themes rather than plots, each with an unnamed narrator respectively reflecting upon racism in America and perceptions of the Vietnam war.
The weightiness and worthiness of the topics is beyond doubt but masked by a knowing irony; neither author has any interest in a conventional narrative with a start-middle & end.
Far be it from me to knock the post-modernist slant of these works. As a worshipper of David Foster Wallace, I am fully aware that modern truths cannot always be told in a linear style but at the same time I find myself increasingly missing characters and plots.
I have come to realize just how many classics of English literature I know but have never read; for example Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe. While re-reading Infinite Jest I now intend to plug these gaps. Pre-modernism here I come.
THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Corsair, 2015)
Vietnam was a war that was technically won by the Viet Cong but which American are reluctant to concede to having lost. The unnamed Vietnamese Army Captain narrating this tale has sympathies with both sides but this only serves to place him between a rock and a hard place.
As a reluctant revolutionary he pleads guilty to the charge of being westernized, admitting: “If longing for riches made me a Occidentalist, I confess to it”. As a uncomitted communist he sees no attraction in the authentic “rustic realities” of village life in Saigon.
While not being blind to the faults of the US, he recognizes that there is more freedom of speech than in his homeland. This, together with air conditioning, an efficient traffic system and the modernist novel are among the other things that he admires. On the down side, he reviles the American knack for putting a positive spin on defeat and for hyping up the benefits of individualism. Continue reading
I read this passage today and, although it is from a book published in 1996, I was immediately struck by how topical it is. What do you think?:
“Always with you this freedom! For your walled-up country to shout ‘Freedom! Freedom!’ as if it were obvious to all people what it wants to mean, this word. But look: it’s not as simple as that. Your freedom is the freedom – from; no one tells your precious individual USA selves what they must do.[……..] What of freedom – to. How for the person to freely choose? How to choose any but a child’s greedy choices if there is no loving-filled father to guide, inform, teach the person how to choose? How is there freedom to choose if one does not know how to choose?”
pg 32o - Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
A PRAYER JOURNAL by Flannery O’Connor (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013)
My favorite joke about praying is by the surreal American comic Emo Philips (although it’s also been attributed to Al Pacino) and goes: “I asked God for a bike but I realized it doesn’t work that way, so I stole a bike and prayed for forgiveness”.
I think the Southern Gothic novelist Flannery O’Connor would have appreciated this witticism. She was a staunch Catholic but she also had an eagle eye for life’s absurdities.
As an atheist I am biased, but surely even believers can recognise that praying ought to consist of more that than reeling off a wish list to some kind of celestial Santa. Continue reading
DENIAL directed by Mick Jackson (UK/USA, 2016)
It is something of a paradox that in our fact check dominated world, liars and cheats continue to flourish.
A quick Google search will expose the most blatant of falsehoods but, as the campaigns of Brexit and Trump have proven, you can win votes simply by repeating lies ad infinitum.
Holocaust denier and credited British historian David Irving was and is a pants on fire specialist but he has never wavered from his position as a Hitler apologist. This film gives a clue as to what motivates him and how he is a potent (and pungent) example of someone who redefines the ‘truth’ to justify his own ends.
The movie is adapted from David Hare’s stage play which was in turn based on Deborah E. Lipstadt’s book ‘History On Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier’.
At its centre is the Irving vs Penguin Books Ltd trial which took place in 2000 at the High Court of Justice in London and gave judgement on Irving’s claim that Lipstadt had made libellous statements against him in her 1993 book ‘Denying The Holocaust’. Continue reading