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What’s the hurry, son?

hocus pocus

Hocus Pocus tells the story of the life of Eugene Debs Hartke, a Vietnam War veteran and a former college professor who, while awaiting trial in prison and dying slowly of TB (cough, cough), considers the final tally of two activities he excelled at throughout his life; the number of people he killed during the Vietnam War, and the number of women he slept with throughout his life. Mild spoiler: the number is the same for both (and it’s pretty high). In his confinement, he scribbles on hundreds of pieces of paper to form a fragmented narrative

The events that occur are always slightly eccentric, and stretch belief – I often find Vonnegut narratives are like fairy tales loosely grounded in reality. In Hocus Pocus, we hear of a prison riot (inspired by the Attica Prison riot in 1971), where the all-black inmates march across a frozen lake and begin opening fire on civilians of the town, taking the professors at a college hostage and even shooting and crucifying a member of the staff. There is a genetic craziness that affects Hartke’s mother-in-law, and eventually Hartke’s wife, and potentially any further women who share the ticking time-bomb genes. A computer program called GRIOT can give an approximation of what sort of life a person may lead based on an existing database of other people, with the variable information needed being: age, race, degree of education, and drug use.

It’s bonkers, but this is a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, so it should be expected. In his uniquely satirical way, Vonnegut points a finger at the wrongs, the injustice in the world. Hocus Pocus contains his views on the Vietnam War, the treatment of veteran soldiers, the careless destruction of the environment, the divide between the rich and poor, the state of America’s prisons, and so on. Really, in this novel more than his others, it’s difficult to prioritise one particular theme here. Vonnegut simply does what he does best – he preaches, with sharp humour and ominous warnings, without the patronising superiority and condescension.

That said, Hocus Pocus is not one of Vonnegut’s stronger books. Unlike Slaughterhouse 5, Cat’s Cradle, The Sirens of Titan – I think Hocus Pocus,  published in 1990 and Vonnegut’s penultimate novel, is for the most part, forgettable. It’s enjoyable, it’s humorous, it’s touching, but unlike the very best he wrote, I haven’t spent a great deal of time thinking over the book since I finished it. Or maybe I have. The beauty of Vonnegut’s stories is that, amongst the despair and suffering and sadness, there is hope and beauty. I like to think the impact of his books never truly leaves your subconscious.

Discharged from his service during World War II, Hazel Motes returns home to Tennessee in his early twenties, his childhood doubts over salvation, sin and his faith further shattered by the war, to the point he identifies himself an atheist, or anti-religion. A chance meeting in the city with a blind preacher, Asa Hawks, and his daughter Sabbath, exacerbates Motes’ detestation of the Church, and he vows to form his own ministry, The Church Without Christ, and he delivers impassioned sermons from the hood of his dilapidated car. All the while, a teenage boy, Enoch Emery, follows Motes on his blasphemous path, compelled by the ‘wise blood’ that runs in his veins, infatuated with the idea of The Church Without Christ.

wise-blood2Wise Blood is Flannery O’Connor’s first novel. Along with her second, The Violent Bear It Away (a dark and superbly challenging book) and several short story collections, it represents a small but powerful collection of writings of a woman who died tragically young, with an imagination so powerfully vivid she was willing to examine and dissect the ruminations of man’s relationship with God.

I preach there are all kinds of truth, your truth and somebody else’s, but behind all of them, there’s only one truth and that is that there is no truth… No truth behind all truths is what I and this church preach! Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place… In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got.

As to be expected with O’Connor’s work, there are the powerful themes of religion and faith, there are several flawed but deeply fascinating characters, and there are dark, violent, macabare twists and turns. Wise Blood is a simple tale, but O’Connor introduces us to several ignition points and has them dance dangerously close to one another. Motes alternates between an anxious, confused young man and a bitter, violent wretch, cast from the shadow of his preacher grandfather, and as the story progresses we discover Motes cannot completely reject God. False prophets and phoney preachers and corrupted teenage girls are ultimately too much for him to handle. His crisis of faith descent into religious fanaticism and while sad and at times, horrifying, there is black humour throughout. The scene where Enoch stabs a man in order to steal his gorilla suit is deliriously freakish, and just one of many intimate pieces of life and characters that O’Connor exposes to us in this strange city. “Her name was Maude and she drank whisky all day from a fruit jar under the counter.” 

“Do you think, Mr. Motes,” his landlady asked hoarsely, “that when you’re dead you’re blind?”
“I hope so,” he said after a minute.
“Why?” she asked, staring at him.
After a while he said, “If there’s no bottom in your eyes, they hold more.”

At times the narrative doesn’t flow, which I attribute to the fact that several of the scenes were originally released as individual, stand alone stories, but it doesn’t take away from the overall feeling I took from the book. O’Connor is a giant of southern gothic literature, and her stories never fail to shake me. Wise Blood is no different.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and A Scanner Darkly, arguably his most successful novels, Philip K. Dick mastered existential science fiction and the dark and personal hell of addiction and schizophrenia. With Ubik he created a purgatory of uncertainty and horror, and The Man in the High Castle is a spiritual and captivating piece of reimagined history. I’m a huge PKD fan – yet I was indifferent to VALIS. I’m sorry Phil, but for large parts of the book I didn’t really know what the fuck was going on.

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VALIS, which stands for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, and the titular VALIS, an artificial satellite capable of communicating with humanity and passing on intrinsic knowledge, is drawn from Gnosticism, and is Dick’s vision of an aspect of God. Horselover Fat (a schizophrenic personality of Dick) experiences bizarre visions and with his friends, the sceptic and cynical Kevin, and the Catholic David, they attempt to make sense of the information, in the forms of pink laser beams, Fat seems receptive too.

The distinction between sanity and insanity is narrower than a razor’s edge, sharper than a hound’s tooth, more agile than a mule deer. It is more elusive than the merest phantom. Perhaps it does not even exist; perhaps it is a phantom.

Meandering, ponderous, and at times incoherent and inconsequential, it’s a difficult read. The book is so heavy with Fat’s philosophical and theological musings, various interpretations of religious events and histories, that it can be hard to keep up. But at times, VALIS really shines. When Fat discovers a film (named VALIS) which contains imagery and references to identical revelations Fat has been exposed to, the group are stunned and for a second, the pieces fit. Amongst the thousands of words there is some semblance of shared knowledge. As the group speculate with excitement on every scene in the film, on every possible meaning and theory, it is hard not to share their enthusiasm and disbelief.

Ultimately it comes to nothing. Maybe it never was anything. Schizophrenic hallucinations or visions from a damaging addiction. As a novel it is disappointing. As a series of ideas and beliefs, as a window to Philip K. Dick’s brilliant brain, it is fevered and frenzied and strange.

While hunting deer in the Texan desert Llewelyn Moss, a Vietnam war veteran, stumbles upon a drug deal gone south, with bullet ridden corpses and abandoned vehicles and a satchel containing two million dollars. In deciding to take the money he knows he has sealed an uncertain fate and changed his life forever. What follows is a cat-and-mouse chase as the county police department and drug dealers desperate for their money race to get to Moss first, while Moss himself desperately tries to stay one step ahead of an unfathomable and malevolent hitman who kills mercilessly to get what he needs.

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Stills taken from the theatrical adaptation of McCarthy’s novel.

I mentioned a cat-and-mouse chase, somewhat of a cliched description, but the plot of No Country For Old Men has been done hundreds of times before. Any originality to be found comes instead from the portrayal and viewpoint of the two central characters, and Llewyln Moss is not one of them. This book is about Ed Tom Bell, an ageing county sheriff who struggles to adapt and comprehend to the new brand of violence encroaching on the old West, and Anton Chigurh, a cold blooded and murderous entity whose nihilistic views on fate and choice are terrifyingly final and not up for dispute. The book contains several internal monologues from the point of view of Ed Tom, as he recalls law stories of days past and how it compares to what he sees and hears today. His clear romanticism of the past (Ed Tom recalls an older generation sheriff who never felt the need to even carry a weapon while on duty) and a fear of what he will have to do, and become, to continue to uphold the law in this turbulent and unforgiving climate, becomes all the more powerful when reading about the actions and mindset of Chigurh.

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Javier Bardem as the terrifying Anton Chigurh.

Chigurh is an incredible villain, up there with Judge Holden as an almost demonic entity completely incomprehensible to the poor men and women that find themselves in their path. Chigurh is a hitman, or a bounty hunter, and in No Country For Old Men his role is to reclaim the satchel stolen by Llewyln Moss. Little is known of his origins, his background, his nationality. What makes him terrifying is the way he views himself as a deliverer of fate. Chigurh kills with little remorse but will often deliberate before doing so. After inconsequential small talk with the owner of a gas station, he implores the owner to call on a coin toss, presumably for his life.

You’re asking that I make myself vulnerable and that I can never do. I have only one way to live. It doesn’t allow for special cases. A coin toss perhaps. In this case to small purpose. Most people don’t believe that there can be such a person. You see what a problem that must be for them. How to prevail over that which you refuse to acknowledge the existence of. Do you understand? When I came into your life your life was over. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is the end. You can say that things could have turned out differently. That there could have been some other way. But what does that mean? They are not some other way. They are this way. You’re asking that I second say the world. Do you see?

I actually saw the film adaptation (superbly directed by the Coen Brothers) before I read McCarthy’s novel. While extremely faithful to the source material, Ed Tom, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is very much a backing character. The film focuses far more on Chigurh and his relentless pursuit of Moss, which works fantastically well. The film is tense but moments of action are generally few and far between. Yet it remains gripping due to haunting, menacing and inherently violent performance by Javier Bardem as Chigurh.

Somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I dont want to confront him. I know he’s real. I have seen his work. I walked in front of those eyes once. I wont do it again. I wont push my chips forward and stand up and go out to meet him. It aint just bein older. I wish that it was. I cant say that it’s even what you are willin to do. Because I always knew that you had to be willin to die to even do this job. That was always true. Not to sound glorious about it or nothin but you do. If you aint they’ll know it. They’ll see it in a heartbeat. I think it is more like what you are willin to become. And I think a man would have to put his soul at hazard. And I wont do that.

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Tommy Lee Jones as the overwhelmed Sheriff Ed Tom Bell.

No Country For Old Men is a compelling, disturbing thriller, and yet some distance from the peak of McCarthy’s works. I see it as the perfect book to introduce yourself to McCarthy – hidden from the bleak nihilism of The Road, the rambling auto-bio-tragedy of Suttree and the brutal savagery of Blood Meridian.

TheOutsider

Albert Camus was a French writer and philosopher whose principal school of philosophy was absurdism, and the study of the Absurd. From my very basic understanding* the main conflict posed by absurdism was the human mind’s tendency to rationalise and assign meaning and value to the meaning of life, and the inability to do so. His works often explored man’s desire for significance and meaning in the face of the silent and cold existence of the universe. While many of his works and essays are linked to existentialism, Camus was always keen to point out that he was not an existentialist.

*Having only read Camus’s The Plague and The Outsider, I am keen to pick up The Myth of Sisyphus next, in which Camus explains his understanding of the absurd in more detail. From the little I’ve read on the subject it seems fascinating.

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L’Étranger was published in France in 1942, and was later translated into English in 1946, published as The Outsider (or The Stranger in the US). A philosophical novel, its outlook centres on the Absurd, and an odd character named Mersault, the narrator of the book and the titular ‘outsider’. The very first line reads “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.” Immediately Camus introduces us to a protagonist who is distant and does not conform to the same emotions one would expect a man in society to do.

The first part of the book details the funeral of Mersault’s mother, and Mersault’s general indifference and lack of grief is noted by several characters. Just days after the funeral he meets with a female colleague, Marie, who he begins a sexual relationship with, as well as becoming acquaintances with his volatile neighbour. On a weekend at another friends beach hut, Mersault carries out a spontaneous act of violence and shoots a man dead. The reasoning for this is never explained in certain terms by Mersault. The second half focuses on Mersault in prison and standing trial for his crimes. To his surprise the prosecutor focuses not on the murder itself but Mersault’s lack of empathy, his quietness, his passiveness. He believes this points to his guilt, and through further trials, accuses the defendant of lacking remorse. As such, he believes the only appropriate punishment is death.

Mostly, I could tell, I made him feel uncomfortable. He didn’t understand me, and he was sort of holding it against me. I felt the urge to reassure him that I was like everybody else, just like everybody else. But really there wasn’t much point, and I gave up the idea out of laziness.

Mersault is described in sparse detail. If he has opinions he keeps them to himself. His actions and the consequences of those actions have little affect on him. The overall plot is simplistic and at around 150 pages The Outsider isn’t a difficult read, but this gives the reader a canvas upon which to prescribe their own ideals. Depending on your morals and understandings of human nature, this book could disturb you, it could anger you, it could depress you. At times I was sympathising with Mersault, at others I despised him.

Less of a story and more of a fascinating character study, The Outsider is an interesting introduction into the philosophical dilemmas that Camus and the Absurd pose. If you have any interest in the Absurd and existentialism, take a look.

suttree

While not composed of the intense chases (No Country For Old Men), brutalistic violence (Blood Meridian) or nihilistic bleakness (The Road) of some of his other works, Suttree is arguably McCarthy’s most ambitious, sprawling novel; a tale of a man’s abandonment of clean living and a rebuttal to his former life of privilege. For the most part any semblance of plot is absent in Suttree. And while vivid, rich descriptions in McCarthy’s And so I can’t really describe what the book is about, other than detailing the titular protagonist, Cornelius Suttree.

Suttree describes the life and times of Cornelius Suttree, in particular the events taking place in and around Knoxville, 1951. We are introduced to a setting of a post-war city, growing quickly while leaving its poor and injured to survive and attempt to co-exist on the periphery. Suttree lives on the banks of the Tennessee River, aboard a listing houseboat slowly disintegrating and sinking out of existence. Suttree has rejected a life of privilege, leaving a wife (a girl he met in college) and their son, to catch the occasional catfish in his fishing skiff. Suttree is an alcoholic, a lowlife, and yet he is not a psychopath or murderer. He rejects society like Ballard does in McCarthy’s earlier work Child of God, but he is nothing like Ballard; Suttree attempts to have a code. He has friends and while he doesn’t see them all that often, he cares for them. He helps them where he can. Suttree’s decision to dissociate himself from the normal path of a man is done in an almost noble way.

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Once or twice the narrative might skip to an acquaintance of Suttree, the most notable being the young Gene Harrogate, a naive and misguided man child who first meets Suttree in jail, or work camp, having been caught violating a local farmer’s melons (and subsequently nicknamed the ‘moonlight melonmounter’). Suttree attempts to help Harrogate settle down after his release, but Harrogate’s boyish ambitions are far higher (and a great deal more stupid, although involving a certain strand of ingenuity) than a lot of the elder men he surrounds himself with. Some of his foiled and hair-brained schemes include mass poisoning bats to collect a bounty on them, stealing coins out of pay-phones and tunneling under the city using dynamite to find hidden and forgotten treasures.

There are some hilarious capers, mainly observed from Suttree’s wry, understated viewpoint. I’ve seen Suttree described as a twisted, debauche version of Huckleberry Finn, and the similarities are there. It’s one ‘adventure’ to the next. There doesn’t seem to be an endgame, but a succession of conversations and experiences that lead Suttree to where? It is clear that at times, he himself does not know. Suttree often finds himself waking up in fields or on the floors of brothels or unrecognised surroundings, with the sole purpose of getting himself back to his boat, away from the hand of the law. And while his relatively decent nature (in comparison to the ensemble cast of criminals, drunks, perverts and reprobates) earns him an unspoken respect among Knoxville’s delinquents, it also puts him at the mercy of friends, or attached friends. A personal highlight was when Suttree is roped into the dumping of the body of an old man in the river with Leonard – the poor old man who had been rotting in his home for months, and never moved so the family could continue to collect welfare.

So there is humour in Suttree, more so than in any other McCarthy novel (which in their bleakness can often contain small portions of dark gallows humour), but Suttree as a character holds immense sadness, and as comic as the book is, there at times it is heartbreakingly sad too. Such is the desperate struggle of Suttree and his associates with poverty that a scene in a bar or a cafe, where the men collect their coins and pass them across the counter for a coffee and a grilled cheese and cuss and swear at one another with affection, is genuinely warming.

I never did blame ye for leavin out. Poor luck as we had. I reckon ye’d of done better never to of took up with us to start. Did you ever know anybody to be so bad about luck?
Suttree said he had. He said that things would get better.
The old man shook his head doubtfully, paying the band of his cap through his fingers. I’m satisfied they caint get no worse, he said.
But there are no absolutes in human misery and things can always get worse, only Suttree didnt say so.

At over 20 years in the making Suttree is not only McCarthy’s longest novel at nearly 500 pages but also his most personal. Autobiographical or not, Cornelius Suttree’s understated nature and descent into squalor is a fascinating character study. We understand his want to shy from the restraints society once held on him. And there is hope by the end of the novel, where is considers his stance that has removed him from a normal life, with wife and child, to leave Knoxville, and find some kind of happy medium. Suttree is not my favourite McCarthy book but I will say it is his most enjoyable, and an American classic.

the metamorphosis

I thought I’d share my thoughts on Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. While I’ve read scarier and more disturbing books that very first line – such a simple, frank way to describe the inexplicable nature of such an event – affected me like little else I’ve experienced in literature. I’ve read it several times now, and it was one of the very few books that I managed to read during my hectic years at university.

Why did Gregor have to be the only one condemned to work for a company where they immediately became highly suspicious at the slightest shortcoming? Were all employees, every one of them, louts, was there not one of them who was faithful and devoted who would go so mad with pangs of conscience that he couldn’t get out of bed if he didn’t spend at least a couple of hours in the morning on company business?

I really like Kafka. I haven’t read his novels yet, like The Trial, as I’ve only really read his shorter works such as The Judgement, A Country Doctor and In The Penal Colony. But his style, which became known after his passing as ‘Kafkaesque’, is great because it’s so digestible. It reads like a stream of thought and even when those thoughts turn to delirium and incomprehensible aloneness it reads effortlessly and soon it becomes difficult to stop. Kafka combines surrealism and senselessness with the mundane rigours of daily life, with his characters often disoriented and helpless, stuck in complex and illogical situations from which they cannot escape. The Metamorphosis is no different.

The sister played so beautifully. Her face was tilted to one side and she followed the notes with soulful and probing eyes. Gregor advanced a little, keeping his eyes low so that they might possibly meet hers. Was he a beast if music could move him so?

Even if you haven’t read The Metamorphosis you’ve probably heard of it and might even have some idea of the plot. I won’t go into details; man turns into beetle, has a bad time.

gregor

Gregor Samsa’s plight is tragic. He is so monstrous yet his mind remains human. His parents reject him, disgusted and let down by their son whom they have come to rely on so heavily. And after initially showing sympathy and a willingness to help and live with Gregor, eventually even his sister (whom Gregor cares for deeply) rejects him as nothing but a monster, heartbreakingly referring to Gregor as ‘it’.

“It’s got to go”, shouted his sister, “that’s the only way, Father. You’ve got to get rid of the idea that that’s Gregor. We’ve only harmed ourselves by believing it for so long. How can that be Gregor? If it were Gregor he would have seen long ago that it’s not possible for human beings to live with an animal like that and he would have gone of his own free will. We wouldn’t have a brother any more, then, but we could carry on with our lives and remember him with respect. As it is this animal is persecuting us, it’s driven out our tenants, it obviously wants to take over the whole flat and force us to sleep on the streets.”

The Metamorphosis is a short story by Franz Kafka that brilliantly captures the feeling of helplessness and doubt and should be essential reading to anyone who doesn’t like getting out of bed. So most people then. But if you really can’t push yourself to read it, you can find an excellent narrated version by none other than Benedict Cumberbatch.

I cannot make you understand. I cannot make anyone understand what is happening inside me. I cannot even explain it to myself.