In case anyone was wondering, I’m kind’ve a Kurt Vonnegut junkie. And that’s not to sound pretentious or anything. I really am. He’s one of my favorite authors, and his work inspires my own writing. He’s playful and hilarious, and he expertly intertwines literary writing with science-fiction. I’m quite a lover of dystopian fiction, as we’re all aware from my gushing post on McCarthy’s The Road. I may do a post later on (way later on; I think I may have overdone it a bit just today alone) about one of my favorite Vonnegut novels, Player Piano.
But for now, we need to talk short stories. To be more specific, Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron.” In my head, this story is locked in a constant battle with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” They duke it out for the title of Caitlin’s Favorite Short Story of All Time. A winner has not yet been proclaimed, but I’ll keep you posted. The story is about George and Hazel Bergeron and their harrowing night of TV watching. Doesn’t that sound exciting? 😀 Seriously, though. “Harrison Bergeron” is set in the future during a time when everyone in the world is finally “equal.” Those who are genetically or intellectually superior to others are fitted with handicaps. For instance, if someone is exceptionally beautiful, they must wear a grotesque mask. If someone is exceptionally intelligent, a deafening siren sound will go off in their head when they have superior thoughts or when they silently acknowledge someone else’s mental deficiency. Two such handicapped citizens, Hazel and George, are watching a ballet performance on TV one night. Of course, the more graceful ballerinas are weighed down with bags of birdshot, the more beautiful ones hidden behind masks. The couple, however, is disturbed when their son Harrison appears on screen. After just having escaped from jail, 14-year old Harrison Bergeron interrupts the ballet to declare himself emperor, refusing to wear the extreme handicaps that the government makes him wear in order to impede his genius-level intellect and supreme athletic skill.
If you know anything about dystopian fiction, this scenario clearly won’t fly with the government. But you’ll have to read the story in order to find out what happens. Trust me; it’s definitely worth a read. And that’s not just my Vonnegut favoritism bleeding through. It’s a short, compelling piece of fiction that will hopefully get you hooked on Kurt Vonnegut’s work. What’s most compelling about this story, for me, is that it’s an embellishment on a small section of the novel The Sirens of Titan, another book by Vonnegut. The society of “Harrison Bergeron” is mentioned, but very little depth and insight is given into the community’s inner-workings. This insight is found in “Harrison Bergeron.”
If I’ve compelled you enough to give the story a try, it’s available several places online. I’ll go ahead and do the work for you, though! The story can be found here.
So what do people immediately think of when someone mentions Charles Dickens? For me, it’s A Christmas Carol, even though I’ve never read the book (add that one to the ever-growing list of things I probably should have read by now but haven’t. Sigh). I’m sure many others think of Oliver Twist and Bleak House. And avid Charles Dickens fans will surely be able to name several more titles. For me, Our Mutual Friend was my first taste of Dickens (….ahem….). Sure, I knew the basic story of Oliver Twist, and I’ve seen the Patrick Stewart version of A Christmas Carol every year since…well forever. But as far as actually reading Dickens, OMF is it for me. And I’m glad this novel was my introduction.
To put it simply, this novel is hilarious. It’s also shocking and extremely long. Mostly, though, it’s hilarious. Dickens has a dry, very proper sense of humor that shows itself through snide, authorial remarks and well-placed repetition and word play. Dickens, apparently, didn’t have much of that high-brow literary aspiration. He wrote to pay the bills. In fact, Our Mutual Friend was published in sections. This is why, when you read it, it’s split into different books: Book I, Book II, etc. He wrote, published, and then used that money to live until he could publish the next section. I imagine that with a sensation novel such as this, having it published in sections only heightened the suspense for the Victorian reader.
And suspense is definitely the name of the game in Our Mutual Friend. In its essence, the story is a murder mystery. It starts out with the finding of a body suspected to belong to the very rich John Harmon, keeper of Harmony Jail (It’s not actually a jail, it’s where he lives, but that’s what they call it because when he was alive, Harmon was tight-fisted and cruel). Once the body is found, poor waterman Gaffer Hexam is accused, ruining his daughter Lizzie’s reputation. However, when Gaffer Hexam himself is killed, Lizzie’s name is cleared, and the hunt for Harmon’s murderer begins anew. Amidst this madness, a host of other characters are greatly affected by the death. The wonderful Boffins, poor for all of their lives, inherit Harmony Jail and all of Harmon’s riches. Bella Wilfer is taken in by the Boffins in the hopes to raise her marriage prospects, as her family is poor and has fallen from grace. Bradley Headstone has fallen in love with Lizzie Hexam and must compete with Eugene Wrayburn for his affections. All the while, the Lammle’s must navigate through the society of the upper middle class, scheming and manipulating everyone around them to keep themselves afloat though they have no money.
In short, this novel is intrigue after intrigue. Be warned though, there are so many characters it might behoove you to make a list as soon as you start reading. For those who enjoy murder mysteries and stories of intrigue, Our Mutual Friend should make it onto your bookshelf, whether you’re a Dickens lover or not.
Since I already chose an image for E.E. Cumming’s poem “anyone lived in a pretty how town,” I wasn’t sure with what visual to start this post. The beautiful stars and nebulas of the previous post seemed most fitting for the repetition of the lines “sun moon stars rain,” and really nothing else seemed appropriate. So instead of looking at something that insightfully relates to the words it accompanies, you instead get to look at the pretty mountains! How exciting and wacky and unpredictable! There’s probably a pretty how town somewhere up there among the rocks and trees. So imagine that.
Anyway. The poem of the week happens to be one of my favorite poems (although you could argue that ALL the poems of the week are some of my favorite poems, but we won’t get into that). I’ve read quite a few E.E. Cummings poems, but none of them really resonate with me like “nobody lived in a pretty how town.” Now you may be thinking, “But Caitlin. It’s just a bunch of nonsense. A bunch of gobbledygook.” (I assume you all have the word “gobbledygook” in your vocabulary. Is it a Southern thing? I’m not sure…). For anyone who has ever really studied the poem, however, you’ll see that it’s not just a bunch of nonsense. I don’t want to assume that no one sees the meaning behind the poem. I just know that when I first read it, I was confused and befuddled (I’m using so many good words today!). I wasn’t sure if what I was reading really had any meaning, especially because I’ve come up against some utter nonsense poetry before. If you’ve never tried to put yourself through reading John Ashbery’s “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” I suggest you click that on the link and have yourself some fun. If anyone can tell me what it means, I’ll be happy to listen.
But Cummings’ “anyone lived in a pretty how town,” while implementing nonsense images like “up so floating many bells down” as well as jumbled syntax and word order, does so to evoke a very specific tone to the poem. It’s almost playful, don’t you think? If you read closely, you begin to realize that “anyone” and “noone” are actual characters. They represent real people, and by using the generic words “anyone” and “noone,” Cummings can make these two characters represent any person. They are simple and rather unremarkable, and the world moves on around them as “someones married their everyones.” But to one another, they are special and deserving of each other’s love. There is a lot in the poem about the passage of time, as is indicated by “sun moon stars rain” and the passing of the seasons in “summer autumn winter spring.” Through the passage of time, “anyone” dies, and “noone” is the only person who seems to care.
I find the little story in Cummings’ poem to be touching and rather universal. To me, it’s about using the short time we have on earth to find those who we see as remarkable and to love them until that time has come to an end. I always end a reading of this poem with a little sigh. It’s a poem I will keep reading for as long as I live, just to remind myself for the reason I exist: to love.
(Well that was a little more romantic than I usually am….)
Just to prepare you all for the coming week, I thought I’d give you a little explanation as to what’s going to be happening this week and beyond.
This week will be very post-heavy. I’m trying to get into the swing of things to prepare myself for graduating college and figuring out how to navigate my blog once I graduate college (which is happening in about 2 weeks, and I think I’m gonna be sick D:). This week you should expect another poem, of course, probably with an accompanying rant. I’ll probably delve a little bit into either Vanity Fair or Our Mutual Friend. Or both! And then there will be a short story review which has yet to be determined.
After I graduate, I’ll finally be able to read WHATEVER I WANT WHENEVER I WANT CAN I GET AN AMEN. So some things you can look forward to in the month of May:
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
- Atonement by Ian McEwan
- Blindness by Jose Saramango
- Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
- The Next Queen of Heaven by Gregory Maguire
And much, much more. I am very, very excited to read these books, and I would love some suggestions from you all for future reading material.
So please comment below if you have a book you’d like me to read and review, and I look forward to adding it to my list!
Happy reading everyone!
I know, I know. You’re staring at the post in silent confusion. “Where is the book cover?” you ask. “Where is the pretty picture that I can look at to prepare myself for reading this giant block of text?” I’m right there with you. I don’t like posting without accompanying pictures. Especially if I’m trying to get you to READ the actual book that I’m reviewing. It’s so convenient and compelling to see it right before your very eyes. The problem is I’m trying to be very sensitive to copyright laws when it comes to this blog. I like using the pretty and polished pictures people have already taken (or you could just say that I’m lazy. It’s probably just that I’m lazy if we’re being honest). But I couldn’t find a picture of the cover of Home on creativecommons.org. For those of you who don’t know, Creative Commons is a nifty little site that helps you collect images that can be used fairly, and it clearly outlines how you can use these images as well as how you should cite them. It’s handy if you’re trying to respect the original creators of the images you want to use. For my purposes, though, I might just snap a picture of the book on my phone and post it afterward. I’m not so handy with a camera so you’ll have to excuse my ineptitude.
But we’re here to talk Toni Morrison, not my failings in life. That’s a whole other blog entirely. I recently read Home by Toni Morrison and felt I needed to share my enthusiasm for the novel with you tender few who follow my ranting. I love Toni Morrison. It started in high school when I first read A Mercy, and even though I loved practically everything my English teacher made me read, A Mercy had a specific, enchanting hold on me. I’m sure it was because of the unique and triumphant voice of Toni Morrison. She’s been a bit of an inspiration to me since then, and I am slowly gathering more of her books. I know everyone will tell me to read Beloved. Don’t worry. It’s on my bookshelf. It just hasn’t been bumped up in the queue yet. The queue is long, people.
Home is particularly interesting, because it’s not crafted in a typical story arc. The novel is crafted around Frank Money, a soldier recently sent back home after the Korean War. Frank, like many soldiers, suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during a time when no one really understood what that meant. After trying and failing to live a normal life with the woman he loves, he receives a strange letter from a woman in Georgia who he does not know. The letter contains only three very ominous words, “She be dead.” Frank knows immediately that his sister Cee is in trouble, and he must travel to Georgia through the fog of his trauma in order to rescue her.
If you’re a real Morrison fan, you can hear her talk about her inspiration for the novel here. It’s an hour long, but it’s quite illuminating. She talks at length about how people hearken back the 50’s as a time when America was at its greatest, safest, and most stable. About how it is a time that we should seek to restore. With Home, she explains that she really wanted to shatter that misconception that everything was perfect and pristine. Because, really, it wasn’t. There was the Korean War. Eugenics. Racism. All strands that are expertly woven throughout the novel, and it’s really fascinating to see how she touches on all of those topics in such a short novel. One of the things I love most about Home is Morrison’s correspondence with Frank. Each chapter is followed by a few short pages in italics. These pages are Frank’s ramblings to the author herself. As if he were a real person who called her up and told her the story of his life. These sections are fascinating because Frank often contradicts what Morrison writes in earlier chapters. He tells her things like this:
Earlier you wrote about how sure I was that the beat-up man on the train to Chicago would turn around when they got home and whip the wife who tried to help him. Not true. I didn’t think any such thing. What I thought was that he was proud of her but didn’t want to show how proud he was to the other men on the train. I don’t think you know much about love.
And if that’s not intriguing enough to get you interested in the novel, I’m not sure what will. So here is where I have to wash my hands of the situation and let you decide for yourselves whether or not Home belongs on your bookshelf and in your queue. I would argue that it does. But hey, I can argue about anything.