September 24, 2007

Book 53: Tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann

Tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann
E.T.A. Hoffmann

Wow. If you think Edgar Allen Poe is weird, you should check out the works of Hoffmann, one of Poe's inspirations and a clear contender for strangest Romantic writer of them all. Despite their obvious age and setting in Hoffmann's Germany circa 1810, the stories are realistic and the settings vibrant enough to enchant the modern reader. It certainly doesn't hurt that the settings themselves are muddled and prone to rapid, disorienting changes. Amazingly enough, the dizziness that we feel alongside Hoffmann's vivid characters is not overwhelming but rather helps to build suspense and prod the reader on. It is hard to put down this book in the middle of one of these twisted tales, and while they can tend towards predictability, there are plenty of surprises to even the most cynical seasoned reader.

Hoffmann approaches the world with a certain enchanting level of unfamiliarity, using familiar faces and places but twisting them ever so slightly to create wholly unfamiliar worlds. The twists and turns of reality are shocking and unsettling, yet they retain a certain enchanting ability. Hoffmann's characters absolutely leap off of the page, and though we may never be sure which ones actually exist or who may be sane or schizophrenic, we are drawn to them as they possess a certain magnetic hold over us. Hoffmann takes his readers on a journey into insanity which may not be so crazy after all. The continually disorienting roller coasters of plots are intriguing rather than frustrating and have a certain fresh feeling even in this era of overwhelming postmodernism.

In this collection, Hoffmann tackles love, music, and mistaken identities with gusto and in brilliantly unique ways. His unique blend of fantasy and reality challenges the reader to follow along and provides many equally appealing interpretations at the end, inviting intellectual discussion but not frustrating the reader. The tales are at once wrapped up nicely and frayed with loose ends, and they are surprisingly all the better for it. Hoffmann's few flaws are relatively minor and exist in the basic writing of the stories rather than being thematic. Hoffmann has a tendency to interrupt a perfectly gripping narrative with a condescending address to the "gentle reader," which is annoying and comes off as overly smug pride. This, however, may be attributed to conventions of his era; being no expert I can only speak regarding my personal experience with the work. Hoffmann also suffers from surprising predictability: though his plots are tangled and twisted, his mysteries are fairly predictable and nearly always end up just as happily as one would wish. The means of getting to the end are unique and compelling, but the endings can seem contrived. This, however, is only a problem in a couple of stories and does not diminish the power of the collection as a whole.

Upon hearing my description of "The Golden Pot," a dear friend asked me if Hoffmann had invented LSD. Some of his stories suggest a certain pharmaceutical habit atypical of his era and highlight his peculiar talent and foresight. Hoffmann's work with illusion and outright hallucination recalls the postmodern as often as it evokes its (then-) contemporary setting, enchanting the modern reader and coming off with amazing success. But for a few basic literary flaws, Hoffmann's work shines among the most imaginative and well-crafted short fiction. His ability to create distinct worlds and characters within the span of fifty pages or less is nearly unparalleled, and his prose is clear where the plot is not, allowing confusion and assurance to intersect in interesting and utterly unique ways. For those interested in a truly different vision of the fantastic and the realm of imagination, Hoffmann's short fiction is an absolute must.

Grade: A-

September 16, 2007

Book 52: Beowulf

Translated by Michael Ash

Okay, so this is supposed to be a book a week, not one every two weeks. I'll get on that, I promise, but what with school starting and everything it's hard to get some good reading in. Beowulf isn't necessarily good reading per se, but it is reading nonetheless and it is worth looking into once or twice. I get the feeling that the epic poem has a lot more than meets the eye, but I can't help but get distracted while reading it. The plot unfolds in little spurts interrupted by generally unnecessary backstory that unfortunately confuses the modern reader, who lacks sufficient context for many of its diversions. It is hard to piece together the actual plot until after the events unfold and there is a party and recollections afterward. That said, the recollections themselves only re-hash the slight bits of action and are themselves tedious after a while.

Taken as indicative of its own context, Beowulf can tell the modern reader a lot about the people who composed and retold it, considering it important enough to commit to parchment. The epic adventures of the great warrior, when they can be found in the overlong text, are simplistic but sufficiently gripping to rouse a hearty campfire-side cheer for mighty Beowulf. The epic is a breezy read good for those who either would like a side order of easy-to-digest culture or those who wish to probe its seams endlessly for clues to a past world. Most readers in the middle, however, will enjoy the exploits but come away frustrated with the lack of drive and relevance. Beowulf is a solidly middle-of-the-line text in terms of pure pleasure reading.

Grade: B

September 2, 2007

Book 51: The Virgin Suicides

The Virgin Suicides
Jeffrey Eugenides

I'm quite liking these books that get better and better as you let them simmer for a while in your mind acquiring new meanings and gaining significance. They often have abrupt or otherwise shocking endings that draw you in as you are slowly escaping from the narrative world. The ending of The Virgin Suicides is far from shocking; you know from the title, let alone the first page, exactly what the book is about, but the book itself still manages to surprise and enchant. That a book whose plot is clearly exposed from the outset can enchant so deeply is a testament to Eugenides's great talents as a writer. The book is a meditation on memory rather than the exposition of its events. Narrated spectacularly from the first-person plural, no small feat considering that this strange narrative voice is consistent and only tired in a few long stretches, The Virgin Suicides is the story of the collective memory that creates a society, that knits people together and keeps them connected through time. The book's final allusions to Detroit's spectacular decline are an obvious echo of the suicides that link together the neighborhood boys who are painfully forced to take part in them from afar.

The reader has to be careful to enter this book with few expectations. I, for one, expected a gripping play-by-play account of each girl's turn towards suicide, which is definitely not what the book is about. The plot moves at a lolling pace, somewhat out of time and always with an eye towards the results, which endure to the present day. This was initially disappointing but becomes increasingly relevant the more one thinks about the book's construction and themes. The little details that create the suburban neighborhood and that flesh out members of the collective narration are subtle pieces of childhood that invoke a certain nostalgia particular to Christmas and Halloween movies. Amongst the neighborhood boys we have the jock, the brain, the rich kid, and all of the normal boys who admire them; unlike most modern coming-of-age fare, they all must band together to form a collective subconscious and try to piece together the full meaning of the tragedies of their childhood.

It goes without saying that the sentimental overtones of The Virgin Suicides only heighten the power of the novel. If Eugenides waxes poetic now and then, or becomes overly nostalgic, it is only in the guise of modern-day adults who create the cliches in the first place. Eugenides isn't repeating the cliches but subtly pointing to the reasons they exist and their power despite their popularity. The slice of life shades of suburbia combine with the torture of eternal guilt and the sad necessity of watching someone slowly waste away. The collective attitude of the men seems realistic and appropriate despite the fact that they so blatantly contradict the general trend of society to make its men strong and burly. These men have been tormented since early high school with a special knowledge and an intimate connection to a type of tragedy particular to their supposedly sheltered surroundings. The normal blends with the completely alien and forms a fully believable picture. Even the eccentricities that help create the suicides can seem like reasonable, if not rational, reactions to straining events.

The book, simply put, flows. It feels as though we are in the room with these men, as though being their wives, brothers, or other confidants we are hearing their story directly. Far from being contrived, the narrative voice is fresh and makes the story resonate in a way that first person narration couldn't. Eugenides probes suburban tragedy and the greater decline of America with a deft pen and graceful, moving flourishes. The book is a tragedy but is still compelling and still calls to be re-read for full appreciation of its literary riches. Elegiac and poignant, The Virgin Suicides is quite the antidote to the feel-good coming-of-age story, a slice of harsh sunlight in our own shaded suburban sub-reality.

Grade: A