Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories, by Herman Melville

Review:

Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories (Penguin Classics Edition) - Peter M. Coviello, Herman Melville

Well that took me long enough! I’ve been desperate to read some horror, but these Melville stories have been hit and miss, his prose sometimes impenetrable. This is my second encounter with Melville (I read Moby Dick some years ago), and it’s been a while. I was prompted to pick up this collection of his shorter works by recent references to both “Bartleby” and Billy Budd.

I began with “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” which turned out to be my favorite. Melville is an excellent comic writer, and this portrait of a law office made me laugh out loud. Yet it’s also incredibly poignant. The narrator is a lawyer who hires Bartleby as a scrivener (a copier); Bartleby joins three other employees, hilariously nicknamed Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut. Bartleby goes about his copying, but when the lawyer asks him to read aloud his copy to proofread, he simply says he “prefers not to.” From this point he “prefers” not to do all sorts of things, including leave when his boss attempts to fire him. The lawyer is non-confrontational and fancies himself a good man to the point where he actually changes the location of his office to avoid dealing with Bartleby (who is also found to be living there) further. Yet the problem of Bartleby persists.

Why does Bartleby “prefer not” to comply with requests made of him? Melville does not offer a black-and-white answer. The introduction likens Bartleby to a Wall Street occupier, someone who occupies spaces of capitalism without using them for that end, but the quote I found most insightful describes Bartleby as a man of preferences rather than assumptions. How much does our daily behavior and actions depend upon assumptions? As with other Melville works, a queer reading of the text is also possible: the relationship between the lawyer and Bartleby involves exchanges and behavior not dissimilar to those made in romantic partnerships.

The stories I liked next best were “The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles” and “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids.” The former is a series of sketches by a sailor who has been to the Galapagos Islands; some sketches are more engaging than others. The language in the first few is lovely as Melville describes the hostile, lonely island landscape. The latter is a pair of tales told by the same American narrator, first in London then New England–a lawyer’s club and paper mill, respectively. These are apparently based on Melville’s own travels. I preferred the second piece, which I read as feminist and potentially Marxist. There’s some fantastic prose detailing the paper machine, the women, and their work.

There are five other stories, but the last I’ll mention is the novella, Billy Budd, which Melville was working on at the time of his death. It’s become key evidence for those who feel Melville may have been bisexual or simply held progressive views on gender and sexuality. Billy Budd is a “Handsome Sailor” who is conscripted to serve on a British naval ship. Everyone likes him, as he’s pretty and good-natured. But one (also good looking) sailor envies his beauty and goodness, and it leads to tragedy. The most interesting thing about this tale for me was the fact that this is a story often told about women, to illustrate their vanity, jealousies, and pettiness or cattiness. In this context, in a time after two serious mutinies and during hostilities between Britain and France, such personal jealousy results in catastrophe.

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Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories, by Herman Melville

The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane

Review:

The Night Guest - Fiona McFarlane

The Night Guest opens with elderly Ruth fearing she can hear and smell a tiger in her house–in Australia. One of the great pleasures of this book is its unreliable narrator, unreliable not because she’s deceptive but because her mind isn’t what it used to be and may be getting worse. Yet the phantom of the tiger presages what may be a real danger: the arrival of a woman named Frida who claims to be a government carer. Is she, or is she fleecing Ruth?

Ruth’s narration leaves just enough room for the reader to come to their own conclusions about her and Frida. Some things are left diaphanous, but not so hazy as to cause confusion. On top of that, the prose is terrific: distinctive but not overbearingly poetic. McFarlane capture fine states of feeling or consciousness with her language and imagery. I really delighted in reading it.

Not so delightful is the nature of what’s going on, or even the suspicion of it. My grandmother, who died a few years ago, suffered from dementia. She had an excellent aide, but my parents eventually had to put her in a nursing home close to where they live. Even the best of those places upset me, and it was hard for me to see my grandmother–the smartest person in my family–lose herself. This recent experience made it difficult to continue at times.

I also found myself thinking about Frida’s race and physicality–she’s a brown-skinned and heavyset woman. Ruth is tiny and was fair-haired. What’s being said about Frida and race? I searched reviews and finally found one that addresses the issue by referencing the author’s own explanation (in the Sydney Review of Books, here). This explanation satisfied me, though I’m still wondering about Frida’s size.

Finally, it was lovely to see a bit of romance between Ruth and her almost-love from the past, who’s even older than she is. A delicately handled rarity in literary fiction.

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The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane

Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie

Review:

Reservation Blues - Sherman Alexie

This is my first Alexie and not my last. I’m struggling with what to say about it and how because somehow this not-huge novel feels like it’s packed in everything about Indian (as they refer to themselves) culture with its focus on a particular reservation and a rock band’s steep rise and fall. It does so with deadpan humor and a mix of the fantastic and real that calls to mind magical realism but is distinctive. It’s necessarily sad yet not depressing–there’s the humor, and there’s wonder and hope. There’s not an insignificant or uncharismatic character in the book. I feel like I’ve taken a long, strange trip with them and wish them well.

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Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie

The Book of Dahlia, by Elisa Albert

Review:

The Book of Dahlia - Elisa Albert

Dahlia Finger is kind of an asshole. She’s 29 and spends her days sprawled out on her couch, smoking weed and watching movies, funded by her well-off father. One night she has a seizure and learns that she has a brain tumor. Though no one will actually say it, she doesn’t have long to live.

This is not one of those novels of illness where there’s redemption ahead or that’s supposed to make you hopeful and grateful for life (beyond not having a brain tumor). For that reason, I appreciated and responded to it. Unlike all the books on cancer Dahlia and her parents buy in bulk that say “you can beat this thing” if only you have the right attitude, in effect making you responsible (and to blame) for your own illness, The Book of Dahlia illustrates how we as a culture fail to deal with mortality. Though it’s not addressed specifically in the novel, I personally wonder how much that American idea of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is at play, which easily translates into victim-blaming when one can’t.

One of the platitudes often given regarding illness and healing is that a sufferer must let go of old resentments and anger, that these can make or keep one sick. As Dahlia considers and recounts her past, it’s clear she has almost nothing but resentments, from a mother who essentially abandoned her family to the older brother, once close, who took out his own pain on her in the cruelest ways. Throughout her life she’s plainly asked for help and been ignored. Maybe it says something about me that I couldn’t blame her for her stubbornness in forgiving and forgetting. It feels like the only way she’s able to have any agency during her illness.

If this sounds grim, it’s not, or not only! Dahlia’s voice is often funny, enough to make me laugh out loud while reading. Her humor may be bitter, but that suits me fine. At the end of the book there was a reading group guide that asked more than one question about whether one is able to sympathize with her; I absolutely could. I often like female characters in popular culture that others find abrasive, though I often wonder how much it’s about gender.

The toughest and most affecting aspect of this book was the relationship between Dahlia and her older brother. As a younger sister myself, I’m always interested in and more sensitive to depictions of that dynamic. It broke my heart to read about the turn their relationship takes, how long Dahlia holds out and has faith in him, even insulting herself to get ahead of his insulting her. I both wanted and did not want Dahlia to forgive him. It made me want to call my own brother and thank him for not being a dick!

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The Book of Dahlia, by Elisa Albert

Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon

Review:

Await Your Reply - Dan Chaon

Await Your Reply is ultimately a tragic story featuring characters who are lost or mentally ill and either want a new start or can’t let go of the past. However, I found it hard to sympathize with the three characters whose perspectives the novel shifts between in alternating chapters. As a result I rushed through my reading mostly to finish the book and see how these seemingly unconnected characters were, in fact, connected. It’s a story of identity, how it is mutable but perhaps can become its own trap, even when that identity is traded in for a new one.

I’m surprised I purchased this book since it features one of my greatest squicks (as we say in fandom): a teacher-student romantic relationship. The recently graduated student, Lucy, is one of the characters whose point of view is narrated. Though she’s lost her parents, at first it seems this is not a great loss to her. She also disparages her older, less ambitious sister. This made Lucy and her rash decision to run off with her AP History teacher unsympathetic for me. She’s bright academically, but stupid and naive when it comes to everything else. She almost immediately begins to feel uneasy about the promises her older boyfriend made once they arrive at their temporary destination, but she sticks around.

Similarly, Ryan, a college student, leaves school and his family behind once he learns the truth about his parentage. He hadn’t been doing well in school and wasted the money meant for tuition. He takes off with a guy he’s just met and becomes involved in illegal money-moving and identity fraud schemes, though he barely understands what he’s doing and why. He doesn’t seem that troubled knowing that his family is looking for him. So, he’s another character I found I couldn’t care about.

The third character, Miles, I found the most sympathetic. He’s been on the trail of his schizophrenic twin brother, Hayden, ever since the latter disappeared years before. Miles disrupts his own life (or barely develops one) to chase his twin and feeds on occasional communications from him. He gives Hayden the benefit of the doubt, despite the warnings of others and evidence to the contrary. Is he big-hearted or a fool?

I won’t spoil how the three characters’ stories connect, but despite some surprises, the mystery of that connection wasn’t enough for me to overcome my issues with the characters.

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Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon

Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle

Review:

Wolf in White Van - John Darnielle

I’ve waited a couple days to write this review because this book puzzled me, and I wondered if it was the author’s fault or mine. It’s silly to assign blame when one doesn’t like a book; I suppose this one just wasn’t for me, and I wish every book was.

On the surface, and based on the sample, this book seemed very much “me.” The protagonist runs a small, one-person, mail-order game company. His most popular game, Trace Italian, a text-based RPG, brought to mind both my own (brief) history as a D&D player, as well as the epic adventure of Ready Player One. The game here functions as a refuge for its creator–I was fascinated by the fact that no one has ever made it to the Trace Italian, or fortress that would provide safety in a post-apocalyptic Midwestern U.S., nor is anyone likely to–borne of months spent in the hospital after a mysterious “accident.” The game also embodies what I understand to be the book’s major theme: how the decisions we make may have no real explanation or cannot be anticipated, including their consequences. For example, Sean, the protagonist, cannot anticipate how two young players will treat the game as too real, leading to one spoke of the plot, or how another player will make a choice I imagine Sean envies.

The book is structured so that its major plot points are only slowly revealed as you go; for example, about a quarter of the way through, the reader learns what exactly happened with the two young players that ended up embroiling Sean in a lawsuit. It isn’t until the final pages of the book that one learns what happened the night of Sean’s “accident,” though why is much more complicated. In this way the structure is closer to that of a mystery…except it’s not a mystery novel. It made me feel manipulated; while all storytelling is manipulation, in a way, this sort of teasing of what you’re even reading about frustrates me. I tried to imagine the book structured differently and admit it would be a completely different novel. I don’t have an answer as to what I want and can only conclude, again, that this is not a book for me.

As I read, I anticipated the ending accurately but hoped it might somehow still satisfy by then; it didn’t. A book can be about roads we do and don’t take, how our choices don’t always have rational (or even irrational) reasons, but it still has to work as a story rather than shrug its shoulders. It strikes me that I might have loved this book as a short story, where less of a build-up would lead to less frustration.

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Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle

Deliverance, by James Dickey

Review:

Deliverance (Modern Library 100 Best Novels) - James Dickey

The film version of Deliverance is known for “that scene,” the one where Bobby, one of four city men traversing a wild river in Georgia, is raped by a “hillbilly.” The scene is a bit different in the book–there’s no “Squeal like a pig!” moment–but essentially the same. Before I even saw the film, I knew about that scene. Men as victims of rape (outside of prison as a context) in stories shock us; women as victims are so common, often serving as the impetus for a male protagonist to seek revenge, or to “develop” a female character, that it’s rare for their victimization to become the talking point of a film or book, unless the scene is especially brutal (e.g. Irreversible) or unique (e.g. that turkey baster in Don’t Breathe).

I mention this because I came to Deliverance as a reader who is now rarely interested in books with white masculinity as their subject. Its spot on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century likely put it on my radar, and when I read a sample I was dazzled by its language. Dickey’s prose is the best thing about the novel, for a reader like me. He has a way of describing moments of consciousness or states of being that is unlike anything else I’ve read. It carried me through the story, even as the book became what I feared it might. In essence, it’s about using and relying on one’s physical and mental resources as a man to make it through a dire situation.

The leader of this river expedition is Lewis, the most capable and masculine “man’s man” of the foursome. He’s what we would today call a survivalist; he has faith in himself and his body, first and foremost, and wants to be prepared for anything. There’s Drew, the sensible, amateur musician, and Bobby, the smartass who’s the least helpful on the river. The protagonist and narrator is Ed, Lewis’s best friend. Ed is mildly dissatisfied with his work (in advertising) and goes back and forth about wanting to take part in the river trip. When Lewis is badly injured and another member of their party killed by the surviving local man who participated in the rape (Lewis killed the other), it’s up to Ed to get them out of there alive. He does, though injured and obliged to murder (or kill in self-defense, depending on your perspective). The three survivors lie about what happened, concerned they won’t be believed by local law enforcement. This experience will clearly haunt them always.

What troubles me is the way Bobby is characterized, especially after the rape. When reading, especially a violent and potentially offensive book like this, I try to separate characters’ actions and attitudes from the author’s. Immediately after the rapist is killed by Lewis, Ed thinks to himself that he doesn’t want to touch or be around Bobby. This is a moment where you can distinguish between character and author. But Bobby is elsewhere characterized as weak by the author; his ineptitude makes him a hazard to his friends more than a help as they traverse the river and try to escape the situation. Bobby is, in effect, the least masculine and feminized. Drew had his sense of morality going for him; what does Bobby have except (useless) humor?

The few women in the book are wives or objects of a desirous male gaze. Ed has sex with his wife the morning he leaves for the trip, and when he returns, thinks he hasn’t appreciated her enough. Drew’s widow is angry and predictably points out how useless a death he suffered, adventuring on a river. Throughout the story, Ed thinks of the model who posed topless (back to the camera) and held her breast in a roomful of men, a gold tint in one eye. The women seem there to help define the men’s masculinity.

Deliverance is tightly constructed, the type of book with symbolism to pore through, ready for a book group or class discussion. I’ve mentioned its stellar language and also gasped at several points. I can certainly understand its presence on the Modern Library’s list, even as I struggle with some elements.

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Deliverance, by James Dickey