I suppose The Age of Innocence has a nicer ring to it than The Age of Social Constipation. This novel is a 200-page social anthropology of Old New York, a chronicle of “the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease,” so if masturbatory dithering about individual desires versus tribal norms is your thing, maybe this book deserves a place in the canon. I read this while trapped in the middle seat of an airplane, which was very thematically appropriate, and if I ever yearn for that middle-seat feeling, I know I can always reach for this book.
Set in 1870 or so, the story centers on Newland Archer, a young man who has all the privileges and burdens of belonging to one of the best families in New York society. Newland is such a bore that it took several chapters before I processed that he is, in fact, the main character.
Or is he? The book opens when Ellen Olenska causes a stir by appearing in public, and Ellen is the breath of fresh air that threatens to awaken Newland. And then there’s his betrothed, the fresh and innocent May Welland, whom Newland continually underestimates. The book is really about these two women, both of whom are very interesting, but we only see them through Newland’s eyes, and Newland only thinks he’s a keen observer of human nature.
I can see what the conflicts and great thoughts are supposed to be (the pointlessness of Newland’s restraint when it turns out that everyone thinks Newland has been having an affair all along; all the people who thumb their noses at the rules and are totally invited to parties; May Welland as a skillful player and courageous person who achieves the life she wants while following the rules to a T), and Wharton’s text is peppered with goodies such as “fierce spinsters who said ‘No’ on principle before they knew what they were going to be asked” and random quotables such as “The worst of doing one’s duty was that it apparently unfitted one for doing anything else.” On the whole, however, it’s (intentionally?) airless and the cast of characters is rather hard to keep straight. I can track the families and cousinships in Gone With the Wind and A Game of Thrones, so I blame Wharton for writing characters who read as White Man #15 and Rich Matriarch #2 I tried to grade on a curve since it’s an older book, but upon fact-checking it turns out that this was published in 1920, so there’s no excuse for its lack of narrative pull.
In conclusion, I can see why the Scarlet Letter-toting set might like this book, but frankly I don’t give a damn. On these themes, I’d throw this out of the canon and replace it with The Outsiders.
If you’ve ever read a science fiction book, this book will bore the pants off you (and not in a good way).
It’s like how The Scarlet Pimpernel was really shocking back in the day because it had a Fabulous Surprise Twist! Because the hero was secretly disguised. As a Jew! GASP. I remember reading that wretched book at age 10 and figuring it out the instant the Jew showed up out of plumb fucking nowhere, and then I finished the whole book because there had to be something else because the book was so famous.
Never Let Me Go is exactly the same. Spoilers below, so you should stop reading unless you’ve read a SF book before or have a 3-digit IQ and will thus figure out the mystery in the first 20 pages anyway.
(SPOILERS START HERE)
They are clones. For 200 pages, we dance around the “mystery” that Kathy and her whiny little classmates are clones created for organ harvesting. Unfortunately, the kids are boring as dirt,* so it’s hard for the reader to see them as more than bags of organs either.
Upon reaching their teens, the kids are inexplicably sent out in groups of a dozen or so to live without adult supervision in the Cottages, and they don’t ever consider running away. If I hadn’t been so entirely disengaged by that point (I was on an airplane and had to choose between this book or SkyMall), I would’ve been Sassy Gay Friend all over this. Ishiguro is trying to show us that clones are people, but these kids lack the things that make humans interesting. In fact, the average dog is more resourceful than these losers, and newborn kittens express more curiosity.
Despite the critical acclaim, this is not a novel of ideas. Questions that could have made this book interesting, but which Ishiguro did not explore:
- The kids are going to be cut to pieces someday, but they go tamely to the slaughter. As adults they even participate as hospice attendants in the medical complex. Is this a metaphor for…something?
- There’s a total of two (2) activists who care about the treatment of clones. Where are the rest? What’s the political climate in England? Is it set in a V for Vendetta version of fascist England? The world-building is blank as fresh-fallen snow.
- What is life for, if life will end in your 20’s, and you’ve been sterilized since birth, and you have no biological family? A properly constructed novel would include some moment of realization that Kathy, Tommy, and whats-her-name did have real lives, and that life was worthwhile even if it was short, and that it had always been up to them to fill their lives with meaning, and that lots of meaning could be created other than by procreating. None of this is articulated.
The only smart bit happens in the first chapter, when Ishiguro introduces the euphemism “completion” for “death,” as in “he knew he was close to completing.” Do not be fooled. That’s the height of the good stuff and it’s a long downhill slog.
*Actually, I have a composting bin and could be considered a dirt farmer. My homegrown, organic dirt is more far interesting than these kids.
People seem to have a lot to say about this book, but I am far too bored to say very much. Briefly:
1. It’s boring. I eventually skipped all but Minnie’s chapters (the only interesting narrator and also the only interesting plot arc), so you could say I read [1/2 +1/3 = 5/6] of this book, which is ½ too much.
2. Everyone is pretty noxious except for (a) black people and (b) white people who literally have To Kill a Mockingbird on their nightstand. Eyeroll please. I wasn’t around in the 1960’s, but I’d guess that non-racists then were pretty much like non-meat-eaters now: highly uncommon outside of intellectual bastions and sometimes irritatingly self-righteous. (You know that future generations will judge us harshly for the factory farms.)
3. I cannot suspend my disbelief. Celia, the upjumped cracker girl, can’t even conceive of treating Minnie as anything other than an equal?! I don’t pull out the interobang often, but I pull it out here. Nobody clings to racial hierarchy more than poor members of the dominant ethnicity – it’s the only thing they have. How can Stockett grow up in the South and not notice that phenomenon?
4. The lavender-and-gold cover design just makes me think “urine-soaked wedding,” and I cannot deal.
In conclusion, why are we even talking about this book?
I was skeptical. I mean, it’s narrated by a 5-year-old. A 5-year-old who has been living in one room his entire life.
And it nails it! It’s believable and creepy yet surprisingly non-traumatic. Because Jack’s mom does an amazing job protecting Jack from the horribleness of being a kidnap victim. As far as Jack understands it:
1. The world is a 11×11 foot room, and
2. He is loved.
Sometimes a bad man comes in the night. The story is told by little Jack, but the true main character is his mom, who is one brave…I want to say one brave motherfucker but somehow that seems inappropriate.
When I closed the book on the bar exam four years ago, we watched Star Trek and ate strawberry and fudge swirl ice cream. Then I watched Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Then I went to Chicago and watched The Wedding Crashers. Finally, I read A Patchwork Planet on sunny Chicago afternoons and in the wee hours, after midnight and tequila. It was a good time.
After A Patchwork Planet, I enthusiastically dove into Anne Tyler’s back catalog only to hit a shallow bottom. Ugh, Breathing Lessons. Ugh, Back When We Were Grown-Ups. It so often happens that the first book I encounter is my only favorite, yet I plow ahead in increasing bewilderment. I call this the Kurt Vonnegut syndrome, or the E.L. Doctorow syndrome. So many bad books have I read.
But finally, with Digging to America, Anne Tyler has redeemed herself. Her acuity, her grace, her perfect comfort inside the narrators…ah, it makes my toes wiggle. Her details make me feel excited yet graceless by comparison, in the same manner that Dune makes its readers feel thrillingly engaged yet embarassingly dimwitted compared to those fucking superhuman Atreides. (I’m telling rather than showing, which is ironic because Anne-with-an-“e” Tyler is 110% show-not-tell. But I can write whatever I want, diary.) Not a whole lot happens, yet the life of the book is engrossing. It feels like a master chef has served me a home-cooked meal with artfully balanced garnishes of candied lemon zest and fresh mint. I have eaten it chapter by chapter, not worrying about the next course, and now I am content. As they say, the days are long but the years are short.
As a whole, this book drags. Pages 48 to 208, however, have no air resistance at all. Suspiciously autobiographical, the story sprints and ambles all the way to middle age, but its core of cruelty is at ages 7, 8, and 9. It’s the girl version of Lord of the Flies, except that little girls don’t need to be on an island to chew each other bloody. “Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another, they are not cute. They are life-size.”
The parts without Cordelia can be downright boring, which is too bad because Cordelia disappears halfway through. I read the rest of the book for intermittent glimpses of the older (different, fragile) Cordelia, but it was a long way to plod. So anyway, read pages 48 to 208 (out of 445) for the civilized Lord of the Flies experience.
A missed opportunity, what a shame! I read the first few pages wishing I’d thought of this first, and afterward I wished that anybody else had thought of this first.
In the reviews, I’d gotten the impression that Grahame-Smith had brilliantly swapped in zombie slaying as a status indicator. Lady Catherine, for example, is the mightiest slayer in the land, and Darcy is introduced with envious whispers of “Ten thousand a year and he’s personally laid to rest over a thousand unmentionables!” It’s clear as day where this book is supposed to go, and it wanders straight into fuckwittage instead.
Jane Austen’s leisured class persists in its leisure with an adorable obstinacy. Dinner invitations arrive on engraved stationery as long as the twice-daily mail riders aren’t gobbled up by stray dreadfuls. Mr. Bingley is a member of the Society of Gentlemen for a Peaceful Solution to Our Present Difficulties and sports an exotic French musket. So far so good — this is the unflappable England that will later answer the Blitz with civilized fortitude. Just a little ways into the book, however, the social coherence falls apart. The Bennet sisters are ninja warriors, an unladylike accomplishment which draws the scorn of Miss Bingley even as ninja Darcy presents a katana as a gift for his young sister.
Seriously, Mr. Grahame-Smith, do you remember what you write from one page to the next? This whole book is squandered potential. You were on a good sly road describing Elizabeth as “a warrior charged by the Crown to defend Hertfordshire until her death, maiming, or marriage.” Then you wandered off into some random zombie slapstick and vomiting gags. And why does Darcy keep making jokes about balls? That’s so wrong. *stomps foot and scowls*
Lastly, what’s with the lascivious fanfic onramps? I see what you’re doing with the throwaway references to Elizabeth’s father and beautiful Orientals, and I don’t like it.