Sometimes, “Sorry” is Just Not Enough

I had to give Atonement a few days to percolate. There are two sides to this coin and both sides carry equal weight. Like a football captain, I stand on the field and call heads or tails. On each side of the coin, there is a valid argument for why this books is a literary masterpiece and why it is a slog from hell.

Because I like to end on a positive note, I will start with why this entry on #theLIST could be considered an unbearable slog. The major issue, to me, is the interminable (but extremely lushly written) exposition, which lasts for half the book. That’s right. Half the book. McEwan spends the first half of the book on a day or so in the lives of the later main characters. He sets up the characters, inch by inch, revealing by their actions their interrelationship with each other. Sadly, none of the characters are particularly likable, with the exception of Robbie. It is also difficult to wade through the winding, image-laden prose, to the main character points that must be borne in mind for the second half of the book. My entire book club, all of whom made it through The 19th Wife, another story altogether, gave up before getting out of book one. That is when you know the exposition is too long and the prose overwrought. I admit, I had strong thoughts about giving up during Book 1 myself. It seemed as if nothing would ever happen.

And then, something did happen – an action which permanently altered the course of lives. Book 2 moves through World War II years, when Briony and Cecelia become nurses. Ever competitive, the two sisters move through the war, struggling to work out their relationship and balance that with other relationships. Minor characters disappear, except being mentioned in passing, inserting events that would later prove to be important and insightful. This is where Atonement starts earning its accolades. McEwan is a master of dropping a hint, here and there, that leads inexorably to a conclusion that is as unsatisfying as it is realistic. And here is where Atonement earns its literary kudos – in the unfulfilled desire to make amends that can never be made.

On the positive side, I have read a lot of overwrought prose in the last year and McEwan, at least, does it really well. He concentrates on sights, smells, and literary metaphors that play out – like bridges between the past and the present. His writing style feels heavy and sometimes very burdensome, but he creates a world that cradles its people with perfect synchronicity. If you can wade through the jungle of adjectives, you find the core idea. If you cannot wade through the adjectives, you throw the book at the wall and head straight back to whatever you were reading before you started this piece.

Love it or hate it, the realism is gritty, even if it is buried in the appearance of beauty. No one really ends well here, nor should they, if we discount fairy tale endings. The ability to wring so much regret is a great gift. I just wish he would make the payoff a little easier to achieve – when five out of seven avid readers throw the book aside in disgust, it screams for a bit of restraint.

7/10 hearts – and that is only because I finished the book. Had I not made it past Book 1 through sheer, dogged stubborn will, I would probably have given it 4/10.


In Which a Book is Added to #theLIST

Why The Good Earth did not make #theLIST is beyond me. Perhaps I had forgotten, in these many years since high school, the masterful novel following the arc of life for Wang Lung, the poor Northern Chinese farmer. In a revised list, The Good Earth becomes a must – it is a book one should read before one dies.

Much has been written about the main plot points of the story, which begins on Wang Lung’s wedding day to an unseen slave from the House of Hwang, O-Lan. It begins with Wang Lung thinking that his wedding morning would be the last morning that he would be responsible for lighting the fire and heating the plain water that greeted the start of each day for him and his father. And it was the last day that he undertook a task in the household. Thus began the long road of change for Wang Lung. It seems that many reviewers get lost in Wang Lung’s relationship with O-Lan, who is a masterfully drawn sympathetic character. She probably speaks less than twenty lines in the entire work, but her presence is Wang Lung’s first step out of grinding poverty. Where Wang Lung dreams, O-Lan acts. Her stoicism seems admirable and her realistic appraisal of their situation is necessary to move Wang Lung to action.

Early on, Wang Lung is intimidated by the House of Hwang and has little respect for the Old Mistress and Old Lord – particularly the Old Mistress, who is lost in opium addiction. Little by little, Wang Lung raises his family from poverty – even through a stint of fleeing a famine that leaves his first daughter profoundly retarded. He toils in the city as O-Lan , his children, and his father beg. For a year, they make no progress, but fortunate turns of events in a revolution give him and his family the means and opportunity to return to a barren land. There, Wang Lung fills his spirit with working the land, and fills his pride by educating two of his sons. As his prosperity increases, he is able to hire laborers and turn his attention to those things that idle men do. He gives no real thought to the consequences of his actions on the family; he is led astray by prosperity.

Over the course of time, Wang Lung rises to the level of the Old Lord, living in town, in the courts of the House of Hwang, and generally at the mercy of his better-educated sons. Like his father before him, he lays in the son and attends to his fool, the profoundly retarded daughter O-Lan gave birth to during the famine. He strays from his love of the land to grow fat and oily while his sons quarrel and their wives quarrel and his servants quarrel. All his life, Wang Lung searched for peace. The only time he really ever had peace was in his early years with O-Lan and his final years with Pear Blossom. Peace comes hard for Wang Lung, and the final encounter with his sons does nothing to promise him peace in death.

Many reviewers stop with the death of O-Lan, who is the sympathetic character. But it is Wang Lung’s story. His journey from peasant farmer to wealthy Lord is both a testament to the value of work and a caution against losing sight of core values. Wang Lung follows his sons in their paths away from the earth, only to desire nothing more than to return to his earthen hut on the farm to die. Wang Lung seeks peace but there is no peace to be had.

This is not some panoramic epic set against the backdrop of revolution. To the poor, revolutions really have no meaning. The system of government barely scratches the surface of Wang Lung’s life. This is also no love story – this is real life, where love shifts and changes over time. This is no story of rags to riches or the emptiness of worldly wealth. There are a lot of things this story is not. In my eyes, it is the story of a man in a place and time. His joys and his sorrows are laid bare before the reader; his follies and mistakes are matters of fact, not tragedy. This is a story of a soul, not the story of a body. There is no judgement; there is only what is. I saw the world through Wang Lung’s eyes, from their youthful clarity to the aged filminess. And, at times, I saw myself. I am not horrified; I am edified.

Buck’s style is supremely clean – spare but rich. It comes as a breath of fresh air as I have waded through so many works that excel in rolling periods of prose. Buck’s simplicity in style reflects the simplicity that is Wang Lung. The Good Earth is the first in a trilogy that I must complete. As for #theLIST, I hereby evict Jules Verne and welcome Pearl S. Buck as a must-read.

10/10 Hearts. Everyone should read this. We will all see ourselves somewhere along the line, and not always as we would have liked.

Orange and Lemons

They say that the opening line of this book is one of the classic lines in literary fiction: It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were all striking thirteen. Well, it’s a bright day in October and the clock will be striking 13:45 in just a few moments, Central Standard Time.

I read 1984 in high school and somehow failed to recall the total bleakness of this novel. Winston Smith is trapped in a world in which privacy is impossible, personal relationships are perilous, and independent thought is criminal. There is nothing beautiful or moving in this story, nor in the language Orwell uses to convey his nightmarish future. And I remember, in high school, wanting to learn the whole rhyme for the London churches – Orange and Lemons say the bells of St. Clemens/You owe me five farthings say the bells of St. Martins/When will you pay me say the bells of Old Bailey/When I am rich say the bells of Shoreditch. I remember that part. I think I purposely blocked out the rest.

So, thirty-odd years later, thanks to the insanity that has been #theLIST, Mr. Orwell and I are locked in a bitter struggle – we are trying to see if his vision of the future can really happen.

With a sick and sad feeling in the pit of my stomach, I must humbly acknowledge that at least a part of it not only can be, but is.

Political season, you know. Presidential elections in the US – you see boogie men around every placard.

Winston’s job is to alter the past to suit the present. There never was a past – only what the “Party” has approved to be remembered. And, naturally, giving the shifting of time, what can be remembered is altered daily. Winston, himself, alters it. It is a dreary desk job, performed by a colorless man with an ulcerating sore on his ankle and a secret – he commits thoughtcrime daily, without even attempting crimestop, and is forever lost in doublespeak.

The country of Oceania has always been at war. With whom it has been at war changes, and yet does not change. The war is a necessity, for keeping the common man, or proles, from engaging in any sort of prosperity. The destruction of goods is a necessity.

Here, I pause and look over my shoulder. War is necessary. Peace is War. And there is war a-brewing, just waiting for a new catalyst from the United Nations. If I am not mistaken, gasoline prices in California are very high. There is unrest in Syria. There is oil in Syria. The political possibilities, so far out of the reach of my fingers, ring like church bells in my ears. I think I have just committed thoughtcrime – and is it just me, or do those campaign poster eyes follow everyone around?

The destruction of the family is well underway in Winston’s world – while marriage is encouraged, affection is not. Children are little spies encouraged to turn on their parents. Parsons falls victim to this.

And Winston, who knows, continues to alter the past and engage in a pointless affair with Julia, who is only a rebel from the waist down.

Needless to say, Winston does not escape the notice of Big Brother and certainly pays the penalty for his thoughtcrime. It takes a while, though, and he resists through rounds and rounds of torture. Once again, I take my nerd hat off to Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and the episode Chain of Command. In an eerie homage to Orwell, Captain Picard and the The Cardassian played by David Warner, play out the initial phases of Winston’s punishment.

What price a man’s soul? In a soulless world, Winston finds out the price of his own soul. His soul does not come cheaply, but it does come. War is Peace. Orange and lemons. It all flutters to dust in the end. I am saddened and warned and now must return to Netflix and find my Star Trek episode and look at it with new eyes.

What price a man’s soul? What price mine?

8/10 Hearts. This was not a pleasant read, but it is truly necessary.