Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Testament of Mary

The Testament of Mary
By Colm Tóibín

The Man Booker Prize was awarded to Eleanor Catton for her novel her novel The Luminaries (Congrats Ms. Catton). At 28 years old, Catton becomes the youngest winner of the Booker Prize. But that is not the only superlative we can superimpose one this year's crop of nominees for (arguably) literature's most prestigious award. Colm Tóibín's 81 page novel The Testament of Mary is the shortest book to ever be shortlisted (or even long listed for that matter). It barely qualifies as a novel. I've read novellas longer that The Testament of Mary. But what it lacks in density, it more than makes up for in controversy. Not only due to it's subject matter, but also due to the delivery of the narrative.

The controversy involved in Tóibín's novel is twofold. First, any novel written from the historical perspective of a contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth is contentious by nature among those who will take issue with the way in which Jesus and other Bible personages are characterized. There are always going to be those who will take issue with elements of Biblical accuracy. Of more interest, though, is the literary controversy The Testament of Mary has generated, particularly the unconventional way in which Mary has been characterized. 

The Testament of Mary is a first person account of the life of Jesus as told by his mother, many years after the crucifixion. Mary has been kept protected (hidden) by the disciples and is tended to by several watchers at Ephesus in Asia Minor. The disciples themselves often visit to gather stories from Mary, but only those that fit their particular needs. It is at this point, in her extreme old age, that Mary feels compelled to disclose the truth of her son's life as she recalls it. I suppose her motivation is the direction in which the disciples are steering the ship: toward a division with the Jewish tradition and the founding of a new religion.

What Mary recounts is a far more ephemeral account of the life of Jesus. His miracles as witnessed by his mother are open to critical interpretation and his death and resurrection are recalled in far more corporeal tones. In fact, Mary seems to be confounded by the cult of personality that spouts up around her son and professes to not understanding much of what his followers are saying. This, of course, implies that Mary was never a follower of her son. But Tóibín takes it one step further and hints at a possible reversion to paganism in her old age, a rather confounding notion, to say the least.

Mary is characterized as both brutally honest and absolutely sure about the events that lead up to the arrest and death of her son, but at the same time rather confused about the events that transpired in the days and years that followed the crucifixion. Her voice is lucid and exacting and her attention to the details surrounding both the wedding at Cana and the resurrection of Lazarus are vividly fascinating. But when it comes to the politicking of her son's life and martyrdom, Mary seems utterly confounded. 

Surely one can excuse the bereaved for not entirely understand what is going on in the wake of death, but Mary's complete ignorance concerning the machinations of the disciples in  the aftermath of the crucifixion is inexcusable and a real fault in Tóibín's characterization. Mary seems oblivious to the fact that she is being used by the embryonic Christian Church to further their political cause within the Empire.

Which leads me to wonder what is purpose of this little novel. Surely it's not an examination of Mary as a literary heroine. We learn very little about her throughout the novel. In fact this novel has very little to do with Mary other than the fact that she is the voice in which it flyers through. And surely it's not simply to suggest that Jesus was not, in fact, the son of God. That theme has been done to death in longer and far more insightful novel than this one. So if The Testament of Mary isn't about Mary and isn't about Jesus (in the historical sense) than what is it about?

My best guess is that Tóibín is investigating the nature of truth. The story of Jesus is one narrative that tends to get a free pass on revisionism. Through Mary, we throw the entire Jesus story through the first person wringer, allowing the writer to take license with virtually every detail of the story they see fit to alter. Here Tóibín chooses to reduce Christ to the status of man retrofitted as a godhead. Further to that point, it would seem that Colm Tóibín is examining the politics of myth-making and how an agenda trumps truth when the chips are on the proverbial table. Mary is simply a puppet to be manipulated when the need arises. A tool to be kept alive but also carefully choreographed.

But if that's the case, if Toibin's over-arching purpose was to somehow point out that the Bible is either patently untrue or (at the very least) decidedly unreliable, then this novel seems rather like flogging a dead horse. Only the most fervent zealots believe that the Bible is the literal word of God rather than a flawed and contradictory text written by hundreds of people over thousands of years. If pointing this out was Toibin's intent it's sort of like spending a pleasant afternoon proving that the sky is blue to a group of people, a small percentage of whom are color-blind.

To be honest, I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this novel. In the spirit of this blog, I wrote this immediately after finishing the book. But this is the sort of novel that will take days or weeks to sort out. I need to mull over the more intricate nuances of this tight little narrative. I know the novel is flawed, but I'm trying to decide whether or not it is intentionally flawed in order to make a point about the nature of truth, or critically flawed because Colm Tóibín is simply mean-spirited.

Has anyone else read this book yet? I'd be curious to know what you took away from it. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Zone One

Zone One
By Colson Whitehead

I've said this before and I'll say it again and again: The zombie genre is, by nature, limited. Films, television and books that are written within the genre appeal to a very specific sub-section of horror fans and rarely find purchase among a wider audience. Case in point, the relative failure of this past summer's film adaptation of World War Z. If Brad Pitt can't generate a wider audience for zombies, I doubt anyone can (though the failures of that film run far deeper, but that's another blog post for another day).

In fact, more often than not there is little effort made by creators of zombie lore to appeal to a wider audience. Why? With such a solid, rabid core following, why would an author or director bother to expand an audience in a genre that is notorious for being limited in scope and hopelessly bereft of innovation. The dead reanimate, infect the unsuspecting living, a motley crew of lucky people eke out a corner of survival where they wax philosophical on the nature of the apocalypse and what it all means. The fundamental themes of these stories tend to be hopelessness, desperation and the contrast between the living and the walking dead. I'm not slag gin on this formula. Obviously I'm part of the rabid core, but that's the essential alpha and omega of zombie stories. There are only so many avenues for the zombie to shuffle down and the widest ones also happen to be the most profitable.

But despite the rigidity of the genre, there is a certain degree of wiggle room and there have been a slew of Very Good Books written in the past few years that intersect the zombie genre with literary fiction. Here I'm thinking of Max Brooks's World War Z and Joan Frances Turner's novel Dust. But the best of the literary zombie lot (that I have read) is Colson Whitehead's Zone One.

Zone One refers to the southern tip of Manhattan Island. It is several months since the beginning of the zombie apocalypse and the remains of humanity are busy. A provisional government has sprung up in (of all places!) Buffalo and the world is in full clean up mode. The novel is told from the perspective of a nameless protagonist only known as Mark Spitz. Mark Spitz is part of a sweeper team that is charged with sweeping though Zone One building by building, room by room eliminating stragglers and making the city once again inhabitable. It's slow going, but things seem to be looking up for humanity.

The narrative is non-linear and tangential. Given that most of the survivors are suffering from what one psychologist refers to as post-apocalyptic stress disorder (PASD), the narrative structure fits the tone of the novel perfectly. It becomes a wonderful tool for keeping the reader in the dark about a lot of things until Whitehead is ready to reveal them. The reader only begins to get a full idea of the state of the world by the middle of the novel. And that idea is that survival is a great deal more boring that we all expected.

And that is really the over-arching theme of Zone One. Past the typical themes of hopelessness, isolation, and the psychological repercussions of mass death, Whitehead tackles a subject that few writers in the genre would dare to tackle: The sheer monotony of survival. The tedium of scavenging food and water, avoiding the walking dead and finding an adequate place to sleep the night. Unlike other novels in the genre Zone One is large swaths of tedium interspersed with First Night stories, a full reversal of the usual formula of viscera and victory.

Indeed mendacity is revered in Zone One and the novel break down the fetishization of the zombie apocalypse. In that respect Zone One is the very antithesis of the fanboy novel. Mark Spitz the very definition of an average man. There is literally nothing extraordinary about him except his complete lack of extraordinariness (the irony of his nickname is not lost). And that's the point. The survivors of the zombie apocalypse won't be the extraordinary. They will be the hopelessly average. The fact that the provisional government sets up shop in Buffalo, a cookie-cutter sort of American city devoid of character or flavor only accentuates that point (sorry people of Buffalo. I grew up in Toronto. Of course I was going to slag your fine city. It's my duty). Survival is not the stuff of action, adventure and romance. It is an oblivion of banality.

Beyond that, Whitehead uses his vast swaths of free time within the narrative to build a thought-provoking comparison between our modern world (of iPods, tablets and streaming videos) and that of a post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland. Whitehead constructs and then deconstructs (all too cleverly) the age old question of whether we are already zombies, asleep at the wheel of society. But Whitehead takes it a step further by applying modern business jargon and newspeak to the equation by introducing the notion of marketing and branding to the world of survival noting that we will all bring our particular strengths to the table in a post-apocalyptic world. It's just a matter of whether our strengths have any benefit. In this sense Zone One skirts precariously close to satire and the point is crystal clear. Whitehead has a lot to say about us as a society without zombies and he has full license to rant away now that he's done away with the vast majority of it. And the rants are fun to behold and satisfying in their hypothetical outrage.

Zone One is a thinking man's zombie novel. While it does have it's fair share of gore, it is expressed in matter of fact tones and is not intended to shock or terrify the reader, rather it is presented as the unfortunate reality of the world of Zone One. And while I am certain that I would catch a lot of flak for comparing this novel to Cormac McCarthy's The Road, there are obvious similarities that cannot be ignored. All of this makes Zone One the top of the heap among zombie novels and the first of its kind that I can confidently categorize as capital L, capital F Literary Fiction. If for no other reason that Zone One has the courage to drag zombies out of their traditional realm and placed under full literary examination. If you are only ever going to read one zombie novel, make it this one.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep
By Raymond Chandler

As I mentioned a few posts back, I am making a concerted effort to read novels by authors I have previously ignored or, for whatever reason, passed by over the years. I'm trying to round off my reading in such a way that I have less unexplored corners and reading renowned writers who have otherwise travelled under my radar seems like the perfect way to cover a few bases. One such writer is Raymond Chandler, the detective writer extraordinaire and the grandfather of hard-boiled mysteries Chandler, along with Dashiell Hammett are single handedly responsible for the careers of a half dozen leading men in Hollywood between 1930 and 1960. Hard-boiled lingo has continued to exist right down to the present day. Chandler is certainly not a lightweight.

I admit, I was a little apprehensive about picking up a Chandler novel because, much like my first Agatha Christie, I was certain I wasn't going to like it. But I approached The Big Sleep with an open mind. Maybe I would like this one. Maybe I've read all the wrong early 206th century detective novels. Maybe this one would change everything.

Turns out, I was right. I hated it. I should listen to myself more often.

Before anyone gets mad at me, I better take this opportunity to caveat this blog post with a few reading facts about myself. First, I really don't like detective novels or mysteries in general. Rarely does a mystery hold my attention. I really have a hard time maintaining a level of concern for the intricacies of the plot. I know that connoisseurs of the genre have the ability to pinpoint definitive clues and red herrings from the prose. I'm lucky if I can maintain the direction of the general plot. Somewhere in the middle of the first act I will miss a key plot device that will leave me with one foot out the door for the rest of the novel. Obviously it goes without saying that I will not be solving any mystery before the reveal. I just can't bring myself to care.

Mystery writers are trying to outsmart their smartest, most loyal readers. They take great pains to keep the reveal a secret to the very end of the story and, therefore throw all sorts of nonsense at the reader in an effort to deflect their attention away from the important issues. I am neither smart nor loyal so I get lost in the morass of false flags, red herrings and misleading tangents. What makes it worse, I get lost and I don't care. I simply shrug my shoulders and check to see how many more pages until a chapter break so I can nod off, guilt-free.

Second, I hate hard-boiled jargon. There's opacity to the language that makes me feel like I'm standing in a crowd of investment bankers or lighting technicians or something. It makes me feel the same as when two high school friends would be talking about a new band and you ask "who?" and they look at you as if you've lived the past three seasons under a a pile of dirty wrestling tights in the school gym. There is very little in this world I hate more than exclusionary jargon whether it's street lingo or managerial nonsense. The Big Sleep is full of this sort of language.

The Big Sleep is a mystery (strike one) that is rife with exclusionary jargon (strike two). It is also interesting that The Big Sleep is not only the title of this novel but also the effect it has on the reader. It's not a long novel, but it took me over a week to read because every single time I picked it up I would drift off into a dreamless slumber after a dozen pages. I swear, I've never felt so rested as I have during the reading of this novel. I averaged about ten hours of sleep a day throughout this novel. In that sense, it is I who got the big sleep, unwittingly.

Like all of Chandler's novels, The Big Sleep centers around Detective Philip Marlowe. Marlowe is hired by aged General Sternwood to investigate something or other to do with his naughty daughters (both of which throw themselves at Marlowe through the course of the book). There is something to do with a lost husband, pornography and a half dozen murders. It all happens at the excruciating slow pace of a bad Japanese horror movie and at no point could I have given a damn. Once the mystery is revealed I had simply lost all interest in every character in the novel and couldn't wait to be rid of the book.

Now, it's not all bad or else I would have put it down long before the end. Chandler does have a way with words. If you are a lover of language (and can wade through jargon to get to the good stuff), I have to admit that Chandler has a way with similes and comparisons. and for this alone, The Big Sleep is worth the price of admission. How could it not be when you get lines like: "Her legs were as long as a couple of Dickens' novel and I read them cover to cover." (note: I made that one up because I'm too lazy to open the book and find a real example even though the book is within arms length. I just don't care enough to be precise).

And to be fair, The Big Sleep does seem a little cliched and predictable from thdays perspective simply because the story has been regurgitated in lesser forms for over half a century via film, television and parodies. It has been the subject of imitation, lampoon and homage to the point that even those who have never even heard of The Big Sleep probably know enough aspects of the story to piece it together if they so wish. But historical and stylistic context still don't excuse the lack of a compelling story, and this is where Chandler fails in my mind, no mater if it's 1933 or 2013.

All in all, The Big Sleep is similar to eating crab from the shell. It's more trouble than it's worth what with the exclusionary language and the plodding pace of the mystery (that I couldn't care less about... did I mention that yet?). Sure there is some really sumptuous morsels of goodness buried deep in the shrapnel-like shell, but it's difficult to get to and not enough of it to make it entirely worth your while.

I'll pass on any more Raymond Chandler.