Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Book Review: The Crying of Lot 49

The Crying of Lot 49Title: The Crying of Lot 49
Author: Thomas Pynchon
Publication Date: 1966 (2006 edition)
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Genre: Mystery
Pages: 183
Age Rating: Readers over 14
My Opinion: 3/10

Hi, Readers!

       Phew, I never realized how exhausting post-modernist novels could be.  Reading these novels for American Fiction from 1950 to Present requires my full attention - skipping over a single line of text can leave me feeling confused for chapters on end.  This sense of confusion hit me like a truck as soon as I dived into The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon.

The 'Trystero' sign that Oedipa discovers
       The Crying of Lot 49 is one of the most incomprehensible novels that I have ever reviewed.  I don't even know where to start, so I guess I'll just start from the beginning.  Oedipa Maas, a housewife living in California, had a previous romantic relationship with a billionaire property owner, Pierce Inverarity.  One evening, she discovers that he has passed away and left her as the executor of his will.  Naturally, Oedipa has absolutely no clue where to start in executing a will, so she meets with a lawyer, Metzger.  The two end up having a whirlwind affair, and Oedipa becomes involved in a conspiracy of sorts involving 'Trystero' and hidden signs around the city of San Narciso.  

       In case you haven't noticed, I rated Pynchon's novel as a three out of ten.  Let me make one thing clear - The Crying of Lot 49 definitely does reach a particular audience (although I'm not quite sure who that may be) and it is certainly renowned in the minds of some readers.  However, maybe I just don't understand what Pynchon is trying to get at with his choppy and unnecessary storytelling, but his writing style does not appeal to me whatsoever.  He includes ten pages worth of description on a movie that Oedipa and Metzger watch, and he also describes in full detail a gruesome play that Oedipa attends, the two of which were absolute wastes of time.  Considering that the novel isn't very long to begin with, I can't help but wonder why Pynchon wasted precious space including these irrelevant stories when he could have been developing his characters or expanding upon his brief discussion of gender roles and identity in society.  Plus, he never truly develops the plot of the novel - if there even is a plot to begin with - and the conclusion leaves readers hanging with no explanation.

Thomas Pynchon
Author Thomas Pynchon
       Pynchon's only saving grace is his use of humor.  Although I am still totally unaware about what the point of the novel is, I tried to read it with an open mind and it made me laugh constantly.  One of the funniest moments of the novel is when Oedipa accidentally breaks a can of hairspray in her hotel bathroom and it ricochets around for minutes, all while Oedipa is covered in layers of clothing from playing a stripping game with Metzger.  Ludicracy such as this is practically considered normal day-to-day life in The Crying of Lot 49.  

       As I briefly mentioned before, I do believe, deep down, that there is some sort of audience for The Crying of Lot 49, but that audience definitely does not encompass young adult fiction readers such as myself.  I would not have the heart to recommend this novel to anybody for the fear that they would end up just as disoriented as I did... or even worse, that they manage to uncover a deeper understanding that I totally missed.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Book Review: No-No Boy

No-No Boy
Title: No-No Boy
Author: John Okada
Publication Date: 1957 (2014 edition)
Publisher: University of Washington Press
Genre: Realistic fiction (now considered historical)
Pages: 232
Age Rating: Readers over 12
My Opinion: 8/10

Hi, Readers!

       I am pleased to announce, with a sigh of relief, that No-No Boy, by John Okada, is a much simpler novel to understand than the last novel I read for American Fiction from 1950 to Present, The Subterraneans.  Thank goodness!  It also has a much more intriguing plot line and more reachable characters.  The strongest aspect of No-No Boy, however, has to be its focus on minority groups that are not usually discussed in literature.  Although it was written in its time as realistic fiction, it can now be considered historical and it opened my eyes to a twentieth century issue that I was entirely unaware of.

The rights of Japanese Americans
were called into question
       During the Second World War, thousands of Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps in the midwest due to their ethnicity.  While in these camps, they were forced to answer a questionnaire determining their loyalty to the United States, in which two questions asked if they pledged allegiance to the US (thus denouncing Japan) and if they were willing to serve in the American military.  Men who answered "no" to both questions were immediately labeled "No-No Boys" and were either deported or sent to prison.  Okada's novel focuses on Ichiro Yamada, a No-No Boy who is released after two years in jail, and his attempt to reintegrate himself into society.  When Ichiro reunites with his family and friends, he realizes that he is no longer considered a respected member of the country that he grew up in.  He faces a long journey of self-discovery filled with doubts and trials, and Okada questions the character of America as a whole in the powerful novel.

       As my professor described to us in class, No-No Boy is, in reality, a novel about a minority group inside of another minority group.  No-No Boys were the minority of Japanese Americans, and Japanese people were a minority in America.  Interestingly, the Japanese American community rejected Okada's novel when it first came out, most likely because of its honest depiction of the hardships the group endured and the reality of the treatment of No-No Boys.  To be completely honest, I had never even heard of No-No Boys before reading the novel, which is why I found it so enlightening.  It discusses touchy subjects in American history that few novels even have the guts to address.

flag       One downside of No-No Boy is the portrayal of many unlikeable characters.  For starters, although Ichiro has been through a lot over the past couple of years of his life, he is not a particularly 'likeable' character.  He complains often, resorts to drinking away his feelings, and is rude to his family and friends.  I may seem harsh, but I'm not going to cut Ichiro any slack because his friend Kenji goes through events just as tortuous as his own and manages to retain a positive outlook on life.  Next, Ichiro's mother is indubitably portrayed as a villain throughout the novel, and she is one of the meanest characters I have ever come across.  Her selfish disillusionment hurts everybody around her and causes her to self destruct as she refuses to believe that Japan lost the war.  No-No Boy is portraying an extreme minority audience, and I cannot speak for anyone except for myself, but it's practically impossible for me to relate to what the characters are going through.

       I certainly cannot call into question the power of Okada's novel.  It does an excellent job addressing the social and racial issue of the No-No Boys of World War II, and it opened my eyes to a completely unique lifestyle.  However, I wasn't the biggest fan of the characters in the novel, which turned me off at points.  I would recommend No-No Boy to lovers of historical fiction, but it is not a light-hearted novel for casual readers.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Book Review: The Subterraneans

The SubterraneansTitle: The Subterraneans
Author: Jack Kerouac
Publication Date: 1958 (1994 edition)
Publisher: Grove Weidenfeld
Genre: Realistic fiction
Pages: 111
Age Rating: Readers over 16
My Opinion: 6/10

Hi, Readers!

       What better way to start off the semester of American Fiction from 1950 to Present than by reading one of the most confusing books known to mankind?  Jack Kerouac's The Subterraneans is the most disjointed and seemingly illiterate novel that I've ever read.  That being said, Kerouac's writing style is so original that his strange assertions and interesting language are simultaneously captivating and repulsing.  To be completely honest, I am still debating whether or not I actually enjoyed reading The Subterraneans, but it was definitely... unique.

       The Subterraneans are a group of about twenty young adults living in San Francisco in the early 1950's, and they embody the "hipster" identity.  From drugs to drinking to contemplating life, the Subterraneans aspire to be junkies and to do practically nothing with their lives.  Strangely enough, Leo Percepied wants to be just like the Subterraneans, even though he is about ten years older than all of them and doesn't fit in at all.  His Hawaiian shirt  and "crudely, malely sexual" (Kerouac) personality are in stark contrast to the berets and haughty language of the Subterraneans, yet he manages to worm his way in.  Leo is immediately taken by Mardou, an African American and Native American woman who is viewed as one of the most desirable of the group.  Mardou eventually accepts Leo's advances, and the rest of the novel tells the intricate story of their delicate relationship and their involvement with the rest of the Subterraneans.

An alternate cover depicting
Leo and Mardou
       You're probably thinking, based on my short summary above, that The Subterraneans doesn't seem too complex.  Well, let me put it this way: you're wrong.  The writing style of The Subterraneans is one of the reasons that it is widely acclaimed, but it also forces readers to dig their way through sentences that are as long as paragraphs and large sections of text that don't follow any basic gramatical rules (the horror!).  In class, my professor later explained to us that Kerouac did not revise the novel.  At all.  Zilch.  Zero.  The Subterraneans is a first draft that contains Kerouac's most private thoughts, some of which probably should not be shared with the public.  He tends to interrupt his own writing and does not follow a logical time sequence, making it difficult to follow even the simplest of anecdotes. However, one thing is for sure - Kerouac's stream-of-thought style writing is honest, raw, and uncut.

       The Subterraneans was written in 1953 and published in 1958, basically right at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.  Therefore, Kerouac, as a white male, was not the only one of the time demonstrating racism.  However, this does not serve as an excuse - as my professor aptly stated, Kerouac really should have edited his writing.  Some of the statements that he makes about Mardou based on her skin color are absolutely ridiculous.  For instance, he thinks that her body is somehow different than that of a white woman, and he also blindly stereotypes the story of her past, especially relating to the history of her Native American father.  Kerouac's unfiltered writing style is part of what makes The Subterraneans such an interesting piece of writing, but it also leads to many uncomfortable statements and racist assertions.

Jack Kerouac
Jack Kerouac
       Lastly, Kerouac managed to offend quite a few people with his lack of revisions, namely because he based his characters off people he knew in real life.  Leo is loosely based on himself, and the novel is actually only "semi-fictional" because Kerouac based it off one of his own romances.  This only adds to my agreement that Kerouac should have revised his writing before publication, but his characters certainly have depth.

       All in all, it's tough to get a good grasp on Kerouac's writing.  I know that what I read was, in a way, brilliant and ingenious, but I was also left feeling dazed and confused.  Kerouac is an amazing writer, but I think some of his ideas went over my head.  I can't say I would recommend reading The Subterraneans for pleasure - it takes way too much concentration to make it through the novella.

Happy reading!