Monday, April 2, 2012

Dickens, cowboys, and camels

Well, it's been a little while, hasn't it? I apologize.

Since last posting, I finished up A Tale of Two Cities (and I cried at the end; I can't help it; a susceptibility to Dickens melodrama is in my genetic code), read The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt; re-read Bleak House; and read Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival by Dean King.

The Sisters Brothers was a Booker Prize finalist, and one of the blurbs described it as "if Cormac McCarthy had a sense of humor". That's not a bad description. DeWitt is more interested in story and characters than McCarthy is, and not nearly as interested in pointless violence. There's plenty of violence in The Sisters Brothers, but it propels the story. The eponymous brothers, who are contract killers, follow a target to San Francisco and up into the gold fields and have adventures along the way which I have to describe as slapstick, despite their often disturbing nature.

I couldn't help but think that deWitt was deeply influenced by "Deadwood". It's the same idea in a lot of ways: near-villains as protagonists and you can't help but like them; dialogue that no one would ever actually speak but that works in context; a fair amount of brutality. If you liked "Deadwood", I think you would like this book.

Bleak House was just wonderful, as always. Some scholars (Claire Tomalin among them) think that Esther Summerson is every bit as objectionable as every other Dickens heroine and that his attempt to write from the first-person perspective of a woman is incredibly offensive. I actually think that Esther is pretty well done, because Dickens has Ada Clare to be his standard heroine and can then do more interesting things with Esther, although her relationships with Ada and (to a lesser extent) Caddy Jellyby are the Victorian equivalent of a frat boy's fantasies about pillow fights in the girls' dorm (see: Esther, on what she thinks is her deathbed, having her maid spy on Ada in the garden and saying, "Tell me how beautiful she looks today"). But when Esther's not gushing about her "pet", as she calls Ada, her voice works for me. It makes sense that a girl raised by someone who tells her that she was her mother's shame and that it would have been better if she was never born would grow up to be like Esther, driven by duty and self-abnegation.

Yes, the ending is nasty. The way the men decide among themselves which of her two suitors Esther is going to marry, and override her previous choice without consulting her, enrages me every time. You could argue she's too wrapped up in a sense of what she owes to ever allow herself to be happy, but the man to whom she's engaged could, I don't know, TALK TO HER about it, instead of going behind her back and stage-managing a scene in which he hands her off to the other man without her even getting any dialogue. DICKENS. COME ON.

(But then, re-reading Nicholas Nickleby on the train yesterday, I came across a minor character named "Pugstyles", and all was forgiven. PUGSTYLES. I had to put my head down and snort.)

Then I picked up Skeletons on the Zahara, which is a non-fiction book about a merchant ship which wrecked off the African coast in 1815. The survivors are captured and enslaved by the Oulad Bou Sbaa, a Bedouin tribe. Eventually the majority of them are purchased by a man interested in ransoming them, and then they just have to make it to Swearah (location of the consulate) alive, which is easier said than done. This book was a solid desperation / starvation tale of the kind I enjoy, though there was no cannibalism. It bogged occasionally - King was not skilled enough at explaining the Bedouin's intertribal relationships and rivalries - but I liked it.

Now I am re-reading Can You Forgive Her?, by Trollope. I had planned to re-read the Palliser series this winter and didn't get around to it, so I'm picking them up now. I shall read new books in between. Possibly during, if Phineas Redux is as dire as I recall.   

1 comment:

  1. "if Cormac McCarthy had a sense of humor"--cutting.