Sunday, May 11, 2008

Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen - "Primary Color Prose"

The week that I was to graduate from high school, the circus came to town. They ran an ad in the newspaper saying that anyone who wanted to join the circus should be at a certain place that Friday (I was to graduate on Saturday). I have always been subject to a wanderlust - a restlessness about my life and its conventional trajectory. I had my summer job lined up, I was going to college in the fall, etc. - all things I was not particularly excited about. But the that was a place for me! In my romantically inclined imagination, I envisioned myself showing up that Friday at the designated spot, suitcase in hand, ready to hop on the train. I don't know if there actually was a train, or if they were actually going to leave that day, but so it went in my mind. But my mother would not let me go. I'm sure that my interest in joining the circus was only half-hearted - a way out as opposed to a desire to be in the circus - because if I had really wanted to do it, I would have regardless. But I didn't. I often think back to that decision not to bother, and wonder what course my life might have taken if I had shown up with my suitcase. It's like tootsie pops...the world will never know.

Besides seriously, but briefly, considering it as a career move, I have always been fascinated by the circus. I almost took a clown class when I was middle school (which was canceled since I was the only person who signed up), and I love the 1932 movie Freaks ("We accept her! One of Us! We accept her!"). So I was all excited about a circus story. But Water for Elephants was disappointing.

The writing was so-so. It wasn't so terrible that is was distracting (like Suite Francaise), but it wasn't fabulous either. There was something about the dialog in particular that didn't seem right, like Gruen was unable to capture something inherent in conversation...what exactly it was I couldn't say. Like dialog in a movie or drama in which the actors can't's forced or unnatural. I wanted to be moved by this book, and there where moments where I felt like I could almost cry...I was to that point of emotional involvement, and then...let down. The point would be dropped, or undeveloped, or the dialog would get in the way. Damn, almost had me there. And there were themes that could have been developed further, backgrounds better explained, which would have given more depth to the characters. For example, what was the deal with Camel and his family? It was mentioned that it had something to do with his soldiering in WWI, but what exactly happened?

And Walter... I really wanted to hear about Walter's experience as a dwarf during those times, and at the circus. A cousin of mine, Faye, was also a dwarf during the depression, and the circus had tried to buy her too, but her parents wouldn't sell her. Her life would have been Walter's life. I never got a chance to talk to her about her experience during those times (she died earlier this year), and I felt that Gruen had a chance to tell a little bit of that story in Water for Elephants (and the stories of the other performers and workers) but she simply left it out. I mean, come on - Walter, Camel and Jacob are in that car for how many countless hours and it's never discussed?)...this was to the detriment of my ability to relate to or be invested in the characters.

One point of the novel really annoyed me. August, the "equestrian director" is subject to bouts of extreme violence, cruelty and jealousy. Rather than just accepting this as part of his personality, or that he is an abusive person, end of story, Gruen feels the need to characterize him, explicitly, as a paranoid schizophrenic. However, I don't believe an unmedicated schizophrenic could have functioned in August's capacity. Perhaps there is a case to be made that he had dissociative identity disorder (aka multiple personalities) or was even bipolar, but not schizophrenia. It seems clear that he must have been diagnosed as such (pg 265), and if he was, I doubt he would have continued in his important capacity at the circus - it wouldn't have been simply 'worked around,' he would have been institutionalized...this is besides the fact that Marlena describes August as being "glamorous in the way only an equestrian director can be." (pg 222) Really? I never imagined equestrian directors as glamorous...but maybe I've never met the right one?

There seems to be some controversy on the internet regarding whether it was Marlena who killed August instead of Rosie. I don't understand where this comes from. On page 326, Jacob states the following: "I was never entirely sure whether Marlena knew - there was so much going on in the menagerie at that moment, that I have no idea what she saw...Rosie may have been the one who killed August, but I also wanted him dead." What could be more obvious?

New York Times reviewer Elizabeth Judd characterizes Water for Elephants in the following way:

"Gruen's prose is merely serviceable, and she hurtles through cataclysmic events, overstuffing her whiplash narrative with drama (there's an animal stampede, two murders and countless fights). She also asserts a grand passion between Jacob and Marlena that's never convincingly demonstrated."

Cleveland Plain Dealer reviewer, Karen Long wrote that Gruen batters readers "with barely serviceable, primary-color prose, full of sobbing, shrieking, fighting, boozing and whoring that comes off at the clip of an exaggerated Saturday-morning cartoon." While there has been a lot of enthusiasm and praise for this book, I tend to agree with Judd and Long on this one. It just wasn't that great.

I know that what books any individual likes is extremely subjective, and I shouldn't be judgemental of someone who really likes a book that I don't. But at some point in art (and literature, like music and film, is a form of art, or can be a form of art), there has to be an objective standard. For example, can one compare the works of Michelangelo, Picasso, Monet, etc. with the works of Marcel Duchamp or Cy Twombly? Yes - and the first group is infinitely better than the second - end of argument. I don't try to be snobbish about it, but seriously, there are some books that are - not even considering the plot - simply written better than others. On this point, another internet reviewer said that Water for Elephants is one of the best books that s/he has read in the last decade, second only to Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. Now, I have not read Gilead, but if Water for Elephants is the second best book that you have read in ten years, wow. What the hell else are your reading? Seriously, send me a list, because I don't want to read those books.

P.S. (10/21/08)
Water for Elephants is totally ripping off Sophie's Choice.

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