Monday, February 23, 2009

Fight Club

As I’ve written about this before, I’ve been having reading issues lately. Nothing holds my attention. I’m just not interested. I get this way every now and then, and it’s intensely frustrating. Sometimes, I go to my books shelves (and my piles, since I have run out of room on the shelves, and have not yet found a solution to this problem), and pick out everything I might be interested in reading and narrow them down...reading the first few pages, leafing through them, just looking at them. In one of these roundups I picked up Chuch Palahniuk’s Fight Club, and it went so fast that before I knew it, I was on page 50 or I just kept reading it. It was finished in three days.

Most of you have probably seen the movie, so you pretty much know what it’s about. An unnamed narrator whose life pretty much consists of his job (avoiding car recalls) and his IKEA catalog, suddenly makes a friend named Tyler who is everything this guy probably always wanted to be: unafraid, gutsy, deviant. After an explosion at his house, he moves in with Tyler. Fight Club starts out as a way for men to prove something to themselves about their own masculinity I suppose. I can’t really relate to the masculinity thing...but I do know that kicking the crap out of something after a long day at work does make the world feel a little more tolerable. Anyhoo...this fight club thing really takes off, and Tyler begins to recruit members for his Project Mayhem, which is essentially anti-consumerism guerilla know, blowing shit up and stuff. But it grows increasingly more violent and destructive, and also more serious, as Big Bob gets killed by police. The narrator tries to step in, to stop everything, but he quickly learns that people think he’s Tyler...and eventually he comes to realize that he is Tyler...that his insomniac brain has created this alter-ego to escape his horribly boring, completely unrewarding life. But he can’t step in and do anything...when he tries to stop Project Mayhem, the “space monkeys” say, “You told us you’d say that,” etc. His other ego has prepared his minions for that his “real” ego would try to do. And by now, Tyler has recruited EVERYONE it seems...the police, etc. In order to stop stop everything he created, the narrator tries to shoot himself, and waking up in a hospital, he only encounters more of Tyler’s trainees, who gleefully inform the narrator that they can’t wait until he’s back, and that they’ve been carrying on without him.

Like with Invisible Man, there are a lot of themes here that I could write about, but I just don’t feel like it. Or maybe I don’t care. Whatever. Sometimes you read a book to discover some deep meaning – about yourself or others or society or something like that – and sometimes you just want to be entertained. But while I’m on the topic, I will say, I liked this indictment of consumerism much more than American Psycho. I’m still reeling from the violence in that book, and it’s partly to blame for my difficulty in finding something I want to’s like I maxed out my tolerance for the year in that one book...but fortunately for me – for my mental health - Fight Club really wasn’t that violent. Or maybe violent yes, but not as detailed, not as graphic. I don’t care about the hole in the narrator’s cheek. Just no more rape and torture, please.

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t blown away by Fight Club. Maybe it was partly because I had seen the movie, so I already knew that Tyler and the narrator were the same person. But today, since the movie’s become such a cult hit, I imagine most people come to the book after seeing the movie. I mean, I can totally see punk-ass teenagers, probably mostly posers (or, as I called them in my day, PIDs – Preppies in Disguise) reading this novel and thinking, “DUDE THIS GUY IS AWESOME!” My own punk-ass (but not poser! me, when I was into it, it was not the cool thing) teenage years have turned into cynical adult years, so it takes much more for me to be impressed by anything, especially writing. That said, it certainly was clever, and the repetitive/spiral style of writing (“I know this because Tyler knows this.”) reminded me of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. If I remember correctly though, in TPoMJB, you knew from the beginning what was going to happen...with Fight Club the clues are there from the beginning, you just don’t realize it. It was a good book, or a decent book, and the writing was good...almost Cormac McCarthy-esque but not as hard hitting. I’m not burning with a desire to rush out and devour other books by Palahniuk, but I certainly wouldn’t mind reading more in the coming years. I guess with my current state of reading, that’s perhaps the best compliment I can give at this time.

But there is a riddle I have been pondering while thinking about and writing this post...if the first rule of fight club is not to talk about fight club, should I have written this post at all? harharhar :-)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Invisible Man

I remember buying Invisible Man. It was 1999, and I was in my senior year of h.s. I took A.P. English...not for the college credits you could get, but because I liked to read, and in order to avoid being in classes with people who in some instances probably didn't know how to read, you had to take the honors/AP classes. Anyway, our teacher always gave us essays from old AP tests to practice our writing...we would be given a question and a list of books we could use to answer that question and then the rest of the class time to write our essay on the topic. Because this was practice and usually geared to get us thinking about a particular book we were reading in class, we weren't allowed to pick just anything off the list to write about. But I paid attention to what books were on the lists. I have always been competitive about reading...about making every effort to be well read, sometimes as or more well read than a specific person. The thought of being in a discussion with someone about literature - serious literature - and having to admit I hadn't read a particular book is a terrifying scenario for me. This is what constantly drives my Maybe I need other hobbies or something. Whatever. So this book, Invisible Man was a constant on these lists. I knew no one my age in my little region of the country had read this book. Most probably assumed it was the HG Wells book...if they assumed anything. I remember walking into the book store and buying Invisible Man.

The fact that it has taken me 10 years to just getting around to reading it should give you some indication of the shear volume of my book-backlog. I buy a book with every intention of reading it right away...sometimes going into a frenzy - I HAVE TO HAVE THIS BOOK NOW!!! - and it will sit on my bookshelf (or now, piles in front of my bookshelf) for YEARS before I actually get to picking it up. And not only did it take me 10 years to pick up this book, it took me four months to finish it...because honestly, I just wasn't into it.

I won't go into too much plot detail here, but I'll give a brief overview. Invisible Man is the story of an unnamed narrator, black, and when we're introduced, he's pretty much a secretly in the basement of a NYC apartment building. He begins his story as a high schooler, class valedictorian in the rural south. After some really strange experiences at a men's club where he was to deliver a speech...(a stag party, a battle royal, naked women, an electrified rug, fact so many strange things occur in the chapter that I had to look up a summary on sparknotes to make sure I was really getting what was going on)...he is awarded a scholarship to a historically black college (modeled after Tuskegee). The unnamed narrator attends the college, where he's a good student. One of the college trustees (Mr. Norton, white) comes to visit, and he's charged with driving the guy around for the afternoon. During the course of the drive, he happens upon the black shanty town on the outskirts of the school, where they meet a guy who got his daughter pregnant. Mr. Norton is so overcome by the story - not with disgust or anger, but just overcome - he asks the narrator to get him a drink. The only place he can do so is to take him to a bar/brothel called the Golden Day...where they happen upon a bunch of mental patients out for the day. A fight breaks out at the bar, Mr. Norton faints and is cared for my a crazy former physician, etc. When they finally get back to the college, the President is so angry with the narrator, he kicks him out of school.

The President tells him that he might be let back into the college in the fall, but sends him to New York City with some letters of introduction so the narrator can find work. The earnest narrator heads north and presents the letters to their addressee, but never hears back from any of them. After delivering the last letter, he finds out that the letters pretty much said, "Don't hire this kid" so he's kind of screwed. He finds a job in a paint factory. First he has to mix the white paint with soem drops of black stuff, which he screws up and is sent to work in the boiler room. He and the man in charge down there get into a fight, the man tricks the narrator into turning the wrong valve and the boiler explodes. The narrator is injured, finds himself in a hospital where he receives shock treatments, and then is released. He collapses on his way home to his Harlem apartment and is taken in by a nice woman named Mary. All this happens in the first 250+ pages of the book.

After weeks without a job, wandering around Harlem he comes upon an old couple being evicted from their apartment. the narrator is inspired and gives an impromptu speech, which leads the crowd to take the evicted couple's stuff back into their apartment. His speech is heard by some Communist leaders (called the Brotherhood), and the narrator is enlisted in a job giving speeches throughout Harlem to agitate and organize the local population. He's super popular, but becomes too much so...his other "Brothers" accuse him of focusing too much on himself and not enough on the Brotherhood and their message. He's transfered back and forth for a bit, and then is called to help quell a riot - modeled on the riot of 1943. Like the other scenes, things seem crazy, including rival agitator, Ras the Exhorter, riding a horse in full African garb complete with spear. Through it all, the narrator realizes that the Brotherhood used him to get exactly that result, and he decides to pretty much drop out of become invisible.

Ok, I said I was only going to give an overview, but I guess that was more than an overview. I skipped a lot of the end...there's just too much to try to describe. Invisible Man won the 1952 National Book Award, beating out Hemingway and Steinbeck. It brought him fame, but that fame stifled Ellison, and he was unable to publish another novel in his lifetime. There's a lot of themes in this book - invisibility and identity, racism, etc. It's obvious why it would be a ripe novel for AP English and people looking for an African-American literary perspective on these topics would find a lot of stuff here. But I just couldn't get into it. It failed to draw me in at the beginning - which might be as much my fault as Ellison's...a lot has been going on lately, and it started in November - and though the pace picked up about half-way through, I still wasn't interested. It's obviously an important book, and deserves to be on any Top 100 of the 20th Century list...but I just didn't like it very much. Sometimes I recognize that I don't like a particular work because it wasn't the right time for know, "we're just in two different phases of our lives", but I don't think that was the case for me and Invisible Man. *Sigh* Oh well. On to the next...

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Reading Update

I haven't been writing much here lately because I haven't been reading much. It's a combination of factors - I'm so exhuasted most of the time lately that expending any effort is too much. Going to bed at 9 p.m. without being able to even consider cracking a book takes its toll. The other factor is that I am terribly bored with all the books I'm reading. I'll give a brief rundown:
  • Invisible Man - If this were the H.G. Wells version, I wouldn't still be reading it because (1) it's shorter; and (2) it'd be more exciting. Instead I'm reading - have been reading since November - Ralph Ellison's version, which is 600 pages and slow going. I'm [finally] more than 70% of the way through, and fortunately it has picked up a little in the last 100 pages, but I'm still really not into it.
  • The Rainbow - All I have to say is: zzzzzzzzzzzzz. Two years ago I read Sons and Lovers but don't remember much about it. Maybe that's because it was as boring as this.
  • All Quiet on the Western Front - I'm really disappointed that I don't like this more. Maybe it's not the right time for it...maybe I just have to say, AQotWF, it's time for you to go back on the shelf for a bit. Like all these other books, I just really don't care.
  • Justine - this one is by Lawrence Durrell (not de Sade). Like AQotWF, I'm also confused why I'm not enjoying this one more. The writing is great, the plot ok, and the book's only 250 pages. But instead I've been reading it for months. I just can't get into it.
  • Dance to the Music of Time, Part #10 - This book...I mean this volume of books...has been on and off for me. Some times I plow through it, other times it's a chore to pick it up. Occassionally this has something to do with the actual plot, but other times it's just me. Currently I'm just stalled and it's very frustrating. I feel like I'm on the home stretch - the final volume, and I can't get started.

I think what I need to do is find a novel that will jump start my reading again, but I'm also at a loss as to what that novel might be. I think tonight I might spend some time with "the stacks" to see what I can find.