Monday, February 15, 2010

What I think about when I think about Lolita: an Introduction for the Book Club Discussion

(Generally spoiler free- intended for before or concurrent with your reading of the book.)

First, I don't claim to be an expert on Lolita. I read this book once, about ten years ago, and have only picked it up a few times since then to dip back into certain sections. I did a little more research before writing this and am working my way through The Annotated Lolita in addition to the Jeremy Irons audiobook to prepare for the discussion. This is just an attempt to identify, in advance, some things you might want to think about as you read Lolita.

Humbert Humbert is a classic example of the unreliable narrator. As you read the novel it's clear that you are being manipulated by the way he presents information and his constant dissembling and rationalizing, even though he does admit to some pretty unsavory things. The entire story (except the Forward) is relayed to us by Humbert which means that he controls and shapes the tone; he gets to "spin" the story, to use the modern parlance. The result is that the book manipulates you into sympathizing with this character who is, when taken objectively, a monster. His seductive tone, the remarkable elegance of his narrative voice creates a conflict within the reader of how to interpret what we are being told. This aspect of Lolita colors everything else to come. Only the Forward, the only part of the book that is not in Humbert's voice, allows Nabokov the opportunity to distance himself from this awful narrator and condemn the things he does, and even the Forward should be taken with some salt.

The novel is presented as being written by Humbert after the events took place. As a result there are hints, clues, and allusions in early chapters of characters and events that come later. This gives Lolita at least some aspects of a mystery story as the plot unravels. Weather you are reading this for the first time or rereading be aware of foreshadowing and alluding to future events, and also the use of coincidence to drive the plot.

There are lots of linguistic games and intricate wordplay going on. Nabokov fills the book (all his books, really) with hidden meanings and obscured references. For the most part I would say that "getting" all these references isn't really essential to the understanding the basic story, but they do provide another level of detail to think about. If you pick up a copy of The Annotated Lolita it will provide a lot more insight on these things, but it can also be very disruptive to the reading experience and I would not recommend it for a first time reader. It's probably better to simply read the novel on your own, attentively, and take from it what you get naturally. If something tugs at your brain or strikes you as a little odd it is probably intentional, and worth prodding for additional meaning (but not losing sleep over).

I will, however, provide a few tips on some of the larger allusions and references as a starting point for what to look for in order to gain a deeper appreciation of the work. There are several references to Edgar Allen Poe, and specifically to his poem Annabel Lee, not just attributing the name to Humbert's "initial girl-child" but several lines from the poem are also echoed in the novel, especially that first chapter. It should not be lost on the careful reader that Poe married his 13-year-old cousin in 1835, and this is one of several examples of pedophilic relationships in history and myth that Humbert provides as a loose justification for his condition in the early chapters.

There are also several instances of words and images the evoke elements of classic fairy tales. Examples of this can be found throughout, from the neologism "nymphet" to figurative descriptions of Humbert’s pursuit and Lolita’s innocence. Imagery related to butterflies comes up frequently as well, with many possible interpretations (Nabokov himself was a collector of them). Be aware of how ideas and concepts from psychology, especially Freudian psychology get mentioned. Nabokov was an outspoken critic of Freudian psychology, which is worth noting when considering Humbert's contempt for his own psychiatric examinations as well as his willingness to attribute childhood trauma as a cause of his fixation on young girls. These are just some of the things you find when you dig deeper into the text and background sources.

The novel is filled with coincidences, puns, allusions, alliteration, silly and unlikely names of people and places, implausibly convenient plot developments, foreign words and phrases and other linguistic flourishes. These all have a way of disrupting the reality of the narrative and unsettling the reader. Obviously it is a conscious choice made by the author- the whole point of such things is to call attention to them- but it is interesting to consider why Nabokov would want to do this as you read the novel. What effects does this have on someone trying to interpret and understand the story? What, if anything, does it say about our narrator?

Another thing to think about is that this novel was first published over 50 years ago, and where a lot of books and films that were considered shocking 50 years are downright tame by today’s standards Lolita still retains a lot of it's potency. Even on Pajiba, on the internet, ten years deep into the twenty-first century picking Lolita for the book club caused a few eyebrows to go up and a few comments to be made about the controversial subject matter. I guess it's a good thing in some ways that even as we grow more and more accepting of sex and sexuality, pedophilia still retains some of its taboo.

And yet, there is an argument to be made that even that is eroding in some ways. It certainly seems like sexualization of young girls is becoming more prevalent, at least of the 'look but don't touch' variety. Miley Cyrus and Dakota Fanning are only just outside of Humber Humbert's "9-14" criteria. Also, there is the popular usage of the term 'lolita'. It's usually applied, not so much to victims of sexual predators, but to precociously sexual young girls who experiment with sexual assertiveness or make a wanton appeal to that kind of attention. It takes on an unseemly 'asking for it' connotation that is not necessarily representative of the book's portrayal of the eponymous character.

When the relationship does turn sexual (spoiler: it turns sexual) how do you interpret Lolita's feelings given the unreliability of Humbert's account? At times she is portrayed as a willing and active participant, even a seducer of Humbert, but later details cast a different light on the effects this relationship has on her. Some of this could be attributed to the complexity and conflicting nature of her character (at first it's a game, but later the trauma and regret are felt). Then again, how much can we trust Humbert's version of Lolita's attitude toward him? Of course he is going to portray himself as desirable and her as willing. Where might the "truth" lie, and what difference would it make? Humbert is a predator, regardless. Does Lolita's attitude change in any way your interpretation of the story? Can there be, as Whoopi Goldberg put it, a distinction of rape but not "rape-rape"?

And finally, just take in the beautiful, lyrical writing. It's amazing. Several people already mentioned Humbert's opening paragraph on Lolita, which is one of my favorites, too. This isn't some Dan Brown hackery. Nabokov is acutely aware of the way his language feels and how we can experience it viscerally. He draws your attention to Lo-Li-Ta ("the tip of the tongue taking a trip down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth"). Everything is carefully composed just so for a reason. The rhythm and cadence, the flow of words and sentences, the tactile sensation of reading it aloud (the lilting of "Lolita" and the double rumble of "Humbert Humbert" are meant to convey the essence of those characters), the significance of different ways to name something ("plain Lo, in the morning.... Dolly at school... Delores on the dotted line") or the ability to find poetry in a list of schoolchildren's names; it's not just an awareness of the etymology and meaning of words but also of their sensation and feeling, every word has been weighed and considered by Nabokov in creating this work. Regardless of how uncomfortable it may be to contemplate some of the things he says, how can you deny the beauty in the way he says them?

I hope you all enjoy it, and I look forward to the discussions to come.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

13. There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

"There is clearly someone in the house. Walk into the bedroom: something falls in the living room. Look for the cat: it's sitting on the little table in the front hall, its ears pricked up; it clearly heard something, too. Walk into the living room: a scrap of paper has fallen, all by itself, from the piano, with someone's phone number on it, you can't tell whose. It just flew off the piano soundlessly and lies on the carpet, white and alone.

Someone isn't being careful, thinks the woman who lives here. Someone isn't even trying to hide anymore.
- from "There's Someone in the House"

I had never heard of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya either, before I started seeing this book mentioned or reviewed by various blogs. According to the introduction Petrushevskaya is one of the most important and prolific contemporary writers in Eastern Europe, and probably the most important female writer. At one time she was censored by the Soviet government (although there is nothing overtly political in her writing) but now she is celebrated as a National Treasure. This collection of short stories is the first major translation of her work by an American publisher. She is an essayist, novelist, and playwright, too.

Of course the first thing you notice is the title- it certainly is attention getting- before stopping to take a look at what exactly this book is about. The stories are referred to as "scary fairy tales" and they do tend to consist of that grim macabre mingled with the supernatural that the name would imply. Most take place among poor peasants in small villages. The people are isolated, desperate, and usually fixated on some strange personal desire or else trying to avoid some crushing fate. Many are driven by familial love to save a child or a spouse. Their salvation, when granted, comes through sacrifice, forgiveness, and love. The stories are bleak but do allow for some hope and humanity to shine through. They are also fantastically well written.

Several of the stories are in familiar ghost-story territory. A character encounters someone from their past or a husband mysteriously returns early from the war and they have a strange interaction or receive bizarre instructions, and by the end of the story it is revealed that the person they met had died sometime before, and that it was their ghost reaching out to achieve some end. Other stories are allegories for desperation felt under the Soviet system. There are tales of suffering and redemption, of magical or supernatural intercession (both actively sought for and uninvited), and of dreams, death, and unreality. There are nineteen stories in the collection. I'll share two of my favorites:

One particularly good story is "The New Robinson Crusoes." A family leaves their home to move to a remote village. They work hard to fix the place up, keep a low profile, and establish a sustainable existence growing food or trading with the few elderly and impoverished neighbors. They are cautious and resourceful, and it gradually becomes clear that they are trying to stay one step ahead of... something, but we are never told exactly what. The father starts disappearing deep into the woods each day, leaving the mother and children home to work. He is building a cabin there, a fall-back shelter for when even the small farm in the remote village they are squatting at is not safe. Eventually that comes to pass and they abandon their farm, taking as much as they can carry as more and more refugees arrive and overrun the village. We are never told why this is happening, just left in confusion at the harrowing story that unfolds. It's like a compact version of what Cormac McCarthy tried to do with "The Road", except more real and affecting.

My favorite story in the collection was "There's someone in the house". An old woman comes to believe that her house is haunted, and that the spirit is vandalizing the house and wants to kill her. A shelf falls, and she is certain it was ghost. What makes this story so interesting is that while most of the scary fairy tales are clearly of the supernatural, this one reads more like the woman is insane. In her unhinged state she begins destroying her apartment to prevent the ghost from doing the same. She smashes the TV and throws it out the window. She cuts up her clothes in the closet and tosses them as well. She vandalizes her bed, her dishes, her cupboards, and anything else she sees. She plans to abandon the ruined apartment and become homeless, to avoid the ghost. She drags her reluctant cat out with her, locks herself out of the apartment, and prepares to leave for the streets and life in utter despair.

And then, with her freaked-out starving cat refusing to leave but certain to die if left alone, she hesitates and reconsiders. She has the landlord let her back in to her apartment. She feeds the cat and surveys the damage. The clothes she things she threw away have already been picked over and scavenged, but there are a few things she didn't destroy. There is a bag of old clothes that, with some minor alterations, can be made to fit. The TV is broken, but she discovers her old record player still works, and she still has her books. As the story ends she is excited about all the possibilities of her new lease on life.

It was an incredible story to read, and my two paragraphs don't nearly do it justice. The emotional response evoked by this poor and probably crazy woman living alone, destroying her possessions, helpless and soon to be homeless, and then the brilliant pivot to redemption when she is able to return to her apartment. The old woman who was kind of miserable and complained frequently in the first part is grateful now for every scrap of food and furniture left behind. Every rag of clothing is a gift. She is not simply restored to her previous life she is redeemed, saved, by a trick of the mind. If I could find it online somewhere I would link to it for you.

12. God Is Dead by Ron Currie

"Disguised as a young Dinka woman, God came at dusk to a refugee camp in the North Darfur region of Sudan. He wore a flimsy green cotton dress, battered leather sandals, hoop earrings, and a length of black-and-white beads around his neck. Over his shoulder he carried a cloth sack which held a second dress, a bag of sorghum, and a plastic cup. He’d manifested a wound in the meat of his right calf, a jagged, festering gash that was attracting flies. The purpose of the wound was twofold. First, it enabled him to blend in with the residents of the camp, many of whom bore similar injuries from the slashing machetes of Janjaweed raiding parties. Second, the intense, burning ache helped to mitigate the guilt he felt at the lot of the refugees, over which he was, due to an implacable polytheistic bureaucracy, nearly powerless."
- God is Dead by Ron Currie

The title of Ron Currie's novel, God is Dead, is not meant figuratively like when Nietzsche said it. The premise of the novel is the literal death of God and the resulting effects on society.

Let me explain: God takes the human form of a refugee in Darfur. He does this to be closer to the suffering there, something he feels sorry over but cannot fix. He wants to apologize and do what he can to alleviate suffering. While in human form he is killed, and this death is apparently final. The novel does not give the impression that God was trapped against his will in human form or frantically trying to return to heaven before he died ('beam me up, Petey'). This gives the impression that his death was accepted voluntarily, the first act of suicide in a book that throws an awful lot of them at you.

Eventually the world learns of the death of God (wild dogs that ate from God's corpse and gained enlightenment tell them about it telepathically) and society begins to fall apart. People stop working, stop caring, anarchy and chaos reign, a lot of people are killed or commit suicide (this seems counter-intuitive to me; if there is no God, that's all the more reason to make the most of life on Earth). Eventually, when the world doesn't end- doesn't change at all, really, except for the behavior of people on it- order is restored and life begins to get back to some kind of normal. Except it is much more authoritarian and fragile, like a world glued back together after being shattered.

This is really difficult to describe in a book review. Let me back up a little. This actually is a serious novel, not a sci-fi fantasy written by a misanthropic high school kid. The books is organized as a series of interrelated short stories that progress chronologically. The characters and setting are never the same, but the premise and continuity are. The first story is the death of God. Then we get the suicide of a priest. Then, a group of friends back from college make a suicide pact amid a post-apocalyptic world thrown into chaos. Details of what happened and how are usually not filled in until later. The chapter "Interview with the Last Remaining Member of the Feral Dog Pack Which Fed on God's Corpse" which occurs about half way though the book sheds a lot of light on the events between chapter one and the later chapters (it's also one of the more interesting chapters). Other stories give pretty heavy-handed satire, like when religious wars are replaced by wars over beliefs in evolutionary psychology and postmodern anthropology.

One story that emerges is that in the absence of God people begin to worship their children in "a transference of the innate human need to worship something." This is taken to such an extreme that it threatens to undermine the thin semblances of civilization. Children are worshiped to an unhealthy extreme. They are indulged to the point of ridiculousness. Parents stop going to work so they can sit at home and watch cartoons and play with toys all day, in order to get closer to the sanctity of children. They let their children make major decisions for the household, like what the spend their money on. The government intervenes with laws restricting the worship of children and forcing adults to attend counseling sessions where they are told their kids are average, stupid, unspectacular and dim. Of course I had the interesting perspective of reading this chapter with a sleeping infant on my shoulder.

Again the details of how society pulled itself together are largely ignored. The novel jumps around and focuses on single characters and small-scale events. The larger developments or the godless world and the authoritarian power structure that develops to hold it together are for the most part ignored, with only a casual reference to the formation of the laws against child deification or the illegality of owning, not kiddie porn, but any pictures of children at all which could be worshiped as religious icons. It's bizarre and disorienting and illogical and belies a weakness in storytelling. It was an interesting, quick read, but not really anything I would recommend unless the details above made you curious and your library has a copy. A few stories were pretty good, others not so much. Waiting a month after I read it to write the review probably didn't do this book any favors.

11. Homer & Langley: A Novel by E. L. Doctorow

Homer and Langley Collyer were real-life hoarders who lived in New York during the first half of the twentieth century. In his new novel, E.L. Doctorow appropriates the famous brothers as characters and tells a fictional story around them. Most of the details and side characters are made up, but in some cases they are drawn from items found in the 140 tons of junk removed from the house on 5th Avenue after the brothers were found dead. So the novel provides a back story for the collection of old bicycles, the musical instruments, the thousands of newspapers and books, the old medical equipment, and the Ford Model T in the dining room. All these are explained in the story so that, while they aren't exactly normal things to obsessively bring into a house they at least seem like reasonable acquisitions at the time.

In addition to the fictitious account of the two brothers, the novel is about a time and place- New York City from the 1920's through the 1960's. It reminded me a bit of Forrest Gump the way pivotal events of those decades kept passing through their lives. Silent films, Jazz musicians, Gangsters, speakeasies, two world wars, Japanese internment camps, and a group of free-spirited hippies all play a role in this fictional account of the reclusive brothers lives. Doctorow even gives them an additional two decades to extend his story through the 1960's whereas the real Collyer brothers died in 1947.

What is fascinating about the novel is the way that the tragedy sneaks up on you. We know that this will end with an almost complete withdrawal from society, chronic hoarding, and the brothers dying amid the junk that has consumed their rotting Harlem brownstone. Yet at the beginning of the novel they seem almost completely normal. Homer begins to loose his eyesight as a teenager and soon he is completely blind, yet he remains fairly normal despite the handicap. Langley returns from World War I the victim of a gas attack with a persistent cough and the seeds of mental instability that will eventually be the brother's downfall. Still, they have a cook and a housekeeper and a large sum of money left by their parents. They have interests, they host and attend parties, and they go out frequently to walk and interact with the world. Gradually they withdraw, or they encounter events that make them more fearful and guarded against the outside world. Eventually, they are boarding up the windows and living as shut-ins without electricity or running water.

The story is especially tragic because it is told from Homer's point of view in the first person. Homer's blindness makes him very dependent on Langley, who is clearly the more disturbed of the two. Homer seems crazy by proxy, conforming to the eccentric behavior exampled by his brother because that is all he knows. Homer is intelligent and insightful. He is easygoing and for the most part he is happy. He is sometimes worried about his brother, and the deterioration of the conditions they live in, but mostly they get along well and enjoy their life.

The story, too, is mostly happy and uplifting. It is episodic and spans a large part of early twentieth century American history. It is touching and thoughtful and well-written by Doctorow. This is one I am comfortable recommending to anyone who likes to read, watches "Hoarders" on A&E, and wishes Fincher did a better job with Benjamin Button.