The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

I read The Wasp Factory for the second time last year. I first read it when it was published in Hungarian three or four years ago, but then early last year I came across several reviews of and rather heated discussions regarding this book, so I thought I might refresh my memories.

The Wasp Factory tells the story of sixteen-year-old, rather strange Frank, who happens to be the murderer of three innocent children. Frank was a victim of a curious and unfortunate incident as a child: a dog bit off his genitals, therefore the boy suffers from inferiority complex and feels like an eternal outsider. Of course his sense of not being able to fit in is further enhanced by the fact that he lives alone with his father in a small island off the coast of a small Scottish village, he does not go to school, and what’s even more, officially he doesn’t even exist, as his father, for some mysterious reason, failed to register his birth with the authorities.

Frank also has a brother, Eric, who could have become an excellent physician had it not been for a terrible scene he witnessed as a university student. On account of this incident, he became somewhat deranged and then dropped out of university altogether. Then he took to harassing the kids and dogs in the neighborhood until he was finally locked away in a mental institution. At the beginning of the novel, Frank and his father learn the news that Eric has run away from the institution and is now probably on his way home. Eric’s journey serves as the frame for the novel.

While Eric is on his way home, we get to know the previous history of their family, and we also get a detailed account of Frank’s three murders, the Wasp Factory and the mythology surrounding it. The novel ends with a surprising twist, and the new information we learn at the end of the novel sheds quite a different light on Frank’s childhood accident. As a consequence, his life turns into a new direction, and the end of the story is in fact the beginning of Frank’s real life.

Reading the novel for the second time was a strange experience. As I went along, the details I thought I’d already forgotten came back vividly, so the oft-mentioned brutal, sadistic, stomach-churning and sickly details of the novel came as no surprise to me. True, it’s not easy for any book to shock me, and I don’t recall ever laying a book aside because it contained a couple of disgusting or horrifying scenes. Therefore the morbid scenes were not the ones that most engaged my attention when I read the novel – not even when I read it for the first time, and even less so now.

What I most enjoyed about the novel now was its humor, its style and the references I quite probably overlooked when I read the novel for the first time as I had no idea they could be important. But now I was aware of the outcome, therefore I also knew which references I needed to pay most attention to. I was surprised to find how often Banks refers to Frank’s gender, which may be considered the key to the novel. For instance, right at the very first page we find a seemingly casual note to the effect that Frank is absent-mindedly scratching his groin.

As regards the humour of The Wasp Factory, I consider the phone conversations of Frank and Eric, and the description of some of Frank’s adventures exceedingly funny. For instance, the way Frank exaggerates in the account of his fight with the intrepid giant rabbit is a case in point. By the way, I don’t know if the similarity is intentional, but Frank’s sadistic personality, his rituals and his self-critical, ironic way of storytelling reminded me of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and particularly to Holden Caulfield to a great extent.

Even though my favourite novel by Banks (though not by Iain, but by Iain M.) still remains (and I guess will always remain) The Player of Games, I don’t have any objections against The Wasp Factory either. It’s an interesting and well-written novel, about which I only regret two things.

One is that I consider the ending a bit hasty: I find it strange that Frank’s father reveals his long-guarded secrets so easily, and that Frank himself accepts that a new life will start for him, without making any fuss whatsoever. He even manages to explain in a few sentences how his past actions and murders directly stemmed from his perturbed identity. I might just accept that this is explanation enough, but I certainly would have liked to dwell somewhat more on these details.

And the other thing I regret about this novel is that the sickly details and its scandalous reputation might frighten several readers away, when – despite all its flaws – it certainly deserves to be read. (And in fact I’m not at all sorry about having read it twice, either.)

A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth

I came across the title of this novel on a blog somewhere. Actually, it was only mentioned in passing, but I liked its title immensely so I checked what the novel was about, and then, convinced, I jotted down the author and the title on a slip of paper and put it away to a place where I was surely going to find it later. Of course I didn’t find it when I needed it, so I tried to track down the book again based on what I could remember about it. Unfortunately all I could remember was that it was written by an English author, it had a very enticing title, and its protagonist was an obese woman who had a crash on her neighbor. It’s hardly surprising then that I was unable to find the book based on so little information, and I was on the verge of panic when my precious slip of paper surfaced from a heap of similar slips of paper, and I could finally order the novel. After so much excitement and relentless research I certainly expected A Kind of Intimacy to be a good book, and it proved to be one.

The novel starts out with the clumsy, unbalanced protagonist, Annie moving to a lovely little street somewhere in suburbia with the intention of leaving behind a troubled past and starting a new life. Right on her first day in her new home, she meets Neil, a nice guy living next door, who offers to help Annie carry her belongings to her new house. Annie immediately takes a liking to Neil, and even though she is well into her twenties, she quickly proves that her imagination is that of an inexperienced teenage girl, and after a very short time she gets as far as seeing a sign in Neil’s every little gesture, and she even manages to convince herself that there’s a special bond between them, and that it’s only because of the cruelty of the outside world (more precisely: because of Neil’s girlfriend, Lucy) that they cannot fulfill their love.

Of course, Annie doesn’t spend all her time dreaming about Neil – she really attempts to start a new life. She tries to find her place in the local community; she organizes a housewarming party; and she joins the local neighborhood watch organization. But somehow everything turns out badly: the local community isn’t too eager to welcome her; virtually no-one attends her party; and as regards the neighborhood watch, Annie interprets this expression in a rather special way, and she watches her neighbors even when there’s clearly no need for it. After the bad start, things change for the worse, but I’d rather not go into any more details.

A Kind of Intimacy is en exceedingly scary book. The blurb of my copy (apart from revealing virtually every important detail of the plot) mentions that in the novel, we can see how Annie’s carefully constructed ego, maintained by self-help books, slowly decomposes, and the true Annie surfaces from behind her mask. Perhaps this is only meant to imply that the other characters in the novel are for some time deceived by Annie, because for the reader it is clear from the very beginning that all is not well with Annie. Right on the very first page we find an account of how Annie celebrates her moving to another house. She strips her clothes, then starts kicking her sofa she always hated with wild joy, because she’s so happy that she can finally leave the detested object behind. I guess this is not the typical way of celebration, but if we still have our doubts about the true meaning of Annie’s behavior, we will soon find other pieces of evidence proving that Annie is not in the best of mental health.

So, what makes the novel so scary? For instance, the fact that Annie tells her story in the first person, therefore we experience everything she experiences: from her recollections we learn how she lived through her teenage years, we see her early marriage, the birth of her unplanned and undesired daughter, and the period after moving to her new home when she tried to do everything in order to finally make herself accepted and find friends.

Of course we can laugh at Annie’s childish efforts to please everyone (and the first half of the novel is indeed quite entertaining), or we can be annoyed by the way she casually ignores a lot of rules which help keep a marriage or a local community together, but then all this ceases to be entertaining when we realize that in fact Annie isn’t a cynical but clumsy person nurturing all kinds of evil plans, and that some parts of her actions we might consider self-ironic are in fact done absolutely in earnest.

The world for Annie is just the way she sees it. And when she explains that she clings to the wall of her bathroom with her ear because she wants to cool her face with the cold tiles, and then casually adds that this way she can hear the conversation going on at the other side of the wall, in Neil’s and Lucy’s bathroom better, then it seems that she truly means that she only wants to cool off, and eavesdropping only comes as an extra. Or what’s worse: it happens that certain small things slip from Annie’s memories, and when she says she doesn’t remember holding anything in her hands when she poked another character in order to make her meaning come true more emphatically, then she’s not trying to come up with cheap excuses, she’s not being cunning, she simply doesn’t remember. And for me it’s an extremely strange and embarrassing experience to go this deep into such a disturbed and dangerous but in some ways totally innocent mind.

Even more so because I often feel Annie very close to me, I often feel with her and can understand what she does and why she does it.

A Kind of Intimacy, by the way, reminds me of several other books and movies, but of course it’s not an imitation of any of them. For instance, on the book cover one critic mentions that Annie strongly resembles Annie in Stephen King’s Misery, and the resemblance is indeed striking (and it doesn’t end with both heroines bearing the same name). Apart from this, Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love and Anthony Burgess’s One Hand Clapping often came to my mind while reading this novel, and I was also reminded of a movie of the 1990s, Pacific Heights, which I saw some ten years ago, and don’t really remember anymore, but the atmosphere of Ashworth’s novel still evoked in me the terror and helplessness I felt when I watched that movie.

The Average American Male by Chad Kultgen

This book was passed around among book bloggers, not because it was that good, but because it was the kind of book not easy to get hold of here, and I thought I might as well read it when it came my way. The Average American Male isn’t the kind of book which is bound to stay with me for a long time, and I can’t imagine that I’ll ever want to re-read it, still, I don’t regret reading it as it was perfect to clench my rarely arising thirst for easy reads, and I even laughed a couple of times while I read it, which is more than I can say about the majority of allegedly entertaining books I know.

As you might guess from the title, this novel is about the Average American Male. The unnamed protagonist, the supposedly average American guy is about 25-27 years of age, does some indistinct work at a workplace where no-one minds if the lunch hours spans much more than an hour, and in his ample free time he has sex with his girlfriend, fantasizes about sex with other women, plays video games, watches porn or jerks off.

Of course this wouldn’t be enough to fill a novel, therefore there is some tension and conflict in the book: at the beginning of the story, the dumb girlfriend, Casey manages to maneuver our protagonist into an engagement which he doesn’t desire, which is not surprising since Casey’s bottom is way too big, she’s much too conservative in sex, and anyway, the protagonist meets the gorgeous Alyna and from their first meeting he tries hard to initiate some kind of (preferably sexual) relationship with her. I won’t go into more details, though. It’s not as if the novel contained any surprising twists and turns, but still, I don’t want to spoil your pleasure, no matter how small that pleasure might be.

Anyway, even though the plot is basically predictable there are a couple of surprises and interesting episodes in the novel, and I appreciated that Kultgen took quite good care of the details: for instance, the seemingly irrelevant and not particularly tasteful detail that Casey never flushes the toilet after peeing will suddenly become significant in one of the climactic moments of the novel when the protagonist exposes the girl’s lies.

For a moment, let me return to the title of the novel: even though the book itself is quite simple, the title is surprisingly ambiguous and suggestive. On the one hand, the protagonist can indeed be considered an average male, provided that we accept the idea so diligently suggested by virtually every single men’s and women’s magazine in the world, that is, the idea that every man in his twenties is driven by his penis. On the other hand, however, the protagonist is fighting against the role of the „more traditional” average male: he doesn’t want to get married just because he’s been going out with Casey for a year and a half; and he is dreadfully frightened by the idea that should he get married, in twenty years’ time he will be just like Casey’s father, who is, supposedly, pining away under the regime of his wife. But finally, despite all his resistance, he becomes a truly average male, and even accepts his fate as such.

Of course, I might easily be over-interpreting things, and I might see more into the book and the title than what is really there, but I still consider it an interesting process how the protagonist wants to be average and special at the same time, and finally ends up being average, but not in the way he planned it. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter whether Kultgen chose the title for its possible shocking quality, or he was just being deliberately ironic, the title was certainly a good choice.

By the way, according to the opinions quoted on the book cover, Kultgen succeeded in planting the idea / doubt / hope that every man is just like his sex-obsessed „average male” in several of his readers’ mind, while he also managed to shock several readers with his explicit sex scenes and the not too delicate language usage of his protagonist. Fortunately I’m not that easily shocked and I’ve never put a book aside just because its vulgarity, so reading Kultgen’s novel presented me with no problems at all, because, as it is, this novel is not shocking, not outrageous, not brilliant, and certainly not unputdownable. It’s a simple book, meant for a single reading.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood has been one of my favourite books for a long time. It happens every two or three years that it suddenly pops into my mind what an exquisite book it is, and then I get a craving to re-read it immediately. This is what I did now, and my opinion did not alter a bit: I still consider this to be an excellent book.

As In Cold Blood is supposed to be based entirely on facts, and the identity of the criminals who committed the murders described in the novel is already revealed in the blurb, I don’t think it will spoil anyone’s pleasure if I say a few words about the story. In Cold Blood tells the history and the aftermath of a murder which was committed on November 15, 1959, in Holcomb, Kansas. Four members of the popular and respected Clutter family were killed that night. The murder created a storm of indignation and kindled huge media interest, and the best detectives of the state set about solving the case. After several weeks of intense detective work, they managed to capture the murderers, who were then tried and finally sentenced to capital punishment based on Kansas laws.

The events described in the novel are no doubt sordid and tragic on their own, however, I wouldn’t consider In Cold Blood too interesting as literature if Capote hadn’t filled the story (which could appear as a news item in any newspaper) and the characters with life. Even though Capote maintained that the book is factually accurate and every single word in the novel is reported as it was actually spoken, it turned out that this is not the case actually. As it so often happens in cases of true-to-life stories, a couple of accusations surfaced regarding the factual accuracy and truthfulness of In Cold Blood as well. But even if we don’t investigate every detail of the book thoroughly, it quickly becomes evident that In Cold Blood can be considered an artfully structured work of literature rather than a logically ordered list of carefully researched and reconstructed, verifiable facts.

Capote goes much further than a simple factual account right in the first part of the novel, which is an account of the last day of the victims. He depicts the Clutter family so lovingly, poetically and humanly (not to say: tear-jerkingly) that it’s impossible not to feel pity for them. The Clutters are not at all perfect and they have some serious problems in the family, however, from Capote’s account it seems that they live beautiful and honest lives, and even though they are still alive and well, we can’t help pitying them in advance for the dreadful fate they would meet.

Of course, murder is dreadful as it is, but it is quite a different experience to read a cool account in a newspaper to the effect that „rich farmer and family murdered”, or to learn the details of the same murder after reading 60 pages of beautiful prose about the victims and learning what kind of life they had and what kind of people they were.

By the way, Capote deals in the same way with the murderers: he shows the reader their human side, their past, personality and difficulties, and describes them in such a sensitive manner that it’s impossible not to feel for them – just as it’s impossible not to feel for their victims.

And I didn’t even mention the way Capote depicts the setting and the minor characters of the novel. True, Holcomb and its residents are real(istic), but Capote organizes all these realistic materials in a way that they become parts of a traditional American fiction. This is the fiction of the Mid-Western small town where everyone knows everyone else, everyone is religious without bigotry, and in the background, as if symbolizing the hard work of the townspeople, the lovely, golden fields of corn waiting to be reaped are constantly visible. Capote’s style of describing Holcomb is far from being factual, on the contrary, it is immensely poetic, and sometimes it even borders on being kitschy.

By the way, I don’t mean any of the above negatively, as I think that it is exactly this kind of humaneness and fictionality that makes In Cold Blood a good book. I may be cruel but I don’t think I’d get anything out of this novel if it really consisted of 400 pages of facts and nothing else. For me, In Cold Blood is terrifying and fascinating because it’s so human and poetic, and it contains not only the facts but their interpretations as well.

What is more, the novel suggests a lot of highly intriguing questions as well. Where does reality end and fiction start? Does reality become fiction if we write it down as accurately as possible? Can real life be turned into fiction? If so, what’s the use of „fictional” fiction? What’s the difference between fiction and non-fiction? In Cold Blood, naturally, does not provide the reader with the answers, and I don’t even think it was meant to. But in any case, it’s an excellent book.

The Society of Others by William Nicholson

I’m not a bad person. I’m a bad person.
I didn’t mean to kill the man in the reading room. I did mean to kill the man in the reading room.
What happened afterwards wasn’t my fault, don’t blame me. It was my fault. Blame me.

I came across the above quote by chance and I immediately knew I wanted to read this novel, and I even suspected that I was going to like it. I do not like to over-mystify this and say that I felt as if the book was calling out to me and was irresistibly drawing me towards itself. I’d much rather put it this way: it happens to me sometimes that I read a couple of sentences from a novel, out of context, my curiosity arises in a moment and I want to know at once what other stuff can be found in a book that contains such exquisite sentences. Luckily, the novel was for sale on a low price at a big bookstore chain, so I bought it to find out if my gut feeling was right about this book. (It was.)

The Society of Others tells the story of a twenty-something, nameless and aimless boy, told in the 1st person singular. One day the boy decides to spend his 1000 pounds he got from his father as a graduation present to hitchhike somewhere – it does not matter where. He is picked up by a truck-driver, heading towards an unnamed European country (to be more precise, the boy does not hear it clearly when the driver tells him his destination and he does not bother to ask again), and this suits our hero just fine, as he is right on his way to lose himself entirely. When arriving in the unknown country, it turns out that the place is a less-than-friendly totalitarian state, controlled by the police, and realizing the danger, the spleen of the protagonist disappears in a moment, and leaving the country alive as soon as possible becomes his major concern.

The irony of the previous paragraph is only a scam: in reality, I loved the narrator from the very first page, who, by the way, declares at the beginning of the story that he would not tell us his name and advises the reader to use his own if he needs one. I followed his advice and used my own name, and at once I felt close to the boy’s life and thoughts. Identifying with the protagonist was all the easier because the boy has an absolutely everyday life which might be familiar to several readers in their twenties (it was for me, though not from my own experience): the boy just graduated from a not particularly good college, in a not particularly interesting subject, and now it would be time to grow up and look for a job, however, it is much more convenient for him to sit around in his room and argue that he never asked to be born in the first place, therefore no-one has the right to expect any activity from him.

Probably in real life I would not have too favorable an opinion of such a passive, inert, self-justifying person, but fortunately this is not life but literature, so I quickly took a liking to the narrator and I enjoyed reading his witty, slightly sad and cynical remarks on his family, the world of supposedly infinite possibilities, the way dreams slowly die, and also on his own inactivity and introversion. (Nicholson’s young boy, by the way, reminded me slightly of the narrator or Erlend Loe’s Naiv.Super.)

Of course all of this changes when the boy starts his journey. This is not the first novel about a journey on which the protagonist reaches his maturity, on the contrary, I believe this is quite an overused concept in literature, but Nicholson manages to fill the old form with new life. I will not go into the details of the narrator’s experiences in the foreign country, all I wish to mention is that the way the protagonist’s confidence, disillusionment and complacency is contrasted to the simple but satisfied lives of the inhabitants of the totalitarian state who live under constant threat is very effectively contrived.

However, this is not only about the way the boy’s comfortable life in England is contrasted with the hard life of the people of the unnamed Eastern European (?) county – this is also about the boy facing reality for the first time in his life. The first 30 or 40 pages of the novel depict a well-organized and well-protected life – a life which is often lived only in theory. When he arrives in the foreign country, the protagonist suddenly finds himself in real life where words and actions have consequences.

Yes, there are probably hundreds of novels on this subject. What makes this novel stand out from amongst the hundreds is the following: while the protagonist is struggling to learn how to exist in reality and not only in his mind, his previous complacent way of thinking comes to the foreground from time to time, and then it seems as if he considered all his current experiences to be fictional – or perhaps this means that by thinking about the inessential, everyday details of life, the boy erects a fence between himself and the over-realistic reality which surrounds him. For instance: our hero can indulge in a one and a half page long essay on the making of the ideal bath water even amongst the greatest dangers and difficulties, and digressions like this generate a very interesting tension in the text.

This tension and the digressions are all the more welcome as it is partly because of these that the novel does not degenerate into one of the usual unrealistic books about some larger than life hero’s struggles to find his own way and happiness, and change his life. For me at least it seems much more authentic if a character of a novel sometimes ponders over trivialities, and does not spend all his time thinking about majestic ideas. And since the protagonist behaves in such a simple, but very human way (which is, by the way, manifested not only in his habit of pondering over small stuff), I believe his more serious thoughts and the story of accepting his own path in life much more easily.

What also makes this novel different from the usual Coelho-style, find-your-own-way bestseller is the language the protagonist uses: he speaks in a modern, slightly informal, slightly slangy way, and this makes his character even more authentic to me – sometimes I positively felt that I could easily have been in his place.

Probably this is not the most important part in the interpretation of the novel, still, the question of the translation also made me think. I wondered how faithfully the translator mirrored the informality of the boy’s language usage and how outdated this language would seem to be in 10 or 20 years’ time. What I mean here is that the translator used expressions in the book which qualify as a bit slangy in Hungarian and I do not know if the original novel contains words with similar qualities. The words the translator employs are easy to understand now, but I am not sure if they remain so in 20 years, or they become ridiculous-sounding.

Besides all my well-earned praise, I must also add that the final scene of the novel and the conversations (covering mostly religious topics) that lead up to that scene tired out my patience a little bit. These conversations were a bit too pompous to my taste (or perhaps I can even say: phony), but the preceding 200 pages were so outstanding that they make me forget about the slightly slimy quality of the final couple of chapters.

Gentlemen & Players by Joanne Harris

I had not read any of Joanne Harris’s novels before this one last year. Though I often came across her nice-looking books, which reminded me of children’s books, and I watched the movie version of Chocolat several times and enjoyed it very much, I did not feel any urge to read any of her stories. Then a few months ago I read a review of a Harris novel on one of my favorite book blogs, and I decided that it was time to go ahead and finally read at least one of Ms. Harris’s works. I picked Gentlemen and Players more or less at random, and it turned out to be a good choice.

As this book has been quite a hit among Hungarian book bloggers and many reviews and story outlines have already been published, I refrain from going into too many details regarding the story. So let me stick to the basics: the novel is set in St Oswald’s, a renowned public school for boys, where a dangerous game unfolds between a mysterious trickster and an old member of the faculty, the Latin teacher Roy Straitley, who is heading towards his 100th semester as a teacher. The evil person who is doing his dirty tricks among the antique walls of the school has only one goal in his life: to destroy St Oswald’s and this way make up for the injuries and failures of his past, for which he lays the blame on the bureaucratic (and, for him, previously inaccessible) institution. The story is told from the alternating point of views of Straitley and the evil person (whose name I withhold on purpose), and from the two intertwining storylines we slowly come to know the events of the past that led to the trickster’s wish for revenge, and we also get acquainted with the people who took important parts in those events and who are still haunting the school.

My first impression of the novel was less than favorable. I was irritated by the abundance of telling names (such as Light, Meek, Strange, Dare and so on), I could not tell the different characters apart, and most importantly, I had no idea whom I should focus my attention on, out of the dozen characters introduced all too quickly. When I managed to sort out these distractions after a couple of pages, I came to think that even though the novel is undeniably readable and dynamic, it is still a long way from being a remarkable story. And in the next step, I suspended my skepticism (and disbelief) and started to enjoy the novel.

I assume I do not have to dwell on this again, as those who had read my earlier posts may well be aware of the fact that I am keen on all kinds of interesting narrative techniques: having two or more narrators in a novel, alternating between different points of view and having the story jump between various time periods always please me immensely. Gentlemen and Players sufficiently gratified this obsession of mine, and after the first 50-60 pages I hugely enjoyed the alternating storylines of the evil character (symbolized by a black pawn chess figure) and Mr. Straitley (symbolized by the white king). I found the wit, wisdom and unrelenting investigating spirit of Mr. Straitley very interesting, and I also liked the extent to which he seemed to love his profession and his students. However, I found the parts of the black pawn even more curious and unsettling, as it is in his parts that we get to know the most about those old events which made him become such a maniac, secretive, vindictive person that not even in his adulthood can he fit in and live a normal life.

Then came the last 50-60 pages with the oft-mentioned great twist, which made me reconsider all the previous 400 pages, and after which I just sat in my chair for minutes and stared ahead with a huge smile on my face, trying to figure out how Ms. Harris managed the feat that I never even thought about this solution during the whole course of the novel. It is not as if the story became very cheerful or light by this turn, I simply enjoyed the fact that Ms. Harris could fool me in such an elegant manner, and I felt like starting the book again from the beginning, and this time methodically look out for all the small misleading or else revealing details, which were there from the very first page, only I chose to ignore or misinterpret them. I think I will re-read the novel some years later and will try to find out where and how exactly I got misled.

The great twist of Gentlemen and Players very much reminded me of another novel I read earlier last year, but I am afraid that even mentioning the title of that novel would spoil Harris’s story, so I keep this thought to myself. All I want to add is that Ms. Harris managed to convince me with this novel and I will not hesitate to read some of her other stories in the future, should I wish to have some good entertainment.

The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy

I read Cormac McCarthy’s highly praised novel The Road last year, but I wasn’t at all convinced of McCarthy’s exceptional talent. However, I continued to read with interest the blog entries about his work, and I was intrigued by the fact that he manages to evoke highly different emotional responses in his readers, so I was planning to read at least one of his other books to be able to form a more informed opinion of him. As one of my friends kindly lent me his copy of The Sunset Limited, it wasn’t difficult to decide that this would be my next McCarthy read. The Sunset Limited also seemed a good choice as a forty-page play (or, according to the author, a novel in dramatic form) only takes about an hour to read, and if the book is good, I will find it out in forty pages, and if it’s not that good, then at least it doesn’t take up much of my time.

Before the onset of the play, one of the two characters, White, a well-educated, cynical and disillusioned university professor is planning to commit suicide by jumping in front of the train called Sunset Limited, but the other character, Black, the religious ex-convict with a chaotic life-style saves his life. After the incident, Black more or less forcefully takes White home, and engages him in a soul-searching conversation about the futility of his attempted suicide and the beauty of life. In their long talk, Black tries to understand White’s motivations and his situation in life, but above all, he wants the extremely irreligious White to discover the wonderful and benign force of God. For some readers, the outcome of their conversation may be easy to predict, and indeed, the outcome is not that original, but still, the play is quite a shocking and harrowing read.

The main strength of The Sunset Limited is its language. There is hardly any action in the play, and the background isn’t described in detail, either – as opposed to The Road, here there is no such thing as an endless journey through America, and there are no exaggerated descriptions of the end of the world either. Here we only have the astonishingly precise and expressive words, each with its multiple layers of meaning, and it’s enough to read a few lines of McCarthy’s wonderful dialogs to get to know the personality, social position, world-view, way of thinking, education level and humor of both his characters.

While reading The Road, I also loved McCarthy’s language usage the most (or rather, the beautiful language was the only feature I liked about that novel), so it’s no wonder that such a play as The Sunset Limited, with its focus on language and its complete lack of pathos made a strong impression on me.

The secret of its effect (apart from the language of course) may be that The Sunset Limited is a simple and forceful play, without any crap whatsoever, since McCarthy bases his work on only a few (sometimes a bit overused) oppositions. For instance, his characters come from two very different social backgrounds, and in normal circumstances they wouldn’t meet at all, but since they do meet, it’s inevitable that they each have an effect on the other and change each other’s life. Apart from the basic social differences, however, there are several other oppositions in the play: cynicism and naivity, belief in God and atheism, disillusionment and optimism, sophistication and simplicity are all contrasted in the conversation of Black and White, and for quite a long time, it’s not easy to guess which side will win in the argument.

By the way, The Sunset Limited reminds me of my all-time favorite play, Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story in several respects: both plays feature two male characters who have nothing in common; both plays contrast radically different ways of life and world-views; and both have a devastating outcome. Perhaps this similarity, which was obvious for me from the very first page, might have been one of the reasons why I read The Sunset Limited with great interest. But after I finished reading, I thought that it didn’t matter if the similarity existed or it was only me who saw it, as The Sunset Limited is in and by itself a strong and unsettling work of art. And now I definitely want to read more books by Cormac McCarthy.

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

This is such an imperfect novel and still, I love it so much. So far I have only read this and The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald, and since both novels deal with similar topics (ruined love, the corrupting power of money and the amorality of the rich) comparing them comes naturally to me. I think The Great Gatsby is the better novel of the two: it is structurally sounder, more succinct, more dramatic, and much more tragic. Tender is the Night, on the other hand, is more like a slow river: it is a meandering tale with quite a few uninteresting characters, and its end is much less dramatic and emotionally less oppressing than that of The Great Gatsby. What is more, since Tender is the Night is the long chronicle of the slow deterioration of a marriage, both truly shocking and truly uplifting episodes are virtually missing from the novel: the drama is made up of several small, disappointing moments, in the wake of which everything is slowly taking a turn for the worse. Lurking in the background, there is also a sad nostalgia for things which somehow always seemed to be better in the past. And perhaps it is because of this appealing sense of constant mellow melancholy that despite all its weaknesses I love Tender is the Night more than The Great Gatsby, and my current, umpteenth re-reading of the novel was just as heart-wrenching an experience for me as ever before.

The novel tells the story of the marriage of Dick Diver, a talented but not too aristocratic psychologist, and Nicole Warren, an illustrious member of the American monied class. Dick meets Nicole during World War I, when the mentally unstable, schizophrenic girl is being treated in a Zurich sanitarium. Nicole starts sending letters to Dick while he is away at war, and when the man returns, they renew their relationship and after a short while Dick decides to marry Nicole who is slowly but steadily recovering from her mental illness. Dick knows what he undertakes when he marries Nicole: he knows that there is a good chance that the girl will never make a full recovery, and that he will constantly have to be on the alert for signs which might indicate Nicole’s relapse into illness, and that he will have to keep shielding her from everything that might upset her or remind her of her illness. Although he does not admit it even to himself, with this marriage Dick gives up his promising career and dedicates his whole life to a single patient: Nicole. At the same time, Dick wishes to keep some of his independence and not to sponge on Nicole’s money, but the nonchalance and amorality which comes with having a lot of money slowly starts to ruin both his marriage and his personality.

What makes this novel particularly sad and melancholic is that we read virtually nothing about the happy periods of the couple’s relationship. We learn that they got married ignoring the scruples of the Warren family, and when we see them again six years later at a beautifully rustic spot on the French Riviera (which is not yet ruined by the crowds of tourists), we already witness the first signs of the collapse of their marriage. However, there are a couple of clues in the novel which indicate that the first years of the Divers’ marriage – despite the mental instability of Nicole – were truly happy, and the fact that we do not get much insight into this period makes the novel doubly sad for me: on the one hand, the sense that the Divers’ relationship was not doomed to failure makes its actual failure even more painful; on the other hand, since the happy period is only hinted at a couple of times, its importance is diminished and on the whole it feels as if it did not matter at all.

The couple, by the way, can be viewed as a two-in-one Gatsby: Dick and Nicole, just like Gatsby, are tremendously wealthy and magnetic people who throw magnificent parties, who are elegant beyond belief and can hit it off with everyone in a moment’s time, and who, at the same time, manage to keep their private lives private. So even though there are some who suspect something, no-one really knows what huge efforts it takes the couple to keep up the appearance of their perfect, elegant and active life, and hide the incessant threat of Nicole’s illness.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the major themes of the novel is the corrupting and demoralizing effect of money. This effect is manifested in the book in several different ways. First of all, Dick knows that many believe that he only married Nicole for her money. To disprove it, Dick insists for a long time that he use his own income to cover his personal expenses. However, as Nicole’s income increases and the family starts to live in a more luxurious way, Dick can no longer keep up the pretense of his independence. It is an important turning point in this respect when Dick agrees to buy his share in a sanitarium using Nicole’s money. This can be seen as a gesture of surrender, and even though Dick can again practise his profession in an institutional way, it is exactly at this point that his deterioration speeds up: he drinks more than ever, becomes an intolerable bully, and does not improve himself professionally.

Second, even though Nicole has had money all her life (and perhaps this should make her a bit more resistant), she does not escape the depraving effect of money either. During the years of her illness and the first years of her marriage, she does not care much about her wealth, but then she learns to enjoy the advantages and the power which come hand in hand with money. And as time passes, she adopts the mentality of her rational, material sister, Baby Warren, who has always regarded Dick as the pet doctor bought by the Warren family for Nicole’s personal use. So in the end, Nicole does not feel any remorse for having completely drained Dick of his talents and personal charms.

I am unable to say anything else. This is one the saddest books I have ever read, and perhaps the reason why I find it so unbearably sad is that it is beautiful and true to the core at the same time. Usually things do not end in such a dramatic fashion as in The Great Gatsby, they simply disappear slowly, and Tender is the Night conveys this in a harrowing way.