I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe

I came across this novel in my favorite bookshop. Its loud cover was sticking out a mile and after a while I felt myself forced to pick up the book, so I took a look at it, checked what it was about, and finally bought and read it. I was a little bit afraid of what I would find in between the covers, because based on the blurb I thought the plot might be a little too complicated and the language usage a little too frustrating and/or hard to follow. Actually, some of these fears came true but still, I am Charlotte Simmons was quite a good read.

The novel tells the story of young Charlotte Simmons, a native of the small mountain village of Sparta, North Carolina, a naive, innocent and inexperienced freshman student at the great and prestigious Dupont University. Charlotte comes from a modest background, so she arrives at Dupont with a full scholarship. And even though she is not the most friendly and easy-going person in the world, she quickly manages to strike up an acquaintance with three of the more charismatic senior students of the university: with Jojo, the enthusiastic but not too bright star of the basketball team; with Hoyt, the unscrupulous womanizer, the most popular person on the whole campus; and with Adam, the superbly intelligent geek editor of the university paper who nurses great plans about changing the world. The story then revolves around these four central characters – and it revolves in quite an entertaining and clever way. There are a whole lot of surprising twists and turns to keep the reader’s attention alive, and fortunately these are not just twists coming out of nowhere, they are all well-explained and they also always have their consequences.

Apart from being highly entertaining, the novel also draws a frighteningly clear picture of several personality types, worldviews and situations in life. For instance, my own freshman year came clearly to my mind when I was reading about Charlotte’s difficulties with fitting in, or about her fears, vanity, thirst for knowledge, moodiness, overcompensated inferiority complex, awkwardness,  need to conform, inexperience and self-pity. I remembered what it was like to be a freshman student in a strange city, coming from a faraway part of the country, and I could easily understand Charlotte’s constant uneasiness, her painful loneliness and also why she is not able to explain to anyone what is bothering her when she goes home for the Christmas holidays.

Although Charlotte is far from being an appealing character and I quickly came to the conclusion that she is a terribly manipulative person, her characterization itself is still very impressive and I could easily imagine what being Charlotte Simmons must be like. And it was just the same way with Hoyt, Adam and Jojo as well. It is quite clear that Wolfe carefully researched university life and the interests, motivations and ambitions of university students in order to make sure that he depicts the characters and the events in an authentic way.

However, exactly because of his desire to be as authentic as possible, Wolfe goes too far in authenticity when it comes to language usage. It is one thing that the novel is full of words in italics and with dot-dot-dots even within sentences – and these features actually did not bother me at all, as they were often useful in showing the embarrassment, shock or enthusiasm of a character. Apart from these peculiarities, however, Wolfe also keeps referring to Charlotte’s dialect, he often writes her words in something like a phonetic transcription, and he also writes some unnecessary mini-essays on the topic of the slang usage of university students – and these were just too much for me. If the author had not felt the need to emphasize approximately sixty-three times that in a stressful situation Charlotte always reverts to using her dialect, it still would have been quite clear, and then perhaps I would not have felt the novel to be a little too spoon-feeding sometimes.

The other (minor) problem I have with the novel is its length. Although the story is quite exciting and the characters are really very interesting, 670 pages seem a bit too many and I got a bit tired towards the end. And it was not just me, I guess. At least it seemed to me that Wolfe also got somewhat tired of writing, and the end of the novel seems a bit of a quickie. But apart from all these, I am Charlotte Simmons is a good novel, and I can imagine that one day I will reread it as it certainly features so much content and so many ideas that it is impossible to grasp every single detail and concept in one reading.

Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

It happened a few years back that one of my teachers mentioned Don DeLillo’s name and his novel White Noise in an American literary seminar, and the title immediately grabbed my attention, so much so that I decided to read the novel as soon as possible, even though apart from its title, I did not know anything about it. However, when I finally acquired the book and read it, it failed to live up to my expectations – though I did not really expect anything specific from it. After this experience, I did not really plan to read more books by DeLillo for a while, but then I saw Cosmopolis and decided to read it, as it seemed to be quite a good novel, and I also thought that perhaps I have become more appreciative of DeLillo’s talents in the past years.

Cosmopolis tells the story of a day in April 2000, in Manhattan. The protagonist is Eric Packer, a twenty-something multimillionaire stock-broker who decides in the morning after a sleepless night that he must immediately drive to the other end of the city in order to have his hair cut. The journey takes longer than expected, as his white limo is continuously stopped either because of a presidential visit, a famous rapper’s funeral procession or a violent protest. Eric uses his free time in the limousine to get involved in shady stock-market deals in order to lose all his money, to get himself thoroughly examined by a doctor, to consult with various members of the his executive team and to have a few meals with his wife whom he runs into at various parts of the city. It is also revealed that Eric might be the target of an assassin, and the excitement and fear he feels because of this possibility becomes one of the main organizing forces of his day.

The novel is dedicated to Paul Auster and I considered this dedication to be absolutely justified while I was reading the first few, stunningly beautiful pages of the novel, I felt as if DeLillo had recreated Auster’s The New York Trilogy without imitating it slavishly. The description of Eric’s insomnia and the city as it is waking up is simply marvelous and I could have continued reading about it for ages. But this was not to be, as Eric’s eventful day starts after a couple of pages and Cosmopolis slowly assumes the exact same qualities I did not like in White Noise: DeLillo wants to say too much too quickly – the novel runs to 200 pages only, and these 200 pages contain far too many events, written in a rather big font type and on smallish pages.

Through all the events outlined above, DeLillo offers his insights into the following topics: money and its use, big-city loneliness, alienation, sex, time and how it passes, death and the creative force of language – and I believe I might have omitted some themes from this list. DeLillo indeed does have something to say on all these topics, still, I often feel that he simply gets started on one topic, says something true, beautiful, thoughtful or witty, and then quickly goes on to the next theme, intoxicated by his own cleverness.

It is undeniable that there are some unique, bizarre or else eerily beautiful passages in the novel that will probably stick to my mind for a long time (e.g. the sex scene in the limo between Eric and his chief of finance, Jane; or the shooting of a movie Eric runs into towards the end of the novel), and I strongly regret the fact that the whole book isn’t as perfect as some of its parts. In conclusion, I have not become a much bigger fan of DeLillo now, and I don’t think I will bother with him again for a couple of years at least.

After I finished Cosmopolis, I read it somewhere that this novel is not usually supposed to be one of the best works of the author. However, I do not think it would have made much difference if I had chosen another book for my second go at DeLillo, say, Underworld, which is considered to be one of his masterpieces. I assume I came to know DeLillo’s style, language and his major themes by reading White Noise and Cosmopolis, and I admit that he writes about important topics in quite a good and sometimes piercing and beautiful language, but still, I do not feel myself at home in his world and I cannot love his work. Perhaps simply I am not his ideal reader after all.

Smiles on Washington Square by Raymond Federman

I first heard about Smiles on Washington Square in an American literature seminar at the university a couple of years ago. The novel seemed interesting, so when I found it in a second-hand book shop I bought it immediately but then put it aside without ever reading it. But now I was in the mood for something postmodern and this seemed like the ideal choice, and actually it turned out to be one.

Although the blurb of the Hungarian edition quite mercilessly tells the reader the whole “story”, I will not go into details. Suffice it to say that the novel tells the story of a love affair. The protagonists, Moinous and Sucette go through all the usual stages of an affair and we can follow them through their relationship from the first tentative glances and smiles until the bitter end.

But this is only the beginning, and in fact, the story is almost insubstantial, so it would not be worthwhile to read the novel just because of that, even less so because this is not a novel to get lost in: the author makes sure that the reader is aware that this is fiction, not the faithful depiction of reality.

What actually makes it worth while to read this book is its style, its constant and very interesting shifts between past and present, its playfulness, its irony and the way it depicts the influence of reality, fiction and imagination on one another. For instance: Moinous and Sucette first meet at a rally on Washington Square, smile at each other but do not speak a word. After the rally Sucette goes home and incorporates the stranger with the nice smile into the autobiographic short story she is writing: she imagines that he must be French, she devises his whole past and personality and finally names him Moinous. And when Moinous and Sucette meet again in “reality”, the girl tells the boy about her short story, and Moinous says that he would go by the name of Moinous then, and would not tell Sucette his real name.

This is only one, quite simple example of how the novel blends together the different layers of reality, fiction, and reality within fiction. However, Federman goes even further than this: he puts the whole story into the conditional, and makes the reader question the credibility of even the simplest of events. The only thing which is certain is the afternoon in March (or is it February?) when Moinous and Sucette first smile at each other, then go on their different ways.

By the way I think it is extremely clever and ironic that despite the emphatic fictitiousness, the pervasive feeling that perhaps nothing happened after all, and the constant shifts between past and present we still manage to learn every important (and sometimes quite unimportant) detail of the protagonists’ past, personality and the way their relationship develops: for example we know that at the beginning of their affair, Sucette was not willing to have sex with Moinous for 42 days; we see their first argument and also the birthdays they celebrate together.

It seems to me that Federman attempted to write an excessively textual text, and in the process he also created an absolutely banal, everyday love story, the pieces of which he scattered here and there in the novel – but in case someone is only interested in the romantic story, they can easily find and put together the pieces, and ignore the irony.

It is because of novels like this that I love postmodern literature: Smiles on Washington Square gives the reader the freedom of several different interpretations, it reflects on the world and itself, it is very playful and seemingly simple, but in fact it demands great attention – and gives great delight in return.

Night Shift by Stephen King

I like Stephen King’s writings in general, and he has some novels I am absolutely fascinated by (such as The Dead Zone), so I started reading the short stories in Night Shift readily and with great expectations, as I know that King can be a wonderful storyteller. Unfortunately this collection was a bit of a disappointment for me. Among the 20 stories contained in the book, there are some which are awfully banal, pathetic, or simply ridiculous, and of course there are a few masterpieces as well, but the bad or uninteresting stories are in majority, so on the whole the collection made a rather negative impression on me.

What disturbs me most is the fact that King does not hesitate to borrow from the oeuvre of other authors (or should I say: steal from them?), and he does it in a completely unimpressive way. The very first story of the collection, “Jerusalem’s Lot” is a perfect example of this: the story is painfully similar to H. P. Lovecraft’s short story, “The Rats in the Wall”. The resemblance surprised me all the most as this is the only story by Lovecraft I have read so far, and this suggests to me that perhaps King builds upon Lovecraft’s work in some of his other stories as well, only I am not aware of it. Being a lover of postmodern, of course it is not the free usage of other texts which irritates me, but the fact that King does not seem to add anything of his own to his sources, so for me this is not a postmodern game, but a rather sorry example of copy-paste writing.

Apart from building heavily on other writers’ work, King also repeats himself a lot. I do not see why a book of 20 short stories needs two separate stories about rats, vertigo, haunted cities, or machines come alive. True, these are very rewarding topics for a horror-writer, and I also admit that the corresponding stories deal with ancient or quite modern human fears, but I believe that one well-written story would have sufficed in all these themes, and then perhaps I would not have felt as if I had only been wasting my time with reading another boring story of yet another ghost-ridden town or rat-scare.

In his introduction to the collection, King writes that in every work of fiction the single most important factor is the story, and not even the most intriguing characters, the most unique style or the most eery tone can help if the reader is not spellbound by the story itself. I do not agree with this idea, but King’s claim certainly shows that he is aware of his abilities and the limits of his talent. I usually think that King is correct in his self-assessment and his major talent lies in creating a story, however, in Night Shift the best tales are the ones that do not entirely depend on the story value, but rather depict a certain mood or state of mind (such as “Night Surf” or “The Man Who Loved Flowers”), deal with the relationship of the characters in a mature way (“The Children of the Corn”), or are marked by atypical narration (“Strawberry Spring”). In these stories one gets a few flashes of King’s true genius: his great ability to conjure a distinctive atmosphere in his work and his talent to create wonderfully absorbing characters in a few simple sentences. I have a strong suspicion that these stories will stay with me much longer than the less-than-interesting, less-than-unique pieces which are more strongly centered around the events themselves.

However, a collection of 20 which only contains 4 or 5 good pieces is not satisfying for me. I do not like to waste my time reading a lot of unexciting stories just to come across a gem every once in a while. And anyway, I expect more than this from Stephen King.

Of course King himself does not claim to be a literary genius, and the stories in Night Shift can prove to anyone in doubt that King is indeed only a literary craftsman in most of the cases, someone who usually knows how to put a story together to make it work, but who can hardly be called an artist. Again, this is not a fault in itself, but here the pieces King uses to build his stories are often far too obvious, and this spoils the reading experience.

Lucas by Kevin Brooks

I cannot recall the moment when I decided to read this novel. I guess I must have read a sentence or two on a blog somewhere which made me conclude that this was a sufficiently sordid, tragic and dramatic novel, consequently, I was going to like it. Well, I was wrong, so much so that I almost put the book aside after laboring through the first 50 pages – and let me add that I am not in the habit of leaving books unfinished. Even if I do not like a novel at all, I keep hoping that the end will make up for everything, this is why I read Lucas to the end, but it failed to live up even to my most meager expectations. However, while reading this story, I kept debating with myself whether I had the right to scorn a novel which is not particularly bad, and the only problem with it is that I am clearly not its ideal reader. This post is the result of this unanswered question, and while writing it I try to think of the novel both as an adult and as a teenage reader.

The story is told by sixteen-year-old Caitlin, and it is a recollection of the dramatic events of the past summer. Caitlin lives a quiet life on a small island with her father and brother but one day the mysterious Lucas appears. Lucas is very good-looking, he is not afraid of anything and even the way he walks shows how fearless and confident he is. However, no-one knows where he comes from and what he wants. Cait is inexplicably attached to the boy (sometimes it is even spelled as Boy) from the very first moment, while the rest of the islanders are just as inexplicably repelled by him, and a couple of teenagers and adults go to great lengths to denigrate Lucas and expel him from the island.

I guess it is not necessary to go into more details to give you a sense of what this novel is about: besides other things, it deals with topics such as xenophobia, the fear of the Other, standing up for our beliefs and growing up. Naturally, these topics are of great importance, and in fact, the author managed to depict and fictionalize some of them quite nicely. The figure of Caitlin, for instance, is quite authentic as a relatively naive, thoughtful and moody teenage girl who does not want to join the company of the average disco-goers. And I also believe that people like the islanders, who shun the outside world and treat everyone from the outside suspiciously, can indeed readily make a scapegoat of a person such as Lucas. And I do not have anything to say against the style of the novel either, I think Brooks depicted the language usage and the way of thinking of a sixteen-year-old girl very well.

However, the fact that the novel is a huge collection of clichés and moralizing attracted my attention before long. The book displays all the elements necessary for a story which deals with the joint themes of sad-adolescence-and-human-monstrosity: there is a dead mother, a mildly alcoholic but nice father who could never forget the death of his wife, a lonely teenage girl, a mysterious boy, a sudden rush of emotions towards this mysterious boy, wicked and dangerous youngsters well-loathed by the heroine, suspicion and misunderstanding, courage and self-sacrifice.

Kevin Brooks did what he could with all these character types and motifs, however, this is not enough for me – or perhaps this is too much for me. At my age, there is no need for me to read rather childish commentaries about the wicked and cruel ways of man – I know about this already. Similarly, I do not find either the evil youngsters or the enigmatic Lucas too convincing: I am already grown out of the age when I find a character appealing and interesting just because he carries around a picture of his unknown mother, has a scar on his wrist and walks in a confident way – and apart from these, we really do not get to know anything about Lucas.

If I had read this novel at the age of sixteen, perhaps I might have been very much moved by it – given the fact that this is a truly sad story, and at a young age I needed obvious morals and black-and-white characters. But being as old as I am, this novel irritated me to a great extent and I could hardly wait to finally reach the end of it.

Slow Learner by Thomas Pynchon

After reading The Crying of Lot 49 last year, I became enthusiastic to read any other Pynchon books I can lay my hands on. So when it turned out that one of my colleagues owns a copy of Slow Learner, I was happy to accept his offer that he lends me the book. Slow Learner is a collection of five short stories that Pynchon wrote early in his career, and I was quite eager to read them, as I had only read one of his short stories, “Entropy” earlier, and I loved that so much that I wanted to know if he could write other stories which were similarly good.

As I adore both The Crying of Lot 49 and “Entropy”, I was greatly biased towards this volume, and it is not easy for me to admit that the book was quite a disappointment to me, even though it started out in a highly exciting way: Pynchon himself wrote a preface to the decade-old stories, and this must have been quite an event in the life of such a reclusive author who avoids every kind of personal interaction with his audience. No wonder that I devoured the pages of the preface and I tremendously enjoyed Pynchon’s wit and style. But then a strange thing occurred: because of Pynchon’s preface, I lost my interest in the stories themselves, or at least my attitude towards them underwent a great alteration and I could not really appreciate them when I finally got around to reading them.

Here is what happened. In the preface Pynchon takes each of the five stories one after the other, and systematically disparages them, while displaying his huge reserves of self-irony and wit. However, it is not only that the older, more experienced and more mature Pynchon mildly ponders over the deficiencies of his early writings. It seems to me that he positively relishes in disclosing his earlier weaknesses: his penchant for choosing a scientific or philosophical concept first, and then writing the story around it; his pretense that he is an expert in a lot of different American dialects even though this is hardly the case; his tendency to fill his stories with words he likes, regardless of (and sometimes not even knowing) their meanings; or his habit of using his characters only as illustrations of certain concepts, and failing to fill them with life in the meantime.

True, it was immensely entertaining to read these trains of thought, since Pynchon’s irony is virtually inexhaustible, but this was basically all I could get out of this book. After reading twenty pages of ruthless (though funny) self-criticism I automatically kept looking for the faults in the stories, and only wanted to find the parts in each of the stories that the mature Pynchon criticizes in the preface.

But even if I forgot my obsessive search for faults, the stories on the whole still failed to impress me, and I only liked two stories out of the five. One of these was “Entropy”: I found this story just as fascinating and creepy now as five years ago when I had first read it. The other good story was “Secret Integration”, which is a happy blend of humor, mystery and a distressing picture of its age and society.

This time I would rather not go into the story-lines themselves. As these are short stories, and one is quite different from the other, I cannot give you any idea of the whole volume if I write about one specific story only, and I certainly do not want to outline all five here. So I only will add one piece of advice: if you want to enjoy the stories and form your own opinions without the author’s influence, make sure you leave the preface to the end.

Crash by J. G. Ballard

Since I had seen the movie version of Crash (directed by David Cronenberg) a couple of years ago, I have been planning to read the novel. Judging from the movie, I could imagine what the book might be like, and usually I am not the one to complain about the disgusting elements of any novel, but I still have to admit that I find Crash to be quite impressive, morbid and transgressive.

One day the narrator of the story, James Ballard crashes into the car of Dr. Helen Remington and her husband. Helen’s husband dies in the accident, while Helen and James suffer serious injuries. Surprisingly, however, the accident gives a new direction to James’s sexuality when he discovers that the experience of the crash and the sight of wounds and permanent scars becomes irresistibly exciting for him – and it quickly turns out that he is not alone with this perversion. After the accident James gets to know Vaughan, a man who is constantly taking pictures at the sites of crashes, and whose distorted imagination centers around images of accidents, dead bodies, sex, violence and wounds one might get in a car crash. It turns out that Vaughan is the head of a small but thriving community, the members of which had all been through at least one crash – since then, they are continuously looking forward to other crashes and the sexual pleasure they can derive from them.

I guess it is clear from the previous paragraph that the characters of the novel have pretty unsound imaginations, and they can only find pleasure in their empty and sterile lives by engaging in more and more violent actions and by courting danger and disaster. On the other hand, however, the sickly deeds and desires of the characters stem directly and almost naturally from the space they inhabit: the story is set in West-London, in a futuristic apartment complex, and on the multi-lane roads and in the multi-storey car parks which surround it, and in the background of the events we are always aware of the constant stir of a million of cars, the traffic jams and the aircraft departing from and landing on the airport nearby. The novel is thus set is an extremely impersonal world, one which is endlessly fascinated by modern technology and speed, and it is quite natural that this world plants insane desires into people: if so many people spend a significant part of their days in their cars, and if so many people die in car crashes, then it only seems logical that the setting for sexual satisfaction and the most intimate human relationships should also be the car, and that these relationships should be infused by the sense of danger and speed conveyed by motorcars.

Of course the world of Crash can be quite disgusting at times, but the reader is constantly aware that what is depicted here is not reality, but a highly stylized fantasy world. It is stated several times in the novel that the sexual and other acts committed by the characters are “only” the ritualistic substitutes for real car crashes, and this alienated me from the characters to the point that I was not disgusted by them, but I did not pity them either. They behave in a highly unlifelike, inhuman way and this prevents me from feeling any human emotion towards them.

In this respect it was very intriguing that the most unsettling scene for me (and for the characters of the novel as well) was not the depiction of an actual crash or some bizarre sexual practice, but the chapter in which the characters watch a crash test. During the expertly planned test a motorcyclist crashes into a car in which a family of four is travelling. After the test, the characters watch the video footage of the event, and we get a vivid description of the injuries suffered by the crash test dummies. And even though the description concerns dummies and not real people, this scene seems much more tragic and real than any of the novel’s scenes of real crashes. This is observed by the narrator as well, and he remarks that the test is realer than reality for every spectator because everyone imagines themselves to be in the places of the dummies.

Besides the many unsavoury and brutal scenes, the tone of the novel is frighteningly apocalyptic, and the obsessive way of thinking of the sick mind is also expertly (and appallingly) shown: for instance we hear much more than enough about Vaughan’s scars (which become increasingly attractive for the narrator); and it is also stated at least a dozen times that the crash is seen by the characters as the symbol of the marriage of eroticism and modern technology. If the whole novel were not so morbid, perhaps I would even say that Ballard is being didactic when he wants to hammer home his ideas with so many repetitions – I do not usually like novels which repeat their key sentences or symbols with such insistence. But in Crash I feel that the constant repetitions are the direct consequences of the distorted imaginations of the narrator and mostly Vaughan: since their lives are mostly shaped by their bizarre sexuality, it seems natural that they keep repeating themselves and telling us over and over again what is most important for them.

Naturally, reading all this is not a pleasant experience, but I guess it was not meant to be one. And of course the unpleasantness does not change the fact that Crash is an impressive, frightening and very modern novel.