Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Classically, canonically, frustrating

I now completely understand why I abandoned reading The Count of Monte Cristo as a pre-teen: it's dense, it's full of a confusing array of characters, it's dry, and it's a really effing long book. The word count clocks in somewhere in the 450K range and my particular edition was juuuuuuuust shy of 1000 pages, which meant that it had a really tiny typeface, and as a pre-teen I didn't yet have a prescription for the glasses that made it much easier for me to push my way through Monte Cristo.

I liked it overall but kept getting wrapped up in the feeling that the novel wasn't really one long work so much as one moderately long work with three or four short works plopped in the middle. The whole thing with Sinbad the Sailor and Franz in the grotto feels like a short story, everything in Rome seems like a standalone novella, and the whole poisoning plot could have been pulled straight out of another story and dropped in at random. And maybe it was - Dumas constructed the epic tale of revenge out of contemporary tales of men wronged by their friends - there's no reason the author couldn't have pulled together several disparate stories and woven them together with the ill-fated Edmond Dantes as the frame for his tapestry.

There's a lot of really excellent drama going on throughout the story, and very few of the thousand pages are actually boring. It's pretty easy to get sick of the exhaustive descriptions of nearly indistinguishable dandies and ladies who populate the last third of the novel, but some of those characters (Eugenie comes to mind) are at least fun to read if not really functional as movers and shakers in the story.

What kind of got to me in the end is that the story is just unsatisfying enough to be completely frustrating. I'm a total fan of shades of gray and multiple layers of meaning and ambiguity in general and that's what's missing at the end of The Count of Monte Cristo - everything is too cleanly fixed, especially since the main character has been wrestling with feelings of guilt and regrets for his actions for 100 pages by the time the novel comes to a close.

I guess I just feel like this isn't a book that should have a happy ending, at least not for the characters who get the happy ending.  By the time Dantes gets his revenge you don't really want him to have it because he's become, in many ways, a worse person than those who wronged him. But then you don't even get the satisfaction of that unhappy ending - Dantes subsuming himself to the Count and continuing on as a flaming sword over the night and losing all the innocence of Edmond  would be gratifying and depraved. Instead the Count gets his revenge and Edmond gets to have his happiness restored with a replacement for his lost bride to repair his morals and raise his character.

A while back I criticized The Stand for ending on too down a note and right now I'm criticizing The Count of Monte Cristo for ending on too up a note, so I suppose I might just be hard to satisfy. (Maybe. Probably. Okay I'm totally impossible to satisfy and it's part of why I love reading as much as I do.)

But, for all of that, it's a worthwhile read. The book is bitingly funny at times while still generally being dark and miserable. The characters who are well realized are VERY well realized and the others don't matter enough to think about. Dumas did an admirable job of crafting a complicated work in the exact manner he needed to to direct attention where he wanted it. I get why Dumas in general and this book in particular are part of the stodgy old Canon, and I'm happy to have read it.

Dumas, Alexandre. The Count of Monte Cristo. Adventure Classics. Naples: Florida. 2001. (1844).

Thursday, February 19, 2015

My parents did a great job raising me

When I first saw Psycho about 10 or 15 years ago I had no idea about the twist ending because my parents had spent all of my childhood making sure that things would still be awesome when I was an adult. I think I first saw the film at a festival on the big screen but I can't be sure, maybe it was at home off a collection of Hitchcock DVDs. Who knows? (My dad. He probably knows.)

Either way the movie is indelible. It's a great flick, exciting and tense and stunning, so when I went over to my parents' house for Tuesday night hangout time I wasn't bummed that we weren't watching the TV show we've been recording because I got to sit down and watch Psycho with them instead.

Janet Leigh is great in the film. She's beautifully intimidating in her sudden flight: I love how rude she is to the police officer and car salesman in contrast to how polite and gentle she is in her scenes with Anthony Perkins. And Anthony Perkins, of course, absolutely kills it.

Norman Bates is one of the greatest characters ever brought to the screen, and Anthony Perkins breathed life into the role. I'm not talking about the twitch oddness at the very end, or the be-wigged grinning before Norman is psychoanalyzed. Bates is best talking about the stuffed birds in his office or almost bringing a sandwich to Marion's room or flinching slightly away from Mr. Arbogast while munching on Kandy Korn. It's the sub-surface tension that's so strained in this film and Perkins' performance alone is a worthwhile reason to see the film.

If that's not reason enough for you then see it for the brilliant and vertiginous camerawork, the creepy-but-simple music, or just the tingle of intensity that runs through the whole thing.

Great film, dammit. Now I kind of want to watch it again.

Psycho. Alfred Hitchcock. Shamley Productions. 1960.

Seriously with the goddamned dolphins

David Brin writes very good books that I can enjoy reading while still fuming at them and wanting to argue with something on almost every page.

I am not going to deny that I love (most of) The Postman - what fan of post-apocalyptic fiction doesn't? And the Uplift books seem mostly silly and not actually harmful from an outsider's perspective. But Earth bugged me. Kind of a lot.

I just did some research and it seems like a lot of Brin's positions in Earth have been changed - he doesn't come off nearly as technophobic now as he did in 1990, but it appears that the one thing I really well and truly disagree with him on is a position that has only solidified - privacy.

Brin is pretty well know as an advocate for transparency and individual citizens taking up cameras and filming the people who are filming us: my problem is that he wants to accept as a given that we now live in a world where you're always going to be observed.

Brin is an astrophysicist. He's clearly looked into historical precedents when it comes to privacy. But he ignores (or disregards as unimportant or atavistic - which is worse) that mammals don't like being looked at. Primates REALLY don't like being looked at. Apes HATE being looked at. And humans hate being looked at enough that it's one of the few things that will provoke a violent reaction out of a complete stranger in spite of normal social protocols. Brin uses a diner as an example: in a public setting you can actually have a lot of privacy because everyone is able to see what's going on so there's a strong disincentive to stare or eavesdrop. What this example ignores is that if someone IS staring at you in a diner there's also a strong social urge not to confront them about their direct observation. You don't actually have any real privacy in such a setting, you have the illusion of privacy and no way to back it up.

Brin talks about how transparency will only work if the little guy believes he matters, but holy shit do we have proof that the little guy doesn't matter. What's my proof? How about any single time police were filmed doing something that was clearly illegal and STILL weren't sent to jail or even fired from their jobs. The little guy isn't exposing the big guy and protecting the other little guys - the little guy is figuring out neat hacks to disperse a shitload of naked pictures of the other little guys. Who loses jobs because they're transparent about the activities they enjoy? The little guy. Who suffers when we expose a gigantic scandal like everything having to do with banks in the last thirty years? A hint: it's not the fucking big guy.

But anyway. That's Brin as a whole, not Earth as a novel.

Earth has a robust story and lots of fascinating characters to follow around. It's broken up into very manageable chapters but the novel as a whole is wearying. It took me an unusually long time to pace through it because I just kept losing interest every couple hundred pages and ditching it for a few days.

The book is just a bit too preachy for my taste. I mean, I get it. Humans are awful, we're doing terrible things to the planet and continue doing terrible things to each other. Rah rah rah, fight the system and similar sentiments. Maybe it's just that the book is so dated - a 50 year prediction written 25 years ago is obviously going to miss the mark on a few significant points - that it comes off as more jaded than Brin intended it to be.

And also the dolphins. There are only two scenes out of 600+ pages that involve them, but man is is clear that dolphins are important to David Brin. He's written lots of books about them, thinks they're awesome and all of that. But fuck dolphins. They're the assholes of the sea - largely because they're pretty much the closest thing on the planet to being us.

     - Alli

Brin, David. Earth. Bantam. New York: New York. 1994. (1990)