Friday, June 03, 2005

The Great Gatbsy by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“You’ve read all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books, you’re very well read it’s well known,” Bob Dylan snidely croons in Ballad of a Thin Man.

I’m not sure that there really is too much Fitzgerald that has withstood any test of time other than TGG. If any of the readers of this site have any suggestions for other works of his that are good (Tender is the Night doesn't count), please lemme know.

I wish I could go back and find whatever essay I wrote on this book back in tenth grade when I last read it. Whatever themes I regurgitated from my high school English class, I doubt I really got this book in any way. Ultimately now, I don’t see this as much more than a mild rebuke of the decadent partyin’ lifestyles of the upper middle class in the nineteen twenties, and a tale of someone who wanted one thing to the exclusion of all else.

Fitzgerald’s novella would likely have completely slipped beneath the waves of decade were it not for three things:

First, the book is short enough to be assigned as reading in high school and has lots of clumsy, overt symbolism that make it easy to teach.

Second, Fitzgerald kept good company, as is well documented in better books, like A Moveable Feast.

Third, his style is descriptive, but concerns itself so overly with unearthing what appear to be pearls of timeless wisdom that it’s easy to think this is a great book with lots to say. For example, the book’s closing line, impressively quoted to me from memory my Y-man when he saw me reading the book “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Sounds pretty deep. But for a book that addresses the way the past shapes the present and limits the future, try Robert Penn Warren’s fantastic novel, All the Kings Men.

In rereading the above, and skimming the battered HPB copy of Gatsby here on my desk it strikes me that the above comes across as a bit cynical, and probably unfair. Fitzgerald writes well. It isn’t his fault that his beautifully written little tragedy has acquired stature far beyond it’s desserts. It’s a good story. If it weren’t famous, I’d likely be raving about how much I enjoyed it, because I did.

Tangentially, if I were to bother to look any more deeply into Fitzgerald, I think I might want to start by focusing on what I’ve always heard rumored but never seen in print, that his wife, Zelda went crazy and completely fucked over his life. I think it might be fun to take a look at he and old Hank Williams and see if one could find some parallels between their creations and their damaged marital lives. I wonder if there are other good examples of this in the last century. Considering how screwed up so many relationships are, it seems likely. So reader, any artists whose crazy wives ended up becoming a dominant force in their careers?
I just noticed that on 5/29 of this year, George RR Martin updated his website and mentioned that A Feast For Crows, the next book in the series I just reviewed is now complete, at least the first draft. He also mentioned that it weighed in at about 1300 pages. That's greater than the length of Tolkien's entire (non)trilogy! No word on a publication date, but I'm sure Drew will be happy to know that he didn'e keel over from a heart attack before finishing.

Here at work today, waiting for a build to complete. I'm also almost finished writing up my notes on the first volume of Dylan's autobiography. They're not 1300 pages, but still a bit too long right now... Of course, it'll be a few more days before I post them, since I'm still several books behind. But the gap is closing! From a worst moment, when there were 14 in the waiting-to-be-reviewed stack, we're down to only about 4 missing posts.

I expect I'll be here twiddling my thumbs a lot this weekend, so I'll try to get completely caught up soon, then stay caught up if possible.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Three part update describing the first three novels in an ongoing fantasy series. I read these in February and March.

A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin
If you aren’t interested in pulp fantasy novels, skip this review. Ultimately, that’s all this series of books will ever be.

Okay, now that the snobs are gone. If you ARE into pulp fantasy—if names like Raistlin, The Forsaken, Rand al’Thor, Thomas Covenant, Belgarath, Severis, Drizz’t, Tanis, Tad Williams or Robert Jordan provoke an emotional response from you—then you should probably read George RR Martin. His is a new look at fantasy, an R (X really) rated re-invention of Tolkien’s sanitized magical spaces. His books are epic, violent, complicated, and a lot more fun to read than are Jordan’s extended meditations on teen angst.

A Game of Thrones chronicles the beginning of a power struggle for control of a particular Kingdom. This Kingdom, which has no real name, exists on the southern tip of a continent in what might be described as a low-magic world. Due to some planetary axial issues which are (thankfully) never deeply explored, this kingdom enjoys years or decades of summer, followed by an equally long and difficult winter. When winter arrives, undead evil arrives with it. Unfortunately, since these seasonal shifts usually only occur once per lifetime, none of the petty kinglets who are busy tearing their kingdom apart really pay much attention to the onset of winter.

In this first novel in a planned series of five, Martin introduces us to many of the characters from whose perspectives we will see the war (and presumeably the darker events which will follow once winter arrives) unfold. Unlike most fantasy authors, Martin seems more than willing to spend hundreds of pages writing from over the shoulder of a particular character, get the reader emotionally involved, then wreck their life and kill them off.

This book mostly introduces the reader to the world, some major characters, and sets up the events that will unfold in the second novel.

A Clash of Kings by George RR Martin
If you aren’t interested in pulp fantasy novels, skip this review. Ultimately, that’s all this series of books will ever be.

Clash is longer, meaner, and much cooler than its predecessor, A Game of Thrones. In this 900 page installment of Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice we see many of the young characters who watched their disintegrating world with eyeswide start to grow up. But make no mistake, this is not the little-boy-becomes-hero novel which so pollutes this genre. I’m not sure there are any heroes here, and mostly the little boys in this story get killed off in gristly ways.

A Clash of Kings and deals with the fallout of the events set in motion by the first novel. The magic component of the world gets ramped up a bit, and we start to get our first real look at some of the cooler characters (Dagenerys, Jon Snow, Tyrion). Martin also continues his trend of rewarding no one, and punishing anyone who even tries to act out of principle. In fact, any attempt at honorable behavior is, without exception, punished severely, usually fatally, for their lapse. This is not a world in which it pays to be good.

A Storm of Swords by George RR Martin
Again, if you aren’t interested in pulp fantasy novels, skip this review. Ultimately, that’s all this series of books will ever be.

By this point, all of the social structures which defined society in the first two books have so fallen in upon themselves that all is basically chaos. Some of the characters you love are dead. Many others are heading that way. A few of the ones you didn’t care much about start to grow in prominence (Bran, for example). The violence, sadism, and depravity all get ratcheted up a notch, as do the big battle sequences.

By the end of this novel, no one is still innocent, and the tide of evil is just about to break over all the conflicts which, while they seemed important at first, are about to be reduced to petty squabbles. Winter is coming, and I for one am looking forward to the rest of the series.

It should go without saying that there is no real style or interesting usage of language here. These are pulp. If you like fantasy, and are NOT squeamish about sadism and depravity, read these books. Else, pass.