Monday, March 28, 2011

Power, Religion and the Human Will in Sam Taylor's "The Island at the End of the World"

"The Island at the End of the World" a novel by Sam Taylor

Pa is a religious nut with three children, all of whom live in the titular island at the end of the world. They are, we are told, the last survivors of a Noah-style flood. They survive by growing their own food, hunting for their meat and living in shelter they’ve built for themselves. But all is not well on this island. As the novel progresses, the children, especially the oldest, Alice, begin to rebel. They begin to ask questions. They begin to assert their will on their theocratic father. And the island, the last vestige of humanity, becomes less a paradise, and more a prison.

The novel features several voices that overlap in time, making for an interesting collage of narratives. One is the voices belongs to Finn, the animal-loving, pure of heart son. His curious mind is a beam of creativity in the midst of total isolation. The other voice is that of Pa, the religious fanatic, Old Testament loving, paranoid control freak. Many times the reader gets to see one event from Finn’s point of view, then have that event enlightened with Pa’s point of view. In the second half, Finn’s narration is swapped for Alice’s, the teenage daughter, adding further complexity and richness to the story.

The father writes beautifully and reflectively in a unique voice. He used to be a young hot shot in New York trying to “burn a new future for myself in the wonderful world of money.” He has become religious after the world ended and starts to write in a kind of Old Testament prose, though, honestly, it is prettier than the Old Testament itself: “the sun became black and the moon became as blood, and the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.”

Pa tries to convince himself that his faith is based on what he has seen: the end of the world. “Often, I find, it is better to forget what you KNOW, and to believe only what you SEE with your own two eyes.” But like many people who turn to religion for honorable purposes, Pa’s faith takes a turn for the worse. He becomes power hungry and disguises his brainwashing of his three children as being their protector. He says over and over again that he loves them and that he is protecting them from the “poison” and the “contamination” of the world. But the only thing he’s protecting them from is knowledge of the world as it was before the flood, Babylon as he calls it. Just like the self-righteous god in the garden of Eden, Pa wants to control his subjects’ actions, but also their minds. He keeps them from the Knowing Tree, a mysterious giant redwood he forbids his children from ever seeing. He also hides a cabin in the woods filled with books like Robinson Crusoe and Don DeLillo’s “Underworld” and “White Noise.” (Great homage, by the way.)

Pa wants his children to wander around the island in ignorance forever. And when his daughter Alice insists she has a right to look at the Knowing Tree, he beats her. It becomes clear early on in the book, that Pa is no benevolent god. He’s as jealous and temperamental as the god of the Old Testament. He may have loved his children once, but he values obedience more than anything else. Pa seeks absolute power. And his love for power leaves no room for any other love.

Finn struggles with his father’s faith. He sees the inconsistencies. He wants to believe god doesn’t exist, “cus God made people an then He kills em cus He asks Abraham to sakry fice his own sun cus Hes cruel and… too power full.” If you can get past the phonetic prose, Finn makes a good point. I thought this same thing when I was around his age, which I think is eight or ten. When children are told god is good and all powerful, they tend to believe it. But then Finn reads the Bible and comes across the story of Abraham. Here’s a father that’s willing to kill his son for no other reason than because some god tells him to. Finn rightly views this as an immoral act, even though it comes from The Book that is supposed to contain all morality. But Finn’s morality is not of god or religion, it is of heart. Deep down, Finn fears his father might be an Abraham as well. His father might be sacrificing his family on some bizarre altar (the island) to a god that may not even exist.

Then Will comes to the island, names as such because he brings an element of personal will into an island of repression and isolation. He’s a young man on a mission, whose true purpose is revealed at the end in a powerful turn of events. Pa is paranoid and terrified. Another grown man on the island means a threat to his crazy theocratic control over the island. Will and Alice get close. After all, Will is the first man she’s ever really seen who is not her father. This gets Pa burning with anger and hatred quickly. From this point on, the reader knows that it’s only a matter of time before something explodes between Will and Pa.

"Fear,” the father writes in his journal, “makes a person more malleable.” But only to a point. Will represents the break in Pa’s world of fear. The power of the human will can conquer all the burdens imposed upon it.

Pa begins to deteriorate more and more as the world he has created for his children crumbles around him. He knows he will lose Alice. He knows she will follow Will (and her own personal will, or desire) and flee the island. Will and Alice discover Pa’s journal, which he started writing back before the flood. The journal is interesting in that it adds another voice, another narration. And it reveals an ending that, while shocking, makes total sense within the world of the story. By the second half of the book, the reader is suspicious of Pa and prepared for the ending. And Taylor delivers wonderfully. I won’t give it away, because it’s so well done.

That said, the book can be hard to get through at times. It’s filled with Old Testament styled addresses to god, such as “Let mine eyes run down with tears and let them not cease…” And both Alice and Pa speak in streams of consciousness, throwing out the laws of grammar and any form of sentence structure. While this makes sense in the overall world of the novel, it comes across as gimmicky and childish in points. But underneath its flaws is a great story about control, power and the struggle of the human will to overcome blind faith and lies.

For more information on the book click here.

Friday, March 25, 2011

I Still Love Sancerre

2006 Pascal & Nicolas Reverdy Sancerre Les Anges Lots
Five years ago, I tasted a few Sancerres that really changed my view of the sauvignon blanc grape. I couldn't get enough of them. Then, over the past three years or so, I lost some of my love for them. maybe I just got tired of the mediocrity of many Sancerres. And there certainly are some mediocre ones out there, and overpriced. But this Sancerre is phenomenal. The aromas explode with green apple, lemon pie crust and minerals. Right away, the wine hits the palate with a rich, creamy mouthfeel. It then transitions into a zesty, razor beam of acid and minerals. This wine is full of minerals, honeysuckle flowers and lemon curd. This is a gorgeous wine that has improved with age and reminded me of what a good Sancerre can really do.
90 pts

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Martin Amis Wages "War Against Cliché"

I just finished this nearly 500-page behemoth of literary criticism (The War Against Cliché - Essays and Reviews 1971-2000 by Martin Amis) and I don’t feel the least bit exhausted. If anything, Amis’ writing is so fresh and lively that I found myself thinking: “It’s ending already?”

Literary criticism, Amis writes, is for everyone. “Interacting with literature is easy. Anyone can join in.” But his literary populism doesn’t equate to dumbing down the English language. Amis is open to all types of letters, and he analyzes and catalogues each piece with the dedication of a taxonomist. But, as the title suggests, he has no patience for what a professor of mine once referred to as The L.A.W — lazy-ass writing. When a writer falls back on clichéd phrases, empty words, bland characters and half-assed plots, Amis brings the knives. And it’s evident in his work that he truly enjoys shredding bad writing. But he’s not just a literary assassin. He’s much more constructive than many other literary critics. He’s not a prophet of a particular school. I guess he has an agenda, but at least it’s an honest one: Amis is a lover of good writing and believes in the inherent worth of literature in all its forms. He’s read more books than I could in five lifetimes. But this isn’t a badge of superiority he wears on his jacket.

Amis starts off with acerbic insight into the American political psyche. “The facts of the dispute hardly mater. What matters is the way things can be made to look. In American politics, you go through gates and you get to the doors: the doors of perception.” Politicians speak in “the sanitized anti-poetry of soft jargon.” His take on nuclear weapons is great: “For the first time in history, human beings have come up with something that may eliminate all second chances, something that therefore must never go wrong.” Later, he writes about the contradiction inherent in the notion of nuclear security. In the past, “the State was your enemy’s enemy; but nuclear logic decreed that the State was no longer your friend.” In a world of nuclear armed states, who is the average person’s friend?

While Amis is a great dissector of writing in all its form, his criticism of fictional work takes up most of the book. Amis is able to view works of fiction as a whole and also break them down into their smallest parts. His arguments are superbly crafted and his language meticulously chosen. Amis is indeed horny for the English language. A great way to start a fictional work, according to Amis, is, “in the aftermath, with familiar cadences of exhaustion, of slow recuperation after some obscure psychic struggle...” I liked this, especially considering it’s pretty much how I began my first novel, Broken Bones.

Amis has lots to say on some of everyone from Normal Mailer to Cervantes.

Writing of the work of J. G. Ballard, Amis points out lasting, haunting impact of an incredible work of fiction. “You finish the book with some bafflement and irritation. But this is only half the experience. You then it around waiting for the novel to come and haunt you. And it does.”

His take on Philip Roth, especially Roth’s Zuckerman books, had me cracking up: “perhaps the most cramped and stubborn exercise in self-examination known to modern letters.”

Amis rightly refers to Kurt Vonnegut’s “Mother Night” as, “a work of moral and comic near-perfection.” Since Kurt Vonnegut is my favorite American novelist and Martin Amis is my favorite literary critic, I’m glad to see the two get along. It's like introducing your parents to your girlfriend. It’s nice when they can sit at the same table and engage in cordial conversation.

While Amis respects fiction as an art form, he doesn’t idolize it. “There is no reason, for instance, why a novelist's opinions or positions' should be of special value, let alone special authority.” I agree. Novelists are probably, on the average, far more screwed up and far less adept at giving advice than the average person on the street.

Overall, this book is a love poem to writing and reading. “When we read, we are doing more than delectating words on a page – stories, characters, images, notions. We are communing with mind of the author.” Agreed. And communing with Amis’ mind is a joy.

Friday, March 18, 2011

"Approximately Heaven" - James Wharton, Jr.

This story starts off with something of a bang: the narrator’s wife is leaving him. They’ve been together for seven years, most of which the narrator (Wendell) apparently spent drinking and not doing things around the house. He pretends to shape up, but she’s determined to see a lawyer. Depressed and drunk, Wendell, agrees to go on a road trip with his hick acquaintance Dove. Yes, it’s a terribly pretentious name, but still.

The whole time, though, Wendell is getting farther and farther away from what he wants, or at least what he thinks he wants: his wife, Mary. Nothing much happens for a good portion of the book. I mean, Wendell finds out that Dove has lots of money hidden in a couch in the back of the trailer they're driving across country with. At one point he tries to bet all the money on a car race but Wendell stops him. Dove gets furious and forces Wendell to take all the money. Throughout the middle of the book there's some random funny things that happen, but for the most part, they just drive and then arrive at the Gulf in Mississippi. So, the middle of the book lacks a bit of drive. The narrator wonders a lot about his wife and has random thoughts. Now, this isn't totally a criticism, because it's a story about a road trip. So it has a lit bit of that "When are we gonna get there?" kind of feel to it.

What do we do about the things that could have been? In this situation, Wendell's wife Mary had a miscarriage. And there is this beautiful part where Wendell really sits down and thinks about what could have been, about what these could-have-beens really mean in the present: "They were not known but they had existed and might have been known, if there had been a way to know them." "But if the baby had at one time been real, then it was still real in one sense, was it not?"

The book is also about facing, or not facing, harsh truths. Wendell runs away when he sees a problem. “Sometimes when you’re at a moment of crisis, the best thing you can do is become absent… sometimes you skip the crisis, and when you come back, the problem’s gone.” But for his wife, the problem isn’t gone. She throws out the old cliché: “things are just not working out.” Wendell insists that anything created and broken can be fixed. For him, it’s a matter of will. And this is true, but Mary doesn’t have the will to try to fix it.

At the end, it all gets wrapped up and Wendell and Mary are back together. But it doesn't feel forced. And it ends up with a burning house and a happy couple, which is fun.

So, overall, a good read. Most of all, there are some great lines. Quotes below:

“Being physically large gives a person the same kind of self-assurance being wealthy seems to give. Whether you can whip any man in the room or pay to have him whipped, it amounts to the same.”

"Hope frightens people because to hope you have to imagine a better world."

I do have to admit that I love the line: "her breasts roosted in the cups of her dress like small white hens." Genious. Well played.

“Depression is when you feel you’ve been robbed and you either can’t do anything about it or don’t have the energy to do anything about it.”