Review: Wise Children by Angela Carter

This has to be, undoubtedly, one of the most confusing novels I have ever read. Parties, performances, A midsummer’s nights dream, America, the bard, twins, twins and even more twins. The carnivalesque mystique that presents itself through the novel is both extremely entertaining to read and aids the fairytale, surreal and magical tones that Carter has written in. But I think more importantly, the garish and hectic lives the characters live is a reflection of theatricality in itself.

The narrative follows the lives of Nora and Dora Chance, twins who both want to make it in showbiz like the rest of their family. The events that occur in the story are flashbacks and so the story in itself is confused as it does not follow a linear time scale and is able to jump around depending on the moods and thoughts of the female twins. The endless stream of characters; people they knew in childhood, family, relatives, husbands of actresses, illegitimate children of actors, film producers and comedians does not make this an easy text to read. If it was not for the family tree provided at the back of the book I would have been stumped from chapter 1.

But despite this chaotic and frenzied tone often overwhelming the reader I feel that it is because the events that occur are so interesting and peculiar that you cannot put the book down. Carter has reached the boundaries of what magical realism can do in literature. Carnivalesque and clocks. The simple combination of the everyday with the extraordinary is what makes it so fantastic. The frequent references to Shakespeare help the reader to make their own connections with the Chance sisters and the events that occur in their estranged lives. Again bringing something that is relatable into the mythical.

My final thought on this book is the beauty that seems to transcend the harsh realities of the text. Although Nora and Dora have lived through very hard times, lost people they loved and more often than not been seen as outsiders and not accepted into other people’s lives; they are still happy. They are still willing to grab life by the hand it pull themselves along with it. Persistence: a great coping mechanism. They seek pleasures in the small everyday things in life and although hoping for the world, the are happy to settle with a house in London.

 

"What a joy it is to dance and sing!"

“What a joy it is to dance and sing!”

Review: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

America. Alienation. Adolescence. These three words, to me, seem to summarise The Catcher in the Rye. J.D. Salinger’s only full length novel focuses on the troubles and difficulties of growing up and the desire to belong whilst maintaining ones own identity.

The protagonist Holden Caulfield leaves his school after realising that he is unhappy being surrounded by people he doesn’t like because of their annoying personal habits or their outlook on life. Phonies. Phonies is the go-to word of the narrator. Adults that he meets whilst spending time in New York city drinking, smoking or just generally wandering the cold winter streets are phonies. They are superficial products of the post second world war society. The worst part for Holden is that everyone is unable to realise their phoniness. Even sadder is the fact that Holden doesn’t realise that he is a phony himself. His compulsive need to lie and the speed at which he disregards people because of this highlights the phoniness that is present in the world.

Holden is both alienated and alienates. He is unwilling to grow up and take that final step into the adult world, like a traditional bildungsroman. He also refuses to like various characters in the book because of their artificial qualities. He also alienates himself because relationships confuse him. Opportunities for emotional and physical relationships present themselves to Holden throughout the novel but he inevitably declines because he wants to remain individual and apart from the norm.

The Catcher in the Rye

I think it this that has left The Catcher in the Rye with such a legacy. But also a universality. So many people can relate to Holden as a character. He is just one small person trying to be himself in a world full of phoniness and change. His fascination with the natural history museum shows how isolated and alone Holden both is and likes to be. The creatures frozen in time haven’t changed since he was young and this is one of the only static elements of the novel.

In a world that is rapidly developing, with technological advances and a booming economy, there is no time to build up the intimate relationships that Holden believes should exist. His romantic view of the world is outdated and again he prevents himself from belonging. Sex is prevalent throughout the novel, with his need to lose his virginity and his apparent interest in it. Holden is a product of this changing society. He wants to lose his virginity to someone he respects and loves but is also aroused by people he doesn’t care for and considers stupid.

It is this inability to grasp the world which makes the character of Holden so relatable. Although the reasoning behind his self-alienation and inability to connect with the real world is unique to him, I feel that I can relate to him as a character. The social pressure to belong in a constantly moving, changing, growing world is something which cannot be done without trouble. Everyone has problems. Some people are just better adjusted at coping with them than others.

Phonies

Review: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Gulliver’s Travels is a classic novel. First published in 1726 it addresses political issues that were prevalent in Britain and also Europe, with particular focus on the corruption of society and the treatment of individuals. This political satire is intended to be funny. Lemuel Gulliver, the narrator and central figure, was a travel writer whom Swift created entirely, with a family back story which could have been supported by evidence and also a note from the publisher explaining why there is a lack of precise geographical locations in the text. Swift intended this text to be read as a factual travel document. Not long before this was published, Robinson Crusoe had been written and this was again, written as a travel document because it was a genre that would interest ordinary people. Ordinary working people, unless in the navy, would not have possessed the means to travel and so the only way that they could escape to these exotic places was for them to read travel documents.

With this in mind I feel that it is easier to consider the text as a satire on the early eighteenth century European society. The foreign lands that Gulliver visits are exciting and new, whilst at the same time bearing resemblances to their home. The visits to Broadbingnang, Lilliput and Laputa offer new ideas and people to be expressed whilst also subtlely criticising European society. The fighting over petty issues like the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians in Lilliput, which end of the egg should you use to break it, is an example of how trivial and often insignificant conflicts can be. Which is a reflection of Europe in the eighteenth century.

Gulliver's Travels Cover from the first publication

But for me the most poignant fictional country that Gulliver visits is the unknown island inhabited by the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos. I enjoyed this section the most because it was the only one, I felt, in which Gulliver was not treated as a Demi-God, Emperor, or a figure of extreme power and self-worth. If anything he was seen as nothing more than a yahoo, a brutish human-like creature but who considered himself to be sophisticated. A noble savage. I just did not like Gulliver as either a character or a narrator. He seemed to resemble all the arrogance, power and patriarchy that Swift himself was satirising. I would perhaps go so far as to say that Gulliver was misogynistic, particularly with the way he discusses women that he meets in the different societies. They are sexualised, objectified and generally inferior to those around them. Granted that this was written just under 300 years ago in a patriarchal society and there have been many feminist readings of the text, I still felt that there was just something, an aspect, that I couldn’t quite accept.

I cannot criticise the entire work however, because the ideas and concepts present in the text are fantastic. The floating island of Laputa and the experiments described in the Academy of Science seem to fill the text with hope. The attempts to improve the living conditions of the inhabitants, to me seemed to be an example of optimism for the future. That despite all the troubles and tribalism between nations, that the dream of a paradise exists. But again this dream of a perfect society is comprimised because none of the experiments in the society work, are useful to everyday working people and as a result living conditions in Laputa are awful. Furthermore, the irony that this is juxtaposed by the island of Laputa literally enforcing its dominance on the country below by threatening to crush them with their heavy floating island if they do not conform and agree to the demands of Laputa, takes away from the utopian concept a bit.

Which brings me back to my initial response to the text. It is interesting, no doubt about that. But I think that this is as far as I can go. I am unsure if entirely like it as a novel but I appreciate what Swift has attempted to do. His description of imaginary places (which even at times I found difficult and irksome to read. The vast quantity of description in the novel just made it even harder for me to engage with Gulliver as a narrator) which are at the same time majestic, mythical and fantastic are also full of corruption is a reflection of his contemporary society. But also a reflection of our modern day society too, so I guess this novel still has an impact with its question on morality and power.