100 Novels

Exile on Ninth Street readers know I’ve been pursuing a 100-novels reading project for about a year and a half now. This reading project was inspired by Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, and it’s been pleasure so far.

One of the things I had wanted to do in the last incarnation of this blog was find a way to produce a list of the novels I’ve been reading. I’ve now been able to do this and if you look to your right on the sidebar, you’ll find a link to that list. When I finish reading a novel, I’ll place it on the list, as I’ve done today, adding Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence.

The Cat’s in the Cradle and I’m Smiling

It’s been about a month now since Kurt Vonnegut died. At the time of his death, I had just started reading Anna Karenina, but decided my next read, once I’d finished Tolstoy should be Vonnegut.

It had been long time since I’d read anything by Vonnegut, at least six years, but I had long enjoyed him, though it took me some time to get him (not that I’m a scholar or anything now). The first book of his that I read was Galapagos, his novel about the descent of man.

I picked it up because I thought it was science fiction — and it is; though not the kind I normally read in 1987, the year I after I graduated high school. I didn’t know quite what to make of it (it’s set 1 million years in the future, on the island of Galapagos, and humans have evolved to the point of being seal-like creatures). I kept reading it — though I didn’t really catch on to the satire — because I found it so bizarre.

Though it was such a strange book, or maybe because it was such a strange book, I decided I wanted to read something else by Vonnegut, and I found Cat’s Cradle. My first copy of Cat’s Cradle was a thin orange paperback, and I thought it was strange to see such short chapters, some just a few paragraphs or so in length. But, I didn’t quite get it. There was something about Bokonon, and the children’s game cat’s cradle and some strange chemical called ice-nine. At the time it really didn’t make sense.

But this past week I reread it, not knowing what to expect: Maybe it wouldn’t make sense again. And yet it did. I caught onto it–the plot, the satire, the humor.

As I’ve been reading through this project of mine, I’ve become more alert to my sense of humor, to actually laughing when I read something funny; it’s an experience as a reader that’s somewhat new to me.

Part of that comes from personality. Only recently have I realized how serious-minded I am. Not that I lack a sense of humor, but I tend to think too much, and think with a capital T. And that capital T thinking has influenced my reading.

For much of my reading life, I’ve read with my brain in such a serious mode that sometimes I lost the joy of reading. Part of that mode came from the influence of someone I respected at one time: That person was surprised to hear I liked "fluff" such as Rita Mae Brown, whose serious novels had made me laugh out loud. Part of it came from grad school and the never ending search for meaning through scholarship and theory. Part of it came from my own sense of needing to find personal meaning through reading.

But recently, this journey of reading 100 novels has led me to understand that no matter how great a piece of literature a novel is supposed to be, I can read it and laugh at the funny parts (even in Tolstoy, a Mr. Serious if there ever was one), I can sympathize and empathize with the characters, I can think with a capital T, and I can appreciate the world each novel brings.

And laugh and smirk I did when rereading Cat’s Cradle. Vonnegut’s sense of absurdity was not only appropriate for the early 1960s, but fits so well now. Absurd religions. Too much trust in science. Overdone patriots. The end of the world.

So it goes. (That’s from another Vonnegut novel, you know.)

My lesson learned, perhaps, from Cat’s Cradle is that of one of the characters, Frank Hoenikker, "’There was a time when I took people’s silly answers seriously. I’m past that now.’"

Or maybe it’s the lesson of his brother Newt, "’There’s love enough in this world for everybody, if people will just look.’"

Or maybe there is no lesson in literature.

So it goes.

Of Heavy Hearts

…and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. –Proverbs 31:6

When I first read Anna Karenina 15 years ago, I hadn’t noticed an interesting detail (perhaps because I was trying to gather up all the plot strands and was missing some details) — late in the novel Anna becomes a junkie, using small doses of morphine to stifle the emotional pain of a declining romance with Vronsky, as she perceives it.

And though she felt sure that a coldness was beginning, there was nothing she could do, she could not in any way alter her relations to him. Just as before, only love and by charm could she keep him. And so, just as before, only occupation in the day, by morphine at night, could she stifle the fearful thought of what would be if he ceased to love her.

What an extraordinary psychologist Tolstoy is: What do humans do to stifle pain? they turn to drugs. Today we get depressed, even a little, and it won’t go away, and we get a prescription to fix it. The chemical compounds are perhaps a bit more controlled than a reaction to morphine, but still we seek solace when trouble comes. The thing Anna has greatly feared — a waning romance with Vronsky — has come upon her, even if that fear isn’t grounded in facts, even if it is wholly irrational (but isn’t that where fear comes from, the irrational?). She has no rest, her mind is unquiet. She has to remain occupied during the day, and on morphine during the night.

I find myself at my most sympathetic with Anna at this point in the novel. What a vast, irrational thing human suffering is: Does it matter how we get to the point of anguish? Anyone who experiences grief in some way — and what is Anna experiencing but grief? — must be able to find some sympathy when others grieve, even if we don’t or can’t accept the rightness or wrongness of the actions that took that person to the point in which grief exposes itself, a storm in the mind, as William Styron calls it in his beautfiful book-length essay about his struggle with depression Darkness Visible.

But back to drugs and drug use to stifle pain: It’s an ancient solution to the one thing that’s truly universal to human experience. "Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more," says Proverbs. And I have to say, "cheers!" to that.