The Marbled Swarm by Dennis Cooper

 

Harper Perennial calls The Marbled Swarm, Dennis Cooper’s “most haunting work to date,” and it is impossible to disagree. Although this latest from Cooper is more psychological and subtle, in many aspects, than most of his other works, it is perhaps because of those reasons that it is even more effective. The book is disturbing, as is typical from Cooper. The narrator, a deeply troubled young man with fantasies of incest on the brain, is consumed by homicidal and cannibalistic tendencies. The layers of his mind are just as twisted, concealed, and misleading as the secret passageways and hidden rooms that encompass his father’s voyeuristic mansion. The book, at its core, is a mystery story, which parallels the physical reality with the narrator’s subconscious, and what the reader finds in both places is darkly troubling.   

A narrator who refuses to identify as gay, but whose sexual perversions include raping and killing boys (particularly of the “Emo” type), then eating them; a father who spies on his sons, and who slowly and subtly persuades them to become sexually infatuated with each other; a boy who lies about being raped by his father to his brother, and by his brother to his father, with the hope that one of them will rape him; men who kidnap boys, alter them through plastic and bone surgery so they will look like their fantasy type, then sell them for sexual favors to men with twisted desires. These are just some of the characters in The Marbled Swarm. Individually, each is sick, twisted, and alarming in his own right; together, they create a world of psychological distrubia. The narrator and main character is the most interesting of the bunch, perhaps because the reader witnesses some of his secrets unfold chapter-by-chapter. His younger brother and father are also fascinating, in a “this car crash makes me want to vomit but I can’t turn my head” kind of way. Ultimately, the group serves to progress the story’s purpose, which is a commentary on language and communication, as well as Cooper’s modus operandi – exposing the terrible side of humanity and the evil side of desire. 

Cooper’s writing style is nearly unmatched; he is a type of writer that has been unknown in American Literature since William Burroughs. Although his themes are twisted and hard to stomach for most, his ability as a writer are laudable to say the least. His mastery of language, his ability to advance a plot seamlessly, and the sickeningly playful way he messes with his readers minds are impossible to overlook, despite how unsavory the subject matter. In The Marbled Swarm, Cooper has accomplished all that his previous works attempted, which is saying much, because his previous works were groundbreaking in their own right. In retrospect, though, it is clear to see that Cooper has been developing over time, getting better and better; and this latest, his masterpiece, is proof of how hard he has been working to perfect his craft. 

After admiring Cooper’s work for nearly a decade, I can say that, though I have loved and been fascinated by almost every book, poem, and essay the man has ever written, this is the book all previous works were helping to develop. It is, by far, Cooper’s most complex piece to date, and also his finest in craft, in theory, and in delivery. The fluid prose, disturbing subject matter, and psychological warfare (within the story and between narrator and reader) make this book a demonstrable work of genius. Had this been just a story about a disturbed young man who had sexual attractions for his brother and father, and who liked to eat human flesh, the book would have been sick, sad, and confusing; however, though that is technically what happens in the book, it is not what the book is about. This is a story about desire and depression; it is a story about cravings and theatrics;  it is a story about the pleasure of playing “the witness” in horrifying situations and, most importantly, it is a story about story-telling. 

Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

 

 

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Recent Fiction Reads: Goosebumps, Boy, and The Book of Dust

Welcome to Dead House by R.L. Stine (3.0 out of 5.0) 

Welcome to Dead House is the first book in the infamous Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine. This one tells the tale of two young siblings and their parents. The family move to a new town after mysteriously inheriting a house from some long-lost family member. The book is typical Goosebumps: fast-paced, thrilling, a little spooky, and a little silly.

I used to read this series all the time as a kid. In fact, these books and The Hardy Boys books are pretty much all I read as a kid (with some of those Choose Your Own Adventure novels thrown into the mix every so often). I was actually not much of a reader at all when I was young (shocking to consider, now!) but the R.L. Stine books always kept my attention. Although I’ve read a number of the series, I somehow missed this one, which is a shame because it is good fun and it is the inaugural tale. 

For younger readers especially, those in the Middle Grade range, this book is bound to be a favorite. At the center of the action is a pair of curious and brave siblings. The primary antagonists are also kids, so the battle of “good versus evil” in this strange new town is, for the most part, taken up by children. What could be more fun for young readers?

Boy by James Hanley (3.5 out of 5.0)

I do not even know where to begin with this book. It is some remarkable work of melodramatic modernism, which really should not work, but does. According to the book’s introduction, this book was suppressed for more than 50 years. The publisher was prosecuted for obscenity, and readers will not find it hard to understand why that would be (considering the original publication was in the 1930s). I was torn throughout reading this between loving it and hating it, between being rather enthralled and being completely bored. These feelings remain unresolved even now, weeks after having finished it. 

That being said, there are a few points that are without dispute. First, Hanley is a wonderful writer who can turn a beautiful phrase and who is far bolder than many of his contemporaries were at the time. His modernism is the bold and brass American type, tackling difficult issues in a bleak and straightforward style. This, contrasted against the British modernists, is a kind of relief. Hanley often fails, too, in his story-telling. He overloads the pathos of nearly ever situation. Yes, certainly many of the scenes should evoke pathos. The “boy” at issue in this story is, after all, raped on numerous occasions, by older boys and older men. His plight is that of the age-old plight of the lower class: he is a brilliant young man with ambition and potential, whose parents force him into near-servitude, which breaks his spirit even despite his best efforts to free himself and find a new path. Throughout it all, he keeps his awful parents in mind and tries to make it for himself, and for them. 

As a narrative, Boy, is not the most compelling read. But as a critique on caste systems, poverty, child labor, and the abuses of the poor, it is a rather remarkable accomplishment. It seems Hanley experienced a similar life and put much of his general biography into the novel, though he denies that anything that happened to “boy” really happened to him. One has to wonder if Hanley was being truthful about that. 

The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman (5.0 out of 5.0)

Having finally finished the original Pullman trilogy, called His Dark Materials and including The Golden Compass, The Amber Spyglass, and The Subtle Knife, I was thrilled to learn that Pullman was at work on a  new trilogy called La Belle Sauvage. The first book in the series, The Book of Dust, released just a month ago, and I got my hands on it as soon as humanly possible! 

What I could not anticipate about the new series, or at least this first installment in that series, is how much more enjoyable I would find it than the originals. I honestly do not think that has ever happened before, but Pullman manages it. I found Malcolm Polstead to be an incredibly interesting young narrator, and his relationship with his daemon, Asta, was as beautiful and touching as the relationship created between Lyra and Pantalaimon. 

This new series seems to have a bit more action than the originals, and it still walks that delicate walk between fantasy and realism. There are witches and magic, mythological creatures and underworlds; there are also lovely relationships between Malcolm and a science professor, and Malcolm and Christian Nuns who live across the river. This book, like those in the original series, continues to explore themes of physics and theology, philosophy and science, humanism and myth, and it is, like the originals, a good old-fashioned coming-of-age tale. According to Pullman, this series specifically tackles the idea of consciousness, and what are we, underneath it all. Matter? Spirit? Neither? Both? I look forward to seeing how the rest of the series continues to address the questions posed by this first installment, which tackles highly relevant and topical issues of totalitarian theocracies, the right to free thought and speech, and the dangers of a militant religious force in control of government and politics. It is reported that the next book in the series is titled The Secret Commonwealth. All I can say is, bring it on, please!

The Circle Cast by Alex Epstein

The Circle Cast: The Lost Years of Morgan Le Fay is an interesting retelling of the young life of Merlin’s arch-nemesis, Morgana. The story takes place in the late 400s; the Romans have fallen and Christianity is on the rise, reaching the superstitious, pagan-rich lands of Britain and Ireland. Young Anna, whose father is a powerful governor father and whose mother is the beautiful Ygraine, a timid witch, is forced to flee Britania from the wrath of Uter Pendgragon, who kills Anna’s father (with the help of the Enchanter) to be with and have a child by Ygraine. At sea, Anna is reborn as Morgan, and it is in Ireland that she is both enslaved and freed. She falls in love with an Irish warrior, uses her magical abilities and military background to help him rise to greatness, before leaving Ireland to return home and take vengeance upon Uter Pendgragon. Unfortunately, not everything goes according to plan, and Morgan, though victorious, will ultimately meet another great and legendary new leader instead.

The majority of the story is spent with its main character, Morgan. Fortunately, Epstein has drawn her to be rather interesting. There are inklings of Morgan’s adult personality, with which many familiar with Arthurian legend will be familiar, and Epstein allows these traits to manifest gradually and with believable impetus. Morgan’s youth and rise to power and self-discovery is satisfying, though more time spent on the magic itself (and understanding it/helping the readers to understand it) would have improved the relationship between reader and Morgan’s journey. The minor characters, too, are interesting – though many (like Uter) do not get as much page-time as one might expect. We get the sense, for instance, that Uter was a bad, power-hungry man, but there is only one hint as to why, and it comes near the very end. Still, others, like the various Irish clans, the lover-interest Conall, and the Christian colony (Salvatus, Befind, and Luan, in particular) are well-developed so as to supplement and progress Morgan’s story.

The story flows well because it is broken into logical segments and because the language and prose are conducive to the age range and maturity level of the story. Once into the story, it easy to become engrossed in it, wanting to know what will happen next. It took this reader, for example, just over two days to read the entire 300-page book. One criticism, however, is the relatively simple sentence structure. For middle grade readers this might be fine, but the story is more advanced than that, so the structure should be as well. At certain points, the short sentences certainly serves the purpose of creating a sense of action, as is true in general; however, much of the prose is made up of relatively short, simple sentences, when more complexity in the structure could have added substance, positive complication, and engagement.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is not just that it is about Morgan Le Fay, which is a fascinating subject; in fact, one of the most interesting elements was the conflict between the budding Christian culture and the well-established but threatened pagan religions. Added with the various nationalities – the British, the Irish, the Saxons, and (in some relative respect) the Romans- the book becomes a fascinating culture study. It also tackles aspects of family, revenge, and forgiveness. This is certainly an appealing and creative re-imagining of the young life of Morgana, and one can only hope that it will be the first book in a series that will expand further on her life and times. The book’s website also contains some great background and historical information on Morgan and this era, which is a great benefit to readers who have a deeper interest.

Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 4.0

 

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

Jack is fifteen. He lives with his parents and three siblings, one older sister (Julie), a younger sister (Sue) and younger brother (Tom). The family seems relatively typical, at first, but the children all turn out to have their bizarre, disturbing quirks, which manifest themselves after the unexpected death of their father and slow, sickly death of their mother just two months later. The kids, worried about being separated from one another and taken from their home, commit an almost unfathomable act. They live together with this secret, in demented fashion, until Julie’s slighted boyfriend, Derek, discovers the truth and puts it all to an end. The Cement Garden is comparable only to V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic but, since these kids act the way they do almost naturally, and certainly willingly, the story is even more perverse and troubling than the horror that Andrews created in her own thriller.

For a short book, the characters were very well written. Each of the children have distinct personalities and identifiable traits. Jack is moody, self-absorbed, and physically (and psychologically) dirty. Sue is quiet, apathetic, and submissive; she is the “documenter” of the bunch, watching everything happen and writing it all down in her journal. Sue is the most observant and understands better than anyone what each of her siblings is like, and what is happening to them all. Tom is a very disturbed young boy, lost without guidance. He loves to dress as a girl (nothing inherently wrong with this, in my opinion, except for the twisted connection it holds to his eldest sister Julie and their mother). Tom enjoys being treated like a baby, nursed and coddled. Julie, the eldest, is a power-crazed beauty. She is seriously disturbed and encourages her brother Jack’s unhealthy infatuation with her, toward a place that should never be reached. Derek, the boyfriend, and the kids’ parents, though minor characters, are also distinguished with independent traits, mostly weaknesses. For example, even when Derek finally takes a stand, it is only because he feels angry and jealous of Julie and Jack’s relationship, not because he means to do the right thing for the sake of it being right.

To me, the story was highly disturbing. It will be hard for many to get through it; fortunately, I have a lot of experience with dark, demented, and disturbing literature (being a Dennis Cooper scholar and William S. Burroughs fanatic). Still, child perversity and incest are not comfortable issues and, had McEwan not been a powerful and masterful story-teller, I probably would have given up on this book. The language is well crafted, though, and the prose flows evenly and smoothly. The story too, is an important one, if hard to witness. Things like this do happen in the real world, though nobody ever writes about it or cares to think of it. So, “thanks” to McEwan’s writing ability (I suppose I should be grateful?), I was able to stay engaged enough to manage through to the end. It was certainly a wild ride – I am just glad I finished it long before bed-time.

The book certainly touches on the darker aspects of family and isolated relationships. It deals with child psychology, aberrant sexuality, fear, and immaturity. What does a group of children do, after all, when their parents die suddenly – with no guidance, no extended family to reach out to, and no nearby neighbors to look toward for support? The children were left an inheritance of sorts, which had been explained to the two eldest in advance so, in their minds, they were surviving in a way their mother had intended, on their own and together. But this isolation creates rather immoral, dangerous situations and one must believe that none of these children will ever develop into healthy adulthood. Is it hard to read? Yes, it is even hard to imagine; but, as I mention above, I believe these types of scenarios do exist, only to be heard of in brief 30-second snippets on the news. It is interesting, if rather gross, to witness these relationships in action, as it were, and to get a glimpse at the “how” and “why” of such situations.

Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 4.0

 

5 Mini-Reviews: From Willa Cather to Hillary Clinton

I’ll never catch-up on all the reviews I need to write for books I’ve read in the last 5 or 6 months. That’s that. But, I am going to make an effort to catch-up on the recent and then stay current moving forward. I do not intend to write a full review for every book that I read (I just simply do not have the time for that, and sometimes I don’t think the book needs it). Instead, I might write mini-reviews, like the ones below, so that I’ve at least shared some thoughts about my recent reading with you all and so that I have some record for myself, which was the whole point of beginning this book blog almost a decade ago! So, that being said, onto my thoughts for these three most recent reads:

Origin by Dan Brown: 3.0 out of 4.0

Origin is the latest in Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series, following Angeles & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol, and Inferno. I really enjoy this series. The premises are usually clever and interesting, and of course I love the way the stories are steeped in history (apocryphal or not) and often pit science versus religion. There’s just something fascinating about that seemingly eternal struggle and the lengths to which some people will go to protect their particular worldview (or, in the case of this series, eliminate the “competition” altogether).

That being said, I think Origin is my least favorite of the series. It seemed to me to be trying too hard, and the plot spent a long time stagnating (the “big mystery” is built up for something like 200 pages before going anywhere). This is also the rare instance where I knew from the first few chapters both what the secret was and who the villain was, which made the unfolding of it all rather anti-climactic. I did want to love this book because the topic itself is certainly timely and relevant, but I think that was also part of the problem. It was, for me, too current. It seemed like the imaginative leaps Brown had to take in previous books were unnecessary, here, so the thrill was gone. 

There were some things I did enjoy, though. Brown rather sensitively treats a non-traditional romance, for one, and he also incorporates some interesting thoughts from people like Sam Harris. On page 290, for example, he writes: “The term ‘atheist’ should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a ‘nonastrologer’ or a ‘nonalchemist.’ We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive, or for people who doubt that aliens traverse the galaxy only to molest cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.” This particular passage triggered a thought experiment that I haven’t had nearly enough time to ponder; it made me wonder about the natural state of human existence and whether, if left to our own devices, separate from a social environment, would individuals default to religious belief to explain things like thunder, earthquakes, tornadoes, etc? Historically, we know that many cultures have created gods to do just that, but is that a social construct or an innately human one? Dan Brown’s Origins, in this way, did leave me with plenty to think about.

Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd: 3.5 out of 4.0

I received this little gem from Melissa, who knows I’m a fan of Poe. To be honest, I didn’t even know this book existed! Peter Ackroyd is a world-class biographer who has won awards for his work on figures such as William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and William Blake. I was curious to see what he would do with a figure like Poe, whose life and times are much more a thing of legend than fact. There are so few extant (that we know of) factual records about Poe’s life, and much of what we do know has been exaggerated over the years, in keeping with the gloomy and mysterious aura surrounding the man. The first major post-Mortem written about Poe, for example, was a scathing, hyperbolic account of his personality, addiction, and talents, written by a man whom Poe had eviscerated in the press (as he did so often, to so many). The majority of that “biography” was wildly inaccurate and totally vindictive, and yet it is on this account that many have continued to base their opinions of Poe.

Ultimately, Ackroyd relies heavily on Poe’s works and letters to attempt to uncover the “real” man, beneath the facade. He also uncovers other written accounts of Poe, testimony from people who knew the author at various stages of life, such as former teachers, lovers, school “friends” (that term used loosely because Poe really did not get very close to many people, as he so often reminded everyone), and colleagues. The problem with these records is two-fold: first, that there are so few of them; second, that they are often contradictory. Some were even written or recorded well after Poe’s death, at which point time, distance, and the fact of Poe’s celebrity would all have influenced people’s perceptions. Was the myth making the man, or the man making the myth?

This little book of less than 200-pages is divided into 11 chapters, each focusing on a particular time period in Poe’s life. With titles like “The Victim,” “The Bird,” and “The Women,” it is clear to see that Ackroyd did uncover certain themes and momentous occasions which help to explain who Poe was, what was important to him, and how he became the legend that he is today. By all accounts, Poe was very well-regarded by the literati and critics alike. He was considered, even in his time, as the father of American literature, the first true “American” voice of the new continent, wholly distinct from our British forebears. So, where does the idea come from, that Poe died forgotten, under-appreciated? Well, as Ackroyd explains, Poe himself had a whole lot to do with that final assessment. Ackroyd’s biography is, I think, a must-read for any true Poe fan. Still, someday, I dream of discovering a cache of Poe history that will help illuminate so many of the unexplained questions about Poe, his life, and especially his final days.

What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton: 4.0 out of 4.0

Is my affinity for Hillary Clinton coloring my review? Probably, in part. I admire this woman, I always have, and I found much to connect with and appreciate in her latest memoir about the 2016 election. But, there is so much more to it than the title suggests, and much more than the “liberal media” (ha!) suggested in their never-ending attempts to stir the pot and grab the ratings. It’s pretty disgraceful, really, to think about the way they treated the release of this book, but it’s also completely unsurprising considering the way they have treated Hillary Rodham Clinton for the last 30 years, since she first entered the spotlight as First Lady of Arkansas.

Clinton covers a number of topics in this book, things that are important to her and which should also be important to us. She has a chapter on “Perseverance,” for example, which outlines the long and arduous process of deciding to run, and run again, when she may have much preferred to stay at home with her grandchild and garden. There’s a section on women, including historical influences and current issues for women in politics. There are thoughtful, painful, crucial explanations about how our election process has been compromised by domestic and foreign influences, and warnings about the continuing danger of big money influence in our politics. She talks about the very real divisions in our country and shares some of her thoughts as to why and how these things have come to be, and how we need to self-assess before it is too late.

Finally, though, she ends with a section titled, “Resilience.” She writes about Love and Kindness. She writes about her faith and her continuing attempts to grow and evolve and do better. And she ends with a chapter titled, “Onward Together,” wherein she asks all of us to keep going and keep trying, even when all seems lost, even when we are at our lowest, because that’s when the world needs it most. She closes by quoting Max Ehrmann, who said, “Whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul” (468). I think Clinton is trying to do just that in writing this book and inviting us into what must have been a terribly difficult time and process.

People who already like Hillary Clinton are bound to like this book, and to experience the deep pain of her loss all over again. But they will also be reassured that their vote was the right one, and in more ways than most of us could have realized in the first place. People who don’t like Hillary Clinton probably won’t give this book a chance; but if they did approach it with a truly open mind and sense of fairness, I think even they would come to see that what she writes about is true and honest, that she admits to many of her failings while raising the alarm about many of our failings, and that it is indeed possible to do both of these things at the same time.

The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson: 3.0 out of 4.0

I’m so thrilled to be seeing more and more diversity in YA literature, and especially titles with main characters who are transgender, bisexual, and persons of color. Philip Pullman called this one, “a life-changing and life-saving book,” and I can see what he means. For a lot of people, especially young transgender teens who are beginning to understand what their feelings mean and to articulate to themselves just how they are different, books like this are incredibly important. Representation, feeling like you are a valid and “normal” person, rather than some bizarre aberration, can certainly be more than affirming, it can be everything.

Everyone thinks David Piper is gay. He is effeminate, he likes to wear girls’ clothes, he enjoys doing stereotypical girl things. Only his two best friends realize, though, that while David does like boys, he is not gay: he is transgender. When a new kid named Leo shows up to their private school, David feels an immediate affinity for him but can’t explain why. He’s not really attracted to him, and yet he can’t seem to shake the feeling that they share something, that they should be friends. Soon enough, David (and the readers) learn that Leo is different in his own way, too.

The novel is narrated from the perspective of both David and Leo, some chapters being told from one point of view, and some from the other (conveniently labeled “David” or “Leo” to let us know). While I appreciate the subject matter and Williamson’s smooth narrative style, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing, here. I think the goal was to suggest some of the very real struggles that transgender people face in their daily lives and in the transition process, while maintaining an uplifting tone and commitment to a positive and affirming message. This makes complete sense to me, but it seemed to get in the way of the story-telling, somewhat. David and Leo have their struggles, there are definitely some dark elements and disappointments, but for the most part, the characters seem constructed to fit a role rather than to develop a story. I just couldn’t connect with David or Leo, and most of the secondary characters (parents, friends, siblings) seemed there only because they needed to be there (because people have friends and families, so it’d be odd not to write them in?).

The Art of Being Normal is a quick and easy read, oftentimes sweet and sometimes maddening, and it is an important addition to the YA LGBTQ+ library as well as the YA offerings more generally. But it’s not something I would read again.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather 3.5 out of .0

Oh, my dear, sweet Willa Cather. How do I love thee? Okay, pardon the sap. I do enjoy Willa Cather so much, though. This novel was the September selection for the Classic Book-a-Month Club. I have to say, I’m still not quite sure what to say about it. I always enjoy Cather’s writing style, and this time was no different. She somehow combines naturalism with a rare, auditory elegance. Her descriptions of the land are beyond compare, so much so that her characters almost always come second to the landscape. I enjoyed this one in particular because it is set in the American southwest, a region that I love and that I just recently moved to myself; there was much to relate to. 

On the other hand, the story itself felt extremely distant this time. I just couldn’t connect with it, though I recognize it was beautiful and recounts an important history. At the center is the story of two Catholic priests who come to minister to the native people of the greater-New Mexico area. They must learn how to communicate with Native Americans and Mexicans, to tame the land, and to respect local customs while fulfilling their roles as missionaries. The book is split into nine separate sections, each with a particular focus, so that the novel reads more like an extended play with nine acts. To some extent, I appreciated this because it allowed me to focus on each individual scene, beautifully crafted, and to try to appreciate the purpose of that scene as I was experiencing it; on the other hand, unlike the dichotomy set-up by the structure of Cather’s A Lost Lady, for example, I did not find these segments particularly helpful in telling the priest’s story. And maybe that’s my issue. If I were to go back and read this again, I think I would approach it as a story about the land, and not a story about the Archbishop.

The narrative digressions, flashback recollections, and fictional accounts of actual historical figures and events added interesting context and complexity to an otherwise leisurely Cather work. I find in Cather’s works that she wants, more than anything, to tell the tale of a land, a time, and a people, and that is certainly the case here. The Hopi and Navajo people are treated sympathetically, and the recounting of the “Long Walk of the Navajo,” is both important and brave. Cather does not dull her criticism of the American government and rightly calls them to account for the way they treated our native populations, shuffling them around from one increasingly barren and uninhabitable region to the next. She also makes suggestions about the intimate and powerful relationship between religion and politics. Ultimately, I think I’m going to have to read this one again to fully appreciate it, preferably during a break when I can really sink into it.

Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby asks the question: what would you do if you discovered the power to make you a god? Suddenly, the command of life and death, sickness and health, growth and destruction, is in your hands. Do you want it? Will you use it? Can you control it? 

Carl Streator, the main character and narrator, is a journalist who stumbles upon the mysterious powers of a Culling song, an ancient spell that, when read aloud or focused on in the mind, has the power not only to put people to sleep but also kill them. As he discovers the vast reach of the song, he meets another, Helen Hoover Boyle (a real estate agent), who knows this secret and who has been using it to assassinate people all over the world. The two quickly come together, both hoping to find the Book of Shadows, an ancient spell book where the Culling song originated; Streator so he can destroy it and Boyle so she can become even more powerful and invincible. The two will be hunted down by time, by witches, by police detectives, and by each other, until the Book of Shadows falls into the wrong hands and, suddenly, the two realize they must become the hunters. 

In Palahniuk’s books, characterization, I find, is typically the weaker element, much less dynamic than the prose and plot. That is not the case in Lullaby. One of the most fascinating elements in this book is its characterization; how will different people react to the power they find? What do our actions tell us about human nature and the nature of power? Perhaps the reason the characters are so interesting is because they are based on people in Palahniuk’s own world; perhaps the reason their stories are so powerful is because Palahniuk wrote this book when mired in a deep, personal struggle (his father and father’s girlfriend had recently been murdered by the woman’s ex-husband), which directly relates to the plot of the story: How do we decide who lives and who dies? Does any one of us, regardless of circumstances, have authority over another’s fate? All-in-all, the dark personal circumstances of Palahniuk’s life create great tension and allow for extraordinary character growth and development. Each individual in the book, from the main characters, Streator and Hoover, to their friends and rivals, Mona and Oyster, down to a necrophilia-obsessed paramedic,  has a back story, a history, and a purpose, which makes them all equally interesting and dynamic, particularly in relation to the others. 

There is no doubt that Palahniuk is a master of the macabre. He explores the darkest, most dangerous elements of human nature, in transgressive style. The book is structured by a temporal ending, which frames the story and is interspersed throughout the traditional, linear plotline. As with most Palahniuk books, there is a plot twist near the end of the story, which brings the temporal ending into focus with the linear plot. The temporal segment chapters are italicized, which creates an enigma of sorts, as the reader cannot be entirely sure whether or not the narrator of both the present and future stories is the same person, or even whether or not the future narrator is alive (thus putting the “present-linear” plot into a past tense, without expressly doing so in the linear style). The story progresses quickly and is well-paced, but the plot twist at the end, which was hinted at throughout the story by those temporal-future segments, could likely have been achieved without those interruptions. 

The best thing about great books is that they are more than just a good story. While Lullaby is entertaining, mysterious, and bizarre, it is also highly psychologically exploratory. The story is meant to make the readers think: think about power and how one should (or would) wield it; think about capital punishment, its merits/effectiveness or lack thereof; think about sacrifice, self-worth, penitence, forgiveness, mourning, and recovery. So much of what happens in this story is deeper than the story itself, but that these themes and elements are delivered within the realm of such an interesting, disturbing, and quite terrifying story just makes it all the better. The gothic writers would be proud of what Palahniuk achieves here.

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes:

“Old George Orwell got it backward. Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing. He’s pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother’s busy holding your attention every moment you’re awake. He’s making sure you’re always distracted. He’s making sure you’re fully absorbed. He’s making sure your imagination withers. Until it’s as useful as your appendix. He’s making sure your attention is always filled. And this being fed, it’s worse than being watched. With the world always filling you, no one has to worry about what’s in your mind. With everyone’s imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world.”

“When ancient Greeks had a thought, it occurred to them as a god or goddess giving an order. Apollo was telling them to be brave. Athena was telling them to fall in love. Now people hear a commercial for sour cream potato chips and rush out to buy them, but now they call this free will.”

“You turn up your music to hide the noise. Other people turn up their music to hide yours. You turn up yours again. Everyone buys a bigger stereo system. This is the arms race of sound.  You don’t win with a lot of treble. This isn’t about quality. It’s about volume. This isn’t about music. This is about winning.”

“The best way to waste your life is by taking notes. The easiest way to avoid living is to just watch.”

“These people so scared of silence. These are my neighbors. These sound-oholics. These quiet-ophobics.”

Every Day by David Levithan

13262783Can you imagine yourself not as a physical being, but as an ethereal entity – a formless consciousness that floats through life from day-to-day, always looking like someone different but always knowing yourself to be the same?

Every day since birth, A wakes up in a different body. Sometimes he wakes up as a boy, sometimes she wakes up as a girl. A has no physical or biological sex, instead needing to adapt to the sex of the host body where s/he resides any particular day. S/he is capable of accessing the memories of the host bodies and can also allow (or not) that host to remember what A experiences on the day of his visit, though s/he usually chooses to block these memories so that the host will not feel as if they have been possessed or invaded. Each night, when A falls asleep in one body, s/he knows that s/he will wake up in the morning as someone entirely different.

A does have a personality, consciousness, and sense of self that is entirely individual, though s/he has no physical form, and A carries this individuality into each new day and every new body. This is the story of 40 days in the life of A – perhaps the most important 40 days that s/he will ever experience. S/he learns that s/he is perhaps not alone in this very unique experience – there may be others out there who are doomed (or blessed?) to exist only in others’ bodies. A also falls in love, for the second time, and must learn how to make a relationship work under such extraordinary circumstances or s/he must choose to make the ultimate sacrifice, for someone else’s happiness.

The two main characters are A and Rhiannon, 16 year olds who are on their own paths to self-discovery and whose encounter with each other will set the trajectories of their lives in new directions. Through A, we also witness, on the surface, the lives of dozens of other teenagers: boys and girls; popular kids and nerds; athletic kids and beautiful ones; kids who are blind, fat, depressed, alcoholic, addicts, or suffering from ADHD. We also get glimpses of their families and friends, though their stories are always in the background as A navigates their lives for one day, in pursuit of his own. The only other recurring characters include two of A’s former hosts, Justin (Rhiannon’s boyfriend and the way A comes to meet her – awkward!) and Nathan, whom A has left, perhaps purposely, with lingering feelings of his “possession” and who ultimately introduces him to Reverend Poole, the man who will change A’s perspective forever. Levithan’s primary characters are interesting individuals, as are the host bodies, all of whom are believable teenagers with varied personalities and circumstances. Viewing the characters through A, who essentially is each of them (including Rhiannon) at one point or another, creates a unique experience for the reader.

journal-011-300x200The structure of the book, too, is interesting, though not entirely unique. It is, in a way, a journal-format. Each small chapter is one day in the life of A and, indeed, the chapter titles correspond to the chronological day (such as Day 6014) in A’s life. This structure, while not entirely original, is absolutely appropriate for the type of story being told and is suitable to A’s narrative style. Levithan’s writing style, too, his prose and language, are appropriate to the age and maturity level of the narrator and also match the oftentimes didactic nature of the story. It is lofty but grounded, well-paced but reflective.

One criticism of the book is that it is at times preachy. This point is well-taken and I do agree with those who find certain elements, such as the narrative arguments for social and sexual equality, not just pointed, but sometimes heavy-handed. Levithan is an issue writer, though, and as another reviewer has aptly mentioned, issue writers are interested in making their point and, in fact, making points is necessary to their purpose. The fact that I agreed with most of the points Levithan was making (gender equality, love of the person not of the sex, etc.), made the story more interesting for me, but I can certainly see how readers who struggle or disagree with such sentiments might find the “lecture” portions of the narrative a bit jarring.

My primary point of contention comes from a particularly disturbing element of the story, which is, I believe, both indicative of the narrator’s personality but also, though I am usually reluctant to make these arguments, of the writer’s bias. Throughout the book, the narrator makes a point of being highly understanding and empathetic. Since s/he has spent his (I will stick with gendered-male pronoun from here on out, as that is ultimately how I perceived the narrator) life living inside of different bodies, it is understandable that he would be a more enlightened individual. He has been male and female, blind, deformed, ugly, and everything in-between. In each case, he makes the argument for empathy and compassion – that we should love ourselves and each other as we are and that each of us suffers from our own demons which might affect the way we treat ourselves and the way we interact with the world. A is able to build his relationship with Rhiannon, another equally enlightened young woman, whether he be in the body of a beautiful black girl, a beefy metal head, or a stringy track jock. The point is well-taken: be yourself, try to show others what is on the inside, and learn to accept others for who they truly are, not just for what they look like.

fat-thinBut then we get near the end of the book and A wakes up in the body of an obese boy. The body weighs 300 pounds and suddenly the tone changes dramatically, for the worse. This chapter, and the next one, is devoted largely not to acceptance or understanding, but to feelings of disgust and anger. It is this body, and only this one, that A is ashamed to show Rhiannon. It is this body that A blames for what it is. Unlike the addicts or depressed teenagers, whom A tries to empathize with and thereby get the reader to think more deeply about, this fat kid gets nothing but criticism – A even tries to “access” the reasons why he might be so fat, but finds only laziness as the cause. Then, after deciding to meet with Rhiannon anyway, it is after this particular meeting that Rhiannon concludes she can no longer engage in this kind of relationship, because she cannot build a relationship with someone who never looks the same. Rhiannon struggles with this all along, but with all of the other bodies, male and female, tall and short, pimpled, hairy, or beautiful, Rhiannon accepts the body. Until the fat, sweaty boy shows up and everything changes. It would be easy to say that this is just a teenage insecurity – that the author is trying to make a statement about the judgmental nature of people and youths; however, throughout the book, both A and Rhiannon, as I have already mentioned, are incredibly enlightened and accepting of all people and situations. Why, then, is this one person so different – so disgusting? Unfortunately, I feel it is a deeper bias coming from the author. He makes a point of making points in this book, as in all of his books. It would be naïve and unfair to think, then, that this, too, is anything other than his making a point: do not be fat. Fat comes from being lazy. There are no psychological or emotional reasons for obesity, it just means you eat too much and do too little. It is outrageous. Not since reading Atlas Shrugged have I been so angered by a particular element of a particular book and it saddens me that this perspective comes from Levithan who is, otherwise, a very positive, compassionate writer.

Ultimately, though, I did love this book. I found the premise incredibly interesting and thought the social/gender politics were expressed in a unique way. The story moves at a great pace, the characters and their stories are fascinating and believable. There is a fantasy element to the story which comes into play late in the book, when Reverend Poole and A finally meet, but the narrative is still grounded firmly in reality. Had it not been for the one bizarrely glaring prejudice mentioned in the paragraph above, I could have easily found this to be a perfect read. As it is, I found it, still, to be a wonderful one. Highly recommended.

Notable Quotes:

“Kindness connects to who you are, while niceness connects to how you want to be seen” (56).

“You shouldn’t have to venture deep down in order to get to love” (72).

“Tomorrow . . . a little less than a promise, and a little more than a chance” (97).

“I see no sin in a kiss. I only see sin in the condemnation” (223).

“Ultimately, the universe doesn’t care about us. Time doesn’t care about us. That’s why we have to care about each other” (320).