V for Vendetta

“Remember remember the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot. I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.”

I picked up a copy of the graphic novel V for Vendetta by Alan Moore (& David Lloyd) partly because I was so satisfied with Watchmen (Moore), and partly because a key moment in the 2005 film confused me. As it is so often the case, I figured the text would offer more explanation about what was going on. It did, though sixteen years of life experience might have played a hand in that as well.

What was most surprising for me about V for Vendetta was the numerous references to art and literature. Most of the books illustrated in this graphic novel had titles on them, and so I researched these whenever I failed to recognize one. I am a huge fan of reading referenced literature. I imagine the author must have been so impressed upon by what they read that they wanted to include those titles in their own creations. If there’s some aspect of that reference that is going to help me understand the material in more depth, then all the better. (For instance, I can’t imagine having read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt without having seen an image of the painting by Carel Fabritius to which it refers.)

The Goldfinch

Faust, Arabian Nights, Hard Times, Don Quixote, Essays of Elia, Gulliver’s Travels, Frankenstein, The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Golden Bough, Shakespeare, Ivanhoe, Divine Comedy, I Am Legend, and To Russia with Love are all titles that appear on V’s bookshelf. On another bookshelf appears Mein Kampf, Utopia, and Capital. V is actively reading V. by Thomas Pynchon at one point in the novel. He reads The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton to Evey in part one, while Mr Finch is reading The Roots of Coincidence by Arthur Koestler at the end of part two.

I felt that these references tell us about who the characters are and what the current climate of the setting is. I’ve yet to read V., The Magic Faraway Tree, or The Roots of Coincidence, but I can point out that Evey’s character was remarkably immature when V read to her from The Magic Faraway Tree. (And, after she grew up, he started calling her Eve.) I’ve read some of Gravity’s Rainbow (Pynchon) and all of Darkness at Noon (Koestler), but I probably ought to give these other two a go.

There are several movie bill posters and paintings that appear in the Shadow Gallery; Shakespearean quotes littered throughout; a reference to Evita and the image of Cosette from Les Miserables that appears later on. I was only able to root out The Three Graces by Raphael among the artwork so apparently my art history days are further behind me than I realized. Nevertheless, it was clear that V reveled in having a well curated gallery of art and literature from pre-fascist England. “Art washes away from the soul the dust of every day life,” as Picasso once said.

It was in trying to catch all the references that the insidiousness of the politics in V for Vendetta struck home. I have the luxury of Google to at least try and research painters from nearly every century. I have the freedom to hop on Amazon and buy myself a copy of Faust. (Or George by Alex Gino, the most censored book of 2020 according to the American Library Association.) At least I have read some Dickens, Cervantes, Shelley, Alighieri and Matheson. I could write my own book, or paint my own painting, independent of any party line.

It was not being able to differentiate between anarchy and chaos that caused me to stumble in my understanding of V for Vendetta before. Something else Picasso said puts it more succinctly:

Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.”

Now I think I get it. For Eve, it was about forgetting how powerless young waifs were supposed to be in her society. In her expectation to live a mediocre life of degradation despite her fears, she was trapped. Schooling ourselves means breaking down the walls of who we think we are and what we think we’re supposed to be. In destroying these expectations, we have the room to decide whom we want to be without constraint.

Time Enough

Someone told me yesterday that I was going though my reading list at such a pace that it wouldn’t be long before I had read everything worth reading. To be fair, I make pretty good time between Audible listens and a constantly refreshed stack of paperbacks. I will achieve my goal to read 100 books in 2021. There are but 17 books left before I have accomplished this and I’ll probably check off Life of Pi by Yann Martel or I Always Find You by John Ajvide Lindqvist in the next three days. Considering that I started Life of Pi yesterday morning, this is much to the chagrin of some of my friends. I started I Always Find You seven days ago and have yet to hit page 100, so I actually feel like I’m slacking.

I do not keep notes. I do research authors and their backgrounds. I have watched documentaries and listened to lectures on certain titles. I read blogs by other readers and watch YouTube book reviews. I use sparknotes and Stanford and read the novels that other novels reference.

When I started reading again in 2019, it was with The Greatest Books list of the best 100 novels of all time. I decided that I was going to read everything on that list. There are 29 books that I still have not read, one of which I am 30% the way through. (In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust is one of the longest works ever written, so it is going to take a bit longer than a few afternoons.) My friends were reading modern fiction and telling me about novels that were not on my list, and I got to worrying.

When was I ever going to make it to books from this millennium? Last years’ novels? This year, even? What about all the award winners? The Booker Prizes, Pulitzer Prizes, National, Newbury, and Hugo Award winners? I started a small journal in which I was writing down the top 100 from BBC Culture, The Times, Penguin and Modern Library. I assure you reader, the titles included from these different sources are not the same. My to-read list was multiplying like rabbits in Australia, and it was sparking the same kind of dread.

My current approach is this: If I’ve put something down then it is time to pick something else up. If I need a moment to absorb what I just read, then I take it. I take it and then move on. If I sit bewildered at the goals I’m setting, then I consider it time wasted. I’m happy with what I have achieved so far and would not want to risk triggering myself into thinking there will never be time enough. When I feel overwhelmed, I delete practically everything off of my to-read list figuring that if I really need to read a particular title, then it will find its’ way back to me.

Part of the journey has been a discovery of who I am. I’m not a big Jane Austen fan though I enjoy Charles Dickens. I was sad to discover that the end of Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol is lost to history. I’ve learned how to put a book down if I think its bad. I’ve found that it is interesting to accept recommendations from other people’s favorite books lists in order to get to know them better. I believe there is something about a beloved book that speaks to the character of those whom love it. I think it is important to read the books that maybe nobody loves, if the message is sound.

Yet the questioning remains: Should I read everything by my favorite authors, or at least a little from every author that seems interesting? How do I make time for the best in all of the genres I like? Who decides which ones are the best? Do I agree with them? Should I make a plan and follow it, knowing that the time it will take to finish that plan will leave those books written in the meanwhile untouched? I have no real answers. Part of me wants to consult my fortune to get an idea of how many years I have left so that I can decide how to schedule for it.

I want to finish Proust and the Culture series by Iain M. Banks before I die. I want to read The Walking Dead graphic novels since I love the show so much, and more Nabokov. I’ve considered deciding to read all of the Pulitzer Prize winners. (I have only 5 of the novels that have won since 1970 under my belt, though several more are on my to-read list even if I don’t get to them all.) I’d like to be able to recognize all the authors that charm and inspire my friends and family, and have a feel for what sort of stories those storytellers create. It’s a pretty glorious thing considering there was a time when I struggled to have excitement for anything.

Thank you Twilight Zone, for him.

It is going to take decades and that’s okay. I will leave time for the new authors and take time for the classics I have yet to get to. (Jane Austen’s’ Mansfield Park, Charles Dicken’s Bleak House, and Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy to name a few.) For those of you who in a similar position, I wish you time enough as well.

American Pastoral

Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction with American Pastoral in 1998. Finalists for that year were Underworld by Don Delillo and Bear and His Daughter: Stories by Robert Stone. This novel is part of what is considered The American Trilogy, a collection of books by the same author that includes I Married a Communist and The Human Stain. I started here with the intention to skip over to The Human Stain once I revisit Roth. It does not seem to matter if you read them in order or not.

The main character was based on a real person, Seymour “Swede” Masin, a Jewish athlete of admired repute. I’m not a sports person and had no previous knowledge of Masin, though I feel I’ve met him (in a way) after having spent 432 pages getting to know “Swede” Levov, protagonist. Imagine a good Jewish boy that grew up to be a stand-up, attractive adult. Everyone likes him. He marries a former beauty queen and they have a beautiful baby girl. It all starts out to be a picturesque vision of the quintessential American dream, set in New Jersey.

This novel is on the Goodreads most difficult novels list, and here’s why I think that is: Everything goes horrendously wrong. This good guy, who never hurt anyone in his life and wouldn’t bear to even risk insulting anyone has his internal fortitude dashed to pieces in a hail of discontent. His daughter, Merry, becomes a radical political activist adept at setting off bombs. There is intentional death that occurs by her hand and no substantial explanation for what caused her to tip. I finished my first reading thinking there was an unnamed disease present whose side-effects were anger, confusion, and despair. (Fittingly, the protagonist dies of prostate cancer, so lets enjoy the social commentary there. Did he die of cancer, or was he susceptible to cancer because he was already so weakened by what his life had become?)

The fiction in this novel didn’t seem like fiction, leaving me with a sense that the possibility of a perfect life is remote. If this guy can have his world pulled out from under him, then what hope is there for the rest of us?

Most of American Pastoral is the inner dialogue of the Swede, though there is a definite plot which drives this character along to his ultimate demise. The novel touches on the intricacies of the Levov’s relationship with his daughter, his wife, his brother, his community, and himself. If you like to listen, the audio version narrated by Ron Silver is absolutely exceptional. Silver won an Audie Award for Best Solo by a Male for his work in the 1998 release.

American Pastoral is on my favorite novels list. I liked that despite the seeming flawlessness of the characters’ younger lives, the author shows us how the white on their proverbial picket fence is simply an outer shell of paint. Beneath the veneer of whom they seem to be are real problems, motives, challenges, and depth. Perhaps I side with Merry insofar as I felt gratified by all the knots and dings these people carried under the surface.

I enjoyed the complexity of this novel. Even if you remove the trigger to the Swede’s downfall and omit the part of the story which is Merry’s terrorist acts, there still remains a realistic characterization of how we deal with the other people in our lives. What is it to be a parent? A husband? (And for some of us, a Jew?) How far can we expect our individual influence to reach as members of a family or community? Can we prevent chaos from seeping into our lives, or is entropy unavoidable?

If you have a penchant for unanswerable questions and family dysfunction with a touch of nihilism, then this book might interest you as well. Those triggered by intense family trauma should probably avoid it. Nevertheless I thought it was an excellent book that set a new bar on what I like to see in well developed characters struggling through an impossible situation.

White Noise

First Published: 1.21.1985

Pages: 326

Audio: 12.8 hrs.

Twelve years after White Noise was published, author Don DeLillo would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Underworld. As a reader whom enjoys symbolism, I thought White Noise was pretty accessible. There is also quite a bit of satire, so the humor of this novel grants some relief against the ominous nature of the themes involved.

I read excerpts from this book aloud to three different people. I even made a few marks in my paperback. As a well-established OCD introvert, this is probably more telling than any other comment I could make. My favorite parts include the dialogue starting on page 133 and just about every altercation with SIMUVAC.

Page 133. What the radio was calling the black billowing cloud has been upgraded to an airborne toxic event. The general public has been warned that exposure to the chemical spill may include instances of heart palpitations and deja vu. They were concerned only a moment ago about nausea, vomiting, and shortness of breath, but no longer. The dialogue that occurs on page 133 suggests “Let’s keep the radio turned off” so the children can’t hear. Why? Because they ought not have symptoms if they don’t know what they’re supposed to be. Cheekily, the character giving the suggestion soon claims that they’ve had this conversation before.

SIMUVAC, or the Simulated Evacuation teams are akin to FEMA, if the Federal Emergency Management Agency only deigned to show up when there was no actual emergency. With exception of the airborne toxic event, SIMUVAC makes appearances when everything is fine, and then vanishes before anything serious occurs. They are only there to simulate evacuation, not to actually support one. And, in the absence of suited scientists to demonstrate there is danger afoot, the populace decides that they must be safe.

My impression of White Noise was to consider all of the extraneous distractions that our lives are bedraggled with. A major theme is the fear of death, and this novel points out that humans like to avoid thinking about how brief life can be. It suggests that we will reach for any drug to avoid considering our own mortality, even though those drugs make us no less mortal. It is important for us to remind ourselves that when we place our focus on things without substance, we can create lives without any real meaning.

I would recommend this book to someone who wants to get a feel for DeLillo without committing to the 827 pages of Underworld, even though I would also attest that Underworld is the better novel when it comes to social commentary and scope. I thought that the main character in White Noise was compelling enough to earn my sympathy, and even though his character arc is somewhat shallow, he does have something of an epiphany near the end which resolved in a way I did not expect.

If you have not read White Noise yet, and plan to, I would suggest keeping track of the weather as events occur. The severity of the forecast is analogous to what the characters are experiencing.

If you have read White Noise and know what I’m talking about, then I’d suggest taking some time away from your favorite phone game to enjoy the beauty of a good sunset. Accepting that death is a part of living makes the journey all the more beautiful. Nobody should have to live in perpetual fear, and simply trying to ignore the fear is not a sustainable answer.