Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Picture of Dorian Gray and Other Reviews

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (5 stars)

I went to the liquor store a few weeks ago to buy smokes; the first pack I’d paid for in Boston, in fact, because my Virginia stash(es) had lasted the first four months of my living here. It was painful to hand over seven bucks; even more painful was the fact that the woman at the register looked at my ID for approximately seven minutes, as the line behind me accumulated, and even went so far as to pull out one of those little mini-microscope-things and peer at every centimeter of the license. She then looked me up and down, glaring into my face as though to see the inner corruption that would compel me to use a fake ID for my nicotine fix. Eventually, she handed the Camel Crushes over, I gave her the cash, and went on my merry way.

It was an oddly poignant moment to have, having just finished reading Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray that morning. Yes, call me a bad English student; call me a bad queen; it was my first reading of the novel. It was also a surprisingly thrilling reading of a novel—I hadn’t been so emotionally caught up with anything I’d read throughout the semester, except perhaps Beloved. Of course we all know the story; Dorian is young and beautiful and sells his soul in order to stay so for all of eternity. His portrait takes on his sins instead (and at this moment I can only think of Anne Sexton’s ‘The Double Image’—“they had my portrait done instead” being the refrain marking her own corrupt relationship with her mother and with her daughter and her self; she even references Dorian at one point in the long poem, which is well worth checking out if you don’t know it). But I suppose I wasn’t anticipating the novel being able to sustain its excitement or beauty beyond the most basic components of this plotline. Wilde’s prose is stunning, and as much as we hear of him being a strict aestheticist, it’s a peculiarly affective, a really deeply felt, novel. I think Wilde wants his reader to believe he’s Lord Harry, but I get the sense that he is, in reality, the Basil figure. Intrigued by beauty, prone to idolatry, remorseful for all things lost—in particular youth and beauty. Basil was perhaps the only truly compelling character of the novel, at least on an emotional level. Lord Harry is absolutely wonderful to read—someone you’d want around you at every party (so long as you weren’t the target of his witticisms), and Dorian is the dumb pretty little creature you want to pat on the head but not keep around for extended periods of time…but Basil is the real Prince Charming of the novel. Everyone else in the novel, as Lord Harry would certainly agree, is mere backdrop—setpieces intended to provide color or contrast to this triumvirate.

If Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway was the perfect novel for me to read last fall, Dorian Gray was ideal for this one. Mrs. Dalloway recalls with an astounding nostalgia the possibilities that one has foreclosed throughout life—the experiences that are shut out by choosing other experiences over them. Nonetheless, that novel brings loss in all of its breathtaking beauty back to the reader with a tangible quality; loss is a texture of the novel, nostalgia is the scent that permeates everything. As I embarked upon grad school applications, and a number of decisions that would effectively map the next decade of my life, Mrs. Dalloway helped me to—as Clarissa says at several moments—appreciate the present: “What she loved was this, here, now, in front of her; the fat lady in the cab. Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?” Dorian Gray, on the other hand, fears this possibility; the loss of youth and of beauty, and finally death—which ends absolutely—are harbingers of absolute terror, and thus are violently disavowed. I say that this was the right moment for me to read this, not because I’m increasingly fearful of aging or of death but because now I’ve made the leap into the next phase of my life and now these foreclosures of possibility are not merely tangible or recognizable but will forever evade my grasp—I’ve crossed that threshold moment that Mrs. Dalloway so preserves, and entered into the next stage. Hopefully, of course, I’ll handle this more in a Clarissa than a Dorian sort of way; perhaps I’ll throw a party and make sure not to murder any of the guests.

In any case, Dorian is an absolutely stunning novel. Forget the awful ‘Classic Lit-ruh-chah’ assignation of the novel (though I’m currently a lover and voracious reader of classics, I remember being likewise terrified of that designation). The setting may be over a century old now, but the thrills, the motives, the anxieties are all as modern as anything being published now. The writing is fluid and exciting, and this has some of the best one-liners you’ll ever read, among them: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about,” “To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable,” “The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young,” “The things one feels absolutely certain about are never true,” “When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving one’s self and one always ends by deceiving others.” Every line is essentially quotable, except for the strangely bland and undercooked dialogue with one of the old women towards the end of the novel. But this is a strikingly philosophical and contemplative book despite its glamour and its many ‘Wildeisms.’ I connect this to Mrs. Dalloway only because both have truly fascinating things to say on aging and conscience, the ability to be compassionate and to connect to others (in each, I think there’s more evidence against genuine connections or genuine sympathy than there is for them)—and it’s certainly a recommended read to anyone reading this blog who hasn’t enjoyed it already.

And here are a few capsule reviews of some other things I’ve been reading, x-posted from my goodreads:

Joan Didion, Vintage Didion (4 stars)

I'd only previously read "The Year of Magical Thinking" by Didion--and, considering my admittedly non-existent experience with having lost loved ones, didn't connect to it in the way so many seem to have (at least on an emotional level). Nonetheless, I found her prose style there to be breathtaking, and it's in full form in this short collection. Vintage Didion collects essays from several books--three from "After Henry," three from "Miami," two from "Salvador," one from "Political Fictions," and one based on a lecture concerning September 11th. Truly, every essay was spot-on, though Didion really confronts me with the fact that I'm pathetically unsavvy with politics. The essay on NY and the Central Park Jogger case was perhaps one of the best non-fiction essays I've ever read. Though it's clear she's done her research and doesn't mind showing as much, it comes across as astute rather than showy, fluid rather than stuffed full of other people's facts and writings. Her logic is fascinating to watch, in the sense that she moves from the most micro-level observations into smart arguments about much much larger questions. Thus, the Central Park Jogger case becomes an essay on ideologies of crime and class, specific to NYC over the past 150 years, but reaching outward, as well. And then she sweeps back into her initial arresting claims. The essay on good ol' Bill's sexual exposure in "Clinton Agonistes" was particularly provocative, as was the Sept. 11th essay, and the one on Patty Hearst. I think I was swimming too deep in the Salvador/Miami pieces, but they too are beautifully written and argued.

I'm really looking forward to moving through more of her work--and as a close friend tells me, I'm an awful idiot and a bad Lit PhD for not having read her novel "Play It As It Lays." Any case, this is probably a great introduction to Didion--at least to her more politically-minded work. I'm trying to think of lovely descriptors for her, but the one that sticks out most for me at the moment is 'shrewd'--she's got a hawk's eye to everything she mentions, and watching her follow through that sightline into an argument is inspiring. Read it, for sure.

Ian McEwan, First Love, Last Rites (3.5 stars)

After reading 'Atonement' over the summer, I really really wanted to love this collection. McEwan is clearly just gaining traction at this particular moment, though, and I felt that the stories--one after another, almost without fail--succeeded only on the strength of some gimmicky twist at the end. This isn't to say that they weren't unexpected turns, thrilling ones at times, but that without these turns, the stories would have been meandering and oftentimes mediocre. The first story is perverse, yes, but I feel like I've heard the same sort of sentiments about adolescent longing expressed before (though McEwan's wonderful dark humor remains intact here)--it's the twist that defines the story, and I feel as if that's perhaps one of the biggest weaknesses of any narrative--that if one thread is removed, the glamour unravels. Needless to say, that first story, "Last Day of Summer" and the final story, "Disguises," are the strongest of the group. The first one does indeed rest on its own twist, but I commend McEwan at least for daring to take the story to its most extreme conclusion--hard to read? Certainly, but I can't think of another author who would have handled incest in that way--shocking, sick, but also really bold. "Last Day of Summer" is the only one of the collection that, to my mind, has a genuine emotional investment in its characters--a convincing and compelling one. And the final story is just a damn good story, with both the perversion of the rest of the collection but the breathing room to develop and really flesh out its narrative world.

In short, it's a decent collection--a thrilling one to read, but clearly a bit of an exercise book.

Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road (4 stars)

[[Very very light spoilers, but nothing critical.]] You know those days where literally everything seems to go sour, as if you've been caught up in some sort of awful vortex where fortune cookies instantly stale and every endeavor is a failed one before it's even begun? That's sort of what Revolutionary Road feels like, except higher on the magnitude scale and a helluva lot more depressing. This is not to its detriment, of course; after all, it's a novel about suburban malaise, and the deflation of the American Dream (and the deflation of the dream of the counterattack on that American Dream). The characters are nearly universally insufferable, even the well-intentioned ones (like the Campbells), but these are characters that you've met time and again in your life. Their very terribleness is what convinced me of their genuine quality. So when Millie Campbell becomes this monstrous, nasty character at the end of the novel--and Shep appreciates her in spite of recognizing this--it all makes sense. There's not much of a redemptive urge in the novel; even Frank's 'change' at the end is not one envisioned as one for the better, but rather, one that's hollow-eyed and done out of desperation.

Yates' prose is tight and clean, the plot moves along at a fairly quick pace, and the dialogue is always always spot-on. It's not quite a 5-star novel for me, not because it's not well-constructed or compelling, but simply because it's slightly dated and somehow more cinematic (to my mind) than literary. Perhaps it's simply that I felt like more of a voyeur than a participant at times--which can be quite fun, but frequently discomforting as well. Looking forward to finally seeing the film.

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