Tomboy

20256612Liz Prince, 2014

This was a fun and surprising find that made its way into my hands via my wife’s reading list. Tomboy is a graphic novel/graphic autobiography portraying the writer/artist’s struggles with identity during her youth and teenage years. Since her earliest memories she recalls being strong willed in her denial of “girly’ expectations. She wouldn’t wear dresses or play with girl toys. Her hero was Egon Spengler from Ghostbusters and when she watched Star Wars she imagined herself as a Jedi, not the damsel in distress, Princess Lea. She was truly unique from her earliest years but her unique identity would cause her several years of anguish.

imagesLiz’s parents were supportive of her choices, especially her mother who “just wanted you to be comfortable,” (15) and didn’t force Liz to wear things that she didn’t like as a child. Once she started school, however, her life changed as she became painfully aware that her fashion choices and playtime interests were not accepted by her peer’s expectations. Her friends were often boys up until the middle school years when suddenly the boys she hung out with outside of school would be embarrassed to hang our with her at school. During her middle school and high school years she did have a series of female friends that supported her, although she felt discouraged as they became progressively more interested in wearing makeup and altering their behavior as they got caught up with boys. Liz herself wasn’t immune to teenage romances, but her love life was often stunted by a disconnect between the boys that liked her and the boys that she was interested in since her appearance was often a roadblock to the boy’s attention. As her body developed into young womanhood she found herself hating her appearance, not wanting to have an outward appearance that was girly.

What is special about her story is that it is told with upfront honesty and enjoyable art that drives the narrative. Liz’s artistic career was actually influenced by a family friend, Harley, a young woman that supported her and pushed Liz to rethink her own ideas about boys and girls as depicted in a conversation with Liz when Harley states, “I would challenge you to decide: do you hate girls? Or do you hate the expectations put on girls by society” (211). Initially, Liz doesn’t know what to make of Harley’s challenge, but as she stumbled upon a new group of friends that exposed her to underground feminist literature, she realized that she had “subscribed to the idea that there was only one form of feminity and that it was inferior to being a man” (240).

Ultimately Liz finds comfort with her identity after she finds a group of friends who are a collection of misfits and social oddities that enjoy punk music and underground lit-zines, she realizes that her group of young adult friends are a community of people that accept her for who she is just as she accepts them for who they are. The story of Tomboy is charming because it is a fresh perspective of the coming of age genre that demonstrates how Liz found comfort with herself through the revelation that she is not alone in her uniqueness. You don’t have to be a Tomboy to enjoy Tomboy, you don’t even have to be a girl to enjoy it. It is a fun and touching graphic novel that is a worthwhile read for anyone who struggled through teenage identity, which is just about all of us don’t you think?

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The Middle East

569407A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years
Bernard Lewis, 1995

This was the last book from the stash I accumulated at Powell’s last September after my Willamette Valley bike ride adventure. Browsing through Powell’s history and world culture sections I had snagged a memoir that focused on current events in China, a massive tome on Europe’s colonization of Africa, along with Bernard Lewis’s The Middle East. Of the three books Lewis’s covers the longest period of history and is the least in depth. At only 387 pages, it is difficult to dive deeply into the rich complexity of 2,000 years of middle eastern history, but this book doesn’t proclaim itself as the ultimate historical compendium.

Lewis is honest in his intentions and is forthright in acknowledging that this is a brief history. The success found within these pages is the author’s ability to weave the 2,000 year succession of culture, economy, religion, and governance with a fluid and overarching perspective that illuminates the debt owed by both western and eastern culture owe due to the prominence and innovations of the middle east during the middle ages, while concurrently revealing the multifaceted reasons why the middle east has so recently and persistently been a hotbed of political strife with a skewed and imbalanced range of poverty and wealth coupled alongside religious revivalism and fanaticism. In other words, this is a good “big-picture” summary of the middle east through the date of publication.

Prior to my reading I had a limited understanding of the Ottoman and Persian empires and even less understanding of the more ancient Byzantine Empire and I had absolutely no prior knowledge of Persia’s precursor, the Sasanid Empire. My current event knowledge of nations such as Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and others was ignorant that these nation-state borders were drawn by European colonial powers during the tumultuous years between the first and second world war after the Ottoman empire had collapsed when Turkey subsequently made revolutionary changes towards secularism and modernization that let go its empiric historical standing. Nor did I have an appreciation for the dichotomous influence of Soviet Russia in opposition to capitalistic American interventions in the latter part of the 20th century. Nor did I fully appreciate the rich and prolonged cultural identify that defines Iran, which once was the seat of the Sasanid and then the Persian Empires. Lewis’s book provides a satisfying summary of the region’s power and influence as a crossroad of trade between Europe and Asia while concurrently revealing the reasons for the decline in power as Europe’s growing nautical prowess limited the middle eastern region’s importance as a center of trade.

The news of current events speaks of the countries in this region with matter of fact certitude and I have been ignorantly naive to the cultural influence that the region has upon current day events. The Middle East is a complicated place, a region that was the fertile crescent and birthplace of civilization that struggles in a modern world. Although the wealth tied to the resource found in Middle Easter oil is linked to modernity, the cultural and religious ideals of Islam struggle to accept modern consumerism and beliefs. The rise of Islam in the 7th century catapulted the region with fervor in ideals of unification and universalism that created a region that rivaled middle age Europe’s disunity, superstition, and stagnation. Of course Islam has had its internal disunity from the outset with rival perspectives about the faith as demonstrated by Sunni and Shia perspective about the lineage of leadership, however there is no denying the achievements that the region obtained following the introduction of Islam as a common system of belief, philosophy, and identity.

Interestingly, I found Lewis’s discussion about ideas of nationalism to be truly enlightening towards the ongoing problems of the region; as Lewis describes it, the middle eastern peoples have not historically identify themselves according to national identity, but more easily identify themselves according to religious identity. Prior to the fall of the Ottoman empire, it was perfectly acceptable for Christians, Hebrews, and non-believers to live alongside each other with the Islamic believers, however it was accepted that the there was a caste system that put followers of Islam above all others with regards to matters of property, justice, and economy. Also, intriguing is the revelation that the current hatred towards Jews only developed after German Nazi colonial intervention in the region and then the subsequent creation of the nation of Israel created a new animosity towards the peoples of the Hebrew faith that had not existed prior to the twentieth century.

Of course, this book is limited in that it was published in 1995 and an astounding number of influential events have occurred since that date of publication; consider only the influence of the Taliban, the September 11th attack on America, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the Arab spring of 2009, and the tumult currently ongoing with ISIS. However, since this is a brief history of the middle east, I did not feel that it was necessary to purchase the revised version. What this book brings to light is an appreciation for the the depth of cultural complexity that influences the outcomes of those most recent events that I had referenced.

In his epilogue Lewis had hinted that there was both opportunity and risk in the region for the years that would come following his publication date of 1995. Although he could not imagine the Taliban’s actions and influence, Lewis does foretell the Arab Spring fourteen years prior to its occurrence, as he catalogs the people’s dissatisfaction with despotic rulers as misaligned with the ideals and cultural identity of the region:

“The history of the Islamic Middle East, like that of other societies, offers many examples of the overthrow of governments by rebellion or conspiracy. There is also an old Islamic tradition of challenge to the social duty to dethrone tyranny and install justice in its place. Islamic law and tradition lay down the limits of the obedience which is owed to the ruler and discuss – albeit with considerable caution – the circumstances in which a ruler forfeits his claim to the allegiance of his subjects and may or rather must lawfully be deposes and replaced.” (376)

What will come of the Middle East in the years to come is still unknown, but with a better appreciation of its past I find myself more at ease with the cycles of history. There may be many years of struggle ignited by the fires of fanaticism ahead of us, but through ongoing education within the region and without, humanity can only hope for a renewed perspective that accepts the limitations of our mutual misunderstandings.

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David Bowie Is

1911677_10152806636999468_8353018692930207009_nAfter posting a review of Simon Critchley’s book of short essays, BowieI couldn’t help but put down a few words about the David Bowie Is exhibit currently running at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. My wife and I first heard about the exhibit in the April 2013 edition of Q. The exhibit displays Bowie’s personal collection of clothing, instruments, music notes, video presentations and just about anything a Bowie fan would like to see.

When we learned that it was only going to have a limited North American tour with Chicago being the only US location, we knew that we had to make it a destination since our common love for Bowie’s music is a passion that blends her rocker preferences with my electronic and jazz based sensibilities. We went this past weekend, sacrificing the beautiful indian summer of San Francisco for the season turning cold of the windy city. The travel was further complicated by the O’Hare airport fire that occurred the prior week that was still causing air traffic delays on our date of departure. All of those setbacks were minor because this exhibit was totally worth it and more.

Unfortunately photo10414647_10152805446469468_4419622882338507685_ngraphy wasn’t permitted inside to catalog the experience, but this exhibit offered something that could never be presented in photography. All attendees were given headsets to listen to what was expected to be an audio tour, but on entering the exhibit the audio captivated my attention as it was uniquely set up with a positioning system that recognized where I was standing and what I was looking at. Bowie’s voice would whisper as he described his early influences as I look at his collection of books by Jack Kerouac and J. G. Ballard as well as his framed photo of little Richard. The next room presented videos of “Space Oddity” alongside posters for “2001 A Space Odyssey” and newspaper clippings of the first photos of Earth taken from space, while the opposite wall played a video of Bowie as a mime who wears a mask to gain favor and attention only to be trapped by the pressure to wear the mask and be subject to the public’s expectations. The video of the mime wearing the mask was actually one of the my favorite surprises because it was prophetic of the themes that Bowie developed and would elaborate throughout his career.

1016729_10152352128262927_2600500374728503587_nThe exhibit was extremely comprehensive, and each room utilized new forms of video alongside posters, journal entries, song clippings and stage designs for his concerts. There was a room set up as a sound booth that simply played mic-checks and instrument adjustments that was both eery and beautiful. There was a room set up like a theatre that played clips from the many movies he has acted in from “The Man Who Fell to Earth” to “The Prestige”. The dialogue content from Prestige clip with Bowie playing Tesla was oddly reflective upon Bowie’s own obsessions throughout his career. I especially enjoyed the room set up to honor his “Berlin Period” that had several screens and photographs in a dark room with each display connected via white painted lines leading to the synthesizer located in the center of the room that he had used on the “Low,” “Heroes,” and “Lodger” albums. The mood in this room was dark but hopeful and fit perfectly with the mood of the themes of rediscovery presented on these albums.

My favorite experience was the final room, which was a large hall with three large screens that played clips from his concerts. As the concert videos changed the background would light up and reveal hidden screens showing the different clothing worn during his performances. At one point “Heroes” was played on the three separate screens during three separate concerts in 1984, 1995, and 2001 and I walked back and forth through the room to hear the different presentation of the song through the ages. His later concerts lack the theatrically of his early artistic and creative youth, but they make up for it with a refined musicality that has only gotten better with age.

The entire exhibit was truly a phenomenal experience and it saddens me that it will only be presented in Chicago. Since the exhibit is presented in a limited venue, I regret that I cannot share this experience with my friends that cannot not make it there.

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Bowie

download Simon Critchley, 2014

This is not a biography. This is not simply a summary of Bowie’s ground-breaking artistic achievements, nor is it a comprehensive discussion of his stage characters or musical adaptations through the years. Simon Critchley’s Bowie is a love song written about Bowie the artist’s impact on Critchely the author’s personal and creative life. It is a blend of personal reflection and pphilosophicaldiscourse with an examination on the culture of Bowie’s time, that is the culture of our times. This is a slim and concise read, a collection of 23 short essays that average only 4-5 pages each focused on a different facet of Bowie’s career, his innovativeness, his relationship to the cultural milieu and impact upon it.

From his first encounter with Bowie in 1972 on Britain’s Top of the Pops when Bowie performed “Starman” dressed in other-worldly catsuit and totally unique orange hair captivated the twelve year old Critchley who was drawn to this odd-creature performing a song because “he seemed so sexual, so knowing, so sly and so strange. At once cocky and vulnerable.” (10). From this moment to the current, Critchley has followed Bowie’s career and the essays in this book are an homage to the many changes and faces expressed through Bowie’s performances that challenged the listener and viewer since “alienation was confronted through a confrontation with the alien” (60).

As is apparent in Crithcley’s obsessive love for Bowie he is able to reveal common themes of dystopia, yearning, love, spiritual longing, and dissatisfaction with cultural norms that span decades of the artist’s work. And yet, Critchley manages to express the allure of Bowie’s obsession with dystopia and decadence through his charasmatic charm of performance, his refusal to accept norms, his ability to use his voice as a multi-tonal instrument, and ability to adapt his sound one step ahead of the cultural norms. For such a slim an quick reading little book, no other book best expresses my own personal obsession with David Bowie the artist, the alien who became a man.

“Bowie was able to mobilize an artistic discipline that is terrifying in its intensity, daring, and risk. It is the very opposite of rock star complacency. It is as if Bowie, almost ascetically, almost eremitically, disciplined himself into becoming nothing, a mobile and massively creative nothing that could assume new faces, generate new illusions, and create new forms. This is weird and rare. Perhaps it is unique in the history of popular music.” (116)

 

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Siddhartha

download (1)Hermann Hesse, 1922
Translated from the German by Hilda Rosner, 1951

“Knowledge can be communicated but not wisdom.” (142)

Hermann Hesse’s slim little book, Siddhartha, first made its way into my grubby hands many years ago when I was only seventeen or eighteen years old. It was handed to me by a close friend who was some nine years older than I, a friend I spent a lot of time with while he was jamming on his guitar singing an eclectic mix of Scott Weiland and Christian songs on the La Jolla cliffs overlooking the ocean while I was pondering life during my youthful explorations into Christian fellowship and literary explorations. That friend had often told me that he recognized a maturity in my demeanor and he felt that this book would speak to me.

On my first reading it felt odd that an outspoken Christian would hand me a fictional account written by a German author exploring eastern enlightenment, but the simplicity and directness of the story was truly eye opening to my eager and curious adult mind. After reading Siddhartha for the first time I quickly reread it and later turned to Hesse’s canon for further fuel to feed my spiritual hunger during my late teens and early twenties. Of his many books that I read, only Narcissus and Goldmund came close to satiating the hunger ignited by Siddhartha. Hesse was the first author that captivated my developing mind during my young adult life, however as I read more and more of him I found that the universal themes within his novels tended to repeat themselves. On reading Demian in my later twenties its story failed to ignite my interest and I finally laid Hesse to rest as I realized that my life experiences had changed my palate and I was no longer hungry for Hesse’s worn themes of wandering spirits and theological explorations into eastern philosophy.

And so, Siddhartha, has been sitting on my shelf for many years, forgotten. Somehow in the past year or so it has been catching my eye, inviting me to reopen its cover. After recently finding renewed joy in rereading a short novella in between a longer work, I decided to rediscover the words cherished by my youthful self and revisit Siddhartha.

The simple story of Siddhartha is a tale of self-discovery of a young man who initially renounces his family’s wealth and social position to live for many years as an ascetic, renouncing all possessions and achieving states of ecstasy through prolonged fasting and mastery over his bodily desires through meditation. He later steps away from the ascetic life to explore the pleasures of lust and material wealth and becomes a successful businessman finding peace in this new life as he learns to connect with humanity’s social structure that he had denied as an ascetic. In his middle age years he has a crisis of conscious and nearly kills himself after leaving behind all of his possessions and material power. Through the luck of circumstance, he bumps into an old friend of his who had sought the path of the Buddha during their shared years as ascetics in their youth. The interaction with this old friend reawakens Siddhartha and he chooses to adopt a simple livelihood as river ferryman, finding peace in a life of simple purpose unburdened by want.

That synopsis is the basic skeleton of the story. It reads directly and to the point, with several beautiful and thoughtful verses that digress upon the purpose of life lived through self-awareness, the enlightenment offered through meditation, and the warmth and opportunity found in human interaction. The plot could be viewed as slightly contrived, with many circumstantial events happening far too easy in unbelievable fashion, but the contrived plot is forgivable because this isn’t a book written with plot as the purpose. The value of this book is in its presentation of the rewards inherent in a self-examined life.

On rereading this book I rediscovered why I loved it so much in my youth and on reading it in my mid-thirties it had new meaning for me. This book caused me to reflect on my life with joy and respect for the many experiences I have lived through. This book inspires me not to look on the past with regret or with shame or with pride but to accept my past for what it was, the past that I have lived. This book caused me to look to the future not with despair or anxiety or fear, but to look at the future for what it is,  an opportunity to be open to the many beauties and joys presented to one who is open to life and what it offers.

“I learned through my body and soul that it was necessary for me to sin, that I needed lust, that I had to strive for property and experience nausea and the depths of despair in order to learn not to resist them, in order to learn to love the world and no longer compare it to some kind of desired imaginary world, some imaginary vision of perfection, but to leave it as it is, to love it and to be glad to belong to it.” (144)

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Bleeding Edge

downloadThomas Pynchon, 2013

With Bleeding Edge I can say that I have read every book in the grand scope of Thomas Pynchon’s wild paranoia-driven postmodern world and Pynchon becomes the only author of whom that I have read in full.  This accomplishment may be meaningful only to myself, but it is an accomplishment. Pynchon’s encyclopedic, historical-arching, genre bending body of work has spanned vast historical time periods from pre-revolutionary America to the hippie-stoner nineteen-seventies. Set in post dot-com bust 9/11 New York, Bleeding Edge finds its own unique place in that expansive body.

One of the many elements of Pynchon’s writing that has drawn me back to him through the years is his ability to make poignant the obscure with references to forgotten events that were newsworthy during the historical setting of his questionable plot. True, any review of a Pynchon book must acknowledge that his narrative style breaks the expectations of plot and cohesiveness. The fun in reading Pynchon isn’t found in the plot, it is found in the telescoping narratives, goofy charades, and meandering escapades through an altered view of history. His characters use slang of the day and listen to music that was popular during their lifetime to set the tone, but the real meat in the writing is his use of history as an artistic mortarboard to both satirize and illuminate the present day.

Gravity’s Rainbow first exposed me to the horror of the Herero genocide and Against the Day illuminated the mining strikes that ignited Leadville, Co. These are just a few of the countless historical references that my feeble memory can recall from those past readings, but the Pynchon universe is saturated with seemingly obscure references expressed by a witty and intoxicating narrative voice. With a turn of expectations Bleeding Edge focuses not on the obscure, but finds itself taking place in the memorable recent past of 2001. Any reader will readily digest the familiar pop-culture references to furbies, beanie-babys, Pikachu, and Britney Spears all gravitating around the salient devastation of the 11 September attack. This book is unique in that out of all of Pynchon’s novels that explore different periods of American and world history, the recent history of Bleeding Edge is a time that I have actually lived through.

I had a vague idea of the historical background before I began the book, and didn’t quite know what to expect. Yet by the second page I found myself enjoying the familiar Pynchon narrative time warp that had stemmed from a background reference to the Kugelblitz School elementary school as a namesake to an “early psychoanalyst who was expelled from Freud’s inner circle,” into a moment imagined some one hundred years prior imagined as a conversation between Freud and Kugelblitz. The telescoping references to historical events is a characteristic stylistic device found in all of Pynchon’s body of work, and being transported from a scene describing a mother dropping her two boys off at school to an imagined argument between Freud and his protege put a smile on this reader’s face. However, throughout Bleeding Edge, the telescoping, time-warping narratives are not as prominently used as they are in Pynchon’s larger and more “difficult” works such as  Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixonor Against the Day. That early Freud reference ended up serving as a tease, since Bleeding Edge relies less upon long narrative digressions than it does on dialogue and forward moving plot progression.

Overall, this was a fun and quickly paced book but it isn’t Pynchon’s best. Despite its lesser status, it is actually in the realm of books that I would recommend to new Pynchon readers because it is approachable and easily digestible. Yes, Bleeding Edge has hundreds of characters that appear and disappear as a reflection of the myriad population of human life and the multiplicity of characters that is a Pynchon staple. Yet, few Pynchon books have what is considered a main character but Bleeding Edge gives us a believable and likable female protagonist in Maxine Tarnow, a separated mother of two, private-eye fraud investigator, who actually manages to capture the reader and writer’s focus and attention. As characters come and go through the narrative, we always come back to Maxine and her professional and personal troubles.

And what of the narrative? It is focussed on a possible conspiracy that ties a wealthy dot-com CEO that manages a computer security firm that may or may not be tied to the 11 September tragedy. Pychon’s persistent insistence to use the expression “11 September” rather than the culturally expected “September 11th” may be a satirical nod towards the fictional acknowledgment of Pynchon’s own blend of paranoia and backward looking perspective. The dot-com conspiracies vaguely pan out, and the paranoia is less significant when reflecting upon the intriguing perspective buried with the character’s dialogue about the event:

“Can’t you feel it, how everybody’s regressing? 11 September infantilized this country. It had a chance to grow up, instead it chose to default back to childhood.” (336)

In reflection thirteen years out from the tragedy, the true impact isn’t the the loss of life that occurred that day, the impact has resonated through many cultural waves such as the change in security policy that has conversely caused each “free” American to suffer the usurpation of political freedom in order to permit our governmental protectors greater powers to protect us. What better way to express the motivations that allowed that power grab than to describe this process as an infantile motivations of fear?

Now, aside from the focus on 11 September, Bleeding Edge is also an exploration of the cultural change ignited by the proliferation of the internet age into our cultural identity. As is expected of a paranoia-driven Pynchon narrative, all is loosely connected via some suspicious agency, but in reading the views imagined by the Pynchon’s characters, there is an eery familiarity to the present day state of culture and economy driven dependence upon the technology promised by the up and coming presence of the internet. From vague references to social media as a never ending yearbook of bullying to reflections upon the idealized promise of the internet’s possibility for human connection via communication, Bleeding Edge is focused on the technological redefinition of cultural identity. This is best expressed in the following conversation between the protagonist, Maxine, and her father as they discuss the development and expansion of the internet in our cultural lexicon:

“But History goes on, as you always like to remind us. The Cold War ended, right? the Internet kept evolving, away from military, into civilian – nowadays it’s chat rooms, the World Wide Web, shopping online, the worst you can say is it’s maybe getting a little commercialized. And look how it’s empowering all these billions of people, the promise, the freedom.”
“Ernie begins channel-surfing, as if in annoyance. “Call it freedom, it’s based on control. Everybody connected together, impossible anybody should get lost, ever again. Take the next step, connect it to these cell phones, you’ve got a total Web of surveillance, inescapable. You remember the comics in the Daily News?  Dick Tray’s wrist radio? it’ll be everywhere, the rubes’ll all be begging to wear one, handcuffs of the Future. Terrific. What they dream about at the Pentagon, worldwide martial law.” (420)

These are the paranoias one comes to suspect from Pynchon, but what is eery about the paranoia is that with the current event revelations by Edward Snowden, the ongoing fight for net neutrality, and everyone’s addiction to their smartphones demonstrate that we really do live in a brave new world that should be suspect for a healthy dose of paranoia. The interconnected world is a commercialized world, that has redefined commerce and interaction. Some may say it is a world of vague disingenuity where it is easy to escape the “meat space” of the person next to us to escape into the technological promise of freedom via the screens in our hands.

This Bleeding Edge narrates the the cusp of the dot-com proliferation as a faint mirror of the true impact of the internet age on our culture, and for this Pynchon has written a sardonic satire upon our present day. However, through my reading, it wasn’t the overt exploration of the internet to culture or the sly inversion of 11 September paranoia that made this book enjoyable. Those elements were actually kind of disappointing and at times overbearing. Bleeding Edge isn’t simply about culture or the paranoia of cultural change. Bleeding Edge is about a mother with children in a vast city of possibility, a mother with children witnessing the world change around her, a mother with children who lives among the unknown masses and is part of the masses. The most poetic moment throughout the novel was a moment of anonymity that had little to do with paranoia or idealization of technology. It was the following passage that describe a moment of pure human awareness and connection:

“Sometimes, down in the subway, a train Maxine’s riding on will slowly be overtaken by a local or an express on the other track, and in the darkness of the tunnel, as the windows of the other train move slowly past, the lighted panels appear one by one, like a series of fortune-telling cards being dealt and slid in front of her. The Scholar, The Unhoused, The Warrior, The Thief, The Haunted Woman . . . After a while Maxine has come to understand that the faces framed in these panels are precisely those out of all the city millions she must be in the hour be her own – they are the day’s messengers from whatever the Beyond has for a Third World, where the days are assembled one by one under non-union conditions. Each messenger carrying the props required for their character, shopping bags, books, musical instruments, arrived here out of darkness, bound again into darkness, with only a minute to deliver the intelligence Maxine needs. As some point naturally she begins to wonder if she might not be performing the same role for some face looking back out another window at her.” (439)

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The Stranger

downloadAlbert Camus, 1942
Translated from the French by Matthew Ward, 1988

My first reading of The Stranger was unimpressed. I’ll admit that I was only 18  when I had read it during my summer break between my freshman and sophomore years of college and my initial impression was distracted because The Stranger was handed to me by an enthusiastic friend that had proclaimed this book’s originality and importance as the quintessential existential treatise. Reflecting on my initial impression I recognize that one element of my character that has been unchanged through the years is that I am often subject to a self-inflicted criticism susceptible to deflated expectations. The great blockbuster is typically a flop to my overtly sensitive sentimentalities and the buildup of the The Stranger‘s importance affected my initial impression. Now, on a second visit through more mature and experienced eyes I was engrossed by Camus’ narrative as the unrecognized masterpiece read by my younger mind.

What captivated me in this second reading was the concise and direct narrative voice. The abrupt and direct sentences spoken by the indifferent narrator, Meursault, portray a man that lives among but separate from his surroundings. He is a blank slate that floats through the circumstances that surround him. His simplicity may seem off-putting or unsettling to conservative sentimentalities, yet his openness and malleability represents the modern man disjointed from tradition or history. Though his actions are far from perfect, his separateness from the expectations of the society that surrounds him ultimately serves as his condemnation.

The book opens with the death of his mother and Meursault attends her funeral because that is what is expected of him. He declines the offer to look upon her deposed body and sits through a long night of funerary viewing unemotional and appearing disinterred. The day after her funeral he begins a relationship with a sometime acquaintance simply because the opportunity presented itself and he only shared his mother’s passing with the lover interest after he had slept her. His neighbor asks him to be his close friend and confident and Meursault accepts not out of friendship but simply because it appears as though what is expected of him.

These apparently indifferent choices are later perceived by the social order as indications of a corrupt moral character but the astute reader is better informed and will not so easily be seduced by the social expectation to judge and convict. Meursault isn’t necessarily evil or morally corrupt. Neither is he heroic or a representation of the ideal. Meursault simply is. Meursault exists as a man with only one motivation, to be. When faced with a morally challenging scenario, to defend his friend’s honor, he acts not out of anger or brutality, he simply acts. When imprisoned and put to trial for his action, he does not cry the victim or plead his defense, he simply accepts the consequences of his actions as the expectation of his social surrounding.

The plot scenario that failed to impress my young mind succeeds to impress my older mind primarily due to the economy of narrative and the believability of the scenarios depicted. The circumstances of the plot are simple and the narrative voice is direct. The scenario may not yield a universal portrayal of circumstances, but the perspective of Meursault, the narrator, is universal. His voice portrays a man that is aware of the falsity of the expectations of morality and social order for he lives apart from the learned and expected behaviors of society’s mores. He lives so not out of choice, but simply because he lives. Ultimately this simplicity is unacceptable within society’s expectations and his simplicity must end to appease the judgement of his surroundings.

The question posed to the reader extends beyond the plot scenario – how can society judge the strangers among us who live apart from our understanding. Are we moral in exacting such judgement and if not, what is the basis for any moral judgement?

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