Tag Archives: bildungsromans

A Celebration of Literature

20 Sep

PBS is currently running a series that seeks to identify Americans’ most beloved novels. I haven’t watched it, but as the son of a Duluth librarian who is coordinating several panels on the series with local literature professors, I’ve been lured into attending a couple of events. This is the sort of thing I would probably attend anyway: by my count I’ve read 35 of the 100 short-listed novels, and have also seen film or TV adaptations of another 13, and read other works by nine authors who make the list (each could make the list only once). These events, which feature good discussion with (disappointingly) small groups, pose the vital questions that surround any such effort: what does it mean to develop a literary canon, what and who gets left out of a canon, and whether these things should be popularity contests or if some cadre experts can decree what constitutes good fiction and what does not. (While there were some limitations, the PBS series is largely a popularity contest, with works like Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight making the short list alongside War and Peace and Great Expectations.) Whatever the masses end up choosing, it’s a good launching point for discussion, and a chance to spill my own thoughts.

I have little trouble naming favorite works or authors of non-fiction, but find it a much greater struggle to do so with fiction. Still, the PBS series compels me to offer up a few. One Hundred Years of Solitude sits near the top of my list for its layers of allegorical power, and Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World still wows for its ability to recreate a world and the full range of people within it. I reread The Great Gatsby in the past two years, and it resonated far more than I remember it doing in high school, perhaps in part because I’ve lived a slight flavor of the Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby journey, drifting from Minnesota to East Coast money and trying to find my way between those two worlds. As a literary work, though, it is near-perfect: so tightly wound, so well-constructed, and yet still so easy to access eighty years later. If anything can claim the ‘Great American Novel’ title, Gatsby is probably it. If forced to choose one book, though, I still might lurch back to the novel that began all novels, Don Quixote. It does help when one takes an entire class on a book in one’s undergraduate days from an awesome professor to get the full historical context behind a book of brilliant social commentary.

There are other works I would not put on the same pedestal as those few, but have changed how I live my life in one way or another. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was a marvelous blend of people in places I have lived, all trying to make some statement on contemporary American life, and inspired my own fictional attempts. Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country came to me as I contemplated a life of foreign service of some sort, while the dry iconoclasm of Graham Greene fit the mood of a more jaded, older kid. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse gave me a metaphor that still informs many of my pursuits, and at a later stage, the criminally undervalued Wallace Stegner came along with Crossing to Safety to shower some wisdom on someone wrestling with both career ambitions and a love of place. I read them all at the right time.

Before we go any further, I’ll confirm my credentials as a literary snob: my list of great novels will all fall somewhere within the realm of realism, or at least magical realism. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed both as a kid, I have some reservations at the appearance of things like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings alongside Dostoevsky and Adichie. My literary tastes have progressed since then. I’ve done little dabbling in science fiction or fantasy as an adult, perhaps because I’m the sort of person who, upon discovering the burdens and frustrations of life, goes running for the most depressing and heavy stuff to try to find out how other insightful people have wrestled with such questions instead of looking for escapes. Some books in those genres do go in this direction: for example, Frank Herbert’s Dune downplays the tech side of science fiction and offers a rich commentary on society (and may yet inspire me to launch a Butlerian jihad), and the study of mythology and imagination behind Tolkien’s world-building has had an overwhelming influence on literature. They build complex plots, and it’s easy to fall into their worlds.

As someone who writes, however, I often find that my fondness for good writing overpowers my identification with the story. While I want to read novels that are both good stories and well-written (duh), if forced to choose, I’ll take good writing about topics that don’t fascinate me over an entertaining story. I’m not a lover of Hemingway, but he has glimmers of some of the most pristine prose I’ve ever read when he takes readers along on a fishing expedition in the Spanish countryside in The Sun Also Rises. A Prayer for Owen Meany is a fun book, but John Irving is capable of making paint drying sound amusing, and that turns a good story into a great novel. The prose of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead perfectly pairs with the heartland Protestant austerity of Reverend John Ames as he writes his letters to his son, and other writers, from Wendell Berry to Flannery O’Connor to William Faulkner, blur language with a sense of place in our minds. Perhaps this love of well-wrought prose is at the root of my dismissal of science fiction and fantasy as great literature: so often, even when they do manage to be insightful about human nature, those novels fixate on plot over structure and artistry, or devolve into sequels and expanded universes instead of standing on their own very real power. Their worlds fall in on themselves, instead of cycling back out to the one we live in.

I enjoy fiction that inhabits worlds similar to my own, and my world is a very large, rich place. While my defense of a concept of good writing makes me broad-brush defender of some sort of literary canon, I certainly believe in an expansive version of said canon that captures the written tradition of any number of societies. The Great American Read list is fairly thin on books translated from other languages; it is confined to a couple of Russian and French giants, Don Quixote, and One Hundred Years of Solitude. This is a mild source of frustration for someone whose literature consumption, especially in his college days, was driven by Latin American Boom authors, and expanded from there. It started with García Márquez in high school but soon wandered over toward the delightful absurdity of Julio Cortázar, the stunning range of Vargas Llosa, the posthumously beloved Roberto Bolaño, and a number of other lesser-known masters of Spanish prose. I didn’t confine my voracious reading to writers in one language, either: my reading list has often been populated by the likes of Arundhati Roy, Orhan Pamuk, Hiroki Murakami, and Edwidge Danticat. In an era of vogue scorn for the dead white men who traditionally dominated many lists of great literature, my reaction has often just been a shrug: I’ve never had any trouble incorporating a lot of people who are not like me at all into my own expansive idea of a canon. I can learn from all of them.

Despite all of this love for different worlds, the novels that affect me most tend to be coming-of-age stories. I have a deep fondness for angst-ridden teenage boys, and this has not waned even as I move further away from that phase of my own life. Thankfully, one can get a lot of mileage out of Holden Caulfield’s search for authenticity in The Catcher in the Rye, the competitive fire that makes and breaks Finny and Gene in A Separate Peace, and the question of destiny that motivates Owen and John’s friendship in A Prayer for Owen Meany. Even Harry Potter becomes a good bildungsroman when one can look beyond its magical trappings, even if it has diseased an entire generation with an overuse of adverbs.

Perhaps my favorite novel of the past ten years is The Art of Fielding, which falls into the same genre. While it bears many of the telltale signs of a debut novel in Chad Harbach’s attempts to show off his range, that flaw almost made me love it even more. It had so much in common with some of my own stumbling attempts to write fiction, and is exactly the sort of debut novel I would have been satisfied to produce. As long as they can attain some measure of distance in its perspective, youthful writings about youth resonate the best. I have little memory of reading The Outsiders in seventh grade, but suspect it would hold up well upon a second reading. (Fun aside: one of my hockey colleagues turned S.E. Hinton into a diehard St. Cloud Apollo hockey fan when he asked her for permission to play off the book while doing a story on the program’s fight for survival a few years back.) Alas, teenage boys are not a large literature market these days, which is problematic for my own stillborn writing career. If I do ever get around to publishing something, though, it will likely fall somewhere in this genre.

Speaking of which, I had a spurt of fictional inspiration this week, so I’m going to finish this blog post and stay up even later to head back to the nearly-complete story I’ve been spitting out on this blog for the past year. Long live the novel as an art form, and may all of my readers continue to read fiction for fun, even if it is trashy smut not worth the paper it’s printed on. (Actually, that sounds like it might be kinda fun. Pass along your recommendations.)

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Y Tu Mamá También: Into the Mouth of Heaven

8 Jun

I spent most of my weekend engrossed in Alfonso Cuarón’s 2001 film Y tu Mamá También, either in watching it (twice) or in quiet reflection, even as I went on with a bunch of other tasks.I’d somehow missed it until now, which makes little sense, since it’s a film that brings together so many of my favorite things: masterful cinematography, rapid-fire dialogue, the vividness of Mexico, coming-of-age stories, detached political commentary, road trips, reflections on mortality, and gratuitous sex.

The story is about two wealthy Mexican teenage boys, Tenoch and Julio, afflicted with a serious case of affluenza and the resultant ennui. They do drugs and drink and generally live for sex, whether it’s with their girlfriends or their friends’ girlfriends or tu mamá también or just relentless masturbation. They make a pass at a married Spanish woman named Luisa at a foppish birthday party, and she, in the midst of a mid-life crisis, takes them up on an offer of a road trip to a nonexistent beach named the Mouth of Heaven. And so the threesome sets out across southern Mexico, in pursuit of both literal and figurative mouths of heaven.

It sounds like the old life-changing road trip trope, but Y Tu Mamá También never quite settles for the comfort of the genre. Frequent voiceovers render the characters small pieces at the mercy of the whirlwind of Mexican life, at times the narrator gives a voice to the touching stares, as when Tenoch shows some fleeting recognition of his housekeeper’s hometown, jarred into awareness of life beyond his pampered world. Mexico’s troubled past and uncertain future are woven in the adventure through poignant vignettes, though if the film has a weakness, it might be its attempt to carve out a place in Mexico’s political narrative. (It’s set in 1999, on the brink of the long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party’s electoral defeat in 2000.) Its critiques of Mexico are more timeless than anything particular to that moment, and when it comes to conveying that reality, Emmanuel Lubezki’s beautiful cinematography should be allowed to speak for itself.

And speak it does: Y Tu Mamá También is a gorgeous film, teeming with that dust-covered tinge of the Mexican countryside; that sense that, despite the presence of that omniscient voiceover, nothing here is quite understandable through the languages we speak. While the boys blather on about sex, they’re sharing spaces with stoic Mexican peasants, worlds apart, which the cameras will occasionally follow down back halls in their slow pans. The film wisely keeps any growing awareness well-hidden, which magnifies the moments when it does come through, as when an aged woman gifts Luisa a little stuffed mouse with her name on it, and when the boys play in the surf with a fisherman. There are no eureka moments boys, but the baleful looks and moments of silence coupled with spurts of serendipity say what words cannot. Nor is their growing awareness entirely a force for unity, as they begin to examine the basis of their own friendship.

It’s easy to dismiss Julio and Tenoch as total dirtbags, which they pretty much are. And yet the film is still tender with them, even as it slowly tears down their world of teenage revelry. Their manifesto, while predictably juvenile in places, aspires to a code of brotherhood: a pledge of unity in the face of a dead Mexican elite, and a desire to live as freely as they can. “Truth is cool, but unattainable,” says Julio; “honesty is the best policy, but fuck, it’s hard to reach it.” And so the boys make their own truth; an unsustainable one, perhaps, but its aspirations are enough to delight the lost Luisa. One is reminded of the claim that Nietzsche is the adolescent’s philosopher, the little Ubermenschen relying on their bravado to build something for themselves in the midst of a wasteland.

Despite the trappings of wealth, it really is a wasteland. Not coincidentally, neither one has a father figure worthy of respect; Tenoch’s is a corrupt government official, while Julio’s is absent. Tenoch’s mother is a naïve dabbler, while Julio’s is a career woman who never appears; their friends appear even more drug-addled and less stable than they are. The boys, raised in an environment masquerading as paradise, must manufacture the drama in their lives, seeking new highs and any gratification to give it all meaning. The pathologies at play are the same as those afflicting countless boys in any country: products of broken homes and superficial cultures and lives without limits. Luisa and her husband may be literal orphans, but they are all adrift. Julio and Tenoch think they know who they are and what they want, but the road trip starts to eat at those certainties; Luisa has no idea who she is and where she is going, and starts to find exactly what she needs simply by living.

The film is often reminiscent of Kerouac in its tricky balance. It grabs attention by reveling in the awesomeness of being a sexed-up boy in the prime of life, and yet through it all there is an elegiac tone of longing for something more. The boys don’t see it at the start; depending on how one interprets the ending, they may not necessarily see it there, either. What they do have, though, is that willingness to seize life on their terms, which leads them to make a pass at Luisa, and that sets a chain of events in motion that will both break them and give them a chance to start anew. A well-executed bildungsroman is never clean in its progression, and there is a superb tension between the boys’ bravado and their brokenness, both of which have a necessary place.

The character who gives the film its elegiac edge is Luisa, who is the antithesis of a Kerouac female; she’s not there simply for the boys’ sexual pleasure, but instead is a thoroughly complex character, alluring even when haunted. She is a woman with nothing left to live for, on the run in search of any sort of release, and ready to take delight in most anything. There is a quiet urgency to her search, as she latches on to the boys, tries to teach them a thing or two, grows alienated by their failures, makes amends, and then, finally, discards them so as to “become one with the sea.”

There is no death or violence on the screen in Y Tu Mamá También, but the fragility of life and the resultant immediacy push its characters to throw aside all caution and tempt fate in their exploits. This is a very Mexican theme, and Octavio Paz would most certainly have appreciated the cathartic rush of tequila shots that builds toward the climax. Luisa tells the boys that their country “exudes life,” but that life may only be possible because death is also so present. This is life on the edge, its vividness riveting and its loss a genuine tragedy.

It is also masterful cinema. It’s pretty and political and laden with symbolism and edgy and so many of the other things a great film should be. But its real strength is in its three brilliant leads, who take their viewers along with them on three journeys that seem so very real, and all deeply personal. There is a struggle to harness masculinity, a brush with those questions on what we’re doing here, and a literal journey through Mexico, exactly as I remember my adopted second country. Days later I’m still processing, not always finding comfortable answers. What more can we ask for?