Alphabet Soup: K

K is for King Richard III, the misanthropic Machiavellian megolomaniacal hero of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Marvel as cruel Richard psychotically removes all those who stand in between him and the throne of England, including his own little nephews. At the same time, sympathize for poor “deformed, unfinish’d” Richard, whose hunchedback and game leg have kept him from any saucy fun with the ladies. Throughout his ambitious quest, Richard wavers from a proto-Iago, devilishly–gleefully even–manipulating the hapless pawns around him, to a manic depressive unhorsed on the battlefield, less than half a man. Poor guy.

Check out Sir Ian McKellen (y’know, Gandalf) doing Richard III in the 1995 film version set in a fictional fascist England of the 1930s. Because, um, Shakespeare’s like, um, better when recontextualized.

Alphabet Soup: J

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J is for Jonah, the reluctant Old Testament prophet. He’s been called by YHWH to bring the word to Nineveh–something he is definitely unprepared and unwilling to do. So Jonah hits Joppa Road and boards a ship sailing to Tarshish (this is pretty much as far away as one could get from Nineveh in the known world). YHWH is a wrathful God, and sets out in pursuit, sending storms to wreak havoc on the ship; the sailors panic and despair and pray. Jonah, meanwhile, manages to sleep like a baby through the whole thing. They eventually wake him up and he says, “Oh yeah, this is kinda my fault, throw me overboard.” At first the sailors are reluctant, but eventually the tempest leaves them no other choice, and they heave Jonah off the ship. Wrathful YHWH now shows his merciful side: he sends a “great fish” to swallow Jonah, thus saving him from drowning. In the belly of the beast, Jonah sends a prayer of repentance and thanksgiving; the whale then “vomits” him out onto the dry land of Nineveh where he preaches the word of YHWH. Jonah, however, is wrathful now–he hopes that the people won’t accept the word, and that YHWH will wipe them out. YHWH’s satisfied, however, and leaves Jonah outside of the city in the heat. A gourd grows giving Jonah some shade, but then a worm eats it, pissing him off again. He even gets suicidal sitting in the hot sun. YHWH asks him why if it’s right that he’s angry and Jonah replies: “I do well to be angry”–his last line in the story. YHWH then lectures him, reminding him that he didn’t make the gourd, and that furthermore he shouldn’t be angry at YHWH for sparing Nineveh, which is full of people and cattle.

The story, especially the episode with the whale, resonates throughout the history of myth and literature and into contemporary stories. But beyond the mythic echoes of Jonah and the whale, we just downright love the guy–he’s angry, lazy, and self-righteous–just like us.

Alphabet Soup: I

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I is for Ishmael, narrator of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, a story about whaling/wailing. Ishmael’s narrative is an attempt to transform his pain and loss into some kind of meaningful human connection–to try to measure the incomprehensible and to put the ineffable into words. He’s a lovable guy, something of an eccentric in his time, who makes good friends with his strange bedfellow Queequeg. Of course, the whole thing ends in disaster, a disaster that Ishmael alone bears witness to, like one of Job’s servants returning to the master.

Also, I think that the great white whale, Moby Dick, is like a symbol or something.

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I is also for Incandenza, Hal, the would-be tennis prodigy, secret stoner, and eidetically gifted prescriptive grammarian who is–along with Don Gately (somehow unjustly skipped over in installments D and G)–the protagonist of David Foster Wallace’s mammoth novel Infinite Jest. Hal is a sensitive kid, the son of a mad scientist filmmaker/tennis academy founder, who kinda sorta haunts both the novel as well as the Enfield Tennis Academy. Writing this makes me wish for a free month (i.e. no grad school) to re-read IJ, just so that I could take another crack at why Hal comes down with the howling fantods. Plenty of theories here.

More Alphabet Soup: Brought to You Today by the Letter H

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H is for Humbert Humbert, the rascally narrator of Vladamir Nabokov’s Lolita. Throughout the novel HH, a sardonic European, provides a running critique of conformist 1950s America, his adopted home. Pining for the haunting, ineffable feeling associated with a brief, tragic childhood love, HH engineers a series of unfortunate events in order to abscond with (and eventually seduce) twelve-year old Lolita Haze. Yep. That’s right. A child-molester made this list. But if you’ve ever read Lolita, you know how charming and funny this son-of-bitch is. Lolita is in a special class of books in the Biblioklept library; it’s one of those books that I’ve read in full at least four times, and one that I pick up and read parts of every year. The first time I read Lolita, I didn’t even realize what a monster HH was–in fact, I tended to sympathize with him, even to the point of sharing his condemnation of Lolita’s bratty, manipulative nature toward the end of the novel. Like Catcher in the Rye, I first read Lolita when I was 16; like Catcher in the Rye, Lolita was an entirely different book when I read it at 21. Somehow the book managed to change again, four or five years later. I’m sure Lolita will be completely different in a year or two when I’m thirty. In fact, I vow here and now to re-read it in full right after my 30th birthday. Who knows what will have happened to it by then? How these books change on you…

Narratological shape-shifting aside Lolita deserves to be read, and read repeatedly. Nabokov’s highly alliterative prose reverberates with lyrical gymnastics, multi-lingual puns, and allusions that will make you feel oh-so clever (if you are indeed oh-so clever enough to get them, of course). Neither Kubrick’s toothless 1962 film adaption or Adrian Lyne’s gauzy 1997 attempt do any justice at all to Nabokov’s words–this is one you simply have to read. Great stuff.

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H is also for Hand, zany foil to Will, the tormented narrator of Dave Eggers’s You Shall Know Our Velocity!. In this book, the pair embarks on a futile attempt to travel the globe giving away an enormous amount of money Will has recently received as part of an injury settlement. This scheme turns out to be much more difficult and much more complicated than they had imagined. Hand is one of my favorite characters because he’s just really damn cool–a strange combination of someone’s hip older brother mixed with someone’s annoying younger brother. My favorite part of Velocity is the fifty page section where Hand takes over the narrative, casting doubt on everything that Will has previously told the reader. Will then resumes the narrative, but at that point, the book–and Will’s status as a reliable narrator–has taken an entirely different shape. Although the story ends at a wedding, Velocity is ultimately a tragedy; the very first page announces Will’s death. But again, the whole narrative is cast in ambiguity and doubt. I loved this book so much that I bought it for a friend.

(Incidentally, Hand also tuns up in “The Only Meaning of the Oil-Wet Water,” one of Eggers’s short stories collected in How We Are Hungry).

G is for…

G is for Gandalf the Gray (later, Gandalf the White), the archetypal wizard of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Geeks who need to know can find an exhaustive biography of the fictional mage here (or perhaps you are a true geek who is already well versed in the lore of the Istari); however, it’s not Tolkien’s overly-detailed-to-the-point-of-insanity backgrounding that I love so much about Gandalf. It’s that Gandalf, like the hobbits of Lord of the Rings, is a complex and not-so-obvious hero. Despite his appearance as a frail old man, Gandalf is a actually a total bad-ass swordsman and magician. He’s also the mastermind behind all of the action, but it also seems evident that he’s not really sure what he’s doing at times. Repeatedly throughout LOTR, his faith in the silly little hobbits is questioned by kings and warriors and elves who don’t get why the wizard would put the fate of the world into the hands of child-sized halflings who don’t even wear shoes.

Gandalf was brought to life earlier this decade in an obscure series of low-budget film versions of LOTR; savvy readers may be able to find DVD versions of these movies from their favorite online boutiques that cater to such eccentric tastes. For the record, I thought Ian McKellen, who starred in these indie gems, was perfect as Gandalf. To learn more about Gandalf the Gay, check out this short essay from McKellen.

G is also for the Glass children, the protagonists of many of reclusive author J.D. Salinger’s short stories and novellas. The seven Glass children (Glass being the last name: the children are not made out of glass, dummy) all were recurring contestants on a radio-quiz show called It’s a Wise Child, a program which earned them both mild fame and some money. The eldest of the Glass children is Seymore, is central to many of Salinger’s stories, but my absolute favorite is “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” It’s hard to properly describe the emotional impact of the story without spoiling the ending, but “Bananafish” contains themes that are relevant today and will probably always relevant: the psychological damage of warfare, the inability of humans to adequately express their thoughts and desires, the breakdown of the modern family. Everyone should read it–do yourself a favor and go pick up a copy of Nine Stories. You can get one mailed to your house for under five bucks. No excuses.

More Soup

F is for Falstaff, Shakespeare’s knavish knight. Part rascally gnoff, part philosopher, this fat rascal appears in three of the bard’s plays. In Henry IV parts 1 and 2 he advises young Prince Hal (the future king) on matters of honor and drinking. In the comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff tries to cuckold some country farmers and steal their cash; the scalawag’s plans go awry and he ends up wearing the horns. Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s most verbose characters–only Hamlet has more lines. And despite his fun-loving and roguish nature, Falstaff, like Hamlet, also provides several meditations on human nature, death, and the seeming futility of the individual’s ability to change social order.

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F is also for Finn, Huckleberry. Like Falstaff, Huck Finn is something of a rogue, albeit he is just a child. As the white trash double to middle class Tom Sawyer, Huck is one of Twain’s keenest tools for social satire. Huck escapes the Widow Douglas’s aspirations to give him a moral education, in turn helping her slave Jim make his own escape via the Mississippi River. While navigating the river, Huck must also navigate the perplexing and paradoxical moral codes of the strange South. Despite the happy ending of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the novel remains controversial over a hundred years after its publication, still appearing frequently on lists of challenged books.

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Another Serving of Alphabet Soup

Dis for Daedalus, kid Icarus’s papa. From Joseph Shipley’s The Origin of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, a book that has given me more joy than is probably normal or healthy :

“del II: cut; carve; harm. GK daidalos: cut with art; Daedalus, the inventor who built the labyrinth for Minos, king of Crete, to confine the Minotaur. This monster—half man, half bull—was conceived by Minos’s wife Pasiphae with Poseidon’s sacred bull, which Minos had refused to return to Poseidon. Imprisoned, Daedalus made wings for himself and his son Icarus; they few away; but the son flew too near the sun, the wax fastening his wings melted, and he fell and drowned in what was thereafter called the Icarian Sea. Hence daedalian: skillful; Icarian: rash and ruinous” (Shipley 58).

D is also for Dedalus, Stephen, James Joyce’s semi-autobiographical stand-in in Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. Stephen Dedalus also is prominent in the first couple of chapters of Ulysses, before Leopold Bloom’s journey through Dublin becomes the novel’s focus. Despite the heroic help of my college roommate’s Ritalin prescription, I never finished Ulysses, but I’m enrolled in a Joyce seminar commencing this fall (should be good). I did however read Portrait a number of times; I can’t think of a better example of an experimental writing style that evolves and adapts as its main character grows, learns, and rebels.

E is for Ebdus, Dylan, the hero of one of my all-time favorites, Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude. Like Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Fortress is a bildungsroman, a novel that details the development of its main character from childhood to maturity. To this end, each chapter of the first section of Fortress covers approximately a year in the life of young Dylan as he tries to make meaning out of his strange Brooklyn neighborhood and race-relations in the seventies.

E is also for Essrog, Lionel, the would-be detective who narrates Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn. Lionel Essrog is afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome, and his tics and yelps punctuate the novel with a weird and fascinating rhythm, a play of re-signification that would make Derrida proud. This is one of those Sunday afternoon books, the kind that you sit down to read with a glass (or four) of sangria and pretty much finish. Japanese monks, Brooklyn mobsters, hot dogs and papaya juice, plenty of verbal tics. And orphans. Lots and lots of orphans.

Alphabet Soup–Our Favorite Literary Characters (Part One)

A is for Antigone, the incestuous product of Oedipus and his mama Jocasta. In Sophocles’ play of the same name, Antigone is punished for burying the body of her exiled brother Polynices. Like her papa Oedipus, Antigone pushes the limits of cultural boundaries and the conflicts that duty to one’s family and the gods present to social order. Good, tragic stuff.

A is also for Alice, the heroine of not one but two Lewis Carroll classics, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. Full of logic puzzles, cryptic satire, and good old fashioned nonsense, Alice’s adventures work on a range of levels that appeal to both children and adults. She explores altered states and missing signifiers while flirting with death and madness in a surreal dreamworld. (Fans of Carroll’s twisty logic will surely delight in Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid).

B is for Bartleby the scrivener, the eponymous non-hero of my favorite Herman Melville short story. Bartleby is hired by a wealthy lawyer to copy texts, a job at which he excels. But whenever Bartleby is asked to do something other than copy letters, he always replies “I would prefer not to.” This answer incenses the other employs and bewilders the lawyer. Eventually Bartleby stops doing any task, but somehow always remains around the office, almost like a ghost. Just what exactly Bartleby is meant to symbolize is up for grabs–Melville’s text is rich with possible interpretations. Every time I read this one, I get a new perspective. Read the full text here.

B is also for Billy Budd, yet another Melville character. Maybe you read Billy Budd in high school (it made me scratch my head quite a bit my Junior year). Billy Budd is a foundling who grows into the type of man admired by all. When he joins the crew of a ship, he is lovingly called “Baby Budd” by his fellow sailors. However, when he encounters his embittered superior Claggart, his innocence is put to the test; Claggart accuses young Budd of plotting mutiny. Billy is literally struck dumb by the accusation, and he responds by striking Claggart, inadvertently killing him. For this crime he is put to death and revered as a Christ-like figure by the crew. Like the story of Bartleby, Billy Budd resists easy decoding. Simply put, this is a great novella to come back to more than once.

C is for Chinaski. Henry Chinaski was the alter-ego Charles Bukowski used to represent himself in his books. Chinaski was a macho coward, a drunken gambler who was always chasing ladies and losing jobs. Chinaski was (bizarrely) the ideal imagined self for Bukowski, full of faults and shortcomings and egotistical brutality. I recently watched the documentary Bukowski: Born into This. One memorable scene goes something like this: the filmmaker (this is in the early 70s, when the filmmaker first begins shooting the footage that becomes Born into This) follows Bukowski from L.A. to San Francisco, where he’s giving a poetry reading. Bukowski gets drunk on the plane, makes an ass of himself, is a moron at the reading, is a bumbling idiot, etc, etc. However Bukowski writes up the whole event very differently in his Open City column, “Notes of a Dirty Old Man”–he paints a picture of himself having to help this idiot camera guy out; he says the filmmaker is a lost fool. When the filmmaker runs into Bukowski, he’s upset; he says: “Don’t you realize that I have film of the whole thing? I’ve got you drunk on film, looking like a fool!” Bukowski replies: “Fuck you! When I write, I’m the hero of my shit!” So that’s Chinaski: the hero of Bukowski’s shit.

C is also for Calliope, the protagonist of Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2002 novel Middlesex. To be honest, I thought the second half of the novel was weak (in fact I thought the end was downright awful), and Eugenides’ writing was surprisingly rote, even hackneyed at times (I use the adverb “surprisingly” as I was under the impression that he was something different based on friends’ reviews of The Virgin Suicides, which I never read). Nevertheless, poor cursed Calliope is a complex and at times enthralling character to follow. No one realizes Calliope is a hermaphrodite until she (Cal is raised as a girl) turns fourteen and shit gets weird. The gender study implications are interesting here, but what I found truly fascinating about the novel was the way that Eugenides used Calliope as a muse for genetic history; the character is essentially a complex and conflicting comment on the clashing paradigms of different ages and different spaces. Boys and girls, Turks and Greeks, blacks and whites, rich and poor, hippies and squares–as the name of the novel implies, there is never a definite and simple space where identity can rest.