Choose Your Own Advent, Day 14: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence SterneChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
Author: Laurence Sterne
Year: 1759

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is a masterpiece. Full stop. It is one of English literature’s greatest achievements, and a riotous deconstruction of the writing process in general. It relishes the subversion of expectation, pulses with comic tension, and plays its biggest (and best) jokes on the readers themselves.

Now look at the date of publication. It will give you a very good idea of just how far ahead of its time this was. Sterne was breaking conventions before many authors, readers, or critics had any idea of what those conventions were.

There’s one piece of advice that every young author, rightly, receives at some early point, and this novel seems like it was written as a longform monkey’s-paw response; Tristram Shandy is “write what you know” taken to its absurdist (and absurdest) conclusion.

The novel itself is actually a memoir, written by the fictional Tristram Shandy. Our autobiographer takes it upon himself to set down the events of his life in text, and nine volumes of that memoir later he’s barely even started.

And that’s the main joke of the experience. You sit down to read about the life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, and indeed he sat down to write them. But other things occupy his mind. Digressions give way to further digressions, which lead him naturally to speak about and explain things that had nothing to do with the story he originally meant to tell. Tristram Shandy is a constant, recursive twist through a nimble mind…the product of a fictional writer who enjoys writing so much that he cannot stop doing it, even when his pen takes him, as it so quickly does, to places he never intended to go. Tristram’s memoir, in a sense, is writing itself, with our narrator pulled along behind his own runaway tale.

And it’s beautiful.

One gets the sense that Sterne himself was improvising as well. Not entirely, of course, and he clearly builds to certain setpieces, but one does have to wonder how many of the book’s aimless flights belong to Tristram, and how many belong to Sterne.

But it’s an artful lack of focus, which is why it works so well. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman does everything no book should ever do. It obsesses over irrelevant details. It gets lost in unnecessary explanation. It can’t decide what it wants to say…or even what it is, as Tristram’s autobiography turns into many, many, many other things, none of which, of course, are autobiographies.

It does these things deliberately, however, which is what makes all the difference. We’ve all read frustratingly aimless books. Many of them are actually fairly popular, whether or not the critics understand their success. Writing is difficult, after all, and there’s always a temptation for authors to include what they believe to be some well-written passage or other, even when it doesn’t naturally fit the novel they’re writing.

Tristram Shandy, then, is the phoenix that rises from the ashes of amateur mistakes…and that’s a damned big pile of ashes.

The novel opens with Tristram’s conception…an event for which, of course, he was not present, but there’s no reason he can’t set it down in immaculate detail, complete with his own interpretations of his parents’ thought processes.

He won’t be born for another several volumes, so in the meantime we learn about his father’s obsession with choosing for his son the perfect name (which, as this is a comedy, is not “Tristram”), his mother’s difficulties in retaining her preferred midwife, the tragedy of the family’s forgetful maid, the sickly horse of the family’s parson, the war wound his uncle Toby received at the Siege of Namur, the hobby that Toby then developed of re-enacting the battle with whatever implements were at hand, which eventually leads to the unexpected circumcision of Tristram…but, whoops, there I go, too, explaining much more than I had intended.

Tristram’s problem, as you might imagine, is that if it takes him hundreds of pages to even tell the story of his first day on Earth, how will he ever cover the rest of his life? It’s a good joke, but it takes on a fairly sad real-world resonance if you know that Sterne himself was consumptive, and slowly dying as Tristram Shandy was, volume by volume, released to the world. He died the year after the last volume was published, and there have been suggestions that he intended to write more…that Tristram only stopped writing because his creator did.

There’s an undercurrent of tragedy in Tristram Shandy…an assurance that no matter how much we’d like to cling something, we’re destined to be swept forward, or at least away. There’s the parallel condemnation / celebration of myopia, as Tristram finds tens of thousands of words in the smallest of observations, but loses his chance to write about so many other things as a result. There’s the reminder that however much time we spend doing something, it’s time we cannot spend doing anything else.

And, of course, that it’s time we can’t get back.

It’s also, however, a reminder of the enduring power of writing. Tristram and Sterne are still remembered, still read, still enjoyed centuries later. They can still speak to us. They can still share with us. They can still make us laugh, even as they remind us that the time we spend reading what they say is time spent away from our own lives.

But that might be a good thing. That may in fact be the novel’s greatest gift.

Life happens without structure. To seek to impose structure upon it is to invite it to fight back, to resist regimentation, to rebel against your purest intentions.

That’s a struggle all writers face. Sterne embraced it, and gave the world literature’s finest self-reflexive satire.

Not all of us are authors, but we each seek to impose our own structure as well. Nearly always we find, instead, chaos.

Sterne would invite you to embrace that.

Choose Your Own Advent, Day 13: Flatland

Flatland, Edwin A. AbbottChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: Flatland
Author: Edwin A. Abbott
Year: 1884

Every author who sets pen to page must accomplish at least one basic thing: they must describe their characters and their settings well enough that readers will buy into them.

Sure, they’re writing fiction, but it still has to be understandable, recognizable, identifiable fiction. There’s a reason one novel might be dismissed as “unrealistic” while another–with extremely similar subject matter–might be embraced. They may both describe equally unreal things (they’re fiction, after all) but one of them described those unreal things more effectively, so that they no longer felt unreal.

And that’s what readers and critics are actually saying when they call novels unrealistic, unbelievable, or any number of things that shouldn’t actually function as criticism of a story an author invented wholecloth. No…what they’re really saying is that the author didn’t succeed in describing these things effectively. It’s not a failure of realism; it’s a failure of communication.

This applies to stories as grounded as, say, ones about a guy walking around Dublin all day or ones about families getting together for one last Thanksgiving in the same house, so you can imagine how much more of a challenge was faced by Edwin A. Abbott when he wrote Flatland. He didn’t just have to convince us that his characters were doing what he said they were doing…he had to convince us that other dimensions existed, and help us to actually visualize what they might be like.

Flatland is fiction, and fairly good fiction, but it’s also a longform thought exercise. (Well, it’s two longform thought exercises, but we’ll come to that.) It’s a work of science fiction written before that genre was anywhere near as well established as it is today. When Abbott decided to write about other dimensions–dimensions beyond our current experience–he was working in largely uncharted territory. He didn’t just have to describe it; he had to invent a way in which to describe it.

And he did so brilliantly. He described a hypothetical fourth dimension by describing, instead, a very observable second dimension. Abbott wishes us to look outward, and he does so by teaching us to look inward.

Flatland is the story of A. Square, an actual square…a two-dimensional figure who receives a visit from a sphere. Poor A. Square then has to figure out how to understand a dimension he cannot observe and has never even imagined could exist: the completely hypothetical and totally impossible third dimension.

A. Square’s awakening–his gradually dawning but always incomplete understanding of what a third dimension could possibly be like–is meant to trigger a concurrent awakening in the reader. If a two-dimensional being were to successfully visualize a third dimension, what intellectual tools would he need in order to do so? What language could we use to explain it to him? What metaphors would be helpful, and what would only confuse him?

It’s a valid thought exercise, because we can approach it with knowledge we already have. We know the third dimension. We’ve lived every moment of our lives processing it. Therefore, once again, our problem in this thought exercise isn’t whether something is real or not…it’s a problem of communication.

And once we solve that problem…once we can make a square understand a sphere…

…well, isn’t it our job as occupants of this third dimension to begin pondering a fourth? A fifth? What would those look like? What would our three-dimensional limitations then mean?

Flatland does a great job of making the reader feel limited. As much as we can laugh at the struggles of the square it’s impossible to come away without feeling like we’d struggle as well to understand a larger truth. Because…well…isn’t there a larger truth? The square certainly didn’t think so, and for much of the book refuses to even consider the possibility that there is more to the universe that he can’t observe. Are we foolish for refusing similar things in a similar way?

The answer, Flatland conclusively assures is, is that we are.

A. Square learns of his two-dimensional limitations when the sphere sweeps him away to Lineland (a land of one dimension) and Pointland (a land of no dimensions), in which he encounters occupants who cannot (and will not) process the possible existence of a second dimension…while the square itself cannot and will not process the possible existence of a third. Readers will necessarily come to wonder if they’re nearly as barren of imagination…not to mention limited in their intellectual abilities.

The point doesn’t think he’s wrong for dismissing the possible existence of a line. The line doesn’t think he’s wrong for dismissing the possible existence of a square. The square doesn’t think he’s wrong for dismissing the possible existence of a sphere.

What are you dismissing?

Flatland is great science fiction, in the sense that it expands your capacity for viewing the world in which you actually live. It’s fiction, but its ideas are meant to clear the filters from our reality. It doesn’t ask us to change our ideas of how the universe works…it asks to question what the universe is. The fact that it succeeds, in under 100 pages no less, is nothing short of miraculous.

What’s more…that’s not all it does. Around half of the book asks us to think dimensionally, but the other half asks us to think socially. This is an interesting side effect of Abbott having to describe his settings and characters well enough that we’ll understand. After all…a society of two dimensional objects is easy enough to visualize, but not easy to understand in a functional sense.

And so Abbott tells us about the history of Flatland, and it’s actually here that his writing is at its best and most narratively engaging. He teaches us of Flatland’s caste system. Its social order. Its willingness to push back against–and, if necessary, destroy–artists and free thinkers and those who question the way things are. The way things have always been done. The way, you know, those in power would prefer us to exist.

Fortunately that section’s just for fun, and isn’t meant to expand our capacity for viewing the world in which we live at all.

Choose Your Own Advent, Day 12: Middlesex

Middlesex, Jeffrey EugenidesChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: Middlesex
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Year: 2002

When I was in college, a professor of mine gave me a number of books she thought I’d enjoy. At this point, I don’t remember why she did that. Maybe she didn’t even have a reason. I just remember that as a semester drew to a close, she gave me a stack of books she’d purchased for me.

It was an extraordinarily nice gesture, and one I still appreciate. I do recall that she apologized because she wasn’t able to find a copy of another book she wanted to give me: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers. I’ve since bought a copy, but I haven’t gotten around to reading it. I think that when I do read it, I’ll be done with her recommendations, and that connection will break. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter may be a great novel. I could be richer for reading it. But sometimes positive connections are more important. I wouldn’t want to forget her gesture by virtue of finally resolving it.

She told me to read the novels at my leisure, which, of course, I would have done anyway, but she encouraged me to read one of them fairly soon. That was Middlesex. Jeffrey Eugenides was coming to the school to give a reading in a couple of months, she said, and familiarizing myself with the book first might be a good idea.

So I read it, not expecting much. At the time–and probably still–Eugenides was best known for The Virgin Suicides. I hadn’t read that. In fact, I’d kind of avoided it. There was something about the title–and I’m pretty sure about the cover–that turned me off. It seemed a bit too sensational. It was a title, I felt, that gracelessly crammed references to sex and death together because that’s what sells.

Which is fine.

Authors and publishers both need to eat.

But I don’t tend to enjoy books with sensational titles. Often they mask a lack of quality–and sometimes integrity–within. I like books that make me think, not ones that appeal to base instincts.

At the risk of getting too far ahead of myself, I eventually did read The Virgin Suicides. It was good. Not nearly as good as Middlesex, but I think it was worth reading. And I stand by my concerns about the title. It’s a book that deserves something more respectful on its cover.

So, yes, I liked Middlesex. In fact, I kind of adored it. It wasn’t just a great novel (though, I have to make clear, it was certainly a great novel). It was fun. It was extremely funny. It was unexpectedly moving.

It is, in a sense, the story of Cal Stephanides, who is born intersex. He’s treated and raised–and identifies early on–as a girl. It’s only as he grows up that certain incongruities make themselves known, and he begins to live life as a man.

Reading that summary will probably cause you to ask questions. Eugenides answers every one of them in artful, respectful, insightful ways.

But it’s more than just Cal’s story. It’s the story of his family, going back generations. It’s a genetic journey through the past, tracing not only who Cal is, but why he is who he is, biologically speaking.

Middlesex becomes, then, also a study of generational evolution. Of family conflict. Of shifting and changing and regressing social mores. It’s the study of a family, sure, but it’s also a study of the many ways in which the world changes around us…and we either accept that, or we don’t. It’s one thing when we go to bed, and we wake up the next day to find that it’s something else.

It’s a story of people, and, to be fair, I found Middlesex the least interesting when it focused on Cal alone, in the present day, recounting his story. But Cal should take that as a compliment; he’s such a compelling narrator that it feels disappointing when he narrows his focus. It’s much more interesting, and rewarding, and engaging to just let him loose his tongue and guide along through the decades.

I enjoyed it immensely. I convinced my girlfriend at the time to read it as well, and she also enjoyed it. We went together to see Jeffrey Eugenides read from it, and we were excited to at least see him and appreciate him from a distance.

We knew what he looked like from his author photo. He was a handsome guy. More handsome than a talented writer should be. (It’s greedy to be both talented and handsome.)

And so we hung around toward the back of the room, waiting for things to get started. I’m not much of a socializer, so my girlfriend and I spoke to each other. We intermittently exchanged pleasantries with other students we knew. At some point I noticed an older man standing next to me. He asked me what time it was. He seemed friendly.

I checked my phone and told him. He asked me if I lived around there. I told him I lived about 20 minutes away. We spoke a bit more. About the weather, maybe. Nothing important.

At one point he said it was nice to meet me, and then got up on stage and read from Middlesex. It was Jeffrey Eugenides, and I had no idea. He was still handsome, don’t get me wrong, but he looked a lot different in person.

I still remember the two passages he read. (It was the baptism scene and the assembly line sequence, if anyone out there cares to know.)

He was a great reader. He invested a lot of himself into the way he presented the text. He made it come alive in ways that my imagination did not…and when it comes to making novels come alive I have a hell of an imagination.

When he was done he signed copies of the book for anyone who brought one. We waited in line. I had my copy of Gravity’s Rainbow with me, which I was reading for the first time, as well. He saw it when it was my turn, and he said, “Talk about a comic epic in prose.” That was how he referred to Middlesex during his reading. It was a nice parallel, and nicer to know that we enjoyed the same author.

He signed my book. I still have it. I forget how or why it came up, but I told him the reason I hadn’t read The Virgin Suicides, and that I intended to now. He looked at me, paused for a moment, and said, “I agree about the title.”

There was an afterparty. I didn’t go. But my professor did, and Jeffrey Eugenides spoke to her. She told me about it the next time I saw her. He told her that I impressed him. I don’t know how or why, but it’s probably the most flattering thing I’ve ever heard.

She told him that I was a writer, and he gave her a piece of advice to pass on to me.

To this day, I remember it. I’ve followed it ever since.

But I don’t want to repeat it. I don’t want to break that connection.

I wouldn’t want to forget his gesture by virtue of finally resolving it.

Choose Your Own Advent, Day 11: The Good Soldier

The Good Soldier, Ford Madox FordChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: The Good Soldier
Author: Ford Madox Ford
Year: 1915

When you’re writing well, you’re hardly writing at all. The characters tell their own stories. Your scenarios (the tragedies, the comedies) unfold naturally. You set out on a journey and realize, only well into your project, that you’re actually heading somewhere else.

I don’t know much about Ford Madox Ford. I know less about his writing process. I won’t pretend that The Good Soldier took him anywhere that he didn’t expect to go.

It does, however, seem to be the sort of thing that I end up with when the material starts taking shape without me.

I have a story I plan to tell. I sit down to tell it. I produce something I never realized I had in me.

Even the title suggests a different story. “The Good Soldier,” as a phrase, isn’t without textual resonance, but it does feel incongruous. Whatever you envision when you see a title like that, it probably isn’t a tale of spiraling adultery and emotional turmoil as told by a character completely ignorant of what’s happening around him.

That latter detail is important, too. The narrator of The Good Soldier is John Dowell, an American lost in a maze of English passions without realizing it, caring much about it, or understanding any of it. Ford knows more about what happens in the story than Dowell does, which is fine. But so do all of the other characters, making our narrator seem especially hapless, as he’s genuinely both the last to figure out what’s happening and the least equipped to explain it to readers.

…which also seems like the kind of twist that occurs naturally, while an author intends to write something else. It’s in the process of telling a story that one figures out how best to tell it…which, in turn, can lead to it becoming a different kind of story altogether. The Good Soldier is now, and always will be, for better or worse, a permanent record of John Dowell’s inability to understand basic human behavior.

Without Dowell, the story would be something else. It would be centered upon the faithless Edward Ashburnham and his affairs. Edward (a fairly bad man but…ahem…a good soldier) is a romantic to disastrous lengths, seeming to fall for any woman who is not his patient, intelligent, independent wife Leonora.

The two are never quite happy with one another. Each of them seems to long for a life they can’t actually have. And their marital stalemate–often humorously–finds each of them branching out into independent lives of their own, while tethered, tragically, to each other.

Edward’s philandering is the more public (and sensational) pursuit; Leonora prefers to develop within, while Edward seeks to conquer without. His affairs, at best, renew the friction between he and his wife. At worst, they result in the unfortunate deaths of the objects of his desire.

One of whom ends up being John Dowell’s wife, Florence.

Dowell is not aware of this until much later, when a different character explains it to him. This other character is bewildered that Dowell could have overlooked this.

Dowell overlooked this.

Dowell is our narrator.

In non-fiction, this would be a clear detriment. In literature, it’s a positive boon, and it leads to a wealth of incredible, rewarding narrative complexity.

Dowell is masterfully thick headed. We pick up on things that he does not, almost exclusively so. He is present at the suicide of a main character, and doesn’t quite understand what he’s seeing until it’s over. At one point he distracts himself from an important conversation–and thereby prevents it from being recorded–because he’s seen a cow fall into a lake and can’t stop laughing.

Dowell is an idiot, and one of literature’s finest. We don’t hate him; we follow him. We aren’t frustrated by his inattention; we are entertained by it. In fact, on the actual story’s own actual merits, The Good Soldier would be a forgettable chronicle of sad adultery. It’s only Dowell that makes it memorable, because all of it gets filtered through a character who not only fails to understand the unfolding tragedy, but also fails to understand that he is in a position to stop it.

That, I truly feel, is English literature’s most perfect joke.

I’ve read a few theories that consider John Dowell to be a sort of deflective genius, playing the fool while letting others bring themselves down in an avalanche of tragedy. They claim that you can read The Good Soldier in a way that positions him as a secret villain, I guess, pulling strings and orchestrating demise.

Frankly, that borders on Jar-Jar-is-a-Sith-lord levels of unnecessary reaching, and I feel that it willfully clouds the story in such a way that its true pleasures–to be found Dowell’s unreadiness as a narrator and not in an extra-textual possibility of the man being a brilliant sociopath–get lost. You don’t end up reading The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford that way; you end up reading a work of fan fiction that exists only in your head. I feel that this does the actual novel a huge disservice, and does an even greater disservice to the reader, who has imagined his own story and overlooked Ford’s.

Dowell is a dolt, and that’s what makes The Good Soldier such an incredible, fun, remarkable reading experience. He describes things in ways we, as readers, can easily disprove. He promises us one thing, while other–more reliable–characters elsewhere reveal the truth. He spends long passages describing the way something unfolded, by use of tortured metaphor and desperate grasping for understanding, only to then rewrite those same passages differently, because he thought of a better way to explain things.

There’s a lot of death in The Good Soldier, and that’s what gives John Dowell his battlefield promotion. He shouldn’t be narrating, but by the time the story’s over, there’s nobody else left to narrate.

Just Dowell.

Alone amongst the destruction, to tell us what went wrong.

If only he could figure it out for himself.

Choose Your Own Advent, Day 10: Mother Night

Mother Night, Kurt VonnegutChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: Mother Night
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Year: 1961

I’m not jealous of many authors. I respect, admire, and enjoy many authors. There are even authors that I study, that I try to emulate, that I pore over in an attempt to better understand my craft.

But jealousy? No. Jealousy is a bit different. In most cases when I enjoy an author, or a specific work, it’s enough just to be close to it. They inspire me…they convince me to keep writing when it seems as though I can’t find anything to say, or any interesting way in which to say it…they enrich me.

Kurt Vonnegut, though…I’m jealous of Kurt Vonnegut.

I think it’s because he wasn’t just great at what he did; he also did something that I simply cannot do. I know, because I’ve tried. And as anyone who has read anything I’ve ever written will know, I’ve failed.

Here’s what he does that makes me jealous: he writes simply.

He writes efficiently.

He says so much with so little. He changes lives and defines characters with just a short sentence. Maybe less.

And I can’t do that. Most of the authors I love can’t do that either. We’re long-winded creatures. We describe. We elaborate. We digress. We layer, we compound, we examine.

Here’s the funny part: Vonnegut does all of that, too. He just does it more simply, and more efficiently.

And I’m jealous of him.

It’s jealousy because I want what he has, and try as I might (have once tried), I can’t have it.

Writing isn’t easy, but I do believe that given enough time, enough practice, enough exposure to those who write well, once can achieve a certain level of competence. Maybe not talent, but the more you work at something, the better at it you will get.

I’ve seen this happen. I’ve seen great authors discover themselves. I’ve seen amateurs find a voice. I’ve seen so many people with so much to say one day, at last, figure out how to say it.

And almost none of them gravitate toward brevity.

Not true brevity.

Not Vonnegut brevity, wherein a couple of words can suggest a complete narrative arc, wherein a chapter two sentences long provides a gut-punch from which the reader will never recover, wherein the author somehow, impossibly, comes to grips with a large comic conundrum explained with the vocabulary of a third grader.

Vonnegut was a simple man who packed simple messages with disarming profundities. He looked like a cranky old grandpa and carried within him the wisdom of children. He was tormented by his experiences serving in World War II and was yet one of literature’s sweetest, most sincere humorists.

He was a treasure, and I didn’t know what to make of him–and didn’t quite like him–until a professor suggested I read Mother Night. Once I did, I was better prepared for the man’s bibliography as a whole.

Mother Night is Vonnegut’s most traditional novel, most human novel, and probably his most relatable novel. It’s also his best, and it’s the one that I would without hesitation slot among the best books I’ve ever read.

It’s the story of Howard W. Campbell, Jr., an American living in Germany at the onset of the second World War. He’s a playwright of some moderate success, married to a woman who is also his leading lady. And then he’s offered the chance to do some good, which is where everything goes wrong.

He agrees, essentially, to work as a spy for the Americans. The Germans trust him, after all, and his experience lends him an air of authority when he’s hired to broadcast propaganda. The Nazis think they’ve lucked out having an actual celebrity reading their bulletins, and the Americans think they have a brave patriot behind enemy lines.

The question of which side is correct the point of the entire novel.

Campbell, sure, is working for the Americans. As he reads propaganda over the airwaves, he makes sure to sniffle, cough, clear his throat as instructed. These cues relay information that he never himself learns to the Allies listening at home.

Then again, all the while, he is broadcasting actual Nazi propaganda.

In the act of helping his country, he’s also perpetuating the horrors of Nazi Germany. The moment he realizes this–that work for the good guys was also work, perhaps even more effective work, for the villains–he knows there’s no going back to ignorance.

His internal conflict…his struggle to live while encumbered by horrifying guilt…is the book. Mother Night is a meditation on who we are as people. On whether our words or our intentions mean more. On what defines us. On what we pretend to be, and what we wish we were.

And it’s very funny. Vonnegut never could tell a story without giving it some kind of humorous twist, and to spoil the novel’s best jokes would be to rob you of your own discoveries. But I will say this: every single character in Mother Night, no matter how minor, lives at least a double life, and the subtle way in which Vonnegut weaves this detail through the fabric of his universe…potentially our universe…is tragic and comic in equal measure.

Campbell is gradually torn apart by his inability to rectify his deeds with his intentions, and whether or not you ultimately find him guilty or acquit him will say something about you as a reader, and perhaps as a human being. More importantly, though, whichever side you come down on, Mother Night forces you to consider, deeply, the other.

It’s exactly the kind of story that many authors would tell over the course of around 1,000 pages, with dense prose and horrific wartime vignettes sprinkled throughout.

Vonnegut writes it simply, focusing only on a lonely man, without a country, in possession of too many copies of “White Christmas.”

In other words, Vonnegut told it precisely the right way.

I’m profoundly jealous.

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