Sunday, March 20, 2016

Exhausting books (and movies)

I think I am on the edge of a collapse due to exhaustion, and I am hoping to get some rest on Sunday.  Probably the trip should have been one day shorter.  That probably would have meant skipping the Isabella Gardner Museum in the evening, but as I noted, it really was not a visit under ideal conditions.  While I would not say I am soured on the museum, my previous visits were far more rewarding.

During the trip, I was reading and hoping to finish Smollett's The Adventures of Roderick Random.  While it is far from the longest book I have read, I am finding it particularly exhausting and just wish it would end.  My plan is to push on for one more day, which should do it.  I'll read the first 50 pages of Peregrine Pickle and then the inset story "The Memoirs of a Lady of Quality."  Bizarrely enough this is actually written by someone else (the Viscountess Vane).  There are certainly other well-known digressions in older novels (Dostoevsky and particularly Tolstoy* are known for dropping the story for dozens if not 100+ pages and talking about history or natural history or philosophy), though Smollett may be the only case I'm aware of where he drops somebody else's writing into his work.

In any case, this has inspired me to think about books (and movies) that are just exhausting because they are somewhat repetitive and the extra length seems to be padding and not really essential to the plot, leading to tedium on my part.  This is actually quite a different thing from the "literature of exhaustion," i.e. postmodern literature that emerged from a feeling that everything had already been written before and all good plots used up.  Postmodern novels can be boring (and sterile for sure) but they at least usually have the good grace to wrap things up within 250 pages.

I see that I have used the phrase "one damn thing after another" in describing the movie Gravity, and that is also an apt description of The Martian.  I think the main theme was established fairly early on, and in both cases, several of the episodes could have been cut out and the films would not have suffered and might have been better.  (I suppose it is always subjective.  One might well ask whether in King Lear or Kurosawa's Ran it was really necessary to repeat the disenchantment with the second daughter, though to me that drives home what a foolish choice Lear made.  If he had 4 or 5 daughters and the same thing happened with each, then this would be unnecessary repetition!)

So many episodic novels of the Victorian era are basically one thing piled onto another with the hero or heroine just barely avoiding the worst vicissitudes of fate, though Roderick Random suffers so many beatings along with other reversals of fortune that one wonders how he can keep bouncing back.  I suspect Smollett was drawing on the Medieval idea of the Wheel of Fortune, since most of Random's good outcomes are as equally likely as the bad outcomes.  In particular, Random never seemed to learn anything from these various adventures and was still as hot-headed as ever towards the end of the novel.  This is not completely unknown behavior in these episodic novels, though in the better ones, the characters do arrive at a better knowledge of the world around them and acquire some self-knowledge.  I am finding Random to still be a total prat who basically deserves most of the bad things that happen to him, and I really don't like him.  Reading about characters that one doesn't like is exhausting -- when one is put into the position of identifying with them because they are the main character.  (It's not so bad when they are clearly a villain.)

I've heard that Peregrine Pickle is actually worse on that account with Peregrine just doing whatever he feels like with no true accountability, so will just skim a bit of the beginning where it is still funny and isn't the morally compromised novel it becomes by the middle.**  Smollett's Humphry Clinker, on the other hand, is a much better novel and perhaps the title character actually learns something along the way.  (This will definitely be the last dealings I have with Smollett, as he is clearly not to my taste.  Nonetheless, I did have a vision that Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmundson could have done a pretty amazing version of Roderick Random if they had put their mind to it, like Steve Coogan did with Tristram Shandy, though they could have done it as a straight-up version.)

What I don't like about these novels is that they are essentially shapeless, particularly if there is no internal character growth.  One thing happens, then another (generally unrelated), then another.  Eventually the novel ends, but it could have been 100 pages shorter (definitely my preference for Roderick Random) or longer.  On the other hand, if there is a clear structure in place, I generally can read longer novels without feeling total exhausted, though as I noted, there is almost no stand-alone novel over 600 pages that wouldn't be better if 50-100 pages were cut out.  Looking over my list of long novels, the ones that exhausted me the most were DeLillo's Underworld, Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, Silko's The Almanac of the Dead, and Gunther Grass's The Tin Drum.  I didn't really care for Of Human Bondage or Middlemarch, though there was more narrative shape to both and my problems with the books didn't really come down to sheer exhaustion from reading them.  On the other hand, in the non-fiction category, Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago is the epitome of one horrible event piled onto another piled onto another.  While I realize his intent was to make an impression in the historical record and not come up with a "readable" history of Stalin's reign of terror, reading this was often exhausting, and it took me a long time to get through the final volume, as I was frankly bored by the end.

To avoid dragging this out any longer (and to go get some rest), I will end here.

* I would not say I am looking forward to the last chunk of War and Peace which is almost entirely a digression, but I'll get through it once.

** Perhaps it goes without saying that if the writing was truly stunning, I would leave aside my moral interpretations of these novels, but Smollett doesn't move me to that degree.

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