Friday, December 28, 2012

The Pleasure of Her Charms: Memoirs of a Geisha Review

MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA by Arthur Golden

Here again is another novel for which I had seen the film before reading the book.  I enjoyed the film adaptation of Memoirs of A Geisha as a beautiful and lavish visual feast.  Now that I've read the book, I can see why fans of the novel weren't too pleased with its adaptation.  I never worry about changes from book to screen: that is par for the course. 

Besides, I am not here to discuss the film's fidelity to the source material.  I am here to discuss the book itself.  I found Memoirs of a Geisha to have captured what a geisha speaking to you might sound like in its turns of phrases, but like all good geisha, kept much hidden from the reader.

The 'memoirs' are the first-person recollections of Sayuri, a retired geisha now living in New York City.  She tells the interviewer (and us) about her life, one that has been governed more by chance and fortune than any deliberate decision by Sayuri herself.  Her tale takes us from pre-to-post war Japan, taking place mostly before Japan's defeat in World War II though the last few chapters deal with some of the difficulties the post-war era had on both her and the world of geisha.   

She started out as Chiyo, the daughter of a poor fisherman in a little Japanese village.  Her home, which she calls 'the tipsy house' is far from the main village.  Her mother is dying, and after she is gone there will be only her father and her sister Satsu.  One day, which she describes as her best and worst day, she falls on the street, but this attracts the attention of wealthy businessman Mr. Tanaka.  Soon, Tanaka shows interest in both Chiyo and Satsu, in particular Chiyo with her marvelous blue-grey eyes. 

At first Chiyo believes Tanaka will adopt them and, to coin a phrase, take them away from all this.  Therefore, it comes as a shock and horror to discover that, far from adopting them, Tanaka has sold them, and they are whisked off to Kyoto, specifically the pleasure district of Gion.  She is now the property of an okiya (a home for geisha), while her sister is not.  The okiya is run by Mother, a particularly ugly woman in every way possible, and Granny, simply cantankerous.  Only Auntie shows Chiyo anything close to kindness.

The okiyo is home to Hatsumomo, a great geisha renowned for her beauty but who is at heart a monstrous and drunken bully.  She belittles and abuses everyone, including and especially both Chiyo and another girl whom Chiyo nicknames Pumpkin, a name that sticks even when Pumpkin begins to train as geisha herself.  Chiyo is terribly unhappy and wishes to be with Satsu, who has been sold to a whorehouse.  They manage to see each other and Satsu plans to run away, but on a dark and stormy night she falls from the roof in a failed escape.  Now Chiyo's own training to be geisha stops and she is basically a slave.

In the midst of all this misery, she has a fateful encounter while crying near a river.  A man comforts her, gives her some money and a handkerchief to dry her eyes.  This is The Chairman, who now inspires Chiyo to somehow become a geisha in the chance of reuniting with him.  Her prayers are answered in the form of Mameha, a famous and renowned geisha who is one of the few who can rival Hatsumomo in popularity.  Mameha strikes a bargain with greedy Mother: Mameha will take on Chiyo's training in the art of geisha, and if Chiyo fails to earn a certain amount in a certain time Mameha will pay Mother, but if she does then Chiyo's debts to the okiya are paid. 

Chiyo is at first frightened, given that Hatsumomo once forced Chiyo to deliberately ruin a beautiful kimono owned by Mameha, but soon she finds her 'older sister' to be a wise counselor and formidable trainer in the art of entertaining men.  Soon Chiyo becomes Sayuri, maiko (or apprentice) to Mameha and is becoming not only successful but a competitor to Hatsumomo, who is Pumpkin's older sister.  The ultimate success comes when Sayuri's virginity is auctioned off to a Dr. Crab (a nickname Sayuri has given him). 

Hatsumomo becomes more erratic and careless, and her behavior becomes too much even for Gion.  She is driven out after physically attacking a renowned kabuki actor, and Sayuri can now pursue Mameha's great plan: to get Sayuri a danna, or patron.  Mameha has selected Nobu, a partner in an electronic firm whose partner is The Chairman himself.  Sayuri does as she is told, and while she grows fond of Nobu, a most irascible man made more unattractive due to his war-time injuries which has left him one-armed and disfigured, Sayuri's heart remains with the Chairman.

Eventually, the Second World War brings this floating world to an abrupt end.  Sayuri has managed to get a general to be her danna, which has secured her okiya rationed supplies for a long time.  However, the general falls and only Nobu, still unhappy at Sayuri's choice of danna, is able to send her to the countryside to safety.  After the war, Sayuri still finds things difficult with a version of Gion reopening.  She manages to return to the world of geisha, but her plan to disillusion Nobu by 'accidentally' being discovered with another man goes awry when it's the Chairman who comes upon her.  Pumpkin, bitter about Sayuri's success and adoption to inherit the okiya, cause her to betray Sayuri. 

However, not all is lost.  The Chairman reveals himself to have been Mameha's sponsor for Chiyo, but was reluctant to become Sayuri's danna when Nobu began to show interest.  However, the Chairman reveals Sayuri's 'indiscretion' to Nobu, thus freeing the Chairman to take Sayuri as his mistress.  This arrangement forces Sayuri to retire as a geisha, and she eventually emigrates to the United States, with the Chairman still her patron.  The Chairman dies and leaves Sayuri to contemplate her extraordinary life.

Golden captures a voice of how one imagines a geisha would speak.  Many turns of phrases in Memoirs of a Geisha have a remarkably poetic air to them, and somehow I picture a woman trained to speak in somewhat elaborate manners.  If anything the voice of Sayuri is that of a properly demure woman.  She never sounds harsh or angry at how things have turned out or in remembering the cruel acts of Hatsumomo or Tanaka, or even her father for basically selling her out.

Instead, Sayuri seems to have a more resigned voice, one that accepts things as they came.  Minus her wish to become geisha so as to be reunited with the Chairman she never consciously takes any firm steps.  All her goals and dreams and aspirations are with that one singular hope: to be with the Chairman once again.

One does wonder why, whenever reflecting on just how cruel her abuse was at the okiya, there was never even a quick flash of anger.  One does wonder why, when reflecting on the loss of her family, there was never even a tinge of regret.  Instead, Sayuri speaks of all these things, and all things really, with the same voice: that of a woman trained to conceal her emotions and present only a smiling face to all whom she entertains. 

In fact, this isn't a fault in Memoirs of a Geisha in that if one believes that Sayuri is dictating her life story to a Westerner, she has opted to conceal more than she reveals.   Near the end of the book, she hints that she and the Chairman had a child, but never actually comes out and says, "I had a son with the Chairman".  Instead, like a good geisha, she subtly suggests this, but only once and almost in passing.

What Memoirs of a Geisha is really more about is the world of geisha, this lost "Floating World", and given Golden's various interviews one can trust the imagery of this world he paints.  Memoirs of a Geisha gives the reader a rare 'inside look' at this world which to outsiders, particularly Westerners, is all but forbidden. 

Memoirs of a Geisha, unfortunately, has as its protagonist who is more like a leaf caught in the currents of a river, sometimes tumultuous, sometimes placid, than of a fish trying to reach its spawning area.  Again, Sayuri never acts to better herself, but to continuously keep within reach of the Chairman, to be with the Chairman.  She has no goal save but the Chairman.  Few leads have been so wrapped up in keeping to her childhood dreams than Chiyo/Sayuri.  Sayuri never years for freedom of any kind: financial, emotional, spiritual. 

She tells us in her demure voice that she had, to her great surprise, once been ranked among the Top Twenty Gion Geisha of All Time.  She does not know how given she never saw herself as particularly good or beautiful or talented.  Yet one wonders if she was as good as they say she was (and as she suggests she was) why not have a plan or ambition to strike out on her own, become not just one of the great geisha but become her own woman?

Sayuri never does so. Instead, all her actions are geared to be with the Chairman in some way.  Whatever made her successful, whether it was her grace or conversational skills or dancing or what-have-you, we basically have to take it on faith.  Sayuri in a sense gives us a shadow of a geisha, which might be correct in how a geisha would behave to outsiders but doesn't give us much insight into herself as a person (apart from her quest to be with the Chairman).  In many ways, Sayuri is a mystery, and whether it is accurate for a geisha to keep hidden within her own memoirs is up to the reader.  I thought it sounded accurate to keep much emotion within herself.

What I found with Memoirs of a Geisha is that in many ways, it is like how I imagine spending time with an actual geisha would be.  First, I expect there would be no sex: geisha are not prostitutes.  In fact, they are the ones who will select their danna, and they are not going to have sex with every man they entertain.  Instead, geisha would entertain with words, dance, song, a bit of flirting, but nothing more. Memoirs of a Geisha does so: it entertains, but one doesn't race to read what is going to happen next.

I did not get what I call the Byzantium Effect with Memoirs of a Geisha.  In Stephen Lawhead's novel, I was left with such a cliffhanger that I charged ahead when reading, even if I was exhausted and only that would force me to stop.  In Memoirs of a Geisha, I found something entertaining, giving me a glimpse into a world I might never encounter personally, but not one I would rush to keep in.  Like a true geisha, Memoirs of a Geisha tells an interesting story, but once we bid good night, and is off to another engagement, the geisha leaves a pleasant memory but nothing personal behind.       

Arthur Golden
Born 1956



Wednesday, November 14, 2012

There's No Cure For This Scarlet Fever: A Study in Scarlet Review


A Study in Scarlet is the very first Sherlock Holmes story, one that I encountered when I was in middle school.  With the revival of Sherlock Holmes (via bad Guy Ritchie movies and two television programs: the BBC's Sherlock and CBS' Elementary) and as primer to reviewing the Sherlock adaptation (A Study in Pink) I decided to revisit my favorite detective.  My love for the great detective does not waver, and A Study in Scarlet, while more a novella than a full-fledged novel, is a great introduction to characters that will become iconic.  However, it's clear that a reading of A Study in Scarlet also reveals that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is also writing in the traditional Victorian style, with all the melodrama and idealization of the Innocent Girl that comes with it.

The book is divided into two parts: Being a Reprint from the Reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D., Late of the Army Medical Department, and The Country of the Saints.

John Watson, M.D., late of the Afghan Campaign, has returned to London to recover from his war wounds.    An old friend guides him to Sherlock Holmes, a man of great intelligence but who also, to Watson's horror, was unaware that the Earth revolves around the Sun.  Holmes justifies this by saying that such information is useless to him and his work, so should he learn such things, he will quickly dismiss them if they serve no purpose.  Why clutter his attic with junk, he argues, and since he sees his mind as an attic, such things as the Earth's rotation is unimportant.

Holmes, Watson discovers, is what the former calls a 'consulting detective'.  People, including the police, come to him to help them out in solving mysteries, all the hush-hush, for which he is paid handsomely.  He does it more for the pleasure of the work than for the actual money.  Now, he gets a corker of a case: a murder.

His police contact Inspector Gregson has brought him to help solve this particular crime: the murder of Enoch Drebber, American.  There is no mark on the body, but the word "rache" in blood on the wall.  Holmes, with his magnifying glass, does his work, while Gregson and his colleague Inspector Lestrange sort out their theories, which we find are wrong. 

Now Holmes and Watson set a trap for the killer, but the killer tricks Holmes by doing a drag act.  Holmes, now infuriated by being fooled and determined to find him, continues on the case.  A few days later, Gregson arrests someone but that theory goes out when we find that Drebber's travelling companion, Joseph Stangerson, has been found murdered.  However, Holmes has already discovered the murderer's identity, and with the help of street urchins Holmes has dubbed "the Baker Street Irregulars", our murderer, Jefferson Hope, an American who works as a cabbie, is arrested.

It's here that we get Part II.  Out in the American West, Joseph Ferrier and a little girl named Lucy are the only survivors of a pioneer group.  They face certain death in the desert, until they are miraculously discovered by the Mormon pioneers.  Brought before Brigham Young himself, the Prophet agrees to bring them into their group on the condition that Joseph and Lucy adopt the Latter-Day Saints faith.  They readily agree, and in Utah the Ferriers (as Joseph had adopted Lucy) prosper. 

However, the pressure for Joseph to have plural marriages grows.  He resists, but he knows that his Lucy, that Flower of Deseret, runs the risk of being forced into this immoral union to a Mormon.  Complicating matters is that Lucy, that Flower of Deseret, has herself fallen in love...with Jefferson Hope, non-Mormon.  Brigham Young himself comes to inform Joseph that he must surrender Lucy, that Flower of Deseret, to one of two suitors: Joseph Stangerson or Enoch Drebber.  He has 30 days.  Each day Ferrier finds a written number somewhere, counting down the days.  Finally, close to the end date, Hope literally arrives.

They flee into the mountains, aiming for Nevada, but while Hope is away searching for food the others are overtaken.  Lucy, that Flower of Deseret, is forced to marry Drebber, while Stangerson we find had killed Joseph when they were captured.  Lucy, that Flower of Deseret, dies of a broken heart, and Hope swears revenge. 

Now we get back to the present, but while Hope is captured, his heart condition allows him to escape prison, even though he really had done the right thing in avenging Joseph Ferrier and Lucy, that Flower of Deseret.  Holmes finds that Gregson and Lestrange received credit for solving the crime, while Holmes gets barely a notice.  For his part, Holmes doesn't care, but Watson determines to credit his roommate for solving this most curious case.

It's curious that Conan Doyle, early in A Study in Scarlet, has Holmes show contempt for his contemporary 'fictional' detectives such as Poe's Dupin or Emile Gaboriau's Monsieur Ledoq.  I can't say that it reflects Doyle's own views on the detective mysteries that had come before, but it does add two things to our understanding of author and creation.  One, it shows that the character of Holmes takes his position very seriously, and two, it shows Conan Doyle was fully aware that he was drawing from a newly-discovered well.  It also is a mark of the giant shadow Sherlock Holmes casts in that with the exception of Poe almost all detective writers pre-Doyle are now largely forgotten.

When was the last time Monsieur Ledoq appeared on the screen?  Gaboriau and Ledoq are all but forgotten today, while Doyle and Holmes are now seen as the standard to which all detectives post-Study in Scarlet are measured.  Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe, Ellery Queen, right down to The Mentalist's Patrick Jane and even Encyclopedia Brown all are descendants of Sherlock Holmes (in regards to Wolfe, perhaps more direct than perhaps we imagine).

A Study in Scarlet has all those twists and turns a good detective story has: the surprise of finding an old woman rather than a youngish man coming to collect the ring, the strange clue of 'rache' in blood written upon the wall.  More than that, though, A Study in Scarlet set up the importance of science and analytical thought to solving a case.

Dr. Doyle would have some background in this.  All doctors have to play detective to a point.  You have to analyze the symptoms in order to come up with a diagnosis.  Doyle was perhaps the first detective writer to understand that one can't just guess or have a clue or witness just miraculously pop up to discover the criminal.  Instead, he (or she) has to observe everything to find whodunit.

Look at when Holmes goes to the crime scene.  Watson is amazed that Holmes doesn't charge into the room where the body is; instead, he looks outside, studying the wheel marks and footprints left in the mud.  Holmes does what other detectives did not: he looked, he studies, he observed.  From that, he drew conclusions which invariably proved right.  "It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence," Holmes tells the good Doctor.

Sadly, today that bit of streets-smart is all but forgotten.  In particular the press is quick to find motives and criminals without all the evidence.  Instead, we start speculating to where we make the facts fit the theories rather than the theories fit the facts.  Doyle understood that we need to look at what is presented before us before we can say for certain what the truth is.

Sadly, what he didn't understand was Mormonism.  I'm not a Mormon, but the portrayal of the Latter-Day Saints as this group of virtually sex-crazed murderers both dates and stains A Study in Scarlet.  It's a curious thing that if Conan Doyle had made the religious group that threatens this innocent pair with forced marriages wild-eyed pursuits Muslims, it's pretty easy to imagine that A Study in Scarlet would probably be banned and/or go out of print.  Because the group he portrays so badly is the Mormons, Doyle could get away with it and we don't think too much on that, given that the popular concept of Mormons now is that of non-threatening young men and women coming to our door with ties or skirts.  I imagine Doyle would be surprised to see that these neo-savages he had written are now seen as some of the most docile members of society. 

The negative images of Mormons is a mark against A Study in Scarlet, but what really shows when the book was written is in the character of Lucy.  While rereading A Study in Scarlet, I couldn't help think on what Oscar Wilde said about a character from The Old Curiosity Shop: "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing".  Dickens' novel was published a good forty-seven years prior, but Lucy Ferrier might as well have been named Little Nell.  Both girls are portrayed as sweet darlings, angels of purity really, who suffer greatly and die tragically.

This is I imagine part of what makes Victorian writing a bit overwrought: the creation of female characters as delicate flowers who wilt away at the cruelties of life.  I kept referring to Lucy as That Flower of Deseret because she was so delicate, so sweet, so pure, that at times she was not real.  Instead, she was just an idealization of innocent young womanhood, smeared by the evil Mormons.

In this this, I won't fault Doyle too much.  He was writing as a Victorian author, and as such was versed in the style of the times.  He wasn't going for some epoch-changing work of literature, he was going for a good detective story that would earn him some money while contributing what I imagine he thought was superior work in the growing detective genre.  A Study in Scarlet did do that, and it introduced the now-iconic magnifying glass and the scientific method of investigation to the genre. 

All detectives following Sherlock Holmes owe their existence to the resident of 221 B Baker Street (which I have visited and spent many a happy hour at).  It suffers today from two flaws: a negative portrayal of a religious group that in others would be condemned as bigotry and a rather cliched Victorian female character (Lucy is no Irene Adler, that's for sure).  Minus those bits, A Study in Scarlet is a good introduction to those not familiar with the Sherlock Holmes mythos, a strong mystery with a logical conclusion.  It is a Victorian work, but it is one that has stood the test of time.

The pleasure one gets from A Study in Scarlet is more than elementary.           

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle


Sunday, October 7, 2012

Some of Them Want To Abuse You, Some of Them Want to Be Abused: Fifty Shades of Grey Review


I figure that I, as a man, am not the target audience for Fifty Shades of Grey.  In fact, of all the people requesting the novel, I was about maybe ten men at the most (and that was out about over a hundred, maybe two hundred requests).  I was not interested in the book, but I was fascinated by all the fascination Fifty Shades of Grey was unleashing across the literary world.  My curiosity was piqued, which was enough for me to dive in and see what all the fuss was about.

As I continued to go into the first part of the Fifty Shades Trilogy (the second and third parts being Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed), I marvelled at how something so silly and clichéd could have the publishing world in a tizzy. If you strip (no pun intended) the story of all the whippings and bondage, what you have is basically Twilight With S & M.   

Young, inexperienced Anastasia Steele is railroaded into conducting an interview on behalf of her friend Kate.  She would have gone but was terribly ill and asked Ana to substitute.  There was no way to reschedule since the interviewee was a powerful businessman whose time is tightly controlled (pun slightly intended).  Moreover, it had taken a great deal of time to negotiate THIS interview and the chance would not come up again (though other things in the future would--can't help myself).

Ana goes to interview the mysterious and powerful Christian Grey, and wouldn't you know it: she trips and falls as soon as she walks into his office.  Ana can see that this man is a virtual Greek God: beautiful, handsome, rich.  However, his arrogance puts her off.  However, despite the bungled interview we discover that Christian has become fixated on Anastasia.

What turns him on more than anything is the fact that she bites her lips.  This unbeknown to her sends him into organic fits.  Ana, meanwhile, continues her work: finishing up her studies on literature (Tess of the D'Ubervilles being a particular favorite), working at a hardware store (where the owner's son, not surprisingly, is in love with her) and living life with her friends Kate and Carlos (who, not surprisingly, is in love with her).

Jose happens to be a photographer, so with some work the trio convince Grey to be photographed for the article.  Now Christian's fixation for Ana turns into a passionate romance, but at the same time doth protest too much that he isn't the man for her.  Ana is more than willing to be with this perfect man, but there's is a snag or two

For one, she discovers he is into bondage, sadomasochism, and all that.  He even shows her his Red Room of Pain.  Now, normally this would put off some women, but he's Christian Grey, Perfection Itself.  She's not going to let this opportunity go by.  Now is where we hit Snag Two.

She is still a virgin.  Obviously, Christian is shocked and does for Ana what he doesn't do for anyone one: have 'vanilla' (read regular) sex with her so as to introduce her to something even more pleasurable.  Christian obviously would like this to be a sexual relationship (friends with benefits sans friendship) but Ana wants more. 

The rest of Fifty Shades of Grey goes between her forever-wavering between signing the agreement to be his Submissive and the various sexual encounters they have.  Ana goes back and forth about Christian Grey: she wants him (as do all women and men too, even straight men I imagine) but doesn't really want to be submissive.  Christian Grey gives in to her more often than she gives in to him.  Finally, after a particularly rough spanking that was more about punishing her than pleasuring either of them, she does the unthinkable: she walks out on Christian Grey, Perfection Itself, even as he asks her to stay. 

Thus ends our trashy romp through whips, ropes, and ties.

What is amazing to me, as a casual reader, is that in an age where we have so many powerful and influential women, from Angela Merkel to Hillary Clinton, the majority of women enjoy reading books where they come across as weak, stupid, and almost gleefully submissive (in every definition of the word) to a man so long as he is perfect.

Fifty Shades of Grey borrows heavily from Stephanie Meyer's equally revolting Twilight books in a few ways.  Like Meyer, James copies her almost incessant habit of referring to the male protagonist by his full name.  More often than not, everyone calls him "Christian Grey".  It isn't often that other characters call him "Christian" or even "Chris".  This was something I noticed when it came to EDWARD CULLEN: he was almost always called EDWARD CULLEN.  For me, it seems ridiculous to keep calling a character by his full name again and again.  He's never called "Sherlock Holmes" on almost every page.  This trend in modern literary circles is just moronic.

Second, James takes the first-person approach.  Twilight and its follow-ups are told from Bella Swoon's (I mean, Swann's) perspective.  This wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the fact that Bella and Anastasia are pretty much the same characters (they even live in the same area: the Seattle setting isn't that far from Forks, Washington State).  Both are people who would describe themselves as remarkably ordinary, plain, even perhaps unattractive women.  Neither Bella or Ana would ever use the term "bathing beauty" to describe themselves.  They even share a sense of clumsiness.

Third, they both appear totally zombified by this perfect man.  As readers of Twilight know, EDWARD CULLEN is Perfection Itself: he is so achingly beautiful to look at, and has something of a damaged soul.  He is also the scion of wealth (although one could say he is 'adopted' by the Cullen clan) and is a man who would be perfect if not for one defect: he's a vampire (but one with a heart...even if said heart doesn't actually beat).

Likewise, Christian Grey is Perfection Itself: a Greek god, with perfect abs and an incredible penis (also, has anyone noticed that both of them play the piano remarkably well, and usually it's the tenderest of music when either plays).  Like EDWARD CULLEN, Christian Grey is adopted (although in his case it is literal), and is also from a wealthy family.  In many ways Christian Grey is also a damaged soul with one small defect: he likes to whip his sexual partners for pleasure.

I even have another comparison between Twilight and FIfty Shades of Grey: both Bella and Anastasia had their virginities taken by these Perfect Men who wanted them but didn't think THEY were worthy of the women.  Each saw their respective broads as they really were: beautiful, true objects of desire to which they could pour out their dysfunctional love onto.

Fourth (I think we're on fourth), both Bella and Ana may not have thought of themselves as beautiful, but almost every other man they met was passionately in love with them.  Bella had an early suitor in Mike, and Ana has her thwarted lover Jose and her boss' son.  There is something egocentric in downplaying the attractiveness of the female lead but also having so many men wanting them.     

I refer to the female protagonist in Twilight as Bella Swoon because of how easily she is overwhelmed by the beauty and perfection of one EDWARD CULLEN.  Same goes for Anastasia Steele: she is similarly overwhelmed with the beauty and perfection of Christian Grey.  Truth be told this isn't a new device: Jane Eyre was similarly drawn to the beautiful but damaged Mr. Rochester, but I think the difference between Jane Eyre and Twilight/Fifty Shades of Grey is that Jane was a woman of substance who managed to create a life for herself despite all her setbacks.  Bella and Ana on the other hand, are willing, even eager, to submit themselves to the man. 

The big draw in Fifty Shades of Grey is that it involves graphic descriptions of a certain sexual persuasion: sadomasochism (S&M).  You have dumb Ana tied up, you have her whipped, you have her spanked (and always for her benefit as well as his).  We get a lot of sex but obviously no love.  Christian can't give any and Ana won't demand anything else but is too drawn to Christian to actively seek it out.

I'm endlessly fascinated with why women would identify with a character who is so remarkably weak and stupid as to agree to be a man's submissive, to be his virtual slave in body and thought.  So much for women's lib.

I'm also perplexed why so many people think that Fifty Shades of Grey is considered well-written.  The dialogue is laughable (just like in Twilight) and I found the characters to be extremely inconsistent.  As much as Ana protests that she will be submissive, she certainly continues to contradict and disagree with Christian on many fronts, even on the sex.  Moreover, Christian appears to readily agree to doing as Ana wishes.  She wishes to have him in bed with her, the Dominant does as the Submissive asks.

One wonders who exactly is the Dominant and who is the Submissive.

One thing I found irritating is in the device of moving the story forward via e-mail messages between Christian and Ana.  It's not so much the constant use of it (although that was frustrating) but that if one looks at the times marked on the e-mails, the reply time was very quick: usually less than a few minutes took place between when one was sent and the other replied.  It didn't seem to matter when: it could have been at one or two in the morning and Christian, ever dutiful, would reply to Ana.

I'd argue that when it comes to that relationship, Christian was the one who was whipped.

Terrible writing tinged with only risque elements of S&M is what pushes a second-rate romance to heights real books don't usually obtain.  You have cliched characters (the beautiful, perfect but troubled man and the 'average' yet highly intelligent woman who can change him and help him find perfect love...obviously with her) and a story that has wealth to ease the difficulties of real living, and you get a lousy book that has only the tawdry and salacious to push it to the best-seller list.  

In the final analysis, if there were any justice, E L James would have called her novel Fifty Shades of Twilight

My name is E L James, and I write garbage.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Curse of Love That Won't Forget: The Great Gatsby Review

THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Modern Library Ranking: #2)

I rarely read novels before watching a film, but I have made a few exceptions.  One was the first book in the Twilight series, Twilight.  I thought it trash.  I simply could not get through it for its sheer banality.  Another was The Great Gatsby.  It was short, it's considered a classic, and I had spent my whole life without reading it. With the film being released at year's end (and I suspect a strong contender for Oscar nominations in Costume and Art Direction), I decided at long last to look over this book and see what all the fuss is about.  The Great Gatsby is a marvelous read, something one can enjoy for pleasure and see that sometimes love is not worth waiting for.

We begin with our narrator, Nick Carraway, from whose point of view The Great Gatsby takes place.  He is by no means rich but is comfortably well off.  He becomes fascinated by his next door neighbor, the mysterious Jay Gatsby.  Gatsby is the richest man in East Egg, who has the biggest house, throws the biggest parties, and is the least known man on Long Island.  Nick soon reconnects with a distant cousin, Daisy Buchanan, her husband Tom, and their friend, the female golfer Jordan Baker.  Nick and Jordan began a sputtering affair.

Nick soon finds entry into Gatsby's frivolous world, and the fascination with the Great Gatsby grows.  Gatsby is rich, beautiful, and seemingly perfect.  However, as time goes on, we learn the truth about Jay Gatsby.  He wasn't born into wealth, he wasn't from the upper echelons of society.  He is really James Gatz, son of poor farmers who has basically recreated himself.  He is quite wealthy, but his fortune is most likely from being a criminal (bootlegger and all). 

Jay Gatsby is also in love with Daisy Buchanan...still.  Long ago, before the First World War, our James Gatz had romanced Daisy, and they had fallen in love.  However, due to his poor background and the distances of miles and times, she married Tom Buchanan.  She is unaware that Tom has a mistress (well, I figure he has many, but I digress): Myrtle Wilson, wife of local mechanic George.  Nick detests the deception to Daisy, but he doesn't feel it right to tell either Jay or Daisy, who have rekindled their own affair.

Jay is determined to win Daisy over, but ultimately she won't leave Tom.  After leaving a tense party at the Buchanan home, Nick finds that Myrtle has been killed by a hit-and-run driver.  While it was Gatsby's car, Jay tells him Daisy had been driving.  George, destroyed by his wife's death, tracks down the owner of the car...and kills him.

Jay is buried, unmissed save for Nick, Jay's father Henry Gatz, and a man Nick calls Owl Eyes, whom he'd met at the first party of Gatsby's who loved his book collection.

I can only go into what I got and understood from The Great Gatsby, but for myself, I saw it as a cautionary tale of the myth of self-reinvention for the wrong reasons.  Jay Gatsby was not a real person.  He was an invention of James Gatz, who longed more than anything to, in a familiar refrain, "be somebody".  Gatsby wanted to be anything other than who he was, and above all else, he wanted to be rich.

He didn't want to be rich in order to indulge any passions or because he wanted power.  Far from that.  He wanted to be rich because by having lots and lots of money, he could achieve the one thing he truly yearned for: the love of The Woman.

For me, this is at the heart of the tragedy of The Great Gatsby.  It was his love for Daisy that led to his ruin.  He truly loved her, but I think that Gatsby also loved what she represented: respectability that comes with wealth.  She was His Perfect Love, but there is no such thing. 

This is where The Great Gatsby hit me on a strong level.  We all have loved at least one person for whom we think by changing into something/someone more like them, they might love us back.  If I were...fill-in-the-blank...they would love me.  It doesn't work out this way.

Gatsby was not interested in the fact that he had to turn to crime to make his fortune.  It was a means to an end, but by going into bootlegging to finance a lifestyle that would win back The One, he was ruining himself.  Even if Daisy had left Tom for him, she wouldn't be leaving Tom for James Gatz, farmer's son.  She'd be leaving him for Jay Gatsby, multi-millionaire. 

Gatsby lived in a fantasy so strong he took it to be the truth.  He would not let Daisy go, even after he should have known that she was not going to be with him.  At the end of The Great Gatsby, I felt so much sadness for Jay.

His life was a fraud, a beautiful fraud perhaps, but a life so empty and hollow.  All those wild parties, all those fun times--they were as vapor in the wind, one might say.  I think about all those people who went to Gatsby's soirees.  They were there for a good time, for frivolity, but not for him.  They neither knew or cared for him. 

Some things never change.  How many people today are hangers-on to rich and famous people just for their own selfish needs?  Even today, how many people "follow" non-entities or are "fans" of people who have money but nothing to offer their legions other than entertainment?  Once their notoriety ends, so does interest in them, and those who were once sought after are forgotten.

Since Nick is the one narrating the story, The Great Gatsby is as much Nick's story as it is Jay's.  I'd say far more.  Nick is our Everyman, who is drawn to this world but who sees in the end how shallow it all is, how empty.  He'd rather be himself, even if it means turning away from the lights and the spectacle, than surrender to the moral bankruptcy of these people's lives.  For Nick, people still matter.  He could never be so hurtful towards Daisy as Tom is by fooling around on her, or turn away from a friend like almost everyone did once Jay was dead.

I think The Great Gatsby asks us to examine what kind of sacrifices we would make for love, or for status.  Gatsby was a prisoner the past, someone who thought that by changing into what he thought Daisy wanted he could get the love he so longed for from her.  In truth, while Daisy loved him, her fear kept her from going with Jay.  He should have learned to let go, to be himself. 

Of course, this is something we will never learn.  People will always change something to get love.  Nick escaped from it.  Jay died for it.

The Great Gatsby is a beautiful book, and while I was disappointed that the line, "rich girls don't marry poor boys" wasn't in it, it is still a sharp truth.  Sometimes we can love and lose, but the real tragedy is when we keep loving that which is lost, never to be...