Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Classics Project: The Color Purple

I know I wrote my review of Slaughterhouse Five just yesterday, but I literally read Alice Walker's The Color Purple in two evenings. I had actually been planning to read J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye next, but I was at the train station when I hit the abrupt ending of Slaughterhouse Five. My boyfriend and I had just been in an awesome little bookstore in downtown Denver called The Tattered Cover (check it out!) where I picked up a copy of Ms. Walker's classic for four dollars. So since Bob was still monopolizing my copy of Catcher, I started The Color Purple.

The Color Purple is the story of Celie, a young, bright, abused woman who gets married to spare her sister a life of drudgery and abuse. She and her sister become separated by men and time and continents. In many ways it's a story about a girl who finds what "God" means to her in a life of trials and hardships.

I can see why this book has so often been banned. On the very first page incestuous rape is mentioned casually as a fact of every day life. It goes on to question the idea of "God," the idea of marriage, of love. What does it mean to exist as a black woman in the pre-WWII South? Celie's experiences are heartbreaking, demeaning, intense, and, at times, beautiful. I cannot adequately describe how moving the story is. I can only say that there is a reason I finished it so quickly.

The book itself is an epistolary novel, meaning it is written as a series of letters. For the first half or more of the book, all of these letters are written by Celie and addressed "Dear God." As the story progresses we get to see some of Celie's sister, Nettie, and experience her life. Two very different lives - one in rural Georgia, one in the heart of the African Congo - are juxtaposed to show the growth of each sister. Both grow from young, victimized children to strong, compelling women.

One of the most spectacular elements, at least for me, is the language. Celie writes in a deep southern dialect and with little benefit of education. For most of the book I had to "hear" the words in my head to understand them, and at points, read them aloud. This may have slowed the speed of my reading a bit, but I got into the rhythm of Celie's speech surprisingly easily.

Having grown up in far South East Arkansas (where I was taught in social studies about the War of Northern Aggression), I was very familiar with this speech pattern. Many of the older people in the community spoke the same way as Celie so it was at once startling and comfortable for me. Much to my boyfriend's dismay, I fell back into those speech patterns myself. "What you doin'?" I asked at one point. He just stared up at me in horror.

Perhaps the most wonderful aspect - and one that shows Alice Walker's spectacular skill as a writer - is how organically poetry was woven into what some might think a backwoods, unrefined narrative. The story and the language itself become poetry.

He say, Celie, git the belt. The children be outside the room peeking through the cracks. It all I can do not to cry. I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, you a tree. That's how come I know trees fear man.

This awareness of the poetic is woven throughout what otherwise could become a depressing tale of oppression. But Alice Walker transcends individual sorrow, exposing the universal threads of womanhood, grief, and survival. This book is stunning. a beautiful and life changing read. I would read it again in a heartbeat.

And don't worry about me writing another Classics Project review tomorrow. I'm starting Anna Karenina and I dare say it'll take me longer than two evenings. Also, if you're interested, there is a wonderful documentary on Alice Walker by PBS's American Masters. You can watch it here.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Classics Project: Slaughterhouse Five

Before I get into the heart of my review, let me say a quick apology. I'm sorry my first entry in the Classics Project didn't come until half way through February. I actually didn't even start reading one of the books on my list until a few days ago because I was still hung up on Robert Jordan's epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time (blog post to follow). But I finally got around to it and, so far, I am thoroughly enjoying myself.

The first book I decided to read was Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five.

My mother has always loved Vonnegut because, as she often says, he writes just a little to the left of reality. This is one of those books that I am honestly surprised I haven't read already. How did I miss him when I was picking up my mother's love of Ray Bradbury and Heinlein? Now this book isn't general classified as "science fiction," but that's what the tone of wonder and awareness reminds me of. Also the aliens, but I'll get to them in a bit.

In many ways, I think Kurt Vonnegut's life must have felt a little to the left of reality. At the age of 23, he was captured by the Nazis and held as a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany. There, he witnessed the firebombing of Dresden, arguably one of the deadliest targeting of civilians in World War II. I think this must have given him a unique perspective both on death and on life.

Slaughterhouse Five starts out with a narrator (that is never directly identified as Vonnegut himself, only heavily implied) describing his journey and his decision to write a book about Dresden. While it appears that the narrator is the main character, in chapter two the book switches abruptly from first person POV to third. As it turns out, the narrator is only watching the story unfold. 

In truth, Slaughterhouse Five is the story of Billy Pilgrim, himself a prisoner of war and a witness to the fire-bombing of Dresden. But in a way, that is only window dressing. Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time. He flits between moments of his life at random, jumping from the war to his wedding to his senility as an old man, back and forth and all moments in-between. From what I've heard, this makes it difficult for some readers to follow, but I had no problems.

At its core, Slaughterhouse Five is an anti-war book. Not because the author condemns the soldiers or the generals or the civilians at home. In the very first chapter the book announces itself a failure because “nothing intelligent can be said about a massacre.” So it doesn’t even try. It skirts around the bombing in a surprisingly elegant, though at times sporadic, dance of moments and thoughts and strangeness.  

Perhaps the strangest aspect of this book is not its schizophrenic structure, but it's delving into the fantastical. At one point in his life, Billy believes he is abducted by aliens and taken to live in a zoo where he is given a missing adult film star as his mate. The planet's name is Tralfamadore. The reader experiences Billy's time on Tralfamadore as vividly as the bombed out wreckage of Dresden. There he learns that each moment exists forever. That when someone dies, they are only dead in that moment and there are plenty of moments before where they are not.

I think this is integral to the book. Aside from being arguably the entire point, I feel it justifies the structure. Slaughterhouse Five is not a long book, but I felt no urgency when reading it. It wasn’t an edge-of-your-seat kind of book. I had almost no interest in what happened next, but I loved reading it. I loved each individual moment in the book which to me felt whole and satisfying on its own. It made me take notice of each word in a way that I am not generally so aware. In many ways this creates an attitude of inevitability, that what is has been and will always be, because the moment exists forever. Children will always go to war and be killed. Humans will always look for answers and be disappointed.

One subtlety that appears near the end is the question of whether or not this is all real. This question is not asked directly, and Billy Pilgrim never once doubts his extraterrestrial experiences, but then we, the readers, see aspects of his visions pop up in the work of a second rate scifi author. Did Billy really get kidnapped by aliens? Did he really live in a zoo on Tralfamadore? Or is all of that just a delusion caused by the trauma of witnessing a massacre? Does that make his experiences any less real?

And then it was over. The ending as strange, as startling, as disturbing, as enjoyable as the rest of the book had been. So it goes.