The Unmemorable Histories in Julian Barne’s A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters

 

“The history of the world? Just voices echoing in the dark; images that burn for a few centuries and then fade, stories, old stories that sometimes seem to overlap; strange links, impertinent connections” (240).

 

Inventive and utterly clever, Julian Barne’s A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters functions of the premise that every single important ideology that currently exists in the world stems from what transpired in Noah’s ark during the great flood.  Divided into ten chapters/ stories (until now, I still am unable to decide whether Barne’s work qualifies as a novel, a short story collection or a story-arc), it begins with a new, revised account of Noah’s voyage into the oceanic world that came after God wreaked his wrath into the world he found unworthy. Told from the point-of-view of a stowaway woodworm, an animal previously deemed unworthy, it exposes the malice of Noah’s family and the dozens of tragedies which struck the five ships (yes, according to the wormy narrator, there were five arcs, one commanded by Noah, three managed by his sons, and one that served as a medical and storage unit), which includes the death of the unicorns and the behemoths, largely because of the human’s need for sustenance. The next nine pieces largely deal with the aftermath, without continuing Noah’s story. This includes “The Wars of Religion,” a documented court proceedings regarding the indictment and eventual excommunication of several woodworms who was said to have caused a piece of wood to weaken and fall on a priest, “Shipwreck,” a ekphrastic piece which uses Gericault’s famous painting of the Medusa in an attempt to recreate what had happened on the infamous ship and pursue a discussion on the importance of tragedy and art in culture, “ “Three Simple Stories,” three vignettes which question God’s behavior after the great flood, including a think piece that dwells on the prophet Jonah’s mission and the contradictory nature of his divine quest (as well as the sheer impossibility of surviving inside the belly of a whale), “Project Ararat,” which tells of one woman’s quest to reach Noah’s vineyard and the mountain where Noah docked his arc, the infamous, didactic and ironic half-chapter, “parentheses”, which consists of Barne’s discursive attempt to share his views  on the semantics of love and desire, and “The Dream,” which offers the readers a new and different picture of paradise.  Each tale has a different voice, a different manner in which it is told, and each distances itself from being formal, from being objective, from being devoid of irony. And although each of them attempts to be self-sustaining, to be a work that can stand on its own, there are connective devices, recurring themes, thoughts and fragments that exist, reflecting the odd nature of human history.

Interestingly enough, the ten stories found in Barne’s book strays away from the events that become central to the world, and instead deals with more or less common events which one would not imagine to have much significance on how the world turns, positing that history, the essential aspects of it, is not influenced by the gravity of the change it produces, but by how an individual sees it. Common events that do not simply matter to the grand scheme of things bear in them the repercussions of the smallest action, reaffirming the universality of human emotions and experience, urging us to question our notions on the so-called “objective history” that we have been come to know. At the end of the novel, the readers eventually realize that each experience becomes a historical archive that can be traced back to one source, echoing with it a dozen theoretical ramifications that the critic in me nods in agreement.

 

*Much thanks for Random House for graciously providing me a copy of this wonderful book. And yes, Im back to my usual blogging.

The Enemy that is Rationality in Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love

Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love begins with a tragedy, like any great novel that attempts to explore the repercussions of a single moment on an individual’s existence. During a picnic, in an open field just outside of London, the happily married Joe and Clarissa Rose witnesses the steep and out-of-control descent of a hot air balloon. Realizing that someone is in danger, Joe runs towards the scene, hoping that he has in in him to save the pilot and the child on board the balloon. He is joined by several other men, one of whom is the pony-tailed and lanky Jed Parry, a figure who will play a pivotal role in Joe and Clarissa’s life. Bound together by the desire to help yet separated by the acts they are willing to pursue and the risks they are willing to take, the group’s mission ends in a very unfortunate circumstance as one of the rescuers, a man named Logan, falls to his death. Standing over the broken and lifeless body of Logan, Parry implores Joe to fall on his knees and pray for forgiveness and clarity.  Joe, a man of science and letters, a man who takes pride in his ability to use logic and rationality at all times, dismisses his invitation. Little did Joe know, the auspicious moment marks the beginning of Parry’s romantic and wanton obsession for his “salvation” and love; a psychotic fixation that would test the limits of Joe’s belief in science and his relationship with his wife. Moving, exciting and lyrical, Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love is a narrative which dwells on the relationship between science and faith and tries to explore the new and unfamiliar realities brought about by a single event, and how the learned human mind  comes to grips with it.

What I particularly enjoyed about the novel is the sheer unreliability of the narrator. Throughout the whole novel, Joe convinces us that Parry is insane. He is a delusional Jesus-Freak who honestly and wholeheartedly believes that Joe is in love with him. He trusts that Joe’s indifference and continuous attempts to ignore and threaten him are all pleas for attention. He considers every single one of Joe’s actions as messages of passion, that the simple touch of a leaf is a proclamation of undying love. Parry is a nutcase, that much is true, but there are instances in the novel which makes us think otherwise. The way the story is laid out, the desperation oozing out of Joe, the uncharacteristic measures he takes, like how he invades Clarissa’s privacy by opening her letters, how he deletes all of Parry’s messages, and how he hides all the details of Jed’s presence in his life, is unsettling. Pretty soon, the reader begins to wonder. Is Joe leading Parry on? Is it really as one-sided as Joe makes it out to be? Or is what Joe narrating simply a ploy to make other people believe that he is merely a victim in this scenario?

Rationality too is portrayed as an antagonist in the narrative, a plot hook which compels the reader to consider the entire situation again and again. Joe’s reliance on his levelheadedness, his dependence on research, studies and the damn scientific method, is the reason why his connection was severed from Clarissa. The novel shares the unusual insight that rationality destroys, or corrupts, our basic human instinct, out capability to interact with other human beings through our emotions and our feelings. Rationality, which is in our nature, ironically, becomes unnatural. That’s why, at the end of each chapter, although we are very well aware that Joe Rose is built that way, one cannot help but wonder at the sheer sincerity of it all.

The Loveable Douchebag: On Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers

 

Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers, his first novel which was published in 1973 and was made into a movie in 1989 starring the beautiful Iona Skye (who played Diane Court in Say Anything, my favorite film of all time, despite its utter cheesiness) revolves around the pre-adult life of Charles Highsmith, a high-strung, arrogant, alcoholic, sex-craved junkie, and his pursuit to seduce a young woman named Rachel. During the chase, we also find him struggling with his hatred for his father, his sister’s hostile and cold relationship with her husband and his fearful interview that he will have to face to get into Oxford. In the midst of his attempts to get Rachel into bed, he begins what he calls The Rachel Papers, several scholarly and critical bodies of work where his plans and his ploys are, in detail, collected and archived, as well as a record of his day-to-day activities concerning the very attractive and mysterious Rachel. Eventually, like most stories that begin in the manner which I have stated, the huge prick that is our protagonist realizes that his desire for Rachel is no longer just carnal, no longer a need to simply just screw and be done away with her. Inevitably, he falls in love and longs to begin a relationship, which is complicated by sexually transmitted diseases, Rachel’s American lover, the crying and sexually-inadequate De Forest, and his almost deadly lifestyle of party drugs, unprotected sex and alcohol-binging. Regardless of the ordeal Charles’s comes into contact with, he perseveres, and eventually Rachel succumbs to his efforts. The novel, primarily, is a meditation on juvenile desire and the erotic world of the discovering and precocious pre-adult, told from the point-of-view of Charles Highsmith. At the same time, it poses the age old inquiry on what happens after a powerful and irrepressible desire for something is achieved and realized, and the subsequent decline after, which is always one of the premises which have intrigued me as both a writer and a reader.

One of the successes of this novel lies in Martin Amis’ achievement in making one of the most pretentious and vile of douche bags loveable. He is an ass and there is no reason why anyone should found him appealing. It remains a mystery why Rachel wanted him in the first place. But while reading the novel, the reader cannot help by sympathize with him, relate to his plight, root for him, and hope he wins Rachel. And this is achieved because of how the narrative continually pokes fun at Charles. Since the story is told from his eyes, from his mouth, he unknowingly exposes his weaknesses and all of the issues he attempts to bury deep in his psyche to the readers. As the story progresses, his pretentiousness, his condescension, his arrogance, his insecurities, his magnanimous inferiority complex and all of his other fragilities is made clear to the readers. This is the motivation for his insatiable appetite and for his incredible need to do acts of self-destruction. This is the reason why he thinks of himself as brilliant, as an intellectual in a sea of dunces. And while we laugh and find so much amusement in the plethora of foolish ideals and thoughts that he possesses, we somehow understand him. Despite his despotic, disgusting and decadent nature, we hope that he does get into Oxford, that he gets Rachel and that finally he confronts his father. For this, he becomes one of the most fucked-up and complex juveniles one can ever meet in literature.

On a more unscholarly note, one that forsakes everything I have learned from New Criticism, in an interview done during the initial publication of this novel, Martin Amis mentioned that the novel is in nature autobiographical. When I learned this, I am inclined to think that this is one of the flaws of the novel. Certainly, I found it riveting and interesting, I adored the very barbaric and crass language employed, but I found the character of Rachel to be quite weak (And I don’t mean to insult the real person who supposedly inspired the character, assuming that Rachel was really taken from real life). The novel never conveyed why Rachel became the object of Charles’s affection. Rachel is never shown to be ideal, desirable or even interesting. Moreover, the novel does nothing but exposes her deterioration and breaks her down into why she’s unattractive. Since I am a demanding reader, there is a part of me that think that, at some point, Rachel was portrayed negatively and unfairly. Moreover, when Charles finally leaves her after his moment of self-enlightenment, why do we sympathize more with Charles rather than her lover? Why do we feel such relief and such fulfillment at the end of the novel when Charles has gotten rid of Rachel and is left alone with his pen? Could this perhaps be the intention of Amis when he wrote the novel, for it to be his salvation, his final severance from his Rachel?