Thursday, November 15, 2012

Walking with a mask on, believing it's your face

The novel was a combination of fictional and true accounts which are loosely based on “the history of psychology and the real-life experiences of British army officers being treated for shell shock during World War I at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh (The War Poets at Craiglockhart)”. It consisted of four parts centered mostly on three characters (Rivers, Sassoon and Prior) but also delved on mental struggles of other discharged soldiers suffering from their experiences while in the battlefied; and how individuals cope and move on from these burdens.

The protagonist Siegfried Sassoon declares that the war the British are fighting for is no longer a justifiable course of action, and he laments that they no longer have a true cause that empowers them through their service as soldiers. This he used as inspiration and form of catharis in the various poetry he writes. He was dispatched to a mental ward in the care of the psychoanalyst W.H.R Rivers who was a recognized doctor in his field. In the hopes of ‘curing’ him from his ‘pacifist’ ways, the readers are taken into a very intimate scrutiny of the psyche of different characters other than Sassoon. There is also Sergeant Burns who struggles to eat food after a bomb explosion threw him head-first into a gas-filled belly of a corpse that caused him to swallow some of the rotting flesh; Anderson, a former surgeon who now goes into a catatonic state in the presence of blood; Willard, who insisted that his spine is damaged although there is no physical evidence to show it, but it has rendered him unable to believe he can walk; and finally, Billy Prior, with selective mutism and asthma, whose arrogance and refusal of treatment from Rivers explores the power struggle between patient and doctor. Other supporting characters include Wilson Owen, a fellow poet who has hero-worship for Sassoon, and Sarah Lumb, Prior’s girlfriend who works at a factory that handles bomb detonators. With so many enigmatic characters, this work of fiction was able to deliver an intensive and humane look on the turmoils of war in a more psychological aspect and how they translate to the physical manifestations.

"The process of transformation consists almost entirely of decay" ~W.H.R. Rivers


My personal favorite character is Rivers because the doctor has steel nerves especially during the last portions of the book where he observes a fellow colleague, Dr. Yealland, perform electric shocks on a patient with mutism. His detached demeanor does not reflect the intense nature of his intellectual mind which allows him to see things clearly and more sensibly; recognizing that the men under his care need treatment which will open them up emotionally, rather than come up with an ultimate cure. This makes him serve noble intentions even if he himself is haunted by the hopelessness of some of his patients’ inner worlds.

Sassoon’s poetry are rich with allegory, and their passages in the book—as well as the process in which he revises and improves them—are entertaining to read. Sassoon’s stand against war does not directly make him a pacifist, and that paradox is what kept me reading because I wanted to know exactly why Sassoon was able to fight in a war he never believed in at all. Meanwhile, Prior’s personality is the most intriguing of the three. He is more able to act on his feelings no matter how ugly they are as oppose to Rivers who is still professionally responsive and Sassoon who retreats to his poetry. Still, he carries the most bondage of them as well, unable to adjust to an ordinary life outside of his experiences in the war.

I enjoyed reading and comparing the states of minds among Rivers, Sassoon and Prior, as well as the relationships and emotional bonds formed within. Both Sassoon and Prior see Rivers as a father figure but with a maternal presence. But Sassoon and Prior’s responses to this are essentially different. While Sassoon accepts Rivers because he was filling in a hole left by his own father whom he never knew, Prior subtly retaliates every time Rivers tries to understand him because Prior’s own relationship with his real father—who only visited him one time in the ward—was already fractured to begin with. As chemical as Prior and Rivers are because of the tension between them, Sassoon’s ways of relating to Rivers and vice-versa are more explorative because both men respect each other even if their ideals are barely similar.


The most invigorating aspect of this book is that it deconstructs gender roles in times of war where masculine fortitude is challenged by the traumatic experiences men undergo when in battle for their lives, while the women back at home has now taken on more assertive and independent roles. Prior makes this observation with Sarah Lumb whom he meets one night as he was drinking at a bar and forms a relationship with her, secretly drawn to her strength and invulnerability that contrasted his own frailty (“women have expanded in all kinds of ways, whereas men over the same period had shrunk into a smaller and smaller space”).

In the middle of the second part of the book, Rivers contemplates the notion that the war was advertised by the government in which men can prove themselves with traditionally heroic male feats, yet the reality portrays that these very same men, once in the battefields, are “crouching in a dugout, waiting to be killed,” and that “the war that had promised so much in a way of manly activity had actually delivered ‘feminine’ passitivity and on a scale that their mothers and sisters had scarcely known. No wonder they broke down.” Sassoon addresses that the war has questioned the standard roles of men in the society, especially among men of military service, and he realized that such fixed roles of power, strength and infallibility attached to men are the reasons why they were easily damaged in the first place (“You’re walking with a mask on and you want to take it off but you can’t because they all think it’s your face”).

I also read online that there are two sequels that followed this story, and they explored themes of homosexuality in time of war as well. I definitely saw that possibility in my course of reading this novel. The male characters are extremely well-written and their relationships are intricately woven in the story so well that it will not surprise me if that theme may serve as an enrichment to an already layered storytelling which breathes the psychologically sublime.


Regeneration is the first volume of the trilogy, followed by The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road (which I’m still trying to get at least PDF copies of). It was a story of the vitality of change in a collapsing world where the traditional values and roles of men are being deconstructed through the ailments of war and the emerging sexual politics in that period of history. I was happy to read something other than the usual violence and gore found in most works of fiction like this, and that was what made this book so unique and intimate to read. Still, I recognize that this biographical sort of genre on wars is an acquired taste so I’m taking that into consideration in rating this book. I believe that it can beautifully translate in a cinematic adaptation, however, but that would entail a film that relies on the strength of its character dynamics enhanced by symbolic visuals. To anyone interested in expanding their usual taste in literature, this book is highly recommended!


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Down, down the rabbit hole..

I should state from here on out that I intensely identify with Lewis Caroll's Alice and that I've considered her as a fictional counterpart, most especially Alan Moore's re-imagining of this character in Lost Girls. Last year, while working late night at our student publication's office, I came across a manual for artists which belong to the art section, and it listed Bryan Talbot's Alice in Sunderland as one of the references. I was immediately intrigued because it was an Alice-based graphic novel, and I knew Talbot from his illustrations in The Sandman volume 6. I was able to download a .cbr copy and I only scanned through the pages and realized that it was not a linear narrative structure but more of a historical thesis in sequential art form.

It was only in the Manila International Book Fair that September when I was happy to see a singular hardbound copy of this book. I took it home and began to read. Alice in Sunderland is a challenging visual experience; it's engrossing in many parts but nevertheless an often historical lecture on the origins of Caroll's creation of the Alice/Wonderland lore that could be very trying for one's attention span. The stylistic language and presentation of this book resemble what Alice might have felt when she fell down the rabbit hole, and readers will get to experience the same stressful effect because reading through this is overwhelming at times. One thing I can guarantee is that this piece of work is not bland even when it's confusing. The writing is quite schizophrenic; one moment it's a documentary with an omniscient third-person narrator talking to the audience and the next it's split into anecdotes and flash fiction weaved into several disjointed arcs.

What I can suggest when consuming this book is to take a break every once in a while and don't attempt to read this in one sitting or it will dilute your appreciation for both its form and content. Talbot infused this tapestry of stories with pages and pages of allegory, alliteration and every kind of figurative language that it's often indulgent and verbose for its own good. Nevertheless, one can forgive the book's unreliable narrator, and truly enjoy the scope of Alice in Sunderland as an exceptional work of the imagination. The book also attempts to juxtapose Sunderland's history and the history of comics as influenced by Caroll's Alice legends.

This is not the kind of book a reader should expect emotional pay-off from. Upon finishing it, all that is left is the realization that Alice is Sunderland has better parts than its entirety, but it is nonetheless audacious and thrilling. The visual landscapes and setting are some of the best drawings and illustrations I have encountered. Those alone should be enough to make this book a worthwhile occupation.

* Visually challenging and sensually appealing all at once.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Going, going, going, gone

I knew little of Michael Cunningham’s work (I just knew that he wrote The Hours which was an Academy Award-winning film my parents loved) so I had no fixed expectations. I gave myself four days to finish this book but managed to do so in three days. That’s how captivating it was. Cunningham’s experimental fiction was masterfully told, like a musical composition that rises and falls with the right notes. In Specimen Days, he writes in three genres, dividing the book into three breathtaking novellas.


"A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands; How could I answer the child?… .I do not know what it is any more than he.” ~Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

(1) “In The Machine” A Historical Dickensian Tale

The first novella was written in the boy Lucas’ POV. It was set sometime during the industrialization age of America. Lucas’ brother Simon has just died and this left his fiancee Catherine uncared for and with child. Though aready shouldering the financial burden of supporting his parents, thirteen-year-old Lucas still felt it was his responsibility to watch out after Catherine. He was a peculiar boy, reciting Walt Whitman poetry as his way to express his feelings or to make conversation. Through Lucas’ narrations, Cunningham’s knack for weaving lyrical phrases is astounding. The paragraphs contain such breathless pacing and descriptive precision which magnified the strength of Lucas’ evocative insights about his surroundings as he tries to understand the concept of labor and death. He wants to de-mystify such adult concepts and it is Whitman’s poetry that guides him. At the very heart of it all, Lucas begins to explore the possibility that his brother’s soul was trapped inside the welding machinery that Lucas uses at his work in the factory. Believing that if men die and they spread out among the leaves and grass (as Whitman eloquently wrote), Lucas was convinced that ghosts dwell among the machinery across New York, including the sewing machine that Catherine tends to at her own workplace. He ventures on to save her.

For such a comical angle to the story, Cunningham was still able to approach it with great sensitivity, providing passages that brood over the simplest but unanswered questions about life which gives Lucas’ character a crushing sort of loneliness. He is a child who tries to make sense of the world by allowing poetry to fill the gaps. It’s a feat that manages to intensify the reading experience even more, and Cunningham drives it home by using Lucas’ “ghost” as an allegory of the American industrialization’s hovering presence, and the gradual withdrawal of human spirit from the organic towards the mechanical. Lucas’ belief of souls being trapped in the machines is a symbolism easy to pick up on, but Cunningham’s beautifully convoluted prose is rich with details that it was able to keep everything subtle. The climactic ending was even transitory to the next novella. Reading In the Machine was like stumbling in the dark, and trusting all the sensory directions given, but never truly seeing the big picture forming until the novel moves into the second story.

"And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier."

(2) “The Children’s Crusade” A Detective Psychological Thriller

The sudden shift of genre by the second novella was not at all jarring. This time it was set on a post-9/11 New York with Cat Martin, a forensic psychologist, as a focus character. She works for a hotline division who handles calls from possible terrorists. She got a message from a young boy who talked about “the family” and recites mantras like "Every atom belonging to you as well belongs to me," which she recognized to be a verse from a Walt Whitman poem. Days after, news of child terrorists have spread across the city, claiming both the rich and the poor as victims of homemade bombs. At first glance, this story doesn’t have any sort of connection to the first one until the reader realizes that Cat was short for “Catherine” and her boyfriend’s name is “Simon” and she has a son named “Luke” whom she lost to an illness. But these are differrent characters with the same names and are a century apart from each other, yet Cunningham weaves these two stories—one of the past and one from the somewhat present—as a dissonance of worlds that are created through the choices of these three central characters. Whatever the boy Lucas from the first story feared about then, those ghosts he talked about, have now taken shape into something horribly concrete in Cat Martin’s New York where a heightened sense of paranoia and grief is exploited by a terrorist cell composed of children.

It was a detective story, hard-boiled and suspenseful with every turn of the page—right until the moment of a chance meeting between Cat and one of the child terrorists. In this story, Cunningham delves into the scarlet thread so immensely significant in detective stories and The Children’s Crusadebecame a harrowing tale that overflows with the twisted reflections of humanity’s fears. It was by this installment that I started to tear up completely because Cunningham has a way to string along certain phrases that provokes such a visceral, emotional response that a reader just surrenders without even knowing it. It was juxtaposed perfectly with In The Machine, especially since he used the three characters (Catherine, Simon and Lucas) as representations of man, woman and child; three aspects poignantly enhanced by the last novella.

"Fear not O Muse! truly new ways and days receive, surround you,

And yet the same old human race, the same within, without,

Faces and hearts the same, feelings the same, yearning the same

The same old love, beauty and use the same.”

(3) “Like Beauty” A Sci-Fi Love Story About Birth and Destination

The final novella was set 150 years in the future in New York. Humans have already made first contact with aliens and they are lizard life-forms called Nadians who are now living as refugees in planet Earth. They are domestic helpers, treated as secondary citizens and enslaved by mankind. Simon—a biomechanical cyborg—is the focus character, and he was programmed as a mugger in the New York streets, sought after by tourists who want to be victimized because of the adrenaline release it provides. He was captivated by a Nadian called Catareen whom he starts an adventure with when they decided to escape to Denver. On the road, they met a homeless boy posing as Jesus in a Halloween costume named Lucas. This story was the most challenging of the three because it was science fiction and there is always a strange pull with this genre that Cunningham was able to give justice to. Simon was a biomechanical conception; half-human and half-machine (a literal representation of Lucas’ ghost of a brother from the first story) and his ‘maker’ has included Whitman poetry in his software which he recites every time under duress. What follows after is a redemptive tale about the power of technology and a more humane understanding of how it can enrich lives instead of destroy them.

There is an enduring quality to the prose of this story that was magnified by the previous events from In The Machine and The Children’s Crusade. It seemed to me that these versions of Simon, Catherine and Lucas are products of the past and present colliding together to form a future defined by beginnings and endings that mirror each other. So many imagery and symbolism come full circle by this last story. Religious allegories were also used. I was listening to Death Cab For Cutie’s “Tiny Vessels” so I was positively imbued with emotions and sensations that can only be expressed in tears. It didn’t feel cheesy at all because it seemed like a perfectly acceptable response to cry about this book because of its overwhelming poetry in its vitalizing prose.


Overall, Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days is a treasure. As you read through, it feels like seeds are sprouting out from your heart and flourishes within, transforming you as a reader into a person more aware of transience and embracing its trappings.


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Unlikely heroine defying gravity

This was a marvelously entertaining book and I certainly appreciated the re-imaginings of Maguire about Oz, its inhabitants and principal characters. I enjoyed the social strife among the citizens of Oz, that crisp political atmosphere that enticed me for pages and pages—yet I wasn’t really as invested as I hoped I would be when this book was recommended to me two years ago. I knew about the musical, sure, and I love that, but my enjoyment of this novel was not attached to that anyway so I mean it objectively when I say that I was not satisfied at all when I finished. It’s definitely a mix of good and bad parts.

This is in no way to say that Wicked is not as amazing as people say it is; I find it charming and philosophical in such a quirky sense that kept me reading. And I will keep reading the next two books as well because I wanted to see how Maguire managed to develop the plot from here on. Truth for the matter, my slight (and very slight) disappointment was more on the fact that I didn’t like Elphaba (or the Wicked Witch) at all, or at least relate to her in such a way that kept me excited and emotionally invested in her transition from the sly and individualistic adolescent to a progressive, powerful witch. I did like how Maguire re-told Oz through her, but I think I wasn’t as intrigued by her personal history as I was with the social strife happening among the secondary characters. I was expecting that I would consider her my favorite character as the story developed, but my fondness for her started to dwindle in the middle chapters. I know that Maguire wrote Wicked with the understanding that “good” and “evil” are not always what they seem to be, and so he wrote a lead character with a story that questions noble intentions and atrocities of human nature. However, I wasn’t entirely convinced of the point he’s making. There are far better fantasy-oriented books that tackled this dichotomy more intensively and perhaps this is why Wicked's appeal in that arena fell short to me. Elphaba is a great character for all her flaws and ruthlessness, her inquisitive mind and volatile personality. Her confrontations with the Wizard and Dorothy are immensely entertaining to read because of their absurdities which are beautifully tinged with sadness. But I just wasn't buying her character until the very end.

I personally think that the failing of making Elphaba a more believable anti-hero is that Maguire can’t seem to decide whether to condone or condemn her; and therein lies the conundrum, isn’t it? It would have worked too as an effective allegory for the treacherous dichotomy of people when it comes to morality yet on some parts of the book Maguire tries too hard to make Elphaba sympathetic that he sometimes antagonizes the other characters in the process. He had to heighten whatever monstrosity the Wizard is just so he could justify Elphaba’s choices. He had to trivialize Dorothy as well, as if by doing so it would make Elphaba the girl to root for, as well as emphasized that this work of literature is about the Wicked Witch not Dorothy. It’s forgivable, though, considering that Maguire must be more inclined to make Elphaba a likeable lead since most of the chapters are told from her perspective. Even when he’s narrating through other characters like G(a)linda, Boq, Fiyero or Sarima, all of whom are brilliant and well-crafted characters but were nonetheless pushed into the background abruptly in order to pave way for Elphaba. This was okay, considering the intention of the author, but as a reader who had been more interested in secondary characters lately especially in fantasy novels, I was starting to feel like my interest for them is being neglected, and that leaves me irritated. I know Elphaba is the titular character but it bothers me that Maguire created other amazing characters, only to be overshadowed by the Witch (Elphaba) who I maintain was not that enticing anymore as the story progressed. In fact, most times they just react to her character instead of standing alone by themselves. And when they do, it doesn’t seem quite enough. Their potentials have to be set aside because it’s Elphaba the author and the readers should be more concerned about.

My final criticism can be remedied in the following books, I hope. The socio-political conflict in Oz and the inhabitants need to be examined more. I’m sure Maguire can deliver that by the second book because that is the aspect of the story that I thoroughly got delighted about (and that’s partly because Elphaba’s charm was entirely lost to me at this point). Maguire’s premise about the nature of good and evil—how to define them, if there are similar planes of existence between them, or if they are forever entwined—is an interesting angle, but there’s still more depth and breadth to get into so I have no verdict on this aspect of the plot. The philosophical approach about it was more personal (mostly on Elphaba’s view) than transcendent, and that’s probably why I wasn’t buying the whole thing because there was nothing definitively transformative about Maguire’s concept. I was riveted, but it did not make me question my views of the world and people unlike when I read Alan Moore’s Watchmen and V for Vendetta which I think was the kind of message in his literature that Maguire aimed for but has not gotten to there yet, at least not in this book—or perhaps not for this story (I’m looking forward to reading Lost and Mirror, Mirror in my second Book Diet). I think it has more to do with the way he defines the dichotomy instead of going beyond that and without achieving that, the writing of such delicate subject becomes locked in the conventions of the fantasy-fairytale genre which Wicked is already limited to.

Yet for all the shortcomings that I’ve noticed in this novel, I know it can be redeemed by the next installments so I’ll pick the Wicked Years once more by next year. For a dazzling read, this is a good book and quite easy to enjoy.