Pretty much the whole time I was reading this book, I was muttering under my breath,"this book is just crazy. It's crazy, I tell you." When I wasn't muttering however, I was highlighting beautiful passages. So, how to review it?
Over at Tin House, Danny Nowell was singing its praises this past week. Or singing the praises of it when he was in college but now he's just confused by it? It is, if nothing else, a difficult to define book.
Perhaps this unpindownable quality is what won it the National Book Award in 1962 (quite the scandal - beating out Catch-22 and Revolutionary Road) or why Modern Library ranked it #60 in its 100 Best English-Language Novels list. I had a list of those ML100s going somewhere, didn't I? (rummages in purse like old lady looking for dusty mints. emerges with used kleenex and hot wheels car). Oh well. Truthfully, its uncertain nature, while enigmatic, is actually part of the appeal, and it is something else, more than just difficult to define.
The story (what story there is) follows Binx Bolling, a New Orleans stockbroker and veteran of the Korean War. He alludes to the war, occasionally directs his narrative to old friends, presumably fellow soldiers, perhaps lost in battle, and clearly was affected by the wound he sustained there. But it's not about the war. He describes women, using vague but lustful descriptions that manage to objectify them and somehow make his obsession feel less real. But it's not about women or sex. He talks about making money, about The Search, about his family (who died), and his Aunt (who raised him), and about his cousin Kate (a bit unstable), who he ends up marrying. But it's not about any of these things either. It was influenced by Kierkegaard and existentialism, but it is not mere theory. It's also, interestingly enough, about the South I know and identify with the least. It is a South Apart, and Binx Bolling is a man apart.
So, again, I ask: how to bring you to this puzzle of a book? The best I can do is with some tastes of my reading experience. Perhaps it will intrigue you to pick it up.
The first note I made was actually an insignificant passage where Binx is describing the day and mentions "the first thunderstorm of the year" (18). I kept reading, and then I had to come back because I kept thinking about the level of attention required for someone to note the first thunderstorm of a year. It strikes me as a brilliant stroke of writing and also a window into Binx's character.
Another passage that manages to do so much is this from Aunt Emily:
It's an interesting age you will live in - though I can't say I'm sorry to miss it. But it should be quite a sight, the going under of the evening land. That's us all right. And I can tell you, my young friend, it is evening. It is very late. (54)And this long, conversational stretch:
There comes to me on the porch the voices of the morning, the quarreling late eleven o'clock sound of the redwings and the talk of the women, easy in its silences, come together, not in their likenesses (for how different they are: Sharon's studied upcountry exclamations - "I surely didn't know people ate crawfish!" - by which she means that in Eufala only Negroes eat crawfish; and my mother's steady catarrhal hum - "If Roy wants bisque this year, he'd better buy it - do you know how long it takes to make bisque?") but come together rather in their womanness and under the easy dispensation of the kitchen. (161)And though there are many more, I'll close with this clear and quiet condemnation, also from Emily:
Our civilization has achieved a distinction of sorts. It will be remembered not for its technology nor even its wars but for its novel ethos. Ours is the only civilization in history which has enshrined mediocrity as its national ideal. Others have been corrupt, but leave it to us to invent the most undistinguished of corruptions. No orgies, no blood running in the street, no babies thrown off cliffs. No, we're sentimental people and we horrify easily. (223)It is a strange little novel, but it is one I'm afraid I'm going to keep thinking about. And that's not a bad thing. Also on the list is Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins, and I am intrigued by its description. Maybe next spring.