Avoiding Clichés by Confronting Them

Emily St. John Mandel dares the readers of Last Night in Montreal early on to drop her book that starts with so many recent literary clichés. But she keeps us dangling along to figure out why a young women can’t ever stay in one place with an unflinching examination of the stereotypical protagonist in most serious novels of late. Lilia at first runs into the story with a huge sign above her head reading stock Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She is everything the sensitive, brooding Eli needs to jumpstart his crippling passive existence as a someday artist until we learn that this isn’t his journey; it’s hers. “She began to tell him a story in bed that night, a long story about deserts and aliases and driving away, motel pay phones and a blue Ford Valiant in the mountains” (25).

As alluring as the narrator, through Eli’s eyes, describes Lilia, “mind like a switchblade” (21), “four or five unevenly spaced freckles on her nose, like Lolita” (22), “sublimely abnormal” (24), I didn’t feel compelled to care for her until Mandel slowly unfolded Lilia’s conflict. It’s not just that she’s a runner, escaping the eyes of a private detective and bred for a nomadic existence, Lilia is a woman chasing after the missing part of her story. This furious pace leaves a trail of lovers/admirers behind as Michaela points out to Eli’s request to find Lilia, “‘You’d be amazed at how many people have said that in her lifetime”’ (227). And as heartless or destructive as this may seem she always remained up front with those drawn into her sphere of influence and is really the mark of someone driven by more than a desire to not be alone as Eli and Michaela share. That doesn’t necessarily create a character devoid of attachment. Lilia does want to settle down and be a part of life instead of passing through it. The attempted relationships on her trail to and in New York are evidence of that, but more so are the photographs she takes. “The pictures gave her a sense of continuity” (152). These moments of her life are important signposts along the way towards reaching that last destination on the Tiber River where “three lists fall from her hands: a list of names, ten pages, beginning and ending with Lilia; a list of places, nine pages, beginning and ending with the province of Quebec; a shorter list of words, of phrases, all Eli’s” (243).

Lilia had to gather up the setting and exposition that is the starting point of her map before she could trace out a course to the resolution she wanted to write.

I saw Lilia as Mandel wanted me to see her: someone “not missing,” someone who did “not want to be found,” someone who wished “to remain vanishing” (66) until the very end. That’s when the appealing but cliched “half mermaid, half girl” (33) became a compelling character. Something lacking in certain of my modern readings.

Love’s Labour’s Lost Review: The Continuation of the Complete Shakespeare Read-Through

Love’s Labour’s Lost

There is something truly curious about this play that I’m having a difficult time putting a finger on. I believe Shakespeare is sharing more about knowledge and wisdom than at first glance and it is making my brain itch in trying to pin point a conclusion about it.

Beyond the amazing word play that paints too perfectly how knowledge, especially only found in books, is not the concrete end goal to happiness or even wisdom there are so many more parts which contribute to a philosophy about learning that I must focus on one. Shakespeare gives us a key to true wisdom in Act III, Scene 1 through a moral and l’envoi or postscript/explanation. Armado says, “The fox, the ape, and the humble-bee/Were still at odds, being but three” (46). Mote adds the explanation to it, “Until the goose came out of door,/And stayed the odds by adding four” (46). Some scholars explain this away as a topical joke about certain officials in governing positions at the time, but an easier explanation can be found when applying these creatures to characters in the play as well as influences governing decisions inside of us.

The fox is known for its wit and problem solving especially when seeking a way out of circumstances that don’t agree with its natural way of living. A perfect fit for this quick animal is Berowne as he has wit to spare and is very good at finding pathways out of the secluded study quest that the King proposes at the beginning of the play. Another suitable way to see Berowne as the fox figure is through his sonnet.

“If love make me forsworn, how shall I swear to love?

Ah, never faith could hold, if not to beauty vowed!

Though to myself forsworn, to thee I’ll faithful prove;

Those thoughts to me were oaks, to thee like osiers bowed                 (IV.2.52)

The first four lines eloquently restate the logical flips Berowne is so adept at to achieve his goals. He is a problem solver that will sprout up as many thoughts as possible to find a way to get out of the latest foxhole. And thinking is the point for this influence. Berowne represents the part of us capable of connecting and twisting what we see into something according with our desires. We can’t expect to get far without first knowing what we want and having the capability to manipulate knowledge towards getting it.

Then there is the ape. An animal long connected with the concept of imitating or copying, but more specifically reflection. In this mirror we see everything about us, good and evil. Again Shakespeare makes plain the King’s role in his sonnet.

Nor shines the silver moon one-half so bright

Through the transparent bosom of the deep

As doth thy face, through tears of mine, give light;

Thou shin’st in every tear that I do weep                                 (IV.3.53)

The King shows his love to the Princess with words that emphasize reflection like a mirror. He believes her face better reflects light than the water does the moon and tells of how every tear of his will also reflect her face. Together they can be each other’s mirrors and help each other see the good with the intent of emphasizing it and the bad that they can hopefully stifle or obscure.

Shakespeare doesn’t follow the simple route in applying the last two beasts to the other men in the quartet, rather the two leading ladies symbolize the humble-bee and the goose. Rosaline best plays out the role of the humble-bee: a bug that diligently out works any other in the insect world for the good of the whole. Although she limits her speech, insight towards this outlook can be found in her appeal to Berowne or rather her appeal to put his great wit to a more diligent and humbling form of work.

How I would make him fawn, and beg, and seek,

And wait the season, and observe the times,

And spend his prodigal wits in bootless rhymes,

And shape his service wholly to my hests,

And make him proud to make me proud that jests!                 (V.2.61)

Rosaline is going to make Berowne into a working man that will conform to not only nature, time, but of course her own behests. Along with making him use his great wits and jests, she will teach him how to use them for the services of others and be proud/humble that it is for someone else’s benefit and not his own. Rosaline doesn’t just say this, she demands to see him put his wits to humble work of making the “speechless sick” (V.2.73) smile for a year before she will even consider him for marriage. A humble-bee indeed.

The Princess, lastly, is the goose. From her introduction outside the gates of Navarre’s court, to the end of the play when she learns of her father’s death the Princess is the epitome of perseverance in the face of everything, especially nature. She is also the one that gets the boys to literally come out of doors to pursue the women. Her speech is filled with nature references and her will cannot be stopped even by the sudden news of her dead dad. She sets on her way to fill her mourning duties and gives the King a way to show he still has a chance if he preservers with his original oath “Remote from all the pleasures of the world;” (V.2.73), in other words a more natural and isolated setting. And just to make it more clear, she tells him

If frosts and fasts, hard lodging, and thin weeds

Nip not the gaudy blossoms of your love,

But that it bear this trial, and last love,

Then, at the expiration of the year…

I will be thine;                                                              (V.2.73)

If nature doesn’t cool his love for her, she will know that he is worthy of it.

So is this the philosophy of wisdom Shakespeare so cunningly hid in his play for other curious young men and women to follow when that onset of adulthood approaches? Wisdom is yours if you can set the different pushing and pulling thoughts inside of you into a triad of problem solving, reflection, and diligence; then set that triangular perspective on the world outside of you with a perseverance that won’t be stopped by the spring, winter, birth, and death. Speaking of spring and winter, Shakespeare gives us plenty to fear and look forward to when they come around as sung in the closing of the play.

But whether my interpretation stands the test of time or not I also imagine there is a lot to be read into the gifts or love tokens the men gave to the women. Perhaps there is something more about knowledge and how we view the world upon closer inspection of the suitors’ four attempts at making a match. As always, Shakespeare has more on his plate to offer than I can digest. Hopefully with the second complete Shakespeare read-through I’ll be ready for more.

Infinite Jest Review/Soliloquizing (Of Course There’s Spoilers)

It took just under seven months to get through the tome that is Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace or DFW as the hundreds of posters before me have shorthanded. Honestly, it really didn’t feel that long especially after the 300 to 400 page mark where story beats and my own understanding of the characters ratcheted up to a very quick pace. It is long and involves dedication to get through, but overall it is definitely not some highly encrypted vault waiting for only the most intellectual of the bunch to break into. DFW even addresses this in the book through Hugh Steeply’s discussion of his father becoming fixated on the television show M.A.S.H. Other examples abound of addiction, which is one of the major themes, but I believe it’s to highlight something bigger in that we all have the same capabilities inside us. Anyone could read this book and be just as hooked on the intricacies of relationships and the fictional universe supplied here as they can with Harry Potter, the Marvel cinematic and comic book worlds, or hundreds of other television shows out there. We enjoy escaping into mythic worlds where we can recount the first time Ron showed feelings of more than friendship towards Hermione, how the Phoenix and Jean Grey were really two separate beings, or why a shoelace touching a public men’s room floor is a good enough excuse for Jerry to throw out his shoes. Those outside worlds that we take and make our own are so enticing because they’re easy to understand and easy to consume. We got a firm grip on them and thus we have a firm grip on life, or do we? Like the best, DFW doesn’t give you an answer because there really isn’t one. The question is the important part.

Like the question of communication. This is probably the most attractive theme from Infinite Jest for me, the addicted reader, because it is so illusive but so damn important in stepping away from fiction and into reality. I am horrible about communicating out loud, much like the protagonist Hal, and it creates so much conflict in dealing with the outside world. But this is not about me, it’s about Hal. Infinite Jest is Hal’s story; something I suspected (and Robert H. Bell or William R. Kenan, Jr or William C. Dowling [professors that posted together? about Infinite Jest] also stated) about halfway through the book but didn’t confirm until the ending and then rereading of the opening episode in which a hospital worker looks down at him and says, “So yo then man what’s your story?” Which is also a great way of emulating or mirroring Hamlet’s final request of Horatio to tell the world/Fortinbras what has happened. I think I also need to mention Hamlet is my favorite Shakespeare play; similar themes of communication and such that I haven’t been able to run away from yet or ever. And there’s the silver lining that lends hope to both of these tragedies. The protagonists’ stories do get told and, we can surmise, heard. The mouthpiece of these stories may be unconventional at first glance, but upon closer examination (I sound like Freud from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure in my head here) it is the most true expression of character.

Himself, the Mad Stork, the Sad Stork, Dr. James Orin Incandenza, Hal/Inc.’s father (more great hints at character’s inability to express one true self to others) film career surrounded around the use of multiple lenses, some he created himself, to make art house pictures. These multiple eyes into the film director’s vision encapsulates the physical book Infinite Jest and Hal’ story. The reader doesn’t get chapters, we get scenes told through multiple lenses directed by Hal. His voice carries through/morphs with/fixes/suppresses/submits to dozens of other character’s voices and points of views with the purpose of, again, telling Hal’s story. And this is the only way Hal can communicate his identity, by accepting and using the influences around him. At first it may sound depressing that Hal’s identity isn’t fully formed by his will, morals, and principles but – now we get to come full circle – no one is. All those other lenses/voices Hal uses to tell his story are not solely identified by the owners. Each of them has influences pushing and pulling at them to varying degrees invisibly. Hal is our protagonist because he has seen all the strings and now tugs back to make an entertainment filled with infinite jest.

Well that’s as much as my morning clarity will allow because there are so many more pieces that DFW uses to beautiful effect in a novel that will probably be another lens added to the distortion of seeing my true self.

P.S. I’m going to cheat and use this post as a review on Goodreads as well. Shocking!