education

THE STARS MY DESTINATION BY ALFRED BESTER

Now listen to me: I’m not really into sci-fi; never been a big fan, me. Yeah, I read some Lem, back aways, but that was different, see. I was never crazies for spaceships and green fellas, not even as a little un. Not that I’m close-minded, me. No, not this guy. Just knows what I likes, don’t I? But then last week I was strugglin’ worse than a dog with a cone on its head tryin’ to lick its own balls. Every book I picked up made me nervous-like and weary as all hell. I said to myself: you can’t do it, man. Can’t read another one of those books, not you. All the things I usually enjoy seemed too serious, too uncomfortable. I needed somethin’ else, you dig me? I needed another kind of book, otherwise I’d’ve jacked it all in. And then what else would I do? Learn French? I needed a breather, is all. Spaceships and green fellas.

So, me I picks up this sci-fi book from the fifties called The Stars My Destination. Guy called Alfred Bester, he wrote it. I’m no expert with this particular type a thing, but I likes to think myself knowledgeable-like, and yet I never heard of him. So then a course I wasn’t expectin’ much, except maybe a lark, is all. A breather, see. But when I read the first page I was gobsmacked. It starts: ‘he was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead.’ And I thinks to myself: By God, that’s bloody good, that is. That reads like serious writin’, does that. I carry on, and it carry on: ‘he was delirious and rotting, but occasionally his primitive mind emerged from the burning nightmare of survival into something resembling sanity.’ And at this point I checks the front of the book because I wants to make sure I’m not bein’ duped, and it says, clear as a bell, The Stars My Destination.

“This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living and hard dying… but nobody thought so. This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice… but nobody admitted it. This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks… but nobody loved it.”

I shouldn’t’ve started with praisin’ the writing. That’s not how this reviewin’ lark is done, a course. But I’m just a gutter mouth, an uneducated heel; I’m not trained for this sort a thing, me. I says with my gutter tongue whatever comes down from my gutter mind first, and that was it, see. So anyways turns out Bester could write like a motherfucker, is all; and I was primed and hot for his book pretty quick out the traps. Gully Foyle’s who I should a started with, but it’s too late now. Gully’s the dying man who’s not yet dead. That tells you somethin’. Not dead. Things are bad and yet he’s survivin’. He’s a strong man, see. Plucky and durable. But that’s not all. It’s emphasised that he’s rough and brutish; a common man, it’s said, but he ain’t so common, you’ll see. A big dumb ox, Jiz calls him. A murderer, a rapist, you’ll see. Gully don’t play square.

Quick out the traps, the big dumb ox came a favourite of mine. Not just in this book, in all books. He’s dying on a ship called Nomad, and other ship called Vorga passes him by. Leaves him to die filthy, see. Gully wants revenge on Vorga. Filthy revenge is his motivation; it opens the door. Never come across such a single-minded character, me. There’s nothin’ he won’t do, for Vorga; there’s nothin’ inside ‘but hatred and revenge.’ And the big dumb book is really interestin’ in this way, because this monomania of Gully’s pushes him to extraordinary lengths and has him doin’ extraordinary things. This passion for revenge spurs him to escape the Nomad, for a start. His obsession makes him clever, resourceful, brave. He breaks out of Gouffre Martel too, and ain’t nobody ever done that before. But also it’s illogical, his quest, his mindset, as all monomania, all desire for revenge, is. Why punish Vorga, Gully? Why not be happy to be alive and free a the Nomad, son? It takes over his life; it ruins his life, see.

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Everywhere that Gully goes, mayhem and suffering comes doggin’ on his heels. He’s a walking cancer, it’s said. Revenge is destructive and filthy. Rottin’ the big dumb ox and anyone else around. And what happens when Vorga’s gone? What then, boy? Thing about monomania is, there’s no after, see. Ain’t nobody thinks a that when they in it. But anyways Gully’s ‘inspired to greatness by Vorga.’ Brutish greatness, sure; and as a readin’ experience that’s all big dumb fun, is all. But that’s not all, see. When the ox meets Jiz, Jizbella, she says to ‘punish the brain not the ship.’ She means that Gully’s been wrong-minded about the Vorga business, like a man who curses the sky when a bird shits on his head. Because he’s primitive, see. Punish the brain, the people on board, those who gave the order to pass. This is the beginnin’ of his education, the crucial first step towards logic, and reasoning and enlightenment, rather than just blind fury.

Education is key, folks. The common man, the big dumb ox don’t have to ever always remain thus. He can be lifted up, borne aloft on knowledge and reasoning and logic. Gully educates himself for Vorga, sure, but he educates himself nevertheless, see. He betters himself, for Vorga. He learns to speak not in the gutter tongue, for example, so that he can ilfultrate high society, is all. But this learning, this knowledge, makes him a better man in the end. I’m not explainin’ this right, a course, because I’m just a heel, me. But I hope you get me just a little bit. The juantes, the telepathy, the other worlds, the green fellas and spaceships, that’s all dandy, see, big dumb fun for the big dumb ox in all a us. But there’s more to this, is all. The Stars My Destination asks a question a you: what makes life worthwhile? A goal? An obsession? Not always for Vorga, no, but power, money, and all that jazz, too? And what about the rest a you, without that goal or that obsession. What do you do? Sittin’ round in your pants stuffin’ your ox face, watchin’ bigger ox on tv jest for your entertainment, while the obsessed obsess to keep you dumb. This is a book about what it is to live, you. All a you. Every you.

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TOO LOUD A SOLITUDE BY BOHUMIL HRABAL

This is not a love story. It was once, but my relationship with books has soured. Reading is, these days, like swallowing a cheap broth, one that contains the occasional scrap of meat, but which is, for the most part, thin, watery and bitter. Yet as a child I would avoid school and every day take myself to the local library. I would stand before the shelves in awe, almost afraid to touch, as I was so unused to things offering themselves to me. The rows seemed endless, unconquerable; and yet I perhaps now own more books than that library ever contained. I own so many; too many. But really they own me, and they oppress me. What was once my passion has become my prison. In my room I am surrounded on all sides by shaky towers of books. It is as though I am trying to wall myself in, when in fact I want to break out. I fantasise about giving them all away or creating a huge pyre and setting fire to it. Yet books, I’m told, do not burn. So picking up Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude seems, at best, like a form of masochism. Not only is it a book, but it is a book about the value of books and the pleasures of reading. The value of books and the pleasure of reading? I am convinced that one day my towers will fall and crush me. They are crushing me already, slowly but surely. Too Loud A Solitude is narrated by Haňt’a, a man who for thirty-five years has been compacting wastepaper, smearing himself with letters until, he says, he has come to resemble an encyclopaedia. As a character, he is the Hrabalian archetype, which is to say that he seems naive, perhaps at times even something of an idiot, but is, simultaneously, unassumingly, capable of great insight or displays of great intelligence. He is a man, a drunk you might say, who, for example, will sit dreaming at a bar and when he moves to open his wallet will fling upon the counter a mouse or let fall one from his trouser-leg. Yet he also quotes Nietzsche, Hegel, Rimbaud and Kant. Although lacking in formal education, Haňt’a is well read, having received an ‘unwitting education’ from the books he saves from destruction, from the jaws of his press, and takes home. In this way, I am reminded again of that child, myself as a child, standing before the seemingly endless rows of books, timidly reaching out my hand. Where would I be without the activity that I now so disparage, which gave me my own unwitting education? At least Haňt’a has the good grace to feel gratitude. He writes, lovingly, lovely lines about popping a sentence into his mouth and sucking it like a fruit drop, lines about thoughts that dissolve within him, infusing his brain and heart. Am I so bitter these days that I cannot acknowledge how beautiful that is? For Haňt’a education allows, or gives birth to, thought; without access to profound ideas, one cannot have profound ideas of one’s own; one’s brain remains foetal. Yet, for me, education was a means of escape from a situation I found intolerable, from an environment that was harmful. My mother, bless her, cried at the station as I boarded the train that was taking me away to university. She cried, I’m sure, because she understood that I had dug my way out, which is something she had once hoped for herself but never achieved; and books had been my tools, books it was that had broken the earth; without them I would have exhausted myself frantically clawing at the hard surface without making an impression. Haňt’a, however, is much less demanding of life than I was. One does not get the impression that he has ambitions to be elevated above his current station; and yet books allow him to escape too. He is so good-natured that it would be easy to take lightly how heavy-hearted a man might feel deep in a mouse-infested cellar, compacting wastepaper, day in and day out, for thirty-five years; all while living in a police-state; a police-state that doesn’t look too kindly upon books, to boot. It is no surprise, therefore, that he drinks; and it is no surprise that this underground man values, and takes pleasure in, the printed words that transport him to another, better world. Our world, Haňt’a repeatedly informs us, is not humane; and he, furthermore, provides the reader with numerous examples of this inhumanity, such as the working girls who draw the insides from still living chickens and his gypsy lover who is murdered in a concentration camp. Yes, there is a cellar-deep strain of melancholy running through the book, although it is easy to miss it, to be seduced into missing it by the soothingly good-natured, and unassuming, voice of the narrator. Indeed, Too Loud a Solitude is a book of contrasts of this sort: Haňt’a, the wise fool, the intellectual simpleton, who decorates his bails of wastepaper with art and rare books, like flowers in the barrels of guns; Haňt’a, the ‘refined butcher’, the cultured artist and the destroyer of culture. Doesn’t this topsy-turviness, this two-facedness, sum up human existence? The supreme and the inhumane, the good and the bad, love and hate, creation and destruction, suffering and joy, etc. Just look at Manka, poor Manka, the pretty girl who, when at her most divine, her most winning, twice falls foul of faeces. And Haňt’a too, who takes pride in his work – which is itself a kind of shitting, what with paper going in one end and lumpy bails coming out the other – to such an extent that he wishes to purchase his press for his retirement; Haňt’a, poor Haňt’a, who falls foul, not of faeces, but progress, inhumane progress. Ah, how beautiful the world’s hands are, but how dirty its fingernails. Bohumil Hrabal, as much as any writer, understood this; and I can’t help but love him for it, even now. So I guess that this is a love story, in the end. Yet it is the worst kind of love, the kind that flickers with life, that occasionally reminds you of what you once had, that tricks you, for a short time, into thinking that you will have it again.

THE ASSISTANT BY BERNARD MALAMUD

Fucking hell. This has to be a contender for the most miserable novel of all time. In fact, only Germinal by Emile Zola could legitimately wrench the title from its grasp, and that book is so monumentally bleak that there are probably Goth kids right now reading it backwards. Tellingly, both Germinal and The Assistant deal with poverty. Of course there are a lot of really terrible things that can happen to a human being, but the constant worry, shame and ill-health caused by having no money is a particularly potent kind of misery. I know, i’ve been there. I was raised without prospects, in dire poverty. It was the kind of situation where if we ate well – my brother and I – then our mother could not, because she couldn’t afford to; if she bought us shoes, she went without. A lot of the time I was unhappy, and scared. Everything was strained. I lived constantly on the look out for the next disaster…bailiffs trying to kick the door down, the flat we lived in going up in flames, my mother being arrested. There was always the heavy, sour smell of hopelessness in the air.

So I know how the characters in this novel feel. In fact, of all the books I have read this one perhaps hit me the hardest. I kind of ached, due to force of that blow, all the way through. It’s therefore a tough book to review. Morris Bober, Helen Bober, and Frank Alpine felt extraordinarily real to me. Part of that is due to uncontrollable associations, i.e. who I am and my experiences, and part of it – the larger part – is down to Malamud, the author. The Assistant is brilliant. I would hope I would think it brilliant even if I had grown up in a mansion somewhere, with millionaire parents. Yet on the surface, the book couldn’t be less appealing. Just ignore the misery for a second, because I know some of y’all will dig that kind of thing anyway, and consider the basic plot: The Assistant is about a Jewish grocery store owner, Morris Bober, whose business is failing. One day he is robbed at gun point. One of the assailants, Frank Alpine, to some extent due to a guilty conscience, returns to the store and starts working there. That’s it, pretty much.

You may think I have given too much away, but I haven’t really. Frank’s involvement is clear, even, surely, to the most dim-witted reader. What is special about the book, however, is not the plot, but the characters and their relationships with each other. in a way, Bober and Frank represent two types of attitude towards poverty and bad luck. I have seen these types myself, have been one of them. There is the Bober-type, who suffers almost heroically. He takes and takes, everything. Willingly, albeit not happily. Frank is a different sort; he is my sort. Frank can’t accept his lot, can’t press on stoically into the oncoming blizzard of misfortune that claws at his face; no, he writhes under the pressure. He has to change his luck, has to force a change. And this makes him skittish and restless, which leads to poor judgement. Frank is wild, he is in agony; and yet he wishes he were the Bober-type, he wishes he could accept his fate. He tries, but he can’t control his anguish, and so he does wrong, consistently. And always regrets it. People like Frank, people like myself, always do.* Helen Bober, Morris’ daughter, is a little bit like her father, and a little bit like Frank. She too is restless, she too wants to change her life or change her fate. Unlike Frank, however, she is not wild, she has strong values; she wants to make a change by educating herself. Helen’s story is probably the most heartbreaking of all.

The Assistant, I imagine it is quite clear by now, is a book about suffering, but it is also, perhaps more interestingly, about making amends, about forgiveness and redemption. Helen, Frank and Morris: these three characters need each other, if not literally, then symbolically. Morris sees Frank as his saviour, because when Frank starts working at the store the takings improve. Helen sees him as her saviour also, but not in the same way. not financially. She believes that his love will save her, that by loving him and helping him to better himself she will free herself from her awful situation. Frank, on the other hand, looks first to Morris, then to Helen, as a saviour; by helping the grocer he thinks he can prove that he is a good man and not a low-down hoodlum, by loving Helen that he is, in fact, capable of love and capable of a genuine, nice and normal relationship. This complex web of relations, and hopes and dreams, is almost comical, because none of them have any basis in reality. No one can save Morris’ business, no one can redeem Frank, and there is no white knight coming to lift Helen up on his horse and ride off with her for new, more prosperous and happier lands.

All of this talk about salvation and redemption might give the impression that The Assistant is a religious text. It is, in a way. But not overtly, never in a heavy-handed manner. Malamud certainly has something to say about Jewishness, but not necessarily Judaism. Frank is openly, in the beginning, an anti-semite, but his dislike of Jews is racially-motivated, rather than born out of religious conflict. Malamud, to my mind, does seem to be suggesting that Morris is a typical Jew, i.e. eternally suffering, but the grocer isn’t a practicing Jew, he doesn’t go to synagogue etc. Redemption and salvation are religious concepts, but they are human issues. The Assistant is an unrelentingly human book. In terms of the prose, it is not flashy or eye-catching, but it is wonderful. The first couple of pages alone throw up numerous gems, like when Morris lets a woman have some items without paying but doesn’t want to tell his wife he has done so. Malamud writes:

he found a pencilled spot on the worn counter and wrote a sum under “Drunk Woman.” The total now came to $2.03, which he never hoped to see. But Ida [his wife] would nag if she noticed a new figure so he reduced the amount to $1.61. His peace  – the little he lived with – was worth forty-two cents.

There are even times when Malamud manages, to my relief, to wring some comedy out of the excruciating, suffocating horror. It’s a grim, black kind of humour, sure, but it is humour nonetheless.

Despite all of my gushing The Assistant is not a perfect book, there are one or two issues or, if you like, boom moments. To speak about them, however, would mean revealing important details, so if you wish to avoid serious spoilers then stop reading here. There is a rape scene in the book, which involves Helen and Frank. I hate rape scenes in anything, but it is not gratuitous. The problem is that Frank saves Helen [there’s that salvation stuff again] from being raped, only to then, seconds later, rape her himself. I really didn’t like that. It made no sense. Malamud was setting Frank up to be flawed, yes, but to rape someone you have saved from being raped is monstrous; it is difficult to feel anything but repugnance for Frank after that, when one felt at least some sympathy for him before. Having said that, maybe that was Malamud’s intention; maybe he wanted to show that a man cannot change his character, that a bad man will always be bad, but I really don’t think so. I think he just took the misery, the life-is-a-bitch schtick a step too far. Furthermore, I am in two minds about Frank’s conversion to Judaism, although, again, I guess I kinda get it, I get that Malamud was making a point about Jewish suffering and about identifying with victims etc. In any case, these two incidents could not spoil what was, for me, a truly fucking great book, an awful gut-wrenching masterpiece.

*I would like to point out that I have never done anything even close to as serious or reprehensible as the two crimes committed by Frank, one of which i consider to be absolutely unforgivable.