The Catcher in the Rye: Holden Caulfield

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This is where I do some gender-bending.  I’ll admit I was a bit out of my depth here.  The eyebrows? To five-o-clock shadow or not to five-o-clock shadow? (I obviously went with the latter, as I have no facial hair tricks up my sleeve other than the old coffee grounds method—-not terribly realistic.) There was also a great deal of debating over how a male would hold a cigarette.  In short, I have very little knowledge about being a dude.

So here it is: Holden in the red hunting cap, chain-smoking (as usual), still in prep school tie and oxford, pondering where the ducks in Central Park go in the winter, or whether Jane Gallagher still keeps all her kings in the back row, or why everyone is a goddamn phony.

While Holden is escaping school, I’m heading out to it for the second residency of my MFA program.  Readings will be attended.  Writing will be workshopped.  Lectures will be held.  Swooning over the collected talent will be (hopefully) kept to a respectable minimum.  And then I’ll return with a new list of required reads to play with here on A Lit.eral Interpretation.

In the spirit of good literature and good writing, I’ll leave you with this quote from Mr. Antolini’s conversation with Holden near the end of the novel:

“Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.”

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Christmas Dorothy and the Heroine

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I know what you’re thinking–Dorothy and heroine? I knew she seemed overeager to take a siesta in the poppies.  Except we’re talking heroine with an E, Smartypants, so cool your jets.  Ya know, the badass female kind.

Let’s talk adventure.  At some point in your life, you’ve come across the hero’s journey, knowingly or not.  It’s a story format that occurs over and over again throughout literature and film.  Given in to the recent Star Wars mania? You just witnessed a form of the hero’s journey.  Harry Potter? Yeah, him too.  And also Percy Jackson,Odysseus, Ender Wiggins, Simba, Shrek, Hercules, Aladdin, Edmund from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Nemo…and on, and on. These are the types of examples I learned when first introduced to the concept, and they’re likely the examples most teachers use to teach the concept.  But then I got to thinking Where the ladies at?  Don’t The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland feature some adventurous females that follow roughly the same path?

Here’s the standard diagram, created by Joseph Campbell:

hero journey

Shall we do a test run?

  1. Ordinary World: Dorothy in Kansas, singing her someday-over-the-rainbow woes.
  2. Call to Adventure: Maybe I’ll run away.  Come on Toto, let’s go get FroYo in the big, bad city.
  3. Refusal of the Call: Crystal ball shows worried Auntie Em, aka Dorothy isn’t the runaway type (but who’s that fortune-telling dude? It’s like he’s some kind of wizard).
  4. Meeting the Mentor: No wait, that fortune-telling dude IS the wizard.
  5. Crossing the Threshold: One-way tornado ticket to Oz, please.
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies: Are you a good witch or a bad witch; hey, these munchkins have some sick dance moves; and I’ll-get-you-my-pretty introductions.
  7. Approach: Off to see the wizard with my homies Scarecrow, Tinman, and a Lion of the cowardly sort.
  8. Ordeal, Death, and Rebirth: Dorothy vs. Wicked Witch, aka mean-ass neighbor who wants to take Toto for the pound put-down special.
  9. Reward, Seizing the Sword: Dorothy: “What do you mean you’re not a real wizard?!”  Wizard: “I’m just a man, but here take these symbols of things you’ve had from the beginning.”
  10. The Road Back: Tap your heels together three times.
  11. Resurrection: Bring on the neighbor.  I’m ready.
  12. Return with Elixir: There really is no place like home.  Let’s have pie.

Fits suspiciously well, wouldn’t you say? It’s difficult to become something you can’t see, so let’s make sure we’re rolling out the lady examples of courageous doings (in addition to the Luke Skywalker goodness) when covering this ever-recurring story type, ya feel me. Good talk—- fist bump.

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson: “Emergency”

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They say Jesus’ Son had such a cult following at one time that it was printed in pocket-sized editions so angelheaded hipsters, and other cool kids, could carry them conspicuously in the back pocket of their artfully faded Levis.  Now, I’m not sure if the following admission makes me more or less cool, but it took me a while to come around to Denis Johnson’s masterful collection of short stories.  It’s been added to my list of things like Napoleon Dynamite and bacon Rice Crispie treats, that at first I didn’t quite understand, but that reveal their genius more with each exposure.

This wasn’t originally on my reading list, as I’d already read it twice, but I found myself craving a re-read toward the end of the term, so I snuck it in (it can be devoured in about 2.5 hours if you’re really hungry for it).

My favorite story in the collection is “Emergency,” partly because of the absurdly hilarious ride it unfolds.  Georgie, a type of idiot savant in the ER, has an unerring compassion toward living things, whether a man with a hunting knife through his eye, or a mother bunny hit by a car (his car).  He reminds me of a pill-popping Lenny, a la Of Mice and Men.

While surfing their stolen hospital med cocktail, the two main characters get themselves lost out on a joy ride.  A terrible snow storm sets in, so they get out of their car—-Survivor Man would so not approve—-and stumble across what they think is a cemetery, but turns out to be a drive-in movie theater.

“We bumped softly down a hill toward an open field that seemed to be a military graveyard, filled with rows and rows of austere, identical markers over soldiers’ graves.  I’d never before come across this cemetery. On the farther side of the field, just beyond the curtains of snow, the sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity.  The sight of them cut through my heart and down the knuckles of my spine, and if there’d been anything in my bowels I would have messed my pants from fear.

Georgie opened his arms and cried out, ‘It’s the drive-in, man!” 

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Correction: Georgie is one part Lenny from Of Mice and Men, one part The Dude from The Big Lebowski.  The combination, I think you’ll agree, is some kind of dark-magic wonderful.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita: Becoming Dolores Haze

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I first read Lolita as an undergrad—-barely legal myself—- and remember being taken by the breathtaking language and the shock value of the content.  Reading it a second time 12 years later, now both an adult and a mother, I found it to be so much more: more breathtaking, more complex, and much more disturbing.

The layers of storytelling alone are enough to make your head spin.  Nabokov is using a first person narrator who is writing, and intermittently narrating, about his affair with Lolita—-sometimes jumping another layer deep to read from a journal  he kept during the enterprise (summary: the author is writing about someone writing about their writing).

I found the most compelling element of craft to be Humbert’s transformation throughout the text—–the evolution (devolution, perhaps more accurately) of his tone and state of mind over the course of events is  remarkably well done.

In the beginning he reveals his audience-awareness in several passages.  Additionally, he is quite self-aware, both of his mastery of language and the hypnotizing effect it can create for said audience.  In that way Nabokov has truly depicted him as a smooth-talking, manipulative predator.  In the introduction he writes, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.  Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied.  Look at this tangle of thorns.”

As he loses himself more to obsession, the visuals provided at times become unnatural, unhinged.  After one of his assaults, he writes, “My only grudge against nature was that I could not turn my Lolita inside out and apply voracious lips to her young matrix, her unknown heart, her nacreous liver, the sea-grapes of her lungs, her comely twin kidneys” (165).   He has moved beyond a desire for sexual interaction with Lolita, revealing his slavering urge to consume her, to possess her completely. 

Toward the end of the novel, Humbert’s sanity begins unraveling; he is paranoid and desperate. As he slips further into his downward spiral, the imagery veers with him.  Once he is sure that he’s being followed on the road, he becomes fanatical about every car on it—–is convinced that the pursuer is everywhere, changing vehicles at every turn.  To illustrate his unhealthy focus, the descriptions of cars become quite specific and overwhelming in number: “…led me to a profound study of all cars on the road—behind, before, alongside, coming, going, every vehicle under the dancing sun:  the quiet vacationist’s automobile with the box of TenderTouch tissues in the back window; the recklessly speeding jalopy full of pale children…”

To this day there are those who would argue that Lolita is not a canonical masterpiece—that it is pornographic smut, as it was claimed upon its initial release.  I’m on team Nabokov on this one.  The mastery of craft needed to deliver this story with all its complex intricacies in tact, in a way that is both beautiful and disturbing? It’s no small feat.

As I am long past my nymphet expiration date, I was a little nervous (and just…ewwww) about pulling this character off.  I approached it with a hope, a dream, and a liberal application of bobby socks.

“You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs―the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limbs, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate―the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.”

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  So, yeah… How exactly does one segue from the pedophile post?

Oh look, puppies!

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: Carrying the Fire

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One of the qualities that most impresses me about this book is its contradictory style.  At its core, it is pared down, stripped like the decaying world it depicts: it lacks most punctuation, the dialogue is short and utilitarian, and the mood is monotone and bleak.  Yet, it’s also rich with vivid description and emotional depth, defying the aforementioned sparseness.  The juxtaposition of the choppy, unadorned passages with the intermittent lyrical prose–the crossroad, if you will– is where the magic happens.

For those who like an eerie, dark read that does not fall within the “horror” category, the imagery McCarthy presents in this novel is beautifully disturbing.  And like many good dystopian and post-apocalyptic reads, much of the unease is created in the visceral feeling a reader gets from the possibility that in circumstances so dire, human nature might devolve to such sinister lows.

Here the “man” and his son have come across an abandoned home.  They approach with trepidation, as they’ve learned sometimes seeking shelter is more dangerous than being out in the open.

“You’re the scout.  I need you to be our lookout…

Do you think somebody is coming?

Yes. Sometime.

You said nobody was coming.

I didnt mean ever…”

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“He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world.  The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth.  Darkness implacable.  The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe.  And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like groundfoxes in their cover.”

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The Handmaid’s Tale: Offred at the Wall

Oh, the things we take for granted when not living under a totalitarian regime: lipstick, Netflix, bubble wrap. Perhaps one of the most easily overlooked items is color. When oppression strips one of their freedom and dignity, color can become a luxury, but it can also become the oppressor.

In the novel, Atwood writes, “Everything except the wings around my face is red: the color of blood, which defines us.”  Blood’s connotation varies widely depending on the context.  It can be linked to life, the blood coursing through one’s veins, but also death or injury.  It can be seen as passionate and loving, but also as sinful.  In one short line, Atwood has embraced all such implications.  The sole duty of handmaids is to reproduce.  In that way, they can be considered walking wombs, the life-force of this dying society.  However, within that society the margin for error, for autonomy, is nonexistent, so there is also the ever-present threat of death that sits like a fog over the city—the red of the brick wall from which people are hanged. 

Here Offred stands at the wall, a place that is meant to inspire fear, but that Offred visits seeking relief, hoping not to recognize the salvaged.

“By telling you anything at all I’m at least believing in you, believe you’re there, I believe you into being. Because I’m telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are. So I will go on. So I will myself to go on.”

IMG_5659No, I will not sell you the winged bonnet–I don’t care how sassy it would look with your fanny pack.

The Boys of My Youth: Jo Ann in “Cousins”

“We’re in the sticks.  Way out here things are measured in shitloads, and every third guy you meet is named Junior.  I’ve decided I don’t even like this bar we’re going to, that howling three-man band and the bathroom with no stalls, just stools.  Now I’m slumped and surly, an old pose for me.”


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Though no definite time period was given for this section of the essay, I’m dating it in the 70s due to the Fleetwood Mac and the hair straightened on an ironing board.  Sure, the star vehicle of the piece is a Firebird, and this is a 1965 Mercury Comet, but I’m on a limited (read:nonexistent) budget here on a lit.eral interpretation. Cut a girl some slack.  Many thanks to the owner who generously went off-road with his baby, but would not let me sit on the hood…

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout: Angela in “The Piano Player”

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Olive Kitteridege is a collection of short stories that acts as the connective tissue among the inhabitants of a small-town community in Maine.  It’s an amazing read, but don’t take my word for it: ask Pulitzer!

One of the most poignant aspects of this collection is Strout’s ability to portray adult isolation–that stigmatized loneliness that occurs, sometimes even when surrounded by loved ones.  The rumination on that aspect of the human condition lends a subtle “otherness” to many of the characters that would not traditionally be labeled as such.

A character whose loneliness is tangible–a biting acid she holds back–is Angela, the cocktail bar pianist with stage fright.  Her angelic face, the fake fur and high-heeled boots–they are her armor.  But not all can be covered with polymers and lipstick.

“A face like an angel.  A drunk.  Her mother sold herself to men.  Never married, Angela?”

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I’d shake hands, but I’ve got this fork…

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Just a hungry bookhound, looking to slip between the pages and marinate awhile.  I’m currently pursuing an MFA at a college that prescribes some seriously heavy reading–I know, I am nerding out about it too!

Here’s where the blog comes in.

While I’ll be typing my fingers raw for the program– writing new creative morsels and pulling academic tidbits of insight seemingly from thin air–I also want to pitch a spade between the lines and roll around a bit. Get Times New Roman stuck in my hair. I’m going to base some creative endeavors on the texts I’m reading (and maybe some nostalgic friends from the past) and share them.  Right here. With you.

Wannna get elbows-deep in some literary goodness? Stick around.