The Castle (with a touch of Michael Chabon and a lot of James Frey)

In Featured- Literature & the Arts, Literature & the Arts by gravierhouseLeave a Comment

The Castle is one of those books that is sitting on a shelf which I have been meaning to read for years.

It really wasn’t as Kafkaesque as I would have expected.

Why didn’t the guy just leave?

But the book did have those great passages.

The Castle, whose contours were already beginning to dissolve, lay silent as ever; never yet had K seen there the slightest sign of life – perhaps it was impossible to recognize anything at a distance, and yet the eye demanded it and could not endure that stillness. When K looked at the Castle, often it seemed to him as if he were observing someone who sat there quietly gazing in front of him, not lost in thought and so oblivious of everything, but free and untroubled, as if he were alone with nobody to observe him, and yet must notice that he was observed, and all the same remained with his calm not even slightly disturbed; and really – one did not know whether it was cause or effect – the gaze of the observer could not remain concentrated there, but slid away. This impression today was strengthened sill further by the early dusk; the longer he looked the less he could make out, and the deeper everything was lost in the twilight.

And:

“But he doesn’t need encouragement” said K; “to encourage him amounts to telling him that he’s right, that he has only to go on as he is doing now; but that is just the way he will never achieve anything. If a man has his eyes bound, you can encourage him as much as you like to stare through the bandage, but he’ll never see anything. He’ll be able to see only when the bandage is removed.”

Or:

Now up in the Castle we must rest satisfied with whatever our lot happens to be, but down here, it may be, we can do something ourselves – that is, make sure of your good will, or at least save ourselves from your dislike, or, what’s more important, protect you as faras our strength and experience go, so that your connection with the Castle – by which we might be helped too – may not be lost.

And it did make me think quite a lot about Literature.

First, what of these passages? I have countless books with pages and pages of great quotes, or dialogue or narrative that is underlined. For future reference, or whatever. But is that what I really remember? Is that what makes the book great? Is that what I take away? Are these sentiments bubbling somewhere in the subconscious affecting me in ways that I’m not even aware of?

Sometimes there is a great line, which you can summon at the appropriate time:

“The bells the children heard were inside them.”

“Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

“Tho much is taken much abides….
“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

But I won’t remember the lines from the Castle.

A friend tells me that I should read Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I asked him why it was good, and he told me that it reminds him of F. Scott Fitzgerald, with long, flowing sentences that have a true rhythm, so you don’t get lost, or seem like he is trying too hard. Ideally, he says, you want believable characters who you recognize as yourself and want to be at the same time engaged in conflict of their own choosing or bestowed upon them AND the conflict’s resolution or merely evolution is beautiful.

Well, that’s one way to put it. And maybe all books like that are great. But, in the end, what you are left with, it seems to me, is an idea of something. The Castle is, more than a plot, or an evolution, or an unfolding, a kind of a sense about the world. An idea. Like Moby Dick or the Fountainhead. Even The Sound and the Fury.

The second thing that occurs to me is that it is impossible to imagine The Castle being published today. It doesn’t have an ending. It’s not a page-turner. I can’t see dying, and my wife pulling out the unfinished Castle, and bringing it to Random House, or whoever, and having them put it in print.

I am watching all this stuff about James Frey and his Million Little Pieces and I can’t think of too many things that I would rather read less than some memoir about some guy struggling with his addiction.

It seems fairly unlikely that too many people with addictions would actually read a book like Million Little Pieces. So you can’t look at it as some type of a How-To Book. The audience is, I would think, almost exclusively people who aren’t addicts.

So why would they care?

Because it’s a metaphor?

For ways in which they are “trapped” in their own lives?

If you pick up The Castle, you know that it’s not about a castle. Just like you know that The Old Man and the Sea is not about a fisherman, and Moby Dick is not about a whale.

These are books about Everything.

Today, by contrast, things seem fairly specialized. The “great” books of today capture something. Whether it’s Addiction, or New England Life, or the Civil Rights Movement, or Life at College, or Midwestern Life, or the Loss of a Parent, or the Loss of a Child, or YUPI life, or Generation X, or whatever.

Where are the books that try to capture Everything?

The other thing that strikes me about Frey is that no one really talks about the writing as powerful. It’s the events he is describing. (Going to the dentist without novocaine, and all that.) I was curious, and got the following excerpt from the Random House Website:

I wake to the drone of an airplane engine and the feeling of something warm dripping down my chin. I lift my hand to feel my face. My front four teeth are gone, I have a hole in my cheek, my nose is broken and my eyes are swollen nearly shut. I open them and I look around and I’m in the back of a plane and there’s no one near me. I look at my clothes and my clothes are covered with a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood. I reach for the call button and I find it and I push it and I wait and thirty seconds later an Attendant arrives.

How can I help you?

Where am I going?

You don’t know?

No.

You’re going to Chicago, Sir.

How did I get here?

A Doctor and two men brought you on.

They say anything?

They talked to the Captain, Sir. We were told to let you sleep.

If you read the comments on Amazon, readers seem to appreciate the frankness, the simplicity, the directness, and the refusal of the author to point the finger at others. Okay. Great. I guess part of that is in the writing. The framing of events. The language and the tone. Certainly there are a lot of worse ways to write this. But it’s not like you couldn’t find the same style of writing on display in creative writing classes all over the country. Clearly, it’s the story, as much as the storytelling.

But events happen. If the events are true, that doesn’t make him a good writer; it just means that he was at the center of powerful events. If, on the other hand, he was able to create fictional events that were powerful, that’s more of an achievement as a writer, it seems to me.

Of course, that doesn’t make it The Castle.

On to the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

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