Monday, 23 February 2015

Lev's Top Ten Part V

It's taken a while to get here, but here we are: the last stage of my countdown of the top ten books and and series that have stayed with me thoughout my life. For those of you just joining me, this whole thing started a few months ago when a former student tagged me in one of those Facebook status games asking you to rank the top ten somethings that are important to someone somewhere.

Admittedly "stayed with you" is open to interpretation. I mean there are some truly horrible pieces of writing that, try as I might, I cannot erase from my memory: The Bridges of Madison County, Twilight, Moby Dick. It could also refer to books I just can't get rid of no matter how many times I try to give them away: the Gideon bible, I'm Okay, You're Okay, Moby Dick.

In the interest of being interesting, I chose to interpret the phrase as books that have had a significant influence on my life. It has taken me a while, far longer than I expected when I began, but this post wraps it all up.

In the time it has taken me to count down ten books,
Casey Kasem died and was reborn as Ryan Seacrest.
Before we finish this up, let's review the list so far:

10. Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series
9. Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men
8. J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series
7. F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby
6. Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere
5. John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany
4. Richard Monaco's Parsival series
3. Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five

I even threw in a long-distance dedication.

Okay, let's do this.

2. The six-volume Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy by Douglas Adams

Possibly the most famous trilogy of the modern age
and the reason I can't do math.
Arthur Dent wakes up with an earsplitting hangover one Thursday morning to find a large yellow bulldozer preparing to knock his house down to make way for a new expressway. Before he can do anything about it, however, the rest of the world wakes up to find large yellow demolition ships in orbit preparing to destroy the earth to make way for a new hyperspace bypass.

This is pretty much as good as his day gets.

spoiler alert
What follows is an adventure so large that three books can't contain the trilogy and so long that the author's death couldn't stop it. Over the course of six books, Arthur travels the length and breadth of space and time, witnessing the destruction of the universe over cocktails as well as the construction of earth, a supercomputer designed so that mice could understand why 42 is the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything. He saves the galaxy from the most dangerous game of cricket ever played, finds love on earth a few years after its destruction, becomes the most powerful man in an alien tribe because of his mad skills as a sandwich-maker, and after his own death, he helps survivors of earth's many many destructions find a new home.

Along the way, he is insulted by every single life form he encounters, completely fails to sleep with the girl of his dreams yet still manages to father a child with her, totally succeeds in sleeping with the other girl of his dreams before she is lost forever in a sea of plot-contrivance, and learns to fly. Sadly, however, he never manages to find a decent cup of tea.

I was first introduced to Douglas Adams' in seventh grade, when my best friend, Jack Mayfield, loaned the books to me, and I fell in love with them completely. Back then there were only four books in the trilogy, but I read the series twice before I returned them. I then borrowed Jack's LP records of the original radio show, and watched his VHS copy of the television series he had taped off of PBS.

It was my first experience with social satire, and I knew I was missing most of the jokes. However, this only meant I got more from the series as I grew older and re-read it. It was also the first time I came across science fiction that was both funny and serious. There are passages toward the end of the third book, Life the Universe and Everything, that are hauntingly bittersweet, even borderline depressing. The fourth volume, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, is one of the sweetest love stories put to paper (seriously, screw Nicholas Sparks), and Mostly Harmless, the fifth volume and Adams' last book, has one of the most haunting final images I've ever read. Even the sixth book, Eoin Colfer's ...And Another Thing, as flawed as it is in places, perfectly captures Adams' voice and provides a satisfactory coda to the series as a whole.

I owe my sense of humor to Adams as well as my appreciation for all the absurd quirks of modern life. I also learned the valuable ability to turn a phrase on its head first from Adams and later from the next writer in this countdown. Indeed, if any one writer has influenced me most, I'd have to credit Adams because, even more than Vonnegut, he showed me that a novel need not be either serious or humorous; it can be equally both.

And here it is...

My number one book or series...

The one that has stayed with me my whole life...

1. Catch-22 & Closing Time by Joseph Heller

Joseph Heller's life came with literal bookends.
Heller's first novel, Catch-22, tells the story of Captain John Yossarian, a World War II bombadier who, after failing to save the life of a mortally wounded rear-gunner, discovers he no longer wants to fly missions anymore because "they" are trying to kill him. Unfortunately, though everyone admits Yossarian is as crazy as his tentmate Orr (who crashes his airplane during each mission), he cannot be grounded because there's a catch
and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to, he was sane and had to. 
Over the course of the novel, we learn that "they" are not necessarily the Germans nor even the U.S. military commanders, but anyone with power over anyone else because
Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing.
Given the choice of joining with the "theys" or facing a court-martial for desertion, Yossarian decides instead to run away from the whole shebang, and takes off for Sweden.

youthful rebellion
It isn't until 33 years later, when Heller published his final novel and sequel to Catch-22Closing Time, that the full ramifications of the catch come home. This novel finds Yossarian an old man who has been coerced into working for M&M Enterprises (the shadowy catering syndicate from the first novel) by being asked to and offered lots of money. We learn his escape plan failed almost as soon as it began when he was arrested in Italy and forced to be sent back home a hero.

He has spent the majority of his adult life employed as M&M's conscience. He tells them why their decisions stink, so they can ignore him and do what they want anyway. In short, Yossarian learns that Catch-22 applies to everyone, even those in power, and the worst way to live is to be accepted by the other bastards who run things.

oldful submission
Closing Time received almost universal negative reviews, primarily due to people's disappointment that Yossarian wound up a sell-out and corporate schill. However, this is exactly the beauty of the sequel. I loved Catch-22 because of the biting way it critiqued bereaucracy. As a teenager, it gave my rebellious phase a kind of legitimacy, in much the same way as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Catcher in the Rye did for many others. Closing Time, though, shows us that Yossarian was no more successful in his rebellion than any of us were. He still had to grow up, find a job, have a family, get divorced, and fail at everything he ever tried artistically, just like the rest of us.

It is a more honest continuation of Yossarian's story. Logically we know that Huck Finn will eventually grow up, and he may possibly one day own slaves, and no matter how nicely he treats them, he'll still be a slaveowner. Holden Caulfield is going to grow up, and he will get a job and live the very middle class lifestyle he spends a weekend in New York rebelling against. However, we don't have to think of that because we are left only with Huck lighting out for the Territories, and Holden watching his sister on that carousel.

For thirty years, Heller allowed us a similar vision of Yossarian, saying "No" and running off to Sweden. Heller let us idolize Yossarian, and then, as a final joke, he showed us the catch in action: Yossarian was just a schlub like the rest of us. For many, it upset them. For me, it was liberating. After all, if Yossarian couldn't maintain his youthful rebellion, I have no reason to bemoan my own selling out. I can look at my own middle-class life and be proud. I always wanted to be like Yossarian, and turns out, I am!
*     *     *
And that's it. I'd like to dedicate this post (as well as the last five) to the memory of Casey Kasem. When I started this project, I spent several days listening to old recordings of Kasem's American Top 40, trying to get a feel for the tropes of the old music countdowns of my youth. In the process, I discovered that he had passed away a few months before in June after battling DLB for several years. In 2004, he handed the reins of his Top 40 countdown show to Ryan Seacrest as he was growing increasingly unable to use his voice for any extended period of time.

Kasem shaped my childhood reading habits: I always had his radio show playing in the background when I read on Sunday afternoons. To this day, I associate songs I heard on his countdown with the books I was reading at the time. Whenever I hear Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time," for example, I find myself thinking of Theoden's death in Tolkien's Return of the King because it was number one on the countdown when I read that chapter. Starship's "We Built this City" similarly brings to mind The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe since it was rising up the countdown as I read them for the first time.

So I am going to leave you all with the same encouragement Casey left us with each week after he reached the number one single in America:

Until next month

Rest easy, Casey, you finally reached 'em.



10 comments:

Chris Longmuir said...

Brilliant reviews of your last 2 books, Lev. And Susan, if you're reading this get your thumbscrews out and apply them to Lev to convince him to post each review separately in Eclectic Electric.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Interesting that these are all books by men - but when I think about it, most of the books that have stayed with me throughout my own life have been novels by women - perhaps with the exception of the Wind in the Willows, Kidnapped and E F Benson's Lucia books. Not that there's anything wrong with this - it just intrigues me how many men tend to appreciate books by men and how many women might find themselves listing more books by women. Husband and son were watching a movie together on Friday night which seemed like one big yawn to me. So much so that I can't even remember the title. When they asked me why I was so bored - I was rereading Persuasion at the time - I pointed out that the cast were all men doing manly and heroic things ever so loudly. Again, I've no quarrel with their taste - they were enjoying it. But what interested me was that they simply hadn't noticed the complete absence of female characters. They looked at me blankly for a moment or two and then said 'Oh - yeah. You're right!' I've also contemplated writing an analysis of dead literary heroines at some point. When men write about vivid central female characters, they so often seem to have to die - Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina to name but two, and whole swathes of Dickens women. Becky Sharp is a glowing exception. But that reminds me that Vanity Fair (subtitled 'a novel without a hero') would probably be on my list of memorable novels as well - somewhere very near the top.

Lydia Bennet said...

Some great reviews here Lev and do put them in EE too. Hitchhiker's is a brilliant 'trilogy' and I loved the original radio 4 version as well as the books. His writing is just so witty and surreal. The language matters as much as the plot and characters, which is sadly rare in a lot of books/plays/films these days.

Reb MacRath said...

Catherine, what seems to be sexism really does swing both ways. When I worked (for a decade) in two great indie bookstores, I ran the mystery sections. And I can't tell you how many female customers would only read mysteries by female authors. Nor were they up for discussion: no male authors on their shelves.

Reb MacRath said...

I wish I could share your enthusiasm for Heller. But I find myself on the side of another writer I can't read: Norman Mailer, who wrote that you could remove a hundred pages almost anywhere from Catch 22--and not even the author would know they were gone. That said, it's always interesting to know the sources that inspired the writers whom we do read and admire. I'd be lucky to find three colleagues who share my enthusiasm for Auden, Louis MacNeice, J P Donleavy, Ovid and the great lurid novelist, Turgidiva Divina.

Leverett Butts said...

Reb: I love Ovid! I came to him late or he'd've made the list.

Catherine: you make an interesting point. As I read your list I began thinking about female writers I like, and it was surprisingly hard: Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, Harper Lee. THen I realizied they were all SOuthern and white. Dunno what to make of it, but there it is.

Chris and Susan, tell me how to access EE, and I'll be glad to break thes up into mini reviews.

Joseph Boyne said...

Reb, I think Mailer's criticism of Heller overlooks the obviously episodic nature of the work. One could lay the same claims against such works as Don Quixote, Moby Dick, and to some extent even the Gospels despite their obvious dedication to plot, but I would be unwilling to say that such works are literary failures.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

And how about Carson McCullers, as well, Lev? One of my personal favourites too. I still remember the enchantment and involvement I felt at my first reading of The Member of the Wedding. Reb, I actually don't think it's sexism at all. Just taste. And I find the places where tastes for men and women intersect most strongly very interesting.

Leverett Butts said...

Sadly, I've read very little McCullers, an oversight I intend to correct soon.

Reb MacRath said...

Joseph, we'll have to agree to disagree on Heller. I don't think I'd better 'go there' with the Gospels but I would lay the same charge against the other two examples--which I've read in abridged form only...as I have Dumas and Hugo...with no sense of loss. Ovid, on the other hand--the most episodic of writers--keeps me on the edge of my seat. So length itself isn't a problem for me. I do need a strong center to hold me. Still, no one can say, imo, that your examples fail as literature--they succeed because of their stories...and despite their length. Imo.