What more is there to say about Fyodor Dostoevsky’s monstrous and towering epic Crime and Punishment? The book has been devoured by critics, beloved by Russians, along with readers the world over, and even belittled, the enigmatic Nabokov once claiming that its author was a bad writer. For my part, I have to admit to a bit of negligence on matters concerning Russian Literature. I grew up reading Tolkien and Piers Anthony, through to a Shelley-Stoker-Wilde phase, and on to the origins of the novel, standardized in the Richardson-Fielding-Defoe/Haywood-Manley-Behn triumvirates — all before tackling the notorious Condition of England novels, next to an intensive Moby Dick study, in line with plenty of other American works, and on to the modernists Joyce and Woolf and so on and so forth, upon even more on top of all that to be perfectly honest.
Obviously enough, my reading comes off as narrowly focused, the language predominately English, constituting primarily canonical English Classics. Throughout the years, books such as Crime and Punishment and Lolita (1955) were like alien outliers to me, for reasons that are difficult to pinpoint. I know that they require translating, which is a minor detail to consider; I’ve read Madame Bovary (1856) and The Phantom of the Opera (1910), well-aware that certain aspects of the texts have been lost in translation. So really, what is it about the Russian novel that has kept me at bay?
Upon first hearing the title many years ago, I thought Crime and Punishment was some kind of a Tom Clancy thriller. Imagine my surprise when I learned how the book was, in fact, written in Russian, and that it wasn’t even contemporary. I searched for videos about it and discovered a short summary as to why I should read it, the black and white animation drawing me in because of its noir-ish quality, and it made me think more about my particular point of view.
I believe there’s something about the notion of something being “Russian” that has always thrown up connotations and imageries that’ve had me, in essence, perpetually blind as to what I’ve been missing. When I think of Russia and the Russians, I think of a great and gigantic land mass on the other side of the globe, and I think of Stalin; I think of World War II, and of the horrors of Chernobyl; I think of Vladimir Putin, and the out-dated theories of Lenin; I think of the Tunguska Event, and the entrancing Siberian Tiger; and I think of those wonderful fur caps that keep your ears snug and yes, I think of delicious Russian Vodka. But it’s the Cold War and the KGB that stands out to me the most, in spite of their relevance as elements of the past, the annals of communism drawing to mind the terrible paths America once traversed in battling the threat of that form of government. Being mired in such permanence of thought, imagine how I felt, then, when I began reading the initiating chapters of Crime and Punishment.
I was presented immediately with notions of squalor flourishing amid the streets of St. Petersburg, which was odd since any net search will provide lustrous pictures of that remarkable city. The protagonist Raskolnikov is struggling with debt and many of the people around him appear to subsist on loaves of “black bread” and water. When I arrived to the Marmeladov predicament, I faced the magnitude of Dostoevsky’s prose tactics:
(Blogger use of humor: After reading beyond this point, I decided that maybe Dostoevsky didn’t use enough ellipses.)
I learned about the “yellow ticket” and how it connected Sonya to a registry for prostitutes, and how people prayed to “the ikon” as an extension of their affiliation to Greek Orthodox Christianity. I found that Raskolnikov had been a law school student forced to drop out, and unfortunately I could relate to the way he’d been trying to avoid his landlord. I caught on to the character development when I found him donating what little money he had, only to struggle with urges to take it back. Again I found him riding the gray line, on the one hand trying to defend a drunken woman on a bench, only later to observe him wrestling with the notion of carrying “IT” out, in reference to what everyone knows as his intention to snuff out a miserly pawnbroker.
Arriving to the first of four dream sequences, I caught a glimpse of the brutality of the day and age, the severe beating of an animal amid raucous onlookers, where the nihilistic characteristic of the text begins to show its true colors. Dostoevsky takes his time, reiterating the nastiness, as he tends to reiterate many of the concepts he explores, which may serve well to explain why his work is considered “literature” and not just some hastily contrived genre plot.
As a person living close to the San Francisco Bay Area, I couldn’t keep myself from the images that came unexpectedly to mind as I made it through the first seven chapters. The novel is yet another one of those text which exemplifies the world of people struggling, trying to live, trying to survive — and I’m forced to consider the current epidemic of homelessness in California, just as perverse and disgusting as its ever been in relation to the history of the world.
My reading wavered slightly as I was drawn to consider the situation as it stands, why it is that people still have to suffer on such scales; but then I was intrigued when Dostoevsky humanized his novel’s nihilistic traits when he described the downtrodden in terms of statistical data:
“A certain percentage, they tell us, must every year go…that way…to the devil, I suppose, so that the rest may remain chaste, and not be interfered with. A percentage! What splendid words they have; they are so scientific, so consolatory…. Once you’ve said ‘percentage’ there’s nothing more to worry about. If we had any other word… maybe we might feel more uneasy…”
Decades and decades have passed since the construction of this mystifying narrative, and life is as deplorable for millions as anyone can imagine. My ventures throughout the world of literature seemed plagued by this recurring phenomenon of depicted destitution. From Gulliver’s encounter with economic disparity to the harrowing trials of Mary Barton, from the nightmare world of Oliver Twist to the skid row violence of the Jago. Great literature, for some reason, draws forth suffering and the awful plights of humanity, where humanity itself comes off as ever persistent in its endeavor to remain inhumane.
For as long as the dilemma has plagued the earth, the problem of gross income disparity and squalor among the masses seems to be the one aspect of humankind that no scholarly institution wants to scrutinize scientifically — and I mean in serious terms of problem solving. Of course it gets documented and governmental bodies beat around the bush with ideas, how to throw money at the crises as they increase. And clearly it all makes for great literary material, yet with the ongoing and expanding growth of tent cities in America, rendering our landscapes to emulate the kinds of sights we might imagine among the torrid lands of India, the problem seems to bear a semblance to the problem of gun control — it keeps rearing its ugly head, yet not a thing is ever done to combat the problem so that atrocities do not happen again.
One segment of Dostoevsky’s text states something along the lines of the inevitable nature of reality, that certain groups must suffer, but seriously, is this still a viable way to view the matter? Look at all the monumental tasks we’ve accomplished as human beings, but still we can’t figure out how to assist our fellows on the most fundamental levels of existence? Something is, and has been, forever — amiss.
Of course we love our genre novels, the mystery killer on the loose, the lovers blind and struggling until they finally connect, the tropes that drive paranormal writers into their horror movie deals. Reading novels like Crime and Punishment by contrast makes it difficult to avoid falling into the trap of distinguishing standard plot writing from works of literary merit. If we compare the phenomenon to great art, then surely we can understand how Caravaggio’s works are simply intense paintings, not to be compared with the novice attempts of some student painting fruit during their first few weeks of art school. Dostoevsky tells it like it is, such that the material etches itself into the brain, far from the possibilities of being forgotten.
The perception of all art is, indeed, subjective, but if we consider that a writer might’ve written a screenplay over the course of a week for a television movie, compared to the months and months that it took to construct a novel like Crime and Punishment, then the difference is in the level of time and effort invested in any given work. Dostoevsky’s novel is a fascinating character study that ventures through the toughest of concepts to pin down, the morality of any given act, yet its participation in the examination of the human condition on even larger scales must be, at least, a portion of the reason why life hasn’t passed for me, before I had the chance to indulge in its magnificence, even as the work stands, most deservedly, among one of the greatest books ever to have been written.
Making the attempt to create a database of authors became quite the challenge. What authors are listed I tried to associate with prose, what poets there are I included for their influence. I didn’t include Ancient Greek writers, saved for a different list, contemporary authors will have to be for a list to be constructed a hundred years from now. This list tends to contrast with a list of books, where often an author is listed more than once, but if you’re so inclined, I recommend this website which is superb for drooling over great literature:
Data for this list includes next to name:
Years Lived / Age When Passed / Age at Publication / Title / Publication Date
Did I miss your favorite prose author?
Please feel free to add to the list in the comments if you’d like–I know that at Greatest Books, the list runs well over 2,000 strong.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Christmas Banquet” derives from a notebook entry of his, circa 1836-37, later to be revised and published in the Democratic Review in 1844 (Cody 1), where it ultimately finds its way into a collection of tales entitled Mosses from an Old Manse (1846). Google Books has the story listed as being randomly published in 2017, by someone unknown from CreateSpace, who characterizes Hawthorne’s content as “VERY funny,” with sections that read “sharp and hilarious” (Source). This perception of the story is certainly something to ponder, testament to the sometimes quirkiness of reader-response theory, in that Hawthorne’s story reads as anything but a literary piece at which to laugh.
The premise concerns a man named Roderick, his wife Rosina, and a sculptor as they consider the description of a person, or a group of people, who are a “hopeless puzzle.” In this day and age when storytelling is mired in the sheer demand for plot, Hawthorne’s piece reads more like an article from a pre-Freudian psychiatric journal; its linguistic, descriptive power propels it into what has been anachronistically termed an “allegory of the heart.” To read the piece in the modern age is to understand it as a meditation on the phenomenon of clinical depression.
In the attempt to describe the “hopeless puzzle,” the character of Roderick draws on a manuscript in his possession. It outlines the story of a man who seeks to define society’s depressive types by funding an annual Christmastime banquet that invites “ten of the most miserable persons that could be found.” The fictive element of interest involves how the man’s estate continues to pay for the banquet, and how his corpse is displayed at the head of the table at each subsequent banquet. This man was noted for his “melancholy eccentricity” when he was alive, where his purpose in founding the banquet reads as follows:
“It seemed not to be the testator’s purpose to make these half a score of sad hearts merry, but to provide that the stern or fierce expression of human discontent should not be drowned, even for that one holy and joyful day, amid the acclamations of festal gratitude which all Christendom sends up. And he desired, likewise, to perpetuate his own remonstrance against the earthly course of Providence, and his sad and sour dissent from those systems of religion or philosophy which either find sunshine in the world or draw it down from heaven.”
Much of the reading is spent in going over the details of the many different guests, year after year, ten per year, how wretched they are in their lives. And with the figure of death at the head of the table, the whole thing comes off as a grotesque exercise in anthropological cynicism. But there is beauty in everything Hawthorne creates, “dark beauty” as Herman Melville might’ve called it. A character by the name of Gervayse Hastings is introduced as the foil to depression, and he is a representative of the worst of all human conditions known to mankind: the state of being indifferent. Through this character, by the end of the narrative, we come to feel relieved that we as readers are not icicles of society, that no matter how sketchy things can get, it’s the ability to feel that is most important.
Themes vary from this point. For Hawthorne’s time, the text is a sketch that introduces the subject of mental health as an issue to be addressed. Considering the era’s lack of research, the idea that a person was expected to mask their psychological problems is evident. Roderick suggests: “He [the depressive] looks like a man; and, perchance, like a better specimen of man than you ordinarily meet.” This translates in our day and age into the notion that clinical depression is a condition to be recognized, diagnosed, and treated. The need to wear a mask is no longer necessary as modern society strives to de-stigmatize conditions of mental illness, psychological or psychiatric.
We also get the idea that Quixotic ideals are self-help concepts to pursue and embrace. To realize a dream is to follow that dream no matter the amount of failure that we face. As Thomas Edison once put it: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” People are often quick to give up on goals when they realize frustration, which in turn leads to the passage of time, depression, and the notion that a person was never good enough. Perseverance, then, is a way to keep the devils of depression at bay.
There is some of Thoreauvian philosophy to read into this. We find people bogged down by the way society has driven them mad with the hustle and bustle of trying to make life work. Thoreau suggested that people not forget their connection with nature, and to seek out that connection to bring spiritual health to the mind and body. Getting caught up in the game of living to get by is to survive; balancing our responsibilities and necessities with our deeper and divine selves, preferably by seeking to be in tune with nature, leans more towards harmony.
Additionally, the Banquet highlights the statistical probability that not everyone is a joyous chap during the holiday season. The presence of such pervasive festivity can bring on the harbingers of depressive, even suicidal ideation in those who have no family, nowhere to go, no one to turn to in loneliness. The season of peace demands that we consider the plight of those who are less fortunate or alone, possibly even to entertain the notion of lending a comforting, helping hand.
The curiosity is that somehow, the crafting of literary dread is how Hawthorne ignites these underlying themes of constructive positivity. Again we have the art of literature performing work for the greater social good, of which Hawthorne was an indisputable master. Here is the author who brought us Hester Prynne, America’s beloved heroine of the Puritan Age, Miles Coverdale, professed supporter of women’s rights, and Young Goodman Brown, whose experience encourages us to keep a careful eye on our leaders. “The Christmas Banquet” may be weighty thematic material for someone who isn’t used to peering into the abyss of human despair, so condensed and refined as it is in such a short space of writing; yet it’s Hawthorne’s keen eye for the human condition paired with his genius skill for language that has scholars continuing to examine exactly what it is, the difference between a standard story of plot and that which constitutes a unique specimen of literature.
Cody, David. “Invited Guests at Hawthorne’s ‘Christmas Banquet’: Sir Thomas Browne and Jeremy Taylor.” Modern Language Studies, vol. 11, no. 1, 1980, pp. 17–26. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3194164.
Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla concerns the vampiress we know and love, because she loves us more than we love her. That is, if you’re the object of her desire. If not, then there’s no hope. Carmilla will drain you of life and you will die. Of course, as the novella would have us know, she seems partial to women, so the guys don’t have much to worry about. Unless they’re Victorian men and they feel threatened by feminine power. In this case the subtextual message runs its course as the men gather and plot to destroy this out of control woman and her wily ways.
Without delving into the problem of the patriarchy, Carmilla is known for the road it paves for lesbianism. Carmilla is insinuated as being responsible for the epidemic death that flourishes in the countryside, but she is seen pouring out her affections for the lovely Laura. Curious is Laura’s reaction for the way it mirrors the true-to-life phenomenon when a person confronts the possibility they may be homosexual. Laura is alarmed by Carmilla’s raptures but is not entirely put off by them. They stir her thoughts in ways that come off as though she has to consider how she really feels, where “the sense of attraction immensely prevailed.” The notion that Laura and Carmilla had the same dream-visions as children, and that they were destined to meet later in life, speaks to the modern scientific hypothesis that some people are predestined to be homosexual, determined by genetics even. What is certain concerns how modern media storytelling outlets (e.g. Hollywood television and movies) capitalize on the Carmilla story to usher in, as they do with any hot social topic, modes of social acceptance regarding the LGBTQ community. Bram Stoker may have penned an ultimate vampire legacy which addresses repressed sexuality but in truth, Le Fanu one-ups him by introducing the progressive angle — and the rest is history.
Carmilla as a story certainly has some oddities. Perplexing is Carmilla’s so-called mother who in doubling instances, sets about the task of unloading the vampiress upon unsuspecting older men with daughters and nieces. We never know who this woman is nor how this activity she engages in serves any specific purpose. Does she know that Carmilla is a vampire? What is her purpose if she doesn’t? What does she stand to gain if she does? The information is never conveyed. And then there’s the added mystery woman who was spotted the night of the accident…
“…with a sort of colored turban on her head, and who was gazing all the time from the carriage window, nodding and grinning derisively towards the ladies, with gleaming eyes and large white eyeballs, and her teeth set as if in fury.”
The answers never come as we are presented only with the mother vanishing off to towns that are leagues away, and the woman with the turban is only mentioned once. There is one scene in which the mother declares she knows General Spielsdorf, but since they meet at a masquerade, she wears a mask, refuses to disclose who she is, leaves Millarca (Carmilla) with him, and is never seen again. So I’m throwing my hands up in the air on these.
Carmilla herself is a wondrous marvel. Her manner is positively childlike and yet her personality bears the markers of possession. She dazzles with the magnetism of her charm yet she coerces with the spirit of her bloodlust. Plainly speaking, it’s manipulation, which makes her dangerous. Whatever the cloaked message is concerning the freedom for women to love other women, Carmilla is not herself; she is a murderess. She is a cold-blooded killer, though I dare say, her aspect as a vampire is gluttonously impressive when her coffin is discovered, revealing how she reposes in a pool of blood seven inches deep.
Her vampire consciousness controls how she behaves, the classic trope of sexuality leading from death and murder to eternal life, but it’s couched in this odd human/inhuman element in which philosophy is applied to justify Carmilla’s actions. When Laura’s father considers the epidemic that is killing the local young girls, he comforts the group by proclaiming how they are in God the Creator’s hands. Carmilla responds:
“Creator! Nature!…And this disease that invades the country is natural. Nature. All things proceed from Nature — don’t they? All things in the heaven, in the earth, and under the earth, act and live as Nature ordains? I think so.”
Carmilla callously simplifies the vampire’s need to prey on humans by implying that it’s merely in their nature to do so. Notions of good vs. evil are lost in a Darwinian maelstrom of psycho-sexual gold where the evolutionary traits of mating by laws of attraction underscores the behavior. For a vampire to survive, in spite of it’s gender, they must entice, befriend, and feed on young and pretty girls. Charm, beauty, poetic passion, youth, intelligence, all comprise the tactical method of operation, and it’s for Carmilla to analogize that it’s nothing more than a viral outbreak’s instinct to spread.
Apart from the delicious intrigue of Carmilla as vampire, it might be worth noting on the side how Laura and her father claim not to be “magnificent people,” that they are supplied by only a “small income,” yet they happen to live in what was known a “schloss,” a great castle-home with no less than “five and twenty” rooms. Excuse me? One theory of reading takes into account how the passing of time will affect reader point-of-view; this is where the constructs of that theory come into play. Nowadays only the notorious one-percent live in such extravagance and so for a book that was written in 1872, it’s fair to say that times have certainly changed. I want my schloss and I want it now.
Carmilla is wonderful reading and stands as the precursor to Bram Stoker’s masterpiece (though it’s odd how Dan Jones didn’t mention that). For the connoisseur of Victorian Horror, it is a must read; for the literary social historian, it is a valuable artifact. It takes models of family structure and social norms and turns them on their head for public display during an age when it was risky to do so. People have been having ideas about how society can change for eons, and we can thank the masters of literary art and art in general for the way we can see how this change can come around to be more than perfectly acceptable.
Mary Shelley’s Transformation is a work of short fiction that bears some interesting similarities to the masterwork that is her magnum opus, Frankenstein (1818/31). It speaks to the psychological undercurrent that writers experience, even as H. M. Jones has suggested, that “our novelists search the subconscious mind…in order to achieve reality, the mode of achieving verisimilitude” (xx). This “search” is the meditative process that extraordinary art requires, which for Shelley is the opportunity to do what she does best, pairing bold, exquisite language with the recurrent themes that linger in her imagination.
Some comparisons go as follows:
1A) Victor Frankenstein is a self-assured student of medicine who through his ambitions, believes he can control the forces of nature, which underscores his character with a sense of arrogance.
1B) Guido of Genoa has an “imperious, haughty, tameless spirit.” He realizes the “wild impetuosity” of his character and states that he was “insolent and domineering,” and possessed of a “rebel heart.”
2A) After experiencing a drastic chain of events, Victor finds himself scaling the Alps, alone seeking solace from the world and its woes.
2B) Having lost everything as a result of his behavior, Guido finds himself wandering alone the shores of the sea.
3A) Surrounded by the vast mountainside isolation, Victor encounters the monstrous “fiend” bounding towards him, a sight that is highly unusual. The two end up conversing about the great dilemma Victor has caused for them both.
3B) Along the isolated sea shore, Guido observes a shipwreck from which the sight of a surviving dwarf “bestrding a sea-chest” is astonishing and very strange to see. They come to discuss Guido’s unfortunate predicament.
4A) A voyeuristic theme emerges in connection with the loss of love, when Victor’s creation is seen peering through the window, where a mate is about to be created for him. Here the loss of love actually comes to take place.
4B) Voyeurism makes an appearance when Guido “hid himself” to watch the window of his love, who is set to marry the dwarf who is inhabiting his body. Here the loss of love is threatened.
Both narratives establish characters who experience the “great-is-thy-pride” theme, which translates into the inevitable and subsequent theme, “the greater thy pride, the harder thy fall.” Victor and Guido are dumbfounded by the consequences of their actions, and turn to the sublimity of nature as a means to remedy their inner turmoil. Nature is viewed here as the go-to source for healing and wisdom in the presence of emotional discomfort and confusion. As well, the natural space becomes the metaphorical space of the mind, a natural-world battlefield where the ugliness of the alter-ego is forced to make an appearance for the purposes of confrontation.
Both confrontations are pivotal story points designed to bring forth a resolution, speaking to the human condition which all humans must face, the path of coming to terms with the debacle of self. For Victor, his alter-ego is personified as an unspeakably strong monster, representing the fostered arrogance which has grown to overpower him. For Guido, his cocksure, near-criminally-minded ways are represented and personified as the dwarf-human whose voice was “screeching and horrid, and his contortions as he spoke were frightful to behold.”
The dwarf is a fascinating aspect of Transformation for the way it ushers in the Victorian view of dwarfism, as seen in the writings of other authors. In 1872, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla describes a hunchback with “sharp lean features that generally accompany deformity,” who has a “pointed black beard…white fangs…and a grotesque hat.” In 1891, Oscar Wilde echoes a more startling picture, and the shame it incurs, when he describes what happens at The Birthday of the Infanta — when a dwarf who has never seen himself looks in a mirror, he realizes: “It was a monster, the most grotesque monster he had ever beheld.” Such views have a history, as we see in Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall (1762) — when a visitor spots what he believes to be a small zoo, a proprietor answers that the enclosure is an “asylum for those poor creatures who are rendered miserable from some natural deficiency or redundancy,” little people “whose deformity would lead them to wish to be secluded from human view.” Here they are kept from the “monster-mongers” who would display them, where the cost of the “maintenance of the monsters [is] a hundred and twenty.” The notion of displaying little people for money, along with the world of others who look different, reaches into the 20th Century, where criticism has been heaped upon Todd Browning’s notoriously ill-conceived movie, Freaks (1932).
Shelley’s depiction of a dwarf as “misshapen” is not so much a politically incorrect standpoint as it is, what I would term, a Barthesian Slip. Roland Barthes posited that writing does not need an authorial tag because an author is merely the transfer point between society and the written page (Source). The Great British perception of dwarfism emerges through Shelley’s writing; her mind is but an extension of a larger state of consciousness. Shelley’s authorship, as any author’s might, functions as the interpretation of the social mores of her day, even when judgments as to the exact nature of insensitivity are difficult to define and comprehend.
The form of Transformation is certainly worthy of note. To read it in a day or two sitting as a compact version of the Frankenstein story is to experience in real time the vivid power of language. Written in the first-person, the first few acts consist of Guido “telling” us about the horror he has caused, a combination of conveyed events with heartfelt confessionals that read like intense poetry.
“I arrived in Genoa. I trod the pavement of my ancestral palace. My proud step was no interpreter of my heart, for I deeply felt that, though surrounded by every luxury, I was a beggar. The first step I took in claiming Juliet must widely declare me such. I read contempt or pity in the looks of all. I fancied that rich and poor, young and old, all regarded me with derision. Torella came not near me. No wonder that my second father should expect a son’s deference from me in waiting first on him. But, galled and stung by a sense of my follies and demerit, I strove to throw the blame on others.”
The language is dense and requires careful reading, yet when the moment arrives when he agonizes at sea, the sudden “showing” of the scene becomes impacting on the mind. We are treated to lustrous visuals along with a sense of alarm, thus drawing in the readership into the stakes of the story.
“Even now my heart fails within me when I recur to this rout of grim-visaged ideas. Now subdued almost to tears, now raving in my agony, still I wandered along the rocky shore, which grew at each step wilder and more desolate. Hanging rocks and hoar precipices overlooked the tideless ocean; black caverns yawned; and for ever, among the seaworn recesses, murmured and dashed the unfruitful waters.”
The key formulaic detail that alters the text from condensed story-telling to the sudden feeling of immersion is found in the dialogue, and the effect which reflects the very title itself becomes complete. The story literally “transforms” from the diegetic to the mimetic, serving to move a claustrophobic texture to that which is open and breathable, allowing for a lightening of the mind, a chance to ride the wave of the plot-line.
Transformation stands in opposition to Frankenstein when the ending unfolds, and for this we are thankful. The sense of tragedy that clung to the lives of people before and during the Victorian Era is hard to fathom — Chartism was a nightmare, civil rights were unheard of, children had it very rough, and the continual presence of death from disease, most notably in tuberculosis among others, must have been a nuisance. To read then a story in which a protagonist changes his ways to become a better person is the kind of writing of which, if Shelley was a conduit of the times, then what she gave back was the notion that matters do not have to remain as they stand.
Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Essay, 1967. UbuWeb, 2019.
Jones, Howard Mumford. Introduction. Joseph Andrews, by Henry Fielding, 1742. The Modern Library, Random House, Inc., 1939.
Le Fanu, Sheridan. “Carmilla.” In a Glass Darkly. London, 1872.
Scott, Sarah. Millenium Hall. London, 1762.
Shelley, Mary. “Transformation.” The Keepsake. London, 1831.
Wilde, Oscar. “Birthday of the Infanta.” A House of Pomegranates. London, 1891.
The expert magician knows how to keep his audience focused on a specific object, so as to allow for his magic trick to unfold with precision, in a different part of the visual spectrum he represents, mind you. And so it is with the writer of mysteries, coloring her linguistic canvas with red herring detours of plot so that by the end of her novel, one can only blame oneself for the outcome they didn’t see coming.
Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects is just such the novel, going so far as to take a page from Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934) to secure that which was unexpected, whether intentionally or not. Even as I suspected from the outset a certain character’s dubious disposition, I have to admit that I, too, was taken in by the element of surprise in the final act, though it’s nothing to be ashamed of; it’s what Flynn would’ve wanted. Of course, what followed was the observation of all the markers, replete with the feeling that it all should’ve been so obvious.
With that we have Flynn’s debut into the world of genre writing, impressive as it is. Following on the success of the movie adaptation of her third novel Gone Girl (2012), Sharp Objects was filmed as a ten-part series for HBO, and it was through this medium that I was driven to read the novel, because after the third episode, I was no longer able to allow myself to get strung along for another car ride with a spaced out Amy Adams.
What unfolded was that I had been, indeed, drawn in to reading a genre novel, but additionally, that I was reading something that was slightly more introspective than other genre novels that I’ve read. While the immediate claim is that the protagonist is the subject of focus for her inability to commit to a relationship, the writing does well to delve into the psychological underpinnings which facilitate the issue. Big time money in a small town, hellish coping mechanisms, drug abuse and peer-pressure are among the list of factors which contribute to the murder of two young girls.
If anything, Flynn provides an excellent contribution of thought to the realm of actual police detective work. Throughout the novel, Detective Richard Willis repeatedly insists that he is looking at anyone and everyone, and that it could be an outsider or a local, some transient or even a family member. It points to notions of seeking truth and justice in a manner that is not rushed and hurried; guilt can only be determined by the facts, and when the facts are slim, the need for patience is key. Sharp Objects is nearly an ode to the hundreds even thousands of those who have been wrongfully convicted by pressured detectives in a hurry to solve a case.
Stylistically speaking, Flynn’s novel moves at steady pace that is in keeping with the fundamentals of standard novel writing, though it must be stated, that the final reveal was out-of-step and awkward. Flynn offers insight into the writing process in her “Acknowledgements,” in which she states that she had “whittled” the book into shape. Multiple readers and readings were involved, along with law enforcement and medical consultations. The ending in this light seems to indicate the desire she had simply to finish the book.
At its heart, Sharp Objects is a “page-turner,” the craft of which is an important one to learn for the aspiring writer in this day and age, for as Stephen King once put it, loosely quoting, “literary fiction no longer sells.”
In the case of this novel, the introspective edge allowing for a glimpse into the darker behaviors of humankind render it something of a unique addition to the genre canon, for make no mistake, Sharp Objects is dark reading. Its tantalizing depiction of rural American Midwest evokes sensations of wariness as to its inhabitants, prompting Flynn herself to remark concerning people she knew in Missouri, of whom she was happy to say “were absolutely no inspiration for the characters in this book.”
Sharp Objects, most pointedly (pardon the pun), draws attention to one of the more confounding of teenage defense mechanisms against the world which traumatizes them. It’s no spoiler to highlight how the protagonist Camille Preaker is a “cutter,” someone who cuts themselves in superficial fashion so as to block the pain of a particular reality. Camille’s distinct style of cutting involves the inscribing of words into her flesh, providing a curious linguistic tension to what is already harrowing authorship. But when we consider the thought of one of our young loved ones taking a razor or a knife, or any “sharp object” to their flesh, it forces us to register, in all the wrong ways, just how painful certain experiences can be for young people. Sharp Objects lays bare what the world can do to the teenage mind, allowing us to consider more thoughtfully how to respond to someone who is young and experiencing trauma.