Sharp Objects (2006)

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.


The Voyage Out (1915)

If any one sentence could describe Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out (originally entitled Melymbrosia), it might read, “It’s the book with a protagonist that doesn’t realize it has a protagonist.” I attribute this description to the writing style Woolf applies to her debut narrative form, a kind of specialized version of the third-person omniscient that is observed by one encyclopedia, “While Joyce and Faulkner separate one character’s interior monologues from another’s, Woolf’s narratives move between inner and outer and between characters without clear demarcations” (Source). It is an odd way of writing, but something to be appreciated for its drive to break the so-called “rules” of writing.

The Voyage Out, I must admit, sat on my bookcase for nine years. I bought it believing that I was going to dive right in, joining the ranks of those who’ve been enlightened by the majestic insight that precedes Woolf’s reputation. And then my undergraduate courses began, where I was charged with the task of reading Mrs Dalloway (1925); although it was homework, I simply couldn’t finish it. And after racing through To the Lighthouse (1927), I realized The Voyage Out might be shelved unattended to for quite some time. Woolf’s literary accomplishments may be fascinations of genius, but are nonetheless an acquired taste.

The day finally arrived, however, eight years later, when I sensed that I would have to give The Voyage Out some attention, and I’m glad I did. As it turns out, because it was her first novel, it’s been dubbed the simpler of her works (remarkable in and of itself since it went through seven drafts). As Pagan Harleman tells us, since “Woolf was still writing under the shadow of E.M. Forster and the traditional novel, she was not ready for new terrain. One can see her experimenting, slowly honing the style that was to become her hallmark, but where later she was fearless, here she is tentative, depending on plot, not style, to drive the narrative” (XIII). For this fact I am grateful. I was able to experience the beauty and power of Woolf’s ingenuity and prowess with something like a standard narrative to carry me through.

The surprise came when I discovered how the story does not take place in England, which contributed to my enthusiasm to continue reading. Of course, Woolf’s characteristic style stood out immediately, the intricacies of human behavior, emotions described with such poetic clarity, all replete with commentaries on the conditions and idiosyncrasies of English life at the time.

But the story initiates with adventures at sea, the described intensity of the experience intermixed with character activities and reactions that read with a subtle realism that made it hard to believe the authoress had never actually traveled on a ship. When we reach the fictional town of Santa Marina, South America, her descriptive power intensifies, with every conceivable detail attended to with visceral prose that is remarkable to absorb; there is something oddly otherworldly in the notion in how The Voyage Out stands as her “simpler” work, yet requires such keen perception to comprehend the profundity of the writing present within its pages.

The young Rachel Vinrace is the centerpiece of the story but as mentioned, Woolf’s version of the third-person omniscient kept the form from focusing tightly on her. We’re met with an assortment of characters and with them, Woolf brings forth their behaviors and emotions with every mention, distracting us from Rachel’s plot line. The form is so very unusual, abstract and yet revealing for the multitude of ideas Woolf desires to impart, aside from simply telling a story. Luckily for the readership, she is so gifted that the style is not bothersome, much to the extent that the joy of reading is not hindered at all. She even manages to employ that traditionally English writing habit of inserting epigrams, for example telling us that when matters pertain to love, how “That, of course, was what came of looking forward to anything; one was always disappointed” (Woolf 271).

The temptation stands to try and identify the downsides of The Voyage Out, but there are none; great writers often begin their careers with works that are subject to the arrows of criticism (though hers was met with a fair amount of praise). For instance, the English characters are followed throughout the narrative with great avidity while the native peoples of Santa Marina take a serious backseat; the primary peripheral characters are many and they drift in and out so that it’s sometimes difficult to discern them from one another when conversations and descriptions are taking place; and for as thick as the book is, what we learn of Rachel is borderline deficient — but not to the detriment of the novel. To be sure, the novel’s defects are what seem to be the very attributes which render it an exceptional work of literature, its “downsides” to be wholly forgiven.

This may be in addition due to its most peculiar aspect: interwoven throughout its shifting panoramic form there flows a love story. Rachel has been described with the appropriate amount of characterization so that when the moment arrives when we learn how she feels, we find our spirits moved with a sense of intrigue. She’s naïve to the world because of her upbringing, but she is a prodigy at the piano; she’s vulnerable enough to allow the actions of certain people to overwhelm her, but she holds her own when the time comes for intelligent conversation; and she’s old enough to know how marriage is that daunting institution of the unknown, yet her youthful spirit endows her with the inspiration to explore what it might be all about for herself. Rachel’s character development is truly a marvel, because we learn just enough about her to feel that she could be a person taken from the pages of real life.

The finalizing factor that bolsters the novel’s integrity rest not entirely in how the plot line concludes (no spoilers here), because that would’ve been a drastic cliché. It’s in the emotive type of nonchalance that fill the many pages that follow these climactic circumstances that do the grabbing. Where the distracting shifts between characters had once been something of an authorial curiosity, the form appears to have been a strategical maneuver all along. People have to go on with their lives, and of these feelings we are shown. It seems that in reality, we can never tell how people truly feel under such conditions, but with the natural gift of Woolf’s writing, we get as close to the real thing as can possibly be imagined, given especially that such realities can be both heartbreaking as they are unsettling in a disturbing kind of way. With this kind of writing, we can look across the room at someone we love and not only want to reach out and hug them, but we can come a touch closer to understanding them so that we can love them even more.

Harleman, Pagan. Introduction. The Voyage Out. Barnes & Noble, 2004.

Woolf, Virginia. The Voyage Out. 1915. Barnes & Noble, 2004.

Moby Dick (1851)

Moby Dick

Before I decided to perform an official reading of Herman Melville’s magnum opus, my previous experience with Moby Dick entailed that in which the novel was given to me as a gift, in hardback form. It was a big, thick book. I didn’t know what to do with it. Since I didn’t immediately dive into it, the person who gave it to me decided to give it a go. I distinctly remember the hours she spent on the bed, in a seeming state of torture, the cuss words emerging from her lips at times, before she ultimately tossed the book aside three-quarters of the way through. From that point the book became an item to chew on for her half-pug/half-chihuahua dog. In taking note of the teeth marks, ultimately I opted to donate the fabled tome to charity without ever once perusing a single page. That was ten years ago.

The novel reemerged in my life when I performed miserably on the GRE subject test. Ishmael? Queequeg? Who were these guys? Of course I knew about Captain Ahab, and something about a whale, but after completing my thesis and deciding to retake the GRE, I decided it was time to simply sit down and read the darn thing. My oh my, what an experience this has been.

Moby Dick 2

Since I chose to work my way through in one series of sittings, I felt like the book owned me. I couldn’t get on with the other things in my life. And a feeling developed in which I felt as though I, too, were at sea, only my world was an ocean of words and concepts, philosophies and religions, characters and, of course, whales. As I read, I had to do much referencing to understand the material and invariably, I stumbled across not only a myriad of critical essays regarding the piece, but a few opinions as well.

I tend to agree with those who felt the work was tedious and disproportionate. Having an understanding of a well-structured, plot-sequenced novel, I was keenly aware of the disrupted flow of the story. I was drawn in by the Ishmael/Queequeg character developments only to realize, as everyone else who’s read Moby Dick, that I was being seriously sidetracked by an immense amount of seemingly irrelevant details about whaling. I understand, now, that everyone knows this, and that I have simply arrived late to the party.

One opinion piece, however, felt he’d been short-changed by the ending, and on this point, I couldn’t agree. I felt the power of language and I felt the Shakespearean undercurrent. I felt the power of the story and accordingly, I felt purpose in Melville’s many digressions as they seemed to converge to render the ending entirely appropriate. I sense that modern day editors would skewer the book, try and whittle it down to a standard 75,000 word narrative pronounced with the absurd mandate most notoriously known throughout post-modern publishing — that everything must be SHOWN and not told. And in light of this fact, I am glad the novel is just the way it is. Without the detours and side-shifting of the narrative perspective, the novel would not be renowned as a unique American classic.

Captain Ahab, of course, occupies the centrality of the story. Wherever a critique is found about him, the aspect of his “monomania” is pervasive. But what is monomania? The Free Dictionary defines it as a “pathological obsession with one idea or subject” or “intent concentration on or exaggerated enthusiasm for a single subject or idea.” Undoubtedly, this figures into Ahab’s fixation on the whale, but the term denotes a negativity that is hard to avoid.

Moby Dick 4

I agree with the idea that Ahab was fixated, but I didn’t view it quite as negatively as maybe I should have. I saw his need to get Moby Dick as a representation of the need to set goals and achieve them. Ahab was determined to succeed in his goal, and I don’t believe he intended to harm others in his endeavor. He had no idea that The Pequod was going to sink, and his affection for Pip displays a sense of humanity that lies within him. And because the venture included the capture of other whales, I didn’t view Ahab’s orders as wholly authoritarian. They traveled east, caught some whales, and towards the end of the novel, they got on to Moby Dick’s trail. Ahab wanted to control matters, but the voyage seemed not altogether abnormal; and I don’t get the sense that he wanted to kill people needlessly.

Ahab offers the doubloon as a reward to manipulate his crew into his service, and even though this a mental maneuver, I think it stands as an attribute of his ability to think critically. It is a diplomatic tactic that helps him move towards completion. And that he has his harpoon baptized in the blood of his mates who have opted to help him, I see this, along with the doubloon offering, as symbolic of the teamwork that is often required to achieve goals. Captain Ahab is fanatical and ritualistic about it, but such behaviors reinforce the framework of his strategy to reach the level that is accomplishment.

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At this point it is important to understand that I am not out to produce a critical essay on Moby Dick; I save that for my 18th Century studies. With that being said, I can understand that casting a positive light on Ahab’s obsession to catch the white whale may seem unorthodox. It’s just that as I was reading, I could not help but feel the valiance of the man and his mission. Captain Ahab was determined to succeed, and this determination in an American novel reflects the determination ingrained in the spirit of America and its citizens. The tragedy that is Ahab’s story, that he lost everything and the whale got away, does not sum up Melville’s novel from my perspective. Ahab’s attitude of perseverance, the ongoing meditations outside his cabin, his willingness to give up addiction (when he tosses the pipe), the continuous rhetoric and psychological tactics he employed, these all lead me to believe that Captain Ahab and the spirit of America is not one of quitting or shying away from a challenge, but one of the willingness and the drive to succeed.