Book Nook: The Dead Father by Donald Barthelme

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It is the fate of all of us, perhaps,
to direct…our first hatred and our first murderous
wish against our father. 
—Sigmund Freud

I SAT AND READ The Dead Father, a formative work of postmodernist fiction, in three bursts: afternoon, evening, then morning. Finishing the novel left me with cerebral indigestion: I am still deciphering the points of the story (despite knowing it’s meant to be essentially and playfully absurd and ironic—to quote, “To find a lost father: the first problem in finding a lost father is to lose him”—which, I suppose, are postmodern devices, gimmicks, and tricks); and I am still weighing its strengths and—for my lack of vocabulary, I shall call them—“flaws,” which mirror my own flaws, for I, the reader, unavoidably give birth to the text, changing it and constructing meaning from it according to myself—my capacity, standard, and perspective. Postmodernism is a literary genre that is self-conscious of the reader’s authority over the text.

Resembling a Kafkaesque world with a dystopian backdrop, the story was about a surrealistic funeral march (only revealed at the novel’s end) for the Dead Father who believed that his children were bringing him into the “Golden Fleece,” where he would recover not just his life and dominion over the world but also his youth. The Dead Father was a 3,200-cubit quasi-omnipotent—yet vain, temperamental, lascivious, and tyrannical—giant who was “dead, but still with [them], still with [them], but dead.” A crew of nineteen men hauled him by means of a cable wire across strange territories to bury him into his equally gigantic grave.

Barthelme’s narrative on The Dead Father was a “fragmented verbal collage”; the sentences were deconstructed—

The wall trembling. The alcove shaped like an egg. Quilt slipping toward the edge. The mountain. A set of stone steps. The cathedral. Bronze doors intricately worked with scenes. Row of grenadiers in shakos. Kneeling. Interior of the egg.

—and some dialogues were written with the shock of non-sequitor (random and unrelated responses to “generate new meanings”), as though in a Freudian free-association game. Take for example this voice-over of a conversation between two female characters:

            Thought I heard a dog barking.
It’s possible. The simplest basic units develop into the richest natural patterns.
Are you into spanking?
No, I’m not.
Pity. We could have something going.
I’m not into that.
Where can a body get hit around here?
Pop one of these if you’d like a little lift.

Barthelme’s daring, unorthodox, even “alien” use of language (a signature Beckettian wordplay, I say, as one cannot not think of Samuel Beckett while reading The Dead Father), his off-the-nuts hilarity, and his ingenious book-within-a-book, A Manual for Sons—which contained the groundwork themes from which the novel stood out, such as fatherhood and its eternal influence on all the father’s procreations, and the sons’ unconscious desires of patricide—were the novel’s strongest suits. From A Manual for Sons,

Then they attacked [the father] with sumo wrestlers, giant fat men in loincloths. We countered with loincloth snatchers…We were successful. The hundred naked fat men fled…When you have rescued the father from whatever terrible threat menaces him, then you feel, for a moment, that you are the father and he is not. For a moment. This is only the moment in your life you will feel this way.

Doubtlessly I enjoyed this challenging book, but it left me unhappy, with a bad aftertaste, like a terrible hangover from a “trip.” I awaited for the “aesthetic event”—my merit of all the books I have read—to happen, but it did not occur throughout the read; perhaps I glimpsed a few flashes of it, but they were nonetheless dim even in that respect.

The ending, which I found human and sentimental, did not find its mark, in me. It’s a rigorous task for me to rate this book objectively since I am yet a naiveté to the avant-garde and postmodern traditions of literature. But conclusively, the late and influential Barthelme was a genius left in his postmodern school and playground, experimenting with possible forms of fiction, leading an evolution that changes the way we think about the written word.

(Published on Sun.Star Weekend: Oct 22, 2016)

Book Nook: Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut

I had to laugh like hell.
—Kurt Vonnegut

HOCUS POCUS is a grim, depressing, yet terribly funny, fictional autobiography of General Eugene Debs Hartke, a person who never masturbated and uttered neither blasphemy nor profanity in his life. His parents died in a freak accident in Niagra Falls without ever knowing what hit them. His wife and mother-in-law, carrying a powerful strain of insanity, turned into lunatics. His son and daughter, upon knowing that they too could end up in an insane asylum, couldn’t forgive them for reproducing. Gene also has a son out of wedlock, who was named after a cocktail.

Gene dreamed of being a jazz pianist or a journalist, but “life being what it was” placed him in West Point and made him lieutenant colonel during the Vietnam War, an accomplishment which made his frustrated father real proud.

That path to West Point was all thanks to the “helmsman of his destiny,” Sam Wakefield, a lieutenant colonel he met during the high school science fair, who would commit suicide years later and leave a very ambiguous and absolutely unoriginal note: “My work is done.”

As a professional soldier, Gene would have welcomed a returning Christ  with a napalm air strike, if ordered to do so by his superiors. At the end of the book, he would reveal the number of people he had killed in the war and how many women he had slept with.

When the Vietnam War was over—which was “nothing but the ammunitions business”—Gene met Sam again, who then hired him as a professor in Tarkington College, which was a correctional insititute, to teach physics and music appreciation to affluent learning-disabled students, or “seemingly hopeless cases of plutocratic juvenile incapacities,” whom no conventional universities would dare accept.

The college did rather well and proved that they could teach what the other universities thought to be unteachable: some of their graduates were successful in life and even became among the nation’s great men.

Spent in this institution were Gene’s happiest days—not as a teacher, but as a carillon player at the beginning and end of classes. He was a good teacher and was a students’ favorite, but he would soon be fired because of “life being what it was.”

Gene landed another job on a maximum-security prison as a teacher to the illiterate and dangerous convicts who were never allowed set foot with society again, and there he contracted tuberculosis. Then one night, a prison break was successful—the largest in American history—with the Tarkington College just across the frozen lake that separated them.

He was inside a prison library when he wrote his scrap autobiography. And so it goes.

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The novel’s format is unparalleled in its unique brilliance: “The narrator wrote this book in pencil on everything from brown wrapping paper to the backs of business cards, from scrap to scrap, as though each were a bottle to fill,” hence the nonlinearity of the story line, a signature Vonnegutian device, which makes this work entropic, digressive, challenging, and anticlimactic.

The story can be summed up as an old war veteran’s retrospection of his life, like taking into account the number of the people he killed in the war and the women he slept with. This method allowed Vonnegut to go on a “freewheeling commentary,” and not without the raging moral outrage and ridicule, on war, fate, society, racism, and politics, business, and education.

The rhythm of Kurt Vonnegut’s “sharp-toothed” and stoical witticisms remains irreproachable and inimitable, and none of his literary inheritors come close to his satirical and philosophical bents.

Definitely among the 20th century’s greatest novels, Hocus Pocus stands as a depressing vision of humanity. Vonnegut states, “I am not writing this book for people below the age of 18, but I see no harm in telling young people to prepare for failure rather than success, since failure is the main thing that is going to happen to them.”

(Published on Sun.Star Weekend Cebu: June 19, 2016)

“Thy Will, Will Not Be Done”: The Dictate of the Human Conscience

Only those who are truly religious can avail the luxury of skepticism.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols,
or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer

I have found God, but He is insufficient.
—Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

FIRST AND FOREMOST, I would like to note to the reader that I am neither a theologian nor a scholar of philosophy; I am simply a man without profession who is conducting the following moral scrutiny under the rudimentary dialectic acquired through a life devoted to literature and psychology. Admittedly, I am self-conscious over tackling a subject in which I may be direly underqualified to discuss. Nonetheless, I wish to proceed with my conjecture.

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The contemplation on the life and death of Christ, evoked by the Lent season, has impelled me to undertake the arduous task of composing an essay born of strife toward the conventional standpoint from which Christ’s crucifixion is viewed: as a glorious, miraculous event because through Christ’s death and resurrection, mankind’s grace and relationship with God are restored.

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So here shall I properly begin my analysis:

In The Brothers Karamazov chapter entitled “Rebellion,” Dostoyevsky’s character Ivan Karamazov boldly states that mankind’s salvation rested on “the blood of a tortured child” (Christ is as innocent and pure as a child) and that a respectable man upon realizing this should “return God’s ticket” as its price will have cost him his conscience because the “ticket” has been soaked in the blood of the innocent. “If the suffering of children is required to pay for the original sin, I’d take no part of it.” Ivan speaks of children to make his point obvious: that eternal life is overpriced because it demands the sacrificing of the “lamb.”

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Is it right to let an innocent be punished for another man’s sins? It has been preached over the centuries that out of love, Christ bore all mankind’s punishment in the cross. To quote my best friend,

What happened actually on a hill full of barbarians and soldiers on a good Friday afternoon was that the probability of bloodshed was shouldered by one man, on that one single moment of uncontainable glory.

The said perspective never fails to arouse indignation in me. I believe that the crucifixion is unjustifiable since “[that] child’s tear will remain unatoned for” even if He were resurrected and humanity were delivered from sin. (How could not letting an innocent die be a sin in itself—not to God, but to humanity?) Furthermore, how could the sight of a helpless child asking why he was forsaken seemed to have been overlooked as though his tears bore no weight? Is it all because his torment is part of God’s plan?

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Still, it is impossible to raise objections against God; what right do I—a mere human being—have to rectify an existence that is perfectly beyond me? God’s logic can’t ever be argued since it is “the reasoning of another world, and it’s incomprehensible to the human heart here on earth.” However—and this is the crux of this note—that same premise urges me to rebel because God’s otherworldly reasoning does not apply to the human conscience.

The crucifixion account allows us probe into the nature of absolute obedience and fear (both construed as signs of faith) and how these values cost man his humanity: when Jesus told the apostles about the prophecy, Peter rebuked him, saying that shall never happen. But Jesus said that it is all written and they should do nothing but fulfill God’s will.

But what is the cost of this faith but the death of conscience? (God’s ordering of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac on Genesis 22 prefigures this.) The apostles understood it was God’s will for Jesus to die on the cross for the salvation of the world and get resurrected.

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The cross symbolizes what God has done—offering to the world “His only begotten Son” (Jn. 3:16)—in order to redeem the world from sin; the cross is also a grim reminder of the blood sacrifice: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). In the Old Testament, “spotless animals” are sacrificed in place of the sinner: this foreshadows the sacrificing of Christ, “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

In the crucifixion, we see that not a soul intervened with the authorities and the divine will to defend the innocent; not a soul revolted against the injustice, crying, “Thy will, will not be done!” There is only compromise and fear: the throwing away of conscience for the salvation of man’s soul.

Book Nook: Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning: On the “Last of the Human Freedoms”

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Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms, that is, to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

TO COMPOSE a brief synthesis of Viktor Frankl’s lucid insights on a prisoner’s self-transcendence over the inhumanity of the Holocaust is the purpose of this essay.

From 1941 until 1945, the Jews were held captive and systematically massacred in the concentration camps under the Nazi territories. The covert methods of this genocide included starvation, heavy manual labor under severe conditions, torture, hanging in the gallows, then mass murders, gas chambers, and crematoriums—methods that, by the final stages of the war, had already decimated approximately 11 million people.

Upon captivity, all possessions were taken away from the prisoners, names replaced by numbers, not a strand of hair left unshaven on their bodies. They were forced to toil like animals, despite their serious malnourishment, and slumber in abominably small bunk beds like stacks of corpses.

Nothing was left of the prisoners’ lives but their hope for liberation and their nakedness to the inevitability of death surrounding them. But amid the gamut of terrors, for three years, Frankl, who was a psychiatrist before the occupation, investigated the camp’s psychology and secretly jotted down notes on scraps of paper that served as the manuscript for his own psychotherapeutic theory: that is logotherapy (logos is Greek for meaning).

In his book Man’s Search for Meaning—an autobiography about his Holocaust experience and an introduction to the concepts of logotherapy—Frankl postulated that “the sort of person a prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, not the result of the camp influences alone.”

Numerous prisoners, after recognizing the impossibility of surviving under the camp’s environment, either ran into the electrically charged fences to commit suicide or simply awaited death to come over their beds. They found no meaning in prolonging their unjustifiable suffering.

But Frankl observed there were a few prisoners who “never lost their ideals in the depths of degradation” and possessed a humor that offered necessary self-detachment and reprieve from the conditions. They endured their suffering honorably and remained as though undaunted in the face of the camp’s thoroughly abject reality.

These odd behaviors, however small in number, Frankl concluded, suffice as proof that the “work of choosing” and the “will to meaning” become the “soul’s weapon in the fight for self-preservation.” As long as there is a deep sense of meaning that fortifies the spirit, an individual can suffer without despair and not become subject to decay.

Logotherapy presupposes that man’s inherent will to meaning and freedom of choice are the authors to his own personality: “Man is more than psyche. […] Man is a self-determining being, man decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment.”

The antithesis of surrendering to the machinery of the base instincts is the discipline of making conscious decisions in each moment. Between stimulus and response is a space of freedom that is solely determined by the individual’s volition.

(Published on Sunstar Cebu ’ZUP Page Book Nook: February 29, 2016)

Keeping a Diary: A Lifelong Discipline

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If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.

—Anais Nin, In Favor of the Sensitive Man and Other Essays


MY INDULGENCE on Henry Miller’s autobiographical novels has led me to Anais Nin, a free-spirited, intelligent woman whose ideas have molded and complemented with Miller’s writings. I’ve no sooner read Nin’s works than she becomes one of the few female writers I adore and venerate.

Nin, a monumental diarist and feminist in the twentieth century, writes “to taste life twice, in the moment and in introspection” and to “recreate [herself] when destroyed by living.” The lifelong and almost-daily practice of keeping a diary has built her “an inner world that can withstand destruction.”

At age 11, Nin has started the diary as a series of letters to her father who abandoned the family. She decides to become a writer. Decades later, the diary has grown into some 150 volumes. The 35,000 pages of handwritten journals are now kept as a unique, uncensored document of a woman’s “multileveled” life contending against puritanical, societal dogmatism and restraints.

Her five novels, collection of short stories, and essays on various subjects, Nin believes, are all “merely outcroppings” from her diary: what she produces outside is “a distillation, the myth, the poem.”

Here, gathered from Nin’s and Miller’s works, are a few methods of their lifelong discipline:

  1. The diary as a confessional and confidant. Begin by “eliminating the idea of the [diary] as [good writing].” Express explicitly and fearlessly. “It’s not an exercise in literature; it’s an exercise in our lives.”
  2. Automatic writing. This is devised by the surrealists to bypass consciousness. It is thought without effort and control. Write “unconsciously,” with abandon and digressiveness, as though possessed by spirits. Besides its cathartic effect, this method introduces intimacy with the cryptic workings of the mind and the “supernatural forces.”
  3. Free association and dreams (techniques in psychoanalysis). The person is given a certain word as a stimulus and is encouraged to report—quickly and without censorship—whatever image or word association that arises in his mind; this is to uncover repressed thoughts.
    When recording dreams, don’t rush to wake up; instead, with eyes still closed, remain in the twilight state (between waking and sleeping), reach inward for that last thread of dream material, and trace back the labyrinth before writing. Note down impressions of the dream. List a string of free associations stemming from the dream elements (e.g., a stab wound in the dream could be related to the fear of death or suppressed sexual arousal in real life).
  4. Various compositions. Write insights on specific subjects (e.g., relationship traumas), portraits/sketches (e.g., impressionistic reviews of places, events, and character analysis of people), letters, imagined moments, and dialogues.

Keeping a diary, as Nin said, is a necessity to everyone’s “becoming” as the daily logs put life into deliberate attention and reflection. The diary is an “instrument for living” that should be not only for writers but also for anyone from any walks of life.

(Published on Sunstar Cebu ’ZUP Page Book Nook: February 8, 2016)

In and Out the Labyrinth of the Mind (A Personal Note on Gestalt Therapy’s Impact)

 

The most tremendous voyages are sometimes taken without moving from the spot.
—Henry Miller, The World of Sex

 

THE GESTALT MARATHON is an indoor, static marathon, with all its participants inside a large, conducive room weary and confounded from the in-depth processes, emotional exercises, experimentations, and self-encounters and discoveries yet equipped with an awareness so sharp it cuts deep through the surface of their perceived experience and evokes rich and different perspectives from within—perspectives that are at least insightful, freeing, and integrative, if not directly curative.

`           Awareness per se, by and in itself, can be curative. (Perls)

In August 2009, after two days of intensive self-awareness activities, I have stepped upon this new ground where I have made contact with myself and understood “awareness” not just in its psychical nature but also in its biological, instinctive sense (as an élan vital that encompasses not just humans but all of life). “Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in us. Everything else about us is dead machinery” (Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions).

Though abstract—and sometimes abstruse, elusive, and ineffable—awareness also seemed like a state of matter, at least to me: I have my hands on it, uncomprehendingly feeling its fluctuations, its rising and falling (a lifeline), and its pulsing, as though a heart, from the deepest trenches of my skull-sized ocean.

Franz Kafka spoke of literature “as an axe with which we chop at the frozen seas inside us.” The same thing can be said of the Gestalt marathon. With all the compression and pressure already inside the participants—their lifelong suppressed issues and traumas remaining incessantly percussive via neuroses—the release is akin to an eruption of a dormant volcano that has long forgotten about its own existence but suddenly awakens from this amnesia of living.

The Gestalt marathon offered me a chance to let my deep-seated feelings burst and tear down my prison and chains, albeit not permanently. When I found out that, by theory and experience, there’s a rhythmic relationship (contact and withdrawal) even to such things like freedom and captivity, I started building another prison, this time, of my own choosing: it is an inner world where I can give my thoughts free rein without extrinsic influences and only led by pure impulses bubbling from the well that is my soul (my organism). I believe that opposites complement one another, as in the principles of Taoism of light and darkness. Truth is that nature is cyclic, inevitable, and necessary.

The walls of this prison mirror my solitude, but this voyage of the mind arrives at a fecundity of potentials that is seeking to be drawn into life and to participate in reality. It’s like slipping into a dream and waking up with Samuel Coleridge’s flower in hand.

What if you slept
And what if
In your sleep
You dreamed
And what if
In your dream
You went to heaven
And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower
And what if
When you awoke
You had that flower in you hand
Ah, what then? (Coleridge)

Conversely (this time, the flower is from the outside), at moments of selfless subjectivity, which I soon learn from Gestalt therapy, I take note of how an external stimulus passes “through my senses and into my mind” and watch the whole course of this awareness continuum bifurcating through the labyrinth, along with its curious loops and random turns and associations. This is why time passes inside the mind differently (in our heads lies a “battleground of invisible forces”).

We are aware of the age-old adage of the “mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.” The mind is the center where we process what our senses gathered. The Gestalt marathon freed my mind—and thus freed me from it—and attuned me well with my senses. An awareness that is not just run by the brain but also by the pleading of the guts has been born. (The finish line of the marathon is integration: the mind-and-body split made whole.)

The “frozen seas” are chopped down; the seas become an ocean. My awareness circles above like a bird. But all of life follows the rhythm of life. Parts of my ocean will, in its own time, freeze. However, that’s not a bad thing; it has to happen so I can rest on top the labyrinths.

Koryu, look. The birds are going back north.
I wonder who said that birds are free?
Though they fly in the sky freely,
If they had no place to arrive or branches to rest on,
They might even regret having wings.
What is true freedom?
It is, perhaps, having a place to go back to. (Koumyou Sanzo)

Book Nook: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: On “Burning” Books

2c8fbe5e4422715ae29c6caef51be045“There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”

“It was a pleasure to burn.”

FAHRENHEIT 451 (1952) opens with this frightening line. Ray Bradbury writes of a dystopian future where books are burned along with the homes where they are hidden. Here, the firemen’s job is to start fires instead of putting them out. The masses are addicted to watching and discussing TV shows flashing from their “four-walled televisors” and are oblivious or indifferent regarding the imminent genesis of a nuclear war—about their world being “swept with confused alarms and struggle and flight / where ignorant armies clash by night” (Arnold, Dover Beach).

Hitherto, Bradbury’s prophetic legacy remains resonant—even almost solid and identical—in its unnerving resemblances and implications to this modern era of rapid technological progress but with the most of humanity still mindless of its repercussions. Take for example the irony of their ignorance: with tons of information bombarded and crammed into people’s heads, only a little time is now left for quiet introspection and skepticism. People are “[rushed] quickly to conclusions [their] minds [haven’t] time to protest” and thus learning only a little, which is “a dangerous thing” (Pope, An Essay on Criticism).

Due to the ubiquity of the Internet, the endless blabber flooding the social media, and the online articles abominably compressed for quick, shallow reading, elements essential to critical thinking—such as “the quality of information,” the patience and “the leisure to digest it,” and “the [carrying] out [of] actions based on the interaction of the previous two”—are inanely abandoned.

History does not lack but rather possess an almost plethoric memory that bears the perversities of obliterating books, libraries, and whole nations. During the Nazi regime, a bonfire for thousands of books was set in the streets of Berlin, Germany. “Where one burns books, one will soon burn people” (Heine). The first Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang also commanded the rigorous abolition of the all chronicles written before his reign and the burying of their scholars because he wanted history to begin with him. The ancient library of Alexandria, a house of incalculable scrolls, suffered from fires throughout the centuries.

Destroying books is the prime symbol of censorship and oppression of thought. But “you don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture,” says Bradbury. “Just get people to stop reading them.” In Fahrenheit 451, we must note that before the government decreed the burning of books, it was the public who first turned away from reading.

(Published on Sunstar Cebu ’ZUP Page Book Nook: January 18, 2016)

Book Nook: The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

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“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.”

J. D. SALINGER’S magnum opus, The Catcher in the Rye (1951), was a landmark novel in the 20th-century American literature and was listed as one of the best English-language novels of the century. Hailed as that “rare miracle of fiction…[where] a human being has been created out of ink, paper, and the imagination,” this mock-autobiographical story—narrated by a cynical, sardonic, cuss-tongued, yet sensitive and grieving seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield as he spends his days in a mental asylum—has captivated the imagination of many and sold more than 60 million copies, and continues to sell 250 thousand copies a year.

In the vernacular of his time (the 1940s), which Salinger delivered in an incredible capture of language, Holden tells us “about this madman stuff that happened to [him] around last Christmas just before [he] got pretty run-down” when he went to New York the night following his expulsion from Pency Prep.

The Catcher in the Rye is the mouthpiece of Holden’s rebellion—the launch of his antipathies toward the “phoniness” of adulthood. In the character of Holden, Salinger molded an archetype of “teenage angst and alienation,” almost like a younger-sibling incarnate of the disturbed unnamed narrator in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground.

(Mark David Chapman, the man who shot John Lennon, said, “Because Lennon was a phony.” His response letter composed only of one line: “Read The Catcher in the Rye.”)

World War II created Salinger: the soldier was “the ghost in the machine of all the stories.” Salinger carried chapters of The Catcher in the Rye to help him survive and wrote amid the war. The pages landed on the shores of D-Day, hid in the trenches, and witnessed the atrocities of the concentration camps, all of which were funneled into the novel.

Due to unwanted fame, Salinger went reclusive, and the public invaded him throughout his life.

Though remaining unpublished from 1965 until his death in 2010, he wrote prolifically. In the bunker where he installed himself was a safe full of manuscripts; this was said to contain the complete chronicles of the Caulfield and Glass families, other novels, short stories, and a Vedanta manual. Claims hold that Salinger “left instructions authorizing a specific timetable” that these works be published between 2015 and 2020.

Despite having only a few visible works in his oeuvre, Salinger was a literary giant as The Catcher in the Rye resonates through generations of teenagers caught between childhood and adulthood.

(Published on Sunstar Cebu ’ZUP Page Book Nook: December 13, 2015)

Book Nook: Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

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I wanted to destroy something beautiful I’d never have. Burn the Amazon rain forests. Pump chlorofluorocarbons straight up to gobble the ozone. Open the dump valves on supertankers and uncap offshore oil wells. I wanted to kill all the fish I couldn’t afford to eat, and smother the French beaches I’d never see.

I wanted the whole world to hit bottom.

Pounding that kid, I really wanted to put a bullet between the eyes of every endangered panda that wouldn’t screw to save its species and every whale or dolphin that gave up and ran itself aground.

UPON WINNING the Oregon Book Award for best novel and the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award, Chuck Palahniuk’s visionary debut novel, Fight Club, was shot to the veins of mainstream fiction. Following the success of its 1999 film adaptation directed by David Fincher, Fight Club gained cult classic status and has become a disturbingly accurate interpretation of our modern world.

The unnamed male narrator, suffering from a long streak of insomnia, finds cure by attending cancer support groups. But when Marla Singer—a sallow, heavy-smoking nihilist—enters the evening meetings and mirrors his own fraud, his insomnia returns, so he confronts Singer to split schedules with him.

On the night when his condominium mysteriously blows up, he calls Tyler Durden, whom he had previously met—under strange circumstances—on a beach. They agree to meet at a bar, where, after drinking, Durden asks him a favor, “I want you to hit me as hard as you can.”

The narrator swings the punch that cradled Fight Club into the world. Shortly, a multitude of men with white-collar jobs join them. Every weekend, in the parking lots and basements of bars, they hold these late-hour no-holds-barred-and-barefisted fights that “go on as long as they have to.”

These one-on-one melees curiously evoke psychotherapeutic effects—resembling that of enlightenment—within the men: they are reborn from their entombed lives.

Fight Club soon evolves into Project Mayhem, an anarchic army led by Durden, who seeks to fulfill his visions of global enlightenment through organized chaos, public unrest, and demolition.

Fight Club is a social satire on the dehumanizing effects of consumerism: alienation brought by chronic materialism, illusory comforts, overindulgence, and career and lifestyle obsessions fueled by advertising. “The modern world is for business—not for the people,” as what the great psychoanalyst Carl Jung said.

“It’s only after you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything.” Skillfully fusing Zen elements with Durden’s extremist ideologies, Palahniuk has written a provocative expression of metaphysical rebellion. The collective revolt against the existential vacuum is Durden’s nucleus and what draws men toward him.

Fight Club’s noir ambience and the solid economy of its prose are reminiscent of Albert Camus’s The Stranger, but with the sharp nonlinear narration executing its plot; also inheriting Kurt Vonnegut’s dark humor, Chuck Palahniuk is among today’s distinct and intriguing voices.

(Published on Sunstar Cebu ’ZUP Page Book Nook: December 27, 2015)

Book Nook: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

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Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh. The trombones crunched redgold under my bed, and behind my gulliver the trumpets three-wise silverflamed, and there by the door the timps rolling through my guts and out again crunched like candy thunder. Oh, it was wonder of wonders. And then, a bird of like rarest spun heavenmetal, or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now, came the violin solo above all the other strings, and those strings were like a cage of silk round my bed. Then flute and oboe bored, like worms of like platinum, into the thick thick toffee gold and silver. I was in such bliss, my brothers.

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1962), Anthony Burgess’s most famous work, suffered from notoriety and controversy when Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation (1971) shocked its audience as it seemed to have glorified violence. The film received critical acclaim and gained cult following. Clockwork Orange was then linked to increasing crime rates and was banned. This “misunderstanding” caused by the film made Burgess disown the book, with him saying that he should have not written it because of the dangers of misinterpretation. Though chosen by TIME magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels, Burgess dismissed Clockwork Orange as a minor work undeserving of its fame, which all the while overshadowed his other major works.

Inspired by the juvenile delinquency of the early 1960s, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and with the rise of the sci-fi genre, the prolific British author Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange, a short, transgressive dystopian satire. It was narrated in “Nadsat” language—an imaginary teenage slang invented by Burgess from his studies of Russian—by the Beethoven-loving young thug Alex. Along with his three “droogs”—that is, Pete, Georgie, Dim—the fifteen-year-old Alex leads a life of violence—stealing, beating people, raping, and committing murder with gleeful countenance—until he gets arrested and sentenced fourteen years in prison.

Two years later, still desperate to get out and blind to the repercussions, he was selected to be a test subject for the “Ludovico’s technique,” a Pavlovian conditioning treatment for criminals, and was promised to be released from prison in a fortnight. Afterward, Alex is conditioned to feel sick, paralyzed, and dying whenever he thinks of anything evil. The novel continues with Alex being freed but now deprived of free will.

(In the US edition, the last chapter, which the editors thought unnecessary, is omitted against Burgess’s will.)

Through extreme violence and depravity, Burgess probes the ancient and imperishable philosophical problems of free will, moral choice, and the grinding entities of good and evil in the battleground of man’s heart: “Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness?”

Both a linguist and a musical composer, Burgess has flawlessly orchestrated the linguistic feats in A Clockwork Orange, a reminiscent of what James Joyce did on Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. With his unorthodox mastery of language, Burgess has innovated literature and was called as one of the few and inimitable literary geniuses of all time.

(Published on Sunstar Cebu ’ZUP Page Book Nook: November 15, 2015)

Book Nook: Lord of the Flies by William Golding

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“I’m scared of him, and that’s why I know him. If you’re scared of someone you hate him but you can’t stop thinking about him. You kid yourself he’s all right really, an’ then when you see him again; it’s like asthma an’ you can’t breathe…”

LORD OF THE FLIES, written by the Nobel laureate William Golding, is a frightening and influential work of fiction. The macabre maestro Stephen King wrote in his introduction to the book, “Flies always represented what novels are for…not just entertainment, but life and death… The writer’s imagination becomes the reader’s reality.”

First published in 1954, Lord of the Flies is an allegory of man’s descent from cultured, rational thinking to primitive, bloodthirsty savagery. The story took place at the dawn of an atomic war. A plane was shot down, and it crashed on an uninhabited tropical island. The survivors, all schoolboys, were scattered around until the loud, deep blasts from a conch called them together.

Led by Ralph, whom they later voted as chief (unanimously because he had the conch), they formed an assembly and discussed on what to do in the island, how to survive and get rescued. But “the delight of a realized ambition” overcame them—the freedom of having “no grownups” around. This sudden liberation from adult supervision made it difficult for their chief to manage the group, and even himself.

Days of blistering heat and cool, dark nights passed; the boys went on with their daily tasks: playing, building shelters, hunting, keeping fire. Then the littluns (little ones) experienced terrors from imaginary monsters and nightmares the island evoked at night. There’s a “beast” out there, but the biguns (big ones), though anxious, said there was none and even sought out to kill it.

Turmoil stemmed from juvenile misunderstandings. Jack (the head of the “hunters”) grew vehement toward Ralph’s leadership. Thus disorder broke out, splitting the boys into two groups, which soon led to brutality and Ralph’s weeping for the “end of innocence.”

Lord of the Flies’s theme is an attempt “to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature.” The story is an experiment—a group of schoolboys stranded in an island without the guidance of adults—and what’s exposed is the basic wildness lurking within man’s heart, a dormant savagery awakened by the warm spilling of blood; this is what the Freudians call Id, the perpetually repressed “anarchic, amoral” unconscious drive.

Cunningly crafted by the author, the title Lord of the Flies is a translation of the Greek Beelzebub, a name for the devil.

With its dense naturalistic imagery and layers of symbolisms, Lord of the Flies is a masterwork, a modern classic, though an infinitely cynical portrayal of human condition.

(Published on Sunstar Cebu ’ZUP Page Book Nook: October 25, 2015)