Read Everything That Dunks Must Converge

Read Everything That Dunks Must Converge
by Bryan Harvey

Truth & lies in Pixar's 'The Good Dinosaur'

Truth & lies in Pixar's 'The Good Dinosaur'
by Bryan Harvey

A world of child soldiers & cowboys

A world of child soldiers & cowboys
by Bryan Harvey

To their own devices: Pablo Larrain's 'The Club'

To their own devices: Pablo Larrain's 'The Club'
by Bryan Harvey

Reading at Summer's End (Fiction)

September 14, 2015

I haven't rambled about books in a while, so that's what I plan on doing here:

The Martian by Andy Weir (2014)

First, I flipped through the entire book and was disappointed to see no pictures of Matt Damon. Second, the more I read, the more I found myself wishing astronaut, Mark Watney, were to be played by Sam Rockwell and not Damon. People will love Damon in the role, but Rockwell (or someone like Rockwell) would be much more apt at playing a nerdy, smart ass loner.

Third, I want to say a ton about The Martian, as a novel and as a potential blockbuster. All of it mostly good, but some of it negative. I will probably save much of the negative for some other format or medium.

If you’re not a scientist, the novel’s first sixty pages or so intimidate. I found myself wondering if I had stumbled back into a high school science class and was reading lab instructions. Then Weir introduces an alternative point of view to Watney’s. This shift in the novel allows Watney’s struggle to become less Robinson Crusoe or Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away (2000) and to become a symbol of human achievement. Furthermore, until this shift occurs, the novel is much too introverted to be a vehicle for Hollywood and is much more in line with Duncan Jones’ film The Moon (2009), which, coincidentally, starred Sam Rockwell. Once Weir breaks away from Watney’s isolation, a reader can sense the potential for this novel to enter not only space but theatres with the scope and sentimentality of Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995).

And that’s ultimately what The Martian is, like much of science fiction, a journey away from Earth and into some better understanding of the human condition. This journey ultimately renders much of the genre fairly conservative in terms of  what the plot allows in terms of risk. 

After all, Weir provides Watney with a fairly nostalgic batch of music and television to keep him company, immersing the astronaut on a frontier that is strangely part of the past. No doubt when the film plays on the big screen there will be scenes that riff off the opening sequence of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Damon will be expected, as Watney, to moonwalk in the footsteps of not so much Neil Armstrong but Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill. And like Guardians of the Galaxy and Howard’s Apollo 13, Weir’s The Martian is a space where no one can die and everyone returns home.

Critics have already begun to compare the film favorably with Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), citing the latter’s plot holes and lack of ‘true’ science. But make no mistake about it, The Martian promises to triumph in its transition from page to screen because it offers the same happy endings as Interstellar at all costs, without a real investment in human mortality. Interstellar was panned by some for having too much love and not enough physics, but The Martian simply tucks those same warm and fuzzy feelings behind a wall of careful calculations. In the end, I’m not sure if either is any more honest or real than the other. I'm also not sure if that matters for either film (or book).

1919 by John Dos Passos (1932)

While not quite offering the same watershed reading experience as the first installment in the USA Trilogy, 1919 is an impressive feat. The complaint most readers tend to have about Dos Passos is that his views of history steamroll his characters into flat shapes. I think that’s partly the point. His characters feel and think, but in the end, they do not ultimately triumph—who does? Moreover, it’s not so much that they aren’t individuals, but that other individuals just like them exist. One day scrolling through Facebook teaches this same lesson, only Facebook fails to capture the eggshell of time and force in which every life is yolked.

I read Dos Passos and marvel at how Hemingway and Fitzgerald are so often pitted against one another as if they were the Nadal and Federer of the modernist moment. Then, when I read Dos Passos, I feel as if I have encountered their Djokovic. The problem is Dos Pass lacks Djokovic’s levity. He’s more Murray, and his reputation pays for it. 

On the other hand, Dos Passos did receive a nice tip of the cap in the last season of Mad Men, and his texts don’t so much recreate time as become it. And what character—in flesh or ink—can conquer that?

Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin (written in 2006 and translated in 2011)

This satire is set in Russia and the future. I’m not sure which of those made it more difficult to read. After a while, Sorokin’s quirkiness, which I can only compare to Gary Shteyngart, makes you forget about what every word means and allows you to focus on his one aim: to show how circles of power are really just circle jerks. Here’s to you, Putin! I’m not sure I’ve read anything quite like this, even if I’ve read several things exactly like this.

The Boy in His Winter by Norman Lock (2014)

I’m pretty much a sucker for anything to do with Huck Finn, so when I read the description of Lock’s effort for Bellevue Literary Press, I pretty much knew I was encountering my own destiny. The one sentence description on the back of the jacket is: “Huck Finn’s mythic adventures—and childhood—abruptly end when he steps off his raft into Hurricane Katrina.” I’ve often attempted to pair Twain’s novel with Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun (2010) in the classes I teach. Now I know what I was really trying to do was write Lock’s philosophical meditation on the symbols a people imagine and therefore become ensnared by. 

In other words, Huck never really belonged to Mark Twain, nor to Twain’s audience. He was always something else, which is why he’s able to outlast every reader who ever heard him say: “You don’t know about me.” And the truth is we really don’t know shit about Huck Finn.

Geronimo Rex by Barry Hannah (1970)

I read this in the wake of the Charleston shootings and before the lowering of the Confederate flag in Columbia. The novel, in many ways, is pure Southern energy, meaning its narrator Harry Monroe can, if anything, chew through the atmosphere, yapping. Also, in light of the context in which I read it, the novel was deeply troubling. As a Southerner, I always want to read the works that have sprung form the region’s dirt. However, while reading Geronimo Rex, I became ever more aware how the most praised voices from the region are just like me: white and male. When the novel finally moves from bombastic noise to Harry’s deciding between the old white devil on one shoulder and the old white angel on the other, part of me couldn’t help but look at him from the year 2015 and think what’s the use.

St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell (2007)

When I read Karen Russell, I know I'm going to read about tribal-ness, migrations, and lives on the margins. I also know I'm going to watch a writer craft familiar themes out of new settings. I'm going to watch a writer play and invent and play some more. Not everything always works, but it sure is fun watching Russell try.

Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole (2014)

I’m late to the Teju Cole scene, if that’s what it is, but he’s one of the more unique literary voices I’ve encountered in a while. What he does seems so simple, yet the astuteness of his sparse sentences manages to see everything in this world and the next. I probably shouldn’t use the word “sparse” because it risks tainting him with all the mess and weight of Hemingway’s declarative style. Cole’s not that. He’s something else. I don’t really know how he manages to write so intimately as a stranger encountering once familiar worlds. His writing really is beautiful. 

Bryan Harvey tweets @LawnChairBoys. Feel free to send him some book recommendations or whatever. 


Brittany Harvey said...

Don't you wish Sam Rockwell were cast in everything?

September 15, 2015 at 7:26 PM
Bryan Harvey said...

I used to, but I've backed off the position in my more mature age. Now, I just think he should be cast in science fiction films that deal with isolation. He deserves to dance in space.

September 16, 2015 at 8:39 PM

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