Doctor Jekyll and My Hyde – 4/5 Stars
This is still a wonderful and silly novel. I am thinking of teaching this novel for twelfth graders in a few weeks, but I am realizing from this reread that while the novel is short, there’s some stylistic flourishes that I think are going to stand in the way of enjoyment and analysis. Even the opening few pages, in just describing a weird scene in the street, the opening chapter has to think about the nature of nature and thought before telling us the narrator saw a weird little man attack a woman in the street.
So the thins that are still wonderful about this novel, even with the big reveal being known to every one by now is that it’s structured with multiple narrators, and multiple documents. There’s an overlapping set of information that must be gleaned from those different sources, and only in the last section do we get the complete truth of everything, and by then it’s already too late. I am planning on scaling it down I think and getting right to the point in a few of the sections and shoring up the final section before giving it to students. The focus is on the duality of man, but mostly in the sense of who are our private selves, versus who are our public selves, and what difference is there in between.
Real Life – 2/5 Stars
Over the course of a weekend in late summer, Wallace is reconsidering his place in a science PhD program. He’s gay, Black, and from a different part of the country. We also clearly understand that he’s financially dependent on the university and is escaping an abusive childhood and youth that he cannot safely return to. So the dynamics of this decision to stay or leave is complicated by a number of factors. In addition to this, his cohort at the university is decidedly white (but relatively not straight) and in many cases not from the US. The weekend is also punctuated by a circling attractive Wallace has with a seemingly straight man, Miller. Recently Wallace’s work has go awry and there’s been family troubles back home that press upon him but that are hard to explain to his colleagues in part because of their sniping, aggressive nature, but also because of his own mixed feelings on the family events.
So were that the novel I read, I would be really interested in it. And I was, until I started reading it. I feel like I need to write about fifteen different front-loaded preconsiderations before reviewing this book. Partly that’s because as I read both amateur and professional reviews of the novel, there’s both a real disparity in what I feel the novel to be and what reviewers do. This same kind of tension is expressed by the reviews that are critical of the book. In addition, there’s protective spirit and defensiveness in almost all of the reviews. But when I read this book, I don’t think I am reading the same book that’s being reviewed. The other disclaimer here is that this book is clearly after something important, and something vital. I don’t think there’s a failure of idea in this book, but a failure of execution. So when I review that says something like “When I reread the book jacket, I am excited to read the book described” but as that review points out, that’s not the book delivered. My biggest issue throughout is that there’s a “thing” going on in the novel, and while the stylistic choices (which seem to be modeled on Virginia Woolf) could work in many cases, I don’t think they work here. One part of these is language that’s full of granular details of physical surroundings and of the people involved. And detailed description is a choice that works. But the level of detail here, combined with what feels like a complete lack of sensibility of figurative language leaves each description feeling like it’s described nothing at all. The same thing happens with people, in which not only does the dialog not sound like real dialog said by real people (without a sense that this is a purpose distortion of reality or symbolic value), people are not only almost indistinguishable from one another, but they are inconsistent in the descriptions. We’re also told things about people through a lens that makes no sense. The novel is narrated through a close third person narration (except for a short first person section near the end). But when the narrative voice tells us that a person seems ______ and _______ at the same time, not only am I not sure what that means, I am not clear why that’s something the character can know. There’s also the issue that the first-person section near the end is the strongest section of the whole book, and really heavily suggests that voice should have told the whole novel. The other wider issue throughout is that this feels so much like a MFA workshop novel that it’s almost antagonistic. That the most excited voices promoting this novel are also MFA-trained or MFA-employed novelists, well, it feels like most of the praise is cheap. So my takeaway from the novel here is that there’s a great novel contained within the promise of this novel, but that novel was not published here. At point, about 200 pages in I said “I feel like there hasn’t been a single risk taken so far”. The effect of this is a slowly paced slog through a weekend in which, by design, nothing happens (until the end, when a lot does happen, thankfully).