I first started reading this book in the spring of 2007. I know that because I had several hours of hall duty while administering state-wide tests when I was working at a school in Baltimore, so I brought this book to stand and read while for the most part I didn’t have any interaction with students. Over the course of the testing, I read about 150 pages of the nearly 600 pages. 600 pages is such a relative term as well all know. 600 pages of Harry Potter or Stephen King or other writers like just do not feel the same as 600 pages of some other authors. Ulysses, for example, is around 600 pages, as is Dune and as is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. If you’ve read any of these books, you have a sense of the variety of that.
So I put my bookmark in and took it home and promptly never picked it back up. Now, 15 years later I picked the book back up and about 150 pages in felt the same pressure to put the bookmark in and place the book back on the shelf. It’s so tempting to quit a book, but some times books won’t let you quit, and not because the actual books are so compelling, but that there is a compelling draw about them.
What makes this book hard to get through? Well, partially it’s more dense than difficult. Scenes are described in fine detail, and actions are also neatly recorded, so a scene where something happens, you have an almost granular view of things. Also, things feel weighted and loaded with meaning. The story involve young Oskar Matzerath, a young German boy born before WWII, just too young to ever fight in it (as Grass also claimed about himself for a long time) of uncertain parentage. Early on he realizes, like his grandfather before him, that the world simply feels safer and kinder under his grandmother’s skirts. It’s clear that he and his grandfather found a different kind of kindness there. So Oskar decides not to grow up. One day he receives a tin drum as a present, and this present becomes a kind of totem for him, and throughout his life, he’s always on the lookout for replacements, as he drums all the time, and always needs to be in possession of at least one drum. In addition, we learn that Oskar has the ability to break any glass with a piercing shriek that he develops. So by this count, he’s refusing to age, staying the same size (at age 3) for his whole life, he can drown the world with the beating of his drum, and he can shatter glass whenever he needs to. Seems like a lot of symbols right? Well yeah sure. And so we have all those things.
But then we also have the scene after scene after scene of more and more things happening. So many things happen in a book that doesn’t always feel like there’s much plot. It’s draining.
I even have to admit, that right now, I am about 60% the way through. I suppose the next few sentences will tell whether or not I finished the novel or stayed stuck in my refusal like Oskar in arrested development.
Ok well, I guess I finished it and am not sure how I feel about that.