I was prepared for something much more revolutionary in scope, since Fathers and Sons is generally considered in the same vein as things like Notes from the Underground and Devils. But the book it really reminded me of was Goethe’s Elective Affinities, with its politics merely underpinning romantic storylines. It struck me as a typically Victorian romance dressed up as a political manifesto — a sheep in wolf’s clothing, as it were. As such, it was far less pedagogical and more inconclusive than some of its contemporaries.
I don’t really understand the idolization of the nihilist Bazarov that emerged in 19th-century Russia. I don’t buy him as a hero, even if Turgenev decided to send him off as one. His beliefs are respected but never celebrated — they’re a novelty to be considered but hardly adopted by others in the novel. It’s hard to overlook that virtually everyone else winds up happy and married, like a Shakespearean comedy.
Why was Arkady friends with Bazarov? I hate when the reasons behind friendships are never explicated, or in this case, even implicated.
Turgenev did do an excellent job handling the generational gap that gives the novel its title. All the different intergenerational relationships — Arkady and Bazarov with each set of their parents, Nikolai and Pavel with Fenichka — provide a more nuanced look at the distinctions between old and new Russia.
It was both funnier and an easier read than I expected.
Overall, it’s a good novel — just one that didn’t quite go in the direction I suspected.
“You know, I can’t say I’ve been looking for a job, but it’s been really frustrating how nothing has fallen into my lap. It’s Obamacare. You know what I mean? This country is going in the wrong direction.”—Stu, The Life and Times of Tim
I had never read any Dos Passos before, so it was interesting to see what American Modernism looked like. It’s probably unfair to say it isn’t as good as Joyce or Bely, since, you know, what is? You can definitely see the influence of Joyce (Manhattan Transfer was written in 1925, three years after Ulysses) with the stress on dialects, the ubiquity of advertising, and a scene that includes a confluence of conversations, taken straight from “Oxen of the Sun” (just like The Simpsons).
One of the interesting aspects of Dos Passos’ work is the number of times America is compared to Europe. It’s weird to think of this time in history, when the American identity was still being forged. Especially in a novel set in NYC, pretty much everyone is either an immigrant or the son/daughter of immigrants, and their perception of America is necessarily filtered through their experiences in the old country. The backdrop of WWI only fuels such comparisons.
As such, much of the novel focuses on the financial difficulties of being in NYC at the time. Everyone is driven to make ends meet, constantly looking for ways to pay for the next meal. It’s fairly bleak in that regard. The prose seems to match that attitude, with images of humanity’s “progress” clashing with nature:
She went to the window and leaned out into the sunlight. Across Park Avenue the flameblue sky was barred with the red girder cage of a new building. Steam riveters rattled incessantly; now and then a donkeyengine whistled and there was a jingle of chains and a fresh girder soared crosswise in the air. Men in blue overalls moved about the scaffolding. Beyond to the northwest a shining head of clouds soared blooming compactly like a cauliflower. Oh if it would only rain.
You can kind of see in words like “donkeyengine” what struck me as the most idiosyncratic part of Dos Passos’ style, which is that he makes more compound nouns and especially compound adjectives than any author I’ve ever read. I mean, there are consecutive sentences where he uses “greenindigo” and “blueindigo.” That’s ridiculous.
In the end, my biggest problem with Manhattan Transfer was my inability to care enough about the characters. A large cast whittles down over the course of the novel, but its seemingly haphazard jumps in time get in the way of connecting with any of them. It’s tough to keep track of who Ellen/Elaine/Ellie is sleeping with until you realize the answer is pretty much everyone. And so MT lacks the underlying heart of Ulysses or Petersburg, where I was deeply invested in the lives of the main characters. But again, those are two pretty high standards.
Mike Birbiglia’s terrific on-stage delivery — the relaxed-but-never-fully-at-ease manner in which he tells funny but meaningful stories — makes him one of my favorite comedians I’ve ever seen live, if only for one 10-minute set. That fusion of humor and meaning when he told a story about his mom’s sickness and how it affected his take on religion — it’s “Like Hell” in the book — compelled me to buy Sleepwalk with Me.
I still love Birbiglia’s on-stage demeanor, but I realize now that it doesn’t really transfer to the written word. Perhaps I never (or he never) should have expected it to. Lewis Black’s doesn’t really, either. The digressions that mark his (and many’s) comedy don’t fit quite as well on the page, where the reader’s eye is compelled more by the continuation of the plot. Even “Like Hell,” which was terrific to hear live, was frustrating at times to read.
One of the blurbs for Sleepwalk with Me from Ira Glass calls the book “amusing,” which is the word I’ve always used for something that makes you smile but not quite laugh. It’s a good description of the book as a whole. I don’t know why the same jokes, when spoken aloud, made me laugh more than when they were written down. This probably says something about mediums.*
*I’d be less equivocal if I didn’t laugh out loud while reading a fair amount. At the same time, I have no idea how much other people laugh out loud while reading. Since it is a solitary activity, I have no basis of comparison.
So it’s good, but I’d probably rather hear it than read it. And if nothing else, you should listen to his “Roger Clemens Hates Me” story (and the John Mulaney and Tig Notaro stories on that link, as well).