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Saturday, August 27, 2016

Sometimes a Great Notion (1964) by Ken Kesey

Image result for sometimes a great notion movie
Paul Newman played older brother Hank Stamper of the Stamper logger clan in the movie version of Ken Kesey's book.
Book Review
Sometimes a Great Notion (1964)
 by Ken Kesey

  Ken Kesey is one of 20th century literature's great disappearing acts, second only to J.D. Salinger in that department.  He wrote two canonical novels, Sometimes a Great Notion and One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest (1962).  He played a major role in the birth of the counter cultural movement of the 1960's, as the sponsor and progenitor of the Merry Pranksters.  His exploits with the Merry Pranksters were the subject of another book on the 1001 Books list, The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test by Thomas Wolfe.

  Most of his activities involving the Merry Pranksters, LSD and the staging of the first "acid tests" in the San Francisco Bay Area came after the publication of both his novels, and presumably it was their commercial success which funded his more esoteric activities.  Those looking to find the roots of the counter-culture in Sometimes a Great Notion are sure to be disappointed - rather, Sometimes a Great Notion is a regional multi-generational family drama about a logging community in Oregon.  The obvious inspiration is William Faulkner.  Like Faulkner, Kesey uses the narrative technique of having a frequently shifting first person narration without clearly signaling to the reader which of the characters is narrating at any moment.

  Also like Faulkner, Kesey is deep into the location of his novel.  The Oregon logging community of Sometimes a Great Notion is as richly imagined as Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi.   At a little over 700 pages, Sometimes a Great Notion is long for a novel with such a sophisticated narrative technique.  I'm sure that none of Faulkner's books are over 300 pages.  Kesey is skilled enough as a writer so that the technique fades as the plot thickens, and by the resolution 600 pages in, I had essentially ceased to notice the narrative shifts.

  Sometimes a Great Notion hasn't aged particularly well. Northwestern logging communities were still in a healthy post World War II state in 1964.  Today, that entire world has vanished, at least as far as the outside world is concerned.  Advances in technology, the movement of logging overseas to take advantage of lower costs, and a general restriction of lands available for logging have all conspired against the world so richly depicted in Sometimes a Great Notion.  Kesey does not pull a soft focus for the attitudes expressed about race and sex.  One particularly troubling detail is the tendency of the major (white) characters to refer to one another as "niggers."

  What appears at first to be a fractured, kaleidoscopic story coheres into a conventional, almost cliche resolution, but the deftness of the writing and the richness of the scenery outweigh the predictability of the resolution. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Castle of Crossed Destinies (1974) by Italo Calvino

The Castle of Crossed Destinies contains illustrations in the margins of various cards from the Marseilles Tarot deck,
Book Review
The Castle of Crossed Destinies (1974)
by Italo Calvino

  Italo Calvino had multiple phases in his career as a novelist.  His early work, represented by The Path to the Nest of Spiders, clearly echoes the fiction of Ernest Hemingway and the nascent Italian neo-realist movement.   In the mid 1960's, Calvino hooked up with Raymond Queneau and the Oulipo movement:  A group of writers concerned with experimental "restricted writing" techniques, where the authors had to adhere to one or more rules ("Don't use any "e's" in your book" is an example.)

   The Castle of Crossed Destinies features of a group of travelers who are all at an inn, which may be a deserted castle.  For unexplained reasons none of them can talk, and they are forced to rely on a pack of tarot cards to tell their respective stories.   The narrator sits at the table with the other guests, and the text takes the form of small illustrations of the cards being displayed by the inn guests, with the interpretations of the cards being the main body of text.

  After hearing the stories from the other guests, the narrator tells his own story, and then there is a portion where Calvino shows all the cards simultaneously and explains an incredibly complicated schematic where all the cards were being shown at the same time, not one at a time as the stories occur in the first portion of the book.  It's a lot to grok in one hundred and thirteen pages.  I could have used a supplementary text to explain in more detail.  Understanding The Castle of Crossed Destinies in the context of the artificial restrictions of Oulipo makes sense, since it is a novel where none of the characters can talk.

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