The Waves

The Waves
Virginia Woolf
Difficulty: Very Hard
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Written almost entirely in soliloquies delivered by the novel’s six main characters, The Waves is a dreamy, poetic, and extremely ambitious exploration of people, their interior lives, and their relationships with each other. The novel is divided into seven sections spanning the course of the characters’ lives from childhood to infirmity with each episode bookending brief descriptions of a shoreline and its waves over the course of a day, and the only plot event of note is the death of a seventh, voiceless character with whom the other six were friends. Of particular importance to understanding the novel is the recognition that the speakers in the book are not intended to be fully realized characters, but rather, as Woolf clarified in her diary, different aspects of a single consciousness. This results in somewhat unusual, even surreal perspectives from some of the speakers. Bernard, for example, is obsessed with storytelling and how we go about connecting with other people, and it is only briefly alluded to that he has a wife and kids, an entire life that we learn almost nothing about. Susan, on the other hand, dwells on motherhood and nature to the exclusion of everything else, even her husband. The final product is masterful and utterly unique; there is nothing quite like The Waves in all of English literature.

I identified much more strongly with some characters than others. Neville is the most obvious, since he spends much of his life falling in love with a series of men and composing romantic poetry about them. His segments were some of the most challenging for me to interpret, but I chalk that up to my general inexperience with poetry. Louis was also particularly striking, since he is largely concerned with his status as an outsider (his father is an Australian banker) and finding social acceptance. I felt that I was on more familiar ground with him because his concerns were material, such as anxiety about his accent or economic standing. Lastly, Rhoda also spoke very clearly to me, though I wish she hadn’t. She is extremely introverted and seems to view herself and her life as insubstantial and insignificant to the point where she struggles to make any meaningful connection with reality. It was hard to read at times. The other characters, Bernard, Susan, and Jinny, were all very interesting in their own ways, but it was really the former three that captured my attention.

The Waves is best experienced by going with the flow, not attempting to understand each and every word and image, but just letting the whole thing wash over you like, well, a wave. It’s usually a love-it-or-hate-it book, and readers should be able to tell which category they fall under after only ten or twenty pages; what you see is what you get. For what it’s worth, I found it to be a staggeringly beautiful book, and I don’t typically enjoy poetry that much. It seems to me that Woolf was attempting to convey some fundamental truth about the human experience using this unique structure and, I thought, failed completely. As beautiful as the prose poetry was, I could never quite manage to completely translate it into something coherent, I could only ever feel and intuit what she was trying to say. But that’s okay, because the overall message I took from the story was that our individual experiences are so unique that they can never be fully communicated to each other, and that’s simultaneously tragic and magnificent.

Our Lady of the Flowers

Our Lady of the Flowers
by Jean Genet
Difficulty: Very Hard
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I said in my post on Genet’s The Thief’s Journal that I preferred it over Our Lady of the Flowers, and while that’s true, Our Lady definitely deserves some time in the spotlight too. Many of the themes present in the former will also be found in this book, most notably Genet’s inverted Christian value system, which is discussed at greater length in the post about The Thief’s Journal. But unlike Thief’s Journal, Our Lady has a bit more in the way of plot and story, and adopts an impressionistic, hallucinatory style to tell it. Genet himself appears frequently in it as the narrator, and sometimes even pauses the story to masturbate in his jail cell. In fact, he begins his tale by explaining to the reader that these are the stories he tells himself to masturbate to when he’s bored. While Our Lady does have some explicit moments, much of the novel’s content isn’t what most of us would consider to be pornographic.

Our Lady of the Flowers opens with the death of its main character, Divine, a cross-dressing homosexual (usually referred to as ‘she’) formerly known as Culafroy. Divine has died of tuberculosis, and Genet portrays her as a holy saint ascended to heaven and sets out to tell us about her life. Prior to her death, Divine lived in a cramped attic overlooking a graveyard with her true love, a pimp named Darling Daintyfoot. When Genet isn’t showing us Divine’s childhood (when she was still Culafroy), he’s following Divine and Darling through the Parisian underworld as they interact with all manner of social outcasts and criminals. One of these criminals is Our Lady of the Flowers, a small time dealer turned murderer, who temporarily forms a ménage a trois with Divine and Darling before being caught by the authorities and executed. As previously mentioned, Genet is heavily present as a narrator and is constantly breaking in on his own story, further fragmenting an already tenuous narrative. 

I’ve always found the story behind this novel’s creation and publication to be particularly fascinating. Before he became a writer, Genet was a career criminal, primarily a thief, prostitute, and, most unforgivably, a homosexual. Our Lady of the Flowers was composed entirely during one of his many stints in prison, and actually had to be written twice after a guard discovered his first draft and burned it. After his release, he introduced himself and his work to Jean Cocteau, and several years later, when Genet was facing a life sentence for repeated convictions, Cocteau, Gide, and other French luminaries advocated for his release on account of his great artistic potential, using Our Lady as evidence. And the French government let him go. It’s such a wild thing for me to imagine. I suppose we do similar things here in America, with pop stars and football players, but I don’t think they’re quite the same. Ours is a court of public opinion in an age of information for relatively small-time offenders, whereas Genet’s case was taken up by a few intellectuals arguing, it seems to me, for the primacy of art over law and order and actually winning. No doubt there’s a cultural divide that muddles my understanding of it, but there it is.

The Thief’s Journal

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The Thief’s Journal
by Jean Genet
Difficulty: Very Hard
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When people hear the name of Jean Genet, they often think of his famous first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers, which he wrote during one of his numerous stints in prison. But I’ve always found The Thief’s Journal to be much more interesting. While both works are semi-autobiographical, The Thief’s Journal delves much deeper into Genet’s philosophical, perhaps even religious drive to debase himself in the eyes of society. This book follows a portion of Genet’s life dedicated to theft, prostitution, and other such immoralities as he travels throughout Europe and evades the authorities. It is loosely chronological, and written in the same dramatic, poetic language his other works are.

What caught the attention of so many critics, including French philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte, was Genet’s inversion of traditional morality. Society’s greatest vices became Genet’s greatest virtues in an overtly Christian sense. To be homosexual is to be one of the ‘anointed,’ and theft becomes a ritual comparable to prayer. To Genet, nothing was more beautiful than an act of betrayal, his counterpart to the Christian virtue of sacrifice. This perspective fascinated philosophers and intellectuals because such a conception of morality raised countless questions about why society values what it does, and what it might mean of those values are arbitrarily constructed.

So what does The Thief’s Journal have to offer a contemporary reader? Well, it’s a window into the mind of a social outcast, one which demonstrates why a criminal or deviant might behave the way they do. There is a scene in the book where the narrator (as a young boy) is asked why he stole, and he answers that he did so because the other boys thought he was a thief. The stories we tell about certain types of people or behaviours can cause them to become a reality. If we treat a boy as though he were a thief, or a homosexual as though he were a sinner, why should they not become one in fact as well as name? And if they are doomed to this role, why should they not glory in it, as Genet did? But The Thief’s Journal is definitely not for everyone. The subject matter is dark and the prose is dense and often difficult. There is also little in the way of coherent plot, as much of the text is autobiographical. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in LGBT history, the history of gay fiction, or existential philosophy, but be prepared to work at it a bit.

Dhalgren

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Dhalgren
by Samuel R. Delany
Difficulty: Very Hard
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Samuel R. Delany was the first commercially successful black sci-fi author and the first commercially successful gay sci-fi author. He was named a Grand Master of Science Fiction in 2013, and is often cited as a primary inspiration for both the afrofuturist and cyberpunk movements. Many consider Dhalgren to be his magnum opus, with its unbridled formal experimentation, critical dialogue on minority cultures, and intense, unexplained surrealism.

Dhalgren takes place in Bellona, a burned out, hollow husk of a city in the American midwest, inhabited only by the margins of society and forgotten about by the rest of the country. What exactly happened to Bellona is never made clear, as, indeed, is the case for most things in the novel. At this city arrives the protagonist, a Half-native American amnesiac wearing one sandal and trying to remember his name. As he explores the constantly shifting city he encounters many different types of people, finds a girlfriend, finds a boyfriend, and becomes a poet, hero, and gang leader all at once.

Full disclosure, Dhalgren is pretty much my favorite book and I’ve got a lot of nice things to say about it. So before I do, let’s talk about some of the less nice things. This book is notoriously difficult to finish, on par with or perhaps even surpassing other postmodern door stoppers like Infinite Jest, Gravity’s Rainbow, or The Recognitions. Most of the book appears to have little to no plot, and long stretches of it are intentionally, infuriatingly boring. It opens with the second half of a sentence only completed by the fragment which ends the book, and the story is periodically punctuated by inexplicable schizophrenic soliloquies. Many find the experience of reading Dhalgren to be literally maddening.

But many others, like myself, find the experience to be revelatory instead. It must be read with a willingness to accept, but not understand, and in a way that came very naturally to me. The real world is full of many things I cannot understand, yet must accept anyway, so why should I approach Dhalgren any differently? Bellona’s society showed me a new perspective on what it means to be a social minority, ways in which it can actually be liberating, freeing me from the oppressive institutions of heteronormativity, capitalism, patriarchy, and colonialism. Dhalgren was a tremendously influential book for me, and I have since dedicated myself to reading and studying the rest of Delany’s bibliography in order to better understand the man behind it.