Saturday, April 14, 2012

Growing Up Never Happens

When we use the phrase "coming of age", we usually mean it to apply to those tender years of transition, teen to adult.  It implies an expansion of worldview, a mastery of self, and a sense of greater maturity.  The truth is, these things happen at every age, at any stage of life.  A transition from an outmoded paradigm to a newer one requires a growth of self awareness; if you aren't doing this at every stage in life, you will definitely have emotional, mental, and social retardation.

When I was a freshman in college, I finally got around to reading Catcher in the Rye.  I was not impressed, but that's because I read it too late.  I felt Holden Caufield was a bit of a whiner.  In some ways, I could not empathize with him because I had crossed that bridge, and could not imagine thinking that way.  My worldview had expanded beyond that of Holden Caufield, and it could not go back to where it had been.  That's what coming of age means.  The newfound maturity prevents you from regressing (unless at every stage you choose regression over growth, but most people don't).

I think the term "coming of age" applies to Julie & Julia, by Julie Powell.  In this case, though, it's more of a quarter life crisis meets "growing up".  It's a memoir of a sort, an exaggerated biography of a point in the author's life that we all face as we truly mature into adults- turning thirty.  A century ago, that was almost middle-aged, and fifty years ago it was a time at which everyone was expected to be well settled and established, deep into a career or raising a household.  It was a symbolic point of what we as children considered "old".  In this decade, turning thirty seems superficially scary, because as we come out of the haze of post-graduation depression, we are left facing a lot of left over thoughts from childhood, ideas of who we would be, what we'd be doing, and what kind of life we'd be living.  Facing those childhood illusions of self can put some into a tailspin previously only seen in the midlife crisis of the forties.

Herein, the author faces her own outmoded sense of self, coming to the realization that childhood was far behind her, and the reality of her future looked little like how she imagined it.  The dream of a successful career and modern suburban family was as insubstantial as fog off the Hudson River.  Instead she finds herself at age 29 committing to a job as a secretary, unconsciously releasing the goal of being an actress.  She also learns that she has a syndrome that will make it harder for her to conceive as she ages.  On a less than conscious level, this deeply disturbs the author, as both the syndrome and career move are wholly counter to her own previous sense of self.  If she is not an actress, and she might not be a mother, who is she and where is she going from here?

In a fit of desperation (and cream-induced mania), the author takes up a quest.  It is how every culture, at one point or another, challenges the next generation- go on this quest, learn who you truly are, and come back to us as an example of how to live a life.  (Ironically, from a sociological and anthropological standpoint, we it is one thing we lack in our post-modern Western society, and I think it may be one of the reasons why so many in our society are on antidepressants.  We have not had the benefit of some challenge, some quest, to force us to define ourselves or to live fully knowing who we are.  College, to wit, is clearly not the answer).  This story takes place almost a decade ago, when blogs and podcasts were brand new, a cutting edge use of modern technology.  The author creates a blog, and at her husband's gentle urging, challenges herself to cook her way through an iconic volume of American culture- Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child.  The quest for self is begun.

As the story moves forward, the author is very successful at stringing together anecdotes, like cranberries and popcorn at Christmas time, to dress up a somewhat spindly story of her journey to reconcile her adult self with her dreams from childhood.  I found myself not thinking of the author as a real person, though in truth there are many like her in my generation.  It seems to me she is somewhat superficially witty, lacking any true depth or introspective philosophy to guide her through life.  Our modern society prizes our materialistic attitudes, and indirectly punishes those who come to an intrinsic sense of self worth.  In response, many do not take time to reflect on their lives, and so internal (and external) conflict throws a real wrench into the works, because without intrinsic value, there is little to go forward with, as this author demonstrates. 

Don't get me wrong, the author does indeed accept a large undertaking.  Julia Child's revered tome is a culinary challenge even for those who know their way around a kitchen.  What I found inspiring was how the author went about her self-discovery.  Some take up skydiving or deep-sea fishing.  Others gamble or go on bacchanalian retreats, drowning mental questions in sensory overload.  Instead, the author seeks to find herself (however unconsciously) by mastering a necessary life skill- cooking.  It combines the sensory delights of the above, with a deeply philosophical outlook on life.  When learning to cook a new dish, you learn about the culture the dish comes from, the physical skills necessary to execute it, and the nurturing feelings that come from feeding others.  It's a good way to find yourself.

Overall, it was a good read, though much like Holden Caufield, I suspect it affected others more deeply than it affected me.  Just getting into my thirties now, I am older in many regards than the author was when she wrote this.  I got over the nebulous fear of turning thirty before I was twenty-six, but life experiences differ for all of us.  All the same, I can appreciate what the author went through to find herself.  The quest to maturity is never an easy one; if it was, maturity would be unattainable.  And once past the tipping point, we come to realize it was not age we were afraid of, but disappointing our younger selves (or in some cases, those who love us the most).  All in all, I can see why it was made into a movie, and now I can finally watch it on Netflix.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Dreams of a Night at the Circus

*****Author's note- I finished this book a month ago, and I hand-wrote the review.  It's taken me that much time to get it posted.  Sorry for the delay.  Hopefully I will have the next one posted tomorrow.*****

 I got one of my favorite types of presents from a coworker at Christmas- a new book!  Everyone roll their eyes in shock.  It's a lovely hardback copy of Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus.  Even more interesting though, is that this same coworker is the one who lent me the Juliet Marillier books.  Both my coworker and Juliet Marillier have raved about this story; such a small world!  Personally, I think they were right to be excited about it.  Magic, mystery, murder, all in a post-Victorian Europe (and well, the US too, for parts).  It's awesome!  Rich on description, but not overly flowery, with a subtlety that you're more likely to find in theater pieces.  Anything can happen in the Night Circus; your dreams unfold before your very eyes.

Two magicians disagree on a philosophical point.  To settle the debate, they each train a student, who then are expected to compete in a prolonged duel, much like a game of chess.  But a matter of paradigm difference and one-upmanship gradually become a collaboration, and then a dance.  Instead of wearing one another down, the students hold each other up, building upon each other's creations.  The end result is a realm of beauty and magic, where the line between illusion and reality is blurred, and possibilities live and breathe.  However, the love they find together threatens all those involved, and the game must have an end....

I'm going to do something a bit heretical here and compare a book to a movie.  The cardinal rule that the book is (almost) always superior to the movie is something I agree with; my imagination can always create better special effects.  However, by giving this comparison, I hope to give you the reader a better understanding of the mood and setting in this book.  If you have seen the movie The Illusionist with Edward Norton and Jessica Biel, then you will have an easier time understanding this novel.  (I actually envision one of the magicians in the book looking and sounding a lot like Rufus Sewell's character from that movie).  If you have not seen this movie, I highly suggest it, though it is not necessary to see it before reading this book.  Much like this movie, the author does a very good job of creating an air of mystery, the idea of seen-but-not-understood-at-the-time.  I'll come back to that thought in just a minute; for now, let's continue with the atmosphere of the story.

The time period of the book is the late 19th century.  It was a time of both suffocating social order and unprecedented universal change.  One really could change social standing and wealth with wit and opportunity.  Opportunities were seemingly endless.  The concept of a self-made person came to define the national goal of several countries.  Using this mood to her advantage, the author creates an atmosphere that possibility is imminent reality.  To give this feeling a concrete basis, she uses the medium of live performances.  At a time when live performance is the most common form of entertainment for all members of the populace, the use of a circus as a stage for a magicians duel is brilliant.  A live performance is an organic thing, a truly living entity of its own.  It is wholly dependent on the symbiotic relationship of the performer and the audience.  The performance brings the audience's imagination to life, and in return the audience fuels the performance with their very presence.  Without an audience, a performance is theory without application.  The author does an amazing job of showing this relationship; those patrons of the circus that are truly inspired by it are made into an informal network that describes their own experiences to others, as well as keeping track of the whereabouts of the circus.  Altogether appropriately, they call themselves Les Reveurs, The Dreamers, for it is the stuff of dreams that the circus, and therefore the author, brings to life.

To that end, the author makes an interesting philosophical note.  With this story she states that mystery is a necessary goad to stimulate innovation.  One cannot dream of possibilities if the situation is clear and resolved.  Conflict and mystery provide the opening necessary for people to imagine new solutions and be open to all possibilities.  Without knowing where the walls are, a room can look and be almost anything.  To illustrate this point, the author provides us with a masterpiece of clockwork, a definitive symbol of the circus itself.  Throughout the day it changes from one color to another, shapes coming and going.  It's cyclical, and yet it also seems to point to all possibilities.  The same can be said of the rides and other amusements in the circus, specifically the attractions created by both mages. 

Now, I don't normally read other reviews before I write my own, but this time I was interested to see what detractors had to say.  It helped to provide focus, an exercise in defining my own thoughts by contrasting them against other opinions.  Two notes were continually voiced, and I felt compelled to rebut them.  The first detraction is that the romantic side of the story was flat.  The second was that the author broke the cardinal rule of creative writing, "show, not tell".  I think in this case, the author's subtlety went under the radar; readers could not believe the showing, because it seemed like telling with all the dialogue.

The author chose a difficult viewpoint, or rather, she used an uncommon one.  Third person limited is more common in theater; you have to watch the interaction to gain insight into the thoughts and feelings of the characters.  As a viewpoint, it is uncommon in a novel, because the author has to let the reader imagine the interaction for themselves and let the dialogue stand on its own.  Third person omniscient is more common, because the author can then describe all the thoughts and feelings of the characters, without having to rely on the readers' imaginations.  By using this limited voice, the author created the symbiotic relationship of a live performance within the realm of a static object, echoing the theme of the book.

As a way to show the subtlety of human interaction, the author does something creative- she uses a multitude of characters, and she switches setting often, once again echoing the movement and flow of a live performance.  If the people around us reflect portions of who we are, then the more people looking at us, the better we can see ourselves.  The myriad personalities in the book are like prisms, reflecting back aspects of the two main characters.  What they don't say for themselves seems to be played out by others.  The multiplicity of people, places, and times is also how the author builds the mystery of the circus and the events that shape the outcome.  Like a burlesque dancer with ostrich-plumed fans, the audience never fully sees all that happens.  You're left with glimpses of identity, insinuating images, and dreamlike locations.  Much like The Illusionist (or Usual Suspects for that matter), everything is in plain sight, but you only get fragments of the whole picture.  For some, this might seem like the author is "telling" and not "showing"; she illuminates each fragment, but it is up to the reader to light the whole picture before the end.  The depth of description and bold imagery in a way acts as camouflage to the dialogue.  Your mind's eye keeps lingering on the texture of the setting, so that you are only giving half an ear to the conversation.  It's the author's slight-of-hand at work.  You can't see the plot steaming forward because you're caught up in the imaginative playground she has created.

The other criticism against this story was the romance aspect, namely that some reviewers felt it was lacking.  I don't think they were paying attention.  There are a few points to this that I'd like to discuss.  First, the two main characters seemed to have limited contact with each other.  For almost half the story, one did not know the other supposed to be the challenger.  This entire romance operated like a lot like a modern long distance relationship, given how little they got to be together.  Secondly, the setting has its impact on the unfolding of this romance.  In keeping with the time and place of the story, the author writes the development of love with an eye to the post-Victorian era.  The modesty of the commentary exchanged goes a bit against the modern sensibilities; we expect love stories to be a bit more vulgar.  I don't mean crude; I mean that we expect to hear outright how people feel, with open displays of affection, and descriptions of bodily reactions.  Instead, the author has to show us, through the characters limited interaction and the voice of the time, how much impact they have on each other.  Given the limited scope of the viewpoint, that's quite a job, and she pulls it off well.  She uses the rich imagery of the circus to illustrate how the feelings of the characters evolve, and the impact they have on each other.  They build new attractions within the circus, making a waltz out of a duel to the death.  The energy between them literally brightens a room, making lights flare.  As the characters grow through the story, they become each other's perfect complement, one fitting the other like a dovetail joint.  The result is beautiful symmetry, something that many of us aspire to within our own partnerships.

There were a couple of mysteries I did not solve in the course of reading this novel, which means I'll just have to reread it at some future date.  Overall, I felt this story was very moving, and the author did a phenomenal job of creating a piece of theater within the covers of a book.  I actually hope they do make this into a movie; I think that Neil Burger, director of The Illusionist could bring this story to life in such a way as to be a credit to the book.  Until then, je suis une reveure.....