Sunday, February 3, 2008

A Very Weird Book

Our frenemy and resident gadfly, Max, suggested we read Alan Harrington's The Revelations of Dr. Modesto, so I tracked it down. It sounded pretty interesting: first published in 1955, it's about a loser salesman who writes away for the secrets of success from the back of a magazine, follows the advice to the letter, and becomes wildly if unhappily successful. He then goes on a bizarre trek to find the mysterious Dr. Modesto. It reminded me a lot of The Phantom Tollbooth, actually: they're both picaresques peopled with irrational characters.

This isn't a book about people so much as it is about ideas -- and one gets the impression, reading it, of ideas slamming into each other and bouncing off walls like bumpercars. The main idea is Dr. Modesto's "Centralism," which claims one can achieve success by being as close to "average" as possible -- dressing, acting, and speaking as much like the norm as one can, including living in the middle of town and mirroring people's needs and desires back to them. Of course this kind of success is shown to be meaningless and a charade, and Dr. Modesto a lunatic. It must have seemed terribly subversive at the time, and indeed it predicts the popular overthrow of "square" culture pretty accurately.

The best thing about this novel is the writing, which is often stunning. It makes me wish the story itself weren't so jangled and pressured and trying to make a point. Novels are all conversations with their culture, aren't they? But some novels address larger and more universal questions (war, say, and peace), others take on smaller, individual questions, and still others are about the passing mood of a society. The latter books don't always wear as well over time. We're much more cynical and knowing about conformity now, and the topic even seems a bit tired in YA novels.

Harrington, who hung out with the Beat crowd, apparently later became obsessed with the idea that our society was being taken over by psychopaths. True enough, as it turns out. I wonder if his anger and consternation at the culture of the time overwhelmed his more literary tendencies. Well, I certainly empathize.

16 comments:

max said...

Good evaluation, Rhian. Fair, perceptive.
I read the book in my teens, which is almost 50 years ago, so you're probably right about it being dated. But you are also right about it being, first and foremost, a novel of ideas. I like that aspect. I also like the wildness behind it. The final words stick with me: "Let my sons in! Let my sons in!"
I read another novel by Harrington, called The Secret Swinger, and it was terrible.
His best work is probably a non-fiction book about the time he worked at a large corporation: Life in the Crystal Palace. Of it V. S. Pritchett wrote: "Mr. Harrington, with suave irony, shows that the real hell here is that nothing is wrong; no one is unjust, unkind, inconsiderate. He is devastating in his gentleness."
Of the other four novels I recommended, The Tenants of Moonbloom is also a book I read when I was young, but has been reissued as a New York Review Book (as has the unique and enchanting Alfred and Guinevere by James Schuyler; I did a review of it for Rain Taxi).
Wisteria Cottage and The Gate I read recently, Quartet in Autumn in my early 30's; so you may find a more mature evaluation at work.
Thank you for reading Revelations, and I'm glad you got some pleasure from it.
All the novels I've mentioned are quite different from one another, so if you read on you won't find a pattern.

AC said...

I found a box of beat era pulp fiction on the curb this summer, so I can attest to the 'not wearing well over time' phenomenon. On the other hand, I also read The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and Mr. Blanding Builds His Dream House this past fall, and I thought those two were still rather striking.

rmellis said...

Tenants of Moonbloom should be in the mail, though my Wisteria Cottage order got cancelled for some reason and I'll have to do it over. I have to say that the character of Alan Harrington intrigues me as much as his writing -- I'll be checking that out his nonfiction too.

It's been incredibly fun exploring these older more obscure novels. I'd like to own the whole NYRB reprint series.

Thanks AC for those recs, too -- will look for them.

jrlennon said...

Rhian's description of this book reminds me of another forgotten classic...G. K. Chesterton's "The Man Who Was Thursday." it's another of those wacky philosophically-themed romps with an inscrutable ending...and recommended to me by Skoog, as usual. I tend to like it much more than other people, though...most students are disappointed.

Max said...

Sorry. I recommended a book -- Wisteria Cottage -- that's very hard to locate (I've been trying unsuccessfully to get another Coates' novel, The Eater of Darkness). Does your library have a system where they will borrow a book from another library, even if it's in Oslo?
Coates was spectacularly unsuccessful at selling his books. I think he made people feel too uneasy.
I also don't care for beat novels, AC (not even On the Road). Harrington didn't write in that style.

rmellis said...

Abebooks has lots of copies. My library and its partners has none. I am in bad hock to the library, unfortunately; when they stopped stamping the backs of books with the due date I stopped remembering to return them on time...

Hey, maybe JRL can get one from Cornell, though.

jrlennon said...

Indeed I can get it...it's in the Library Annex (aka cold storage) though, so I have to have it sent over. Want me to?

AC said...

Max, I didn't care for On The Road either. But I did love The Dharma Bums. I wish Kerouac had continued in that vein (both personally and in his fiction).

Max said...

Talking about weird...
I visit only two blogs -- yours and the Writer, Rejected one (is it called Literary Rejections on Display?). I believe you put me on to that one.
Anyway, they're running an experiment of sorts.
I wrote earlier that there was good weird and bad weird. The story on display is weird.
I'll respond sometime, as anonymous (almost everybody is anonymous there).
W,R doesn't mention exactly how many times the story was rejected. That would matter -- if it was 5 times or 50.

rmellis said...

What did you think of that story, Max? I thought it was nothing special. It wasn't horrible, but I also wouldn't go out of my way to publish it.

max said...

Rhian -- You and Robert should know my views on literature pretty well by now, so I'm going to pose a question for you. I will (or maybe I have already) post/posted a comment as "Anonymous." Can you spot which one it is? Again, it may be there now, it may not. Visit the site again in a few days and give me your choice for "Which post is from Max?".

rmellis said...

Let's see -- are you #1 and #2? And are you the guy arguing with me on the next post?

max said...

Rhian, you are so impatient!
I asked you to visit the Literary Rejections on Display blog in a few days, but you immediately send me the comment above. If I deny being #1 or 2, you'll know that my comment has likely not yet been posted.
I will say that I'm not the guy that "argued" with you.
There are a lot of disgruntled people out there, not just me. But we ain't got the power, as Vanderbilt would say.
It's interesting that the three comments you attributed to me were favorable to the story, and one was strongly critical of the status quo today.
This whole "Change of Season" experiment interests me. In my Literary Fiction Today: A Look at the Best, I put the stories in the 2005 Best American under scrutiny; implied was criticism of what is coming out of MFA programs. Robert took great exception to my views. But I gave reasons as to why stories worked or didn't; as for the prose itself -- flawless. Not a hair out of place! And so what? To me, that is not of primary importance. I have no problem with "crude" writers. Neither did Maxwell Perkins, who had a huge manuscript thrust upon him as he left his office, by some guy named James Jones. Perkins actually read the thing (imagine!) and wrote Jones a letter, declining but citing virtues; he mentioned that he especially liked the Schofield Barracks section. And so, with many twists and turns, we got From Here to Eternity. Crudely written, but with power and drive and unforgettable characters.
I liked a good number of stories in Best (including Robert's), and I thought two were wonderful. So do I have a knee-jerk mentality? Is my mind stuck in negativity?
I liked "Hart and Boot," and that was not a realistic story -- I judged it on terms of what it set out to do. It's clear that "Change" is also not meant to be realistic, but to illustrate a fact of the human condition. As my grandmother often said, "After you laugh, you cry." This country had a ball during the Clinton/Lewinski years; now our soldiers are killed (3,950 as of today) and maimed in a hellhole. Scott and Zelda danced the night away at the Ritz, but she wound up in a mental institutuion and he became a drunken hack writing for the glossies. The beautiful and hopeful become old and cynical.
Do you find some of the comments about "Change" (including those of editors) "virulent, pretentious, poorly argued and insecure" (Robert's evaluation of my reviews)? As for your comment on "Change," I found it airily dismissive, as if the story didn't matter much. But someone thought it similar to the work of George Saunders (which I don't agree with; Dostoyevsky, yes, at the end). I wonder, if it had been written by Saunders, if you would have seen it through different eyes.
I also wonder what the reaction of the Establishment (I insist that there is one, and it's based on contacts and credentials) would be if they got a long story in the slush pile by someone named Gogol. A story called "The Overcoat." Would the first paragraph pass muster with that literary expert who quit reading "Change" after the first paragraph -- the writing was just too bad to go on. Gogol's first paragraph is full of rambling sentences, labyrinth-like, full of asides, diversions. The main character is not likeable (just pitiable); he hardly has a personality; he's one of life's lowly drones. The story has perplexing mystical elements: the devilish tailor, the huge-fisted specter. "The Overcoat" is inexplicable in some ways (there is much debate regarding what it's about; I have a book called Gogol's Overcoat, composed of lectures given around the world on the story, and the opinions are amazingly divergent).
I think "The Overcoat" is about man's inhumanity to man. Especially to the powerless; the huge-fisted take what they want.
It's an absolutely great story, and I suppose every MFAer on earth would agree -- because it has entered the canon, as has the work of Chekhov.
"Change" is certainly not a great story, but I think it's a very good one. Deserving? Yes. Will it be published? No.
I could go on and on this morning; but, as Rabbit said, "Enough."

rmellis said...

Sorry -- I read too fast and missed "in a few days." Everyone sounds like you, in a way...

I was airily dismissive because I don't want to be my usual nasty self to an anonymous writer. What if it's someone I know? But I didn't think the story worked, for a number of reasons. It's way too long for what it is, is one of them. That the language is lifeless is another.

Maybe that one commenter is right; maybe it could have been published in the 1930's. But so what?

To be perfectly honest, those two threads have depressed the hell out of me, to the point that I think I'm going to quit visiting that site. I used to enjoy it -- everyone on the same side. Now the illusion is shattered.

Bleah. Maybe I'll quit the whole internet.

max said...

I'm thinking of quitting the internet too. Really. Opt out of all this.
You use the word "everyone" twice -- "Everyone sounds like you, in a way." (Gads, that must be awful for you.) And then -- "I used to enjoy it -- everyone on the same side."
That IS the way to enjoy things -- like when you're home, home on the range, where never is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day.

rmellis said...

Everyone... everyone... hm. Tuesday night I signed 500 people in to vote. Usually that's a great, life-affirming experience. But for various reasons I won't go into, the other night it was not. I'm feeling a major funk coming on. Or maybe it's just a virus from those filthy pens.

Feel free to write via the USPS, if your screen goes dark...