Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Deal Me in Challenge: Adventure by Sherwood Anderson (1919)

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I'm singin' in the rain...just singin' in the rain! What a glorious feeling, I'm happy again!

Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio reminds me a great deal of Stephen Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, in which both works contain a series of different short stories (not always interrelated) that are set in a fictional small town at the turn of the 20th century. However, there are some clear differences in their aesthetic approach: Anderson is not so much interested in 'plot' but rather the engendering of powerful emotions that often reflect a wistful poignancy. What we often get in his writing (at least from what I can discern from the handful of stories that I have read from this particular collection) is dark humor and a distorted type of 'realism' that contains more abstraction than verisimilitude. In contrast, Leacock is like the Canadian version of Mark Twain, using irony and satire to poke fun at small-town life. While both authors cogently depict the experiences of ordinary life in a rural town, Anderson is more keen to evoke feelings of loneliness and isolation.

In Adventure, Anderson gives us the sad story of Alice Hindman, a 27-year old woman who works at the dry-goods store and is a spinster. Of course, at the time, women were expected to marry young and have children but Alice is unable to settle down after being spurned by her first love named Ned Curie who promised to marry her after finding work outside of Winesburg, Ohio but he never returned. Years go by and she has the opportunity to fall in love again when another male suitor takes an interest in her but she still cannot get over the emotional trauma of being abandoned by Ned. She is stuck in the past and Alice's loneliness begins to take a toll on her psyche. She yearns for an adventure (hence, the title of the story) but feels trapped--as an unmarried woman with very little education, the opportunities to better herself are limited. Female gender roles, sexuality and patriarchy are key themes here although the ending is ambiguous as to whether or not Alice achieves a sense of autonomy. While many might see her final act of running through the streets naked during a rain storm to be symbolic of re-birth or a pronouncement of sexual liberation, Anderson diminishes the seriousness of this profound moment by injecting humor. She encounters an old man who is deaf and seems surprisingly unperturbed by this naked woman. She is desperate for an form of human contact and emotional connection but the old man's bewildered indifference knocks her out of this trance. Utterly ashamed and embarrassed for her promiscuity, she literally crawls back in defeat to her home. The story ends with Alice resigning to the depressing fact that she will die alone which undermines the significance of her catharsis. She is right back where she started at the beginning of the story, stuck in paralysis and consumed by unrequited love. Anderson's cynical and bleak representation of rural life recurs throughout the entire collection so if you are looking for something a little less depressing, Stephen Leacock's  Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town would be a perfect alternative. 


 
You can read this story HERE.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Deal Me in Challenge: The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry (1905)

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So many feels right now.

So is this the guy they named the "Oh Henry" chocolate bar after? 

With Christmas just around the corner, it seems fitting to read a story that takes place during the holidays. Let me just say that I have a soft spot for those heart-warming and sentimental Christmas movies such as It's a Wonderful Life. I have never been able to finish reading A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens but do enjoy the different movie adaptations, especially the Muppet's version. Michael Caine is Scrooge is brilliant. Anyways, let me get back on track here. The Gift of the Magi is such a famous story that it does not warrant a lengthy plot description. Chances are, you more than likely encountered this story before at some point in your life even if it was just through pop culture references. Oddly enough, it only dawned on me that I had actually read this story during elementary school and completely forgot about it. Nevertheless, reading it again after all of these years proved to be a refreshing and delightful experience as if I was reading this for the first time.

O. Henry is not often taken seriously as a writer because of his populism aesthetics but The Gift of the Magi proves otherwise since he has crafted a timeless Christmas classic. Writing sentimental fiction is no easy task and requires a delicate balance between realism and pathos where it is easy to fall into the trap of sappy melodrama. O. Henry somehow manages to pull it off and his masterful use of irony is perfectly executed that packs an emotional-punch to the gut. O. Henry? More like Oh, Irony!

Excerpt:

When Della arrived home, her mind quieted a little. She began to think more reasonably. She started to try to cover the sad marks of what she had done. Love and large-hearted giving, when added together, can leave deep marks. It is never easy to cover these marks, dear friends—never easy.


You can read this story HERE.


Deal Me in Challenge: Kew Gardens by Virginia Woolf (1919)

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Hello, my name is Mr. Snail.
A snail's perception of time and reality is juxtaposed with the tumultuous chaos of early 20th century life in Virginia Woolf's Kew Gardens. I can't remember any story in which a snail is featured so prominently. Even during her early phase as a writer, Woolf demonstrates a keen disposition towards various aesthetics of modernism; that is to say, her writing often self-reflexively attempts to represent a fragmented culture and consciousness. In this particular story, she seems on the verge of  discovering her own literary voice but has yet to reach the apex of her creative ambitions. Taking place during one hot day in July, the story revolves around a group of ordinary people walking around the famous botanical gardens in south-west London. Similar to an impressionist painting, Woolf paints this world with vivid colors but we only get various fragmented snapshots of "reality" as it happens in the moment. Perspective is incredibly important in this novel and the different ways of perceiving the world changes from person to person or even mollusc to person. Woolf eschews with a conventional narrative, which will become a common feature of her writing and while she does not employ her trademark stream-of-consciousness here, there is a sense that she is experimenting with this stylistic technique. It comes as no surprise that her prose has a marvelous poetic quality and the lyrical use of language is almost unparalleled but overall, the story lacks a certain level of pathos that I have come to expect from Woolf. The detached objectivism left me cold but there is still plenty to admire here, especially her use of language and metaphor.

Excerpt: 

The snail had now considered every possible method of reaching his goal without going round the dead leaf or climbing over it. Let alone the effort needed for climbing a leaf, he was doubtful whether the thin texture which vibrated with such an alarming crackle when touched even by the tip of his horns would bear his weight; and this determined him finally to creep beneath it, for there was a point where the leaf curved high enough from the ground to admit him. He had just inserted his head in the opening and was taking stock of the high brown roof and was getting used to the cool brown light when two other people came past outside on the turf. 

You can read this story HERE.


Deal Me In Challenge: The Wub by Philip K. Dick (1952)

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Oink! Oink!
Moral of the story: If you happen to be colonizing a distant planet, try avoid eating the local livestock, especially if the creature can speak and possesses telekinesis. Just sayin.' For anyone who has perused my blog or knows me, Philip K. Dick is one of my favorite novelists but he was also an exceptional short-story writer too. The Wub is one of his earlier works that was first published in Planet Stories and while it is a light and comedic sci-fi romp, consisting almost entirely of dialogue, it is not one of his more memorable works. That is not to say that this particular story is not worth checking out for those who might be looking for a quick introduction to Philip K. Dick or enjoy classic space adventure stories from the 1950's but it pales in comparison to some of his more mature short-fiction that would emerge a decade later. Although The Wub is incredibly short and entertaining, it really doesn't leave a whole lot to chew on afterwards. No pun intended.

Excerpt:  

The slovenly wub might well have said: Many men talk like philosophers and live like fools.

You can read this story HERE.


Thursday, 22 December 2016

Deal Me in Challenge: To Build a Fire by Jack London (1902)

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Burrrrrr....
I can still feel the cold in my bones after reading Jack London's terrifying and suspenseful To Build a Fire, which is surely one of the great pieces of literary naturalism of the 20th century. In contrast to realism, here, the environment and an objective detachment is emphasized rather than a subjective representation of "reality." The natural setting of the Alaskan wilderness is so vividly depicted that it becomes the main character in the story. The author's meticulous attention to detail and absorbing prose effectively places the reader in the dire shoes of the protagonist who finds himself isolated (other than his dog companion) in this harsh winter landscape. This is an unforgettable story about survival and while familiar ideas such as man versus nature or human perseverance might seem a little on the nose, the story loses none of its thematic or emotional impact. To Build a Fire had me on the edge of my seat until the very last sentence. Please excuse me while I get myself a warm cup of hot cocoa and stay warm indoors until winter is over.

Excerpt:  

He worked slowly and carefully, keenly aware of his danger. Gradually, as the flame grew stronger, he increased the size of the twigs with which he fed it. He squatted in the snow, pulling the twigs out from their entanglement in the brush and feeding directly to the flame. He knew there must be no failure.




You can read this story HERE.

Deal Me in Challenge: The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges (1941)

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Erik Desmazieres' illustration of Borges' Library of Babel December 17, 2010

This Deal Me in Challenge has introduced me to a lot of new authors that I probably would not have otherwise discovered on my own. I have heard of Jorge Luis Borges in passing but never ventured to seek out any of his writing. Not having any expectations whatsoever, The Library of Babel completely floored me. Indeed, this is an unequivocal masterpiece--a complex and mind-altering reading experience that is unlike anything that I have ever encountered in literature before. Borges not only elevates the short-story into a powerful  art-form but somehow manages to transform it into something unique. It truly defies any categorization and cannot be lumped into a single particular genre. Many readers might be inclined to label this story as science-fiction, since Borges' vision of the universe consisting of a library system that stretches for infinity can certainly be seen as dystopian but that would only be one possible interpretation. As a highly self-reflexive work full of paradoxes, Borges miraculously packs an exorbitant amount of philosophical and religious discourse in only a few short pages. The tension between epistemology and metaphysics is playfully articulated by Borges in his imaginative conceptualization of the universe. Yet, the inherent irony here is the inadequacy of language to represent the incomprehensible or sublime. Borges also seems to be satirizing human pride and the search for endless knowledge. However, such pride only leads to our downfall (the biblical allusion to 'Babel' reinforces this argument) and ironically, despite having access to the vast resources of human knowledge, we still don't know anything. I have barely scratched the surface and there are so many different ways to approach this story where each subsequent reading will produce another layer of meaning. Just incredible. 

Excerpt:

Everything: the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels’ autobiographies, the faithful catalogues of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of those catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books.

You can read this story HERE.


Monday, 19 December 2016

Deal Me in Challenge: All You Zombies by Robert Heinlein (1959)

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There is something odd about that bartender...

Woah. What the hell did I just read? Seriously. I've read my fair share of time-travel stories but Robert Heinlein's "All You Zombies" completely blew my mind. It took me a second reading to figure out the overlapping timelines and paradoxes but after assembling the different puzzle pieces, Heinlein's master narrative reveals itself. It is completely astounding to me that he was wrote this in 1959! Even though this my first exposure to his work, I can see why many consider him to be one of the founding fathers of science-fiction alongside Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke who were responsible for catapulting the genre into the mainstream. This particular story is accessible enough but does require a certain amount of effort from the reader to deconstruct the perplexing gender-bending and time-travel narrative. 

A bartender notices a certain patron sidling up to the bar and initiates a conversation. What follows next is not your typical bar scene and from there, well...let's just say things start to get a little weird. A further description of the plot is unnecessary since it would totally ruin the fun. However, the title is worth noting, which initially struck me as peculiar. This castigation uttered by the narrator at the end of the story is part of a tirade against humanity and by association, the reader. He asserts his identity as an authentic human being for knowing his origins whereas everyone else is just walking around like zombies or the living-dead. Discovering one's family roots is important in this story but the way Heinlein goes about exploring this theme is done in such a meticulous and unorthodox way. For  anyone who is skeptical towards the science-fiction genre or just looking for something truly original, I implore you to check out this story. Strap yourselves in and prepare yourself for a wild ride. 



Deal Me in Challenge: The Boarded Window by Ambrose Bierce (1891)

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Spooky.

I encountered Ambrose Bierce for the first time during last year's "Dead Me in Challenge" with An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and it turned out to be one of the finest short-stories that I have ever read. Talk about a "twist" ending! Unfortunately, I did not end up writing any review on it but Bierce immediately became a permanent fixture on my radar. It is difficult for me to describe his unique style but he often relishes in dark imagery and creates an imposing sense of dread but I would be hard pressed to call him a horror writer in the same vein as, say, Stephen King. His cynicism and ominous depiction of death crops up in a lot of his stories so it makes sense that many would consider him as a horror writer but perhaps it would be more accurate to classify his writing as psychological horror that has more in common with H.P. Lovecraft's 'weird fiction.' Having fought in the American Civil War and being wounded, a lot of Bierce's stories usually revolve around the horrors of war although The Boarded Window is a little different. Here, we get a grim depiction of isolated frontier life with elements of the supernatural. So, indeed, one can certainly read this particular story as "horror" but it must be reiterated that this is not always the case in Ambrose Bierce's work.

As a ghost story, The Boarded Window is steeped in mysticism and ambiguity. With the expansion of the American frontier, many settlers found themselves living in remote areas, far removed from civilization. The unnamed narrator relates a story passed down from his grandfather about a man named Murlock who settled in these parts many years ago and became isolated from the community by moving deeper into the forest with his wife. We are never given any explanation as to why they become social outcasts, nor do we get the wife's perspective at any point. He seems wholly dependent on her and yet she seems entirely compliant to give into his desire to become hermits. Very odd. She eventually dies of an illness and then Murlock becomes even more of a recluse in his grief. He then gets super creepy, locking himself up in the cabin with his dead wife's corpse by boarding up the windows (wink, wink) to literally shut out the external world but this particular act also serves as a metaphor for his own psychological imprisonment. Paralyzed by such immense loss, he wallows in despair and stubbornly refuses to let go of the past. The ending threw me for a loop and I am still not sure what to make of it. During one of Murolock's emotional breakdowns as he is clutching his wife's corpse in agonizing grief, she mysteriously disappears and a vicious panther breaks through the window and kills him. So, yeah, very weird. Does this really happen or is he suffering from some kind of hallucination? Bierce purposefully leaves the ending shrouded in ambiguity although I found the whole encounter with the panther to be rather silly, which greatly diminished the quality of an otherwise decent story. 


 

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Deal Me in Challenge: I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison

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Shhhhhhhhhh....


There is weird science-fiction and then there is Harlan Ellison who writes some of the weirdest stuff that I have ever encountered in fiction. The best way that I can possibly describe his writing is a mix between H.P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick; a sci-fi/horror hybrid that is terrifyingly bizarre. Written in 1967, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream has become a sort of dystopian cult classic, so, naturally, I was curious to see what all the hype was all about. Suffice it to say, I was left quite disappointed. Despite the mind-bending premise, Ellison's writing style and narrative execution leave much to be desired. 

In a post-apocalyptic world, the human population has been wiped out by a giant supercomputer and the last five remaining people on Earth are imprisoned for eternity in this subterranean maze of torture. Considering that this story was written at the height of the Cold-War, Ellison's channels the fears of advancing technology and the creation of A.I.'s that would eventually exceed human intelligence, become sentient beings and turn on their creators. Although this kind of post-apocalyptic story might seem overly familiar these days, Ellison's nightmarish vision of the future must have surely been quite shocking for reader's in the 1960's. Personally, it feels dated and I'm not sure if more 'contemporary' readers will get much out of it. Indeed, the actual story itself often feels campy and weird for weird's sake. I'm not quite sold on its revered status but Ellison should certainly be recognized for his astounding imagination and influence on other writers (especially in the science fiction genre) is unprecedented. I just wish he was a better writer.


Saturday, 17 December 2016

Deal Me in Challenge: Mountain Victory by William Faulkner

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I am not sure that this is the picturesque mountain Faulkner had in mind but it will do.

Faulkner's Mountain Victory is the longest short-story that I have ever read in recent memory. Yes, I am well aware that this statement is an oxymoron but with eleven mini chapters, this story is a borderline novella. Based entirely on the title, I picked it at random from his Collected Stories, thinking that the premise might revolve around a bunch of southern rednecks engaged in a dramatic battle atop a giant mountain. Surprisingly, my initial presumption was not too far off although a violent confrontation does occur at the end of the story. The title is misleading and slightly ironic since there is no real victory here, only irreparable loss on both sides. 

I was expecting Faulkner's usual stream-of-consciousness but the story is quite straight-forward to follow although confusion does arise at times since he provides very little context and the southern dialect is difficult to comprehend. Moreover, the nonchalant and repetitive use of the word "nigger" is appropriated by Faulkner, augmenting the verisimilitude of the historical period. Taking place at the end of the American Civil War, a wounded Confederate soldier named Weddel and his black servant Jubal are both on their way back home to Mississippi after four years of fighting against the Union. On their journey, they decide make a pit stop at a remote cabin located on a mountain in Tennessee and encounter some unruly folk who want to kill them on sight (think 'Deliverance' but set in the late 1860's). My question is: Why not go around the mountain and avoid the hostile mountain people? This made no sense to me whatsoever but I suppose if Faulkner did this, his exploration of the central conflict between the Old South and New South would cease to exist. Additionally, core themes such as traditional values and war would also be less resonant. My knowledge of the American history is limited to say the least but I could also not figure out why the roughneck Tennessee family were so antagonistic towards Weddel since he fought for the south. Anyways, he foolishly decides to stay the night much to Jubal's chagrin, urging his master that they should just leave because these isolated mountain people cannot be trusted. It is interesting to note that even though Jubal is now a 'free slave', he is still remains subservient to Weddel. Jubal has every reason to suspect that their ungracious hosts but Weddel stubbornly refuses even after Jubal is poisoned with spiked moonshine. Weddel is clueless that the war has changed the South forever and thinks that he can return to the way things used to be. Faulkner often describes him as "quizzical" and "sardonic" which further exemplifies his fragmented sense of self. The war might be over but that does not mean it is over for everyone. Weddel must learn this fact the hard way although Faulkner's story meanders far too long before finally arriving at this crucial point. 

Overall, this was a decent story with so much potential but falls flat. We never get a real sense of these characters since Faulkner keeps the reader at a distance. Faulkner has written some excellent short-stories like A Rose for Emily and Dry September but Mountain Victory is rather forgettable.




Friday, 16 December 2016

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison


“Lonely was much better than alone.”

Note: I found this review in my drafts that I wrote back in 2012. It is terrible and goes way off tangent, which might explain why I decided not to post it. Oh well, feel free to poke fun at my mediocrity. I do plan on re-reading this novel at some point and can hopefully offer an insightful review when it is more fresh in my mind.

I had to read Beloved for an introductory English course during my first year of university but it didn't register with me at all. I have no discerning memory of the novel but do recall the broken narrative causing me problems, ultimately leading me to dismiss it as worthless drivel. Suffice it to say, my ignorance concerning literature was reprehensible back then. Something tells me that I would be able to appreciate Beloved a lot more if I were to pick it again for a second time. Putting aside my earlier preconceptions, I decided give Toni Morrison another chance with The Bluest Eye and much to my surprise, it was fantastic. Personally, this  is one of the best debuts of any author that I have come across in a long time--a stylistic tour-de-force, thought-provoking and an emotional powerhouse that is downright harrowing. There are no sunshine and rainbows in this novel, just sadness and anger. My first reaction after finishing it was to curl up into a ball and cry myself to sleep. I don't mind reading depressing or bleak stories but this one really did a number on me.

It has become a recurring pattern that many African-American writers are concerned with the issues of race -- no doubt, a very complex subject that includes anything from the exploration of black identity, discrimination, cultural imperialism, gender, the list goes on. Toni Morrison is no exception here but as far as I am concerned, she is far ahead of so many authors who explore what it means to be black in America and the challenges faced when living within a dominant white society through her inimitable, intelligent, unique and profound way of writing. She didn't win the Nobel Prize in literature for nothing.

On a side note, I remember watching an interview with Morrison on the Colbert Report in which she stated that she didn't want to be labeled as an African-American writer but simply as an American writer. This statement generated some interesting discussion on issues of race: Why is it that an American white author (or whatever culture for that matter, just using the prototypical example here) is never referred to as a "White American-Writer" whereas a black author is almost always pigeon-holed into the category of an "African-American Writer?" Racial discrimination is so ingrained in our society that we often don't pay much attention to it and just accept it as the norm. Although we have come a long way since the civil rights movement, racism (especially towards blacks) is alive and well. Just take a look at recent events involving racial profiling and police brutality that have left many innocent black men dead. Racism will never go away as long as there human beings walking the Earth. That is why it is important to celebrate authors like Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Austin Clarke, Alice Walker, Ernest J. Gaines,  George Elliot Clarke and of course, Toni Morrison herself--writers who aren't afraid to tackle the controversial issue of race relations -- creating social awareness, challenging white hegemony, opposing black oppression, attempting to find a way to reduce the level of social stratification, striving towards establishing a more egalitarian society by not using violence in retaliation but using the power of literature to spark discussion and even perhaps influence social change by transmitting their ideas into the public stratosphere. 

Here I am rambling on and still haven't said anything about the novel itself. Any attempt at  writing a proper review at this particular juncture will not do this novel justice. All I can really say is that this is a novel by Toni Morrison, so you can't go wrong. Just make sure you keep some tissues handy. 

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Deal Me in Challenge: Canadian Experience by Austin Clarke

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(Another heart! I'm on a roll!)

R.I.P. 1934-2016

2016 has been a cursed year with Donald Trump being elected president and so many deaths of notable figures such as David Bowie, Prince, Alan Rickman, the list goes on. Just the other day, Alan Thicke passed away. I can't help thinking who might be next to kick the bucket before the year is done. Although, it is probably safe to say that Kirk Douglas has nothing to worry about. He'll outlive us all. Anyways, we also lost another big name this year and a towering figure in Canadian literature  (albeit, tragically, he is lesser known to those outside of Canada): Mr. Austin Clarke. Before him, there were not many established Black-Canadian writers and he basically paved the way for other writers of color such as Dionne Brand, Rohinton Mistry, George Eliot Clarke (not related despite sharing the last name) and many others to become recognized on the literary scene. Austin Clarke's death marks a tremendous loss in Canadian literature, leaving huge shoes to fill for anyone brave enough to pick up the torch. I really regret passing up the opportunity to see him speak or give a reading in Toronto (his home city) but his memory will live on through his excellent written works, and one of them is this short-story: Canadian Experience.

There is much to say about this thematically rich and heart-breaking story so please bear with me. First off, one notices almost immediately, that Clarke is unabashed in his anti-multicultural stance. Canada prides itself on its open immigration policies and multiculturalism but Clarke is adamant to expose these false misconceptions. The immigrant is not welcomed to this country with open arms and warm embraces. Rather, systematic barriers are set in place to exclude these "outsiders" from centers of wealth and the dominant culture. Social mobility is limited or increasingly difficult and for immigrants like George, the protagonist of the story, his dreams of achieving prosperity in Canada are shattered because he is a black foreigner in this country. George has lofty ambitions to make it big in Toronto but the cultural mosaic marginalizes black men. John Porter's "vertical mosaic" is an important intertext and reveals the intersection between culture and class. Hierarchy is based on class and ethnicity; thus, opportunities are circumscribed to the impoverished lower classes. George is black and his poverty is an indictment of this cultural mosaic. His dreams were thwarted before he even stepped foot in this country.

Secondly, pay attention to laughter in this story. This is a bleak and depressing story and there is nothing funny about George's situation but why is he always laughing? For Clarke, this "laughter" has metaphorical implications. The immigrant's forgetfulness turns to laughter, it is a marker of subjugation (powerlessness, colonization), an involuntary "tick" that represents the immigrant failing to accommodate to a hostile society. This is a country that would rather have immigrants laugh than protest; a fatalistic expression of resignation. The loss of self that has become fractured by cultural alienation is inextricably linked to George's blackness. Race is accountable to his failure since class and heritage determine success. He blames himself for his own failures and cannot shake off the slave mentality, which eventually leads to the tragic ending. I am not spoiling anything here since it soon becomes clear that there is only one way this story can possibly end. 

For anyone who has ever visited Toronto and experienced our horrible transit system (TTC), Clarke does an excellent job of portraying the underground subway as a a literal and figurative hell akin to Dante's Inferno. Clarke is cynical about the "Canadian Dream" that seduces the immigrant and ultimately, destroys them because of these problematic class hierarchies. This story is far from an enjoyable read but it is incredibly enlightening, offering a unique perspective of the black Canadian experience that one does not often come across in literature.




Deal Me in Challenge: Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut

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Image result for 3 of hearts


Shall we show
the people the meaning of the word dance? 

I've said it before and I'll say it again, Kurt Vonnegut is one of the great literary satirists of the 20th century. He walks a fine line between ironic humor and downright condemnation . Indeed, there is something almost Swiftian in his juvenalian satire, offering a scathing critique of government and egalitarianism. Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron is set in a chilling dystopian world that seems all too plausible. Can social equality really exist? Marx thought so, but in this story, Vonnegut contradicts such idealism: social inequality is necessary for society to function since the alternative route will inevitably lead to government oppression or communism. The opening paragraph is quite explicit in Vonnegut's satire on the fallacies of social stratification:

"THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General."

Ironically, the only way to promote social equality is for the government to impose it on society and these "Amendments" made to the constitution are not meant to increase individual freedoms but rather to limit them. People are given "handicaps" (for example, radio transmitters that deliver white noise to reduce brain activity along with heavy canvas bags that literally and figuratively represent enslavement) in order to ensure equality, preventing individual free-will. Here, the U.S. constitution that famously states, "All Men are Created Equal" is revised and taken literally. However, if everyone is created "equal before God and the law" then society ceases to be productive, falling into stagnation. The government no longer operates to protect the interests of society but becomes an oppressive regime. Is this society truly free if the "Handicapper General" rules with an iron fist? We later discover that Diana Moon Glampers (such a cool name) holds this high-ranking position and maintains order through shocking violence ("unceasing vigilance"). Vonnegut is so skilled at conflating humor and deadly serious social commentary through his satire. 

I won't dive too much into the plot since it would ruin the fun of discovering this wonderful story on your own, but one particular aspect of this story that struck me was Vonnegut's use of grotesque imagery. He paints a sinister world that is comically distorted, and I personally found his dystopian vision to be simultaneously ludicrous and disturbing.


I read this story as a Hobbesian allegory taken to the extreme. Since human beings are inherently corrupt and driven towards competition with one another over finite goods, the "the state of nature" is inevitably war. We suspect that others cannot be trusted and even if people are not fighting, the mere possibility of war is always there. Sure, we can all band together but will inevitably end up at war within the group since we suffer from self-interest. Thus, in order to maintain order, a "Leviathan" figure is needed who exists outside the realm of society to adjudicate conflict (in this case, Diana Moon Glampers represents the absolute monarch). According to Hobbes, it is not individual freedom that men desire but security and we authorize or intend to give up those freedoms in order to live better. There is an inextricable link between equality and fear and the Leviathan is the only one who has absolute power--behavior is kept in check by fear. We tacitly consent to the rules, giving up our rights for safety. This "social contract" to the Body Politic is supposed to structure society and prevent chaos. Of course, the freedom to flourish within these constraints is limited or nearly impossible. Ironically, Vonnegut blatantly repudiates Hobbes, showing society's downfall if we relinquish our freedoms to achieve equality.