Saturday, 12 March 2011

Various Things, Notably Oscar Wilde

Per Kelli's Facebook suggestion, my thoughts on The Picture of Dorian Gray:

I read The Importance of Being Earnest as a teenager, and was immediately enamored. It was possibly the first thing I had ever read where I laughed out loud and occasionally had to stop reading to get myself together. Loved. B can testify that when we were about 15 I invited her over for a "culture day" at my house in the middle of summer, where we read it aloud to each other and listened to Ella Fitzgerald albums all day. You know, normal teenage summer plans. I also lent a copy that my sister had given me for Christmas to another friend, who then lost it. And then replaced it because I kept haggling her about it. So basically I was an Oscar Wilde evangelist from a young age.

And then...nothing. I didn't follow it up by reading anything else of his. I think my problem was that he didn't write many novel-like things and novel-like things, including plays (I read LOTS of plays in my teenage years) were somehow my comfort zone. He wrote essays and editorials and poetry and short stories. And for whatever reason, my teenage self couldn't get beyond novels and plays. I wasn't a big magazine reader until I asked for a New Yorker subscription when I was about 17. And even then I always skipped the fiction section. For a dedicated fiction reader, I was weirdly averse to reading short fiction, especially new short fiction. I also NEVER went outside the tiny area dedicated to fictional novels at the library. I had some bizarre cultural hangups at that age. In any case, I did add Dorian Gray (it being novel-like) to my read-before-death list, but I didn't actively seek it out.

Skip to grad school. Needing a short but much needed break from reading British Archaeological Reports, I took Dorian Gray out of the library, and was promptly disappointed. At the time I remember recalling a Tufts prof alluding to a scholar who called Finnegan's Wake all the witticisms of Ulysses with none of the story. I was also reminded of a couple of acquaintances from my Brooklyn hipster stint who could never shut off. Being with them was like being at their personal comedy show ALL THE TIME. Any opportunity for a witty comment or pun wasn't just taken, it was publicly ravished. It's fun for a while, and then it quickly becomes amazingly tedious. So there were lots of negative, eye-rolling-type feelings being dredged up.

On reflection, I think I was harsh. There is most definitely a story, and while it's an old one, it's a good one. Wilde's retelling of it is particularly of interest because of the course of his own life. Dorian Gray was written and published well before Wilde's disgrace and ousting from society, yet it bears all the hallmarks of an author already reviewing the decadence of that society and reflecting on the vanity and materialism it encourages. It's as if he already knew it was going to end badly and was writing his memoirs in advance in fable form. The other characteristic of the book that surprised me and to which I should have lent more weight was its sinisterness. For all its jolly wit, it is deeply disturbing. It's much better than I gave it credit for at first go. And those are my thoughts on The Picture of Dorian Gray. The end.

I am currently reading Luka and the Fire of Life, by Salman Rushdie. I haven't read any other Rushdie yet, but of course I'm familiar with all his various scandals and fatwas, etc. I am enjoying this story very much. It is purposefully (I think) reminiscent of a bed-time story in its meandering way. It's sort of like a children's fable about free speech and responsibility. Extremely hip parents should read this to their children.

I am also currently read Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman. I can't decide if I like Gaiman or not. I read American Gods which was pretty good (short review on my Goodreads page). And I read Stardust, which was less good, though it had great potential. I am frustrated by him because he has a fantastic mythological imagination, but he can't seem to get into it without relying on a kind of sheepish use of jarringly modern language at inappropriate moments. It feels like he is afraid people will think he takes himself too seriously, so instead he half-asses it. It's like teenagers who are afraid of liking the wrong thing--wrong band, wrong teacher, wrong activity--so they say, "Yeah it's lame. I only do it because my parents make me." I want Gaiman to grow a backbone and just go for it full throttle! Alas.

This is rapidly turning into Megan's Thoughts on Books. I shall endeavor to write about something else next time.

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