Arquivo do mês: abril 2008

BLINDNESS: Sight unseen

José Saramago’s “Blindness” is one of the most strange and most readable novel from his body of work. The action is always moving forward, there is only one narrator (“Balthazar and Blimunda” has a couple of them), and the narrative reads like a thriller in a crescendo until it reaches an ending that makes a lot of sense in the narrative.

“Blindness” takes place in a nameless city and in an identified time. Suddenly, in the end of the second paragraph a man announces that he is blind. There is no apparent reason for the conditions and his ophthalmologist decides to study the case. But no sooner he stars his research than the doctor becomes blind himself. The government of this place decides to act and isolate all the blinds in an old facility. But that doesn’t stop the blindness to be spread and contaminated the whole town.

The only person immune to the condition is the doctor’s wife who never become blind, but pretend not seeing to follow and help her husband. She becomes the eyes of a group of people whose eye are no longer effective.

For Saramago, this group of people represents more than what they are. Nobody has a name, but they are identified by what would be their most important characteristic in the narrative, so we have, the doctor, the wife, the first blind, the car thief, a girl in sunglasses and so on. This device makes them something bigger than mere human beings – they are the human condition itself.

Blindness brings up the most inner – and sometimes creepiest – characteristic of each person. Killing, stealing and even raping become very easy and the primordial way of defense. Words are substituted by actions – and kindness is not very common.

Saramago is – alongside Antonio Lobo Antunes – one of the most important contemporary writers from Portugal. His prose is not easy and sometime he hasn’t much hope for humanity. But in “Blindness” some light emerges from the darkness in the end. We human can survive a plague and even learn something from it – or not.

He never psychologizes his characters or their conditions. There is no explanation – and it is never important because he is working with how we deal with the unexpected and unknown, and not from what they come. In the end everything makes perfect sense and the characters are no longer the same – nor is the reader, who has seen a little more about human condition.


BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY: Much before the loss of the innocence

Jay McInerney’s funny and smart debut “Bright Lights, Big City” was published about 25 years ago. The current Vintage Contemporary edition features in its cover a drawing of a men entering the Odeon and the Twin Towers in the background – as if we all needed to remember this was a book written much before the loss of the innocence.

The set is New York in the middle 1980s, when AIDS wasn’t the issue and the city fuelled with cocaine and neon. That decade always seem to be something lost in time. And literature and cinema handles it this way. “Bight Lights, Big City” is sort of a lighter and smarter cousin of “American Psycho”, which handles the same generation. But McInerney’s prose is much well handed and his narrative more effective than Breat Easton Ellis’. The novel is entirely written in the second person, and it feels like `you’ is just one more character.

Rarely did a writer capture the 1980s zeitgeist as McInerney. We see his nameless protagonist frantically crossing the city after drugs, women or something he lost in his life and doesn’t know. The plot unfolds in a New York minute. The writer has the ear for capturing vivid and believable dialogues, while creating interesting characters.

However fun it is to read “Bright Lights, Big City”, it is impossible not to notice that it is above all a sad story. The main character is only going through the motions, just the course life takes. He never takes the plunge to change his destiny. Could he if he tried? Maybe so. We’ll never know. But what we do know is that McInerney has written a novel that will last for ages. When people in the future wonders how the 1980s was like


When you have Alice Munro’s short stories, the first question that pops up is who needs a novel? This writer is able to concentrate the whole world in a couple of pages with beauty, sincerity and talent — doing more than many writers attempt to do in hundreds of pages (and many fails) in only a couple. Her collection “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” is one of the best examples of fulfillment, because she manages to create stories that are complete and leave a lot of room for discussion and imagination — just like the best texts are supposed to be.

The universe that she brings to her stories is populated with human beings dealing with critical situations. Someone who lost a beloved one, another person who is losing her mind, some else who’s lost his/her dignity and so on. In other words, these are characters that are somehow living on the edge of a change.

And because they make them so believable, the reader can easily identify him/herself with those people. Moreover, the situation exploited in the plot — that might read unreal in someone else’s hands — is very plausible. Munro is interested as much as in the inner life of her characters as in the outside life they lead. In this fashion, she is able to fully develop portrays of the human beings that sometimes may seem to want something but are heading to something else — the eternal paradox of being.

In one of the best stories of this collection, “The Bear that Came Over the Mountain”, we have a man dealing with his wife’s mental health. But the writer uses this device as a starter, because what she is talking about in this story is faith. The faith we have in other people, the faith we assume we are the one in control. As the narrative progresses, the man is forced to deal with his woman `infidelity’. He himself was unfaithful to her a long time ago, and now it is the other way round. But since she is sick, the whole plot goes to another path beyond the trivial.

In the story that gives the title to be book, a woman is forced to leave her town and move to a place where she’ll be the nanny of a girl who lost her mother, and whose father is sick. The woman is a strange element that will alter the life of the whole city — and more specifically of the girl. Again, Munro is dealing with the situations we can’t control. Tired of that woman, the girl will plot something to get rid of her, but, things never get the way we expect.

Her keen eye for detail and for the importance of ordinary events in our everyday lives — that in the long run aren’t that ordinary — makes Munro a natural heiress to Chekhov’s style and interests. Pick one of her collections, any one, and you’ll be able to find a new world of humanism and technical quality.

THE SAFETY OF OBJECTS: Where the suburban heart is

American cinema and literature have glimpsed close at lives in the suburbs with mixed results – some good (“Little Children”, both movie and novel; Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral”, Raymond Carver’s and John Cheever’s stories, among others) and some not so (“American Beauty”). What most of the works focused on suburbia share is the sarcastic tone – rarely a tender look. It is not A. M. Homes’ crafted collection of short stories “The Safety of Objects” that will change it – and that come as a blessing.

Published in the early 1990s, these stories seem to look to a world and a time far, far away. That was when either computer or cell phones were common equipments in everybody’s lives, and there was some innocence that seemed to be lost in the turn of the century. But she is also able to capture the changing of times. One of her characters dreams of ‘a different kind of life, the kind he’d read about in stories of men outdoors, fishing trips and cabins in the woods’.

In “The Safety of Objects”, Homes is more interested in the bizarre than in the peculiar. But the form how she portrays it never turn her characters into freaks. Here we have a fat girl called Chunky ‘in part after the candy bar’; a boy who dates his little sister’s Barbie doll; a couple who behaves like children when her kids are away; and a kidnapped boy who fails his kidnapper expectations.

The writer’s approach is to find the most human side of each of her characters meaning demystifying their possible freakiness. The boy dating the Barbie doll is ‘practicing for the future’, for instance. This story, called “A Real Doll”, by the way, has already become a classic. Another strange person, so to speak, who looks very realistic in Homes’ pages Jim Train, the title character of a story, whose behavior is so bizarre that completely convincing.

The characters who people “The Safety of Objects” are people unsatisfied with their lives who has neither the chance nor the energy to change their present – they are sort of depressed or, at least, bipolar who can’t move on, who is too deep in their nothingness to move over. Take Frank, the protagonist of “The Bullet Catcher”, for instance, his goings to the mall becomes his biggest pleasure, and when his neighbors enters a competition this is one of the most exciting things in his life.

Homes’ writing is sort a combination of Raymond Carver’s sharp look at suburban life with Mary Gaitskill’s taste for strangeness. However, in “The Safety of Objects”, the writer is able to develop her own style which blends fun with a detailed account of dead-end lives. Moreover, she must be one of the best opening-sentences writer ever. “Elaine takes the boys to Florida and drops them off like they’re dry cleaning”. “I’m hiding in the linen closet writing letter to myself”. “If something horrible happens it won’t be my fault”. And the best one: “I’m dating Barbie” – only four words that express so much about a character.

Chekhov is also an important reference when it comes to “The Safety of Objects”. Homes is not only interested in the daily unglamorous lives of suburbia, but she also knows that when you show a gun in the first act, it will have to be fired until the third one.

As one character puts, he has ‘no desire to be beautiful or good. Somehow I suspect because it did not come naturally, I longed to be bad’. Maybe this how Homes expects her writings to be – not bad as in badly written, but bad as in a discomforting form, in a way that is disturbing as something that makes you think, question the way we live – and this is her best accomplishment.

MARCH: Mr. & Mrs. March

Geraldine Brooks’s Pulitzer Prize Award winner “March” has a clever starting. She tells the story that isn’t in the beloved classic “Little Women”; we follow the lives of Mr. March and his wife Mrs. March, known Marmee. Most of the novel deals with the events he facew while he is away in the Civil War.

The little women from Luisa May Alcott’s famous novel hardly make an appearance here. They are briefly mentioned from time to time, but the main character is indeed Mr. March. Flashbacks exploit his early life, when he was already an abolitionist and had problems when was teaching a slave child. We also learn how he met and fell in love with Marmee, and all he had to face when he joined the army.

The second part of the book is mostly narrated by Marmee, this is the period when she has to leave her home and go to the hospital where he is between life and death. For her disappointment, Mrs. March we will discover that her husband has secrets from the past, and she’ll have to come to terms with them if she wants to keep a happy marriage.

Mr. and Mrs. March are two complementary forces. As one character wisely describes, `he lives for the ideas’ and she is the one `left to deal with the practical matters of the life’. In other words he is the one that spends his time dreaming, while his wife is the one worried with material things that keep the family alive and together, like money and food. In this sense, the writer gives us two faces of the same coin of the marriage.

Brooks’s narrative is slow and less exhilarating the Alcott’s, but it is not boring, it requires patience and it is better if the reader is familiar with the novel “Little Women”. The writer has succeeded most of the time in a difficult task that not many contemporary writers do. Since she has two narrators it is vital that they have different voices. And here they do most of the time.

Based on Alcott’s own family, Brooks has created an interesting novel that will certainly appeal fans of “Little Women”. The events and personalities she created to Mr. and Mrs. March make sense to how they brought their children up. This later prequel may not exist in an universe without the other novel, but it is a great complementary read.

Publicado na em 01/05/06

JESUS’ SON – STORIES: Children of loneness

In Denis Johnson’s stunning collection of short stories “Jesus’ Son”, there is an image that stays with you most of the time. This is the picture of loneness and desolation. In one of the best tales, called “Emergency”, the main character whose name goes by FH and a friend drive through the country. They eventually find a drive-in. But the weather is awful and there is no one in there – even though there is a movie being played. Johnson’s description of this place is the combination of beauty and sadness.

Since the writer has a natural ability to construct both metaphors and harrowing images the scene is depressive and, at the same time, powerful, uplifting. “Famous movie stars rode bicycles beside a river, laughing out their gigantic, lovely mouths. If anybody had come to see this show, they’d left when the weather started. Not one car remained, not even a broken-down on from last week, or one left here because it was out if gas. In a couple of minutes, in the middle of a whirling square dance, the screen turned black, the cinematic summer ended, the snow went dark, there was nothing but my breath’.

But before this, while FH was riding around this deserted part of the world, he though he saw angels – had a vision. This was just Johnson’s build up for something stronger, a primal screen for the ending of loneness. The narrator is never still, he is always in motion, and no matter where he goes, he is always surrounded by depressed and depressive souls.

The collection title comes from a Lou Reed’s song called “Heroin”. Addiction is part of the narrator’s life – an important part, it brings people close and tear them apart. While trying to recover – without putting much thought on it – readers have a glimpse of a possibility of a better life, of something less sad and depressive. It is a drop of hope in a nightmare ocean of sadness.


Junot Díaz has something important to tell us. He also has something funny and entertaining – but above all, he has a major talent to display on his latest novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”, which was recently awarded a Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The title character, Oscar Wao, is one of those unforgettable literary figures, like Holden Caulfield or Oliver Twist, for instance. A character that becomes bigger than his book, that transcends narrative and becomes a human being. Early in the novel he is described as `not one of those Dominican cats everybody’s always going on about – he wasn’t no home-run hitter or a fly bachatero, not a playboy with a million hots on his jock’. He also hasn’t had much luck when it comes to love. Early in his life, Oscar Wao had a brief period of luck with girls but it has long past. And he may suffer from an ancient curse called fukú that has fallen upon his family for centuries.

In order to tell Oscar’s familiar history, Díaz uses this curse as both a device and an excuse. The whole narrative maybe focused on the journey of fukú until it reaches the protagonist. As such, “The brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao” becomes a bigger picture. This reminds of another Pultizer Prize winner Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex”, in which by telling the journey of a gene, the writer revisits a whole century and an immigrant saga.

“Oscar Wao” is also an immigrant family saga, and here is where lie the most serious and political tone of the novel. It is interesting that most of the Dominican history is told in footnotes – as if the history itself was, for the rest of the world, nothing more than a footnote.

Díaz has a major talent to make political comment is a subtle way. `(…) the First American Occupation of the DR, which ran from 1916 to 1924 (You didn’t know we were occupied twice in the twentieth century? Don’t worry, when you have kids they won’t know the U. S. occupied Iraq either’.

“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” is at the same time both exhilarating, funny and political. And this is one of its major qualities. Díaz makes you laugh, cry and think while entertaining you. He has one of the most assured voices of contemporary literature – a real blessing.