A Top 5 List: Books Under 300 Pages

It’s time for another list game, this one courtesy of Shanah, a.k.a. the Bionic Book Worm: top 5 books under 300 pages. In theory, this should be a very easy list for me to compile. I read a lot of poetry collections and dramatic works, both formats where even 100 pages would be considered on the long side. But I feel that to include those sorts of books would be violating the spirit of the theme: books whose short lengths are noteworthy. As such, I’m going to restrict myself to works of nondramatic prose, i.e., works of fiction and nonfiction.

That still leaves us with a wide variety of books to examine, and I hope the list is eclectic enough that at least one book here will sound appealing. We’ll be looking at experimental essays and straightforward criticism, postmodern literature and classic fantasy. Should be a fun diversion. So, without further delay: the list.

5) The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon (152 pages)

Let’s begin with a book I would described less as “short” than as “truncated.” The Crying of Lot 49 follows Oedipa Maas, who has been tasked with managing the estate of her ex-boyfriend. In the process of untangling his complicated assortment of assets, she stumbles upon evidence of an age-old conflict between two rival mail delivery services: Thurn und Taxis, the established corporate giant, and Trystero, the underground competitor. At least, she thinks she’s found evidence of such a conflict. For while she keeps running into signs of Trystero’s existence, Oedipa is never certain that she’s not hallucinating the whole conspiracy.

This book has all the makings of an engaging thriller, albeit one with some idiosyncratic cultural references—a working knowledge of Jacobean drama is helpful for understanding the plot, for example. But what makes The Crying of Lot 49 interesting (or, if you’re less charitable, infuriating) is that Oedipa never even comes close to uncovering the truth. Instead, it abruptly ends before the title “crying,” an auction of rare postage stamps that Oedipa believes might lead her closer to confirming Trystero’s existence. Imagine a mystery show that ended right as the detectives made their first breakthrough, and you have a good idea of how The Crying of Lot 49 operates. It’s not to everyone’s taste, of course, but if you like characters with rising, unrelieved paranoia, then this is the story for you. (Alternatively, if you like A Series of Unfortunate Events, which is clearly inspired by this book.)

4) Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, by Carl Wilson (176 pages)

This is music critic Carl Wilson’s contribution to 33 1/3, a series in which writers analyze one album in great depth. This book is ostensibly about Let’s Talk About Love, the 1997 Céline Dion album featuring “My Heart Will Go On,” but Wilson has much broader ambitions here. He’s interested in how an artist like Dion can be so critically loathed yet so popular and beloved, and he will not be satisfied with so simple an answer as, “People have bad taste.” Wilson spends a year immersed in all things Céline, and in doing so questions the prejudices of the critical establishment.

Books in the 33 1/3 series are pocket-sized by design, and in his book Wilson doesn’t waste a single sentence. He places Dion’s work in the context of Quebecois music history, considers critics’ traditional distaste for schmaltz and sentimentality, interviews fans of Dion from all over the world—it’s a veritable greatest hits album of sociological analysis. I enjoyed Let’s Talk About Love in much the same way that I enjoyed Andy Greenwald’s exploration of emo subculture, Nothing Feels Good, in that it’s a sympathetic but still critical account of a genre of music I have little personal taste for. It’s less important that readers and critics come away thinking someone like Dion is a great artist than that they understand what others hear in her work.

3) Chroma, by Derek Jarman (160 pages)

I said at the top that I deliberately excluded poetry collections from consideration, but that doesn’t mean I can’t sneak some lyrical prose onto the list. Derek Jarman is a towering figure in the history of queer cinema, with films such as Sebastiane and his adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II addressing queer themes in an era of heavy social stigma. But he also wrote several books, the last of which was Chroma, a series of freewheeling essays on color. Jarman, with a tight yet expressive prose style, explores all possible avenues into the concept of color: scientific, historical, cultural, and personal.

Indeed, while Jarman’s writing often resembles the fragmentary style of pre-Socratic philosophers, Chroma is an intensely personal work for Jarman: he began writing these essays on color as he was going blind from AIDS-related complications. There’s a sense of both urgency and resignation behind all of these essays, for he must enjoy the sensation of color while he can, while still accepting the inevitable with dignity. These themes come to a head in the essay “Into the Blue,” which includes a tender tribute to his past lovers who have lost their lives to AIDS, and which served as the basis for the narration in Jarman’s final film, Blue. In part because it’s the most obscure book on this list, Chroma is the book I most recommend.

2) The Tombs of Atuan, by Ursula K. Le Guin (146 pages)

So far, the books I’ve included on this list have have been dense affairs, compressing a lot of themes, motifs, and ideas into a small package. The Tombs of Atuan, the sequel to Ursula K. Le Guin’s fantasy classic A Wizard of Earthsea, goes in the opposite direction. It tells the story of Tenar, a girl who was taken from her family at young age to serve as a priestess to dark gods in the Tombs of Atuan. When Ged, the protagonist from the first book, breaks into the tombs to steal a piece of a magical amulet, Tenar traps him in the underground labyrinth and contemplates how best to dispose of him. But slowly, she forges a personal connection with Ged, which allows her to start recovering her past identity.

The Tombs of Atuan is such a pleasant swerve as a sequel. Whereas A Wizard of Earthsea takes Ged across countless islands across Le Guin’s fictional world, The Tombs of Atuan almost completely confines itself to one location. And that setting suits the novel perfectly, as Le Guin is aiming for a work of great psychological insight. The cavernous, intricate layout of the tombs is symbolic of Tenar’s journey of self-realization, and on a logistical level it works well in literally trapping two characters in conflict together. The Tombs of Atuan also holds the distinction of being the only novel I can remember reading in one sitting, so if that’s not an endorsement, I don’t know what is.

1) Silas Marner, by George Eliot (230 pages)

Let’s close this list with a real classic, shall we? Like The Tombs of Atuan, this is another story of intense personal transformation. The title figure of George Eliot’s Silas Marner is a miserly old weaver living in rural England. He has little contact with broader society until two life-changing events happen in quick succession. First, someone steals all the gold he’s been hoarding; second, a blond-haired infant wanders into his little cabin. Silas resolves to raise the child himself, and in doing so slowly finds happiness greater than all his lost wealth.

In one sense, Silar Marner is a proudly unsubtle story: the connection between Silas’s gold and Eppie (as he names the girl) is so obvious that Silas literally mistakes Eppie for the gold when she first crawls into his hut. But there’s actually lot going on underneath the surface here. Eliot uses this fable-like story to explore a number of social themes relevant to Victorian England, from the vagaries of religion to the effects of industrialization of rural English life to the public and private foibles of the aristocracy. In short order, Silar Marner stirs up the sentiments, then spurs one into thought—exactly what one is looking for in a book by Eliot. It’s almost like reading Middlemarch in miniature.


Thus endeth the list. What are your thoughts on these picks? Anything that sounds especially enticing, or am I completely off-base with these? Let me know in the comments! If you’re still looking for book recommendations, then check out my response to the Literary Fiction Book Tag.

And, as always, thanks for your time.

Literary Fiction Book Tag

I haven’t done one of those book tags that make the rounds in a good long while, have I? (I haven’t done much of anything on this blog in a good long while, but that’s another story.) Today I’d like to fix that with a post inspired by the YouTube channel Jasmine’s Reads. Jasmine is one of my favorite presenters in the BookTube community, and seeing how she’s just unveiled her first book tag, I thought I’d do my (undoubtedly minuscule) part in spreading it.

It’s called the Literary Fiction Book Tag, and it’s precisely that: eight questions on the subject of literary fiction. I recommend watching the original video below if you’d like to get a sense of the tag’s purpose before diving in.

One confession before getting started: the prompts below all refer to “literary fiction novels,” but for some of my answers I’ve used high-concept short story collections instead, both because short stories could always use more love and because, after reflection, it turns out I read a lot fewer novels of recent vintage than I’d figured. With that out of the way…

#1: How do you define literary fiction?

I have two ways of defining “literary fiction,” and I shift back and forth between them depending on how cynical I happen to be feeling. The more cynical approach is to say that literary fiction is purely a marketing term, that it says nothing about the content of the work and everything about the sort of person that the publishing and book-selling industries think is likely to buy it. You can probably conjure the stereotype of someone who reads these sorts of books: college-educated, financially well-off, probably subscribes to the New York Times and supports their local NPR affiliate. In this view of the term, “literary fiction” is a signal to this demographic that they ought to read this particular book.

I think there’s a lot of truth to this perspective, especially in a world where books are commodities and not just works of aesthetic appreciation. But I can’t deny that, when I hear a book described as “literary fiction,” I do make certain assumptions about the book’s content. As I tend to think of genres as sets of audience expectations about a given work, it would be fair to say that literary fiction is a broad genre, one that’s closer to “young adult” than it is to “western” in terms of specificity. In her video, Jasmine lists off just about every element I’d anticipate: “social, political, or human commentary; introspective character exploration; not being focused or driven by plot; and also, a large focus on language.” So long as a work meets some of those criteria, one has grounds to place it into the genre of literary fiction.

You’ll note that these two definitions are not contradictory, and in fact may support each other. It could be the case that the supply of literary fiction creates its own demand, which in turn reinforces the industry’s decision to market books in such a way. Nothing wrong with shifting back and forth between definitions when they can coexist.

#2: Name a literary fiction novel with a brilliant character study.

Wonderful, Wonderful Times by Elfriede Jelinek

Wonderful, Wonderful Times follows four young adults in post-WWII Austria who are, by any objective account, monstrous. Their adolescent thrill-seeking takes the form of gratuitous violence, whether that means assaulting people in the park late at night or attempting to drown a cat to reenact a scene from Sartre. But while Jelinek is unrelenting in her depictions of moral rot, she still her has empathy for her creations. I’ve written about these characters before, so I won’t belabor the point here, but the longer the novel goes on, the more that Jelinek pricks at the façade that each of the young adults has constructed. We see, for instance, how Rainer’s obsession with existentialism covers for his own naivete, or how Sepp’s upbringing in a Communist household contextualizes his humiliating and combustible relationship with the aristocratic Sophie. The characters of Wonderful, Wonderful Times may be reprehensible at every turn, but their humanity still glows through all the grime.

#3: Name a literary fiction novel that has experimental or unique writing.

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue

The short version: this book is about a tennis match, in which the Spanish poet Quevedo and the Italian painter Caravaggio trade points in what turns out to be a literal fight to the death. But reading this book bears no resemblance to reading a newspaper write-up of Wimbledon. In Sudden Death, Álvaro Enrigue intersperses his descriptions of rallies with histories of colonialism in the New World, excerpts from historical documents about tennis (both real and fictional), correspondence with his frustrated editor—just about everything that he can serve up. The result is a narrative that is, admittedly, very difficult to follow at times, but the whiplash between sections works surprisingly well in simulating the experience of playing tennis. Sudden Death also has a taste for the bizarre that keeps the novel from getting too self-serious; for instance, the ball that Quevedo and Caravaggio are playing with is made from Anne Boleyn’s hair, and how that ball came to be is a significant early through-line in the novel. This book may not be to everyone’s (anyone’s?) taste, but oh, am I glad that this sort of thing exists.

#4: Name a literary fiction novel with an interesting structure.

Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith

Public Library and Other Stories is really two books, which it alternates between. The one book is a fairly convention contemporary short story collection, albeit one with a notable fixation on literary history. The other book, though, is what makes this collection interesting to me. Ali Smith assembled this collection in response to the defunding and closing of libraries in the United Kingdom, and she includes numerous testimonials about the importance of libraries as community institutions. The testimonials not only work to justify public support for libraries, but also work to justify the rest of the collection. Remove all those heartfelt letters and Public Library and Other Stories looks like so much inside baseball, like an author flaunting their deep knowledge of the canon. With those letters, though, it becomes clear why all her literary references are so necessary: literature is embedded deeply into our lives. A world that devalues our storehouses of humanity’s literature must devalue humanity itself. Absent the structure that Smith uses here, I’m not sure the message would come across quite as well.

#5: Name a literary fiction novel that explores social themes.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

Through 600+ pages of first-rate prose, Michael Chabon reveals the Golden Age of Comic Books to be fertile thematic ground for a novel. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay follows the title duo of comic book creators across about fifteen years of inspiration and turmoil, touching on a number of social and political questions along the way. What is the value of escapist art in times of crisis? To what extent do capitalist enterprises enable the spread of political works, and to what extent to they stifle it? How do people with marginalized identities maintain their dignity in a world that deems them to be of lesser value? Read the book for the thrilling conclusion! (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) In addition to all these macro-level issues, Kavalier & Clay also finds time to explore more personal quandaries, from Clay’s relationship with his absent father to Kavalier’s devotion to a family facing certain death in Nazi-dominated Europe. This was one of the best books I read last year, and it gets richer and richer the more I think about it.

#6: Name a literary fiction novel that explores the human condition.

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Virgin Suicides is the story of two tragedies: one extraordinary, the other distressingly common. At the center of the novel are the Lisbon sisters, five isolated girls in suburban Michigan who all take their lives in the span of about a year. That’s the extraordinary tragedy. The distressingly common one comes through in the novel’s narration. In a style reminiscent of William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” The Virgin Suicides is told in a first-person plural POV, in the collective voice of the neighborhood boys who were obsessed with the Lisbon sisters. But for as authoritative as that POV sounds on the page, for as much information and documentation that the men marshal forth about the girls, it becomes clear by the novel’s end that they never actually understood them. Jeffrey Eugenides casts the narrators as so trapped in their own subjectivities, so caught up on their own perceptions of those mysterious Lisbon sisters, that they were incapable of providing what the girls most needed: somebody who would actually listen. The boys are the perfect embodiment of one of humanity’s most frustrating failures.

#7: Name a brilliant literary-hybrid genre novel.

The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child by Francisco Jiménez

A short story cycle based on Francisco Jiménez’s childhood, The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child follows Panchito, a fictionalized version of the author, as his family of migrant farmers from Mexico moves from town to town in California in search of work. The Circuit is the only book I know of that blurs the line between literary fiction and children’s literature. Jiménez’s language is unadorned and has repetitive quality that suggests a story told both about and by a child, yet the struggles Panchito’s family goes through are relayed with the quiet subtlety that one would expect in a work written for adults. This duality is reflected in the institutions that sell this book. The Circuit is published by the University of New Mexico Press, suggesting an academic audience, but it’s also available through Scholastic, the foremost publisher of children’s books in the United States. It’s designed to teach children empathy for people in Panchito’s position, but especially in today’s political context, this book has value for readers of any age.

#8: What genre do you wish was mixed with literary fiction more?

I’m going to co-sign Jasmine’s answer from the video above and say that literary fiction and fantasy could do with some more co-mingling, if only so I could have a go-to fantasy author not named Ursula K. Le Guin. In particular, I think that the two genres are simpatico in terms of finding language inherently pleasurable, rather than it just being a vehicle for telling the story. I’d love a literary fiction novel that is a fun to read, and to read aloud, as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is in Middle English, with its wild alliterative meter and wildly complicated chivalric rituals. The challenge, of course, would come from reconciling fantasy’s emphasis on plot and lore with literary fiction’s indifference to those elements.


That wraps things up for me! If you’d like to jump in on this little survey and share your recommendations in literary fiction, then consider this an invitation. Thanks to Jasmine for concocting this tag, and thanks to you for time in reading this. Take care!

Classics Club #4: “The Lathe of Heaven” by Ursula K. Le Guin

When reading The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1971 novel about dreaming and altered realities, it can be difficult to find one’s footing. The novel is often described as an homage to fellow science fiction author Philip K. Dick, and while Le Guin’s prose style remains largely unchanged, in terms of subject the work has more in common with Dick’s 1969 novel Ubik than it does with, say, Le Guin’s 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness—which is to say, it’s far more surreal than her usual, quasi-anthropological stories tend to be. At some point, and by design, the novel’s story becomes impossible to track.

Still, while following the plot of The Lathe of Heaven may be a daunting task, it is possible, and not that challenging, to follow the novel’s thematic content. This is especially true if the reader pays close attention to a particular symbol which crops up time and again throughout the novel. Seeing how the novel approaches this symbol will doubtless make for a more coherent and fulfilling reading experience. So with that in mind, let’s talk about Mount Hood.

Mount Hood first appears as a concept, if not as an object, in the first paragraph of Chapter 2, when the narrator describes the office of psychiatrist Dr. William Haber. Hanging prominently “on one of the windowless walls was a big photographic mural of Mount Hood” (p. 6). On its own, the mural would be a solid detail for the setting, adding a degree of verisimilitude to ground what will become an otherwise disorienting story. (Think of how many waiting rooms across the country feature framed photographs by Ansel Adams.) But in the context of the scene, it serves as much more than mere set dressing.

The narrator mentions how Haber looks at the mural while speaking with his receptionist, who informs him that his next patient, George Orr, has arrived. The mountain is an object of desire for Haber, largely because, as the first sentence of the chapter tells us, his “office did not have a view of Mount Hood” (p. 6). It’s somewhat unusual for narration to begin a scene by noting what is not present in the setting, which draws the reader’s attention, paradoxically, to the act of perception. Haber cannot experience Mount Hood directly, so instead he must content himself with a simulation. To drive the point home, Haber spends kills time while waiting for his patient to enter by contemplating the nature of that simulation:

Now Penny was going through the first-visit routine with the patient, and while waiting Dr. Haber gazed again at the mural and wondered when such a photograph had been taken. Blue sky, snow from foothills to peak. Years ago, in the sixties or seventies, no doubt. The Greenhouse Effect had been quite gradual, and Haber, born in 1962, could clearly remember the blue skies of his childhood. Nowadays the eternal snows were gone from all the world’s mountains, even Everest, even Erebus, fiery-throated on the waste Antarctic shore. But of course they might have colored a modern photograph, faked the blue sky and white peak; no telling.

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven, p. 7

This paragraph accomplishes a number of things for the novel. First, it serves as world-building for the near-future society depicted in The Lathe of Heaven. Climate change has ravaged the planet such that in just forty years the “eternal snows” of mountains the world over have melted. Second, the paragraph encourages the reader to be skeptical of what is presented in the novel, not to take things at face value. Haber cannot be certain that the photograph is an accurate depiction of its subject, that is, of Mount Hood at the time that the photograph was taken. An artist or technician would have the tools to alter the causal process that produces a photograph; they could impose their own vision onto the image.

These two implications of the photograph—that society has declined and that one can impose a vision onto reality—combine to lay the groundwork for the entire plot of The Lathe of Heaven. Once Orr enters Haber’s office and reveals his dilemma, the story can begin in earnest. Orr has been taking drugs that suppress dreaming because he occasionally has what he calls “effective dreams”: dreams that alter the past, and everyone else’s memory of it, to radically reshape the present. Haber is naturally skeptical that such events are possible, but decides to test this hypothesis by intentionally making Orr have an effective dream.

He hooks Orr up to a device called the Augmentator, which allows a patient to rapidly enter the dreaming stage of sleep, and gives him the hypnotic suggestion to have an effective dream about a horse. Once Orr awakes, he asks Orr to recount his dream, and it’s here that the reality of Orr’s powers becomes hauntingly clear:

“A horse,” Orr said huskily, still bewildered by sleep. He sat up. “It was about a horse. That one,” and he waved his hand toward the picture-window-size mural that decorated Haber’s office, a photograph of the great racing stallion Tammany Hall at play in a grassy paddock.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven, p. 23

Anecdotally, I can say that this passage caused me to doubt my own memory of what I’d just read. “Was that picture always there?” I asked myself. “Wasn’t that a picture of Mount Hood before, or is this just another mural that hadn’t been mentioned yet?” The fact that Haber doesn’t immediately react to the change only intensified my confusion. It’s not until Orr broaches the subject that the reader can regain confidence in their own senses:

“Was it there an hour ago? I mean, wasn’t that a view of Mount Hood, when I came in—before I dreamed about the horse?”

Oh Christ it had been Mount Hood the man was right.

It had not been Mount Hood it could not have been Mount Hood it was a horse it was a horse

It had been a mountain

A horse it was a horse it was—

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven, p. 24 (emphasis original)

We can see in Le Guin’s abandonment of punctuation Haber’s efforts to reconcile his two memories: one of the world before the effective dream, one of the world the effective dream has caused. Orr’s powers have shaken him profoundly, and though he tries to play it off in the immediate aftermath (a psychiatrist must maintain composure in front of his patient), it’s clear that he has some deep thinking to.

The picture of Mount Hood is the perfect object on which to have Orr demonstrate his powers. First off, changing the photograph’s subject from a mountain—something traditionally thought of as eternal (cf. “eternal snows”)—into something as dramatically different as racehorse without Haber noticing unprompted proves that Orr’s powers have staggering implications. Second, it calls back to Haber’s doubts about the authenticity of the photograph in the first place. If Orr’s dreaming has changed the photograph and Haber’s memory of it right now, who is to say that a previous dream had not done the exact same thing before?

But it’s the third reason for the image’s power that really gets Haber thinking. If Orr’s dreams are capable of changing a photograph of Mount Hood, why can’t they change Mount Hood itself? Haber realizes that Orr’s dreaming could be used to fix all of their present society’s problems: not just the loss of Mount Hood’s snows, but also overpopulation, racism, nuclear war, and so forth. Orr’s dreaming unlocks the potential that Haber subconsciously was hinting at when contemplating the photograph: the potential for Haber to exercise god-like powers on reality.

Throughout The Lathe of Heaven, as Haber uses Orr’s effective dreams to impose his vision on the world, Mount Hood appears time and again as a reflection of how that project is going. Most notably, as the new society that Haber is guiding grows more unstable and dystopian, the volcanic activity of Mount Hood keeps increasing. It’s a striking manifestation of Orr’s concerns regarding his abilities. One cannot control the eruptive power of a volcano, and neither can one control the disruptive power of effective dreams. As Orr thinks of Haber’s office building in one of the new realities: “This building could stand up to anything left on Earth, except perhaps Mount Hood. Or a bad dream” (p. 136). Really, are the two not the same thing?

I don’t want to give the impression that understanding how Le Guin uses Mount Hood as a symbol will “solve” The Lathe of Heaven, like it’s a cipher in need of a key. Indeed, to come to a definite conclusion about this particular novel’s story and themes would be to read the novel in bad faith: everything is in constant flux. Instead, one can use Mount Hood as an anchor in the plot’s turbulent waters. One will never get a sure grasp on the story in its totality, but one can still can find a moment-by-moment calm within it.


What are your thoughts on The Lathe of Heaven? Do you think that latching onto a symbol like Mount Hood is a good way of understanding the novel, or are there some drawbacks that I haven’t accounted for? Let me know in the comments!

This post is part of my Classics Club project. If you’d like read my previous installment on Elfriede Jelinek’s novel Wonderful, Wonderful Times, click here; if you’d like to see my master list of books and get a sense of what the future holds, click here.

And as always, thanks for reading!

The Art of Excessive Speech Tags: Raymond Carver and Ali Smith

The speech tag is among the most utilitarian features in a piece of writing. Those little phrases connected to a fragment of dialogue—”he said,” “she asked,” “said the barkeep”—tend to serve exactly one purpose: making it clear who is speaking. They are as close to purely structural text that one will find in a story or an essay; they may be integrated into the main body of the text, but functionally they are more like the name labels in a script or an interview. They may assist the reader in comprehending and interpreting the text, but they don’t exactly contribute to its meaning.

A general rule of good writing is that the speech tags should not call attention to themselves, as they are boring almost by design. Oftentimes beginning writers, realizing that speech tags sound kind of dull, will attempt to spruce them up by using fancy synonyms for “said” or “asked,” or by appending needless modifiers to them. In doing so, they end up drawing the reader’s focus away from the dialogue, away from the important part of the sentence. And this assumes that speech tags are necessary in the first place. After all, if the voices of the characters are sufficiently distinct, the reader can suss out the speaker from the dialogue itself. (I’m certain that half the reason Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” is a classroom staple is how well it demonstrates this fact.)

Still, I’m not happy to just take a general rule and leave it at that. In much the same way that I’ve thought about how one can effectively use inanimate objects as narrators, I’ve wondered if there are ways to use speech tags creatively. One possibility that comes to mind is to vary the placement of the speech tag relative to the dialogue. It’s standard to close the sentence with the speech tag, but one can move it closer to the middle or beginning of the quoted text to suggest, say, a pause in the speaker’s delivery or an emphasis on an unexpected word. One may even do so just to give the reader a place to mentally breathe in a long passage.

This technique is definitely useful, if for no other than that it varies the rhythm of a conversation on the page, but I’m not sure I’d call it a creative use of speech tags, per se. When the speech tag interrupts dialogue, the content of the tag doesn’t really matter, only it’s presence. One could insert a brief action or a bit of description and obtain a similar effect. No, I’m looking for something stronger: a way to make a phrase like “I said” interesting in itself.

A speech tag doesn’t give the writer much meaning to work with, granted. But it does provide the reader with one indisputable piece of information: someone is speaking. If the act of speaking is thematically important to a piece of writing, then a writer could use speech tags, could use the constant repetition of “said” and such words, to underscore that theme. In fact, I’ve come across two short stories that do precisely that: “Fat” by Raymond Carver and “Say I won’t be there” by Ali Smith. Both stories revolve around characters who are struggling to communicate something, and both use an excess of speech tags to highlight that struggle.

“Fat,” which was included in Raymond Carver’s 1976 collection Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, tells the story of the narrator’s encounter with a fat customer at the restaurant where she works as a waitress, and of the effect that the encounter has on her. When I say that it tells the story, I mean it is explicitly about the telling of it. It begins thusly:

I am sitting over coffee and cigarettes at my friend Rita’s and I am telling her about it.

Here is what I tell her.

It begins with two sentences, each its own paragraph, devoted to what at first seems like throat-clearing. In fact, Carver is setting up the story’s fixation on the act of speaking. This becomes apparent when the narrator first approaches the fat man to take his order:

Good evening, I say. May I serve you, I say?

Rita, he was big. I mean big.

Good evening, he says. Hello. Yes, he says. I think we’re ready to order now, he says.

Carver does not merely include those utilitarian speech tags; he uses way more than is necessary to get the point across. It’s not as though the reader will lose track of who is speaking mid-paragraph, so they must be serving some other purpose.

From what I see, these extra speech tags accomplish two things. First, they replicate the experience of orally telling a story with lots of dialogue. Unlike in print, the audience for an oral story does not have punctuation marks or paragraph breaks to clearly delineate whose dialogue is whose, so a good storyteller will need to remind the listener of who is saying what at more frequent intervals. Second, the repetition of “I say” and “he says” convinces the reader to pay special attention to the dialogue, even as we might be tempted to skim past all these pleasantries. The narrator certainly finds this dialogue interesting, noting that the fat man “has this way of speaking—strange, don’t you know.” Without all those speech tags slowing us down, we might not notice the fat man’s peculiar use of the royal “we,” which he ends up using consistently throughout the story.

Of course, if we pay close attention to the dialogue—and by extension, to the language the narrator uses throughout, for this whole story is being spoken—we get the sense that the narrator is not saying as much as they would like to. She has clearly been affected by that night with the fat man: by his speech, by his huge fingers, by the comments others make about him. But she seems unable to clearly vocalize just how she’s been moved. Instead she must resort to vague statements like, “Now that’s part of it. I think that is really part of it.” One senses that her only choice is to recap the entire evening, in the hopes that the feeling will shine through. Indeed, moments like the fat man’s last line come tantalizing close to an epiphany (“If we had our choice, no. But there is no choice”).

But, given Rita’s reaction to the story, it would appear that telling a story doesn’t mean conveying it. After the narrator mentions how she felt “terrifically fat” while her boyfriend Rudy raped her, she realizes that Rita has missed whatever point she was trying to make:

That’s a funny story, Rita says, but I can see she doesn’t know what to make of it.

I feel depressed. But I won’t go into it with her. I’ve already told her too much.

No matter how many times that narrator “says” something within her story, she cannot guarantee that her audience will understand. That goes not just for Rita, but also for the reader, for whom the last lines are famously enigmatic: “My life is going to change. I feel it.”

Whereas in “Fat,” the problem is that the audience doesn’t understand the narrator, in Ali Smith’s “Say I won’t be there” (collected in the 2015 book Public Library and Other Stories), the problem is that the audience doesn’t want to listen to her. As it happens, the story starts off in a similar fashion to “Fat,” with two one-sentence paragraphs that foreground the act of telling a story to an audience:

I had a dream, I say.

Don’t tell me about any dream right now, you say, I can’t listen to it right now.

And, much like Carver, Smith makes liberal use of mundane speech tags to reinforce the importance of speaking, although in her story’s case there’s a more palpable sense of frustration:

It’s not just any dream, it’s the recurring dream, I say. The one I’ve been having all year. I had it again. I keep having it.

Tautology, you say.

What? I say.

You just said the same thing four times over, you say. And I can’t hear about your dream right now. I’ve got work in a minute.

Something is obviously eating away at the narrator. They’re having trouble getting it out, though, so they just end up repeating themselves as a preface, saying that they’re want to say something. Not helping matters, they don’t have someone like Rita who is at least game for a story; the audience here is actively trying to shut down the discussion.

One thing you’ll have notice is that “Say I won’t be there” features not only a first-person narrator but also addressee, in this case the narrator’s romantic partner. The use of “you” in this context encourages the reader to place themselves in the perspective of this character, which is a rather conflicted position: both intimate (the reader is sole audience member) and confrontational (the reader-character resists being the audience). This tension, this need to negotiate between the desires of the reader and those of the reader-character, may explain why the story progresses the way it does, with the addressee insisting they don’t want to hear about this dream while they keep asking questions about it.

Over time, we get a rough notion of what the narrator’s dreams: she keeps hearing stories about how Dusty Springfield was being photographed in a nearby graveyard. The addressee finds this perplexing, because that sort of dream would seem to have much more relevance to their own life—their a fan of Springfield’s music and they work for a company that wants to repurpose a graveyard for commercial purposes. They playfully accuse the narrator of “filching [their] subconscious,” which brings the narrator back to an earlier period in their relationship, back when they made it a point of sharing dreams with each other. They’d write them down “because it’s really boring to have to sit and listen, in the morning when you’re hardly awake yourself, to a dream someone else has had.” In that moment, the narrator’s entire quest seems both hypocritical and hopeless.

As it turns out, the narrator is not the only one with a lot to say that they’ve been holding back. Later that day the addressee, inspired by their earlier conversation, sends the narrator a text message, an email, two voicemails, and a letter, all filled with fun facts about Dusty Springfield. It’s as though the addressee sees the earlier dream discussion as an excuse to share their interests with the narrator. Through that deluge of a trivia, though, it’s difficult to see what, if anything, the narrator takes from it—a role reversal from earlier on. This is why I find Smith decision to have “I say”/”you say” volley back and forth so crucial: it implies that the narrator and the addressee are in similar positions. We are reminded, constantly, that both characters are speaking, but never reassured that either is hearing.

From the examples of Carver and Smith, we can see that beyond structuring and stitching together dialogue, speech tags are an excellent tool for getting the reader to consider speaking as an action. Both “Fat” and “Say I won’t be there” are stories driven by and about the struggle to communicate; that struggle is where the majority of the conflict lies. Not all stories feature such conflicts, and even in those that do it may not be necessary or advisable to go to the extremes of Carver and Smith. But if you’re writing a passage of tense or uncertain dialogue, perhaps consider what those little words around the quotation marks might do for the scene.


What are your thoughts on speech tags? Are there other potential ways of using them for creative ends? Can you think of any stories which use them especially well, or poorly? Let me know in the comments! And if you want more advice on making the most of the little things in writing, you might want to check out my post on how Brave New World and Hiroshima use section breaks.

The Missionary in Yaa Gyasi’s “Homegoing”

In my twelfth-grade English class, for the unit on postcolonial literature, I wrote an essay on the missionary characters in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. I don’t remember very much of my argument (and I’m certain that, if I actually reread that paper, I’d be embarrassed by it), but one quote that I used when defining terms for the essay has stuck with me through the years. It comes from Achille Mbembe’s On the Postcolony, and it concerns the nature of religious conversion. According to Mbembe, conversion is:

. . . a way of exercising violence against a state of mortality; the convert is supposed to move from death to life—or, in any event, to the promise of life. This tends to suggest that conversion always involves an act of destruction and violence against an earlier state of affairs, an accustomed state for which one seeks to substitute something different.

Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony, pp. 229-230

What strikes me about Mbembe’s conception of conversion is how it stands in contrast to how I believe we normally think of conversion. In our everyday understanding, one converts from one set of beliefs to another either through some fantastic moment of insight (e.g., Paul on the road to Damascus) or through the power of a compelling argument. The process in either case is of serious importance but is ultimately peaceful. But in Mbembe’s view, such conceptions of conversion tend to overlook an essential element of the process, namely, that one has discarded—or has been forced to discard—a previous set of beliefs and customs. The old must be destroyed to make way for the new.

That quote came back to me while reading Homegoing, the debut novel from Yaa Gyasi. One might suppose such thoughts would be inevitable when reading about the European colonization of Africa, where cultural imperialism in the form of Christian missionary work is still ongoing. But Homegoing, and specifically the chapter centered on the character of Akua, is an almost perfect embodiment of Mbembe’s sentiment, as it it highlights both the metaphorical and literal violence that comes with conversion.

Akua is the daughter of Abena, a woman who left her village while pregnant with her who and settled with a group of Christian missionaries she had met on a previous journey. Abena dies when Akua is very young, and so Akua is raised by the missionaries. Throughout her youth, Akua is caught between two competing religious systems: European Christianity, as represented by the character of the Missionary (who is only referred to as such), and the traditional religious practices of the Gold Coast, as represented by a local fetish man (again, only referred to as such).

It is the fetish man who first connects the Missionary with destructive behavior. When Akua is six years old, she hears another child refer to the Missionary as an obroni, a term that she only knows to mean “white man” but that he seems stung by. The fetish man explains that obroni derives from another expression: abro ni, or “wicked man.” And it seems this child is not alone in his appraisal of the Missionary. “Among the Akan,” he tells Akua, “he is wicked man, the one who harms. Among the Ewe of the Southeast name is Cunning Dog, the one who feigns niceness and then bites you” (location 3039). In other words, he has a far-reaching reputation for destructive actions.

At first, Akua finds such talk about a man of God to be sacrilegious, but her opinions soon begin to shift. During this conversation, she remembers how the Missionary had “snatched her hand and pulled her away” when she first met the fetish man, even though he seemed perfectly kind to her (location 3048). A few days later, the Missionary calls her into his office and begins giving her private religious instruction. He chooses to begin his instruction, though, not with the tenets of the faith but with the threat of corporal punishment, brandishing a switch “just inches from her nose” (location 3094). He tells her in no uncertain terms that she, her mother, and all of Africa are sinners and heathens, and forces her to accept these terms by reason of force. The whole affair hits right at Akua’s psyche:

After he told her to stand up and bend over, after he lashed her five times and commanded her to repent her sins and repeat “God bless the queen,” after she was permitted to leave, after she finally threw the fear up, the only word that popped into her head was “hungry.” The Missionary looked hungry, like if he could, he would devour her.

Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing, location 3104

The Missionary makes no attempt at rational persuasion or at revelation; Akua must acknowledge and cast aside her pre-Christian state of sinfulness by submission. Indeed, such violence would seem to be the only tool at the Missionary’s disposal, as seen when Akua announces her intentions to marry a local tradesman named Asamoah. His response is once again to say that she must repent her sins and to throw the switch at her. The gesture is impotent, though, as when it hits her shoulder Akua “watched it drop to the floor, and then, calmly, she walked out” (location 3134). When the Missionary loses the power to coerce, he simultaneously loses the power to convert.

So far, we’ve examples of the violence that Mbembe finds in the process of conversion, but we haven’t seen much in the way of destruction; it’s not as though the Missionary has been smashing local religious artifacts like so many biblical idols. That changes, however, in Akua’s final confrontation with him. The whole scene is charged with violent potential, as the Missionary starts off standing “in the doorframe, his switch in his hand” (location 3187). Violence is found not only in the switch, but also in how he prevents Akua from exiting the room; he is limiting, or at least attempting to limit, the options available to her. Once the Missionary realizes he has no real sway over Akua, however, he tells her the story of how her mother met her end:

“After you were born, I took her to the water to be baptized. She didn’t want to go, but I—I forced her. She thrashed as I carried her through the forest, to the river. She thrashed as I lowered her down into the water. She thrashed and thrashed and thrashed, and then she was still.” The Missionary lifted his head and looked at her finally. “I only wanted her to repent. I—I only wanted her to repent…”

Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing, location 3199

This one paragraph renders Mbembe’s conception of conversion in the most tactile, literal way possible. Baptism is ostensibly a way to be born again, a way “to move from death to life—or, in any event, to the promise of life.” But baptism is fraught with the potential for violence; even in consensual circumstances, one places oneself at the mercy of someone else’s hands. The Missionary’s attempt to impose that promise of life on Abena, to force her out of a state of supposed sinfulness, ends up killing her. In Homegoing, conversion does not merely attack the cultural traditions of the Gold Coast, does not merely do violence to an already-established way of life. It has actual blood on its hands.

We could go further with this discussion of the violence of religious conversion. In particular, one could note how Akua appears to internalize a violent conception of religion in general based on how she interprets the experience of prayer, or how the final paragraphs of the novel offer a more spiritually fulfilling version of baptism than what we see in the chapter that we’ve discussed. But I’ll leave those discussions to you, before this blog post turns into a dissertation.


That’s enough from me. How about you? Have you read Homegoing, and if so, what aspects of the novel struck you the most? Let me know in the comments! (Also, apologies for the inconvenient use of location numbers; my ebook version of Homegoing doesn’t have page numbers for some reason.)

Like I said at the start, this post was inspired by my twelfth-grade English class, but this isn’t the first time that’s happened. A while back, I wrote some fragmented thoughts on the concept of “nothing,” which in part sprung from another assignment from that same years. So thanks, Mr. LoGiudice: all these years later and you’re still making me think.

Classics Club #3: “Wonderful, Wonderful Times” by Elfriede Jelinek

First things first: Wonderful, Wonderful Times is a deeply unpleasant book. Elfriede Jelinek’s 1980 novel (translated from the German by Michael Hulse) is a tour through the various depravities of 1950s Vienna: unmotivated crime, unenthused sex, unrepentant Nazism, and so forth. I do the vast majority of my reading on the bus these days, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so self-conscious about reading a book in public. Granted, I do have something of a moralistic streak that’s been bubbling up on me of late, but Wonderful, Wonderful Times is so unrelenting in its grime that it borders on the lurid.

To take just one example: there’s a scene in which one of the main characters allows (encourages?) a man on the tram to grope her so that her friends can filch his wallet. That about sums up the book’s moral universe: even the victims are perpetrators, and vice versa.

Despite all that, despite one’s natural revulsion at the novel’s content, I find myself agreeing with Richard Eder’s assessment in the Los Angeles Times, in which he detects in Jelinek’s work “a hint of delicacy and lyricism” and “a measure of perverted innocence.” I attribute a fair amount of this effect to Jelinek’s narration, which blends every character’s dialogue and inner thoughts into a single voice that almost tears itself apart from its own incoherence, but it’s more an artful melange than a morass of text. It takes a few sections that get used to it, yes, but there’s something mesmerizing in watching it unfold speaker by speaker. But even more than the prose style, it’s Jelinek’s character crafting that gives the novel its odd beauty.

Wonderful, Wonderful Times tells the sordid stories of four young adults in post-WWII Austria. At the novel’s center are Rainer and Anna Witkowski, a pair of twins from a middle class family with ties to the Nazi power structure that their abusive father remains proud of. Rainer is self-styled poet who builds his life around the philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, a young man who envisions himself as the leader of a revolution of thought as he paraphrases other people. Anna, by contrast, is a promising student and musician given to prolonged periods of absolute silence, when she’s not lashing out with absolute rage. Joining the Witkowski twins are Sophie Pachhofen, a rich athletic girl with tons of fight and nothing to actually fight for, and Hans Sepp, the son of a Communist activist who longs for Sophie’s sort of luxury. Together, these four have made it their job to terrorize the streets of Vienna, because what else is to be done?

The novel opens with the four in action, beating the living daylights out of a random passerby out for a late night stroll. The assault is already underway, which has given the narratorial voice enough time to start pontificating on the nature of violence. “Particular courage is required,” the voice informs us, “if you are to scratch a man’s face while he is looking full in your own (though he cannot see much since it is dark) or indeed try to scratch his eyes out. For the eyes are the mirror of the soul and ought to remain unscathed if possible. Otherwise people will suppose the soul is done for” (p. 7). The reader is forced to accept the nature of this novel from the first paragraph: its characters will aim for your eyes, will try to extinguish your soul and whatever hope you may have for it. In its sheer bluntness, the opening assault functions as an initiation rite, signalling what you’ve agreed to read.

For the first third of the novel, the prose and the luridness were enough to pull me along, past scenes where Herr Witkowski forces his wife to pose for pornographic photos and scenes where Anna initiates sex in a school bathroom with all the passion of ticket-taker. But while I had been initiated into the circle of these characters, I still felt like I was at more-than-arm’s distance from them. They were more intellectual constructs than people, more forms of pointless rebellion than rebels. The turning point for me happened at a different point of initiation, when Rainer decides it’s time to officially initiate Sophie into their little band of mischief. The four protagonists head out into the Vienna Woods to engage in some old-fashioned animal cruelty:

What distinguishes the group from other groups who are out and about dressed for a ramble is that they are not dressed for a ramble, but instead they are carrying a basket containing a sack tied shut. There’s an amount of scratching and whimpering going on inside the sack. This is because there is a cat in it. They caught the cat. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Age of Reason is a character who wants to drown his cats, and so today they are planning to drown this cat too, though this cat also has a right to live. Rainer says that he himself has an equal right to non-existence, just as this cat does, the cat which he is going to assist on its way to non-existence before it can count to three. The cat has its suspicions. Hence the brouhaha in the sack.

Wonderful, Wonderful Times, p. 88

Here is where I started to see that “perverted innocence” that Eder mentioned. Take out the part about trying to drown a cat, and what you’ve got is a scene about four young adults enjoying a nice day out in nature, looking to recreate something from a novel. They seem like overgrown children here, play-pretending with something that will, in fact, have consequences. More than anything, I’m reminded of Tom Sawyer’s role in the final chapters of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, cooking up an absurdly elaborate plan to rescue Jim from a shed inspired by all the adventure novels he’s read. Never mind that Jim is a human being and not an excuse for a quest; never mind that “this cat also has a right to live.” The perverted innocents will let nothing get in the way of their fun, for what is fun is serious business.

The cat-drowning attempt is also the point at which the romance elements of the novel begin to center themselves. Rainer is in love with the Sophie, Anna is in love with Hans, and because fate is cruel, this whole initiation is what drives Hans and Sophie into a romantic pairing. Throughout the scene, events highlight the divide between the Witkowskis and their friends. One example: whereas Sophie and Hans are at ease traipsing through the forest, Rainer and Anna “are not altogether in their element. Their lungs are rattling. They have none of that fitness and stamina” (p. 91). When the scene ends with Hans kissing a soaked and bleeding Sophie, the narrator bothers to point out the obvious: “This little scene leaves two people satisfied and two unsatisfied. It is always like that in life. Fifty-fifty. Which makes things fair” (p. 93).

The remainder of Wonderful, Wonderful Times, it often feels, tracks the fallout from this initiation scene, as Rainer and Anna struggle to win back the objects of their affection. What once appeared to be, to use the title of Eder’s review, a “cuckoo Clockwork Orange” turns into young adult novel. The characters’ concerns suddenly seem much more teenage: worrying about university, trying to escape parental influence, and of course how to resolve these overlapping love triangles. Several times, as some aspect of this heightened high school drama gave me pause, I had to remind myself of where this novel started, i.e., with our heroes engaged in a for-kicks beatdown.

Rather than lowering the stakes, though, the result is that Jelinek has a chance to give her characters greater depth, to turn grotesques into people. We see that Rainer’s penchant for philosophizing everything is a smokescreen for his cowardice and his self-doubt. We see that Hans, the one who has entered the working world, wants to define himself in opposition to his mother’s quixotic fight for social democracy is an increasingly consumerist Austria. Anna in particular comes alive in the homestretch, as she struggles with her personal demons and gets to experience one of the novel’s few moments of ecstasy before everything is taken away in an explosion of violence. There’s a possible world where she’s the relatable, troubled heroine of a contemporary young adult novel, and what I wouldn’t give to see what exactly that world looks like.

There’s a lot more in Wonderful, Wonderful Times that deserves scrutiny, particularly the character of Herr Witkowski and how he and what he represents factor into the moral rot that helped birth our protagonists. (Let’s just say that the line “After 1945 History decided to begin again from scratch and Innocence, after much hesitation, forced itself to take the same decision” [p. 94] is just dripping with evil.) But I think I’ll leave things there, and simply encourage you to seek this one out—at least those of you who can stomach this sort of novel.


Those are my thoughts, but what’s your take? Does a novel like Wonderful, Wonderful Times hold any appeal for you? Can you think of other works which explore this sort of “perverted innocence”? Let me know in the comments!

If you’d like to see what’s on the horizon for my Classics Club challenge, you can view the master list here. And if you’re interested in more general thoughts on the classics, I recently wrote about OCLC’s Library 100 list, which you can read here.

And, as always, thank you for reading!

Classics Club #2: “The Last Tycoon” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Last Tycoon is a novel that resists coherent discussion, for one obvious reason: it was never finished. F. Scott Fitzgerald died well before he could complete his story of Hollywood romance and industry politics, or even finish conceptualizing it (the narrative point of view, for instance, is something of a mess). Fitzgerald did have extensive notes on how he envisioned the novel progressing beyond what was written, but because The Last Tycoon is still visibly a work-in-progress, I wouldn’t consider those notes to be authoritative.

Thus, when it comes to something like evaluating a character arc, the unfinished nature of the work presents some challenges for the reader. As an example, I’m going to look briefly at Episode 17, the latest section of the novel that Fitzgerald was able to write, and try to figure out where that leaves the novel’s protagonist, Monroe Stahr. As we’ll see, the fact that The Last Tycoon ends where it does may give the reader a much more sour impression of Stahr’s character than they may have gotten in the hypothetical completed version of the novel.

First, some context: It’s the Golden Age of Hollywood, where the young widower Monroe Stahr is a successful studio executive. One day, during an earthquake, he sees a woman on the studio lot who looks exactly like his deceased wife. He eventually meets the woman, Kathleen, and starts up a halting relationship with her. However, Kathleen is engaged to a man who will be arriving in town shortly. Stahr doesn’t believe that Kathleen truly loves her fiancé, and thinks he might have a chance with her. But at the very end of the penultimate (existing) episode, Stahr receives a telegram from Kathleen that reads: “I WAS MARRIED AT NOON TODAY GOODBYE” (p. 118).

Stahr thus begins Episode 17 heartbroken, which is not a great state of mind to be in for this particular scene. He has a meeting with two people: Brimmer, a man who wishes to organize a labor union at Stahr’s studio, and Cecelia, the daughter of Stahr’s business partner and the one who arranged the meeting between Stahr and Brimmer. (Cecelia is also the novel’s narrator, which makes her the Nick Carraway to Stahr’s Jay Gatsby, if Nick Carraway weren’t an objective observer and instead had a lifelong crush on his subject.) Emotions would be running high in this situation as is, but Kathleen’s telegram has just complicated matters further.

The meeting starts of tense but cordial, and even though the two men have drastically different views and goals, they seem to like each other. They laugh at each other’s quips, and are capable of recognizing each other’s strengths. But even if the meeting were to end with mutual understanding, it almost certainly could never end with an agreement. Stahr, as Cecelia says earlier in the novel, carries himself like an “oracle,” someone who “must be right always, not most of the time, but always—or the structure would melt down like gradual butter” (p. 56). If Stahr doesn’t want his studio to unionize, then as far he’s concerned, that’s that. As amiable as Stahr is, he is accustomed to getting his way, not just in business matters, but in personal matters as well.

This is why Kathleen’s telegram wounds Stahr so: he’s apparently misjudged the relationship between Kathleen and her fiancé. (Cecelia has a flash-forward in this section that suggests things were a little more complicated than they have may seemed, but Stahr never learns any of that.) He more or less played casting director is pursuing Kathleen in the first place: she was perfect in the role of his wife, in multiple senses. It must have look fantastic on paper. But it was all for naught. The telegram proves that he was wrong, and as a consequence he’s been denied the chance of romantic fulfillment. It’s the most direct challenge to his self-image that Stahr faces in the novel.

Stahr carries all that into the meeting, and while up to this point he’s kept that disappointment in check, it starts to burst forth once the three of them go to a restaurant for dinner and he starts drinking. Cecelia is particularly perceptive of this shift. Upon seeing Stahr down three cocktails in quick succession, she tells him, “‘Now I know you’ve been disappointed in love'” (p. 124). Stahr tries to deny he’s even been drinking, but it’s a rather ineffectual deflection. When he starts bragging to Brimmer about how friendly he used to be with the studios directors, Cecelia compares his spiel to “Edward the VII’s boast that he had moved in the best society in Europe” (p. 125). She doesn’t yet know the full story, but she can sense that Stahr is clinging to a rosier version of himself.

This is especially ironic, because the version of Stahr we see in Episode 17 is easily him at his most repugnant. He refers to Brimmer as a “soapbox son-of-a-bitch” and starts bashing the various directors he’s worked with over the years (p. 125). And the more that Stahr drinks, the worse it becomes:

Stahr ordered a whiskey and soda and, almost immediately, another. He ate nothing but a few spoonfuls of soup and he said all the awful things about everybody being lazy so-and-so’s and none of it mattered to him because he had lots of money—it was the kind of talk you heard whenever Father and his friends were together. I think Stahr realized that it sounded pretty ugly outside of the proper company—maybe he had never heard how it sounded before. Anyhow he shut up and drank off a cup of black coffee. I loved him and what he said didn’t change that but I hated Brimmer to carry off this impression. I wanted to see Stahr as sort of technological virtuoso and here Stahr had been playing the wicked overseer to a point he would have called trash if he had watched it on the screen.

“The Last Tycoon,” p. 126 (emphasis original)

The fact that Cecelia, who is as close to an unreliable observer-narrator as one can get, feels the need to reevaluate her perception of Stahr tells us how far he has strayed from his normal presentation. Granted, for as boisterous as Stahr has become, he’s still capable of self-reflection, as we see when he explains to Brimmer his relationship with screenwriters:

“I never thought,” he said, “—that I had more brains than a writer has. But I always thought that his brains belonged to me—because I knew how to use them. Like the Romans—I’ve heard that they never invented things but they knew what to do with them. Do you see? I don’t say it’s right. But it’s the way I’ve always felt—since I was a boy.”

“The Last Tycoon,” p. 126 (emphasis original)

Stahr understands, on some level, that a writer’s brains don’t in fact belong to him, that for all his power he cannot use to people to perfectly serve his ends at all times. But, alas, there is no epiphany or change in direction forthcoming. The group then heads over to Stahr’s house (but not before Stahr, to Cecelia’s disappointment, stops for another drink along the way), where Stahr decides to pick a fight with Brimmer. Brimmer backs away, but Cecelia realizes it’s not of fear: “There was an odd expression in his face and afterwards I thought it looked as if her were saying, ‘Is this all? This frail half sick person holding up the whole thing'” (p. 128, emphasis original). Stahr persists, though, and then Brimmer promptly kicks his ass.

That one, little question—”Is this all?”—captures Stahr’s collapse so completely. There’s a kind of revulsion in that question, a mixture of pity and contempt that speaks volumes to the gap between Stahr’s self-perception and reality. I had a similar feeling towards the end of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, when Augustus literally collapses trying to buy cigarettes at a gas station, or in D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, when Clifford stubbornly tries to power his motorized wheelchair through the muck. With all these characters, in watching them desperately try to do something that might not be worth doing, I felt some unease, some uncertainty as to how to process things. My sympathies had to battle my disgust, which is why, in the case of all those novels, those are the scenes that have lingered in my mind the longest.

Of course, neither Green nor Lawrence ends their novels with those scenes, and Fitzgerald almost certainly had further plans for Stahr. But that disastrous meeting is basically the last scene in the book as written. Augustus and Clifford get some sort of dénoument afterwards, even though neither of them is protagonist of their respective novels. But unforeseen circumstances robbed Stahr (and the reader) of any closure. His arc ends unnaturally, at its lowest point, and that’s what we must carry with us.


Please feel free to share your thoughts on The Last Tycoon in the comments below. I’d also be curious about what you all think of the sense of pity/disgust I’ve described feeling towards certain scenes. I’ve thought about those scenes from Green and Lawrence a lot of the past few years, but I’ve never been certain what to do with them.

If you’d like a preview of what’s to come in my Classics Club project, you can access my list of fifty books here. As of writing this post, the only other book I’ve tackled so far is W. H. Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand, which you can read more about here.

And, as always, thank you for reading!