The Sun Also Rises and meaning through action

Almost none of the characters in The Sun Also Rises and have jobs. Jake Barnes works as a journalist, but during most of the novel he’s on the sort of vacation that makes one long for the office. Bill Gorton writes too, but we don’t see much evidence of his writing. Pedro Romero is a bullfighter who apparently loses his magical bullfighting essence (or “aficion” in the language of the novel, but “magical bullfighting essence” makes it sound sillier) due to Brett. The rest—Mike, Brett, Robert—don’t do much of anything beyond drink.

This might be connected to why they all seem unhappy. Not only are they unhappy, but they don’t even appear to be getting much action (with the exception of Brett), which probably compounds their problems. This may be a feature of hanging out with a large group of guys and only one woman.

When I first read the novel, I didn’t notice how dumb most of the characters are. Perhaps I was at an age when I still considered wandering around and mindlessly drinking to be romantic and logical. Perhaps I was just equally dumb. Now I mostly want to suggest to the characters that, since most of them are in their 30s, they ought to find something to do. What that “something” is isn’t very important. Writing sonnets. Working in nuclear physics (which was big at the time). Inventing a new dance. Opening a bar, instead of consuming in a bar. Just have it be something. In short, I want to them to get a job, or, if not a job, then at least a hobby beyond the bottle. Don’t get me wrong. I like the bottle as much as the next guy, especially when it contains gin, and someone has tonic and lime nearby.

Plus, Brett is overrated. By the time I hit 23 or thereabouts, the allure of the manipulative, dissolute beauty had faded—not, mind you, the allure of beauty, or beauty distributed across a number of women, but of the attention-seeking and thoughtlessly cruel kind, who might be worth going to San Sebastian with, but not worth working one’s self up over when she floats to her next lily pad.

That sentence is convoluted, but I’m pretty sure it makes sense and expresses what Brett does to the inner states of the men around her, who really ought to know better. If one doesn’t want to come around, look for another. Note that this strategy or principle also applies to men. If a rival comes along, there’s a decent shot the wishy-washy person will leap to defend her territory. If she doesn’t, you never had a shot in the first place, and you still have someone to keep you warm at night and do other fun things with. (Change the gender pronouns in this paragraph to suit your own sexual temperament.)

When you’re young, long-winded, elusive chases are kind of appealing. But you really ought to learn to know better by the time you’re, say, 22.

I still admire Hemingway’s use of language and style, but I wonder if one reason high school and college students are drawn to The Sun Also Rises is because school mimics the no-stakes, no-purpose world in which characters live. Once you get into the larger world, where things have real effects, the pleasures of wandering aimlessly, drinking randomly, and chasing mentally unstable girls who mostly want attention becomes much lower. Again: wandering, drinking, and chasing sex can still be quite fun for any and all genders, but they require purpose beyond the mere doing of those activities themselves. In The Sun Also Rises, Jake says, “The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta. Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences. It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta.” Everything is “quite unreal” throughout the novel as a whole. It seems “out of place to think of consequences” for any of the characters, ever. They might be Americans in Europe, but their travels do not appear to have enlarged them.

I've been writing academic

For the last couple weeks I’ve been spending a lot of time on my (second) publishable paper, this one on the contrasting temperaments in Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. They share many superficial characteristics: both tell the stories of decadent Americans in Europe shortly after World Wars; both feature protagonists who do not have major or pressing financial responsibilities; both feature a period of time in Paris punctuated by a trip to Spain that ends up back in Paris; both include characters lacking specific, tangible objectives that propel their travels. Thirty years after The Sun Also Rises, The Dud Avocado continues the tradition of having Americans wander through Europe, but the attitude it takes is predominantly comic, in contrast to the tragic temperament its predecessors shows.

I think it’s an interesting paper—but authors are inclined to think as fondly of their papers as parents are of their children—but writing it sucks up most of the time I’d otherwise use to blog. Blogging and academic writing are usually complements, not substitutes, but in this case the increasing price of blogging relative to paper writing makes me do less of it.

For now.

The Old Man and Me — Elaine Dundy

The Old Man and Me is The Dud Avocado retold by a slightly older protagonist pursuing a slightly older target man. It has some of the same moments of impressive language use, as when Honey Flood—not her stage name, but apparently an invented one—says that:

Bollie was a sort of chain-talker, lighting one end of a conversation to another without letting the first go out.

The image fits, and with Bollie puffing on both conversations where most of us only have the capacity or manners for one, and the good sense to keep it that way. With that small detail, I feel like I’ve met Bollie, or if not him precisely, than someone much like him. Still, the same page has dated slang (what’s a “mizbag?”), and the dialog can be hard to follow at times. Perhaps that dialog is representative of Honey, another American in Europe whose interests are men, money, status, and fun (not necessarily in that order), ideally combined in the same man. Said man turns out to be, chiefly, C.D. McKee, a writer in a day when writers still had groupies and hadn’t been replaced by celebrities as objects of fixation.

Honey’s voice will make the novel—or not. More often it’s the former; she’s clever if irritating at times, and the banter between her and McKee usually works, although sometimes it feels obvious. Consider this exchange about a park, in which C.D. speaks first:

“Parks are for the poor. Alas, that they haven’t a chance to enjoy them. Only the very young and the time-wasters like us can.”
“That’s because you hide them so well. This beauty, for instance. How d’you expect them to find it. I wouldn’t if you hadn’t led me to it.”

It’s not hard to take the park as a metaphor for Honey’s growth as a person in dealing with C.D. The undercurrent of class, if not warfare, then consciousness, continues (“I had been a rich man’s darling, all right. A very rich man’s very darling”), but not to the point of annoyance. But it gets close enough to that state to warrant a mention; Honey isn’t as developed intellectually or socially as someone like Renee Feuer in The Mind-Body Problem, who’d catch the solipsism in comments like this:

Radiating joy, confidence, and anticipation [C.D.] shone like a beacon in contrast to the milling crowd: the careful ones checking and rechecking their tickets, luggage, and timetables; the frantic ones overburdened and rushing in all directions […]

My internal editor drew a line through “the milling crowd,” figuring that we’d understand the milling crowd through the image that follows it. And someone like Renee would catch herself and realize that others are probably having the same thoughts she is, as shown in this XKCD:

It’s the same comic I linked to in my post on Pages For You: narrators and characters who aren’t able to see themselves in the larger sense, or see themselves as other people might see them, become decreasingly satisfying over time, as one reads more novels. Being (or at least feeling) significantly smarter than the character about whom one is reading, without some significantly unusual formal feature to make up for it, makes for tedious reading. The Old Man and Me isn’t tedious, most of the time, and it’s refreshing to find female narrators who are willing to sleep around without shame and connive to get what they want: I’m not sure this is a feminist testament, but at least it makes for an amusing story with writing that keeps Honey from devolving into stereotype and the story from devolving into senescence.

The bottom line: Read The Dud Avocado. Then read The Mind-Body Problem. Still want more? Then find this quasi sequel, but your urge will probably have been satiated unless you’re an American going to Europe, in which case you might empathize with and want to understand those whose footsteps you follow in. Then you can view The Old Man and Me as a learning experience.

The Second Pass also recently wrote on the The Old Man and Me. It’s a blog that I find moving steadily higher in my “must reads.”

A Confederacy of Dunces

One good link deserves another: I mentioned a Cynthia Crossen column in my post on The Red Leather Diary. A few weeks ago, however, she wrote about the binary views John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces inspires:

I managed to get through 100 pages before I let myself off for time served. My sides didn’t split, my belly didn’t ache, my eyes didn’t water. With its wooden dialogue, one-ply characters and a plot as twisty as a clothesline, “A Confederacy of Dunces” left me wondering who were the dunces on the Pulitzer jury in 1981.

Some readers had predicted I might not appreciate Mr. Toole’s humor. James Mosrie of West Palm Beach, Fla., wrote, “In my experience, people either love or hate this book. I can never quite gauge what reaction they will have because I’ve known people of so many varying types and tastes be so extreme with their views on the book.”

Another reader wrote, “This may be the most polarizing book of all time. I know approximately 15 people (counting you) who have read it. Without exception, the book has either (a) immediately entered the reader’s “top-five all-time” list or (b) so turned off the reader that they couldn’t finish it. For whatever reason, there is no middle ground with this book.”

I’m in category (b): I tried to read A Confederacy of Dunces, saw nothing redeeming, and couldn’t finish it. Like Crossen and Terry Teachout, however, I wish funny books got more literary respect, especially because some of my favorite novels include Richard Russo’s Straight Man, Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem, Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, and Kingley Amis’ Lucky Jim. Only one of those makes it on Crossen’s list of recommended funny books, which appears at the bottom of her column.


I read John Williams’ Stoner after learning of it from a nook in the web I’ve since forgotten. Like many of the New York Review of Books Press editions, it has a small, ardent following that I don’t care to join. Only The Dud Avocado is so marvelous that I need to frequently remind others of its virtues.

Now Stephen Elliott writes the post on Stoner that I considered writing, although I didn’t love Stoner as Elliott does. But I respect and admire it, especially because of the love it inspires from the people who show how much passion they, like the protagonist, have for literature. Check out this summary for more examples. I don’t perceive the redemptive aspects of Stoner some critics have observed, yet it was also clear and cold and strong, like vodka from the freezer, and there is no mistaking the sensation of having experienced a book. Distinct memories of the sensation it inspired remain with me when other works I remembering liking better have become fuzzy and gray over time.

The Dud Avocado

The Dud Avocado is a sustaining delight, although some plot twists almost threw me off the imaginative train. Now, after the novel’s last page, they seem fitting, which I suppose is the mark of a good twist: you don’t like it or you find it implausible, but it comes to feel so organic that conceiving of the novel without the twist becomes impossible. Then again, even were the surprises unacceptable, I would still like The Dud Avocado for its language and, at times, innocent snark; one of my favorite lines I will repeat in conversation, modified to suit the circumstances: “We treat each other like a couple of minor United Nations officials, Bax and I. Very protocol, very wary.” With lines like that, what’s a little oddity in the plot?

There were a few other signs of stretching: one character underwent an almost spontaneously change, or so I thought, though in retrospect the transition was foreshadowed if I had cared enough to see—there’s a little bit of the mystery genre in every novel—and now I can see its importance for Sally’s development: she learned she can’t fully trust others, though this sets up an ending that can be interpreted several ways I will not reveal here, as it contributes to an ending as fitting and sparkling as the rest of the novel. Throughout it, you get some philosophy bound with humor—”I gave up wondering if anyone was ever going to understand me at all. If I was ever going to understand myself even.”—and bound with seeing Sally struggle, but not too hard, and not so much that you think she’s going to find herself six feet under. It would be no easier imagining disaster in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Holly Golightly is Sally’s most obvious literary kin, although I suspect The Dud Avocado is the better book (I say “suspect” because it’s been too long since I read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but remember it being considerably shallower than The Dud Avocado).

For one thing, Sally is more interesting and self-aware than most heroes, even as she tries at times to be cynical and tough and succeeds no better than she would trying to be the Queen of England. But she is not silly in a disreputable or trivial fashion. The book’s tone might make some readers think it trivial, but The Dud Avocado has much to say about how to grow up (with a sense that the world won’t end and you should feel free to explore) and how to love (with abandon, but not so much as to lost perspective or drown yourself in someone else). Life, Sally realizes, is hard, but not so hard that you should become hard in response, lest you lose what makes it worthwhile, and Sally says, “now the whole thing seemed really more comic than tragic. I found I was almost enjoying myself.”

I feel the same way about reading and many things besides.

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