Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

This book is a memoir about life in Iran. Its formal structure expands from the discussions of a secret book club that meets in the author's living room in Tehran to read and discuss banned books like Lolita, The Great Gatsby, Daisy Miller, and Pride and Prejudice. Beyond the book club, the author reminisces about life before, during, and after the revolution, the ascendence of the Ayatollah, and how life became so wretched for women in this country that was once so progressive.

The first fifty pages of this book I really disliked. I find the descriptions of the book club meetings overly precious and romantic, all the "magical mornings" and the "they bloomed into color" and how she dwells on their separate personalities. It all reads as very contrived, to me, since she said in the beginning that none of the characters were actually characters, that they are amalgams and distillations of actual people, renamed, combined, separated. So why dwell on each invented person's invented personality, especially in a "memoir"? I kind of liked her reading of Lolita. She is painfully aware of how her critical perspective is informed and skewed by her identification of Humbert as the Ayatollah, though. Which is good. But I'm not automatically receptive to feminism, even coming from someone in a chabor.

Then, for serious and for real, it started getting good. I think the beginning of the part that made my ears perk up was the anecdote about Nassrin (I think it was her) missing class and then coming back to report she had been jailed for 48 hours because the morality police had accused her of having "A Western attitude." And then CANED her for it? Lord. Makes me want to smack crabby academic feminists in this country in the head and say, "Dumbass, you think you've got problems?!" I realize that's probably irrational, but that's the reaction I had.

The Gatsby section I liked much better. I am flabbergasted by the way the Muslim fundamentalists and the Marxist extremists collaborated on the Islamic revolution. I had no idea that was going on -- how Marxist women in combat fatiques with shaved heads and totally, like, hardass communist ideas (communism being ideally genderless, in terms of all proletariats being equal) putting on VEILS to help the revolution, just because they wanted the Western influence out of Iran. Like, how shortsighted was THAT? Has to be one of the most idiotic political choices ever. You can just imagine some avid Marxist... and that "Adopt the veil to rid us of the West" speech must have been the last one she ever got to make in public. And the last time she got to walk down the street without her husband or father to walk behind.

The book makes a clear distinction between the people who had always been devout Muslims and those who adopted more extreme religious beliefs in order to gain political or social power. I think it's obviously necessary to separate people serving God in an honest and arduous way from people consciously using religion to oppress each other. I also, though, believe that what's corrupt at the top can be honest at the bottom -- that is, that there are people who virtuously and sincerely believe and follow oppressive rules because they genuinely believe that God wants them to, when in reality it's the people up at the top of the religion, handing down these strictures to enforce their agendas. So who to blame? There's a very blurry line between those who are conscious that it's all about power and control, and those who are blind to the human element at work, and only see God's will.

I have to believe that it's impossible for me to understand anyone in that part of the world -- totally impossible, because my cultural context is so foreign. So for me to look at those public virginity tests and say "What the hell!?" means nothing. Of course I can't understand it, it's beyond my scope and outside my experience. What's good about this book is seeing that there are people within that system for whom it is repulsive and horrifying as well. And not just those who have been to America and seen the contrast.

I stalled out reading this when I was still on the James section. I'd inadvertantly started reading about 10 books... forgetting I was already in progress on others that I'd just left lying around the house or car. I wanted to finish this, to get to the Jane Austen section, but I accidentally just read Persuasion instead.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey

Apparently everyone else on earth read this book in high school, and saw the movie too. Alright, well, I went to a Lutheran high school, and explaining the catheters made out of condoms (and reused!) might have given my freshman English teacher a few more questions than he was happy with. Not that he would have been thrilled about my ending a sentence with with. Twice. Actually he was really cool, and let us do Lord of the Flies as a feature video set in the hallways of our school. But I digress.

I found this book at the thrift store and bought it to read, and at the exact same moment, Veronica found it at her father's house, and took it home to read. This kind of literary synchronicity cannot be ignored. There must be significance.

Ken Kesey said he was too old to be a hippie and too young to be a beatnik, but he and his gang, the "Merry Pranksters" raised plenty of hell in their day, despite their lack of a popular category. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was his first novel, written mostly in graduate school, which gives everyone a little bit of undeserved hope.

I think the novel is brilliant for two reasons.

First, there is the narrator. The book is told, not by the main character, or by a disinterested narrator, but by a crazy person. So all the descriptions of the ward, Nurse Ratched, the crazies, are filtered through this altered consciousness. Kesey stays just on the correct side of being cute about it. Cuteness would have killed it, but as it was, Bromden's narration perfectly cranked up the feeling of being in another, twisted, horrific world. No external voice could have accomplished this. His point of view, maintained throughout, also helped us see the change in his mental state, happening so slowly that we almost don't notice it, without being told about it. So, at the end, we believe he is fully okay to go out into the world, although we witnessed the extent of his initial lunacy, because we also witnessed his progression back to functionality.

The second reason I loved this book was for its hooks. Instead of an either/or hook (will the world be saved? will the lovers unite?) there was a complicated engine. Because Bromden is pretending to be deaf and dumb, the very first page of the book presents a compelling reason to read on -- will he eventually speak, what will make him speak, and what will he say? The other question, "Will McMurphy defeat Nurse Ratched?" is also complex, beyond a yes-or-no answer, because the battle is being fought on such strange territory.

I read McMurphy as explosive humanity, glorious deviance -- the ability to see through rules and definitions to the agendas behind them. Therefore dangerous to stability and predictability that these rules and definitions provide. I read Ratched as establishment, enforcer, the hand on the lever that runs the gears. She could not suffer McMurphy because he understood her and was not afraid of her. In the book, as in life, she possessed the ultimate weapon, because even though she is an ideological fraud, she has all the physical power.

Veronica read a lot more gender issues into the book, which made a lot of sense as soon as she explained it to me. There was a viscious smart professional and a friendly stupid whore, and really no other women portrayed in the book. McMurphy could be read as the ultimate heroic male -- beyond the manipulation of the stifling woman, but ultimately brought down by her.

A few words about the movie:

Great. Brilliant. It did not have the same message as the book, and it did not have the same intensity. Having read the book just before I saw the movie, I didn't feel like a lot of the movie made sense without the stuff in the book, but taken on its own terms and without that prejudice, it was fantastic. Because of Jack Nicholson. He is an amazing actor. I mean, that's kind of retarded to say, at this point, but having just seen him in The Departed and now this, it is so interesting to me how he can play two different characters, and use all of his signature expressions, moves, inflections, etc, and still have the characters be so essentially themselves. It's a mystery!