Tuesday, November 23, 2010

self-obsessed-white-guy novels


After years of hearing "historic-significance"-style hype about Henry Miller, I've finally gotten around to picking up one of his books: SEXUS. I'm only about 60 pages in so far, and I'm liking it better as I get deeper in, but since about page 3 I've found myself comparing it to certain other novels I've read, such as:

THE STRANGER by Albert Camus
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT by Fyodor Dostoevsky
ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac
THE CATCHER IN THE RYE by J.D. Salinger
MISS LONELYHEARTS by Nathanael West
HUNGER by Knut Hamsun
POST OFFICE by Charles Bukowski
ASK THE DUST by John Fante

What makes all of these books feel similar, in my mind, is a sort of close-focus on a young, white, self-obsessed protagonist, a close-focus that results in a plot principally driven (or at least significantly affected) by the protagonist's personality. That probably sounds like a pretty vague criteria for grouping these novels together, and the honest truth is that I'm just starting to work this over in my mind and I haven't really got much of a thesis worked out, but I'm intrigued enough at this point to start trying to put thoughts into words, in hopes of coming to a few more solid conclusions.

Perhaps I could better state what makes these books feel related by using the term "existentialism," though certain books in this group (like HUNGER) were written prior to the invention of the term, and certain other books in the group haven't been academically recognized as "existential." What I mean when I use the term "existential" in relation to these books is that all of the books seem focused on the protagonist dealing with mundane, day-to-day existence, and it's that focus on the protagonist's reaction to the mundane day-to-day (though it sometimes pushes the plot into extraordinary situations, as in CRIME AND PUNISHMENT and THE STRANGER) that drives the plot.

A sense of "reacting to the mundane" might be key to this feeling of similarity I get from the above-mentioned books. For example, JOURNEY TO THE END OF the NIGHT, written by Louis-Ferdinand Celine, though it follows one self-obsessed protagonist very closely, though it was written within a decade of THE STRANGER by another Frenchman, doesn't feel as similar to THE STRANGER as SEXUS does, and I think it's because JOURNEY's plot is continually affected/directed by war, a phenomena that by it's very nature renders day-to-day existence as fundamentally strange, and not at all mundane.

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