Bildungsroman

‘I was not sorry when my brother died.’ Nervous Conditions.

nervous conditionsOk… Now I may be biased about this particular book… So I feel I have to be honest before I really get to grips with it. This is the exact text that I will be using tomorrow in my english literature exam. The very one. I will be in a silent room, under time pressure,  trying to glean all sorts of A* worthy quotes and literary nuggets from one of the very few copies in existence in less than 24 hours. Hang on. Maybe less than 12 hours. Unless I don’t sleep. Oh God. All I’m saying is that there probably are a great deal of valid reasons why I should feel so strongly about this book. I’m just going to say its hideous. Really really bad. Do not go near it with a barge-pole. Unless, like me, you absolutely have to and your english grade depends on it. We’re totally talking in the worst possible of circumstances. Completely and utterly.

Anyway, the thing is, there is probably a very good reason why there are so few copies around… And why I know I’m certainly not the only one who lets out a genuine groan of pain when its name gets mentioned. Ugh. Right. Where to start? First off, we all knew how painful it was going to be pretty much as soon as we had read the blurb. Blurbs are there for a reason – and usually that reason is to try and represent the book in its best light, hopefully with the aim of enticing as many readers as possible into actually buying it. But I can definitely say anyone who takes the time to try and read this one would be seriously put off, or have to be completely mad to ever want to attempt to read it. Honestly. Right… To prove my point, here’s my particular favourite, the first line of criticism:

‘The introspective function of the novel as a genre emerges clearly in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s work, a Bildungsroman that offers us a moving narrative of the developing consciousness of her young, female characters.’

I mean, oh my crikey, what does that even mean? The only reason that I have any clue of what a Bildungsroman actually is (and yes have started using it as a tag) is due that that genuine piece of literary nonsense. Nobody speaks like that. Nobody reads a book and thinks ‘hmm how introspective that was’ or that totally ‘[mapped] at once the tortured routes to female subjectivity and the path to gender egalitarianism’ (another genuine favourite). Blimey. Really, would you?

But anyhow, it’s not the blurb I’m meant to be criticising, however difficult it is to avoid, but the content of the book itself. Just going to say now. It really doesn’t get much better. At all. Set in 1960s Rhodesia, just prior to it becoming Zimbabwe, the novel follows the life of Tambu, an impoverished young woman, through first person narrative. Tambu lives in a world where women are accepted as nothing more than a means to an end by men – they produce children, cook and clean, and most important, remain silent. The book itself does not in fact have a linear narrative, but is written in such a way as to echo other African literature, through episodes or moments, completely circular – you have no idea what moment in her life she is discussing until she’s moved on to the next. In its style, I suppose, the book can be forgiven. There are instances of purely delightful description and clever imagery. But they are too few and far between, spaced apart by a hideously dull narrative of something that has a great deal of potential. Now I know I could not write it any better, but God, Dangarembga was very much onto something here.

The book essentially covers the struggles of the women around Tambu, each fighting against their men and their circumstances to try and survive as best they can. You have Nyasha, a westerinised, intelligent and fragile girl; Tambu’s mother, a demon-obsessed, bitter old woman; Lucia, the one piece of comic relief in the whole text… And then you have Tambu. Who goes and ruins it all by being so blooming sensible all the time. She claims throughout to be calm, demure – the model of the perfect African woman. Except her one issue is that she is too intelligent. She strives to be educated, even to the point of being ‘vindicated’ on her brother’s death as it means she can go to school. Reading Tambu’s narrative, I could not help but feel one thing. Unlike she actually claims in the beginning, she is cold. She is callous. She, to me, is just a nasty piece of work. And I’m sorry, but I really struggle to sympathise with her. Empathise, yes. She has an incredibly hard life and has to go through some awful experiences to become recognised. She has to deal with her ignorant father, her limited circumstances and Babamakuru, the ‘saint’ who is actually just a man with a messiah-complex. And herself. Basically, she just didn’t feel real. So therefore I have no sympathy – and usually I’m a soft touch.

And this may become a bit of a running theme but I really do struggle with people who are not real. Ok, that sounds completely bizarre. But it’s true. I’m sure we’ve all read works of people who you just think, nobody, absolutely nobody would deal with this scenario like this. It just isn’t feasable. Yes, some of the feelings she conveys are deep and highly telling, but there is no point in the novel where I would go as far as to say they were moving. Because that wouldn’t be true. Tambu fundamentally innoculates us against everything, good and bad, in the novel. The happiest moments are muted by self-loathing and annoying and non-sensical asides. The bad bits are covered up by Tambu claiming it’s in her personality to ignore them. Quite honestly, this does not work for me. I mean if that is Tambu’s genuine stance, how is she ever going to get anywhere? To illustrate, her personality continues to diminish as her relationship with Nyasha develops. There is, at one point, a truly very gritty scene where Nyasha ends up being beaten for her insubordination. Tambu herself is also beaten later on by the same man. But these events do not seem to categorize as anything else to Tambu than part of normality. She carries on and merely mentions it in passing, before continuing to lament about her lack of feminine normality.

While this, as a literary technique, is sometimes effective, it does just become a little grating when used gratuitously. It seems Tambu is unable to completely engage with and relate to her own life. That’s the reason why I chose my key quote, I guess. Even when her brother, Nhamo, who yes is not the most pleasant of people, dies from an unknown mumps-like disease, Tambu seemingly makes no effort to do anything about it. I’m not saying that she should be outwardly shouting and crying like her mother, because that might get a bit tiresome in this format, but seriously, if she is so ‘vindicated’, could we have a little more chirpiness? Ok. That sounds completely wrong considering we are discussing his death – more than a little morbid – but she says it, not me.

I’m guessing that that’s my main point though. We expect through the narrative that she would be willing to be more open with the reader. I guess the point is that we don’t even have to like her to enjoy the story. But when a narrator’s character becomes distractingly and constantly bleak and bland, the book can’t help but feel more than a little beige. And that is so an understatement. It is dull as hell. And yet it shouldn’t be – it really does have something to say…

But it is. And my exam is in less than ten waking hours.

**

 

‘Don’t give up before the miracle happens.’ Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop CafeSo I finally got round to reading this. And boy was it a quick read, but brilliant nonetheless. You’re probably starting to think that I lack any general ability to think critically of anything in general, but believe me, I feel there might be a rather scathing review of Cider with Rosie coming up. But for now, this will be a rather happifying entree into my first book review. Which is rather nice, isn’t it?

So, for a vague synopsis of FGT (sorry, as plausibly inappopriate as that sounds, too much typing may bring on the RSI – what is with the acronyms today?) it basically follows the relationship of Evelyn Couch and her rather elderly friend Ninny Threadgoode, who seemingly never stops talking about her vibrant past in Whistlestop, Alabama. Throughout the story, Evelyn, who starts out as an extremely unhappy middle-aged housewife, develops into who she wants to be and a friendship grows between the two women. Ninny tells her her life story and Evelyn is keen to listen – it is in the tales of Whistlestop that she finds new inspiration for her to become who she really wants to be. So, from even the blurb, I’m hooked. As ridiculously cliched and fluffy as it sounds… Gotta say, I do love this sort of book, now matter how rose-tinted and cute it may seem. And it is just that. Remarkably cute.

First off then, I’m going to say the only reason I actually even considered reading this book is because of the equally rose-tinted and overly optimistic film version in which a rather delightful Cathy Bates plays a rather disturbing Evelyn Couch. Or should that be the other way ’round? Although she’s possibly only disturbing because I just can’t get Annie Wilkes out of my head. But that’s another review for another time. But anyway, the film version of this, for anyone who’s seen it, actually, rather remarkably, does stick to the original plot of the book. Which is great. In short. And while I’m not usually one to say this, watching the film first may have actually been for the good. It helped me imagine the characters a lot better – not because we aren’t provided with ample discription from Flagg or because she falls flat for any reason on the writing front, but simply because they happened to get the film so perfect. Which I like to see as proof of Flagg’s writing skill – she is able to convey the likeness of her characters so well that they didn’t struggle at all in casting them for the film version. A little tenuous, but definitely makes sense if you look at some of the film adaptations of other novels. Ahem. Second Dumbledore. Bridget Jones. Dr Dolittle (sorry Eddie Murphy).

Sorry about that diversion. Anyhow, continuing on. There are many other, far better, reasons why this book is a good read. For example, there are actually rather fantastically amusing bits. Trying to say its funny but failing miserably. No, seriously, I rarely laugh at books – I often regard with distinct mistrust that person who always sits opposite you on the tube laughing away at what may be a book that amuses them. But no one else. However, FGT genuinely made me laugh. And cry. Which I know is what every reviewer says, but it’s true – I was an emotional wreck reading this book. And that’s a good thing. See, thing is, Fannie Flagg, while possibly not the best known author in the universe, seemingly does know how get hold of your emotions and run with them. Honestly, even though most of the chapters are only three pages long (another fantastic reason why I love this book – fast pace, always good), you’ll find yourself struggling not to giggle one minute and reaching for the box of tissues at the next. Which did make for some confusion with my family when I was reading it. For those two days I was told to seek therapy for my rampant moodswings. Blame it on the book, not the hormones.

Yet, no matter how long I have to sing the praises of this book, there are certain parts I find that are a little too wonderfied. If that can be a word for the purpose of this argument. I’m not, for example, so keen on the casual racism that runs through – I’m not sure if that’s due to the author trying to gauge historical accuracy (a good part is set near Birmingham Alabama in the 1920s) or if the book is written like this on purpose. Yet, if that was the case, I feel she’d leave that theme to the flashback sections and not have it run through alongside Evelyn’s story, which if I’m frank leaves a lot to be desired in the sensitivity area. Now don’t get me wrong, a main theme of this book is also how Idgie and Ruth work to help the black community of Whistlestop, but it’s hardly like they work against the constant racism around them and the prevalence of the  Ku Klux Klan in Whistlestop. I don’t know – I get that the book is about the underdogs of society, women, racial minorities, old people, but I’m not so keen on the way Flagg goes about it. Something just didn’t sit exactly right here with the rest of the novel. Maybe it was just the time, what can I say?

However, I feel I have rambled too long and must leave you to try for yourself. In short, I’d recommend it. It’s dinky, it’s hilarious and it’ll get you thinking. And I give you my full permission not to read that last, ever so slightly critical paragraph.

****

‘Stupid is as stupid does.’ Forrest Gump.

Forrest Gump

Wow. Ok, if you didn’t already know, Forrest Gump may just be a little bit of an obsession for me. Ever so slightly. And hey, I don’t seem to be the only one. 71% on rotten tomatoes and 8.8/10 on IMDb mean that we have empirical data that I am not in fact barking up the wrong tree when it comes to assessing this film as pure gold.

Me and Forrest have had some good times over the years. I first watched this film at the age of around seven and back then it just struck me as vaguely amusing, if slightly underwhelming. I just sat and let the film wash over me, but didn’t really let myself appreciate it. So, for at least three years following my first viewing if anyone were to ask me about the film, my response would be rather lacklustre. I just couldn’t see what, if anything, made the thing so popular. I could see the characters were loveable, Forrest especially, and maybe even see something along the lines of the fact that the story itself was meant to be heartwarming, but other than that, it just struck me as being a little sickly sweet and at times rather angrifying for its rather choppy and tangential storyline.

I had such poor taste as a child, clearly. But as I have grown up, developed and emotionally progressed (matured is not the word), the film has come to ring a whole lot more true with me. Ridiculously. I love it. Pure and simple. Cannot say more. And there are so many reasons why! It’s mushy, yes, and more than a little bit overly morally shiny in places (it becomes a little difficult to believe that even Forrest would put up with some of the stuff Jenny throws at him), but I just don’t care. It makes me laugh. It makes me cry. It leaves me satisfied every time I choose to watch it again. And I have never been disappointed. Not since the first viewing in 2005 have I not been astonished at the quirky cuteness of Forrest. Wished to meet his mother. To shake hands with Lieutenant Dan. And just hug the hell out of Bubba.

The characters become your friends and as ridiculous as that sounds, it really is true. Every new time I watch it, Jenny’s being hit by that awful hippy hurts just that little bit more, and Lieutenant Dan’s Space Legs make me ever more elated. It’s quite incredible what they were able to achieve making this. I don’t know if I’m the only one, but even though I’ve never met anyone like Forrest and though I know I’ll never be able to see things in the same beautifully clear and untarnished way he does, the film opens a new gateway to empathy that I don’t believe that any that I’ve watched since have. I can feel the characters. They seem real, however unbelievable they are.

I guess also another one of the reasons it has to be up there with my favourites is that it literally contains everything. My apologies to Cast Away, but if ever there was a film that I would take onto a desert island, this would have to be it. Purely on the basis that it just contains a little bit of everything. And I’ve never been able to choose when given a chocolate box of genres. But that old line rings true, with Forrest Gump, you never know what you’re gonna get. It has action, it has tragedy, it even has elements of Rom-Com (which no matter how hard I try, sends an awful shiver down my spine as I type). My english teacher would be proud for me to say that it stands as a beautiful and intricate archetypal Bildungsroman. You follow Forrest as he attempts to find himself in the world. You grow with him, he gives you opportunities to learn things about the world through his eyes. Things you would never have even contemplated without.

But where was I? Ah. Yes. Genre. It could not be more true to say that I don’t think there is a single person who could say (no matter what their level of investment in any genre) that this film doesn’t, at least in part, sate their genre appetites. Except maybe for those who have a severely terrifying hunger to watch slasher films. Who may just be more than a little disappointed. But for anyone else, the film has a part for everyone. Forrest Gump is for the political, it’s for the hopeless romantic, it’s for the creative and for the Muso. It’s for everyone. And it seems effortless how they made it so.

Finally, I have just one more thing to say about Forrest Gump. I’m not going to start carrying on about how it’s beautifully made or start gandering about the brilliance of Tom Hanks in general. I’m just going to say that no matter how hard I could dare to try, I could not dislike this film. Not ever again. I believe it stands as an important marker to anyone who wants to listen of the importance of just living your life as best as you can and never, ever, letting anything get you down. I believe it’s impossible for every single one of us to attempt to harbour our own little bit of Forrest Gump, even at those times when it seems difficult. Because, the reality of it is, it’s impossible not to love him and just to wish you could see the world through his eyes.

*****