Thursday, September 30, 2010

Entry 15: "House Made of Dawn" by N. Scott Momaday (1969)

It is 1969—two years after the Summer of Love, the year after the assassinations of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the year after the Democratic National Convention riots in Chicago, the year of Woodstock, the year of Charles Manson and his family, the year man walked on the moon. This was a year of tumult and chaos and confusion, and, from what I gathered reading N. Scott Momaday's 1969 Pulitzer-winning novel, House Made of Dawn, the same was true for Native Americans this time period.

This novel is the story of a Kiowa Indian named Abel. Abel grew up in the traditions and customs of his people on a reservation, went to fight the Japanese in World War II, came back home, and became an alcoholic, a peyote user, a degenerate, a fighter, a basket case. Abel's life, throughout the novel, spirals out of control and he descends into his own personal hell.

This novel gave voice to the plights of Native Americans during this time period, people who are very traditional culturally and are struggling to keep their identity in the 21st century. Those of us who live off the reservation have heard stories, we've heard about Indians who are alcoholics and gamblers; but, really, we've only heard these stories from newsreels. Most of us don't know what's really happening over there, we don't have a firsthand account—we just have this tidbits we pick up from here, there, and the other. But, in House Made of Dawn, Momaday (being a Kiowa Indian himself and having grown up on a reservation) gives us an intimate account of things that he had probably seen, of people he had probably known, of situations and struggles he had probably encountered on a daily basis.
It's been a couple of days since I finished this novel and I'm still wrestling with it, still trying to determine how I felt about it. I loved it almost as much as I hated it, and I hated it almost as much as I loved it. It's a truly wonderful story, both heartbreaking and inspiring; it was both an engaging fictional story, and informing autobiographical sketch of life in the 21st century as a Native American. I was mesmerized by the story itself, and, after reading it, I felt much more informed about the plight of the Native Americans.

However, throughout the novel, I was frustrated and even angered by Momaday's writing style. It is truly a great work of everything I know to be postmodern literature—there are parallel narratives being told throughout the book, there are different perspectives addressing the same story, there are different points of view, there are several different "rabbits" Momaday chases, the time and setting are constantly shifting from paragraph to paragraph—it is a great piece of writing. And the language and voice Momaday employs is absolutely wonderful—his descriptions of locations, particularly locations in the wilderness or around the reservation, are absolutely beautiful. Somehow, he manages to describe something as mundane as trees in new and interesting and equally breathtaking ways every handful or so of pages. But because of the constant shift in narrative, it was really, really difficult to keep track of the story. The story, at times, simply disappears in Momaday's prose, albeit elegant. I have to forgive Momaday, though, because his writing is so good that I am forced to believe that his writing style is completely intentional—he knows exactly what he's doing throughout the novel, in every sentence. Furthermore, putting this novel in historical context, I am forced to believe that House Made of Dawn was written to reflect the chaos and tumult of the 60's and amongst his fellow Kiowa Indians.

Despite my difficulty in getting through the novel and keeping track of the story, I absolutely adored House Made of Dawn and would recommend it to anyone wanting to investigate either Native American or postmodern literature. After this journey is over, I may even want to re-read it, just to more fully pick up on themes and symbolism Momaday uses throughout the novel.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Entry 14: "All the King's Men" by Robert Penn Warren (1947)


It has been a really, really long time since the last Pulitzer Prize winner I successfully finished and wrote about. A lot has happened in the past nearly five months and I was unable to do any significant reading since my books were in boxes and being transported from one city to another. However, in the past month, I have found enough stability to unpack them, organize them on my shelf and start working my way through them again.

Of course, the novel that I chose to restart my Pulitzer journey with was, what I'm guessing, one of the most difficult novels to get through—not because it was a painstakingly dull read like The Magnificent Ambersons, but because it was so deeply profound and so utterly, dreadfully beautiful.

There are no words I can write here to describe Robert Penn Warren's 1947 Pulitzer winner, All the King's Men, that would do the novel any sort of justice, but because of the nature of this journey, I have to at least document it.
Let me first of all say that, after reading this novel, I'd really like Robert Penn Warren to be one of my favorite authors of all time. Unfortunately, this one book is not enough of a sample for me to make that sort of call; it is, however, enough for me to say that you can rest assured that once this journey is over, I will be investigating more of Warren's writings. His style of writing is so dense with beauty—heartbreaking, soul crushing beauty—and it is almost impossible to get through twenty or even ten pages without having to put the book down to take a deep breath and, perhaps even, weep a little.

In the first twelve pages, for instance, Warren embarks on this long narrative—a soliloquy, as it were—about an envelope. Of course, this discourse isn't really about the envelope at all—the envelope is merely the catalyst that introduces the reader to the theme of "knowing," and how "knowing" will steal your innocence, your naivete, and this theme will run its course throughout the novel. At first, as the reader, you curse Warren's name and say out loud, "What the hell are you even talking about?? Just get on with the story already!" Then, the almost stream of consciousness narrative is over and you are left gasping for air, wanting to read the paragraph over and over because of its raw power. You know you have to leave this moment behind, but you are constantly drawn back to it:
You saw the eyes bulge suddenly like that, as though something had happened inside him, and there was that glitter. You know something had happened inside him, and though: It's coming. It was always that way. There was the bulge and the glitter, and there was the cold grip way down in the stomach as though somebody has laid hold of something in there, in the dark which is you, with a cold hand in cold rubber glove. It was like the second when you come late at night and see the yellow envelope of the telegram sticking out from under your door and you can lean and pick it up, but don't open it yet, not for a second. While you stand there in the hall, with the envelope in your hand, you feel there's an eye on you, a great big eye looking straight at you from miles and dark and through walls and houses and through your coat and vest and hide and sees you huddle up way inside, in the dark which is you, inside yourself, like a clammy, sad little foetus you carry around inside yourself. The eye knows what's in the envelope, and it is watching you to see you when you open it and know, too. But the clammy, sad little foetus which is you way down in the dark which is you too lifts up its sad little face and its eyes are blind, and it shivers cold inside you for it doesn't want to know what is in that envelope. It wants to lie in the dark and not know, and be warm in its not-knowing. The end of man is knowledge, but there is one thing he can't know. He can't know whether knowledge will save him or kill him. He will be killer, all right, but he can't know whether he is killed because of the knowledge which he has got or because of the knowledge which he hasn't got and which if he had it, would save him. There's the cold in your stomach, but open the envelope, you have to open the envelope, for the end of man is to know.
Even re-reading it now has winded me and has broken my heart yet again. And the most amazing part about his writing style is that he maintains this level of intensity and beauty throughout the entire novel. Four hundred and sixty four pages of literature that is so profound and so moving that it makes you want to lay down on your floor, turn out the lights, and just stare at the darkness swirling around the ceiling. It's literature so beautiful that it makes you never want to read again—it's as if Warren has just given you the ultimate gift and, from now on, you'll never be in want again.

unreturned. The only difference is that Burden (Warren, rather) was able to articulate the way he hurt in a meaningful way.

When things like this happen to us in real life (and I'm speaking about us, men), we just get angry and leave it at that.
Unfortunately, I don't have much to say about the story itself. It wasn't a bad story or anything, I was just indifferent to it. I've read better stories, and I've definitely read much worse. But this one is really predictable throughout—it is the story of a country bumpkin runs for governor, wins the election, goes mad with power, and his madness is the start of his descent into futility; it is the story of an idealistic doctor whose idealism lands him his dream job of running a major hospital, but whose naivete puts him in the middle of a political system that drives him to corruption; it is the story of a beautiful young woman who forsakes the love that was shown her by the one man that wants nothing but to love her, and becomes the catalyst that undoes the worlds of those she loves most; it is the story of a man who just needs to work and in so doing, becomes a part of a corrupt political machine. These stories are nothing new. In fact, I daresay that there's nothing really original about these stories—we hear about them in everyday life, literally everyday. In fact, I have even read somewhere that Warren based the characters on real life persons (which, of course, makes this novel an interesting piece where the line between fiction and reality is blurred).

But I am forced to believe that it wasn't the originality of the story isn't what garnered the Pulitzer Prize—it was the breathtaking beauty of Warren's writing that did.
Next stop: House Made of Dawn, by N. Scott Momaday.
It feels good to be back.