Hunger by Knut Hamsun

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Hunger

Author: Knut Hamsun

Type of Book: Literary fiction

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Well, it’s a book without a plot with an utterly unhinged protagonist. Possibly one of the most upsetting books I have ever read.

Availability: This book was originally published in 1890. My edition is from Farrar, Strauss, Giraux in 2008. You can get a copy here:

(If you have a Kindle, dig around because I saw a Kindle version going for free, though that may be because I have a Prime Membership on Amazon)

Comments: I’ve been putting off discussing this book because I don’t know where to start. Hunger really is a book without a plot – in this novel, the same thing happens every day with mild variations on action. There is no character arc because the protagonist is as vainglorious, horribly depressed, and lunatic at the beginning as he is at the end.  This book frustrated me beyond belief and yet I read it through twice because I just had to do it. And as contradictory as it sounds, I hated this book the first read and loved it the second. This is all the more contradictory because even though I loved it the second time, I never want to read this book again.

This book is the literary equivalent of running your soul over a cheese grater. Over and over again. It’s hard to discuss such a book with any skill, though others have. Initially, I thought Paul Auster’s take on this book, printed in the copy I read, was wrong, but later I realized he was correct – he just interrogated the text from a different perspective. He looked at the book from an intellectual perspective and I looked at it from the perspective of someone who has gone insane and felt something akin to pain reading such lunacy.

So I am faced with a problem: how does one discuss a narrator whose highs and lows make Raskolnikov’s public behavior seem normal? How can I discuss a book wherein nothing really changes and there is virtually no character arc? I don’t know. I think all I can do is discuss the parts of this book that resonated the most with me, and even this is going to be sticky because even as I divide the book into specific elements I want to discuss, there will be significant overlap between these elements. For example, as I discuss how the protagonist cannot act in his own self-interests, lunacy caused by starvation also comes into play. In fact, it is tempting to just write the words, “Starvation in a land of plenty will make you insane” over and over until I hit a decent word count. Just bear that in mind – there is a lot of overlap when discussing the narrator’s mind and actions.

Before I begin, I need to mention that I read the edition translated by Robert Bly, widely considered to be the crappiest translation because he evidently “corrected” verb usage to eliminate mixed tenses. Mixed tenses, according to scholars of the text, were to show the disorganization of the protagonist’s mind. So my edition is actually a bit saner than the actual text. Though I sort of wish I had read a more faithful translation of the text, I suspect it is a good thing I read the less crazy version. As it was, the narrator’s mind was an utter vexation.

Hunger‘s narrator is trying to write in a very Dostoyevskian manner. He may be an excellent writer but his topics, “Crimes of the Future” or “Freedom of the Will” lean toward him being a self-impressed hack. His grand ideas are constrained by his grinding poverty and his mental disorganization.  The novel is divided into four parts and begins with him leaving a boarding house (though he could have stayed had he just approached the problem with logic and patience) and living rough. The second part of the novel concerns his attempts to live in a borrowed shack as he tries to write. In the third part, he meets a woman who slowly realizes he is not what she thought he was and the romance is dashed. The fourth section of the novel takes place mostly in a very low boarding house where the narrator, terrified of the cold and of living rough again, hangs onto a roof over his head in a manner so servile and cringing it almost killed me to read it. He finally goes to enlist as a crew member on a ship, which some take as him finally moving on from his despair, but I read as suicide, an interpretation I will, of course, explain. Until then, I will just divide this discussion up into relevant chunks and hope that at the end I have given the reader a good idea of the protagonist and the struggles he faces as he starves nearly to death in a world that often notices him too well or does not notice him at all.

Permanent Obscurity by Richard Perez

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Permanent Obscurity: Or a Cautionary Tale of Two Girls & Their Misadventures with Drugs, Pornography and Death

Author: Richard Perez

Type of Book: Fiction, transgressive (sort of)

Why Do I Consider This Book: The content is outre at times.

Availability: Published by Ludlow Press in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I’m in a slump. I don’t mind admitting it. I find myself reading mainstream fiction and sewing cat toys (if you want some, send me an e-mail). I look at the stack of odd books I need to discuss and I decide it’s time to clean the toilet or watch another barely coherent horror movie, and since Mr. Oddbooks got one of those Apple TV things, I have plenty. Lots and lots of really cheesy, really stupid horror movies. And every one of them seems more appealing than discussing books.

Is it a phase? Is my slump due to the fact that the drought caused the back of my house to sink an inch into the dried clay? Is it because I wake up every morning with a primitive need to pray to Tlaloc, begging him to just let it rain already? I’m not to the point that I’ll consider human sacrifice but I can see how it might come to that if this fucking summer will not end. Perhaps I will feel more kindly disposed toward my stack of oddness once the weather finally breaks and I can go outside without needing to go to the hospital after five minutes or so. Perhaps…

So I’m totally forcing myself to discuss books when I really want to be figuring out how to make my catnip fabric fortune cookies more realistic. And you should bear in mind this shitty mood of mine as you read any book discussion that occurs before Central Texas gets five inches of rain and goes two weeks without hitting 100 degrees.

Okay, Permanent Obscurity is not a bad book but it is not a good book either. The protagonist, in addition to lacking self-awareness, is one of the most tiresome, irritating, foolhardy, aggressive heroines you will ever read. She is best friends with a sociopathic, self-absorbed sadist. Together, the two of them, in the bowels of New York, decide to escape from the terrible financial situation they find themselves in by making a porno. Oh yeah, they owe a ton of money to a drug dealer. That should have gone without saying. The porno goes terribly wrong, as you knew it would, ending in a high speed chase and jail time.

The author tries to justify creating characters that irritate and annoy by saying, through the mouth of Dolores:

You better recognize this fact: People are complicated.

People are indeed complicated. Dolores, the heroine, and her friend Serena, are not that complicated, however. There is really only one complicated character in this book, a man called Baby who is in thrall, in a very controlled manner, to Serena. Everyone one else shows clearly how being completely fucked-up often passes for being complicated.

As I read this book, I imagined Dolores, our pregnant and drug abusing heroine, to be what would happen if you crossed the actresses Rosie Perez and Michelle Rodriguez with a fierce, constantly yapping Jack Russell terrier. I imagined Serena, the best friend who is hardly a friend and governed by a psychopathic self-interest, to be what would happen if you crossed Lindsay Lohan and any random porn actress with a Siamese cat.

The Woman Who Walked into Doors by Roddy Doyle

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: The Woman Who Walked into Doors

Author: Roddy Doyle

Type of book: Fiction

Why Did I Read This Book: This was a case of a title grabbing me when I was at Border’s Books and I bought it on a whim. I almost didn’t buy it because Mary Gordon had a blurb on the back and I responded very negatively to the book I read by her recently, but I’m glad I read it. Very glad.

Availability: Penguin Books is the publisher and you can get a copy here:

Comments:: I fell in love with this book. Absolutely in love. I will, bank account issues be damned, soon order all of Roddy Doyle’s work. There are moments like this in my life, when I read an author and it feels like the literary equivalent of falling into deep, romantic love, wherein you know in advance that even if the object of your affection may fail you in some regard in the future, the sum total of their wonderfulness and compatibility with you will overshadow such moments.

Paula Spencer is an alcoholic mother of four. She cleans homes and white-knuckles her way through her evenings, controlling the times in which she drinks but still drinking far too much. She is a widow, but before her worthless husband died in a robbery attempt gone bad, she threw him out of the family home, a violent catharsis that in the hands of a less honest writer would have been the prelude to saccharine moments in which Paula’s life resolves itself. Her relationship with her sisters would have improved, she would have been able to help her addict son, she would have gotten sober herself and done something more than clean houses.

But Doyle understands that life might have a moment wherein a paralyzed person is suddenly capable of action, but that a moment of clarity does not a changed life make. Doyle shows the arc of Paula’s life as she gradually loses more and more innocence, slowly becomes more and more broken. This novel, better than any novel I have read in recent memory, tells the story of how men defined the world of women, from their actions to their words, and how hard it is to overcome such intrusive beginnings.

This is a book wherein lines and sometimes entire sections resonated deeply with me. Paula’s life was one spent in a world where men acted inappropriately, where men did not protect girls and actively harmed them in some cases, where people blamed women for getting beat up, where even fathers who never physically harmed their children cannot be trusted emotionally. This book was mostly amazing because Doyle shows how a character can hold a multitude of feelings, opinions that can seem contradictory, yet ring very true nonetheless. Doyle’s ability to show the multitudes within Paula shows him as a keen observer of human nature and a fine writer, able to accurately convey complex emotions with the beauty of an accomplished story teller yet with complete honesty.