Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Satire

Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth

The blurb on the back of this edition of Portnoy’s Complaint proclaims thus: “Portnoy’s Complaint must surely be the funniest book about sex ever written”. It was released to a storm of controversy, the pearl-clutchers taking issue with his explicit descriptions of sex and masturbation using various props (including, believe it or not, a piece of liver that the protagonist’s mother later cooked and served for dinner). All of this is to say that Portnoy’s Complaint sounded very, very promising to me. 😉

This is Philip Roth’s trademark novel, the “humorous monologue of a lust-ridden, mother-addicted young Jewish bachelor”, focusing on themes of sexual desire and frustration, full to the brim with comedic prose and self-conscious literariness. I actually started reading it the very same week that Philip Roth died, and I’m kicking myself that I didn’t get to it sooner. Portnoy’s Complaint turned Roth into a literary celebrity of sorts, and he went on to win pretty much every major award there is. I actually read a New York Times article in the weeks following his death that described how he would wait by the phone before each Nobel announcement, waiting on the call to say he’d finally won… and his devastation every time the phone didn’t ring. It was an odd combination of endearing and heartbreaking.

His literary brilliance and desperation for critical acclaim aside, I’m not sure Roth was all that endearing as a person. I read, for instance, that his progress in writing Portnoy’s Complaint was very slow – he claimed to be suffering from writer’s block, which he attributed to his ex-wife and the “unpleasant notion” that any royalties earned from the novel would have to be shared with her. As if that weren’t gross enough, she was killed in a car accident in 1968, and Roth’s writer’s block magically lifted. Immediately after the funeral, he made a beeline for a writer’s retreat, and promptly completed the manuscript. Ew. That story makes me want to shake him and shout “STOP BLAMING WOMEN FOR YOUR BULLSHIT!”… but I digress.


Portnoy’s Complaint, the very one that gave the book its title, Roth defines as “a disorder in which strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature”. Surely, we can all relate 😉 The book is presented as a monologue as told to a psychiatrist, and I think it was very clever on Roth’s part to position it that way. Had it read as a simple conversation with a generic “reader”, or a diary entry or some such nonsense, Portnoy’s pontificating would have been much harder to stomach. In Roth’s own words, the artistic choice to frame the story as a psychoanalytic session was motivated by “the permissive conventions of the patient-analyst situation” which would “permit [him] to bring into [his] fiction the sort of intimate, shameful detail, and coarse, abusive language that […] in another fictional environment would have struck [him] as pornographic, exhibitionistic, and nothing but obscene.” So, yeah. The dude knew what he was doing.

The blurb promises, as I mentioned, a comedy about sex – and yes, there is a lot of wanking (which is, in itself, very funny), but mostly Portnoy’s Complaint is about the narrator’s parents and growing up Jewish in mid-20th century America. The monologue darts back and forth through the various stages of his life, describing scenes and experiences that all relate back to his “complaint” (as it were): his inability to let loose and properly enjoy sex, no matter how creative and, erm, kinky he gets. But really, the thrust of his problem is that his mother did a real number on him, and the Jews have had a rough trot in general. I guess there’s probably a greater point in that, about how we experience our problems and what we think are our problems aren’t our real problems, or something… but I’m not here to dissect all that. Honestly, I read Portnoy’s Complaint for the lols, and Roth has plenty of those to offer.



(And the ending is so good! I’d imagine there are a lot of readers who have rolled their eyes and groaned, but I say: boo to them! It effectively turns the whole book into the set-up for a joke, the final words being the punchline. And if that doesn’t convince you to pick up Portnoy’s Complaint and give it a go, I don’t know what will!)

I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn, given the above, that Portnoy’s Complaint has a glorious history of being banned and challenged across the reading world. In 1969, it was declared a “prohibited import” in Australia. Penguin Books circumvented the ban by having copies printed in Sydney, and storing them in fleets of moving trucks to avoid seizure under state obscenity laws. Attempts to prosecute the publishers for this literary subterfuge were successful in some states, but not in others. Eventually, in 1971, Roth’s work was removed from the federal banned content list, but not before “the Portnoy matter” (as it was known) became a watershed in Australian censorship law. It marks the last occasion on which the censorship of a literary publication came before the courts.

My tl;dr summary of Portnoy’s Complaint: a repressed Jewish guy whacks his psychiatrist over the head (repeatedly!) with his Oedipal complex. It’s funny, engaging, and charming – perhaps a little too dirty for some folks, but that’s how I like ’em. Reading Portnoy’s Complaint is like eating apple pie and ice cream for dinner: you could make an argument that there’s some nutritional value in doing it, but ultimately it’s just indulgent and fun for grown-ups.


My favourite Amazon reviews of Portnoy’s Complaint:

  • “I don’t know why I find this surprising given the title of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” but there sure is a lot more complaining in this book than I’m used to reading. Also, I guess bagging on one’s family and coming up with 200 euphemisms for masturbation was revolutionary in 1967, but 40 years on and it’s beyond “quaint”. Perhaps our present day society has caught up with and surpassed this level of “lurid?” Regardless, I couldn’t finish it.” – Warren Ernst
  • “great if you like Roth” – jane
  • “Ugh. I don’t get why people like this. Funny, sure, but it reads like a more scatological version of a Woody Allen movie.” – JessiPlaysJazz
  • “I think I can see what the author was trying to tell, but as a gay man I found all the detailed descriptions of hetero sex to be off-putting.” – T. Dreiling
  • “If you like books that are just about masturbation, this is for you.” – J.F. -Lackey
  • “After hearing a lot of good reviews of the book ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ I checked out the internet and fount the book for sale on ‘Amazon’.
    Whilst I wouldn’t rate the book itself as highly as others I was very happy with the transaction.” – Flexi

 

Tropic Of Cancer – Henry Miller

This is it, people: the one we’ve all been waiting for! Get yourselves a glass of wine and strap in, because after dozens and dozens of books, after a year of searching, I have finally found it: some decent literary smut! If that’s not your thing, look away now, because I tell you what – Henry Miller’s Tropic Of Cancer had me clutching my pearls.

To understand Tropic Of Cancer, you really need to understand the life and times of Henry Miller. See, Tropic of Cancer, much like The Sun Also Rises, and On The Road, is what we call a roman-à-clef (which is a fancy way of saying that Miller wrote a diary and just changed a few names before he published it). Miller grew up in the States, born in 1891 to German-speaking parents and only learning to speak English fluently during his school years. As an adult, he had – shall we say – a complicated romantic life. By way of example, at one point he had an affair with his first wife’s mother. He supported himself through a string of odd-jobs until his second wife took him to Paris. There, she encouraged him to begin writing, and he threw himself whole-heartedly into a life of bohemian squalor. Paris was the place for it, after all; the city was chockers full of debauched artistic types (Hemingway, Joyce, and Beckett all hung out there during the same period), so he had plenty of company.

As he was writing Tropic Of Cancer, his first book, he began a torrid affair with Anaïs Nin (and it was her diaries, published later, that made celebrities of them both). Then, a plot twist: Miller’s wife began an affair with Nin as well. Unsurprisingly, they divorced in 1934, the same year that Tropic Of Cancer was published.

It was an interesting conflation of circumstances that led Tropic Of Cancer to even see the light of day. Firstly, it was the editorial support of Nin – not to mention her financial backing – that got the manuscript to a publishable standard. But even with her guidance and injection of cash, there was the matter of finding a publishing house that would take it on. That’s where the legendary laissez-faire attitude of the French saved the day. See, British and American publishers were constrained by tight obscenity laws and unwilling to take risks on “dirty books”, while the French – predictably – did not give a shit. As such, Tropic Of Cancer was published in Paris for the first time in 1934, but it did not reach the English-speaking world until 1961, after many lengthy legal battles.

I bet you think I’m overstating it. How could a book possibly be so filthy that it warranted 30 years of controversy? Consider the opinion of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael Musmanno, who said that Tropic Of Cancer is “… not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity.”

Given that that’s the case, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that I fucking loved it!

“It is now the fall of my second year in Paris. I was sent here for a reason I have not yet been able to fathom. I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”

Tropic of Cancer (pG 1)

Tropic Of Cancer isn’t a stream of consciousness, but it’s something adjacent to it. It is set in France during the late 1920s and 30s, focusing on Miller’s life as a starving artist. There’s no real linear narrative, and Miller fluctuates fluidly through the past and the present and his philosophical musings on life. It’s basically a string of anecdotes about his friends, lovers, work, life, and neighbourhood, with the occasional epiphany and some fun facts thrown in.

“The physiology of love. The whale with his six-foot penis, in repose. The bat-penis libre. Animals with a bone in the penis. Hence, a bone on… ‘Happily,’ says Gourmont, ‘the bony structure is lost in man’. Happily? Yes, happily. Think of the human race walking around with a bone on. The kangaroo has a double penis – one for week-days and one for holidays.”

Tropic of Cancer (Pg 2-3)

And, yes, there is a lot of filth. I can see why the conservatives kicked up such a stink (which is unusual for me – usually, I’m left wondering what could possibly have caused such offence). I did notice, though, that Miller really writes more about hunger and food than he does about sex. I assume that’s because, well, most bohemians were homeless and starving. Nin once observed to Miller that “in Tropic Of Cancer you were only sex and a stomach”, and that is probably the best assessment of this book that anyone has ever made.

The sex and debauchery that he does describe seems more angry than lustful. It’s abundantly clear that he was trying to make a point, moreso than titillate the reader (not that he was opposed to a bit of titillation, mind you – he and Nin both made their pocket money writing erotica to order, mostly for private collectors). I read some commentators say that the pornographic passages “no longer shock” the modern reader, but I’ll happily stick up my hand and say that references to inserting reptiles and rodents into a woman’s rectum were still pretty damn confronting for me.

There’s also a lot of quibbling among the various readers and critics as to whether Miller was a misogynist, and whether Tropic Of Cancer was a misogynistic book. I’m sure he was, to an extent, but to me most of the woman-hate-y passages read as so tongue-in-cheek that I couldn’t imagine even Miller himself taking them seriously. Plus, the men in the book were hardly a picnic. I keep coming around to the same question: does it matter? Whether Miller hated women seems to be largely beside the point. What matters more is whether today’s reader can think critically about his misogynistic portrayal – real or imagined – in a contemporary context. I’d hate to think that some incel fuck-knuckle would read this book and use it to justify his hatred of women, but I’m also a firm believer in “you don’t read the book, the book reads you”. Misogynists will find misogyny in anything they read, regardless of the author’s intent, and that’s that.

There is a sequel, Tropic of Capricorn, published five years after Tropic Of Cancer, and it too was banned in all English-speaking countries for nearly 30 years. It actually covers an earlier period in Miller’s life, so I guess that makes it a “prequel” more than anything. When the two books finally reached the English speaking world, together, Miller became a household name. He was hailed by the Sixties counter-culture as a “prophet of freedom and sexual revolution”. Or, in my own words, Miller did what Kerouac did, but better than Kerouac did it, while Kerouac was still in grade school.

I couldn’t possibly recommend this book blindly. It’s too smutty, and Miller makes liberal use of the c-bomb and all other manner of creative profanity. Tropic Of Cancer is artistic and esoteric, in the extreme. So, if the appeal of Paris for you is strolling the Champs E’lysses and taking in high fashion and fine art while munching on croissants, this is not the book for you. If, on the other hand, the idea of filth, hunger, homelessness, squalor, and despair gets your motor running, and dying in a Parisian gutter of venereal disease sounds romantic, then Tropic Of Cancer is probably just your speed. Guess which camp I fall into… 😉

My favourite Amazon reviews of Tropic Of Cancer:

  • “Lordy what a waste of ink and paper.” – C. Richter
  • “I hated this book. About as erotic as a software manual.” – Golindrina
  • “This is an easy read if you’re an English Lit. fellow at Princeton.” – Rob Wallace
  • “This book reminds me of sitting out on my back porch listening to my drunken neighbor telling dirty lies…sometimes funny and sometimes annoying. It is a definite rambler but entertaining at times. The book was good enough to finish” – Stephen F. Brecht
  • “Beautifully offensive” – Jorge
  • “Wife seems very happy with the books ;-)” – Mark D
  • “If you want to improve your vocabulary and have a rollicking good time doing it, the sexist pig Miller is your best bet! TREMENDOUS VITALITY!” – Richard Stark

Money: A Suicide Note – Martin Amis

Remember The Catcher In The Rye? Well, Money: A Suicide Note is basically the grown up’s version. If you like your narrators drunk, rich, and horny, then this is the book for you! Amis reportedly based the book on his experiences as a scriptwriter on the film Saturn 3 (remember that classic?). If this is really what the script-writing life is like, then half the residents of Los Angeles could surely give The Wolf of Wall Street a run for his money.

Money: A Suicide Note follows the story of John Self, a successful ad director who lives for fast food, hard liquor, and hot women. Self travels back and forth between London and New York, trying to get his first feature film project off the ground. Now, Amis very deliberately subverts the tropes of the “Englishman abroad” story; for once, a Brit goes across the Atlantic and isn’t horrified by all Americans. Self actually fits right in.

For the first two thirds of the book, there’s not really much plot – Self just eats and drinks to excess, meets with film stars, and makes rape jokes. (Oh, yeah, you’d better be willing to stomach a barrel of satirical misogyny if you’re going to take this one on.) It’s kind of like a day trip into the mind of Harvey Weinstein.

Self also has a stalker, who calls and bitches him out over the phone whenever he’s in New York. Self calls him “Frank The Phone”. When the plot finally emerges, it builds to a big showdown between the two of them, and that’s when shit really starts to unravel. It turns out that “Frank” is actually Fielding Goodney, his film’s producer. (I was kind of disappointed by that particular plot twist – I thought there would be a Fight Club-esque reveal where the stalker turned out to be a figment of Self’s psychosis.) Not only has Goodney been harassing Self, but the whole film project turns out to be a sham – not only does Self lose every penny he invested, he also loses everything he has (and then some) because Goodney convinced him to personally underwrite all debts and losses. Sucks to be him, eh?




There’s also a weird wife-swapping love story that weaves in and out. Self has a girlfriend in London (Selina) who hits him up for cash every chance she gets. Around the same time that his career falls apart, he finds out that she is pregnant to one of his business associates. Self isn’t all that shook up by it though, because (funnily enough) he has a thing for that very business associate’s wife. It looks, for a minute, like Money: A Suicide Note might have a “happily ever after” 9well, as happy you can get when a nice-enough woman, burned by an unfaithful husband, gets together with a hedonistic slob)… but Selina pulls off a crazy scheme to break them up. So, in the end, Self is broke, alone, and – oh yeah – he finds out that his dad isn’t his dad, and his car breaks down. It’s a rough time all around.

Don’t go feeling too sorry for him: Self is anything but pitiable. He worships at the altar of money and self-indulgence. He’s a consumerist, in every sense of the world – food, booze, drugs, and women – and his appetite is insatiable. It’s all a very clever metaphor, of course, for 20th century capitalism and greed, but Self is so grotesque that sometimes you forget that Amis is being ironic. Really, Self’s only redeeming quality as a narrator is that he’s quite funny.

“But that’s the whole trouble with dignity and self-respect: they cost you so much fucking money.”

– John Self

Yes, Money: A Suicide Note is endlessly quotable, and Self’s narration is full of gems. Just about every sentence could appear on the bottom of a demotivational poster. In fact, I took the liberty of mocking up a couple…

Erections - Demotivational Poster - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Addictions - Demotivational Poster - Keeping Up With The Penguins

And another fun little quirk of the story: Amis randomly introduces himself as a character! On Page 71:

“I once shouted across the street, and gave him a V-sign and a warning fist. He stood his ground, and stared. This writer’s name, they tell me, is Martin Amis. Never heard of him. Do you know his stuff at all?”

It threw me a little at first, but it was certainly something fun and different. Amis (the character) ends up being a kind of confidant to Self. Self mocks him for “living like a student” (seemingly under the impression that writers get paid big bucks, ha!), but he begrudgingly respects him. Amis tries to warn Self about his self-destructive behaviour, but of course Self doesn’t listen. It was a nifty little narrative technique that I haven’t seen before, so props to (real-life) Amis for that one!


On the whole, Money: A Suicide Note seems a bit dated. It’s very anchored in the 1980s, when pornography was “widely accessible” on VHS (the notion of pornography “addiction” in a time when you had to leave your house to purchase it in hard-copy seems kind of quaint, now, doesn’t it?). If we were try to transplant Money: A Suicide Note into today’s world, the story wouldn’t work – Self would just stare at his phone the whole time, and have UberEats delivered every hour on the hour. Still, if you liked Lolita for Humbert Humbert (but aren’t too hung up on the “beauty” of your prose), you’ll probably enjoy Money. If nothing else, the book is great for a few laughs – thank goodness the humour carries over!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Money: A Suicide Note:

  • “I got this book on a recommendation from an adult film director who named himself after one of the characters. I found it repetitive.” – nestor bloodyvessel
  • “For the most part, I believe drunks like John Self in this novel, crazy people like the Australian pianist in the movie who’s name I can’t remember, and blow-hards like Citizen Kane don’t make interesting protagonists.It takes a Dickens to create works of art based on characters whose mental life seems so circumscribed and repetitive.” – Charles Dickens Dave
  • “I wouldn’t even give it one star. The best word I can find to describe this book is cheesey. It’s about as compelling as a car wreck. I’m wondering how to get rid of it. I can’t recommend it to a friend. It’s not even amusing, just dumb and kind of annoying, especially a few pages before 78, when the narrator mentions the author, Martin Amis, by name as someone whose stalking him. Just dumb.” – A customer

 

Emma – Jane Austen

Chris Kyle filled up my tolerance bucket to overflowing. By the time I was done with American Sniper, I was desperate to get back to literature that didn’t offend every moral fiber of my being. In my hour of need, I turned to one of the most recognisable female writers of the English language. My sum total experience of Austen beforehand was six aborted attempts to read Pride and Prejudice, and falling asleep during the Keira Knightley film adaptation. I know I’ll have to get around to reading that particular masterpiece eventually (it’s also on The List), but baby steps are the name of the game. So, I decided to start with Emma.

Emma was the last of Austen’s six novels to be completed, after the publication of Pride and Prejudice. A London publisher offered her £450 for the manuscript, and asked for the copyright for Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility thrown into the bargain. She told him to get stuffed, and in 1815 published two thousand copies at her own expense. She retained all of the copyright, and (more importantly) all of the bragging rights. Slay, Austen, slay!

Before she began writing Emma, Austen wrote to a friend: “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”. From what I can tell, later critics didn’t dislike Emma as much as they simply acknowledged that she was a flawed character (the horror!). The book isn’t even really about her, per se; Emma is actually a satirical novel about manners, hubris, and the perils of misconstrued romance, exploring the lives of genteel women in the early 19th century and issues of marriage, gender, age, and social status. But all I knew about it before I started reading was that it was the basis of the movie Clueless.

Clueless - You're a virgin who can't drive - Emma - Jane Austen - Keeping Up With The Penguins

So, the central character, Emma Woodhouse (“handsome, clever, and rich”), fancies herself to be quite the matchmaker in her small English village. She’s wealthy enough to get by without a husband of her own, but she takes great pleasure in meddling with other people’s love lives. What else was a girl to do before Tinder? Her pet project is Harriet Smith, an unsophisticated, illegitimate seventeen-year-old girl whose only prospect for social advancement is a good matrimonial match. Now, you can look past this pretty weak and flimsy plot to read Emma as a searing class commentary on the right of the elite to dominate society… but, if that’s not your thing, you should know right now: Emma is basically The Book Where Nothing Happens.

I mean it: nothing really happens. Every scene is a visit or a party where bored rich men and women gossip about who will marry whom. Emma tries to set Harriet up with everyone, but they all fall in love with Emma (or her dowry) instead – boohoo. There’s a lot of whining about rich white-girl problems. Now and then, there’s a dramatic declaration of love or a rejected proposal to keep the wheel turning, but otherwise it’s all pretty bland. Most of the story is told through the gossip of the town of Highbury, kind of like the original Gossip Girl.




 

The most interesting and likeable character in Emma was the uncouth Mrs Elton. Mrs Elton has fat stacks of cash, but lacks the manners and social graces that are expected of her in “polite society”. She commits social suicide almost immediately, calling people by their first names (gasp!) and boasting about her family’s wealth (can you imagine?). Emma describes her as “self-important, presuming, familiar, ignorant, and ill-bred”, but I liked her. She was a whole lot more fun than the rest of them put together. Picture an old-timey Kath & Kim character mixing with the upper crust: hilarious! It is Mrs Elton’s lack of social grace that reveals the hypocrisy and the ridiculousness of the gentility. Good on her, I say!

Things start to heat up a bit plot-wise towards the end (in relative terms, anyway): people get sick, peripheral characters die, there’s arguments between friends, and the very-predictable love triangle comes to a head. There’s a happy ending (i.e., everyone gets married), which pretty much makes it a 19th century beach read.


Emma isn’t a horrible book, and I didn’t hate it. Indeed, it’s quite clever and charming, in its own way. There’s some really funny bits, there’s some interesting class and gender commentary… but the pacing is positively glacial, and (as I said before) nothing happens. In terms of this particular edition, the introduction was fine, but the footnotes were absolutely taking the piss. No kidding, there is a footnote providing the definition of “carriage”, but nothing for the word “valetudinarian” (I had to Google it, it means “a person who is unduly anxious about their health”, just so you know). I gave up on the notes a few chapters in, they just weren’t adding much to my reading experience.

My tl;dr summary of Emma would be this: if you get your jollies dissecting the idiosyncrasies of high society in early 19th century England, and don’t mind falling asleep now and then while you’re reading, Emma will make your day. If you’re chasing action and intrigue and shock-twist endings, you might want to give this one a miss. Fingers crossed Pride and Prejudice will give me a bit more to chew on…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Emma:

  • “Boring, BORING, B O R I N G!” – Cliffgypsy
  • “too many similarities between this book and the much better Alicia Silverstone movie Clueless for me to recommend it to everyone but all in all if you like your teen comedies set in Victorian england and not LA, go for it. Grab it before Hollywood discovers the similarities and gets it yanked off the shelf with a court order. Maybe Austen can write her next one based on the plot of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Set it in South Africa during the Boar war or something” – Walter Rice
  • “Tedious and slow. Too much angst and upstanding-ness.” – Iaswa
  • “Normally, “women’s fiction,” focusing on relationships and family, doesn’t interest me much, but Austen writes so well I was able to read all the way through. That emma, what an interfering know-it-all, but the harm is not irreparable.” – Marie Brack

 

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

It was quite some time ago now that I picked up a perfectly-preserved copy of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 from that ever-giving local secondhand bookstore. I know at least one very loyal reader is very excited for this particular review; he’s a former colleague, and for years we shared an in-joke that we would buy a copy of Heller’s seminal work as a Secret Santa gift for a woman on our team who would constantly refer to difficult circumstances as “Catch-42s”. Yes, we’re horrible, petty people, but in our defense it was really, really funny.

Joseph Heller began working on Catch-22 in spare moments at his day job in 1953. The sonofabitch book took eight years to complete, finally published in 1961. Heller died 30 years later. He was the poster child for the uber-precious 20th century white male author, if his introduction is anything to go by. To summarise, he looked back on his masterpiece shortly before his death, stomped his foot, and whined “it didn’t win ANY awards or get on ANY bestseller lists, even though my publisher made some smart people read it and THEY said it was really good! HMPH!“. He was more than a little bitter about the reviews that were less than glowing, even though the book is largely lauded as one of the greatest satirical works of all time. There’s just no pleasing some people…

Catch-22 is set during WWII, between 1942 and 1944. The main character is a bombadier; Heller was also a bombadier during that very period, so apparently he took the whole “write what you know” thing pretty literally. The story follows the life of Captain Yossarian and others in his squadron. They’re all just trying to fulfill or circumvent the requirements of their deployment so they can get the fuck out of Dodge.

I would think that the main reason to pick this one up today is to figure out for yourself the origins of the cultural shorthand “a catch-22”. Luckily, I’m here to save you all the trouble! It’s essentially a plot device: a Catch-22 initially refers to the paradoxical requirement that men who are mentally unfit to fly planes in the war effort did not have to do so, but to claim that you were mentally unfit and did not want to fly made you demonstrably sane (ergo, fit to fly). So, you can’t win either way, it’s a catch-22. Geddit? In the story, Yossarian has a few stabs at getting the squadron’s doctor to declare him mentally unfit (so that he could go home without having to fly any more missions), but he’s stymied at every turn by Catch-22. This “catch” is invoked a lot as the book goes on, with broader and broader applications, until it becomes an explanation for virtually all unreasonable restrictions encountered by the cast of characters.




The ultimate catch, as Yossarian figures out towards the end, is that Catch-22 doesn’t actually exist, except that everyone simply believes that it does – as such, it can never be repealed, undone, overthrown, or denounced. It’s pretty clever, if you ask me. A “catch-22” is now, of course, understood to mean any type of double-bind or absurd no-win situation, but I’d imagine that only a really small percentage of those who use the phrase have actually read the book. (It’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde all over again!)

Catch-22 reads like a satirical memoir in that it’s a series of anecdotes cobbled together to showcase the ridiculousness of war and bureaucracy. In a lot of respects, though, it’s all over the shop; as the introduction puts it, the novel has a “distinctive non-chronological third-person omniscient narration”. Basically, the reader has to figure out for themselves what’s going on and where things are at, because it jumps around like a coked-up rabbit.

The first couple hundred pages are really funny. I don’t think you need to have had exposure to military life to appreciate the comedy – really, any experience in bureaucracy will do. It’s a lot like watching any satirical TV show; there’s a cast of exaggerated characters and maybe a thread or two tying things together, but no real cohesive plot.


Even though Heller was pissed off about its critical reception and sales, Catch-22 actually did quite well. It became particularly popular among teenagers in the 1960s, as a kind of manifesto embodying the feelings they had about the Vietnam War. Indeed, “Yossarian Lives!” became an anti-war slogan at the time, and there was a joke about every liberal arts student arriving at university with a copy of Catch-22 under their arm. So, really, Heller needed to calm down – he captured the youth market at a very turbulent time and coined a phrase used by English speakers every day to describe the universal frustration brought on by dealing with bureaucracy in all its forms. Bloody neurotic writers, they wouldn’t know success if it bit them on the arse…

Like I said, Catch-22 is really funny… for the first couple hundred pages. Past that point, it starts to wear a bit thin. I know Heller was probably Making A Point with all the circular reasoning and repetition, but the point was well-made pretty early on. The second half of the book started to get really predictable (read: boring), and then it nosedived at the end into some really dark realities of war. I recommend that reading some of the funniest excepts online is the best way to go, rather than sinking your teeth into the whole thing (Heller’s neurotic tantrums be damned).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Catch-22:

  • “Worth buy.” – Sarah
  • “Great opening but then the story becomes more and more predictable and boring as the characters develop. The jokes for some reason don’t captivate my soul.” – lolly
  • “It’s a great book. I hate it!” – Cullen Forster
  • “First published in 1961, this scathing satire of nincompoops in the Air Force works today about nincompoops everywhere else.” – Gale H. Weir
  • “I’m in the Army.” – Daniel Dobson
  • “Other than the bible, this is one of my favourite books!” – Mr Paul

 

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Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

My third undertaking for Keeping Up With The Penguins took the longest so far, and by a long way: trust me when I say that Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray is one hell of a trudge.

Vanity Fair is “a novel without a hero”, set during the Napoleonic wars. It was originally published as a 19-volume serial, from 1847 to 1848 – and boy, does it show. The title is a reference to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress: a never-ending fair in a town called Vanity, representing man’s sinful attachment to worldly things (see: old-timey Instagram). The blurb on the back promised a “scandalous tale of murder, wealth and social climbing”, which was a relief after the giant whingeing bummer that was The Scarlet Letter… at first.

See, here’s the thing: the first couple hundred pages were amazing. I was laughing out loud, interrupting my husband cooking dinner to read him passages, delighting in the strong, sassy women holding their own among the vain, sooky fuck-boys of the 19th century. Things started to get a bit bleak once the Battle of Waterloo kicked off (I mean, I get bored during fight scenes in movies, let alone reading about military events) – but at least, 400 pages in, things were still happening…

But by the 600th page, things had become frightfully dull. There were endless character sketches of folks beyond even the periphery of the plot. Thackeray treated us to lengthy (and I mean lengthy) descriptions of people’s living quarters. It’s abundantly clear, by that point, that Vanity Fair wasn’t written as a novel, and Thackeray just wanted to keep getting paid for his serial, even after all the action had passed. Indeed, I found out later that he had only written the first three volumes in advance – the rest he came up with on the fly. It’s like reading an essay where the student has made their point and just needs to pad out the word count.

When you just need to hit that word count - Very Young Small Early Peas - Vanity Fair - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Let me save you a bit of time. Vanity Fair opens in some kind of finishing school for girls, and – having lived in an all-girl dormitory at boarding school myself – I can attest that not much is different from present day. The story centers on two female characters: Rebecca Sharp and Amelia Sedley. Becky was my favourite from the outset: she had “no soft maternal heart”, all of the bitches were jealous of her, and she basically ran around the whole book sorting her husband’s shit out, teasing the fellas and ignoring her kid. She flirts her way into high society, and cons sugar-daddies into paying her debts without ever taking her clothes off. That’s the kind of anti-hero I can get behind!

Amelia, on the other hand, is the polar opposite: a whiney goody-two-shoes who really could have done with a copy of He’s Just Not That Into You. She gets hung up on a dude who condescends to marry her even though her Dad’s poor (what a guy!). Then he trots off and gets himself killed in battle, so it’s back to square one. Amelia mopes around after him for years, keeping his best mate Captain Dobbin shackled to the wall of the “Friend Zone”. Eventually, Dobbin sacks up and tells her off for pining over the ghost of a guy (who had shagged her best friend anyway). She capitulates and marries Dobbin in the end, and they go on to live a life of boredom.

The end of Becky’s narrative arc was far more fun. Her husband abandons her; he tried to have her and her chief sugar-daddy merked, but the sugar daddy came through with a plum job for him on a far-away island, so hubby figures that’s just as good and gets the fuck outta Dodge before Becky can cock up anything else. Becky falls into a life of prostitution and gambling, eventually snagging Amelia’s brother for Husband No. 2, only to top him and run away with the life insurance money. She lives far more happily ever after than the rest of them.

So, with all that, the story does perk up a bit towards the end, but it was well past the point where I was desperate for some murder or adultery to stay awake. At least crappy TV shows have the decency to cram in weddings ruined by car crashes and unplanned teen pregnancies to keep us entertained once they’ve jumped the shark. By the time Vanity Fair got interesting again, my brain had leaked out of my ears reading all those passages about home furnishings, and I no longer cared what happened. If you can bear with Thackeray through the endless dull passages about people you’ve never heard of and houses you’ve never seen, he does have some delightful asides and insights that are still startlingly relevant over 150 years later (e.g., “What’s the good of being in parliament, he said, if you must pay your debts?”). Modernise the language, and Vanity Fair would read like a 21st century blog.


The big “plot twist” is more of a cute little narrative device: it’s only on page 796 that Thackeray reveals the whole story has actually been written in the first person. The narrator is an actual character, recounting the entire tale as second- and third-hand gossip. The whole time, I’d thought it was just a charming, conversational, Woody Allen-esque omniscient figure, recounting a story designed to make girls scared of getting hung-up on fuck-boys and living lives of excess.

Ultimately, I’m not going to read Vanity Fair again, and I’d recommend that you don’t, either. Just Google a list of Thackeray’s best quotes, and watch a film version (where they’re forced, in the interests of time, to cut out the boring bits).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Vanity Fair:

  • “Great book. Becky is unique I hope.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Ugh, give yourself some time and alcohol; it’s a long one.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I wasn’t smart enough to stay with it – and I read a lot. Good luck.” – julie castleberry

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