Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Penguin Classics)

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The Purpose of Plot: An Argument with Myself

1. Last winter I visited family in the Texas Hill Country for the holiday. As always happens when my cousins and I find ourselves in our ancestral home for any extended time, full of ham and sick to death of Friends reruns, we eventually made our annual pilgrimage to the thrift store. A quick walk down the street from my grandparents’ house, the local D.A.V. is little more than a shack with a cracked concrete front porch and dumpsters full of castoff donations in the back. This isn’t one of those classed-up thrift stores one sometimes finds in cities, full of marked-down designer goods and “hidden gems.” The D.A.V. is a store with a wall of dusty coffee carafes, their matching coffee makers long lost, bins of fuzzy toys still full of fleas, and tables stacked with naked VHS tapes and elementary school dioramas. Everything feels like it came from the home of a retired rancher who also happened to be something of a fashion plate in the '80s. To say we love it is an understatement. In the back of the D.A.V. there’s a dark, water-damaged corner with a few bookcases, which someone half-heartedly started organizing five years ago and then abandoned. My cousins and I usually avoid this area -- it’s a little creepy, even for our Southern Gothic tastes, and the books aren’t very appealing. Aside from the typical thrift store celebrity memoirs, Christian romances, and cookbooks, there isn’t much selection, and my attention is usually too absorbed in comparing polyester shirts and chipped coffee mugs to even browse. But on this particular trip, I spotted a bottle-green book marked Plot Outlines of 101 Best Novels on the first and only shelf I looked into, and promptly added it to my cache of broken and cast-off items. I bought the book for 80 cents, took it home, and immediately forgot all about it. Three months later, I found it again while straightening up my apartment. Only last week did I actually check through which 101 novels are immortalized as “best.” Collected and printed by Barnes & Noble in 1962, 29 years before I was born, that 101 includes only 56 titles I recognize. I have read a mere 19. Among them are the usual classics -- Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Odyssey, Little Women. But there’s also Ivanhoe, which I’ve read, and Ben-Hur, which I haven’t, despite my grandfather’s frequent prodding, and then there’s something called File No. 113, which I didn’t know was a book at all and which frankly sounds awful. Of course the very idea of a book composed solely of the plots of other books is ridiculous, and I bought it mostly as a joke. Let’s read what they have to say about Moby-Dick, I thought. Try to sum that up in two pages! And what’s Les Mis like in 3,000 words or less? But underneath that joke was a little sincere curiosity -- what is File No. 113? - and more than a little self-recognition. If I was alive and reading in 1962, decades before Google and Wikipedia and Goodreads, I just might have purchased Plot Outlines of 101 Best Novels at the original price of $1.75 out of a very sincere and un-ironic impulse to know as much as possible about every book ever published without necessarily taking the time to read them all. I say this because I have that impulse now, in 2015, and because I had it in 1996, when I learned how to read, and if I am lucky enough to make it to 2062 I will probably have it then, too. 2. I was raised on book abridgments. I hoarded my allowance to buy Children’s Classics at the dollar store, titles like The Three Musketeers and Journey to the Center of the Earth condensed into little 100-page versions, illustrated with loose line drawings and bound in cardboard covers. These “classics” took me only about a day to consume, and as they stacked up on my childhood bookcase I began to feel quite well-read for a child 10 years old. One of the best of these classics was 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, with its illustrations of the elegant submarine and the characters’ daring underwater explorations. I knew enough to understand I didn’t have the full story, and when I was 10 I begged my parents to buy me the original novel for Christmas, which they obligingly did. I was thrilled to unwrap the little blue book, with its sober cover and 600 pages, but when I started reading the type was too small and the sentences too long. After struggling mightily through about 50 pages, there was no sign of the Nautilus and I abandoned the new book in favor of my old cardboard version. My favorite book during these years didn’t come from the dollar store, but it was an abridgment -- a shortened version of Ivanhoe, also in a bottle green cover, this time illustrated with a knight on horseback, carrying a shield and a banner. It was longer and more coherent than the chopped-up dollar store books, and I loved the adventure of the story, the castles and tournaments and battles and ladies. So when I was 13, a few formative years after the Jules Verne failure, I set out to read the original version, lengthy exposition, dated language and all. This time I found I still loved the book, though in a different way. True, Ivanhoe no longer offered that sugary high of constant action and adventure, but there was a lingering pleasure that came from a slow immersion in Walter Scott’s long scenes. I spent hours unraveling the relationships that linked his massive cast of characters and reread the climactic battle scene (which was about as long in the original version as the whole novel was in abridgment) several times straight through. The full novel had a complexity that the shortened version clearly lacked, and though it required more work than I was used to, it was also a more rewarding reading experience. I liked reading difficult books, I realized. This was fun. This was better. And though my definition of “difficult” has changed again and again over the years, that enjoyment has stayed. 3. This is not to say that I’ve outgrown my craving for easily digestible narratives stripped of meaty content. I enjoy struggling with difficult books, sure, but I also Google movie plots constantly, often while watching the movie in question. I read recaps of new episodes of Game of Thrones, though I stopped watching the show several seasons ago, and I skipped the first however-many seasons of Breaking Bad, but made sure to catch the finale. Of course I should know better -- what did I learn from rereading Ivanhoe 10 years ago if not to savor the actual work of reading (or, in these cases, watching), to reap the benefits of sustained attention and commitment? But I have a small stockpile of excuses at the ready, which I deploy on my scornful friends and family every time they fuss at my Wikipedia addiction. These range from the petty (I hate suspense, and feeling left out of conversations, and just generally being ignorant) to the refined (I do away with all that petty plot business up front so that I can focus on the actual art, you know?) Vladimir Nabokov claimed that there was no reading, only rereading. I’m tempted to agree, and my argument, though different from his, might go something like this: the first read of a given story is often so concerned with plot, with the simple mechanics of a story, the “this happened then this then this,” that it’s difficult to appreciate the story’s craft. It takes at least another reread, and probably more than that, to really appreciate a written work in its full complexity and significance. And here’s where my justification for summary addiction becomes grandiose beyond all bearing: what if I can skip that first plot-driven read by just checking a synopsis so that when I encounter a text for the first time I’m free to notice and appreciate all of it? 4. Turns out, it doesn’t really work like that, however much I wish it did. Knowing a major plot point beforehand spoils some of the effect. Of course it does. I’m reminded too of a time when I was little and found a book version of the first Indiana Jones film. I was so upset by reading about Indy and Marian escaping a chamber of vipers by smashing through a room filled with mummies and skeletal miscellany that when we watched the movie I cried real tears trying to convince my parents to fast-forward through the scene. They didn’t, much to their credit, and that particular cinematic moment turned out not to be nearly as terrifying or significant as I’d expected. The Raiders of the Lost Ark is still one of my favorite films, and I hate to think that I might have missed it due to summary-induced hysteria. My plot habit has cost me in other ways, too. Having a decent sense of the overall plan of a book or movie has frequently disrupted the very sense of community I’m trying to create. I read Moby-Dick in one of those dollar store abridgments when I was about 10, and remember in vivid detail an illustration of Fedallah, the dark prophet Ahab sneaks on board the Pequod. Ten years later I read the full Moby-Dick over the course of a college semester and met weekly with a professor and three other students to compare our progress and discuss our thoughts. Part of the fun of this exercise was supposed to be the shared process of discovery -- none of us students had ever read all of Moby-Dick before. But when we came to the particularly eerie chapter in which Ishmael sees five shadows dart on board the Pequod (the first foreshadowing of Fedallah’s eventual appearance), I couldn’t join in my classmate’s excitement and speculation. I knew exactly what the shadows were -- some of the magic was lost for me. Somewhat similarly, a few of my friends dislike talking about Game of Thrones with me because they know full well I didn’t suffer through any of the show’s horrors, as they did, but simply read about it later on The Atlantic. I’m not a full member of the club, and I know it. In fact, I’ve begun to worry that plot summaries (and my generally unthinking impulse to read them at the slightest provocation) actually run completely contrary to the purposes of books and film and television. I’m not helping my reading, I’m defeating it; I’m not becoming more well-versed in modern culture, I’m ensuring my separation from it. Yes, by Googling reviews of the latest Game of Thrones episode rather than watching it, I’m protecting myself from the adrenaline-fueled horror of seeing someone be hacked to bits or poisoned or set aflame. I’m encountering the story with a much clearer head than I would have if I were actually watching. But I’m also missing a vital piece of the show -- it’s meant to be horrifying. And when I know that Fedallah just snuck onboard the Pequod, I’m missing something there, too: I don’t get the full sense of foreshadowing that Herman Melville intended, don’t feel the full weight of Ishmael’s quiet but growing dread. The moment becomes just another plot point to check off my mental list. Perhaps this is all just a continuation of a much older and larger argument about why we read or watch movies or enjoy any kind of artistic entertainment. Is it a primarily emotional or mental exercise? Can it be both? By reading the plot summary of any given work, am I choosing the mental by default? By refusing to engage with a work on its own terms, am I negating the exact thing I mean to be enjoying and celebrating? Yes, I think. Maybe I am. Probably I shouldn’t. Perhaps it’s time to watch a movie and be sincerely surprised by everything that happens. Maybe it’s time to finally outgrow my love of dollar store abridgments. But let us return, one last time, to Plot Outlines of 101 Best Novels. What does it have to tell us about Ivanhoe? Nothing at all. The “plot outline,” condensed by some Prof. Fenwick Harris, is nothing more than a page-long excerpt lifted from the novel’s climatic battle scene, paired with a short critical essay on the significance of the Jewish Lady Rebecca. Given this and nothing else, a reader couldn’t possibly understand Ivanhoe. I’m not sure they could tell you a single significant thing about it. Reading the novel for the first time they would encounter every plot point naturally, would feel every feeling, and I wouldn’t dare complain. Perhaps this is the plot summary in its most natural state, freed from all excuses and justifications: mostly useless, a little ridiculous, and ultimately beside the point. Image Credit: Nicholas Eckhart.

It’s 2014, Do You Know Where You Are? Bright Lights, Big City at 30

One night in the early 1980s, Jay McInerney, then a twenty-something wannabe writer, stumbled home after an epic evening of partying and heard an insistent voice in his head saying, “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.” He dashed off a quick paragraph about the night he’d just spent at a club talking with a girl with a shaved head and wishing he could get his hands on some more “Bolivian Marching Powder.” A short time later, editor George Plimpton called him to say he’d liked a story McInerney had sent to The Paris Review and hoped McInerney had something else he might want to submit. Rooting through his old notebooks, McInerney found the scrawled paragraph about his night at the club, and in the space of a few hours, wrote an entire story in that angry, ironical, self-disgusted second-person voice. Plimpton published the story, “It’s Six A.M., Do You Know Where You Are?” in The Paris Review, and in 1984, with the help of his best friend from college, Random House editor Gary Fisketjon, McInerney turned it into a 182-page novel, Bright Lights, Big City, which became an instant bestseller, making McInerney at once among the most popular and most vilified writers in America. Three years later, the Village Voice labeled McInerney, along with Bret Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz, as part of the Literary Brat Pack, setting off an orgy of media hype that continues to dog these authors to this day. Even now, as the novel marks its 30th anniversary, it is nearly impossible to separate one’s opinion of Bright Lights from one’s opinion of its author. This is in no small part McInerney’s fault. At the height of his fame, he partied hard and publicly; he dated models, said inane things in magazine profiles, and earned a rightful place in untold numbers of nasty gossip columns. He has married four times and written six more novels, many of them bad, one or two of them truly execrable. In latter years, McInerney has become almost a parody of his younger self: a red-faced dandy with presidential hair, married to a Hearst heiress, who writes wine columns for the Wall Street Journal. But forget all that. Forget, too, the unwatchable screen version of Bright Lights starring a painfully miscast Michael J. Fox. Forget the later books. Forget the careers of McInerney’s fellow Brat Packers, none of whom has written a good novel in the last twenty years. Set all of that aside, and just read the book. If you do, you may well find that, pried loose from the perpetual noise machine that surrounds its author and the lore of its publication, Bright Lights, Big City appears, hidden in plain sight, as one of the great undiscovered gems of post-World War II American literature. Put simply, Bright Lights, Big City is the story of a young, handsome man-child very much like Jay McInerney, who works in the Department of Factual Verification of a famous magazine very much like The New Yorker. Abandoned by his fashion-model wife, Amanda, and mourning a private sorrow, the novel’s narrator snorts enough cocaine to float a South American junta, gets fired from the famous magazine, and nearly has his hand bitten off by enraged ferret. In the end, he reunites with his family, meets a nice Princeton girl with freckles, and in a direct steal from the short story “A Small Good Thing” by McInerney’s mentor Raymond Carver, he finishes the book gorging on fresh bread, resolving “to learn everything all over again.” But, really, nothing about Bright Lights, Big City is as simple as it seems. Start with those autobiographical details. McInerney was in fact fired from a job as a fact-checker at the New Yorker. He had also been briefly married to a fashion model, Linda Rossiter, before he met a fresh-faced graduate student named Merry Reymond, to whom he dedicated the book. He was also, by his own admission, partying pretty hard and putting a good deal of Bolivia’s finest up his nose. But it’s a hall of mirrors, these connections between the novel’s protagonist and its author, making it hard to pass judgment on the fictional character without running headlong into his real-life doppelgänger, who has spent the last thirty years looking more fashion-plate-ish and sounding more pompously self-involved than any ordinary reader can be expected to endure. Perusing three decades of magazine-profile McInerniana, one longs to suggest he please stop with the preciously self-conscious comparisons to F. Scott Fitzgerald. One yearns to slip him a note suggesting he try getting his picture taken in something other than a black turtleneck or J. Press sport coat. He might also try being linked to a woman who is neither a model nor a scion to a great newspaper fortune. And would it kill him to go to Supercuts? One $19.95 haircut would do wonders for his literary reputation. The problem is, of course, that, with some crucial elisions and exaggerations for effect, the unnamed protagonist of Bright Lights, Big City is Jay McInerney, and to fully appreciate his book, we have to see past that to the boldness and prescience of his literary achievement. We live in an age of memoir. Today, every ambitious young person with a problem and a prose style is writing a memoir of his or her misspent youth to the bestseller list, and it isn't going out on much of a limb to suggest that if McInerney had had that cocaine-fueled moment of clarity today, he would have written a bestselling addiction memoir rather than a bestselling literary novel. In fact, it isn’t much of a stretch to suggest that if the other Brat Packers were starting out today they would be writing memoir rather than fiction – Janowitz about her freaky Lower East Side friends, Ellis about his monstrously vacuous early years in L.A. This may help answer the perennial question: “Whatever happened to the 1980s Literary Brat Pack?” What happened to them is what eventually happens to all young memoirists: they ran out of source material. But the secret to Bright Lights, Big City, what makes it feel so fresh thirty years later, is that it’s not a memoir. In 1984, the addiction memoir didn’t exist as a popular form the way it does today, so McInerney drew his stylistic guidance from an older tradition of voice-driven American literature that runs through J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The voice at the center of Bright Lights may be spoiled and petulant, but it also is unmistakably American: fatally romantic, distrustful of authority, and democratic to a fault, even as it sounds its barbaric yawp over the rooftop parties of the world. It may sound strange to call McInerney’s narrator, so famously obsessed with status and designer goods, democratic, but one of the things that emerges from a rereading of Bright Lights is how deeply middle American his voice sounds. For all his velvet-rope hopping and faux French phrases, deep down the narrator is just a wide-eyed kid gawking at the passing parade of humanity called New York City, and one of the pleasures of the book is how effortlessly it allows you to gawk along with him. The New York of Bright Lights, Big City is a city poised on the knife-edge of change. For decades, upwardly mobile young white people like McInerney’s narrator had been fleeing to the suburbs, where John Updike’s and John Cheever’s protagonists lived, leaving the five boroughs a cauldron of poverty, crime, and ethnic unrest. But in the years after the city nearly went bankrupt in the 1970s, the poles abruptly reversed. Knowledge industries like banking, media, and fashion design, which had stayed in New York even as its manufacturing base evaporated, hit their stride again, and upwardly mobile young white people – the adventurous ones, anyway – started beating a track back to the city, snapping up cheap apartments in formerly industrial and working-class neighborhoods like SoHo and the West Village. Bright Lights, Big City puts you at the heart of this historic shift, riding the subways where Hasidic Jews – “gnomes in black with briefcases full of diamonds” – study scripture beside Rastafarians reeking “of sweat and reefer”; and walking the streets where vendors sell everything from drugs and fake watches to real, live wild ferrets. The daily clash between this rougher, more tribal New York and the new college-educated elite flooding the city gives the novel its vivid backdrop and hastens the narrator toward his drug-fueled self-immolation. McInerney reports it all with great humor and a raptor’s eye for squirming detail, but it’s the second-person voice that makes it lasting literature. By telling his own story through a fictional avatar called “you,” McInerney manages the trick of creating three characters from one protagonist. On the one hand, the character is Jay McInerney, a real person who experienced misadventures very similar to those described in the book and who thus possesses the credibility granted to any memoirist. At the same time, he is a fictional construct for whom all the traditional rules of narrative apply: we can laugh at his foibles and voyeuristically feel his pain, all the while knowing he isn’t real. But finally – this is the magic part – he is literally “you,” each and every one of McInerney’s readers, the thousands of suburban-bred Americans who yearned to be this essentially decent, right-thinking guy who is also a wildly self-destructive drug addict. This was the substance of McInerney’s flash of insight when he turned that scrawled paragraph into a work of fiction: that thousands of readers secretly wanted to be like him. So he let them. In his book, you marry a fashion model. You work at The New Yorker and stay out partying every night till dawn. You own an Aston-Martin sports car that a friend has smashed up and know the waitress by name at the Lion’s Head bar. And when you let it all slip through your fingers, thanks to your unquenchable thirst for the edge, you are saved by the love of a good woman, who is prettier than the fashion model and a doctoral student at Princeton. The second-person voice performed one last magic act on McInerney himself: it opened him up. Throughout his career, in good books and bad, McInerney’s subject has been beauty and what it masks. Whether he’s writing about socialites or fashion models, writers or investment bankers, the engine of the plot is a dazzling surface that hides an ugly truth. Some books are better than others. His 1992 novel Brightness Falls is a smart, sharply observed take on the go-go Eighties. The Last of the Savages, published in 1997 and set in part in the American South, occasionally manages to rise above McInerney’s general cluelessness about the American South to deliver some moving scenes. More often than not, though, McInerney’s later novels fail because he is too in love with the surfaces in his characters. Only in Bright Lights, Big City does McInerney truly peel back the mask. What he reveals is not, in the great scheme of things, so awful. The novel’s hero isn’t a sadistic mass murderer like Patrick Bateman from Ellis’s American Psycho. He is merely needy and socially insecure. For this man, the primal scene isn’t catching his parents having sex, but “a ring of schoolchildren, like Indians surrounding a wagon train, laughing with malice, pointing their vicious little fingers to insist on your otherness.” He has since learned the art of appearing to belong, but he has “never quite lost the fear that you eventually would be discovered a fraud, an imposter in the social circle.” For a man obsessed with belonging – whose girlfriend must always be the prettiest in the room, who must always know the name of the waitress at the Lion’s Head – this is as ugly a truth as it is possible for him to admit. Indeed, his hunger to belong, to have the sexiest wife, the most prestigious job, the best vial of blow south of Fourteenth Street, nearly kills him. In the end, he is saved, but thirty years later, we know how that story turned out. He married the girl from Princeton – actually, she was teaching at Syracuse – and then they divorced, and two wives later, he is the red-faced man in a J. Press sport coat, condemned in every interview to talk about his first, best work.
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