Wednesday, July 11, 2012
July 11, 2012: American Studies Beach Reads, Part Three
[Having spent many a youthful summer’s day with Tom Clancy’s latest, I’ve got nothing against a good low-brow beach read. But there are also works that offer complex, compelling, and significant American experiences along with their page-turning pleasures. This week I’ll be highlighting some of those American Studies beach reads—and please share yours for the weekend’s crowd-sourced post!]
Why you should read two Holocaust novels on the beach this summer.
When faced with the worst of what humanity can do and be, sometimes all we can do is laugh. That idea is at the heart of a particular post-war strain of American literature and art, the satirical black comedy of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (and later Full Metal Jacket), and other similar works. Yet while some of these works (especially Vonnegut’s novel) do feature relatively sympathetic characters, I would argue that our laughter is not with these characters so much as at them, or at least at the ironic and ridiculous situations in which we encounter them. Such laughter might well help us deal with the horrors behind those situations, or render the memories of them powerless to inflict further pain; but it also has the potential to distance us from the horrors, to make histories that were dead serious to those who experienced them instead seem somewhat silly to us.
That’s one kind of laughter in response to the worst in humanity, and whatever its strengths and weaknesses, I don’t think it makes for entertaining beach reading (although to each his or her own!). But there’s another, very different kind of laughter, one in which the funny voices and perspectives of sympathetic characters lead us as an audience to laugh even as those characters deal with such historical horrors. I think that was the intent behind Roberto Benigni’s Holocaust-centered film Life is Beautiful (which I haven’t seen, so I can’t personally speak to the results!). And that kind of laughter also comprises a big part of two recent, popular and award-winning American Holocaust novels (written by a pair of married New Yorkers): Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated (2002) and Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love (2005).
Both Foer’s and Krauss’s novels are in many ways mysteries, puzzles in which the final pieces don’t lock together until their conclusions, and I’m certainly not going to spoil either here (what kind of beach read commendation would that be?). But I will say that one of the chief pleasures of both novels is in the very funny narrative voices of two of their protagonists: Foer’s Alex, a supremely self-confident yet secretly sensitive Ukrainian kid whose efforts at translating and writing in English aren’t exactly prize-winning; and Krauss’s Leo, a self-deprecating and gloomy elderly Jewish American man whose experiences posing nude for an art class form a throughline for much of the novel’s opening section. It’s no spoiler to say that the novels go many other places as well—they are, after all, Holocaust novels—but as readers we are guided to and through those places by Alex and Leo’s voices, and the genuine, sympathetic, and hearty laughs that each provides. Not a bad reaction to get from a beach read!
Next beach read tomorrow,
PS. Nominations for American Studies beach reads, for the weekend’s crowd-sourced post? Bring ‘em!