fulfilling book riot’s 2018 read harder challenge task #24: An assigned book you hated (or never finished)
star cat rating is from my first go-round – from my memory of reading it in high school, and seems higher than the truth. let’s see how karen enjoys this tale of a busted-peen, weary expatriates and bullfighting as an adult.
obviously this was going to be the read harder task i saved for last. i can hold a book-grudge as well as anyone, and i don’t need to be wasting any of my precious reading-time on a book that has already displeased me once. but i approached the task in good faith – of all the books i have ever been assigned in my life, there were only two i could remember disliking* – this (AP english junior year) and The Red Pony (honors english 8th grade). since i have loved every other steinbeck i have read but as far as hemingway goes, i’ve only read this (and maybe a short story here or there), it seemed more magnanimous to give papa a shot with an older, wiser karen.
older, wiser karen didn’t love it, either. older wiser karen has read The Alexandria Quartet and so has very little patience for any tale of the romantic or platonic entanglements of a buncha boozy and worldweary expats that is not as beautifully written as Justine.
however, you can play a fun drinking game with this one using the endless repetition of words like ‘swell’ and ‘chap’ and ‘tight’ or a game of millennial outrage bingo for all the occurrences of ‘nigger’ and ‘faggot’ and the baked-in misogyny and anti-semitic flavor. although it’s possible that it’s not anti-semitic so much as it is characters disliking one particular jewish character who, it must be said, is pretty irritating – smug, clingy, thirsty.
on that last point, everyone in this whole damn book is thirsty in the non-slang sense. there is some truly heroic drinking going on in this book – one imagines a row of rotting livers wincing at the excess…
“This is a good place,” he said.
“There’s a lot of liquor,” I agreed.”
why this was/is assigned at a high school level is bewildering (unless as a cautionary tale to teen drinking). assigning books like this is what makes teens think they hate reading. there’s nothing in this that speaks to a teen audience. sure, teens can read it, understand the words, identify the themes, but that’s the work part of it without the pleasure. there just isn’t anything here to relate to, for that age. kids full to the brim with sexual sap aren’t going to appreciate the incel woes of a man with a war-wounded peen resignedly drowning his feels for a vigorous lusty woman. obsessive love, yes, but the quiet sputtering disappointment of said obsessive love? bitch, please. you give those kids what they want – you feed their need for drama and trauma – you give them Wuthering Heights, you give them The Great Gatsby, you give them everybody’s dead and ruined and glamorously broken by the end, not just some dusty guy drifting from place to place watching a woman burn (figuratively).
this book is exhausting. it is about exhaustion – emotional, moral, physical, romantic, spiritual, intellectual exhaustion. the one thing i wasn’t when i was 16 was exhausted. and while i am exhausted now, as weary and brokendown as many of the grinning-through-it characters in this book, it didn’t leave any particular impression on me this time, either. is this a book report yet? probably not, but it’s what you’re getting.
stars cats because why not?
*and also Moby-Dick or, The Whale, but i already gave that asshole his second chance.