Book review: The Graduate

Title: The Graduate

Author: Charles Webb

Genre: Fiction, Romance

First published: 1963

My rating: ★★☆☆☆

Synopsis

Benjamin Braddock returns back to his family home from college with a brilliant degree, a teaching prize and a bright future ahead of him. However, for the next year, he lazes around in his parents’ middle class suburban, American household, dwindling away the hours floating around the pool and drinking into the early hours.

He is plagued by the feeling one gets after graduation. Where shall I go from here, what shall I do with the rest of my life? The age old question which has tramped many from generations gone by. He returns from college, not revived by the prospect of education – but drowned by it.

Things soon take a turn, as Ben is seduced by the wife of one of his fathers business partners on the evening of his graduation party. This soon turns into a shady affair, led by Mrs Robinson. In the middle of this, Ben is then encouraged by his fathers business partner, Mr Robinson to take their daughter, Elaine out on a date.

After this date, Ben is suddenly in love with Elaine – the daughter of the woman he was having an affair with. Ben soon fleas to Berkeley to pursue the apparent love of his life.

Review

I had been looking forward to reading this for ages. The promised feel of the book appealed to me, having only graduated at the beginning of this year. However, almost everything in this book disappointed me. This is the lowest rating I’ve given to a book this year but I just can’t justify it being any higher.

Lets start with the protagonist – Benjamin Braddock. He comes from a wealthy family and has just finished his college degree with securing a possible teaching placement at Harvard university. On returning home, he begins to find the prospect of further education draining and a waste of time, but he has no idea what else to do. Faced with endless pressure from his snobbish parents – he feels he ought to do something noble and good. I can relate to him on this level – but that’s where it ends. If there is one word to describe Ben – it’s flippant. And not flippant in a good, Gatsby-esque way, but in an annoying and incomprehensible way, that never leads to anything.

Ben thinks the whole world revolves around him and thinks he is too good for the world – and that really gets to me. He is male, white, college educated and has prospects. Why does he constantly fail to acknowledge his own privilege and the potential power this could bring? I guess this is in the dating of the novel.

The novel is mostly told through repetitive, argumentative dialogue between Ben and his parents, Ben and Mrs Robinson (the woman he was having an affair with) and Ben and Elaine. It’s tiresome to read and sheds little light on the protagonist himself. It is almost impossible to understand him and to connect with him in any way. He jumps from hoop to hoop and seems to fall in love with Elaine overnight, despite only ever going on a date with her to please Mr Robinson. He’s winy, but not in an endearing way, and seems hell bent on wasting away his future with an endeavor that lacks true authenticity.

There was no way I could be invested in Ben and as a result, I couldn’t enjoy the book. I found him to be tiresome and irritating, and wanted to give him a good shake. The premise of his situation could have been a poignant way in which Charles Webb explored the restlessness of coming out of university and the trials that post-graduate life brings. However, the dialogue driven prose lacked depth, authenticity, and intrigue, and does not allow for connections to be formed between the reader and the protagonist.

It took me less than a day to read, as reading through dialogue is a fairly fast process. Especially when the dialogues between different characters just repeat themselves. The prose offers nothing remarkable, no eye catching sentiments or images, but mere conversations and arguments between characters who never actually seem to like each other.

The story goes round and round and at times I almost laughed out loud at the ridiculousness. I find it hard to believe it has achieved the status of a “modern classic” but I suspect the 1968 adaptation into a film, staring Dustin Hoffman had a large role to play in it.

All in all, Ben was not an authentic character I could get behind and neither were his relationships. The story jumped about from start to finish and lacked any depth and coherency that could enable meaning. The themes were at first, plausible and interesting and were what drew me to the book. However, the protagonist, Ben, and the limited prose, made it impossible to render the promise of an American masterpiece possible.

Disappointing and probably not worth your time reading – although it only took me a day to finish from cover to cover. If you have read this and enjoyed it, do let me know. I may be missing something!

Book Review: Lonesome Traveler

Title: Lonesome Traveler

Author: Jack Kerouac

Genre: Short story, travelouge, fiction

Published: 1960/1990

Rating: ★★★★

Long time no see! If I’m honest I’ve been experiencing a bit of a reading slump, maybe I’ve been going too heavy during isolation… I also haven’t felt like writing much, so apologies for the lack of posts.

Jack Kerouac and the “Beat Generation”

I don’t usually write anything on an author’s background, but I feel it is useful for appreciating this book and Kerouac’s writing more generally. I read On The Road (1957) in my teens and fell in love with the dreamy writing, but never delved deeper into the context surrounding Kerouac’s work.

Kerouac is widely regarded as one of the fathers of the, “Beat Generation,” a group of American writers in the post war period who were exploring American culture and politics in a form that rejected the ‘traditional’ literary narrative. These novels cover aspects of religion, exploration and rejection of materialism. Additionally, the experience of being human are placed at the forefront, with documentation of drugs, alcohol, sexual liberation and ideas of self fulfillment. Other well known authors of the Beat Generation include William S Burroughs, Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg.

Kerouac’s writing style outwardly rejects traditional literary devices, what he called, “simply poetry or natural description” deployed in Lonesome Traveler. The entirety of the novel is told through a spontaneous prose which jumps about between topics, people and places. Importantly, there is no coherency or structure – this was precisely what Kerouac was rejecting. Kerouac lived by, “first thought, best thought” and wasn’t a fan of revising his work, as he believed this was a form of “literary lying”.

The Beat Generation influenced the Counter cultural movements of the 1960s, due to its featuring of sexual liberation, prominent drug use and experimentation. However, the movement was made up of a pool of distinctly white, male authors. Women were incredibly absent. There were some female Beat authors including, Carolyn Cassady and Edie Parker, however, they never attained the same kind of success as male counterparts. In an interesting article, Lynette Lounsbury infers that female Beat authors were the “wives” to the male, literary greats of the period – never being appreciated on their own account.

It’s hard to appreciate just how revolutionary this writing was – when we are now exposed to so much variation. An out right rejection of the literary form had never been fully attempted in the 1960s, and Kerouac was one of its pioneers. Today, we have the joys of postmodernism behind us, and authors such as Lucy Ellmann and Ali Smith – who abandon the constraints of the novel.

Overview

It is unclear (from what I’ve read) whether this is based on Keroauc’s own experience entirely, or meant as a more fictional account. Nevertheless, the story follows the journey of one man as he travels through America, Mexico, Morocco, Paris, London, and a desolate mountaintop. It contains the protagonists inner philosophy on life, and is a tale of human experience told through the documentation one man’s travels.

These travels are restless, filled with drug and alcohol abuse and women, but other times, a true insight into the human condition and our relationship with our surroundings. It’s poetic, pays homage to the beauty of nature and embodies the kind of free, liberation rhetoric which was beginning to emerge in 1960s.

Review

I love this book primarily because it is so against the grain of ‘typical’ literary fiction and challenges what we traditionally think of as a successful book – that being, having a coherent structure of a beginning, middle, and an end. Instead, Lonesome Traveler rejects these constrains and does its own thing. Today, it might not seem so original as we are readily exposed to so many different narrative forms, but considering the context, this really was one of a kind.

I love Kerouac’s prose style – he is rambling , descriptive and incoherent but occasionally, you stumble across something completely beautiful which makes you pause in amazement. I can appreciate his writing isn’t for everybody, as it is hard to follow, and I found this far harder to follow than On The Road. I had to concentrate hard to try and appreciate what was being said, but loved it all the same. The type of sensory prose Kerouac deploys enables the text to become so livable – at times, it is almost like you are experiencing what he is describing.

My favourite chapter or ‘short story’ was Alone on a Mountaintop. Before getting to this point, I admit, I was feeling somewhat disappointed with the book, but when I read this section I felt revived.

In this journey, he is alone for months on the top of a mountain, Desolation Peak, overlooking the Mt Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest on the Canada-US border. He only has a basic cabin and nature to keep him company. Through this experience of truly being alone, the narrator documents beautifully the human relationship with nature, the experience of complete solitude and what it means to be human. It takes the reader on a kind of self fulfillment and exploratory journey that is like no other,

“Because silence itself is the sound of diamonds which can cut through anything, the sound of Holy Emptiness, the sound of extinction and bliss, that graveyard silence which is the silence of an infant’s smile, the sound of eternity, of the blessedness surely to be believed…”

It regularly features ideas about God, religion, self fulfillment and self acceptance. Now, I’m not religious, but the way Kerouac speaks about religion makes me want to listen, as it feels beautiful and insightful,

“For when you realize that God is Everything you know that you’ve got to love everything no matter how bad it is, in the ultimate sense it was neither good nor bad (consider the dust), it was just what was, that is, what was made to appear…”

In a sense, the religious elements (apart from his thinking on Buddhism) do not come across as overly religious, but more, dwellings on the human condition and a kind of philosophy to live by.

All in all, I loved the prose and the subjects the narrator managed to breach. I like the element of simplicity it puts at the forefront of the travel experience – in a way, telling us to try and appreciate the forces of nature and our surroundings. The sex and drugs didn’t do much for me, but this is never the focus. The images created make me envious as I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write in that way, but I nonetheless reveled in their ability to take me to another time and place.

However – it is hard to follow and reading Kerouac is never easy. I can’t give it five stars as I did feel drained by it in some places, and it was only towards the end that I felt any kind of connection to the text. Importantly, I just liked the ‘feel’ of the book, it made me want to pack up a rucksack and run (when COVID-19 is over of course) to see the world for what it really is. To strip back the complications and appreciate life for how it is meant to be lived.