Số đỏ/Dumb Luck, by Vũ Trọng Phụng

What a difference a century makes! Only a little more than a hundred years after Nguyễn Du’s elegant, Chinese-influenced epic, comes this howlingly profane and unashamed satire of a Vietnam deep in the grips of French influence. Satire, I fear, is a product of its time, and although there were certain elements of this romp through Vietnam which were quite amusing, among them the “Being There” motif of a wholly unqualified person rising stratospherically throguh society. The central conceit of this work, as I understand it, though, is an exploration of just what “modernization” and “Europeanization” were thought to mean in early-mid-20th-century Vietnam, simultaneously representing desirable progress and the abandonment of cherished traditions. The overarching theme thus becomes “modernization is a great thing… for everyone else!” This comes to the fore early on with Mr. TYPN (translated into English as Mr. ILL)’s vocal objection to his wife’s shopping at his boutique, and doesn’t really develop much more in the way of nuance thereafter. I feel like certain aspects of the story straight up sailed over my head, because I wasn’t familiar with either the pre-Europeanized Vietnamese culture (aside from knowing it was heavily Chinese-influenced), nor the particular stew of European influences and the lens they were seen through at the time. It was a reasonably enjoyable read, because it was fun and lively and clever even when not wholly comprehensible, but I fear I might not actually have gotten the joke.

The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

So Trollope wrote an obscene number of books, and I’m only now getting into the ones not in the Palliser or Barchester series. The Way We Live Now is a monumental doorstop of a work, but it remains interesting throughout (if, like me, you find Trollope’s satire of Victorian society interesting). There are a lot of interspersed subplots, including a rather enormous cast of characters, but unlike in some of his other works they all feel relevant (possibly because none of them are used as an excuse to tip foxhunting chapters into the work). There’s an overarching theme of financial expediency throughout the whole work: both Felix and Mrs. Carbury act according to their want of money (Felix somewhat less assiduously than his mother), while Henrietta resists the easy path. The seemingly irrelevant chapters about the Longestaffes and Lord Nidderdale likewise point up the strangely necessary compulsions of the embarassed aristocracy, and their hypocrisy in trying to wrap their heads around the need to marry below their station.

It’s also one of Trollope’s few works in which Americans play a significant role. Trollope seems to hold to the pretty common view of Americans being wild, uncontrollable, and somewhat untrustworthy, although in the end the American visitors are presented far more sympathetically than the British youths. There is, however, a somewhat xenophobic streak to the characterization: Fisker is unscrupulously aggressive in the market, Mrs. Hurtle ferocious in her passions, Auguste Melmotte a swindler, and Madame Melmotte stupid and fat. Surprisingly, Germans and Jews come out rather well: Kroll behaves with significant scruples and gets a happy ending, while Breghart, despite being decried as vulgar by most of the characters in the story, is presented as a quite decent fellow.

It’s an entertaining read, rife with brazen outrageousness on the part of Melmotte. His disappearance from the story takes a bit of the momentum out of the work, and really there is nothing left to be done but to tie up the loose ends, but for as long as he is still a central figure the book really runs along quite merrily. I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone not already acquainted with Trollope—it really is very long and is best enjoyed by someone who likes his style—but if you’ve enjoyed Trollope’s wit, and are willing to see some of his same with applied to financial cautions more particular than “don’t countersign other people’s loans” (which is the bulk of the financial wisdom in, say, Framley Parsonage or Phineas Finn), you might find The Way We Live Now an enjoyable sprawl.

Decline and Fall, by Evelyn Waugh

I read Vile Bodies long enough ago that I remember very little of it; Brideshead Revisited I’ve read in relatively recent memory but was taken mostly by its richly flawed characterization and its latent homosexual themes. I got the impression Waugh was mostly a humorist and that his shorter works were more straightforward, and so I read Decline and Fall, a nicely wicked little comedy of a character with an impenetrable innocence blown hither and yon by others’ vices. It’s impossible not to feel a little sorry for Paul throughout the story, but also to want to grab him and smack him upside the head until he behaves sensibly. The supporting characters paint a delightful and more than a little vicious picture of a world in which pretty much everyone has a more definite plan than the protagonist (most of these plans, except for Pendergrast’s philosophical wanderings, are quite morally dubious). I read in it a certain denial of the popular conception that innocence is noble: in this work, innocence is passive, and its passivity is not actually at all admirable.

But trying to suss out its philosophy might be Taking It Too Seriously. Really, it’s just a funny book with a sharp satirical edge.

See also: Wikipedia.

Nature Girl, by Carl Hiaasen

I like Carl Hiaasen, generally. He has a window on the zany and lunatic Floridian culture and has just the right touch to make it seem unbelievable but perhaps not like something one should find unbelievable. They’re fun romps. They’re not great literature by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re good, easy reads with delicious hilarity and a wickedly satiric edge.

Alas, Nature Girl is not one of his best. It never quite gels, and I think a lot of the missiles Hiaasen usually volleys against corruption and foolishness go astray. Boyd is too pathetic to be a particularly effective villain; the focus on Honey Santana’s mad crusade against him erodes her sympathy, so she’s not much good as a focus character either. Sammy’s story, other than giving Hiaasen a chance to tie this to his larger Florida cast of characters, is essentially inconsequential. We’re left with very few characters left to either like or loathe — the typical Hiaasen story has oodles of both — except for Piejack, who is too undirectedly loathsome, and Skinner, who’s hardly in the story. It’s interesting to compare Piejack to the antagonists of Lucky You, who were the up ’till now the most transparently ineffectual Hiaasen villains, but they at least had personality traits.

All in all, Nature Girl is, chiefly by the weakness of its plot and characterization, definitely not worth while, except for Hiaasen completionists (which I guess I am). I can only assume Hiaasen ran out of usual enemies and decided telemarketers were annoying enough to be a target for his vitriol. Annoying enough, perhaps, but not interesting enough.

See also: Wikipedia.

Seventeen: A Tale of Youth and Summer Time and the Baxter Family…, by Booth Tarkington

I remember being seventeen. It was actually pretty good for me, which is not to say I wasn’t a bit of an ass. Who isn’t, really? Tarkington’s opus is a little slice of the life of a seventeen-year-old boy in a semi-rural community in the early twentieth century. The displacement in time and place means things were a bit different, most jarringly for a modern audience the casual racism. Leaving that aside though, we have a story whose generalities are fairly universal in capturing adolescence.

The central character is ridiculed pretty obtrusively in the story, which is admittedly hard not to do, but it’s a bit of a cheap shot. Anyone can make youthful infatuation seem ridiculous (it usually does it without authorial help, here in the real world). Make the onject of that infatuation a simpering idiot, and the paramours callow and self-centered, and, well, that’s where it turns into cheap shots, really. This sort of silly summer romance would be an impressive feat if Tarkington had tried to make it romantic, or even respectable, but playing up its absurdity isn’t much of an accomplishment.

That having been said, Seventeen has strengths in setting and voice. The characters have distinctive attitudes and voices, even if a little too much use is made of accent. And it also captures effectively its time and place, giving a pretty solid picture of a life which, honestly, doesn’t resemble much of anything I know about.

See also: Project Gutenberg e-text, Wikipedia.

Fritz the Cat

[Screenshot]A cult favorite. Controversy. Gonzo films deemed unhealthy for young audiences. A much-anticipated adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson and Ralph Bakshi actually have a lot in common, but one of them actually had a career (and a watchable LOTR adaptation). History seems to have been a bit hard on poor ol’Ralph, since Fritz the Cat is actually a pretty good film (more interesting, and more mature, if we draw out the comparison, than, say, Dead Alive). It’s not exactly a laugh a minute, but it delivers fairly keen satire more-or-less throughout, poking at all of the right 60s touchstones and spoofing them in ways sometimes comical, sometimes serious, but with an overall light tone. There are very few sequences which didn’t work: the chase in the synagogue seemed honestly pretty pointless and wasn’t hitting any of the right notes, but by and large the plot and pacing are spot on for ridiculing in turn each iconic element of the late 60s. The mechanical elements of the art and animation are a bit more crude, but one has to give that a bit of a pass: it’s not materially worse than most contemporary animation. In a way, one has to be willing to ignore the ’80s and the ’90s to enjoy Fritz, I think: it’s the recency that gives it authenticity. Compare, for instance, to Across the Universe, which also plays the 60s schtick hard but has no real direction to go with it.

[edit: I did a bit more research and apparently Bakshi’s film career limped through the 90s, with occasional critical acclaim, so I guess up to that point he was actually doing at least as well as Jackson, so my disparaging contrast between the two’s directorial careers is unfair, at least up until 2001]

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.