The Remains of the Day and The Dignity of Dedicated Service

In 2017 Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize in Literature. This reminded us of how much we loved his book, The Remains of the Day, which we read many years ago. So we intended (back in 2017) to write a tribute to Mr. Ishiguro celebrating his achievement, but we forgot. Regardless, it is never too late to celebrate great literature, and now is as good a time as any to revisit this work. As an aside, we did not read the book again (why would anyone ever read a book twice?), so everything that follows is based upon our memory. Fortunately, our memory is perfect.

Much has been written about The Remains of the Day. In fact, the book is so well-respected we made it mandatory reading in our 20th Century Bloviated Literature course. Because it is nearly impossible to say anything new about this book, we have decided not to try.

The major theme is the dignity of service or work, as personified by the main character, Jeeves, who served as a butler to a noble Englishman, Lord Nazi Lover. [Note to reader: this was in the 1930s before it was cool to be a Nazi sympathizer]. After the English lord dies, the American hero, Clark Kent, flies in and buys the English manor. Based upon a peculiarity of English law, the butler conveys with the house, and Jeeves now works for Mr. Kent. [Note to reader: it is unclear whether current English law still allows you to buy a manor home with the butler included, but it probably does].

Mr. Kent discovers that Jeeves has not had a vacation since he was 6 years old, so he allows Jeeves to borrow his Rolls Royce (see how nice Americans are) and take a drive in the countryside, which is described sumptuously by Mr. Ishiguro. High jinks then ensue, including Jeeves’ visit with Mrs. Plushbottom, a woman who once worked at the manor house. As the story progresses, we learn that Jeeves may have been in love with Mrs. Plushbottom, but his dignity and his dedication to Lord Nazi Lover prevented him from disclosing this. Then, Jeeves drives back to Mr. Kent and resumes his service.

Mr. Ishiguro does a stellar job of skewering the English elite. And rightfully so. They are pompous, prejudiced, prudish, privileged, and perpendicular. Which then begs the question. Were Jeeves’ many years of dignified service dedicated to a despicable person worth the sacrifice of love and potential happiness? Mr. Ishiguro telegraphs the answer by making that employer a Nazi sympathizer. So the answer, of course, is yes. Nothing in England is more important than sacrificing your personal happiness to devotedly serve a Nazi sympathizer. At least, that’s how we remember the book.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

A Children’s Bible That’s Not for Children

In A Children’s Bible, Lydia Millet draws from the Old Testament, the New Testament, and Revelation to tell a modern story about a world devastated by climate change. Appropriately enough, the narrator is Eve, whose affluent parents decide to spend the summer with several college friends. These families rent an isolated mansion, which brings Eve and her brother, Jack, together with 10 other children. The parents spend their time drinking alcohol and taking drugs. The children are left alone. So it is a pretty sweet vacation.

During one brief moment of sobriety, a parent gives Jack a children’s bible, which becomes his fifth favorite book to read while sitting on the toilet – just as any book by Bill O’Reilly is our fifth favorite bathroom book. Soon, a hurricane hits the area and there is massive flooding. The parents are catatonic and unhelpful. However, a small man, Burl, literally washes up on the premises and leads the children to relative safety on a nearby farm, where he provides the children with clean drinking water and a decent supply of food – think manna from heaven. It appears that Burl has saved the children, but then the men with guns show up.

It does not take a brilliant adjunct professor from Pungent Sound Technical College of Technology to point out all the biblical references, but we will do it anyway. There is flooding that even Noah, who is played here by Jack, would have difficulty handling. The parents worship false idols (drugs, money, and alcohol). Burl is a Moses-like character leading the 12 children (or 12 tribes of Israel) through a dismal landscape. There is even one section where a remote God-like character sends via Burl rules, which sound a lot like the Ten Commandments (however, the one about honoring your mother and father is conspicuously missing). Eve is Eve (duh). And there are angels, who appear as aging hippies, so they smell bad and sing corny songs. They also always seem on the verge of performing Godspell, which is obviously one of the signs of the Apocalypse.

The novel is fast-paced and gripping – at times humorous and then deadly serious. Eve is an engaging narrator. She has an unblinking eye and a razor tongue. Like most teenagers, she is repulsed by her parents and adults in general. “They had double asses – asses that stuck out, then sagged and bulged again. Protruding veins. Back fat like stacks of donuts. Red noses cratered by pores, black hair escaping from nostrils.” She is merciless like an ancient prophet. She also tells a really good story.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

Gilead: Nothing is Small

Yesterday, we sat with friends on the expansive sun-filled patio at Big Lick Brewing Company (biglickbrewingco.com), which is not the worst craft brewery in Roanoke. Tuco’s (tucostaqueria.com), which is not the worst taco joint in Roanoke, is across the street, and we had ordered take-out; sat at one of the tables on the patio; and ate savory food and drank golden beer. It was a gorgeous autumn day, and the mountains ringing this small city were blue. This is Roanoke at its wondrous best.

In Gilead, which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Marilynne Robinson explores the tempestuous beauty of life. And it is wondrous. Gilead is a fictional small town in Iowa. However, it is small in the same sense that Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County is small – in the same sense that the universe is small. Similarly, Faulkner’s admonishment about the past not being dead or even the the past is equally apt here. And like Faulkner, Robinson does not traffic in trivialities. She draws water from the well’s deepest depths.

The story is a letter from an elderly father, John Ames, to his young son. Ames rightly believes the letter is necessary because he will not live long enough for his son to really know him. Ames has lived his entire life in Gilead and has never desired to live anywhere else. He understands that nothing in life is small – regardless of where you live. Speaking of Gilead, Ames declares “[i]n eternity this world will be Troy . . . and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.” The people living in Gilead are ordinary, which Robinson understands to mean they are extraordinary. “There have been heroes here, and saints and martyrs.” There have also been villains and lost souls desperately seeking redemption. Relationships are rich and at times fraught. Thoughts are deep. Answers are complicated, if they exist at all.

While the novel’s conceit is a letter, it is really an extended meditation on religion and spirituality. Ames is the son and the grandson of preachers. His best friend is (yes, you guessed it) a preacher. But a life dictated by Christian norms and tenets has not made Ames a lazy thinker, so do not expect to find anything glib, easy, or trite here. Ames states “[i]n the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things.” The meaning of life cannot be known. However, regardless of its occasional pettiness and torment, life is miraculous. We can not match the spare beauty of Robinson’s prose on this (or any) topic, so we will give her the last word. We need to “acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.”

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

Richard Python and Gravity’s Rainbow

We recently read Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.  The book is considered one of the GREATEST AMERICAN NOVELS EVER WRITTEN SO HELP ME GOD (20th Century Category).  Thousands of people say they have read it; hundreds of people have actually read it; and 4 people have enjoyed it. 

No one has understood it – making it the quintessential modern (or is it post-modern – we get confused) novel.   The story (if you can call it that) is like gentrification in your major cities:  New York, LA, Roanoke, New Shoreham.  It’s sprawling but it’s also dense.  It is literary and sophomoric and occasionally pornographic – just like Block Island.

Assuming he is still alive, Mr. Pynchon is a remarkable person.  We say “assuming” because he is a recluse, and no one actually knows if he is still alive.  There are very few pictures of him, and even slimy celebrity “journalists” have been unable to hack into his computer and steal all the naked selfies he has undoubtedly taken.  That alone is remarkable.   

The most interesting thing about the book (and Pynchon) is this.  In 1974 Gravity’s Rainbow won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction.  Actually, it shared that honor with another book no one reads.  Instead of attending the ceremony, Mr. Pynchon authorized a comedian to go in his place.  The comedian accepted the award on behalf of Richard Python and then gave a bizarre and funny acceptance speech.  In this era of attention seeking, I cannot imagine anyone (other than perhaps Bob Dylan) doing that. 

As for my comments on Gravity’s Rainbow, we didn’t actually read it.  We only said we read it.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor