Saturday, April 14, 2012

Water for Elephants

Have any of you read Water for Elephants? I just finished it this week, and I'm not sure how I feel about it. If I were in college (and college English programs ever covered books written in the last 50 years) I could write a really sweet essay about unreliable narrators versus author trickery.

I don't have a problem with an unreliable narrator, but I do have a problem with authors who manipulate the storytelling because they weren't clever enough to figure out how to build suspense otherwise. This is a big issue with Dan Brown novels, absolutely.

I don't want to ruin it, in case you randomly want to read it but haven't yet despite it being out for several years (and knowing the sensibilities of many of my readers, I wouldn't wholeheartedly recommend it to all of you) but the prologue is repeated at the end but with slight differences. Why? Why tell the same scene in two slightly different versions? Is the nonagenarian narrator unreliable? Has he perhaps convinced himself that it happened differently because he couldn't live with the truth? Or did the author do it to intentionally convince us of one thing so that we'd be that much more surprised when we read it again later? I'm cool with the former, but if the latter...I can't get behind that.

Anyone read it? Or thoughts on unreliable narrators in general? Or how terrible Dan Brown is?

17 comments:

  1. Oh! It's on my pile of books I need to read, so now it's moving to the top pile so I can converse intelligently with you about it. Give me a few days. I'll be back.

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  2. Hmmm...I thought I left a comment to tell you I would read the book and then tell you what I thought...
    Well I did.
    Not what I expected. I think the beginning is repeated at the end as a way to bring us full circle, like movies in flashback - 7 Pounds style - where we don't know what's going on at the beginning but after the story is told we understand the end. The differences might just be his old brain remembering parts he didn't before, or clarifying for our benefit. I suppose it's possible the author left out significant details so the end would be a surprise but I didn't feel manipulated by the book, just sad. And a little surprised - I guess I expected more circus and less Depression.

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    1. I got an email with your comment, but it isn't posted! So weird. I thought maybe you had deleted it! Never saw 7 Pounds, incidentally.

      (Spoilers:)I just felt like the prologue was constructed to lead us to believe that it was Marlena when a whole book later we find out it was Rosie. So did it really happen as is implied in the prologue, but he's remembering it wrong/convinced himself it happened that way so as not to blame his wife (unreliable narrator) or did the author purposely do it so that we'd be surprised that it was the elephant? I even went back and reread the prologue to make sure I hadn't just not been reading closely, but I stand by my original impression. I mean, did you get from the prologue that it was Rosie?

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    2. I totally did not get that it was Rosie. In fact I was halfway through the book and still wondering who the "silent heroine" was we're supposed to be impressed with.
      Jacob does say multiple times how he's never talked about the incident, has avoided the subject, never told anyone anything so he wouldn't be tempted to talk. (Look what happens when we meets the dude from the circus. Tells him all about it.) Maybe it's because he's finally going back to the circus that he allows himself to even think it? And then remembers? And I'm a sucker for animals so I sort of like that it was the elephant after all. Marlena bugged me a little.

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    3. I certainly find it more compelling if Rosie did it versus Marlena. Murdering your mentally ill husband (assuming he really WAS paranoid schizophrenic and it wasn't just the story they told to cover up his bad behavior) because you found someone you like better is a lot less impressive than an animal being smart enough to recognize the solution to her problems...

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    4. I agree completely.
      It is good fodder for an English paper. Do you think the author was that forward thinking?

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    5. That the thing--I don't. I don't think the author was that intentional. I'm inclined to believe it's trickery because Gruen very carefully only says "she" and "pink sequins"--nothing at all about lifting the weapon WITH HER TRUNK--and Marlena is instantly and constantly associated with her pink sequins. We are supposed to believe she does the killing. By the time Rosie gets her matching headpiece, we've long since assumed it was Marlena. I didn't see the elephant at all in the prologue. Man, the more I talk about it, the more I hate that prologue.

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    6. Hmmm, I don't suppose the author was smart enough to realize that his readers could go back and reread the prologue either? Or maybe that's the point, to make us discuss it and wonder and examine the literary "tools" used to portray one thing while meaning the other.

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    7. I guess it comes down to whether we believe the author is brilliant but vague, or just deceptive? I think what's annoying me is that I'm not sure. I'd like to believe that it's a statement on the narrator's reliability and objectivity, but I just can't extinguish my suspicion that it's just a shortcut to try to drum up emotions in the reader.

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    8. Occam's Razor says the easier answer is likely it, and given the explotive nature of the rest of the book - shock value - I'd say your first inclination is correct. Yu're so smart.

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  3. And let's talk about The Hunger Games movie! Have you seen it? I'm so excited to discuss it with someone who is all literary and stuff like that. I am not so good at seeking out meaning. A duck is always a duck to me, but I love to discuss with way smart people.
    So I'm talking to you!

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    1. What would you like to talk about?! I'm prepared to discuss it in depth. For starters, I like that when the POV shifts from Katniss's first-person novel to a wider movie version, Seneca Crane (the game maker) becomes a little more sympathetic. Yes, he's controlling the arena and kind of the unseen villian, but he also listens to Haymitch to essentially save Katniss and Peeta. And I LOVED the berries in the bowl. As soon as they put him in that room, I was like "OH MAN, there are going to be berries in that bowl!" Because whether he literally ingested them or not, the berries are what killed him.

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  4. I know! He's being controlled as much as he controls the tributes. The berries were an excellent touch.
    I was pleased there was more behind the scenes - because they switched to the wider movie POV - of the Games, with all Haymitch's schmoozing. What I didn't like was how little of Haymitch's back story there was, and the growth in him was not as evident because of it.

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    1. Yes, there wasn't as much Haymitch as I expected, although I actually liked that they left him out of the Reaping. Him falling off the stage drunk would have undermined the emotionally pitch-perfect scene. They did subtly show that he was getting his act together, like when he refused the refill at dinner. And remember, a lot of his background does come out during the second book, so they may do more then.

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    2. I agree about the Reaping. It was a really subtle, well timed movie. Tarzan thought it felt more like an indie film than a big blockbuster - which is true. I thought they left Katniss in the dark more than in the book however. Haymitch and Peeta tell her, eventually, about the whole plan they concocted and in the movie they never do. I don't know if that's for us - they really expected us to have read the book first - or for timing.

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  5. Man, my comment disappeared again, what is up?

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    1. I don't know! I get the email, but then it isn't here! Could be worse; another friend wasn't able to comment at all and ended up sending me an email. Siiiigh.

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Be nice.