Archives for category: reflection

As I said in the last review, Markus Zusak/Death has basically laid out a blueprint for the closing of this part, so what will be interesting in reading these four is to see how Zusak plays with my expectations and how he fills in the gaps in what I’ve managed to figure out so far.

Some information I admittedly am not supposed to know at this point, such as the fact that Liesel will be stealing from the Mayor’s library, which I read on the back cover. This could be intuited, however, by the fact that every part is named after a book important to it, and this part, titled “the whistler,” opens with the image of a book floating in the river in December 1941. I have most of the events of the final chapter worked out in my head. Viktor Chemmel will steal the book from Liesel and throw it in the river out of revenge, and Rudy will go in to rescue it. Why, however, Liesel and Rudy will be stealing this particular book, and what happens in between these two events, is yet to be discovered.

Before diving into any of that, however, Chapter 5 of Part Five opens with

SKETCHES

As much as I feel more positive about this chapter than I was about the last,
I have to start this review off with a criticism.

If the summer of 1941 was walling up around the likes of Rudy and Liesel, it was writing and painting itself into the life of Max Vandenburg.

I know this is obviously an attempt at another metaphor by Zusak, but I have read this over several times and have no clue what it means. It could mean that the summer is closing in on them and appearing to be more threatening now, but the choice of words is still, frankly, confusing, and that’s as best as I can work it out.

This may not be important, however, because this chapter does return to one of the important themes in the book, the power of words:

In his loneliest moments in the basement, the words started piling up around him. The visions began to pour and fall and occasionally limp from out of his hands.

This time, Zusak puts an emphasis on how those words can be transformed not into visual metaphors that create a picture in your head, but literal sketches. Obviously, we have already seen something similar in The Standover Man, but the two sketches we see differ in that they do not add up to tell a cohesive story necessarily, but rather are an exercise in surrealism and visual imagery. They are so surreal, however, that I’m grateful Zusak does give some insight into Max’s thought process in creating them:

It was a collection of random thoughts and he chose to embrace them. They felt true. They were more real than the letters he wrote to his family and to his friend Walter Kugler, knowing very well that he could never send them. The desecrated pages of Mein Kampf were becoming a series of sketches, page after page, which to him summed up the events that had swapped his former life for another.

While Max is asleep, Liesel comes down and finds the book leaning against him and glimpses 2 of the sketches. The two we see are so strange and disturbing that I am glad Death did explicitly mention that they were representations of Max’s own experiences, because otherwise they appear to simply be exercises in surrealistic black comedy. The second sentence quoted here, however, offers another parallel between Max and Liesel that I am glad Death doesn’t spell out this time. Liesel was able to write letters to her real mother in the hope against hope that she might receive them, while Max writes letters to his family knowing that he can never even send them, as long as the war is ongoing.

But as to the sketches, both occupy a full page and the first one shows an actually fairly detailed pencil sketch of Hitler standing on top of his podium appearing to lead a crowd of onlookers seen only from the back in a Nazi salute, except that a speech buble comes from Hitler’s mouth containing musical notes. The subtitle underneath reads “Not the Führer- the conductor!” The implication here is strange, but appears to be that Hitler used his words like music to entrance the German public, which is what led Max to be persecuted.

The second sketch shows two figures standing atop a large clump of dead bodies with one, a girl, saying “Isn’t it a lovely day…” as they stare up at a sun which flashes both its rays and a swastika at them. This one, despite being yet more surreal, is easier to interpret, as the two figures are likely intended to represent Max and Liesel, who cling to the small pieces of happiness and joy that come their way, despite the fact that they live in Nazi Germany, in the middle of a war that leaves more and more bodies piling up every day.

Liesel, on the other hand, is a bit too young to grasp the intricacies of black comedy, which is why Max never intended to show the sketches to her at this age, and the chapter ends when Liesel hides from an awakening Max the fact that she was reading the book and goes up the stairs thinking:

You scared me, Max.

This probably is not meant just to illustrate Liesel’s lack of understanding of black comedy, though, but rather the fact that at her young age she is unwilling to even admit that they are finding joy in a world filled with great horror or perhaps even to admit that their world has been so overtaken by horrors. The sketch is important, though, in that it represents what Liesel and Max really are doing, and the horrifying reality is that there is actually nothing wrong with that, except for the sad truth that these precious nuggets of happiness will likely grow harder and harder to come by as the war goes on.

THE WHISTLER AND THE SHOES

Death begins this chapter by acknowledging that all the events that have been described in this part form part of a cycle, or routine, and thankfully summarizes it to get to the point where the routine is finally broken:

It’s also worthy of mention that every pattern has at least one small bias, and one day it will tip itself over, or fall from one page to another. In this case, the dominant factor was Rudy.

This is an interesting theory, although in this case it seems clear that the reason Rudy will soon be more important to the narrative is to add more development to his character, since he has been marked to die.

Death again paints a picture of Rudy wandering down Himmel Street filthy,
having been forced to perform extra Hitler Youth drills in a field, this time carrying his shirt which has been covered in not mud this time, but rather…

“The field at Hitler Youth just got fertilized.” He gave his shirt another halfhearted, disgusted appraisal. “It’s cow manure, I think.”
“Did what’s-his-name-Deutscher-know it was there?”
“He says he didn’t. But he was grinning.”

I appreciate that Zusak is trying to show us that Rudy’s exploits at the Hitler Youth will become more important, but for now all this serves is a rather weak motivation for Liesel to get back into book thievery.

After a moment’s thought, he raised his head, just a touch. “Look at me. I’m filthy. I stink like cow shit, or dog shit, whatever your opinion, and as usual, I’m absolutely starving.” He paused. “I need a win, Liesel. Honestly.”
Liesel knew.
She’d have gone closer but for the smell of him.
Stealing.
They had to steal something.

This seems so childish and petty the only thing that comes close to redeeming it, apart from the fact that Liesel and Rudy are children, is the fundamental innocence and weakness of these two characters, especially at this moment in time.

One of my commentators attempted to defend Liesel and Rudy for stealing in the past by arguing that they only committed their crimes out of “a desire to control something” at an age and in a place where they would otherwise have no control. This point in the book seems to illustrate that point well, but even though they hem-and-haw for nearly two pages about where to steal from and what to steal, it’s obvious this is always going to come back to Liesel stealing the book from the Mayor’s wife, despite having rejected it when it was offered to her.

At that very moment, Liesel was presented with a decision. Could she truly carry out what she was thinking? Could she really seek revenge on a person like this? Could she despise someone this much?

I was hoping to get a lot more insight into Liesel’s thought process and her contemplations of whether or not to take the book than what we do get here, but the real problem is that the book treats it like it’s a real defining moment of Liesel’s morality. When really that moral turning point for her already came when she made the decision to castigate and shame the Mayor’s wife. What Liesel’s doing is indeed petty, but it’s not a petty act of revenge or even something hurtful. It’s a petty act of saying “Alright, changed my mind.” Nothing more and nothing less.

There is a brief fake-out where Rudy and Liesel get to the Mayor’s house and find the library’s window has been locked, and it appears Liesel’s plan for revenge will not come to fruition, but no. They steal nothing else, just come back a week later and the window is open. No time is spent on Liesel and Rudy trying to work out other ways to get into the house, and Rudy doesn’t even bring up the possibility of simply stealing somewhere else, even though he’s the one who came up with the idea of stealing something and he has no personal vendetta against the Mayor’s family.

No, the repugnant truth was this:
She didn’t care about the food. Rudy, no matter how hard she tried to resist the idea, was secondary to her plan. It was the book she wanted.
 The Whistler. She wouldn’t tolerate having it given to her by a lonely, pathetic old woman. Stealing it, on the other hand, seemed a little more acceptable. Stealing it, in a sick kind of sense, was like earning it.

I’m trying to understand Liesel’s motivations here, and while incredibly petty, this at least makes some sense. I haven’t stolen much of anything in my life, so I can’t relate to this, but it seems her morality has been warped by the constant stealing for Berg (and now Chemmel)’s gang, as well as the two previous occasions on which she stole a book, which were approved of by Hans, so that now she believes stealing a book is the most pure form of obtaining one. It’s childish, and frankly a bit disgusting, but what really strikes me as abhorrent isn’t Liesel’s desire to steal, or even her selfish motivations that have nothing to do with helping her friend feel better, but the fact that she has such contempt for a woman for being depressed and emotionally scarred by the death of her son, and continues to project her own insecurities onto her. And I’m not sure if Zusak wants us to see it that way, either.

They laughed nervously for a moment before going through the motions of who should go in and who should stand watch. As the male in the operation, Rudy clearly felt that he should be the aggressor, but it was obvious that Liesel knew this place. It was she who was going in. She knew what was on the other side of the window.
She said it. “It has to be me.”

And now I don’t even understand what Rudy has to gain from this. The Hitler Youth plotline provided such a slim motivation for this plotline, but now it feels like there’s nothing. Rudy didn’t mastermind this plan himself, and he’s not even the one breaking in to commit the theft, so how would this be a much-needed “win” for him? He doesn’t even seem to understand why Liesel is angry at the Mayor’s wife or to know about the book she tried giving away, as he still insists she look for food and cigarettes (because in that time period, cigarettes were apparently worth so much they were only valued less than food?) and if Liesel had stolen either of those items, this would be truly petty and despicable, since it would be something the Mayor and his family might actually miss.

There is a brief description of the sense of nostalgia and joy Liesel feels despite herself upon being inside the library again, but this would be more effective if it hadn’t been only 4 months since she was last in there. The narrative then quickly shifts to an attempt at tension, as Liesel can’t find the book on the shelf, and Rudy warns her of footsteps coming from upstairs, but this is resolved in 2 paragraphs as she then sees the book lying on the Mayor’s desk, grabs it, and jumps out the window again.

Once Rudy and Liesel get safely away from the house, Rudy notices the book and realizes what Liesel’s real plan was, but he doesn’t even get the chance to be angry at his friend for tricking him before Liesel notices that he left her shoes at the Mayor’s house, so Rudy runs back to get them. This feels unnecessary except to paint Rudy as an ideal friend and grant him one small victory (albeit only one of correcting his own mistake), but it does admittedly provide us with, in my opinion, the only genuine moment of tension in this chapter:

The minutes were heavy while he was gone.
Darkness was now complete and Liesel was quite certain that a
 Watschen was most likely in the cards when she returned home. “Hurry,” she murmured, but still Rudy didn’t still appear. She imagined the sound of a police siren throwing itself forward and reeling itself in. Collecting itself.
Still, nothing.

It doesn’t last long, as Rudy soon returns with the shoes and tries again to extort a kiss from Liesel, but I really did feel like I was there with Liesel in the dark, experiencing genuine fear and tension about Rudy and whether or not their crime would be discovered. And I do genuinely like the rest of the chapter, now that the conflict has been resolved and it winds itself to a close. Zusak managed for the first time in a while to paint an image of a scene in my mind, and it genuinely feels like we’re seeing two real friends quietly having a conversation with each other. This passage, in particular, is a very nice human detail:

“Speaking of which, I think we’re both slightly in for it when we get home. You especially.”
“Why me?”
“You know-your mama.”
“What about her?” Liesel was exercising the blatant right of every person who’s ever belonged to a family. It’s all very well for such a person to whine and moan and criticize other family members, but they won’t let
 anyone else do it. That’s when you get your back up and show loyalty.

This is so beautifully true it really is a rare instance here of wonderful, human writing, and it doesn’t feel like Zusak, in fact. It feels more like a passage that, if modified, could easily belong to a much different writer like C.S. Lewis.

Zusak also paints a picture of Rudy from Liesel’s 3rd-person POV that describes how he has been growing and changing with age very vividly, reminding me of several of Rowling’s descriptions in The Casual Vacancy. It creates a much stronger portrait of him, in fact, than the literal “Portrait of Rudy Steiner, July 1941” we got earlier, and manages much more to imbue us with the sad realization that he will die before he has the chance to truly age, so that in a way Rudy is close now to being as old as he ever will be.

The chapter ends with Rudy and Liesel returning to their separate houses and reminiscing about the old days of last year when Berg was running their gang, and it really does feel like another precious pocket of humanity like the one we got with Liesel and Hans at the end of “The Gamblers,” and moments like this really are much needed.

As we’re both aware, she’d stolen books previously, but in late October 1941, it became official. That night, Liesel Meminger truly became the book thief.

And yet I can’t help but feel that even if the Mayor’s wife had caught Liesel in the act of stealing her book, she would have simply frowned stoically and allowed (if not encouraged) Liesel to climb back out the window with it. Combining that with the fact that only one of the three stolen books would be missed, I hear Remy’s father in Ratatouille explaining to his son that “It isn’t stealing if no one wants it.” And the voice of another little rat shouting back, “If no one wants it, why are we stealing it?”

THREE ACTS OF STUPIDITY BY RUDY STEINER

What’s strange about this book is how often it can seem like a series of vignettes loosely tied together, and this chapter in particular feels a bit like a short story detailing a few misadventures of Rudy. However, Death’s statement that Rudy was the “dominant factor” in the book’s pattern of events is now proving itself to be true as it becomes clear now this entire part has revolved around Rudy in some way, from the knowledge of his untimely death to his conflicts with Deutscher in the Hitler Youth and Chemmel in the apple-stealing gang, to his endless attempts to extort a kiss out of Liesel, all of which is tied together in these last two chapters.

The chapter begins with Death, as he often does, giving us a blueprint of the chapter to come:

***RUDY STEINER, PURE GENIUS***
1. He stole his biggest potato
from Mamer’s, the local grocer.
2. Taking on Franz Deutscher
on Munich Street.
3. Skipping the Hitler Youth
meetings altogether.

One problem I have with the scene to follow is that there is very little description, and the description we do get is confusing. Death throws us into the scene at Mamer’s with Rudy attempting to steal a potato with no physical description of the store to allow us to picture it. When the owner, Mamer, confronts Rudy over his attempted theft, Zusak writes that Mamer was “still holding Rudy by the collar” despite never stating he was holding him by the collar to begin with, and tells us 2 paragraphs later that he “held Rudy in one hand and the potato in the other,” even though the last we had heard, “the potato was still in Rudy’s hands (he couldn’t hold it in just the one)” and Death never mentions Mamer taking it from him, which creates unseen jumps in time that are awkward and break up the narrative.
As for my thoughts on the section as a whole, there is brief tension as Mamer threatens to call the police on Rudy, but he is then forced to rely on pity to get him out of this situation, as he begs his schoolteacher to tell the grocer how poor he is to guilt-trip Mamer into letting him go. It works, and it’s another small redeeming moment for humanity, but what I found noteworthy is this line:

He was in the percentage of teachers at school who were not priests or nuns.

I felt a bit guilty for being hard on religion when discussing the corporal punishment administered at Liesel’s school, but it seems clear that Zusak, despite keeping this book fairly neutral in terms of belief, as I mentioned earlier, seems to share those feelings of religious distrust. (The only other thing I found worth mentioning here was that Zusak uses the word “ejaculated” to stand in for “exclaimed”, which I didn’t think was possible for a writer to do any more, but Zusak might have chosen to use it due to the book’s period setting.)

And despite Death claiming at the start of the chapter that “the problem with Rudy’s first act was greed,” I think what this whole chapter of the story really illustrates is instead Rudy’s rebellious, impulsive and impetuous nature, and how it gets him into trouble as Rudy tries to secure petty victories to boost his self-esteem, only to inevitably end up digging himself further and further down.

Death sums this misadventure of Rudy Steiner up well:

For Rudy, it was yet another failure.

From there, the narrative moves to Rudy’s second act of stupidity, with Death spoiling for us that he “would finish this particular altercation with a black eye, cracked ribs and a haircut,” which shows his luck will not be improving, obviously, but braces us for what is to come. The incident Death describes first with Rudy in the Hitler Youth seems to further my theory that Rudy’s problems are mostly caused by his rebelliousness, however, when Deutscher asks him the Hitler Youth’s favorite question:

“When was our Führer, Adolf Hitler, born?”
Rudy looked up. “Sorry?”
The question was repeated, and the very stupid Rudy Steiner, who knew all too well that it was April 20, 1889, answered with the birth of Christ. He even threw in Bethlehem as an added piece of information.

What’s worth noting is that Rudy, unlike Liesel, has no personal reason to hate the Nazi regime at this point, so the book isn’t trying to show a 13-year-old as being better than his time, which I appreciate, as it’s clear this act of rebellion is motivated by his disdain for Deutscher, not Hitler himself. Which is further drilled in when we get to Rudy’s actual “second act of stupidity”:

On Munich Street, Rudy noticed Deutscher walking along the footpath with some friends and felt the need to throw a rock at him.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! FUCKING SERIOUSLY. WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?

But in all honesty, even for an act of stupidity, this act is so shocking and blatantly pointless that Death himself again interrupts to respond to me:

You might well ask just what the hell he was thinking. The answer is, probably nothing at all. He’d probably say that he was exercising his God-given right to stupidity. Either that, or the very sight of Franz Deutscher gave him the urge to destroy himself.

Well, yeah, no shit, Sherlock… but this honestly is one of the few moments it felt like Zusak was deliberately making a character act in a certain way just to create conflict, rather than as something that grew organically out of the narrative. However, given Rudy’s established impulsive and rebellious nature, combined with the fact that he is 13, I’m willing to excuse this, and what’s important is not only does this fail to secure a “win” for Rudy, it also results in his worst humiliation yet. As you could imagine, Deustcher doesn’t take too kindly to this, so he responds by savagely attacking Rudy, throwing him into the pavement three times, giving him the aforementioned black eye and cracked ribs. Unlike the earlier scene where Liesel beats up the two boys, there is nothing fun or gratifying about reading this, and it’s one of the most uncomfortable scenes to read in the whole book, especially if you imagine Deutscher is a few years older than Rudy, yet he still has no problem beating the fucking shit out of him as if he’s even a fair match. There’s even a moment where he pulls a knife on Rudy, and even though we know Rudy will only receive a haircut and he won’t die for another 2 years, it’s still only natural to expect the worst. And Deutscher concludes this humiliation by asking Rudy the question of Hitler’s birthday again:

And Rudy?
How did he reply?
Did he respond prudently, or did he allow his stupidity to sink himself deeper into the mire?
He looked happily into the pale blue eyes of Franz Deutscher and whispered, “Easter Monday.”

This again brings me back to the meditation on cowardice earlier in the book, as this is one of the few stupid acts committed by Rudy that could be considered genuinely brave, as he refuses to allow Deutscher the satisfaction of giving in to him. Deutscher has given Rudy the only position of power he can have, the power to defy him, and Rudy is more than willing to take it, and yet just as Hans only survived WWI due to his aforementioned “cowardice”, one can’t help but feel the sane, sensible reaction in terms of self-preservation would be to simply give Deutscher the complete satisfaction that he wants, but instead Rudy gets a haircut in addition to his humiliation and Zusak makes an annoyingly unnecessary parallel of this haircut, as an act of forced humiliation by an enemy, to the haircut Max received from Liesel earlier in the year, as an act of genuine friendship (unnecessary in that again the audience is more than capable of making this parallel ourselves).

As for Rudy, so far this year he’d swallowed mud, bathed himself in fertilizer, been half-strangled by a developing criminal, and was now receiving something at least nearing the icing on the cake-public humiliation on Munich Street.

Seriously, at first, it may have been shocking that Rudy died so young, but now I can’t help but feel he was lucky to make it this long. Is he really going to survive another TWO YEARS????? Because I have made it my whole life without experiencing any of those things (with the possible exception of public humiliation).

The chapter does, however, manage to leave Rudy on a bit of a positive note, as his third act of stupidity, skipping the Hitler Youth meetings, turns out to be the only one of these acts to exhibit any common sense or leave him in a better position. (“It was the one time in his life that his idiotic behavior delivered beneficial results.”) True, it’s a dangerous thing to do in this time period, but it also ensures he will avoid being in this stressful environment and risk any more hostile interactions with Deutscher. And ultimately, his brother convinces him to join a different division of the Hitler Youth, which teaches aircraft and flying, and the chapter ends with the suggestion that Rudy has experienced some genuine character growth, and in addition to being in a better place, is beginning to mature and accept what he can and cannot get away with:

In his new division, whenever he was asked the famous Führer question, Rudy would smile and answer, “April 20, 1889,” and then to Tommy, he’d whisper a different date, like Beethoven’s birthday, or Mozart’s, or Strauss’s. They’d been learning about composers in school, where despite his obvious stupidity, Rudy excelled.

It helps he doesn’t have a figure like Deutscher to challenge him here, but the last sentence adds a layer of depth in suggesting the difference between book smarts and street smarts, Rudy perhaps possessing more of the former than the latter, something I have to admit I can relate to myself.

THE FLOATING BOOK (Part II)

So now the part ends, right where it began, as you can tell from the title. And I honestly have little to say about this chapter, because everything mostly plays out exactly as I had predicted it would. The opening sentence even mentions that it is December, and Rudy will finally secure a victory, so it’s pretty clear what will happen next.

Liesel and Rudy are going home from school, and there is a small bit of misdirection as they have to avoid Franz Deutscher, but it’s pretty clear there’s not much more he can do to Rudy after having beaten and humiliated him in public already, so this isn’t too convincing, and…

With no further words, Liesel followed him, and they successfully avoided Rudy’s tormentor-straight into the path of another.

They predictably run into Viktor Chemmel and his group on the bridge, and one complaint I have about this is that the action doesn’t feel like it’s playing out naturally. We know everything that is going to happen, and the characters seem to basically act as marionettes, being pulled around by invisible strings and made to do exactly what Zusak wants them to and be exactly where he wants them to be. How likely is it, really, that Viktor and Deutscher would both randomly be wandering around Molching within the same vicinity of each other on the same day, for instance? It’s possible, but it feels contrived.

Viktor greets them by randomly calling Liesel a whore again (big surprise) and taking the book. He offers to sell it back to them for fifty marks, but as Andy Schmeikl points out, they could buy any number of books for that amount (including the same one he took) so this extortion attempt is beyond idiotic. He could also point out that Liesel and Rudy probably don’t have that much money even if they wanted to give it to him, but he doesn’t.

“Did I ask you to speak?”
Andy kept quiet. His mouth seemed to swing shut.

Markus Zusak, have you ever heard this saying before? “If you want respect, you must give respect to get it.” If this whole group is so spineless and cowardly they’re willing to acquiesce to the every demand of this rich prick who gives them no respect, how are they effective thieves who are willing to risk being chased by angry farmers with axes, anyway?

Liesel tried a poker face. “You can keep it, then. I’ve already read it.”
“What happens at the end?”
Damn it!
She hadn’t gotten that far yet.

Well, neither has Viktor, so I’m sure any lie she could come up with would sound convincing, but it doesn’t really matter. For as much as Zusak built up Viktor’s patience in getting back at Rudy, it seems clear he had no plan of exacting revenge against him at all, and spent none of those five months formulating one. He knows Rudy will be pained at seeing his friend intimidated and losing her book because of him, but that doesn’t change the fact that as Rudy points out, this act of revenge isn’t really against him at all, as it’s not his book, so Viktor is basically just impulsively being a prick. It’s not like the group is going to fall into submission after seeing Viktor take action against a person who didn’t question his authority. He’s just pointlessly harassing another member of the group who did nothing against him.

Stranger still is that Zusak never mentions Viktor and his gang leaving after he throws the book into the river, yet Rudy immediately runs down to retrieve it without even waiting for them to go. Inexplicably, Viktor makes no attempt to go after Rudy and stop him from getting it, either. (Also, tearing the book up and throwing the pages in one-by-one would have been more effective, and more of a prolonged punishment, as Rudy would have had to watch his friend’s prized property be destroyed for God knows how long.) He just vanishes from the narrative into a black hole, to wait until the next time it needs him to be a dick.

Another note of interest is that Rudy did not attempt to leave the devastatingly cold water as soon as he held the book in his hand. For a good minute or so, he stayed. He never did explain it to Liesel, but I think she knew very well that the reasons were twofold.

I would think the reason would obviously be to make sure Viktor isn’t hiding somewhere, waiting for the opportunity to ambush him and throw the book back in, but no. Zusak explains the real reason is he wants to revel in his victory and make himself appear pitiful and selfless, so Liesel will kiss him. But obviously she won’t, and Zusak does fittingly leave us on the tragic note he was building to all along:

He stood waist-deep in the water for a few moments longer before climbing out and handing her the book. His pants clung to him, and he did not stop walking. In truth, I think he was afraid. Rudy Steiner was scared of the book thief’s kiss. He must have longed for it so much. He must have loved her so incredibly hard. So hard that he would never ask for her lips again and would go to his grave without them.

That really is a good place to leave the book. I enjoyed this project (especially when I had readers) and I liked reading the book, too, and it’s possible I’ll finish the rest of the book on my own, but we’ve made it halfway through and I think ending on this note of dramatic irony is very fitting. I don’t know how long it will take me to finish the book if I keep dragging the project out, and seeing as how my readers have lost interest, I think it’s clear all good things must come to an end. To the few who enjoyed these posts, I say thank you. I hope you enjoyed revisiting the book as experienced by another person and getting to know my personality through my reviews. I don’t know if I will write any more reviews on here, but I say again, goodbye.

 

 

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In the final analysis, The Casual Vacancy was constructed so that when three characters walk past a small, unaccompanied boy who is wandering between a dangerous river and a road, we understand why none of them stopped to ask him why he was alone, or take charge of him. I chose each of these characters carefully.

Gavin represents the utter apathy for which it is necessary (in the famous quotation) for evil to flourish. He cannot even remember seeing Robbie Weedon after he hears that he has drowned, nor is he troubled by the thought that he must have walked very close to the boy during his final moments.

Samantha represents the rush of everyday troubles that prevents basically well-intentioned people from concentrating on matters that do not directly concern them. She subsequently admits to having seen Robbie and feels deep remorse at not having acted. Samantha is also honest enough to acknowledge to herself that Robbie’s appearance made her less likely to help him.

Shirley represents a degree of unkindness that stems from her own basic insecurity, because her background is not so very far removed from the Weedons. I think it is very common for such people to be among the most critical and judgmental. She – not Howard – is Barry Fairbrother’s true opposite in the novel. Denying her roots and castigating those who remind her of them, she is the negative image of the man who admits where he came from and goes back to try and help others. Shirley not only sees Robbie and ignores him as she grapples with her own problems, she feels no remorse afterwards, merely heaping blame on others for the child’s death.

An interesting question is whether Howard would have stopped to help Robbie. I’d be fascinated to know what readers think, but I’m sure he would have done. Howard is a happy man, which makes a difference; happy people are often kinder than the unhappy.”

– J.K. Rowling, on July 25 2013

The ending is the conceit. The ending defines all that came before. The ending is whether everything is tied into a neat little bow and we are invited to marvel at how perfectly all the disparate elements have come together. The ending of this particular work is so important, in fact, that it seems almost pointless to even discuss any of the events that are featured in this final adaptation prior. This may seem like a bizarre statement to make, since the events leading up to the climax of any work are generally what allows it to flourish, not to mention come into existence in the first place, but so little of the original book that contributed to the events you know, actually mattering has been retained that it seems more fitting to simply recap everything that pads out the first 40 minutes, and then move on to discussing what’s really important: the climax.

It opens the same way they all open: we get peaceful shots of the Pagford countryside, with endless footage of Vikram jogging, which is supposed to be important for reasons that will only be revealed later. Tessa is demeaning Colin for hyperventilating on the day of the election, because here she’s a horrible wife and Colin doesn’t have OCD to provide context for any of this. Also, when Fats taunts his stepfather, Tessa asks “Do you believe in anything, Stuart?” to which he replies, “I put all my faith in doritos.”

Huh, I thought Fats believed in this:

The mistake ninety-nine percent of humanity made, as far as Fats could see, was being ashamed of what they were; lying about it, trying to be somebody else. Honesty was Fats’ currency, his weapon and defense. It frightened people when you were honest, it shocked them. Other people, Fats had discovered, were mired in embarrassment and pretense, terrified that their truths might leak out, but Fats was attracted by rawness, by everything that was ugly but honest, by the dirty things about which the likes of his father felt humiliated and disgusted. Fats thought a lot about messiahs and pariahs; about men labeled mad or criminal; noble misfits shunned by the sleepy masses.

It’s almost as if Sarah Phelps is willfully disposing of the brief bits about “authenticity” being thrown about by Fats and Krystal and admitting his character has no meaning anymore.

They also appear to be throwing in the “wives at war with their husbands” card at random now. Dr. Jawanda and Vikram are now bitterly angry at each other out of nowhere, presumably because of Dr. Jawanda’s outburst at Howard, but she’s the one suspended, it doesn’t affect Vikram at all, and she accuses him of having no code of ethics, which makes absolutely no sense and is irrelevant to anything.

Shortly after this Mary unloads her anger against her dead husband on Colin. This illustrates Barry’s failings as opposed to his virtues, at least, but Mary also says, “Everyone grows up next door to someone. It doesn’t mean you have to look after them for the rest of their bloodsucking lives,” which puts BARRY FAIRBROTHER’S OWN WIDOW IN DIRECT FUCKING AGREEMENT WITH THE GODDAMN MOLLISONS. So instead of this being a case of Barry’s human faults in not being able to keep his attentions everywhere, it turns all the way to “OMG BARRY WHAT IS YOUR TASTES.” She also exhibits borderline insane paranoia by repeatedly insisting that Barry’s passion for keeping Sweetlove House open directly led to his aneurysm and telling Colin the exact same thing will happen to him. Which means Colin is forced to actually be the voice of reason and convince her otherwise…. and everything is specifically designed to be the exact opposite of the book which is a shame because the book actually had solid coherent characterization so now you have the exact opposite of that. why must i keep writing after that ugh.

On the Mollison side of things, pointless conflict between Samantha and Shirley occurs when Shirley searches the former’s computer history to find evidence of her being the Ghost and provokes her further by taunting her for being an alcoholic and encouraging her children to turn against her.

We do get some more flashbacks of Barry trying to help Krystal and Robbie out, which are nice and show the positive effect he had on their lives. There’s also a strange scene added where Krystal and Terri have a brief bonding experience sitting outside after Krystal and Fats have apparently broken up.

Yes, you read that right. Because apparently we need to ruin everything about the original work, Andrew and Fats’ friendship doesn’t dissolve just because Andrew is a fairly normal teenager who actually has some morals – no, it breaks up because as Fats says when he confronts Andrew outside Howard’s deli, “you always said that no female would come between us as mates” and admits that his relationship with Krystal is purely sexual. So instead of a platonic friendship between two males naturally breaking off, we have instead the most blatantly homoerotic relationship since Batman and Robin. Well done, Sarah Phelps. Bravo.

Krystal and Fats break up because Krystal realizes this and asks Fats “What’s wrong with him having a girlfriend?” But this is actually a good thing, isn’t it? Because now how will the ending come about if Krystal has nowhere to go and no boyfriend to fool around with to get her and Robbie away from the rape, prostitution, and drug abuse that constitutes their abusive, dysfunctional home life?

I’m going to leave that question open for now because GUESS WHAT IT’S ELECTION TIME. Fats is smoking marijuana outside the building where the voting is being held, and offering it to the voters who go in, while being quick to remind them who his parent is. Because he wants to get himself thrown in jail, I guess. Except that instead of calling the police or complaining to someone inside, the upper-class of Pagford huff and puff and mutter “Disgraceful” under their breaths as they come inside. Because we have literally turned into a cartoon, I’m surprised Colin doesn’t run out at this point and chase his son while the Benny Hill music plays. Except that Colin should actually be clapping his son on the back yelling “Good job” because he ACTUALLY CHOOSES TO VOTE FOR MILES.

I feel like I have to add at this point to all the readers who live in countries without access to this miniseries that I am literally not making that up. You heard me. Instead of the wonderfully triumphant scene where Kay comes to Colin’s house and encourages him to go off giddy as schoolchildren to vote for him, Colin willingly chooses to vote for his competitor. We do at least get the glorious shot of Samantha marking “You’re all wankers” on the ballot and tossing it in the box at any rate, but that only highlights the fact that Colin should be doing that. It honestly makes no sense. Barry was supposed to be this grand inspiring figure from beyond the grave. It’s bad enough his widow doesn’t even support what he fought for, but now COLIN IS VOTING FOR THE PERSON WHOSE MAIN PARTY PLATFORM IS “I OPPOSE EVERYTHING BARRY FAIRBROTHER WANTED TO PASS”. The whole reason Colin ran was because he didn’t want Barry’s legacy to “go up in smoke”! If he doesn’t believe in himself, then why not WALK AWAY QUIETLY WITHOUT VOTING AT ALL. Did you even consider that, Colin? Holy Jesus Christ.

Matters are made infinitely worse by the fact that Colin literally ends up voting himself out of office. Yes, tell me how likely the outcome of an election is that a wacky school principal would ever come one vote away from a member of the Kennedys being elected (especially when said potential parish councilor’s son and influence on the kids you enrolled in his school is smoking weed right outside). Do please go on.

Following that, we get some more strange changes: Rather than getting fired for his illegal practices, Simon bizarrely gets promoted to management where he can lay off other people (this is the company’s response to hearing him being slandered online for theft?????????) and Samantha leaves Miles with a note.

So that all leads up to Howard’s birthday party. I used 4 bullet points to describe what happened there in the book. Here, I can use 3:

  1. Fats shows up and tries to apologize to Andrew. Gaia encourages them to hug and make up, so they do. It doesn’t matter, though, because they actually keep Fats and Gaia kissing (this time, while high and drunk) and subsequently breaking away so Gaia can throw up, of course. This last part doesn’t really matter, though, because it comes after Andrew catches them and is so furious he literally just smashes a perfectly good bottle of wine for no reason at all.
  2. Shirley and Howard congratulate Miles on winning the election, and assure him he can do much better remarrying someone else. Earlier we had a scene where Miles whined and complained about one of his posters being vandalized, but now he just stares and reacts to all that’s going on around him, well aware of how little a role he really played in all this as an actual personality. However, we do get a scene after this that’s actually fairly shocking and at least well-acted. It’s the only thing I can actually come close to liking in the whole hour. Samantha actually comes back and confronts Shirley for trying to turn the family against her, telling her she won’t go along with her game. (Hurray, a character decision/narrative development that actually makes sense!) And Shirley’s response is shocking. She brings up the fact that Samantha apparently was not providing for her children when she was born because she was “very ill” (perhaps an alcoholic?) and Shirley had to step in. Shirley insists that the children don’t love Samantha and blames her for that, encouraging her to leave them. But Miles has actually witnessed this whole conversation, apparently. To be honest, I was hoping for a lot more. I was hoping this would be the moment Miles finally stepped up and did something. Samantha did most of the work already, though, but he does take Samantha away carefully, and cow his mother into submission by not backing down and saying just this: “Aubrey and Julia Sweetlove. You do know they’re not coming. Don’t you?” The implication being that she doesn’t have the social clout and isn’t nearly as admired as she thinks she is, and that she perhaps isn’t any more important than him in the grand scheme, something only Samantha could admit in the book. It’s a little step for a man of 43, but it sows the seeds for him really standing up for himself. I have to admit, this is one of the few additions I really enjoyed. It still seems like a bit too little, too late, though. But Samantha and Miles getting back together was something that never really fit or made sense to me in the book, either, so I won’t get into that.
  3. Add to the list of missing characters: Patricia “Black Sheep Lezzy” Mollison. Which is a bit strange, considering the BBC doesn’t mind gay alien couple smooching on Doctor Who. But this isn’t a change that matters much, though, because Andrew catches Howard and Maureen fooling around himself now (although the book implied this mainly went on in the past), and he records them on his phone.

So now, the seeds have all been sown for the finale. Let’s discuss what’s really important. I quoted Rowling’s explanation of her ending at the opening of my review. Here’s her admirable literary adapter’s, in the interest of fairness:
I was very straight with Jo and told her that I needed to write a different ending. It’s still heartbreaking, but I had to find some kind of redemptive moment at the end of it all, that sense that after the tragedy, someone gets to stand with a slightly straighter back.
Also, what works in a novel doesn’t always work on screen. Nobody wants a finger wagged in their face, and I learnt on EastEnders that if you just go ‘grim, grim, grim’, viewers will simply disengage.
If you’ve invested three hours of your leisure time to watch a show and get involved, there’s got to be reward. You’ve got to think that it was worth it and that the characters aren’t just a pack of s—s; they’ve got to be a little bit funny, a little bit understandable.”

So what are we left with, then?

Well, Kay was re-assigned as the Weedons’ social worker, and they are being forced to relocate to Yarvil. Obbo does not rape Krystal in this version, however. Krystal comes home to find Terri partying with her junkie friends, on the verge of smoking crack cocaine while telling her to loosen up. Obbo is there, out of prison, and he chases Krystal to her bedroom, but she manages to get away from him. He just warns her she’ll have to talk to him eventually, “because the thing is, Krystal, you’ve got nowhere else to go.” So I will give them credit for one thing: it’s clear how trapped Krystal is in her own life. Her hopes went out the window when Barry died, that much is clear.

But what I can’t forgive is what they build off of this. Krystal leaves with Robbie first thing in the morning, and since she and Fats are broken up now, instead of fucking him, she tries to put her plan from the book into effect but in the form of going to the Cubby Hole (where Fats just happens to be by sheer chance) and claims she’s pregnant and needs the house from his parents. Since that would all go down the drain once no baby turns up, it seems likely Krystal is actually supposed to be pregnant in reality. She doesn’t give any signs of it, so this is just confusing and stupid right off the bat. From there, it gets worse.

Fats responds the way you would expect, so Krystal goes to check on Robbie. However, he hasn’t actually gone in the water, at all, but Krystal sees his shoe in the river and jumps in to find him. She gets tangled in the wires of the computer Andrew and Simon threw in, and drowns. Robbie is found by Vikram and taken safely away. Andrew and Simon are randomly driving by for no reason, and they get out and realize what happened. So Simon (ONE OF TWO CHARACTERS SPECIFICALLY LABELED BY ROWLING AS “COMPLETELY BEYOND REDEMPTION”) gazes upon the consequences of his actions and feels genuine remorse and shock.

As for the Mollison front, it might as well be a soap opera akin to the one our writer so diligently worked on for the better part of a decade and more in the past, as Shirley dramatically confronts Howard looking like a possessed witch as she shows him the visual evidence of his adultery against her while he collapses of a heart attack, demonic music playing in the background as if it is beckoning them all to the gates of Lucifer himself. Then we are left with one last pointless scene, where it is clear Howard has survived in good health as opposed to the book’s ambiguity as to whether he would ever be able to leave. Which would make for a good tying up of his narrative arc here, but instead he sees the grim reaper one last time, because apparently Sarah Phelps thinks most people in hospitals who’ve just suffered heart attacks don’t. It goes to show he’s such a happy man who would have stepped in and saved the day, too.

Sukhvinder has been left with no narrative purpose at all, so rather than being a fitting climax to a character’s dramatic arc, we have one character we never paid attention to in the first place stepping in like the classic deux ex machina to save a person’s life because it would be really really sad if he didn’t do that, not because it has anything to do with what we know about him as a character in the past. It would just be too upsetting to watch people act the way we expect them to on Sunday afternoon BBC telly.

No voice for the raped, no voice for the self-abusive, no voice for the children who died before they were even able to become teenagers.

So what are we left with, at the end of all this? Krystal Weedon did not die as a decision to join her brother in the afterlife, trapped in the heroin-filled den of misery she tried to escape, as a culmination of her failed attempts to make life worthwhile for them both. She died away from all that due to a stupid freak accident that could have been avoided because despite supposedly loving her brother she didn’t bring him in the Cubby Hole with her for absolutely no reason. Fats being berated by Tessa and comforted by Colin is retained at least, but it doesn’t make any sense since he couldn’t have even known Robbie was there in the first place. There are no 3 people walking by to make us question the apathy of the human condition. According to Dr. Jawanda, “Anyone would have done the same.” So we have nothing to contemplate, nothing to make us question how things could have gone differently. What we are left with is 3 hours of our lives sucked away to watch, in the words of Shakespeare, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

And why? Because, by the admission of the writer who wrote all this, it would be challenging to the viewers to make them question their own lives and make them so angry at what they’ve seen on screen that they think about why 2 innocent children died in the hopes they could make a difference in their own community. It was only Colin’s fault he didn’t get elected to keep the addiction clinic open and a good person stepped in to save a 3-year-old’s life, when the novel already gave us the kindly empathetic dog-walker who stepped in to act, long after it was too late.

Norman Lear wrote in his book Even This I Get to Experience“Wait a second. Who said the comedies that preceded All in the Family had no point of view? The overwhelming majority of them were about families whose biggest problem was ‘The roast is ruined and the boss is coming to dinner!’ Or ‘Mother dented the fender and how is she going to tell Father?’ Talk about messaging! For twenty years-until AITF came along-TV comedy was telling us there was no hunger in America, we had no racial discrimination, there was no unemployment or inflation, no war, no drugs, and the citizenry was happy with whomever happened to be in the White House. Tell me that expressed no point of view!”

And he fought hard in 1971 against a whole network just to get one line of dialogue passed because of the precedent it would set, when only a few mainstream critics bothered to care at the time. Sarah Phelps chose to make people feel good about themselves and about all people in the world because it would be too risky to try to get away with something else on television in the year 2015. That would be scary. That would make her something close to an important writer who knew how to manipulate the medium she chose to work in to influence the masses in ways she couldn’t manage to when she was writing her soap opera for 14 years. That would be too much work and too much at stake.

The last glimpse we get into the world of Pagford is a happy couple moving into the peaceful community, being told they’re “Pagford people” by the realtor. This is fitting, because it signifies that in 3 hours, the story ultimately never got past the main premise: “Behind the pretty facade, however, is a town at war….. Pagford is not what it first seems.” Phelps seems to think a 16-year-old boy having the girl he has a schoolboy crush on smile and sit next to him on the bus while the “Glory Hallelujah” choir plays as if it’s the second coming of Christ somehow makes that all easier to handle, though, so there you go.

Fuck you, Sarah Phelps. And fuck you to the BBC. You took God knows how much of my life that could have been better used and obligated me to spend it watching, rewatching, taking notes on, writing about, television not worth the name, just to compose rants that only a handful of people on the Internet will ever care about at best, but are still ultimately more thoughtful, passionate, and driven that anything you could ever hope to produce.

Markus Zusak, you’re looking better every day.

I wasn’t planning on writing this post, but I decided it would be best simply to convey my thoughts for posterity and because it parallels my first post I wrote on this blog. I’ve always felt I usually miss out on being in on things in pop culture as they happen. That’s one reason I was so eager to review J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy as soon as it came out.

And now another pop cultural event is upon us, one far important to me: AMC’s groundbreaking, critically acclaimed hit television show that created a new reputation for the network, is beginning its final season tonight. And from then on it is only seven episodes until it ends.

This might be strange to say, but I feel time goes by much too quickly for me. I finished watching Waterloo (by renting the Netflix disc) in December, and now here we are already.

I wanted a bit more time to go by missing the show, I suppose. But now in the past few days I’ve re-watched, on Netflix:
Season 1

The Hobo Code

Shoot

Season 2

Three Sundays

The Mountain King

Season 3

Seven Twenty Three

Season 4

Waldorf Stories

The Summer Man

Season 5

Lady Lazarus

The Other Woman

Season 6

The Crash

Season 7

Waterloo

And I still have no clue how the show is going to end. I have my theories, however, my impressions on what to expect from this last season opener:

It may open in 1970. (Someone judged based on a 1974 song being used in a promo that the show would move through years every episode, to show the characters’ lives moving quickly.)

The episode will be mostly set-up. The season premieres usually are, which is why I’ve objected to them being over an hour for Seasons 5 and 6. They only serve the purpose of letting us back inside the world and showing us where the characters are now, usually with a unified theme that draws the whole thing together.

There may actually be something shocking and unexpected in it. It may even have a very unexpected opening to throw us off our guards, automatically.

We will get a good idea of change in the characters’ lives.

There will be a conflict with work that will need to be resolved.

We will probably see Don bonding more with Sally.

It will definitely give us an idea of Don trying to improve his life and appreciate what matters around him.

Other than this, I really don’t have a clue. I could go on and on about what the show means to me, how much the show has changed my life and my way of thinking about the world. I’ll just say this. Watch it for yourself. It is a well-written, truly intelligent work of art. Watch every episode in order, because it is a journey through people’s lives, seeing how they change, evolve and grow. It is deeply meaningful,  effortlessly re-creating the past while reminding us how little we have actually changed as human beings in the mean-time. The human condition, and our perpetual dissatisfaction, along with the reasons for that dissatisfaction never change.

The real question is whether any true optimism will be revealed, whether Don will manage to move forward and make his life worth living. The show has often hinged around people being unrealistic, idealistic expectations that can’t be fulfilled. They always wait for something more in essence, and “What’s happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” “We’re ruined because we get these things, and then we wish for what we had.” But the last season ended with a ghost from the past coming back to urge, in a musical number: “The moon belongs to everyone/the best things in life are free.” There is another line from Season 2 I think of: “The only thing keeping you from happiness is the belief that you are alone.”

So can humans find happiness, by figuring out what matters to us and embracing it? Is there hope for Don Draper yet? I’m interested to see what Mad Men’s ultimate answer is.

For better or for worse, I will be watching as the first episode, “Severance”, airs live on AMC at 10:00 P.M. (9:00 central) I hope you will be, too.