Thursday, January 22, 2015

Lorrie Moore, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994)

Moore, Lorrie, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? at Goodreads
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? at IBList

Rating: 5/10

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

As an avid radio listener throughout my teens, I first came across Lorrie Moore by accident when I heard a live reading of her famous short story "How to Become a Writer." Normally, especially at that age, I would quickly seek out other works of newly-discovered writers I enjoyed, but in the case of Moore, though I continued to stumble upon the story throughout the years, along with one or two others, I never actively searched for more of her work. About a year ago I came across a bent copy of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, and finally read the book last week.

Moore's second novel, currently bookended by Anagrams (1986) and A Gate at the Stairs (2009), is a short work that reads like a memoir, a narrator's personal guide through a specific time in her life. (Memoir, however, is simply another kind of fiction, another kind of fabrication; while there are certainly elements from Moore's own life present in the work, it does not read like autobiography.) The narrator is on vacation in Paris in the midst of a seemingly failed marriage, and interspersed with brief conversations with and thoughts of her husband, hearkens back to a summer in the 1970s during which she was obsessed with popular best friend Sils.

The work focuses on the relationship, the narrator's insecurities and very much on the decade. Though it is well written (very well written), it is lacking. The plot is incidental and awakens late in the work, which generates an uneven read. (Ironically, this is one of the threads running through Moore's "How to Become a Writer," as protagonist Francie is being criticized for her lack of plot.) The ending is rushed through, acts as an epilogue and is unnecessary. I would have liked to have been left in the uncertainty of the past as mirrored by the uncertainty of the present, as the two narratives should coincide. Or perhaps the present should have also had its own epilogue? But not really.

While I did not care much for the work as a novel, it is a fast read and worthy of a read for Ms. Moore's writing skills are impressive. The characters are solid and real, and the small town universe they live in is constructed with great care.

Now to seek out more of those fine short stories...

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus (1604)

Marlowe, Christopher, The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus, 1604

Doctor Faustus at Goodreads
Doctor Faustus at IBList

Rating: 7/10

For more Friday's Forgotten books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

This past year, 2014, marked the 450th birthday of Christopher Marlowe, an event overshadowed by the 450th birthday of a rival playwright, a certain William Shakespeare. While I studied the latter quite a bit in school, I managed shockingly to survive both a bachelor's and a master's in English without having read the former's important and renowned bit of theatre.

Most interesting about Marlowe's Faustus is not that an open atheist can write a work that at a glance matches the overt morals of The Summoning of Everyman and other medieval morality plays, but that critics can wonder why an atheist would write such a piece. Though on a surface level the play appears to be retelling the Faust legend with the purpose to scare Christians (and non) from practicing sin (and magic), it is the struggle and inner turmoil the play is most concerned with, and not on damnation. Granted the focus does shift, as Marlowe weaves base comedy into the work. That inclusion, however, assuming he did write or commission those particular scenes, is a reflection of stylistic conventions of the period, such as the use of a chorus narrator, rather than an attempt to illustrate the play's main ideas.

The story of a brilliant intellectual with few worthy lifelong prospects sells his soul for a handful of years of pretty much anything he wants cannot ignore either the concept of Christian salvation/damnation nor the idea of an individual's terrible sacrifice for seemingly so little. In light of this the attempt of scholars to figure out exactly who wrote which parts of the play seems to add little value to understanding the work, though it has other significance. The central ideas concern the desire for higher knowledge, so that the inclusion of works on magic are not an attempt to link the supernatural with the almighty, or to denounce medieval notions of magic, but rather part of a man's search for knowledge beyond that of the corporeal world. This idea is highlighted by Faustus's questioning Mephistophilis on astronomy, and later his continued attempts to seek truth from a science that takes us beyond the world that encases us physically.

Important to the play is understanding the controversies of astronomy at that time. For many centuries to openly theorize about new ideas of the solar system and beyond was challenging to the point that the theorist was risking his life. How humans viewed the solar system and the Earth's place within could easily contradict the doctrine set forth by the Vatican. Was Marlowe using astronomy to illustrate that his protagonist was seeking ideas beyond the realm of the known physical world, or subtly commenting on the different views, Catholic or otherwise, of man's place in the greater universe?

Faustus's greatest sin from a Catholic perspective is perhaps denying that God will forgive him his sins if he were to repent and embrace the Lord. If he were clear on Catholic teachings, and at the time any literate scholar such as he would undoubtedly be clear on all the major Catholic points, just as Marlowe himself was certainly aware. Questioning the idea is therefore an important point in the play, particularly since he seems to be rejecting not God but the earthly teachings related to God. Moreover, assuming he is aware of Catholic doctrine, he nonetheless believes his own sins are beyond the power of God's forgiveness, which is perhaps, in a Christian world, the vilest form of hubris possible.

At this time I would argue that Marlowe is presenting the idea that man is moving away not from God, necessarily, but from the church. His exploration of astronomy and questioning of one set of contemporary beliefs, along with his act of incredible hubris, takes Faustus and his struggle away from the church.

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