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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Monday, May 1, 2017

Impressed and saddened by McCullers's Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

Book group met last night for discussion of Carson McCullers's 1940 debut novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and found complete accord on two points: first, the novel is an incredible accomplishment for any author but almost unfathomable as a debut of a 23-year-old writer. How could she know so much about so many people and about her culture? How could she be so confident in her structure, style, pacing, and syntax? Sadly, this debut novel was also the highlight of her career, although she did write several fine short novels and other pieces, but it seems her life was ruined by alcohol, troubled marriages, poor health, and perhaps by struggles with her own sexual identity. Book group also concurred that this novel is incredibly sad, even mournful, a study in loneliness and isolation. I spoke about some of my observations about the unconventionality of this novel: it's neither a comedy (marriage and reconciliation at the end), tragedy (death and destruction at the end, though one character does die), nor traditional American novel (protagonist heads out for the territories, though one character does "leave town"). It's a much more unusual open-ended conclusion: each of the surviving characters is alone and troubled: Mick, possibly pregnant, facing a dreary life of working as a store clerk and giving up her music dreams, Blount having failed to convert anyone to his views leaving town in poverty, Biff alone with his weird sexual fantasies in his all-night diner, Copeland heading off to the farm in the country to die, disillusioned and bitter. Also, it's so unusual that CMcC wrote what it clearly a novel about her childhood without making it a series or stories or sketches about the artist a sensitive young soul; she writes about the entire community, and does so from a magisterial third person POV. I floated my theory that Singer (note the irony of the name - for a man who is deaf and mute) kills himself not only in mourning of Antonapoulos but also because he realizes how isolated he is from his supposed best friend/beloved: A left him nothing, not even a note; nobody informed him of the death; the man whom he thought of as the center of his life barely gave him a thought. Others disagreed on this and believe his death was in sorrow about losing A. (Note that after he gets the news of A's death he steals items from his hotel room - an echo of what sent A. to the institution in the first place, his petty thievery from restaurants.) All told, group found the novel powerful but harrowing, worth reading but painful to do so, about which I have to agree.

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