All reviews copyright 1984-2016 Evelyn C. Leeper.
DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/14/2011]
I recently listened to the L.A. Theaterworks (LATW) audio performance of DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller (ISBN 978-0-14-048134-1). (At one point, this would have been called a radio play, but that seems a bit archaic now.) I also have recently listened to the BBC version as well. Now, I had always heard that one difference between movies and plays was that the moviemakers (primarily the director) could change the script without getting the writer's permission, while in a play one has to get the writer's approval to change anything. Assuming this is true, I thought it also applied to audio performances, but apparently not. I cannot tell all the changes LATW made, but a major one is that LATW dropped the scene between the mother and the two sons over their desertion of their father in the restaurant. (There also seems to be some re-arrangement of the flashback to the Boston hotel room.) I have no idea why they did this--it certainly does not improve the play. To me, it is as though they decided to do Hamlet and left out the speech of Polonius to Laertes. And when I went back and compared the LATW production with the play, I found a lot of other changes. For example, all the conversations between Biff and Happy about womanizing were dropped, and in other places two or three lines seem to have been cut for no particular reason. I usually like the LATW productions, but they fumbled the ball on this one.
The play itself was written in 1949, but still has a lot of relevance today, over sixty years later. It isn't just the job of traveling salesman that is stressful and insecure, but almost every job. Willy Loman bemoans the fact that "in those days there was personality in it.... There was respect, and comradeship, and gratitude in it. Today, it's all cut and dried, and there's no chance for bringing friendship to bear--or personality." Everyone can identify with the person who gives the best years of their life to a company, only to be discarded when they are no longer at their peak. "You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away--a man is not a piece of fruit." We want to think that we are better than Willy--not as deluded, not as fickle in our opinions--but we still have the same concerns about our jobs that he does.
One thing that does trouble me is the tendency in some schools to adopt Loman's attitude toward his sons, working more to build up their self-respect, or perhaps more accurately, their "amour propre", than to emphasize hard work and perseverance. Loman doesn't tell Biff to study more so he won't flunk math--he just insists that Bernard will give Biff the answers. He tells Biff and Hap how much better they will do in life because they are so much better-looking and personable than Bernard, without ever asking if they have any skills. All of this is reminiscent of something covered in the movie WAITING FOR SUPERMAN where students in the United States place somewhere around 18th the developed world in math skills, but when you survey them on where they think we place, they overwhelmingly say "Number One!"
The BBC also made cuts, but different ones. They cut a reference to smoking and several sections dealing with football, boxing, and other sports (probably too obscure for a British audience, much as most Americans wouldn't understand details about cricket), but also the stealing from the construction site and other lines important to portraying the characters.
Indeed, that is what makes this play so great. Almost every line is full of meaning and connections to other lines. For example, in one line Willy says that Biff is lazy, then three lines later he says that one thing about Biff is that he is not lazy. In one place, he says he never taught Biff to steal, but elsewhere he tells him to go get some sand from the supply at the construction site. On page 80, Willy says Howard's father asked him what he thinks of the name "Howard" for his new son, but by page 97, he is saying that he named Howard. In the restaurant, is Happy denying that Willy is his father supposed to echo Peter's denial of Jesus? And so on. If I started doing a commentary on everything I noticed, this would go on forever.
DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/28/2012]
This month's book discussion book was DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller (ISBN 978-0-140-24773-2), and I was struck by the notion of Willy Loman as "unreliable narrator," though not in the usual sense.
When I read DEATH OF A SALESMAN I am struck by how tightly written it is. It is not just that the individual lines serve to illuminate the characters, but that lines connect to earlier lines, particularly in the case of Willy Loman. And the cumulative effect of all these lines is that Willy Loman is a very unreliable narrator.
In preparation for the discussion group meeting about the play, I made notes on a few of these connections:
Willy says, "Biff is a lazy bum!" then three lines later he says, "There's one thing about Biff--he's not lazy." (page 16)
Willy says, "What is [Biff] stealing? He's giving it back, isn't he? Why is he stealing? What did I tell him? I never in my life told him anything but decent things," but later he tells him, "Go right over to where they're building the apartment house and get some sand," and boasts, "You shoulda seen the lumber they brought home last week. At least a dozen six-by-tens worth all kinds a money." (pages 41 and 50)
Willy interrupts Linda at the start of the discussion of going to see Bill Oliver, and constantly interrupts both her and his sons, but also keeps telling her not to interrupt. (page 62)
Willy says to Biff, "Ah, you're counting your chickens again," when in fact he is the one assuming Oliver is going to give Biff money, and is constantly counting his chickens. (page 63)
When Biff says, "Jesus, I'm going to sleep," Willy tells him not to curse in his house, but then later Willy yells at Linda, "Don't take his side all the time, godammit!" and later talks about the "Goddam plumbing." (pages 63, 65, and 66)
Willy tells Biff to "talk as little as possible and don't crack any jokes," then almost immediately tells him, "Walk in with a big laugh. Start off with a couple of your good stories to lighten things up." (pages 64 and 65)
Willy is equally conflicted about his own situation. He says, I'm very well liked in Hartford. You know, the trouble is, Linda, people don't seem to take to me." There is no break at all between the two statements. (page 36)
Willy says not to use "Gee" ("'Gee' is a boy's word"), but then later says, "Gee, look at the moon moving between the buildings," and, "Gee, on the way home tonight I'd like to buy some seeds." (pages 65, 69, and 72)
Willy says that Howard's father asked him what he thinks of the name "Howard" for his new son, but later he says that he named Howard. (page 80, page 97)
At one point Willy says of Biff, "Greatest thing in the world was for him to bum around," but almost everything he says runs counter to this. (page 67)
Figuring put what kind of car Willy currently owns can only be determined by listening to Linda--and even then it is not definite. Very early on, Linda says "Maybe it was the steering again. I don't think Angelo knows the Studebaker." A few minutes later, Willy says, "I opened the windshield." Later, Linda says, "And Willy--if it's warm Sunday, we'll drive on the country. And we'll open the windshield, and take lunch," to which Willy responds, "No, the windshields don't open on the new cars."
Linda responds, "But you opened it today," and Willy says that he didn't--he was "thinking of the Chevvy. Nineteen twenty-eight ... when I had that red Chevvy. ... I coulda sworn I was driving that Chevvy today."
However, when Linda later talks about owing Frank for the carburetor (what happened to Angelo?), Willy says, "That goddam Chevrolet, they ought to prohibit the manufacture of that car!" But the next day, when she mentions a "motor job on the car," he says "That goddam Studebaker!" I can understand Linda not correcting him all the time, but you have to wonder if Linda knows anything about the car if she does not even know if the windshield opens. And there is no chance that they own two cars. (pages 13, 14, 18, 19, 36, and 73)
(Page numbers are from the Penguin edition, DEATH OF A SALESMAN: TEXT AND CRITICISM, ISBN 978-0-140-24773-2).
(I should note that what I liked in DEATH OF A SALESMAN--this repetition of the idea that Willy will say whatever supports his opinion at that instant, even when it contradicts something he said only a sentence or two before--is something that at least one other person in our discussion group found annoying and a negative aspect of the play.)
An article last May in the "New York Times" reviewing the latest Broadway production of THE DEATH OF A SALESMAN, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman, was actually more of a meta-review. Lee Siegel found great irony in a classic about the middle class, when the middle class is a vanishing breed. The fact that tickets for the play cost between $111 and $840 puts them well beyond the range of most of what is left of the middle class. (In 1949 tickets cost between $1.80 and $4.80, about the price of a hardback book.)
And what of the play itself? People no longer see Willy Loman as a man beaten down by an unfair system; they see him as a man who has not figured out how to use the system. He is not an innocent victim--he is a chump. In 1949, people believed that hard work should get you the middle class lifestyle: car, house, refrigerator, and so on. Now people believe that one can get rich quick: buy the right stock, win the lottery, get a cushy job on Wall Street, or whatever. And they don't aim for a middle-class lifestyle; they want the lifestyle of the rich and famous. Not for them the rented apartment until they can save up enough money to buy a small home in the suburbs, though for Hap just his own apartment is an enormous accomplishment. (That Biff and Hap share a bedroom, and have to share one bathroom if they both want to shave at the same time, tells you something about the size of the Loman house.) No, today people want a McMansion as soon as they get out of school, along with two cars, and all the other accoutrements of the wealthy. Willy's dreams are not their dreams.
(And clearly the implication is that if Hap did not insist on spending his money on his own apartment and car, and were still living at home and contributing to the expenses there, Willy would not be in such dire straits financially.)
One thing that has not changed is that rich people do not understand how poor people--or even lower-middle-class people--live. Howard knows that Willy is no longer getting a salary, and not much (if anything) in commission, yet when Willy says he is thinking of getting a wire recorder, Howard blithely responds, "Sure, they're only a hundred and a half," and then goes on, "Supposing you wanna hear Jack Benny, see? But you can't be home at that home. So you tell the maid ..." Willy cannot manage to scrape together enough to cover his current bills, and the notion of his having a maid is just bizarre.
One could also analyze Linda's role in the family. She is in many ways a typical late-1940s housewife, but her attitude towards Willy borders on the idolatrous. She never criticizes him--and contradicts all his self-criticisms--and meekly puts up with all his verbal abuse. Not only that, though, she refuses to acknowledge anything amiss in his treatment of his sons, and goes so far as to tell them that they must respect Willy as a father or she will disown them. One sees this behavior even now, but usually in the context of one extremely abusive parent whose actions are willfully ignored by the other parent.
To order Death of a Salesman from amazon.com, click here.
DARWIN FOR BEGINNERS by Jonathan Miller and Borin Van Loon:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/23/2006]
DARWIN FOR BEGINNERS by Jonathan Miller and Borin Van Loon (ISBN 0-679-72511-3) is one of a series that is competition in a way to the "Introducing" series I have previously written about. (And, yes, it is "Borin", not "Boris".) The "Beginners" series is usually somewhat more political, but this volume is less so than others, and it is written by Jonathan Miller, polymath. Miller is a physician, actor, writer, and director, so he understands both the science and the art of presenting it in an entertaining fashion. And Van Loon's illustrations are considerably more elaborate than most of what one finds in the "Introducing" series.
One of the techniques Van Loon uses is to represent the scientific approach is the inclusion in many of the illustrations of a pair of characters: one has (variously) a tartan cape, curved pipe, magnifying glass, deerstalker cap, and aquiline features. The other man has an average British face with a mustache. They are not named anywhere, but they are immediately identifiable.
I do have a small quibble with one illustration: a package sent in 1858 has a stamp on it saying "Malaysia"--it should be "Malaya".
Miller and Van Loon work together to explain why "obvious" theories take so long to be formulated. They compare people looking at the world to people looking at "optical illusions". For example, there is a classic drawing which, when looked at one way is a young woman, another way, an old hag. Or the drawing which is either two silhouettes facing each other, or a goblet. As long as you are used to seeing one of these one way, you may never see it the other way until it is pointed out. And then it seems obvious.
I recommend this book--even if you understand Darwin's theory, the illustrations are fascinating.
To order Darwin for Beginners from amazon.com, click here.
LITERARY WONDERLANDS: A JOURNEY THROUGH THE GREATEST FICTIONAL WORLDS EVER CREATED edited by Laura Miller:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/30/2016]
LITERARY WONDERLANDS: A JOURNEY THROUGH THE GREATEST FICTIONAL WORLDS EVER CREATED edited by Laura Miller (ISBN 978-0-316-31638-5) sounds like a look at the *geography* of fictional worlds, sort of like Alberto Manguel's DICTIONARY OF IMAGINARY PLACES. It isn't. The "worlds" in this case are the conceptual worlds, e.g., THE TIME MACHINE's division of humanity into Morlocks and Eloi through evolution, or the meta-fictional world of THE EYRE AFFAIR. As such, there is little to distinguish the text from many other books or articles about these works. While nicely produced and illustrated, or perhaps because it is nicely produced and illustrated, it is more a coffee table book than a true reference work.
(What I would love to see is a geographical map and analysis of China Miéville's THE CITY & THE CITY. It's not very likely, though.)
To order Literary Wonderlands from amazon.com, click here.
THE BRONTE MYTH by Lucasta Miller:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/11/2006]
THE BRONTE MYTH by Lucasta Miller (ISBN 0-375-41277-8) is not a book about the Brontes' works, or a book about the Brontes, but a book about the way the Brontes have been considered by critics and the public since their works first appeared. Miller examines how the misconceptions started in earnest with Elizabeth Gaskell's LIFE OF CHARLOTTE BRONTE (although the Brontes themselves worked at projecting a specific image from the time they started writing). Most of what the public "knows" about the Brontes (e.g., they had a deprived upbringing isolated on the moors by a strict and parsimonious cleric father) turns out to be false. Everyone involved--the various Brontes, Gaskell, reviewers, other biographies, and so on--had an agenda, and so what they wrote and said was as much controlled by that agenda as by the truth. Over the years the agenda has changed, and new documents have been discovered which have shed new light on the Brontes and required re-evaluations. This was apparently written this before Jasper Fforde made Jane Eyre a major character in his first Thursday Next novel, THE EYRE AFFAIR, or Miller probably would have included that book in her discussion of how Charlotte Bronte's novel has become part of popular culture. Even if you are unfamiliar with the lives (or myths) of the Brontes, this book is useful as a study of how political, social, and literary agendas can shape what "history" records.
To order The Bronte Myth from amazon.com, click here.
ON TOP OF THE WORLD: FIVE WOMEN EXPLORERS IN TIBET by Luree Miller:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/06/2011]
ON TOP OF THE WORLD: FIVE WOMEN EXPLORERS IN TIBET by Luree Miller (ISBN 0-89886-097-0) is published by "The Mountaineers" and so is somewhat biased in glorifying the adventures of these women. But readers may disagree somewhat. For example, Nina Mazuchelli did almost all her exploration carried in a Barielly dandy by four men. She only walked when the bearers were too weak from hunger (due to poor planning regarding provisions) to carry her.
Not all the women explorers were so catered to, and their motivations changed over time from missionary work in the late 18th century to exploration and study for Alexandra David-Neel in the early 20th century. The focus shifted from imposing a Western view onto the Tibetans to learning an Eastern view from them.
To order On Top of the World from amazon.com, click here.
SAINT LEIBOWITZ AND THE WILD HORSE WOMAN
by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (Bantam, ISBN 0-553-10704-6, 1997, 448pp, hardback):
In 1961, Walter M. Miller's Canticle for Leibowitz won the Hugo Award for Best Novel. (Miller, by the way, shares with Octavia Butler of having the best "Hugo batting average": both have been nominated two times for Hugos and both won both times.) Now, thirty-six years later, comes a sequel, or rather, a coquel, since the action of Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman takes place between the second and third parts of the original novel. (Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman was written primarily by Miller before his death, and completed by Terry Bisson.)
A Canticle for Leibowitz is a great book. Part of what made it great was that it was fresh and new in its use of the Catholic Church as the lightbearer through the Dark Ages following the Flame Deluge. But Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman doesn't have that. As I read it, I found myself thinking, "Been there, done that." The story, of Brother Blacktooth's spiritual quest, is an acceptable post-holocaust story, but it isn't great. This is much more a story of politics and warfare than of theology or faith.
The other problem is not as obvious, and I needed Gary Wolfe to put words to it: what we're reading here is an alternate history in which the Flame Deluge occurred--in the early 1960s. The Catholicism here is pre-Vatican II, pre-liberation theology, and in general more the Catholicism of the past than the present. Having made his bed in 1959, Miller decided to lie in it rather than remake it (as Asimov attempted to do with his "Foundation" series, for example). But Miller has made some changes, with more emphasis on religious images and ideas apparently drawn from Native American religions.
Does Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman have flaws? Yes. Is it worth reading? Yes. Does it stand on its own? No, but then, A Canticle for Leibowitz is a classic in the field of science fiction that everyone should read.
(I find it interesting--and a bit depressing--that Bantam's cover blurb for Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman calls it "the sequel to the best-selling classic A Canticle for Leibowitz," making it sound as though A Canticle for Leibowitz is in the same category as Danielle Steel.)
To order Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman from amazon.com (starting February 2000), click here.