Easter Parade

9780312278281_p0_v1_s114x166book by Richard Yates
Annotation by Lorinda Toledo

Richard Yates is an author who is not afraid of ambitious stories.  He has an innate understanding of the deepest fears of the human psyche, and the human struggle to find happiness and meaning.  Through carefully crafted scenes, he shows – in deftly woven emotion and external plot – that despite the Grimes sisters’ best efforts, they cannot escape the burden of their parents’ legacy.  The Easter Parade is almost a novella (only 180 pages) but within that short space, Yates guides the reader through an innately paced 50 years of complex life for two sisters, Sarah and Emily Grimes.

The story is ostensibly told in the voice of an omniscient narrator, but the viewpoint is actually Emily’s.  Five years her sister’s junior, Emily suffers from a fear of being alone, and this fear, along with her innocence, colors her perspective of the story throughout the book.  Like Sarah, Emily’s entire life is shaped by her parents divorce; and, from the book’s opening line, Yates succinctly sets up the narrative to be that of a long history:

“Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back, it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce” (295).

As a result, the reader is not confused or distracted wondering what this story is about; nor is the reader jarred by the rapidity of the sisters growing older.

The book is divided in three parts, which helps moderate the passage of time.  This format allows Yates to jump ahead many years and then catch the reader up in just a sentence or two:

“Whenever Emily thought about her sister over the next few years – and it wasn’t often – she reminded herself that she’d done her best” (421).

Part One covers the girls’ childhood and adolescence, all the way up until both their marriages.  Part Two covers how their marriages affected their adult lives, and what sort of people they’ve become in order to avoid making their parent’s mistakes.  Emily divorces her first husband, after he confesses in lewd, unfeeling detail that he hates her body because of his own inability to perform sexually.  Instead, she pursues a life as a career woman and has a string of men who come and go over the years.  Sarah, on the other hand, sees marriage as a refuge, and hopes that it will save her:

“I’ve always thought of marriage as being – well, sacred…I was a virgin when I got married and I’ve been a virgin ever since” (416).

She invests in this belief even after it is revealed that her husband, a handsome man who Emily once lusted after, has been beating her “…once or twice a month for about – well, twenty years” (413).  Part Three covers the downward spiral of Sarah and Emily.  It is the reckoning of how the choices they’ve made play out at the end of their lives.

Despite Yates’ promise in the opening line that the Grimes sisters’ story will not be a happy one, the narrative twists and turns with high and low points, giving the reader the sensation of riding a car climbing up a winding path toward the top of a mountain.  You stay despite the fact that you’ve already been told that without fail, the car is going to drive off the cliff.  Rather than being a spoiler, it creates built-in tension.  Each chapter makes a neat little arc that begins with a new stage of the girls’ life.  For example, chapter two begins with the girls having reached puberty — “It was Sarah who gave Emily her first information about sex” (301) — and then ends with a pivotal moment that leads to the next stage in the next chapter:  “They were married in the fall of 1941…”(315).  Yates also tends to maximize his use of the seasons to indicate the passage of time and to create foreshadowing; in this case indicating that Sarah is about to enter an unhappy marriage — more like a brutal winter than a bright summer.

Yates provides enough morbid clues along the way that when bad things happen, tension builds and draws the reader in even more.  For example, a tackle shop sign bearing the words “Blood and Sandworms” (349) is mentioned as the sole distinct thing about the town in which Sarah lives, and it is the perfect metaphor for the life she has with Tony and their three boys.  Tony is a brutal man, but no one aside from Emily ever acknowledges it – and even she ultimately prefers to look the other way in order to keep living her own life uninterrupted:

“If Sarah had left her husband she might want to stay with her sister for a while – maybe a long while – which would inconvenience Michael Hogan [Emily’s casual lover]” (416).

Still, Yates keeps the reader invested in the story because he provides enough glimmers of hope that you press on, thinking that things don’t seem all bad, maybe it will actually work out for these characters.  The most obvious example is the scene in Sarah and her sweetheart head out to the Easter Parade, dressed up and happy:

Emily and [her mother] watched from the windows as the open car rolled past on its way uptown – Tony turning briefly from the wheel to smile at them, Sarah holding her hat in place with one hand and waving with the other – and then they were gone…
…The picture came out the following Sunday in a pageful of other, less striking photographs.  The camera had caught Sarah and Tony smiling at each other like the very soul of romance in the April sunshine, with massed trees and a high corner of the Plaza hotel visible behind them…
…Emily knew how important it was to have as many copies as possible.  It was a picture that could be mounted and framed and treasured forever (314).

That is really what The Easter Parade is about – the hope that people cling to in their lives, just as the photo of Sarah and her soon-to-be betrothed represents a kind of mythology of life’s happiness for the Grimes sisters.

Yates shows in this novel that it is possible to encompass many years and layers of a characters life into one succinct tale.  As a writer, I often struggle to show the depth of a character’s life within the pages I have written, but it is what a good writer strives to do.  Not every book needs to cover a character’s entire life, but it is a skill to be able to do so.  Whether or not that is the case, it is essential that any written work is crafted to make use of all the various layers of a character’s life – whether it be through peripheral characters, family life, setting or seasons.  In The Easter Parade, Yates has mastered this, and as a result had created a skilled portrayal of the search for the meaning of life – and that is perhaps the most formidable task that any writer can hope to achieve.

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Moby Dick

9780451532282_p0_v1_s114x166book by Herman Melville

annotation by Robert Morgan Fisher

 

When one thinks of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, perhaps one pictures Captain Ahab atop the albino cetacean, harpoon repeatedly stabbing, water boiling with blood; or perhaps one recalls the haunting simplicity of the opening line: “Call me Ishmael.” The perception of Moby Dick as a melodramatic, tragic tale of one sociopath’s quest for revenge is understandable. But there is another surprising element of the novel that deserves special attention: Comedy.

It is my contention that Herman Melville is one of the most gifted comedy writers in the history of fiction and Moby Dick squarely puts him in the company of other 19th Century humorists such as Mark Twain. The comedy in Moby Dick is consistent and professional. Almost every single chapter contains humorous observations. Admittedly, much of the book describes whaling in excruciating detail, so without some levity the book would spiral into dry tedium. The chapters are short—another hallmark of comedy. For example, Chapter CXII is nothing more than a seven-sentence paragraph of Tashtego’s drunken rambling while perched on the main top-sail yard in a storm:

Chapter CXII.

Midnight Aloft.—Thunder and Lightning.

The main-top-sail-yard.—Tashtego passing new lashing around it.

“Um, um. Stop that thunder! Plenty too much thunder up here. What’s the use of thunder? Um, um, um. We don’t want thunder; we want rum; give us a glass of rum. Um, um, um!” (586)

That’s the entire chapter. It’s almost like a comedic cut-away in a Monty Python movie.  Along those lines, Chapter XL is actually rendered in script format and reads like a Gilbert & Sullivan  musical:

HARPOONERS AND SAILORS.

(Foresail rises and discovers the watch standing, lounging, leaving, and lying in various attitudes, all singing in chorus.)

Farewell and adieu to you, Spanish ladies!

Farewell and adieu to you, ladies of Spain!

              Our Captain’s commanded. –

1ST NANTUCKET SAILOR.

Oh, boys, don’t be sentimental; it’s bad for the digestion! Take a tonic, follow me!

(Sings, and all follow.) (213)

 Every page of Moby Dick is marbled with “Ishmael’s” quips and editorial comments—some of which are laugh-out-loud funny. Here, Melville describes Queequeg’s extraction of Tashtego from inside of a whale:

And thus, through the courage and great skill in obstetrics of Queequeg, the deliverance, or rather, delivery of Tashtego, was successfully accomplished, in the teeth, too, of the most untoward and apparently hopeless impediments; which is a lesson by no means to be forgotten. Midwifery should be taught in the same course with fencing and boxing, riding and rowing. (403)

But nowhere are Melville’s razor-sharp comedic chops more evident than in Chapter XCI: The Pequod Meets the Rose-Bud. The setup here is that the Pequod comes across a French whaling ship (the Rose-Bud) whose captain, an effete, incompetent former cologne manufacturer, is forcing his crew to disembowel a pair of putrefying whales in hopes of salvaging some ambergris—heedless of the fact that anything harvested from decaying whales is an utter waste of time. The French captain does not speak English—but the “Guernsey-man” mate does. Stubb offers to explain to the French Captain—using whatever English words he chooses—the foolishness of this endeavor while Guernsey-man “interprets” Stubb’s words to serve his own purposes. What follows is Stubb calling the French Captain “babyish” and “no more fit to command a whaling ship than a Jago Monkey,” culminating in this utter gem of a punchline:

“What now?” said the Guernsey-man, when the captain had returned to them.

“Why, let me see; yes, you may well tell him now that—that—in fact, tell him I’ve diddled him, and (aside from himself) perhaps somebody else.”

“He says, Monsieur, that he’s very happy to have been of any service to us.” (473)

It is true that occasionally Melville’s comedy technique is reduced to slapstick and broad, politically incorrect characterizations of non-whites. Also, it’s easy to overlook the comedic brilliance of Moby Dick in this day and age of Greenpeace lobbying against the archaic insanity of the whaling industry. But the brutality of whaling aside, Melville’s comedic instincts are unerring, his timing exquisite. This is, after all, the author who gave us “Bartelby, the Scrivener”—a masterpiece of quirky characterization with expertly camouflaged satire that was centuries ahead of its time. Even at the very end of Moby Dick, Ahab tangled up with the great white whale, it feels as if the narrator is trying his best not to laugh at this idiot. We know Ishmael survived and went on to experience other whaling trips. His detachment in the face of tragedy bears the unmistakable mark of a comedy writer; humor often the only way a comedy writer can process the illogical sadness of this world. Moby Dick is solid proof that, were we able to transport Herman Melville forward 150 years, he could have easily found work as a staff writer on Seinfeld.

What’s the take-away from all this? For me, it’s the indispensability of humor. Even in the most dramatic of stories, it’s required—otherwise, the work descends into bathos and pretense. Where would One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Catch-22 be without humor? It’s a question of contrast. Quite often, humor works to counter carnage and violence—of which there is no shortage in Moby Dick. Humor is elemental; the positive charge balancing the negative.

It is well-known that Melville’s masterpiece failed in its initial publication. The book’s wry irony went over the heads of many critics, including Nathaniel Hawthorne. There were other reasons it fell through the cracks and wasn’t fully appreciated until the early 20th century, but one of those reasons has to be the book’s highly-developed sense of humor. Eschewing slapstick and broad comedy, the comedy of Moby Dick is masterfully layered in. Successful satirists and humorists take chances. One way they do this is to allow humor to arise organically from the scene and from character.

By the time Twain published Tom Sawyer in 1876, the audience was finally getting it. Melville was simply way ahead of his time.