My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Thanks to a suggestion by Angela Rackard Campbell, I’ve joined a website called NetGalley, where authors and publishers can list their books to find reviewers, and reviewers can find free books to review and offer their feedback. I’m finding this website very enjoyable and convenient, and this is where I picked up Vivid and Repulsive as the Truth, which I must confess, took me for a completely unexpected literary and philosophical ride! My feelings about this book ran from elation to disappointment, and from profound tears to mild horror.
Since I had never heard of Djuna Barnes, I paid close attention to the introduction, where the editor gives you a description of who she was in society and in the world of publishing. I don’t often take time to consider the introduction to these types of books, but I really appreciated the editor’s candor, and I greatly appreciated the list of publications in which the pieces she included in the book were originally published. She even gave a short history and description for each of them. I loved that! It made the context of each article easier to imagine and understand.
The first fifty percent of the book is articles from newspapers and magazines. Every last one is outstanding, and they had a profound affect on me. While reading Veterans in Harness No.1: Postman Joseph H. Dowling, Forty-Two Years in Service, the postman is describing what it’s like to deliver mail for so many years. At one point he talks about the emotional weight of the letters he carried, and I broke down into tears. I actually had to put the book aside, have a little nostalgic cry, then make myself some Earl Grey tea before I could go on! She paints a marvelous picture of her New York city surroundings and the atmosphere of the times, which I greatly enjoyed. Through the observations she makes and the descriptions of her interviewees, she points out that whether you are a waiter in a restaurant or a popular actress, we are each an individual with our own unique outlook on living, and our own special way of interpreting the world in which we exist.
The next forty percent of the book is short stories. I hate to say this, but I found them terribly disappointing, especially after the emotional roller coaster I rode through the first half of the book. They are very well written, as I expected, and it’s clear this author is very insightful and has an excellent grasp on human nature, but these stories read like parables with no moral that I could recognize; just terribly unhappy endings for the main characters and no good reason for it, with the exception of one, Renunciation, which has a quasi-happy ending. After the positive portrayals and wonderful descriptions I read in her articles, I was surprised, shocked even, to find the complete opposite in her fictions. Also, every time a baby was involved in a story, the author referred to them as it in every story, not he or she, which to me suggests the the author’s own view and not the characters’. I found this unsettling. The idea that a baby would not be seen as a fellow human and the emotionless way in which she portrays them, coupled with all the depressing endings, left me feeling… disturbed.
The last ten percent of this book is poetry. I love poetry, so I was very excited to read this section. I hoped they would bring me back to the lovely euphoria I felt while reading the articles or at least some semblance of it, but though they were nice and well done, most of them evoked no emotion in me at all, which in my opinion is the point of a poem. In fact with the exception of a few, they felt a bit clinical. This is probably a matter of taste though. Poetry is a very different sort of reading experience.
This entire book was a unique experience for me. I don’t recall ever having so my many ups and downs in both opinion and emotion over one book, and even though I dislike the short stories and feel lukewarm about the the poetry, I’m giving it 5 stars. It’s inspiring, nostalgic, thought provoking, and a little horrifying. This book will no doubt inspire some excellent discussion!