Resignation, Cynicism and Meh.
Heralded for being interesting due to its lack of traditional story-telling and relying on the craft of writing — I just don’t see it.
This was one of those books that had me running to the internet to reconcile my experience. What did I miss?
The answer that I found was nothing: my interpretation of the book was on solid ground as it was supposed to lack conflict, background, and intrigue. Hemingway was ushering in this new style of writing, a representation of the “Lost Generation” complete with the cynicism that their dreams would never be realized. His grand accomplishment was to eschew traditional story elements while still fulfilling the reader’s desire to continue to read.
I can’t help but think this is another example of avant-garde projection, propping up a frail and barebones narrative, ecstatically claiming how unique it is.
[Spoiler/Story] The novel focuses on five main characters: Jake, Brett, Robert, Bill and Mike. The most important interaction, though, is between Jake and Brett. Jake loves Brett, but he is now impotent post a WWI accident. This makes any relationship with Brett impossible as she rotates among the other characters. This is made known very early on in the book, and the next 200 pages are a confirmation of what we already know.
All dialogue is superficial — no one says what they are really feeling. Also, everyone is constantly drinking, making you feel some pity for these characters trapped in their own hell. The problem is that over the course of the entire novel, nothing happens. The characters go places, drink a lot, say things they don’t matter, and then repeat. Waiting for a climax, it never really comes as Hemingway doesn’t tell this story in the “traditional” sense.
I have very little patience for this type of interpretation of literary works. I am over instances where an author doesn’t tell a good story but can get away with it because of some cavalier element. Read this story analysis: the author can’t wait to tell you how RADICAL it all is. Can you believe Hemingway opens up the story giving you background on a character who isn’t even the protagonist — what a firebrand!
Instead of analyzing the story for what we get, people work overtime to tell you how all the deficiencies are masterful, intentional choices that heighten the experience. I patiently turned each page waiting for pop and sizzle — I thought the entire subdued novel must be building into some unexpected crescendo. Instead, it is confirmed that Jake and Brett will never get together, something that we learned very early on. Between those two points, there isn’t anything that happens that deepens our understanding — we get characters that never change. Jake will always come hither when Brett calls. Brett will jump from man to man (as she does on four, recallable occasions). Robert will always be unlikeable and a wuss.
Of course, if I was a literary critic that wanted to prop up this uninteresting mush, all I would have to do is say this lack of change within the characters is fatalistic and exemplifies the lost generation — look at how Jake drips with resignation in the final estimation of his dreams for a relationships that will never happen! What brilliance to have the entire book be repetitive and dour so the reader experiences the bleak outlook to match the characters! Unfortunately, this skirts the real problem: needing to be a masochist to fight through dull pages isn’t how I want to experience a good novel.
Hemingway is no doubt talented — his sparse yet powerful writing style has immense ability to make a scene bar none, and his skill of bringing the life of the 1920s alive is commendable. The narration choices, though, leave a lot to be desired for me. I felt like I was reading a hallowed-out log of a dud, and no matter how much you tell me that’s the inventive and artistic point, I don’t want to spend my time reading a hallowed-out log of a dud.