I am reading The Dreams by Mahfouz in sips.
Mahfouz is one of the names I will browse in a library when looking for something to read, or just looking to see the tastes of the other readers at that particular library branch. Since reading his Arabian Nights and Days in the mid 90's, he has been one of my favorites. Unfortunately I can not read Arabic and only know a few words anyway so I am reading translations of his work.1
I had previously read Stardust by Gaiman and before that Idoru by Gibson. Both were enjoyable but shallow. I actually think that the characters in the movie, Stardust, have more depth than those in the book. In comparison, The Dreams is not a novel, and thus probably not comparable. It is actually just a collection of dreams written as narrative shorts, but even so the humanity expressed in it is more well rounded, and deeper than what I got out of the other books. Also the way Mahfouz condenses his dreams into short stories is interesting. I tried to to do this earlier this year with only mixed success.
I have not read much of The Dreams so I don't have much to say about it. This is not a review. I intended just to post "this is what I am reading, and it is cool", but now my dissatisfaction with the relationships in Stardust and Idoru is the itch I need to scratch.
Both Stardust and Idoru have male leads who hook up with female characters. The male characters in these pairings receive more ink than the females. With Idoru it did not really matter because the book was not about their relationship. For me it was irrelevant to the story, but embarrassing to read from Gibson because it fulfilled the "boy gets girl" trope clumsily and without any purpose.2 Stardust however bothered me because the entire story is essentially "boy gets girl" and the girl, Yvaine, barely has any life written into her. The scene where Yvaine confronts the witch bothered me the most. Everything builds up to it, and once there the characters blankly and bloodlessly resolve the plot, informing us that Yvaine, the star, had metaphorically given her heart to Tristram so now the witch could not possess it by literally cutting out and eating it. Lots of interesting ideas there, but I don't want to be simply informed about them. I can come up with these ideas on my own. What I lack is this writer's particular perspective and talent to bring the ideas to life on the page. Instead the scene on the page reads like the cliff notes version of itself, which soured the rest of the faerie tale for me. I had otherwise enjoyed the book because I like faerie tales. Perhaps I am expecting too much from a faerie tale. Probably.
Before I was married and divorced I doubt I would have had a problem with any of this. I think that is what this is. "Boy gets girl" even if "girl" is a cardboard cutout character did not bother me that much before. I was happy that the boy got the girl, and was thinking that that was what I should be doing. Now I can not help but think that it is a bullshit fantasy unless it is written with depth, humanity, and real life's mess.3 The woman better be real, perhaps consider that the man is a potential problem to be dealt with if she is to get what she wants out of her relationship with him, or be overconfident about possessing the man to serve her own ego, have layers of both, or prefer not to give a shit about the man because she has other shit going on that she would rather invest her time in, and get into what that shit is since it is probably interesting and makes her more interesting than the women defined by my two prior examples. In other words, write the woman as a real person rather than simply serving as the girl in the "boy gets girl" trope. In retrospect I do realize that some of this was shared in Stardust about Yvaine, but it felt more like Gaiman ticking off boxes in a list than the fleshing out of a particular character. Gaiman also seems to get this lacking in the book because he got a female author to help him with developing the story, and particularly the relationship, for the movie.
I am wondering if my problem is also that I was reading a faerie tale romance and got tripped up because it was a romance seen through a faerie tale lens rather than that the characters were more caricature than human. I'd have to analyze it and I ain't a complit person by a long shot. I admit that I might have missed Gaiman's clues that he had drawn the characters and their relationship from real life, but on a first read it felt like a faerie tale about faerie tales in which the details of humanity got scrubbed out.
The Dreams does not appear to deal with relationships at all being expressions of Mahfouz's inner life, and so doesn't give me what I am missing in the other books. The Dreams is dreamy in the way that reading Kafka is dreamy, but unlike Kafka, Mahfouz wrote this as an old man at the end of a very long life. I expect to be reading about Mahfouz and his perspective (at least with regards to his inner life as a reflection of his outer) when I read this book, and look forward to it. I think I'll get back to Arundhati's Ministry of Utmost Happiness after this and dig back into her characters to get her take on a broader humanity in the real, stratified, and divided world. It probably contains what I am missing.
I once investigated teaching myself Arabic and stopped when I saw that I would need to take a class. All that brush stroke calligraphy, and dots over consonants to indicate vowels clarified to me that I was well out of my depth and I had too much on my plate at the time. I was working a few jobs to pay for my university classes already, and after failing to get far with Hungarian/Magyar while my genius friend who introduced me to it was sailing along trying to have conversations with me in it, I had already been humbled enough to know that I was not one of the smart people in the room which means that I need to be more selective about what I learn. Since I am slow, learning a new language is a big undertaking. I still do not speak Spanish properly after all these years of butchering it trying to communicate with co-workers. (I finally picked up my first Spanish textbook to figure out the grammar.) The end result in this case is that I can not read Arabic, and thus rely on translations for Mahfouz's books. ↩
By comparison the fucking scene early in Neuromancer worked because the two characters were simply fucking before they formed any emotional attachments. It reads as only physical, and thus works for the situation because the characters barely know each other. The scene also further develops the theme of artificial crap caging our lives and even our bodies. Case tries to grab Molly's face in a moment of passion and touches the surgically implanted glasses over her eyes. That all made sense and had a purpose. Reading more of Gibson exposes that this is about the limit of his depth in writing about relationships between lovers. It took Idoru to expose this shortcoming to me because its not what I read Gibson for anyway, and a lot of humanity seems to be coming out in the text in the way his characters react to his futures. Perhaps I am projecting all that into the text on my own. ↩
Watching Jon Snow and Daenarys Targaryen hook up on HBO's Game of Thrones was equally boring. Once upon a time my thoughts would have been limited to, "Awesome! Hot people hooking up! I wish I was Jon right now. Emilia Clarke's body double is luscious." While I still of course have those thoughts, now I also think, "Ummm. What? These are major characters with a lot of responsibility and likely some serious issues to work out. Shouldn't their relationship feel more significant than hooking up with someone from the local bar? Are the writers 15 year olds?" By comparison the characters and their relationships in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are vivid, warts and all, and thus far more interesting. And even a story about hooking up with someone from the local bar would be more interesting than the love scene montage with Jon and Dany because the person from the bar is a real person even if you were just fucking. Watching that crappy montage just felt like obligatory nonsense regardless of how "complicated" the editors were trying to show their relationship was supposed to be by intercutting the back story with the fucking. Maybe show us the complication with a well written interaction between the characters. The obligatory love scene between Dany and Drogo at least showed how she made herself his equal. This was just a weak attempt at soft porn with very little advancing the story or showing us their relationship. They used the historians to tell us about J & D's family history. It appears that the show runners for GoT have been using the books as a crutch all this time, and this is what happens when they run out of material to mine. Maybe I'll get around to reading them someday. ↩