ON THE TRAGEDIES OF CIVILIZATION

Books lead to more books. Read one and you’re reminded of another. New material refers to past releases, either directly or in roundabout ways. Genres cross over, involving similar concepts, tropes, devices. Writers lift, pay tribute, re-imagine, claim as their own and take it a step further in the name of compelling art. Pick up the trail and we end up making extraordinary connections.

Welcome to Connection Degree Three …

Three authors with a sharp and wicked sense of observation: Jeffrey Archer, Roald Dahl, Joyce Carol Oates; four wickedly good stories – Black Water, A Good EyeNunc DimittisDeath of an Old Old Man, – plus a book review titled The Art of Vengeance.

Black Water is the haunting tale of a young woman caught in the wreckage of a car that sinks to the bottom of the sea in the middle of the night after suffering an accident with a Senator she idolized, a man she had been fantasizing over during the short course of her young, prismatic life. Moved and inspired by this particular Senator’s devotion to society, and delighted to finally meet him at an afternoon summer party on an island off the East Coast, the young woman is elated, more so when she and the Senator share a ride to the port. But the Senator, in his hurry to make the ferry, crashes into a rotten railing on a deserted backroad, plunging himself and the young woman into the water of the night sea, a water so black and putrid and seemingly thick with conspiracy it swallows them up, inch by terrible inch. While the young woman struggles to rise to the surface, she reminisces on her meeting with her idol, how she’d devoted her studies to his cause and corpus, delighted to finally meet him in person and chat to him well into the hours of the evening, earning his personal attention, an attention so charming and fawning it was almost too good to be true, a reach-out from a world far beyond hers, the sensation oh so uplifting and empowering and reminiscent (for the reader) of

A Good Eye by Jeffrey Archer, the story of a clergyman in possession of an invaluable painting of Christ and his Disciples, the origins of which lay in the clergyman’s ancestor. Back in the 17th century, the clergyman’s ancestor, a lawyer by profession, was the patron of an acrid, vagrant painter of exquisite talent, who produced a sublime set of paintings, one of which ended up in the possession of the humble clergyman, a man so ignorant of its true value and significance, he hardly lends it a thought. His principal obsession is God, and his main worry is how to fix the leaking roof of his church, which he has no means of doing. He finds the solution during the Nunc Dimittis canticle, at which time the roof leaks with intensite, as if a sign were delivered by God himself: Sell the art at your disposal, secure the money to fix the roof! The clergyman sees the message clearly in his mind and is relieved. He, God’s faithful servant, is now a man all too happy to be dismissed by his Lord with the knowledge that he has acted according to His wish, finally blessed by divine intervention – a revelation and canticle that brings us to

Roald Dahl’s Nunc Dimittis, a story about Lionel Lampson, a fine art connoisseur and collector who decides to exact revenge on Janet de Pelagia, a woman whose apparent scorn injures his ‘grand affectation’ for her, turning him into a bowl of fury and rage that boils over with plans on how to humiliate her in public. It’s a story of vengeance and shame, guilt and deception, plus the sheer power of embarrassment, the unmistakable and relentless wrath that manifests in the shadow of a person rejected by his fellows, a combative and psychotic state of mind that swallows humanity like black water before spitting it out crushed and festering – a state of mind all too indicative of Roald Dahl’s assorted tales of the grotesque, tales including 

Death of an Old Old Man, a story in which a pilot plunges to his death after colliding with an enemy combatant in midair. The pilot deploys his parachute but lands straight into a dark pond, the waters of which engulf him like a dark tunnel, eating him alive, the soft silk of his parachute dragging him down to the bottom – the irony! – a story that a certain Joyce Carol Oates covered in her piece 

The Art of Vengeance: a review of Roald Dahl’s collected stories, in which she addresses Dahl’s esthetic, the ease with which he created sharp, fantastic characters with a penchant for revenge, wickedness, and the misfortune of a grotesque demise.

And there we have it. Joyce Carol Oates, Jeffrey Archer, Roald Dahl – three extraordinarily sharp authors that capture humanity’s predilection to all things wicked. As far as these authors are concerned, at least in light of the stories mentioned above, the more civilized the setting, the sadder and more tragic the outcome of its frictions.

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