Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Tristram Shandy review

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (Oxford World's Classics) by Laurence Sterne

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A forerunner to metareality and postmodernism

Lawrence Sterne's sprawling "Shandy" is a fun, difficult read I enjoyed most when I took the time to digest it in 50-60 page chunks. Sterne's meandering style, with no sense of plot, and digression upon digression, can be frustrating to those looking for a story or any sense of a straight narrative. But for those who love word play, or, like me, grew up reading Mad Magazine and other satire; or anyone with a degree in Latin or philosophy, or even if you're a frustrated writer stifled over care to the craft, "Shandy" is the book for you.

It's crazy fun -- missing pages, the infamous marbled page, black pages, drawings of pointing fingers, digression after digression on such diverse topics as armaments, noses, and fasting, and one of the most self-conscious, self-referential narrative voices in all of fiction.

Literary critics point to Shandy as one of the first examples of postmodernist writing. Sterne presages the modern tendency towards meta-fiction, that blurry limbo between fact and fiction. The controversy over "A Million Little Pieces," reality television, the movies "Adaption" and "American Splendor," along with the stream-of-consciousness style of Kerouac and the Beat Movement -- any work where the creator's ego/persona interjects into the narrative -- owes a creative debt to Tristram Shandy.

I saw the movie and decided to read the book to make sense of it all. Of course, the book was no help. Sense has no place in the "Shandean" universe. The intrepid reader should just roll with it, laugh at the absurdities and highlight in pencil the little nuggets of wisdom contained herein.