Wednesday, June 17, 2009

My Favorite Moments in Fiction

(Was actually gonna publish this tomorrow, but in an effort to push down my previous post and keep the David Foster Wallace folks and their pitchforks at bay, I rushed to complete this one! All anecdotes are from memory, so apologies for any errors, omissions, or complete fabrications.)

Sharing the memorable anecdote from Infinite Jest in my previous post (did I mention that "Infinite Jest" uses footnotes? Footnotes! Hundreds and hundreds of footnotes!) got me thinking about other moments in fiction that will always stay with me. You know, those times when you simply have to lower the book for a moment and say "wow."

I'm not talking about twists, necessarily, or even clever turns of plot. I'm talking about something that seeps into your very soul, that fundamentally changes you or the way you think about things, and that reminds you why you've come to both love, and need fiction in your life.

If you've ever experienced it (and I know that you have) you know exactly what I'm talking about.

So, with no new acceptances or submissions (or frankly, any new writing) to report, here's a completely random and off the top of my head list of moments from other books that have left an indelible impression on me. Though they are numbered, except for the final entry, I could have listed them in any order.

WARNING: If you haven't read the books I reference, there are, of course, spoilers ahead.

  1. The scene early on in Appointment in Samarra in which Julian English throws a cocktail into the face of another partygoer at the country club and thus begins his self-destruction.

    You know, I hadn't thought til this very moment just how much the film "American Beauty" owes to O'Hara's masterpiece. Both chronicle men who, for reasons even they cannot truly fathom, find themselves embarked on a path leading to their own destruction.

    And for some reason, I've also never forgotten the name of the street he lives on: Lantenengo Street.

    If you haven't read "Appointment in Samarra," stop reading right now and pick up a copy.

  1. I read Herman Wouk's The Winds of War in high school and thought at the time it was the best book I ever read (gimme a break. I was in high school.) Not long afterward, I was in the bookstore and wondered if there was anything else by Wouk I might like.

    I wandered over to the W's and picked a thick something off the shelf, discovering only at that very moment there was a sequel to "The Winds of War." I'd had no idea.

    Course "The Winds of War" ending on the eve of Pearl Harbor should have told me something . . .

    But the scene I am referencing comes from its sequel, War and Remembrance, when Aaron Jastrow is led into the gas chamber. I can't imagine there is another fictional chronicle anywhere that captures better exactly what it must have been like more than this scene. And yet, Wouk somehow makes it a triumphal moment.

    Now, had it ended there, it would have been memorable enough. But it doesn't. We follow Jastrow's journey from the floor of the gas chamber, to the crematorium, through the chimney, out the smokestack, and to freedom.

    Yes, freedom.

  1. Too numerous to mention scenes from The Pillars of the Earth, but I'll try:

    Prior Phillip making his reappearance after hundreds of pages to purchase all of Aliena's cotton.

    Phillip shouting, "I see you William Hamleigh!" as the knights come in to murder Thomas Beckett.

    Phillip dipping his cloak in the Archbishop's blood and then leading the parade through the town declaring him a saint and a martyr.

    One of the greatest fictional characters of all time. One of my favorite books.

  1. When you think about it, the demise of the Soviet Union also brought about the end of an entire genre of fiction, the Cold War melodrama. Some of the greatest books of the second half of the twentieth-century were devoted to this subject ("The Manchurian Candidate" comes to mind) and then one day it was all gone.

    This list would not be complete without a mention of Nelson DeMille's The Charm School.

    A recent college graduate in Russian studies gets a gift from his parents of a trip to Russia. He takes a wrong turn – a very wrong turn – and, after stumbling around a while in the dark in what he thinks is a military installation, he hears a Texas drawl.

    If you've read the book, you know exactly what I'm talking about. If you haven't, well . . . you know what to do.

  1. It's probably no secret by now I'm a fan of Florida Fiction, though I came to it in a circuitous route. A good friend of mine turned me on to Carl Hiaasen years ago, and I've since devoured the works of Laurence Shames, Tim Dorsey, S.V. Date, etc.

    Who can forget poor Chemo in Hiaasen's Skin Tight, his face forever scarred when his dermatologist has a stroke while performing dermabrasion? Or his losing an arm and then replacing it with a weed whacker?

    But it is Tim Dorsey who has created one of the funniest comic characters of our time, a serial-killing, Florida-loving romantic named Serge Storms. I'll confess right here that I've fallen away from Dorsey, as it started to seem (to me, anyway) that he was re-writing the same book over and over again. But his first few books are truly wonderful.

    There's a scene in his first book, Florida Roadkill, in which Serge finds himself in Key West during the annual Hemingway lookalike festival, where he sparks the very first "Running of the Hemingways." You gotta read it to believe it. Truly laugh out loud funny.

  1. I wouldn't categorize this as one of my favorite books, but three indelible scenes from The World According to Garp come to mind.

    Perhaps because I read it in high school, the scene in which the coach meets his demise while pleasuring himself led to some of my worst adolescent nightmares.

    The crash and then the heartbreaking loss that resulted from Garp's broken stick shift and his habit of shutting off the lights while coasting down the driveway . . .

    which ended in (if I remember the length correctly) a handwritten note reading "two inches is not enough."


  1. The final scene from A Farewell to Arms, in my opinion the greatest love story ever written.

    So near . . . and yet so far.

  1. Three specific scenes from Robert R. McCammon's Boy's Life come to mind. Another of my favorite novels which I re-read every few years.

    Early on in the book, not long after school ends for the year and before anything really mystical or magical happens, the young protagonist and his buddies go for their annual bike ride, and like they do every year, they begin to fly.

    Man, do I remember when I could fly.

    Later on in the book, Cory runs away from home and finds himself in a railroad car with three vagrants. One of them is dressed in rags, with a voice like dust. Another has an aversion to the sun. The third has a curious bolt coming out of his neck. In their various ways, they persuade young Cory that . . . perhaps . . . there's no place like home. Pure magic.

    And honorable mention to the scene where he discovers this great new rock band. I tellya, that scene was as if McCammon had been watching my own boyhood unfold.

  1. The final scene in Dan Simmons Hyperion, when the motley band of pilgrims finally enter the Time Tombs, and the song they sing while doing it.

    Someday, I'll tell you the story of my quest to read "Hyperion." But not today.

  1. I've named this number one only because it is my favorite book of all time. To read its prose is akin to reading a beautiful symphony, and the moment I turned its last page, I reflected for a while before turning again to the first page and starting all over.

    Now, I don't know if this is true, but long after I read and fell in love with it, I read somewhere that Tender is the Night is also Ray Bradbury's favorite book. He is said to make an annual pilgrimage to Paris, toting his battered copy of the book, for the sole purpose of reading it there.

    I'll pick two scenes from this one:

    Early on in the book, after a delightful day at the beach among friends and a lovely dinner party, Rosemary has her first breakdown. I probably should have known more about the book before I started reading, but didn't. I had no idea going in about Zeld . . . err . . . Rosemary's difficulties.

    The scene in which Dick Diver is in Switzerland and has to burn his beloved books for heat. As he burns them, he reflects on each specific book and what it has meant to him.

    He realizes then that he is not really losing the books by burning them, because he has read them, and having read them, the books themselves have become a part of him.

    And I suppose when you get right down to it, that's kinda the point of this entire post.

* * *

Couple of Honorable Mentions that came to mind while I was writing this:

1) The final scene of John Grisham's The Firm.

"Did you ever make love on the beach?"

There's a reason the guy sells millions of books.

2) An anecdote told in Bloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore.

The book itself was published in 1996, and I suppose I read it about 2003. Anyway, the way I remember it, the main character wanted to leave his midwest home and head for the big city. He got an offer to work for a company that was headquartered in the World Trade Center.

His father forbade him from taking the job, said he could move to San Francisco if he wanted to, but he would not allow his son to work in any building that terrorists were trying to knock down.


So what about it, folks? If you've made it this far, I'd love hear to about your own "wow" moments with things that you've read.


Unknown said...

Nice list. Remembered those scenes in Garp. Though strangely enough, remember nothing of A Farewell to Arms, even though was made to read it once. Different strokes haha.

Brendan P. Myers said...

The "was made to read it" part is the reason, no doubt, you blocked it out.

I'll bet "Ethan Frome" is one hell of a book too, but you'll never hear that from me!