Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Book Review: Oliver Twist

I have made the decision to read and review some or possibly most of the books that get a mention on my blog.  This has led me to read Charles Dickens' literary classic, Oliver Twist, the source material for many movies, including the Academy Award-winning Oliver! and a subject of interest to film theorist Sergei Eisenstein of Battleship Potemkin fame.  It is, on the whole, a great book that snowballs to a strong climax.

I have a distaste for literature and had the darnedest time getting through this book until I was near the end.  Much of this had to do with the fact that I was unemployed.  It's amazing how much a book improves when you find a full-time job.  I read about fifteen chapters in two days.  At any rate I still have a distaste for literature.  I like how non-fiction is straight to the point, much like my own writing and thought processes.  Also, I find that movies feed my soul, if you will, in much the same way that books do, but are a lot easier to consume.  Both are narrative.

On the other hand, Charles Dickens is known for being quite cinematic.  He can really set up a scene and bring the visuals to the mind's eye.  Great examples is the early morning market scene or the suspense of the ending.  I also tend to analyze, or perhaps over-analyze, structure in narrative now as if I was critiquing a movie script, a job I do professionally.  One way in which this story really works, not to give away too much, is that all the pieces are interconnected, often in tremendously satisfying ways.  Every detail, as organic as it may seem in the moment, is a set-up or payoff to some other moment in the book.  There are no narrative tumors.  Some might complain that this is contrived, and while they would technically be right, the story still worked for me.

I had already seen, but largely forgotten, two adaptations of this book already.  This story is tremendously different on screen.  One of the defining features, to me, of the book is Dickens' cynical, sarcastic narrator.  Of course, it is nearly impossible to bring this to the screen without actual voice-over, a technique occasionally used well, but generally considered tacky.  I will admit that Dickens' sarcasm took some getting used to and annoyed me in the beginning.  Also missing from film adaptions is the inner dialogue of the characters which is of course hinted at to a much more shallow extent through visuals.  I suppose I prefer this book to the two adaptations I saw, but I am guessing they were not the best adaptations.

The characterizations in this book were about fifty-fifty to me.  The title character was quite likeable, but had little to no internal arc.  He was saintly from start to finish.  This made you root for him a lot, but it also made him less interesting.  Most of the "good-guy" characters in this book were similarly likeable, but somewhat bland.  The villains on the other hand, as it so often goes, were more interesting from the cunning to the proud to the stupid.  I would have to say that the Nancy character, vaguely a prostitute, was probably the most dynamic and interesting in the entire book.  She had the most significant change of anyone.  It's refreshing to see a great female character in a narrative after being so used to the film world where great female characters can be sparse.  Mr. Bumble, another well-done character, was a government bureaucrat one could love to hate.

I thought the book functions as good social commentary, primarily because it is drama first and social commentary second.  If Dickens had merely written a treatise on the social ills of his day and his proposed cultural or political solutions, I would probably not be reading it in the year 2016.  Dickens uses social commentary as a backdrop for transcendent emotion, drama, suspense, humor and humanity.  Also, the story, in spite of its coincidences, feels authentic. It shows how bad systems yield bad people, but it includes villainous and non-idealized visions of those in every class.  It largely refrains from overstating its point, except for maybe the sarcasm aimed at Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle.  The poor are simultaneously victims of circumstance and very much responsible for their own evils.

On the whole, I found this book to be quite good and very readable, especially as it went on.  My interest snowballed and getting some personal things out of the way freed me up for such leisurely pleasures.  I recommend this book to anyone who is on the fence.

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