Sunday, June 10, 2012

Spare the Rod, Raise an Asshole

I just finished The Magnificent Ambersons and really feel like I could have gone my entire life without having ever become acquainted with (even just in the literary sense) this family full of assholes.

I would say pardon the cursing but, I really don't care because there is no other way to describe  the Ambersons except to say that they are a family full of ridiculously pompous and silly assholes. I would like to believe that Booth Tarkington, the author, grew up knowing a similar family. Perhaps he needed to write this book in order to forever purge them from his memory. I totally understand therapeutic pursuits and can totally respect Mr. Tarkington if that was his goal here. What I don't understand is why he had to PUBLISH the damned thing and make the rest of us have to endure this awful family of, yes, assholes.

I know in my last post I said that a sign of great writing is if your characters can bring your readers to anger. I still stand by that but I no longer will be giving that out as a compliment. Not unless you make every single of one of those hair-ripping-out-worthy characters die some terrible and awful death. Had this entire book ended in a zombie apocalypse with the insufferable Georgie Amberson Milner being eaten very slowly in an elaborate buffet scene, that still would have been too gentle of a demise for this ASSHOLE.

Okay, so why did I hate little Georgie so much?
To give a bit of background, he's a third generation asshole born into a prominent family of self-made millionaires in turn on the century America. Imagine if you took the "crochety old man" that made Maria so mad in His Family and watched what made him into the man he became. That is Georgie except that Georgie is so much worse because he is a useless human being with not ONE redeeming quality. But just being a spoiled, stupid, arrogant, and stubborn asshole isn't enough to make me hate a character. I can laugh at a character like that. What made me want to throw my Nook off the balcony was that people were actually enamored with this little worthless snot! His family refuses to ever once beat the living hell out of him or even dare to challenge him. The result is that their perfect little asshole of a child turns into an absolute terror of an asshole man. But it isn't just his family who adores him, no! At one point he is falling pretty hard for a particularly important character named Lucy. For the longest time I was convinced that the "surprise" in the book would be that Lucy was actually an incredibly intelligent and witty young woman who was simply playing with little Georgie's emotions. No. Not at all. Not even a little. She was just as vapid and superfluous as the rest of the moronic women in this book. Anyone who can fall so heavily in love with an asshole must be an asshole themselves. To paraphrase a line from an awesome 80s movie: "Follow a stupid kid home and see if a stupid person don't answer the door." Well, in this case it proved to be true. Lucy's father was just as stupid as he was hopelessly in love with asshole Georgie's idiot mother. Just a bunch of mildly tolerable characters falling in love with and constantly making excuses for and helping a bunch of assholes all the way to the very last sentence. There should have been more death. Bloody death. Bloody and painful death would have made for a better ending.

It doesn't help that I have met (and even dated) people like Georgie. Guys who thought their family's name and wealth would be enough to last them through life. Guys who balked at the very thought of starting their own careers or even their own businesses. Guys who truly believe Daddy's money just magically exists and will never go away even once Daddy dies. People like this don't deserve pity, especially if they are literate and have internet access. And just like Georgie, they have made it into adulthood being coddled and carried about, never once having to take responsibility for themselves or making any plans for their future. Some people are stupid enough to envy these sorts of guys and gals who seem to live a life of leisure that has just been handed to them. I'm smart enough to know how these stories end, especially when their parents aren't smart enough to protect their futures. A family of truly lazy idiots can only survive so long before basic math catches up to them.

Meanwhile, we do get a very interesting look into the ways in which America's former pioneer towns made the leap into becoming thriving cities. I meant to go back to check but it would seem that this book was about a city like Pittsburgh or something of similar size and location. East but not quite east enough. We see the automobile come into prominence, electricity take hold, self-made millionaires get made, self-made millionaires go bust, the arrival of immigrants, the vanishing of the servant class, and the end of the Victorian age's formalities (like leaving "calling cards" and "dressing for dinner.") And the descriptions! The wonderful descriptions I was craving in His Family were all here and then some! Clothes, furnishings, cars, food, parties, and scenery were all laid out and imagined in perfect detail. All of that was very interesting but super odd to read it stuck in between the maddeningly never-ending story about this family of American idiots. American idiots who went from being "Magnificent" to "Irrelevant" in half a generation.

If there was a firm lesson in this book, I missed it. Maybe because people in 2012 have lived through and heard about enough failed famous families that we don't believe in the permanence of wealth without extreme luck, perseverance, and effort? Maybe that was a lesson that people needed to be taught in 1919 (though I'd imagine watching so many royal and noble families in Europe fall into ruin at the end of WWI would have clued them in). No doubt the whole country realized it fully by the time the Great Depression took hold. But I suppose there is nothing wrong with constantly reinforcing the message that having a lot of money can't save you from raising a family full of assholes. In fact, in some ways it ensures that you will. I think we all know what quote is needed to end this post: "You can't buy class." Oh, and "A fool and his money are soon to part." Indeed.

1 comment:

Maria said...

I'm thinking the pickings had to be *pretty* slim the year this novel won the prize. His other winning book, "Alice Adams" was made into a movie in 1935 and stars Katharine Hepburn - who I looooove - as Alice. I'm choosing to take this as a good sign that it will be better than The Magnificent Ambersons.