Thursday, March 10, 2011
The first four selections for our Heathrow Literary Society were haphazard selections that the group voted on as being interesting. After that, we decided to try to make more deliberate choices spanning various genres...classics, memoirs, thrillers, etc. "Appointment in Samarra" was our attempt at a classic, unknown to all of us but our leader, who read it in a previous book club. We were all game, primarily because we'd been reading chunksters and this little guy was only 270 pages long.
Published in 1934, this was O' Hara's first novel. It has been included in various "Top 100 books lists" over the years, and O' Hara has been described as everything from "the real F. Scott Fitzgerald" to "a well-known lout".
The title of the book requires a little explanation, as it is never actually mentioned within the story. "Appointment in Samarra" is a reference to W. Somerset Maugham's retelling of an old story (from Wikipedia):
A merchant in Baghdad sends his servant to the marketplace for provisions. Shortly, the servant comes home white and trembling and tells him that in the marketplace he was jostled by a woman, whom he recognized as Death, and she made a threatening gesture. Borrowing the merchant's horse, he flees at top speed to Samarra, a distance of about 75 miles (125 km), where he believes Death will not find him. The merchant then goes to the marketplace and finds Death, and asks why she made the threatening gesture. She replies, "That was not a threatening gesture, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra."
Or, in other words, Death is going to find you, it's inevitable. A little foreshadowing action, then?
Synopsis: So in this case, whose death is inevitable? Within a handful of pages, we know that would be Julian English, a member of the upper middle class in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania in the 1930's. This society consists of decadent country clubbers who attend multiple parties and dances a week, who drink heavily, who come from some type of money, and who are quietly but threateningly governed by a local mobster.
Julian is the only child of a local doctor, now runs his own Cadillac dealership, and is married to the lovely Caroline, who has yet to conceive a child. Julian is a self-absorbed chap who thinks that the world revolves around him, and fancies himself the life and light of his social circle. One night, in a drunken fit of annoyance, Julian throws his drink in the face of a man who is a pillar in the financial and Catholic community. Thus begins Julian's three day spiral into utter ruin, making one bad decision after another, committing impulsive, embarrassing public acts, and ultimately keeping that appointment in Samarra.
My thoughts: O' Hara boldly depicts social status, class conflict, sexuality, and small-town politics in a way that must have shocking in his day. In many ways, it reminded me of "Peyton Place" (written in 1956), with its scandal, tragedy, class issues and quirky characters. I was impressed with "Peyton Place" for its decent writing, despite its reputation for being a trash novel. My expectation of "Samarra" was that of a classic piece of literature, worthy of book club discussion, but to me was underwhelming.
I suppose I never really felt invested in any of the characters. Julian was completely obnoxious...a spoiled brat who had no self-control and overreacted when things don't go his way. All of his problems could have been resolved, but I doubt he'd ever encountered such conflict and chose instead to avoid it by committing suicide. And I'm thinking that was the intended image the author wanted to portray. The supporting characters were entertaining, but lacked depth and seemed only to stand as symbols for society at the time.
In doing some research in an attempt to better "get" the story, I read that O' Hara was known for being quite adept at literary dialogue, which caused me to do a double-take. In fact, the dialogue was one facet of the prose that really bothered me. It felt stilted, uncomfortable and false, and even between a man and wife in the heat of an argument, way too sharp and cold and unemotional. Not very realistic, in my opinion. Was this intentional as well?
Lastly, and most importantly I think, is my opinion that O' Hara mistitled his book. By using the title "Appointment in Samarra", the implication is that Julian has a predetermined date with Death. In reading the story, this is far from the truth though. Death was not inevitable here, and could have been avoided if Julian hadn't been so dense. Hell, the guy that got a drink in his face actually LIKED Julian, and sent flowers to his funeral. Is there something I'm not getting?
My takeaway from this heralded wonder of a literary work is confusion, feeling like I'm not understanding a point, and general apathy. I don't feel like it was a waste of my time, yet I was not moved either.
Viewpoints of the Heathrow Literary Society: The book was received well overall. Most people agreed it was dark, and wasn't their favorite book, but enjoyed watching the hot mess Julian created for himself. Myself excluded, there was appreciation for the tight plot, the characterization, and the unique view of society during this era. One gentleman did come forward and state that he did not like the book, period. I believe my opinions were closer to his than the rest of the group.
In fact, most of the group thought the title of the book was completely appropriate...that Julian was headed for his date with death from the very beginning. I respectively (but emphatically) disagreed. There was some consent at the end of the meeting that perhaps O' Hara might be better suited to short stories (which he is known for) than a full length novel. The book, for its pros and cons, did inspire great discussion and differing opinions, which is our ultimate goal.