The Modern Library List of Books

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96. Sophie's Choice by William Styron

After closing what has, perhaps, become William Styron's best-loved book, I spent a long time brooding over the experience, foraging in vain for something nice – however, slight – to say. I know, nothing obligates me to rave, rapturous, over every book; I just feel better when I can find at least one laudable quality, at least one nice thing to say. Perhaps it's because I know writing a book, however horrid, is harder than not writing one at all. Or perhaps it's because I find summary dismissals intellectually lazy, and I'd rather struggle to appreciate something than reject it out of sloth. Or perhaps, I'm still besieged by memories of childhood scoldings, and as my mother, all too often, said: If you can't say something nice, you shouldn't say anything at all. But at the risk of inciting my finger-wagging, proverb-parroting mother, there was nothing – rien, zip, zilch, nada – that I liked about this book. Let's be honest – I hated it.

I hated the verbosity, the thick-thumbed handling of theme, not to mention the overall sloppiness of the prose. So much so, in fact, that if I hadn't committed to reading it for this blog (and you, dear reader), I might have done something relatively rare for me – I might have abadanoned the book. I know, I'm in the minority here; I know that many people consider Sophie's Choice to be a deep and tragic book. Crazy me – I just don't see it.

The problems start with the insufferable diction (we'll get to that) of our narrator, Stingo, a 21-year old virgin from Virginia, and the annoyingly discursive way (while not entirely irrelevant, excisable passages account for about a third of the book) he tells of his friendship with Holocaust survivor, Sophie, and Nathan, her demented beau. It is 1947, and all three live in a boarding house in Brooklyn. Stingo falls in love with the beautiful Sophie, when he comforts her (sort of) after Nathan flips out. Wild-eyed and crazy, Nathan eventually tears off, but not before landing some low blows (insults, not punches) on Stingo. As strange as this first encounter is, it's stranger still when Sophie and Nathan – ecstatic and contrite, respectively – show up, beach towels and picnic basket in hand, at his door the following morning. 
To Stingo's credit, he has his doubts; Sophie and Nathan have a relationship that is obviously dysfunctional. Why get involved? But Sophie is the primary object of Nathan's abuse, and if she can forgive him so completely, who's Stingo to hold out? It isn't long before Stingo, Sophie and Nathan are the best of friends. Nathan is a gracious and generous genius; Sophie, a sweet, non-imposing doll, and Stingo hankers after Nathan's praise and approval, just as he pines for Sophie's love. This, in spite of the fact that Nathan intermittently goes off his rocker, upbraiding them both cruelly, and beating up Sophie. 
All this summer-love drama is interspersed with flashbacks of Sophie's former life (as apparently told to Stingo) . Through Stingo's rambling narration (Styron's irritating way of generating suspense) we learn that Sophie's father was an Anti-Semitic professor of law in Krakow. He married her off to an equally bigoted man she didn't love. Under the thumbs of both her husband and her father, Sophie helps produce and distribute anti-Semitic propaganda – pamphlets promoting the Final Solution. While Sophie is repulsed by her father's ideas, she isn't above keeping a pamphlet on her person, presumably a 'Get Out of Jail Free' card in Nazi-occupied Poland. While her pamphlet fails to impress (when she finds herself in a situation to use it), her Aryan beauty and flawless German are enough to earn her privilege when she is sent to Auschwitz, with her two children, for stealing a ham. Placed in the stenographer's pool, she is exempted from the deadly physical labour; later, she is sent to work for Commander Hoss himself.
This is Sophie's golden opportunity, and Sophie tries to seduce Hoss to gain her freedom, or at the very least, the freedom of her son. Unsuccessful as a seductress, she whips out her weapon of last resort – her father's pamphlet– but Hoss is unmoved, and Sophie is returned to the general pool of stenographers. 
As a prisoner, Sophie falls from hyper-privileged to merely privileged, and by the time Stingo gets around to telling us about Sophie's horrible choice – the presumed reason for her invariably self-destructive behaviour – it's hard to care. Over a million people endured unfathomable deprivation and torture at Auschwitz. In this house of horrors, Sophie's comparatively plush experience reads as vacuous and dull. It doesn't help that Sophie, offers up nothing but the most superficial and banal account of her thoughts and feelings while incarcerated there. Here, I think Styron missed a real opportunity; Sophie, an Aryan Catholic, ambivalent toward both the Germans and the Jews, could have been an interesting vehicle to explore the realities of the Nazi occupation and the Holocaust. However, to carry such a tale, Sophie would need to be more than the vapid doll – the perennial victim – that she is in this book. 
Sure, Sophie is irritatingly one-note, and the pointlessly digressive structure makes you want to throw the book across the room, but this is all velvet and silk – it barely chafes – when compared with Styron's bloated prose.

I recalled once more (how many times had I summoned their sound?) the pellucid indecencies Leslie had uttered, and as I did so – the view-finder of my mind reshaping each crevice of her moist and succulent lips, the orthodontically fashioned perfection of the sparkling incisors, even a cunning fleck of foam at the edge of an orifice – it seemed the dizzyiest pipe dream that this very evening, sometime before the sun should fulfill its oriental circuit and rise again on Sheepshead bay that mouth would be – no I could not let myself think about that slippery-sweet mouth and its impending employments.

Orthodontically fashioned perfection of the sparkling incisors? The sun should fulfill its oriental circuit? Slippery-sweet mouth and its impending employments? Goodness! Do we really need adverbs and adjectives to describe Leslie's teeth? And what's wrong with 'sometime this evening' or 'I could not let myself think about all the things that slippery-sweet mouth would do'?

Zaorski popped up now down the street, appearing as if from nowhere, astonishingly, like some blond genie, – a half-starved-looking, limping, florid-faced, broomstraw- haired man with jittery concern in his pale eyes.

What's with all the adjectives? I don't know Zaorski any better for them, and by the time I get to the end of the sentence, I just feel bruised.

Then suddenly the mist from his sweaty torso reeked in her nostrils like rancid meat and she heard herself give a gasp at the very instant that he yanked her body against his own.

Aren't 'in her nostrils', 'she heard herself give a gasp', and 'at the very instant', unnecessary or redundant? I mean, rancid meat doesn't reek in your ears, and if she heard herself, she must have just 'gasped'. And why do you we need 'at the very instant'? What's wrong with 'when' or 'as'? I know – now I am just being cranky. But it's hard not to be; the whole book is like this. 
But after all this mud-slinging, I think I should mention, one relatively (here, all praise is relative) interesting thing about this book– Nathan. Nathan's bizarre behaviour engenders genuine suspense; one can't help but wonder what is wrong with him. And while I hoped Morris Fink's conjecture would turn out to be right (and Nathan was a golem), I'd only have bet on mental illness or drugs. Turns out, its both (overkill, I know); Nathan is a paranoid schizophrenic with a penchant for benzedrine and coke. 
Too bad Styron didn't tell us Nathan's story, take us into Nathan's head. Sure, it might have made for a crazy ride, a chaotic trip, but at least the narrative impetus wouldn't have been so contrived. And honestly, there was little Styron could have done to make this book any worse.


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