Monday, June 17, 2013

The Stranger (Albert Camus)

The Stranger, Albert Camus
Read: 15 December to 22 December 2012
5 / 5 stars

I was so amped about this book when I tore through it a few weeks ago; alas, in that yawning chasm of time between then and when I first sat down to start this review (as opposed to this most recent effort -- I think at least my fourth?), I found that I’d forgotten a lot of the specific reasons why it had hit all the right spots for me.

Fortunately, since Goodreads has instilled in me the need to take notes on, emphatically underline passages from and analyze the pants off every book I read these days, a quick revisit to my thorough defacing of this novel got me right back in the mindset of being unexpectedly taken by a deceptively disinterested narrator. This is a work that got under my skin and burrowed deep into my brain in slightly disturbing but mostly welcome ways right from the first sentence.

I am not a terribly literal person. I love hyperboles and understatement and metaphors because they allow for elasticity of interpretation. It lets people impose their own inner landscapes on the seemingly uniform outside world, just as it leaves room for individual interpretations of message, intent, subtext, whatever. People do not perceive and interact with the world the same way, so why should they be expected to hear the same things, pick up on the same cues, follow the same logic of thought? To me, that’s how you get to the core of a person and their internal workings: Let them show you how they operate by giving them enough variables to put in comprehensible order as they see fit.

Of course, forcing the observer to do some creative thinking on the fly (or trusting them to observe at all, in some cases) has a tendency to backfire more often than simply saying what's on your mind to eliminate all doubt, but that's how you suss out the mental midgets. Or, you know, wind up with a death sentence. Like life, it's all a gamble and not always worth the risk.

As odd (though probably unsurprising, given the nature of my reviews) as it is to say, I found a certain kinship with Meursault. True, there’s not much to the fellow when you observe him as an outsider (that is, outside his head), but when I let myself roll around in the vast implications of what he says and the fathoms of unspoken depth in what impels him to behave as he does, I started to recognize so many of my own leaps of logic and nonsensical-without-an-explanation reactions.

To me, Meursault is just a guy who just doesn't process the world in the same rank-and-file way as others do. He's an open book, an adaptable entity and honest to a fault, a man who doesn't subscribe to societal norms -- not because it's cool to be That Guy but because he truly seems to process events and impulses with a sense of sincerely stoic reservation. How many people haven't cried at a loved one's funeral, only to crumble under the emotional weight days or weeks or months later after some mundane event hammers home the finality of loss? Or have taken up an unpleasant task to relieve a friend from its terrible burden? Or shrugged their shoulders in the face of an ugly truth because nothing can change the course of fate once the momentum reaches its unstoppable peak? What, really, is the point of getting emotional when it's not going to change a damn thing?

Meursault knows he is powerless to change things. He knows he has no business making assumptions about other people and their behaviors based solely on his own. What's so wrong with that? Fighting death is the most hopeless of causes so don't even bother wasting the effort; similarly, he knows that crying over his mother's death won't bring her back. Besides, what we know about their relationship is only what Meursault reveals, overtly or not, so who are we to judge him strange for not reacting as histrionically as we would? Isn't it awfully presumptuous to impose our sense of "normal" on a stranger? But by the time he shares his belief that no one has a right to cry over his Maman when being so close to death allowed her a peace that simply does not exist in the bloom of life, Meursault's own minimal relevancy to the world is nearing its close. We are not supposed to get to the heart of him but we sure can appreciate where he's coming from with just enough effort to realize that the example made of him misses the point by a shamefully vast distance.

This book touched on a lot of things that annoy me about society, mainly the need to cling to misconceptions when confronted with an individual or circumstance that can't be neatly cataloged as a "type" or doesn't fall into a inflexibly prefabricated black-or-white category. Why is it so difficult for the staggering masses to extend the courtesy and minimal exertion of critical thinking to appreciate and be educated by a deviation from the norm? I appreciated the opportunity to judge that which I cannot stand in a cathartic, safely isolated way. It allowed me to focus on feeling just awful for Meursault. I mean, c'mon -- someone had to, right? He's the victim of the dangers of monochromatic thinking in a world painted in every hue, common or not.

(Alternate read is that Meursault is an emotionally stunted Maman's boy who can't cope with life sans mommy, throws himself at this woman he barely knows and then gets himself legally killed so he doesn't have to do it himself, but that's so... so.... nope, not even gonna consider that one.)

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