The Unexpected

man canThe Manchurian Candidate is a naughty book. Biting, bitter, playful, and bizarre, Richard Condon brings a cynical and outrageously offbeat voice to his story of cold war paranoia. It’s a novel I could never bring myself to recommend (though I have suggested to friends the 1962 Sinatra film of the book) and yet it’s a book I find myself happy to be rereading.

I can’t believe he wrote that, is a common reaction as I’m turning the pages, and My god, really?

Condon’s prose is an odd amalgam of terse and flamboyant. It’s as if Edgar Rice Burroughs and William S. Burroughs collaborated on a spy story after drinking too much and reading Valley of the Dolls.

As a former English teacher, I know that there are books we teach students that smack of merit: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and anything by Toni Morrison. Even the rougher books we put in front of students (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) or the really difficult ones (Huck Finn) bring enough importance to warrant passages that make readers wince.

On the other side of the aisle, wrapped in foil and raised embossment, Stephen King and PD James show the world that “popular fiction” has a place, and even if it is as serious as a Batman comic, English teachers everywhere shake their heads, muster smiles, and say, as the student holds up Clear and Present Danger for his independent reading project, “at least they’re reading.”

And then there are a few, the Margaret Atwoods and John le Carres of the world, who lure us in with colorful covers and hide literary ideas in airport gift shops. There, next to the issues of Time and Vanity Fair, lurk Offred and Magnus Pym ready to knock us off our chairs.

…and maybe be a little naughty.

So too The Manchurian Candidate. When Condon published the book in 1959, he threw conventionality to the wind and put together a potboiler that is a melange of spy thriller, beat prose poem, and political satire. As popular as it was in the year Kennedy was elected, I’m not sure how much it gets read today.

Contemporary audiences may not have the taste for exchanges like this, a Condonian version of flirting:

Do you mind cigar smoke,” he mumbled.
“Not at all,” she murmured. He turned away from her by made no move to find a cigar.
“Go ahead,” she said. “As a matter of fact, I wish you’d smoke two cigars at the same time.”
“You must really like cigar smoke.”
“Not especially, but I think two cigars going at the same time would look awfully amusing.”

And yet I think there’s a place for The Manchurian Candidate.

I make my living working with high school students, and I know the value at that age of experiencing some piece of literature, or film, or idea so unhinged that it invites us to see the world differently. Haruki Murakami, Citizen Kane, David Bowie. For different people different surprises and different inspirations.

Now I’m not suggesting Condon’s novel be put on the syllabus of Sophomore English; remember, The Manchurian Candidate is a naughty book, but in a world of black, white, and increasing gray, I will raise my glass to those artistic works that present themselves in psychedelic neon and gleaming chrome.

Our lives, particularly our lives in those formative years, are richer for including the offbeat and the unexpected.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles is on my nightstand this summer, sitting atop From a Buick 8, and there on the top of the pile, my bookmark halfway through, is a used copy of The Manchurian Candidate.

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