Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Disjointed, overwritten, and slow
Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim was originally published as a serial in Blackwood’s Magazine, running from 1899 to 1900. Jim (no last name given), the son of an English parson, grows up with romantic notions of life as a sailor. When he comes of age, he enthusiastically enters the trade and eventually ends up in Southeast Asia. Jim signs on as first mate of the Patna, a ship overloaded with Muslim passengers bound for Mecca. One night the ship strikes something and begins to take on water. Cut to a month later at a magistrate’s court: an inquiry is being held, and Jim is the accused. That fateful night at sea, Jim and the rest of the Patna crew abandoned the ship, leaving the passengers on board the damaged vessel. While his shipmates flee from the inquest, Jim faces up to his punishment, and takes his medicine like a man. He is stripped of his seaman’s status in public disgrace.

A spectator at the trial, Marlow, strikes up a friendship with Jim and strives to find him a position in which he can start his life anew. Most of the novel is narrated by Marlow, as if speaking to a roomful of listeners. Jim and Marlow have long conversations about the shame and regret brought on by Jim’s cowardice. This shame and regret is painstakingly dissected, analyzed, and dwelled upon for over half the book. Thankfully, the story eventually picks up as Jim seemingly finds his place in the world and is given a shot at redemption.

The last several chapters of Lord Jim actually amount to a pretty good book. The trouble is the 37 chapters of digressions and verbosity that you have to wade through to get there. I’m familiar enough with Conrad to know that, despite the exotic locale, you’re not going to get a typical South Seas adventure from him. Nevertheless, seeing as how this book is hailed as one of his great masterpieces, I was hoping for at least a satisfying plot. There may be one here, but unfortunately it’s buried under heaps of overdescription. It’s almost as if Conrad is describing a series of paintings rather than writing a novel. He frustratingly refuses to just tell you what happened, instead opting for confusion and obfuscation. When the story cuts to the inquiry, for example, you don’t know what happened on the Patna, and Conrad makes you wait three or four chapters before he gets around to telling you. The jumps in chronology and switching of narrators feels like ostentatious literary novelty. These techniques in no way enhance the realism or emotional power of the story. If you listen carefully, you can hear the snores of Marlow’s audience.

Based on the kind of literature I enjoy reading, I feel like I should like Conrad, but I always end up being disappointed by his books. I liked Victory a little better than this one, but not much. Those who prefer the straightforward storytelling of Melville or Stevenson won’t take kindly to Conrad’s ornate verbal carpet. One can’t help thinking that he would have made a great fireside storyteller if he didn’t approach every scene obliquely and overanalyze every emotion. He’s got the whole South Pacific as his canvas, but he’s stuck in one corner delineating a supporting character’s eyebrow in exquisite detail. This should have been an interesting, exciting, and moving novel, but instead it’s mostly just tedious. The ending is somewhat compelling, but not enough to redeem the novel as a whole. Lord Jim may have put me off Conrad for good.
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