May 21, 2008

Chez Stan, Blind But Not Hungry

men's book club group discussion review of Blindness Jose Saramago

Stan’s baronial residence could not have contrasted more sharply with the rapid physical decay depicted in Jose Saramago’s Blindness. Had we a stronger sense of justice last night, we would have given our beef tri tip and roasted new potatoes to the cyclone victims in Myanmar. Instead, we tucked in, helped ourselves to ice cream, and promised to support Garth’s upcoming Burmese fashion show fundraiser. (Although his daughter may be worried about his preference for fem couture, we know Garth’s intentions are honorable.)

Stan, thanks for feeding the 14 of us as we sorted through the pain and triumph of Blindness. However, your insistence that we complete our roundtable discussion with our eyes closed may have overly stimulated certain other senses. When I opened my eyes, my plate was empty. The obvious suspect was the man seated to my left, who arrived with a see-through gauze blindfold and a tendency to thievery. If I had one of Garth’s stiletto heels, I might have planted it in John's thigh.

The Book
Although Saramago’s plot is compelling (an epidemic strikes a city, renders its inhabitants blind, and creates a profound loss of social order), several in the group complained that the book was slow going. The absence of conventional punctuation, the elliptical dialogue, and the intentional omission of character names made the act of reading more challenging.

While Roy criticized the writing as “mechanical” and Doug was surprised at his own lack of progress, Jack praised the book as an excellent sleeping aid. (I noted, with obvious insight, that the removal of punctuation was a conscious attempt by Saramago to eliminate visual cues for his readers. But I was quickly informed that all of his books are written this way. That ended my insight for the evening.)

Most of us, however, got used to the narrative style and were absorbed by the story and its parallels to the Holocaust and any number of other fascist and authoritarian-inspired tragedies of the last century. Armando and Glenn both read this novel in overtly political terms, with Glenn (or was it Armando?) discovering a cautionary tale perfect for the current election cycle. Glenn’s disclosure that Saramago is an atheist with a pessimistic view of mankind came as no surprise, particularly given the jarring revelation during the novel's scene in the church. Doug, who admitted his bias against political fiction, was intrigued by the plot but underwhelmed by Saramago’s delivery.

The interesting result of our discussion was how highly we rated this book despite a few strong dissents (Roy felt generous giving it a 3!). Even with conservative numbers from Dean, Jack, and Doug, the book drew more 9's and 10's than any book to date. Stan, Terry, Glenn, and Larry all ranked it as their book of the year. With an 8.3 rating, Blindness has overtaken The Great Gatsby and Tortilla Curtain. Beyond its high rating, Blindness also seemed to provoke more topical discussion than any other book on our list.

Next Up
For next month, Jack asked us to consider The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner, as well as McGuane’s The Bushwhacked Piano and O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. The virtue of each choice, as we enter the summer season, is its brevity. So, in gratitude, we agreed to take up Stegner’s 1976 National Book Award winner. For the ambitious engineers in our group, extra credit will be awarded if you also read Angle of Repose and come prepared to explain the title.


  1. Michele here from Sunshine Coast Australia, all woman no chick lit book club. Currently reading Oscar and Lucinda and came across your comments on same.

    Wondering if you have read Disgrace J M Coetzee? Think it meets your criteria or could be argued for

    Loved your host offering label-less cans in fire for The Road, very apt.

  2. Men of ManBookClub-

    I thoroughly enjoyed the Blindness write-up. I am not surprised it generated a lot of discussion, both pro and con. Saramago's an acquired taste and clearly not for everyone; I only carefully and selectively recommend him. Glad you gave him a try. Too you guys are passing one year now and getting more used to each other and talking books.

    Based on your June pick, I am re-visiting The Spectator Bird and it indeed holds up after a first reading twenty or so years ago. I really like the frame of reading a diary aloud to transport the Allstons (and readers) back in time and place. Stegner's meditations on life and aging are very reminiscient of Angle of Repose (one of my all-time favorites too), so I wouldn't be surprised if that work comes up in discussion by those of you that have read it.

    I'd take Australia Michele's suggestion to heart as well; Disgrace is an excellent book and you guys would have fun figuring out which "disgrace" Coetzee titled his book after . . .main character David Lurie sinks lower and lower . . .'nuff said!

    I'll toss a suggestion your way: August: Osage County, the Pulitzer winning play by Tracy Letts. I read it yesterday all the way through just like I had gone to the theater. Lots to talk about and it brings up lots of family issues that many of us can relate to . . .read that: inlaws!! Pretty dark and will make some uncomfortable, but I found it well worth the read.

    Looking forward to your June write up and July pick. Read on!

  3. Thanks for the comment, Michele. Hope you enjoy O&L more than we did. Even our resident Australian couldn't make himself finish this painful period piece. As for Disgrace, several of us have read and enjoyed it. Too bad it hasn't yet been taken up for nomination.
    Jeff, thanks for the suggested title. It may make it into the mix someday, but that's up to each month's host to decide! I personally like the idea of veering into a little theater now and then.