My name is TJ Dietsch and I have a confession to make: I just finished my first Ernest Hemingway novel at the age of 31. Yes, I majored in English and yes, I consider myself a good reader even though I stick to a smaller group of beloved modern authors when I decide to focus on a book. However, when I was looking at the Amazon Kindle ebook deals sometime last year, I jumped at the chance to add Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises to my library. It took a while to get to and through this book, partly because I was reading it while lying next to my kid’s bed as she tried to fall asleep and partly because I didn’t like it very much.
Told from the first person POV of Jake, an American living in Paris and working for a newspaper, Sun follows him as he goes to bars, travels around Spain and pines for a woman who can’t/won’t/doesn’t love him. After half the book, Jake and a group of his friends decide to go see the bullfights which exacerbates the problems in their group dynamic. From what I’ve read, Hemingway was going to write an article about bullfighting, but instead decided to write a story featuring analogs for his pals. And to that I say, Hemingway’s friends must have been insufferable.
I’m torn between loving the things these people do and hating the people doing them. There’s something so romantic about being an expatriate who gets to take long, extravagant vacations in Europe, but there’s not a likable character in this novel aside from Montoya, the guy who runs the hotel in Spain.
Jake’s okay but when you think about it he’s just a facilitator for these other people to get together. He doesn’t stand up for himself or go after what he wants so what good is he? Brett (Jakes love interest, sorta) doesn’t care about who she hurts, Mike’s a drunken jerk, Bill’s a smarmy intellectual and Cohn’s a lovesick, obsessive doofus. I get why this lifestyle would have fascinated to people in the 20s/30s, especially because it seems so far outside the norm of going to work, coming home, being with your family and that’s about it, but to a modern reader it feels like a Bravo reality series. Think about it, a bunch of people who don’t really like each other go on a vacation which intrinsically leads to fights, betrayal and a showcase of their lack of perspective. Real Expatriates Of Paris, anyone?
This will sound lazy, but I found myself wishing that this was a movie instead of a book. Like I said, the ideas are fascinating and set in lush locales, but I’d rather see them than read Hemingway’s sparse descriptions. In this book he has a tendency to go into more lush detail at times when I just wanted things to move along story-wise, especially after they all leave Spain. At that point, I just wanted it to be over, I was done with these people and didn’t want to hear about the amazing places they got to drive through. Plus, were this a film, I only would have spent 90 to 120 minutes with these characters I dislike instead of the weeks it took me to read the book.
Even with these complaints though, I don’t want to make it sound like I don’t respect Hemingway as a writer. I understand how influential and important he is/was to the world of writing and get the mystique surrounding him. The Sun Also Rises feels true and honest. It’s real and raw, but it reflects that reality by engaging characters I’m not particularly interested in. I’ve also read a bit about Hemingway’s minimalist nature when it came to writing and appreciate the style even if it makes following the parties in a conversation a bit more difficult.
I realized about 2/3 of the way through this novel that it reminded me of another famous author’s first book: Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary. Both are about newspaper men who travel to exotic locales, throw themselves into local events, lose women they’re attached to in some way and drink a bunch. I much prefer Rum Diary though because while it might have been influenced by Sun, it features far more interesting characters, especially in the lead.
I wish it went without saying, but this is the internet and I know full well it doesn’t, but it’s important to note that my liking or disliking of something does not always relate to the thing’s quality, which is a distinction not enough people make. The Sun Also Rises is a well-crafted novel filled with realistic people. They’re just the kind of people I wouldn’t want to share a bus ride with let alone an international vacation, that’s all. This also doesn’t put me off all Hemingway. I just need to find something he wrote that’s not filled with vapid jerks. Any suggestions?