96. Sophie's Choice by William Styron

Year Published: 1979
Pages: 515
First Sentence: In those days cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan, so I had to move to Brooklyn.
Rating: 2/3 (meh)

Though certainly many of them are dead, and even more of them will never see this blog, I'd like to make an official announcement to the writers of the Top 100 books. Basically it's this: if you include a reference to Saskatchewan in your book, you're guaranteed a rating of at least 2/3. Please revise your work accordingly. The reason I mention this is that William Styron includes not one but two Saskatchereferences in Sophie's Choice, indicating what I can only refer to as an obsession with the province, and further proof of my theory that "Saskatoon, Saskatchewan" is at the very top of some standardized List of Exotic Place Names.

Anyway, as for the matter at hand, Sophie's Choice, it's the most questionable book on The List, being that William Styron was on the board that compiled it in the first place. I picture a bunch of old authors in a boardroom, tossing out book titles the same way Stingo, narrator of Sophie's Choice, does, in a way that would make someone like me look like a moron and feel like one, too. In any case, one of them, the youngest or the most doddering, asks, "What about Sophie's Choice?" and an embarrassed hush falls on the room. All eyes turn to Styron, who now protests, but doesn't blush. No one will insult him by taking the suggestion off the table, and so they all insist, and he continues to protest, but not too much--that is, not so much that they can actually turn the book down. And so Sophie's Choice appears in 96th place.

So that's what I pictured, and I have to say it's hard to take Styron seriously when his writing doesn't do anything to contradict that impression. It's summer of 1947, and 22 year-old Stingo, a Virginia native and aspiring novelist, loses his job as editor at McGraw Hill and goes to live in Brooklyn, supported by a bit of a windfall in the form of the proceeds of the sale of a black slave his family owned way back in the day. (Based on the author blurb at the back of the book, I have a hard time distinguishing Stingo from Styron himself.) In Brooklyn, Stingo meets Nathan and Sophie, the former being a highly volatile Jewish research biologist, and the latter a Polish immigrant with a number tattooed on her forearm. These two are basically headed to their doom, which Stingo relates along with his own tales of sexual exploits, writing, and so on.

While the story is well-constructed, my overwhelming impression of the book was basically "meh." Its chief fault is Styron's ponderous prose, which isn't exactly dense, but rather full of sentences to stumble over, at least for me. All the power and poignance of the story (and there's a lot of that, too, especially when you consider Sophie's titular choice), seems buried where it won't cut as sharply. I read The Brothers Karamazov a few years ago, and my interpretation of the "laceration" concept in that book has been hung up in my mind ever since. While reading Sophie's Choice, all I could think of was that it should've been full of lacerations, and it wasn't. Mostly what I'm saying is that it felt as though it took forever to read, and not in a good way.

"There, there," I said, or something equally awful.

She does most of the talking though I do my part and am able with a kind of studied unconcern to utter "my throbbing cock" once, aware even as I say it, incredibly excited, that it is the first so-called hard-core obscenity I have ever spoken in a woman's presence.

The most profound statement yet made about Auschwitz was not a statement at all, but a response.
The query: "At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?"
And the answer: "Where was man?"


  1. Wow, that second quote is just stellar, especially out of context.

    Just also worth noting that I really enjoy reading this blog... you should read faster so I have something to entertain myself with. Dance, monkey! Dance!

  2. Yay, thank you!

    If I could turn this blog into a job, I'd totally post more frequently.