by Dave Wheeler
Oscar season does nothing for me. Most years I haven’t seen even one-third of the films in question, and this year is no exception. I did, however, make a point to see Les Misérables. Not because of hype. Not because of Academy nods or snubs (though all this Anne Hathaway rage does seem unprecedented to me). Not because I think Hollywood could give me anything Victor Hugo had not already. Not for any reason beyond the rapture I feel with that story.
If I read Les Miz (as those of us who do not speak French and tire of typing the same long word call it) every time I wanted to re-immerse myself in its beautiful and caustic world, let’s be real, I would never read another book again. It would just be 1100 pages of love and loss and love and loss and poverty, over and over and over again. For the sake of myself, those I love, and my career, I do not. Having periodic reincarnations of Hugo’s masterpiece has to suffice.
I first read Les Miz as an insufferably bullheaded middle school boy. This was not the only mammoth-sized book I picked up at that age, and I pored over it with certain determination for approximately three months. By the time I read the last page, I’d gleaned as much from it as I had from A Tale of Two Cities (apparently French turmoil was big for me), the Bible, and the Constitution — which is to say, nothing but hollow self-satisfaction.
When my classmates and I read the abridged volume in high school, suddenly I realized depth and magnitude that had been lost on me. Characters appeared as the very incarnations of love and despair, innocence and wretchedness instead of the musty cutouts I had previously assumed. We ended the term by watching the film adaptation with Liam Neeson. For my eighteenth birthday, my parents treated me to the touring stage musical at the Spokane Opera House. With every new iteration, Les Miz unfolded itself to me with patience and compassion so that by the time my boyfriend and I sat in our seats at The Majestic Bay two months ago, I was tearing up within the first sixteen bars of the opening number, “Look Down.”
This is the power of radical literature; it’s in it for the long haul. What I was unmoved by in my adolescence still laid an intangible foundation, one that continues steeping in the belly of my mind today. Victor Hugo’s novel testifies in no uncertain terms to political, personal, and social unrest, injustices of his time, a genre often reinvented (albeit more succinctly) for modern readers by new witnesses. For instance: Kate Zambreno’s O Fallen Angel, a hot fairy tale — a fiery tale — about women and men and family and war; Teju Cole’s Open City, a gushing stream of racial consciousness and fervor; and Mohsin Hamid’s forthcoming novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, a short novel with epic implications, the adventure of a lifetime, to hit the big time and climb out of obsequious poverty — if I name just three.
One day, I hope to return to that massive epic in its full form, for a better conception of the intersection of the author’s heart and the politic of his time, for a clearer view of the book’s beauty and majesty contrasting with despair and injustice. I could glean far more now than I could at thirteen, I’d like to think.
In the meantime, I keep my ear to the ground for the songs of loneliness and oppression, told and retold through the work of our contemporary activists, novelists, political thorns in the side of wealth and exploitation. Sometimes a book is a book, sometimes a musical is song and dance. Other times, though — I hope — they spark so much more.