Finished: “Lord Jim,” Joseph Conrad (#85)


I honestly don’t know where to begin with this train wreck. My emerging faith in Modern Library was shaken to the core after laboring through this book. I’m really scared there are three other Conrad pieces on the list.

The structure of the storytelling is completely implausible, awkward and painful to get through. The story of Jim, a young nautical man, is retold verbally by an older ship captain (Marlow) to a group of his maritime peers in (basically) one sitting. It is totally implausible that a blue collar ship captain of this time would drone on for what must have been ~10 hours in such an airy tone, and that anybody would stick around to listen to the monologue. The device of the narrator literally speaking the whole story was so strained and terrible that it distracted from whatever shred of novelty or intrigue the plot might have otherwise had. Additionally, because the story was conveyed by Marlow who had a supposed firsthand account of the tale of Jim, Conrad was forced to contrive repeated chance and intentional path-crossings between the narrator, Jim and others – how else would Marlow know the story if he didn’t run into Jim repeatedly? It was completely inauthentic and forced. Conrad got himself and the reader pregnant with the narrative device; the first trimester was mildly exciting and hopeful, but the second and third were awful; we had to go on bed rest; the labor was long and painful; the baby came out ugly as sin.

The plot is just stupid. Jim literally jumped ship when he thought the emigrant vessel he was helping to pilot was about to sink. It ultimately didn’t sink. He felt guilty for abandoning the ship and passengers. He found refuge, with the help of the narrator, on a secluded island run by aboriginal gangs. He seized power. He ran the island, and then some pirates invaded and he got killed. Boo, the end. (Spare me the ‘it was a deep allegory of western colonization!’ knee-jerk defense of this poop.) New characters with bare traces of back story and no intertwined relevance to Jim are introduced midway through, and then at the end (e.g., the guy who eventually causes Jim’s killing doesn’t appear until the last ~15% of the book – what kind of character development is that? The bad kind: none).

Conrad in his preface admits this was a short story that he fleshed out to a full novel. Imagine a tenth grader in a creative writing class whose latest assignment is well under the proscribed word count – what do they do? They pepper the existing work with flowery language, banal literary devices and drawn-out descriptions wherever possible. Conrad, you get an F on this assignment. Here are some statistics thanks to the Kindle search function: 169 “as if” similes, 275 “like” similes, 219 “seemed” metaphors, 92 “sort of” phrases, 116 “as though” similes, and many other imprecise and uninhibited metaphors, however he clearly favors the turnkey similes (they’re cheap and much easier to churn out than poetic metaphors). It’s obvious which parts of the narrative were decent pieces from the original novella, and where, in the surrounding chaff, he puked all over himself after consuming the entire contents of “101 Ways to Make a Paper Longer” by Ami Turriter.

Because Conrad was so distracted with making sure his tenuous tale was long enough to be a true novel, much of the plot action is obscured. He buries the lead over and over, leaving plot-crucial action sentences camouflaged among a bunch of tedious and overwritten fluff strewn about to make the damn thing read longer. He’s so liberal with the unnecessary that he commits sad errors; for example, in one description he cites, “great waves of glitter” in describing a surface of water, but then, in the following paragraph, sacrificing consistency for aesthetics, he claims “the canoe seemed to slide painfully on a mirror.” So is it wavy, or glassy water?

His nested quotations are a joke; in the vein of ‘he trembled by the underlying strength of what the other had uttered, “we will stay put! No, but—we will, unless it is, as he said, ‘only under the most dire of chances shall we succumb, as a starving man might submit to the willful doling of stale bread’.” But it was not his choice to proceed…’ Do you know who ‘he’ is, or what the fuck is being discussed by whom and when?? No. By the way, that’s not a quote from the book – I pulled that out of my ass like anyone could;  flowery and convoluted bullshit isn’t hard. Precise and uncompromising depiction of truth is hard. Conrad failed miserably in this task.