Francine Prose, A Changed Man

I picked this novel up partly because I’ve been reading Prose’s Reading Like A Writer with some interest, partly because its premise sounded interesting and provocative (‘reformed’ neo-Nazi goes to work at human rights organization run by Holocaust survivor), and partly, I have to admit, because how could I resist a novel that takes one of its epigraphs from Middlemarch? After I finished it I felt that this last impulse was the one least fulfilled by my reading experience. Prose’s style is engaging, as is her story, but I was propelled along more by curiosity about what might happen (by plot, in other words, and to a lesser extent by character) than by any sense of unfolding moral revelation or insight. Perhaps that is too much to expect of a comic or satirical novel–but once you’ve invoked Dorothea’s belief that “by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don’t quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are … widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower” you’ve rather raised your reader’s expectations about the aims and ideals of what is to follow. I wonder if choosing to approach her topics through comedy was a mistake on Prose’s part. I have some sympathy with the Victorian reviewer who was uncomfortable with Thackeray’s depiction of vice:

We don’t say that a vicious or even a degraded nature is not a fit subject for the artist,—no doubt it is [says W. C. Roscoe]; we do not say it is an unfit subject even for comedy; but we do say it ought not to be comically treated.

My reaction to Raymond in particular is about the same: his habits of mind just don’t strike me as funny, and yet they are used to comic purposes and treated with unseemly (there’s a good Victorian word) humour.

My main source of dissatisfaction with A Changed Man, though, had to do with the characterization of Vincent. I don’t think Prose motivated his initial journey to Laslow’s foundation adequately. Over the course of the novel we get many versions of the epiphany that supposedly turned him from a lukewarm neo-Nazi (already a difficult category to imagine) to an opportunistic and finally a sincere advocate for moral regeneration. Most of these versions, we learn, are not the whole truth. But the drug-induced euphoria that seems to be the real inspiration doesn’t explain enough, and just what he thinks he is doing when he first enters Laslow’s lobby is not well enough explained. In a way, it doesn’t matter all that much because we simply need to accept the premise of the book (his break from his skinhead past) and then appreciate the effects of his presence and his new role as poster boy for Laslow’s “One Heart at a Time” project on him and the other characters. But since I didn’t believe in him very fully anyway, I didn’t believe in his transformation. If he was so half-hearted anyway, too, where’s the real drama of his seeing the error of his ways? Raymond has no parallel moral breakthrough; to give him one would have put too much pressure on the novel’s serious elements, perhaps, and been too idealistic for a novel that emphasizes imperfection and ‘grey areas,’ but Vincent seems a little too easily and conveniently cured by the cognitive therapy strategies he has picked up in his anger management sessions. Is it unreasonable of me to think that given what we do know about his past, including his past moral and ideological commitments, it’s facile to set him up, even from Bonnie’s perspective, as a better father figure for Bonnie’s kids than their mid-life crisis fool of a father? In the interview material at the end of my edition of the novel, Prose remarks that the book requires us to set aside our preconceptions about the characters (based, for instance, on their histories and primary identities, e.g. skinhead, Holocaust survivor) and concentrate on who they are specifically or individually. For this approach to work for me, though, I need a deeper, better contextualized and more serious accounting of who they are. (Compare what GE does with Bulstrode’s culpability and efforts to become a new man, for instance, and if you think it’s an unfair comparison, well, Prose is the one who invokes GE in the first place…)

Is it Vincent or Bonnie who represents Dorothea’s philosophy? Both? Or is it the novel overall, in which the people are basically blundering around but trying, with mixed success and often against their own weaker and more selfish impulses, to figure out what the right thing is and do it? What’s the point about Laslow? It’s daring, in a snide sort of way, to show his faults and capacity for selfish and petty behaviour–fair enough, surviving the Holocaust does not guarantee that you will be a saint or a moral giant. The “telescopic philanthropy” thread was clever, too, though the human rights work Laslow’s foundation does is hardly comparable to the absurd efforts of Mrs Jellyby. Bonnie’s well-drawn, as are her sons, but to what thematic purpose?

I think my overall reaction is that Prose had an original conception that has great potential for developing the “widening the skirts of light” theme, but the satiric presentation or treatment of the material and the relative superficiality of both characterization and context mean the novel is lighter, more trivial, less interesting, than the issues involved deserve.

 

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