“Centuries of People”: Sarah Moss, Cold Earth

cold-earth

Mass graves again. I realised I was holding my breath and tried to exhale.

‘You wouldn’t get mass graves with all these isolated farms,’ said Jim. ‘And there are a few where whole families have been found in the beds or around the house.’

My hand shook. ‘Can we stop talking about epidemics, please? I’m going to the loo.’

I put my trowel down and stood up. Everything went black and I stood there, trying to remember how to breathe. It’s like driving, breathing. The more you think about how to do it, the harder it gets. I stepped blindly over the fallen walls and looked down at my pink tent and thought about the books inside it. I could hear the running river and the wind over the tall grass outside the hall, where centuries of people throwing things out made the soil rich and the wild plants strong.

I’ve basically been reading through Sarah Moss’s oeuvre in reverse order. The first books of hers I read were Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost ChildrenAlthough I admired them a lot, my enthusiasm was tempered by their emotional reticence. Still, I was interested enough to read on, which meant going through Moss’s back catalog, which I have found very rewarding. With Cold Earth (2009), her first novel, I have now completed that project–and in a way it feels like coming full circle, because her most recent novel, Ghost Wall, engages with some of the same themes, particularly ways in which the stories we tell about the past haunt or infect the way the think about the present.

ghost-wallCold Earth literalizes that haunting in a way that Ghost Wall doesn’t quite: in the newer novel, the spirits animated by artifacts of the past are those of contemporary people acting on what they think they’ve learned, while in Cold Earth Moss teases and frightens her characters and her readers with the possibility that the dead still move among us. Imagination? Delusion? Projection? Perhaps–but to at least one member of the team digging in their remote archaeological site on the coast of Greenland, it is a near certainty that their work has disturbed something more than relics and bones.

The discomfort that spreads from her conviction that they are not alone is exacerbated by the team’s growing unease about current events: during their rare check-ins online, they follow reports of a spreading contagion. “The virus,” one of them reports early on: “they think it’s mutated and it seems to be spreading.” “It’s spread,” they learn a little later; “Several thousand people in the Washington area, another cluster in Charleston and a scattering of outbreaks up the East Coast.” Then it’s in the UK — and then the websites stop loading, and they can’t get the satellite phone to work. Is it just technical problems, or has the crisis debilitated the human agencies still needed to keep servers  up and running? How worried should they be, and should they be upset or relieved that, in their isolation, they are probably safe from infection? Then when the plane that was supposed to collect them doesn’t arrive, their remote location ceases to be a refuge and what had been largely a matter of psychological endurance becomes a struggle to survive the encroaching winter and the depletion of their resources.

cold-earth-2Cold Earth is intense and suspenseful, but it is not a thriller or a horror novel, or (except indirectly) a dystopian one. Moss focuses above all on her characters–the novel is told by several of them in turn, in the form of letters they write to people back home–as they puzzle over their finds and try to interpret how their predecessors in that location lived and died. Each of them has brought a personal history to Greeenland: each of them, in a way, is like an archaeological site of a different kind, and there is something at once comforting and devastating in the way Moss, by setting them down among the ruins of a past community, evokes the inevitable and unpredictable continuity of death. Most of us probably imagine that “history” is something that happens to other people, but by the end of Cold Earth all of its characters have been forced to see they too will eventually be the ones in the ground. The chilling question the novel provokes is whether there will be anybody left to dig them up and wonder about their lives.

This Week In My Classes: Corpses and Consciences

ackroydIn Mystery and Detective Fiction we’ve just wrapped up our discussion of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. It’s been an interesting fall to be teaching this course. I always open it with some discussion of the differences between “literary” and genre fiction–not just what those differences are presumed to be but how they shape people’s expectations and evaluations of books on either side of the supposed divide. I imagine, however, that to students already accustomed to a literature curriculum that incorporates not just popular culture but a wide range of media (we have courses on both Chaucer and comics, on Shakespeare as well as Tolkien, on poetry and on television and video games) it sometimes seems as if in advocating for the intellectual gravitas of our course material I am arguing against a straw man.

keating-marpleThis term, however, both Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail and Luke Brown in the TLS stepped up to show my students in real time that the debates about the literary merits of crime fiction are ongoing and can be both intense and judgmental. Wente published an op-ed decrying the degradation of our curriculum–yes, ours in particular: she singled out Dalhousie’s English department and Mystery & Detective Fiction was among the courses she specifically mentioned as symptoms of our decline. (I won’t link to Wente’s column, because I don’t want her bad faith and shoddy practices rewarded with clicks, but here’s a link to a tweet showing the letter I wrote to the editors in response to it.)  Brown, in his turn, wrote a rather grudging review of Belinda Bauer’s Snap, which was (regrettably, in his opinion) long-listed for the Booker Prize. Not satisfied with explaining why he didn’t think highly of Snap in particular, Brown drew broader conclusions about mysteries as a necessarily lesser form of fiction. As part of my commentary on Christie, I also quoted Peter Keating’s 2018 book Agatha Christie and Shrewd Miss Marple (which I reviewed myself for the TLS), in which he observes tartly at the outset that Christie is “hugely read, greatly loved, widely admired, and critically ignored” — a situation his own book, of course, sets out to correct.

I bring these “show and tell” materials into class because I think it is valuable for students to see that our work has resonance and relevance outside the classroom. These are debates that are actually going on “out there”–though not always, as Wente’s column exemplifies, to a very high standard. She is not well-informed, but they will be, and I hope this helps them see that there is both a place and a need outside the university for what they are learning–not so much the assigned content of the course as the nature of the conversation we’re having about it.

the-wardenIn 19th-Century Fiction we’ve just finished our work on The Warden. I’ve written a couple of times already about why Trollope feels unexpectedly pertinent to our current moment, whether as a respite from or a tacit commentary on its crises. Working on The Warden during Brett Kavanaugh’s SCOTUS hearings was … well, disorienting. Could there be a sharper contrast between meek Mr. Harding–who, faced for the first time with a challenge to the privilege he has so enjoyed (and, by some lights, done such amiable good with), resigns rather than live at odds with his now-provoked conscience–and Kavanaugh, who ranted and raved in outrage at the very idea that he should be investigated thoroughly, never mind held accountable, for any past misconduct? When John Bold rather sheepishly tells Mr. Harding that he is launching a legal inquiry that may prove damaging, the Warden replies, “if you act justly, say nothing in this matter but the truth, and use no unfair weapons in carrying out your purposes, I shall have nothing to forgive.” Then, even after he is assured that Bold’s complaint will fail and there is no legal or regulatory reason for him to give up his contested position, Mr. Harding is not satisfied, because “he was not so anxious to prove himself right, as to be so.”

trollope-wardenThe Warden is an odd little book, and in many respects it is hardly a radical one. As we discussed in class, for instance, the bedesman who speak up for what they think is theirs by right are characterized as greedy and ungrateful, and they are ultimately punished for it, ending up worse off both economically and emotionally than they were under Mr. Harding’s wardenship. The novel’s social vision is fundamentally paternalistic. There is something at least potentially radical, though, about its ethical vision–about its casting as a modern-day hero someone who, when criticized, does not lash out but turns inward, and who then will not be dissuaded even by the most powerful people around him into ignoring what his conscience decides is right. Mr. Harding’s resignation does not really fix anything: the novel explores at several levels the complicated relationship between individuals and larger systems and institutions, and in doing so it raises timely questions about the possibility of meaningful moral agency in corrupt circumstances. I think a lot of us are struggling with this right now: the things we can do on our own seem so insufficient that it is tempting to stop trying to do anything. There’s some encouragement to us in the vicarious satisfaction we get from seeing the Warden persist. Even Archdeacon Grantly, imposing bully that he is, is ultimately no match for him! We all probably face a version of the Archdeacon’s exasperated “Good heavens!” sometimes, maybe especially when we try to take some small, imperfect, corrective action of our own. The Warden is not about taking to the barricades–but most of us aren’t going to do that anyway. Mr. Harding might at least inspire us to play our imaginary cellos with renewed vigor as we carry on living our own ethically complicated lives as best we can.

“A Cuckoo in the Nest”: Hannah Kent, The Good People

kent-good-people

This is not my son, Johanna had said.

And at once Nóra, her heart fluttering at his screams, saw that the boy was not, could not be the child she had seen in her daughter’s cabin. Her eyes began to water, and she saw plainly the puckish strangeness that people had been speaking of. All those months she had thought there was a shadow of Johanna about the boy, a familiarity that anchored him to her. Martin had seen it, had loved him for it. But now, Nóra knew that nothing of Johanna ran through this child’s blood. It was like Tadgh said. She had not recognised him as her own because there was nothing of her family in the creature. He was a cuckoo in the nest.

Hannah Kent’s The Good People immerses us in a world in which life is hard, illness and death are familiar, and superstition (or lore, or folk wisdom) rules. At the center of the novel is Nóra, a widow left responsible for the care of her dead daughter’s son Micheál. Once to all appearances a healthy child, Micheál has become weak, inarticulate, fretfully miserable; he screams and wails all night and needs constant vigilance and care, including bathing as he incessantly wets and fouls himself. Looking after him is wearing Nóra out:

She felt suffocated by the constant neediness of her grandchild. He made her uneasy. The night before she had tried to encourage him to walk, holding him up so that his feet brushed the ground. But he had thrown his red head back, exposing the pale length of his throat and the sharp ridges of his collarbone, and screamed as though she was pressing pins into his heels.

“Perhaps,” she wonders, “she ought to fetch the doctor again,” but she has gone that troublesome and expensive route before and been told there was nothing the doctor could do for Micheál. “In the valley the sick were faced with the usual crossroads of priest, blacksmith, or graveyard,” she concludes–“Or Nance.”

kent-good-people-2Nance is a a healer and “handy woman” (midwife) who offers herbal cures and charms and other services to the local people. She believes (as do most of her neighbors) in the presence and power of the ‘Good People’ or fairies. Kent takes her time establishing how pervasive and powerful this belief is, distinguishing it from casual “superstition” and working to convey what the world looks and feels like to people imbued with convictions about threatening supernatural beings with designs on them–the effort they go to warding off misfortune and illness, the fear of missing a crucial sign or step that might have ominous consequences in their lives. “Sure, ’tis a dangerous time for a woman when she’s carrying,” Nance warns a man who comes seeking her help to protect his pregnant wife:

‘Tis a time of interference. Your wife is on a threshold and can be pulled back and forth. Either into the world we know, or the one we don’t. And ’tis true, what you say about the Good People. They are much given to taking young women. I’ve never known a woman to be swept into the fairy ráth by here, but ’tis not to say they won’t or haven’t.

The anxious husband hangs on her every word. “All will be well,” she assures him, “if you do as I say,” and her advice includes doing all the chores so his wife can rest, giving him “bittersweet” berries to “urge her into a deeper sleep,” and making a “cross from birth twigs” to nail over the bed to guard her.

Nance seems a benign figure at first, utterly sincere in her beliefs and selflessly dedicated to the well-being of others; we are on her side against the skepticism of the new local priest, who opposes her practices as irreligious. The stakes are raised, however, after she is called in by Nóra to help with Micheál. Nóra is convinced, and Nance confirms, that her daughter’s son was stolen by the fairies and replaced with a changeling; the only way to bring the real Micheál back is to drive out the usurper, and with the reluctant cooperation of the girl Nóra has hired to help with  Micheál’s care, she and Nance undertake a series of measures guaranteed, Nance insists, to bring this about.

Kent depicts the effects of their efforts on Micheál with ruthless vividness. If we haven’t already wondered if, for all her sincerity and good intentions, Nance might do more harm than good, now we are brought face to face with what, under a different explanatory framework, looks simply and horribly like child abuse. They administer foxglove, for example, which causes convulsions:

He shook in their grip like a rabid dog, his mouth rent open in a terrifying gape, arms rod-straight and trembling, and his head shaking from side to side as though in terror of what was being done to him.

They swing the child–wet from being dunked in a bath of steeped foxglove, freezing from the night air–back and forth, calling “If you’re a fairy, away with you!” When this treatment fails to restore the “real” Micheál to his body, Nance leads them to the river, where they plunge the “fairy-child” repeatedly into the rushing cold water: “She had the sense that the changeling fixed her eye as the water flooded over his face for the third time, bubbles streaming from his mouth.” Finally Mary, the young servant, rebels: “As soon as he saw we were on our way to your cabin,” she tells Nance, “he started up with the screaming,” which Nance explains easily – “the wee changeling doesn’t want to be going back under the hill!” “‘Tis a sin!” Mary cries out as Nance prepares to dunk the screaming child again, but Nóra and Nance are resolute, and as they hold Micheál under the water Nance finally sees that “the river had taken the fairy as one of its own.”

kent-good-people-3My attention had been flagging a bit before the women’s efforts to cure Micheál picked up the pace of the novel; I wasn’t sure we needed quite so much time and detail spent on context, on evoking the place and time (Ireland in the 1820s) and people’s lives without much action. In retrospect, I understand better why Kent balanced the elements of her novel the way she did: we need to arrive at Micheál’s treatment / torture prepared to counter the visceral horror it evokes against the truth she has set up, which is that to the women involved it is not abuse or cruelty but a good faith attempt to save a child they genuinely believe has been stolen by the fairies. The novel is not set up (as, for instance, Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder is) as a contest between competing belief systems, much less an interpretive challenge to us about which version of events to believe, the ‘rational’ or the supernatural. We do end up at a trial in which both Nance and Nóra are held accountable in ways that run completely contrary to their version. Though it is hard not to agree with the prosecution that they have done a terrible thing, Kent has made sure we see their actions as reasonable and justifiable to them.

What’s less clear is whether that is supposed to push us towards a kind of historical or cultural relativism, putting aside our condemnation on the grounds that they can’t be blamed for not having modernized, for acting as their whole community believe is reasonable under the circumstances. It’s true there is some dissent within that community–from the priest, but also from others who are not newcomers, who look at Micheál and see a “cretin” rather than a changeling, a sick child in need of care rather than an interloper to be expelled. Perhaps their opposition is meant to set Nance and Nóra up for judgment, but the affect of The Good People is mostly against that: Micheál’s suffering is vivid but so too is Nóra’s grief, and Nance’s increasingly desperate conviction that she’s doing the right thing. I would be more excited about the novel if it had been structured more overtly around these intellectual questions rather than mostly just depicting the setting and letting events play out–if Kent had framed Nóra’s story, perhaps, with the trial that results and integrated some narrative commentary that deliberately centered the dilemma of judgment and questions about whether change is the same as progress. I like my historical fiction with a side of exposition; I want not only historical colour but ideas about history, not left mostly implicit (as they are in this case) but as part of the novel’s apparatus. Still, The Good People ended up being a powerful and moving story: I’m glad I persisted with it, and I’m going to be haunted by Micheál’s pale face and sad fate for a long time.

“Married Women Need Not Appy”: Carol Bruneau, A Circle on the Surface

bruneau-circle

Well, that superintendent had taken his time drafting his reply–though when she hadn’t heard before Labour Day she pretty much knew. Still, reading it was crushing. They had wanted high school experience, he wrote. An upstanding person with sound moral judgment and a background in chemistry. Married women need not apply.

I heard Carol Bruneau read from A Circle on the Surface at Word on the Street this year and I thought (rightly, as it turns out) that it sounded like a book I would enjoy, so I bought a copy on my way home. It has taken me longer than the novel deserves to read it–the academic term is well underway, for one thing, and I’ve been too tired to do much reading after work; also, as anyone following the news knows, these are trying times in ways that make it hard to concentrate. I took advantage of today’s warm sunshine, though, more than welcome after a week of rain and fog, to sit on the deck and finish it up.

I said I thought I would enjoy the novel, and I did–but in a way I also didn’t; I suppose that’s another reason it took me a while to read to the end. It’s not that it isn’t a good novel, because it is: taut, intimate, evocative of a particular time and place (war-time Nova Scotia, including Halifax and the fictional but plausible town of Barrein, both of which Bruneau draws with nice attention to historically vivid details). The prose is understated; the tone is emotionally reticent, which suits the  novel’s protagonists Enman and Una, whose marriage is faltering because neither of them is quite the person the other thinks, or wants, or needs.

It’s the mismatch between Enman and Una, and even more between Una and her circumstances–isolated in Barrein, bored, lonely, and frustrated without her job, with nothing but her unsatisfactory marriage to give purpose to her days–that made A Circle on the Surface difficult to read. Enman and Una’s relationship is (mostly) tense and unhappy, and as a result it’s a tense and rather melancholy novel. Una’s dissatisfaction is particularly clearly rendered, felt as much through how she sees and interacts with the landscape as through anything she says directly; even going for a swim in the ocean seems fraught:

The tide was in and, despite being late morning, the beach was deserted. Her loneliness only added to her day’s irritation. She let seafoam scrub her toes while lines from movies washed wantonly in and out of mind–Casablanca especially. . . .

As she ducked under a wave, a gull nearby picked at a fish. She had read, of course, how a bad seed got passed along in families, though certain traits, aberrations, might skip a generation–or not. Take Enman and his weakness for liquor, his fondness for Barrein, and his alcoholic father who, despite his wandering eye, had never strayed from this place. Did Barrein apply brakes to everyone’s ambitions? . . .

She stepped from the surf, moved onto dry sand. The sun razored down, the sea a dazzle so sharp it hurt to view it. Everything was lost to the glare, hidden, as mysterious somehow as her emptiness, the feeling of a void as deep as the seashore at night.

Though the depressed tedium of Una’s day is broken in an unexpected way, it leads to no epiphany or awakening for her. Her story is a sad one–of few options, poor choices, and stifled ambitions. Bruneau frames it with the point of view of an older and somewhat wiser Enman, still struggling to understand his wife’s experience but strangely, in his self-consciousness about that effort, a better husband to her now than he could be before.

This Week In My Classes: Suspicious Minds

thurber.jpg And do you know what I’m going to do now?” “No,” she said. “What?” “Buy a copy of Hamlet,” I said, “and solve that!” My companion’s eyes brightened. “Then,” she said, “you don’t think Hamlet did it?” “I am,” I said, “absolutely positive he didn’t.” “But who,” she demanded, “do you suspect?” I looked at her cryptically. “Everybody,” I said, and disappeared into a small grove of trees as silently as I had come.

We talked a lot about suspicion in my classes this past week. That seems only natural, of course, for Mystery & Detective Fiction, in which we adopt “Suspect everybody!” as our interpretive motto. As we work through our readings for the course, an ongoing theme becomes the cost of such eternal vigilance: it may be necessary for solving crimes, but it is corrosive to human relationships. We’re not reading The Maltese Falcon this time around (our hard-boiled example is The Big Sleep), but I always find that the saddest part of its ending: Sam, victorious in principle but emotionally marooned. In Sherlock Holmes that isolation seems (perhaps) more heroic; Ian Rankin’s Rebus toughs it out; Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski counteracts it with friendships and alliances.

copperfield

In David Copperfield, trust and innocence and guilt and suspicion are also key themes. We’ve suffered through Steerforth’s great betrayal now, and also through David’s misguided marriage to Dora — that “first mistaken impulse of an undisciplined heart.” There’s no doubt that practically speaking it would have been better for everyone if David had been suspicious of Steerforth. We see the clues to his character long before David does, or at least long before he admits he sees them or knows, seeing them, what they mean. One question I keep putting to my students, though, is what the cost would be of that saving suspicion. Isn’t David’s trusting heart, undisciplined though it may be, one of the beauties of the novel? Doesn’t the novel show us naiveté as something to be cherished and protected? The David who looks at Steerforth and suspects him–who believes him capable of the kind of evil Steerforth perpetrates, who even knows such evil is possible, much less lurking in someone he loves– wouldn’t that David be someone we would care less about? Maybe not: maybe we would respect him for not being a gullible fool. But I still think, even if that’s our conclusion, that we would regret that it proves foolish and gullible to believe the best of people, to be above all loving and trusting. Growing up, for David, includes outgrowing his innocence and becoming the kind of man who would not make that mistake again. This has to happen or he’d be morally like Mr. Dick, a perpetual child. But Dickens is so good at making sure we regret what is lost in the process.

David_Copperfield_18

I asked Friday if the same is true of David’s love for Dora: that it is wrong, a mistake, as both he and she eventually acknowledge, but that it is the kind of mistake it’s hard to wish David didn’t make. I’m less sure about this one, because he chooses Dora deliberately, while Steerforth grooms him into adoration when he is very young and very much in need of a friend. David realizes belatedly that he wants a partner, not a “child-wife.” Still, the child-like starry-eyed quality of their relationship, and Dora’s playful tenderness, while cringe-inducing considered as any kind of actual marriage, seem to me affectively like something we want to protect, to have a place for in our lives–even our adult lives. (In a similar sort of way, I often find myself defending Dorothea’s mistake about Casaubon–not because he is someone we want to have a place for, but because her innocent idealism is beautiful in a way that Celia’s skeptical realism is not.) Perhaps I indulge this feeling in spite of my intense theoretical, political, and personal dislike of Dora because I find Agnes such a dull alternative.

I’ve been thinking about suspicion in another way this week as well. I don’t teach very suspiciously, by which I mean my classes in many respects take our readings at face value rather than approaching them with a “hermeneutics of suspicion” (a phrase I use somewhat flippantly, rather than really technically). It’s not that we don’t consider what they are saying and doing beyond their surface stories, or beyond what their authors might have consciously realized, or that we don’t analyze how those stories are told and to what ends. Perhaps a better way to put it is that we don’t take a deliberately antagonistic approach to our readings–or an overtly theorized approach (which is not to say–and can you tell that trying to explain this makes me defensive?–that I don’t realize all readings are underpinned by some kind of theory, if only implicitly). Sometimes when I overhear (on Twitter, say) other Victorianists talking about their classes I feel anxious because I worry that there’s something naive (innocent, even) about the kinds of conversations I encourage my students to have about our readings. But then I reassure myself that the things we talk about, the responses we have and analyze, are both interesting and urgent, and that the enthusiasm I cultivate not only (I hope) motivates students in the moment but also (I hope!) fosters their love of reading alongside the experience of reading critically in such a way that they are more likely to continue being engaged and demanding readers long after they leave university. Something would be lost–something I cherish–in trying to turn them into more suspicious readers, which is something I’m not sure I know how to do anyway. (I tried it on myself, back in graduate school; the experiment was a failure.)

felskiThinking about this has reminded me that I should finish reading Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique, which looks like it will give me a more sophisticated way to understand and talk about the tension I feel between what I do and what I sometimes think I’m supposed to be doing. In her introduction she comments that many current critical approaches “subscribe to a style of interpretation driven by a spirit of disenchantment.” That sounds right to me.  “Why,” she asks a bit later on “are we so hyperarticulate about our adversaries and so excruciatingly tongue-tied about our loves?” Since I escaped graduate school, my own critical practice has, I think, focused on becoming as articulate as I can about my loves, but I’ve sometimes felt a little sheepish about that, as if my methods, if challenged, wouldn’t really stand up to scrutiny. I look forward to Felski’s arguments–even more since I noticed that one of her chapters is on crime fiction, which rather neatly brings this post back to where it began.

“A Life with No Story”: Rachel Cusk, Outline

cusk-outline-cover

I said to you, when we first met, that I regard love – the love between man and woman – as the great regenerator of happiness, but it is also the regenerator of interest. It is what you perhaps would call the storyline – he smiled – and so, he said, for all the virtues of my third wife, I discovered that a life with no story was not, in the end, a life that I could live.

At times I wondered, while reading Outline, if a novel with no story was one that I could read. It’s true that there are stories in Outline: each chapter, in fact, tells a different one, in a different voice, which actually made me wonder why the book is considered a novel and not an interlinked story collection, as they don’t exactly add up to any one singular thing. But’s also clear from the beginning of the book that wondering about genre, frustrating expectations of form, is what Outline itself is about–if it is about anything in particular.

For me, someone who loves the kind of fiction Outline refuses to be, it was (predictably) a frustrating book. It has a cool lucidity that made it uncomfortably easy to read. The words slip along, elegantly placed, aphoristically quotable, conspicuously artificial: nobody talks like the people in this book, in monologues interrupted occasionally by oracular observations from the narrator whose paradoxically passive intensity is the novel’s only real through-line. The ease is uncomfortable because it lets you slide along passively yourself, except that at the same time it is hard to miss the overhanging weight of the author’s metafictional preoccupations, which we inevitably also perceive lurking in the narrator’s comments about reading and writing, and which we thus are constantly aware we should be thinking about. “As it happened,” Faye says early on, as her neighbor on the plane to Athens hides his bestseller in his briefcase on learning she’s a writer, cusk-outline-cover-2

I was no longer interested in literature as a form of snobbery or even of self-definition – I had no desire to prove that one book was better than another: in fact, if I read something I admired I found myself increasingly disinclined to mention it at all. What I knew personally to be true had come to seem unrelated to the process of persuading others. I did not, any longer, want to persuade anyone of anything.

That’s clearly not true of Cusk, who wants to persuade her readers that they do not need the conventional apparatus of fiction (most conspicuously plot, but also character arcs), or at any rate that the novel (in general, and also her novel in particular) does not need these things, and in fact is better without them. “We expect of our lives what we’ve come to expect of our books,” says one of Faye’s dialogists; “But this sense of life as a progression is something I want no more of.” Outline reads like the narrative rejection of that perceived expectation: in fact, it has almost no forward momentum at all. “There was no longer a shared vision, a shared reality, even,” Faye says later, reflecting on her children’s development; “Each of them saw things now solely from his own perspective: there was only point of view.”

“There was only point of view” sums up Outline, an observation about the novel that, according to one of Cusk’s characters, could be a condemnation: “As soon as something was summed up,” she says, “it was to all intents and purposes dead, a sitting duck, and she could go no further with it.” Yet Outline doesn’t feel dead, though I wouldn’t necessarily say it feels alive either. To me reading it was like being in a strange kind of limbo, intellectually engaged but emotionally suspended, entranced by the almost hypnotic flow of Cusk’s words but never genuinely caught up in them. I didn’t dislike the experience. I even relished some parts of it: the novel is full of lines and images and suggestions (about life, about love, about family, about writing) that made me pause to appreciate them, or to think about them. Overall, though, Outline seems more a provocation about form and genre–a kind of literary performance art–than anything else: it gives us little else to hold on to as we read. Is that what I want most from a novel? I don’t think so, but there’s something about Outline that shakes my confidence just a bit.

 

This Week In My Classes: Crime & Copperfield

DALHOUSIE-UNIVERSITYWe’re barely a week into the term but already the sultry summer weather has mostly given way to the cooler crispness of fall. There will still be plenty of warm days well into October, but we won’t be able to take them for granted: they will have the golden haze of precious time stolen from looming winter. I am grateful, this year, for the change in seasons; the heat and humidity were oppressive this summer and the sense of being stifled and confined by the weather made my usual difficulties getting through the summer doldrums that much harder to deal with.

I’m happy, too, to be back in the classroom, partly just to have people around and things to talk about but also because both of this term’s courses begin with books I love. In Mystery and Detective Fiction, after quick stops on Thurber’s “The Macbeth Murder Mystery” (which is a great way to foreground some of the questions about genre expectations and reading strategies that we will address throughout the course) and Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” it is time for The Moonstone, which is one of my favourite novels to teach. It isn’t always universally popular, but over the years it has turned more than a few unsuspecting students on to Victorian fiction!

moonstone-oup

I’ll lead off the discussion tomorrow with some questions about the implications of the Prologue–among other things I like to make sure we notice, its juxtaposition with Betteredge’s self-satisfied view of England’s moral superiority helps us recognize the limits of his point of view, while its account of the theft of the diamond during the siege sets up key questions about eye-witness testimony, evidence, and interpretation. Then we’ll spend some time on Betteredge himself, the world and the family he represents and cherishes, and what he perceives as threats and intrusions. For Friday, when we’ve read further, we will turn our attention to the crime and the first phases of the investigation, with a lot of focus on who becomes a suspect, to whom, and why.

copperfieldIn 19th-Century Fiction from Dickens to Hardy we’ve had a couple of classes on David Copperfield already. I used the first session to give some general introductory remarks on Dickens and then on Copperfield–comments on the exuberant excesses of Dickens’s style, for instance, and how we might think of it as a deliberate or strategic response to the kinds of problems his fiction is typically about. What could be less utilitarian than the joyful abundance of character and incident in a novel like David Copperfield? And what could be better nourishment for our hearts and imaginations than its sentimentality, its humor, its pathos, and its metaphorical and symbolic richness?

There are a few things about the new term that are more depressing than exhilarating — the growing number of my colleagues who are retiring without being replaced, for instance, some of whom I will miss very much personally and all of whom represent significant losses to the depth of expertise and experience in the department. There are larger trends–in enrollment and in institutional and departmental priorities–that I find disheartening too. It is no doubt true that disciplines change for both intrinsic and extrinsic reasons, but that is not really much consolation if the changes mean less and less attention and value to the things that drew me to this profession in the first place. Though of course I know how lucky I was to get a tenure-track position when they were already scarce (though not as vanishingly rare as they have become), I find these days that I am particularly conscious of its costs, which that very rarity makes difficult to calculate or admit to earlier on. Still, as long as one regular part of the job is showing up to have the best conversations I can with students about great Victorian novels, I will still have a reason to look forward to coming to work.