“That terrible ungrateful age”: Elsa Morante, Arturo’s Island


We should recognize that it’s not easy to cross the last frontiers of that terrible ungrateful age without having anyone to confide in: neither a friend nor a relative! Then, for the first time in my life, I truly felt the bitterness of being alone.

Arturo’s Island was my book club’s choice to follow Lampedusa, which we all loved so much that we wanted to stay longer in Italy, if only in our imaginations. We thought a real Italian book would give us something different than another book just set there, and we were right: Arturo’s island is nothing like the languorous, sensual, sun-drenched Italy of so many English novels. There is plenty of passion, but it is all ugly, uncomfortable, awkward, confused, confusing passion–that is to say, it is the passion of male adolescence, and being immersed in it for 350 pages is anything but a holiday in the sun.

I really disliked reading Arturo’s Island. I don’t know if I would have stuck with it, if it hadn’t been for my book club. It may be (and I think we ultimately concluded that it is) a “good” novel, in that it does what it sets out to do (as far as we could discern what that was) really effectively. It seems fully committed to its own unpleasantness and to Arturo’s emotional disarray. It does not do any of the formal or literary things that would have lessened the impact of Arturo’s account of his youthful errors and offenses, from his vaguely loutish behavior to his obsession with and eventual cruelty to his young stepmother, from his hero-worship of his horrible father (his father is really really horrible, in general and to Arturo) to his murderous thoughts about his tiny stepbrother. There is no retrospective narration to show us how he has learned and grown: there are a couple of comments that tell us he has grown up and away (“Later, when we’re old, I know, such tragedies are, more than anything, comic; and, If I like, now, at a distance, I, too, can laugh”) but nothing frames his nasty story, nothing softens it, nothing excuses it. We get no post-childhood, post-island Arturo to show us either that he never really got over his turbulent past, with all the freedom a boy could want but none of the love, or that he found the nurture and maturation he needed somewhere else.

arturo smallWe thought that absence of solace or redemption had to be deliberate: that Morante had to be setting us up to see how wrong Arturo is, and to infer explanations and justifications (perhaps) for his wrongness, without ever letting us escape from it. Assuming the goal was immersion, emotion, and discomfort (with a significant tincture of pity, because Arturo really has a pretty deprived and distorted life) it’s a novel that is very good by the Lewes Standard (matching means to ends, a measure of greatness I derive from GHL’s assertion that Austen was “the greatest artist that has ever written, using the term to signify the most perfect mastery over the means to her end”). There are some other good things about the novel, too. The descriptions of the island are full of vivid details, and you really get a strong sense of Arturo’s strange life there, running wild and shaping his own strange identity from his father’s books. It’s also (and again, we thought maybe this was purposeful) a powerful antidote to sentimental or picturesque notions of Italy: it makes sense to me that the novel as Elena Ferrante’s endorsement, as her novels too (IMHO etc.) are ugly and unsentimental and driven by raw emotion–and, as Arturo’s Island is (at least implicitly), highly critica of certain strains of macho Italian masculinity. No flowery Tuscan hills here; no operatic gorgeousness; no above all, no love.

So: an interesting, unsettling, reading experience – and a very good discussion, because we all had quite strong, complicated, and sometimes contradictory reactions to the book, which I guess makes it a good choice even though I didn’t like it!

“No one took any notice”: Helene Tursten, An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good

turstenSlowly she set off in the direction of the Rosenlund Canal. In order to make herself look a little shorter and older, she stooped over her walker. She had pulled on a white fabric sunhat with a wide brim, which hid her hair and part of her face. No one took any notice of the elderly lady. . . . The best thing was that none of the people bustling about took any notice of her. An elderly lady out and about in the lovely weather didn’t attract much attention.

Maud, the protagonist of Helene Tursten’s An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good, is a sly inversion of Agatha Christie’s iconic “elderly lady” detective, Miss Marple. Both are well aware that they are in the demographic least likely to be noticed or, if seen, taken seriously as decisive players in their own or anyone else’s life. While Miss Marple turns expectations of her irrelevance on their head with her ingenuity in solving crimes, Maud uses them to camouflage her guilt. A nimble octagenarian with all her wits about her, Maud uses canes and walkers to appear more physically feeble than she actually is (and also, when necessary, to trip, strike, or knock people down stairs). When pressed for information about a crime (or, as it often seems, a very unfortunate fatal accident) in her vicinity, she puts on a show of confusion that blends seamlessly with everyone’s assumption that she’s of no importance to their investigation:

A man who introduced himself as Head of Security at the hotel came over to ask Maud if she could tell him how the accident had happened. She told him she had been in the shower, and therefore hadn’t seen the woman fall.

“My hearing isn’t very good, and I had soap in my eyes. And the shower was running, so I didn’t hear anything. But maybe I sensed something, because suddenly I noticed her lying in the water. I . . . oh my goodness . . . sorry, I can’t stop crying . . . that poor woman . . . she was just lying there in the water. I couldn’t help her . . . she wouldn’t grab hold of my stick . . . all that blood . . . that poor, poor . . . ” she sobbed.

He patted her awkwardly on the arm and left her alone.

Reading about Maud’s evil deeds was wryly amusing, but I think the overall effect would have been a lot more interesting if she was more clearly either a straight-up villain or an avenger of wrongs ill-served by proper justice. One of her victims is an abusive husband, and so there’s some moral satisfaction in her scheme to take him out even though her actual motivation is just to end the disturbances his beatings create and get a little “peace at Christmastime.” Otherwise, she’s basically just going after people who annoy or disappoint her.

tokarczukI suppose Maud’s ability to get away with her petty crime spree is a cautionary tale about the dangers of ageism and sexism, which contribute to obscuring the truth about people. But compared to the moral and psychological layers that emerge from Janina’s murders in Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead–to the thought-provoking questions Tocarczuk raises about how we decide who matters and who doesn’t and who, if anyone, should act in the interests of higher concepts of justice than the human–Tursten’s offering is pretty slight. It seems unlikely my book club will be meeting any time soon, but if we were able to, I’m not sure this book would give us that much to talk about. It is definitely entertaining, though, in that uncomfortable way that any relatively light-hearted treatment of violent crime can be. Tursten is a writer I’ve had my eye on for a long time: I’m still interested enough that eventually I will still try one of her full-length Inspector Huss novels.

“The Printed Word”: Ruth Rendell, A Judgement In Stone


In those moments the words they cried and their pleas passed over her almost unheard, and by some strange metamorphosis, produced in Eunice’s brain, they ceased to be people and became the printed word. They were those things in the bookcases, those patchy black blocks on white paper, eternally her enemies, hated and desired.

“Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write” is the chilling first line of Ruth Rendell’s 1977 thriller A Judgement In Stone. I’m not sure “thriller” is the right word, but “mystery” seems wrong, as obviously it is not a whodunit–and if you take that opening sentence at face value, it is not a “whydunit” either, as Rendell immediately gives away both the name and the motive of her murderer. The only suspense in A Judgement In Stone comes from wondering exactly how the massacre will happen, and it is a testament to Rendell’s skill as a storyteller that the novel is in fact gripping in spite of our already knowing who, what, when, and why.

A Judgment In Stone relies heavily on narrative devices that could easily turn into gimmicks: dramatic irony and foreshadowing. Rendell uses dramatic irony to cast a grim shadow over the lives of the Coverdale family: one of the most effective things about the novel, I thought, is how we read it doubly, as a very ordinary story of a well-to-do English family going about their privileged but otherwise basically inoffensive lives. There’s handsome George, “as trim of figure as when he had rowed for his university in 1939”; there’s Jacqueline, his second wife, “fair, slender, a Lizzie Siddal matured,” unfortunately for all of them overwhelmed with the work of maintaining Lowfield Hall; and there are the children of this blended family, including eccentrically bookish Giles and sweet-tempered Melinda. They all contribute to their eventual violent deaths by the way they treat Eunice Parchman when she becomes their housekeeper, but until the very last minute–their very last minutes–we are the only ones who know how it will all end. The effect is to infuse their commonplace activities–shopping, dining, listening to music, going to parties–with pathos, to make their cheerfully unexceptional characters accidentally tragic. “I’ll be two minutes,” says George as he goes to check what the noise is in the kitchen;

He went to the door where he paused and looked at his wife for the last time. Had he known it was the last time, that look would have been eloquent of six years’ bliss and of gratitude, but he didn’t know, so he merely cast up his eyes and pursed his mouth before walking across the hall and down the passage to the kitchen.

Rendell adds extra shots of menace occasionally with moments of explicit foreshadowing. When her parents have offended Eunice by banning her only friend from visiting Lowfield Hall, for instance, Melinda decides to intervene by being kind:

So that evening Melinda began on a disaster course that was to lead directly to her death and that of her father, her stepmother and her stepbrother. She embarked on it because she was in love. It is not so much true that all the world loves a lover as that a lover loves all the world. Melinda was moved by her love to bestow love and happiness, but it was tragic for her that Eunice Parchman was her object.

There is so little out of the ordinary about the Coverdales that they could hardly be the subject of fiction if it weren’t for what happens to them. Shortly before their deaths, they eat out, and “afterwards the waiters and other diners were to wish they had taken more notice of this happy family, this doomed family.”

rendell-2Is it true that Eunice Parchman–and her accomplice, the same friend the unknowing Coverdales tried to keep away from their home–killed this hapless family “because she could not read or write”? Rendell’s striking opening is as much provocation as declaration, I think. It is certainly true that Eunice’s illiteracy haunts, shames, and distorts her life. It is easy to imagine a version of her story in which, as a result, we pity her and direct our antipathy at a society that repeatedly fails her–fails to educate her, fails to support her, fails to make it safe for her to overcome this debilitating disadvantage–while she retreats into the safety of suspicious solitude:

When she was a child she had never wanted to read. As she grew older she wanted to learn, but who could teach her? Acquiring a teacher, or even trying to acquire one, would mean other people finding out. She had begun to shun other people, all of whom seemed to her bent on ferreting out her secret. After a time this shunning, this isolating herself, became automatic, though the root cause of her misanthropy was half-forgotten.

There are lots of painful and potentially poignant scenarios as which she struggles to hide her inability to read the family’s grocery list or to identify which papers George needs sent from home to his office. There’s something sad, too, about her absorption in the television the Coverdales provide for her room. She’s finally happy there:

She drew the curtains, put on the lamps and then the television. Her evenings were hers to do as she liked. This was what she liked. She knitted. But gradually, as the serial or the sporting event or the cops and robbers film began to grip her, the knitting fell into her lap and she leant forwards, enthralled by an innocent childlike excitement.

It’s not much, but it’s all she wants.

But this sad story is not quite what Rendell gives us–and surely that’s as it should be, unless we really do believe illiteracy leads inexorably to homicide! Instead, Eunice is a completely unsympathetic character. It’s not just the shell she has withdrawn into for fear her inability to read will be discovered. By the time she starts work at Lowfield Hall she has already committed murder: she killed her own father, who was taking a bit too too long to die: “She took one of the pillows from behind her father’s head and pushed it hard down on his face. He struggled and thrashed about for a while, but not for long.” It’s the combination of her heartless personality with the shame and anxiety of her illiteracy that’s toxic–that, and the influence of her friend Joan, who is out and out deranged, “daily growing more and more demented.” I think I would actually have liked A Judgement In Stone better if it vested responsibility for the Coverdales’ deaths squarely in Eunice and explored the ramifications of her illiteracy in a more nuanced way, rather than having it shade into moral and psychological deficits. Joan’s role is especially disappointing in this respect, as there is no “good” explanation for her behavior, no cause beyond her own unreason for the violence she instigates.

AjudgementinstoneRendell’s opening line is thus a bit of a feint, I think: it seems to set up a novel about the consequences of social and educational failures, but unlike, say, Dickens’s account of Magwitch’s history in Great Expectations, she doesn’t really account for Eunice’s criminality on those terms alone, leaving us to point the finger at ourselves for creating an uncaring system that generates criminals where there should have been (and still could be) a caring human being. Eunice seems irredeemable; Rendell doesn’t make a convincing case that she would have been a different person–and the Coverdales would have lived–if only she could read the printed word. It’s hard to be sure, though, and maybe that’s the question Rendell means to leave with her readers.

“Ideological Ambiguity”: Qiu Xiaolong, Death of a Red Heroine


The alliance between Chen and Yu put him in a disadvantageous position. But what really worried Zhang was Chief Inspector Chen’s ideological ambiguity. Chen appeared to be a bright young officer, Zhang admitted. Whether he would prove to be a reliable upholder of the cause the old cadres had fought for, however, Zhang was far from certain. He had attempted to read several of Chen’s poems. he did not understand a single line. He had heard people describing Chen as an avant-gardist–influenced by Western modernism.

I found Death of a Red Heroine pretty slow going at first. The prose is quite flat, almost plodding, and the slow pace was compounded by the amount of what seemed like a lot of extraneous detail. As I read on, though, I warmed to Chief Inspector Chen, who though a dedicated police officer also (like P. D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh) has the sensitive heart and whimsical eye of a poet. Then as his investigation began to quicken and complicate, other things got more interesting: the prime suspect is an HCC (“High Cadre Child”) and Chen’s inquiries become “politically incorrect,” his loyalty to the Party coming into question. As his career is threatened, he has to decide what is most important: justice, or what is good for the Party. He also has to come to terms with his own power, or at least his access to it: in the end, he figures out not how to stay out of politics but how to play them to win. Gradually, then, over the course of an otherwise fairly conventional murder mystery, the stakes go up, both politically and philosophically, as Chen and his little band of co-conspirators struggle to express their own freedom in a highly constricting society by holding one privileged perpetrator to account. The ending is not unequivocally triumphant, but the effort is very satisfying.

qui-xiaolongI didn’t start enjoying the novel more just because the plot became more engrossing, though it did–or because the prose became more pleasurable, because it really didn’t. The other thing that happened was I got used to the slow pace and came to appreciate all the cultural context I was getting through what initially seemed like digressions. It’s true that all the many (many!) descriptions of meals aren’t strictly necessary to the plot, but they certainly added to my sense of what life in Shanghai in the 1990s was like, as did the meticulous accounts of where and how people live:

They lived in an old-fashioned two storied shikumen house–an architectural style popular in the early thirties, when such a house had been built for one family. Now, sixty years later, it was inhabited by more than a dozen, with all the rooms subdivided to accommodate more and more people. Only the black-painted front door remained the same, opening into a small courtyard littered with odds and ends, a sort of common junk yard, which led to a high-ceilinged hall flaked by the eastern and western wings. This once spacious hall had long since been converted to a public kitchen and storage area. The two rows of coal stoves with piles of coal briquettes indicated that seven families lived on the first floor.

One of the more memorable bits of scene setting was this account of a woman prepping an eel for market:

Having slapped an eel hard like a whip against the concrete ground, the woman was fixing its head on a thick nail sticking out of a bench, pulling it tight, cutting through its belly, deboning it, pulling out its insides, chopping off its head, and slicing its body delicately … Her hands and arms were covered with eel blood, and her bare feet too. The chopped-off heads of the eels lay scattered at her bare feet, like scarlet-painted toes.

There are too many appreciative descriptions of noodles, soups, dumplings, and duck to keep track of: the book makes clear the importance of meals, not just for sustenance (though there is a lot of exuberance around eating for its own sake) but also as social and bonding rituals.

red-heroineI also really enjoyed the role of Chen’s poetry in his life and in his case–and in the case against him. The idea that his elusive (and allusive) verses harbor subversive messages at once works with the intense suspicion shown by loyal Party members towards anything suggestive of a “Western bourgeois decadent lifestyle” and seemed to me a sly play on the literary difficulty of modernist poetry and the challenge of figuring out what it means. Poring over Chen’s poem “Night Talk,” Zhang wonders if the phrase “mind’s square” is a reference to Tiananmen Square:

“Deserted” on a summer night of 1989, with no “pennant” left there. If so, the poem was politically incorrect. And the issue about “history,” too. Chairman Mao had said that people, people alone make the history. How could Chen talk about history as the result of a rubric?

Zhang was not sure of his interpretation. So he started to read all over again. Before long, however, his eyesight grew bleary. He had to give up. There was nothing else for him to do. So he took a shower before going to bed. Standing under the shower head, he still thought that Chen had gone too far.

Who hasn’t felt that sometimes, reading poetry that seems full of significance you can’t quite grasp? I liked Chen’s habit of quoting poetry as well, and the general sense that in his world it matters–being a poet gets him respect and admiration! He also translates English mystery novels, so there’s another nice self-referential strand woven into the novel. Coincidentally, he is translating Ruth Rendell, a writer I was already thinking about this week because she came up in my Women & Detective Fiction class and I realized how little of her I had read. I read Death of a Red Heroine for my book club; maybe I should suggest Rendell as our follow-up–though crime fiction is not a typical choice for us.

Catching Up: Recent Reading and Rectify

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) The Reader 1877 Oil on canvasIt certainly is easy to fall out of the habit of blogging–and this in spite of the fact that the most fun I’ve had in the last little while was writing my two previous posts. I enjoyed doing them so much! I felt more engaged and productive than I had in a long time, not because I was fulfilling any external obligation but because I was sorting out my ideas and putting them into words. To be honest, though, in both cases I was also a bit disappointed that the posts didn’t spark more discussion in the comments, and that set me back a bit, as it made me wonder what exactly I thought I was doing here–not a new question, and one every blogger comes back to at intervals, I’m sure. I appreciate the comments I did get, of course, and there was some Twitter discussion around the Odyssey post, which as I know has been remarked before is a common pattern now–though I can’t help but notice that there are other blogs that routinely do still get a steady flow of comments. Anyway, for a while I felt somewhat deflated about blogging and that sapped my motivation for posting. I know, I know: it’s about the intrinsic value of the writing itself, which my experience of actually writing the Woolf and Homer posts more than proved–except it isn’t quite, because if that was all, we’d write offline, right?

hunting meet cuteIt hasn’t helped my blogging motivation that not much has been going on that seems very interesting. I certainly haven’t read anything since the Odyssey that was particularly memorable. I’ve puttered through some romance novels that proved entertaining enough but aren’t likely candidates for my “Frequent Rereads” club. Two were by Helena Hunting, a new-to-me author–Meet Cute and Lucky Charm, both of which were pretty good; one was Olivia Dade’s Teach Me, which had good ingredients but seemed just too careful to me, too self-consciously aware of hitting all the ‘right’ notes; and finally Christina Lauren’s Roomies, which was diverting enough until the heroine breaks out of her career funk by writing her first (ever!) feature essay, submitting it (not pitching it, submitting it) to the New Yorker, and learning in THREE WEEKS that it has been accepted. I’m not sure which struck me as more clearly a fantasy: the acceptance itself or the timeline.

peonyThe other book I finished recently is Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony, for my book club. I wanted to like this one more than I did. It certainly illuminates a lot about the Chinese community in Vancouver in the time it is set (the 1930s and 1940s): one thing our discussion made me appreciate more than I did at first is how deftly telling the story from the children’s perspectives lets Choy handle the historical and political contexts, as they often don’t quite understand what is happening and so our main focus is on the young characters’ emotional experiences in the midst of them. The book reads more like linked short stories than a novel, and for me it lacked both momentum and continuity as a result (that’s not my favorite genre), but many of the specific scenes have a lot of intensity and I think they will linger with me more than I initially thought.

obasanWe chose Joy Kogawa’s Obasan for our next read. I’ve been trying to sort out why I’m not entirely happy about this. It makes perfect sense given our policy of following threads from one book to the next, and also Obasan is widely considered a CanLit classic, so it’s not that I don’t expect it to be a good book. I was mildly frustrated, though, that one of the arguments made in its favor was that The Jade Peony was very educational (about a time and place and culture not well-known to the group members) and Obasan would be more of the same. It will be, I’m sure, and in some ways this is an excellent reason for us to read and discuss it. But at the same time this “literature as beneficent medicine for well-intentioned consumers” approach is what turns me off Canada Reads, and I’m not sure it’s the way I want my book club to play out.

I’m torn about this, though! It is undoubtedly good for us (all white middle-aged middle-class Canadian women) to unlearn some of the complacency of our upbringing. I mentioned at our meeting that when I visited Vancouver’s Chinatown as a child I thought about it wholly in terms of feel-good multiculturalism–it never occurred to me in those days that it housed a community that had experienced many hardships including persistent and ongoing racism. Reading Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers similarly made me reconsider my childhood trips to the Museum of Anthropology and what I once thought they meant. We chose The Jade Peony because our discussion of Katherena Vermette’s The Break contributed, as it should have, to a collective sense that we should be trying as hard as we can to understand experiences of Canada that aren’t our own. But at the same time I want us to choose and discuss our books for lots of different reasons–and also not to fall into approaching books as if they are valuable only for their representative and/or didactic potential, using them to check off boxes rather than giving them room to be idiosyncratic works of art, if that makes sense. I think, too, that if you go looking for a book whose lessons suit the demands of your conscience, you may not end up with a book that really surprises or challenges you. I’m not sure if these concerns are reasonable ones or if I’ve articulated them properly. I’d love to hear from other people who puzzle over things like this when choosing what to read next, whether for themselves or for a book group or for some other purpose.

rectifyMy recent viewing has actually been more engrossing than my recent reading: we just finished watching Rectify, which I thought was superb–it is intense, thoughtful, and full of turns that surprise without seeming like cheap twists. It is very much character- rather than plot-driven, and it works because every performance is entirely believable. I hadn’t even heard of Rectify before I noticed it on a list of ‘best TV dramas’ and decided we should give it a try. It is not at all what I expected from the premise (a man is released after 19 years on death row): it is much more about how he and his family and community deal with this unthinkable change in circumstances then about the case and his guilt or innocence–though what they do with that question is also very interesting. If you haven’t watched it, I highly recommend it; if you have, I’d be interested to know what you thought of it.

And that’s what I’ve been up to since I last posted! Well, that and reading Téa Obreht’s forthcoming novel Inland, which I am reviewing, so I won’t steal my own thunder by laying out what I think about it here. (I’m writing the review ‘on spec’ so if the magazine doesn’t want it, then I’ll come back and thunder away about it!)


“A Kind of Castaway”: Octavia Butler, Kindred


I opened the book with some apprehension, wondering what archaic spelling and punctuation I would face. I found the expected f’s for s’s and a few other things that didn’t turn up as often, but I got used to them very quickly. And I began to get into Robinson Crusoe. As a kind of castaway myself, I was happy to escape into the fictional world of someone else’s trouble.

I read Kindred with unflagging attention: it is a gripping narrative, fast-moving and suspenseful and emotionally harrowing. It also, however, felt heavy-handed, almost didactic, and seemed formally and stylistically uninteresting. The time-traveling, which is never really explained or motivated–never given any autonomous logic–within the novel itself, functions as little more than a device to haul us back to to the antebellum South with Dana; its authorial objective is pretty clearly to teach us by immersion about the corrupting horrors of slavery. The back-and-forth in time also, of course, provides a neat mechanism for comparison: how much have things in fact changed; how deep-rooted and long-lasting are the effects of this traumatic past on the present; how, if at all, can a nation build a unified future on such a rotten foundation. It’s not that these aren’t interesting and important, even urgent, questions; I just didn’t find Butler’s literary treatment of them especially artful. Dana, too, seemed more a tool than a distinct character, though her relationship with Kevin, especially as his habits and attitudes are affected by his long stint away from their real (modern) life, seemed the most subtle and thought-provoking aspect of the novel.

kindred (1)Thinking more about Kindred after I’d finished reading it, I wondered if I would notice more subtleties in it if I knew more about the specific genres it combines: it is a hybrid of time-travel fiction and the slave narrative, and while I have read an example or two of each of these, I have never given sustained thought to their conventions and I have little, therefore, to compare Butler’s effects or choices to. The reader’s guide in my edition includes an essay by Robert Crossley that says some things about these contexts. “One of the protagonist’s–and Butler’s–achievements in traveling to the past,” he says, for instance,

is to see individual slaves as people rather than encrusted literary or sociological types. . . . Here we see literary fantasy in the service of the recovery of historical and psychological realities. As fictional memoir, Kindred is Butler’s contribution to the literature of memory every bit as much as it is an exercise in the fantastic imagination.

OK, I can see that, although there may be less novelty in that recovery effort now than there was in 1979–which of course does not diminish Butler’s contribution. He also remarks that “Science fiction and fantasy are a richly metaphorical literature,” but Kindred itself is not, as he tacitly acknowledges when he says that in it “the most powerful metaphor is time travel itself” but then explains that “metaphor” as “a dramatic means to make the past live”–which is not really metaphorical, is it? In fact, time travel aside, Kindred is an almost laboriously literal novel; sometimes the research behind it seemed to have been simply incorporated into Dana and Kevin’s conversations or into her narration. Not that anything’s wrong with that literal approach, and it delivers a lot of drama that is both heartrending and morally devastating, but the result is really just historical fiction with a twist.

The one big exception is the obviously symbolic loss of Dana’s arm, which, as Crossley says, Butler “makes no attempt to rationalize” but allows to stand as a shocking mystery: “the author is silent on the process by which Dana’s arm is severed in the twilight zone between past and present.” He goes on to quote Butler’s explanation of the figurative meaning of this amputation: “Antebellum slavery didn’t leave people quite whole.” That makes perfect sense, but I’m less satisfied than Crossley is with the inexplicable and arbitrary process by which her arm is lost, which is wholly unrelated to the way Dana has passed between the eras up to that point. It feels, again, like a device that gets the job done, rather than like the culmination of a meaningful pattern that would give the novel the kind of creative unity and flair that I felt the novel, for all its ingenuity and sincerity, was somehow missing.

I should add that I read Kindred (or read it right now, at any rate) because my book club chose it for our next meeting. As always, we are following a thread from our previous book, which in this case was Lincoln in the Bardo. Perhaps it is inevitable that the next book after Lincoln in the Bardo would seem somewhat pedestrian!

“All were in sorrow”: George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo


All were in sorrow, or had been, or soon would be. [roger bevins iii]

It was the nature of things. [hans vollman]

Though on the surface it seemed every person was different, this was not true. [roger bevins iii]

At the core of each lay suffering; our eventual end, the many losses we must experience on the way to that end. [hans vollman]

We must try to see one another in this way. [roger bevins iii]

I realized Lincoln in the Bardo was going to work for me about a dozen pages in. The first little bit was hard going: who are these people? are they going to prattle and pontificate like this for the whole book? (By the end of the novel, I knew these two well enough to want them to stay, even though by then I also understood that it was better they should go.) Then the voices multiplied, and it was easier, if still disorienting; then we were at the party, and there were flower arrangements and “hives … filled with charlotte russe” and venison steaks; and then there was this:

Yet there was no joy in the evening for the mechanically smiling hostess and her husband. They kept climbing the stairs to see how Willie was, and he was not doing well at all. [Kunhartdt and Kunhardt, op. cit.]

A lot else goes on in Lincoln in the Bardo besides the illness, death, and interment of 11-year old Willie Lincoln.Saunders takes Lincoln’s mourning for his lost son and his own extraordinary, creative, phantasmagorical vision of the inhabitants in Willie’s new home, at once among and apart from the living, and builds up a powerful story about both historical particulars and human universals. Lincoln enters the Georgetown cemetery a man broken by grief; he is ultimately overtaken by what seems like an entire nation, with all its sins and aspirations and accomplishments and omissions. In the process we too take on a multitude of stories, no less powerful (to my ongoing surprise) for coming to us in fragments. The novel is a swirl of voices, but they are placed and paced so that the narrative accumulates momentum and gains rather than loses power from the juxtaposition of the drama in the cemetery with comments about the Lincolns and their loss from observers and historians.

lincoln-bardo-2It’s a bravura display of narrative ingenuity, and especially given how fantastical the premise is, the result could easily have been (and I fully expected it would be) flamboyant gimmickry, clever and original but soulless. It isn’t, though: I think Lincoln in the Bardo is actually one of the most touching and heartfelt novels I’ve read in years. However far it spirals away from reality, and however abstract its political or philosophical or historical implications become, it always comes back to the hardest and most intimate truth of all: nothing we love lasts. “None of it was real,” says roger bevins iii near the end:

nothing was real.

Everything was real; inconceivably real, infinitely dear.

These and all things started as nothing, latent within a vast energy-broth, but then we named then, and loved them, and, in this way, brought them forth.

And now must lose them.

This is the reality Lincoln faces as he puts his beloved son in a box in a marble crypt and walks away (“imagine the pain of that, Andrew, to drop one’s precious son into that cold stone like some broken bird & be on your way [in ‘Wartime Washington: The Civil War Letters of Isabelle Perkins…]). “The president,” reports Mr. Samuel Pierce in his “private correspondence,”

turned away from the coffin, it appeared by sheer act of will, and it occurred to me how hard it must be for the man to leave his child behind in a place of such gloom and loneliness, which never, when responsible for the living child, he would have done.

“When a child is lost there is no end to the self-torment a parent may inflict”:

When we love, and the object of our love is small, weak, and vulnerable, and has looked to us and us alone for protection; and when such protection, for whatever reason, has failed, what consolation (what justification, what defense) may there possibly be? [Milland, op. cit.]

bardo-3Willie’s death is as much the occasion for Lincoln in the Bardo as its subject, and there are many other sorrows recorded in it–many losses as or even more wrenching, many deaths as arbitrary or worse, and many lives that before those deaths were more deprived, more isolated, than Willie’s, that never had the kind of love that brings his stricken father out into the dark, cold night to sit one last futile time with his son. The world is much bigger, and has much bigger problems, than little Willie. His Presidential father, for one thing, carries the burden of leadership alongside his personal responsibilities and feelings. Lincoln imagines his own grief multiplied by the thousands dying in the Civil War:

He is just one.

And the weight of it about to kill me.

Have exported this grief. Some three thousand times. So far. To date. A mountain. Of boys. Someone’s boys. Must keep on with it. May not have the heart for it. One thing to pull the lever when blind to the result. But here lies one dear example of what I accomplish by the orders I–

How should such personal suffering be weighed against the political and moral causes for which these boys are dying? “Did the thing merit it,” Lincoln wonders. “Merit the killing”:

On the surface it was a technicality (mere Union) but seen deeper, it was something more. How should men live? How could men live?

Lincoln believes that there is an ideal, an aspiration, worth fighting for: “all of it, all of that bounty, was for everyone, for everyone to use, seemingly put here to teach a man to be free, to teach that a man could be free.” “The thing,” he concludes, “would be won”; he leaves the cemetery with his resolve restored and, significantly, accompanied in spirit by someone whose sadness is a motive not for retreat but for battle:

Sir, if you are as powerful as I feel you are, and as inclined towards us as you seem to be, endeavor to do something for us, so that we might do something for ourselves. We are ready, sir; are angry, are capable, our hopes are coiled up so tight as to be deadline, or holy: turn us loose, sir, let us at it, let us show what we can do. [thomas haven]

They ride “forward into the night, past the sleeping houses of our countrymen,” their unity a hopeful symbol of common cause, an optimistic invocation of a better, if distant, future.

But Saunders never lets these big ideas overpower the simplicity and finality of death, which is what gives his novel its almost unbearable poignancy.  After all, whatever our unfinished business or our unfulfilled promise, no matter the strength of our loves or our hates, one day our wish for “the great mother-gift: Time. More time” will be refused. He does at least offer some consolation in his enumerations of the “things of the world,” things that are no less precious–that are perhaps even more so–for being impermanent:

Pearls, rags, buttons, rug-tuft, beer-froth.

Someone’s kind wishes for you; someone remembering to write; someone noticing that you are not at all at ease. . . .

Geese above, clover below, the sound of one’s own breath when winded. . . .

Tying a shoe; tying a knot on a package; a mouth on yours; a hand on yours; the ending of the day; the beginning of the day; the feeling that there will always be a day ahead.

Another Group: Joanna Smith Rakoff, A Fortunate Age

fortunate-age-2I was relieved to discover that nobody else in my book club liked A Fortunate Age either. For once, I feel reasonably confident saying it’s not me, it’s the book! I don’t think we’ve been so unanimous in our dislike of any our choices, in fact, since the disaster that was Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife.

We ended up having a very lively discussion, however, as we tried to figure out where or how we thought the book went awry. The novel rewrites Mary McCarthy’s The Group , which we read back in March. I didn’t love The Group, but it was certainly interesting, edgy, and thought-provoking–and by and large none of us found Rakoff’s updated version any of those things. Was it because Rakoff followed McCarthy’s model too closely and thus had to wrestle her characters into plotlines that didn’t necessarily suit them, and that gave the novel a stale air in spite of all the “novelty” of its 90s setting? Was it that we were all too familiar with that setting to find it historically interesting the way we did McCarthy’s rendition of her period? Perhaps it was that Rakoff’s women seemed too much like McCarthy’s, as if nothing had really changed about their options and preoccupations despite the decades that had passed–they seemed so insular, so self-absorbed, so unengaged with the wider world, or with ideas or possibilities outside their incestuous little nest of relationships. But things have changed for women, though of course not enough and not necessarily in only positive ways: in Rakoff’s novel, however, it seems as if the narcissism of youth makes historical change illegible or irrelevant. We concluded that, more than offering an insightful account of life in the 90s, A Fortunate Age read like The Group in 90s sets and costumes. We all found it a slog.

fortunate-age-1I particularly puzzled over why I found its detailed exposition so tedious. I am on record as a fan of exposition! But by half way through A Fortunate Age I was impatiently skimming through its dense paragraphs of stuff that just didn’t seem worth taking more time over. Rakoff inadvertently furnished a clue with her epigraph, which is from Daniel Deronda. (Beware: If you’re going to invite a comparison to George Eliot, it may well work against you!) True, Gwendolen Harleth is every bit as self-absorbed and ignorant of the wider world as the characters in A Fortunate Age, but (and for me this is crucial) George Eliot is not: her account of Gwendolen’s youthful egotism and willfulness is suffused with wry compassion; the context for Gwendolen’s story is not just the relentless minutiae of her immediate experience but everything else the narrator knows and thinks about the world she lives in. Gwendolen’s limitations do not limit her novel–but Rakoff’s characters are all we get in A Fortunate Age, and they don’t repay our sustained attention. I’m not saying the novel needed exactly what Daniel Deronda has–an intrusive narrator, for instance, or profundity, both of which are risky ventures if you aren’t George eliot–but it needed a broader perspective somewhere, a sense of what kind of story it is ultimately telling about these people and this age, especially since the book aspires (as its title indicates) to be about an era, not just a few individuals.

Our collective impatience with A Fortunate Age led us to abandon our usual practice of following a thread from one book to the next–which is how we got from The Group to The Radiant Way to A Fortunate Age. Enough (for now) of scrutinizing women’s lives and relationships! We wanted something different–formally, intellectually, thematically–and so we settled on Lincoln in the Bardo, which seems about as unlike Rakoff’s novel as is possible. It’s also a book several of us have been interested in but wary about reading, so now we have a specific incentive to press on with it.

The 19th-Century British Novel from Austen to Drabble


Jane Austen recommended three or four families in the Country Village as the thing to work on when planning a novel. . . . A few families in a Country Village. A few families in a small, densely populated, parochial, insecure country. Mothers, fathers, aunts, stepchildren, cousins. Where does the story begin and where does it end?

Margaret Drabble makes it pretty obvious that she intends The Radiant Way as a continuation of the 19th-century novel tradition. Like Jane Austen, she focuses on a few interconnected families whose personal lives are fodder for her wry wit and social satire, but The Radiant Way is also very much a social problem or ‘condition of England’ novel, full of details about the political and economic circumstances that shape and often distort its characters choices. Austen’s fiction is of course highly political, but most often in implicit or subtle ways. You never get passages like this one in an Austen novel:

On a more public level 1980 continues. The steel strike continues, a bitter prelude to the miners’ strike that will follow. Class rhetoric flourishes. Long-cherished notions of progress are inspected, exposed, left out to die in the cold. Survival of the fittest seems to be the new-old doctrine. Unemployment rises steadily, but the Tory Party is not yet often reminded of its election poster which portrayed a long dole queue with the slogan ‘Labour isn’t working.’ People have short memories, many of them are carried along with the new tide. They are fit. The less fit get less and less fit, and are washed up on the shore.

marybartonAs this passage illustrates, The Radiant Way is about the condition of England in the 1980s, and its treatment of that era matches, rather than counters, what it suggests is the spirit of the age: it is (mostly) satirical, snide, cynical, bitter. I wonder if that is why it seemed to me so much more dated than, say, Mary Barton, with its heartfelt appeals to our common experiences and better natures. There is something naive, of course, about Gaskell’s novel, and many of her attitudes are outdated. Maybe I just prefer her kindness and optimism to Drabble’s somewhat ruthless explication of people’s weaknesses and compromises. The extent to which her analysis is still painfully current, too, shows that if anything she was prescient about the corrosion of the welfare state, the devaluation of art and education, and the instability of love as a foundation for happiness. Maybe I just wish it were dated.

radiantway1I read The Radiant Way for my book club (it’s our follow-up to The Group). I’ve read it once before, years ago, but I barely remembered it, and most of it felt quite unfamiliar to me this time. The one aspect that came rushing back to me as soon as it was mentioned was the bizarre subplot about the “Hampstead Horror.” Why should this novel feature a serial killer? The murder in Mary Barton is integral to its story about class conflict; its consequences and its resolution are both devices for addressing the underlying social and moral problems Gaskell suggests need fixing. I find it harder to reconcile the melodrama of the Hampstead Horror with the rest of Drabble’s novel, even though eventually it does become part of the main plot. What kind of device is it for her–what thematic purpose does it serve? I expect this is something we’ll discuss.

Overall I didn’t much enjoy The Radiant Way, but I did appreciate how wordy it is, and how crafty Drabble is with words. Her prose is dense but still very rhythmic; it is self-conscious and sometimes arch, but also kind of stabby, in a pleasurable way. She’s very good at families and their discontents; there’s a dinner scene in which the conversation is brilliantly awkward. What was missing, for me, are the qualities I like best in the tradition she is at once invoking and updating: warmth, kindness, pathos, good humor. In this respect it reminds me of David Lodge’s Nice Work, an even more explicit homage to the 19th-century condition of England novel that I also, on rereading, found clever but dated. For better and for worse, I find more of what I want in the earlier books…which I suppose explains why Victorian, not modern British, fiction is my area of specialization!

(The title of this post is a play on the title of the course I teach frequently on “The Nineteenth-Century British Novel from Austen to Dickens.”)

Definitely Not a Review of Mary McCarthy’s The Group

group-1One of the things (OK, the many things) I can be persnickety about is what to call whatever it is that I write here when I write about books. I call the results “posts,” not “reviews,” not because I consider a book review a limited or limiting form (not by definition, anyway, though in practice published reviews are very often limited, in scope if in nothing else) but because when I’m writing what I think of as a review I feel  accountable, both to the book and to the implied audience. As a bare minimum, that accountability means reading every word in the book scrupulously, and then crafting a narrative about it that is very carefully considered. No review is authoritative in any absolute sense, of course, but when I’m wearing my Official Reviewer hat I aspire to a certain kind of confidence in my understanding of the book I’m writing about.  Here, in contrast, I can write whatever I want, no matter how inadequate my understanding might be. My blog posts are narratives of my own reading experience, and so I’m answerable only for being honest and thoughtful about that.

This is probably a lot of unnecessary fuss about terminology. I don’t disagree at all with Dorian that a review is really just any “reckoning with a text.” Yet, however irrationally, the label I use matters to me because giving myself permission to write has always been a challenge. I know it is for many academics, because we are trained to be pretty sure we know what we’re talking about before we say anything. Up to a point, or in the right context, this is as it should be, but it’s also really inhibiting–and contributes to the epidemic of imposter syndrome, I’m sure. Blogging has helped me get comfortable with writing that is exploratory, not necessarily assertive, and certainly not authoritative. Many of my favorite posts were written when I didn’t understand what I’d read or couldn’t make sense of a reading experience. I don’t have to work through those limitations before writing a blog post (something I would try to do before writing a review)–I can work through them in a blog post.

the-groupThat’s an awfully long preamble to these remarks about Mary McCarthy’s The Group, which my book club met yesterday to discuss. As you might have predicted, I was putting off getting to the book until I’d said all that other stuff because I did not do a good job reading it, and as a result I wasn’t sure I should write about it. But then I remembered that I was blogging about it, not reviewing it, and so it’s okay for me to admit that and write about it anyway! If you want commentary by someone who is much better informed about The Group, I highly recommend this series of posts by Andrew Seal (a former Valve colleague of mine); I also really liked this article on McCarthy by B.D. McClay, which was actually one of the reasons I suggested The Group for my book club in the first place.

I didn’t hate The Group. Well, actually I did, at first: on Twitter I called it “nearly unreadable,” and that accurately describes how I felt about the first few chapters. It was a combination of the tone, the claustrophobic social setting, and the dense, unbroken paragraphs. Everybody I met in the novel seemed profoundly unpleasant; I thought I might be driven to complaining that nobody in the novel was “relatable” … the horror!

the-group-2I never had a conversion moment, but I’m glad I persisted with my reading, not just because it meant I could show my face at my book club but also because the book did turn out to be better than my first impressions of it. My experience improved as I got more used to the style–but I also gave myself permission to skim some of the relentless cascade of details that made up so many of those dense paragraphs. I understand that this may seem precious coming from a Victorianist! I tried to put my finger on what made McCarthy’s exposition seem so long and unpleasant to me in spite of my love for long and excessively detailed 19th-century novels, and I think it’s the same thing that made me recoil from most of her characters: she treats everything, and everyone, so coldly. Ultimately a lot about The Group is very sad, in some cases even tragic, but the novel has none of the humanity, none of the compassion, that its own stories could reasonably summon up. The word ‘sociological’ came up a lot in our book club discussion, and by and large we’d all found her depiction of her women’s lives interesting. But there’s something clinical about each of the women’s stories, with McCarthy observing them shrewdly, scrupulously, often wittily, but never sympathetically.

group-coverI’m not sure if I liked the second half of the book better than the first because I adjusted to (or compensated for) McCarthy’s prose or because I liked the later characters better. Libby’s story was the first one that really engaged me, for the not especially good reason that I’m interested in writing and publishing, and that whole world has a sordid kind of glamour to me as a result. At my book club we were unanimous in liking Polly’s story the best; her relationship with her father is perhaps the only tender one in The Group, and her marriage also seemed like a respite from the acidity of the novel’s other relationships. (I should say that overall everyone else was quite enthusiastic about the novel–listening to them explain why helped me appreciate it better.) Kay’s reappearance in her story in a very different situation made me rethink my earlier reactions to her and her marriage, and the novel’s ending also made me realize that I had missed something of the forest because I was focusing too hard on the individual trees.

So. This (therefore) will not have been a book review, but it is something of a reckoning with my experience of reading one particular, unexpectedly ornery book.