This Week: More Classes, and a New Issue of OLM

Did I mention how busy things have been at work? It’s rare for me to go nearly a week without posting something here, but I just haven’t had the time or energy: what extra I had of either went into this month’s Open Letters, which includes my own review of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot and a lot of other pieces across an impressive array of books and writers, from Rumi to Robert Musil, from Emma Goldman to Dick Cheney, from Ha Jin to Dickens to Umberto Eco. On the first of every month, all of us involved in editing, writing for, and producing Open Letters sit back and wonder for a little while that we did it again! And then we get right to work on the next issue. I found the Eugenides review quite challenging to write, partly because The Marriage Plot is one of the “it” books, the books of the moment, and comments and reviews are appearing from pretty much every source. I decided to keep my head down until I’d written mine–I didn’t even go over to the Wall Street Journal to see what our own Sam Sacks had said about it until yesterday. As I was putting the final touches on, it occurred to me that I have been pretty critical of every new book I’ve reviewed for Open Letters except Sara Paretsky’s Body Work. I guess I was pretty much OK with Claire Harman’s Jane’s Fame, too.  I do get enthusiastic about things I read! Maybe it’s just that the odds of any particular book being one I’ll be enthusiastic about are dramatically reduced when the field is limited to The Very Latest. What have I been most excited about here recently, for instance? Testament of Youth, for sure, and also The Last Samurai. One every 100 years isn’t bad! (But as those of you who follow me here know, I exaggerate my choosiness. It won’t be long now before my traditional look back at highs and lows of my reading year, and there will be many highs.)

At my day (and sometimes night and weekend) job, things continue to be busy, though I returned a set of papers last Friday and don’t get another in until this Friday, so I don’t feel quite as harried as I did–even though I am doing yet another “new” book in Mystery and Detective Fiction, The Terrorists. This is not new to me, of course, but new to my teaching, so I have no materials filed away for it. Rereading the opening chapters today, though, and drafting up some class notes, I felt really glad I had chosen it. We had good discussions of Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, and a lot of the students seemed to be enjoying it quite a bit, but there’s no getting around a couple of problems with it qua book. First, the writing really is cheesy (with some exceptional passages interspersed). I invited comment on the “literary merit” of the book, and one student said that every time she came to one of his emphatic one-sentence paragraphs she heard the Law & Order “da-DUH” scene-changer in her head–which I completely sympathize with. Those little tag lines seem so cheap and manipulative, as if we won’t feel the suspense with writing that’s any more complex. Then there’s the novel’s severe discomfort with women, who are consistently sexualized and severely limited in their roles, in ways that make Hammett’s portrayal of Brigid O’Shaughnessy seem subtle. Interesting and influential as McBain is in the history of the genre, I’ll be glad to move on to Sjöwahll and Wahlöö, who seem so much more sophisticated in just a few pages. We aren’t totally out of the woods yet with the representation of women, though: while the range of women is much greater and there are strong, independent women characters, there’s still a slightly voyeuristic quality to the way they are presented, including Beck’s love Rhea Nielsen, whose nipples are remarked frequently and whose naked body is described in much more detail than Beck’s ever is. Point of view accounts for some of this, but when Beck stares at his own body in the mirror, he doesn’t tell us anything about his pubic hair; we know the size of her breasts but not of his … anything. Not that I want to know, but it’s conspicuous which way the gaze is directed. (I wonder if I’m more aware of this now that I’ve been reading romance novels, which do direct our attention very specifically to men’s bodies.)

In 19th-Century Fiction, we have our last session on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall tomorrow and then on Friday we begin Hard Times. I have a love-hate relationship with this novel. I love that it’s shorter and thus in some ways an easier sell than most other Dickens novels; I love the clear fabular structure and the surreal tone and the elaborate artifice of the language. It’s more symbolically dense and thematically coherent than some of the bigger novels. But I hate that it is stripped so bare of the Dickensian details that make the big fat ones so delightful; I hate that it is so heavy-handedly moralistic and didactic (ironically so, given its emphasis on fancy); I hate that its fable-like style reduces the characters to quite slight and, again, artificial figures. But (yet again!) for all its oddities and its ironically mechanical feeling, it makes me cry every time I read it, and I think Louisa Gradgrind is one of Dickens’s really great creations. I absolutely thrill to the moment when she tells Tom that she would cut out the piece of her cheek where Bounderby kissed it. Cut it out with a knife! She understands the kind of man Bounderby is. Our final novel for the course is Gaskell’s North and South, and the two novels, published in close proximity, pair wonderfully for comparative discussions of industrialism, class relations, and unions–both contain chapters called “Masters and Men,” for instance, but they take really different approaches to resolving the “condition of England” problem.

In The Victorian ‘Woman Question’ we discussed “Goblin Market” last week and yesterday turned our attention to Gaskell’s short story “Lizzie Leigh.” That more or less concludes our ‘unit’ on fallen women, unless you consider Maggie Tulliver fallen, which of course will be part of our discussion of The Mill on the Floss, which we start talking about tomorrow. I’m really looking forward to that, for some of the same reasons I’m glad to get to Martin Beck in the mystery class: really good, interesting, satisfying novels are the most rewarding to pay sustained attention to, and they also usually generate the best discussions because their complexities need sorting out.

All of this week’s efforts will be fuelled by leftover Hallowe’en candy. Where have all the trick-or-treaters gone? We have maybe a dozen last night, even though the weather was as good as can be hoped for in Halifax at this time of year. (Better than it was on Sunday, when we greeted Ian Rankin with a massive wind and rain storm–he finished up his Canadian tour with a stop here, and yes, I lined up to get his autograph.)

Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides

I really did not like this book. I can see all kinds of literary things going on in it, some of the writing is beautiful, especially the elegaic concluding section, and all of it is artful. I can also see thematically interesting things going on, especially with the self-conscious inquiry into whether the suicides are symptoms of a historical malaise or a cultural decline. But none of that offsets how disturbing and morbid the basic premise is, how voyeuristic (falling just the wrong side of that fine line between exploring and representing male adolescent fantasies, and indulging them), and how exploitive and prurient. Among other things, Eugenides does seem to be challenging his readers to consider why or how they interpret stories, how information and observation is drawn on selectively as the narrator and his friends draw on their “evidence” about the lives of the Lisbon sisters. Again, interesting. But while I don’t think the novel glamorizes or makes light of suicide (it is, I’d say, despite everything, a sad and even tragic novel), it uses it to do these arty intellectual things. All five girls are objectified in life and death, and again, for me, the novel falls just on the wrong side of being about objectification vs. being objectifying. We have no idea who these girls are or what actually motivates them: their deaths matter because of how they affect others and how they are read by others. Fairly early in the novel there’s a comment about the hell of being a girl at that time, but these girls do not live anything like a representative life, so again, they are being used as symbols. Now, I know better than to talk as if the Lisbon sisters are real people somehow being abused by an unjust novelist…but there’s something awry with the imagination that set up this story, something uncomfortable about taking this premise in the first place.

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

Middlesex is a compelling read with memorably distinct and eccentric characters and a rich blend of comedy, pathos, and social commentary. At the same time, however, it seemed hollow to me at the center: what was the thematic principle drawing its various elements together? Though the premise of a narrator who shifts genders is intrinsically interesting, why do that for this particular story about a socially mobile Greek-American family? At first I thought the Greek-Turkish divide of the Smyrna sections was setting up an argument about the arbitrariness of the lines we draw between ourselves and others, but it did not seem to me that this was ultimately how wthe ethnic aspect, or the cultural aspect, of the novel played out. Why have Calliope declare herself “really” a boy, as well, as if reasserting biological determinism instead of exploring the limits of the social construction of gender? why is her desire for women the primary device for asserting her male identity, rather than a way of showing the complications of desire–the potential for sexual identity to challenge or conflict with gender identity? The novel’s writing shifts registers unevenly as well: the extraordinary scenes of the sacking of Smyrna near the beginning, for instance, with the heart-stopping account of the fate of the doctor’s family, turns out to be incongruous in a novel that is much more social comedy despite its other serious elements. So (like White Teeth) Middlesex seemed to me exuberant, brilliant, but intellectually undisciplined, almost as if it could use another round of revisions to give its elements the feeling of necessity that makes a book great rather than a great read. Still, I was impressed enough that I’ve ordered The Virgin Suicides to see what else Eugenides can do.