“Mellow Music”: Jo Walton, Tooth and Claw

toothMy title comes from one of Walton’s epigraphs and also inspirations for Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw, Tennyson’s In Memoriam AHH, specifically the famous bit about nature being “red in tooth and claw.” The premise of Walton’s novel, as she explains in her author’s note, is to see “what a world would be like … if the axioms of the sentimental Victorian novel were inescapable laws of biology.” Picking up on Tennyson’s line about “dragons of the prime” and a passing reference to dragons in Trollope’s Framley Parsonage, Walton’s thought experiment recasts Trollopian characters as dragons, complete with scales, wings, treasure hoards, and (best of all) fancy hats. She sets them in motion in a Trollopian plot (close, I think, to the plot of Framley Parsonage, though it has been a long time since I read it, and Tooth and Claw is so much shorter that I assume a lot of Trollope’s subplots are tidied away), complete with contested wills, shifting social classes, unpleasant suitors, sweet love stories, and religious quibbling.

waltonThe result is delightful but (perhaps inevitably) also sort of silly. The incongruity of dragons behaving exactly like Trollope characters is sometimes hilarious and sometimes (for me at least) too much: references to their swirling eyes and burnished scales and “beds” of gold coins made it hard for me to engage with them as characters with the usual kinds of motives and feelings. But there’s also something slyly thought-provoking in Walton’s literalization of the inequalities and hang-ups of the period – or, probably more accurately, of the novels of the period. One clever aspect of Tooth and Claw, for example, is that the female dragons “pink up” when in love – though they may also, and this proves problematic, pink up when approached too closely even by a male they don’t love, and that can have serious consequences for their reputations. It is both appropriate and necessary for female dragons to react this way to their potential spouse – and once married they turn increasingly rosy, a sign of their sexual maturity. Any reader of Victorian novels is familiar with the novelists’ trick of having heroines blush as a delicate sign of sexual attraction or arousal, and also with the impossible trick these heroines are supposed to perform of never desiring except where and when it’s acceptable, staying ignorant and virtuous until the switch is flipped and they go from innocent girl to bride, wife, and mother (and thus, implicitly but by definition sexually active). Navigating this terrain is treacherous for both the heroines themselves and their authors; reconciling sexuality and propriety or principle is a key theme of 19th-century novelists from Austen to Hardy and Gissing. Walton’s spin on this doesn’t tell us anything about it that her Victorian predecessors haven’t explored already, but it’s still ingenious and amusing to follow.

clawAnother smart aspect of Tooth and Claw is its attention to the ways wealth is hoarded and shared (or not shared), so that the powerful elite not only maintain their status but expand it, while the weaker and more vulnerable compete (quite literally) for the scraps. When a dragon dies, for instance, its heirs eat it, their shares apportioned by custom and privilege. Eating a dragon makes the consuming dragon bigger and stronger: thus the laws of inheritance perpetuate inequality. Weakling members of families are also eaten, thus guaranteeing the greater size and strength of the survivors (hello, Darwin); servants who have outlived their usefulness are eaten – and so too, sometimes, are servants who disobey or betray the family they serve. Legal disputes can be settled by combat, with the loser getting eaten – which would certainly have had implications for Jarndyce v. Jarndyce! Again, it’s ingenious, a dynamic of competition and entitlement familiar to readers of Trollope but shown up as more ruthless than Trollope’s gentle satire typically acknowledges.

framleyI don’t think Tooth and Claw is more revealing or insightful, or more critical, about Victorian society than the actual Victorian novelists I know best, but Walton’s novel is a lot of fun to read: it is satisfying in the way that watching any highly original concept be executed well is satisfying. I found it thoroughly entertaining. Her dragons are fearsome but also pretty lovable; she finds a way to make “mellow music” with them. Unlike one of the reviewers quoted on the cover, I didn’t finish it “wishing it were twice as long,” but Framley Parsonage is twice as long and more, and Tooth and Claw did make me think it might be time to reread it.

“But which?” Jo Walton, My Real Children

MyRealChildren_Jo-WaltonWhich were her real children? Poor Doug and dear Helen and brilliant George and troubled Cathy? Or sensible Flora and wonderful Jinny and talented Philip? Was Sammy or Rhodri her favorite grandchild? Only one set of them could possibly be real, but which? She loved them all, and there was no real difference in the quality of her love for them.

Is there a name for the genre of novel that tells one person’s story from birth to death? Bildungsroman isn’t right, as the point in this case is not development towards a place in the world but rather passing through the world, through the ages of life, from start to finish. Any Human Heart would be an example, and so would A God in Ruins (tricks aside), or Moon Tiger. I suppose ‘biographical novel’ would do, but that sounds dull so I’m going to call them “soup to nuts” novels and then claim My Real Children for the list  — though Walton’s trick here is to double it up, giving us not one but two stories of the same person’s life. In a way it’s Life After Life Lite, and it’s hard not to wonder if Walton was influenced in any way by Atkinson’s success. Perhaps she was just annoyed by it, as My Real Children did not, as far as I can tell, get anything like the attention, but then, both the premise and the execution of Walton’s novel are less showy than Atkinson’s.

My Real Children might also be called a “fork in the road” novel: its deceptively simple premise is that its protagonist, Patricia, is confronted with a dramatic “now or never” choice, a proposal, and her decision shapes everything about her subsequent life. But the novel opens with the elderly Patricia “very confused” in her nursing home, unable to remember which life — the “yes” life or the “no” life — she actually lived, and the rest of the book takes us in alternating chapters through both possibilities. That in itself gives Walton plenty of interesting things to do, not the least of which is working out how Patricia’s character is itself affected by the events of her life, either as “Tricia,” who marries Mark, or as “Pat,” who does not. What is fundamental to someone’s identity and what is susceptible to experience? How does someone’s individual personality express itself under different circumstances? How, to look at it from our point of view, can we see double and yet accept the Patricia of the novel’s opening and closing as the same woman we’ve followed along two such different paths? Walton does this with both ingenuity and some subtlety, I thought: arriving back at the nursing home, there’s no awkwardness, no dislocation, as the histories merge.

Both stories are also persistently interesting, though there’s not much artful about Walton’s narration: it’s one-thing-after-another storytelling, without flourishes (the governing premise aside, obviously). Both lives have their share of joy and sorrow, but the highs and lows are related with the same flat affect throughout, so that (for me, anyway) scenes that might have been moving or uplifting were not, or not very. Since the novel sounded the same all the time, I also sometimes forgot which story I was in at the moment and had to ferret around for the last time Patricia was named — and sometimes, even then, to consciously remind myself what that name meant about which story I was following. The sense of a life (or lives) unfolding, though, has its own momentum and, eventually, inevitably, its own poignancy.

There is one other dimension to My Real Children: in both cases, the backdrop to Patricia’s (or Tricia’s or Pat’s) life is not quite 20th-century history as it actually played out but an alternative version — one in which, for instance, John F. Kennedy is killed by a bomb, or the stand-off over Cuba leads to nuclear bombs falling on Miami and Kiev. I didn’t try very hard to keep track of how these variations played out in each case, but at the end of the novel Patricia helpfully sums them up:

Trish’s world was so much better than Pat’s.  Trish’s world was peaceful. Eastern and Western Europe had open frontiers. There had been no nuclear bombs dropped after Hiroshima, no clusters of thyroid cancer. There had been very little terrorism. The world had become quietly socialist, quietly less racist, less homophobic. In Pat’s world it had all gone the other way.

Are these world-historical differences in any way the result of her choices, as her different personal lives are the consequences of her answer to Mark’s marriage proposal? Why is the “better” world the one in which she accepts that early proposal? Is there any necessary connection, she wonders, between her own loss (it’s a terrible marriage) and the world’s gain? She alludes to the “butterfly effect“: I didn’t notice any hints along the way that  we were supposed to make causal connections of that sort, but that might be because I was focusing primarily on the personal elements of the story. This section at the end made me think I might have underestimated the novel I was reading. I found the alternative history aspect mostly just a distraction: I couldn’t see (still can’t really see) why the novel couldn’t have played out its two possible versions of events right here in the real world. Dorian pointed out on Twitter that it wouldn’t really make sense to do that — that’s the unbearable lightness of being, after all. And yet there’s nothing stopping a novelist from playing with possibility in that way, and Walton could have left it open-ended which version, if either, was the “truth” of Patricia’s life.

As it is, though, we’re left with a metaphysical puzzle and also a moral puzzle, both without an answer:

She had made a choice already, one choice that counted among the myriad choices of her life. She had made it not knowing where it led. Could she make* it again, knowing?

The only constant, it turns out, is love: “Whichever way she chose she’d break her heart to lose her children. All of them were her real children.” I liked that, and I was also touched by the evocation of old age that frames the novel, and by the idea of confusion that just might, in its own way, be knowledge.

*My edition actually says “Could she made it again, knowing?” So did the hardcover edition I could ‘look inside’ on Amazon. It’s a mistake, I’m sure, so I’ve made what I think is the proper correction.

Jo Walton, Ha’Penny: My Two Cents’ Worth

waltonI didn’t love Jo Walton’s Farthing: in my brief review at GoodReads I admired the ingenuity of the premise and the “nice economy” of Walton’s development of her alternative history, but I thought the mystery itself wasn’t very interesting, and that it lined up too neatly with the predictions you would readily make about a crime story set in a Britain that has made peace with Hitler. But I know a lot of people who are big fans of Walton’s work, and “not loving” is not at all the same as “not liking at all,” so I thought I’d have a go at Ha’Penny, the second in the “Small Change” series.

And, again, I find myself a bit let down. It too is neatly executed, but again it felt obvious — not so much in the details of the plot, but in the larger story it’s telling us about the creeping moral paralysis of appeasement and the evils of tyranny. It is certainly possible in theory to introduce moral complexity into a novel about a plan to blow up Hitler, but I didn’t find any here, except, I guess, for the structural irony Inspector Carmichael recognizes at the end — that by doing his job as an officer of the law, he has preserved the very devil’s bargain under which so many (himself included) are suffering. But that’s not particularly subtle, and neither are the lessons our narrator Viola gets from the man fondly coercing her into violent resistance. “I don’t know if you’ll understand,” he says, with condescension that, unhappily, Viola deserves,

 but there’s a thing it’s hard to give a name. It’s what we fought for in Ireland when you wouldn’t give it to us, and it’s what’s been lost on the Continent — I could call it freedom, or self-determination, but that’s too abstract. It’s the idea that one man’s as good as the next, before the law, whoever he is. It’s the idea behind the French Revolution, but it’s lost now in France, where old Petain licks Hitler’s boots. It’s the idea that built America, but they’re too frightened over there now even to elect old Joe Kennedy instead of Lindbergh with his talk of keeping down the Jews and the blacks.

“This isn’t going in, is it, love?” he asks Viola, who replies, “I don’t know . . . I do care about individual liberty. . . . But I don’t think liberty is something you get by blowing people up.” This is all hardly breathtaking, either for the sophistication of the dialogue itself or for the depth of the moral and political insights on either side — and that’s how I felt about the book as a whole too. Tyranny bad, liberty good, appeasement corrupting: we get it!

To be fair, I think some of this simple-mindedness comes from Viola, who is another of the ingenue narrators Walton alternates with her third-person account of Carmichael’s investigation. Carmichael himself is a sympathetically rendered character whose personal situation nicely encapsulates the insidiously encroaching pressures of dictatorship. As Ha’Penny ends, for instance, he has resigned himself to running an English equivalent of the Gestapo — to be called, with nice historical resonance, “The Watch” — partly because he has little choice and partly because he hopes he might have “the chance to do some good — to turn judicious blind eyes, and to make it better than it might have been.” It’s obviously a deal with the devil (did I mention that the bad guys in these novels are Nazis, or near enough?) and the road to hell is paved with good intentions … and the temptation to lapse into cliches when explaining what’s up is symptomatic of the problem I have with these novels.

It’s not that Walton is wrong about tyranny or Nazism or appeasement, or that her vision of this alternative future isn’t both plausible and a kind of cautionary tale for our present — but she hardly needed to create an alternative history to demonstrate any of her points, and the scenarios she comes up with are much less interesting than so many stories of actual people who cooperated with the Nazis in different ways and for various good purposes, stories that swamp us with the kind of moral complexity that I think these two books have notably lacked.