April, Come She Will

DucksApril comes and April goes, whether you want her to or not. In the teaching term, it is always a blur of a month—a bit out of control, like rolling down a hill. I used to welcome the feeling—the exhilaration of finishing up, the anticipation of summer—but this year it is just one more reminder of how relentlessly, and how strangely, time passes.

I have been busy and tired and sad this month, which means that I haven’t done much reading outside of work. The good news is that all three (just three!) books I finished this month were very good. The first was my friend John Cotter’s memoir Losing Music. I was completely engrossed by this searching account of John’s experience with what he eventually learned was Ménière’s Disease, a syndrome that has devastating effects on balance—lengthy, debilitating bouts of vertigo—as well as on hearing. As the title indicates, an important dimension of the book is what it meant to John to be unable to hear music, which had always been a significant part of his life and identity. One of the most moving passages describes a night when (as occasionally but unpredictably happens) his hearing comes back— “but who knew for how long.” “I knew exactly how to proceed,” John tells us:cotter

Carefully, I laid myself down on my childhood bed . . . and set in place an expensive pair of Audio-Technica headphones I’d been saving against the day. Jascha Heifetz, back in 1952, in Hollywood, playing Bach’s partitas for solo violin. It’s vertiginous, sinister, and somehow a kind of duet, the way he plays it, a dance at the edge of a cliff.

Another night, he wakes up and can hear birds:

I can hear them fading, going—they’ll be gone at any second. As I listen to the last catches of song, I can feel my heart break in every sound. Don’t let that one be the last one. Don’t let that one. Don’t let that.

Losing Music follows John’s extensive and often desperate quest for first a diagnosis and then a treatment (there is no cure); he is frank about his occasional, very understandable, collapses into self-pity and also about his painful depression and frequent suicidal thoughts. He looks for help but also for ways to sustain some meaning and purpose in a life spiraling out of his control. He finds sustenance in teaching, in volunteering, in love and friendship, and also, vitally, in writing; he finds, eventually, a kind of peace born of hard-won compassion:

Compassion for the world, over which we have only narrow dominion, and awe at the world’s mutability, can germinate in the cultivation of a gentleness in one’s self, a gentleness for one’s future self, over which we have only narrow dominion. In feeling a little sorry for myself, I also feel sorry for the world, the evening world of half measures and regrets, the morning world when we sweep up and start again.

I was frequently moved to tears by Losing Music, and I feel very proud to have had a small part in it (it began as an essay for Open Letters Monthly) and to be mentioned in the acknowledgments.

barkerThe other books I read all of in April (I’m assuming I won’t finish another one by Sunday) were Elspeth Barker’s O, Caledonia and Martin Riker’s The Guest Lecture. It’s hard to imagine two books with less in common! I enjoyed O, Caledonia a lot, although it is strange and wild and—I thought—a bit random, almost artless: as I read it, I was often surprised, even confused, by it, uncertain why this was what was happening or this particular detail was in it. Yet it felt unified, nonetheless: maybe that strangeness itself unifies it! Its fierce protagonist Janet takes the “not like other girls” trope to an extreme: she’s equal parts compelling and appalling. It has something of the flavor of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

The Guest Lecture, by comparison, is more cool and cerebral. Its whole premise is so unlikely—who would write (and who would want to read) a novel about Keynes?—and yet I found it completely engaging, and I always like that feeling of seeing someone succeed with a completely idiosyncratic idea. The plotline about tenure denial had a lot in common with my own experience of being turned down for promotion, although the consequences of the former are of course more dire. Still, when Keynes says “Part of you clearly thinks they are right about you, even though they canriker‘t be, they have to be wrong or else your life’s work is pointless, and that is a level of personal negation you cannot possibly survive”—well, yes, exactly. Just thinking about the report of the final appeals committee for my promotion case still makes me shrink back inside myself. I appreciated The Guest Lecture as an attempt to show the examined life from the inside: what is it like to be someone who takes ideas seriously, and who tries (successfully or not) to live with and among them in some kind of meaningful way? It’s no picnic, that’s for sure: the unexamined life may not be worth living, but (as I have often thought myself in recent months) surely in many ways it is an easier way to live. I liked the last part of the novel the least: it spirals into a version of the “teaching dream” every academic has had, where things make sense but don’t, and you are ready and present but somehow, also, you aren’t. Rebecca pointed me to an interview with Riker that I hope to listen to soon. I’m sure there are many subtleties about it, especially its form, that I missed.

I started but abandoned a couple of other novels this month. One was Mexican Gothic. It looked like so much fun—but I really wasn’t into it. Maybe another time. Another was Niall Williams’s This Is Happiness. It looked like the kind of novel I would love, and actually there wasn’t anything wrong with it. If I hadn’t been tired and busy and sad, I might have loved it, so again, another time. Up next is Clare Chambers’s Small Pleasures, which I’ve just begun* and am liking so far, and then maybe Nicola Griffith’s Spear, which has been in my TBR pile for quite some time. Oh, and I need to get back to Demon Copperhead, which I bailed on months ago: my book club is meeting in May to talk about it, which is just the incentive I need. I wasn’t finding it Dickensian enough, which is perhaps not a fair criticism, except that it is so closely modeled on David Copperfield in its plot and characters that it is hard not to expect it to have something of the same heart and humour as well. I know Mark Athitakis really liked it, which encourages me to approach it with a more open mind.

I will save reflections on this term’s teaching for another post.

*Just a quick update to note that I actually did finish Small Pleasures already (it’s amazing what a difference it makes to my mood and concentration to be done with grading!) and it’s very good. It seems at first like a charming period piece, full of 1950s atmosphere and mores depicted with an edge that keeps it from tipping into nostalgia, but it gets more emotionally intense as it goes along—which it does at a pretty good clip, as the “what really happened?” question underlying its plot gives it momentum. I thought the answer we finally get to that question was underwhelming, but the mystery is more of a device than the real heart of the novel, and its actual resolution hit harder than I expected.

*  “April Come She Will” is one of the songs I used to sing to Owen at bedtime when he was little. Like so many things, it will always make me think of him; maybe it won’t always make me so sad.

John Cotter, Under the Small Lights

This is only the second time I’ve written on Novel Readings about a book by someone I know. The first time was my post about my Dalhousie colleague Ian Colford’s hauntingly elusive collection Evidence. Actually, I don’t exactly know John Cotter–not in person, at least. But in about six weeks I hope to be drinking with him in New York, along with my other new colleagues at Open Letters (where I have just recently joined the editorial team). We have met virtually, you might say, and know each other almost exclusively through our writing, of one kind or another. Reading John’s book is another step towards getting to know him, then, not least because, as he explains here, he has given some of his own afternoons as an aspiring writer to his protagonist Jack.

In both of these cases, I hesitated about posting a review, not because I hesitated about the quality of the books, but because interpretation suddenly seems a more precarious undertaking when you’re that much more aware of the real-life author as someone with plans, intentions, and opinions about his carefully crafted work–ideas with which your own idiosyncratic reading may well be at variance. Of course, this is always the critic’s situation, and usually I just press on. Obviously, that’s what I’ve decided to do here too, not only because of the basic principle that writers want to be read and must expect that nobody else’s reading will be quite their own, but because in this case (as with Evidence) the book is just too interesting for me to leave alone. After I finished it, I kept thinking about what I would say about it if I blogged about it, and after a couple of days it seemed silly not to have a go. John can always set me straight over our drinks in August–or here in the comments section, if he feels the urge.

So. One of the cover blurbs describes the novella Under the Small Lights as a bildungsroman, that is, a coming of age story or a novel of education or development (‘Bildung‘ is one of those German words we can’t quite translate into English). This seems basically apt, though it’s not entirely clear to me how far Jack has developed at the end of the book: he’s looking towards his developed self, perhaps, having cleared away some of the youthful confusions and delusions that have been muddling his progress. It’s also a kunstlerroman, the story of an artist’s development, though here too Jack is looking ahead, aspiring, rather than having achieved–unless, as it’s a first-person narrative, we take Under the Small Lights itself as the end result of that process. There’s no overt metafictional gesture towards that, but with first-person narration there’s always that question of whether we are to take the speaker as the ‘author’ or simply as a device. If the former, we might expect some evidence along the way that the narrator’s perspective has changed, has distanced itself from the in-the-moment experience he narrates (as, for instance, in Great Expectations or Jane Eyre the retrospective narrator displays insight not available to young Pip or young Jane). Again, there are no overt gestures in this direction, but the fairly elaborate construction of the book, which cuts between times and episodes, certainly creates a perspective that, cumulatively, does exceed what Jack seems capable of during the events he describes.

As a character, Jack is indistinct: his creator calls him a “collage personality,” and the novel’s epigraph calls our attention directly to the permeability of identity: “I often think that we’re all mere composites of our favorite people’s habits,” it begins. Though I found Jack’s slightly vaporous quality a problem for a while, it eventually seemed like the point of the book, that is, he needs to define his own character, to declare himself, rather than trying to find it outside himself or borrow it from other people. He has to stop asking:

Next I knew, I was at the Mass Ave. foot of alley #902, still holding my empty gin glass. Barefoot, knowing they were watching from four stories up, I took off running toward the big oak growing by the dumpster. As I threw the glass, aiming for the oak but hitting the dumpster with a tin shatter, I shouted Who am I.

Jack may not know who he is, but he knows who he wants: Corinna. She was his friend Bill’s girlfriend; when the novella opens, she has recently married his friend Paul. For a moment, in between these relationships, it looked as if she might be Jack’s, and his desire for her (or is it his desire to be Bill? or to beat out Paul?) drives him, and the story, forward. Corinna, as I read her, belongs with Hardy’s Sue Bridehead and Waugh’s Julia: they are all fey, elusive, alluring, teasing, putatively intellectual, and (to my annoyance) apparently endlessly attractive to deep-thinking men. That said, one sign of Jack’s development is that (unlike Jude or poor Ryder) he has seen through Corinna by the end, and through the fog of self-indulgent moping that masquerades as enduring love. Though I didn’t think much of poor Jack, it seemed pretty clear that Corinna was a false idol. A Victorian novelist would have given Jack a better option, one he would have proved his maturation by choosing in the end (as Waverley chooses Rose instead of Flora, or David Copperfield learns to love Agnes after Dora). Actually, there’s one Victorian novelist who leaves us with a threesome, rather than a choice (Walter, Marian, and Laura in The Woman in White) which is the kind of conclusion Jack thinks he wants for a long time, everyone living and loving together, but he can’t have it, perhaps because there is too much competition, as well as fantasy, in all of the relationships involved. No good alternative does emerge for Jack, then–certainly not the equally indistinct Star (who in her turn has been a kind of imitation Corinna). It’s just time, finally, to move on, to get on with it. The evocative final pages seemed to me to capture the slightly disorienting sense we probably all have when we realize that people and events that seemed momentous and all-encompassing recede, drift away. You don’t really understand that, when you’re young.

And the characters in this novel really did strike me as very young, not just literally, though they are that, but in their preoccupation with each other, their self-indulgent behavior, their insouciance, their artsy pretention. They weren’t people I recognized; I certainly didn’t recognize my own youth in them, and not, I think, just because it was a different decade, or a different country, though I suppose Vancouver in the late 80s was a pretty different place than Boston or New York in the late 90s. I actually found the picture of their lives quite alienating, as a literal story: I don’t find drunken idiocy or stoned pseudo-profundity entertaining in real life either. So I preferred the characters at their more abstract level, though the bildungsroman form, of course, does imply that they not only will but should change. I also found myself thinking, as I read, about something Claire Tomalin said about George Eliot: “She writes about sex perfectly,” Tomalin says; “She never mentions it at all. I mean, who needs the penis and the pubic hair? Sex isn’t that–sex is the feeling.”

But those are, as I’ve said, my own idiosyncratic responses. Under the Small Lights is an artfully written novel: the style is at once elliptical and allusive, and its parts are elegantly choreographed. It’s also sometimes quite funny: the climactic chapter “The Open Field,” for instance, develops with the painfully comic inevitability of the best episodes of Seinfeld. It has other aspects I haven’t touched on at all, including the play Jack and Bill are trying to write, including on their ill-fated expedition to Walden Pond, or the whole larger interest in acting and theater, and in poetry, all of which adds both intertextual and metatextual layering to the narrative. For a book that’s less than 200 fairly sparse pages, Under the Small Lights has a lot going on. Like Evidence, it’s a book I almost certainly would never have read if I didn’t know the author, and in both case I was glad to have gone that much further outside myself–to have been prompted by friendship to look at the world differently, or at a different world, thanks to their courage in putting their vision into words.