“What a Thing!” George Saunders, Tenth of December

tenth-of-decemberWhat a thing! To go from dying in your underwear in the snow to this! Warmth, colors, antlers on the walls, an old-time crank phone like you saw in silent movies. It was something. Every second was something. He hadn’t died in his shorts by a pond in the snow. The kid wasn’t dead. He’d killed no one. Ha! Somehow he’d got it all back. Everything was good now, everything was —

Although I found several of the stories in it interesting and memorable, I didn’t much like Tenth of December until I read “Tenth of December,” the final story in the collection. Perhaps this is a lesson in the importance of reading to the end; it is certainly a reminder that abandoning books part way through brings the risk of missing what is best about them.

I was doing OK, if not great, with Tenth of December until I got to “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” Up to that point the story I’d appreciated the most was “Sticks”; I was gripped by both “Victory Lap” and “Puppy,” and “Escape from Spiderhead” moved quickly enough that I didn’t quite tire of the conceit before it ended. Then, unfortunately, I really bogged down in “The Semplica Girl Diaries”: it was obviously doing a lot, but the story’s concept was so aggressive, its execution so heavy-handed, that for me the whole exercise just drowned out any underlying humanity in the story itself. (I’m not saying it isn’t there: just that the style and conceit were very distancing for me.) This slowed my momentum in the collection to the point that I nearly didn’t pick it up again.

Nevertheless, I persisted with Tenth of December, both because of Lincoln in the Bardo and because of Saunders’ reputation, including with readers whose sensibilities I trust. “Home” was a better experience for me; “My Chivalric Fiasco” was worse. Then I read “Tenth of December.” This story put a lot less gimmickry in my way; it was the only story in the book that seemed to me clearly written by the author of Lincoln in the Bardo. I loved it. One in ten: not a great ratio, if you weigh every reading experience equally, but I don’t think art really works that way. Reading “Tenth of December” made reading Tenth of December more than worthwhile to me. That’s part of the trick of short fiction, isn’t it? The brevity of the form means writers can try a lot of things, take a lot of chances, be a lot of different things–if they want to (as Saunders clearly does). And one really solid connection is, really, everything that matters.


My edition of Tenth of December includes a conversation between Saunders and David Sedaris. I enjoyed their discussion very much. I read it before I got to “Tenth of December” and I thought at that point that my blog post about the collection might end up noting that I liked what Saunders had to say about short stories more than I liked his short stories themselves! (As it turned out, that was only partly true.) Saunders comments that people often say his work is cruel or angry; he acknowledges the truth of this and suggests it is “a bit of a technical flaw” but one that reflects who he is and how he sees the world. I actually wouldn’t have thought to call the stories cruel, but I did think that they were mostly kind of cold: that they were driven primarily by whatever concept animated them and so they came off as technical, even virtuosic, but lacking in the quality I would call heart. This is not to say that they aren’t in their own way sympathetic and often poignant: it’s just that what tenderness they have towards the characters, or towards the human condition,  seemed to me to be hard to feel under the performance of self-conscious cleverness.

tenth-3Naturally, my mixed and sometimes vexed response to Tenth of December got me thinking about what contemporary short fiction I have responded to more readily and positively. Because I don’t read a lot of short stories, I really don’t have a lot of other examples to draw on. I was very impressed with Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, but my favorite fairly recent short story is probably Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies.” I have but have not read all of the collection it comes from. I think I will go back to it now and see what else is there. For those of you who read a lot more short stories than I do: is there a writer in the genre you’d recommend to me, knowing that I’m a realist by instinct and training, that my favorite classic short story is (predictable but true) “The Dead,” and that I get irritable with stories that are more cleverly self-referential than they are committed to storytelling?

Re-Learning Patience

piggy puddle pictureI wrote a post a while back about being in the “muddy, muddy middle” of a project and learning to accept that feeling of muddle as both an inevitable and a necessary stage of the (or at least my) writing process. “I’m learning,” I said then, “to trust my own process more,” and I do, these days–more or less. I still feel stress during that phase, but I recognize it for what it is rather than falling into a panic or succumbing to imposter syndrome just because I don’t at the moment know exactly what I have to say or what form it will take.

It has been a longer while, though, since I was in the middle of a longer project: for some time now I have been writing exclusively essays and book reviews maxing out around 5000 words and sometimes constrained to as few as 300. Working within these narrower parameters is sometimes frustrating–at this point, as I have mentioned here before, I am eager for a chance to stretch, to prove (to myself as much as to current or prospective editors) that I can say and do more. There are some things I like a lot, though, about writing shorter pieces with imminent deadlines, and one of them is that time spent in the muddy middle is, almost by definition, also short.

holtby-woolfSince my recent “but why always Dorothea?” moment about my research, however, as I have begun to look again at the writers and questions that interested me during my previous work on the “Somerville novelists,” I have realized that I am out of practice at coping with the larger-scale muddle that you enter into when you don’t have such narrow goals and limited time frames established at the outset and in fact aren’t even sure what you are trying to do. It’s not that I’m completely aimless right now: I know the territory I want to be in, and I have a sense of the conversations that I want to listen to and then join, albeit in some as-yet uncertain way. I said only half jokingly on Twitter that so far what I’ve done is put all the books I think are relevant into a pile: that’s not all I’ve done, but it is actually part of what I’m doing, not literally but mentally, and it is helpful because the juxtapositions in themselves start to raise questions that interest me. I’m also gathering references, trying to get oriented in the relevant critical landscape(s), which means trying to figure out what those are! I’m doing what I would call “reading around,” not chasing answers to a particular question but trying to learn enough that I can frame a good question.

These are all reasonable things to be doing in the early stages of research–and I do think that I am doing research, even though I haven’t yet defined its scope or specific objectives. So far, though, it all feels quite diffuse, amorphous, and potentially overwhelming. I have been struggling to remind myself that this happened before when I changed research directions, and that it is okay to take time to learn–and there’s a lot to learn! Patience, not panic, is what’s required, but it’s one thing to know that and another to actually be calm and confident about it, and that’s where I have been struggling. I need to keep in mind that this is the same process, just on a larger scale.


Anxiety aside, I do like what I am have been doing over the last few weeks. I am excited by the things I’ve been reading and the questions and connections they have prompted me to think about, and that’s a really good feeling. One specific example would be my recent reading of The Years. In my post about it, I emphasized my inability to grasp what is going on in the novel, but I didn’t mention why I chose to read The Years right now. It’s because when I started going back through my Somerville notes and posts, I was reminded how stimulating I had found Winifred Holtby’s book on Virginia Woolf and Woolf’s Three Guineas. Since I needed what Eliot in Daniel Deronda calls “the make-believe of a beginning” for whatever this new project is, I decided that I would start (again) there, with what (to me) is Holtby’s fascinating exercise of sympathetically studying a writer whose fiction she found entirely “alien,” and with my own preference for Woolf’s “tracts” over her novels. Holtby’s book was finished (and Holtby herself had died) before The Years was published, but I was intrigued by descriptions of it as Woolf’s most overtly social or political novel, and also by knowing that it and Three Guineas were initially going to be part of one hybrid essay-novel.

Penguin YearsI struggled with The Years, but I was also very interested in it, at least conceptually. I’ve been reading about it since then, especially about the splitting of the original project into two separate books. I’ve also been thinking about Holtby’s own fiction, especially South Riding, and her self-deprecating description of herself as a “publicist” (rather than an artist / aesthete), and about other novels that are like The Years in giving fictional form to social and political commentary but in very different ways, such as (surprise!) Middlemarch, but also North and South. I hadn’t planned to put any Victorian novels into my pile of relevant books this time, but there they are now, and that has got me thinking about things like periodization and genre and the ways we group or differentiate writers, especially women writers, which brings me back to Holtby’s critical approach, and I’m also interested in Holtby’s political journalism, which reminds me both of the anti-fascist arguments in Three Guineas and of the links between gender politics and fascism in Gaudy Night, which also includes reflections on fictional form and genre . . .

As you can tell, this is not an orderly process! It’s chaos, it’s a mess, it’s a muddle, and I’m in the middle of it. Actually, I’m not even in the middle: I’m just at the beginning of it, and that’s why I need to be patient, with the work and with myself. I have the luxury of time that I am supposed to use for reading and thinking; I should not squander it by fretting or rushing. Even now, after just a couple of weeks, I think I have made some preliminary decisions, not about what to write, yet, but about what’s a priority to read next: more about and from Woolf during the time she was writing The Years and Three Guineas, more about and from Holtby related to her ideas about fiction and (as) politics, more scholarship about women writers and the ‘social novel’ across the Victorian-Modern divide. Before too long, I will also reread The Years, better equipped to see what Woolf is doing–and, in some ways more interesting to me, what she is not doing there that she does in Three Guineas. That seems like progress: it’s almost a plan! Now I just need to take some deep breaths, stop fretting, and get on with it. Slowly.

“Who Is Kim?”: Rudyard Kipling, Kim

broadview-kim“Hai mai! I go from one place to another as it might be a kickball. It is my Kismet. No man can escape his Kismet. But I am to pray to Bibi Miriam, and I am a Sahib”–he looked at his boots ruefully. “No; I am Kim. This is the great world, and I am only Kim. Who is Kim?” He considered his own identity, a thing he had never done before, till his head swam. He was one insignificant person in all this roaring whirl of India, going southward to he knew not what fate.

I read Kim because it–and Kipling more generally–seemed like a gap in my knowledge of “my” field. It seemed plausible to me before I read it that I might add it to the reading list for my course in the late(r) 19th-century novel (though strictly speaking, Kim is a 20th-century novel, as it was originally published in 1901). Without knowing much specific about it, I did know that it was about an English boy growing up in India and thus about empire and colonialism and national identity (again, strictly speaking, Kim turns out to be Irish, which is of course relevant to those themes as well). It is indeed about those things. I imagined it was some combination of adventure story and Bildungsroman–and, again, it is indeed both of those things. I also imagined it would be lively and entertaining to read. Hmmm.

oxford=kimI guess it was lively and entertaining, occasionally, and it was also occasionally beautiful and poetic, and funny, and suspenseful. But I also found it something of a slog to get through, mostly because so much of the dialogue is a wearying blend of theatrical posturing and archaisms. The latter, and perhaps also the former, are meant (I assume) to give the language a “foreign” air so that we know the characters are not actually speaking in English–and there are also idioms and allusions drawn from the characters’ various cultures and languages that add to the effect. A small sample, from the first chapter:

“But I now see that he was but sent upon a purpose. By this I know that I shall find a certain River for which I seek.”

“The River of the Arrow?” said Kim, with a superior smile.

“Is this yet another Sending?” cried the lama. “To none have I spoken of my search, save to the Priest of the Images. Who art thou?”

“Thy chela,” said Kim simply, sitting on his heels. “I have never seen anyone like to thee in all this my life. I go with thee to Benares. And, too, I think that so old a man as thou, speaking truth to chance-met people at dusk, is in great need of a disciple.”

Perhaps it doesn’t seem so bad in a snippet, but I found it pretty tedious and sometimes just hard to follow when it goes on (as it often does) for pages. I suppose I would get better at it, feel more at home in it, with practice. I don’t find Scots dialect in Scott particularly hard to follow, after all–and I have even made a case for the value of an estranging idiom in Romola. I really did have a hard time with it here, though.

penguin-kimOn the other hand, I loved Kipling’s scene setting, which is vivid and concrete and rich in detail. From the crowded streets of Lahore to the mountains of Tibet, he shows us the sights, and conjures up the sounds and smells of the landscape as well. “This was seeing the world in real truth,” Kim thinks as he looks around one bright morning on the road:

this was life as he would have it–bustling and shouting, the buckling of belts, and beating of bullocks and creaking of wheels, lighting of fires and cooking of food, and new sights at every turn of the approving eye. The morning mist swept off in a whorl of silver, the parrots shot away to some distant river in shrieking green hosts: all the well-wheels within ear-shot went to work. India was awake, and Kim was in the middle of it, more awake and more excited than anyone, chewing on a twig that he would presently use as a toothbrush; for he borrowed right-and left-handedly from all the customs of the country he knew and loved.

(As a side note, Kim is the only novel from the period that I can think of in which characters are so regular and explicit about cleaning their teeth! They mention it a lot.) Here’s another nice bit:

So they travelled very easily across and among the broad bloomful fruit-gardens. . . . After long, sweet sleep under the dry stars cane the lordly, leisurely passage through a waking village–begging-bowl held forth in silence, but eyes roving in defiance of the Law from sky’s edge to sky’s edge. Then would Kim return soft-footed through the soft dust to his master under the shadow of a mango-tree or the thinner shade of a white Doon siris, to eat and drink at ease. . . .

These are the kinds of passages I found myself flagging as I went along, not the ones about Kim’s involvement in the Great Game or the lama’s ruminations on the Way or the Wheel of Life, or the elaborate schemes and ruses and quackery of Hurree Babu.

vintage-kimKim himself is a bit of a delight. I was disappointed that the novel ended so inconclusively, without clearly answering his oft-repeated question about his identity. Reading the very thorough introduction to my Broadview edition by Máiri ní Fhlathúin, I was not surprised to learn that this “unsatisfactory” ending has “proved amenable to many readings, and resistant to any conclusive interpretation”; the readings she summarizes focus primarily on how or whether Kim’s Indian and British identities are reconciled, whether he turns away from or is subsumed by his role as an agent of empire. His relationship with the lama is very sweet, though I personally found the lama kind of tedious (I have limited patience for “holy men” unless they do worldly good, and in my admittedly limited experience of Buddhism I have never found it particularly congenial).

I think Kim would be really interesting to teach, not least because (as Máiri ní Fhlathúin discusses) it is controversial as a novel about the British in India, vulnerable to charges of perpetuating orientalizing stereotypes and colonial attitudes but also defensible as a sympathetic and not uncritical exploration of a time of complex intersections between East and West. Also, the storytelling is great sometimes, and Kim’s charm, fearlessness, and ingenuity make him a very appealing protagonist. I would have to learn a lot to teach it well, but that’s really not a disincentive. What is, is my concern that students would have the same trouble I did persisting with it. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has taught or studied it, or just enjoyed reading it. Do I overestimate the problem? Perhaps (at least as likely) I underestimate the difficulty of, say, Dickens’s idiosyncratic dialects or Eliot’s carefully rendered midlands speech: Kim’s linguistic peculiarities may be no greater than these, only less familiar to me, and so not likely to be any more off-putting to students, in this respect at least, than Silas Marner or Hard Times.

Sad, Beautiful, Absurd: Irène Némirovsky, Suite Française


How sad the world is, so beautiful yet so absurd . . . But what is certain is that in five, ten or twenty years, this problem unique according to our time, according to him, will no longer exist, it will be replaced by others . . . yet this music, the sound of this rain on the windows, the great mournful creaking of the cedar tree in the garden outside, this moment, so tender, so strange in the middle of war, this will never change, not this. This is for ever . . .

There are two aspects to Suite Française: the (unfinished) novel itself–two parts of an imagined five–and the story of its author, whose arrest, transportation, and eventual death at Auschwitz haunt her fiction about occupied France. It is difficult for me to disentangle my reading of the former from my response to the latter. I was interested enough in Suite Française, which is almost uncomfortably cool and acerbic in its depiction of its characters’ various trials and traumas. There’s no room for sentiment or heroism in Némirovsky’s portraits of people under extraordinary pressure–almost everybody is to some degree petty and self-absorbed, but her upper-class characters in particular are more afraid of losing their luxuries and privileges than they are of the larger and more dire implications of the German occupation.

I found Part I (“Storm in June”), about the flight from Paris as the Germans approached, more gripping than Part II (“Dolce”), about the uneasy relationship between the French characters and the occupying forces: the drama was more overt. Part II is more subtle, both morally and emotionally, as it deals with the difference between “the enemy” in the abstract and the all-too-real human beings sharing homes and gardens and public spaces with the vanquished. One thing that particularly struck me about Part I was that Némirovsky mostly avoided clichéd wartime melodrama: although the evacuees are bombed, for instance, the carnage seems almost incidental, and the two most shocking deaths in that part are only indirectly caused by the war. Part II is primarily about character and atmosphere until near the end, when it turns out Némirovsky has been laying the groundwork for a plot twist that, as her notes show, was going to drive a lot of the action in the subsequent parts.

suite-2I was interested, as I said, yet I wasn’t really captivated. The novel has a rather flat affect–perhaps the result of translation, but also reminiscent of Olivia Manning, who writes about war and violence and what survives with similar restraint. Némirovsky’s novel follows a cast of loosely or incidentally connected characters; the overall effect is somewhat like a sampler, or (as the title suggests) a “suite.” If Némirovsky had been able to finish the novel, the cumulative effect might well have been more than the sum of its parts; it seems shoddy to judge what seem like imperfections knowing that what we’ve got is only a fragment.

Having said that, I did appreciate the novel’s long descriptive passages, which–in contrast to its typically more stilted and utilitarian prose–are often very beautiful, even poetic. Here’s an example that also captures some of the paradoxes of the war-time world Némirovsky depicts. The French villagers have gathered to watch the Germans celebrate the anniversary of their occupation of Paris:

Little by little, darkness spread across the lawns; they could still make out the gold decorations on the uniforms, the Germans’ blond hair, the musicians’ brass instruments on the terrace, but they had lost their glow. All the light of the day, fleeing the earth, seemed for one brief moment to take refuge in the sky; pink clouds spiralled round the full moon that was as green as pistachio sorbet and as clear as glass; it was reflected in the lake. Exquisite perfumes filled the air: grass, fresh hay, wild strawberries. The music kept playing. Suddenly, the torches were lit; as the soldiers carried them along, they cast their light over the messy tables, the empty glasses, for the officers were now gathered around the lake, singing and laughing. There was the lively, happy sound of champagne corks popping.

“Oh, those bastards! And to think it’s our wine they’re drinking,” the Frenchmen said, but without real bitterness, because all happiness is contagious and disarms the spirit of hatred.

It is a memorable vignette, one of many such striking moments in the novel. If it sounds as if Némirovsky is holding out beauty or happiness as in any way the antidote to war and cruelty, though, that would be misleading: the aesthetic pleasure the French take in this spectacle does nothing to undo their resentment and fear at the German presence in their lives, or to compensate for their grief for the loss of their sons and husbands at German hands.

nemirovskyThe individual stories Némirovsky tells all have their interesting details, but one thing I thought was missing as I read along was any acknowledgment of the specific risk to Jews. This made me wonder exactly what Némirovsky would have known while she was writing in 1941-2. The Appendices include her notebooks and then correspondence from her and her husband Michael including his letters, increasingly desperate, to friends and connections after her arrest in July 1942. It is clear that he, at any rate, did not realize what it means–that it is almost certainly a death sentence. Not only does he try every means he can think of to find her and bring her home, but he even offers to take her place: “Can you please find out,” he writes a couple of months after her arrest,

if it would be possible for me to be exchanged for my wife–I would perhaps be more useful in her place and she would be better off here. If this is impossible, maybe I could be taken to her–we would be better off together.

By the time he sent this letter Irène had been dead for over a month. Michael himself was arrested in October 1942 and sent on to Auschwitz, where he died in the gas chambers. Their daughters survived only thanks to the courageous efforts of friends who sheltered them.

Maybe if I hadn’t read these documents immediately after finishing Suite Française the novel itself would have made a stronger impression on me. I found the appendices so compelling and immediate, though, so painfully real, that they overshadowed Némirovsky’s more muted and analytical fiction. The juxtaposition did raise questions for me about the kind of novel she wrote: about whether it deliberately lacks melodrama and avoids the horror and urgency her own story evokes or whether–though the included Preface to the French edition notes that she and her family “all openly wore the Jewish star” as restrictions on French Jews increased–she was spared the full painful understanding of what was really at stake until it was too late for her to write about it. (I’m sure there are answers about who know what when, though who believed what when is probably a somewhat different question. Then as now, it would have been hard to grasp the worst realities.) In any case, it is her personal story more than Suite Française that will stay with me, I think, which seems somehow both all wrong and entirely right.

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.

In Brief: Megan Abbott, You Will Know Me

Abbott-die-a-littleI didn’t think I had read any Megan Abbott before this year,  but when I was at the library picking up You Will Know Me I realized that I had signed out one or two of her noir novels at some point in the past–probably while shopping around for ideas for Mystery & Detective Fiction or Pulp Fiction. I hadn’t put the pieces together, mostly because those books are (fairly cleverly) decked out with vintage-style covers which quite simply don’t look as if they belong with Abbott’s contemporary thrillers. (Shallow of me, I know.) I expect it’s also because I didn’t actually read them, or at least not more than the first few pages. It wasn’t personal; it’s just that noir is not my favorite genre–in fact, to a degree that might surprise the students in Mystery & Detective Fiction, I’m not a voracious reader of crime fiction at all, in any flavor, or not any more. When I do read mysteries nowadays, it’s almost always because I want to keep up with old friends, though I do try new writers intermittently, especially if there’s buzz, and sometimes I do like them–Tana French comes particularly to mind. Apparently, on the basis of that admittedly skimpy sample, Abbott was not among them.

Abbott-you-will-know-meAnyway, lately I’ve been picking up enough buzz about Abbot (who has a new book out) that I thought I would give her what turned out to be another try. First I got hold of The End of Everything–but again I didn’t persist past the first chapter or so. It read like a YA novel, not just because it was centered on teenage girls but because it sounded as if it was written for them. Abbott seems like a self-conscious enough writer that I’m sure she was doing something on purpose with this style, and maybe she went on to do something twisty and surprising with it, but the scenario too seemed a bit pat and familiar and I wasn’t interested in reading on.

You Will Know Me was my next attempt to read one of her books, and it will almost certainly be my last. I did read this one to the end, and there are a lot of things about it that I thought were good or interesting, especially the gimlet-eyed look at competitive gymnastics, which has always equal parts inspired and repelled me. She certainly made it seem every bit as horrendous as I ever imagined! She also knows how to tell a gripping story and keep up the pace–but that’s not altogether a good thing, as I felt manipulated by her heavy-handed foreshadowing even as I started skimming here and there so I could press on more quickly to whatever revelations were to come. When I finished the book, I didn’t feel surprised or shocked, though, much less exhilarated by the experience. I felt tense and dissatisfied and a bit dirty, because so much of the suspense of the novel is really just, or also, or inextricable from, prurient curiosity.

fingersmithI’m not necessarily calling You Will Know Me a bad book. These are (or are they?) the feelings, the reactions, a thriller depends on and aspires to–which is why I don’t typically read them. There is definitely overlap between thrillers and crime fiction, but for me, the best crime fiction depends on our taking a genuine interest in the people and the outcome, caring about what happens both because it’s possible for us to empathize with at least some of them and because of what’s at stake–the immediate consequences for people’s lives and then beyond that, the possibility of justice, if not realized, than imagined. Other kinds of fiction can also be very suspenseful: Daphne du Maurier or Sarah Waters, for instance. But a novel like Fingersmith is engrossing only initially because it makes us voyeurs and lures us in: then it turns on us, exposes us, and makes us interrogate and repent of our self-absorption. It shows us the moral consequences–for us and for its subjects–of the kind of objectification that a thriller depends on. Fingersmith is also 100 times more subtle and ambitious than You Will Know Me, but that’s not really my point, which is just that I found Abbott’s particular brand of suspense a bit distasteful and ultimately unrewarding.

OUP-WHPerhaps tangential, perhaps not: A lot of people were pretty annoyed at the recent piece about Emily Brontë in the Guardian, and I agree it was a sloppy job, and unconvincing about its complaints. But Wuthering Heights is another novel I’ve never much liked, and it’s for some of the same reasons I didn’t like You Will Know Me, and also, I suppose, the reasons that I really didn’t like Eileen. It’s not that I think every novel must be “nice” or uplifting or offer a feel-good epiphany, but I’d like more of a pay-off–intellectually, or ethically, or aesthetically–for time spent in ugliness than these novels seem to me to offer. Wuthering Heights at least has the compensatory virtue of complex artistry. I didn’t discern anything in Eileen that made up for its unpleasantness–and as readers of this blog well know, I don’t share the trendy opinion that simply being expressively unpleasant is some kind of artistic triumph in itself. I’m very aware that this preference almost certainly says more about me as a reader than it does about these particular books–and to be clear, I think You Will Know Me is probably a pretty good book, of its kind. Maybe I underestimate it, and thus Abbott, but I disliked it too much to want to double-check.

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.