In Brief: Kate Atkinson, Transcription

transcriptionI wasn’t looking forward to Transcription with quite as much enthusiasm of some readers I know, as my own history with Atkinson is a bit mixed. But I know her to be an excellent story teller, with smooth fast-paced prose and an eye for vivid detail and an ear for good dialogue, and the reason I have quibbled with some of her recent books is because I have found them interesting enough to take seriously and ultimately quarrel with.

So I began Transcription with reasonably high expectations–and, overall, I was disappointed. It is slick and snappy and well-researched and reasonably clever, but it didn’t strike me as going deep about anything, from its main character to the potentially profound themes spy fiction engages. Perhaps if I hadn’t finally started reading John Le Carré this year this last point would not have struck me so hard! The fixation on being clever that (for me) undermined A God in Ruins has taken over in Transcription, while the rich, tender humanity that made A God in Ruins so engrossing right until the end is entirely missing.

Transcription is clever, by which I mean deftly plotted–but even here it didn’t quite win me over, because the Big Twist™ (which seems, with Atkinson, to be becoming paradoxically predictable as a move) was not cleverly disguised, just withheld. It’s no great feat to simply spring something on your readers at the end! (And perhaps if I hadn’t just finished going through The Murder of Roger Ackroyd with my class and showing all the places where in fact you could have discerned the truth from early on if  you were really being suspicious enough, then this point would not have been so clear to me in its turn.) I found Transcription a diverting read, don’t get me wrong. But unlike both Life After Life and A God in Ruins, which were both so nearly so very, very good that I found their flaws greatly provoking, now that I’ve finished Transcription I can’t gin up enough interest in it to go into any more detail about it.

“Centuries of People”: Sarah Moss, Cold Earth

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Mass graves again. I realised I was holding my breath and tried to exhale.

‘You wouldn’t get mass graves with all these isolated farms,’ said Jim. ‘And there are a few where whole families have been found in the beds or around the house.’

My hand shook. ‘Can we stop talking about epidemics, please? I’m going to the loo.’

I put my trowel down and stood up. Everything went black and I stood there, trying to remember how to breathe. It’s like driving, breathing. The more you think about how to do it, the harder it gets. I stepped blindly over the fallen walls and looked down at my pink tent and thought about the books inside it. I could hear the running river and the wind over the tall grass outside the hall, where centuries of people throwing things out made the soil rich and the wild plants strong.

I’ve basically been reading through Sarah Moss’s oeuvre in reverse order. The first books of hers I read were Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost ChildrenAlthough I admired them a lot, my enthusiasm was tempered by their emotional reticence. Still, I was interested enough to read on, which meant going through Moss’s back catalog, which I have found very rewarding. With Cold Earth (2009), her first novel, I have now completed that project–and in a way it feels like coming full circle, because her most recent novel, Ghost Wall, engages with some of the same themes, particularly ways in which the stories we tell about the past haunt or infect the way the think about the present.

ghost-wallCold Earth literalizes that haunting in a way that Ghost Wall doesn’t quite: in the newer novel, the spirits animated by artifacts of the past are those of contemporary people acting on what they think they’ve learned, while in Cold Earth Moss teases and frightens her characters and her readers with the possibility that the dead still move among us. Imagination? Delusion? Projection? Perhaps–but to at least one member of the team digging in their remote archaeological site on the coast of Greenland, it is a near certainty that their work has disturbed something more than relics and bones.

The discomfort that spreads from her conviction that they are not alone is exacerbated by the team’s growing unease about current events: during their rare check-ins online, they follow reports of a spreading contagion. “The virus,” one of them reports early on: “they think it’s mutated and it seems to be spreading.” “It’s spread,” they learn a little later; “Several thousand people in the Washington area, another cluster in Charleston and a scattering of outbreaks up the East Coast.” Then it’s in the UK — and then the websites stop loading, and they can’t get the satellite phone to work. Is it just technical problems, or has the crisis debilitated the human agencies still needed to keep servers  up and running? How worried should they be, and should they be upset or relieved that, in their isolation, they are probably safe from infection? Then when the plane that was supposed to collect them doesn’t arrive, their remote location ceases to be a refuge and what had been largely a matter of psychological endurance becomes a struggle to survive the encroaching winter and the depletion of their resources.

cold-earth-2Cold Earth is intense and suspenseful, but it is not a thriller or a horror novel, or (except indirectly) a dystopian one. Moss focuses above all on her characters–the novel is told by several of them in turn, in the form of letters they write to people back home–as they puzzle over their finds and try to interpret how their predecessors in that location lived and died. Each of them has brought a personal history to Greeenland: each of them, in a way, is like an archaeological site of a different kind, and there is something at once comforting and devastating in the way Moss, by setting them down among the ruins of a past community, evokes the inevitable and unpredictable continuity of death. Most of us probably imagine that “history” is something that happens to other people, but by the end of Cold Earth all of its characters have been forced to see they too will eventually be the ones in the ground. The chilling question the novel provokes is whether there will be anybody left to dig them up and wonder about their lives.

“A Cuckoo in the Nest”: Hannah Kent, The Good People

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This is not my son, Johanna had said.

And at once Nóra, her heart fluttering at his screams, saw that the boy was not, could not be the child she had seen in her daughter’s cabin. Her eyes began to water, and she saw plainly the puckish strangeness that people had been speaking of. All those months she had thought there was a shadow of Johanna about the boy, a familiarity that anchored him to her. Martin had seen it, had loved him for it. But now, Nóra knew that nothing of Johanna ran through this child’s blood. It was like Tadgh said. She had not recognised him as her own because there was nothing of her family in the creature. He was a cuckoo in the nest.

Hannah Kent’s The Good People immerses us in a world in which life is hard, illness and death are familiar, and superstition (or lore, or folk wisdom) rules. At the center of the novel is Nóra, a widow left responsible for the care of her dead daughter’s son Micheál. Once to all appearances a healthy child, Micheál has become weak, inarticulate, fretfully miserable; he screams and wails all night and needs constant vigilance and care, including bathing as he incessantly wets and fouls himself. Looking after him is wearing Nóra out:

She felt suffocated by the constant neediness of her grandchild. He made her uneasy. The night before she had tried to encourage him to walk, holding him up so that his feet brushed the ground. But he had thrown his red head back, exposing the pale length of his throat and the sharp ridges of his collarbone, and screamed as though she was pressing pins into his heels.

“Perhaps,” she wonders, “she ought to fetch the doctor again,” but she has gone that troublesome and expensive route before and been told there was nothing the doctor could do for Micheál. “In the valley the sick were faced with the usual crossroads of priest, blacksmith, or graveyard,” she concludes–“Or Nance.”

kent-good-people-2Nance is a a healer and “handy woman” (midwife) who offers herbal cures and charms and other services to the local people. She believes (as do most of her neighbors) in the presence and power of the ‘Good People’ or fairies. Kent takes her time establishing how pervasive and powerful this belief is, distinguishing it from casual “superstition” and working to convey what the world looks and feels like to people imbued with convictions about threatening supernatural beings with designs on them–the effort they go to warding off misfortune and illness, the fear of missing a crucial sign or step that might have ominous consequences in their lives. “Sure, ’tis a dangerous time for a woman when she’s carrying,” Nance warns a man who comes seeking her help to protect his pregnant wife:

‘Tis a time of interference. Your wife is on a threshold and can be pulled back and forth. Either into the world we know, or the one we don’t. And ’tis true, what you say about the Good People. They are much given to taking young women. I’ve never known a woman to be swept into the fairy ráth by here, but ’tis not to say they won’t or haven’t.

The anxious husband hangs on her every word. “All will be well,” she assures him, “if you do as I say,” and her advice includes doing all the chores so his wife can rest, giving him “bittersweet” berries to “urge her into a deeper sleep,” and making a “cross from birth twigs” to nail over the bed to guard her.

Nance seems a benign figure at first, utterly sincere in her beliefs and selflessly dedicated to the well-being of others; we are on her side against the skepticism of the new local priest, who opposes her practices as irreligious. The stakes are raised, however, after she is called in by Nóra to help with Micheál. Nóra is convinced, and Nance confirms, that her daughter’s son was stolen by the fairies and replaced with a changeling; the only way to bring the real Micheál back is to drive out the usurper, and with the reluctant cooperation of the girl Nóra has hired to help with  Micheál’s care, she and Nance undertake a series of measures guaranteed, Nance insists, to bring this about.

Kent depicts the effects of their efforts on Micheál with ruthless vividness. If we haven’t already wondered if, for all her sincerity and good intentions, Nance might do more harm than good, now we are brought face to face with what, under a different explanatory framework, looks simply and horribly like child abuse. They administer foxglove, for example, which causes convulsions:

He shook in their grip like a rabid dog, his mouth rent open in a terrifying gape, arms rod-straight and trembling, and his head shaking from side to side as though in terror of what was being done to him.

They swing the child–wet from being dunked in a bath of steeped foxglove, freezing from the night air–back and forth, calling “If you’re a fairy, away with you!” When this treatment fails to restore the “real” Micheál to his body, Nance leads them to the river, where they plunge the “fairy-child” repeatedly into the rushing cold water: “She had the sense that the changeling fixed her eye as the water flooded over his face for the third time, bubbles streaming from his mouth.” Finally Mary, the young servant, rebels: “As soon as he saw we were on our way to your cabin,” she tells Nance, “he started up with the screaming,” which Nance explains easily – “the wee changeling doesn’t want to be going back under the hill!” “‘Tis a sin!” Mary cries out as Nance prepares to dunk the screaming child again, but Nóra and Nance are resolute, and as they hold Micheál under the water Nance finally sees that “the river had taken the fairy as one of its own.”

kent-good-people-3My attention had been flagging a bit before the women’s efforts to cure Micheál picked up the pace of the novel; I wasn’t sure we needed quite so much time and detail spent on context, on evoking the place and time (Ireland in the 1820s) and people’s lives without much action. In retrospect, I understand better why Kent balanced the elements of her novel the way she did: we need to arrive at Micheál’s treatment / torture prepared to counter the visceral horror it evokes against the truth she has set up, which is that to the women involved it is not abuse or cruelty but a good faith attempt to save a child they genuinely believe has been stolen by the fairies. The novel is not set up (as, for instance, Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder is) as a contest between competing belief systems, much less an interpretive challenge to us about which version of events to believe, the ‘rational’ or the supernatural. We do end up at a trial in which both Nance and Nóra are held accountable in ways that run completely contrary to their version. Though it is hard not to agree with the prosecution that they have done a terrible thing, Kent has made sure we see their actions as reasonable and justifiable to them.

What’s less clear is whether that is supposed to push us towards a kind of historical or cultural relativism, putting aside our condemnation on the grounds that they can’t be blamed for not having modernized, for acting as their whole community believe is reasonable under the circumstances. It’s true there is some dissent within that community–from the priest, but also from others who are not newcomers, who look at Micheál and see a “cretin” rather than a changeling, a sick child in need of care rather than an interloper to be expelled. Perhaps their opposition is meant to set Nance and Nóra up for judgment, but the affect of The Good People is mostly against that: Micheál’s suffering is vivid but so too is Nóra’s grief, and Nance’s increasingly desperate conviction that she’s doing the right thing. I would be more excited about the novel if it had been structured more overtly around these intellectual questions rather than mostly just depicting the setting and letting events play out–if Kent had framed Nóra’s story, perhaps, with the trial that results and integrated some narrative commentary that deliberately centered the dilemma of judgment and questions about whether change is the same as progress. I like my historical fiction with a side of exposition; I want not only historical colour but ideas about history, not left mostly implicit (as they are in this case) but as part of the novel’s apparatus. Still, The Good People ended up being a powerful and moving story: I’m glad I persisted with it, and I’m going to be haunted by Micheál’s pale face and sad fate for a long time.

Sad, Beautiful, Absurd: Irène Némirovsky, Suite Française

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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.