Weekend Miscellany: Other People’s Points of View

I was a bit snarky about both A Visit from the Goon Squad and The Professor. Other people have read them quite differently–or at least more favorably. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from Olivia Laing’s recent review of The Professor in the Guardian:

If the spleen only went one way this sort of thing would be vindictive, even nasty, but Castle is too self-aware a critic to carry out anything so brutish as a hatchet job. She persistently casts herself in ridiculous, demeaning roles (“I, her forty-something slave girl from San Francisco”), yelping at one point: “Caveat lector: Lilliputian on the rampage!” The self-belittling reaches its apotheosis in the most substantial essay here, “The Professor”, an extraordinarily gleeful account of Castle’s damaging relationship with a much older woman when she was a grad student in the midwest.

In this real-life retelling of Bluebeard, The Professor, complete with “the Very Weird Long Grey Braid; the Withered Leg, the Loaded Pistol in the Bedside Drawer; the Room in Her House One Was Never Allowed to Enter”, is pitted against the youthful “T-Ball”, a naive and horribly intellectually ambitious baby dyke. The result, predictably enough, is carnage, albeit of a kind that anyone who’s ever loved and lost might experience considerable cathartic pleasure to encounter. (read the rest here)

Laing concludes, “As Castle says of her period of academic specialisation, the 18th century, one can sense beyond the “rococo lightness and drollery… a deep moral seriousness humming away at the core”. That same hum is certainly audible in these pages, though you might be hard pressed to catch it over your own delighted cackles.” I was hard pressed to catch it, but because I was recoiling from the page, not cackling delightedly. I agree more with Elaine Showalter’s earlier Guardian review (here). Though Showalter too is more appreciative of Castle’s “vengeful side” than I am, she identifies aspects of the collection that I too thought were interesting and engaging:

Castle is not limited by the malicious muse. In other essays she writes stirringly about the first world war, and the feminine fascination with and envy of male heroism, as well as about 9/11 and its impact on popular culture. She contends frankly with her fear of “being swept back – annihilatingly – into the world of ‘my mother’s taste’.” In a wonderful sentence about her mother, Mavis, she sums up an entire feminist dilemma: “my whole life up to now . . . has from one angle been a fairly heartless repudiation of maternal sentimentality: all the bright, powerless, feminine things.”

In The New Republic, Ross Posnock celebrates Castle’s “turn to memoir”:

Castle partakes of the culture’s sense of entitled contempt of the “English professor,” while also complicating that entitlement. Her essays turn her painfully won capacity to see herself and the world “mock-heroically” into a source of bracing truth-telling that, in turn, becomes an unexpected source of insight into the power of literature, art, and music in shaping a life. . . .

Castle learned mock-heroism the hard way—above all, as the title essay recounts, by surviving a humiliating, scalding, passionate affair as a graduate student with a self-intoxicated, regal, promiscuous female professor—a “connoisseur, a sensualist, skilled in the arts of homosexual love,” a wounding eventually and partially healed by abundant reading in eighteenth-century satire. . . .

Getting dirtied and staying dirty encouraged Castle not only to take a “debunking attitude toward the self,” but also to become insouciant about seriousness and easy about “self-burlesque.” She can be absolutely hilarious. And this suppleness puts her on both sides of the public/academy conflict: she expresses the general public’s contempt for the academic literary intellectual and the genteel sense of superior refinement that the profession cultivates in its members. At MLA she bristles at a “drifting throng of rabbity academics”—an “unprepossessing” mass of “tweedy jackets, sensible shoes”—and also describes herself as an “effete little twit” full of “aristocratic disdain” not only toward her collegial brethren but particularly, in her youth, toward her earnest lesbian separatist sisters.

I think Posnock is right that the book’s appeal (for those who like it) lies at least partly in Castle’s participation in anti-academic satire. I’m not as comfortable with what he calls her “suppleness,” however: another word for that could be “inconsistency,” or even “hypocrisy”. And I honestly don’t see how it is the case that this book

understands more about the academic vocation, and the art of self-examination, than the shelf of grave and socially responsible studies of and by professors that have appeared in recent years. It is a superb weapon for tearing up that soul-destroying cardboard figure of fun its title names.

Nothing in it that spoke to my own experience of “academic vocation,” and if Posnock’s last comment about “that soul-destroying cardboard figure” refers to the English professor as a general identity rather than a specific English professor such as the one with whom Castle had her awful love affair–if he means all of us, in other words, then I resent the implication and Castle should too, except that I don’t see where in The Professor she has done anything to show English professors as soul-enhancing.

And the final offering in my sample of other people’s opinions of The Professor, is Sam Anderson in New York Magazine (here). Anderson pairs The Professor with Elif Batuman’s The Possessed (which I also read and didn’t much like–though for different reasons):

Part of the pleasure of these books is seeing a figure of genteel cultural authority—the literary scholar—comically reduced. Castle, in particular, is vulnerable and neurotic. She blows writing deadlines and suffers from “astronomical credit card debt.” She describes herself as “moody and mean-spirited”; “pale, criminal, a bit bloated”; a “japing, nay-saying, emotionally stunted creature”; and a “bullet-ridden blob.” She has a panic attack in a rental car and explosive diarrhea in the sea off Sicily. (“I am breaking every law of God and Man,” she thinks.) She decides, after a waiter calls her “sir,” that she is destined to “suffer the lonely death of the sexual pervert.” (In a recent interview with The Nation, Castle described her persona in these essays as “self-burlesque … a conscious casting off of a sort of authority or pedantry or certainty.”)

Both Batuman and Castle come across as supremely lovable dorks. As a grad student, Castle used to write some final papers during the first week of class, then brag about it to her classmates. (She seems less proud of this today.) Batuman once brought her bathroom scale to the library to weigh Tolstoy’s Collected Works, ten volumes at a time. (It weighs, apparently, as much as a newborn beluga whale.) Even their faults are lovably dorky.

Here we go again with the anti-academic thing: why exactly is it such a “pleasure” to comically reduce the literary scholar, I wonder? Is it just a grown-up manifestation of the typical childish rebellion against teachers? A kind of erudite adolescent angst? What does it really have to do with anything that the woman who Castle became so disastrously involved with was a professor?

None of these reviews makes me keen to reread The Professor. Similarly, none of the pieces I’ve looked up on A Visit to the Goon Squad will send me back to it–yet, anyway. I’ll hang on to it, of course. Maybe it’s moment will come for me. Maybe. Some prettty energetic discussions of it took place in the posts and comments at The Morning News’s Tournament of Books. Here’s a bit from Anthony Doerr’s judging round, in which Good Squad was thrown in the ring against another book world favorite, Skippy Dies (which would have got my vote):

Egan’s book is a terrific feat of ventriloquism, composed of 13 short stories that seesaw back and forth through time and interconnect multiple characters, particularly the lives of a music producer named Bennie and his assistant, Sasha.

But it’s so much more than my lame synopsis—and more than a sum of diverse narrators and characters. The structure of Goon Squad reminds me in many ways of Joan Silber’s Ideas of Heaven, a lovely collection of six stories in which a minor character in one story becomes the narrator of the next. In Goon Squad, Egan focuses on multiplicity as well as totality; her approach isn’t about eliminating everything that’s irrelevant to a central narrative in the way so many novels are. It’s more about dropping a giant, rotating, mirror ball into a pair of lives and watching it turn.

Silber called her book a “ring of stories” and that’s how I began to think of Goon Squad—as a ring. As you travel around the ring, you watch Bennie and Sasha be kids, compromise, grow up, fail, have kids, make strides, fail again. “Time’s a goon, right?” Bennie says at one point. “You gonna let that goon push you around?”

By the time I got through the book’s penultimate chapter, a breathtaking short story told entirely through PowerPoint slides, there were tears in my eyes.

Elif Batuman took on Goon Squad vs. The Finkler Question in the quarter-finals. At first she reacts a bit as I did, with skepticism about the power of the form of interlinked stories. But like many other reviewers I read, she was won over:

In the middle of Goon Squad’s fourth story, which involves a love triangle with a couple and their guide on a safari—a play on Hemingway’s “Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”—I suddenly realized that I was reading a brilliant and wonderful book. The “goon” in the title, it turns out, is time—time that brutalizes, and ravages all things. Most of the recurring characters experience serious reversals and undulations of fortune—successes become spectacular failures and vice versa—in a way that somehow seems not artificial, but incredibly true. Egan makes you feel how time bends stories out of shape, gives them new, incongruous, beautiful, retrospectively inevitable endings. This is the kind of feeling you get from Proust or Tolstoy, but over hundreds, thousands of pages. I don’t think I’ve ever felt it from a short-story collection. “Virtuosity” is actually an apt word: You feel that Egan got so good at the form that she managed to get it to transcend itself—to make it historical, to make it do the work of the novel.

It’s also very much “a book of our times,” a book of our historical moment. I’m thinking less of the story told entirely in PowerPoint than of the character who predicts the coming of Facebook: “The days of losing touch are almost gone,” he says. “We’re going to meet again in a different place. Everyone we’ve lost, we’ll find. Or they’ll find us. I picture it like Judgment Day. We’ll rise up out of our bodies and find each other again in spirit form.” Goon Squad shows how, in a certain sense, we can’t lose track of people anymore—even as, in another, older sense, we eventually lose everything and everyone. It’s a beautiful, valuable achievement.

Huh. Then in the Zombie Round, Rahdika Jones says the PowerPoint chapter made her cry. Maybe I’m just not a reader of our historical moment? If it’s a “book of our times,” why does it have so little in common with anything I know or care about? Maybe the New Yorker story origins are a hint: there’s something almost cliquish about Goon Squad and its fans that relies on a knowingness and a taste for a certain flavor of fiction (clever, artful, self-conscious, and hip). I did appreciate C. Max Magee’s description of Goon Squad in his judging of the Championship Round (in which he ended up giving the nod to Freedom):

Calling Goon Squad a novel in stories, as it is sometimes billed, does it a disservice. The book is more like a scaffold. Each story is a platform connected by the structure Egan has erected, but, in the form of little bits of exposition within the stories, she also sends ladders shooting higher and ropes hanging lower, moving the characters decades into future where they may or may not meet again. The scaffold suggests the heft of a much larger design behind it. And, to extend this metaphor further, isn’t it true that an intricate, possibly hazardous scaffolding is sometimes more interesting to behold than the massive building to which it is affixed?

That’s nicely put, a persuasive way to describe the book’s structure. My answer to his final rhetorical question, though, is “no”–or at least, not unless the building is a failure, in which case our interest in the scaffolding is partly that of a pathologist. What I really want is the edifice, not the artifice.

Terry Castle, The Professor

Here’s a passage from Terry Castle’s “The Professor”–what genre  is it? essay? novella? screed?–that displays most of the qualities that made me dislike it so much:

So what to say about the Dear Lady herself, now that more than three decades have elapsed? True: one feels a bit like Sir Walter Scott putting the question so sententiously. One imagines a title: Dumped: Or, ‘Tis Thirty Years Since. Also true: that the matter evokes contradictory feelings in me. Having now described the fiasco with the Professor at length [she’s not kidding–the piece goes on for almost 200 pages], I confess, I feel on the one hand a bit embarrassed by its sheer triteness: my own sitting-duckness, my seducer’s casebook callousness. As I expected, revisiting Ye Olde Journals has indeed been lowering–not least because they tell such a dreary old-hat tale. Who hasn’t clawed at one’s pillow in anguish at a lover’s faithlessness? Had one jumped off a cliff that long-ago winter–Sappho of Lesbos-style–one would simply have ratified it: one’s lack of originality; one’s tedious by-the-bookness.

What don’t I like? First, the Capital Letters. This is a trick Castle uses frequently in this volume when she wants to use terms she knows are trite and so decides to code as ironic: “Core Emotional Truth Time,” Still Too Much Going On,” “Trial of Taste,” “The Worst Song Ever Written,” “Wild and Fun and Oh-So Grown-Up.” It’s self-mockery, sure, but also a parade of intellectual superiority (“don’t worry, I know better than this“). Then the pronoun: why, in such an intimate tale, switch to the pompous “one” when the subject is clearly, as in every essay here, Castle herself? Again, it’s self-mockery, but the sententiousness is not any less because of the off-hand and unjustifiably condescending reference to Scott. (Scott’s version of Dumped would have been far less obsessively whiny and self-absorbed: think how foolish Our Hero Edward Waverley looks as he mopes about after Flora MacIvor!) Then the faux-apologies for the triteness of the tale told–faux, because she takes 200 pages to tell her side of the story, and while the visceral energy of the piece is undeniable, she’s right that it’s not, or is not made into, something extraordinary: there’s no broader implication, no lesson learned (for her or for us), no strong attribution of cause and effect between the miserable affair and her understanding of relationships or her development as a person or an intellectual. “Ye Olde Journals”? OK, we get it: you are keen to distance yourself from the woman you were when you wrote them. There’s no need to be so arch about it. And the Sappho allusion is the pretentious cherry on this dreary sundae of self-pity and vengefulness. Though I’m not nearly as interested in Terry Castle as I would have to be to find these nearly 200 pages truly compelling, I would at least have preferred that she write them with less effortful self-conscious posturing and more sincerity. Perhaps it’s the Victorianist in me confronting the 18th-century satirist in her, but there’s no sense that she got anything intellectually or morally out of either the experience or the narration of it. Fair enough, but then it’s hard to see what we can get out of reading this, except sordid voyeuristic excitement.

I liked the first essay in the collection much better: that’s the one I quoted from before, that includes her thoughts on Vera Brittain. I was mildly to moderately engaged by the other ones, though “Desperately Seeking Susan” also struck me as self-absorbed and unpleasantly voyeuristic–I was left with the feeling that Castle is kind of a difficult person to know, and certainly a dangerous person to cross or disappoint. I really enjoyed parts of “Travels with My Mother,” but in the end I couldn’t forgive Castle her overt condescension–again, being self-conscious about it does not undo it. She’s just so pleased with herself for being able to like Georgia O’Keeffe in spite of herself:

But something odd is happening. The paintings, when I get to them, are not, I notice, as huge and blowsy as I was expecting. Several in fact are quite small. Not Vermeer small, but definitely smallish. And one or two, I have to admit, are pleasing, especially the pre-New Mexico ones from the 1910s and ’20s. Hmmm. Addled connoisseur-brain starts gently powering up again, trying to process the unanticipated subtleties of the situation. Okay, they’re all still flowers, but aren’t some of them at least as good as ones by those American Modernists you like so much? You know: Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth? If you didn’t know they were hers, wouldn’t you be impressed? Aren’t you being hard on her–as is your perverted wont–because she’s a woman? I keep looking for more of the expected monstrosities–lewd river basins, vaginal canyons–but have only intermittent success. A few throbbing pink and yellow horrors float in and out of view in the distance, of course, but the worst offenders in the O’Keeffe Anatomical Fixation Department don’t seem to be here…

And she’s so pleasantly surprised to learn that her mother (who does crafts–the horror!) shares her enthusiasm for Agnes Martin, the “anti-O’Keeffe” who serves as her “ultimate Connoisseur’s Good Taste Vaccine”: “Yea, though I walk through the Valley of Southwestern Style, I will fear no evil.”

To my surprise … [my mother] is an Agnes Martin aficionada. . . . My snob-self is frankly stunned at this unexpected display of maternal hip: it’s as if Wally and Charlie, my dachshunds, were suddenly to begin discussing Hans-Georg Gadamer.

The flourishes of knowingness, the display of recondite expertise, the distancing irony, the snide self-mockery supplementing but never supplanting the self-absorption: the impression I get from this volume is that these qualities are not stages in Terry Castle’s life but define her personality. Judging from the effusive blurbage on the book, for people who like this sort of thing, this is really the sort of thing they like, but that turns out not to include me.