I’m Against Lucy Ellmann’s Things Are Against Us

ellmann thingsI have to be careful here. What I disliked the most about Lucy Ellmann’s book of “essays,” Things Are Against Us, is that much of it reads like intemperate off-the-cuff ranting about things Lucy Ellmann doesn’t like. (These include electricity, men, travelers, Americans, bras, crime fiction, people who object to her ill-informed criticisms of crime fiction, and teenaged girls who make or watch YouTube videos about their morning routines.) If I start ranting intemperately about the book, I won’t be doing any better myself! But at the same time I honestly don’t think Ellman’s screeds are either stylish or substantial enough to warrant the time it would take to respond thoughtfully and meticulously to each one.

I certainly laughed at some of the acid humor and sharp one-liners in Things Are Against Us, and Ellmann addresses topics about which most of us are probably also concerned: racism, sexism, climate change. She deals primarily in hyperbole, though, and her favorite literary devices are long lists and irruptions of ALL CAPS, neither of which constitutes an actual argument and both of which quickly get tedious. (An example from the essay “Ah, Men”: “MEN HAVE RUINED LIFE ON EARTH.”) I was intrigued by the concept of the essay “Three Strikes,” inspired by Woolf’s Three Guineas, but within a page or two it was clear that Ellmann’s version would have none of the artistry, complexity, subtlety, or surprise of Woolf’s:

Patriarchy did this.

These people hate us! These people are trying to kill us! I don’t know why we’re all so goddam nice about it, but nothing is ever done about the way men carry on. Instead, it is feminism that is for ever in retreat.

OK, yes? but also, no? Not no to every claim, not no to anger at patriarchy, but no to wanting to be yelled at about it for pages, especially because I already basically agree. Woolf is furious in Three Guineas but her prose, her design, is never anything but sophisticated. The book’s title essay says nothing of any real interest but Ellmann capitalizes THINGS every time, so I guess that’s clever or funny or something. “The Woman of the House,” about Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House on the Prairieellmann2 series, seemed the most thoughtful and grounded of the collection; the one on bras was kind of amusing; the five pages generalizing angrily and ignorantly about crime fiction and its readers strongly suggest Ellmann had either no or very weak editors.

“In times of pestilence, my fancy turns to shticks,” Ellmann says at the outset of the collection: “let’s complain.” That’s really what this book is: it’s performance art, posturing, venting. Ellmann can write like this, publish the results, and convince people to pay for them because of who she is, not because what she’s offering is either good writing or good thinking. Some readers will certainly enjoy it because it is, in its own way, entertaining. I think I would have been more able to take pleasure in the spectacle if Ellmann didn’t seem so self-satisfied, didn’t hold herself up (especially but not exclusively in those insufferable pages about genre fiction) as such a special contrarian snowflake. We get it: you aren’t taken in like the rest of us sheeple!

ducksI bought Ducks, Newburyport a couple of years ago because my curiosity about it overcame my skepticism. So far I have started and stalled out in it three times. I am determined not to let Lucy Ellmann be the reason I give up on it altogether, even though in every interview with her that I’ve read I have been put off by her posture of superiority and Things Are Against Us more than confirms all my previous bad impressions. Could the person who says and writes these tiresome things actually write a novel that transcends the snarky small-mindedness of the persona they project? I want to believe that’s possible: I have always argued that someone’s writing, someone’s work, can be better than they are. I think there’s hope for all of us in that idea, given how imperfect we all are. So I’ll keep Ducks, Newburyport on my shelf. I need to let my irritation with Things Are Against Us fade before I try it again, though. It might take years.

I am grateful to Biblioasis for the review copy. I hope they don’t regret sending it along. All publicity is good publicity, right?


“The Possibility Exists”: Zoe Whittall, The Best Kind of People

whittallIf only she could have the privilege of believing him entirely. What kind of person, what kind of ungrateful daughter, doesn’t believe her own father? She had never doubted him before. She never thought he was anything but moral and civilized. She wasn’t even sure what those words meant. But if someone puts the possibility of something terrible in your head—and people around you believe it—you can’t go back to thinking it completely inconceivable. The possibility is there whether or not you choose to believe it, and you can’t go back to not knowing that the possibility exists.

Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People would adapt well as a TV miniseries. I don’t mean that in a slighting way at all! It’s just that like, say, Little Fires Everywhere, it’s at once an intimate family story and a story about the way we live now. It turns on a specific accusation of sexual assault; it attaches the particularities of its plot and characters to threads about the different interest groups that turn a question of right and wrong into a cause, with varying degrees of solicitude for the facts of the case. It raises questions about knowledge and complicity, and about love and forgiveness. How could you not know the person you are closest to? How far are you liable for the parts of them you don’t know? How far should your trust for the part you do know shape your assumptions about what they are capable of, about whose side you should be on? Whose support will you have—and whose should you want, if the price of it is your values? These are all good and often surprisingly hard questions for the characters in the novel, and they are not neatly resolved when the question of guilt or innocence is answered.

whittall3The novel focuses on the family of the accused teacher, George Woodbury: his wife, his daughter, and his son. In its attention to the fallout of the accusation, rather than to the details of the case, The Best Kind of People reminded me of the TV series Rectify, which defers answers about its protagonist’s guilt or innocence, so that we have to sit in the same uncertainty as his family. If you love someone, both stories emphasize, you will want to think them incapable of wrongdoing – but, as the excerpt I chose for my epigraph highlights, once the possibility is raised, you don’t really have the option of ignoring it. To do so, also, is to ignore the claims of the victims. Whittall does a good job tracing a range of possible reactions, including how they ebb and flow, from trust to anger, from loyalty to horrified conviction, depending on what is known or said, or just on the mood of the moment. The accusations alone trigger reassessments, from every angle, of an entire family history. The resulting destabilization has ripple effects through the lives of everyone affected.

The Best Kind of People teases us, through its characters’ attempts to discern or rationalize the truth about George’s conduct, with the possibility of a moral or circumstantial grey area in which the accusations can be true and he can be exculpated, or at least found “not abhorrent,” if not “not guilty.” The ending of the novel is somewhat irresolute, but in ways that made it quite dissatisfying, both morally and personally. I think perhaps that was the point: even if we (like George’s family) want this kind of both/and result, it isn’t really an option, while at the same time the difficulty of getting any kind of definitive outcome, much less justice, makes things worse rather than better.

whittall2The other reason The Best Kind of People struck me as well suited to adaptation is that stylistically I would describe it as workmanlike rather than particularly artful. I don’t think much would be lost in the translation into a different medium. This is something I sometimes say about Jane Austen too, though for slightly different reasons (so much of the action of her novels is in dialogue, for one thing, or can be shifted to it)—so again it isn’t meant as a slight. I did feel, though, that the novel read like a plan being well executed more than something being written really well. Given how hard it is to get two people to agree on what “well written” means, maybe that’s a distinction without a difference. Anyway, I enjoyed reading the novel, though it is sad and hard going at times. I think it’s smart about its central scenario, and it created a believable version of how something so unpleasant might play out among those used to thinking of themselves as “the best kind of people.”

This Term In My Classes: Online Again

3031 STARTI fell out of the habit of writing teaching posts last year, partly because I was doing so much else on my computer that blogging about it felt like a bridge too far, but also, and more so, because of the flattening effect of teaching asynchronously, as I discussed in this post in January. As I head into my third fully online term, I am more used to the strange sense that I am teaching somehow both all the time and never. With at least some of last year’s materials re-usable, too (if in need of tweaking and updating), I hope I won’t be so constantly overwhelmed with preparations for the next text or topic that I find it hard to focus on the current discussions. Maybe, too, I’ve been thinking, blogging regularly again about my classes would actually help restore more sense of structure and occasion. We’ll see.

laptopLast year we were pretty much all online, in my department and across the university. This year, almost everybody else is back to teaching in person. Early in the planning process I had committed to doing my first-year course online. One reason was that it was such a big job planning and building it that I wanted to get more return on that investment. But it was also was the course that I least missed teaching in person. If our first-year classes were smaller, I might have felt differently, but teaching 120 students in a big auditorium, wearing a microphone, relying on PowerPoint, and knowing (and sometimes seeing) perfectly well that a lot of students in the room are only there because someone told them they had to be – that’s not a great experience, to be honest. I have always considered first-year teaching really important and I love engaging with the students who get excited about the material and the work – the ones who really show up for class (not just physically in class). It is especially gratifying when students taking intro primarily for their writing requirement discover a passion for analyzing literature and come back for more. Sometimes they even change their majors! But I don’t think lecture classes of 120 or more (however diligently you try to make them interactive, as of course I have always tried to do) are the right way to teach either literature or writing, and the crowd control aspects of it are always particularly disheartening. I also thought my online course went pretty well, all things considered. So why not do it that way again?

oup-persuasionThe harder question, as we headed into the summer, was what to do about 19th-Century Fiction. These courses are my absolute favorites to teach, and I did really miss the energy of in-class discussions last year, even though I thought the online version went quite well (again, all things considered). Offering this year’s version in-person seemed reasonable, even likely, back when our second dose dates got moved up and it looked like widespread vaccination was going to turn everything around. Then came Delta, and with it a lot of renewed confusion and uncertainty about what an in-person fall term would actually be like, along with slower than ideal vaccination uptake among the main student demographics. I remembered only too well how much work it was creating the materials for last year’s Dickens to Hardy course online and I knew I would not be able to do a good job on Austen to Dickens (there’s no overlap in the readings) if I put off the decision to the last minute, so I set August 1 as my deadline to make the call, and when things still looked too precarious for my liking, I committed to moving it online as well and got started right away on setting up the Brightspace site and creating materials.

dalhousieA couple of weeks later, Dalhousie did finally implement a vaccination requirement, along with mandatory masking for at least the month of September (neither of which was in place when I made up my mind to go online). I really hope that these measures and a generally high level of diligence help make it a safe and positive term for everyone now back on campus! For myself, though, while I do have regrets (anyone who has followed this blog knows how much I love being in the classroom), I appreciate the clarity of my situation and the continuity I can be sure of providing to my students. I don’t need to have multiple contingency plans – or to lecture masked or to dodge crowds in the hallways, or to work in my overheated office where at the moment I am not allowed to open the window. I do also feel that I am serving a need: there are students who themselves could not get back to Halifax, or who aren’t confident about returning to in-person classes, and I honestly think we should have tried harder to make sure they had more and less haphazard options given the predictable complications of this in-between phase, especially for international students.

computerClasses began here yesterday, and the discussion boards in my courses are now filling up with students introducing themselves and checking out how things are going to work. It’s not the same as meeting them face to face, but those of us who are online a lot one way or another know that you can communicate a lot about yourself through virtual interactions, and also that it is possible to create, sustain, and cherish real communities that way. I think the most important things I learned last year, which did involve a lot of trial and error, was that simpler is better and personal is best of all – not personal in the sense of over-sharing personal information, but personal meaning you bring yourself to the work, you show yourself in the work, and treat everybody involved as if they are people too. I’ve been trying to welcome each student individually to the class as they make their introductions: I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep this up as the pace of their contributions increases (there are 150 students all told across my two courses) but I want to make my presence felt from the beginning.

KellynchAs for course content, well, the first week of Literature: How It Works focuses on the idea and practice of close reading, with an emphasis on word choices. This is how I always begin my introductory courses, so the only difference is delivery. Across the next few modules we just keep adding things to pay attention to (“stocking our critical toolbox”!) – all the while trying out our ideas through low-stakes writing. I’m using specifications grading again, simplified and clarified (I hope) from last year’s version. In Austen to Dickens we warm up (again, as always) with a bit of background on the history of the novel: nothing fancy, just a rough sketch to give some context for our actual readings. Next week we start on Persuasion. My favorite part of class prep last year was devising slide presentations in which I tried to capture not just the main talking points of what would have been our classroom discussions, but the spirit of them. I actually found – find – this work quite creative! I don’t do anything fancy, but I do try to have a kind of unfolding narrative, illustrated by apt graphics (and sometimes silly graphics, because I miss drawing stupid stick figures on the whiteboard). This year I’m going to be more explicit about the limitations of the lecture components, which are never (in person or online) meant to “cover” everything or answer every question. Last year some students expressed frustration that I raised questions in my lectures but didn’t go on to answer them: realizing that they had this expectation surprised me a bit, because my in-person lectures also can’t possibly answer every question that comes up, but I think the recorded delivery seems like it should maybe be more definitive or complete.

So that’s where we are now: poised at the beginning of a term that, for my students, will be a hybrid one. One unknown factor is how they will feel about or treat what may well be their lone online courses. Will it seem less real or important to them in contrast to their campus work? I hope instead they will appreciate that they can tune into it on their own schedules – and know I will (more or less) always be there for them. 

Xiaolu Guo, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

I open my notebook again, looking at my everyday’s study, my everyday’s effort. I see myself trying hard to put more words and sentences into blank pages. I try to learn more vocabularies to be able to communicate. I try to put the whole dictionary in my brain. But in this remote countryside, in this nobody’s wonderland, what’s the point of this? It doesn’t matter if one speaks Chinese or English here; it doesn’t matter if one is mute or deaf. Language is not important anymore. Only the simple physical existence matters in the nature.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers explores some profound questions about language, identity, culture, communication, and love. Its depths aren’t immediately apparent, though, because Guo approaches these issues carefully through voice and form, illustrating them through her narrator’s experiences and gradually changing self-expression, rather than addressing them directly.

The novel is narrated by Zhuang Xiao Qiao (or “Z,” as she comes to be called because most people she meets can’t actually pronounce her name), a young Chinese woman who moves to London to “make better life through Western education.” She’s dubious about the goal: “I not caring if I speaking English or not,” she says: she’s doing it at her parents’ urging (“Why they want changing my life?”) and she’s wary about what it will be like (“how I living in strange country West alone?”). Once arrived, she attends language classes and carries her Chinese-English dictionary with her everywhere. Looking words up isn’t enough, though: the novel emphasizes that knowing definitions still leaves plenty of room for confusion and misinterpretation—because language carries not just nuances and idioms but also assumptions, contexts, whole layers of culture that make one-to-one translations impossible. “After grammar class,” Z says early in her lessons,

I sit on bus and have deep thought about my new language. Person as dominate subject, is main thing in an English sentence. Does it mean West culture respecting individuals more? In China, you open daily newspaper, title on top is “OUR HISTORY DECIDE IT IS TIME TO GET RICH” or “THE GREAT COMMUNIST PARTY HAVE THIRD MEETING” or “THE 2008 OLYMPICS NEED CITIZENS PLANT MORE GREENS.” Look, no subjects here are mans or womans. Maybe Chinese too shaming putting their name first, because that not modest way to be.

Z’s English narration captures the misfit between her complex thoughts and the limited language she has available to express them; one of the cleverest aspects of the novel is the gradual closing of that gap as her English becomes more fluent—though as she reflects, the process is also one of internal transformation, as she changes herself in response to her new experiences of life in England and travel abroad.

Though it is structured as a love story, between Z and an Englishman she meets at the cinema and then moves in with, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers avoids the cliché of setting the lovers up as representatives of different, sometimes clashing, cultures who resolve their differences by finding some third way—a new language, either literally or metaphorically. In fact, their relationship is an uneasy one from the beginning, or at least it was to me. For one thing, he is quite a bit older, and because Z is so focused on learning English (and learning about England), there is a pedagogical dimension to their interactions that doesn’t sit well, even before we start to know him well enough to doubt he’s a keeper. He isn’t always comfortable with it either, bursting out at one point,

It is too tiring to live like this. I cannot spend my whole time explaining the meaning of words to you, and I can’t be questioned by you all day long.

As Z’s linguistic education continues, he also comes to feel threatened by it, protesting her habits of constant reading and writing. In her turn, Z gets frustrated with him, as well as with the need for constant effort in her communication:

I am sick of speaking English like this. I am sick of writing English like this. I feel as if I am being tied up, as if I am living in a prison . . . I wish I could just go back to my own language now. But is my own native language simple enough?

Why do we  have to study language?” she goes on to ask; “Why do we have to force ourselves to communicate with people?  Why is the process of communication so troubled and so painful?

I think these questions may go to the heart of the novel: the specific differences between Chinese and English are important but are also just a device for arguing that communication through language is never actually transparent. Thinking about the novel this way helped me make sense of the attention it pays to the lovers’ sexual relationship, and to Z’s exploration of her own sexuality outside of it as well.  It’s not that physical sensations are perfectly straightforward: sex, like language, is something we understand only in the terms we learn from our culture. A lot of effort goes into trying to find words for what we experience, though, including all of our emotions and sensations, a struggle Z’s efforts with English literalize. Sometimes it seems as if the novel, or at least Z, suggests that Chinese culture is better at integrating the mental and the physical world. “In China,” Z tells her lover,

we don’t name all these kinds of diseases. Because we think all the illnesses actually causes from very simple reason. If you want to solve your illness then you must start to cam your whole body, not just taking pills every time.

As she gains confidence in her English and in their relationship, Z also pushes back against her lover’s didacticism, which (she angrily points out) tacitly assumes she has nothing to teach or contribute to his understanding of the world:

You never really pay attention to my culture. You English once took over Hong Kong, so you probably heard of that we Chinese have 5,000 years of the greatest human civilisation ever existed in the world . . . Our Chinese invented paper so your Shakespeare can write two thousand years later. Our Chinese invented gunpowder for you English and Americans to bomb Iraq. And our Chinese invented compass for you English to sail and colonise the Asian and Africa.

Tying those Chinese achievements to acts of war, violence, and imperialism is not exactly claiming superiority—just relevance. Perhaps it is not a novel about these two cultures but about cross-cultural engagement more generally, and about how language both does and does not create mutual understanding.

One good thing Z’s lover does (though it too arises from a paternalistic impulse that is a bit cringe-inducing) is send her off to travel around Europe: “I think you should see a bit of the world without me,” he tells her. Her trip does add to her experience and her knowledge of yet more cultures; it’s another layer to the novel as a story of her individual development. “I think it’s important you go by yourself,” her lover says, and while there’s some selfishness to his motives (at least, I thought so), because he is chafing a bit against their proximity, he’s right that—young and unworldly as she is when she arrives in London—she will benefit from a chance to think about who she is when she isn’t defined either by what she recalls as a highly regimented life in China or by their romantic entanglement.

It seemed significant to me that Z’s Bildungsroman is international in that way. Although it is very much and very specifically a novel about differences between particular countries and cultures and languages, I finished the novel thinking that (as with the issue of languages) to some extent its Chinese-English set-up is a device to make us question how far these differences really matter—if we could only find ways to communicate between or across them. “I want to become a citizen of the world,” Z says at one point. Lots of details about A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers make that notion seem naïve, and perhaps the way her relationship with her lover turns out is more evidence for a pessimistic reading. But I didn’t think their affair was meant to represent a “solution.” It’s a stage in Z’s journey, which ends, as seemed right, in her reflections on what she has learned so far, and with memories of travel and togetherness that will shape where she goes next:

The address on the envelope is familiar. It must be in west Wales. Yes, we went there together. I remember how it rained. The rain was ceaseless, covering the whole forest, the whole mountain, and the whole land.

The novel begins with Z stumbling through her sentences, but by the end her language is close to poetry—the hardest form to translate, but the most beautiful to speak.

“In My Mind”: Susanna Clarke, Piranesi

piranesiIn my mind are all the tides, their seasons, their ebbs and their flows. In my mind are all the halls, the endless procession of them, the intricate pathways. When this world becomes too much for me, when I grow tired of the noise and the dirt and the people, I close my eyes and I name a particular vestibule to myself; then I name a hall. I imagine I am walking the path from the vestibule to the hall. I note with precision the doors I must pass through, the rights and lefts that I must take, the statues on the walls that I must pass.

Piranesi is a strange, wondrous, mysterious novel, the kind of book that makes me marvel that someone ever had the idea to write it, much less carried it out so that a reader like me could be moved and transported by it. By training and inclination I am (more or less) a realist; the two genres I always have the least success with reading are fantasy and science fiction. I gave up on Clarke’s earlier novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – not just gave up, but gave it up, donating it to the book sale after a couple of failed attempts to get into it. Now I wish I still had it, because if Clarke is good enough to make the weird world of Piranesi feel real to me, I trust her enough to try it again.

I’m not going to say much specific about Piranesi, mostly because it’s such an intricately delicate construction that describing or explaining it seems unlikely to do it justice – and might, worse, spoil its carefully unspooled revelations. Most of it takes place in a kind of labyrinth made up of halls and vestibules, populated with statues and skeletons and one solitary living person, the man we know, and who knows himself, only as ‘Piranesi’ – until we learn more about him, that is, and he too is brought to confront some elusive truths about himself.

piranesi2The story of who he is and what he’s doing in this place is the novel’s central plot, and it has elements of an actual mystery, even a thriller, with clues and an investigation and a climactic face-off with a villainous antagonist. In a way it is even a horror story, or at any rate things about it are horrible. The oddity of Piranesi, though, is how beautiful Piranesi’s weird world is and how lovingly he studies and tends to it. It isn’t our world but it has things we are familiar with, including tides and sea birds and seasons, all of which are vividly evoked. Although Piranesi is essentially (we learn) a captive in this place, it’s not a story of suffering. He feels taken care of; in his isolation, he has created meaning through rituals and through relationships that are real and valuable to him. When the truth is revealed and he has to choose which world to live in, it’s not obvious where he will really be better off. Or, at any rate, the right choice may be obvious but it clearly comes with costs, with losses.

I wasn’t really sure what to think about Piranesi as I read it, partly because both Piranesi and his labyrinthine world are so captivating and partly because it takes the whole novel to really understand what is happening in it. It is a fantasy novel of a sort; it is perhaps a kind of parable; it may or may not be saying something about the imagination, or art, or religion, or mythology. I think it’s about freedom in some way – about whether a life can be a good one, for example, if it is lived under duress (even unknowingly), or whether a life stripped down to its bare elements might have a kind of purity that is some compensation for what has been taken away or sacrificed. It is about human needs, including for love, and the way they find outlets wherever they can. It is incredibly sad, but by the end it is also quietly hopeful.

arch-piranesiHappily, other people have written smart things about it, including Teresa at Shelf Love, whose post was one reason I had made a mental note to read Piranesi for myself even though I thought it sounded a bit far out for me (which it is). I also appreciated Ron Charles’s review, and this one by Ilana Teitelbaum in the Los Angeles Review of Books – I don’t know the Narnia books well enough to make the connections she does, but I found them really interesting. The title of the novel of course tells us to make connections to Piranesi, who in turn was an influence on M. C. Escher: these allusions are good visual cues, but whether they help much with interpreting the novel I’m not sure. In any case, because Piranesi is at once so memorable and so enigmatic, I know it will linger with me for a long time.

Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove

I tried for quite a while to pick a excerpt from Lonesome Dove to serve as the epigraph for this post and also to provide its title – my usual practice for book posts. As you can see, I gave up! The problem is not that there aren’t good options: it’s that I can’t settle on a single angle or excerpt that sums up or represents the multitudes the novel contains, or that points to what I want most to say about it. It’s not a novel about summing up, is perhaps the problem: it’s a novel about adding up, a novel that just keeps giving its reader more and more and more until you can hardly remember a time when you weren’t deep in its world. It is the novelistic equivalent of surround sound! Any small sample is bound to be partial and misrepresentative.

I thoroughly enjoyed all 857 pages of Lonesome Dove. (Well, I didn’t enjoy some of the more horrific parts, especially Lorie’s time in captivity. But I was gripped by the narrative nonetheless, which is a kind of pleasure.) Lonesome Dove really is a masterful feat of storytelling. For one thing, even though the plot was constantly surprising and suspenseful as it unfolded, every incident fell into place with the kind of inevitability that (I can only assume) bespeaks careful planning. So many details in the first few chapters that seemed interesting but incidental turned out to bear fruit later on—often hundreds of pages later on. The elegance with which the many characters’ storylines weave in and out of each other was a constant delight, as was the neatness with which the main characters’ journey (literal but also figurative) came full circle at the novel’s conclusion. And the characters themselves are also delightful – not, of course, because they are all admirable, but because McMurtry has the gift of making them live on the page. From wide-eyed Newt to evil Dan Suggs, they are all distinct and memorable, Gus and Call and Lorena most of all.

There’s a lot of Lonesome Dove: I’m not going to try to recapitulate it. I used to do more plot summary in my posts, but especially with a really “plotty” novel like this one, these days it seems a bit beside the point. If I were going to try to describe it more fully, I’d try instead to give some sense of the writing, especially the descriptions of the landscapes, or maybe the weather. There’s a lot of weather in Lonesome Dove! Or the river crossings: there are a lot of those too, many of them memorable (snakes!!).

Beyond that, I feel overwhelmed by the possibilities, so I’m just going to do a kind of speed round of topics. First of all, I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in the novel about masculinity: Gus and Call are foil characters in ways that seem relevant to this theme, as is July, who keeps crying, and Newt, who needs not just a father but a father figure. Then, one way we can tell Lonesome Dove is a relatively modern example of the Western is not so much Lorena (though she is a reasonably three-dimensional version of the role she plays) as Clara, who startled me by introducing metafictional commentary into a novel that otherwise seemed strikingly unselfconscious (“the ladies’ magazines had stories and parts of novels in them, in many of which were ladies who led lives so different from hers that she felt she might as well be on another planet”). Clara’s reflection that “the menfolk that came by weren’t interesting enough to put in books” surely says something about the kind of book McMurtry is writing—just as Clara’s presence in Lonesome Dove to some extent answers her longing to find her own life represented.

Then, what about Lonesome Dove as a Western – what story is it telling about the settlement of the American West? Again, it shows its (relative) modernity by being something of an anti-Western (like Elmore Leonard’s Valdez Is Coming). It does not romanticize its cowboys’ journey, idealize their motives, or (I don’t think) turn their individual quest into a metaphor for any broader narrative of “civilization” or nation-building. Gus and Call themselves hardly know why they are going to Montana, and by the time he gets there Call, whose decision it largely was, has lost interest in the undertaking and is just going through the motions. There’s plenty of racism in the novel, and a lot of violence between the cowboys and the “Indians”—but (anachronistically?) Gus in particular is wryly and explicitly aware that they are vulnerable to attack because they are moving into someone else’s land; towards the end he goes so far as to suggest they really should have left it all alone. The “Indians” may be antagonists, but the folks who evoke moral disgust, whose violent ends seem eminently justified, are horse thieves like the Suggs brothers. That said, Blue Duck is a cartoon villain, by far the most reductively two-dimensional character in the novel.

Even with the nuances McMurtry introduces, too, I wonder if it is possible for a Western not to be compromised by the very story it tells. Our “heroes” in this case are complex characters, including in their relationship to the project of American expansion and settlement, but we are still on their side throughout and overall they are admirable: not perfectly virtuous, but embodying values familiar from both classic Westerns and related genres like hard-boiled detective fiction: the rugged individualist, the loner, the vigilante whose stature and moral freedom comes from his detachment from conventional or community ties. If we admire Gus and Call (and grow fond of Newt and the others) we are going along, to some extent at least, with their morally problematic roles in history.

But maybe that isn’t the right way to see it. Lonesome Dove seemed more descriptive than prescriptive, not “these are the men we should admire” but “here’s a version of what men like this could have been like.” I’m not sure about this, though, even as I’m also not sure that examples of a genre can be judged solely on their participation in its tropes. Crime fiction is always about “solving” crimes but that doesn’t mean every instance of crime fiction is complicit in the kinds of systemic injustices law enforcement can be rightly accused of propagating. Valdez Is Coming is a vigilante narrative but one in which the demands of both justice and morality can only be met by confronting and destroying evils including racism. Does Lonesome Dove resist or critique the world it is set in, in a similar way? Does it interrogate the claims of its protagonists to heroism?

I’ve only read this long novel once so I’m not really in a position to answer. Most of the time, reading it, it seemed (as I said before) unselfconscious: it was “just” telling us this great story and not challenging us (or itself) to question its terms. I was surprised, then, when Clara (again Clara!) introduced a powerful note of skepticism, one that came so close to the end that it felt like a commentary on what we had all (author, readers, characters) been doing to that point. “And I’ll tell you another thing,” she says to Call during his stopover on his mournful way back to Lonesome Dove:

I’m sorry you and Gus McCrae ever met. All you two done was ruin one another, not to mention those close to you . . . You men and your promises: they’re just excuses to do what you plan to do anyway, which is leave. You think you’ve always done right—that’s your ugly pride, Mr. Call. But you never did right and it would be a sad woman that needed anything from you. You’re a vain coward, for all your fighting. I despised you then, for what you were, and I despise you now, for what you’re doing.

She’s angry and she’s grieving: maybe this is not meant to be a reliable judgment. Certainly it doesn’t sound like a fair description of the men I’d been reading about for 850 pages. Maybe McMurtry’s storytelling seduced me, though: maybe I was enjoying the novel too much on one level to keep my critical guard up on another. If so, there’s another Lonesome Dove I haven’t exactly read yet, right here on the same pages I already turned. Would I—could I? should I?—read it again to find out? Not in the near future, anyway, so I’d love to hear what other readers think about these questions.

Breaking the Blogjam!

logjam“Something will break the blogjam!” said an encouraging friend on Twitter when I remarked on how long it has been since I wrote anything here. The problem is, that “something” has to be me actually writing something here, and it turns out that doesn’t just happen by itself! So I figure I have to just write something here, and maybe that will help me get back in the habit. Because for all the talk these days about blogging being over, it remains, for me, the best form the internet has come up with for the kinds of things that I value about the internet. I love Twitter but its conversations (while, at their best, informed, convivial, and supportive) are dispersed and fleeting. I’m not a fan of newsletters: as far as I can tell, they are just emailed blogs, which means if you want discussion to flow from them you have to go on Twitter (see previous comment!) or click over to the newsletter’s site … which is a blog, right? But because most people are getting the material delivered to them privately, there’s much less chance of conversation breaking out over there. I’m for blogs! Which means I’d better get back to writing my own and do my small part to keep them going. (I am so grateful to the book bloggers I follow who have been steadfastly keeping up regular posts lately: reading them is always a tonic, a reminder of the community and meaning created by books and the people who care about them.)

flightsThe thing is, I haven’t actually finished many books lately: that’s one reason I haven’t felt as if I had anything to post about. I don’t blame the books. They were just the wrong ones for me right now. (These include Kate Atkinson’s Big Sky, Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, Simone St. James’s The Sun Down Motel, and Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World.) I may well return to a couple of them at another time, as I picked them up in the first place because they looked worth reading! I did finish a couple of others that I felt too inert to write up in detail: Becky Cooper’s We Keep the Dead Close (that’s a wrap on my experiment with “true crime”) and Mary Lawson’s Road Ends (I liked it! I have nothing else to say about it.) The one book I’ve read through recently with anything like eagerness is Miriam Toews’s Fight Night, and I’m going to be reviewing it so I can’t write it up here!

lonesome-doveAs I struggled through this slump, I picked up and put back a number of books from the array of unread ones I have on my shelves. I have much fewer of these than a lot of you do, I know from your Twitter posts and pictures! At times like these I wish I did have stacks and stacks of them, to increase the odds of finding something that looked really tempting. It turns out you don’t have to have thousands of them, though: you just have to have the right one, and happily I think maybe I do. Some months ago (maybe longer, who can keep track of time anymore) I bought Lonesome Dove, thinking it would be a perfect book for long lazy afternoons on the deck. This summer has been so humid and/or so rainy that sadly there haven’t been very many of those, and it’s just such a big book that I kept putting it aside. A couple of days ago, though, determined to throw myself into reading at least something, I picked it up and just started reading; I’m nearly 200 pages in now and I am loving it. Hooray for old-fashioned storytelling!

DALHOUSIE-UNIVERSITYOther than that, my main preoccupation for the next little while is going to be gearing up for the fall term. I was always going to be offering my big first-year class online again, and after waiting as long as I could stand it for more information about Dal’s “return to campus” plans, I took my Faculty up on their promise that we could switch any other courses from in-person to online and decided to do the 19th-century novel class online too. I have many regrets about this, but they are mostly about being sad that we aren’t more clearly out of the pandemic yet, so that returning to the classroom would not be a simple or self-evidently safe experience. It’s not so much that I anticipated being anxious for my own health (though as we know, risks remain for the fully vaccinated) but that there just seem to be too many disruptive scenarios well within the range of probability, and I am much happier being able to plan out an online term than having to cope with a lot of complications and accommodations on the fly, or (heaven help us) another ‘pivot’ to online if things go south.

KellynchSo I’ll be here working away at Owen’s old desk for another term, spending hours every day on Brightspace instead of on campus. This means I can re-use some of the materials that took so much work to prepare from scratch last year, which frankly was a significant incentive for keeping the intro class online again! I have been doing a lot of revision and reorganizing for that class (including of my specifications grading system) to iron out wrinkles, and I am also applying what I learned last year to the 19th-century fiction class (Austen to Dickens), which is a new prep: I’ve simplifed the logistics compared to last year’s version (which was the Dickens to Hardy class). If things are going well on campus, perhaps some in-person office hours will be possible eventually, but for now at least I know what I’m dealing with and I can put my effort into doing as good a job as I know how. I’ve actually been having some fun working up slides on Persuasion for the Austen to Dickens class. It’s not the same as going back and forth in the room, but I do what I can to convey the same sense of energy.

OK, that’s a start. I don’t know if ideas and posts will start flowing freely again, but at least I won’t feel quite so fretful about neglecting Novel Readings.

“Everything came to that”: Finishing The Old Wives’ Tale

penguin-bennettWhat affected her was that he had once been young, and that he had grown old, and was now dead. That was all. Youth and vigour had come to that. Youth and vigour always came to that. Everything came to that.

The final volume of The Old Wives’ Tale is called “What Life Is.” Its final two chapters are called “The End of Sophia” and “The End of Constance.” In other words, what life is, is death.

If I say that this predictable – because inevitable – end, both to the novel and to Constance and Sophia, made sense of the rest of the novel for me, I might be overstating the case somewhat, but that’s definitely some of what I felt when I turned the last page. It’s not that nothing that happens to them along the way matters (to them, or thematically) but that the whole purpose of the novel (as clearly stated by Bennett himself in his Preface) is to get us through their lives, and especially through the transformation from youth to age. Recall:

there is an extreme pathos in the mere fact that every stout ageing woman was once a young girl with the unique charm of youth in her form and movements and in her mind. And the fact that the change from the young girl to the stout ageing woman is made up of an infinite number of infinitesimal changes, each unperceived by her, only intensifies the pathos.

This novel was never going to be about epiphanies, or even about growth: it is not a dual Bildungsroman. Despite the long but temporary divergence in their paths, Constance and Sophia don’t change much, or learn much, or even do much. I think this accounts for some of my confusion as I read the middle sections. Unlike most of the fictional heroines I’m familiar with (Anne Elliot, Maggie Tulliver, Margaret Hale, Jane Eyre, or Rhoda Nunn, for example) they weren’t even trying to do much. Even Tess Durbeyfield has a vision of her future, and when it’s demolished, she really struggles to reshape it anew. Constance and Sophia, in contrast, just keep on living. There are decisions, incidents, developments – but these have the scattershot quality of reality, rather than the direction and unity of fiction.

BennettThis is not a condemnation of The Old Wives’ Tale, though. One of the challenges for me all along has been figuring out what kind of book it is, so that I could figure out what I was reading it for, or, how to read it well. There are lots of specific aspects of it that I think would reward sustained analysis – especially the relationship between the sisters’ “tale” and the story the novel tells of the Five Towns. But for me anyway, what the final chapters really did was complete the pattern I hadn’t quite been able to make out. It is just the pattern of life, with its beginning, middle, and end. That’s at once not much (for a novel) and everything (for all of us). The result is at once weirdly dull and dissatisfying (is that really all?!) and immeasurably poignant (yes – yes, it is all).

The closest we get to an epiphany is Sophia’s meditation by the deathbed of Gerald Scales. I loved the way Bennett brought her and us to this moment of (mis)recognition. Sophia is so wonderfully shocked that he is old, which is both about the way he has, in her memory, been preserved in the past and about her own (our own?) difficulty understanding – or maybe it’s believing in – her own aging. How can it be, and what does it mean, that no matter what else happens, death is always going to be the end of our stories? This is “the riddle of life” Sophia confronts as she looks at Gerald’s corpse:

He and she had once loved and burned and quarrelled in the glittering and scornful pride of youth. But time had worn them out. “Yet a little while,” she thought, ” and I shall be lying on a bed like that! And what shall I have lived for? What is the meaning of it?” The riddle of life itself was killing her, and she seemed to drown in a sea of inexpressible sorrow.

There really isn’t anywhere else for her to go after this: her literal death felt like a bit of an afterthought, a more important event for Constance than for Sophia herself.

whistlerAnd then it’s Constance’s turn. There’s an extra level of pathos in her being left alone to play out her last act. Like all the death scenes in the novel, hers is blunt, unsentimental, clinical (“It was not rheumatism but a supervening pericarditis that in a few days killed her”). Again, there are lots of specifics we could discuss: of course Cyril wasn’t there, and his career as a “dilettante” is its own form of stasis – but he did do a good job on Sophia’s funeral! and those of you hailing Fossette as the greatest character are of course being hyperbolic (or maybe I think so because I’m not much for dogs) and yet it’s true that she is more charismatic, ultimately, than either of the sisters! But at this point in my thinking about the novel it’s big picture stuff that’s preoccupying me, and so the passage that resonated most with me as I reached the novel’s conclusion was this one:

Old people said to one another: “Have you heard that Mrs. Povey is dead? Eh, dear me! There’ll be no one left soon.” These old people were bad prophets. Her friends genuinely regretted her, and forgot the tediousness of her sciatica. They tried, in their sympathetic grief, to picture to themselves all that she had been through in her life. Possibly they imagined that they succeeded in this imaginative attempt. But they did not succeed. No one but Constance could realize all that Constance had been through, and all that life had meant to her.

First of all, “her friends genuinely regretted her” is not a bad epitaph: I think I’d be happy with it! But the other thing is that it’s not just Constance who knows what she went through and what her life meant to her. It’s also us: we were there. We know. That attention, that knowledge, this novel, is Bennett’s tribute to “the sort of woman who would pass unnoticed in a crowd.”

I admit I finished The Old Wives’ Tale unconvinced that it is a great novel, though it has some great moments. Is it particularly well written, for instance? (I know, I know: how to define or measure that quality? I think I know it when I encounter it, but that’s hardly a reliable test.) Does it go very deep? I’m really glad I read it, though. I know that I am going to keep thinking about it. v-woolf

What about you? How did the ending affect your ideas about what went before? Did you finish the novel with new (or renewed) appreciation for Bennett as a novelist? Do we want to have a go at Woolf’s complaint that he is a “materialist” – or do we want to leave her out of this?

“They wept, they dreamed”: Hallie Rubenhold, The Five

the-fiveThey are worth more to us than the empty human shells we have taken them for; they were children who cried for their mothers, they were young women who fell in love; they endured childbirth, the death of parents; they laughed, and they celebrated Christmas. They argued with their siblings, they wept, they dreamed, they hurt, they enjoyed small triumphs.

Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five admirably fulfill’s Rubenhold’s stated ambition for it: to restore “their dignity” to five women whose individual life stories have been subsumed by the horror of their deaths and the horrifyingly glamourous mythology of their murderer. These women, the “canonical five” victims of Jack the Ripper, have long been cast as bit players in his drama, in parts that, Rubenhold shows, reduce or misrepresent who they actually were.

I’m not going to reiterate the life stories Rubenhold has (somewhat astonishingly) managed to reconstruct in The Five, partly because it’s the sheer accumulation of detail that matters to the book’s effectiveness. At times I did wonder if we really need so much detail—Rubenhold risks bogging us down in minutiae, and I admit that sometimes I found myself starting to skim, looking to reconnect with a storyline, to regain some forward momentum. But even as I did that, I was aware that I was going against the grain of the book, which is by design anti-narrative.

What I mean by that (and of course this is just my theory about Rubenhold’s approach) is that we already know something crucial about each woman: we already know how their stories end. For too long that one thing has been considered enough to know about them, or at least the most important thing to know about them, and it has been used to make assumptions about what came before—and about who these women were. In order to undo that ending, to refuse it as the defining moment in their lives, Rubenhold has to repress it almost completely, even as each step of each of her five biographies takes its subject closer and closer to it. It’s a really interesting conceptual challenge.

the-case-of-the-murderous-dr-creamShe is also committed to undoing the sensationalism around her subjects’ lives and deaths: I think that’s another explanation for the way she writes the book. She avoids all the obvious kinds of narrative manipulation: she creates no suspense, she does not set a foreboding tone, use foreshadowing, or create melodramatic scenarios or dramatic climaxes. This is one way The Five differs from Dean Jobb’s The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: although I did not find his treatment of this murderer’s victims exploitive, Jobb does enjoy dramatic irony and foreshadowing, and overall he  tells a more melodramatic and grisly tale. He also, obviously, focuses on the killer, whereas Rubenhold refuses to give Jack the Ripper any more attention than is absolutely necessary. (For instance, there is no speculation at all in The Five about who he was.)

This is not to say that The Five is a dull, plodding, or wearily studious book, though it is very much a work of social history. It gets its considerable energy from Rubenhold’s frankly feminist perspective on her subjects’ lives, deaths, and posthumous treatment. “The courses their lives took,” she says early on, “mirrored that of so many other women of the Victorian age.” The book is really one long quietly furious riposte to the still too-common victim-blaming question about women who are assaulted: “what was she doing there in the first place?” She answers that question five times, recounting how one by one these women were worn down by social constraints, by economic struggles, by lack of education, by lack of employment options, by their inability to control their fertility; she shows families broken by disease, by poverty, by alcoholism, and especially by the lack of support and resources to recover from any of these problems. The women she tells us about were not helpless victims of circumstance, but their world was hard, hostile, and often dangerous—and profoundly misogynistic. They ended up in vulnerable situations, not because they made uniquely bad decisions or were in any way “looking for it,” but because they had run out of other options.

fiveAnd no matter how they came to be “sleeping rough,” they didn’t invite or deserve their horrendous deaths. The idea that any version of their life stories should mitigate our distress at the violence done to them—that in any way their murders open them up to that kind of judgment of their characters—is precisely what Rubenhold is crusading against. The epigraph for her conclusion comes from the judge at the trial of the so-called “Suffolk Strangler” in 2008: “You may view with some distaste the lifestyles of those involved,” he says, but “no-one is entitled to do these women any harm, let alone kill them.” Since the first inquests into their deaths, Rubenhold shows, her five have been dismissed as “only prostitutes,” perpetuating the familiar Madonna / whore dichotomy that “suggests there is an acceptable standard of female behavior, and those who deviate from it are fit to be punished.” She rightly points out how persistent this view is, to this day:

When a woman steps out of line and contravenes accepted norms of feminine behavior, whether on social media or on the Victorian street, there is a tacit understanding that someone must put her back in her place.

Never having read any “Ripperology,” I was shocked at the examples she gives of writers (recent ones!) about Jack the Ripper who casually degrade his victims and “elevate the murderer to celebrity status.” “Our culture’s obsession with the mythology,” she convincingly argues, “serves only to normalize its particular brand of misogyny.” Women shouldn’t have to be nice, good, perfect to be safe; men shouldn’t be able to use anything about women’s lives as justifications for violence against them. It might seem like a stretch when Rubenhold declares that by accepting the “Ripper legend” we not only perpetuate the specific injustice done to her subjects but “condone the basest forms of violence”—but if we understand them, as she wants us to, as representative rather than unique, as important because they are ordinary, not because they are outliers, then she is exactly right, and in that respect The Five is very much a book about the present as well as the past, and it is not just sad but infuriating.

#OldWivesTale21 Update

I realize belatedly that I should have posted about this here before rather than assuming a Twitter update was enough. Dorian is on vacation (check out his Twitter feed for pictures!) and so we’ve adjusted our reading and posting schedule so that he doesn’t have to worry about any of it until he gets back. Here’s the revised plan:

Revised Bennett Schedule

As you can see, it brings our read-along project to a close just a bit later than originally planned. We’re excited to pick up again with our discussion – and to find out how the novel ends!