“Otherworldly”: Richard Powers, Bewilderment

bewildermentI twitched in my sleeping bag trying not to wake Robin. A chorus of invertebrates swelled and ebbed. Two barred owls traded their call-and-response: Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all? Who would ever cook for this boy, aside from me? I couldn’t imagine Robin toughening up enough to survive this Ponzi scheme of a planet. Maybe I didn’t want him to. I liked him otherworldly. I liked having a son so ingenuous that it rattled his smug classmates. I enjoyed being the father of a kid whose favorite animal for three straight years had been the nudibranch. Nudibranchs are underappreciated.

Bewilderment is a heart-rending novel. It is about two failures, or two catastrophes. One is the failure of a father, Theo, to save his beloved, brilliant, difficult son Robin; the other is our collective failure to save our planet and the other creatures for whom it is also the only precious, fragile home. These failures are related: one source of Robin’s baffled fury—his terrifying, exhausting, destructive outbursts of rage—is the devastation he sees around him as some species are driven to extinction and others suffer needlessly because of human greed, selfishness, and callousness.

Theo is a single parent; he and Robin are still grieving for the death of his wife, Robin’s mother, Alyssa in an (apparent) accident, and that emotional struggle gives their close but fraught relationship additional pathos. Theo tries everything to help Robin learn to live in the world, to help him find his balance—everything, that is, except the one thing almost every other authority figure or expert involved in Robin’s life wants Theo to do, which is to medicate him. One source of Theo’s resistance is that he doubts their diagnoses:

When a condition gets three different names over as many decades, when it requires two subcategories to account for completely contradictory symptoms, when it goes from nonexistent to the country’s most commonly diagnosed childhood disorder in the course of one generation, when two different physicians want to prescribe three different medications, there’s something wrong.

powers2“So far the votes are two Asperger’s, one probably OCD, and one possible ADHD,” he tells Martin, a neuroscientist friend of Alyssa’s to whom he eventually turns for help. “Most of the common meds are pretty normalized,” Martin comments, but when Theo insists that he wants “some treatment short of drugs,” Martin proposes that Robbie enter his ongoing trial of a therapy called Decoded Neurofeedback, or DecNef, in which “subjects enter emotional states in response to external prompts,” generating scans that are then used to guide another set of subjects to follow in their mental footsteps. (I don’t pretend to grasp either the nuances or the feasibility of this intervention, or to know how realistic Powers’ evocation of it is.) This is Martin’s explanation of the approach they go on to take with Robin:

The scanning AI would compare the patterns of connectivity inside Robin’s brain—his spontaneous brain activity—to a prerecorded template. “Then we’ll shape that spontaneous activity through visual and auditory cues. We’ll start him on the composite patterns of people who have achieved high levels of composure through years of meditation. Then the AI will coax him with feedback—tell him when he’s close and when he’s farther away.

The treatments are successful from the start (“Brain Boy,” the researchers admiringly nickname Robbie) but they become remarkably so once Martin’s team connect Robin specifically with recordings of his mother’s brain activity from an earlier experiment she and Theo both participated in. Is Robin really reconnecting with his dead mother when he follows her thoughts and feelings in this way? It certainly seems like it, to him and to Theo: ‘It was her, Dad, Robin reports after one of the first of these sessions, and then, hauntingly, Your wife loves you. You know that, right?’

Theo’s hope is that the treatment will enable Robin to stay in and survive at school. It doesn’t work out that way, and so Theo begins home schooling him, with some costs to his own career as an academic astrobiologist. Robin flourishes under their new system:

He had no trouble keeping up with the public curriculum. He polished off his online self-exams with glee. We traveled everywhere that reading, math, science, social studies, and health let us travel. We studied at home, in the car, over meals, and on long walks through the woods. Even shooting penalty kicks against each other in the park became a lesson in physics and statistics.

Every success is precarious, though—the gains of the treatment wear off, even as Robbie becomes something of a celebrity as a case study, and the world around them continues to cause him distress Theo is increasingly unable to mitigate. Robbie finds meaning and motivation in activism, only to be crushed at its inefficacy, and at other people’s indifference (one of many ways in which his struggles reminded me of Owen’s). News of a devastating outbreak of bovine encephalitis necessitating mass killing of the “demented cows” causes a meltdown so self-destructive a worried neighbor calls child services.

powersTheo’s tense, beautiful, heartbreaking account of his life with Robin is intercut with their “visits” to other planets: part of Theo’s work is running simulations of what kind of life might emerge under wildly varying conditions which he and Robbie “explore” with exhilarating curiosity and awe. These sections are weird and wonderful, visions of possible worlds completely unlike our own and yet always imagined as possible points of connection. On the planet Pelagos, for instance,

Life spread through its latitudes from steamy to frozen. Hosts of creatures turned the ocean bottoms into underwater forests. Giant blimps migrated from pole to pole, never stopping, each half of their brains taking turns to sleep. Intelligent kelp hundreds of meters long spelled messages in colors that rippled up the length of their stocks. Annelids practiced agriculture and crustaceans built high-rise cities. . . . Dozens of dispersed intelligent species spoke millions of languages.

‘No telescopes, Dad,’ says Robbie; ‘No rocket ships. No computers. No radios.  . . How many planets are like this one?’ “There might be none,” replies Theo; “They might be everywhere.” ‘Well, we’ll never hear from any of them,’ Robbie concludes, not so much regretfully as with wonder. The planetary excursions reflect Theo and Robbie’s moods and needs: when their own world is too inhospitable—especially for Robbie, who is too sensitive to endure its sorrows, and too intelligent to be placated or distracted from them—they leave it behind. There is no escaping reality, however, and the last planet Theo conjures up is one “that couldn’t figure out where everyone was. It died of loneliness. That happened billions of times in our galaxy alone.” His desolation is complete.

powers3I was initially drawn to Bewilderment because of its description as the story of a father and his “rare and troubled boy.” I had a son like that, and while his specific passions and hardships were not the same as Robbie’s, Powers captures a lot of what it was like to try and to fail to know what was right for someone whose gifts and whose difficulties were equally extraordinary, excessive, sometimes exhausting, especially but not only for him. I too liked my son “otherworldly”; his ingenuousness was so precious, even as it made him, sometimes, so vulnerable. “His pronouncements were off-the-wall mysteries to everyone except me,” Theo says of Robin;

He could quote whole scenes from movies, even after a single viewing. He rehearsed memories endlessly, and every repetition of the details made him happier. When he finished a book he liked, he’d start it again immediately, from page one. He melted down and exploded over nothing. But he could just as easily be overcome by joy. . . . Tell me what deficit matched up with that? What disorder explained him?

I think Bewilderment is, in part, about the limits of explanations, which are not, after all, instructions. What lies beyond them, as deep and vast and mysterious as space, is love.

“A Grand Mass of Detail”: Ian McEwan, Lessons

lessonsReading back since 1986 did not bring him any fresh understanding of his life. There were no obvious themes, no undercurrents he had not noticed at the time, nothing learned. A grand mass of detail was what he found and events, conversations, even people that he could not remember. In those sections it was if he was reading of someone else’s past. He disliked himself for complaining onto the page—about living hand to mouth, not having the right kind of work, not making a long and successful marriage. Boring, no insight, passive. He had read many books. His summaries were hasty, without interest.

Ian McEwan’s Lessons is what I think of as a “soup to nuts” novel, one that, like William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, earns our interest in its protagonist just by sticking with him. Like Logan Mountstuart, Roland Baines doesn’t really develop: he acquires no particular wisdom or insight over the years. He just gets older, and as he does, things happen: people come and go, priorities change, happy times give way to sad ones, opportunities are seized or missed, regrets arise then are displaced by more immediate crises or distractions. The novel’s title suggests that these accumulated experiences teach him something, that the Roland on the last page will be knowing in a way that the Roland we meet at the outset of the novel is not. He is, but not because of any grand epiphany, just because he is older and has been through a lot. Roland is not Pip, reflecting on his earlier life from the moral vantage point of the end of his Bildungsroman. When he looks back, as he often does, it’s with the same mixture of speculation, resignation, satisfaction, and self-reproach that probably most of us become familiar with as we pass from youth into middle age:

These days he ate less, drank more and thought a lot. He had a chair, a view, a certain glass he favoured. Among his subjects were other single starting errors that multiplied through time into a fan-shaped array. On close examination the errors dissolved into questions, hypotheticals, even into solid gains. On this last he may have been deluding himself. But in surveying a life it was inadvisable to acknowledge too much defeat. Marrying Alissa? Without [his son] Lawrence there would have been no joy, no Stefanie, Roland’s new best friend. If Alissa [who left him to pursue her writing] had stayed?  . . . Her novel remained exquisite. Leaving school early? If he had stayed, Miriam [his sexually predatory piano teacher], by her own admission, would have hauled him from the classroom and he would have been sunk. . . . Abandoning classical piano and the chance of becoming a concert pianist? Then he would never have discovered jazz, would never have run free in his twenties or learned to respect manual labour or developed a snappy backhand.

And so it goes, on through the many choices that, for better and for worse, have made his life what it was and is.

Following Roland along the journey is consistently interesting, sometimes surprising, occasionally both funny and poignant. There is (unusually for McEwan) no big twist, unless you count that in itself as the trick he pulls on us this time: except for the cuts back and forth between grown Roland and his childhood, the novel is straightforward, chronological, with an almost old-fashioned dedication to exposition, creating a “grand mass of detail” the effect of which is not revelatory but cumulative. At first it takes a bit of patience: where is it all going, you wonder? It’s McEwan, after all, and also right at the beginning Miriam puts her hand on eleven-year-old Roland, where she shouldn’t: surely dark things are in store. But instead time just keeps passing, and though Roland and Miriam’s relationship does turn into something inappropriate and disturbing (how much better is it that at least he’s fourteen by then?), it doesn’t seem, in the end, to be very important. “Were you damaged by it?” a police officer asks Roland, when the possibility arises that Miriam could be held criminally liable for their affair. “No, not at all,” replies Roland promptly, and there really is no evidence in the novel that he was. Should that matter, to the detective, to Roland, to Miriam, to us? Isn’t what she (they) did just wrong? Is the implicit message that there are some wrong things that actually needn’t be a big deal, if we don’t make a big deal of them? Roland is not  haunted or traumatized, although when he finally confronts her many years later he is angry: “It had an effect, do you understand? An effect!” He never does press charges. If hers are the lessons of the title, I ended the book uncertain what they were, or what they meant.*

Roland asks himself those retrospective questions about his life during the pandemic: “His London was of the plague year, 1665,” he thinks, “of the diseased wooden town of 1349.” One of his lockdown projects is to sort and annotate boxes of photographs; like so many projects we all imagined would see us through those long indistinguishable days of anxious yet boring isolation, this one founders. One of the side-effects of reading Lessons for me, as it checks off the world events that affect Roland more or less directly (Chernobyl, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban missile crisis, the Thatcher years, 9/11, 7/7, COVID), was remembering where I was when Big Things happened. Usually, like Roland, I was at most a distant witness, and yet when I think of them I have the feeling that I was there, that they happened to me too: I was in northern Italy when news broke of the accident at Chernobyl, for example, and for weeks we wondered (as Roland does) about the safety of the water, and whether we should keep eating local produce; I was nursing Owen late at night when news broke of Princess Diana’s fatal car accident, and nursing Maddie while idly watching morning talk shows when every station broke way from their regular programming because the first plane had hit the Twin Towers. We are always living in history; I enjoyed Roland’s journey through it. McEwan never uses him as a facile device for a “front row seat,” though; except for some idealistic early attempts to do something “meaningful” by smuggling items into East Berlin, Roland’s own story is (as most of ours are) relentlessly personal.

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel arises from one of its most personal events: Alissa’s decision to leave her husband and infant son. It isn’t until Roland reads her novel that he comes, not just to understand, but to accept the fierce necessity of her decision, which initially I thought might devolve into a predictably judgmental arc, Kramer vs Kramer style, about the selfishness of women seeking personal fulfilment at their family’s expense. Alissa herself describes her situation in ways much like Meryl Streep’s character does, in fact:

The two of you . . . I was nothing. I had nothing. No thoughts, no personality, no wishes except for sleep. I was sinking. I had to get out. . . . You’re a good father and Larry was tiny and I knew he’d be OK. And that you would be too, sooner or later. I wasn’t OK but I’d made my choice and I did what I had to do.

But unlike that character, she has no regrets. When Larry, grown up, shows up on her doorstep, she basically slams the door in his face: she chose otherwise. And when she tells Roland that she did what she had to do, she adds “This,” and hands him her book, The Journey, and it is a masterpiece, one he knows she never could have written if she had stayed home:

Would she, could she, have written The Journey there? The lapidary prose, the high-flying digressions offered up to the ghost of George Eliot, whom Catherine [the protagonist] admires, the fine painfully attuned consciousness of the heroine, the hovering watchful eye, the ever-generous tolerant narrative self-consciously organising, as if in slow motion right before the reader, the vast body of its material? No, impossible, no one could conceive a book of such ambition and execution in that house.

What is it worth, a book like that? More, Roland acknowledges, than the life she rejected. Yet that life has been his life: in rejecting it, she has declared, perhaps, that his life is not a worthwhile one, or perhaps that he is not capable of a better one, a higher one, because he does not have her talent, or her ambition, or her ruthlessness. The question of what we owe the geniuses among us, or what they owe us, is a perennially interesting one, for Roland and for us (and for Helen DeWitt, whose tart confection The English Understand Wool I also read recently). “I am a male Hardwick,” Roland plans to say when he attends a panel on Robert Lowell that takes up the painful story of The Dolphin, for which Lowell “plundered and plagiarised and reshaped the anguished letters and phone calls” from Hardwick when he left her for another woman. “You have to live it to know it,” he wants to say; “the quality of the work absolutely matters . . . Yes, I forgave her because she was good, even brilliant. To achieve what she did she had to leave us.”

Alissa achieves greatness (and very nearly the Nobel Prize). What does Roland have to show for his life, in his old age? A small hand in his, to lead him across the room. It’s an unexpectedly sentimental ending, from McEwan, another way in which this novel surprised me, but also pleased me. Maybe in his old age, he has tired of acerbity and cynicism, of twists that make us cringe or that shake our faith in each other and in the stories we tell. I have always admired the precision and heft and intelligence of McEwan’s prose; I am a big fan of Atonement (which I really miss teaching!), and also, if a bit more equivocally, of Saturday. I have read nearly all of his novelsbut I hated (hated!) Nutshell and so I passed on Machines Like Me. I’m glad I didn’t skip this one: I thought it was really good, and I’m looking forward to talking it over with my book club soon.

*A brief post-book club meeting update: After our discussion, I ended up thinking I underestimated the influence of Miriam’s assault, the effect of what you might call the residue of its trauma – although I do still think that it ends up absorbed in the larger story of his life. It is significant but not its defining event, which (perhaps – we debated this) is meant to signal something of a corrective to the current trend towards prosecuting “historical” wrongs.

What Am I To Do With These?

‘Jacob! Jacob!’ cried Bonamy, standing by the window. The leaves sank down again.

‘Such confusion everywhere!’ exclaimed Betty Flanders, bursting open the bedroom door.

Bonamy turned away from the window.

‘What am I to do with these, Mr. Bonamy?’

She held out a pair of Jacob’s old shoes.

“To that question,” Winifred Holtby notes in her book on Virginia Woolf, “there is, indeed, no satisfactory answer.” The novel’s final image “leaves an impression of apprehension, of the solicitude of women and of the indifference of fate . . . Its melancholy, its extraordinary desolation, are indefinable.”

The famous six word story (attributed, apocryphally, it seems, to Hemingway) “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” is often cited as one of the saddest stories imaginable. I know that grief is not a competition, that there is no hierarchy of loss, and yet I have sometimes thought, since Owen died, that items often worn—like picture books often read—tell a tale every bit as heartbreaking, if not more, because they represent a love and a loss encompassing years. How well Woolf understood: I see myself in Jacob’s bereft mother, baffled, as I have so often been baffled, by the puzzle that completely ordinary things like shoes and clothes remain, even though the person who gave them meaning is gone. For nearly a year now, I have avoided them, but I have not been able to ignore them. Just by being present, by being what is left of him, they have relentlessly demanded my solicitude. But what am I to do with them?

There is, indeed, no satisfactory answer, but in the last few days, with loving help and support, I have at least (at last) done something. His clothes are cleaned, folded, and sorted, some ready to go to others who need them, some saved for our remembrance. I have never done laundry with so much love before: sad as it was, it also felt right, as if I was taking care of him again, as I did for so long. There is desolation in that, but also some comfort.

As always, a poet has shown the way.

“The Sadness of Clothes” by Emily Fragos

When someone dies, the clothes are so sad. They have outlived
their usefulness and cannot get warm and full.
You talk to the clothes and explain that he is not coming back

as when he showed up immaculately dressed in slacks and plaid jacket
and had that beautiful smile on and you’d talk.
You’d go to get something and come back and he’d be gone.

You explain death to the clothes like that dream.
You tell them how much you miss the spouse
and how much you miss the pet with its little winter sweater.

You tell the worn raincoat that if you talk about it,
you will finally let grief out. The ancients etched the words
for battle and victory onto their shields and then they went out

and fought to the last breath. Words have that kind of power
you remind the clothes that remain in the drawer, arms stubbornly
folded across the chest, or slung across the backs of chairs,

or hanging inside the dark closet. Do with us what you will,
they faintly sigh, as you close the door on them.
He is gone and no one can tell us where.

“The Singer Steps Out”: Anthony Doerr, Cloud Cuckoo Land

DoerrWhen the stream of the old Greek picks up, and she climbs into the story, as though climbing the wall of the priory of the rock—handhold here, foothold there—the damp chill of the cell dissipates, and the bright, ridiculous world of Aethon takes its place. . . . Turn a page, walk the lines of sentences: the singer steps out, and conjures a world of color and noise in the space inside your head.

Some novels are exhilarating to read because they are a kind of high-wire act—aspirational, excessive, risky. We are always aware, reading them, that the effort might not work—that they might fail, that their reach might exceed their grasp. Maybe the conceit will end up feeling too labored, or the philosophy too superficial; maybe the sough-after emotion will collapse into melodrama or bathos, or the structure will start to creak or even crack; maybe what’s on offer will prove not a daring exploit but an exploitative gimmick. Cloud AtlasDucks, Newburyport, Lincoln in the Bardo, and Piranesi all come to mind for me as contemporary novels of this kind; two of these I ended up, after some initial hesitation, absolutely loving; one I admired for its virtuosity but found too self-consciously showy for genuine delight; one (regular readers will know which one) I have started and abandoned in annoyance three times so far.

Cloud Cuckoo Land is a literary high-wire act of this kind, and for me an unambiguously successful one. The novel is ambitious, capacious, acrobatic, and above all joyful—not in its content, but in its concept, which is celebratory even though many of its stories are tragic. Cloud Cuckoo Land is a paean to reading, but it dramatizes reading’s transformative alchemy rather than lecturing us about it; it enacts through its own readerly pleasures the magic its characters, if they are fortunate, discover for themselves. It is also an elegy for the world in which we read, which—like the precious volumes its characters treasure, decipher, and preserve—is beautiful and nurturing and heart-stoppingly vulnerable.

doerr2I won’t rehearse the details of the novel except to say (for those who haven’t encountered it or anything about it yet) that it follows a cluster of characters widely separated by time and place: in 15th-century Constantinople, a boy and a girl from two different, antagonistic worlds—both in their own way dreamers—cross paths and find fellowship; in 20th-century Idaho, the lives of an angry boy and an old man unexpectedly converge, their two forms of idealism colliding, with unintended consequences; in a remote future, young Konstance lives a surreal existence aboard a hermetically sealed spacecraft. The novel moves each plot forward a step at a time, orchestrating them with delicate precision. The novel overall is organized around fragments of a “lost” ancient text, The Wonders Beyond Thule by Antonius Diogenes, which plays a key role in each plot as well as providing imagery and inspiration for the novel as a whole.

Dealing his characters’ stories out piecemeal as Doerr does has its initial risks and disadvantages. At first, the elaborate artifice of Konstance’s world almost lost me. Then Anna and Omeir captured my heart, and my fear for Zeno grew complicated by increasing understanding for Seymour. As the connections between the plots, both literal and thematic, showed themselves more and more clearly, I ceased to find it jarring shifting between them, and the further along I got the more invested I became in everyone’s plight, and especially in the role of books and reading in carrying them through it. Like Doerr’s earlier novel All the Light We Cannot See, it is written in meticulous prose—detailed, tactile, sometimes lyrical. The final revelation about the Argos is perhaps a bit pat (though it certainly surprised me) but that was not enough to detract from the enjoyment I got out of the reading experience. Cloud Cuckoo Land was transporting for me in a way that no other book I’ve read since Owen’s death has been. I finished it with tears in my eyes, in part for the hopeful beauty of the ending and in part for the reminder the novel gave me of what reading can be.doerr

On that note, it did occur to me as I read (maybe without reason) that the biggest risk Doerr takes is that his novel will seem to (or actually) pander to his audience. In celebrating books, the magic of the imagination, the value of libraries, and so on in a big sweeping novel, he is certainly and inevitably preaching to the choir. How could we resist a book that so perfectly reflects our own values? Of course we love it: it is about us and the things we already cherish! But does that mean that the whole project is somehow insincere? I’ve seen in stores (and read, for that matter) plenty of books that do strike me as manipulative in this way, their bookishness really little more than a marketing ploy. (It annoys me a lot when I fall for it!). I don’t think that’s the case with Cloud Cuckoo Land, not just because it is such a rich and demanding blend of erudition and creativity but because the novel itself is not ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’: it depicts a world with as much suffering and hatred in it as love and joy, in which beauty and horror, art and barbarism, coexist. The truth of our lives, as Seymour eventually realizes, “is that we are all beautiful even as we are all part of the problem, and that to be a part of the problem is to be human.”

Reading Week Reflections


It took some effort and some strategic skimming, but I made it to the end of Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads. There’s a lot of it – but that wouldn’t have been a problem if I had felt there was more to it. What was all that accumulated information for, in the end? What comes of it? What are we left thinking about, after wading through so much detail about people who are by and large quite unsympathetic and disappointingly static? I was never exactly bored, but I was also completely unable to get my bearings at anything but the most literal level. But a lot of astute critics loved the novel (that’s one reason I bought it, after not having read anything by Franzen since The Corrections) so as always we are left with the great mystery of reading, the inexplicable idiosyncrasy of it all.

Now I’m reading Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Case Study. I think it first caught my eye because it was on the Booker longlist. Then I read something else about it somewhere – now I can’t remember exactly what or where (typical of me these days, I’m sorry to say) that sharpened my interest enough that I went ahead and procured it. I’m engaged but not engrossed so far; we’ll see how it goes. I reviewed Burnet’s earlier novel His Bloody Project for Open Letters Monthly a few years ago and concluded it was “not wholly satisfying.” It too was a compilation of purported source documents; my main complaint (besides the voices being insufficiently distinct and exciting) was that it lacked a unifying idea about its elements. Maybe this should have discouraged me from trying another novel by the same author in so similar a vein, but Case Study seems tauter so far. I’ll see. If I can just concentrate on it long enough to read to the end, that in itself will be a mark in its favor.

Update: I did read Case Study to the end, and stayed interested in it the whole time. Success, then! I am not sure I read it in a suspicious enough way: I found the ending curiously anticlimactic and it was only on peering at some reviews that I started to think about more layers of unreliability and thus interpretation than had occurred to me on my own. Curiosity, too, rather than emotional engagement, was my main feeling as I read: I wanted to see how the elements were going to come together, and what they were going to mean, but I wasn’t particularly invested in the outcome otherwise. It’s a clever book, maybe too clever for a reader like me whose first instinct, at some level, is to give myself over to the fiction, rather than to mistrust every move.*

Also on my TBR pile are Ian McEwan’s Lessons, which my book club is doing next and Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land, which a member of my book club talked about in such an interesting way at our last meeting that it inspired me to pick it up. I’m stalled about a third of the way into Andrew Greig’s Rose Nicolson, and keep looking at but not actually starting Nicola Griffith’s Spear. I feel as if I keep picking the wrong books, as if my reading radar is malfunctioning. For this reason I am suppressing my urge to rush out and buy Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead, even though everything I’ve heard about it so far makes it sound very tempting. Or maybe my “bandwidth,” as we like to call it nowadays, is just overwhelmed by the combination of work (which of course includes a lot of reading) and grief.


Today is exactly one year since Owen moved back in with us, for what was meant to be a restorative stop-gap measure while we sorted out his next steps. The onset of fall weather, with its crisp sunshine and bright colours, has intensified the feeling I’ve talked about before of time coming somehow full circle: the intervening months have been so strange, so foggy and disoriented, and the events of this time last year are still so immediate and vivid in my mind, that it is almost easier to believe I am still there, in November 2021, than here, helplessly reaching back to that hopeful reunion across the unfathomable chasm Owen’s death created in my life and my memories. But I’m not there, of course, but here, and soon there will be other, even harder, markers of the relentless way time puts more and more distance between us. I think often of Denise Riley’s comment that “the dead slip away, as we realize that we have unwillingly left them behind in their timelessness.” Current wisdom is that grief is best treated by finding ways to continue our relationships with those we have lost. It is an ongoing struggle, for me, to understand what that means in practice, although I am learning that it includes grief itself, which for now at least is the truest expression of my ongoing love for my son. Its pain is no less fierce now, but it is at least more familiar.

These lines by Philip Larkin capture so well what it feels like to live with sorrow, sometimes sitting quietly with it but sometimes sensing it stir, or stirring it yourself, so that it flares up once more, rending your heart. I know a lot of you live this way too. 

If grief could burn out
Like a sunken coal,
The heart would rest quiet,
The unrent soul
Be still as a veil;
But I have watched all night

The fire grow silent,
The grey ash soft:
And I stir the stubborn flint
The flames have left,
And grief stirs, and the deft
Heart lies impotent.

* One of the challenges of a novel like Case Study for me is that, deliberately, we are discouraged from accepting any of it as sincere. And yet in the midst of it, there was a passage – narrated by a character we can’t trust, about someone who by the end of the novel I’m not 100% sure ever actually existed within its fictional space – that hit very hard:

Then something else occurred. One evening, as we sat at supper, I turned to the place Veronica had lately occupied and was about to say something to her, before I checked myself. For the first time, I keenly felt her absence. From that moment, I saw her death in a different light. There was a Veronica-sized void in the world. As well as her physical presence, the contents of her mind were gone. The question I had been about to ask would never be answered. Everything she had learned, the memories she had accumulated, her future thoughts and actions had all been snuffed out. The world was diminished by her non-existence.

In the novel, this moment is either poignant autobiography or strategically affecting fantasy (or, perhaps, sadly troubling delusion). Whichever of these it is meant as, it’s also, in its own way, truthful, as are many of Burnet’s remarks – off-hand though they seem – about suicide and “dark thoughts.”

October Reading & Teaching

atkinson-shrinesOctober was a terrible reading month for me. I didn’t even start many books, much less finish them. A last minute push (and, I’ll admit, a bit of fed-up skimming) got me to the end of Kate Atkinson’s Shrines of Gaiety, which I had acquired precisely because I figured that, whatever gripes I have had in the past with her logic or narrative trickery, I could trust Atkinson to tell a story that would carry me along out of my slump. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen: Shrines just never clicked for me. Its overly elaborate plot is delivered piecemeal, with lots of chronological jumping around; although there are a lot of well-conceived characters, none of them came to life for me, at least not enough to provide any momentum; and the ending is beyond bad — the last several pages read as if Atkinson got tired of the whole project and just transcribed everything that was left in her notebooks. YMMV, of course: the novel has gotten a lot of glowing reviews, and many readers on Twitter replied to my grumpy report about it saying they’d enjoyed it just fine. flynn-berry

The only other (new) novel I finished in October was Flynn Berry’s Northern Spy. It’s a thriller, well paced and plotted and with a bit of intricate moral dancing around questions about how far it is right to go, for your family, for a cause, or for your conscience. I’m not rushing out to buy Berry’s other novels, but if I saw one at the library I’d definitely pick it up.

I’ve been reading steadily for my classes, of course. In Women and Detective Fiction we’ve finished Dorothy B. Hughes’s In A Lonely Place and now also P. D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman; tomorrow we have our first discussion of Sue Grafton’s A is for Alibi.  Rereading Grafton today I appreciated the light-heartedness of it. I mean, obviously as it’s a murder mystery there’s a grim aspect to it, and at times it is very serious indeed, but Grafton has a sense of humor about the genre and is clearly having fun up-ending its tropes. My experience in previous years is that students find her revisions more dated than they do Sara Paretsky’s; there’s usually a certain impatience with Kinsey’s “I’m not a girly-girl” shtick. I admit, I relate to it, perhaps because my own early introduction to feminism was by way of Free to be You and Me and not being allowed to have Barbie dolls. I do think V. I. Warshawski is a more interesting character and Paretsky overall is more thoughtful about the politics of her novels. I also got pretty tired of Grafton’s series well before the end of the alphabet (she only got as far as Y). But A is for Alibi is brisk and smart and has plenty of unexpected twists, which I hope will help keep the students’ attention.

oupIn 19th-Century Fiction we have been working on Middlemarch for a couple of weeks. I wish I could say it is going well. I don’t think it’s going badly exactly, but honestly this term I don’t really know. Attendance is just appalling: most days, maybe 60% of the class shows up, which is unprecedented, in my fairly long experience. I don’t know what to make of this. I know it’s not personal, or at least I’m trying not to take it personally, but that doesn’t make it any less disheartening. The students who are present are pretty quiet; I think – I hope – they are engaged, but much of the time it’s hard to tell, and I worry that at this point I am mostly performing enthusiasm, not eliciting it. The ones who do speak up have good things to say, but I’m not used to having to work so hard to get anything out of the class, to get any energy back from them. I’m going to keep trying! The ones who are showing up deserve no less, and I remain hopeful that between us we can and will make the most of this opportunity to read this great novel together.

I was really looking forward to these classes on Middlemarch because I thought, or hoped, they would shore up my faltering faith in all the ways I have spent my “one wild and precious life.” Whatever else was going wrong in my life before all of this, I could count on my classroom hours to make me feel better, by taking me out of my own head for a while and also because of the joy of engaging with students about books in ways I really do value and cherish and believe in. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it isn’t so simple this term. The image I keep returning to lately is that it’s like I’m crossing a suspension bridge. It’s a bit unsteady underfoot, but as long as I look straight ahead it’s not too bad moving forward, just doing the next thing that’s in front of me, and the next, and the next. It’s when I look down and realize all over again what’s below it, or it’s shaken by a gust of wind (a memory, a place, a picture, or just a feeling) that the vertiginous sensations return —  “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed” — and I am overcome, unbalanced, beside myself, in spite of myself.

capilano suspension bridge

Recently: Classes & Senior Moments

I haven’t been doing well at my plan to return to regular posting about my classes, and in fact today I don’t really have a lot to say about them, except that overall I think they are going okay—though not great. Gaudy Night fell pretty flat in Women & Detective Fiction this time around, which was disappointing, but In A Lonely Place has clearly caught their interest, so that’s encouraging. It’s unusual for discussion of Lady Audley’s Secret to be as sluggish as it was this time in 19th-Century Fiction, which makes me anxious about starting Middlemarch next week. Attendance in that class this term is also the worst I’ve ever seen it, but I think that is mostly due to COVID (infections and exposures), and of course I’m glad those students are staying away. I do worry that the strategies I put in place to mitigate the effects of those absences might be influencing other students; missing classes can have a snowball effect on their (dis)engagement. But all I can do myself is keep showing up and trying to make our class time worth it to all of us. I’m doing the best I can at this. Sometimes it’s a real struggle to get myself there, but once the class is underway I usually feel better. Task-oriented coping ftw!

The things I’ve been brooding on lately, more than these specific and quite familiar pedagogical ups and downs, have been work-related in a more general way. It turns out—unsurprisingly, I suppose—that going back to campus after everything that has happened in the last three years, and especially after Owen’s death, has prompted a lot of what I’ve been thinking about as “senior moments,” meaning not dithery forgetfulness (although I do experience those kinds of senior moments too!) but reflections on my career, on what it means to me, both personally and professionally, to be one of the most senior members of my department. Indeed, in just a couple of years I will be the most senior, in age and in years of service.

One factor is that I have come back to a changed department, one where many of the colleagues I was closest to or worked most closely with have recently retired. Thanks to previous retirements (and some departures for other reasons), our full-time complement had already shrunk by around 40%; we have been fortunate to be allowed to hire some great new full-time faculty, but there has been nothing like a 1 to 1 replacement rate. So before COVID struck we were already a much smaller community than we once were, and now in many ways the department feels like an unfamiliar community to me, one in which I don’t know many of my colleagues very well, much less my own place among them. I don’t feel well-equipped to be a mentor or a role model: my relationship with our discipline and with our institution is too equivocal, not to mention that I’m hardly a good example of professional success, on academic terms and perhaps on any terms. I’m not sure what I have to offer my newer colleagues, then, and I’m not sure they want or need anything from me—or if they do, whether it would be something I’m willing or able to give at this point. (I was asked about teaching a course on book reviewing, for example, something I have no interest in doing, for both petty and principled reasons.)

What do I want from my professional life now? As I stare down the remaining years towards my own retirement, what goals or hopes do I have for them? If you’d asked me where I stood in 2019, I would have described myself as mid-career: poised for what I hoped might be a period of expansion and flourishing as my family responsibilities lightened, as I recovered from the blow to my self-confidence and sense of purpose inflicted by my failed promotion bid, and as my years of experience began to really pay off in the classroom. I also had projects on the go I was excited about. Now here I am in 2022 feeling as if I have missed that phase and gone straight to the end game—and, in the shadow of Owen’s death, wondering what it has all been worth, and how or if or when to put that kind of energy in again. All those guilt-ridden years of trying to be both a good mother and a good academic, all the crises and compromises, all the books and paperwork and panics, about parenting, on the one hand, and productivity on the other—and before too long it will all come down to a giant recycling bin outside my office door and discovering nobody else wants my shelves of marked-up Victorian novels or my complete 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica. The writers of this article seriously underestimate the degree to which our department lounge, with its stacks and cartons of discarded books, is all the memento mori any of us really needs.

These are melancholy reflections, perhaps unduly so, both because my grief is still so raw and the reality of Owen’s death still so bewildering—its meaning and its impact both still unfolding every day—and because I have been on campus again for such a short time. Once, I imagined that a lot of the questions I have entertained about my life and my work since Fall 2020, when we first went online and I also got my first invitation to consider early retirement, would be answered by being back in the classroom. I knew then that it wasn’t the right time to decide: I didn’t feel ready to go (mid-career, remember?) and I didn’t think teaching online during a pandemic was the right context for deciding when I would be. Owen’s death raised more existential questions; I didn’t think returning to teaching in person would necessarily sort those out, but work—or teaching, anyway—has always given me a sense of purpose and accomplishment, so I thought it would at least help. It has helped, I guess, but the sensation of time travel I had over the summer as I tried to re-familiarize myself with campus has shaded into something different, something more like suspension between a past I can vividly imagine and a future that so far I can’t.

Recent Reading: Late September Edition

Arcimbolo LibrarianComparisons are foolish, I know, but often these days I recoil uncomfortably from cheerful exchanges among my many bookish ‘tweeps’ about what they’ve been reading because they seem to read so much and so enthusiastically—which is great, of course, but because I’m struggling to finish most of the books I pick up, the contrast can make me feel discouraged instead of interested and inspired. Social media has a way of making you feel inadequate or alienated, doesn’t it? And I say this as someone who has long championed Twitter (and would still do so, if challenged) on the grounds that it is very much what you make it. “My” Twitter is full of avid readers and I love that about it. It’s absolutely not their fault that lately it sometimes seems to hurt as much as it helps. I’m trying to think of it as aspirational: one day, I too will feel cheerfully bookish again!

Anyway, it’s not that I haven’t been reading at all. For one thing, I’m reading for my classes, which most recently has meant Great Expectations, Agatha Christie, and Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Old Clock. Next week it will be Lady Audley’s Secret in 19th-Century Fiction and Gaudy Night in Women & Detective Fiction: as Joe Gargery would say, what larks!

light-yearsEarlier this month I read Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years, the first of her much-admired Cazalet Chronicles. I enjoyed it just fine but wasn’t swept up in it—or swept away by it! The aspect of it that surprised me the most was how much it read like a book written in the 1930s (or perhaps the 1950s) rather than in the 1990s: it felt very much of the time it depicts. As a result, in some ways it seemed like a missed opportunity, artistically speaking: it’s a smart, elegant, readable portrayal but it didn’t seem to have any layers of reflection, or to take advantage of being what it actually is, namely historical fiction. Maybe the idea was to give us the feeling of being transported back, rather than to encourage us to look back and consider gaps and differences. I already had a copy of the second book in the series, Marking Time, and I will probably read it eventually, but I’ve picked it up, read a few pages, and put it down again more than once: I just don’t feel compelled to persist. The last time I tried, I found myself thinking that (deliberately or not) it read like the novel I imagine Woolf was trying not to write when she wrote what ended up as The Years. The problem, she noted, was “how to give ordinary waking Arnold Bennett life the form of art.” Not (we might conclude, following her lead) by just recounting in meticulous detail everything that happens to a large number of people over a long period of time.

the fellAlso this month I finally got my hands on Sarah Moss’s The Fell. I’m a big admirer of Moss’s fiction (see here, here, and here for more formal reviews plus any posts in this category here) but like other readers I know, I did not get terribly excited about The Fell. It has her usual combination of intelligence, precision, and undercurrents of menace or stress, and it really captured the grim absurdity of early lockdowns, but I keep wishing for her to go back to a more expansive canvas. I also found the somewhat breathless or chaotic stream of consciousness style of The Fell quite tiring to read.

mandel2My book club met in the middle of September to talk about Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility, but I actually read it in August, so it doesn’t really count as “recent”. I will say that it was not a big hit with the group, although most of us found at least some aspects of it enjoyable, provocative, or entertaining. There seemed to be a general consensus that it too often felt thin or sketchy: that she had not taken the time to make the most of her premise and her scenarios, or perhaps even that she had just cobbled together a lot of different ideas she’d had and tried to make a single novel out of them.

During Hurricane Fiona, I read mostly on my Kobo, which can be illuminated: when it’s really stormy, there’s rarely enough light to see print books very clearly, even with our best battery-powered lanterns. First I ended up rereading Normal People, which I had been thinking about and talking with other people about and so wanted to revisit. It still strikes me as such a melancholy novel; I find it odd when people refer to it as some kind of romance.

us-bookThen I read David Nicholls’s Us, which I happened to have recently downloaded, inspired by having enjoyed the TV adaptation starring Tom Hollander (which I thought was excellent). I wouldn’t say it’s a great novel, or even a particularly good one, at least in the prose: it’s a bit awkward and heavy-handed. I really empathized with its protagonist Douglas, though, and I appreciate that Nicholls refused the simplistic happy ending you might expect from a novel about a man hoping to save his marriage while going on a ‘grand tour’ with his wife and son.

I found myself thinking a lot about Douglas’s wife Connie’s explanation for deciding to divorce him: that their “marriage has run its course,” that with the departure of their son for college there isn’t really anything left for them to do as a couple and she just wants something new, different, better for the next and probably last phase of her life. Is that a reasonable or a selfish position? Obviously, a lot depends on specifics (for example, on whether she’s right that, as a couple, they have exhausted their options). A different novel (or novelist, I guess) would have explored that question more fully, perhaps even given us a split perspective so that we heard from Connie as well as from Douglas. There’s something enigmatic about her to the end, as it is: our story is really just about Douglas coming to terms with the inarguable fact that what you want is not always what someone else wants, and it might not be possible, never mind right, to change that. Because there’s never any doubt in the novel that Douglas loves Connie and would stay married to her if he could, there’s real pathos in watching him struggle with her resolution, including with the judgment of him (and his parenting) that is part of it. It was a good hurricane read: just absorbing enough to pass the time without being terribly demanding. rose-nicolson

I have a few books around that I hope will help me out of my current slump: Andrew Greig’s Rose Nicolson, which looks great; Nicola Griffith’s Spear, which I’ve been meaning to read for months now; and Ian McEwan’s Lessons, which my book club chose for our next meeting. Kate Atkinson’s Shrines of Gaiety is incoming, as well: I always find Atkinson immensely readable, even when I end up dissatisfied with the result, so the timing of this release seems perfect.

In My Classes: Stopping and Starting

DALHOUSIE-UNIVERSITYIt has been a somewhat chaotic time in my classes since I last posted—not in the classes themselves, really, which have gone on much as usual, when they have actually met. But there have been a couple of unanticipated disruptions to the term, as a result of which it feels as if we are struggling to build up any momentum.

First, Queen Elizabeth died. I did not expect this to affect my class schedule at all, but when the day of her funeral was declared a provincial holiday, Dalhousie decided to follow suit, so all classes were cancelled that day. I was not in favor of this plan: it’s embarrassing enough that we still have a hereditary monarchy in the first place, and the university doesn’t close for every non-statutory holiday (we are business as usual on Easter Monday, for example). A lot of other folks still had to work that day, too. However, once the public schools were closing there were certainly pragmatic arguments for making parents’ lives easier, and although it was a pain having to revise course plans with so little notice, once I’d done that I decided just to embrace the extra day off.

fionaWhen I announced the schedule changes for the “day of mourning,” I commented “Let’s just hope we don’t also have a hurricane!” Well, what do you know: Hurricane Fiona headed straight for us this past weekend, and classes are cancelled again today, as crews clean up the debris and work on restoring power. The storm was not as severe in Halifax as in other parts of the region, where it did really catastrophic damage. Other parts of the city also fared worse than we did in our particular corner, where there were lots of limbs and branches blown off and some trees sheared in two, but no huge trees or poles down. We lost power for about 38 hours; we got it back last night and then lost it again for a short time this afternoon, meaning we are definitely not taking it for granted! Our freezer packs did a decent job keeping the food in the fridge chilled, and luckily the freezer itself wasn’t packed and what was in it stayed pretty much frozen solid. We have a small camp stove we use to boil water and do a bit of cooking as needed. Increasingly, folks around us have generators, and more than one neighbor kindly offered us whatever help we needed; if the outage had gone on much longer, we would have taken them up on it gratefully.

Assuming we are back on Wednesday, that will actually be our only day of classes this week, as Friday is another day off, although this time deliberately so, in recognition of National Truth & Reconciliation Day.

agedIn between these disruptions, we have actually met a few times and I think it has gone basically fine. The energy seems a bit low to me in 19th-Century Fiction, although I blame it partly on our dreary windowless room, and it’s also possible that it seems that way to me because I can’t see students’ faces. I’ve been encouraging them to nod at me the way Wemmick nods at the Aged:

“Here’s Mr. Pip, aged parent,” said Wemmick, “and I wish you could hear his name. Nod away at him, Mr. Pip; that’s what he likes. Nod away at him, if you please, like winking!”

“This is a fine place of my son’s, sir,” cried the old man, while I nodded as hard as I possibly could. “This is a pretty pleasure-ground, sir. This spot and these beautiful works upon it ought to be kept together by the Nation, after my son’s time, for the people’s enjoyment.”

“You’re as proud of it as Punch; ain’t you, Aged?” said Wemmick, contemplating the old man, with his hard face really softened; “there’s a nod for you;” giving him a tremendous one; “there’s another for you;” giving him a still more tremendous one; “you like that, don’t you? If you’re not tired, Mr. Pip—though I know it’s tiring to strangers—will you tip him one more? You can’t think how it pleases him.”

I tipped him several more, and he was in great spirits.

I have wondered if stretching out our time on each book (which I did because of the advice we keep getting to ease up on students because of, well, everything) might be backfiring, because we’ve been talking about the same book for so long now. On the other hand, my competing fear is that a lot of them are quite behind in the reading, which could suggest I’m not allowing enough time. Well, we’ll be done with Great Expectations this week, one way or another, and next week we start Lady Audley’s Secret, which (if previous years are any indication) will perk them up, with its lurid and fast-moving plot and utter lack of subtlety (albeit it plenty of ambiguity, some of it, IMHO, evidence of authorial ineptness, not artistic complexity). (I do enjoy the novel a lot, and wrote an appreciation of it years ago for Open Letters Monthly.)

the-secret-of-the-old-clockWe’ve finished with Agatha Christie already in Mystery & Detective Fiction. I used to allot two class hours to Miss Marple stories, but for all Christie’s significance to the genre, I honestly don’t find there’s all that much to say about them, so I don’t regret having trimmed away one of those hours this year. We had a good student presentation on her, which gave us a productive second round of discussion. On Friday we had our first hour on Nancy Drew; we’re losing an hour on her to Fiona but will get another chance on Wednesday, with another student presentation. I always enjoy these so much: the students are so smart and creative and engaged, and they come up with such good ideas for class activities. Overall the energy in this seminar started off pretty good and seems to be getting better: spirits were high on Friday, partly because Nancy always proves very provocative. She’s just so good, and so good at everything: it’s annoying, I agree!

Personally, I continue to feel somewhat disoriented and unfocused, and I’m struggling to find my rhythm and pace in the classroom, especially (to my surprise, as it has long been my favorite lecture course) in 19th-Century Fiction. I don’t think (I certainly hope!) that this wavering isn’t evident to my students—that as far as they can tell, I’ve got my head in the game. I did mention to my seminar, in the context of one confusion I fell into, that (without going into details) I wasn’t as on top of things this term as I usually expect to be and that they should just ask or set me straight if they notice me getting something wrong. These recent cancellations and the last-minute changes they have required to my carefully laid plans are not helping: I don’t enjoy uncertainty at the best of times, which these definitely are not. Here’s hoping that once Fiona is well behind us, we don’t get any more unpleasant surprises for a while.

The First Week

3032-Start-Here-cropMy classes have been meeting for a week now, and I said I was going to try to get back in the habit of reflecting on them, so here I am, although to be honest I find myself at something of a loss about what to say. Should I just focus on the classroom time, on what we’re reading and talking about, as if it’s just another year? Or should I try to explain how surreal it feels to be in the classroom, talking about our readings as if it’s just another year, and then, when the time is up, to be back in the strange disordered world of grief?

I’ll start with the basics, the way I did in the early days of this series.

In 19th-Century British Fiction From Dickens to Hardy I have done my usual contextual introductions and now we are working our way through Great Expectations. I have mentioned here before, I’m sure, that sometimes I get a bit tired of Great Expectations, which I assign a lot. The last time I taught it was in the British Literature survey course in Winter 2020, right before we all got sent home. In my online courses since then we did Hard Times and Bleak House, and I think stepping away from Great Expectations for a couple of years has been good for me—I’m really appreciating it this time. It has an intensity and also (at least in some parts) a restraint that shows Dickens’s control and maturity as an artist. Today we talked about the novel as a version of a Bildungsroman except that, so far, Pip is developing in all the wrong ways. We talked about Miss Havisham and Estella as (bad) influences, and we looked especially at Chapter XIV as an illustration of the way Pip’s retrospective narration not only makes sure that we see how he’s going wrong but shows us that, eventually, he sees that too. “It was not because I was faithful,” he reports,greatexpectations

but because Joe was faithful, that I never ran away and went for a soldier or a sailor. It was not because I had a strong sense of the virtue of industry, but because Joe had a strong sense of the virtue of industry, that I worked with tolerable zeal against the grain. It is not possible to know how far the influence of any amiable honest-hearted duty-doing man flies out into the world; but it is very possible to know how it has touched one’s self in going by, and I know right well that any good that intermixed itself with my apprenticeship came of plain contented Joe, and not of restlessly aspiring discontented me.

It isn’t young Pip who knows to call himself “ungracious,” as he does twice in this chapter; it’s an older, wiser Pip. But (and essentially, for this eventual moral growth) even young Pip knows enough to break into tears when he leaves Joe behind:

I whistled and made nothing of going. But the village was very peaceful and quiet, and the light mists were solemnly rising, as if to show me the world, and I had been so innocent and little there, and all beyond was so unknown and great, that in a moment with a strong heave and sob I broke into tears. It was by the finger-post at the end of the village, and I laid my hand upon it, and said, “Good-bye, O my dear, dear friend!”

Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried than before,—more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle. If I had cried before, I should have had Joe with me then.

4205 start hereIn Women and Detective Fiction I also began with some broad overviews, of detective fiction as a genre and of some of the questions that organize the course and will frame our readings. For last class we read a handful of “classic” stories to serve as touchstones for the resisting or subversive versions to come: “The Purloined Letter,” “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and, as a sample of hard-boiled detection, Hammett’s “Death & Company,” which is one of his ‘Continental Op’ stories. These give us a good sense of the masculine milieu of so much classic detective fiction, of the habits and practices of their detectives, and of the reductive roles assigned to women, or assumed of the women, in them. Today, as a contrast, we discussed Baroness Orczy’s “The Woman in the Big Hat,” which is one of her stories about Lady Molly of Scotland Yard. It has a delightful “reveal”:

“The big hat,” replied my dear lady with a smile. “Had the mysterious woman at Mathis’ been tall, the waitresses would not, one and all, have been struck by the abnormal size of the hat. The wearer must have been petite, hence the reason that under a wide brim only the chin would be visible. I at once sought for a small woman. Our fellows did not think of that, because they are men.”

You see how simple it all was!

Baroness_Emma_Orczy_by_BassanoWe had already talked about Sherlock Holmes’s condescending remark, “You see, but you do not observe!” and now we could revisit it with observations about how gender affects what you see, or what you understand about what you see, and about kinds of expertise that are typically devalued because they are women’s and therefore considered trivial. This issue was also key to our other reading for today, Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers,” a wonderful story that highlights the way the law fails women, making justice something that can only be achieved by subverting it. We talked about the way Glaspell’s story, instead of offering up a big reveal at the end by the superior figure of the detective, instead allows the story to unfold gradually, the women’s dawning awareness drawing us along with them as our sympathies shift from the murdered man to the woman whose happiness he destroyed. Their solidarity grows partly in reaction to the men, who are lumbering around doing more typical (but, we easily see, entirely misguided) kinds of investigating. Every time they come in and make their jovially condescending remarks about “the ladies,”  we too close ranks against them:

“Oh well,” said Mrs. Hale’s husband, with good-natured superiority, “women are used to worrying over trifles.”

The two women moved a little closer together. Neither of them spoke. The county attorney seemed suddenly to remember his manners—and think of his future.

“And yet,” said he, with the gallantry of a young politician, “for all their worries, what would we do without the ladies?”

 In both classes, it feels as if we are still warming up, but all things considered I think participation has been good. We are all masked, and that’s a bit hot and uncomfortable and makes some things a bit harder—since I can’t see people’s whole faces, for instance, it is taking me longer to match them with names, and also I can’t really see people’s reactions, to get a sense of how things are going. It’s worth it, though, obviously, for the risk reduction. Considering how sheltered I’ve been for the last two and a half years, I’ve actually been more relaxed than I expected about suddenly being surrounded by so many more people, and I think the mandatory masking (even it if isn’t everywhere) has really helped with that. 

Weeping Woman 1937 by Pablo Picasso 1881-1973Other than the masks, nothing about teaching has changed, as far as I can tell, and in the moment I find I still enjoy the things I have always enjoyed about it: the material, the students, the dynamics and demands of discussion. I am relieved that (a few minor hiccups aside) I seem to staying on top of things in spite of being tired, distracted, and out of practice. When I’m not teaching, though, or busy with the other ever-proliferating work of the term, I feel more, not less, disoriented with the difference between the sameness of it all and my new changed reality. It’s a good thing, I know, that I am able to show up and be (more or less) my old self in the classroom, but at the same time I don’t know how to make sense of that or be at ease with it.

It has been a strange, confusing, and exhausting week, with some pretty good moments and some really bad ones. But at least it’s over now, after so much anticipation, and that’s one more “first” I never have to face again: my first week teaching again in person, after.