“Ideological Ambiguity”: Qiu Xiaolong, Death of a Red Heroine


The alliance between Chen and Yu put him in a disadvantageous position. But what really worried Zhang was Chief Inspector Chen’s ideological ambiguity. Chen appeared to be a bright young officer, Zhang admitted. Whether he would prove to be a reliable upholder of the cause the old cadres had fought for, however, Zhang was far from certain. He had attempted to read several of Chen’s poems. he did not understand a single line. He had heard people describing Chen as an avant-gardist–influenced by Western modernism.

I found Death of a Red Heroine pretty slow going at first. The prose is quite flat, almost plodding, and the slow pace was compounded by the amount of what seemed like a lot of extraneous detail. As I read on, though, I warmed to Chief Inspector Chen, who though a dedicated police officer also (like P. D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh) has the sensitive heart and whimsical eye of a poet. Then as his investigation began to quicken and complicate, other things got more interesting: the prime suspect is an HCC (“High Cadre Child”) and Chen’s inquiries become “politically incorrect,” his loyalty to the Party coming into question. As his career is threatened, he has to decide what is most important: justice, or what is good for the Party. He also has to come to terms with his own power, or at least his access to it: in the end, he figures out not how to stay out of politics but how to play them to win. Gradually, then, over the course of an otherwise fairly conventional murder mystery, the stakes go up, both politically and philosophically, as Chen and his little band of co-conspirators struggle to express their own freedom in a highly constricting society by holding one privileged perpetrator to account. The ending is not unequivocally triumphant, but the effort is very satisfying.

qui-xiaolongI didn’t start enjoying the novel more just because the plot became more engrossing, though it did–or because the prose became more pleasurable, because it really didn’t. The other thing that happened was I got used to the slow pace and came to appreciate all the cultural context I was getting through what initially seemed like digressions. It’s true that all the many (many!) descriptions of meals aren’t strictly necessary to the plot, but they certainly added to my sense of what life in Shanghai in the 1990s was like, as did the meticulous accounts of where and how people live:

They lived in an old-fashioned two storied shikumen house–an architectural style popular in the early thirties, when such a house had been built for one family. Now, sixty years later, it was inhabited by more than a dozen, with all the rooms subdivided to accommodate more and more people. Only the black-painted front door remained the same, opening into a small courtyard littered with odds and ends, a sort of common junk yard, which led to a high-ceilinged hall flaked by the eastern and western wings. This once spacious hall had long since been converted to a public kitchen and storage area. The two rows of coal stoves with piles of coal briquettes indicated that seven families lived on the first floor.

One of the more memorable bits of scene setting was this account of a woman prepping an eel for market:

Having slapped an eel hard like a whip against the concrete ground, the woman was fixing its head on a thick nail sticking out of a bench, pulling it tight, cutting through its belly, deboning it, pulling out its insides, chopping off its head, and slicing its body delicately … Her hands and arms were covered with eel blood, and her bare feet too. The chopped-off heads of the eels lay scattered at her bare feet, like scarlet-painted toes.

There are too many appreciative descriptions of noodles, soups, dumplings, and duck to keep track of: the book makes clear the importance of meals, not just for sustenance (though there is a lot of exuberance around eating for its own sake) but also as social and bonding rituals.

red-heroineI also really enjoyed the role of Chen’s poetry in his life and in his case–and in the case against him. The idea that his elusive (and allusive) verses harbor subversive messages at once works with the intense suspicion shown by loyal Party members towards anything suggestive of a “Western bourgeois decadent lifestyle” and seemed to me a sly play on the literary difficulty of modernist poetry and the challenge of figuring out what it means. Poring over Chen’s poem “Night Talk,” Zhang wonders if the phrase “mind’s square” is a reference to Tiananmen Square:

“Deserted” on a summer night of 1989, with no “pennant” left there. If so, the poem was politically incorrect. And the issue about “history,” too. Chairman Mao had said that people, people alone make the history. How could Chen talk about history as the result of a rubric?

Zhang was not sure of his interpretation. So he started to read all over again. Before long, however, his eyesight grew bleary. He had to give up. There was nothing else for him to do. So he took a shower before going to bed. Standing under the shower head, he still thought that Chen had gone too far.

Who hasn’t felt that sometimes, reading poetry that seems full of significance you can’t quite grasp? I liked Chen’s habit of quoting poetry as well, and the general sense that in his world it matters–being a poet gets him respect and admiration! He also translates English mystery novels, so there’s another nice self-referential strand woven into the novel. Coincidentally, he is translating Ruth Rendell, a writer I was already thinking about this week because she came up in my Women & Detective Fiction class and I realized how little of her I had read. I read Death of a Red Heroine for my book club; maybe I should suggest Rendell as our follow-up–though crime fiction is not a typical choice for us.

“Poisonous Influence”: Andrew Miller, Pure

pure-coverWine and unsuspected depths of loneliness have produced in him an effusiveness he would not, sober, trust or like in another. Nearly, very nearly, he tells Armand what he is in Paris to do, for surely Armand would be impressed, would see what he himself (in the ruby light of tavern wine) has come to see — that destroying the cemetery of les Innocents is to sweep away in fact, not in rhetoric, the poisonous influence of the past!

Andrew Miller’s Pure follows the work of engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte, tasked in 1785 by one of the French king’s ministers, with cleaning out the overflowing and corrupted site of the Parisian cemetery les Innocents. It is a true story but also, of course, as Miller’s author’s note says, “a work of the imagination–in other words, it is historical fiction, its plot steeped in research then rendered as human drama.

Like Now We Shall Be Entirely FreePure has rich in details that make its scenes–many of them grimly horrible, as you might expect from a novel about digging up an old cemetery–exceptionally clear and immersive. A sample, from the digging of the first of many pits from which the remains are removed and then carted away to what we now know as the Catacombs:

They dig for three hours before Jean-Baptiste asks Lecoeur to call the first break. There has not, in these first hours, been much to see. The dead appear to have been reduced to shards, fragments, as if the pit had churned them like dry bread in an old man’s mouth. Are they digging in the right place? Was the sexton mistaken? He and Jeanne have gone back to the house, but after the break, the pit starts to give up its treasures and every second thrust of the spade levers out some recognisable structure. A jaw with a row of teeth that look as if they might still have a bite to them. All the delicate apparatus of a foot, ribs like the staves of an old barrel. The bone mound becomes a low bone wall. There is no wood, not a splinter, nothing to suggest the men and women who went into the pit had anything more than the shelter of their own winding sheets.

Andrew_Miller_-_PureOver time the finds vary: the miners Jean-Baptiste has imported to do the excavation find well-preserved coffins (“inside is a skeleton, the residue of a man, his bones connected by patches of leathery sinew”); a school’s worth of children, laid head to toe; two young women, astonishingly preserved by “a form of mummification” (“skin, hair, lips, fingernails, eyelashes“). These last are of particular interest to the doctors consulting on the dig, using its finds for their own experiments. One is Dr Guillotin, not yet famous for his advocacy of the swift and relatively painless means of execution that came to bear his name. His presence is one of many reminders that this literal purification process is taking place on the cusp of a different kind of transformation, a purging of the past to make way for an as-yet unimagined future.

I liked a lot about Pure: Jean-Baptiste’s struggle to come to terms with the work he has been given and, in a more existential way, with his own identity; the tactility and pacing of Miller’s prose; the constant lurking sense of imminent danger. I felt a bit at sea, though, in terms of how the various pieces of the novel were meant to add up. When violence breaks out, which it does a few times, quite horribly, it felt random to me: unmotivated, unpatterned, like plot twists rather than clear manifestations of (for instance) the social and political impurities for which the stench of the cemetery seems to stand as a metaphor. The revolution is coming, but the signs of it are scattered, or perhaps a better term (consistent with all the digging!) would be subterranean, present but never quite seen or really accounted for. Quite a lot of things happen, but somehow the novel didn’t seem to have much plot, just events.

pure-3Maybe that’s what Miller wanted: to evoke a scene (which he does pretty brilliantly) and a moment, without attaching it to a larger narrative, whether personal or political. But it frustrated me that so many of the novel’s elements felt seeded with meaning that then didn’t bear fruit. I wanted something from the novel that it didn’t give me, some momentum or culmination. That is about my expectations as much as Miller’s accomplishment, I suppose. Still, when  the church they are demolishing breaks open to let the light in and Jean-Baptiste observes, “How filthy everything below now appears! How much the place had depended on its darkness!” it seemed to me that the moment was crying out to be read symbolically in a way that the novel more generally didn’t support. Miller writes wonderfully, though, and if you want a really vivid sense of what it would look, feel, and especially smell like to dig up thousands of old corpses, though, you won’t be disappointed!

This Week In My Classes: Social Media

SlideTechnically, actually, it was in someone else’s class: I was invited to come and talk about social media to our Honours Capstone Seminar, which (among other things) features a range of guest speakers talking about everything from digital humanities to graduate school to (non-academic) career paths.

Like many academics who blog and/or are keen Twitter users, I have found that these activities have become a sort of secondary expertise, one that felt exciting and envelope-pushing when I still had the feisty sense that through them we might be changing the academy for the better but which I have a much more equivocal relationship to now that it’s clear that by and large, my colleagues remain mostly either uninterested or openly skeptical about their value. There are exceptions, of course, including the colleague who not only invited me to the seminar but bravely left it up to me what to say, even knowing, as I am sure she does, that there was a chance my remarks might go somewhat against the grain.

twitterlogoAs I told the class, I really struggled with what to say. I have given quite a few talks on the subject by now, especially on blogging: these include relatively informal sessions at faculty “research retreats” and two conference papers, one of which I expanded into a more detailed and formal publication. I have also addressed it more than once in a similar seminar we run for our graduate students, with a narrower focus on the pleasures, perils, and possible profit of blogging as a graduate student. In all of these settings, my focus has been on the relationship between blogging and academic publishing, asking questions about the purpose of scholarly publishing and then how well our typical practices meet our goals–how successfully we are able to navigate between the need for professional validation and the desire to communicate widely, for instance, and the possibility that  “vigorously rubbing” scholarship with “intelligent, bloggy bookchat by scholars” (as John Holbo once memorably put it) might “get the blood of ideas moving.”

Owordpressnce upon a time I might have considered these topics equally relevant for our Honours students, many of whom (in those days) were likely heading on to graduate school. A lot has changed, though, and I no longer feel comfortable actively grooming students for an academic path that (as I said to them) now seems strewn with broken glass. (There’s more about how the dismal academic job market has affected academic blogging in these posts.) I couldn’t see the relevance, for this audience, of debating whether blogging is or is not a legitimate form of scholarly publishing or any of the “usual” professionally-inclined topics. What, then, should I talk to them about?

Well, I don’t know what I should have talked about. I think perhaps it would have been more in keeping with the general purpose of the seminar for me to talk about the value of a well-curated online presence for networking, perhaps with some comments about what I think of as best practices. Instead, though, I decided to speak (as I warned my colleague) from the heart about what, on reflection, I think social media has to offer them, which is, in brief, a way (multiple ways, really) to continue the kinds of conversations they have enjoyed as part of their English degrees. The university, I said, is not (despite what its denizens too often seem to believe) the only place you can have an intellectually stimulating life. In fact, it is not at all clear that “the life of the mind” is a reasonable way to describe the academic life anymore–even if you are lucky enough to join the vanishingly rare number of tenure-track faculty, which (and it is so hard to say this in a way that students can or will actually hear it) it is extremely unlikely you will be.

Grad-School-SlideIn my short talk, I did not go into more detail about the arguments pro and con about graduate school in the humanities (and I know there reasons, some of them pretty good ones, or at least not terrible ones, that other people still insist that encouraging students to head into Ph.D. programs is perfectly rational and ethical). I just highlighted some of the many articles they could read about it if they wanted, and urged them to talk to their professors if they were thinking about it. What I decided to use most of my own time for was making sure that they knew graduate school was not the only (and might be far from the best) way to keep talking about the literature they love in ways they find exhilarating. There are, I said, other places, other people, other opportunities, for people who love books, and I know that because of the time I spend on social media.

cassatI don’t know if they were very interested in what I had to say. If they were, they didn’t express it through a torrent of follow-up questions, that’s for sure, and I’m also pretty sure that I didn’t make a dent in anyone’s plans regarding graduate school applications. I said things I really believe in, though, which is consistent with what I would have said if I had talked about “best practices” instead, namely, be authentic. Further, and more important, as I worked up these remarks I realized that my own case for twitter and blogging is not really about their academic value anymore either. Whether the students needed or wanted to hear it or not, for me it was useful discovering that I still feel quite passionately about the positive value of reading, writing, and commenting on blog posts, and sharing ideas, tips, enthusiasms, and disagreements about reading via Twitter. Why should they care how much my life changed for the better because one day, without really knowing what I was doing or why, I pressed ‘publish’ on my first Novel Readings post? But I care, and really it has, in ways I could not possibly have predicted. So to the doubters and skeptics (if for some reason you happen to stop by), well, you do you, but I think you’re missing out. And to those of you who, like me, are out here living your best bookish life online and discovering friends and comrades along the way, cheers!

“A Place of Reason”: Simon Mawer, The Glass Room

mawer1She stands for a moment, one last moment, looking at the Glass Room. Rain runs down the windows like tears from her eyes. The light is diffused, refracted, blurred by the water; just so are memories distorted by time and mood. This is no place for sentiment. It is a place of reason. And yet sentiment is what she feels, the anguish of departure, the exquisite pain of remembering, the fragility of being. When will she be here again?

I picked up The Glass Room at the most recent Women For Music book sale because of the posts at Café Society about Mawer’s The Girl Who Fell From the Sky. This is one of the books I almost bought on my summer trip to England; in the end it lost out to other choices, but Mawer went on my mental list of writers to keep an eye out for. I didn’t love The Glass Room, but it was certainly good enough to keep him on that list.

The Glass Room is at once an intimate family story and, albeit mostly in the background, a sweeping saga about the rise and fall of the First Czechosloval Republic and the Second World War. Its central device is the architectural wonder of a house built for the wealthy Landauer family, featuring its spectacular glass room, a marvel of openness and light:

Finally they laid the linoleum, linoleum the colour of ivory, as lucid as spilled milk. During the day the light from the windows flooded over it and rendered it almost translucent, as though a shallow pool lay between the entrance and the glass; during the evening the ceiling lights–petalled blooms of frosted glass–threw reflections down into the depths. On the upper floor there were rooms, zimmer, boxes with walls and doors; but down here there was room, raum, space.

“Raum is an expansive word,” Mawer remarks in his ‘Afterword’; “It is spacious, vague, precise, conceptual, literal, all those things.” I could see, reading the novel, how he set out to use the Landauers’ room to evoke other kinds of room or space, especially through the different things people do there: they make music, they dance, they have sex, they seek or offer shelter.

mawer2The room itself is beautiful, especially its onyx wall, which reflects the setting sun in an astonishing flare of colour. But not all of its uses are benign: the novel’s historical setting inevitably reminds us of the term ‘Lebensraum,‘ and that anticipates the way the house changes hands and uses when the Landauers flee to Switzerland–Viktor is Jewish, and that puts him and his family at risk. Their house is taken over by German “scientists,” who use it as a laboratory for their research into racial differences:

In the measurement areas the staff work in pairs, a recorder and an examiner, the one positioning the subject at the stadiometer–legs fractionally apart, heels, buttocks and shoulder blades in contact with the back board, heads held in a grip . . . Measurements are taken: total height, hip diameter, chest diamter. Then sitting: leg measurements, arm measurements. Then the dentist’s chair: head dimensions, the callipers holding the different crania in their cool jaws . . . Stahl watches, enthralled by the systematic measurements of what defines human and subhuman, of what makes Herrenvolk and Undermenschen.

Later, when the Czech city is “liberated” by the Red Army, the house changes hands again; eventually it is declared the property of the state, and finally restored and opened as a museum.

In the meantime, the Landauers have had to leave their house, their memories, their lives behind. They move on, settling eventually in America as the Landors. Some of their friends are not so lucky; Mawer avoids direct representations of the horrors of the camps, but it is quietly chilling when the Landauer’s travelling companions are pulled off the train in Occupied France by Germans unmoved by their papers, or when we hear Stahl placing a call we know will bring devastation to the Landauers’ closest friends. As these stories unfold, the Glass Room seems like a manifestation of the chaos and pain:

The great plate-glass windows of the Glass Room shake and shudder in the gales. During one storm, suddenly and with a sharp crack that no one hears, the pane at the furthest end near the conservatory is fractured right across, creating a diagonal line of reflection like a cataract in a cornea.

When people who knew the room as a beacon of grace and beauty return to it during and after the war, it is a reminder of what has been lost, but also a sign that something still endures.

mawer3Overall, this works well: it’s a good concept, and Mawer comes across as an extremely competent novelist. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, though, it sort of is. I am surprised that The Glass Room was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (in 2009): to me it was a well-executed concept but not an exhilarating accomplishment. At times, it seemed to me to be trying too hard to be great and profound. Its symbolism and its prose both felt heavy-handed, as here:

History is here and now, in the beautiful and austere face of Hana Hanáková. There in the Glass Room of the Landauer House, feeling as helpless as a person at the scene of an accident who doesn’t know how to staunch the bleeding. Zdenka goes round the table and puts her arms around the older woman and tries to comfort her. And all around them is the past, frozen into a construct of glass and concrete and chrome, the Glass Room with its onyx wall and its partitions of tropical hardwood and the milky petals of its ceiling lights, a space, a Raum so modern when Rainer von Abt designed it, yet now, as Hana Hanáková sits and weeps, so imbued with the past.

Or here:

And all around them is the Glass Room, a place of balance and reason, an ageless place held in a rectilinear frame that handles light like a substance and volume like a tangible material and denies the very existence of time.

(Or in the quotation I chose for my epigraph.) Was Mawer afraid his readers would not be able to read any of this into the Glass Room on our own? My irritation at these overwrought moments made The Glass Room a near miss for me–but I would still like to read The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, or maybe Prague Spring, which seems to be the only one of Mawer’s books currently stocked by any local bookstores.

As a side note, the Landauer House is based on the  Vila Tugendhat in the Czech town of Brno. Here’s one of the photos from their site, taken by David Židlický, showing the glass room and the onyx wall.


This Week In My Classes: Going Noir

The-Big-SleepWe have started our unit on detective fiction in Pulp Fiction and moved from Sayers to Hughes in Women & Detective Fiction, meaning it’s time to test my prediction of last week that being immersed in noir will make me fretful. So far I’m doing fine–much better than expected! For one thing, I’m happy to be done with Westerns in Pulp Fiction, plus I am starting to feel as if, collectively, the class has some momentum now, something which is definitely helped by the continuities between our readings as much as by the students’ growing familiarity with the kind of analysis we’re doing. Also, while I have reservations about The Big Sleep on other grounds, there’s no denying that Chandler’s prose is–what? beautiful is the wrong word, and ornate seems to miss the point. I’ll go with artful. It’s not just that he never met a simile he didn’t like, but that the ones he chooses infuse the story with both atmosphere and meaning: I’m thinking, for instance, of the plants in the conservatory with “stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men,” or the strands of white hair clinging to the general’s scalp “like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock.” These images tell us so much about the world of the novel, with its cynicism and corruption and danger, and they also reveal so much about Marlowe’s state of mind, about the blend of resolution and fascination and horror with which he approaches the life he has to live. Unlike Elmore Leonard (with his stupid “leave out the parts that readers tend to skim” rule), Chandler gives us plenty of good material for close reading. Today we warmed up with the stained glass panel, which works pretty neatly as a microcosm of the whole novel:

Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some long and very convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere.

What kind of chivalry is required or possible, I asked them, if the “lady” you are trying to rescue acts like this one?

Her hands dropped limp at her sides. She tilted herself towards me on her toes. She fell straight back into my arms. I had to catch her or let her head crack on the tessellated floor. I caught her under her arms and she went rubber-legged on me instantly. I had to hold her close to hold her up. When her head was against my chest she screwed it around and giggled at me.

She’s so annoying I might have let her head hit the tile: he’s a better man than I am–or is he?

lonelyI know The Big Sleep reasonably well at this point (though I still rely heavily on the helpful sketch of the basic plot, complete with who killed whom and why, that I drew up the first time I taught it!). This is my first time teaching In A Lonely Place, though, and so I am feeling my way along, trying to anticipate the most useful lines of discussion to open up, to tell what’s obvious and what isn’t, what examples are most thought-provoking, and so on. One small but important logistical thing you can’t really be sure of until you try it is whether you’ve chosen the right place to break up the novel for reading. I think I should maybe have assigned a bit more of it for today than I did (we read just the first two sections,just about 50 pages), but we didn’t run out of things to talk about, so that was reassuring.

The main thing I’m still wondering about In A Lonely Place is whether Hughes pulls off the highwire act of dramatizing murderous misogyny without glamorizing or exploiting or just plain recreating it for our entertainment. The first time I read it, I wasn’t convinced. When I reread it this summer, with this class in mind, I thought definitely yes. This time I’m unsure again! We are tucked up so closely next to Dix that even though it’s not a first-person narrative it’s very hard to disentangle our experience of the novel from his story of himself. We can pretty quickly (I think) discern that his version is not reliable, but we are still immersed in his point of view and the thrills of the novel (if that’s the right way to put it) come from exactly that: from knowing what he’s doing, how much sense it makes to him, and the kind of pleasure it gives him. For most of the novel the suspense is his, not about him–it’s about what he’ll do next rather than whether or when he’ll be stopped. Having said that, though–and my students were sharp about this today–he gives himself away so completely as dangerous and deranged and not nearly as in control as he fancies himself that it does distance us from him. I think Hughes succeeds in showing him up as a repulsive exemplar of toxic masculinity, but in doing so she does have to reproduce some of its nastier (and deadlier) features. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, which is up next, will seem downright wholesome by comparison–and yet its murder is, I think, one of the most horrific crimes (literally and morally) that we will encounter.

This Week In My Classes: In Which I Admit to Missing the Classics

van-gogh-still-life-french-novelsWe are well into the term now, and overall I think it’s going fine. I do not like teaching Pulp Fiction at 120 students, which maybe doesn’t sound like that big a change from 90 but certainly feels like one to me. I miss being able to see their faces–and having at least a fighting chance of learning their names! I know that I have colleagues who have taught intro classes at even larger sizes, and also that I have colleagues who are comfortable, pedagogically, with teaching writing at this scale. Maybe they know something I don’t about how to make it work, but for me, the increasingly sharp division of class time into formal lecture time–you can do some Q&A, but not a wide-ranging, inclusive discussion in a tiered lecture hall–and tutorial time (where the 30:1 ratio is still far from ideal for either discussion or hands-on writing and editing work) is really unsatisfying. I don’t think it serves us or them particularly well.

The-Big-SleepThe odds that we’ll ever be able to get back to smaller first-year classes seem slim, however, so I’ll just keep trying to make the best of it. Right now I’m considering giving up on some things I think are pedagogically valuable (like frequent low-stakes work) because logistically it’s just getting to be too much–but it’s too late to do that for this year! In the meantime, we are nearing the end of our unit on Westerns; next week we start on mysteries, with The Big Sleep taking the place of The Maltese Falcon this time around. As you might recall, I had big plans for bigger changes but they fell through: first True Grit turned out to be unavailable and then I lost my nerve about assigning Laura. I’m not entirely sorry, because I have a number of new books on the syllabus for Women & Detective Fiction so it’s relief to have existing materials to rely on here.

In Women & Detective Fiction we are almost done with Gaudy Night, which overall they seem to be finding a bit much. I don’t think of it as a particularly long book: in my 19th-century fiction courses it would be only an average-sized one! I’ve been wondering if the difficulty some students have run into getting through it (or getting into it) comes from their having different expectations for crime novels. Also, our first readings were very simple and quick–Agatha Christie and Nancy Drew–so they may just have underestimated how much time they needed to allocate to reading for this class. The students have mostly been putting in a good effort, though, and I’m looking forward to tomorrow. My class notes are basically prompts: chess set, dog collar, fascism, misogyny, academic integrity, sonnet, balance, counterpoint, Bach, Placetne, Magistra? Placet.

hughes2Next up is In a Lonely Place, which means for a while both my classes will be steeped in noir. Though I think both books I’ll be working on are great examples of their kind, it is not my own favorite kind of crime fiction, and it’s likely that this juxtaposition will exacerbate another lurking dissatisfaction of mine this term, which is with the amount of teaching time I’ve been spending on genre fiction. I hope it’s obvious that I am not a snob about genre fiction! I read and enjoy a lot of it; I was the one who introduced our detective fiction class well over a decade ago and I have taught it with great enthusiasm probably a dozen times; a few years ago I volunteered to do Pulp Fiction instead of one of our more standard intro to lit options; I regularly include sensation fiction in my Victorian fiction classes and offer a course exclusively on it; etc. This term, however, I have found myself unexpectedly weary of spending so much of my class time on books that (frankly) wear a bit thin over time because they aren’t, many of them, quite the kind of book that the English literature classroom–or at least my English literature classroom–was designed to showcase.

ackroydDo I really think that? Can I even say that? What exactly am I saying? I’m certainly not saying we can’t or shouldn’t teach genre fiction, or that doing so doesn’t involve doing rewarding or meaningful analysis. That we even have the concept of ‘horizontal reading,’ though, does suggest that genre fiction isn’t always best approached with the aim of deep or close reading, doesn’t it? Agatha Christie, to give just one example, is brilliant at many things (and I have gotten pretty good at making the case for them), but it’s not much fun lingering over the details of her prose; not much will come–not much of interpretive interest, anyway–from mining them for the kind of nuances we appreciate when we read, say, “Araby.” Sometimes in the detective fiction class I point out that (though of course there are exceptions) a lot of details we might read as symbolic in another kind of fiction are better read more literally in crime fiction: does it make any sense to read the dagger in Roger Ackroyd’s neck as anything other than a convenient sharp object suitable for murder? There is a similarly literal impulse in a lot of detective fiction: no matter how complex the social, political, or psychological elements, it is rare for the language in particular to be of great  interest.

greatexpectationsI think what I’m saying is that I love my 19th-century fiction classes, which I still teach regularly, but I have also, over the years, loved teaching other more conventionally “literary” material and I’m starting to miss the greater variety I used to enjoy, especially the chance to teach more poetry and more (literary) fiction from other periods. That’s one reason I’m excited to be doing the British literature survey next term. I’ve also asked that, if possible, my next first-year course assignment be something besides Pulp Fiction. When I first designed my version of the course I imagined that students would get caught up in the contrarian spirit of reading genre fiction instead of the classics, but as far as I’ve ever been able to tell, they mostly don’t care: with rare exceptions, they’ve never thought about the difference before and what they really want is just to get their writing requirement as easily as possible. My advocacy for dismantling the canon is wasted on them: I’m standing there at the lectern basically having an argument with myself! And somehow right now I feel as if I’m losing it.

“The Truth-Telling Time”: Andrew Miller, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free

miller-coverThis was not how he had imagined it, the truth-telling time. It was as if his secrets had altered in the keeping, had grown like living things, so that he did not quite know them any more. Or that they were not entirely his, not the private stash or black treasure he had imagined. And once more it came to him, the thought that had touched him several times since coming back from Spain, that we are not private beings and cannot hide things inside ourselves. Everything is present, everything in view for those who know how to look.

Recently on Twitter, when the topic of the latest Booker Prize shortlist came up, I commented that I’ve starting paying more attention to other prize lists when scouting for books to read. I still eye the Booker list, of course, but I am increasingly interested in the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, for one, which plays more predictably to my own preference for both good scene setting (yay, exposition!) and strong storytelling. Historical fiction comes with risks, of course, as George Eliot acknowledged (risks she conspicuously failed to avoid in Romola), and there are plenty of flatly mediocre examples of the genre to be had (as there are of every genre) but for me, really good historical fiction is about as good as fiction gets (ahem).

Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is the fourth book from this year’s longlist that I’ve read: I reviewed Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind for the TLS a year or so ago; I read both Cressida Connolly’s After the Party and Michael Ondaadje’s Warlight this summer. Warlight is the only one I didn’t appreciate (I found it beautifully written at the level of its sentences but somehow also extremely boring); the other two I’d read before were very good, and Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is excellent.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free follows John Lacroix, a soldier trying to escape his guilt-ridden memories of atrocities carried out by British soldiers in Spain during the Napoleonic wars, as he makes his way to the Hebrides; it also follows, in parallel, the two men–one English, one Spanish–dispatched to find him and hold him accountable for what happened. As his pursuers close in on him, finding their way by ruthlessly forcing the people on Lacroix’s path to tell them where he has gone, Lacroix himself, unaware of the impending danger, begins to open himself up to the world again, gradually letting glimpses of beauty and love into the bleakness he carries with him and feeling the faint reawakening of hope:

And did he really care about the names of the islands? This was the tall one, this the sleek, this the bare, this like something made more entirely from light and water. They were beautiful–more so than he had prepared himself for, and it comforted him a little that he had had the sense to find them, the world’s scattered edge, that there was in him, perhaps, some trace of a wisdom that could guide his actions.

Though we don’t know until nearly the end exactly what he blames himself for, it is impossible to take this journey with him and believe he deserves the fate the men on his trail have been ordered to inflict.

miller-cover-2 I won’t give more specifics about the plot; I’ll just note that it sets up a structure that is at once simple and increasingly suspenseful. Miller makes good use of the common trope of a geographical voyage also being a voyage of personal discovery, so that the cat and mouse game over time becomes something at once subtler and more complex. Though the plotting is very precise, even the moment when hunter and quarry coincidentally and unwittingly cross paths didn’t feel contrived: it just added to the evidence (shared eventually by at least one of Lacroix’s pursuers) that they are not really seeking a legible or reasonable form of justice but are carrying out a more arbitrary exercise of power, playing their parts in a game none of them can ever really win because those who made the rules don’t care who they really are–or who they could be, if they were free to choose.

The linear design of the novel gives it a lot of forward momentum, but not so much that you want to rush through Miller’s wonderful prose, which is resonant without ever being florid or overly ornamental. There are some fanciful touches–I liked the description of the two pursuing soldiers walking in the woods with “the war spooling from their backs like silk,” for example. It’s the descriptions of the setting that really shine, though, as is both right and necessary given the restorative role the Hebrides play in Lacroix’s odyssey. Here’s a sample, in this case from the perspective of the Spaniard on his trail, who has had a revelation of his own about what kind of journey is really worth making:

The sun was rising swiftly and he saw that he was standing at the edge of a meadow, the grasses growing from sand, and in the grass myriad small flowers he had not been aware of when he came the first time, that must have been closed against the weather, the chill of evening. Now, discovered by the sun, they ignited, one by one. The yellow and the white, the gold and the red, so that he seemed to be looking across a field of small lights afloat on the shallow water of morning shadow. Under his bare feet the ground was fibrous with a structure of endless soft branchings. It was odd to take in the world through his feet, the soles as sensitive, as inquisitive as a tongue. … Someone, he thought, someone should have taught me how to meet joy better.

There is a lot of suffering in the novel: that harsh experience, grief, and failure should make us welcome, not turn away from, joy is one of the lessons Lacroix struggles to learn and that Miller, indirectly, offers us in our turn. Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is full of the kind of historical detail that gives its world solidity, but it is not burdened by it; Miller uses his very specific and deftly dramatized story about a particular time and place to explore the kinds of choices we all have to make in our lives about where to go and why, and to ask what we hope to find if we ever get there.