The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

February 9, 2012

Kevin from Canada aptly calls this “a memory book.” As with The Last Brother, our narrator is an old man, reasonably well-situated in life who is looking back as, at his age, that’s where most of the action is. In both books, the narrator struggles to make sense of the past (hence the title on this one), but Barnes is a bit more interesting. The unfolding of events in The Last Brother are a mystery to the reader, but the narrator knows all the pertinent details. Raj tells his story, struggles with it emotionally, but he knows as much of the story at the beginning as we will by the end.

In Barnes’ Booker-winning novel, Tony Webster is as ignorant as the reader regarding crucial facts. This hole in Tony’s memory-knitted past gives his story intrigue in addition to the foreboding and urgency created where the narrator knows but the reader does not. The technique also allows Barnes to delve deeper into the human experience than, say, Appanah does in The Last Brother. While emotions run quite high in The Sense of an Ending and are important, emotions are not the primary theme. The theme is the interplay of memory and the construction of a life narrative.

In this aspect, the work reminded me most of The Underpainter, Urquhart’s outstanding, Governor General’s Award-winning novel. The narrator is flawed and, only belatedly, comes to realize how deeply flawed he is.

Despite this similarity of theme, The Underpainter and The Sense of an Ending they do not till the same soil. The two novels engage in very perceptive examinations of slightly different facets of the life as narrative theme. Importantly, Austin Fraser from The Underpainter had a single-minded focus on his passion, his art. His troubles reconciling the past stem from that focus. Tony Webster’s problems stem from turning inward. He has not pursued any great passion, he hasn’t the excuse of art. Rather, he erred by turning inward, by paying too close attention to the story of his life.

That is not to say that events primarily happen to him, as in The Last Brother. Tony has actively participated in shaping the past that looms so importantly in his present. The difference in the three approaches is vital to understanding what separates Barnes’ and Urquhart’s novels from Appanah’s. The Sense of an Ending and The Underpainter are attempts to capture how we reconcile altered emotions and/or revelatory facts with the fiction of our lives. Even acknowledging the extent to which our remembered pasts are fiction shakes something central in us. The Last Brother, by contrast, is more like history, biography, fact; the book reveals facts that cannot change and, in important ways, could not have been changed.

Part of this disconnect is that The Last Brother involved a nine-year old. Mistakes by our nine-year old selves are, mostly, easily forgivable. Even where we might have trouble forgiving ourselves, others generally do not. Children are simply not sufficiently developed at that age to have the same culpability for their actions adults have. Beyond that, it is not clear that any different choices by Raj would have changed any of the tragedies that befell him and those around him.

Tony was a man, though, and he made choices. This is not to say that the book is interesting because Tony can be judged for his errors. The theme, again, is memory and how we tell stories about ourselves to ourselves. While there is narrative pull in finding out what happened, the truly engaging aspect of the novel is the examination of the pillars of our self-image, and what happens if those pillars crumble.

For years you survive with the same loops, the same facts and the same emotions. I press a button marked Adrian or Veronica, the tape runs, the usual stuff spools out. The events reconfirm the emotions…and vice versa. There seems no way of accessing anything else; the case is closed. Which is why you seek corroboration, even if it turns out to be contradiction. But what if, even at a late stage, your emotions relating to those long-ago events and people change?

Taking the statement as a logical proposition, if the emotions associated with the events change, the events must be reconsidered, altered. The life we remember is not, after all, the life we have lived. A new narrative must patch the rip in the fabric formerly weaving emotion and events together. Barnes masterfully explores this reconciliation in ways that I have not quite seen before. As I said, The Underpainter comes closest (and is in some ways better), but Barnes has moved the stakes of the subject outward a smidge.

This book will be formidable in the TOB 2012 brackets. It earned its top seed and should live up to it. I have a hard time imagining anything other than another one-seed or The Tiger’s Wife keeping it out of the pre-Zombie final four. The book is too good, the characters too strong, too real, for some other book to sneak an early-round victory. I love the book and I like its chances.


The Fifth Queen and How She Came to Court by Ford Madox Ford

September 27, 2011

The court of King Henry VIII provides a fascinating framework on which a master stylist such as Ford Madox Ford (or Hilary Mantel) may hang their art. There is intrigue enough for a thriller, marriages enough for romance, and high ideas enough in the politics, religion, and literature of the time to supply, and possibly overwhelm, even the most gifted writers. Mantel focused on Thomas Cromwell, bucking the historical trend of villainizing the man, investing him with a noble, even democratic, constitution. The man, in Hilary’s telling, pulled himself from nothing to be the maker of kings on an unbendable will and almost limitless talents:

He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything. (Wolf Hall)

Mantel’s Wolf Hall is, reputedly, the first of a planned trilogy. My hunch is that she took more than a little inspiration from The Fifth Queen, also a trilogy.

Where Mantel gives us Cromwell’s perspective, Ford Madox Ford chose Katharine Howard for his lead. Like Mantel, Ford lists the considerable talents of his star:

She had some Greek, more than a little French, she could judge a good song, she could turn a verse in Latin or the vulgar tongue. She professed to be able to ride well, to be converseant with the terms of venery, to shoot with the bow, and to have studied the Fathers of the Church.

The resonance between the passages is but one example of many where Ford’s version is amplified in Mantel’s rendering. Mantel made Cromwell her hero, but Ford held him in some regard as well. In his non-fiction, Ford approvingly cited a scholar who described Cromwell as “a mighty minister & a consummate diplomatist, skilfully [sic] balancing the Powers one against another & crushing out seditions with a strong but necessary & beneficient hand.” (“Creative History and the Historic Sense”, p. 7) The essay excoriates Professor Goldwin Smith for, among other things, condemning Cromwell on no better evidence than “the accusations of his enemies, for Cromwell was not even tried.” (p. 7). The implication is that Cromwell was, at least, no worse than other men.

Ford says about Henry that he “was a man very much of his age.” (p. 8.) Ford’s characters take a very similar view of Cromwell, such as when Katharine Howard expresses distain for him:

“Men are not such villains.”

“They are as occasion makes them,” [Throckmorton] answered with his voice of a philosopher. “What manner of men these times breed you should know if you be not a fool.”

Mantel’s Cromwell was ruthless when circumstances demanded it and Ford’s characters have a similar view. I like this particular admonishment of Katharine for her idealism.

“It is folly to be too proud to fight the world with the world’s weapons.”

Mantel’s minute focus on Cromwell is matched by Ford’s examination of his fictional Katharine Howard. Katharine arrives at Henry VIII’s court idealistically naïve. The spy Throckmorton tries to disabuse her of simplistic notions of good and evil:

”But your eyes are so clear,” he sighed. “They see the black andwhite of a man. The grey they miss. And you are slow to learn. Nevertheless, already you have learned that here we have no yea-nay world of evil and good…”

“No,” she said, “that I have not learned, nor never shall.”

“Oh, aye,” he mocked at her. “You have learned that the Bishop of Winchester, who is on the side of your hosts of heaven, is a knave and a fool. You have learned that I, whom you have accounted a villain, am for you, and a very wise man. You have learned that Privy Seal, for whose fall you have prayed these ten years, is, his deeds apart, the only good man in this quaking place.”

The conflict in this first installment of the trilogy is between Katharine’s uncompromising views on good and evil and the realities of English politics. One gets the sense that she will be every bit as tragic a figure as Mantel’s Cromwell. Katherine’s are good and laudable principles, but either she or they must be ground down between the stones of national and religious politics.

Ford’s style is impeccable. The above quotes capture his ability to put passably 16th Century language into the mouths of his characters without sounding either ridiculous or counterfeit. The dialogue is simply beautiful.

Likewise, his treatment of minor characters adds depth and flavor to these high level intrigues. An old man is angry with Cromwell for building a wall through his garden and gives vent to his son and a printer. The scene feels intimate and real.

“A wall,” [the printer] muttered; “my Lord Privy Seal hath set up a wall against priestcraft all round these kingdoms—”

“Therefore you would have him welcome to forty feet of my garden?” the old man drawled. “He pulls down other folks’ crucifixes and sets up his own walls with other folks’ blood for mortar.”

The printer said darkly:

“Papists’ blood.”

The old man pulled his nose and glanced down.

“We were all Papists in my day.”

Early vignettes like this one acclimate the reader to time and place sufficiently that the novel feels dark and dank. However accurate the history presented is, it becomes a lived history and, for better or worse, all the more real because of that. Ford would say this as it should be:

For in their really higher manifestations History & Fiction are one: they are documented, tolerant, vivid; their characters live & answer & react one upon another each after his own sort. Fiction indeed, so long as it is not written with a purpose, is Contemporary History & History is the same thing as the Historic Novel, as long as it is inspired with the Historic Sense…the Historic Novel with a wide outlook upon peoples & upon kings. (“Creative History and the Historic Sense”, p. 13)

The Fifth Queen is, certainly, a Historic Novel. I would recommend it to anyone awaiting Mantel’s next installment. As proof of my sincerity, I plan to read the remainder of the two trilogies in tandem.


The Finkler Question by Harold Jacobson

May 18, 2011

I owe an explanation for the long absence of reviews. I would like to tell you that I have been developing a grand theory of book/literary blogging, that The Great Ape’s always interesting observations sparked a desire to blog with purpose rather than haphazardly. Or, I would like to tell you that I have been engaged in such a stimulating reading project that I could not take a break to tell you about it, but that, now, the results will astound you. (For that, you can click through to The Rat in the Book Pile where Sarah is entertainingly blazing a trail through Russian lit.) I even would be satisfied telling you that I have been too busy compiling billable hours to dash off a review.

I cannot truthfully tell you any of those things and it’s Howard Jacobson’s fault. The Booker jury bears some responsibility too, but, mostly, I have to blame Jacobson. I could even blame myself for allowing this one book to derail my blogging. And there is the fact that, after the Tournament of Books, a short slowdown likely was inevitable. But none of this makes me willing to absolve Jacobson. He is to blame.

His sin is not in writing an astonishingly bad book that, nevertheless, garners an outsize share of readers. That would actually make me eager to post and blog. The problem is that the book is, at least on a sentence-by-sentence level, very well written. During the entire 307 pages, I felt I was in the hands of a skilled author who knew what he wanted to do and that, at any moment, I might be blinded by the brilliant coming together of the text into something coherently beautiful. But I never was. This last probably cannot be laid at the author’s feet.

The “well written” thing should be explained. I find it difficult because I marked very few passages. My own deduction from this evidence would be that, while there were no painfully bad sentences (though there were painfully unfunny jokes, possibly meant to be), there were few great ones either. I marked this:

His self-consciousness surprised and appalled him. What need was there for this? Why did he not simply speak his heart?

Because the heart did not speak, that was why. Because language presupposes artificiality. Because in the end there was nothing, absolutely nothing, to be said….

He should have howled like an animal. That at least would have been a genuine expression of how he felt. Except that it wasn’t. There was no genuine expression of how he felt.

That’s good. The truth in that passage is written so we feel the inadequacy of language. A nice trick, Mr. Jacobson. It only really takes one good passage to redeem a book, so that should have done it. It didn’t. Though not because of the plot, more ably capsuled here, here, or here than I could manage at this point. Nor mostly the characters. The humor played a part.

I never laughed or smiled. There were things even I could tell were meant to be funny, that probably were. Whether, objectively, the jokes were any good, I felt no amusement. The obstacle to that was probably Treslove.

Treslove is a raving racist. That’s a lie. He is sort of the opposite of a racist, if a racist is someone who exalts his own heritage and/or hates and denigrates “the other.” Treslove is in love with the idea of “the other”, specifically Jews. He wants to be around Jews, to become a Jew, to fuck a Jew. I am not sure what can be said about a character who, after rogering a (Jewish) friend’s wife, is disappointed when he learns she is not Jewish. Treslove seems to be the embodiment of a brainless, reflexive anti-Semite, but with his conclusions running in precisely the opposite direction. This makes him nearly the same thing. It’s hard spending a book with such a fellow.

My sense is, after a couple weeks or so of thinking about the novel as little as possible, that the ridiculousness of Treslove, in contrast to the more normal characters, was Jacobson’s point. There is some utility in avoiding a direct indictment of anti-Semites, because the obvious evilness of their worldview obscures the equally important ridiculousness of it. Only an idiot really holds something against Jews because they are Jews and, therefore, only an idiot could really exalt Jews simply because they are Jews. Jacobson gets to make a point without wading into too much outright ugliness.

But that cannot be exactly right either because there are anti-Semites of a more conventional sort within the book, including, arguably, Jewish anti-Semites. The world is much more complex than anti-Semites vs. non-anti-Semites. Perhaps, instead, his point was that, post-Holocaust, we are all anti-Semites now…..But that cannot be right either, and not only because the sentiment would be only a vacuous ripoff of a more famous but still somewhat vacuous early-century statement. What I actually meant by that is I have no idea what the point of the novel is.

The crux of the problem is the lack of definition of terms. A late exchange between Treslove and a Jewish character begins to address one of this logical problem with Treslove’s idealization of, and anti-Semites’ villainization of, Jews.

‘Is it like being gay? Is there a Jewdar that enables you to pick one another out?’

‘Again, depends. I rarely think someone is Jewish when they’re not, but I quite often don’t know I’m talking to a Jew when I am.’

‘And what is it you look for?’

‘I’m not looking for anything.’

‘What is [it] that you recognise, then?’

‘Can’t explain. It’s not one thing, it’s a collection of things. Features, facial expression, a way of talking, a way of moving.’

‘So you’re making racial calculations?’

‘I wouldn’t call them racial, no.’

‘Religious?’

‘No, definitely not religious.’

‘Then what?’

She didn’t know what.

Neither do I. Maybe the amorphousness of the concept of “Jew” (ethnicity, religion, culture, ???) contributes to anti-Semitism. Some may convince themselves they are only criticizing a religion or a culture when, perhaps, they are not as clear on their categories as they imagine. On the other hand, perhaps sometimes people really are criticizing just an aspect of the religion Judaism and get accused of or lumped with or confused with actual anti-Semites. (I don’t believe religions, whether specific ideologies or the whole god enterprise itself, are beyond criticism. In fact, I think organized religions ought to be criticized and often and loudly.)

In the end, I only knew with certainty that Jacobson was lampooning Treslove. There are other candidates (the Zionists, the Jewish anti-Zionists, etc.), but I am too ignorant of Jacobson’s writing, his frames of reference, and Jewish culture generally to draw any reliable conclusions. I think he was making fun of (having fun with) most of them (fun for him, not for me), but I am not sure that is entirely right either. I have no answer to the “Finkler Question”, the “Finkler” question, or any other question posed, referenced, or tackled by this book.

I am dismayed that I cannot more ably identify why the novel and I did not get on. The dividing line between fans and the rest of us is the humor. Those who liked it, like it. Those who do not like the humor, close The Finkler Question with irritation. My annoyance puts me in the esteemed company of Kevin from Canada and James Wood (The New Yorker), but at odds with the equally esteemed John Self (Asylum) and Trevor (The Mookse and the Gripes). That’s it. That’s all I have.


Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd

January 25, 2011

Graham Greene famously divided his fiction into “novels” and “entertainments”, the former being driven by literary ambition and the latter driven by plot. Greene eventually stopped making the distinction, perhaps because “entertainments” such as Brighton Rock had gained respect for their literary merit. More recently, literary novelist John Banville generated controversy by stating in an interview that he was “slumming it” when he wrote crime fiction under the pseudonym “Benjamin Black”. Of course, to hear the insult you need bat ears and a fragile ego, but that’s basically what he said. How else to interpret Banville’s statement that, as himself, he “writes painfully slow while [Black] is fluent and fast”?

William Boyd is slightly younger and has probably learned from his elder’s mistakes. As far as I know, he did not claim to write his thriller Ordinary Thunderstorms with any speed or notably fluency. I, of course, have no idea about his writing speed. But I will tell you, Boyd is remarkably fluent in English (I will admit to, uh, refreshing my recollection of both “bosky” and susurrus” by page two). I hope Dudley Edwards does not find out about Boyd’s wanton fluency.

Adam Kindred, a distinguished climatologist, starts things off by crossing Chelsea Bridge after interviewing for a university job. Adam, recently expelled from marriage to an American woman, has come to the new-to-him city of London to start afresh. Adam has “no idea how his life is about to change in the next few hours – massively, irrevocably – no idea at all.” But first, Adam surveys the river and muses that it is “odd how…instincts mysteriously drive you.”

Adam’s instincts take him to a small Italian restaurant where he strikes up a conversation with Dr. Philip Wang, an allergist. When Dr. Wang leaves a folder of documents behind, Adam decides to bring the file to Wang himself because “it seemed a friendly and helpful thing to do.” Wang never gets the folder back, instead dying from a knife to the chest. The police think Adam, the last man known to have seen Wang, is the murderer. Adam chooses to go underground rather than try to explain the curious circumstances which resulted in Adam’s prints ending up on the murder weapon.

It wasn’t ‘respect for the law’ that seemed to him paramount and fundamental, any more. No: it was freedom that governed this instinctive choice – his personal freedom. He had to stay free, at all costs, if he were to save himself, somehow. To remain free seemed the only course of action he could and should take. It was odd, this philosophical epiphany, but he was immediately aware that the individual freedom he currently possessed was unbelievably precious to him – precious because he now realized how tenuous and vulnerable it was – and he did not propose to surrender it to anyone, even temporarily….

He passed a pub on his left and was tempted to go in and drink something but, along with his new belief in personal freedom, he was aware of how expensive everything was in this city – he had to hoard his remaining funds as he figured out what to do next while he waited for the real guilty man to be identified and apprehended.

To complicate matters, Adam is pursued both by the police and by a hitman. The police are largely faceless except for Rita Nashe, who stumbled upon the body in the first place. Rita is a young constable who soon transfers to the Marine Support Unit (MSU). This being a thriller, the transfer away from the unit involved in the investigation of the murder brings her more thickly into the plot. Boyd handles this with aplomb, making the confluence of Nashe’s life and the story seem natural, as if Boyd was reporting on an interesting development rather than manufacturing a coincidence. This is a thriller, but a thriller written by an outstanding writer.

The hitman is a nicely full character whose interaction with the plot needs no finessing once Adam stumbles on his handywork. Adam is a loose end and Jonjo is a professional. Jonjo is not quite as frighteningly relentless (and psychotic) as Cormac McCarthy’s Chigurhh, but he is very good at what he does and not at all reluctant to use whatever means are required.

Being underground, Adam interacts with a number of interesting characters, including Mhouse, a prostitute. Mhouse plays a significant role in the story and, through Boyd’s skill, remains more interesting than cliched.

The documents Philip Wang has left behind relate to a drug, Zembla-4, that is on the fast track to approval after purportedly success clinical trials. The head of the pharmaceutical company that owns the rights to Zembla-4, Ingram Fryzer, is the last major shoulder over which the reader peers. Fryzer and his good for not much brother Ivo both sit on the board of Calenture-Deutz. Their financially-driven machinations provide the insight onto the important of the documents, something the reader learns well before Adam.

Boyd keeps the pace swift, but not breathtakingly so. Danger for Adam is everywhere and, meanwhile, he is on a race to save not only himself but a small subset of mankind. The stakes are appropriately large for a thriller, if not paradigm-shifting. All of which, to my mind, makes this ultimately more satisfying than the average novel in this genre. And Boyd uses that earlier piece about personal freedom and his plot to at least raise some interesting questions about free will, self-determination, and morality.

Perhaps, I am a bit biased given his description of “the potency and reach of the bloggers.” But what surely ruins my objectivity is Zembla-4. Zembla, of course, is the fictional land formerly ruled by Charles Xavier Vsevlav of Nabokov’s Pale Fire. I am nothing if not a sucker for Nabokov references. Once I see one, I think I see them everywhere:

Small flames burned palely on the familiar tartan lining of the trench.

Maybe that one is a stretch.

Boyd does more than shout out to the master of the mid-20th century. He creates characters who are decidedly not easy to love or to hate. Nearly all of them are sufficiently flawed to keep them real and none are so purely evil that they are simply an alien them. Each is bent by his or her chosen profession. To borrow Boyd’s central metaphor, the bending is such that an ordinary thunderstorm mutates into a super-cell storm and thriller fans will be pleased with the destruction wrought.


Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories by Oscar Wilde

November 19, 2010

You get much more than you pay for these stories as they are free from multiple sources for your e-reader. Oscar Wilde’s wit lightens these comically sinister tales. In the title story, for instance, we get such lines as:

Early in life she had discovered the important truth that nothing looks so like innocence as an indiscretion; and by a series of reckless escapades, half of them quite harmless, she had acquired all the privileges of a personality.

The proper basis for marriage is a mutual misunderstanding.

No one cares about distant relatives nowadays. They went out of fashion years ago.

The story itself begins with a dinner party attended by Lord Arthur Savile. The hostess invites a fortune teller as entertainment.

“Oh, I see!” said the Duchess, feeling very much relieved; “he tells fortunes, I suppose?”

“And misfortunes, too,” answered Lady Windemere, “any amount of them. Next year, for instance, I am in great danger, both by land and sea, so I am going to live in a balloon, and draw up my dinner in a basket every evening. It is all written down on my little finger, or on the palm of my hand, I forget which.”

“But surely that is tempting Providence, Gladys.”

“My dear Duchess, surely Providence can resist temptation by this time. I think every one should have their hands told once a month, so as to know what not to do. Of course, one does it all the same, but it is so pleasant to be warned.”

Lord Arthur Savile has his palm read and is told of something dreadful in his future. To tell more is to spoil the many delightful twists along the way, but I will say that this amusing story puts in play issues of rationality, fate, and, an Oscar favorite, the power of secrets. This is the longest of the five stories and, perhaps, the best.

“The Canterville Ghost” is a twist on ghost stories that plays off British stereotypes (good and bad) of Americans. “The Sphinx without a Secret” is a miniature piece examining the seductive power of secrets. And the saccharine “The Model Millionaire” manages to engage despite being so terribly predictable to a 21st century audience.

I found most enjoyable, however, the final story: “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” My enjoyment came not only from Wilde’s barbs and the story’s plot, but from the fact that it seems a clear progenitor of Nabokov’s Pale Fire which is, perhaps, my favorite novel.

Wilde’s story revolves around the theory that the Mr. W.H. to whom Shakespeare’s Sonnets were dedicated was actually a boy actor named Willie Hughes who specialized in playing female actors. The theory is first brought into the circle of characters by Cyril Graham, a firm believer. His attempts to persuade his friend Erskine are initially futile due to a lack of historical evidence. The entire theory hangs on enigmatic lines in the Sonnets, such as puns on “will” and “hews”. When viewed in light of Cyril Graham’s theory:

“things that had seemed obscure, or evil, or exaggerated, became clear and rational, and of high artistic import, illustrating Shakespeare’s conception of the true relations between the art of the actor and the art of the dramatist.”

The fun in this story is reminiscent of Pale Fire, if less involved and less of an artistic achievement. “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” relies both on Shakespeare’s Sonnets and an actual theory (that of Thomas Tyrwhitt) regarding the identity of the dedicatee of those Sonnets. Nabokov wrote his own 999 word poem and turned his protagonist’s textual interpretations into a complete novel. But Nabokov clearly owes a debt to this work, I think:

“…the surname was, according to him, hidden in the seventh line of the 20th Sonnet, where Mr. W.H. is described as

A man in hew, all Hews in his controwling

“In the original edition of the Sonnets “Hews” is printed with a capital letter and in italics, and this, he claimed, showed clearly that a play on words was intended, his view receiving a good deal of corroboration from those sonnets in which curious puns are made on the words “use” and “usury.” Of course, I was converted at once and Willie Hughes became to me as real a person as Shakespeare. The only objection I made to the theory was that the name of Willie Hughes does not occur in the list of the actors of Shakespeare’s company as it is printed in the first folio. Cyril, however, pointed out that the absence of Willie Hughes’s name from this list really corroborated the theory.”

The comedy of these characters taking this theory so seriously, and taking absence of evidence as definitive proof, is wonderful, as is the traipsing through the Sonnets themselves. The story is interesting and the underlying themes serious, dealing as they do with secrets and mysteries and homo-eroticism (Shakespeare and Willie Hughes), all themes with which Oscar Wilde seems obsessed.

I lack the time and depth of recollection to undergo any deep comparison of Pale Fire and this work; though I think the hall-of-mirrors effect that would result from using textual analysis to prove that these two artistic works are related would be amusing. Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe, the comedy of textual analysis was sufficiently obvious in 1950s literary society that Nabokov did not need his inspiration from this work. However, the fact that a few minutes of searching provides no confirmation of my theory tends only, in my mind, to solidify the truth of my conjecture…..

Wilde is, to me, a treasure. I may even have to read some plays as I am running out of his prose. This and a growing appetite for poetry? The debaucheries of literature may overwhelm me yet. But as for whether you should indulge the pleasures of Wilde, I have nothing to say.

It is always a silly thing to give advice, but to give good advice is absolutely fatal.


This Is How by MJ Hyland

September 8, 2010

Everything unconditional belongs in pathology. – Nietzsche

I chose to read this author because she is a Tony’s Book World recommended author. I chose this specific book of Ms. Hyland’s because it was a Whispering Gums recommended book. And, too, the author was kind enough to drop by my blog. So, though I did not rush out and buy a copy of one of her books as she hinted I might, I did rush to my Kindle and buy one of her books. Jedi mind tricks don’t work on me.

The lesson here is not for writers to comment on my blog so that I will automatically, a month later, read your book and blog about it. It is for writers to get two other bloggers whose literary discretion I admire and whose opinions I trust to gushingly recommend your work and, only then, come nudge me in a most classy manner. In that case, I very likely, almost certainly, will rush somewhere to buy a copy of your book. I am conditionally easy that way.

The book. Well, it starts with that dark quote from Nietzsche above. Beyond that, the best thing to say about it is that I highly recommend it. This is a book that is best read cold. Everything I can tell you about the character and the plot without entirely spoiling the novel you are better off discovering on your own. Really, you are. But if you insist on knowing more, read on.

The protagonist of This Is How, the odd Patrick Oxtoby, narrates. Through the first person narration, the reader has insight into the sometimes hilarious, sometimes frightening, sometimes pitiable, and always engaging thoughts of Patrick. He is difficult not to like, but, all the same, makes the reader and everyone else around him a little nervous. The novel begins with a description of his hard, but not too hard knock at the door of a boarding house where he will try to begin a new life. The knock is answered by Bridget, the charming and attractive proprietor of the boarding house. This early scene gives an idea of Patrick’s quirkiness.

She takes hold of her long brown hair and pulls it over her left breast like a scarf.

‘Let me take your coat,’ she says.

‘I’m not bothered,’ I say. ‘I’ll keep it on.’

I want the pockets for my hands.

‘There’s a rack just beside you.’

‘I’ve said I’ll leave it on.’

‘I thought you might feel more comfortable with it off. It’s a very warm evening.’

She looks at me and I look at her and she takes a step back as though she blames the place where she’s standing for the silence.

Patrick is not slow. He did well in school, studied Psychology and History at university for a year or two before dropping out, and is an ace mechanic. While it is never articulated or confirmed, Patrick exhibits symptoms commonly associated with Asperger’s Syndrome or autism. He has trouble understanding social cues and connecting with people. He takes things literally and seems emotionally remote, even with those who should be closest to him. Underneath this (or on top of it?), Patrick is a sweet man. And, then, underneath that, he has an unsettling, potentially violent personality. As pointed out at Whispering Gums, MJ Hyland has created a lovable but disturbing character, who is both simple and complex. At least, it is no easy task to understand him, despite his simplicity.

Only a few pages into the book, we learn that Patrick had a fiancée, Sarah, who abruptly broke off their engagement. He describes the scene in which Sarah, standing at the top of stairs, tells him it’s over. She leaves him standing there as she walks out of the house.

I wanted to push her down the stairs, make the kind of impression that I didn’t know how to make with words. But I didn’t, and when she’d closed the front door I said, ‘Okay, then,’ and, ‘Goodbye, then.’

Afterwards, I played the scene over and over, imagined how I planted my hands in the middle of her back and pushed hard enough to send her flying.

And I got this sentence in my head, over and over, ‘You broke my heart and now I’ve broken your spine.’ It was something I’d never say, not like anything I’ve ever said. I’ve never done any serious violence to anybody, never even thought about it all that much….

I’m here now, a hundred miles away, and that’s the past. Sarah’s the past. It’s done with. I don’t have to think about it again if I don’t want to.

This scene fits a pattern in which we at once feel sorry for Patrick and afraid of him. His heart was broken, after all, and cruelly, but then there is his fantasy about the stairs. The reader isn’t alone in these feelings. The characters with whom Patrick comes into contact have the same conflicted feelings towards him. They want to like him, but, just when they start to feel comfortable, Patrick’s oddness puts them on edge again. Through a number of quite funny and touching scenes, Hyland builds Patrick’s unique character and the tension of the novel. The reader can feel the pressure building. Patrick will do something good or something bad, or somebody will do to Patrick something good or something bad. Like Patrick, the story keeps the reader on edge, hoping for the good but preparing for something bad.

This is a great success to the book. Hyland beautifully allows the reader to see what Patrick looks like from the perspective of others, and demonstrates that having access to his thoughts does not actually improve the reader’s ability to predict Patrick’s behavior. Because Patrick is incapable of understanding interpersonal customs and subtext, he is unstable in social situations. He seems to have the potential for violence, even if he doesn’t think about it “all that much.”

Hyland so superbly builds Patrick’s personality and the situation that we, the readers, know that Patrick is going to misunderstand a crucial fact at a crucial point. We know that, but we cannot be certain whether that misunderstanding will set him up for a trap laid by another or unleash some of his anger onto someone else or take a different but similarly tragic course. Tragedy of some sort looms ever larger in the first section of the book. That is, unless the twist is danger averted, a connection made, ensuing bliss. It could be. I certainly hoped that is the way things would turn out. But I have probably said too much already. By the time the crucial early to mid-novel event occurs, it feels inevitable.

And then, in the aftermath too, Hyland conjures the dueling specters of optimism and doom. Hyalnd manages her pacing well, so that, even when little is occurring, you know something will happen. And then it is put off a bit, and a bit. Excellent writing.

This book is about the intersection of love, sex, and violence. Patrick’s deficiencies in interpersonal communication make it difficult to make the types of connections necessary for love or even sex. Violence is another matter, but violence can only beget more isolation and confusion. Or, maybe, they are similar matters. Love and sex nearly as often lead to confusion. At least when someone is hitting you, you can be pretty confident about where they stand.

This novel is bursting with its author’s talent. To go any further into the plot would spoil it. That leaves large themes untouched, so I encourage further discussion in the comments, now if you have read it, later if you will.


The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

August 18, 2010

In Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell tended to focus on characters who were disestablishmentarians. Robert Frobisher, Luisa Rey, Timothy Cavendish, and Somni-451, at least, were all standing or fighting against the entrenched order. Cloud Atlas was also suffused with change, both cultural and scientific. Of course, characters in fiction must suffer at least “modest calamity” to keep the reader interested. In Cloud Atlas, the themes explored in each of the sections generally revolved around power and so-called progress. Mitchell is neither a lone pioneer nor the first explorer of these ideas, of course, but he is something of a present day virtuoso. He weaves grand stories that turn and sparkle the truth so that we see facets of the world that are newly impressive.

BEWARE SPOILERS

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet follows that tradition. Some reviewers have called Jacob de Zoet a step back for Mitchell. There is some validity in that position. The middle section contains a number of echoes of “An Orison of Sonmi-451” and, in that sense, is a return of sorts.

The nuns on Mount Shiranui are forcibly impregnated and their newborns killed. They are fed “solace”, an addictive substance that may turn to poison if discontinued. The mothers receive fabricated letters of their babies’ wonderful lives as they purportedly grow to adulthood outside the nunnery. The mothers are promised that they will eventually be reunited with their children and will be provided a comfortable pension while they live out their days in familial bliss. The nuns are similar to the womb tanks of “An Orison of Sonmi-451”. Fabricants are fed “soap” which makes them more pliable and prevents escape by killing them if they do not continue to ingest it. Further, the fake letters from the nun’s children are strikingly similar to the fake promotion ceremonies for the “Twelvestarred” in Cloud Atlas. Fabricants are promised a life of leisure after years of service when, in fact, the fabricants are slaughtered. The corporation perpetrating this fraud produces testimonials and videos of Twelvestarred fabricants purportedly living out the dream. The parallels are obvious and must have been intentional.

Or, maybe they were not. David Mitchell states on The Bat Segundo Show that he had not thought about the symmetry between the baby farm on Mount Shiranui and the womb tanks in Cloud Atlas. This makes me question whether my entire take on the novel is a bit off. Damn authorial intention. It’s the words that count.

Even if I was wrong about the connections between womb tanks and nuns, there are many connections between the novels. Mitchell explicitly refers to Cloud Atlas at least once:

West to east, the sky unrolls and rolls its atlas of clouds.

And there are more subtle allusions to that and other works (of both his and other authors) as well. Adam Ewing sails aboard the Prophetess in Cloud Atlas; Jacob sails out of Dejima on a ship named Profetes in Thousand Autumns. A character mentions “some Yankees from Connecticut”. That last one could be my own imagination again.

But none of this really answers the question of whether this is a good novel or what its strengths might be. Mitchell has stated that he tries always to write in a new way, to avoid writing in a distinctly Mitchellian style. For this, people sometimes criticize him as a mimic or ventriloquist rather than an accomplished stylist in his own right. I am not sure either the criticisms or Mitchell’s stated goals are entirely valid. His efforts to forge new stylistic ground leads him, in this novel, to tell his story in what, to some readers, is annoying prose. As an example, I give you this scene, in which Uzaemon, an interpreter, asks Shuzai, a swordsman, what it was like to kill a man:

”Afterward,” says Shuzai, “in marketplaces, cities, hamlets . . .”

The icy water strikes Uzaemon’s jawbone like a Dutch tuning fork.

“. . . I thought, I am in this world, but no longer of this world.”

A wildcat paces along the bough of a fallen elm, brdiging the path.

“This lack of belonging, it marks us” – Shuzai frowns – “around the eyes.”

The wildcat looks at the men, unafraid, and yawns.

It leaps down to a rock, laps water, and disappears.

“Some nights,” Shuzai says, “I wake to find his fingers choking me.”

I did not find the sentence long paragraphs and the interjection of descriptive prose into what would normally be unbroken dialogue to be disruptive. But I did not find it particularly effective either. I understand how it pulled some readers out of the story more than it enhanced the atmosphere for them. For me, it occasionally worked, occasionally did not. Whether the prose was pleasing or annoying seems to be a major dividing line between those who think the novel was very good and those who do not.

The other reason I pulled this quote is because of the prominence of religious references. The idea of being in the world but not of the world is, if not pulled from, then synchronous with John 17:11 and 16 of the New Testament. Likewise, Shuzai’s feeling that he has been marked in some way is reminiscent of Cain after he killed Abel. Mitchell’s examination of religion and weaving of religious themes into his novelistic tapestry is almost required given the times and the prominent role the conflict of cultures plays in Thousand Autumns, but Mitchell was after something more than satisfying necessity. Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas both have sections that are heavily focused on religion and belief. Mitchell has returned for a third time to the topic.

I have not seen many reviews talk about the importance of religion and metaphysical beliefs in this work. I think reviewers are remiss in ignoring the centrality of belief, rationality, and how humans are to reconcile the two.

James Wood, writing in The New Yorker, recalled Henry James’s argument that “the novel should press down on ‘the present palpable intimate’” and argued that Thousand Autumns is “only palpable”. He compares it to a fairy tale, as a book that could have been set “in fifteenth-century Spain or eighth-century Britain” with no real change in result or accomplishment. James Wood is wrong.

Henry James alsoEdith Wharton in discussing James said that “every great novel must first of all be based on a profound sense of moral values”. I have stolen this quote from A Commonplace Blog. That blog’s proprietor, D.G. Meyers, has advocated argued the idea that “an ingenious plot…serves the same purpose in fiction that argument serves in philosophy.

The plot of Thousand Autumns is too long and convoluted for me to summarize effectively and, I will assume, that those reading this post beyond the spoiler warning already have some familiarity with the plot. The argument that David Mitchell is putting forward in Thousand Autumns has to do not so much with power and subjugation, but more specifically with belief, faith, and reason. The domination of some humans by others is certainly a major theme, but I think the more focused point of argument is the intersection of religion and rationality. On this view, Dr. Marinus is central to the book, though not to the plot. The plot could merrily clip along without Marinus or without ever giving Marinus a speaking role. But he provides important premises for the plot as argument to work and may well be its conclusion.

Abbot Enomoto is much more central to the plot and, perhaps unwittingly, provides a key premise to the argument when examining silvered European mirrors.

”Silver is more truth,” remaks the abbot, “than copper mirrors of Japan. But truth is easy to break.”

Jacob learns the fragility of truth when he forges a signature, putting himself in a precarious position when he later tries to stand on principle. The plot argues and Jacob comes to a new understanding of the naivete of certainty. Meanwhile, Dr. Marinus stands largely outside the plot and, yet, is a central character because he shares what I believe to be Mitchell’s primary concern. Marinus exposes Jacob to ideas that profoundly affect the course of Jacob’s maturation and, in that indirect way, influences the argumentative plot of the novel.

Jacob contemplates the details, and the devil plants a seed.

What if this engine of bones – the seed germinates – is a man’s entirety . . .

Wind wallops the walls like a dozen tree trunks tumbling.

. . . and divine love is a mere means of extracting baby engines of bones?

Jacob thinks about Abbot Enomoto’s questions at their one meeting. “Doctor, do you believe in the soul’s existence?”

Marinus prepares, the clerk expects, an erudite and arcane reply. “Yes.”

“Then where” – Jacob indicates the pious, profane skeleton – “is it?”

“The soul is a verb.” He impales a lit candle on a spike. “Not a noun.”

The important thing in life is not belief, not Jacob’s pious Christianity nor Abbot Enomoto’s potentially true but horrifying cult nor any other character’s particular metaphysical commitments. In fact, those sorts of commitments are impediments to true soul rather than nourishments for it. The seed has been planted in Jacob that his orthodox Christianity misses the point of life, but the full realization does not hit until later, through Dr. Marinus.

[Jacob:] ”I know what you don’t believe in, Doctor: what do you believe?”

“Oh, Descartes’s methodology, Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas, the efficacy of Jesuits’ bark . . . So little is actually worthy of either belief or disbelief. Better to strive to coexist than seek to disprove . . .”

This is why James Wood missed the point. Enlightenment is central to the book and, crucially, central to Mitchell’s thesis. While Mitchell demonstrates and argues for the best of Enlightenment values, he makes clear that science and the scientific method will not lead to paradise. One only has to look at “The Orison of Sonmi-451” to see that. And Dr. Marinus will tell you that too:

“Please ask Dr. Marinus this, Interpreter: if science is sentient, what are its ultimate desires? Or, to phrase this question another way, when the doctor’s imagined sleeper awakens in the year 1899, shall the world most closely resemble paradise or the inferno?”

Goto’s fluency is slower in the Japanese-to-Dutch headwind, but Marinus is pleased by the question. He rocks gently to and fro. “I shan’t know until I see it, Mr. Yoshida.”

The argument put forward here is similar to ideas put forward in Cloud Atlas, the world, science, man, history, has no directional arrow. The world spins, history repeats, and man regresses as often as progresses. The duty of the individual is to other individuals rather than to ideas, beliefs, or metaphysical commitments.

Contrary to Wood, this argument could not have been made as effectively in pre-enlightenment Spain or England. A Dr. Marinus would not make as much sense there, could not have the same centrality. The setting here is a clash of cultures, but a clash unlike those in fifteenth century Spain and eigth century England. Those clashes had winners and losers; those clashes support the thesis of progress. While Mitchell has stated that he thought that the history of Dejima provided an excellent setting for a story, it would be error to suppose that any number of other dramatic settings would serve Mitchell’s purposes equally. This is not simply an entertaining historical novel. Mitchell is carrying his argument further and Japan at the turn of the eighteenth century is an ideal setting for that argument. Newton, Kant, and other Enlightenment thinkers are necessary to the argument, but so too, I think, is a violent clash of cultures which is not aimed at conquest or conversion. This is a clash possibly unique to Dejima and uniquely useful for building on and deepening the arguments so masterfully presented in Cloud Atlas. The Japanese and Dutch strove to coexist rather than to conquer or convert.

Whatever flaws there may be in the prose or storylines or entertainment value of Thousand Autumns, the book is more than a fairy tale. There are serious arguments made here and the plot does push forward those arguments with some force. This is a book that can bear a re-reading, this is a book that “is based on a profound sense of moral values”, this novel does exert “a kind of moral or metaphysical pressure”. I am not prepared to say that this is a great novel, but I believe it is being misread and underread by many, including, specifically, James Wood.


Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

July 27, 2010

I now have the feeling you get after seeing a small mountain peak, making up your mind to climb it, and then looking out from it onto the valley from whence you came. It is not that Cloud Atlas is difficult to read or to enjoy. In fact, I was kidnapped by the story and soon developed Stockholm Syndrome. No, the feeling comes from having set out a plan to read Mitchell’s first three works in order and finishing them. The trek was delightful and I am sorry I will never feel the joy of discovering Mitchell’s genius in quite the same way. But, what a view.

Mitchell’s writing is connected by ideas more than by style or setting. In each of his first three books, randomness and chance play a large role, though perhaps less in this last one. Individual dislocation is another common theme. The role of storytellers is prominent throughout each of the works. Finally, Mitchell grapples in each with power imbalances and oppression, especially the struggle of individuals against the tyranny of organized groups. What I love about Mitchell is not only that he explores so many ideas and has interesting things to say about each of them, but that he ties the ideas together so artfully.

Mitchell is a writer who not only manages to produce a book that argues a coherent thesis, but has put together a body of work that fits together nicely so that the works together enrich and expand on the ideas put forward separately in each book. I think Cloud Atlas can be best and most easily appreciated in light of the earlier two works. They give context and background, not to the characters, but to the ideas Mitchell explores with such brilliance in his master work.

Cloud Atlas, if you do not know, is comprised of multiple storylines which are only lightly connected by character or plot. The story begins as a historical piece set, largely, on a ship sailing the Pacific in the 1800s, moves to a music-filled Chateau in the 1930s, turns into a 1970s mystery, then a modern (1990s/2000s) story about a smalltime con artist and publisher running from thugs, switches gears to an interview with Sonmi-451 (a genetically-engineered fastfood waitress, somewhat in the future), reverses to a nicely dystopian-future-based bildungsroman set far in the future, and back through each until the loop is closed in a most satisfying way. The arc of the story is genius.

The tying together of multiple, nearly independent, storylines reminds of Ghostwritten as both works present a nifty puzzle for the reader to enjoy while living the stories. I pointed out in my review of Ghostwritten how Mitchell carefully constructs these puzzles and, simultaneously, manages disparate plotlines that seem like they should be unwieldy. Mitchell, though keeps them tamed and relevant. He is a masterful storyteller, who tells stories with a purpose. Each character says and acts precisely as Mitchell wants them to speak and act, yet they live, wonderfully.

While all this storytelling and mastery of character and plot are going on, Mitchell gives us some brilliant prose too. Adam Ewing, seafarer of the 1800s, writes in his diary:

[T]he mind abhors a vacancy & is wont to people it with phantoms, thus I glimpsed first a tusked hog charging, then a Maori warrior, spear held aloft, his face inscribed with the ancestral hatred of his race.

‘Twas but a mollyhawk, wings “flupping” the air like a windjammer.

The allusion to Spinoza’s “nature abhors a vacuum” is both appropriate to the time and character and beautiful to the ear. “Flupping…like a windjammer” is lovely and, again, a gifted mimicry of a diarist of a century or two ago.

As the quote demonstrates, Ewing has the racial hangups of his time. Those are tested when he leaves, as a passenger on a ship, the island on which the story begins. On sailing, Adam Ewing believes he has left the Maori and their outfought rivals, the Moriori, but one of the latter has stowed away in Ewing’s cabin. The Moriori implores Ewing to either save him by pleading with the captain of the ship or to kill him with an offered knife. The Moriori, named Autua, does not want to be turned over to the captain whom he fears will torture him. One of Ewing’s friends, Mr. D’Arnoq, helped Autua hide aboard the ship and now Ewing must make a choice.

Cursing my conscience singly, my fortune doubly & Mr. D’Arnoq trebly, I bade him sheath his knife & for Heaven’s sake conceal himself lest one of the crew hear and come knocking. I promised to approach the captain at breakfast, for to interrupt his slumbers would only ensure the doom of the enterprise. This satisfied the stowaway & he thanked me. He slid back inside the coils of rope, leaving me to the near-impossible task of constructing a case for an Aboriginal stowaway, aboard an English schooner, without attaining his discoverer & cabinmate with a charge of conspiracy. The savage’s breathing told me he was sleeping. I was tempted to make a dash for the door & howl for help, but in the eyes of God my word was my bond, even to an Indian.

Ewing has more to deal with than just the stowaway. He also suffers from mysterious headaches. A fellow traveler, Dr. Henry Goose, promised, before they set sail, “to turn his formidable talents to the diagnosis of [Ewing’s] Ailment as soon as we are at sea.” The diagnosis is unpleasant. Dr. Goose informs Ewing that he has been infected by a parasitic worm that travels to the brain, lays larvae, and, when the larvae hatch, kill the victim. Ewing is relieved that Dr. Goose is one of the few who could have managed the diagnosis and has the potion which may destroy the parasites. Unfortunately, Dr. Goose tells Ewing, the treatment is a balancing act between killing and curing the patient.

The story is quite good. But if not to your taste, it trails off, mid-sentence, at page 39. From there, we meet an arrogant young musical prodigy who has alienated his wealthy father and gets by on high charm and low morals. The prodigy stumbles upon the journal in an old chateau while working for a syphilitic and renowned composer. This section is also very good, but lasts only a bit longer before also leaving the reader happily unsatisfied.

Each story is stopped in the middle, sometimes with tension, other times it just seems to fade. In all cases, the reader is left with a yearning to know what happens to the characters, but has little time to lament, because the stories are each more urgently engaging than the last.

Every section has a voice entirely different from what has gone before. I have quoted from the diary of the 19th century gentleman. “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” is told in the present tense voice of the hard-boiled detective novel. Later, Sonmi-451 (Bradbury, anyone?) responds to an interview question by an Archivist:

To enslave an individual troubles your consciences, Archivist, but to enslave a clone is no more troubling than owning the latest six-wheeler ford, ethically. Because you cannot discern our differences, you believe we have none. But make no mistake: even same-stem fabricants cultured in the same wombtank are as singular as snowflakes.

The effect is remarkable. I tend to have a book on the nightstand and one I bring with me during the day. Cloud Atlas can be a bit like having four or five novels going at once. And, yet, somehow much easier than that. The cast of characters is never burdensomely large and the sections, even when completed, are barely novellas. They are all tied together by common themes and connections between characters. For instance, the two longer quotes I have provided both relate to slaves, subjugation, and the power of society over the individual. A peculiar birthmark recurs throughout. Mitchell is like a master cutter with a diamond. This gem of a book sparkles in ways I have not seen before, in ways I did not know a book could shine. It is a classic.

But I do not want to scare anyone away. The wonderful discovery for me was that, despite its intimidating reputation, Cloud Atlas is not difficult to read. It is not the struggle that, say, Crime and Punishment, in all its greatness, can be. While I have thoroughly enjoyed reading Mitchell’s first three novels in the order of publication, it certainly is not necessary. It may be the best way to read Cloud Atlas, as I would like to think. My suspicion, however, is that the most enjoyable way to read Cloud Atlas is to read it. Mitchell demonstrates that brilliant need not be difficult, at least in the reading. Writing about it or fully understanding all of Mitchell’s literary tricks, philosophical points, and cultural references, these things could take a career. But enjoying the book: you don’t even have to try.


The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale by Joseph Conrad

July 15, 2010

This is only the second book by Joseph Conrad that I have read. The other was the novella Heart of Darkness and that was close to twenty years ago in university. I only have a vague recollection of my reaction to Heart of Darkness and, I am quite certain, my reaction now would be entirely different. As a practical matter, Conrad was a new author to me.

The Secret Agent is a deceptively simple tale. I kept expecting a bigger twist than ever occurred. The key events of the book are well set up, nicely foreshadowed, and brought off with a sure hand. The simplicity of the tale provides stark relief to the complexity and the horror of Conrad’s subject. With a little research, I discovered (after reading it) that it has been reported as being the most widely cited novel in the period just following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was a huge fan and identified strongly with one of the characters. The events of the novel revolve around the planning and aftermath of the bombing of an English landmark, the Greenwich Observatory.

There was an actual attempt to bomb the Greenwich Observatory in 1894, only a little over a decade before this book was published. Conrad explained in his author’s note that the genesis of this novel was a conversation he had with a friend (apparently Ford Madox Ford) regarding that bombing.

[W]e recalled the…story of the attempt to blow up Greenwich Observatory; a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that it was impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought…..[My friend] then remarked in his characteristically casual and omniscient manner: “Oh, that fellow was half an idiot. His sister committed suicide afterwards.”

From that simple remark by his friend, Conrad developed a story that explained the bombing as the inane result of defectively logical processes on the part of a cast of characters, from high-ranking officials to a backwards boy. His story has definite and bold political facets. He portrays politicians as morally vapid, the police as either ineffectual or corrupt, upper class socialites as powerful but dangerously naïve, and organized anarchists as inert speechmakers. It is hard to think of anyone who is portrayed in a positive light. Stevie, the dull-witted boy, has the best heart of the lot, but that gets him no farther than you would expect it to get a compassionate but slow young man.

The book is connected with 9/11 and likely gained the attention of Kaczynski for speeches like this one, by the anarchist, Karl Yundt:

”I have always dreamed,” he mouthed fiercely, “of a band of men absolute in their resolve to discard all scruples in the choice of means, strong enough to give themselves frankly the name of destroyers, and free from the taint of that resigned pessimism which rots the world. No pity for anything on earth, including themselves, and death enlisted for good and all in the service of humanity – that’s what I would have liked to see.”

The character that steals the show, at least with respect to terrorism, is the Professor. He is a small, intelligent, unsightly man. He grew up in a strictly religious home with a strong belief in morality and in the right of the talented to succeed. Life has proven the world otherwise. A lesser or perhaps better man would have reacted differently, perhaps.

The Professor had genius, but lacked the great social virtue of resignation.

He is the most ominous of the players in this drama. Conrad plays this character masterfully. It may be true that:

[I]n their own way the most ardent of revolutionaries are perhaps doing no more but seeking for peace in common with the rest of mankind – the peace of soothed vanity, of satisfied appetites, or perhaps of appeased conscience.

According to this line of thought, most “revolutionaries” are simply misfits. They never made it into the enviable cliques, so they rebelled. Undoubtedly, this explains the appeal of radicalism for some. Maybe even all. But even if that is the motivation, the individual can still be dangerous. Most are not. Most talk the game, but do not play it.

The Professor is different. His bruised ego has made him truly reactionary. He walks about fingering the trigger of a bomb he wears. He is dangerous. This keeps him safe, as he explains:

”In the last instance, it is character alone that makes for one’s safety. There are very few people in the world whose character is as well established as mine…..I have the means to make myself deadly, but that by itself, you understand, is absolutely nothing in the way of protection. What is effective is the belief those people have in my will to use the means. That’s their impression. It is absolute. Therefore, I am deadly.”

His role in events is both more powerful and less obvious than the reader initially expects. Conrad is rightly renowned as a storyteller and as a writer.

Another aspect, which goes to craft more than anything, is Conrad’s subtle play with time. He does not tell the story in a strictly chronological fashion. Instead, he alternates timelines. The story begins at the beginning, more or less, and proceeds. Soon, however, Conrad begins switching between events before the bombing and events after. The shifts are not abrupt, nor signalled by any especially obvious markers. However, this braiding together of before and after allows the climax to be the revelation of the identity of the bomber. It is a softly understated detail that elevates the novel above a simple mystery or thriller. I find it hard to express exactly how and why this timeshifting is so critical, but it is. In some ways, it feels like two storylines racing to the climax from opposite directions. The reader can see the crash coming well before the crescendo, but it is all the more powerful as a result.


The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

May 8, 2010

While I had heard of Angela Carter through various lists and from a number of blogs (for instance, here, here, and here; not all on The Bloody Chamber), I had not read any of her work. This collection of short stories, however, seemed perfect for my wife. I gave it to her as a gift. After reading it, she called this collection of gothically re-imagined fairy tales a “must read”, wonderfully written, and brilliant. The exact words are lost in the abyss of the past (or abysmal past, I am not sure), but she praised it lavishly. Well, most of the lavishing was directed at the title story, but she enjoyed the others too. I scored a hit. (Pat, pat, pat.)

You see, I was confident Marky would like these “dark, sensual, fantastic” stories because she likes dark, sensual, fantastic stories. Joyce Carol Oates’ The Beasts is one of her favorite books. There is less fantasy in that work, but it is certainly dark and sensual. So, I knew the subject matter could entice. And Angela Carter is a literary goddess. How could things have gone wrong? There was a way, but it was only a minor problem. The title story was only a story rather than a novel. I share the disappointment, as “The Bloody Chamber” is phenomenal, but I know Angela Carter has a number of novels waiting for us.

If you do not know, these are fairy tales with a darkly feminist twist. The female protagonists step out of their timid, helpless gender-cast roles and turn expected events on their heads. Carter sometimes retells the same fable several different ways, each to good effect and each with its own pleasing surprise.

“The Bloody Chamber” tells of Bluebeard from the perspective of his fourth wife. At the start of the story, she is seventeen and recently betrothed to Bluebeard who, in this telling, goes unnamed. He is mysterious and wealthy. The corpse of his last wife has only just cooled, but the girl is poor and has taken her chance to escape. She bats away her mother’s questions about love, she has learned better than to rely on gossamer threads of feeling as a bridge to happiness:

For my mother herself had gladly, scandalously, defiantly beggared herself for love, and, one fine day, her gallant soldier never returned from the wars, leaving his wife and child a legacy of tears that never quite dried, a cigar box full of medals and the antique service revolver that my mother, grown magnificently eccentric in hardship, kept always in her reticule, in case – how I teased her – she was surprised by footpads on her way home from the grocer’s shop.

The young bride tries a different route. Lessons learned from mere anecdote are more often false than true and always incomplete. The groom allures, but he is as frightening as charming.

I know it must seem a curious analogy, a man with a flower, but sometimes he seemed to me like a lily. Yes. A lily. Possessed of that strange, ominous calm of sentient vegetable, like one of those cobra-headed, funereal lilies whose white sheaths are curlved out of flesh as thick and tensely yielding to the touch as vellum.

The bride has gone too far to turn back by the time she would consider it. As wife to a powerful man with criminal secrets, there are obstacles to a successful flight.

The imagery of lilies continues throughout the story. The lilies and portents of horror. Angela Carter slowly builds the tension from “[a] choker of rubies…like an extraordinarily precious slit throat” to the narrator’s sense in herself of “a potentiality for corruption that took [her] breath away.” The narrator is a naïve young girl, but she has made a very calculated bargain. Things cannot, of course, be quite so easy. This is not a happily ever after fairy tale, nor is Carter’s re-telling. Carter builds the tension to plateau after plateau, until the final riveting climax that feels entirely satisfying and not at all inevitable.

In each of the stories, including this one, Carter deftly manages the psychology of the characters and the setting in which the action takes place. Everyone has an original take, even when Carter reworks a classic twice or more. The story of the beauty and the beast is twice told. In one, “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon”, the father of a girl gets stuck in bad weather. He happens on a mansion where he receives shelter and assistance. The trouble in this story begins when the father is on his way out:

But still, because he loved his daughter, Beauty’s father stole the rose.

The minor theft leads to the conflict and intrigue, the meeting of Beauty and The Beast.

The second re-telling is no less original and begins very differently:

My father lost me to The Beast at cards.

Familiar touchstones from the original provide a strange reassurance despite the reader knowing twists are coming. And the collection has a nice coherence to it. The multiple re-tellings of “The Beauty and the Beast” and “Little Red Riding Hood” mysteriously pulls you more deeply into the experience despite the obvious signal of a re-telling that these are only stories. The stories themselves are linked in other ways too, both to each other and to fairy tales generally. In the first story, the title story, the groom responds to his bride’s objections to going to bed in daylight with: “All the better to see you.” The final story is “Wolf-Alice”, a nice conclusion to the arc of the collection. In another story, the narrator notes that things get “curiouser and curiouser”. In other words, these stories are not just mashed together, but do constitute a cohesive work of art that fits comfortably in the larger body of literature. The collection is so well-conceived and written, it feels essential.

As engaging as the stories are, as surprising as they each are, as snugly as they fit together, it was the prose that knocked me over. Carter writes sentences as pleasing as anyone. The lilies in “The Bloody Chamber” do recur and provide one of my favorite passages:

And I began to shudder, like a racehorse before a race, yet also with a kind of fear, for I felt both a strange, impersonal arousal at the thought of love and at the same time a repugnance I could not stifle for his white, heavy flesh that had too much in common with the armfuls of arum lilies that filled my bedroom in great glass jars, those undertakers’ lilies with the heavy pollen that powders your fingers as if you had dipped them in tumeric. The lilies I always associate with him; that are white. And stain you.