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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Thursday, September 30, 2010

You knew this marriage was not going to work out, right? : Franzen's Freedom

As predicted, the Walter-Patty marriage, over the long term, does not work out; Patty obviously settled for the kind but unexciting Walter because his sexy and charismatic best friend, Richard, was a. unwilling to make any kind of commitment to Patty or to anyone for that matter and b. was too loyal to Walter to make a hit on Patty, whom Walter has pursued relentlessly. Anyway: typical triangle, Jules & Jim but much darker and drawn out over years. Patty settles for Walter, they have a seemingly OK marriage, but she yearns for Richard, who basically never grows up, plays increasingly obscure indie rock, has no successful long-term relationships. Interestingly, each of these three main characters has a similar history of alcoholic fathers, uninvolved mothers; each is fixated on proving his or her worth. Patty and Walter do so primarily by being "nice," never saying a bad word about anyone, being loyal. Good traits - except that they're so forced, especially for Patty, who gets increasingly estranged from Walter and increasingly into drink herself. This odd pattern - horrible parents, overcompensating children - will play itself out in some way in the next generation, Patty & Walter's children, as Patty drops hints about her overdetermined relation with teenage son, Joey. We'll see. A curious feature of Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom," and one of the few things that I seriously question in this otherwise faultless novel: why does Franzen have the first chapters be Patty's "autobiography" (written for her therapist, apparently?, an old trope - cf Portnoy), when he makes zero attempt to try to write these chapters in a woman's voice, in the overbearingly "nice" voice of Patty, or really in any voice other than what's so obviously his own?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The kids are all right but the parents are ogres: Franzen's Freedom

On 2nd reading, the 2nd chapter of Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom," which recounts the date-rape of Betty (Emerson) and the shockingly callous reaction of her parents is harrowing and terrific - and it sets up a trope for the novel, in fact for Franzen: parents (even grandparents) are horrible and self-involved, though somehow the kids (most of them) are all right. The novel, at least the first 120 pp., is primarily about Betty and Walter Bergland, and the section after Betty's date rape takes her as far from her uncaring presence as she can reasonably get, off to college at U Minnesota, where she's a b-ball star. I still can't fathom why her Westchester-liberal-high-achieving parents would find some status perks in that, but so be it. Franzen deftly tells the complex story of Patty's emotional life in college - one of those complex stories that form the basis of so many great songs: she has a crush on a striking but worthless musician, his erstwhile roommate (Walter) falls for Betty and doggedly pursues her, she's uninterested until she realizes what a shit the roommate is, then falls into Walter's arms. These things don't usually work out that well - it's obvious that she's settling for a love without passion. Walter, too, is from a horrible family - both he and Betty are constantly overcompensating, being "nice," trying to get the recognition from someone, anyone, that they never got from their parents. There's a lot going on in this very rich novel - yet because Franzen writes so well and is so clearly focused on telling a good story and exploring the depths of character and place, it's very easy to read and totally engaging.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Didn't realize I'd already started Freedom (in the New Yorker)

Started Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom," and of course soon realize that I'd already started it unbeknownst to me as the 2nd chapter appeared pretty much as is (I think) in the New Yorker - remember the story of the young woman who's a great athlete but her parents don't give a damn because they are so horribly self-centered and focused on their liberal-progressive causes and identities, and they don't even notice let alone help her when she is date-raped - especially tricky because her assailant's father is a prominent guy in town? That was a great story - and very Franzen - a great exploration of characters, most specifically of a "nice," accomplished character who's living amidst a world of horrible egocentric people. I found it a little hard to buy some of the premise - would have been more credible if she were merely a good athlete and not a superb one, as virtually all egomaniacal parents would realize the potential status value in a star athlete daughter. Freedom takes up with the life of this woman as an adult, wife, mom - an urban pioneer in St. Paul of all places, and she's universally considered "nice," maybe too nice - again a typical Franzen, she's athletic, healthy, wealthy (family $), privileged, and for that very reason vulnerable - the story evidently will be in part about her tragic fall. The very first sentence tells us so. Something brought this stay-at-home mom and devoted dad to ruin in a Washington, D.C., scandal, and I guess we'll follow the course of their demise. First chapter a tour de force, as Franzen establishes not just a character but her entire neighborhood, environs, culture - in this regard, he's really in the league of the "Johns" (Cheever, Updike), though in this case of a more urban variety, also reminded me a little of The Virgin Suicides. Glad I got an early (library) copy of Freedom.

Monday, September 27, 2010

A story with potential, but it goes after easy targets : Adrian

Its title aside, there's nothing terribly wrong with Chris Adrian's story in the current New Yorker, "The Warm Fuzzies," yet there's nothing especially right with it, either. It's a story that suffers from its low ambitions - going after a pathetically easy target and, unsurprisingly, hitting the mark. Could anything be easier and more obvious than satirizing the phoniness of a large New Age Christian family where the parents "home school" the kids and the dad gives up his profession (dentist) to right Christian-allegorical songs that the family records and performs. Not that there isn't potential material here, there obviously is, but Adrian doesn't really mine it, just glances off the surface. He focuses on one of the daughters, Molly, who's apparently the most rebellious of the group, just mouthing the words and going along as a secret voice talks to her and utters the obscenities she would like to speak but (rarely) can. There's potentially great conflict! But the actual plot line of this story concerns an adopted (black) boy that they bring into the family/singing group, one of a series of adoptees that never seem to work out, and after some mild flirtation between him and Molly he exposes himself to her and he's banished. More allegory maybe, but more to the point it shows the hypocrisy of the family, treating these adopted kids as disposables, get a new one if the first doesn't meet your specs. So - the story has a lot in it, and unlike 95% of recent New Yorker stories it really is a short story - but it's disappointing because Adrian seems to shy away from the darker implications of his material. He's one of the 20 under 40, however, who shows both ambition and potential, and I will read more of his work.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Which novel is held by the most libraries in the world?

Question raised last night: which book - specifically, which novel - is held by the most libraries in the world? "Novel" eliminates from the list the first and most obvious that come to mind: The Bible, and the Complete Works of Shakespeare. But novels? Maybe it's our anglo-centrism but I would guess an English-language novels. There must be a few that are held by every library of primarily English-speakers (when you include all of India, that will be a lot people): J. thought Gatsby, but I thought first of Dickens and Twain, either Great Expectations or (more likely) David Copperfield, and either Huck Finn or (more likely) Tom Sawyer. But maybe the 19th century is too far back. Gone With the Wind may be the most popular book of the 20th century, but maybe too American - would rural libraries in China have it? They might be more likely to have The Good Earth (obviously) or Grapes of Wrath. But those may be fading from the canon and from the shelves. Ultimately, I'd have to say it would be one of the books used in thousands, millions of high schools: Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, or, probably most likely of all, To Kill a Mockingbird. I would guess that's the one in America. What about the world, though? Is there some book translated into a hundred languages that we're missing? Things Fall Apart? (Doubtful) Something in Chinese? French? The French have a slew of their own wildly popular novelists, but none that I think would be likely to be in all U.S. libraries. Anyone ever look this up?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Wish Invisible had been more straightforward - but then it wouldn't have been an Auster novel

Okay, I admit, a little disappointed at the conclusion of Paul Auster's "Invisible," he does promise more than he can reasonably deliver, and the central mysteries of these characters - particularly Born - Margot - Adam Walker - are not sufficiently developed or revealed. Why does Born single out Walker (in NYC in 1967) in the first place and offer him $ to start a literary magazine? Who really is Born and what is his motive, what are his games? What about Margot - why is she so drawn to this handsome guy 10 years her junior, why is she with Born in the first place, what's her role in all of this? What about the killing of Cedric Williams - is it likely or possible that Born did it? I really thought we'd plumb to a deeper level of mystery, that the issue of Born as a spy or double-agent would play a deeper role in the plot, and it really doesn't. Still, the story is quite compelling and Auster's writing very evocative and he does explore an important issue: how a single moment early in life can set the course for a whole life of suffering, remorse, and longing. This is a great theme for fiction. I almost wish that this had been a simpler novel - even though it is one of Auster's most straightforward - and that he had told it simply from the POV of the (dying) Adam Walker as he looks back on his life and tries to make sense of his encounter with Born and how it changed him. That would have posed the problem of how we learn Cecile's story, which the central narrator (don't even remember his name) uncovers, but Auster could have worked that out - but then it wouldn't have been Auster novel, so you take it as it comes. This is one of his best.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Why is it better - if it is better - to receive a story through multiple narrators? : Auster

If you can set aside the narcissism (why are the protagonists so devastatingly handsome, brilliant, precocious, successful?) and if you can suspend disbelief and accept that not only the author (main character) but the author's acquaintances all can and do write professional-quality narrative accounts of the epochal and traumatic events in their lives - and I can - the Paul Auster's "Invisible" is really good novel. I'm almost finished - just have Cecile (?)'s diary to read through, last 30 pages or so, and a lot does hinge on that diary, as there are many unanswered questions at least up to this point in this mysterious book. And probably not all will be answered, satisfactorily. Still, I tip my hat to Auster - the story is very engaging and full of possibilities and, as with the best of his work, he pushes us to think about the boundaries between fact and fiction, the fragility of the narrative voice, the problems of an unreliable narrator. For example, If this book is narrated by a 60ish Columbia-grad successful author, much like Auster, then who exactly is the narrator of the novel in progress, 1967 that he reveals to us? He says that he has changed all of the names, locations, etc., and so we wonder - what has he not changed? Is any of it "real," and what does it mean to be "real" within a work/world of fiction? Why is it better, if it is better, to receive a narrative through these prisms and fractures rather than just a straightforward story told by an older man reflecting on the choices he made in youth? It's better because that's Auster's material and his signature - he does not write about the world so much as about our perceptions of the world. He's a philosopher as much as a novelist; Auster is the avatar of the '60s fiction debates and discussions and wars about narrative invention and postmodern playfulness - we're of the same world and stock, though in my admittedly occasional writings I have turned by back on these fictive games and gone for more straightforward narration - interestingly (to me) covering a lot of the same ground Auster does but with a different narrative tack (we are from neighboring towns and only one degree of separation removed through various friends, though we've never met). Our writings are really different, but I admire his work, at its best, and will weigh in again when I finish Invisible.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Paul Auster's strength as a writer, and his (occasional) weakness

The third part of Paul Auster's "Invisible," labeled "fall" (first section in 1st person, 2nd in 2nd person, 3rd in 3rd person - why?) brings protagonist Adam Walker back to Paris for his junior year abroad, and there he again encounters Margot and Born, not together any longer, Margot still sexually interested in Walker, Born strangely trying again to befriend him. Hm. So where are we? Most Auster novels get increasingly puzzling and complex as they proceed, but Invisible, despite some odd narrative trappings - the central story of 1967 framed by a wider story in which a successful novelist reads th 1967 manuscript piece by piece and learns about its author's fate - is really pretty straightforward - and for that reason (to me) among the most compelling of Auster's novels. Who is this guy Born and why is he so deeply interested in Walker? How did Walkerr's life go off track after the events of '67 - if in fact it did? What's the relation between Walker and his successful classmate, the one to whom Walker sends his novel in progress? Why is incest such a huge theme of the Walker novel - did his incestuous relation with his sister, Gwyn, damage his life in some way, or is this material included for no reason? Lots of questions - leading to the final one: Can Auster bring this off? His strength as a writer is in raising these puzzlers, and his weakness can be that he can't always make good on his premises/promises. Hoping that these strands tie together in the final 100 pp.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Terrifice premise, and then what? A very disturbing scene : Invisible

As noted yesterday, all Paul Auster novels begin well. The first section of "Invisible" is really good - ending with a very surprising, tense sequence: narrator Adam Walker goes over to professor Born's place, Born confronts Walkerr with having an affair with his girlfriend (Margot) but strangely and not quite believably says it's all for the good, she was trash. Then they go for a stroll, a kids comes up to them with a gun, Born stabs the kid to death, Adam defies Born's threat and notifies the police, Born splits. This just a very capsulized summary. This premise is full of mystery and tension: will Born be caught, will he haunt Walker forever, was this episode staged in some way, what they hell is going on? Then, as he often does, Auster engages in a perspective shift; next section is written by a successful adult author (so now we have two Auster-like characters, one a college student in the 60s, one an author today) who hears from old college friend Walker after many years - Walker sent him the first section that we'd just read. Walker, as it happens, is near death, a failed writer, a leftwing California lawyer - a very different life from Auster's - he's what Auster might have been if fate had taken a different turn. Walker sends the Auster-like character the 2nd section of the novel, which we then start to read - a strange and intentionally disturbing section about his incestuous relation with his older sister. This section is a tour de force in some ways: the writing is very sexual, but the context - brother and sister getting it on - is so disturbing and taboo-violating that we feel repulsed rather than stirred. Makes you realize how important plot/context is to all fiction - great writing is more than language/description/scenes - it's how elements of a novel grow and develop and interact.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

All of Paul Auster's novels begin well

All of Paul Auster's novels begin well, and the question is always, for me, can he sustain it? Can he go anywhere with his premise? Some - e.g., the New York Trilogy - grow in mystery and oddity as they proceed, and it's these on which Auster's reputation rests. Others - that Brooklyn one I read a few years ago - start off well but founder, or flounder, and go nowhere. Starting "Invisible" with high hopes - the premise is typically Auster, an odd encounter between a young, bright, handsome, athletic (auster?) naive (probably not auster) protagonist and a mysterious stranger. The narrator - Walker - a Columbia student circa 1967, meets a strange, exotic, domineering visit professor, Born, who offers to set Walker up as the editor of a literary magazine; Born gets called back to Paris, pretty much leaving his strikingly beautiful girlfriend to Auster to do with as he will. Fantasy? Yes, sure, on every level - but obviously Walker is getting himself into something he doesn't quite understand and can't control. Will see where Auster goes with this. Part of my interest is: I have written about the same location, same era, and wonder how Auster will handle the material; he and I have kind of bumped literary shoulders in this case, each scouting out the territory - and I cede that it's really his, he's been there his whole life, I was a tourist. My style is also sometimes compared with his, and I don't know what to make of that, except we are from the same native soil and probably similarly educated, and I guess we see a lot of things the same way. I wonder, though, how he will manage to write about Columbia 1967 without taking on the political scene - maybe he was entirely sealed off from its realities, or just not interested?

Monday, September 20, 2010

A little less learning would have been a wonderful thing: The Children's Book

I was not alone. At least half of the book group found A.S. Byatt's "The Children's Book" impressive but barely readable. It's like a monument. You stand before it in awe of her daunting accumulation of learning, but do you really want to climb the stairs? No, thanks. Perhaps it skewed more toward the women readers, but honestly there wasn't a huge amount of enthusiasm for the novel from any quarter save perhaps Margot's - as she, an artist, loved the descriptions of the museums, the pottery, the techniques. Interesting aspect of the discussion was a reference Barbara brought forward to an interview in which Byatt said testily that she does not write autobiographically. First of all, that's ridiculous, as all writers, whether they admit to this or not, draw from their own experiences and feelings. Is it significant that Byatt lost a son at a young age and writes about "lost boys"? I appreciate her attempt to build armature, but writers put themselves out for public consumption and we can't help but explore these byways. Nevertheless, I think she is a writer who consciously builds her stories on her vast research - in this case, to her detriment. A little less learning would have been a wonderful thing here - as she seems to take refuge in her research rather than explore, even develop, her characters and their interrelations. What about the child abuse in the Fludd family? What does Olive feel about Tom's death? How does Phillip feel living in near imprisonment? What makes Tom tick? Byatt raises these questions - does not answer them. We agreed some of the clues may lie in Tom's reaction to the two plays - Peter Pan and Tom Underground - but they're no more than clues. The answers are elsewhere - or nowhere.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A brief note on the greatness of Moby-Dick (as if I were the first to note this?)

Can there be any doubt that "Moby-Dick" is the great American novel? And yet: how can we explain it? Wherein lies its greatness? Melville takes on the highest and grandest themes - social progress, racial relations, psychological trauma, faith, redemption, our place in the cosmos - and writes of them beautifully with precision, knowledge, drama, and humor. The characters are vivid, the plot is elemental but compelling, the story is rich in symbolism and foreshadowings, but these do not crowd our imagination - they expand our way of thinking, they are open-ended and provocative rather than restrictive and doctrinaire. Of course it has flaws - which in my view only add to its greatness, but making this novel strange and unconventional. Ahab's language (as the good afterward in my edition notes) is not credible in a realistic way, Ishmael stays on as narrator but disappears as a character altogether, the first section of the book is not in keeping with the story aboard the Pequod, some of the chapters are written in such a high rhetorical style as to be nearly impenetrable. But most are plain as day, vivid, striking, scary. You could read almost any chapter as a great essay in itself - and here we see Melville's strong debt to Sir Thos Browne, to Donne, or course to Shakespeare himself. Melville is no doubt the only American writer who can be taken seriously in the company of those - he was sadly both well after his time (his rhetoric was already antique by 1850) and well head of his time (his interest in formal experimentation, and in psychology, would have to wait till the 20th century before readers caught up with him). The amazing thing isn't (only) that we have Moby-Dick but that we almost lost it.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

What if this story did not have an "exotic" setting? Adichie

C. Adichie's New Yorker story "Birdsong" is pretty good - at least it's a real story and it builds some kind of tension through a rather simple narrative device - woman in a traffic jam notices woman in adjacent car staring at her, wonders if the woman is the wife of her (wealthy) lover/man/boyfriend (she's not sure what to call him). Not a perfect story (spoiler here) in that, well, after all - we never learn who the woman is, and the final confrontation amounts to nothing - but it is a bit of a portrait of a young woman's life. She's a fool for getting involved with a wealthy Nigerian who basically keeps her as his mistress (story takes place in Lagos). She is, however, not very self-aware or analytic, seems to have no qualms about getting involved with a married man and no guilt or shame about living off of his wealth and enjoying the comforts he provides her. In a way, that's the strength of the story - it has no moral qualms, and it's told from the "other woman's" point of view. It's also the weakness of the story, in a way. Is the author as unaware as her character? Always a danger to identify the author too closely with his or her narrators, but there's a sense here that much is glossed over, much greater moral vacuity permitted, if the character's poor and her lover is wealthy - as in way too many American movies, BTW, e.g., Good as it Gets, that Gere-Roberts vehicle whose title I've forgotten. From another POV, isn't Adichie's character just a whore? Would we be as tolerant of and engaged with this story it if didn't have an "exotic" setting, if it was a young woman in NYC or LA? We would certainly expect her to be more aware, critical, edgy, or cruel.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A chapter in which Melville touches on a taboo that disturbs him

Odd to read a chapter in "Moby-Dick" in which Melville is so clearly wrong, so sadly wrong - in which he talks about the possible extinction of the whales, compares them with the American Bison/Buffalo which he knows to have been nearly wiped out by hunting, and then he argues that the whale could never be extinguished because the ocean is so vast and they would have so many places of refuge, particularly in the polar ice - would that it were so, as we see today how we have come close to wiping out the species. Humankind is a much more powerful ecological force than a 19th-century writer could imagine. Through the 19th-20th centuries we learned how small a space we occupied in the universe, but only in the late 20th century did we begin to learn how great a space we occupy on this planet. Some still doubt it, amazingly. Other very odd chapter late in Moby-Dick is Ahab's Leg, in which Melville obliquely explains the true source of Ahab's animus toward the whale - before the voyage, his ivory leg splintered and "nearly pierced his groin" - but Melville seems to imply - very difficult passage, I had to read it twice - that the splintered leg destroyed Ahab's penis or balls, leaving him wounded and impotent. Thus, his desire for revenge, and also for the occasional focus on the phallic aspect of the whale (even the dissection of the penis and removal of the foreskin, see previous post). Odd how difficult it is for Melville to discuss this directly - the language of Moby-Dick is often dark and obscure, but in the chapter it seems Melville has touched on a taboo that it actually disturbs him to confront.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

What more could we ask of a novel? : Moby-Dick

Great to get back to "Moby-Dick" last night, which I had to put aside for some "required"
reading - and getting back I fall immediately under its spell and can see how great this massive, curious, strange book can be - I'd left off just before the encounter with the Rose and the blasted whale - and Melville so effectively captures the oddity of encounters on the open sea, and the strangeness of floating whale carcasses. The French ship the Rose took on two "blasted" whales, and as the whalemen from the Pequod approach there's an incredible stench, but they know the dead whale may have a cache of the valuable ambergris, which they purloin - such amazing descriptions here - possibly the best writing ever about noxious smells - and then in the next chapter when the whalemen "squeeze" the coagulating sperm oil to soften it, and Melville/Ishmael gives a mystical account of how squeezing the oil brings about a narcotic effect, under which spell the men seem to grab each others' hands and fell a universal peace and brotherhood - it's mystical, sexual, unctuous, peculiar all at once - I remember a friend from high school commenting on this passage and it's stayed in my mind as among the highlights of this long novel. Friend Peter mentioned the scene in which the mincer strips the skin of the whale's penis and don's it like a priest's robes (an obvious parallel with the sermon early in the book) - another really funny and strange scene at this point in the novel. Also worth noting the poor cabin boy Pip (?), whom Melville treats with unfortunate condescension, but also he cars about him and pities him - floating alone in the sea after he slips off the whaleboat, and when he's rescued - never in any real danger - he has lost his mind. The book full of such vivid, striking vignettes - a whole world evoked. What more could we ask of a novel?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Less would be more : The Children's Book

After the unbearably long and slow-moving first 3 sections of "The Children's Book," A.S. Byatt sprints to the finish with a short 4th section, rushing her characters headlong through World War I - it's as if she realizes she will never finish at this pace and has to close out the novel. This (4th section) is her homage to War and Peace, and it serves only to highlight how thin her novel is compared with Tolstoy's magisterial standard. Byatt begins each chapter in the section of textbookish regurgitations of the major events of the year - she's a great omnivore, but she has no idea how to use her research to build a story, she just pastes it in - then she zooms in on one or several of her characters, either at home or at war. Ultimately, she dispatches some with instant death, she reunites others through coincidence and happenstance that would make Dickens gasp (reminds me of Powell's Dance to the Music of Time, in which it seems all of England is populated by about 10 people who keep running into one another), and others she just plain forgets or drops. The book just ends. I will say that she writes well about the scenes of battle - as noted previously, Byatt as great at loathsome - though isn't this some of the most over-wrought material in all of British fiction? She also includes 3 poems "written" by one of her characters, who's a Rupert Brooke-ish war poet - and these are quite good. Byatt has talent and skills, but no discipline and no editing. By the end of this long novel - even on the last pages - I'm still checking to see who is this character? which family is she in? who's she in love with? - and that's absurd. I don't feel I've experienced the lives of real people - just a lot of bookish learning. Byatt ends with a thoughtful acknowledgment thanking the many people who helped her with her research as she wrote The Children's Book. If ever there was an example of less would be more, it's this novel.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

When writing with detail becomes pointless and absurd

A rule of good writing, taught in every college writing seminar: write with specific details. But let's add something to that dictum: relevant details, telling details. A.S. Byatt overwhelms us, in the "The Children's Book," with irrelevant details, bits of coloration that reveal nothing about the characters, the plot, the historical moment, or the milieu. You could take a paragraph out of almost any chapter - let's say the premier of Olive's play Tom Underground, and read it and it's almost ludicrous: she goes on for paragraphs about what everyone in the vast audience is wearing. You think it'll never stop. It's killing the story, it doesn't matter at all what color crepe or wrap or whatever! Someone carries a bouquet of flowers. Isn't it enough to call them flowers? No? Okay, how about roses? No, we have to get the name of every flower: roses and lilies and something else I've never heard of and you haven't either unless you're a botanist. Some writers are great because the break convention in a bold and tremendous way - in thunder. Is every detail in Ulysses necessary? No - but every one contributes to our sense of that exact day in Dublin history. Is every detail in Moby-Dick necessary? Of course not - but the obsession with whaling arcana makes the book strange and wonderful. Byatt doesn't have that kind of obsession - she doodles on the margins, a showoff. Maybe she's trying to be a grand novelist - 900 pages! - but the other grand novelists whom she seems to emulate - Thackeray, Eliot, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky - the 19th-century giants - keep us enthralled because of their sense of the dramatic, which Byatt either lacks or disdains.

Monday, September 13, 2010

An unerring ability to avoid the dramatic : A.S. Byatt

At some point late in "The Children's Book" one of the characters (Cain) who's marrying off his pregnant daughter to avoid shame and scandal remarks that he's become a character in a 2nd-rate melodrama - and funny and daring thing for an author to have one of her characters say - but would that it were so. TCB is anything but a 2nd-rate melodrama - it's 3rd-rate at best. A.S. Byatt continues to show her unerring instinct for avoid dramatic situations and conflicts whenever possible, this cited example being the case in point, as the troubled Florence suddenly and inexplicably marries some weird Austrian doctor whom she barely knows and slips her way off the edge of the plot. Or: the troubled young man Tom is very saddened that his tree house (where he and siblings had always retreated during childhood) has been illegally chapped down by the gamekeeper (someone whom Tom apparently used to work with and know? Byatt hints at this but does nothing with this plot element). When he takes his sister Dorothy to see the ruins, all they do is look at them and kind of shrug. Can't Byatt do more with this? Couldn't anyone? No - every time she gets a chance to starts into one of these endless chapters that describe either an art exhibit (I'm so sick of pottery) or one of the so-called experiemental plays that Olive is always working on: puppetry, odd lighting, marionettes, live actors, childhood tales and fables. It is very hard for a writer to describe another art form, and Byatt is good at it, but she way overdoes it to no clear end or effect. Olive's play, now called Tom Underground, sounds as if it's destined to be a flop, and it's a clear ripoff of Peter Pan, which the characters saw earlier in this novel, and perhaps the critics will note that? I can't tell if Byatt means that to be a flaw of Olive's play or if she's not even aware of how derivative this tale - boy loses his shadow, etc. - is, or sounds.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Straw men and strong women - in The Children's Book

Anyone who's read A.S. Byatt's justly famous story about the worm in the forest - I can't recall the title - knows that she does loathsome really well - in that story about a horrifying possibly imagined forest creature that appears to three young girls. In "The Children's Book" she does loathsome in a different way, creating (at least one) thoroughly loathsome character - Herbert (?) Methley (sp?) - and I find the chapter in which Methley seducing the naive, vulnerable Florence to be one of the best, in its loathsome way, in the novel. Hard to accept that this invidious, phony Methley would be able to seduce not one not two but three attractive, independent women (and get two of them pregnant no less), but if we can accept that she depicts his "conquest" of Florence and its terrible consequences for her very well - it's a moment when the novel gets away from the abstraction of ideas and really dramatizes the life of the characters. Too bad Byatt can't stay on that plane, because soon we move along with Florence to Italy (the characters are always running away to Europe, and so is the plot) and engaging in another interminable conversation with a dreamy young man. Byatt just can't sustain a drama. She doesn't really want to, anyway - she probably sees this as a novel of ideas, a defense of feminism - does it really need a defense? Are Byatt's readers in any way likely to disagree with contemporary feminist ideas, much early suffragist ideas? - and in support of her thesis she makes the adult male characters horrible (child abusers and Lotharios - even the sympathetic Prosper Cain ends up being a very indifferent father) and young men, as M pointed out to me, are either feckless of homosexual (or both). The women are not exactly heroic, either, but at least they have some life to them. In comparison with the men, they're moral giants.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Byatt v Tolstoy: what makes for great historical fiction?

Assuming Tolstoy is a model for A.S. Byatt in her vast novel "The Children's Book," a comparison is revealing and not flattering to Byatt. Okay, give her credit for huge ambition. She's trying to encompass the "sweep" of history in this very long book, particularly as experienced by the artistic-radical-intellectual group of Fabians/Bohemians, not sure what to call them. But in TCB, unlike War and Peace, history is a background, a tapestry, and the characters don't really engage with the forces of their time. For example, chapter I read last night, suddenly takes on a new character - Hedda, actually not "new" as she was a pesky child in a few earlier scenes but we know virtually nothing about her - now she's introduced as a young adult and she's interested in the suffrage movement. Well and good - Byatt uses this an occasion to give an account of some of the key dramatic events in the movement in Britain: an attack on Parliament, a protest march in the rain and sleet, attacks by the police, heckling at speeches and rallies. I was not aware of this, glad to have read it, great material for novel I suppose - but not this novel, as Hedda is not a character to us but just a word on a page, and she does not engage with these events, we don't see them through her eyes, from her point of view, they don't shape her or change her - unlike all the great scenes in W&P, as Pierre walks through the cinders of burning Moscow, as he witnesses the battle at Kosovo (?), as he watches an execution - he feels these moments of history, and so do we, and we understand historical forces in a new way. Good historical fiction does not use history as a "setting."

Friday, September 10, 2010

Byatt's characters - I don't know them well enough to loathe them

Another example of the perversity of A.S. Byatt's plot instincts in "The Children's Book" (there will be a spoiler here, kinda, but if you haven't guess Fludd's fate by now you're not much of a reader): She does build up a good bit of dramatic tension (as she does every so often in this long novel) as Prosper Cain proposes to the much younger Imogen Fludd (great names!), and then he asks her father, Benjamin, for her hand, in proper Victorian style - and Fludd refuses, plays King Lear, slaps Cain across the face. Cain ducks and avoids a second slap, then politely leaves the scene - and that's basically the end of that bit of tension. Why can't or won't Byatt do anything with these characters? Why do they retreat from everything? Fludd himself, a rather interesting if peculiar guy, seems to literally go off the deep end - disappears for about a week, even though he's expected to give a big pottery demonstration (could anything be more boring in a novel than that?), and nobody seems particularly worried but then - big surprise! - a fisherman turns up with one of his boots. Guess he drowned himself in the surf, out of some morose guilt? Clinical depression? We will never know. And the rest of the story rumbles on - an odd blend of tragedy and comedy, as various couplings in the much-entwined families that we've been following for years, head off to the altar. We are at last nearing the end. Part of me would like to loathe some of the characters - particularly the men, with the insinuations that several of them, from the weirdo Fludd to the Bohemian intellectual Humphry Wellwood, are child abusers. But - I don't feel I know them well enough to loathe them.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

An (unintentionally) funny chapter in The Children's Book

Well into A.S. Byatt's "The Children's Book" there's a chapter in which all of the children of the various families and their "tutors" go off to the woods on a camping weekend - a nice, bucolic moment in this long novel - and at the outset Byatt takes a few paragraphs to say something about each of the characters and what they're doing at the outing. It's unintentionally (I think) hilarious! There are so many damn characters in this novel, and it's literally impossible to distinguish one from another. Byatt jams the stage with names, and many of the characters are no more than a name - and we're meant to keep them straight? People wince about the great Russian novels, but Tolstoy's a breeze compared with this. What makes it worse is Byatt's inability to or uninterest in developing her main characters. She gets a plot line going and then abandons it. What happened to Tom, Philip, Julian - so effectively introduced in the early chapters and now pushed aside (Tom) or virtually forgotten (Philip)? The adult men are mostly monstrous and self-indulgent; the adult women are mostly feckless or clueless. That leaves us with the younger generation. But whom in this group do we really know anything about? More and more as the novel progesses it appears that Dorothy is the center - victim of abuse, she heads off to Germany, then to medical school. But we know nothing at all about her interior life, and other than her confidence that she can beat the odds and prejudices and become a doctor, what do we know or care about her at all? She could of course be a protagonist in a conventional novel, but we'd really have to see her confront her demons and we just don't. There so much in this book - which gives the author leeway to focus on so little.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

It's not that Byatt can't construct a plot. She just doesn't seem to care.

It's not that A.S. Byatt doesn't know how to construct a plot, because she's done so in both short stories and novels (Possession) very effectively, but it seems as if, in "The Children's Book," she just plain doesn't care. Here we have the single most dramatic element/scene in the novel, Humphry makes a drunken sexual advance at his supposed daughter, Dorothy, she bites him severely, he reveals to her that he's not her real father. Instead of working this theme in any significant way, Byatt sends Dorothy off on a German sojourn, where she tracks down her true father, a puppeteer whom we'd encountered much earlier, where they stroll around Munich engaging in rather ridiculous conversations about puppetry and other aracana. These are not real people behaving in real ways, believe me. Even the dialogue - not only is it stilted and unimaginable as spoken language, but there are even ludicrous moments when Byatt can't help but show off her vocabulary, as when she has German youth who stumble through their English ("How is it that you say ... ") come up with words like "exigent," which I had to look up, sorry. Yet Byatt can write when she wants to. The first chapter in part 3, in which she gives a whirlwind summary of the social and political movements taking shape in the early 20th century, is quite beautiful - she's good at that - but as she gets back to her story and gives us capsule summaries of the lives of her main characters over a 6-year span, we realize how clumsy and cumbersome she can be. Far too many characters - 400 pages in and I'm still trying to figure who's who - and what's worse she loses site of her main and most interesting characters (Tom, Philip) and just dismisses them in a few words. What happened to Philip, poor shmuck, still working for pennies for the eccentric mentor Fludd? Byatt doesn't really care and barely clues us in. She's lost. Me, too.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

What does Byatt have against her readers?

I don't mind that "The Children's Book" includes the requisite ballroom scene with all the tropes of the convention, the girl who for the first time realizes she is beautiful and can dance the night away, the wallflower unasked, the young man who ends up dancing with his mother/sister, the older man flirting with the much younger partner, the intrigue about who's written in who's "book," who will sit were during the break for "refreshments." What makes it fresh in "The Children's Book." I guess that one of the men is gay and looks longingly at one of the other guys - you don't find that in Austen, Tolstoy, et al. But what doesn't make it fresh is the incredibly stilted conversation - is there a writer with a worse ear for dialogue than A.S. Byatt? If there ever were characters who spoke as if they were "in a book," they'd be hers. Then we go to "after the ball," when the characters at home reflect on the evening, and then something strange and disturbing happens, as Humphry makes a pass at his supposed daughter Dorothy, and as she rebuffs him (biting him) he tells her she's not actually his daughter (which we've known all along). This is kind of interesting, and what will Byatt make of this? For one thing, I think it's ridiculous how solicitous Dorothy is toward his feelings. For another - instead of building on this conflict, Byatt more or less erases it, having Dorothy and others decamp for Germany. It's OK that she might want to get away from her crazy family and monster "father," but is that really good for the story of this langourous, sprawling novel? What does Byatt have against her readers? And what does she have against adult men, anyway? They're all horrible in this book, in their different ways, though the young men are all nice - what happens to them when they get older?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Why The Children's Book would make a lousy soap opera

I will keep reading "The Children's Book" out of loyalty to my book group - even though I've passed the half-way point and it's obvious to me that this is not my kind of book and never will be. There are great novels in here, but it's a porridge or even a miasma of characters, ideas, themes, and styles and you have to find your way through it - A.S. Byatt won't help you. I'm at the point where Elsie Warren, Philip's sister, announces she's pregnant and a trio of women, Mrs. Dace, Mrs. Metheley, and who's the 3rd?, I'm not even sure, conspire to help her - even though all are aware that Mr. Metheley is the likely father. Here's a perfect example of Byatt's perversity. She devotes a whole chapter to Metheley's flirtation with Elsie, but we never see the relationship actually develop - Byatt blithely elides key scenes that don't interest her. On the other hand, we now spend a great stretch of time with the women helping Elsie - the 3rd one, I just remember, is Marian Oakestreet (?), who's had her own child "out of wedlock" with Humphry - but we know virtually nothing about any of them. That is to say: there are so many characters, but Byatt lets her focus wonder about among them. At times, this feels like an outline for a soap opera or miniseries, and these characters are not meant to be more than sketches. And that would be okay, if the plot were sufficiently dramatic or even melodramatic - but it's lacking in the basic tensions and "collisions of forces" that motivate commercial fiction and for that matter successful literary fiction - compare this with say Tess of the D'urbervilles, where you really understand the characters and their suffering, and the differences is worlds.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Detail v Telling Detail: Why The Children's Book is too long

When the characters in A.S. Byatt's "The Children's Book" head off to a daylong meeting on women's suffrage, you just know that you will hear a full account not only of the event but of each of the five lectures (not to mention what everyone was wearing - down t the patterns on the dresses, and not just flowers, but which variety of flower). This is too much! I know writers are praised for attention to detail, but let us add a qualifier here: telling detail. Detail that matters to plot, character, mood, setting, not detail just because the author is able to conjure up. No writer has more detail than Proust or Joyce, but theirs are evocative, all the time. No writer includes more arcana than Melville (Moby-Dick) but his is all leading toward one goal, an intense examination of a particular lost industry and art. No writer includes a broader scope of material than Tolstoy, but - even though his greatest fans concede that he lets War and Peace at times become a personal tirade - the story remains clearly focused on the lives and struggles of a few main characters. Byatt (or her editors, or her fawning critics - not the NYTBR reviewer, however, who qualified her praise) can learn a lesson from these great writers. Great fiction is not about overwhelming your readers with your own cpious intelligence. Didn't Hemingway say you have to kill your darlings? Byatt needs to massacre them - this is a 650-page book that should be half the length at most. And BTW, I am at a point where she begins to interpret a story of a girl playing with a dollhouse who is in fact a doll being played with by a larger girl. Wasn't this a Twilight Zone episode? Come on - copious imagination is one thing but ripoffs are something else.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Surprise! A "traditional" story in the New Yorker

Nell Freudenberger's story "An Arranged Marriage" in the current New Yorker is a throwback, a traditional story that believe it or not actually comes to a conclusion and feels complete in and of itself and doesn't seem like either a chapter in a novel shoehorned into the magazine nor like an open vigentte with no beginning, middle, end - a sketch that the author had no idea how to complete. Freudenberger sees her story whole and seems to know where she's going; if anything, the cute conclusion is a little too tight and too self-consciously foreshadowed, but we'll let that go. Story is of a marriage between a Bangladeshi woman and a Rochester guy who meet on a date site; she moves to Rochester, lives with him for a short time, then the wedding ceremony. She is always completely clear in her mind - and with him, in fact - that this marriage is about improving her economic status and get her out of poverty. Her parents, with some guilt about their inability to help, approve. There's no passion in this marriage, but, following her family tradition of arranged marriages, she is sure she can learn to love him and be a good wife. Obviously we keep expecting the worst to happen - a betrayal, a miscommunication, some weird sexual perversion. The surprise, I guess, is the lack of surprise - husband seems to be a sweet, nerdy guy and really does want to marry her. Story is every sense a real throwback. It's not really fair to complain that I want more depth in the characters - it's only a story, after all - but the husband is quite opaque, and the wife is swathed in exoticism, that is, as with many other stories that Americans place in foreign settings, the writer overdoes it with the “color,” using many foreign-language terms and geographic reference points to make the story seem authentic, which it does not, it just seems researched – product of a Fulbright grant perhaps. The better parts of this story are those set in Rochester, and I almost wish she could have managed to set the whole story there.

Friday, September 3, 2010

What does a novelist owe to her readers?

Ah, Ms. Byatt, I keep reading "The Children's Book," out of loyalty and commitment to my book group, but I also keep thinking: isn't this a book in need of an editor? Or are some authors editor-proof? None would dare say this book is too long, too meandering, to sprawling. And who am I to say? The critics rave, and the book sells (reasonably) well, so she's doing something right. But there's also something wrong about a book that has no focus and no idea where it's headed. Some of the pages are almost ludicrous with the number of characters introduced, referenced, mentioned in passing. There are so many strands to the so-called plot. Yes, life has so many strands, and a novel is an encapsulated life rendered in words - the mirror held up on the highway and so forth. But doesn't a novelist owe something to her readers other than a massive brain dump? I feel as if I'm reading the notebooks of AS Byatt, and maybe I am. How would this book be if you began reading it in the middle, at a random chapter? I wonder if I would have had the same initial enthusiasm regardless of where/when I stepped in. Begin at almost any point and you'll see a good potential story, but the potential is never realized because of the abundance of her ideas and ambitions. What a peculiar book. By the way, I have to note that one thing she writes very poorly about is sex and sexuality from the hetero male POV; the guys in her sex scenes look and sound like total idiots. The scene of Philip in the brothel, with the prostitute teaching him the names of body parts in French is (unintentionally?) funny. She can write about many, many things and is hugely knowledgeable - but there are limits.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

When authors don't fulfill their contract (with the reader)

Anyone reading these posts may notice some sort of pattern: all too often, it seems, I start a book with great enthusiasm but then half-way through or even later my interest begins to flag and my hopes are dashed. Is this really unusual? I think we always start reading a book with a positive, hopeful attitude - like the first day of a new (school) year! Why else would we pick up a book (other than an assigned text perhaps - and even then we'd open it with hope)? Novels begin with a sort of unspoken, unwritten, but mutually acknowledged contract: the novelist introduces a character or some character, a setting, and hint of a theme, a voice or style - and we expect some reasonable degree of consistency throughout the book - even if it's an experimental or unconventional book, we expect that unconventionality to be consistent. We also expect the characters to develop, become more round (as Forster put it), whole, or real, whatever that may mean, and we expect a plot to develop - the character(s) grows as they take actions and as their world acts upon them - sometimes in surprising ways. The character must face some kind of crisis, dilemma, decision - they can't just drift from event to event or there's no story at all. If the novelist doesn't fill these elements of the "contract," we are disappointed and often we/I abandon the book, and why not? Sometimes, though, it takes quite a while to know whether the book is going anywhere - we put a lot of faith in the novelist, and, depending on how well we know his or her work and on our commitment to the work in hand, we keep going, thinking, yes, all of this will eventually come together, all of this will make sense, this will pay off later. All these thoughts - a long way of saying I am at or near the point of abandoning A.S. Byatt's "The Children's Book," which started so well but 300+ long pages into it is just meandering along going nowhere - and I've just about had it with the tedious description of about 15 characters wandering through the Paris exposition looking at ceramics. Aside from a very specialized audience, who would read this stuff? Did critics really love this book, as the blurbs/reviews imply, or were the awed/cowed by Byatt's magisterial reputation and by the daunting intelligence?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Ambiguity, subtlety are great - but engage us more! : New Yorker stories

Y Li's story "The Science of Flight" (?) in the current New Yorker is a very good character sketch but as a short story it feels a bit underbaked. A story that presents a credible character and within the tight frame of a short story gives us a sense of her history, her personality, her fears and struggles - that's no minor accomplishment. But does a story, like a novel, need a plot? We've been reared, spoiled, by literally generations of New Yorker stories that simply create a mood, a set of nuances, and end on some minor chord, or a single ambiguous note/image. Li's story feels more traditional - a 30ish immigrant from China working in an animal lab with two male coworkers, very different from her, and she has a secret she's kept from all, that she has never known her parents and that her visits "home" to China are not really to see them - but it does feel that Li is unwilling to push this story to its limits. In the interest of subtletry - generally an asset in fiction - she makes the story too flat and inconclusive. It is possible that this is, as are so many other New Yorker stories these days, a part of a longer work, a novel, so maybe the issues that Li raises will get further explored and developed elsewhere. But what would I say if I'd read this story as part of a writers' group? Make something happen. Tell us what happens on her promised trip to London - does she, to her own surprise, find she's rented a place in the village where her friend lived? (Li drops a hint in a reference to a man with 6 fingers - maybe she sees him.) Or: don't tell us the character (Zaichin)'s secret - she doesn't know her parents - until the end of the story. Engage us more - and then the moving story will be much more powerful and memorable.