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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

Friday, May 31, 2013

Parade's End and Modern(ist) fiction

Tietjens on the eve of his return to the front in WWI, in a weird spat with his wife, Sylvia, who gives him permission to spend his last night in England with the suffragette Violet (?) Wannop (!), on whom he has an (unrequited?) crush - but her offer leads to an outburst from Tietjens, since when is he so moral or loyal? - and further strange behavior, as he is still clearly suffering from shell shock or other war trauma and is in no way fit to return to the front. Their dispute interrupted by arrival of a man (not from Porlock) with another really strange name that I can't remember right now, Port Collis - ha! - or something like that, who wants T. to sign some sort of agreement - a will or legal document, but he immediately realizes the gravity of T's condition. Again, Ford Madox Ford is writing a truly unconventional war novel, not only war as seen from the stateside but war as not seen at all except through its after-effects (at least so far). A smart anonymous commentator on yesterday's post notes that the entire Parade's End concerns only a few days of action, all the rest seen in flashback, and the post encourages me to stay with the series, even though the first volume, Some Do Not..., is daunting. I will - there's enough promise and enough to hold my interest. I'm not surprised, however, that Parade's End is less often read than The Good Soldier or other Edwardian-Georgian fiction now so in vogue thanks to the BBC - yes it is modernist, in regard to plot construction (cubist?) and narrative focus, shifting radically and suddenly from interior focus (we are at times entirely in T's head) to non-omnisicient narration: in much of the volume we see events unfold before us as a "fly on the wall" might, if the fly were Virginia Woolf - very little context, no back story, we have to figure out the meaning, and often the setting or even the speaker, by the clues dropped before us like breadcrumbs. Challenging - but great Modern fiction is recognized by the complete work, when all coheres, not by incidental passages.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

A war novel with (so far) no scenes of war: Parade's End

Strange things happen - maybe it's me, maybe my concentration was better last night - but moving into part 2 of the first volume (Some Do Not...) of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End it seems that at last the novel or series of novels is taking shape and starting to make sense. Part 1 ending with a long ride overnight in a horse-drawn carriage through the Kentish (?) countryside, Tietjens and the young suffragette, Violet Wannob (?), first they drop off for shelter the wanted suffragette demonstrator, keeping her from the police, then continue on - somewhere - Tietjens eventually on his way to the coast and a journey to Germany to reconcile with estranged wife Sylvia. As with all else in part one, it's very hard to understand where the characters are, what they're doing - we understand the conversation, in the moment - but it's as if we're eavesdroppers, passengers in the back seat, and we pt together what we can or will from what we here - FMF give no guidance. What I put together is the T. is increasingly interested in V., even though he is trying to reconcile with his wife - and she's fascinated by his intelligence and skills (esp. with horses - he can do just about anything) - they get in arcane debates about scholarly points, Latin translations for ex., highlighting their differences superficially but on a deeper level showing that they are truly similar and sympathetic souls. Then - onto Part 2: and it's not evident right away but we gradually discern that we are now some years later, T. is back with his wife, Sylvia, a beautiful and cold-hearted woman (not clear at all what's become of their unwanted child - wouldn't that be a major issue in any novel, even and English novel?); it also gradually becomes clear that the world is now at war (just some vague references to impending war in part 1), and then we realize that T. has been serving and he's home on leave: suffering from shell shock, which was apparently not widely accepted as a condition, suspected that soldiers used it as an excuse to get out of service. But T is really suffering - serious memory lapses. He explains all this to S., and it's kind of amazing they hadn't talked of this before. He's about to head back to the front, and she, in her peculiar way, picks a quarrel and suggests he should spend his last night (maybe ever) with V., whom she knows he has a crush on. She thinks she's being magnanimous, but in fact she's really mixing him up - though it seems she cares about nobody but herself. In FMF's peculiar way, we are now in a war novel - but we have not seen anything of the war, only its affects, through a soldier at home on leave. Easy to see here, btw, the influence on many English writers to follow - think of MacEwan or Pat Barker for two English writers who've examined the world wars through their after-effects on soldiers at home.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Cheating on my reading of Parade's End

I rarely do this but, trying to make some headway in Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End, I jumped to the front of the queue and read some of the introduction (Malcolm Bradbury, Everyman edition) - trying to get some context or understanding - as the chapter I've been working on is making less and less sense - Tietjens obviously smitten with the young suffragette (Miss Wannab? Violet? - can't even remember the names, thanks to Ford's assiduous avoidance of omniscient narration) as he tells her he loathes her cause (harumph) but admires her tactics, which include not just protests on golf links (harmless) and hunger strikes (harmful to the individual) but also terrorism such as mailbox bombs. Obviously, he's just a contrarian and blowhard, heading for a fall- and then there's the issue of his marriage - wife at a spa in Germany and teasingly offering some kind of reconciliation. He will have to choose. Or will he? As one thing I learned from Bradbury's intro us that PE is a war quartet - and yes, it's set on the brink of WWI - so I did figure that the characters would be off to war and, like the entire generation in England, would be shocked and transformed by that horrendous experience. Ford is taking his time kicking that plot element into action, however. Also, from reading part of the intro., I can see that there are some (painful) similarities between Ford and his anti-hero, Tietjens - the disheveled appearance, the trouble with women, the marriage difficulties, the eccentric intelligence, the literary bent - and perhaps the course of a war experience as well, further into the novels. Was surprised to learn that Ford was such a prolific writer - 80-some books - as today he's almost exclusively known for The Good Soldier and PE - and I'd forgotten what an important literary ed. he was, a champion of all the modernists and (in Transatlantic Rev.?) of some great American writers such as the ever-ungrateful Hemingway. None of this makes it easier or more pleasant to read PE, however; yes, I can accept that it's a modernist novel and owes a debt to Woolf and Joyce - but they are so much Ford's betters as to make PE look dismal by comparison. Modernism does not equal willful obscurity and narrative prickliness. More on point, Bradbury in his intro describes PE as a "state of England" novel, or series of novels - and that is true, it is a window onto its time, from the POV of a particular social class or set. Unfortunately, it seems to me to be a work of its age but not necessarily for all time - yet, maybe it gets better once the characters' lives are rattled by war. I may cheat even further and watch the HBO v. when I get a chance - it may be that, reduced to plot elements, this baggy and often obscure novel may have a great story at its core.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Tee Time and Women's Rites: Parade's End

Either I'm reading in a fog (quite possible) or Ford Madox Ford is writing in a fog, but I am having a hell of a time making sense of the first book, Some do not..., in his quartet, Parade's End. I finished the section in which a golf excursion gets derailed when one or several suffragettes show up on the course and protest; the next chapter involves an afternoon tea of some such social gathering, and the hostess talks quite a bit to one of the young woman guests who, it turns out, was the lead suffragette in the demonstration; he's worried about getting  picked up and sent to prison for her activities - which I'm sure did happen and could have happened. She says she's not very brave or heroic - just committed - and we know (wasn't A Brief History of Women about this?) that some of the suffragettes starved themselves to death in prison, so things were pretty intense and gruesome, though it sure does not seem this way at this tea party. Turns out suff. #1 is the daughter of a late professor and a mother with a literary bent - the mother forces her way into the social event without an invitation because she wants to talk to one of the guests who she thinks can help her get published - it turns out that the guest is the young civil servant, Macmaster, whom we've been meeting on and off through these chapters; and along with him comes the disheveled but brilliant friend, Tietjens, and the young suffragette - who'd startled T. on the golf course - seems to be interested in him. Hard to tell. We're also drifting away from the plot line that involved T.'s estranged and her odd, incomprehensible, desire to reconcile - even though by her own account she hates him and hates their child! A lot of talk and I can't keep the characters straight and can't see the connections between the diverse elements. Ford is notable for giving very little back story, very little context - if any, and that makes it really rough going, especially for an American reader a century later, who does not and cannot possibly pick up all the social cues and political references. I feel like an uninvited guest at that tea party - bewildered and out of place.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Four meanings of "Leaves" - Updike's story

A few words on the beauty and sadness of John Updike's very short story Leaves in his early 60s collection The Music Room - this one, like several of the earlier ones in this collection, pushing the edges of story-writing as close to memoir and essay as possible, an experiment in form and genre for Updike that would bear fruit in his much later autobiographical  essays. This one an early examination of the theme of divorce that threads through so much of his fiction, with so many variants but all the same species: the husband remorseful and wistful still apparently in love with the wife who is leaving him, or at least with his now ex-wife in certain moments, gestures, or bursts of sensation - as in this story, which is just a few pp of a man now aline, with none of the sense of freedom or release that he had perhaps anticipated, but thinking about his wife's departure and drawing an elusive analogy to his condition and the forces of nature he observes on this autumn day - the changing colors of the leaves ,t heir various shapes and markings, the fruit some of the trees and bushes bear, and his sense of the cycle of death and rebirth in nature, making him sorrowful (as he feels autumnal, his life behind him) and wistfully hopeful as well, thinking of a rebirth of his life, after some difficult hibernal passage. Most remarkable in this story is the subtle play on the many interlaced meanings of leaves - the leaves he is observing of course, but also the leaves of a book, that he is writing, his true manner of rebirth and resurrection, and also the leave as a departure - she "leaves" him - and perhaps, in the background, a leave as a permission, specifically permission that grants freedom, as in by your leave or out on leave. Hard to say whether this is a story or a personal essay, but we're so close on the border here that the line of distinction between the forms vanishes, or leaves.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Updike the music room - stories

In the stories fr the early 60s john Updike collected in The Music Room he explores some of the themes and modes he will continue to work for the rest of his career. Ex: the madman is a terrifically funny story of U and his young wife as innocents abroad worth reading if only for the first pages that perfectly capture the sense an English major has on arrival I London but then goes on to their arrival in Oxford and attempt to get 'lodging ' and this is or seems to be a story as close to memoir or personal essay as u ever came intl I his overtly autobiographical works much later. He was I think examining how close fiction cam come to fact. Another story giving blood introduces I think the Maples who will carry him through the next long phase in his writing - New England propriety and class and suburban infidelity and domestic distress. The title is b telling as is the single tight narrative of husband and wife driving to city to donate blood and raising many issues in their marriage ESP as they reflect on party o previous night and what that revealed about their marriage and family.

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Saturday, May 25, 2013

Updike stories

Reading some John Updike while traveling and last night read the beautiful In Football Season first story in old collection The Music School. Fans of Updike who haven't read this story in a long while (me) will enjoy coming back to it in part to see here early and almost encapsulated version of material he made continued use of right through stories and memoirs late in his life. This story seemingly simply a memory - always drawing from his ample childhood experiences so remarkable and fruitful for him in that they are not dramatic or traumatic the stuff of memoirs today but just deeply etched and perfectly recollected. In this one we see the by now v familiar U material of teenagers walking home from HS football game and the boys pairing off w girls a sensuous good night kiss on doorstep and the U walking on to house where his father sits w two other men counting the coins collected from ticket booth drinking beer and smoke and he watches slightly aside - after feeling so young and free and manly he now senses he is not yet of his father's world and now recalling this moment from about 15 years later beset by sense of loss and death. Don't we all have these moments and these fears? I like most aspiring writers have tried to capture this feeling and have even written about the ha football game from the view outside of the stadium - such a simple matter yet so elusive - as apt a definition of a great short story as know of or can devise.

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Friday, May 24, 2013

Lucky 13: Millhauser's unusual and powerful story in current New Yorker

Was skeptical at first about Stephen Millhauser's story in current New Yorker, 13 Wives, expected, feared, some misogynistic male fantasy souped up literary version of Big Love, and first few paragraphs confirmed those trepidations, as narrator explains how he's so content and comfortable living in his great Queen Anne house with his 13 wives - OK, and how do they feel about this convenient, for him, arrangement?- and then he proceeds to describe each of the 13 in sequence - and the first is his total helpmate and spiritual match, if he bumps his shin she gets a bruise, and I thought Oh, spare me, but gradually, amazingly, this story drew me in - it begins to get pretty funny especially by wife # four who's a complete kvetch and continues to complain to him about everything - why don't I have a dehumidifier? - even as they're having sex = and by this point in the story I'm thinking, all right, these are multiple visions of the same wife, just as all of us have multiples visions of one another, especially of those we're closest to, but that would be pretty simplistic and Millhauser is anything but that, as the story moves on to stranger and more mysterious elements - a wife who floats, e.g. - and by the end we begin - just barely begin - to understand that the story is about a grander theme, it has something to do with how our observations and fantasies work to build our complete and complex understanding of other people and how in a sense our life is made up of the stories we construct for ourselves about our interactions with others - the last two "wives" are especially powerful moments in this story, the 12th a wife who is composed of the events that did not happen (as all of us wonder, how would my life have been different if this one event had not happened? and the 13th composed of the thousands of women he has seen for a passing moment and thought about even for a second as someone he could, who knows?, know and love, maybe, in another world or life or in a story.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Fore!: Are there great golf novels?

I'm probably not reading Parade's End with the attention it deserves, but I have to say I'm having trouble figuring out who's who and what's going on: the two main guys, Tietjens and Macmaster, are or seem to be on some kind of British government inspection or assignment - they work in some division that supplies data and reports to Parliament (I think), and there was some dust-up about a higher authority asking them to fake some data or draw erroneous conclusions - all very murky and poorly delineated. Ford Madox Ford is, I guess, known for writing in an elliptical style: he just throws us in among these characters, with little intro or back story and no authorial omniscience or guidance, and it's very hard to pick up all the clues and inferences, especially for an American reader a century later - I don't know whether Tietjens is meant to be a conservative or a progressive, because the party and the topical references mean nothing to me. All that said - this is not meant to be a mysterious, Pynchon-like narrative - it's a pretty straightforward story of marital discontent, just told in disconcerting manner (like The Good Soldier, if memory serves): because though T and M seem to be on assignment, they're not working very hard and T is mostly thinking about potential reconciliation with estranged wife, as the two exchange a series of cryptic telegrams - the novel is building toward their meet-up, I think. But along the way ... they pause to play a round of golf. There's a foursome with 3 caddies (boys), because T. for unclear reasons refuses to have a caddy (stubborn? cheap? refusal to exploit labor? eccentric?) - and the round gets interrupted by some women on the course protesting about women's voting rights. Well this doesn't go down among the great golf novels - not that there are many; there's a cliched idea that the smaller the ball the better the writing, but I don't see a lot of evidence for that, at least in fiction. Updike used golf very well in the Rabbit novels, esp Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest, if I remember correctly, but other than that? There's only one great golf novel I can think of, and it's not too well known: Toby Olsen's Sea View. I wonder if golf for FMF is a central theme in the series of novels that make up Parade's End, or just an interlude.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Strange Love Story: Parade's End

I'm still trying to figure out the characters in Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End; obviously it focuses on two guys, fellow employees in the British civil service, Macmaster, from a poor family in Scotland and thus much more of a striver, concerned with the proprieties and the conventions and with advancing his professional prospects, and his friend and currently flat-mat Chris Tietjens (such an unusal name - wondering if FMF id's with him, as his birth name was the German Heufner, which he abandoned for the anglo Ford) - T. is froma wealthy family and behaves like one of the privileged, scorning convention and drinking way too heavily. The two are on some kind of public assignment or inspection, it's not clear to me what they're doing exactly, but work in the civil service does not appear to be particularly demanding. Like FMF's more famous The Good Soldier, Parade's End appears to be a love story manque, as what's really driving these guys is T's difficult relationship with his estranged wife. In a long chapter that reads almost more like a play than a piece of fiction, heavily driven by arch dialogue, the wife tells her family friend, an Irish priest, why she's written to T. and told him she wants to revive the marriage - actually, she doesn't explain her motives at all - she tells the priest that she hates her husband and that she hates their child (not clear if T. is actually the father) - we haven't seen the child even for a second yet. Well this is certainly a very strange and sick woman - so why does she want to get back with T., and, more to the point, why would he accept her back? She will be nothing but trouble, and he knows it - he's a savant, can figure out all sorts of things and has a great store or arcane knowledge, but he obviously can't manage to run his own life - and she will be no help. So though about the first 50 pp or so of the novel, we are in a holding pattern: she's in Germany, having made the offer to reconcile, and he's in England waiting to hear more details from her - he sends her a long half-coherent telegram and she responds with a few cryptic words. They're like magnetic poles pushing each other away. The first "book" of the collection is call "Some Do Not..." - perhaps a reference to breaking the marriage vows? The setting is the 1910s, and war would seem to be on the horizon, but the characters are oblivious - they're lives are consumed with triviality and meanness, and all of this is likely to get blown to hell.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Oh those Brits: Parade's End

Edwardian fiction now has it's own display section in my town library, thanks to the BBC and PBS, but who's complaining? There are some great novels from the period, some I've read, many I haven't, so let's get started. Inspired also by TV - HBO in this case - I started Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End last night and yes, I know it's not exactly Edwardian (written from I think about 1929-31?) but its setting, mood, tempo, and style make it, let's say, retro-Edwardian. I know FMF primarily from The Good Soldier, a terrific novel, and for being the dedicatee of several (?) Conrad novels. I didn't know till yesterday that Parade's End is actually a quartet - was a little daunted by teh 800+ page Everyman edition, but knowing its a series of novels I may read them over an extended time, as I've done with Powell's Dance to the Music of Time and as I did (going on 2nd round) with Proust. OK, so the first 30 pp or so?: you know you're in a Georgian/Edwardian novel when you don't know where you are - at least if you're an American reader. Typical of the time, FMF just throws us into a railroad carriage with two guys, gives us a pretty good description of the two, Macmaster and some other unusual name, Treitling?, opposites in look and temperament, Macmaster well groomed and a bit uptight and T. kind of frumpy and a memory savant. They're off on some kind of British official inspection - who can keep this stuff straight, esp with all the references to class, schools, clubs, etc. - it's as full of social clues, more, than a Tom Wolfe novel, and these clues certainly fade over time. So forget about that - let's just figure out what's happening. T's wife has left him - this is kind of scandalous, and he declines to make the scandal worse by divorcing - he's been rooming with Macmaster in her absence, and now he's got word that she wants to reconcile, and he must decide: take her back into his life? (There's also a child, so you'd think the decision would be obvious, but still - this is British fiction, so maybe it would be obvious if they shared a dog.) Then we jump over to a German (?) spa, and we see his wife, and begin to get her point of view - that's about as far as I've gotten. Parade's End is surprisingly frank and open about sexuality, for its day - and I was surprised, so far, at how much of it is or will be a love story - I pictured from the title more of a war story. But I should have thought back to The Good Soldier, which is not a war story at all but a novel about passion gone wrong. FMF is sly and deceptive.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Advice (unasked for) to a writer

Just a short post today on Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, because I liked and admired many things about the novel but it just failed to draw me in - Fountain has a warm sense for character, he has a rare knack for handling an ensemble narrative, he incorporates a ton of research or observations that makes us really feel that we are in the bowels of Cowboys stadium as a big game is about to begin, he has high moral values and good intentions as he's writing an unconventional war novel not about the action of battle not about individual heroism not even about the military way of thinking or the military-industrial complex, subject of much satire and indignation, but about the celebrity culture in the U.S. that sends young men off to fight with no clear purpose and then makes unwitting heroes of them and feels self-righteous and virtuous in expounding on the support for the troops, for the boys in uniform, upholders of freedom and American values - Fountain does a nice job on this using odd typography for the easy virtues and the spouting off, with words dripping down the page almost like a late ee cummings poem. All that said: if I were in a writers' group with Fountain I would say you have to build some tension into your plot; another thing I admire is his devotion to the classical unities of time, place, and action - however, where's the action? There needs to be some tension around Billy: is he thinking of leaving the service? Is he worried about some action he's taken, or not taken? Even the romantic element - he develops an instant crush on one of the cheerleaders - is there anything at stake here? Does she ask him to do something for her that puts him in moral jeopardy, or that makes him doubt the sincerity of her ardor? I could give about a hundred ideas - maybe none of them any good - but I felt that the novel was just flat as the playing field, one minor incident after another with no clear design and nothing to capture my interest other than the topic itself. The book has received wonderful reviews, and I wonder if any other readers shared my reservations, my disappointment.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Waiting for the kickoff: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Reluctantly I have to say that Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is starting to get a little thin as I read into the 2nd half of the novel - maybe it's a case of wrong expectations, but as we proceed with this story it becomes more evident that it's not really a story about the Afghan War or about a company (or squad, more accurately) of soldiers or even about one soldier, the eponymous Billy, but it's about America's celebrity culture, how we, and by we I mean the media in large part, create reluctant or abashed heroes, dazzle them with visions of wealth and fame, woo them and court them and then spit them out or toss them aside and move on. The entire novel, to this point, centers on one football game that the Bravo company, after a Time mag cover for wartime heroics and a nationwide tour, visits as guests of the D. Cowboys - but really to this point in the novel we don't know any of the characters in depth, we know little about their wartime service, what we see is how they interact with the big-shots who fawn over them, grabbing a bit of their patriotic luster by contact or osmosis. You could, I think, substitute any # of groups or individuals for Bravo Company: this could be a novel about perhaps Boston marathon victims or American Idol winners or first responders or any group thrown into the spotlight for a moment and dazzled by the brightness. That's not a bad thing in itself, but I'm really waiting for liftoff here - just not much has happened, and I don't feel, 150 pages in, that I had any more depth of understanding of these men than I did at the end of chapter one. Fountain is laying a foundation for a comparison of football and war as two national sports or past-times - which could be OK though to this point he hasn't really converged the two elements. I don't know, there's a lot to like about this novel, notably how effectively Fountain handles dialogue among many characters and his sense of humor and his inside knowledge about pro football (this will appeal to many readers though I'm not so interested in that topic), but as I have said in many posts novels need to follow some kind of design, usually an arc, and lead characters have to undergo a process or a journey, and this novel so far is too flat. I will read further, for a while.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The European Journey in American fiction

Ben Marcus's story in the current New Yorker, The Dark Arts, is in the genre (with which I'm familiar) of the young man's European journey of self-discovery - a genre that has evolved over a century or more from the Grand Tour education-of-a-gentleman, or woman, or of a naif, from Twain, James, et al. to the late-20th century version of a romantic/erotic journey from innocence to experience (this would also include mid-century versions of the Englishman's sojourn) - many of these made successfully into movies/plays (Cabaret, The Dreamers) and even some original movies e.g., Before Sunrise - but Marcus's is a 21st-century variant on this old theme - in which homoerotic elements play a bigger if not the major role. His story also has a unique twist - his hero is a 20ish man who goes to Europe not for self-discovery but for healing, from an undetermined autoimmune disease - he travels to E. with girlfriend and after some time in a few major cities they are to head to an experimental clinic in Dusseldorf where she is to stand by and help during his treatment. The catch is, they spat, for unclear reasons, he goes on ahead, she does not follow; he waits for days, weeks, starts his treatment, then she shows up and he disses, dismisses her - why is that? It would appear that the reason is: he has been staying in a men's hostel, has a homosexual encounter there (in a dreamlike state, he's not even sure it happened), and though he never explicitly says so we have to draw the conclusion that he has discovered his true sexuality, and perhaps? the cause of his "illness" and of their spat (he describes their sex as very mechanical and perfunctory. Two other works come to mind: the obvious comparison is with Magic Mountain, and main character is well aware of this, expecting spa-like treatment and not getting it; the second is Eugenides's The Marriage Plot: he and Marcus are fellow Brown alum (tho not contemporaries), and the overarching design of their works is similar: the European journey as homoerotic self-discovery.

Friday, May 17, 2013

War and football - two American sports?

After the long chapter in Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk in which Billy spends a few days at home with his difficult family, we go back to the Cowboys stadium and watch as the Bravo company is additionally lauded and feted, this time - still before the game kickoff - in the owners suite, where the Cowboys' owner, no doubt based on some real football figure whom I don't know, gives an unctuous speech in praise of the Bravo company and their heroics. The message of the book is driven home to us repeatedly - others exploit the heroic exploits of Bravo, and they're not sure how to discuss what they did in wartime: it's as if they're in a kind of shellshock of disbelief - and oddly so are we because we don't exactly know what they did - we're starting to see that it involved a fight against a much larger contingent to free a captive company member - but nothing about the war seems real as they're paraded around the country so that all the armchair patriots can get a contact high from their glory. It's a highly exaggerated premise - hard to understand how or why a small company like this would be on the cover of Time and would be prospects for a movie - but I get that they are, for Fountain, a stand-in for the entire absurdity of the war - though not absurdity as in Heller, in which the military is idiotic though the cause be just - but here the military seems pretty much OK and unscathed, it's just that there is no meaning to what these guys do or have done except to provide the country with a valve through which to vent jingoistic vitriol. Billy begins a relationship with one of the Dallas cheerleaders, which seems a little far-fetched, but we'll see where it goes.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Masters of War - hypocrites - and Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

About a third of the way through Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk we take a step backward in time (this isn't obvious at first) to an event a few days before the Thanksgiving football game that seems to form the heart of the story - and at this point the men in Bravo company are
"on leave" from their celebrity tour, each gone off to be with his family for a weekend - Billy goes to his family in Texas, and it's our first sense of the world he came from: his father apparently was a right-wing talk radio host and minor celeb himself who became increasingly isolated and bitter, now a stroke victim confined to a wheelchair and nasty to everybody. Billy's sister - we'd learned before that she was badly injured in a car accident, and as a result her fiance dumped her (and Billy trashed the guy's car, leading him to enlist as a an alternative to prison) very concerned about his going back to the war in Iraq and says she knows some guys who can help soldiers leave the service - illegally, no doubt - but Billy is OK with going back. Billy is kind of a blank, but we do see his yearning for attention from his father, who is bitter and selfish. The lessons of the previous chapters are driven home even harder in this long chapter: the country is full of hypocrites, right u to the top, war-mongers who never served a day in their lives (Bust, Cheney, and on down) and blow-hard patriots who are right-wing zealots until the moment they need something from the government and then they rail against the gov'mint for incompetence. These are kind of familiar points, and I wish we could see a little more clearly the evolution of Billy's thinking on these matters - but as the novel is in a very compressed period of time, his thoughts just are, they don't become. I do sense that there will be more flashback chapters so by the end we may get a more clear sense of what the heroics of this Bravo company were and especially how Billy's best friend, Shroom, died in combat: an echo here, once again, of Catch-22, in which it takes the entire novel, if I remember correctly, to understand the death of the airman, and the references to being cold and the repeated phrase, "there, there." I also realize I was wrong about two deaths in the company: Shroom is dead and the other absent member, Lake, lost two legs and is somewhere in a rehab hospital - I wonder if he will appear in the novel, later.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

War at home: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Continuing to go with the flow and enjoy Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, which, as noted in yesterday's post, is an atypical war (or anti-war, as the case may be) novel: now about 1/4 through the novel and we know very little about the war. What we do know is that we are in the company of Lynn and 7 of his buddies from Bravo Company as they complete a celebratory tour around the U.S.; they are war heroes for some event in the Iraq war, defending against a perhaps much larger enemy troop at a canal. Two company members died in the battle, including Lynn's close friend, Shroom. The battle may have been televised, possibly live. All this from Lynn's momentary flashbacks; the present scene of the novel, so far, is entirely en route to or at the Dallas Cowboys stadium; game has not yet started, but the Bravo guys are drinking and smoking heavily and eating on their queasy stomachs. Much of the discussion, and the humor, involves a Hollywood producer traveling with the group and trying to package a film rights deal. The guys are very pleasant and polite to the many sycophants and blow-hard patriots who come up to congratulate them; they are very rowdy and at times crude and vulgar - lots of jokes about whether someone's gay or not, talk about drinking and farting and about the girls they spent time with at a strip club - but for all that they're really just kids, just innocents: they don't have any particular patriotic flair or love of combat, they know they're going back to finish their tour and are blase about that - certainly not gung ho. But some of them counsel a young man against enlistment - the war is a bitch. Unlike many - most - war novels or dramas, there is no apparent rift in the company - they like one another and admire their leader - and no deep cynicism about the military bureaucracy (as in same Catch-22) or about the pointless sacrifices of war (as in the other recent Iraq novel The Yellow Birds) - so appealing as this novel is through the first 75 pages, I'm getting a little edgy and wondering what exactly is the conflict? What is it about? I am starting to think the novel is operating on an allegorical level - not just by chance that what seems to be a war novel is set in a football stadium - and that it's about not so much the war as about American attitudes toward violence, competition, combat - and celebrity status (one of the objectives of the guys in Bravo is to meet the Dallas Cheerleaders or, better, the half-time performers, Destiny's Child).

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

War novels and anti-war novels: Billy Lynn's Long Half-Time Walk

There are war novels and anti-war novels, and Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk seems to be the latter - not only because it is anti-war in the sense of opposed to war - who isn't? - but in that it's a war novel that's about the culture of war but not about the act of war  - OK, maybe that's not so, as I'm only 40 pages in: the novel focuses on the title character and the fellow members of a Bravo Company, 8 men? plus one killed in action who are at home on leave from the Iraq war and are being nationally honored as war heroes - we're not sure, at least yet, what exactly they did that was heroic. The opening scenes are at a Cowboys Thanksgiving game, the Bravo company as guests of honor, accompanied by a military brass Major who is kind of out of it, possibly deaf from explosive percussions, and a Hollywood producer - the rights to their story are in negotiations. Several themes: first, the Bravo soldiers are heroes maybe but not heroic, they are coarse guys, full of vulgarity, heavy drinkers, guys who challenge authority rather than toe the military line. In this sense they're familiar military anti-heroes, that we know from many novels and more recently from many movies and TV series: they could have stepped right out of the excellent HBO Generation Kill, for ex. This novel calls up many obvious comparisons with other anti-war classics - the jacket blurbs point this out - notably as the Catch-22 of the Iraq war? Well, it isn't exactly Catch-22, in that Heller's novel was full of wit and irony and Half-Time is full of rambunctious energy but not wit exactly, or not pointed wit: for ex., in Catch the famous conundrum of the title (as well as the opening scene in which the guy is neither in nor out of the medical infirmary) skewer military logic and give us an undying sense of the absurdity even the surrealism of life in combat. The "catch" in Half-time has to do with movie rights: Hilary Swank won't look at the script without an offer and no studio will send her the script without a commitment. Hollywood is a far easier subject for satire. Half-time is also echoing Going after Cacciata - the major disappears from the group before the game starts, and I wonder if Billy's walk will involve searching for him? - but the times are so different, and distant: in Vietnam the nation was bitterly divided about the war, and soldiers who fought - draftees, most of them - were certainly not feted on return from war. In Halftime the soldiers are fawned over by would-be military stars who probably never served and never would have - armchair generals and patriots who wear it on their sleeve.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Why Custom of the Country is not one of Wharton's great novels

So at the end of Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country, Undine is just as evil and narcissitic as she was at the outset - she doesn't change at all over the course of the novel, over the course of 3 marriages and one re-marriage, over the death of her husband, over the demise of her father's fortune, and so on - events happen all around her but nothing changes her, she's adamantine - which altogether explains why this novel is entertaining enough to read and full of brilliant observations and turns of phrase but is not and never will be grouped among Wharton's best. Granted, it would be cheap and easy out to have Undine discover true love at last and become a caring spouse and mother and daughter and citizen. And it would be an easy out as well, and maybe too depressing, to have her fall on the rails or load up on rat poison, like other famous sorrowful heroines. But we want to see the main characters grow or change over the course of a novel - every novel is a journey, in a sense, from innocence to experience - and some characters in this novel do change and suffer and learn from their mistakes, or not - but not the main character. So the ending struck me as very flat and empty - could almost open up into a second volume, Undine's attempt to become part of the embassy set - but it ends, oddly, with her finally with all of the wealth she could even imagine. To things do strike me there about her odd relation to Elmer Moffat: is it believable that she would have married him the first time, back in Apex, when he was such an obvious lout, so ill-kempt and crude - he does not seem in the least like the kind of guy she would latch onto to get out of Apex. And then, over the course of his life, he becomes a billionaire railroad tycoon - and art collector - but still crudely vulgar, a parody of an American mogul - and I can certainly see that Undine would be drawn to him for his money, but wouldn't she also be repulsed by who he is and how he behaves? Material there for another novel for sure, but Custom ends with that element unexamined. Definitely a lot of material here - might make a good mini-series - but just compare this flat ending with the beautifully subtle and ambiguous ending of Age of Innocence and you can immediately see the difference between a high-class potboiler and a work of literature

Sunday, May 12, 2013

One of the most pathetic characters in literature, and one of the nastiest

It's definitely a stunning surprise (spoilers to follow) a when Ralph Marvell, in complete despair when he learns that he's foolishly given up all rights to his son (with most other characters, this would not be credible - the guy's a Harvard-educated lawyer who tells his own, incompetent, counsel to give his wife complete custody, even though he plans to raise the boy and his wife will abandon them both), that he may lose the child, that his ex-wife, Undine, has lied to him from the outset, that she was married briefly to the sleazy businessman who'd lured him into a bizarre land deal, that the sleazy guy to whom he'd idiotically entrusted a $50,000 investment (pulled together from family and friends) that is supposed to double in two weeks has lied to him as well (how he could not have seen this coming is incomprehensible), when he rides the subway of all things back to his parents' house on Washington Square, a great scene of revulsion at the very life of the city - he's seeing it from underground, the lower depths, for perhaps the first time - puts a gun to his temple - end Book 4 of Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country with not exactly a bang but with silence - we don't actually know that he pulled the trigger until Book 5 opens a few months later (in yesterday's post I mistakenly said there were 4 books in Custom). Now, in Book 5, we see Undine, happily (?) married to that slightly impoverished (she laments at having to squeeze into his bachelor flat - can't they afford more rooms, she peevishly asks) aristocrat de Chelles, and trying to raise son Paul.  All of this further confirms that Marvell was one of the most pathetic characters in literature - he finally had started writing his long-anticipated novel, and I began to suspect that maybe Wharton was going to allow this to be his salvation, but no as in everything else in his sad life it's incomplete, a failure - and that Undine is one of the nastiest. And let's add to this some irony and some hypocrisy: de Chelles, who has made such a big deal about not marrying a divorcee (her quest for a marriage annulment set in motion the financial shenanigans that led to Marvell's suicide, is fine with marrying a widow - not realizing she was divorced from her youthful first marriage to Elmer; speaking of whom - it turns out that his financial deal, shady though it may have been, was good - as Ralph's estate did inherit $100,000 from the Apex Consolidated Co. - and it all goes to child Paul (no doubt de Chelles husband and wife will rape that account): is there any thought of paying back those who loaned Ralph the $ to make the deal?

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The shallowest of characters: Undine, in Custom of the Country

Book 3 (of 4) of Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country ends with Undine in Paris, so alone that she actually reaches out to old nemesis Elmer and invites him to her place for tea (scandalous!) where she hits him up for some $, only to learn (surprise) that he's strapped himself - in fact, he's in Paris to avoid some credits back on the U.S. - which makes us wonder, or me anyway, as to what happened to that land deal he drew Undine into - Wharton has pushed that plot element aside. But we're focused now on Undine: she wants to marry a French gentleman, Chelles (sp?), but learns that he won't marry her because she's a divorcee - he'll just use her, evidently - so she thinks perhaps she can get teh marriage annulled, as if that will matter - maybe it will - but she doesn't have the money to go through with it. Elmer, sleazy character that he is, comes up with an idea for her: threaten to take back custody of the child, Paul, whom Undine has shown zero care for or attention to, and that will put the squeeze on the Marvells to come through with some money for her. She likes this idea - it's right up her amoral alley, so to speak. So here again we see why Custom is a fascinating book but without the complexity of the later Age of Innocence, because the lead character is relentlessly evil, or at least shallow and self-centered. Adversity neither teaches her nor changes her - nothing changes her - so despite the many strengths of the novel and the very compelling writing, it's hard to care one way or another about the outcome for the main characters, or at least for Undine.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Short fiction up from Down Under

I don't know much about Australian short stories - who does? (probably fellow blogger Charles May) - so it was a pleasure to come across one in the current New Yorker, Art Appreciation (good title), by Fiona McFarlane - of course I didn't know it was Australian when I started, just an urban office setting, in which one of the guys in the insurance co begins a flirtatious relationship with one of the women - didn't quite seem American in tone, and then McF dropped the name Sydney several paragraphs in. OK - not sure what's especially Aussie about this piece, in a way it could have been set anywhere - could it be the fascination with low-stakes gambling as a recreational sport? - obviously many Americans go to the track, but there seemed a casual acceptance of spending weekends at the dog and pony tracks that wouldn't quite ring true if this were a U.S. setting. Also, McF sets the story in 1961 - but there are no particular period details that I was aware of - story could, maybe, have been set today (assuming they still have dog tracks in Sydney?) except that the long courtship without sex would e highly unusual today. The heart of the story: the guy's mother has just won the lottery, and this makes him a much more confident suitor - but also causes him to leave the woman who's probably a much better match - but he goes back to her, or seems to (ending, as is so typical of short fiction) is maddeningly ambiguous. McFarlane does a really good job in portraying the hopes and aspirations of some ordinary "middle class" (there's really no other word for it - they are not exactly working class, but their lives seem to be bound by low aspirations and mundane experiences - thus the importance of the title, the love interest goes to art appreciation classes on Fridays, she has a yearning for and maybe even a pretty good sense of art and beauty and culture, but he is condescendingly tolerant of her interest - but eventually pressures her to drop the class so that they can go out of Fridays, a clear indication of their incompatibility) - these are the kinds of characters that, in most American fiction, would either be subjects for comedy or burlesque (also condescending in a different way) or for existential malaise - many interesting pieces in the U.S. about the alienation of the current business environment - Saunders, Farris, even DFW. McFarlane's nonjudgmental attitude toward her characters is rare and admirable.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Some of the most pathetic scenes in literature: Custom of the Country

Noted yesterday that despite all the strengths of Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country it's hard to deeply engage with the book because the central character, Undine Spragg Marvell, is so dislikable and so vapid - there is no conflict of forces within her, she's just a social climber and a narcissist who's headed for doom - but it's worth noticing also that, at about half-way through this (600-page) novel, the focus is slowly, gradually shifting toward her husband, Ralph Marvell - as Undine heads off for the West for some reason, files for a divorce, and abandons their young child. So now we see Ralph trying to raise the young boy, Paul?, in NYC - and these are really some of the most pathetic scenes in literature. Ralph is so clearly a man who has missed his mark in life - he would have been just fine had he been born a generation earlier and had he married into his "set," as he mother had wished - he could have worked a little bit at a gentleman's law practice, gone to his clubs and his country house, played around in the arts and maybe joined a few boards - and so on - but no he had the misfortune of being born into the age of the dawn of rapacious capitalism, and he's totally unprepared for the world of money - yet he foolishly marries a woman who's obsessed with money; she soon learns that he is a failure, by her measure, and his life is empty - he's working hard at a job that he doesn't like and is pathetically bad at anyway, in terror of losing this job, and his life is devoid of friends and of love. At the same time, Undine's family has fallen on increasingly more difficult times as well, and they have gone on a downward migration to worse and worse hotels and now are living in a dingy place - which Wharton describes very well, down to the watery stews that businessmen eat in the basement dining room. The scenes in which Ralph takes his child to this place on Saturdays to be with his grandparents are astonishing - so sad, so claustrophobic, as they sit in the crowded lobby (they have no sitting room in their tiny apartment, evidently) and try to act like a family - in semi-public - the child seeking sweets that the hide in their pockets, the only way they can imagine to relate to him and entertain him. I of course understand that there are millions far worse off than Ralph - the "coloured help" in the basement kitchen, e.g. - but could anyone be more unhappy and more hopeless?

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Separating good fiction from great : Wharton's novels

Yes I am liking Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country - it's fun and sharp-eyed, a period piece (even in its day - as noted in yesterday's post, part of the power of this novel is its recognition that it's chronicling a society already in eclipse - it's the tragedy of the protag., Undine Spragg Marvell, that she realizes this too late), gossip, full of plot elements - would make a good TV mini-series no doubt and maybe has done so already- and it's full of Wharton gems of phrasing (which would inevitably get lost in a screen adaptation), and I wish I had a copy next to me so I could quote some, maybe in a future post - but, all that said, it's clearly not as accessible or popular a novel as her two great works, House of Mirth and Age of Innocence (Ethan Frome, a third, is sui generis) - and I think here's why: one way or another, we need to identify with and "root for" the lead characters in a novel, whatever their flaws or foibles - whether it's a truly odd but in many ways pitiable character like, say, Dostoyevsky's underground man, or, more typically, an ambitious hero/heroine trying to rise in class or stature or at least gain social acceptance - we may not envy them, we may not even like them, but we can understand them and hope that they can learn and grow over the course of a novel, become better, achieve their goal, or at the least survive. Compare Lily Bart in Mirth with Undine Spragg in Custom and you'll see what I mean: Undine is a completely narcissistic and shallow person; she's about to ruin her doting sad sack of a husband financially, and if she crashes in flames we don't really care - she's despicable; Lily Bart is a social climber for sure and, like Undine, she makes a bad deal with a guy who's interested in her and puts herself at his mercy and in the process destroys her social reputation - but it's all very complicated; we hope she can get out from under him, and then there's the oddity of his (Jewish) outsider status as well - whereas Undine and the deal she makes with her old nemesis from back home in Apex? There's not even the slightest chance that this will turn out well for her, nor do we care if it does: in other words the plot of Custom, though engaging in many ways, is more tendentious, and lacking in the ambiguities that separate good from great fiction.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The order is rapidly fading: A change in society in The Custom of the Country

Ralph Marvell, the beleaguered, has to actually work hard - not just to earn a living but to pamper his spoiled, selfish wife, Undine - interestingly, he takes a job in real estate - as a result of which they by a house way out on the West Side - today that looks pretty shrewd, but for Undine it's unfashionable and inconvenient. Hard to feel sorry for Ralph, in that he brought all this on himself because of his own naivete and stupidity, and so what if he has to work hard, most people do - and at much more unpleasant jobs - but he laments that he is giving up his literary and artistic ambitions. Maybe so, but they were no more than ambitions - he has never shown evidence of talent or devotion to art or writing. Meanwhile, the plot of Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country moves on ineluctably toward its doom: Undine, never satisfied with what Ralph can provide and completely indifferent to her child, begins succumbing to the advances of the unctuous, socially prominent, wealthy, married Peter van Deghan - in fact, she seems to take or borrow some money from him (the mechanics of this eluded me), putting her pretty much at his mercy - this an echo or foreshadowing of Lily Bart's humiliation and ruin in Mirth, but in this case without the attendant anti-Semitism. We can see that Undine is without values or scruples - and, at about 1/3 through the novel, it appears less likely that she will grow, learn from her experience (though not impossible); the focus is gradually shifting toward Ralph - how will he deal with his wife's transgressions? Will he break from from this marriage, or will it destroy him? On the margins of this plot are various insinuations by a minor character who apparently has some dirt of Undine and the Spragg family from their past days in Apex - probably her father's corrupt acquisition of land and wealth. This guy - can't recall his name - is a foreshadowing of the new age - people getting rich by skill and by guile, not by being born into the right family. Wharton herself is very aware of this - that she is writing about a world already in eclipse - that in part is the tragedy of Undine: she thought she was marrying into wealth and class, but that world is fading.

Monday, May 6, 2013

She's not that into him: The Custom of the Country

Poor, pitiful Ralph Marvell - he fell madly in love with Undine and how has married her and they're off on that journey to Europe, the six-month honeymoon that rich people managed to arrrange a century ago - at least in this case Edith Wharton is well aware of the absurdity, any young lawyer who actually had to try to earn a living couldn't manage to take off for half a year, but she makes it clear that Marvell is never going to earn a living at law and doesn't really have to do so - unless Undine, the narcissistic and selfish bitch, burns through all their money. Ralph doesn't care - he's swooning and goggle-eyed and what he doesn't see but what we see so clearly is that she's just not that into him. She married him for money and status - and he would give all that up for love - or at least so he thinks - many rich people lament the burdens of wealth but do nothing to alleviate their heavy load. Marvell sees himself as a writer - though he's never able to finish anything, or maybe never able even to start. He seems to have some kind of vision during the honeymoon - at last seeing the great poem he could create - but does nothing about it. I think, I hope, that Wharton is presenting him as a sad dilettante - please don't let him become a great poet later in this novel! - she and Undine (or at least he) joke/s about traveling through Europe looking for adjectives, while any serious or even half-serious writer knows that adjectives are exactly what writers do not need - he would do better searching for ideas, images - and better still, actually try to write something. But he keeps trying to satisfy every one Undine's little whims and she is both ungrateful and obtuse: is it that she realizes he's not a wealthy as she'd first thought? is it that she's asexual (doubtful)? is it just a complete mismatch of sensibilities - the kind that characters in many novels settle into once they have children and become tolerant of their differences - but in this novel I think their relationship will inevitably implode. So sad - when will he see through their relationship? When he will see through himself?

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Non-motherless, non-Brooklyn: Lethem's forthcoming novel

Obviously Jonathan Lethem's fiction piece in the current New Yorker is an excerpt from his forthcoming novel and not a story, so hard to judge it entirely as a stand-alone but it holds the promise of another fine novel from Lethem. The piece, The Gray Goose, written in his abundant, maximal style and full of the richness of New York City, especially in the 50s and 60s, and, in this case, what appear to be some new themes or emphases for Lethem: first, the story (I'll call it that for simplicity) is multi-borough, not the Brooklyn that he has staked out as his own. Much takes place in Manhattan (the Village in the 60s) and in Queens (a housing project that was, at least in this fiction, a utopian, leftist, politically active community - not sure if this is based on a real location or development - either way a nice touch and something most readers will not be familiar with); 2nd, the piece centers on a woman protagonist, Miriam, daughter of left-activist Jewish parents, the father from an old German-Jewish family and the mother, Rose, from an Eastern-European shtetl background - the two are a mismatch from the start, and the piece opens with the father leaving the marriage and embarking on activism in the war-ravaged Germany in the late 40s. Third, the piece is more overtly political than anything else I've read from Lethem - touches on the post-war communism, the 60s activism, the sexual freedom, the bohemian-beat culture, the red diaper babies - in his own way he covers a very wide territory in this relatively short piece and a long span of Miriam's life, from early childhood listening to a Burl Ives record (eponymous) to a late adolescence - in fact, the central action of this piece is one long night drinking and debauchery in which Miriam and a guy course through 3 boroughs and end up at her apartment where she awkwardly tries to lose her virginity - the scene ending when the mother bursts into the room and is in a sense torn between her leftist creed and her fear for her daughter's well-being (she herself entered the bad marriage because of an unplanned pregnancy) - in short, lots of material in this piece, Miriam a very promising character whom I expect will go through many episodes and conflicts over the course of the novel, and despite the abundance of incident the piece is easy to follow and full of beautiful moments: crossing the bridge into Brooklyn at night on foot, the subway in the early-morning hours into Queens, the streets at dawn. A good novel on the way, I think.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Many unhappy returns: Wharton's fiction

Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country picks up some steam as she shifts her focus, after the opera scene, to the guy who's "courting" Undine, Marvell: it wasn't clear until she let us into his consciousness, but he's another distinct Wharton type - the socially privileged who chafes at the conventions and the expectations, dreams of some higher form of purpose or self-expression, but is caught by his own privileges, unable, at least easily, to give them up and follow another course in life. The male protag in Age of Innocence was similar - a successful lawyer who didn't have to work very hard, and would prefer to spend and evening reading his books rather than chatting at endless soirees. Marvell is even more ambitious - he wishes he could be an artist or a writer, but is even a step below dilettante, he can't complete anything. But he's very aware of what a limited life he is leading, and will lead - yet before he can make any sort of break from this stunted life in society, he falls in love (at first sight?) with Undine. They are completely different. She's a social outsider with incredibly firm snobbish convictions about the kind of life she wants and the marriage she will make. Her mother is coarse and opportunistic, and her father is a not only a nonentity but perhaps, it's hinted, a crook who attained his wealth through some shady dealings back in Apex (somewhere in the Midwest) - but Marvell cannot discern this, or he doesn't care. Suddenly, they're engaged, and planning an elaborate wedding - although maybe they'll skip the big ceremony and get married quickly and head off to Europe. We know that no good end is in sight for either of them - Marvell's depths and Undine's shallows will never even out. But the question is: who will change? who will break first? How will this marriage come to ruin? It seems clear that Undine's beauty will serve her ill in the long run - many men are flirting with her, including married men (and they're all cousins of some sort) in Marvell's set: the oily Peter van Degen esp. Wharton was a little slow in setting up these oppositions, but she now has the story in motion - heading on a long journey that will no doubt come to an unhappy, though oddly wistful ending as Wharton's fiction tends to do.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Custom of the Country - an early tryout or a faded reprise?

Really don't know how The Custom of the Country fits in chronologically with the Edith Wharton cannon, but I suspect it's an early work, a warmup for House of Mirth and Age of Innocence - touches on many of the same themes, the finely demarcated strata of the upper social classes in NYC in the early 20th century, a woman's struggle to make sense of the differentiations and to marry well and rise in class, contempt for work of any sort or at least indifference to it - the working men of this class, by which I mean attorneys and bond traders - seem to do hardly anything, and those who do work hard are ethnically marginalized (i.e., the Jewish character in Mirth), the Jamesian scorn for made wealth rather than inherited if made out in the provinces, and especially the struggles of a woman to gain status or at least security when she knows that she must rely solely on her wit or beauty. All that - but the main character, Undine Spragg, seems to me a wan sketch compared with Lily Bart or the cousins in Innocence - she's much more naive, even gullible, and definitely more shallow to the point of parody - like the pale, dominated sister in Middlemarch or Sense and Sensibility - books in which we identify with the intelligent if beleaguered protagonist and smile condescendingly at the limitations and foibles of the weak sister - but here there's no foil, or rather no lead character to make Undine a foil - and she's too much of a cipher for us to care much about. Still, the novel has all of Wharton's sharp observations (nobody has better incorporated decor into fiction) and her very witty phrasings - here again an echo of Eliot (G.) and Austen at their best - but it seems that this work is more like a tryout (or, if it falls later in her career, an attempt at a reprise): just compare the rather limited opera scene in Custom with the great opening Opera scene of Innocence.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

So Whartonian, so Jamesian: The Custom of the Country

So Whartonian, so Jamesian - I'm only three or four chpaters into Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country (1913), one of her lesser-knowns, but already it's unmistakably hers channeled through H. James, but with perhaps a bit more of a focus on match-making, mostly from the female POV - this novel starts in a Manhattan hotel where a midwestern (?- from an indeterminate city called something like Apex, maybe it's Chicago or Pittsburgh) has come to NYC to find the right social connections from 18ish daughter, odd name like Undine? They've been there 2 years but have never quite struck the right notes, though daughter and mother have almost an anthropologist's interest in the social order and the right families: despite that, daughter misses the clues and cues - as novel opens she's been to a party and has flirted with a well-known portrait painter, a Copley or Singer like character, incorrectly believing he's top society, and she's ignored the advances of a small, shy man - later to realize that he's the real deal. She gets invited to a dinner party through his sister and there she makes, or at least thinks she does, a very bad impression - and again shows her ignorance as she's surprised at the relative simplicity of their home, totally missing the point that the truly wealthy don't need the lavish displays of the arriviste. Her father is the typical Jamesian businessman, stupid and indulgent of his wife and daughter's whims with no understanding of them and no real sense of a place in the world. the novel will of course involve all the sorting out of relationships, lessons learned, sadly or even tragically, and a deep sharp ironic stab at the social conventions of the day. Lead character more involved and engaged than the typical James protagonist - but facing the same "problem" as other Wharton protagonists: whether it's safe to defy social conventions, and if so at what cost? She will never, I think, be a radical or renegade - her view is too limited - but she may journey from innocence to experience.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Watch your parking meters: The Time Machine

Ok so enough of the badly outdated The Time Machine - it does not travel well into the 21st century. The basic lesson, at least as far as I got, was that if you time-travel into the distant future and you wander off observing the native species and inhabitants - don't forget where you parked your car! Or pay the parking meter - or whatever - because if you come back and your "time machine" is mysteriously vanished - you may end up a prisoner of the future. Gasp. But we know that our time-explorer managed to get back to the present somehow, that's how he's telling this remarkable tale - but I just didn't care how, it was all so ridiculous. There is some mystery that H.G. Wells is holding out on us - why is it that the future Earth-dwellers are so subject to lassitude and indifference, not curious about the new specimen who dropped in amongst them, weak and dispirited, unable to concentrate: Are they a slave race kept in captivity? Is it some change in the Earth's environment? Did they forget to take their vitamins? Maybe I'll read a plot sum to find out - but, nice try, an entertaining piece in its day, not worth re-visiting.