Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

Now here was Oedipa, faced with a metaphor of God knew how many parts; more than two, anyway.  With coincidences blossoming these days wherever she looked, she had nothing abut a sound, a word, Trystero, to hold them together.

She knew a few things about it: it had opposed the Thurn and Taxis postal system in Europe; its symbol was a muted post horn; sometime before 1853 it had appeared in America and fought the Pony Express and Wells, Fargo, either as outlaws in black, or disguised as Indians; and it survived today, in California, serving as a channel of communication for those of unorthodox sexual persuasion, inventors who believed in the reality of Maxwell's Demon, possibly her own husband, Mucho Maas...

It's amazing to me the way that The Crying of Lot 49, published in the 1960's, not only prefigures our modern obsession with mysteries of conspiracy--The X-Files, Lost, any television show or film where someone says "you have no idea how high this thing goes"--but skewers them so mercilessly and savagely.  I have never watched but a handful of minutes of Lost, and I know that I never will, because I know that no real substantive answers are forthcoming about what is really going on at that island, and that knowledge eliminates the fun of dissecting the clues it feeds out piecemeal to the viewer.  Lot 49, which announces with great ebullience that its conspiracy is merely a tangle of clues and signs pointing to nowhere, could have been a great parody of it.

The conspiracy of Lot 49, such as it is, is this: Oedipa Maas discovers that she has been named the executor of the will of her late boyfriend, Pierce Inverarity, a California tech mogul.  While dealing with Inverarity's estate, Oedipa is sucked into a shadowy conspiracy involving a secret mail service operating outside and in opposition to the US Postal Service, called Tristero.  (It's evidence of the novel's cluttered, circuitous nature that I cannot recall--with the book in front of me!--how her curiosity is first piqued.  Is it through Inverarity's stamp collection, which is sold as the titular "Lot 49" at the book's end?)  Tristero seems to date back hundreds of years, operating in opposition to the (historically real) Thurn and Taxis postal system in Europe, and it continues to operate underground in America.  One of my favorite bits involves a Jacobean play that Oedipa sees called The Courier's Tragedy, which seems to allude to the shadowy tactics of the Tristero, a part which involves a lot of humorously tedious textual criticism.

Tristero's American post system is called W.A.S.T.E.--standing for "We Await Silent Tristero's Empire"--and its symbol is a muted post horn:

After Oedipa learns of this symbol, she begins to find it everywhere: in bathroom graffiti, in a children's rope-jumping game, scratched into the back of a bus seat...  The symbol's ubiquity is part of the book's essential absurdity.  How can something be so secret when everyone knows about it?  Pynchon describes the "true paranoid" as someone "for whom all is organized in spheres joyful or threatening about the central pulse of himself," but Oedipa seems to be constantly on the outside of something everyone else is a part of.  And then, of course, there is the most absurd element of the book: What is there to be so secretive about?  It's a postal service.  It's a low-stakes, not particularly secret conspiracy.

And yet Oedipa is unable to make the proliferation of clues, the multitude of post horns, coalesce into something meaningful.  Like Lost (or The X-Files, or The Prisoner, which debuted a couple years after the book's release) clarity and satisfaction are elusive.  Pynchon's choice of a postal service isn't arbitrary: the W.A.S.T.E. system represents a mode of communication, but what is communicated is always irrelevant.  The members of one corporation Oedipa looks into are required to use W.A.S.T.E. once weekly, but the content is not dictated, so the message is blanched of meaning:

Dear Mike, it said, how are you?  Just thought I'd drop you a note.  How's your book coming?  Guess that's all for now.

On one level, Pynchon is being funny by depriving us of the one thing that would justify the secretive air around Tristero and W.A.S.T.E.: their being used to deliver message of real secrecy and significance.  On a higher level, Pynchon is communicating the fear and anxiety that communication and content--signifier and signified--are divorced from one another; that a proliferation of signs can never be more than a proliferation of signs.  This is the one theme that rises up over and over again from the clutter:

Nothing was happening.  She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she'd opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit.  The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had.  Though she knew even less about radios that about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, an intent to communicate.  There'd seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation trembled just past the threshold of her understanding.

It's possible--in fact, I'd say inevitable for the average reader--to get through The Crying of Lot 49 and have the sense that you missed something extremely important.  That is, you just didn't get it.  That's exactly what Pynchon wants you to feel, I think, a "revelation trembl[ing] past the threshold of... understanding."  Elsewhere, he communicates this more succinctly:

The act of metaphor then was a thrust at truth and a lie, depending where you were: inside, safe, or outside, lost.

The terror of The Crying of Lot 49, the reason the conspiracy rattles us so, is not that there is something sinister underlying all the signs and clues, but that they're all red herrings, pointing to nothing, and that perhaps all attempts at communication are the same.

Friday, June 29, 2012

The American Bible by Stephen Prothero

"…There is no American creed. What brings us together is a common practice. To be an American is not to agree with your fellow citizens about a set of propositions. It is to agree to argue with them, and to argue passionately. More often than not, our key words are fighting words. Here, citizens disagree fiercely, even about “truths” that are supposedly “self-evident.” And they do so in public, with the volume up."

When I received The American Bible, I had no idea I’d be reviewing it the day after the Supreme Court voted to uphold “Obamacare”, one of the most contentious pieces of legislation in years. After the ruling came down, my Facebook wall exploded with political commentary from both sides, often delivered with a not insignificant amount of vitriol. It would be easy—is easy—to cynically conclude that political discourse has become a morass, a toxic swamp of dogmatic ideologies and partisan hackery hardly worth spending time on. In that regard, Stephen Prothero’s book caught me at the right time.

The goal of the Bible is no small thing: Prothero wants nothing less than to raise the level of public discourse and civility. His approach is to take the reader through the “texts” of American history—books, letters, popular sayings, songs—and to demonstrate that disagreement is not a new or negative phenomenon. He argues instead, as in the excerpt above, that it is foundational. Both to prove his point and to offer direction toward his high ideals, he provides not only the texts themselves but period and contemporary commentaries on each one.

I'm concerned that such a description makes The American Bible sound dull, but it isn't. Apart from containing excerpts from some of the greatest writers America has produced, it's sometimes amusing (as when one commentator says “I cannot meet with a man who loves [the Constitution].”), and sometimes eye-opening--for example, Lincoln held the Declaration of Independence as a higher document than the Constitution, and used it's proclamation of equality to justify the Civil War. There are snide dismissals of some of the greatest speeches ever delivered, disappointments, as when Lincoln says, while debating Douglas,

"...there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."

There is a real danger, which the Bible exposes, of taking second-hand sources and making them fact. The American Bible seeks to avoid this by placing the texts themselves side-by-side with reactions to them, and letting the reader suss out his own beliefs. This can be a challenge: does the Declaration contradict the Constitution? Can Ayn Rand (whose estate wouldn't allow Prothero to print an excerpt) and Mark Twain both embody the American ethos? Are our founding documents unchangeable scripture, or malleable guidelines, written by fallible men who didn't expected them to be eternal? And what has our country traditionally believed about racism, classism, religion, abortion? Well, the answer to all these questions is, it depends on who you listen to.

Prothero himself appears in the book infrequently. He generally provides historical context for the text in question, provides a broad overview of the perspectives given in the commentaries, and signs off. That’s not to say that a strong authorial hand isn’t present—the balance provided by Prothero’s selected commentators is extremely impressive, and it must have taken forever to compile—but it does show a willingness on his part to practice what he preaches. Prothero resists the temptation to editorialize in a book with such heavy political overtones; indeed, after reading it, I couldn’t tell you his stance on any of the issues discussed.

Prothero’s even-handed approach enlightens just how deeply entrenched our disagreements are, but also serves as an example of time healing wounds. Reading the vehement objections to the Declaration of Independence, the National Anthem, and especially the Constitution (“one consolidated government… will be an iron-handed despotism”) is jarring now that these documents are largely accepted and sometimes even wielded as weapons themselves. Seeing the path they took to get there is encouraging because it points to an eventual resolution of current controversies, but it also serves as a wake-up call to those who feel that anything less than absolute agreement is unacceptable—it has never, and, as the Bible aptly demonstrates, should never, happen.

Apart from content, it’s worth noting that The American Bible is a beautifully designed book. The different typefaces, font sizes, and extensive footnotes could have turned the volume into an uninviting mess. Instead, it makes even flipping through the pages a joy. I don’t have any complaints with The American Bible. It upholds the high standards of American Jesus, the other Prothero book I’ve read, and was well worth the time. Now, to find someone to fight with.

Disclosure: I received this book from TLC Book Tours. They did not attempt to influence the content of this review in any way. I appreciate the opportunity to participate, and encourage our readers to check out theother reviews on this tour.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Privy Seal by Ford Madox Ford

"Why, you do love him," the Queen said.   "I have no cause so to do."

Katharine caught at one of her hands.

"Your grace," she said, "Queen and high potentate, this realm calleth out that some one person do lead the king aright.  Before God, I think I do not seek powers or temporal crowns.  Maybe it is sweet to sit in a painted gallery and be queen, but I have very little considered it; only, here is a King that crieth for the peace of God, a people that clamoureth aloud to be led back to the ways of God, a land parched for rain, swept by gales of wind and pestilences, bewailing the lost favour of God, and the Holy Church devastated that standeth between God and the realm."

I enjoyed Privy Seal more than The Fifth Queen, the first book in Ford's Katharine Howard trilogy, though it's not very different.  Probably it was simply easier to read, its characters familiar and not needing to be established, its central conflict--between the Catholic Kat and Thomas Cromwell, Lord of the Privy Seal and Protestant scion--being reproduced wholesale from the first novel.

But I think that I was looking at the entire series with unjust expectations.  I was hoping for a serious account of the Catholic-Protestant divide, which Ford delivers in The Good Soldier, but the Fifth Queen books have more modest aims.  Privy Seal, like The Fifth Queen, is primarily an adventure-and-espionage tale, pulp intrigue pasted over a 16th-Century map.  Sitting down to write a review, I even had trouble remembering--as one does with a "beach read"--what plotline was.

As best I can recall, Privy Seal opens on an England where the King's affection for Kat is an open secret.  Cromwell's worst nightmare is the dissolution of the pact between the King and the Protestant Duchy of Cleves in the Holy Roman Empire.  If the Duchy decides to throw its lot back in with the Emperor, the King's rocky marriage to Anne of Cleves becomes politically useless, and he may divorce her and marry the fiercely Catholic Kat.  Cromwell schemes to have Kat's cousin Thomas Culpepper returned from France, knowing that the impetuous Culpepper would be too stupid to conceal his amorous feelings for Kat at court, exposing her to accusations of carnal immorality.  At the same time, Kat's allies, like the double agent Throckmorton and the lusty professor Udal, scheme to keep Culpepper in France and feed misinformation about Cleves to Cromwell

For her part, Kat tries earnestly, and only partially successfully, to stay out of the fray.  She refuses to take part in the lies, and instead chooses to be straightforward with Cromwell, saying to his face, "Sir, my lord, your servants go up and down this land; sir, my lord, they ride rich men with boots of steel and do strangle the poor with gloves of iron."  And yet at times, Kat's righteousness seems like unflexibility, and perhaps an ingratitude for those that, through their subterfuge, help keep her honor intact and her head on her shoulder.  The question asked by Privy Seal and The Fifth Queen, I think, it not any thorny religious one, but purely political: Is Kat's idealism a form of wisdom, or foolishness?  These novels cannot be praised for their historical accuracy, but those of us who know what ended up happening to Kat Howard may be more clued in to the answer.

Kat's righteousness leads her to visit the Queen, Anne of Cleves, sequestered in her lonesome palace, so that Anne might relinquish her marital rights over Henry.  Ford's Anne--lonely, trapped in a foreign land, hated by an entire nation without knowing why--is the most striking in an otherwise modest novel.  "Men have handled me as they would, as if I had been a doll," she says.  It's a stark reminder that though Kat wishes to rise above the game, there is a deeper sadness in having no game to play or not, or in being a piece and not a player.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Summer by Edith Wharton

Since the day before, she had known exactly what she would feel if Harney should take her in his arms: the melting of palm into palm and mouth on mouth, and the long flame burning her from head to foot.  But mixed with this feeling was another: the wondering pride in his liking her, the startled softness that his sympathy had put into her heart.  Sometimes, when her youth flushed up in her, she had imagined yielding like other girls to furtive caresses in the twilight; but she could not so cheapen herself to Harney.  She did not know why he was going; but since he was going she felt she must do nothing to deface the image of her he carried away.

When Charity Royall was an infant, she was brought down from "the Mountain," a desolate outpost of outlaws living in extreme poverty--hence the "Charity"--and adopted by the powerful lawyer Royall--hence the "Royall."  Charity, now a teenage girl, rankles under the narrow life of her small New England town, but also knows that she might have had a meaner, more isolated life still.

On that pretty fascinating premise, Wharton composes a pretty formulaic story: Charity falls in love with a traveling architect, Lucius Harney, who has come to North Dormer to make sketches of the local buildings.  Harney represents the world beyond North Dormer, but Charity realizes too late that he has commitments in that world, and she must face pregnancy alone.  On top of these troubles, Charity struggles against the presence of her father-figure, lawyer Royall, who isn't so fatherly at times:

On the way up she had extracted from his overcoat pocket the key of the cupboard where the bottle of whiskey was kept.

She was awakened by a rattling at her door and jumped out of bed.  She heard Mr. Royall's voice, low and peremptory, and opened the door, fearing an accident.  No other thought had occurred to her; but when she saw him in the doorway, a ray from the autumn moon falling on his discomposed face, she understood...

"You go right back from here," she said in a shrill voice that startled her; "you ain't going to have that key tonight."

"Charity, let me in.  I don't want the key.  I'm a lonesome man," he began, in the deep voice that sometimes moved her.

Her heart gave a startled plunge, but she continued to hold him back contemptuously.  "Well, you made a mistake, then.  This ain't your wife's room any longer."

Charity is a brat; Harney little more than a warm body.  Royall, by contrast, is the most fascinating character of the novel, beset by an anguish and misery that Wharton wisely leaves largely unexplained.  He pivots from fatherly concern to pathetic lust, and it isn't always clear which is his guiding motivation.  When, miserably drunk, he discovers Charity and Harney arm-in-arm at the Fourth of July celebration and publicly denounces her as a "whore," does he lash out from his canny intuition that Harney cannot be trusted, or sexual jealousy?  In the end, he is redeemed by an act of incredible generosity that I do not want to reveal.

Summer is peculiar among Wharton's novels in that it takes place not in New York City, but in the small towns nestled in the Berkshire mountains of New England.  Only Ethan Frome is similarly set, and indeed Wharton called Summer her "hot Ethan."  It's hard not to read a fascination on the part of Wharton, the daughter of a wealthy New York family, for this "other world" that lies only hours from the city.  Zhiv wonders if Harney could also be the narrator of Ethan Frome; I don't know about that, but I do think that both characters serve the role of Wharton herself, as outsider-observers in a foreign place.  In Ethan Frome the narrator provides a barrier between us and the town of Starkfield, but the relationship in Summer is more interesting and complex.  It's almost as if, through Harney, Wharton was trying to turn her line of sight back on herself, as an interloper commenting on a world to which she does not belong.  Harney's role, like Wharton's, is to observe and record, but his presence, like an illustration of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, fundamentally alters the place he has come to document.

At the same time, Charity herself is drawn toward a more isolated, insular, and lowly place: The Mountain.  Pregnant and abandoned, she decides to trek to the mountain and find the family that gave her up, and to live among those she has come to regard as "her people."  This section, where Charity is faced with the degradation of Mountain life, is remarkable.  Charity comes just as her mother, whom she has never known, has died and is about to be buried:

Charity lay on the floor on a mattress, as her dead mother's body had lain.   The room in which she lay was cold and dark and low-ceilinged, and even poorer and barer than the scene of Mary Hyatt's [Charity's mother's] earthly pilgrimage.  On the other side of the fireless stove Liff Hyatt's mother slept on a blanket, with two children--her grandchidlren, she said--rolled up against her like sleeping puppies.  They had their thin clothes spread over them, having given the only other blanket to their guest.

Through the small square of glass in the opposite wall Charity saw a deep funnel of sky, so black, so remote, so palpitating with frosty stars that her very soul seemed to be sucked into it.  Up there somewhere, she supposed, the God whom Mr. Miles had invoked was waiting for Mary Hyatt to appear.  What a long flight it was!  And what would she have to say when she reached Him?

Charity has no illusions about the Mountain, she knows that it is a descent into a degraded lifestyle, but she is foiled in her hopes that it will be a kind of spiritual ascent, that she will be ennobled by returning to "her people."  Even on top of the mountain, she is as far from God as she ever was.

Wharton's ability to write across the spectrum of class continues to amaze me.  Is there any other writer as adept at capturing the shallow superficiality of a gilded ballroom, but also the humiliation and meanness of profound poverty?  Without revealing too much, I do want to note that Summer is the only Wharton novel I've read that has a "happy ending"--though an unconventional and somewhat illicit one--and I think that much of that comes from Charity's luck in finding a middle way among those two extremes.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare

TROILUS: This she?  No, this is Diomed's Cressida.
If beauty have a soul, this is not she;
If souls guide vows, if vows be sanctimonies,
If sanctimony be the gods' delight,
If there be rule in unity itself,
This is not she.  O madness of discourse
That cause sets up with and against itself!
Bifold authority, where reason can revolt
Without perdition, and loss assume all reason
Without revolt.  This is and is not Cressid.

My students react very strongly to the fact that Shakespeare derived most of his plots from established sources.  They have been admonished about plagiarism for years, and now they find that the "greatest author of all time" was nothing but a plagiarist?  But they do not know (as most of us don't) the original Leirs and Macbeths, who are mere legends out of which Shakespeare wrings high tragedy.  His reimaginative power is more obvious in Troilus and Cressida, which repurposes a much more famous story--the Trojan War--but instead of elevating it, Shakespeare makes it nasty, pathetic, and human; he drags it into the mud.

King Nestor complains that Achilles, making unflattering imitations of the Greek warriors, "sets Thersites," his cynical slave, "To match us in comparisons with dirt."  His complaint seems to strike Shakespeare himself, who emphasizes the most unlikeable traits in the Greek and Trojan heroes: Achilles is a petulant brat; Ulysses an unscrupulous politician; Diomedes a vulgar philanderer; Helen a bimbo; Ajax an idiot; Nestor a decrepit old man.  At the outset of the play, Achilles, the Greeks' greatest warrior, has refused to fight, entertaining himself instead with his "masculine whore" Patroclus.  The Trojan Hector issues a challenge that can only be met by Achilles, but Ulysses and Nestor scheme to have Ajax answer it instead, reasoning that a triumphant Achilles is worse than an indigent one:

ULYSSES: What glory our Achilles shares from Hector,
Were he not proud, we should all share with him;
But he already is too insolent,
And it were better parch in Afric sun
Than in the pride and salt scorn of his eyes
Should he scape Hector fair...
If the dull brainless Ajax come safe off,
We'll dress him up in voices; if he fail,
 Yet we go under our opinion still
That we have better men.  But, hit or miss,
Our project's life this shape of sense assumes:
Ajax employed plucks down Achilles' plumes.

Absent, of course, is any conception of how the challenge affects the war aims; no one in Troilus and Cressida cares about anything or anyone beyond themselves.

The parallel story follows Troilus, a Trojan prince, and his love for Cressida, whose father has abandoned the city and defected to the Greeks.  He arranges a union with her through Pandarus, a sort of comedic Friar Lawrence, but worries about her fidelity to him when she is suddenly used as a bartering chip and and traded to the Greeks for a captured warrior:

TROILUS: I cannot sing,
Nor heel the high lavolt, nor sweeten talk,
Nor play at subtle games--fair virtues all,
To which the Grecians are most prompt and pregnant.
But I can tell that in each grace of these
There lurks a still and dumb-discursive devil
That tempts most cunningly.  But be not tempted.

CRESSIDA: Do you think I will?

But something may be done that we will not,
And sometimes we are devils to ourselves
When we will tempt the frailty of our powers,
Presuming on their changeful potency.

There is both a truth and an evasion in those lines, which sound like the excuses of a politician caught at the brothel: "Something may be done that we will not."

The relationship turns out to be rotten on both sides.  Troilus has no real regard for Cressida beyond lust; once they've spent the night together he basically rushes out the door, hustling her back into bed.  Once he has possessed her, his jealousy is only inflamed when she is taken away, like a child's regard for a toy.

For her part, Cressida turns out to be exactly as Troilus fears.  There is a remarkable scene in which Cressida enters the Greek camp, and is kissed in turn by each of the warrior-kings.  It seems--I hope this isn't too strong--like the prelude to a date-rape, until Cressida reveals a willing playfulness:

ULYSSES: May I, sweet lady, beg a kiss of you?

CRESSIDA: You may.

ULYSSES: I do desire it.

CRESSIDA: Why, beg two.

What's happened here?  The Cressida of Act I is clever and playful but also prudent, refusing to reveal her fondness for Troilus because she knows that "Men prize the thing ungained more than it is."  Her willingness to flirt with the Greek kings seems to contradict this, but Troilus and Cressida is about the impossibility of pinning down the substance and identity of a human being.  Troilus, spying on Cressida as she gives away the scarf he has given her as a love-token to the Greek Diomedes, frets, "This is and is not Cressid."  But is there any other way to respond to a external system of valuation than to keep changing?  No one has a constant identity in Troilus and Cressida, because no one has intrinsic value.  Hector, the most heroic of the Trojans, argues otherwise:

But value dwells not in particular will;
It holds his estimate and dignity
As well wherein 'tis precious of itself
As in the prizer.

And yet, Hector himself vacillates between identities, at one point arguing that Helen should be returned and then arguing the opposite; mercifully letting his opponent Achilles live and then hunting down an unidentified Greek for his brilliant armor.  The characters of the play, as boldly detailed as they are, have no constancy and therefore their only value is "in the prizer."  The war itself is an illustration of this; as Troilus says, "Helen must needs be fair / When with your blood you daily paint her thus."  Why is Helen valuable?  Because we fight over her.  The brokenness of that logic is not hard to perceive.

The result is a vision of humanity that is venal, commodified, and bleak.  The only character that recognizes this is the slave Thersites, who wanders around heaping scorn on every Greek and Trojan, and on the war itself.  But Thersites himself is a vulgar coward, and makes for an uncomfortable authorial proxy.  You may agree with me that human nature is pathetic and nasty, Shakespeare seems to say to us, but that doesn't make you not a part of it.

It's not hard to see why Troilus and Cressida fails to be as well-loved as, say, Romeo and Juliet.  Its principal goal is to rob us of our legends, to make them look as ugly and trivial as our own lives.  It's a systematic hollowing-out of the Troy legend.  The result is (as many have noted, including Jonathan Gil Harris in his afterword to the Folger edition) a very modern-seeming play.  Troilus' agony as he tries to make sense of Cressida's infidelity reminds me of nothing more than The Good Soldier's John Dowell, looking for sense in his dead wife's affair and coming up empty.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel

“Fiction and nonfiction are not so easily divided. Fiction may not be real, but it's true; it goes beyond the garland of facts to get to emotional and psychological truths. As for nonfiction, for history, it may be real, but its truth is slippery, hard to access, with no fixed meaning bolted to it. If history doesn't become story, it dies to everyone except the historian.”

I take no joy in saying this, but Beatrice and Virgil, Yann Martel’s follow-up to his international bestseller The Life of Pi, is a really bad book. It’s not bad in the way that, say, the latest ghostwritten Clancy novel is, or a cheap science fiction paperback. It’s bad in the way that Rand’s Anthem is, bad in a way that patronizes and insults the reader. It’s pretensions without being able to follow through on its pretensions. The pacing feels like an author that didn’t want to kill his beauties, and finally had the power to save them. 

But lest this sound like a stream of misplaced invective, let’s examine the book itself. It opens on what is essentially the first of two(!) framing stories, following its protagonist, Henry, as he attempts to finish a follow-up to a massively successful first novel, one that used animals to tell a story that was not about animals—sound familiar? Henry’s second novel, as it is described, sounds insufferable. It is envisioned, Henry tells us, as a flip-book, where one side is a novel about the Holocaust and the other is a non-fiction essay about the same. His editors understandably reject this conceit, and, after railing against them for several pages, Henry decides to take his wife and journey to France, where he settles. This is, notably, about the first 3rd of an already short book, and boy, is it a ham-fisted slog. It’s entirely unnecessary, for one thing, and it serves only to emphasize how one note Martel’s themes are. Like the message about stories reflecting truth in Pi? You’ll love hearing it spelled out here (and throughout the book) over and over and over.

Well, Henry moves to France and, long-seeming story short, meets a taxidermist, also named Henry, after receiving several pages of a play he’s written. The pages concern a monkey, named Virgil, and a donkey, named Beatrice, discussing a pear. The excerpt is interesting—and the writing in the play is consistently better than the writing in the rest of the novel—but it also introduces the book’s first big snag; namely, that the taxidermist is an entirely unpleasant person who causes stress in Henry’s marriage and upsets the fine life he’s made for himself, and we, as readers, are intended to understand that Henry pursues this relationship so he can read the rest of a play that, frankly, is structured so much like Waiting for Godot that I half-expected Beatrice to enter scene eating a boot. Most people aren’t going to upset their life for second-rate Beckett. After an interminable period of Henry coaxing the play out of the taxidermist one scene at a time, we’re treated to the big reveal, which must be SPOILED BELOW so I can discuss what really bugged me about the book.

It turns out that the taxidermist was a Nazi sympathizer, and Beatrice and Virgil is his attempt at absolving himself of the guilt he feels for doing nothing to stop (or, possibly, actively aiding) the Nazis. So, surprise, Henry’s real life turns out to be the perfect story to tell the Holocaust story he wanted to tell with his crazy flip-book idea, and it turns out that’s the book you’ve been reading. Also, the taxidermist goes crazy really abruptly and stabs Henry and drama, but whatever. Putting aside the banality of the “this is the book” ending (the movie Hugo uses the exact same conceit to greater effect, and that’s for kids), the whole thing is insulting. It’s insulting to me as a reader, because the twist ending is telegraphed about once every 10 pages. It’s insulting a larger scale because this is a book about the Holocaust, as seen by a world-famous author who thinks a masturbatory talking-animal meta-textual novella that barely makes sense communicates the truth of the Holocaust in a more meaningful way than actual history, or the fictional works that attempt to share the horror in a realistic fictional framework. It’s extremely hard to read Beatrice and Virgil and not come away with the idea that Martel is using the Holocaust to add emotional weight to his story about writer’s block, and that’s just wrong. It’s also consistent with the rest of the book’s MO, which uses the pretty disturbing deaths of two animals near the midpoint to score cheap emotional points, even though those deaths don’t add anything to the story aside from that melodramatic button-pushing.

This is a bad book. There’s really nothing to redeem it, aside from a few passages that read nicely and a section involving Beatrice being tortured that, in spite of being just as manipulative as everything else, at least works. I don’t recommend reading it, and it’s probably turned me off Martel for good.

Everyone has read Life of Pi: Brent Carlton Christopher Jim

The Shakespeare Wars by Ron Rosenbaum

In the mid-90's, journalist and author Ron Rosenbaum fired a volley into a battle that had, until that point, been strictly confined to the fields of academia: He claimed in the pages of The New York Observer that critic Don Foster's attribution to Shakespeare of a long poem called "The Funeral Elegy" was erroneous.  "The Funeral Elegy" is tedious and long, but it is signed W.S., and Foster claimed that by using a database called SHAXICON that compared word usage in the "Elegy" to Shakespeare's body of work he could positively identify the work as the Bard's.  Nonsense, Rosenbaum said (more or less), just read it:

He from the happy knowledge of the wise
Draws virtue to reprove secured fools
And shuns the glad sleights of ensnaring vice
To spend his spring of days in sacred schools.

The "Elegy" is shallow, clunky and just plain bad, but it is bad in a way that doesn't sound like Shakespeare.  In the early 2000's, after years of public sniping that was probably more contentious than it might have been had Rosenbaum not stepped in, Foster conceded the battle, admitting that the "Elegy" was probably the work of Shakespeare's contemporary John Ford.  (In defense of Ford, he also composed one of the all-time best dramatic titles: 'Tis Pity She's a Whore.)  It wasn't exactly V-E Day, to be sure, but in his book The Shakespeare Wars, Rosenbaum tells us why we should care by putting the controversy in context:

Now all that wooly literary judgment stuff could be junked--number-crunching had arrived at a state of Fosterian sophistication.  Literary value was to be defined by digitized statistics.  And the only reason his opponents, mostly in the United Kingdom, couldn't abide his claim was that they were--like fearful and ignorant primitives (bardolaters, idolaters)--primitives now forced to bow before the superior judgmental power of the number-crunching computer.

Literary judgment, literary value was already under assault from the pseudo-science of Theory whose partisans believed their job was to demonstrate that literary judgment was always incoherent, inconsistent, irredeemably subjective, the product of unacknowledged personal prejudice.  Or that "literary value" was just a construct, a slavish reflection of the internalized values of the power relations of an oppressive hegemony.

In other words, the "Elegy" controversy reflects something rotten at the heart of modern criticism, and forces us to confront why Shakespeare--and all great literature--matters to us.  What does it mean to be fundamentally "Shakespearean," and is it something that we can describe and discern?  And what is all the "fuss about," as one of the critics quoted in The Shakespeare Wars puts it?

In The Shakespeare Wars, Rosenbaum sets out to investigate a handful of arguments about Shakespeare's works.  The "Elegy" question is the most fascinating--and bloodiest--but there are others.  What do the different endings of Hamlet and Lear in the Quarto and Folio versions tell us about how Shakespeare wrote, edited, and regarded his own work?  Does the play Sir Thomas More contain a passage written by Shakespeare, in his own handwriting at that?  These questions matter, Rosenbaum says, because they are at the heart of why Shakespeare matters.

Nor are all the questions academic--some of the most fascinating arguments deal with Shakespeare on film and on stage, with the way Shakespeare's words are presented.  How, for example, should one play Shylock, the villainous Jew of The Merchant of Venice?  As a victim of prejudice, lashing out at his oppressors, or as an anti-Semitic stereotype?  (In this case, I agree with Rosenbaum--the play is virtually impossible to perform for modern audiences in its intended spirit.)  Or, for a simpler question: Can Shakespeare be effectively performed on film?

The back half of The Shakespeare Wars largely drops this premise, and instead becomes a kind of free-form investigation into what Rosenbaum sees as the most valuable of modern Shakespeare criticism.  Rosenbaum, who once abandoned the English department at Yale and in a way straddles the line between critic and journalist, is especially suited to this task, but something about these chapters seems half-baked.  Rosenbaum has a way, I find, of introducing an interesting idea, but never concluding it satisfactorily before moving on to the next.  (It would take too much space to really show what I mean, but much of it is present in a chapter about critic Stephen Booth and his concept of ambiguity--which Rosenbaum treats with too much ambiguity himself.)

But even when the thread is lost, The Shakespeare Wars is enjoyable because Rosenbaum's love of Shakespeare is so palpable.  It reminds me of reading Harold Bloom, though Rosenbaum would hate that I said that.  (He excoriates Bloom in a chapter about "recovering" Henry IV's Falstaff from Bloom's "overblown generalizations.)  Like Bloom, Rosenbaum believes that Shakespeare is vital--that's why these questions are so important.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

They called each other by their Christian name, were always arm in arm when they walked, pinned up each other's train for the dance, and were not to be divided in the set; and if a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together.  Yes, novels;--for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding--joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets of such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust.  Alas! if one heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?

I absolutely love that--the heroines of novels, they have to stick together!  Though it's uncharacteristically postmodern, with its focus on genre and form, this passage just is Jane Austen.  Look at the tangle of ironies:

1.) the way she simultaneously defends the novel while exposing its essential silliness,
2.) the way she manages to establish Catherine as a novelistic "heroine" while rejecting the requirements of that designation wholesale, and
3.) the way she pushes toward the semblance of reality (by asserting the ability of "heroines" to interact) while simultaneously retreating into fictionality (by dissecting the choices of the author).

And with such clarity as that final sentence.  No one else can write like that, and that's part of what makes Austen herself so fascinating: the genius of her style makes her presence as the author impossible to ignore, and yet she is obscured behind a veil of ambiguities.  What, exactly, does Northanger Abbey ask us to believe about novels like The Mysteries of Udolpho?
Northanger Abbey's literary pretensions were all I knew about the book before opening it.  I knew that, on some level, it is a critique and a parody of the sensationalist "Gothic" novel that dominated the popular market of her day, and Ann Radcliffe's Udolpho in particular.  In this case, as in others, I wish I knew less--I might have enjoyed the 200 non-parodic pages more if I hadn't been waiting for the parody to arrive.

Prior to the parody, Northanger Abbey--in fact, before the Abbey--is a pleasant if unsubstantial Austen novel.  Its heroine, Catherine Morland, is on holiday at Bath with an adult friend.  She makes friends there of two brother-sister pairs: The Thorpes and the Tilneys.  She and Isabella Thorpe are (as described above) instant friends, though she finds her brother John's advances unpleasant.  For her part she falls immediately in love with Henry Tilney, with whose sister Eleanor she strikes up a much slower-forming rapport.  It's the Tilneys who own Northanger Abbey, and when she's invited there much of her excitement comes from her association of abbeys with trashy novels like Radcliffe's, which she adores.

These scenes can be awfully funny, and somewhat embarrassing for poor Catherine, who is always getting caught poking around ancient chests and such.  At one point she discovers a mysterious document in an abandoned cabinet and it turns out to be... an inventory of linen!  When General Tilney, Henry's father, stays us to finish reading pamphlets, she concocts a scenario in which he is keeping his supposedly deceased wife captive in a secret chamber:

To be kept up for hours, after the family were in bed, by stupid pamphlets, was not very likely.  There must be some deeper cause: something was to be done which could be done while the household slept; and the probability that Mrs Tilney yet lived, shut up for causes unknown, and receiving from the pitiless hands of her husband a nightly supply of coarse food, was the conclusion which necessarily followed.  Shocking as was the idea, it was at least better than a death unfairly hastened, as, in the natural course of things, she must ere long be released.  The suddenness of her reputed illness; the absence of her daughter, and probably of her other children, at the time--a favoured the supposition of her imprisonment.--Its origin--jealousy perhaps, or wanton cruelty--was yet to be unravelled.

I'm not sure who gets the brunt of Austen's savage wit here: Catherine, whose childishness is exposed, or Radcliffe, whose writing relies on such tortured logic to cohere.  I love that line "stupid pamphlets"--an adjective that belongs to Catherine, who has no conception of morally serious literature.  And I can't help but note that it acts as a clairvoyant reply to Charlotte Bronte, who, when she was not stuffing secret wives in attics, was sneering at Austen for a lack of passion.

Catherine's fantasy is not innocent; it causes a great deal of pain to Henry Tilney, whose mother is very much dead, thank you.  His hurt is a muted hurt, which might have bored Charlotte Bronte, but in the usually buoyant Tilney it expresses a realistic and relateable grief that Bronte was not capable of.  Realism, wrought from fantasy; unseriousness, Austen tells us, has serious consequences.

And yet, Austen's use of the novel to say such a thing is clearly discordant, especially at a time when the usefulness and moral value of fictional literature were in question, and just the kind of thing that she was apt to do.  Are we meant to be left with the belief that the novel can be as thoughtful and morally serious as the Rambler or Spectator--that is, the "stupid pamphlets" of the time?  If so, isn't that complicated by Northanger Abbey's sheer silliness?  The parody bits are fun because Udolpho is fun; Samuel Johnson is decidedly not fun.  At time Austen's ridicule begins to resemble admiration.

Consider the book's last line: "I leave it to be settled by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience."  The humor is crystal clear, but it's the irony that gives these words their real power.  Austen acknowledges the genre requirement that she provide a moral, but in giving it she actually asks us to choose between two opposite lessons, which is the same as offering no moral at all.  Not only does this fail to conform to the standards of the Gothic novel, it isn't much like the "stupid pamphlets" either.  In a nutshell: Modern fiction is bad, but we're not going it make it better by making it more like criticism, so here's something new.  That "something new" is pretty much the modern English novel.

I've focused on the Gothic parody part of the novel, but I do want to point out that it is a relatively small portion of the novel, and it seems completely incongruous, as if lifted from some other book.  I think the incongruity is part of the point; it seems more ridiculous against the backdrop of Catherine's mild teenage romance.  But without it Northanger Abbey would seem relatively minor, and the fact that it lets itself by overshadowed by the parody speaks to its quality among Austen's novels.  In other words, can you imagine tolerating such an absurd digression in Emma or Pride and Prejudice?

But I do want to point out something that Northanger does really well, and that Austen in general does well: present vivid, individuated minor characters.  There's Miss Allen, whose every remark (every) is about clothes.  There's John Thorpe, who brags like a frat boy.  And there's Tilney, who Austen gifts with her own powers of irony and humor, which combine to make him the most likeable of all of her menfolk:

'What are you thinking of so earnestly?' said he, as they waked back to the ball-room;--'not of your partner, I hope, for, by the shake of your head, your meditations are not satisfactory.'

Catherine coloured, and said, 'I was not thinking of anything.'

'That is artful and deep, to be sure; but I had rather be told at once that you will not tell me.'

'Well then, I will not.'

'Thank you; for now we shall soon be acquainted, as I am authorized to tease you on this subject whenever we meet, and nothing in the world advances intimacy so much.'

In the hands of the Brontes of the world, a man like Henry Tilney becomes a Mr. Rochester, whose teasing always threatens to become cruelty.  Now, I love Mr. Rochester--but if I had a choice, I'd be Henry Tilney.