Weekend Reading: Two by Maggie O’Farrell

A friend recently mentioned that she’d been reading and enjoying Maggie O’Farrell’s novels, so the next time I was at the library I checked out two of them: Instructions for a Heat Wave and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. Both are essentially family dramas; both turn on long-held secrets and their repercussions, though in Instructions for a Heat Wave the consequences are mostly moral and emotional, while by the end of Esme Lennox two people have paid (in very different ways) with their lives. Both are very good–well written, evocative, psychologically astute, and thematically layered — but it’s Esme Lennox (both the novel and the eponymous character) that’s really going to stick with me.

Instructions for a Heat Wave follows its family members through a few fraught days during a grueling heat wave that hit Britain in 1976. Robert Riordan tells his wife he’s going out for the paper and then he doesn’t come back: his disappearance brings his children together again, face to face with each other and with an array of unresolved issues from their family history. O’Farrell uses the sweltering temperatures both literally and figuratively: the characters’ physical discomfort in the inescapably stifling heat matches their inner restlessness as the narrative shuttles us back and forth between their childhood memories and the complications of their current situations.

Instructions for a Heat Wave ends on a faint note of optimism: the novel’s ultimate revelations may be initially devastating, but as people’s secrets come out, healing seems possible — no harm is ultimately irredeemable. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, on the other hand, offers no such soothing hope: some wrongs, it suggests, can never be made right, at least not through forgiveness. The novel is a compelling blend of chilling and heartbreaking: as it takes us from Esme’s childhood to the present-day life of her grand-niece Iris, splicing in segments from the point of view of Esme’s sister Kitty, now suffering from Alzheimer’s, we gradually realize just how Esme came to spend 60 years confined to an asylum. One of O’Farrell’s sources is Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980; Esme’s story dramatizes the horrors of a society that conflates nonconformity with “hysteria” and madness, and punishes it accordingly.  I was a bit disappointed in the novel’s ending, but it’s a haunting story, both poignant and gripping.

The Muddy, Muddy Middle: My Writing Process

Do any of you know the delightful children’s rhyming book The Piggy In the Puddle? For the last couple of days, as I sat at desk or table, staring at my computer screen and messing around with the pieces of what I hope will eventually be an essay on Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, lines from it kept running through my head:

See the piggy in the middle

Of the muddy little puddle.

See her dawdle, see her diddle,

In the muddy, muddy middle.

If you don’t know the book, the gist of it is that the piggy (silly piggy!) is having great fun in the mud while her distraught family tries to persuade her to come out and clean herself up with “lots of soap.” But the piggy is resolute (“NOPE!”) and so in the end they jump in with her, right into “the very merry middle.” Hooray!

In my case, I wasn’t feeling particularly merry — just a bit muddled and very much in the middle, and that was (is) stressing me out. Even though I understand the concept of the “shitty first draft,” I still find the phase of writing in between the taking-notes-and-doing-pre-writing stage and the producing-a-reasonably-decent-draft stage psychologically taxing. At that point I usually have all kinds of material to work with, and often lots of ideas about what to say about it — in this case, in fact, I have too many ideas about what I’d like to include, considering that I’ve only got 1500 words to talk about 3000 pages — but they are all in a kind of virtual heap and I can’t yet see what order to put them in, or how to choose among them, or how to say properly (clearly, eloquently) what in the rough material can be loose or incoherent or inarticulate. At first it all just has to be down somewhere in some form, but eventually it has to be honed and shaped. In between, there’s just so much uncertainty!

I’m learning to trust my own process more: I know from experience that this muddy middle is a phase of its own, one that — because lately I’ve been working on fairly short pieces — doesn’t even really last very long. It’s taking longer this time partly because the task is quite open-ended: a review has a pretty formulaic overall shape, but an essay has to find its own intrinsic purpose and logic. I’m also paradoxically inhibited by caring much more about this piece than about almost any of the other things I’ve written recently: precisely because I cherish and admire Dunnett’s series so much, I really (really) want to do it, and my feelings about it, justice. The stakes feel absurdly high, even though I know this essay only really (really) matters to me, not to anyone else. (I mean, I’m sure the editor who agreed to it will be happy if it’s good, but otherwise I don’t expect he cares much about it.)

Eventually, though, I know I will get out of the mess. Today I actually started to think I had cleaned up some parts of my shitty first draft: I did a bit of new writing, but more important, I cut and compressed what I’d done already so that I have room to keep going with the other topics I want to get to. I can almost see now, too, how the parts will fit and flow together–almost! I didn’t make enough progress to make me “very, very merry,” but today’s work did help me believe in the process again and feel more confident that the next phase will come. I know there are some writers who claim there’s nothing hard about it at all (OK, I know only one such writer, and if I weren’t so fond of him, I’d really hate him for this!). But for mere mortals like me, while writing is certainly sometimes exhilarating and, somewhat more often, is interesting and satisfying, there are times when it is both difficult and profoundly discouraging. I think I might make the piggy in the puddle a kind of mascot for those times. Who could stay scared and cranky in such cheerful company? And really, what’s so bad about the muddy middle?


“Like Life Itself”: Laurie Colwin, A Big Storm Knocked It Over

She watched the sky light up and flash. She watched the sparkling drops that burst into brilliant sprinkles and disappeared into the velvety sky. It was magical: that deep, echoing noise, that glowing tension, that unexpected, magnificent, beautiful release, like the unexpected joy that swept you away, like life itself.

Not much goes on in Laurie Colwin’s A Big Storm Knocked It Over: a marriage, a new baby. It’s a novel about life on a small scale, but that doesn’t mean it’s trivial: as Carol Shields said about Jane Austen’s fiction, it’s a novel that “demonstrates how large narratives can occupy small spaces.” I was reading Colwin’s earlier novel Family Happiness when I wrote about this topic before, and I reported not finding that book entirely satisfactory as an example of this genre: “it seems to me a small space filled by a small narrative . . . nice as it is, it feels trivial.” I don’t remember Family Happiness clearly enough to affirm or correct this impression of it, but I can say that A Big Storm Knocked It Over seemed to me to reach further, to gesture beyond its own immediate details. It still didn’t strike me as a particularly profound book: it didn’t seem resonant with new insights. What it does, which is also what other writers of this kind that I appreciate do (Carol Shields, Anne Tyler, Joanna Trollope at her best, Lynne Sharon Schwarz especially) is seize a moment and clarify it: they can bring something ordinary into the kind of focus that shows why it matters more than you thought before. Here’s a small example from A Big Storm Knocked It Over:

She and Teddy had simply merged their possessions and were now thinking about buying a sideboard. Jane Louise had never bought a piece of furniture with another person in her life. It seemed to her an act of almost exotic intimacy. After all, anyone can sleep with anyone, but few people not closely connected purchase furniture in common.

That little bit immediately got me thinking about the furniture in my own house, which in turn reminded me of Jane Smiley’s description of Trollope as “a great analyst of marriage as a series of decisions that turn into a relationship and then, as time goes by and the children grow up, into history and architecture.” Both comments articulate the way relationships, which can seem very abstract and psychological, also have concrete, tangible aspects that oddly merge the literal and the metaphorical.

When Colwin comes up, people seem to talk a lot about her prose, and I can see why. The strength of A Big Storm Knocked It Over isn’t really its characters, though they are crisply delineated and believable (an achievement I certainly don’t mean to underestimate). Its plot, too, is well executed but minimal. It’s the voice of the novel that matters, which is often the voice of the protagonist, Jane Louise, since it is narrated in close third person with lots of free indirect discourse: wry, sharply observant, occasionally but self-consciously sentimental. There are lots of good epigrammatic moments (“Soon the holidays would be upon them like an oncoming train, loaded with complicated feelings”) but also, more rarely, passages that (like my epigraph) expand into something more and unexpectedly poetic.

I think that if I were in a different phase of my own life I might have reacted more strongly to Colwin’s depiction of early marriage and the transition into parenthood. Instead, I was most moved by the scene in which Jane Louise, her own child only five months old, happens across a father loading his college-age son’s possessions into the car:

It was nearing the end of the academic year. Everywhere she looked students were lugging boxes of books, clothes, and standing lamps out of their dorms. She stood on the sidewalk and watched a serious young boy haul two duffel bags into the trunk of his father’s car and dash into a building. His father, a gray-haired man with a wide chest and a linen sports jacket, was loading the trunk. Jane Louise stood perfectly still, blinded by the sunny glare. Hazy light poured down around her.

Someday Miranda would grow up and go to college. Day would follow day: She would lose her baby teeth. Her adult teeth would come in. She would go to school, learn to read, go to high school, have boyfriends, leave home. To her amazement, Jane Louise found herself in tears. Her throat got hot, and tears poured down her cheeks. She felt powerless to brush them away or to move.

“You must think I’m a nut,” she says ruefully to the man when he asks her if she’s okay. “When my kid went to sleep-away camp for the first time,” he replies, “I wanted to lie down in the driveway and eat dirt.” This moment of understanding fills Jane Louise with relief and happiness: “Thank you,” she says; “Oh, thank you.”

Those are the kind of moments we (or I, anyway) read fiction like this for. It’s not simply the solipsistic pleasure of seeing something you’ve experienced reflected back at you, shaped into something more elegant than your own amorphous feelings and memories could create–though that is part of it. Right now my own children are almost gone: one basically moved out, the other, though still at home, less and less tethered to it and to us. My feelings about this are more complicated than I ever would have predicted during the years when the demands of parenthood seemed nearly overwhelming; more than once I have been caught in a wave of nostalgia as intense as what Jane Louise feels just anticipating the changes to come. The recognition I feel reading this scene also brings a comforting sense of connection, reassurance that there is a story to be told about these everyday pains and joys.

“This Piece of Goods”: Rhoda Broughton, Cometh Up As A Flower

“No,” I say doggedly, “leave me alone; I won’t be made up for sale; if he chooses to bid for this piece of goods, he shall see all the flaws in it. I don’t want to cheat him in his bargain.” So I went, limp and crumpled, to meet my fate.

About 250 pages into Rhoda Broughton’s Cometh Up As A Flower (which is just under 350 pages in total), things get real. Our first-person heroine, Nell LeStrange, who has spent most of the book so far yearning after, flirting with, and eventually canoodling with, a tall handsome soldier named Dick M’Gregor, has finally given in to her sister Dolly’s pressure and agreed to marry another man — the kindly and much richer but not nearly so desirable Sir Hugh Lancaster — to give her beloved ailing father some peace of mind before his death.

Nell has resisted Sir Hugh’s clear overtures for pages and pages because of her passion for Dick, but she is vulnerable now not just because she’s so worried about her father but because she has not heard from her lover for months. Later we learn that Dolly has interfered in order to maneuver Nell into marrying Sir Hugh. Dolly, you see, has none of Nell’s romantic notions or scruples. “I believe you would sell your soul for gold,” Nell says to her disdainfully.

“I certainly would,” answered my sister sedately; “one’s soul does not do one much good that I could ever find out; if I could have my body left me, my nice, pretty, pleasant body, with plenty of money to keep it well fed and well dressed, I’d give my soul its congé with the greatest sang froid imaginable.”

Later in the novel Dolly secures a rich husband for herself. Nell is as horrified at this as she is at her own mercenary bargain, not just because it is yet another clear example of a woman selling herself for profit, but because it undoes Nell’s “story-book code of morality”:

Where is the whipping for the naught boy? Here is a young woman who has told lies, has forged, has wrecked the happiness of her sister’s whole life, and she is punished, how?–why by marring a lord with £80,000 a year. Truly poetic justice is confined to poetry indeed; and comes down never to the prose dealings of everyday life.

Nell knows of Dolly’s perfidious behavior because poor Dick has come back since her marriage, believing himself the wronged party because of Dolly’s forged letter asking him (as Nell) not to write. Their reunion is by far the most sensational part of Cometh Up As A Flower:

The rainy wind still blustered and wailed and stormed outside; but yet the storm within our breasts was mightier.

“I cannot stand it any longer,” Dick said, vehemently, clutching his hand, and bringing it down like a sledge hammer on the marble slab. “I must go, or I shall make a beast of myself. Nell! I’m sailing for India to-morrow; say one kind word to me before I go. Oh, Nell! Nell! you belonged to me before you belonged to him, damn him!”

Looking into his haggard, beautiful, terrible face, I forgot all I should have remembered; forgot virtue, and honour, and self-respect; my heart spoke out to his. “Oh, don’t go!” I cried, running to him, “don’t you know how I love you? For my sake stay; I cannot live without you!” . . .

He crammed me to his desolate heart, and we kissed each other wildly, vehemently: none came between us then.

Shocking! A married woman throwing herself on another man and begging him to run away with her? In the words of one contemporary reviewer, “There is no excuse for allowing the imagination thus to run riot.”

This is definitely exciting stuff, as is the unusually explicit way in which Nell frames her choice between love and prosperity as a degrading and openly sexual kind of barter:

Half an hour after I am sitting on the green settee by the library fire, with the gentleman by whose library fire I am to sit through my life, with what patience I may.

His arm is round my waist, and he is brushing my eyes and cheeks and brow with his somewhat bristly moustache as often as he feels inclined–for am I not his property? Has not he every right to kiss my face off if he chooses, to clasp me and hold me, and drag me about in whatever manner he wills, for has not he bought me? For a pair of first-class blue eyes warranted fast colour, for ditto superfine red lips, for so many pounds of prime white flesh, he has paid down a handsome price on the nail, without any haggling, and now if he may not test the worth of his purchases, poor man, he is hardly used!

Nell’s ironic tone is almost amusing, but it shades into something more disturbing when she reflects that this ticklish fondling is only the first stage of his possession: “If the prologue is so terrible, what will the play be?” Though quite a few Victorian novels highlight the mercenary aspect of the aptly-named marriage market, sometimes even hinting broadly at this proximity between respectable marriages for money and prostitution, I can’t think of many that spell out the terms quite so clearly.

The problem for me is that things don’t get this interesting until so far along in the novel. Up to that point, though the ground was certainly being laid, very little actually happened: the novel is almost all talk and no action. Why is that a bad thing, you might ask? Well, it isn’t, of course–not necessarily. Nell is an engaging narrator, and as Pamela Gilbert’s smart introduction to the Broadview edition convincingly argues, her unapologetic desire for Dick makes her an unusual and subversive one as well, as the contemporary reviewer I already quoted from indicates when protesting “the unmaidenly manner” in which she “dwells on her lover’s physical charms.” The relationship between Nell and Dolly is unconventionally fraught, and Dolly herself is an interesting twist as a woman who achieves villainy by her unrepentant pursuit of exactly what nice young woman are supposed to win, namely a “good” (wealthy) husband. Perhaps on a second read I would do better at appreciating these subtler effects. This time, however, I was bored by the lack of plot. A great deal more suspense and excitement might have made up for the long stretches of watery philosophizing like this:

Our life is but as a very little boat tossed on the sea of infinity; it is a small breathing space between the tussle with life at the beginning and the tussle with death at the end. Poor little lives! What immeasurable self-pity fills one, when one things of our poor little farthing rush-lights, that often before they are half burnt, great Death blows out. And yet all our reflections and lamentations and moralizations on the brevity of our abiding here, does not do anything towards making one dull minute seem shorter, or greasing the wheels of one tedious our.

I’m actually not sure that Wilkie Collins in all his rambunctious glory could reconcile me to such drivel, but then, he would never inflict it on me in the first place, except of course in the voice of someone he is gleefully sending up (Miss Clack, for instance). Nell, however, is painfully sincere in these moments, without even the excuse of youthful inexperience, as we know from early on that she is actually writing from her pathetic death bed.

I thought Cometh Up As A Flower would be more in the Collins vein because it is cited as an example of sensation fiction. Gilbert’s introduction is good on the issue of genre. While acknowledging that the novel “is not heavily plotted” and has “little of the crime and madness characteristic” of other sensation novels, she notes that “Broughton gives us desiring heroines, women actuated by sexual desire.” She goes on to link Cometh Up As A Flower to novels of different kinds, including “the religious conversion narrative” and autobiographical fictions including Jane Eyre. I saved the introduction to read until after I’d finished the novel; thinking about it in those terms would probably have given me more patience with the first 250 pages. On the other hand, I was reading it in the first place because I’m shopping for an alternative to Braddon’s Aurora Floyd for my seminar on sensation fiction, which I’m offering again this coming winter term. (I have nothing against Aurora Floyd, but including two novels by the same author has always seemed a bit narrow.) I can see ways in which it would work very well with the other readings (The Woman in WhiteLady Audley’s Secret, and East Lynne), both because there are some common themes and because it is so different in tone, style, and treatment. It’s just not as much fun as the others.

I’ve got time to keep thinking about Cometh Up As A Flower before winter book orders are due, and also to read some other possibilities. I’m looking into Hardy’s Desperate Remedies, which I’ve never read before, and also at Ouida’s The Moth, which is not necessarily a sensation novel but still looks pretty sensational. There’s also Broughton’s Not Wisely But Too Well, which I see is available through Victorian Secrets. I’m open to suggestions, if anyone knows a sensation novel not by Collins or Braddon that would make a good fourth! The fifth book on our list will be Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith, which I can hardly wait to have an excuse to reread.

Blank Days: Michael Harris, Solitude

There must be an art to it, I thought. A certain practice, or alchemy, that turns loneliness into solitude, blank days into blank canvases. It must be one of those lost arts, like svelte calligraphy or the confident tying of a wedding cravat. A lost little art that, year by year, fades in the bleaching light of the future.

My favorite part of Michael Harris’s Solitude was the epigraph to Part I, which comes from one of Edith Wharton’s letters:

I believe I know the only cure, which is to make one’s center of life inside of one’s self, not selfishly or excludingly, but with a kind of unassailable serenity–to decorate one’s inner house so richly that one is content there, glad to welcome anyone who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same when one is inevitably alone.

This lovely and evocative passage reminded me very much of May Sarton’s Plant Dreaming Deep, which along with Journal of a Solitude chronicles the challenges but also the beauties of a life both isolated and receptive. I was surprised to find that Harris never mentions or quotes from Sarton: I think my disappointed expectation that he would is a symptom of the mismatch between what I went to his book for and what I found.

I don’t suppose there’s anything wrong with Harris’s book on its own terms, though it turned out not to be the book I was looking for. It’s primarily about the challenge (as Harris sees it) of finding and coping with solitude in our hyper-connected technological age. As he tells it, nearly every activity that used to be solitary has become social. But while there’s no doubt that everything from reading to dating can now be carried on in a hyper-linked-up way, I thought he too hastily and completely conflated “using technology” with “not being alone.” Also, like many authors of this sort of book, he seemed to rush from his own habits and experience to universal proclamations. “Is there no middle road,” he asks,

a way to secure some isolation within the glory of all that connectivity? Is there not a way to get past [Anne Morrow] Lindbergh’s starfish problem, where essential parts of our selves are ripped off each time we enter and exit our solitude? Is there a third way that each person, alone, could discover for themselves?

Yes, is the obvious answer: turn things off, opt out, calm down. I keep the WiFi off on my Kobo reader except when I want to download new books; I have opted out of all the notifications on the Kobo app on my iPad. Just because I’m reading electronically doesn’t mean I want to bring a whole crowd of strangers into the experience. I usually have “mobile data” turned off on my phone: I can’t check email or Twitter when I’m out and about unless I really want or need to, and that’s a conscious decision. There’s no need for the false alternative of either a wholly porous existence or a week of total social isolation in a cabin in the woods.

I appreciated the questions Harris raises about the role of solitude in our lives, as well as the evidence and anecdotes he gives about its benefits. What I was looking for, though, was not a disquisition on Wattpad but insight into achieving what Wharton describes and Sarton comes close to. I hoped, I suppose, for a book that would complement Emily White’s Lonely: if loneliness is, as Harris proposes, “failed solitude,” how can we succeed at it? Harris’s book spends a lot more time answering “why should we want it?” instead. Though Harris might not believe it, I’m already solitary enough; it’s the “unassailable serenity” that eludes me. To find it, or to fill the time so I don’t miss it, I’m better off with different writers.

“A Nonentity”: Anita Brookner, Providence

I must grow up, she thought. I must stop being so humble. I can make decisions and initiate actions like anyone else. I am not stupid. I am not poor. If I want to do something I do not have to wait for permission. I am old enough to make up my own mind. . . . But I must act, she thought. I am a total bore as I am. A nonentity. Not even a pawn in the game.

I found Anita Brookner’s Providence both claustrophobic and irritating. It is deliberately so, I think, if I am right to read it as recreating (though on somewhat different terms) Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe, which Brookner’s protagonist Kitty Maule is teaching over the course of the novel. I had never heard of Adolphe before beginning Providence, but based on the discussions in Kitty’s tutorial and what I found when I looked it up online, it is (basically) the story of a young man emotionally debilitated by his love for an older woman, told with minute attention to his erratic feelings. Kitty, in her turn, is unable to live her own life with real confidence or commitment because of her preoccupation with her dashing older colleague Maurice.

Kitty thinks about Maurice incessantly when they are apart and watches him constantly when he is nearby. She longs for clarity in their relationship, for proof that her adoration is reciprocated. Her pain can be poignant, but her hero-worship is where things get annoying, especially because we aren’t left in any doubt that Maurice doesn’t really deserve it, or her. “His brilliance and ease,” as Kitty sees him,

his seeming physical invulnerability, the elevated character of his decisions, the distances he covered, his power of choice and strength of resolve, cast him in the guise of the unfettered man, the mythic hero, the deliverer. For the woman whom Maurice would deliver would be saved for ever from the fate of that grim daughter, whose bare white legs and dull shoes, designed perhaps from some antediluvian hike or ramble, continued to register in Kitty’s mind’s eye. Maurice’s choice would be spared the humiliations that lie in wait for the unclaimed woman. She would have a life of splendour, raising sons. Ah! thought Kitty with anguish, the white wedding, the flowers. How can it be me? How could it be me?

Maurice is indeed a kind of mythic creature, though more in an anti-heroic vein hinted at through Kitty’s work on the “Romantic Tradition”: in wrestling with her yearning for him, I think Kitty is also  struggling with ideas about heroism and romance and love and arrogant egotism, in keeping with the metatextual interplay with Adolphe–though because I don’t know Adolphe at all, I can’t really go further in figuring that out. On those grounds, however, I am prepared to be more tolerant of Kitty than I would be if the novel were just a character study.

Even so, I found Kitty’s difficulty declaring herself, or just being herself, frustrating. I also struggled to figure out how Brookner means to position us in relation to Kitty. Sometimes I thought Kitty was sympathetic: Brookner is very good at evoking the pangs of uncertain longing, the hypersensitivity to every nuance of speech or body language that comes with wondering how someone else feels. Kitty’s loneliness is also very poignant, and makes her dreams of happiness with Maurice something more than just a sentimental crush.

But why must it be marriage, much less marriage to Maurice, that she dreams of? Over and over we –and Kitty–get signs that she has strengths of her own, including her academic work, her teaching, her friendships. In that context her fixation on Maurice as her savior seems like a failing (especially, again, because Maurice is not really worth much). Is she the victim of the fairy tale story of female success, unable to accept her life on terms beside “the white wedding, the flowers”? Or is the novel perhaps the story of her gradually growing out of that delusion, taking control of her life rather than hoping, watching, and waiting? That is certainly what Kitty keeps telling herself: that now she is going to take charge, make a change, turn things around. Right up to the last page, though, she’s still more acted upon than acting, letting life be fitted against her like the dresses her seamstress grandmother makes for her that are never quite what Kitty really wants or feels comfortable in.

The novel’s title hints at a thematic reason for Kitty’s irresolution, though I’m not sure how to work out the pattern. Maurice is religious, while Kitty is not; at least in theory, she believes herself mistress of her own fate, but she has difficulty committing herself to the lack of extrinsic purpose or design. In her anxiety about her future, for instance, she visits a clairvoyant, hoping to know the future that (again, in theory) she is responsible for shaping. She believes that “the key to Maurice was his belief in the divine will”–but “in her own soul she found nothing.” She does not, in the end, win Maurice: does this failure reflect on her faithlessness, or is it a lesson for her and for us about not trusting to Providence if we hope not to be nonentities?

Missing Persons: Arnaldur Indriðason, Arctic Chill

Erlendur stood over the grave in the freezing cold, searching for a purpose to the whole business of life and death. As usual he could find no answers. There were no final answers to explain the life-long solitude of the person in the urn, or the death of his brother all those years ago, or why Erlendur was the way he was, and why Elías was stabbed to death. Life was a random mass of unforeseeable coincidences that governed men’s fates like a storm that strikes without warning, causing injury and death.

I read two of Arnaldur Indriðason’s novels a couple of years ago. Both were pretty depressing; of the two, Silence of the Grave was both bleaker and better. After that I said I needed a break from “grim nordic noir” for a while, and I don’t think I’ve read any since (except The Terrorists for class, which isn’t actually that grim in spirit, despite the severity of its social criticism). After I finished Arctic Chill yesterday, I felt, again, that I’d had enough for a while: it is even more relentlessly unhappy than I remember the other two being, in ways that are pretty well summed up by the quotation above.

Arctic Chill struck me as more perfunctory, as a crime novel, than Silence of the Grave: it doesn’t try to do as much that is interesting or meaningful or literary. It does focus on an important topic: the victim’s mother is an immigrant to Iceland from Thailand, and his death immediately raises questions for the police, and for the media, about whether it was motivated by racism or hostility to immigrants. During their investigation, Erlendur and his team turn up plenty of both attitudes, sometimes casual, sometimes virulent, and thus the novel joins other recent European crime fiction (including Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers and Ian Rankin’s Fleshmarket Close) in examining the tensions and prejudices stirred up by changing demographics in supposedly “liberal” societies.

Though the particulars of the case were reasonably well developed, in the end I didn’t think Indriðason did much of interest with either the form of the novel or the resolution of the case: the crime does not ultimately reveal anything in particular about racism or immigration, for instance, instead turning more or less on random chance and pointless hooliganism. On the other hand, that outcome is consistent with Erlendur’s conviction that life has no meaningful patterns. There are some other thematic threads that add unity to the novel, too, particularly the recurrence of missing people, including  Elías’s older brother, the woman at the center of Erlendur’s other case, and, in the past, Erlendur’s brother, who was lost in blizzard in their childhood. His body was never found, and throughout Arctic Chill Erlendur is haunted by memories and questions about this personal tragedy which has defined the rest of his life in terms of loss and remorse.

I’m never tempted by mystery series that have what strikes me as an unduly cheery aspect: the ones that come with brownie recipes or crossword puzzles or starring cats or dogs. Crime is a serious business, or should be. It hardly makes sense, then, for me to complain that Indriðason takes it too seriously. I think what I want is more of a payoff for the misery: if not a glimmer of hope that life can be more than random “injury or death,” at least more layers to the characters or the social commentary. Arctic Chill just seemed formulaically gloomy.

Recent Reading: the Good, the Bad, and the OK

Image result for the walworth beautyOver the past week I read three novels. Only one, Michele Roberts’s The Walworth Beauty, was for a review! The short version: it’s fine. Some things about it are very good, but overall I wasn’t that excited about it. I’m starting to feel I’ve read enough neo-Victorian novels. This has never been my favorite genre in any case, but it is (for obvious reasons) a reasonable one for me to pitch or be assigned for reviewing. As a result, over the past year or so, I’ve read (and reviewed) Steven Price’s By Gaslight, Dan Vyleta’s Smoke, Graeme Macrea Burnet’s His Bloody Project, Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children, Lesley Krueger’s Mad Richard, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, and now The Walworth Beauty. I’m never 100% sure what makes a novel ‘ne0-Victorian’ instead of just ‘set in the 19th century’; if I use the broader category, Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder would also count, as would Dinitia Smith’s The Honeymoon and Diana Souhami’s Gwendolen. Some of these have been really good, but there’s a certain sameness to a lot of them–a palpable restraint in the prose, for instance, a lot of short sentences, an artful absence of sentimentality, or indeed any extremes of overt emotion. Sometimes this style works beautifully, but often it leaves me hungry for the qualities I love in novels from, rather than about, the Victorian period. I think this feeling that modern incarnations of the period are somewhat stifled artistically is starting to affect my judgment of individual examples–which is one reason I’m happy that my next couple of writing projects take me in completely different directions.

Image result for we have always lived in the castleFor my book club, I read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. What a treat that was. It’s like a perverse inside-out fairy tale. In our discussion of it, we got particularly interested in the way it destabilizes our sympathies. There’s the initial instinct to side with the narrator, which of course quickly turns out to be a mistake, except that she is being persecuted–though not unfairly, since after all, she is a murderer.  Jackson evokes the horror of mob violence as well here as she does in “The Lottery”: the scene that begins with the fire chief throwing the first stone unfolds in an equally horrifying way–except that at least one of the targets is in no way an innocent victim, and later on, some of the villagers seem to be horrified, in their turn, at what they’ve done. We puzzled over Merricat’s motivation, or rather, over whether she has one, for killing her family. The suggestion seems to be that she didn’t much like being sent to her room without dinner, or in any way being thwarted or crossed. So the murders may be the act of a vengeful narcissist, a spoiled brat gone rogue. On the other hand, maybe there is no reason, which in its own way is even scarier. It’s a brilliantly written little book. I was hooked from the first paragraph, which is a perfect combination of whimsy and menace:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

There’s so much else going on, from the intimations of magic to Constance’s cloistered virtue to the predatory character of Cousin Charles — it’s a lot of twisted fun, and followed even better than expected on our last book, Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress, especially the story “Torching the Dusties.” Our next pick is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes, which carries on the theme of women acting in uncanny ways.

I expected Sarah MacLean’s The Day of the Duchess to be a lot of fun too, but I really didn’t enjoy it and ended up skimming the last third or so of it just to get to the end. I have liked some of MacLean’s romances a lot, including The Rogue Not Taken, the first one in this series, but this book tilted too far towards the “feels” for me: it’s all angst and yearning, without any frolicking. I’m not necessarily saying it isn’t well done. It’s just that my own taste in romance tilts instead towards comedy. Also, more than I remember noticing in MacLean’s books before, The Day of the Duchess is full of the kind of writing that seems meant to force feelings on you, rather than allow you to arrive at your own reactions–lots of fragments, and lots of single line paragraphs, devices which to me almost always backfire: rather than increasing the impact of the line, they make it seem artificial, especially if the trick is used over and over again. I’ve been trying to think if there are any consistently serious romances that I really like. Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm is the only one I can come up with. Blame my inner cynic, which, as I’ve said before, makes me accept an HEA only if it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

I’ve picked Arnaldur Indridason’s Arctic Chill to read next. It suits the weather we’ve had this holiday weekend: two days of dark clouds and heavy rain, and cold and damp enough that I’m in slippers with the heat on, down in my basement office.

No Escape: Dorothy B. Hughes, In A Lonely Place

Brub said, “I won’t say that. Although I honestly don’t think he ever does escape. He has to live with himself. He’s caught there in that lonely place. And when he sees he can’t get away–” Brub shrugged. “Maybe suicide, or the nut house–I don’t know. But I don’t think there’s any escape.”

I was glad that the Afterword in the Feminist Press edition of Dorothy B. Hughes’s In A Lonely Place got right to the heart of the problem: “What feminist claims can be made for a novel that is narrated from the perspective of a serial rapist and killer of women?” I had been puzzling over this as I read the book, and my own initial answer was simpler than the one Lisa Maria Hogeland makes in her essay (though similar to it), and also less confident: the novel is told from that perspective, but it is never aligned with it, so we never make the mistake of rooting for Dix Steele. To a limited extent we understand him, perhaps, but unlike in morally much riskier and more complicated fiction (such as Adam Johnson’s disturbing and heartbreaking story “Dark Meadows”) we never sympathize with him. This point I’m pretty confident about–what I’m less sure about is whether that’s enough to make the novel in any sense a feminist one.

Hogeland’s argument (oversimplified) is that the result is a novel that is a powerful indictment of toxic masculinity, one that exposes the fundamental irrationality and violence of patriarchy as a system. Dix may be an extreme case, but, Hogeland rightly points out, over and over in the novel his normalcy is highlighted–the point is made repeatedly that the murderer looks ordinary, indistinguishable from other men. The strategy of showing that even “good” men belong to and benefit from an evil system is an old feminist one, and I think that’s a reasonably persuasive reading of the way Dix is characterized. It’s also true that the novel effectively prevents any shadow of blame from attaching to any of his victims, and, furthermore, that it mostly avoids sensationalizing their suffering and death.

Though I don’t dispute Hogeland’s interpretation, I did notice that she seems aware she’s working a bit hard to make the case. She attributes the challenge to Hughes’s subtlety: for instance,

Love, jealousy, and the need to stalk and kill are all knitted together here, and Hughes’s skill is that she does it so subtly, in a way that never flags it overtly as a critique, yet critique it is. Hughes takes us inside Dix’s misogyny in order to explicate how that misogyny is the very foundation of his heterosexual masculinity, and in order to critique the misogyny she depicts.

 I said my answer to the “but how can this be feminist?” question wasn’t as confident as hers, and I think this is why: at least for me, on my first reading, In A Lonely Place seemed like a book we could interpret in that way, but also as one that could reasonably be experienced very differently–not as a celebration of violent misogyny (because it doesn’t take long for us to be perfectly clear that Dix is a dreadful, terrifying specimen), but as entertainment based (in a fairly familiar way) on violent misogyny. A lot of its suspense is built around the possibility of his next crime, for instance; every woman we meet we fear is a potential victim; there is the usual cat-and-mouse excitement around who knows what and when, or if, he will be caught. There are not, in fact, across the novel, any other men clearly placed on the spectrum of male aggression: sticking so closely and cleverly to his perspective ultimately makes it hard to see him as anything but exceptional, a lone wolf rather than a representative of systemic oppression.

Of course, that’s the artistic tightrope of unreliable narrators–which Dix very nearly is, so close is Hughes’s third-person point of view–as well as of any attempt to render the point of view of someone morally objectionable. I wonder if I would find the “it’s a cleverly disguised critique of itself” argument more overwhelmingly convincing if in fact Dix were the narrator, though I suppose that might only collapse even further the distinction between his twisted psyche and the social systems he works within. But (as I often argue about unreliable narrators, such as Stevens in The Remains of the Day, or for that matter much more blunt instruments such as any of Poe’s macabre personae) the success of unreliable narration depends on gradually developing an alternative version of the story that becomes every bit as clear as the one we are being overtly told: a unmistakable gap opens between the narrator’s theory of the facts and ours. I’m not saying there isn’t a gap between Dix’s story and ours, but are the alternatives as sophisticated as Hogeland suggests? Maybe it’s just because I’m new to In A Lonely Place (and because I also focus on critiques of masculinity when I read and teach other hard-boiled fiction, such as The Maltese Falcon) that it didn’t seem to up-end noir or hard-boiled conventions as much as all that.

Whether or not it’s a “feminist” novel, it’s definitely a stylish thriller, meaning not just the plot and but also the prose:

Fear wasn’t a jagged split of light cleaving you; fear wasn’t a cold fist in your entrails; fear wasn’t something you could face and demolish with your arrogance. Fear was the fog, creeping about you, winding its tendrils about you, seeping into your pores and flesh and bone. Fear was a girl whispering a word over and again, a small word you refused to hear although the whisper was a scream in your ears, a dreadful scream you could never forget. You heard it over and again and the fog was a ripe red veil you could not tear away from your eyes.

That’s good stuff, and chilling–and also, maybe, both taking and giving a bit too much pleasure in that poor girl’s terror.

Broken: Katherena Vermette, The Break

We have all been broken in one way or another.

I probably wouldn’t label Katherena Vermette’s The Break as “crime fiction,” but it’s a good example of the difficulty and, at some level, the inutility or pointlessness of genre distinctions. It is certainly a novel organized around a single crime, and its plot includes an investigation into “whodunit” and why: its revelations involve social, political, and personal issues far more deep and complicated than we expect from, say, one of Agatha Christie’s puzzlers, but that just means if it is crime fiction it is in a different tradition than hers–there are a lot of genre writers, after all, whose plots are about social justice as much as individual cases.

I was thinking about this question of labels and categories because reading The Break I found myself wondering if it would be appropriate to assign it in the class I teach on “mystery and detective fiction.” I kept thinking how well it lends itself to the basic interpretive approach we often take: looking at the central crime as a symptom of whatever is wrong or broken in the world of the novel, and then at its investigation and (when it happens) its solution as the novel’s proposal for what it would take to fix things–to end up with what, on the novel’s terms, looks like justice. We often focus on who helps and who hinders the investigation, and about who is and who isn’t able to solve the crime: in a lot of the books we read, paying attention to these basic elements of the plot reveals patterns about who is or isn’t listened to, who does or doesn’t have authority or power–thematic patterns that usually turn out to reflect whatever moral rot or societal failure has led to the crime.

The crime at the heart of The Break can definitely be read in this “symptomatic” way. Though on one level it is a vicious act by a particular person, the novel sets it in a wider context of prejudice, hardship, and (sometimes worst of all) callous indifference that, while not mitigating at all the horror of the violence or removing the perpetrator’s specific culpability, still complicates our response, both to her individually and to the situation as a whole. It is easy enough, in the story Vermette has constructed, to lay the blame for the specific attack that sets the novel’s parts in motion. It is much harder, by the end of the book, to imagine that locking up one lost soul will actually do much to create a safer, happier, more just world for any of the people whose stories we’ve been following.  So much is wrong: there is so much tragedy, some of it at the same level of explicit violence, but a lot of it more subtle, pervasive, and elusive. The Break is the only fiction listed as a resource on the website for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls: as that suggests, it is about historic and systemic problems. But as it effectively dramatizes, these are always intractably personal problems as well.

Formally, The Break is well structured to show that reciprocity between systemic problems and individual lives. Its interlocking voices carry our attention outwards from the precipitating incident, but also always keep us connected to it, so that we don’t think about it by itself but as part of a web of relationships and circumstances. The only one of these voices that I found a bit strained was the one that actually opens the book, which recurs as a framing device: by the end of the novel I could appreciate better that it reflects a belief in continued presence where my own beliefs would allow only absence. This kind of spiritual continuity is one source of strength for the characters in The Break. Another is their strong family ties, and particularly, conspicuously, the ties between them as women: it is striking how peripheral the male characters seem, even when they are loved and cherished by the novel’s women–“all these women,” as one of the police officers observes, “holding each other up.”

The Break is both polished and gripping, and it avoids seeming like fiction written solely “with a purpose,” though at the same time it clearly has one and, I think, fulfills it: to put it in clichéd but apt terms, Vermette puts human faces on a problem that remains a remote abstraction for too many Canadians. I had actually hesitated to pick up The Break because it was a contender in Canada Reads this year. I find the rhetoric of Canada Reads off-putting: too often, the program seems to approach literature as medicine rather than art, urging us to read what is good for us (“one book is chosen as the title the whole country should read”). I’m glad I paid attention to what other readers I know were saying about it, though, and gave it a chance. It probably was good for me, and it’s also a good novel.

Update: Kerry Clare pointed me to this really interesting and useful review by Carleigh Baker. I didn’t realize (because I hadn’t previously read any other reviews of The Break) that the genre question has come up a lot already — though it obviously makes perfect sense to me that it has. I was surprised by this objection to considering the novel as crime fiction:

This brings up another issue with the critical treatment of The Break. It has already been considered by reviewers as a whodunit mystery and a police procedural, which unfortunately takes the work completely out of context. It is, in fact, a powerful indictment of the real-life police investigation of crimes involving indigenous victims in Winnipeg, both female and male.

This seems to presuppose that mysteries routinely take the side of the police, or at any rate that within the genre you won’t find a critique or even an “indictment” of official law enforcement. I would say that even within the subgenre of police procedurals you can find plenty of skepticism about how just and accountable the police are (think of The Terrorists, for instance, which pretty directly proposes that the police themselves deserve that label), but also many series feature amateur sleuths or private investigators working outside the state system precisely because they want to raise doubts about the capacity of of that system to address the real problems the books explore.

I wonder if the anxiety about (mis)labeling The Break as crime fiction is a self-perpetuating assumption that crime fiction isn’t taken seriously so the issues the novel focuses on won’t get the serious consideration they deserve if that’s what people think it is. A possible counter-argument is that (as mystery writers concerned with social justice issues are well aware) you can often reach a wider audience with your political concerns if you package them as genre fiction.

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