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.

Recent Reading Roundup

Once again, you wouldn’t know it from this blog but I have been reading a lot! Quite a bit of it, though, has been for writing projects — including both reviews I know will be published elsewhere and essays I hope will find good homes. It’s not so much that I don’t want to “scoop” myself; it’s that I have some concerns about repeating myself, particularly if I say something here that I then wish I could put the exact same way somewhere else. Would it matter if I did? Probably not if it was just a phrase here and there, but it is still an inhibiting factor. If there’s just a bit of overlap, surely nobody would care, but it’s something that I do try to keep in mind.

Anyway, I can at least report on some of what I’ve been reading, and why, and (more minimally) with what results. Last week, for instance, I read Gillian Best’s The Last Wave, which is coming out from House of Anansi in August. My review will be in the fall issue of Canadian Notes and Queries (my review of Lesley Krueger’s Mad Richard is in the current issue). Spoiler: I really liked this novel a lot! It’s not formally adventurous, but it is a smart, well-written, and touching story about families and ambition and identity.

Today I finished reading Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, which I will be writing up for the July issue of Open Letters Monthly. My initial impression is that it didn’t quite live up to my expectations, or to the hype, but I thought it had a lot of good ingredients — both stylistically and thematically — so my task over the next few days is to articulate what I think they added up to. Sometimes during this process my estimation of a book rises: it can take a little time to discover or understand the kind of whole the parts make. This was certainly my experience with Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children, which I wrote about for Numero Cinq: I grew more interested as I thought more about it (and its ‘prequel,’ Bodies of Light).

I just reread Daphne Marlatt’s Ana Historic, a book that meant a great deal to me years ago when I was an undergraduate just discovering some of the questions it explores about women and history. Today some of the ideas Marlatt plays with seem much more commonplace than they did then, and there are other ways in which the book struck me as very much a product of its time (it was originally published in 1988), but it is still sharp and provocative and intensely evocative of B.C. I wrote a little bit about it at the very end of my monograph on 19th-century historical writing (1998), but I have never written about it since, and I would like to, with a bit of a personal angle about my own “awakening” as someone interested in feminism and historiography: this is one of the summer projects I have set myself, just because I want to do it.

Another rereading project is the complete Lymond Chronicles, which I have arranged to write about for the TLS on the occasion of the new editions being released this fall. I am both very excited and rather nervous about this project. For one thing, it is very odd reading books I have loved so passionately for so long with pencil in hand — one of my ambitions is not to let the reviewer get in the way of the lover too much, not to let the critic crush or even crowd out the fan. Of course, I also don’t want to just gush! I don’t have a lot of space, considering there are six long books in which a lot happens, so one of my biggest challenges will be choosing, from all the things I could say, which few things I will say. Although I do feel somewhat daunted at the prospect, I am absolutely loving having an excuse to reread the books.

Finally, last night, for no reason besides personal interest, I started reading Susan Bordo’s The Destruction of Hillary Clinton. I’m about two-thirds through and actually finding it a bit of a disappointment. It’s certainly lucid and, on its own terms, persuasive, but those terms are basically “here’s what the 2016 election looked like to a Hillary supporter.” Though of course I did not follow the election as closely as Bordo and also don’t have the background she does in following U.S. politics or Hillary’s career, what she describes is pretty much how it looked to me too; though the book goes over a lot of ground, it doesn’t seem to me to offer any particular revelations or any deep analysis. I think that’s deliberate (sometimes there’s more detail in footnotes, for instance, as if the aim was to keep the main narrative brisk and easy to go along with, which it is). It’s political commentary, which is fine, of course: I’m not really sure what else I expected.

I have been rereading Dunnett in the intervals I would usually be reading “just” for myself, to make sure I get through them in time and also because it’s such a treat! I do have a lot of books around that I want to get to, though. My book club will be meeting in a couple of weeks to discuss Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In the Castle, for one. I brought N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms back from the library yesterday on a whim: fantasy has never been my genre, but I was wondering if I might have learned something from watching Buffy about playing by different rules. And there’s my Vancouver book haul, most of which is still unread. Good thing it’s summer!

If At First You Don’t Succeed, Must You Try Again?

I’m trying to move on from my promotion debacle–honest! But I recently went another round with someone about whether I will, or should, reapply, one consequence of which is that I want to sort out my response (literal and emotional) to that question.

Since my final appeal was denied in November, I have actually had a version of this conversation fairly frequently. Usually, it reflects a friendly spirit of boosterism: it is supposed to make me feel better that people think I did deserve the promotion–and of course that is a nice thing to hear, and I do quite genuinely appreciate the expressions of support. Even so, I find these conversations stressful, because of their unspoken and (I assume) unintended implications, as well as some of the tacit assumptions behind them.

One plausible implication of pressing me to try again, for instance, is that getting promoted counts as professional success, and so until and unless it happens, I’m a professional failure. By some measures, this conclusion is obviously true, though it relies on rather circular logic. One of the hardest things about the whole process for me was precisely that I began it feeling proud of my accomplishments and ended it feeling like a failure. Pressure (however encouraging) to reapply makes me feel that way all over again, and reflects, I think, the general feeling among academics that of course we all want to achieve these professional milestones, which of course are meaningful indicators of the worth of our work.

For me, however, the pressure to reapply undermines the hard mental work I’ve been doing since last summer to distinguish my own standards for success from the standards against which I was measured by so many people involved in my promotion case. Regardless of what our regulations actually say, only very specific kinds of work were ultimately treated as eligible contributions to my discipline. Repeatedly and with conviction, I made the case for a more expansive and flexible definition of “scholarship,” but I was told in so many words that if I want professional advancement my body of work must conform in both kind and quantity to “past practice.” More than once I was told (as if to soften the blow of rejection) that my application was “premature”: the message was not, however, that eventually the quantity of my non-academic writing and other projects would meet the necessary (though nowhere specified) requirements, or that if I reached some higher (again, nowhere specified) level of achievement in my public writing, then my file would ripen into eligibility. Very specifically, I was told that I would deserve promotion if and only if I met the “usual” standard for peer reviewed publications.

I feel very strongly, however, that I should not allocate my time and expertise based solely on how my institution will reward me for it. That, to me, would be a poor use of my tenure, and of the academic freedom it secures for me. (Indeed, I think a case could be made that by insisting that if I want professional advancement I must work in one way and not in another–despite the university’s own regulations and the positive judgments of peers in my discipline–several levels of review at Dalhousie compromised, perhaps even violated, my academic freedom.) If I get nothing else positive out of this whole dreary experience, I hope that at least I have finally made my peace with the consequences of choosing to do critical work of a kind I find valuable, intellectually stimulating, and challenging, and that I have learned (or am learning) to stop seeking external validation for it–at least, not from Dalhousie. Instead, I am thinking hard about what success looks like on my terms and how best to achieve it. In this respect, applying again would be a real step backwards.

Another way of looking at my situation, of course, (and the way I’m sure my friends and colleagues intend when they urge me to reapply) is not that I am a failure but that the system failed me–but in that case, what do I have to gain by having another run at it,  except possibly vindication? If I’m not in fact a failure, why do I need to be promoted in order to carry on  precisely as I have been doing? This is a question I have spent a lot of time thinking about. I actually started asking this question even before my final appeal, which for a while I wasn’t 100% sure I would go through with. Why had I applied in the first place? What was in it for me, really? The professional payoff (including financial) is actually not significant–it’s mostly about pride and prestige–and there are even some down sides to it. I did think I had earned the promotion, and it is the usual next step for professors of a certain seniority, so part of my initial decision was just thinking that my time had come. But I also, I admit, had wanted to prove something, to myself and to some of the people around me. I wanted validation for the decisions I’d been making. I wanted my work to get an A! That’s an awfully hard habit to break–but, to reiterate my previous point, that’s exactly what this process has finally (I hope) managed to do for me.

I think my friendly boosters also don’t quite realize the time and the toll the process has already taken. I began compiling materials for my file in June 2015; the decision on my appeal arrived in November 2016. For nearly a year and a half, that is, I was frequently (and mostly negatively) preoccupied with it, including many hours in meetings, many more hours writing responses, rebuttals, and appeals, and many, many, more hours brooding–many of those hours lying unhappily awake while arguments and counter-arguments and what seemed like willful misrepresentations of my work went round and round in my head. Because so much of my social life is bound up in my departmental life, there has been significant fall-out. Some of my relationships, including with formerly close colleagues, have been irreparably damaged. I’m only just recovering my individual equilibrium, something that, as Timothy Burke aptly observes, isn’t easy to do, given the peculiar nature of academic culture. (That post of his has given me a lot to think about.) There’s absolutely no guarantee of smooth sailing if I opt to do this all again–so blithely urging me to press on seems a bit callous! Besides, I’m 50 now. How many of my remaining full-time years should I put into seeking approval from other people instead of just doing the work that matters to me?

For myself personally, then, applying again just does not seem worth the effort and the risk. I might change my mind, but it’s hard right now to imagine why. Another frequent component of these discussions, though, is that I owe it to other people to try again. It is often pointed out to me, for instance, that women are underrepresented in the higher ranks of the academy. I’m not sure my particular case has much to do with this general situation, and I’m not so far convinced that I should feel any special obligation because of it either.

I’m somewhat more persuaded by the argument that the kind of change or challenge to academic norms that I represent won’t happen unless people like me fight for and then use the influence that comes with seniority to turn advocacy into policy. But we have already changed our policies here at Dalhousie: it’s attitudes that haven’t changed–at least, not much. A lot of us were pretty excited about blogging for a while, but our more recent discussions showed a significant (and understandable) decline in optimism about that. Also, while there’s a lot of talk about “knowledge dissemination” and “public engagement,” it looks to me as if the trend is towards shaping that work into something recognizably academic and institutional–incorporating peer review into blogging, for instance, and establishing university programs and centers for things like the “public humanities,” rather than cheering on people who just go out there into the public sphere and participate in forms and discussions of different kinds. In this context, I’m not sure how much good I can do, individually, to instigate or support change, or at least why I have to put myself through another grueling round of extreme academic vetting in order to do it. It seems to me that I am doing as much good by persisting on my own, just trying to exemplify one of many alternative models.

“Never say never” is perfectly reasonable advice, and who knows how differently I will feel in the future, or what else might have changed in the world around me. For now, though, being promoted to full professor is simply no longer one of my goals.

YMMV: Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

It turns out I wasn’t entirely wrong to have avoided Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. A number of people recommended it to me after I posted last week about hoping that I can learn to approach my writing in the same spirit as I do my running: focused on my own goals and the intrinsic satisfaction of reaching them, without comparing myself to others, without feeling inadequate because I don’t run faster or further. I knew Murakami’s book was out there, but because I also knew that he ran marathons, I had figured it would probably provide just one more potentially demoralizing comparison of my own modest efforts to someone else’s much more impressive accomplishments.

To be honest, to some extent that was how I reacted to What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. The book made me feel a little bit defensive, a little bit apologetic, a little bit embarrassed not to be pushing myself harder and achieving more–not just as a runner, but as a writer. After all, it turns out Murakami doesn’t just run marathons: even when he’s not running in races, he runs for hours at a time, and in addition to marathons he also does triathlons. And, of course, he isn’t just an obscure writer puttering away, doing his best and trying to find satisfaction in that, but an internationally renowned, best-selling, prize-winning writer. Gee, thanks, everyone! As if my Salieri syndrome doesn’t flare up enough quite on its own.

That wasn’t the entirety of my response to Murakami’s book, though: there was also a lot about it that I liked. Above all there’s Murakami himself. I was amused and a bit touched by his remark that he thinks most people would not like his personality very much:

There might be a few–very few, I would imagine–who are impressed by it, but only rarely would anyone like it. Who in the world could possibly have warm feelings, or something like them, for a person who doesn’t compromise, who instead, whenever a problem crops up, locks himself away alone in a closet? . . . I just can’t picture someone liking me on a personal level. Being disliked by someone, hated and despised, somehow seems more natural.

Later in the book he describes his own “nature” as “individual, stubborn, uncooperative, often self-centered.” “I’ve carried this character around like an old suitcase,” he goes on,

down a long dusty path. I’m not carrying it because I like it. The contents are too heavy, and it looks crummy, fraying in spots. I’ve carried it with me because there was nothing else I was supposed to carry. Still, I guess I have grown attached to it. As you might expect.

Maybe it’s because I recognize something of myself in these descriptions that they didn’t alienate but rather charmed me. I also appreciated that his self-deprecation doesn’t come in the rather arch form that seems common in some kinds of personal essays these days but instead seemed (surprisingly, given his accomplishments) quite sincere. At one point he describes himself as a teenager staring at his naked body in a mirror and adding up all his (perceived) flaws. His evaluations of his own character here don’t seem immaturely judgmental, the way he now knows that earlier exercise was; it seems as if he has simply assessed himself as honestly and dispassionately as he can and learned to live with what he found.

In a similar way, he talks about both his running and his writing without flourish or posturing. There’s no false modesty, but also no braggadocio. Further, though he does talk a lot about training and personal bests, he never seems competitive against anyone but himself. He certainly has a different relationship to running than I do, an interest in pushing himself and seeing (literally but also metaphorically) how far he can go as a runner, but he does it because it suits him: for him, it’s a way of expressing himself, not proving anything. In fact, sometimes what he seeks and finds in running is humility: when he feels he has been “criticized unjustly,” for example, he runs “for a little longer than usual”:

By running longer it’s like I can physically exhaust that portion of my discontent. It also makes me realize again how weak I am, how limited my abilities are.

He also believes that for him, running enables writing. Keeping it up has been worth it for him not just for its immediate benefits but because “I like the novels I’ve written . . . and if running helps me accomplish this, then I’m very grateful to running.”

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is kind of a meandering book: it mixes some memoir with bits of travel writing, thoughts on music, a few practical notes on long-distance running, and some reflections on the writing process. One of the things I liked best about it is that just as I would be getting a bit impatient with details about training regiments or running shoes, Murakami would take a turn through some more metaphysical scenery. The insights he offers aren’t, I suppose, particularly profound or surprising, but he doesn’t present them as if they are: only as if he has thought about them, or they have become clearer to him, and so he’s sharing them. “Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits,” he says, for instance: “that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life–and for me, for writing as well.” Or,

For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself. At least that’s why I’ve put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level. I’m no great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary–or perhaps more like mediocre–level. But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday.

When he talks about writing more directly, he often emphasizes how difficult it is:

Writing itself is mental labor, but finishing an entire book is closer to manual labor. It doesn’t involve heavy lifting, running fast, or leaping high. Most people, though, only see the surface reality of writing and think of writers involved in quiet intellectual work done in their study. If you have the strength to lift a coffee cup, they figure, you can write a novel. But once you try your hand at it, you soon find that it isn’t as peaceful a job as it seems. The whole process–sitting at your desk, focusing your mind like a laser beam, imagining something out of a blank horizon, creating a story, selecting the right words, one by one, keeping the whole flow of the story on track–requires far more energy, over a long period, than most people realize. . . . Everybody uses their mind when they think. But a writer puts on an outfit called narrative and thinks with his entire being; and for the novelist that process requires putting into play all your physical reserve, often to the point of overexertion.

Implicit here is that he means this writer, this novelist, just as when he describes the routines he thinks are essential to success, such as “sit[ting] down every day at your desk and train[ing] yourself to focus on one point,” he means they worked for him. Your mileage may vary, he might have said, if he were offering this advice today! I don’t know if that’s how all novelists work, and since I’m no more likely to attempt a novel than I am a marathon (I think, anyway), I’ll probably never know if that’s what it would be like for me. What he describes is not totally different, though, from what it takes to do even the kind of writing I do, which also requires focus and effort, especially “selecting the right words, one by one.” His fundamental insight, too, is not so different from the one I arrived at in my own minor epiphany, though he seems to live it, while I still aspire to it:

What’s crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you’ve set for yourself. In this sense, writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike. Basically a writer has a quiet, inner motivation, and doesn’t seek validation in the outwardly visible.

Transgenerational Haunting: Adam Haslett, Imagine Me Gone

Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone is painful, even tragic, and yet it is also just funny and acerbic enough to keep it (or its readers) from becoming unbearably sad. In fact, I thought there was something oddly bracing about it. That’s partly because I thought it was so well done, artistically and formally, but it’s also because the novel balances its devastating portrayal of depression and anxiety with its persistent faith in basic human kindness and, especially, family love. Haslett doesn’t oversimplify the challenge of severe mental illness — not just for the people living with it, but for the people living with them, whose lives are also inevitably changed by its presence. He also doesn’t romanticize it, or offer the faux consolation of silver linings: nobody is redeemed by it, it doesn’t bring anybody transcendence or special wisdom. It just is–for everyone involved.

That’s the paradox that’s at the heart of Imagine Me Gone, really: that our connections to each other are the source of so much of what is both good and bad in our lives. At the same time, the novel powerful conveys the intractable isolation someone like its protagonist Michael — brilliant but ultimately unable to find either stability or happiness — feels, especially when faced with people who love him but cannot understand him, who can’t give up on the idea that somehow, if they just do the right thing, they can fix him, make him like them. Their love becomes its own kind of burden, because it shades into denial. It takes Michael’s brother Alec almost the whole book (almost the whole of Michael’s life) to grasp this. “I hadn’t been listening,” he finally realizes:

not for years. I’d wanted him to be better for so long that I had stopped hearing him tell me he was sick. For the first time I saw him now as a man, not a member of a family. A separate person, who had been trying as hard as he could for most of his life simply to get by.

Michael’s illness cannot be willed away, stared down with stoicism, or held at bay by distractions or the pretense of normalcy — though even as he brings out the error, indeed the danger, of approaching it this way, Haslett is also very critical of medicalized approaches that consist largely of throwing more and more pills Michael’s way.

I did wonder, by the end of the novel, whether it goes too far in showing depression as a death sentence, not once but twice. It would be possible to interpret the novel as dangerously defeatist about mental illness. Michael’s father John calls it “the beast”; to him, suicide is ultimately his only way of defeating it:

I’ve come here so often trying to escape this monster. But now it is the one sapped, and limping. And I am the hunter. In the clearing overlooking the bend in the river, we come to a halt. . . .

Invisibility. That is its last defense. That I won’t have the courage to look it in the eye. You wretch! it cries, desperate for its life. You selfish wretch! Leaving them with nothing! But it is no good. It is my prey now.

Of course, this passage is from John’s point of view: Imagine Me Gone is not itself proposing that death is the way to triumph over depression, and Michael’s death (like his illness itself)–though inevitably associated with his father’s–has a different character entirely. This is a novel about these particular imagined people and their disease: it doesn’t claim to be a manual about depression or anxiety in any broader sense (though at least to me, as a non-expert, it seemed to have been not just deeply imagined but also carefully researched, in support of its meticulous and convincing accounts of symptoms and treatments). As with my reading of Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows, I was distracted a bit here by reflections on my own experience of a similar situation, through which I learned a lot about how intractable and complicated depression can be and how variously individually people experience it. Naturally, this novel does not tell my (or my friend’s) story. There are many people who (to borrow John’s metaphor) do tame the beast, whose mental illness is a chronic rather than terminal condition–but Haslett has no obligation to provide “balance” by incorporating them as well. It’s just interesting to think about the implications of the stories he did choose to tell.

Another thought-provoking aspect of Imagine Me Gone was the kinship Michael identifies between the family history of mental illness that so shapes his own individual story and the blight of slavery as foundational to America’s history. Michael is preoccupied with reparations, which for him represent a political and moral necessity that is impossible for him to separate entirely from his own tormenting belief that he is to blame for his father’s suicide. How can you right the wrongs of the past? How can you endure and survive your inheritance of suffering?

Michael becomes preoccupied with the concept of “transgenerational haunting,” which he learns about from a psychological study of “black teenagers with recurring nightmares of slavery”:

Some dreamt of being confined to the holds of ships amid the withered and dying, others of being publicly stripped and lashed. One boy, who evinced no particular knowledge of black history, had a recurring nightmare that he was being hung from a lamppost and dismembered.

The author of the study finds no pattern of “stories of enslavement among ancestors” of these “kids from the north of England.” Why would this be the stuff of their nightmares? Where did the visions come from? Michael finds his answer in “an observation that the author himself made little of”: all the boys were avid listeners to “black American dance tracks”:

No one doubted that the agony of slavery haunted generations of spirituals and gospel. Why not the latest twelve-inch? These boys weren’t listening to Mahalia Jackson sing about how she got over, but somewhere in the cut the same ghosts were being shaken loose.

Music is Michael’s passion (the sections of the novel that are in his voice nearly overwhelm with manic neepery on this topic, which, while true to his character, did become a bit tedious for me), so this sets up his own sense of being similarly haunted. He feels strongly his own complicity in racial injustice: “I owe,” he says,

The inalienable privilege of my race to the victims of the Middle Passage, a debt whose repayment has proven tricky to schedule, given the endless deferments, if not forbearances, and the way that the blood of slavery tends to run clear in the tears of liberals.

More than this, though, he feels haunted himself by the horrors of the Atlantic crossings–by, for instance, the story of the Joaquin, a slave ship on which “270 of the original 300” captives died. He is careful to disavow too close an analogy between his experience and theirs, and yet in ways he can hardly understand or articulate, he feels that the story of the Joaquin is somehow his own as well:

The fact is that when I read the story of the Joaquin, I feel understood. Not in any literal sense–the comparison of my dread to theirs would be grotesque–but in the unrelenting terror, in that schism of the mind. Which is how I know now that the dead generations don’t haunt down tidy racial lines, as if there were such a thing. The psychosis is shared. I was born into the fantasy of its supremacy. Others are born into the fantasy’s cost. But the source of the violence is the same. The work I do is for no one’s sake but my own.

Michael’s preoccupation with slavery adds a political layer to the poignant personal story that Imagine Me Gone, on its surface, seems to be. What is the implication of yoking these two kinds of hauntings together in this way–of linking a family history of one kind of trauma to a national history founded on another kind? I found myself thinking about this in terms of genre. Haslett’s novel is not overtly the same kind of book as Jane Smiley’s Last 100 Years trilogy, in which the unfolding family history is clearly tied to the story of America as a nation. But in its own way it may be doing something similar in connecting private and public life, or individual to “world-historical” events. Through Michael, Haslett characterizes slavery as America’s inherited disease, one with symptoms every bit as complex and destructive in American life as John’s or Michael’s illnesses are for them and their family.

The obvious conclusion to this extended analogy is that the nation cannot heal unless it too can find some way to treat its transgenerational haunting. Here too I don’t think Imagine Me Gone holds out much reassurance. Before John’s death, Michael suffers a menacing premonition, a vision in which “flayed bodies swarmed in front of me in a bloody contorted mass.” The horror drives him away from his family; his flight to safety, “without ever warning them,” is the immediate source of his own guilt. Is his inability to survive the life that flows from this selfish act a gloomy prediction about America’s future? Or does a note of hope prevail in the persistent efforts of those who love John and Michael? I’d like to think the latter is true. Certainly that’s where Imagine Me Gone ends: quietly invoking the remarkable optimism and tenderness of love as it faces an unknowable future.

Recent Comments

I recently took the widely recommended step of securing a “domain of my own” and I am gradually consolidating my online content there, including Novel Readings. I’m posting at both locations for now, but I have disabled comments at this location. You can leave comments on my new site; you may want to update your RSS feeds to follow me from there.

Blog Archive

Categories

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 85 other subscribers

Comments Policy

Comments that contribute civilly and constructively to discussion of the topics raised on this blog, from any point of view, are welcome. Comments that are not civil or constructive will be deleted.

All entries copyright Rohan Maitzen. If you use material from this blog, please give proper credit to the author.