Recent Reading: Ghosts (or Not)

It was an interesting experience reading Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger and Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry one after the other. Both are well-written, original books by consummate story-tellers. Both invite us to imagine a lot of “what if” questions about our world, particularly about whether there’s more to it than we can see, whether we (at least some of us) live in it longer than our physical bodies do, and whether those remnants (call them supernatural, or spiritual, or perhaps metaphysical), if they are around us, might be trying to tell us something. Both seem self-conscious about their Gothic inheritance; both treat that legacy somewhat playfully, Waters, as in Fingersmith, showing herself especially deft at the evocative use of intertextuality (of course the peeling wallpaper in the house is yellow, for instance). The similarities seem to me to end there, however, except that in my estimation at least, both books also have in common that they are good but not great.

The Little Stranger is certainly the more ambitious of the two novels. Like Waters’s other period pieces, it is conspicuously researched without being tediously expository; she has the enviable knack of weaving in historical details (in this case, about life in Britain in the post-war years) as if they belong to the immediate perspective of the characters rather than the retrospective discovery of the author (or reader). She’s also extraordinarily sure-footed with dialogue, not just in creating voices for her characters but, again, in sustaining a faintly outdated tone that nonetheless feels completely modern: yes, people use words like “bloke” and “chum,” but not too often, and often enough with their own sense of irony at play, so that we can sustain our connection with them without losing our self-conscious historical distance. I’ve read a couple of historical novels recently that I thought really struggled with how to make their people sound. I think Waters grasps the important principle that people who might have spoken in what, to us, would be an archaic idiom, in their own moment were wholly contemporary and idiomatic, and she avoids the hazard of attempting versions of Olde Englishe or, equally annoying, having everyone speak with extreme formality, as if slang hadn’t been invented yet and wearing corsets (or the post-war equivalents) meant you actually were uptight all the time. She’s an excellent plotter, of course, too, and The Little Stranger is suspenseful without relying on cheap thrills. I think one way in which her expertise in 19th-century fiction has influenced her as a novelist is in convincing her that a good story can be the basis for a serious, intelligent, and subtle novel–can be literary, in other words.

So for all those reasons, I enjoyed The Little Stranger. But . . . I was also a bit disappointed in it by the end. It is not quite as well written as Fingersmith or The Night Watch, for one thing. It’s a bit prosy at times; the energy flags–or at least mine did, reading along (the long saga of the man with the burst appendix near the end, for instance). Of more significance, though (because after all, my own favourite novelist is extremely vulnerable to just that charge), is that I felt the novel did not exploit its ingredients as fully as Fingersmith does. There’s Dr. Faraday, for instance. As the novel went along I began really hoping there was more to him than there seemed to be. I could imagine a few pretty cool twists, either involving him more directly in the uncanny events at Hundreds Hall, or, from a more metafictional perspective, undermining our trust in his narration. The ambiguity or uncertainy on which the story turns–is it, can it be, a ghost, or at least some kind of a haunting, something “spawned from the troubled unconscious of someone connected with the house itself,” causing all the upsets, or do they all exist in the minds of the characters, or in his mind?–is not resolved, which is fine (that’s how uncanny things stay uncanny, right?). But our inability to know for sure ought to have mattered more: think The Turn of the Screw. Or his inability to know for sure should have been more of a problem. Instead, unless I missed some crucial detail, he is, throughout, the perfect foil for the more psychologically susceptible Ayres family, a medical man, a man of science, always ready with the skeptical explanation, always taking the practical steps. At the end he admits to being “troubled” by the details he couldn’t explain away, but there’s no weight to his wavering, though surely there should be: if he can even entertain the supernatural explanation, where are we left, in the battle between rational and irrational, natural and supernatural?

The other interpretive option, of course, is symbolic, and here’s where the book is at once smartest and dullest. Throughout, it’s made clear that Hundreds Hall represents a decaying way of life, one out of step with modernity and under threat from all sides as the estate loses money and the house quite literally falls apart. This is a fight the family cannot win, unless it can adapt, and under the pressure of time, or history, the Ayreses prove maladaptive. Faraday sees the family with a real, if faintly bitter, nostalgia, due in part to family connections (his mother was ‘in service’ at Hundreds Hall) and in part to his own consciousness of the changing times. He loves the house first, and the family, including his eventual fiancee, as much because of their home as for themselves, as Caroline protests at one point. He is in an interestingly conflicted position, then, representing, as a doctor, the forces of progress, but as a man, regret for the erosion of a certain idea of England. So far, great: we have everything we need to grasp that the mysterious events at Hundreds Hall, and their catastrophic consequences, are heavily freighted thematically. Why doesn’t Waters trust us enough to bring things to a crisis without then laying out our options, as she does at the very end? Faraday’s colleague Seeley offers the “defeated by history” theory; Faraday rehearses the “other, odder theory”; and then he concludes with his own perplexity, and the possibility that all he really saw in the old Hall was his own reflection–his desires, his longings. All of those options are activated effectively enough in the telling that it seemed inept to sum them up in this way. At the same time, though, I didn’t feel the novel had shown me clearly enough what difference it would make which option I (or Faraday) ultimately believed. What are the stakes in this interpretive decision, or indecision? (Also, how much cooler would it have been if Faraday turned out to have been scheming all along to somehow get the house for himself? I was really hoping–half expecting–that he would turn out to be quite, if not wholly, unreliable.)

Her Fearful Symmetry is a lighter book, morbid, perhaps, in its fascination with death and cemeteries, but not scary or even really poignant. It too is meticulously researched: one of my favourite aspects of it was all the lore about Highgate Cemetery. I had hoped to get out there on my recent trip to London and didn’t; next time, for sure. While Waters is working with the uncanny possibility that there are forces beyond our senses (or our control), Niffenegger takes a resolutely literal and definite stance on ghosts: there are such, and they ‘live’ (exist? operate?) according to fairly specific constraints and possibilities, which you have to accept without too much quibbling or you might as well stop reading. (One of my problems with this book, much as I enjoyed it, was that it kept reminding me of Ghost, in which Patrick Swayze struggles mightily to move pennies and so forth but somehow never, say, falls right through the floor. Niffenegger’s ghost also spends a lot of time learning how to concentrate her “energy” enough to have an impact on the material world. In case you’re wondering, her big breakthrough is discovering that dust is light enough for her to move. Fortunately, the piano is dusty so she can write messages there! For some reason, she can fit in a drawer or pass through walls but not leave the flat. No quibbles. Just accept it.)

I liked that Niffenegger is not sentimental, about either death or ghosts. There’s a bit of a twist near the end, for instance, that I really appreciated because it kept the ghost consistent with the highly imperfect and self-serving character she was when alive. There’s no heaven in this novel, no angels, no starry reunions with loved ones, no catering to wishful thinking about everything being all right at the, or past the, end (The Lovely Bones, anyone?). Even love is not treated sentimentally here. A couple of the most intense loving relationships are claustrophobic for those in them, one, in fact, literally so, as the wife of a man with severe OCD chafes against living with the windows papered over and most of the contents of their flat in boxes. Life, we come to see, is not always all it’s cracked up to be–not, that is, if death is a viable option. But death, too, has its drawbacks: it’s cold, and you can’t smell people, or feel them. The novel’s climax is built around a quirky version of a sensational plot involving switching identities (with two sets of twins in the case, I kind of saw that coming, though I admit I hadn’t anticipated quite how it would resolve) and body-snatching (sort of). Here too, as with The Little Stranger, I wanted people to be more devious than they turned out to be: as I’m trying not to give too much away, I’ll just say that I wish the whole thing had been planned more or less from the get-go. But I liked that Niffenegger avoids the saccharine ending that would justify all the cliches about loves that endure past death. Perhaps she wanted to write a kind of antidote to The Time-Traveller’s Wife.

So where’s the problem with this one? Well, basically, I thought it lacked ideas. My dissatisfaction with The Little Stranger was that, good as it was, I thought it could have been even better, because it was smart enough to do so much already. In this case, the story really is all. I realize that in some quarters it is considered ‘middlebrow’ to expect a novel to be about something. I’m not altogether afraid of being middlebrow, but I should be clear that I’m not regretting the lack of a didactic moral or a message. It’s just that there don’t seem to be any ideas under all the activity in the novel, except maybe that love is unpredictable and potentially dangerous, and that dead people can be selfish too (does that count as an idea if it deals with something as hypothetical as the emotional status of the dead?). Here Niffenegger has taken as her setting a site filled, literally, with many great literary figures, many of whom write with great creativity and insight about love and death. But Her Fearful Symmetry doesn’t raise questions about, for instance, who framed that symmetry and what intention or design we might thus infer from it. It doesn’t exploit the irony that sisterhood can be as constricting as saving, which it might have illustrated with some lines from “Goblin Market.” It doesn’t put up an idea about how death is constructed today to put up against its evocation of Victorian death, which it deals with so engagingly through its account of the development of Highgate Cemetery. It takes us to a wonderful little park full of plaques commemorating acts of ordinary heroism, but this illuminates (at most) our sense of the character who loved to picnic there, not a commitment to “unhistoric acts” as the real foundation of life after death, when we join “the choir invisible.” What, ultimately, is this book about, then? It’s about an inventive cast of characters (and I definitely give Niffenegger credit for making them interesting and vivid) and a “what if” scenario: what if, after death, your opportunities to interfere in the lives of others turns out not to be over? It’s very clever, but that’s not really enough.

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