A Series of Unfortunate Events

I – The Bad Beginning

II – The Reptile Room

III – The Wide Window

By Lemony Snicket

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“If you are interested in reading a story filled with thrillingly good times, I am sorry to inform you that you are most certainly reading the wrong book, because the Baudelaires experience very few good times over the course of their gloomy and miserable lives.  It is a terrible thing, their misfortune, so terrible that I can scarcely bring myself to write about it.  So if you do not want to read a story of tragedy and sadness, this is your very last chance to put this book down, because the misery of the Baudelaire orphans begins in the very next paragraph.” (‘The Wide Window‘, p. 2)

Children’s stories should be twisted.

I believed this when I was a child, and I believe it now: children’s stories should be dark, and troubling.  They should deal with the frightening and dismal, the grotesque and the foul.  Children have a need for this subject matter, and a particular aptitude for it.  They inhabit a world full of menace over which they have no control, and their literature must help them confront and name this.  Children’s literature which ignores the monsters that lurk in the night is pointless and, worse, insulting.  I love, and have always loved, the books for children which belly up to the reality of a world of which death and terror are immutable characteristics.

And children themselves are not at all the precious, immaculate angels that forgetful adults like to imagine.  The same troubles obsess them that obsess us: death, destruction, mutilation and violence.  They are creepy little beings who, like adults, need literature to speak to them as they are, and not as we wish them to be.

Trouble BeginsBy this measure, willingness to tell darkness plainly, Lemony Snicket’s ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events‘ might be the finest children’s books ever written.  They tell the story of the three Baudelaire children, Violent (age 14), Klaus (“a little older than twelve”), and Sunny (age 1).  The children of loving and wealthy parents, the Baudelaires are orphaned one day in a fire which destroys their family and their home, and put into the temporary care of Mr. Poe, a well-meaning banker and the executor of their parents’ will.

“”Your parents,” Mr. Poe said, “have perished in a terrible fire.”

The children didn’t say anything.

“They perished,” Mr. Poe said, “in a fire that destroyed the entire house.  I’m very, very sorry to tell you this, my dears.”

Violet took her eyes off Mr. Poe and stared out at the ocean.  Mr. Poe had never called the Baudelaire children “my dears” before.  She understood the words he was saying but thought he must be joking, playing a terrible joke on her and her brother and sister.

“Perished,” Mr Poe said, “means ‘killed.'””(‘The Bad Beginning‘, p. 8)

Count Olaf.jpg
Count Olaf’s shiny eyes.

That will states that they should be raised by a “relative”, and the relative that Mr. Poe first chooses is, disastrously for the Baudelaire orphans, one Count Olaf, a stage actor and thorough-going villain, whose only intention is to acquire the Baudelaire fortune for himself.  When his first plan, to force Violet into an under-age marriage and thus take possession of her inheritance, fails, Olaf goes on the lam.  In each successive book, he will hunt down the children, murder their new guardian, and attempt once again to seize their money.

The leeches by whom Aunt Josephine is devoured

And these are not mild, child-friendly deaths.  They are grisly, terrible ends, often coming to characters to whom the reader has become attached, like Uncle Monty, who is injected with snake venom, or Aunt Josephine, who is fed to carnivorous leeches.  Although the orphans themselves are not killed, they are subjected to terrible threats and ordeals, such as being imprisoned in a birdcage and dangled from an open window, or held at knife point, or forced to eat food to which they are allergic.  These children suffer.

I have a good reason for endorsing darkness in children’s books – I’m not just a terrible, child-hating sadist.  The world is a large and frightening place, full of dangers, and children are particularly vulnerable.  They are small, and naive, and powerless within the systems which govern human lives.  Children’s literature should prepare them for this, warn them about danger, and give them a way of understanding misfortune.  The sorrows of good children’s books have morals.

And the moral of ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events‘ is: Do not trust adults.  Count on your wits; count on each other.  Read, think, be brave, because no one is coming to save you.    Don’t count on adults.  They will fail you, either through corruption, or incompetence, or mortality.  Even the kind ones, the well-meaning ones, will not be able to save you when wickedness comes.  And wickedness will always come.

What a great moral!

One of the measures of a really good book is whether it can get you wound up even if you know what’s going to happen.  Each of the ‘Series of Unfortunate Events‘ that I have read so far (The Trouble Begins) adheres to a basic formula: meet a new guardian, lose the guardian to Count Olaf, escape Olaf’s clutches at the very last.

Zombie Snowman.jpgBut, despite my perfect certainty about what was going to happen, I found myself getting emotional, angry and scared, during each book.  Partly, this is because the consistent failure of the adults around the Baudelaires is hard to read about.  Each time that the children identify Count Olaf in disguise, and each time they are disregarded by their caretakers, you suffer with them a little.  You feel the rage of the child; you do not sympathize with the adults.  And the structures which bind them, like the law, like their parents’ will, which were designed to keep them safe, instead trap them and their guardians again and again.  These books are the best indictment of adulthood I’ve ever seen.

Most importantly, though: they are funny.  They are really funny, and weird.  They are studded all over with strange asides and examples, presented in the wry voice of an unknown narrator.

“Unless you are a lawyer, it will probably strike you as odd that Count Olaf’s plan was defeated by Violet signing with her left hand instead of her right.  But the law is an odd thing.  For instance, one country in Europe has a law that requires all its bakers to sell bread at the exact same price.  A certain island has a law that forbids anyone from removing its fruit.  And a town not too far from where you live has a law that bars me from coming within five miles of its border.” (‘The Bad Beginning‘, p. 153)


“Dramatic irony is a cruel occurrence, one that is almost always upsetting, and I’m sorry to have it appear in this story, but Violet, Klaus, and Sunny have such unfortunate lives that it was only a matter of time before dramatic irony would rear its ugly head.

As you and I listen to Uncle Monty tell the three Baudelaire orphans that no harm will ever come to them in the Reptile Room, we should be experiencing the strange feeling that accompanies the arrival of dramatic irony.  This feeling is not unlike the sinking in one’s stomach when one is in an elevator that suddenly goes down, or when you are snug in bed and your closet door suddenly creaks open to reveal the person who has been hiding there.  For no matter how safe and happy the three children felt, no matter how comforting Uncle Monty’s words were, you and I know that soon Uncle Monty will be dead and the Baudelaires will be miserable once again.” (‘The Reptile Room‘, p. 32)

I loved these books.  I wish they had existed when I was a kid – I would have loved them then, too.  Dark, funny, weird: these are hard things to do well in children’s literature.  To do all three well at once is remarkable.

Homage to Daniel Shays

Collected Essays

By Gore Vidal

Homage to Daniel ShaysSome writers possess a quality which, as you read them, makes you long more than anything else to speak to them.

This is not the same as admiring them.  These will not necessarily be your favorite writers, or the writers of your favorite books.  These are writers who shine through their own words, whose force of personality is so clear and so strong that they essentially read their own books to you.  Grappling with them is so like being talked to by them that you want, sometimes quite desperately, to be able to answer.

Sometimes, of course, you do admire them.  Sometimes they are funny, or good – for me personally, David Foster Wallace has always had this distinction.  He is never far from his own work, even his fiction, and when I read him, I always wish I could just put the book down and query directly the mind which produced it.

But sometimes the writers are not admirable, not as a men at least, no matter their skills as writers.  Sometimes they are arrogant, or supercilious, off-putting in some way, and your desire to speak to them is essentially antagonistic: you want to be able to argue back.

And sometimes they are both: vain, haughty, but brilliant too, and if an author can win you over in this case, if their brilliance overwhelms their obnoxiousness, they are among the most joyful authors to read, because you feel as though you are indulging in a guilty pleasure: I know he’s an ass, but he’s just so good.

Gore VIdal
Gore Vidal when he was young and dreamy

H.L. Mencken is this sort of author.  Christopher Hitchens is this sort of author.  But, for me personally, the apotheosis of this category, writers whom you read for the sheer joy of agreeing with their meanness, is Gore Vidal.

Homage to Daniel Shays‘ is a collection of Vidal’s essays, published between 1952 and 1972.  These essays range enormously in content, but themes emerge: the future of the novel, other writers, politics, and sex all recur with some frequency.  Most of the essays are engaging and educating; a few are excruciatingly boring (‘French Letters: Theories of the New Novel’ is torture in written form).

Vidal is probably best remembered as a novelist (he certainly thought of himself as one), but I love him for his essays, his criticisms and his cultural commentary (he is a little like Orwell this way: remembered as a novelist, loved as a critic).  He had an excellent mind; he was brilliant, capable, especially, of summing up people or situations with devastating clarity and pith.

It’s rare that self-important men are also funny; he is an exception to this rule.  He is hilarious, usually in attack but not always.  He is crisp and can cut through hypocrisy as through butter.  More than that, the topic of the essay does not predict when humor will strike, so his wit is both amusing and surprising.  In fact, he is likelier to be funny on unfunny topics (‘Satire in the 1950’s’) than in essays in which one expects jokes (say, ‘Love Love Love’), which makes for lively reading.

“Every schoolboy has a pretty good idea of what the situation was down at Sodom but what went on in Gommorah is as mysterious to us as the name Achilles took when he went among women.” (‘Women’s Liberation Meets Miller-Mailer-Manson Man’)

“From the beginning of the United States, writers of a certain kind, and not all bad, have been bursting with some terrible truth that they can never quite articulate.  Most often it has to do with the virtue of feeling as opposed to the vice of thinking.  Those who try to think out matters are arid, sterile, anti-life, while those who float about in a daffy daze enjoy copious orgasms and the happy knowledge that they are the salt of the earth.” (‘The Sexus of Henry Miller’)

“A profound tolerance is in the land, a tolerance so profound that is it not unlike terror.  One dare not raise one’s voice against any religion, idea, or even delinquency if it is explicable by a therapist.” (‘Satire in the 1950’s’)

“It is well known that the Soviet has always had a somewhat mystical attitude toward that sine qua non of the machine age: the interchangeable part.” (‘Nasser’s Egypt’)

A large proportion of these essays are reviews of other works, and thank god: one of the best joys to be had in this collection, from the point of view of a book nerd, is reading Vidal’s opinions of other writers.  He is capable of summing up other artists in lethal epigrams which leave them not even a shred of dignity, but which are also inarguably (to my mind, at least) true.

About D.H. Lawrence:

“I have often thought that much of D.H. Lawrence’s self-lacerating hysteria toward the end of his life must have come from some “blood knowledge” that the cruel priapic god was mad, bad, and dangerous to know, and, finally, not even a palliative to the universal strangeness.” (‘Norman Mailer’s Self-Advertisements’)

About Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh:

“Then there are the writers to whom neither sea nor boat exists.  They have accepted some huge fantasy wherein they need never drown, where death is life, and the doings of human beings on a social and ethical level are of much consequence to some brooding source of creation who dispenses his justice along strictly party lines at the end of a gloomy day.” (‘Novelists and Critics of the 1940’s’)

About F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“…F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose chief attraction is that he exploded before he could be great, providing a grim lesson in failure that, in its completeness, must be awfully heartening when contemplated on the safe green campus of some secluded school.” (‘Novelists and Critics of the 1940’s’)

About Anaïs Nin:

“There are two kinds of narcissist: objective and subjective.  The objective looks into the mirror and sees the lines, sees death upon the brow, and records it.  The subjective stares with rapture into the mirror, sees a vision no one else can see and, if he lacks great art, fails entirely to communicate it.” (‘The Fourth Diary of Anaïs Nin’)

Old Gore Vidal
Gore Vidal when he was older and still dreamy

Of course, an author’s greatness lies not just in language, but also in ideas.  Meanness aside, it slowly emerges from these pages that Vidal was also wise, and when he turns his mind from the petty to the existential, he produces material which is beautiful.  In these moments, his writing is so artful, so skillful and elegant, that I would stop and reread the same sentence several times, trying to understand exactly how he did it.  A few of the passages in this book, I could die happy if I had written even one of them:

“While it is perfectly true that any instant in human history is one of transition, ours more than most seems to be marked by a startling variety of conflicting absolutes, none sufficiently great at this moment to impose itself upon the majority whose lives are acted out within an unhuman universe which some still prefer to fill with a vast manlike shadow containing stars, while others behold only a luminous dust which is stars, and us as well.” (‘Novelists and Critics of the 1940’s’)

“It is natural for men to want power.  But to seek power actively takes a temperament baffling to both the simple and the wise.” (‘Barry Goldwater: A Chat’)

“Nor is it unnatural when contemplating extinction to want, in sudden raging moments, to take the light with one.  But it is a sign of wisdom to recognize one’s own pettiness and not only to surrender vanity to death, which means to take it anyway, but to do so with deliberate grace as exemplar to the young upon whom our race’s fragile continuity, which is all there is, depends.  I should have thought that that was why one wrote – to make something useful for the survivors, to say: I was and now you are, and leave you as good a map as I could make of my own traveling.” (‘John Dos Passos at Midcentury’)

“And those who take solemnly the words of other men as absolute are, in the deepest sense, maiming their own sensibilities and controverting the evidence of their own senses in a fashion which may be comforting to the terrified man but disastrous for an artist.” (‘Norman Mailer’s Self-Advertisements’)

You may not always agree with his conclusions (I didn’t), but he’s never, ever stupid, and he turns his critical eye on himself not infrequently.  In these essays, Vidal proves to be ahead of his time on many of issues which remain contentious today: feminism, gay rights, taxes, personal liberty, the military-industrial complex, the intelligence of the electorate.  I wish he were still here – he died in 2012, before I had really discovered him as a writer, and I wish that I had been quicker off the mark.  I need his eye now, to help me understand the world, as I need George Orwell’s.  In fact, this is the highest complement I can give a writer: I am lost without you.

But he’s gone, can’t be questioned, so all I can do is go back with him, rewind the tape, and watch his world through his eyes.

The Interrogative Mood

A Novel?

By Padgett Powell

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Some ideas sound better than they are.  I think we’ve all encountered this: some concepts, full of promise, fail in execution.

And some ideas are exactly the opposite: terrible sounding, but weirdly great in reality.  Sometimes, a premise which promises to be awful when described turns out to be persuasive in practice.

The Interrogative MoodThe Interrogative Mood‘ is a ‘novel’ composed entirely of questions.

And I do not mean that it is a novel with a plot which is expressed entirely in questions: Why did Jane choose today to go to the store?  If she had not, would she have ever seen Dick again?  And why, today, did she find him so oddly attractive?

The Interrogative Mood‘ is a “novel” only in so far as it imparts no factual information to the reader, and makes no argument.  It is, in fact, 164 pages of disjointed and unanswered questions.  It sounds like a terrible ordeal, but it is so much fun to read.

I am, in practice if not in principle, very much against novels which experiment with form.  I understand that artists must extend the boundaries of the possible, but I’m something of a traditionalist where literature is concerned.  I would not have picked up ‘The Interrogative Mood‘ for the world if it had not been for the recommendation of Nick Hornby, Traditional Novelist, who spoke highly enough of it in ‘Ten Years in the Tub‘ (a great source of book recommendations, by the way) that I decided to try it.

I loved it.

Padgett Powell

It was a crazy fun read.  I read it all the way through, as though it were a traditional novel, but, really, one needn’t.  The questions are strange and funny and serious.  Some are mundane and some are simple and some are specific and some are convoluted.  Some are obvious and unmemorable, but some are laugh-out-loud funny and many, to borrow a regrettable and hackneyed expression, will make you think.

Some are odd, precise and beguiling:

“Do you quite credit that there are burrowing owls?” (p. 13)

Some are wise:

“Is it fair to say that the world comprises those who are politicians, those who are movie stars, those who get by, and criminals?” (p. 157)

Some are really just little vignette’s of the quirky way Padgett Powell’s mind works:

“If Jimi Hendrix walked into your room and said, ‘Sit tight there, popo, I shall play you one’ and affected to get out his guitar, what would you do?  Would you say, ‘Wait, Jimi.  You’re dead lo these forty years,’ or ‘Wait, Jimi, let me call up a friend or two – not a big party, mind you, but this is a special thing for me and I want to share it with others if it’s okay with you – is that all right?’ or ‘God, no, Mr. Hendrix, that shit would split my head open right now,’ or ‘Lay some weed on me before you rip it, bro,’ or ‘Okay, Jimi, but if the police come, please do not call them goofballs please’? (p. 160)

The questions are arranged, seemingly without order or reason, into paragraphs, and some of these flights of questions are so charming that they should really be taken as whole:

“Provided you were given assurances that you would not be harmed by the products of either, would you rather spend time with a terrorist or with a manufacturer of breakfast cereal?  What in your view is the ideal complexion for a cow?  Is there a natural law that draws a plastic bag to an infant similar to the law that draws a tornado to a mobile home?  Do you understand exactly what is meant by custard?  Would it be better if things were better, and worse if things were worse, or better if things were worse and worse if things were better?” (p. 6)

The questions make no over-arching point.  They tell no story.  ‘The Interrogative Mood’ really is just a long string of queries, but its effect is engaging and unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before.  It’s like the most interesting, varied personality test you’ve ever taken, but without answers, where the responses, highly personal and often significant, are unscored and unscorable and will never be known to anyone but you.

Perhaps what makes ‘The Interrogative Mood‘ so beguiling is that a question doesn’t have the same effect as its equivalent in statement form.  Questions make us complicit in their reasoning and conclusions.  They don’t set us up as recipients of wisdom; rather, they invite us to derive it with the questioner.  And so a novel made up entirely of questions can shape your thoughts in a way that a plot can only paint pictures for you.  It elicits a totally different kind of engagement, and when, as in ‘The Interrogative Mood’, the questions are creative and off-the-wall, so varied and well-mixed, the effect is sparkling.

Sparkling, and often surprisingly emotionally compelling:

“Do you trust or mistrust people who say “Candy is too sweet for me?” (p. 121)

“Do you regard yourself as redeemed, redeemable, or irretrievably lost?” (p. 101)

‘What today would make you cry?” (p. 126)

If you are like me, you have spent a great deal of time thinking about yourself over the years; however, I, for one, have never thought about myself in these particular ways.  These questions invite me to think about myself, or about the world, along new lines, sometimes specific, sometimes general, sometimes both.

And just because the invitation to thought takes the form of questions does not mean that you cannot be guided along to conclusions.  Powell makes what I came to think of as micro-arguments, a series of questions which end with your consideration of a conclusion, stated in question form.  Take this paragraph, for example:Interrogative Mood

“Are you curious to know what I’ll do with the answers you’ve given me?  Do you think I can make some sort of meaningful “profile” of you?  Could you, or someone, do you think, make such a profile of me from the questions I’ve asked you?  If we had these profiles, could we not relax and let them do the work of living for us and take our true selves on a long vacation?  Isn’t it the case that certain people are already on to this trick of posting their profiles on duty while simultaneously living private underground lives?  Can you recognize these profile soldiers by a certain, dismissive calm, a kind of gentle smile about them when others are getting petty?  Is it in fact the character of the profile-facade person not that which is called wise?  And is the person who is congruent with his daily self and who has no remote self not regarded as shallow?” (p. 70)

That is a great question!  Many of them are great questions, which means that ‘The Interrogative Mood‘ ends up being more interesting and more thought-provoking than most novels, which is bananas because it has no plot, and no characters (except ‘You’ and ‘I’, technically).  I can’t believe I’m recommending it, this book which is just questions, but I am.  It was more fun than it had any right to be, and I loved every page.

Northanger Abbey

Jane Austen

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There are times in one’s life which call for Jane Austen.

It’s a little difficult to define these times with precision (paradoxical, given that one of the great gifts of the author in question is precision).  They are the times in one’s life when things feel as though they might not work out, as though the world is not abiding by rules, when people feel coarse or evil, or when you are lonely, and the world feels large and empty around you.

In those times, this reader often turns to Jane Austen, to her small, orderly world with its essential kindness and small stakes.  Her attention is so fine that she justifies yours, and you feel completely vindicated in devoting emotional energy to courtships, and small slights of manners, and hattery.

Northanger AbbeyI should have read ‘Northanger Abbey‘ long ago.  I’ve read all the others, twice at least.  ‘Northanger Abbey’, Austen’s first complete novel and not published until after her death, has been a nagging hole in my education, and as the winter and the news and my own life converge to feel onerous, it felt like the right time to complete my relationship with her, and read her earliest work.

Northanger Abbey‘ is the story of Catherine Moreland, a young, good-natured, but otherwise totally unremarkable woman, her predilection for novels, and her courtship with one Henry Tilney.

Catherine meets Henry on a trip to Bath with her family friends, the Allens; he is assigned to her as a dance partner.  Normal Austenian hijinks ensue: Catherine’s brother will be thrown over by Catherine’s socially ambitious friend, who will in turn be thrown over by Henry’s caddish brother.  Catherine will befriend Henry’s saintly sister Eleanor, and there will be much muttering and misunderstanding about family incomes and marriage settlements.  All will come right for everyone who deserves it.

But ‘Northanger Abbey‘ is really a novel about novels, about our love of them, what they bring to our lives, the ways in which they affect our thinking, and why we publicly scorn the plotty ones that we secretly love best.  Catherine loves novels, particularly the chest-heaving Gothic romances, and her determination to find novelistic adventures in her own life leads her into one or two small scrapes (including the brief conviction that her future father-in-law has his late wife imprisoned in a wing of Northanger Abbey).  The whole novel is a tongue-in-cheek defense of novels, for even while Catherine fails to achieve Gothic adventure, she is, in fact, meeting and contending with villains, falling in love, and showing loyalty to friends and loved ones, the grand tropes of romance writ small.

Which, I think, is part of Austen’s point: novels are meaningful to us not because we are going to achieve the exact adventures which they portray, but because the emotions which animate their characters are the same emotions which animate us, and, within the literary arts, emotions are the special territory of novels.  Other forms may acknowledge or portray them, but only novels explicate them.

And this little conceit is charming.  But, let’s just be honest and upfront: ‘Northanger Abbey‘ is not Austen’s best work.  Which is fine, I mean, look at the competition: she wrote at least two novels of manners which are essentially perfect, and there’s nowhere to go from ‘perfect’ but down.  And this was, as stated earlier, her first attempt, so it’s not surprising that the learning curve should be visible.

Lismore Castle.jpg
In the 2007 PBS adaptation, the scenes in at Northanger Abbey itself were filmed in Lismore Castle, in Ireland.

But it is visible.  There are a few structural problems with ‘Northanger Abbey‘.  First of all, the pacing is odd.  Only about two fifths of the novel are even spent at Northanger Abbey itself.  Too much time is spent in Bath, with the Allens, and much of the later action is dispatched too quickly.  Significant characters, like the odious suitor John Thorpe, are dealt with off-screen, and one of the main characters, Eleanor Tilney, triumphantly marries a Viscount who is not only completely unknown, he is never even named!

A bigger problem is Catherine herself.  Some characters, it is true, do not age well, and the traits of heroines tend to be era-specific, but I suspect that Catherine was a complete drip even in Austen’s day.  She is, by the admission of her narrator, not very smart, only kind of good-looking, and lazy.  Certainly, she’s got all the social sense of a parsnip.  Even her eventual husband finds her lackluster:

“For though Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought.” (p. 168)

This is not the denouement of a romantic heroine, which, obviously, is Austen’s point.  But, alas, it also not the denouement of a particularly interesting heroine, and this presents something of a difficulty for the reader who wishes to be sympathetic with, or at all invested in, their protagonist.

Austen will, of course, perfect the heroine later, and the hero.  In the meantime, the other reason she is read, her razor-sharp prose, is the one part of this novel that does not suffer much by comparison.  She is almost as fine a writer of prose here as elsewhere; you never go wrong reading Jane Austen for language.

Jane Austen
Jane Austen

Indeed, Austen is one the few writers who is so excellent at prose-craft that she is both beautiful and funny, high-minded and devastatingly mean, with equal comfort.  But she is most loved for her arch observations of manners, the subtle and inescapable attention with which she observes her fellow man, and ‘Northanger Abbey’ contains some really sick Jane Austen burns.

For example, demolishing the social falseness of Catherine’s friend Isabella:

“It was ages since she had had a moment’s conversation with her dearest Catherine; and, though she had such thousands of things to say to her, it appeared as if they were never to be together again; so, with smiles of most exquisite misery, and the laughing eye of utter despondency, she bade her friend adieu and went on.” (p. 45)

Or pointing out the silliness of fretting too much about what to wear for a man one hopes to impress:

“This would have been an error in judgment, great though not uncommon, from which one of the other sex rather than her own, a brother rather than a great aunt might have warned her, for man only can be aware of the insensibility of man towards a new gown.” (p. 49)

Or, my personal favorite, gently reminding us all that women are thinking beings:

‘She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance.  A misplaced shame.  Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant.  To come with a well-formed mind, is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid.  A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing any thing, should conceal it as well as she can.” (p. 76)

I suppose, in summary, that the truth is this: ‘Northanger Abbey‘ is not Austen’s best, but Austen is a comfort even when she is under-performing.  Her excellent language, her wit, and her easy humanity all make reading her rather like coming home, and this is the last Jane Austen I will ever read for the first time.  I wish it had been better, but it was like enough to her great works that it gave me comfort, which is what I was looking for in the first place.

Mating in Captivity

Unlocking Erotic Intelligence

By Esther Perel

God, I hated this book.

I shouldn’t even have read it. I don’t like self-help books, and I don’t like books written by therapists, and I don’t like people who use the word ‘erotic’ – this obviously wasn’t the book for me.

But my mother gave it to me (which is worrisome in of itself, and I am not going to unpack it here) and asked me what I thought, and it’s just a short little book and I figured: eh, how bad can it be?  Just blow through it, tell Mom what’s what, move on.

Mating in CaptivityI was right about one thing: it is short.  But since it was excruciating to read, it didn’t feel short.  And since (as I have mentioned before) I have a rule about finishing books once I’ve started them, I couldn’t move on once I’d begun, and so I became sort of mired in ‘Mating in Captivity‘, (captive to it, if you will) thrashing and miserable and unable to get free.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that ‘Mating in Captivity‘ isn’t about sex – it’s about intimacy.  This is a book about relationships, about how to maintain a sexual connection in the context of a long-term relationship.  But it isn’t exactly a self-help book.  It’s more a series of case studies: different couples, the way in which their sex life is guttering, the advice that she gave that couple, why she gave it.  How she understands the problem, why she believes that problem arises.

Now, I really hate talking about intimacy.  Not sex – I love talking about sex.  But talking about intimacy makes me uncomfortable.  And, yes, I am aware that makes me a poor audience for this book (or perhaps the perfect audience, hard to say).  And, yes, I went in skeptical – I did not have an open mind.  I tried, but when I know that intimacy is going to be the subject, people talking about feelings and connecting and closeness, then I just cringe away instinctively.

Esther Perel.jpg
This is the image of Esther Perel from her book jacket, and, you have to admit, she looks super cool.

Let’s start with the positive: ‘Mating in Captivity‘ is probably not a bad book.  And Perel is probably a great therapist.  She comes across as wise, and gentle, unjudgmental but also unfoolish.  She managed to write an entire book about sex and intimacy without once making me wonder what her own sex life is like, and that’s a serious accomplishment.  In fact, that’s a major therapeutic credential, and I’m honestly impressed.

I’ll also say this: she is open-minded about decisions, mistakes, and lifestyle choices which other therapists would pathologize, and I’ll bet that makes her a more effective counselor for struggling couples.

The book is clear and well-organized.  The argument is lucid and evenly applied.  I’ve never read any book in this genre at all, so I can’t say whether the thinking is totally novel, but I can say it is not conventional, and it’s probably often useful.

But I hated it.  I hated it a lot.

First of all, I hated the narrative voice.  Perel adopts a tone which is confidential and sexy: part cool aunt, part girlfriend, part romance novelist.  I feel almost bad dinging her for this, because I think I know why she’s doing it: one of the projects of her book is to remind people that sex is supposed to be fun, and so she tries to inject that fun into her language.  But you can’t force fun.  Maybe it works well in person, but on the page, you sound like you’re trying too hard.  Her writing bristles with flirtatious little locutions:

“luscious sexual life” (p. 24)

“with whom he lay in a languorous paradise” (p. 28)

“get their groove back” (p. 142)

“feeling free to express the bawdiness of his lust with her” (p. 116)

Language like this feels self-conscious to me; it makes me wince.  When I feel as though she’s trying to spice up her prose like this, I pull away from the argument.  Forget intimacy – this kind of language makes me want to avoid sex.

But, if we’re being completely honest, the more fundamental problem is that I don’t buy into the project of this book.  I don’t really understand, having read it, what it was meant to accomplish.  Was it supposed to help couples who are having problems like these?  Are you supposed to identify a couple whose problems resemble your own, and then take the advice given to them?  Are you meant to sort of wallow in the general, intimate atmosphere of the book, picking up good tips for relationship hygiene?  Was it meant to get a conversation going, encourage people to think about their own relationships a little bit more?

I don’t think intimacy works this way.  It’s not that I’m a therapy-skeptic, not at all.  On the contrary, I believe that therapy, including couples therapy, can really help people.  I’m just not convinced that reading about other peoples‘ couples therapy is as helpful.  And so this books starts to feel like Perel just…musing about relationships, laying out her general ideas about how intimate couples should and do work.

And, while she is a licensed and practicing couples therapist, I’m not sure why I’m reading that book.  While I agree with her basic values, and each chapter is coherent, I don’t feel like I really know anything now that I didn’t know before.  She is not presenting a unified theory of intimacy, and she is discussing the problems of a very narrow slice of the population.  This is a book about the normal marital depressions that affect the affluent, via specific case studies of people who are often quite obnoxious, and I wouldn’t have read that book if I had known what it was.

I really want to give Perel credit where she is due it: despite the fact that I think most of her advice is generic, on some things she is unusually open-minded, and these chapters are the most interesting.  Her stance on infidelity, which is pretty radically unjudgmental, is the best example of this, and, because she isn’t spending time blaming anyone for adultery or adulterous urges, she manages to write about those things with genuine wisdom and humanity.  And the things she says about them are interesting; I have not read them before, and I have not thought about them that way before.

The State of Affairs.jpg(It’s also worth noting: I was apparently not the only person who thought that Perel was at her best when writing about infidelity.  Someone at Harper must have agreed with me, because her next book, which I have not read, is called ‘The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity‘.  I would actually, despite my aversive reaction to ‘Mating in Captivity‘, be kind of interested to read this book, which is probably the best recommendation that I can give Perel).

I think that my conclusion is this: given that the subject matter makes me want to jump out of my own skin, and that I don’t really endorse the project, it would have been a mistake for me to expect to enjoy this book.  The best that Perel was going to get out of me was a grudging respect, and this she did get.  Probably a great read for anyone who likes reading about relational difficulties, but for the intimacy-avoidant among us, ‘Mating in Captivity‘ should be avoided.


By Michael Chabon

All Posts Contain Spoilers

I am, essentially, an adult toddler.  I sleep whenever and wherever I please (I am particularly prone to falling asleep in moving vehicles); if permitted, I wear pajamas almost exclusively, and I routinely eat Oreos for dinner.

There are very few areas of my life upon which I choose to exercise any amount of discipline at all, but my reading is one of them.  And, like any disciplined person, I have goals which must be met, rules which must be followed.  One of the most important rules is this: if I start a book, I finish it.  It doesn’t matter how long the book is, or how much I hate it, or how bad I believe it to be – if I start reading a book, I must finish.

There are a number of reasons why I do this, why I believe that this makes me a better reader, but the most important is this: you just never know.  Books are like people: they surprise you.  Like people, some seem at first as though they are going to be your great and true friends, and then turn around one day and betray you with their badness.  And, like people, some books make a poor first impression, but turn out on longer acquaintance to be wonderful.

Moonglow.jpgEven allowing for this normal possibility, ‘Moonglow‘ is unusual.  It is rare that it takes me 575 pages to discover that I love a book.  But that was the case with this book, a book that I was only kind of enjoying until, on page 575, I was struck dumb with love, by a footnote of all things.  Perhaps the best way to describe it is: this book ‘When Harry Met Sally’ed me.  I thought we were just friends, and then, one day, on page 575, I discovered that I had loved it all along.

Moonglow‘ is a fictionalized memoir (it’s helpfully titled ‘Moonglow: A Novel’ to help you avoid confusion), an insipid genre which I usually avoid.  I made an exception because, as a younger reader, I really enjoyed a few of Chabon’s novels (especially his most famous, ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay‘, which I believe I read three times between the ages of 12 and 15).  ‘Moonglow’ is the life story of the grandfather of a writer named Michael Chabon, revealed to the narrator in the last few weeks of his grandfather’s life and augmented by the narrator’s own memories and the reminiscences of his mother (oh, is that not clear?  That’s part of what I object to about “fictionalized memoirs”, the fact that they force you to contort in strange ways, to say things like “the grandfather of a writer named Michael Chabon” instead of just saying “Michael Chabon’s grandfather”, because apparently the “Michael Chabon” who narrates this book only shares a strange and mysterious, ‘fictionalized’, resemblance with the “real” Michael Chabon, which is completely daft).

Michael Chabon

Lives aren’t really “about” anything, but memoirs are, and ‘Moonglow‘ is about love and horror and madness and war.  It’s about Chabon’s grandmother, the faithful devotion of his grandfather to her and the psychosis which dogged her to her own death, and it is about his mother, the ways in which her upbringing hardened her.  It’s about fear and insanity and the ways in which we can pass these along to each other, in our genes and in our love.

And then, sometimes, at its periphery or in strange, short bursts, it’s about Chabon (“Chabon”) himself.

It is during one of these moments that I realized that I loved this book.  When his mother had a miscarriage, Chabon went to stay for a few days with his grandparents, whose house terrified him at night because of the presence, in a hatbox in the closet, of a set of French hand puppets.  Chabon believed, apparently quite literally, that these puppets meant him harm, and their presence in the house oppressed him (I do not mean to deride this belief in any way – puppets are sinister and I wouldn’t sleep in a room with them now).  Chabon is, nevertheless, quite funny on the point, even while he describes “the raucous voice”, in his imagination, of the puppet telling him that his mother has surely died.

Then, in a footnote, he says,

“I still hear that raucous voice; I hear a hatbox full of voices.  They bubble up from a crack in my brain, dark mutterings, shouts, and low reproaches that fall just short of sense, intruding on my thoughts almost any time I’m alone in a quiet room, working on a task that requires a certain focus – when I’m drawing, cooking, soldering a circuit, assembling a toy.  When I’m writing, I never hear the hatbox voices; I hear some other voice.” (p. 575)

And, when I read that, several things happened to me all at once.

  1. The four lives braided together in this book became, in an instant, one story, blended and coherent and moving, and convincing whether or not they are “true”.
  2. I connected with Chabon the narrator in a way which would not have been possible if he were entirely fictional.  That’s a little convoluted, so let me put it another way: that foot-noted moment, that present-tense interjection, caused me to feel that I understood and cared about the person I believed was the author of this book, in the present, because I believed that he was a real person.  And I believed that because I believed, in some fundamental way, that that footnote was true.
  3. I realized that this is why people like fictionalized memoirs, or faux-autobiographies, or whatever you want to call this kind of book: they allow you to connect with a human story as though it were real without troubling yourself about verifiable specifics.  My heart could hurt for the mad grandson of a mad woman without needing to know whether Michael Chabon is that grandson, because madness is real and inheritance is real, too, and there is a madman somewhere to hurt for.

575 pages is, I am aware, quite an investment to make on faith.  And I don’t mean to imply that ‘Moonglow‘ is boring up to page 575 – it isn’t at all.  On the contrary, it is entertaining and absorbing, well-structured and unusual.  This won’t surprise anyone who has read Chabon’s other books – he’s a very good storyteller, has a real knack for pacing and character.  There was no reason he would not bring these skills to bear on his “memoir”.

If you had asked me on page 574, I would probably have recommended ‘Moonglow‘ in a yeah-why-not sort of way.  I would have said that it was pretty good, not as good as ‘Kavalier & Clay‘ or ‘Wonder Boys‘, but not at all dull, worth the time.

But I wouldn’t have said that it was beautiful, or moving, and now, after page 575, I believe that it is those things.  Or, at least, it is those things for me.

Doctor Thorne and Framley Parsonage (The Chronicles of Barsetshire)

The Chronicles of Barsetshire: Third and Fourth Volumes

By Anthony Trollope

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Doctor ThorneAs I have mentioned before, I have been working my way through Anthony Trollope’s six-volume ‘Chronicles of Barsetshire’, reviewing volume by volume.  However, I have decided to combine the reviews of these two books, ‘Doctor Thorne‘ and ‘Framley Parsonage‘, the third and fourth Chronicles respectively, because they are essentially the same novel.

Both novels are stories of marriage: tales of love-matches made between young people of different classes.  In both cases, the mismatch disfavors the female: a lovely, honorable woman of spotless character but unfortunate circumstance will find herself loved by, and in love with, a man of higher class.  The young man’s family and peer group will be shocked, outraged, by the proposed marriage, and the young woman will be too virtuous to marry against the wishes of his family.  But he, persevering in love and no less honorable than she, will not be shaken off.  The novels tell how these difficulties are overcome.

Doctor Thorne‘ is the story of Mary Thorne, a lovely but illegitimate young woman raised by her uncle, the eponymous Doctor.  Because her uncle is himself respectable, and because he takes pains to hide the tragic circumstances of her birth from the neighbors (and from Mary herself), Mary grows up among the local gentry, the Greshams of Greshambury, beloved by and welcomed among them.  However, as they all reach adulthood, Mary becomes the beloved object of the heir of Greshamsbury, young Frank, and when he declares his intention to marry her, the opprobrium of  his entire family and all of Barsetshire is brought down upon them.

Framley Parsonage‘ is the story of the Robarts family.  Mark Robarts is the Vicar of Framley (a village in Barsetshire).  He has a young wife and the friendship and patronage of his local gentry, the Luftons.  Troubles visit the Robarts in the form of two main plots: one financial, and one romantic.  Mark Robarts runs in a set a little too fast for a vicar; in a moment of social aspiration, he signs a note guaranteeing a loan for a friend, a completely insolvent Member of Parliament, which note will bring shame and near-ruin upon him.  At the same time, his sister Lucy, virtuous and lovely but, alas, without a cent in the world, catches the eye of the unmarried young Lord of Lufton, Ludovic.  When he declares his intention to marry her, the opprobrium of his entire family etcetera, etcetera, you know how this ends.

Dancing Framley
Image from ‘Framley Parsonage’, p. 291

The English novel of marriage is a highly stereotyped genre, and people usually love them or hate them.  I love them.  They are a particular sub-genre of the novel of manners, arch and unsuspenseful.  Everyone knows how they’re going to end; the joy of them is in getting to the foregone conclusions, in witnessing the subtleties, absurdities, minor foibles of this particular set of characters.  These two novels are both totally true to type (with the possible exception of an illegitimate heroine – that seems like a brave choice for its time).  Everyone is good; everyone ends up happy.  Love is requited and virtue is rewarded.  Snide and ungenerous relatives suffer, but only within the tight confines of their world.

But just because two novels have the same plot doesn’t mean that they are equally good.  ‘Doctor Thorne‘ and ‘Framley Parsonage‘ are by the same author, written two years apart (1858 and 1860, respectively), about almost exactly the same thing.  But you know what they say: practice makes perfect, and the latter, ‘Framley Parsonage’, is a much better book.

Proudie Framley
My own beloved Mrs. Proudie, the villain from ‘Barchester Towers’, makes an appearance in both these novels.  Image from ‘Framley Parsonage’, p. 396

First of all, despite the similarities in premise, there are differences in execution.  ‘Doctor Thorne‘ is clunkier; there are enormous and convoluted machinations of plot involved in solving the marital difficulties of ‘Doctor Thorne’ (secret family, sudden and untimely deaths, unlikely inheritances), while the troubles of ‘Framley Parsonage‘ are solved only by the intrinsic kindness and gentle maturation of its protagonists.  It is truer and more likely, and everyone in it is more plausible, less caricaturish.  In order for Frank Gresham to marry the woman he loves, two very rich men in the same line of succession must drink themselves to death within a matter of months; they must also then leave their enormous wealth to a stranger.  These are unlikely events.  In order for Ludovic Lufton to marry his lady, all it needs is for his mother to realize that she wants her son to be happy.

The writing of ‘Framley Parsonage‘ is better, too: it’s tighter, and wittier.  When I read, I put sticky notes over passages that I want to remember, either because they are lovely or funny or wise.  ‘Framley Parsonage’ has eight passages so marked; ‘Doctor Thorne‘ has none.

Alcohol Thorne
The wages of sin: not one, but two men will drink themselves to death in ‘Doctor Thorne’, p. 267

And there is a difference in tone between the two books.  Both novels make moral points: good birth is not virtue; debt is vice, as is drink.  However, ‘Doctor Thorne‘ makes its points more by showing: Mary Thorne is a lovely young woman, and the treatment of her due to her birth is meant to anger the reader.  ‘Framley Parsonage‘ is more didactic, and normally, as the adage goes, it is better to show, not tell, but I think Trollope is an exception to this rule.  He is often at his best, most pithy, most elegant, when he is telling you the moral of the story, or summing up a character, and the best passages of ‘Framley Parsonage’ hew to this:

‘When a man gets into his head an idea that the public voice calls for him, it is astonishing how great becomes his trust in the wisdom of the public.’ (p. 87)

‘A few words dropping from Mr. Sowerby did now and again find their way to his [Mr. Smith’s] ears, but the sound of his own voice had brought with it the accustomed charm, and he ran on from platitude to truism, and from truism back to platitude, with an eloquence that was charming to him.’ (p. 69)

‘One can only pour out of a jug that which is in it.  For the most of us, if we do not talk of ourselves, or at any rate of the individual circles of which we are the centres, we can talk of nothing.’ (p. 110)

‘Such companions are very dangerous.  There is no cholera, no yellow-fever, no small-pox, more contagious than debt.  If one lives habitually among embarrassed men, one catches it to a certainty.’ (p. 44)

These are lovely descriptions, wise words beautifully said.  And ‘Doctor Thorne‘ has no equal passages, which is a shame.  A reader would feel better if the two volumes were more even, better matched; instead, it feels as though Trollope tried an idea, published it, saw the flaws in his work, and took another run at it.

And mediocrity is not the only way in which ‘Doctor Thorne‘ stands alone among the first four volumes of ‘The Chronicles of Barsetshire’: it is also the only book so far whose major protagonist is not a clergyman.  This might seem like a silly point (doctor, clergyman, these really are minor phylogenic differences in the family of English Rural Gentlemen), but, once you’ve bought into Barsetshire, this difference doesn’t seem minor.  The ‘Chronicles’ have been about how these men of the cloth make good lives surrounded by the petty problems of the English gentry – that’s the project of these books, and the further Trollope wanders from that mission, the less well the books hang together.

BarsetshireHowever, frankly, Trollope is a joy to read even when he’s mediocre, and ‘Framley Parsonage‘, at least, was wonderful.  It was witty and warm.   But one of my favorite things about Trollope is that, despite being kind to his characters, he doesn’t at all see the world through rose-colored glasses.  For all the basic and mundane humanity of its story, one gets flashes of steel, and darkness, behind all the Barsetshirian goodness.  And a sharp-eyed realist lurks behind those happy endings, formulaic as they seem.  After all, no fairy tale ends like this:

‘But it was October before Lord Lufton was made a happy man – that is, if the fruition of his happiness was a greater joy than the anticipation of it.  I will not say that the happiness of marriage is like the Dead Sea fruit – an apple which, when eaten, turns to bitter ashes in the mouth.  Such pretended sarcasm would be very false.  Nevertheless, is it not the fact that the sweetest morsel of love’s feast has been eaten, that the freshest, fairest blush of the flower has been snatched and has been passed away, when the ceremony at the altar has been performed, and legal possession has been given?…When the husband walks back from the altar, he has already swallowed the choicest dainties of his banquet.’ (p. 468)

The New Jim Crow

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

By Michelle Alexander

There are some books so good, so coherent and persuasive, and so morally urgent, that I don’t really feel comfortable reviewing them.  They speak better for themselves than I ever could, and I am tempted, in these cases, to simply quote them at length, to put their most powerful passages forward verbatim and stand next to them, with humility.

The New Jim CrowThe New Jim Crow‘ is that kind of book.  There is absolutely nothing I can write about this book that will be more effective, or affecting, than something like this:

‘…it is nearly impossible to imagine anything remotely similar to mass incarceration happening to young white men.  Can we envision a system that would enforce drug laws almost exclusively among young white men and largely ignore drug crime among young black men?  Can we imagine large majorities of young white men being rounded up for minor drug offenses, placed under the control of the criminal justice system, labeled felons, and then subjected to a lifetime of discrimination, scorn, and exclusion?  Can we imagine this happening while most black men landed decent jobs or trotted off to college?  No, we cannot.  If such a thing occurred, “it would occasion a most profound reflection about what had gone wrong, not only with THEM, but with US.”  It would never be dismissed with the thought that white men were simply reaping what they have sown.’ (p. 205)

Or this:

‘The profile [the drug-courier profile used by law enforcement during drug sweeps] can include traveling with luggage, traveling without luggage, driving an expensive car, driving a car that needs repairs, driving with out-of-state license plates, driving a rental car, driving with “mismatched occupants”, acting too calm, acting too nervous, dressing casually, wearing expensive clothing or jewelry, being one of the first to deplane, being one of the last to deplane, deplaning in the middle, paying for a ticket in cash, using large-denomination currency, using small-denomination currency, traveling alone, traveling with a companion, and so on.’ (p. 71)

Or this:

‘Examples of preconviction service fees imposed throughout the United States today include jail book-in fees levied at the time of arrest, jail per diems assessed to cover the cost of pre-trial detention, public defender application fees charged when someone applies for court-appointed counsel, and the bail investigation fee imposed when the court determines the likelihood of the accused appearing at trial.  Postconviction fees include pre-sentence report fees, public defender recoupment fees, and fees levied on convicted persons placed in a residential or work-release program.  Upon release, even more fees may attach, including parole or probation service fees…Failure to pay may warrant additional community control sanctions or a modification in the offender’s sentence.’ (p. 155)

Or this:

‘This means, for example, that a woman who knew that her husband occasionally smoked pot could have her car forfeited to the government because she allowed him to use her car.  Because the “car” was guilty of transporting someone who had broken a drug law at some time, she could legally lose her only form of transportation, even though she herself committed no crime…Courts have not been forgiving of women in these circumstances, frequently concluding that “the nature and circumstances of the marital relationship may give rise to an inference of knowledge by the spouse claiming innocent ownership.” (p. 82)

Or this:

“More African American adults are under correctional control today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.’ (p. 180)

I could go on all day – my copy of ‘The New Jim Crow‘ bristles with sticky notes. These passages give some small sense of the overall effect of this book: one of slow, suffocating injustice, a smothering and pervasive evil, the feeling that you are standing at the foot of a sheer and dizzying cliff, unclimbable and inescapable.  It is vertiginous and overwhelming.

It is difficult to recommend books which you know are going to be unpleasant for people to read.  It’s pedantic; you are essentially saying, ‘You ought to read this.  This is information that you do not possess and need to.  It’s won’t be fun, but it will be good for you.’  You are an adult telling another adult to eat their vegetables – it’s patronizing, and so I try not to do it very often.

And, in truth, there are very few books which I feel that all adults ought to read, as a moral matter.  I suppose that I don’t even think that all adults ought to read ‘The New Jim Crow‘, but I definitely think that all American adults ought to.  And I am confident that not a single one of them will ‘enjoy’ reading it; nevertheless, I believe that it contains information which it is morally and civically urgent that voting American adults possess.

The basic thesis of ‘The New Jim Crow‘ is: that the War on Drugs in the United States of America is a system of racial oppression, conceived and understood as such by its architects, that it is enforced in a highly discriminatory fashion against racial minorities, and has had the effect of creating and maintaining a racial underclass in this country.

Michelle Alexander
Michelle Alexander

Alexander’s logic is presented beautifully.  Her language is clear and unadorned.  Her argument is well-structured and well-sourced.  It is neither understated nor exaggerated.  She marshals an enormous amount of supporting information.  She is meticulous, and since every stage of her reasoning is credible, she is therefore wholly persuasive.  Her verdicts feel inescapable.

All of which make this book hard to read.  Her conclusion, the reality she describes, is catastrophic: painful and enraging and grim.  But what I most deeply want to communicate is that it is painful because it is true.  I believe her.  Her argument is sound; her evidence is crushing.

There are a lot of reasons why you might not want to read this book.  You might not want to sift through a lot of terrible evidence in order to reach a devastating truth.  You might reject her argument out of hand, might not wish to subject yourself to more liberal, America-hating, race-baiting, special pleading.  You might just want to read some beach fiction instead.  To these objections, I will say this:

From sentencingproject.org

We do not have the right to excuse ourselves from true information simply because it is unpleasant to consume.  And we certainly don’t have the right to avoid evidence because we do not wish it to be true.  I think we have an obligation to see the world as it is, even if it does not flatter us, or accord with our world view.  And we have no right to reject arguments we have not heard.  You may disagree with Alexander at the end of her book, but you may not disagree with her before, not with any integrity.

That’s why I read this book.  ‘The New Jim Crow‘ doesn’t show me a version of my country that I like, but that doesn’t make it a bad book, and it certainly doesn’t make it wrong.  And it wasn’t fun, but it was magnificent, and it was important, and I think it was true.  And that is all the justification it needs.

American Gods

By Neil Gaiman

All Posts Contain Spoilers

It’s so sad to see a good premise wasted.

‘Wasted’ is perhaps too strong a word.  It’s sad to see an execution which fails to live up to its premise.

In fairness to Neil Gaiman, this doesn’t always happen because the execution is terrible; sometimes it happens because the premise is so good that almost no execution could justify it.  Sometimes, a premise is so excellent that even a good execution is disappointing.  That’s probably the case with ‘American Gods‘: the execution of this novel is decent, totally solid.  But the premise is awesome, and so decent just won’t do.

American GodsWhen the protagonist of ‘American Gods‘, Shadow Moon (this terrible cliche of a protagonist is one the things dragging down the execution of this novel) is released from prison, he is offered a job by a man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday.  Moon’s beloved wife has just been killed, and, having nothing else to live for, he accepts the strange offer.  As it turns out, Mr. Wednesday is none other than the Norse god Odin, and Shadow is now his body man.  Shadow learns that the gods of the Old World have been carried with each wave of American immigrants to the New.  These transplant gods have been slowly forgotten as their worshippers have Americanized or died and so they are left to wander, shrinking and predatory, in the modern American landscape.  Every manner of mythical or supernatural creature is here: gods, fairies, furies, djinn, leprechauns.  If someone once believed in them, they are among us, scraping to get by.  And they are about to go to war with the new gods, the gods of modernity and technology, to fight one last battle, to see who shall rule America once and for all.

It’s a magnificent premise, and credit should be given to Gaiman for coming up with it at all.  I mean that honestly and without the slightest sarcasm: most writers will go their whole lives without coming up with one story idea that has this much juice.  And ‘American Gods‘ is…readable.  I don’t mean to damn with faint praise – it is a difficult book to put down; the pages seem to turn themselves.

Neil Gaiman.jpg
I’m really not being fair here – there are many pictures of Neil Gaiman where he doesn’t look posed and pretentious (he actually looks rather lovely and likable in most of them), but I’ve chosen this one, from variety.com

And maybe I should leave it there, declare that ‘American Gods‘ is a great beach read and call it a day, but I’m not going to.  Because I have the sneaking suspicion that Gaiman would be offended to hear ‘American Gods’ called ‘beach reading’, or ‘genre fiction’.  I might be wrong, but that’s my hunch.  Perhaps it is the long dream sequences*; perhaps it is the easy metaphor of the old gods battling the new; perhaps it is the pedantic obviousness of the character names (Mr. Wednesday, Shadow Moon), but something tells me that Gaiman has aimed higher than he ought.  I don’t think he meant to write a great yarn; I think he meant to write a Great Novel.  And not just any Great Novel – I think he meant to write a Great American Novel.

Now, it’s not really fair game to blame novelists for what you think they’re going for.  You don’t really know – it’s usually better to take the novel as you found it, not judging it against the novel you imagine the novelist intended.  However, a novelist will occasionally communicate ambition.  They do this any number of ways: explicitly, in interviews, or implicitly, through heavy-handed metaphor or prose, elaborate and abstruse plot.  And when that happens, when you can see the self-satisfaction of the narrator peeking through the finished work, it’s difficult not to hold the it against them.

I think that Gaiman wants to have his cake and eat it.  He’s tried to write a novel that is both cool and deals in Big Important Themes.  It’s really difficult to do (I’ve never done it, for sure), and he hasn’t pulled it off.  Or, rather, he has technically pulled it off, but not well.  His novel is cool, and it does touch on Big Important Themes, but it hits you over the head with them.  You’d be happy riding along on a road trip with some fun old gods, but you will never be allowed to forget that America Is An Immigrant Nation.  You might have enjoyed a neat fight scene among mythical creatures, but, no, this is a battle between The Culturally Rich Past and The Bleak, Impersonal Techno-Modernity.

But, so what?  A lack of subtly isn’t the end of the world.  But really great novels don’t teach you your lesson; they tell you the story which will allow you to learn it.  There’s a big difference between those two things.  And ‘American Gods’ doesn’t really give you the room to discover anything for yourself; the take-home messages are there waiting for you, gift-wrapped, at the door as you enter.

Which, at the end of the day, does not stop ‘American Gods‘ from being enjoyable reading.  It’s a little furry around the edges, a little obvious; there are, honestly, too many dream sequences.  But it’s a fun read, and because reading is ultimately about having fun, ‘American Gods’ is worth reading.  Maybe I’m wrong about Gaiman’s intentions – maybe he wasn’t shooting for Greatness.  Maybe he just wanted to entertain me, and, if that’s the case, he knocked it out of the park.  I was entertained; I was absorbed.  So, don’t punish Gaiman for failing to live up to the goals I imagine he had; read a book that I enjoyed despite that (imagined) failure.  It’s a good read.

And it’s a great premise.

*An aside: it is my personal belief that dream sequences are a sign of weakness in writing; they are self-indulgent and lazy, and their presence in a plot almost always suggests that someone is taking a short cut.  Another plot event like this: secret brother-sister incest.  When two characters who are sleeping together discover that they are secretly related, I know someone in the Writers Room was phoning it in.