1Q84

By Haruki Murakami

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When is it OK to decide that you don’t like an author?

I really struggle with this question.  On the one hand, there is more to read in this world than can be accomplished in twenty lifetimes, and so wasting time on authors you dislike comes at a high price, opportunity-cost-wise.

But, on the other hand, no two works, even by the same author, are completely equal, and to take a stand against an author is rule out works of theirs, unread, which you might love.

In a way, this is only a sub-section of the enormously important and complicated question: How do you decide what to read?  Do you hew to the canon?  Do you trust the recommendations of friends?  How about the New York Review of Books?  Do you read everything in the Sci Fi/Fantasy section, no matter what?  Let Amazon’s algorithm decide for you?

For myself, I hew strongly to canon.  I defer to the ages: I reach for Literary Giants, and cast a skeptical eye at modern literature (sometimes to my own detriment, as I have admitted).  I want to read the Great Books, even if that means missing a few cult favorites.

Now, I would like to be clear about something: something needn’t be old to be a Great Book.  An author doesn’t have to be dead before a critical consensus can emerge about his Greatness.  And really, it is this critical consensus to which I respond: if everyone thinks something is Great, I tend to think it’s worth spending some time and energy figuring out why.

So, yes, maybe I am a snob, but I do believe that, if the critical consensus is that an author is a genius, there is a higher bar to deciding that you don’t like them.  You should read a lot, if not all, of a Great Writer’s work before you should feel enfranchised to further disregard.

Why?  Why waste time on authors you hate, just because other people seem to think that they’re the shit?

1Q84’ is why.

Before this, I had read three of Haruki Murakami’s books: ‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’, ‘Kafka on the Shore’, and ‘Underground’, and he was definitely an Author I Did Not Like.  There was something about his style, about the bleak, gray expanses of his prose, which I found aversive, both boring and actively unpleasant at the same time.  He reminded me, in this way, of Don DeLillo, who’s grimness also seeps through his words and alienates me. 

But I felt a nagging sense of…not guilt, but unease, about this aversion.  Murakami is one of the most, if not the most, beloved writer of Japan, and it is apparently something of a national hope that he will win a Nobel Prize (and an ongoing source of national grief that he has not).

And yes, look, just because someone is good doesn’t mean I have to love them. An author can be both talented and not to your taste.

But there’s something patronizing about saying that, isn’t there? “Oh, yeah, Murakami’s great, really, such a good writer, just not my style”. Is art really like pizza, just a matter of preference? Surely not; surely we have some responsibility to Greatness, an obligation to ourselves to go to it, to try to see what other people see in it, and not to dismiss the men and women who have shaped the literature of nations simply as a matter of taste?

Haruki Murakami

So I didn’t know what to do about Murakami. I really didn’t like his books, and I didn’t want to read any more.

But I kept hearing about ‘1Q84‘. People told me that it was different than his other books, plottier, that the magically-realist tinge in his other books had come more to the fore. And I love George Orwell, and I find ‘1984’ devastating. So I decided to roll up to ‘1Q84‘ for my Christmas long-read, and give Murakami another shot.

And now I’m in a real fix, because I might have loved ‘1Q84‘. I think I loved it? I certainly lived in it, barely came up for breath. I had to: it’s 1,200 pages, and I finished it in about a week.

1Q84‘ is a magical tale. It’s also a cautionary tale about a bleak and dangerous future, but only a little. Mostly, it’s a love story, a profound and old-school love story, about two people who belong together, two souls who will find each other across time and space and distance. About two souls who will find each other across universes.

It is plottier than his other books. It is full of plot, and mystery, and magic. Details, mysterious connections, and sinister evil. I almost don’t want to say more, don’t want to give my normal plot summary, because anything I say I will be insufficient, either to explain the plot, or to express the strange, compelling aspect of the novel.

1Q84‘ is a novel from multiple points-of-view, a technique which, not to stress the obvious, either works or doesn’t. Here, it works. Aomame and Tengo (our protagonists) fill in the gaps in each other’s narratives, but in a way which builds suspense, fills out the world, rather than contradicting or merely delaying the plot.

And the novel is suspenseful, anxiety-provoking to the point where it disrupted my life. ‘1Q84‘ is one of those books that consumes your free attention, makes you want to sneak to the bathroom at work, leave parties early, tell friends that you have other plans, just so that you can keep reading.

But that compelling quality doesn’t necessarily mean that a book is ‘good’, per se. It only means that it is…well, compelling. And I guess that I’m not sure that ‘1Q84‘ is ‘good’, actually. I certainly don’t think that it’s beautifully written, but I am always hesitant to judge the language of a book in translation.

But, I think I also found it moving. It’s hard to say, because I am emotionally obtuse, but I think I became quite invested in the fate of these two characters. These traits of Murakami’s, the bleakness, the alienation, in ‘1Q84‘, they become the traits of the characters, of Aomame and Tengo, and they can therefore be solved, eased, by the existence of the other.

I think that is why I am so hesitant to give up on authors, to really leave them as lost causes. Sometimes (rarely, it’s true, but sometimes), the traits which alienate you from a writer, which make you hate a book, can change suddenly, can turn and become an aspect in a larger story which you love. When alienation is the work, it’s tough, but when alienation is a part which can be overcome, then you can work with the work, care about it and grow with it. You can root for it.

I can no longer say that I don’t like Haruki Murakami. We now occupy an ambivalent space, two bad books and one great one. Reasons for optimism, but an essential lack of trust.

But I’m not done with Murakami. Not yet.

The 13 Clocks

By James Thurber

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And now for something completely different.

“Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart. He wore gloves when he was asleep, and he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins or the kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales.” (p. 1)

Sometimes, I feel as though I’m the youngest living person who loves James Thurber. Thurber, who died in 1961, was a humorist and cartoonist, publishing most often in The New Yorker, and perhaps most famous as the author of ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.’

My mother, who thinks he is hilarious, used to read me Thurber essays when I was kid. He is hilarious, in a dry, folksy sort of way. I see his collected essays and humors in used bookstores from time to time, and I always pick up a new title. I have never, however, encountered one of his titles still in print, on the shelves of a new book store.

Until now. Right before the holidays, I was wandering around the Brookline Booksmith when I spied, on their Fiction and Literature shelf, a novel by James Thurber that I had never seen before. It was a bright and colorful new printing of a novel called ‘The 13 Clocks‘ with an new introduction by Neil Gaiman, of all people! In which introduction Neil Gaiman describes ‘The 13 Clocks’ as “probably the best book in the world”.

OK, so I can admit this: I have some ego on the line where books are concerned. I’m not the best-read person on the whole planet, sure, I know that, but I’m no slouch. So I was a little miffed not to have even heard about a book written by an author I love, and I was super miffed not to have heard of it given that it might be “the best book in the world”. I expect myself to have heard of the best book in the world.

Creepy, right?

So I bought ‘The 13 Clocks‘, and I read it immediately.

And I can set your mind at ease, I think: ‘The 13 Clocks‘ is not the best book in the world. I can say that with some confidence; let Neil Gaiman come and do his worst.

The 13 Clocks‘ is the story of the wicked Duke and his niece, the beautiful princess Saralinda. The Duke is a cold man, and he is afraid that one day, a suitor will come and win the hand of Saralinda, which hand is the only warm thing in the Castle. So he has frozen time, and stopped all 13 clocks in the castle. Each suitor who comes to try for the hand of Saralinda is subjected to impossible tasks and, usually, terrible deaths.

However, one day, disguised as a wandering minstrel, the Prince Zorn of Zorna arrives at the castle, and falls in love with the Princess Saralinda. With the help of his friend, the ambivalently helpful Golux, he will try to rescue Saralinda from the Duke and restart time.

If that sounds to you like a child’s story, you’re not wrong. ‘The 13 Clocks‘ is one of those stories that is written for children, but with deep metaphorical meaning that is meant to move adults.

The cold duke

It has many characteristics of that kind of story: a simple story which ripples with deep, creepy currents; faint echoes of existential terror and deep grief hidden under alienating silliness; little word games, meant to sound to funny to children and clever to adults; cute absurdist paradoxes; witty illustrations.

A great example is the Todal. The Todal does not appear on screen (as it were); rather, it is a sinister force which threatens the Duke if he fails. It is described as a “blob of glup”, and is “an agent of the devil, sent to punish evildoers for having done less evil than they should”.

Do you see what I mean? Do you see the tension there between something frankly childish and silly (or, if you like, stupid), the blob of glup, and the more adult, sinister idea, the Satanic agent which punishes failure? That tension lasts throughout the book – you are always watching the childishness for the quick flicker of darkness which will move behind it.

“Something moved across the room, like monkeys and like shadows. The torches on the walls went out, the two clocks stopped, and the room grew colder. There was a smell of old, unopened rooms and the sound of rabbits screaming. “Come on, you blob of glup,” the cold Duke roared. “You may frighten octopi to death, you gibbous spawn of hate and thunder, but not the Duke of Coffin Castle!” He sneered. ” Now that my precious gems have turned to thlup, living on, alone and cold, is not my fondest wish! On guard, you musty sofa!” The Todal gleeped. There was a stifled shriek and silence.” (p. 107)

And, mostly, it’s pretty charming (that’s pretty clear from the excerpts, right?). So, why do I say with such certainty that ‘The 13 Clocks‘ isn’t the best book in the world?

Well, because something can be very sweet and very charming and very clever without shaking the foundations of the earth, that’s why.

I don’t think that the only role of literature is to move the world, to wrench and rip open the fabric of complacency which covers our eyes, and I don’t think that that is the standard by which all books should be judged.

But books do this – books have done this. Not all, but many. And some have even done it while being charming and clever and sweet. Some have even managed to do it while being beautiful.

And while those books exist, shaking the earth, there is no way ‘The 13 Clocks‘ is the best book in the world. It’s super cute, a great little read, but the best book? No.

Although, there is something I have not considered: perhaps Neil Gaiman lives (tragically) in a world without great books, without ‘East of Eden’, or ‘The Gulag Archipelago’, or ‘Brideshead Revisited’, or ‘The Screwtape Letters’ (which is the best book in the world). Perhaps Neil Gaiman lives in a world where the only books in the world are ‘The 13 Clocks‘ and, like, ‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac.

In which terrible case, he is absolutely correct: ‘The 13 Clocks‘ is the best book in the world. But, Neil, get out of there.

The Likeness

By Tana French

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“This is Lexie Madison’s story, not mine. I’d love to tell you one without getting into the other, but it doesn’t work that way. I used to think I sewed us together at the edges with my own hands, pulled the stitches tight and I could unpick them any time I wanted. Now I think it always ran deeper than that and farther, underground; out of sight and way beyond my control.” (p. 3)

I wrote a few weeks ago about ‘In the Woods‘, the first book in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. I believe that I loved it very much; I think, in fact, that I did a crappy job reviewing it because I wanted to hurry up and read this.

The Likeness‘ is the second of the Dublin Murder Squad series. Detective Cassie Maddox, exhausted and heart-broken after the events of ‘In the Woods‘, has retired from the Murder Squad and has been hiding out in the Domestic Violence division. One day, she gets a call from her old mentor from Undercover, Frank Mackey, to come see a dead body. Confused initially, for she has left Murder behind her, the call becomes clear when she learns that the body is carrying ID which states her name as Alexandra Madison. Lexie Madison: that is the name of Cassie Maddox’s old undercover alias.

So who has adopted Cassie Maddox’s discarded alias? This new Lexie Madison is a graduate student. She lives in Whitethorn House, a old estate she shares with her four closest friends, also graduate students. It soon becomes clear that the most unusual thing about the already unusual victim is this incredible close friendship. These five students, outsiders, belong utterly to each other, share a bond which is more like a family than any friendship Cassie Maddox has ever seen. And now Lexie has been stabbed to death, and left in a cottage near Whitethorn House.

And when Cassie Maddox sees the body, she realizes that there is another reason she has been called to this particular crime scene: not only does Lexie Madison wear her name, Lexie is also wearing Maddox’s face. The two women could be twins, they look so alike.

In order to exploit the remarkable similarity in their appearances, Mackey convinces the press to suppress the news of the murder, and sends Maddox into Whitehorn House to live with Lexie’s friends, to learn her life, to discover who might have killed her.

The Likeness‘ is two mysteries rolled into one: the mystery of Lexie Madison’s death, and the mystery of Lexie Madison’s life. The solution to both of these mysteries lies somewhere in Whitethorn house, among the four friends who loved her so deeply.

Honestly, my expectations for this book couldn’t have been a lot higher. I loved ‘In the Woods‘, and I barely paused for breath before starting ‘The Likeness‘. I don’t think I’ve ever vaulted from one mystery novel to the second in such rapid succession – normally, I have rules about this sort of thing, and I like to make sure that I don’t read books by the same author in succession (I know, don’t I sound fun?)

High expectations are not, usually, a great way to go into a book. It’s a little like deciding that someone is your soulmate on first sight: you just don’t have the info you need, and you’ve now prevented yourself from appreciating any lesser, more normal outcome. In the end, I was not at all disappointed by ‘The Likeness‘, but, while ‘In the Woods‘ grabbed me immediately, it took me a little time to acclimate to this novel.

Settling into ‘The Likeness‘ meant willingly suspending some disbelief about the unlikeliness of the premise. All murder mysteries are, more or less, unlikely: the realism quotient of the genre is low. However, anyone who has ever had a friend, or a family member, or a romantic partner, will know that this premise is particularly outlandish. No matter how alike two unrelated people may look, they would never be able to fool an intimate. If your best friend walked out of the house one night, and was replaced by an undercover cop who looked like just them and had seen a few videos of them, do you really think they would fool you for more than a day? Come on…

But, of course, that is so much not the point. Weirdly, the murder also isn’t the point. The point of ‘The Likeness‘ (as in ‘In the Woods‘) are the relationships. As Cassie Maddox lives with Lexie’s friends, as she wears Lexie’s face, she falls in love with the group, with the house, that Lexie loved. And she almost gets lost.

So, yes, it took me a little while to settle into ‘The Likeness‘. My own high expectations and the outrageous premise worked against my enjoyment for a little while, until something else sank in: Tana French has a totally different project than any other mystery writer I’ve ever encountered.

Tana French

A theme is beginning to emerge from French’s works: they are about the souring of love. This is a brave and unusual theme for a detective novelist. Detective novels nod at the warmer human emotions – someone occasionally kills from jealousy, or spurned love. But, mostly, as in life, people in murder mysteries kill from baseness: from greed, or sickness, or alienated rage.

In Tana French, it seems, people kill from love. Her novels are studies in love, not in the ordinary, pedestrian, every day love we all know, but the rare, deep, once-in-a-lifetime loves which some of us are lucky enough to be defined by. Both ‘In the Woods‘ and ‘The Likeness‘ are about these loves, about what happens when they break, but even more about the way we grow around them, what they make us into, and why it is that, when they do break, the consequences are catastrophic for us.

I think that this focus, this obsession of French’s with deep love, is what imparts so much beauty to her books, more even than her creepy, adjectival Irish English. These are stories of relationships – the murders haunt the periphery of these stories. They are the lurking threat which accompany the love, and it is the love which really interests French.

And this theme works for me on a profound level. Don’t get me wrong: I’ll tear through a paperback about a sicko psychopath with a sex dungeon and a penchant for taunting the police. I’m not too fancy for sex crime novels, or greed crime novels, or labyrinthine revenge crime novels – I like those novels, too!

But there is something about the curdled love which seeps through Tana French’s novels that just holds me in place, roots me to the spot, until I finish them. I love these novels, and while I’m reading, I belong to them. I’m upset when they end. They make me uneasy in my soul. I’m going to read every single one.

The Gene

An Intimate History

By Siddhartha Mukherjee

How can I have so little to say about such a big book? More importantly, how can I have so little to say about a good book?

Siddhartha Mukherjee became book-famous a few years ago, with the publication of his magisterial history of cancer, ‘The Emperor of All Maladies‘.  ‘The Gene‘ is his follow-up, a magisterial history of the gene (i.e. the basic unit of inheritance).

And it is reasonable to ask at this point: is everything that Mukherjee writes magisterial?  ‘The Emperor of All Maladies‘ and ‘The Gene‘ have a lot in common: they are dense, comprehensive histories of science.  Nevertheless, they are also popular histories, written for non-scientists.  They are, despite their length, approachable works, framed by personal anecdote and driven by emotional concerns.

In fact, the entire framing of ‘The Gene‘ is personal. Mental illness runs with high prevalence through Mukherjee’s father’s family, and it is through the lens of this terrible heritability the Mukherjee first spies the gene itself:

“By then, heredity, illness, normalcy, family, and identity had become recurrent themes of conversation in my family. Like most Bengalis, my parents had elevated repression and denial to an art form, but even so, questions about this particular history were unavoidable. Moni; Rajesh; Jagu: three lives consumed by variants of mental illness. It was hard not to imagine that a hereditary component lurked behind this family history. Had Moni inherited a gene, or a set of genes, that had made him susceptible – the same genes that had affected our uncles? Had others been affected with different variants of mental illness? My father had had a least two psychotic fugues in his life…Were these related to the same scar of history?” (p. 7)

Mukherjee has a knack for picking interesting science. The genetic basis of inheritance is one of the most interesting and important fields in all of science, and its scientific history is a tangle of elegant experiments and moral dilemmas. And cancer is, I think most people would agree, the most important medical problem of our age, as well as one of the most complicated and intractable.

Mukherjee is a doctor, and he writes like one. I mean that as a compliment (sort of).  He is human-facing: he cares about patients.  Though the topics of both ‘The Emperor of All Maladies‘ and ‘The Gene‘ fall within the realm of molecular biology, Mukherjee is essentially the writing about people: the scientists who study the topic, the patients who suffer because of the topic, the doctors who treat the topic.

This is, from my point of view, the great strength and the great weakness of both of Mukherjee’s books: they are human histories of scientific topics.  And, as someone who does science for a living, I have complicated feelings about that.

I love science, particularly biology, which is the research area in which I work.  I do not feel, personally, that science needs to wear a human face to be interesting, or lovable.  For those of us who live in genetics, the magic is in the science itself.

This is not necessarily true for most people, and I understand that. Most people are drawn in by human stories; they have trouble relating to plain science, or find it boring. Popular science exists, as a category, because most people are alienated by textbooks – they need to understand the stakes, and the context, of hard science, before they are able to muster the energy to care about it.

The Structure of DNA – the figure from Watson and Crick’s second paper

But the profound and breathtakingly beautiful thing about science is that it exists completely independent of our stakes, of our context, and of our feelings. Reading ‘The Gene‘, one has the sense that the science of genetics is the science of human genetics, that the machinery of inheritance exists to disrupt and inform our lives, and that its history is the history of its discovery by us.

This doesn’t trouble me for complicated policy reasons (“this emphasis on medicine as a lens for a biology hurts funding for basic research”), although those reasons abide. But when we teach people science through this lens, we teach them to care about science when it affects them, or someone they love. We do not teach them to love genetics for its own sake, for the majesty of its complexity, the careful tickings of molecular machines which happen in and around us at all times, whether we know them or not. Most of which we haven’t even imagined yet. Most of which we will not learn in my lifetime, or yours.

OK, but maybe that is an unreasonable ask. The truth is, most people don’t care about the incredible ballet of mitosis for its own sake – they care about cancer, because it might kill them. Because it has killed someone they love, and there are only so many things that we can care about in a natural lifespan and, for most of us, we ourselves are the most interesting thing around.

And, OK, if that is the case, if a 700 page human history of genetics will interest where a 700 page molecular biology textbook never, ever will, I would rather live in a world with the human history than not.

Siddhartha Mukherjee

But I don’t have much to say about that 700 page history itself. It is scientifically competent, but not, for me, scientifically revelatory. I learned some history I did not know (and I am always happy to do so), but I learned absolutely no science which a normal college biology major would not know already.

It’s always annoying when professionals complain about pop-science books, whining that subtleties were missed or the topic wasn’t covered in enough depth. It makes you want to howl at them to shut up, that the book wasn’t written for them in the first place! I know that I am not the intended audience for ‘The Gene‘, and I want to be clear: the fact that I didn’t learn anything is not because ‘The Gene’ has nothing to teach you. It is an exceptionally information-rich book; it just happened to be information I already had.

The Gene‘ is actually probably a pretty great book (as was ‘The Emperor of All Maladies‘). ‘The Gene’ reminded me of how much I love genetics, how grand and moving I find the machinery of inheritance. To spend 700 pages reading about something I care so much about, how can I really complain? I wish I could do better for Mukherjee, I wish I had something profound to say about him, but I don’t. All I can say is, no matter how the science is framed, getting to spend 700 pages in the company of biology is always a treat.

The Nix

By Nathan Hill

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“So banks and governments are cleaning up their ledgers after years of abuse. Everyone owes too much, is the consensus, and we’re in for a few years of pain. But Faye thinks: Okay. That’s probably the way it ought to be. That’s the natural way of things. That’s how we find our way back. This is what she’ll tell her son, if he asks. Eventually, all debts must be repaid.” (p. 732)

As you may have noticed by now, I don’t love contemporary fiction.  I read a fair amount of it, and I even like some of it, but I rarely love it.

I’m not sure exactly why this is.  The answer that I tell myself is that I rarely shine to contemporary novels because most of them, to put it plainly, are bad.

Now, of course, most novels of any time period are bad: most books are bad.  But if we are still reading and recommending a book that was written two hundred years ago, then we are reading it because generations of readers before us have identified it as good, vouched for it and passed it forward.  Each generation that a book survives is a finer and finer filter of taste through which it must pass, making it more and more likely that the book is good*.  Previous generations have done much of the work of selecting out the bad books of their own time for us.  And we will do the same for the books of our own generation.

*There is a wrinkle here, though, and don’t think I don’t know it: once books achieve the status of “great”, once they become venerated, people becomes less likely to notice that they are, in fact, bad, and less willing to say so if they do notice, and so some bad books get kind of grandfathered past the normal critical filters.  It’s a real problem (ahem, I’m looking at you, Edgar Allan Poe, looking right at you).

But, since we are the first filter through which contemporary novels will pass, contemporary novels are, therefore, the novels most likely to be bad.  They are unfiltered.  And I, personally, think it shows.

So I have developed a mild aversion to them, a slight generalized contempt for books which are overly demotic, or casual.  Which are grounded too much in my own time.  Maybe I am less compelled by problems of modernity, by plot lines which heavily involve the internet, or television, or video games.  They might be fun (they usually are), but they never seem to have any artistic weight.  Somehow, if a writer mentions tweeting, I automatically assume that his book is Beach Reading, that it cannot be Great Art.

All of which is, I understand, a prejudice.  I am prejudiced.  Which is why I hope that you will believe me in particular when I say that, despite the fact that it is ultra-modern, that it involves the internet AND television AND video games, ‘The Nix‘ is a really great book.

I’m obviously not the first person to notice this (it was a bestseller) but I may be the most reluctant.  I had ‘The Nix‘ slated as Beach Reading for sure, and was irritated when it showed up on all those curated tables in all my favorite bookstores, and was absolutely not going to read it.  However, one day my best friend and I were wandering through one of those bookstores and he pointed to it and said, ‘That’s a great book.  You would love that book’.  And because he is my top-ranked #1 Book Recommender, I thought, ‘Oh shit, I’m going to have to read ‘The Nix’.

(By the way, to offer some measure of how much I didn’t want to read ‘The Nix‘, how much I would rather have been reading ‘Ivanhoe’ and Graham Greene and other snobby shit, I will also mention that that was two years ago.  ‘The Nix’ has been sitting on my To Read Shelf, complete with a recommendation from the person whose opinion on books I trust above literally anyone else’s, for two years.)

Which, shame on me, because I adored it.  My best friend was right (he always is): it is a phenomenal book, and I crashed through it in about two days, loving every minute of it.

The Nix‘ is the story of Samuel Andreson-Anderson.  Samuel is failed writer who makes his living as a mediocre professor of Literature at a mediocre liberal arts college, but who spends most of his time online playing World of Elfscape.  Samuel’s sadness, his essential passive loserdom, his failure as a writer and as a romantic figure, were all locked in place on the day when he was eleven and his mother Faye abandoned him, utterly and without warning.  Samuel has had no news of his mother for twenty years when, one day, she resurfaces. She resurfaces when she is arrested for throwing rocks at a conservative Presidential candidate.

The Nix‘ manages to do the thing which so few contemporary novels actually do: to use the trappings of modernity to explore the genuine existential crises of modernity.  Most contemporary novels wear their modernity on the surface, referencing the cultural soup we’re all bathing in without really utilizing it.  They seem so desperate to prove that they are culturally fluent that they spend all their time showing off all the culture that they know, making jokes and allusions that won’t last five years, without exploring what any of those cultural artifacts really mean for the people who use them.

Nathan Hill

The Nix‘ doesn’t make that mistake.  Nathan Hill uses his character’s context – it is a tool with which he interrogates the peculiar human problems which modern humans have.  He isn’t just being funny about video games – he’s trying to figure out why people get lost in them.  He’s trying to figure out why people get lost at all.

“And since beginning with an Elf warrior named Pwnage he had advanced to play a whole stable of alternate characters with names like Pwnopoly and Pwnalicious and Pwner and EdgarAllanPwn, and he made a name for himself as a fearsome gladiatorial opponent and a very strong and capable raid leader, directing a large group of players in a fight against a computer-controlled enemy in what he came to regard as a being a conductor in a battle-symphony-ballet type of thing, and he rather quickly got extraordinarily good at this…because he believed that if he was going to do something he was going to do it right, he would give one hundred and ten percent, a work ethic he liked to think would soon help him with his kitchen renovation and novel-writing and new-diet plans, but which so far seemed to apply only in the area of video games.” (p. 411)

Hill also avoids another easy pitfall of the contemporary novel: depiction of the dreariness of life as the point of the art. There is a school of art which eschews grand events, seeks instead to act like a mirror to everyday life, to explore the depth and nuance of a totally ordinary life in all its putative depth, all its normal beauty and sadness (the seminal, original novel of this kind is ‘Mrs Dalloway’. I hate novels like this – I find them boring, and drab, and I understand that that is sort of the point of them, but knowing that I was meant to be bored does not actually alleviate my boredom.

The Nix‘ isn’t drab, or dreary, or ordinary at all. It is colorful, and plotty, and exciting. Things happen which would never happen to you, or to me, which would never happen to anyone, really, but because they are well-drawn and funny, the novel works tremendously well as a whole.

I loved this book.  I thought it was funny, and moving, and clever, and wise.  It contained the right mix of correct, quotidian details and outlandish, unlikely plot elements so that I was able both to relate to it and stay hooked into the story.  This wasn’t a novel about my modern life – it’s a novel about a crazy, sad, unlikely modern life, a much more entertaining modern life than mine will ever be.

I thought that I didn’t like reading novels about my own cultural moment – as it turns out, I only like reading them when they are written by a master, and then I love reading them. This book was so good, I ordered it for about three different people right away, and called my best friend for more recommendations. I have no pithy ending line, no great lesson here. ‘The Nix‘ was a joyful, funny read. I think it is a great book. I’m so glad I read it. I wish I could read it again, for the first time, all over again.

In The Woods

By Tana French

All Posts Contain Spoilers

“What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracted confusingly like fragmented glass. It is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make, and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation on deception. The truth is the most desirable woman in the world and we are the most jealous lovers, reflexively denying anyone else the slightest glimpse of her. We betray her routinely, spending hours and days stupor-deep in lies, and then turn back to her holding out the lover’s ultimate Mobius strip: But I only did it because I love you so much.” (p. 3)

Perhaps no literary form elicits such universally strong feelings as the detective novel.

I know of no reader who is indifferent to the detective novel. Actually, I know of no reader who does not love them – the trouble is, we all love different ones.

And our preferences feel significant. Like our political affiliation, or the movies that make us cry, the kind of detective novel we love feels like it reveals a lot about what kind of reader we are.

Everyone, of course, admires Agatha Christie. She is the Shakespeare of detective stories: she may not move you, personally, but no one would deny her her exalted place, first in the canon.

But, beyond Agatha, what kind of detective story do you love? Do you prefer the cold, cryptic little tales of Sherlock Holmes? Do you like the gory, plotty American novelists, the elaborate sadistic murderers of James Patterson and Patricia Cornwall? The poetic, moody novels of Benjamin Black? The cerebral, funny British women: Josephine Tey, Dorothy Sayers?

Me, I like them all. But I love very few: ‘The Daughter of Time‘, ‘And Then There Were None‘, ‘Christine Falls‘, maybe. And no author has ever commanded urgency from me. Detective novels, for me, are treats, picked up once and a while, chewed through quickly, and then put down, left behind, details almost entirely forgotten. They are more an escape than a book; I inhabit them, but I don’t take them with me, and I don’t rush on to the next one.

This casualness in my relationship with detective novels is, in large part, the fault of the form. The great strengths of the detective novel are also their great weaknesses: they are highly circumscribed, formulaic. The genre has conventions which must either be observed, or else deliberately eschewed: either way, the conventions dictate the story.

The narrowness of these conventions make detective novels blend together. Which was that series, the one with the lone-wolf detective who doesn’t play by the rules? The one who has a substance-abuse issue and a troubled past? Oh, that’s right: every single one.

But this narrowness is also, I think, why people love these novels so much. The highly predictable nature of these novels make the small differences between them significant. They look so like each other, but when you spy a difference you love, you appreciate it all the more for its subtly.

I have found one that I love. In fact, I have found one that I love so much that I suspect that I may love the author and not just the novel. I have found one that I love so much that I ordered, in one burst, all the other books in the series, before I was even one third finished with it.

I’m not the only person who feels this way. Tana French has been blowing up my pop-culture recommendations lately. I’ve heard her name on every podcast I listen to, read it on every book club reading list that crosses my path. And, normally, this kind of ubiquity prejudices me against the object. I am perverse, and childish – I hate liking something that everyone else likes.

But Tana French is better than my immature contrarianism. ‘In the Woods‘ is the first of the six Dublin Murder Squad novels. That meta-title, ‘Dublin Murder Squad’, makes these novels sound macho, high testosterone and swaggering, in a way that ‘In the Woods’ is emphatically not.

In the Woods‘ is about the investigation of the murder of a little girl. The body of twelve year old Katy Devlin is found outside the housing estate where she lived; it is also the estate where Detective Rob Ryan lived, decades before, and from which his two best friends went missing one day, from the woods. They were never found, and Rob has no memory of that long-ago afternoon. Now, he and his partner Cassie Maddox have been sent back to find out what has happened to Katy.

Of course, the devil of the detective novel is in the details – you learn almost nothing from the premise. This premise, a murdered child, an unlikely coincidence, this could be any detective novel. But Tana French has written something beautiful, and strange, and she has managed to do so within the confines of this genre, which requires extra skill.

Bad detective novels are about crime – good detective novels are about people. ‘In the Woods‘ is about friendship. It is about the deep and abiding love that grows between people, and what happens when it is ruptured, or when it curdles. It is about friendship as a binding force, and about broken friendship as a denaturing force, deranging. It is about what is means to have a friendship so close that it is closer than family, and then to lose it. It about grief and how it hardens us.

Tana French

There is so much I admire about this book. I admire the story: it is subtle and careful. Most detective stories rush into plot – they are split between poor dialog and action sequences. It is a genre characterized by speed, and tidiness, which cannot bear a long pause, or a loose end.

French, on the other hand, is a patient author. She lingers with her characters for their own sake – they are the point of her novel, not the murder. Her world is not a tidy one, and not all crimes will be solved, not all motives answered. She is not dealing in archetypes here, but endeavoring instead to imagine people, and people are messy. They are not, like crimes, solvable, and so she does not solve them. Most detective novels are about one big mystery, and if there other mysteries, they orbit the main mystery and will be solved with it.

But, in French’s world, people are all mysteries, and so mysteries spring up between them, and a murder, or a disappearance, is just one of the many possible difficulties that might happen in the endless collisions between unknowable beings. And so most mysteries, in her world, will never be solved. And even if you learn who, when, where, and how, you will never really understand why.

And she is a lovely writer. I have a prejudice that Ireland produces especially beautiful writers of English, that the prose that they make has a particular lyrical quality which I have always loved. Detective stories are not the place for Joycean prose-poetry – those kind of verbal gymnastics would be, frankly, annoying – but you hear the poetic bent in French’s prose, in her descriptions, in the moody, creepy pall which hangs over her Dublin.

This book owned me completely, and so here is the plain truth of it: I don’t want to write anymore about ‘In the Woods‘ – I want to go read the next Dublin Murder Squad book, ‘The Likeness‘, which has already arrived and is hollering silently at me from my desk. This is the highest compliment I know how to give an author, really: I don’t have time to write about them – I have to go and read them.

Tales of Mystery and Imagination

By Edgar Allan Poe

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Guys, is it just me, or is Edgar Allan Poe kind of…bad?

I’m having the slightly creepy experience of reading a book which is considered ‘classic’, picking up a work of Great Literature, and finding it to be, well, bad.  And not just a little bit bad, or simply not to my taste – really and obviously bad.  Just crappy.  Indefensible.

I’m sorry to have to say this, but I think that Edgar Allan Poe is a bad writer.  It grieves me, honestly, to pan the most famous author of spooky stories, to turn my nose up at the man who basically invented creepiness, but these are bad stories, badly written!  I can’t be the only person who’s noticed this, can I?

I hate these moments, these The-Emperor-Has-No-Clothes-moments, when everyone around you exclaims that a piece of culture is brilliant but, try as you might, you just can’t see it.  It’s obviously not brilliant, but no one will admit it and you wonder, is it me?  Am I crazy?  Am I missing something?  Or is Edgar Allan Poe just a bad writer and no one has the guts to say it?

I’m gonna get of ahead of you here and just slot in a few disclaimers.  First of all, I am not simply having trouble with the normal, more formal English of two hundred years ago.  I have read, and loved, many of Poe’s contemporaries, even his predecessors – I love the fruity olde English of yore.  This is not a problem of idiom, or style.

And I didn’t just read a few bad stories, his early attempts, for example, when he was still learning the ropes.  My copy of ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination‘ contains twenty stories, including all his ‘best’ and most famous ones: ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, ‘The Murders on the Rue Morgue’, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’.  I read this book cover to cover.

The only thing I liked about this book was these creepy illustrations, by Harry Clarke.

And it was hard-going, I can assure you.  These are not easy stories to read, or fun.  Poe’s prose is turgid, and purple, arduous and encumbered.  Reading him is like running through wet sand.  Let me give you a few examples, chosen – I swear to God – basically at random:

“‘You behold around you, it is true, a medley of architectural embellishments.  The chastity of Ionia is offended by antediluvian devices, and the sphynxes [sic] of Egypt are outstretched upon carpets of gold.  Yet the effect is incongruous to the timid alone.  Proprieties of place, and especially of time, are the bugbears which terrify mankind from the contemplation of the magnificent.  Once I was myself a decorist: but that sublimation of folly has palled upon my soul.  All this is now the fitter for my purpose.  Like these arabesque censers, my spirit is writhing in fire, and the delirium of this is scene is fashioning me for the wilder visions of that land of real dreams whither I am now rapidly departing’.” (‘The Assignation‘)

That is self-indulgent nonsense.  Here, try another:

“Ah, Death, the spectre which sate at all feasts!  How often, Monos, did we lose ourselves in speculations upon its nature!  How mysteriously did it act as a check to human bliss – saying unto it “thus far, and no farther!”  That earnest mutual love, my own Monos, which burned within our bosoms – how vainly did we flatter ourselves, feeling happy in its first upspringing, that our happiness would strengthen with its strength!  Alas! as it grew, so grew in our hearts the dread of that evil hour which was hurrying to separate us forever!  Thus, in time, it became painful to love.  Hate would have been better then.” (‘The Colloquy of Monos and Una‘)

He sounds like a fourteen year old girl trying her first slash fiction.  Have I broken your spirit yet?  Can you bear another?

“Yet, although I saw that the features of Ligeia were not of a classical regularity – although I perceived that her loveliness was indeed ‘exquisite,’ and felt that there was much of ‘strangeness’ pervading it, yet I have tried in vain to detect the irregularity and to trace home my own perception of ‘the strange.’  I examined the contour of the lofty and pale forehead – it was faultless – how cold indeed that word when applied to a majesty so divine! – the skin rivalling [sic] the purest ivory, the commanding extent and repose, the gentle prominence of the regions above the temples; and then the raven-black, the glossy, the luxuriant and naturally-curling tresses, setting forth the full force of the Homeric epithet, ‘hyacinthine!'” (‘Ligeia‘)

What incredible rubbish.  Honestly, that is just bad writing – it’s not fancy, it’s not expressive, it’s not sensual or sophisticated.  It’s terrible.

Edgar Allan Poe.  I feel a little bad saying all these mean things about him – he looks so sad.

And my objections to Poe are not merely stylistic.  He is not just a bad crafter of prose – no, worse: he is also a bad crafter of stories.

I know, I know – this is going to be a bridge too far for some people.   But bear with me, because I’m about to make a distinction which is very important to me.  There are two different elements (at least, but let’s stick with two for right now) to a well-crafted plot: the Premise and the Unfolding.  The Premise is the foundation on which the story rests; the Unfolding is how the Premise roles out into the plot.

Greatness, in a book, is most often found in the Unfolding of the plot.  Often, this great Unfolding rests on a magnificent Premise, but it needn’t: a masterful Unfolding can make Great Art of a simple, well-worn Premise.  But it is almost impossible to rescue a great Premise from a bad Unfolding.

Which is a shame, because there is almost nothing as lovable as a great Premise, and when you meet one, you want desperately for it to become Great Art.

But wishing does not make it so.  I have a theory that Edgar Allan Poe is considered a great writer because he is pretty great at the Premise.  All of his most famous stories share this trait: they have great Premises.  A man accidentally walls his comatose wife up in the family tomb.  A brutal, senseless murder stymies the police because it was committed by an escaped gorilla.  A murderer is so haunted by guilt that he cannot escape the sound of the beating heart of his victim.  A man is trapped in the most hideous torture chamber ever devised by the Inquisition.

These are phenomenal Premises, and it’s hard to imagine that their accompanying stories might really be bad.  But, please trust me, they are.  Poe is a terrible writer of plot: he cannot pace, does not construct narrative well.  He tells, and does not show.  His stories are uneven.  He spends way too much time on irrelevant details (pages and pages devoted to the windows in the House of Usher) and rushes the denouement.  Sometimes his stories don’t even have a denouement – they just trail off into nothing, as though he wandered away from the table.

Which, OK, he was sort of inventing a genre.  Some unevenness is expected.  But, not really: people wrote ghost stories before, and novelty is no excuse for bad writing. 

We are lucky: we live in a time of plenty, book-wise.  There is so much to read, too much to ever accomplish in a lifetime, in ten lifetimes.  We must pick and choose, and so it might be time to leave Poe behind, to thank him for his service, to be grateful for what he gave us, for the traditions which he inspired, but to let go of the primary material.

So, if you will allow me, I would like to give you a small Christmas gift: time.  I would like to save you the time you might have spent reading Edgar Allan Poe.  I almost never do this – I believe in reading the Classics for yourself.  But this time I believe I can, in good conscience, free up some time for you.  I think, if you’ll let me, I can give you this time back.

Because, no matter how much I love scary stories, no matter how I grateful I will always be to the man who made them Literature, I cannot tell it other than this: Edgar Allan Poe is a bad writer.

Happy Holidays.

How To Become A Scandal

Adventures in Bad Behavior

By Laura Kipnis

All Posts Contain Spoilers

I love mean people.

I mention that only because I try, before I talk about a book, to give all relevant disclaimers, to announce any prejudices which may skew my otherwise pristine critical faculties.  And, before I discuss ‘How to Become a Scandal‘, I need to disclaim: I love mean people. I am predisposed to enjoy them, to enjoy the things that they say, especially if they are mean AND funny.

Laura Kipnis is mean.  And Laura Kipnis is funny.  Laura Kipnis is mean AND funny.

How to Become a Scandal‘ is an ontology of modern American scandals.  Kipnis discusses only four scandals, but she discusses them in depth: Lisa Nowak, the jilted astronaut who drove through the night to pepper spray the woman for whom her boyfriend left her; Sol Wachtler, the appellate judge who created several fake identities in order to harass and extort the woman with whom he’d had an extramarital affair; Linda Tripp, the “friend” who secretly taped Monika Lewinsky talking about her affair with Bill Clinton; and James Frey, the “memoirist” who was found to have fabricated many of the most interesting details of his book, ‘A Million Little Pieces’.

Kipnis reviews these scandals, reminding (or educating us) about the most important details of the cases, but she’s really interested in understanding them: why did these people behave in such outrageous and self-destructive ways?  How do they understand their own actions?  And why, in a world full of bad actors, do we find ourselves outraged only by some?  What allows some bad behavior to fly under the radar while some catches fire in our imagination and becomes a scandal?  And are we wicked to enjoy it?

I think I can admit that I enjoyed ‘How to Become a Scandal‘ thoroughly.  It feels like an admission because Kipnis is prurient and salacious and, well, mean: she loves scandals, all the grubby little details which we are supposed to pretend aren’t interesting to us.  She cops to participating in the worst of our cultural rubbernecking, of gloating about the misfortunes of others, of reveling in the sick and sexy revelations which so often accompany these tempests.  As I began the book, I was worried that I was basically going to be reading a gossip column dressed up in a little cultural analysis.

I gave Kipnis too little credit.  First of all, she’s smart.  She’s really quite smart, actually, and her analysis is motivated by a genuine desire to understand.  Her gaze is unflinching, and she spares no one, not even herself: she is much more interested in what scandals say about the people who follow them than about the people who cause them.

And I think her analysis is fruitful: I learned things from this book, not facts, but new ways of thinking about my culture, about its winners and its losers.  She has altered my perspective, slightly perhaps, but I am old and jaded, and it takes a lot to move my needle even a little.

“Yes, I understand these people have done bad things, injured those who love them and torpedoed their lives in lavishly stupid ways, but clearly such impulses aren’t their problem alone.  It’s the universal ailment if, as appears to be the case, beneath the thin camouflage of social niceties lies a raging maelstrom, some unspeakable inner bedlam.  Scandals are like an anti-civics lesson – there to remind us of that smidge of ungovernability lodged deep at the human core which periodically breaks loose and throws everything into havoc, leading to grisly forms of ritual humiliation and social ignominy…” (p. 6)

She’s actually a pretty good writer, too.  She manages to parse some pretty subtle social theory, and be funny while doing it, which is not an easy feat.  And while her colloquialisms grate a little, and her prose tends towards the frenetic, she manages to be readable without sacrificing IQ points, which is a rare quality in a popular writer.

“We know the sentiments are mass produced, we also know the emotions we need to sustain us can’t be packaged, yet with the Oprahfication of the culture, triteness is our fate: it saturates the culture and our lives.  What’s at issue isn’t the market or mass media, neither of which appear to be going away any time soon, it’s the flattening out of experience and the vacancies it leaves all of us to manage, each in our own improvised ways.  If every scandal exposes underlying social contradictions, the commerce in selfhood is the subtext of this one.  The question we’d want to ask is whether her talent at monetizing authenticity really gives Oprah the moral high ground over James Frey.” (p. 189)

Or how about this excerpt, which is so sharp that everyone gets cut in it:

“Poor Linda [Tripp], so perilously poised at the intersection of two indelible forms of social failure.  Guilty of terribly betraying a friend, an egregious act in a culture that reviles a stool pigeon as the lowest of the low, and lacking the requisite allure in the visual department, she was the bearer of two varieties of social disgrace, each refracted through the magnifying lens of the other.  No doubt the combination licensed the barely repressed violence of the jokes, the quality of atavistic aggression, every punch line like  a hard right cross to the kisser.  Though you couldn’t help noting that physical attractiveness on the part of the tellers of ugliness jokes was not a prerequisite, which is curious in itself: did the jokesters think they were granted an exception from their own aesthetic standards by virtue of Tripp’s moral failures, or were somehow inoculated from similar judgements by the power of their jokes?” (p. 131)

The above quote also illustrates the other thing, mentioned previous, which I really loved about Kipnis: her meanness.

Laura Kipnis

That might sound weird, but I believe that I can defend meanness.  The truth is, there are some topics that we cannot discuss without it.  I am not advocating for gratuitous or sadistic meanness, for the taking of genuine pleasure in the suffering of another.  I am advocating for the willingness to say, to speak aloud, truths or conclusions about our fellow men which would wound them if they were heard, which we would not normally utter in polite conversation, which we would not say to our friends.  It is impossible to explain ugly things without speaking ugly truths, and as long as there are ugly things in the world, meanness will be a necessity of understanding.

The case of Linda Tripp is a perfect case in point: Kipnis makes a persuasive argument that the public outcry about Linda Tripp, the reaction to her, her scandal, cannot be understood without also acknowledging her personal ugliness.  That the nation recoiled in disgust at what they perceived as a creature without redeeming characteristics, either moral or aesthetic.  She is not justifying that reaction – she is chronicling it.  But, if scandal is the phenomenon of public outrage, and the public is outraged by ugly women (and there are mountains and mountains of rather soul-shriveling evidence that they are), then any discussion of the public’s reaction to Linda Tripp which pussy-foots around her ugliness is disingenuous at best.

I think, at the end of the day, that is why I enjoyed ‘How to Become a Scandal‘ so much, why I will almost certainly now read her other books: because she is brave.  She’s smart, and mean, and funny, yeah, but she uses those qualities in the service of her goal, which is to understand something ugly about us.  And I always believe that looking ugliness in the eye is a valid goal.

And, at least in my case, she achieved that goal.  I admire books which are sneaky about their smarts, books which you think are going to salacious and gossipy, but which actually make you wiser before you even notice it’s happening.  Laura Kipnis has hidden her acuity well – the dust jacket of her book is hot pink, for heaven’s sake! But it’s there, deep and sharp.  And I believe that it takes a mean, sharp analysis to understand what it is mean and sharp in us, to understand things like our bloodlust, our endless capacity to enjoy seeing each other brought low.  I think it needed someone like Kipnis to understand something like scandal.  And I loved it.

The House In The Dark Of The Woods

By Laird Hunt

All Posts Contain Spoilers

So, this is embarrassing, but it happens to everyone (everyone! I swear!), and so I’m just going to admit it and try not to sound defensive at all, OK?

I just read an entire book, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand it.  At all.

Here’s what happened:

Last weekend, I was in my favorite local bookstore with a friend, perusing the “Staff Selections’ rack.  Now, I am, in general, skeptical of this particular flavor of curated bookstore table, because I am not at all convinced that working in a bookstore improves your taste in books.  But one book caught my eye: it had a creepy cover, hands crawling all over themselves on a bright orange field.   The title was kind of irresistible: ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘.  The description on the inside cover began, “In this ingenious horror story set in colonial New England, a woman goes missing.” 

Ingenious horror? Yes, please.  I bought the book and started reading it right away.

I realized that I was in trouble almost immediately.  ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ is, essentially, a dark fairy tale.  ‘Goody’ goes for a walk in the woods one day to collect berries for her son and husband.  She takes a nap only to wake in the dark; panicked, she sets off running, cutting her feet and hurting herself badly in the process.

Eventually, she is discovered by a woman called Captain Jane, who takes her to the house in the dark of woods, where lives a woman named Eliza, who wears the face of a friend and will try to keep Goody with her forever.

But ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ is one of those books that hinges on the reader’s inability to tell whether or not their narrator is mad.  Now, when that kind of book is done well, it’s incredible, and some of the great classics of horror rely on this trick: ‘The Turn of the Screw‘, or ‘The Haunting of Hill House‘.

But those books are so affecting in part because, whether or not their narrators are insane, they are definitely terrified, and their distress is communicated to you.  Goody, however, spends most ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ in a sort of blithe, batty daze, which does make her seem crazier, but which also alienates the reader from the horror.  She speaks in choppy, under-punctuated, declarative sentences with very little emotional subtlety or elaboration.  I suspect that this was meant to make her seem childlike but instead it made her seem, well, stupid:

“The sun was gone from the glade and gone almost from the world when I woke and took up my basket and went hurrying back the way I had come.  I smiled a little but didn’t mean it when the oak and ash and box elder began to grow tall around me and my trot turned into a run.  There are fears in the airs and on the earth that can call up a fire in your heart whose ash will blacken all hope.  This was not such a fear; it was just the little toe or finger of one.  I stopped running and wiped my brow and realized I had left my bonnet behind.  I shifted my basket from one hand to the other.  I stood with my legs planted sturdy and gave a laugh, for I had never liked that bonnet, blue with a frill of tender flower.  A gift from my dead mother.” (p. 6)

And which doesn’t in any way clarify whether any of what happens to her is real.  What is clear, however, is that what is happening to her is a metaphor, and here is where I have to ‘fess up: I have no idea what it’s a metaphor for.

That it is a metaphor, there can be no doubt (when characters have names like Captain James, it’s a safe bet that metaphors are happening…).  Which obviousness makes my confusion even more embarrassing, since I think it’s probably not a subtle metaphor. 

Laird Hunt

I’m also pretty sure that it’s a metaphor about being a woman, or womanhood, or the trials and tribulations of women in society – it’s somewhere around there.  There are creepy shadows of violence lurking at the corners of the story, dark intimations that the women in it have been slowly but thoroughly brutalized by the men in their lives, the men to whom they toil in constant service, the men to whom they belong.

What emerges, I think, is a tale about the roles that women play.  I think (I think?) that ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ is a allegory about the slow, creeping horror of the feminine position.  It shows that a woman who does not choose to obey has no other option but to go mad, either because society will drive her so or pretend that she is.  And that the roles available to us are highly circumscribed, archetypical and limiting and cannibalistic, as we slowly destroy each other in an attempt to break free of the restraints into which we were born.  That every woman will move through these roles: innocent girl, wife, mother, crone, until she eventually comes face to face with the terrible adversary that is her own furious psyche.

In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ is weird, and creepy, and I think it was probably pretty good, but I’m not sure because I’m not sure it was…coherent. Partly this is a problem with the book itself – partly, perhaps, it is a problem with me (I may just not be getting it). Partly, however, it is a problem with allegories in general.

The meaning of an allegory lies beneath the plain reading of the text, is hidden, coded, in symbols and allusions.  They tend, therefore, to mean different things to different people; they often act as mirrors, showing us our reflections, shining our own baggage back at us.

Is ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ a feminist allegory about the slow mutilation done to women by society, the violence to which we are subjected and which we sublimate into madness?  Or am I, who have always found the roles normally prescribed for my gender (wife, mother, grandmother) stifling and unnatural, simply finding in this story confirmation of what I already felt?

To a certain extent, this is the purpose of fairy tales, to teach us the lessons that we, in particular, need to know.  ‘Little Red Riding’ is a lesson about the dangers of straying too far from the path.  It is also a lesson on the bravery available to each of us, when we need it.  It is also a lesson in caution, even about the faces we believe we know well.  It is also a lesson about the triumph of ingenuity over darkness (and, depending on which version you read, it is also a lesson on the triumph of darkness over everything).

I am not, in general, comfortable with ambiguity – I like to know what is.  This may be an indication of a pedestrian mind, but, alas, it is what it is.  I am not content to say, ‘This what the text meant to me’; I need to know whether what the text meant to me is what the text really meant.  And I feel inadequate when I can’t solve it.

So, I guess that’s what I’m trying to say: ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ made me feel inadequate.  It made me feel creepy, undermined, and inadequate.  Like there was something flickering at the edge of my vision and I couldn’t focus my eyes on it.  It was unsettling and difficult to understand.  It was a strange, cold mist of a book, something with a definite shape but without clear edges.  It was eerie.

I suspect that that was exactly the point.