The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James

By M.R. James

I’m sorry to tell you, but the title of this post is misleading: I am not going to talk about ‘The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James’ today. Instead, I’m going to talk about the introduction to the 2011 Oxford World’s Classics edition of the ‘Collected Ghost Stories by M. R. James’, written by one Darryl Jones.

M.R. James

Remembered best as a horror writer, Montague Rhodes James was also an accomplished medieval scholar and antiquarian. Accordingly, he was a master of what is sometimes called “antiquarian horror”, namely horror that centers around items or students of antiquity (think cursed artifacts, ancient manuscripts with terrible secrets, stuff like that).  Importantly, he seems to have led a largely hermetic and unisex existence: in 1905, he became the provost of King’s College, Cambridge, and he served until 1918, when he left to become the provost of Eton College, a position he held until his death in 1936.

Despite being backwards-looking, the creepiness of James’ stories holds up beautifully, and it’s difficult to overstate the influence he has had on the genre. Take, as one example, ‘A School Story’, in which two men compare the ghost stories of their school days.  Here is an image that should be familiar to anyone who saw ‘The Blair Witch Project’:

“First there was the house with a room in which a series of people insisted on passing a night; and each of them in the morning was found kneeling in a corner, and had just time to say, ‘I’ve seen it,’ and died.”

Like Lovecraft (writing around the same time), James is at his creepiest at moments like this, when he leaves things unsaid.  The most grisly action, the terrible spectre, always appears offscreen, and is more unsettling because you have to imagine it yourself. James is very deft in this space, in the gesturing to horror, in inviting the reader to participate in designing the frightening thing.

Of course, the danger with leaving too much to your readers’ imagination is that some readers will bring their own, strange baggage to the encounter.  Enter Darryl Jones, Professor of Modern British Literature and Culture at Trinity College Dublin, who wrote the (otherwise) very good introduction to the 2011 ‘Collected Ghost Stories by M. R. James’.

My complaint with Jones is a small, but important, one. At one point in his (really very good and helpful) introduction, Jones spends a while dissecting James’ resistance to marriage and preference for male relationships before turning to this passage, from ‘Casting the Runes’:

“…he put his hand into the well-known nook under the pillow: only, it did not get so far.  What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being.”

Jones then calmly makes the following statement: “…this image of the hairy, fanged mouth…is a powerful symbol of sexual terror, a vagina dentata.”

Is it, Darryl? Is it really?

Jones didn’t invent the vagina dentata, or vagina with teeth; it appears in Jungian literature, and in several South American, Ainu, and Hindu folk tales (as well as in the memorably bad horror movie ‘Teeth’).  It’s hardly a common trope, though, and while most of Jones’ analysis seems straightforward and sound, this abrupt veer into genitalia seems more his problem than James’.  Surely, other perfectly normal and astute readers might have read and reread James’ passage without thinking, ‘Oh, yes, that’s clearly a toothed vagina”.

Indeed, Jones finds vaginas all over the place.  In ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’, the antiquarian Somerton is exploring a ‘dark cavity’ inside a well when he meets “the extremity of terror and repulsion which a man can endure without losing his mind”.  He is “conscious of a most horrible smell of mould, and of a cold kind of face pressed against my own, and of several – I don’t know how many – legs or arms or tentacles or something clinging to my body.” This story, explains Jones, “is ultimately a tale of uncontrollable sexual terror, a quest which leads Mr. Somerton to this nightmare vagina, and an encounter which he barely survives.”

Jones’ argument, namely that James’ cloistered and all-male life might have indicated a fear of female company, is not unreasonable on its face. Nor is it unreasonable to ask whether that fear may have found its way into James’ writing as, to quote Jones, “a nightmare image of the monstrous-feminine”.

However, I’m not persuaded by the examples Jones gives. I’ll put it more plainly: it’s not obvious to me that every menacing crevice must necessarily be a vagina.

James may well have eschewed female company, and it may be the case that “the lifelong appeal of institutions for James was that they provided the security of all-male environments”.  He may have been a homosexual, but does that really mean that there lurked in every dark corner of his expansive imagination…a vagina? 

I don’t want to make this all about me, but, as a person with a vagina, it’s difficult not to take this a tiny bit personally. I would certainly have hoped that nothing on my body could be described as eliciting “the extremity of terror and repulsion which a man can endure without losing his mind”. The trouble is that Jones seems to assume that every dank environment, every toothed oriface, every bad smell, must be a vagina. Worse, that he assumes it’s obvious. Reading his introduction, one starts to wonder whether, for a certain class of man, all monsters are really just vaginas. Some of Jones’ examples are real stretches, too – I don’t want to speak for other women, but I’ve never heard of a vagina with tentacles.

It’s a minor complaint, in the grand scheme of things, but I would like make this small point: the world is a large place, full of terrible things, and not all of them have to be vaginas. We can imagine other monsters, can we not? Sometimes, a cave is just a cave.

The Age Of Innocence

By Edith Wharton

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I’ve reached a point in my life when I have probably forgotten most of what I’ve read.

I estimate that I have read, on average, seventy-five books a year for the past twenty years. Some of those books have been, basically, wiped from my working memory. I will read back over my reading list and think, “Oh yeah, I did read that.” There are classics, Great Books, which I have read and about which I can recall absolutely nothing at all (‘The Adventures of Augie March’, for example – I couldn’t tell you what that book was about with a gun to my head). Many of the books I’ve read live in my memory as ghosts, barely discernible but definitely there (‘On Human Bondage’: I’m pretty sure someone falls in love with a waitress).

On the other hand, some books stay with me with extraordinary vividness. More than that, there are passages that I can recall almost word for word, decades after I read them. These passages have meaningfully changed me, and I carry them through my life, using them to understand myself and the world around me.

There is no rhyme or reason to what lodges in my heart in this way. Sometimes, it’s not even a passage in the traditional sense: it is a moment, or a single sentence. But they have shaped me, these passages, informed my ideas of love and honor and grief.

The end of ‘The Age of Innocence’ is one of those moments. I have carried the end of that book with me for years; I remember it, I’m haunted by it. I love it, and I think it is one of the most beautiful, poignant, humane moments in literature.

‘The Age of Innocence’ is the story of Newland Archer. Newland is a child of one of New York City’s most prominent families, the oldest blood in the New World. He is engaged to, and marries, May Welland, a young woman from an equally illustrious family. May is kind and lovely but utterly proper – everyone agrees that he has made a great match.

However, one night, Newland is introduced to the Countess Olenska. The Countess, who is May’s cousin, has fled her marriage to a wicked European count. She is living in New York, a woman separated from her husband, an object of pity and mild scandal. She is different from any woman Newland has ever known: independent in thought, unconventional, and interesting. Certainly, she is quite different from the entirely conventional May. As Newland falls more and more desperately in love with Olenska, he begins to chafe at the restraints of New York high society, and the norms which circumscribe his life.

Eventually, he and the Countess Olenska determine that they will run away together. On the eve of their flight, though, May comes to him and tells him that she is pregnant. Newland is unwilling, or unable, to abandon his young family, and Countess Olenska leaves New York City.

The very last, short section of the book takes place decades later. Newland Archer is a well-respected widower, a New York City fixture, taking a trip with his adult son, Dallas, to Paris. He learns that the Countess Olenska, now a widow herself, is also in Paris. Newland, finally free of the wife with whom he stayed out of obligation, decides to visit her one afternoon. On his way, though, he has this conversation with his son:

“‘…But mother said-‘

‘Your mother?’

‘Yes: the day before she died. It was when she sent me alone – you remember? She said she knew we were safe with you, and always would be, because once, when she asked you to, you’d given up the thing you most wanted.’

Archer received this strange communication in silence. His eyes remained unseeingly fixed on the thronged sunlit square below the window. At length he said in a low voice: ‘She never asked me.’

‘No, I forgot. You never did ask each other anything, did you? And you never told each other anything. You just sat and watched each other, and guessed at what was going on underneath…’

Archer did not accompany his son to Versailles. He preferred to spend the afternoon in solitary roamings through Paris. He had to deal all at once with the packed regrets and stifled memories of an unarticulate lifetime.

After a while he did not regret Dallas’s indiscretion. It seemed to take an iron band from his heart to know that, after all, someone had guessed and pitied…And that it should have been his wife moved him indescribably.”

Newland decides not to visit the countess. He will never see her again.

We live in a romantic culture. Most of us would be sympathetic, I think, to the idea that Newland should have pursued romantic love. We conflate romance and actualization: we feel, instinctively, that Newland was denied something fundamental when he was denied his chance to spend an unconventional life with the woman he loved.

Newland chooses duty over romance – this is a choice we understand. But we expect, at the end of his life, when his wife is dead and his duty is discharged, that Newland will choose to see his countess, to be reunited with her. His decision not to changed the way I think about the world.

Edith Wharton

I have pondered this passage for years. Not at all dramatic, is it? You could drive right past it without noticing, if you were sprinting for the end. I cannot articulate what it means to me. It is that sentence, “It seemed to take an iron band from his heart to know that, after all, someone had guessed and pitied…”, the suffering it implies, which moves me. The idea of a life so lonely (“the packed regrets and stifled memories of an unarticulate lifetime”) that even the knowledge of a witness, the knowledge of not having been invisible in your sadness, could be so powerful.

Or perhaps it is the quiet, desperate dignity of a man choosing to honor the life he had instead of the life he wanted. Of the understanding that we cannot have all things, and perhaps it is best simply to be what we are.

I think, when I was younger, I became obsessed with this passage because I didn’t really understand Newland’s choice. But, as I have gotten older, I understand better that life is often full of grief for what we did not have, did not do. Very few of us make it through our lives without wondering after, longing for, another path, at least for a time. It is too late to chase what might have been – all that remains is to honor and enjoy what was. And the silent, loving witness of his wife reminds Newland that what was, while not perfect, while not romantic, was worthy.

I understand, in a way I could not before, that Newland, at the end of his life, chooses himself. Newland’s dearest wish had been taken from him by the inopportune pregnancy of his wife. Only, in the end, by renouncing the Countess again could Newland claim the choice as his own. It was the only way to make his peace, I think, with the life he had.

There comes in a time in our lives when what we wish, most dearly, is not to regret any longer. The time is spent – the only choice that remains is whether or not to be at peace with what has happened. What ‘The Age of Innocence’ taught me is that, while the price of that peace might be high indeed, it is worth paying.

Life of PI

By Yann Martel

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS, BUT THIS POST CONTAINS SERIOUS SPOILERS

I think ‘Life of Pi’ might have the most wonderful ending of any novel I’ve ever read.

I first read ‘Life of Pi’ years ago, soon after it came out. I would have described it as a great read, if not a great book. I thought it was beautiful, but significant mostly for its for its breathtaking premise. I would have said it should be celebrated primarily for the novelty of its plot.

Which plot: Pi Patel is born and raised in Pondicherry, India, where his father is the local zookeeper. Pi grows up in the Pondicherry Zoo, among the animals, a serious and happy little boy with a religious bent: he becomes, entirely without his parents’ knowledge, a practicing Hindu, Christian, and Muslim.

When Pi is twelve years old, his parents decide to leave India and emigrate to Canada. The family boards a cargo ship, the Tsimtsum, along with many of their animals which are destined for zoos all over the world. En route, however, the Tsimstum sinks, drowning Pi’s entire family and leaving him stranded on a life boat with a hyena, an orangutan, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

‘Life of Pi’ is the story of a sweet-hearted and devout little boy surviving an ordeal: 277 days at sea with a tiger for a shipmate. It is about his grief, his suffering, his survival and his relationship with Richard Parker. And it’s a gorgeous story – lovely and funny and vibrant and humane, totally totally original. The ending, though, is complicated.

When Pi finally makes landfall in Mexico, starved, malnourished, anguished, the Japanese company which owned the Tsimtsum sends two agents to speak to him, to learn what might have caused the ship to sink. These two man flatly refuse to believe Pi’s story that he survived at sea with a Bengal tiger. Faced with their disbelief, Pi presents them with another story: when the Tsimtsum sank, four people made it to the life boats: Pi, his mother, the ship’s cook, and a young, injured sailor. The cook killed and ate the sailor first, then Pi’s mother.

“He killed her. The cook killed my mother…They were fighting. I did nothing but watch. My mother was fighting an adult man. He was mean and muscular. He caught her by the wrist and twisted it. She shrieked and fell. He moved over her. The knife appeared. He raised it in the air. It came down. Next it was up – it was red. It went up and down repeatedly…He raised his head and looked at me. He hurled something my way. A line of blood struck me across the face. No whip could have inflicted a more painful lash. I held my mother’s head in my hands. I let it go. It sank in a cloud of blood, her tress trailing like a tail. Fish spiralled down towards it until a shark’s long grey shadow cut across its path and it vanished. I looked up. I couldn’t see him. He was hiding at the bottom of the boat. He appeared when he threw my mother’s body overboard. His mouth was red. The water boiled with fish…I stabbed him repeatedly. His blood soothed my chaps hands. His heart was a struggle – all those tubes that connected it. I managed to get it out. It tasted delicious, far better than turtle. I ate his liver. I cut off great pieces of his flesh…So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with the animals or the story without animals?” (p.317)

Over the years though, my mind returned again and again to that ending. It took on greater scope as I got older, came to seem much more profound, less literal, than it had when I first encountered it. Now, upon rereading it, I think I have become convinced that the ending is best, the most beautiful, part of the novel.

This choice is, of course, actually being presented to the reader. You understand that the choice is fictional, that neither story is ‘true’ the way, say, Watergate is true. But you also understand that you are being asked how you, the reader, personally see the world. Are you inclined to believe that a boy lived on a boat with a tiger? That two such different animals were able to coexist, to form a relationship, however unlikely and frightening it may have been? That, in fact, the fear and the unlikeliness are part of what made it so beautiful? Do you believe that it is possible, if not probable, that these moments of unlikely beauty happen all the time? That the world is large and strange enough to accommodate many such miracles?

Or do you believe the horror? Do you believe that this little boy was forced to watch, helpless, while his mother was killed and eaten? That he is, himself, a cannibal and a murderer?

There’s a lot at stake in this decision. I think that, essentially, what you are trying to decide is what a story is. You are trying to decide whether or not there is ordinary magic in the world, whether wonderful and fantastic things happen, or whether we invent them to adorn the bleak and unsparing horror of the human condition.

For “Life of Pi’, this is a religious question as well as a factual one. Recall that Pi is a religious child: he refuses to choose between Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam because he loves them all equally. For Pi, religion itself is an expression of love and gratitude for the world he lives in, which he considers beautiful and miraculous.

But, if his own story, beautiful and miraculous, is a fiction designed to hide from horror, then perhaps religion is, too. Perhaps all beautiful stories are lies we tell in order to hide our suffering from ourselves. Perhaps they are a way to layer meaning onto suffering, to justify it, to disguise it with beauty. But, perhaps, suffering has no meaning at all.

Without his story, Pi is victim of terrible accident, witness to brutality he did nothing to invite. Some random dice-roll of the universe dealt him a terrible fate, and it meant nothing. A little boy watched his mother eaten, and it meant nothing. The little boy himself resorted to monstrosity in order to survive, and it meant nothing.

Yann Martel

With his story, he is a boy who experienced a miracle.

I suspect that most people feel an immediate affinity for one version of the story or the other, an instinctive and instant sense of what is “right” – I certainly do. I’ve talked to a lot of people about this book over the years. Most prefer the animal story – it is, after all, the better story. More, it is the better world: more beautiful, kinder, and more magical.

But others feel unshakably that the second story, the human story, the awful story, must be the “true” one. I am of the latter camp. Over the years, I have come to suspect that this is due to a sort of moral pessimism on my part: I think I believe that the second story must be true because it is more horrible. I have become convinced that reality will always trend to the worst possible outcome, that, if there is doubt, the bleakest story will turn out to be the truest.

I wish I was the other kind of person. I wish I believed the magical story, I wish that it didn’t seem obvious to me that the sadder story is the truer story. I wish I had better faith; I wish I had more magic.

Galápagos

By Kurt Vonnegut

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I went through a big Vonnegut phase when I was a teenager.

I think that’s pretty normal, actually, for bookish teenagers: a Vonnegut phase. There are a suite of authors (all male) that seem to appeal to adolescent brains: Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac, Tom Robbins, Hunter. S Thompson, &c. They all share a worldview: anti-authoritarian, irreverent, nonconformist (not coincidentally, all traits to which teenagers often aspire). These authors have made their careers pointing out the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of bourgeois American lives and values, and American teenagers, longing to be different than their parents, tend to encounter them with gratitude and enthusiasm.

Not all teenagers, of course, and not everyone loves all of them – I, for example, despise Jack Kerouac, and rank him among the most-overrated authors of all time (number two with a bullet, right under Henry David Thoreau). But a lot of us have spent formative years embracing an author like this, discovering that the world is bigger than we thought.

Vonnegut was my guy during that phase. He is funnier than most of the other authors on that list, and he had an offbeatness to him, a quirkiness, that the more Kerouacian and self-serious authors lacked. I took a shine to him and read everything I could. While I admired ‘Slaughterhouse Five’, I loved his more apocalyptic visions, ‘Cat’s Cradle’, ‘Sirens of Titan’, and ‘Galapagos’, which was my favorite. Over the years, my Vonnegut collection has dwindled, but I have always kept my copy of ‘Galapagos’, moving it from apartment to apartment. I have nurtured a nostalgia for it, an attachment to this book whose plot I can barely remember.

I have always intended to reread it, but have felt a certain trepidation. I am twenty years older now than I was when I read it the first time. Books cherished in our adolescence don’t always make it unscathed past our adult judgement and it’s demoralizing to pick up a once-loved book and discover that it’s actually kind of crappy. It changes the value of your own remembered world. I didn’t want that to happen to ‘Galápagos’, and I had a suspicion it would. I had vague memory of a tone, a general contempt for humanity, that doesn’t feel as admirable to me now as it did when I was 15 and angry.

Well, I finally reread ‘Galápagos’ yesterday, and I have found that my suspicions were both right and wrong.

‘Galápagos’ has an iterative, rambling narrative style that makes it almost impossible to spoil. I’ve been playing around, trying to sum up the plot in a sentence or two, but I wasn’t super successful. Here are some of my attempts:

‘Galápagos’ is the story of the survival and evolution of the last few members of the human race after they are stranded on the Galápagos islands during the ‘Nature Cruise of the Century’.

‘Galápagos’ is an apocalypse novel about a group of misfits who are accidentally stranded on the Galápagos Islands as a disease slowly renders mankind infertile.

‘Galápagos’ is an entire novel written to justify the idea that human beings would be better off with smaller brains and flippers.

‘Galápagos’ is a moral treatise whose thesis is that human brain power has evolved to the point that it is antithetical to our survival. It is narrated by a ghost.

These are all equally accurate, and yet totally inadequate, descriptions. None of them capture how charming ‘Galápagos’ is. ‘Galápagos’ feels like the apocalypse novel that Carl Hiaasen might have written if he had a major moral ax to grind: it is zany and weird and frivolous and yet somehow deadly serious about the point it’s making. Which point really, seriously, is that our brains are too big and that humanity, as a species, has become so smart that we are now stupid.

Despite the fact that the book is undeniably preachy, Vonnegut takes such delight in the obliteration of his characters that ‘Galápagos’ feels light-hearted. It is funny, though perhaps not as funny as I remembered. Vonnegut has a distinctive wittiness, not subtle but nimble. He has a taste for the absurd, but he almost never goes too far. In general, he keeps his prose skipping over plot and resists getting bogged down in a single point for long.

Which is not to say that ‘Galápagos’ is quite as good as I remember. It is highly, highly repetitive – when Vonnegut finds a phrase or image he likes, he deploys it over and over again, and eventually it becomes exhausting.

Let’s take, as an example, the phrase “big brains”, Vonnegut’s absolute obsession. Here are all the instances of that theme from just the first five pages:

“Human beings had much bigger brains back then than they do today, and so they could be beguiled by mysteries.”

“Many people were able to satisfy their big brains with this answer: They came on natural rafts.”

“But scientists using their big brains and cunning instruments had by 1986 made maps of the ocean floor.”

“Other people back in that era of big brains and fancy thinking asserted that the islands had once been part of the mainland, and had been split off by some stupendous catastrophe.”

See what I mean: repetitive.

Kurt Vonnegut

And Vonnegut has a number of tropes which he repeats with as much assiduousness as his big brains: flippers and mouths, for example. We learn in the opening chapters that humans one million years in the future only have their mouths and their flippers, which features (flippers and mouths) will appear only about a thousand more times in the book.

“It is hard to imagine anybody’s torturing anybody nowadays. How could you even capture somebody you wanted to torture with just your flippers and your mouth?”

“Even if they found a grenade or a machine gun or a knife or whatever left over from olden times, how could they ever make use of it with just their flippers and their mouths?”

“Now, there is a big-brain idea I haven’t heard much about lately: human slavery. How could you ever hold somebody in bondage with nothing but your flippers and your mouth?”

“As for human beings making a comeback, of starting to use tools and build houses and play musical instruments and so on again: They would have to do it with their beaks this time. Their arms have become flippers in which the hand bones are almost entirely imprisoned and immobilized.”

You get the idea.

The endless repetitions are often amusing and often annoying. The entire book, actually, can be described that way: often amusing, often annoying. It has a highly original and winning voice, but it leans too much on it, and it thinks it’s cleverer than it really is.

Nevertheless, it is clever and I really enjoyed it, and that was a tremendous relief. I was worried, when I revisited this adored book, that I would fail to understand what I had once loved, and that’s not the case. I doubt, if I had just read it for the first time, that I would love it quite so much as I did then, but I would have liked it, chuckled at it, and found it worthwhile. I would have respected it and what it was trying to do.

I’m going to put ‘Galápagos’ back on my shelf, and I’m going to get another copy of ‘Cat’s Cradle’. I think it’s time to spend a little more time with Kurt Vonnegut.

The Book of Night Women

By Marlon James

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

Atrocity novels are tough to pull off.

And what, you might be wondering, do I mean by an “atrocity novel”? The term sounds pejorative, and I want to be very clear: I don’t mean it that way. I’m talking about novels which take real atrocities as their subject matter or context: novels about, for example, American slavery, the Holocaust, the Gulag. The term “atrocity novel” is merely my shorthand for describing this kind of story – it is in no way a judgement. ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’, for example, is an atrocity novel. ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ is an atrocity novel. ‘Beloved’ is an atrocity novel.

And ‘The Book of Night Women’ is an atrocity novel.

Atrocity novels have to do two very different things at the same time.

The first thing that they must do is depict. They are set, deliberately, during humanity’s lowest moments: they must show why these moments are, in fact, atrocious. They must communicate to the reader, intelligently and vividly, what the human experience of atrocity is like. They must describe it, bring it home to the reader with force. Ideally, they will do this with force commensurate to the atrocity.

But atrocities are characterized by brutality, savagery, and despair. We remember them because of the depth and scale of the suffering that occurred within them. And because of that, they are tough to read about.

And novels, on the other hand, are, well, novels: unless you are in a high school English class, they are optional. People read them because they want to, not because they have to, which means that novels have to draw the reader in, engage them, and keep them hooked until the end. They must have a character, or a story, which calls and holds the readers’ attention.

I think it’s really hard to balance these two things. At novel-length, stories which make you confront human atrocity can be grueling. Too much suffering, too much brutality examined up close, exhaust the mind and alienate the reader. It’s not that we don’t care – it’s that the mind needs breaks from horror. That is why this kind novel is so tricky: how do you keep the reader engaged and alert while not flinching from the truth you are trying to portray.

Of course, an atrocity-novelist can lean away from brutality, but people chose to write about atrocities because they care about them. If an author is writing a novel about the Holocaust, it’s because they want their readership to think about the Holocaust, to feel its human cost.

‘The Book of Night Women’ is the third book I’ve read by Marlon James. He’s a remarkably strong author – he can move from place to place, time to time, voice to voice, with confidence and competence. He leans into setting, relying heavily on dialect and backdrop, which is normally really aggravating but which he somehow manages to pull off.

‘The Book of Night Woman’ is Lilith’s story. Lilith is born into slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation at the end of the 18th century. Born with bright green eyes, Lilith enjoys special treatment during her childhood, though she does not know who her mother or father are.

One day, another slave breaks into her cabin ands tries to rape her. When Lilith kills and dismembers him, only the help of another slave, Homer, saves her from retribution. Homer, Lilith will learn, is a Night Woman, a group of female slaves who meet in secret. Together, they are planning to overthrow the plantation owners, liberate all Jamaican slaves, and kill every white person on the island.

Any novel which takes, as its subject, the effect of slavery on the human soul is going to be a brutal read – there’s really no getting around it. The slavery practiced in the New World was off the particularly inhumane and soul-crushing variety, and any story which takes an enslaved person’s perspective is going to confront that. That confrontation is the whole point. The challenge that James had in front of him was to make his readers feel the brutality without grinding out their ability to connect with the story.

By the way, I am not trying to problematize that confrontation; on the contrary, I think it’s an urgent moral priority. Literature and film are our most effective artistic vehicles for forcing people to acknowledge the past. What I am trying to say is that I think Marlon James has done a really good job of it in ‘The Book of Night Women’.

There is no way to describe Lilith’s life as anything but agonizing and terrifying, and James allows that to inform every aspect of her person. But he doesn’t let it overwhelm her – she manages to remain distinct from her context even while being embedded within it. She is informed by it, but more than it.

Marlon James

And James somehow manages to accomplish that piece of character building without flinching in any way from the horrors of plantation slavery itself. There is nothing trite about ‘The Book of Night Women’ – no saccharine triumph of goodness over evil, no inviolability of the human spirit, no moral redemptions. Lilith is a brutalized soul – she routinely bears suffering that most of us cannot even really imagine. And James somehow manages to show Lilith’s suffering while also remembering that she is a person.

At the risk of sounding trite myself, that might be the highest possible thing a book like this can achieve. The reason that slavery is an atrocity is because it was practiced on human beings. The only way to acknowledge that atrocity is to depict the humanity of its victims both within and without the atrocity. Reducing them to their suffering misses their humanity; focusing solely on the human story without the atrocity diminishes the moral repulsiveness of keeping humans in bondage.

I think Marlon James is a tremendous moral novelist, capable of expressing his characters’ humanity and the injustices inflicted on them with equal clarity. He does not betray his individuals for the sake of scope or force, reducing them to suffering. Nor does he spare his readers the depth of the sufferings inflicted on his characters. Rather, he blends the two into something greater, more moving, than the sum of its parts. I think he is very deft, very wise, and very honest. It’s rare to find these three qualities in a single novelist. I admire him.

Rebecca

By Daphne du Maurier

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I read ‘Rebecca’ once, years ago, in high school, and I remembered nothing about it save the general tone and premise. I had conceived an idea, however, that ‘Rebecca’ was a maligned novel. While very famous, it is not usually included among the Great Books – people tend to think of it as sort of romance novel-adjacent. I have always assumed that this was an injustice: that if ‘Rebecca’ had been written by a man (instead of by a woman with the absurdly romantic name ‘Daphne du Maurier’), it would be a great deal better celebrated.

‘Rebecca’ begins with our narrator, a young and painfully shy woman who will never be named (we will know her only as the second Mrs. de Winter), working as a lady’s companion in Monte Carlo. One day, she meets Maxim de Winter, a handsome man twice her own age. Her companion tells her that he is the owner of Manderley, a beautiful English estate, and that he is a widower. His late wife, Rebecca, drowned tragically only a year ago and Maxim, our narrator is told, has been deranged by grief ever since.

After a perplexing and whirlwind romance, our narrator marries Maxim and returns with him to Manderley. Once there, she finds herself reminded constantly of the late Rebecca, stifled by her vanished presence. Rebecca, who ran Manderley, who commanded the love and loyalty of the servants (especially Mrs. Danvers, the head of the household), who threw the best parties in the neighborhood, who was brave and witty and elegant and exceptionally beautiful. Slowly, the second Mrs. de Winter will become obsessed with her predecessor, with her marriage to Maxim, and with her strange death.

As someone who has always felt that there are many more great books than Great Books, I have always been a little bit indignant on behalf of ‘Rebecca’. We have tended, as a culture, to relegate novels by women about women to lesser status – they are Entertainment, not Art. Chick Lit, as a named genre, is both real and offensive. It may that there are books which, due to their subject matter, are more likely to appeal (on a population level) to women than to men, but that should not exclude them from Category: Literature.

In my opinion, greatness transcends subject matter. We do not consider books Great because their contents appeal equally to all people. Think about ‘Moby Dick’, with its endless passages about the processing of whale oil. Think about ‘Anna Karenina’, and that middle section where Levin just threshes wheat for a dog’s age. For god’s sake, think about Proust! ‘In Search of Lost Time’ is considered one of humanity’s great artistic works and it contains within itself whole novels worth of esoterica! Given this literary landscape, I fail entirely to see why romance should be considered a niche interest (women only!).

On the other hand, if I am being fair, I should mention that perhaps ‘Rebecca’ is Not-Great for reasons other than its feminine perspective. It is a true Gothic Romance, with all the requisite elements: a mysterious marriage, a rambling spooky house, creepy servants, dark aristocratic family secrets. Romances (Gothic or otherwise) are often sneered at, in part because they tend not to be terribly sophisticated, from a literary perspective.

And while there is more perhaps atmosphere and less bodice-ripping in ‘Rebecca’ than in other romances, it’s not sophisticated, nor is it subtle. Romances don’t aspire to plausibility, and they do not intend to instruct. They are meant to be absorbing rather than enriching, and, certainly, I do not feel enriched by ‘Rebecca’.

Lack of moral nourishment does not make a book bad, obviously, but I’m not convinced, having reread it, that ‘Rebecca’ is good so much as it is entertaining. But it is entertaining, and to a degree that required serious skill on du Maurier’s part. It’s difficult to build an entire novel around a character who never appears, especially if that character is cast in the role of villain.

Villains have to appear in stories, because they need either to vanquish or be vanquished, which they cannot do off-screen. You can spin them out, keep them in the wings for a long time, but eventually, we need to confront them. I don’t know that I can think of a single other story where the villain never makes an appearance.

Part of the reason, I think, that villains must come into the light is because, if they don’t actually appear, they can’t hurt us. And if they can’t hurt us, they can’t scare us. A menacing but unrealized presence hovering off-screen might be creepy, but it isn’t a villain. A villain must exert force, must act on other characters, and it must act, at least once, with the audience for a witness.

Daphne du Maurier

What ‘Rebecca’ does beautifully, though, is cheat that requirement on a technicality. Rebecca herself is a marvelous villain: perfect, beautiful, malicious, and dead. And her deadness is a strength, not a weakness. As our narrator herself says, “If there were some woman in London that Maxim loved, someone he wrote to, visited, dined with, slept with, I could fight with her. We would stand on common ground. I should not be afraid. Anger and jealousy were things that could be conquered. One day the woman would grow old or tired or different, and Maxim would not love her any more. But Rebecca would never grow old. Rebecca would always be the same. And she and I could not fight. She was too strong for me.” (p. 234)

There are two reasons why I think it works to have Rebecca be a villain from beyond the grave. The first is that, while Rebecca might be dead, Manderley is still inhabited by her avatar, Mrs. Danvers, her devoted and psychotic servant. If Rebecca is dead, Mrs. Danvers can still act on her behalf.

The second is that our narrator, the second Mrs. de Winter, is so terrorized by the memory of her husband’s first wife that Rebecca feels very present to the reader. She may not be alive, but she dominates the novel as completely as she dominates the second Mrs. de Winter.

These two mechanisms allow du Maurier to achieve what might otherwise be impossible: to make a dead villain into an active and effective villain. And effective villains, really effective villains, are artistic achievements in their own right. No work of art is perfect – perhaps work can achieve greatness through one of its facets. We give Oscars for aspects of a film: acting, directing, sound-editing. So while ‘Rebecca’ might not be Great Art, it does have a Great Villain. Surely that earns it a slot in the Literature Hall of Fame.

Troubled Blood

By Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I know that J.K. Rowling has become a subject of some controversy in recent years. Some of her stated opinions, particularly her positions on trans-women and womanhood in general, have alienated her from large parts of her public. I’d like to completely avoid the topic of her politics here, not because I agree with them, but because there are some aspects of her written work that I admire and would like to discuss. If you think that it’s impossible or improper to discuss an author’s strengths if you find her politics abhorrent, I suggest, without rancor, that you skip this post.

I’ve talked a lot here about the differences between fiction and Literature. I feel strongly that we should have different standards of greatness for different kinds of books, standards which take the goals of the books into account. I see no reason why we cannot consider, say, ‘World War Z’ a great book just because we also consider ‘East of Eden’ a great book – they are both great, just in different ways.

Robert Galbraith (who is J.K. Rowling) published the first of the Cormoran Strike series, ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’, in 2013. ‘Troubled Blood’ is the fifth novel of the series. All five books follow the career of two private detectives: the one-legged ex-boxer, ex-military policeman Cormoran Strike, and his business partner Robin Ellacott. The two meet in the first novel, when Robin accepts a temp position in Strike’s obscure little detective agency. By the fifth novel, they are partners in a quite-famous detective agency, two opposites working together, solving murders and nurturing their growing intimacy.

If that sounds like a worn premise, you’re right: it is. But it doesn’t really matter. There’s a reason that the British detective novel has endured: the genre is built upon a very robust narrative structure. It lends itself to iteration, and resists boredom. Murder mysteries require only three ingredients to be successful: complicated and interesting murders, tolerably good characters, and writing that stays out of the way.

J.K. Rowling can obviously handle plot and character with both hands tied behind her back. So today, I’d like to talk about that third element: writing that stays out of the way.

When we describe writing as ‘good’, we usually mean positively good. We mean that it is lovely, the language beautiful, the descriptions apt. We mean that we notice it. We almost never talk about writing that is negatively good, that serves its purpose so well that we do not notice it. We do not have words for the idea, in literature, that some writing serves its best purpose by vanishing.

Genre novels are story-driven: plot is their purpose. They are not often thought of as literary, for the simple reason that they are usually badly written. That doesn’t make them bad – again, language is not their purpose – but it often makes them more difficult to read. When the writing is poor, it disrupts the reader’s focus. You stop and think, ‘Ugh, what a terrible description’, or, ‘He used that metaphor already’, or, ‘No one would ever say that in real life’. It compromises your immersion in the story.

And that immersion is crucial to the experience of genre novels. Because they’re all about plot, plot is what you focus on when you read them. A perfect genre experience is to read without noticing the language, to inhabit the story and not the writing. And while that might sound easy, writing invisibly isn’t simply a question of not writing badly – it is a skill, and there aren’t that many people who do it well.

J.K. Rowling does it brilliantly. J.K. Rowling is famous for her stories, but in my opinion, her actual writing is at least as skilled as her world-building. No one thinks about her that way, as great master of prose craft, but she really is. She just has a different goal than high “literary” authors.

Rowling somehow always manages to deliver crystal clear stories without obstruction from her language. Her prose slides through your brain as easily as your own thoughts. When reading her, you never stop and think, ‘What does that mean? What just happened there? Why did she use that word?’. Her language is basically a perfect delivery system for what matters to her: her stories.

Let me put it another way: she has flawless negative style. Her writing is characterized by a total absence of noticeable tics, habits, or flourishes. There is nothing to distract from the meaning, which is nevertheless always expressed well and coherently.

Here are two passages picked (truly) at random from ‘Troubled Blood’:

“With three days to go before Christmas, Strike was forced to abandon the pretense that he didn’t have flu. Concluding that the only sensible course was to hole up in his attic flat while the virus passed through his system, he took himself to a packed Sainsbury’s where, feverish, sweating, breathing through his mouth and desperate to get away from the crowds and the canned carols, he grabbed enough food for a few days, and bore it back to his two rooms above the office.” (p. 316)

J.K. Rowling

Another:

“So furious did Roy Phipps look, that Robin quite expected him to start shouting at the newcomers, too. However, the hematologist’s demeanor changed when his eyes met Strike’s. Whether this was a tribute to the detective’s bulk, or to the aura of gravity and calm he managed to project in highly charged situations, Robin couldn’t tell, but she thought she saw Roy decide against yelling. After a brief hesitation, the doctor accepted Strike’s proffered hand, and as the two men shook, Robin wondered how aware men were of the power dynamics that played out between them, while women stood watching.” (p. 413)

I know that this writing isn’t beautiful in the normal sense of that word, but I am deeply impressed by it. Rowling makes reading easy; she removes all drag on the brain from language. When you read her, it’s like there is no barrier between the text and your understanding of it. It’s smooth.

And the thing I admire the most about it is that Rowling has not sacrificed any precision or complexity in order to achieve that smoothness. The sentences are structurally sophisticated; they are branching, phrasal. They contain description, they are vivid. And they are very clear: their meaning is unmistakable.

This writing isn’t flashy, it isn’t emotionally powerful, it isn’t poetic. There is an almost total absence of rhetorical flourish: no poetry – just information. Nevertheless, it is really, really good. It takes a lot of control to produce writing this tight: a lot of discipline, a lot of facility.

I know that Rowling will be remembered for ‘Harry Potter’, for the world and the wizards and the stories, and fair enough: she writes great stories. But I think she’s also a great writer, in the technical sense of the world: she is great at writing, exceptionally so. And I hope that someone also remembers her for that.

The Lost Daughter

By Elena Ferrante

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I’ve never written about Elena Ferrante here before except once, in passing. At that time, all I said was:

“Sometimes, a Tier 2 novels transcends category: it is a story only about the specific people and specific incidents described, but it is so beautiful and perfect, so finely and humanely drawn, that it feels as though it touches on something universal, and so becomes about the common human experience without ever becoming a metaphor. Elena Ferrante’s novels are, in my opinion, the best of example of this kind of category-straddle: indisputably, to me, Tier 2 novels, the depiction of the two women at the heart of those books is so deft and true that it becomes about us all, in the ways that we are all alike.”

I didn’t go into specifics because the books to which I was referring, ‘The Neapolitan Novels’, are among the most hyped novels of the past twenty years. There was about a two-year period where every single book critic, NPR podcaster, or coastal culture-head was raving about ‘The Neapolitan Novels’, raving. You’d have thought they were the best books ever written by anyone, ever.

I tend to avoid books that are so popular, because I’m contrarian and reactive. But my mother asked me to read the first book, to give it a go and let her know if it was as good as everyone said. And it was, it was exactly as good as everyone said, and I ordered the remaining three novels immediately and read all four books within the space of a week, so that I cannot now remember which one is which, I can only recall the story complete.

Ferrante actually wrote ‘The Lost Daughter’ before ‘The Neapolitan Novels’. It is much shorter, a novella really, but it is recognizably the same author. It’s protagonist, Leda, is a single mother whose two young-adult daughters have just moved out of her home. To celebrate her new freedom, Leda decides to take a long summer holiday. While sitting on the beach, she begins observing a large Neapolitan family, becoming obsessed with a young mother and her daughter. When the little girl, Elena, briefly goes missing, Leda finds herself involved in the family drama, her own maternal regrets coming to the surface.

The same things that Ferrante did so well in ‘The Neapolitan Novels’, she does them here as well. Her most remarkable ability as a novelist, from my point of view, is her ability to invent women whose interior world is instantly recognizable to other women, even when their circumstances are very different from ours.

That is what I meant when I wrote that Ferrante’s novels transcend the stories that they tell. They are stories about individual women, individual lives, but they are so well-imagined, so well-drawn, that they speak convincingly about womanhood itself.

It’s really difficult to do this. In general, the more specific a story, the fewer people will connect with it. Perversely, the more we believe in a character, the less the character can serve as our avatar. It is easier to project yourself onto a blank slate; the more specific difference between you and a character, the greater the challenge of identification. There is no reason for me to identify with the struggles of a Neapolitan mother, fighting against rigid patriarchy, violence (implied or otherwise), poverty, motherhood. None of these factors describe my life.

But Ferrante’s women somehow fully inhabit their own stories and yet also leave space for ours. They are complete as characters, no holes or gaps, but they also contain us within them. Their womanhood informs them in the same way our womanhood informs us, and Ferrante’s particular gift is being able to show that without telling you about it, so you as her reader can find yourself in her characters, their womanhoods and the events of their peculiar lives.

It’s complicated, and I’m not explaining it well. But it is very powerful, in part because her characters are all ambivalent women. They are all women who feel constrained in some way by their own femininity, either by marriage, motherhood, family. They are limited by the intersection of their womanhood and the rest of the world, and even if you have not been so limited, to be a woman is to be constantly aware of the possibility.

I did not love ‘The Lost Daughter’ as much as I loved ‘The Neapolitan Novels’, but that isn’t because it isn’t excellent – it absolutely is. I think I loved it less because it is shorter. ‘The Neapolitan Novels’ are luxurious – they span nearly 2000 pages. You live in those books for the duration of reading – they are so well-done that you can.

‘The Lost Daughter’ is too short to inhabit: it accomplishes with gesture what ‘The Neapolitan Novels’ accomplish with depth. Nevertheless, the world, the problems, the bitternesses, are all the same, all recognizable. Like ‘The Neapolitan Novels’, ‘The Lost Daughter’ is so well-imagined that it is completely persuasive. And, for a woman who carries her own maternal ambivalences around with her wherever she goes, it is haunting and unsettling.

Regretful motherhood is so rarely depicted that it is difficult to know how much it happens. American culture (of which I am a member but Ferrante, importantly, is not) is oppressive in its celebration of maternal joy – it is very unusual to hear people talk about disliking or regretting their own children.

And I am grateful to Ferrante for doing it – her willingness to examine the hatreds and bitternesses of mothers is a godsend to women like me, women who did not have children because we were scared we would become mothers like Leda: trapped, angry, thwarted and bitter. I can’t think of another author who explores this exact territory in this way, and certainly no other author who explores it with so much humanity.

I highly recommend ‘The Lost Daughter’, but I do not recommend it nearly as highly as I recommend ‘The Neapolitan Novels’. But, really, I recommend them both: they are both forays into the same world, the same psychology. I am hard-put to think of novels that meant more to me as woman, or novels which impressed me more in their world-building. ‘The Lost Daughter’ is basically an amuse-bouche to the meal of ‘The Neapolitan Novels’ – if you ask me, you should eat it all.

A Thousand Acres

By Jane Smiley

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I would like to make a very specific recommendation this week. I would like to recommend reading ‘A Thousand Acres’, by Jane Smiley, and I would like to recommend reading it while high.

Normally, I don’t read when I’m high. I’m not super-functional high, not one of those people who can smoke and then do activities, cleaning or writing or whatever. For me, getting high is an activity; so is reading. The latter uses my whole brain; the former basically powers my brain down. I don’t do them both at the same time.

But the other evening, I took an edible and then decided to read ‘A Thousand Acres’ while I waited for it to kick in. I got sucked into the book and didn’t notice the effect of the edible until I was very high. But the experience was working for me, so I just kept reading. It worked for me so well, in fact, that I am now recommending the experience to you.

Jane Smiley published ‘A Thousand Acres’ in 1991; it won the Pulitzer Prize. It is ‘King Lear’, set in Iowa in the 1970’s. The Cooks have farmed their piece of land for four generations now, growing and prospering until theirs is the largest farm in Zebulon County. One day, Larry, the dominating patriarch of the family, decides to form a corporation with his three daughters, Ginny, Rose, and Caroline, effectively turning the farm over to them. When Caroline objects to the arrangement, the bonds holding the family together begin to dissolve.

Maybe it’s stupid for me to have been surprised that a re-telling of ‘King Lear’ is interesting, but I’ll be frank: ‘intergenerational trauma in Iowa farming family’ is not a description that gets my motor running. It just sounds like it will be grim and boring.

Grim it surely is, but not boring. ‘A Thousand Acres’ is told from Ginny’s perspective. Ginny, if we accept Shakespeare’s moral axis, is one of the two wicked daughters. But Smiley does not accept it, and Ginny and Rose aren’t simple villains in any sense. In fact, nothing in ‘A Thousand Acres’ is simple, but if there is a villain, it is Larry Cook, our Lear, who looms over the novel, frightening, unpredictable, unknowable, and mad.

‘King Lear’ has always been a sinister story, but its menace was designed for the grand gestures of the stage. ‘A Thousand Acres’ is sinister in the way of domestic dramas, where the same weaknesses and malevolences of the great tragedies are played out in the spaces where we live, in confinement and in privacy.

That confinement, that concentration, makes them more dreadful, more creepy, and Smiley uses that to great effect. ‘A Thousand Acres’ is stiflingly suspenseful. It is a story of the many ways that a terrible father can mutilate the psyches of his loving daughters, of the effect of domestic terror and control on a family. As Larry descends into madness, so do Rose and Ginny: the suffering that they have endured erupts into their own madness. Because Ginny is our narrator, her unraveling interrupts the flow of our experience: terrible things are discussed as though they were of no consequence. The reader is never allowed to achieve balance.

And this is where being high comes in. I can’t think of the last piece of culture I consumed that meshed as well with being high*. Everything about this book is conducive to high-reading. The suspense, the slow unfurling, the layered brutality of the Cook family, these would be absorbing if you weren’t high. When you are, it’s impossible to look away from: your complete attention is drawn to the narrative. I am a focused reader in general, but when I was reading ‘A Thousand Acres’, I managed to forget anything outside the book. I inhabited the story.

Jane Smiley

*Actually, I can: ‘Apocalypse Now’.

As Ginny slowly becomes unhinged, her behavior becomes more extreme. Meanwhile her narrative quality remains the same. This contrast, the divergence of tone and action, was magnificent for me when I was high. Deep, marijuana-fueled focus made these leaps in narrative stakes seem even more discontinuous. It became, through its non-linearity, a recapitulation of the experience of other people’s madness.

I’m making two recommendations, and I am making them both strongly. ‘A Thousand Acres’ is a great novel under any reading conditions. Don’t be put-off by the setting: this is not a farm story, and it’s not boring. It has none of the traditional drawbacks of midwestern family dramas: the endless simmering, the unresolvable mesh of implication.

Quite the contrary: ‘A Thousand Acres’ is a beautifully dark re-imagining of ‘King Lear’ (not source material lacking for darkness anyway), and it is true to its origin story. It is Shakespearean: the gestures are grand; so is the scope. The violence is brutal and real, not implied.

As for reading it high, think about it this way:

Most of the time, when people talk about being moved by Shakespeare, they are talking about the language. Even when they are talking about the stories, they mean the stories told in the language. But the stories are also terrible and powerful, and it is worth taking a chance to access the stories themselves. Re-tellings, like ‘A Thousand Acres’, can do that: they can allow you to access the story without getting lost in language.

Imagine encountering the great, violent Shakespearean tragedies (‘Lear’, ‘Macbeth’, ‘Hamlet’) for the first time. Imagine that their language was as familiar to you as your own. And imagine being stoned out of your gourd while seeing them. Think how much more terrifying, how much more moving, they would be. Marijuana gives you focus and access: think about living, briefly, inside those plays instead of merely thinking about them.

That’s what reading ‘A Thousand Acres’ high is like. It’s like living in ‘King Lear’, just for a night. It’s a mind-fuck: brutal, frightening, moving, memorable.