Rebecca

By Daphne du Maurier

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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)

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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

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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

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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.

The Memoirs of Two Young Wives

By Honore de Balzac

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I always have the same experience when I read Balzac.

I love Balzac – I think he’s brilliant. His best books (‘Pere Goriot’, ‘Cousin Bette’) are masterpieces of cynical observation, of moral punishment. He is bleak and unforgiving and magnificent – I really admire him.

However, even knowing his excellence as I do, I always struggle when I begin a new Balzac book. The first thing that always strikes me, strikes me like a blow in the face, is how extremely French he is. French, but not in a good way.

I’m not here to trade in French stereotypes, as much as I may love them. But national literatures have a national character. That can, of course, work to national advantage: often, our literatures represent our best traits. Think of the linguistic precision of English novels, the garrulous descriptiveness of Irish novelists. Think of Garcia Marquez’s lyrical romanticism, or Mann’s unflinching existential anguish: these are national authors who embody their national characters to the strength of the art. For god’s sake, who else but a Russian could have written ‘Crime and Punishment’?

But, of course, our national characters are also sources of global derision. No American who has ever covered their face in a restaurant abroad while listening to their countrymen shout, inexplicably, at wait staff in English could fail to understand this. Often, we turn out to be exactly who the rest of the world expect us to be.

Of course, it’s not that all French people are fruity and histrionic. Obviously not: it’s a stereotype. But, like the Americans shouting in restaurants, it’s a stereotype for a reason. French authors are often, well, pretty French. Sometimes it’s glorious, and sometimes its arduous. And sometimes, as with Balzac, it’s both.

‘The Memoirs of Two Young Wives’ is an epistolary novel about the relationship between two young women who met at a convent. Louise and Renee are two French noblewomen living in France. Civil laws passed during the Napoleonic era required French nobility to divide their estates equally among their children, instead of leaving the entirety to the eldest son. In effect, this would have meant the division and dilution of great estates over several generations, and, to avoid that, parents often put their otherwise marriageable daughters into convents, where they were not eligible to inherit.

Eventually, Renee and Louise’ families find it politically expedient to remove their daughters from the convent. It is at this point that the novel begins, as the two women, separated from each other for the first time in eight years, write letters describing their now disparate lives. Renee moves to the country, where she is shortly married off to a loyal husband whom she does not love, but with whom she will have several cherished children.

Louise, on the other hand, moves to Paris, where she achieves brilliant social success and eventually seduces and marries a dispossessed Spanish nobleman. Two very different lives: one devoted to love, passion, social success; the other, to duty and to family.

If that sounds like a fairly pedestrian morality play to you, you would be right. I’ll be honest: ‘The Memoirs of Two Young Wives’ isn’t Balzac’s best. If I’m being completely honest, I think it was pretty bad, actually. There are no moral surprises here, nor subtleties. Everything goes exactly as expected; the story is heavy-handed, lame, animated by not one spark of complexity. The two women are as unappetizing a pair of protagonists as I have ever encountered.

And the prose, yikes. It may be that prose construction in this novel is, in French, very beautiful. I try not to judge prose in translation – you just never know. But it is very difficult to imagine how these paragraphs might have been other than garbage, in any language:

“Ever since that morning when you smiled like a noble girl on discovering the misery of my lonely, wronged heart, I placed you on a throne: you are the absolute ruler of my life, the queen of my thoughts, the divinity of my heart, the light that shines in my rooms, the flower of my flowers, the perfume of the air I breathe, the richness of my blood, the glow in which I sleep. That happiness was troubled by one single thought. You did not know you had a boundless devotion to serve you, a loyal arm, a blind slave, a mute agent, a treasury, for I am now only the caretaker of all that is mine; you did not realize, in other words, that you owned a heart in which you may always confide.” (p. 81)

“That darkness was soon brightened by a sensation whose pleasure surpassed that of my child’s first cry. My heart, my soul, my being, an unknown me came into life in its once gray, aching shell, just as a flower erupts from its seed on hearing the shining call of the sun. The little monster took my breast and sucked, and with that, fiat lux!, suddenly I was a mother…There is inexpressible love in his lips, and when they cling to it, they cause a pain and a pleasure at once, a pleasure so strong as to be pain, or a pain that becomes a pleasure…Oh! Louise, no lover’s caress can rival those little pink hands gently roaming over us, clinging to life.” (p. 145)

This one, above, goes on for pages like this, by the way. About how breast-feeding is the highest sensual pleasure a woman can possible experience. Pages.

Honore de Balzac

“To find in a man a mysterious harmony between what he seems and what he is, to find a man who in the secret life of marriage displays the kind of innate grace that cannot be given, that cannot be learned, that the ancient sculptors deployed in the chaste and voluptuous marriages of of their statues, the innocent abandon that the ancient poets put into their verse, and which seems to find in nakedness still another adornment for the soul, the ideal that springs from us and derives from the world of harmonies, which is no doubt the genius of all things, that immense problem pondered by every woman’s imagination – well, Gaston is its living solution.” (p. 215)

The whole novel is like that. Seriously. It’s overwrought and exhausting and, when, eventually, one of our young wives wanders into a lake on purpose to contract consumption on purpose in order to die of her broken heart on purpose, well, it’s honestly a relief.

Part of the problem may be that Balzac won’t say anything in five words if he can say it in five hundred. Part of the problem is that, in this novel, nothing is ordinary and fine; it is only transcendent or tragic. It is these traits that, unfortunately, resonate with Frenchness to unfortunate effect. The incessant purple-prosed fruitiness; the self-serious melodrama: to read ‘The Memoirs of Two Young Wives’ is to feel yourself battered with French stereotype. I’m surprised the French haven’t had it banned, given how much it plays into their worst reputations.

But the biggest part of the problem is that Balzac, for all his imaginative prowess, doesn’t seem to be able, at least in this case, to imagine the world as seen through the eyes of a sheltered young woman. Though he has an otherwise stellar mind, he is apparently completely unable to imagine that women might care about anything other than their husbands, their babies, and the envy of other women.

So, no, between the pedantry, the grim assessment of my gender, and the absolutely mind-numbing French prose, it’s safe to say that I did not enjoy this novel. Though I love Balzac, I simply endured this one.

Luckily, it’s short.

Devil House

By John Darnielle

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about ‘The Final Girl Support Group’. I expressed disappointment, because it had not turned out to be the novel that I wanted to read. Not to be too blunt about it, but I felt it had wasted an opportunity to explicate a cultural phenomenon that needed explicating (final girls in horror movies). Ultimately, however, I was unable to articulate what I needed from ‘The Final Girl Support Group’ that the book failed to provide – I didn’t have the language to describe what I wanted.

‘Devil House’ is what I wanted. ‘Devil House’ does for murder what I wanted ‘The Final Girl Support Group’ to do for horror. It is that very rare thing: a novel which is also an effective moral document, moving, smart, and not annoying.

I picked up ‘Devil’s House’ because it got really, really good reviews. More than that, it got those reviews from reviewers who seemed honestly surprised that the lead singer of the Mountain Goats actually turned out to be able to write good books (I am also surprised, because people aren’t usually good at multiple things). I get really excited when reviewers are surprised – it means they aren’t just rubber-stamping things based on cultural consensus. It means they actually liked the book they’re reviewing.

‘Devil House’ is, loosely speaking, a story about a True Crime writer named Gage Chandler who becomes professionally obsessed with a pair of grisly murders in Milpitas, California. The murders, believed to be the work of local teenagers, happened in an abandoned porn shop. The bodies, badly mutilated, were discovered amidst occult decoration, and local lore has sprung up that the culprits were a practicing Satanic cult. Chandler, who’s speciality is the extensive imagining of the spaces in which murders occur, moves into the porn shop, hoping to figure out what really happened there.

‘Devil House’ is about True Crime, as a genre, but what that really means is that it’s about our cultural relationship to murder. True Crime is, at the very least, a morally complicated phenomenon: ostensibly journalism, it also serves up actual murder as entertainment. The only reason, of course, that it can do that is because murder is already entertainment: grisly killing, under the guise of news, transfixes and obsesses us. As far as I can tell, it always has.

It’s this observation – that True Crime exists because we are fascinated, spellbound, by violent killing – that animates ‘Devil House’. By choosing a True Crime writer as his main protagonist, Darnielle risked reducing his book to a simple morality tale: crime writer gets obsessed, feels regret, bites the hand that feeds him.

This is not that novel – ‘Devil House’ is complex, and there is no such catharsis. Darnielle has chosen to write about one of the murkiest corners of our culture, and he isn’t going to resolve it for us. Instead, he asks us to think about why we spend so much time reading about the terrible things that happen to other people. Why is sexualized or occult violence more interesting? Why is a suburban domestic murder more likely to titillate us than a robbery/homicide in a dangerous neighborhood? Why are we excited by torture? Why are we excited by the deaths of people who look and act like us?

The first problem with True Crime is that is makes murder, the death of real people, into a spectator sport (or, as the book expresses in cutting epigrammatic fashion, “There aren’t any villains in a true crime book. There’s the hero, and there’s his victims.” (p. 61)).

The second problem with True Crime is that it feeds our prejudices, that we use it to confirm our interpretation of the world. We see villains where we wanted to see villains (teenagers, Satanists, the sexually abnormal), and so we miss the fact that villains are humans, too.

John Darnielle, taken from The Boston Globe

Darnielle, if ‘Devil House’ is any indication, is a great novelist. It’s really difficult to write a pedantic novel without being pedantic, to indict your reader without coming across like an asshole. I think Darnielle does it really, really well here. As a novel, ‘Devil House’ is wonderfully un-didactic: its thesis is never quite pronounced, and yet is beautifully humane: that murder is pain passed from one person to another. That the people who commit murders are, usually, individuals in some form of psychic agony (be it rage, psychosis, or desperation), and the act of murder is the explosion of that interior pain out into the world. That when we tune in gleefully to True Crime stories, we are turning pain into entertainment: the pain of the victims, and the pain of the murderers.

‘Devil House’ is the book I have been craving ever since I read ‘The Final Girl Support Group’. It is exactly what I wanted: a smart, unresolved explication of something so culturally ubiquitous that we have stopped noticing that it is completely fucked up. I don’t think Darnielle uses the word ’empathy’ once in ‘Devil House’, but empathy is the center around which the entire novel revolves: why we have it, why we lose it, and what it means when we find it again.

I don’t think Darnielle wants anyone to stop reading True Crime, by the way. He isn’t prosthelytizing. He’s running a thought experiment: what if the people we read about in True Crime books were real people? What if the person writing the True Crime book really connected with that fact, understand that his subjects (victims and murderers alike) were human beings? What would that do to him? What would it do to us, to remember that the people whose stories we read about in headlines, whose deaths we watch in docuseries, whose mysteries we try to solve in podcasts, that those are real people whose pain is equal to our own? Who were loved and cherished the same way we are loved and cherished, the same way we cherish our loved ones?

Would we be entertained then?

Piranesi

By Susanna Clarke

All Posts Contain Spoilers

I think ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell’ is a masterpiece.

I’ve read it several times over the years – it is one of those rare books that gets better every time you read it. It’s magnificent: subtle and funny and sad and totally ingenious, one of those books so enjoyable to read that you look forward to rereading it.

‘Jonathan Strange’ came out in 2004, Susanna Clarke’s first novel. We, her fans, waited fifteen years for her to publish another, and when ‘Piranesi’ finally landed, in 2020, I think it was…thinner than we had all hoped. ‘Jonathan Strange’ is a great honking book (my copy clocks in at 850 pages) – the kind of book you can stretch out into. ‘Piranesi’ is a tight 275 pages, clearly not the leisurely stroll of Clarke’s first novel.

I often save books I’m particularly excited about for treats – I have saved “Piranesi” for a year now. Holding off has allowed me to gather a sense of the public’s response to it, and, while most people seem to love it, there is one thing I have heard over and over again: it is very different from ‘Jonathan Strange’.

Which is obviously emotionally complicated news for everyone who loved ‘Jonathan Strange’. The relationship between readers and authors is very, very complicated. On the one hand, you, as a reader, want the authors that you love to be able to grow, to experiment and try new things and develop. Some people (Tom Clancy’s fans) want to read the same exact book over and over again; everyone else appreciates some variety.

On the other hand, though, you love the authors you love for a reason, and it is not in your interest, as their reader, to encourage them to grow out of doing the thing that you loved in the first place. And authorial growth is rather like random mutation: a few changes are beneficial; most are deleterious.

The answer to this problem is trust. Over the course of their authorial life, writers earn their readers’ trust. They demonstrate reliability in whatever traits have made them loved, and readers learn that, even as the author changes and grows, their work will be still worth reading. The amount of trust is contingent on two things: how reliable the author is, and how outstanding they are, relative to other authors, at the thing which has made them loved in the first place. As a equation, it might look something like this:

Trust = consistency x unique value

The unique value is an expression of the thing that this author does that makes you, the reader, love them especially, that sets them apart from other authors. It might be understood as something like

Unique value = rarity among authors x execution

Where how uniquely prized an author is, is a function both of how good they are at what they do, and how many other people do it.

As an example, let’s take Agatha Christie. Christie is among the most trustworthy authors, probably, who ever lived. But let’s break her down by the components of her Trust Equation:

Trust = consistency x (rarity x execution)

Rarity: Low, basically non-existent. Murder mysteries are common as dirt.

Execution: Medium. Strong but not astonishing. She has a few masterpieces, it’s true, but most of her books are solid rather than shining.

Consistency: 100%. This is the variable doing the heavy-lifting for Christie. She just doesn’t write bad books, and she doesn’t go off-script. If you like what she’s selling, you know you’re going to get it every single time. The trust, in this case, is basically entirely a function of Christie’s consistency.

Let’s take another example: Jane Austen. What do the variables in Austen’s equation look like?

Consistency: Medium. ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is one of the greatest books every written, but if all Jane Austen had written was ‘Persuasion’, no one alive would know her name.

Rarity: Medium-high. The satire of manners is not uncommon, but the gently-biting, feminine perspective of Austen’s works belongs to her and her alone.

Execution: Stellar. This is where Jane Austen shines. She doesn’t pull it off every single time, but when she does, there is literally no one better. This is why Austen has high reader trust: it’s worth reading any of her books because sometimes they will turn out to be ‘Pride and Prejudice’.

Anyway, why am I talking about this in an article about ‘Piranesi’?

New authors are, obviously, deeply handicapped according to this equation: their consistency is N/A. Worse: you don’t even know yet what their traits will be. It may be that the things you loved about their first work were completely incidental to their project. This is what makes the release of an author’s second book so suspenseful: it is only in that second book that you really begin to know who they are.

On one level, ‘Piranesi’ is a very difficult book to describe. Our narrator, called Piranesi although he is pretty sure that it’s not his real name, lives in the House. The House is vast: an endless series of huge rooms filled with statues. Some rooms are flooded; some are open to the air. Great tides sweep through the House, flooding whole chambers and receding. Piranesi loves the House; his days are devoting to fishing for food and mapping the endless halls, charting the tides, and caring for the dead. As far as he knows, there have only been fifteen people in the House, ever: himself, the thirteen skeletons he cares for, and the Other. The Other is aloof and strange, but, as the only other living person in the house, he is also Piranesi’s only friend.

One day, though, the Other warns Piranesi: another person has arrived in the House, Sixteen. Sixteen is wandering the halls of the house, trying to find Piranesi, and, according to the Other, destroy him.

Susanna Clarke

‘Piranesi’ is a good novel, but it’s not, I think, a great one. And here is the thing that surprised me: though it is very different from ‘Jonathan Strange’, that is not the problem with it. In fact, ‘Piranesi’ would have been a better novel if it had been less like ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell’.

‘Jonathan Strange’ is, at heart, a cozy novel. It is Dickensian: it lives in detail, in the specific, closely-observed eccentricities of its characters. It is tangible, concrete, minute. It is not a mystery, and it is not other-worldly. That is exactly its charm: it is a story of magic set in our world, one we know well. It is the juxtaposition of quotidian humanity with the supernatural.

‘Piranesi’ is the opposite: it is a spooky, atmospheric novel, alien and vague. ‘Jonathan Strange’ inhabits fire-lit drawing rooms in London townhouses; ‘Piranesi’ echoes in vast, cold spaces. And those echo-y bits are the best parts of the novel: Piranesi, wandering alone through his House, showing it to us.

As I said, on the one hand, ‘Piranesi’ is a difficult novel to describe. On the other hand, it is very simple: it is a Whodunit. What is the House, who is Piranesi, who is the Other, and how did they get there? These are the animating mysteries of the book, and Clarke answers every single one of them. She answers them clearly: concretely, specifically and very unmagically.

And it’s a let-down. The imaginative premise of ‘Piranesi’ is wonderful, majestic and unnerving and grand. When it is solved, it is just a novel of people being terrible to each other in strange places. It is as though Clarke’s mind, which is so rigorous and thorough, could not inhabit the mystery of the House: she needed to solve it for us, but in solving it, she diminished it.

Ever since I finished ‘Piranesi’, I have been wondering whether I would have liked it more or less if I had not read ‘Jonathan Strange’. It feels terrible to hold the goodness of a first book against an author, but it’s impossible not to compare.

I think I would have liked it more, but, after way too much thought, I’ve realized that that is not the right question to be asking. The question I should have been asking is: does ‘Piranesi’ make me more or less likely to read Clarke’s next book?

The answer is definitely yes – I will read Clarke’s next book. Whatever else, both of these books are products of a capacious and thorough imagination – I’m interested to see what she comes up with next.

Perhaps the capacity to surprise is an authorial trait. Perhaps you can learn to trust that an author is capable of re-inventing herself with expertise, that her mind is solving different problems in different ways, that she is building new and better worlds in which to solve those problems. Perhaps, the capacity to surprise will end up being Clarke’s authorial project, the special trait which will make her beloved.

I kind of hope it is. Maybe she’ll never write another ‘Jonathan Strange’, but that’s OK, I think I like her anyway. I don’t trust her totally yet, but we’re moving in the right direction.

White Noise

By Don DeLillo

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I read ‘White Noise‘ in college. I hated it, but I can’t tell you why. I remember very little about the plot, something about a man who studies Hitler, and a toxic cloud. I had an impression that it was clever but bleak. I found it almost overwhelmingly unpleasant to read, but not bad at all. Just aversive.

I put it on my bookshelf, and looked at it periodically with suspicion. I have long wished to purge and donate it, but something has held me back: some sense that it is a modern classic, an Appreciated Book, critically valued. Also holding me back: though I remember almost nothing of the book, my copy is so full of sticky notes, flagging passages I liked, that it is nearly double its normal thickness. I did not like it, I am sure, but I certainly appreciated lots of things within it.

During my last book-purge, I reached crisis and decided to reread it. I knew I wasn’t going to like it, but I wanted to throw it away with an easy conscience.

I’ve just finished it, and, somehow, I find myself more confused than I was when I started.

White Noise‘ is the story of Jack Gladney, who is the head of the Hitler Studies department at a small liberal arts college. He is married to Babette, his fourth wife, and they live near campus with their substantial and blended family. They are happy, although Babette has been sneaking a medication and will not tell anyone what it is. One day, however, an airborne toxic cloud appears over their town. Jack is exposed, and, when his doctor informs him that his exposure will inevitably, inexorably, result in his death, Jack’s life begins to unravel.

I was right all those years ago, with all my flags: ‘White Noise’ is extremely clever, and bristles with quotable passages. Some examples:

“‘The flow is constant,” Alfonse said. “Words, pictures, numbers, facts, graphics, statistics, specks, waves, particles, motes. Only a catastrophe gets our attention. We want them, we need them, we depend on them. As long as they happen somewhere else. This is where California comes in. Mud slides, brush fires, coastal erosion, earthquakes, mass killings, et cetera. We can relax and enjoy these disasters because in our hearts we feel that California deserves whatever it gets. Californians invented the concept of life-style. This alone warrants their doom.'” (p. 66)

Another:

“‘I’m not just a college professor. I’m the head of a department. I don’t see myself fleeing an airborne toxic event. That’s for people who live in mobile homes out in the scrubby parts of the country, where the fish hatcheries are.'” (p. 117)

How about one more:

“‘I have only a bare working knowledge of the human brain but it’s enough to make me proud to be an American. Your brain has a trillion neurons and every neuron has ten thousand little dendrites. The system of inter-communication is awe-inspiring. It’s like a galaxy that you can hold in your hand, only more complex, more mysterious.”

‘Why does that make you proud to be an American?’

‘The infant’s brain develops in response to stimuli. We still lead the world in stimuli.'” (p. 189)

Reading over these quotes now, I can also see why, despite the fact that it is so clever, I hated this book so much. In fact, I think I hated it because it is so clever.

Cleverness in writing is tricky. It can be immensely entertaining, startling and funny and revealing all at once. For me personally, a person susceptible to cleverness in general, it can be tremendously winning, and I will forgive a book many sins if it is clever.

But too much cleverness is alienating.

First of all, cleverness is cold. Being clever requires distance from the observed thing: it is far away from the warmth of human interaction, a dissection, and, when it is really sharp, it is a little cruel in its accuracy. It is fundamentally un-affiliative: it separates and distinguishes.

Don DeLillo

The most successfully clever books, in my opinion, are books that combine cleverness in observation with great warmth of feeling. It is all well and good to see so clearly, but you must then forgive the objects of your sight. Not many people can pull this off – the one who springs most readily to my mind is Zora Neal Hurston, who is incredibly clever but also deeply humane, all-seeing and all-loving.

DeLillo is not like this – or, at least, ‘White Noise’ is not. It is unrelenting, so clever it becomes aggressive. And this is the second problem with cleverness: it’s a little show-offy. Because it is impossible to be clever without knowing that you are clever, it always has the element of a performance, ‘Aren’t I clever?’ The difficulty is that too much of that quickly becomes tedious, the performance becomes about the performer, and not about the novel. The point of the book stops being the story, or the characters, or the readers; the book instead becomes merely an opportunity for the novelist to show how much smarter he is than anyone else. It’s needy.

But, as I said, I am a sucker for cleverness, and, at moments, I hoped that DeLillo was doing it all on purpose. It’s not impossible – ‘White Noise‘ is, after all, a novel about the fear of dying. The fear is death is unrelenting, icy and inexorable – perhaps ‘White Noise’ is unrelenting and bleak simply because death is. We cannot evade it; all we can do is laugh mordantly while we wait.

I’m giving it too much credit, I suspect. The Great American Male Novelists all had this tendency: to be more interested in the display of their own genius than in the experience of their readers. It’s a shame: DeLillo is clearly capable of tremendous observation. If only he had been willing to observe something redeeming, to observe with some kindness.

I think I am going to keep it on my shelf, though. I still don’t know why, but something holds me back from donating it. In the end, I suppose, imperfection is not the same as badness, and, after all, it is very clever.

Hild

By Nicola Griffith

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

Please join me, if you will, on a long and tortured metaphor.

Stories are like dishes. They are made up of ingredients: premise, plot, characters, writing, &c. Some dishes are very complex (lots of different plots and characters) – some are very simple. Complexity does not necessarily predict success: a bad story can have all the characters it wants, it will still be bad.

Like dishes, stories can be dominated by one or two components and still be very good. Think about the murder mystery: all plot, with, at best, a single charismatic detective for continuity. Most fantasy novels are the same: it’s all plot, but with some premise thrown in. As in dishes which are dominated by a single component, in order for stories like this to work, the main component needs to be really good: you can’t make a good omelet with rotten eggs.

And like dishes, stories are made up not just of major components, but also require seasoning. If characters and plot are major ingredients, then all the little embellishments which give a story depth and attraction are seasonings: well-imagined details, zippy dialogue, beautiful language.

And also like dishes, stories can be ruined by over-seasoning. You can have great characters, great plot, beautiful setting, but if you get carried away on, say, describing lush landscapes, then you can alienate your readers and make your prose a slog.

And the reason that I have dragged you on this arduous metaphor is because today I want to talk about one of the most difficult seasonings in literature: historical verisimilitude.

Books are for readers – that is their intended audience. That doesn’t mean that books should be lowest-common-denominator products, aimed simply at gathering the most eyeballs. But books should be basically intelligible to their readers – that’s really the bare minimum.

A little antiquated vernacular is fine – most people can pick around and it get it from context clues. And some historical detail is appreciated – it adds color to the world. But, at a certain point, too much extraneous detail, or strange vocabulary, is cumbersome and alienating. I should be able to read a paragraph of your text without, say, having to check the glossary eight times, or having to read the dialogue out loud because that is the only way to understand the text. I should be able to read your novel without learning the name of every single Dark Ages village in England.

And we’re talking about this because I just finished ‘Hild‘ by Nicola Griffith and I’m frankly exhausted.

‘Hild’ is the imagined backstory of Hilda of Whitby, an English saint who lived in the 7th century. Her childhood is, from what I can tell, entirely imagined by Griffith, but the research which informs the setting is impeccable: detailed, thorough, and accurate.

It is also, however, cumbersome: Griffith has, in my opinion, crossed the line between enriching the novel and leeching the reader’s bandwidth, and her historical detail, especially her use of language, takes more than it gives from reading this novel.

Let me give you an example.

“Hild persuaded Pyr that none would think him soft if the Loid workers were fed and sheltered, for a healthy Loid worked faster. And besides, she spoke for the king when she said that in Elmet now there were no more Anglisc, no more Loid, there were only Elmetsætne. She set Morud to making sure all grumbles reached the right ears.

More people, Loid and Anglisc, straggled in and sought her out, some to swear to her, some just to see for themselves the tall maid who called them all Elmetsætne. The daughter of a hægtes and an ætheling, some said – no, a wood ælf and a princess, said others – though that didn’t stop them wanting to touch her hem or catch up a fallen hair for luck.” (p.292)

Or how about this:

“Hild had helped work out how the new wool trade would run, but even she was astonished at its efficiency. Sheep sheared in every royal vill, from the Tine valley to Pickering to the wolds to Elmet. Fleece sorted and sent by grade to rows of huts in Aberford, or Flexburg by the Humber, or Derventio. Armies of women to separate out the staples, to mix soapwort, urine, and pennyroyal to wash out the grease. Children to lay the washed wool in the sun to dry, to watch and turn it and to drive off the birds who liked to steal it. Men to barrel and cart oil and grease to the vills to make the fibre more manageable for the first finger-combing and sorting. Smiths hammering out double-rowed combs and woodworkers shaping wooden handles, for women to comb out wool in the new way, the better way, a comb in each hand. Carpenters to build the stools and tables. Bakers to bake the bread so the wool workers could work. Lathe workers to turn the spindles and distaffs – the long and the short – and, everywhere, women and man making spindle whorls and loom weights of clay and lead and stone, of every shape and size and heft.” (p. 383)

Nicola Griffith

I chose these passages not because they are unusual – the entire book really is like this – but because I think they are particularly emblematic both of that makes ‘Hild‘ singular and, often, magical, but also what is trying about it. Griffith’s writing is dense and spare. Her attention to detail is incredible, but she is totally unforgiving: she will not define, introduce, or repeat herself. If you haven’t grokked what an Elmetsætne is, you can go screw (or check the gloss, for the sixth time that page). There are too many proper names, and they are too similar. Every clause has a discrete, private meaning, and they work against each other. Meanwhile, as you are drowning in detail, you are often unable to spot the action when it happens, and because the entire story is told in this same, low monotone, there are no signifiers helping you to notice what’s important.

And it’s a shame, because I think it’s a pretty good book. It’s certainly an interesting project to have undertaken, and the depth of knowledge and imagination is almost overwhelming. It is also a masterpiece of mood – it is a low, gray novel, very beautiful, naturalistic and wild. But Griffith is too eager to show you the depth of her knowledge. The detail is not for you, to add to your sense of the story – it is for her, to show you how much she knows.

Hild‘ is over-seasonaed. Vernacular, vocabulary: these are elements which can add richness to a work of imagination. However, the more you disrupt a reader’s immersion in your story, the more you risk becoming a chore for them. Griffith goes too far for me: I am impressed by her work, but I am also alienated by it. I find myself able to feel a lot of respect for it, but no affection. By the end of the book, I felt the way I feel during a bad run: determined to finish, certain that I am doing the right thing, that I will be better for it in the end, but heavy, tired. Completion has become the goal – the journey has no joy.