Pachinko

By Min Jin Lee

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Brace yourself, because I’m about to go on a free-associative ramble for about a thousand words.

Pachinko.JPGI just read ‘Pachinko‘, by Min Jin Lee, which is a sprawling, multi-generational epic about the Korean diaspora in Japan in the first half of the twentieth century.  It begins with Sunja, the beloved only daughter of Hoonie, a fisherman born with a club foot, and his wife Yangjin.  When Sunja is a teenager, she falls in love with, and is impregnated by, Hansu, a handsome gangster.  When she discovers that he has a wife and children back in Japan and that he cannot legally marry her, she refuses to be his kept “local” wife and, instead, marries Isak, a sickly minister who is passing through town.  Isak agrees to raise the child as his own, and the young family moves to Isak’s new ministry in Japan

Now, stay with me, because I’m going to swerve here, and, for reasons which I hope will become clear, talk about ‘East of Eden‘, by John Steinbeck.

I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I love ‘East of Eden‘.  It might honestly be my favorite novel of all time.  ‘East of Eden’ is also a multi-generation epic, about an American family which recapitulates the story of Cain and Abel in each generation.  It is about original sin, about the transmission of sin through generations, about whether or not great evil marks a family, and passes from parent to child, twisting and marring their lives despite their best attempts to be good, happy people. It is about whether we can be damned before we are even born.

I cannot prove that ‘Pachinko‘ is consciously modeled on ‘East of Eden‘.  I do not even know for sure that Min Jin Lee has read ‘East of Eden’.  However, the parallels are clear, right?

Pachinko‘ is also about the multi-generational consequences of wrong-doing, about the sins of the parent being visited on the child.  But in ‘East of Eden‘, the inheritance is of evil, of simple, cinematic evil.  The question is whether or not the evil is innate, whether or not we are doomed to succumb to it.  In ‘Pachinko’, the inheritance is of something more complicated, more twisted: grief.  It is about the ways the deep, life-altering grief of a parent can warp, limit, or destroy the lives of her children, even when she loves those children desperately, even when her entire life has been devoted to their happiness.

I thought about ‘East of Eden‘ a lot while I read ‘Pachinko‘.  The books are alike in scope and ambition, but I’m not sure that they are equally successful.  Maybe it’s unfair to compare a book, any book, to ‘East of Eden’.  It is one of the most profound, most moving, explorations of the human capacity for evil, of the possibility of true goodness, that has ever been written.  And I don’t think that ‘Pachinko’ is one of the most profound, most moving explorations of human grief I’ve ever read.

OK, OK, yes: I agree, that is not a fair standard.  I need to acknowledge the possibility that ‘Pachinko‘ and ‘East of Eden‘ have different goals, as works of art.  ‘East of Eden’ is an essential hopeful work: while it is about the intrinsic human capacity for evil, it is also about the possibility of true goodness which can only exist alongside evil.

Pachinko‘ is not a hopeful work.  It is imbued with a deep sadness: the sadness of women who face lives of nothing but suffering, work, and loss.  Of subject peoples, doomed to cramped lives and arbitrary violence, simply because of their race.  Of deep and profound injustice, of lives destroyed because the values of small societies could not accommodate them.  Of love lost and never, ever regained.  In this way, perhaps, its scope is even greater than ‘East of Eden‘, which was a moral tale and a moral tale alone.  ‘Pachinko’, on the other hand, is not only the story of one family’s tragedies – it is also the story of a race, exiled and embattled.

Min Jin Lee.jpg
Min Jin Lee

And while the two books are alike in structure, they are quite different in style.  ‘Pachinko‘ is written in a prose which is so simple as to be almost brutal.  Lee’s sentences are unadorned and unsparing, and I believe that she is a good enough writer that this was done deliberately.  Tragedy, I have found, is usually most effective when it is written in prose which is clear, clean, and unflinching.  Flourishes, metaphors, long descriptive passages: these things blunt the force of tragic events, distract the reader, give the attention somewhere to hide.  It also, almost always, foreshadows the pain, so that the reader can brace himself.  Plain language, on the other hand, delivers its news like a blow, and gives you no warning that the blow is coming.

I offer, by way of example, the passage from ‘Pachinko‘ which I found the most effectively devastating, which genuinely shocked and upset me, to the degree that I gasped aloud and put the book down.

Fair warning, it is a very, very spoilerly spoiler.  The passage involves the reunion of Sunja with her son Noa.  Noa had fled his mother as a young man, when he discovered that he was the son of a gangster and found that he could not endure the shame.  He had lived in secret in Japan for decades, passing as Japanese, his Korean identity unknown even to his wife and children.  After many years, now an old woman, Sunja located him.

Again, if you do not wish to have major plot points spoiled, don’t read the excerpt.

“Sunja watched her son enter his office building, then tapped the passenger door of Hansu’s car.  The driver came out and held the door open for her.

Hansu nodded.

Sunja smiled, feeling light and hopeful.

Hansu looked at her face carefully and frowned.

“You should not have seen him.”

“It went well.  He’ll come to Yokohama next week.  Mozasu will be so happy.”

Hansu told the driver to go.  He listened to her talk about their meeting.

That evening, when Noa did not call her, she realized that she had not given him her home number in Yokohama.  In the morning, Hansu phoned her.  Noa had shot himself a few minutes after she’d left his office.” (p. 385)

This is not a passage which would have been possible in ‘East of Eden‘, where everything is larded with plenty of description and big events can be seen coming miles away.

And I have enormous regard for this style of prose, when it is successful, which I think it mostly is here.  It is true, the subject-verb-object ratatat of the plain language becomes a little arduous over hundreds of pages, but, for the most part, it’s mesmerizing and upsetting, bleak and tough in deliberate evocation of the lives it is describing.

I found, at the end, not that I loved ‘Pachinko‘, but that I had enormous regard for it.  I have compared it to ‘East of Eden‘ not so that it would suffer in comparison, but because the comparison helped me understand and appreciate the project of the book.  In fact, I think that some of the places in which ‘Pachinko’ is the strongest are places, like it’s language, where it is the most unlike ‘East of Eden’.

But keeping ‘East of Eden‘ in my mind helped me appreciate the intention of this work.  It’s one thing to tell the story of a few characters (although even to do this well is very difficult).  It is another thing altogether to tell a story through which you try to tell about human evil, or human grief.  To weave those grand things into the small lives you are relating takes bravery and skill.  ‘East of Eden’ taught me to love the scale, the ambition, of the endeavor, and it is because of ‘East of Eden’ that I recognize that ambition here.

Tender Is The Night

By F. Scott Fitzgerald

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It’s time to talk about F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Tender is the NightI am hesitant to do this, because my feelings about F. Scott Fitzgerald are complicated, and heavy.  But Fitzgerald towers over American letters, blotting out the sun before it can reach other authors.  He is read ubiquitously, but narrowly: it is almost impossible to graduate from an American high school without having read ‘The Great Gatsby‘, but his other works have faded from the national consciousness.

In fact, really, it is ‘The Great Gatsby‘, and not Fitzgerald himself, which really dominates the American literary cannon, and so I ought to spend a moment on it before proceeding to the book which is usually thought of as ‘Fitzgerald’s other book’.

The Great Gatsby‘ fills me with awe, and with rage, with fury and contempt and profound respect, all at once (I warned you that this was going to be complicated).  It is, as near as I have ever encountered, a perfect novel.

I mean that technically.  ‘The Great Gatsby‘ is a masterpiece of prose craft – there is not a sentence, not a single word, out of place.  I am confident in this, because I have read it many times looking for one.  Do you know how difficult it is to write one perfect sentence?  The amount of skill required to write an entire novel of perfect sentences honestly boggles my mind.

So I stand before Fitzgerald as an ant before a mountain, and I am humbled by the sheer talent for the craft of writing which he surely possessed.  Nevertheless, ‘The Great Gatsby‘, while technically perfect, is banal.  Worse, it is barren: emotionally vacuous, and utterly superficial on any level above that of composition.  Its worldview is shallow; its metaphors childish (there is a reason that it is taught in schools – it is simple to the point of obviousness, and therefore the perfect text for teaching young people the rudiments of metaphor).

This juxtaposition, of compositional genius married to complete vapidity, disturbs me profoundly.  It’s more than that, actually: it makes me angry.  Fitzgerald was a genius, but he was also a twit.  Gifted by fate and practice with perhaps the greatest writerly skill in the history of his nation, he only cared about the habits and costumes of the very rich, the drinks they consumed and places that they summered.  He might have used his immense craft to describe anything, to explicate any mystery of the human psyche, but, no.  He could describe only what he felt: a longing to be wealthy.

F Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald

It’s like taking the world’s most powerful telescope and turning it to a brick wall – I am devastated by the waste.  I am filled with resentment for the work he did produce, which is so virtuosic and so unfulfilling.  And I think about writers like James Baldwin, who is the closest I can think of to his equal in prose-craft.  And I think about the ways in which Baldwin, who was not only a great writer but also a great soul, used his gifts, and I weep for what the world lost when such mastery was spent on a fool like Fitzgerald.

That, basically, is how I felt about F. Scott Fitagerald when I rolled up to ‘Tender Is the Night‘.  It’s difficult to say why, feeling that way, I even wanted to read it.  Maybe it will suffice to say: I have a fetish for thoroughness, and I do not like to convict a man before weighing all the evidence.

F. Scott Fitzgerald actually published four novels in his lifetime – ‘Tender Is the Night‘ is the last of them.  It was published nine years after ‘The Great Gatsby‘, and Fitzgerald apparently considered it his greatest work.  It tells the story of Dick Diver, an American psychiatrist living in Europe between the two World Wars.  Diver, handsome and charming, has married one of his patients, Nicole, a beautiful young woman suffering from schizophrenia.  The novel tells the story of his slow fall from greatness: an affair, the collapse of his marriage, and his alcoholism.

It is apparently considered a semi-autobiographical novel: Fitzgerald, one of our many famous literary alcoholics, did live in Europe and wrote it after his own wife, Zelda, was diagnosed with schizophrenia.  I had not connected these facts when I decided to read it, and they did not intrude on my experience of the novel itself.  Nevertheless, I was aware all through ‘Tender Is the Night‘ of a much greater depth of insight, of humanity, in this work than in ‘The Great Gatsby‘.

It is not, in terms of prose-craft, the masterpiece that ‘The Great Gatsby‘ is.  It is poorly paced, and makes a few jarring transitions.  It also contains a few experiments with prose style (particularly in attempts to catch Nicole’s madness) which are unsuccessful, if not downright incoherent.

But Dick’s slow unwinding, the emotional forces which impinge on him, which drive him onwards in all their contradiction, those are beautifully portrayed.  The thing which failed in ‘The Great Gatsby‘, the attempt to show how a wealthy life might yet be bleak, actually works here: all the strands of money and charm and loveliness which surround Dick Diver slowly enmesh and entangle him, tightening and tightening around him until he, and you, are thrashing in a sort of slow, angry suffocation.

And, of course, because it is Fitzgerald, it contains passages of transcendent beauty, like this one:

“Baby had certain spinsters’ characteristics – she was alien from touch, she started if she was touched suddenly, and such lingering touches as kisses and embraces slipped directly through the flesh into the forefront of her consciousness.” (p. 172)

Or this one:

“Her naivete responded whole-heartedly to the expensive simplicity of the Divers, unaware of its complexity and its lack of innocence, unaware that it was all a selection of quality rather than quantity from the run of the world’s bazaar; and that the simplicity of behavior, also, the nursery-like peace and good will, the emphasis on the simpler virtues, was part of a desperate bargain with the gods and been attained through struggles she could not have guessed at.”  (p. 21)

Or this one, which I believe I will carry with me for the rest of my life:

“One writes of scars healed, a loose parallel to the pathology of the skin, but there is no such thing in the life of an individual.  There are open wounds, shrunk sometimes to the size of a pin-prick but wounds still.  The marks of suffering are more comparable to the loss of a finger, or of the sight of an eye.  We may not miss them, either, for one minute in a year, but if we should there is nothing to be done about it.” (p. 169)

It’s kind of funny, actually: ‘The Great Gatsby‘ is a perfect book utterly without emotional effect; ‘Tender Is the Night‘ is a imperfect book which is, nonetheless, much more emotionally affecting.  It lacks the tightness, the lapidary, flawless prose that ‘Gatsby’ has, but it shows so much more depth, is so much more moving, than ‘Gatsby’ ever was.

Maybe it’s because Fitzgerald, himself a man falling apart, was writing about a man falling apart in the exact same ways.  He might have been too barren a soul to ever describe anyone else’s humanity, but he was able to describe his own plight with some grace.  He remained a vain and shallow man to the end, but, finally, he turned his craft on the one subject which could hold both his interest and mine: himself.

Finn Family Moomintroll

By Tove Jansson

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Finn Family Moomintroll“One grey morning the first snow began to fall in the Valley of the Moomins.  It fell softly and quietly, and in a few hours everything was white.”

Fall is here, and I’m sure you know what that means:

It’s time to re-read ‘Finn Family Moomintroll‘.

I’m not sure why it is that this time of year always draws me back to this book from my childhood, why the gray, chilly days remind me of the strange, bleak world of Moomin Valley.  Whatever the reason, I rarely make it to Thanksgiving without re-reading ‘Finn Family Moomintroll‘.

Tove-Jansson
Tove Jansson

The Moomin books are Swedish (written by the Swedish-speaking Finnish author Tove Jansson), and they are quite famous there (there is actually a Moomin house, in Finland), but to my consternation, most Americans are unfamiliar with the Moomintrolls.  There are nine Moomin books, of which ‘Finn Family Moomintroll‘ is actually the third.  But it is my favorite of the books, the one I think best captures the sweet, weird, sad tone of them.

Thingumy and Bob Comfort Moomintroll
Thingumy and Bob comfort Moomintroll

The Moomins are a family of hippopotamus-like bipeds.  Moominpappa, Moominmamma, and their son Moomintroll live in Moomin Valley, in a turret-house which is always filled to capacity by the various friends and hangers-on that they acquire during their travels.  They are accompanied most of the time by their neighbors the Snork and the Snork Maiden, also hippo-like.  Other frequent allies include the Humulen, the Muskrat, Snufkin, Sniff, Thingumy and Bob.

In small bands or all together, the Moomins have small adventures and tribulations.  The chapters of ‘Finn Family Moomintroll‘ have descriptors like, “In which Moomintroll suffers an uncomfortable change* and takes his revenge on the Ant-lion, and how Moomintroll and Snufkin go on a secret night expedition” or, “In which Thingumy and Bob, bringing a mysterious suitcase and followed by the Groke, come into the story, and in which the Snork leads a Court Case“.

*This is NOT puberty – this is a transformation wrought by the Hobgoblin’s Hat.

Ant-lion Hedgehog
The Ant-lion has been transformed into the world’s smallest hedgehog (and he is surrounded by Outlandish Words)

All of which adventures are accompanied by little pen and ink drawings, done by the author herself, and which constitute easily the most charming part of the entire series.

If this all sounds too precious, it’s not.  It’s true: ‘Finn Family Moomintroll‘ has all the necessarily ingredients of a delightful children’s book: whimsical creatures, adventures with high stakes but good outcomes, magic, humor, and an essential sweetness.  It is lightly eccentric, and quite funny.

“Next morning the Muskrat went out as usual with his book to lie in the hammock, but he had just gotten comfortable when the string broke and he found himself on the ground…

‘Oh, dear,’ said Moominpappa, who was watering his tobacco plants.  ‘I hope you didn’t hurt yourself?’

‘It isn’t that,’ replied the Muskrat gloomily sucking his moustache.  ‘The earth can crack and fire come down from heaven for all I care – that sort of thing doesn’t disturb me – but I do not like to be put into a ridiculous situation.  It isn’t dignified for a philosopher!’…

‘I know, I know,’ interrupted Moominpappa miserably.  ‘But there’s no peace in this house…And sometimes string wears out with the years you know.’

‘It must not,’ said the Muskrat.  ‘If I had killed myself, of course, it wouldn’t have mattered.  But imagine if your YOUNG PERSONS had seen me! Now, however, I intend to retire to a deserted spot and live a life of loneliness and peace, giving up everything.'” (p. 45)

Snork on the DockBut good humor is not the most salient attribute of the Moomin books.  I think that the reason why they have worn so well, why I return to them year after year, is that they are melancholy.  There is a sad cast to them which I can’t pin down, a forlorn air which hangs over their adventures.  I find this inexpressibly moving; long after I have outgrown the whimsy of the books, I come back to this same still, quiet sadness.

It’s difficult to say where the sadness comes from.  It lurks in there, in the Hobgoblin’s endless, fruitless quest for the King’s Ruby, which has taken him finally to the blasted out and lonely landscape of the moon.  It’s in Snufkin’s need to set out on long journeys, but always alone, because it is only alone that he is really himself.  It is there in the Humulen, devastated by the completion of his stamp collection, because, as Moomintroll says, he is no longer a collector, now merely an owner.  There is something low and sorrowful here.

Hobgoblin on the Moon
The Hobgoblin on the moon

But that is not the only thing which has called me back to Moomin Valley all these times, not the only thing which makes ‘Finn Family Moomintroll‘, to my mind, a rather perfect little book:  it’s also creepy.

Hattifatteners
The Hattifatteners (which are very creepy) swarm the Humulen

As I have mentioned before, creepiness is, for me, a requirement in children’s literature.  ‘Finn Family Moomintroll‘ isn’t ghost-story creepy; rather, it’s sort of weird-creepy, touched by a pall of uneasiness which lies over the whole story, over all of Moomin Valley.  There is a sinister whisper behind everything, which rarely comes out into the light but does occasionally, as in the character of the Groke:

“Then – they saw the Groke.  Everybody saw her.  She sat motionless on the sandy path at the bottom of the steps and stared at them with round, expressionless eyes.

She was not particularly big and didn’t look dangerous either, but you felt that she was terribly evil and would wait forever.  And that was awful.” (p. 116)

The effect is sort of mesmerizing, this strange, happy story with it’s sad, ominous undercurrents.  The stories aren’t swashbuckling-exciting, but because the creatures are so original, and because the narrative voice is so unusual, they are completely absorbing.  And even though the language is simple, clearly meant for children, the tone is subtle enough that, as adult reader, you still feel overcome by the story.  Moomin Valley exists for me, an eerie place, known and unknown, safe yet spooky, filled with ambivalent little creatures hiding in strange and unexpected places.

Party in Moominvalley
A party in Moominvalley

I always feel so incompetent at moments like this, when I try to describe the effect a beloved book has had on me.  The books are so much better than my descriptions of them will ever be – you cannot describe better, in words, an accomplishment of words.  And words are insufficient, too, for my feelings: I cannot paint for you, quite, the feelings which Moomin Valley evokes in me.

So I will leave you, instead, with the words of the book itself, with the sure knowledge that, if this can’t charm you, nothing can:

“While the Hobglobin was eating they edged a little nearer.  Somebody who eats pancakes and jam can’t be so awfully dangerous.  You can talk to him.” (p. 145)

Finding the Hobgoblin's Hat
Moomintroll, Sniff, and Snufkin find the Hobgoblin’s Hat

Julian

By Gore Vidal

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JulianNo one is great at everything.

This is as true of writers as it is of everyone else – no one has mastered all forms.  And, as a reader, one tries to practice tolerance about this: there is no reason to deprive yourself of, say, Paul Theroux’s travelogues (which are astonishing) simply because his novels are…not astonishing.

Nevertheless, it’s always tough when someone you have come to love deeply through one form is disappointing in another.  It’s especially tough when the disappointing form is also the form for which they are most famous.  You expect greatness from them – you’ve seen it elsewhere – but you don’t find greatness.  You find mediocrity which has snuck into the Halls of Greatness behind their other, better work.

And your heart hurts for that writer you love, a little.  Because you know how good they can be at their best.  It’s sad to see them, who can be so wonderful, present themselves to the world in this less-flattering light.

I’m trying to explain my overwrought, emotional reaction to reading Gore Vidal’s novels.

Gore Vidal.jpg
Gore Vidal

As I have mentioned, I came to Gore Vidal through his essays.  And I fell in love with him.  This was the real deal – this was Great Love.  I thought he was magnificent.  I would have followed him anywhere.

And so I did – I followed him straightaway to the form for which he is most famous, the form he himself loved the best: the novel.  Vidal was a prolific novelist, writing a total of 30 of them (including the ones he wrote under pseudonyms) in his life.  This was great news for me: I had 30 novels worth of Gore Vidal to get through.  That’s like Christmas x 30!

Or so I thought.

Now, no one writes 30 novels of equal quality.  And, loving him as I do, I wanted to prolong the honeymoon.  So I rolled up to what is considered his best work (or among his best): ‘Julian‘*.

*For the sake of full disclosure, I should mention that I actually read ‘Burr‘ first.  It was even less good, but love dies hard, and since Vidal had at least earned from me an open-hearted shot at his best novel, I put it out of my mind and proceeded to ‘Julian‘.

Julian‘ is the fictional autobiography of Julian Augustus, the last Pagan Emperor of the Roman Empire.  Vidal imagines an unpublished autobiography, dictated by the Emperor on his last campaign, against the Persian King Sapor, and annotated by two of his friends and teachers: the philosophers Libanius and Priscus.

If all that sounds a little convoluted and unclear, let me assure you: it is.  ‘Julian‘ takes a little getting used to.  The narrative switches points of view, bouncing between the dead Julian Augustus and the two living philosophers who quibble with him and with each other as they prepare his manuscript for posthumous publication (this semi-epistulary novel is a form of which Vidal is fond – ‘Burr‘ is also told in part through fictional memoir, part through fictional biographer).  But the reader will get the swing of it pretty quickly, especially once the text finally gets around to introducing Libanius and Priscus in the context of Julian’s life (fair warning: this crucial bit of narrative information only occurs a hundred odd pages into the text, so you fly blind for a while).

Julian‘ isn’t a bad novel.  It’s actually a lot better than I thought it was, halfway through.  But it isn’t a great novel.  It is, like most of us, deeply imperfect: it has real strengths and real weaknesses.

I don’t like trashing Vidal, whose essays will remain on my Desert Island Reading List, so let’s get the bad over with: ‘Julian‘ is over-stylized.  It’s too long, and it slogs in portions.  These are defensible sins – in fact, in my experience, these sins are characteristic of novels about the Roman Empire.  I suspect that this is because we have imbibed an impression (perhaps from their writing) that the Romans were all August and Imperial, and so we tend to lard our prose about them with pompous and heavy language.  To us, Latin intones, and so we intone about the Latins.  But intonation is no fun to read.

But ‘Julian‘ commits a graver sin: it lacks subtly.  There’s no missing the essential message of this book – it will be spelled out for you, in the form of long, didactic speeches, at least sixteen times.

ijuliai001p1
The Emperor Julian Augustus

Julian‘ is an anti-Christian polemic.  Julian Augustus was the nephew of the Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Emperor.  Julian was raised Christian, and secretly converted some time before his accession.  When he was made Augustus, he initiated a series of reforms designed to restore Hellenism as the state religion, declaring a reign of religious toleration while subtly persecuting Christians (the point is well made by the text that, compared to what Christians would go on to do both to non-Christians and to each other, Julian’s persecutions really were just minor annoyances).

It would have been sufficient to simply describe Julian’s conversion.  But Vidal’s Julian is a zealot, a man consumed, and he (and his commentators) are prone to long, righteous passages indicting Christians for barbarity, stupidity, religious theft, hypocrisy, you name it.  By the end of the novel, it is very clear that Julian is not the only one locked in idealogical battle against Christianity, that Vidal himself has also taken up rhetorical arms against the Church.

“Preach only the Nazarene’s words and we shall be able to live with one another.  But of course you are not content with those few words.  You add new things daily.  You nibble at Hellenism, you appropriate our holy days, our ceremonies, all in the name of a Jew who knew them not.  You rob us, and reject us, while quoting the arrogant Cyprian who said that outside your faith there can be no salvation!  Is one to believe that a thousand generations of men, among them Plato and Homer, are lost because they did not worship a Jew who was supposed to be god?  A man not born when the world began?  You invite us to believe that the One God is not only ‘jealous,’ as the Jew say, but evil?” (p. 338)

It’s never good news for a novel when a reader is subjected to long diatribes about what are clearly the author’s own views (this is just one of the many, many sins of which Ayn Rand, who is essentially just a megaphone draped in the thinnest of plot, is guilty).  By the end of ‘Julian‘, one has begun to suspect that the whole reason Vidal chose this subject for his novel was so that he could screed against Christianity.  This is not a decision which bears artistic scrutiny.

Which is a shame, because Julian himself turns into an interesting character, and a novel which begins ploddingly becomes kind of gripping.  Vidal’s Julian is a complicated and evolving character, a human being turning into an Emperor, and as he approaches his death, your anxiety rises.  Like a protagonist in any historical novel, Julian’s death is known and certain.  It’s a feat to make a reader care about a Roman Emperor, and it’s a feat to make them fear a certain death, and Vidal does both.

Maybe it’s because Vidal was a brilliant but grandiose man grasping after truth, that he has a gift for understanding other brilliant but grandiose men grasping after truth.  And he has painted a beautiful portrait, and led his Emperor to a death which will distress his readers.  This is no small thing, and I would not want to penalize ‘Julian‘ for my own high expectations.  If anyone else had written ‘Julian’, I would have said it was a decent historical novel.  It was.  It pales in comparison with Vidal’s non-fiction, but it was well worth a read.

I only wish I had read it first, so that I still had something to look forward to.

Dietland

By Sarai Walker

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This is probably just a coincidence, but I’ve been reading a lot about female rage recently.

It’s very strange that I’m on this run of books about women’s anger.  It’s not by design, but I have, in the past few months, picked up book after book with this theme: ‘Alias Grace’, ‘The Power‘, ‘I Love Dick’, ‘Shrill’, even ‘Fates and Furies’.  I’m not doing it on purpose.

DietlandAt least, I wasn’t doing it on purpose, but then I read this article in The Atlantic about all the new T.V. shows about female rage which are being made, one of which is a show based on the novel ‘Dietland‘.  I had actually never heard of the novel ‘Dietland’ before, but this article describes it as a novel in which “a guerrilla group of women kidnaps and and murders men who’ve been accused of crimes against women, ranging from institutionalized misogyny to violent sexual assault.  But that’s just a subplot.”

Vigilante justice is an old interest of mine (whether or not the avenging agents are female) and, if we’re being totally honest, I enjoy consuming a healthy dose of fictional violence in my media.  I am used to getting this dose from movies and television, but I’m not at all averse to taking it in book-form.

So I was all over this book.  I ordered it right away and started it within minutes of its arrival.

Dietland‘ is the story of a few months in the life of Plum Kettle.  Plum weighs 300 pounds.  She wears all black, and counts calories obsessively.  Every day, she goes to the same cafe and ghost-answers emails on behalf of the editor of the teen magazine Daisy Chain, dispensing advice to thousands of desperate teen girls every day about the issues which trouble and occupy them.  She secretly orders colorful clothes for a thinner woman, hiding them in her closet.

Plum occupies a permanent sense-state of unreality, the persistent belief that her ‘real life’ has not yet started.  That life, the real one, will begin when she is thin, and she has scheduled bariatric surgery to finally achieve what years of dieting and misery has not.  One day, however, while she waits, she notices that she is being followed.  She soon learns that she is being observed for recruitment to a feminist collective, Calliope House.  Calliope House was founded by the daughter of a famous diet guru, and now serves to shelter and protect women as they free themselves from the cultural baggage which has been loaded on them.

While Plum is trying to decide whether or not she would like to set her baggage down in the care of Calliope House, a group of vigilantes acting under the name ‘Jennifer’ begin killing men.  What begins with the gruesome murders of a few rapists will escalate into a crime spree across nations, the killing and terrorizing of men responsible for violence, both physical and psychological, against women.

Sarai Walker
Sarai Walker

It’s not Great Art.  ‘Dietland‘ is probably not a novel for the ages.  Walker has said that she wanted to write ‘Fight Club‘ with women, and that’s probably a decent approximation of what she’s accomplished.  ‘Dietland’ is a lot like ‘Fight Club’: it’s a single-note novel, extremely readable, funny and quick.  Grounded in the specific culture and moment which produced it, and speaking to a very specific unhappiness which denizens of that culture might experience.  Both are novels of modern isolation, but they lack the grandeur of true loneliness and the art which speaks to it.  ‘Fight Club’ is cleverer, but ‘Dietland’ is more emotionally focused.

What do I mean, ’emotionally focused’?  ‘Dietland‘ isn’t just about female rage – it’s about one kind of female rage, the kind which grows as you receive ceaseless, personal, painful reminders that you are not a good enough female, that you are not attractive enough, not thin enough, not pretty enough.  When you are bombarded by images of women whom you will never resemble, offered products and services to make you look at least a little more like them, and threats about what will happen to you if you don’t look like them: no one will want you, no one will marry you, the person who loves you now will get tired of you and find someone younger, prettier, better.  About the ways you begin to mutilate yourself when every piece of cultural information suggests that you should, when every female who is held up as ideal does not look like you.

The constant grinding of this message afflicts most women, no matter how thin or pretty they are.  For Plum, it has exiled her from all normal human intercourse, from love and relationships not only with men but also with other women.  It has convinced her that she will not even be real until she is thin.

And it is about the sort of rage, the sort of spiritual violence, which it takes a soul like that to break past a life of shame.  About the price we pay for towing the line, and the price we pay for breaking out.

And it’s focused on that problem, on communicating it in language that other women will understand.

The clearest, most pointed, and most effective, device in the novel is a room in the basement of Calliope House, a small room lined floor to ceiling with screens which stream, at all hours of the day and night, the most searched for pornography on Porn Hub:

Dietland Porn Room
An image of the Porn Room from the AMC adaptation of ‘Dietland’

‘The room was circular, larger than my bedroom and the other bedrooms combined.  The walls were banks of screens, all of them synchronized with the same scenes…On the screens were a naked woman and three naked men on a bed.  The men’s penises were inserted into the woman’s vagina and anus and mouth.  After a minute, the men removed their penises and reinserted them in different places.  There were always three penises inside the woman.  The men twisted and contorted the woman so that what they were doing was visible to the camera.  As the scene went on, the woman became haggard, her black eye makeup smeared with semen and sweat.  She was the underside of a piece of Lego, her bodily orifices nothing more than slots for the men’s penises.’ (p. 182)

It’s not beautifully written, but it’s very…well, focused, right?  Walker has figured out what makes her angry, and she’s pretty good at communicating it, which means that if you are at all susceptible to prose text, by the end of ‘Dietland‘ you will probably be angry, too.

Which, I would argue, is a good thing.  Novels are one of the ways that we can see the world through other people’s eyes; it’s how we try on other people’s feelings.  You don’t have to keep this anger with you, don’t have to buy it, but it’s worth taking it for a test drive, to see how it might feel to walk around the world in Plum Kettle’s body, to listen to her describe her own rage.  It will, I suspect, echo in the hearts of most women, but even if it doesn’t echo in yours, isn’t it worth knowing?

I Love Dick

By Chris Kraus

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Have you ever been at an art museum and heard some idiot, standing in front of a Pollack or a Rothko, say, “I don’t get it – I could paint that”?  And did you then feel a stab of rage towards that idiot, because a) even if they could have painted it, they didn’t and b) they definitely could not have painted it.  And did you silently congratulate yourself on your sophistication and appreciation, on your ability to see the enormous amount of skill and learning and vision that lies behind deceptively simple masterpieces?

Well I definitely have, which is what made it a little alarming to read ‘I Love Dick‘, by Chris Kraus this week and think, over and over again, “I could have written this”.

I Love DickI Love Dick‘ was Kraus’s first book.  Published in 1997, it is an epistolary novel, a series of letters from a woman Chris Kraus (and her husband, Sylvère) to Dick, her husband’s friend, with whom she has fallen in love.  The novel was, apparently, in large part memoir; Kraus was married to Sylvère Lontringer and the eponymous Dick was later identified as the cultural critic Dick Hebdige.

However, the novel isn’t really about either of those men – it’s about Kraus, and about female desire, uncontrolled.  It’s about how when your culture will not recognize your legitimate desires, it robs you and your desires of dignity.  It is about the way that women in unreciprocated lust are ridiculous in our culture (“debased”, to use Kraus’s word).  It is Kraus’s attempt to take back her own dignity by fully inhabiting that debasement.

I loved ‘I Love Dick‘, and when I say, “I could have written this”, I don’t mean, “I could have written this because it seems so easy, so amateurish”.  I mean: “I wish I had written this.”  I mean: “I am so glad that someone wrote this, and I only wish that it had been me”.

Chris Kraus
Chris Kraus from The New Yorker

I Love Dick‘ is considered an important feminist text (The Guardian called it “the most important book about men and women written in the last century”), and that makes sense to me: I feel as though I connected to it primarily as a woman.  This is unusual for me – I don’t read books as a woman.  And what I mean by that is, ‘woman’ is not the first lens through which I experience most literature.  Sometimes a text, or a portion of a text, will remind me that I am a woman, but it is rare that I engage with a book in constant awareness of the fact that I am a woman, rare that my femininity, my lived experience as a woman, is the best tool I have for connecting with a text.

Aside/Manifesto: I believe that there is an enormous amount of information about humanity lurking within the Amazon algorithm.  When Amazon suggests a product to you based on your purchase, it is essentially telling you what kind of person you are, and what it is that your kind of person buys.  What I have learned from ‘I Love Dick”s Amazon page is that Amazon thinks that people like me (women?) are stupid: the ‘Sponsored Products Related to this Item’ include: ‘Stone Heart: A Single Mom & Mountain Man Romance’, ‘Bad Seed: A Brother’s Best Friend Romance’ and something beggaring description called ‘Falling For My Dirty Uncle: A Virgin and Billionaire Romance’.  These books are ‘related’ to ‘I Love Dick’ the way gonorrhea is related to penicillin.

But I found that I did read ‘I Love Dick‘ in large part as a woman.  It is as a woman that I was best able to understand what Kraus felt as she thrashed around in love, and shame, and fear.  And it is as a woman that I was best able to relate to her desire to understand, articulate, express herself.  If femininity is a house, a large, complicated, rambling house, with an old, old main building but with additions and wings and rooms in the back that we all forgot were there, then ‘I Love Dick’ is spring cleaning, airing out the attic and the basement and spending some time in all those rooms which we don’t like to show to guests.

Chris Kraus 2
Chris Kraus from The Guardian

And the part of me that did not read ‘I Love Dick‘ as a woman read it as someone who loves texts, and meaning.  ‘I Love Dick’ is often described as a semiotics text.  Kraus was a filmmaker (in fact, much of what ‘I Love Dick’ is about is her reckoning with the failure of her filmmaking career; it is failure transformed, escaped from, into sexual desire, and, really, who hasn’t been there?), and if her book is about love, and lust, and failure, then it is also about art.  It is about how we use art to understand ourselves, and our feelings.  It is about the collision of our selves and the content we consume, and how the result is our lives.

Kraus loves art that I do not love, but I understood the enormous meaning that she draws from art.  I am, like her, built from the parts I have found in art.  And, even if her taste does not suit, her eye is phenomenal.  She is a witty, biting observer of…everything.  Born, perhaps, to be a critic, she weaves art into her life, and then shreds the result with observation:

“Years later Chris would realize that her fondness for bad art is exactly like Jane Eyre’s attraction to Rochester, a mean horse-faced junky: bad characters invite invention.” (p. 21)

“”As soon as sex takes place, we fall,” she wrote, thinking, knowing from experience, that sex short circuits all imaginative exchange.  The two together get too scary.  So she wrote some more about Henry James.” (p. 51)

“Because [Chris and Sylvère] are no longer having sex, the two maintain their intimacy via deconstruction: i.e., they tell each other everything.” (p. 21)

People often seem to object to ‘I Love Dick’ on the grounds that it is ‘difficult’, that it is dry and theoretical and abstract.  I find this puzzling: I found warmth and wisdom and sadness here, no difficulty, just a winding path.  A novel analyzing love is still about love, and observing something doesn’t make it any less true.  I recognize myself in Kraus’s love, and I think that many women do, in the snarls and complexity of it all:

“If the coyote is the last surviving animal, hatred’s got to be the last emotion in the world.” (p. 160)

“How do you continue when the connection to the other person is broken (when the connection is broken to yourself)?  To be in love with someone means believing that to be in someone else’s presence is the only means of being, completely, yourself.” (p. 168)

“And isn’t sincerity just the denial of complexity?” (p. 181)

“Isn’t sincerity just the denial of complexity?”  I could have written that.

Fates and Furies

By Lauren Groff

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Sometimes, I just don’t have anything to say about a book.

This isn’t because the book is bad, necessarily.  On the contrary, some books which are considered Great Books have left me shrugging in this way, with a complete lack of comment.  I felt this way when I read ‘The Adventures of Augie March‘ by Saul Bellow, and ‘Neuromancer‘ by William Gibson, and ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being‘ by Milan Kundera (that last one is obviously a joke – I HATED ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’).

And that’s sort of how I feel about ‘Fates and Furies‘: like, ‘Well, that was a book’.  I liked it, actually (I think); I read it quickly, with pleasure.  I just don’t have anything to say about it.

Fates and FuriesFates and Furies‘ is the story of a marriage.  It is a marriage joined in youth, impetuously, by two badly damaged and beautiful young people right after they graduate from college.  The first half of the book is the story of their married life from the point of view of the husband, Lotto (short for Lancelot) Satterwhite, failed actor turned successful playwright, as he adores, fears, and chases his wife through their decades of marriage.

The second half of the novel is told from the point of view of his wife, Mathilde, after Lotto’s sudden death in his forties.  Her widowhood sends Mathilde, now without an anchor, reeling into fury and despair, and through her flashbacks we learn how Lotto’s wife saw their marriage.  In a sense, we learn what really happened.

Of course, that’s the whole point: in a marriage, as in any human relationship, there is no “what really happened” – there are only the beliefs of the participants and the witnesses.  There may be a provable fact here and there, but these matter so much less than you would think, certainly less than you would hope.  In the end, our own experience is king, and ‘Fates and Furies‘ is about how discordant that experience can be even in the most “successful” marriage.

Which, of course, is all very true, and well-worn literary territory, and Groff does it nicely, and I just don’t have a ton more to say about it.  It’s a good read; it’s compelling.  You’re interested in these people, at least while you’re with them, but I doubt that I’ll be thinking about Lotto and Mathilde again.  ‘Fates and Furies‘ isn’t the first novel (and won’t be the last) to tell me that love and understanding are two different things, and that all love is, in a way, narcissism, but that it is no less necessary for that.

Maybe it’s just because I’m so cynical by nature, but I just don’t find novels about what an emotional sham marriage is to be at all scandalous, pleasingly or otherwise.  We get it, don’t we?  We’re all strangers to each other, in the end.  This path is so well trod by now that I really can’t muster even the most banal observations about it.

However, it seems as though I am the only one with nothing to say about ‘Fates and Furies‘.  Nothing to say, and, in fact, two years too late to say it.  Apparently, ‘Fates and Furies’ was the book to read in 2015.

According to The Guardian:

“Not only has Groff’s novel, by the Wall Street Journal’s count, landed on more US year-end best-of lists than any other work of fiction, but Amazon has made it official, stamping its endorsement on Fates and Furies as the retailer’s book of the year. The cherry on the top came from Barack Obama, who earlier this month told People magazine he liked Fates and Furies more than anything else he’d read in 2015.”

Really?  Huh.  More than anything else?

The Guardian offered this explanation for the book’s wild success:

Lauren Groff
Lauren Groff

“On the surface, this premise echoes the familiar observation that even two people who live together intimately can end up feeling they hardly know each other. Given that most fiction is read by women, and that the purchase of a hardcover novel suggests a certain midlife affluence, it’s hardly surprising that so many book buyers would find this theme arresting and easy to relate to.  They are at that point in life when they realise that a wedding is less the end of a fairytale than the beginning of a mystery, and sometimes an ugly one.”

Well, I may not have much to say about ‘Fates and Furies’ itself, but I have a lot to say about that.

First of all, I don’t think that ‘Fates and Furies‘ is about the fact that two people who live together intimately can end up feeling they hardly know each other; I think it’s about the fact that two people who live together can feel that they know each other intimately and be completely wrong about that.  What is askew between Lotto and Mathilde is not known to them.  We are aware of the discrepancy in their understandings of their marriage, but they are not (Lotto, in particular, is not; Mathilde is a much murkier and more complicated figure).

Second, I do not think that women have special access to the distances and alienations of marriage, that they experience a special loneliness that men do not feel.  Or, perhaps, to be more precise, I suspect that men must have their own loneliness, the equal counterpart of woman’s, and that a book about alienation would therefore be of interest to them as well.

Third, I do wish people would stop insisting that women are all in for fairytale marriages.  It makes us all sound stupid, girlish and naive.  Women are capable of being perfectly clear-eyed about marriage, certainly just as much as men are, and people should stop speaking about women’s marital expectations as though they were necessarily childish.

Often, when books make big, cultural splashes, it tells us more about the culture than the book.  Certainly, ‘Fates and Furies‘ is a very competent novel of its kind – I do not feel that I wasted my time reading it.  Grim, well-executed novels of bourgeois marriage are always enjoyable, in their way.  But the frenzy around it says more about us than about ‘Fates and Furies’, I think.  Maybe, at a time when we are feeling more and more alienated, novels which are about alienation even in the most intimate spaces will mesmerize and frighten us.

Or maybe I’m missing something.  Maybe the desire to be really, totally, perfectly known by the person that loves you is what people expect from marriage; perhaps perfect intimacy is a dream cherished by hearts more romantic than mine (which would be most hearts).  And perhaps those romantic hearts are the ones that catapulted ‘Fates and Furies‘ to the tops of the bestseller lists.  Perhaps they did not find it, as I did, obvious.  Perhaps, to the romantic heart, ‘Fates and Furies’ is, in fact, a terrifying debunking of our last true fairytale.

The Power

By Naomi Alderman

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The PowerHere’s an unusual event: I’ve actually read the book of the moment within a calendar year of the moment itself!

I’m not a trendy soul, not in anything really.  My tastes have never been fashionable, not in music, not in clothes, certainly not in books.  My favorite authors are all dead: Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, writers who chronicled different times in old-fashioned language.

I tend to cast a leery eye on contemporary fiction.  To my mind, it has not yet been vetted, polished smooth by years of beloved readers, safely endorsed by generations.  It is risky, it has a too-high likelihood of wasting your time, and with so much to read in this world, I am loathe to waste my reading time on books which may turn out bad.

But every once and a while, (and quite a bit lately, it feels like) I end up picking up a new and trendy book.  And every once and a rarer while, I pick it up when it is still trendy.  And so it has turned out with ‘The Power‘, which I grabbed in the airport in a panic, worried that I was going through my other books too quickly and wasn’t going to make it through my vacation with enough to read (this is a particularly bad way to choose a book: airport reading, like airport eating, is almost always junky).

The Power‘ supposes that women a power.  It starts with young women, girls really, but young women can teach it to older women, and soon all women will have it.  This power, which originates in a new organ, a string of muscular tissue between their shoulder blades, allows them to send electrical current out from their hands, injuring and even killing other people with it.

This power will completely reorder the world.

First will come liberation, freedom from the restraints and authorities of men.

Then will come revenge: riots, gangs of women will swarm through cities, finding male offenders and brutalizing them.

Then, finally, will come control.  Women will take possession of a state, in Eastern Europe, and impose a set of state sanctions on men: all men must have an official female guardian, they will not have freedom of travel, they will have curfews.

I was deeply skeptical about ‘The Power‘ going in, and not just because it’s modern.  I don’t usually go for gender war stories – I tend to find them over-simplifying.  And ‘The Power’ threatened to simplify gender dynamics to the point of cretinousness: throngs of newly empowered women finding out men who traffic in sex slaves and roasting them alive.

But ‘The Power‘ is more than a novel of vengeance, more than just a imaginative bloodletting (although it does feel like that sometimes).  It is a meditation on power, and on gender.  It asks, and answers, the question, ‘Do men act brutally because they are men, or do they act brutally because they have power?’

Or, to put it another way, ‘Are men and women intrinsically different?  Are their differences differences of morals, or differences of strength?”

Or, “Are women really any better than men?”

The Power‘ answers this question clearly and emphatically in the negative.  Women in ‘The Power’ are no better than men, and, as they come to understand and coordinate their power, they will do to men, in short order, all the terrible things that men have done to them.

It’s always pleasant to read a book which agrees with your worldview.  This is not less true for me just because my worldview is dark, nihilistic and grim.  I like having my prejudices confirmed just as much as the next guy.  And so I enjoyed ‘The Power’ the way one enjoys seeing one’s own dire predictions played out in fiction.

As I mentioned, ‘The Power‘ isn’t subtle.  The metaphor is, well, it isn’t really a metaphor, is it?  It’s a parable, crystal clear and morally direct.  And I was prepared to be offended by the obviousness of the parable – I don’t like being talked down to by books.

Naomi Alderman
Naomi Alderman.  By the way, the Guardian has the best author photos.

However, sometimes the simpler a fictional moral problem is, the greater the force it has, and that is the case with ‘The Power‘ (this is also the case with the most rudimentary and effective moral tale of our time: ‘Star Wars’).  The truth is, despite my initial skepticism and my sense of being insulted, ‘The Power’ landed on me like a ton of bricks.  I didn’t even really notice how affected I was until I finished, until I put the book down and realized that I felt unsettled, implicated and guilty, contaminated by the things I had seen in the pages I just read.

I mean this as a compliment, an extremely high compliment.  The ability to elicit an emotional reaction from your reader is one of the reasons for a novel existing, and not all novels wish to make you feel good.  I feel pretty confident that Naomi Aldermen didn’t want me to feel good, maybe about anything, maybe ever again.

This is not a reason not to read her book!  On the contrary, it is a reason to read it right away!  Most grim-natured books don’t get it quite right, they aren’t emotionally effective somehow.  They either swing too hard at your fear, or yank too hard at your heart strings, or build a world too bleak, marked by violence too frenzied.

IMG_0014
One of the book’s rare illustrations (p. 180).  ‘The Power’ is science fiction, and part of the story takes place thousands of years in the future.

The Power‘ doesn’t do this.  It rarely over-plays its hand – there were only one or two moments in the entire book when I thought, ‘That might have been a little much’.  Mostly, the book communicates not through violence but through a sense of building dread, of disaster rolling inexorably toward you, a hope that humanity will save itself and a sure knowledge in the pit of your stomach that the hope is vain.  And when the storm finally breaks, you feel the confirmation as a low blow, not painful exactly, but dreadful.

Partly, Alderman does this through her use of spare, direct language.  The ridiculous blurbs on the back of the book say garbage things like, “gorgeously written” (Ayelet Waldman) and “Will knock your socks off!” (Margaret Atwood, to whom Alderman is being compared – I suppose the comparison to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘, which is facile, is too easy to resist).  This is nonsense – it is not gorgeously written – it is bleak, and effectively written, and that is much, much better:

“They start by rounding up the young man.  They go tent to tent, pulling them down or setting them on fire so the occupants have to run out or burn.  They’re not neat about it, not methodical.  They’re looking for any halfway-decent-looking young man.  She was right to send Tunde into the forest.  A wife, or perhaps a sister, tries to stop them from taking the pale-skinned, curly-haired man who’s with her.  She fights off two of them with precise and well-timed jolts to the chin and the temple.  They overwhelm her easily, and kill her with a particular brutality.  One of them grabs the woman by the hair and the other delivers a bolt directly through the woman’s eyes.  Finger and thumb pressed against her eyeballs, the very liquid of them scrambled to a milky white.  Even Roxy has to look away for a moment.” (p. 315)

As you can see, there is no hiding from prose like this.  It’s unrelenting, and at the end you feel as though you’ve been chased down and forced to look at something ugly, and real, and all the uglier for being real.

But it’s highly worth doing – I’m glad that I did it.  If there weren’t ugliness in the world, books like ‘The Power‘ wouldn’t have any effect at all.  And as long as they are effective, that is a sure sign that we should be reading them.

Alias Grace

By Margaret Atwood

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I’m beginning to suspect that all Margaret Atwood’s books are really just about how terrible men are.

Certainly, that’s what ‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘ is about.  It’s pretty much what ‘Oryx and Crake‘ is about.  It’s kind of what ‘The Blind Assassin‘ is about, although I’ll grant that is a fuzzier case.

But it’s definitely what ‘Alias Grace‘ is about.

Alias GraceNot superficially, of course.  ‘Alias Grace‘ is the story of Grace Marks, convicted at the age of 16 of murdering her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his head of household (and lover), Nancy Montgomery.  She allegedly commits this murder with the help of her lover, James McDermott, who is hanged for the crime.  Grace, in view of her youth, is given a life sentence.

Most of the novel takes place many years into her imprisonment, during her extended examination by Dr. Simon Jordan, who is a specialist in diseases of the mind.  It is the story of her life (from her questionable perspective), of her relationship with this doctor, of his obsession with her, and of the murders themselves.  It is a mystery of guilt or innocence.

But, really, it’s a long indictment of men, of male power and the abuses it rains down upon women who are powerless.  It is about doctors who grope during examinations, employers who rape their servants, institutions which incarcerate women who do not conform, men who defame women who will not sleep with them, abortionists who kill women without consequence.

It about the fact that, in a society where men alone are powerful, women are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.

I’m not exaggerating this theme, and it is not subtle.  Take, for example, this discussion of quilts, which Grace is forever sewing and on which she is forever discoursing:

“…when we’d hung a half-dozen of them up on a line, all in a row, I thought that they looked like flags, hung out by an army as it goes to war.

And since that time I have thought, why is it that women have chosen to sew such flags, and then to lay them on the the tops of beds?  For they make the bed the most noticeable thing in a room.  And then I have thought, it’s for warning.  Because you may think a bed is a peaceful thing, Sir, and to you it may mean rest and comfort and a good night’s sleep.  But it isn’t so for everyone; and there are many dangerous things that may take place in a bed.  It is where we are born, and that is our first peril in life; and it is where the women give birth, which is often their last.  And it is where the act takes place between men and women that I will not mention to you, Sir, but I suppose you know what it is; and some call it love, and others despair, or else merely an indignity which they must suffer through.” (p. 161)

Check your privilege, Sir.

Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood

Of course, Margaret Atwood is a marvelous storyteller; she always has been.  She has an eye for detail, for immersion.  It’s easy to lose yourself in her books: I sat down and read ‘Alias Grace‘ in one long layover in Tokyo, and I was honestly in more danger of developing thrombosis from reading this book than I was in the 12 hour flight that followed it.  That’s a strong recommendation for any novel.

But there is something about Atwood which always makes my teeth hurt a little, something irritating right at the edge of her writing.  Perhaps it is a lack of irony.  There is a lyrical quality to her prose, a sort of sing-songing free association in her descriptions, which can be enormously effective, but which more often annoys me badly.

Here, for example, is a passage where I think that writing style works really well:

“The season has now officially changed: Lydia has burst into bloom.  Layers of pale floral ruffling have sprouted all over her, and wave from her shoulders like diaphanous wings.  Simon eats his fish – overdone, but no one on this continent can poach a fish properly – and admires the smooth white contours of her throat, and what can be seen of her bosom.  It’s as if she is sculpted of whipped cream.  She should be on the platter, instead of the fish.  He’s heard stories of a famous Parisian courtesan who had herself presented at a banquet in this way; naked, of course.” (p. 193)

Here, though, is an example of that writing style which makes me want to run screaming from the room:

“It’s the middle of the night, but time keeps going on, and it also goes round and around, like the sun and the moon on the tall clock in the parlour.  Soon it will be daybreak.  Soon the day will break.  I can’t stop it from breaking in the same way it always does, and then from lying there broken; always the same day, which comes around like clockwork.  It begins with the day before the day before, and then the day before, and it’s the day itself.  A Saturday.  The breaking day.”  (p. 295)

I understand that this passage is supposed to communicate the maddening monotony of an imprisoned life, but I’ve never really liked expression by reader-punishment like this – just because my protagonist is suffering should not mean that I must, too.

Or, perhaps, what annoys me is the vague sense of female grievance that lurks behind Atwood’s stories.  Yes, men can be terrible, but there is something flat, two-dimensional, to a world in which everything is explained by the fact that men are terrible, to a world in which all men are terrible in some way, a world in which you cannot have both a good nature and a penis.

And then there is the problem of the resolution.

[Warning: what follows is a very spoilery spoiler.  Very, very spoilery].

It’s always disappointing when endings and books don’t match, when a well-developed and richly imagined book purchases its end with implausible plot theatrics.

A general rule of mine: there are, I think, a few plot mechanisms which, if you find yourself using them, always mean that you need to re-think your storyline.  They signal lazy craft – they are cheap.

These plot developments include (but are not limited to): secret brother-sister incest (I’m looking at you, ‘August: Osage County‘, and you, ‘Crimson Peak‘), a secret twin (excusing ‘The Prestige‘, which pulls it off and (little known fact) is a book!), and a protagonist with undiagnosed Multiple Personality Disorder.

Alias Grace‘ strongly implies that Grace Marks, at the time of the murders, is under the control of an alternate personality, that of her dead friend, Mary Whitney, whose death (at the hands of a back-alley abortionist, of course) was traumatic for Grace.  And, just to add fuel to the trashy fire, this fact is brought to light while she is under hypnosis.

Resolving a murder mystery via multiple personalities is, in my opinion, totally bogus.  ‘Alias Grace‘ is a subtle, thorough story, based on a real person who almost certainly did not have multiple personalities.  Until that session of hypnosis, it was a complex novel about power, and rage, and friendship, and love, what it means to be guilty and whether we can ever see how the world looks through another person’s eyes and how slippery the truth can be.

And then it resolves all that lovely moral ambiguity with the sort of plot device that you expect to see in an episode of Criminal Minds.  It was very disappointing.

None of which, obviously, kept me from turning its pages like it was the last book on Earth.  That’s Atwood for you – whatever your complaints about her, she’s tough to put down.