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

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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.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation

By Ottessa Moshfegh

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I find that the most difficult books to describe are books that I’ve loved.

Every time I encounter a book that I truly love, I have the same experience. I sit down to write about it in a rush of enthusiasm, and then end up producing something like this:

“This is a great book. I love this book. It’s really good. It has good characters and good plot and I was surprised and moved. The ending was great. The book was great.”

At which point, I usually end up abandoning the project. Which is sad, because it means I rarely end up writing about the books I love the most. But I prefer to be silent about them, I guess, than to fail to do them justice. Bad books are easy to talk about, but it is very difficult to convey specialness, to communicate meaningfulness to someone who doesn’t know the material. It’s like explaining a joke: you can do it, but you ruin the joke. If I love a book, I don’t want to ruin it by explaining why I loved it. I don’t want to make a hash of my feelings about something that has mattered to me.

I’ve been debating whether or not to read ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation‘ for a while now. The title is irresistible, and the cover is extremely witty (rarely has a book been as well-served by its cover art). I’ve been eying it in bookstores since it came out a few years ago, wanting to pick it up but worrying it would be…I don’t know…too pop? Stylistic rather than substantive? Ephemeral in the way of mediocre modern novels: readable but not memorable? Glib?

The plot, as described by the back cover, didn’t make me more optimistic: “Our narrator should be happy, shouldn’t she? She’s young, thin, pretty, a recent Columbia graduate, works an easy job at a hip art gallery, lives in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan paid for, like the rest of her needs, by her inheritance. But there is a hole in her heart, and it isn’t just the loss of her parents, or the way her Wall Street boyfriend treats her, or her sadomasochistic relationship with her best friend, Reva. It’s the year 2000 in a city aglitter with wealth and possibility; what could be so terribly wrong?”

Doesn’t that sound ghastly? Doesn’t that sound like a shallow, name-droppy, post-‘Sex and the City’ novel about a beautiful young woman discovering that there is more to life than shoes? I’ve spent the past few years wandering into bookstores, picking up this book, reading the back, and putting it down again.

Finally, the other day, the cover art won out over the terrible précis, and I read ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation‘.

Back covers never really do their books justice, and that’s OK, but, as back covers go, this one turns out to be particularly askew. ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation‘ is not a story about a thin, pretty young woman with a Wall Street boyfriend. It’s about about a woman trying to sleep for a whole year because modernity is alienating.

Which, I get it, also doesn’t necessarily sound very interesting. I start to understand why the author of the back cover ended up writing such gibberish: this is a very difficult book to describe in a way that might encourage someone else to actually read it. A story about a young woman trying to literally sleep through grief? It doesn’t sound like a fun read.

In point of fact, it’s not a fun read. It’s a book about grief and alienation and love and sleep, a not-terribly-sympathetic young woman trying to fast-forward through her own life in the least mature ways possible (for example, the dramatic abuse of prescription medication). It’s about the parts of our lives we wish would hurry up and end, and about how futile that wish is. It’s about the fact that grief comes for us all, that we can’t sleep through it because a new grief will be waiting when we wake up.

It’s not beach-reading.

Ottessa Moshfegh

Another factor contributing to my difficulty in writing coherently about ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation‘ is the ending. For most books, their ending is a natural culmination of their story, and it is their story which defines them. A very, very few books, though, are the other way around: these books are defined by their ending, recast suddenly and shown to be something very different than you had supposed.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation‘ is exactly this latter kind of novel. There aren’t many – they are incredibly difficult to write. Essentially, you need to write two novels at once: the one the reader actually reads, the one with the plot they follow, and a second, a sort of shrouded novel which they will not even notice until they achieve the end and are instructed to see it.

The master of this art, in my opinion, was Graham Greene, who had a penchant for waiting until the last paragraph of his novels and then sucker-punching his readers, delivering cruel parting shots which obliterated any sense of control they might have felt over the story.

But Moshfegh has given him a run for his money here – I can’t actually think of another book which has leveled me so completely on the last page. I won’t spoil it – I honestly couldn’t if I wanted to – but it’s breathtaking. It is brutal and humane and elegant and utterly, utterly novel.

And here my words fail me, again. I can’t describe the feeling a book can give you when it turns you upside down like that.

It’s like a shock of cold air to the face.

Like discovering you’ve always been wrong about something you took for granted, something you thought was a fact.

Like feeling the muscles in your neck relax when you hadn’t even realized they were clenched.

Like seeing something for the first time, and realizing that, if you had not seen it, you would not have believed it.

I loved this book.

Mexican Gothic

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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I’ve been excited to read ‘Mexican Gothic‘ for months now. I first heard about it from an agglomeration of New York Times reviews of horror novels:

“While the book draws inspiration from Gothic classics like “Rebecca” and “Jane Eyre” — there is a spunky female protagonist and an ancient house filled with disturbing secrets — its archly intelligent tone and insightful writing make “Mexican Gothic” an original escape to an eerie world.

In 1950s Mexico, Noemí Taboada, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, is sent by her father to help her cousin, Catalina Doyle, whose impetuous marriage has landed her in High Place, a moldering mansion perched in the “steep and abrupt landscape” of El Triunfo.

Noemí, who prefers parties and fashionable dresses to the staid Anglophile Doyle family, finds her cousin much changed. While the family doctor claims Catalina suffers from tuberculosis, she doesn’t have any of the usual symptoms. Indeed, she claims that the walls tell her secrets, a dreamy delusion Noemí soon comes to experience firsthand. In her attempts to help Catalina, Noemí is pulled into a frightening ancestral legacy that has ripped the Doyle family apart.”

Doesn’t that sound great? I bought the book basically immediately after reading that and have been saving it for a treat.

I would have been a lot less keen if I had known it was about mushrooms.

Literally: mushrooms. The “frightening ancestral legacy that has ripped the Doyle family apart” is that, generations ago, their patriarch Howard allowed himself to be infested with a fungus that gives him an unnaturally long lifespan and the ability to control people’s minds – you know, one of those cannibalistic immortality hive-mind fungi – and he’s been terrorizing the locals ever since.

And, look, we’ve talked a lot about premises here, but mostly we’ve talked about bad executions of great premises, wasted premises (which really frost me). We haven’t spent a lot of time talking about shitty premises, for the simple reason that I try to avoid reading books with shitty premises because they are almost impossible to pull off.

When I was in high school, my best friend and I loved horror movies. However, in our opinion, most horror movies fall apart at the end – all the energy and suspense that has been built up during the course of the movie sort of fizzles out when it comes time to look at the monster head-on. My friend, who was sort of a genius about stuff like this, framed the problem of the monster-reveal perfectly. She said, “Look, you basically have two choices if you want your movie to be scary. You either devote a lot of time and effort into making your monster really scary to look at, a la ‘Alien’. Or you never show your monster, and it just drags people into sewers off-camera or whatever. But you can’t show a monster and have it be disappointing – if you do that, you lose everyone.”

I’ve applied that rule ever since, and what has become clear over my many years of consuming horror is this: the skills required to build suspense and the skills required to imagine something genuinely terrifying are totally different skills. It’s amazing how many horror plots (movies and books) fall flat when the monster is revealed – the authors of those stories spend a lot of time and effort building up suspense, only to then unveil a monster that wasn’t worth all the fuss they made about it. It’s also probably why many of the really convincing horror stories reveal a human monster at the end – we are already genuinely terrifying.

So, if I routinely find aliens and vampires and zombies disappointing, you can imagine how I feel about a fungus. And it’s not that I hated ‘Mexican Gothic‘, or thought it was a bad book – it’s just that there is something anticlimactic about finding out that the creepy voice coming from the walls is a mushroom!

And I admire Moreno-Garcia for trying (and not in a patronizing, “A for Effort, Silvia” kind of way). It takes courage to say to yourself, “I’m going to write ‘Rebecca’, but with a mind-controlling fungus”. And just because, in my opinion, ‘Mexican Gothic‘ doesn’t succeed doesn’t mean that it’s her fault that it doesn’t. The reason I object to fungus-as-enemy is that I don’t think it could have worked. Moreno-Garcia is a pretty talented novelist, I suspect. But she picked a real lemon of a plot – I honestly can’t think of a novelist I believe could have made this work.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia

But that’s not a good reason not to try. It’s easy for me to say, “There’s a reason you can’t think of a single successful horror story where mushrooms are the villains”, but there wouldn’t be, would there, until someone wrote one. All good plots must have a debut, and maybe you don’t know until you try. The next great scary story is waiting somewhere, and someone is going to have to take the risk to tell it.

But it’s not this one. In my opinion, mushrooms don’t make good villains. And my objections aren’t about plausibility – I think people who object to horror stories on the basis of realism ought to be slapped. On the contrary, the plot of ‘Mexican Gothic’ is much more plausible than it is interesting.

And it’s not that mushrooms aren’t interesting – I know that fungi are considered by many to be among the most interesting organisms around. I am in no way disparaging mushrooms, but I think maybe Moreno-Garcia was trying to have two things at once: a villain, and a neat plot mechanic. Fungi are bizarre, and a really creepy story might have been told about a terrible fungal epidemic. But mushrooms aren’t moral – they aren’t wicked. Villains, though, are. And by hybridizing her mushrooms and her villain, Moreno-Garcia squandered her ability to use either to full effect: to have us shudder at the terrible ingenuity of the natural world, or to rally against evil. The mix doesn’t work – it should have been one or the other.

The truth that my friend framed so well all those years ago is that very few things are scary when you can see them clearly. Fear needs darkness – when the bright, clear light of explanation shines on them, when you can take their measure with your own eyes, they usually cease to be frightening.

And this is true of actually scary things, like zombies – fungus didn’t stand a chance, really.

Middlemarch

By George Eliot

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It’s always stressful when you fail to love a Great Book. It’s disappointing – you know something is askew, and the consensus critical opinion suggests that it is you.

I don’t love ‘Middlemarch‘. I know that I’m supposed to love ‘Middlemarch’ – everyone loves ‘Middlemarch’, especially women. Women seem to love ‘Middlemarch’ to an almost uncanny degree – the ubiquity of the appreciation is rivaled, in my opinion, only by love of ‘Pride and Prejudice’.

But I’m a woman, and I have never loved ‘Middlemarch’.

I’ve read it three times in the past twenty years. I’ve never liked it, but I keep rereading it, partly because everyone loves it and I’m trying to figure out why, and partly because I can’t ever seem to remember what happened in it.

So it’s time to tackle ‘Middlemarch‘, fresh from this latest rereading and before I forget it again.

Let me begin with the obvious: it is beautifully written. My copy of ‘Middlemarch’ bristles with flags from all the passages that I’ve marked. The language is gorgeous, the insights profound.

“To know intense joy without a strong bodily frame, one must have an enthusiastic soul. Mr Casaubon had never had a strong bodily frame, and his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic: it was too languid to thrill out of self-consciousness into passionate delight; it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying.” (p. 266)

“Even much stronger mortals than Fred Vincy hold half their rectitude in the mind of the being they love best.” (p. 229)

“Will was not without his intentions to be always generous, but our tongues are little triggers which have usually been pulled before general intentions can be brought to bear.” (p. 349).

That I am in the presence of a great mind as I wade yet again through this book is obvious to me – Eliot is a magnificent writer. With her writing, I have absolutely no quarrel. But, alas, I loathe every single one of her characters, and I don’t care at all about what happens to any of them.

For what it’s worth, I am aware that this is the shallowest possible level of analysis. Characters in novels aren’t your friends – it is not their responsibility to be likable to you. The idea that the merit of a book is how much you root for the characters, or how much you see yourself in them, how much you connect with their situation, is, in my opinion, sophomoric garbage, weak thinking for weak minds.

Partly, this approach to novels offends me because it doesn’t even apply to life. People have many paths to demonstrate worth: they might be brilliant, or funny, or brave, without being at all likable. Plenty of people have accomplished great things, lived interesting lives, without being the sort of person you can relate to, with whom you’d like to grab a beer. Often in the world, the best lives, the most moving or interesting ones, are lived by weak, repellent, or wicked people. Novels, which are essentially just stories about people, shouldn’t be held to a narrower standard than the people themselves.

But, in my defense, I don’t loathe the characters in ‘Middlemarch‘ because they are weak, repellent, or wicked. I loathe them because they are boring. In all likelihood, I wouldn’t loathe them in real life – in all likelihood, I only loathe them because I am being forced by consensus opinion to read an 800-page book about them. Again.

The plain, embarrassing truth is that I don’t really understand why people love this book. But I have a sneaking suspicion that loving ”Middlemarch”, rather like hating ‘Middlemarch’, is really all about Dorothea. I don’t think anyone loves ‘Middlemarch’ for Fred Vincy, or for Will Ladislaw – Dorothea is fulcrum upon which the novel pivots and turns – it is Dorothea, rather like Elizabeth Bennet, upon whom readers pin their attachment.

Certainly, Dorothea is the obstacle which I cannot get past. Much of my irritation with her, I think, stems from my sense that I am supposed to like her, my sense that George Eliot liked her. She is not drawn as a perfect character, but her flaws, stated clearly in Eliot’s beautiful, precise prose, have the aspect of Trojan flaws: putatively added to give realism and depth, but actually draped across a character to flatter them, make them more lovable. The novelistic equivalent of being asked your weaknesses in a job interview and saying, “I care too much about my work.”

George Eliot tells us that Dorothea is idealistic, lofty in aspiration and naive in execution, and earnest to a fault, as befits a person pure of heart. But that is not who I see. The character I see is a fatuous twit: a stupid, pretentious woman who’s virtue is driven as much by her own vanity as anything else. And while I think it is entirely possible to love a stupid, pretentious character, I think it is very difficult to love a stupid pretentious character whose author doesn’t see her the same way.

As I write that out, it suddenly occurs to me that it is obvious. Of course my problem with ‘Middlemarch’ isn’t that I don’t like the characters – very few books are peopled by characters I actually like. The problem is that I don’t like them, but everyone else, most importantly George Eliot, does.

Maybe it’s not possible to really love a book when you substantively disagree with the author about its characters – I don’t know, I need to give it some more thought. But it is the problem here: George Eliot is charmed by her characters, and I am not.

George Eliot, portrait by Samuel Laurence

A story needs something to justify itself to readers. All stories are acts of persuasion: the readers are offering their time; the story must provide a continued justification for that time. Different kinds of stories provide different justifications: action heroes aren’t well-developed characters because they don’t need to be, no one is there to watch them grow and mature. Hero’s journeys are the opposite: if the hero doesn’t justify the story, nothing will. Likewise, when a character is meant to be disliked, the story is built to accommodate that repulsion. Repellent characters are often charming, but they are made to be – effort is made to attract readers to them despite themselves.

In this context, a mismatched justification is no justification at all. George Eliot wrote a hero’s journey: good and lovable, though imperfect, people find happiness through tribulation. The virtuous are rewarded; sinners are punished.

But I don’t find her heroes heroic – I find them pointless. And pointlessness doesn’t work in a hero’s journey; in a hero’s journey, it’s hero or bust. Worse, when the hero is pointless, all the apparatus of their journey becomes burdensome, and you, as a reader, resent it.

Or at least I do. And I know that it’s just me, it’s my problem. Everyone in the world seems to find Dorothea enchanting, worth journeying with – I’m clearly the exception. And I wish it weren’t so; I don’t feel superior when I fail to love something everyone else does. I feel…unsettled, as though I am missing something obvious.

I would love to love ”Middlemarch‘. But if we could choose to love, the world would look very different. And I have read this book three times now, and I don’t like it any better for it. It might be time give up, agree to disagree, and move on from ‘Middlemarch’.

Djinn Patrol On the Purple Line

By Deepa Anaparra

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So, one of the things that happens when you read a lot (like, a lot) is that you start to get a feel for stories.

Storytelling is like any well-developed art form: it has a sort of syntax all its own, with signifiers and allusions and conventions which become more and more familiar the more time you spend immersed in the medium.

Let me give you an example: you’re watching a horror movie. There are some teenagers, some are boys, some are girls. One of the girls is hot, blonde, and a little, er, wild. The group of teenagers all enter the haunted house/abandoned asylum/house of mirrors, and shortly thereafter the blonde girl sneaks off with a boy to screw around.

In that moment, you 100% know she’s going to die, horribly, very soon. Everyone knows she’s going to die, horribly, very soon, because that blonde girl isn’t actually a character – she’s a trope. She’s a signifier, a syntactical element, placed there in reference to a tradition (repulsive, reductive, misogynistic though it may be), placed there to orient you within the framework not of this specific story, but within all stories.

That’s a particularly unsubtle example, I know, but stories are filled with elements like this, and when you live, as I do, in stories, they become a second language. Familiarity with this language allows you to grasp, quickly, the dense web of references that most stories reside within, and, often, it can tell you, like Chekov’s Gun, what is going to happen long before it actually does.

If you get good at this language, you can often predict with eerie precision what’s going to happen in a book or movie. And, as in the case of our Slutty Blonde above, the more stereotyped a story is, the easier it is to spot the future coming.

I’m good at this language, and I’m rarely wrong about how a story ends, which is both fun and slightly boring.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line‘ positively bristles with signifiers. It’s incredibly obvious what kind of story it’s going be: everything about this book, the title, the cover art, the premise, promise you a funny, poignant, humane romp.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line‘ is the story of Jai. Jai is nine years old, and lives with his mother, father, and older sister in a sprawling Indian slum. Jai is undistinguished by any particular talent, he daydreams through school, lacks his sister’s athletic talent or his parents’ work ethic. But Jai nourishes a secret dream of being a television detective, and when children of the slum start disappearing, he decides he’s exactly the right person to solve the case, albeit with the help of his two best friends Pari and Faiz (and an adopted slum dog named Samosa).

A funny, poignant, humane romp, right?

The novel is written primarily in Jai’s voice. Or, to put it another way, it’s written in the voice of a nine year old boy. This device is usually extremely irritating, but Anaparra really pulls it off, and Jai is mostly a wonderful narrator: detailed, whimsical, bewildered, and funny. Really funny, actually – Anaparra captures very well the slightly misaligned certainty with which children interpret their world, the way that they come to very particular conclusions which are often a little askew, but reasonable based on the info they have. The workings of the world as seen through Jai’s eyes are arbitrary, magical, hilarious. Hilarious, at least, until, suddenly, they aren’t.

You know that old saw, that good literature shows, and doesn’t tell? Well, the dirty little secret is that almost everyone tells, at least a little. It makes sense – it must be nearly irresistible for authors to tell. Imagine it: you write this whole book, construct characters and metaphors and conflict and catharsis and you, presumably, do it for a reason – how can you resist pushing your audience in the right interpretive direction? Even just hinting at them what lesson they are meant to draw from your work?

Deepa Anaparra

Anaparra doesn’t tell, at all – she just describes. And she doesn’t provide catharsis, either, and it is perhaps this, more than anything, which takes her story and changes it into something else, a story I absolutely didn’t see coming. The deliberate lack of catharsis is, I think, exactly why she worked so hard to make ‘Djinn Patrol‘ look like a completely different kind of book than it is – it’s why she worked so hard to disguise it as a light-hearted mystery romp. Because mystery romps always, always get endings.

Think about it this way: imagine this premise (misfit detectives) in another setting. Imagine it, say, in a quaint English village in the 1930s – you’ve got Jeeves and Wooster. Or in a working-class Indiana neighborhood in the 1980’s – you’ve got ‘Stranger Things’. Or ‘Harriet the Spy’ or ‘The Adventures of Alex Mack’ or Hercule Poirot or Veronica Mars or any of the dozens and dozens of stories of unlikely people running circles around the actual police. This is one of the most beloved genres of stories that humans tell, and we know exactly how it’s supposed to end.

But ‘Djinn Patrol’ doesn’t end the way we expect it to – it doesn’t end at all. And that’s because what all the wacky detective stories you’ve ever read have had in common was this: the lives that they described were valued. But the lives of Jai and his friends (and his parents and his friends’ parents) aren’t valued, not by society at large. And so it’s not that their stories don’t end: all stories end. It’s that no one cares enough about them to figure out what the end is, and to tell it.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line‘ is NOT a funny, poignant, humane romp, NOT a zany, misfit detective novel. It’s actually a crushing demonstration of the disposability of human life, of how little human society values the lives of the poor, even if the lives in question belong to children.

I have come away loving this book, and not just because it surprised me. What I loved more is the way it manages to deliver a brutal message completely without pedantry. There is power in the juxtaposition that Anaparra sets up here: tropes badly misapplied, the total refusal to release her readers into the familiarity of an ending they expect. It’s breathtaking, it really is, and I know that sounds unlikely – I had this one pegged a beach read, too. But it’s not, and it’s so clever how she pulls it off. By denying you, her reader, the comfort of a resolution, she is showing you what the lives of her characters really lack: sufficient value, in the eyes of their fellow human beings, to get an ending.

Giovanni’s Room

By James Baldwin

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

Years ago, a handsome young man, with whom I had never had sex of any kind, told me that our relationship reminded him of ‘Giovanni’s Room‘*. When I asked, “Which of us is Giovanni?” he said, “You are.”

(*I still haven’t had sex of any kind with him.)

Giovanni’s Room‘ is a novel by James Baldwin, who is probably the best American writer who has ever lived. It’s a story about two men who fall in love in Paris: David, an American, who is waiting for his fiancée to return from her travels, and Giovanni, an Italian bartender. They spend a summer living in Giovanni’s decrepit room, where David’s crisis of identity deepens as Giovanni comes more and more dependent on him. When David leaves Giovanni and returns to his fiancée, Giovanni has a slow-motion breakdown, which will eventually culminate in his imprisonment and execution.

It’s a beautiful novel, but I was offended by the comparison, because Giovanni is many things I do not find myself to be: he is clingy, passionate, romantic, melodramatic, and a drunk. According to my personal value system, it’s basically better to be a murderer than to be clingy and emotional, and so I deeply resented the implication that I was the Giovanni in any relationship. On the contrary, I have spent most of my relationships feeling very much like David: interior, ambivalent, cold, held back from normal human intimacy by profound self-loathing. I have held the comparison against that young man for almost twenty years now.

But I reread ‘Giovanni’s Room‘ the other day, and I see now that, in my outrage, I misunderstood what it is really about. I suppose I thought that it was about how destructive passion can be, about how a nature, consumed with love and without other ballast to steady it, could spin off into madness. I was fooled by the oldest trick in literature: I was paying attention the wrong character. I thought that ‘Giovanni’s Room’ was about Giovanni.

‘Giovanni’s Room’ is about David. It isn’t a novel about passion, or madness – it’s a novel about alienation, about the destruction of the possibility of love by hatred. David, who has spent his life in full flight from his very self, hates himself so completely that the love of other people, which he needs like water, feels like chains to him.

Baldwin doesn’t explicitly frame David’s self-loathing as internalized homophobia, and, though that is clearly part of it, I do not think he intended that David’s condition be that simple. David has been warped by a feeling that certain of his longings are “wrong”, yes, but he is also economically, culturally, and familially alienated as well. He is lost, trapped being a person he despises and unable to break free.

What David comes to know, what I have also come to know and the reason that I identified so strongly with David when I first read ‘Giovanni’s Room‘, is that, when we truly hate ourselves, we are unable to sincerely love anyone else. And when you are incapable of loving other people, the love they offer you will always feel like a hair shirt: irritating, painful, constricting, external. You will seek it out – you are lonely, after all – but when you receive it, you will immediately feel straight-jacketed and embarrassed by it. The people who love you are so earnest, so intense, that it is difficult to look them in the eye. David flinches from Giovanni (I flinched from Giovanni) not because Giovanni is so extra, but because Giovanni is whole-hearted and David, who’s own heart is consumed by hating himself, is mortified by that.

James Baldwin

Like most truly great books, ‘Giovanni’s Room‘ is even more beautiful upon rereading. I have always found James Baldwin breathtaking, one of those authors who make me feel that reading their words is a privilege. He has always possessed a special insight into human suffering, no less clear-eyed because it is merciful, and he has the writerly power to express his insights with devastating effectiveness. And I discovered, upon rereading, that Baldwin tells us exactly what it means to be Giovanni:

“Perhaps, everyone has a garden of Eden, I don’t know; but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword. Then, perhaps, life only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it. Either, or: it takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both. People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence; and the world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen who forget. Heroes are rare.” (p. 25)

Giovanni goes mad through remembering; David goes mad through forgetting.

It’s funny, getting older. I was furious when that young man told me I reminded him of Giovanni, but I know now that he wasn’t insulting me at all. Quite the contrary, I believe he knew, young as we were, what Baldwin knew: that it is better, in the end, to be Giovanni, because Giovanni at least knows his own heart. David knows nothing.

I also know that, sadly, that young man was wrong about me. I am not Giovanni – I am David, I always have been.

Rodham

By Curtis Sittenfeld

All Posts Contain Spoilers

I’ve wanted to read ‘Rodham‘ since I learned it existed. I don’t know why I did – it belongs to a category of novels with which I generally have very little patience: the historical novel. I love history, and when I read it, I like knowing whether or not what I’m reading actually happened. Novels obscure that: they present real histories clothed in fiction, and readers (at least this one) can’t always tell the truth.

Rodham‘, though, is a little different. It’s an alternative history, a kind of novel for which I have even less patience. The only thing less likely to get you at the truth than a historical novel is a historical novel about a version of history which didn’t actually happen.

But I’ve been curious about ‘Rodham‘ for years. It’s such a ballsy thing to do, to write a novel about a living person, and about Hillary Clinton in particular, who will surely be remembered as one of the most polarizing and complicated political figures of our time.

Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton met at Yale Law School (in real life). They dated, and moved to Arkansas together to pursue his political ambitions. The first two times he asked her to marry him, she declined. The third time, she accepted. The premise of ‘Rodham’ is, simply, ‘what if she hadn’t?’

I wonder what Sittenfeld wanted to accomplish here. A description of the premise (‘What if Hillary Clinton had never married Bill Clinton?) promises a different novel than the one I have just finished. I suppose that ‘Rodham‘ was meant to answer a wish of Sittenfeld’s to know what Hillary’s life might have been like if Bill Clinton wasn’t the star of it. Unfortunately, Bill Clinton is also the star of ‘Rodham’, just from a more distant vantage.

Alternative fictions must start from a truthful premise, an anchor, from which they then wander off into speculation. The truth to which ‘Rodham‘ anchors itself is that Bill Clinton is the love of Hillary Clinton’s life. Though she leaves him in ‘Rodham’, because he is (both in our reality and in Sittenfeld’s, a philandering rapist), Hillary loves and misses him until well into her sixties. He is the sun around which her imagination revolves for almost the entirety of her adult life.

Which is kind of a bummer, honestly. I was so curious about this novel because I am interested in this idea: Hillary Clinton, more than almost any woman of political ambition that I can think of, is defined by her marriage. It’s not super heartening to think that, if we didn’t marry the great men we might have married, we might accomplish great things ourselves but we wouldn’t ever really get over them.

It might have been less of a bummer if Sittenfeld had given Hillary Clinton more dimension in fiction than her actual public persona suggests. One of the eternal ‘truths’ about Clinton is that she possesses no emotional warmth, that she is a cold, odd, calculating creature of pure ambition: planning her whole life for political attainment, not equipped with the normal spectrum of human feeling.

Curtis Sittenfeld

Sittenfeld basically accepts this unfortunate premise. Her Hillary is odd, and sort of cold. She accepts cruelty, betrayal, heartbreak, grave personal insult, without a normal human recoil. Sittenfeld doesn’t do a great job in persuading her readers that there are hidden depths to Hillary Rodham, and that’s a shame, because I suspect that there are.

Also, ‘Rodham‘ is a little too cute. Throughout her novel, Sittenfeld sprinkles events that happened in real life, weirdly specific ones. Her reasons for doing this are obvious: she wants us to understand that some things are inevitable, some dynamics and personalities will emerge no matter the path we choose, and fair enough. But I do not believe, for example, that if Hillary and Bill had not married and Bill Clinton had not become President of the United States, that Donald Trump would have ended up making his exact “Hispanics are rapists” speech, word for word, in 2016, albeit in a totally different context. And I do not believe that Bill Clinton’s supporters would end up chanting about Clinton, “Shut her up! Shut her up!”. I see what Sittenfeld is trying to do, but it’s too much, at least for me.

Ultimately, ‘Rodham‘ is, (perhaps inevitably), a novel about sexism. The interaction between Hillary and the public in 2016, the curious clashing of her personality, her history, her gender, and the prejudices and expectations of the public on both sides of the political spectrum, was dismaying and painful to a great many women. I completely understand why Sittenfeld might have felt the need to explore that experience in this way, and, essentially, I agree with her conclusions: it does seem to me that some things are inevitable in any timeline, and it does seem to me that we carry our characters with us, and that they inform our destiny at least as much as our destiny shapes them.

But I do wish, if Curtis Sittenfeld was going to go all out for Hillary, that she had given her a little more: more depth, more heart, and more independence. And, perhaps, that she had made her slightly less virtuous? It is precisely the impression (illusion?) of impervious, unemotional, competent control that so many people find alienating about Clinton (besides, of course, the fact of her having a brain AND a vagina) – might it not have been worth interrogating that a little? Trying to find some more complexity in her?

I don’t know. ‘Rodham‘ disappointed me, but perhaps I am being unfair. It’s hard to judge a book without knowing its purpose – maybe ‘Rodham’ was never intended to seriously illuminate the woman behind the persona, or interrogate feminism, or punish the wicked in fiction. Maybe it was only meant to be a weird little mental exercise. However, I think it could have been a great deal more, and I’m sad it wasn’t.

Doxology

By Nell Zink

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Can a pointless book be good?

Anyone who has read this blog with any regularity knows I’m obsessed with this question. To declare that, in order to be considered a work of value, a book must have some larger metaphysical or moral point is, essentially, to disqualify almost every work of horror, or fantasy, or romance from being ‘good’ (of course, most of them aren’t good, but very few books are good in any genre). Just as literary genres have their own conventions and codes, might they not also have their own standards, their own definitions, of success and failure? And mightn’t one of those standards be, simply, that they entertain?

I don’t think that many people would argue with me that, for example, ‘Jaws’ (a favorite test case of mine) is a great story. But it’s a great story because it is original and compelling, not because it makes any grand arguments – the shark doesn’t stand for anything, it’s not a comment on capitalism, or the patriarchy, or climate change. Its goals are to be fun and scary, and because sharks are intrinsically fun and scary, it succeeds in its goals. Therefore, it is a good book, in my opinion.

Applying that standard (“Does it entertain?”) to genre novels is pretty uncontroversial; however, when it is applied to realist literature, things become a little more complicated. We tend to have higher epistemological standards for realist literature; we expect those stories to do more than entertain. We expect them to instruct.

But I would like to advocate for the good literary novel which merely entertains, a la ‘Jaws’. It doesn’t make sense to me that we have simpler standards for books with wizards than we do for books about ordinary people. Perhaps the more we, the readers, resemble the protagonists, the more we require instruction: no point about reading about ourselves if we aren’t going to be bettered by it.

But ordinary people can be just as strange and compelling as elves, and not every story needs a moral. I’m advocating for this category, The Good, Pointless Book, and I’m submitting ‘Doxology‘ as an example.

Doxology‘ is about three friends who become a family. Pam and Joe meet in New York City in the nineties. Joe has William’s Syndrome; Pam is a punkish runaway. When they meet Daniel, a transplant from a religious Mid-Western family, the three decide to form a band. Joe is the singer song-writer, Pam the guitarist, Daniel the manager.

However, Daniel and Pam start sleeping together, and Pam is soon pregnant with a little girl she will name Flora. She and Daniel marry, while Joe unexpectedly becomes famous. On 9/11, as Pam and Daniel take their young daughter and flee the city, Joe overdoses on heroin. The family is traumatized, but their lives roll forward: Flora grows up, Pam and Daniel creep into middle-age.

Doxology‘ is really the story of Flora’s young life. She’s totally normal for an unusual kid: she’s smart, stupid, needy, independent. Her parents are cooler and stranger than normal parents, but her life isn’t therefore any more exotic. Aside from being babysat by a rockstar, she lives the life of a Gen-Z: raised by millennials, growing up under the cloud of climate change, idealism deeply challenged by the election of Donald Trump when she is barely out of a college, post-AIDS, post-Great Recession, lost.

And ‘Doxology‘ isn’t going to add anything to your understanding of Gen-Z, especially if you’ve ever seen a TikTok. If there is a greater meaning, I missed it. It’s merely, I think, a quick jaunt with a member of the latest adult generation.

Nell Zink

But it was a fun read, more of a zany ride than High Art. The action is fast-paced. Serious emotional developments are announced only in oblique comments, coded asides. Entire conversations are conducted with a sort of skipping meta-wittiness that makes ‘The West Wing’ look like ‘See Spot Run’:

“So, if I’m not the father, who is?”

“Aaron’s ready to accept responsibility,” she said.

“He’s a fucking socialist who wants to take responsibility for the whole planet. Can he tie his own shoes? Did you check?…It’s my baby,” Bull went on. “Or at least I’m adopting him. If biological-father-boy wants to make it an open adoption, let him try.”

“You don’t need me, if it’s a baby you want,” she said. “Have your own baby. You can afford a surrogate.”

“I guess for you Millenials that’s just one kind of sex work, but FYI, I’d rather be raped by an animal than exploit a woman of color like she’s a piece of meat. I love you, Flora, you fecund slut. I’ve got stuff to finish up here, but I’ll be home in an hour.” (p.366)

I am a millennial, and I have lived in New York City, and I have never, ever, heard a human talk like this. It’s completely unconvincing, but, again, I think that’s beside the point. It’s kind of fun (in an irritating way) to read an entire book about people who talk like this. It’s fun to read a pseudo-absurd thought experiment about millennial parenting. It’s fun to read about events of my own lifetime happening to fictional avatars. I didn’t learn anything, but I enjoyed it, and I guess I just fundamentally believe that that’s a good enough reason to recommend a book.