The House In The Dark Of The Woods

By Laird Hunt

All Posts Contain Spoilers

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

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

Here’s what happened:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laird Hunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I suspect that that was exactly the point.

Dietland

By Sarai Walker

All Posts Contain Spoilers

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

All Posts Contain Spoilers

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

All Posts Contain Spoilers

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

All Posts Contain Spoilers

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

All Posts Contain Spoilers

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.

Kill All Normies

Online Culture Wars From 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right

By Angela Nagle

Have you been feeling too good lately?  When you look around at the world, does it seem too happy, safe, and congenial a place for your liking?  Would you like to feel more dismal about the state of your country, your fellow man?  Have you been trying to quit the Internet, looking to be driven offline, perhaps in despair?

Then, boy, do I have the book for you!  It’s not long, just a svelte 120 pages, but don’t worry!  There is enough disgusting human behavior in those 120 pages to fuel your misanthropy for the rest of your life.

Kill All NormiesKill All Normies‘ is Angela Nagle’s brief exploration of the once-fringe Internet subcultures which came to play significant roles in the 2016 United States presidential election.  Nagle frames these broadly as extensions of a broader culture war, starting in the 1960s, which saw the transgression against normal social mores as a goal, rather than as a tool, of social change.

More granularly, ‘Kill All Normies‘ is a summary history of the online evolutions of the alt-right and identitarian far left movements in the United States.  She covers personalities, fora (Tumblr, Reddit, 4chan, &c), and specific events (Gamergate, Harambe).  She also explicates these phenomena within the cultural history of the United States, looks at how they relate to the political system in this country, and briefly discusses the critical texts which influenced them.  It is part history, part anthropology, part semiotics text.

And, from a humanist point of view, it’s gruesome.  If I didn’t think the end was nigh before I read this, I certainly do now.  Nagle covers, cursorily, the Manosphere, the Alt-Right and ethno-nationalism, Trump’s toxic Twitter army, Tumblr’s witch-hunty call-out culture, and the porny, hostile, insular world of 4chan.  I challenge anyone to read about those cultural infestations and still feel good about us as a species.

Angela Nagle
Angela Nagle

Nagle, it should be said, does not treat all these things as morally equivalent, and a denizen of, say, the Manosphere might take issue with her relative treatments (if he deigned to read books written by ‘holes’, that is).  She has a point of view, and she’s pretty upfront about it.  When she thinks something is revolting, she says so.  She openly deplores misogyny, racist rhetoric and attacks, threats, suicide encouragement, and homophobia.  She identifies as a feminist.

For all that, though, she is more even-handed than one might have expected her to be.  She faults both the left and the right for viciousness in the culture war.  She devotes an entire chapter to campus witch hunts from the left.

“At first, self-righteously or snarkily denouncing others for racism, sexism or homophobia was the most instantaneous and certain way to achieve social media fame.  Something about public social media platforms, it turned out, was conducive to the vanity of morally righteous politics and the irresistible draw of the culture wars.  But soon the secret was out and everyone was doing it.  The value of the currency of virtue that those who had made their social media culture capital on was in danger of being suddenly devalued.  As a result, I believe, a culture of purging had to take place, largely targeting those in competition for this precious currency.  Thus, the attacks increasingly focused on other liberals and leftists often with seemingly pristine progressive credentials, instead of those who engaged in any actual racism.” (p. 77)

“I often think the brain drain out of the left during this period because of the Tumblrization of left politics has done damage that will prove long-lasting.” (p. 80)

That Nagle has enormous contempt for this kind of hysterical, self-cannibalizing virtue-signaling is clear.  What is equally clear (in fact, explicit) is that she considers “actual racism” and misogyny much more dangerous.

“The alt-light figures that became celebrities during this period made their careers exposing the absurdities of online identity politics and the culture of lightly thrown claims of misogyny, racism, ableism, fatphobia, transphobia and so on.  However, offine, only one side saw their guy take the office of US president and only one side has in their midst faux-ironic Sieg Heil saluting, open white segregationists and genuinely hate-filled, occasionally murderous, misogynists and racists.” (p. 9)

I was at least passingly familiar almost all of the cultural phenomena Nagle references, and, when I wasn’t, she gives enough of a sketch that I was able to place the reference in context.  I also have some experience reading criticism, and so I was able to grapple with some of the unwieldy and vague critical concepts that Nagle handles pretty casually.  In general, though, ‘Kill All Normies’ favors breadth over depth, and readers who don’t have a passing familiarity with famous Twitter flame wars or Nietzsche might find the pacing of the text a little difficult to follow.

Another problem is that Nagle writes like a journalist.  She’s great when it comes to shorter, declarative sentences, but when she’s handling more complicated material, she over-clauses and under-punctuates, which can make it hard to trace her antecedents and follow her argument.  ‘Kill All Normies’ is a book you’ll read for content, not for style (although some of her dry asides are really great, like this:

“The left’s best critic of this disease of the left had just died and dancing on his grave was a woman who once blogged about baking bread using her own vaginal yeast as a feminist act.” (p. 117)

Or this:

“The Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW) movement is a straight male separatist group whose members have chosen (ahem) to avoid romantic relationships with women in protest against a culture destroyed by feminism” (p. 94))

But content is a excellent reason to read, and this is important material.  I appreciated ‘Kill All Normies’ mainly for two reasons:

  1.  Though I have managed to glean much of this information myself over the years, by being a relatively plugged-in person, I have not seen so much of it collected in one place, or organized at all well.  This is a reasonable, if not comprehensive, glossary of the culture wars raging around us all the time, and now that they have impinged on our political lives so dramatically, it is time to start thinking about them as a single phenomenon.
  2. I am, though leftist myself, happy to see Nagle approach the fringes of the left and the right as though they might be understand as part of single cultural battle.  Because we in the trenches think of ourselves as value-driven, we don’t tend to step back and look at trends of the battlefield itself, the way our weapons influence their weapons and vice versa.  Nagle’s book does this, and it was helpful to me.  I think her criticisms of both sides were fair, and proportionate to their sins.

However, appreciating a book and enjoying a book are two different things.  I learned something from ‘Kill All Normies‘, but it also ruined my week.  It is, at its heart, an exploration of a facet of my culture, a side of humanity in my time, which I find demoralizing: rancid, mean-spirited, venomous, and evil.  Even though it is a short text, an minute spent among the sort of bottom-dwellers who sent Anita Sarkeesian rape threats during Gamergate is like a year among the morally normal.  And one of the very frightening lessons of ‘Kill All Normies’ is that there are more people inhabiting the vile fringes of both sides than I, and perhaps you, had expected.

So it’s not a cheerful read.  It will probably make you feel worse about the world, about the people around you.  It’s the sort of book that makes you more suspicious, less trusting, and, in that way, perhaps a less good person for having read it.  This is not the fault of the author, obviously, but a logical result of the information that she is presenting.  And I believe that it is always better to confront the world as it is, not as we wish it to be, and if that upset us, well, bummer.  So I would recommend reading ‘Kill All Normies‘, especially if you are interested in understanding the cultural or political moment a little better.

But brace yourself, ’cause it’s ugly.

Shrill

By Lindy West

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Unfortunately, I’m going to have to rave about another book.

I apologize – I know that this has been happening a lot lately.  I’m very suspicious of people that like everything, or only have nice things to say about the content they are consuming.  To my mind, positivity is a sure sign of thoughtlessness.

A reader who loves every book they read is a reader who isn’t thinking very hard about books, and therefore has no business writing about them.  But I would like to promise, before I get about the business of loving this book, that I hate plenty of books.  I’m sure I’ll hate the very next book I read.  I’ve just been on a lucky streak lately, batting way above my normal average (although, in fairness to myself, I do think I had some critical things to say about Jane Austen recently…).

And I will make one more small point in my own defense: I thought that I was going to hate ‘Shrill‘.  I did not pick it – it was a gift – and it was chosen for reasons which were not persuasive to me.  This happens not infrequently: someone will give me the work of a female author, usually a funny or acerbic one, with the explanation, “She’s sharp, and you’re sharp, so I thought that you might like her.”  Unfortunately, that both Lindy West and I are a) female and b) smart, is not enough to make me like her book.  So I picked up ‘Shrill’ anticipating a hate-read.

ShrillShrill‘ is a collection of personal essays, and the personal essay is a difficult form.  When it’s good, it’s sublime, but to work it needs an author who is a good writer with a distinct worldview, who has experience worth writing about (or a gift for making any experience into a story), and who possesses a basic humanity.  This last attribute is the most important, and hard to define.  To write an entire book about yourself is an act of narcissism; in order to avoid becoming insufferable, the author of that book must possess grace, must show more forgiveness of others than they do of themselves, must not grovel and play at false humility, but also must not brag.  We must be able to trust them on their own strengths, and therefore they must show their weaknesses.

Lindy West is well-known at this point; if you’re a feminist, an active misogynist, or a reader of the New York Times, you’ve probably heard of her. She is most famous as a feminist writer: she has written about high-controversy issues such as whether or not rape jokes are funny, and what it’s like being a fat woman.

[An aside, West refers to herself as a fat woman, and since this one of the subjects on which she is the most moving and effective as a writer, I am going to use her terminology, and not employ any of the euphemisms which she decries in her own text.]

A lot of the writing in this book revolves around what it is like to be a fat woman, and to be a fat woman who lives in the public eye, who writes about being fat and rape jokes and about the treatment of women broadly.  West records the volume and tenor of the abuse she receives, but she also writes about the less conspicuous humiliations and indifferences that she suffers, and has suffered her entire life.

And she writes about them well.  ‘Shrill‘ isn’t a cri de coeur; it isn’t a harangue about the treatment of women, or fat people.  It is a simple, effective plea for decency.  Sometimes this plea takes the form of polemic, but mostly it takes the form of memoir: West shows you that she is a person, and leaves it to you to imagine what it might feel like for a person, say, to receive a message which said:

“No one would want to rape that fat, disgusting mess.” (p. 197)

Or

“What a fucking cunt.  Kill yourself, dumb bitch.” (p. 199)

Or

“Holes like this make me want commit rape out of anger, I don’t even find her attractive, at all, she’s a fat idiot, I just want to rape her with a traffic cone” (p. 202)

[If you, like me, find this level of abuse frankly astonishing, it’s worth watching the video West filmed of herself simply reading the Twitter comments she gets: If Comedy Has No Lady Problem, Why Am I Getting So Many Rape Threats?]

Because her writing is clear, and her voice is so direct, you can’t, as her reader, avoid making an empathic connection with her.  She is extremely reasonable, especially when she is presenting her own experience, and so you often end up suffering for her sake, with her, at the things which she has gone through:

“It felt alien to be confronted so vocally and so publicly (and for such an arbitrary reason), but it also felt familiar.  People say the same kind of thing to me with their eyes on nearly every flight – this guy just chose to say it with his mouth.

This is the subtext of my life: “You’re bigger than I’d like you to be.” “I dread being near you.” “Your body itself is a breach of etiquette.” “You are clearly a fucking fool who thinks that cheesecake is a vegetable.” “I know that you will fart on me.”

No one wants to sit next to a fat person on a plane.  Don’t think we don’t know. (p. 141)

giggle
Lindy West

That essay, ‘The Day I Didn’t Fit‘, was incredibly moving for me.  It cut right to heart of me, made me think carefully about my own behavior and beliefs, made me ashamed.  It’s an unusual essay which, all by itself, will be responsible for an entire reallignment of your moral priorities towards a whole group of people – that essay has done that for me.

But this book came to mean the most to me as woman.  The simplicity of West’s declaration of her own humanity, and therefore of mine, felt profound to me.  It wasn’t dense, or theory-laden; quite the opposite.  It was the clear and unmistakable declaration: we are women, we are people, these are the things that hurt us, we wish not to be hurt.  And, at a time in my own culture where feminism, femininity, masculinity, and power are all such complicated and murky topics, that declaration sounded to me like the ringing of a bell.

I really don’t want to make this book sound grim – it emphatically isn’t.  It is extremely funny.  I laughed loudly enough that I drew looks when I read it in public; I made a small scene on the subway on the way to the hair salon when I read this:

“What is the point of sexualizing a fish-person?  It’s not like you could really have sex with King Triton, because FISH PENIS.  I don’t think fish even have penises anyway.  Don’t they just have, like, floppy anal fins that squirt out ambient sperms in the hope that lady-fishes will swim through their oops-cloud? Is that what you really want from your love-making, ladies!?  To inadvertently swim through a miasma of fin-jizz and then call it a night?  A merman is only a hottie with a naughty body if you are half attracted to fish.  In conclusion, IT’S A FUCKING FISH-MAN TRYING TO DRAG YOU TO THE OCEAN FLOOR, WHERE IT PLANS TO USE YOUR DEAD BODY SEXUALLY.  KILL IT.  IT HAS A FORK.”  (p. 8)

I made a small scene in my hair salon when I read this passage:

“Those two contradictory approaches (periods are the best! and we must never ever speak of them), made me feel like I was the only not-brainwashed one in a culty dystopian novel.  ‘Oh, yes, you can’t imagine the joy readings in your subjectivity port when the Administration gifts you your woman’s flow!  SPEAKING OF THE FLOW OUTSIDE OF THE MENARCHE BUNKER WILL RESULT IN DEACTIVATION.'” (p. 25)

West is merciful enough to break up even her most exposed, wrenching passages with humor; it is her most salient and excellent characteristic.  It also heightens the impact of her rhetoric.  Because she is so funny, because her humor seems so effortless and natural, when she tells you something seriously, you believe her.  ‘Shrill‘ is a red-herring of a title: West is not shrill.  She is measured, witty, reasonable, and convincing.

I don’t like to extol books.  I don’t like full-throated praise; it makes me feel uncritical and unsophisticated.  But, to be perfectly frank, this book moved me, and along more than one axis.  It had tremendous meaning for me as a women: West’s writing about feminist issues is brave, and kind, and true.  It will change, dramatically, how I think about issues of body weight going forward.  And it made me laugh, a lot.

Mostly, though, I feel grateful to have gotten to know her a little.  Lindy West, the author, was really fun to spend time with, and I’m better for it.

Northanger Abbey

Jane Austen

All Posts Contain Spoilers

There are times in one’s life which call for Jane Austen.

It’s a little difficult to define these times with precision (paradoxical, given that one of the great gifts of the author in question is precision).  They are the times in one’s life when things feel as though they might not work out, as though the world is not abiding by rules, when people feel coarse or evil, or when you are lonely, and the world feels large and empty around you.

In those times, this reader often turns to Jane Austen, to her small, orderly world with its essential kindness and small stakes.  Her attention is so fine that she justifies yours, and you feel completely vindicated in devoting emotional energy to courtships, and small slights of manners, and hattery.

Northanger AbbeyI should have read ‘Northanger Abbey‘ long ago.  I’ve read all the others, twice at least.  ‘Northanger Abbey’, Austen’s first complete novel and not published until after her death, has been a nagging hole in my education, and as the winter and the news and my own life converge to feel onerous, it felt like the right time to complete my relationship with her, and read her earliest work.

Northanger Abbey‘ is the story of Catherine Moreland, a young, good-natured, but otherwise totally unremarkable woman, her predilection for novels, and her courtship with one Henry Tilney.

Catherine meets Henry on a trip to Bath with her family friends, the Allens; he is assigned to her as a dance partner.  Normal Austenian hijinks ensue: Catherine’s brother will be thrown over by Catherine’s socially ambitious friend, who will in turn be thrown over by Henry’s caddish brother.  Catherine will befriend Henry’s saintly sister Eleanor, and there will be much muttering and misunderstanding about family incomes and marriage settlements.  All will come right for everyone who deserves it.

But ‘Northanger Abbey‘ is really a novel about novels, about our love of them, what they bring to our lives, the ways in which they affect our thinking, and why we publicly scorn the plotty ones that we secretly love best.  Catherine loves novels, particularly the chest-heaving Gothic romances, and her determination to find novelistic adventures in her own life leads her into one or two small scrapes (including the brief conviction that her future father-in-law has his late wife imprisoned in a wing of Northanger Abbey).  The whole novel is a tongue-in-cheek defense of novels, for even while Catherine fails to achieve Gothic adventure, she is, in fact, meeting and contending with villains, falling in love, and showing loyalty to friends and loved ones, the grand tropes of romance writ small.

Which, I think, is part of Austen’s point: novels are meaningful to us not because we are going to achieve the exact adventures which they portray, but because the emotions which animate their characters are the same emotions which animate us, and, within the literary arts, emotions are the special territory of novels.  Other forms may acknowledge or portray them, but only novels explicate them.

And this little conceit is charming.  But, let’s just be honest and upfront: ‘Northanger Abbey‘ is not Austen’s best work.  Which is fine, I mean, look at the competition: she wrote at least two novels of manners which are essentially perfect, and there’s nowhere to go from ‘perfect’ but down.  And this was, as stated earlier, her first attempt, so it’s not surprising that the learning curve should be visible.

Lismore Castle.jpg
In the 2007 PBS adaptation, the scenes in at Northanger Abbey itself were filmed in Lismore Castle, in Ireland.

But it is visible.  There are a few structural problems with ‘Northanger Abbey‘.  First of all, the pacing is odd.  Only about two fifths of the novel are even spent at Northanger Abbey itself.  Too much time is spent in Bath, with the Allens, and much of the later action is dispatched too quickly.  Significant characters, like the odious suitor John Thorpe, are dealt with off-screen, and one of the main characters, Eleanor Tilney, triumphantly marries a Viscount who is not only completely unknown, he is never even named!

A bigger problem is Catherine herself.  Some characters, it is true, do not age well, and the traits of heroines tend to be era-specific, but I suspect that Catherine was a complete drip even in Austen’s day.  She is, by the admission of her narrator, not very smart, only kind of good-looking, and lazy.  Certainly, she’s got all the social sense of a parsnip.  Even her eventual husband finds her lackluster:

“For though Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought.” (p. 168)

This is not the denouement of a romantic heroine, which, obviously, is Austen’s point.  But, alas, it also not the denouement of a particularly interesting heroine, and this presents something of a difficulty for the reader who wishes to be sympathetic with, or at all invested in, their protagonist.

Austen will, of course, perfect the heroine later, and the hero.  In the meantime, the other reason she is read, her razor-sharp prose, is the one part of this novel that does not suffer much by comparison.  She is almost as fine a writer of prose here as elsewhere; you never go wrong reading Jane Austen for language.

Jane Austen
Jane Austen

Indeed, Austen is one the few writers who is so excellent at prose-craft that she is both beautiful and funny, high-minded and devastatingly mean, with equal comfort.  But she is most loved for her arch observations of manners, the subtle and inescapable attention with which she observes her fellow man, and ‘Northanger Abbey’ contains some really sick Jane Austen burns.

For example, demolishing the social falseness of Catherine’s friend Isabella:

“It was ages since she had had a moment’s conversation with her dearest Catherine; and, though she had such thousands of things to say to her, it appeared as if they were never to be together again; so, with smiles of most exquisite misery, and the laughing eye of utter despondency, she bade her friend adieu and went on.” (p. 45)

Or pointing out the silliness of fretting too much about what to wear for a man one hopes to impress:

“This would have been an error in judgment, great though not uncommon, from which one of the other sex rather than her own, a brother rather than a great aunt might have warned her, for man only can be aware of the insensibility of man towards a new gown.” (p. 49)

Or, my personal favorite, gently reminding us all that women are thinking beings:

‘She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance.  A misplaced shame.  Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant.  To come with a well-formed mind, is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid.  A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing any thing, should conceal it as well as she can.” (p. 76)

I suppose, in summary, that the truth is this: ‘Northanger Abbey‘ is not Austen’s best, but Austen is a comfort even when she is under-performing.  Her excellent language, her wit, and her easy humanity all make reading her rather like coming home, and this is the last Jane Austen I will ever read for the first time.  I wish it had been better, but it was like enough to her great works that it gave me comfort, which is what I was looking for in the first place.