Wuthering Heights

By Emily Bronte

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

Sometimes I wonder why we even bother to make teenagers read.

Specifically, I wonder why we make teenagers read the classics. In middle and high school, we drag them, mostly unwilling, through the Great Books before they have had most of the experiences which would allow them to connect with the material therein, and insist to them that these books represent the best of human literary effort.

I understand the arguments in favor: we are using these books to teach children how to think critically about literature, teaching them how to approach and, hopefully, to love it. Of all the teenagers alive, I was perhaps the one most likely to approach the material with reverence; if I was not smarter than anyone else, certainly I had a character inclined, even at that age, to love great books, to embrace them with an open heart.

But even I misunderstood most of them. So often, in my adulthood, I have picked up again a book I read in high school only to discover upon rereading that I have completely misremembered it. That the book that I thought I loved all these years bears little to no resemblance to the actual book.

I did not love ‘Wuthering Heights‘ in high school. I remembered it as a great love story, and I was not often moved by love stories in high school. I remembered it as tragic, overwrought, but essentially romantic: ‘Romeo and Juliet’ on the moors. Catherine and Heathcliffe loved each other cleanly, I thought, were kept apart by their families, died. There was much lamenting, I thought, and Healthcliffe I remembered as dark, and brooding, but essentially appealing.

I don’t know why I decided to reread it now, decades later. I found a lovely old box set of ‘Wuthering Heights‘ and ‘Jane Eyre’ (by far my favorite of the two) at Second Story Books years ago, and I picked it up on impulse last week. And, upon rereading, I have discovered something interesting, something which completely eluded me in high school:

Wuthering Heights‘ is batshit crazy.

Wuthering Heights‘ is romantic only in the technical sense: it is about two people who experience a romantic impulse toward each other. It is not romantic in the actual sense: it is not about love.

It is about hatred, and rage, and madness: it is about obsession and the warping of the human soul. It is about perversion of the human heart, not in the sexual sense, but in the original sense of the word: it is about hearts which have been twisted from their original purpose. Corrupted by something else and made into something so ugly that violence is the only possible expression of the original human capacity for caring.

It is, famously, the story of the bond between Catherine Earnshaw and Healthcliffe. I remembered this about it: it is the story of two souls, facing obstinately towards each other but kept by circumstances apart in marriage. Lonely, therefore, and tortured, doomed to wander until they find each other, finally, in death.

What I did not remember is that both our protagonists are tortured, not by unrealized love, but by rage and spite. A terrible, driving, defining urge to hurt everyone around them. They are both unrelentingly vile, and in their vileness they torment not only every single other character in the book, but each other. ‘Wuthering Heights’ is a novel of vengeance.

“Are you possessed with a devil,” he [Heathcliffe] pursued savagely, “to talk in that matter to me when you are dying? Do you reflect that all those words will be branded on my memory, and eating deeper eternally after you have left me? You know you lie say I have killed you: and, Catherine, you know I could as soon forget you as my existence! Is it not sufficient for your infernal selfishness, that while you are at peace I shall writhe in the torments of hell?” (p. 101)

I suppose, when I was fifteen, I assumed that, if characters in a novel were loved deeply, they must have been deserving of that love. If they were protagonists, they must therefore be sympathetic protagonists. I was not, I suppose, as a teenager capable of understanding that sometimes literature asks us to empathize with characters we are not supposed to admire. As a teenager, I must have thought that protagonists are only meant to reflect our better selves, whether they are true or total or not.

Emily Bronte

I was wrong, obviously, and I am particularly distressed to discover my mistake because I didn’t need heroic, sympathetic protagonists, not then, not now. I needed exactly the kind of protagonists that ‘Wuthering Heights’ was offering me: angry, tormented souls, souls who, in desperate reaction to their own psychic pain, would lash out at the world around them. Souls whose own agony would make them destructive, who carried their own suffering inside themselves, as part of themselves, but who nevertheless longed for a happiness that was an impossibility for them.

I mean, we all do, right? That’s what literature is for! I think, if you live long enough, you learn, inevitably, that heroes are thin on the ground, and literature is one of the ways that we cope with this. We need our flawed protagonists to help us play out our own worst traits, to see ourselves under different lights, from different angles. Literature is how we run experiments with aspects of our characters, how we try out different lives without paying the price for them.

There are moments of real poignancy for me in ‘Wuthering Heights‘, moments of sad human beauty. One moment, in particular, has stayed with me. Early in the novel, when Heathcliffe is told by the narrator that Cathy’s ghost (Cathy has been dead many years at this point) has been to visit her old room:

“He [Heathcliffe] got onto the bed, and wrenched open the lattice, bursting, as he pulled at it, into an uncontrollable passion of tears. “Come in! come in!” he sobbed. “Cathy, do come. Oh do – once more! Oh! my heart’s darling: hear me this time, Catherine, at last!” The spectre showed a spectre’s ordinary caprice: it gave no sign of being.” (p. 18).

It is a reminder that even wicked people are capable of genuine grief in loss, a fact which, as a wicked person myself, I was going to discover.

Wuthering Heights (Penguin Classics)‘ and I missed each other, in time. It is too melodramatic for me, as I am now. I have become more placid in my adulthood, my dramas are adult dramas, I do not draw emotional sustenance from unquiet spirits raging without each other.

But when I was a teenager, I did, and I am grieved that I did not see the lesson when it was in front of me, then. The lesson of ‘Wuthering Heights’, that real love is not possible for creatures who are animated by hatred, no matter how much they want, or need, it, not in this life – that real love and hatred are antitheses – that was a lesson I would have to learn for myself, the hard way. I could have used a book or two to teach it to me – it might have shortened my sentence.

Against The Day

By Thomas Pynchon

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

When I was little and had just started reading books for grown-ups, I asked my father if he had ever encountered a book so difficult that he had not been able to finish it. There was one, he answered, a book called ‘Gravity’s Rainbow‘, which was so long and hard that he had given up part-way through.

I asked him what was so hard about it, and he told me that he didn’t know how to describe it because it didn’t make any sense to him. It was just impossible to get through. I asked why he had tried to read it in the first place (he never was a great one for novels) and he told me that it was considered one of the great novels of the 20th century. I told him I bet that I would be able to get through it, and he bet me I would not. He bet me $50 dollars (a huge amount of money to me at that age, when my allowance was $8 per week) that I would not be able to read ‘Gravity’s Rainbow‘ all the way through.

I won that $50, some years later, with the help of a companion gloss, but it was reading by brute force. My father was exactly right: it didn’t make any sense, and, to this day, I don’t really know what ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ was about. But I was left with an impression of greatness which I am still unable to justify: I didn’t understand it, at all, but I liked it.

And so, over the years, I have come back again and again to Pynchon, reading a number of his books. In his defense, none have had quite the zany incoherence of ‘Gravity’s Rainbow‘, though they are all clearly products of the same mind. Nor have any had the length.

Until now: ‘Against the Day‘, which was published in 2006, clocks in at almost 1100 pages. It is a historical epic, following dozens of named characters from the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 to the global eruption of World War I. The gravitational center of the novel is the three sons of the anarchist bomber Webb Traverse. Traverse is tortured and killed by two assassins in the hire of anti-union interests; his death will torment and mutilate his offspring, will pursue them in their flight over the surface of the planet.

As so often with Pynchon, there is no plot, per se, uniting these characters and episodes; rather, they are united by a moral and stylistic point of view. ‘Against the Day‘ is a long fever dream laboring under a cloud of foreboding: World War I, the death of innocence, the blood and machines which will devour and destroy mankind’s ability to believe in its own civility, is coming, bearing down on Pynchon’s mind and clouding his world with unnameable, or maybe just unnamed, fear. ‘Against the Day’ is a novel about a civilization, a whole world, gone mad, and the creeping evils, capitalism, greed, technological progress, which drove it there.

In my years of making attempts on his novels, I have learned that one doesn’t read Pynchon’s books so much as one experiences them. There is a trick to this, a sort of mental relaxation which is counter-intuitive to all one’s instincts as a responsible reader. You have to relinquish your need to understand what’s happening, to remember details and to track events, and just let the novel happen to you. I believe, and I may be wrong about this, that the point of Pynchon’s novels happens in a sort of gestalt-absorption of the prose-tone, which I recognize doesn’t make any sense, but, then again, neither does he.

If you can let go of the idea that prose is supposed to make sense, you begin to understand that Pynchon’s writing is totally fucking sublime, I mean really, really good. And it’s not incoherent in the Joycean way of ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, not gibberish – that would make me furious – it’s world-class writing, but it’s not being deployed to communicate a story to you. And so reading him is not like taking in a story at all – it is like taking in a busy scene: chaotic, overwhelming at first, but punctuated by moments in which your eye comes to rest on something beautiful, small points of lovely focus:

“Fire and blood were about to roll like fate upon the complacent multitudes. Just at the peak of the evening rush-hour, electric power failed everywhere throughout the city, and as the gas mains began to ignite and the thousand local winds, distinct at every street-corner, to confound prediction, cobblestones erupted skyward, to descend blocks away in seldom observed yet beautiful patterns. All attempts to counter-attack or even avoid the Figure would be defeated. Later, fire alarms would go unanswered, and the firemen on the front lines would find themselves too soon without reinforcement, or the hope of any. The noise would be horrific and unrelenting, as it grew clear even to the willfully careless that there was no refuge…

There was debate in the aftermath about what had happened to the Mayor. Fled, dead, not right in the head, the theories proliferated in his absence. His face appeared on bills posted all over the wood fences around vacant lots, the rear ends of streetcars, its all-too-familiar bone structure shining with the unforgiving simplicity of a skull. “Remain indoors,” warned bulletins posted on the carbonized walls over his signature. “This night you will not be welcome in my streets, whether there be too many of you or too few.” (p. 152).

Thomas Pynchon

This is breathtakingly good writing, but understand: it is an aside. The Figure wreaking havoc on this town is never explained, and not mentioned again. It is a small piece of madness in a swirling world, important the way everything is important, meaningless the way everything is meaningless.

Pynchon isn’t incoherent because he’s garbled, he’s incoherent because he never pauses for breathe, doesn’t resolve loose ends, doesn’t resolve anything. Because his worlds are magical and he never explains them, because he doesn’t give context or backstory or rationale. He makes no sacrifices for you, makes no gestures at you, doesn’t even seem to realize that you exist.

Oh, and he’s funny. Funny, and rude, and crude. ‘Gravity’s Rainbow‘ launched him into the pantheon of the unread Greats, the Postmodern Masters, but because no one can read him and everyone knows that he is Important, no one supposes that Thomas Pynchon is fucking hysterical, that he’s obsessed with sex, and gutter-minded, and slapstick.

I suppose that maybe that I love Pynchon, but not as an author. I love him as writer, if that makes any sense. I don’t love his books, but I love the lucid moments in his incredible prose, the those moments of blinding skill. I love the lens through which he looks out upon the world, the mischief, the chaos, the evil and the love and the humor which provide respite from it. The great human forces which pull us all along, and how strange and unreasonable it all looks to him. How alien and small we are all, and how lovingly he draws us. I don’t understand him at all, but I’ll read him, I think, forever.

A Room of One’s Own

By Virginia Woolf

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I really don’t like being wrong.

You’d think I’d be used to it by now, since I’m wrong at least as often as I’m right, but I still hate being wrong with the same furious intensity I did when I was a child, when I would rather have chopped off one of my own fingers than admitted I had been mistaken about something. It irks me, deep in my soul, to look foolish.

And it’s all well and good to be wrong about things that don’t matter, like math or medicine, but one would hope that I would be slightly more reliable on the subject of books. They are, after all, the most important thing in the world, the meaning and substance of my life – one would expect that, if I were going to be right about anything, I might be right about them.

And yet I’m wrong about books all the time. Even more distressing, my wrongness usually takes the same form: I discover, with depressing regularity, that I have disdained an author, often for years, who is actually excellent. Whom, when I actually trouble to read them, I end up loving.

In my defense, I rarely disdain an author for no reason. Usually, I have been forced, as a child in school, to read a classic, and found, in all my teenage wisdom, the classic wanting, and decided that the author was therefore garbage. I did this to John Steinbeck (did not like ‘Of Mice and Men‘); I did this to Zora Neale Hurston (hated ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God‘); and I did this to Virginia Woolf.

It was ‘Mrs. Dalloway‘ that did it. My fifteen year old self was not impressed by ‘Mrs. Dalloway’. I do not remember precisely why – I suspect I thought it was vapid. Or maybe that Mrs. Dalloway herself was vapid, and I did not feel that I should have to spend my time reading about the interior world of a vapid party-planner when there were so many more interesting things to read about, like War and Death and Space Battles. I did not understand yet that it was a novel about trauma, that great tragedies play out quietly in the psyches of ordinary people, probably because I was a teenager and so had no interior world to speak of.

Because I did not like ‘Mrs. Dalloway’, I decided that I did not like Virginia Woolf. I have never read another of her books. But I believe in reading the classics; I’m traditional, and have an idea that one should read The Great Books, even if one really didn’t like ‘Mrs. Dalloway’. And so, when I saw ‘A Room of One’s Own‘ at the Harvard Bookstore Warehouse Sale this summer, I got it.

A Room of One’s Own‘ is an essay, born from two lectures which Woolf gave to women’s colleges of Cambridge. It takes, famously, as its thesis, the problem of Shakespeare’s sister, a woman born with all the talent of Shakespeare, but none of his masculine freedom. Would she, this sister, have left brilliant plays behind her? Not, Woolf concludes, without the time, space, and money to work. Not without a room of her own.

I was not expecting to enjoy ‘A Room of One’s Own‘. I read it entirely out of a sense of duty, an obligation both the Canon and to feminism. ‘A Room of One’s Own’ is a foundational feminist text, one of those books that you, if you are a woman, really ought to have read by now. I somehow graduated from an East Coast liberal arts college without reading it (I won’t say which one, lest they recall my degree), and have felt sort of nagged ever since by my own bad feminism.

I didn’t expect her to be funny. No, not because she’s a woman – because ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ is almost shockingly unfunny, and because about ten years after she published it, Virginia Woolf loaded her pockets with stones and walked into the river Ouse to drown herself, and so I don’t think of her as hilarious.

But, wrong again: she is funny. She’s sardonically, dryly funny, almost caustic. Her gimlet eye misses nothing, she is subtle, but when she cuts, she cuts deep, and her aim is devastating:

“..I thought of that old gentleman, who is dead now, but was a bishop, I think, who declared that it was impossible for any woman, past, present, or to come, to have the genius of Shakespeare. He wrote to the papers about it. He also told a lady who applied to him for information that cats do not as a matter of fact go to heaven, though they have, he added, souls of a sort. How much thinking those old gentlemen used to save one! How the borders of ignorance shrank back at their approach! Cats do not go to heaven. Women cannot write the plays of Shakespeare.” (p. 46)

And she is a beautiful writer, but, of course, we all knew that. What I was not prepared for was how I would feel, as a woman, when this beautiful prose, this clear-eyed analysis, applied itself to the problem of women’s rights.

Virginia Woolf

Woolf is a feminist from an earlier time: she isn’t writing about #metoo, or whether Cosmo causes eating disorders. She is writing about whether or not women are as smart as men, whether their minds can ever be as fine as men’s minds, whether they deserve to be educated, whether they can make art. It’s moving to read such a fine writer, such an understated and lovely writer, speak to this: her very existence should prove her point, but you know that it won’t.

I was surprised by her, I suppose: I was expecting something glum, or censorious (I think, upon reflection, that I confused the character of Mrs. Dalloway with Woolf herself – oops). But ‘A Room of One’s Own‘ isn’t censorious at all – it’s a gentle argument, a ripost, to a society which much have been a source of great pain to its author. And so it still consoles now, as long as society remains a source of pain to her readers.

“Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice it’s natural size….Whatever may be their use in civilised societies, mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action. That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist so emphatically on upon the inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge. That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men. And it serves to explain how restless they are under her criticism…For if she begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking-glass shrinks; his fitness for life is diminished. How is he to go on giving judgement, civilising natives, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquets, unless he can see himself at breakfast and at dinner at least twice the size he really is?” (p. 36)

It’s hard to know whether you are connecting with a work because the work is magnificent, or because you are a woman, or a mix of both. It’s OK for works to have special resonance for certain groups, but I’m always a little uncomfortable when I feel that I am only connecting to a work “as a woman” (like I said, bad feminist).

But Woolf is such a good writer, there is no question that the connection to her work is merely estrogenic. Magnificent prose is magnificent prose, whether its author is invaginated or not.

A fact with which Woolf would doubtless agree. I’m not sure I learned a lot from ‘A Room of One’s Own‘, but I’m also not convinced that that was the point. Rather, ‘A Room of One’s Own’ was a consolation, the reaching out of one woman to another through time. I am very glad I read it, which I suppose serves me right. Wrong again, happily.

The 13 Clocks

By James Thurber

All Posts Contain Spoilers

And now for something completely different.

“Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart. He wore gloves when he was asleep, and he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins or the kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales.” (p. 1)

Sometimes, I feel as though I’m the youngest living person who loves James Thurber. Thurber, who died in 1961, was a humorist and cartoonist, publishing most often in The New Yorker, and perhaps most famous as the author of ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.’

My mother, who thinks he is hilarious, used to read me Thurber essays when I was kid. He is hilarious, in a dry, folksy sort of way. I see his collected essays and humors in used bookstores from time to time, and I always pick up a new title. I have never, however, encountered one of his titles still in print, on the shelves of a new book store.

Until now. Right before the holidays, I was wandering around the Brookline Booksmith when I spied, on their Fiction and Literature shelf, a novel by James Thurber that I had never seen before. It was a bright and colorful new printing of a novel called ‘The 13 Clocks‘ with an new introduction by Neil Gaiman, of all people! In which introduction Neil Gaiman describes ‘The 13 Clocks’ as “probably the best book in the world”.

OK, so I can admit this: I have some ego on the line where books are concerned. I’m not the best-read person on the whole planet, sure, I know that, but I’m no slouch. So I was a little miffed not to have even heard about a book written by an author I love, and I was super miffed not to have heard of it given that it might be “the best book in the world”. I expect myself to have heard of the best book in the world.

Creepy, right?

So I bought ‘The 13 Clocks‘, and I read it immediately.

And I can set your mind at ease, I think: ‘The 13 Clocks‘ is not the best book in the world. I can say that with some confidence; let Neil Gaiman come and do his worst.

The 13 Clocks‘ is the story of the wicked Duke and his niece, the beautiful princess Saralinda. The Duke is a cold man, and he is afraid that one day, a suitor will come and win the hand of Saralinda, which hand is the only warm thing in the Castle. So he has frozen time, and stopped all 13 clocks in the castle. Each suitor who comes to try for the hand of Saralinda is subjected to impossible tasks and, usually, terrible deaths.

However, one day, disguised as a wandering minstrel, the Prince Zorn of Zorna arrives at the castle, and falls in love with the Princess Saralinda. With the help of his friend, the ambivalently helpful Golux, he will try to rescue Saralinda from the Duke and restart time.

If that sounds to you like a child’s story, you’re not wrong. ‘The 13 Clocks‘ is one of those stories that is written for children, but with deep metaphorical meaning that is meant to move adults.

The cold duke

It has many characteristics of that kind of story: a simple story which ripples with deep, creepy currents; faint echoes of existential terror and deep grief hidden under alienating silliness; little word games, meant to sound to funny to children and clever to adults; cute absurdist paradoxes; witty illustrations.

A great example is the Todal. The Todal does not appear on screen (as it were); rather, it is a sinister force which threatens the Duke if he fails. It is described as a “blob of glup”, and is “an agent of the devil, sent to punish evildoers for having done less evil than they should”.

Do you see what I mean? Do you see the tension there between something frankly childish and silly (or, if you like, stupid), the blob of glup, and the more adult, sinister idea, the Satanic agent which punishes failure? That tension lasts throughout the book – you are always watching the childishness for the quick flicker of darkness which will move behind it.

“Something moved across the room, like monkeys and like shadows. The torches on the walls went out, the two clocks stopped, and the room grew colder. There was a smell of old, unopened rooms and the sound of rabbits screaming. “Come on, you blob of glup,” the cold Duke roared. “You may frighten octopi to death, you gibbous spawn of hate and thunder, but not the Duke of Coffin Castle!” He sneered. ” Now that my precious gems have turned to thlup, living on, alone and cold, is not my fondest wish! On guard, you musty sofa!” The Todal gleeped. There was a stifled shriek and silence.” (p. 107)

And, mostly, it’s pretty charming (that’s pretty clear from the excerpts, right?). So, why do I say with such certainty that ‘The 13 Clocks‘ isn’t the best book in the world?

Well, because something can be very sweet and very charming and very clever without shaking the foundations of the earth, that’s why.

I don’t think that the only role of literature is to move the world, to wrench and rip open the fabric of complacency which covers our eyes, and I don’t think that that is the standard by which all books should be judged.

But books do this – books have done this. Not all, but many. And some have even done it while being charming and clever and sweet. Some have even managed to do it while being beautiful.

And while those books exist, shaking the earth, there is no way ‘The 13 Clocks‘ is the best book in the world. It’s super cute, a great little read, but the best book? No.

Although, there is something I have not considered: perhaps Neil Gaiman lives (tragically) in a world without great books, without ‘East of Eden’, or ‘The Gulag Archipelago’, or ‘Brideshead Revisited’, or ‘The Screwtape Letters’ (which is the best book in the world). Perhaps Neil Gaiman lives in a world where the only books in the world are ‘The 13 Clocks‘ and, like, ‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac.

In which terrible case, he is absolutely correct: ‘The 13 Clocks‘ is the best book in the world. But, Neil, get out of there.

World War Z

An Oral History of the Zombie War

Max Brooks

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Any reader of books knows that the books you love, the books you proselytize, the books you recommend to people at parties and display proudly on your shelves, say almost as much about you as you might about them.  And, of course, some kinds of books are more rewarding, in terms of what they say about you, than others.

Masterpieces make for lousy social accessories.  These are the Books Everyone Thinks Are Great.  No matter how much you may love a classic, no one will think better of you for it, for the simple reason that they all also believe that they love the classics.  Loving these books is no feat, because it requires no personal judgement at all.  You won’t ever impress anyone by loving ‘Hamlet’.

Some books, it’s fun to love them because everyone knows that they ought to love them, but no one has actually read them.  We can think of these as the Books You Love So That You Can Show You’ve Read Them.  This is how people who actually like Proust get to feel all the time*.

*I’m not one of these people.

And then there are the books which no one expects anyone to enjoy, because they aren’t fun at all.  These are Books Which Show Character.  It’s really fun to love these books, because then people think that you have unexplored depths, that you must know something that they don’t know, or that you possess a tortured, artistic soul.  Imagine how fun it would be to announce that your favorite book was, oh, ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’.

But my own personal favorite category, in terms of social accessorizing via reading list, is Secretly Great Books Everyone Else Thinks Are Trash.  I’m a little contrarian, so it gives me enormous (and, yes, extremely juvenile) pleasure to go to bat for books which everyone else thinks are Beach Reading, to argue that these books are, instead, Great Art.

World War ZSo here I go:  I think that ‘World War Z‘ is Great Art.

I’m not exaggerating for effect – I love this book.  I think it’s magnificent.  I’ve now read it three times, and I like it better every time I read it.  No, I love it better every time I read it, and I refuse to be ashamed of this fact.

World War Z‘ is, as advertised, the oral history of the Zombie War.  It is a collection of the personal reminiscences of the survivors, from all over the world, from the ordinary citizens who witnessed it to the presidents and generals who prosecuted it.  It covers the entire war, from the first few cases, the handling (or mishandling) of the outbreak by various nations, the desperate flight of millions of people from the cities, the overwhelming and near extinction of the human race, and the eventual beating back, the destruction, of the zombie menace.

I love this book.  I love this book because it is so smart.  It’s smart and it’s thorough, thought-out and careful and precise and imagined down to the last detail.

I’m going to land on this point with a little more emphasis, because I am sure that most people unfamiliar with this work (or, heaven forfend, people who saw the movie) would be surprised, perhaps, to hear ‘smart’ as the primary description of a book about, uh, zombies.  Literal zombies.

But that’s the thing about smart – it can work with anything, can make something brilliant out of starting material which is, well, stupid.

ZombieZombies have never been my favorite metaphor.  All the ghouls and goblins have their metaphorical purpose, the existential conundrum they were written to pose to us.  Vampires are about the price of immortality; werewolves are about our inner beasts.  Ghosts are about death (obviously).  Zombies are about humanity, what makes us human, whether it’s our bodies or our minds.  Zombies (usually) ask the essential question: when do our loved ones stop being themselves?  When can we let them go?  When are we willing to destroy them?  Could you shoot your mother in the face, to save yourself?  Your child?  Your spouse?

But that’s not what ‘World War Z‘ asks, not exactly.  ‘World War Z’ is a novel of geopolitics; it is a novel of logistics.  Its nearest analog, to my mind, is Asimov’s ‘Foundation‘ trilogy.  It’s a novel about how societies cope with unimagined and unmanageable threats, threats that come from within.  Arational threats.

I recognize that this is not ‘Walking Dead’-sexy, but it’s a lot smarter.  And it’s more interesting, more fun to read.  There aren’t any hand-to-hand battles with zombies here, no slow, wrenching transformations of loved ones.  This isn’t a book about people as individuals; it’s a book about people as nations, people as animals.

And it’s plausible, super plausible.  It’s the kind of the book that makes you feel as though, if a zombie apocalypse happens, it’ll look a lot like this.  Not the way it will look to you (or to a bunch of people way better-looking or tougher than you), but how it will look from above, how it will look on a grand scale.

Max Brooks
Max Brooks

This is so much more interesting than watching a bunch of grubby people scramble around in the woods.  Zombies just aren’t that interesting as an interpersonal problem, but as a logistical problem, they are fascinating.  They are both a disease and an enemy, a contagion and an infiltration.  And ‘World War Z‘ captures this so well, holding the problem up to the light and holding it this way and that, so that you can admire facets of it that you’ve never noticed before.

I’ll give you an example, perhaps my favorite example, of a really great tweak to the old zombie problem.  It comes in the middle of the book, as the tide begins to turn.

(Remember that the book is structured as a series of interviews)

“The biggest problem were quislings.

Quislings?

Yeah, you know, the people that went nutballs and started acting like zombies.

Could you elaborate?

Well, as I understand it, there’s a type of person who just can’t deal with a fight-or-die situation.  They’re always drawn to what they’re afraid of.  Instead of resisting it, they want to please it, join it, try to be like it…But you couldn’t do it in this war.  You couldn’t just throw up your hands and say, ‘Hey, don’t kill me, I’m on your side.’  There was no gray area in this fight, no in between.  I guess some people just couldn’t accept that.  It put them right over the edge.  They started moving like zombies, sounding like them, even attacking, trying to eat other people…Do you know that quislings were the reason some people used to think they were immune?…I think the saddest thing about them is that they gave up so much and in the end lost anyway.

Why is that?

‘Cause even though we can’t tell the difference between them, the real zombies can.  Remember early in the war, when everybody was trying to work on a way to turn the living dead against one another?  There was all this ‘documented proof’ about infighting – eyewitness accounts and even footage of one zombie attacking another.  Stupid.  It was zombies attacking quislings, but you never would have known that to look at it.  Quislings don’t scream.  They just lie there, not even trying to fight, writhing in that slow, robotic way, eaten alive by the very creatures they’re trying to be. (p. 198)

You have to admit, that is brilliant.  It’s better than brilliant: it’s correct.  It is a true observation about humans, but placed in an entirely fictional, terrifying, absurd context.  Or, to be more precise, it is an entirely fictional, terrifying, absurd context which draws your attention to a true observation about humans you had already made, but had never really understood.

That’s what science fiction is for.  That’s what it does: reteaches you things you already knew, or should have known.  This is also, by the way, what Great Art does.  And I will defend as Great Art any book which takes something you thought you knew, no matter how stupid, and then twists and turns it back around on you, so that you discover that you were looking at yourself all along.

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.