Tales of Mystery and Imagination

By Edgar Allan Poe

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Guys, is it just me, or is Edgar Allan Poe kind of…bad?

I’m having the slightly creepy experience of reading a book which is considered ‘classic’, picking up a work of Great Literature, and finding it to be, well, bad.  And not just a little bit bad, or simply not to my taste – really and obviously bad.  Just crappy.  Indefensible.

I’m sorry to have to say this, but I think that Edgar Allan Poe is a bad writer.  It grieves me, honestly, to pan the most famous author of spooky stories, to turn my nose up at the man who basically invented creepiness, but these are bad stories, badly written!  I can’t be the only person who’s noticed this, can I?

I hate these moments, these The-Emperor-Has-No-Clothes-moments, when everyone around you exclaims that a piece of culture is brilliant but, try as you might, you just can’t see it.  It’s obviously not brilliant, but no one will admit it and you wonder, is it me?  Am I crazy?  Am I missing something?  Or is Edgar Allan Poe just a bad writer and no one has the guts to say it?

I’m gonna get of ahead of you here and just slot in a few disclaimers.  First of all, I am not simply having trouble with the normal, more formal English of two hundred years ago.  I have read, and loved, many of Poe’s contemporaries, even his predecessors – I love the fruity olde English of yore.  This is not a problem of idiom, or style.

And I didn’t just read a few bad stories, his early attempts, for example, when he was still learning the ropes.  My copy of ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination‘ contains twenty stories, including all his ‘best’ and most famous ones: ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, ‘The Murders on the Rue Morgue’, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’.  I read this book cover to cover.

The only thing I liked about this book was these creepy illustrations, by Harry Clarke.

And it was hard-going, I can assure you.  These are not easy stories to read, or fun.  Poe’s prose is turgid, and purple, arduous and encumbered.  Reading him is like running through wet sand.  Let me give you a few examples, chosen – I swear to God – basically at random:

“‘You behold around you, it is true, a medley of architectural embellishments.  The chastity of Ionia is offended by antediluvian devices, and the sphynxes [sic] of Egypt are outstretched upon carpets of gold.  Yet the effect is incongruous to the timid alone.  Proprieties of place, and especially of time, are the bugbears which terrify mankind from the contemplation of the magnificent.  Once I was myself a decorist: but that sublimation of folly has palled upon my soul.  All this is now the fitter for my purpose.  Like these arabesque censers, my spirit is writhing in fire, and the delirium of this is scene is fashioning me for the wilder visions of that land of real dreams whither I am now rapidly departing’.” (‘The Assignation‘)

That is self-indulgent nonsense.  Here, try another:

“Ah, Death, the spectre which sate at all feasts!  How often, Monos, did we lose ourselves in speculations upon its nature!  How mysteriously did it act as a check to human bliss – saying unto it “thus far, and no farther!”  That earnest mutual love, my own Monos, which burned within our bosoms – how vainly did we flatter ourselves, feeling happy in its first upspringing, that our happiness would strengthen with its strength!  Alas! as it grew, so grew in our hearts the dread of that evil hour which was hurrying to separate us forever!  Thus, in time, it became painful to love.  Hate would have been better then.” (‘The Colloquy of Monos and Una‘)

He sounds like a fourteen year old girl trying her first slash fiction.  Have I broken your spirit yet?  Can you bear another?

“Yet, although I saw that the features of Ligeia were not of a classical regularity – although I perceived that her loveliness was indeed ‘exquisite,’ and felt that there was much of ‘strangeness’ pervading it, yet I have tried in vain to detect the irregularity and to trace home my own perception of ‘the strange.’  I examined the contour of the lofty and pale forehead – it was faultless – how cold indeed that word when applied to a majesty so divine! – the skin rivalling [sic] the purest ivory, the commanding extent and repose, the gentle prominence of the regions above the temples; and then the raven-black, the glossy, the luxuriant and naturally-curling tresses, setting forth the full force of the Homeric epithet, ‘hyacinthine!'” (‘Ligeia‘)

What incredible rubbish.  Honestly, that is just bad writing – it’s not fancy, it’s not expressive, it’s not sensual or sophisticated.  It’s terrible.

Edgar Allan Poe.  I feel a little bad saying all these mean things about him – he looks so sad.

And my objections to Poe are not merely stylistic.  He is not just a bad crafter of prose – no, worse: he is also a bad crafter of stories.

I know, I know – this is going to be a bridge too far for some people.   But bear with me, because I’m about to make a distinction which is very important to me.  There are two different elements (at least, but let’s stick with two for right now) to a well-crafted plot: the Premise and the Unfolding.  The Premise is the foundation on which the story rests; the Unfolding is how the Premise roles out into the plot.

Greatness, in a book, is most often found in the Unfolding of the plot.  Often, this great Unfolding rests on a magnificent Premise, but it needn’t: a masterful Unfolding can make Great Art of a simple, well-worn Premise.  But it is almost impossible to rescue a great Premise from a bad Unfolding.

Which is a shame, because there is almost nothing as lovable as a great Premise, and when you meet one, you want desperately for it to become Great Art.

But wishing does not make it so.  I have a theory that Edgar Allan Poe is considered a great writer because he is pretty great at the Premise.  All of his most famous stories share this trait: they have great Premises.  A man accidentally walls his comatose wife up in the family tomb.  A brutal, senseless murder stymies the police because it was committed by an escaped gorilla.  A murderer is so haunted by guilt that he cannot escape the sound of the beating heart of his victim.  A man is trapped in the most hideous torture chamber ever devised by the Inquisition.

These are phenomenal Premises, and it’s hard to imagine that their accompanying stories might really be bad.  But, please trust me, they are.  Poe is a terrible writer of plot: he cannot pace, does not construct narrative well.  He tells, and does not show.  His stories are uneven.  He spends way too much time on irrelevant details (pages and pages devoted to the windows in the House of Usher) and rushes the denouement.  Sometimes his stories don’t even have a denouement – they just trail off into nothing, as though he wandered away from the table.

Which, OK, he was sort of inventing a genre.  Some unevenness is expected.  But, not really: people wrote ghost stories before, and novelty is no excuse for bad writing. 

We are lucky: we live in a time of plenty, book-wise.  There is so much to read, too much to ever accomplish in a lifetime, in ten lifetimes.  We must pick and choose, and so it might be time to leave Poe behind, to thank him for his service, to be grateful for what he gave us, for the traditions which he inspired, but to let go of the primary material.

So, if you will allow me, I would like to give you a small Christmas gift: time.  I would like to save you the time you might have spent reading Edgar Allan Poe.  I almost never do this – I believe in reading the Classics for yourself.  But this time I believe I can, in good conscience, free up some time for you.  I think, if you’ll let me, I can give you this time back.

Because, no matter how much I love scary stories, no matter how I grateful I will always be to the man who made them Literature, I cannot tell it other than this: Edgar Allan Poe is a bad writer.

Happy Holidays.

The Interrogative Mood

A Novel?

By Padgett Powell

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Some ideas sound better than they are.  I think we’ve all encountered this: some concepts, full of promise, fail in execution.

And some ideas are exactly the opposite: terrible sounding, but weirdly great in reality.  Sometimes, a premise which promises to be awful when described turns out to be persuasive in practice.

The Interrogative MoodThe Interrogative Mood‘ is a ‘novel’ composed entirely of questions.

And I do not mean that it is a novel with a plot which is expressed entirely in questions: Why did Jane choose today to go to the store?  If she had not, would she have ever seen Dick again?  And why, today, did she find him so oddly attractive?

The Interrogative Mood‘ is a “novel” only in so far as it imparts no factual information to the reader, and makes no argument.  It is, in fact, 164 pages of disjointed and unanswered questions.  It sounds like a terrible ordeal, but it is so much fun to read.

I am, in practice if not in principle, very much against novels which experiment with form.  I understand that artists must extend the boundaries of the possible, but I’m something of a traditionalist where literature is concerned.  I would not have picked up ‘The Interrogative Mood‘ for the world if it had not been for the recommendation of Nick Hornby, Traditional Novelist, who spoke highly enough of it in ‘Ten Years in the Tub‘ (a great source of book recommendations, by the way) that I decided to try it.

I loved it.

powell
Padgett Powell

It was a crazy fun read.  I read it all the way through, as though it were a traditional novel, but, really, one needn’t.  The questions are strange and funny and serious.  Some are mundane and some are simple and some are specific and some are convoluted.  Some are obvious and unmemorable, but some are laugh-out-loud funny and many, to borrow a regrettable and hackneyed expression, will make you think.

Some are odd, precise and beguiling:

“Do you quite credit that there are burrowing owls?” (p. 13)

Some are wise:

“Is it fair to say that the world comprises those who are politicians, those who are movie stars, those who get by, and criminals?” (p. 157)

Some are really just little vignette’s of the quirky way Padgett Powell’s mind works:

“If Jimi Hendrix walked into your room and said, ‘Sit tight there, popo, I shall play you one’ and affected to get out his guitar, what would you do?  Would you say, ‘Wait, Jimi.  You’re dead lo these forty years,’ or ‘Wait, Jimi, let me call up a friend or two – not a big party, mind you, but this is a special thing for me and I want to share it with others if it’s okay with you – is that all right?’ or ‘God, no, Mr. Hendrix, that shit would split my head open right now,’ or ‘Lay some weed on me before you rip it, bro,’ or ‘Okay, Jimi, but if the police come, please do not call them goofballs please’? (p. 160)

The questions are arranged, seemingly without order or reason, into paragraphs, and some of these flights of questions are so charming that they should really be taken as whole:

“Provided you were given assurances that you would not be harmed by the products of either, would you rather spend time with a terrorist or with a manufacturer of breakfast cereal?  What in your view is the ideal complexion for a cow?  Is there a natural law that draws a plastic bag to an infant similar to the law that draws a tornado to a mobile home?  Do you understand exactly what is meant by custard?  Would it be better if things were better, and worse if things were worse, or better if things were worse and worse if things were better?” (p. 6)

The questions make no over-arching point.  They tell no story.  ‘The Interrogative Mood’ really is just a long string of queries, but its effect is engaging and unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before.  It’s like the most interesting, varied personality test you’ve ever taken, but without answers, where the responses, highly personal and often significant, are unscored and unscorable and will never be known to anyone but you.

Perhaps what makes ‘The Interrogative Mood‘ so beguiling is that a question doesn’t have the same effect as its equivalent in statement form.  Questions make us complicit in their reasoning and conclusions.  They don’t set us up as recipients of wisdom; rather, they invite us to derive it with the questioner.  And so a novel made up entirely of questions can shape your thoughts in a way that a plot can only paint pictures for you.  It elicits a totally different kind of engagement, and when, as in ‘The Interrogative Mood’, the questions are creative and off-the-wall, so varied and well-mixed, the effect is sparkling.

Sparkling, and often surprisingly emotionally compelling:

“Do you trust or mistrust people who say “Candy is too sweet for me?” (p. 121)

“Do you regard yourself as redeemed, redeemable, or irretrievably lost?” (p. 101)

‘What today would make you cry?” (p. 126)

If you are like me, you have spent a great deal of time thinking about yourself over the years; however, I, for one, have never thought about myself in these particular ways.  These questions invite me to think about myself, or about the world, along new lines, sometimes specific, sometimes general, sometimes both.

And just because the invitation to thought takes the form of questions does not mean that you cannot be guided along to conclusions.  Powell makes what I came to think of as micro-arguments, a series of questions which end with your consideration of a conclusion, stated in question form.  Take this paragraph, for example:Interrogative Mood

“Are you curious to know what I’ll do with the answers you’ve given me?  Do you think I can make some sort of meaningful “profile” of you?  Could you, or someone, do you think, make such a profile of me from the questions I’ve asked you?  If we had these profiles, could we not relax and let them do the work of living for us and take our true selves on a long vacation?  Isn’t it the case that certain people are already on to this trick of posting their profiles on duty while simultaneously living private underground lives?  Can you recognize these profile soldiers by a certain, dismissive calm, a kind of gentle smile about them when others are getting petty?  Is it in fact the character of the profile-facade person not that which is called wise?  And is the person who is congruent with his daily self and who has no remote self not regarded as shallow?” (p. 70)

That is a great question!  Many of them are great questions, which means that ‘The Interrogative Mood‘ ends up being more interesting and more thought-provoking than most novels, which is bananas because it has no plot, and no characters (except ‘You’ and ‘I’, technically).  I can’t believe I’m recommending it, this book which is just questions, but I am.  It was more fun than it had any right to be, and I loved every page.

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.

American Gods

By Neil Gaiman

All Posts Contain Spoilers

It’s so sad to see a good premise wasted.

‘Wasted’ is perhaps too strong a word.  It’s sad to see an execution which fails to live up to its premise.

In fairness to Neil Gaiman, this doesn’t always happen because the execution is terrible; sometimes it happens because the premise is so good that almost no execution could justify it.  Sometimes, a premise is so excellent that even a good execution is disappointing.  That’s probably the case with ‘American Gods‘: the execution of this novel is decent, totally solid.  But the premise is awesome, and so decent just won’t do.

American GodsWhen the protagonist of ‘American Gods‘, Shadow Moon (this terrible cliche of a protagonist is one the things dragging down the execution of this novel) is released from prison, he is offered a job by a man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday.  Moon’s beloved wife has just been killed, and, having nothing else to live for, he accepts the strange offer.  As it turns out, Mr. Wednesday is none other than the Norse god Odin, and Shadow is now his body man.  Shadow learns that the gods of the Old World have been carried with each wave of American immigrants to the New.  These transplant gods have been slowly forgotten as their worshippers have Americanized or died and so they are left to wander, shrinking and predatory, in the modern American landscape.  Every manner of mythical or supernatural creature is here: gods, fairies, furies, djinn, leprechauns.  If someone once believed in them, they are among us, scraping to get by.  And they are about to go to war with the new gods, the gods of modernity and technology, to fight one last battle, to see who shall rule America once and for all.

It’s a magnificent premise, and credit should be given to Gaiman for coming up with it at all.  I mean that honestly and without the slightest sarcasm: most writers will go their whole lives without coming up with one story idea that has this much juice.  And ‘American Gods‘ is…readable.  I don’t mean to damn with faint praise – it is a difficult book to put down; the pages seem to turn themselves.

Neil Gaiman.jpg
I’m really not being fair here – there are many pictures of Neil Gaiman where he doesn’t look posed and pretentious (he actually looks rather lovely and likable in most of them), but I’ve chosen this one, from variety.com

And maybe I should leave it there, declare that ‘American Gods‘ is a great beach read and call it a day, but I’m not going to.  Because I have the sneaking suspicion that Gaiman would be offended to hear ‘American Gods’ called ‘beach reading’, or ‘genre fiction’.  I might be wrong, but that’s my hunch.  Perhaps it is the long dream sequences*; perhaps it is the easy metaphor of the old gods battling the new; perhaps it is the pedantic obviousness of the character names (Mr. Wednesday, Shadow Moon), but something tells me that Gaiman has aimed higher than he ought.  I don’t think he meant to write a great yarn; I think he meant to write a Great Novel.  And not just any Great Novel – I think he meant to write a Great American Novel.

Now, it’s not really fair game to blame novelists for what you think they’re going for.  You don’t really know – it’s usually better to take the novel as you found it, not judging it against the novel you imagine the novelist intended.  However, a novelist will occasionally communicate ambition.  They do this any number of ways: explicitly, in interviews, or implicitly, through heavy-handed metaphor or prose, elaborate and abstruse plot.  And when that happens, when you can see the self-satisfaction of the narrator peeking through the finished work, it’s difficult not to hold the it against them.

I think that Gaiman wants to have his cake and eat it.  He’s tried to write a novel that is both cool and deals in Big Important Themes.  It’s really difficult to do (I’ve never done it, for sure), and he hasn’t pulled it off.  Or, rather, he has technically pulled it off, but not well.  His novel is cool, and it does touch on Big Important Themes, but it hits you over the head with them.  You’d be happy riding along on a road trip with some fun old gods, but you will never be allowed to forget that America Is An Immigrant Nation.  You might have enjoyed a neat fight scene among mythical creatures, but, no, this is a battle between The Culturally Rich Past and The Bleak, Impersonal Techno-Modernity.

But, so what?  A lack of subtly isn’t the end of the world.  But really great novels don’t teach you your lesson; they tell you the story which will allow you to learn it.  There’s a big difference between those two things.  And ‘American Gods’ doesn’t really give you the room to discover anything for yourself; the take-home messages are there waiting for you, gift-wrapped, at the door as you enter.

Which, at the end of the day, does not stop ‘American Gods‘ from being enjoyable reading.  It’s a little furry around the edges, a little obvious; there are, honestly, too many dream sequences.  But it’s a fun read, and because reading is ultimately about having fun, ‘American Gods’ is worth reading.  Maybe I’m wrong about Gaiman’s intentions – maybe he wasn’t shooting for Greatness.  Maybe he just wanted to entertain me, and, if that’s the case, he knocked it out of the park.  I was entertained; I was absorbed.  So, don’t punish Gaiman for failing to live up to the goals I imagine he had; read a book that I enjoyed despite that (imagined) failure.  It’s a good read.

And it’s a great premise.

*An aside: it is my personal belief that dream sequences are a sign of weakness in writing; they are self-indulgent and lazy, and their presence in a plot almost always suggests that someone is taking a short cut.  Another plot event like this: secret brother-sister incest.  When two characters who are sleeping together discover that they are secretly related, I know someone in the Writers Room was phoning it in.