A Unified Theory of Novels

So, I’d like to do something a little different this week, and instead of talking about one book which I finished in the past seven days, I’d like to talk about novels in general.

I said something a little while ago: “It doesn’t, for example, make any sense to complain that there weren’t enough battles between zombies and werewolves in ‘The Notebook’ – ‘The Notebook’ isn’t that kind of story.” But when I thought more about it, I felt that I had, as usual, been glib. And not merely because I have never read ‘The Notebook’, but because while I believe that this is a true and self-evident statement, why is it true?

It’s true because there are different kinds of novels.

I don’t mean Good versus Bad novels – I mean that there are different categories of novels. Partly, yes, this is what we’re talking about when we talk about genre: romance versus horror, but even within that great non-genre, Literature, there are different categories of literary novel. And I know that this is obvious to everyone, but it bears a little reiteration, because it has implications which we rarely examine with any care.

Let me put it this way:

Which is the better novel: ‘Ulysses‘ or ‘Jurassic Park‘?

There are a lot of ways to answer this question.

You might say: ‘Ulysses’, because it is a technical accomplishment of such complexity and beauty that it transformed the very idea of the novel.

You might say: ‘Ulysses’, because that’s the book that people are more impressed when I say I’ve read it.

You might say: ‘Jurassic Park’, because more people like it.

You might say: ‘Ulysses’, because more informed people like it.

You might say: ‘Jurassic Park’, because, unlike ‘Ulysses’, it’s actually fun to read.

None of these answers is quite satisfying, is it? Yes, ‘Jurassic Park’ is more entertaining, but ‘Ulysses’ was more complex. How can you adjudicate ‘better’ in a case like this?

The problem, of course, is that the question is nonsensical. Neither novel is strictly ‘better’, because they are different kinds of novels, and so have different novelistic goals.

Over the years, I’ve come to think about three broad categories of novels (in my head, I call them Tiers). Within each Tier, a novel can be either successful or not successful, which means that there is such a thing as a Very Good Tier 1 novel, which is, for my money, ‘better’ than a Very Bad Tier 3 novel, in so far as goodness can be read into execution of intention.

These are my Tiers:

Tier 1 Novels: Plot

Tier 1 novels are novels where the primary purpose of the novel is plot. ‘Plot’, in this case, is distinct from ‘story’ – most, if not all novels, have a story of some sort, but not all novels are plot-driven.

Plot-driven novels are characterized by action. Action moves the novel forward, and action is the necessary resolution of the plot. ‘Action’ does not necessarily, of course, mean a sword fight – action can also be the discovery of a murderer, or the culmination of a magical quest, or an exorcism.

Because, of course, most of what are traditionally called ‘genre novels’ are contained in this tier: fantasy, murder mysteries, techno-thrillers.

My favorite Tier 1 novelist is Michael Crichton (as is probably clear from my obsession with ‘Jurassic Park’). I’ve read everything he’s written, even that pirate one. I could wrote a whole essay on my deep love of a Crichton premise. Stephen King is another beloved Tier 1 novelist for me; so was George R. R. Martin, before he ghosted us all.

Tier 2 Novels: People

Tier 2 novels are novels in which the story isn’t, necessarily, plot-driven: these novels might be novels of character development, emotional crisis, personal tragedy or triumph.

Tier 2 novels are not characterized by subject matter – they are characterized by their limitation. Tier 2 novels are only about what they are about. They do not, by design or failure, transcend their own story. If they are a story of a young man’s descent into madness, then they are only about that particular young man and his particular madness – they are not a metaphor for anything larger.

This is not necessarily a comment on the value of these novels; on the contrary, Tier 2 includes some of the most absorbing novels I have ever read. They are often powerful, moving stories, stories you may perhaps relate strongly to, but they are stories from which you do not learn anything about the greater problems of humanity.

Jonathan Franzen is the exemplar Tier 2 novelist: his novels are beautifully imagined, richly, even elaborately, detailed, intricate and specific. But his protagonists, his beautifully-imagined protagonists, are what his stories are about. They aren’t about you or me, us, the great mass of humanity – they are about the people that appear in their pages, and no one else.

Sometimes, a Tier 2 novels transcends category: it is a story only about the specific people and specific incidents described, but it is so beautiful and perfect, so finely and humanely drawn, that it feels as though it touches on something universal, and so becomes about the common human experience without ever becoming a metaphor. Elena Ferrante’s novels are, in my opinion, the best of example of this kind of category-straddle: indisputably, to me, Tier 2 novels, the depiction of the two women at the heart of those books is so deft and true that it becomes about us all, in the ways that we are all alike.

Tier 3 Novels: Metaphor

Tier 3 novels are novels which transcend the specifics of their story. They are novels which use their specific stories to tell a bigger story, a more universal story. Their characters are metaphors, archetypes, allegories, from which we might learn something about ourselves. They can be bad or good, successful or unsuccessful, but their characters or stories mean something more than the specific circumstances that afflict them.

Tier 3 novels are the novels we are all used to thinking of as “great” novels. Most of the canonically “great” novels are Tier 3 novels, but this is, I think, a limitation of the canon.

Of course, many of my own most-loved novels are Tier 3 novels: ‘East of Eden‘, ‘Infinite Jest‘, anything by Graham Greene, ‘The Age of Innocence‘, ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘, by George Saunders – all Tier 3. Most of the really excellent or seminal science fiction, Tier 3: Wells, Orwell, Huxley, Asimov, Dick, Herbert, Gibson, Le Guin, you name it: all Tier 3.

And, of course, some of the most bloated, irritating ‘classics’, the books with which we are all flogged in high school, are also Tier 3: ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, ‘The Sound and the Fury’, ‘The Golden Bowl’, ‘Sons and Lovers’, ‘The Alexandria Quartet’ by Lawrence Durrell – all Tier 3, lord help us.

But some great classics, books beloved and admired, are Tier 2’s: most of Jane Austen’s novels, ‘Brideshead Revisited‘ by Evelyn Waugh, anything by E. M. Forster.

I don’t argue for the perfection of this system. Some of my favorite novels defy categorization according to my system:

I Love Dick‘, by Chris Kraus, ‘World War Z‘ by Max Brooks (no, I’m not kidding), ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler‘, by Italo Calvino – what are they?. Or how about something like ‘Bleak House‘, by Dickens? You feel as though it ought to be Tier 3, it is Dickens after all, but is it? Only in the most insipid sense: a fable about how goodness will be rewarded and wickedness punished, but on that level the book is garbage anyway – ‘Bleak House’ lives in its specific characters and prose, so maybe it would be happier in Tier 2.

Or how about ‘The Screwtape Letters‘: it’s clearly a Tier 3, but it isn’t a metaphor, it’s a fantasy, and so in some ways feels more like a Tier 1 novel than anything else. It’s a fable, an exposition, it’s barely a novel, more a series of lectures in a funny framing.

But, for better or worse, this is how I think about novels, and my tiers have given me a way to love and exalt ‘Jurassic Park‘ as much as I love and exalt ‘Infinite Jest‘, a way to express what I feel: that these are books of equal quality, in which I might take equal joy, because they are trying to do different things. There are a lot of ways to be good, and ‘literature’ is just too broad a category.

Normal People

By Sally Rooney

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

“If people found out what he has been doing with Marianne, in secret, while ignoring her every day in school, his life would be over. He would walk down the hallway and people’s eyes would follow him, like he was serial killer, or worse. His friends don’t think of him as a deviant person, a person who could say to Marianne Sheridan, in broad daylight, completely sober: It is ok if I come in your mouth?” (p. 28)

There’s a well-worn bit of folk wisdom, that the body knows what it needs. That if you’re iron-deficient, you’ll develop a sudden, strong hankering for, like, kale. Or if a cold is about to come on and you need the immune boost that vitamin C provides, you’ll suddenly crave oranges. That your body can sense its own mineral needs, and translate these needs into food desires below the level of your consciousness.

Ok, sure. Why not? The body is smart.

I wonder, though, whether there is a similar process to address emotional deficiencies. Whether, when we are hurting, or in deep need of solace or wisdom of a particular kind, our psyches know to reach out and get it, even before we have understood the trouble we are in.

I noticed recently that I have been reading novels. I have been reading basically nothing except novels. This is unusual for me: normally, my non-fiction to fiction ratio is about 1:1.

Weirder still, the novels I am reading are changing. My bookshelves reveal a historical preference: I am, as we have discussed many times, a bit of a traditionalist, and so my shelves are dominated by dead, old, white men (which is coincident with, rather than representative of, my literary values: I don’t think white men are intrinsically better than anyone else – I think they gave themselves an unfair lead). If I were asked to list my favorite authors, not a single living author would crack the top…ten*?

*(Although, in the spirit of answering the query honestly: one of the authors I love the most in world, David Foster Wallace, ought to be alive)

And yet, lately, I have been reading almost exclusively contemporary fiction. Weirdest still, I have been reading almost exclusively fiction written by women.

This is enormously out of character for me, but sometimes the heart knows what it needs better than the head. And I have learned that, when the body craves something, it is probably best to consume it. So I’ve been leaning into my emotional needs and reading whatever strikes my fancy, no matter how contemporary, unvetted, or estrogenic it may be.

A few weeks ago I read Sally Rooney’s debut novel, ‘Conversations with Friends‘. I liked it – I thought it was a strong piece of work, but I didn’t feel nourished by it, particularly. I appreciated it, as an intellectual accomplishment, but I didn’t think that I connected with it, emotionally, at the time.

But I have felt the need to read her second novel, ‘Normal People‘, fairly urgently ever since. Like ‘Conversations with Friends‘, ‘Normal People’ made all the important literary people pee their pants, which of course made me not want to read it, but there was something that kept nagging at me. And so, this week, like someone with an iron-deficiency and a kale salad, I sat down and read ‘Normal People’ in one sitting.

Normal People‘ is the story of Connell and Marianne. Connell and Marianne know each other from school – Marianne is rich and unpopular; intensely smart and traumatized by a deeply fucked up family, she moves through the world almost totally alone. Connell is the son of her family’s housekeeper. He is popular and handsome; also smart, he is kind and everyone likes him.

In the afternoons when Connell comes to pick up his mother from Marianne’s house, he and Marianne will form a relationship that is both intense and secret. Her profound unpopularity makes Connell ashamed of her, an unkindness he will not really understand until they go off to Trinity together. There, as Marianne becomes popular and sought-after, and Connell is handicapped for the first time by his shyness and working-class background, both of them will try to discover if they love each other and whether they can be happy.

Conversations with Friends‘ is, at the end of the day, a story about friendship. It is a love story, but it’s about how love hides in friendship. ‘Normal People‘ is a love story, a story about great and transformative love. But it is written in the same spare-and-yet-unsparing style as ‘Conversations with Friends’, which makes it feel disorienting and scary and painful, sort of like being in love.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I find Rooney’s writing extremely effective. I thought at first that her severe lack of style was a little over-stylized (if that makes sense), but I’m completely on board now. The lack of authorial voice forces you into the perspective of the character, right up against them. It’s forgiving and present. Which is a particular accomplishment because ‘Normal People‘ alternately takes the perspective of both of its main characters.

I think it really comes down to why people read novels in the first place.

There are many valid reasons to read novels. People read them to be entertained, or because they are assigned them in school, or to make themselves seem smart.

But why do people read novels like this, as adults, when no one is watching? I think, and maybe I am only speaking for myself, that people read novels to learn about how other people feel, to understand their own feelings, to learn whether their own feelings are normal, to make sense of the world around them, to try to see the world through other people’s eyes and to see whether they are, in fact, part of a common humanity. They read them to see the great range of human emotional possibility, and to fit themselves within that range. They are maps for our hearts.

Sally Rooney

Which doesn’t mean that goodness doesn’t matter. I’m not sure that writerly skill necessarily makes a novel more emotionally effective – in fact, it’s often inversely correlated (Joyce, Pynchon, Faulkner, Dickens, so many of the great writers leave people cold) – but when a well-written novel is emotionally effective, the two qualities become greater than the sum of their parts.

That’s what happened with ‘Normal People‘. The brutal bluntness of the prose, the unflinching eye Rooney uses to examine her characters, the keen ear she has for the subtleties of complex and contradictory human emotions, all combine to make her novels an immersive and moving experience.

I think I understand why I needed to read ‘Normal People‘ right now. ‘Normal People’ is about whether or not broken people can be loved, and that is a question I’ve spent a lot of my life asking. And it is the question I’ve spent most of the last year obsessing over.

I think that ‘Normal People‘ is a probably a great novel, but I’m not really in a position to judge because the only thing that I can think about is how it was exactly what I needed. I’m used to thinking about whether or not books are good; I am used to connecting with them intellectually. I don’t usually just let novels happen to me.

And, of course, ‘Normal People‘ didn’t answer any questions, and didn’t solve any problems. I don’t think that was the point. And I didn’t feel better per se, but I did feel more connected. More normal.

The Fifth Season

The Broken Earth: Book One

By N. K. Jemisin

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I think that prejudices must be a little like guns: just as likely to hurt their owner as they are to hurt anyone else.

I’m just going to say this, straight-out: I’m always a little embarrassed to be seen reading a fantasy novel. I’m not defending this position – I know that this is shallow – I’m admitting this as the shortcoming is it.

But there it is: I’m always a little embarrassed to be seen reading a fantasy novel.

Because they look bad. I’m not saying that they are bad; certainly, they aren’t all bad. But they all look bad. For some reason, the marketing for fantasy novels has evolved certain universals (thin covers, big, serif-fonted, foreboding titles with moody, dramatic art behind them) that signal badness. The books all look cheap, interchangeable, and plotty.

See?

Which, fine. Nothing wrong with cheap, interchangeable, and plotty, if that’s what you’re in the mood for. But it’s not ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’, is it? And it always gives my vanity a little twinge, to be caught reading one. It makes me feel defensive, like I want to announce to everyone on the red line train with me, ‘I just finished ‘The Gulag Archipelago’, and so I’m just taking a little break!’

Which is vain and insecure, yes, and emphatically my own problem (no one on the red line gives a flying fuck what I’m reading, I promise). There’s a reason we have that old expression, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’, and even though that expression usually applies to people, turns out it applies just as well to actual books! Because if you avoid books just because they have fantasy-looking covers, sometimes you miss really good books.

I’m trying to explain how it is that I came to be the last person alive to have discovered ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy by N. K. Jemisin: I ignored it because it looks like a bad fantasy novel. I’m sure that I have walked by it in bookstores a thousand times, sorting it pre-consciously into “garbage” into my head and moving on. Even if I picked it up and looked at the back, I would have immediately put it down and walked away, because the back cover makes ‘The Fifth Season‘ look like a garbage book.

But the other day, I was with a friend in Trident Bookstore and she spotted ‘The Fifth Season‘ on the Staff Recommendations rack and said, ‘You’ve read that, right?’

And I said, ‘No, I haven’t even heard of it.’ Which, given the look she then gave me, is clearly much more embarrassing than reading a fantasy book on the red line.

I now know, of course, that ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy has made N. K. Jemisin the only author ever to win Hugo awards three years in a row. The third installment, ‘The Stone Sky‘, also won a Locus and a Nebula. The praise for ‘The Fifth Season‘ is so over-the-top it sounds sarcastic (“These novels are a gift to the whole of our culture,” says The Guardian – seriously?).

I’m not sure even how to describe ‘The Fifth Season‘ in a way that is going to do it justice. I’m worried that a description of the plot mechanics is going to make it sound…generic? And I don’t think that ‘The Fifth Season’ is generic. To be completely honest, I finished it about fifteen minutes ago, and I haven’t had time to digest it yet.

I know I loved it. I loved it so much that I’m feeling frankly kind of resentful that I have to be here, writing about it instead of just starting the next book in the series, ‘The Obelisk Gate‘.

I don’t know whether I loved it because it was “good” – I’m way, way past caring. I just know it’s a great story, an absolutely phenomenal story, set in a world which is complex and well-imagined and dark.

Fantasy is like any genre: it has threads that it can pull, values it can adjust, which are known to its readers, and which refer to the genre as a whole while still belonging to the story specifically. Part of what you admire when you admire a piece of genre fiction is the way that this particular story has used those conventions, has toggled those toggles. It’s a form of creativity within limits, and when it’s done well, the limits make the creativity even more impressive.

And so ‘The Fifth Season‘ plays with some ideas that will be very familiar to even casual readers of fantasy (or even just to people who have seen ‘Game of Thrones’). It takes place on an Earth subject to terrible seismic upheaval; severe tectonic activity causes global catastrophe every few centuries, periods of darkness and apocalyptic death: these are the fifth seasons.

Human civilization has learned to weather these periods of mass extinction through community stability and the careful husbanding of resources. However, planning alone has not saved them – magic is also necessary. For there have evolved among them humans capable of channeling and controlling seismic activity: the orogenes. Orogenes are very powerful and very dangerous, and normal people revile them. It is more common than not for young orogene children to be killed upon discovery in rural areas.

But, whenever possible, the forces of empire gather young orogenes and bring them to be trained in the capital. There, they are taught through brutal lesson to control their powers and put it to good use.

The Fifth Season‘ tells the story of three orogenes, all women. One is a child, just discovered and nearly destroyed. Another is a young woman, advanced in her training, as she is given for mentorship to the most powerful orogene alive. And the third is a mother, trying to live in secret, in hiding, after she discovers that her husband has just discovered the gift in one of her children, and so has killed him.

N. K. Jemisin

I’m making it sound kind of garbage, I know. It’s difficult to write about some of these things without sounding silly, and I’m just not a good enough writer to throw around made-up words for magical beings convincingly.

But, and this is all that really matters, N. K. Jemisin is. I made it through this entire novel without rolling my eyes once. That’s astonishing. There is something about the word ‘fantasy’ that sounds soft; it makes people (maybe just me?) think of Tolkieny shit, of mages and dragons and Chosen Ones, where the deepest and darkest metaphor is racism between dwarves and elves.

There’s nothing silly or soft in ‘The Fifth Season‘. Quite the contrary – this novel is dark, brutal, mean. It is violent, even wrenching. It’s characters don’t find relief anywhere, and neither will you. I don’t know if it’s a metaphor for anything (again, it really has been only fifteen minutes – I’m still sitting in the same chair, for fuck’s sake); sometimes a dark story is just a story about darkness.

But what a story it is.

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

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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.