It has long been told in my family that James Herriot, the veterinarian-turned-author-of-veterinarian-exploits, All Creatures Great and Small, was from the same small English town as my mother’s father’s family. Thirsk sits a ways outside of York, in northern Yorkshire, in the north part of the country. When I visited with my mother and grandmother several years ago, we popped into the Herriot Museum in quaint downtown Thirsk—decided we didn’t want to pay admission—then walked up the way to the church where my grandparents were married and my relatives were buried.
Recently my mom mentioned that our family connection to James Herriot might be a little more solid than mutual residence. My great-grandmother, Gertrude Wombwell Hardy, was a larger-than-life character, short, solid, and thoroughly outgoing. (She did after all come from circus folk. “Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie.” Apparently this is for real.) She had two stubby Pekingese that were named—wait for it—Chinkie and Chummie. Who could have foretold that her granddaughter would someday marry a man of the East? (And that little Chinkie’s name would become* a racial slur. But I digress.)
*This verb contingent on your own theories of language, of course. Did it become one or was it always one? Yada.
Anyway, as my mom deduces, great grandmother Gertrude could only have taken her two darling dogs to the only veterinarian in town, Mr. James Herriot (real name: James Wight). Thirsk has grown today to a bustling metropolis of 5,000 people, but in the 1940s it was much smaller. Further, as my gran deduces—based on Herriot’s practice of simply fictionalizing his real life, his town, his townspeople in his books—one of his characters was probably based on Gertrude. I haven’t read his writing so I can’t say which one. My mom says she thinks Gertrude might have disappeared into a composite character of a wealthy woman who called her dog “Trickie-woo.”
My only familiarity with All Creatures Great and Small was the BBC series based on the books that ran from 1978 to 1990. This is still how I think of it.
But this is what my mom and gran deduce. Because Gertrude was quite a real-life character (“putting on airs,” as my gran described it), because she had five boys (“boisterous,” as my mom described them), and because the Hardys owned about fifty zillion (but less than ten) local businesses over the course of their professional life (including a milk bar, and a pub), Gertrude Wombwell Hardy could not have helped but left an impression on the local veterinarian. This is our evidence.
I like to picture that James Herriot knew my grandpa and his brothers when they were little boys, or when they drove fish and chip deliveries around town in their bike + sidecar setup as youths, but according to Wikipedia Herriot opened his practice in Thirsk in 1941, which was in the midst of World War II—and all five of the Hardy boys had entered the service. Sidney (No. 1) and Fred (No. 5) joined the Army; Bert (No. 3) and Geoff (No. 4) joined the Navy; and Dudley (No. 2, my grandfather) joined the Air Force as a truck driver. He never saw combat—was discouraged from becoming a pilot after seeing two men die in a fiery crash at his air strip. Lucky, then. Fred was evacuated at Dunkirk. Bert died in the sinking of the HMS Diamond in the Aegean Sea.
(Also lucky was my paternal grandfather, who with the rest of the barrack basketball team at his Arizona internment camp went to sign up for the war—once Japanese Americans were allowed– but was turned away because of an inner ear problem. Some of them died in Europe. The teleology of genealogy: Of course our forefathers had to survive to proliferate.)
This is my personal family literary history. This is the only famous author I can currently say I have connections to. (Besides knowing people who know Dave Eggers.) I guess it’s doubly romantic and exciting because it reminds me that my history extends outside of my own lived experience so snugly contained within the confines of California. And that my great grandmother might be in a book.
Last week at the Books Inc. two blocks from my house (good news: there’s a bookstore two blocks from my house; bad news: it’s not a used bookstore), I flipped through the introduction to Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger & Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and then decided to buy it. Two reasons: he referred to himself as the “white sheep” in his non-college-educated family (a little self-congratulatory, but a clever inversion of an idiom nonetheless), and this line in response to being called “one of the major lyric voices of our time”:
“As Keanu Reeves, the Hawaiian balladeer, would say, ‘Whoa.’”
From these things I decided I liked him. It doesn’t take much. It’s like when you’re talking to a person for the first time and you find out what music they listen to, or which of your jokes they laugh at. First impressions matter. Same is true for writers.
When I began my lifelong quest to read every single great piece of literature ever written in the English language, I started at the Borders in Davis, CA. Not totally auspicious, but within walking distance to my college apartment. I guess I have a thing for walking distances. That Borders is gone now, as are all other Borders; in its place stands a Whole Foods. But I have the fondest of memories in that transformed space—aisles of overpriced grain products where the overpriced CDs used to be—because it’s where I started my relationships with several of my absolutest, positivest favorite authors, who I still to this day am madly in love with.
What I would do, is I would drift towards a title based on its name and its reputation and its book cover, and then I would get a sense of it from the back cover description, and then I would open to the first page and see if I liked what I read, if I saw the literary relationship going somewhere, if we were I guess verbally compatible. I readily admit this isn’t always the best way to find a great book. There have been plenty of first-pagers (as I call them) that turn out to be not-so-interesting, and plenty of slow-starters that have become all-time favorites.
But sometimes first impressions are correct.
Here’s my first-pagers. Emphasis on the words I loved the most.
The Satanic Verses
“To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die. Ho ji! Ho ji! To land upon the bosomy earth, first one needs to fly. Tat-taa! Taka-thun! How to ever smile again, if first you won’t cry? How to win the darling’s love, mister, without a sigh? Baba, if you want to get born again…” Just before dawn one winter’s morning, New Year’s Day or thereabouts, two real, full-grown, living men fell from a great height, twenty-nine thousand and two feet, towards the English Channel, without benefit of parachutes or wings, out of a clear sky.
“I tell you, you must die, I tell you, I tell you,” and thusly and so beneath a moon of alabaster until a loud cry crossed the night. “To the devil with your tunes,” the words hanging crystalline in the iced white night, “in the movies you only mimed to playback singers, so spare me these infernal noises now.”
Gibreel, the tuneless soloist, had been cavorting in moonlight as he sang his impromptu gazal, swimming in air, butterfly-stroke, breast-stroke, bunching himself into a ball, spreadeagling himself against the almost-infinity of the almost-dawn, adopting heraldic postures, rampant, couchant, pitting levity against gravity. Now he rolled happily towards the sardonic voice. “Ohé, Salad baba, it’s you, too good. What-ho, old Chumch.”
I was transfixed by this opening. So magical realist, so fantastical, so virtuosic! Two men falling from the sky? The one, Gibreel Farishta, a flamboyant, histrionic Bollywood actor flapping around and singing; the other, Saladin Chamcha, a fastidious and completely assimilated British Asian who wants to fall straight down in peace. Already hinting at grand themes of faith, country, catharsis, transcendence, which are further explored as Gibreel begins to turn into an angel, and Saladin into a devil.
Nowadays, I like my magical realism a little less hit-you-over-the-head, but Rushdie immediately got major props for creativity. The whole first chapter was an exhilarating dream sequence of a twenty-nine-thousand-foot drop which, incidentally, the two men survive. I devoured this book. Then read Midnight’s Children, which I like even better. Is genius. Also recommended: Shame; East, West; The Enchantress of Florence (less substantial but still gorgeous, gorgeous words).
All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.
I really did go back to Dresden with Guggenheim money (God love it) in 1967. It looked a lot like Dayton, Ohio, more open spaces than Dayton has. There must be tons of human bone meal in the ground.
Kind of a polar opposite, stylistically, from Rushdie—Vonnegut has the most spare, straightforward, ironic of mid-century American writing styles. If given the choice, I tend to favor the virtuosic over the concise, but sometimes there’s beauty in sparseness. Sometimes there’s a lot of weight in what’s not said. That’s what I felt with Vonnegut.
It starts right off with a question: how much of this is real? How will I know whether he’s making things up, overdramatizing? (As I now understand it, most of the war parts are true. Most of the parts with time travel and Tralfamagorians: not true.) Then there’s a flip observation: there’s probably a lot of human bone in the ground at Dresden. Pain, trauma, horror without measure wrapped up in a Vonnegut’s dryly humorous semi-sci-fi tale using very few words, because some things you can’t really express. Boiled down to its essence in the refrain: “So it goes.”
This is still my favorite Vonnegut. Also recommended: Cat’s Cradle; Welcome to the Monkey House (short stories).
It was love at first sight.
The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.
Yossarian was in the hospital with pain in his liver that fell just short of being jaundice. The doctors were puzzled by the fact that it wasn’t quite jaundice. If it became jaundice they could treat it. If it didn’t become jaundice and went away they could discharge him. But this just being short of jaundice all the time confused them.
Each morning they came around, three brisk and serious men with efficient mouths and inefficient eyes, accompanied by brisk and serious Nurse Duckett, one of the ward nurses who didn’t like Yossarian. They read the chart at the foot of the bed and asked impatiently about the pain. They seemed irritated when he told them it was exactly the same.
“Still no movement?” the full colonel demanded.
The doctors exchanged a look when he shook his head.
“Give him another pill.”
Nurse Duckett made a note to give Yossarian another pill, and the four of them moved along to the next bed. None of the nurses liked Yossarian. Actually, the pain in his liver had gone away, but Yossarian didn’t say anything and the doctors never suspected. They just suspected that he had been moving his bowels and not telling anyone.
Yossarian had everything he wanted in the hospital. The food wasn’t too bad, and his meals were brought to him in bed. There were extra rations of fresh meat, and during the hot part of the afternoon he and the others were served chilled fruit juice or chilled chocolate milk. Apart from the doctors and the nurses, no one ever disturbed him. For a little while in the morning he had to censor letters, but he was free after that to spend the rest of each day lying around idly with a clear conscience. He was comfortable in the hospital, and it was easy to stay on because he always ran a temperature of 101. He was even more comfortable than Dunbar, who had to keep falling down on his face in order to get his meals brought to him in bed.
The first page of Catch-22 was just a total WTF, and so was the rest of the first chapter, and I liked that. Absurd, inane, hilarious, confusing, somewhat disingenuous, as if the whole narrative is playing a trick on you. And yet—like Slaughterhouse Five—the irony masks a core of pain and horror, similarly experienced firsthand by Joseph Heller (is he Yossarian?) during his service in Italy. So funny, and then horrible things happen (image that stands out in my head is the bottom half of a person standing on a raft offshore). And the Snowden chapters! So heartbreaking. The entire mood is captured in the problematic of the title: one of those “if I don’t laugh I’ll cry” situations.
This is the only Heller I’ve read, so I can’t in good faith call him “one of my favorite authors,” though I think this book is brilliant. He’s something of a literary one-hit wonder. Though if you are so inclined I believe there is a sequel.
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.
The Holy Grail of books. My most favoritest of favoritest authors. The ecstasy of Nabokov’s prose is evident from the opening lines of his greatest, and for obvious reasons most controversial, work, the deconstruction of the syllables of Lolita and the many names of Dolores Haze, not to mention the first glimpse into the disturbed psychology of erudite narrator and sickening sex offender Humbert Humbert. His words are unmatched. He has the uncanny ability to make me feel like I’m not reading but seeing, at the same time that I am hyperaware of each and every one of his verbal feats.
Turning to the second page, I was further enamored by his sense of humor:
“My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three…”
That parenthetical made me laugh. Nabokov may paint beautiful, intensely detailed narrative pictures, but when he doesn’t want to waste time on description, he throws out two words and gives you everything you need to know. “Picnic. Lightning.” Bam.
As may have been mentioned on this blog before, Lolita started an eight-year relationship (still going strong) with Vladimir that has taken me through Ada, or Ardor, Pnin, Invitation to a Beheading, and his brilliant Short Stories, and I’m currently reading his enchanting Speak, Memory—probably the best memoir I’ve yet to encounter. I don’t use the L-word too often (or maybe I do, but usually for un-serious things), but I. Love. Him.
The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
First line: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
First line(s): “‘What’s it going to be then, eh?’ There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry.”
The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides
First line: “On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.”
There’s more. It’s a lifelong quest.
Please check it out on the SevenPonds blog:
That should sufficiently cover it so I won’t have to blog about it here too :)
A couple weeks ago, I had a bookstore dream. (It happened in Seattle, a place with its own reason for bookstore dreams.) In my dream, I was a little upset, see, because I was growing tired of a long-standing arrangement which had a bookstore being set up in my apartment living room every weekend. Who knows how long this had been going on, but I was tired of it. Why? Because their merchandise was getting mixed up with my own personal book collection, such that I was coming home to find books missing from my bookshelf, having been sold accidentally to my living-room bookstore’s clientele (which, apparently, I had no shares, rent, or financial stake in). Most annoyingly, I was missing single books from trilogy collections: The Golden Compass, The Rosy Crucifixion, The Lord of the Rings. Just one or two from each. I was working up the nerve to tell the living-room bookstore staff to please keep their books separate from mine, before the dream melted back into unconsciousness or some other dream, and was thus never resolved.
As a dream, this was less a nightmare than it was simply absurd. The fact that I so willingly accepted the premise that my living room was a bookstore, in retrospect, revealed the total unreality of the memory. But were that absurdity to be transposed onto real life—if such things happened, if there was such a lack of respect for reality that a retail business could be set up, sans permission, in my personal space—it would be a nightmare, wouldn’t it?
I’d never read Franz Kafka. I knew him as the waking-up-as-a-bug guy. I knew him as an overused adjective (Kafka-esque, successfully skewed in an episode of the now-defunct animated show “Mission Hill”). I knew him from Jorge Luis Borges’ essay “Kafka and His Precursors,” in which Borges argues, intriguingly, that an artist creates his own predecessors, who previously have no reason to be thought of as part of a continuous tradition. Most of all, I knew that his shit was supposed to be weird.
The Trial is like one long nightmare. It’s very similar to Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, which together seem to form a tradition of early 20th-century European surrealist imprisonment literature. Except that unlike Nabokov’s Cincinnatus C., Joseph K., Kafka’s protagonist, is never actually imprisoned, in the literal sense.
Instead, at the beginning of The Trial, Joseph K. comes home to find that he has been accused of a crime by the Court and will, at some undefined point in the future, face trial for it. He is not imprisoned. He is not told the nature of his crime or its punishment. He is simply allowed to go on living his life, knowing that someday, he will have a trial.
The rest of the book follows K. through his tribulations as he goes about his normal life working in a bank downtown while also trying to work out his legal defense and learn the ins and outs of the courts. K. learns that the Court is basically a horrifying, immovable bureaucracy:
“For although the pettiest lawyer might be to some extent capable of analyzing the state of things in the Court, it never occurred to the lawyers that they should suggest or insist on any improvements in the system, while—and this was very characteristic—almost every accused man, even quite simple people among them, discovered from the earliest stages a passion for suggesting reforms which often wasted time and energy that could have been better employed in other directions. The only sensible thing was to adapt oneself to existing conditions. Even if it were possible to alter a detail for the better here or there—but it was simple madness to think of it—any benefit arising from that would profit clients in the future only, while one’s own interests would be immeasurably injured by attracting the attention of the ever-vengeful officials. Anything rather than that!” (151)
K.’s reality often becomes surreal—absurd—and this is unsettling, to say the least. His visits to Court buildings and his dealings with those who work for the Courts—and, increasingly, those who don’t but end up having weird connections to them anyway—have a disorienting effect. The buildings themselves are labyrinthine and oppressively stuffy. All of the people K. meets seem less like subjective figures with their own thoughts, feelings, and ambitions than they do simulated humans who exist only to play a part—or a conspiracy—in K.’s life: dream-people. (Shuddery.) And everything, ultimately, seems to lead back to the Courts.
The most absurd, and hence the most nightmarish, part for me was when K. visits a painter who might have some inside connections that will help him navigate the Court. He drives way out to an obscure part of town, climbs a winding, claustrophobic staircase followed by a trio of silly whispering teenage girls, then enters the painter’s strange apartment, where the painter is working on a portrait of a judge that “strikingly resembled the portrait hanging in the lawyer’s office.”
The apartment is very stuffy, and at one point during their conversation the painter offers to open a door; the door he indicates is, oddly, in the wall behind his bed, partway blocked, and K. hadn’t even noticed it until that point. (Like in dreams when things are one way, then they abruptly change, but you have to accept that they’d been that second way the whole time and it’s maybe your cognizance and not the reality that is flawed.)
After a long conversation with the painter, K. finally decides he must leave, and this is where it gets really freaky. The painter for the first time opens the door behind his bed, saying, “Don’t be afraid to step on the bed”:
“K. would not have hesitated to do it even without his invitation, he had actually set one foot plump in the middle of the feather bed, but when he looked out through the open door he drew his foot back again. ‘What’s this?’ he asked the painter. ‘What are you surprised at?’ returned the painter, surprised in his turn. ‘These are the Law Court offices. Didn’t you know that there were Law Court offices here? There are Law Court offices in almost every attic, why should this be an exception? My studio really belongs to the Law Court offices, but the Court has put it at my disposal.’ It was not so much the discovery of the Law Court offices that startled K.; he was much more startled at himself, at his complete ignorance of all things concerning the Court.” (205)
What a twist!
I guess it freaked me out because not only did this turn of events have a haunting, conspiratorial effect—that K. cannot go anywhere without being within the Court’s grasp—it also represented a lack of respect for reality, giving all of K.’s movements through the narrative a surreal, absurdist, practically Escher-ist (maybe Charlie Kaufman-ian?) bent. How could there be law offices in this tall, unwieldy apartment slum, in this forgotten part of town? What kind of architecture would support this unexpected addition just outside the painter’s high-floor studio, which K. had come upon by a different entrance altogether?
The story ends with the inevitable: K. is executed for his unnamed crime. He never learns how to appropriately pass through the Court system—and it’s just as well, because along the way he met several other accused men who had been facing trial for years and were, while still alive/free, virtual prisoners to the system, at the complete mercy of the lawyers and judges and officials of the Court.
The last passage, in which K. is led by his two executioners to a quarry to face his punishment, is striking. K. looks up and sees a human figure lean out of a distant window with arms outstretched:
“Who was it? A friend? A good man? Someone who sympathized? Someone who wanted to help? Was it one person only? Or was it mankind?… Where was the Judge whom he had never seen? Where was the High Court, to which he had never penetrated? He raised his hands and spread out all his fingers.
“But the hands of one of the partners were already at K.’s throat, while the other thrust the knife deep into his heart and turned it there twice. With failing eyes K. could still see the two of them immediately before him, cheek leaning against cheek, watching the final act. ‘Like a dog!’ he said; it was as if the shame of it must outlive him.” (285-286)
In the grand tradition of the family saga which includes Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and, to a lesser extent, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury comes American author Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, which follows the Greek-American Stephanides family over three generations culminating in the biological and spiritual identity crisis of the narrator, one Calliope “Cal” Stephanides.
Ever since this novel came out a decade ago, I’d been under the impression that it was primarily about the experiences of a sexual hermaphrodite, as evidenced by the title. Calliope starts life as a girl, and spends thirteen years believing she is female until, upon hitting puberty, she discovers she is actually a boy. She has a rare condition that results in a not-quite-penile “crocus” which doesn’t fully show itself until adolescence. And so at age thirteen, Calliope becomes Cal.
Serendipitously, the Stephanides family lives in an ultra-modern multi-level house on a street called Middlesex, which becomes a metonym for this period of Cal’s life. This is one of several heavy-handed devices Eugenides employs that, in my opinion, keep this great book from being truly genius.
More on that—but as I said, despite my first impressions, Cal’s condition and sexual identity are not necessarily the most important part of the book, though they contribute an intriguing backdrop. It essentially is a family saga; more precisely, an American immigrant family saga. With Cal leading the way, we start in Bithynios, a tiny Greek village in that netherland that has historically alternated between being part of Greece and being part of Turkey. This is where Cal’s grandparents, Lefty and Desdemona, are from. The Greco-Turkish War is on. After their village is destroyed by Turkish troops, they escape to America with a bereaved Armenian doctor in tow.
Everything about this novel is inexorable. Cal never lets us forget that all of this history results, ultimately, in him. Overtly, this means that his grandparents’ incest (clearly a prerequisite to any family saga), his parents’ lesser incest (first cousins), and the eighty-something Armenian doctor he gets stuck with as a child because of family loyalty contribute to his abnormal condition and the belatedness with which it is discovered. Less overtly, this novel is about the immigrant experience, about coming to America, about being in America and belonging elsewhere and always having that somewhere else inside you. And so here also does his family’s story constitute his own identity. Everything is teleological.
Middlesex is also hugely informed by Eugenides’ own experiences. First of all, Eugenides… Stephanides. Same number of syllables. Second, Greek. (Jeffrey E. is half.) Third, growing up in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s, as he did. Cal spends his early childhood in Greektown in Detroit until the city’s auto boom begins to bust, at which point his father’s restaurant fails and then the race riots occur. One thing I liked: in a subversion of textbook-American history, Cal portrays these as a legitimate revolution:
“So was it a riot or a guerilla uprising? Let me answer that question with other questions… Why had General Throckmorton deployed his tanks on the East Side, miles from the rioting? Was that the kind of thing you did to subdue an unorganized gang of snipers? Or was it more in keeping with military strategy? Was it like establishing a front line in a war? Believe whatever you want. I was seven years old and followed a tank into battle and saw what I saw. It turned out that when it finally happened, the revolution wasn’t televised. On TV they called it only a riot.” (250-251)
Also, Eugenides spent time in Berlin in the early 2000s, which is where we find Cal as a forty-something man as he narrates his chronicle.
I’m always interested in the ways authors have or have not lived the experiences of their protagonists—the geography, the chronology, the demography, the education, career, relationships. Like my favorite WWII authors: Joseph Heller was stationed in Italy as a pilot who had to fly missions, hence Yossarian. J.D. Salinger served in Europe and afterward dealt with stress and emotional trauma, hence Seymour Glass, and also the narrator of “For Esmé.” Kurt Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden when the Americans firebombed it, hence Billy Pilgrim and Slaughterhouse-Five.
This, in turn, makes me wonder if one can truly write about something they haven’t lived. How do you fabricate something out of nothing? How do you write honestly about a place, a time, a person you never were? Makes me think of a quote from Angels in America– another work about this great land of ours– by (best character) Harper Pitt: “Imagination can’t create anything new, can it? It only recycles bits and pieces from the world and reassembles them into visions… Nothing unknown is knowable.”
(And this is why I can’t write fiction.)
Eugenides has written three novels, and while certain elements of his life undoubtedly informed The Virgin Suicides (growing up a boy in 1970s suburbia) and The Marriage Plot (I haven’t read it yet, but probably being an English grad student in the 1980s), Middlesex feels the most like it very closely follows his own life’s trajectory. Besides, of course, the hermaphrodite part, though who knows if this isn’t some vague externalization of an inward gender struggle.
Also, like any family saga worth a darn, the genealogy is stretched and overlaid onto the macrohistory that is occurring in the background, in the real world, like a less silly Forrest Gump. Henry Ford makes an appearance, because Lefty works in his factory. (An awesome scene where Lefty’s English class puts on a “melting pot” pageant at which Ford is in attendance, complete with the students in ethnic costumes climbing into a fake pot and changing into red-white-and-blue, as teachers stir with giant spoons.) The riots. Cal does LSD in San Francisco. Bigger things are happening; the family’s story is bigger than itself.
This is a beautiful book, and it contained moments of brilliant honesty, but I found myself a little disappointed in what occasionally felt like a simple lack of originality. Some of the more florid passages seemed ripped from a Creative Writing 701 course at Stanford (where Eugenides earned his M.A.), wonderfully executed but missing a soul. The devices were occasionally too clever, the prose too self-aware.
It may be that I was disappointed following my reading (and re-reading) of Eugenides’ 1993 debut novel The Virgin Suicides, which was dazzlingly original: an entire novel told from the point of view of no one in particular, a mass of “neighborhood boys” who witness from afar the tragedy of the Lisbon sisters, in the style of a Greek chorus. The whole narrative of that book felt heavy, dreamlike, unlike anything else I’ve come across. As wonderful and engaging as it is, Middlesex just wasn’t as revolutionary.
“Why should I have thought I was anything other than a girl? Because I was attracted to a girl? That happened all the time. It was happening more than ever in 1974. It was becoming a national pastime. My ecstatic intuition about myself was now deeply suppressed. How long I would have managed to keep it down is anybody’s guess. But in the end it wasn’t up to me. The big things never are. Birth, I mean, and death. And love. And what love bequeaths to us before we’re born.” (388)
See title. ‘Nuff said.
…Okay, I’ll write a post anyway.
Like what is probably most women, I feel a special connection to Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, and not just because we share a name, though that’s probably part of it. But also because she’s an amazing character in an amazing novel that remains amazing after 200 years of being read by everyone and their great-grandmothers.
Everyone knows that P& P is one of the most significant works in the Western literary canon. Film versions and countless fan fictions have spawned an Austenian cult that continues to grow every day, and its female fan contingent is matched at this point probably only by Twilight’s. (God help us.) As mentioned in an earlier blog post (following my very first Austen reading, Sense & Sensibility), I grew up in the shadow of Austen without ever really engaging her directly. I knew the stories, appreciated the romance, lived the period, but didn’t understand how her narratives were much more than proto-rom-coms, entertaining and fluffy and supplying us the Mr. Darcy archetype that’s fed the fantasies of five generations.
But, long story short, turns out she’s an awesome frigin writer. It’s much more than a rom-com. Her sentences are beautiful, complex. Her characters live and breathe, even underneath the veneer of befuddling nineteenth-century etiquette.
(The thing that always gets me: the scene where Darcy and Bingley return to visit the Bennet sisters after months of absence, and the awkward, unresolved histories between Bingley and Jane, Darcy and Elizabeth just hang in the air, and the way everyone just freakin stands there and doesn’t bring up a goddam thing. I mean, I know miscommunication remains a major element in modern romance, but how frustrating, how infuriating is the women’s complete lack of agency in maneuvering these relationships—and even, sometimes, the men’s likewise powerlessness! Everyone was sitting around with their hands tied. Instead of a love rival or a bad breakup or a job in another city or a departing airplane, society was the dreaded third party that was preventing these perfect couples from getting together. To think that something like your dumbass sister eloping would prevent all of you from ever making a good match! Fuck, dude.)
And one of my favorite things about P & P in particular is its wicked sense of humor. I’m always slightly dumbfounded when I actually find something written over a hundred years ago to be funny. A somewhat tangential anecdote from my college music history class:
Our professor was reading letters that a young, li’l genius Mozart (who, btw, was born only 19 years before Ms. Austen) wrote to his sister while he and his father were traveling Europe. He was describing their day (and here I must paraphrase): “You’ll never believe what happened today, dear sister. Father and I left this morning to go to so-and-so’s house. We were wandering all through the alleys of Vienna. We stopped and got a bite to eat. We met such-and-such in the street. We turned a corner. Finally, we arrived at the large door of the house. And do you know what happened next? We went in!… Anyway, I hope this finds you well…” Total smartass, right? He also made some fart jokes, if I remember correctly.
Back to P&P. Elizabeth is sharp, intelligent, and not afraid to call people on their shit, at least as much as that was possible under that stifling 19th-century etiquette I was talking about. And on top of that she’s funny. So is her father, who blatantly singles her out as his favorite (which makes up for the fact that she’s her idiot mother’s least favorite). One of their preferred joke-butts is Mr. Collins, a cousin who proposes marriage to Elizabeth and who is also a complete and total bore, who can’t shut up about how awesome his old-lady patron is. But Mrs. Bennet was hoping they’d be a match; and when she finds out Elizabeth refused Mr. Coll proposal, she’s furious and threatens to disown her. She brings the case before her husband.
Mr. Bennet, droll as ever, replies, “An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents.—Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.”
Later, after Jane accepts Mr. Bingley’s proposal, she wishes that Elizabeth would find a man who could make her just as happy.
Elizabeth replies, “If you were to give me forty such men, I never could be so happy as you. Till I have your disposition, your goodness, I never can have your happiness. No, no let me shift for myself; and, perhaps, if I have very good luck, I may meet with another Mr. Collins in time.” Zing!
Which brings me back to everyone’s favorite taciturn thousandaire bachelor, Mr. Darcy. What a stud. What a dreamboat. Basically, from the start, he seems like a jerk, he’s awkward, he’s entitled, he falls in love with Elizabeth, he makes a really bad first move (which, back then, was proposing marriage), then he makes up for looking like a jerk by being an all-around awesome guy for the rest of the book—including taking care of the whole sister-eloping mess and not taking credit for it. Everyone’s all like, “What? You’re into Mr. Darcy? We thought you hated him!” And Elizabeth is like, “I misjudged him. It was PREJUDICE.”* And this whole thing sets the stage for every other butting-heads-turned-perfect-match story that followed for the next two centuries.
*not actual quotes.
But in all seriousness, it’s a delightful, completely accessible romance between two well-written and complex characters, following a believable trajectory in a staidly exotic (or exotically staid) setting. The prejudgements, the misunderstandings, the social and familial constraints, the clipped and curt speeches masking profound emotions and desires– all make for an incredibly compelling narrative, one in which we are deeply sympathetic to Elizabeth’s situation. Just like Elizabeth, we find Mr. Collins ridiculous, we’re pissed at Lady Catherine, we’re taken in by Wickham, we can’t believe how nice Jane is to everyone. And most importantly we fall in love with Mr. Darcy.
Also, after reading (plain) Jane Eyre, I found it slightly reassuring to discover that both Darcy and Elizabeth are moderately attractive people. Does that make me shallow?
Henry Miller is a genius of words. I’ve read two of his books thus far, Tropic of Capricorn (companion piece to his most famous work, Tropic of Cancer) and Sexus (first novel in The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, through which I will endeavor to persevere). There’s no denying his singular talent, the joyous, passionate, often transcendent passages his pen produced, the meditative soliloquies on life, universe, the human spirit, and, also compelling, insight into the tortuous life of a self-doubting writer in 1920s Paris and New York.
But he’s also a huge fucking prick, and I’m not sure I can get over that.
Granted, there’s no 100% guarantee that the thoughts and opinions contained within the narrator—a semi-autobiographical “Henry V. Miller”—are 100% the thoughts and opinions of the author. In fact, one of the more interesting things about Miller’s prose is that he often refrains from making value judgments on anything, and rather observes the people around him, the scenes he encounters, and extrapolates from these what are often grandiose philosophies on life and the self. Yet there’s no denying “Henry V. Miller” is a prick, and it’s almost impossible to not by extension grant Henry Miller the same designation.
I noticed it first in Tropic of Capricorn. Miller’s novels were extremely controversial when they were first published– Sexus and its sequels Plexus and Nexus were actually banned for about twelve years in the U.S.– because of their graphic content, mostly explicit sex. From detailed descriptions of genitalia and sex acts to the proliferation of extremely casual encounters, extramarital affairs, illicit group sex and queer trysts, he’s not for the faint of heart. The narrator is an insatiable womanizer and, I mean, kind of a sex addict. Literally every woman he sees is fair game. And almost every woman who becomes game is objectified, an assortment of erotic parts that he makes use of and then moves on.
On top of being a misogynist, he’s also a bigot and a racist and a xenophobe, at the risk of judging the past by the present’s standards and labels. One of his favorite female sex objects in Tropic of Capricorn is a part-black woman named Valeska, who he frequently refers to with uncomfortable epithets and in dehumanizing language (on top of the fact that by the end of his books I am completely desensitized to the C-word, which he liberally uses to refer to both the anatomy and metonymy of women). He also makes comments about Jews and foreigners, often reducing them to strange, inscrutable figures with stereotypical traits.
There’s even a moment in Sexus where he gets, well, sexual assault-y. Most of his women sex objects are uncommonly willing to oblige him in any way, any place, any time, leading me to wonder if he’s disgustingly attractive (but we don’t really know what he looks like; his intense, laser-focused selfhood precludes any consideration of his own appearance since that, ironically, would necessitate considering other people’s subjectivities as observers-of-him). But one woman, a fellow party guest who walks in on Henry in the bathroom, says things like “no” as he puts hands in weird places, which made me really uncomfortable; though when he encounters her later, her promiscuity suggests that consent in the earlier situation was given. Was it? Did it matter?
Three more complaints before I try to turn this around a bit:
1) He chronically, chronically borrows money from people, even though he has a job, and he acts like that’s normal and relatable, but I’m like, what’s up with that? He’s like a character in an Archie comic.
2) He has a wife and daughter through most of these two books, but basically acts like they don’t exist and isn’t really concerned for their welfare at all. The fact that this is #2 on my afterthoughts-list of his bad traits, when it’s really so freaking terrible, just shows how little focus they occupy in his books.
3) Though a brilliant writer, he could, maybe, use a better editing process. Sometimes the same descriptive word shows up in what I consider too-close quarters (same sentence, adjacent sentences) and shit if his soliloquies don’t go a little too long sometimes.
In Sexus, however, I was the least bit pleasantly surprised to discover that he actually cares about a woman beyond her status as a sex object. Mara, who becomes Mona, who is actually in real life his second wife June, is rather the object of his affections, love, obsession for most of the book. (Disregard, though, the fact that he remains married to his first wife for most of the book as well.) Though dysfunctional, that he is able to care significantly about another human being, a woman no less, is reassuring.
Also, consider this lovely little passage about his chaste youthful love for a girl named Miriam:
I never had an impure thought about her; never desired her, never craved for a caress. I loved her so deeply, so completely, that each time I met her it was like being born again. All I demanded was that she should remain alive, be of this earth be somewhere, anywhere, in this world, and never die. I hoped for nothing, I wanted nothing of her. Her mere existence was all-sufficing. Yes, I used to run into the house, hide myself away, and thank God aloud for having sent Miriam to this earth of ours. What a miracle! And what a blessed thing to love like this! (209-210)
I concede, then, that the novel is by its nature subjective, that Miller’s own, often mundane experiences (working in telegraphic HR; hanging out with friends; screwing) don’t have to be important or earth-shattering, that rather he writes to write and to extemporize and to philosophize and write his thoughts large over the world and existence. You don’t have to like a main character to appreciate a novel. You don’t have to relate to or approve of his lifestyle to find commonality and profundity in his experiences.
Take it away, Henry.
Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heart-ache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. Every man, when he gets quiet, when he becomes desperately honest with himself, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. (35)
That’s my review of Jane Eyre, summed up in one sentence, vintage newspaper headline-style. I’ll elaborate, if you’ll be patient.
I’ve always loved the idea of the Brontës—three sisters who each wrote a classic novel and took on masculine pen names alliterative to their actual names, who all died tragically and romantically young before knowing real fame and recognition (Anne – 29, Emily – 30, Charlotte – 38).
As it happens, my mom and her family are from Yorkshire, England, shire of the famous moors and heather and gloomy countryside as seen in The Secret Garden and, more relevantly, Jane Eyre. When I visited the home country with my mom and my gran in 2005, we had a lot of tea, ate a lot of pasties, and saw a lot of sheep. We went to a series of adorable Yorkshire villages—Holmfirth and its yarn, Whitby and its boatyard, Skipton and its castle, Harrogate and its rain. And we also visited Haworth, home of the Brontë sisters and the Brontë Museum, tastefully situated in the old Brontë house and the family patriarch’s church.
Even then, I didn’t read a single Brontë (and have, as of now, still read only a single Brontë) until a couple months ago when I finally picked up Jane Eyre. Fittingly, it followed my first reading of Jane Austen, with whom I’ve always associated the Brontë sisters, if only for their gender, era, and reputational longevity. It also followed my viewing (on a tiny screen embedded in the back of an airplane seat) of the 2010 film adaptation of Jane Eyre, starring Mia Wasikowska and my celebrity boyfriend Michael Fassbender.* After years of picturing all 19th-century British middle-class women’s novels as high society romps and rom-coms with social dances set to tuneful Baroque quadrilles, I was pleasantly surprised to discover there was darkness and a decided lack of superficial beauty in this north country story.
*One buried, forgotten news story about a girlfriend who pressed charges against him for hitting her, later dropped, qualifies my every admiring statement; without knowing more about what happened, it’s like the Schrodinger’s Box of celebrity crushes, he’s simultaneously dreamy and a dealbreaker.
First of all, Jane is plain, and Rochester is ugly. Or to put it more conservatively, neither are handsome. This made me realize that I very rarely have to envision a female protagonist who is not at least marginally attractive, and a romantic interest who is likewise, and actually had some difficulty doing this.
Second, Jane’s life kinda sucks. She’s raised by her horrible aunt, tortured by a mischievous cousin, and eventually sent off to a girls’ school that basically starves its students. The film version dramatizes this more than the book, bringing to bear modern attitudes about child abuse– Jane herself keeps a fondness for the place in spite of it all– but it was definitely a harsh place to live, echoing Charlotte’s own experiences in boarding school.
When Jane is eighteen, she leaves Lowood after placing a classified advertising her services as a governess (a low-tech Craigslist, with no spammers). She finds herself the companion to a vain, silly little French girl—aptly evoking British attitudes towards French people, in general– who is the ward of the estate’s master, Edward Rochester.
Jane notices right away there’s something strange about this house– she hears laughing and shouts in the middle of the night, which the housekeeper blames on a servant named Grace Poole. Mr. Rochester is away most of the time; at one point, when he comes back, he is nearly burned alive in his bed by mysterious means. Jane saves him; he thanks her profusely for saving his life, and for good measure gives her a few of his piercing, stormy, furrowed gazes she comes to know and love.
Thus begins the story’s central romance. Rochester is in his late thirties, a rich man with seemingly his pick of attractive noblewomen, particularly one long-necked Blanche Ingram. Jane is his quiet, slight, ever-serious governess, the hired help, and only eighteen. Aren’t they the unlikely pair? Let’s break down the good, the bad, and the plain of this crazy relationship:
1) It’s an incredibly romantic idea, finding that someone who you thought was out of your reach—in this case, your richer, more worldly employer—has become completely enamored with you.
2) Rochester is interested in Jane not for her looks, but for her mind and her conversation. He falls in love with the way she challenges him and even teases him; it seems pretty clear that his attraction to her is not superficial.
1) I mean, he’s way older than her, so kinda ick? Though I’m realizing that a slew of favorite films, books, TV shows, and songs outside of Lolita consist of older man/teenage girl relationships (most recently I’ve been rewatching best-show-of-all-time “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and am like, wow, Buffy is like 16 years old when she first meets Angel and on top of that he’s not 20 like a normal statutory boyfriend, he’s like 240, which makes it even worse that he’s still into a teenage girl, right?)
2) Rochester is a little unbalanced. He’s hopelessly and desperately in love with Jane and turns borderline threatening when she leaves him. Fassbender portrayed this very well… hopefully because he’s a really good actor (truth) and not ’cause he’s really like that.
3) Here’s the spoiler: There’s a madwoman in the attic.
1) They’re both kinda plain?
So the haunted house aspect of the book is resolved when we find out that the strange noises, furtive goings-on, and occasional violent happenstances are all due to Rochester’s wife, a Creole woman from the West Indies (hey Said, here’s some empire-as-background!), who is locked up in the attic because she’s stark raving out of her mind. Jane doesn’t find out about the first wife until Rochester tries to marry Jane in the shortest, most depressing wedding ceremony ever.
We enter a kind of second part—or even, a very long interlude—when Jane flees the manor, and finds herself taken in by some distant relatives in a distant county. These cousins of hers include St. John, an annoyingly pious and self-satisfied minister whose dream is to dedicate himself to helping poor little lambs in India (empire-as-background, again).
After months of living in the same house, St. John—who is in lust with a pretty rich girl up the way—decides that he wants to take Jane as his wife. The other girl is only an earthly temptation, he says; and while he feels no attraction whatsoever to Jane, she’s good, smart, sturdy, and would make the perfect missionary’s wife. It’s all so sensible. Jane admires St. John deeply; but ultimately, she refuses his offer.
I don’t share Jane’s admiration. To me, St. John comes off as a sanctimonious ass. He’s domineering, distant, and selfless to the point of absolute selfishness. Given a choice between cold, imperious St. John and unbalanced, baggage-laden Rochester… well, I think Jane made the right choice. He’s at least the lesser of two evils.
For all of the downcast glances Jane makes around Rochester, for all of the words she never says out loud, for all the fact that she starts learning goddamn Hindi to please St. John, she is ultimately, for what it’s worth, a surprisingly strong, independent heroine.
When Jane makes up her mind to leave Thornfield after learning of Rochester’s wife, she comes up with this little piece of proto-self-validation, a kind of “don’t need no man” testimonial:
“…while he spoke my very conscience and reason turned traitor against me, and charged me with crime in resisting him. They spoke almost as loud as Feeling: and that clamoured wildly. ‘Oh, comply!’ it said. ‘Think of his misery; think of his danger—look at his state when left alone; remember his headlong nature; consider the recklessness following on despair—soothe him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?’
“Still indomitable was the reply—‘I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now… Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.” (403)
In 1847, I feel like this was a big deal. Plain single girl makes her own way, survives countless hardships, submits to no man, and acts on her own decisions. And ultimately, empowered, her own agent, she lives happily ever after with brooding old Mr. Rochester. Who, if he actually looked like Michael Fassbender, would not be so bad at all.
It took a couple of friends to bring Ms. Moore to my attention, and I’m extremely glad they did. Recognizing her name in the fiction stacks at Pegasus in downtown Berkeley, I began to thumb through the first short story in Self Help, called “How to Be an Other Woman,” and was instantly awed and amazed—the entire story was written in the second person! And the second person command form, no less! As in a series of narrative instructions. “Self help,” it seems, is a designation semi-literal.
Meet in expensive beige raincoats, on a pea-soupy night. Like a detective movie. First, stand in front of Florsheim’s Fifty-seventh Street window, press your face close to the glass, watch the fake velvet Hummels inside revolving around the wing tips; some white shoes, like your father wears, are propped up with garlands on a small mound of chemical snow. All the stores have closed. You can see your breath on the glass. Draw a peace sign. You are waiting for a bus…
“What weather,” you hear him sigh, faintly British or uppercrust Delaware.
Glance up. Say: “It is fit for neither beast nor vegetable.”
It sounds dumb. It makes no sense.
But it is how you meet. (3-4)
Many of the stories take on this second-person perspective, but it’s not merely novelty. Somehow, the subject “you,” though ostensibly coming from someone else’s experience, draws the reader deeper into the story—its repeated insistence in all its forms (“you,” “your,” “yours”) burying in your subconscious and multiplying the impact. Throughout the collection, Moore makes small, quietly devastating observations about modern women’s daily lives, and whether it was the format or the content or the perspective or a combination, I can personally attest that at least a few stories hit very close to home for me, more than almost any work I can remember reading in recent years. My most lasting impression was lying in bed late at night (when I read), just being, well, quietly devastated at 1 AM. And then, my mind busy with parsing out the emotion of what I just read, trying to go to sleep.
I suppose this is part of the power of contemporary, realistic fiction. I’m so used to working my way through the mid-century classics, with occasional visits to the nineteenth century, that striking upon a more modern outlook—even one from back in 1985 (only a couple references to obsolete things like TV Guides draw attention to this fact)—is like reopening my eyes to the power of fiction to powerfully affect you. It’s not that I don’t relate to the characters in earlier works. In particular, though shrouded in strange customs and language, I empathize strongly with many of Jane Austen’s heroines, Elizabeth, Eleanor, Marianne.
But perhaps that’s just it. Without the shroud of strange customs and language, the decades of historical difference—instead, with a completely familiar idiom in a completely familiar universe with completely and specifically familiar problems—it’s all so immediately, entirely relatable. There’s nothing standing between you and absolute identification with the protagonist, provided of course the writing does its job.
And Lorrie Moore is a particularly gifted writer. Dysfunctional relationships in all of their mundane and undramatic glory are her specialty, mostly romantic relationships and parent-child relationships.
In “Go Like This,” a woman who rationally plans to commit suicide before her cancer takes over continues to face communication issues with her husband, who never quite looks sad and who she worries will take up with a female friend once she’s gone. In “How,” a woman agonizes over how to leave a man who loves her too much, who insists on reading the same books that she does. In “What Is Seized,” a woman observes the tragedy of her parents’ marriage, with the opening line, “My mother married a cold man.” As her mother approaches death, she muses:
“You reach a point where you cannot cry anymore, and you look around you at people you know, at people your own age, and they’re not crying either. Something has been taken. And they are emptier. And they are grateful.” (44)
The stories are beautiful but not overwrought, emotional but not weepy. The author strikes that ideal balance between keeping the reader at a distance and going for the easy shots (like, I don’t know… dead puppies, 9/11 specials, Steven Spielberg trailers). It’s nothing so dramatic. No, her stories brilliantly hang in the balance, divulging just enough detail, provoking just enough empathy, to, just, you know, quietly devastate you. I’m writing a Lorrie Moore letter of recommendation, and I give her my highest.
This past weekend, Diesel Books in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood (the independent chain has two other locations, both in Southern California) “transformed” into a record store to celebrate the debut of Michael Chabon’s new book, Telegraph Avenue, a novel set in a record store on the historic street just a few blocks away. They also held a party with Chabon himself last night, where the entrance fee was the cost of one autographed copy of the book. Conveniently, Chabon, who I read for the first time earlier this year, lives in Berkeley. We’re pretty much neighbors who’ve never met.
My friends and I popped by on Sunday, and I’d hoped to pick up a copy, but they were apparently sold out for the party. Still, it was kind of a treat to see the cute independent bookstore partly decked out in record store logos, complete with some records to sift through when you walk in the door. Mostly jazz. If I had a record player, I would’ve walked out of there with a nice Monk compilation. Thelonious, not Adrian.
Instead of Monk or Telegraph Ave, I walked out with a lovely hardcover Mansfield Park to add to my growing Jane Austen collection. And then– in part because it was $20– I declared a moratorium on book buying for a month. We’ll see how that goes.