Spam lit revisited again, chastened

Another departure this time. Usually I draft quite carefully (though this may not be apparent to readers who’ve been here before) what I post. This one is coming out on a Friday night after my first full week back teaching, and a bottle of wine shared over dinner. Undrafted. (The post, not the wine.)

Since posting my last piece about spam lit I’ve realised I recently read this piece in the Paris Review by Dan Piepenbring on the very same topic: the potential for ‘automated comments’ generated by spammers’ algorithms to try to circumvent blogsite spam filters to be transformed into literary texts. I just looked back through my email inbox and saw the link: how can it be that I could write a whole post, having forgotten this article read only a few days before? Worrying.

Dan P calls such texts mostly ‘nauseous goulash’ at worst. He calls what I said previously about intervening with the original spam text to create something new ‘curating’ the spam. I like that.

He likens them also to high modernism: William Gaddis, William Carlos Williams: texts that look somehow…jumbled, incoherent, lacking in the usual semantic connections associated with everyday discourse. They have more in common with the tangential, illogical or contiguous associations of dreams or streams of consciousness. Let’s face it, as we move through our days perceiving the outer world, an inner monologue persists, collaging fragments from all over the place, splicing them with others to create a continuous multifarious, multistranded… this metaphor is becoming too mixed, but I hope the point is being made. We don’t usually move through our days with a single-thread thought-stream. As we talk we think of something else.

As we listen to someone talk, we think of something else: what to have for tea, did I walk the dog, should I grout the bathroom, am I happy…NLP is big on this.

George Eliot said that if we took into account all the data accessible to us at any one moment we’d be deafened by the squirrel’s heartbeat; so we partially filter out incoming data, and censor what comes out of our mouths or pens (or keyboards).

So spam lit can be a way of tapping into the fortuitous and pleasing combinations of language in a manner that isn’t possible through normal discourse channels.

I leave you today then with the chastened realisation that Dan P wrote far more cogently on the topic of spam lit than I did. Cheers.

 

The Literature Machine revisited: spam lit, Calvino, OULIPO and conceptual literature

I posted in August last year about Spam Poetry, and used some examples from my own WordPress spam repository as the basis for some ‘found poetry’. In my previous post I offered another example of my own, ‘Update: an excavated fragment’, based on the dialogue between a computer user and the machine’s interface.

I have become aware, since that post last year, that the phenomenon of ‘spam poetry’ is quite well attested – I didn’t invent it after all, though at the time I misguidedly thought I might have done. The rest of this post will provide more context.

 

In July of this year I posted about VOLVELLES: mechanical devices that might be called early ‘paper computers’, primitive expert systems or thinking machines, usually employed for calculating or generating information or texts. These can be traced back to the ancient east, but in the west to Ramon Lull (the Ars combinatoria), and later, Leibniz, Kircher, and so on.

Swift in Gulliver’s Travels may have been satirising Leibniz in his ‘permutational machine’ at the Academy of Lagado. Centos, bibliomancy and later literary techniques like cutup and permutational poetry can also trace their origins to such ‘literary machines’.

This is the title of the book of essays by Italo Calvino, about which I also posted in July this year, with a focus on ‘Cybernetics and Ghosts’. In this essay Calvino considers the difference between the ‘random text generator’ and what might be called the Literary Machine: the procedure which bypasses individual human inspiration by using ‘combinatorial play’ to generate texts through the permutation of a restricted number of elements and functions. French avant-garde groups like OULIPO have experimented with such methods for decades now, harking back to the Surrealists with their use of self-imposed constraints in the production of literary texts.

Which brings me back to my own ‘spam poems’ cited earlier. A little judicious searching online will readily take you to more detailed information on the following (Wikipedia, for example, has much more on this, with examples and links):

SPAM POETRY: here the involvement of an author in the production of literature, as Calvino speculated, has become discretionary. It works on similar principles to automatic writing (Yeats was an aficionado of this, with its mystical/supernatural overtones), which was also favoured by Freud and the Surrealists as a means of tapping spontaneously into the unconscious to produce ‘psychography’. Aleatoric writing is a related concept: writing produced on the principle of accidental or chance language choices.

A key concept in such text generation is what OULIPO called ‘clinamen’ (and a near-translation, ‘swerve’): an arcane term for the classical notion of ‘primordial anti-constraint’. Creation (of a text) is rendered possible, in an ordered, logical, rational universe, by the introduction of chance. Harry Mathews’ algorithm applied to Queneau’s cutup sonnet sequence would be an example of ‘coercing’ the potentiality of texts into existence. Language is exploited through the use of matrices, and computers make this process millions times quicker and more productive than old-style cut-and-paste.

Spam is usually created by computer programs which randomly copy extracts from internet texts (Burroughs and his predecessor, Brion Gysin, called this ‘paratext’), reassemble them and use them to try to smuggle marketing or other unsolicited messages through the filters of blogs and other websites. They try to trick the spam filters into thinking that the ‘text’ thus generated has been created by human hands, for the filters usually lack the sophistication to distinguish gibberish from texts which have semantic coherence.

In brief, I’d suggest, if you’re interested in pursuing this ‘mechanical literature’, you research similar ‘genres’:

FLARF: text produced by the anonymised and reshuffled errancies of various machine protocols (Wikipedia)

SPAM LIT: the site called UbuWeb (‘an anthology of conceptual writing’) has a wealth of useful examples, articles and links.

See also:

SPOETRY, WORD SALAD, GOOGLISM, INFORMATIONIST POETRY, THE L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E POETS (most in various ways use the detritus of the internet as a source for material for recombining or regenerating texts).

I’d have to conclude, however, that the literary results are decidedly uneven. There are occasional felicitous juxtapositions created through the use of these techniques (and I’d like to think there were some among the examples I produced myself, in which I intervened and selected from the morass of verbiage to create something rather more…orderly and, I hope, interesting). But much of it is doggerel.

Update: an excavated fragment

Today’s brief post is a departure from the usual literary criticism/book review I’ve found myself writing this year. I realise I had stopped posting the occasional ‘random’ piece, to use a term favoured by my students, and which I’d usually gleaned from old notebooks.

I recently read on Jonathan Gibbs’s excellent Tiny Camels blog a post he called an ‘excavated fragment’. While searching for something among the files on his computer he came across a piece called ‘Sex and Death’, dated 2003. He had no idea what it was intended for. I liked his conclusion:

Memory is obsessive-selective self-narration. The rest is work for archaeologists.

In a similar spirit, then, here’s a piece – sort of a found poem, I suppose – that I came across in an old notebook that I keep by what I believe is called in the US my nightstand. It’s dated Feb. 2013.

I have no recollection of writing it, but quite like the notion of a dialogue with one’s computer. There’s the strangled syntax and dismaying jargon of the disembodied. It was written before I’d read reviews of a recent Spike Jonze film in which the protagonist falls in love with the Siri-type operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) of his computer. This excavated fragment of mine (maybe I should call it a ‘random gleaning’) appears to represent a more fractious relationship. Here it is.

Update

An update is available to your software.

                Continue?

[What happens if I don’t?]

The update will resolve some contradictions

in the social system

and reduce battery usage.

                [Continue]

Here are 2 pp of T&C.

                [Accept]

Well done. Your social system will update

within 24 hours.

Your software is updating

and will take 3 minutes.

You will need to restart.

Restart now?

[What happens if I don’t? Had I stopped?]

You will be held responsible

for all the contradictions in your system.

                [Restart]

Anything else today?

                [Return]

John Cheever, ‘Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor’.

In Cheever’s story ‘O City…’, about which I wrote last time, the protagonists are not his usual cocktail party circuit suburbanites, but working class. The story showed his ability to blend light humour with a darker moral purpose: Evarts comes to the big city not just to try to become a successful playwright, but really to make his fortune – without necessarily doing much to merit it. This is a theme found in other Cheever stories. We saw that Evarts’s story was a sort of inverted Country Mouse fable.

This time I’d like to respond to Michael Pucci’s recent post on The Mookse and the Gripes website on Cheever’s story ‘Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor’.  He really nails what the story is doing, and how the themes are conveyed. So not much to add on that score. I’d just like to offer here a few extra thoughts, but would strongly recommend you check out his post: it’s first rate.

As Michael and those who comment on his post point out, this is a story, first published in the Christmas 1949 edition of The New Yorker, that takes Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and other sentimental stories like it (‘Miracle on 34th Street’, perhaps), and subverts it, just as Cheever did with Aesop’s fable in ‘O City…’

There are frequent echoes of the Dickens content and style. This is Dickens:

Mr Fezziwig's ball: 1843 illustration by John Leech. Wikimedia Commons

Mr Fezziwig’s ball: 1843 illustration by John Leech. Wikimedia Commons

There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled…etc. (Fezziwig’s ball, Christmas past)

There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts… There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions…There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes…[this goes on for some time] (Christmas present)

And here’s Cheever’s description of Charlie’s haul from his tenants:

There were goose, turkey, chicken, pheasant, grouse, and pigeon. There were trout and salmon, creamed scallops and oysters, lobster, crab meat, whitebait and clams. There were plum puddings, mince pies…etc.

The stylistic similarity is clear; so is the intent. When it comes to the booze Charlie is plied with, there are ‘Martinis, Manhattans, Old Fashioneds’…etc.

It’s a cornucopia of food, drink and gifts. Unlike Scrooge, however, Charlie is the recipient of this anxious generosity; he’s given his wealthy tenants a sob-story and they’ve salved their consciences by showering him with gifts.

The plot and circumstantial detail are carefully presented in Michael’s post, so I won’t repeat them here. I’ll look instead mostly at style.

The theme is the problem of charity: how do the comparatively rich deal with the problem of the ‘worthy poor’, and what leads them to show liberality and benevolence? Conversely, what’s to stop the poor from tapping the rich meretriciously, and if they do who’s to say they’re to blame in a capitalist world of inequality?  Cheever uses the brilliant phrase ‘licentious benevolence’ for the murky impulse to be selflessly charitable on just one day of the year. Does the upper-class person with wealth and a conscience pass by the beggar on the street without taking pity and putting money in their cup on the patronising grounds that they’ll probably spend it on booze or drugs? But what if they have, like Bob Cratchit, a hungry, disabled child at home who relies on them to bring food to the table? It’s an enduring dilemma.

Both stories belie Cheever’s reputation as the Chekhov of the suburbs, and deal with the working-class poor; in both cases their straitened circumstances are highlighted by contrast with the immoderate wealth of the rich, who live in opulent luxury. I’m not sure he fully understands them.

The imagery throughout the story places heavy emphasis on the opposing binary fields of dark and light: ‘the sky outside his window was black’ appears in the first paragraph. In paragraph two there’s this:

…the only lights burning were lights that had been forgotten…The neighbourhood was dark…[there’s a]wall of black windows.

On the next page, as Charlie starts work, we read that the heating system didn’t

lighten his loneliness or his petulance. The black air outside the glass doors had begun to turn blue, but the blue light seemed to have no source…It was a tearful light, and as it picked out the empty street, he wanted to cry.

We’ve previously noted how Cheever isn’t shy of using pathetic fallacy – maybe too heavy-handedly. Here ‘a tearful light’ strikes me as a little forced – though it links neatly with Charlie’s desire to cry.

Like ‘O City’ this is a parable, a fable, a fairy tale. It’s also, again, very humorous, despite its darkness and sombre undertones.

There are some typically fine turns of phrase that stand out in their lyricism in relief against Cheever’s otherwise characteristically unshowy style. As early as the second paragraph – he does like to start and end his stories with panache – there’s a terrific description of Charlie’s grumpy, grudging, misanthropic journey to work on Christmas morning:

Millions and millions were sleeping, and this general loss of consciousness generated an impression of abandonment, as if this were the fall of the city, the end of time.

Ignorance and want, same illustrator, A Christmas Carol. Wikimedia Commons

Ignorance and want, same illustrator, A Christmas Carol. Wikimedia Commons

I’ve noticed Cheever’s predilection for images introduced by ‘as if’; this is one of several in the story, and he makes frequent use of the device elsewhere. Here the language in the simile soars daringly, and the author shows a preparedness to reach for magniloquent, lofty philosophical , even spiritual heights (and depths) that complicate the otherwise jocular narrative. Like Dickens, Cheever isn’t afraid of taking risks with such juxtapositions, of flirting with sententiousness; both writers at times therefore fire duds, or lapse into sentimental or overcooked prose, but when they get it right, as here, they’re breathtaking.

What I find interesting as well here is the way Cheever’s narrative voice shifts in and out of the protagonist’s consciousness: whose ‘impression’ is this? Surely not Charlie’s, who’s too full of self-pity at this point, and lacking in introspection and vocabulary, to entertain such thoughts. Although he’s sorry for himself, he doesn’t come across as the type to have notions of eschatology like this.

So: I intended keeping this post shorter, and find I’ve rattled on at length yet again. There are other outstanding features in this story I’d like to explore, like the wonderful thumbnail sketches of the varied tenants Charlie taps for gifts. I can’t resist one: Mrs Hewing, who Charlie ‘happened to know, was kind of immoral’ – note the comical use of Charlie’s own idiom within the narrative there, that modernist technique Genette calls focalisation (but Jane Austen also uses it with aplomb)– and when he first takes her down in his elevator ‘hadn’t been to bed yet’; later she calls him to her floor to give him his gift and appears

Standing in the hall, in a kind of negligee…She had been crying and drinking.

There’s a whole novel compressed there.

And there I’d better stop.

In his Journals Cheever expressed a desire ‘to disguise nothing, to conceal nothing, to write about those things that are closest to our pain, our happiness’. That polarity – pain and happiness – I’d like to have shown more clearly in my previous post. It’s central in this story.

Beneath the veneer of sly humour this is a grim, furious fable again, like ‘O City’, about the potential for inhumanity in people, of our capacity for selfishness and hypocrisy, and for convincing ourselves that taking a course of action that serves our own purposes, even if it costs others, is justifiable.

Occluded lives: John Cheever, ‘O City of Broken Dreams’

This post will be a response to Michael Pucci’s thorough and thoughtful account of the plot, themes and merits of  ‘O City of Broken Dreams’ at the Mookse and Gripes site earlier this year.

The New Yorker published the majority of Cheever’s stories: 121 appeared there between 1935 and 1981. This one was published in the Jan. 24, 1948 issue. It’s the fourth in the Collected Stories, first published in the US in 1978; I’m using the Vintage paperback edition published in the UK in 2010.

Michael contrasts the relatively healthy nature of the marriage of Evarts and Alice Malloy as portrayed in this story  with that of the Hollises in ‘The Summer Farmer’, his (and my) previous Cheever topic; I’d also contrast it with the rancorous relationship of the Westcotts in the story I wrote about last time, ‘The Enormous Radio’.

Cheever, whose struggles with alcoholism and his sexuality are well known, was a connoisseur of fakery. His stories often explore and expose the surfaces his characters assemble to present to the world, and the contrasting, occluded reality underneath. This duality or complexity is apparent in ‘O City’, as it is in many others: there is no single ‘true’ reading.

The Malloys’ marriage, it seems to me, is what this story presents, through the fable of the pursuit of the American dream in New York. But despite its apparent wholesomeness, there are fissures in this marriage.

At first it’s Alice who’s the sensible one; back home in Wentworth, Indiana she had been known as ‘the practical member of the family’; Evarts ‘would have misplaced his head if it hadn’t been for Alice’, it ‘was often said’. She ‘studied the timetable’ and told her husband not to take the luggage down from the rack too soon as their train approached New York. She’s the one who’d pressured the big-shot New York producer giving a talk in Wentworth into reading Evarts’s script, and it’s her ‘businesslike strain’ that causes her to urge Evarts to work on his script once they are installed in the delightfully named, seriously dingy Hotel Mentone. She ‘forbade’ Evarts from asking directions once they’d arrived at the big city, and had studied the map so that she knew where to go: ‘”If they find out we’re green, they’ll fleece us.”’

Evarts demonstrates how ‘green’ he is when he fails to tell the elevator operator what floor he wants when he visits the Hauser agency skyscraper, and is sneered at by him as a consequence. A butler at the superficially grand house of the producer Sam Farley reveals the sham nature of the place’s grandeur, yet Evarts only guesses he’s a butler because he wears ‘striped pants’. (By the way, it’s worth pointing out here that this story is often, as here, painfully  funny. I’m aware that I’m not showing this emphatically enough.)

Yet Alice is not very bright, as her ‘rind/Rhine’ malaproprism indicates. She fancifully considered the ‘frosty glitter’ of the paving in the station as they arrived at Grand Central station, and wondered naively if ‘diamonds had been ground into the concrete.’ She’s maybe more of a dreamer than Evarts.

By bringing his family on the long journey away from their dull mid-Western town to the big city, Evarts Malloy has rashly exposed them not only to its surface glamour and potential for the luxurious life, but also to its dangers and capacity to chew up innocents like them.

As Betsy Pelz perceptively suggests in a comment on Michael’s analysis, there are two

Arthur Rackham illustration to a 1912 edition of the Aesop fable

Arthur Rackham illustration to a 1912 edition of the Aesop fable (Wikimedia Commons)

stories co-existing in the narrative: one  –  the more obvious — is the Country Mouse and the Town Mouse fable: the ‘very green young man’ who has burnt his bridges, ‘takes on Manhattan and almost survives a string of adventures’, and who shows every sign, after being deceived by the people he meets, who all try to exploit his naiveté, from the hotel bellboy to the agents and producers, of dusting himself off and maybe even heading for Hollywood and fame.

The other is more interesting: the Indiana night-bus driver with ‘callused hands’, but who’s an artist and has written the first act of a play, but who’s ‘bogged down’ by a wife who lacks imagination, common sense and intelligence. He is evidently susceptible to more alluring and glamorous feminine prospects. There’s the beautiful actress who feigns interest in starring in his play, which he dimly perceives she can’t even have had time to have read when she professes to admire it: ‘he was too confused by her beauty to worry or to speak…he felt as though he had fallen in love.’

I think this is a more satisfying reading: it’s true that there’s a hint at a possibly upbeat ending: on the train as it leaves New York Evarts tells his wife he’ll wait till they reach Chicago before deciding whether to take the line home, to return to their ‘dismal town’, and the safe but dull, artistically numb life there, or to head for Hollywood and chase his dream.

Michael is clearly rooting for Evarts to become the hick who hits the big time; the narrator hints at this as being the option that’s ‘easier to imagine.’ I’m not so sure: Evarts has only written the first act of his play, and fails to write a word while in Manhattan; he yearns for the smells and sounds of Indiana to inspire him: in New York he’s blocked – though admittedly he’s in a state of turmoil because of what’s happening to them; he and Alice are full of awe at the novelty and modernity of the city. Is he really capable of writing more? Is he even any good? Would Hollywood care?

Michael also shows that the narrator, who is usually consistently omniscient and largely shows an ironically knowing tone in portraying the ways in which this innocent couple is repeatedly cheated, perplexed and exploited by the decadent, rapacious inhabitants of the metropolis (‘many innocents had been there before them’, the narrator tells us early on; there’s Cheever’s characteristically pointed use of pathetic fallacy to set the tone: ‘they could see the pitiless winter afterglow beyond the Hudson River’). But the narrator noticeably relinquishes all knowledge and prescience in the final paragraphs, and prefers to use the low modality of the auxiliary verbs ‘may have’.

This is a technique he uses in other stories, in order to give the ending the enigmatic quality that leaves interpretation open. I’ve discussed this in previous posts on Cheever. In ‘O City’ he similarly refrains from providing an authoritative, conclusive ending. As Henry James might have agreed, in life, in relationships, there are no endings: all the artist can do is ‘draw the circle in which they appear to do so’.

To conclude, I find this story too long. It has all the virtues of the typically well crafted New Yorker story, but also some of the formulaic qualities of the O. Henry sort of plot (as I’ve suggested in previous posts about Cheever stories). You can see the workings. There are too many sequences with rascally conmen keen to exploit Evarts.

It’s clear to see, as Michael insists, that it’s a kind of ‘fable’ or ‘parable’. I take him to mean by this that a moral lesson is adumbrated. Because of the story’s ambiguities and its open ending, however, this lesson is clouded.

Aesop’s moral is clear: ‘better beans and bacon in peace than cakes and ale in fear’. Better the poverty, hardship, simplicity and peace of the country than the luxury, plenty, sophistication, privilege and nerve-shredding dangers of the shark-infested city. When they arrive the Malloys are described as ‘the hard-working children of an industrious generation’, but as they leave the Grand Central station the weather as always is an index of the mood, and the narrator reminds us of Alice’s naïve perception when she arrived:

It was a rainy night, and the dark, wet paving, deep in the station, did not glitter, but it was still Alice’s belief that diamonds had been ground into it, and that was the way she would tell the story.

The symmetry here – the repetition of her belief in diamonds in the paving – seems to me too pat, a bit contrived. But it does serve to show that Alice is maybe not so sensible and has learnt nothing (apart from the superficial ‘lessons’ of travelling arrangements: ‘they arranged themselves adroitly over several seats.’)

Evarts, however, has possibly changed as a result of his abrasive contact with urban slickers, and may well have developed the capacity to adapt and reinvent himself. Does this suggest, however, that achieving the promise of the American dream involves becoming tainted in the process? Evarts seems to have lost his innocence by the story’s end. When Alice performs her melodramatic swoon at the end of her party piece song in the over-long middle of the story, the sophisticates at the party cruelly laugh at her. She’s mortified, and Evarts comforts her – but she’s shown him up, too, and embarrassed them both. This epiphany reveals to him the perception he’d previously been unaware of: Alice is a liability. If he’s to hit the big time her small-town limitations and unsophisticated ingenuousness will possibly hold him back.

Robert Henryson’s moralitas to his Middle Scots version of Aesop has this serene message:

Quha hes eneuch, of na mair hes he need…

Sir Thomas Wyatt’s is:

And use it well that is to thee allotted,

Then seek no more out of thyself to find

The thing that thou hast sought so long before…

This Zen-like message, with its binary opposites, is: be content with what you have, seek inside yourself for the answer to your prayers (and dreams), don’t quest needlessly far afield for it . Cheever gives this reassuring but constraining, ‘be content with the limited life you lead/home is where the heart is’ message a cynical spin: that mysterious, deliberately open ending refuses to conform to the fabulist’s black-and-white morality tale strictures.

Maybe Evarts has learnt a different lesson: to succeed it’s necessary to emulate the sharks.

Chris Power’s illuminating survey in the Guardian newspaper of The Short Story includes Cheever at no. 45 here.

 

Mme Bovary of Kansas City: Evan S. Connell, ‘Mrs Bridge’.

Evan S. Connell (1924-2013), Mrs Bridge. Penguin Modern Classics, 2012. US first published 1959, UK 1983.

Reviews of Murakami’s new novel Colorless Tsukuru have commented on the dangers of making the protagonist a dull character: this can lead to a fitful narrative. As I was reading Mrs Bridge, Connell’s debut novel, first published in the US in 1959 (but which began life as a short story published in The Paris Review in 1955), I wondered whether he was avoiding a similar fate.

He does. Largely as a result of the novel’s inventive form, style and structure, and the brilliant use of language.

It consists of 117 short chapters, each with a title, often enigmatically tangential to the content; for example, ch. 102 is called ‘Joseph Conrad’, but the novel Mrs Bridge reads in this 2-paragraph segment is never identified. It’s highly significant that she becomes absorbed by this novel, and she broods over a particularly pertinent passage, which states that

some people go skimming over the years of existence to sink gently into a placid grave, ignorant of life to the last, without ever having been made to see all it may contain.

She ‘brooded’ over this and thought deeply about it; then someone called her, she put it down, and never picked it up again. This is the story of her life in a sentence. I don’t recognise this passage: perhaps someone can identify it in Conrad’s work? It sounds more like Joyce to me (Gabriel’s internal monologue at the end of ‘The Dead’).

This oblique, deeply suggestive and sophisticated approach to the subject of the eponymous upper-middle-class matron’s colourless, quietly despondent life in Kansas City (where Connell was born) in the decades leading up to the start of World War II is idiosyncratic and engaging.

In a review written at the Asylum blog in 2010 the always astute John Self considers the novel as accomplished as anything by Richard Yates or William Trevor. Revolutionary Road, published just two years after Mrs Bridge, relates the frustrations and yearnings of a suburban couple in America in the fifties. But Mrs Bridge is a far quieter novel: neither partner has an affair, or yearns to write a great novel in Paris. It’s closer in theme to Ira Levin’s 1972 satire The Stepford Wives in its depiction of stultified, unreflecting conformity to the American bourgeois way of life and obsession with keeping up appearances unquestioningly:

She brought up her children very much as she herself had been brought up, and she hoped that when they were spoken of it would be in connection with their nice manners, their pleasant dispositions, and their cleanliness, for these were qualities she valued above all others. (p.3)

Mrs Bridge said that she judged people by their shoes and by their manners at the table. (p. 13)

That her children rebel against her and drift away from her in their various ways is another of her life’s puzzling catastrophes; the irony of her name is that she is unable to bridge the gap that opens up between her and her family’s members. She is desperately lonely and bored, as the children grow up, become independent, and the maid runs the house:

She spent a great deal of time staring into space, oppressed by the sense that she was waiting. But waiting for what? She did not know…Nothing intense, nothing desperate, ever happened. Time did not move…So it was that her thoughts now and then turned deviously deeper, spiraling down and down in search of the final recess, of life more immutable than the life she had bequeathed in the birth of her children. (p. 74)

This is from a chapter called The Clock (time seems often to stand still for Mrs Bridge, while as we shall see it also races past). It ends with her bovine husband asking if the clock had struck; in fact there had been a symbolic flash of lightning – which illuminated something inderminate for her – and when she answers that it hadn’t, he resumes reading his paper:

She never forgot this moment when she had almost apprehended the very meaning of life, and of the stars and planets, yes, and the flight of the earth.

This rare lyrical flight captures the essence of this sad, bemused, unfulfilled woman’s life: she ‘almost’ apprehends its meaning, but ultimately doesn’t. (That free indirect thought, ‘yes’ is reminiscent again of Joyce: Molly Bloom this time.) Yet she is aware there is or could be something else to it. She often asks herself ‘What should she do…?’ How fill her day? She shops for useless items, plays bridge, gossips, avoids conflict or expressing opinions with conviction, picks up then drops faddish hobbies and atrophies spiritually.

Mrs Bridge coverThe protagonist has more in common with Emma Bovary than with April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road. But unlike Mme Bovary, Mrs Bridge never acts on her desires for something to happen in her life. Hers is a stunted life, and she lives in perpetual dread of acting or even thinking in an unconventional way, but gradually becomes dissatisfied with the rapidity and sterility with which it passes away in time; this is from as early as p. 4:

All seemed well. The days passed, and the weeks, and the months, more swiftly than in childhood, and she felt no trepidation, except for certain moments in the depth of the night, when, as she and her new husband lay drowsily clutching each other for reassurance, anticipating the dawn, the day, and another night which might prove them both immortal, Mrs Bridge found herself wide awake. During these moments, resting in her husband’s arms, she would stare at the ceiling, or at his face, which sleep robbed of strength, with an uneasy expression, as though she saw or heard some intimation of the great years ahead.

That paragraph sums up the novel. Like Mme Bovary, she feels ‘intimations’ that there must be something else, something better; ironically ‘the great years’ never come.  Compare this near the novel’s end, ch. 109:

The snow fell all night. It fell without a sound and covered the frozen ground, and the dead leaves beneath the maple tree, and bowed the limbs of the evergreens…Mrs Bridge was awakened by the immense silence and she lay in her bed listening…She had a feeling that all was not well and she waited in deep expectancy for some further intimation, listening intently, but all she heard before falling asleep was the familiar chiming of the clock.

This is typical of Connell’s beautifully modulated, understated prose. There’s a touch of the ending of Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ (again) there; indeed, Connell makes constant reference to the mid-western weather to reflect the emptiness or discomfort of Mrs Bridge’s existence. Every adjective here falls like a blow: ‘frozen’, ‘dead’, ‘immense’; the temporal significance of the ‘familiar’, relentlessly ticking and chiming clock is a motif through the novel, as we’ve seen; the nouns are equally telling: ‘silence’, ‘expectancy’, ‘intimation’ (again, but strikingly, heartbreakingly different from the vague optimism recorded at the start of the narrative and quoted just now). Mrs Bridge often seems on the brink of an epiphany, about to experience some revelation that will free her from her unexamined despair – but always she falls short of realising it: she falls asleep, redeemed by oblivion, or puts the book aside, or fails to pick up the phone to complain about the bizarre, possibly perverted junior school teacher who calls upon the children in her class – including Mrs Bridge’s young daughter – to comb her lank, greasy hair.

Joshua Ferris, in a spirited introduction to the PMC edition, likens her to iconic existential anti-heroes like Meursault, Molloy and Dr Rieulx. That Connell is able to invite such comparisons, which are valid, attests to the stature of this novel and the brilliance of his achievement.

It would be easy to dismiss the novel because of the unpleasant nature of the central married couple. They are bigoted, racist, and show little interest in culture or politics (Mrs Bridge flirts with the exciting idea of choosing her own candidate to vote for in an election, inspired by her rebellious friend, but as always she chickens out at the last minute and votes Republican as her husband tells her to).

In fact Mrs Bridge has always obeyed her husband. When a tornado approaches the Country Club where they are dining, he insists on remaining stoically (and stolidly) at table to finish his steak, despite the pleas of staff to join the other diners in the safety of the basement:

She wished he would not be so obstinate; she wished he would behave like everyone else, but she was not particularly frightened. For nearly a quarter of a century she had done as he had told her, and what he had said would happen had indeed come to pass, and what he had said would not occur had not occurred. Why, then, should she not believe him now?…The tornado, whether impressed by his intransigence or touched by her devotion, had drawn itself up into the sky and was never seen or heard of again.

There’s a pleasing symmetry in the syntax here: the clauses are elegantly balanced, but the point of view is clearly that of the unreflecting Mrs Bridge. The quiet, subversive humour is something of which she would be completely unaware, and it is this ironic gap between her own state of constant bewilderment and confusion and that of the more knowing reader that provides much of the substance and reward of the narrative. I particularly like the weird personification of the tornado at the end of that extract.

But Connell refrains from judging or mocking his characters or their shortcomings; like Cheever he trusts his reader to find a way of accommodating to them. They are rarely likeable, but entirely credible.

Ferris highlights the humour in the novel, which often ‘swerves’ into absurdity or non sequiturs. A random example: the Bridges throw a party, not because they want to, but because it’s time for them to ‘retaliate’.

The humour is contrapuntal to the darkness, angst and despair that Mrs Bridge catches increasingly frequent, semi-comprehending glimpses of as the novel progresses. One of the most interesting secondary characters is the startlingly unconventional Grace Barron, a prototype hippy or beatnik of later decades, who dresses like a boy, plays ball in the street, espouses socialism and picks political fights at cocktails parties when she’s drunk – and is more miserably unhappy than Mrs Bridge. She startles, even frightens Mrs Bridge by talking about profound matters with passion, while commenting on the bleakness of their fate as bourgeois women. This is poignantly, elliptically conveyed when they see in a shop some ‘tiny bells’ that revolved around a candlestick:

‘I feel like those bells’, said Grace. ‘Why are they turning around, India? Why? Because the candle has been lighted. What I want to say is – oh, I don’t know. It’s just that the orbit is so small.’

There chapter 19 ends, but we know that Mrs Bridge will be both puzzled and disturbed by this fractured but more articulate metaphorical insight than any she is capable of – yet she will feel a shock of recognition.

One of the the most frequently quoted passages in the novel comes when Grace desperately asks her friend if she ever feels ‘hollowed out’ in the back like the characters in the Grimm tale; soon after that she commits suicide – an act which Mrs Bridge is never seen to contemplate, but she never convinces that she has no reason to refrain from doing so.

There’s so much more to say about this novel, but there I’d better stop. I’ve said nothing about Mrs Bridge’s three very different children from whom she becomes estranged as they grow up, or her dull lawyer workaholic husband (ten years on Connell wrote a sequel from his point of view: Mr Bridge. The two novels formed the basis for a 1990 film starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, ‘Mr and Mrs Bridge’. I must read this to see if we gain more insight into his character; here he’s a cipher). I must just mention ch. 6, a typically strange vignette – this is far from a conventional narrative structure or style — just one paragraph long, in which Mrs Bridge encounters her son Douglas, as a little boy, standing contemplating the dressmaker’s dummy of her ‘figure’. Her smile fades, and she subsequently stows the dummy away out of sight. This is like a beautifully compressed novel in itself. One could write a whole blog piece just on its haunting, unsettling significance.

I don’t think Mr Ferris exaggerated when he said in a BBC interview in 2012 (which also featured what must have been one of the last interviews broadcast with Connell himself) that this novel is an ‘enduring masterpiece’.

 

John Cheever, ‘The Enormous Radio’.

After posting yesterday about John Cheever’s story ‘The Summer Farmer’, I thought I’d post briefly today about the first of Michael Pucci’s choices in his series of reviews at The Mookse and the Gripes site: ‘The Enormous Radio’. I’d also recommend this beautifully written review from New Republic in 1991 by John Updike of the then recently-published edited Journals of Cheever; he found their ‘emotional nakedness’ disconcerting and painful to read.

First published in the May 17, 1947 issue of The New Yorker, this story is one of Cheever The Complete StoriesCheever’s earliest in the Collected Stories (I’m using the Vintage paperback edition published in the UK in 2010).

Pucci quotes the opening sentences as indicative of Cheever’s deceptively deadpan style and detached point of view, and of his astonishing ability to capture and summarise character concisely. The plot is one of his most ‘fantastical’, but is narrated in a surreally unfantastical way: Jim and Irene Westcott live in a city apartment on the twelfth floor. It’s near ‘Sutton Place’, where other Cheever stories are located. They are ordinary, even humdrum people with very little money (though they can afford a maid). When their radio breaks Jim splashes out on a big new one, even though they can’t really afford it. So far this is very O. Henry.

Then it starts to get strange: they listen to music stations, but also begin to pick up conversations conducted by their apartment block neighbours. At first these are routine domestic exchanges, but gradually Irene becomes addicted to the increasingly intimate, often sordid talk emanating from the radio, and invades the privacy of the other tenants on ‘carnal love, abysmal vanity, faith, and despair’ – language typical of Cheever: large abstract nouns, as we saw in my previous post. This radio clearly has a ‘sensitivity to discord’, and Irene loves eavesdropping on the increasingly disquieting revelations it broadcasts, such as a cocktail party that ‘had overshot its mark’ – alcohol features prominently in Cheever’s stories as it did, ruinously, in his life (Irene has two Martinis at lunch, but leaves childcare and domestic chores to the maid).

‘Isn’t this too divine?’ she coos, in her faux ‘classy’ idiom.

As in the marriage of the Hollises in ‘The Summer Farmer’, all is not well in this relationship. Soon Jim explodes at his prurient wife’s hypocrisy, hurling at her all the peccadilloes of which she has been guilty, but about which they have never previously spoken. The list of sins escalates in seriousness, and ends with a shocking revelation that leaves Irene feeling ‘disgraced and sickened.’

Although it’s an early, rather formulaic example of Cheever’s stories, it shows many of the signs that he will fine-tune in later work: a dysfunctional couple in the ‘bitter mystery’ of their marriage in all its ‘carnal anarchy’ (Kureishi’s Introduction). As in the Hollis marriage the couple fail to express their true feelings, or to communicate. When Jim’s patience finally expires his outburst is savage in its ferocity, whereas the Hollises, one feels, will meander on through their arid lives, avoiding confronting unpleasant truths.

They are even more obsessed with status and appearances than the Hollises (who vacationed in their ‘summer farm’): Irene listens to classical music, and conceals the ugly radio cabinet behind a sofa. She goes out on ‘luncheon’ dates and wears a hat and ‘furs’. They aspire to live in Westchester.

Some of the overheard discourse is beautifully rendered: banal , fragmentary but indicating the same fault-lines in the tenants’ lives that are eventually revealed in the Westcotts’:

‘Are you all right, darling?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ a woman said wearily. ‘Yes, I’m alright I guess,’ and then she added with great feeling, ‘But, you know, Charlie, I don’t feel like myself any more. Sometimes there are about fifteen or twenty minutes in the week when I feel like myself. I don’t like to go to another doctor, because the doctor’s bills are so awful already, but I just don’t feel like myself, Charlie. I just never feel like myself.’

This is brilliant ventriloquism: the fractured delivery, repetitions of clichés and evasions, inability of the woman to express herself in a meaningfully accurate or coherent way, and lack of connection between the two– it reminds me of passages of bleak lower-class life in T.S. Eliot’s early poetry. It’s in these fragments of domestic tragedy and their concise revelations of despair and disconnectedness that the full power of the story resides, rather than in the unlikely plot device of the eavesdropping radio.

John Cheever, ‘The Summer Farmer': one of the Hollow Men

John Cheever, ‘The Summer Farmer’, in Collected Stories (Vintage, London; first published in Great Britain – 1979; this edition with Introduction by Hanif Kureishi – 2010)

For a change I shall begin by recommending another review of John Cheever’s ‘The Summer Farmer’: it’s in a series of pieces on the stories of Cheever over at the excellent The Mookse and the Gripes site. Michael Pucci gives a detailed assessment there of this story about a city dweller, Paul Hollis, and his competitive spat with the ‘bitter’ and ‘discontented’ hired man, the Russian-born communist Kasiak, who is contemptuous of Hollis’s comparatively indolent work ethic and the lax morals and ‘disorderly’, bourgeois  nature of Hollis’s family (the adults all drink excessively, and they give their animals names, which Kasiak thinks is sentimental).

Pucci judges it not one of Cheever’s best stories, feeling it has an over-obvious twist at the end which makes too ‘convenient a point’. I intend exploring this evaluation with an examination of the language and style of this story, and a closer scrutiny of what that convenient ‘point’ might be; I think this conclusion is a little too dismissive and imprecise.

Cheever The Complete StoriesIn his Introduction to this English edition Hanif Kureishi astutely identifies several key themes in Cheever stories. First there’s what Cheever himself calls ‘the bitter mystery of marriage’, with its ‘carnal anarchy’. As the eponymous ‘farmer’ Hollis drives from the station junction in rural New Hampshire, having travelled there on his weekly commute from New York City – his family is spending the summer at the farm he inherited from his parents, and which he visits every weekend in the summer – the conversation he has with his ‘gentle wife’ Virginia (the adjective sounds ironic) hints at the central evasions of his life; their talk

was confined to the modest properties and affections they shared; more than this, it seemed to aim at a deliberate inconsequence, as if to mention the checking balance or the wars might ruin the spell of a mild morning and an open car.

Once in the house, in the room that had been his parents’, he and Virginia talk about family. Cheever’s use of abstract nouns here and in the rest of the story is particularly telling – I shall allude to this several times. The syntax is subtle and ambiguous; they taste the ‘astringency’ of their contentment in marriage – it’s clearly not unalloyed happiness – and their ‘worthiness’ (is this also ‘astringent’?), an abstract noun that seems to suggest a positive but which is in fact freighted with negative connotations: their life, it suggests, is a sham. Why else does Hollis have to anaesthetise himself with whisky in the train’s club car on his journey to the country? Yes, to wash away the polluting air of ‘the hot city’ and his job there, but also surely to indicate to the reader that there’s something awry with his life as a whole.

This is reinforced by the fact that, as they drive from the station to the farm, they pass through the ‘vitiated New Hampshire landscape, with its omnipresence of ruin’.

An ambivalent atmosphere is sustained once he reaches the farm; Hollis feels a ‘violent’ sense of ‘homecoming ’, of ‘returning to a place where he had summered all his life’,  and of overwhelming love for his children, but this is counterpointed by the description of his stern lecture to them about caring for their new pet rabbits, which ‘reduced him to a fatuity that he was conscious of himself.’

There’s a socio-political context lightly sketched in that adds to the richness of the story. His ‘coveralls’ still bear the dimly stencilled marks of his military ‘name, rank and serial number.’ This hints that he’d found some kind of real purpose and identity, perhaps, during his military war service which he tries to reassume by clothing himself in it symbolically at the farm, but that purpose has ‘faded’ into insignificance during the subsequent cold-war years –  a theme that recurs in Cheever’s  stories of this era (I hope to show this in future posts).

The story was published in 1948 in The New Yorker, when, as Betsy Pelz points out in a comment on Pucci’s article, the alliance with the Soviet Union had broken down and the House Un-American Activities Committee had been set up for three years, though McCarthy wasn’t to chair hearings until some years later. It’s a ‘charade of equality’ between Hollis and his malcontent hired man; this is one of Hollis’s ‘principle illusions’. In reality they’re engaged in a ‘puerile race’ – like the arms race to come in the near future? Near the end of the story Hollis fears that Kasiak is plotting a revolution of the ‘diligent and the reliable to seize power from the hands of those who drank Martinis’.

‘Dangerous seduction’ (Pelz) is a theme of the story in this threatening, unsettled climate: Hollis tried to appease Kasiak’s revolutionary anger and disapproval of his own bourgeois family life by showing ‘reasonableness’ (another of those revealing abstract nouns), and he was accommodating towards his lush of a sister and languid, disengaged wife. He strove for ‘contentment’ by taking a non-committal or supine position in relation to these problems in his life, and as a consequence he’s taken advantage of, discontented and has made decisions which worsened an already mediocre life.

There is a serpent in this rural Eden of his (his father had called the highest pasture ‘Elysian’ because of ‘its unearthly stillness’); is this the story’s central message? Hollis represents middle America, and has lost his bearings, is a hollow man, oscillating between a meaningless city job he hates, and a rural, hereditary idyll (he’s a ‘vacationist’, not a real farmer, one of what Kasiak dismisses as the ‘useless people’) that is tainted and failing; it’s a lie. Frequent references to brooding weather –  shadows, clouds  (some of them ‘clouds of filth’), rain, thunderstorms and so on – convey this atmosphere of impending doom in the story in a kind of recurring pathetic fallacy:

While they had been working, clouds had blackened the sky from the horizon to above his head, so he was given the illusion of a country divided evenly between the lights of catastrophe and repose.

The lyrical, elegiac final paragraphs (a Cheever trademark), quoted at length by Pucci, bring out these contradictions, with their accusatory abstract nouns: ‘the self-importance, diffidence or sadness with which we settle ourselves’ – the switch to the first person plural signifies the inclusivity of the message; we are all implicated in this futile attempt to live an idyllic or precariously balanced life. Hollis is broken; his right hand has ‘a tremor’, revealing his ‘mortality’; his ‘confused frown’ indicates his ‘obsoleteness’, and his ‘lame shoulders’ – the odd collocation highlights this dysfunctional description – are a consequence of ‘some recent loss of principle.’ Appeasement, striving for the apparently reasonable, quiet life, is destined to fail.

As Kureishi says it’s ‘status, self-respect and work, rather than sexual passion, which drives us’ in Cheever’s world. Hollis is forced to confront the fact that he has attained or succeeded in none of these. Hollis’s sister, sitting at the dinner table ‘high in her firmament of gin’, serves to illustrate the brokenness of this family’s life:

For with any proximity the constellations of some families generate among themselves an asperity that nothing can sweeten.

The style is grandiose here, but the abstract noun ‘asperity’ is a close cousin to the ‘astringency’ tasted in Hollis’s marriage, noted earlier, and the repetition of a sense-perception image subtly underlines the story’s purpose:

There was something wrong, some half-known evil in her worship of the bucolic scene – some measure of her inadequacy, and, he supposed, of his.

I’ve tried to show that Pucci’s assessment of this story is probably correct: it’s not one of Cheever’s best. Nevertheless, I believe it shows flashes of almost Chekhovian insights into ‘significant moments in ordinary lives’ (this is Kureishi again), with almost ‘every sentence weighed and balanced until it says the right thing’, uniting the personal with the political. His characters’ hopes for post-war American prosperity and peace (‘the bucolic scene’) are undermined by fears that they are false hopes and everything will be taken away from them some time in the uncertain future, and their lives shattered. Even if Hollis proves Kasiak’s derisive prediction wrong and does return in future summers, his life is depicted as shattered, or at least, disastrously cracked, and he will never feel content again on his summer farm.

 

Ned Beauman, ‘Glow’

Ned Beauman, Glow. Sceptre hardback, London, 2014.

I recently spent a couple of days in St Albans, and managed to forget to pack the book I was reading at the time. I bought this one in a well-stocked Oxfam shop. I can see why its original owner didn’t feel like keeping it. Oh, and I promise this will be a much shorter piece than the previous few, because

  1. The sun is shining and it’s much too pleasant a day to skulk indoors
  2. The novel is good, but not that good
  3. My wife has gone shopping and I have a rare crack at the PC for a short time

I’ve not read Ned Beauman before, but he’s a much-feted English winner of awards for producing zanily inventive novels at an absurdly young age. This one had me zipping to the end in two days: the narrative has a rush like…well, no, I’ll resist the temptation to stick a simile into every sentence. Glow has several extended, elaborately unusual ones on the first page, and they keep coming after that with wearying rapidity, with the occasional metaphor thrown in.

Glow: the coverHere’s a random unsuccessful example from p. 4: ‘The sound system isn’t even that loud but the room’s so small that the treble pushes at the sides like a fat toddler stuffed into a car seat’. A simile should involve linguistically yoking together entities (to paraphrase Samuel Johnson) that are similar in certain less than obvious ways, but which are interestingly dissimilar; the net result should therefore be stimulating, maybe even provocative, and satisfying. Far too many of Beauman’s misfire (another random example: a dog called Rose ‘dozes at his feet like a small black hole on loan from a particle accelerator’ – that’s just silly) – though some are humdingers, which genuinely enhance the description, like this one of old men playing cards:

Like copper on rooftops, the tattoos on their forearms have discoloured with age.

The prose is at times fabulously imaginative, and there are some extremely funny ideas, like the drug the protagonist Raf takes in the opening chapter, which he’s told is ‘a mixture of speed, monosodium glutamate, and an experimental social anxiety medication for dogs.’ He’s in a rave located in a laundrette (rave culture is dying), where he spots the simile-laden half-Burmese beauty who becomes his sort-of love interest.

From there the plot spirals off into such complicated curlicues that I ceased to care what happened. It’s something to do with a sinister US mining company branching out into mind-altering drugs (the novel’s title is the name of the new drug they intend manufacturing), and kidnapping and murdering the Burmese expat population of London to do so. Urban foxes are strangely involved.

My goodness, this guy can write. Unfortunately he’s not so incandescent at creating 3-D characters with more than a few grams’ worth of credibility. There’s too much drug-ingestion and geeky, self-satisfied Xbox-playing, internet surfing and unconvincingly athletic sex; I find myself thinking it’s by the scriptwriters of the UK teen-awkwardness TV comedy ‘The Inbetweeners’ in rehab, with all of that show’s smutty, larky awkwardness and much less of the charm.

And despite the linguistic pyrotechnic display, there are way too many occasions when the polysyllabic vocabulary strays into showing off territory (eg this on Raf’s sleep disorder: ‘ It could also be that something’s awry in his suprachiasmatic nucleus, an office of his hypothalamus the size of a grain of rice.’  A few lines later I’d marked this; ‘the pineal gland, he’s read, was once a blush…’ etc. That ‘he’s read’ is tell-tale.)

Unlike Will Self, who I find uses arcane terms because the context merits it, Beauman seems to be showing how clever he is. The neuroscientific register cut with Irvine-Welsh-lite squalor and details about the effects of a range of illicit pharmaceuticals smacks (pun intended) of the textbook (or Wikipedia).

Another writer also comes to mind: Murakami. He too enjoys deviating into bewildering sub-plots with slightly surreal, hallucinatory overtones; but he’s much more adept at keeping it under control, and he’s more capable of refraining from telling us what’s going on all the time. The plot of Glow keeps slowing up so characters can explain plot developments for us.

A good, light read, then – ideal for undemanding holiday entertainment – but ultimately as off-target at the false morel mushroom omelette ingested at one point in the narrative: it’s supposed to give you a high, but fails to deliver.

And it’s started raining.

James Wilcox, ‘Modern Baptists': serious humour with deadpan deadliness

James Wilcox, Modern Baptists. First published USA 1983. Penguin Classics 2005.

Spoiler alert: details of plot and ending are revealed here.

I bought this book in a local second-hand bookshop because I liked the cover. Penguin really do produce some handsome designs. I’d never, I’m ashamed to say, heard of James Wilcox. I’ve come to rate him as Louisiana’s answer to Carson McCullers.

Penguin Classics cover of 'Modern Baptists'Born in Hammond, near Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1949, Wilcox was raised a Catholic. This might partly explain the underlying seriousness of this comic novel, with its preoccupation with morality, redemption and the struggle to exist in a hostile universe. More on that in a moment.

It’s set in the sleepy fictional town of Tula Springs, also near Baton Rouge, but transposed to a part of the state that had ‘pledged allegiance to no one, not to the US or Spain or even England’ (it had not formed part of the Louisiana Purchase; I love that use of ‘even’!) – a fact that worries Mr Pickens, the central character, for it ‘smacked of Communism’ and seemed to him unpatriotic. He attends a theologically unsound men’s Baptist bible study group.

Deeply conservative and timid by nature, the Pooterish Mr Pickens at age 41 is bullied or deprecated by most who know him, yet longs for the social and sexual recognition and success he’s doomed never to achieve; he’d dropped out of college because ‘he hated living in a dorm. Everyone was always snapping rattails at you in the shower’. He is usually called Mr Pickens, or ‘Bobby’ by his intimates; towards the end of the novel he feebly tries to insist on the more formal ‘Carl ‘ or ‘Carl Robert’ , but so lacks assertiveness and authority that he’s blithely ignored. He believes as the novel opens that he’s dying of cancer.  As a friendless bachelor he’s desperate to share his despair with someone, so visits his handsome half-brother F.X. in the state penitentiary, where he’s finishing a sentence for dealing cocaine, and invites him to stay with him on his release until he gets ‘back on his feet’. Big mistake.

The feckless F.X. (his Italian mother, Mr Pickens’s step-mother, was an Italian Catholic, an admirer of saints like Francis Xavier) quickly becomes a cuckoo in this fetid, cockroach-infested bachelor nest (with its awful plastic-upholstered love-seat), sponging off his older brother, and slipping back into their habitual unevenly balanced relationship: Mr Pickens nursing a stifling sense of inferiority, blundering from one social faux pas to another as he tries to better himself, and fussing about the rash on his arm and his thinning hair. FX casually reminds him how he’d channelled his geeky brother’s spineless nature when doing an ‘improv’ for an acting coach:

“I began spouting all this stuff about how everyone in high school hated me and how I –“

“Everyone didn’t hate me.”

“Well, Bobby, you did hang out with losers, you got to admit. Anyway, then I go on about how my brother was this big football star, and really good-looking and all, and I start saying how much I wished I could be him because—“

“I never wished I could be you.”

“—because he got all the girls…”

There’s a high proportion of such dialogue in the novel, which keeps the pace rattling along amiably, and most of it is engagingly wry and comically character-revealing, as in this extract. As we saw in the dialogue of Sybille Bedford in my previous post, Wilcox is adept at conveying the non-sequiturs  and misunderstandings in people’s speech; characters construct meaning elliptically, tangentially and often in spite of the surface meaning of what they say.

The narrative characteristically employs anti-climax or narrative deflation, as in the following example where it pricks the bubble of Pickens’s earnest, comically self-deluding pomposity (he’s usually wrong about most of his epiphanies); he’s convinced himself that his deliverance from cancer is a sign that he has a vocation (which unsurprisingly turns out to be short-lived) as a preacher of a new, more logical and tolerant kind of modern Baptism than the hellfire, ranting kind then prevalent (maybe it still is) in the South; he’s talking to Burma the ‘girl who sold novelty items at the Sonny Boy Bargain Store’ where Mr Pickens was briefly the ineffective assistant manager:

“See, Burma, to be in business, any sort of business, you can’t have too many scruples, too many ethics. That’s always been my problem. I’ve never got ahead in the business world for one reason: I’m too moral.” He paused to let this sink in.  “There’s some people like me who God’s weighted down with the heavy burden of morality, a real penetrating sense of right and wrong. We just can’t escape it no matter how hard we try. Now think a minute, Burma, what sort of career would that fit into?”

“I don’t know. A lawyer?”

That delicious misuse of ‘ethics’ as a count noun is enhanced by Pickens’s mimicry of the rhetoric and rhythms of the Baptist preacher and his overuse of Burma’s name and of imperatives to emphasise what he misguidedly sees as his divinely-inspired position of superiority. Burma’s punchline is delivered with deadpan deadliness.

The prose style throughout skilfully incorporates high and low registers and Southern demotic; a man called Emmet is described as ‘bony as a gar’. The flora and fauna are alien to me, and are surely given comic prominence (much is made of ‘yaupon’ tea, alligator grass and kudzu; there’s ‘Chinese tallow’ and ‘possum haw’; Mr Pickens is proud of his newly-planted ‘St Augustine’ – I’d love to know if these are all authentic Southern usages; those I’ve checked so far seem to be).

Although Wilcox often teeters on the brink of whimsy (there’s a cat called Motor and some pecan-crazed squirrels; the Keely parents are annoyingly bizarre), and sometimes overdoes the quirky eccentricity in his characterisation and set pieces (but he scores a hit when Donna Lee slips devastatingly effective Mickey Finns to the hypocritical men’s bible study group), there’s an underlying charm, and an obvious affection for his characters and the dead-end town they grudgingly inhabit that pulls the reader through the stickier patches. The fact that they know it’s boring (trains stopped running in 1908; it’s set between a creosote plant and an illegal toxic waste dump that plays a big part in the rather silly plot) is endearingly familiar: one character says of it:

“If I could go, I’d go…What is there to do here? Nothin’ ‘cept work your butt off, then go home and get soggy. My mama says I drink too much. Emmet says that too. ..Bobby, do you think you drink too much?”

“I guess so.”

“And we’re Baptists.”

“Modern Baptists can drink.”

This is Burma again. Her drawling idiom is differentiated from the Standard English Mr Pickens prides himself on: the class divide is very apparent in the novel. He finds Burma unattractive, he tells himself, not because of her looks, but because she lacks ‘class’ –  he winces at her bad grammar, excessive use of make-up and her garish clothes, yet she has a good heart, he dimly realises once in a drunken moment. He attends cultural events like opera in (vain) hopes of finding a more suitably ‘well-groomed’ spouse. The town is literally divided by the railroad tracks, and the social divisions are astutely anatomised by Wilcox. That he has the university-educated Donna Lee pair up with ex-con F.X. indicates part of his purpose: to show that accommodations can be reached if people will only accept others for what they are. Donna Lee patronises Burma, but it’s Burma who redeems the lawyer. Maybe F.X. is the ideal lover for her.

The plot, then, is like a Southern, boozy Shakespeare comedy with a dash of Beckett. There are three central couples: Burma, who’s in her late thirties, and her reptilian fiancé Emmet, but Burma harbours an unrequited love for Mr Pickens; he in turn loves the snobbish, lanky redheaded eighteen-year-old Toinette (short for Marie Antoinette Quaid), the gum-chewing candy clerk at their store. But Toinette falls for F.X., who mistakenly sees her as his meal ticket out of this small town purgatory. Halfway through the novel we meet Donna Lee Keely, a bossy lawyer, another misfit and lost loner, who tries to take Burma under her wing, and also falls unaccountably in love with F.X.; this time he reciprocates.

The plot is full of such complications, and is perhaps the least satisfying part of the novel. On first reading I found it a little irksome and the kooky humour occasionally misfired. Sometimes it’s hilarious, as when the newly-devout Mr Pickens urges Emmet to kneel in prayer with him, and they are mistakenly perceived by Toinette’s mother to be engaging in an act of what she calls ‘perversion’. The denouement set in a building on the town’s illicit waste dump on Christmas Eve is less successful; the strings are pulled a little too obviously.

Over time, however, I’ve come to admire the craft of the prose and the seriousness that is ingrained in the flimsy, overwrought farce of a story.  For example there’s an early scene where Mr Pickens tries to engage F.X. in a serious metaphysical conversation, only to find that his brother has fallen asleep on him.

There are curiously lyrical touches:

The moon, rising over the river birch, seemed to tug at Mr Pickens’s heart.

Yet even this poetic image is counterpointed by its appearing as he tries to stop Burma and Toinette from squabbling like kids.

More interesting is this, near the novel’s end, when Mr Pickens has just recklessly handed over an expensive watch to a stranger, having intended giving it as a gift (to replace a cheap one of Toinette’s that he’d stolen) in a desperate attempt to win her favours, then realising his love is hopeless:

And time, which Mr Pickens could neither steal nor buy, that infernal, unrelenting dance of the hours, so graceless, so mechanical, so cuckoo – he wanted no part of it anymore. He was through, finished.

Wilcox’s editor persuaded him to change the novel’s ending; he’d originally had Mr Pickens die in a train crash. That he has him instead fail in his attempt to commit suicide by crashing his car, because it runs out of fuel, illustrates how the farce is deployed as a means of dramatizing how his characters confront the indifference of the universe to the hopes and dreams of the human insects, the gods’ playthings who crawl across earth’s surface.

This is shown slightly differently here, when Emmet’s jealousy towards Mr Pickens boils over:

Pickens and Emmet rolled over and over, struggling silently, fiercely, like Jacob and the man, the clouds so high above them melted, and the stars shone forth in hundred-carat glory.

Wilcox seems to invite us to find these men pathetic, ridiculous, but there’s also a grandeur  (or is it irony?) in their futile struggle to stem the superior forces that engulf them.

One of the stand-out scenes that shows Wilcox’s achievement is too long to quote fully here: it relates the visit in Ch. 11 by Mr Pickens to the ammonia-scented, inappropriately named Azalea Manor, the nursing home where his senile mother is an inmate. The receptionist is hostile, the staff off-hand. His mother shares a room with Miss Jesse, another confused old lady. The uncomfortably broad  humour contrasts interestingly, however, with a subtly understated sense of real pathos, sadness and loss.  To attempt such a stark contrast is risky, but Wilcox manages it here with aplomb.

When his mother in this scene mistakes him for another man, Mr Pickens plays along, for he’s trying to pump her for information about the deeds of his house, which F.X. is threatening to take from him. Just as we think he’s being callous and selfish as he becomes exasperated with the dislocated weirdness of these two tragically demented figures, his mother, now mistaking him for some Lieutenant, tells him to leave:

“Yes, good-bye. And thank you for the ashes. That’s all I’ve got left, ashes, ashes and ruin and…”

“Go, Mr Pickens,” Miss Jesse said over his mother’s soliloquy. “Go quick, or she’ll never stop.”

As Mr Pickens closed the door behind him he heard his mother say, “Please, Mama, help me,” and Miss Jesse reply softly, “Yes, child, I’m here.”

The problem with the comic novels by the likes of Jerome and the Grossmiths, who also deal with the ineffectual struggles of little men who aspire to impossibly lofty states, is that they lack range and variety: they’re consistently zany in their eccentricity, and we laugh at the characters’ dysfunctional bumbling. What redeems Modern Baptists is this contrast of dark and light. He has the capacity and ambition to have his characters glimpse the ashes and the ruin.  Like Dickens and Beckett, Wilcox sees the hollow skull beneath the grinning skin.

At the novel’s end the Pickens brothers’ uneasy combination of exasperation, selfish manipulation and vestigial family affection just about reaches an accommodation, and we see a glimpse of potential reconciliation, even love, between the eternally inferior and put-upon Mr Pickens and his scheming lothario of a brother. The novel is really about the way flawed odd couples can somehow survive the vicissitudes that a hostile world forces them to experience; there is, inexplicably, hope for us all.  There are redeeming features in the most unlikely of places, Wilcox suggests. This should be too sugary to stomach, but there’s enough salt in the mix for him to get away with it. After all, we accept the implausibilities of As You Like It (there are parallels of plot and theme with Modern Baptists), the sentimentality of Dickens and the bleakness of Beckett because of the enduring, abiding sense of humanity and enduring humour that pervades the text.

Ultimately I found I cared about the nerdy Mr Pickens with his despair, constant failures and his existential crisis, and found my spirits lifted when, at the end, as with Lenny and George, Vladimir and Estragon, Laurel and Hardy, the brothers’ mismatched, conflicting natures cease to matter, they realise they may not be beyond redemption, they’re defeated but they carry on, and they walk off to join a party that may well start a new life for them. Mr Pickens looks up at the ‘shameless stars’ and feels a familiar pang of doubt and fear; F.X. puts his arm around his shoulder and urges him to go on:

And with this yoke, which was easy, he was able to continue on his way.