Travelling at a wayward angle: Don DeLillo, ‘Zero K’. Pt 2 of my exploration

Part Two: Zero K, by DonDeLillo

There is an aggregate of past events that we can attempt to understand [p 167]

Jeff has left his father’s cult-like cryogenic facility in the desert of Uzbekistan after the death of his stepmother and the freezing of her body in a cryo-pod. He’s gone back to a drifter’s life in New York.

His new girlfriend’s stepson is called Stak. His obsessions – time, languages (he teaches himself Pashto), words, numbers, temperatures in random cities across the globe – resemble Jeff’s. When Jeff takes him to a bizarre art installation, the central exhibit of which is a large ‘interior rock sculpture’, a strange conversation ensues. Stak has dropped out of school; it’s ‘meaningless’. He’s ‘unlearned’ as ‘self-defense’ the ‘ten million faces that pass through our visual field every year…[Learned to s]ee them all like one big blurry thing.’ There are ‘very few’ exceptions.

He’s clearly disturbed, possibly traumatised.

Jeff looks at him and says:

‘Rocks are, but they do not exist.’

He repeats the mantra with other objects that ‘are, but don’t exist’. Trees. Horses. God. He doesn’t tell Stak that he took this formula as a college student from Heidegger. The Nazi sympathiser.

History everywhere, in black notebooks, and even the most innocent words, tree, horse, rock, gone dark in the process. Stak had his own twisted history to think about, mass starvation of his forebears. Let him imagine an uncorrupted rock.

 

He goes on, as he usually does when stymied by semantics or ontology, to challenge Stak to ‘define rock’:

I was thinking of myself at his age, determined to find the more or less precise meaning of a word, to draw other words out of the designated word in order to locate the core…The definition needed to be concise, authoritative.

Stak languidly proceeds to give a masterly linguistic definition, full of technical jargon – petrology, geology, marble and calcite. Jeff marvels as the boy seems to grow taller as he speaks, and the signifier and signified refuse to be other than arbitrary units:

He was alone with the rock, a thing requiring a single syllable to give it outline and form.

His mother is dismayed to find Stak has given up his previous obsessions; he’s no longer ‘involved’, he says mysteriously. He’s to return to his father and who knows what fate:

A son or daughter who travels at a wayward angle must seem a penalty the parent must bear – but for what crime?

 As they leave the gallery Jeff and Stak reconsider the meaning of his ‘Rocks are, but they do not exist’ conundrum:

It was a subject that blended well with our black-and-white descent.

DeLillo, Zero K cover

Even the cover of my Picador edition is weird: it has a semi-transparent plastic-paper dust jacket with the title and author’s name on the front, half concealing a mannequin’s face on the hard front cover of the book. Disturbing.

So, once again, what’s this novel Zero K all about? Is it not the dystopian sci-fi it masquerades as, but more about the nature of parenthood and childhood rebellion, the child’s struggle to find its identity in a dysfunctional world? The tyranny of genes and the competing impact of environment (which humans are systematically desecrating) on the developing psyche?

I don’t know.

I don’t now think it’s just these things. Or a so-so contribution to the genre of dystopian-cryogenic-existential-thriller, though it poses as that, too.

It is also, as I hinted in my previous post, a deeply philosophical meditation on mortality (among lots of other things: I looked at some last time) – hardly surprising for a writer touching 80. Problem is, the first section of the novel is just too often…well, tedious. Characters are ciphers, who mostly speak gnomic, phenomenological nonsense. Embodiments of philosophical positions. Epistemic puppets. It’s all rather leaden (thanks for the word, Belinda at Booksbii)

The novel can be seen, perhaps, as more of a meditation on religion, humanity’s thirst for spiritual clarity; faith, and the role and nature of ART. The novel or literature in particular. Here’s a random question in that section of the novel where the Scandi-twins, putative creators of the Convergence cryo-facility, tease the sceptical Jeff about the project’s likely impact on future human existence and the numerous questions this raises:

“Does literal immortality compress our enduring artforms and cultural wonders into nothingness?”

“What will poets write about?”

“What happens to history? What happens to money? What happens to God?”

It’s easy to dismiss Zero K, as I nearly did on first reading, as grand-sounding pseudo-mystical sci-fi. But there are so many resonant, beautiful sentences in it, the novel is worth reading just for the pleasure of savouring DeLillo’s prose.

Final thoughts about what it might all signify: Stak meets a terrible fate near the end. Jeff, back in the Convergence, watches it apparently captured on film on one of the screens that intermittently descend from the ceilings of the halls in the maze-like complex. He stands a long time once it’s finished, waiting for the hall to empty and go dark. He stands with his eyes shut in the dark:

I’ve done this before, stand in a dark room, motionless, eyes shut, weird kid and grown man, was I making my way toward a space such as this, long cold empty hall, doors and walls in matching colors, dead silence, shadow streaming toward me.

Once the dark is total, I will simply stand and wait, trying hard to think of nothing. [p. 264]

 This sounds to me like death. Near-death. Like those visions people claim to have when they ‘flat-line’ and enter that last tunnel towards the heavenly light that will be death. Out of the darkness.

It’s like Tarkovsky’s Solaris (a director name-checked by the sinister twins as one of the cultural artificers who’ll be used to implant new ‘memories’ in the resurrected cryo-corpses). It reminds me too of Ambrose Bierce’s Owl Creek story: all of the action takes place in the seconds it takes for the noose to tighten and the for the protagonist to die. Everything else is the human’s desperate desire to evade inevitable, ineffable death. A sort of dream, then, Zero K, the death-wish in reverse. The will to live. Or of Art to survive.

But that too is maybe too pat. For there’s one final chapter to follow this cryptic passage. Jeff back in the city considers whether his entire adult life has been a futile hippyish rebellion against his father and his ‘corporate career’ (the parent/child theme again, but it turns into something more mystical):

 I tell myself that I’m not hiding inside a life that’s a reaction to this, or a retaliation for this. Then, again, I stand forever in the shadow of Ross and Artis and it’s not their resonant lives that haunt me but their manner of dying.

 

The beckoning figure of a begging woman in the street recurs:

What is there to see that I haven’t seen, what lesson is there to be learned from a still figure in the midst of crowds? In her case it may be an issue of impending threat. Individuals have always done this, haven’t they? I think of it as medieval, a foreboding of some kind. She is telling us to be ready.

Sometimes it takes an entire morning to outlive a dream…Stak is the waking dream… [p. 267]

 Final judgement, as on a medieval church mural. Or a dream of it.

But there’s yet one more transcendent scene: as at Stonehenge at midsummer, the sun sets once or twice a year and the ‘sun’s rays align with the local street grid’ of Manhattan, shining in a ‘radiant moment’ through the high-rise buildings, flooding the streets with a ruddy brilliance. A young boy ‘on a crosstown bus’ on which Jeff is also travelling rises as if to greet the sun (son?), emitting ‘howls of awe’, and Jeff thinks of his father’s words when he first introduced him to the Convergence and its hallucinatory plans:

Everybody wants to own the end of the world.

Is that what the boy was seeing?

The ‘solar disk, bleeding into the streets’ – an image of the crucifixion? – lights up the tower blocks.

It’s no spoiler to give the final lines, for their meaning, like the rest of this uneven, challenging, often infuriating novel, sporadically brilliant novel, is obscurely beautiful:

I went back to my seat and faced forward. I didn’t need heaven’s light. [see – I said this was eschatological mysticism!] I had the boy’s cries of wonder.

The only other blog I’ve read on Zero K is this thoughtful piece by Belinda over at Biisbooks: do take a look.

Death is a tough habit to break: Don DeLillo, ‘Zero K’, pt 1 of an exploration of what it might all mean

Don DeLillo, Zero K (UK edition by Picador, 2016) 

 

‘Life everlasting belongs to those of breathtaking wealth’

‘Is it outright murder? Is it a form of assisted suicide that’s horribly premature? Or is it a metaphysical crime that needs to be analyzed by philosophers?’

 This place was located at the far margins of plausibility.

This post became so unwieldy in the drafting that I’ve broken it into two instalments. This is Pt 1.

cover of my copy of Zero KThis reflects the difficulty I’ve experienced as I grappled with its meaning. The struggle was exhilarating, but I emerged not exactly unenlightened, but not entirely clear what on earth I’d just read.

Zero K seemed to me on first reading to be a sporadically interesting but largely tedious sci-fi dystopia. It’s a well-trampled field.

But there’s also a subtext critiquing a hit-list of DeLillo hates: corporate capitalism; the increasingly depersonalising, invasive and debilitating influence of technology; eco-disaster and humanity’s spoliation of the planet; wars and the terrorism that arises out of or before them; the socio-cultural and political atrophy and ennui of modern life – the list goes on.

The ‘Convergence’ is located in a ‘strafed desert’. It’s a semi-submerged complex in ‘a wasteland’ (literary allusions abound in Zero K), possibly in Uzbekistan where cryogenic suspension is the gamble of the rich; they believe they can cheat death by freezing their bodies in pods, crypts or capsules, awaiting some time in the future when they hope technology will have advanced to the point where it’s possible to use ‘nanobots’ to ‘refresh their organs, regenerate their systems’ using ‘Enzymes, proteins, nucleotides’ and they will live again in ‘the billionaire’s myth of immortality’. Their decapitated heads will be restored to their torsos, eviscerated organs restored to their proper places. They will be reborn in ‘cyberhuman form.’ Probably.

‘Die a while, then live forever.’

Weird multinational scientists, philosophers and spectral, monklike figures in scapulars waft about the facility, that resembles an Escher picture, intoning psychobabble like

‘Death is a cultural artefact, not a strict determination of what is humanly inevitable.’/’Nature wants to kill us off in order to return to its untouched and uncorrupted form.’

The facility is portrayed as a cross between a starship and a nuclear bunker. Many of the tropes familiar from a thousand sci-fi stories appear: the canteen auto-dispenses clinical ‘food-units’ of unidentifiable mush. Access to different ‘levels’ is gained by an electronic wristband that resembles the tag used to track bailed prisoners. Elevators don’t necessarily travel in a vertical trajectory. Creepy guides or ‘escorts’ conduct the visitor like a psychopomp. Anonymous, disengaged and wordless sex is offered. The place is apocalyptic.

There’s clearly something deeply sinister about this setup: it’s more like a death-cult than serious experiment – or is it a refuge from a mad world, where meditation and contemplation have replaced acquisitiveness and aggression? The monk sits on his bench and considers himself reincarnated and sitting on that same bench. An empty room has murals depicting that same empty room. These are mises en abyme that typify this novel’s enigmas that take it beyond the realm of regular sci-fi.

The twin Scandinavians who seem to be the masterminds of the Convergence breezily claim that these frozen ‘units’ – the obscenely rich candidates for cryogenic suspension – will become ‘citizens of the universe’. ‘We want to stretch the boundaries of what it means to be human – stretch and then surpass…to alter human thought and bend the energies of civilization.’

Jeff Lockhart, 34-year-old first-person narrator and son of billionaire entrepreneur Ross, who is the prime source of funds for this project, has arrived at this ‘faith-based technology’ unit, summoned by his father. Ross deprecates Jeff’s aimlessness: ‘I hadn’t done anything yet. Hadn’t lived at all yet. All you do is pass the time, he said’. Jeff is, says Ross, justifiably, in a ‘determined drift, week to week, year to year.’ (Time and the means of measuring it are a recurring preoccupation for Jeff and this narrative.) His is a ‘noncareer’ – the opposite of his father’s.

And Jeff is sceptical; he’s like the Savage in Huxley’s Brave New World, the outsider-visitor who enables us to perceive what those within the system he visits are inured to, or in league with: the horror. The heart of darkness.

Here’s his reaction to the twins’ opening spiel:

They weren’t scientists or social theorists. What were they? They were adventurers of a kind that I could not quite identify.

But when Jeff asks if the subjects when reassembled in the future will be who they were before they entered the chamber to be frozen, the chilling response is:

‘They will be subjects for us to study, toys for us to play with.’

Jeff is both intrigued and appalled by these twin ‘demonologists in spirit’, with their predictions that ‘In time a religion of death will emerge in response to our prolonged lives.’ ‘Bring back death.’ There will be ‘voracious bloodbaths’ as ‘bands of death rebels’ will randomly kill these regenerated forms, mutilate and eat them, smear the ashes from their immolated corpses on their own bodies. It’s a vision out of Bosch or the Holocaust, not a Walt Disney fantasy. Yet the twins blandly answer the question: What will we find at the final reckoning? with:

‘A promise more assured than the ineffable hereafters of the world’s organized religions.’

Jeff is dubious:

This was their aesthetic of seclusion and concealment, all the elements that I found so eerie and disembodying. The empty halls, the color patterns, the office doors that did or did not open into an office. The mazelike moments, time suspended, content blunted, the lack of explanation.

These thoughts of Jeff’s are surely those of any sensible sceptic confronting this nightmare, this mad vision, with its SS skull prominently displayed – or revered. But there’s an allure to it, as his thoughts go on to show:

This was art in itself, nowhere else but here.

So far, so tedious. There’s a lot of pretentious guff about the nature of art, religion, identity, fate, technology. ‘Many other questions’, ethical and philosophical, arise, and the twins, Jeff or narrator chillingly recite them. What is art? Or Death of course. And ‘What does it mean to die?’, ‘What good are we if we live for ever?’ What about life, immortality and mortality: what do these terms mean? What do words signify? ‘Define X’ is one of Jeff’s default inner questions. Rhetorical ones.

Jeff learns that he’s been summoned to the Convergence by Lockhart for an unsettling reason; he tells his son he has chosen to join prematurely his dying wife Artis (see what he’s doing with characters’ names?!) by euthanizing himself and facilitating the process of ‘cryostorage’ that gives the novel its title – and going with her into a pod of his own. Even worse follows: ‘Come with us,’ Artis urges Jeff.

I nearly gave up on Zero K around p.90. I had no other books with me – I was on a trip – so had no option but continue. I’m glad I did.

Because the novel turned, at p.163, into a different one. Jeff leaves the Convergence (what a silly pseudo-religious, cult-like name), returns to the city, two years pass, and the story picks up his relationship with a woman who has an adopted son, rescued from war-torn Ukraine and now a troubled, obsessive teenager called Stak.

I hope I haven’t put you off with this not entirely positive start; do stay with me. In the final part of this exploration of Zero K I hope to look more deeply into its textures and puzzles, as I try to fathom what DeLillo may possibly have been up to in this, his seventeenth novel, as he nears 80. Is it a falling-off in his notorious ‘late period’, or a return to the form of a writer often hailed as ‘America’s greatest living writer’, as the blurb on the dustjacket calls him?

Is DeLillo toying with the reader, playfully duping us into thinking this is his grimly faux sci-fi take on Margaret Atwood-esque oracular visions, after watching ‘Solaris’, ‘2001’ and other dystopian tech-horror films like Alex Garland’s 2015 ‘Ex-Machina’ (all those disturbing ‘mannequins’ lurking in the Convergence hallways)? Or is it an eschatological, metalinguistic riddle? The crushing mindlessness of corporate jargon is constantly lampooned. Gnomic aphorisms abound.

I’ll continue with such questions next time and may even attempt some answers.

 

Paints, feathers, beads: Donald Barthelme, ‘The Indian Uprising’

From Sixty Stories, PMC, and the collection Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968, this 6-page story was one of the first of Donald Barthelme’s that I encountered, read on a podcast some years ago. I was quite unprepared for its wild surrealism and bizarre non sequiturs – but beneath the surface charm and throwaway appearance of ease is a subversive seriousness – I think.

My Penguin Modern Classics copy of Sixty Stories

My Penguin Modern Classics copy of Sixty Stories

It begins with a typically allusive, short sentence that immediately sets the tone of strangeness and mystery:

We defended the city as best we could.

Who are ‘we’, what was the nature of the threat that had to be defended against, and which city? The next sentence suggests a Western genre:

The arrows of the Comanches came in clouds.

 

We’re then told of ‘earthworks along the Boulevard Mark Clark’ – why the French term, and who is Mark Clark? The distinguished American officer who served in both World Wars and Korea?

‘People were trying to understand.’ So is this reader. Each accumulating sentence takes us not closer to comprehension or coherence, but further from it, as more and more unrelated details are added:

I spoke to Sylvia. “Do you think this is a good life?” The table held apples, books, long-playing records. She looked up. “No.”

The time-frames are telescoped unsettlingly. Characters’ names are dropped in as if we should know who they were. What’s the relationship of this first person narrator with Sylvia, and why does he ask this question? Why her negative minimal response? Later she seems to be in league with the Indians. Who is the ‘Miss R.’ who appears later?

There’s a paragraph about a ‘captured Comanche’ being tortured to reveal information about his tribe’s plans that seems to allude to perhaps the Vietnam war (or the genocidal history of How the West Was Won). The IRA are also name-checked.

Then there’s another of the strange lists of seemingly random objects of which much of this story is composed, when we’re told that in the ‘outer districts…trees, lamps, swans had been reduced to clear fields of fire…’

Until I came across Barthelme I’d been accustomed to short stories that gradually clarified the significance of the details within the narrative, arriving at either an epiphany (Joyce, Mansfield, Woolf) or resolution (almost everyone else). That doesn’t happen with this writer. Instead all is dislocation.

After another stretch of dialogue between the narrator and Sylvia, in which they cite Fauré and making sex scenes in movies, as if this was the most natural combination possible, the story turns back to intermittent coverage of some kind of urban defence against the ‘Red men in waves’ – Barthelme isn’t interested in politically correct vocabulary.

Barricades had been hastily erected from another strangely implausible list of items:

Window dummies, silk, thoughtfully planned job descriptions (including scales for the orderly progress of other colours), wine in demijohns, and robes.

At this point I abandon any attempt to summarise the rest of the story; to do so would require quoting every sentence, for to omit any detail would be to diminish the overall, dizzying effect.

Breton cited the proto-surrealist, the Comte de Lautréamont (1846-70), and his iconoclastic prose poem Les Chants de Maldoror (published 1868-69) – another non-linear, untrustworthy narrative – in defining the surrealist impulse: in canto 6 a boy is described as ‘beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella’. Max Ernst described a surrealist work as a linking of two realities that by all appearances have nothing to link them, in a setting that by all appearances does not fit them.

A random example from this story that fits that description, to add to those given already: the narrator states with disarming sang-froid that the attackers had infiltrated the ‘ghetto’ (what ghetto?!), a development that causes ‘we’ to send in ‘more heroin’ and ‘hyacinths’. The allusion to ‘The Waste Land’ develops subversively: Sylvia says: “You gave me heroin first a year ago”. A line from Hamlet also pops up. Valéry. ‘Death in Venice’. Jean-Luc Godard. Among others.

The final paragraph mentions how ‘we killed a great many in the south suddenly with helicopters and rockets but we found that those we killed were children’. It’s tempting to interpret (Vietcong? White Russians?), but to do so is to fail to interpret. The narrator is ordered to remove his belt and shoelaces, perhaps about to be tortured himself; his future, like this story, seems uncertain. The knockabout style deployed for what purports to be a war story is disturbing, and subverts the complacency that conventional narrative might invite.

This kind of fragmented collage narrative won’t appeal to some, and I can’t read too much of it in one go: it becomes a glut. ‘Strings of language extend in every direction to bind the world into a rushing, ribald whole’, says the narrator at one point; Miss R, on the other hand, prefers the horizontal (or it can be vertical) lists of ‘the litany’, and dislikes the increasingly ‘unpleasant combinations’ [of language? Dialectic?] favoured by the young as they ‘sense the nature of our society’; she insists

“I hold to the hard, brown, nutlike word.”

The story, then, could be seen as a postmodern metafiction about the making of stories with language. Or the importance of socially systematic…something: values? Youthful ideals? Of love and sex?

Whatever it might signify, and despite the wiful obscurity of this story, I like its exuberance and irreverent wit. Many of the sentences are prosometric, like Lautréamont. Barthelme as counter-culture poète maudit, perhaps.

 

 

Asides: Rabbit Angstrom’s incoherence in ‘Rabbit Redux’

In my previous post I looked at a paragraph near the beginning of John Updike’s 1971 novel, Rabbit Redux. In this, the second in a sporadic series of ‘Asides’ (ie not conventional book reviews) I want to take a look at another paragraph closely in order to explore how Updike’s narrative voice functions with such artistic power.

I’m returning to the same early section of the novel from which yesterday’s extract was taken: Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom’s marriage is faltering, his wife Janice has admitted to having an affair with a Greek car salesman called Charlie Stavros, so her insistence that they eat at a Greek restaurant in their home town of Brewer, Pennsylvania with their teenage son Nelson is another of the recurring knocks to his pride and self-esteem that Harry is assailed by throughout this quartet of novels.

In the restaurant Harry is determined to find something on the menu ‘enough like a hamburger’; his natural xenophobia is exacerbated by his incipient jealousy of Charlie. His unreflecting patriotism is one of several unendearing features of his character.

He touches the flowers in the vase on the red checked tablecloth: they’re real. ‘Janice was right. The place is nice.’ The free indirect style and present tense are trademark features of Updike’s technique; here, the words mirror Harry’s thoughts pretty exactly – monosyllabic, unsophisticated, indicative of his grudging approval.

There’s only one other couple dining:

Their faces have an edgy money look: their brows have that frontal clarity the shambling blurred poor can never duplicate. Though he can never now be one of them Harry likes their being here, in this restaurant so chaste it is chic. Maybe Brewer isn’t as dead on its feet as it seems. [p. 33, PMC edition]

The focalisation here is Harry’s, but the language shifts away from his untutored register into one more like the articulate, literate voice of Updike. ‘Edgy, money look’ is surely Harry (‘money’ for the standard ‘moneyed’ is his voice), but ‘frontal clarity’ is too abstract and polysyllabic to be in his lexicon, and the rest of that sentence is far too syntactically, aesthetically poised and complex for his limited range. ‘Chaste’ and ‘chic’ are way beyond Harry’s ken, but they illuminate for us the murky, muddled thoughts and impressions Harry is entertaining in a way he’d never be able to articulate with any such incisiveness or clarity.

Nevertheless these lines do reflect Harry’s grubby class envy and sense of inadequacy in the presence of people more wealthy or intelligent than he is (which is most people). Then the final sentence takes us right back into Harry’s sensibility: the clichéd ‘dead on its feet’ chimes with the rueful sentiment expressed: Harry feels he’s in a dead-end job (a linotype operator), in a dying marriage and a country that’s losing its way – situations with which he can personally identify.

In these few short lines, because of this subtly shifting narrative position, Updike is able both to show us Harry, as all the best writing courses recommend, as edgy and indecisive as his nickname implies, and as metaphysically challenged as the first syllable of his surname indicates. But Updike also provides an insight into Harry from this other, hovering perspective that he himself would be intellectually incapable of.

The narrator is rendering coherent what remains largely incoherent in Harry’s mediated thoughts. Updike doesn’t patronise Harry, however, in shifting the narrative voice about in this way. He is able to give us a perspective from which we can understand and sympathise with Harry’s habitual disappointment and bafflement as life conspires against him and his fundamental, flawed decency.

 

 

Asides: John Updike’s Rabbit

When I started this blog just over three years ago I intended posting a fairly eclectic mix of pieces, literary and otherwise. As time has passed, I find it’s turning into, for the most part, a book reviewing site, with occasional forays into other areas.

I’d like to revert to that slightly more varied approach, and start posting different kinds of piece, either unconsidered trifles that I’ve squirreled away in notebooks over the years, and which when I revisit them strike me as interesting, or snippets I come across that caught my attention. Maybe just a short passage from a book I’ve enjoyed, but don’t necessarily want to review as a whole.

I realise some visitors to this site might not want to read such stuff, so I shall flag these pieces with the generic prefix ‘Asides’ in the title, so you can ignore them if you came here looking for book reviews.

My Penguin Modern Classics editions

My Penguin Modern Classics editions

So here’s a note about a passage in John Updike’s second novel in his Rabbit tetralogy, Rabbit Redux, first published in 1970, and which I read 5 years ago (an old notebook informs me). It picks up Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom’s life ten years after the first in the sequence, Rabbit Run (he added each volume at roughly decade-long intervals).

In this book Harry is older, fatter, softer and has done with running. His marriage is faltering in the first volume, which ended with a domestic tragedy that stretched the marital situation to the limit; his wife Janice has now admitted she’s sleeping with a salesman at the Toyota franchise her father runs (Updike shows the zeitgeist brilliantly – here the looming demise of the American industrial-manufacturing machine; in the background are also the moon landings, civil rights, the Vietnam war) – a Greek man called Charlie Stavros. Harry is something of a bigot and a racist, so this doesn’t please him in several different ways.

He’s not an intellectual or a thinker, so when he does feel something, it tends to be visceral, conflicted. He’s not a particularly engaging protagonist, but there’s a humanity about him that’s rarely encountered in modern fiction in such a direct style, as I hope the following extract shows.

On his way to see a film he takes his teenage son to a Greek restaurant (Janice’s choice wasn’t too subtle). Here they’ve been discussing the film, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ – which Harry typically resents having to go to see [spoiler alert – plot revealed]:

Harry likes the sensation of frightening her, of offering to confront outright this faceless unknown he feels now in their lives, among them like a fourth member of the family. The baby that died? But though Janice’s grief was worse at first, though she bent under it like a reed he was afraid might break, in the long years since, he has become sole heir to the grief. Since he refused to get her pregnant again the murder and guilt have become all his. At first he tried to explain how it was, that sex with her had become too dark, too serious, too kindred to death, to trust anything that might come out of it. Then he stopped explaining and she seemed to forget: like a cat who sniffs around in corners mewing for the drowned kittens a day or two and then back to lapping milk and napping in the wash basket. Women and Nature forget. Just thinking of the baby, remembering how he had been told of her death over a pay phone in a drugstore, puts a kink in is chest, a kink he still associates, dimly, with God. [pp. 31-32, PMC edition]

Updike’s handling of the present tense and complex syntax seems effortless. And he risks taking on the biggest of themes: sex, death, gender, Nature – and God.

The technique is similar to the free indirect thought that has been a feature of prose fiction since Jane Austen: these words are largely focalised through Harry’s consciousness. But it’s more subtle than that. The extended cat simile has the naked nastiness that we’ve come to identify as Harry’s default response to anything upsetting. It’s misogynistic (reinforced by that brutally short, simple sentence about ‘women and Nature’ later) and cruel – but it rings true. Updike doesn’t take the easy option of making Harry ‘relatable’, as my teenage students would say.

He has the courage to make him all too human, as flawed as the next person. He’s consumed with self-pity, inarticulate rage, and an existential-spiritual bleakness that matches some of the bleakest moments in Beckett. Yet there’s a warmth and humour lurking near the surface all the time which somehow redeems these damaged, hurting people. They’re banal, baffled and transcendent in their abrasive contact with the exigencies of life. Harry is no everyman, but he’s not far off.

Next time I hope to look at another passage from this book.

Hope this diversion has been OK with readers. I’d be delighted to hear feedback in the comments – positive or not.

A Divorce Novel: Edith Wharton, The Children (1928)

‘The incurable simplicity of the corrupt’: Edith Wharton (1862-1937), The Children

Edith Wharton’s nineteenth novel The Children, published in 1928, is less impressive than the others by her that I’ve posted about here recently: The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence. It’s still interesting, and highly unusual in its central theme – the attraction an older man feels for a girl who at the time they meet is not yet fifteen.

Martin Boyne is a globe-trotting engineer who takes on projects in exotic places.
Wharton carefully presents him from the start as a ‘critical, cautious man… whom nobody could possibly associate with the romantic or the unexpected.’

This complacent timidity is about to be sorely tested when a troupe of seven children with their nanny boards his ship and he first sees the eldest child, Judith, who acts as surrogate mother to her siblings and ‘steps’, as the offspring of her feckless parents’ numerous other marriages and acquired stepchildren are known.

“Jove – if a fellow was younger!”
Men of forty-six do not gasp as frequently at the sight of a charming face as they did at twenty; but when the sight strikes them it hits harder…it rather disturbed [Boyne] to be put off his quest by anything so out of his present way as excessive youth and a rather pathetic grace.

My Virago Modern Classics edition

My Virago Modern Classics edition

Wharton is often unfavourably compared to her friend and mentor, Henry James, and at times she did indeed imitate his sophisticated psychological probings of his characters’ subtly described thoughts and actions, and he too was to explore the girl-woman type in a corrupt adult world in stories like ‘What Maisie Knew’. As the above extract shows, however, she writes here in a plain, even colloquial style, and makes little attempt to explore her male protagonist’s musings; they are simply presented to us as free indirect discourse, with no narrative comment. Neither does she enter into Judith’s mind: we’re simply told frequently how ‘charming’ she is, and are given her animated, precocious but often immature dialogue.

This sets up the central feature of the novel: Boyne’s vacillating motives and impulses are largely a mystery even to himself, and it is this that gives the novel its most compelling aspect.

Boyne quickly learns that these are the children of Cliffe Wheater and his wife, whom he remembers as ‘rather aimlessly abundant’ – an apt description, we later learn – both of whom he had known at Harvard and subsequently in ‘the old social dance of New York’. Wheater had since become ‘one of the showiest of New York millionaires’ whose only interests since his marriage had been in ‘Ritz Hotels and powerful motor-cars’ – and a ‘steam-yacht’.

It’s the depiction of this egregiously selfish, idle and shallow rich set that’s another of the most interesting and successful features of this uneven novel. They pass their time trying to stave off boredom by following each other from one fashionable Mediterranean watering hole to another, indulging in ‘wasteful luxury’ on the quest for pleasure, while flirting, divorcing and sleeping with each other and neglecting their children. This is very much a Divorce Novel, dealing with ‘the compromises and promiscuities of modern life.’

Their children are allowed to run wild, largely untutored. Judith, we learn, is barely literate, and one of her closest friends had killed herself while her drug-addled mother and Judith’s were ‘heaven knows where’.

Boyne is shocked to learn, early on, that one of the Wheater children, Blanca, had been engaged ‘to the lift-boy at Biarritz’ when at the time of meeting her she’s ‘barely eleven’. Judith blithely points out that she’d been engaged to ‘a page at a skating-rink’ at about the same age. The guidance that their corrupt parents should have provided is non-existent, and they have become superficially sophisticated, but profoundly morally adrift – like their parents.

Not surprisingly the Wheater children and their antics dominate the novel. The trouble is I didn’t find them at all amusing or charming. There is some distasteful national stereotyping about the two who have an Italian parent – they are lazily presented therefore as volatile and passionate (‘”don’t be foreign”’, their nurse admonishes one of them at one point – I don’t find this as funny as Wharton seems to expect me to). The ones with circus-performer parents are forever engaging in acrobatics. They are consistently depicted with just their one identifying characteristic. Blanca is obsessed with ‘chic’ couture dresses; her twin, Terry, is studious and sickly. Zinnie, whose mother is a glamorous movie-star, is vain, sly and selfish.

Their dialogue is set out with toe-curling whimsy: the first example of many occurs when Martin offers the children oranges as an incentive to visit a cultural site and this exchange ensues:

“An’masses of zoranges?” Zinnie stipulated, with a calculating air…and Bun…turn[ed] handsprings on the deck, [and] shrieked out: “Noranges! Noranges! NORANGES!”

Although like Martin we feel sympathy for their plight, left to fend for themselves as their fickle and crassly materialistic parents pursue their hedonistic and amorous adventures – they are aptly called ‘hotel children’ – their histrionic antics become tediously repetitive, their attitude importunate, manipulative and greedy, as cartoonish as their parents’ .

The plot is driven by Judith’s fierce maternal devotion to her little brood, and her passionate attempts to keep them together, while their various parents change partners and threaten to take back the offspring who originally belonged to them.

When Judith and her wild bunch of siblings burst into Boyne’s tranquil, adult world, he loses all sense of decorum and judgement, and takes on the role of guardian, apparently unaware of the probable true motive for his doing so: his sexual desire for adolescent Judith. Here he is as early as p. 35, when his attempt to cultivate in her a love of art and culture by visiting an Italian cathedral has ended in failure – she’s both bored and bemused by it:

…he was disappointed, for he was already busy at the masculine task of endowing the woman of the moment with every quality which made life interesting to himself.

“Woman – but she’s not a woman! She’s a child.” His thinking of her as anything else was the crowning absurdity of the whole business.

Here Wharton’s narrator offers a rare incisive comment on Boyne’s moral confusion, though even here it can be seen as his own self-castigating thoughts.

Even Rose points out to him that he’s in love with Judith, but he refuses to entertain the possibility. The portrayal of this pretty but vacuous girl is troubling: she’s too naïve and ingenuous to convince us that Boyne is attracted to her mind; she’s innocently childish and ignorant, despite her premature exposure to corrupt, amoral adult behaviour and decadence. Neither is she a Gigi type who will blossom under his tutelage. She has a certain impulsive charm, but Boyne’s real motive is clouded in his own mind.

One of the most peculiar scenes, which arouses in me a certain disquiet, is the one in which Judith turns to Boyne in a crisis and he plies her with two cocktails and a cigarette, and then realises this may have been ill-advised. What was he thinking?

Even worse is when Rose’s 60-year-old lawyer visits and Boyne watches him watching Judith as she sleeps during a country picnic, projecting his own desire jealously on to the slightly older man. The narrative as usual gives us his thoughts, which begin with his reflection that the girl ‘looks almost grown up – she looks kissable’. Then he turns his gaze on lawyer Dobree, the other man:

…it was manifest that Dobree’s thoughts were racing; and Boyne knew they were the same thoughts as his own. The discovery shocked him indescribably.

This duplicity is compounded when, that evening, Boyne tells Rose his suspicions:

“Dobree looks at her like a dog licking his jaws over a bone.”
“Martin — !”
“Sorry. I never could stand your elderly men who look at little girls.”

After this adolescent outburst Boyne goes on to ask sarcastically why Dobree doesn’t ask Judith to marry him if he’s so ‘dotty’ about the girl. He’s dumbfounded when Rose tells him Dobree has just proposed to her. The ‘tumult of his own veins’ turns to confusion at this announcement, and he laughs:

[but] his laugh had simply mocked his own power of self-deception, and uttered his relief at finding himself so deceived.

Rose goes on to tell him that Dobree said to her that he thought Boyne was in love with Judith; Boyne is furious:

“Shows what kind of a mind he must have. Thinking that way about a child – a mere child – and about any man, and decent man…as if I might take advantage of my opportunities to – to fall in love with a child in the schoolroom!”

Even Boyne at this point realises he’s protesting too much, as that little hesitation so tellingly indicates, and he sinks into a chair, ‘hot, angry, ashamed’.

Although the hedonistic selfishness of the parents’ circle is portrayed with venomous narrative power, none of the characters is rounded or fully convincing – they are types, not individuals. Only Boyne, who focalises the story throughout, comes across with any kind of complexity. But ultimately his self-evasions, emotional timidity and sexual murkiness are more annoying than sympathy-evoking.

That this worldly, middle-aged man should ditch a sophisticated and beautiful woman his own age, with whom we are often told he’s been in love most of his adult life, in favour of a callow child with a mildly pretty face and no depth of character, is a situation that’s presented with inconsistent success, as I hope my quotations reveal. Judith is no Maisie.

There is some excellent writing, however, and the novel is worth reading. For example when Judith escapes with her brood in search of Boyne’s protection, he and Rose are incredulous at the circumstances the girl describes that led her to adopt such an extreme course; she sums these up with the precocious perception of which she’s capable when examining the amorality of her parents’ circle:

“If children don’t look after each other, who’s going to do it for them? You can’t expect parents to, when they don’t know how to look after themselves.”

There’s poignancy in this child’s premature wisdom, expressed with such heartbreaking lucidity.

I’ll finish with one passage that is worthy of the earlier, more satisfying novels of Wharton’s that I’ve read. Here is Boyne about to meet Rose in the flesh after the interval of five years during which he’d travelled and worked, and she’d been widowed:

He could never think of her [Rose] as having been really young, immaturely young, like this girl about whom they were exchanging humorous letters, and who, in certain other ways, had a precocity of experience so far beyond Mrs. Sellars’s. But the question of a woman’s age was almost always beside the point. When a man loved a woman she was always the age he wanted her to be; when he had ceased to, she was either too old for witchery or too young for technique.

That aphorism with its symmetrically patterned syntax is a rare moment of an omniscient, observing narrative voice commenting with almost Wildean wit on Boyne’s psycho-sexual ambivalence, and it shrewdly shows him as both clever and perceptive while blind to his own defects of character: he goes on to admit to ‘a faint return of the apprehension he always felt when he thought of his next meeting with Mrs. Sellars.’ Maybe he was never really going to commit to her, and the dalliance with pert, pretty little Judith was more of an excuse to run away, and to resume his melancholy, solitary existence far away from messy human entanglements.

These are my thoughts. I’d be interested to hear if any of you had a different reaction.

Others to write about this novel include heavenali here, and Tom’s blog Wuthering Expectations discusses Wharton’s short stories in several perceptive posts here.

He had missed the flower of life: Edith Wharton, ‘The Age of Innocence’

The names of the characters aren’t exactly subtle in this vitriolic portrait of upper-class New York City society in the 1870s (though the novel, Edith Wharton’s twelfth, was first published in 1920): the protagonist’s is the doubly Jamesian Newland Archer, while his pretty but vacuous fiancée is May Welland (may well land) – tellingly described as a ‘young girl who knew nothing and expected everything’.

Virago Modern Classics edition

The cover of my Virago Modern Classics paperback edition

The plot is equally straightforward: the upright (almost smugly so) Archer, from one of that small, intermarrying set of wealthy socialite families to which May also belongs, has his complacently mapped-out life upset when the beautiful, troubled Countess Olenska comes back into his circle. He had known her before her marriage to a dashing but morally corrupt Polish count collapsed, amid stories of her husband’s brutality and serial infidelity. She escaped back to the city of her birth, where she believed her family and former friends would support her. Instead they treat her as a pariah, as if she is the guilty one; in their world it is not done for wives to desert their philandering husbands – they’re supposed to endure everything with a sweet smile and pretend all is well.

It’s a more plot-driven novel than The House of Mirth, about which I wrote recently. The style is less aphoristic and adorned, too; this makes its tone of moral outrage more powerful. Ultimately, however, I found the heroic stoicism and indomitable sense of honour of Newland Archer a little hard to take. He professes to be disgusted by the hypocrisy of his male peers, and therefore finds it impossible to compromise the honour of the woman he truly loves, or his own sense of duty. Here’s an early narrative comment about him that hints at this thinly concealed arrogance:

In matters intellectual and artistic Newland Archer felt himself distinctly the superior of these chosen specimens of old New York gentility…Singly they betrayed their inferiority; but grouped together they represented “New York”, and the habit of masculine solidarity made him accept their doctrine in all the issues called moral.

That he continues to live in this corrupt world of venal indulgence makes his honourable stance seem less noble. It’s not so much that he can’t act as immorally as everyone else – he seems almost to lack any kind of truly moral agency.

It’s an interesting and largely rewarding read, however. There are still some wonderfully witty and penetrating comments on American mores and society, like this on the very first page; the privileged rich are leaving the opera house, which they frequent largely to see what the rest of their set are up to, and to be seen and gossip about the latest peccadillos. The narrator points out that it’s better to catch a ‘Brown coupé’ after the performance than to wait for one’s own coachman –

It was one of the great livery-stableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.

Newland is swayed by generous thoughts about the lack of freedom enjoyed by women in his social circle, but

Such verbal generosities were in fact only a humbugging disguise of the inexorable conventions that tied things together and bound people down to the old pattern.

 He can readily foresee that his marriage would become

What most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.

 And so it turns out: his and May’s marital existence is one of ‘deadly monotony’, in which appearance was everything, and Newland is unable to break free from what’s expected of him –

It was less trouble to conform with the tradition and treat May exactly as all his friends treated their wives than to try to put into practice the theories with which his untrammelled bachelorhood had dallied. There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free…

It’s a mad world they live in, and there seems no impulse to do anything to change it:

In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs…

 More echoes of the Master there (also, weirdly, of Saussure). Maybe Edith Wharton was too angry with that dull group of the tediously wealthy in which she’d moved (until she could stand it no more and decamped to France for the latter part of her life, ditching her good-for-nothing husband on the way) to come closer to emulating the penetrating gaze and measured psychological insight of her friend Henry James.

The ending is shocking, and aptly rounds off this withering indictment of the New York social set that would soon be even more tellingly portrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby.

 

Edith Wharton, ‘The House of Mirth’

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), The House of Mirth (1905): Virago Modern Classics edition

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth (Ecclesiastes, 7:4)

House of M coverIt’s fitting that I sit down to start writing this piece on the anniversary of Edith Wharton’s birth – Jan. 24, 1862. She was born into that ‘aristocracy of wealth and tradition’ that Leon Edel describes in his Life of Henry James, whose influence on Wharton’s writing was immense (they first met in 1903, when she was in her fortieth year and he was 60; he found her refined but ‘a little dry’). She never needed to work for a living, having inherited a large fortune. But her circumscribed world of wealthy cosmopolitan socialites was beginning to succumb to the arrivistes who are represented in this novel by the sinister entrepreneur Rosedale – a Jewish stockbroker/speculator whose depiction as a social climber is tainted by the anti-Semitism considered acceptable at the time.

The privileged, luxurious Manhattan world – ‘this crowded, selfish world of pleasure’– was imbued with a hypocritical sense of traditional decencies, strict social codes based on superficial appearances and good manners whilst murkily compromised deeper down.

At the time of their first meeting in 1903, James was working on The Golden Bowl, his intense and complex psychological portrait of a flawed aristocratic marriage, and its impact on a naïve young woman who learns and grows in maturity as a consequence of her husband’s venality. It’s interesting that Wharton’s House of Mirth, published a year after James’s novel, though set in New York, not England (where James had settled, and where his novel was set), has a plot and themes in some ways similar, but different in important ways. Even her title derives from the same book of the Old Testament.

Portrait of Lily Bart (via WikiCommons, public domain)

Portrait of Lily Bart (via WikiCommons, public domain)

As I have written in earlier posts, James was interested in the restricted, frustratingly limited prospects of the ‘American girl’ in a society that demanded of her little more than ornamental charms with which she would be expected to snare a wealthy husband, and which deplored any kind of independence of spirit – this would have been considered subversive. The ‘flatness and futility’ of fashionable New York was what Edith Wharton knew intimately; she, like James, opted for the woman’s view of it, but with a unique insight that he could only imagine. She had struggled for moral and artistic independence in a society in which women were more at the mercy of convention than men; she was able to depict a woman who was born to be an ‘artistic object’:

A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implications lie in its power of debasing people and ideals. The answer, in short, was my heroine, Lily Bart (quoted by Nina Bawden, in the Introduction to the VMC edition).

The novel opens when Lily is 29 and still unmarried. Her father had foolishly lost his fortune and both he and her mother are dead. She lives with her unloving aunt in New York, who distributes to her niece sufficient to get by, but which is never enough for extravagant Lily, who had been spoiled as a girl, and who naturally assumed that her beauty deserved luxury and indulgence. As a consequence she is ‘horribly poor – and very expensive. I must have a great deal of money’, as she confesses to Lawrence Selden in the opening chapter. She was ‘not made for mean and shabby surroundings, for the squalid compromises of poverty’, and has a ‘naturally lively taste for splendour’, she reflects later. Selden is the novel’s cowardly hero, and Lily makes the fatal error of believing that his self-satisfied, sanctimonious lectures on the vulgarity and venality of the society they both circulate arise from his truly virtuous moral rigour. What she fails to perceive is that this supercilious attitude is a pose; at heart he hypocritically enjoys the social life he outwardly scorns. They share a mutual attraction, but she considers him unsuitable marriage material because he works for a living (as a lawyer), and isn’t rich enough for her needs. When she needs him most he lets her down cravenly.

She confides in him, in this early and ill-advised tête-à-tête (to visit a bachelor unchaperoned in his rooms, smoke his cigarettes and chat intimately like this would be considered ill-bred, ‘fast’ and morally compromising) that her only hope, as her financial situation reaches crisis-point – she has amassed huge gambling debts on top of her usual extravagances with jewellery and clothing – is to ‘calculate and contrive’ to marry a rich man. But her looks are beginning to fade, and her plight is becoming desperate.

That she has failed to catch a rich husband so far is a result of her impetuous nature and naïve habit of pursuing immediate gratification, over-confident that something better will always turn up. Consequently she has let go several big, wealthy fish at the last minute in order to indulge a fleetingly more enticing whim. This childish recklessness is tempered by an intermittent but genuine moral sense of the ‘great gilt cage in which they were all huddled for the mob to gape at’, with its ‘vacuous routine’ of trivial parties and rancid gossip. Lily would love to have that freedom which Seldon calls ‘the republic of the spirit’, but as a woman this is not accessible to her.

There are several estimable reviews of this novel online (links at the end), which summarise plot and characters thoroughly. I shall restrict my remarks now to the style of the writing, which in my view is the novel’s strength. The plot, skilfully constructed and pacy, with dramatic reversals and a colourful cast of wealthy, leering men and scheming, treacherous women, is perhaps at times a little contrived and strained: poor Lily’s ‘hateful fate’ is made clear from the start. As Jonathan Franzen suggests in his piece (see below), we read on largely because we sympathise with her, despite her often exasperating selfishness and childish impetuosity, her contradictory blend of an ingenuous naturalness (‘sylvan freedom’, Selden considers it) and shimmering artificiality. There’s a lot of Becky Sharp about her: she uses her charm and beauty to attract a rich man, but lacks the ruthlessness of the other women in her social circle which would provide her with the security she craves. Even in extremity there’s a courageous spirit in her:

Misfortune had made Lily supple instead of hardening her, and a pliable substance is less easy to break than a stiff one.

 Even though she has the means with which to blackmail her way out of her ultimate crisis, she refuses to stoop to such behaviour – her own destruction is the outcome. When she’s betrayed and cruelly shunned by society, and staring into the abyss, Lily shows a heroic, noble spirit, even when confronting ‘the shifts, the expedients, the humiliations’ of the poverty she has no resources to cope with. As one of her circle, Mrs Fisher, says of Lily’s fluctuating fortunes:

‘Sometimes…I think it’s just flightiness – and sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for.’

I’d like to finish with a look at some of the  barbed, epigrammatic narrative comments. This is an early description of Lily about to stalk her prey – a shy wealthy dullard called Percy Gryce:

She had the art of giving self-confidence to the embarrassed, but she was not equally sure of being able to embarrass the self-confident.

Such parallel structures can seem trite, but the chiasmus here is wittily shrewd.

Character portraits are often Wildean in their acerbity: this is the socialite Mrs George Dorset:

…she was like a disembodied spirit who took up a great deal of room.

 Finally, a passage which caustically reveals the moral lesson Lily begins to learn at the novel’s midway stage, as her plans go awry and her reputation suffers:

She was realising for the first time that a woman’s dignity may cost more to keep up than her carriage; and that the maintenance of a moral attribute should be dependent on dollars and cents made the world appear a more sordid place than she had conceived it.

 

There are numerous reviews online; I’d recommend Trevor Berrett’s post at the Mookse and Gripes website, and Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker article. I’ve just read JacquiWine’s post and find I’ve quoted several of the same passages! Hers is a judicious reading of this classic novel.

 

 

 

 

 

In America bluff is everything. William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), White Mule. Penguin Modern Classics1971

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) is probably best known for his pared-down, brief poems like The Red Wheelbarrow and This is Just to Say (I have eaten/the plums/that were in/the icebox…), or urban poetic epics like Paterson (he lived most of his life in New Jersey). After an early flirtation with the Imagists – his second volume of poems was published in 1912 with the support of Ezra Pound, whom he’d met at university in Pennsylvania – Williams’ writing style was to change direction towards a more radical modernism; he rejected the highly allusive and multilingual intellectual European style of Eliot, adopting instead a voice that was distinctively American vernacular, with his mantra ‘no ideas but in things’.

Williams also wrote prose fiction and non-fiction; one of my tutors at Bristol University, Charles Tomlinson (a British poet who died in August of this year) introduced me to modern American writing, and in particular that of Williams and Wallace Stevens, two poets he admired. He in his turn had an enormous influence on my own literary interests; he’s much missed – a genuinely kind and sensitive teacher.

1921 passport photo of Williams

1921 passport photo of Williams

I was interested in following up my reading of another American poet’s prose work, E.E. Cummings’ The Enormous Room, about which I wrote here last week, with that of Williams: what sort of novel would this paediatrician-poet create? Published in 1937, White Mule was the first in a trilogy of novels about the immigrant Stecher family’s struggle to assimilate in New York City. Its title derives, according to something I read online, but I don’t recall seeing it in the novel, from the baby, Flossie, whose fierce kick is likened to that of White Mule whiskey.

The plot is minimal: the novel opens with the birth of Gurlie and Joe Stecher’s second child:

She entered, as Venus from the sea, dripping. The air enclosed her, she felt it all over her, touching, waking her.

The baby is sickly and cantankerous, and her mother’s response on learning her sex is at first callous and negligent: ‘Another girl. Agh. I don’t want girls. Take it away and let me rest.’ She takes out her annoyance on Joe, telling him he’ll now have to earn more. And here one of the novel’s central themes emerges: Gurlie wants to live the American Dream, and as a woman is incapable of achieving her ambition on her own; she urges Joe to be more assertive:

You are too careful, you have no daring, you must bluff!

Never, said he.

You must. In America bluff is everything…be a better bluff than they are…But you are too timid. I could do it. But now is the time. You have two daughters now and I am not going to sit down and be a hausfrau. I am going to live and see the world and I must have money. And you are going to make it for me…If you think I’m going to stay here and have babies one after the other and nothing else you fool yourself. You tell those people you want more money or quit. If you don’t, I quit.

 The style is akin to that of Williams’s poetry: spare, idiomatic, concrete, almost monosyllabic. There’s minimal punctuation and no quotation marks for speech, or paragraphing to differentiate speakers’ utterances. Free indirect discourse abounds, as when Joe muses that outburst of Gurlie’s:

Watching her eyes flash, the very insensibility of her fire somehow excited him in spite of himself. It was something he did not understand but there it was. Foolish or reasonable, but there it was. He could understand that all right…It was his own wife. She had the brains of a chicken – but that was his hard luck. He had married her, hadn’t he? That wasn’t her fault…What did he care? He felt admiration – a borrowed resentment against the world momentarily possessed him. Yes, she was right. He was abler than the rest…

Notice how the stream of Joe’s untutored, barely articulate thoughts is complemented by the narrator’s higher-register observations. He and Gurlie make a formidable team. Go out and fight them, she tells him: ‘It is a free country. If you don’t fight for it you get nothing – but to be called a fool. You owe it to me to fight.’

Joe, a printer, was once a firebrand union member, but at the time the novel opens he’s turned gamekeeper, having become disillusioned with the corruption of union officials: as foreman in his printing works he does the owner’s bidding in pushing the workforce to ever greater output with minimal financial reward, taking great pride in his own technical printing skill. The printers eventually call a strike, which Joe resolutely defies and fights, even risking his own life as the hostility grows. But his ungrateful boss fails to recognise his loyalty, and doesn’t even give him a raise when the strike ends. Gurlie is disgusted with him.

This is really Flossie’s novel. Much of the book relates her precarious infancy as a succession of youthful, inept nursemaids take unprofessional care of her; her mother finds her a chore. Williams’s clinical expertise as a pediatrician is apparent in his wonderful descriptions of the infant’s development:

For a fact the baby liked it immensely in that hot room, if actions mean anything, for it lay completely relaxed on its back, its head moving slowly about as if it were viewing the room though its eyes didn’t seem to focus on anything…The baby was playing up to the girl’s gentle voice and easy manner to perfection. With half closed eyes, it moved first a finger then an arm as if talking some mysterious sign language.

When malnutrition, neglect and infections weaken Flossie dangerously, her mother is advised to take her into the country for a healthier environment. Taking her other daughter with her (she’s five when Flossie is born), Gurlie lodges with a frugal, elderly Norwegian couple at their farm in upstate New York. Flossie thrives in the regime there, and Gurlie loves rural life, having been raised on a farm in Norway – she feels ‘cooped and tormented by city exigencies.’

By the novel’s end Joe appears to have made a deal with another printer-entrepreneur to start up his own company, a development which will please his driven wife.

Mule cover This is an artistically more ambitious and skilfully realised work than The Enormous Room, with a more artful structure and rounded portrayal of character and relationships. At first I found the abrupt shift of scene from the city to the country farm odd and felt it unbalanced the novel, and the open ending, with an apparently inconsequential rural event, unsatisfactory. On reflection, however, I’ve come to see that it points forward to the next novel in the sequence, and I find I do want to stay with the account of this abrasive, dysfunctional family, which manages simultaneously somehow to persuade me that they’re more than just a force to reckon with – they become a symbol of America’s thrusting, upwardly mobile immigrant-founded citizenry: they’re people who, despite their unattractive selfishness and truculent ambition are credible as flawed, striving human beings.

The novel closes with a description of Flossie and other children watching the menfolk (some are from Boston) shoot their rifles:

The children were standing back in a fascinated circle, the baby’s face smeared with berry juice, her hands sooty: quite part of it all.

 She has survived the ordeal of her first year in America and has become ‘part of it all.’ An American. But the cost to Joe has been high as he struggles to maintain his integrity in the face of corrupt unions on the one hand and greedy, corrupt employers – whose number he is about to join in order to get ‘In the Money’ – on the other.

We are all, in our diverse ways, immigrants, craving integration and assimilation while maintaining our independence and hoping for our families to flourish. Would Flossie thrive today, I wonder?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Short post about Cheever’s Christmas story

BBC Radio 4 has a recording of John Cheever’s excellent story ‘Christmas is a Sad Season For the Poor’, read by Martin Freeman – so charming in the Sherlock BBC TV dramas – and available to listen to for almost a month. Highly recommended. Link HERE.

220px-JohncheeverYou might also want to look up my 2014 review of this story HERE. Bittersweet, like Dickens’ more famous seasonal story.

Have read several books recently that I’m hoping to write about here soon: E.E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Barbara Comyns among others. Once the holiday guests and visits are departed/completed I might find time to compose some posts. In the meantime I hope you’ve had an enjoyable holiday – if you had one – and have a peaceful, fulfilling 2016.

I’m not a big fan of ‘best books of the year’ posts, so won’t be doing one here. But do read through my archive if you’re interested in what I had to say about this year’s reading. I recently bought some bargain bundles from The Book People: Hemingway, Wharton, the Barbara Comyns that I mentioned, Barbara Pym, Edna O’Brien’s country girls trilogy (which my wife is currently enjoying; she doesn’t always like my recommendations!)…So plenty of reading to keep me going. Bulgakov, Franzen’s ‘Purity’ and Pound’s complete Cantos for Christmas, too (not to mention Clarice Lispector’s complete stories still languishing accusingly on the shelves from my birthday wish list). A desert retreat would be good so I could just binge on them all…