Smiley, Oates, Hannah, Dandicat: the last four Granta American long stories

Smiley, Hannah, Dandicat: the last Granta American long stories

Granta Book of the American Long Story coverMy fifth and final post about Richard Ford’s collection The Granta Book of the American Long Story will be a quick note on the remaining four stories. Very quick, in one case.

Jane Smiley, The Age of Grief (1987). I don’t recall a story about a married pair of dentists before. This is one of the better stories in the collection, a touching account told from the husband’s viewpoint. His wife is having an affair, but he’s not a man who likes talking about their relationship – or about anything much – so he avoids confronting her about it. If she doesn’t confess, he can somehow cope. Smiley creates an engaging, affecting picture of this family and each character in it – there are three little girls as well – and I found myself wanting them to come through this crisis. It’s one of the least grim or depressing stories in the collection, despite this rather painful storyline.

Joyce Carol Oates, I Lock My Door Upon Myself (1990). This is probably the best in the book. Although it also deals with some emotionally fraught themes, it’s told with quiet authority. The central character, who calls herself Calla (like the lily), has the given name Edith Honeystone. She’s from a family of farmers in the Chautauqua river valley, Colorado.

The feckless father has lost most of his land, and finally absconds. Mother dies, too. Calla has always been mutinous, ‘a difficult child’, wilful, solitary, self-contained, intractable. She’s possibly ‘touched in the head’, whisper the locals – or maybe she’s of ‘unusual intelligence and sensitivity.’ When the scary schoolteacher in the tough country school attempts to whip her with her willow branch, Calla deftly seizes it from her – something even the tall, strong farm boys hadn’t dared or been able to do – and strikes her ‘full in the face’ with it.

Aged only 17 she accepts the offer of marriage from an ugly, earnest little ‘gnomish’ 39-year-old German farmer called George – ‘but with character, distinction’. She doesn’t love him, so why does she agree to marry him? To escape from her relatives’ house, or because of over-confidence and exultation in her sexual power over him?

This question is posed by the narrator, Calla’s granddaughter, who’s telling the story of her wild grandmother’s youth (Calla was born in 1890), wondering if her ‘mad’ blood courses through her own veins.

At first Calla refuses to let George touch her, then a change takes place and she has three children. She still frequently takes herself off alone into the wild country, and sleeps goodness knows where, coming back dishevelled and filthy, something she’d done since she was a child. She’s not unhappy, but retreats into her ‘aloneness’. Never once does she reveal her personal, secret name to her husband.

George’s disapproving mother, who lives with them, thinks Calla is ‘feral’, a disgrace, a bad mother and wife. She’s not wrong, but can’t begin to understand this complex, shameless young woman.

There’s a crisis, of course, and Calla’s disgrace is worsened considerably in the eyes of her husband, his family, and the community. What follows comes close to being both tragic and epic.

Barry Hannah, Hey, Have You Got a Cig, the Time, the News, My Face? (1993) This strange sentence never figures in the story. I didn’t enjoy it. A troubled father-son relationship that I cared nothing about.

Edwidge Dandicat, Caroline’s Wedding (1995). This was much better, the second-best story in the collection. A charming, heart-warming portrayal (by an author of Haitian heritage) of the loving family of Haitian Americans in Brooklyn: sisters Grace, who’s excited to have just been given her US passport; her younger sister Caroline, who is a US citizen, having been born there; and their mother, still at heart a Haitian, who finds American life brash and alien. She’s still more comfortable speaking Creole than English, unlike her assimilated daughters.

The mother disapproves of Caroline’s fiancé, a Bahamian. Why can’t she find a nice Haitian boy? The story traces the days through the wedding preparations, the ceremony itself in a registry office (to mother’s consternation), and the wedding meal afterwards.

Mother’s solution to all problems is to make soup out of cows’ bones. She and the girls are still close enough to their roots to believe that the spirits of the dead, including that of the late husband and father, return to importune the living. As a sort of apotropaic defence, mother insists the girls, still at school at the time of his death, wore red pants, because ghosts don’t like the colour of blood. Secretly, the girls wear black ones, because they miss their father and would quite like him to communicate with them.

The sisters are American, but still play the word games their father taught them from his Haitian heritage. The same with their exchanges of proverbs, folklore and the everyday interpenetration of the natural and supernatural worlds.

Each character comes fully to life on the page. Their relationships are loving but spiky, and the clashes or tensions between the girls’ generation and new culture and their mother’s are dramatized with insight and deep sympathy. At last a story that’s not grim or depressing, but neither is it sentimental.

After the worst there’s still more: Cynthia Ozick, Rosa

Cynthia Ozick, Rosa (1983)

Rosa Lublin, a madwoman and a scavenger, gave up her store – she smashed it up herself – and moved to Miami. It was a mad thing to do. In Florida she became a dependent. Her niece in New York sent her money and she lived among the elderly, in a dark hole, a single room in a ‘hotel’.

This is the opening to Cynthia Ozick’s story Rosa. It’s the fourth in my sequence of posts on some of the stories selected by Richard Ford for his collection The Granta Book of the American Long Story.

Granta Book of the American Long Story cover Not much happens, because Rosa’s awful experiences in the Nazi death camps have left her haunted and ‘mad’, we’d probably call it PTSD, incapable of functioning in the world thirty-five years later. She hates the climate, the jaded, complacent elderly people around her, and her pain shuts out all capacity for human interaction. She feels ‘the whole peninsula of Florida was weighted down with regret.’ Real life had been left behind by these ‘scarecrow’ old folk. Does she realise she’s one of them?

Her only solace is found in writing long, lyrical letters to her dead daughter, Magda, ‘in the most excellent literary Polish.’ To the niece, Stella, in Queens, NYC, she writes in jerkier, alien English:

‘Golden and beautiful Stella…Where I put myself is in hell. Once I thought the worst was the worst, after that nothing could be the worst. But now I see, even after the worst there’s still more…a devil climbs into you and ties up your soul and you don’t even know it.’

But Stella is part of that hell she’s not out of. She calls her Angel ‘for the sake of peace’, but ‘Stella was cold. She had no heart. Stella, already nearly fifty years old, the Angel of Death.’

This vitriol we discover is largely justified. A terrible event in the camps led to the death of baby Magda, and Rosa blames Stella for it. Yet the niece accuses her aunt of refusing to accept that Magda is dead, of making the baby’s shawl, which Rosa has asked her to post to her, into a ‘fetish’, an ‘idol’: ‘you’ll kiss it like a crazy person.’ It’s time, Stella says harshly, ‘to have a life.’

When Rosa meets a flirty old man, another Warsaw Jewish survivor ‘refugee’ of the Nazis’ murderous camps, in a laundromat – he cheerfully admits he’s there to meet women – she tries to shut him out, rather than to have some kind of life as Stella urged (guilt?). ‘My Warsaw isn’t your Warsaw,’ she snaps at him repeatedly as he tries to break down her barriers.

Further confirmation that, as Rosa believes, the world is ‘diseased’ comes in the form of a jargon-filled letter from a professor of ‘clinical social pathology’ at Iowa University. His ‘specialty’ is to analyse what he calls ‘survivor data’ with which to test the theory of ‘Repressed Animation’ in the ‘Humanitarian Context’ (he uses the pompous upper case initials). Rosa rejects this insensitive pseudo-academic nonsense with justified rage. He’s reduced her to the status of ‘survivor’, and doesn’t want to say ‘human being.’ Her hellish memories are just ‘data’ to him.

Stella is also part of the ‘disease’. ‘Stella Columbus’ Rosa calls her in another long letter to Magda. ‘She thinks there’s such a thing as the New World.’ Ozick is a very different writer from Roth, but here there’s an element of congruence in their view of America; but Neil Klugman’s response to the ‘Goodbye, Columbus’ song he hears in the story of that title is less intensely felt, more ironic, less visceral than Rosa’s, and reveals Roth’s critical authorial stance to be more like immature intellectual snobbery. Ozick, on the other hand, is probing into what Conrad calls the heart of darkness.

This might all sound a little bleak and depressing, and it is, but there’s a flickering light of humanity and hope deep inside this beautifully written story (it’s only forty pages long, but packs in a lifetime of Ozick’s central character’s tragic experience). There’s no neat epiphany or conversion for Rosa, but there is a sense that out of her crazy sadness can come some kind of redemption.

Like Philip Roth, whose story I wrote about last time, Ozick is a Jewish American writer, born five years before him, in 1928 – and, I’m pleased to say, still alive (Roth died in 2018). Her stories are also said (this is the first of hers I’ve read) often to feature Jewish American characters and communities, but as I’ve already noted she openly confronts and exposes their memories and scars of the horrors of the Holocaust.

It seems that Rosa is a partner story to the more famous ‘The Shawl’, published three years earlier in The New Yorker. From what I’ve read online the terrible events that are hinted at in Rosa are described there explicitly.

 

 

 

Aversions and aspirations: Philip Roth, Goodbye Columbus

Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus. Granta Book of the American Short Story, edited by Richard Ford, pp. 129-234

Among the comments to my previous post on this collection of stories was a query about the authors included in it. Here’s a list (apart from Eudora Welty and William Styron, posted about already, and the subject of today’s post, Philip Roth):

Ernest N. Gaines, A Long Day in November (1963). I couldn’t finish this: too depressing. A feckless husband treats his wife badly; the narration from his young son was too painful for me to read during these already distressing times.

Stanley Elkin, The Making of Ashenden (1973). A surreal story in the vein of Donald Barthelme or Robert Coover, but without the wit or charm. It ends with a graphic, four-letter-word account of the protagonist having messy sex with a she-bear…

Peter Taylor, The Old Forest (1979). This was better. A young man, engaged to be marry, is involved in a car crash. His passenger flees the scene – she’s not the fiancée. Will the wedding be called off when the news hits the papers? An interesting, low-key story set in Memphis, 1937 explores themes of class, sex and the struggles of women then to exert any kind of power in a man’s world.

Cynthia Ozick’s and Jane Smiley’s stories will be the subjects of later posts. I haven’t yet read the remaining three, by Joyce Carol Oates, Barry Hannah and Edwidge Dandicat. If I like them I’ll post about them, too.

Now on with today’s story.

Granta Book of the American Long Story cover Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth (1933-2018) is one of those ‘long stories’ discussed by Richard Ford in his introduction (see my post about this HERE) that was originally described as a novella when it appeared in the Paris Review in 1959. One of several in this collection to deal with the lives of Jewish people in America, it was written when Roth was only 26 – and this is reflected in the story’s central character: an intelligent young man who doesn’t yet know what to do with his life.

Neil Klugman lives in an unfashionable part of Newark, NJ (Roth’s native city), favoured by Jewish families of his social class, with his aunt and uncle. After graduating from Rutgers and serving in the military he’s drifted into a tedious job in the city’s public library. He falls for Brenda, a girl from the posh suburbs; her family are nouveau riche – they too lived once in Newark, but her father’s plumbing business is thriving and they now live a very different life from Neil’s. It’s all swimming at the country club, tennis and sports. Only a vestige of their humble origins survives in the shabby furniture and detritus hidden in an obscure attic of their present swanky home.

The narrative is driven by Neil’s conflicting emotions about Brenda. She’s about to return to prestigious Radcliffe in Boston (formerly a separate women’s college, now fully integrated with Harvard). He finds himself in love with her, and they have a lot of sex, but he can’t suppress feelings of irritation with her lifestyle and capricious, complacent manner.

Things reach a crisis point when she returns to Radcliffe and invites him to stay with her in a hotel nearby during the Jewish holiday. She makes a disclosure that causes him to question her love and commitment to him. She’s a spoilt young woman and he maybe realises her defects aren’t just his class prejudice or inverted snobbery.

The prose is remarkably assured for such a young writer at the start of his career. There are some lively exchanges written with verve, seen especially in the contorted syntax and (maybe a little too stereotypically ‘middle-aged Jewish woman’) world view of his aunt Gladys.

Some of Neil’s dialogue with Brenda is also witty and sharp, but also reveals character and tensions. When she asks him if he intends making a career at the library – trying to goad him into taking a more socially acceptable, stimulating (and lucrative) direction – he retorts that he’s ‘not planning anything’, and hasn’t done for the three years since he left the army. He’s ‘not a planner’:

After all the truth I’d suddenly given her, I shouldn’t have ruined it for myself with that final lie. I added, ‘I’m a liver.’

‘I’m a pancreas,’ she said.

‘I’m a –’

And she kissed the absurd game away; she wanted to be serious.

These signs early in the relationship that they aren’t entirely compatible are signified with some subtlety throughout. For example, Brenda’s attempts to control Neil reappear when she insists they go to a school sports track so she can run – and wants Neil to run as well. When they arrive, she points out that he looks like her – ‘only bigger’ – because they’re dressed in similar preppy sports clothes:

…but I had the feeling that Brenda was not talking about the accidents of our dress – if they were accidents. She meant, I was sure, that I was somehow beginning to look the way she wanted me to. Like herself.

In a preface to the thirtieth anniversary edition of Goodbye, Columbus wrote that it was about:

…the rites and taboos of his clan…their aversions, their aspirations, their fears of deviance and defection, their embarrassments and ideas of success.

The title refers to the graduation song played on a record by Brenda’s brother, who’d just left Ohio University at Columbus, but also less directly to the Columbus who was the first European to discover America. Neil lives as an insider in his community, but is also an outsider in the world inhabited by the likes of Brenda and her family. He’s slowly accreting experience and maturity through abrasive contacts like those with this precocious, selfish young woman, coming to realise which world he wants to belong to and what role he could play in it.

A final note about language. In an early flirtatious meeting with Brenda at the country club she’s ‘treading’ water with him in the swimming pool. ‘I treaded unobtrusively as I could’, the narrator says. ‘Treaded’ as past tense of ‘tread’ (water)? I suppose ‘trod’ sounds odd in this context. (What’s the plural of computer mouse?!)

 

 

Futile gestures: William Styron, The Long March

William Styron, The Long March. The Granta Book of the American Long Story, ed. Richard Ford (1999), pp. 71-128. First published 1952

William Styron (1925-2006) is probably best known for his controversial 1979 novel Sophie’s Choice, and Darkness Visible: a memoir of madness (1990), about his descent into clinical depression, and subsequent recovery. Like Eudora Welty, whose story June Recital opens this anthology of stories (I posted on it here yesterday), Styron was born in the south, and is said to have favoured a ‘southern Gothic’ style in his fiction. There’s certainly an element of it in The Long March.

Granta Book of the American Long Story coverThe Long March is the second story in Ford’s anthology of ‘long stories’ (I also discussed his choice of that term in yesterday’s post), and one of the shorter ones at just over fifty pages. I had mixed feelings about it. I wonder if the title is intended to echo the name usually given to the series of strategic retreats undertaken by the Chinese communist forces (under the rising influence of Mao) to escape the pursuit of the then dominant forces of their enemy nationalist army.

It’s a grim story about a martinet colonel who subjects his unit of marine reservists, most of them unfit and untrained, to a brutal thirty-mile overnight march in the swampy countryside of Carolina. Far from strategic and, as with the Red Army, militarily justifiable and ultimately successful, it’s what Peter Cook described in his famous, darkly satirical sketch with Jonathan Miller about posh, ‘stiff upper lip’ WWII officers (YouTube clip HERE) from the seminal ‘Beyond the Fringe’ comedy review, as a ‘futile gesture’.

The story opens with an account of an accidental ‘friendly fire’ incident in which a group of young reservists has been shelled by their own artillery as they queued for dinner. It’s told from the viewpoint of Lieutenant Culver, a veteran of WWII called back into service because he never removed himself from the reserve list – a decision he now bitterly regrets as he witnesses the pointless cruelty, stupidity and ineptitude (like the friendly fire incident) of the military regime he finds himself back in. He misses his wife and post-war peacetime life, and despairs as the world lurches back into yet more wars and conflicts in distant lands.

His fellow officers are appalled by the colonel’s gung-ho, macho manner and uncompromising orders. Most notably rebellious is Captain Mannix: he hates the strutting colonel, and his behaviour with him borders on open insubordination. When he begins leading his group of physically unfit men on the pointlessly barbaric, horribly long march, however, he’s determined that they – and he – will complete it, depriving the colonel of the satisfaction of confirming that they’re ‘soft’. It’s a matter of honour for him.

What follows is sometimes almost unbearably grim, but there’s a kind of redemption and softening at the very end in a scene when the march has ended. As the men try to recover from the ordeal, ‘one of the Negro maids employed in the unit’ shows human kindness when she sees the half-crippled Mannix swaying giddily as he limps towards the showers:

Culver would remember this: the two of them communicating across that chasm one unspoken moment of sympathy and understanding…

It’s a moment that almost makes the previous fifty gruelling pages worth enduring.

 

 

Novella or long story? Richard Ford’s anthology, and Eudora Welty

The Granta Book of the American Long Story, ed. Richard Ford (paperback, Granta Books, 1999; first published 1998). Post 1

Why this unwieldy title? Ford’s introduction ‘Why not a novella?’ explains why he’s preferred the generic term ‘long story’. After discussing some of the genre conventions and theories in fiction (novel, novella, short story), he gives a historical account of the novella form, tracing it back to Boccaccio through to Goethe and later (Henry James, for example). He points out that novellas were particularly popular in Germany through the 19C, and they generated a great deal of earnest theoretical-generic analysis, much of it providing inconclusive or contradictory definitions of what exactly a novella was.

Granta Book of the American Long Story cover Ford canvassed fellow American writers to assess what they, as ‘practitioners’, believed a novella to be. No consensus emerged, but there was a great deal of disagreement when Ford compiled this anthology in 1998.

He finally opted to go with ‘long story’ as a ‘possibly less historically-infuriating and ultimately freeing expression’. His purpose was to ‘address readers and writers who relish long stories…free[ing] its audience to write and relish as suits its wishes, undistracted by offstage wranglings over nomenclature.’

Despite his best efforts to come up with a ‘spanking’ definition himself, he could ascertain nothing to ‘discern anything other than length to distinguish these stories as a uniform genre, or to distinguish them consistently from their seemingly better-defined narrative cousins’.

So that’s sorted that out.

The stories Ford selected for this anthology were all written between the end of WWII and the time when he was compiling it. They vary in length – which, as he’d argued, ‘is just another arbitrarily chosen attribute’. Some were called ‘novellas’ when first published, but he’s decided he just doesn’t know what that term means – and neither is there any agreement generally – so why not consign ‘a worn out literary term into retirement.’

His main criterion for selection was subjective: he chose stories that he considered ‘excellent’, but concedes that some readers will disagree with his choices (I’m one of those: more in a later post.)

American writers since the end of the war haven’t tended to write long stories compared with their output of novels and short stories; perhaps this is because of the exigencies of ‘magazine space and publishing economies’. Maybe that’s the reason ‘novellas’ proliferated: it was expedient for the outlets in which they were published, and the contemporary taste and reading habits of their intended audience.

I’ll finish with a note about the first story in the collection (pp. 1–70); I hope to post about some of the others later on:

Eudora Welty (1909-2001), June Recital (from the collection The Golden Apples, 1949)

 This is a strange, hallucinatory story set in the fictional Morgana, Mississippi, told initially from the point of view of Loch Morrison, a small boy of about ten, in bed with a fever. He spies, ‘Rear Window’ style, through his bedroom window, and later from a tree outside it, on the goings-on in the house next door.

It’s now unoccupied. Loch observes a young couple sneaking into the house and disappear upstairs – it’s obviously a place where they can have sex, but of course the boy is too young to realise this.

His big sister Cassie’s voice then takes over. Some years earlier she used to have piano lessons in the house; her teacher was an old woman called Miss Eckhart, the impoverished lodger there. She was very stern with her pupils, except for a flighty girl called Virgie – the same girl Loch saw sneaking into the house with her sailor boyfriend. Only Virgie could get away with challenging the teacher, because she had a genuine gift for music, and wasn’t frightened by her strictness. On the contrary, she bullied the old lady.

The story ends with a bizarre sequence of events (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to summarise them here). An old lady enters the former teacher’s room and starts setting fire to the dilapidated piano, still standing there, and to the rest of the room. It’s the room where Miss Eckhart used to host an annual June recital. Two neighbours spot the smoke, alert the house’s watchman, and confront the ‘fire bug’. The half-dressed lovers walk flagrantly out of the house while this altercation is going on, Virgie with a characteristic swagger.

In a poetic, elegiac coda, Loch reflects on these developments, and so does his sister. It’s a story full of steamy, sultry atmosphere, a sort of muted southern Gothic (Welty lived much of her life in Jackson, Mississippi). Miss Eckhart is sympathetically portrayed: a sad German emigrée, she longs to be accepted in the local community and to find love, but is always treated as a person with an alien, outsider’s culture. Her passion for music isn’t appreciated (or even wanted) – even the talented pianist Virgie is unimpressed by her, and treats her contemptuously and cruelly.

People like the spirited, rebellious Virgie and lonely, despised Miss Eckhart have no connection – with each other, or anyone else. They’re ‘deliberately terrible’:

…roaming on the face of the earth. And there were others of them – human beings, roaming, like lost beasts.

 

 

 

The Internet meant death: Jonathan Franzen, Purity

Jonathan Franzen, Purity. Fourth Estate, London (2015). Hardback, 563 pp.

Jonathan Franzen Purity cover Near the end of this novel one of the main characters, Pip:

…was thinking about how terrible the world was, what an eternal struggle for power. Being needed was power. Power, power, power: how could the world be organized around the struggle for a thing so lonely and oppressive in the having of it? ( p.539)

 [Her mentor and possible love interest Andreas is becoming increasing paranoid about his past’s secrets coming out, so takes to researching his own history online] He was so immersed and implicated in the Internet, so enmeshed in its totalitarianism, that his online existence was coming to seem realer than his physical self…Private thoughts didn’t exist in the retrievable, disseminable and readable way that data did…The Internet meant death

The aim of the Internet and its associated technologies was to “liberate” humanity from the tasks – making things, learning things, remembering things – that had previously given meaning to life and thus had constituted life. Now it seemed as if the only task that meant anything was search-engine optimization.

Dystopian novels have always tended to be more or less veiled critiques of the abuse of power by those in authority, and of the need to halt their dangerous manipulation of the people over whom they wielded that power, usually by controlling the way they thought about the society they lived in, using, among other methods, the media of mass communication.

Early in the 21C a new theme emerged in this type of fiction to reflect the rise of technology and the ever-increasingly intrusive role of the internet and social media. In 2013 Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle, later made into a rather poor film, highlighted the corrosive effects on society of the ubiquity of self-presentation online, especially in social media, resulting in the end of ‘reality’, privacy and secrecy.

In popular culture the TV series by Charlie Brooker and others, ‘Black Mirror’, first screened on Britain’s Channel 4 in 2011-14, then by Netflix 2016-19, worked on similar themes. Its title refers to the screens of high-tech devices like smartphones, and the storylines involved dystopian depictions of incursions by corporations and governments on data privacy, increasing surveillance, VR, and so on. These sinister developments for the purposes of corporations gaining greater power and profits resulted in the alienation of the mass users of the tech. The cynical use of people’s desire to use tech to achieve happier, more successful and fulfilling lives was a means of  furthering these organisations’ own nefarious schemes.

Jonathan Franzen’s Purity has a complicated plot based on the attempts of young American Purity Tyler, known as Pip, to find a niche in the world, pay off her student debt, and find the identity of her father, whom she never knew, and about whom her eccentric, tech-averse and antisocial mother – who dotes on her only child – refuses to divulge any information.

Pip’s quest, like her namesake’s in Great Expectations, leads her into making many poor judgements about people’s intentions and integrity. The plot takes us into the grubby, state-controlled world of East Berlin before and shortly after the fall of the Wall, as we follow the career of Andreas Wolf from anti-communist youth worker, with a taste for bedding the troubled young girls he’s supposed to be helping, to an internationally famous and charismatic online whistle-blower and exposer of secrets – a sort of Robin Hood version of Julian Assange.

Pip gets drawn into devious schemes to spy on people she becomes fond of, and whose existence she begins to realise have an important role in her own murky history. Her gradual uncovering of the complex web of secrets and lies that have obscured her origins make for an engrossing read.

On the other hand there’s a void at the heart of this novel. The targets of Franzen’s criticism, seen in those quotations from the novel at the top of this post, are just too cartoonishly portrayed. Yes, this is a wicked world, and we place far too much trust in those who control social media and the internet’s capabilities for not always humanitarian ends. But I’m not sure this critique, wrapped up in an unwieldy and over-long plot with a large cast of not always well differentiated or sympathetic characters, merits nearly 600 pages of prose.

Franzen writes well, and I don’t mean to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy this novel. Its shifting viewpoints and long view of history and culture are handled skilfully, and there’s an assured poise in the use of language (despite a really dud musical metaphor about the ‘rock-and-roll’ effect of sunshine on a bay area fog).

Franzen is at his best when writing about families, their relationships and sex lives, and the intricate ways in which people attract, desire and repel each other. The dystopian IT chicanery seems comparatively contrived. There’s a good dog, but he doesn’t appear until near the end.

 

 

 

 

Secular hagiography: Richard Powers, The Overstory

Richard Powers, The Overstory. Vintage paperback, 2019 (first published 2018)

Shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2018, awarded the Pulitzer Prize 2019.

I didn’t get on with the fragmented structure and (as Lisa Hill described it in a comment), too ‘clever’ style of the subject of my previous post, Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic. The Overstory, by Richard Powers, makes McCann’s novel look like Hemingway. It’s overwritten and, at over 600 pages, way too long.

Richard Powers, The Overstory front cover The main problem is that it’s relentlessly evangelical about the amazing lives of trees, and the crazy stupidity of human beings in their systematic destruction of them – to make stuff that’s inconsequential compared to the trees’ magnificence. All this is unconvincingly conveyed through the intertwining stories of eight activists who dedicate themselves to campaigning against humankind’s misguided eradication of the dwindling forests of North America.

It’s a worthy cause, and I learnt a lot about trees’ astonishing capacity to communicate with each other, their super-sensitive root systems whereby there’s no such thing as a solitary tree in a forest: it’s one living entity. Dendrology, environmentalism and the evolution of trees and humans is drummed into the reader on almost every page, to the point where the flimsy plot and increasingly flimsy characterisation are lost in the mix of invective and lecturing.

This is a shame, because Powers – like McCann – can write. There are passages of soaring poetic beauty. It’s just that there are too many of them, and they tend to go on, and on. And they’re repeated constantly.

I won’t linger on the plot. The Overstory is a secular hagiography – like those medieval legendaries which contained dozens of edifying stories of saints’ lives. As in The Golden Legend, there are military saints (Doug is a Vietnam vet) and visionary hermit-ascetics. Each main character is damaged or needy, undergoes an arboreal epiphany/conversion to the cause of saving the trees. Some become martyrs (one of them dies in action; another gets two seventy-year prison sentences at the hands of a judicial system that’s portrayed as being as cruel and bigoted as any pagan Roman emperor sending the Christians to the lions). Others are ‘confessors’: secular saints who are punished or suffer terrible ordeals for their cause (or faith). One central group of activists even become stylites for a year – they live at the top of a giant redwood called Mimas (named after the Greek giant, son of Gaia) in an attempt to save it from the chainsaws.

There have been prominent campaigns like this in the UK, most recently the one in which environmentalists have tried to stop the destruction of ancient forests that stand in the way of train or road construction. This isn’t just an American problem.

The main characters are introduced with richly developed back stories in the opening section, Roots, as a disconnected set of short narratives – and these are the best part of the book. Each protagonist of these stories encounters trees as a crucial learning or development point in their vividly described family histories. They all either plant a tree (or one for each child in the family), or have some sort of life-changing encounter with them.

The second section, Trunk, twines these disparate branches of narrative together. Several characters join forces as eco-warrior activists. Another becomes a psychologist, originally joining these tree-huggers (as the dastardly loggers jeeringly call them) in order to research what makes them such dedicated altruists – and possibly suffering from obsessions or delusions that indicate mental health problems – just as some early saints were thought by their persecutors to have been mad. Gradually he realises he’s guilty of bystander syndrome, and gets dramatically involved.

After a section called Canopy, in which each character’s fate is outlined (most end badly), there’s a final part called Seeds. This is where there’s a small green shoot of hope. A pioneering tree scientist begins a collection of seeds of the world’s most endangered varieties and creates a sort of Noah’s ark for trees (she castigates the original Noah for saving only the animals, not the trees – which she considers more important). She’s convinced the forests are doomed, but there may be a chance of planting replacements some time in the future – when perhaps humanity will have learnt to value trees and recognise their essential role in this planet’s precarious ecology.

There are some other characters, too, but I’d started to lose interest by this point. I can see why this novel was rewarded and praised – its author’s passion is unquestionable, and I feel a bit churlish for being so critical. Maybe it’s another Moby-Dick: adored by many, disliked by more. It shares some of the longueurs and over-detailed intrusive research of Melville’s novel, as well as some of its poetic élan.

Apparently The Overstory is being adapted by Netflix. If the scriptwriters can tap in to its often rousing melodrama, flesh out the sometimes flimsy or stereotyped characterisation and prune most of the unsubtle preaching and relentless earnestness, I can see it making a pretty good film or series.

 

Highsmith and lambs

Patricia Highsmith, The Glass Cell. Virago Modern Classics, 2014. First published in the USA, 1963

Patricia Highsmith Glass Cell coverThis wasn’t the most soothing choice of reading during Britain’s third lockdown, when Covid cases are soaring, hospitals are full and their staff almost overwhelmed, and the days are short and mostly wet and grey. So I shall give just a few thoughts about this typically disturbing novel by Patricia Highsmith, and append some more uplifting stuff from recent walks.

The first third of the novel tells of the brutal treatment in a grim prison in the south of the USA of a man singularly ill-equipped to deal with its regime. Phil Carter is an educated, affluent engineer/designer who’s been convicted of commercial fraud. He failed to read certain documents his crooked bosses gave him to sign, and these provided incriminating evidence at his trial.

As usual with Highsmith, the reader is never on firm ground. The story is told largely from Carter’s point of view. Was he really so carefree in business matters, naïve or gullible, too trusting? Were these bosses, who continue to converge on his life after his six-year sentence has been completed, as dodgy as we’re led to believe? Given how Carter develops (or unravels) in the second part of the novel, it’s difficult to believe he’s entirely innocent – about anything.

It’s a novel about the toxic nature of jealousy. Like Othello, Carter is worked on by one of these ex-bosses, keen to give him the ‘ocular proof’ that his beautiful wife Hazel, who has visited him regularly in jail, has been having an affair the whole time – and that it’s still going on when he’s released and they start a new life in New York. The consequences are explosive, and left me when I’d finished the novel with something resembling an acrid taste.

The world that Highsmith conjures up in those novels of hers that I’ve read (link HERE to previous posts about them) is twisted, and the characters who inhabit it are damaged by its tortuousness. Often they inflict some more on others. I find this is not the best of times to be reading her.

Hibernating snailsHere then are some reflections and images from recent rural walks.

First, a cluster of what I presume are hibernating snails. They were tightly packed inside a drainpipe embedded in a garden wall – it must have been blocked, otherwise they’d surely have been washed away after all the rain we’ve had here in Cornwall in recent weeks. (None of the snow, so far, that’s swept across the north and south-east of Britain over the weekend.)

The steps are outside a house near Kenwyn Church. As they don’t lead anywhere, I assume Stone stepsthey once functioned as a means of stowing things more easily into a cart or truck, or to make mounting a horse less arduous. I like the patterns made by lichens and mosses (not sure what the difference is).

 

 

We have had a few rare days of sunshine. At this time of year, clear skies mean very cold air. This fine butterfly –  a red admiral, I think – took advantage of the warming rays on an olive tree that sits in a pot in the sheltered south-facing front of our house.

Butterfly

Most days have been grey and damp. Mrs TD and I had our spirits lifted on a walk last week at the sight of a field of ewes with their skipping, frisking lambs . The farmer was just leaving through the gate, so we were able to ask her about them. She said the lambs were just three days old. When we passed that way again a few days later I was able to snap this delightful scene: the lamb enthusiastically feeding from its placid mother, its tail wagging like a spaniel’s.

 

Ewe and lambThe sky was grey, but this sight brightened our day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Austin Wright, Tony & Susan

Austin Wright, Tony & Susan. Atlantic Books, 2011. First published in USA 1993.

Austin Wright, who died in 2003, was for many years an English professor at the University of Cincinnatti. There he had the reputation for minute critical analysis of literary texts. I’m afraid this shows in his first novel, Tony & Susan, not entirely in a good way.

It’s technically superb: a taut thriller is embedded in another novel that struggles to emerge from its shadow.

 Austin Wright, Tony & Susan coverSusan is sent the MS of his first novel by her ex-husband, Edward with a request that she provide a critique: something is lacking in it, he says in his letter. They’d divorced after the wreck of their marriage, precipitated by his abandoning a budding law career to indulge his desire to become a writer. Susan wasn’t pleased: she thought he took for granted her complicity in this (to her mind) deluded dream, supporting his fantasy with her salary as a college English teacher.

You see what’s coming: Susan, a self-confessed severe literary critic, especially of Edward’s apprentice work when they were married, reads the novel that forms the basis of this novel. It’s a metafictional, self-reflexive premise that I never fully bought.

The novel-within-a-novel is called Nocturnal Animals – which is the title of Tom Ford’s 2016 film version (I haven’t seen it: I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has). Mild-mannered maths professor Tony, his wife Laura and teenage daughter Helen are driving to Maine. They get involved in a dangerous game of chicken on the highway that culminates in a minor accident. The occupants of both vehicles get out, and it all goes horribly wrong from that point.

The three men from the other vehicle turn out to be nasty individuals, and they force Tony and family into a terrifying ordeal. Tony is forced to question his adequacy and agency. The plot manipulates him into increasingly destabilising positions.

All of this is narrated with alternating sections in which we get Susan’s back story and her reactions to Edward’s novel as it develops. Here’s where I started to lose engagement: as a teacher of literature she evaluates Edward’s narrative that I’d just read, and her analysis occluded my own. I felt placed in a position of uncertainty in my own judgement. This is probably what the author intended, but if that’s the case, I didn’t care for it.

Susan also inevitably looks for a personal message in this rather gruesome story. Is her ex suggesting that she is represented by one of the characters in his novel? If so, which one: the academic, unheroic Tony, who feels guilty and ashamed that he can’t act more decisively to protect himself and his family? Or, even worse, the leader of the men who threaten them? Or the detective who tries to help Tony find the thugs, eventually by resorting to dangerously unorthodox methods that expose Tony to even more menacing dilemmas and confrontations?

Similar questions arise about Edward: is he represented in some way by one of the characters? If so, what might be his cryptic message to Susan?

Wright manipulates Susan’s response, and my own. I was assessing her assessment of Nocturnal Animals and attempts to interpret it in terms of her two experiences of married life – after divorcing Tony, she’d married Arnold, a philandering doctor and had three children – and Edward’s: he’d remarried too. Is his novel really an allegory of their two lives: is he suggesting that they made a mistake by divorcing, or is he just taunting her for leaving him?

As a postmodern puzzle dressed up in a noirish tale of violence and menace it’s entertaining in patches, but ultimately rather cold and…I don’t know, kind of pointless.

Nunez, daffodils, holy wells again

Sigrid Nunez, Salvation City. Virago paperback, 2020. First published 2010

I thought Sigrid Nunez’ 2018 novel The Friend (link to my post HERE) was an intelligent, well-written and highly engaging read. I was disappointed by Salvation City.

Nunez, Salvation City coverMaybe it’s because it’s set in an imagined near-future flu pandemic in which many die – including some of the central characters in the narrative. Given our current dire situation here in the UK, where we’ve just entered our third lockdown in response to a scary surge in Covid cases, it wasn’t perhaps the best choice to cheer me up.

I don’t think that fully accounts for my dissatisfaction with the novel. The long central section has the 13-year-old protagonist, a sensitive lad named Cole, being more or less indoctrinated by a group of well-meaning religious zealots who live in the city of the novel’s title. They are convinced that the pandemic is God’s way of initiating the rapture, and only the chosen (ie those same fundamentalists) will achieve ‘salvation’.

I very nearly gave up on the novel after too many pages of their fanatical self-righteousness. Towards the end Cole shows signs of asserting himself and going his own way, but by then I’d almost ceased caring.

I’m afraid I can’t recommend this one – but do try The Friend. Don’t worry about the dog in it.

DaffodilsInstead here’s an image from yesterday’s local walk. In the grounds of Epiphany House (I recently wrote during first lockdown in April about this former convent and school, now a retreat and conference centre – though not much retreating or conferring is happening there at the moment – HERE). These are the first daffodils I’ve seen this winter. They lifted our spirits. Spring is on the way

It’s weird to be walking our local lanes and paths in a January lockdown, almost a year since we started doing this pretty much every day as our only permitted exercise during the first pandemic restrictions. We’ve seen spring flowers come and go, summer hedgerows burst into life, autumn and now midwinter. Soon the cycle will be back where we started. I guess the message is that life goes on (despite the efforts of our hapless leaders, who seem always to be tardily reactive, rather than proactive and firmly decisive).

Holywell Finally a picture taken the previous day at a north Cornwall beach we haven’t been to in ages: Holywell Bay. There are two holy wells in the area: one, a sea cave in the cliffs over the beach (the tide was too high for us to enter it), the other in what’s now a holiday park in the nearby village of Cubert. Their holy, healing qualities are said to derive from association with the northern English St Cuthbert, or a Welsh St Cubert.

The figure just visible in my picture top left is my brother-in-law, peering into the abyss. No, he was investigating a curious concrete structure in the clifftop – possibly some sort of bunker: this area adjoins Penhale, a stretch of sand dunes on which there’s a military establishment which the public can’t access. This is where Cornwall’s patron saint, Piran, is said to have landed on his miraculous stone from Ireland. I wrote about him and his oratory in the dunes HERE back in 2016.

You can read more about the wells and this area HERE. Link to my two posts on Bede’s Life of Cuthbert HERE.

 

Happy New Year to you all. As we’re all saying at the moment, surely this will be an improvement on last year.