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Review: The Twenty-Seventh City (1988) by Jonathan Franzen   Leave a comment

I have to admit that The Twenty-Seventh City, Jonathan Franzen’s debut novel, was a book that I found difficult to get through. I picked it up the first time, read about a hundred and fifty pages, then put it down again. A year later, I picked it up again with greater determination, started over, and managed to finish it, in spurts, over the course of five months.

Perhaps that admission will not surprise those who have read my scathing review of his latest novel, Freedom, but the two works, in terms of both difficulty and reward for effort, constitute a night and day difference. Where Freedom is pointless, angry, and worst of all, self-pitying, The Twenty-Seventh City is a complex and insightful look at the state of modern politics.

What is it, then, about The Twenty-Seventh City that makes it such a tough read? For many readers, it will be the difficulty of the prose. Despite the fact that Franzen is supposedly stepping away from the postmodern games of someone like Thomas Pynchon (who is briefly, gratuitously, mentioned in passing in the novel) toward a greater sense of realism, the fact is that his debut novel reads in many ways, like a throwback to modernism – one could easily imagine, for instance, that Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (1913) was a model for this text.

I’d like to think, though, that I have enough literary muscle to handle difficult prose, so I don’t think that was the only culprit. No, the thing that made the novel such a hard read for me was the way that Franzen continues to introduce new characters, even up until the very last pages. The sheer amount of names becomes impossible to keep track of, and this problem is compounded by the fact that Franzen doesn’t provide enough signals from the outset as to which characters are important and which are not. Everyone is named and described in with seemingly equal importance, giving no indication about whether they will continue to be important to the plot or not.

In the end, there are two characters are elevated above the rest: Martin Probst, a local developer and community leader, and S. Jammu, an Indian woman who was unexpectedly hired as St Louis’s new police chief. Once the reader realizes that these are the two figures that stand above the cacophony created by such a dizzyingly large array of characters, the novel starts to click. I am sure that rereading the novel with that knowledge would be a different, more rewarding experience.

That’s not to say that other characters aren’t important, including: Barbara Prost, Martin’s wife, and their daughter Luisa; Luisa’s older boyfriend Duane Thompson, whose relationship with Luisa begins the process of fragmenting the Prost family; Rolf Ripley, who is obsessed with Barbara despite the fact that he is married to her sister, Audrey; Jack DuChamp, an old buddy of Martin’s who acts as a barometer of the “man in the street;” RC, a black cop who plays an important role in the novel’s denouement; General Norris, a right-wing conspiracy theorist who smells something fishy in Jammu’s dealings; Asha Hammaker, an Indian princess who marries one of St Louis’s richest men and conspires with Jammu; Shanti Jammu, the police chief’s controlling mother; and Jammu’s various goons and pawns, most notably the handsome and ruthless Balwan Singh and the drug-addicted Barbara Prost lookalike, Devi Madan. There are more characters, many more, illustrating just how difficult it can be to keep track of which character is which in the novel.

While the pitfalls of such an approach are obvious, this vast canvas on which Franzen lays out his story also has its strengths. His deep knowledge of St Louis and its culture comes from the fact that he grew up there, but the skill with which he portrays the city in all its complexity is quite extraordinary, with the diverse array of characters on display a reflection of the city’s multifaceted nature. In spite of its particular context, however, The Twenty-Seventh City has a much broader scope that transcends both its time and location. Franzen states early on that “all cities are ideas, ultimately” (p.24), and thus St Louis, itself defined by the symbol of the Arch and its connection to Manifest Destiny, is also transformed into an idea.

So it is that The Twenty-Seventh City unfolds as a political novel of ideas, a “textbook dialectic” that pits “absolute freedom” against “absolute terror, the French Revolution à la Hegel” (p.198). Probst and Jammu are the opposing terms in this dialectic, which contrasts his rigid sense of ethical “decency” with her utter ruthlessness. Probst and Jammu thus find themselves on opposite sides of the fence in the political fight to unite the city and county of St Louis, only to find in their opposition a hidden attraction that perversely brings them together.

It is when Franzen engages with these grand political ideas that The Twenty-Seventh City rises above its limitations and truly soars. Franzen does not allow himself to get carried away, in contrast to so many other American writers during the 1980s, with railing simplistically against the conservative Reagan years. There is no easy dichotomy between freedom and tyranny, for it is the sheer apathy of the St Louis public that saves the day. There is a beautiful but sad irony in the fact that this lack of interest in their own political future is what eventually saves them from the traps that Jammu lays.

The Twenty-Seventh City was published, coincidentally, in the same year as Gayatri Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, and in many ways the appointment of Jammu in the novel addresses a parallel dilemma to what Spivak is describing. The faults that Franzen delineates in Jammu’s character, however, seem to me more incisive, more penetrating than Spivak’s analysis, suggesting as he does, through comparisons of Jammu’s character to Napoleon and Lenin, that the advent of revolutionary discourses of freedom is always endangered by the practical necessities of seizing power. Franzen’s key insight is that these apparently counter-revolutionary forces are not anomalies, but an integral part of the revolution itself, an inherent problem that easily inverts the original relationship between “theory and praxis” in such a way that “praxis dictate[s] that theory, in the short run, be its apologist” – that is, the ends come to justify the means in the most vulgarly Machiavellian sense (p.394). It’s a complex, clear-eyed view of politics that Franzen delivers in his debut novel that, sadly, he has been unable to sustain in his most recent work.

Rating: 4/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

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Posted March 15, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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Review: Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice (1998) by A.S. Byatt   Leave a comment

A.S. Byatt is one of those writers that has grown on me over the years. I first encountered her work, as most of her readers do, through her highly-decorated novel Possession, only to come away from it disappointed by a sense that an opportunity had been lost. The recurrent fault that I found in Byatt’s work was that she has a tendency to overwrite, with too many superfluous details and ornaments (think of her pastiches of Victorian poetry in Possession, for example, which were masterly yet, for me, void of interest) that distracted from the story she was trying to tell.

While I haven’t yet returned to Possession to gauge whether my initial impression was correct or not, I have nonetheless continued to read Byatt’s other works with an ever-deepening sense of appreciation. What I like most about her fiction is her sense of intellectual adventure. Byatt may be the most intelligent writer in British literature today. She is an author who demands from herself – and thus, in turn, from her readers – a rigorously honest and complex appraisal of whatever issue is at hand. While this determination sometimes leads to a tendency to overreach her skill as a storyteller, when it works, as it does in Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice, the results are outstanding.

As its subtitle suggests, Elementals takes the classic metaphorical opposition between hot (passion) and cold (rationality) and plays with it in new ways. There is, of course, an implicitly Blakean twist to how Byatt goes about doing this, in which hot and cold are never simple oppositions, but are instead made to depend upon each other in order to understand fully their meaning. This idea gets its fullest treatment in the allegorical story “Cold,” a full-blown modern fairy-tale that confirms Byatt’s long-acknowledged debt to Angela Carter.

While Byatt, in treating the opposing symbols of hot and cold in these stories, nods several times toward the Romantics – the narrator of “Jael,” for instance, remarks on her appreciation of Jane Eyre, a novel that gives particular weight to this metaphor – she also targets them repeatedly for critique. The Romantics, after all, privileged emotion and passion in their work, whereas Byatt urges the reader to consider the other side of the equation by pondering the pleasures and rewards of coldness and detachment.

Although this thread runs through the entire collection, Byatt makes her most articulate plea in “A Lamia in the Cévennes,” the underlying message of which forms an implicit riposte to John Keats’s poem “Lamia.” At the center of the story is Bernard Lycett-Kean, a painter who moves from Britain to France in order to pursue his rigidly solitary investigations into the problems of color. There he is visited by a lamia, a mythological, snake-like creature who promises him that, should he kiss her, she will be transformed into the woman of his dreams and love him eternally. Bernard, wary of such a pact and wary of giving up his solitude, proposes to paint her instead.

The story’s message hinges on a key couple of lines from Keat’s original poem: “Do not all charms fly/At the mere touch of cold philosophy?” This Romantic suggestion that we should not look too closely at things, that we ought willfully to blind ourselves for the sake of preserving an illusion, is vigorously opposed by Bernard. Instead, Byatt shows that, rather than leading to a simple opposition between science and art, Bernard’s rationality possesses an artistic impulse with a beauty all its own.

Byatt thus makes a repeated argument in Elementals for qualities such as coldness, rationality, and solitude – qualities that, while obviously more difficult to embrace than their warm, emotional counterparts, nonetheless have their own rewards and advantages. Byatt is not, of course, opposed either to Romanticism or emotions as such, but champions this cause out of a sense of balance. Today’s culture is unthinkingly sentimental, it seems, and so Byatt prescribes the qualities of coldness as an important corrective.

Byatt’s occasional tendency to overreach means that sometimes her work can be a bit hit and miss, but Elementals is impressive in its consistency. Byatt also helps matters by concluding the book with “Christ in the House of Jesus and Mary,” one of her best stories, in which she imagines the story behind a Velasquez painting of the same name. Speaking to the distraught cook Dolores, who will later become the model for Martha in Velasquez’s painting, the artist says: “You must learn now, that the important lesson… is that the divide is not between the servants and the served, between the leisured and the workers, but between those who are interested in the world and its multiplicity of forms, and those who merely subsist, worrying or yawning” (p.226). There are few statements with which I can agree more wholeheartedly. It encapsulates why it is that Byatt, whatever her occasional faults, is truly a great writer: for her, art and literature are not merely intellectual pastimes, they are intimately bound up in the living, breathing moments of living one’s life.

Rating: 4.5/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted March 4, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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Review: Amsterdam (1998) by Ian McEwan   Leave a comment

Often long-established authors, having been overlooked several times, end up being decorated for their lesser works, and in the case of Amsterdam, for which Ian McEwan won the Man Booker Prize, this pattern holds true. Not that Amsterdam is a bad book, but when I compare it to McEwan’s best – Atonement, of course, along with Black Dogs and Enduring Love – it doesn’t quite reach those same heights.

Nonetheless, it is hard not to admire the way McEwan writes. While managing to be as urgently postmodern in his style and themes as any other contemporary writer, McEwan pays great attention to the intricacies of plot and character. There is no navel-gazing in Ian McEwan’s novels, which always have at their center some motivating event or other that, like a stone being dropped into a still pool of water, sends a series of waves rippling through the rest of the plot – the discovery of the corpse in The Innocent, the balloon accident at the beginning of Enduring Love, the false accusation of Robbie in Atonement, and so on.

Although the death of Molly Lane at the beginning of Amsterdam appears set to follow this same pattern, it is not the central event. Instead, her death brings together two of her former lovers, the composer Clive Linley and the newspaper editor Vernon Halliday. Rather than a single event, McEwan provides his two main characters with two moments that have broader consequences: for Clive, his failure to intervene in a possible rape so that he can grasp hold of a moment of musical inspiration; for Vernon, his decision to publish front-page pictures of Julian Garmony, a right-wing politician who was also a former lover of Molly’s, dressed as a woman.

McEwan draws Clive and Vernon together first as friends and then, when circumstances turn against them, as enemies out to destroy each other. This pattern bears a strong resemblance to what happens to Bernard and June Tremaine, the husband and wife in Black Dogs who, having been drawn together by their Communist ideals, have their marriage torn apart by deep philosophical disagreements. Amsterdam and Black Dogs are both intended by McEwan, it seems to me, to be documents of their time, a summary judgment of the failures of the twentieth century as it draws to a close.

Like Bernard and June, Clive and Vernon are given opposing perspectives on the world – highbrow and lowbrow, artistic and commercial – that, for all their apparent disagreements, end up collapsing into an orgy of self-righteousness and mutual hatred. The perspective we get on the British media is, as one might expect, scathing, with McEwan delineating its willingness to plumb the depths of human depravity at the expense of any sort of sophistication or culture. Pages dedicated to literature and the arts are reassigned to sports, and real news is converted into grotesque sensationalism.

Just as scathing, though, is McEwan’s description of the complacency of the cultured elite. His assessment of how Clive has benefited from the post-war boom while denying the same privileges to the next generation is razor sharp, particularly when one considers that McEwan himself is a product of this era. “Nurtured in the postwar settlement with the state’s own milk and juice, and then sustained by their parents’ tentative, innocent prosperity, to come of age in full employment, new universities, bright paperback books, the Augustan age of rock and roll, affordable ideals,” writes McEwan. “When the ladder crumbled behind them, when the state withdrew her tit and became a scold, they were safe, they consolidated and settled down to forming this or that – taste, opinion, fortunes” (p.13). Such, then, is the state of post-Thatcher Britain, which forms part of a repeated pattern of social ideals that end in despair and inequality.

The curious thing about modernity, McEwan notes, is that this despair and inequality seems to emerge, paradoxically, from cultural origins that promise great beauty, joy, and hope. In making this point, Amsterdam points repeatedly back to the Romantics. The Millennium Symphony that Clive Linley is composing, for instance, is compared to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” In a conversation toward the end of the novel, Clive tells how he once set the Romantic poet William Blake’s “The Poison Tree” to music. And of course, when he is in need of inspiration, Clive habitually retreats to the Lake District, a region of England that occupies a privileged place in English letters, having inspired authors such as William Wordsworth and Jane Austen.

Initially when I got to the end of Amsterdam I was a bit nonplussed by the way that McEwan failed to upstage my expectations as to how the story would end. Upon further reflection, however, I realized that the novel’s depressing spiral was crucial to the point that McEwan was trying to make about the history of modernity, which is that no matter how forceful the push for change and reform, no matter how “enlightened” and scientifically advanced we become, the tedious fact remains that human society continues to resort to the old tactics of brutality and conflict. The more things appear to change, the more they stay the same. The city of Amsterdam comes to symbolize this paradox in the novel. “There was never a city more rationally ordered,” writes McEwan, and yet it turns out to be the place where people can get away with murder (p.168).

What makes Amsterdam a somewhat less successful novel than its closest cousin, Black Dogs, is its lack of a third perspective. In Black Dogs that role is played by Jeremy, Bernard and June’s son-in-law, who mediates between the conflict of the two central characters, and whose ability to see the gray areas that Bernard and June miss provides the novel with a hint of ambiguity and even hope. Amsterdam, however, feels a little unbalanced in this respect, and therefore underdeveloped – one might easily, one suspects, have transcended the doom and gloom of the bitter fight between Clive and Vernon by complicating our view of one of the other characters – Julien Garmony, perhaps, or George Lane, or even, best of all, Molly.

Rating: 3.5/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted February 25, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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Review: Continent (1986) by Jim Crace   Leave a comment

Along with several other prizes, Continent won Jim Crace the Whitbread First Novel of the Year Award, which must have been something of a surprise to him considering that this is not a novel but a collection of short stories. Despite being his debut work – novel or not – this book represents a mature and intelligent beginning to Crace’s career.

There are two things about Continent that stood out for me as a reader. The first is the quality of the writing. Crace avoids the great error practiced by many authors today, which is to be ornamental and flowery under the guise of being “poetic.” This excruciating emphasis of style over substance is too often the misguided product of creative writing programs. Students in these programs should instead study Crace’s style to get an idea of what good writing is like: poetic in places, certainly, but also possessing a level of restraint and understatement that lends muscle and nuance to his prose. There is no unsightly narrative flab on display here.

The other thing that stands out is Crace’s intelligence. Continent does not possess any recurring characters or plot lines, but the stories – with the exception of the second story “The World with One Eye Shut,” easily the weakest piece in here – are linked by the common theme of the ambiguity of change and progress. The opening piece “Talking Skull,” for instance, is told from the perspective of Lowbro, an educated young man whose father has made a fortune from selling the milk of hermaphrodite cows to a superstitious populace. Torn between his family history and the enlightened perspective his education has brought him, Lowbro is faced with difficult decisions about how to manage his future.

Crace’s repeated message that the arrival of modernity has, beneath its glittering surface, numerous drawbacks that cannot be undone is a message that stretches all the way back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But Crace is never simplistic or hackneyed in his treatment of these problems: the conflict between modern and ancient in each story is like a coin that is turned over and over, allowing the reader to see the qualities and flaws of each side. The objects of the old superstitions that appear in these stories – magical milk, sexual rituals, electricity, horse-riding traditions, calligraphy – are thus always presented ambiguously. The benefits of science and progress, Crace shows, can come at a high price, a trade-off that is reflected, in turn, by the mixture of profound wisdom and superstitious ignorance that characterizes pre-modern cultures.

It is hard not compare Crace’s stories in Continent to both Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges, although these two influences are fused together in an original way that belies mere imitation. There is, for instance, Crace’s decision, reflected in the title of his book, to set his stories in a kind of utopia in which particular settings are sometimes suggested (“Sins and Virtues,” for instance, is clearly set somewhere in the Middle East) but never clearly defined, a strategy that both Kafka and Borges use to great effect. But the most important aspect of their influence lies in Crace’s fusion of fiction and philosophy – not using literature as a didactic vehicle, but as a mode of critical inquiry, searching and questioning as the narrative snakes forward, always willing to double back and, if necessary, bite its own tail.

Continent is a solid book, but not a perfect one, and it is in the area of unity and purpose that I have my biggest reservations about it. The second story is glaringly out of place in the collection, as I have already noted, and I am bemused at what Crace was trying to do by suggesting that this fictional continent is somehow a variation on our own world – it’s not, and this strategy of suggesting a parallel world seems to me a distraction from the book’s real themes. That said, there was plenty to like in this collection, and it makes me looking forward to seeing whether Crace has fulfilled the promise evident in his debut work.

Rating: 3.5/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted February 14, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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Review: Freedom (2010) by Jonathan Franzen   Leave a comment

“Humanity,” Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote in Being and Nothingness, “is condemned to be free.” So too it might be said that readers of contemporary fiction are condemned to tackle Jonathan Franzen’s fourth novel Freedom, a work that arrived, after a hiatus of nine years, in a flurry of triumph and acclaim. Certainly “condemned” is a good word to describe how I felt about it by the time I got to the end.

Franzen is one of those writers that people know about by word of mouth. His breakthrough novel, The Corrections, is a book that you are likely to discover in the process of unwrapping a birthday present from your uncle and aunt in Connecticut, the kind of work that an overexcited friend from your graduate school days presses into your hand and says: “You have to read this. It blew my mind.”

I don’t mind admitting that I, too, caught the fever. I started reading The Corrections on a plane to Los Angeles at the beginning of last year, and by the time I finished it I had already started formulating plans to get my own family together for Christmas for the first time in more than a decade. While I found Franzen’s style unattractive and pretentious, there was something real and identifiable about his characters that won me over. The author’s apparent cruelty I saw as a necessary detachment on Franzen’s part, important to shading the moral grays that turned each of the Lamberts into well-rounded, believable characters. As a consequence, I also went back and read his first two novels, which were solid enough but did not reach the same heights as The Corrections.

It was with a sense of anticipation, then, that I began reading Freedom a few days ago. I was patient. I was hopeful. As I got deeper into the novel, however, there was no getting around the looming conclusion: Freedom was downright awful. By the time I reached the three-hundred page mark, just over halfway, finishing the book really did feel like a prison sentence. Dutifully, I served my time.

So what can account for this spectacular failure? How can Franzen strike such a chord with The Corrections and then come across as so utterly tone-deaf in Freedom?

Before recounting its shortcomings, I should first say what it is that I liked about Freedom. After all, I did not expect it to be an unmitigated disaster from the very beginning, and it certainly did not feel that it was going to be while reading the initial stages of the story. Other reviewers have complained that the central characters of Patty and Walter were too dull to carry the story, a view with which I heartily disagree. Although Patty’s stilted “autobiography” (which Franzen, for no good reason, writes in a third-person voice that is indistinguishable from the rest of the narrative) is an incredibly clumsy approach for an established novelist, I found Franzen’s depiction of their tepid romance and marriage, especially the little details of the ways in which they repeatedly hurt and betray each other, to be painfully real. This element of insight in Franzen’s writing is what made The Corrections so successful, this feeling that while reading his novel you are also undergoing a painful but necessary session of emotional therapy.

Apart from the Berglund’s disintegrating marriage, however, there was little to admire about Freedom. What made the early pages of the novel interesting was Franzen’s critique of the ways in which human beings delude themselves. Thus, for instance, we witness Patty being led astray by her drug-addicted, emotionally manipulative college friend Eliza, who preys on Patty’s guilt and lack of esteem in order control the latter’s life. Similar spirals of reactive (should I say “corrective”?) behavior are set up throughout, from Joey’s reaction to his parents to Patty’s desire for Richard.

The novel thus provides the reader with a litany of self-destructive, guilt-ridden, passive characters – a lot like The Corrections, you might say, but here is the strange thing. Whereas Franzen, in the early stages of the novel, highlights the negative effects that flow from the weakness and endless self-pity that motivate his characters, by the second half of the novel he attempts to transform these same horrible qualities into virtues. Walter, in particular, is supposedly redeemed by the contention that his inherited negativity gives his life “meaning.” Despite the utter betrayal of his own ethical standards and his staggeringly grandiose sense of self-righteousness, Walter is excused, in the narrator’s eyes, because he is a “nice man.” Even Walter’s loser brother, Mitch, a worthless drunk who shirks all responsibility for his five children, is transformed into a kind of Thoreauvian hero by the end, living peacefully by a lake and only working when he has to. It’s a bizarre and bewildering moral u-turn that Franzen takes, down a path where I simply cannot follow him.

My increasing disillusionment with the novel as I was reading it only served to highlight other technical flaws that I might otherwise have been willing to overlook. I have already mentioned my dislike for Franzen’s style in his earlier works, but in Freedom this pretentiousness reaches a level that is simply unbearable. I teach my students to read literary texts closely on the grounds that authors choose their references and metaphors carefully, but Franzen’s frantic need to provide in-depth descriptions of inane, unnecessary details and endless name-dropping was too much. Consider, for instance, this ridiculous sentence from the novel’s epilogue (by which point I was at the end of my patience) in which Franzen makes a horrible contrast between the artificiality of the social networking site Twitter to the authenticity of birds in nature:

“There was plenty of tweeting on Twitter, but the chirping and fluttering world of nature, which Walter had invoked as if people were still supposed to care about it, was one anxiety too many.” (p.546)

To make matters worse, there are numerous other occasions where Franzen not only constructs hopelessly unwieldy metaphors, but also proceeds to insult the reader’s intelligence by explaining the symbolism: he makes a lazy parallel, for instance, between Jenna’s manipulation of Joey and the dubious loyalty shown to him by his right-wing political connections (p.401); the comparison of Patty’s split from Richard to America’s withdrawal from Vietnam (p.510); and, worst of all, the analogy between Joey’s grotesque search through his own feces for his wedding ring to his arms deal in South America, the difference being that “there was no gold ring hidden in this particular pile of shit” (p.441). No, indeed, there was not.

When I started reading Freedom, I thought I had some idea, based on my reading of his earlier novels, of what Franzen was setting out to achieve. What is most disappointing about Freedom is not that it is a failure, but that it is a betrayal of the kind of unrelenting emotional honesty that I once thought I detected in Franzen’s work. A great writer is one who invites you to resist them and wins you over anyway, which is what happened to me with The Corrections. Freedom, by contrast, seems like a miscalculated attempt to preach to a particular section of the choir, and surely Franzen, who early on in the novel takes Walter to task for being unattractive precisely because he is so passively agreeable, should have understood this same dynamic in his readers.

Rating: 1/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted February 4, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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Review: The Rachel Papers (1973) by Martin Amis   2 comments

It is hard not to compare The Rachel Papers, Martin Amis’s debut novel, to Lucky Jim, the best and best-known work by his famous father, Kingsley Amis. Both, after all, are novels of disillusionment, with Jim Dixon finding that academia is rife with petty politics that take away from the fulfilling life of the mind he once envisioned, while Charles Highway, the protagonist of The Rachel Papers, seduces and then discards a slightly older woman by the name of Rachel, concluding that she is not a suitable match for him.

That, however, is where the comparison should end, for The Rachel Papers is a critical parody not only of Lucky Jim, but of a whole subgenre of writing about youth and its illusions. This kind of novel is ripe for caricature precisely because its features have hardened into a recognizable set of clichés: the uncouth but lovable narrator, for instance, whose rough exterior is a defense mechanism in response to the perceived injustices of the world.

While there are numerous novels that fall into this subgenre, two in particular stand out in the period preceding The Rachel Papers: Lucky Jim, as I have already mentioned, and The Catcher in the Rye. Amis never mentions the latter directly, but Charles does say on several occasions that he has been “reading a lot of American fiction,” and it is not a long shot to suggest that Rachel’s on-again, off-again American boyfriend DeForest has echoes of Holden Caulfield.

For Martin Amis, the disjunction between tough exterior and sympathetic core is ripe for critique. The implication is that we, as readers, see past these defense mechanisms in order to perceive that, beneath the angry countenance they present to the world, characters like Holden Caulfield and Jim Dixon are really romantics, misled into unhappiness by a mixture of cynicism and bad faith. Amis sees this gesture as encouraging a falsely sentimental view of youth, one that overlooks its stupidity and capacity for narcissism.

Charles Highway is the antidote to such mawkish sentimentality. Seeing the imminent arrival of his twentieth birthday as the entrance point into maturity, Charles sets out to make the most of his remaining time as a teenager. He moves from his family’s home to live with his sister, Jenny, and her boorish husband, Norman, in order to attend a school designed to help him get into Oxford University. Central to his farewell to his youth is his desire to sleep with an Older Woman, and that is where Rachel comes into the picture.

Not that Charles is desperate to lose his virginity – indeed, he already has a more-than-willing casual partner in Gloria, and the reader discovers that he has had sex with several other women, often followed by painful bouts of sexually transmitted diseases. But the seduction of Rachel is presented as a meaningful Goal, an encounter with an Older Woman, experienced and knowledgeable. Of course, the issue of Rachel’s age turns out to be farcical, since she is barely older than Charles, turning twenty herself during the course of their brief affair.

The Rachel Papers is an unpleasant read (what book by Amis isn’t?), but this horribleness is strategic. Amis takes aim at every sentimental preconception we might have about his youthful protagonist, emphasizing in particular the vulgarity of Charles’s body as he spits (“hawks”), leaks, squeezes, and vomits his way through the story. Charles is apparently not squeamish about any taboos, revealing his incestuous feelings toward his sister, for example, sniffing Rachel’s dirty underwear, and theorizing calmly that, based on his tastes and level of sensitivity, he “ought” to be homosexual, thus turning his enthusiasm for women itself into a kind of perversion. Amis shuts down any avenue for seeing his protagonist as a misunderstood romantic: from his sexual behavior to his intellectual pursuits, the reader has the sense that Charles knows exactly what he is doing and how revolting he really is.

The one remaining illusion for Charles seems to be that life will change once he becomes an adult, an assumption that seems to come true when, in his Oxford interview, the professor neatly pulls apart the contradictions and intellectual misappropriations in Charles’s arguments about which no one had previously dared to challenge him. But even Prof. Knowd’s incisive assessment of Charles’s abilities and shortcomings does not represent real maturity, but instead a sort of advanced pissing contest that suggests adulthood is a complicated continuation of, rather than a genuine break from, the immaturity of youth.

Amis’s rampage against the false sentimentalization of youth is not without precedent, although the best examples tend to come not from recent fiction but from the nineteenth century, such as Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe and Gustave Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education, both of which deal with the seduction of an older woman and the subsequent disillusionment of the young male protagonist. In Charles’s obsessive note-taking about his life and the people around him – the title of Amis’s novel refers to one of Charles’s notebooks detailing the affair with Rachel – there is also an implicit reference to a famous section of Søren Kierkegaard’s monumental work Either/Or titled “The Diary of a Seducer.” Kierkegaard uses the persona of Johannes to detail his idea of the “aesthetic life,” a perspective to which the grotesque Charles provides an obvious counterpoint. Charles also self-consciously imitates Franz Kafka by writing his own Letter to My Father.

Amis’s chief literary and intellectual point of reference, however, is William Blake, chosen because of his famous exploration of the line that divides innocence from experience. In one scene, for example, Charles recites to Rachel the first stanza from “The Clod and the Pebble” from Blake’s Songs of Experience, expecting her to reply. Charles ends up having to complete the rest of the poem himself, implying that Rachel is to some extent an innocent, lacking the language of experience that Charles has embraced (even the literal meaning of her name, “ewe,” suggests a slightly older version of the innocent Lamb from the opening of Songs of Innocence).

The Rachel Papers is at its best when its focus is on this intellectual context. In recent interviews, Amis himself has said that the main shortcoming he sees when reflecting back on his debut novel is how awkwardly the plot unfolds. The novel does meander along at times, and there were moments when I thought that this book would have made a better short story – tighter and more focused – than a full-length novel. I can’t say that I loved The Rachel Papers, but my own experience has been that it has provided much food for thought, and that, rather than pure entertainment, is the sign of good fiction.

Rating: 3.5/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted January 28, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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Review: The Electric Michelangelo (2004) by Sarah Hall   Leave a comment

There is a longstanding view that literary fiction is too mannered, too stylized, overly complicated in a way that is uselessly ornamental rather than essential. As a critic and teacher, I often find that such accusations come from people who lack the essential tools to grasp the strategies and purposes of the genre, reflecting that lamentable human tendency to conflate what we don’t like with what we don’t understand. Reading Sarah Hall’s The Electric Michelangelo, however, was an experience that caused me to rethink this question.

Hall’s novel tells the story of Cyril “Cy” Parks, a young man from the northern English resort town of Morecambe. Starting in the early twentieth century, the plot, such as it is, follows Cy’s life from youth to old age. His early life is dominated by his mother, Reeda, punctuated by boyhood adventures that come to an abrupt end when he is apprenticed to Eliot Riley, the town’s tattoo artist. After the passing of these two role models, Cy heads across the Atlantic to Coney Island, where he falls in love with Grace, a woman who asks him to tattoo eyes over her whole body. When things turn out tragically with Grace, Cy drifts around the world, eventually returning to Morecambe as an old man, taking on a young woman, Nina Shearer, as his own apprentice.

The plot itself is linear and curiously pedestrian – even Cy regularly thinks of his life as being “fated,” to such an extent that it often feels as though the story only shifts in any meaningful way when it receives various nudges from Hall. The complaint that “nothing happens” is a common element of the aforementioned criticisms of literary fiction, but that leads me to wonder: is the laborious plot of The Electric Michelangelo inherent to the genre, or is it simply poor craftsmanship on Hall’s part?

The issue of narrative drive is a complicated one, bound up as it is in this question of the purpose of literary fiction. The complaint that “nothing happens” has its mirror image, after all, in the counter-criticism made against popular fiction that, for all its thrills, twists, and romance, one is left with a certain feeling of hollowness, a sense that the narrative energy on the page of a popular work in the end amounts to very little. What is supposed to distinguish literary fiction from its popular counterpart, from this perspective, is the idea that the literary fiction has a sense of meaning and profundity. It gets us to think and question, rather than merely providing entertainment.

In The Electric Michelangelo, Hall’s words seem to be made of concrete. Decorative, poetic, but heavy and inert, the novel moves from the sheer force of her authorial determination rather than any sense of inner momentum. The lack of narrative energy in Hall’s novel is an affirmation of the great secret of authentic storytelling, that a plot contains the greatest amount of life when the author is forced to cede some control over the artistic process – the ancient Greeks, with their Muses, knew about this principle, and one might say that this idea has been confirmed for today’s audience, for instance, by John Fowles in The French Lieutentant’s Woman.

Now, it is true that one of the qualities of literary fiction is that plot may be sacrificed to meaning: think, for instance, of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, a work that is full of meaning but short on action. I know from my own experience of encountering Dostoevksy’s novel as a young, inexperienced reader and then returning to it, with somewhat wiser eyes, how a better understanding of the world of literary fiction can enrich and deepen one’s perspective on a work. But what makes Dostoevsky a successful writer of ideas is his willingness to allow ideas to enter the world of his story that challenge, in an authentic way, his own. The nihilists that appear in Dostoevsky’s novels are a magnificent example of this engagement: Raskolnikov, Stavrogin, and Ivan Karamazov are complex figures, never simply straw men to be knocked over by Dostoevsky’s own opinions. It is from this genuine clash of ideas that Dostoevsky’s novels generate their intellectual energy.

Hall, by contrast, is monotone in her heavy-handed attempt to generate meaning in her novel. Her metaphors are clumsy and unsophisticated, including the death of Cy’s father on the same day as the protagonist’s birth, the experimental sinking of Cy in quicksand, and disparate natures of the Siamese twins who run the Varga, Cy’s favorite bar in Coney Island. Hall seems desperate to saturate everything in her novel with meaning, but ends up instead with a cacophony of confused, forced metaphors.

Even more questionable is Hall’s decision to engage with history in her novel. The vague references to the Renaissance, especially to Michelangelo, are so shallow as to be laughable. The Renaissance, after all, was motivated intellectually by a rediscovery of classical ideas, whereas the ephemeral, visceral nature of tattoo art suggests instead a relationship to the Gothic that, if Hall had invoked it, might have allowed for a similar intellectual dynamism as runs through Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris.

Hall also imposes her own contemporary views back onto the early twentieth-century world that Cy inhabits in a way that provides a very one-sided perspective on culture has changed during this time. His mother Reeda, for instance, is a feminist before her time, an advocate for women’s rights who performs secret abortions in her hostel, and far too saintly to be believable. Despite the historical realities of the world in which he lives, therefore, Cy lives in an unrealistic bubble that is unconvincingly welcoming and tolerant toward women and minorities. Hall is so insistent on preaching to the reader that, toward the end of the novel, Cy even delivers a diatribe to his young apprentice on the importance of young people voting.

The problem with The Electric Michelangelo, in the end, is the ubiquity of Hall’s fingerprints over every last inch of her creation. The novel suffers, not because “nothing happens,” but because Hall is unable or unwilling to open up her story to the contingencies of the artistic process. It was the great Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin who identified the “polyphonic,” many-voiced nature of Dostoevksy’s work, and it is precisely this element that is missing from The Electric Michelangelo. The crucial element that defines literary fiction, therefore, is the willingness of the author to write against herself, to allow ideas and prejudices to be weighed without the sense, from the reader, that the measure has been fixed (even if, in reality, they have).

Rating: 2/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted January 20, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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