Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Karl Ove Knausgaard's THE MORNING STAR (tr by Martin Aitken)

I haven't been able to stop giggling since I realized, about 2/3 of the way through Karl Ove Knausgaard's return to fiction writing, that the novel in question has a Tl;dr in the form of an Of Montreal song, but it totally, totally does.


I wish I could remember how I even heard of The Morning Star. The pathetic native app on my phone that Alphabet still seems to insist is a reasonable replacement for the much-missed Google Reader has sussed out that I can be induced to read a lot more literary websites than it previously thought so almost every day LitHub or something grabs me with some crazy niche listicle of "new historical fiction coming out this fall" or whatever, so I suspect it was one of those? Or was it somebody on Twitter? Anyway, I owe somebody some half-assed gratitude; half-assed not because the quality of this novel is such -- anything but -- but because it's gotten me sufficiently interested in its author that I might have to track down some of his other work, most of which is massively multi-volumed, Proust style, and some of which rejoices in the stomach churning title of My Struggle in its English language editions.

Good thing that I a) Use an ebook reader and but b) Never go anywhere anyway, so the likelihood that anyone but my family members who share my big river account will actually see me reading such a thing is small.

But anyway, The Morning Star, hilariously and surely intentionally paginated by the Arbitrary Antarctic Avian in its hardcover edition at 666 pages. I see what you did there.

The titular star appears in the sky above the area of Bergen, Norway one night in 2023, shining its weird light over the messy and mundane lives of several characters whose direct experiences we share and an odd assortment of other figurants, including an infamous black metal band, three of whose members turn up butchered in the nearby wilderness, possibly at the hand of the missing fourth, and other strange phenomena like home invading badgers and giant swarms of crabs emerging from the sea to cause traffic hazards on the highway, possibly just confused by the giant glowing meatball hanging in the sky but maybe also drawn by a sinister power inherent in the giant glowing meatball hanging in the sky.

What does it mean, the meatball? What even is it? Is it natural or supernatural? Is it going to be hanging in the sky forever or is it going to burn out in a few days? Our characters barely seem to care, but they've got a lot of bigger stuff going on. Some of it is mundane and painfully ordinary; some of it is bizarre and unexplainable.

I'm mostly going to focus on the mundane, so I don't get yelled at about spoilers. The bizarre and unexplainable stuff is what both of my readers would be most interested in, so I will leave that behind the spoiler wall.

Arne is spending a pleasantish summer with his wife and kids at their summer home -- pleasant-ish because, well, the wife seems to be on the verge of a psychotic breakdown and keeps talking in her sleep about how she would like to maybe have sex with their neighbor Egil.

Egil has been making a documentary film about the black metal band mentioned above (and how can we not think of Aaron Antes & Audrey Ewell's amazing Until the Light Takes Us, here?) and for that alone might be the coolest character in the book but he's also saddled, about halfway through the novel, with a surprise childcare gig when his ex-wife decides to take off on a trip with her new boyfriend and puts their ten-year-old son on a bus to (approximately) where Egil lives before she even tells Egil about it, thus forcing him to scramble to prepare and then to confront the fact that either the ex has really done a great job poisoning their son against him or his little boy is really a foul-mouthed little prick of a child.

Meanwhile, the girl Egil had a crush on in school, Kathrine, has grown up to become a priest, and is suddenly experiencing a troubled marriage after she delays her return from an annual conference because she just doesn't feel like seeing her husband yet (despite the fact they have two kids whom she misses), only to finally come home to accusations from him that she's having an affair.

Then there's Jostein, an arts reporter for the local newspaper who turns a sour interview with a promising young artist into a hostile one-night-stand while his wife, Turid is having her own problems we'll get to in a moment and his son is having his own Dark Night of the Soul (really, this novel is the most like a Bergman film in prose of any I've ever read, and I haven't even gotten to Egil's many intense existential and religious crises which make up at least 25% of the book yet, oy!). The next day, he gets the a tip-off  about to the scene of the crime where the members of the black metal band have been found horribly dismembered, and rushes there, ready to scoop the world. And remember, this is still the mundane stuff.

Meanwhile, Turid works in a mental institution where she has the usual employee issues with a bitchy boss and a dispiriting job until suddenly one of her most problematic patients waltzes right out of the facility and into the night. Meanwhile, she and Jostein have both gotten faintly worrying messages from their son Ole, but are each assuming that the other is having a more ordinary night and will deal with their boy.

Then there's Solveig, a young woman fresh out of high school and working a dead-end job in town, living in an attic apartment whose landlords, a nice family who occupy the rest of the house, are away on vacation BUT their crazy drug-addict of a son has shown up to terrorize whomever he finds there, even if he's never met 'em before, but of course disappears by the time the police appear.

And there are still more characters, each of whom gets at least one turn in the first-person spotlight, giving you their excuses for bad behavior, disappointment with other characters, misunderstandings of loved ones' meanings, and, every once in a while, reactions to the giant glowing meatball hanging in the sky.

And slowly, things get weird, but never quite as weird as a genre fiction reader might be expecting, for while some possibly supernatural things happen that occasionally might seem like modern takes on, say, the biblical plagues of Egypt or stuff out of Revelations, mostly they're pretty tame by weird fiction standards, because Knausgaard isn't interested in weird fiction; he's interested in god and the afterlife and what it means when we both believe in these things and yet also know they probably aren't true. I didn't bring up Bergman films for nothing, is what I'm saying. I mean, the last 50 or so pages of the book is just Egil's essay about the meaning of death. Though the essay contains maybe a clue or two about some of the dangling plot threads in other people's stories, I'm not sure.

It's all almost farcically, stereotypically Scandanavian. But we like that stuff, don't we? We do. And while ultimately this is kind of a frustrating read -- the plot-before-the-essay ends with someone telling a character who has awakened from a coma that all of the stuff he's worried about -- with what he's worried about being the entire plot of the novel, including so many unresolved questions like who killed the black metal band -- is no longer of concern to anyone compared to what happened in the two weeks he was comatose, and do we get to find out what happened in the two weeks he was comatose? Do we buggery. Perhaps we can go back and tease it out, Gene Wolfe Reader style, someday by re-examining the narrative of his coma experiences, but not right now; the book (the actual, physical book printed on dead trees, which means reading it was a physically painful experience that is the main reason I'm not interesting in going back and teasing out dangling plot threads Gene Wolfe Reader style) is due back to the library where others in my city are anxiously waiting to be frustrated the way I am right now.

Reviewers who have referred to this as a shaggy dog story are not wrong. BUT, it's a really good and interesting shaggy dog story, with lots of good character drama, scenery porn and quality speculations on natural philosophy (are the laws of nature actually immutable laws, or are they merely reflections of matter's habits of "thought"?), theology, eschatology and whether or not a guy can actually drive his recently-crashed-in-an-unreported-drunk-driving-accident car clear across Norway with one headlight and no blinker without getting stopped by the police. So while I'm kind of shaking my fist at Karl Ove Knausgaard, I'm also impressed enough to, as I indicated above, want to read more.

Just not on dead tree. Oh, my aching hands.

Monday, November 22, 2021

John le Carré's SILVERVIEW

Even Proctor was impressed by the homespun nature of these exchanges, given the scale of things to be ironed out, but he had been long enough in the job to know that momentous happenings had a way of acting themselves out on small stages.

Is there anything more wistful, more beautifully sad than sitting down to read a writer's last published novel? Yes, yes there is, and it's reading that writer's posthumously published novel, which I finally had to do even though I'm cheating a bit because I still haven't read all of the rest of John le Carré, but I decided for once to at least try and be in sync with the man's true fans.

And this is the right year for me to read Silverview, because this is also the year that I discovered the pleasures of literature from the Balkans, especially the work of Selvedin Avdic, whose work is intimately concerned with the aftermath of the brutal and horrifying conflicts that took place there mostly in the 1990s but are still being felt to this day, as his horror novel Seven Terrors vividly showed me.

Silverview isn't set there or then, but its central concern is very much concerned with that place and time, specifically a multi-ethnic village a British intelligence agent came to cherish for its peacefulness amidst the horrors, what happened to it and to the family he all but adopted, and how that affected him, his own family in Great Britain (especially his marriage, the small stage upon which these big events first take place), and his Service afterwards. Our man this time is one Edward (or Edvard) Avon, son of a devout Polish Catholic who was an eager collaborator with the Nazis; in Avon's adulthood he attached himself as passionately to socialism/communism as his father had (at least claimed to be) to the Church until he became disillusioned with that cause and adopted another: the would be do-gooding of the western world, eventually in the form of British Intelligence.

Not that we know this for a while, because this is a John le Carré novel and we're going to get to know the other people in his life first, chiefly a youngish man who made a lot of money as a trader in London, became disillusioned by it, and decided to move to an East Anglian village and open a bookshop even though he turns out not to know very much about books. Julian is the kind of guy a lot of us enjoy disliking, in other words; born to the right-ish parents, raised to be a certain kind of successful, successful at what he was supposed to succeed at, and now just blithely assuming he'll succeed at something new with all the confidence that only having enough money to be able to afford to lose a lot of it without pain can give a guy. But of course, if it weren't for guys like him, a lot of little villages out there would never have book stores, or record stores, or groovy little coffee shops that aren't owned by behemoth corporations that over-roast their product and force everybody to adopt faux-Italian vocabularies for just so we can order a damned cup o'joe.

We still don't really have to like these guys, though.

But Edward Avon does, right away, for reasons that aren't clear until much later in the book. Avon is now living in that same East Anglian village and wins our hearts immediately for insisting that if Julian is going to run a bookshop in East Anglia, he had better already know W.G. Sebald's Rings of Saturn by heart. Which was just what I was thinking as I sank into Julian's story!

Then enter one Stewart Proctor, holder of one of those ambiguous positions within the secret service in which he commands a lot of resources and personal loyalty but seems still to have to answer to a lot of shadowy figures behind the scenes. We don't know why he's in this story for a good long time (relative, of course, to the fact that this is not a big, hefty doorstop of a novel) except that it has something to do with Edward, or with his wife, Deborah (a spy's spy in her own right) or maybe just their daughter, Lily? He circles around this story like a rather kind-looking shark until suddenly he strikes and fills the waters with, not blood but maybe adrenaline? For all that everybody in this story except for Julian and Lily are on the far side of age 60 if not 70, as if this is le Carré's version of All Passion Spent. But with, you know, spies.

And the odd terrifying lawyer, which I was already picturing being played someday by Janet McTeer, who once played Vita Sackville-West (author of All Passion Spent) in a TV movie. Rawr.

The novel is accompanied by a fond note from le Carré's son, who writes under the name of  Nick Harkaway, who describes the not-as-difficult-as-he'd-feared task of getting Silverview ready for publication in terms of wondering whether he dared "put eyebrows on this Mona Lisa" and for those who might raise their own eyebrows at the implied comparison, yes, this is a Mona Lisa. It is a masterful work from an artist very much in command of his powers and a lucky last gift to his fans. I wanted the experience of reading it to last a while but of course I read it in a day and a half, and now must return it to the library because lots of other people are waiting.

Ah, me.

Olga Tokarczuk's DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD (tr Antonia Lloyd-Jones)

"Nobody takes notice of old women who wander around with their shopping bags."

With a title lifted right out of William Blake's "Proverbs of Hell" and a cranky old Polish woman spinning us a yarn that keeps wanting to devolve into just another cozy mystery except she just won't let it, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead feels like it was written just for me. I know I say that about a lot of books, but I contain multitudes you know?

Yes, I know, that's not from William Blake.

The cranky old Polish woman in question, and our narrator of questionable reliability, is an astrologer-cum-schoolteacher-cum translator-cum property manager named Janina, and she lives in a sparsely populated region of Poland so near the border with the Czech Republic that most of the time, if residents try to call emergency services, their call gets bounced to a cell tower in that other country and gets a recording in the Czech language. This makes said residents both frustrated as hell and very self-reliant, none more so than our Janina. Who hates that name but never really gives us one she'd prefer to be called, so I will christen her Crank.

Hey, it's very in keeping for how she addresses and talks about her neighbors. Very keen on thinking deeply about language, she hates the idea of personal names being meaningless sounds bestowed on a person by their parents before anything is known about us besides how many fingers and toes we have and if we've got a winkle. So her nearest neighbor is called Bigfoot, and her next nearest is Oddball, and her best friend and partner in translating William Blake into Polish is called Dizzy.

Lest I convey the very wrong idea that this is a charming and quirky story, though, well, it isn't. Crank is embittered as hell, embittered as only a passionate defender of animal rights can be when she lives surrounded by poachers, riders of noisy and polluting all terrain vehicles and bands of hunters who stride in formation through her beloved woods shooting in unison at pheasants and ignoring her pleas to stop and listen to her for just a moment.

Then one day, Bigfoot turns up dead, choked on a bone from a deer he'd poached*. And some other deaths occur. All with at least two things in common; proximity to Crank, and the apparent or explicit involvement of animals. Most want to chalk these deaths up as accidental; Crank thinks she's witnessing a string of animal revenge attacks that makes them murders! Who is right?

That's basically the plot of the novel. Interesting enough, but what makes it stand out is, of course, the prose, brought to very vivid but agonizingly slow life in the audio edition by Beata Poźniak**. "Winter mornings are made of steel. They have a metallic taste and sharp edges," Crank observes one morning, for example. There are tons of gorgeous little prose bombs waiting to explode in your head and realize that Tokarczuk and Lloyd-Jones are a hell of a team and Tokarczuk is definitely a Nobel laureate.

For me and my kind there are added bonuses, including a character (and possibly a love interest for Crank; it's nicely ambiguous) who is an entomologist deeply engaged in study of and efforts to conserve a bark beetle (which, yeah, people who know me know that I have a grudge against bark beetles for destroying so much of my beloved Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, but it's really not their fault so much as human management policy's fault that they've run rampant there for decades, unchecked by the natural fire cycle and whatnot), and not just another character who is a mushroom picker but a whole society of mushroom pickers, so involved with one another and so organized that they throw a costume ball every summer right before the season for serious 'shrooming begins.

Finally, I want so much to gloat over how much I admire the last 20% or so of this book but it's really almost impossible to do without spoilers, which just kills me, but there you go. Drive that plow right over me, I dead.

And yes, I'm going to need to listen to this one again real soon, because it's that kind of book, one of my favorite kinds, that promises to be a very different read the second time around. Hooray!

*Having eaten my share of deer over the years, I cannot figure out what bone in a deer's carcass would be small enough for a man to choke on, but maybe it's a fragment? Either that or Tokarczuk and/or Lloyd-Jones think that deer bones are just like fish bones?

**Seriously. This is the first time I've resorted to bumping up the narration speed as I've listened. I found 1.30x to be adequate, but 1.0 was just too much as Poźniak draaaaaaaaws oooouuuuut allllllmost eeeeeeeveeeeeryyyyyy syyyyyyyyyyllable in her authentically Polish accent.

Saturday, November 20, 2021


you tried to live a small life, jane shoringfield lawrence. you tried to have no regrets. you tried to control everything. and now you are here, filled with guilt. how many have died because of your actions? because you married a man who did not want to marry, because you made him care enough to lie to you, because you forced him to confront those lies?

That's a pretty intense bit of dialogue-or-monologue whatever the story it's in, but coming from the mouth of a unique monster in the middle of a gothic novel that seems at first like it's going to be so by-the-books a gothic novel that it needs to have a woman with great hair running away from a building on the cover, it's more intense still, and that's what The Death of Jane Lawrence is from the get-go: intense. 

The novel at first seems like a gothic take on my beloved Middlemarch, and in many ways it is as I'll discuss a bit below, but we quickly learn that it's actually set in another world, in which the Great Britain analogue fought a terrible war on its own soil against a Russia analogue, and many ordinary civilians who took on the job of helping the injured and the trapped when cities were attacked or fell, were killed by chemical weapons. So this argues for it being a post World War I story, but there are no internal combustion engines or electricity; indeed, only the poshest of houses has gas lighting, so the feel is of the 19th more than the 20th century. Also, a kind of magic actually works, maybe. We'll get to that.

Jane Lawrence is our heroine's married name, though she starts off the novel as a PTSD-riddled ward of her late parents' friends, newly adult and faced with a tight situation. Her guardians are moving back to the city where her parents died horribly in the war, which she doesn't want to do, but the income she has from her parents isn't quite enough to live on by herself, so she needs to find a way to supplement that somehow. She is a self-taught accountant of considerable skill, but the alternate England in which she lives isn't quite ready to countenance a single young lady supporting herself that way, yada yada, point is, girl needs to get herself married. But see that bit where she's a self-taught accountant? There's a bit more to it all than that; Jane doesn't really do people, she does numbers. Brilliantly and often, and often to the point of not noticing that she's been doing numbers for ten hours without a break and oh, somebody's been trying to talk to her for the last twenty minutes oops.

Enter Augustine, not exactly the Tertius Lydgate to her Rosamund Vincy, but he is a well-educated and idealistic doctor who could have had a brilliant career elsewhere but is practicing in their quaint little town and living in his family's seriously dilapidated estate, so he is very Lydgate-ish if Jane is no Rosamund*. Lydgate-ishly, too, Augustine is known to be less than a brilliant businessman for all that he's a great surgeon, and so seems perfect for Jane, who doesn't want a husband so much as she wants an employer who can't fire her. Augustine has no wish to get married, but she quickly out-logics him and shows him he's better off with than without her, and quickly the two quickly reach a very businesslike arrangement with some odd conditions: Jane is to live in town in living quarters above Augustine's office, while he goes home every night to the aforementioned estate. She's not to ask why, nor to explore, maybe she'll get to have a peek at the place once in a while someday but never at night, etc. In other words, Augustine Has Secrets.

Circumstances, of course, force them out of their perfectly planned arrangements almost immediately, starting with the fact that oops, they're attracted to each other, rather ferociously. And then, oops, a mix-up on their wedding day teams up with an epic thunderstorm to trap them both overnight on Augustine's dilapidated estate full of secrets, some of which Jane has personal encounters with. Oops, oops, oops!

Chief among these secrets are terrifying reflections in darkened windows and dusty mirrors (dilapidated is actually a kind word to describe the state of Augustine's stately home; it's a barely habitable dump) of a young woman with blood red eyes and terrifying aspect. But Augustine's aspect is not merely that of a man who lives in a haunted house, as Jane quickly discovers; as I said, in this world, it's possible that a kind of magic exists, though it's a far cry from the mediums-and-Ouija-boards the ghostly apparition sets us up to expect; this world's magic owes more to that of Diane Duane's Young Wizards series than to any ordinary fantasy novel. Which means that, yes, Jane's got "a mind for magic" more than most of the other practitioners we encounter in this story, which might all be fine and good except it's via this maybe-magic that the monsters I quoted at the beginning of this entry have found their way into Augustine's house and Jane's life.

The last third of the book is chiefly taken up with Jane's reluctant embrace of her abilities (for very good reasons) and the various emotional, moral and physical costs of her doing so, and this novel does not pull any punches in describing them. She nearly starves, has to confront every fear she's ever felt in vividly rendered detail, and has to do some pretty gross things. This is not a story for sissies, though the 19th century medicine angle should have scared them off already.

But if, say, Sarah Chorn is not cranking out her tear-jerking gutbusters fast enough for you, I'd say you could add some Caitlin Starling to your TBR pile to fill in the gaps between Sarah's books. And if Sarah is new to you and Caitlin is not, well, you know what to do. Go make with the clicky.

Just have some kleenex handy.

*For one thing, she gets roped into helping with a dramatic and bloody emergency case on her very first day at his office, which is only the second day of their acquaintance!

Friday, November 12, 2021

Roberto Bolaño's 2666: The Part About Fate (tr. by Natasha Wimmer)

 (Blogger's note: I am devoting a blog post to each of the five parts of this giant doorstop of a novel. My coverage of Part 1: The Part About the Critics is HERE and of Part 2: The Part About Amalfitano is HERE)

While I was heckling the 2 Month Review Podcast's live recording last week, I accidentally developed a whole new ridiculous theory of what's really going on in 2666 that I'm going to have some fun with in this entry.

The third part of 2666,"The Part About Fate:, concerns a writer for a Harlem magazine with the arresting and bizarre name of Black Dawn. The writer, a youngish Black man, writes under the arresting and somewhat bizarre name of Oscar Fate. We spend a good third of this part looking back on his career to date with the magazine, writing profiles of human curiosities who are also figures of former prominence to the African American community, such as a former Black Panther leader who is now known mostly for a cookbook he compiled of recipes for barbecued pork, or the last member of the Fourth International in Brooklyn. We thus get a very clear idea of what this magazine is all about even before Oscar explains it to someone as a Harlem magazine written almost exclusively by and for Black readers. "Black Dawn" thus refers to a hopefulness, a notion that a new day will eventually come when its readership and Blacks everywhere have an equal stake in the dreams of equality and opportunity that we all cherish.

But, when Oscar first names the magazine to an interlocultor in a diner, that person doesn't see the name in those terms at all. He thinks it's a pretty messed up name for a magazine. His reaction, in fact, made me notice the name more than I otherwise might have in a 900+ page novel full of strange and interesting things. But yeah, because I'm above all else a reader of Weird Fiction, "Black Dawn" evoked a certain set of associations for me. I imagined it having pentacles and goats heads secretly embossed into the cover or something, and that its articles would include secret texts explaining 35 ways to use up the meat from the black rooster you sacrificed for Samhain or tips on removing bloodstains from your ceremonial robes or...

Meanwhile on the latest 2 Month Review, Chad, Brian and Katie were all struggling to describe the almost supernatural pull the growing urban nightmare of Santa Teresa is exerting on the characters of 2666, and I suddenly decided that Black Dawn is 2666's "The King in Yellow" only instead of being a play that drives its audience immediately crazy, Black Dawn marks them out for a slower and sadder doom: being drawn to Santa Teresa and its horrific milieu of femicide on a massive scale. So I imagined that at some point Black Dawn printed a long lost short story by Benno von Archimboldi that somehow fit its apparent as well as secret scheme, and that sucked in the Critics. And maybe also published something by The Poet that snared Amalfitano, possibly via his wife. And now it's ensnared Oscar who, as an employee of the magazine, was a priori doomed anyway, by yanking him off his beat covering notable Black eccentrics and sending him to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match between a promising Light Heavyweight boxer from New York, Count Pickett, and a Mexican upstart named Merolino Fernandez. After the magazine's full-time boxing correspondent was murdered.

Drama button.

Things get much less Weird and Eldritch once Oscar reaches Mexico, though. He falls in with a group of locals he's met via the other sportswriters in town to cover the boxing match, meets Merolino Fernandez's two sparring partners including one Omar Abdul who keeps showing up and being enigmatic around town and no I'm not thinking of Abdul Alhazred you're thinking of Abdul Alhazred shut up.

Anyway, once in Mexico this Part reminds me of nothing so much as a certain variety of 1990s movie (and movies are a concern in this part, as one of Oscar's new friends, Charley Cruz, owns a video store and a house he's done his best to turn into a movie theater of his very own*) best exemplified by Doug Liman's Go (1999), in which a drug deal goes sideways and an array of attractive young people scramble to save their skins from higher level dealers and a predatory Amway salesman in a series of hilarious and vaguely hallucinatory scenes. Similarly, once the boxing match that is Oscar's ostensible reason for being there is over (so over), Oscar and his new friends begin chasing a good time for what feels like reasons more important than just the good time itself but are still haunted by the Santa Teresa killings even before Oscar meets two women: Guadalupe Roncal**, a cub reporter from a big newspaper in Mexico City who has been pretty much forced to come and cover the killings all on her own and, being both young and attractive herself, is scared to death to do what she needs to do which includes interviewing the prime suspect at a nearby jail; and Rosa Amalfitano, Part 2's innocent and studious daughter-figure, who seemed mostly to be there to take care of her father (also named Oscar) but here revealed as a drop-dead gorgeous beauty whom all the guys, including Oscar, want to sleep with. Guess we know now why she's coming home late all the time in Part 2.

The male characters in "The Part About Fate" can barely be bothered to even acknowledge that the killings are occurring, and so it is only via Guadalupe and Rosa (and a friend of Rosa's, also named Rosa) that Oscar learns what's going on. Immediately he decides this is way more interesting and important than a stupid boxing match but his editors in New York strongly disagree and tell him to hurry up and file his story and get his ass back to New York. Only he's sort of promised to help Guadalupe survive her interview with a tall and terrifying man who speaks several languages including German (!) and, upon meeting his namesake and Rosa A's father, has promised that Oscar that he will get Rosa Amalfitano the hell out of Santa Teresea and onto a plane for Barcelona, to put lovely Rosa an ocean away from the killer's or killers' reach. But if Oscar Fate has been marked by the Black Dawn, Rosa and Guadalupe were born in its dark light, and their company does not seem like a guarantee that he'll escape his, hurr hurr, Fate.

Not that we get to find out in this book.

On a more serious note, "The Part About Fate" still feels, on a second reading, like the weakest part of the novel overall, though it briefly approaches the serious and ominous nature of the other parts now and then, and occasionally pauses to ask us interesting questions like, at what point does Oscar Fate (real name Quincy Williams) cease to be an African-American and become, simply, an American? Is it merely crossing an international border? Or is it only when he starts hanging out with native born Mexicans and White-Spanish Rosa Amalfitano? Does it happen within his new circle of peers, or is it merely a phenomenon of his relations with strangers in Santa Teresa? Oscar can't figure this out and neither can I. Bet that would be a great essay for Black Dawn...

*Because of this we are treated to discussions of the work of two cult directors, Robert Rodriguez and David Lynch, with more than a little extra attention paid to Lynch's Twin Peaks, also concerned with at least one dead girl and the high weirdness surrounding her murder, though the general plot and themes of Twin Peaks is pretty much a complete inversion of the situation in Santa Teresa in that there is only one victim, she is a white girl whom everybody knew and loved, and the whole close-knit community in which the murder took place is obsessed with the murder. Hmm.

*I remember on my original read of 2666 that I was all about Oscar and he loomed large in my memory as a favorite character because I've been a journalistic fish out of water just like he is, but this time around, this time I find that I'd really rather there had been a Part About Guadalupe. Maybe there is, somewhere, and Roberto's kids just haven't found it yet? Hey, a girl can hope...

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Virginia Feito's MRS MARCH

 Good old John Berger wrote the perfect encapsulation of what's going on at the heart of Virginia Feito's exquisitely tense and uncomfortable novel of the American mid-century, Mrs. March:

Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed is female. Thus she turns herself into an object of vision: a sight.

Mrs. March -- we don't learn her first name until the last sentence of the book; even when we flashback to her childhood and see her as a little girl desperately trying to earn her ice-queen mother's faintest sign of approval, she is referred to as Mrs. March -- is a walking, talking example of the consequences that these facts about our culture have on women*. A child of incredible privilege, raised by elite parents in the upper echelons of New York Society, Mrs. March has never had the faintest notion that what they declared to be good and important and true could be anything but. And while a slight scandal attached to her marriage to one of her professors, in which she would be (gasp!) a second wife, at least her husband is a professor, and a famous novelist, and handsome, so he's at least kind of a catch. But, of course, our Mrs. March has, in marrying her novelist, taken on an internalized competitor in the form of the First Mrs. March, this novel's first act of doubling its unpleasant-yet-internally-oppressed heroine.

This overwhelming pressure tightens up every passage of this book, written in a third person narration so tightly focused on Mrs. March's point of view and innermost imaginings that it might as well be first person. From beginning to end, the text crackles with the tension between how she feels other people see her and how she wishes to see herself. No room at all is left for how she might actually look or, god forbid, just be. She isn't so much conniving, as the nude women in art about which Berger made his famous remarks, with the forces that turn her into a sight as pre-emptively performing all of the physical and emotional labor necessary to turn herself into a sight before anyone else can. Her internal critic is the most ruthless I've encountered in literature, maybe ever; even when she manages to break free of it for a moment to enjoy, say, a stolen cigarette, her attention is still on what other people would think of her could they see her sneaking a smoke in her beautifully appointed en suite bathroom during her own party -- or rather, the party she organized to celebrate her husband's latest achievement.

 Even before an inciting incident at her favorite bakery sends her into new spirals of paranoia, self-doubt and impotent anger, we have seen her holding an internalized debate with herself over the impact of her decision to wear a pair of kidskin gloves out on her errands.
...they were a very distinct color for gloves: a sort of mint-green. She would never have picked that color out, not once believing she could pull such a thing off, but she thrilled at the fantasy that strangers, when they saw her wearing them, would assume her to be the kind of carefree, confident woman who would have selected such a bold color for herself.
This is a highly characteristic passage, as it turns out; we're treated to variations on it throughout. This makes for some exhausting reading, but this book is about a lot more than just a person struggling with an externally imposed ideal for herself; she is also struggling with the possibility that her husband, a famous novelist, has just ruined both her public persona and her private sense of self, what little of that there is. For as she stands in line at the bakery admiring the idea of herself those mint-green gloves have given her, her husband's latest novel is creating a sensation all over New York City (and thus, naturally, the world). Concerning the plight of a prostitute named Johanna who is so miserable and pathetic that her clientele consists of men who essentially pay her not to sleep with them, this new novel is supposedly his portrait of Mrs. March. Oh, not that Mrs. March is a prostitute or anything so vulgar, just that, supposedly, he has given his pathetic literary prostitute all of Mrs. March's quirks and mannerisms. Supposedly.

It is only when the bakery's owner mentions this to her while packaging her order that Mrs. March realizes this. Characterisitically, Mrs. March concludes that she can never patronize that bakery again, a decision she will make over and over throughout the novel because she simply refuses to handle misperceptions or misunderstandings at all, let alone directly. Many of these situations could be cleared up by a moment's honesty and a moment's courage to speak up to clarify or contradict what's been said to her (or, more often, what she has assumed she can infer via round-about means was said about her behind her back), but Mrs March, Mrs. March won't even read the new novel for herself, even though she used to be her husband's first reader. She prefers to imagine that her husband has cruelly dissected her character and laid out her every flaw, neatly lableled and impossible to gainsay, upon a table for the vulgar masses to see and titter over.

And as for asking her husband directly whether he did or did not base his pathetic prostitute character on her, heaven forfend, for just as Mrs. March has been raised to value appearances over everything in her own conduct, she has also absorbed, chiefly from her mother, the idea that marriage is the ultimate venue for what good old David Foster Wallace has memorably referred to as "appearance poker" and not a place in which to be vulnerable, confiding, anything less than perfect. To ask him about her suspicions would be to invite conflict, and there is no place for that in her perfect tableau of marriage. She did not win the prize of becoming his second wife by contradicting him!

Armed/burdened with her gloriously imperfect understanding of what's becoming of her world, her psyche begins to fracture in at least two very interesting but painful-to-read ways. First, she starts hallucinating, that people have started calling her Johanna, that damning exterior evidence of her failings as a housekeeper** like cockroaches and dead pigeons are appearing and disappearing in her immaculate Upper East Side apartment, and later alternate versions of herself; later she starts imagining not only that her husband has, in fact, exposed her to public ridicule via his ever-more-popular new novel, but has also developed a secret life as a murderer. The collection of "evidence" she gathers to support all of these delusions would stagger the imagination even of your average Q adherent, but since she never confides a single thought to anyone, she struggles along with all of it until, of course, it all starts manifesting in her outward behavior, for which she actually starts to experience actual consequences.

Before things get really bad, though, they get occasionally, though uncomfortably, funny, as when Mrs. March spots a copy of the offending novel in someone's grocery cart at the store and steals it, not to read for herself (she has easy access to the thing at home, of course), but to destroy it, so at least one total stranger in New York City won't be a witness to her shame.

I haven't felt this uncomfortable since the one and only time I watched Darren Aronofsky's harrowing Requiem for a Dream and watched Ellen Burstyn's amazing portrayal of physical and psychic breakdown in the person of Sara Goldfarb. Mrs. March's experience never gets so phantasmogorical as this clip, but it still kind of encapsulates the intensity of what she does endure -- all without any drugs at all.

So, as I said on Twitter earlier this month, if the Ellen Burstyn plot in Requiem for a Dream was your favorite but you wish it took place in the 1970s and was about a novelist's wife, this is your book. Mrs. March, as I said, doesn't resort to drugs, but she also doesn't have anyone in her life who would be willing to intervene with her if she did, or to correct her about what is probably just a giant heap of narcissism and misunderstanding.

Which makes her tale every bit as tragic as Sara Goldfarb's, though Mrs. March perhaps seems less deserving of our sympathies. For Mrs. March is never a likeable character; by the time we see her fussing that her son's Christmas play has been canceled due to a blizzard, not for his sake but because 
It frustrated Mrs. March, too, that the costume she had worked so hard to get the seamstress to finish on time would never be seen by the other children's mothers, who surely hadn't made their sons' and daughters' costumes out of the finest merino wool (italics mine).

-- we have already decided that she is White Privilege, The Woman. And of course her child is simply part of her performance of perfect femininity; she almost admits to herself early in the novel that she only had Jonathan to prove that she was better than the First Mrs. March, who only gave their husband a selfish, jet-setting daughter, and to get one over on her sister, who married well but never had children, and maybe, too, to finally win some approval in their mother's eyes by giving her a grandchild. Not because she, you know, wanted a kid or anything.

I make this sound like a hate read, and maybe in part it is; Mrs. March is Upper Class White Privilege Barbie, so her misery threatens always to become our entertainment. But this is where Virginia Feito is maybe a genius of a special kind, for while she can't make us (or, at least, me) feel sorry for Mrs. March, by novel's end we completely understand why she is the way she is, and maybe, just maybe, we gain an new appreciation for what first and yes, even second wave feminism achieved, for all that Mrs. March would have deplored both movements. We still carry a version of that same internal critic carping at us, but we've developed tools to keep her negativity at least somewhat in check, and have removed a lot of the stigma around the tool that could have done Mrs. March the most good of all: therapy. For as she has shown us by novel's end, a Mrs. March who chooses to act instead of merely appear is capable of some surprising things; it's left to us to imagine, and maybe to mourn, what she might have been capable of if she'd allowed herself to act all along.

*Whether assigned female at birth or not.
**Well, supervisor of a professional housekeeper.

Thursday, November 4, 2021


Throughout life, O'Brian had been a consummate outsider: an intellect who had not gone to Eton or Oxford; an elite who was not from the upper classes; a citizen of the twentieth century who was more at home in the eighteenth. O'Brian was an Irishman who was not Irish; an Englishman who lived in France; a brilliant author in a spurned genre. He had even given up his family name and abandoned his family ties.

Recently I discovered that there is, at long last, a podcast devoted to the Aubrey/Maturin novels* that are so dear to my heart, and that is called, delightfully, The Lubber's Hole. I haven't listened to any of it yet, because of course I decided I wanted to re-read the whole series again and listen to episodes as I went, but before I got to that, I remembered that long ago I hit a big sale on nonfiction ebooks that included a biography of the man himself, Patrick O'Brian.

Having now read Dean King's excellent volume, I can conclude that Mr. O'Brian (real name: Russ. And therein lies a tale best covered in the book itself) must join the likes of Harlan Ellison on my mercifully-still-small list of Authors I Admire Utterly But Am Glad I Never Got To Meet. Because, well, look at that mug, for a start. There are people who do not suffer fools gladly, and then there's this man. Who would incinerate them with a fiery glance (which, doesn't he kind of look like David Troughton playing the Duke of Wellington in the Sharpe TV adaptations?) in nanoseconds, if that were a thing human anatomy would allow. 

And, as one quickly learns in reading Patrick O'Brian: A Life Revealed, he earned that face, both by how he interacted with others even from young childhood (which was an unfortunate one in many respects; he was not born into the happiest of families, for all that he did not lack for siblings) and by how his work seemed never to get its due until relatively late in his life. But ultimately, neither he nor we would want it any other way; he would not have achieved the attention and praise he did late in life by writing what was common or popular, and we, well, there are plenty of nice authors in the world (and I am lucky enough to know many, some quite well) but there was only ever one Curmudgeon of Coullioure,** and I, for one, forgive him his brattiness as fair exchange for his books.

I love a good literary biography and have a handful of favorites in the genre (Mary V. Dearborn's The Happiest Man Alive, about Henry Miller, and Victoria Glendenning's Vita: The Life of Vita Sackville-West are two that I've read to pieces and can almost quote by heart). I believe I'll be adding this one to the list, for if nothing else, it does what even these favorites of mine don't do very much of: look in on some of Patrick O'Brian's detailed processes. We don't see them firsthand, don't get a lot of descriptions of how his prose went from inspiration to final typescript, but we do get to peek in on correspondence between O'Brian and his various editors and agents over the years in which he passionately defends his choices of verbiage, the correctness of his research, etc, all while also making great wine, plowing and tilling and planting and harvesting and immersing himself so completely in the 19th century that even his edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica was one from the Napoleonic War era, the better not to include any anachronistic knowledge or ideas in his fiction.

We also get, delightfully, quite a lot of insight into his pre-Aubrey/Maturin fiction, and his work as a professional translator of no less than Simone de Beauvoir.*** And a pretty thorough (as thorough as possible under the circumstances, anyway) account of his time in World War II as a member of British Intelligence, which, yes, the guy who wrote the single greatest fictional spy of all time (I see you, Ian Fleming fans, and John LeCarre fans, but come on), Stephen Fucking Maturin, was himself a spy! Or at least an intelligence analyst! I had no idea!

And, of course, since just this last summer I read the biography of Noor Inayat Khan, I got to entertain myself with the idea that, while it doesn't seem their actual paths crossed, their work certainly did, as she was embedded with the French resistance while he was involved somehow with that nebulous organization on behalf of the UK. Or at any rate, his work chiefly concerned France...

Above all, Patrick O'Brian: A Life Revealed is simply an enjoyable read, whether you're an established fan of the man, or just thinking about having a look at him. I, for one, am now going to embark on another Aubrey/Maturin re-read with a lot of new insight for having read this, and I'm also planning to seek out O'Brian's non-Napoleonic fiction one of these days, as well, because Dean King got me very interested. Which a biographer should, if at all possible.

*Which, you may note, I haven't covered to completion on this blog. As I approached the end of the series on my first go-through, I found I couldn't bring myself to finish it (kind of like what I've done with rationing Philip K. Dick). Each time I re-read the series, though, I go one book closer to the end. Ah, me.

**My own coinage, as far as I know. Coullioure is the region of France near the Pyrenees where he and his second wife, Mary, settled down to farm, raise grapes for wine, and write books that are among the great treasures of 20th century literature.

***And of Papillon! Which means that I'd read Patrick O'Brian decades before I first picked up Master and Commander!