Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Recent Reading Roundup 4

Look! Little rectangular things with printed paper inside! How novel!

I've been in something of a reading slump lately, which is expressed not simply by the fact that I'm reading less (and I am--11 books since the beginning of the year, as opposed to nearly 20 in the same period last year) but that I have less to say about the books that I do read. Hence the recent proliferation of film- and TV-related posts. In the interest of pretending that this is still something like a lit-blog, therefore, here's another roundup, and hopefully I'll have something more substantial to write about in the near future
  1. Viriconium by M. John Harrison

    Before I start talking about the book itself (or, more accurately, about the omnibus itself, which collects three short novels and a short story collection, published between 1971 and 1985) I just want to take a minute to be awed by the book as an object--gorgeous, embossed cover; french flaps; rough-cut pages--I wish I'd been a little happier with the interior. I seem to be moving backwards in time through Harrison's bibliography, and although there are indications in the Viriconium cycle of the themes that would occupy Harrison throughout his career--a genteel, unassuming, what's-it-all-about-really sort of nihilism, a disappointment with both quotidian reality and any attempt at breaking away from it--they are neither as well-developed nor as concise as they would come to be. Similarly, Harrison's prose has yet to develop the precision that allows him, in his more mature incarnation, to convey emotion, action, and atmosphere is a single brief and beautiful sentence. Viriconium the city, the hub of a post-apocalyptice empire ruled by half-mad monarchs and starkly divided between its Upper and Lower halves (where the nobility and the criminals, respectively, live and love), doesn't quite have the taste of reality to it--it feels like a metaphor, or a clever literary construct, rather than a real place. I probably liked the first Viriconium novel, The Pastel City, best, as it is a rather traditional story--an old knight is recruited by a young queen in peril--told with a typical Harrison-ian contravention of stereotypes. At the same time, however, I know that Harrison has gone on to do a better job of twisting and contorting fantasy clichés--to the point where he leaves the familiar tropes of fantasy behind while still skewering the genre's basic assumptions (not to mention that, in recent years in particular, there have been better examples than The Pastel City of the epic fantasy story retold in a sophisticated, thoughtful manner). I didn't care for the second novel, A Storm of Wings, and the third, In Viriconium, had an interesting premise but didn't quite gel (although I have to admit that I begin to appreciate the piece a bit more now that I've gained some distance from it). The short stories, with the possible exception of "A Young Man's Journey to Viriconium", didn't impress me, and even that story is overshadowed by Harrison's later novel, The Course of the Heart, which takes a grander and more sophisticated approach to the same theme. This is not to say that I'm discouraged in my journey through Harrison's back-catalog, but I think I'll avoid his earlier pieces and start moving forwards in time--maybe Climbers or the short story collections.

  2. The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

    The only Jackson I'd read before this collection was The Haunting of Hill House, which left me cold--neither scary nor interesting. Given that novel's premise, however, I was expecting the stories in The Lottery to be concerned with horror and the supernatural, and it was with great surprise that I discovered what is essentially the feminine equivalent of John Cheever. Admittedly, instances of the supernatural or the horrifying crop up in some of the pieces, but they are often so subtle as to barely register, and what's left is suburban ennui and hard-working career girls wondering where their glory days went. There are some real gems here: "After You, My Dear Alphonse", in which a well-meaning housewife is skewered for her thoughtless racism; "Flower Garden", in which the inhabitants of a small town first embrace and then conspire to destroy an outsider who questions their codified social structure; "The Tooth", in which a woman loses herself, and perhaps gains something better, on her way to the dentist. Other stories are not much more than vignettes, explorations of the way in which a conformist, appearance-conscious society can grind an individual--women especially--down, although Jackson's crisp prose and cutting social observations often save even a plotless piece from irrelevance. Sadly, the infamous "Lottery" was a bit of a dud, largely because much like, I suspect, everyone else on the planet, I already knew what the twist was. Overall, a worthy collection, but like The Stories of John Cheever, which I read a few months ago, it suffers rather than benefits from its comprehensiveness.

  3. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

    Finally, a novel that marries Jackson's sharp prose with a suitably eerie premise. Two sisters, Constance and Mary-Katherine, live with their invalid uncle in the house where, six years ago, their entire family died after sprinkling their blueberries with arsenic-laced sugar. The local villagers, taking a great deal of pleasure in dragging down a once-prominent family, believe the sisters to be murderers and torment them mercilessly, but the makeshift family finds pleasure in its solitude--until, that is, a long-lost cousin appears and upsets their careful routine. The identity of the murderer is sadly obvious about twenty pages into the book, but Castle also acts as a searching examination of how the individual defines normality and the many forms that that definition can take. Constance sublimates herself to the service of her sister and uncle. Mary-Katherine attempts to regulate her life through a series of invented rituals and sacrifices. Uncle Julian obsesses over every detail of his family's tragic death. Cousin Charles, the alleged representative of normal society, is scandalized by the sisters' ungoverned existence, and especially by their inattention to financial matters and to their own wealth. He attempts to dominate Constance and Mary-Katherine with his version of correct behavior, but finds it, and himself, overwhelmed by their unwillingness to conform. The local villagers, meanwhile, use the sisters as both talismans and scapegoats, underlying their rational existence with their own invented rituals and sacrifices. The issues of conformity to social expectations and the darkness that underlies polite society were clearly important to Jackson, and Castle is a brilliant exploration of both.

  4. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

    I read very, very little non-fiction--I wouldn't be surprised if I didn't read another non-fiction book this year--and what little of it I do read tends to be essay collections, not reimaginings of gruesome true crimes. Perhaps because of this, and perhaps because of the recent scandals about truth in non-fiction, I had a great deal of trouble dealing with Capote's fictionalization of the events he describes. There's constantly an awareness in the book of Capote standing between me and the people he's writing about (and the fact that I had already heard quite a bit about the book's writing, and about Capote's alleged fascination with Perry Smith, was certainly a factor in my reactions here), but even more importantly, there's the knowledge of how well-intentioned, generally truthful people would be inclined to twist the truth in this case. Should I believe that Herb Clutter and his family were really the paragons that Capote describes? And does it even matter what kind of people they were, given that even horrible people wouldn't have deserved the Clutters' cruel fate? How accurate is Capote's psychological portrait of Perry Smith, and why does he seem so uninterested, dismissive even, of Dick Hickock? I found myself unable to read In Cold Blood as either a true historical account or a novelization of a true event, which made for an unsettling reading experience. On those occasions, however, in which I managed to shut down my questioning internal voice, I was able to appreciate that In Cold Blood is beautifully and compellingly written, and that although it can't answer the question that must plague every single person involved with the case--why were these senseless, almost motiveless murders committed?--it addresses it with intelligence and insight.

  5. The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

    My first Hardy (supposedly the one to start with--the least complicated and trying), which has left me uncertain about continuing with him. It is, of course, a beautifully written book with an interesting, topsy-turvy plot (I think this is the very first time that I've been surprised by a plot twist in a Victorian novel), but some aspects of it disturb me. Hardy does an excellent job with the main character, Michael Henchard, who is a tragic hero in the classical sense--he is clearly the author of his own misfortunes, and his attempts to make amends and turn away from immorality are constantly undermined by the deep-seated flaws in his character. The same, unfortunately, can't be said of the secondary characters--Michael's former mistress, a caricature of the fallen woman who dies for her sins, and the ever-so-perfect Elizabeth-Jane and Donald Farfrae. Casterbridge was also intended as a portrait of an English farming town, and as such I couldn't help but compare it to George Eliot's superior attempt at the same concept, Middlemarch. Eliot's novel moves effortlessly between the personal and the communal, and stresses the effect that the one has on the other. Hardy's communal portrait, in contrast, often veers towards the vulgar and the cartoonish, especially in his depiction of Casterbridge's lower-class citizens (although there is an interesting yet understated sub-plot in which these simple people take great pleasure in following the rising fortunes of the town's gentry, and later, an even greater pleasure in tearing them down when they are no longer scrappy underdogs). Hardy's narrative transitions clumsily between delicate character work, tedious historical lectures, and bits of local color which are obviously intended to amuse but, to a modern reader, are painfully condescending. Despite these reservations, there's clearly a great deal to think about and consider in The Mayor of Casterbridge. I'm still trying to puzzle out the various fake relationships in the novel--fake wives, fake husbands, fake fathers and daughters--and the way they parallel each other, and there's no question that Henchard himself is a fascinating, contradictory person. I suspect I will end up reading more of Hardy, although possibly not in the immediate future.

1 comment:

Dan Hartland said...

On the Capote, it's my instinct that the unsettlingly thorny issues it wilfully fails to address are maybe part of the point. I think it's a book about truth, or at least how 'society' tries to get to it, in this case through condemnation, hysteria, and newspapers. Whether or not Capote is being a responsible reporter is irrelevant - 'In Cold Blood' is simply another flawed reaction (albeit beautifully wrought), like all of our responses to unexplainable horrors.

On Hardy - no, I wouldn't recommend you read more. But I'm not his biggest fan (though what novelist *can* beat 'Middlemarch' at its own game?) , and wound up with that opinion by, y'know, reading him. So ignore me, read 'Far From The Madding Crowd', and then decide whether or not to follow my advice. :P

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