Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Misfortune by Wesley Stace

Misfortune is to Middlesex as Carter Beats the Devil is to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. That was the Readerville adage last year, when Wesley Stace's debut novel was making the rounds. Which is to say: both novels deal with very similar subject matter (magicians and escapist acts in the case of Chabon and Gold's novels, male children raised as women in the case of Eugenides' and Stace's), but whereas the former novel is frothy and adventurous, the latter is meaty, thoughtful, and psychologically astute. In other words, Chabon and Eugenides' novels are steak dinners, and Gold's is a nice sandwich. Which is perfectly alright--an eclectic palette should have room for both--but sadly enough Misfortune doesn't even live up to these reduced expectations. If we were to continue the food analogy, Misfortune would be a stale packet of crisps. With no dip.

Misfortune takes place in early 19th century England, and opens with the discovery, by Lord Geoffrey Loveall, of an abandoned infant, left to die on a London garbage heap. Geoffrey takes the baby home, to the palatial Love Hall, and presents it to his imperious, domineering mother as his daughter and heir. Haunted since childhood by the early death of his younger sister, Geoffrey is only too pleased to see in this foundling child the image of his beloved Dolores brought back to life. The only problem is, of course, that the baby is a boy, a fact to which Geoffrey reacts with tantrums and nervous excitement. Eager to preserve the young lord's health and sanity, the staff at Love Hall humor his delusion, and agree to raise the child as a girl. Instrumental in this charade is Anonyma Wood, Love Hall's librarian, who agrees to marry Geoffrey in order to create a facade of legitimacy for the baby, named Rose. Anonyma's motives for ignoring the child's true sex are largely experimental--her head full of neo-Platonic theories about the unity of the sexes, Anonyma believes that combining male sexuality with female socialization will lead to the creation of the perfect human being, combining within itself the best qualities of both genders.

One would expect even the least thoughtful author to realize the wealth of potential inherent in these two characters--loving parents, carefully and deliberately skewing and tormenting a child they both claim to wish the best for. One driven by madness, the other by an unwillingness to see how poorly her philosophical theses suit the realities of flesh and blood. Stace, however, is invested in a stark division of his principal characters into good and evil, with the Love Hall family falling squarely in the former category. Geoffrey is treated with pity; Anonyma, whose kindness and good intentions had the potential to make her into the most fascinating kind of monster, is for the most part lauded for her wit, beauty, courage, and superior research skills. This is only one of the many ways in which Misfortune falls flat. Stace seems almost eager to avoid any device--exciting plot twists, believable character arcs, compelling descriptions of setting or era--that might make the novel even a little bit interesting. Misfortune is apparently meant to stand or fall with its sensational premise--a boy raised as a girl.

Misfortune's plot, once the pieces are set in place (this takes an unconscionably long time, and involves several lengthy and soporific expositive chapters), can be roughly divided into two parts. In the first, Rose grows up in bucolic splendor, encountering nothing but love, affection and good will from her family and their faithful retainers. I've said this before and I'll say it again now: authors, if your novel's plot is primarily concerned with events that take place during the protagonist's adulthood, do not, for the love of all that is good and pure, delay that plot by prefacing it with hundreds of pages full of slow, tedious, unremarkable descriptions of the protagonist's childhood. In spite of the secret that underlies it, Rose's childhood is perfectly mundane. She spends most of her time playing with Stephen and Sarah Hamilton, the children of her father's steward. Stephen is Rose's protector; Sarah her wise older sister, for whom Rose harbors some decidedly un-sisterly feelings (for about five seconds, it seems possible that Stace has decided to subvert our assumptions of both siblings' sexual orientation--otherwise known as the fun Twelfth Night reading--but they soon assert their heterosexuality). This idyllic existence is brought to a close when Rose discovers the truth of her gender (300 interminable pages into the novel), a revelation that roughly coincides with her father's death. The family's evil, grasping relatives descend on Love Hall and use Rose's confused gender identity and the fact of her illegitimacy to force her and her mother into a genteel exile. Forced to dress as a man, miserable in her own skin, quietly resentful of the thoughtless experiment that made her what she is, Rose runs away from home.

Which would, presumably, kick-start an adventure, right? Wrong. The novel quickly glosses over anything exciting that might have happened to Rose during her travels, and rejoins her several months later, on her way to a melodramatic and particularly ill-planned rendezvous with death--she plans to kill herself at the spring of Salmacis, where the mythical story of Hermaphroditus was supposed to have taken place (there are a few clunky references to this myth, and several others, over the course of the novel. They unfortunately do nothing more than recall Jeffrey Eugenides' delicate layering of myths both ancient and modern in Middlesex, and are best ignored). Rescued by her loving family, Rose returns to London, chooses to live as a woman, and her fortune is soon made with the help of a plot contrivance. The end. The biggest problem here is, of course, that whatever her gender, Rose is a complete ninny. Like the novel itself, her only distinguishing characteristic is her confused gender identity--she has no skills, no abilities, no interesting personality traits. Her one decisive action over the course of the entire novel is to try to kill herself--which she botches ('I'm going to go to Salmacis to lay myself down and die'--who thinks like this? For God's sake, bring a rope with you, fill your pockets with rocks or something). Everything that happens to Rose over the course of the novel, whether for good or for evil, happens because someone else does it. Her enemies plot against her; her family and friends work tirelessly to help her; Rose sits back, enjoys the show, and fantasizes about Sarah. Why we should care about this self-involved, lazy drip is completely beyond me.

Stace made a deliberate choice in Misfortune to set the novel in the 19th century but not to write it as a 19th century pastiche. His reasons for the former are obvious--Stace needed an era in which the definition of gender was almost completely divorced from physical sex. As a child, Rose defines herself as a girl because she, like Sarah, wears dresses, whereas Stephen is trousered. None of the children seem to have any comprehension of what the difference between the sexes actually is--they mistake the accouterments of gender with the fact of gender, which, at least in theory, is Stace's topic. The latter choice, to write a period novel in a modern voice, might have been a very interesting one, along the lines of the BBC's recent adaptation of Charles Dickens' Bleak House, which was shot using the kind of visual tricks--quick pans, partially-obscured or out-of-focus shots--that we'd expect from shows like Firefly or Battlestar Galactica. If, that is, Stace had actually followed through on it. Misfortune's narrative voice isn't the voice of an author who has deliberately eschewed period trappings. It is the voice of an author who can't be bothered to get any but the most obvious details of his setting right. Stace makes a few occasional and half-hearted attempts at replicating 19th century speech patterns or narratives, but they only serve to highlight the insufficiencies of his prose--it would have been better to leave them out entirely. They also work against his period-inspired plot. The novel's resolution is a plot twist so contrived (and so obvious) that even Dickens or Collins would have looked askance at it. Related in a period voice, however, Stace might have gotten away with it. In Misfortune's more modern ambience, the ending destroys what little indulgence the novel might still have retained.

And the sad truth is that Stace doesn't even make very good use of his period setting, and of the one advantage it offers him--the separation of gender and sexuality. None of the characters' reactions to Rose's confused sexuality have even the vaguest correlation to the very rigid codes that that era enforced on gendered behavior. When Rose's relatives mistreat her, they do it out of greed, not because she offends their deeply ingrained notions of propriety. Her family unquestioningly accepts her choice to dress as a woman (with a tasteful mustache), and doesn't even react when she has sex with two different women--good, middle-class girls--who are not her wife. After her return to England, Rose defines herself as a woman, but at no point does she give us any insight into what, beyond her choice of clothing, that definition means. At one point, Rose bristles at being mistaken for a cross-dresser, but Stace never enlightens us as to the difference. Worst of all, Stace steadfastly ignores the palpable difference in way that the 19th century treated, and thought about, men and women. There is no era in history in which being a man has not been preferable to being a woman. As a man, Rose could own property in her own right, she could vote, have a profession, travel unchaperoned, engage in any number of semi-legal activities which for a woman would be reputation-killers but for a man would be thought of as nothing but high spirits. As a man, 19th century society, which truly believed that women were weak and intellectually inferior, would accord Rose respect and grant her power. Rose never stops to consider any of these advantages when choosing her gender--Stace doesn't seem to think that they are worth considering, or even bringing up. He doesn't, in short, seem to have anything to say on the subject of what it is that makes us male or female, and how we define and distinguish the two.

There are novels that I finish in a white-hot rage, motivated solely by my desire to tear them apart in a review. Misfortune isn't one of them--I doubt it could ever elicit so violent an emotion from its readers. It isn't exactly a bad novel but more a bland one, and not so much underperforming as un-performing. It doesn't seem to do much of anything--tell an interesting story, describe complicated characters, comment intelligently on a topical issue. In the end, it is a completely empty novel--520 pages of nothing at all.

17 comments:

Annalucia said...

``Geoffrey takes the baby home, to the palatial Love Hall, and presents it to his imperious, domineering mother as his daughter and heir... The only problem is, of course, that the baby is a boy, a fact to which Geoffrey reacts with tantrums and nervous excitement.''

I'm sorry but the plot summary lost me right there. How is it that Geoffrey doesn't know? Did he pick up the baby and assume it was a girl (without checking under the diaper)? Was he one of those Victorian innocents who literally did not know what the difference was between male and female? Even for a fantasy novel this looks like waaay too big a stretch.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Yeah, Annalucia, Geoffrey never even checks the baby's sex - it's wrapped up when his servant hands it to him, and he's so hung up on the notion of replacing his sister that he assumes it's a girl.

As presented in the book, this doesn't strain credulity(mostly because Geoffrey's a bit nutty). There are, however, other problems with the notion that the charade could have gone on for years without anyone being the wiser - did none of the servants ever bathe the child? And, not to be coarse, but once the kid hit puberty, who was changing her sheets?

KindKit said...

This is the best review of the novel I've seen anywhere--far more thoughtful and interesting than those in, for instance, the Washington Post, the Village Voice, and even the Guardian. You make an excellent point about the way Stace fails to consider the enormous legal and social constrains nineteenth-century women faced. (And on a more trivial level, I don't understand how we're supposed to believe that Rose finds corsets, petticoats, bustles and skirts more comfortable than trousers.) Your review was also the only one I've seen to point on the novel's boring and predictable heterosexism. I was bothered enough by the fact that hints of Rose's attraction to both men and women were neglected in favor of his heterosexual love for Sarah; the fact that the only clear instances of homosexual desire/activity in the book were negative (always involving negative characters, and generally involving coercion) didn't help either. And poor Victoria, who is strongly coded as lesbian, "never falls in love" we're told at the end of the book. Since this novel was recommended to me as featuring queer characters, I was deeply disappointed.

Colin Greenland said...

Ooh. I wrote that Guardian review. I'm still quite pleased with it, and of course Abigail's is more than twice the length of mine, but I think kindkit is right.

"It isn't exactly a bad novel but more a bland one, and not so much underperforming as un-performing." Agree, absolutely. I found Stace's book thoroughly and puzzlingly unsatisfying, but it looks as if I concentrated on telling everyone what is actually in the book and the peculiar way it's made up, rather than anatomizing its deficiencies. (You have to like the title they gave my piece, tho: "Skirting the Issues". That's exactly right.)

I hope what I said was discouraging. That was certainly how I felt. And I might have been less patient if it had been his fifth novel than his first.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

You have to like the title they gave my piece, tho: "Skirting the Issues". That's exactly right

It is rather - which might be why the Washington Post used the same title? (For a review by Rodney Welch, who posts at Readerville. My world is getting smaller and smaller by the minute.)

I like how strongly your review stresses the fact that the book's ending doesn't work because of Stace's choice of voice - I mentioned that almost as an aside because I was so frustrated by the novel's other failures, but it is a very important point.

KindKit said...

To Colin Greenland -- Eep. It never occurred to me that someone who'd written one of the other reviews might see my comment. And your point about review length is well taken--obviously in a short space, much of which must be devoted to summarizing the premise and plot, you can't get into as much depth as a blogger with an unlimited word count. Anyway, I can say that your review contains what is currently my Favorite Sentence In The World: "A good deal of straddling takes place."

Colin Greenland said...

You guessed it, kindkit. The whole review was a cunning excuse to write that sentence.

I wish they'd print my piece on The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue. They've had that for weeks. Maybe this weekend?

That was, I hope I managed to convey, another frustrating book. A changeling story so sternly anti-fantastic you wonder why he thought it up in the first place.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Hm, I've been wondering about that book. On the surface of it, it seems like just my sort of thing, but I've been getting that Historian, Time Traveler's Wife vibe off it - that it's a genre book written by a genre outsider, for genre outsiders, with the deliberate intention of becoming a bestseller (true story: I bought a copy of The Historian in Israel before it was even properly released in the States - Israeli bookstores being famously unfussy about that sort of thing - and the cover already had 'international bestseller' stamped on the front).

Colin Greenland said...

It's not in today, apparently. The review, I mean, in the Guardian.

I know what you mean about the "Time Traveler's Wife vibe", Abigail, but I don't think it's anything to do with sales: more like someone getting something out of their system. I didn't know it was selling so well until I Googled it again just now. I'm bewildered, frankly.

Donohue's is a deeply depressive, introverted book. An obsessive private project, one might suspect, that cost him enormous time and anguish to write. It wouldn't surprise me at all to find that the reason it's set c1980 is that he wrote it then and has been revising it and/or trying to sell it ever since. And if so, maybe it's the current shift of favour towards pop lit of a fantastic tendency that's persuaded Random House to take a chance on it.

Again: I'm only guessing; tho Donohue's piece on amazon.com doesn't exactly contradict me. And interested as we'd all be to hear your opinion of his book, I truly can't expect it would be very favourable. Apart from the premise, and a continual icky creepiness about ancient creatures sneaking in from the woods, there's nothing in it for readers with genre tastes.

Anonymous said...

re: Stolen Child. I'm eager to see the review in the Guardian. Can you post it here? Although evidence is not definitive, it appears that the precipitous success of this book may be due in large part to a surreptitious publicity campaign executed on behalf of the publisher (presumably for a fee) by Amazon.com. Anyone know anything about this rumour? thx. blephen@yahoo.com

Anonymous said...

To Colin Greenwood --

I wrote The Stolen Child in 2001-02 and shopped it around for an agent before landing one in 2004. My first novel! So, no long personal anguish on my part, and certainly not designed to capitalize on the success of the other books you mentioned, of which I was not familiar.

It isn't intended as a "fantasy" novel or a genre piece but uses the changeling myth as a way of getting at questions of identity. The time period of the book is 1949-1978 to coincide with the rise of suburbia and the loss of a time when children could go out in the woods, wonder about, fill their imaginations. I used the changeling story as a way to introduce two narrators with a common identity.

Love the other persons's comment about being a "deliberate" bestseller, as if such a thing were possible to pull off.

Hope your Guardian review judges the book on its own terms. Keith Donohue

Colin Greenland said...

Hey, all my guesses were wrong. Well, I did say they were guesses. Good of Keith to let us know, and to confirm that it was not designed to be a genre book, or a bestseller! I think it is possible to write deliberate bestsellers, incidentally, but it needs a very special talent, or attitude might be a better word. And of course it doesn't always work.

My review is in today's Guardian, apparently. My name, below, may not be quite as appropriate as Keith seems to think, but if you click on it you should be able to see the piece on their website.

There was much discussion, blephen, since you ask, about the words we should use to describe the part played by Amazon in helping publicize the book. Neither my editor nor I knew more than the rumour you mention, the "Early Buzz" on the Amazon page, and what we could glean from Google.

I always assumed the initiative came from Random House. My editor felt it might have been Amazon acting independently. The editor's decision was final. She was probably right, of course. I'm not good at guessing.

Good of you to give us the space to air all this stuff, Abigail; especially on a page that's supposed to be about another book entirely...

Abigail Nussbaum said...

My pleasure, Colin. I actually read your review this morning and was planning to link to it here. I guess I'll have to give The Stolen Child a look at some point.

Anonymous said...

To Colin --

Read your review in the Guardian, and I take exception to your characterization of the novel as "an alienated vision of life as decay, bereft of meaning or hope." Both protagonists suffer in their search for identity, but at the end of the novel they act out of hope: Henry, realizing he must tell the truth to be accepted for who he is; Aniday, realizing he must take steps--literally--to find love and the way to growing up. True the book isn't tied up in a bow, but neither is life.

The book received favorable pre-publication reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Library Journal, Ottakar's and Waterstones. Very good reviews in the New York Times, Newsweek, USA Today, People, newspapers in Detroit, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, National Public Radio, and was a Booksense Pick for May. It's selling well in independent bookstores and online in the United States, and it seems a bit disingenuous and unfair to cite publicity and marketing in the review.

Keith

Colin said...

Goodness me. How could I be so wrong?

Anonymous said...

Actually, I disagree with both these reviews. I found Misfortune delightful: an unfashionably passionate and moving novel - thoughtful too; a costume novel, I kept thinking, about costumes - and had none of the problems described - though I was interested in both perspectives.

Personally, I think you have both taken the book much too seriously -not a crime, of course. For the Guardian reviewer, why are coincidences not allowed in the modern novel? That seems a bizarre pronoucement. (It must be nice to be in a position where you "hope what you said was discouraging"!) How strange that despite this review, the book I think was shortlisted, or nominated, for the Guardian First Book Award, which is where I heard about it. Elsewhere above, this remark, "the fact that the only clear instances of homosexual desire/activity in the book were negative (always involving negative characters, and generally involving coercion", just simply isn't true: in fact, and though I'm not about to re-read, I can't remember any instance of homosexuality in the book at all - a man trying to make interfere with a boy dressed up as a girl, who he thinks is a girl, then has a heart-attack when he finds out she isn't, can hardly count as a homosexual encounter! And the scene when the bad cousin is tied to a chair is rather a piece of theatre than a homoseuxal encounter. Whereas there is nothing negative about the implication that Sarah and... er... can't remember her name, her cousin... seem to be sleeping together at one point towards the end.

Each to his own, of course - which seemed to me, by the way, the "moral" of the book. If people were more accepting of other people's foibles
the world would be a better place.

thanks for a thoughtful and interesting website anyway!

William from Leeds.

Colin Greenland said...

"For the Guardian reviewer, why are coincidences not allowed in the modern novel? That seems a bizarre pronoucement."

It does, William, doesn't it? It's certainly not one I'd make. In fact, I hope anything is allowed in the modern novel; and I rather think it is.

When you use any kind of plot device, you do have to consider the effect it will have. That was what I was saying.

As to the power to discourage, if I have it, yes, I suppose I do think it's nice. It must be the other side of the power to encourage people to read a book that has impressed me. I enjoy that. I think you do too, otherwise why post your opinion?

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