Friday, November 16, 2007

Recent Reading Roundup 14

The pile o'books I brought back with me from the States is getting steadily smaller, and thus far performing quite well. As per recent discussion, this list includes several short story collections.
  1. Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner - Warner's slim 1925 feminist fable was a lucky find in the Strand's $1 rack. The novel's first half describes the title character's early life in the late Victorian period. With brisk, efficient prose, Warner takes us through Lolly's remote family history and her relationships with her more immediate family, particularly her doting father, in an enjoyable narrative flow that is never less than wry and often quite funny. Upon her father's death, a compliant Lolly goes to live with her brother's family, where she acts in the capacity of unpaid nurse, companion, and governess. With near-Austenish coolness, Warner describes the mindset that leads an intelligent, strong young woman of independent means to immure herself in a dull, unsatisfying life for nearly two decades. It's not that Lolly doesn't want more from life, or that her relatives are cruel, but all of them have bought into the notion that a woman without a family of her own can want nothing more from life than to take care of the families of others.

    In the novel's second half, a middle-aged Lolly has finally had enough of taking care of others and rents a small cottage in the country. When her affectionate but oblivious nephew follows her there and immediately begins to treat her like a caretaker again, Lolly ends up making a deal with the devil to get rid of him. I mean that literally. It's here that the novel makes a rather unfortunate turn into fantasy, which in Warner's hands is nothing more than a rather broad allegory. She's clearly riffing off the maiden/mother/crone division, with Lolly, who doesn't fit into the first two categories, joyfully embracing the latter one and subverting its most negative associations. But whereas in the naturalistic segments of the novel Warner was careful never to overstate her point or to surrender to the rage and bitterness that Lolly's situation naturally elicit, once she starts telling a fantasy story, her tone becomes unbearably earnest, even hectoring. The novel abandons the wryness that had previously kept it afloat, and even ends with Lolly lecturing the devil himself about women's limited choices. The impression is of an author uncomfortable with the fantastic elements in her story, and eager to assure her audience that these are in service of a higher goal. Nevertheless, for its first half, Lolly Willowes is certainly worth a read, and even the second half is very well-written.

  2. The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke - Like Michel Faber's The Apple, this collection feels like B-sides and deleted scenes from Clarke's gargantuan, sprawling historical novel. The comparison is slightly unfair in that, as I understand it, Faber's collection really is made up of deleted scenes and afterthoughts, whereas Ladies collects stories from over a decade, long before the publication of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Nevertheless, there's an obvious unifying characteristic to these stories. All of them--even the ones like "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse," which takes place in another author's invented universe--are either overtly or implicitly part of the Strange & Norrell universe, concerned with the tension between the rigid morality and unflinching belief in reason that govern her 19th century characters' actions, and the uncontrollable chaos of magic and the fairy world. Another way of looking at it is that these are Strange & Norrell's excised girly bits--women feature far more prominently in these stories than they did in the novel, and in the title story the ladies in question lecture Jonathan Strange, then still under Mr. Norrell's thrall, about the danger inherent in the forces he claims to control. Some of the stories feel like exercises in tone in voice--which ultimately came to fruition with Strange & Norrell's masterful pastiche of the regency novel--and others stand on their own, and are quite fun. My favorite piece was "Mr. Simonelli or The Fairy Widower," in which a vicar arriving at a new living becomes a reluctant hero when a local fairy takes a shine to the village maidens. The main character is a lot of fun, particularly his struggle between the strict moral code he was raised in and his more mischievous inclinations. I wouldn't mind reading more stories about him.

  3. The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley - Hartley's most famous novel, about a boy in early 20th century England who is manipulated by his wealthy, upper class best friend's sister into carrying letters between her and a local farmer, is an odd fit for me. I enjoyed it in spite of the fact that it is one of those novels, like Brideshead Revisited, which seem to be lamenting a way of life that I never experienced and which I think, on the whole, we're all better off without. Still, there's no denying that this is as pitch-perfect a recreation of childhood as one is likely to find. I remarked recently that adult novels with pre-adolescent protagonists are rare, and Hartley really captures the dissonance between the narrator and the adults surrounding him. For all of his and their best intentions, they are speaking different languages, have different value systems, and want different things--they are very nearly different species. The tragedy of the novel is driven at least in part by their failure to understand this--by the narrator's unthinking assumption that adults operate by the same rules as schoolboys, and by the adults' belief that children are simply small, easily controlled adults.

    My edition includes Hartley's introduction to the novel, written after its initial publication and widespread success, as well as an introduction by Colm Tóibín. I was tickled to see both of them note Hartley's surprise at the discvoery that the star-crossed lovers, Marian and Ted, in the novel elicited not the censure he had expected--for stepping out of their respective social roles, for betraying Marian's fiancé, and mostly for manipulating and damaging the narrator, Leo--but sympathy. I find myself somewhere in the middle. I can't help but feel for Marian and Ted's shitty situation, but Marian's actions in particular are so self-centered and destructive that I can't wish good things for her, especially when the epilogue makes it clear that she hasn't changed a bit, and still expects others to do her bidding and put themselves out for her no matter how much pain she's caused them. As Tóibín's introduction notes, however, Hartley himself seems to have had conflicted feelings about Marian, as the novel ends with a grown-up Leo yet again acting on her behalf and justifying her destructive actions. I think the power of the novel derives at least in part from this ambivalence--both Leo's and Hartley's.

  4. Making Money by Terry Pratchett - It's getting to the point where I'm not really sure why I'm reading Pratchett anymore. The best I can come up with is that he's familiar and comforting, but those are really not the adjectives I'd like to attach to the novels of a man who used to make me roar with laughter, and who could clearly still do so if he put his mind to it. Instead, Making Money is yet another iteration of what's become Pratchett's standard plot--introduce some modern-day innovation to his fantasy setting, pepper it with a bit of magic or metaphors-made-flesh, and add a couple of side-plots about deranged villains and wacky good guys. Let it all mix together for as long as it takes to make your point, and then have Vetinari show up like the proverbial god from the machine to tie up all loose ends. In this case, Pratchett is aping Neal Stepheson when he discusses paper money, and more generally the notion that monetary value is a societal convention, and that rather than attach it to physical valuables we attach it to something worthless or even nonexistent--pieces of paper, pieces of plastic, even numbers in a computer--in order to sustain our economy and keep it vibrant.

    The main character is Moist von Lipwig, previously seen in Going Postal, which is basically Making Money with telecoms. He's a good character--more morally flexible than Sam Vimes, and more of an outsider to Ankh-Morpork. Both qualities give him a unique perspective on the city and on Pratchett's topic du jour. His shtick is that he's a former con man forcibly reformed by Vetinari, who wants him for his intelligence, initiative and organizational skills, and in Making Money he's struggling to stay on the straight and narrow while still craving the excitement of a life of crime. It's an obvious character arc, but skillfully carried out. I'm also fond of Moist's girlfriend, Adora Belle Dearheart, and of their relationship, which is simultaneously romantic and unsentimental, and many of the novel's one-off characters are also quite enjoyable. I do, however, wish Pratchett would shake things up a bit in Ankh Morpork--kill off Vetinari, make Carrot king, or just move his world in a direction that isn't overwhelmingly positive. As things stand there's just no tension to the Discworld novels anymore, and not too many laughs either seeing as after thirty novels most of the jokes are recycled, or obvious, or both. I'm obviously not going to stop buying Pratchett's novels--at this point it's practically a Pavlovian reaction--but I'm more than a little depressed by how diminished my expectations of them have become.

  5. Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 by Annie Proulx - I think I like Proulx better as a short story writer than as a novelist. I was underwhelmed by her Pulitzer-winning novel The Shipping News, but this follow-up to her 2000 collection, Close Range (about which more here), is a more impressive use of her talents. The shorter format is a better fit for her beautiful, distinctive prose, which in longer stretches can come to seem mannered and overripe. As the title suggests and like Close Range, the stories in Bad Dirt take place in Wyoming, among ranchers, farm hands, and odd jobbers overwhelmed by the landscape they live in and the rigid, unforgiving mindset it engenders. Though Proulx's ability to convey both Wyoming's beauty and bleakness remains undiminished, the stories in this collection aren't as strong as the ones in Close Range (I think Proulx may have peaked with "Brokeback Mountain"--nothing else of hers that I've read has approached that story's precision and directed force). Most of them are either too lean--slices of life with a bit of humor or folk tales thrown in--or too flabby, delving into the character's history onto the tenth generation before getting back to the actual story (the best piece in the collection, "The Indian Wars Refought," is a perfect example. Before it gets to its point--a young native American woman faced with the full magnitude of the atrocities committed against her people--it spends pages upon pages describing three generation in a family only tangentially related to the main character). Proulx is a good enough writer that such digressions are never less than enjoyable, but the cumulative effect of the collection, and the impression of Wyoming that it is so clearly trying to evoke, are diminished.

  6. Whites by Norman Rush - In sharp contrast to Proulx's underdone stories, this thin collection of only six stories by Rush is polished and near-seamless. I wouldn't have expected Rush--author of the undeniably brilliant but also sprawling and digressive novels Mating and Mortals--to have this much control of the short story form, but he acquits himself beautifully. Like the two novels, the stories in Whites take place in post-colonial Botswana, and as the title suggests their focus is interracial relations in that setting, and the attempts of whites--well-meaning, unthinking, or just plain cruel--to make a place for themselves in a nation that has so many reasons to hate them. The stories are nothing less than jewels. Rush is a beautiful writer, and he hops effortlessly from one narrative voice to another--the wry, detached anthropologist who relates the disastrous events of "Bruns" with obvious relish (the narrator, and the story itself, feel like a test run for Mating), the broken English of a young Batswana boy in "Thieving," the plaintive voice of the harassed, well-meaning wife of a European mining engineer in "Near Pala."

    Best of all, Rush is an excellent and concise storyteller (which is truly a surprise given how meandering Mortals and Mating were) whose depictions of life in Botswana are nothing short of devastating, while never falling into the traps of pity or condescension. Though all of the stories in Whites have a definite point to make, they make it through plot, not in spite or instead of it. In "Thieving," for example, the narrator's simple moral code and religious beliefs are a window through which we can examine the hopelessly tangled question of property and wealth in a post-colonial setting--is it right to demand that Africans, from which so much has been taken, accept the holiness with which we view personal property, or is the wholesale appropriation of white property even more damaging in the long term?--but the story is about his struggle to survive on the streets of Gaborone. It's our pity for this vulnerable boy that keeps us reading, and which makes Rush's point for him. The only negative comment I can make about Whites is that, having finished it, I have now exhausted Rush's bibliography, and that given his glacial rate of output (Mortals was twelve years in the writing) this exceptional, masterful collection might have to last me a long time.


Anonymous said...

I think Moist is Vetinari's Patrician-in-training.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

That's certainly the impression I got from this book, but in the past I've drawn the same conclusion about Vimes from books centered around him. I don't think Pratchett ever plans to deal with Vetinari's successor, and the longer he builds him up as an ideal, far-sighted leader, the more that oversight grates.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid you're right, but I hope that's not so.
I've never seen Vimes as Patrician material, myself. So this gave me a bit of hope Pratchett might be ready to let Vetinari retire to Uberwald or meet whatever other fate seems most appropriate.

Anonymous said...

I didn't mean that to be anonymous. Sorry.

Mike Taylor said...

Abigail, you have quite misunderstood The Go Between. If you check the cover, you'll see that it is in fact the tragic tale of a boy's struggle acceptance despite the handicap of having been born with a large green label on his head.

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