Monday, March 31, 2008

Reviewing the Reviews

There's been a slew of blog posts just recently discussing what makes a good or bad book review, and obliquely touching on the phenomenon of online book reviewing and the question of professionalism, its meaning and existence, in that field. Niall has a roundup at Torque Control, but the most interesting entries to my mind are these two by Larry at OF Blog of the Fallen, which attempt to dissect reviews he considers poorly written to determine just at which points they fail, and this post by Jeff VanderMeer, in which he spells out some guidelines for writing a good review (or rather, for not writing a bad one). In both cases, I can't help but feel that the writers' personal preferences are being restated as objective truths. Larry thinks reviewers shouldn't reference other works when discussing a novel. I often appreciate a review which places a book in its context or provides me with a frame of reference for it. And, as Cheryl Morgan says, most of the prohibitions Jeff lays down can be broken to great effect. It's not just, as Jeff says in response to Cheryl, that every rule has its exception, but that most of his rules are guidelines which can be just as useful when broken as when adhered to, and are best considered on a case-by-case basis.

In fact, what seems to be missing from this discussion of how reviews ought to work is any example of, well, reviews that work. Larry pointed out reviews he didn't care for, and at least some of Jeff's strictures seem to be directed at specific reviewers, but neither one of them gave any example of what they consider a good review, or any explanation of why they liked it. With that in mind, I trawled through Strange Horizons's archives and came up with a list of reviews that excited me either as a reader, encouraging me to pick up one book or delivering a well-deserved slapdown to another, or as a reviewer, showing me ways in which my own writing could and should develop. (For the purposes of this discussion, I've concentrated exclusively on book reviews, though some of my favorite reviewers do their best work writing about television or movies.)
  • 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill, reviewed by Graham Sleight - I'm fond of this review because it's an excellent example of how to review a short story collection. I've written reviews of collections several times, for Strange Horizons and here, and I've always found it difficult to balance discussions of individual stories with an overarching view of the collection. The former are obviously the meat of the review, but there's a danger, when concentrating excessively on the pieces, of creating a bitty, list-like piece that ignores the whole. On the other hand, most single-author collections are accumulations of pieces published over a long period of time and don't necessarily have a unifying theme. Graham's review achieves that balance, giving serious consideration to selected stories and, through that consideration, discovering a theme that ties the collection together. Another good example of this kind of review is Dan Hartland's review of Farah Mendlesohn's anthology Glorifying Terrorism. Reviewing anthologies is even trickier than reviewing single-author collections, as the different stories usually don't have much more than a vaguely-worded theme in common, and this review would have been even more problematic given the collection's political aim, but Dan manages to give both the political and artistic merits of the collection equal weight, and to create a thoughtful, interesting review.

  • James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips, reviewed by Farah Mendlesohn - this review was part of Tiptree week on Strange Horizons, in which Phillips's lauded biography was reviewed alongside Tiptree's collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever and two Tiptree award anthologies. As such, it was published long after everyone and his brother had had their chance to (justifiably) praise the book to high heavens, and it seemed hard to imagine what yet another voice might add to the discussion. Perhaps out of a recognition of this fact, Farah gets the praise out of the way quickly and then discovers a new approach to the biography, highlighting an aspect of Sheldon's personality that Phillips, in her opinion, misread or at least failed to properly highlight. The result is not so much a review as yet another addition to the ongoing discussion of Sheldon's personality and the forces that shaped her writing.

  • The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate by Ted Chiang, reviewed by William Mingin - it's still unusual to find essay-length reviews of short fiction, but a new story by Ted Chiang is clearly worthy of the effort. The broad canvas and short subject matter give Mingin the chance to conduct a close reading, to highlight interesting passages and conversations, and arrive slowly but definitively at his analysis. It's a perfect companion piece to the story, and one which caused me to appreciate it even more.

  • Two Views: The Road, reviewed by Victoria Hoyle and Paul Kincaid - I love this (double) review not as a reviewer (though I appreciate it on that level as well) but as a reader, because it persuaded me to read a book I had previously been dubious about. The Road had been gaining acclaim in mainstream circles for some time before Strange Horizons reviewed it, but my cynicism about outsider SF, and my aversion to post-apocalyptic stories, had me hesitating at the Buy button. Victoria and Paul's reviews, however, were so effusive, and so eloquent about the ways in which The Road moved and excited them, that they put me over the top. One of the fundamental jobs of reviews is to get people to read books, and this piece is an excellent example of how to do that.

  • The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien, reviewed by Adam Roberts - at first glance, these two books--a modern, well-received epic fantasy, and a 'rediscovered' work by the putative father of the genre--don't really belong in a single review, but Roberts takes the combination and uses it to discuss the very meaning of the sub-genre, the ways in which Tolkien dominates it and the ways in which modern authors have moved away from his examples. I'm particularly fond of this review because it discusses writing--something that Roberts is prone to do, but which other reviewers, myself included, don't touch on often enough. On a sentence-by-sentence level, Roberts compares the two books and talks about the two authors' styles, and more fundamentally, about what makes good prose.

  • Streaking by Brian Stableford, reviewed by John Clute - I admit, even I don't always get along with John Clute's reviews. I (mostly) love his writing, but I can't always be bothered to care about what he's saying, which on occasion is only tangentially related to the book being reviewed (see, for example, his review of Michael Swanwick's The Dragons of Babel from today's Strange Horizons). When he's on his game, though, there's no one who can match him, and here he has a perfect subject for his profuse, florid style--the utter awfulness of Brian Stableford's Streaking, which any other reviewer might have categorized as indescribable, but which Clute is more than capable of tackling. This review is funny, sharp, and precisely as irate as Stableford's horrible, horrible novel deserves.
It should be noted that this is by no means a definitive list of my favorite reviews. I chose Strange Horizons because I read it regularly, and it was therefore easier for me to recall those reviews from its archives which I found particularly impressive, but there are plenty of other venues--other webzines, mainstream publications, blogs--in which I've found excellent reviews. Nevertheless, if you're looking for examples of how reviewing should be done, you could do worse than to start with one of these.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

At Season's End

Strictly speaking, the concept of a television season is obsolete. Between US- and UK-based content producers, cable and network channels, and the belated realization of network executives that the two weeks on/four weeks off model that worked so well for formula television is the kiss of death for serialized shows like Lost and 24, it's possible to find first-air scripted television pretty much year round. But concentrating strictly on US-based shows (and ignoring Scrubs, which presumably is coming back one of these months, and which I was more or less ready to bid farewell to anyway), right now might be a good time to reflect on the three shows I accumulated this year--Pushing Daisies, Chuck, and The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Looking back, it strikes me that all three shows have similar strengths and weaknesses--most blatantly, on the latter count, a tendency to sacrifice plot for the sake of character and atmosphere.

A few weeks ago, Niall Harrison suggested that The Sarah Connor Chronicles was the 'best new show of the 07/08 tv season.' I disagreed then and still do, not only because Sarah Connor is not without its problems but because that title so obviously belongs to Pushing Daisies, and all the more so for that accomplishment's being so improbable. When the Pushing Daisies pilot was leaked online last summer, I shared in what was very nearly a uniform reaction: how beautiful, how funny, how refreshing--and how unsustainable. It seemed impossible for the show not to be overwhelmed by and ultimately buried under its stylized sensibility, for its writers not to lose themselves and their characters under an avalanche of cuteness. Every time I sat down to watch a new episode, I told myself that now, finally, I would see the show lose the thread, and every time the credits rolled I discovered not only that the show's heart was still beating but that Pushing Daisies had wormed its way even further into mine.

The secret to this success is both simple and rare--Pushing Daisies is smart. Smart enough to develop its supporting characters--Olive and Emerson, as well as Chuck's aunts Lily and Vivian--into fully fledged people who interact with one another away from the two leads, and with whom Ned and Chuck can have fully realized relationships, thus preventing the show from becoming a romantic melodrama entirely focused on the impossible romance between the two. Smart enough to realize, as Chuck so beautifully puts it early in the season, that not being able to touch each other is only one of her and Ned's problems as they try to make their relationship work, and to explore those mundane challenges to it. Smart enough to sustain the delicate tightrope walk that is maintaining balance between the show's comedic tone and its macabre and often tragic subject matter, as well as a corresponding balance between stylized decor and screwball comedy-tinged dialogue and the characters' humanity.

It's that last one that is, I think, at the root of Pushing Daisies's success. Its characters never stop being human, and they feel the blows the show's writers rain on them--Ned's loneliness, Chuck's twin desires for home and escape, Olive's unrequited love for Ned, the aunts' grief--keenly. The show's comedic tone, however, prevents it from sinking into non-stop angst and despair, and miraculously, it does so without undercutting the very real pain the characters are feeling. With bleakness off the menu, the show's writers are free to explore the ways in which people live after suffering terrible misfortunes--Lily and Vivian going back and forth between listless grief and a new lease on life; Chuck and Olive tentatively coming to accept and respect each others' feelings for Ned, and Chuck making peace with Ned's responsibility for her father's death. If the show's pilot suggested that Pushing Daisies would sweep all unpleasantness under the rug, its subsequent episodes have repeatedly examined that unpleasantness with the same unflinching, and even affectionate, attitude with which Ned gazes at mauled corpses, and, again and again, revealed it to be something with which its characters can cope.

As one might expect from a show with such a heavy emphasis on the development of its main characters and their relationships, Pushing Daisies is not a series to be watched for its episodic plots. Though I've been pleasantly surprised by how well the show's procedural aspect hangs together--the mysteries which drive individual episodes are neither obvious, nor are they so tinged with the show's zaniness that they become completely irrational--it's quite clear that plotting is nothing but the framework on which character development and atmosphere can be mounted. This is very much in keeping with the show's mandate and focus, however, and therefore not a fatal flaw. For a series like Chuck, however, the laziness and occasional senselessness of its plots very often threatens to capsize the entire enterprise.

Chuck is the new series I'm least invested in. It can be entertaining and charming, but only when breakneck pacing or a particular hefty helping of character interaction manage to conceal the fact that its plots consistently rely on characters--protagonists and antagonists--being painfully stupid and ignorant of every spy movie or television series ever made. There's the potential for Chuck to be wry parody of the spy genre, and on occasions, when Chuck himself is allowed to be a spy and not just a source of information, it does seem that this is the tone the writers want to strike. Unfortunately, Chuck seems too infatuated with its premise, and repeatedly makes the fatal mistake of taking itself too seriously. Again and again it falls into the trap of telling us that Chuck, Sarah and Casey are saving the world, when what's really showing up on screen is a bunch of silly, ridiculously pretty people enacting every spy cliché in the book and frequently failing to use even half their brains. A show like Alias, which Chuck is very obviously emulating, could get away with this contradiction through a combination of melodrama and sheer chutzpah, but Chuck's writers haven't achieved anything near that show's heady, near-surrealist plotting.

Which is a shame, because I'm quite fond of nearly all of Chuck's characters, and of the show's benevolent treatment of them. I like Chuck's strong bond with his sister, and her loving relationship with her boyfriend--who started out literally a one-note joke and has grown into a compelling, yet no less funny, character--and I've enjoyed the continuing exploration of Chuck's life prior to his absorbing a boatload of super-secret knowledge. Chuck's premise was that the title character had no life, was stuck in a rut with little hope of escape until a freak accident granted him special powers, and with them responsibilities and access to a secret underworld populated by only a privileged few. In the episodes following the pilot, however, we've seen that instead of Sarah and Casey pulling Chuck into their world, Chuck absorbs them into his, in the process shining a light on the very real and very meaningful relationships and rituals that make it so much fuller and more worthwhile than theirs.

The first season has shown us Chuck's friendship with Morgan and their shared history and customs, the relationships and foibles of his coworkers, and mostly his exuberant affection for the geeky lifestyle that, according to the pilot, was a trap holding him in place, and in the show itself has been treated with a wry affection. Chuck shines not when it delivers spy antics and choreographed fight scenes, but when the title character is interacting with his friends and family, and as he slowly draws his two handlers into it (with differing degrees of success--Adam Baldwin's Casey has quickly become one of the show's biggest draws, but until the show's writers start treating Sarah with the same humor that has made Casey so appealing, not to mention stop having her parade around in her underwear, she will continue to be the show's weakest link).

Unlike both Chuck and Pushing Daisies, The Sarah Connor Chronicles is very much not a comedy. And yet it wears its grim, high-stakes premise lightly. The godawful and tedious voiceovers notwithstanding, Sarah Connor has turned out to be a thoughtful, at times almost low-key show. Whether or not you agree with Niall that it is the best new show on TV, I don't think there's any denying that it's the best new SF show on the small screen, and one of only a few series that actually try to do SFnal things with an SFnal premise--to wonder about the effects of technology and the meaning of what it is to be human in the face of those effects. The question that drives the series--how to survive, not just physically but emotionally and morally, in the face of an implacable and unspeakable future, and whether there is any point in fighting what's fated--is an inherently SFnal one, and over the course of the show's first season it has been addressed with gravity and grace through the actions and choices of the show's main and supporting cast.

Like Battlestar Galactica, Sarah Connor pits machines, uniform in their attitudes and aims, against a choatic, unruly mass of humans. Unlike Galactica, however, Sarah Connor doesn't revel in the depravity that often comes hand in hand with free will, nor does it resort to depicting humans who oppose Sarah's cause or her leadership. All of the show's characters are against the apocalypse, and most of them recognize that Sarah is in charge of preventing it. And yet they each go their own way. John sneaks out of the house without a fake ID, Charley makes contact with Sarah after being visited by the evil terminator, Cameron keeps a piece of the terminator she killed, Derek openly questions Sarah's choices (and one might argue that his friendly overtures toward John are on some level an attempt to weaken her hold on him by playing the cool uncle). Even Agent Ellison defies his colleagues and superiors by pursuing the Sarah Connor case and the perplexing evidence he finds in her wake. None of them are evil or disloyal (not even, I strongly believe, Cameron)--they're just people, and getting people to fall in line is like herding cats, or some other task that not even Sarah Connor can manage perfectly. It's an observation that has been made before in SF, most recently in both Battlestar Galactica and Firefly, but Sarah Connor's iteration is quieter and more subtle than either one of them.

There's more to enjoy in Sarah Connor than just this interesting exploration of an SFnal question. The characters are proving, one by one, to be a delight. I'm still not 100% sold on Sarah, though she's grown on me with every episode, and I still don't think the show always strikes the right balance between future leader of humanity and whiny teenager when it comes to John, but Cameron gets weirder, cooler, more alien and more fascinating with every passing episode, Ellison is noble and steadfast, and after only a few appearances Derek has quickly become my favorite character, both earnest and manipulative, fiercely loyal to his cause and yet quick to question his alleged leaders, lethal and vulnerable. It's a shame, therefore, that the show's plotting is so very, very bad.

Much like Pushing Daisies, Sarah Connor uses its episodic plots to further the exploration of its characters and its themes. Single episode plots are made to work through the idiocy of the characters (Sarah finds out that a mobster has bought the supercomputer she fears will become Skynet, so she calls him on his cellphone wanting to buy it. Shockingly, this results not in simple business transaction but in the mobster blackmailing Sarah and threatening John's life) or through flat-out contravention of reality (a person with O- blood can't transfuse someone who is AB+; my own personal pet pieve, the insistence that game-playing machines are a stepping stone to human-like machine intelligence). Even worse, the overarching plotline is driven by coincidence (of the half-dozen pictures Sarah finds in the safehouse, Tarissa Dyson can name the programmer who will build Skynet; the terminator Cameron kills just happens to have been orchestrating the creation of another Skynet component) and feels haphazard and disjointed. For a show whose premise is plot-oriented, this is an untenable failure. As interesting as the characters are, if the shows' writers continue to allow them to blithely stumble into the causes of the apocalypse (all of which, conveniently, are located in southern California) they will inevitably come to seem stupid and less human, and the show will falter.

On top of a tendency to prioritize character over plot, what all three of these shows have in common is a level of ambivalence towards the kind of story they want to tell. Pushing Daisies uses this uncertainty to great effect. It teases the viewers by building up expectations of one kind of a story--a mannered comedy/procedural--and delivering a powerful character drama. Chuck and The Sarah Connor Chronicles, meanwhile, are hampered by it. The former needs to redefine itself, commit itself to its comedic strengths and stop taking itself so seriously. The latter needs to pump more blood into its storytelling apparatus, and deliver a good plot alongside its excellent character work. Happily, it's already been confirmed that Pushing Daisies and Chuck will be coming back next fall, and strongly rumored that Sarah Connor will be doing the same, so hopefully we'll get a chance to see all three of these promising shows get even better.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Grade A Genre Snobbery Spotted In the Wild

It's Tournament of Books time again. I'm quite fond of this competition, which strikes me as being as sensible a way to award excellence in literature as any other. Plus, with more than a dozen judges each publicly listing the reasons for their selection, one is practically guaranteed good rant fodder. So far, the 2008 tournament hasn't offered anything on the scale of Dale Peck's magnificent refusal-to-judge-while-excoriating-the-entire-Western-literary-scene, but Elizabeth McCracken sure does her best when asked to choose between Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao--which on top of appearing on very nearly every best-of-year list a few months ago recently won the NBCC award for best fiction--and Laura Lippman's mystery novel What the Dead Know. Unsurprisingly, the Díaz carries the day, but amid McCracken's explanation of her reasons for choosing it one finds the following gem:
Don’t get me wrong: I like murders in fiction. A lot. And I don’t mind the trappings of genre; I adore genre straddlers like Lethem, Lehane, and Kelly Link. But I want glorious language first, depth of character a close second, and everything else after. Cram all the Pinkertons, Shamuses, Cold War spies, werewolves, unicorns, and rainbows you want in a novel; I’ll read it as long as it has great language and interesting characters. (Not vampires, though. I can’t abide vampires.) But a straight crime novel? Clearly it was going to be Díaz in a walk.
Intellectually I know that, for the sake of my health at least, I should stop getting worked up over yet another iteration of the 'but this is good/well then it's not SF' attitude. And it's not as if you don't know the counterargument to McCracken's unthinking dismissal of genre already--while she's certainly not wrong that genre writing tends to prioritize plot over language and character, there are plenty of genre works that excel on both those counts, and many literary works that don't deliver on either. What really gets me about this particular instance of genre snobbery, though, is that it's really not that common to come across so sweeping a dismissal. One more often encounters reviewers who, while praising a single genre work or writer, hasten to dismiss the field lest they catch genre cooties (see this recent example regarding J.G. Ballard), but McCracken actually comes out and says that good writing and complicated characters are antithetical to genre writing, and that their absence is part of the definition of genre. It's good, every now and then, to be reminded of just what level of ignorance and snobbery those of us who love and believe in genre fiction are up against.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Some People Obsessively Follow the Oscars...

...and some people obsess over genre literary awards. The shortlist for the 2008 Arthur C. Clarke award has been announced (Niall Harrison, one of the Clarke judges, has a comprehensive list of reviews here):
Which just goes to show that you can know and frequently correspond with two of the judges for this award and still have only the faintest hope of guessing the nominees (which is not to say that either of these judges have spoken out of turn--merely that I think I've developed a sense of their taste in books). I'd guessed that both Sarah Hall and Richard Morgan's novels would be nominated, because both have received a great deal of praise in the circles whose tastes the Clarke tends to mirror (not coincidentally, these are the two nominees which I had already been planning to read). The other four nominees are a surprise, but not nearly so much as the absence of Ian McDonald's Brasyl, which I had been thinking of as a mortal lock for a nomination ever since its publication last spring. In fact, what's most striking about this shortlist is the absence of big names (MacLeod and Baxter are big names in the UK, but the latter, at least, is somewhat undercut by H-Bomb's being a YA book). Just off the top of my head, 2007 saw the publication of novels by Michael Chabon, William Gibson, Paul J. McAuley, and Adam Roberts, and I had expected at least some of them to get Clarke nods.

That the Clarke award is esoteric and unpredictable is one of its charms. As its administrator, Tom Hunter, wrote in the press release announcing the shortlist, it "has always been about pushing at the speculative edges of its genre." It shouldn't come as a surprise that its nominees are not just the usual suspects, and yet I found myself oddly disappointed by those names' absence. When I asked myself why this was, I realized that I've reached the point where the Clarke is not just the only SFnal award I actually care about, but the only award which I believe still holds any relevance to the field. The Nebula long ago slid into irrelevance. The Hugo has come to be associated with the not-too-elevated tastes of an increasingly graying fan in-group. If you're looking for an award that has its finger on the pulse of what science fiction is today, and that seeks to recognize more than just entertainment and more than just cool ideas, the Clarke is pretty much it. Which is an odd position in which to place an award which was almost certainly envisioned, and has been functioning as, an alternative to mainstream SFnal awards (now there's an oxymoron for you).

With the Clarke holding on to the respectability that the Nebula, and to a lesser extent the Hugo, have lost, I automatically expected it to shoulder some of their responsibilities and move closer to the core of the field. This is unfair to the award's organizers and judges. It's not their fault that the other major awards in the field have become debased. It shouldn't be their job to take up the slack. And yet someone should.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Now That Makes a Little More Sense

Israeli film critic Yair Raveh links to this clip off the I Am Legend DVD, of the film's original ending.

To be honest, though it's obviously better than the tacked on upbeat ending the theatrical version shipped with, I don't think this ending works perfectly either. There would have had to be changes to the body of the film too, which stressed that the transformed humans were still feeling creatures. There are hints of this in the theatrical version, when the zombie male goes to extreme lengths to rescue the woman Smith's character captures for experimentation, but considering that we're talking about flesh-eating zombies who have all but depopulated the Earth, I think a little more effort, and a corresponding emphasis on the Smith character's monstrousness towards the zombies, were necessary to bring this point home. For all I know, though, that's on the DVD too.

Monday, March 03, 2008


My review of Paolo Bacigalupi's collection, Pump Six, appears today in Strange Horizons. This is, I believe, going to be one of those career-making short story collections, and anyone who cares about short-form SF owes it to themselves to track it down.

EDIT: several of the stories in Pump Six are available online. Here are "The Tamarisk Hunter," "The People of Sand and Slag," and my two personal favorites, "The Fluted Girl" and "Yellow Card Man."

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Old New York, New Herland: Two Novels

As some of you may have noticed, I am engaged in a concerted effort to read every single thing Edith Wharton ever wrote (well, every piece of fiction--I draw the line at The Decoration of Houses). Having early on gone through her most famous works--her two masterpieces, The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, as well as Ethan Frome, a novella inflicted upon unsuspecting high school students all across the U.S. by people who apparently don't feel that being a teenager is quite depressing enough--I spent a portion of the last year making my way through various short stories, novellas, and lesser known short novels. This year, I've begun my efforts with a work that's somewhere in between the two extremes, fame-wise--Wharton's third-most famous full-length novel, The Custom of the Country.

Anyone coming to Wharton's lesser known work having read nothing but Innocence, Mirth, and Frome will be in for a bit of a surprise. If those works concentrated on moral-yet-weak individuals being crushed by a hypocritical social machine indifferent to their wants and needs, Wharton's stories and novellas feature a less clear-cut division between good and evil. In her stories, people whose moral rectitude prevents them from taking what they want are not grandly tragic figures, but pathetic ones, and though she continues to criticize the puritanical ethos which governed old New York, she is no less critical towards the invasion of nouveau riche industrialists and businessmen, whom she on several occasions literally calls barbarians at the gate, threatening to trammel everything that was good and beautiful about New York society in their zeal to belong to it. There's a darkly humorous tone that crops up quite often in Wharton's shorter fiction, sometimes resulting in overtly humorous stories like "Xingu" or "The Mission of Jane," but mostly underlying them, and quickly coming to seem like a deep, fathomless bitterness.

The Custom of the Country is very much in the vein of these stories. It tells the story of Undine Spragg, the daughter of a successful Midwestern businessman who comes to New York desperate to penetrate the highest stratums of its society, and through her the story of an entire social class, men and women new to affluence and eager to translate it into respectability, and the alternately baffled and greedy New Yorkers who welcome them in. Undine captures the heart of Ralph Marvell, the scion of one of old New York's oldest and most respectable families, but the point which seems like the happy conclusion to her efforts is really just their beginning. Though her beauty and charm quickly make her a social leader, Undine is hampered by the Marvell family's limited financial means, and turns to increasingly dubious methods to supplement them while neglecting her doting husband and young son. She accepts loans from a notorious womanizer, whom she tries, and fails, to separate from his wife, and later marries a French aristocrat who turns out to be even more impoverished than her husband. At the novel's end, Undine is right where she started, in the arms of an amoral Midwestern businessman who has struck it rich and whom the by now completely debased New York society has embraced as a social leader.

If this plot description is ringing any bells, you may have already hit on the main reason that The Custom of the Country is not an entirely successful novel--its inability to hold a candle to the masterpiece of social climbing novels, Vanity Fair. There are so many similarities between Wharton's and William Makepeace Thackeray's novels--mainly in Undine and Becky Sharp's similar mercenary attitudes, and in the way that their creators use that attitude and their journeys to paint a panoramic and unflattering portrait of society in a moment of flux--that one almost wonders how Wharton, who must surely have been familiar with Vanity Fair, could have justified her own novel's existence. Was she writing an homage to Thackeray's novel? Did she think that her variation on it had enough of its own flavor to stand beside it? I suspect the latter is the case, as the crucial difference between the two novels is that, whereas Thackeray poured equal amounts of scorn on social climbers of Becky's ilk and the aristocracy they sought to penetrate, in The Custom of the Country Wharton seems to have chosen a side. She excoriates the crass, amoral invaders, in spite of the fact that in her hands, the invaded relics of old New York, as represented by Ralph Marvell and his family, are portrayed as weak and bloodless, too caught up in their ancient rituals and prejudices to survive. The Custom of the Country becomes, therefore, an all-out tragedy, as opposed to Thackery's wryly humorous tale, which ultimately concludes that society, in any guise, is but a foolish puppet show, and that the most sensible approach to it is to sit back and enjoy the show.

That said, if Vanity Fair is a more successful portrait of society, The Custom of the Country is a better character portrait. One of the glaring absences in Thackeray's novel is that of the characters' interiority, and this Wharton provides plenty of. Undine is a fascinating little monster, whose greatest asset, aside from her beauty and her willingness to use it to get what she wants, is her capacity for self-willed ignorance. Though cunning and capable of managing money when it suits her, she chooses not to understand when her father and later her two husbands tell her that the manner to which she wishes to become accustomed is beyond their means. The former two are driven by a combination of love and fear of Undine's furious temper to hard work, self-denial, and shady dealings in order to provide her with what she wants. The latter simply attempts to explain to her that there are things that matter to him more than money, and that he will not, for example, sell his crumbling ancestral home, or the treasures within it, to satisfy her wishes. When she refuses to understand this, he freezes her out. The chapters which describe her entombment in his mouldering castle, trapped in the company of his disapproving, tradition-bound family and reduced to tiny, insignificant rebellions such as ordering a fire lit in two rooms instead of the traditional one, are among the most terrifying in the book, and almost enough to make Undine pitiable.

When Undine rebels against her financial restrictions and takes up with those who can overcome them--the notorious New York playboy who reneges on his promise to leave his wife for her, or the businessman with whom she ends the novel--she finds herself missing the social acceptance she had abandoned. What Undine wants, Wharton tells us, are entertainment and respectability, which is to say, wealth and class. The crux of The Custom of the Country is that these two are rarely found in the same place, and that the former is winning out over the latter. For Undine, however, life is a constant see-saw between the two, and the novel's ending finds her, rather than finally happy with her lot, already starting to chafe against her wealthy yet crude third husband. Undine, Wharton concludes, is never going to change and never going to learn. She will always want what she doesn't have, and, once she has it, lament what she sacrificed in order to get it.

It's an effective portrait, and it's matched by the character of Ralph Marvell, who is, I suspect, the most nakedly autobiographical character in Wharton's bibliography. In order to support Undine's expensive habits, Ralph buries himself in an occupation he finds boring and tedious, and the combination of this drudgery with his increasing disillusionment with the woman he fell in love with take a terrible toll on him. His marriage becomes a crushing emotional burden, but its dissolution is just as shameful and debilitating, and one wonders how much of Wharton's own pain at the difficult ending of her marriage (she divorced the mentally unstable Teddy Wharton after 28 years of marriage) was poured into Ralph. Ralph is also, like Wharton, a writer, and though her stories often feature characters who are writers they are usually humorous caricatures, producers of populist junk more concerned with publicity than art, or else they're upper class dilettantes who have the will to create but not the discipline. For Ralph, however, writing is an outlet and a salvation. It's through writing that he begins to recover from the shock of Undine's betrayal, to come back to life after the long slog through the emotional wasteland that was his marriage. This is the first time that I've encountered anything that feels like a true depiction of the creative drive in Wharton's writing, and I have to wonder whether she wasn't drawing on her own experiences for it.

Most of all, The Custom of the Country finally confirmed me in my belief that Wharton is far from a feminist writer. The main tension in the novel, as I've said, is between wealth and class, and the new social order it describes, following old New York's capitulation to the nouveau riche, is one in which men go downtown to produce wealth and women take that wealth and create a society, full of diverting entertainments, out of it, in which they and the men can enjoy themselves. In what is clearly a naked authorial intrusion, one of the minor characters in the novel diagnoses the core sickness of their society--the titular custom--as a money cult, which produces men who have nothing to give women but money, and women like Undine, who have no comprehension of there being any value in anything beyond the monetary kind, and yet don't truly understand the value of money, expecting it to be provided on cue.

What Wharton fails to consider that Undine's ignorance has been carefully bred in her and in women like her, as well as the fact that she has been trained to be both useless and ornamental. The greatest contribution that Undine can make to her own financial well-being--apart from marrying someone wealthy--is not to spend too much. She is a consumer, never a producer, and Wharton unthinkingly accepts the unspoken assumption that this is how things are supposed to be. In her other novels, women are victimized by a society that won't allow them a full expression of either their desires or their abilities--Lily Bart, who is forced to choose between a mercenary marriage or principled poverty; Ellen Olenska, looked down upon for leaving an abusive husband--but to Wharton these are class issues, never gender issues, and there's an undertone of resentment towards women as a group that permeates her novels. It's women who keep society going, women who maintain the smothering traditions and enforce the cruel social code that most of her writing rails against, and she never considers that they are also its victims.

It therefore made sense to follow up The Custom of the Country with Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland. Gilman and Wharton were both female American writers of the same era, if not the same region or social set. Gilman's most famous piece, the short story "The Yellow Wallpaper," was even published around the same time as Wharton started writing for publication. (Interestingly, whereas Gilman's story mirrors her own experiences while undergoing the 'rest cure'--in which women were supposed to be cured of nervous exhaustion by allowing their intellect to atrophy and burying themselves in domesticity--Wharton was urged to write by a doctor who felt that doing so might help to combat her own emotional problems--as Ralph Marvell is in The Custom of the Country.) Gilman, however, was a feminist, and Herland is indisputably a feminist tract. Its narrative is the recollection of one of three young American men who discover a secluded country peopled only by women, deep in the South American jungle. Deprived of all their men by war and cut off from the rest of the continent by a volcano eruption, the inhabitants of this nation miraculous developed the capacity for parthenogenesis, and have for two thousand years maintained an entirely female society.

The worldbuilding segments of Herland are exactly what one would expect them to be--a misty-eyed utopia in which everything is peaceful and orderly, and everyone loves one another and works towards the greater good. The most interesting aspect of Gilman's utopian vision is that, in order to achieve it, she had to do away with female sexuality. The women of Herland love one another as sisters and feel a communal sense of motherhood towards their daughters (in fact, motherhood is their driving impulse and their highest ideal), but there are no individual romances between them, nor any indication that they have sexual urges that need gratifying. A significant portion of the end of the novel is taken up with the narrator trying to persuade his beloved that sex is worthwhile for reasons other than procreation, and the novel climaxes with an attempted sexual assault by one of the other men, so it can't be said that Gilman is unaware of or choosing to ignore this aspect of the human experience. She just seems to believe that humanity would be better off without it, and that women in particular have no need of it.

Far more successful than Gilman's imaginary female society are the male characters who encounter it and their reactions to it. Though hardly original--the three men fall into easily recognizable stereotypes of male attitudes: one of them is an adventurer for whom women are something be conquered and mastered, another idolizes them as guardians of everything good and pure, and the third, the narrator, is the most open-minded and genuinely interested in the sociological implications of an all-female society--Gilman's portrait of the men's inability to comprehend Herland rings true. Their insistence that women can't cooperate, or that they lack the drive and ambition to achieve anything on a communal or national scale, is familiar and believably sketched--so much so as to elicit the kind of rage that almost justifies Gilman's unrealistically perfect response to these derogatory assumptions--and their responses to being gently yet irresistibly imprisoned by creatures whom they have been trained to think of as inferior are equally believable.

Herland put me very much in mind of the James Tiptree Jr. story "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?", which also imagines three modern men encountering a society that has evolved past them and demonstrating a range of responses to it that runs from rage to capitulation--so much so that I strongly suspect the Tiptree story was written with Gilman's novel in mind. Whether or not it was, the fact remains that both pieces--one of them written nearly a century ago--diagnose the core fallacy that leads to misogyny and sexism--the insistence that women are women first and people second, if at all--and attempt to combat it by positing a society in which 'people' and 'women' mean the same thing, in which men have no role and women no reaction to them.

I found it interesting to consider Herland alongside The Custom of the Country because, just as Wharton's novel mistakes gender issues for class issues, Gilman makes the opposite mistake. Her female utopia is predicated on a myriad unthinking assumptions, most of which are related not to gender but class. Herland functions because of the attention and care it lavishes upon every one of its citizens as they grow up, carefully moulding them into intelligent, well-informed, well-adjusted members of society. Gilman acknowledges that such devoted individual education is only possible if a society's population doesn't exceed its resources (though she is flat out opposed to abortion, and instead decides that Herland's residents can decide not to get pregnant), but doesn't make the required leap to realizing that the ills of our society are rooted not simply in misogyny but also in acquisitiveness and lust for power. She unthinkingly equates one with the other. When the visitors admit that the poorest women in their country have the most children and the least support (servants), Gilman treats this as a problem afflicting women, not poor people. There's even a brief but ugly specter of racial prejudice, when Herland's narrator hurries to assure us that the nation's inhabitants are not just white but Aryan.

It should come as no surprise when I say that Wharton's novel makes for a better read than Gilman's tract--for one thing, Wharton is by far the better prose stylist--but in both cases one comes away from the novel with the powerful sensation of having stared too long through a microscope, concentrating on a single element in a vast tapestry far more complicated than either of these authors allowed their work to be. It's that complexity that makes Vanity Fair a masterpiece, and it is apparent in Wharton's better work. Hopefully I'll find it again, as I continue my journey through her catalogue.