Tuesday, February 26, 2013

At Strange Horizons: Introducing Short Fiction Snapshot

This week on Strange Horizons, we're launching a new reviews department feature: Short Fiction Snapshot, where every other month we'll be dedicating a full-length review to a piece of short fiction.  Here is my editorial explaining my goals and hopes for this project, and here is the first installment, discussing Charlie Jane Anders's "Intestate," from Tor.com. 

One of my hopes for this project is that it will become a short fiction discussion club, along the lines of the ones on Torque Control, Locus Online, and Everything is Nice.  So if you're interested, please go and read "Intestate," and add your thoughts in the comments to my review.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Winter Crop 2: More Thoughts on Midseason Shows

The pilots of winter continue to pour in, and I think we can identify a trend: fall is when the respectable doctor and lawyer shows premiere; winter is when TV puts on fancy dress.  This latest bunch of shows includes fantasy, thrillers, science fiction, and lots of weirdness.  Not all of it works, unsurprisingly--in the time between starting this post and publishing it, the most rancid of the shows I've written about has already managed a much-deserved cancellation--but there's a lot that's new and different here alongside the tediously familiar and underworked, and that's something to be grateful for.
  • Do No Harm - I have no idea if this is true, but in my head the thought process that went into greenlighting Do No Harm went something like this: "hey, that other show loosely inspired by Stephen Moffat's 21st century modernization of a 19th century story that has entered the cultural currency, and which we turned into a procedural, is turning out pretty well.  It's sure to work even better a second time, especially since Jekyll was a hot mess where Sherlock is only intermittently awful, so the bar is set much lower!"  And yet, somehow, Do No Harm manages to fail to clear that bar.  It, in fact, fails to clear the basement, and were it not suffused with a weirdly forgiving attitude towards domestic abuse I might even call it hilariously awful.  Steven Pasquale plays Jason Cole, an impossibly successful, conscientious, and caring neurosurgeon whose dark secret is that he is also Ian Price, a hedonistic psychopath.  Jason and Ian split the day between them, the former taking over their body at 8:25 AM, the latter at 8:25 PM, but for five years Jason has been drugging himself every night in order to keep Ian at bay (to his colleagues, Jason has put it out that he has diabetes, and thus "can't operate at night"; this has in no way retarded his ability to climb to the peak of a profession where he might reasonably be expected to be available 24 hours a day to deal with life and death situations, and the only doctor who questions Jason's competence or, indeed, his bullshit story is treated by the show and the other characters as a villain).  Now Ian has developed a resistance towards the drug, and is reemerging to wreak havoc--and, in light of his years-long incarceration, vengeance--on Jason's life.

    The main problem of the pilot... no, that's not right.  There are no end of things wrong with the pilot, each of which might reasonably be called a show-destroying problem, but the problem with the pilot as a piece of storytelling meant to introduce this new spin on the Jekyll and Hyde concept is that Ian is almost entirely absent from it.  We get a lot of scenes in which Jason freaks out over the damage Ian could do to his life and to the people unlucky enough to come across him, but absolutely no sense of what sort of monster Ian is and what he actually wants (it most certainly doesn't help that Pasquale, though marginally capable of conveying Jason's inoffensive blandness, is utterly incapable of being in any way menacing).  From what little we see of him in the pilot, what Ian mainly seems to want is to smack Jason's love interests around.  These include his current crush Lena (Alana De La Garza), who the pilot briefly intimates was raped by Ian, only to back down and reveal that he humiliated her after she decided not to have sex with him, and his former fiancee Olivia (Ruta Gedmintas), whom Ian attacked and mutilated (the pilot ends with the "surprise" "discovery" that, unbeknownst to Jason, Olivia has had his baby, because obviously, if you find yourself pregnant by a man who is desperate to control you, and whose unexplained medical condition--a condition that may, for all you know, be hereditary--so frightens you that you've cut off all contact with him, the obvious thing to do is take that pregnancy to term).  The main purpose of both of these attacks seems to be first to give Jason the opportunity to look pained and contrite, and secondly for the women to reassure him that Ian's excesses are not his fault.  If it weren't for the prevalence of domestic violence in the pilot, I might say that despite its awful execution Do No Harm had the potential to go in interesting directions--the very absence of Ian from the pilot might indicate that future episodes would have expanded his point of view and revealed him to be a more nuanced figure than Jason gives him credit for.  But the fact that the show uses the abuse of women as a shorthand for evil without even giving those women (or the audience) the satisfaction of being able to hate their abuser, when topped by the aforementioned awful execution, means that I had absolutely no interest in seeing whether Do No Harm would have proceeded down that path.  Its cancellation after only two episodes is richly deserved.

  • The Following - Since we're on a roll with imagining the elevator pitch for all these new, high concept shows, I have to assume that The Following was pitched as "Silence of the Lambs, the TV show" (not to be confused with the Hannibal Lecter prequel series Hannibal, currently in the works).  The basic premise is that a month before his execution, serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy, utterly wasted) escapes from prison and kidnaps his sole surviving victim, thus justifying the reinstatement of Ryan Hardy, the profiler who caught Carrol, and who is now a physically ravaged, alcoholic wreck (Kevin Bacon, somewhat less wasted than Purefoy since the show so far has given him a little more scope to be vulnerable, irritated, and even, in flashbacks, charming, as opposed to Carrol's unremitting creepiness, but still far better than this show deserves).  The pilot pulls off its one interesting twist when Carroll kills the kidnapped victim halfway in and is recaptured, so that it can reveal that the real menace comes from a cult that he has amassed over the internet, who are now carrying out an increasingly widespread campaign of murder and mayhem in homage (or, possibly, with a more prosaic purpose in mind) of their master.  The main purpose of this seems to be that the show can now posit an endless supply of attractive, intelligent, capable young people who have nothing better to do with their lives than commit impossibly inventive murder on Carroll's behalf, while maintaining the back-and-forth between Purefoy and Bacon, which is where the Silence of the Lambs comparison comes in.  The problem (no, again, one of the problems) is that, at least to me, the best thing about Silence was how prominently it featured smart, competent women at every level of its story--not just Clarice Starling, but her roommate and fellow agent, her mother, the senator whose daughter Wild Bill kidnaps, and even the kidnapping victim herself, who does a great deal to keep herself alive.  The Following, meanwhile, not only relegates women almost exclusively to the role of victims, it makes the crux of Carroll's philosophy and his reason for killing some twisted interpretation of the romantic ideal (ascribed to Poe, though I wouldn't exactly trust this show to present a nuanced and meaningful interpretation of the author's work and themes; despite which, by the end of the pilot I think I would have been perfectly happy never to hear the name "Edgar Allan Poe" ever again) in which a woman is a passive object of beauty--beauty that reaches its fullest expression at the moment of her death.

    For all its tongue-clucking over this philosophy, The Following is still a series in which lots of young women are murdered by people who tell them that doing so will perfect them.  And while there are female characters on the show--Annie Parisse, whom I enjoyed in shows like Rubicon and The Pacific, is amusingly dry as Ryan's superior officer, and Natalie Zea, finally released from two years of character assassination on Justified, plays Carroll's ex-wife, with whom Ryan is in love--none of them are sufficiently active or central to counteract the show's perception of women as objects to be worked upon (Zea's plotline, in which her son is kidnapped by Carroll's acolytes, is particularly thankless).  The sole exception is Valorie Curry as one of Carrol's chief adherents, but even leaving aside how problematic it is that the only woman with any real agency on your show is a villain (who first expresses her agency by killing her domineering mother when the latter makes a pass at her new boyfriend), at no point in The Following's first two episodes is there any indication that either the character or, indeed, the show, are aware of the contradiction of a woman coming into her own in the service of a man who believes that her highest purpose is a beautiful death.  I do realize that I'm in the minority in finding Clarice Starling and the women around her the most interesting thing about The Silence of the Lambs.  As the forthcoming Hannibal, and indeed Thomas Harris's entire output following the film's success, indicate, for most people this is Lecter.  But Joe Carroll is no Hannibal Lecter (and James Purefoy is no Anthony Hopkins), and absent both that magnetic presence at its center and the more intriguing handling of female bonds and relationships in the original novel, all that's left in The Following is a too-familiar serial killer story that revels in its bloodiness a little more than I think even its creators realize.  It's a show that manages to be both boring and creepy.

  • The Americans - It's pretty easy to imagine the elevator pitch for The Americans, meanwhile, and to imagine that it on its own was enough to get the show greenlit.  Soviet spies masquerading as a suburban American couple in the early 80s is an instantly compelling premise, one that has intriguing associations with post-9/11 TV and its musings about enemy agents living among us (it's also an idea that seems to have taken pop culture by a storm just recently--Elementary had a somewhat implausibly timed episode centered around it, and I'm sure I've seen it elsewhere as well).  There are lots of interesting directions in which you could take a premise like this, and if The Americans's pilot--a tense, fast-paced hour that crams seemingly impossible amounts of story into its running time without feeling rushed or overwhelming--has a flaw, it is that it seems, at various points, to be gesturing at every one of them, so that at its end there's very little sense of what, beyond a spy thriller in which our point of view characters are not only the "bad guys," but also doomed to failure, the show is trying to be.  In some scenes, it seems to be a show about how American culture is perceived by communist infiltrators.  "There's a weakness in the people," Elizabeth (Keri Russell) tells Philip (Matthew Rhys) (the two are forbidden from speaking Russian or using their real names, even in private) when they first arrive in the US, and when, in the pilot, he points out that the children they've had to maintain their cover are Americans and she expresses the hope that they won't buy into the American dream completely, Philip ruefully reminds her that "this place"--the suburbs that provide them with their perfect camouflage--"doesn't produce socialists."  In other scenes the show seems to be about the toll that living a lie for so many years has on the liar, though this theme is intriguingly attached to our heroes' new neighbor, an FBI agent (Noah Emmerich) who spent years undercover with a white supremacist group before being reassigned to the counterintelligence desk.  And in others still it seems to be circling that Cold War standard, the spy wondering whether all their schemes, lies, and deception were really good for anything, as Philip begins to worry that he and Elizabeth will be exposed, and suggests that they should get ahead of the problem by defecting.

    Still, these are all hints, and at the end of the pilot it's hard to get a sense of either the show and its characters.  Rhys has a showier part than Russell, swinging from vulnerability as he contemplates the unhappy set of options his future offers and utter ruthlessness as he tries to complete his assignments and thus stem that future's tide, but along the way he lies to various people so expertly and convincingly that it's hard to know which of these extremes, if any, to believe.  Elizabeth's defining characteristic, so far, is that she's loyal to the motherland, to the point of preferring death to defection, but the show hasn't given her much space yet to explain that loyalty (and, since the pilot includes the revelation that she was raped during training by a high-ranking KGB officer who had been taught that he could "have [his] way with the recruits," it in fact seems to be making compelling arguments against that loyalty).  Loyalty, in fact, seems to be the closest thing The Americans has to a unifying theme--Elizabeth and Philip's loyalty to their country, their ideals, their mission, and, increasingly, to each other and the family they've made--and loyalty doesn't have to be rational or explainable to have a profound effect on our lives.  It does, however, need to be felt, and with characters whose profession is lying, whose past is hidden not just from us but from each other, and who have chosen such an insanely self-sacrificing path in life for reasons we don't know yet, it's hard to empathize with that loyalty.  Still, if at this point in its run The Americans feels opaque, there is enough nuance and detail in its writing and acting to suggest that that opaqueness is deliberate, that the show's creators know the answers to the questions raised by their characters' choices and actions, and are choosing to reveal only slowly the full complexity of their world and backstory.  In the meantime, The Americans is also a highly entertaining and twisty spy story, which suggests that if nothing else--though I do have hopes that the show will turn out to be much more than this--it's going to be a lot of fun.

  • House of Cards - Arguably, this show is more interesting for its business model--in which DVD-rental service turned streaming video vendor Netflix has gone into producing original programming, which it is offering free of charge--than its actual substance, which is slick and well made but so far not terribly exciting.  Based on the British miniseries of the same title (which I haven't seen), House of Cards boasts a star-studded cast headlined by Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood, majority whip for the newly installed congress whose hopes of being named Secretary of State are dashed by a president who needs his skill at wrangling congressmen to advance his legislative agenda.  A humiliated Underwood begins plotting his revenge--which includes derailing the confirmation process of the person who has taken his place and the president's education reform--and begins by leaking sensitive information to an ambitious young journalist (Kate Mara).  The whole thing is very well made, with Spacey acting as the audience's tourguide to Washington's political swamp (even speaking to the camera to introduce the movers and shakers and explain the underlying currents), and an excellently chilly Robin Wright as Underwood's wife, whose charitable activities are driven by an ambition no less naked than her husband's, and whose bond with Spacey is rooted mainly in their shared lust for power.  In the pilot episode's best moment, Spacey turns to the audience after a galvanizing exchange with Wright and says "I love that woman.  I love her more than a shark loves blood."  It's a trite line, but Spacey sells it not only because he's so good, but because Wright is so convincing in her ambition and ruthlessness.

    For all its swiftly moving and engaging plot, however, the pilot can't quite get around the fact that what Underwood is doing is rather odious--for the sake of soothing his hurt pride, he's throwing a much-needed reform under the bus.  You could get behind a character who did something like this (or get behind watching them get their comeuppance), but they'd need to be a lot slicker and smarter than Underwood is, and their opponents would have to be a lot oilier and more crafty, making for a satisfyingly nasty battle of wits.  For all the intelligence that Spacey radiates, House of Cards hasn't written Underwood, or his opponents, as these clever figures--it strains credulity that Mara's story wouldn't be traced back to one of the few people who had the information about the proposed education bill, and who has a motive to strike at the administration, and for that reason it makes no sense for someone as politically savvy as Underwood to have made such a brazen move (for this reason, Mara's plotline is more successful--she's smart enough to be compelling, but inexperienced enough for her blunders to be believable).  As this astute article from The AV Club points out, Netflix's decision to release the entire season at once might have been the best thing for House of Cards, which when watched on a more measured schedule is eminently put-downable, but I'm not sure that even with the entire season laid out before me I'm willing to put out the time to see if the show gets more interesting, or if the various balls thrown in the air in the pilot episode, which tease stories other than Spacey and Mara's central one, will make for more intelligent storytelling.  It's good to see new streams for televised content opening up, but House of Cards isn't making a compelling argument that Netflix can make an essential contribution to the medium.

  • Borealis - First things first, let's have a big round of applause for Canadian TV, for being the only people in the anglophone world still making future-set science fiction.  That said, Borealis--actually a two-hour pilot that hasn't (yet?) been ordered to series--is what you get when you give a TV budget to someone who's watched their Firefly DVD box set once too often and doesn't have too many new ideas of their own.  This isn't to say that the show--which takes place in a raggedy, semi-legal outpost in the Canadian-controlled section of the Arctic several decades in the future, as various nations and the future version of the UN scrabble for control of the frozen wasteland that may contain the Earth's last supplies of fossil fuels--is bad, but hardly any of its beats (and there are quite a few, and even more characters, in the pilot) come as a surprise.  You've got your grimy, run-down, lived-in future.  You've got your grizzled, banged-about-by-life, semi-criminal anti-hero just trying to carve out a place to call his own but nevertheless moved by a latent sense of justice to fight for the little guy.  You've got a bunch of has-beens and wastrels who congregate around him, and a few with a bit more sense who nevertheless find themselves won over by his innate heroism.  You've got a hooker with a heart of gold, and a plucky, idealistic love interest who thinks our hero is an oaf but nevertheless lands herself in hot water which only he can get her out of.  And you've got a stuffed shirt lawman who disdains his backwater posting and the uncivilized brutes he has to police, and who insists on ignoring the realities of his situation and working by the book, even if that causes the most trouble and mayhem.

    Again, none of this is badly done, and the actual premise of Borealis, which combines political intrigue, nationalistic chest-beating, environmental issues, and frontier values, is an intriguing one that could be spun in interesting and complicated directions.  As the show's lead, Ty Olsson cuts a charismatic figure, a bruiser who, while he may not have much more to him than the cynical-but-secretly-idealistic Mal Reynolds type he was clearly envisioned as, is brought to life with energy and verve.  The rest of the cast is less well-drawn, but by the end of the pilot we have a strong sense of how the community of Borealis is constructed, where its pressure points are, and where new sources of tension might come from.  It's a setting that could easily play host to interesting stories, especially after the introduction, in the pilot's last half-hour, of its sole original touch, a UN official whose goals and loyalties are not immediately obvious, who is more savvy than the other representatives of authority that Olsson's character clashes with, but not obviously corrupt or immediately evil (this character is also the only woman on the show who doesn't fall into the obvious and too-familiar types I listed above).  On the other hand, not even this character could entirely keep my patience from flagging at the pilot's too-familiar beats, and the fact that its central political dispute is resolved through a cage match--one that, naturally enough, acts as an exorcism of Olsson's career-ending defeat--doesn't exactly bode well for the series.  Right now, then, Borealis could go either way--a smart piece of SF about politics in the age of resource scarcity, or a much, much lower-rent SFnal Deadwood.  I'd be interested to hear that more episodes of the series had been ordered, but I'm not breathless with anticipation.

  • Utopia - This, on the other hand, is one of the most intriguing TV shows I've seen in a while, and though I'm absolutely convinced that it'll devolve into an unholy mess by its end, I'm having far too much fun right now to care.  On paper a conspiracy thriller about four strangers--former medical student Becky (Alexandra Roach), bored office drone Ian (Misfits's Nathan Stewart Jarret, quite winning here), conspiracy nut Wilson (Adeel Akhtar), and eleven-year-old estate yob Grant (Oliver Woollford)--brought together by their fascination with a creepy comic book allegedly drawn by a mental patient, who find their lives dismantled when they come into possession of the comic's second installment, Utopia quite wisely puts most of its eggs in the weirdness basket.  This is a creepy, atmospheric show, shot in a style that feels one part Wes Anderson, one part Richard Kelly, with urban and suburban landscapes and minutely decorated interiors used to claustrophobic, often surreal effect (it's one of the handsomest, most cinematic TV series I've seen in a while, and certainly from the UK).  Plus, of course, there is a secret conspiracy on our heroes' trail, which means lots of scenes in which they or those unfortunate enough to know or be related to them are menaced or much worse by a pair of villains straight out of the Croup and Vandemar template (intentional or not, the Neverwhere reference only solidifies the sense that Utopia is less a conspiracy thriller and more a Gaiman-esque urban fantasy about ordinary people falling off the edge of the familiar world and into an alternate version that exists in its cracks and crevices).

    The flipside of this, of course, is that Utopia has a story that it is slowly ladling out.  On top of the four main characters (one of whom doesn't join the group until the end of the second episode), we have a mysterious figure who has been fighting the Evil Conspiracy since her childhood and is related to the comic's creator, but who may be as evil as the people she's fighting, and a civil servant who has been blackmailed into buying massive supplies of a dodgy flu vaccine right before a mysterious outbreak of exactly the strain it's meant to prevent, and indications that at least some of our heroes aren't who they pretend to be.  Usually I like it when shows tie their convoluted plots together, and get annoyed when they deliver massive build-up and then can't pay it off, but with Utopia I find myself wishing for the show not to tie its plot strands together, not to replace portent with revelations.  Utopia works because it is so weird and moody.  To actually reveal what the conspiracy is about would not only cut into that sense of weirdness, but would almost certainly not be as satisfying.  I might be saying that because I've only watched two episodes and am still won over by the newness of the show's style, and maybe in a few episodes more I'll start wanting some resolution and a story that makes sense.  But I can't help but feel that a story like that--unless it were incandescently, improbably good--would be a let-down from what the show is right now.  Utopia is probably the closest we're ever going to get to Donnie Darko, the TV show, and for the time being that's all I really want it to be.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Review: Trafalgar by Angélica Gorodischer

My review of Angélica Gorodischer's Trafalgar, originally published in 1979 and now published in English by Small Beer Press, appears this week in the Los Angeles Review of BooksTrafalgar is a strange book, not at all what I was expecting it to be and quite unlike anything else I've ever read.  It's certainly worth a look, though, and has me very curious to read Gorodischer's previously translated work, Kalpa Imperial.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Intrinsic Value: Thoughts on Pride and Prejudice

This week marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, which seemed like the perfect excuse--if any were needed--to reread it.  It also seemed like a good opportunity to write about it, especially since it's the only Austen novel I haven't written about in the course of this blog's existence (well, to be precise, one of the very first Austen-related entries posted to this blog--and the one of its earliest entries of any kind to gain real popularity--was about this book, but "4 Popular Misconceptions About Pride and Prejudice" is, as its title suggests, a response to the way others tend to perceive the book, not an essay about my own reactions to it).  Here I was more hesitant, however.  In fact, when I realized, a few years ago, that my ad hoc essays about Austen's novels were turning into an irregular series, it didn't occur to me that Pride and Prejudice would one day be included in it.  The book felt like too great an edifice, too familiar and too well-loved--unlike Mansfield Park, Emma, and Northanger Abbey, which I returned to on this blog for the first time since my teens in order to confront a novel I hadn't cared for originally, or Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion, which I reread in order to work out my difficulties with an otherwise beloved work--for me to be able to find anything new or meaningful to say.

That feeling only became stronger when I looked back through my records of previous years' reading and discovered--to my utter astonishment--that the last time I reread Pride and Prejudice was in 2003.  It seemed impossible that a novel that was so fresh in my mind when I sat down with it a week ago is also one that I haven't revisited in a decade (in comparison, during that same period I reread Sense and Sensibility twice and Persuasion three times).  But then, it's not as if I've lived a Pride and Prejudice-free life during that period.  There have been the adaptations--flawed ones like Bride and Prejudice and Joe Wright's Wuthering Heights-style film, as well as more viewings than I could count of Andrew Davies's excellent miniseries (one adaptation I haven't gotten to yet is the increasingly interesting-sounding Lizzie Bennet Diaries--being a completist, I'm waiting for the series to be over before I start).  Even more than that, Pride and Prejudice has been so present in the conversation--about Austen and pop culture in general--during all that time, never allowed to fade from my consciousness.  Unlike Austen's other novels, it felt like a work that had been fully processed and digested, one that, for all the enjoyment I still took from it, no longer had the power to surprise me.

But of course, Pride and Prejudice did end up surprising me.  Sometimes in the ways that strike me anew every time I reread it, like how well-paced is the first half of the novel, which is essentially about setting up quite a few characters and subplots in preparation for the first proposal, and how comparatively overloaded are its final chapters, in which one almost seems to feel Austen panting as she squares away every single subplot before finally being allowed to finish the story.  And sometimes in ways that I'd never noticed before, such as the fact that until the very moment of Darcy's fateful slight against her, Elizabeth isn't singled out as a point of view character--before that moment she is one of the five Bennet daughters, discussed by their parents and treated by the narrative as a single entity.  Or the realization that though a lot of commenters have noted the similarities between Elizabeth and Darcy and Much Ado About Nothing's Benedick and Beatrice, one of Austen's cleverest choices in the novel is to split the savory and unsavory aspects of that play's secondary couple between two different pairings--Lydia and Wickham are Hero and Claudio as the mercenary, opportunistic match, forced to marry in order to save her from the reputation-destroying effects of his actions, while Jane and Bingley are Hero and Claudio, the young, innocent lovers nearly torn apart by the evil designs of those around them.

None of this, however, was something I could build an essay on, and it wasn't until about a quarter of the way into the novel, when Elizabeth and Darcy were brought into constant contact with each other during her stay at Netherfield to nurse Jane, that something new occurred to me about Pride and Prejudice.  It's generally accepted (note how I avoided the obvious joke there) that the pride and prejudice of the title refer, respectively, to Darcy and Elizabeth.  He's proud of his birth and intelligence, which leads him to behave dismissively towards anyone not deemed worthy of his company, and to interfere in their lives.  And she's prejudiced because of his slight against her in their first meeting, which leads her to interpret his behavior in the worst possible light even when he's trying to be ingratiating.  There is some truth to this, obviously.  Pride is of course the defining trait through which Darcy is discussed throughout the novel, and for all of Elizabeth's rationally stated reasons for disliking him--the ones that are justified, such as his interference in Jane and Bingley's affairs and his behavior during the first proposal, the ones that turn out to be false, such as his alleged disinheriting of Wickham, and the ones that she ends up sympathizing with while still decrying, such as his openly disdainful attitude towards her uncouth family and neighbors--there is an irrational core to her actions that has no real justification.

There's a reason, I think, why the famous slight at Elizabeth and Darcy's first meeting, for all that it looms over the novel (and over the common perception of it) is never brought up again after it occurs, as if even Elizabeth realizes that you can't actually decide to hate a person for unwittingly insulting you that one time (and especially in a way that even the novel treats as the thoughtless, peevish expostulation of an introvert desperately trying to tamp down their anxiety at being forced into company with so many strangers).  Elizabeth even seems to go out of her way to avoid mentioning the insult.  It's not in the laundry list of Darcy's faults she lays at his feet during the first proposal, when they both seem to be going out of their way to hurt each other's feelings.  And a few days earlier, when Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam jokingly solicit her for an example of Darcy's bad behavior among strangers--when, at a point where her dislike of him is nearly at its highest (she hasn't yet learned how much Darcy did to break Jane and Bingley up), Elizabeth has the chance to make him look genuinely bad--she instead says archly
The first time of my ever seeing him in Hertfordshire, you must know, was at a ball--and at this ball, what do you think he did?  He danced only four dances!  I am sorry to pain you--but it was so.  He danced only four dances, though gentlemen were scarce; and, to my certain knowledge, more than one young lady was sitting down in want of a partner.
And yet, in her unguarded moments, there is a profound bitterness that underpins Elizabeth's attitude towards Darcy.  "I like her appearance," she says when catches sight of Miss de Burgh, whom she believes to be intended as Darcy's wife.  "She looks sickly and cross.--Yes, she will do for him very well.  She will make him a very proper wife."  It's in moments like this that we catch a glimpse of the genuine nastiness that lies at the root of Elizabeth's humor, and particularly her needling of Darcy and refusal to take him seriously--a nastiness that can't be explained by any single act on Darcy's part (and again, at this point the worst that Elizabeth knows of him is that he deprived Wickham of his inheritance) as much as it can be by a determination on Elizabeth's part to dislike him.

For all that the spark that ignites Elizabeth's dislike of Darcy can be described as prejudice, however, the further I read into the novel the more it seemed to me that Elizabeth and Darcy's flaws and failings were actually much more similar than the conventional wisdom surrounding the novel would have it, and that they both end up at the nadir of the first proposal through very similar behavior.  It's not that Darcy is pride and Elizabeth is prejudice, so much as that they are both pride, and that the novel's plot is the narrative of those two egos first clashing against each other, and then learning to accommodate one another.

When you think about it, there's something almost shockingly self-regarding about Elizabeth's behavior in the first half of the novel.  Not many of us would be able to convincingly laugh off as bald-faced an insult as she receives from Darcy in the novel's opening chapters (for all that, as I've discussed, it's clear that that insult does rankle her deep down), and throughout the novel's first half she continues to laugh off his and his friends' disapproval of her choices, behavior, and general person, even when she's surrounded by that disapproval at every turn--when she stays at Netherfield, and later when she's a guest of Lady Catherine de Burgh at Rosings.  It's hard not to feel that Caroline Bingley has a point when she describes Elizabeth as possessing a "conceited independence."  Caroline, of course, means this as a criticism, whereas we might take it as a compliment, but either way there's no denying that Elizabeth's belief in her own worth, especially in the face of disapprobation from people like Darcy and Lady Catherine, whom the rest of her acquaintance treats with obsequiousness and servility, is surprising and unusual in someone of her age, gender, era, and class.

That Elizabeth's ego is healthy enough to allow her to ignore the criticism of those she deems unworthy makes her a very similar type of person to Darcy, for all that their respective senses of pride are treated very differently by the characters around them--Darcy, as a wealthy man from a highly connected family, is considered justified in his pride, while Elizabeth, an unmarried woman with little money, few connections, and relatives in trade, is not.  Austen herself, however, takes a very similar approach, of mingled criticism and approval, to both characters' pride.  Darcy's belief that his birth and station justify his pride is punctured throughout the novel, not only by Elizabeth's pointing out how un-gentlemanly his behavior towards her has been, but by the realization that his upper class social circle offers no more guarantees of good company than Elizabeth's crass Meryton crowd--after rolling his eyes at Mrs. Bennet and her younger daughters' behavior, Darcy is shown to be justly embarrassed when Lady Catherine turns out to have equally bad manners, and the relatives that he and Elizabeth turn out to love and admire the most are the Gardiners, a lawyer and his wife.  But at the same time, the novel, through Elizabeth's changing perspective on Darcy, slowly comes to validate his sense of worth.  By its end, though Darcy has learned to be more circumspect and tolerant of Elizabeth's aggravating relatives, Elizabeth has learned some of his disapproval of her family--including her father--and is actively shielding him from their presence.

At the same time, though much of Elizabeth's point of view in the second half of the novel, and particularly after she receives Darcy's letter, is focused on her shame at her past behavior, and particularly her realization that she has put too much stock in her ability to judge and evaluate character, the end result of this is by no means to diminish her pride.  She speaks to Lady Catherine in their final confrontation with the same tone of independent self-regard with which she confronted Darcy during the first proposal.  "You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner," she tells him, and "you are not entitled to know [my concerns]; nor will such behavior as this, ever induce me to be more explicit," she tells Lady Catherine.  In both cases, Elizabeth has too much of an awareness of her own worth to be willing to tolerate those who ignore it, and the novel validates that behavior.

But then, Pride and Prejudice is full of people who think they know their own worth, whose behavior is guided by pride.  People like Lady Catherine, Mr Collins, and Caroline Bingley, who take the most profound pleasure in the belief that they are better than some meaningful segment of their acquaintance.  There are, in fact, more of these than there are genuinely humble characters like Bingley or Jane.  Darcy and Elizabeth are singled out for Austen's authorial approval of their pride because, unlike many of the novel's other characters, it is rooted in more than their social status, and because they take it seriously.  Unlike characters like Mr Bennet and Charlotte Lucas, who know that they are better than their surroundings but ignore that knowledge in order to get along or get ahead, Darcy and Elizabeth aren't willing to sell out their pride for the sake of convenience (this is more obvious in Elizabeth's case, but Darcy too is faced with situations where it would be easier to fall back on his social status than to reach for what he knows himself to deserve--as Elizabeth thinks when she considers that Lady Catherine might appeal to Darcy's pride to prevent him from connecting himself with the Bennets and with Wickham, "If he is satisfied with only regretting me, when he might have obtained my affections and hand, I shall soon cease to regret him at all").  Charlotte in particular is a character that readers often feel is treated too harshly by her author for her decision to marry Mr Collins.  Wright's adaptation even includes a scene in which she angrily and tearfully chastises Elizabeth for her disapproval of that decision, exclaiming that this is her last chance for a future and financial stability, but this strikes me as getting it backwards.  If anything, Elizabeth is the one who should be desperate to get married.  She's the one who has no financial future except as a wife (something that she seems almost unrealistically unconcerned with throughout the novel), while Charlotte is the daughter of a wealthy minor baronet whose recently purchased estate is not entailed away from his daughters as Mr Bennet's is.  Charlotte doesn't need to get married; she wants to, and to achieve that goal she is willing to put up with a husband she despises, and to kowtow to Lady Catherine and her daughter.  Both Charlotte and Elizabeth know that there is more intrinsic value in being Miss Lucas or Miss Bennet than in being Mrs. Collins, and that nevertheless society will always attach greater status to a Mrs than a Miss.  Only Charlotte chooses the social construction of value over what she knows to be its true form, which is why both Elizabeth and Austen disapprove of her.

Still, you can get into a lot of trouble with that notion of intrinsic value, and especially in a novel published 200 years ago.  How can Elizabeth and Darcy be justified in feeling their own worth so strongly, if they alone are the determiners of that worth?  Austen's answer is that as well as having well-developed egos, Elizabeth and Darcy have strong superegos.  They may not be guided by convention, but they do have a sense of right and wrong.  We see this, of course, when they're both confronted by their bad behavior at the novel's midpoint, and instead of retreating into their pride, acknowledge their own faults and seek to correct them.  Elizabeth, for example, believes that Darcy will never renew his advances towards her because his pride would be too wounded by her refusal to allow him to humiliate himself in a second attempt, but Darcy is more affected by his realization that a lot of her accusations towards him were justified; his pride is satisfied not by forgetting Elizabeth but by seeking to become a man she'd approve of.  But we also see it in the moments where Elizabeth and Darcy's flouting of convention stops short--at the point where, to their mind, convention ends, and morality begins. 

Elizabeth is often compared to Mary Crawford, another character who is lively and has a tendency to poke fun at social mores, and like Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park's final crisis takes the form of an elopement between two morally bankrupt characters.  The crucial difference between Elizabeth and Mary is that Mary treats this failing too as a social convention--her response to her brother's elopement with a married woman is to begin to scheme how to restore their social status, while giving no thought to the possibility that they might have actually done something wrong.  Elizabeth, meanwhile, is morally horrified by her sister Lydia's elopement with Wickham, and embarrassed by Lydia's lack of embarrassment over it--"I do not particularly like your way of getting husbands," she tartly informs the self-satisfied Lydia.

The problem here is that, no matter how expertly Austen stacks the deck, as readers in 2013 we can be reasonably expected to be more sympathetic towards Mary's stance than Elizabeth's, and particularly in the case of Lydia and Wickham, in which a young girl is punished for being led on by an older, unscrupulous man by being forced to spend the rest of her life with him.  In the chapters dealing with Lydia and Wickham's marriage, Austen juxtaposes Mary Bennet's pronouncement that "loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable--that one false step involves her in endless ruin" with Jane's comforting reply to Elizabeth's castigating herself for not exposing Wickham once she learned the truth about him (including the fact that he had once tried to seduce and elope with Darcy's sister Georgianna) that "to expose the former faults of any person, without knowing what their present feelings were, seemed unjustifiable."  Though we're clearly meant to view Mary as a blowhard (and along with her, Mr Collins, who writes to Mr Bennet to self-importantly pronounce that "The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this"), it was hard for me not to be reminded of very recent incidents in which the presumption that sexual predators (which, in the circumstances of the novel, Wickham most certainly is) feel bad about their past indiscretions and deserve a clean slate was treated as more important than the right of women not to be thrown, unsuspecting, into their company.  If the most blatant example of Elizabeth's intrinsic value is the fact that she largely agrees with this stance (though, in fairness to her, she continues to feel guilty for not exposing Wickham, and upon learning of his upcoming marriage to Lydia exclaims "Yet he is such a man!"), that value can seem hard to accept.

On the other hand, maybe the most blatant example of Elizabeth's (and Darcy's) intrinsic value isn't what they do, but what they don't do.  As much as it is a novel about pride, self-regard, and knowing your own worth, Pride and Prejudice also reminded me of Persuasion, a novel about being part of a community.  Like Anne Elliot in Persuasion, Elizabeth is an intelligent, refined woman in a community that is beneath her.  Darcy, too, is spending a lot of his time among people, like Bingley's sisters, who are merely flatterers and posers.  (If I like both of these characters better than Anne, it is because Austen acknowledges their tendency towards self-gratifying superiority, while in Persuasion I felt that I was reading it into the character against her author's intention.)  Their journey over the course of the novel is not only about finding each other, but forming a new society, with Jane and Bingley, Georgianna, and the Gardiners.  But Pride and Prejudice is not only about knowing when to detach yourself from company that is beneath you; it is also about knowing when not to choose detachment.  Elizabeth and Darcy both start the novel as people who take the greatest pleasure from standing back and observing others, often with satirical intent.  But as we and they soon come to realize, there's no such thing as being completely detached from society--the novel's characters are divided into those, like Mrs Bennet and Lydia, who don't care that they are making a spectacle of themselves, and those who think that they are standing back, observing and judging everyone else, but don't realize that they are being observed and judged in turn--as Darcy clearly doesn't realize that while he was falling in love with Elizabeth, he was creating a terrible impression on her and her friends.  The sole exceptions are the cynics, people like Mr Bennet, who cuts himself off from the world in his study and only emerges to comment on the silliness of everyone around him, and Charlotte Lucas, who is a much more clear-eyed observer of humanity than Elizabeth, seeing, for example, that Jane is being too reserved in her expressions of affection towards Bingley, and realizing Darcy's feelings for Elizabeth sooner than any other character in the novel (including Darcy himself).  If there's an illustration of their intrinsic worth in Elizabeth and Darcy's behavior, it is perhaps in the fact that they once they realize that they must be part of society even when it disgusts them, they don't give in to that cynicism.

It would have been very easy for both Elizabeth and Darcy to fall into the same trap as Mary and Henry Crawford--two people who so flatter each other's sense of worth, and their belief in being superior to everyone around them, that they exaggerate each other's worst qualities and become fit for nobody else's company.  To an extent, Elizabeth and Darcy are spared this fate through luck--his sister is too young and nervous to amplify his pride the way Mary does Henry's and vice versa, and her sister is the sort of person who hates to think ill of anyone, and instead encourages Elizabeth's better nature.  But throughout the novel Elizabeth and Darcy are repeatedly confronted with the opportunity to form that sort of alliance of snideness with a potential romantic partner--Caroline Bingley and Wickham both try to encourage Darcy and Elizabeth's sense of superiority, and try to bond with them over the shared joy of poking fun at others' foibles.  Both characters indulge in this sort of mean girl cattiness for a time--Darcy's "I should as soon call her mother a wit"--but ultimately they recoil from it, and learn to take more pleasure in the company of people they can respect.  And as Elizabeth says to Darcy when he laments his bad behavior at the end of the novel, it's in that refusal to fully give in to bad impulses that their own value is best expressed.  The fact that they can recognize the intrinsic value of others, and learn to seek out their company without regard to social class or convention, is the best proof of Elizabeth and Darcy's own worth.

It occurs to me that these three novels--Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice, and Persuasion--are ultimately explorations of different aspects of the same question--the dilemma of being smart, sensitive, and observant among people who are, for the most part, none of these things.  Where is the line between refusing to participate in the stupidity and crassness of the people around you, and just being disdainful and rude?  Where is the line between convention and morality?  Where is the line between detaching yourself from society in order to find your own level, and doing so in order to bask in your own superiority?  To sum it all up, where is the line between knowing your own worth, and being too wrapped up in it?  (It may or may not be a coincidence that these are also the three of Austen's novels in which the hero, as well as the heroine, undergoes a process of change and growth, though of the three, Pride and Prejudice is the only one in which the hero can be said to have his own point of view.)  I don't think I'm reading too much into it by assuming that this is also a question that would have occupied Austen in her own life, and I think that, in Pride and Prejudice, she may have given it her most complete (if, perhaps, too neat) answer.  Unlike Mansfield Park, it's not a novel that gets bogged down in the question of style versus substance, in somewhat piously decrying the kind of flashy wit that made Austen the writer she was.  And unlike Persuasion, it is a novel willing to expose its heroine's faults and even leave them in place--if somewhat counteracted by her situation--at its end.  And it's a romance that still feels the most satisfying, the most heartfelt, the most equal, and the most uplifting to both of its partners, than any other in her novels.  As much as it sometimes seems that I am too steeped in Pride and Prejudice to learn anything new about it, it's good to be reminded--if only once every ten years--of just how fine a novel it is.