- Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan - This book seemed like it would be right up my alley, since I've been waiting for several years for McEwan to write another great novel (following a few minor ones--Saturday, On Chesil Beach--and the utterly unappealing Solar, which I didn't even bother to read), and the premise--a female narrator relates her career as a junior MI6 agent in the early 70s--seemed like it would be a lot of fun at his hands. And for most of Sweet Tooth, it really felt as if McEwan was on the verge of doing something very interesting. The narrator, Serena Frome, is a smart but not very driven woman coming of age just at the point when women are starting to feel that they ought to aspire to professional accomplishment. She's smart enough to get into a Cambridge maths program, but too uninterested in the material, and in hard work, to do anything more than coast to a third. A romance with a professor with intelligence connections leads to her being offered a job in MI6, where she's assigned the titular operation, whose purpose is to promote authors whose work is perceived as pro-West. In the guise of the representative of a literary grant, she meets and becomes involved with one of the operation's assets. Especially given Serena's warning in the novel's opening sentences that she is about to tell us the story of how she tanked her intelligence career, this development creates the expectation of looming disaster, but along the way Serena's narrative touches on politics, literature, mathematics, and romance, and in its background there are sinister events and inexplicable orders from Serena's superiors that give off an unmistakable whiff of John Le Carré. In other words, a typically McEwan-ish stew of the cerebral and the melodramatic--at one point, Serena explains to her lover the Monty Hall problem, and he's so enchanted by it that he uses it in a story; this, to anyone who is paying attention, ought to be a clear indication of where the story is headed (unfortunately, it wasn't enough for me)--that creates the expectation of one of his trademark crescendos of wit and emotion.
What soon becomes even more compelling about Sweet Tooth, however, is Serena's voice, and our growing sense that for all her protestations to the contrary, she doesn't know herself very well. As Serena presents herself, she is unambitious, unimaginative, conventional, and narrow-minded. She's an avid reader, but her tastes are almost childishly narrow, disdaining any sort of experimentation or literary device and reading solely for narrative momentum. In university and at MI6, she is surrounded by the best and the brightest, and especially by women who are bucking to be taken seriously and to break through the glass ceiling, while she's happy to just get by. The more one gets to know Serena, however, the more one senses that this self-deprecating image of herself is, while not entirely inaccurate, also the result of a rather massive case of imposter syndrome. Serena talks down her aptitude for maths as merely a facility with numbers, but she also makes it clear that no one in her entire educational career, either before or during university, had ever tried to develop her abilities beyond that point--that, like the story of the dog riding a bicycle, they were all so stunned by the sight of a beautiful young woman solving quadratic equations as if it were nothing that it never occurred to them that anything ought to be done to advance her abilities further. Though she mocks her youthful political naivete, it's Serena, almost alone among the MI6 agents we meet, who recognizes that the Cold War--and with it operations like Sweet Tooth--has become a quaint joke, and that it won't be long before the intelligence services redirect their efforts towards Northern Ireland. And while Serena accepts almost meekly her MI6 superiors' censure for becoming involved with an asset, which they predictably perceive as typical female weak-mindedness, when we learn the real reason for Sweet Tooth's failure, it's that a male colleague of Serena's, frustrated in his affections for her, blew the operation (for which he suffers no professional repercussions while Serena is fired). At several points in the novel, Serena evinces sharp political instincts and a drive towards self-advancement that leave us wondering how much of her failure to make anything of herself is down to her fundamental laziness (which, for all her narrative's seeming unreliability, is clearly part of her character), and how much because she unthinkingly accepts the assumption of everyone around her that she is little more than a pretty face.
Going into the end of the novel, I was hoping for some acknowledgement of how unreliable Serena is as a narrator (and perhaps also of the literary pun that is telling a spy story whose main character suffers from imposter syndrome). To my utter shock, however, McEwan pulled a completely different switcheroo--one that seemed rooted mainly in his conviction that what worked so well in Atonement will work even better the second time--which requires us to take Serena's narrative not only as the gospel truth, but as a searing, insightful, thoroughly accurate portrait of her character. It's been several months since I read Sweet Tooth, and I'm still not certain whether I read it entirely against the grain, or whether McEwan genuinely wasn't aware of how closely he'd written his heroine to resemble the ways in which women in high-powered professions undermine and question themselves, or whether I'm meant to question his final revelation and find it, as well, unreliable (if so, that's a reading that I haven't encountered in any of the novel's other reviews). While I don't think that Sweet Tooth would have been a great novel without its twist ending--for all the queasy discomfort of realizing how thoroughly Serena undermines herself, and despite its spy novel touches, the narrative overstays its welcome, and none of the characters are as compelling or as well drawn as McEwan is capable of--that ending makes it little more than a problem novel, a stew of fascinating parts that come together into a disappointing whole.
- The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar - Gilbert and Gubar's seminal work of feminist literary criticism, first published in 1979, starts from a fairly straightforward premise: the patriarchal, rigidly conformist world of the Victorian upper and middle class defined "proper" female behavior, attitudes, and patterns of thought so narrowly and rigidly that to deviate from them was perceived not simply as wrong, but as an expression of madness. Female writers, many of whom were deviating from those conventions simply by putting pen to paper, and eager to keep themselves from being tarred with the brush of madness, frequently chose to represent their discomfort with the strictures of correct female behavior through doubling, by paralleling their sane heroines with madwomen, whom the narrative, though officially repudiating, could also perceive with sympathy. The style is more academic than I'm used to, and I found the essays dealing with works I hadn't read (such as a chapter on misogyny in Milton's Paradise Lost, which apparently spurred outrage and apologia among Milton scholars) tough going. There's also a strong disconnect between what Gilbert and Gubar are looking for in literature (and thus what they define as "good" literature) and what I do--unsurprisingly, given their premise, they fall on the latter side of the Austen vs. Brontë divide, and in their relatively limited discussions of Austen's novels they treat the absence of a madwoman figure in her novels (or indeed of any sense that her characters have darker thoughts and urges), not just as a failing but as an indication that Austen was merely paving the way for writers who were more able to express the frustrations of women suffering from confined intellects and emotions (this, to me, is to discount the importance of sarcasm in Austen's novels, and its role as an outlet for anger and unacceptable feelings and attitudes). Despite that disconnect, I found The Madwoman in the Attic eye-opening. Where it deals with works I'd read and read about, I found Gilbert and Gubar's discussions insightful and illuminating. The chapter on Frankenstein suggests facets of the novel that I had never considered, as well as offering some insight into its author's life that made me want to learn more about her. The discussion of Wuthering Heights makes a novel that I have dismissed for years as overwrought melodrama seem so intriguing and carefully thought out that I was tempted, when I finished the chapter, to go back and reread the book and try to see what I'd missed. In particular, I was struck and intrigued by the argument that the proliferation of women novelists in the 19th century was rooted not only in the perception that the novel was a lower, more commercial artform, but in the fact that the author of a novel is, by definition, an observer, someone who stands back and relates a story in which they are not an actor, which would have suited a female temperament trained to be unassuming and silent (in contrast, a writer of poetry--a form that in the 19th century was perceived as the more artistically legitimate--places themselves, and their thoughts and emotions, at the center of the poem). I know that in the decades since it was published The Madwoman in the Attic has been criticized for some typically second wave flaws, but as a window to the thought process of 19th century women writers, its argument is so compelling and so well constructed, and sheds so much light on some of that period's most important works, that it feels essential to anyone interested in those works and their authors.
- Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson - The latest beneficiary of the decade-old craze for European authors who wrote about WWII and the Holocaust as they were happening or in their immediate aftermath, and who have been rediscovered and brought into translation by publishers looking for the next Irène Némirovsky or Hans Fallada, Keilson seems to have been trying to dismantle one of the core tropes of Holocaust fiction before it even came into being. In his short, sharp novella, a couple in Nazi-occupied Sweden, Wim and Marie, take in and hide a Jewish refugee less because they feel any burning desire to oppose the Nazis, and more because it's the done thing--as Wim's sister explains, everyone else already has a Jew. But this is perhaps to make the characters seem shallow, which isn't exactly Keilson's project. While Wim and Marie take their refugee in because they feel that this is what "good" people ought to do (a recurring theme throughout the novel is Wim and Marie's need to assure themselves and each other that they, and their neighbors, are "good," that is not Nazi collaborators), they are quite zealous in their protection of him, and are taking great risks to do so (though, as it turns out, those risks aren't as great as they might have been--almost every other official in the town is also "good," and when the couple makes a serious blunder that might have got them executed, a local constable covers for them). Nevertheless, their relationship with the refugee, Nico, remains carefully polite, and it's obvious that everyone involved is disappointed by this, while also trying very hard not to make a big deal out of the discomfort and inconvenience of living in such close quarters with someone they have failed to bond with. Mainly, what Wim and Marie reminded me of was a modern-day couple who have sponsored a third world orphan and, though realizing that their feelings aren't what's important here and determined to do right by their charge, are disappointed to realize that doing so hasn't suddenly imbued their lives with meaning. The novella begins with Nico's death from pneumonia, which leaves Wim and Marie reeling and uncertain how to react--are they at fault? Have they failed, somehow, in their effort to do the right thing? Is it wrong to feel relieved that their lives are now their own again? Should they be sadder at the death of a man who never managed to become part of the family? How, most importantly, do they get rid of the body? It's a crackerjack premise, but somehow the execution left me cold, perhaps because the title turns out to be entirely descriptive. From its premise you'd expect Comedy in a Minor Key to be a searching character drama, or alternatively, a farce, but instead its emotions and characters are deliberately drawn on a very small scale, and even in such a short work this proves numbing. It's hard, in the end, to care about Nico's death, about Wim and Marie's frustrated desire to do good, and about the threat to all their lives.
- Dodger by Terry Pratchett - In a landmark shift in his career, Terry Pratchett has stepped away from the fantastic genres and written a work of historical fiction--albeit a pulpy type of historical fiction that is essentially YA-inflected literary fanfic. Set in late 19th century London, Dodger sees the teenaged title character, a sometimes thief who makes his living by trawling the sewers for lost money and jewelry, rescuing a young woman from a beating and getting caught up in a political scandal that brings him into contact with the city's social and political elite, including of course Charles Dickens. The whole thing is told with typical Pratchett-ish verve and energy (albeit, sadly, also with the awkwardness and paucity of language that have become typical of Pratchett's later novels), and the novel's emphasis on letting Dodger show us his world and the complicated, and usually exploitative, systems through which Victorian London's poor moved feels so like what he's done many times in his Ankh Morpork novels that it's easy to forget that Dodger is not a fantasy. It also drives home how much Pratchett's project with Ankh Morpork and the social conscience that infused the Discworld novels owes to Dickens, who here appears almost as a Pratchett stand-in, a shrewd trickster-ish figure who both manipulates Dodger and is manipulated by him, sometimes acting as his guide to middle- and upper-class London and sometimes being guided by him in London of the poor, but always pushing the young hero towards what he hopes will be social change. (It's a bit strange to see Dickens treated so positively in fiction given how much he is out of favor at the moment, with multiple biographies focusing on his failures as a husband and father; and, of course, the real Dickens wasn't as revolutionary as Pratchett's Dickens, who among other things sanctions crimes and misdemeanors in order to protect the woman Dodger rescues at the beginning of the novel.)
As the novel draws on, however, and as Dodger becomes acquainted with more influential people and a more important player in the political crisis unfolding around him, it also becomes clear that Pratchett has not only failed to find a solution to, but may even be unaware of the fact that he is about to find himself tangled up in the problem of Oliver Twist. He has written a novel whose primary purpose is to shed a light on the appalling, inescapable conditions in which millions of Victorian London's poor languished, and which often led them to turn to crime as their only means of survival. But the main character in that novel is someone who leaps out of that poverty through a combination of pluck, their own exceptional nature, fortuitous coincidence, and the benevolent interference of those more fortunate than they are (and while Dickens had the justification of writing to expose injustices occurring at the moment, Pratchett seems to be writing almost as a history lesson--there's little in the novel that encourages a comparison to our own era, and our own tendency to abandon the poor). Unlike Pratchett's previous novel Unseen Academicals, in which he addressed not only the practical but the psychological hurdles that impede social climbing, in Dodger Pratchett treats it almost as a matter of course. The upper class people Dodger meets evince a suspiciously modern-seeming indulgence towards his crude origins and rough manners (in contrast, most of them have no problem with the notion that a women might be unwillingly returned to a husband who has already tried to kill her), and few of them are condescending or patronizing towards him. Dodger himself suffers few qualms about leaving the world he's known his whole life for one that is completely foreign and towards which he has been taught both awe and resentment, and in fact his habits of thought prove almost endlessly elastic, and he is perpetually capable of examining and discarding his received preconceptions and prejudices (of which he has fewer than we might expect--his mentor is a Jew who fled the pogroms, and at one point the two characters pause to note that they have no problem with gay people). It's not a bad thing, I suppose, that an Oliver Twist-type story features a character who is inured to self-defeating habits of thought, preternaturally talented at extra-legal activities that just happen to come in handy when he decides to fight for the oppressed, and progressive-minded in ways that wouldn't be out of place among 21st century middle-of-the-road liberals. But then, all these traits--combined with a predictable story and a rather slack sense of humor--combine to make Dodger utterly inessential, and given that we already have one Oliver Twist, that feels like a fatal flaw. Dodger was also a landmark for me--the first Pratchett book that I've bought as an ebook, no longer feeling the need to own it in hard copy (much less hardcover). There's nothing in the book to make me think that this was the wrong call.
- Art in Nature by Tove Jansson - Jansson, best known as the creator of the Moomins, has been enjoying a resurgence in the last few years, as her work for adults is translated into English. NYRB Classics have brought out her novels The Summer Book, Fair Play and The True Deceiver, and now her short stories are also beginning to appear. In all of them she emerges as a sharp, witty writer, a keen observer of humanity with the knack of capturing a character or situation with a few well chosen sentences, but one whose acidic sense of humor is never allowed to run rampant--there is a profound benevolence that underpins almost all of her stories and novels. As its title suggest, the stories in Art in Nature are often concerned with the lives of artists and the practical considerations of artistic work. In "The Cartoonist," Jansson presumably draws from her own experiences of being overwhelmed by the international success of the Moomins when she tells the story of an illustrator who is brought in to take over a successful children's cartoon after its creator has a nervous breakdown, and who finds himself overwhelmed by the demands of the never-ceasing work, the feeling that the cartoon's original creator is still present, and the overpowering sense of responsibility towards the cartoon and its juvenile audience. In "A Leading Role," an actress invites her mousy, pathetic cousin to her country house in order to copy her mannerisms for a role, and ends up learning about the true nature of the character. In "The Doll's House" (originally the title story, though it's easy to imagine why the translators chose to change this), a retired antiques dealer endangers his marriage when he becomes obsessed with building an enormous, elaborate, intricately wrought dollhouse. In that story, as in several others, Jansson is surprisingly upfront about depicting gay relationships--though she never quite says that the men and women in her stories are lovers, she comes so close to that point as makes no difference, and matter-of-factly addresses the difficulties that such couples face, as in "The Great Journey," in which a woman caring for her powerhouse of a mother who is now fading into dementia is caught in a trap of indecision, unable to explain to her mother that she loves another woman, but unwilling to take the trip that was her mother's last wish without inviting her lover along. Art in Nature is a short collection, but every story in it is expertly wrought and compelling, and it leaves one wanting more of Jansson's writing--happily, there are several novels, and at least one more collection, that I haven't yet read.
Sunday, March 17, 2013
(Not So) Recent Reading Roundup 32
I've amended the title of this latest and long-delayed entry in the recent reading roundup series because some of these reads are not recent at all. Some of them have been waiting for months for me to get around to writing about them, and it feels appropriate to finally get around to doing so now, when we're in the run-up to Passover, a period of spring cleaning, of clearing out the winter's various accumulated stuff, and making room for new messes. Not that most of these books are messes--I wouldn't have spent months intending to write about them otherwise--but it feels good to clear the decks.