The City Slicker Returns Home

November 28, 2016 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Great Expectations.

There’s a theme throughout the second book of GE that feels uncomfortably familiar. It also feels very American, and very modern. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it handled quite so well.

Pip comes into money and leaves his rural home for the big city. He is ashamed of where he comes from, and who his people are — which is to say, who he is (and claims no longer to be).

It is the narration of GE that makes this so effective: since Pip is narrating the story from far into the future, as a bildungsroman, he realizes how shameful his earlier attitude is.  On the other hand, he has also made great hay out of the homespun, undereducated ways of the folks back home, and will continue to do so with great clarity of vision. This beautifully written (fictional) memoir is a testament to precisely the good that comes from leaving home, and seeking wider cultural pastures.

Pip wants to “confess exactly” his attitude toward his hometown and the people he knew there: for instance, he receives the news that Joe, the man who has been both best friend and father-figure to him, is going to visit London, “with considerable disturbance, some mortification, and a keen sense of incongruity.”

The elder narrator Pip twists the knife in his subject — his own younger self — in a variety of ways in chapters XXVII through XXX. The excuses he makes for himself not to have to stay with Joe when he returns home; his narration of the fact that he keeps Miss Havisham and Estella strictly separate from Joe “because I knew she would be contemptuous of him” (and therefore believing her to be right in being so, to a great degree), just a day after his emotional reunion with Joe in London; many other lines and phrasings.

It’s not all gloomy, though. A lot of it is very funny. The best fun is reserved for “Trabb’s boy,” who serves as a kind of unwitting audience surrogate in his hilarious mockery of Pip the dandy.  He struts through the streets like Pip’s own subconscious, “wriggling his elbows and body, and drawling to his attendants, ‘Don’t know yah, don’t know yah, pon my soul don’t know yah!” to humiliate Pip–rightfully so.

This comes to a head in chapter XXXV, when Pip returns for the funeral of his sister.  His disdain for the artificiality of Victorian funerary customs is palpable, as is his disgust for the ways in which small-town funerals can so often become weird festivals of a kind: the sensation that something has actually happened overriding any sense of grief or loss, for those at the margins of that loss.  Pip’s insistence that he will return often to check in on Joe and Biddy, and his older self’s admission that he would not, that he was a hypocrite and a liar, is really heartbreaking.

This is a particularly raw subject for me at the moment, I suppose, because of the  complicated feelings about where I come from, dredged up by the past presidential election. I hope to God I’ve never been as insufferable as Pip; but in general, those thousands (millions?) of us who left small towns and rural areas for bigger cities do seem to share some of his attitude toward the place he left. We love those places — parts of them, anyway — but we prefer not to engage with their politics or their bigotry overmuch. Those of us who have the connections in those areas we come from probably have more talking to do (including about why we left) and more honest engagement with our people there — not to mention issuing more invitations for them to come visit us in the cities.

Childish Dreams

November 20, 2016 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens.

I recently finished Stuart Dybek’s wonderful book of short stories, The Coast of Chicago. It has an epigraph that sticks with me, by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado: “De toda la memoria, solo vale / el don preclare de evocar los suenos (Out of the whole of memory, there’s one thing / worthwhile: the great gift of calling back dreams).”

That’s an evocative, marvelous, ambiguous, highly arguable line, but I don’t mean to tangle with it here. I mention it, instead, because it’s been coming back to me throughout the first quarter of Great Expectations: the book (at least, so far) is like a recounted dream, as much as a recalled childhood.

And since it is, quite deliberately (and famously), a story framed as a memory of childhood, that makes sense: our dreams and our childhoods — when so many sensations are new and confusing, when so many of us are often confused and conflicted, when everything seems larger than life — are so closely connected.  As with most of Dickens’s books, there are archetypal figures and scenarios from folklore and fairy tales near the surface of the text, particularly at the beginning when his protagonists are children.  But to a greater degree than most of Dickens, from its very beginning, the emotions in GE feel heightened, jumbled, confusing, as they do in dreams.  Pip introduces himself in the graveyard holding the tombstones of his parents and siblings, and then, by page two, we have abruptly shifted to Pip being accosted by an escaped convict.

That abrupt shift itself struck me as rather oneiric, but what follows is really the stuff of nightmares: the pervasive sense of being trapped and compelled to commit what seems a grievous sin (even if it is actually not, seen in the light of day), and the overwhelming fear of being exposed for your wrongdoing.  The first seven chapters or so of the book are essentially an anxiety dream with melancholic interludes.  I don’t mean that to seem  negative.  It’s shockingly effective.  (The setting of the marshes also adds to this sense; I happened to begin the book on a very foggy day in Chicago, and reading on the train as we passed through white clouds made me feel slightly less than real.)

Then there’s Miss Havisham and her ramshackle house. The strangeness of Estella’s conduct toward Pip, the bizarre scene of Pip’s one-sided fight with the “pale young gentleman,” and of course of Miss Havisham herself, all feel like dream sequences.  I can’t get over the weirdness of the scene that Dickens creates in Chapter XII.  Pip’s routine upon his visits to her home is to “walk” Miss Havisham around her suite of two rooms, and then to continue by pushing her in her “garden-chair.”  “Over and over and over again, we would make these journeys, and sometimes they would last as long as three hours at a stretch,” Pip says, and then states that he does this “every alternate day at noon… [for] a period of eight or ten months.” Finally, Miss Havisham commands that Pip sing as he’s pushing her in her chair, in an endless loop around two rooms, and so he sings the song that comes first to mind, the tune used by blacksmiths to keep time at their work, “Old Clem.” Miss Havisham likes it, so she joins in, and so does Estella at times.

This scene, of a boy pushing an old woman in a bridal gown around a closed circuit of two rooms, accompanied by a beautiful girl, all three of them chanting “With a thump and a sound — Old Clem! Beat it out, beat it out — Old Clem!” Amazing. Set it in Mississippi and I’d believe it was written by Faulkner.



November 14, 2016 § Leave a comment

It’s been over three years since I wrote anything here. There are a number of reasons for that: laziness, first and foremost, but also a busy and at times exhausting work life, and a feeling of burnout with my own thoughts on what I’ve been reading.

I’m restarting now, and committing to writing at least one weekly post here for the foreseeable future. Here’s why.

  1. To combat my own laziness. Reading literature has always been one of the most important parts of my life; I don’t feel like a whole human being if I go too long (like, more than a few days) without it. The impulse for this blog, way back in 2008, was to ensure that I was actually thinking through what I was reading — to engage, not simply consume. I need some form of accountability to ensure that that happens, even if it’s self-imposed, and making my engagement public (for a widespread audience of half a dozen people!) is a big part of that.
  2. For sanity’s sake. Every age seems a dark age, but some are darker than others, and it’s always a matter of perspective. My perspective is that we’re (I’m) going to need as much empathy, beauty, intelligence, artistry, complexity, and ambiguity as we can get in the coming years. I need to make myself as conscious of that as possible, and share it with people who might care.  And I honest to goodness worry about what my media consumption over the past year has done to my brain. I need to slow down and step away from the churn of news and work more often, if only to step back with a greater sense of purpose and energy.
  3. I miss you all. People who mean a lot to me are strewn about the country and the world. I want to talk books with you, and I talk better in writing than in actual conversation.
  4. I’m going to be reading some really good stuff. My plans for 2017 involve a lot of poetry, particularly by black and indigenous poets, and a focus on gothic/weird American fiction. I want to savor these books, not just gobble them up and forget them, and my experience has shown that writing posts here helps me retain a lot more of what I read.

Happy reading. Talk with you soon.

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