The Twilight Zone‘s Women in Trouble: “The Hitch-Hiker”

March 19, 2013 § 3 Comments

CM Capture 14See also the two preceding posts in this series on the five female-protagonist episodes of The Twilight Zone season one.

The backstory of “The Hitch-Hiker” (viewable online at Vimeo): it begins as a short story by Lucille Fletcher, who then adapted it as a radio play in the early 1940s (available for your listening pleasure here).  Serling, nearly twenty years later, adapts it for TZ.  The major difference? Serling made the main character a woman.  The role was made famous by Orson Welles on the radio, and it was also a man in the original short story.  (As a weird aside: the famous radio thriller series in which the radio play appeared, Suspense, featured music by Bernard Herrmann, who also wrote the TZ theme and so many other thriller scores.  And Herrmann was Fletcher’s husband for ten years.)

Serling opens by telling us that Nan Adams is driving cross-country on vacation.  She’s a buyer for a department store.  She has a flat tire.  SPOILER ALERT (though I mean, come on, it’s fifty years old): she’s already dead, though she doesn’t know it yet.  As the mechanic fixing her tire says, in a great dual meaning, she “must be on the side of the angels.”  As she drives away, she spots for the first time a mysterious hitchhiker who she’ll see all across the country, begging a ride just from her.

Nan, the independent working woman driving across country for nothing more than fun, is given no backstory, no man she’s chasing down or fleeing from, no tortured or angelic past.  She shares her name with one of Serling’s daughters, and maybe this has something to do with the refreshing absence of the typical moralistic or misogynistic structure of a story of a woman alone on the road.  Nan’s internal monologue, in the voiceover of actress Inger Stevens, carries the episode along, as it would in a radio play.  However, this is accompanied by abundant shots from within the car of America flying by — unusual at a time when so many driving scenes were done in studios with stock footage playing in the background — and Nan’s face registering her anxiety about the hitch-hiker’s reappearances.

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The episode, overall, has a wonderful lightness and gentleness, especially within the parameters of the “thriller.”  Nan describes her sense of “disquiet” (not even fear) and the hitchhiker himself as “vague”; it’s not a bad term for the feel of the episode.  The director, Alvin Ganzer, and Serling knew that they had a fine, natural actress in Stevens, and Ganzer uses a great deal of natural light, also unusual for the period; this, too, adds to the vague or hard-to-define tone of the episode.  There are a number of terrific closeups of Steven’s face that exhibit the kind of subtlety that was never the trademark of TZ overall, ranging from perplexity to an occasional, unexpected, eerie calm and peace.

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The episode is almost perfectly divided between sunlight (natural light!) and darkness.  The turn to darkness is accompanied by a return of flickering lights — neon, this time, but still reminiscent of the strobe of the projector in “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine.”

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Not a great capture, but check the video: there’s a neon light blinking across the shot.

Nan, out of gas after midnight, runs through the dark to a gas station.  It’s closed, of course, and the proprietor is in no mood to get out of bed and pump.  At this point Nan is startled by a sailor: after he’s grabbed her shoulder and she’s recovered a bit from the shock, he asks, “Lady?”

She delivers the following reply: “Yes.  That’s what I am.  I’m a lady.”

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The blend of relief, simple recognition, despair, and desire here is breathtaking.

Desperate, she begs the sailor to ride along with her, and he accepts, persuading the station owner to sell them some gas.  While the sailor makes some mild comments about her looks and, after she veers wildly in an attempt to hit the hitchhiker, she tries to get him to stay with intimations that she wanted him to “take her out,” the encounter is of a piece with the gentle, humane tone of the entire episode: there’s the threat of sexual violence that comes with the fictional presentation of any encounter between a woman and a stranger at night, but in the end, it’s the sailor that flees, scared off by Nan’s intensity and confusion.

Nan learns, via cross-country call in a phone booth by the flickering neon light, that her mother has had a breakdown due to Nan’s death.  So yes: women going mad, women dying who dare to live and travel unaccompanied.  But that’s not what one takes away from a viewing.  This was such a popular story at the time that many viewers would have known that it originally featured a man.  And the ending makes clear that Nan’s death is not a punishment; it’s just the way of us all, a fact that must be accepted eventually.

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The final appearance of the hitchhiker is in Nan’s rear-view mirror.  Mirrors will come up again in the next post.  Here, the counterpoint of Nan’s look of exhausted acceptance and the hitchhiker’s wry smile is exquisite.  Stevens’s performance in this episode is likely my favorite of the entire first season, especially that look into the rear-view mirror.

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“I believe you’re going… my way?”

In Faery Realms

August 5, 2012 § 1 Comment

Finished long ago: The Third Policeman, by Flann O’Brien.

Reading now: Mythologies, by William Butler Yeats.

The Third Policeman is one of those books that casts a kind of glamor as you’re reading it for the first time, making it impossible to recapture the mysterious feeling of experiencing its strange world.  As it happens, the book is less directly indebted to Irish mythology and history than O’Brien’s masterpiece, At Swim-Two-Birds.  But I’ve been reading Yeats’s compilation of Irish folklore and musings, and things like glamor are on my mind.

As different as Yeats and O’Brien seem to be, their books may both be read as explorations of the realm of Faery, which can also seem the realm of death, as well as the realm of both good-natured and menacing tricks.  As Yeats describes them, the “Good People” of Faery are everywhere just beyond our vision, capable of switching the bodies of those that seem dead to whisk them away to a better realm, or to steal a newborn or newlywed for their own revels, and good and evil are somewhat meaningless terms to them, their love and hate untrammeled by the moral ambiguity that mortals must always experience.

O’Brien’s book can also be read as a visit to a particularly dark and disturbing part of Faery, by a particularly unsavory individual.  In it, as in Yeats’s vision of Irish mythology, the twilight realms of death and Faery are always near:

It was some change that came upon me or upon the room, indescribably subtle, yet momentous, ineffable.  It was as if the daylight had changed with unnatural suddenness, as if the temperature of the evening had altered greatly in an instant or as if the air had become twice as rare or twice as dense as it had been in the winking of an eye…

Our narrator then finds himself face to face with what appears to be the man he had just helped to murder.  As in tales of Irish Faery kidnappings, the individual is uncannily changed from his former self:

But the eyes were horrible.  Looking at them I got the feeling that they were not genuine eyes at all but mechanical dummies animated by electricity or the like, with a tiny pinhole in the centre of the ‘pupil’ through which the real eye gazed out secretively and with great coldness.

O’Brien is the best writer I know for channeling the spirit of the Irish Sidhe, for he harnesses chaotic and mysterious plots to beautiful language and moments of joy and laughter.  The hilarious subplot in The Third Policeman of the bicycle-people, slowly becoming more and more centaur-like as they absorb more atoms of bicycle due to excessive riding, is a perfect example.  This is the kind of cock-and-bull story, and the kind of book, that rings both true and hilariously false, that brings together anarchic joy of making it up as you go along and a kind of commentary on humanity, on the limits of science, on our strange hybrid nature, machine and spirit and body all mixed up together.

Remembering Reading Ray Bradbury

June 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’d begun to convince myself that Ray Bradbury was going to live forever, I guess.  Why else would I feel so gut-punched this morning?  I can remember thinking that he would probably be gone soon back in the 199os; he continued to live and write until he was 91.

The New Yorker‘s current (first-ever) Science Fiction issue contains a remembrance by him, entitled “Take Me Home.” And now he’s gone.

Ray Bradbury’s books mean as much to me as anything I’ve read.  This is something you can hear from many thousands of readers: he was a gateway drug, and he was a molder of minds and lives and space programs.  I came to him at the perfect time, when I was twelve or so.  If you were a certain type of kid who was getting tired of kid stuff like the Oz books and Choose-Your-Own-Adventures, but were finding the literature you really wanted to comprehend a little over your head, Bradbury showed you the way, led you into the world of adult reading for serious pleasure, made it obvious that you would want to read all of those classics, as well as all of the great fantastic stories out there.  (I can remember checking out the Inferno, and The Waste Land, and even The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and returning them all unread, in the couple of years before I found Bradbury.  After him, anything seemed possible.)

It was the giant Stories of Ray Bradbury collection, checked out from my small town’s public library.  It was summer.

That book is the Proustian madeleine of my reading life: no other book, to this day, so conjures up a total sense memory of my reading it, where and when and how the reading happened.  Most of the others that are close are Bradbury, too: Dandelion Wine, The October Country, and The Martian Chronicles especially.  And, oh God, Something Wicked This Way Comes.  This is ironic, considering that he’s one of the writers most closely associated with fantasy and imagination, not sensory detail.  But it’s also fitting, for our laureate of nostalgia.  (The very best kind of nostalgia, by the way: the kind that redeems the word itself.  Ray Bradbury loves the best parts of the past like he loves the best parts of the future.  He was one of our most loving writers, wasn’t he?)

I read “The Small Assassin” on a boat on a small lake on the Nebraska-South Dakota border.  And “A Sound of Thunder” on our couch at home, with an afternoon thunderstorm outside. And “I Sing the Body Electric!” (the titular Whitman allusion of which I did not get) in the backseat of our station wagon. And “The Veldt” on a barstool, the book open before me on the bar, with that yellow summer light coming in through the windows.  And, oh, “Mars Is Heaven” in bed, late at night, crickets outside…

Dandelion Wine remains, for me, the best book ever about what childhood should be like — which is the book’s subject — and one of the most beautiful works of lyricism in 20th-century America.  The Elliott family stories like “Homecoming,” “Uncle Einar,” and the late novel From the Dust Returned remain some of my favorite weird fiction.  Something Wicked remains the perfect horror folktale, and, along with The October Country, one of the best books to read in the week before Halloween.

It’s impossible now to imagine Fahrenheit 451 not having been written — it was a thing that just had to happen — but it’s Bradbury that did it.  And it’s impossible now to imagine who I would have become without Bradbury, without him opening up the world to me and showing me all this amazing stuff. Here we all are, without him now.  He should outlive us all, but damned if we don’t need to make sure it happens.  Give a 12-year-old you know a Bradbury book. They’ll thank you later.

Opened Graves, Emptied Coffins

March 18, 2012 § 1 Comment

Finished: The Art of Fielding.

SPOILER ALERT: You’ll probably want to skip this post for now if you plan on reading The Art of Fielding anytime soon.

Given that the Bible is the wellspring of 2000 years of Western culture, it’s not surprising that the empty grave, and the resurrected body, should be recurring features in our literature.  Early on in The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach (through his character Mike Schwartz) introduces a lesser-known example from the life of Emerson:

“His first wife died young, of tuberculosis.  Emerson was shattered.  Months later, he went to the cemetery, alone, and dug up her grave.  Opened the coffin and looked inside, at what was left of the woman he loved.  Can you imagine? It must have been terrible.  Just a terrible thing to do.  But the thing is, Emerson had to do it.  He needed to see for himself.  To understand death. To make death real….”

It’s a little surprising, when you start looking, how many of the open graves in our literature do not partake of the Christian joy and hope in resurrection: how many are full instead of terror, disgust, despair, existential questioning, grim humor.  Hamlet, of course.  The premature burials and morbid lovers of Poe.  The countless tales of “resurrection men” in penny dreadfuls, ballads, and sensational stories.

In the coda to this book, Pella (with the help of Owen, Henry, and Mike) digs up her father’s body to bury him at sea, as she believes he would have wanted.  Harbach is referencing a number of the empty graves in American literature with this finale — or at least, it reminded me of them.  Most obviously, there is the coffin of Queequeg in Moby-Dick, rescuing Ishmael from the Pequod’s doom.  The famous last word of that work is “orphan,” and orphans abound in this work: Affenlight’s death leaves Pella orphaned, of course, but Schwartz is also an orphan.  You can argue that Henry is also a kind of orphan in this work, at least spiritually.  His parents are nonentities in his life, objecting to the liberality of his college experience; further, his spiritual father, Aparicio Rodriguez, is present for his public humiliation, leaving him too ashamed to meet his hero.

The two other allusions are more subtle, but I think they are there.  The possibility entered my mind thanks to the seemingly innocuous fact that Westish plays Amherst in the national championship game.  Amherst: hometown of Emily Dickinson, and alma mater of David Foster Wallace.  With this choice of opponent, Harbach introduces connections to both the American Renaissance that forms the background of his work and the contemporary milieu of his work.

Dickinson, of course, is one of the great grapplers with death and the afterlife, testing possibilities and asking questions throughout her poetic career, imagining both death in the grave and life beyond it.  The questioning and constant self-inspection of Dickinson, and her interest in conceptions of an end to same, are reminiscent of Henry’s journey from “thoughtless being” to “thought” to “return to thoughtless being.”  Further, Dickinson is a weighty counterpoint to Emerson and the traditional, male-centered view of American literary history.  Pella objects to the Emerson story that Mike tells, “the namelessness of women in stories, as if they lived and died so that men could have metaphysical insights.”

Infinite Jest also contains (or at least looks forward to) the exhumation of a father: Hal Incandenza’s father James, whose head may contain the antidote to his unstoppably entertaining film.  The allusion points out a number of parallels between Harbach’s book and DFW’s, especially the campus setting, casually precocious students, mysterious drive and stamina of gifted athletes, addictions to pain and painkillers, and battles with depression and stasis.  But the different purposes for grave-robbing in the two novels point out the differences between the authors.  I think, in this scene, that Harbach is referencing Infinite Jest (by way of Moby-Dick, and Hamlet, and Dickinson) to attempt to move beyond the postmodern condition which DFW critiqued and which Affenlight diagnoses earlier in the book, the crippling self-consciousness and “profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action.”  In Owen’s eulogy over the body, he remembers Guert Affenlight’s belief “that a soul isn’t something a person is born with but something that must be built, by effort and error, study and love.”  He asserts the continuation of Guert’s soul in the people he loved, the works to which he devoted it.  The whole scene feels a little like a “didactic little parable-ish story”  at the close of a tragicomic, linear narrative of liberal-arts education.  But we’ve seen that it’s actually pretty complex, and that it’s about how to be an adult, how to move beyond education: how to choose what to think about.  The orator of the 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech would be proud.

The Buddhist Baseball Wisdom of Aparicio Rodriguez

March 17, 2012 § 7 Comments

Finished: The Art of Fielding.

Among my favorite books as a kid were sports stories of the Matt Christopher ilk, especially basketball and baseball books.  These books more or less always featured a preteen or teen whose real-world problems overlap with and affect their sports abilities.  I still have one of these, which I’m pretty sure I bought through Weekly Reader for $4 or so: Johnny Long Legs, featuring a new kid in town heroically struggling to improve the strength of his freakishly long legs and help his school’s basketball team, the hilariously named White Cats.  But I loved the baseball books, too, and have a vivid memory of reading one on my bed on a rainy summer afternoon, swept away by a young shortstop’s difficulty with turning the double play.

I mostly read these books for the descriptions of the games: the main, non-sports conflict in the book was only useful insofar as it enhanced the conflict I really cared about, that of the Cougars vs. the Eagles or whatever mascots were involved.  To be honest, I also just loved the creation of team and player names, uniforms, and mascots.  My favorite sections of pretty much all of these books were the expository paragraphs at the beginning of the games, the scenery of names, colors, gyms or fields.

All of which is to say that, though I’ve done an awful lot of reading since then, there’s still a big part of me that craved the baseball action in The Art of Fielding, and that valued it as a baseball book with a nostalgic, Christopher-esque structure: boy loves baseball, boy has baseball-related life problem (or life-related baseball problem?), boy finds help and solves problem to improve baseball skills.  Harbach intentionally embedded this nostalgic structure, I think, having a similar reading background: in this interview, he mentions growing up reading “Matt Christie” books, which I think is a reference to Matt Christopher.  And you can feel his delight in the creation of the Harpooner’s uniforms and logo, and those of their small-college rivals.  The “powder-blue jerseys” of the Muskingum Muskies (a real school whose colors appear to be red and black).  The “beet-red” jackets, uniforms, faces of the preppy Coshwale “douchetards.”  And, especially, the mild satire of the Opentoe College Holy Poets, in “threadbare brown-and-green uniforms” like a bunch of John the Baptists or Thoreaus.

Of course, because this is not a kids’ book, Harbach uses Henry Skrimshander’s baseball problem as a way into complex thinking about life and the process of becoming a functioning human adult, and critiques its own embedded YA sports-book structure.  But it’s also a really good baseball book, and one of its interesting sidelights is that it might, in its roundabout way, show how maybe athletics of the small-college variety could still have a place in the educational mission of institutions of higher learning.  (There’s no point in even trying to defend big-money Div I programs anymore.  They’re hopelessly corrupt alum-appeasing farm systems with zero educational reason for being.  And I’m pretty sure that, deep down, every administrator knows that.)

The device that brings this all together is the eponymous book within the book, The Art of Fielding by Aparicio Rodriguez, Henry’s idol, a Hall of Fame shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals.  Rodriguez’s book is a collection of numbered items of practical advice, epigrams, and aphorisms, some of them cryptic koans.  The two most important appear very early in Harbach’s book:

3. There are three stages: Thoughtless being.  Thought.  Return to thoughtless being.

213. Death is the sanction of all that the athlete does.

These epigrams form a fascinating thought.  These two statements are bookends to Rodriguez’s book, the earliest and latest excerpts we are given from it, and keys to Harbach’s book, as well.

The first is the journey of Henry Skrimshander compressed to a “simple” Buddhist thought.  In the book’s gorgeous, idyllic 50-page opening overture, Henry is a “natural”: a scrawny South Dakota kid whose preternatural grace, constant practice,  and passionate love for the game have made him the perfect defensive shortstop.  He thoughtlessly is a being made to play shortstop.  If such being is useful, we call it talent, and Mike Schwartz recognizes and hones Henry’s talent.  In a bravura passage at the book’s center, Mike reflects on Henry’s development, and “[t]he making of a ballplayer: the production of brute efficiency out of natural genius.”

For Schwartz this formed the paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport.  You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition.  The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.

Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine….

The body of the book constitutes “Thought” in Aparicio’s formulation, introduced to Henry’s mind by his near-fatal errant throw into the dugout, and brings us to the second aphorism.  Sanction is a complicated word.  A sanction can be a permission or encouragement; it can also be a punishment, and this seeming contradiction stems from the word’s original meaning of a law or decree — and, even more interesting, its etymology from the Latin sancire, “to render sacred or inviolable” (per OED).  Death can be the athlete’s sanction in the sense that Mike uses above — encouraging production of the grace and beauty that athletes feel and display in the use of the lively body that will eventually perish and move no more.  But it can also be a warning or punishment, as when Henry nearly kills Owen with a bad throw, and has his own brush with death later.  And athletes grow older, lose their skills.  The athlete must become reconciled to the mini-death of losing the body’s ability, an image of the larger, final death of the body and spirit.

Beyond the level of the individual, Henry’s crisis of thought — his severe case of “Steve Blass Disease,” or “the yips” — also has cultural significance.  In another great passage, the literary scholar Guert Affenlight reflects on the apparent lack of such cases before 1973:

It made sense that a psychic condition sensed by the artists of one generation — the Modernists of the First World War — would take a while to reveal itself throughout the population.  And if that psychic condition happened to be a profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action, then the condition became an epidemic when it entered the realm of utmost confidence in same: the realm of professional sport…. that might make for a workable definition of the postmodernist era: an era when even the athletes were anguished Modernists.

Rodriguez’s Buddhist formulation has an important codicil: “33. Do not confuse the first and third stages.  Thoughtless being is attained by everyone, the return to thoughtless being by a very few.”  Henry has to come to realize that he cannot un-think the thought — the consciousness of life, and death, to which he has been awakened — which has been introduced, but must understand and learn from it.  His (and Mike’s) desire for life to remain forever the same must be understood as impossible.  Like any college student, and any baseball player, he has to move into the world, and become an adult, to be able to play again.  There’s a lovely little intimation of this cycle in an early training scene. Henry, in the batting cage, seeks to “meet the ball so squarely that it retraced its path and reentered the mouth of the pitching machine, sending the big rubber wheels spinning in the opposite direction, as if reversing time.”

David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 9 and 10

January 3, 2011 § 1 Comment

Now reading: David Copperfield.

Bringing us to the mid-point of the novel, here are my favorite lines from each chapter of the ninth and tenth parts:

Chapter 25:

“It’s a topic that I wouldn’t touch upon, to any soul but you.  Even to you I can only touch upon it, and no more.  If any one else had been in my place during the last few years, by this time he would have had Mr. Wickfield (oh, what a worthy man he is, Master Copperfield, too!) under his thumb.  Un—der — his thumb,” said Uriah, very slowly, as he stretched out his cruel-looking hand above my table, and pressed his own thumb down upon it, until it shook, and shook the room.

Another of the touches of surreality brought to the text by Uriah Heep, in that shaking of the room by a thumb.  This little passage highlights many of Uriah’s traits that get under David’s skin: that recurring dig of calling him “Master Copperfield,” as if a child, showing Uriah’s way of finding and exploiting weaknesses and vanities in his adversaries; his praise for those he seeks to control, as if he were unworthy of them; his taking liberties he has not earned and sharing confidences his companion would rather he not.

Chapter 26:

I hazarded a bold flight, and said (not without stammering) that it was very bright to me then, though it had been very dark to me a minute before.

“Do you mean a compliment?” said Dora, “or that the weather has really changed?”

A pretty funny exchange, in context, from early on in David’s wooing of Dora Spenlow, emblematic of David’s being a “lackadaisical young spooney” for her, in his own excellent words, and also of Dora’s ditziness.  At least so far, their relationship seems to be Hollywood-romantic-comedy level stuff.

Chapter 27:

The time he had mentioned was more than out, and he lived in a little street near the Veterinary College at Camden Town, which was principally tenanted, as one of our clerks who lived in that direction informed me, by gentlemen students, who bought live donkeys, and made experiments on those quadrupeds in their private apartments.

What’s the deal with the donkeys in this book?  Aunt Betsey is obsessed with them, and then this ghoulish chestnut gets tossed into a description of the neighborhood in which Tommy Traddles is living with the Micawbers.  The image of vets-in-training dissecting donkeys in their living rooms is so bizarre it must be based in reality.  And really, what an evocative way to suggest the unsavory nature of the neighborhood.

Chapter 28:

“Sir — for I dare not say, my dear Copperfield,

“It is expedient that I should inform you that the undersigned is Crushed.  Some flickering efforts to spare you the premature knowledge of his calamitous position, you may observe in him this day; but hope has sunk beneath the horizon, and the undersigned is Crushed.”

Another of the suicide notes from Mr. Micawber sprinkled throughout the text, this with a particularly effective combination of Micawber’s “legal phraseology” and his (real or feigned?) desperation.  The contrast of Micawber’s public positivity and shameless search for funds or position worthy of his “talents,” with his private letters to David admitting (and overstating) the doomed nature of his life, makes for a fascinating motif.  This chapter’s also notable for a great culinary scene of making deviled mutton on a gridiron, and the return of Steerforth, suddenly obviously a villain — Dickens rather overstates the case here, I think, in so quickly transforming his behavior.

Chapter 29:

As she still looked fixedly at me, a twitching or throbbing, from which I could not dissociate the idea of pain, came into that cruel mark; and lifted up the corner of her lip with scorn, or with a pity that despised its object.

Rosa Dartle’s cut through her lip, from when Steerforth threw a hammer at her as a child, is an odd but effective touch of the Gothic here: a sort of mark of Cain, and the first hint we’re given that Steerforth has a rotten core, it also takes on a character of its own, revealing itself whenever she grows pale, and contorting her face as if against Rosa’s will into the expressions she feels.  Rosa’s a really interesting character; I look forward to seeing what Dickens does with her.  She reminds me a bit of both Esther and Lady Dedlock in Bleak House.

Chapter 30:

I was on the point of asking him if he knew me, when he tried to stretch out his arm, and said to me, distinctly, with a pleasant smile:

“Barkis is willin’!”

And, it being low water, he went out with the tide.

It must’ve been amazing to hear Dickens read from his work.  I suspect he could’ve made me sob like a baby with a scene like this.  The cadence is just perfect, and that last line so sweet, and sad.  Dickens could come off as cloying or contrived in some of his death scenes, especially if of a main character, when the scene could become an “event” (see Nell, Little); here, he writes a perfectly balanced scene of comedy and tragedy, life and death, culminating in this quiet moment of dignity.

Chapter 31:

“Em’ly’s run away!  Oh, Mas’r Davy, think how she’s run away, when I pray my good and gracious God to kill her (her that is so dear above all things) sooner than let her come to ruin and disgrace!”

This is actually my least favorite line of the chapter, and one of my least favorite of the book, and it can stand in for more or less all of the most queasily and quintessentially Victorian lines in Dickens.  It’s just the line that provoked the strongest reaction.  It’s not even the first time that a character has suggested that Emily would be better off murdered than having run off to have sex with a man outside of her class (David mentions that maybe Emily would’ve been better off falling into the sea and drowning as a child, early on).  I don’t know what’s going to happen to Emily, yet.  But this sort of better-off-dead-than-deflowered BS… I mean… what’s the defense for it?  Why put this line into the mouth of virtuous Ham, Emily’s constantly devoted fiance?  It’s vile.  It shows all that seems most foreign to us in the society of 150 years ago.

Did Dickens himself believe this sort of thing, given his, shall we say, complicated personal life?  Or was he just obeying convention?  Surely lines like this were seen as necessary at the time, so as not to shock refined sensibilities, just like it’s impossible to show anything but negative effects of drug use on TV now.  It’s just so over the top.  Here’s my advice: Ham, you probably should not pray to almighty God to slaughter your beloved because she may be having premarital sex.  And you probably should not wish her life had ended when she was five because she may one day have sex with a man whose family has more money than she does, David.  Just my opinion, I guess.

Blood on the Tracks, Dickens Style

January 6, 2010 § 1 Comment

Just finished: Dombey and Son.

For all that talking I did about its comedy, Dombey is a melancholy book, as dark as Bleak House in some sections.  In fact, it’s dark enough that I was actually relieved that there was some redemption at its end: Dickens was beginning to seem downright deterministic until the last few chapters when some characters actually change.  There’s a lot of death in the book, and a lot of talk about capital-d Death.  It looms over the book.

Also, contrary to what its title would lead you to believe, the business of this novel is almost never business, at least not on the surface.  For all the talk of how rich Dombey is, and how respected his firm is, we get nary a glimpse of the work the firm actually does.  It involves pursuits around the world (or at least around the British Empire, amounting to nearly the same thing at this point).  At least according to the title, it sells goods “Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation.”  That’s it.  That’s all we know.

But death and business come together at some of the key moments in the book, in its most famous passages.  The first time we hear little Paul speak, he asks his father,  “Papa! what’s money?”  This eventually leads to his asking the heartbreaking question, “If it’s a good thing, and can do anything… I wonder why it didn’t save me my Mama.”  Then there are the passages on the 1840s boom in the railroad industry.  In chapter 20, we read a sustained litany on the train as Death embodied: death for the landscape, for the village, for the traveler.  In the three other sections on the train or the building of the railroads, this motif is continued, an astoundingly pessimistic view of this “progress” tempered only by the example of employment and advancement that work on the railroad provides the lower-class Toodle family.  It’s interesting to me how the coldness and calculation of Dombey, the consummate businessman, can be contrasted with the hellish fire and sordid waste of the railroad as presented by Dickens.  That coldness and calculation, in fact, are what support and allow the Death — the brimstone and destruction of the countryside, the inhuman pace — that the railroad brings.

But most of all, there’s chapter 55.  It has one of the great Dickensian chapter-titles, a cruel, riddling little joke: “How Rob the Grinder Lost His Place.”  It’s brilliant, a classic example of the vengeful Dickens savoring the murder of one of his wicked creations from inside that creation’s own skin (it’s so odd, this feeling that Dickens is both suffering along with his character and enjoying the frenzied narration of that suffering).  It reminded me of his treatment of Jonas Chuzzlewit in his previous novel, though I found Jonas’s death more affecting and more successful as a work of literary art.  The paragraph of the train closing in on Carker as he realizes where he stands is a great example of the proto-cinematic Dickens: all jump-cuts and close-ups, it could’ve been filmed by Eisenstein.  There’s also the strange parallel to the ending of Anna Karenina, which is kind of neither here nor there; the similarity in circumstance, however, makes you somehow question whether Carker’s death is actually an accident or somehow suicidal, too.  I’m glad, at any rate, that it’s Carker and not Edith that is destroyed; while I don’t think Dickens ends up making any grand feminist statement on Edith’s behalf, at least she doesn’t end up dead (and also doesn’t allow Carker to get his filthy cat-like paws all over her).

Carker’s dispersal by train into “mutilated fragments” is perfect, in that Carker represents the combination of Dombey the businessman’s calculation with the locomotive’s excessive heat and (blood)lust.  Dickens is always looking for ways to direct capital in the right directions, in ways that can help common people.  I can’t help but thinking that, in exploding the ambitious but overreaching businessman who makes reckless gambles for personal gain without a thought for the people he is affecting, he is allegorically commenting on the flow of money to support the building of railroads.

Poor Little Nell! Poor Little Paul!

December 16, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Dombey and Son.

Here’s a nice 21st-century take on Dickens: Dickens the Assassin with a Heart of Gold.  In his outline for this book, in his notes for the very first part, Dickens wrote: “Boy born, to die.”  And so he is, at the book’s beginning; and so he does, not even a quarter of the way through the work.

Dickens makes sure we know he feels bad about it: in his Preface to a later edition (sorry, this crappy Oxford edition doesn’t tell me which edition this prefaces — Dickens wrote many prefaces for new editions — but I know it’s not to the first), he writes in reference to Paul’s death, “…when I am reminded by any chance of what it was that the waves were always saying, my remembrance wanders for a whole winter night about the streets of Paris — as I restlessly did with a heavy heart, on the night when I had written the chapter in which my little friend and I had parted company.”

Fiction writers write things like this fairly often, trying to convince their readers of the reality they feel in the characters they create, until it becomes inconvenient and they condescendingly remind some dolt or critic, who has made the mistake of acting as though the world they’ve created is real, that fiction is make-believe.  No one wants to believe that writers, writers of the kind of social-pseudo-realist fiction that Dickens wrote, create characters out of convenience, out of something so unseemly as a profit motive, much less kill them off for same.  And yet the fact remains: the death of little Nell in the last part of The Old Curiosity Shop had been an absolute sensation, readers in both Britain and America feeling terrible suspense about her fate, and then expressing deep emotion at her death and Dickens’s artistry in presenting it.  And Martin Chuzzlewit, after that book, had flopped.  And Dickens, needing a hit, crafted a story around a boy born to die.  It feels more than a little unseemly.  Killing, hobbling, and imperiling saintly children was good business, in Victorian England.  It sold books, and still does.

That Dickens gets away with it, for this reader at least — not only gets away with it, but actually achieves a genuine artistic breakthrough, and makes you cry in the process — is a kind of miracle of humanity.  Little Paul is so much more a character than little Nell.  Little Nell is one of those typical boring Victorian selfless females, with all the personality of a Precious Moments figurine.  Little Paul is something of a saint, too, I suppose; but he’s a weird little saint, and we get to know him from the inside out.  Shouldn’t this make it worse, Dickens killing him off?  Why should this make me believe that Dickens really did suffer, in writing his premeditated death?

But it doesn’t: Paul becomes a real little boy, like Pinocchio.  He dies because he’s young and sickly and, to speculate on Dickens’s medical beliefs, because he never had his mother’s milk and was weaned from his first nurse far too soon — not because Dickens needs him to die for the plot to work.  I am afraid that, even if Dickens came up with the idea for Paul out of a profit motive, he wrote him into existence.  And it must have pained him to see him die.

Part of the difference between Paul and Nell is surely the Victorian obsession with angelic femininity.  Another part, I’d guess, is the stronger autobiographical impulse Dickens felt towards Paul as a boy whom he’d put into a situation very similar to one he’d been put into as a boy, and the way this connection allowed him to write his way into Paul’s childish point of view.  To Paul, Doctor Blimber’s house is a strange and magical place, where the clock’s working says to him, “‘how, is, my, lit, tle, friend? how, is, my, lit, tle, friend?’ over and over again,” and the patterns in the rugs and wallpaper come to life.  These are the sorts of details we never got for little Nell, who remains boringly angelic.

Beyond that, Paul’s main eccentricity is said to be that he is “old-fashioned,” in a mysterious way that those who call him such cannot quite identify.  He is very polite, and kind, but also very honest — to the point of being rude, such as when Mrs. Pipchin wonders what he’s thinking and he answers, “I’m thinking how old you must be.” In the end, it is implied that people sense that Paul is old-fashioned as a function of his being doomed to death; and yes, child mortality was still a giant problem in the nineteenth century, and was one of the old-fashioned problems Victorian society was most concerned with eradicating.

The way he will stare at Mrs. Pipchin for hours in front of the fire, wondering how old she is, seems to me to be a key to Dickens’s creation of Paul.  Paul knows he is not well; knows he cannot be long for the world; is fascinated by age, by people who have lived ten times as long as he has and seem to get no enjoyment from it; is always asking questions about death, about the voices that seem to live in those waves of life and death.  I think Paul’s old-fashionedness is actually a matter of his being nostalgic for the present, always seeing his own life as if it is already ended; he is always rolling the few scenes and incidents of his short life over and over in his mind, savoring or longing for them, asking to hear about his mother whom he never knew.  Dickens imbues him with an implied, but never stated, self-awareness of his own condition, and he looks upon the world with a ghost’s eyes.  You could dismiss all this as corny Victorian spirituality, I suppose, but I think that reaction is basically a product of years of ham-fisted attempts to replicate the kinds of effects Dickens achieves when he expresses his mysticism.

He definitely does have this mystical streak, and when it works, it seems to produce some of the most beautiful language in literary history.  Chapter 16, the aforementioned “What the Waves were always saying,” really does seem to me to be a point at which Dickens reached a new artistic plateau.  From the beginning of D&S he feels more in control, more sure of his plot, his characters, and his language, than in previous books.  And then comes this, which I know you can read for yourself at that link above, but which I want to write in full just for the glory of it; this must be one of the most beautiful paragraphs in the English language:

When the sunbeams struck into his room through the rustling blinds, and quivered on the opposite wall like golden water, he knew that evening was coming on, and that the sky was red and beautiful.  As the reflection died away, and a gloom went creeping up the wall, he watched it deepen, deepen, deepen, into night.  Then he thought how the long streets were dotted with lamps, and how the peaceful stars were shining overhead.  His fancy had a strange tendency to wander to the river, which he knew was flowing through the great city; and now he thought how black it was, and how deep it would look, reflecting the hosts of stars — and more than all, how steadily it rolled away to meet the sea.

After the first half of this chapter, I will forgive Dickens nearly anything.   The second half of the chapter, at Paul’s deathbed, can be somewhat maudlin in the little Nell style, but even though Nell’s death came very near the end of a very long book, this scene seems to me so much more moving, simply because we’ve seen through the eyes of the sick little boy.  Even at the very end, Paul is “old-fashioned,” using his last words to his father to encourage him to “Remember Walter,” a kid that Paul barely knew but who had helped Florence once — nostalgic for things that happened once upon a time, before he escapes from time forever.

Haleskarth, Contraband, Samsara, Samarra

July 19, 2009 § 1 Comment

Just finished: Only Revolutions.

I feel like I’ve been rather too crabby about the book in my previous posts.  It undeniably gets bogged down after the escape from St. Louis, around p. 220,  after the truly amazing and hallucinatory effect of the center of the book, when both sides of the narrative on each page mirror each other as well as mirroring the other half of the narrative retreating away into the other half of the book — it’s really wonderful, a genuine delight.  (It made me giggle.) From 224 or so to p. 312, it’s a slog.

But from then on, it’s a bloody miracle.  (You should probably stop reading this if you want to go into the book without knowing how it ends.)  The urgency and passion of the language in those last 8 sections is astonishing.  Somewhere along the line you realize you’ve been reading Romeo and Juliet again, only it’s as if Shakes had written R&J after King Lear. Just… heartbreaking.

And theoretically, at least, we’re unsure what has happened in the end, but then we’ve been bludgeoned over the head with the fact that the book is a circle — so conveniently it’s right there, on the flip-side of the final page.  And those mysterious first lines begin to make a kind of sense.

For Sam it’s “Haloes!  Haleskarth!/ Contraband!”  “Haloes”  neatly combines circularity with death-imagery and saintliness; “Haleskarth” is an obsolete word meaning “free from injury” (thanks, OED); “Contraband” is a tricky one with an obvious meaning which doesn’t make much sense.  Since Sam’s narrative starts in the middle of the Civil War, “contraband” has a very specific slang meaning at the time: a fugitive slave was contraband.  Is Sam “contraband” in that he’s escaped from the enslavement of death, or in that he feels himself as “smuggled” out of the grave into a new life?  Or is he (also) an actual fugitive slave — is that his role at the book’s opening?

Hailey begins with “Samsara!  Samarra!/ Grand!”  (Notice each begins their narrative with the other’s initial, and that second-line cross-narrative rhyme.)  “Samsara” is, in Indian philosophy, “the endless cycle of death and rebirth to which life in the material world is bound” (thanks again, OED).  “Samarra” is a kind of garment to be worn by those burned at the stake during the Inquisition, but it could also be a reference to An Appointment in Samarra: a commonplace for the inevitability of death.  “Grand!” could have some meaning of which I’m unaware, but I think it’s mostly just an exclamation of delight and surprise.

From these obscure meanings and their place at the beginning/rebeginning of the narratives, we can reread the early sections as a kind of reimmersion in life for both reborn characters: from these early indications that they know they’ve been reborn to their early characterizations as deities or earth-spirits of sorts, to their reimmersion in human life, to their conjoined lives and their love of one another, their placing another’s needs before their own.  Is it this that allows rebirth?

Dickens, Poe, Milton, Shakespeare

January 13, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Martin Chuzzlewit.

Just a few more words about Jonas Chuzzlewit’s demise and then I’ll move on.

I neglected to mention the two paragraphs before Jonas’s nightmare in my last post: they’re fascinating, haunting, beautiful.

The fishes slumbered in the cold, bright, glistening streams and rivers, perhaps; and the birds roosted on the branches of the trees; and in their stalls and pastures beasts were quiet; and human creatures slept.  But what of that, when the solemn night was watching, when it never winked, when its darkness watched no less than its light!  The stately trees, the moon and shining stars, the softly-stirring wind, the over-shadowed lane, the broad, bright countryside, they all kept watch.  There was not a blade of growing grass or corn, but watched; and the quieter it was, the more intent and fixed its watch upon him seemed to be.

And yet he slept.  Riding on among those sentinels of God, he slept, and did not change the purpose of his journey….

I love many things about this passage, but especially how it turns Jonas’s solipsism inside out.  Jonas, center of his own universe, for once is universally watched, as he sleeps.  I think this passage still puts us, somehow, in the mind of Jonas: he feels watched, he feels the night watching him, even as he sleeps, rocked by the motion of the carriage.  The world is alive with the “sentinels of God,” whose eyes he feels.  And the morning after the murder, he’s made uneasy by the mirror, into which he glances before reentering society: “His last glance at the glass had seen a tell-tale face…”  He has made the world in his own image, and now he can no longer stand it.

There’s something Satanic about Jonas, in the sense of Milton’s Satan, as this essay points out.  Although he has none of Satan’s majestic rhetoric or noble rebellion, he carries hell within himself, just as Satan does; and just like Satan, he seems to believe (at least for a while) that he can make a heaven out of that hell — but cannot, or at least does not.  Dickens does have an inclination towards Biblical syntax, cadence, and vocabulary in his weightier chapters (evident, I think, in that passage above), which reinforces this similarity for me.

And there’s some Poe in this chapter, too — or is it just coincidental, that “tell-tale” glance in the mirror?  The first number of Chuzzlewit appeared in January 1843; “The Tell-Tale Heart” was first published in January 1843.  There’s this passage, as well, in Jonas’s fitful night after the murder: “…the starts with which he left his couch, and looking in the glass, imagined that his deed was broadly written in his face, and lying down and burying himself once more beneath the blankets, heard his own heart beating Murder, Murder, Murder, in the bed…”  The beating of his own hideous heart, the image of this desperate man staring at himself in the dark mirror, trying to compose his features to eliminate the stain of his guilt: very Poe!  (Not the first time they crossed paths, either: there’s a talking raven in Barnaby Rudge.)

In Chapter 51, Jonas is finally exposed.  As he realizes his fate is sealed, he begs five minutes alone — with the unspoken understanding that he means to kill himself.  But he can’t do it.  (The officer finds him standing in a corner of the dark room, staring back at him; somehow, you can see this, as Dickens quickly sketches it, and it is awful.)  ‘You’re too soon,’ Jonas whimpers.  ‘I’ve not had time.  I have not been able to do it.  I — five minutes more — two minutes more!  — Only one!’

This is the culmination of Jonas’s consuming terror of death — the end of self, the end of everything.  It also strikes a chord, for me at least, with King Lear.  That bargaining for time, for a little more time in which to agonize and not do anything: it reminds me of the frittering away of Lear’s retinue by Goneril and Regan.  “What need one?”  Lear, another great solipsist echoed by Jonas.

Of course, my synapses probably wouldn’t have made this connection were it not for how the chapter ends (and probably not at all if Lear wasn’t more or less an obsession with me).   Jonas finally works up the gumption, once in the cart on the way to prison, and swallows his poison, which smells of peaches.

They dragged him out into the dark street; but jury, judge, and hangman, could have done no more, and could do nothing now.

Dead, dead, dead.

Where Cordelia gets five consecutive nevers, Jonas warrants only this simple prose epitaph.  It makes all the difference, doesn’t it?  Doesn’t it sound like clucking over a waste, that “dead, dead, dead,” as opposed to the staggering agony of Lear’s grief?  It’s so matter-of-fact, that line.  But somehow containing sorrow, too; as much sorrow as Dickens could summon for a character he despised.

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