Womanless Worlds

July 9, 2012 § 1 Comment

Finished long, long ago: Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray.

Big, fat SPOILERS abound below.

I liked Skippy Dies a lot, which is the desired response, but still an odd thing to say of a mighty dark book.  Its first edition comes in a sweet little three-volume boxed set, each volume in bright tartan wrappers.  It comes to be liked; it stays a while and its sweetness turns bitter.  (Incidentally, I wish this triple-decker throwback strategy would catch on.  I suspect it actually reduces publishers’ production costs — but would be happy to be disabused of the notion — but beyond that, it feels so much more like you’re making progress in flipping through the pages and volumes of three paperbacks rather than one narrow-margined doorstop of a hardcover.)

I won’t say much about the DFW resonances here, especially since they’ve been thoughtfully summarized here.  If you’re reading closely and have read Infinite Jest closely, you’ll see homages and responses all over the place.  Instead I want to focus on a particularly compelling passage, nearing the end:

He delivers his lessons mechanically, not caring whether the boys are listening or not, quietly loathing them for being so predictably what they are, young, self-absorbed, insensate; he waits for the bell just as they do, so that he can dive once more into the trenches of the past, the endless accounts of men sent to their deaths in the tens of thousands, like so many towers of coloured chips pushed by fat hands across the green baize of the casino table — stories that seem, in their regimented wastage, their relentless, pointless destruction, more than ever to make sense, to present an archetype of which the schoolday in its asperity and boredom is the dim, fuddled shadow.  Womanless worlds.

That’s about Howard “The Coward” Fallon, who has fallen into an obsession with World War I, having lost his girlfriend and most of his pride along with her.  But yes: “womanless worlds,” and the awful things that take place in them, are the subject of this book.  War.  Boarding school.  Fathers with sons without mothers.  Sporting competitions.  The priesthood.

Maybe you see where this is going.

I was surprised by how polemical the book ended up feeling; how strong the point of view espoused here really was, how strong the emotion contained in the satire.  (It’s rather an indictment of a lot of contemporary fiction that the reader must struggle to find any such identifiable point of view or emotion; that such things are even looked down upon in many schools of thought and practice.) Part of this is a credit to the way in which Murray puts the reader in the position of uncertainty about Skippy’s central problem; one notices some hints, but does not receive confirmation until Skippy himself remembers it, traumatically.

One could, perhaps, say that it is rather like shooting fish in a barrel to write a polemic advocating that sexual abuse of children is a bad thing, and that neither the behavior itself nor any attempt to cover up such behavior should be excused.  Perhaps.  But it’s not as though we’re all actually following through on this seemingly self-evident advice.  And this is an Irish author, writing about an Irish school.  There’s a strong vein of Irish mythology and folklore running through this book, and an engagement with Irish literature and history; it’s possible to position Murray’s polemic as another in the long line of Irish stories of betrayal and deceit among supposed friends and protectors.  Nothing should be taken away from an author willing to stand up to such institutions as the Catholic Church and the educational system, especially not in Ireland.

One could also say that self-congratulatory approval and encouragement of such polemics from afar is also rather like shooting fish in a barrel.  Perhaps.  But this happens everywhere.  The Sandusky abuse in Pennsylvania, and the response to it from administrators at Penn State, bears shocking resemblance to some of what happens in Skippy Dies.

If that astounding fragment, “womanless worlds,” tells us anything, it is that this is not a provincial issue, not a denominational one, not a national one.  There are connections to those big-world problems of war and evil in the structure of our schools, our religions, our relationships.  Railing against patriarchy and patriarchal systems has become fodder for jokes, but those remain real problems.  The institution which protects itself rather than the young, or that even demands their  “relentless, pointless destruction,” is not an institution worth preserving.  The institution which denies an honest exchange with women, and about sexuality, will always invite and even provoke abuse.   This is a funny, sweet, heartfelt book, but all of the laughs, camaraderie, and teenage love leads to those very serious conclusions.

Wicked Old Women in Parallel Plots

December 21, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Dombey and Son.

An interesting development as Dickens rebuilds his plot after Paul’s death: the introduction of a parallel narrative structure.

Florence is left alone in the Dombeys’ house as Dombey goes off with Bagstock to recuperate.  The opening of chapter 23 magnificently illustrates her lonely, heartbroken state with a survey of the loveless house in which she lives: the incantatory opening sentence appears with small variations three times, in this six-page tour: “Florence lived alone in the great dreary house, and day succeeded day, and still she lived alone; and the blank walls looked down upon her with a vacant stare, as if they had a Gorgon-like mind to stare her youth and beauty into stone.”  Surely I’m not the first to draw a line from this portrait of oppressive domesticity — a woman trapped in a horrible house by both society and her own (rather misguided) inclinations — to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s masterpiece, “The Yellow Wallpaper”?

Whatever the case, while Florence could be seen as another of early Dickens’ colorless, selfless heroes/heroines, I think she’s a bit more of a transitional figure: Dickens is starting to understand how to make his good people as interesting as his bad.  While her desire to win her wicked father’s love is undoubtedly annoying (and a little creepy), it’s a desire that’s made palpable enough — and that is unconventional enough — to keep the reader’s interest.  Further, Florence is good in slightly unpredictable ways: doing Paul’s homework to be able to help him at Dr. Blimber’s, promising to keep Solomon Gills company while Walter is gone.  Her constant craving for love is understandable enough, and shown in enough detail, to keep her interesting.

Most of all, though, interesting things have happened to Florence, and therein lies the key to the parallel plot.  Dombey begins courting a young widow, Edith Granger, with Bagstock’s assistance.  We might not have connected Edith to Florence, but for an incident shortly after we meet Edith: she is accosted by a “withered and very ugly old woman,” a fortune-teller who first offers to tell her fortune, and then threatens to, unless she receives payment.  Edith is rescued from this awkward scene — and perhaps from a curse that could’ve dragged her to hell — by evil Mr. Carker, Dombey’s right-hand man.

Right down to the description of a “very ugly old woman,” this scene casts our memory back to the first moment of real action in the book, young Florence being briefly kidnapped by “Good Mrs. Brown,” who steals Florence’s clothes and gives her rags to wear instead.  It’s one of Dickens’s typically memorable scenes of truly awful London street life, the old woman smoking a pipe as she takes a seat on a pile of bones and tells Florence, like any Hollywood bank-robber, “… don’t vex me.  If you don’t, I tell you I won’t hurt you.  But if you do, I’ll kill you.”

With the similarity between these incidents, we draw the parallel between Edith and Florence: good women with the misfortune to know Paul Dombey, Sr.  The fortune-teller even references Florence in the brief fortune she gives Carker: “One child dead, and one child living: one wife dead, and one wife coming.  Go and meet her!”  (At this time, Carker has never met Edith and has no idea that the woman he just helped is the one that Bagstock is arranging for Dombey to marry.)  They both lacked a proper childhood: Florence, looked over by old Mrs. Pipchin, and Edith, married off very young by her hideous mother, Mrs. Skewton, both deprived of the parents’ unconditional love that defines childhood.

Dickens takes his cue from Shakespeare, who used parallel plotting often.  The example I know best is King Lear, where he uses the parallel plots of Lear and Gloucester to heighten emotion and set his themes in high relief.  Here, he does the same, showing us the plight of these young women through a kind of echo chamber of similarities, heightening our emotions toward both of them as neglected human beings and oppressed women.  But the differences, too, allow us to connect to each of them as their own people: even early on, as we are just coming to know Edith, it’s clear that she’s much more embittered than Florence, much more cynical and knowing about the forces that are acting on her.  Edith seems to have given up hope, or very nearly so, where Florence seems to feel nothing but a constant cycle of hope, rejection, disappointment, and longing.  That these two are brought together at the end of chapter 28 — that Edith is to be Florence’s new “Mama” — promises fascinating developments.

Is it possible to imagine a feminist turn by Dickens, here?  Will Edith act as a catalyst for change in Florence, or will she confront Dombey in his coldness, refusing to give him another son?  Or will the women simply comfort each other as they are neglected and abused, and Dombey gets his comeuppance from some other (male) source?  Please don’t tell me Walter’s going to sail to the rescue, here, and make it all better.

Love-Words Written in Blood

October 31, 2009 § Leave a comment

Finished: Nights at the Circus.

As I mentioned in my last post, exuberance, digression, and deliberate inefficience (sometimes to a fault) are major keys to Angela Carter’s style, and ways in which her style reflects her message.  The third chapter of the “Siberia” section is a more or less perfect example of how Angela Carter works.

In terms of simple plot development, this chapter is almost completely extraneous: its only purpose in connection to the main narrative is to introduce the characters who will rescue Walser from the train wreck.  Instead of simply having some Siberian hunters or peasants find him, or the rescue crew take him to the next town, Carter introduces the tale of the Countess P.’s asylum/penitentiary for husband-murderers.

This and other self-contained backstory chapters are the best parts of Nights; they make me think that, from my limited experience, Carter is a better short-story writer than novelist.  The story here, of the inmate Olga Alexandrovna discovering ways to subvert and, ultimately, bring down the Countess’s cruel panopticon from the inside, is moving and almost perfectly constructed for Carter’s feminist, humanist, and (perhaps) magical realist purposes (what it is not is at all necessary in this novel).

The paragraphs in which we learn the method by which Olga begins to communicate with the guard who delivers her food are another classic Carter passage — one that, while I still quibble with its word-by-word execution, I admire very much for its brilliant embodiment of Carter’s ideas:

That evening, after a free if surreptitious exchange of looks as supper was served, Olga Alexandrovna found a note tucked into the hollowed-out centre of her bread roll.  She devoured the love-words more eagerly than she would have done the bread they replaced and obtained more nourishment therefrom.  There was not a pencil nor pen in the cell, of course, but, as it happened, her courses were upon her and — ingenious stratagem only a woman could execute — she dipped her finger in the flow, wrote a brief answer on the back of the note she had received and delivered it up to those brown eyes that now she could have identified amongst a thousand, thousand pairs of brown eyes, in the immutable privacy of her toilet pail.

In her womb’s blood, on the secret place inside her cell, she drew a heart.

I mean… wow!  That’s just a brilliant example of imaginative, utterly unrealistic, even antirealistic, fiction’s power to connect readers to difficult ideas in a way polemics or criticism cannot, as is this whole chapter.  (Do I even need to read Foucault after this?)  The opposition to institutional schemes of surveillance and enforced penitence; the discovery of lesbian love (female companionships, sexual and/or friendly, recur throughout the work); the brilliant, earthy, purely human, believably and powerfully symbolic method by which Olga replies, with its echoes of “Satanic” pacts written in blood, its message of totalitarian inability to overcome the physically and basically human and female, its touching example of the human need for connection and love; and the surprising romance of the last sentences — these are the essence of Angela Carter.

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