Unconquered to the Last?

September 8, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Dangerous Laughter, by Steven Millhauser.

Had it only been a gale instead of a calm, gladly would we have charged upon it with our gallant bowsprit, as with a stout lance in rest; but, as with mankind, this serene, passive foe — unresisting and irresistible — lived it out, unconquered to the last.  -Melville, White-Jacket

Millhauser’s story “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman” reminded me of that passage, which had itself reminded me when I first read it of “Bartleby, the Scrivener”: the calm “I would prefer not to.”  Of course, the ambiguity of Bartleby’s stand is legendary: it’s a very open question whether he died “unconquered to the last,” firm in his refusal, or died a broken automaton, something less than a human being, or somewhere in between.  But Melville’s statement about the gale here did first bring to mind Bartleby — whatever he might have meant to Melville, he certainly has taken on heroic stature, or at least a kind of grandeur through boredom.

And Bartleby has stayed on my mind after reading Millhauser’s story.  It’s a powerful story, itself like a calm at sea in its implacability and plainness.  The only truly unusual rhetorical flash comes from the use of first-person plural in the opening, which dissolves into a somewhat generic singular.  And it leaves you with the dual mysteries of what exactly happened to Elaine Coleman — who disappears from her apartment with no trace of abduction or escape — and how we should feel about this disappearance.

The story itself conveys an almost overwhelming sadness, and it is tempting to sympathize with the narrator when he finds himself, and the rest of his community, culpable for her vanishing, and for her apparently lonely existence as a wallflower, by their incuriosity about her.  But of course, as with Bartleby, there is another way to see it: perhaps it was a heroic act, this vanishing.  Perhaps it was the ultimate expression of Elaine Coleman’s contempt for her degraded world.  Perhaps it was not a fate imposed on her by the absence of community interest, but a fate chosen, cultivated, and finally acted upon by someone who would prefer not to be seen.  (You could argue that the first-person plural supports this argument, acting as a kind of homogeneous, mundane chorus — “For days we spoke of nothing else” — against which Elaine’s act seems even more radical.)

Ultimately, I think this — and, to a lesser extent, the depiction of Bartleby as tragic hero — is a rather strained interpretation.  Both Melville and Millhauser see the need to be serenely, passively “unconquered to the last” as unspeakably sad.  Bartleby is something singular: a cipher, but a necessary one, whose stand has a kind of meaning and merit that is made apparent even in the story’s bleakness and the pointlessness of his death.  It is possible to legitimately make the argument for Bartleby as a symbol of passive resistance.

Elaine Coleman, on the other hand, is rather like Eleanor Rigby; the story gets much of its strength from her status as a kind of ghost flickering at the edges of the narrator’s vision, as he tries to remember her, incidents he might have shared with her, times he might have engaged her but did not.  It is a kind of horror story, but a different kind than “Bartleby”: to me, at least, it feels more personal.  There’s something horrifying about the idea of being this kind of marginal figure in even your own story — the kind of person that could vanish for lack of popular interest.  I think Millhauser tried very hard to avoid being condescending to his absent creation, Elaine.  Later stories in the collection show the author has deep interest in and sympathy for the Elaines of the world.  It’s hard to avoid being maudlin about lonely people; hard for many people to understand that loneliness is not necessarily thrust upon everyone who lives alone, or that some people prefer not to be sociable (there’s that phrase again).

(Sidebar: is “Eleanor Rigby” maudlin?  I think many people find it so, maybe mostly because there’s the intimation that Eleanor’s a spinster; I don’t know, I still find it more heartbreaking than maudlin.  Hard to argue against it being at least a little condescending, though.)

Lucy Snowe’s Tiny Universe

February 10, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Villette.

Reading next: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, by Daniel Paul Schreber.

Moving on now, but a few more quick thoughts before we leave Lucy Snowe’s world behind:

-I never did really say anything about three of my favorite scenes: the play in chapter 14, in which Lucy is talked by M. Paul into playing a foppish man but refuses to dress entirely as a man, then goes off book and acts out a scene of wooing Ginevra for Dr. John’s benefit (this chapter should just be called “Grad Student’s Paradise,” for gosh sakes); chapter 19, “The Cleopatra,” in which Lucy hates Rubensesque female portraits and M. Paul begins to tease Lucy for being a scandalous sexpot (but does he really actually have her pegged?); and the amazing “Vashti” episode, in which Lucy attends the theatre with Dr. John and the combined passions of Lucy and the actress Vashti seem to start an actual fire which leads to Paulina’s salvation by Dr. John (I like to think Vashti is actually playing Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, but probably not).

These are all high points in the novel, not just as dissertation-fodder but as brilliant examples of the craft of writing and of character development.  The introduction in my Modern Library edition by A.S. Byatt and Ignes Sodre is really great on these scenes.  It’s actually one of the best introductions I can remember, although, like most introductions, it’s best saved until the end.  (I never read introductions first.  Seriously, why are these not afterwords?  Must be something with marketing.)

-The Vashti episode leads me to another point: Lucy’s is a very concentrated, condensed, even claustrophobic universe.  Everyone shows up over and over; somehow everyone she knew in England moves to Labassecour.  It is a funny thing to do in a book so much about Lucy’s loneliness and her longing for a companion to surround her with a de facto family she can’t seem to shake.  I think partly it was simply demanded of the novel of Brontë’s time to have a cast that worked like this, appearing in each of the three volumes; but the coincidences and reappearances also work against the grain of Lucy’s narration.  People do care about her; she is never alone, never isolated, for better and for worse, and the one time she reaches out from a deep isolation and depression she finds someone (Pere Silas) intimately connected to those she already knew.

-What I’m left with from this book, most of all, is Lucy Snowe’s voice, her narration, her insistence on telling things her way.  She is tricky, indeed.  The ending is, I think, brilliant, and perfectly like Lucy, and perhaps a marvelous unraveling of the mystery of the shipwreck-metaphor I talked about a couple posts back.

In a perfect coincidence of my own, I read Ander Monson’s essay “The Guilty I” in The Believer while in the thick of Villette.  It was perfect for thinking about Lucy: the infuriating way you sometimes know you’re not getting the whole story, the difficulty or impossibility of burrowing back into former manifestations of yoursel — of bearing eyewitness to the “I.”  What we end up with when we dig deeply into our memories are often fictions, constructs based on life experiences.  Just like Lucy; just like Charlotte.

The Comedy of Voice and Punctuation

June 29, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Dog of the South, by Charles Portis.

Reading next: Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar, by Richard Brautigan.

Well, here’s something completely different. Jaime, my wife, has been a big fan of Portis for some time now. She’s been telling me to read DOTS every month for years now. I finally succumbed, since I’m trying to sprinkle Southern lit into my reading more regularly and it seemed like a good summer book and a good travelling book. (Which it was: a good laugh on an airplane never hurts, and it was appropriate to read about the Texo-Mexican scrublands while flying over the Southwest. Although, if we were to emulate the experience of the book, one of the engines would have started shaking and fallen off.)

And it’s true: Portis is funny as hell. Also, funny about hell. I don’t think Ray Midge’s descent into Belize is exactly a Dantesque journey — I’ll write about this hopefully tomorrow: I think the journey is something of a way to comment on the place departed, the American South — but, nevertheless, things do get a bit hellish now and then.

Gross over-generalization time: It’s harder to write fictional comedy in the first person than the third. No fair counting romans a clef or autobiographical stand-in narrators. Is that obvious? I don’t know, but I hadn’t really thought about it until reading this book. Third person allows for authorial interpolations on all characters, a focus on details those in the story cannot notice or would not mention, an “impartial” scene setting, and, most importantly, a shifting viewpoint, the ability to capture reactions and relationships in ways an author cannot when bound to a single, involved narrator. All of this is the very stuff of humor, setting up both the narrator and his or her readers to feel the superiority to the subject on which so many jokes are based. I can’t imagine A Confederacy of Dunces from the point of view of Ignatius or any other character, for that matter: it is too important to see them all bouncing off of each other, their personalities too strong to allow any of them to dictate the narrative.

Portis doesn’t give himself this luxury. He writes from the point of view, not just of the main character, but of a fairly… um… idiosyncratic main character. He’s something of a drifter, returning to school again and again to start one or another career path, only to lose interest or his nerve. He’s dependent on his fairly wealthy father for money. He’s a military history buff who refuses to read fiction.

And, while educated, he’s not your typical narrator who’s smarter than everyone around him. He’s a schlub from Little Rock, with few skills and fewer prospects. He’s no writer. While there’s much of the comedy of situation and personality in this book, many of the laughs — for me, anyway — come from Ray’s voice and even the punctuation Portis chooses, especially the exclamation point.

I suppose the word for Ray’s narration is deadpan, although I’ve never heard a completely satisfying definition of same. It’s true, though, that his narration betrays little emotion much of the time. But it’s more the juxtaposition of disparate modes or levels of language that he uses that tickles my funny bone. Rather than piling on snippets, here’s a longish section which encapsulates much of what I find funny in the book’s language:

In South Texas I saw three interesting things. The first was a tiny girl, maybe ten years old, driving a 1965 Cadillac. She wasn’t going very fast, because I passed her, but still she was cruising right along, with her head tilted back and her mouth open and her little hands gripping the wheel.

Then I saw an old man walking up the median strip pulling a wooden cross behind him. It was mounted on something like a golf cart with two spoked wheels. I slowed down to read the hand-lettered sign on his chest.

JACKSONVILLE

FLA OR BUST

I had never been to Jacksonville but I knew it was the home of the Gator Bowl and I had heard it was a boom town, taking in an entire county or some such thing. It seemed an odd destination for a religious pilgrim. Penance maybe for some terrible sin, or some bargain he had worked out with God, or maybe just a crazed hiker. I waved and called out to him, wishing him luck, but he was intent on his marching and had no time for idle greetings. His step was brisk and I was convinced he wouldn’t bust.

The third interesting thing was a convoy of stake-bed trucks all piled high with loose watermelons and cantaloupes. I was amazed. I couldn’t believe that the bottom ones weren’t being crushed under all that weight, exploding and spraying hazardous melon juice onto the highway. One of nature’s tricks with curved surfaces. Topology!…

“Hazardous melon juice” is one of the funniest noun phrases I’ve ever read.

It’s funny after that, too, but one must stop somewhere. Part of what’s funny here is embedded in the fact that Ray never reads fiction, I think: the telegraphed statements — “I was amazed.” — add some unquantifiable comedy, but make sense only for someone who’s not very comfortable with personal narrative. The fact that he was an engineering student also plays into that last paragraph. Ray’s character can seem like a loose bag of experiences and quirks, sometimes, making him into a savant of sorts. But it pays off in narration like his waving at a Jesus-freak and contemplating the freak’s chances of busting. And I’ve always been a sucker for a blend of meticulous detail and technical language with laid-back qualified “maybe” and “some” sentences.

Then there’s that exclamation point — “Topology!” These exclamations recur throughout the book, and they’re almost always funny, and they almost always crack me up when I think of them delivered in a Southern manner, with an Arkansas accent. It’s realistic, I guess I’m saying: funny because it’s true. Another funny moment comes in a bar in Laredo, when Ray explains his method of avoiding germs on bar glasses. “A quick slosh here and there and those babies are right back on the shelf!” These moments of excitement or intensity are often ironically funny, although I never get the sense that Portis condescends to his narrator. I think a large part of their effectiveness is simply due to the fact that there is very little else in the way of punctuation, besides periods: simple sentences, few commas, certainly no colons or semicolons or question marks. The surprise of those exclamations, frequently fragments, somehow heightens the humor.

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