The Manipulative Novel

November 17, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Woman in White.

Wilkie Collins is manipulative.  All novelists are manipulative at some level; with the best of them, you don’t even think about resenting it.  (Others can make you feel creepy and weird.)  Collins seems to me to be a genius of manipulation: he twists the knife in the most delightful ways.

The best example of this is probably the “postscript” Fosco leaves in Marian’s diary.  What I love about this is how the manipulation works on multiple levels: at the level of Collins’ interaction with the reader, the postscript provides a shocking twist at the end of Marian’s narrative, injecting suspense — about Marian’s safety, the secret of Anne Catherick, and Fosco’s plans — into an already suspenseful situation.  As this thesis by Leanne Page suggests, the postscript also puts us in the position of recognizing that we, as well as Fosco, have been reading a private document: his glee at having stolen Marian’s secrets makes our glee at the twists in the story a bit unseemly.

But the real mystery here is why Fosco, a master manipulator himself, leaves his note behind, showing that he’s read the diary.  The reasons for this are unclear to me: is Fosco gloating?  Is he just not as bright as he seems?  Throughout the book, Collins is extremely concerned with maintaining the authenticity of the documents he presents, with the status of the text itself: evidence is presented in a variety of forms — letters, the diary, the statements of those who would have direct knowledge on the case.  Indeed, Marian herself is constantly referring in the diary to the diary, and to the time she’s had to write in it, and to her need to record events accurately.  (As an aside: as someone who works with real diaries all the time, I can tell you that a diary like Marian’s would make my head explode.  Every diary is interesting in its own way, but all diaries are, by and large, records of life being boring, or at least uneventful.)

All of this attention that Collins pays to his diverse texts further complicates Fosco’s postscript for the reader.  It could be that Collins simply fudged here: wanting to show the reader that Fosco had read the diary but having no way to do so inside Marian’s text, he introduces the implausible scenario that Fosco finds it irresistible to prove to Marian that he’s read the diary.  Perhaps we’re to believe that Fosco simply believes his ingenious plot cannot possibly be unraveled, and so it does not matter whether anyone knows that he was scoundrel enough to read the diary.  Or is it a matter of the status of the diary at the time: was the diary stolen by Fosco, and only recovered later, or did he lock it away where he thought no one could retrieve it until the plot could not possibly be unraveled?  (A fascinating possibility, Collins using the placement of his narratives to create tension at a metafictional level!)  Did Fosco believe Marian would not survive her illness — did he intend to use his “vast knowledge of chemistry” to poison her?  Did he leave the message for some other reason that the reader does not yet know, but will later, as more is revealed?

At any rate, I hope this shows what a complicated and delightful thing it can be to manipulate.  Collins is quite good, I think, at moving his characters in consistent, intelligent ways, which is what makes me question the status of Fosco’s postscript — Dickens, frankly, is often worse at this, especially in his early books, making his characters do dumb or inconsistent things and dropping little gods into the narrative just because he needs to make something happen.  If this were an early Dickens novel, I’d probably not bat an eye at Fosco’s postscript as a simple marker of irrepressible, monomaniacal evil; it may be such here too, but Collins at least makes me question it.  He’s also fantastic at concluding his episodes, one of the key spaces for manipulating the reader: the last page of the Second Epoch seems to me one of the masterpieces of suspense writing, in its pacing (the masterful use of paragraphs of a single word or sentence, and the staccato fragments set off with dashes), its scene-setting, and its “surprise” ending that seems, as you read it, both astonishing and inevitable.  If this is manipulation, who needs free will?

The Thoughts of Others

March 16, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: A Passage to India.

On the train to the Marabar Caves, an expedition lead by Dr. Aziz, Mrs. Moore (in “purdah,” or seclusion of women from public sight, with Adela Questing) reflects on the impending marriage of her son Ronny and Adela (who reconciled immediately after Adela had decided not to marry Ronny).

She felt increasingly (vision or nightmare?) that, though people are important, the relations between them are not, and that in particular too much fuss has been made over marriage; centuries of carnal embracement, yet man is no nearer to understanding man. And to-day she felt this with such force that it seemed itself a relationship, itself a person who was trying to take hold of her hand.

I must pause, here, to make two separate digressions.

Digression A: Besides its importance in the novel, this statement reflects in interesting ways on the Bloomsbury Group, the circle of friends including the Woolfs, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington, and others, with whom Forster was friendly (although his actual inclusion in the group is a subject of heated debate among those who care about such things). In the light of what (little) I know about Forster’s biography and about the relations among the Bloomsberries, I suspect that by the unimportance of relationships Forster means their codification, the societal verification of the relationship between two people in marriage, and the necessity of maintaining such a relationship for life. This thought of Mrs. Moore’s could almost be a manifesto of interpersonal relations among the Bloomsberries, who were busily trying to dismantle Victorian proprieties, welcoming sexual experimentation, and having sex with each other and with those outside the group.

Digression B: My copy of A Passage to India (Harcourt, Brace Modern Classics, apparently a 1956 printing) was a $1 purchase at the most excellent Newberry Library Book Fair. It is fairly heavily marked up, especially in the first 150 pages, using red pencil and blue and black pens for underlining and occasional annotation. I would think this indicated two or three different annotators, but the markings and subject matter of interest seems fairly consistent. I suspect all of the markings belong to the Cornell U. student who identifies herself on the front endpapers. (Tina Van Lent, I have your book.) I’m guessing by the fading of the ink and the quality of the penmanship that these are circa late 1950s/early 1960s notes. (Just a guess.)

I mention all of this now, partly just because marginalia interests me, but also because the annotator underlines the passage quoted above heavily, excitedly, and asterisks in the margin by “yet man is no nearer to understanding man” with the note: “point of book.” The annotations of others in second-hand books can often be distracting or annoying, especially those of students who underline everything discussed in class, or everything identifying a new character, or who make really dumb notes in the margins. But they can also be illuminating, interesting, even important. (I recently purchased a copy of a book from the library of the novelist John Fowles — it has his bookplate, which is quite nice — and also includes some marginalia, possibly his, possibly that of the Oxford professor who’d owned it previously.)

Anyway, I don’t know that I would have identified this passage as the “point of book,” but it interests me that a former owner did. This is the kind of thing hard to replicate in e-books, this experience of communion with a former reader through a copy both of you owned. It is one of the things we’d lose if we lost the physical book. The freedom of transmission and marking of a copy of a book would be severely restricted by e-books; to the delight of publishers, I’m sure, who could restrict e-books to use only through passwords or licenses and thereby sell more copies to more users, and do away with “second-hand” copies altogether.

To segue back to the topic at hand. The communion between different minds, and the ways our thoughts circle around ideas and topics in divergent ways, is one of the truly masterful techniques Forster controls in this book. His perspective flits from mind to mind, smoothly moving from one to another, so we hardly notice that we are now thinking like Fielding, now Moore, now Questing, now Aziz. Third-person omniscient, here, but in a way very different from Joyce, whose Ulysses was published a couple of years before this. Unlike that encyclopedic vision, Forster willfully selects the thoughts of his characters, summarizing past thinking and choosing the most important thoughts to show how the views of one character communicate with those of another in ironic, sympathetic, or unexpected ways.

So Mrs. Moore is thinking these rather radical thoughts for an older Englishwoman, and when they reach the caves, and Aziz is trying his best to make them interesting, diverting, the sort of scenery he thinks adventurous Englishwomen would want (not realizing they’ve come only out of politeness, having been told they’d been disappointed he hadn’t arranged the trip yet, and so arranging it out of a feverish desire to keep what he sees as important friendships with Mrs. Moore and Fielding) — as all this is happening, Adela Questing is thinking about her marriage, making her plans, and suddenly coming to the realization that she does not love Ronny, does not believe he loves her, and wondering why it has not even occurred to her to ask until now, when she’s already engaged. She would obviously profit from an honest talk with Mrs. Moore, it would seem: but, Forster seems to ask, how would such a talk occur, in the stultified air of propriety and etiquette the English live in? Even among two fairly independent-minded women?

So Adela climbs among the caves and rocks with Aziz and a guide (Fielding having missed the train, and Mrs. Moore having been appalled by the caves, and deciding not to continue after the first, but instead rest). And deciding she needs to talk about marriage with someone, she asks about Aziz’s marriage. Aziz, weirdly feeling it more “artistic,” says he is married, even though his wife is dead. And then Adela makes a monstrous faux-pas: she asks if Aziz has more than one wife. Deeply offended, he says he only has one, then takes refuge alone in a cave to avoid further embarrassment. Completely oblivious, Adela also goes into a cave, thinking about marriage and how she hates sight-seeing. The chapter ends. And in the space between chapters, the book changes drastically.

We follow Aziz’s perspective into the next chapter, and learn that he pauses in his cave, smokes a cigarette, then comes out to find Adela gone. He curses at his guide for letting her out of his sight, hits the man and causes him to flee. He then sees Adela talking to a Miss Derek, who has just arrived with Fielding in her car. He assumes everything is well, but decides to cover up the fact that Adela had been alone for a while when he talks to Fielding.

When they arrive back at Chandrapore, Aziz is arrested. Adela appears to have accused Aziz of attempting to rape her in the caves.

The interesting thing here is how Forster makes this into a mystery for us, at least in the short term. We have gotten to know and like Aziz, and we’re in his head, seemingly, when the event supposedly takes place. It seems a horrible injustice that is being done to Aziz, especially when the English get all xenophobic and emotional about the state of Adela, who is apparently sick in one of those ambiguous ways Englishwomen were thought to be ill after some excitement or affront. (Seriously, what is the deal here? Does she have a fever? The vapors? Is it all psychosomatic? If so, why do so many women in novels die after falling ill after some horrible incident? They say she’s “in danger,” but I have no idea what that might be. Is this a euphemism — are they checking for sexual contact? Do they just assume she might be ill? She ends up being fine, of course.)

So we are on Aziz’s side, and Forster is careful not to give us any of Adela’s thoughts or perspective for a good 50 pages after the incident. This is important, since we’ve also learned a lot about Adela, and are wondering how these charges, which we feel cannot possibly be true, came to be. Is it part of some wild plot on her part to get out of her marriage?  We cannot imagine either Aziz (and, by extension, Forster) lying to us about what he did up in the caves (we are given explanations for why he fibs to Fielding about the chain of events, and about how he comes across her field glasses outside a cave); neither can we imagine Adela making up such a story out of whole cloth.

The only explanation at this point seems to be that Adela was attacked by the guide, or that there was someone — who knows who? — already in the cave, disturbed by the intruder.  The guide, of course, has fled.  Forster, who has been so careful to show us many minds, many ways of being, suddenly keeps us in the minds of those who were not involved: Fielding, who defends Aziz, and the overreacting Englishmen. It’s excruciating, this interim, as we fear for Aziz and for Fielding and for Adela, not knowing what happened, or how the caves, the dark, mysterious, primordial caves, figure into it.

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