Monday, July 23, 2012

Indignation by Philip Roth

There are a few very common errors that new writers make with point of view. Notably, with first person narratives, they allow a character to have knowledge of events they couldn’t possibly know about because they weren’t there. Or stories veer from POV to POV with dizzying speed so that the reader loses track of whose mind we are supposed to be in. Or the great howler that really shows up a beginner writer: the narrator dying before the end.

On page 54 of Philip Roth’s Indignation, the narrator quietly advises us that he’s already dead. Oh dear. But this is Philip Roth, so it’s obviously intentional, isn’t it? And all rules are made to be broken, aren’t they? It’s what the postmodern is all about, after all. Maybe so. I hate so-called rules of creative writing, especially ones beginning with “Don’t”, which is a word guaranteed to make this particular contrarian reach for the “do”. There is, to my mind, only one rule in creative writing: is there a reason why I should do this?

So, is there a reason why the narrator of Indignation should already be dead? Yes, but it’s a qualified yes. It’s a yes given with a heavy heart, because I fear I may be falling prey to the “great writer” syndrome and giving Roth more latitude than I would a new or beginner writer. Indignation is a compulsively readable book which is nowhere near as powerful as it thinks it is. The fact that the narrator is dead is not the cause of this weakness, but it does bring the flaws to the fore.

The narrator is Marcus Messner, a Jewish boy in the 1950s raging against conformity and its strictures and making plans to avoid the imminent danger of the Korean War. His father is sliding into a paranoid condition in which he sees danger in every mundane moment and his over-protectiveness drives Markie out of the family home to a college as far away from Newark as he can find. He fetches up in Winesburg, Ohio. And here his troubles really begin.

Markie is not someone inclined to compromise. His social skills are not well developed. He finds it difficult to empathise or to see anything from another’s perspective. Aloof and alone, he shuns offers of friendship, refusing to join the campus fraternities who queue up to recruit him. All of this is hideously familiar to me: when I was at school, one of my reports stated that I was “diffident in relationships with his peers.” I was more proud of that statement than anything else in my entire school career, continually rolling the phrase around my palate and savouring its meaning like a fine wine. For the outsider to be identified as an outsider is the greatest possible accolade. Yes, for Markie Messner read Tom Conoboy.

But, of course, there is ultimately something nihilistic about such an approach. It becomes a life lived in negative, with progress ranked and rewarded by absence, the privileging of solitude over community. “No, I won’t do that,” becomes the clarion call. “I will do things by myself. I will neither seek nor offer assistance.” Thus, although he is commonly described as “the nicest boy in the world”, Markie is not, in fact, an especially likeable person and this becomes problematic within the structure of the novel, focused as it is on Markie’s death. Throughout the novel, Markie has forced himself into an emotional bubble and it is difficult for the reader’s emotions to penetrate his sense of isolation and in so doing extend great pity for a life extinguished almost before it is allowed to begin. For the novel to have at its structural core the death of the protagonist, there must be a sense of gradually increasing emotional attachment to him. But Markie Messner does everything he can to ensure that does not happen.

This feels to me a significant fault in the novel. By locating Markie in Winesburg, Ohio, Roth is clearly suggesting a connection to Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 story collection of that name. And superficially there are resonances, to be sure. The characters of Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio are insular, solipsistic people who crave but cannot sustain human relationships. Markie would fit in with these grotesques very well. But, ultimately, at least some of Anderson’s poor, stilted people find some way of connecting with one another. Like the beautiful losers of Carson McCullers's novels, through their loneliness they still, somehow, sometimes, make the spark of human connection. Markie Messner, despite opportunities, never quite does.

Most signicantly, Roth's depiction of Markie's relationship with the fragile Olivia is flawed. Olivia, a suicidal young woman with distressingly low self-esteem, has the potential to be a great character. Indeed, she is far and away the most interesting person in the novel. But in the end she is poorly served by Roth, who cannot get inside her head convincingly. It could be argued, I acknowledge, that the novel is not about Olivia and if Roth were to focus more on her it could compromise the thematic integrity of the whole. Granted, but nonetheless a great novel would find a way to integrate Olivia’s story into the narrative more effectively. After all, in a novel where the smallest mistakes have the gravest consequences, the damaged Olivia’s serial catastrophes offer a striking counterpoint to Markie’s: where Markie’s need to succeed fuels his increasing insularity, it is an overwhelming need for love which drives Olivia.

That fragility could be heartbreaking. It is hard not to read Olivia and think of Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Alas, for Roth, the comparison is not favourable. There is nothing of the intensity of Esther in Olivia. The reader cannot make the same emotional investment in her. That Olivia’s tragedy is part of Markie’s tragedy and that Markie’s tragedy is part of our tragedy – Everyman approaching everydeath – should form the philosophical bedrock of the novel. Instead, the pathos of Olivia is replaced, near the novel’s ending, by the bathos of the great panty raid, a scene which is extremely funny but wholly out of sympathy with the emotional direction at that stage of the novel. If the two plot elements had even been transposed so that the panty raid preceded the denouement with Olivia it might have worked. As it is, Olivia is cast into an oblivion she doesn’t deserve and the novel loses its way.

This is a pity, because there is a genuine profundity to Indignation which, if we were allowed easier access to the spirit of its protagonist, would make it a great work. Most of Roth’s late fiction has been obsessed by death, and Indignation is clearly part of his process of seeking an accommodation with mortality. In this he is telling us, of course, that it isn’t possible to isolate oneself in a bubble. Reality will interrupt. Life will happen. Mistakes will be made. Chance will intervene. To read Philip Roth is to understand that death will arrive, sooner or later, and there is no escape, neither for the optimist nor the pessimist, for the bon viveur or the curmudgeon, the insider or the outsider. Markie makes a mistake. It is a small mistake, trivial. Nowadays it would not even be a mistake, simply a choice made by a rational being. But in 1951, in Winesburg, Ohio, it is a mistake that leads to his death at the age of 19. And that is heartbreaking. But such is life.

The Great American Novelist tournament

The Guardian are running an intriguing and wholly eccentric competitition to find the Great American novelist.

They have selected 32 writers who have each published at least four great novels. It's a shame that four is the cut-off rather than three, because it automatically excludes the greatest living American author, Marilynne Robinson, author of only three novels. They are then playing off in an elimination round, book against book. In the top half of the draw we have:

• William Faulkner (1) - Absalom, Absalom! vs William Gaddis - JR

• Annie Proulx (16) - That Old Ace In The Hole vs William S Burroughs - Naked Lunch

• Edith Wharton (9) - The Custom of the Country vs Joseph Heller - Something Happened

• Ernest Hemingway (8) - A Farewell To Arms vs James Baldwin - Giovanni's Room

• John Updike (4) - Rabbit, Run vs Ursula K. Le Guin - The Lathe of Heaven

• E. L Doctorow (13) - Billy Bathgate vs Joyce Carol Oates - We Were The Mulvaneys

• Don DeLilo (12) - Libra vs John Dos Passos - 42nd Parallel

• John Steinbeck (5) - Grapes of Wrath vs Paul Auster- The Book of Illusions

It's a crazy enterprise. When I first read about it a couple of weeks ago I wasn't impressed, but actually seeing the "matches" it really does intrigue me. That Old Ace in the Hole against Naked Lunch? How can you compare and contrast those? Burroughs has to win it, but to actually sit down and explain why calls for some serious thought.

The Grapes of Wrath versus The Book of Illusions? That strikes me as the most serious mismatch in the list. And I confess to never having heard of Giovanni's Room or The Lathe of Heaven.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

F. Scott Fitzgerald on Huckleberry Finn

Huckleberry Finn took the first journey back. He was the first to look back at the republic from the perspective of the west. His eyes were the first eyes that ever looked at us objectively that were not eyes from overseas. There were mountains at the frontier but he wanted more than mountains to look at with his restless eyes - he wanted to find out about men and how they lived together. And because he turned back we have him forever.
Which is why Huck Finn is one of the most important American novels.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Happy birthday, little squirt

Woody Guthrie would be 100 today.

“Took me years to do Grapes of Wrath and that little squirt tells the whole story in just a few stanzas.”
John Steinbeck

Thursday, July 12, 2012

In A Shallow Grave by James Purdy

There is a dreamlike landscape in which James Purdy’s fiction resides. It is similar to that of Nathanael West and John Hawkes, something like a spiritual re-imagining of a physical reality, so that nothing is tangible, exactly, in a corporeal sense, yet everything is rooted in a consciousness so vivid it becomes real. Purdy himself suggests: “I don’t really think my work is fantasy so much as it’s unconscious.” In other words, his stories are lived dreams. It is, as a result, a very particular world his characters inhabit. And there is something quite beautiful about it.

In A Shallow Grave is a short novel which manages to say a great deal. It is written in Purdy’s characteristically sparse prose, drawing the reader into the fictive dream through the simplicity of the language and the directness of the descriptions. It is not in any sense a realist novel and anyone approaching it in that vein will undoubtedly be perplexed. Don Adams, in discussing this point in a recent article, [opens in a PDF] points to Purdy’s allegorical realism, suggesting it attempts to “challenge the assumptions of the conventional reality we know … to envision a different world altogether.” Anyone reading In A Shallow Grave needs to bear this in mind.

The narrator is Garnet Montrose, a GI who has been hideously disfigured in the Korean War. The wounds he receives in an attack which kills most of his troop are so serious he, too, should have died. Indeed, he later says “I do not even believe in death because what I am is emptier than death itself.” He is, essentially, in a living death, his world the shallow grave of the novel’s title. He is “marked with the coating of death”, unlike his fallen comrades who are now “at least safe-dead”, while Garnet is forced “to live …with the appearance of one from the under-kingdom.” It is clear from this, then, that we are being presented with an allegorical restatement of life and living, death and community, love, grace, peace.

So severe are Garnet’s injuries he requires the assistance of a helper and goes about advertising for one. Most people are repulsed by his physical appearance and flee in tears or terror or both. Two men show greater resolve. They become the pillars on which Garnet begins to build a new edifice to support his life. The first, a black man, Quintus Pearch, becomes his reader, reading aloud from books that neither of them understand. The second is the divine Daventry, an outwardly attractive man but for his lack of front teeth, an enigma who breathes an ethereal presence over Garnet’s existence. These three men become embroiled in a strange, intense, claustrophobic relationship. Gradually, they are swept together by love.

Purdy says of Garnet that in the course of the novel he is “demolished and reborn”. This rebirth can only be effected through the presence of Quintus and Daventry, and of the Widow Rance, with whom Garnet is initially besotted and to whom he sends, through the intercessions of Quintus and Daventry, a series of love letters. In the course of the novel he does lose everything: he has already effectively lost his life, become “somebody immemorial, drained of everything except some tiny shreds of memory”, and he finally loses his house when his loans are foreclosed. But this is a James Purdy novel, and although Purdy’s world is a violent and difficult place, it remains a place where love can take hold and, once rooted, can do immaculate things. Purdy explains that although Garnet has lost everything, he has at least “learned to love a man”.

From that, of course, you’ll infer that there is a gay theme in the novel. And indeed there is. But what I find intriguing about Purdy’s fiction is the way he approaches these matters. His second novel, The Nephew, written as long ago as 1961, approaches the subject of homosexuality in a fresher, more realistic and more engaging way than the vast majority of novels today. Purdy complained that he was misunderstood and neglected and even attacked by the gay community and it isn’t hard to see why, because he refuses to adopt any of its conventions. An outsider, he is utterly scathing, for example, about political correctness:

what they call politically acceptable I call philistinism and stupidity. I think the women’s movement has harmed writers, and so have some of the black movements, because they feel you should write about people the way they should be.
Liberals, he suggests, labour under a “false idealism”, a “cosmetic respectibility.” There is something refreshing in Purdy’s honesty and his refusal to peddle stereotypes, either negative or positive. “Life is not full of perfect political solutions,” he says, and his fiction offers the clear truth of it: “Humanity,” he tells us, “is ... on a sinking ship.” But that is not to say there is no hope: Purdy is not a nihilist, and while he can clearly see man’s flaws there nonetheless resides in him a great love for humanity. And it is this love which shines through his fiction, whether it is straight or gay or same-race or inter-racial. It is part of the dream landscape he builds: we are talking essences here, the nature of love itself, that raw emotion, not the mechanics of homosexual or straight attraction. His novels inhabit a loftier plane and his allegorical style allows for a free examination of the truths that are so often hidden or bastardised or contorted in the work of other writers.

In A Shallow Grave presents us with a complex, beautiful study of human love and compassion. A quote from one of the unreadable books read by Quintus and Garnet tells us: “Man is little more than a glyph which punctuates space, but once gone is as unrecollectable as smoke or clouds.” Perhaps that is true, and perhaps that is the fate of all of us, but human life compels us, for the brief time of our habitation on this earth, to seek something else. The religious might call this grace; others might say beauty. And beauty, of course, is as much an emotion as a physical construct. The unconventional beauties of In A Shallow Grave teach us that.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Gabriel Garcia Marquez is now suffering from dementia and will not write again. It is a desperate illness. It afflicted my grandmother and her mind simply disintegrated. All connection with reality disappears. Only a void is left. For someone like Garcia Marquez, a man of incredible inventiveness, this is a terrible way for things to end. One Hundred Years of Solitude remains one of my favourite books, particularly the last few pages, which opened my eyes to what literature can do. The man was a genius.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Provinces of Night by William Gay

When I was a kid I was obsessed by Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Every English composition I wrote at school was based on it, set in a casual ward and peopled by honest, gritty, struggling men reduced by the capitalist state to penury and deprivation. Then I read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and every composition thereafter was based on the noble, brave Red Indian and his oppression by the dread upholders of Manifest Destiny. I learned the rudiments of creative writing by this approach, to be sure, but those essays could only be described as painfully derivative.

William Gay’s Provinces of Night takes as its title and epigram quotations from Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God. Would that it hadn’t. Would that the influence of McCarthy was a little less obvious throughout this novel. Would that the reader never had to confront ham McCarthyisms such as “Or was utterly alien to their frame of reference, emissary from some race set apart” or “On the porch the old man in the rocking chair sat staring burnteyed at him like some revenant out of his past”. Seriously, those and a number of similar examples in the novel could easily have won a prize in a “ham it up like Cormac McCarthy” competition.

It’s a great shame because if this novel was shorn of those hideous mannerisms it would be a mighty fine piece of work. As it stands, it’s a mighty fine piece of work punctuated by almost amateurish parodies of another writer. Why on earth would Gay write sub-McCarthy nonsense like: “Who handled them reverently and turned them to the light and studied the spiraling grooves as if they’d find there some physical evidence of their own provisional existence, as if their very lives were somehow encoded there”? Writing in a tradition is one thing – McCarthy’s The Orchard Keeper, for example, is almost pure Faulkner in style and tone – but when elements of your prose begin to resemble fan-fiction you have clearly taken admiration too far. And William Gay is by some measure too good a writer in his own right to allow that to happen.

The novel is set in rural Tennessee in 1952. You can guess, then, that we’re in for a slice of southern gothic, and that’s exactly what we have. The protagonist is 17 year old Fleming Bloodworth, a literary-minded innocent with a family straight out of Yoknapatawpha central casting: his father, Boyd, abandons him to head for Detroit in order to search for and kill his wife’s lover; his uncle Warren is a womaniser who impregnates Raven Lee Halfacre, the girl Fleming loves; his other uncle Brady is an alcoholic with a penchant for placing (failed) hexes on people who irk him; his grandfather, absent in Arkansas for twenty years, makes his return to Tennessee in all his eccentric glory. Thus, we have the standard southern fiction pattern of dysfunctional family and a youngster – a Sarty Snopes – trying to rise above the “fierce pull of blood”.

All of this is beautifully told. It would be easy for such a set of characters to descend into parody or become a two-dimensional southern gothic soap opera. But here, despite their eccentricities, the characters remain credible. Similarly, the plot careers along with gusto but, again, stays within the realms of the possible. All of this is due to Gay’s fine descriptive powers and ability to paint a living scene. It is made possible, too, by trademark southern humour, particularly in the dialogue of the combatants.

As with most southern gothic, there is something elegaic in the writing, and yet it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what the subject of that elegy might be. There is, at once, a critique of a hard and brutal way of life and a lament for its passing. The men (it is mostly men, of course, women in southern writing usually exist to be either fought over or, having been fought over and won, to be downbeaten and harassed) seemingly possess no moral compass, yet their actions are often depicted with an odd sense of honourableness. It is this same sense of contingency which infests McCarthy’s fiction, an ambivalence about a whole way of life. It is as though these writers, knowing in their hearts that the lifestyles they write about are brutal and unedifying, still believe them to be somehow better than anything the modern world can offer in substitution. So, on the one hand, Fleming Bloodworth’s battles with his blood kin can represent a rejection of the old ways of living, but at the same time William Gay presents us with the Tennessee Valley Authority’s flooding of whole areas of Tennessee and resulting loss of entire communities. McCarthy wrestled with similar material in The Orchard Keeper – witness Ather’s shooting of the water tank, symbol of outside interference. (And, in real life, of course, McCarthy’s father worked for the TVA.) We may want to change, these writers say, but we want to change in our own way. It must be a hard existence for them, uncomfortable as they seem to be living in either the past or the present.

The result of all this is that the thematic core of much southern fiction is at best, to use a word beloved of both McCarthy and Gay, provisional. There are no easy answers. But then again, there aren’t in life either, are there? And Provinces of Night is definitely worth a read, despite the cringeworthy McCarthyisms.