April 2009 Archives

Thoughts on Diversity in Reading

A nice little reality-checking meme I found over at kiss a cloud

1. Name the last book by a female author that you've read.

I finished Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth just a few days ago, and Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm about a week before that. 

2. Name the last book by an African or African-American author that you've read.

At the beginning of the year I read The First Man, by Algerian Albert Camus.  If we're talking African-Americans, I heartily enjoyed Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon last summer, and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God is probably among my top twenty novels of all time.

3. Name one from a Latino/a author.

I don't know if the Caribbean counts as "Latin," but I read Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory about a year ago.  Before that, I might have to go back to Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I read a few years ago.  

4. How about one from an Asian country or Asian-American?

A few months ago I read Haruki Murakami's After Dark. And the aforementioned The Good Earth was written in and about China by a white American missionary woman.   

5. What about a GLBT writer?

Ah, "GLBT."  Always a tricky acronym.  I read Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop a few months ago, but Cather would have argued strenuously against being labeled a lesbian even though most of her relationships were with women.  I've read almost everything Virginia Woolf wrote, but the same is probably true of her.  Ditto for Hans Christian Andersen, whose fairy tales I read at the end of last year.  It's been a while since I've read a book whose author would willingly join this category; I might have to go back to my last re-reading of Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues a few years ago.  Possibly I've re-read The Importance of Being Earnest more recently, but I don't remember. 

6. Why not name an Israeli/Arab/Turk/Persian writer, if you're feeling lucky?

I'm sure Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis and Persepolis 2 are the ones everyone's naming, but I'll hop on the bandwagon.

7. Any other "marginalized" authors you've read lately?

Marginalization is an interesting concept, and almost infinitely expandable and contractable.  I'm listening to James Joyce's Ulysses right now, in which Irish marginalization under English rule features heavily (also Irish persecution of the Jews, although Joyce was not himself Jewish).  Similar dynamics exist vis-a-vis England and Australia in the novels of Peter Carey, about which I'm totally nuts.  On the other hand, aboriginal people might argue against the idea that poor white Australians are/were marginalized. 

A few months ago David and I listened to John Elder Robinson's memoir Look me in the Eye: My Life with Asberger's, which is about autism-spectrum disorders and the way in which those who suffer from them are disadvantaged and misunderstood.  Mental illness (or just difference) is often less visible than gender or skin color, but it definitely creates barriers for those affected. 

I like the subtlety in books like Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things and Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown, which address how the same people can be both the oppressed (say, the Indians by the British) and the oppressor (the lower-cast Indians by the upper-caste Indians; the Kashmiris by the Indians and Pakistanis).  Then a novel like A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry, seems much less concerned about marginalization of Indian people from without, and much more concerned about class struggle within the country.  Mistry is also a member of a religious minority, although I wouldn't have known that without looking him up on Wikipedia.  And judging from his canceled 2002 tour of the US, he personally has more often been marginalized for looking like a Muslim than for actually being a Zoroastrian. 

I think being conscious of the diversity of one's reading is really valuable, and I also think that trying to dissect these issues is much more complicated than sorting authors into neat categories of race, gender, religion and sexuality.  Is an author "representative" of lesbianism if none of her books mention it?  Does it make a difference to the last question if she embraced or denied her own sexuality?  What if her books do deal with it, but she's not known to have had a lesbian relationship?  Or if she had a long, caring lesbian partnership, but writes about homosexuality in a negative way?  What if an author is most interested in writing about class oppression, but finds himself most oppressed in his personal life on account of his perceived ethnicity or religion? 

I've read some brilliant novels dealing with a type of oppression not directly or personally experienced by the author, and often wonder where those fall - Haruki Murakami, for example, often writes compassionately and intelligently about oppression of women, even though he is a man, but only obliquely does he refer to Western oppression of Asian countries, despite being Japanese.  My first instinct, in thinking about The Good Earth, is to assume it "doesn't count" because, although written in and about China, it's by a white American...and yet, Pearl S. Buck, in her own life among the Chinese, probably felt like even more of a minority than many Asian-Americans do in the modern US.  How do we define our terms: are we aiming to read novels by people who belong(ed) to groups currently marginalized by our own culture, whether or not they've written about it, or are we aiming to read books about the experience of marginalization, whether or not the group is currently marginalized?  Or, do we merely want to read a wide variety of novels, by all kinds of people on all kinds of subjects, and observing the race/class/gender of the authors we're reading is helpful in that?  I don't have the answers, but these are, I think, interesting points to consider.

The Good Earth


Reading The Good Earth was a clarifying experience for me: Pearl S. Buck's novel is a famous and well-executed example of a mode of novel-writing that I personally dislike, and as such, it helped me understand my position towards books like it. Buck is quoted, on the back of my edition, as having said "I can only write what I know, and I know nothing but China, having always lived there." To me this seems exactly true: the story of farmer Wang Lung and his wife O-Lan is about China, not about individuals who happen to be Chinese. It reads, to me, as more of an educational primer on traditional Chinese culture than a novel about real people. Wang Lung functions as a kind of Platonic ideal of pre-revolutionary Chinese peasantry (and, later, of pre-revolutionary Chinese wealth); every impulse or priority he possesses can be generalized to the populace at large. So he is healed and sustained by his connection to the land, because his culture lives by the agricultural economy of the time. He seeks a sturdy, hard-working wife because these are the qualities generally prized in peasant women, and spares a moment of regret that she cannot be pretty, because everyone desires physical attractiveness in a partner. He exults in her ability to bear sons because males are valued in traditional Chinese culture, and fears as a bad omen when she bears a girl, because females are culturally devalued. He works hard, because the peasantry is hard-working. He yearns to buy land and take the place of the formerly-grand family in his district, because he lives in a hierarchical social structure and all those on the bottom would rather be on the top. And so on.

Even Wang Lung's flaws and weaknesses are presented as typical, rather than exceptional. As he amasses wealth he starts spending more frivolously, as upper-class people (according to this analysis) typically do. One year, when the land is flooded and can't be worked, he becomes restless and snappish, eventually going into town and becoming enamored of a young prostitute. The implication is that when the Chinese peasants have money to spend and are not working the land, they will get into trouble:

Now if the waters had at this time receded from Wang Lung's land, leaving it wet and smoking under the sun, so that in a few days of summer heat it would need to have been ploughed and harrowed and seed put in, Wang Lung might never have gone again to the great tea shop. Or if a child had fallen ill or the old man had reached suddenly the end of his days, Wang Lung might have been caught up in the new thing and so forgotten the pointed face upon the scroll and the body of the woman slender as bamboo.
But the waters lay placid and unmoved except for the slight summer wind that rose at sunset, and the old man dozed and the two boys trudged to school at dawn and were away until evening and in his house Wang Lung was restless and he avoided the eyes of O-lan who looked at him miserably as he went here and there and flung himself down in a chair and rose from it without drinking the tea she poured and without smoking the pipe he had lit. At the end of one long day, more long than any other, in the seventh month, when the twilight lingered murmurous and sweet with the breath of the lake, he stood at the door of his house, and suddenly without a word he turned abruptly and went into his room and put on his new coat, even the coat of black shining cloth, as shining almost as silk, that O-lan made for feast days, and with no word to anyone he went through the fields until he came to the darkness of the city gate and through this he went and through the streets until he came to the new tea shop.

Wang Lung's behavior and mental health always suffer when he is away from the land, and he is always healed as soon as he gets back to working it - because, again, the life blood of the peasantry is the land, and Wang Lung is the ultimate peasant. When he finds economic success and moves to the town (because his society prizes those from the town over those from the country), he feels less happy and present: "Everything seemed not so good to him as it was before." Here is the Protestant idea, shared by Maoists and embodied by Wang Lung, that true virtue and happiness consists in hard, manual labor, and the pursuit of material opulence is a false quest.

O-lan, similarly, is the Platonic Chinese peasant wife: she is made unhappy by Wang Lung's new consort, but she bears it humbly because that is what's expected from her, only exercising her culturally-mandated prerogative to cut the second woman when she sees her. She bears each child alone and silently, returning to the fields later the same day, because the ideal wife labors beside her husband without complaint. When Wang Lung begins to amass wealth, she binds the feet of their daughter because the feet of upper-class women are bound. She is an excellent household administrator, because a wife should be, but she never makes herself conspicuous, because women should keep a low profile. Et cetera.

There's nothing wrong with this type of storytelling; some people like their characters to seem universal in this particular way. This story-type was very popular in the socialist-minded 1930's (The Good Earth came out in 1931), because it so neatly prioritizes class conflict and typically glorifies the working classes, in addition to being written in a widely-accessible style. Personally, I find it's not to my taste. I am probably displaying my western-ness in my preference for stories with highly individualized characters who are engaged in more complex and subtle ways with the mores of their societies. Nevertheless, Buck's novel is well-written, with a quiet, well-balanced plot, and I can understand its enduring popularity even if it won't become a favorite of mine.

(The Good Earth was my fifth book for the 9 for 2009 Challenge.)

The Assignment

"When Otto von Lambert was informed by the police that his wife Tina had been found dead and violated at the foot of the Al-Hakim ruin, and that the crime was as yet unsolved, the psychiatrist, well known for his book on terrorism, had the corpse transported by helicopter across the Mediterranean, suspended in its coffin by ropes from the bottom of the plane, so that it trailed after it slightly, over vast stretches of sunlit land, through shreds of clouds, across the Alps in a snowstorm, and later through rain showers, until it was gently reeled down into an open grave surrounded by a mourning party, and covered with earth, whereupon von Lambert, who had noticed that F., too, had filmed the event, briefly scrutinized her and, closing his umbrella despite the rain, demanded that she and her team visit him that same evening, since he had an assignment for her that could not be delayed."

So goes the first sentence, which is also the entire first chapter, of Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Assignment (or, on the observing of the observer of the observers). In fact, every chapter consists of a single long sentence, a technique which leads, at its best, to evocative, noir-ish snapshots of the action, and at its worst to confusing, breathless run-ons with no clear referent. I actually think both best- and worst-case scenarios have their place in creating Dürrenmatt's chosen atmosphere: as the titular "assignment" spirals out of F.'s control, the chapter-sentences get longer and more labyrinthine, mirroring her own descent from unease to panic. It's cleverly and effectively done, and also allows Dürrenmatt to condense a standard-length novel into a scant 129 pages. Into this brief first chapter, for example, is packed a remarkable amount of information, relevant to both the plot (von Lambert is a psychiatrist; he is "well known for his book on terrorism"; his wife has been brutally raped and murdered; her body was found at the foot of a desert monument) and the enigmatic atmosphere ("over vast stretches of sunlit land, through shreds of clouds, across the Alps in a snowstorm"; "closing his umbrella despite the rain"). Indeed, especially in these first few chapter-sentences, I was spellbound by Dürrenmatt's extreme economy of language. It's right next door to a political thriller told in verse, so compressed and evocative is the prose.

Although I generally preferred the shorter chapters, one of the most memorable is much longer: in it, F. drops into a cafe to talk with her logician friend D. about the case, and D. proceeds to develop the novella's obsessive preoccupation with observation and aggression. Dürrenmatt's overarching fear, in this book, seems to be the dual dependence on and incapability of constant observation: just as Tina von Lambert and her husband were constantly observing (and therefore objectifying) one another, so countries and individuals are constantly locked in a (to Dürrenmatt) unhealthy relationship of obsessive observation:

[The case reminded him of] a logical problem loosely involving a mirror telescope he had installed in his house in the mountains, an unwieldy thing that he occasionally pointed at a cliff from which he was being observed by people with field glasses, with the effect that, as soon as the people observing him through their field glasses realized that he was observing them through his telescope, they would retreat in a hurry...for the people observing him and discovering that we was observing them through a mirror telescope felt caught in the act, and since being caught in the act produces embarrassment and embarrassment frequently leads to aggression, more than one of these people, after retreating in haste, had come back to throw rocks at his house as soon as he had dismantled the telescope...
...but, he added, after suddenly bursting into laughter and becoming serious again, what he was constructing here was of course only one of two possibilities, the other one being the precise opposite of what he had described...: if, in his house in the mountains, he was being observed less and less, so rarely that, when he pointed his mirror telescope at people who he presumed were observing him from the cliff, they turned out to be observing not him but something else through their field glasses, chamois or mountain climbers or whatnot, this state of not being observed would begin to torment him after a while, much more than the knowledge of being observed had bothered him earlier, so that he would virtually yearn for those rocks to be thrown at his house, because not being watched would make him feel not worth noticing, not being worth noticing would make him feel disrespected, being disrespected would make him feel insignificant, being insignificant would make him feel meaningless, the end result might be a hopeless depression...man was staggering along in the mad hope of somehow finding someone to be observed by somewhere...

As sophomoric as the character D. (for Dürrenmatt?) can sometimes be, this ongoing trap of observation is at the heart of The Assignment, and manifests in personal relationships as well as international relations. Being under constant observation, argues Dürrenmatt, makes people antsy and suspicious, desperate to escape into some modicum of privacy and aggressive towards the ones observing them. Yet without the presence of an observer, one who provides some kind of feedback, modern people lose their sense of self. Toward the end of the novel, he even argues that in certain circumstances the inability to observe directly - the modern dependence on intermediary tools and measures, which abstracts peoples' experiences of concrete reality - can have disastrous and violent consequences. These are all thought-provoking claims, especially in the era of Twitter, GPS, and iPhone apps that broadcast to one's friend network whether one is walking, shopping, or sitting on the john. I'm not sure I agree with all of them (it might actually be logically impossible to agree with all claims made in the book), but it definitely got me thinking, in a very stylish way.

There were two things that mitigated my pleasure in The Assignment, the first of which is somewhat unreasonable: I was expecting a work of modern absurdism, a kind of thriller version of Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, whereas Dürrenmatt's work turns out, in the end, to be full of rational explanations for all the weird and atmospheric stuff that goes on in its early pages. There's more weird stuff that goes on in its latter pages as well, but, sadly for me, this is all explained too, and kind of lamely at that. I know that it is a convention, in the mystery/thriller genre, that the crime is tied up neatly in the end and explained to the reader, and I like that okay when I'm in the mood. But I dearly love a well-executed absurdist novel, and they're much harder to come by than a well done standard murder mystery. Having psyched myself up for the former, it was disappointing to be left with the latter.

My second issue is, I think, more widely applicable. Throughout the whole novella, I was mentally commending Dürrenmatt for writing a thriller with a female protagonist who is independent and gutsy, without making an issue out of her femaleness. F. engages in almost exclusively un-gendered, yet noirish, activities: she shoots reels of film (which are then swapped for others by her mysterious antagonists), meets a friend in a shady café, descends into the lair of the chief of police, decides whether or not to accept the advice of mysterious drunken strangers, and so on. Even her single-letter "name" is gender-free. Aside from a casual reference to her "changing into a denim dress" partway through, F. could just as easily be a man. This is, to me, very refreshing, especially in a genre where female roles are usually limited to helpless victim or femme fatale, and where, on the few occasions when detectives are female, they are usually presented with a dashing love interest who rescues them right on schedule. I was just reveling in the welcome change when BAM!: F. is threatened with a grisly rape. (Orbis Terrarum people: I do actually read books that don't involve rape, I promise.) To me, this rape threat is totally unnecessary to furthering the plot or developing any of Dürrenmatt's points about observation and violence. It seems to me that the author uses rape, irresponsibly, as short-hand for "extreme violence," and the way the scene is handled undermines the entire prior development of F.'s character: in the final analysis, she is reduced to just another person whose victimhood is synonymous with her womanhood. This, coming in tandem with the (to me) unwelcome explanations of all that went before, soured me a bit on the book as a whole.

But! For those thoughtful readers who like a little weird but still prefer their loose ends tied up, and who don't mind the predictable victimization of the female lead (and you can't mind that too much if you like thrillers), I would still recommend The Assignment. As an experiment in style, an atmospheric political portrait, and a parable of observation and violence, it was quite memorably effective.

(The Assignment was my second book for the Orbis Terrarum challenge)

Cold Comfort Farm

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Cold Comfort Farm is one of those books that inspires evangelism: people read it, think it's fantastic, and praise it in overly colored language to everyone around them, giving it as a gift on holidays, and following up with questions like "Have you read Cold Comfort Farm yet? Well, why not? It's HILARIOUS! Go on, read it right now. I'll just sit here and wait." Which is, of course, a huge turn-off, and the poor recipient avoids the book out of harried annoyance. So please, feel no pressure at all: you needn't run out and buy Stella Gibbons's novel unless you really want to.

That said, it IS hilarious, and I do highly recommend it. Not many books keep me up past my bedtime in this era of the five-o-clock alarm, but this one did, and I was chuckling the entire time. I think its charm lies in the fact that, although it's a satire, it also imparts a sense of genuine, warm affection for the characters and literary modes it's lampooning. The oddball inhabitants of Cold Comfort - Aunt Ada Doom, conveniently mad; Judith, toiling under an incestuous obsession; Seth, bored by sex but passionate about talkies; Amos, who preaches hellfire and sends home for flannel shirts; and Flora Poste, officious and uselessly educated, who descends on the farm and applies her no-nonsense brand of "tidying" to her messy relatives - could be painted viciously or dismissively, but they're not. Instead, a reader gets a sense that while everyone is a bit silly, and take themselves more seriously than they ought, they're all decent folks at heart. It's a much gentler, happier poking of fun than something in the style of Thackeray or even Austen, and a reader leaves Cold Comfort Farm feeling refreshed, rather than anxious or world-weary.

The plot begins simply: nineteen-year-old society girl Flora, finding herself orphaned and in possession of a much smaller fortune than she'd anticipated, intrudes herself on her eclectic collection of rural relatives and attempts to bring their lives into what she considers better order. They've all resigned themselves to living out their days in a Gothic morass of moral and physical stagnation, and Flora's bracing if interfering assurances that this is not the way things are done, make for a hilarious counterpoint. But while this setup is funny (and gets steadily funnier as the plot thickens), the real charm is in Gibbons's method of developing it. There are all kinds of delightful little details, which I would probably appreciate even more on re-reading. Take, for example, this passage, in which Mrs. Smiling, Flora's brassière-obsessed friend, attempts to find the proper train for her:

Even Mrs. Smiling could not find much comfort in the time-table. It seemed to her even more confused than usual. Indeed, since the aerial routes and the well-organized road routes had appropriated three-quarters of the passengers who used to make their journeys by train, the remaining railway companies had fallen into a settled melancholy; an idle and repining despair invaded their literature, and its influence was noticeable even in their time-tables.
There was a train which left London Bridge at half past one for Howling. It was a slow train. It reached Godmere at three o'clock. At Godmere the traveler changed into another train. It was a slow train. It reached Beershorn at six o'clock. At Beershorn the train stopped; and there was no more idle chatter of the arrival and departure of trains. Only the simple sentence 'Howling (see Bershorn)' mocked, in its self-sufficing entity, the traveler.

Gibbons has a great ear for that classic British humor that revels in the absurdity of everyday life, and her poker face is impeccable. Her snappy wit is applied evenly to everyone in the book, from the country squire ("The idea, like most ideas, would simply never have entered his head") to an art-house bohemian ("who, like all loose-living persons, was extremely conventional") to Flora herself, as when she reflects that "One of the disadvantages of almost universal education was the fact that all kinds of persons acquired a familiarity with one's favorite writers. It gave one a curious feeling; it was like seeing a drunken stranger wrapped in one's dressing-gown." (This strikes me as snobbish but extremely understandable.) I found the caricature of the self-important male artiste-on-the-make to be especially satisfying:

It cannot be said that Flora really enjoyed taking walks with Mr. Mybug. To begin with, he was not really interested in anything but sex. This was understandable, if deplorable. After all, many of our best minds have had the same weakness. The trouble about Mr. Mybug was that ordinary subjects, which are not usually associated with sex even by our best minds, did suggest sex to Mr. Mybug, and he pointed them out and made comparisons and asked Flora what she thought about it all. Flora found it difficult to reply because she was not interested. She was therefore obliged merely to be polite, and Mr. Mybug mistook her lack of enthusiasm and thought it was due to inhibitions. He remarked how curious it was that most Englishwomen (most young Englishwomen, that was, Englishwomen of about nineteen to twenty-four) were inhibited. Cold, that was what young Englishwomen from nineteen to twenty-four were.

I love the way this passage points up the confusion, in some peoples' minds, between lack of interest because they are being complete self-involved bores, and lack of interest due to frigidity. Also, it's hilarious how his personal knowledge of sexual inhibition is limited to women between nineteen and twenty-four. Interesting how it pans out that way. But at the same time, the scene also parodies Flora's compulsion to continue walking with him for fear of rudeness, and the whole society's ridiculousness for being so predictable. This passage, for example, comes from Flora's first meeting with Mybug, and all of the assumptions she makes here prove perfectly correct (he has just asked if she cares for walking):

Now Flora was in a dreadful fix...For if she said that she adored walking, Mr. Mybug would drag her for miles in the rain while he talked about sex, and if she said that she liked it only in moderation, he would make her sit on wet stiles, while he tried to kiss her. If, again, she parried his question and said that she loathed walking, he would either suspect that she suspected that he wanted to kiss her, or else he would make her sit in some dire tea-room, while he talked more about sex and asked her what she felt about it.

I kind of imagine this is how it must have been to hang out with D.H. Lawrence.

Yet even Mr. Mybug turns out to be a decent sort at heart, and one feels more amused than frustrated with him. He, and all the other Cold Comfort characters, have become dear to my heart in the course of reading this slim volume, and I think that experience is at the core of all the pro-Gibbons evangelism. Her sense of humor may be a bit precious for some, but if the idea of one of the hardier young Wodehouse ladies (say, Pauline Stoker or Stiffy Byng) plopped down in the midst of an overwrought Victorian gothic/pastoral à la Thomas Hardy tickles your funnybone, then you, my friend, are in for a treat. Pick a copy up at your earliest convenience. If, you know, you feel like it.

(Cold Comfort Farm was my fourth book for the What's in a Name Challenge.)

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher

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In true country-house-mystery fashion, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher narrates the events surrounding a murder: the stabbing, throat-slitting, and possible suffocation of young Saville Kent, the four-year-old son of a middle-class family, one June night in 1860. True to form, the list of suspects narrows to the inhabitants of the house, all of whom have secrets to conceal, and, equally true to form, the savvy Scotland Yard detective is called to the scene after the local police make a muddle of things. Apart from being factual rather than fictional, there's not much about the Kent case that doesn't conform to the standard British whodunit formula...and that's just the point.

In fact, author Kate Summerscale argues that the Kent murder, and the media circus it inspired, were influential in the development of the murder mystery genre as we know it. Although the slaying followed Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue by several years, detective fiction was in its infancy when a member (or two?) of the Kent household slit little Saville's throat and stuffed his body down the privy. Summerscale points convincingly to a legacy of influence on books that came out during and after the investigation. She also traces the ways in which the "detective fever" surrounding the case, when every schoolmaster and greengrocer sent letters to Scotland Yard claiming to have solved the mystery, was capitalized on and extended by the avalanche of sensation novels of the 1860's and 70's. As a lover of Victorian literature, I found it fascinating to read about the fluctuations in public opinion surrounding detectives, detection, and the solving of murders, and how the familiar whodunit came into being.

Summerscale consistently takes Mr. Whicher beyond the bare-bones events of the days and months following the murder. The parts of the book in which she dissects the public reactions to the crime, and analyzes the social assumptions behind those reactions, were to me the most intriguing. Perhaps most notably she discusses how, by the mid-19th century, the sanctity and privacy of the middle-class home, the everyman's castle and sphere of the Angel in the House, had become a sacred by-word throughout England:

'Every Englishman...imagines a "home", with the woman of his choice, the pair of them alone with their children,' wrote the French scholar Hippolyte Taine after a visit to England in 1858. 'That is his own little universe, closed to the world.' Privacy had become the essential attribute of the middle-class Victorian family, and the bourgeoisie acquired an expertise in secrecy (the word 'secretive' was first recorded in 1853). They walled themselves in against strangers, the interiors of their homes almost invisible, except when opened by invitation to selected visitors for a staged show of family life - a dinner party, for instance, or a tea."

Understandably, then, "the horror of this case," for the general populace, "was that the corruption lay inside the 'domestic sanctum,' that the bolts, locks and fastenings of the house were hopelessly redundant." For many middle-class Brits, the facts of the Kent murder seemed to threaten an entire way of life. What if, instead of keeping their families safe, those high walls and cloistered drawing rooms were putting everyone in danger? What was it about the Kent family that led to such disaster? Many felt that, until the case was solved, there was no way of knowing that their own families wouldn't be next.

At the same time, the popular mania for privacy meant that people resented the need for an official intrusion across the sanctum's threshold. The police force, after all, was only thirty years old at the time: the people of England, wary of surveillance, had only allowed an official body of patrolmen since 1829, and the detective force was only established in 1842. People were still getting used to the idea of patrolling bobbies, let alone plain-clothes "spies" who insinuated themselves into every nook and cranny of a person's home. Detectives, as one period writer puts it, are "stained with vile associations, and unfit company for honest gentlemen." Not only are they drawn the lower classes, but their sneaking, near-villainous work makes them even more undesirable. So at the same time that newspaper articles were demanding that the Kent murderer be found, they also displayed a vicarious resentment on the Kent family's behalf at having to open the secrets of their family life to an outsider.

There are other points in Mr. Whicher when one set of social assumptions does battle with another. When, for example, Whicher arrests Constance, the sixteen-year-old daughter of the Kent family, the public is outraged that a man from the lower classes would be so brazen as to accuse a respectable middle-class girl, especially when the nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, makes a much handier scapegoat. Indeed, certain periodicals go so far as to suggest that Whicher's crime against Constance is worse than the murder itself:

If Mr. Whicher's opinion was wrong, then beyond all question a crime infinitely exceeding in enormity the murder of Francies Saville Kent has been committed, from which, Constance, poor girl, will suffer till her dying day.

The idea that the very accusation of a potentially innocent girl "infinitely exceed[s] in enormity" the carving-up of a four-year-old child, and that she will suffer for it "until her dying day" is astounding, and revealing. The British public was accustomed to view crime as a character flaw of the poverty-stricken masses, not as something likely to be perpetrated by a virginal middle-class daughter. And the outrage at the very suggestion that Constance might be guilty makes a person wonder whether the writers of these articles would prefer, even if she had committed the crime, that lower-class folks like Jack Whicher refrain from nosing about the dirty laundry of the middle class.

Whicher's own assumptions, though, seem equally backward to a modern reader: he hears rumors that Constance's mother had gone insane while pregnant with her, and since madness was thought to pass almost infallibly from mother to daughter, Constance herself comes under suspicion. (Thomas Cooley suggests in his Ivory Leg in the Ebony Cabinet that simply being female in the absence of a strong male presence, as Constance would have been at her boarding school, was tantamount to insanity to the thinking of the period.) Neither set of underlying assumptions here - the classist scapegoating of a servant over a lady, or the sexist leap to female madness - are exactly admirable by modern standards, which makes for interesting reading when they go head-to-head.

I've seen some critiques of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher for spending too much time on cultural and literary concerns peripheral to the nitty-gritty details of the actual crime, but to me, those same explorations were exactly what made the book fascinating. I might not recommend it to someone looking for a straight true-crime treatment, but for those interested in Victorian social or literary history, it's a quick, solid read that brings up a number of larger points while maintaining a lively narration of the Kent murder itself.

(The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher was my fourth book for the Dewey Decimal Challenge.)



I am strangely and strongly drawn to stories of quarantine. Any novel involving a small group of people forcibly detained in each others' company due to mysterious or shocking circumstances unfailingly engages my interest. From Albert Camus' The Plague to Agatha Christie's Poirot mysteries to William Sleator's House of Stairs, something in me can't resist examinations of what happens to a small group of people when they are sealed away from the rest of society, left alone to establish their own order and parse the mysteries of their segregation. Needless to say, therefore, I was drawn to the premise of José Saramago's Blindness: an inexplicable epidemic of highly contagious blindness sweeps over a modern European city, and the authorities quarantine the newly blind in a decommissioned mental hospital. The blind are left to more or less fend for themselves, and their descent into degradation is witnessed and ameliorated by the one person who inexplicably keeps her eyesight: an intrepid woman known only as "the doctor's wife." Meanwhile, as the internees struggle to hold onto their humanity under adverse conditions, the entire city around them is also going blind, and the central band of characters must eventually confront the deepening chaos outside the asylum's walls.

Blindess turns out to be one of the more masterful, and definitely one of the most disturbing, portraits of quarantine I've read. In the tradition of Lord of the Flies, its vision of humans in a state of nature shows them - some of them, at least - devolving into cruel and tyrannical beasts, exercising brute strength to exploit those around them. It also, though, explores the complex struggle to maintain and simultaneously revise one's moral code in the face of inexplicable catastrophe. Interestingly, it may be the single sighted character who most alters her ideas of morality, recognizing that after what she has witnessed, the old rules no longer apply. I admired Saramago's subtlety on this front: recognizing that the rules have changed did not mean, for the central characters, abandoning all morality, sense of obligation, or definition of right and wrong. Rather, it was an acknowledgement that such a cataclysmic change as sudden blindness changes the person, and even more the society, to which it happens. Even the clichéd proverbs in the characters' mouths morph throughout the novel to reflect their new condition, and their thought processes even more so. At one point, another main character asks the doctor's wife if she loves her husband:

Do you love your husband, Yes, as I love myself, but should I turn blind, if after turning blind I should no longer be the person I was, how would I then be able to go on loving him, and with what love, Before, when we could still see, there were also blind people, Few in comparison, the feelings in use were those of someone who could see, therefore blind people felt with the feelings of others, not as the blind people they were, now, certainly, what is emerging are the real feelings of the blind, and we're still only at the beginning, for the moment we still live on the memory of what we felt...

This passage gives a sense of Saramago's quirky narration style, which took a bit of getting used to, but in the end I found quite effective at communicating the suddenly-blurred boundaries that characterize the lives of the newly-blind. It also showcases the novel's preoccupation with "the person [one] was" versus the person one has become, and the process whereby the transformation occurs. One of the things I liked about Blindness was the way in which the epidemic mutated, but did not erase, the personalities and values that existed in the sighted world.

One thing potential readers should know is that Blindness deals explicitly and lengthily with brutal rape. I'm pretty skeptical of the contemporary penchant for including rape scenes in fiction where they seem unnecessary or - god forbid - masturbatory, as many do, so I was on the alert during this darkest, middle section of Blindness. I have to say, though, the rape scenes here needed to exist. They are the logical conclusion of the blind bullies' descent into brutality, and Saramago gives us enough of a moment-by-moment account that we truly understand the terror and anguish they perpetrate. In their inhumanity, they are oblivious to the humanity of others, which is just one of the levels on which the "blindness" allegory functions in the novel. So too, witnessing and being subjected to the rapes is a turning-point for the main character; it forms the final breaking-point for her between the old rules and the new. Afterwards, her outlook has shifted, and she is capable of doing what she must do to survive, and to help those around her do the same. The scenes, therefore, performed several symbolic and plot-furthering purposes, and I finished the book feeling that they were integral to Saramago's larger vision. Nonetheless, those with their own sexual trauma might want to approach the novel with caution.

Several sound-byte reviews claim this novel as an allegory of "the events of the century"; I assume they are referring primarily to the Holocaust and the AIDS epidemic. And it is certainly relevant to both of those catastrophes, or to any set of events, this century or earlier, in which a sudden sickness or disaster has swept over and radically changed a society. But it's also enjoyable as a story in its own right, or as a parable of our everyday condition. In the middle of the novel one of the main characters, an old man with an eyepatch (half-blind, therefore, even before the epidemic's onset) encourages a group of inmates to share the circumstances under which they went blind. There is an intriguing hint that the state of blindness - or obliviousness - is caused by the thought or fear of blindness, as in the cases of the pharmacist's assistant, who goes blind upon hearing of the epidemic and fearing for himself, the museum patron whose last vision is of a painting of a horse with bulging, fearful eyes, the car thief who rightly imagines that his victim's blindness will infect him, and the old man himself, who goes blind in the act of lifting up his eye patch to look at his missing eye. Such a causality is appealing: all we have to fear, as the man said, is fear itself, and so on. By obsessing on ourselves and our own vision, we become blind. Yet there are enough counter-examples to throw this theory into doubt: the girl who went blind at the moment of orgasm, thinking of nothing but her own pleasure; the woman who goes blind while pressing the button of an elevator; and, of course, the first victim of the epidemic, who goes blind while stopped at a traffic light and would have had no reason to be thinking about sight or blindness at the time. Here we have the human search for causality, juxtaposed with the ever-present possibility that all these events are random, impersonal. Then there is the even more disturbing idea that, as the doctor's wife theorizes at the end of the novel, this social blindness has been an integral part of the human condition all along:

Do you want me to tell you what I think, Yes, do, I don't think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.

(Blindness was my first novel for the main Orbis Terrarum Challenge.)

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography