July 2010 Archives

A Personal Matter


WARNING: May contain triggers for those who have experienced rape.

I've written before about how novellas sometimes sneak up on me, taking a while to build up and becoming truly engaging just as they're about to end. I suppose that one sure-fire way to avoid this syndrome is to start your novella like Kenzaburo Oe's A Personal Matter: full-throttle intensity from the first page, when the atmosphere of subtly grotesque alienation is already fully developed, and the reader seems to be thrust down into the midst of an interpersonal wound of a situation—one that that has obviously been festering for some time. Long before the protagonist Bird hears the news, on page 15, that there is something abnormal about the baby his wife has been laboring for hours to deliver, it's already plain that he perceives the world around him in a skewed and deeply estranged way. The most ordinary details around him, such as the "small and soiled" hands of a cashier, "the meagerness of her fingers recall[ing] chameleon legs clinging to a shrub," or the "mean sky that seemed ashamed, roughly violated by clouds like galloping shaggy dogs," suggest a grotesqueness, a fun-house quality that constantly prevents Bird from getting his bearings or even keeping his balance. His dreams are vivid and disturbing, and his life has the quality of a dream as well: seemingly stalled at an emotional age of about fourteen, he has somehow ended up married to a woman he seems hardly to know and to whom he feels little connection, with a job he dreams of chucking and fleeing to Africa, and he wakes up one morning after a fistfight with a gang of street toughs to discover that he is the father of baby with a severely malformed brain.

A Personal Matter is the story of a man's coming to terms with his deformed baby, but writing out the plot like that suggests a very different book than the one Oe has actually written. For one thing, it implies that Bird is a sympathetic character: who could withhold sympathy from a man who has just suffered such a horrendous blow? But in fact Oe's protagonist is deeply unsympathetic—a result, of course, of his own inability to feel love, connection, or sympathy with anyone around him. A more alienated (in the sociological sense) character I've seldom read: not only does Bird seem to lack any loyalty to or love for his wife, son, and family, but he has fantasies about extremely violent and taboo actions (like killing his mistress and raping her dead body, for example, not to mention the central conflict of the book: whether he will kill what he considers his "monster baby" or raise it as a son). Unsurprisingly, he also has the classic feeling of enacting a role, that all actions left to him are empty performances and that no mode of behavior has any "reality":

Bird turned around, as if to make certain of an escape route: paused along the dim corridor, young women in their nightgowns were peering at him through the dimness. Bird considered scowling back but he merely shook his head weakly and turned his back, then gave a timid knock at the door. He was performing the role of the young husband who has been visited by sudden misfortune.

But it's not just Bird. The whole society in which he lives is similarly alienated. His mother-in-law actively encourages Bird to lie to his wife (her daughter) about what's wrong with the baby, and to encourage it to weaken and die, because otherwise (as she says), her "little girl will never agree to have another child." Honesty and the mental health of the wife/daughter/mother take second place to the vague cultural mandate that a woman should produce multiple babies; the behavior I expect from a woman's own mother is turned on its head. Similarly, in one of the most grotesque scenes in the novella, the doctor at the hospital where Bird's baby is born refuses even to refer to him as an infant, instead scoffing when Bird announces that he is "the father," asking whether Bird wants to "see the goods" (meaning his son), and giggling as he informs the Bird that his son appears to have two heads. At every possible turn, the people in the society depicted desert, betray, and fail to connect with one another; and while this doesn't make Bird's behavior likable, it at least provides a context in which to place him. As much as I might be repulsed by Bird at times, it is hard to come up with a more logical or compassionate mode of behavior, when everyone around him is also so alienated and even vindictive.

Oe does a good job of keeping the onus of Bird's complexes and dubious behaviors on his own shoulders, while at the same time examining the external factors at play. It becomes plain, about halfway through the novella, that one of the main sources of this society-wide disorientation is the outcome of World War II and the role of the nuclear bomb in ending it. Set in 1961, and involving Kruschev's announcement of the Soviet resumption of nuclear testing which eventually led to the Cuban Missile Crisis, A Personal Matter is also dealing with an overtly political matter: the devastating consequences of 200,000 dead and a traditional way of life shattered, with no viable alternative yet developed. Bird and those around him continue to act their parts, perform their roles as more or less traditional members of society (marrying, having children) despite the fact that those roles have lost their power to provide meaningful self-definition for those who practice them. The people of Bird's generation have been defined by a huge event which they nevertheless were too young to actively affect or understand:

If he had ever been to war, Bird thought often, he would have been able to say definitely whether he was a brave type. This had occurred to him before fights and before his entrance examinations, even before his marriage. And always he had regretted not having a definite answer. Even his longing to test himself in the wilds of Africa which opposed the ordinary was excited by his feeling that he might discover in the process his own private war.

Bird is defined by war, but has never been to war; he has never grown up, but is somehow a father in his late 20s. As much as I was sometimes very put off by the violence and alienation of Bird's consciousness, I think I understood the root and necessity of them by the end of the novella. It was harder work to like this book than Oe's 1990 novel A Quiet Life (the only other book by him I've read), and definitely harder to like its protagonist, but in the end I found it at least equally powerful.

And speaking of A Quiet Life, the contrast between the two books was fascinating. One could argue that both novels are thinly-veiled autobiography, but the events of A Personal Matter take place thirty years earlier, and whereas the earlier work is told from a limited third-person perspective focused on the young Bird, the later one (narrated in first-person by the Bird-like character's daughter) presents him character at a vast remove, a delicate yet enigmatic father-figure whose for whose periodic breakdowns every character has a different explanation. The atmospheres of the two books, though similar in their masterful craftsmanship, are likewise radically different, for while Ma-Chan lives in a more or less benign environment (bad things happen, but her existence is more or less quiet and thoughtful), Bird's world is so fraught with menace that he can barely step outside without being threatened by something or someone. In A Quiet Life, the wild lack of any foothold has been replaced with a semi-distant but nonetheless caring, engaged family life, and the mystery behind Ma-chan's father's persistent melancholia is a somewhat intellectual one. On the contrary, Bird can hardly get his breath in his surroundings, let alone think calmly or selflessly enough to engage in a passionate conversation about Vonnegut or Céline. Although I was initially wary when I heard that Oe returns again and again, in his novels, to the theme of his brain-damaged son, I'm now very intrigued and eager to read more of his novels, to explore the different angles from which he approaches his repeated subject.


A Personal Matter was the July pick for the Non-Structured Book Group; join us in August for In the American Grain, by William Carlos Williams.

The Pursuit of Love + Love in a Cold Climate


"Well, you know, they did," says boorish peer Lady Montdore, when another character surmises that the Indian "Rajahs" must have worshiped her and Lord Montdore during the English couples' sojourn on the subcontinent,

"Well, you know, they did...They really worshipped us. It was quite touching. And, of course, we deserved it. We did a very great deal for them. I think I may say we put India on the map. Hardly any of one's friends in England had ever even heard of India before we went there, you know."

And so go Nancy Mitford's wry yet sparkling satires The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate: always affectionate, always amused fun-poking at the ridiculous self-importance and insularity of moneyed upper classes in Britain between the Wars. I've been using this lovely pink omnibus edition as a kind of amuse-bouche between the disfigured babies, socialist screeds, and delicate alienation of my other reading choices, and I must say it fulfills that function admirably. Lovers of Wodehouse, or Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm, will feel quite at home with the mix of lightly barbed observation, one-liners and situational humor that builds on itself until the reader is chuckling aloud. The characters, including narrator Fanny Wincham and her vast brood of Radlett cousins, their vague matriarch Sadie ("I shouldn't care for one of my girls to look like that," Aunt Sadie said, "You'd think she had something on her mind") and bombastic patriarch Matthew, who hunts his children with hounds, might seem outlandish were they not all very lightly fictionalized portraits of the members of Mitford's own family. The cousins are the particular life of the books, wild, uneducated girls bursting with energy and oddly-expressed creativity:

There was always some joke being run to death at Alconleigh, and just now it was headlines from the Daily Express which the children had made into a chant and intoned to each other all day.
     Jassy: "Man's long agony in a lift-shaft."
     Victoria: "Slowly crushed to death in a lift."
     Aunt Sadie became very cross about this, said they were really too old to be so heartless, that it wasn't a bit funny, only dull and disgusting and absolutely forbade them to sing it any more. After this they tapped it out to each other, on doors, under the dining-room table, clicking their tongues or blinking with their eyelids, and all the time in fits of naughty giggles.

Needless to say, "Man's long agony in a lift-shaft" follows us around for the rest of the novel; Mitford is skilled at building up her comic elements and bringing them back into the narrative at just the right moment so that the reader feels enveloped in the loud, boisterous, inside-joking Radlett clan just like Fanny does. While the purported "plots" of these novels involve the happy and unhappy love-affairs of two different members of the Radlett circle, it's really the portraits of family, neighbors, and country-house life that are their chief joy; as Fanny says at one point about her cousins, she is thankful to be different from them, but they make her laugh so much and she loves them so much that she can't wish them much different. The same holds true, I think, for most of the characters depicted, and it makes Mitford's satire a relatively affectionate, gentle affair, much more so than that of, for example, Jane Austen, who often seems actually to hate certain of her characters. In Mitford, on the other hand, everyone is ridiculous but nobody is despicable. On Fanny's hypochondriac uncle Davey:

I hope I am not giving the impression that Davey's whole life was centred around his health. He was fully occupied with his work, writing, and editing a literary review, but his health was his hobby, and, as such, more in evidence during his spare time, when I saw most of him. How he enjoyed it! He seemed to regard his body with the affectionate preoccupation of a farmer towards a pig—not a good doer, the small one of the litter, which must somehow be made to be a credit to the farm. He weighed it, sunned it, aired it, exercised it, and gave it special diets, new kinds of patent food and medicine, but all in vain. It never put on so much as a single ounce of weight, it never became a credit to the farm, but somehow it lived, enjoyed good things, enjoying its life, though falling victim to the ills that flesh is heir to, and other imaginary ills as well, through which it was nursed with unfailing care, with concentrated attention, by the good farmer and his wife.

So the books sparkle and bubble along, it's true. They are delightful pieces of fluff. And yet, there is also the surprising fact of some of their subject matter: for the latter half of The Pursuit of Love centers around the Nazi invasion of France and bombing of England, and Love in a Cold Climate takes an oddly complaisant view toward borderline pedophilia, and between the two books, three characters do die either while very young or in the prime of their lives—important characters, ones who, in a normal comedy, would feature in weddings toward the end. In The Pursuit of Love, Mitford jokes that English politics in the 1920s were quite dull "before Hitler came along to liven them up." In short, as amazing as it is that a book like Irene Némirovsky's Suite Française, a serious, poetic novel about the war, could have been written contemporaneously with the events depicted, it strikes me as even stranger that a novel like The Pursuit of Love should sport a 1945 publication date. One would think that a light, satirical tone would be the last thing people would tend towards when thinking about the wartime trauma they had just been through.

One might assume, from her glibness, that Nancy MItford's life was not personally affected by the events she describes, but nothing could be further from the truth: a moderate socialist herself, her sister Jessica was a staunch Communist and two of her other sisters, Diana and Unity, were termed "more Nazi than the Nazis." Diana was married in the home of Goebbels, with Hitler in attendance, and Unity may have been Hitler's mistress; she was certainly in his inner circle. When Hitler announced plans to invade Britain, Unity shot herself in the head, later returning to England via Switzerland in order to recover. Meanwhile, Mitford's parents drew apart over the politics of the war, leading to an eventual separation. Given this personal history I am even more taken aback by Mitford's ability to treat the war as a backdrop for an amusing series of character portraits. I can only imagine it was, to some degree, a survival strategy: Mitford's Wikipedia page claims that she "somehow kept on good terms most of the time with her sisters, despite the extreme political views of Diana, Jessica and Unity, mainly by deploying her acerbic wit," which casts an illuminating light on the way in which Nancy chose to transfer her sisters into novelistic form.

All in all, I chuckled and snickered my way through these books, and highly recommend them for a light reading break. I'll leave you with another short taste of Mitford's prose:

"She's a tactless person, but she is perfectly right you know. Polly needs a life of her own, babies, occupations and interests—an establishment, in fact—and for all that she must have a husband."
     "Or a lady of Llangollen," said Victoria.
     "Time you went to bed, miss, now off you go, both of you."
     "Not me, it's not nearly my bedtime yet."
     "I said both of you, now begone."
     They dragged themselves out of the room as slowly as they dared and went upstairs, stamping out "Man's long agony" on the bare boards of the nursery passage so that nobody in the whole house could fail to hear them.
     "Those children read too much," said Aunt Sadie. "But I can't stop them. I honestly believe they'd rather read the label on a medicine bottle than nothing at all."
     "Oh, but I love reading the labels on medicine bottles," said Davey. "They're madly enjoyable, you know."



I just realized that I've never blogged about one of my primary, ongoing bookish love affairs: that with the Eyewitness series of travel books. Their motto is "The Guides That Show You What Others Only Tell You," and boy do they ever: lavish, full-page color cross-sections of architecture, lovely photography and illustrated region-by-region and street-by-street maps of the areas under discussion. As you can see, I've amassed a small hoard over the years. Have I been to all these places, or even had a concrete plan to visit them? No indeed. I am guilty of buying them up and flipping through them by the idle hour, building dream adventures around the beautiful things depicted in their heavy, glossy pages. Road trips around Lake Louise and train journeys through Rajasthan have unrolled in my head. I've developed, as you can tell, a bit of an addiction to brightly-colored page markers, because heaven knows I wouldn't want to lose track of any of my precious discoveries.

But lately I've been gravitating toward one of these beauties in particular, because David and I actually ARE saving our pennies for a very exciting trip—one that I've been dreaming about since I can remember, whose Eyewitness volume I've owned since well before the advent of the Euro, meaning that I'm enjoying many an outdated description of how many francs a certain export represents, or how, unfortunately, a given museum will be closed for renovation until 2003. Luckily, the bulk of practical trip planning can be done online these days, and the important things? Haven't changed much in the past decade.


Or, in some cases, the past several centuries.

Three weeks in France! I'm so excited. Given that I've studied the language and literature for years, and have passed as close as Figueres on the Catalan side and Basel on the Swiss, it just seems wrong that I've never actually visited the country. We're hoping to go in late May/early June of next year, to celebrate my 30th birthday.

I thought it would be fitting to post about this for the first time during Paris in July, since I actually have been spending much of July reading up on Paris, as well as Normandy, the Loire Valley, Bordeaux, and Gascony. I just love trip planning. Did you you know that it's still possible to stay at the Grand Hotel where young Marcel Proust and his grand-mère holidayed by the seaside, in the town later to be immortalized as Balbec?

What other bookish wonders should we be sure to visit? What should I put on my list of must-purchase French-language books? We are also big fans of wine, textiles, and weird museums. (One of the highlights of our trip to Switzerland, for example, was this collection of 18th-century taxidermied frogs posed in tableaux of village life.) Any suggestions? Do tell!

Ladies and Not-So-Gentle Women


Despite the fact that I have no particular interest in the subject, circumstances have conspired so that I am approaching a specialist's knowledge of upper-class turn-of-the-century New York City Society. Here's what happened: back in 2007, I was planning a biography-reading project. I wanted to read biographies, autobiographies, fiction that plays with the form of auto/biography, and "non-traditional biographies," whatever that might mean. I was drawn to Alfred Allen Lewis's Ladies and Not-So-Gentle Women: Elisabeth Marbury, Anne Morgan, Elsie de Wolfe, Anne Vanderbilt, and Their Times, despite its ludicrously long title, because I was intrigued by the idea of writing a "life story" of a small group of people rather than just one. I'd read Gillian Gill's book on the Nightingale family, but Marbury, Morgan, de Wolfe and Vanderbilt were not related by blood: their paths intersected in more unpredictable ways, and I liked the notion of tracing those connections through time. Shortly thereafter I discovered that my favorite biographer, Hermione Lee, was coming out with a biography of Edith Wharton, who moved in roughly the same "Old New York" circles as the four women in Lewis's book. I would read a book about sewage treatment if Lee wrote one, so into the pile it went. Lastly I received an early-review copy of Laura Claridge's biography of Emily Post, not realizing that Post, too, was part of the insular upper-class New York life at the turn of the 20th century.


Having read and reviewed the Lee and Claridge books already, and having finally moved on to the Lewis, I now have far more knowledge than I ever wanted or expected about Alva Vanderbilt's machinations to force her daughter Consuelo into matrimony; about the deadly Ward McAllister and his relationship with Caroline Astor's ballroom; about the scandalous murder of architect Stanford White and the reactions of the genteel ladies at the Colony Club; about the Jones matriarchs with whom we've all been "keeping up" ever since.

Not that Marbury's, de Wolfe's, Morgan's and Vanderbilt's stories are limited to society soirees—not at all. All four women lived remarkable lives, both public and private. Bessy Marbury was a self-made woman and the first modern play agent, representing French, British, and American playwrights and selling their work to producers on an advance plus continuing royalties (previous to this, most French and British playwrights were offered a lump sum for the American production rights, which often meant far less money for them in the long run). She made a fortune, creating a career out of thin air and representing such diverse luminaries as George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, PG Wodehouse and Jerome Kern; she also gave Cole Porter his start, and was instrumental in inventing the modern American musical comedy. Later in life she became heavily involved with New York's Democratic Party, becoming frenemies with Eleanor Roosevelt and helping to elect FDR. Elsie de Wolfe, whose first career as a Broadway actress was only moderately successful, achieved renown as one of the first female interior decorators, reinventing the field and opening it to women while apparently letting her taste define a generation of New York and Paris interiors and stage sets. Anne Morgan, who declared to her father Pierpont while still a tiny child that she wanted to be "something more than a rich fool, anyway," was a tireless relief worker for New York workingwomen and the French civilian casualties of both World Wars, and Anne Vanderbilt was a leader in such diverse movements as helping to criminalize heroin, war relief, and establishing resources for the newly-emerging female professional class in New York City.

In addition to the interest of their careers, the personal lives of all four women make an interesting study. Marbury and de Wolfe remained unmarried and lived together for years; they seem to have had a semi-romantic, but probably not sexual, relationship, which was certainly long-lived, deep, and affectionate. Lewis points out that the turn of the 20th century through the decades that followed was a particularly interesting period for two women to set up housekeeping together: when Bessy and Elsie first moved in together, in the nineteenth century, the so-called "Boston marriage" was a relatively established tradition. Lesbianism was not assumed in such cases, although some of them undoubtedly included sexual relationships between women; primarily, it was a choice that prioritized female friendship and female agency over marriage and children, and was a solution to the economic difficulty of living alone. On the other hand, there were hardly any women living openly as lesbians in the 1890s (the era of Wilde's disastrous trial)—female sexuality, in fact, was so overlooked and repressed at the time that to many people, the possibility of a sexual relationship involving no male would never even occur. By the end of their lives, however, the landscape had shifted radically: lesbianism was a known, if not accepted, phenomenon, and two emotionally close, unmarried women living together in the 1920s were assumed to be lesbians. The whole idea of homosexuality as an identity (rather than a behavior) gained currency during this 30- or 40-year period. Lewis does a good job of tracing the rapid cultural evolution of thought around lesbianism and close female friendship over the course of these decades. The events of the four women's lives provide a handy framework: by the time Anne Morgan and Bessy Marbury became involved, lesbianism had arrived on the cultural radar, and by the 1930s, when Anne Morgan and Anne Vanderbilt formed a late-life connection, it was frankly acknowledged as a love affair. (The frankness, one imagines, allowed largely by the fact that these two women were among the wealthiest heiresses in the world.)

Leaving the sexuality angle aside, Lewis also has interesting things to say about the role of class in the evolution of the American feminist movement from the 1890s through the 1940s. The Annes—Morgan and Vanderbilt—were both supporters of suffrage and other feminist causes, setting up, for example, an extensive club-cum-apartment-complex in which the emerging professional class of women could live, socialize, network, and advance their careers. They also both served on the board of Margaret Sanger's first birth-control-promotion organizations (the precursors to Planned Parenthood). But the Annes were also exactly the kind of upper- and middle-class do-gooders whose efforts working-class activists like Mother Jones often dismissed out of hand, and one can understand why. The projects they chose focused on increasing the freedoms of middle-class women—women who were already employed, who were looking to break out of "traditional" roles and advance their careers; women with the leisure to take an interest in national politics; women who wanted to plan their families and make a conscious decision to have fewer or no children. For those who struggled on a daily basis just to get by, the Annes and their organizations did little (with the obvious exception of French women displaced by the World Wars). When Margaret Sanger and Anne Morgan saw a family living in poverty with ten children, they thought "If only poor women could control their own fertility, they could get out in the workforce and pull themselves out of the slums." Mother Jones saw the same family and thought, "If only the capitalist system paid working men a living wage, mothers wouldn't need to work and the parents could support however many children they had." Both attitudes have their strengths and glaring weaknesses, but communication between the two tended to be poor. This split between working-class and middle/upper-class values is an issue that still plagues feminism, and it was interesting to be reminded how far back its roots extend.

With so much of interest on offer, I'm glad I made it through Lewis's book, but I must say that it would have been infinitely better had it been a hundred pages shorter. Lewis's project of tracing the interwoven lives of four women leads to MANY bit-characters and connections to keep track of, which is made even more confusing by his inclusion of a huge number of gossipy asides that have only the most tangential bearing on any of his four subjects. Why are we treated to a summary of young Edith Jones's (soon-to-become Wharton's) doomed love affair with Harry Stevens? Why do we need to know about the trajectory of the wild parties given by Cole Porter on the Italian Riviera, or the bold theatrical experiments of Mae West's transvestites in The Drag? Not that these stories aren't interesting: I fully intend to read a stand-alone biography of West before long, and I have already read an epic one on Wharton. It's just that, with four main subjects instead of one, Lewis's narrative needed to contract and clarify, rather than expanding to include every anecdote that could possibly be tied to the lives of his four subjects. At times, the unstoppable cascade of names and places, familial relationships and drawing-room banter, became overwhelming, boring, or both, and I put the book aside. I did continue picking it up again for the insights into the evolution of cultural values, but I couldn't help wishing Lewis had been blessed with a more decisive editor. Nevertheless, I'm glad to have read this one, as the context it provided will probably add depth to my reading of period novels as well as other nonfiction, and its four main subjects, while interesting on their own, were even more so in terms of their relationships.


I'm counting Ladies and Not-So-Gentle Women toward a slew of different challenges: it's my fifth book for my personal TBR Challenge, and my third book for both the GLBT Challenge and the Women Unbound Challenge. Whew!

The Big Money


Do you ever start a series, and you're really digging it and read the first few books right in a row, and then decide you don't feel like reading the last book right at the moment, so you take a bit of a break, sure that you'll be back to finish up the series before any time at all because you like it so well, but then one thing leads to another and years have gone by since you devoured the first few books, and the details are no longer clear in your mind, so you put off reading the last book because you have a vague idea you might start the series again from the beginning to remind yourself of all the things you've undoubtedly forgotten in the meantime, but with all the tempting unread books on your list you never feel like making quite that large of a re-reading commitment, so the final book just sits on your shelves for years and years and possibly decades, caught in a kind of limbo, even though you're pretty much guaranteed to enjoy it if you'd just pick it up? Well, that's what happened to me with John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy.

For those who aren't familiar with this trilogy, its novelty is in its form. Dos Passos, an American Modernist and contemporary of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein and the rest of that expat cadre, has assembled something less like a novel and more like a collaged portrait of the United States during three consecutive periods of history: The 42nd Parallel deals with the early years of the 20th century; 1919 is concerned with the American experience of World War I; and The Big Money, the long-awaited (to me) capstone of the trilogy, is concerned with the boom years following the War, during which America was hurtling unknowingly toward the Great Depression. (All three were written during the Great Depression, fro 1930 to 1936, so the shadow of coming events looms large over them, especially the last one.)

The novels in the series share a common structure: they are composed of four different types of sections, which alternate unpredictably with one another like an improvisational jazz piece. The "Newsreel" sections are themselves collages, juxtapositions of newspaper headlines, contemporary speeches, and fragments of popular songs of the time. Dos Passos is excellent, I think, at giving a sense of the sweeping progress of history as found in the minutiae of the popular media, and also a sense of its myopia and the self-serving language of politics, advertising, and the press. Forgive the lengthy block quote, but I think the easiest way to explain the Newsreels is just to show you how they work:

'Twarn't for powder and for storebought hair
De man I love would not gone nowhere

     if one should seek a simple explanation of his career it would doubtless be found in that extraordinary decision to forsake the ease of a clerkship for the wearying labor of a section hand. The youth who so early in life had so much of judgment and willpower could not fail to rise above the general run of men. He became the intimate of bankers

St. Louis woman wid her diamon' rings
Pulls dat man aroun' by her apron strings

     Tired of walking, riding a bicycle or riding in streetcars, he is likely to buy a Ford.


     Just as soon as his wife discovers that every Ford is like every other Ford and that nearly everyone has one, she is likely to influence him to step into the next social group, of which the Dodge is the most conspicuous example.

desperate revolver battle follows

     The next step comes when daughter comes back from college and the family moves into a new home. Father wants economy. Mother craves opportunity for her children, daughter desires social prestige and son wants travel, speed, get-up-and-go.


I hate to see de evenin sun go down
     Hate to see de evenin sun go down
          Cause my baby he done lef' dis town

Juxtaposed with the Newsreels are sections of plain, accessible prose that tell the stories of fictional characters—the most traditional, novel-like elements of the book. These chapters are named for their main characters: "Charley Anderson," "Mary French." More on these later, but they probably make up between two-thirds and three-quarters of the text.

In amongst the Newsreels and story elements, there are also "Camera Eye" sections, in which Dos Passos relates his own experience in stream-of-consciousness prose. This is his attempt to expose the ostensibly "godlike" authorial voice for what it was: just another human living his life. And finally, in addition to the Camera Eye sections, there are also poems scattered through the books which tell the stories of famous real-life people of the era: Henry Ford, Rudolph Valentino, William Randolph Hearst, Thorstein Veblen. These are truthfully my favorite parts of Dos Passos's trilogy; his poem on Eugene Debs in The 42nd Parallel convinced me I'd found a new favorite writer. I think what I love about them is Dos Passos's mixture of resignation, sadness and anger at how, time and time again, complex and contradictory humans let their vices and petty prejudices mar their own endeavors. From "TIN LIZZIE," the poem on Henry Ford:

       One thing he brought back from his trip
       was the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
       He started a campaign to enlighten the world in the Dearborn Independent; the Jews were why the world wasn't like Wayne County, Michigan, in the old horse and buggy days;
       the Jews had started the war, Bolshevism, Darwinism, Marxism, Nietzsche, short skirts and lipstick. They were behind Wall Street and the international bankers, and the whiteslave traffic and the movies and the Supreme Court and ragtime and the illegal liquor business.
       Henry Ford denounced the Jews and ran for senator and sued the Chicago Tribune for libel,
       and was the laughingstock of the kept metropolitan press;
       but when the metropolitan bankers tried to horn in on his business
       he thoroughly outsmarted them.

For Dos Passos, Ford's absurd, rabid racism and oddly obsessive provincial nostalgia (his desire that the whole world be "like Wayne County, Michigan, in the old horse and buggy days") coexists with a storyteller's appreciation of his business prowess and the epic change his cars created in the American landscape. Every person is simultaneously great and small, Dos Passos seems to be arguing; every person is at once admirable and hateful. The fact that Ford himself longed for old-fashioned quiet and simplicity, and spent his final years on a restored simulacrum of his father's farm, removed from the noise of his own automobiles, is just the kind of poignant, contradictory detail Dos Passos loves.

The actual "characters" of U.S.A., the ones invented rather than just evoked by Dos Passos, who are the subjects of the trilogy's prose sections, come from a variety of backgrounds, but often work hard to end up in a different part of society than the one in which they started: working-class, middle-America Charley Anderson, for example, gifted with machines and a flying ace in WWI, starts his own aviation company with a friend and ends up wealthy, married to a society girl; meanwhile Mary French, daughter of the Main Line, goes against her mother's wishes and leaves college to be a union organizer and community activist. The common thread, however, is that no matter what Dos Passos characters decide they want, it seldom makes them happy, and they usually end up sabotaging their own efforts in one way or another.

Indeed, the one uniting element of all the U.S.A. characters is that they are slaves to, and undone by, their vices, whether those be for sex, alcohol, social position, or money. The characters who do best both materially and psychologically, like actress Margo Dowling, are usually the most pragmatic, the ones who acknowledge that they're playing a survival game, and look out for themselves and (sometimes) those around them with an utter lack of romanticism. Margo has no grand illusions, especially once she passes the age of about twenty, and that saves her from the pathetic fate of those who keep telling themselves stories about who they are and what they want—stories that get less true all the time. Former golden boy and flying ace Charley Anderson is a particularly pathetic example of the Dos Passos milieu: believing his every whim has a compelling reason behind it (that his lust is love, and his drunken well-being happiness), he descends ever-farther into debt, alienation and alcoholism while telling himself stories about his flying brilliance. Even the activist Mary French, who is probably closest to Dos Passos in her leftist outlook and untiring political work, becomes a victim of her own illusions as she falls in love with a series of condescending, emotionally unavailable fellow activists.

This compulsion, in Dos Passos characters, to let their vices sabotage their dreams didn't bother me as much in the first two books as it did this time around, in The Big Money. I'm not sure if the series actually does become more bitter as it goes along, or whether I've become more sensitive in the ten years since reading the last two books—my guess is that both might be true. It would certainly make sense that, as the country careens toward the crash of 1929, Dos Passos would become more condemnatory of the way Americans were behaving, since he laid the responsibility for the depression of the 1930s squarely on the shoulders of the irresponsible stock market speculators of the 1920s, and on American capitalism as a whole. And it's not that I don't relate to the pattern he lays out—obviously it does happen, and it's a classic setup for a tragedy of the everyday. I just can't help believing that it doesn't happen to everyone—that idealism and dreams, while dangerous as a sole frame of reference, can be an important asset if balanced by practicality.

Despite my qualms about the uniformly miserable characters, though, I remain in awe of Dos Passos's technical verve and audacity, and I love the way he simultaneously creates a broad canvas of events on the national level, and an intimate canvas of regular individuals making their way.


The Big Money was my fourth book in my personal TBR Challenge.

Most-read authors


Inspired by Nicole and Amateur Reader, I thought I might compile my own list of most-read authors—that is, authors by whom I have read the most works. I adopted Nicole's random cutoff of five books, and practically speaking, this list only includes books from late high school and on, since I've gotten rid of most of the books I read before then and wasn't keeping track of this stuff in any organized way. There would be plenty of Agatha Christie, Carolyn Keene, L.M. Montgomery and Anne Rice on here if I counted my childhood reading, but damned if I remember which of those I've read and which I haven't. Anyway, here are the numbers:

Virginia Woolf - 21

Colette - 8
Marcel Proust - 8
William Shakespeare - 8
Tennessee Williams - 8

Ray Bradbury - 7
Henry James - 7
Anaïs Nin - 7
J.K. Rowling - 7
Kurt Vonnegut - 7

Samuel Beckett - 6
Charles Bukowski - 6
Charles Dickens - 6
John Irving - 6
Toni Morrison - 6
Haruki Murakami - 6
Salman Rushdie - 6

Jane Austen - 5
Fyodor Dostoevsky - 5
George Eliot - 5
Jasper Fforde - 5
Kazuo Ishiguro - 5
Herman Melville - 5
Vladimir Nabokov - 5

Regular readers will not be shocked that Woolf comes out the clear winner here, with 21 books including volumes of her letters and diaries. The big surprise? HENRY JAMES. Let me explain my relationship with James: I can't stand the man. When his characters converse, I dream of hitting them over the heads with shovels. Not that it would do any good, since the disembodied narrator would continue droning monotonously on, making weird, annoying references to the "magnificence" of certain mundane comments. Yet somehow, I have read seven of James's books. Granted, most them are novellas; my list includes Portrait of a Lady, Turn of the Screw, The Aspern Papers, The Beast in the Jungle, Daisy Miller, The Wings of the Dove, and What Maisie Knew. But even so! And even stranger? Only one of these was required for a class. The other six I chose to read, independently.

I think the explanation is that James seems, in theory, like a novelist I would love. Complex psychological portraits, often scented with a whiff of the mysterious? Unreliable narrators? An oddly delicate, convoluted sentence structure? All traits I adore. When Woolf does the same thing, I eat it up with a spoon. When Proust does it, I can't get enough. Yet for some reason, when James does it, it makes me want to gargle turpentine. Why should this be? By rights, I should love James. In fact, in writing this, I've almost convinced myself to go back for another try. "Oh come on," I find myself thinking, "he can't be that bad." Perhaps The Golden Bowl will be the James novel I love at last? Or The Bostonians? Washington Square? More's the pity for me that James was so cussedly prolific—I could go on for years with no end to this dysfunctional relationship.


More about the list? It's odd that I've read the same number of Shakespeare plays as I have Tennessee Williams—I think this is because I did my thesis on Lear and Montaigne, and spent so long going in-depth on one Shakespeare play that I haven't gotten around to expanding my breadth. Those not on the list yet, but soon to cross the border: Thomas Hardy, Peter Carey, Zora Neale Hurston.

As Nicole and Amateur Reader both point out, this exercise generates a list that feels a bit bizarre. So many of my favorite authors aren't on it at all, nor are the authors of several books I have re-read MANY times (Jane Eyre, for example). Still, it's an interesting exercise.

The Lottery And Other Stories


Shirley Jackson's collection The Lottery and Other Stories was by far my favorite of the four books I finished on my recent vacation, but I've been having trouble getting my thoughts about it down. Part of the issue is that writing about collections of essays and short stories is always more difficult for me than writing about a single, cohesive narrative like a novel or a nonfiction history. In this case, though, the twenty-four stories in Jackson's collection (the only one to be compiled and arranged by her, and to come out during her lifetime) show a remarkable continuity: as diverse as they certainly are, they share a delicious air of eeriness, of something off. One gets the feeling, much more than with most short story collections I've read, that Jackson has an overarching project in writing these short pieces, and that, while they may not share specific characters, or settings (though many take place in New York) they are all fragments of a unified portrait. In each one, as in the whole, Jackson's fractured yet spookily familiar worldview is evident.

No, I think the real reason I'm having trouble writing about Jackson is that I loved so many facets of her work, and I feel overwhelmed trying to choose a direction. Like tearing off a band-aid or jumping into the deep end, however, here I go: one deep breath, and then the plunge.

The first thing that struck me about Jackson was the marvelous way in which she somehow manages to make the mundane—in some cases I would go so far as to say the boring—details of domestic life gradually take on a sinister psychological tension of a horror movie. Like many people, the only Jackson I'd read previous to this was the famous "The Lottery," and while it's certainly creepy, it's also more fantastical, its creepiness more blatant, than many of the subtler pieces in this collection. I was surprised to find that in many of them, nothing out of the ordinary seems to happen—a woman takes the bus into the city to get a tooth extracted; a young mother sees her son off to his first months of kindergarten; a member of the small-town aristocracy notices a new family moving into the cottage she had always dreamed of occupying. Rather, it's in Jackson's manner of telling that the ordinary becomes malevolent. See how she begins "My Life with R.H. Macy," the story of a young woman's first few days working at a department store (shades of The Price of Salt here!):

And the first thing they did was segregate me. They segregated me from the only person in the place I had even a speaking acquaintance with; that was a girl I had met going down the hall who had said to me: "Are you as scared as I am?" And when I said "Yes," she said, "I'm in lingerie, what are you in?" and I thought for a while and then said, "Spun glass," which was as good an answer as I could think of, and she said, "Oh. Well, I'll meet you here in a sec." And she went away and was segregated and I never saw her again.

Jackson is amazingly concise. Just in this short paragraph, she suggests a tension that manifests in many of these stories: is the narrator truly in a confusing, sinister situation? Or is her sense of the skewed, menacing quality all in her own head? Is she disordered in her inability to adjust and filter her experiences like the people around her, or is she picking up on a dehumanized quality in the world around her which is real, but to which those around her have become desensitized? Having started a few new jobs in giant, bureaucratic organizations, I'd say that the narrator's confusion and bluntedness here is not too outlandish; the language of the story just emphasizes that feeling of being an aimless cog in a bizarre, senseless machine. In this light the narrator's own odd behavior (in this paragraph, her spontaneous answer that she's "in" Spun Glass) seems no less logical than any other manner of responding.

Jackson spends many of these stories demonstrating how close many normal people are to this same kind of mental disconnect, often by pitting the social expectations of one character against those of the group. In "The Witch," a young boy on a train journey with his mother is enchanted by the idea that some of the passers-by in the station are really witches. In the course of the journey, a stranger in their compartment strikes up a conversation with the boy, which starts out entertaining but becomes more and more disturbing. By the story's end, the mother is protesting angrily (the reader would tend to agree that the man's story is very inappropriate to tell a child), but the boy isn't bothered at all; he incorporates the man's grisly tale into his earlier fantasy about witches. The man's kindly demeanor even as he tells his violent story, coupled with the boy's lack of fear, is unsettling: is the mother actually the one in the wrong here? What is wrong with the man, and what is missing in the young boy that he doesn't find the story frightening?

In fact, the interactions between mothers and children provides much of the collection's richest material. Jackson's view of children seems impressively complex: on the one hand, they can be chilling in their lack of empathy (born of their very limited life experience), as in "The Witch" or "The Renegade," in which young Mrs. Walpole, newly relocated from city to country, learns that her dog has been eating neighborhood chickens and her neighbors all expect her to shoot it. As the country people prove less and less sympathetic, suggesting ever-more draconian methods of breaking the dog of chicken-eating, Mrs. Walpole feels progressively more horrified, especially on behalf of her children—only to discover that the children are amused by their classmates' cruel suggestions about how to kill their pet. Somehow, for them, loving the dog and laughing at the idea of killing it, are not mutually exclusive. Mrs. Walpole's suffocating sensation of identifying with another being's pain when no one else seems to is almost visceral by the end of the story.

But Jackson's child characters are also used, at times, to point up the disgusting or oblivious behavior of the adults around them. In "After You, My Dear Alphonse," we spend five pages cringing as a white, middle-class housewife assumes that her son's friend must be a malnourished charity case just because he's black, then guilt-trips him for not accepting her cast-offs. (He greets her behavior with puzzlement rather than anger, not yet understanding where she gets her mistaken idea of his background.) Similarly, in "Afternoon in Linen" a young Harriet responds to her grandmother's aggressive boasting about some poems she's written, by claiming to have copied them out of a book. "Dorothy and My Grandmother and The Sailors" traces the process by which a girl's mother and grandmother inculcate in her a hysterical prejudice against sailors, without the girl having any idea of the sexual underpinnings of their warnings—she knows to fear sailors like death, but has no idea why, or that the fear should be linked with certain behaviors on the part of the sailors.

Dot looked around suddenly and then grabbed my arm. "Look," she said in a sort of groan, and there were two sailors coming along the row of seats just as my mother and grandmother got down to the other end of the row, and my grandmother had just time to say loudly, "You leave those girls alone," when two seats a few aisles away were vacated and they had to go sit down.
         Dot moved far over in her seat next to me and clung to my arm.
         "What are they doing?" I whispered.
         "They're just sitting there," Dot said. "What do you think I ought to do?"
         I leaned cautiously around Dot and looked. "Don't pay any attention," I said. "Maybe they'll go away."
         "You can talk," Dot said tragically. "they're not next to you."
         "I'm next to you," I said reasonably, "that's pretty close."
         "What are they doing now?" Dot asked.
         I leaned forward again. "They're looking at the picture," I said.
         "I can't stand it," Dot said. "I want to go home."
         Panic overwhelmed both of us at once, and fortunately my mother and my grandmother saw us running up the aisle and caught us outside.

This collection is so rich, and many other threads weave through it: the disturbing disconnect of transitioning from city to town or town to city, for example, or the malleability and impermanence of identity. As I plainly can't hit them all in one entry, I'll just say that I treasured this collection, and plan to revisit it in the future.

June 2012

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
          1 2
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16
17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28 29 30


link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography