Friday, December 11, 2009

Conversion is a romance

It is part of Francine Prose’s genius to have spotted that Middlemarch is a conversion narrative. When she set out to rewrite Eliot’s “study of provincial life” as A Changed Man (New York: Harper Collins, 2005), Prose tossed out the panorama of criss-crossing subplots and reduced the story to its essence—a romance between a deficient man with a murky past and a “later-born Theresa” whose best chance for doing good in a world without “coherent social faith and order” is to marry the man and spread goodness at a remove, by improving him.

A Changed Man tells the story of Vincent Nolan, a 31-year-old white supremacist with Waffen-SS bolt tattoos on his muscular biceps, who breaks with ARM, the American Rights Movement—also known as the Aryan Resistance Movement—and flees to New York in a stolen pickup truck along with fifteen hundred dollars and a stash of prescription painkillers that he also boosted from his cousin, a skinhead leader. Nolan shows up unannounced at the offices of World Brotherhood Watch, a human rights organization headed by a Holocaust survivor celebrated for his saintliness, and asks to be taken in. “Why don’t you phone us in a few days?” he is asked. Nolan tries to make himself clear:

I don’t know how to say this, but I can’t go back. Leaving ARM is not like quitting the Boy Scouts. I can’t wait for you to call and have some guy at the tire place where I work, where a bunch of ARM guys work, say, Hey, Nolan, phone call. For you. World Brotherhood Watch. Those guys don’t just let you go. They’re not real fond of . . . defectors. This one guy who left Wyoming ARM. They found out where he was and put him in the hot seat and cut off three of his toes. They would track me down, is what I’m saying. As it is, I’m risking my life. If they knew I was here . . .   [ellipses in original]“We can call you at home,” he is told. The brotherhood promoters still don’t get it. “I’ve been staying on my cousin’s living room couch,” Nolan explains. “I have no home. I’m homeless.” And with that the story really begins.

Nolan is taken home by Bonnie Kalen, the 41-year-old development director of Brotherhood Watch, a divorcée with two sons, and installed in her spare bedroom across the Tappan Zee Bridge in Rockland County. The inevitable happens—what is inevitable when an unmarried man and an unmarried woman sleep alone in the same house—but like Eliot’s pushing Dorothea Brooke and Will Ladislaw apart until twenty pages from the end of her 600-page book, Prose lusciously defers the gratification of the inevitable till the very end.

Although it is the longest and most ambitious of her twelve novels, A Changed Man is not primarily about a profound and philosophical topic like the struggle with darkness. Its subject is human character, and how it is changed. Not by grand beliefs and public campaigns to do good, Prose is convinced, but by simple nearness to those who want better for us—this despite her epigraph from Middlemarch. After Ladislaw tells Dorothea that he has been forbidden to see her any longer, she replies:I have a belief of my own, and it comforts me. . . . That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don’t quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil—widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.In Middlemarch, Ladislaw is forbidden to see Dorothea by her husband the Rev. Edward Casaubon, a pedant who wastes his spirit in a futile lifelong quest to compile a Key to All Mythologies. Self-important, condescending, Casaubon hopes that Dorothea will carry on his work after his death, “the lonely labor, the ambition breathing hardly under the pressure of self-distrust,” even though it would entomb her. The irony is that Dorothea is able to do real good at last only when she flouts her husband’s instructions, after his death. For though he may not have been an intimate of evil, Casaubon was nearly a stranger to the good.

In Prose’s novel, the Casaubon figure is the Holocaust survivor Meyer Maslow. This is the most daring aspect of A Changed Man. Although not as celebrated as Elie Wiesel (he is annoyed when the paparazzi snapping Wiesel’s picture stop clicking their cameras when he walks by), Maslow is, in the opinion of some, “the greatest Holocaust witness. The saintliest and most selfless.” Bonnie Kagen in particular reveres him: “How rare it is,” she reflects, “to have a boss who’s a better person than you are.” Her son Danny is not so sure. He calls him Meyer Manson:So, Mom, what did Charlie—I mean Meyer—say today? Don’t call him that, says Bonnie, even though she’s weirdly pleased that her son knows who Charlie Manson is. By now that counts as history. Plus, she understands what he means. When Meyer gets his big ideas, his visionary plans, other people—mainly Bonnie—wind up handling the details.Danny is not far off the mark. In time, Vincent proves himself to be the better man. A lifetime of carrying the public battle to evil does not necessarily make a man very good, and a season in hell does not necessarily disqualify a man for goodness. In the novel’s climatic scene, when they appear together on an Oprah-like afternoon talk show, Vincent defends Maslow against his neo-Nazi cousin Raymond Gillette, who has wormed his way into the studio audience to unmask Vincent as a “liar and a thief” and the Jew as “a danger to the entire white race.” When Raymond advances threateningly on Maslow, Vincent tackles him from behind and punches him bloody.

Maslow is appalled by the violence, but he does not know the truth—namely, that Raymond had hunted down Bonnie’s house, parking in the driveway, baring his swastika tattoos to Danny, placing menacing phone calls. Instead of reverting to the violence implicit in white supremacism, as Maslow assumes, Vincent is fighting on behalf those who have taken him in and given him a home. Guessing Maslow’s reaction, though, he is as ashamed—even though he is acting out of gratitude and obligation, defending the goods that he has come to enjoy against the evil that would destroy them.

The principal good, of course, is the love that has taken root, unacknowledged by either of them, between him and Bonnie. A couple of days ago, I described Bonnie as a “helicopter parent,” hovering anxiously over Danny and his brother Max. She is a chronic worrier, always imagining the worst that can happen. It makes little difference that, in her experience, she is probably right to worry. “With her admirable but hopeless desire to be good, to do good,” Bonnie reminds Maslow’s wife of Dorothea Brooke—“that ninny in Middlemarch.”

The effect of Prose’s novel is almost exactly the opposite of Eliot’s. Most readers agree with Dorothea’s sister in saying that “Nobody thinks Mr Ladislaw a proper husband for you.” Many readers will wonder what Vincent sees in Bonnie, who at her best looks appealingly “waifish.” It is a measure of Prose’s achievement in A Changed Man, however, that their coming together, so long deferred, is so satisfying at the end—and so believable. Vincent misses talking to Bonnie when he flees after beating his cousin on television—she has reduced his jagged experience and unsavory ideas to conversation. And Bonnie becomes a better mother when Vincent is around, more trusting and patient, less edgy and censorious. Romance is the means by which two flawed persons manage to prove, in Eliot’s words, that “character is not cut in marble—it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living and changing,” and may be rescued and healed as the body is.

According to William James, conversions come in two varieties—a “conscious and voluntary way and an involuntary and unconscious way,” or the “volitional type” and the “type by self-surrender.” In A Changed Man, Francine Prose explores a third type, in which a man experiences not so much a change of heart as a change of address, circumstances, loyalties: in which conversion is neither a rational persuasion nor a mystical experience, but a simple preference for a home, a better way of life—and a little romance to sweeten the change.