Monday, January 28, 2013

Their naked villainy

Plenty of video gamers and moviegoers have come up with lists of the ten most villainous villains (see here, for example, or here or here), but readers of literature do not seem to think in such terms any more. In a rare exception, the author of the Bite Me blog, in an illustrated list which leans precariously toward the movies, creditably includes Milton’s Satan and Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein’s monster among his 10 Freaking Awesome Villains and Antagonists! My only complaint is that Milton’s Satan (“by merit rais’d To that bad eminence”) isn’t his #1!

Perhaps villainy has gone the way of heroism: the purveyors of modern literature are far too sophisticated to believe wholeheartedly in either. There are villains galore in the nineteenth-century novel: Ahab (of course), Roger Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter, John Barton in the novel that bears his daughter’s name, Bradley Headstone in Our Mutual Friend, Henleigh Grandcourt in Daniel Deronda, Gilbert Osmond in Portrait of a Lady, anyone with a Colonel before his name in Huckleberry Finn.

Ever since Conrad closed out the century with a long story about the villainous Mr. Kurtz in Blackwood’s Magazine, his disciples and successors have been few and far between in English-language fiction. When a villain does appear—think of Henry Wilcox in Howards End, for example—he is offered a measure of redemption by the end of the novel. Coming up with a list of the ten most hauntingly horrible of the horrible characters in fiction since then (the phrase is Kingsley Amis’s) is no easy task:

(10.) Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby (1925). Former college football player; breaks his adulterous lover’s nose with a short punch; earnestly talks her husband into murdering Gatsby. Fitzgerald attributes his behavior to a “vast carelessness.”

( 9.) Hollis Lomax in Stoner (1965). Chairman of the English department in which William Stoner teaches; a hunchback, barely five feet tall, he tries to destroy Stoner’s career to avenge a protégé whom Stoner had flunked; unable to get Stoner fired, he refuses to promote him and for twenty years assigns him nothing but sections of English composition five days a week at all hours of the day; when Stoner finds a little happiness with a young instructor in the department, Lomax fires her. A memorable portrait of the academic hack for whom bureaucratic power compensates for a lack of scholarship.

( 8.) O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Agent of the Thought Police; pretends to belong to the resistance movement, dupes Winston Smith into revealing himself as a thought-criminal; tortures Winston until he breaks, but not before defining the essence of totalitarianism for him: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” (For some reason, NPR lists Big Brother as the fifty-ninth best character in literature since 1900, even though Big Brother is not a character at all but the public face of the Party—a face on posters. Might as well call the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg a character in The Great Gatsby.)

( 7.) Clare Quilty in Lolita (1955). Humbert Humbert’s “shadow,” even more monstrous and perverted than the self-confessed pervert and monster; abducts Lolita and spirits her away to Duk Duk Ranch (“an obscene Oriental word for copulation”—Alfred Appel), where he presses her into orgies with young boys while he watches; antisemite, pornographer, mediocre playwright.

( 6.) The two nameless mountain men in James Dickey’s Deliverance (1970). So famous they have entered into American myth, the popular image of menacing rural Southerners. Their anal rape of Bobby Trippe is one of the cruelest scenes in American fiction. (Their even more famous line, “Squeal like a pig,” from John Boorman’s film, is not to be found in the novel.) The suburb-dwellers canoeing down the Cahulawassee River have never encountered “such brutality,” “such disregard for another person’s body.”

( 5.) Bigger Thomas in Native Son (1940). The first mass murderer in American fiction who was not a Gothic exaggeration. Richard Wright cannot decide whether he is responsible for the deaths of Mary Dalton and his “girl” Bessie or whether the “whole sick social organism” of racist America is to blame—the indecision, strangely enough, is one source of the novel’s greatness—but no reader can forget Bigger’s chopping off the head of Mary’s corpse to fit it into the furnace nor the way he beats Bessie with a brick again and again until “he seemed to be striking a wet wad of cotton. . . .”

( 4.) Popeye in Sanctuary (1931). As a child he sliced up small animals; as an adult, he murders two men and a dog; impotent and syphilitic, he rapes Temple Drake with a corncob; he “smells like that black stuff that ran out of Bovary’s mouth and down her bridal veil when they raised her head.”

( 3.) Judge Holden in Blood Meridian (1985). The murderous pedophile who leads the scalp-hunting Glanton gang and acts as its spokesman, delivering a philosophical defense of its butchery by calling it the “dance of war” (“Only that man who has offered himself up entire to the blood of war, who has been offered up himself entire to the floor of the pit and seen the horror in the round and learned at last that it speaks to his inmost heart, only that man can dance”). His thinking is more frightening than his violent actions.

( 2.) Alex in A Clockwork Orange (1962). The teenaged sociopath, a rapist and murderer and apostle of “ultraviolence,” who narrates Anthony Burgess’s dystopian novel. The American Film Institute ranked Alex the twelfth greatest movie villain and the highest-ranked literary character, unless you count Nurse Ratched from One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which I don’t. As Burgess said of him later, “He rejoices in articulate language and even invents a new form of it”—the vocal charm is more blood-curdling than any dark philosophy.

( 1.) James Todd in A Handful of Dust (1934). Tony Last escapes the savages of the South American jungle only to fall captive to the most savage human being ever drawn up by an English-language writer: an illiterate recluse who obliges him to read Dickens aloud—the entire Dickens corpus, over and over and over again—for the remainder of his days. No worse torture can be imagined.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

World after world unseen

Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle is science fiction that “deals with alternate present,” as a character in the book phrases it. Since Capitulation Day in 1947, the Imperial Japanese and the German Nazis have divided the United States between them. Behind a “puppet white government at Sacramento,” the Japanese rule the Pacific States of America, where most of the novel’s action takes place. They may not have “killed Jews, in the war or after,” they may not have “built ovens,” but they “have the skin thing there, too.” Blacks are slaves, who perform the chores not even whites will perform, for fear they “would never have place of any sort again.” The Chinese, one small social notch above the slaves, are chinks who operate “pedecabs,” enabling whites “to have, if even for a moment, higher place.” But there is an ethnic slur for whites as well: they are yanks.

The plot is difficult to summarize, because Dick pieces his novel together from five subplots involving five main characters. Robert Childan is the owner of American Artistic Handcrafts, a retail outlet for artifacts from the American past; Nobusuke Tagomi heads the Japanese trade mission in San Francisco; Frank Frink ( Fink) is a Jew passing as white, who quits his job with a company that fabricates Americana (for retailers like Childan) to create his own original jewelry; Juliana is his ex-wife, a judo instructor living in the unaligned and nominally independent Rocky Mountain States; and Baynes is a German intelligence officer posing as a Swedish businessman on a sales trip (in reality, a secret mission) to the Pacific coast.

The characters go about their daily lives, but at their backs is the constant threat of the Nazis. Martin Bormann, who had succeeded a syphilitic Hitler as Reichskanzler, dies unexpectedly. Summoned to the Japanese embassy for a briefing on the “contending factions in German political life,” Tagomi fears he will go mad. He scrambles to his feet and flees in panic. Meditating upon the “order of the world,” the “finite, finite world,” does not calm him. “There is evil!” he thinks:It’s actual like cement. . . . It’s an ingredient in us. In the world. Poured over us, filtering into our bodies, minds, hearts, into the pavement itself.The reality of evil disrupts the order of the world, because it is infinite in its varieties. Each of Dick’s characters will have to confront evil in his or her own way, and as much as anything, it is these confrontations with evil, decision after decision to confront it, which organize the narrative.

What really holds The Man in the High Castle together, though, is not its narrative, but the books that the characters carry around with them—the books within the book. The characters are connected to one another by the I Ching, the ancient Taoist divination text which they anxiously consult as an oracle, and The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, an underground novel banned by the Nazis but passed eagerly from hand to hand. Even Nazi officials can’t put it down. An alternate history which is the photographic negative of Dick’s novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is the story of how the Axis powers lost the Second World War. Dick’s own title gives it pride of place: the man in the high castle turns out to be the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. It also gives Dick the chance to spell out his argument. On a sales visit to the apartment of Japanese customers, Childan notices a copy of the book. “I hear it on many lips,” he says, asking if it is a mystery:       “Not a mystery,” [the Japanese husband] said. “On contrary, interesting form of fiction possibly within genre of science fiction.”
       “Oh no,” [his wife] disagreed. “No science in it. Nor set in future. Science fiction deals with future, in particular future where science has advanced over now. Book fits neither premise.
       “But,” [the husband] said, “it deals with alternate present. Many well-known science fiction novels of that sort.”
This passage is Dick’s apology for alternate history, his claim for it as a distinct and recognizable kind of science fiction. Although there were precursors—he liked to cite Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee (1953), a novel that resorts to time travel to “correct” history—Dick formally invented the fictional kind with The Man in the High Castle. Not only did his novel influence other major novelists, including Nabokov and Kingsley Amis, but it was the first self-reflexive work of alternate history, the first to be fully aware of what it was doing and to sort out its logic.

It was, for Dick, the fundamental logic of science fiction:Even if all life on our planet is destroyed, there must be other life somewhere which we know nothing of. It is impossible that ours is the only world; there must be world after world unseen by us, in some region or dimension that we simply do not perceive.Baynes, the German intelligence officer, reflects to himself in these terms as he returns to Berlin after warning the Japanese of the Nazis’ plan to launch “an enormous nuclear attack on the Home Islands, without advance warning of any kind.” Even if the Japanese fail to heed his warning, even if the Germans succeed in bringing about “a final holocaust for everyone,” Baynes consoles himself with the possibility of “world after world unseen.”

In Dick’s novel, these worlds are represented by the I Ching and The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Each book tells of an “alternate present.” What is an oracle, after all, but a report of might be? Telling of a different world is the beginning of its realization. When Frank Frink receives the message that the “hour of doom is at hand,” for example, he worries that he has set in motion, simply by throwing the I Ching, a sequence of events that will lead to World War III, “[h]ydrogen bombs falling like hail,” two billion killed, the end of human civilization.

That’s not quite what happens, but what does happen is influenced by the I Ching. Attracted to an Italian truck driver, Frank’s ex-wife Juliana heads north to Cheyenne to meet Hawthorne Absendsen, the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Stopping over in Denver, she learns the Italian truck driver is actually a German Sicherheitsdienst operative, sent by the Nazis to murder Abendsen, the chronicler of their defeat. Juliana attacks the SD man with a razor and gets away. Afraid that he will come after her, she consults the I Ching:One must resolutely make the matter known
At the court of the king.
It must be announced truthfully. Danger.
It is necessary to notify one’s own city.
It does not further to resort to arms.
It furthers one to undertake something.
Juliana hurries to Cheyenne to warn Abendsen. When she arrives, she finds that he is not living in his “high castle,” the fortified compound described on the dust jacket of his novel, but in an ordinary single-story stucco house with a child’s tricycle in the drive. The high castle is a ruse to fool would-be assassins into thinking that great precautions have been taken against them. In reality, there is no reason to take precautions. Juliana is puzzled by his fatalism and resignation until she is suddenly struck: “The oracle [the I Ching] wrote your book. Didn’t it?” she asks Absendsen.

When he admits the truth, Juliana wonders why the I Ching would write a novel. And an alternate history at that! “What is there it can’t tell us directly,” she cries, “like it always has before?” But none of the oracle’s messages has been direct; everything told by it requires interpretation, a further undertaking to realize its truth. It is, in short, a fictional text, for which truths are conditional. Naturally, then, Juliana asks the I Ching why it wrote The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. “What are we supposed to learn?” she demands, and tosses coins six times to determine which of the book’s sixty-four hexagrams is the answer to her question. “Do you know what hexagram that is?” she asks Absendsen when she finds it:       “It’s Chung Fu,” Juliana said. “Inner Truth. . . . And I know what it means. . . .”
       “It means, does it, that my book is true?”
       “Yes,” she said.
       With anger he said, “Germany and Japan lost the war.”
The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is not alternate history, after all. It is the true history no one is willing to face. The United States won the war, and yet capitulated to the Axis, acquiesced to partition and foreign occupation, nevertheless.

Dick’s political message has become something of a thematic commonplace in alternate history: even if the events had been different, the outcome would have been the same. War may decide the occupier, but not the sequel of occupation. If the U.S. had not developed the atomic bomb, another country would have—and would still have threatened Japan with it!

Less tiresome is the moral vision which informs Dick’s conception of fiction. The German intelligence officer who warns Japan of the Nazis’ exterminationist ambition—his real name is Wegener, although he travels under the alias of Baynes—returns to Nazi Germany, to the heart of evil, when his mission is complete. “Whatever happens,” he reflects, “it is evil beyond compare.” If the outcome is the same no matter what we do to alter the course of events, why choose to act at all?       On some other world, possibly it is different. Better. There are clear good and evil alternatives. Not these obscure admixtures, these blends, with no proper tool by which to untangle the components.
       We do not have the ideal world, such as we would like, where morality is easy because cognition is easy. Where one can do right with no effect because he can detect the obvious.
Perhaps what one can do, then, is to devise those other worlds, where possibility is different—and if for no other reason than to show that none is ideal, that moral admixtures are the rule everywhere, that the oracle speaks directly nowhere. Although a man might fly from world to world unseen, he will only find the same moral problem of “making a choice at each step.” The only real alternative is not to choose at all, but if not choosing is a real possibility then it too creates a possible world, where too the ideal world can only be dreamed of. An alternate history within an alternate history within an alternate history, The Man in the High Castle retreats farther and farther from the ultimate ideal of easy morality. The only impossible world is a world without moral ambiguity.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The essential racket

Another bad report from my oncologist, another “last resort” drug kicked. Whether the tumor has spread, or has simply increased its metabolic activity, only time and further scans—PET, bone, CT—will tell. I now live in intervals of three months; that’s about as long as it takes for the latest drug to sputter out into ineffectiveness. Thankfully there are still more drugs to go. (How many last resorts can you use up before they stop being last resorts?) The hope, at this stage, is that pharmacological discoveries will come along faster than my cancer. “The longer you go,” my oncologist says with logic that’s hard to deny, “the longer you go.”

I am caught in a dizzying loop: three months of hope collide with dread when the cancer overpowers the drug I am on, but just as I resign myself to the beginning of the end, a new drug pulls the cancer down—for how long? I find that I am not afraid of death, but of end-stage cancer’s incapacity. I am haunted by dream visions of myself, foul-smelling and delirious, my children reluctant to approach the stranger in my bed. Why do I feel no desperation to read those big fat classics I have shamefully neglected till now?—Gargantua and Pantagruel, Les Misérables, War and Peace, The Feminine Mystique. How stupid of me to waste my remaining months on contemporary fiction: right? To read it at such an unhurried pace! And to write about it in this blog, which very few people will ever read! What about fame? What about influence? I’d rather watch the NFL playoffs this Sunday.

It’s true that cancer concentrates the mind wonderfully, but it’s also wonderful just what the mind prefers to concentrate upon. While the inessential is stripped away, it turns out that what’s essential is not the same as what’s important. The essential is what makes soul clap hands and sing, and no counsel to get serious in the face of death stands much chance of being heard over the essential racket.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A decalogue for writing well

My seminar on evil in the American novel (from Philip K. Dick to Philip Roth) is also an “advanced writing course.” I am required to assign a composition text, perhaps the least interesting kind of book ever invented (I assigned Gerald Graff’s They Say/I Say as perhaps the least least interesting of the genre). The real textbook, though, is my instruction. So today I spoke these aseret devarim for writing well:

( 1.) Thou shalt have no other goals or purposes before this: to make thyself clear, to thyself perhaps most of all.

( 2.) Thou shalt not whore after any literary technique—any of the “tools long associated only with fiction, such as elaborate structures, characterization, and even symbolism”—nor suspense nor metaphor nor any fancy shmancy thing, but shalt faithfully serve the clarity that bringest thee out of confusion.

( 3.) Thou shalt remember thy conclusion, and begin there.

( 4.) Thou shalt be scrupulous to connect thy thoughts one to the other.

( 5.) Thou shalt obey the distinction between evidence and authority.

( 6.) Thou shalt write with abiding love toward thy evidence, quoting it in a white terror of getting it wrong, and hatred in thy heart toward authorities, quoting them only to refute them.

( 7.) Thou shalt not pretend to expertise nor reach for language that lies beyond thee.

( 8.) Thou shalt write in thine own name, and fear not to say “I.”

( 9.) Thou shalt not assume thou hast made thyself clear, but must be willing always to repeat thyself where necessary—to dwell upon an argument, to occupy a point—for the sake of making thy meaning manifest.

(10.) Thou must forget everything thou hast ever been taught about writing, including these commandments which I command thee this day.

“We shall do and we shall hear,” my students did not reply.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Evan S. Connell, 1924–2013

One by one, the writers who came of literary age between the Second World War and the Sexual Revolution—the Glossy Age of American fiction, as I have called it elsewhere—are dying off. Evan S. Connell Jr. was found dead in Santa Fe last Thursday, January 10. He was 88.

Nearly every obituary led off the requisite survey of his career with Mrs. Bridge (1959), a close-up study of the pointless existence led by a rich and successful lawyer’s wife in Connell’s native Kansas City (“she wondered if she was about to lose control of herself. Where are we going? she thought. Why are we here?”). The quiet desperation of life in the suburbs was a tiresome little theme of postwar fiction, even though Connell’s novel was set before the war. He may have been among the first to fasten onto the subject, but his book was distinguished, not by its insight into American social mores, but by its form: 117 short chapters, some fewer than a hundred words, which carried Mrs. Bridge from marriage to widowhood.

Mr. Bridge, his first novel’s “twin,” as the obituaries misleadingly called it, was published exactly ten years later. Connell perfected a flat objective tone, flawless in delivery, unblemished by sympathy or satire, which was ill-suited to his narrative strategy. The casual bigotry displayed by the Bridges and their neighbors, the hyperconsciousness of good manners and good shoes, the adroit avoidance of “threatening subjects,” including intellectual curiosity in any shape, the regular evocation of “nameless panic” and “wild, wild desire” (never acted upon) as a counterpoint to the “white, sweetly scented anonymity” into which they sink—a counterpoint that eventually becomes as uneventful as their lives: the Bridges are steadily reduced to cultural clichés.

Connell’s message is that superficial lives are superficial not by accident but by intention, by the firm and consistent application of the principle that every depth must be left unexplored (“if super-celestial ideas were accompanied by subterranean behavior,” Mrs. Bridge reflects, “it might be better to forego them both”). But because he has confined himself to the undisturbed surfaces, where his characters choose to dwell, he is at a loss how to suggest what lies beneath. He must resort to tricks. Mrs. Bridge’s reflection on high ideas and low behavior, for example, is provoked by “a line from Montaigne,” which comes to her out of nowhere, exactly and inexplicably quoted. The distinction between ideas and behavior is located in the realm of ideas, to which Mrs. Bridge has recourse in order to forego ideas. Connell is able to establish the superficiality of upper-class WASP lives only by admitting the depths that explode the superficiality.

Connell also became famous for Son of the Morning Star (1985), his exciting account of Little Big Horn. It success gave him some economic freedom at last, in his sixties. He was rare in his generation—the first generation of writers to take refuge in American universities—by declining to teach. “A teacher has to do an horrendous amount of talking,” his friend George P. Elliott explained; “a writer who (like Evan Connell) does not talk a lot should not teach (as Connell does not).” He never married, had no children. His life was devoted to writing.

Connell published nineteen books during his lifetime, but for my money his best are The Connoisseur (1974) and Double Honeymoon (1976), the last two novels he wrote before largely abandoning fiction for historical essays (he wrote a few more short stories). Both of these novels are about Karl Muhlbach, “the most respectable of men,” who had made his first appearance in three stories in At the Crossroads (1965). “I have violated nothing,” Muhlbach declares. “All my life I have represented civilization, now I am threatened.” An insurance executive, he too is a well-to-do WASP. The tone is the same, but the difference is that Muhlbach, unlike the Bridges, is vulnerable to the unexpected.

In The Connoisseur, Muhlbach is astonished when he happens upon a terra cota figurine from the Mayan period—a squat magistrate with his arms folded—in a curio shop in Taos. “I want this arrogant little personage, he thinks with sudden passion,” although he cannot say why. His life is transformed; he becomes a collector, “obsessed by pre-Columbian thoughts.” Connell takes his motto from Aquinas: id quod visum placet. Muhlbach is not an intellectual, although he becomes an expert in Mayan art. His is not the realm of ideas, but of beauty. He is changed because he allows himself the pleasure of looking.

Double Honeymoon is the expansion of a story written a decade earlier and published originally in At the Crossroads. Its events occur before Muhlbach’s conversion by beauty, and serve as a ten-years-earlier “prequel.” At a Christmas party, the 45-year-old Muhlbach meets a lovely 20-year-old with ambitions to become a “high fashion model.” She is much too beautiful “for her own good.” Her name is Lambeth Brent. She is the kind of girl he would have lost when he himself was 20—she would have found him dull, “dull and a trifle cold, [his] spine too rigid when [they] went dancing, [his] interests too academic.” Older now, a widower, Muhlbach pursues Lambeth. She is “buggy,” as he puts it later—erratic, unreliable, emotionally unavailable, a liar and a thief, perhaps bisexual (perhaps not), lousy at everything she has ever tried, a lost and troubled soul. Muhlbach does not learn any of this until much later, after he is already hooked on her. He wants to marry her and have children with her, even though Lambeth says that she wants children like she wants leprosy. He believes (against all evidence) that he can bring her “around to some kind of normalcy, enough so that she could keep going.” He tries vainly to get her to take some responsibility for her own life:Nothing marvelous and unexpected is about to happen. The telegram saying you won the sweepstakes will never arrive. And the reason it won’t is because I’ve never gotten it and I don’t know anybody else who has.Lambeth refuses to believe him. She is not interested in taking lessons in domesticity and respectability. Muhlbach chugs ahead:All I meant to say, Lambeth, was that I’ve been toting the barge and lifting the bale or whatever it is long enough to realize that my life will never change. I’ll do what I do as long as I live. I’ll never touch the rainbow. And I don’t think you will either. I’d love to, and I hope you do. I doubt if we will. This isn’t good news, I admit. I’d rearrange the situation if I could, nearer to the heart’s desire. In fact, as somebody said, though I can’t remember who: “Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge.”It was Gauguin who said that. Muhlbach’s own experience proves him wrong. Almost the exact opposite is Connell’s vision of human life: being what it is, one dreams of the rainbow. Whether very many people have the courage to “rearrange the situation” is a different question. “We live in the final tepid rays of the Christian era,” Connell wrote in his long philosophical prose poem, Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel (1963). Transcendence has just about flickered out, and literature (as Connell’s generation discovered to its dismay) cannot fully replace it. But there are glimpses, here and there, of what it might mean to live with what pleases merely by being seen—and some of those glimpses can be found in the fiction of the late Evan Connell.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Every Jew in his (or her) humor

Francesca Segal, The Innocents (New York: Hyperion Voice, 2012). 288 pages.

No good word exists for what Francesca Segal accomplishes in The Innocents, which was bedecked last week with the Costa First Novel Award. Adaptation, reworking, imitation, borrowing, appropriation, plagiarism—whatever it might be called, it sounds bad. The Innocents is a 21st-century version of Edith Wharton’s classic Age of Innocence in which the convention-bound gentility of “old New York” become the convention-bound youth of Jewish London. The reviewers have gone out of their way to emphasize that, as Lucy Scholes wrote in the Guardian, “Segal makes the story her own.” The novel is “compelling,” Kate Sullivan reassured the readers of the New York Daily News, “despite its antiquated ties to Wharton’s story.” But such praise misses the mark. Although The Innocents can be enjoyed by those who have never had the pleasure of Wharton’s book, the enjoyment—and the insight—are magnified a hundredfold when the novels are placed side by side.

From the opening pages, Segal acknowledges her debt to Wharton, but also demonstrates just how she will repay it. Adam Newman is engaged to Rachel Gilbert; now twenty-eight, they have “been together” since they were sixteen. They are in synagogue for Kol Nidre when Rachel’s cousin Ellie Schneider, a model from New York who is rumored to have made a porn film, takes her seat in the women’s section. A “half-naked model in shul,” Adam’s best friend stage-whispers. Knowledge of Wharton adds both humor and heft to the scene. The Age of Innocence begins on opening night at the New York opera, where the “world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter,” when a family cousin, newly returned from Europe and disgraced by divorce, shows up unexpectedly. Al tikrei, as the rabbis say: do not read the “world of fashion,” but rather the Jews of North West London; for opening night at the opera—an occasion to display oneself in public—read High Holy Day services in shul. And for the scandal of divorce, substitute porn and a revealing dress. I promise to stop tabulating the themes and variations now. Throughout the novel, though, they add complexity and depth to Segal’s observations. You’ll notice, for instance, that the cousin’s flight in Wharton, from Europe to New York, is reversed by Segal. The plot of The Innocents is not merely an overlay on Wharton’s plot, but a west-to-east reorientation of The Age of Innocence.

Even if you have never read Wharton—or have never seen Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation—you can guess what is coming. Adam is a respectable young member of the Jewish community, “a moral pillar of the shtetl,” as a friend teases him. He enjoys his social position: “There was no life event,” he reflects—“marriage, birth, parenthood, or loss—through which one need ever walk alone.” If he is a conformist, there are advantages to such conformity:

It wasn’t obligatory conformity; simply a question of joining the majority, a subscription to desirable traditions that allowed one to remain supported and cushioned in the bosom of North West London.What Adam is blind to is what Segal sees so clearly: social traditions have a different and less satisfying force than religious traditions (also known as commandments). Adam is a social Jew, not a religious one. “I have no idea what I believe in except randomness,” he remarks tellingly to his fiancée’s scandalous cousin. Ellie is not one of the Nice Jewish Girls who populate his world. She brings out his honesty, but also his inner emptiness.

So naturally he falls for her. Ellie resists for a while (“[I]f things were different I would try,” she says—“I would be with you, if I could”), but in the end, as the year swings round to the High Holy Days again and Adam’s desire does not subside, she yields to him. Wharton’s heroine stands firm where Segal’s relents: Ellen Olenska offers to “come to” Newland Archer “once,” but returns to Europe instead; Ellie Schneider sleeps with Adam once, and then goes back to New York. Between the motion and the act, between the desire and the spasm, falls the shadow—of the sexual revolution. That’s the biggest difference between Wharton’s age and Segal’s, and the emotional effect differs too.

Wharton’s subject was the struggle between marriage’s “dull duty” and adultery’s “ugly appetites.” So deeply tragic was her sense of life that Wharton could find in neither a source of happiness. Segal’s vision is essentially comic, perhaps because she is less at home with the language of morality than of psychology (“always doing the right thing and meanwhile raging and resentful that no one saw the magnitude of that sadness”). Or perhaps because she is so much younger—she is just thirty-two, while Wharton was fifty-eight when she wrote The Age of Innocence—Segal is more hopeful about the outcome of moral conflicts, not yet discolored by human society’s iron demands. Or perhaps the reason is that Segal is a Jew, and believes that repentance and atonement are stronger impulses than “the dignity of duty.” As his future father-in-law says, quoting the Yom Kippur liturgy and welcoming Adam back into the fold: “He does not remain angry forever because He desires kindness.” A Jewish sensibility is a fundamentally comic sensibility.

Segal is part of a literary trend toward “rewriting” or “reworking” older classics. In reviewing The Middlesteins for the New Republic, Adam Kirsch remarked upon Jami Attenberg’s obvious debt to Middlemarch. I myself have called A Changed Man Francine Prose’s Middlemarch, and indeed, her masterful plundering of the English literary tradition is among Prose’s best qualities. The genre is not exactly new, however. Jean Rhys’s 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea is an alternate version of Jane Eyre. The temptation is to ascribe the literary practice to intertextuality. As the French novelist Claude Simon remarked in a 1973 interview, though, an “intertextual encyclopedia” (in Umberto Eco’s phrase) is little more than the literary version of a genre in modern art:Picasso invented the genre, and he has been followed by such outstanding figures as Schwitter and Rauschenberg. Lately, literature has also produced collages, or what we call “intertextuality.”A novel like Francesca Segal’s is not a collage, but a new work modelled upon an old—a parody without the burlesque. Thus I propose the name paratext for the subgenre of fiction that is so delightfully represented by The Innocents.

An idiot persists in his error

Am I the only one who commits far more errors when writing on the computer—stupid misspellings, extra words, left-out words, wrong words, inversions of words—than I ever did when writing on the typewriter? In a message that I sent just now, I intended to write “west side” and wrote “wide side” instead (and only noticed after sending the message). I do this all the time. I never used to do it at all.

One cause, I know, is thought outracing fingers. By the time I was about to type out the word west my mind was already on the word side, and so I hamfistedly combined them. But still. I seem to see things differently on a computer screen. The eye scans words on a screen, but focuses upon words on paper. (You too read faster on a computer, I’d bet, but also absorb less of the content.) From a very early age, before I was even out of grammar school, I wrote on a manual typewriter, teaching myself on an old Underwood. The words I would hammer out on it, taking shape letter by letter, were tangible. They left indentations in the paper. The verso felt like braille.

Is the fault my childhood training? That I never became accustomed to anything else? For years and years I stuck with manual typewriters, turning up my nose at the IBM Selectric. Even though I was a fairly early computer user—I got my first Apple IIe in 1983—by then it may have been too late. I was an old dog incapable of learning a new trick.

Is it only us oldtimers who are sloppier on a computer than we ever were on a typewriter? Are younger writers, some of whom may not even have heard of typewriters, blessedly free of such absent-minded errors? One piece of evidence: I rarely garble a sentence when I am copying a passage, looking down on a book at my left hand and not up at the screen. The fault, I am beginning to think, lies not in our age but in our eyes.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Chameleon on rye, please

“It’s All Happening at the Zoo,” my review of Howard Jacobson’s Zoo Time, is this morning’s feature at Jewish Ideas Daily. I can’t claim credit for the title. It was the inspired choice of Suzanne Garment, my editor.

Jacobson doesn’t share the attitude expressed by Paul Simon’s lyric; he is not a fan of animal symbolism, even when it’s carefree and unserious. (Especially then.) Not for him a little harmless anthropomorphism. For Jacobson, the morphism works the other way: “[I]t is not the animals who must check their satiric bona fides out with us, but we who must continuously put ourselves to school with them.” His monkeys do not “stand for honesty,” but exactly the reverse: they belong, he says, quoting D. H. Lawrence (a favorite source), “to the ages before brains were invented.” That’s why a comparison of men to monkeys is so apt.

In his twelfth novel, Jacobson’s hero is a Jewish novelist by the name of Guy Ableman, whose literary debut, which made a splash when it was first published thirteen years before, was called Who Gives a Monkey’s? It told the story of an Orthodox Jewish girl who left the fold (“I haven't left the fold,” she protests, “I just want the space to question”), taking a job as a zookeeper. “And nothing calls Judaism into question quite like monkeys,” she says. The novel’s real subject, though, is—not the fine line that divided animals and humans, nothing so trite—but the greater inhumanity and self-disloyalty of humans. Apes knew rage and spite and boredom right enough, but they were not cynical as mankind was. Crazed with undifferentiated lust they might have been, but they were serious in their monkeydom, understood what being of their species entailed, weren’t forever jumping ship and crossing over the way humans did, and cared for one another.This is as good a statement of Jacobson’s fundamental vision of man as you’re likely to get. No wonder human beings are so funny when they act like apes. They are least themselves then. “Hence the persistence of what is animal in what is comic,” Jacobson writes in Seriously Funny, his 1997 study of humor. “[C]omedy scratches and jeers at us from quite some other place and from quite some other time.”

And no wonder Jews are so serious about humor. Not for them what Walker Percy calls angelism, the neurotic condition in which one yearns for deliverance from man’s animal nature. The Jews are forever aware of the fine line which divides them from the creatures that are not Jewish. Nothing calls Jewishness into question quite so much, and is quite so tempting. When a Christian invites a Jew to dinner, he is likely to ask the Jew’s position on pig. Jacobson was hilarious on the question in a speech last year at the Index on Censorship awards ceremony:In fact, the Book of Leviticus comes down as hard against lapwing, chameleon and tortoise as it does against pig, yet no one ever checks to see where I stand on chameleon. Only ever pig. Do people hear my name and automatically conjure up pig? Anybody would think I’m a banker.Eating pork has been done to death. Only a simpleton would think he could break with Judaism by gobbling something as commonplace as a BLT. But chameleon. . . . Now there’s disloyalty to Judaism.

As I say in my Jewish Ideas Daily review, this intimacy with the deepest springs of Jewish feeling—deeper than anything to be found in Philip Roth, with whom he is routinely and doltishly compared—is what makes Howard Jacobson unique. Start with Zoo Time, if only to laugh at those who keep shouting about the death of books, and then double back on his three best novels: The Mighty Walzer, Kalooki Nights, and The Finkler Question. Don’t neglect his debut Coming from Behind, a sort of Jewish Lucky Jim, or my personal favorite The Very Model of a Man, narrated by Adam’s firstborn Cain. Oh, hell. Read anything by Jacobson you can get your hands on. You’ll never laugh the same again.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

It’s not my New Year

I make my resolutions in the fall, after reminding God that He will decide, in the words of the Yom Kippur liturgy, “who is to live and who is to die.” (Then, after saying I will leave it up to Him, I resolve not to die.)

But there was the neat coincidence yesterday of Helen Rittelmeyer’s “New Year’s Resolutions for Bloggers” and Andrew Sullivan’s announcement that The Daily Dish, his nine-year old blog, will separate from Tina Brown’s Daily Beast, which has hosted it since 2011, and head off on its own behind a paywall.

Rittelmeyer and Sullivan are two of the best bloggers out there. (This is probably the first time they have ever been linked to each other in any way. My apologies to both of them!) The Amateur Reader, no slouch at blogging himself, said in some awe that Rittelmeyer “writes like a mix of Joseph Epstein and Florence King.” (Like King, she also writes for the National Review, although not nearly often enough for my tastes.)

Whatever else you think of him—it is de rigueur among my allies on the Right to mock him without stint or letup—Andrew Sullivan is a pioneer of blogging, who has influenced the literary form of the blog probably more than any other blogger. (I might also observe, on a personal note, that he has been far more loyal to me and my writing than most of my so-called allies on the Right, for whom I simply dematerialized after being “parted” from Commentary.) Disagree with him all you want. The fact remains that Sullivan is one of the most dynamic and indelicate personalities on the blogscape.

If you’ve already clicked over and read Rittelmeyer’s resolutions, you’ll see that I have intentionally flouted the second of them in my previous sentence. I do so in homage to her unique prose style. (Don’t want her to think I am flattering her most sincerely.) Rittelmeyer’s entire approach is summed up in her last paragraph: “Good writers don’t make allowances for intellectual idiocy.” Her five resolutions are five different ways to avoid making allowances.

What caught my attention was her fourth resolution:

Disregard the haters who denigrate blogging as a medium. Blogging is an amateur’s medium, but there is a lot to be said for amateurs. Bloggers sometimes write about things they know nothing about. Professional journalists often write about things they know nothing about. Academics write about things they know so much about that they no longer have any passion for the subject or any sense of its intrinsic interest, since, for understandable reasons, it is all now very boring to them. So don’t be intimidated by their credentials or put off by your lack of them.Of course I agree with her. I’m on record as saying there is no outside credentialing agency for critics and writers. Perhaps it has ever been so, but especially in the “age of the dying of the word,” as Howard Jacobson refers to our times, anyone who cares for exacting thought in exacting sentences is motivated by the amateur’s love (with the help of a little aggression) and not the professional’s obligations and code of ethics (which are euphemisms, as George Woodberry said a century ago, for money-getting and reputation-sustaining).

Blogging is not merely an amateur’s medium. It is a dissent from the professionalization of literature, where professionalization is represented by English departments and creative writing workshops and print magazines and large publishing houses which are subsidiaries of even larger conglomerates. What Jacques Barzun calls the professional’s fallacy (namely, the superstition that understanding is identical with professional practice) has transformed the institutions of literacy into closed shops. If you’re not employed in the literature racket, you might as well, in literary terms, not exist.

Bloggers shrug, and go on doing what they are doing. Above all else what distinguishes them is their willingness to write for free. Occasionally they may be paid for their efforts, but even if the pay dries up, they will go on blogging. No one is better than Andrew Sullivan at explaining why:       When I first stumbled into blogging over 12 years ago, it was for two reasons: curiosity and freedom. I was curious about the potential for writing in this new medium; and for the first time, I felt total freedom as a writer. On my little blog, I was beholden to no one but my readers. I had no editor to please, no advertiser to woo, no publisher to work for, no colleagues to manage. Perhaps it was working for so long in old media that made me appreciate this breakthrough so much. But it still exhilarates every day.
       For the first time in human history, a writer . . . can instantly reach readers—even hundreds of thousands of readers across the planet—with no intermediary at all.
True enough, Sullivan proceeds to raise the livelihood problem (“as the pretense of old media authority ceded to the crowd-sourcing of argument, fact and thought, one thing remained elusive: how to make this work financially”), but this is a subsequent problem, a worry that is different in kind and later. It is never easy to monetize freedom. Sullivan is reluctant to acknowledge the contradiction in his thinking. On the one hand, the breaking up of old media authority; on the other, a nostalgia for the living wage paid by the old media authority.

Freedom’s just another word for no one left to woo. For the writer (whose best readers are among the dead), freedom is an absolute. The man needs to eat and put a roof over his head, but not the writer. For writers, the breaking up of old media authority is the most significant event since the invention of print. For the first time in human history (as Sullivan would put it), a writer’s only compromises are those which are forced upon him by the demands of what he is writing. The only authority is the authority of authorship. The word is dead! Long live the word!

In the coming year, I resolve to enjoy my freedom thoroughly.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Another year in Jewish books

For the third year in a row, I have chronicled the year in Jewish books for Jewish Ideas Daily.

The great biblical scholar Jon D. Levenson wrote the most profound work of Jewish scholarship published during 2012. Inheriting Abraham is a skeptical and contrarian examination of the popular commonplace that the three “Abrahamic religions” have so much in common. Although Levenson has written that Jews are not interested in biblical theology (for reasons I spell out here), and though he does not conceive his project as theological, his books have had a lasting effect on my own thinking about God—and could have much the same effect on more Jews, if only they would read him. Levenson also writes a brilliant scholarly prose, which is extraordinarily accessible despite the difficulty of his argument.

The best Jewish novel of last year was Joshua Henkin’s World Without You, which I reviewed for Commentary over the summer. One of Henkin’s best qualities is that you cannot figure out where he stands on any question from reading his fiction. The World Without You brings together a family of Bush-bashers and Bush voters, of “returnees” to Orthodoxy and religion-despisers; but Henkin never tips his hand. (He himself, as I learned from other sources, was an enthusiastic Obama supporter, but his political enthusiasms belong, for him, to an entirely different universe of discourse.) Unlike most novelists who come at things from the Left, Henkin is bilingual: he has mastered the language of his opponents, perhaps because he was raised in a family who were not strangers to the Jewish religion.

Hillel Halkin’s dreamy Melisande! What Are Dreams? and Howard Jacobson’s comic Zoo Time (review forthcoming) might have challenged Henkin’s novel for the top spot if only I could have claimed, more convincingly than the manifest content of their novels permitted, that they were clear and distinct examples of Jewish fiction.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

On the existence of fictional characters

The commonplace is spelled out by William H. Gass: “Great character is the most obvious single mark of great literature,” he says. He means great fiction, since not all literature, great or otherwise—lyric poetry, for example, or an essay—is the representation of human action. Still: “Great literature is great because its characters are great,” Gass says, summing up the general opinion, “and characters are great when they are memorable.”

The demand for memorable characters has caused all sorts of mischief. Readers shut the covers of a novel and find that an image of a character is stuck in their minds. They are left with the strong impression, which gradually settles into conviction, that the character has an independent existence. Like lovers in a medieval tapestry who shake their limbs and step out of the tapestry into unwoven actuality every night when mere mortals are asleep, great characters in fiction are not confined to the pages of their books. As Gass observes, the one thing all theories about them have in common is that “characters are clearly conceived as living outside language.”

But this is a delusion, a fallacy. No matter how much we enjoy imagining how things might turn out for our favorite characters—Emma’s marriage to Mr Knightley, Huck’s adventures in the Indian Territory, Jim Dixon’s new job in London—we have no way of knowing. We are only amusing ourselves. Fictional characters are creatures of words; they are wholly determined by the language in which, like clothes in a washer, they are soaked. To pretend to know something about a character when the novel is silent about it is to reveal something about ourselves, not about the novel.

These reflections are provoked by some questions that Jessa Crispin asked in a recent post at Bookslut. “Where are all the fat characters in literature whose fatness is not the central issue of the novel?” she asked:

It’s like abortion in literature. Where are the abortions in literature that are not the central problem of the book? Can a character just have an abortion and not have it be like the worst thing that has ever happened?There are really two varieties of question here. The first is a historical question: why have novelists, so far in the history of the novel, included fat characters or abortions only when they are “central” to their novels? Have any novels already been written in which they are not central? (“I’m kind of blanking,” Crispin says.)

But there is also a theoretical question, which is the more interesting. If a character in a novel is not described as being fat, is he fat nevertheless? Could he possibly be fat if the novel never says so? Obesity is treated as extraordinary, a distinguishing characteristic, but what if it is not? What if it is as unexceptional, as unworthy of comment, as teeth and nails? Obesity is extraordinary only from a specific point of view, and where it is “central,” then, the novelist is testifying to his ideology.

Hence Crispin’s resort to abortion. Her own ideology is suggested by her complaint that abortion in fiction is invariably treated as if it were “the worst thing that has ever happened.” Why can’t an abortion be an unremarkable portion of a woman’s experience? And why can’t this unremarkable portion be assumed about female characters in fiction, especially now that abortion is the common experience of so many women? Every character in fiction has a childhood, whether or not it is described. If the same could be said of female characters—many of them had abortions that were peripheral to their experience, not significant enough to remark upon—the unspoken assumption would influence the way in which abortion is conceived in the culture.

But could such an assumption ever be warranted? In the United States, according to the Guttmacher Institute, twenty-two percent of all pregnancies (excluding miscarriages) end in abortion, and the odds of a woman’s undergoing an abortion increase as she ages: one in ten women by age 20, one in four by age 30, and three in ten by age 45. If you were to collect every female character 45 years and older from every American novel published since 1973, you might not be wrong to estimate that thirty percent of them underwent an abortion. But how would you be able to determine, unless their novels explicitly say so, which characters belong to the thirty percent?

Abortions are not the same as the other attributes and experiences that distinguish human beings. In every possible world in which human beings reside, they have teeth and nails and a childhood and are capable of speech and laughter—these are necessary attributes and experiences, belonging to human beings in every possible world, including the worlds of their novels.

The same cannot be said of abortion. It is not true that, in every possible world, thirty percent of women 45 or older have abortions. Since an abortion is voluntary (unlike teeth and childhood), there are possible worlds in which no woman undergoes one. And among these might be the world constructed by a novel. There is no logical means of ruling it out.

A female character in fiction has undergone an abortion if and only if the abortion is inscribed in the fiction. Perhaps the mere fact of reporting or describing an abortion makes it seem “central” to a critic for whom abortions should not be so; perhaps a prescriptive criticism will emerge that urges novelists to write about abortion (and also obesity, while they’re at it) more nonchalantly. They must write about it at all, though, to write about it with small concern; and the mere inclusion of it—the plain fact that the novelist decided to speak of it instead of remaining silent—will be significant. What is excluded from fiction signifies nothing, because it might as well not exist. Nothing outside the language of a novel is true about the men and women who are sentenced to live within it and nowhere else.