I ask you…wasn’t Broken Flowers enough?
I’ve been slowly making my way though Mary Karr’s stunning memoir the Liar’s Club in my spare time for something like a month now, but it wasn’t until a recent 15 hour plane flight that I had a chance to sit down and and finish it.
I love everything about Liar’s Club, its sequel Lit (which I actually read first for some reason) and Karr herself. Her talent, her dry humor, her uncompromising cynicism, her wit, her gift for quick incisive characterization, and her ability to starkly expose and examine her own behavior all make me respect her enormously. Plus, I really enjoy it whenever someone interviews her (prime examples here and here).
Karr’s memoirs are full of unlikely events, often fueled by manic instability and substance abuse. Its consistently surprising, often shocking. But the thing that strikes me most about Karr’s work, especially having given it a couple of weeks to settle, is probably the way she makes God not-quite-so-unpalatable.
I haven’t been much of a God person lately. Like the last 15 years or so. Much of a God person is how I described it to a coworker once, thereby inserting my foot into my mouth. I’ve hung onto the phrase since. Its a handy way to articulate my exact position–beyond agnostic, but not quite all the way up to the rabid atheism that makes you want to actually argue with people. It also seems to suggest to the super-religious that I’m too lazy and ignorant to make big conversion points, which is handy.
What I generally keep to myself is that I really used to believe in a big way, and that there are times I really wish I still could. I remember the comfort there is in faith, the mystery, the sense of purpose, the incredible scope inherent in the idea of God–its something no other atheist I’ve known personally has really been able to appreciate.
These days, I’m sometimes too apt (like the other liberal democrat city-dwellers) to think of religious practice as a kind of mass delusion embraced by the weak, the shallow, the victimized, the under-educated, and the controlling, hateful charlatans who hope to take advantage of them. In fits of politically correct tolerance, I even occasionally fall back on the anthropological approach, which basically boils down to ‘why would anyone think this shit.’ (NB: Nothing makes you look like an asshole quite like speculating on the possible motivations of people you have never met. Political figures are exempt from this rule.)
But when smart, snarky feminist Mary Karr talks about her conversion–to Catholicism of all things–it reminds me of everything I admire and respect in true religious devotion. Rigor, discipline, scholarship, accountability, and most of all living in a conscious and conscientious way, investing small acts with mindfulness, engaging in a level of reflection otherwise almost unheard of in day-to-day existence. A religious expression that is personal and genuine–not just a string of catch phrases repeated by rote, but an evolving experience, the hard work of being an honest and decent human being.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression. There’s a lot more in these works then religion–God doesn’t occupy more than about three chapters across the both books–but that’s what I keep returning to in retrospect.
This is one of those books I picked up because of the cover. Can I just say I love the faded hipster t-shirt quality of this book design? You could pick this out as McSweeney’s at 200 yards. Cloth bound and embossed, with the weird muted 70s color pallet and Wes Anderson-esque imagery, the total absence of dust jacket (no insight, no explanations), and the thoughtful addition colored front papers (a pricy touch you almost never see any more). You can’t tell from the photo, but the grey background is actually textured with a pattern of raised diamonds. I’m not addicted to print (I’ve been known to read George Elliot on my iphone, for example) but this is the kind of book that just feels great to hold.
So, I was favorably predisposed. Then I flipped it open, read a few lines, and was sold.
I stumbled into this book thinking it was going to be a novel with an eccentric architecture–I guess because I know Adam Levin is also a novelist. It took me, embarrassingly, until well into the second story to recognize it for what it actually is: a straight-up short story collection.
The stories are distinguished by a pervading air of irony, plots filled with unexpected left turns, intensely present characters, clever prose and especially clever dialog. But most of all by their quirkiness–that gently humorous, pardonably over the top, self-conscious eccentricity that is, like the cover, such a part of the McSweeny’s aesthetic. They are for the most part gregarious, engrossing, a pleasure to read. Though violent and occasionally tragic, the stories contain a surprising underlying positivity that I found striking.
Of the 10 stories, I adored three (“Frankenwittgenstein,” “Jane Tell” and “Scientific American”), experienced a strong disinclination for two (“Considering the Bittersweet End of Susan Falls” and “The Extra Mile”), and completely forgot one (“Finch”), only remembering it when skimming the table of contents before writing up this post.
The qualities I find so compelling in these stories are same elements that, in too great a concentration make some of the work unpalatable. In nearly every story, there’s a moment when some side character goes on a page-long rant in what is clearly a go-to voice. Dramatic occurrences send the story skittering off in new directions, leading to conclusions my old writing professor would describe as “not earned.” I loved “Susan Falls” right up until (spoiler alert) the moment she accepts a cigarette from her cousin and promptly has a seizure and dies–something we all saw coming, but hoped the author wouldn’t actually go through with. Susan’s imaginative lies about the loss of her legs, her analytical consideration of Carla’s ass, the outlandish chapter numbers and titles like some kind of textual synesthesia–I was with him for all that. But the single cigarette death is so after-school-movie-of-the-week, like the girl who smokes but doesn’t inhale one joint and ends up pregnant and addicted to crack living in a car. I get that its deliberate; I just don’t like it. Its too much. Lots of people (Carolyn Kellogg) disagree with me on this point.
The piece that will stay with me longest is undoubtedly “Scientific American,” the story of a nameless young couple plagued by a mysterious oozing crack in their bedroom wall (make all the vaginal allusions you want here…its in the text). Its established early on that they are a little superstitious, a little nervous. The couple suffered a miscarriage in the past; now the wife is pregnant again, and they are both careful how they speak about their expectations.
The oozing crack appears one day without explanation and consistently reappears, Gogel like, despite repainting, and even tearing down and rebuilding the wall. The man descends into a good old fashioned existential madness, until, inexplicably, he decides to mop up a bit of the ooze on a piece of raw bacon and feed it to his much-loved pet dog. The man feels remorseful and guilty about feeding the dog the ooze, but attempts to justify his own behavior as he goes about his day, dog in tow. The dog, apparently poisoned, begins vomiting in the car shortly thereafter, causing an accident.
The man wakes up months later (see what I mean about unexpected left turns?). He and his now very pregnant wife return home, where he ritualistically cleans the oozing crack. Thereafter, the man cleans the crack religiously for the rest of his life–not unlike the natives appeasing the volcano. Its a good life, happy, successful, prosperous. After his death, his wife maintains the crack, and later, their grandchildren.
In the final scene of the story, we go back in time to the christening of the couple’s first child. After the ceremony, the man speaks with their house painter who explains that the crack was caused by shoddy Indonesian paint, purchased by the contractor when their home was nearly complete, so that it was only used on one wall. Other houses in the subdivision had cracks throughout. The builder had intended to use new, quality paint when the wall was rebuilt, but the man had gone ahead and painted himself, using a leftover can of paint from the basement, and no one had wanted to explain the error to him. The man apparently discards this logical explanation, preferring a version of the story in which he did not poison his dog, in which the crack has been successfully placated, in which consistent rules apply.
Tragic misconstruction has always been one of my favorite plot models, and this application with its strong overtones of religious allegory and denial fits closely with what troubles me about Christianity as practiced by certain of my family members. Which is to say, I really appreciated it.
Hot Pink offers such a spectrum of work that it doesn’t entirely make sense as a collection. I was alternately thrilled and disappointed as I read, but my overall sense is that I now need a copy of The Instructions. I’d have got there sooner if people hadn’t kept comparing it to Infinite Jest.
I know from reading Slammerkin and Room that Emma Donoghue possesses great range, a gift for applying research in fiction with a light insistent touch, and an almost incredible capacity for tailoring her narrative style to her characters’ reality–so much so that it can be difficult to recognize her voice from novel to novel. In the short story collection Kissing the Witch, Donoghue waxes lyrical, redressing a series of thirteen well known fairy tales. Though Donoghue dispenses with Once Upon a Time, and relates each tale through the medium of a first person narrator, the stories retain the timeless archetypal unreality appropriate to their genre. The tales are beautifully written, each line specific and evocative.
The stories themselves are cleverly nested, with the secondary character of each story (often but not always the villain or lover) becoming the heroine of the next. The female beast from “The Tale of the Rose” (Beauty and the Beast) was, in her youth, the heroine of “The Tale of the Apple” (Snow White). The step mother from “The Tale of the Apple” was formerly the maid from “The Tale of the Handkerchief” (The Goose Girl), in this telling, the protagonist of the story. The book ends (or if viewed in chronological terms, begins) with an original story, “The Tale of the Kiss,” concerning the history of Sea Witch from “The Tale of the Voice” (The Little Mermaid).
Strong feminist themes of self reliance and self determinism run throughout the collection, and there is an implicit understanding that stories do not end with successful romantic love. Prince Charming is notably absent. Indeed, with the exception of the affection between the siblings in “The Tale of the Cottage” (Hansel and Gretel), there are no positive relationships with any male characters, including fathers and brothers.
In these fairy tales, women become disillusioned and extricate themselves from troubling situations, occasionally finding salvation, or at least comfort, in relationships with other women. The narrator from “The Tale of the Apple” eventually abandons the dwarfs of her own volition and returns to the castle to confront the queen. The narrator from “The Tale of the Shoe” (Cinderella) loves her fairy godmother, which, if you think about it, really does make more sense. The heroine of “The Tale of the Cottage” saves her brother from the witch and, in a neat reversal of roles, sends him to safety while she remains behind. Because these adaptions tend to eliminate the conclusion of the traditional tale–because the tiny shoe is never tried on, the beast was always beautiful under her mask, the witch does not end up in the oven, the prick of the distaff does not send the princess to sleep, and the girl never truly lost her voice–the stories can fall a little flat, but in general their brevity, stylishness, and the repartee between the tale as written and tale in the reader’s mind is enough to keep the forward momentum.
In these tales as in most of her other work, Donoghue focuses on strong but victimized women, many of them disturbed, perhaps beyond the possibility for recovery. She explores the effects of trauma on the human psyche with compassion, but also a fearless willingness to expose the ugliest sides of her characters, and she offers no happy endings, only, occasionally, peace.
Ta da! Turns out you can cram a lot of crap into a studio apartment. I had been waiting to share pics until the new place could be fully and perfectly decorated, and completely clean. But, it’ll be a few months before I can afford my sofa and rug, I may never hang the mirror, and as for clean, well…you get the idea. So here it is, without further ado, seven rooms in one and a half.
The entry way
My God, closets.
Six weeks into my new apartment, I have determined that…
1. My house will never, ever be clean enough for me to take and post “after” pictures
2. The landlord was totally bullshitting about that window thing. I closed it during the second of several cloudbursts in March. No suffocation has yet taken place.
3. Berkeley is more boring than I remembered.
4. But my God its cheep.
5. I really miss my car.
6. A half-way decent shower is a luxury that may elude me all my life.
Before I moved into my last apartment, I was obsessed by this idea of a sauce pan. I had a big sauce pan (like for popcorn, or once-a-winter huge stew), and a tiny sauce pan (like for actual sauce), but no mid-sized sauce pan (like for any normal thing that you might conceivably cook). I actually had nightmares about this. Like wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night cannot-go-back-to-sleep anxiety dreams.
As I prepare to move into my new place February 1st, my obsession with housewares has returned–only this time, the thing I can’t stop thinking about is a sofa.
Let me back up. Five or six years ago, my parents replaced their living room furniture for the first time in–well, ever, pretty much. And they gifted me their old sofa bed. It was a ridiculous object for a semi-transient 20-something to own–massive, heavy and older than I am by at least three years.
I absolutely adored it. I actually chose apartments based on whether or not it would fit inside. I dragged that thing around through four different moves as it decayed before my eyes, acquiring cat scratches at one apartment, the back growing weak and wobbly in another, the mattress on the fold-out bed compressing, the cushions shrinking like dried sponges. Like some rare and valuable collectable taken out from under the glass, it aged more in five years with me than in 25 with my scrupulous family.
I didn’t care. I had the actual original receipt from when my parents bought it. I remembered building forts out of the cushions as a little kid. I slept on the fold-out for weeks at a time as a teenager, once because I found a mouse in my room, another time as a protest against my white lace-covered daybed. I have a scar on my leg from where the mettle frame cut me once. I loved the way the fuzzy upholstery felt against my face. To this day, I miss that thing like it was a dead pet.
Eventually, though, I was brought to see reason: it was old; it was uncomfortable; it was impossible to drag up and down stairs; no one I knew was willing to help me move it again; even my my baby brother didn’t want it. So, at length I abandoned it with my harpy scank roommates (who are so completely undeserving of the gift that is that sofa, by the way).
Today, a sofa bed has once again become my weird, borderline unhealthy object of transference. I think about it while I go to sleep. Why?
Its not that I’m this big entertainer or anything, but I hate the idea of having a bed as the main focal point of the place where I live. Why not? one might reasonably ask. After all, I lived in roughly 7 different cramped, San Francisco shotgun-style apartment, with no common space and extra beds jammed in the closets and laundry areas since, oh, about 2005. And dorms, before that. So, you know. Its not like I’m shy about having people sit on my bed (though I’d prefer they keep their feet off it).
I don’t know what it is exactly. A living room is sort of a personalized public space. And that appeals to me. And a living room has a sofa, not a bed. That’s not it though; not entirely. I like that sofas are big: they can’t be crammed in here or there. They anchor the place where you live. A sofa is a piece of furniture. I like that sofas last: they’re the kind of thing you pick out in your 20s and still own in your 50s (at least in my family). It’s a big, old, investment; status and stability.
Plus my place is tiny. I need floor space to pace in; it helps me to think.
While we’re on the subject of Mauprat–what is it about romance between relatives? Because it makes us uncomfortable these days, we have a tendency to shrug our shoulders, look the other way and say, “well, that was the olden days, they didn’t know any better.” Although clearly, of course, they did; 19th century novelists and the characters who populate their work were the wealthiest people in agricultural economies; they understood breeding just fine.
Historians can tell us that marriages between cousins were a fiscal strategy of the upper class, a way to soften the blow of female disenfranchisement, lessen the impact of primogeniture and keep wealth concentrated within the family. This political and financial necessity was deliberately romanticized in the culture, some argue. It was desirable from a prudential standpoint, and so it became desirable form a psychosocial one as well.
But, as all diligent english majors know, cousin love in 19th century novels isn’t about practicality or money or social acceptability or even, really, about love. Its a way of expressing the fundamental sameness between two individuals. Romances of this period are obsessed by the idea of transcendental love, of fated spiritual connection, a union of souls–of two people who are, in some mysterious way actually one person. This concept is not infrequently expressed as familial relationship. Blood of my blood. All that. Its also a sneaky blow for gender equality. In depicting male and female characters as two halves of one whole, brothers and sisters (don’t worry, its a figure of speech), matched souls, these authors are tacitly placing them on equal footing.
I’ve been struggling to come up with something to say about Mauprat that’s not completely obvious for a while now. But here’s the thing: this book is completely obvious. Theres no ambiguity; no “showing, not telling”; nothing obtuse or inconclusive. It’s utterly transparent. The author tells us what happens in definite terms, and then she tells us how to interpret it, and then she tells us how we should feel about it. Sand had a point; a message about feminine value and feminine strength, about the complex relationship between nature and education in the formation of human character, which she wanted to convey to readers, critics, and very probably her soon-to-be ex-husband, loud and clear.
In Mauprat (1837), George Sand relates the life story young Bernard de Mauprat, tracing his progress from a busque and villainous youth, to a respectable and worthy gentleman. The novel adopts elements of many popular genres–its a gothic novel, a romance, a history, an (almost) murder mystery, and at its core, a coming of age story.
Like many novels of the same period and genre, Mauprat employs a nested story structure which lends itself to that uniquely 19th century combination of first person narration and omniscient soap boxing. Sand narrates the tale in the voice of an aged Bernard de Mauprat, relating his life-story to a pair of younger men over the course of two evenings spent before the fire at his home.
Bernard was born the grandson of an infamous noble tyrant and was, after the death of his parents raised by his grandfather and his eight brutal bachelor uncles in their deteriorating castle, Roche-Mauprat. He was brought up to a life of violence, indulgence, and oppression by a group of men who robbed, murdered, fought and drank, seizing what they wanted from the peasantry at will, abused by the old patriarch, and eager to treat anyone weaker than themselves in the same style.
Then, we meet the girl. The uncles bring her back to Roche-Mauprat after one of their marauding trips, having evidently discovered her lost in the woods after becoming separated from a hunting party and tricked her into believing that they would help her home. Of course, she’s beautiful. Somewhat less predictably she’s also their cousin. It seems that a lesser branch of the Mauprat family lives nearby, a cousin of the head of the house, and his daughter. This is the daughter, Edmee. She’s given to Bernard by his uncles, the first woman he’s ever had. Bernard is possessed by an instant passion, but can’t bring himself to rape the girl then hand her over to his uncles. Instead, he extracts an as-it-turns out, unfortunately unspecific promise of love, and the two escape to her home, where her father (his great uncle) receives Bernard joyfully. Safe at home, Edmee explains herself more fully: she’s not going to “give herself to him” immediately as payment for her life (which is what he expects), but she will marry him if he becomes educated. To be clear, Edmee is not asking Bernard to read a few books and learn to add; she’s speaking of a moral, social and philosophical education.
What follows his a seven-year courtship during which Bernard discovers, through painful trial and error, what it means to care for and think about others, to take responsibility, to exercise self control. He travels the world, fights in the American Revolution, make real friends, becomes a whole person. This provides Sand with a wealth of opportunities to discourse on the subjects of love and human nature.
There is, she tells us,
reason to believe that we carry within us from our earliest years the seeds of those virtues and vices which are in time made to bear fruit by the action of our environment.
A man cannot change the essence of his nature, but he can guide his divers faculties towards a right path; he can almost succeed in turning his faults to account
Her advice, then, is:
Do not believe in any absolute and inevitable fate; and yet acknowledge, in a measure, that we are moulded by instincts, our faculties, the impressions of our infancy, the surroundings of our earliest childhood–in short, by all that outside world which has presided over the development of our soul. Admit that we are not always absolutely free to choose between good and evil, if you would be indulgent towards the guilty…
Bernard credits Edmee and his love for her with the evolution of his character, “from a wolf into a man.” She is not, however, a female pygmalion. Sand is very clear about this. Edmee, we are told, loved Bernard from the instant they met. She would not degrade herself by surrendering to him while he was so unworthy, or endanger herself by placing her person and property in his care while he was so incompetent–but she always loved him. She didn’t carve a statue and then fall in love with it; she fell in love with the block of marble and but refused to compromise her own principles or well being, until eventually it carved itself.
In this way, Sand gives us a three dimensional heroine; a woman who is both passionate and sane (is there anything more rare in gothic fiction?); a woman who is thoughtful and intelligent, but still gets angry; a woman of principal and integrity, who has weaknesses, but doesn’t give in to them.
Channeling her own voice through her characters, Sand asserts,
Men imagine that a woman can have no separate existence of her own, and that she must always be wrapped up in them; and yet the only woman they love deeply is she whose character seems to raise her above the weakness and indolence of her sex…
A spirit of independence, the conception of virtue, a love of duty, all these privileges of lofty souls are essential…in the woman who is to be one’s companion through life; and the more your mistress gives proof of strength and patience, the more you cherish her, in spite of what you may have to suffer.
Sand executes a neat trick in writing this novel from Bernard’s perspective, appropriating the authoritative voice of an elderly wealthy landed nobleman and using it to endorse a controversial message of gender and class equality. This approach also has a tempering effect on the feminist novel format. This is no hopeless, soul sucking Kate Chopin sob-fest. There’s no lonesome Margaret Fuller austerity. No one goes swimming with a pocket full of rocks. The men in this book are universally (with the exception of the Mauprat uncles and few other stray villains) estimable, offered up as examples of the solution, not causes of the problem.
Though not frequently read today, Mauprat has an important role in the literary discusion of education. In it, Sand replies to Rousseau’s Emile (1762) and borrows from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The novel exudes an air of La Belle et Bete (1740). Its easy to imagine Charlotte Bronte drawing upon Mauprat for Jane Eyre (1847).
Man is born with more or less of passions, with more or less power to satisfy them, with more or less capacity for turning them to a good or bad account in society. But education can and must find a remedy for everything.
(quotes are from the free Kindle version)
Not so long ago (or at least it doesn’t feel long ago), in a fit of credulous sentimentality, I made the mistake of publicly posting my New Years resolutions, in the mistaken belief that it would somehow make a difference. The whole exercise was ludicrous and I don’t know what’s wrong with me. But, since I did that, I might as well do this….
5. Care for skin. I didn’t do so bad with this one, actually. No shocking sunburns. Nothing but a mild tan acquired despite layers of spf. The liklihood of my getting skin cancer has not risen since last year.
4. Weigh 125 lbs. Not so much. Its not that I didn’t loose any weight; its just that I gained it all back. Carry that one over into 2013, I guess.
3. Achieve a modicum of financial stability. Not so bad in this department either. More lucrative job? Check. Two, actually. Small savings? Check. It was hard. Really, really hard. But its there somehow, and I’m not touching it.
2. Graduate! Oh, right. No thesis; no diploma. May 2013, here I come.
1. Write everyday. Um…no. Huge improvements in this area actually; I’ve put in a lot of work. But everyday? No. It does occur to me that this was a dumb idea. That if I was going insist on quantifying, I should have gone with something like total pages, or total hours. Excuses, excuses.