I Riff on Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, Which I Haven’t Read (Book Acquired, 8.22.2012)

 

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1. Jeffrey Eugenides’s third novel The Marriage Plot is out in paperback from Picador this month. I haven’t read it.

2. I like the cover, a sort of watercolor job on thick textured paper.

3. I read Eugenides’s first novel The Virgin Suicides in 1997 or 1998. I was a freshman or sophomore in college. It was one of those books that everyone had on their shelves (I read my girlfriend’s roommate’s copy in maybe two sittings). I recall liking its style but the story had no emotional impact on me.

I was suspicious of the talent everyone ascribed to Eugenides.

4. I bought Eugenides’s second novel Middlesex in a train station in Rome. I bought it because I needed something to read. I read most of it on trains. This was the summer of 2005 or 2006, I think.

5. Middlesex is one of the first novels I can think of that I read and thought, “Here is a writer trying to fool me. Here is a writer trying to hide a fairly predictable plot under a mask of thematic importance. Here is a writer trying to hide mundane and often clunky prose beneath relevant issues. Here is an author trying to hide a lack of penetrating insight beneath the dazzle of historical sweep.”

6. Middlesex: The seams show. It’s literary-fiction-as-genre. And I have no problem with that. I wish it was weirder.

7. Here’s the back cover blurb for The Marriage Plot:

It’s the early 1980s. In American colleges, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels. As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes—the charismatic and intense Leonard Bankhead, and her old friend the mystically inclined Mitchell Grammaticus. As all three of them face life in the real world they will have to reevaluate everything they have learned.

8. I sort of feel like I’ve already read the novel after reading this. Or maybe I feel like I could guess the trajectory of the novel.

9. Okay, so maybe I should read the first few pages . . .

10. I stopped on page 11, at this paragraph:

The cafe had just opened. The guy behind the counter, who was wearing Elvis Costello glasses, was rinsing out the espresso machine. At a table against the wall, a girl with stiff pink hair was smoking a clove cigarette and reading Invisible Cities. “Tainted Love” played from the stereo on top of the refrigerator.

Espresso! Cloves! Soft Cell! Calvino! Costello!

Okay. Maybe it’s Gloria Jones’s version of “Tainted Love.”

Anyway. There’s something insufferable about the paragraph.

I suppose I need to name or define the “something.”

11. Let me backtrack then, to the first paragraphs of the novel, to its first line even: “To start with, look at all the books.”

I like that as an opening line. I do. And I don’t mind an intertextual read. I’ll even accept this opening gambit as a form of characterization for our heroine Madeleine—this listing of authors—Wharton, Henry James, “a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope” (a smidgen!), “good helpings of Austen, George Eliot” etc. etc. We learn she reads Collette “on the sly” (who is stopping her?).

The references pile up: The surroundings of College Hill are compared to a “Charles Addams cartoon or a Lovecraft story”; those damn RISD kids are “blaring Patti Smith”; Madeleine has borrowed her roommate’s Betsey Johnson dress; you might recognize Madeleine by her “Katherine Hepburn-ish cheekbones and jawline”; etc.

For, fun, let me pick three pages at random:

On page 75, we find out that someone named Dinky is “a frosted blonde with late-de Kooning teeth.”

Page 187 is clean.

Page 87: Roland Barthes. Harpo Marx. Grolsch beer.

(I can’t help but skim over 86, a motherlode: Kafka, Borges, Musil, Vanity FairThe Sorrows of Young Werther, Derrida).

12. Erudition in a novel can be a fine thing, and works that explicitly reference and engage other works can be marvelous (Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn is an easy example to go to here). But references can also be used lazily as placeholders for real meaning, or even as a substitution for an entire milieu. (This is what I mean by the “something insufferable,” re: point 10).

13. There seems to be a trend in genre-bound “literary fiction” novels (again, I mean literary-fiction-as-genre) that lazily tie themselves to another, greater novel, without actually adding to the themes. I’m thinking explicitly of Franzen trying to borrow some of the weight of War and Peace in Freedom and Chad Harbach’s bid for Moby-Dick comparisons in The Art of Fielding. My intuition is that Eugenides is doing the same thing in The Marriage Plot.

14. Of course I’m probably (improbably enough) not the ideal audience for The Marriage Plot, not despite the fact but because of the fact that I happen to dig Talking Heads and Derrida and Barthes and literary theory &c. A romcom that involves a semiotics seminar as a setting is especially unappealing to me.

My wife, on the other hand, snapped up the copy of The Marriage Plot that the kind people at Picador sent me. I had to pull it from her night stand to write this riff. I’ll get her reaction down the line, which will certainly be more informed than my own.

 

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Book Shelves #16, 4.15.2012

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Book shelves series #16, sixteenth Sunday of 2012.

It’s hard to photograph books, and using an iPhone 3gs probably doesn’t help. Lots of glare. Anyway: This shelf houses mostly Melville, with some Hawthorne, Poe, and Whitman, as well as some critical works on the American Renaissance movement. (Henry James and F.O. Matthiessen). I have other versions of a lot of these books, including a fraternal twin in my office, a bit bulkier (Emerson, Dickinson, Thoreau, etc.), although these days I’m apt to go to the Kindle for American Renaissance stuff. Here’s a better angle, perhaps:

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The version of Typee is bizarre: no colophon, no publisher info, just text. I love these midcentury Rinehart Editions of Hathorne and Melville stuff:

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Barry Hannah’s Novella Hey Jack! Is a Loose, Hilarious Tragedy

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The loose, brief breeziness of Barry Hannah’s 1987 novella Hey Jack! belies the terror and rage at the heart of this hilarious tragedy. It’s a slim volume—133 pages in my hardback copy—with the same rambling flightiness that characterizes Hannah’s better known 1980 novel-in-vignettes, Ray.

Hey Jack! bears many comparisons with Ray: Like Ray, this novel is told from the perspective of a war vet (Korea this time, not ‘Nam); like the eponymous speaker of Ray, the narrator of Hey Jack!, Homer, finds himself frequently besotted, binged out, or horny; like Ray, Homer tries to make a marriage work; like Ray, Homer comes into conflict with a poor white trash family.

And like Ray, Hey Jack! tests the boundaries of what is and is not a “novel.” Hey Jack! is discontinuous and meandering; there’s a plot, sure, but Hannah’s apt to jump over place and time freely, tripping over months at a time, sparing not even a sentence to cue his readers in the right direction. No exposition here, folks. I suppose I should summarize the plot though: Homer, passing middle age, takes up a friendship with Jack, an older man, a former sheriff and fellow Korean War vet who runs a coffee shop popular with the college kids. Together, the pair (sort of) face off against Ronnie Foot, a local boy turned rock star who has the gall to begin an affair with Jack’s forty-year old daughter:

Ronnie Foot, the rock star had her. Or Jack thought he had her, he was sure he had her. Jack was mumbling. Jack was talking about ingratitude and pride and scum hanging on meat, things of that nature. It was astonishing to see him creep and rise suddenly, like a crazy old man. . . . “Nobody ever had a daughter like me. You want me to just her go, like a fart?” He was fingering the gun again.

Jack, once the lone bastion of sanity and order in Homer’s small, chaotic Mississippi town, begins to slide into the insanity and violence that marks the rest of the populace. Jack’s stability is the closest thing Hey Jack! offers as a slice of normalcy (to be clear though, Hannah’s characters skew grotesque, not quirky).

What unites the volume isn’t Jack’s slow slide to the dark side, but rather the narrative’s distinctive, ornery voice. It’s worth quoting Homer at length; here he condenses several of the novel’s themes in the sort of crazy-or-wise? rant indicative of the novella’s tone and rhythm:

In love, in love, in love. A mule can climb a tree if it’s in love. A man like me can look himself in the mirror and say, I’m all right, everything is beloved, I’m no stranger to anywhere any more. I’m a man full of life and a lot of time to kill, shoot every minute down with a straight blast of his eye across the bountiful landscape, from the minnow to the Alps. Something looks back at you with an eye of insane approval. Something looks back at you; out of belligerent ignorance of you it has come to a delighted focus on you and your love, together, sending up gasses of collision that make a rainbow over the poor masses who are changing a tire on the side of the road on a hot Saturday afternoon, felling like niggers. There is a law that every nigger spends a quarter of every weekend changing tires, my friend George, the biochemist, says. What do we know? What do we mere earthlings, unpublished and heaving out farts like puzzled sighs, know, but what is in our blood? I had broken up once with a woman who was in Europe, and coming out of the mall movie (I don’t even remember the movie) I gave out this private marvelous fart that was equal to a paragraph of Henry James, so churned were my guts and so lingering. And I was free. Free to discuss it. Delighted in the boundless ignorance and destruction that lay out there under the dumb lit cold moon. Enough about me and my poetry.

There’s so many shifts here. Hannah’s Homer comes off like a besotted barstool philosopher, gazing at his navel through an empty tumbler and finding both gut and abyss. We see the casual racism that so many of Hannah’s characters dip into; we see the conflation of art, spirit, and expulsion. Need I comment on the fart joke? It’s worth just repeating: “I gave out this private marvelous fart that was equal to a paragraph of Henry James” — if you don’t like that you’re not going to like Hey Jack!

Beyond that voice, there’s little to organize Hey Jack!—it’s a riff, sometimes a howl, often a jape, a joke, sometimes a verbal slap. This isn’t to say there isn’t a trajectory to the novella or a payoff at the end. Hannah seems unable to resist a tragic arc, the same one he pulls through the whiskey haze of  Ray. Perhaps he takes his cues from Edgar Allan Poe’s essay “The Philosophy of Composition“: ” . . . the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” (To be fair Poe is hardly the first fella to find a dead beauty such a worthy topic; also, I’ve never really been sure how to measure the tone of his essay—I can’t help but think he’s being somehow simultaneously tongue-in-cheek and deadly earnest. But enough about Poe).

But arcs be damned. The best bits of Hey Jack! are the stray little paragraphs that erupt from nowhere either to fizzle out or burn up in a bang. At its best, the novella offers bizarre little stories piecemeal that read equally absurd and true. To wit:

I began hollering at my wife for her shortcomings. She left the house, 11 P.M. I’d quit drinking and smoking. She brought me back a bottle of rye and a pack of Luckies, too. I hadn’t smoked for two weeks. I must have been a horrible nuisance.

I took a drink and a smoke.

Then I was normal. My lungs and my liver cried out: At last, again! The old abuse! I am a confessed major organ beater. I should turn myself in on the hotline to normalcy.

I hope by now that you have a sense of whether or not Hey Jack! is for you. It’s probably not going to gel with most readers: Too ugly, too loose, too nihilistic, perhaps; at heart a sloppy affair . . . but I loved it—it was the perfect book to riffle through over a few Saturday or Sunday afternoons on my back porch, its pages blotting up the condensation from a glass of sangria or can of beer, Homer’s consciousness as loose and discontinuous as my own. Not the best starting place for those interested in Hannah—that might be Airships—but great stuff.

James Wood (Is Wrong) on Blood Meridian

Critic James Wood wrote extensively about Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian in his 2005 essay for The New Yorker, “Red Planet.” Here’s his lede–

To read Cormac McCarthy is to enter a climate of frustration: a good day is so mysteriously followed by a bad one. McCarthy is a colossally gifted writer, certainly one of the greatest observers of landscape. He is also one of the great hams of American prose, who delights in producing a histrionic rhetoric that brilliantly ventriloquizes the King James Bible, Shakespearean and Jacobean tragedy, Melville, Conrad, and Faulkner.

Wood later details McCarthy’s gift as “one of the greatest observers of landscape”–

“Blood Meridian” is a vast and complex sensorium, at times magnificent and at times melodramatic, but nature is almost always precisely caught and weighed: in the desert, the stars “fall all night in bitter arcs,” and the wolves trot “neat of foot” alongside the horsemen, and the lizards, “their leather chins flat to the cooling rocks,” fend off the world “with thin smiles and eyes like cracked stone plates,” and the grains of sand creep past all night “like armies of lice on the move,” and “the blue cordilleras stood footed in their paler image on the sand like reflections in a lake.”

Wood then goes about attempting to explain his problems with McCarthy the “ham” who produces “histrionic rhetoric” –

[McCarthy’s] prose opens its lungs and bellows majestically, in a concatenation of Melville and Faulkner (though McCarthy always sounds more antique, and thus antiquarian, than either of those admired predecessors).  . . .

It is a risky way of writing, and there are times when McCarthy, to my ear, at least, sounds merely theatrical. He has a fondness for what could be called analogical similes, in which the linking phrase “like some” introduces not a visual likeness but a hypothetical and often abstract parallel: “And he went forth stained and stinking like some reeking issue of the incarnate dam of war herself.” . . .

The danger is not just melodrama but imprecision and, occasionally, something close to nonsense. . . .

The inflamed rhetoric of “Blood Meridian” is problematic because it reduces the gap between the diction of the murderous judge and the diction of the narration itself: both speak with mythic afflatus. “Blood Meridian” comes to seem like a novel without internal borders.

So, Blood Meridian doesn’t meet the standard of Wood’s cherished “free indirect style,” where an author subtly shifts into a character’s voice. Wood craves these delicate internal borders. He can’t bear the idea that the towering figure of Judge Holden might come to ventriloquize the novel. It is worth noting here that Wood frequently extols the free indirect styles of Marcel Proust and Henry James–two authors McCarthy dismissed in a 1992 interview with The New York Times, saying “I don’t understand them . . . that’s not literature.”  Wood values a mannered precision of realism that McCarthy openly professes little interest in; rather, McCarthy uses a mythic, amplified, and at times grandiose style in Blood Meridian to explore issues of life and death. And Wood is perhaps not wrong here. At times Blood Meridian edges into bombast, although I believe McCarthy controls his language more than Wood allows. In either case, McCarthy’s language is ripe for parody, as exemplified in this clip from Wes Anderson’s 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums

I would be happy to leave Wood’s criticism of Blood Meridian and McCarthy alone at this point. Fine, Wood doesn’t like it when McCarthy goes balls-to-the-wall; whatever. But at the end of “Red Planet” Wood turns to attacking McCarthy’s perceived failure to vindicate God’s goodness in the face of evil. Wood here (and elsewhere, always elsewhere) shows his deep conservatism. Wood necessitates that all literature reveal a platonic center, a stable, beating heart that must also be a platonic good. Here he is, griping about McCarthy’s “metaphysical cheapness”–

Like most writers committed to pessimism, McCarthy is never very far from theodicy. Relentless pain, relentlessly displayed, has a way of provoking metaphysical complaint. . . .

But McCarthy stifles the question of theodicy before it can really speak. His myth of eternal violence—his vision of men “invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them”—asserts, in effect, that rebellion is pointless because this is how it will always be. Instead of suffering, there is represented violence; instead of struggle, death; instead of lament, blood.

If Wood finds only a nihilism in Blood Meridian (and the rest of McCarthy’s oeuvre) that he fundamentally disagrees with, he should simply say so. Instead, Wood demands that Blood Meridian be a theodicy and then condemns it for not being one. He shamefully attempts to hold the work to a radically subjective rubric that cannot be answered. Put another way, the failure that Wood finds in Blood Meridian is a failure to answer to a version of God–and God’s judgment–that Wood would like to believe in (or, more accurately, be comforted by).

Wood is a bully (of both authors and readers) whose criticisms rarely enlarge the works they seek to address. We see his program at work in “Red Planet,” where his aim is to deflate Blood Meridian’s giant language and not appraise it on its own terms. That the book survives–and thrives–despite Wood’s criticism is hardly surprising; that a critical conversation of Blood Meridian should include Wood is depressing.