Jane Bowles’s novel Two Serious Ladies confounds with sinister humor and dark delight

Two Women, Gwen John

Here’s a short review of Jane Bowles’s only novel, Two Serious Ladies: The book is amazing, a confounding, energetic picaresque suffused with sinister humor and dark delight. I read it knowing nothing about the plot on the recommendation of Ben Marcus, who described it as “so insane, so beautiful, and in some sense, unknowable to me. On the surface, it’s not really about much, but the arrangement of words does something chemical to me.” My recommendation is to dispense with the rest of my review and read Bowles’s novel.

“Unknowable” is a fair description, and Two Serious Ladies was met with bewilderment when it was first published in 1943, as Negar Azimi points out in the comprehensive essay “The Madness of Queen Jane”:

Edith Walton, writing in the Times Book Review, called the book senseless and silly: “To attempt to unravel the plot of ‘Two Serious Ladies’ would be to risk, I am sure, one’s own sanity.” Another reviewer said, simply, “The book is about nothing.” Jane’s family, in the meantime, found it unseemly in its stark depiction of lesbianism. Its characters, who have goals and motivations that are hard to grasp, were difficult to relate to. Yet another critic wrote, “The only shocking thing about this novel is that it ever managed to find its way to print.” Jane was only twenty-four.

The notion that “The book is about nothing,” is corrected by Marcus’s qualifier about its “surface”: Two Serious Ladies moves through the phenomenological world that its characters experience, but it does not mediate the concrete contours of that world in a way that its characters can name for the reader. When the characters, those two serious ladies, do stumble into language that might name, pin down, or otherwise fix their experience, fix their consciousness into a stable relation with the world, Bowles spins the wheel again, flings her characters into new scenarios. Moments of epiphany are transitory and hard-purchased. A (perhaps) illustrating passage, offered without context:

Mrs. Copperfield started to tremble after the girl had closed the door behind her. She trembled so violently that she shook the bed. She was suffering as much as she had ever suffered because she was going to do what she wanted to do. But it would not make her happy. She did not have the courage to stop from doing what she wanted to do. She knew that it would not make her happy, because only the dreams of crazy people come true. She thought that she was only interested in duplicating a dream, but in doing so she necessarily became the complete victim of a nightmare.

The free indirect style here still hides so much from the reader, who must suss the characters’ unnamed desires from bewildering details alone. The passage above shows us fear and trembling, dream, nightmare—and crazy people. What does Copperfield want to do? One subtext here is a lesbian desire seemingly comprehended by everyone but Mrs. Copperfield herself. (In some of the book’s strangest moments, Mr. Copperfield leaves his near-mad wife in a dangerous part of a foreign city to encounter hookers of every stripe). Two Serious Ladies is about women searching for something, but something they can’t name, can’t conceive in language—but can perhaps imagine. Continue reading “Jane Bowles’s novel Two Serious Ladies confounds with sinister humor and dark delight”

Reading/Have Read/Should Write About

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The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

After a few false starts over the last decade, I finally submerged myself in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon in those bourbon-soaked weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year. I read the book as a sort of sequel to the book Pynchon wrote after it, Against the Daysimply because I read Against the Day in 2013, before M&D. Both books are excellent, and seem to me more achieved in their vision than Inherent Vice or V or Vineland. The obvious comparison point for the pair though is Pynchon’s other big book (and, by reputation, his Big Book) Gravity’s Rainbow which I haven’t read since my freshman year of college—which is almost the same as not having read it at all. I intend to read it later this year (or maybe earlier?), but I also haven’t read The Crying of Lot 49 since my undergrad days either (which is to say, like, coming up on twenty years jesus). I’m about half way through and not zapped by it really—there are some funny jokes, but it’s just not as rich as Mason & Dixon or Against the Day (which is not meant to be a complaint, just an observation. And while I’m observing stuff parenthetically: What most bothers my attention most as I read are the reminders of David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System, which I have reread more recently than TCoL49).

Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles (collected in My Sister’s Hand in Mine)

What to say about Jane Bowles’s only novel? It goes: Propelled on its own sinister energy it goes, its vignettes flowing (or jerking or shifting or pitching wildly or dipping or soaring or sneaking) into each other with wonderfully dark comic force. I’ve sketched a full review I hope to be able to write, but for now let me excerpt a paragraph from Negar Azimi’s essay “The Madness of Queen Jane” from last summer in The New Yorker:

When it was first published, in 1943, “Two Serious Ladies” received lukewarm, even baffled, reviews. Edith Walton, writing in the Times Book Review, called the book senseless and silly: “To attempt to unravel the plot of ‘Two Serious Ladies’ would be to risk, I am sure, one’s own sanity.” Another reviewer said, simply, “The book is about nothing.” Jane’s family, in the meantime, found it unseemly in its stark depiction of lesbianism. Its characters, who have goals and motivations that are hard to grasp, were difficult to relate to. Yet another critic wrote, “The only shocking thing about this novel is that it ever managed to find its way to print.” Jane was only twenty-four.

Wharton’s line should intrigue, not repel readers. And: “The book is about nothing” — well, okay, that’s completely untrue—the book is about women searching for something, but something they can’t name, can’t conceive in language but can perhaps imagine. These women are on the brink of all those things one can be brinked upon: abysses, madness, abysses of madness, etc. But: “The book is about nothing” — well, okay, Two Serious Ladies resists unfolding in the way in which we expect narratives to be about something—Bowles withholds exposition, clarification, and motivation—well, okay, not withholds, but rather hides, or obscures, or enshadows.

I don’t have the verbs for this book.

But I loved reading it, feeling estranged from it while simultaneously invited into its darkness, bewildered by its transpositions, as Jane Bowles moves her verbal camera from one character to another—Wait, what? Okay, I guess we’re going over here now?!—its picaresque energy a strange dark joy. More to come.

William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion, a collection of essays edited by Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes

I’ve been dipping into this kind of at random, but it’s very rewarding, and I think it would make a surprisingly good introduction to Vollmann. To be clear, academic criticism is never a substitute for, y’know, reading the author’s actual texts, the range here covers voluminous Vollmann. And look, I’ll be honest, I’ll probably never read Argall, so I very much appreciated Buell Wisner situating it for me in his essay. One of the treats of this book is how an academic essay like Wisner’s—a well-researched close reading with 64 reference notes—is followed by a reflective and informal piece by Carla Bolte on designing Vollmann’s books (“Bill’s books are not for everyone. We all know that,” she offers at one point). Good stuff, more to come.

Dockwood by Jon McNaught

I owe this marvelous book a proper review. Dockwood is a kind of visual prose-poem, tranquil, meditative, autumnal. The book is its own total aesthetic; McNaught uses color and form to evoke feeling here, with minimal, unobtrusive dialogue that functions more as ambiance than exposition. Lovely.

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The Collected Works of Jane Bowles (Book Acquired, 12.19.2014)

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I picked up My Sister’s Hand in Mine: The Collected Works of Jane Bowles mostly because I couldn’t find a stand-alone version of the novel Two Serious Ladies. I guess it doesn’t hurt to have, y’know, all of her stuff (or really most of her stuff), but I’m not really a fan of omnibus editions. My interest in Two Serious Ladies was piqued by Ben Marcus, whom I interviewed by phone earlier this month (still transcribing that one; hope to run it in January). He spoke highly of the book and includes it on his writing syllabus.

“Technologies of Heartbreak” — Josephine Demme

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Illustration for a syllabus by Ben Marcus. (via)

Object Lessons from The Paris Review, Where Writers Present Some of Their Favorite Short Stories from Other Writers (Book Acquired, 6.11.2012)

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Okay: This one is really cool: Object Lessons features a bunch of short stories, some you may have read, each with a short lead-in (two-five pages) by another writer. So, we get Jeffrey Eugenides on Denis Johnson, or Ben Marcus on Donald Barthelme, or Lydia Davis on Jane Bowles, or Ali Smith on Lydia Davis. You know what, let me just share the table of contents (review down the line):

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