March 27, 2007

John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel

How to Read a Novel is an eccentric, miscellaneous, diverting, informative and annoying book. Its basic premise is that we can all use some help deciding which of the overwhelmingly many books around us we should read...but at the same time, Sutherland shies away from offering any specific guidance, rather providing readers with tools they can use themselves to make selections from the overabundant options that surround them. Hence his interest in the apparatus surrounding the novel 'itself' (titles, jacket blurbs, endorsements, copyright pages, etc.) and in the mechanisms of the book industry (bestseller lists and book prizes, for instance)--all things we can peer at and consider without too great an investment of our precious reading time. As you'd expect, though, Sutherland is also interested in distinguishing wheat from chaff once we actually get deep into a novel, and so throughout the book he includes information, judgments, comparisons, all modelling (rather than prescribing) ways we can understand an author's project, avoid oversimplistic or alienated readings that miss (or misrepresent, or just misunderstand) the point (see his discussion of John Banville's criticism of Ian McEwan's Saturday), and otherwise do better jobs of appreciating and contextualizing what we have gotten ourselves into. There are a number of plot summaries and quoted passages to illustrate or animate his ideas about why it is important to know the kinds of things he talks about; his selections are eclectic, and sometimes chosen, I suspect, for their shock value, to prove he is not simply another stuffy professor preaching that we should read "the classics." There are a lot of throw-away remarks on current political figures and events: it must be nice to reach the stage of your career in which you figure (and so, apparently, do your editors) that whatever you think on any subject is worth putting into print, however random or irrelevant to the work at hand. I'll be re-reading this book more carefully as part of my "writing for readers" project, but my first impression is that this is an idly interesting book that doesn't explore its ideas or examples deeply enough to be engaging or helpful to serious readers, while it deals lightly, even hastily, with too many erudite bits and pieces to be engaging or helpful to readers who aren't used to taking an analytic approach to books at all.

I was intrigued that Sutherland identifies Vanity Fair as his 'desert island' book. I know he's a Thackeray scholar and all, and I am a big Vanity Fair fan myself, but wouldn't you get depressed after a while if that was the only thing you had to read? Would you get something new from it on each reading, which is surely essential in that situation? Even Pride and Prejudice (that book that recent studies show most Britons could not live without) would probably wear thin if it were the only book you had. (Of course, my desert island book is Middlemarch, though I'd want a really well annotated edition--maybe the Broadview one, which has copious notes--so I could apply myself to all the scientific, philosophical, and historical aspects that there never seems to be enough time to comprehend fully under ordinary circumstances. Anyone else have a better idea?)

March 23, 2007

Margaret Oliphant, Miss Marjoribanks

According to the back cover blurb on my edition of Miss Marjoribanks, Q. D. Leavis hailed its protagonist as the 'missing link' between Austen's Emma and George Eliot's Dorothea Brooke. I can see the Emma connections much more clearly than the Dorothea ones, except perhaps as, towards the novel's conclusion, Lucilla rather abruptly decides she'd rather improve the tone of an impoverished village than the tone of 'society.' On first reading, Miss Marjoribanks seems a rather purposeless book, though pleasant enough. Lucilla's little crises offer no real drama and do not have any effect on her character (Elizabeth Jay's introduction describes Lucilla's constancy of character as one of Oliphant's goals--but is it a good idea?). She's the same self-satisfied optimist at the end as at the beginning. And the narration offers us no commentary to offset Lucilla's own limited perspective. On the other hand, as an account of abundant energy with no place in particular to express itself--no worthy purpose to serve--the novel is effective, though perhaps (a second reading will help me decide) the book itself is too much the same, that is, puts too much energy into something not very interesting or important. Jay seems to think the novel is a kind of expose of the limited options Lucilla faces (her example of Lucilla pacing out the drawing room for her new carpet is good), but I don't see evidence that the novel is aware of this problem or upset on Lucilla's behalf. In Middlemarch, in contrast, the absence of a suitable vocation to absorb Dorothea's energy and ambition to do good is explored self-consciously at many levels. Miss Marjoribanks is not at all an intellectual novel, and not one that imbues its social observations with much historical depth. I guess that's why I'm prepared to link it to Emma more strongly--except that Austen too seems much more aware of the problems with her protagonist, and Austen also educates both us and Emma about the risks of self-satisfaction, egotism, and interference without real sympathy or understanding. There's a strkingly concrete quality about Miss Marjoribanks, though, that I noticed also when I read Phoebe Junior (so far, these are my only two excursions into Oliphant's fiction). Material objects are what they are, for example, as they are in Trollope; the community and its ordinary habits have a specificity to them that makes thematic or symbolic readings seem to be missing the point. At least in this case, Oliphant's characters lack the depth, subtlety, and appeal of so many of Trollope's (some of them seem just gimmicky, such as Mrs Woodburn and her love of mimicry). But you do get a sense of having peered into a world that, for us, is more foreign than we usually allow. At the moment, I am inclined to put Miss Marjoribanks on the syllabus for my graduate seminar on Victorian women novelists. We will be reading Oliphant's autobiography, in which she famously expresses resentment about George Eliot's greater success. We will be reading both Jane Eyre and Middlemarch, two of the most celebrated 19th-century novels by women, so we will have a good opportunity to discuss why Oliphant has not considered to be in that top rank, and whether the critical tools and approaches we have honed on writers like Bronte and Eliot work applied to someone like Oliphant who seems to be doing something rather different. (This is a question I often consider with Trollope, whose novels seem to render a lot of our usual 'sophisticated' reading strategies absurd.)

March 21, 2007

Emma Donoghue, Slammerkin

Why are writers of historical fiction so drawn to prostitutes? Or is it some strange selection process of my own? Because I can think of four at least in my own recent reading: Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White, Sarah Waters's Tipping the Velvet, The Linnet Bird, and now Slammerkin. I knew from the book blurb, of course, what this protagonist's career path was going to be, but somehow it wasn't until the first few descriptions of her 'at work' that I felt strongly that I had already read all this--or near enough--and that for all that it sounded so promising (especially because I have heard such interesting things about Donoghue, though admittedly in the context of her other works), this novel was not going to surprise me by offering a new idea about it all, or even an especially gripping account. Mary Saunders never became a fully realized character for me; she seemed inconsistent, and once in a while said or did things that seemed like deliberate efforts to make the book more serious and thematically rich--but when you are struck with something as an effort, of course the implication is that the effort is not successful, or the whole would be better integrated, more compelling. It still seems like a very good idea to put a story like this together "from the headlines," as it were, and I thought the fabric / clothing motif had great potential, but again, it was brought up intermittently in a way that seemed effortful rather than inevitable. Mary's fate would have made first-person narration a bit problematic, perhaps ("as told to"?), but as the novel stands it suffers from uneven handling of point of view. Most of it, including the entire first section, is from Mary's, but in the second part, for no apparent reason we begin to get different perspectives. The result is a diffusion of our sympathy and attention--not that Abi, for instance, doesn't (again) have a lot of potential as a character, but why in this novel? Just because it's interesting to get in some material about black people in 18th-century England? One final comment is that the great novel about a woman on the make in 18th C England has surely already been written (Moll Flanders): I didn't see any evidence that Donoghue had looked to this obvious predecessor for the spirit or flavour of her own, markedly humourless version.

March 17, 2007

Lauren Weisberger, The Devil Wears Prada

I began a compilation entry on 'chick lit' novels a few weeks ago and lost interest in writing it, basically because I found that the novels themselves were uninteresting. They included two or three by Jennifer Weiner (In Her Shoes, Good in Bed) and one called The Wives of Bath (the title was the best part). The novels were not bad; they were literate and had recognizable and often sympathetic characters in realistic modern situations. But they struck me as completely lacking ideas--about those characters, for instance, and the historical and social factors that determined their situations. Still, they entertained me reasonably well, and the ones I actually bought can keep their spots on my shelf: they aren't as original and funny as Bridget Jones's Diary but I'm likely to reread them some dreary winter weekend in my future when I need something undemanding to pass the time. The Devil Wears Prada, on the other hand, is that rare item for me: a disposable book, one I actually regret having paid money for. It was not funny, interesting, or entertaining; its premise wore thin on about page 3; its occasional attempts to move beyond cheap parody into actual social satire or commentary were unconvincing; and the 'revelations' of its main character were unearned, in part because of the whole set-up was so extreme.

March 14, 2007

Sara Paretsky, Fire Sale

While writing a series of novels featuring the same detective allows an author to develop the main character (it's a requirement of detective novels, after all, that many characters remain opaque or two-dimensional enough that we aren't sure if they "dunnit" or not, so character development is typically quite restricted), it also risks repetition, especially if the writer is fixated on a very particular social and political vision. Paretsky's determination to use her novels to expose the evils of corporate capitalism means that you can pretty much predict the villains (big business) and their motives (profit) in every novel, and her continuing characters aren't that interesting to me anymore. The near-death escapes strain credulity, especially as V.I. ages (Sue Grafton's decision to keep Kinsey Millhone stuck in the 80s has saved her from this problem). The plotting is competent and the writing is OK, but it seems to me that this is a series that just doesn't have anything new or interesting to offer.

March 5, 2007

Sarah Waters, The Night Watch

I've been eagerly waiting for the paperback edition of this novel, as I am a big fan of Fingersmith (such a smart novel, artistically and intellectually) and was thoroughly entertained by Tipping the Velvet. The Night Watch too was easily readable, deceptively so, I've ended up thinking, as I moved through it smoothly only to arrive at the end feeling quite dissatisfied with how I had read it. The backwards chronological structure, for instance, seemed an artificial device, until on a bit of reflection and then with some help from some of the novel's reviewers, I began to think more about ways it suits the kind of character development Waters seems to be engaged in: it's a kind of up-ended Bildungsroman in which rather than seeing people growing into themselves, we peel back the layers of their past experience to see what lies beneath the people they have become. Now I wonder if there isn't a way in which Waters's approach has, perversely almost, a strong forward momentum for the characters, as we realize how complex and contingent their 'current' identities are and how much they (or their situations) have changed over time: instead of seeing them as having arrived, we see them as poised just ahead of their next transformation: their next relationship, their next disappointment or tragedy, their next moment of hope. At the same time, the glimpses of beauty and hope (such as Helen's face at the end/beginning) are so overlayed with our knowledge of change and (usually) destruction that the overall effect seems more disheartening than otherwise: it's too bad, I kept thinking, that this moment here had to turn out the way I already know it did. One reviewer commented that the novel needed to be read twice, and I certainly expect it will seem quite different on a second reading, as the characters' experiences that are presented so elliptically in the first section will feel much more concrete. I like the simplicity of Waters's prose--also deceptive, as the novel is clearly the result of much research and is effortlessly laden (if that's not oxymoronic) with period details. But I would also appreciate some exposition, a thicker layer of narrative commentary, even some philosophizing! Waters's touch is so light that I find it hard to be sure what she thinks is important about the moment she has chosen, or why she develops the kinds of characters and linkages she does. Why write about the 1940s now, for instance? 'Showing' is all very well, but (and perhaps this is just the Victorianist in me) I like the author to collaborate more actively with me on these questions; otherwise I have the sensation of having seen or felt a series of images and moments, but I have not grasped a strong idea. For this, a little 'telling' would be in order.

I'll just add that as historical fiction, The Night Watch struck me as wholly convincing.