Reflections: The Discomfort Zone

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I am not a connoisseur of memoirs. As a person who holds privacy dear, I contemplate with a kind of fascinated horror those who think their subjectivity is sufficiently important to put on display for all mankind and posterity. Of the billions of people on the planet, I wonder what makes one believe in his or her own absolute uniqueness. That personal quirk aside, I have to say that I really enjoyed reading Jonathan Franzen's The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History. Partially, I believe, because Franzen's relationship to his own experience is so detached and intellectualized. He, too, seems to wonder why he should put himself at center stage, and therefore constantly deflects attention from his own experience to highlight some other event, person, or object. This book of personal essays creates a space for disquisitions on the true character of Charles Schulz, on bird watching, and on the intersection of sensitivity training and Christianity in America in the 1970s. 

Franzen's is the life of the urban elite. He has reached a level of recognizable success. He has a nice apartment in the Upper East Side; enough money to donate to favorite causes to assuage his liberal guilt; a conflicted and constant engagement with his mid-west, middle class roots; an ironic distance from the luxuries that money can buy. Now he processes the actions and accidents that brought him to this point. 

Through his reflections, we discover him to be:
-a man coming to terms with his mother's death and the guilt he feels for only really understanding her separately from her smothering love in the last year of her life. 
-a born-again bird watcher, having newly discovered the hobby to be one of the rare activities that can temporarily stymy his goal-oriented personality and shift his mental rhythms from the analytical to the appreciative. 
-someone who was formed by and deeply appreciative of the undergraduate education he received in German literature.
-A late bloomer with occasional regressions to adolescent reactions to women.
-A sometimes resentful, sometimes grateful, product of the women's liberation movement. 

But really, Franzen is beside the point, and that is what renders this group of essays so powerful.  He is simply and admittedly a representative of the many intelligent and fortunate people of his generation who went out into the whacky world of  late twentieth-century America and found a place in it. 


Reflections: Middlesex

It has been six years since Jeffrey Eugenides won the Pulitzer Prize for Middlesex. If it were in my power, I would give it to him again tomorrow. This is a magical novel, weaving together the story of a young hermaphrodite and a middle-aged country in crisis with as much success as Salman Rushdie united a generation of infants and their new-born country in Midnight's Children (a claim I do not make lightly).

Where Eugenides excels is in creating the texture of a series of moments in America's history from perspectives detached from their national or global consequences. American history appears on the page as it is experienced in life: as the seemingly transparent and very personal lens through which we view ourselves and our relationships with others. So, we see the myth of the black rapist so prevalent in the 40s responded to by a Greek-American bartender in Detroit:

    [W]hen a group of men came in [to Lefty's bar], boasting of having beaten a Negro to death, my grandfather refused to serve them."Why don't you go back to your own country?" one of them shouted. "This is my country," Lefty said, and to prove it, he did a very American thing: he reached under the counter and produced a pistol. (Eugenides 169)

This is not a description that revels in fellow feeling among marginalized peoples, nor does it make the smallest incursion into politically correct sentimentality. Whether Lefty responds with any race-consciousness is left unclear; in some respects it is unimportant. It was the stressful confrontation of a day, not an event in the creation of the History of race relations in America.

Eugenides is also, of course, a comic writer, self-consciously vying with Aristophanes for witty satire. The pointed dart he throws first at Dukakis and then at the American voting public in the following tangent is among the funniest moments in the book. The target is luckily hit: it excuses an otherwise dire lack of relevancy to the narrative at hand. When describing young Milton, Lefty's son, who has just joined the military for reasons of romantic heroics, Eugenides stops to make these observations, ostensibly to compare the way that Milton and Dukakis look in military garb:

    "Behold the banners of the Democratic Convention! Look at the bumper stickers on all the Volvos. "Dukakis." A name with more than two vowels in it running for President! The last time that happened was Eisenhower (who looked good on a tank). Generally speaking, Americans like their presidents to have no more than two vowels. Truman. Johnson. Nixon. Clinton. If they have more than two vowels (Reagan), they can have no more than two syllables. Even better is one syllable and one vowel: Bush. Had to do that twice." (185)

He has a point. Whether or not it is worth interrupting the narrative for is a question that only the individual reader can answer. It does, in any case,  contribute to the overall project of the story: describing the America in which a hermaphrodite can, surprisingly, find a place, shoehorned between liberal values and medical advances, sexual liberation and gay rights, Greek Tragedy and Greek American.

Reflections: The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

The Reader is a novel that has generated some controversy because of the way it characterizes Hanna  Schmitz, an illiterate German who worked as a prison guard at Auschwitz. The trial of Hanna forms the central point of the novel, and her lover tells its story. People have therefore been concerned that Bernard Schlink seeks some kind of sympathy or absolution for the more ignorant perpetrators of the holocaust. I think the accusation is unfounded. It may arise from the tension produced in the reader by a novel that asks us to confront a story we've not yet been asked to confront: how do non-Jewish Germans recover from the stain upon their country and their forbears, who, whether tacitly or not, consented to the persecution of millions of humans?

I think it important to note that the novel has a misleading title. The narrator, young Michael Berg, is the  eponymous"reader," but only in the eyes of Hanna. By giving the book this title, Schlink suggests that the important perspective is Hanna's. Hanna, however, is never the agent who defines meaning in the novel. Rather, she is an object that moves in and out of the the narrator's life, and allows him to put a face on the atrocities of the war and to prevent them from becoming numbing cliches. It is Michael who frames Hanna for us, first as an exotic older woman to whom he gives his heart, then as a woman ignorant that right extends beyond following orders, and finally as a convict, resentful of society's sentence upon her but still haunted by the specters of her victims. At no point do we have access to Hanna's interiority, and at times we are left to doubt that she really has one.

Understanding that Michael has control over the narrative allows one to see that it is really the story of a young man failing to progress through the normal stages of maturation not because of any personal defect but because of a defect of the era in his country: he is of the generation that must reject its parents as either active or passive participants in the holocaust. He faces and risks more than most of his peers, who can submerge the stark generational rift under the guise of the normal individuation of early adulthood. His life cannot be so easily repaired because he must acknowledge that he loved, and loves, a woman who embodies all the inhumanity of the Third Reich. Although he finally recognizes that his trials are those of a whole generation, he can't find comfort in that in the moment because his love for Hanna made "the fate of [his] generation, a German fate...more difficult for [him] to evade, more difficult for [him] to manage than for others" (171). Michael's isolation allows him the distance to see what exactly that fate entails upon his country's citizens.

This book is, finally, about the "German fate" of the latter twentieth century. It explores a topic hitherto rendered taboo by the fate of the victims of the prior generation, whose sufferings were more extensive, more physical, and more permanent than that of their assailants' children. No human experience ought to be censored, so we should applaud the bravery of Schlink for putting himself in the avant garde.

The real shortcoming of this novel lies in the steps that Schlink takes to cover up his intent in pushing this political envelope. The title, Hanna's illiteracy, and the form that Michael gives to Hanna's will are red herrings, distracting from the main point with their seeming profundity, rendered shallow by context. Despite this fault, it is a novel well worth reading.


Finis: The Wanderer: Volume V

Burney's behemoth has been, finally, perhaps even belatedly, put to rest on the bookshelves of your humble servant. Although filled with some regret when looking back at the bleak reading landscape of the past three weeks, I will acknowledge that there are some lessons that one can take away from Francis Burney's The Wanderer.

What I have learned from The Wanderer:
1. Dilettantes and aesthetic theories are like martinis and road trips: they don't mix.
2. Never overvalue a secret.
3. If you must make your fiction a platform, show don't tell. Philosophic debates between two characters worked for Plato, but he wasn't writing a novel.

For those hardy few who are still reading despite the barrage of Burney responses, rest easy: new and better texts are on the horizon.


The Wanderer: Volume III

Despite my desire to find something to appreciate in this volume, I must admit that my patience wears thin. This is not a volume in the classic genre of "bad to worse," which at least provides a harrowing rhythm of progress. Rather, it is a volume that follows Ellis (now finally revealed to the reader, though not to her neighbors, to rightfully own the name Juliet) from bad to bad. How many times can the reader sympathize with the same kind of snubs, the same dangers from men, the same indignities and embarrassments, through all of which the heroine maintains her virtue and, less realistically, her poise?

If we assume that there was some external reason for which Burney required the elongation of her text, we might recognize the volume as an impressive act of creating a holding pattern without seeming to; the many movements of our characters pretend to progress, but have no real impact on the main concerns of the plot. Elinor returns to our attention only to, once again, not die; Ellis's difficulties in business and service continue but do not change her material position, which still hovers between basic sustenance and complete indigence; the unwanted attentions of Sir Lyell and Ireton are renewed, but result in neither violence nor love; a discovery of Ellis's long-awaited companion is made, but her situation does not change. This volume seeks to trompe l'oeil, but my eyes feel rather wearied than awed.


The Wanderer: Volume II

Where the first volume of The Wanderer found Ellis in the unenviable position of a toad-eater (an eighteenth-century name for an indigent person who lives at the mercy of a protector whose payment was the pleasure of publicly tormenting one less fortunate), this volume finds her in the somewhat more comfortable position of seeking her own humble living. Making use of her musical talents, Ellis decides to set herself up as a music teacher. She soon discovers that even free from the immediate humiliations heaped upon her in Mrs. Maple's house, she still must suffer the prejudices and piques of the quality who wish to take advantage of her skill and time without rendering any service or payment in return. She exclaims, "how a FEMALE to forever fresh springing are her DIFFICULTIES when she would owe her existence to her own exertions! Her conduct is criticised, not scrutinized; her character is censured, not examined; her labours are unhonoured, and her qualifications are but lures to ill will! Calumny hovers over her head, and slander follows her footsteps!" (276).

Perhaps the most perilous tendency of those the gentry is their desire to pull her ever more fully into the public eye, an act which both assaults her female modesty and puts her secret past at risk of discovery. She is at turns neglected and despised or celebrated but harassed. Burney's exposition makes clear to the reader that Ellis's situation is not a peculiar one; she is the unhappy emblem of victims of a wrong but entrenched system of thought. The behaviors of those who both humiliate and neglect her are brought about by "hereditary habits, and imitative customs, which had always limited the proceedings of...almost every...noble family, of patronizing those who had already been elevated by patronage...To go further,--to draw forth talents from obscurity, to honour indigent virtue, were exertions that demanded a character of a superior species; a character that has learned to act for himself, by thinking for himself and feeling for others" (229). From this observation grows the novel's argument for progressive social reforms brought about by independent thinking and moral sentiment rather than by the violence and tyranny utilized by the sans-cullotes.

In this same volume we experience the return of Burney's symbol for the other side of reform: the violent, radical, and self-defeating Elinor. Secure in the justice of the indigested credos that she garnered from her sojourn in France, Elinor makes a public display of heroics at Ellis's first concert, publicly stabbing herself while declaring her love for Harleigh, the brother of her ex-intended. This act aims at being an incontrovertible sign of her own independence from the decorum and oppression of "hereditary habits," but instead comes off rather as an adolescent plea for attention. Ironically, her indecorum saves Ellis from making one of her own: displaying herself as a public performer and thus shutting her out forever from the place in polite society of which either her own family connections once discovered or Harleigh's love might one day give her the advantage.


Intermission: A Reflection on Shaftesbury

I'll admit that if I were Alice in Wonderland, eighteenth-century texts would be my little white rabbit, the chasing of which always leads to a precipitate and absurdly long fall into a magical world. Reflecting on Burney's Mrs. Ellis has led me to the Earl of Shaftesbury and his part in the debate about where, exactly, morality comes from.

In his "Inquiry Concerning Virtue and Merit" he makes the claim that a man's virtue is determined by his "natural temper." His word choice suggests that morality is an innate quality: it is natural to each subject. Not so, he clarifies. At his plainest, Shaftesbury states that "worth and virtue depend on a knowledge of right and wrong and on a use of reason sufficient to secure a right application of the affections."

One of the many beauties of the eighteenth century is that it is the era in which morality can be separated (at least by some) from religious beliefs and attached to reason and education, thereby putting everyone from atheists to devout practitioners on the hook for behaving morally (which Shaftesbury defines as acting in such a way as to uphold society and the species). We should be so lucky.


The Wanderer: Volume I

There are many things that Frances Burney's The Wanderer (1814) is not: short; Burney's best work of fiction; cheerful. There are even more things, however, that it is: a cogent argument for political moderates; a consideration of how History (wars, generals, and nations) affects history (the daily life of unknown individuals living in a given historical period); a reflection on the rock and a hard place between which the eighteenth-century woman lived; an early example of frienemies in literature; a consummate eighteenth century novel, despite its late publication (and Doody's claim that it is actually a product more of Romanticism than the culture of sensibility). This novel, which by an accident of history falls through the cracks of literary study, being beloved neither by eighteenth-centuryists nor romanticists, compels respect for its ability to show the impact of history's events on the growth of individual young minds.

Our heroine, a young and beautiful incognita who sometimes goes by the name of Mrs. Ellis, has escaped to England from Robespierre's France with her head, remarkably, still attached to her shoulders. Her escape from mortal danger only serves to prove how many other dangers one bereft of name, reputation, money, and protectors must face. The tyrannies inflicted by good breeding and the deeply held beliefs of a blood based social hierarchy (only made stricter and more rigid by the attacks made against them across the channel) push the young woman towards a dissolution as surely as her stay in France would have done, although the demise she confronts is here slower, and arguably, less gruesome. As in Robespierre's France, women are at the forefront of the inhuman cruelties perpetrated on society's targets.

Perhaps the most interesting of Ellis's tormentors is the young Elinor, who herself is a victim of the status quo. Elinor comes across on the same boat as Ellis, having been in France trying to restore bad health brought on by her desire to escape an engagement made on faulty principles without losing face among her social set. Her holiday succeeds in its ends insofar as it gives her grandiose ideas that encourage her to send her lover packing and bravely accept the consequences as the coin in which liberal minds must be paid in a conservative world. France has taught the young woman that when held back from individual perfection by social customs, humans are "the mere dramatis personae of a farce; of which [she is], when performing with fellow actors, a principal buffoon" (153). In her mind, where she applies the rules of masses to the individual, her intended was just such an actor, and she herself could never have been anything more had she joined her lot to his. Her pseudo-political awakening results in a very simple life creed: resist the status quo and its representatives without hesitation. This code of action creates in her a defendant of the friendless Mrs. Ellis because inviting unknown women into one's house is not the done thing. Since her protection is based on rebellion rather than sympathy, however, Mrs. Ellis's benefit is small and comes at the price of negligence and disdain.

NB Page numbers refer to the Oxford World's Classics edition.


Reflections: The Drowned Life

Jeff Ford's The Drowned Life doesn't work. Although at times fantastically innovative and, at others, truly insightful, the whole does not provide a satisfying reading experience. In many respects, Ford's strengths here create The Drowned Life's weakness; this is a man who comfortably writes in a range of styles from literary memoir to fantasy. While the variety of stories that Ford can bring to the table is impressive, it leaves the reader struggling to catch up. Instead of spending the first pages of each tale entering into its particular world, one must try to identify the most basic elements of that world's foundation (Is it a world in which magic can happen? Are its inhabitants human? Is this a dream?), and how they differ from the very different foundations of the story that came before. Under these circumstances, reading becomes an act of flipping through generic index cards in the mind rather than reveling in the details of the story's here and now. Generically-based collections of Ford's work would be more in the readers' interests to prevent the exhaustion and inattention produced by constant reorientation.

To criticize the whole is not, however, to dismiss the parts. There are several stories that hold a pleasure all their own, displaying their lights in spite of the difficulties of their context. The first of these is "Night Whiskey," a Gothic narrative about a small town that owns the secret of a magical potion of "death berries," which annually allows a handful of residents briefly to inhabit a domain somewhere between the land of the living and that of the dead. This extraordinary potion and the celebrations surrounding its use one year provide the excuse that one sixteen-year-old needs to leave behind the restrictions and oddities of small town America for the promise of personal growth and healthy nostalgia somewhere more cosmopolitan. Despite its magical premise, Ford excels in painting the day to day experience of living in a very small town. Through the narrator's eyes one sees and feels the comforts of the known and the resulting claustrophobia. These feelings are threaded through both the banal and the supernatural elements of the tale, each informing and reinforcing the other. Other stories of note include "Manticore Spell," a fantasy piece, and "The Way He Does it," a supernatural puzzle.