The Fiction Faction - Archive - July-December 2010
Elizabeth Baines

July 2010
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Hans suggested this book because when his wife, who doesn’t normally like crime novels, had tried it, she’d found she liked it. He was interested therefore to know what the group members thought of it, and since it has been such a phenomenal best-seller, along with its two sequels, we were interested to know why, and chose it over the alternative suggestion.

It concerns Swedish investigative journalist Mikail Blomkvist, editor of the political journal Millennium, who is brought down by a capitalist he tried to expose and as a result becomes involved with Henrik Vanger, head of a business family with a shadowy past including Nazism and the disappearance in the sixties of Vanger’s sixteen-year-old niece Harriet who has never been seen again, presumed dead. Vanger engages Blomqvist, who has had to leave his editorship, ostensibly to write a history of the Vanger family but in reality to investigate Harriet’s disappearance. He is helped in this quest by an unconventional private investigator, the tough punk Lisbeth Salander, a computer hacker and previous problem child who in her twenties is still, according to the Swedish system, under state care.

It’s a long book – 538 pages - and one of the strange aspects of its success is that it seems to be generally agreed (on Twitter etc) that for the first 100 pages or so it’s pretty boring, with lots of expositionary backstory concerning the court case and the investigation which led to Blomqvist’s conviction and downfall.
Well, the gist of the meeting was that everyone thought it was pretty rubbishy but everyone liked it apart from John who found he couldn’t read it, and me, although I have to admit that for the sake of argument I was more negative in the meeting than I actually felt as outlined on my Fictionbitch blog.

The first person to comment was Jenny, who has read all three of the books, and who said she absolutely loved the character Lisbeth Salander, and there were murmurs of agreement. In fact, I didn't find Salander entirely convincing as a character, though I didn't say this: there seemed inconsistency rather than complexity in the way she was portrayed as streetwise yet now and then naive. Everyone pretty much agreed that the book was poorly written, and that indeed for the first 100 pages or so Larsson seemed to be learning, in a very fundamental way, to write. There is far too much exposition, much telling the reader instead of showing, and Larsson will suddenly launch into a non-novelistic essay informing the reader about such things as the Swedish state care system. Not to mention the author’s relish in the tedious details of computers which may have been state-of-the art at the time of writing, but which are now outdated. Although people had said they liked Salander, they all agreed that there was no real psychological insight in the book. And everyone, even accountant Doug, agreed that the end of the book, which deals with Blomkvist’s comeback and the details of the financial scandal he finally does expose, is even more boring than the beginning.

I said that it reminded me of nothing so much as reading Enid Blyton when I was a child, especially the way the food is described in such painstaking and often inappropriate detail. I read out this passage which occurs just after Blomqvist and Salander have escaped from a torture chamber, Blomqvist himself having been tortured:

She helped him off with his clothes and propelled him to the bathroom. Then she put on water for coffee and made half a dozen thick sandwiches on rye bread with cheese and liver sausage and dill pickles (my bolds)

and everyone fell about laughing.

As I said on my Fictionbitch blog, this is probably the first book we’ve read for the group that I didn’t find in any way disruptive to my own creative writing process, and everyone agreed that that was the point, it was meant merely as a diversion. Clare said it was like chocolate, just something easy to swallow, and Ann said she’d had some long train journeys recently and it had been great for that, to pass the time. I said that that was my objection, really: ultimately, I really didn’t want to read a book just to pass the time, but for something much more fruitful; to me it was a waste of time. John said I was precious, and from the reaction of the others he was speaking for them too, but it was really rich coming from him since he hadn’t even read past page 50 or so. And Ann added that she’d liked reading about the food and finding out about the things Swedes ate, and the fact that they drank so much coffee, and others agreed.

Then Ann addressed the question of why this book, above other crime thrillers, has been so very popular. She thought that certain crime series are popular because they happen to hit particular chords in the societies and times in which they are written, and there was a fair bit of discussion about other crime writers members had read. Jenny said that this book was about violence to women: indeed, the parts that the book is divided into are subtitled with quotes from Swedish statistics on violence to women, and the original Swedish title of the book was Men Who Hate Women. I said that in fact it ticked several of our current concerns to which the theme of violence towards women is somewhat subsumed: corruption in big business, the Nazi past with which we continue to be obsessed, and big-brother surveillance and computer hacking.

But I didn’t think it actually really addressed these issues, not on the psychological level I want from novels (in spite of what some critics have said about Larsson’s anatomization of the mind of a serial killer). What for instance, was Larsson saying about Nazism? (I can’t explain any further without giving the plot away.) There was a pause as people thought, and then someone said, ‘Nazis are bad.’ And I said ‘Exactly. Nothing deeper or more psychological than that.’

August 2010
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

This book was my suggestion, a book I had loved when I read it some years ago. It’s poet Sylvia Plath’s only novel, published originally under a pseudonym and confessedly and verifiably autobiographical.

It opens during the fifties summer that the Rosenbergs are executed for spying and first-person narrator Esther Greenwood, an A-grade literature student, is working out an expenses-paid job on a New York fashion magazine, the prize she has won, along with several other aspirant young women, with her writing. Acutely aware of the hollowness of the fashion world around her, disillusioned with her long-term medical student boyfriend Buddy, and sensing that her lifelong academic goals are equally hollow, Esther begins to be cut off in depression, the ‘bell jar’ of the title, eventually undergoing ECT and attempting suicide and becoming hospitalised. The book is striking for its wonderfully imagistic, witty and energetic prose, and moves at a great pace – the kind of book you really can’t put down.

I told the group how much I had loved the book previously, but said that this time I had a problem with it: I didn’t really know how to take it. The first time I read it I had entirely identified with Esther – apart from her suicidal impulses – but on this occasion I was shocked to find that I couldn’t always sympathise with her and indeed now and then I found I didn’t even like her. For instance, after the opening line, which is so striking that I had remembered it almost verbatim when I suggested the book: It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs… the prose moves instantly away from political engagement to a self-obsessed focus on Esther’s own emotional state: The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick. It’s not the Rosenbergs who have her attention in this paragraph so much as the idea of suffering electrocution herself, which, as Hans would point out later, is fulfilled when her own first ECT treatment goes wrong and she suffers great trauma. Indeed, she goes further in distancing herself from the Rosenberg issue and painting it rather as an unworthy and hassling trauma to herself: That’s all there was to read about in the papers – goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me , but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned all along your nerves (my bolds).

It would be possible to read this as self-ironic, were it not for the fact that we are clearly meant to take Esther’s depression and later trauma seriously, and of course should. On the other hand, there are clearly self-ironic moments: I decided I would spend the summer writing a novel./ That would fix a lot of people. There are occasions when we are clearly meant to laugh at, or at least with, Esther: at the way, for instance, she eats with unladylike greed at the Ladies’ Day banquet, and - embedded as a flashback within this scene - the way she cons her way out of taking a science course at college. But then we are not intended to laugh at the consequences and underlying currents: a traumatic food poisoning which symbolises the rot at the heart of this New York world and prefigures the deeper sickness which Esther will suffer, and the fact that, in spite of saying ‘I had to laugh when I thought about [the chemistry course]’, she admits ‘how scared and depressed’ she was about it. The drop in tone made me see the episodes retrospectively in a more serious light, which in turn, perhaps because of the earlier levity, made me see Esther as potentially simply greedy and self-centred.

It seemed to me that my problem with knowing how to read the book had something to do with the tone, but I wasn’t sure exactly what. John put in here and said that yes, on this reading he had found the first half too flippant for the grimness of the second half. I wasn’t sure I agreed with this. I wouldn’t say that the tone was ever flippant, and there are dark ironies I really appreciated. For instance, when Esther begins contemplating suicide she thinks that if you are going to jump off a building then the higher the storey the safer, since you are more likely to kill yourself, and that a gun is dangerous only because you are most likely to bungle the attempt and end up living.

I said that I was also surprised to realize on this reading something that I hadn’t noticed the first time, and which I have never heard or read anyone noting: that this is a story of suppressed grief. Esther’s father has died when she was a child, and Esther says quite clearly, though somewhat briefly, that she began to realize she had never been happy since she was running along the beach the summer before her father died. Suicidal and living with her mother, she visits the town she grew up in and her father’s grave:

…my legs folded under me, and I sat down in the sopping grass. I couldn’t understand why I was crying so hard.

Then I remembered that I had never cried for my father’s death.

It is immediately after this that Esther makes the almost-successful suicide bid that lands her in a psychiatric hospital.

Having become aware of this theme, it seemed the real one to me, but I felt it was somewhat subsumed in (and possibly, indeed, cuts across) the more overt feminist theme. There is the depiction of the brutality of male obstetrics: I thought it was just like the sort of drug a man would invent. Here was a woman in terrible pain, obviously feeling every bit of it or she wouldn’t groan like that, and she would go straight home and start another baby because the drug would make her forget how bad the pain had been. Buddy’s mother is described as turning herself into a floor rug for others to walk on, and there is a strong implication that Esther’s depression is a reaction to the fact that in a world in which she is expected to type dictated letters she wants to ‘dictate [her] own thrilling letters’.

I wondered therefore how aware the author was of this theme of suppressed grief, and if this is the source of an uncertainty I found in the novel. At this point I had become curious to see what others had written about the themes of the novel, and had done a brief bit of Googling. I didn’t find any mention of Esther’s grief about her father but was interested to find a fair amount of disagreement in particular about the end of the novel. While Marjorie Perloff sees the book as being about Esther’s need to find herself in a world that divides women from themselves (she quotes the extensive dismemberment imagery in the novel), and the ending as Esther’s rebirth, Diane Bonds argues that in fact at the end Esther dismembers herself in order to fit into society (quoting the wedding imagery that appears there). Personally, I feel that the ending is extremely ambiguous, and also that it’s hard not to read into it the fact that Plath did commit suicide not long after the book was written, which adds to my sense of the uncertainty of the whole. Therefore, I said, I would be interested in what the others in the group thought.

I was much briefer than this in my introduction and didn’t quote chapter and verse as I have here, so I probably wasn’t very convincing. Jenny said firmly that she had really liked the book, and Trevor agreed. Trevor said, You want to take no notice of that internet stuff, and said what he thought the novel was about, but I’m really sorry to say that I can’t remember what that was. I think he disagreed that the ending was ambiguous (one or two people had agreed that it was), but I don’t remember how he interpreted it.
Some saw the book as being simply about mental illness, I think, including Hans who said, But there isn’t a feminist theme in it, is there? I said, Well, what about the fact that Esther immediately identifies Marco whom she meets at a party as one of those men who hates women, and Hans said, Well there are men who hate women – implying, I think, that Plath wasn’t making any particular feminist point about this. Someone (maybe Trevor) pointed out to me that Sylvia Plath would never even have heard of feminism, and I said that that didn’t make her message any less feminist, but I didn’t get the feeling that I convinced. Jenny said that this book was taken up as feminist during the seventies and eighties because it hit a chord, and I think she was implying that its feminist slant was over-emphasised then. There was a fair bit of discussion about mental illness and its changing treatment, and changing definitions of depression and schizophrenia, which Jenny as a sociologist knew a lot about.

Jenny said that when she read it in the seventies she hadn’t liked it as much as everyone else, but that this time she had liked it a lot because now she can see how it fitted in with something which I think she called Symbolic Interpretation, which she said was a theory very current at the time of the writing of the book. She said that that thing about the Rosenbergs, for instance, was a comment on the world around Esther (ie as opposed to the way I’d analysed it). No one else knew what Symbolic Interpretation was, and I asked her to explain. She said it was a way of looking at the world in terms of symbols, and although I momentarily thought I understood, I don’t in retrospect: it seems to me quite simply that all writing is symbolic interpretation, although Plath’s imagery is certainly heavily symbolic.

All these different interpretations were serving to emphasise my sense of an uncertainty at the heart of the book. I asked people what they thought of Esther’s mother, as Diane Bonds interprets her as monstrous, which I hadn’t myself. Everyone agreed with me: they thought the mother was simply inadequate and over-conventional, and some even said that at moments they could feel sorry for her. Trevor said again that I shouldn’t bother with internet stuff, but I think it’s instructive that Bonds could interpret such statements of Esther’s as ‘My mother wasn’t much help’ as indicative of monstrosity, ie that this may be a symptom of a difficulty in getting to grips with the tone of the narration.

Ann said that she had enjoyed the book very much, but that she too had had a difficulty in knowing how to read it. Mainly she felt that it was just about impossible to read it without knowledge of Plath’s suicide very soon after writing it, and impossible to know how one would read it without that knowledge.

Jenny and Trevor said that they thought it was entirely possible to read the book without injecting that knowledge into it, and I felt that they thought it was wrong to do so.

Ann said, though, that she suspected that Plath's depression at the time of writing had actually affected the tone of the book: that the book was an attempt to rise above the situation with wit and a resolution, but it was undercut by her continuing depression, which also gives rise to the ambiguous ending. This, I think, hits the nail on the head.

Trevor, though, reiterated that you could read it without knowing about Plath’s suicide, and someone, I think Jenny, said, But it’s brilliantly written! – which, having taken it for granted, I had failed to say, and I quickly agreed, as did everyone. People then spent some time talking about the bits they’d particularly liked, especially the funny bits. Trevor loved the bit about Esther thinking her finger-bowl was soup and drinking it all up, the little flowers and all. Hans said he found it really funny when Esther was walking around with a yellow scarf tied to her neck, her first attempt at suicide, but was unable to find anything to hang it on to, and other agreed. I said, But that wasn’t meant to be funny, was it? And Hans readily agreed, as did the others, and I said, Well, this illustrates that there is a difficulty with the tone of the book.

Then Doug spoke up. He said that when he first read the book years ago he thought it was absolutely marvellous, maybe the perfect book, but that his reaction this time was far stronger than mine: he didn’t like any of the people in it. I said, But aren’t they all seen through Esther’s eyes? And he said, yes, but that’s what he didn’t like, the sneery, snobby tone of the whole thing - a quiet bombshell that more or less ended the discussion.

September 2010
Dirty Weekend by Helen Zahavi

Jenny suggested this 1991 book in which a stalked woman, Bella, turns stalker and takes revenge by killing a series of woman-abusing men.

It led to a pretty rowdy meeting in which there was a lot of interrupting (and objections about interrupting) and I don't remember a particularly coherent thread of discussion, more a series of statements of opinion and remarks.

Jenny said it's her favourite book ever and that she often re reads it. She loves it for its political message about masculinity, and she particularly loves the language which is both poetic (in its stark repetitiveness) and funny (there's a lot of narratorial punning) and it always makes her laugh, although she doesn't like the end quite so much as she finds that disturbing. She feels that it's a book that was really written out of its time, and that it may have had more impact if it had been published in the seventies or eighties.

Some people were looking a bit dubious as she was saying all of this and then there were one or two doubting questions, none of which I can remember, before Jo said strongly that she didn't like the book at all; she had found it utterly horrifying - that moment when she smashes the first man's head with a hammer, all those horrible details, ugh (and Jo put her head in her hands), and how on earth could Jenny find it funny?

People pointed out that it was full of puns, though most people, especially Hans, thought they were groan-worthily awful, and Hans quoted perhaps the worst, the narrator's comment: Ask not for whom the Bella tolls. Clare said she had found Bella's own repartee (in the various conversations with men she has throughout the book) witty, although I said I hadn't been that comfortable with it, finding it rather forced. Trevor said that he had thought the humour was great - the book had been a great read - and one thing he really liked about the book was the way it shifts from viewpoint to viewpoint, sometimes even halfway through a sentence or paragraph. This point wasn't taken up, but in retrospect I think it was a significant observation since the book is enacting and playing with a shifting of viewpoints and identities by moving Bella, the femme fatale, into the avenging central position usually held by a male character.

John commented that Jenny's response to the book was a rather sociological one, and Jenny agreed and said it was bound to be, as she is a sociologist. I then said that the problem is that you need to bring to the book those sociological understandings and read it as an iconic parable about masculinity, a tongue-in-cheek subversion of film noir. Interpreted in that way the book is brilliant. The trouble is that if you don't look at it in that way - and clearly some people hadn't, and indeed I hadn't, either, when I first started reading it - then you have a reaction like Jo's. I said that my problem with the book was in fact the jokes, though Trevor objected to my saying that there were jokes, so I probably should have more accurately referred to the jokey, punning tone. I found that it distanced me from Bella's plight as a victim at the start of the novel and at most of the points where she was threatened by the men. In fact, I usually have a problem in any writing where violence is treated with any kind of comedy. In direct contrast to Jenny, I found the end of the novel far more persuasive, when the jokey tone is dropped, which allows you to identify with Bella under threat. It seemed to me that while the satirical aspect of the book is consciously political, it's less politically dynamic than the later moment which has the power to move the reader on a deeply emotional level - indeed, it is the power to move emotionally that is the political power of fiction, in my opinion.

Jenny then said that I should let someone else speak and went on to say more herself, but I was too shocked at being accused of hogging the debate to grasp what she then said, although I think this was when she objected that she could identify totally with Bella's sense of threat at the start of the novel.

People asked Hans what he thought, as so far he hadn't said much, and he said that he'd had a problem with the novel because it seemed to imply the feminist statement that he'd heard only recently, that all men were rapists. Jo joined in and agreed and reiterated how horrible she had found it and also questioned the morality of it, since the protagonist only took on the characteristics of men that the book was meant to be critiqueing. I said I was interested to hear Hans's view, as my problem with the kind of feminist strategy this novel employs is that, by seeming to imply that (ie that all men are rapists), it alienates men. Jenny explained that that notion had come from Susan Brownmiller who hadn't meant it literally (although it was true that other feminists had interpreted literally): Brownmiller was saying rather that all men were in a position to rape. I agreed and said yes, all men have the choice to use their masculinity against women, a choice women don't generally have, and what this book is doing is pointing that out by turning it all on its head. Jenny said, rightly I thought, that the book is not about men but about masculinity. You are not meant to identify or sympathise with Bella in her scourges; you are simply meant to see that she takes on masculinity (and I can see that this is the point of the distancing humour).

At this point people seemed to me to begin to become more positive towards the book. Clare said that she had found it very engrossing and that it read like a poem and an allegory or fable, and also that it was rather like a Greek tragedy, and people agreed. Someone pointed out that not all the men in the book are masculine and rapists or killers, and someone else, I think John, pointed out that it is the two who are not who give Bella both permission to take on masculinity and the phallic means of revenge, the flick-knife and the gun. Ann pointed out the strange stilted and artificial flavour of the meeting with the first of these, the maimed Iranian counsellor Nimrod, and it was agreed that this was a deliberate setpiece in which he operated like a kind of fairy godmother, granting Bella her wish.

Jenny and I pointed out that throughout the book Bella addresses a darkening series of male abuses of women, beginning with the voyeur and ending with the serial killer. John commented that Bella progresses through various states of revenge, moving from the status of victim to avenger of her own wrongs, through superhero saviour of another woman, to finally saviour of all women by despatching a serial killer. Someone picked up on the title of the book, Dirty Weekend, which refers to the fact that Bella's revenges take place over the course of a single weekend, but which as Jenny said usually implies a sexual coupling (thus graphically illustrating the conflation of sex and violence in masculinity). I said yes, that connection is borne out by the fact that in the final scene Bella's attack on the serial killer is narrated in terms of sexual congress.

Someone demurred that it was hardly realistic that Bella was able to do some of these things: there she was suddenly able to drive a car (the phallic symbol she steals for herself from her abuser and drives into him) like some kind of pro. But others of us said, It's not meant to be realistic (and, in a pointed reference to its fim-noir subversion, the narrative consciously states that this scene happened like something out of a film).

At which point Hans said he was starting to think better of the novel...

Ann said that her main thought was that Jenny was right in saying that the novel was of an earlier time (even than its publication), and that our attitudes to the problem of masculinity/femininity, and our ways of addressing it, are now more subtle.

Finally, Trevor said he thought it was wrong to put all these feminist and so forth interpretations on the book: as far as he was concerned it's just about people, and a really good read.


October 2010
The Leopard by Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

I'm writing this in December as I've been so busy working on promotion for The Birth Machine, and I'm afraid that by now my memory of the meeting is sketchy.

Written in the nineteen-fifties by a minor Sicilian prince, the book is set in Sicily and primarily in the two years following Garibaldi's May 1860 landing on Sicily's south coast, which kick-started a revolution in the south and strengthened the Risorgimento, the movement for the unification of Italy and the destruction of the feudal system. The novel concerns Fabrizio Corbera, Sicilian Prince of Salina, who must come to terms with these social changes, and towards its end moves forward to 1883 and his death, and finally to 1910 and the fate of his children. I hadn't had time to read the book by the meeting, and it may have been me, but I came away from the meeting with the impression that this was essentially the story of a love affair and a marriage: Don Fabrizio's daughter Concetta is in love with his orphaned and favoured nephew, the charming and wily Tancredi, and for a time Tancredi appears to be returning her affection. However, once he claps eyes on the beautiful and nouveau-riche Angelica, he decides to marry her instead. By the end of the novel and 1910, however, Angelica is a widow, and in their old age the two women have become friends, something which Jenny said she really relished, and where she felt the novel, which she had found rather hard-going, became more interesting and enjoyable.

In fact, when I came to find time to read the book I discovered that the story of Concetta, Tancredi and Angelica is an aspect and consequence of a much wider story, that of the ways, both politically and psychologically, Prince Salina handles or fails to handle the social changes taking place around him.

Opinion in the group was divided. Jo, who had suggested the book, and Doug both loved it, mostly for its vivid descriptions of the oppressive Sicilian climate and the plush and faded palaces. Clare agreed about the descriptions and was impressed by the symbolism - she mentioned in particular the precious grafted peaches which Salina's gardener has grown and which Tancredi, without asking permission, has ceremoniously delivered to Angelica - but Clare was sorry, she just couldn't stand Don Fabrizio himself, she thought he was just an awful person, so sexist and bossy, which made her dislike the book. As far as I remember, Jenny and Ann found the book heavy going with its old-fashioned prose, though Ann was interested to find out about the politics of the period. I don't think Mark was keen, though as far as I remember Trevor liked it, and John was divided between the two groups, having found the book heavily historical without being very enlightening if you didn't already know the history, though he too found the symbolism interesting, mentioning the broken legs of the Salina heraldic leopard on a keystone.

Personally, although I would say the book was not an easy read with its dense prose and ponderous pace, I loved it for the delicious irony with which all of the characters and the political situation are portrayed. A direct literary descendant of Machiavelli's Prince, Don Fabrizio is an arch pragmatist - he deeply regrets the breakdown of the old order but sees the necessity of accommodating and absorbing the new, developing the philosophy that 'everything must change in order to stay the same'. He grieves the dilution of his aristocratic line but sees the inevitability of his penniless nephew's marriage into the bourgeoisie and thus works to enable it. Aptly he's an amateur astronomer with a wide view of that large picture, the heavens. But unlike Machiavelli, di Lampedusa ironises that pragmatism. A big man respected and feared by all including his family, Don Fabrizio is yet a touchingly ridiculous figure. He's so big he inadvertently breaks things; he performs mental acrobatics to convince himself that he's in charge of situations, nowhere more comically than the scene in which the priest, Father Pirrone, inadvertently enters for an audience as he is emerging naked from the bath:
...he hurried to leave the bath expecting to get into his bathrobe before the Jesuit entered; but he did not succeed, and Father Pirrone came in at the very moment when, no longer veiled by soapy water, not yet shrouded by his bath sheet, he was emerging quite naked, like the Farnese Hercules, and steaming as well, while water flowed in streams from neck, arms, stomach and legs, like the Rhone, the Rhine, the Danube and the Adige crossing and watering Alpine ranges... [Father Pirrone] stuttered an excuse and made to back out, but Don Fabrizio, annoyed at not having time to cover himself, naturally turned his irritation against the priest. "Now, Father, don't be silly; hand me that bath-robe, will you, and help me to dry, if you don't mind... And take my advice, Father, have a bath yourself." Satisfied at being able to give advice on hygiene to one who so often gave it to him on morals, he felt soothed... When the peaks and slopes of the mountain were dry ... the Jesuit sat down and he began some more intimate moppings of his own.

Pragmatic he may be, but the Prince's aristocracy is doomed, and right from the beginning the prose signals this sense of doom: cicadas make a 'lament' that is like a 'death-rattle', a drinking well is also a 'cemetery' for corpses, the oppressive sun of the Sicilian summer is 'a deep gloom'; the ladies' ballgowns arrive from the dressmakers in cases 'like coffins'. Tancredi, the main agent of change for the family, is 'black and slim as an adder'. Ironically, however, the revolutionary spirit is also diluted: Tancredi begins as a follower of Garibaldi, but ends up an officer in the Piedmontese army despising the rebels. In one non-ironic moment Salina explains the political inertia as a result of centuries of invasion and the oppressive climate:
Sleep, that is what Sicilians want, and they will always hate anyone who tries to wake them... our sensuality is a hankering for oblivion, our shooting and knifing a hankering for death...

The novel is ultimately despairing, I found: the truce, indeed loving friendship, between Angelica and Concetta is founded on a pragmatic repression of the past, but that past is briefly revived and Concetta must face the fact that she has lived with a personal legacy of emptiness echoing the wider political impotence that the novel portrays.


November 2010
Carry Me Down by M J Hyland

Because I have been so busy lately with promotion for The Birth Machine, Ann has kindly written up our November reading group discussion of this book. Here is her report:

Carry Me Down, by M.J. Hyland, was John’s choice for the book group to read. He had heard the author talk about her major influence, Peter Handke’s novella The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty, which employs a plain, factual mode of storytelling, and was curious to read this novel. The book is written in the first person and relates a period, (about a year?), in the life of eleven-year-old John Egan and is set in 1970’s Ireland, although this time period is not made explicit. When the story opens, John and his parents are living with his paternal grandmother in Gorey, a rural town in County Wexford. The family have been exiled from Dublin for lack of funds, with his father ostensibly studying for the entrance exams for Trinity while his mother works in a local shop and makes puppets. It is clear from the beginning that John Egan is a child who feels ‘out of place’ and a ‘misfit’ both at home and at school – he is tall for his age, is obsessed with the Guinness Book of Records and becomes convinced that he is able to detect lies, recording all those told him in The Gol of Seil. The unravelling events of the story form a narrative circle by which family relationships drive them back to Dublin into a council flat in an out-of-town multi-story block of flats and then back again to Gorey at the end. The first person narrative implies that we are meant to view this circle of events through John Egan’s eyes.

John introduced it as a novel with a beginning, middle and end, with an over-long middle – the section in Dublin - and was not too sure what to make of it, asking the question -was the ending happy or not? John and Elizabeth felt that it was a deliberately symbolic happy ending – implying closure for the family and allowing it to move forwards. Doug and I disagreed, feeling that the ending was very ambivalent, while Jo took the implication of the ending further, suggesting that the sequel to the novel would be more interesting as, for her, John (the book’s protagonist) was clearly still troubled and his behaviour would get worse. This led to a general feeling that there was little plot to the book – a theme introduced by Trevor – it merely related a series of unfolding events, but we wondered where the plot (as such) was going, leading or saying. Or was nothing meant to happen and the whole piece created as a symbolic circle? Doors and openings were touched on – were they symbols of future happenings and sequels? Many events in the book being related through closed doors – such as John and his grandmother discussing his father while the latter is behind the door. Then we all began to wonder if we were all trying to read scenarios into the story that simply were not there? Were we looking for symbols when in fact there were none?

A gender divide emerged, with the men in the group noting the total absence of adolescent hormones that they felt totally unconvincing. This was something missing in a portrait of an adolescent boy, making it unrealistic. Trevor and Mark considered this particularly disconcerting as they both felt themes of Oedipal sex were implicit throughout. Alternatively, Elizabeth and Jo, both mothers of boys, felt that that one aspect of adolescent change, where affection and distance co-exist and alternate, was realistic. Was the (quite gruesomely described) killing of the kittens at the beginning of the novel a symbol of this withdrawal, indecision and ambivalent parent-child relationship? I think an indication of our uncertainty about this was the subsequent discussion on whether the kitten killing was realistic – were kittens really killed like that? I suspect that this discussion would not have occurred if the narrative and characters had convinced us. Our lack of conviction here revived the question of whether we were trying to read too much into the novel. Were signs really being positioned along route, while the easy prose enabled a fast read so we missed the signs? Why did we think there should be signs and symbols and should there be any if the story is in fact being related by an eleven-year-old?

Most of the group appreciated that a sense of menace was skilfully created, but that it often promised more than the actual event that subsequently occurred – such as towards the end when John Egan attacks his mother. I was so convinced by the prose leading up to the attack I thought he would murder her, and thus make the story more dramatic – harking back to Jo’s conviction that the sequel would be more interesting. Nobody, however, found the novel a difficult read, the prose being far easier and far less dense than that of The Leopard, our previous read, but we remained divided. Most felt the book was too long, but Mark and Trevor voted for it, with Doug and Hans disliking it. Jo and I remained ambivalent. One issue that all (as I recall) felt was that John Egan was such a non-engaging protagonist. Did he suffer from autism or Asperger’s syndrome or not? As Mark Haddon has shown in A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, (read previously by the group), this should not affect a writer’s ability to engage the reader with characters. Hyland’s character was repellent, and none felt we believed him or would want to support him.

This indecisiveness meant that we took to asking questions about what was absent in the book. Where was the local priest and the role of the Church? This was 1970’s rural Ireland – and Hyland includes a single nun as a minor character? Why was John Egan an only child? Was the creepy teacher Mr Roche a potential abuser or was he a saviour? Would social services and the psychologist really behave like that? That we ended up asking all these questions suggests that we were so unconvinced by the characters and their lives, that we ended up looking for what we felt should have been there instead. Clare had not finished the book and our discussion, sadly, did not convince her to so.

The more lively and passionate discussion of the evening was the one that segued from Carry Me Down – which involved Samuel Beckett and Waiting for Godot. I cannot remember the content here – as everyone started talking at once ……!

This report was written by Ann


December 2010
The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion

Mark suggested comparing these two novels which deal with the American Dream as experienced by the players at its Hollywood heart, the West dealing with Hollywood's very early days and the Didion with a period, the late 60s, when it had become characterised by emptiness and ennui.

This was a large meeting (very cosy under Mark's huge Christmas tree and candle-lit mantelpiece), but it turned out that only four of us had managed to get hold of the Didion, so the communal discussion focused on West's The Day of the Locust. First published in 1939, it concerns Tod Hackett, an artist who has been headhunted as a Hollywood set and costume designer, but who retains an objective eye on the illusions and pretensions of the place and its inhabitants, and plans a huge Biblical-type painting in which the hordes fly from a Hollywood on fire. To this end, he 'collects' characters to include in the painting - the would-be starlet and prostitute Faye (after whom, while understanding her shallowness, he lusts), her ex-music-hall-entertainer and now bit-player father Harry, the depraved wheeling-dealing dwarf Abe Kusich, the cowboy extra, the insufferable child actor and his unpleasantly pushy mother, and Homer Simpson, the awkward outsider who becomes unsuitably entangled with the rest of them, and thus, although sent there by his doctor for his health, one of those who in Tod's view (and that of the third-person narration) have 'come here to die'. The novel consists largely of a series of tableaux or set-pieces in which each of these specific Hollywood types reveals his or her situation and personality, but culminates in a stampede fueled by mass disappointment and resentment, echoing the concept of Tod's painting, and ending indeed in a death.

The group was unanimous in liking the book. While it was clearly of mainly historical interest, depicting a very specific moment in Hollywood's history - a time when the countryside was still nearby and Hollywood was still a place of hope, however illusory - the book was also prescient in envisioning its future. Everyone relished the vivid depiction of the characters, and the satirical narrative viewpoint. People spent some time recounting what they'd liked: the descriptions of people constantly dressed as if playing parts, the houses designed like fairytale film sets, the fact that Faye and Harry never stopped acting - Harry acting and putting on a show even as he is dying, a moment that Trevor really relished.

There were one or two criticisms: several people found boring a long cock-fighting scene, and couldn't see the point of it (someone suggested that the injured bird constantly flinging itself into the path of its aggressor was symbolic of the Hollywood hopefuls). Ann pointed out that the third-person narrative is a little uncertain: initially it is established in Tod's viewpoint, but it switches suddenly to that of Homer and then back again, at least twice. Trevor said he thought this was fine, but Ann, John, Mark and I felt that it wasn't done in a way that seemed entirely controlled. It was generally agreed that while enjoyable and notable for its comment on the Hollywood of the time, the novel lacked the linguistic and structural integrity of its contemporary, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (which we discussed previously).

The four of us who'd read Joan Didion's Play it as it Lays - Ann, Mark, John and I - then talked to the group about it. It concerns Maria, a beautiful Hollywood actress married to the once-promising film director who gave her her first break (a film in which, significantly, she played the victim of a gang rape). The book begins with her ruminations in the psychiatric hospital where she is now a patient and then switches back to the events that led her there. It's a story of drugs, alcohol and wife-swapping, and an amorphous sense of failure: at its start Maria's marriage to Carter is in trouble, though in no clear-cut way - the summer she left Carter (the summer Carter left her...) - and their small daughter Kate is incarcerated in some kind of hospital for an unspecified neural condition. Maria is now finding it hard to get work: ...trouble was something no one in the city liked to be near. Grieving Carter who has absented himself filming in the arid Nevada desert, and conducting a secret affair with the married and thus rarely accessible Les Goodwin, Maria is already unhinged, spending her days endlessly driving the Los Angeles freeways. The crunch point comes when she discovers she is pregnant and the child could be Les Goodwin's. Carter issues an ultimatum: unless she has an abortion he will take custody of Kate. From this point on Maria becomes an impotent puppet in other people's plans, as the horrific abortion is arranged for her yet Carter drifts further away, and as Les Goodwin drifts away too, preserving his marriage.

All four of us were completely bowled over by this book, by its evocation of a cultural ethos and of Maria's state of mind via spare, rhythmic prose and short sections providing vivid and telling filmic glimpses. As Ann said, there's so much white space on the pages and what Didion doesn't say is as important as what she does. To the surprise of the others, we four said that we found it the far superior book.

One of the great ways that this book differs from the West is in its internal, psychological nature. It's an anatomisation of the deeply psychological effects of a world in which amorality rules, and where there is no acknowledgment of consequence and cause and effect. Nothing applies, says Maria at the start of the novel: To look for "reasons" is beside the point. One may as well simply accept the chips where they fall, 'play it as it lays'. It is an attitude she has been forced to adopt, but, ironically, she goes on - only because she has been asked to by her carers, she says - to describe a childhood and background steeped in a loss likely to induce the kind of yearning that Hollywood famously encourages yet thwarts. Two significant moments in the novel indicate the depth of the sense of loss and consequence she is forced to repress. Post abortion, Maria and Les Goodwin manage a rendezvous, but it is pervaded by a sadness signaling the end of their liaison. On the drive back they convince themselves that the causes were circumstantial: They mentioned everything but one thing: that she had left the point [her aborted child] in a bedroom in Encino. Towards the end of the novel Maria is told by BZ, the husband of her friend Helene, that Carter is sleeping with Helene. Presumably in response to Maria's facial expression, BZ comments that she's 'faking herself' if she cares, if it makes a difference who is sleeping with whom. Eventually Maria assents, but not before she has confessed: 'It makes a difference to me.' And subsequent events - the events that will end in Maria's institutionalisation - indicate that BZ too is more affected than he will admit.

In his introduction to the American edition we all had, David Thomson suggests that there is a flaw in the novel, taking his cue from a Paris Review interview in which Didion confessed to a prior indecision about whether to tell the story in the first or third person, finally plumping for first person for the present-day frame and an intimate third person for the backstory. He suggests that the more insightful institutionalised first-person Maria is closer to the author than the passive Maria of the third-person backstory, and sees in this a discrepancy. Personally, I disagree that this is a discrepancy (and think this shows the dangers of writers talking publicly about the trials of their process). It seems to me that the Maria of the first-person frame is in the process of freeing herself from the psychology of the backstory. She is no longer drugged; she is putting that past behind her: she refuses to see those past players when they visit her. And, while she denies the usefulness of looking back on the past for 'reasons', glance back at that past she does, at which it unfurls in all its cause-and-effect vividness. Insightfully, Thomson points out that the novel opens up the nature of film narrative and what the concentration on exteriors does in the way of Novocain-ing internal things. I would add that it is also paradoxically an enactment of the potential healing power of story.

The four of us were so enthusiastic about this book that others immediately wanted to borrow it, but when I asked for my copy back from Jenny in order to write this report, she said that it hadn't grabbed her: she'd enjoyed what she'd read (about half of it) but hadn't felt compelled to go on with it and had fancied reading 'something trashy', the latest Le Carre, instead.


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