The Fiction Faction - Archive - January-June 2003
Elizabeth Baines


January 2003 - Happenstance by Carol Shields (1991)

This was in Trevor's house, very artistically decorated by Anne, his wife, with rag-rolling etc. We all admired the big wooden coffee-table with Bombay Mix in bowls sitting on it, and Trevor confessed that it had been a trial go when he'd first started making furniture, and one of the legs was wonky.
Mark wasn't there: he'd just got back from Toronto and was full of a cold.
This meeting was lively.
No one except Jeanne particularly liked Happenstance, a book in two halves with the wife's and the husband's stories opposed. This surprised us, because a few of us had read The Stone Diaries by the same author and liked that very much.
Most of us thought this one pretty lightweight. I said I found it lacking in moral nerve, basically too nice. Don agreed wholeheartedly; he said he hated it. He asked who on earth had chosen it, barely disguising his amazement and throwing me a look of conspiratorial disgust. I confessed it was me.
Jeanne kept trying to protest, but she couldn't make herself heard over the loud voices of the men.
In the end she got her chance and said she thought it beautifully written.
Don said, on the contrary, it was very badly written, and to our chorus of protest promised he could find us a better book that would put it to shame as far as good writing was concerned.
Trevor started to stick up for it. He said people did behave like the characters in the book, they were cowardly, they did just want a quiet life.
Then Don and Jeanne went home, and somehow Trevor got us talking about the totally unrelated topic of evolution, which he said was a fairytale people believed in, but he for one didn't.

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February 2003 - Rabbit, Run by John Updike (1960)

Mark turned up at last. He called for me and John and then we called on all the others, and we walked in a gang across the village to Don and Jeanne's. Another house a lot tidier than mine and John's.
There were little cheese biscuits, some with soft creamy middles, and Jeanne handed them round until Don told her to sit down and let us help ourselves and allow the meeting to begin.
This meeting was a row.
Rabbit, Run was the book which Don had offered up as an antidote to Happenstance.
He told us the interesting fact that once, when he and Jeanne were running a literary festival, they had had dinner with John Updike and his wife, and found them extremely pleasant.
This did not stop half of us hating the book.
Half of us loved it. Don was its champion. Sarah loved it for its descriptive prose. Jeanne said she'd been amazed, after years of her own prejudiced feminist boycott, to find it was actually brilliant.
I said of course it was brilliant, but that didn't stop it being sexist, and John and Doug and Mark agreed.
Don said you couldn't apply a feminist critique to it, because Updike was showing Rabbit up as a faulty character.
I said I didn't think it was Rabbit's sexism Updike was criticising, and Mark and Doug and John all joined in, agreeing.
Jeanne tried to come in again, but everyone else was too loud, until people started to realise and feel bad, and let her speak.
When at last she got a word in, she said that she didn't know what was wrong with her, the way she just somehow could never make herself heard. However, she seemed very cross with us all.
All in all it was pretty heated.
Trevor was calmest. He said that yes, Rabbit was a right dodgy character, but that was what some people were like. He said also that, like Rabbit, he didn't half fancy Mrs Eccles, the minister's wife.
We all left early, so that Don and Jeanne could keep their usual bedtime.
As we walked back through the village, Mark told us how that morning he'd come into Heathrow to the big security alert.
Somehow from this we got onto the Harry Potter books, which Trevor said ought to be burnt.

March 2003 - Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001)

This was in Doug's house, newly decorated with polished floors. All these people put me and John to shame. Very squashed, because we had two new members, and only Mark wasn't there, we didn't know why this time.
Doug brought in a brand-new designer-type deck chair, and new member Neil sat down on it and split the canvas and went right through.
Everyone liked Atonement, though on the whole people felt cheated by the postmodern ending, where it turns out that all of the book preceding is in fact a novel written by Briony, the main character, and that the other characters didn't after all have the ending she'd invented for them.
Jeanne kept opening her mouth, and in the end everyone told each other to let her speak.
She said she didn't know what we wanted: we'd all said we liked it, that it had held us in a spell and even at times made us cry, yet here we were picking holes. She said that as a writer she'd give anything to write like that, and, as another fiction writer, I knew she was especially talking to me.
I refused to be chastened.
Trevor said he fancied the pants off Briony, and we pointed out to him that for half of the book she was all of thirteen.
He refused to retract.
He added that actually, though, he didn't like her in the final part, in fact he thought she was awful. We all demanded to know why and Don said in disgust no doubt it was because she'd got wrinkled and old. Trevor protested, no, it was because she had turned into a patronising old bourgeois, and Don said, Exactly.
Sarah then said that actually, though she loved the book for its brilliantly descriptive prose she never liked Briony, not one bit, in any part of the book.
Trevor said also that the crime Briony commits and needs to atone really struck a chord with him, because when he was ten or so he didn't deliver the harvest basket to the sweet old dear he was meant to and took it home instead, telling his mum she hadn't been in, and actually feeling terrible. But that unlike Briony, he got found out and punished, because the old dear rang the school in a blazing fury and complained.
Doug and his wife Helen had provided very lush nibbles - grapes and nuts and fancy crisps and several kind of dips - but people didn't really touch them because the discussion was so intense.
After Don and Jeanne had gone, we went on discussing the novel, the first time a novel has inspired us to do it.
Next morning we discovered why Mark hadn't turned up. His partner Kirsten had gone into labour; he was passing in the car with her, on the way to hospital, just as we were all arriving at Doug's door, and the baby, a girl called Lily, was born even as, unknowing, we sat discussing Ian McEwan's brilliant manipulation of point of view.

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April 2003 -
Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut (1970)

I met Don in the charity shop on the day of the meeting and asked him if he'd read the book.
He nodded then rolled his eyes and said: 'I'm saying nothing!'
That evening he and Jeanne arrived for the meeting at mine and John's without their copy of the book, which was pretty unusual as Don likes to refer to the text of a novel and read out passages he considers well written.
It was quite a small meeting. Our two new members didn't come back this time, and Jeanne and Don had met Mark in the park with his partner and new baby, and Mark had said he would be off on a trip after all.
Trevor introduced the book. He said it was basically about Vonnegut's own difficulty in writing about his second-world-war experience of the bombing of Dresden, and that the invention of the character Billy Pilgrim, who also experienced Dresden but gets abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, is a kind of 'cushion' for the experience, making it possible for Vonnegut to write about it from a more objective distance. He said that actually, he could have done without the first chapter which gives an account of Vonnegut's difficulties in writing about the subject before the story of Billy Pilgrim gets going.
I said that I liked the first chapter, I loved the honest way Vonnegut puts his cards on the table and dispenses with the con of 'authorial authority' and admits how difficult it is to address such a traumatising subject.
Jeanne said that she too had liked the first chapter but that was all. She said she simply couldn't take the stuff about aliens, and quite frankly and most unusually for her, she gave up on the book.
Don said that actually she threw the book across the room, and he'd picked it up and said he'd read it, but found he hadn't liked it either, himself.
Sarah said she felt the same, she'd found the sci-fi alien sections thin and sketchy, so you couldn't sink into them in the way she likes to do with any world she's reading about in a novel.
I said, But wasn't that because they weren't really science fiction but a kind a metaphor for Billy Pilgrim's war-traumatised and -dislocated state of mind? and Trevor, Doug, and temporary member Matthew, who was staying with me and John, agreed. Those sections were a kind of joke, I said.
Sarah retorted that that was the only way you could take them.
Don then said it made him angry the way Vonnegut used the Tralfamadorian sections as an excuse not to deal head-on with the war: the way Billy Pilgrim kept getting whisked away from the war to Tralfamadore or another point in time.
We protested: but wasn't that the point - the fact that war experiences can be so terrible you can hardly dwell on them or deal with them? Especially when society expects soldiers to put their war experiences behind them, and in particular, concerning the firebombing of Dresden, since after the war the British and American governments covered it up? And in any case, it wasn't that Billy kept being whisked away from the war so much as whisked back to it: he had come 'unstuck' in time, as Vonnegut puts it, because you can never really leave unresolved traumas behind. But Don was unmoved and insisted that plenty of writers had dealt with war experiences better than that.
I said I thought Vonnegut did deal with them - that Billy's war experiences were as vivid and moving and in fact more humane than any fiction about the war I'd read, and when the novel jumped back to the war scenes it was nearly always to the point it had left off and followed the war story through.
Don, who was a schoolboy during the war and had cousins in active service, said that he couldn't agree that the war stuff was truthful. In particular, he objected strongly to the stereotype depiction of the British officer prisoners of war.
Doug didn't think that that was meant to be the truth about the officers, just the way they seemed to Billy.
Trevor backed Doug up in this. Yes, he said, the whole thing is Billy's experience. The book was not about the war, but about Billy's experience of it and his difficulty in dealing with it.
Don didn't find this acceptable. We had come to an impasse.
Don now pointed out that John had been very quiet so far, keeping his cards close to his chest. Don was particularly interested to know what John thought of this book because the time before, when Don had especially praised the war section in Atonement, John had said he found it boring and that he was bored with the war and novels about it - which Don admitted he had found annoying.
John, who was born during the war, said now that he hadn't really meant he was bored with the war. He said that actually it was very important to him and he felt he'd been affected by it badly because of what it had done to his father. What he'd meant was that he was fed up of attitudes and books that failed to get to grips with its true psychological dimensions. The soldier character in Atonement, for instance, was meant to be delusional due to his shrapnel wound, but you never properly shared in the psychological reality of his delusions.
Whereas the psychological reality was exactly where Slaughterhouse 5 was located, and for this reason it was a truly great book.
Doug and Matthew and Trevor and I nodded vigorously, but Don and Jeanne and Sarah were anything but convinced.
We had to agree to differ.
Then we ate up the nuts and crisps, rather greedily and neurotically, and talked about the war that was happening now, which none of us wanted to have happened, and suddenly we were all in agreement.

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May 2003- Affinity by Sarah Waters (1999)

As Jeanne had not yet chosen a book, we had suggested she did so, and she’d chosen this lesbian story of Victorian spiritualism.
Not long after the decision, I met Mark at the shops, pushing his little boy in the buggy, and he said he’d glanced at the book and didn’t fancy it much, but he’d definitely be there this time, even if he hadn’t managed to read it, because he wouldn’t mind starting to have some input into the decisions - as long as he was in the country, of course.
However, he was in Sydney when we went to call for him on the way over to Don and Jeanne’s.
Doug didn’t come, either, and when we got there Jeanne said it was perhaps just as well as she’d been worried about the seating, although Trevor and Sarah both sat on the floor anyway, to be near the crisps and shortbread because neither of them had had time for any tea.
The book divided the group.
Jeanne, as she’d already implied, loved it without reservation, as did Trevor and Sarah. Don too was very keen.
Jeanne was full of admiration for the convincing and evocative depiction of Victorian London and Millbank prison where much of the action takes place, and for the brilliant portrayal of the psychology of the protagonist Margaret, and the extreme cleverness of the plot which most of us agreed was pretty impressive.
Trevor said, yes, it was a cracking read. He said he’d been in the bath when he got to the end and he was so amazed he shouted out loud and kicked his legs up and splashed water everywhere and spilt the beer he was drinking, and his wife came running up to see what was going on.
Don said he saw it as a deeply psychological novel about seduction, and Trevor said yes, you could tell from the first page that it was all about sex, even though it was all so Victorian and repressed, and this gripped him from the word go.
Then new member Madeleine (who had come back again this time) said that she agreed with all that, but nevertheless she felt there was something missing, as if there was another, deeper novel inside this one trying to get out.
I said that that was how I felt too. I said that, partly perhaps because of all the hype over Sarah Waters, but also because of the quality of the prose, I kept expecting, and hoping, that this was a novel about the subconscious, or maybe inspiration or empathy, or the transcendence of the human spirit over loss and terrible physical conditions. And that, in contrast to Trevor, when I got to the end I was extremely disappointed, if not very annoyed, to discover that it was basically just a mystery story and in fact utterly depressing and without redemption in its message about the human spirit.
Jeanne was shocked that I didn’t find the brilliant psychology of the characters enough and Don said, Yes, you were looking for something that wasn’t there. I said, Well, yes, but that’s what I look for in books: some kind of greater metaphysical breadth than I found here, and then Don agreed that actually he did too.
Then John spoke up for the first time and upset people again by saying that in fact he had found the book boring: all those historical details larded on just because it had been researched.
I said I agreed with him but -
And Trevor interrupted and told me I couldn’t say that because -
And John interrupted him to point out I hadn’t said it yet, at which we all laughed and Trevor said sorry and looked sheepish, by which time I had forgotten what I had to say.
Then I remembered it and said that the painstaking recording of social detail was in fact artistically apt, because the protagonist was consciously adopting a stance very true to the Victorians, that of an anthropologist recording her findings in her journal - though in fact using this as a smokescreen for her own turbulent emotions. However, I did agree that I had found that it smacked somewhat of a device and, that ultimately the book was a bit research-heavy, and Don agreed.
I also said that I found the other, interspliced diary of the spiritualist Selina to be a somewhat tricksy device, psychologically false in fact, since no one ever writes a diary in the novelistic way in which hers is done - ie deliberately withholding until the end the most crucial information.
As for Margaret’s diary, on the other hand, she is the last to realise anything about herself - after the other characters and after the reader - and this is brilliantly done, and everyone wholeheartedly agreed.
Then John read out the note Doug had sent, saying that he had found the novel ‘mediocre at best, and as for the ending - enough said!’ and Jeanne could hardly believe her ears.

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June 2003 - Surfacing by Margaret Atwood (1972), Virago

John chose this book about a young woman who returns with three friends to the remote Northern-Quebec island of her childhood to search for her missing father. He chose it as one of his all-time favourite and most admired novels, to the great delight of three others of us, Don, Doug and me, who had also read it in the eighties and felt exactly the same about it.
To the astonishment and disappointment of us four, this years-later second reading left us feeling that the book was less great than we had thought, and those present who were new to it - Trevor, Sarah and Jeanne - also had great doubts about it.
We spent the meeting discussing why this change in attitude should have occurred.
Firstly, our admiration for the prose was undiminished, and the newcomers to the book agreed wholeheartedly that it transports you vividly and utterly convincingly into the world of the Canadian lakes and into the troubled mental state of the alienated nameless narrator-protagonist. Sarah, who knows this part of Canada, said the book captures beautifully and entirely accurately its character and atmosphere, although the rest of us felt the portrayal had such a ring of truth we didn’t need such real-life verification.
Don said that the main problem for him this time around was that in spite of the vivid depiction of the protagonist’s state of mind, he was no longer convinced by the overall psychology of the book. He was especially dissatisfied with the portrayal of the other three characters and their mistaken ‘alternative’ ideology: it seemed too judgmental and far too simplistic a depiction, and those three characters emerged merely as ciphers. I pointed out that this was a function of the alienated psychology of the narrator, who is finding it hard to relate to them and doesn’t even want to - ie. this is how she sees them. Everyone, including Don, agreed that this was true, yet we did all also agree that there wasn’t enough authorial compensation over this not to make us feel that the book itself colludes with the shallow depiction.
None of us who had read it previously had felt this at all the first time round, and we concluded that then we had been entranced by the very existence of these characters in a novel: contemporary figures of the time in then-contemporary dilemmas, making the novel then seem vibrantly topical and fresh.
Don also said that a lot of the dramatic tension of his first reading was lost for the second, because this time of course he knew what had happened to the father. This in turn shifted his attention to the nature of the protagonist’s parents (which he hadn’t considered the first time round). This time he felt that since the parents were untypical, even idiosyncratic, in the way they had isolated themselves and their family on the island, the protagonist’s dilemmas over them failed to be universal. Not all of us agreed with this last point. Some of us felt that the ambiguity of the parents (half in touch with nature, half colonisers and destroyers of nature) was a key element in the novel’s extremely universal theme of civilisation and materialism versus nature and spirituality. However, we couldn’t help agreeing that the parents remained shadowy, and that although this was to a great extent the point, on a second reading (with the truth behind the father’s disappearance pre-empted) it seemed more of an omission that the protagonist’s pre-alienation relationship with her parents is never greatly realised. This is an issue which some of us felt is resolved in Atwood’s much later novel Cat’s Eye which covers a lot of the same material.
Doug, who had read and loved the book as a fifteen-year-old intensely interested in all things alternative and 'transcendental', was now dismayed to find it showily over-poetic and intense and very much a ‘young person’s novel’, and fervently wished he hadn’t read it again and destroyed his vision of it.
As for those entirely fresh to the book:
Sarah basically found it irritating, and lost patience altogether with both the protagonist and the novel when the protagonist descends into her spiritual back-to-nature ‘madness’, which Sarah saw as a ridiculous pratfall into hippy-babble.
Trevor too, was firm in his opinion that at this point the novel gets rapidly worse. The thing that interested him about the novel was, as usual, the sex: the complicated sexual relationships between the four young people, which of course get very quickly abandoned as a focus of interest for the protagonist and the author. Although some of us protested that this was unfair (since the socio-sexual relations are not the focus of interest of the novel) we couldn’t help feeling that he had a point when he protested that actually, the protagonist is dead interested in her own sexual standing in the group, in spite of what she tells herself. Some of us felt that this was a result of the author’s own ambivalence over this, and that it was another clue to our new sense that the overall psychological integrity of the novel was flawed.
Jeanne said that while in view of the current international situation she was hardly a supporter of Americanism at the moment, she was very troubled by the black-and-white anti-Americanism of the novel, which seemed consistently to equate Americanisation with dehumanisation. Doug pointed out that there are moments when the novel appears to subvert this idea - for instance, when the ‘Americans’ fishing on the lake turn out to be Canadians, and when the protagonist admits her own collusion in ‘Americanisation’. However, we did all feel that Americanisation was always presented in the book as a major problem - the problem - and was equated fundamentally with the protagonist’s emotional alienation and damage.
All in all, we found it extremely interesting that two readings of the same book, in two different cultural climates and with the space of twenty years between them, could give us such very different reactions.
This led us onto a more general discussion about how we read books, and about how we choose them in the first place. Trevor said he always reads the beginning, and we all agreed, except Doug, who interestingly said that he specifically avoids the beginning when glancing through a book with a view to buying it, because beginnings are so often misleading. Most of us agreed that the cover is all-important in attracting you to a book (however much you know it's a superficiality), but Doug again disagreed and said pithily that he's a title man himself.
Then somehow, perhaps because of the psychology of the novel, we got onto a discussion of Freudianism, which Trevor said he found quite disgusting.
It was a warm evening, and still light, and the ethos of the outdoors seemed to seep into Trevor’s sitting room. Trevor took his shoes off. When we left he followed us out into the dusk barefoot as the hippies in the novel, and, in spite of all our criticisms, Margaret Atwood’s prose and the vivid world of the book went with us all the way down the road.
This was a Monday. On the Wednesday, our usual day, Mark called at mine and John's at lunchtime to say he'd be making the meeting for once, and was dismayed to remember that we'd changed the day for the sake of Madeleine (who hadn't been able to make it after all, however), and to find that the meeting had been and gone.

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