The Fiction Faction - Archive - July-November 2012
Elizabeth Baines

July 2012
The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark

Warning: plot-spoiler (though whether it matters with this book is a moot point, as our discussion will reveal).

There was radical division in the group over this very short novel (Mark's suggestion) of 1970 in which thirty-four-year-old protagonist Lise sets out on holiday with a firm purpose which appears initially to be to experience a holiday romance or sexual encounter, and in which we are told from fairly near the beginning that 'she will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab wounds.'

Mark pointed out in his introduction that it's a departure in style for Muriel Spark and for this reason when he read it about three years ago he didn't like it, but having thought about it for our meeting he now liked it very much indeed. He felt it's a book that's better for rereading; indeed - as I put in - it both invites and requires rereading, because it's only in the light of the gradual revelation that Lise's purpose is precisely to be murdered, that the true project of the book can be appreciated. However, it was the question of the project of the book over which we were divided, and our conflicting views raised once again the questions of authorial intention and the competing authorities of writer and reader.

Mark, John, Doug and I saw the book as a metafiction, a comment on traditional narrative with its assumption of omniscient authorial authority and confidence in the revelation of psychological truth, and on crime fiction in particular, which, with its careful plotting and complacency about the solubility of mystery, takes the mode to the extreme. The prose here is mannered in a way that, as Mark had indicated, is unlike Spark's usual fluent high satirical English style, and geared I would say to defamiliarise and disrupt conventional expectations, with insistent repetition and surprising, sometimes discordant imagery - a laughing woman in a brown overall, for instance, is 'emitting noise like a brown container of laughing-gas'. By making the protagonist the 'victim' (rather than a detective) and temporally leading up to the crime rather than away from it, and indeed by questioning or even denying her status as a victim, Spark effects a subversion of crime fiction, but thwarts any move towards traditional literary fiction by overturning the conventional literary narrative trajectory and beginning with the revelation of the end of the story, the murder. As Mark said, Spark called the book a 'whydunnit' rather than a whodunnit, but one wonders if this is another of her sly jokes, since, in the psychological terms of traditional novels, we never do find out why Lise wants to be murdered (apart from suggestions throughout that she is mad) - a gap we considered highly intentional on Spark's part - and the book might more accurately be called a howdunnit.

Someone said that Lise herself is a gap, and Spark does indeed withhold significant information about her, and does so in a signalled way via the mannered prose. We do not know Lise's nationality or, in consequence, that of some of the other characters; she never volunteers this information when people she meets tell her, seemingly pointedly, where they are from. We are told, with significant repetition, that she 'speaks four languages'; occasionally we are told she is speaking in one of those languages, which can come as a surprise to disrupt our assumptions and make us realise that on most occasions we do not know which language she is using; we do not know which country she lives in and flies from, we are only told, in Lise's notably stilted dialogue, that she lives in 'the North'; we do not know which city in which country she flies to, only that it is in 'the South' and that from there it is possible to drive to Naples. The narration eschews omniscient knowledge of Lise's feelings or motives but watches her from outside like a camera and, carefully, only surmises - she 'does not appear to listen' - or refuses even to surmise: 'whether she has failed to leave [the envelope] at the doorkeeper's desk by intention, or whether through the distraction of the woman's laughter, one could not tell from her serene face with lips slightly parted'; 'Lisa is lifting the corners of her carefully packed things, as if in absent-minded accompaniment to some thought, who knows what?' - a wry comment, I'd say, on both the fictive detective who takes the reader through a process of deduction via clues and the novelist who presumes possession of the truth about characters and drops clues for the reader. All in all, I said, I took the book as a spoof and a postmodern joke.

Now there were objections. Trevor didn't like my use of the words spoof and joke but he did agree when I said, Well it's a comment on crime fiction. I'm not sure exactly why he wanted this distinction: I think he felt the actual story and character should be taken more seriously than our reading did, and that he himself had felt at less of a distance from them than we had (and thought we were meant to be) (and he did say he had very much enjoyed it). Jenny also didn't like my use of those terms, and went further: she didn't at all agree with our interpretation. She said she simply took the book as being about Lise's death wish. She said you could tell things about Lise's personality and feelings: she's old-fashioned and she's very controlling, her flat is sparse and over-neat, and we can deduce from the plot that she has spent time in a mental hospital and is deranged. Most of these things are true: it is stated that Lise wears old-fashioned lipstick, and the clothes she wears for her trip are of an old-fashioned length. However, her clothes are purposefully chosen as a chief aspect of the 'trail' that the narration tells us she is laying for detectives later investigating her murder: 'Lise in her knee-covering clothes at this moment looks curiously of the street-prostitute class beside the mini-skirted girls and their mothers whose knees at least can be seen./So she lays the trail' (my italics). She is certainly very controlling, and her main characteristic betraying this is her firmly closed mouth, but it seems to me that in the context of the withholding of so many other facts about Lise, the constant over-repetition of this authorial observation, linked with the equally frequent observation of her parting her lips slightly 'as if in a trance', amounts to a send-up of this kind of authorial clue-dropping. I'd say the same could be said for the description of her flat, which went on at rather ridiculous but self-conscious length, and I said that I felt that that description had a more metafictive purpose: the way that everything in the flat folds away from view symbolises the way that Lise's inner life is folded away from both narrator or reader. Jenny didn't agree: she saw it as more straightforwardly implying things about Lise's character. Lise's control itself is to me in any case a satirical vehicle rather than a realistic psychological characteristic: by leaving clues for others to find and piece together Lise is acting like an author: she is in effect writing the story, in the narrative driver's seat. Jenny clearly didn't accept this either. She said she took the title 'The Driver's Seat' to mean, more simply, that by choosing to be murdered and setting out to find her murderer, Lise had taken control of events in her life.

Jenny said, in any case there is a plot and clues you can piece together, and it is a whodunnit in that you are kept guessing until the end who is going to be the man - which is true. John had previously noted that there was a conventional laying of red herrings in the form of the other, threatening-seeming men she meets who however turn out to be 'not her type'. Trevor said, mind you, I did think some of the coincidences were ridiculous, in particular the fantastic one of the bloke that Lise had once known and whom she wanted to murder her being on the same flight. I said that I thought that was part of the spoof (hesitating to use the word, but unable to think of a better). In fact the coincidence is developed: he turns out to have been booked into the same tiny hotel at their destination, and one begins to wonder if, rather than its being a coincidence, Lise has plotted even this, but since there is no evidence that we could pick up of such prior plotting we can't know - another send-up in my opinion, or calculated disruption of the conventional techniques of crime fiction. Doug now said that if the novel is the kind of novel Jenny suggested - a crime novel, albeit an inverted one - then it is a really terrible novel, but if it's the postmodern interrogation of such novels that we others thought it, then it's brilliant, and of course we others agreed. Jenny didn't agree with that either; she said she thought it was a good novel on her terms.

There was now some discussion which I'm afraid degenerated quickly into heated argument, as it foundered on our differing understandings of terminology as a result of our differing disciplines. I repeated my belief that you weren't intended to give the novel a psychological reading, and Jenny, a sociologist, strongly objected to my describing her reading of the novel in this way. The heated nature of the exchanges meant that I couldn't ask her why, or explain what I meant (the inference of characters' motives and feelings - their psychology - from descriptions of their behaviour). She and Trevor also objected to the term postmodern, and Mark and I did manage to explain what we meant by postmodernism in literary terms: a questioning of traditional narrative modes. Jenny told us what postmodernism was in sociological terms, but I'm afraid I've forgotten it, and Jenny seemed to stick to it in judging the book as not postmodern, so we were equally dismissive of each other's uses of the term. There was a spat about whether the book was realist or surreal. Jenny insisted it was surreal but John objected that the Surrealists were interested above all in the role of the subconscious in the writing process whereas here Spark is utterly, cerebrally in control. Mark now hotly objected that the book isn't surreal at all: the whole thing is couched in the careful realist observationist mode of the detective novel. Doug however pointed out that some of the incidents do have an improbable surreal nature - which is a different use of the term from that of John's, and I think what Jenny meant. I wanted to say that the book is neither of those things, realist or surreal, but playing with both modes to make a specific literary point, but didn't manage to do so. There was a calmer moment as we considered the crucial matter of Lise's wanting to be murdered and engineering her own murder. Some thought that it was so psychologically unrealistic as to be necessarily a kind of send-up, but Trevor and Mark pointed out that, actually, there are known cases of people agreeing to be murdered. I said that I thought it was a satirical comment on the theory, very current at the time of this novel's writing, that the victim is an agent in his or her own murder - Martin Amis's 'murderee', as Mark and Trevor reminded us - but no one seemed particularly interested in pursuing this idea. Finally Trevor made the point that the author may have intended the reading most of us were saying she had, but if people gave it a more conventional reading the author had no control over that, which is a point you can't argue with, and one that writers need to keep in mind.

Afterwards, thinking more about this, I pondered the ending. The policemen who will arrest the murderer are dressed in uniforms and trappings that 'protect them from the indecent exposure of fear and pity, pity and fear.' This, the final line of the novel, is a reference to Artistotle's (psychological) theory that the production of fear and pity in an audience is essential to good drama - an idea that has underpinned Western literature and deeply imbues conventional fiction with its insistence on allowing the reader to identify with and feel for (and believe in) characters, but which has been challenged by twentieth-century literary theory. What does Spark mean by the 'indecent exposure' of those emotions, and whose emotions are the policemen being protected from as they interrogate the murderer? Lise's? Or the murderer's? Because in fact towards the end of the novel I did at last find myself moved and identifying, and, in a reversal of convention, on behalf of and with the murderer. It is quite clear from his behaviour that he is frightened as Lise pushes him towards his crime - 'He is trembling'; ' "Stop trembling," ' she tells him; in a perverse way he becomes her victim - and in fact I found that this passage prompted me to read in the conventional psychological way, ie to know his emotions from his behaviour and that of Lise, and identify with him. Is hard, therefore, not to see this, like the conventional whodunnit embedded in the 'whydunnit' and pointed to by Jenny, as Spark's sly sleight of hand and an acknowledgement of the power of conventional emotion-based fiction.

August 2012
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Ann suggested this short novel, which takes the character of Rochester's mad wife Bertha, incarcerated in the attic in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, and tells the story of her life, chiefly in her own words but also with sections related by Rochester. As Ann said, she is a gap in the Bronte novel, and this novel fills the gap. Ann had previously read the book on the recommendation of her English teacher when she was a teenager struggling with Jane Eyre, and then she had enjoyed it as an interesting prequel, but this time around she had found a lot more in it. This time she found it a very dense book, in which every word and sentence matter - at which several people nodded in agreement - and was afraid that as she had had to read it quickly at the last minute this time she hadn't given it the careful reading she felt it needed.

The book takes as its cue the short section from Jane Eyre in which Rochester relates to Jane how he was tricked into an arranged marriage in Jamaica with his Creole wife who then turned out to be mad, and recreates those circumstances from a different perspective. Here Bertha is Antoinette, the name by which she went before Rochester insisted on calling her Bertha - and we are presented with her vivid and evocative memories of a lonely and emotionally deprived childhood as the daughter of a deceased slave owner and his grieving and fearful widow. Descendants of the original English colonials, ostracised and indeed threatened by the ex-slave community in post-Emancipation Jamaica, Antoinette, her congenitally disabled younger brother and her distracted and grieving mother live in isolation and increasing poverty. When her mother remarries wealthy Mr Mason, a new colonial, they seem 'saved', but he is incapable of understanding the social situation. His failure to heed his wife's warnings about the resentment of the ex-slaves leads to a tragedy which impels her towards complete emotional breakdown and loss of control, resulting in her incarceration in a 'safe' house where she eventually dies. It is this 'madness', along with the infirmity of Antoinette's (also now dead) brother, which a jealous and disowned half-brother of Antoinette's, her father's son by one of his former slaves, uses to poison Rochester against Antoinette, convincing him of her incipient madness. Antoinette has been at first unhappy to be trapped in a forced union to a man who needed her wealth and now, according to English law, owns it (in reality she is in love with a second cousin, Sandi, who is also the descendant of slaves, but she must be married off to someone of pure English descent), but subsequently ecstatically sexually seduced by her new husband Rochester, only to have him then turn cold and even hostile towards her. She reacts in a deeply emotional (and non-English) way that only confirms the warnings about her. It is now that Rochester begins to call her Bertha, the second name that she shared with the mother whom everyone now takes for granted was mad. By the end of their short honeymoon in her old family house on Dominica, he has categorised her as lunatic, and plans already to incarcerate her:

' White faces, dazed eyes, aimless gestures, high-pitched laughter... She's one of them. I too can wait - for the day when she is only a memory to be avoided, locked away, and like all memories a legend. Or lie...'

The final short and harrowing section is related by Antoinette from the attic room in Thornfield Hall, where she is now truly deranged by the isolation and the lack of knowledge of where she is, why she is kept there and why her husband doesn't come to her.

This precis of mine makes the thrust of the novel, in terms of plot, seem much clearer than it does on a first reading. The prose is highly economical, as Ann pointed out, and there is a focus on the emotional rather than the factual dimensions of the story. Information about the factual circumstances is often slipped in only subtly and even indirectly - a perhaps inevitable and even calculated effect in a story of cultural confusion and increasing psychological derangement. I found that on a first reading, concentrating on the emotional element, which is indeed complex and subtle, I missed some of these points of fact and I wasn't absolutely clear about the sequence of events and therefore of some of the causes and effects, and it was only on a second reading that the whole thing fell beautifully into shape for me as above. Not only did Ann feel she had read the book too quickly, but Jenny hadn't yet reached the final section, and Doug, who had read it years ago but is moving house and has all of his books packed away, hadn't managed to find it to read it again, and as a result there was a fair bit of doubt and discussion about fairly radical aspects of the book.

Ann considered that it was a book about people in new places and/or situations they don't understand and in which they don't know how to cope - the ex-slaves and both the old and new colonials in the post-Emancipation West Indies, and the two young people forced by their families into their cross-cultural marriage. (Rochester is especially hurtled into it: arriving in Jamaica only three weeks before the marriage his family have arranged to a woman unknown to him, he is immediately struck down by illness and spends a large part of that time in a fever - which he will later look back on as a way in which he was cheated of finding out about Antoinette in time.) And indeed, when Ann looked up the book on the internet, she found it called 'the original post-colonial novel'.

This led to quite a lot of sharing by group members of factual information about colonialism, slavery, multiculturalism and the history of the West Indies. Taking the focus back to the book, Jenny said she felt sorry for most of the characters, including Rochester, who is also a victim of a social system (expected to maintain his social status but impoverished by primogeniture and consequently manipulated by his family into this marriage, and of course entirely innocent of the West Indies social situation into which he is plummeted). Along with most others, I agreed with this last, though up to a point. By allocating sections of the book to Rochester's first-person narrative, Rhys does give an insight into Rochester's predicament. However, I felt that the book had a more feminist message than had been noted so far in our discussion. Victim of a patriarchal society though Rochester may be, nevertheless he undoubtedly ends up with the patriarchy-sanctioned power to save himself by destroying and negating Antoinette. I felt that this book was taking up a point made on more than one occasion by Jane Eyre (who narrates the Bronte novel) that women and children are not the sweet, angelic creatures they are thought to be and meant to be and that women can have tumultuous emotions and the same ambitions as men. Rhys seems to me specifically to develop this point and the notion that is thus implicit, if not actually tackled, in the Bronte novel, that behaviour in women not sanctioned by a patriarchal society is merely called madness, a repression which ironically however can induce true derangement. John agreed (and recalled our discussion of Tender is the Night and its so-called mad character Nicole, a novel in which the author seems less aware of such a notion). (People seemed initially a little taken aback by the idea that Jane Eyre could be considered feminist, with its heroine in love with a distant, brooding and even cruel man, but no one apart from John had read it recently - he went back to it after reading the Rhys book - and Trevor hadn't read it at all, although he had seen a film adaptation. We reminded everyone that although Jane 'gets her man' in the end, she does so on her own terms, as, finally, a rich and thus independent woman, and when, as Trevor put it, Rochester has been emasculated, blinded and having lost his right hand - indeed 'punished' by the backfiring of his own action in incarcerating Bertha/Antoinette.)

Doug however, not having read the Rhys book recently either, was unconvinced that Antoinette was not congenitally mad - after all, wasn't her mother mad before her? This led to some general discussion about what constitutes madness, but pinning it back to the book, those of us who had read it more recently insisted that there were circumstances which had driven Antoinette's mother to distraction - although I think we omitted to mention the crucial and precipitating one, the tragic death of Antoinette's brother. Explaining Antoinette's own 'madness', Clare referred to her emotionally deprived and fearful childhood, and her consequent emotional vulnerability in the situation into which she is forced with Rochester. Still Doug worried about it all: but to have been in such a state that she was incarcerated? Once again, as in our discussion of Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture, he was met with a chorus of protest that throughout history women have been incarcerated as mad simply for unacceptable or emotional behaviour, and once again Jenny said that it happened to an aunt of her own.

I said that I thought the theme of obeah (or voodoo) in the novel was not simply a function of cultural difference but was put to specifically feminist use. In fact, the implication is that it is not a point of difference: Rochester's insistence on calling Antoinette Bertha, the name of her 'mad mother', is indeed a kind of voodoo, and Antoinette recognises this: ' "That's obeah, too." ' A patriarchal system which calls women submissive, and mad when they fail to be so, allows them no other way to be and locks them into one or other of those states. Rochester himself is half-conscious of his own voodoo-type power: having decided to hate Antoinette and destroy her hatred for him, he says, 'I did it too. I saw the hate go out of her eyes. I forced it out... Say die and I will die.'

In a similarly ironic way, it is at this point that the prose of Rochester's first-person narrative changes and adopts rhythms, images and conceits similar to those of Antoinette's, implying similar mental breakdown: 'I thought I saw that tree strike its roots deeper, making ready to fight the wind.' In a further twist of irony, this is when he finally decides that he is sane: 'All the mad conflicting emotions had gone and left me wearied and empty. Sane.'

People commented on the descriptions of nature, its beauty and yet its sinister character to both Antoinette as a child and the adult Rochester, and the jungle that threatens to encroach on Antoinette's ancestral and honeymoon home, another very real way in which the characters are overpowered by an alien environment. I said I thought that the weather was also used in a symbolic way: at the point when Rochester finally hardens against Antoinette and asserts his English patriarchal values over her, the weather changes and becomes, in his words, 'cool, calm and cloudy as an English summer.'

John now read out a passage from the section in Jane Eyre where Rochester explains and justifies himself to Jane, saying that, actually, reading Wide Sargasso Sea had rather spoilt Jane Eyre for him. As John was indicating, in the light of Wide Sargasso Sea Rochester comes over here as utterly self-centred, indeed selfish, lacking in empathy and cruel: in fact, the passage almost reads as satirical, yet one is aware that Bronte, while not dealing with him uncritically, is not intending satire. Interestingly and ironically, as Clare pointed out, because Rhys provides some insight into his predicament, he comes over less badly in her novel of cultural and feminist redress. Trevor, however, didn't agree. In his view the Rochester of Wide Sargasso Sea was 'a bloody plonker, a Grade One.'

There was now some discussion as to whether it was necessary to know Jane Eyre in order to appreciate Wide Sargasso Sea, and opinion was divided, or at any rate uncertain. I said that surely it was necessary (ie to truly appreciate it), since it was a work of redress and the original was so explicitly flagged. (It truly is harrowing to have one's previous perceptions of the ghostly threat in the attic overturned by the final section of Wide Sargasso Sea, an experience that would not be available to you if you did not know Jane Eyre.) But then Doug said that once again we come up against the impotence of authors in the face of the way that readers read.

At any rate, everyone agreed that, short as it is, it had been a difficult book to read, and whether this was because none of us had recently read Jane Eyre beforehand it wasn't really possible to know. Trevor seemed to have found it the hardest and he was the one who had never read Jane Eyre (though of course he had seen a film adaptation): he said he really had to struggle with it and force himself to go on reading, and although he is the one in the group who enjoys most books, as a result he hadn't enjoyed this.


September 2012
Looking for Mr Goodbar by Judith Rossner

In the last couple of months my time has been completely taken up by intensive writing and some pretty radical decorating (involving stripping paint and replastering!), so I haven't been keeping up our book group reports, I'm afraid. It's now about seven weeks since our September meeting (and I've had those massive preoccupations to push it out of my mind), so my following report might be a bit sketchy, but here goes.

Clare chose this book, set in the early 1970s and based on a real-life 1973 murder case, about a convent-educated primary-school teacher in her late twenties, Theresa Dunn, who haunts the singles bars of New York picking up men for brief sexual encounters, and is finally murdered by one of these men, a psychopath.

The book was published in 1975 to ecstatic reviews, and generally accepted as being of 'considerable literary merit' (New York Times). None of us present, however, felt that the book was well written, and as far as I recollect a fair bit of the discussion concerned this discrepancy. Clearly, at the time of publication, the subject matter - a woman cruising bars for casual sex, in particular a woman from a respectable Catholic family with a highly respectable job and, later on, a respectable lawyer fiance - and the explicit way in which the sex was portrayed, were explosive, and it is interesting to see how response to subject-matter can affect one's perception of prose style.

Most of us, reading the book in the present day, felt that it was very difficult to understand on an emotional level why Theresa engages in this double life of self-destructive behaviour. Least perturbed by this was Clare who is a counsellor and who, introducing the book, said she could identify certain psychological theories about emotional damage and promiscuity being consciously worked through in the book. In fact, the book makes plain, on a factual level, the causes of Theresa's behaviour: struck down at the age of four by polio which resulted in a slight curvature of the spine that she works hard to disguise, suffering a repressed sense of parental neglect (the death of her elder brother after her illness prevented her parents noticing her incipient disability and getting it treated), feeling inferior to a glamorous elder sister, and used and hurt by her first callous and predatory lover, her college lecturer, she suffers from low self-worth and, as a kind of warped self-protection, dissociates sex from emotion: brief sex with strangers is exciting, or at least briefly satisfying - the more threatening or detached the more exciting/satisfying - but sex with her sincere and loving fiance is anaesthetic. However, we were generally agreed that none of this was convincing on an emotional level: it was hard to feel Theresa's psychological development (if it can be called that) and changes of gear; the book, as Doug said, just didn't feel lived or felt.

Ann said she had read that Rossner had been commissioned to write the book in the aftermath of the real-life case, and wondered if this had made for a lack of true emotional engagement on the part of the author. Mark and Ann both felt too that Rossner's age at the time - I think they had read she was about forty - set her apart from the newly sexually 'liberated' scene she was describing: she had indeed not lived it and was portraying it from the outside. Those in the group who had been young at the time felt that she hadn't in fact got it right: while everyone present could agree that promiscuity can be a kind of masochism, there was nothing in the book of the atmosphere of the time whereby women who did behave this way revelled in it, telling themselves (however mistakenly) that they were exercising a newly found sexual power.

Whatever the reason, we felt that, in spite of the critical praise, it is the prose that fails to convey the crucial emotional element. In spite of an innovative beginning - a police report on the murderer followed by the murderer's confession - the book very quickly becomes a conventional third-person linear plod through the events of Theresa's life, with much ground to cover and a consequent tendency to tell rather than show. This leads inevitably to a lack of vividness, leading in turn to a loss of significance. For instance, I said, when I realised that Theresa in adulthood was jealous of her elder sister Katherine I was surprised: I had missed that; and once again, I was really surprised to learn that Theresa had been very fond of Katherine's husband Brooks. Therefore I found it unconvincing that Theresa should be so upset when Katherine leaves him, and in turn even more unconvincing (even baffling) that when Theresa goes to Brooks' flat to comfort him and finds him with a young woman, she is so upset she hotfoots it down to one of the bars to pick up a man. There were general murmurs of agreement among the book group. The need to cram in a lot of backstory in a somewhat doggedly linear tale leads to clumsy (and over-proliferated) sentences such as this: It turned out that the way Katherine had broken her engagement to Young John was by running away with and marrying a cousin of Young John's whom she met at a wedding she'd gone to with Young John, and to clumsy structure and an over-reliance on exposition. After Theresa finds the supposedly grieving Brooks with the young woman, and before she seeks refuge in a bar pickup, she feels she really needs to talk to someone and thinks of another teacher at her school whom she wishes she could call (if she knew her better and if weren't too late in the evening). This teacher has not been mentioned previously in the novel, and slap-bang in the middle of Theresa's supposed emotional crisis we are given an account of this teacher from scratch - Her name was Rose and she was middle-aged and Jewish - what she looks like, her home circumstances and her personality, and any narrative tension is dissipated. This links with a general complaint in the group that very little attention is given to the schoolteaching side of Theresa's life - a result being that the supposedly shocking contrast between the two aspects of her life becomes merely academic for the reader. Although in theory everyone in the group accepted the notion of a secret life - as Mark said, it's one of the basic subjects of novels - most of us found it unconvincing when we were told in this novel that Theresa handles the children so well and is such a caring teacher - it merely seems inconsistent with the pathetic lack of emotional control in the other side of her life. Similarly, Ann noted, although we are told about Theresa's Irish-Catholic background, there is none of the particular emotional flavour of that (and so we miss out on any visceral sense of its emotional impact). A specialist in textiles, Ann said also that the bottom fell out of the novel for her at the point when we are briefly told that Theresa makes herself some new curtains even though she has never sewn anything before in her life - a small but vital indication of the lack of felt experience in the book. None of us could remember all the different men Teresa had taken back to her flat, or the order of her doing so; the linearity and account-type style of writing had created a repetitiveness that made them blur into each other and failed to turn them into much of a narrative arc. This was a failure compounded by the randomness of the ending. Although Theresa's repressed prudery combined with her fear of closeness are what tip her murderer over the edge, the fact that she picks up a psychopath in the first place has an inherent randomness rather than any inevitability. All in all, for most of us present, what should have been an exciting story was a tedious read.

So, basically, the book got a thumbs-down from us, although it turned out later that Trevor and Jenny, who had both missed the meeting, had very much enjoyed it. Trevor agreed that it wasn't too well written, and also that the sexual ethos of the 70s hadn't really been the way it's portrayed in the book, but he hadn't found that that mattered and had really liked it as a cracking and 'juicy' read.


October 2012
Dubliners by James Joyce

We have always had a rule that we don't discuss collections of short stories, initially because one of our early (now ex) members, Sarah, said (as someone who liked to sink into a good long novels) that she couldn't stand short stories. I have to say that as a short-story writer I found her comment upsetting but I was happy to go along with the decision as I felt that a good short story can take a whole evening's discussion and that any discussion by a disparate group of a whole collection of stories was most likely to be superficial.
So it was with some trepidation, I think, that Doug suggested this book, which he had always loved, assuring us that he had thought about it carefully and had decided that the cohesiveness of this particular collection would make for a good discussion after all. It turned out that he was right: we did have a good and thoughtful discussion, a main mark of that being that, unlike many of our discussions, it resulted in the adjustment of some people's perceptions, including my own.

Like Doug I have always held Dubliners to be one of my favourite books, but when I came to read it again this time (after many years) I found that I had hardly recalled the stories and, even more disturbingly, reading them this time under great pressure of time and commitments I found they blurred one into the other and I could hardly recall individual stories the day after reading them. When I bumped into Mark in the cafe some days before the meeting, I disconcertingly found myself agreeing with him that the stories were tedious, and this was the attitude with which both Mark and I arrived at the meeting. However, by the time the group had discussed the stories and reminded each other about them, both Mark and I began to engage with them, and having gone away and read several of them again since at much greater leisure, I'm glad to say they are restored to my personal canon.

By contrast to Mark and me, Doug, introducing the stories, said he had found his enthusiasm for the collection undimmed. He argued for its suitability for discussion: the fact that the stories are unified by a distinctive voice and authorial outlook and by the themes of religion, alcoholism and the ultimate hopelessness of the lives of its characters struggling in the hinterland between respectability and degradation in the economically-slumped Dublin of the early twentieth century, and by an overall structure of movement from childhood, through youth to maturity.

Jenny agreed: she had very much liked the stories (although she did, it turned out, also find it hard to remember which was which), but wondered why they are considered so groundbreaking for the time in which they were written. We talked about the fact that the stories eschew the traditional definitive resolution, and instead, in keeping with the theme of hopelessness and struggle, often end in a way that seems to leave us hanging. Even though most of the stories do in fact end on what Joyce called an 'epiphany', a moment of adjustment of perception for the reader, the meaning of that adjustment is not always clear, and the stories move towards uncertainty rather than certainty: it's a defocussing rather than a focussing, and thus a strong move away from the moral certainties of nineteenth-century fiction. (As someone put in at this point, one thing that characterises the book is that it's not moralising towards any of the fault-riven characters.) The final story, 'The Dead', as the story of maturity, presents the most obvious epiphany: Gabriel Conroy, having discovered a long-hidden truth about his wife's early past, has not only his perception of her adjusted, but also the perception of himself that both he and the reader have been nurturing all along. It is not simply, however, that in the light of his new knowledge he now sees himself 'as a ludicrous figure'; he moves on from that to a larger sense of uncertainty: One by one they were all becoming shades... The solid world itself ... was dissolving and dwindling... His soul swooned slowly...

This 'defocussing' is closely linked to another Modernist aspect of the stories: the fact that they are ultimately psychologically internal and deal with the contingency of consciousness. In fact, only the first three stories are told in the first person, and the rest are cast in a third person that cannot even be said to be an intimate third, since characters are often described in an objective-realist nineteenth-century mode and their personalities and life situations authorially summed up - aspects of the book which seem indeed very old-fashioned and were I think what set Jenny wondering about the book's Modernist credentials. However, there is an engagement with the consciousness of the protagonists of these stories, taking place on an important linguistic level: the narration partakes of the inflexions and diction of the characters and thus of their psyches: one character is 'handy with the mits' and 'Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet.' As John pointed out, the characters are thus seen from both the outside and the inside, which, before I had fully re-engaged with the stories, seemed to me an inconsistency (in the group, I praised the three first-person stories as the only ones with a consistent viewpoint) but which I now see as a deliberate authorial project achieved via a complex, multi-layered prose (which would be fully developed in Ulysses). Similarly, one of my complaints in the group discussion was that there seemed to be erroneous moments of shifting viewpoint. The story, 'A Mother,' in which Mrs Kearney chaperones her accompanist daughter at a disastrously attended concert and, in spite of the clear absence of box office returns, insists on the contractual payment, is told entirely from Mrs Kearney's viewpoint until a moment when, having become more and more insistent, she is suddenly seen from outside, in fact from the viewpoint of the other characters, 'appearing' to discuss something intently with her husband. In the story 'A Little Cloud', Little Chandler is made to see the futility of his own life by a reunion with an old friend who left and made his way in Fleet Street. We are entirely with his viewpoint until, towards the end, he is trying unsuccessfully to stop his baby crying when 'a woman' comes into the room, whom, due to the objective diction, we only realise a sentence or two later is his wife and the mother of his child. Doug said - too tentatively, it seems to me now - that these were not authorial mistakes but intentional, and I now agree with him (although I'm still not sure that either actually works). In the first instance, a tension is being deliberately set up between the internal world of the protagonist and the way she is seen by others, the moment of change being perhaps the moment of 'epiphany' for the reader, and in the second instance the switch is either meant to create a similar adjustment for the reader (we see the woman in a more objective light, rather than through Little Chandler's self-centred eyes) or a sudden moment of alienation within Little Chandler's own consciousness (he suddenly sees his wife as alien to him) (or both). While the book uses realist methods to capture and critique the social circumstances of the characters - detailed physical descriptions including obsessive geographical delineations of Dublin, careful and accurate observations of characters' behaviour and lengthy colloquial dialogue - it also operates on a more Modernist symbolic level to portray the perceptions and consciousness that call into question the reality of that world, 'dissolving and dwindling' it in the symbolic snowstorm at the end of 'The Dead'.

As Jenny said, nothing much happens in the stories, there's no drama, and this is not simply because the lives of these characters are humdrum, but also, and perhaps more importantly, because the true focus of the stories is psychological and internal. Ann said she found that on that level they were dramatic, in fact. She had really liked the stories, and the episodic nature of the book as a whole, and was very glad to have been given an occasion to read it. She also found it amazingly prescient, touching as it does on paedophilia, including that in the Catholic Church ('The Sisters' and 'An Encounter') and corrupt politicians ('Ivy Day in the Committee Room'), and everyone heartily agreed. People commented on the strong criticism the book makes of the Catholic Church, and of both colonial rule and Celtic Revivalism, while, as had been noted earlier, refusing to moralise against the characters.

John commented that there were similarities between Dubliners and Trainspotting - both episodic, both set in Celtic cities and dealing with addiction. He said he felt that there was a hole in the middle of the most famous of the stories, 'The Dead', in that he didn't find it psychologically realistic that Mrs Conroy should have kept the episode from her youth so secret from her husband, but I don't think anyone else found it unreasonable, given the era of the stories. Personally, I find it perfectly organic: the point is that romance has long been worn away for the Conroys by the humdrum struggle of their lives, and it is the sudden reawakening of romance and lust in Gabriel Conway's bosom, his need to connect with his wife and his uncustomary tenderness towards her, that, ironically, unlock her emotionally and cause her to unburden herself.

Someone said that there was no humour in the book, with which I couldn't at all agree. The contrast between the realist elements and the internal, symbolic elements makes for an overall irony of tone, and I can't see how the following, for instance, isn't funny: The most vigorous clapping came from the four young men in the doorway who had gone away to the refreshment-room at the beginning of the piece but had come back when the piano had stopped. I laughed out loud with Gabriel Conroy's audience when he relates how his grandfather's horse, used to walking in a circle to drive his mill, stops on an outing to walk round and round King Billy's statue. There is of course however a bitter political edge to this moment of merriment, and I do agree that the humour, residing always in the realist moments, is ultimately subsumed by the existential sadness falling like the snow 'faintly through the universe'.

There was some discussion about authorial intention. Jenny wondered how far Joyce, and authors in general, consciously set out to create the effects achieved. Could it be a question of just writing stories as they came and justifying/explaining them in retrospect? I said I felt on the whole, yes, writers write according to their temperament and outlook, see afterwards what they have done and then identify and name it, and John added that writers are also influenced by what they've read and admire, but Doug was pretty sure that as far as Joyce was concerned the whole project was approached with a very conscious political and literary intention. Of course, with most writers all of these things are operating to some degree. Joyce's own family background of reduced fortunes and Home Rule politics clearly affected his outlook, and so, in my view, would be likely to affect directly his literary stratagems, but as is well recorded it also endeared him to Ibsen with his concern with ordinary lives and led him in turn to be influenced by him, and his letters make clear that, influenced by the French Symbolists, he developed serious literary theories for his own writing.

By the end of the meeting, Mark no longer considered the stories tedious, but he maintained nevertheless that if it hadn't been for Ulysses, we would not have heard of these stories now, they would have sunk without trace. As for me, my experience of trying to rush these stories and getting nowhere, and then approaching them more circumspectly and finding them rich after all, has confirmed me in my view that, far from being the literary form suited to the rushed soundbite age, good and complex short stories need special close attention and re-reading.


November 2012
Roger Fishbite by Emily Prager

This is a book, the Lolita story updated to the nineties and recast from the viewpoint of the 'nymphet', which Trevor has kept mentioning as brilliant ever since I strongly recommended it to him some time ago, so finally, to his delight, and to that of Jenny who had also read it and admired it, I suggested it for our November group discussion.

Whereas Lolita is a fictional memoir narrated by the paedophile Humbert Humbert awaiting trial for the murder of the man who turned out to have corrupted the child Lolita before him, this book is the fictional memoir of the 'nymphet', Lucky Linderhof, awaiting trial for the murder of the Humbert figure, the man she calls Roger Fishbite - a reversal which can be seen as a literary redress. Whereas in Lolita Humbert's desire is fulfilled by the convenient accidental death of the mother he married in order to gain sexual access to her twelve-year-old daughter, Roger Fishbite is the purposeful murderous agent of his wife's death - a comment, as I see it, on the authorial 'killing off' of the women in Lolita, and thus the complicity of the author. Such literary stratagems have led some critics to deride Prager's book as an over-simplistic, if not crude recasting of Lolita which, as we noted in our discussion of the earlier book, subtly portrays the duality of both characters and Humbert in particular. However, it seems to me that the story seen from the viewpoint of the molested child would inevitably be more black and white: the moral complexities of a perpetrator caught in romantic obsession with unsullied youth would be unavailable or only dimly available to the child and indeed irrelevant to the trauma of her experience. In this case, as our group agreed, the book is making an important point especially relevant in our current culture where widespread sexual abuse of young girls, and the voices of the victims, are for the first time being acknowledged. The point is that we need to see abuse from the viewpoint of the child.

In fact, Lucky is a complex character and her feelings for Fishbite are complicated: even when she is drearily trapped with him, moving from deserted hotel to deserted hotel, she has moments of seeing him as the father figure for whom she always longed (one reason she paid him attention in the first place), and she is fiercely jealous of the girl she calls 'Evie Naif', the child beauty queen with whom, it turns out, Fishbite is also sexually involved.
Was I in love with Fishbite? Sometimes, when the light hit his shoulder in a certain way, or he made a game of chasing me down one of the empty corridors, or at a mall when he was paying at the register, I could forget the iniquity and a wave of warmth would rush over me and I'd have to kiss him. I did like him, after all. I always liked him or none of this would have happened.
What the book thus conveys is the way that the needy impulses of children, both sexual and non-sexual, can make them open to abuse, and the moral imperative of adults not to abuse those impulses.

Having read the book again in a hurry just before the meeting, I hadn't quite formulated these thoughts when I came to introduce the book. What I did say was that I was most impressed with the narrative voice (which beautifully conveys the complexity of a sassy and precocious girl caught in a searingly painful situation). I said also that the book is concerned not just with sexual abuse, seeing it as one aspect of a wider abuse of children (including the child slave labour which Lucky and her friend Eg try to expose in a street theatre and the foot binding of Chinese girls, recalled in the little shoes collected by Lucky's mother), and everyone agreed.

Jenny then said that once again she had really enjoyed the book, but that, actually, this time around, she hadn't been quite convinced by the voice, which seemed to her too adult, conscious and knowledgeable for a thirteen-year-old. Ann said that that had occurred to her too, although she had very much enjoyed the book nevertheless. I didn't agree: it's made quite clear from the start that Lucky has always been intellectually as well as sexually precocious and is particularly good with words (she's also had the benefit of an exclusive private academic education), and her early experience of attracting sexual attention has given her a wisdom and cynicism beyond her years. Clare, however, said that the very sassy wise-cracking tone of the voice had put her right off at the start of the novel, and although she eventually got used to it, she found herself as a result less in sympathy with the prose than the rest of us. For instance, she found unconvincing and erroneous the fact that in dialogue characters refer to each other by the nicknames Lucky has bestowed on them, and didn't find it acceptable as a stratagem of Lucky's memoir. She also questioned Lucky's old-fashioned convention of constantly addressing 'Readers and Watchers' (Lucky has a dream to get her own Oprah-style television show to expose stories of child abuse). Personally I very much like it: by taking overt narrative control in this way Lucky has triumphed over a situation created through her childish lack of control over her life. Jenny had said that although she had found Lolita a very upsetting book, she hadn't been upset by this at all, even though it was told from the girl's viewpoint, and I suggested that this was precisely because the girl is given power by being given narrative control. This led someone to wonder about the ending, in which Lucky's dream has come true: it is a kind of epilogue narrated not by Lucky, but the Executive Producer of the show which Lucky presents from the facility where she is now incarcerated, having been found guilty. Does this mean that Lucky really has been not a victim but some kind of clever manipulator all along? The section addresses this very question:
...people have asked me, 'Warma, is she for real or is she just a clever killer?
And what I say to them and to you is this: the jury found her guilty of second degree murder, which makes her a killer. During the trial, her news conference on the plight of children raised ten million dollars for global children's charities including her own ... and completely bankrupted the Pike's Peak sneaker company, which makes her very clever. And she carries in her purse a little ragged piece of her infant blanket which she calls 'Peco' and which, when I see her with it, makes me feel she is very real.'

thus movingly portraying the mix of precociousness, intelligence and childishness which made Lucky - and can make adolescents generally - vulnerable to abuse yet unfairly held culpable.

Before this, there had been some discussion of characters' motives, led by Trevor, who kept saying how brilliant the book was - it 'had everything'. We also discussed the covers of our different editions, which we found generally inappropriately titillating and thus unfortunately proving the book's portrayal of our culture as paedophilic. We were particularly shocked by one featuring the back view of a young girl with a plait wearing a pale bathing suit and her feet tucked under her: from any distance she looks as though she's in a vest with her knickers pulled down exposing her buttocks, and we did not think that that was accidental (as far as I can remember, at no point does Lucky go swimming). Everyone thought the book was very prescient - the scene where Fishbite gets a crowd of child beauty queens to surround and stroke him when he falls down in an asthma attack is horribly reminiscent of footage of Jimmy Saville surrounded by young girls - and the discussion soon moved on in a spirited way to the recent scandal and the issue at large.


Click here to see a list of all books discussed
Archive discussions - index



site design by Ben White