The Fiction Faction - Archive - July-November 2013
Elizabeth Baines

July 2013
The Fancy Dress Party by Alberto Moravia

Doug suggested this book (as an antidote, he said, to the grimness of our last choice), a farce about a dictatorship purportedly in an ex-Spanish colony 'on the other side of the ocean', but clearly satirising that of Mussolini. The fancy dress party of the title is the focus of a series of intrigues and counter-intrigues involving the social, sexual and political interests of representatives of various levels of a society under dictatorship. The social prestige of Duchess Gorina, who is planning to host the party, would be hugely boosted by the presence of the dictator, Tereso, a man who would normally shun such parties. Understanding his weakness - he has no luck with women - she plots to entice him with a beautiful young widow, Countess Fausta Sanchez, with whom they know he is in love. The cold-hearted and corrupt Fausta has her own motive: she will become Tereso's mistress purely in order to secure a government contract for her brother. Meanwhile, the Chief of Police, worried about becoming dispensible to Tereso now that Tereso's reign is comfortably established, affects prior knowledge of a plot to assassinate Tereso at the party, and sets about faking a situation in which bombers will be caught red-handed, a plot involving an agent provocateur, a naive revolutionary and a spurned lover of Fausta's.

Being a political farce, the book is more or less the sum of its convoluted plot plus straightforward and clear political notions, the corruption of dictatorships in particular and of politicians in general, and the way that human venality poisons politics. Fittingly for a political satire, it engendered more discussion in our group about the issues it raised, and their relevance to politics today, than about itself. Doug noted that, as was to be expected, there is little psychological exploration, although, as I said, the psychology of the characters (and thus of the strata of society they represent) is explained and pinpointed clearly, in a mode that is 'tell' rather than 'show'. John said he thought that in this respect the book was quite brilliantly written at the start - it's a plain, punchy prose that somehow manages to skewer the characters in very short spaces of prose, and everyone agreed. He said that, however, he felt the book later fell off, the satirical tone giving way to out-and-out farce, as if Moravia had lost interest before the end, and others, including me, thought the same. I said that I had hoped to be surprised by an unexpected turn of events at the end, but there was no great twist or revelation, and others agreed.

We commented on the original Italian title, La Mascherata (The Masquerade) which we thought much more fitting than that of the English translation, since the characters are engaged in much wider masquerades - political and sexual - than the Duchess's fancy-dress party. The concept of a masquerade is also relevant to the book itself and its publication history. Presumably because it was masquerading as a light-hearted comedy, it was originally personally passed by Mussolini for publication, although, presumably because the target of its satire was subsequently recognised, it was later banned in Italy. Another point we found of interest was Moravia's declaration in his Paris Review interview that the writer of a novel should have no overt political agenda; he is then reminded of this book by the interviewer, and admits that it is the one book in which he set out specifically to make a social criticism.


August 2013
The Blue Afternoon by William Boyd

Warning: spoilers (in abundance).

This is a book about which we had to agree to differ.

Set in 1936 and the opening years of the twentieth century, and told in three sections, it concerns the approach of 32-year-old Los Angeles architect Kay Fischer by a stranger claiming to be her father, and the subsequent revelation of a love story taking place in Manila against the aftermath of the little-known American-Philippine war.

I don't normally reiterate in detail the plots of the novels we have discussed, but have found it necessary in writing about this one to look back in detail at the precise plot details of the first section, and to outline them here.

The first section is told in the first-person narrative voice of Kay, relating how in 1936 Los Angeles she is stalked and then approached by the scruffy, somewhat 'craven' and Latinate-looking stranger Carriscant (though oddly he does have moments of seeming more prepossessing), not only claiming to be her father but saying that he needs her help. Kay has indeed been brought up by a stepfather, Rudolph Fischer, the second husband of her mother Annaliese, but her biological father was an Englishman, missionary Hugh Paget, who died in a fire in New Guinea when she was a baby. She dismisses the stranger and his claim, although, without mentioning anything of the matter to her mother, she quizzes her about her real father. Her mother repeats the familiar story, mentioning details, when quizzed, about Hugh's English family (all now dead). However, Kay notes from the photo of Hugh as a young man which her mother now shows her for the first time ever, that Hugh has fair hair unlike her own, and when she asks her mother at what time of day she was born, her mother repeats the time that Carriscant quoted in a bid to prove he was her father. Carriscant writes and asks Kay to contact him at his address, a cheap boarding house, saying that they 'must talk properly' and that 'there is so much to say'. She meets him, but he turns out to be not yet prepared to talk in the way promised - on the contrary he is considerably taciturn - and she experiences a reluctance to push him for information. He does however interrupt her small talk to tell her that he needs her help in tracking down a policeman called Paton Bobby, though he is mysterious about why. With the help of her ex-husband (their marriage failed after their baby was stillborn, but they still fraternise), Kay uncovers Paton Bobby’s whereabouts and then accompanies Carriscant on the train journey to Paton Bobby's home in Santa Fe. She is still in the dark as to the purpose, and even about Carriscant himself (he signed his letter to her 'Dr' but has cryptically mentioned that he's a cook, elaborating no further): ‘As far as this quest was concerned,' she narrates, 'he was reluctant to tell me anything’, and once again she makes the decision not to ask any further: ‘I did not want to give him the satisfaction of practising his maddening obliquity on me any more’. When they arrive, the reunion between the two men is puzzlingly emotionally charged, and a change comes over Carriscant: having complained of feeling sick with anxiety before the meeting, he becomes suddenly forceful. Angry at being kept in the dark, Kay now demands an explanation, but Carriscant still refuses to give her one yet. She retreats to the taxi, from where she witnesses a leavetaking in which Paton Bobby seems to have been crying.

Back in the car Carriscant shows her a photo of a public prizegiving, cut from a ten-year-old Portuguese newspaper he says he happened to find. He points to a woman in the picture and tells Kay now that this was his reason for seeking out Paton Bobby: he wanted Paton Bobby to confirm that the woman in the picture is the woman Carriscant suspects it is, and whom Carriscant had previously thought might be dead. (Paton Bobby has indeed confirmed this). Carriscant now asks Kay to accompany him to Lisbon to find the woman, though once again not explaining anything further. Kay refuses, still rejecting the notion that he could be her father. However, she takes her mother to spy on him emerging from his boarding house (without explaining why), and witnesses such an exaggerated and inappropriate lack of interest from her mother in Carriscant himself, or in why they are spying on him, that she decides her mother does in fact recognise him, and she becomes convinced, for the moment, that he must be her father. By the time Carriscant next approaches her, however, with the results of a library search he has conducted into the likely circumstances and whereabouts of the woman in the picture, Kay is unconvinced again and has had enough of him. He urges her further to go with him to Lisbon, and asks her to pay for the trip, and basically she sends him packing. Finally, however, after the house she has just designed and built has been sneakily demolished by a rival, she agrees to go with Carriscant to Lisbon. It is on this journey that Carriscant at last tells her his story, a story which Kay then retells for the reader 'allow[ing] myself some of the licence of the writer of fiction [and] embellish[ing] with information I obtained later and with facts gleaned from my own researches', and which forms the next, and the main, section of the novel.

It is a story beginning in 1902 Manila and concerning the adulterous love affair between the brilliant young surgeon Carriscant, unhappily married to Annaliese, and Delphine, the beautiful young wife of the American Colonel Sieverance. Set as background against this story is a crime investigation overseen by the American policeman Paton Bobby: the murders of two members of the Colonel's regiment and a Filipino woman, in which the bodies are butchered and roughly sewn up again, one of them found with a surgical scalpel planted beside it.

Clare, Doug and Mark are William Boyd fans, and both Clare and Doug have tried previously and unsuccessfully to get us to read Boyd novels, and this time Clare was successful. Introducing this novel, she expressed admiration for the standard of its prose, for its enjoyability and its depiction of human behaviour under stress. She found particularly good Boyd's descriptions of scenery and weather, and his ability to conjure a strong and vivid sense of place.

Doug nodded, endorsing her, although he didn’t think it was one of Boyd's best novels, and he liked the first section concerning Kay better than the story set in the Philippines. Trevor said he enjoyed it too but on the contrary he was much keener on the Philippines story - which culminates in a dramatic Romeo-and-Juliet-type bid for elopement involving a medically-induced death-like trance, a bid foiled by Carriscant's arrest for the murders.

Jenny said that she enjoyed the book too, but she would have liked things to have been tied up at the end. In the short third and final section, the novel returns to 1936 and Lisbon. Kay and Carrisant have found the woman he was looking for, Delphine, and now know what happened to her after she fled to Vienna without Carriscant but pregnant with his baby. She lost the baby and was later twice married and widowed, her past buried and never known by either of her two later husbands. Now she is living with a son from her last marriage, who is caring for her as she is dying. Carriscant is happy now that he knows what happened to her, his quest fulfilled, but as the novel comes to a close, Kay muses that much remains unexplained. Who, for instance, framed Carriscant for the murders? Was it Paton Bobby? And why? And who did commit the murders? Was it, after all, Carriscant's anaesthetist, whom Paton Bobby originally suspected since he was from a rebel Filipino family (but who had died in the maiden flight of the aeroplane he had built)? Was it, as Carriscant now suggests, his butchering surgical rival, Cruz, looking for body parts to practise on? Or was it, as Kay thinks most likely, Sieverance, removing his accomplices in the military atrocities she has now read occurred on the island? Or, this reader even wonders, was it Paton Bobby, since when Kay asks Carriscant in the first section why they are looking for Paton Bobby and who he is, Carriscant replies, " 'I suppose you could say that I'm looking for a killer." '? And, it now turns out, after Delphine's escape and Carriscant's arrest and incarceration, her husband was found dead, shot in the head. Carriscant tells Kay that during the private audience he has now had with Delphine, she revealed to him that Sieverance had been shot accidentally when, brought back by Carriscant from her death-like trance, she had slipped back to her home for the play she had been writing. Surprising Sieverance there, she had been taken for a burglar and in the ensuing struggle the gun he had armed himself with had gone off. But Kay doesn't believe him: there are things about the circumstances that don't hold water (Sieverance was found dead in bed, for instance). Did Delphine deliberately go back to shoot her husband in his sleep? Or - more likely from his manner as Kay quizzes him - was it Carriscant who killed him just before he was arrested? Kay cannot know and she decides: 'What good would my detections do, my reasoned detections? What do we know of other people anyway, of the human heart's imaginings? ... I had my theories, my dark thoughts, my suspicions, my version of events as they had unfolded all those years ago in Manila. But what does it matter?', and the novel very much ends with a sense of all being thus right with the world.

Trevor and Doug said that they had no objection to this: that's exactly how life is, you often don't know the truth of situations. I think that's true, and I like fiction in which the mode of telling acknowledges this. But I said I didn't think that this was that sort of novel: it very much starts out in the mode of a traditional thriller. The whole of the first section is set up as a mystery hingeing on circumstantial details, facts and missing facts, thus setting up in the reader traditional expectations of solution. It was as if, for me, Boyd was self-consciously tacking a postmodern ending onto a traditional thriller in a way that failed. Doug and Trevor, however, roundly disagreed with me, and thought that, simply by virtue of this stratagem, it was that sort of novel.

There was a deeper, more thematic failure of resolution and focus, I found. The first section, with its whole chapters devoted to Kay's rather unusual relationship with her ex-husband (she seems to despise yet mother him and they continue to have sex occasionally), the details and history of her work and battles as an architect and her personal uncertainties and aspirations - with one whole, if short, chapter on a visit to her dead child's grave - makes you think that the novel is going to be about the impact of Carriscant's arrival on Kay and on the other parts of her life. However all of this is abruptly abandoned. Others - even those championing the novel - agreed with this. Ann said that she couldn't see why Boyd needed the first section. Why, indeed, did Carriscant need to seek Kay out to help him track down Delphine? Trevor and Doug said, because he needed her to pay for the trip. Trevor did comment musingly that just contacting Kay for money would make Carriscant a pretty dodgy character, and at this point the group seemed uncertain as to what precise attitude we were meant to take to Carriscant, since in the second section the third-person narrative takes his point of view and has the reader gunning for him as an up-and-coming modern surgeon with old-fashioned and vengeful rivals, and for him and Delphine; at the end of the novel, while having certain suspicions about him, Kay clearly comes down on the side of empathising and sympathising with him. If we are not meant to share this empathy, but are meant to view Carriscant ironically, then the reader's emotional investment in his predicament in the second section is squandered. In fact, looking back now through the novel I find that when Carriscant first approaches Kay he says he needs her forgiveness (as well as her help), but there is little sense of this in the following proceedings, and it's significant that it had slipped us all by. For a lot of the novel I thought that maybe it would turn out that Kay was Delphine's child, which would make her resonantly relevant to the quest, but it turns out at the end of the novel of course that Delphine lost the baby she was carrying when she fled, and that Annaliese had been newly pregnant with Kay at the point that Carriscant was in the act of leaving her (and then was arrested and incarcerated for many years). Clare and Doug protested, defending the first section for its psychological interest, though John pointed out to Clare that in her brief introduction she had called that section a kind of preface, and had said that the story begins properly with the second section, which she conceded.

I felt reluctant to pour cold water on other people's pleasure in a book, but literary honesty compelled me to say that in fact I had found the whole thing preposterous. Most obviously, I found the Romeo-and-Juliet-type elopement plot preposterous. Doug and Trevor would later object that the pair had been driven to desperate measures: in 1902 it would have been quite impossible for an adulterous couple to end up together in the small community of a foreign colony, they would simply have to disappear. I don't disagree with that, but nevertheless doubt the likelihood of them resorting to bottles of blood to fake miscarriage and ice-chests for lowering the temperature of bodies to fake subsequent death (John pointed out that Carriscant wasn't even sure he would be able to revive Delphine!). But also, unlike Clare and Doug, I didn't find the first section in any way psychologically convincing. I found Kay's attitude to Carriscant confusing and lacking conviction: at one point she would seem to be about to accept that he could be her father, and the next she would be refusing to accept any such thing. I didn't feel that I was being presented with the psychological conflict which of course in theory Kay would be likely to experience; that just wasn't there in the book and so the changes came over as inconsistency. Clare objected that it was there in the book, and pointed to moments such as that where Kay speaks of the 'curiosity' about Carriscant which is driving her. 'By now,' Kay says at one point on catching sight of him, 'the familiar aggregate of emotions coagulated inside me ... a tacky mass of surprise, curiosity, fractiousness and fatigue.' But the point is, she needs to tell us that; her emotions aren't properly dramatised and are conveyed via a mechanical reasoning that to me reads suspiciously like the author trying to justify to himself the situation he's set up. Conversely, at times the whole thing slips into melodrama, such as the following, which takes place not long before the Lisbon trip: ' "You are are not my father," I shouted at him. "Hugh Paget was my father. How dare you -" "No, I am, I am, Kay!" he shouted back. "I am!" '

I said that as a result I found it preposterous that Kay should keep on meeting Carriscant when he is refusing to tell her anything, and complying with his requests for help (especially when at one point at the start he has said that he only wanted to talk to her, nothing more!), indeed even embarking on and paying for the trip to Lisbon without knowing the purpose. I found it ridiculous that, given that she does thus do so, and given her professed curiosity, she should at the same time feel reluctance to question him and accept his lack of willingness to talk. Ultimately, I also find it preposterous that Carriscant doesn't tell her anything until they are on the trip. Right at the end it becomes clear that the newspaper photograph was sent to Carriscant by Delphine herself when she knew she was dying, c/o the Milan hospital where Carriscant had worked. In fact, of course, he created an elaborate fabrication involving the now clearly faked need to have Paton Bobby's confirmation of the woman's identity, and trumped-up library searches. There was even convoluted discussion about the people present in the photo, and workings out of the implications of their likely situations. In fact, I didn't bother to follow these calculations: it was hard to apply one's interest when one didn't even know the significance of the woman (for the same reason I didn't find Kay's interest in them convincing), and one wonders if this prompting of reader inattentiveness allows the author to get away with the inconsistency. Kay, in any case, doesn't remark on the inconsistencies and fabrications now emerged, but merely asks Carriscant mildly why he didn't tell her that the photo had come directly from Delphine. He replies, ' "I thought it seemed more dramatic, more of a challenge the way I told it. Would enthuse you more" ', which smacks to me of an authorial bid to do the same, ie artificially setting up a sense of mystery merely for its own sake. If, on the contrary, this is meant to be a postmodern joke, then having made the effort to invest my attention in the plot details, I don't find that it works.

I also was sorry to say that I didn't find the book well written on the level of prose. I agree that Boyd is very good at describing place and weather, but for me this did not compensate for other difficulties. I found many sentences clumsy and careless. This sentence, for instance, contains a rudimentary error of repetition: 'It was little more than a smoke-darkened room with a long zinc-topped bar ... with a shelf above ranged with small dumpy barrels, with spigots attached...' (my italics), and there are several sentences throughout bearing this infelicity in sentence construction, leading to repetitive convoluted clauses. I laughed out loud at the following, in which we are told of the incompetence of Carriscant's surgical rival in removing tumours from tongues: 'Manila was full of mumbling semi-mutes with needlessly stumpy tongues as a consequence of Cruz's heavy-handed speediness' - not, I think, in a way the author intended. I also found the narrative voice of the first section uncertain and unconvincing. Kay's first-person narrative is by no means an interior monologue: she addresses the reader as an objective stranger to whom she needs to give an account of her history and the circumstances of her life, yet we are also party to the details of her sexual encounters in a way that would be more appropriate to an internal monologue. Others in the group however had no problem with this. I also found the prose pompous, as exemplified in the reference to Carriscant's 'obliquity' above. John agreed with me on all of these counts, and in fact he had been so put off by the novel that he had only skimmed it.

We discussed the title, The Blue Afternoon, about which some people were a little puzzled. As Clare and others pointed out, there are many references to blue throughout the book. The 'blue afternoon' is the afternoon on which Carriscant and Delphine first consummate their relationship, an afternoon of rain and sun when the light seems to turn blue (a phenomenon which is indeed beautifully conjured, and, by - for once - recreating Carriscant's transcendent emotional experience, primes one not to view him ironically). However, no one really knew what the significance of the blueness was, and I felt that, like the apparently postmodern ending, it was an attempt at a metaphorical mode that sat at odds with the thriller and adventure-story aspects of the novel.

Trevor said that the trouble was that it seemed that Boyd was considered a bit of a commercial novelist, and I didn't like commercial novels and was judging him by different criteria. I said that I understood that, on the contrary, Boyd was considered literary, and Clare then read out from the biography in her copy a list of the prestigious literary awards he has won.

Clare said that she had really enjoyed finding out about architecture and the making of early planes (chapters which I found research-heavy and tedious, the latter smacking of Boys'-Own adventure), and several people said they were fascinated to learn of the American-Philippine war, of which they hadn't previously known. (An old bone of contention in the group is whether one goes to fiction for factual information, which I certainly don't, but I didn't pursue this.)

Then people, chiefly Jenny and Ann, pondered other unresolved issues in the book. What about the elaborate lies that it turns out Kay's mother has told her, even showing her a photograph of the non-existent Hugh Paget! And why did she need to do that last, when she had told her that all the other photos were lost in the fire (ie couldn't all of them have been lost in the fire?) And who is the man in the photo? Why did she need to construct such an elaborate lie at all? And what would this would do to Kay's feelings about her mother and her own lied-to past? In fact, Kay considers none of the above questions; she simply sweeps it all aside as if solving a crossword puzzle, and as if no emotions whatever need be involved. What about the fact that, right at the end, Carriscant reveals that he is now running a restaurant in the Philippines, and is married with a family? How does this figure with his journey to Los Angeles and then Lisbon? And how does that fit with his down-and-out air, and the fact that Kay notices when she first meets him that there is grime under his fingernails? Come to think, this last doesn't fit with the personal habits of an ex-surgeon, either (especially one who in the past championed antisepsis!). The thought occurs: was Carriscant just a lying rogue, were the somewhat far-fetched events in 1902 just another elaborate lie? Had Kay just been taken for a ride? She does say that as they are leaving Lisbon:
'I was full of doubts, of conflicting versions and explanations of this strange and complex story I had been told. But at least I knew there had been a man called Salvador Carriscant and he had been in love with a woman called Delphine Sieverance. That much I could confirm, having witnessed it with my own eyes.'
Is it another postmodern joke, wickedly and deliberately squandering the reader's investment in a tall tale? If so, the joke was certainly lost on us all: for one thing, as I say, having found it necessary to look in detail at the first section in order to examine how its elements are unresolved or contradicted, I discovered that some of those details had passed me by, and I, and I think others, didn't at first see some of the contradictions.

There is in fact a prologue to the whole book, in which Kay remembers sitting on another 'blue afternoon' with Carriscant mid-Atlantic, in which she unequivocally refers to him as her father and in which she narrates that Carriscant illustrated to her then the ease of cutting flesh with a scalpel by tricking her into cutting his arm with her eyes closed. (This seems heavily symbolic, but I'm not sure, in view of the uncertainties, of what. Is it meant to signify the ease of tricking people into significant action or investment, as he has tricked her, and as the author has tricked the reader? Do the closed eyes signify her gullibility in the face of a big con trick?). Ann wondered if, in view of all the other mysteries, it was another mystery of circumstance (deliberate or otherwise), as she had been left with the impression that in the scene Kay was a child. Had Kay in fact been with Carriscant when she was a child? In fact, this was a misimpression: the scene takes place on the boat to or from Lisbon, but I feel Ann's mistake was understandable and a function of the prose. In this piece, which we come to at the outset, trying to get our bearings about the situation, there's no hint of Kay's age at the time, or of the oddity of the relationship between the two characters, and indeed it has the quality of a long-ago memory. I see this as a narrative shortcoming, which indeed I also see replicated at the start of Boyd's better-known novel Brazzeville Beach, where, in spite of the carefully enumerated details of the beach and the political situation, we go for several pages without knowing who our first-person narrator is.

Finally Jenny said, And what about the fact that the down-at-heel Carriscant had been heir to a landowning fortune, which would have come to him when his mother died?

'Another unsolved mystery!' she said, ending the discussion.


September 2013
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Warning: spoiler.

I'm writing this report six weeks after our discussion of this book, the 1960 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel set in the American Deep South of the thirties and concerning a lawyer's defence of a black man accused of rape, told from a later perspective in the first-person voice of his daughter Scout who was a small child at the time.

Since it's been so long I doubt that I'll remember much of our comment, but here goes:

Jenny recommended the book because she'd never read it before and felt it was one she should, and as soon as she suggested it there was a general murmur of pleasure: most people remembered it with affection. Personally, I remembered it as rather worthy, as did Mark, although we thought we may have been being influenced by the drama adaptations we'd seen - Mark by the film and I by a stage version. In the event, we all found we liked it very much, and there wasn't in fact a lot of discussion, which, as someone pointed out, often happens when we all like a book. However, people did pick up on one or two points that had given them pause, and the discussion we did have was interesting in that ultimately we unpicked the nature of our pleasure and found it possibly dubious.

We very much loved Scout's viewpoint and voice, which wryly - often comically - recreates the mentality and sometimes incomplete understanding of the child while anatomising a small-town society steeped in racial and class prejudice - and on that level, the level of the prose, Mark and I found that it wasn't worthy after all. We spent some time referring to moments we had really liked, including the laugh-out-loud moment when Scout, dressed as a leg of pork for the school concert, having fallen asleep behind the stage, fails to make her entrance when called and then does so belatedly, and we are told that 'Judge Taylor went out behind the auditorium and stood there slapping his knees so hard Mrs Taylor brought him a glass of water and one of his pills'. People very much appreciated the insight into small-town life of the period and era.

Someone then questioned the relevance, or rather the prominence, of the strand in the novel concerning Boo Radley, a reclusive neighbour: it's a strand with which the novel indeed begins and ends. The children (Scout, her elder brother Jem and their friend Dill), who have never sighted Boo Radley, simultaneously regard him as a bogeyman and are fascinated by him; finally however he rescues Scout and Jem when (just after the hilarious moment described above) Bob Ewell, whose daughter accused the black man of rape, tries to take revenge on Atticus by attacking his children. I said Boo Radley is meant to stand for the concept of 'the other' which is at the root of racism, but the objection came back: yes, but he isn't black (in fact, since he's never been out he's very, very white!). Someone countered that the novel is about class as well as race prejudice, and Boo Radley stands for the concept of 'the other' in all forms of prejudice. However, there was a sense in the room that we hadn't really resolved the issue.

Someone questioned the character of Atticus, the lawyer: he just seems to be far too reasonable and good to be true; others of us didn't share the objection; personally, I really loved and relished the portrayal. However I did express a doubt which John and I had shared prior to the meeting, regarding Atticus's moral position at the end of the novel. In the struggle with Bob Ewell, Ewell is killed with a knife, and to begin with it seems that thirteen-year-old Jem must have seized the knife off Ewell and killed him. However, Sheriff Tate, who has looked at the body, insists that the evidence shows that Ewell must have fallen on his own knife. Atticus, believing that Tate is covering up to protect Jem, insists, according his moral principles, that Jem must face up to his actions. When he finally realises that it's the highly sensitive Boo Radley whom Tate is covering up for (and who would never be able to withstand any public requirement to account for his action), Atticus gives in and colludes in the deception. John and I weren't sure whether we were happy with the moral ambiguity of that, and John thought it pretty rich that in the book a white man who has killed someone goes free from suspicion while a black man has been hanged for a rape he didn't commit. Doug, however, disagreed, believing that the moral ambiguity was acceptable in the circumstances and precisely the point that the book is making.

I then voiced something I had been mulling: no one in our group is black, and I said I wondered what black people made of the book. Ann, who had been having similar thoughts, said immediately that she thought they would much prefer Toni Morrison's Beloved (which we discussed previously). To Kill a Mockingbird, she said, is how America would like to see itself: upright and reasonable in the face of oppression and prejudice. Atticus, personifying America's view of itself, massages America's conscience. Beloved, on the contrary, exposes the sheer pain of the black experience and thus dramatically challenges America's conscience. I thought this a penetrating insight. Beloved of course takes the black perspective, whereas this book remains firmly with the white, if liberal, perspective. Basically, the reason we had so enjoyed the book was that it had charmed us with its upright white hero and its wry prose that can only emerge from a fundamental position of comfort, and this, from our present-day perspective, brings into question the radical nature of the book.


October 2013
Machine Dreams by Jayne Anne Phillips

John suggested this novel, which he remembered causing a sensation when it was published in 1984. Set in an unidentified town in the American mid-south it tells the story of three generations of a family from the Depression to the era of the Vietnam war in the early seventies. It is told in a spare yet haunting prose via the alternating perspectives of husband and wife Jean and Mitch, who marry soon after the Second World War, and their two children, Danner, a girl, and Billy her younger brother who ends up in Vietnam. Danner's is however the central consciousness: the novel begins with Jean's and then Mitch's first-person reminiscences of their experiences growing up, as told to their daughter Danner, which makes it clear that all of the following intimate-third-person sections are filtered through Danner's consciousness, and suggests, as John said, that the novel is to a great extent autobiographical.

The events described, as John said, are mundane in the extreme except for the way they are punctuated and coloured by war which, taking place elsewhere, nevertheless takes away the men and thus affects the family. John said that to some extent the novel, with its grounding in mundane day-to-day details, could be said to be boring, though this could be a deliberate contrast with the drama of what happens to Billy in Vietnam. I pointed out that, in spite of the seeming innovation of the multiple voices (and some temporal overlapping across the voices), in fact overall the book is structurally very linear. However, John said that oddly he had remembered the drama concerning Billy as coming much earlier in the novel than he discovered it to be on this second reading, and wondered if this was significant: while it comes only towards the end it detonates in such a way that in retrospect everything that has gone before is coloured by it.

John felt that the book was a depiction of the breakdown of the American Dream. The people are so ordinary, and what happens to them - even the effect of the wars on them - is so ordinary that, as Jenny said, it belies the myth that anyone can be anything, and anyone can be special. The family aspires in true American-Dream tradition - Jean's father begins with a successful business; Mitch's family own land and a successful farm; after the second world war Mitch and his uncle, Clayton, begin a concrete business which at first succeeds - but everything is doomed, and the family moves away from middle-class relative affluence until Mitch is an unhappy divorced travelling salesman living in a basement with his aunt. All of the men in the book are obsessed with machines - with cars and concrete-tipping vehicles and aeroplanes - and John pointed to the old prison building in the book, full of old rusting vehicles and machines, as a symbol of the breakdown of an increasingly mechanised society and the American Dream. Jenny, who had liked the book, saw an additional significance in the machine imagery: the people were cogs in the machine of society. For this reason there's actually no real point in aspiring, and this is why, towards the end, Billy becomes fatalist about being drafted.

People were generally agreed that it was, on this level, a depressing book, though nearly everyone thought it was redeemed from this by the liveliness and resonance of the prose. Clare, who was particularly impressed by the prose, said that she had to agree with John about the ordinariness of the events and the piling on of domestic and workaday detail, and that she probably wouldn't have been able to bear reading the bulk of the book if the prose hadn't been so brilliant. There was agreement that the book took on a more dramatic life towards the end, but Ann said she felt you had to really suffer to get there: she said she kept feeling she just couldn't stand another one-page description of 'how they made the grits' etc. Doug, who had been pretty silent, now said that he couldn't stand the book at all, and he hadn't liked any of the characters, and that was pretty much all he had to say on the subject.

Mark now stood up for the book by pointing out that it was one of the first to address the subject of the Vietnam war, coming before any of the famous eighties films. He said the piling on of workaday detail was justified precisely because it showed the texture of daily life into which the wars seeped. John commented that there might be a theoretical point in that kind of inclusivity, but the question was, did it make for a good novel? People pointed to an episode concerning a leper in Mitch's childhood (an episode that was in fact out of the ordinary) and the fact that it didn't seem to relate particularly to anything else in the novel. There was a general suspicion that it was in fact something that had happened in the author's family, compelling her to include it, and that this may be the impulse behind the inclusion of so much of the detail.

There was some disagreement as to whether it was possible to identify with the characters. I said that it was, that I had identified with them, but Clare said that, brilliantly written as she thought they were, you were looking at them from a certain distance rather than identifying with them. I could see that this might apply to the characters other than Danner, since their perceptions are clearly filtered through hers, but I didn't think it applied to Danner herself. In any case, we even share the characters' dreams, and in the sections where Danner's mother Jean reminisces, speaking directly to her, there is to me such a sense of the closeness of the two that identification with Jean is created for the reader. I think I was alone in this view, though, and John even went so far as to say he thought the characters were deliberately ciphers/stereotypes intended to show the typical nature of their American experience.

John said finally that, although he had to say that he hadn't found the book as stunning as he had when he read it years ago, he still thought it very good, and I think that most people, apart from the determinedly curmudgeonly Doug, and possibly Ann, agreed.

November 2013
The Book of Daniel by E L Doctorow

It was the beginning of December when we discussed this 1971 novel, recommended by Mark, and I've been so preoccupied in the meantime, not simply with Christmas, but with furious writing, that at this moment all I remember of the discussion is that the five of us present agreed that we had found the book wonderful, if not mind-blowing.

The book is based on the real-life case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who in 1953 were the first Americans to be executed for spying, accused of passing the secret of the atom bomb to the Soviet Union. Doctorow creates their fictional counterparts, Paul and Rochelle Isaacson, replacing their two orphaned sons with a fictional son and daughter, Daniel and Susan Lewin. The book is related by Daniel who, some fifteen years later, against the background of the Vietnam war and sixties leftwing protest, is seeking to understand the circumstances of the death of his parents and their earlier leftwing politics, and trying to deal with the personal emotional legacy: Susan's current emotional disintegration and his own destructive tendencies and inability to cherish his wife and child.

Although the book does allow for some doubt, its general thrust - motored by Daniel's perspective - is towards a notion of the Isaacsons' innocence. After its publication papers would emerge indicating that Joshua Rosenberg, at least, had been involved in spying, but we all agreed that this made no difference to the impact of the book (see, some of what we said is coming back to me!) since it concentrates on the human cost in terms of the effect on the children and on the barbarism of a system that would impose the death penalty without proper evidence, thus giving the lie to claims of American rationality and political freedom. It is the human dimension of the situation with which Doctorow is concerned, and Ann noted that the flaws and complexity of Daniel's character deepen rather than detract from this, and we all agreed. Similarly, Doctorow shows the Isaacsons as complex: politically passionate but poor and thus less than autonomous, their leftwing politics conservative, Paul politically naive with a blind faith in the justice of the American system.

The thing that really struck and impressed me about the book (apart from the stunning prose) was Doctorow's brilliant device for portraying Daniel's divided sense of self - a constant shifting between first and third person, as well as self-conscious commentary on the difficulties and traps of telling the tale. Mark agreed, noting that Doctorow does these things so well that he never once loses you, the reader, and we all agreed that on the contrary, we found the effect extremely moving. We all found the whole book moving: several people picked out the scene in which Rochelle is called in for questioning never to return, a picture of her departing figure from the viewpoint of her watching son, which is repeated in the way it would clearly be re-run in his memory:

"She was wearing her black coat that was almost down to her ankles in the fashion of that day. She had let the hem down to make it longer. She was wearing her blue dress with the white high-necked collar. She wore her tiny wrist-watch that my father gave her before they were married. She was wearing on the back of her head a little black hat she called a pillbox.

She was last seen in her black cloth coat with the hem let down and a black pillbox hat. My mother was last seen with her tiny watch on her wrist, a fine thin wrist with a prominent wristbone and lovely thin blue veins. She left behind a clean house, and in the icebox a peanut butter sandwich and an apple for lunch. In the afternoon I had my milk and cookies. And she never came home.

My mother left me in her long, black coat, and although she never wore hats, she wore a hat that day, also black, and almost invisible in her thick, curly black hair.

Trevor said that one aspect of the novel he didn't like so much was the insertion of sections outlining American foreign policy of the fifties, which he didn't find very novelistic. Mark pointed out that at the time of the publication of the novel, little was known about it, so it had been a necessary contextualisation. I said that in fact it's acceptable from a novelistic point of view, as these sections form part of Daniel's researches and the doctoral thesis he is writing.

It was, however, a minor grouse on Trevor's part, but some weeks later, at our reading group Christmas dinner, two members who hadn't been present at the meeting, Doug and Clare, said that these sections had put them right off the book, which they had found altogether too much of a history lesson - much to the amazement of the rest of us, who had been frankly wowed.


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