The Fiction Faction - Archive - January-June 2015
Elizabeth Baines

January 2015
The Sportswriter by Richard Ford

Warning: plot spoiler.

So much for the consensus we seemed to be developing in our reading group - though it was all of the rest of us against one. The dissenter was Doug who had suggested this 1986 novel. Getting on for 400 pages, it consists of the reflections over one Easter weekend of Frank Bascombe, a thirty-nine-year-old male sportswriter living in suburban Haddon, New Jersey, whose marriage has ended and who is struggling with the emotional aftermath. In a present-tense first-person narration the book follows Frank as he meets his ex-wife for their yearly visit together to the grave of their dead son; goes on a fishing trip with the Divorced Men's Club and is unwillingly befriended by another member, Walter; takes his girlfriend Vickie on a trip to Detroit where he's interviewing an ex-footballer; goes for Easter dinner at Vickie's parents' home and while there is simultaneously ditched by Vickie and called away because Walter has killed himself and left Frank a suicide note; escapes the drama of Walter's death to his office in the night-time city and encounters an attractive female intern, an escape which leads to eventual resurrection from his emotional gloom. Throughout all of this, Frank reflects on a low-key past punctuated by three dramatic events of loss or failure - the immediate fizzling out of a promising career as a fiction writer, the death of his young son and the end of his marriage - and on the meaning of life and his own feelings.

Doug found himself staunchly defending the book against a roomful of people who had found it, in Ann's word, 'tedious.' None of us disagreed with him that the prose is excellent on the sentence level, but he was the only person in the room who felt able to identify with Frank Bascombe and his troubles and musings. I said that I had really had to force myself to read the book, and Ann had been unable to make herself finish it in time. I said that I felt that if a woman had written a book of such self-indulgent and self-centred introspection she would have been immediately slammed (ie everyone would have recognised it for what it was), and everyone found laughable and objectionable Frank's sexism. Though Frank makes a great drama (an emotional drama of his own) out of the death of his son and a lesser drama out of his relationship with his living son, his daughter Clarrie appears (both in the action and as a focus of Frank's narrative attention) for the first time only on page three hundred and something (and thereafter is forgotten), and the fact that Frank refers to his ex-wife solely as X is a passable joke that not only wears thin but can't be excused the incipient sexism in its insistence (Doug admitted that he didn't find that psychologically convincing, that it seemed more of an author's joke than Frank's). Vickie is at one point 'a nice little bundle for a lonely fellow to call his in a strange city when time's to kill' (note the possessiveness, the patronisation of 'little', the objectification of 'bundle', and the disrespect implicit in the notion that she's something to kill time with). He refers to the girl his seminary-student lodger is seeing as 'the dumpy little seminary chicken'; he speculates an alternative past for himself which includes 'annexing a little wife', the female intern with whom he (briefly) runs off in the end apparently has 'a pair of considerable grapefruits', and all women are chiefly characterised by their physical characteristics. Reflecting on his escape from a woman asking for his help on the station platform and whom he thinks is the dead Walter's sister, he later muses: 'Fast getaways from sinister forces are sometimes essential.' Ann commented also on Frank's racism, the fact that any black character is initially characterised as precisely that, black, a 'Negro'. One description of his lodger is a quite splendid mix of racism and patriarchal penis envy: 'He is a man I admire, a bony African with an austere face, almost certain the kind to have a long aboriginal penis'.

Doug argued that this was Frank's mentality which the author is exposing with irony. It is indeed hard to believe that a master of prose such as Richard Ford would be unaware of such connotations. It's hard too to believe he isn't making fun of Frank when it turns out that the woman Frank thought was Walter's sister was nothing of the sort and he was escaping her for nothing, or by the fact that on the final day of the weekend, Frank goes from being in love with Vickie at lunchtime and wanting to marry her to contacting an old girlfriend in mid-afternoon, to trying by evening for a reconciliation with his wife and inviting her to have sex with him in the newly-dead Walter's bed (!) (a suggestion which makes her immediately send him packing), and late that same night is picking up the new intern. But the rest of us couldn't find a savage enough irony in the author's overall attitude to Frank either to entertain us or to prevent us from feeling that fundamentally we were meant to identify with him (a point raised in the review, less critical than ours, by Alice Hoffman for the New York Review of Books, which famously prompted Ford and his wife to shoot copies of one of Hoffman's own novels).

Frank's meditations on life seem to be intended to be taken seriously, and indeed merit it, stemming as they do from the grief of his son's death and the end of his marriage. I said that one problem for me, though, was that I wasn't ever clear precisely what Frank's attitude to life was. At times I thought he was looking for transcendence (in his relations with women, in his surroundings: 'Hoving Road this morning is as sun-dappled and vernal as any privet lane in England'), but at others he seems in retreat from anything so unsettling as the search for transcendence - 'Holidays can hold too many disappointments that I then have to accommodate' - and orderly suburbia his chosen place of retreat from it. Jenny said she had no such problem; she saw Frank as quite clearly suffering mid-life crisis. Looking at the book again to write this, I see that there is perhaps a progression (or rather, an about-turn) from Frank's relish of suburbia to contempt as he finally escapes on the train: '...climbing down tonight onto the streets of any of these little crypto-homey Jersey burgs could heave me into a panic worse than New York ever has'. However, the book did not engage me enough, I think, for me to perceive Frank's earlier attitude as ambivalent rather than merely inconsistent.

I also said I had an overall problem with the narrative voice: who was Frank speaking to in spilling out all of his deeper feelings? Doug said, well, he's talking to himself, as one does at life-crisis times. I said, but you don't need to tell yourself who you are or where you live, which is precisely how this novel begins: 'My name is Frank Bascombe. I am a sportswriter. / For the past fourteen years I have lived here at 19 Hovington Road, Haddam, New Jersey, in a large Tudor house bought when a book of short stories I wrote sold to a movie producer for a lot of money...' Thus the book doesn't work as an interior monologue. However, I wan't sure that the novel worked as a direct address to a reader, either, as although there are other moments of direct address and lots of backstory explanation, I felt that the listener was intended as other than the reader, more specific. If so, however, that listener is never identified as in the convention of a dramatic monologue. My overall impression therefore was that the focus of the narrative voice was blurred and lacked integrity.

Finally, someone said to a chorus of agreement, and to Doug's dismay, that there wasn't an ounce of humour in the book. Here I had to come down on Doug's side. It seems to me that Frank's tone throughout is wry, that in spite of his sexism there's a gentle and often humane comedy in the depiction of many of the characters, and that Frank has a nice line in ironic word-play ('Face the earth where you can. Literally speaking, it's all you have to go on.')

One interesting thing was that this book was chosen for discussion by the group over another, contemporary novel, because of its good reputation stemming from generally enthusiastic critical response at the time of its publication in 1986. Mark in particular was very keen to read it, as he had read it many years ago and had really liked it as a depiction of male middle-age he could look forward to. However, he was shocked on reading it again to find his view of Frank, and of the book, markedly different. This perhaps indicates that the book suffers from a change in social attitudes - that we are perhaps meant to identify with Frank rather than despise him (rather than that Ford has failed on the literary level to satirise Frank properly), but that changed social attitudes made us unable to do so. It is also therefore perhaps interesting that Doug, who said at one point that he does identify with Frank, had also read the book fifteen years ago, but had not had time to read it again for the meeting.

February 2015
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Back to consensus. Ever since I reviewed this novel in the summer, I have been recommending it to all and sundry, so naturally I suggested it for the group, and to my delight it was received with enthusiasm by all present. It's the story of the struggle of Yolandi, a tumultuous forty-something single mother and writer of young adult novels, with the desire to die of her elder sister, the beautiful, famous and successful pianist Elfrieda. Narrated by Yolandi with a slicing wit in a kind of time-lapse as-it-happens (sometimes in present tense, sometimes in a past tense recording just-happened events), the account follows Yoli's struggle to counter and dispel Elfrieda's death-wish as she visits her in hospital (as the book opens Elfrieda has made yet another suicide attempt), and to understand it, mining for reasons their background: childhood in a repressive north-Canadian Mennonite community with its own history of persecution by the Bolsheviks and exile, a father who has already committed suicide, and a mother motored by a fighting spirit and eternal optimism.

The discussion was short, since there was little to argue about: everyone loved the book, and everyone agreed that it was both laugh-out-loud funny and immensely moving and tragic - Doug said, to nods all round, that most of the time he didn't know whether to laugh or cry and often ended up doing both at the same time - and that there's a kind of unique alchemy in the way Toews achieves this effect. People thought the book brilliantly written, and loved the light touch with which it conveyed its deeply serious issues. We weren't entirely without some demurring: although it's clearly not the intention of the book, one person saw Elfrieda as selfish since, although she is made perfectly aware of the devastating effects on her family, her death wish is long-term and rational and her suicide attempts planned and orchestrated rather than irrational actions made in sudden moments of despair. No one else however shared this objection, feeling that despair can be ongoing. John pointed out also the immense stress on Elfrieda of being a world-touring concert pianist. Mark felt there was too much of what he called 'name-dropping': Yoli, Elfrieda and their mother constantly quote from literature and philosophy, and the title of the book, 'All My Puny Sorrows', is a quote from Coleridge - Elfrieda's 'romantic-poet boyfriend', as Yoli calls him - which as a teenager Elfrieda scrawled as an acronym graffito signature - AMPS - over their little Mennonite town. Doug rather agreed with Mark. He said he thought it especially towards the end, when the family quote whole poems: it seemed somehow forced, and geared to make authorial points. No one else had this problem, but felt rather that the family in the novel is so clearly steeped in literature that all of this was convincingly realistic. Beside which, one of the novel's strong points is that a reliance on literature and philosophy can't stop Elfrieda choosing death: 'Books are what save us. Books are what don't save us.'

After being discharged from hospital, Elfreida makes another suicide attempt and ends up there again, and once again Yoli has left her Toronto home, and her children to fend for themselves, to be at Elfrieda's Winnipeg hospital bedside and help support their mother, this time reinforced by their mother's sister Tina. Doug said he felt that at this point the novel became a bit repetitive. No one else minded this, repetition being in the nature of the situation, but also there are developments. In this section not only does Yoli move on from trying to persuade Elf against suicide to struggling with Elf's request to help her die, the focus shifts more closely towards Yoli and we see the effects on her. Also, in this section there is a drama concerning the aunt, Tina.

Such complaints were however only mild, and the general agreement was that this is a quite brilliant novel that we were thrilled to have read.

My own review of the book can be read here.

March 2015
Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood

This recent novel, Jenny's suggestion, is based on the real-life experiences of the four wives of Ernest Hemingway. It consists of four sections, each devoted to the viewpoint of one of the wives at the point of the breakdown or end of the marriage when Hemingway already has another prospective wife lined up, or, in the case of the last wife, Mary, shoots himself and dies. Jenny was afraid that the rest of us would find it too trashy, as it has been a popular success, and was cheaply available at Tesco's, but several of us had had the impression from reviews that it was in fact well-written, and so we readily agreed.

A few days later I met Mark and he'd already begun reading it. He said he was bowled over by it, and I was inclined to agree, having glanced at the first page or two and found the prose spare and evocative. However, when it came to the meeting, only Mark and Trevor were wholeheartedly admiring, which Trevor suggested might be a man thing (implying I think a self-ironic identification with Hemingway), although I'm not sure Mark went along with that, and neither John nor Doug were entirely in favour of the book. We had all found it an easy read, but John spoke for others of us in saying that it didn't somehow fulfil its promise. Jenny said that she'd enjoyed reading it (as I think most of us did), and she was very taken by the book's structure. She said she had never liked Hemingway and, having read the book, she disliked him a whole lot more. However, she felt that he wasn't fleshed out.

I picked up on this last, agreeing. I said that we never properly get to see what is attractive about Hemingway to these women. Mark and Trevor disagreed. Mark (I think) said, wasn't the point of the book the women, and their experience, not Hemingway? I replied that since the whole point about the women is their fatal attraction to Hemingway, an attraction which dominated and ruined or deeply affected their lives, then in order to fully understand the women we need to fully appreciate that attraction. The objection came back: isn't it made abundantly clear that he's charismatic and wonderfully good-looking? I said that it isn't enough to be told that he is, which I agreed we are, right from the start in first wife Hadley's section: 'In Paris, his beauty has become notorious; it is shocking what he can get away with. Even their male friends are bowled over by his looks; they outpace the barmaids in their affection for him.' A novel needs to do more than tell you things, it needs to make the reader share experience (in this case the women's overwhelming attraction to Hemingway). Although I feel I know in theory exactly the kind of man Hemingway must have been, and have known men like him and know their attraction, I didn't in reading this book experience a sense of Hemingway's. In fact, although I know very well what Hemingway looked like, I didn't come away with any vivid sense of how precisely he may have looked to a wife in any particular scene in this book: as Jenny had indicated, I didn't get any real sense of his physical presence: he came over more as an idea, and a shallow one at that.

John said he was never clear what attitude to Hemingway the author had, or intended you to have. There was now a brief discussion about Hemingway, about the psychological mechanism behind his serial monogamy, the fact that although he was an adulterer, his longing was for monogamy, yet he always destroyed his marriages with adultery: the fact, in other words, that he needed security and a mummy figure but always also wanted a new toy - a typical sexist paradigm. This discussion was conducted mainly among us women, and the general tone was dismissively feminist. I said however that I thought that this was, on the contrary, something to do with Hemingway's attraction. Hemingway's short stories betray a refined sensibility - they could only have been written by a sensitive person. John joined in here and said yes, the point was that he was a sensitive man in an age and place where sensitivity wasn't acceptable in men, when what was considered desirable was machismo, which is enough to send any sensitive man into crisis. I suggested what I do strongly believe, which is that it was this sensitivity that was attractive to the women - or perhaps more accurately the poignancy of the paradox: the sensitivity and vulnerability beneath the machismo front - and why they were so driven to care for him, his second wife Fife long after the end of their marriage and even through his next two marriages. I didn't get any real, somatic sense of this in the novel. In other words, I felt that the situation called for a closer, more psychological anatomisation of a crisis in machismo than I felt this novel achieved - important, even if the viewpoint is that of the women, since it was their precise concern and focus, and so devastating for them.

There was disagreement among us about the depiction of the women. Jenny and Mark in particular liked the differing perspectives, the fact that the Other Woman becomes the suffering wife and, having seen her as a threat from outside, you then adopt her viewpoint. Others of us liked this too, but John, Ann and I felt that the wives were not sufficiently differentiated. John had said earlier that he found the book repetitious: you got the point about the situation in the first section and after that it was simply repeated, and Mark and Trevor had countered that the whole essence of the situation was repetition, which seemed a fair enough point. However, we felt that there was something repetitive about the characters too. People objected, But surely the women were clearly very different characters, Hadley the rather pedestrian and domestic first wife, Fife the society gal, Martha Gellhorn the tough journalist, and Mary the last wife perhaps the most sensible. We said, but we didn't find their voices differentiated. As Ann and I pointed out, although every section is written in the third person, that third is intimate, and there could have been a greater differentiation of language, which would have created clearer differentiation of psychology in the wives. Ann suggested that the real-life history is so well known and well documented and digested that this both got in the way of a fully novelistic depiction of the characters and allows a reader to compensate for the lack and to read into the text what he/she already knows. For us, however, it remained a lack.

I also found a similar lack of attention in the prose, disappointingly after my first impression, and the book therefore less well written than Mark considered, and than several reviews had led me to believe. There are metaphors the constructions of which have unintentionally comical effects: insects whir not like cogs but 'as if all their cogs were motoring along' (how many insects have cogs?) and a group of visitors don't just leave 'like a school of fish' but with 'silver-flecked skin... flashing'. Some metaphors and similes are ill thought through. I was pulled up short by the construction of 'Peonies rise from pots as big as fists', by being quite unable to visualise it and thinking: But flowerpots are bigger than fists, aren't they? Oh, peonies! But aren't peonies bigger than fists anyway?' all of which entirely deflected me from an interesting intimation of violence which I now see. I laughed out loud at 'Cuba became one solid raindrop' as a description of rain, though I'm sure I wasn't intended to, and I am still puzzled by the idea that a hefty box could 'gleam like a tooth', a tooth conjuring the idea of something small. I didn't have the chance to point out these instances, though, and Trevor remained adamant that the book was very well written, and as we finished the discussion, Mark and Trevor were unbent in their enthusiasm for the book.

Doug hadn't in fact been able to make the meeting, but he sent the following comments, tending to agree with those who had been more critical:
"A bit of an enigma for me, just as the main man was in this depiction. I liked the hints made about Hemingway, but it was also frustrating that he was not more real; the reasons why the women were so fascinated by him were never clear and I didn't get any sense of the obvious charm that he must have had.
As for the women, the first 3 came across as quite stereotyped. The homely one, the conniving one, the independent one. But then redemption in the final character. I thought the section with Mary was superb. The real sense of melancholy exuded by Hemingway and the beautifully expressed grief and loneliness of Mary in the aftermath of his death. Mary will stick in my memory while the others fade quickly away."

April 2015
Stoner by John Williams

Another book very much liked and admired by everyone present at the meeting. Suggested by John, this novel, published in America in 1965 to only moderate sales and soon falling out of print, was revived in 2003 and has since become a bestseller across Europe - a surprise bestseller, since it deals with the quietest of subjects, the life of a university teacher of English stoically suffering obstructions in his academic career and an unhappy marriage.

John said that he had found the book as riveting and compulsive in spite of his subject matter as has been generally reported, and we all agreed. Firstly, the prose is so clean and spare and acute, and the insight into protagonist Stoner's stoical personality is deeply moving. John was very impressed by the control of the material and the finely-tuned selection of significant events and characters in the depiction of a whole life, a point later reiterated by Clare. Both John and Hans had been reading it for a second time, and both said they had enjoyed it even more the second time around, and had got even more out of it. Clare said that she would definitely like to read it again, and I believe that was a general feeling. John commented that the book is in fact traditional in style - realist, linear in structure and measured in tone - and wondered if its publication in the same era as Jack Kerouac and the Beats had caused it at the time to be dismissed as merely old-fashioned (as well as unexciting). In fact, the book is hugely prescient in its study of the beginnings of the breakdown of the academy, the squeezing by more sinister worldly forces of the intellectual integrity that Stoner personifies, the failure of sincerity, as well as prefiguring the potential pitfalls of political correctness. Stoner's ability to keep steady through vicissitudes both professional and personal his own moral compass and his faith in the life of the mind and of literature, is perhaps heartening in an age when, as Julian Barnes puts it in his own article about the book, the inner space of the individual is assailed and monitored on all sides. In fact, the book has still not taken off in America in the way it has in Europe, and John suggested that, in its controlled, contemplative tone and its insistence on the life of the mind, it is in fact more European in flavour than American.

Significantly, Stoner's origins are simple and rural, embedded in the straightforward and the essential. A farm boy sent to agricultural college in order to learn techniques for the revival of his parents' spent land, he takes a compulsory literature course and falls in love with literature, after which he embarks on a literary academic career. Naive and inexperienced, however, he is soon doomed to marriage to a self-centred and manipulative wife. Potential happiness is constantly thwarted: a close relationship with his only child, a daughter, is spoilt when his wife decides to come between them; the daughter's life is subsequently blighted by the tensions and barrenness of her upbringing, and Stoner's wife engineers an estrangement from their grandson. The one sexually passionate relationship of Stoner's life, with a female fellow academic, founders on the quite evil machinations that already blight his academic life.

We discussed the fact that many people thus see Stoner's life as sad, and the book as a sad book, but none of us present felt it was that simple. We felt there was redemption, indeed something quite uplifting, in the way that through all of these troubles, literature remains a constant consolation to Stoner; as Williams himself said in an interview (quoted in John McGahern's Introduction to the Vintage edition), he has the satisfaction of continuing to do the one thing he loves most, study literature - not in fact caring for the professional advancement his enemies seek for themselves - and he never once loses his moral integrity. Stoner's professional enemy, the disabled Hollis Lomax, uses not only his own disability against Stoner, but a similarly disabled student Charles Walker, sending Walker to attend Stoner's tutorials where he is disruptive and fails to complete the academic tasks. Stoner fails Walker, and Lomax calls for a viva. When in the viva Walker appears to know his subject thoroughly, thus seeming to prove Stoner unjust, Stoner, rather than being sorry that he is apparently proved wrong and is thus falling into Lomax's hands, is glad - for the sake of the student, and for the sake of literature and the intellect; when, later in the interview, further questions show that in fact Walker knows little and, prepared for the viva by Lomax, has been merely parroting him, Stoner is disappointed rather than triumphant. There is redemption too for the reader in the uplifting quality of the prose.

John puzzled a little about the fact that it didn't seem on the surface a psychological novel: it is written in an objective third person, and although we take Stoner's perspective - apart from one or two occasions when we take that of his wife Edith - we do constantly see Stoner, as well as all the other characters, entirely objectively. We don't share his interiority, as Clare pointed out; at most we are told Stoner's reactions and emotions, but often not even that: they are left unstated. We can however always infer them, and their causes, and, as Ann said, this book is a classic and supreme example of 'show not tell.'

There was now a lot of relishing of the events of the novel and discussion of the characters and their motives, situations and emotions. (Some people could see Edith's pampered yet restrictive female upbringing as creating her character, and thus felt some sympathy, but Clare said she was simply 'evil'.) John then wondered about the political correctness of making the disabled Lomax and Walker so evil. I said that I thought that the point was that Lomax and Walker used their disability precisely to manipulate by taking advantage of others', and in particular Stoner's, wariness of acting prejudicially towards them - in other words, it was an abuse of what we now call political correctness. Ann pointed out that Lomax and Walker are direct literary descendants of Shakespeare's Richard III, and that this was a conscious authorial reference: they even look the way the Richard III has frequently been depicted, and indeed Lomax is said by the narration to have the face of a 'matinee idol'. Trevor said he thought that the disability was a specific metaphor for race: Lomax and Walker stood for the black lecturers who he said could not have existed in white American universities at the time the novel is set (Stoner begins university in 1910 and retires in 1956), though no one else could subscribe to this or follow its logic. John pointed out that if Williams had been concerned with race he would have raised issues around the black worker Stoner's parents take on when Stoner does not return to the farm, but he does not do so, and Clare objected that black academics would have been outsiders and quite unable to insinuate themselves into positions of power within the white establishment as Lomax and Walker do.

One person, I think Jenny, said that one thing she did find missing in the book was a sense for the reader of the joy of literature that Stoner experiences. When the rest of us thought about it, we agreed (as fiction lovers ourselves, we had taken the joy of literature for granted), and John said that he had been surprised to be not much impressed by the Shakespeare sonnet that gives Stoner his road-to-Damascus revelation about literature: it was a sonnet he hadn't known, and thought it was perhaps not one of the best. Personally, I find poems very hard to read in the middle of novels: I think they require a different kind of reading and it's very hard to adjust to them in middle of the flow of prose, and the blank reaction of everyone else to John's comment perhaps means that others were similarly unable to give it the right attention.

After the meeting, Doug, who had been unable to attend, sent his comments, and he turned out to be one of those people who find the book too sad. He said that having started out enjoying the book with its initial story of 'a life seemingly preordained becoming suddenly full of unexpected possibilities', he began to be 'overwhelmed' by the many setbacks and what he saw as the pessimism of the novel: '...the sadness of the book seeped into me - that's not a good thing.'

May 2015
The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh

Trevor suggested this early-50s novel, a satirical treatment of post-war Los Angeles. Dennis Barlow, a young English poet and scriptwriter whose contract with Megalopolitan Studios has expired, has taken work in a pets' funeral parlour, thus letting down the Hollywood English side which exists on an ethos (sometimes illusory, sometimes real) of old-world aristocratic privilege.

Sir Ambrose wore dark grey flannels, and Eton Rambler tie, an I Zingari ribbon in his boater hat. This was his invariable dress on sunny days; whenever the weather allowed it he wore a deerstalker cap and an Inverness cape.

The (real) aristocrat and once-chief script writer Sir Francis Hinsley, with whom Dennis is living, also pushed out by the increasing bureaucratisation and 'modernisation' of the studio, commits suicide. Dennis becomes perforce involved in the world of Whispering Glades, the Los Angeles funeral parlour and burial 'Park' on which the pets' funeral parlour, The Happier Hunting Ground, is modelled with hopeless lack of success. Devised and owned by 'The Dreamer', Whispering Glades is a place more steeped in illusion and sentimentality and cynical commerce than Hollywood itself, where every utterance is wordy overblown euphemism, with hilarious slippages: having given Dennis a po-faced list of the available 'means of disposal' - 'inhumement, entombment, inurnment, or immurement, but many people just lately prefer sarcophagusment' - the 'Mortuary Hostess' reassures Dennis that they will be able to make the hanged Sir Francis presentable by referring to a long-drowned man they worked on: ' ''We fixed that stiff" '. The dead are referred to as the 'Loved Ones', and grieving relatives and friends, referred to as 'Waiting Ones', are led into the 'Slumber Room' to view the bodies, which, in keeping with the general denial of the reality of death, are decked up to look alive:

...a little room, brightly furnished and papered. It might have been part of a luxurious modern country club in all its features save one. Bowls of flowers stood disposed about a chintz sofa and on the sofa lay what seemed to be the wax effigy of an elderly woman dressed as though for an evening party. Her white gloved hands held a bouquet and on her nose glittered a pair of rimless pince-nez.

While Dennis is arranging Sir Francis's's funeral, the Hostess tries to interest him for himself in their 'Before Need Provision'.

Dennis is a searingly satirical observer of all this, and mouthpiece for Waugh, but his own behaviour is not spared the burn of Waugh's satire as he takes up with the somewhat stupid mortuary cosmetician, Aimee Thanatogenos (her name means, of course, 'death-birth'), operating his own deception by wooing her with famous poems he passes off as his own (and which, uneducated and naive, she doesn't recognise), and as he becomes entangled in a love triangle with Aimee and Mr Joyboy, a whizz mortician revealed, in yet another peeling away of illusion, to be in private both unglamorously downtrodden and selfish.

All of our group enjoyed reading this short novel, relishing above all the verbal satire. There was no argument, and people simply noted that the book was a sharp skewering of a world of commercial illusion - prefiguring, as Trevor noted, the illusions and glosses of our present-day commercial culture - and picked out moments and phrases they had particularly enjoyed. The characters were mere ciphers, we noted, as is common in satire, although I did think that Dennis underwent something of a personality transplant in the latter half of the book when his relationship with Aimee sours, becoming rather more callous than his earlier mere pragmatism might have led us to expect. John said that this made him think that Waugh simply didn't understand love, which I reminded him was exactly what he had said when we read Waugh's Scoop, and this led on to a discussion of Waugh's personality and life. Trevor thought The Loved One was a better book than Scoop, but most others disagreed, feeling that while it was a sharper and more consistent satire in technical terms (we had thought Scoop wavered unevenly between satire and farce), its themes were shallower and its targets easier. Ann said that, short as the book was, it would have been even sharper if it had been shorter, and that it would have worked best as a short story, and most people agreed.

June 2015
In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason

Another book (Mark's suggestion) that everyone liked, but one of those novels that tend to prompt discussion of the issues on which they hinge, and it was hard to keep the focus on the book as a book. Published in 1985, it takes the third-person viewpoint of seventeen-year-old Sam Hughes, living in a small Kentucky town with her gentle uncle Emmett who is traumatised by the Vietnam war - her father, whom she never knew, having been killed in Vietnam, and her mother having later married and moved away, Sam refusing to go with her. The novel opens with a short section in which Sam and Emmett, accompanied by Sam's paternal grandmother, set out on a road trip to Washington with a mission not identified, or at least not spelled out, until the end of the novel, and then moves back to the summer that Emmett came back from Vietnam and her father didn't, going on to chart the events in between. Not that the life that Sam and Emmett have led together is eventful. In a delightful sisterly-brotherly relationship that everyone in the reading group loved, they jog along in a seemingly ordinary way, Sam going to school and working at the Burger Boy, Emmett initially doing odd jobs but eventually stopping working altogether and unaccountably dropping his girlfriend, sitting around the house with his beloved cat or watching out for a rare bird at the local swamp into which a man once slipped and was lost. In the evenings Sam and Emmett sit around joshing and listening to golden oldie music and watching TV with Sam's boyfriend Lonnie, in particular the TV drama series M.A.S.H which follows the fortunes of a medical corps in the Korean war. This last is of course an indication of the unaddressed issue of the damage inflicted by the Vietnam war on Emmett and his peers. Sam becomes increasingly aware of it, increasingly aware of her own father's fate and increasingly worried that Emmett's bad acne and headaches mean that he is affected by Agent Orange. Her worries come to a head when she falls in love with an 'older man', Tom, another Vietnam vet, and discovers him to be impotent, and comes to wonder if this may be Emmet's problem, too, and a general problem for men returned from Vietnam.

Introducing the book, Mark pointed out that this was an anti-Vietnam war book written before any of the eighties films about the war - a point he had made when we discussed Jayne Ann Phillips' Machine Dreams, published the previous year in 1984. Others commented that the films, such as Apocalypse Now, glorified the role of the soldiers, whereas this showed its damaging effects. This was the point in the meeting (basically, immediately) that people started talking about the war. It was noted that the Vietnam war was the first war in which the damaging human effects of war could be publicly seen on newsreels, which prompted anti-war feeling; on the other hand, as the book illustrates, and as Emmett's veteran friends complain, the damage to the men was never properly acknowledged by the American government, or understood by the societies to which they returned.

We had to keep consciously bringing the discussion back to the book, and its treatment of the issues, and so our consideration of it consisted of random comments rather than a developed argument. I said that I felt that the voice of the book was more mature than that of Machine Dreams - the narrator is more wryly objective about Sam than the young female Donner of Machine Dreams can be about herself as a first-person narrator - and it was noted that Bobbie Ann Mason was an older writer than Jayne Ann Phillips. (I had met Mark in the street one day beforehand, and we had both said we felt that this was the better book, and wondered if the fact that Machine Dreams made a greater splash were down to the fact of Phillips' youth and looks in a cynical market-obsessed literary industry.) This prompted John to say that he thought that Sam seemed a little too mature and insightful for a seventeen-year-old, but I disagreed, feeling that a mature and intelligent seventeen-year-old could have all of the thoughts and make all of the inferences that Sam does.

Everyone loved the relationship between Sam and Emmett, finding it really touching, and we all thought they were both great characters, the gentle, kooky and troubled Emmett being especially engaging. We thought the prose excellent, and the dialogue vivid and telling. I said I thought the central point of the book - that macho war in fact emasculates - extremely powerful, and everyone agreed. Mark said strongly that he thought it a feminist book, which baffled everyone for a moment, since feminist issues are not directly addressed in it, but then people could see that viewing the war from the domestic arena and a female viewpoint could be said to be feminist. Mark argued that giving Sam an active role in addressing the issues and trying to do something about them, does make it fundamentally - and, he thought, importantly - feminist. John said he found very arresting Sam's realisation that these men she considers older - Tom and Emmett and their vet contemporaries - were in fact only boys when they returned from Vietnam. People did agree that in fact the book, having started dynamically with an action-filled road trip, did then slump somewhat in the middle without much of a narrative arc - some people said that they began to feel that the book was going nowhere - but that it was redeemed by the very moving ending.

Finally, we wondered how relevant and important the book seems today, especially to young people. As we had noted, and as the book illustrates, there's a collective amnesia about Vietnam, America's greatest military failure, and Mark said that when he studied this book as a mature university student a few years ago, his younger fellow students didn't have the background and the novel had been of little interest to them. In particular a main motif of the book, the TV series M.A.S.H, which is referenced in detail in a way that both makes political points and throws light on Emmett's situation and psychological state, meant nothing at all to them (a warning, I'd say, to those writers who subscribe to the current fashion for including contemporary popular cultural references for the sake of mere contemporaneity and a superficial air of coolness!). We all thought it a shame, as we felt that this was, both politically and aesthetically, an important book.


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