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Over the weekend, Scott Horton published at Harper’s this withering indictment of Alberto Gonzales, considered from the point of view of honor (via The Daily Dish).  Horton develops his argument on the basis of his reading of Anthony Trollope, the humiliatingly prolific Victorian novelist, focusing particularly on Plantagenet Palliser.

Horton’s argument is worth reading in full for its take on contemporary American politics; however, I’m more interested in his opener:

Anthony Trollope was a very great novelist, a man who in a sense is a far better surveyor of English society in the Victorian Age than Charles Dickens. His works are filled with humor and wisdom and importantly, they never tire the reader. I hardly embark on a long trip without a volume of Trollope in my carry-on bag, and while his works are entertainments, they go far beyond that.

If “surveyor of English society in the Victorian age” means “provider of a comprehensive view of all social classes, in something like an appropriate perspective,” then, no, Trollope is not better than Dickens.  But, if “society” is taken in its more limited sense—the upper crust of the social order—then Horton’s absolutely right: Dickens is famously bad at sketching gentlemen, and his lords and ladies are the stuff of farce.  Trollope, by contrast, is brilliant at capturing the nuances of this social milieu.  And this milieu is worth representing accurately, since it undergoes a remarkable transformation in the 19thC, from a landed aristocracy to a class much more dependent on the complex shifts of capital and democracy.  It’s great stuff.

One of the things that’s interesting about Trollope is that he seems to be more widely read outside American universities—i.e., by general readers—than he is in, say, Victorian novel classes.  Partly this is because some of his best novels belong to series, and most draw on a dense cultural context that’s hard to pull off in a semester.  Part of it is that, given what undergraduates are able to read these days, plus the length of canonical Victorian novels, there’s a pig-ugly attrition: You’ve got to teach at least one Brontë (and maybe 2), at least one Dickens, and Eliot.  If the Dickens is, say, Bleak House or David Copperfield and the Eliot is Middlemarch, then there just isn’t that much semester left.  Who else makes it in?

Like Horton, I have found that Trollope makes splendid vacation reading.  In fact, each of the past 5 summers and winter breaks, I have read at least one Trollope novel.  He has been good for cross-country flights, for bouts of the flu, Connecticut blizzards, trips to the parents, and much else besides.  Of the major Victorian novelists, Trollope’s sensibility is probably the brightest.  His novels’ darkest moments are usually pretty carefully quarantined, allowing the social order to reconstitute itself more readily at the end.  (Compare The Way We Live Now with Little Dorrit, for example.)  These are fine distinctions, of course, but I’m pretty sure people will grant me that Trollope is the Victorian novelist least likely to have a character vengefully ripped to pieces.

At any rate, because we’ve now cleared Mother’s Day, and opportunities for summer reading are starting to beckon, here are three Trollope novels that are first-rate introductions to his work:

  • He Knew He Was Right: A man’s jealousy—or, perhaps more precisely, his overliteral insistence on Victorian social mores and their enforcement—leads to the downfall of his marriage. 
  • The Eustace Diamonds: Does the widowed gold-digger get to keep the family jewels, or not?
  • The Way We Live Now: Very Enron: An impossibly wealthy man buys his way into society, even though no one can quite figure out where his money comes from.  David Brooks wrote an introduction to the Modern Library edition, which seems just about right.

All three novels are perfect beach reading, and, for the city-bound, will keep you safely off of this list (via Unfogged). 

A special note: If you see The Warden at the bookstore, you may well be tempted to buy it.  It’s 300-ish pages shorter than any other Trollope novel, and it kicks off the Barchester series, and so seems like a natural beginning point.  And, really, it is a fine little novel.  It does require a bit more familiarity with the Church of England hierarchy than the concept of “beach reading” strictly requires, however. 

 

My loneliness was still there, but it was getting louder, and easier to dance to.
—Brett Butler, Knee Deep in Paradise

Her favorite thing to do when she visits is to peruse my bookshelves. They rarely change—everything squared safely away in categories, alphabetized, hardbacks with hardbacks, paper with paper. But, she looks at them every time as if they’re new, and she says, “I just love this.” For a long time, I thought she, like me, loved the visual, the idea, of stacks of collected books, waiting to be read and reread. It’s so great a site even for me that on my way from the kitchen to the living room, dinner tray in my hand, sometimes I’ll stop and stare at the shelves and remind myself how much I have to learn, and how my education is right there, perfectly ordered, ready. Recently, though, I heard my mum’s words differently. She’s not marveling at the books, or their order, or anything at all to do with them specifically. Her expression, I realized, says: “I created a reader.”

My mum and I have always shared books. She’s often mentioned how she read to my sister and I in the womb, that her one major goal in life was for her children to love books. We do—my sister and I are big readers, thanks to our mum. I remember when my sister and I were maybe 11 and 13, mum would take us secondhand book shopping, and we’d run into the book exchanges in Shepparton so we could be first to grab whatever Stephen Kings had come in that week. In those days, my sister and I shared a lot less. Or, perhaps, while we didn’t mind passing books around, we knew early the thrill of book ownership.

In recent years, mum and I, too, share fewer books. Strangely, the woman who once handed down Kurt Vonnegut, JP Donleavy, and Joseph Heller, has started reading trashy crime novels almost exclusively. As much as she knows about Kilgore Trout, she knows even more about James Patterson’s Alex Cross. She’ll sit on the couch and fly through the latest Harlan Coben, and yet the copy of The Fixer I gave her a few months back still has a bookmarks in it’s center. I don’t know quite what happened, but, as mum would always tell me, it doesn’t matter what you read (I was addicted to Dean Koontz for a while, my sister Anne M. Martin), as long as you’re reading. I’m praying, however, that my trash addiction passed with adolescence.

A decade ago, when I had just turned 18, I handed my mum a copy of Brett Butler’s Knee Deep in Paradise. I loved the book; Butler was on TV at the time, in Grace Under Fire, a show I watched only really when I remembered it was on. Bulter’s story is about growing up in the Deep South, coming to terms with her self-abuse, finding new respect for her parents, and herself. It’s a poetic, shocking read; I knew my mum would love it as much as I did. Something I didn’t think too much about when I gave mum the book was the little lead pencil markings I’d made inside next to passages I wanted to remember, that stood out to me as particularly meaningful. In the book, Brett writes a lot about her mother, intelligent and well-meaning, but scarily unstable. Despite her mother’s complications, Brett lets us know her mother was instrumental in her success. Brett writers of her mother’s unflinching compassion, her interest in her children’s lives, her encouragement of her kids to be unique, educated, and open-minded. My mother is complex in her own ways, and her philosophies mirror those of Brett’s mum. I underlined passages relevant to that. I also underlined passages I felt mirrored my experience – Brett had learned from her mistakes and perhaps, this early in my life, I could, too. I underlined passages about drinking, about bad men, about wanting to crawl away from life. The sad opening paragraphs of chapter 14, I’ve not only underlined, but bordered with five-pointed stars. I was a kid, really, at the time, and knew very little about what was to come. But I realize now, a rocky teenagehood, completely outside of my family home, prepped me early.

My mum handed the book back to me close to tears. We’d had a strong relationship to that point, but there was a lot we didn’t know about each other. She was the cool mum who hated doing the cleaning, and bought me mixed drink cans and took me to parties because that’s what cool mums did. To her, I was the rebellious free spirit, who looked after herself despite her wildness. Brett’s book showed us each other’s lies. She read my underlines, and began to know me. It turns out, we were more alike than we let ourselves realize.

My mom and I share fewer books now, but we rarely go a day without revealing something about ourselves to each other. Like Brett’s mum, mine is there for me, always willing to give, to help, to rescue. Her complexities are my complexities. She created not only a reader, but a woman. The books on my shelf, their importance, their order, and their underlined passages, reveal her as much as they do me. 

 

by Preston Jones [McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)]

11 May 2007


Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey
by Chuck Palahniuk (Doubleday / $24.95)

Raw and unblinking, Chuck Palahniuk’s novels often feel like primal scream therapy, unloading into the void and holding back very little.

His deadpan, withering social commentary has spawned legions of fans who anticipate his works with a fervor generally reserved for rock stars—it isn’t overreaching to connect the industrial-tinged nihilism of, say, Trent Reznor to Palahniuk’s razor-edged fantasies.

Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey continues the author’s penchant for toying with conventions of form—2005’s Haunted was a novel masquerading as a collection of short stories; 2000’s Survivor unfolds in reverse—while retaining his flair for sketching reprehensible antiheroes with the faintest glimmer of humanity.

Palahniuk renders brief, punchy narratives that demand attention; Rant, in particular, isn’t a book to be consumed at leisure. Relying on interviews with those who met the mythic Buster “Rant” Casey during his brief, violent life, a portrait of a tortured, confused martyr emerges—or seems to, anyway. It’s not giving much away to reveal that Rant is infected with a potent strain of rabies and prone to freely sharing his sickness. The concept of a homegrown bioterrorist, an all-American “patient zero,” is merely an opening salvo in what becomes a misanthropic thrill ride, culminating in a temporally dislodged religious fervor.

Evoking J.G. Ballard’s Crash and Philip K. Dick’s cyberpunk dystopias, Palahniuk also cribs from future-shock films like Strange Days and eXistenZ, dour examinations of life in a brave new world. Rant flirts with government-mandated genocide, Greek tragedy, aberrant sexuality, substance abuse and audacious fusions of religion and violence, stitching together disparate elements to craft a surreal, poignant and darkly humorous quilt of madness.

Much of the book’s emotional potency stems from one of Palahniuk’s enduring thematic fascinations: the almost pathological need for his characters to feel something—anything—in their modern, anesthetized existences. Choke‘s protagonist, Victor Mancini, faked asphyxiation in restaurants to meet people, for example, while Rant’s hobby is Party Crashing, a brutal form of socialization that involves vicious auto collisions.

Rant may too strongly recall Fight Club for some, but Palahniuk has more on his mind here than simple titillation. A white-knuckled what-if, Rant is the author’s most idiosyncratic work to date, a piercing plea to push the galactic reset button.

For a long time I’ve been interested in the relationship between reading, time, and interpretation.  Anyone who’s ever had a conversation with someone, especially while distracted, or read a book, has had the experience of having a fuller awareness of a passage’s meaning open up long after the conversation or book is ostensibly over.  Sometimes you haven’t read enough to fully grasp a book’s import, or you’re just too busy, or, you know, you just missed it. 

I’ve become *particularly* aware of this difficulty over the past year, as I’ve started reviewing books more frequently (some 40-odd books since August 4, 2006).  Generating a reasonable off-the-cuff reaction, one that won’t be wholly embarrassing six weeks later, is a tricky thing.  But, then again, free books . . . .

This problem has been kicking around my brain again, thanks to this Kenyon Review interview with Meghan O’Rourke, whose first book of poems, Halflife, came out last month with Norton.  David Baker is an excellent interviewer, and the conversation is unfailingly interesting.  One exchange in particular has stuck in my mind over the past week.  Baker asks, “Why read lyric poetry?,” to which O’Rourke replies:

A lyric poem delivers its payload efficiently. It doesn’t require an extraordinary investment of time on the reader’s part. So you can figure out quickly whether you like something. More important, the lyric poem is the most powerful embodiment of the paradoxes of life and art. Walter Pater once talked about “the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity,” a phrase I like because it contains both the unutterable depth of perception that living seems to contain and the peculiar corollary—that that depth, those perceptions, are unsustainable because we die. Poems have always seemed to me to be the most crystalline reflection of that sensation of privilege and loss. They mimic life, if you will.

This is a lovely answer, and, really, not enough people talk about Walter Pater on a day-to-day basis.  Having said that, O’Rourke here sounds a bit too optimistic about the investment of time required to read lyric poetry.  Clearly it’s the case that glancing over, say, this Kathryn Maris poem takes less time than does even the most cursory reading of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.  But it’s also the case that lyric poetry requires a greater investment of attention than does a novel.  Anyone who’s taught knows this: It can be quite difficult to get students to read poems, because they demand more care than novels do.  (And since Pater’s on the table, this is surely one of his points in that “Conclusion”—that art metaphorically grants us more life by awakening our otherwise sluggish consciousness.)  We could even sharpen O’Rourke’s point a little and note that “that depth, those perceptions” that life offers are only possible “because we die,” and are not “unsustainable” only.

I have yet to figure out a way to recognize quickly whether I will like a book of poems.  (Reading aloud sometimes works, but not always in ways I can explain.)  That’s why I like reviewing them and try to be extraordinarily careful when doing so: Not because poems are more delicate, but the converse: Because they engage consciousness in such an oblique way that I grow less sure of myself as I write. 

How do you know whether you’ll like a book—poetry or anything else?

 

I first came across the writing of Charles D’Ambrosio in the waiting room at Cornell Medical Hospital. I was sitting in one of those demoralizing paper-towel gowns, thumbing through an outdated copy of The New Yorker, when I came across a lengthy story called “Up North.” With some reluctance, I inched my way into D’Ambrosio’s icy, ashy world only to emerge a half an hour later transformed—my own world refreshed and enriched.

The story (first person/past tense) begins with the protagonist, Daly, and his wife, Caroline, driving North to visit her parents in their remote, winter cabin. There, we’re introduced to the rest of the cast—the in-laws, their friends, one of whom, we do not know which, may have raped Caroline a decade prior. Caroline has hidden the truth from her beloved father to spare him the agony, but her continued silence has bred its own agony, a poisonous secret that rears itself in other, destructive ways.

Having read her diary, Daly is aware that his wife has been having affairs; indiscretions about which he must remain as tight-lipped as she, lest he reveal that he’s violated her privacy. Perhaps as a result of her assault, she has been and remains unable to equate sex with love. The paradox of their relationship, then, is that each day, “I lost more and more of my status as a stranger, and our marriage was like a constant halving of the distance without ever arriving at the moment in time when, utterly familiar, I’d vanish.”

Daly’s disclosures are similarly frank: “In defeat I came to feel weak and ashamed,” and amplified through his observations, each a sour reminder of something from the past, not completely gone. The taxidermy flanking the fireplace “suggested souvenirs from some gone, legendary time;” the sweater Caroline borrows from her father retains its girth, “a ghostly, orotund presence in the stiff wool.” Does this imply, perhaps, a pregnancy?

The major events in the story, however, are actually non-events. The first is the hunt. Daly, who finds it “effortful” to be around men with weapons, accompanies the grunting old-timers into the snowy woods to claim their nightly feast, only, when he gets the bird in his crosshairs, he squeezes the trigger to discover that the safety catch has vetoed the shot. Who could forget such a pungent image of impotence?

The second is the feast itself, whose awkwardness is intensified by the fact that Daly is struggling to hear the dialogue through the ringing in his ears, the auditory aftershock of his neighbor’s shotgun. All the while, a mirror in the corner of the dining room is canted in such a way as to reflect everyone but the narrator.

What is clear by the end is that D’Ambrosio is not a dramatist but a holder of oblique mirrors himself, a painter of haunting portraits. Drama, to paraphrase Aristotle, is a sequence of escalating power shifts—events which challenge its characters to make decisions that, in turn, alter the course of future events. Rather, D’Ambrosio feeds us a timeline whose constituent moments form a single snapshot indicative of things as they are. There are no revelations or catharses, simply a masterful rendering of an excruciating silence, the waterlogged weight of unspoken things, which press upon the apparently humdrum present with a dreadful and mighty force, forever unrelieved, unresolved.

But even this doesn’t capture what it is that makes “Up North” extraordinary. There’s something musical about the particular network of contrasts—the muffled, protected cabin vs. the expansive, perilous outdoors—something deliciously peculiar in the laid-backness of the language, his words crisp and exact. At the same time, D’Ambrosio is careful not to tip his hand: his virtuosity is subtle, unassuming and tempered, not ecstatic and splendiferous like Nabokov’s.

I later wondered if perhaps I was too quick to trust him. That in my enfeebled state, sitting there apprehensive and barely clothed in that cold hospital waiting room, I’d allowed a certain obsequiousness to color my impression of the work. Shortly thereafter I picked up a copy of D’Ambrosio’s debut collection, The Dead Fish Museum (in which “Up North” is collected), and was struck to discover the same level of power and precision, the same faint irony and sober lament woven into each piece.

Someone recently told me that, for all its beauty, she couldn’t get through the book because it was too depressing. All due respect, this person was not reading. She was simply taking the D’Ambrosio world at face value—mental hospitals and recovery wards, failing businesses, porno sets—a world which, on the surface, appears to resemble that of William Vollman. But in comparison, Vollman buckles. His bleakness is a fey spectacle, which bullies its readers into a pre-fab discomfort.

Rather, D’Ambrosio does a far harder thing, which is to achieve compassion without sentiment, yearning without nostalgia, understatement without self-consciousness, and in doing so succeeds at everything Vollman fails at.

I doff my hat.

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