Monday, October 13, 2014

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Fanny, meanwhile, speaking only when she could not help it, was very earnestly trying to understand what Mr. and Miss Crawford were at.  There was everything in the world against their being serious but his words and manner.  Everything natural, probably, reasonable, was against it; all their habits and ways of thinking, and all their own demerits.  How could she have excited serious attachment in a man who had seen so many, and been admired by so many, and flirted with so many, infinitely her superiors; who seemed so little open to serious impressions, even where pains had been taken to please him; who thought so slightly, so carelessly, so unfeelingly on all such points; who was everything to everybody, and seemed to find no one essential to him?  And farther, how could it be supposed that his sister, with all her high and worldly notions of matrimony, would be forwarding anything of a serious nature in such a quarter?  Nothing could be more unnatural in either.  Fanny was ashamed of her own doubts.  Everything might be possible rather than serious attachment, or serious approbation of it toward her.

Well, I did it: Excepting the unfinished Sanditon and her juvenilia, I have read all of Jane Austen's books.  There are only six of them, of course, so it's not that tremendous a feat, but it's pleasing to me all the same--except in the realization that there are no fully developed Austen novels left to read.  That's a little sad.

Why did I read Mansfield Park last?  Like its heroine, Fanny Price, Mansfield Park seems to fade into the background when talking about Austen's stuff; it quietly exists, not really demanding to be noticed.  It isn't as dramatic as Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, or Sense and Sensibility; nor is it as mature or complex, I think, as Emma or Persuasion.  But like all those novels, it is a detailed and insightful depiction of human relations, an investigation of character all the more remarkable for the narrowness of the social mores that circumscribe those who inhabit it.

Fanny comes to live at her uncle's house when she's ten; coming from a squalid lower-class urban household, she finds Mansfield Park to be daunting and her uncle to be intimidating.  Her older cousin, Edmund, is the only one who goes out of his way to welcome her--in a charming scene in which he helps her post a letter to her beloved brother, out at sea--cementing a lifelong crush that Fanny broods over throughout the novel.  But Fanny is too demure to ever declare her love for Edmund, and too interminably shy.  Though she becomes increasingly comfortable at Mansfield Park, she prefers not to be noticed, and is obliged in this until she becomes a beautiful young woman.

The stasis at Mansfield Park is interrupted by Henry and Mary Crawford, who move in to the Regency version of "across the street."  Mary is vivacious but selfish, and becomes attached to Edmund.  Worse, Henry, who nearly destroys the marriage of one of Edmund's sisters with his flirting, decides he wants to make a contest of Fanny, to, as he puts it, "put a hole in Fanny Price's heart."  Henry is a classic male predator: he refuses to relent when Fanny says no, always hanging around, ingratiating himself not only with her but with her uncle as well.  Ultimately he falls in love with her--like Freddie Prinze Jr. in She's All That, you know--but Fanny is smarter than Rachel Leigh Cook, and a better judge of character.  She knows that Henry is bad news, and yet he's superficially such a good match for that her uncle becomes angry at her for rejecting him.

Fanny is easy to like: quiet, self-effacing, but also determined and principled enough to stand up against Henry's repeated attempts to woo her.  Yet Austen actually suggests that she may capitulate, not because her regard for Henry changes, but because of her love and regard for her uncle and cousin.  Until the very end, I wasn't actually sure which way Austen was going to go.  Fanny is a true believer in custom and deference to one's family--that's what makes her such a good match for the conscientious Edmund, but also threatens to force her into a miserable marriage.

I suspect that quality is one of the reasons Mansfield Park lacks the cultural cache of Austen's other works.  Fanny is a strong heroine, but fails to meet the independent woman trope we look for when we talk about "strong heroines" today.  Appreciating her strength as a character requires an ability to think in a way our culture finds strange.  Such an ability is also necessary to appreciate the novel's greatest episode: while Fanny's uncle is away overseas, Henry, Mary, and some of the other young people at Mansfield Park decide to stage a play to pass the time.  Yet, as both Fanny and Edmund see it, the play is inappropriate: it requires Henry and Edmund's sister to play lovers, for example, and her uncle would not approve.  This episode, as it gets all of the various characters in one room, scheming variously to get the best part, is the best in the novel because it exhibits Austen's understanding of how people interact.  It's incredibly realized, and frequently funny.  But it asks the reader to accept that Fanny's judgment is ultimately right, and this anti-theatrical prejudice is foreign to us and can seem silly.  It is silly, but it shows how Fanny is always deferential to those she loves, while the Crawfords are unthinking and--as much as any Austen character can be--crass.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Kleinzeit by Russell Hoban

This book is out of print,
but I managed to get a first edition,
which is kind of cool.
When Kleinzeit opened the door of his flat Death was there, black and hairy and ugly, no bigger than a medium-sized chimpanzee with dirty fingernails.

Not all that big, are you, said Kleinzeit.

Not one of my big days, said Death.  Sometimes I'm tremendous.

As soon as I read Chris's review, I knew this was a book I had to read.  I love the idea of everything tangible thing in a universe being a talking character.

Hoban did not disappoint.

As noted in Chris's review, everything in this novel can talk to Kleinzeit.  Thus, throughout the novel he has conversations with Death, Hospital, Action, the yellow paper, which beckons him to write upon it.  What I particularly liked about this stylistic quirk was that Hoban was able to give objects motives and desires.  Consider this passage from the beginning:
He put his face in front of the bathroom mirror.
I exist, said the mirror.
What about me? said Kleinzeit?
Not my problem, said the mirror. 
I love that the mirror has an interest in its own existence but then cavalierly disregards Kleinzeit's interest in the same question.  The attribution of motive plays out in o
ther interesting ways later, as Kleinzeit tries to escape an apparent inevitable death in Hospital.  As the novel progresses, Kleinzeit and Hospital have a number of exchanges in which Hospital seems to toy with Kleinzeit.  This happens with Death, too; in both cases I found it hilarious.

Given my recent interest in "great" novels, I couldn't help noticing that this is a good novel but not a great one.  Why?  One reason is that I kept reading passages to Brittany, who was consistently not amused.  I think this reflects the fact that there's a universality that this novel lacks.  Absurdity is amusing, but only to people already interested in absurdity. Thus, this novel reads more for a specific audience than a general one.

Although Hoban accomplishes everything he seems to want to accomplish in this novel, I'm quite curious about the potential of this form--the form of anthropomorphizing everything within a universe.  It seems to me that properly worked out, it could lend itself to a great novel.  By anthropomorphizing everything and allowing Kleinzeit to converse with these things, Hoban was able to expose a great deal of conflict and character in his writing.  I think a more ambitious novel could use this flexibility to do interesting things.

But then, what do I know about good writing?  I'm a lawyer (sob, sob, sob).

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The New Men by John Enfield

"You have money, Mrs. Abramoff. Enough for better, and I'm afraid I must know where it has gone. Me Ford wishes everyone to share in the profits, but he will not five profits where they will disappear into nothing." He held his hands up to forestall protest. "Now, if you have a sick mother in Vladivostok, or a starving nephew in St Petersburg, or a drunken brother-in-law in Hamtramck who needs care in a sanatorium..."

Set at the turn of the century, Job Enfield's The New Men explores a little known cubby of American history, that of Henry Ford's profit-sharing program and his Educational department. In a nutshell, Ford was looking for a way to retain employees and so decided to institute a $5.00/week salary for his employees, on the condition that they would allow their bank accounts, their lodgings, their recreation--everything, really--to be regularly inspected and critqued by Educational, a group of largely idealistic employees who saw their job as a way to help create the titular "new men", men who would be productive, relatively well-off members of society.

This historical aside is paralleled by the life of Antonio Grams, an Italian immigrant who comes to America with his family after the death of his father. Initially (mostly) optimistic and idealistic, his decline mirrors the decline of Ford's Educational, as changing social mores and economic necessity turn the profit-sharing program from a well-intentioned social welfare program into an invasive organization which roots out Commies and slowly pushes out minorities.

This information is mostly place-setting though, as the story itself follows Tony through said changes in the country. With his friend, Ross, a slightly-shady newspaper reporter and his lover/ice queen Thia, he struggles to keep his head above water during the seismic shift of the industrial revolution. The well-researched and interesting setting make The New Men a good choice for fans of historical fiction, if Grams, ultimately sympathetic but frequently pretty awful, doesn't put them off.

My only real complaint about The New Men was its tendency at points to overexplain its symbolism.  can't find the exact passage, but there's one point where Tony is sitting at a table, a picture of his dead father hanging at one end, and a picture of his dead sister at the other, and he thinks, "I guess in some sense, the dead are always watching us. I just don't like it be so literal." If it makes him feel any better, neither do I.

There are some particularly strong points as well: Thia herself is an interesting character--initially coming off as an unusually uninhibited Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Enfield slowly turns the tables, revealing a tragic past and ruthless behavior that would be badly out of place in Garden State. It's also worth noting that Enfield sticks the landing, tying all the story threads up in a satisfactory way and managing to draw significant pathos from even some minor characters--something that's not necessarily a given in literary fiction. Or book reviews.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Erewhon by Samuel Butler

The reader will have no difficulty in believing that the laws regarding ill health were frequently evaded by the help of recognized fictions, which every one understood, but which it would be considered gross ill-breeding to even seem to understand.  Thus, a day or two after my arrival at the Nosnibors', one of the many ladies who called on me made excuses for her husband's only sending his card, on the ground that when going through the public market-place that morning he had stolen a pair of socks.  I had already been warned that I should never show surprise, so I merely expressed my sympathy, and said that though I had only been in the capital so short a time, I had already had a very narrow escape from stealing a clothes-brush, and that though I had resisted temptation so far, I was sadly afraid that if I saw any object of special interest that was neither too hot or too heavy, I should have to put myself in the straightener's hands.

Samuel Butler's Erewhon is frequently referred to as one of the earliest dystopian novels, though it has less in common with The Road or 1984 with the satirical imaginings of Gulliver's Travels.  Erewhon, a country apparently deep in the recesses of New Zealand (where Butler was once employed in the sheep-herding business) looks mostly like Victorian England, with a few curious inversions, and of course that is the way we are supposed to perceive it.

There are two main hallmarks of Erewhonian culture: The first is that they consider physical illness to be a moral failing, but actions we would consider morally objectionable they treat as if they were an illness.  Butler's unnamed narrator complains to one host that he has a cold, and she upbraids him for his wickedness; later he learns that another host was discovered embezzling huge amounts of money, which has earned him the pity and condolences of everyone in Erewhon.  Butler has a good deal of fun describing the particulars of this system, including the prevalence of "straighteners," who, like doctors, prescribe treatment for their patients, which usually includes a number of lashings.  But the satire is pointed toward Victorian notions of crime and punishment, and meant to challenge his audience's notions of guilt: Do we, like the Erewhonians, do anything to reform those convicted of crimes?

The other is a Luddite-like aversion to technology, inscribed in Erewhonian law, which prohibits any technology developed after a certain point in Erewhonian history.  The narrator lands in hot water immediately for possessing a wristwatch (though Butler never really explains why this criminal act doesn't land the narrator in a hospital, instead of arousing the suspicion of the king).  Butler includes a long section called "The Book of the Machines," which is ostensibly the narrator's translation of a historical Erewhonian text.  This passage, though it underscores the way in which Erewhon is more an extended riff on imaginary social mores than a plotted story, is one of the more interesting parts of the book.  It lays out an argument for thinking about machines as a species with their own systems of reproduction and which may one day come to exert power over mankind.  Butler is writing about steam engines and railroads, not computers or artificial intelligences, but his argument is spookily prescient of the fears we have about technology today.  It's not clear how satirical "The Book of the Machines" is--I get the impression that Butler believed in this argument, despite how silly it must have seemed to Victorians--but if one imagines information technology to be a "descendant" of Industrial Revolution-era technologies, it's not far off the mark.

The plot of Erewhon is bare bones: the narrator discovers the country, becomes something of a guest and something of a captive, and ultimately hatches an escape, taking the daughter of his host with him back to England.  The ideas are mildly interesting, but neither funny nor insightful enough to really make Erewhon engaging.  Perhaps the most cutting moment of satire in the whole thing occurs in the very end, when the narrator declares his intention to return to Erewhon and both enslave and Christianize the Erewhonians.  At the height of the British Empire, the profound grossness of the narrator's wish to eradicate the culture he'd been a part of for several years must have rang pretty true.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

"You want to be a lawyer, don't you?" Our father's mouth was suspiciously firm, as if he were trying to hold it in line.

Jem decided there was no point in quibbling, and was silent.  When Atticus went inside the house to retrieve a file he had forgotten to take to work that morning, Jem finally realized that he had been done in by the oldest lawyer's trick on record.  He waited a respectful distance from the front steps, watched Atticus leave the house and walk toward town.  When Atticus was out of earshot Jem yelled after him: "I thought I wanted to be a lawyer but I ain't so sure now!"

I haven't read To Kill a Mockinbird since high school; then, I thought it was a good book.  When Brittany was reading the book, she told me I needed to re-read it because I would fall in love.  I expected her to be right--what I didn't expect, though, was how right she would be.  Reading this book, now, was a religious experience and nearly brought me to tears multiple times.  On some occasions I would have to stop reading because the writing was so beautiful that I needed to let the feeling linger before I moved on.  So, yes, I loved this book.

Despite having a plethora of reactions to this book, I want to focus on a question that readers of this blog will (surely) have an opinion about: What is the difference between a great book and a good book.  Here's what I've come up with:

First, To Kill a Mockingbird is universal in a way that even good books are not.  Lee accomplishes this using Scout's innocence.  By filtering the narration through Scout's ostensible innocence, the novel's narrator is relatable.  It's easy for any reader to envision viewing the world the way Scout does.  However, I write "ostensible innocence" because there's an illusion here: the narrator is writing through the eyes of an innocent young girl, but often uses diction or conclusory, reflective statements to remind the reader that this is a narrator remembering back.  For example, when Atticus tells Scout to go to bed after she'd been listening to a long conversation between him and Uncle Jack: "I scurried to my room went to bed . . . . But I never figured out how Atticus knew I was listening, and it was not until many years later that I realized he wanted me to hear every word he said."  So, at the same time that Scout is relatable, the reader benefits from Scout's hindsight ruminations.

Second: Lee's writing is remarkably beautiful. I use the adverb because the writing here is beautiful in way that surpasses other writers..  Consider this line, describing the childrens' performances of plays during the summer, "But by the end of August our repertoire was vapid from countless reproductions, and it was then that Dill gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out."  I have never seen "vapid" used in this context and I love it.

Or, this:
We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe--some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity than others, some ladies make better cakes than others--some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of most men.
But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal--there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president.  That institution, gentlemen, is a court . . . Our courts have faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.
This passage, beautiful in its own right, also reflects a motif spread throughout the novel: the inequality of the world contrasted by the idealism of equality.  We see it again when Miss Maudie describes Atticus's talent with guns:  "If your father's anything, he's civilized in his heart.  Marksmanship's a gift of God, a talent--oh, you have to practice to make it perfect, but shootin's different from playing the piano or the like.  I think maybe he put his gun down when he realized God had given him an unfair advantage over most living things."

Finally, Atticus is himself a character that makes the book remarkably good.  Atticus is presented as heroic, and it's easy to accept it whole-heartedly.  I love this image, captured by the movie:

I also love this introduction of Atticus in the beginning: "His first two clients were the last two persons hanged in Maycomb County jail.  Atticus had urged them to accept the state's generosity in allowing them to plead Guilty to second-degree murder and escape with their lives, but they were Haverfords, in Maycomb County a name synonymous with jackass."  Notably, even in this early description of Atticus, he's the voice of reason.

Anyway, this review's too long and reeks of someone trying to say too much without focus.  So, my question, friends: what makes a great novel?  And, is To Kill a Mockingbird a great novel?