Monday, June 27, 2011

Blood Meridian

Cormac McCarthy is one of those writers I’ve always heard other people praising but never really had a strong urge to read, as much as anything because I’ve never felt that compelled by the Old West as a setting for fiction. Still, as often as people talk about how much they like his work I was bound to get around to it at some point.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell anyone that Blood Meridian is intensely violent, constantly upping the ante on how grotesque it can get (and it starts roughly). For the most part this was effective and gripping: I don’t generally like narratives with a strong picaresque element, but in this case the repetition didn’t seem gratuitous (even though it is, of course, all about gratuitous violence). It walks a very fine line of nearly becoming a self-parody, overdone with depravity in the way that William Faulkner’s Sanctuary is overdone, and a few times it may cross that line not because of the particulars of a given scene but just because of how relentlessly repetitive the violence is.

One of the more interesting aspects of the novel’s structure is McCarthy’s use of chapter headings: in the mode of a 19th-century novel he begins each chapter with a series of fragments that outline the events that will occur. This parody of form isn’t so intriguing on its own; but, when you start reading the actual chapters and comparing them to the outline, you can see interesting issues emerge. The language of the outline is often very different from that in the text, for example, as if produced by two different narrators: in many cases you wouldn’t know what landscape the characters were in if the outline didn’t identify it, and particular characters (especially the Judge) give speeches that are summed up in technical language in the outline. Additionally, very brief and seemingly insignificant events or described landscapes appear in the outline as equal in importance to major ones. As a result of these features, the outlines don’t really tell you much but lend the appearance of bureaucratic order to the chaos of the novel’s endless violence.

Although there is a terrible beauty to many of the images of the novel, the novel does not offer much in terms of redemption for the reader. The front of my copy advertises it as a “classic American novel of regeneration through violence.” I have no idea what that is supposed to mean: there is nothing in the way of regeneration or epiphany here, not even a belated feeling that there was something good that was missed. The world is rotten all the way down—a grim outlook, but one compellingly framed.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Quiet Life

Reading Kenzaburō Ōe’s novel A Quiet Life (1990, trans. Kunioki Yanagishita and William Wetherall), I felt very conscious of the fact that I was reading a translation from a language and culture I know next-to-nothing about—not because the events are impossible to understand (far from it), but because stylistic elements left me wondering if I should complain about the editing, translation, or writing, or if what I was noticing wasn’t just true to patterns of speech in Japan. The first two of the six chapters in particular felt very choppy and stilted to me—I’m not sure whether the later ones improved or if I just got used to the style and absorbed enough in the situation and ideas of the story. I don’t recall the same reading experience from Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness last year, and in at least a couple of places there are what can only be translation/editorial errors: one sentence, as the narrator compares her present experience at a concert with previous experiences, reads, “But now I don’t hear such laughter ring out in the Joining of Hearts Concerts now.” I guess the translators were trying to decide where to put the “now” but wound up leaving it as an exercise for the reader… As a result, I’m left wondering the rest of the time how much the tone is being affected by translation issues in sentence-level style. To my (internal) ear, the narrator comes across as a little more simple-headed than I would guess just from her reflections, even given the fact that the narrative highlights her naïveté.

When I could forget the questions about style, though, I found the story engrossing. In the novel, the narrator (Ma-chan), a 20-year old young woman living with her family, takes care of her older, mentally disabled brother (Eeyore) and her younger brother (O-chan) who is studying for university entrance exams while their parents are in the United States because her father is in what the family calls a “pinch,” or bout of depression. In general the episodes of the novel revolve around situations where people, particularly Ma-chan, have concerns about Eeyore’s well-being, get worked up about them, but then find that everything is ok. There is, throughout, a humorous prodding of the idea that Eeyore’s life is somehow tragic or that he is incapable.

The family is modeled after Ōe’s, and the father, “K,” is an author. One of the things that makes the novel work well is the way the narration through the voice of the daughter gives us distance from “K,” and thus often gives us a sense that Ōe is critiquing himself as much as anyone. Indeed, this novel’s rejection of the idea that Eeyore’s life is a tragedy is a refreshing counter to the perspective on mental disability evinced in the two (decades older) stories in Teach Us that I noted with frustration in my post on that book. On top of this, through the reflections of the narrator and the people around her on her father’s “pinch” and his writing, the novel offers perspective on the relationship between writers, texts, and audiences, a relationship itself loosely tied to questions of faith (or lack of it) and death. There is a conceptual complexity and vigor to the novel that, unfortunately, I’m not entirely convinced is matched by the reading experience in the translation I read.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Bell

Not quite ten years ago now I read Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea (1978) and loved it. Since then, I’ve read her first novel, Under the Net (1954), and now The Bell (1958), and I’m finding it hard to get the same enchantment. In the case of Under the Net in particular, Murdoch seems to have just been writing a different (more comedic) kind of novel—I enjoyed it to an extent, but what I had loved about The Sea, the Sea was its depth as a not-wholly-reliable character study.

The Bell fits somewhere between the two: there is a third person distance that allows the narrator to slip between the minds of a few primary characters and offer a little mild comedy in the portrayal of the lay religious community at Imber, but there is a deeper philosophical interest that broadens out the minds of the three primary characters. The novel gives us entry to Imber by way of Dora, a woman unhappy in her marriage but nonetheless returning to her husband while he is immersed in Imber doing historical research with books at the Abbey that Imber organizes itself around. Another outsider, Toby Gashe, has chosen to visit Imber for the summer before he begins college at Oxford. And, to round out the primary trio, Michael Meade runs the lay community and owns the estate on which it exists. Murdoch uses the trio to meditate on sex and religion as interlinked but distinct issues. Dora feels pressure to play the role of the errant wife redeemed, while Michael struggles to reconcile his long-standing desire to become a priest with his equally long-standing desire to sleep with men. Toby is a sort of innocent who enjoys the world and his time at Imber until he gets wrapped up romantically with first Michael, then Dora.

As I read, I kept finding myself frustrated that I found several things simply unbelievable. Michael is the most convincing of the lot in the portrayal of the kind of conflict between religion and sex that plagues him; he is the kind of old school gay character that some contemporary readers might dislike because his story doesn’t end in a triumphant coming out, but whose confusion and uncertain ending reflect tensions that many gay people still live with. A central problem is Toby: a lot of the psychological tension of the plot revolves around his sudden entry into the world of sexual desire. His confusion and fumbling once that happens work well enough, but it is really very hard to imagine someone his age not already being very more aware of desire than he is early in the novel. He is just a little too naïve and carefree to be believable.

I found the particular ways in which Dora’s drama acted out equally unconvincing. Dora, it is established early on, is given to sudden acts of generosity, and it seems to be one of her few saving graces except that it is also what apparently leads her to make key “mistakes.” It is unclear to me how we are supposed to read this. On one side, the community (and far more her husband) frowns on her behavior in a way that comes across as stifling. However, the climactic action of the novel (I won’t reveal it here) turns around one of her moments of inspiration and desire to surprise others, and the overwhelming idea that everyone in the novel seems to accept—and Dora seems to come to realize—is that it is a huge mistake that will embarrass the community at Imber, which it in fact ends up doing. I felt like I was missing something here: Dora’s plan, while it seems unlikely to work, does not actually seem to me like something that would embarrass anyone. Indeed, if she pulled it off it could be quite impressive, and even failing it would end with a revelation that would likely excite everyone involved. Sure, people’s sense of impropriety can be irrational, but it usually has some tie to culture and class that I can’t identify here.

The novel does have its moments: many of the interior monologues of the characters are compelling, and there are scenes—like Toby’s encounter with a nun, Dora’s walk with Michael, and the group’s walk to check the bird traps—that are beautifully executed. Still, overall the motivations and characterizations driving the plot seemed every-so-slightly askew, and that often kept me from really jumping into the text.