Some of you may know that I’m currently up to my ears in grad school applications. Luckily, posting on The Millions has a salutary effect on me, and also, I just finished a book, so I need to write about it. Jamesland opens with Alice, great-granddaughter of philosopher William James, having an odd waking dream of a deer in her house. Alice fixates on the deer as a portent of a coming change in her life, and the very next day her life begins to change slowly and inexorably. The book does not dwell on the supernatural, though it does have a bemused dialogue with the otherworldly throughout. Mostly it is about three forty-somethings whose social and professional lives are deteriorating and reconfiguring. I’d call it a mid-life crisis, but these characters have that quality, peculiar to Californians, of being youthful, unserious adults. The book is mostly set on the East Side of Los Angeles in neighborhoods that I know well. It was great to read a book that addresses a somewhat larger Los Angeles than usual. Movie stars are around, and Hollywood is nearby, but they are just parts of the great stew of the city, things that are noticed but after a while not accorded any greater importance than things like Griffith Park or the LA River. The only other book that I have read that successfully turns LA’s flashy side into just another bit of peripheral scenery is T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. Huneven is well-known in Los Angeles as the food critic for the LA Weekly, and the way she writes about food in this book is magnificent. Pete (who along with Helen, a modern sort of minister, are the other two wayward adults) is a former near-celebrity chef who is recovering from a nervous breakdown, suicide attempt combo. His character is both abrasive and charming, the type of person who makes you nervous the moment he steps into the room. As he coaxes himself back into the functioning world, he takes up cooking again, and this is the venue for Huneven’s descriptions of foods. It was nice to see that Huneven did not place this book firmly in the world of food and restaurants in the way that many writers tend to crib from their day jobs. Instead, Huneven manages to weave her knowledge skillfully into the larger narrative. The book itself is a rather satisfying meal, best taken over a few languorous days on a sunny balcony or sitting on a park bench.
At the bottom of Ian McEwan’s new novel The Children Act, a brisk tour of the English family courts, is the same bitter pill the writer has been mulling over since his early work, refusing to swallow. A youthful and artistic idealism must be sacrificed to responsible administration. In The Cement Garden, McEwan’s first novel, a house of orphaned adolescents ward off government services for a time by storing their mother’s body in an elaborately cemented trunk kept in the basement. But this doesn’t eliminate the need for those children to implement grotesque variations on the lost parental order. The state’s eagerness to do more — to midwife the parents — is in turn skewered by The Child In Time’s mammothly dysfunctional Official Commission on Child Care, the recommendations by its 14 subcommittees always mired in political and commercial interests, its members plagued by personal tragedies.
For McEwan, neither the citizens nor the bureaucrats seem up to their end of the social contract, which is why the impersonal law persists to safeguard the sovereignty of individuals in the private, domestic sphere while protecting victims from those who abuse their parental privileges. To be a grown-up worthy of commanding the law is truly a higher, almost divine, calling. So McEwan, stalking secret wellsprings of authority through steady production in five decades, tilts his frame from the easy drama of arguing attorneys to the fallible hand that hands down the judgment. Even a discipline as seemingly objective as Nobel-level physics, as witnessed in Solar, could decay into a Ponzi scheme with the right human contamination. The trendy sociologists in that book, explaining how the discovery of a specific gene or subatomic particle was socially constructed, were supposed to be academic court jesters. McEwan continues to demonstrate how similar social truths can best be delivered elegantly by a novelist.
In The Children Act, High Court Judge Fiona Maye, 59, is highly esteemed and remains invigorated by the cases passing through her Family Division, each exotic claim and novel circumstance “assimilated at speed.” She believes in her work and considers it “a significant marker in civilization’s progress” that the law favors the needs of children over their parents, as coded in the statute that lends the novel its name. The law is an esoteric language, a forbidden fruit whose knowledge causes litigants to lapse. “Parents soon learned the new vocabulary and patient procedures of the law, and were dazed to find themselves in vicious combat with the one they once loved.” After 35 years, Fiona’s marriage is stagnating, and her husband Jack, a Classics professor, candidly asks her permission to pursue an affair with a 28-year-old statistician, Melanie. When he leaves, she changes the locks.
McEwan tailors his sentences for each book, but tends toward Jamesean intricacy, rigging each clause with multiple detonations of meaning. Here is McEwan introducing Solar’s physicist, Michael Beard:
He belonged to that class of men — vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever — who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women. Or he believed he was, and thinking seemed to make it so. And it helped that some women believed he was a genius in need of rescue.
This plume of competing impressions — physical details and projected airs — is anchored by the storyteller’s pretense to contain his man and pin him to a type. Beard’s elusiveness makes him seem more real. In The Children Act, McEwan uses a closer third-person that mimics Fiona as she coolly itemizes the relevant facts in one of her cases, or in the marital ordeal that consumes more and more of her attention:
Her days were full, and in the evenings recently, various dinners…and taxis, Tube trains, dry-cleaning to collect, a letter to draft about a special school for the cleaning lady’s autistic son, and finally sleep. Where was the sex? At that moment, she couldn’t recall.
Tracks often switch mid-paragraph. Self-pity in others embarrasses the judge, but she can’t help but feel victimized by the ruthless decision her husband makes in favor of a fling. Out of all her courtroom experience, Fiona observes kindness as the “essential human ingredient.” She can sometimes pursue this one humanist virtue in the law by using it to save a child from an unkind parent. The problem is that kindness is voluntary, unwarranted by law.
Circumstance can also prohibit kindness by forcing the choice between two evils. Fiona is still haunted by a famous case of Siamese twins, which left her to decide between a surgery that would result in the death of one brother and letting both die by doing nothing. She cites the trauma of this decision as a turning point, when sensual pleasure between herself and Jack ceased. The case that takes up the bulk of The Children Act offers a medical solution, but to get there Fiona must first grapple with religious fundamentalism. Adam, a cancer-stricken teenage Jehovah’s Witness, refuses a lifesaving blood transfusion. He is 17, not 18, but can be ruled responsible for his elected martyrdom by a standard he easily exceeds.
The judge and the novelist are interesting analogues. McEwan already offered a look in the narrative kitchen with Black Dogs, a literary son-in-law sniffing out one side, then the other, of an estranged marriage that withered away with Communism. As an allegory, the compassionate wife and the sharp-minded husband served as the synthesis absent from Communism’s historical moment, but they could just as easily stand for the two best sides of Fiona. She is entirely credulous about the law. She’s made it her fate. And she can play it like the baby grand that sits in her living room, jazzing up her judgments with Aristotle and John Stuart Mill.
The Children Act is light by McEwan’s standards. It arrives at big questions too easily. Its simplicity nonetheless exposes the limitations set on a society that sees only in laws and how to profit from them. Fiona expresses a typical cynicism when we are given her impressions of a pervasive greed. The children become counters in a game, and every petty grievance is a money grab. Contrasting this “moral kitsch” is an alien display of substance that logically slides toward self-annihilation. Fiona determines that she needs to visit Adam in the hospital in order to rule, and finds that he’s only too aware of the consequences of his conviction. He is intelligent, charismatic, brave, and shows ambition, if not promise, as a poet and violinist. Is moderation even possible?
Fiona is reminded by her many nieces and nephews of just how much of her own life her ambitions have gobbled up. What shines through her legal mastery is McEwan’s commitment to a clear-eyed reckoning of the forces at play in his world, even his own circle, whether through a bitter divorce or the zealous death threats leveled at fellow-writer and friend Salman Rushdie. To remain a prominent, serious novelist in this culture — and not merely among novelists — requires a certain level of engagement with the headlines, and maybe a certain accent. What keeps McEwan afloat is an almost callow ambition sustained, from book to book, by an amateur’s curiosity.
In winter of 1814, British sailors recorded seeing “clouds of ashes” at the peak of Mount Tambora, a volcanic mountain in the East Indies. A few months later, in the spring of 1815, Tambora exploded with huge, jet-like flames, a column of fire known as a “Plinian” eruption, after Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. But Tambora burned hotter than Vesuvius, and it was so powerful that it ejected rock, ash, and other materials into the stratosphere, where they remained suspended, wreaking havoc on global weather patterns for the next three years. 1816 was known as “The Year Without Summer”—a relatively mild title for a year that brought famine, disease, and poverty. In the United States, there was snow in June, destroying crops and bringing the country’s first economic depression. In Ireland and China, unremitting rains flooded fields; while in India, monsoon season never arrived. Bacteria flourished in these stagnant, impoverished conditions, and outbreaks of typhus and cholera can be traced back to that dreary, volcanic winter.
I learned these and many other historical details from Gillen D’arcy Wood’s Tambora: The Eruption That Changed The World. Tambora is a new book, but one I discovered haphazardly, through that great portal of haphazardness: Wikipedia. I was fact-checking an overwrought simile (re: procrastinating) and landed on the Wikipedia entry for Frankenstein, where I learned that the great fictional monster was the indirect result of “The Year Without Summer.” I’d never heard of “The Year Without Summer” and in its addictive way, Wikipedia provided a link to an article on the subject, which in turn provided a link to the 1815 Eruption of Mount Tambora, which in turn provided a link to the Pacific Ring of Fire, which in turn led to an article about plate tectonics, which in turn led to a page about super-Earths, which in turn led me to wonder about the origin of the universe and what is the meaning of life on Earth, which I believe is that state of existential confusion to which all Wikipedia rabbit holes eventually lead. I am grateful that on this particular foray, it only took six steps—and also, of course, that it led me to read Tambora, which gave me a glimpse into a startlingly dramatic period in history.
To get back to “The Year Without Summer” (which at this point in July sounds like a marvelous situation) and the creation of Frankenstein, you must transport yourself to a storm-lashed villa on Switzerland’s Lake Geneva. There, sitting in front of a roaring fire, is Percy Shelley, Mary soon-to-be-Shelley Godwin, Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, Lord Byron, and also, Lord Byron’s doctor (whose presence is somewhat irrelevant, but who I will include, anyway, in the spirit of Wikipedia). This privileged, literary bunch has been driven indoors by unseasonably cold weather, driving rain, and spectacular thunderstorms—all due to Mount Tambora, although of course they don’t know it. Bored and perhaps tired of reciting poetry, they decide to have a contest for who can tell the best ghost story. Mary’s late entry is a tale about a student, Victor Frankenstein, who discovers how to bring life to inanimate material. Frankenstein uses this power to create an eight-foot tall “creature” who is never given a name, but who eventually kills Frankenstein’s wife and escapes to the North Pole. It’s not a ghost story but a monster story, one inspired by Shelley’s extensive readings into science and myth.
Wood argues that Frankenstein was also inspired by the stormy, Tambora-induced weather, and that “the pyrotechnical lightning displays” raging outside Shelley’s villa windows were written into the novel. He cites a passage from Frankenstein in which a teenaged Victor Frankenstein witnesses an oak tree catching fire after being struck by lightning: “As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak, which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared and nothing remained but a blasted stump.” This is Frankenstein’s moment of inspiration, or as Wood writes: “In the fierce smithy of that Tamborean storm, Frankenstein is born as the anti-superhero of modernity—the ‘Modern Prometheus’—stealer of the gods’ fire.”
That small extract gives a taste of Wood’s prose style, which can veer toward over-the-top, but one of the things I liked about Tambora was its generous dose of literary criticism. Not only does Wood mention the influence of Tambora’s volcanic weather on Frankenstein, he also writes about the ways that Shelley’s 1826 post-apocalyptic novel, The Last Man, may have been inspired by the cholera epidemic that emerged in the wake of Tambora. Wood also discusses the poetry of Shelley’s fireside companions, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley; and in his chapter on China, Wood quotes from the verse of Li Yuyang, who chronicled the heavy rains and flooding that came as a result of Tambora: Rain falls unending, like tears of blood/from the sentimental man/Horses sink and shudder/like fish in the rippling water. Reporting on the effects of Tambora on America, Wood turns to the writings of Thomas Jefferson, whose Edenic vision of America and in particular, his home state of Virginia, was challenged by the inexplicably cold weather brought on by Tambora. Even more challenging was the real estate bubble and economic depression that followed The Year Without Summer, thanks to what we would probably now characterize as “fluctuations in the global marketplace.”
Today, we understand very well how the weather affects local, and even global economics. (And in fact, while I was reading Tambora, I heard a radio story on NPR’s Marketplace about the ill-effects of this past long winter on the American economy.) We may also have a better understanding of how the weather, and in particular severe weather, affects literary imagination. It doesn’t take an especially sensitive critic to link the recent popularity of post-apocalyptic novels to headlines like “Climate Change Deemed Growing Security Threat By Military” and “In Sign of Warming, 1,600 Years of Ice in Andes Melts in 25 Years.” But the extent to which the human imagination can actually understand and foresee global environmental change is harder to gauge. It’s telling that many post-apocalyptic novels focus on the survival of an individual or a family or perhaps a very small group of people. The story has to be scaled down, otherwise the prospect of a post-apocalyptic future is too big, or maybe just too depressing, to imagine.
With Tambora, Wood doesn’t have to imagine anything—or maybe it’s fairer to say that he doesn’t have to make anything up. He frequently has to imagine what it would have been like to experience extreme weather, disease, and famine, without any scientific understanding of why it is happening. Wood acknowledges this problem in his preface: “The formidable, occasionally mind-bending challenge in writing this book has been to trace cataclysmic world events the cause of which the historical actors themselves were ignorant.” He sees the eruption of Tambora and its devastating after-effects as a case study for rapid climate change, arguing that the years post-Tambora offer “a rare, clear window onto a world convulsed by weather extremes, with human communities everywhere struggling to adapt to sudden, radical shifts in temperatures and rainfall.” Wood further argues that the influence of Tambora on this period of history has been overlooked because “the Tamborean climate emergency followed hard upon the devastations of the Napoleonic Wars and has always remained in the shadows of that epochal conflict.” I like that Wood uses the word “epochal” to characterize the importance of the Napoleonic Wars, because an epoch is also a unit of geological time and seems to hint at the irony that Wood is exposing: human societies have been mostly profoundly shaped by environmental factors thousands of years in the making, yet we continue to look to recent historical events (usually wars engineered by Great Men) to understand our predicament.
When was the last time you read something from the humor section? It’s probably been a while. If memory serves, that particular bookstore ghetto is filled with quickly dated political humor, books of redneck jokes, and similar diversions: Books some people might buy as gifts for non-readers, but never for themselves. Others wisely steer clear of the section altogether. As such, it’s possible that people have gone through their reading lives without happening upon a book like Woody Allen’s Without Feathers.Though Woody Allen, of course, remains a household name because of his films, readers of my generation may not be aware that he is an equally accomplished humorist and his work was collected in a trio of books in the 1970s. Without Feathers was published in 1972, but 34 years later it remains hilarious.The book contains an assortment of sketches, often take-offs of scholarly writings, like “Early Essays” which references Francis Bacon’s Essays, in which Allen observes that “The chief problem about death, incidentally, is the fear that there is no afterlife – a depressing thought, particularly for those who have bothered to shave.” Allen also returns again and again to words and phrases that he finds funny for whatever reason, like “chives,” “herring,” “smelts,” and having a hat “blocked.” The book also includes a pair of manic, absurd plays, “Death” and “God.”It’s hard for me to describe how funny this book was except to say that it may be one of the funniest books I have ever read. I kept Mrs. Millions awake because I kept guffawing as I read it. Instead of taking my word for it, though, here’s a particularly funny tidbit from the first chapter, “Selections from Mr. Allen’s Notebook”:Play idea: a character based on my father, but without quite so prominent a big toe. He is sent to the Sorbonne to study the harmonica. In the end he dies, never realizing his one dream — to sit up to his waist in gravy. (I see a brilliant second-act curtain, where two midgets come upon a severed head in a shipment of volleyballs.)Bonus Link: Millions contributor Andrew’s look at Without Feathers and Allen’s other two collections, Getting Even and Side Effects.