At the center of Martin Clark’s comic legal thriller Plain Heathen Mischief is Joel King, a fallen preacher from Roanoke, Virginia, who got in a little too deep with a young female parishioner. After a stint in jail, and facing a broken marriage and a life gone to shambles, Joel is taken under the wing of Edmund Brooks, one of Joel’s former flock, a mysterious man whose dealings we quickly learn are rarely on the level. “I work the sag,” Edmund explains, “Sag’s the sneaky tax and the holdback and the cushion and the reserve and the contingency and the ‘ol thumb on the scale.” It’s a whole lot of other things, too, but we soon discover that for Edmund, “working the sag” is mostly insurance fraud. Joel relocates to his sister’s in Missoula, Montana, but by then, vulnerable and destitute, he has already been roped into Edmund’s schemes. Edmund’s co-conspirator is a Las Vegas lawyer of the slickest sort, Sa’ad X. Sa’ad, a smooth-talking con-man. Mischief would have been mundane as a straight thriller, but there’s a comic aspect to the book that keeps it entertaining. The three co-conspirators play tough, each in his own way, but to certain degree they’re each doing little more than playing the part of gangster, and part of the fun of reading this book is seeing through their big talk. Eventually the schemes and scams pile on top of one another and things spiral out of control, and while he has written Joel as an, at times, infuriatingly delusional character, Clark does a great job of untangling the Mischief in the end.
To read one of George Saunders’ stories is to gain a glimpse into an antic, often frightening, just-slightly-shifted alternative world. To read a George Saunders collection is to discover the human sorrow his stories plumb. Reading Pastoralia was something of a revelation for me because, though I’ve read many of Saunders’ stories before, I had never dug into one of his collections and had not appreciated the full force of reading several of his stories back to back. As an aside, this would be an argument in favor of short story collections, which, well constructed and edited, should bring on a “greater than the sum of its parts” reaction in the reader.In the case of Pastoralia, Saunders’ characters are, as ever, pathetic, trapped in soul-sucking existences, with demeaning jobs and dysfunctional relationships. What elevates Saunders’ stories from what might be depressing muck is his eye for detail and his dry (almost deranged) wit. In the long title story that opens the collection, we peek in on the world of a caveman impersonator. Imagine if the life size caveman diorama at your local natural history museum were populated by actors, and you get the idea. That sounds bad enough, but Saunders overlays the world of corporate bureaucracy and buzzword double-speak onto this “edutainment” scenario. The “actors” are as much prisoners as they are employees.But this is not 1984 or The Matrix. Saunders’ characters do not conform to the typical occupants of dystopias – millions of buzzing drones and a handful of “enlightened” struggling against the status quo. He offers characters, who are, well, like us.In the story “Pastoralia,” we have a guy with a mind-numbing job (fake caveman), not enough money, a sick kid at home, coworkers that range from annoying to malicious, and a company in the throes of an “employee remixing.” This sounds more like someone who spends his days stocking shelves at Wal-Mart or temping at a cubicle farm than the gray and black Big Brother, robot-controlled nightmare of the future that has always been offered as civilization’s worst case scenario.And this is what is so subversive about Saunders. He essentially is telling us that we are living in that worst case scenario, in the dystopia that we have been taught to fear and fight against. But he does so with such humor and well crafted detail that there is none of the didacticism that one my might expect from such a point of view. Saunders is no raving Luddite, instead he has the ability to highlight the absurd minutia of modern life that we typically ignore or take for granted: the “Daily Partner Performance Evaluation Form,” the “fax makes the sound it makes when a fax is coming in,” “Stars-n-Flags… They put sugar in the sauce and sugar in the meat nuggets,” “Cute Ratings,” “Credit Calcs,” and “Personal Change Centers.”If our dystopia hasn’t already arrived, then we are perilously close to it. And whether or not you choose to look for these parallels, consumed without prejudice, Saunders’ stories are well crafted and utterly readable. I found myself careening through, hungry for the next off-kilter detail and scenario. I finished the book thinking that Saunders is a worthy chronicler of modern life.
I first heard about Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd about twenty years ago, when I was in seventh or eighth grade. My classmates and I were all reading Stephen King and Dean R. Koontz, and our English teacher attempted to guide our reading choices to higher-brow material.”I think it’s great that you’re all reading so much,” she said. “But when you’re choosing books to read, try to read classics.” She mentioned, for example, that she had recently read Far From the Madding Crowd while recovering from surgery.I had no intention of abandoning King or Koontz, but I did check out a copy of Hardy’s novel from the public library. I tried to read it but didn’t get far. The first two paragraphs had enough unfamiliar vocabulary and tonal foreignness to repel me as a thirteen-year-old:When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.His Christian name was Gabriel, and on working days he was a young man of sound judgment, easy motions, proper dress, and general good character. On Sundays he was a man of misty views, rather given to postponing, and hampered by his best clothes and umbrella: upon the whole, one who felt himself to occupy morally that vast middle space of Laodicean neutrality which lay between the Communion people and the drunken section.It took me ten years to try another Hardy novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which I read and loved after my first year as an English teacher myself. The pleasures afforded by Hardy’s fiction, I realized, require patience, a more mature appreciation of language, wider knowledge of the adult world, and a sense of the past. (Google is helpful, too, in deciphering Hardy’s obscure mythological and Biblical references.)This summer, as I picked up Far From the Madding Crowd for another go, I was better equipped to appreciate Hardy’s wryly delicate humor in passages like the following: “It may have been observed that there is no regular path for getting out of love as there is for getting in. Some people look upon marriage as a short cut that way, but it has been known to fail.”Funny – and, indeed, as in Tess and The Return of the Native, in this novel Hardy concerns himself with love’s entanglements. Bathsheba Everdene, a young and imperious beauty, named for the woman who occasioned King David’s sinful plotting, finds herself involved not in a romantic triangle, but a romantic quadrilateral, as three men vie for her affections. Their names, like hers, are evocative of their identities: Oak, the solid shepherd; Boldwood, the increasingly audacious farmer; and the Troy, the scoundrel as fallen as the citadel that is his namesake.There’s a reason that the romantic triangle is such a commonly-used fictional device: it has a geometric elegance, a pointedness that keeps a story moving. The romantic quadrilateral is harder to make work. Hardy does it well enough that 135 years later people are still reading the book. Compared to later works like Tess and Native, though, this one – the earliest of Hardy’s best – known novels – is a bit of a disappointment.For one thing, it lacks a narrative center. This romantic quadrilateral is nothing so neat as a square or a rectangle. It’s more ungainly – an irregular trapezoid, perhaps. It’s difficult work to set up three suitors in a reasonably rounded way, and while Hardy’s developing one, the other two tend to fade to the background. In the end, the male characters come perilously close to being as wooden as their names or, in Troy’s case, a bit too starkly villainous.At times the plot’s contrivances seem arbitrary, meant to force the narrative (originally published serially in a magazine) in its intended direction without especial regard for plausibility: Oak lies down in an apparently abandoned wagon, whose owners return and just so happen to be heading to Bathsheba’s farm; Troy nearly drowns and, believed dead, runs off to America to join the circus for a convenient span of time, returning just when his presence will cause the most upheaval.Bathsheba herself, vain, proud, described by one of the men who marries her as “this haughty goddess, dashing piece of womanhood, Juno-wife of mine,” seems to be a rough draft for Eustacia Vye, the more famous heroine of Hardy’s Return of the Native. Eustacia (a favorite of Holden Caulfield’s, you may recall) is, in Hardy’s description, “the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would have done well,” he writes, for “she had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not quite a model woman.” In comparison to Eustacia, Bathsheba is too kind, too mortal, and less vivid.In other ways, too, Madding seems a rough draft of Native, which arranges its characters not in a triangle or quadrilateral, but in overlapping Venn diagrams of desire. In both novels, some characters come to tragic ends, some are seared by their experiences but survive, chastened but wiser. Return of the Native was published in 1878, four years after Far From the Madding Crowd, and in most ways it’s a better book. It has a sharper sense of place; a more forceful narrative arc; more emotionally weighty and realistic plot turns; and, despite a rather tedious beginning in which backstory is provided by the gossip of eccentric country folk, less of such stock characters, whose humorousness has not aged well.I guess you could say that my eighth grade teacher gave me a bad recommendation. After all these years, finally reading this novel was a bit anticlimactic. But in the larger sense, she was right: King and Koontz may have been fine for my adolescence, but ultimately they were bridges to more ambitious reading projects. My teacher’s offhanded remark about Hardy stuck with me, giving me a sense of the rewarding places to which those bridges might lead. Though I might have skipped this particular novel without much of a loss, Hardy’s best work is definitely worth the journey.
Ulysses is the literary equivalent of Angkor Wat or Machu Picchu or any of the world’s other great, beautiful, challenging locations. Just as there are guides, travelogues and travel television shows designed to communicate a flavor of those locations while providing the traveler with the tools needed to actually visit them, there are guides and books hoping to create readers of Ulysses while providing those readers with the tools needed to actually read and appreciate it. There are Gifford’s Annotated Ulysses, Blamire’s New Bloomsday Book, Kiberd’s Ulysses and Us, and many more guides, skeleton keys, and potential philosophical structures.
The House of Ulysses by Julian Rios isn’t exactly a guide or skeleton key to Ulysses, though it does offer short summaries of the episodes. Nor is does it provide a direct intellectual structure for understanding Ulysses, though it certainly intellectually investigates Ulysses. Rather, House is a critical novel, or novelistic criticism, or some other mixture of the actions of creation and interpretation. The House of Ulysses is essentially a book club novel with six speakers; “the Circeone” who leads the group, the silent “Macintosh,” a man whose Mac laptop displays information about the episode in question and who is a reference to one of the mysteries of Ulysses, “Professor Jones,” and “The mature reader (did she call him Ananias?), the young female reader (Babel or Belle?), and the old critic. Let’s call them A, B, and C, for short.”
The House moves episode by episode through Ulysses with “the Cicerone” presenting the plot, historical context, and some of the many subtle threads of details that weave through the work, with “Passageways” sections in which the speakers discuss the episodes. Though “discuss” might not be the right term as the speakers rarely directly respond to each other. Instead, they pile observations, critical insights, questions, philosophical flights of fancy, non-sequitorial conclusions, and bombast into a babbling tower of interpretation. At times the “discussion” is almost a vaudeville act; one could imagine the speakers participating in the intellectual equivalent of the exchanging of hats from Waiting for Godot.
Though the discussions never lead to anything on the same continent as a conclusion, they contain some of the best criticism about Ulysses I’ve ever read. Whatever else can be said about House, Rios gets Ulysses at a level that allows him to encapsulate its spirit and core in single statements. “…and it was also a way of referring to the secret unity of literature through ages and culture.” “The revelations and knowledge emerge gradually, said A, as is so often the case in cities.” “Ambiguity through contiguity.” “Imitates and dynamites such enormities, so many delusions of past grandeur.” “Words are the real hallucinogens here.”
One way to describe Ulysses is as a novel of mundane details, like the feeding of a cat, a forgotten tuning fork, and bad advertising copy. Rios uses the “discussion” to elucidate many of the subtle details and connections in Ulysses. “[Stephen] could have used those two pennies to settle the debt with the poor dairymaid.” “We could also imagine as crossed the two keys Stephen and Bloom have left behind; the one for the Martello Tower, the other for 7 Eccles Street.” “Another throwaway—Jacob for Elijah escaping in his chariot.”
The obvious question raised by a book like this is: “What if you haven’t read Ulysses?” What if you don’t know about the dairymaid, the ad for the House of Keyes, or Throwaway the winner of the Gold Cup horse race? Unfortunately, House does not have enough content independent of Ulysses to be read and enjoyed by someone who hasn’t read Ulysses. It has speakers, but no characters, and statements, but no plot. Its jokes are all inside jokes. For his part, Rios seems perfectly comfortable with writing to this particular audience, focusing his prose more on the critical than on the narrative components of his novel.
Ultimately, this means that House of Ulysses should be approached as criticism even if it uses techniques of fiction to convey its ideas. Ulysses is a dramatic expression of the relationship between life and literature through ambitious experiments in narrative style and method. So it makes sense for criticism about Ulysses to experiment with styles of interpretation. Doing so allows the critic to explore and celebrate multiple levels of Ulysses within the same act of interpretation; elucidating details, making connections, and describing themes, while experimenting with the nature of communicating interpretation and thus directly engaging Ulysses’ statements on the nature of style.
I was left with one dominant effect from reading The House of Ulysses; the desire to read Ulysses again. There are readers who have decided they will simply not read Ulysses, and no one will convince them. There are readers who haven’t ruled it out, but Rios won’t convince them. There are those who have it on the list, and when they get to it, Rios and his House will be there to deepen their reading. But the readers who will get the most out of the novel are those whose familiarity with Ulysses will allow them to appreciate Rios’s criticism. Criticism has a number of different goals, and one of them is to motivate a reader to return to the source text with new eyes. In terms of this goal alone, The House of Ulysses is a brilliant work of criticism, one that reveals without dictating, written in the spirit of the source work, with a sense of humor and a profound love of literature.