Welcome to a very special episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! In a holiday-themed installment that’s sure to become an instant classic of weekly Internet shows sponsored by literary websites, Janet and Michael celebrate the end of the year the way they always have: with trivia and regret.
Discussed in this episode: tours de force, Geek Sublime by Vikram Chandra, Monstrous Affections: An Anthology of Beastly Tales edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant, An Untamed State by Roxane Gay, Constance by Patrick McGrath, Joyce Carol Oates, Woody Allen, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Benedict Cumberbatch, emoji, Guns N’ Roses, Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs, Dracula by Bram Stoker, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, regrets, 10:04 by Ben Lerner, Jeff VanderMeer, The Fever by Megan Abbott, minor traffic incidents.
Discussed in this episode, but cut for time: Guy Clark, Jason Diamond, Emmylou Harris, the city of Memphis, cricket bats, Oy, I’m Right Knackered, Innit? by Zadie Smith, Gerald Ford, whiskers on kittens, cream-colored ponies, snowflakes.
Not discussed in this episode: “Sister Christian” by Night Ranger. But why not?
Joyce Carol Oates turned 75 years old yesterday, and she’s now writing some of the best fiction of her career. More than any other American novelist of her generation, Oates has been ruthless in questioning her obsessions. Constantly experimenting with different styles, situations, and characters, she has refused to settle into a fixed viewpoint, either toward herself or other people. We recognize the Oates world of physical and psychological violence when we read her, but there has never been anything complacent in her vision. She doesn’t romanticize violence in the way Mailer or Hemingway do. She also doesn’t romanticize victimhood, even if victims of aggression are key figures in many of her works. We’ll probably never know exactly what happened to Oates when she was young, though books like Son of the Morning, with its nightmarish gang rape, give us some disturbing clues. But whatever it is that powers her writing, she races on, making mistakes and learning from them, relentless in her pursuit of each new novel. In Virginia Woolf’s terms, Oates has put as much of her art down on the page as possible, has expressed herself completely, achieving “the prodigious effort of freeing whole and entire” the work that is in her.
In her latest novel, The Accursed, the characters hunger to eat the people around them, and sometimes hunger to be eaten in turn. The hunger thrives on the mutual incomprehension between husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, ministers and anarchists, journalists and university presidents, blacks and whites, artists and propagandists, social reformers and politicians. The novel repeatedly demonstrates how, despite our best intentions, we can fall in love with our ignorance, the compulsions that blind and fulfill us. Our appetites are terrible and destructive, but they also drive us toward whatever flawed, incomplete actions we might take — only to force us, in the end, to discover we’ve advanced the worst in us along with the best. Consummation is something to be feared and desired.
Our urge to feed on others is built into the novel’s prose. The narrator, M.W. van Dyck II, is writing the book in 1984. Van Dyck is a man in his late-seventies, with many of the prejudices of someone from his time and place. Oates doesn’t, however, spend the novel scoring cheap points against him. Instead, we often have a hard time separating his self-deceptions from his insights. Oates doesn’t want us to feel superior to van Dyck. She wants us to see that his flaws aren’t so different from ours. Our convictions might not age any better than his have.
Van Dyck claims to offer us his research on the Curse, a series of “mysterious, seemingly linked events occurring in, and in the vicinity of, Princeton, New Jersey, in the approximate years 1900-1910.” Yet he admits his account is a stylized distillation. The multiple “histories” of the events, he says, “have been condensed into a single ‘history’ as a decade of time has been condensed, for purposes of aesthetic unity, to a period of approximately fourteen months in 1905-1906.” Is he an unreliable narrator who doesn’t see how far he strays from the facts? Or a strangely reliable narrator who deliberately draws our attention to the fictions we impose on our experiences? He’s both, and the tension between these possibilities extends to every person in the story, and to the entire world of the novel, which is constantly shifting before our eyes.
Van Dyck’s voice is only one among the many voices he gives us, from diaries, coded journals, a deathbed confession, the text of a blasphemous sermon. All of the speakers are determined to have their say against the words of the people who come into conflict with them. What’s at stake isn’t just the interpretation of the Curse but the question of whether the men and women in the novel have wasted their lives. Their struggles mean more to them than they feel others can understand, and Oates catches them in the act of trying to impose that meaning everywhere they go. As usual, Oates is in thrall to her characters without being limited to any single viewpoint or any specific type of figure. She immerses herself as passionately in Marilyn Monroe in Blonde as she does in the reckless businessman Corky Corcoran in What I Lived For, the lawyer in Do With Me What You Will, the wife in American Appetites, the evangelist in Son of the Morning, the leader of the girl gang in Foxfire, the alcoholic father in We Were the Mulvaneys. No single person in The Accursed stands out as strongly as Corky Corcoran or Legs Sadovsky or Michael Mulvaney do. In compensation, though, this is the Oates novel that best displays her range, her feel for the pressures we all exert on each other.
2. The Bog Kingdom
The plot of The Accursed is a parody of a Gothic horror story, a mash-up of Dracula with samples from Hawthorne’s greatest hits. We get the spreading consequences of passed-down sin from The Marble Faun and The House of the Seven Gables, the guilty conscience of Dimmesdale and the communal punishment of Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter, the problematic utopianism of Brook Farm and the rebelliousness of Zenobia from The Blithedale Romance. At first the novel seems to promise merely a mock romance, a reaction against Twilight-style sentimentality. Quickly, however, we enter a far-reaching meditation on history, class, racism, politics, religion, business, and power, involving a wide array of characters and settings. Though nearly 700 pages long, and despite its intricate collage of documents and viewpoints, the story moves with Oates’s characteristic deftness. The Accursed has a striking tone of playful seriousness, the exhilaration that comes from a writer who knows she’s doing a major book and knows she’s doing it well.
The Dracula figure is Axson Mayte. He ruins the reputation of Annabel Slade on the day of her wedding to another man. She is with Mayte for a short time, becomes pregnant, dies in childbirth.
But the facts of Annabel’s seduction are unclear. The gossip-mongers in Princeton see Mayte as a demonic aristocrat who holds a vampire-like sway over women. But did Mayte kidnap Annabel or did she simply decide to walk out on her wedding?
The question becomes more urgent when Annabel returns to her family and gives birth to Mayte’s child. Before the birth, she allegedly makes a confession to her brother about her experiences in Mayte’s home, the surreal Bog Kingdom. The Bog Kingdom is an anti-sexual version of a Gothic estate. It strips the Gothic conventions of their plush eroticism: for Mayte, seduction contains no love or passion but only a cold, bored, exhausted exercise of power. The Bog Kingdom is all about turning everyone to food and waste, with the emphasis on the waste. Annabel quickly learns she is meant to be used up by Mayte and his drinking companions, and then thrown in the marsh with Mayte’s other dead brides. The dying women in Mayte’s harem are held in rooms for horrific medical experiments, or function as broken-down manual laborers. Mayte and his men soon lose interest in raping Annabel and make her a servant-girl. As they eat cannibal sandwiches, “raw beefsteak that leaked blood down their chins,” they jab Annabel’s pregnant belly with their elbows. Then she is exiled to the cellar-crew. She must bail out the sewage from the cesspool, through “the continuous emptying-out of buckets, hour after hour, day following day.”
What are we to make of this bizarre confession? Is this really Annabel’s voice? Her words reach us through at least two degrees of warping — first from her brother, who hates Mayte, and then from van Dyck, who has a complicated relationship to the Bog Kingdom story. Is the story Annabel’s crazed version of a more conventional seduction-and-abandonment, the result of her mind being broken by Mayte’s cruelty? Or do the exaggerations come from her brother, who turns increasingly unstable as the novel goes on? Moreover, what do the exaggerations reveal? Is the vision of the Bog Kingdom the brother’s revenge on Annabel for damaging her family’s reputation? Is the monstrous image of Mayte a puritanical fairy tale, a warning to all Princeton women against following their desires?
Oates won’t allow us any easy answers. Instead, she develops the possibility that Annabel’s confession is a mix, a bastardization of Annabel’s version of the truth along with the versions of her brother, the community, and of course van Dyck. The confession contains odd layers, contradictions that might have survived because the brother and van Dyck have either allowed them to survive or haven’t recognized them or have inserted them later. Many of the novel’s characters have moments when they find themselves saying or thinking something that contradicts what they would usually say or believe. They surrender to unexpected countercurrents, reversed or distorted twists on their self-image. These individual moments of madness — or moments of one strain of madness within other strains of madness — gradually join the larger movements of the Curse through the community. Finally all of Princeton becomes as strange and wildly divided as the story of the Bog Kingdom.
I don’t want to make too much out of it, but the divisions in Oates’s characters might help explain some of the minor lapses in her nonfiction writing and her public statements. She recently tweeted, for instance, that reviewers should try to limit the opinions they express, even though she has spent years producing highly opinionated criticism for The New York Review of Books. Oates has an eye for our paradoxes, the quarrels and inconsistencies we carry around inside us. Possibly she writes so well about our contradictions in part because they’re so strongly present in her personality. I sometimes wonder if she even courts her inconsistencies in order to see them more clearly for her novels and stories. Oates is the opposite of those writers who devote most of their effort to maintaining an artful persona to help market mediocre books. Her public image is slipshod and poorly managed, while her fiction has consumed the bulk of her exceptional energy, has nourished itself on the special ferocity she brings to the design and execution of her work.
3. Birth and Rebirth
Van Dyck tells us Annabel died when her child was born; the baby lived only a few seconds. Van Dyck also reports that gossip turned the baby into a grotesque snake creature, the appropriate offspring for Mayte. Later in the novel, however, we suspect the child has survived. He might even be van Dyck, who was officially born soon after Annabel’s death. Van Dyck’s legal parents hadn’t slept together for years when the wife supposedly became pregnant. In the second half of the novel, the husband goes insane mapping the lines of the Curse and trying to work out if his wife has been unfaithful.
The narrator is lost in the impossibility of knowing whether he’s Annabel’s son. If Annabel gave birth to a demon, is the demon van Dyck? Is the Bog Kingdom his admission of some hidden strain of brutality in him? Or is he satirizing the prejudices the community marshaled to pass judgment on Annabel’s actions? There’s a chance that Annabel or van Dyck’s legal mother — or both of them working together — invented the Bog Kingdom and the story of the baby’s death. They might have used the misogynistic fantasies behind the Curse to conceal the baby’s transfer and perhaps, as the disorienting penultimate chapter hints, to give Annabel and her siblings a chance at being reborn themselves. If Annabel was caught between her original romanticizing of Mayte and Princeton’s equally inaccurate demonizing of him, she might have fed on those who fed on her, might have turned their hungers against them. But in the process, she might have helped the Curse radiate outward, releasing pain and death in ways she couldn’t anticipate. Though she possibly outwits the people who use her, they respond by letting the Curse run wild, as a cover for their most destructive acts, including the rape and murder of at least two young men.
4. Dogs and Dinners
The Accursed is full of deluded leaders, from Woodrow Wilson to Teddy Roosevelt to the heads of some of the elite Princeton families. They treat other people’s lives as a banquet, an endless feast of cannibal sandwiches. Yet Oates devotes the bulk of the book to characters who hold only a limited amount of influence, which they’re desperate to protect or expand.
The chapters on the muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair link the nightmare of the Bog Kingdom to the complexities of political and social reform. With The Jungle, his famous and still-timely exposé of the food industry, Sinclair forces people like Annabel’s brother to wonder if they’ve literally become cannibals, drinking the blood of workers injured or killed in the factories. Sinclair is both a genuine reformer and a cringing, timid, would-be tyrant. His drive to reveal the injustices of capitalism blinkers him to his neglect of his wife and helps him rationalize his kitsch Nietzcheism. Oates views him satirically, but the satire isn’t a simple matter of declaring him a hypocrite. For Oates, identifying our hypocrisy is less interesting than tracing the eccentric ways our mingled impulses carry us forward. It’s his contradictions — his clashing waves of kindness and insecurity and intolerance — that make Sinclair human. The same can be said of Annabel’s brother, who becomes more vivid for us as he becomes more confused about what he wants.
Jack London appears in the book as an activist version of Mayte: a man who seeks revolution so he can satisfy his appetites without restraint. The Bog Kingdom used to belong to aristocrats; Mayte was a servant in the Kingdom and led a revolt against his masters, so he could take their place and install an even more brutal regime. This is what Jack London wants as well. He worships violence, thinks he is a “natural warrior” who was “born deprived of his heritage.” His destiny, he says, is to “rise up against those who exploit him — and drink their sang impur.”
Upton Sinclair is horrified by London’s bloodlust yet mesmerized by his vitality. London has a rough magnetic presence that the physically delicate and emotionally divided Sinclair lacks. Again like Mayte, London bullies his followers. He demands their abasement along with their admiration. Sinclair watches London give a speech, and sits “gazing up at his hero with the unstinting admiration of a kicked dog for his master, who has left off kicking him for the moment and is being kind to him, capriciously, yet wonderfully.” This recalls Annabel’s delusions in the Bog Kingdom. Even after Mayte has sentenced her to endlessly emptying the cesspool, Annabel fantasizes that he is merely testing her, “hoping to determine if I loved him purely, or was so shallow as to foreswear my vow to him.” Only gradually does she realize that she has chosen to come to the Bog Kingdom, and that she can choose to leave it.
The powerful want us to believe that submitting to their demands is natural, irresistible, right. Sinclair and Annabel, however, end up abandoning their masters and refusing to follow orders. Oates can see the strength in Sinclair’s wavering kindness and delicacy, and the weakness in Mayte’s boorish aggression. Still, the standout quality of The Accursed is the turn and flow of the characters’ personalities, the constant repositioning of their relationships with each other. The characters never harden into a final form we can pass judgment on, and we understand them differently depending on where we are in the book. Like The Golden Bowl and the other Henry James works that Oates references, The Accursed resists moralistic parsing. The novel finds its beauty in its ability to keep all its competing interpretations alive and strong, spinning around each other in humming, electric motion.
It feels like this happened last week though it actually happened twenty years ago. Late one wintry afternoon in 1992 I found myself sitting on a sofa in a glass box in midtown Manhattan, trying to figure out how I could possibly stay awake till sundown. I had just enjoyed a long celebratory liquid lunch with Gary Fisketjon, who would soon be publishing my first novel and who, as I’d learned first-hand, is a master of an art that was then dying and is now all but dead – the art of editing fiction, line by agonizing line. Gary had gone over every word of my 362-page manuscript with a green Bic ballpoint pen, sometimes suggesting surgical cuts or ways to improve dialog, sometimes writing long insightful paragraphs on the back of a page. He stressed that these were merely suggestions, that the final call was mine, always. If I had to guess, I would say he improved my book at least by half. As I sat there on the sofa in Gary’s office, my fogged eyes started roaming across his bookshelves…
(As I re-read the preceding paragraph, I realize it’s about ancient history, a long-lost time when book editors actually edited books and they were encouraged to keep their authors fed and watered on the company dime. That paragraph also reminds me of something John Cheever wrote in the 1970s – that his first stories, published in the years after World War II, were “stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat.” Gary Fisketjon’s industrious green Bic pen seems even more remote to me from a distance of twenty years than those 1940s radios and stationery stores seemed to John Cheever from a distance of thirty years.)
…so anyway, my fogged eyes landed on a slim volume with one word on its spine: Jernigan. I got up off the sofa, crossed the small office and picked up the book. On the dust jacket the blurry figure of a man stands on a lawn in front of a suburban house. At first I thought it was the liquid lunch affecting my vision, but then I realized the picture was intentionally fuzzy. “What’s this?” I asked.
“That’s a first novel I brought out last year by a wonderful writer named David Gates,” Gary said. “Sonny Mehta, my boss, loves one-word titles. Go ahead, take it.”
I took it. I read it. I loved it. It’s the story of a messed-up guy from the New Jersey suburbs named Peter Jernigan who works a boring job in Manhattan real estate and is dealing with his wife’s death in an automobile accident by dosing himself with gin and Pamprin as his life falls apart. He ends up sleeping with the single mom of his teenage son’s girlfriend. The woman is a survivalist who keeps rabbits in her basement (for meat, not as pets). One day, in an effort to snap out of his spiritual numbness, Jernigan presses the barrel of a gun to the webbing between the thumb and index finger of his left hand, then squeezes the trigger. I’ll carry that image in my head as long as I live.
Ever since I fell in love with Jernigan I’ve been drawn to books with one-word titles – partly because Sonny Mehta loves one-word titles, but mainly because they can be so enviably concise and memorable, so perfect. At their best, one-word titles distill content to its purest essence, which is what all titles strive to do, and then they stick in the mind. Sometimes, of course, they fall flat, and much of the time they’re just lukewarm and vague or, worse, falsely grand.
Over the years I’ve developed categories and a pecking order. Here is my unscientific and by no means exhaustive taxonomy, beginning with the best and ending with the worst kinds of one-word book titles:
1. An Unforgettable Character’s Name
This category begins for me with Jernigan but also includes:
Shakespeare’s Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet (for the last title in this trio of masterpieces I wish he’d gone with Yorick, that “fellow of infinite jest,” which no doubt puts me in a minority of one).
Walker Percy’s Lancelot (the wife-murdering narrator in a nuthouse, Lancelot Andrewes Lamar says many wise and funny things about the decline of America, such as: “What nuns don’t realize is that they look better in nun clothes than in J.C. Penney pantsuits.”)
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (the nymphet who became an icon).
Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree (not my favorite of his novels – that would be Blood Meridian – but the things Cornelius Suttree and his roughneck Tennessee riverfront buddies do while under the influence of alcohol give a whole new kick to the word “debauched”).
Jane Austen’s Emma (I might think Emma Woodhouse is a meddling, coddled ninny, but I wouldn’t dream of saying so).
Stephen King’s Carrie (you’ve got to respect a girl who gets drenched in pig’s blood at the prom and then goes on a telekinetic rampage), Christine (what’s not to love about a homicidal Plymouth Fury?), and It (that maniac clown Pennywise deserves such a tersely dismissive moniker).
2. Place Names That Drip With Atmosphere
Elmore Leonard’s Djibouti (just saying the word makes it possible to conjure a place full of pirates, thugs, widowmakers, scorching sunshine, and tourists with a death wish; Leonard is a serial user of one-word titles, including the less memorable Raylan, Pronto, Killshot, Touch, Bandits, Glitz, Stick, Gunsights, Swag, and Hombre).
Gore Vidal’s Duluth (alluring precisely because it’s so imprecise – what could possibly be interesting about a Minnesota port town on Lake Superior? Plenty. Vidal is another serial user of one-word titles, including Williwaw, Messiah, Kalki, Creation, Burr, Lincoln, Hollywood, and Empire).
Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (that exclamation point befits the over-the-top setting, a fading alligator theme park in the moist loins of Florida).
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (your first thought is Biblical – balm of Gilead or Mount Gilead – but the title of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is the name of a town in Iowa where the God-infused protagonist, a dying preacher, is writing a long letter to his young son; Robinson’s other novels are titled Housekeeping and Home).
Geoffrey Wolff’s Providence (this title, like all good titles, has layers of meaning: the novel is set in the crumbling capital of Rhode Island – “a jerkwater that outsiders bombed past on their way to Cape Cod” – but this Providence is visited by surprising gusts of divine providence, God’s inscrutable ways of touching a menagerie of less-than-perfect characters, including mobsters, thieves, patrician lawyers, cokeheads, and crooked cops).
Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (alas, the title refers to a fictional hippie outpost in northern California, not to that sweaty little armpit in the New Jersey pine barrens – now that would have been a ripe setting for a Pynchon novel).
Marshall Frady’s Southerners (fluorescent non-fiction about the people who inhabit a haunted place, it’s one of my all-time favorite books).
Then, on the downside, there’s James Michener’s Hawaii (a title that’s about as evocative as a pushpin on a map, much like his other generic place-name titles – Chesapeake, Alaska, Poland, Texas, Mexico, and Space).
3. One Little Word That Sums Up Big Consequences
Josephine Hart’s Damage (edited by Sonny Mehta, the novel’s title deftly sums up what results when a member of the British Parliament develops an obsessive sexual relationship with his son’s fiancee; Jeremy Irons, at his absolute smarmy best, plays the MP in the movie version of the book. Hart, who died last year, also published the novels Sin and Oblivion).
James Dickey’s Deliverance (refers to what it feels like to return home to the Atlanta suburbs after surviving a nice relaxing canoe trip in the Georgia woods that turns into a nightmare of hillbilly sodomy and murder).
Martin Amis’ novel Money (a raunchy hymn to the lubricant that greased the Reagan/Thatcher decade, it’s bursting with the things that made America great – “fast food, sex shows, space games, slot machines, video nasties, nude mags, drink, pubs, fighting, television, handjobs”); and his memoir Experience (with a cover that says it all: the future bad boy of Brit letters as a pre-teen towhead, with a scowl on his face and an unlit cigarette plugged between his lips).
William S. Burroughs’ Junky (though written under a pseudonym, the title of this highly autobiographical 1953 novel refers to what you will become if you inject heroin into your veins on a regular basis; a sequel, Queer, was written earlier but not published until 1985).
Harry Crews’ Car (you are what you eat, and Herman Mack, in a twist that out-Christines Christine, sets out to eat a 1971 Ford Maverick from bumper to bumper; rest in peace, Harry Crews).
4. Words That Ache So Hard To Become Brands You Can Practically See Them Sweat
The absolute pinnacle of this bottom-of-the-birdcage category is half-smart Malcolm Gladwell’s runaway bestseller Blink (as in, how long it takes for us to develop supposedly accurate first impressions; for a much more nuanced and intelligent treatment of this fascinating subject, check out Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow).
Not far behind is right-wing goddess Ann Coulter’s Godless (an attempt to prove that liberalism is America’s state religion and its tin gods are recycling, Darwinism, global warming, gay rights, abortion rights, and teachers’ unions. According to this harridan-hottie, “The following sentence makes sense to liberals: President Clinton saved the Constitution by repeatedly ejaculating on a fat Jewish girl in the Oval Office.” Low blow! Monica Lewinsky wasn’t fat!)
Robin Cook’s Contagion (possibly a Freudian slip, the title might refer to what all brand-name authors like Cook secretly hope their books will induce in readers: a rapidly spreading, uncontrollable itch to spend money on schlock).
5. One-Letter Titles
You can’t get any poorer than dead, as Flannery O’Connor reminded us, and if you’re a book title you can’t be any more concise than a single letter. Writers who have boiled the contents of their books down to a single letter tend to be in the high-literary camp, which would seem to suggest, counter-intuitively, that one-letter titles are the work of expansive, not reductive, imaginations. Here are a few, from A to Z:
Andy Warhol’s A (you’d have to be zonked on some killer shit to make any sense of this gibberish, but let’s be charitable and remember that Warhol was a great artist).
Fred Chappell’s C (this writer of glorious poetry and fiction is celebrated in his native South but criminally under-appreciated in other quarters of the country; his title is taken from the Roman numeral for 100, which is the number of poems in this superb collection).
Tom McCarthy’s C (the third letter of the alphabet is used more nebulously in this novel, which brims with cats, cocaine, cocoons, and code as it travels to Cairo with a protagonist named Serge Carrefax; McCarthy’s first novel was titled Remainder).
John Updike’s S. (it’s the initial of the novel’s protagonist, Sarah Worth, part superwoman and part slut, a disaffected wife who leaves her husband and her home on the North Shore to pursue her guru at a commune in the Arizona desert).
Thomas Pynchon’s V. (no, Pynchon’s first novel is not Vineland minus the i-n-e-l-a-n-d; it’s a woman’s initial, or is it the shape the two storylines make as they converge?).
Georges Perec’s W (the name of an allegorical island off the coast of Chile that resembles a concentration camp).
Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z (the last word, or letter, on political thrillers, it’s about the 1963 assassination of leftist Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis; Costa-Gavras made it into a hit movie starring Yves Montand).
In closing, I should note that seven of the 32 books on the current New York Times hardcover fiction and non-fiction best-seller lists – a healthy 22 percent – have one word titles: to wit: Betrayal, Drift, Imagine, Wild, Unbroken, Quiet, and Imperfect. Turns out Sonny Mehta was on to something. Concision, like sex, always sells.
To my knowledge, the last poet to have made the bestseller list — in England, anyway — is Philip Larkin, whose Collected Poems spent several months in 1988 battling it out with Robert Ludlum’s The Icarus Agenda. That’s a remarkable achievement for a poet whose constitutional cheerlessness would not seem designed for popular success, but maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised. British readers in 1988 apparently found in Larkin what most readers would delight to find anywhere: a compulsively readable meditation on the common life rendered in language formally rigorous yet wholly accessible. Larkin’s poetry, wrote Clive James in As of This Writing, “gets to everyone capable of being got to.” In composing superb lyrics for ordinary readers, Larkin in some ways faced a more daunting challenge than some of his modernist forbears, who, writing for a coterie, could occasionally allow the large or small passage of complete gibberish to pass through the net. After three slender volumes of mature verse, Larkin essentially gave up the job forever in his middle 50s. Unlike more typically gargantuan Collecteds, his is an inviting and readerly 200 pages.
Or was. The newly issued Complete Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), edited by Archie Burnett, weighs in at 729 pages. Is Larkin well served by exhaustive annotations and the preservation of every scrap of juvenilia and disjecta? Such is the unhappy fate of a major writer, even one as scrupulously self-editing as Larkin. Must we now read every word, the obligation that, according to T. S. Eliot, is the debt owed to every major writer? I like to think Eliot was just kidding; I haven’t read the collected works of anyone. The nearest I’ve come is Larkin, whose Collected Poems (the nice friendly early one, not the big daunting new one), two fine early novels (Jill and A Girl in Winter), one collection of critical essays (Required Writing), one collection of music criticism (All What Jazz), and the posthumous Selected Letters can be got through in a couple of months. Brevity — some might say parsimony — not only shaped his career; it inhered in his poetry. Aside from a few narratives and quasi-narratives, all of his poems are lyrics, most fitting comfortably on one page and some a mere quatrain or two of tetrameter or less. Brevity, however, is not the same as reticence. For all his Englishness, Larkin was, superficially at least, as “confessional” as any of his American contemporaries, though what he had to confess was rarely so lofty as the rarefied anguish of Lowell or Plath or Sexton. In “If, My Darling” he inventoried the contents of his mind, there to find:
[a] creep of varying light,
Monkey-brown, fish-grey, a string of infected circles
Loitering like bullies, about to coagulate;
Delusions that shrink to the size of a woman’s glove,
Then sicken inclusively outwards.
Although the Larkin persona obviously resembled the man himself, he unashamedly distilled his worst qualities for literary effect. Neither “If, My Darling” nor any other poem tells you that Larkin ran a major research library at the University of Hull with uncommon perspicacity and professionalism for 30 years. Narrow, small-minded, and willful as his letters sometimes show him to be, Philip Larkin was hardly the monstrous collection of resentments and fears and lusts that the poem describes; or if he was, we all are, for the contrast “If, My Darling” makes between inner and outer, appearance and reality extends well beyond the individual case. It sickens inclusively outwards to us.
During the 1990s a great storm arose over the seamier revelations of Andrew Motion’s Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life and the even seamier revelations of Anthony Thwaite’s edition of Selected Letters.I found all that censoriousness much too pleased with itself. Larkin hoarded like the miser he was, collected mild bondage magazines, and occasionally used the “n” word — hardly laudable traits, but not exactly war crimes either. Persona or no persona, didn’t he make it clear in “If, My Darling” that he was no model of mental health? The argument seemed to be that if someone used the word “nigger” in his correspondence (which he did — half mocking his own bigotry, but only half), the poetry he wrote must reflect the same racist, rancid prejudices. But it doesn’t. Larkin, who was very far from confusing art with life, knew that his prejudices and pettinesses were inassimilable to his poetry. “Wogs,” “niggers,” and “bitches” belong to the lexicon of his prose, not to his verse, which does indeed sometimes express conservative social and political views. Yes, I too wish he had been a liberal, but I fail to be horrified by the nostalgia for duty (“Next year we are to bring the soldiers home / For lack of money”) expressed in “Homage to a Government,” which happens to be quite a good poem.
Readers have a perfect right to regard Philip Larkin, as I do not, as a complete shit. But if they consider his personal failings indistinguishable from his poetry, I think the loss is theirs. Did the celebrated author and distinguished university librarian really believe that “Books are a load of crap,” as the last line of “A Study of Reading Habits” has it? Unlikely, even if the Larkin-like speaker of that poem gives vent to feelings of bibliographic disillusion and disgust that even the most enraptured bibliophile will secretly have experienced. As it happens, the sorts of books the poem describes (“the dude / Who lets the girl down before / The hero arrives, the chap / Who’s yellow and keeps the store”) are a load of crap; they certainly have damaged the speaker, who, unlike the poet, made the fatal mistake of confusing art with life. Any poet/librarian can gush about the wonder of reading; it takes a special kind to deplore it.
Philip Larkin is so hated in some quarters that it may be necessary to point out that the pulp fiction fantasies of “A Study of Reading Habits” (“Me and my cloak and fangs / Had ripping times in the dark. / The women I clubbed with sex! / I broke them up like meringues”) are not intended as models of social interaction. Larkin neither broke up women like meringues nor recommended doing so. Nevertheless, it would be hard to mistake the bitter irony of the title. This study of a severely damaged psyche does not hide its meanings in layers of symbol and allusion. None of Larkin’s poems do. Rather shockingly, they mean pretty much what they say. “There’s not much to say about my work,” he told the Paris Review. “When you’ve read a poem, that’s it, it all quite clear what it means.” I’ve read many fine essays about him but no book-length critical study. What would be the point? An ordinary reader with a modicum of experience in poetry and its forms is as likely to appreciate Larkin as any scholar or poet. Aside from the rare hermetic specimen like “Dry-Point” or “Myxomatosis,” every Larkin poem is eminently paraphrasable. This one is about the tedium of working for a living, that one is about visiting provincial churches, another one is about listening to jazz, and they are all, to invoke the similarly tarnished Matthew Arnold, a criticism of life. How is it that verse that can be reduced to paraphrase and that offers restricted scope for interpretation can be so affecting? Maybe it’s because the poems still allow for mystery, uncertainty, doubt. In “Days” Larkin asked the unrhetorical questions “What are days for?” and “Where can we live but days?” and proposed an unrhetorical answer:
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
Larkin’s poetry may be unfashionably paraphrasable, but it rarely takes positions or declines into the merely personal; that’s what his letters were for. (“The Slade [art school] is a cunty place, full of 17-year-old cunts,” for example, or, thrillingly, this bit of railway intrigue: “I had a hellish journey back, on a filthy train, next to a young couple with a slobbering chocolatey baby — apart from a few splashes of milk, nothing happened to me, but the strain of feeling it might was a great one.”) How a dour, penny-pinching, provincial fussbudget created poetry of such delicacy and grace might in the end have something to do with the person in the persona. Could it be that Philip Larkin wasn’t such a horror after all? I leave that question unanswered. However, the sympathy he extended to ordinary suffering mortals is no less characteristic of his work than the mordant wit and atrocious honesty for which it is equally reputed.
The temptation with any Larkin poem is simply to quote it. What can be said about the overwhelming pathos of “Deceptions,” a depiction of the rape and abandonment of an impoverished girl in Victorian England, that isn’t already in the poem? Oh, I’ll think of something. In fact, I will stoutly rise to Larkin’s defense, because the tact with which he treats the subject has sometimes been mistaken for callousness. It’s true that “Deceptions” lacks all declamation or handwringing; therefore Larkin must be on the side of the rapist, mustn’t he? But after all, Larkin is merely writing about rape and abandonment. Unlike the girl whose testimony serves as the poem’s epigraph (“I was inconsolable, and cried like a child to be killed or sent back to my aunt”), he’s not actually suffering these things. These are rather different orders of experience, as he acknowledges in the lines, “I would not dare / Console you if I could.” He had the luxury to reflect in rhymed pentameter on the girl’s violation. She didn’t:
Even so distant, I can taste the grief,
Bitter and sharp with stalks, he made you gulp.
The sun’s occasional print, the brisk brief
Worry of wheels along the street outside
Where bridal London bows the other way,
And light, unanswerable and tall and wide,
Forbids the scar to heal, and drives
Shame out of hiding. All the unhurried day
Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.
And if she was, as the second stanza maintains, “the less deceived,” this hardly excuses her persecutor. The victimizer was more deceived than the victimized because, being male, older, and of a higher social standing, he could afford to be. The poor start out undeceived, and stay that way. Unless you think that the act of writing enacts the crime symbolically, the cruelty and coldness here belong to the rapist, not to the poet. Put it another way: If you read this heartbreaking, miraculous poem — a Dickens novel in 17 lines– and find in it nothing but confirmation of Larkin’s bad faith and misogyny, maybe the problem is you.
Paraphrasable but irreducible, Larkin’s work remains poetry, not argument. What possible ideology can be inferred from “Water” other than a nostalgia for transcendence? Typically for Larkin, such transcendence as can be imagined is to be found not in some exotic tarn or “crouched in the fo’c’scle” of a freighter rounding the Horn but in a glass of water:
If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.
Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;
My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,
And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.
As often as not in Larkin, such moments of nearly visionary consciousness are as likely to be negative as positive, but his work is in fact full of intensely lyrical apprehensions that belie his reputation as a crusty conservative with no patience for the inexplicable or the numinous. The man who revered Margaret Thatcher, wrote weekly letters to his nagging mother, and vacationed in provincial British resorts like Sark, Malvern, and Chichester, had more poetry in his soul — perhaps that was his problem — than he knew what to do with.
To return to the question of how Larkin’s poetry can be so affecting, I repeat that I have no clear answer except to say that his remarkable technique clearly has something to do with it. Like Thomas Hardy (his principal influence) or, for that matter, Shakespeare, he uses established poetic conventions as beautiful in themselves and as the most efficient means of carrying content. I like a little showing off, but Larkin’s most brilliant effects are deployed so subtly as to be undetected until the third or fourth or 20th reading. The concealed intricacy of his rhyme schemes and enjambments allows for a seemingly straightforward, conversational style; it sounds as if a man of unusual fluency is simply talking to you. For instance, the three stanzas of “Faith Healing” (“Slowly the women file to where he stands / Upright in rimless glasses, silver hair”) rhyme ABCABDABCD — often enough, that is, to knit the poem together, but at such spatial and temporal distance as to avoid any sing-song predictability and to afford pleasures both conscious (if you notice the pattern) and subliminal (if you don’t). And that’s an easy one. Sometimes the rhymes are consonantal (park/work, noises/nurses in “Toads Revisited”), sometimes they’re whole words (home/home, country/country, money/money in “Homage to a Government”), and sometimes I know they’re there but I can’t quite determine where (passim). Nor is this to speak of the variety of stanzaic and metrical variation, the enjambments, the half lines, and the metaphors so powerful that they lodged even within a mind so unpoetic as Margaret Thatcher’s. (When they met in 1980 the Iron Lady favored him with a misquotation of the lines, “All the unhurried day / Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives” from “Deceptions.” “I . . . thought she might think a mind full of knives rather along her own lines, not that I don’t kiss the ground she treads,” he noted to a correspondent.)
Even readers hostile to Larkin will generally acknowledge his extraordinary craftsmanship. What ultimately matters, of course, is not this or that bit of adroit versification but the intellectual and emotive truth of his work. Even here, alas, we’re not quite in the clear, because Larkin’s pessimism is sometimes hard to distinguish from morbidity. I believe that his work is fundamentally humanistic and humane, but a poet capable of lines like “Life is first boredom, then fear” (“Dockery and Son”) and “Man hands on misery to man” (“This Be the Verse”) was not out to provide easy consolations.
No work of Larkin’s is more “challenging” — that is, more apparently inhumane — than “Aubade,” a sort of “Anti-Intimations Ode” and certainly his last great poem. Its theme, to put it more bluntly than the poem does, is that the horror of death renders life meaningless. (In a nice bit of Larkinesque irony, “Aubade” appeared in The Times Literary Supplement two days before Christmas in 1977.) It would be difficult to overstate the bleakness of this poem, starting with its savagely ironic title. The poem is, literally, an aubade — a song of dawn — but whereas most aubades herald the coming of light and life, Larkin’s proclaims the immanence of “Unresting death, a whole day nearer now, / Making all thought impossible but how / And where and when I shall myself die.” The speaker — oh, what the hell, let’s just call him Larkin — has awoken at 4 a.m. and waits out the dawn in existential terror. Till then the darkness will serve quite nicely as a metaphor for “the total emptiness forever, / The sure extinction that we travel to / And shall be lost in always.”
Well, Larkin certainly had the courage of his convictions. No stoicism or detachment softens the harshness of “Aubade.” The subject announced in the first stanza — “the dread / Of dying, and being dead” — is carried with remorseless consistency to its remorseless conclusion four long stanzas later. I might as well admit that I’m determined to find whatever shred of humanism I can in this pitiless poem, but others have given it up as a bad job. No less an authority than Czeslaw Milosz called it “a desperate poem about the lack of any reason — about the complete absurdity of human life — and of our moving, all of us, toward an absurd acceptance of death” (Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations, University Press of Mississippi, 2006). It’s not that Milosz objected to Larkin’s thematics, and he greatly admired his “wonderful craftsman[ship].” What he found “hateful” about “Aubade” was its passivity, its “attitude of complete submission to the absurdity of human existence.” With this attitude, he went on to say, “Poetry cannot agree…Poetry is directed against that.”
The first and perhaps feeblest answer to Milosz’s objections is to point to the sheer beauty of the poem, its equipoise and fluency. Any formal structure won out of the materials of horror and death represents some affirmation of the will, does it not? Larkin might simply have got “half-drunk,” lost the battle to insomnia, and succumbed to despair, as he no doubt did on many a night and as a few million people are probably doing at this very moment. But he also ordered his thoughts about that experience, conjoining the intimate and the cosmic in five 10-line stanzas rhymed ABABCCDEED, with a penultimate half line setting off the devastating apercus of the concluding pentameter line. And he makes it look easy. Seamus Heaney, who shared some of Milosz’s doubts about the ultimate value of “Aubade,” nonetheless found a moral significance in its artistry. “When a poem rhymes, when a form generates itself, when a metre provokes consciousness into new postures, it is already on the side of life” he wrote in Finders Keepers. “When a rhyme surprises and extends the fixed relations between words, that in itself protests against necessity…In this fundamentally artistic way, then, ‘Aubade’ does not go over to the side of the adversary.”
Nevertheless, Heaney believed that in every other way “Aubade” does go over to the side of the adversary. I maintain, on the contrary, that this doom-ridden dirge is on our side. You may disagree, and if you do, you should never read “Aubade” again. A book or a poem may chasten or challenge or disturb or disillusion, but if it just makes you feel lousy, you are well advised to toss it out the window. In the end, “Aubade” doesn’t make me feel lousy, though God knows it’s not a poem I can read casually or without a certain tautening of the nerves. In the first place, why would Larkin, who repeatedly and strenuously objected to what he considered the inhuman alienations of modernist art, inflict punishment on his readers? This was a man who adored Beatrix Potter’s fables for children and believed, as he wrote in “The Mower,” “We should be careful / Of each other, we should be kind / While there is still time.” Still, the gentle, nostalgic Philip was quite at home with the scabrous, vindictive one, and there’s no reason that the latter couldn’t have written “Aubade,” as the less forgiving, bitterer man wrote “The Old Fools,” “The Card Players,” and some other characteristically intransigent pieces. “Aubade” is a long way from Beatrix Potter, but its ferocity is conditioned by an almost shocking — in the context — mildness of tone. The poem is not fundamentally about “remorse — / The good not done, the love not given,” but it includes those things, and if despair is inherently solipsistic, that too is conditioned by a recognition of a very special horror: at death there is “Nothing to love or link with.” It’s in the final stanza, however, that Larkin opposed, albeit gingerly, a rather surprising counterforce — life:
Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.
Life, be not proud. It and we are going to lose this battle — forever — but on the way to defeat, people love and link, work gets done, responsibilities are met. It’s a sunless day to be sure; how much cheer can you reasonably expect from Philip Larkin? But ringing telephones, regular mail delivery, and relatively engaging office work were no small matters to him. The assertion of continuity that they represent gets the last word. One way to regard this tenuous and temporary victory for the human is as a hollow joke; another way is to regard it as a tenuous and temporary victory.
In a similar vein, many readers find the last stanza of “High Windows” blankly nihilistic. Here, I think I can be more assertive: they’re wrong. It’s as if the poem argues against itself, the first four quatrains rationally putting the case for the absurdity of our delusions, and the last quatrain triumphantly ignoring those very same arguments:
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
There’s much to be said for nothing and nowhere and endlessness. What strikes some readers as an ice-cold vision of the Void strikes me as a nearly Zen-like apprehension of emptiness in fullness and fullness in emptiness, rather like Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man,” but without all the difficulty.
O.K., so maybe some of Larkin’s poems give in a little too easily to his predisposition to desolation. Martin Amis, who as a boy received grudging “tips” from his parents’ frequent and melancholy houseguest, wrote in The War against Cliché, “For his generation, you were what you were, and that was that. It made you unswervable and adamantine.” Although I want and maybe need to believe that Larkin’s dauntless pessimism represents a valid and responsible ethics, I don’t really care if his views are unbalanced, unhealthy, unsound, and unheroic. He turned them into something human, something I can use. I happen to believe that the light that seeps into the last stanza of “Aubade” redeems the poem for its mortal readers, but no such redemption touches the earlier and starker “Next, Please.” This is a poem that insists with an almost perverse satisfaction on the absoluteness of death and the folly of our pathetic fantasies. I ought to be appalled. That I admire, even love these lines is partly an effect of Larkin’s usual mastery — in this case the way the poem builds to the apocalyptic from the banal, using the controlling metaphor of an approaching ship of death, like some nightmare out of Bram Stoker’s Dracula:
Right to the last
We think each one will heave to and unload
All good into our lives, all we are owed
For waiting so devoutly and so long.
But we are wrong:
Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.
I could say that qualities of courage, honesty, and resolution inhere in “Next, Please,” but so do some other qualities — fatalism, perverseness, and morbidity, for example. Yet against these less ennobling qualities is a human sympathy that more than anything explains Larkin’s hold on his audience. To begin with, “Next, Please” is utterly accessible to the common reader. Nothing could be less esoteric than its form (couplets in quatrains) and nothing more straightforward than its argument — that we necessarily delude ourselves again and again until, finally, there’s no more life left to delude. The operative word is “we.” The poet clings to the same illusions that his readers do. After the poem is written and read, all of us will go back to the same “bad habits of expectancy / …Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear, / Sparkling armada of promises draw near.” I would like not to face death or even life the way Philip Larkin does in “Next, Please,” and I think I more or less succeed in doing so. But while I wait to achieve a heroic control over my fate that is never going to happen, I turn to Larkin’s poetry for companionship in my loneliness.
Many of my favorite books – Dracula, The Rings of Saturn, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – came to me as assigned reading. Even more than specific titles, I inherited my favorite authors from professors: Nicholson Baker, Harryette Mullen, Turgenev, George Saunders.
This literary bestowal carries on into adulthood as I seek my favorite authors’ favorite authors. At HTMLGIANT, Blake Butler started a broad compendium of David Foster Wallace’s favorite works, encompassing books he blurbed, books assigned on his syllabus, books mentioned in interviews and in passing. It is a nourishing list, a place to turn when I think about what I should read next.
But my road with the recommendations of my favorite authors has been unpaved and rocky.
I devoured U and I, Nicholson Baker’s endearing, humorous volume on John Updike. I loved that he read the copyright page of each Updike book, tracing where essays or excerpts had been previously published. U and I is about Updike, yes, but it is more about Baker wrestling with Updike’s impact on a personal level. Early in the book he lays it out: “I was not writing an obituary or a traditional critical study, I was trying to record how one increasingly famous writer and his books, read and unread, really functioned in the fifteen or so years of my life since I had first become aware of his existence…”
Because the book is about Baker not about Updike, I found it easy to like. Baker recounts the 125th anniversary party for The Atlantic where Tim O’Brien tells him that he and Updike golf together: “I was of course very hurt that out of all the youngish writers in the Boston area, Updike had chosen Tim O’Brien and not me as his golfing partner. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t written a book that had won a National Book Award, hadn’t written a book of any kind, and didn’t know how to golf.”
And so, under Baker’s tutelage, I read John Updike. More accurately, I tried to read Updike, tried and tried. Rabbit, Run. Pigeon Feathers. The Poorhouse Fair. I didn’t finish any of them, I barely started them. I would have scoured Couples for the passage where Updike compares a vagina to a ballet slipper – which Baker mentions – if I could have gotten through the second chapter.
After quoting his own mother and Nabokov, Baker tells me, “There is no aphoristic consensus to deflect and distort the trembly idiosyncratic paths each of us may trace in the wake of the route that the idea of Updike takes through our consciousness.” Updike is not an idea that is tracing its way – neither trembling nor idiosyncratic – through my consciousness. There is no Updike boat leaving a wake in the waves of my mind like a yacht leaving Cape Cod for the Vineyard.
Rather than accept that Baker and I – being of different eras and different genders – have different taste, I concluded that I must be intellectually and creatively deficient; I am a bad reader. I was disappointed in myself for disappointing the Nicholson Baker in my mind, shaking his bearded head, tut-tutting at me: Poor girl, she’ll never understand.
A few months ago I picked up The Anthologist and started it, in the midst of other selections. (When the book came out last September, I actually drove twenty miles to Marin to see Baker read. I was the youngest member of the audience by thirty years. But I am afraid to buy a book at a reading, and petrified of the prospect of having an author sign the book. I could make a fool of myself as Baker did when asking Updike to sign a book in the early 80s.)
Then a couple weeks ago I received a mass email from a writer I know about how he was reading The Anthologist, and I felt the urge to pick it up again. He even said, “I’m really loving The Anthologist.”
I haven’t read everything by Baker, but I’ve read a bunch and enjoyed it on my own; yet, his authoritative praise weighs more than my own evaluation.
Recently in Maine in a used bookstore (that was also the bookseller’s refurbished garage), I stumbled on three of Carson McCullers’ books for $1 each. (In case you are wondering, and you should be wondering, I was not close to Nicholson Baker’s home in Maine, but further up the coast near E.B. White’s former home, near the county fair where Fern bought Wilbur.) The cover of the tattered McCullers paperback proclaimed “One of the finest writers of our time” from The New York Times. I couldn’t recall exactly where I’d heard her name, but it was vaguely familiar. I bought all three.
I started The Ballad of the Sad Café and she drew me into her vivid, textured Southern world. Her descriptions are precise ideas: “The hearts of small children are delicate organs. A cruel beginning in this world can twist them into curious shapes.”
She commands the reader and directs me what to do: “See the hunchback marching in Miss Amelia’s footsteps when on a red winter morning they set out for the pinewoods to hunt… See them working on her properties… So compose from such flashes an image of these years as a whole. And for a moment let it rest.” This second-person imperative jumped out of the smooth, poetic narrative, but it fit like a nest on a tree. McCullers is unafraid to acknowledge you and make you do what she thinks you should. Yet she maintains authorial distance and control by refraining from the first person while directing your attention like a gentle guide: “Now some explanation is due for all this behavior,” she opens an aside on the nature of love. She then elides authority by saying, “It has been mentioned before that Miss Amelia was once married.”
Even before I’d finished the novella, though, I dug around online to verify my delight. Didn’t I read somewhere that David Foster Wallace liked her? Did I remember a retrospective on her in the TLS? No, I didn’t, I was mistaken. Try as I may, the highest compliment I found was from Graham Greene who said, “Miss McCullers and perhaps Mr. Faulkner are the only writers since the death of D. H. Lawrence with an original poetic sensibility.” Now, don’t get me wrong. Graham Greene is fine, but I didn’t even finish The End of the Affair, and he is nowhere near my top ten. From whom did I inherit McCullers?
My Internet searching revealed some critical acclaim (in the Modern Library Revue column on The Millions, for one) and she is mentioned in the same breath as Saul Bellow, Flannery O’Connor, W.H. Auden, and Tennessee Williams, each time with a different, equally flattering comparison.
But I was disappointed. In myself? In McCullers? In other authors who did not love her as I am growing to?
I suppose if I can find an author and grow to love them outside of a direct inheritance, maybe, too, I could reject select elements of my more obvious literary heritage. Hesitantly, I have begun to dismiss other favorites’ favorites. When a former student of his published David Foster Wallace’s syllabus, I promptly downloaded the PDF. As I read the list, I was very self-assured: I’d been meaning to read Waiting for the Barbarians! I loved the Flannery O’Connor story he assigned (“A Good Man is Hard to Find”). He boldly included young contemporary writers like Aimee Bender and Sam Lipsyte. But Silence of the Lambs. Really? I would not follow him there. Maybe I am only disadvantaging myself. Silence of the Lambs may be the literary masterwork that could forever change my outlook on literature and fiction, just like Updike was supposed to.
Where I formerly swallowed recommendations whole, I now cull through them – not exactly on my own but in a more independent fashion. I find books, I do not just receive them. Or, I try to.
I am not a bad reader nor am I intellectually and creatively deficient, or, if I am, it is not because I do not like John Updike but for entirely different reasons.
Vampires figure the anxieties of their cultural moment. They come out at night—and during periods of social and political turmoil, and their habits and looks mutate to personify the fears of the age in which they appear. Bram Stoker’s Dracula dramatized Victorian fears of sex as morally corrupting and fears of English culture as threatened by invading foreigners. The vampires of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, published primarily in the 1980’s, shared a certain kinship with the ruthless, amoral financier characters of the age, Gordon Gekko of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and Patrick Batemen of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, but their most striking feature was their homosexuality. Rice’s vampirism as blood-borne pathogen also came to seem a metaphor for AIDS—a taunting metaphor, since her beautiful men could not die.
So what about our vampires—the vampires of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels or those of Stephenie Meyer’s ubiquitous Twilight? Our vampires seem a domesticated, morally evolved breed. Meyer’s vampires have been defanged altogether (Meyer only agreed to sell the film rights with the caveat that the Cullens could not be depicted with fangs in any film version), while the vampires of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels (better known as HBO’s True Blood) have discretely retractable fangs. Both authors’ vampires are committed to humane, sustainable diets. Indeed, if Michael Pollan wrote for vampires, he might recommend the diet devised by the vampires of Meyer’s Twilight. The members of the Cullen household, the forward-thinking vampire “family” at the center of the series, forswear feeding on humans. “I don’t want to be a monster,” Edward Cullen, Meyer’s teenage vampire hero explains to his human beloved, Bella Swan, when she asks him about his diet.
Turning from the gruesome practices of most of the rest of the vampire community in Meyer’s alternate version of contemporary America, the Cullens feed only on wild animals they hunt in the woods around their home on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. And even in this (by some standards) less murderous diet, they take a sustainable approach, carefully alternating their hunting grounds so as not to decimate the local populations of deer and cougars. Carlisle, the patriarch of the Cullen clan and the originator of what they refer to as their vampire “vegetarianism,” goes even further in his determination to be good. Through hundreds of years of practicing this vegetarianism, Carlisle has perfected his self-control to such a degree that he remains seemingly unmoved in the presence of human blood. His control is so great that he can practice human medicine. Not only does he not kill human beings—he heals them and saves their lives.
The vampires of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels, which are also known as the Southern Vampire Mysteries and are the basis of Alan Ball’s hit HBO series True Blood, share with Meyer’s Twilight a kinder, gentler vampire whose physical beauty seems the outward sign of his moral improvement. Gone are the days of the repulsive and remorseless Count Dracula, with his hairy palms and rank breath, his insatiable hunger for blood. Like Twilight, Harris’ series presents a morally enlightened vampire. Set in an alternate version of the contemporary American South, the Sookie novels depict a world in which vampires have declared themselves publicly, sought and won some civil rights, and live openly amongst humans. Their emancipation from the shadowy world of myth and legend is possible because a synthetic blood developed by the Japanese allows them to refrain from feeding on humans.
Living only on bottled blood, however, doesn’t satisfy like organic warm-from-the-body human blood. Fortunately for the vampires and humans who occupy the Sookieverse, Harris’ mythology also revises the nature of the vampire bite. Unlike Meyer’s vegetarian Cullens, Harris’ vampires still feed on humans, but do so more considerately and in moderation. In the Sookie novels, being bitten by a vampire isn’t normally lethal, nor does it turn one into a vampire. In fact, the vampire’s bite, a quintessential symbol of sex (penetration, exchange of fluids), becomes pleasurable for human and vampire alike rather than damning or damaging: “I felt Bill’s teeth against my neck, and I said “Yes!” I felt his fangs penetrate, but it was a small pain, an exciting pain,” Sookie says of her first bite, given to her by the prosaically named vampire Bill Compton. (“I thought it might be Antoine, or Basil, or Langford!” Sookie responds, laughing, when Bill first tells her his name.) But the point of vampire Bill’s prosaic name is that he’s one of us—that vampires are people too.
Harris’ and Ball’s versions of Sookie’s world are full of such prosaic details of modern vampire life. Their vampires play Wii Golf, serve Fresca to guests, shop at the mall, wash their hair with Herbal Essence shampoo, wear Dockers, renovate their homes. For Ball and Harris, vampires are people too, both materially and morally. And while the melodramatic pitch of Twilight makes Edward and his kin seem like they couldn’t possibly do such grubbily vulgar things as shopping or styling their hair, their artfully tousled locks and well-cut leather jackets tell another tale. These vampires, our vampires (whether we like it or not), do and feel human things: They attend high school, practice abstinence and medicine, tend bar, go to the prom, get married, create computer databases, lobby for civil rights. They cry, fall in love, feel guilty, worry about whether they have souls and what state those souls might be in. Which is why they’ve gone vegetarian—or at least Whole Foods sustainable.
Our vegetarian vampires, I think, are afflicted with the same crises of conscience that we are as first-world twenty-first century humans. We eat too much, we shop too much, we use too much fuel, water, land; we mistreat the animals on which we depend for food and the other peoples whose labor produces for us the cheap abundant goods we have all grown so used to. The vampire’s insatiable hunger for blood mirrors our insatiable hungers for food, wealth, property, and possessions. Contemporary vampire fiction mirrors our collective anxiety about our need for self-discipline and a return to a more humane approach to our fellow beings: Now, the vampire, the most appetitive and unrepentantly murderous of our culture’s mythic archetypes, restrains himself in our popular fiction. He has become a “vegetarian” of sorts, the vampire version of a Whole Foods shopper, who prefers humanely raised meat, free range eggs, sustainably farmed produce. From the shimmering pâleur of the vampire radiates something new and hardly otherworldly: an aura of white liberal guilt.
But being kinder to your food, whatever it might be, isn’t the be all and end all of ethical living, nor does it mean you’re not a vampire. Harris and Ball’s versions of the Sookieverse acknowledge this: that even as we try mightily to live ethically, the dangerous, cruel, and illicit—the side of human character that the vampire has always represented—cannot be vanquished altogether. Vampire Bill, born and raised in the antebellum South, may be an attentive suitor and a perfect gentleman whom Sookie can take home to her grandmother, but he’s also a self-professed murderer and his sexual appetite can turn terrifying. All of the characters in Sookie’s world, both human and vampire, have this same moral ambivalence.
Harris/Ball’s vampire is not all bad, but their human, in turn, is not all good. The world of Meyer’s Twilight, on the other hand, embraces Stoker’s basically strict segregation of good and evil. The heroes and heroines of Twilight are all understood to be morally exemplary. Meyer often has Bella compare Edward’s body and soul to that of an “angel” (and Stephenie Meyer doesn’t offer a single sly wink to let you know that she knows it’s all a bit over the top—which is really impressive in a way. I certainly couldn’t get through 2000+ pages of treacly teenage melodrama without a single devious aside to my audience).
So, in both Twilight and the Southern Vampire Mysteries, vampires do and feel human things–but a crucial philosophical difference between Harris’ books (and Ball’s series) and Meyer’s remains. Harris insists, as Meyer does not, that people are vampires—that people do and feel vampiric things—rape, murder, illicit and subversive sexual desire, manipulation, betrayal. After all, the first vampires, the sadistic historical figures out of whose strange cruelties the idea of the vampire came, were human beings: the fifteenth-century Romanian prince Vlad Dracul (meaning “dragon” or “devil”), whose name Bram Stoker immortalized in Dracula, and Erzébet Báthory (known as the Beast of Csejthe), the sixteenth-century Hungarian countess sometimes referred to as the first female serial killer. Báthory tortured and killed hundreds of young serving girls and bathed in their blood, believing that the blood of virgins had powerful restorative and magical properties. Prince Vlad was known for torturing his enemies and citizens alike, often en masse—usually by impaling them on stakes. He liked to make public spectacles of these executions, sometimes eating meals while watching them. He was also, more mundanely, known for unscrupulous labor practices such as working his peasant laborers to death. Karl Marx refers to this exploitative cruelty of Vlad’s in Capital and uses the figure of the vampire repeatedly to describe the behavior of the capitalist—though he never makes the connection between the vampire and his historical forebear (nor does Marx to Vlad by name; he refers to him “a Wallachian boyar,” but the practices he describes are Vlad’s).
This basic connection between human monstrosity and the vampire is explicit in the Harris novels. Harris’ vampires have gotten a little nicer, but her humans have picked up the slack. As her vampire characters limit their consumption of human blood, her human characters drink vampire blood in a tidy little economy of gore. Vampire blood heals humans with extraordinary speed, makes them more attractive, sharpens their senses, and enhances their libidos. It is the recreational drug of choice in Harris’ fictional world. In the first two scenes of blood drinking in the first Sookie novel, Dead Until Dark, Harris reverses the traditional roles of human and vampire: vampire becomes victim, human becomes blood drinker. In the first, an unsavory trailer trash couple, the Ratrays, begin draining the vampire Bill Compton using needles and medical tubing. They plan to sell his blood as a recreational drug. In the second scene of blood taking, human Sookie, who has been beaten almost to death by the Ratrays for preventing their attempted draining/murder, drinks vampire Bill’s blood at his insistence. At first, Sookie gags on the blood, but as she forces herself to swallow, knowing it’s her only chance of survival, she begins to enjoy it: “Suddenly, the blood tasted good, salty, the stuff of life . . . my hand clamped the vampire’s wrist to my mouth. I felt better with every swallow.”
This human taste for blood becomes the emblem of other vampiric traits. Harris’ and Ball’s human characters can be arrogant, chilly, and race-proud: murderers, rapists, self-righteous hate mongers, child molesters. Harris’ vampires may inevitably have a detached, cool demeanor, an unnerving lack of human emotional response, a disregard for laws and a disdain for human lives, but on balance the people in her books are little better. Her heroine’s most potentially devastating encounters come more often at the hands of humans, rather than vampires. Sookie’s great uncle molests her as a child; a local man revolted by relationships between human women and vampires attempts to kill her when she starts dating vampire Bill; an anti-vampire church called The Fellowship of the Sun blows up a hotel during a massive vampire conference killing scores of humans and vampires and nearly killing Sookie.
Alan Ball’s version of the Sookieverse also inverts the traditional structure of the vampire genre (vampires = bad; humans = good) to expose human moral failings, cruelties, abuses of power. In one of True Blood’s most socially canny plots, a young woman addicted to vampire blood coerces her boyfriend into kidnapping a gentle, paunchy middle-aged vampire. They tie him up with silver chains and keep him in the basement, thereby assuring themselves of an unlimited supply of V or V-juice, as vampire blood is called in Ball’s series. The vampire starves and becomes weakened in his captivity and his hunger causes him excruciating pain. He senses that his female captor is going to kill him and confronts her about it, as she’s milking blood from his tender, weakened arm. She punches him savagely and commands him angrily: “Don’t you dare get morally superior on me.” She tells him that she gave up a full scholarship to Vassar to work in an impoverished village in Guatamala, helping to bring clean water to the village. She continues, “I am an organic vegan and my carbon footprint is miniscule ’cause I know that ultimately we’re all just a single living being. But you are not.”
The scene indicts Whole Foods piety as morally insufficient—as a frail ethical blind that can obscure and justify monstrous selfishness and cruelty. By reversing the roles of human and vampire, turning the human into the torturer, the scene suggests that we humans are the vampires now—that we have always been. For Ball and Harris, the essence of the vampire is a ruthless, violent selfishness that characterizes fanged and unfanged characters—humans and vampires—alike. The Sookie Stackhouse novels and True Blood continually pose the question, “Who’s the vampire now?” They repeatedly refuse easy distinctions between good and bad, right and wrong, vampire and human.
In another such equivocal scene, an ancient vampire saves Sookie from an aspiring human rapist. This vampire, it turns out, believes himself damned and intends to destroy himself by walking out into daylight (where the sun’s rays will burn him to death). “We take the blood of innocents,” he explains, when Sookie asks why he thinks himself an abomination. She counters his claim with the question, “Who is innocent?” He says simply, “children”—the vampire fed exclusively on children for centuries. But Sookie, in gratefulness for his kindness, still decides to bear witness to his self-destruction, a decision that the vampire doesn’t understand. “I am an evil creature,” he tells her. (A confession that might seem more noble and poignant in light of the Catholic Church’s failures this week to take such responsibility for crimes against children.) “But you did a good thing, saving me,” Sookie responds. To her own surprise, she cries when the vampire steps into sunlight and begins to disintegrate.
Meyer’s fiction, on the other hand, scrupulously avoids such subtle moral shading, favoring instead the stark good/evil duality of Victorian vampire fiction—more on this in Part II.
There are two ways to retell an old story: just tell the same story again, or try to subvert it. The problem with fairy tales is that they are more than just old stories. They’re mythic cultural knowledge: they have been removed from their sociological roots to float in a timeless limbo, seeping into all of us since childhood. In order to subvert something, we must be able to analyze it. But writers cannot simply step outside the mythic framework of cultural knowledge. If they cannot upend the entire myth, can they subvert it at all?
Three contemporary retellings approach the fairy tale of Snow White in interesting ways: Neil Gaiman’s story “Snow Glass Apples” from his collection Smoke and Mirrors, Emma Donoghue’s story “The Tale of the Apple” from her collection Kissing the Witch, and Francesca Lia Block’s story “Snow” from her collection The Rose and the Beast. They all twist the old story, but do they subvert it?
Firstly, here’s a quick refresher: Snow White is a beautiful princess whose jealous stepmother sends a huntsman to cut out poor Snow’s heart. The huntsman takes pity on the girl and leaves her in the forest, where she discovers a house of seven dwarves. Soon the stepmother discovers that Snow lives, and disguises herself as an old woman to poison her stepdaughter with an apple. Snow falls into a death-like sleep and is placed in a glass coffin, but is finally awoken by the kiss of a handsome prince. That’s the story: now for the myths.
Myth: Snow White is innocent, her Stepmother is wicked
Female antagonism is an often-repeated storyline: the virgin/whore, angel/monster. There is a tradition in literature – not just fairy tales – of the pure, silent, virginal young girl on one side, and the powerful, sexual, wicked woman on the other. Compare virtuous and selfless Emily St Aubert to greedy and vain Madame Cheron in Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho: the latter is locked in a tower, while the former lives happily ever after with her man. Similarly, in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, powerful Bertha is locked in an attic, while good and patient Jane gets her man. Bram Stoker’s Dracula compares sexually powerful Lucy with her three suitors, to monogamous and virtuous Mina who thinks only of her fiancé. Lucy ends up dead, staked through the heart, while Mina lives.
In the fairy tale, Snow White is the innocent, lovely virgin while her stepmother is a jealous, wicked older woman. In Block’s “Snow” the mother is not a powerful and wicked witch, but a pathetic figure. She gives up her child because she does not “know what to do with her” and sits “crying in the garden” while the child screams. However, when she sees Snow with the gardener she returns with poisoned apples and tries to kill her daughter. Snow White is still cast as the blameless girl, and her mother is still jealous and deadly.
Gaiman’s “Snow Glass Apples” appears to be a subversion but is actually just a reversal of roles. Snow White is the preternatural, consuming villain; the step-mother is the victim. Gaiman’s inversion seems to question the traditional binary opposition of good girl versus wicked woman, but he has simply transposed the good and evil roles, making Snow White the wicked queen in everything but name. The tale is still one of good female against evil female. Gaiman cannot break out of the mythic framework to imagine the women as anything other than binary opposites.
The myth is truly subverted in Donoghue’s “The Tale of the Apple.” While at first the roles are again simply reversed, the two women are eventually revealed as allies. The stepmother tries repeatedly to reach out to Snow White but it is Snow herself who makes the final decision to return to the castle, bringing the two women together. It is Snow White and not the stepmother who has the power as she succeeds where the stepmother has failed, but she uses this power to bring an end to their antagonism.
The myth suggests that there are only two courses available to women: being beautiful and loved, but powerless; or being powerful, but hated and ultimately destroyed. By continuing to write the characters in these binary roles, writers are failing to confront the woman-against-woman message underlying the myth. Donoghue’s subversion suggests a way out of this bind, by letting the characters elevate themselves above this shallow jealousy.
Myth: The Prince as Savior
The myth of prince as savior makes Snow White a story of heterosexual male dominance: women need men, and without them will attempt to destroy one another. It also teaches women that they should not worry about being educated, intelligent or amusing; all they have to do is be pretty and wait. Curiously, in the original Brothers Grimm version, the male hero is incidental. He appears only briefly at the end, and is needed only to provide a husband. This minor character has since grown to become a vital part of the tale.
In Block’s “Snow,” the character of the gardener encompasses the roles of father, huntsman and prince. He awakens Snow with a kiss, but when she awakes she chooses to stay with the seven men. Snow does not choose the traditional Happily Ever After, but she still needs a savior man to wake her.
In Gaiman’s “Snow Glass Apples,” the prince still awakens Snow White and they do end up together, but it is a cynical conclusion. The prince and Snow White are a necrophile and a vampire: a far cry from the Disney ending, but still not an effective subversion, as Snow White still needs a prince.
In Donoghue’s “The Tale of the Apple,” a prince is alluded to, but he is never actually present; Snow White is awakened by the jolting of the coffin as the seven men carry her to be buried. This Snow White does not need a man to save her. Donoghue has managed to write out the prince completely and truly subvert the myth.
Myth: Snow White is Passive
In the fairy tale, Snow White is utterly passive. She expresses no desire or opinions; just reacts to other people’s actions.
Donoghue’s Snow White, subversively, is entirely active. She does not leave her stepmother’s castle because she is chased out; she leaves because she wants to. She fights her way through the dangers of the forest and forms a relationship with the seven men. She is self-sufficient, intelligent, and soon shows her courage: “One of [the men] asked me what was in my skirts to make them so heavy, and I said, Knives, and he took his hand off my thigh and never touched me again.” Finally, she returns to the castle and her stepmother because she chooses to. The myth is also subverted in Block’s “Snow.” Up until the final paragraph, Snow is utterly passive. She begins the tale as a baby, shunted from mother to gardener to seven men. She meets with the gardener and later her mother because they show up at her door. Her moment of independence comes at the story’s end, when she abandons her mother and the gardener in favor of staying with her adoptive family. It may take Block the entire tale to subvert the myth, but the conclusion finds Snow perfectly self-determining.
The myth holds Snow White up as the feminine ideal, suggesting that women should sit down, shut up, be pretty and wait for a man. It is not surprising that this has been subverted in many modern retellings. By subverting the myth, Donoghue and Block show that women can be active and decisive without becoming a wicked stepmother.
Gaiman’s retelling appears subversive at first glance, but it is soon revealed that he reiterates all the aspects of the fairy tale myth, and thus his subversion fails. Block and Donoghue manage to wrestle at least a little of the power away from the male characters and bestow it instead on the females. Donoghue in particular manages to subvert many of the most deeply ingrained fairy tale myths, producing characters with personalities who know their own minds and get what they want. The dearth of successful retellings is not through want of trying: a mythic framework formed from our earliest childhood memories can simply be too deeply ingrained to thoroughly destroy.
A prevalent idea today is that “fairy tale” translates as “perfect.” A Google search for “fairytale wedding” produces 130,000 results. We relate fairy tales to romance, perfection, childhood innocence and magic. It may not be easy for writers to give up romantic ideas of fairy tales as magical stories for children and admit the unsavory side of the myth. Perhaps we simply can’t bear to see Snow White without her prince. It may not be easy to step outside the mythic framework, but if writers are to subvert the myth they must first come to terms with it.
Carolyn Kellogg is a book critic and the lead blogger at the LA Times book blog Jacket Copy. She recently got www.carolynkellogg.com to call her very own.Dracula by Bram Stoker. There are Goths and there are Vampire Weekend fanatics, but I’m not among them; I wouldn’t have re-read Dracula if I hadn’t had to for a literature class in graduate school. But wow. Written in 1897, Dracula is a fractured, multifaceted narrative told in journals, letters, diaries and newspaper clippings, from the point of view of four different characters. If I’d turned in such a thing in workshop, I would have been accused of the crime of postmodernism. Anyway. It’s a terrific crime novel that chases the villain across Europe, and Mina Murray is one ballsy Victorian heroine.The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman he Loved by Judith Freeman. Judith Freeman tries to get to the heart of Raymond Chandler’s relationship with his wife Cissy – she was eighteen years his senior, a fact that was kept secret, even, for some time, from Chandler himself. During her research, Freeman begins to stalk his ghost: she goes from house to house across Southern California, trying to see how the couple’s many moves inflected what Chandler wrote. I did not always agree with her read of Los Angeles and its neighborhoods, but as a work of biography The Long Embrace is more honest than most. Freeman’s obsessions are a frame for her work; she exposes them where more formal biographies keep them under wraps. Yes, she loves reading Raymond Chandler; yes, she is entranced by his marriage; and no, she will never get close enough.More from A Year in Reading 2008