As much as I may rack my brain, there are 15 minutes or so in the dark that I can’t account for and that I’ll never get back—15 minutes during which, I have to think, that creep’s hands were touching my body. It’s a weird thing to think about all these years later, this weird little grain of rice in my consciousness, a scratch where the record skips. The truth is I will never know what happened, exactly. None of it will ever be resolved. He didn’t rape me, at least in part because he didn’t get the chance. He probably touched me, roamed his hands all over my body, but who’s to say? Only he could. I was passed out.
It was the fall of my senior year of college. A few days before, I’d gone to happy hour with my boyfriend and he’d dumped me shortly after the pizza arrived. I was crushed and caught off guard, and my incredibly intelligent way of responding to this was to rebound, or at least try to. The weekend came. I slid my bruised ego into the World’s Tiniest Dress and went to a party at the house of a grad-student friend of mine. I didn’t usually go to strange parties because I had my boyfriend and our tight-knit group of friends, except now I didn’t have the boyfriend and I was too embarrassed to see the friends. I left my apartment with the idea I’d do something dumb—kiss someone or something. If he heard about it later, all the better. That was the point.
When the two guys started talking to me at the party, I was drunk. Even so, some lizard part of my brain knew that when they asked me to leave with them, the right answer was nope. Drunk as I was, I could feel them watching me closely, so closely that I can still see the deep muddy brown of one’s eyes, his white-blond eyelashes. They were DJs, they said, and they were going to a late-night rave. I should come, too. They could get me in. They’d give me a ride. No thanks, I said, and stumbled off to the tiny guest room my friend had promised to me. She had this old millworker’s house. The bed was narrow with some antique, almost Dickensian frame. I remember pulling the blankets over me and staring at the wall a minute, feeling disappointed and lonely and, even before anything else happened, just incredibly ashamed of myself. Then I closed my eyes.
Flash forward, 14 years later. It’s the fall of 2017; I’m talking about #MeToo with a friend and we start coming up with a list of literary characters who, had they been real, might now be exposed as rapists, sexual harassers, workplace bullies, and/or terrible boyfriends. A dark joke, our list is long but hardly comprehensive: Humbert Humbert, Oblonsky, Mr. Rochester, Steven Rojack. Well. You’re kind of spoiled for choice.
One of the lesser-known names on the list was Patrick Standish, the main male character in Take a Girl Like You, Kingsley Amis’s 1960 novel. In his era, of course, Amis was a near-ubiquitous man of letters who wrote novels as well as movie and restaurant reviews, poetry and criticism. He’s not nearly as widely read now, despite the New York Review of Books recently reissuing much of his catalogue. If people know Amis’s work, they tend to know his name-making first novel, 1954’s Lucky Jim, or perhaps The Old Devils, which won the Booker Prize in 1986. It’s a shame, because Take a Girl Like You is among his best—a great work of art, deeply moral and wonderfully realized. A lost classic.
Still, to make this argument, I’ve got to spoil it for you, and this is a novel which turns on an essential one-two punch, a lot like that Wilco song, “She’s a Jar,” that you can only hear for the first time once. It’s a funny, sometimes-rapturous love story that ends with a rape.
Jenny Bunn meets Patrick Standish. She’s a virgin and he’s a seasoned, self-aware lothario. They fall in love (“she had a sort of permanent two gin and tonics inside her” while “he had felt the wing of the angel of marriage brush his cheek, and was afraid”). But Jenny still isn’t quite ready to have sex, and Patrick spends several hundred pages trying in vain to seduce her. At last, he breaks up with her at a party, telling her, “We’re finished. Even if you walked in on me naked I wouldn’t touch you.” In despair, Jenny gets super drunk and passes out in a guestroom:
It all faded away. Time went by in the same queer speedless way as before. Then Patrick was with her. He had been there for some minutes or hours when she first realized he was, and again was in bed with her without seeming to have got there. What he did was off by himself and nothing to do with her. All the same, she wanted him to stop, but her movements were all the wrong ones for that and he was kissing her too much for her to try to tell him. She thought he would stop anyway as soon as he realized how much off on his own he was. But he did not, and did not stop, so she put her arms around him and tried to be with him, only there was no way of doing it and nothing to feel. Then there was another interval, after which he told her he loved her and would never leave her now. She said she loved him too, and asked him if it had been nice. He said it had been wonderful, and went on to talk about France.
Their host comes into the room, realizes what Patrick has done, and kicks him out of the house. So maybe it’s perverse, but I feel as though I am in a kind of catbird seat for understanding all this, though it’s true I never bobbed up to consciousness like Jenny Bunn did. In my case, I just woke up the next morning, with no interval of awareness. I helped my friend clean up, drank a cup of coffee, drove home. I didn’t know anything before four o’clock that afternoon, when she called me and told me she’d thought it over. If it had happened to her, she’d decided, she’d want to know. One of those guys got in bed with you, she told me. He’d taken off his pants but didn’t seem to have an erection. He’d only been in there a few minutes. He hadn’t had time to do anything. Anyway, she’d kicked him out of the house. I thanked her for doing that and hung up the phone. I was sitting on my bedroom floor by this point, because my legs had given out for the first time in my life.
On the surface, Take a Girl Like You is a sex comedy, and tellingly, not every contemporary critic believed Jenny’s experience to be rape. In Postwar British Fiction, published in 1962, James Gindin describes the novel’s conclusion this way: “Jenny loses her virginity, but not as a result of moral or immoral suasion; Patrick tricks her into capitulation while drunk” (a view Merritt Moseley would decry in 1993). The 1970 movie adaptation, starring Hayley Mills as Jenny Bunn, portrayed the story as a kind of sexual slapstick, changing the ending so that Jenny chooses to sleep with another character. Then Patrick chases Jenny down a road in what’s meant to be a madcap scene. Cue a breezy theme song by The Foundations, roll credits.
But Kingsley Amis knew that what happens to Jenny is terribly wrong, though the word “rape” is not used, even by Jenny herself. The next morning, she wakes up puking, hungover:
Jenny decided reading would be too much for her. She smoked a cigarette until her insides felt as if they were getting as far away from the middle of her as they could. Then she put it out. But even with that big hollow in her interior she was recovering enough to start getting the first edge of thought. For it to have gone like that, almost without her noticing. At that she rebuked herself, sitting up straight in her chair. What was so special about her that it should have happened the way she imagined it, alone with a man in a country cottage surrounded by beautiful scenery, with the owls suddenly waking her up in the early hours and him putting his arms around her and soothing her, and then in the morning the birds singing and the horses neighing, and her frying eggs and bacon and spreading a wholemeal loaf with thick farm butter? A lot of sentimental rubbish, that was—she would be asking for roses and violins next. Much better be sensible, think herself lucky it had not gone for her as it did for some, sordid and frightening and painful and with someone you hated or hardly knew. That was happening every day.
That’s the crux of the novel, its turning from comic to tragic. Jenny deserves better and she doesn’t get it. In fact she is almost pathetically grateful that she has had it no worse. As light as Amis’s touch is here—Take a Girl Like You is not political, not a polemic—you can’t mistake his grief and revulsion. Amis would later describe Patrick Standish as the worst person he’d ever written about, and this when he made a career of writing about unpleasant people, including Roger Micheldene, the hideous antihero of 1963’s One Fat Englishman. Amis knew he wasn’t writing about any straightforward “capitulation.”
Take a Girl Like You is often compared with Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, but I say the better foil is Nabokov’s Lolita, in which the subtle, below-surface moral weight of the novel is with the victim—all of it springing from her loss and victimization. The Lolita comparison is, yes, a little ironic because Amis hated Lolita and hated Nabokov. Still, there’s a central likeness. Nabokov did not intend that we should fall for Humbert Humbert’s artsy, tortured rationalization of rape; Amis didn’t intend that Patrick Standish be taken for a sympathetic hero, either. Patrick is charming and funny and fun, even erudite, and he’s also a complete asshole. (As well as raping Jenny, Patrick sleeps with his boss’s 17-year-old daughter.)
You could even argue that Take a Girl Like You is in some senses a subtler and certainly a more realistic portrayal of rape because Jenny is not eye-poppingly young, and there’s no continuous, hysterical fireworks of justification. Amis gives both Jenny’s and Patrick’s perspectives in alternating sections, and Jenny’s experience is as deftly handled as it is, in part, familiar. I read the novel swearing under my breath. Kingsley Amis nailed it.
The natural next question is, how’d he do that? In his lifetime, most especially in his later career, Amis was notorious for his misogyny. As the biographies reveal, he was himself a prolific womanizer who sometimes felt guilty about it and often wrote about that guilt, not least of all in Take a Girl Like You. That’s not necessarily the same thing as being a sexist, repentant or otherwise. The evidence is mixed; you can neither dismiss him as a misogynist nor declare his misogyny merely supposed and perceived, as Paul Fussell did in his 1994 book on Amis, The Anti-Egotist. To hear Fussell tell it, Amis is merely “tired of the automatic imputation of virtue and sensitivity to the female character … Women, Amis knows, can be fully wicked as men. They can lie and cheat and destroy with the best of them.” That’s true and yet not the whole picture. In some of the novels, the women do nothing but lie, cheat and destroy while the men struggle vainly to run the world in spite of this ongoing assault. Is that still satire?
It is, in the case of 1978’s Jake’s Thing, where the crazy women are leavened out with pathetic women and no character, the men included, is in any sense to be admired. You can’t miss the comic brio of its penultimate paragraph:
Jake did a quick run-through of women in his mind, not of the ones he had known or dealt with in the past few months or years so much as all of them: their concern with the surface of things, with objects and appearances, with their surroundings and how they looked and sounded in them, with seeming to be better and to be right while getting everything wrong, their automatic assumption of the role of injured party in any clash of wills, their certainty that a view is the more credible and useful for the fact that they hold it, their use of misunderstanding and misrepresentation as weapons of debate, their selective sensitivity to tones of voice, their unawareness of the difference in themselves between sincerity and insincerity, their interest in importance (together with noticeable inability to discriminate in that sphere), their fondness for general conversation and directionless discussion, their pre-emption of the major share of feeling, their exaggerated estimate of their own plausibility, their never listening and lots of other things like that, all according to him.
But 1984’s Stanley and the Women is a bridge too far. There’s just one minor female character who isn’t a complete emotional monster, while every male character is sympathetic. Here the satire, if it still is satire, is as sour, unrelieved, and unrelenting as anything Amis ever wrote. In the U.S., several publishers turned down the book because the women on their boards objected. There’s a nadir in the poetry, too, though the 1987 poem that begins “Women and queers and children / cry when things go wrong” went unpublished and unfinished. In his excellent The Life of Kingsley Amis, Zachary Leader described the poem as “calculated to cause the maximum possible offense.” (I’d add, without glee, that it’s also a bit rich coming from Amis, who had a paralyzing fear of the dark and couldn’t be left alone.)
Even if you wanted to, you couldn’t separate art from artist here because the offense is the whole point. Still, that convention—holding out the work from the person who made it—is flimsy to begin with. It presents a false choice. In the end, we don’t really get to choose between great works and flawed people. We get both. As Christopher Hitchens wrote of H.L. Mencken: “He had very grievous moral and intellectual shortcomings and even deformities … But any reductionist analysis of Mencken runs the risk of ignoring a fine mind that engaged itself in some high duties.”
It’s an uneasy position for this Amis fan. But what’s the alternative, not reading him at all? I love his work. Even in the minor novels, the ones that don’t quite come off, there’s always, always the intelligence, the bite in the closely observed details and those trademark Amis sentences that are wonderfully precise and yet never pretentious, never overwrought. My copies of his books are dog-eared and misshapen from repeated drops in the bath. I’m always in some stage of rereading The Old Devils, and I keep multiple copies of 1990’s The Folks That Live on the Hill because I’m always pushing it on friends. About the time I was at risk of rape at that party in 2003, I was working my way through everything Amis ever wrote, because my college library had every title. I have never encountered that happy condition since, and it almost makes me wish I’d never left school. Maybe you’re not supposed to have a favorite writer—maybe he shouldn’t be my favorite writer—but Kingsley Amis is my favorite writer.
That Amis remains a complex figure is fitting, full stop. There remains something akin to the “problem from hell” that Martin Amis identifies in Nabokov’s work. In the case of Amis senior, it is not a recurring preoccupation with the “despoiliation of very young girls”; it’s a recurring, vigorous anti-woman streak that does not at all preclude him from seeing what women sometimes suffer at the hands of men. In 1969’s The Green Man, for instance, the narrator labors to banish the ghost of a long-ago rapist. And Amis’s 1976 alternate-world novel The Alteration, as William Gibson has written, “depicts the oppression of patriarchy, given full reign by theocracy, as thoroughly as any novel prior to, say, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.”
To dismiss Amis as a misogynist would be an attempt to resolve the sort of frustrated justice he himself depicted over and over again. Great works, flawed people. The facts do not really compute.
I never saw that guy, the one who got in bed with me, ever again. I got up off the floor and moved on with my life because it did not occur to me that there was a choice. I did not consider calling the police, not for a second. I was too embarrassed as it was, and in my gut I know that if I had been raped that night, I wouldn’t have reported it. Imagine saying to the police: I’d just been dumped. I was very drunk. I was wearing this napkin of a dress. I don’t remember it. Dear God. Even now. I didn’t even say #MeToo last fall when the hashtag was trending because I didn’t want to have to explain anything to anyone. Also because I didn’t think of it as anything special. Also because it wasn’t the worst thing that ever happened to me. The breakup hurt me much worse, and for longer. For me, “trauma” doesn’t seem like the right word; whatever happened to me that night I just took as part of the fabric of experience. Why make a fuss, and open myself to judgement and blame? Wouldn’t I have to be a purer victim for it be really wrong in the eyes of our culture?
This points to the ultimate triumph of Amis’s Jenny—his sense of the full scope of her predicament. Jenny not only moves on with her life; she makes up with Patrick. In the last lines of the novel, Patrick says, “It was inevitable,” and Jenny responds, “Oh yes, I expect it was. But I can’t help feeling it’s rather a pity.” In the sequel, 1988’s Difficulties with Girls, Jenny and Patrick are married, have been married eight years as the novel begins. The rape has receded from view, becoming just another part of the knit of Jenny’s experience, and in this way, I’m convinced, Amis brings our dilemma into focus as few other novelists ever have.
The question that #MeToo is answering is, in part: What do we do with these experiences? How do we describe them and how do we integrate them into our lives, and why have we tried to integrate them? How have we been encouraged to erase them? Shouldn’t we hold them apart? What exact behavior becomes legible here, and who benefits when we keep our mouths shut? Almost 70 years after Take a Girl Like You, we’re having that public conversation. Amis was there in 1960. Rereading it and the rest of his catalogue over the last couple of months, I’ve come to see again the particular wingspan of his accomplishments as a writer. The range of the novels, the humor and precision in the poems. All that lively, fun, cutting intellectual energy put to such wonderful use—most of the time. If we’re left with irreducible ambiguities (and indefensible shit like “women and queers and children”), well, at least we get the art, too.
As Amis knew, misogyny and rape don’t take place at some great remove from art and life. They’re part of an ambient hum that drifts in and out of our consciousness, moving from background to foreground and back again. Then as now, that’s the awful problem.
Kingsley Amis is best remembered today as the author of comic novels—perhaps even the pre-eminent writer in that genre during the second half of the 20th century. But you would hardly guess it if you looked just at his output from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s. This was Kingsley Amis’s midlife crisis, and it showed up in the strangest sort of way.
Most comedians have a secret hankering for tragedy. But not Kingsley Amis. He was now determined to aim low, not high. His new plan involved a full-fledged assault on genre fiction in every one of its manifestations. In The Anti-Death League (1966) he embraced science fiction, and in The Green Man (1969) he delivered a horror story about ghosts haunting a country inn. The Riverside Villas Murder (1973) is an old-school British detective story, while The Alteration (1976) is an alternative history about England in a world that had never experienced the Reformation.
All this happened in the aftermath of Amis’s 1965 divorce from Hilary Ann Bardwell after more than 15 years of marriage. Amis was trying to make a new start with second wife Elizabeth Jane Howard, a marriage also destined for acrimony and eventual divorce. He was under severe financial pressure and gaining weight during this period—while also gaining a reputation as a very heavy drinker.
In the words of his biographer Zachary Leader, Amis had started treating alcohol as a “a hobby or interest, like jazz or science fiction.” Alexander Waugh would later claim that you could tell Amis had a serious drinking problem just by looking at photos of him from his late middle age onward—travails indicated by a “resplendent sheen on his forehead” which reflected a kind of boozer’s sweat, and a bewildered and aggressive demeanor known as a “Scotch gaze” to those familiar with the facial expressions of patrons leaving the bar at closing time.
Other aging males in this situation would solve their midlife crisis by buying a fancy sports car, but Amis didn’t know how to drive. So instead he turned to James Bond. Agent 007 was truly the right hero for the right author, a stylish gent who could save the world, meet a deadline, and still not miss cocktail hour. If Bond could defeat SPECTRE and SMERSH, surely he could help a 40-something bloke get back on his feet again?
Thus began Amis’s most ambitious genre gambit from this period, his 1968 spy novel Colonel Sun. Using the pseudonym Robert Markham, Amis had now shifted allegiances from Lucky Jim Dixon to the more debonair James Bond. This must have seemed like a huge opportunity at the time. Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, had died in 1964 at the very moment when the franchise was taking off. The film Goldfinger, released almost exactly a month after the author’s fatal heart attack at age 56, made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest-grossing movie to date. The film, shot for a budget of just $3 million, went on to earn $125 million at the box office—the biggest moneymaker of the year. After Fleming’s death, Amis had a legitimate opportunity to step into the driver’s seat of the hottest genre property of the era.
“I do expect to make quite a lot of money out of the venture,” Amis admitted in a 1968 article for The Observer. I’m hardly surprised. Ian Fleming ranks as the highest-earning British crime-fiction writer of all time, and his estate collected royalties on the sales of a staggering 60 million books during the two years following the author’s death. Amis only needed to hold on to this installed base of James Bond fans to ensure a life of wealth and luxury.
But Amis also ardently defended the move on its purely literary merits. A few years earlier, Amis had responded to criticisms of Fleming’s Thunderball with one of the most cogent arguments ever made for the worthiness of escapist fiction. “I think wish fulfillment is a common and normal human activity…No adult ought to feel like an adult all the time.” Even if the Bond novels simply served as a means of compensating for adolescent inferiority complexes, they would be “praiseworthy rather than blameworthy on that ground.”
This revealing comment from 1965 was made at the very outset of Amis’s plunge into genre fiction. He clearly felt that no apologies need be made for this choice, which could have unintended benefits for the psychic health of Britain’s youth. Yet there’s some heavy irony in the fact that Ian Fleming himself created the character of James Bond at the outset of a midlife crisis of his own. And he defended his decision in even more crass terms than did Amis. In 1962, in his treatise on “How to Write a Thriller,” Fleming admitted to inherent laziness and claimed that his secret to success was simply churning out 2,000 words per day and not thinking too much about it. “I never correct anything and I never go back to what I have written,” Fleming boasted. “If you once look back, you are lost. How could you have written this drivel?” Above all, Fleming cautioned against “introspection and self-criticism.” If you give in to those, “you will be lucky if you write 500 words a day and you will be disgusted with them into the bargain.”
Could Kingsley Amis really follow in the footsteps of an author with such an untutored technique? Could the droll humorist behind Lucky Jim and One Fat Englishman—and one of the most pleasing prose stylists of the post-WWII literary world—really match the snap, flash, and slapdash approach of Ian Fleming, a man who learned how to write by drafting memorandums for British Naval Intelligence?
Certainly Amis pared down his writing style for this project. He makes no attempt to draw on his nonpareil skill in comic fiction—a strange decision, given the successful moments of dark humor starting to show up in the successful James Bond movies around this same time. There’s hardly a metaphor in sight in these pages, nothing highbrow or poetic—with the strange exception of recurring parallels with the myth of Theseus inserted into Colonel Sun, a plot twist that would never have come from the pen of Mr. Fleming.
Amis, in other words, took great pains to imitate the Bond formula, or at least is superficial trappings. We know for a fact that he studied Fleming’s work with care and took copious notes. (For example, on the jacket of one Bond book, Amis wrote: “B. smiles 13 times by p. 165.”) And in many passages, he comes up with a reasonable facsimile of the original.
But in many other respects, the James Bond in these pages is unrecognizable. In the first big fight scene, Bond actually runs away from his attackers. In two other key confrontations, Bond comes up a duffer, incapable of effective action and forced to rely on his amateur associates to save him from sure death. He doesn’t even remember to use the fancy gadgets given him by Q at the outset of the story—in fact, James Bond’s most high-tech weapon in the decisive battle here is a knife. Above all, our superspy 007 shows himself susceptible to “introspection and self-criticism”—the two qualities most despised by Ian Fleming.
In other regards, Amis actually manages to surpass Fleming. His James Bond savors his booze like a connoisseur and never settles for a boring martini, shaken, not stirred. Amis’s sense of setting and landscape is outstanding, and the reader can tell that he carefully scouted out the Greek locations that serve as the backdrop for most of Colonel Sun. The psychological aspects of the story are deft and convincing, and they reveal a protagonist with a high degree of poise and self-awareness.
In other words, James Bond, in these pages, bears a striking resemblance to Kingsley Amis. Or at least to a somewhat improved Mr. Amis, as he might have preferred to see himself in his 40s. Yes, genre fiction is a kind of wish fulfillment.
Alas, this was not the formula that James Bond fans were looking for back in 1968. Colonel Sun sold reasonably well but not at the level of an Ian Fleming book. Even today, after 26 Bond movies, no one has tried to turn Amis’s effort into a film. And for good reason—this story isn’t especially cinematic and skips over the very elements that fans have come to love most in 007 films: outrageous exploits, flippant attitudes, and super-duper spy equipment.
The great oddity is that Kingsley Amis was perfectly well-equipped to bring those ingredients into the story. His mistake was to base his approach on the Ian Fleming novels rather than the even more successful Sean Connery movies that might have nudged him into a different direction. Instead, Amis came up with a protagonist as dry as those famous shaken martinis.
But there was one silver lining to this clouded outcome. Amis gave up spy fiction and soon returned to his forte, the comic novel. In 1986, he even won the Booker Prize for The Old Devils—beating out Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in the process. By this point, Amis had settled into the role of the irritable and beloved curmudgeon. It wasn’t quite like being a superspy—or even the author of a superspy bestseller—but it was the best possible typecasting: the part Amis was always really meant to play.
Image: Flickr/Tom Woodward
I took so long to learn how to drive. Eight years. “Learn” is perhaps the wrong word, because I spent many of those years strenuously avoiding addressing the issue out loud, or else expending equally vigorous effort into making my inability to drive a charming and integral feature of my personality. I have avoided many things I am frightened of in this way. I was a writer. Someone like me couldn’t drive a motorised vehicle, obviously; it would chip into the time I needed to ride a horse around my hilly and varied mental landscape. What was I, an accountant? A businesswoman in an office with some kinds of scanners? It got so at one point I freely drew equivalencies between the ability to drive and collusion with The Man. But even as I compared people with licenses to BP executives, I pined. I wanted to be able to do it so badly. I was just so scared, and so terrible. I was not good at any of it, but starting was the real problem. Starting on the flat, starting on a hill. Starting on a busy road where the idea was that the enraged hooting of the people behind would spur me into competence. Starting in an empty parking lot next to the dump, where the idea was that the rows of abandoned washing machines and rotting office chairs would make me see that I had all the time in the world. I just couldn’t do it. My heart would start beating in my ears so fast I became deaf. My legs wouldn’t work, and it was a good thing they didn’t, because if they did then what I would do is get out the car and run round and round in panicked circles until I fell to the floor exhausted.
I tried, though. I tried to start for six months, while driving instructor Hester patted my shoulder as I cried and told me that she knew it was hard, but that she knew I could do it, and that I needed to do it because it had been Too Long, now, and adults need to know how to drive. What if their boyfriends are choking on a piece of fruit and they need to get to hospital pronto? What if someone cracks their head open at the beach? Or someone gets bitten by a snake and we sit there waiting for the ambulance and watching the poison make its way up from their bitten leg to their heart, and it’s all because I can’t start a car? It just made me cry even more. I didn’t want to hear from well-meaning driving instructor Hester that it was hard but necessary. I wanted to hear that it was easy, and so fun, and like being in Wacky Races every day. No one ever said this to me, not in eight years, not even when I eventually pulled myself together and got a license and found out that driving is so easy, and so fun, and exactly like being in what I remember of the cartoon show Wacky Races, where everyone just zooms around and has a wonderful time. If only someone had told me. I have had a car now for five years and every day I drive up and down hills with the cruel proud smile of a Roman emperor on my face.
I am still intimately acquainted with the feeling of dread panic that accompanies Not Knowing How to Start, though. I get it every time I have to write something that I suspect someone other than my mom might read, or something that I think is important, or honestly just any time at all. It’s never the actual writing itself, which is always okay when I get going. It’s the starting, and the prospect of starting, and the thinking about how I will have to think about starting, that makes me want to vomit and die on the floor for a long time.
But a person can’t just die on the floor for their whole week, and so I have developed ways to cope. Over the years, I have compiled a list of writers who are the literary equivalent of an instructor patting me on the shoulder and promising me that the process is nothing but a complete riot from start to finish. I read them before I have to start, and it reassures me to an unbelievable degree. Sometimes specific essays or poems or profiles, sometimes a certain paragraph from a novel, other times the whole book. This is just off the top of my head, but for a while now I have relied on the following: John Jeremiah Sullivan’s profile on Bunny Wailer, Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” the second third of A Brief History of Seven Killings, George Saunders’s “Victory Lap,” Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (all of it, but especially the bits about Beli), Masande Ntshanga’s “Space,” Miriam Toews’s Irma Voth, Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” the first section of Derek Walcott’s “The Schooner Flight,” the ending of Lucky Jim (the whole thing, but especially “As a kind of token, he made his Sex Life in Ancient Rome Face”), the very end of Blood Meridian. Most recently: Molly Young’s profile on Amanda Chantal Bacon, Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, and Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy. Always: Denis Johnson. I have never figured out how a Denis Johnson story works, what the trick is, or if the trick even exists. I don’t know why I think about “Two Men” once a day, at least, or why every single time I go into a hospital I am just about overcome with the desire to relay the plot of “Emergency” to whoever is in the lift with me. I do know, though, that whenever I read him, I feel that the problem of starting is not really a problem at all. Just start. Just be Denis Johnson and make it seem like you tipped forward a bit in your seat and the whole story just fell out of your brain and onto the page. Just get going.
It’s not that I want to write like these people, or that I could even hope to try. It’s that they make me feel better, in the way that reading, say, Franz Kafka, does not. Kafka, whose every word assures me that writing is a terrible torment, and that it kills you off early. Kafka, febrile, writhing and twisting about in a chair that he purchased precisely because it was uncomfortable, his leaden fingers gripping his slightly broken fountain pen. The pen is made out of iron and holding it makes his fingers smell like the railings of a cold bus. The room is icy. I understand how Kafka’s agony would make a certain class of stoical person feel better about her own writing-related tortures. I am not one of these people. I need to be buoyed. I have no idea whether any of the writers on my list actually find the process to be enjoyable or not, but I read what they have written and I believe in my heart that they are having the time of their lives. They are driving up and down hills very fast, and their favorite song is playing on the radio. They have no trouble starting at all.
Image Credit: Wikimedia
I took Purity in one long gallop, reading it over four days at my friend’s house. Sarah had already read it, and was desperate for me to hurry up and finish so we could talk about it. The minute I put it down, I went to go find her. She was wearing clean white shorts and a miraculously uncreased blue linen shirt. I was wearing a regretted purchase from H&M — a white cotton dress with little roses on it that looked fine in the shop, but depressing on me. I told Sarah that I’d finished and she said, “Have you noticed,” she asked, “the clothes thing?”
Yes, the clothes thing. The whole point of Jonathan Franzen is the richness of his description, his eye for a telling detail. Where are all the clothes, then? Why are there almost no descriptions of what anyone is wearing? It seems like the most amazing oversight. How is it possible that two characters can have an extremely detailed conversation about a third character being “jealous of the internet”, or that we are subjected to a long and over-vivid description of Pip’s boring job, or the smells of different kinds of soil, and yet we are given almost nothing in the way of clothing? They all might as well be walking around naked. The only detailed description of an outfit in the first section, for instance, is the following: “she saw Stephen sitting on the front steps, wearing his little-boy clothes, his secondhand Keds and secondhand seersucker shirt.” The word “seersucker” is latched onto and used twice more (“she whispered into the seersucker of his shirt”; “she said, nuzzling the seersucker”). It gets slightly better as the novel progresses, but not by much. The first time Pip sees Andreas Wolf, for instance, his “glow of charged fame particles” are vividly described, but his clothes? No. Even Tom’s mother’s significant sundress is described only as being “of Western cut.” It’s unsettling.
I know this to be a petty criticism, but there are all kinds of nerds who write long, aggrieved blog posts about how some novelist got a car wrong, or misdated the death of an actress. Clothes have always been important to me, and while their fictional depiction might be beneath some people’s notice, it is always one of the first things I see. Clothes aren’t just something one puts on a character to stop her from being naked. Done right, clothes are everything — a way of describing class, affluence, taste, self-presentation, mental health, body image. Clothes matter. Besides all that, clothes are fun. Descriptions of dresses got me through War and Peace. I think about Dolores Haze’s outfits on a near-daily basis (“check weaves, bright cottons, frills, puffed-out short sleeves, snug-fitting bodices and generously full skirts!”) I think about her cotton pyjamas in the popular butcher-boy style. Holden Caulfield’s hounds-tooth jacket, and Franny Glass’s coat, the lapel of which is kissed by Lane as a perfectly desirable extension of herself. Sara Crewe’s black velvet dress in A Little Princess, and the matching one made for her favourite doll. The green dress in Atonement (“dark green bias-cut backless evening gown with a halter neck.”) Anna Karenina’s entire wardrobe, obviously, but also Nicola Six’s clothes in London Fields. Nicola Six’s clothes are fantastic.
Aviva Rossner’s angora sweaters and “socks with little pom-poms at the heels” in The Virgins. Pnin’s “sloppy socks of scarlet wool with lilac lozenges”, his “conservative black Oxfords [which] had cost him about as much as all the rest of his clothing (flamboyant goon tie included).” May Welland at the August meeting of the Newport Archery Club, in her white dress with the pale green ribbon. I quite often get dressed with Maria Wyeth from Play It As It Lays in mind (“cotton skirt, a jersey, sandals she could kick off when she wanted the touch of the accelerator”). I think about unfortunate clothes, as well. I think about Zora’s terrible party dress in On Beauty, and about how badly she wanted it to be right. The meanest thing Kingsley Amis ever did to a woman was to put Margaret Peele in that green paisley dress and “quasi-velvet” shoes in Lucky Jim. Vanity Fair’s Jos Sedley in his buckskins and Hessian boots, his “several immense neckcloths” and “apple green coat with steel buttons almost as large as crown pieces.”
This list changes all the time, but my current favorite fictional clothes are the ones in A Good Man is Hard to Find. There is no one quite like Flannery O’Connor for creeping out the reader via dress. Bailey’s “yellow sport shirt with bright blue parrots designed on it” contrasts in the most sinister way with the The Misfit’s too tight blue jeans, the fact that he “didn’t have on any shirt or undershirt.” I’d also like to make a plug for one of The Misfit’s companions, “a fat boy in black trousers and a red sweat shirt with a silver stallion embossed on the front of it.” Any Flannery O’Connor story will contain something similar, because she used clothes as exposition, as dialogue, as mood. Anyone to who clothes matter will have their own highlight reel, and will argue strenuously for the inclusion of Topaz’s dresses in I Capture the Castle, or Gatsby’s shirts, or Dorothea Brooke’s ugly crepe dress. They will point out, for instance, that I have neglected to mention Donna Tartt, top five fluent speaker of the language of dress. What of Judge Holden’s kid boots, in Blood Meridian? What about Ayn Rand, who, as Mallory Ortberg has noted, is just about unparalleled?
The point is, we do not lack for excellent and illuminating descriptions of clothes in literature. Given such riches, it is perhaps churlish to object to the times when people get it wrong. Haven’t we been given enough? Apparently not. Just as I can think of hundreds of times when a writer knocked it out of the park, attire-wise, (Phlox’s stupid clothes in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, all those layers and scarves and hideous cuffs), I can just as easily recall the failures. There are a variety of ways for an author to get clothes wrong, but I will stick to just two categories of offense here.
1. Outfits that don’t sound real
Purity again, and Andreas’s “good narrow jeans and a close-fitting polo shirt.” This is wrong. Andreas is a charismatic weirdo, a maniac, and I struggle to believe that he would be slinking around in such tight, nerdy clothes. Another jarring example is Princess Margaret’s dress, in Edward St. Aubyn’s Some Hope: “the ambassador raised his fork with such an extravagant gesture of appreciation that he flicked glistening brown globules over the front of the Princess’s blue tulle dress.” The Princess here is supposed to be in her sixties. Would a post-menopausal aristocrat really be wearing a blue tulle dress? Is the whole thing made out of tulle? Wouldn’t that make it more the kind of thing a small girl at a ballet recital would choose? St. Aubyn’s novels are largely autobiographical, and he has mentioned in interviews that he met the allegedly blue-tulle-dress-wearing Princess on a number of occasions. Maybe that really is what she was wearing. It doesn’t sound right, though, or not to me.
One last example, from The Rings of Saturn: “One of them, a bridal gown made of hundreds of scraps of silk embroidered with silken thread, or rather woven over cobweb-fashion, which hung on a headless tailor’s dummy, was a work of art so colourful and of such intricacy and perfection that it seemed almost to have come to life, and at the time I could no more believe my eyes than now I can trust my memory.” One believes the narrator, when he says that he cannot trust his memory, because this actually doesn’t sound like a dress, or not a very nice one. It sounds like a dress a person might buy from a stall at a psytrance party. The word “colourful” here is a dead giveaway that the narrator does not necessarily have a particular dress in mind: what kind of colours, exactly? “Intricate” is also no good — it seeks to give the impression of specificity, but is in fact very vague.
2. Outfits that make too much of a point
Many people are suspicious of fashion. They do not trust it or like it, and, while they see that it serves a purpose, they wish it was somehow enforceable to make everyone wear a uniform at all times. Deep down, they also believe that anyone who does take pleasure in it is lying to themselves, or doing it for the wrong reasons. I argue with such people in my head all the time, because this is not what clothes are about for me, at all. I argue with the books they have written as well. To be fair to Jeffrey Eugenides, he is mostly excellent on the subject of dress. The Lisbon girls’ prom dresses and the Obscure Object’s High Wasp style are in my own personal highlight reel. The Marriage Plot is different, though. It is deeply cynical on the subject of dress. Clothes in that novel are always an affectation or a disguise, a way for a character to control the way others see her.
Here is Madeline, getting Leonard back “Madeleine … put on her first spring dress: an apple-green baby-doll dress with a bib collar and a high hem.” Here is Madeline, trying to seem like the kind of girl who is at home in a semiotics class: “She took out her diamond studs, leaving her ears bare. She stood in front of the mirror wondering if her Annie Hall glasses might possibly project a New Wave look…She unearthed a pair of Beatle boots … She put up her collar, and wore more black.” And here is Madeline, failed Bohemian, despondent semiotician, after she has gone back to reading novels: “The next Thursday, “Madeleine came to class wearing a Norwegian sweater with a snowflake design.” After college, she realizes that she can dress the way she has always, in her haute-bourgeois heart, wanted to dress: like a Kennedy girlfriend on holiday. Another costume, for a girl who doesn’t know who she really is. The problem with these clothes is not that they don’t sound real, or that they are badly described. It’s that Madeline only ever wears clothes to make a point, to manipulate or to persuade her audience that she is someone other than she really is. Worse, there is the implication that she has no real identity outside from what she projects. It’s exact opposite approach to O’Connor’s wardrobe choices in A Good Man is Hard to Find. The guy in the red sweat shirt, with the silver stallion? He is not wearing those clothes for anyone but himself. Same with The Misfit and his frightening jeans.
Those who are suspicious of fashion tend to believe that people (especially women) only ever wear clothes as a form of armor, a costume, and never because they get pleasure out of it. Madeline, in other words, doesn’t wear clothes because she likes them, but because she likes what they do. I find this line of thinking very depressing.
There are other categories (clothes that I think sound ugly, clothes in over-researched historical novels where the writer takes too much relish in describing jerkins and the smell of wet leather etc.), but these two stand out. I’m not asking for anything too excessive — just a few more details, a bit more effort when getting a character dressed. Clothes matter, to some of us, and we need to see them done right.
Image: John Singer Sargent, Wikipedia
In late July, a kind of spell fell over London’s West End as the latest iteration of the Harry Potter saga opened: a play that even the New York Times’ imperious theatre critic Ben Brantley deemed magical. “The Eighth Story. Nineteen Years Later,” as the tagline goes, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts 1 & 2 picks up where the last film left off, as Harry, Hermione, Ron, Ginny, Draco, and their receding hairlines drop their Hogwarts-bound offspring at Platform 9 ¾. Subsequently released as a script, The Cursed Child almost immediately broke book sales records, consumed, like the “Hamiltome,” by hundreds of thousands of fans who have no hope of ever finding their way inside the theater.
Whether you consider Harry Potter and The Cursed Child exhilarating fan service or terrible fanfic, its purpose is less to give us a “where are they now?” than to exhume the original series and examine the workings of the plot. The discovery of a contraband Time Turner by Albus Potter and Scorpio Malfoy — the sons of Harry and Draco — allows us to consider a Ronmione-free future; a scenario in which Potter and Malfoy offspring are sorted into Slytherin and develop a close, Drarry-like bond; and the cosmic importance of that gif of Neville Longbottom slaying Nagini. But beyond the threads of parental legacies and the heroism of friendship, going back in time to fiddle with the knobs teaches us one thing above all: the formative properties of humiliation.
[SPOILERS] When Scorpio Malfoy and Albus Potter travel back to 1995 to save Cedric from dying in the Triwizard Cup, they disarm him, tweaking the events of the Yule Ball such that Hermione believes Viktor Krum played a part in sabotaging Cedric, and attends the Yule Ball with platonic friend Roonil instead. Without the Hermione-Krum pairing, Ron is never humiliated into admitting his feelings for his buddy (in the original story, “Ron got jealous and behaved like a prat”); without the catalyst of the crying on the stairs and ginger angst, Ron marries Padma Patil, and has a naughty son, Pradu. (Won’t someone think of Pradu?) Our lamb Cedric is still killed.
On a second trip back to 1995, Scorpio and Albus inadvertently humiliate Cedric with an engorgement spell that puts him out of the running for the cup. This ripples into a future in which the spiteful Cedric is a Death Eater (so un-Hufflepuff!), Harry is killed and Voldemort lives on as lord: “SCORPIUS: Humiliating Cedric turns him into a very angry young man, and then he became a Death Eater and—and—it all went wrong. Really wrong… He killed Professor Longbottom.” Yes, patron saint of awkward adolescence, the late-blooming Neville Longbottom, is another victim of this alternate future in which people greet each other with the humorless “For Voldemort and Valor.”
Worse, perhaps, killing off Harry in a more efficient manner (fewer books) robs us of perhaps the greatest gif of all time; that of the infamous Draco-Voldey hug that comes to mind any time I find myself in a conspicuous social situation.
The Draco we see in a meddled-with future in which Voldemort lives is the same knob we know from the original book series, sans-humiliating clinch, rather than the soft, aggrieved “Sorry about your floor, Minerva” Draco introduced at the beginning of The Cursed Child — a character who appears to be a better father than Harry.
The common theme with all of these toggles is humiliation. To even get the Time Turner, located inside Minister of Magic Hermione Granger-Weasley’s office, young Albus Potter takes polyjuice to disguise himself as his Uncle Ron, and winds up kissing his aunt (“Let’s have another baby!”), as his disgusted friend Scorpio watches on.
Make no mistake, bollocksing things up in front of your peers and suffering a metaphysical death from embarrassment is a fundamental part of the British human condition, if one that is downplayed in the fan worship abroad. The parts of Harry Potter most glommed onto by Americans are patriotic concerns like honorable sacrifice, bravery in the face of an existential threat, unabashed declarations of love, and a fierce work ethic. But the heart of Harry Potter is really the Weasley’s burrow, that den of poor, gangly, knit-sweatered gingers, and perhaps most emphatically in the character of the endlessly put-upon Won-Won.
You can feel the difference of tone in the recently announced American wizarding houses, which lack the whimsy and ironic pride of their British counterparts: where the name Gryffindor is linguistically silly enough to give its position as the Hero House a self-deprecating vibe, “Thunderbird” sounds just a bit too into itself. My American husband was recently sorted into Hufflepuff and covered his head with a pillow, misunderstanding the hidden honor in being deemed a badger. Harvard is the Harvard of Harvard; in the U.S., there isn’t the offsetting pride in being the slightly silly underdog.
Contrast Donald Trump and Boris Johnson: both are flame-haired buffoons, but Trump is virtually incapable of admitting his own stupidity, where Johnson will at least give us a self-effacing photo op in a climbing harness. Britons are, as ever, on the watch for numpties.
Back to literature, Evelyn Waugh’s hero Paul Pennyfeather kicks off Decline and Fall with a drunk, trouserless jog through Scone College that gets him booted from Oxford and installed as a teacher at a boarding school. From there, things generally get more and more degrading (“‘We class schools, you see, into four grades: Leading School, First-rate School, Good School, and School. Frankly,’ said Mr. Levy, ‘School is pretty bad.’”), until he fakes his own death and starts again. It’s the penultimate British tale!
Or consider Lucky Jim, whose hapless Dixon exists in a world of imbeciles, each stupider than the last. The dramatic high point of the novel comes when Dixon gets up to deliver a lecture and prove himself to the gallery shortly after taking a couple of “tonics” to calm his nerves. The result is a mash of hysterical incoherence, accents, and impersonations that sends the hall into disarray and gave me such an exhilarating sense of spiritual shame on Dixon’s behalf that I needed four crumpets to overcome my emotions.
The plot of Pride and Prejudice is really just “well-to-do people desperately trying to stave off public embarrassment” — which is why the moment where Mr. Bennet ushers Mary off the pianoforte is one of the most cringe-worthy for me — and adapted nicely into the reindeer sweater and sundry indignities of Bridget Jones’s Diary, while one of the worst single details in 1984 is the humiliating way that husband and wife engage in sexual relations (“She would lie there with shut eyes, neither resisting nor cooperating, but submitting. It was extraordinarily embarrassing, and, after a while, horrifying.”). Even Thomas Hardy understood how generally embarrassing it was to be a woman in Victorian England. More recently, Caitlin Moran turned adolescent awkwardness into a roaring tale with her YA novel How to Build a Girl.
The promise of English literature, and YA lit most especially, is that we shall rise like Phoenixes from the ashes of our latest mortification.
Several years ago on a ski-date, I tumbled down a cliff face after an attempt to gracefully execute a jump turn failed, and I found myself leaning out into space. My skis were plucked from my feet as I somersaulted over and over, beaming off my back, head, shoulders. Certain that this was my last, sublime mistake in this world, the only thought that crossed my mind was, “How embarrassing this is, the hot guy from ski school watching me die.” That is how deep my instinct to shame runs; that is the legacy the British bequeathed my homeland, Australia.
But is it heroic? I think the opposite; being cut down a peg or two stops the metastasizing of narcissistic personalities, the ultimate example of which is Voldemort, with his various attempts to stow his soul in different places. In The Cursed Child, the most sympathetic character is the sweet Scorpius Malfoy, who grows up dogged with the rumors that he was the product of some freaky time-travel IVF with Voldey.
Embarrassment allows a concession, a change of heart, a level of empathy, where the earnestness of someone who knows they are right does not. People aren’t crazy to feel like the atmosphere amid the election is a little Wizarding War-ish; the problem is that everyone is so entrenched in their positions, so coddled in self-righteousness, that compromise and conversation have become impossible.
J.K. Rowling, who didn’t write The Cursed Child (though she conceived the story with John Tiffany and the playwright Jack Thorne), has been the flashpoint for any criticism, most commonly for creating plot holes in the original story, and for allowing its weaknesses to be re-examined in this speculative trip back. I’m all aboard the bandwagon though, because a willingness to sift the contents of her masterpiece before an audience of millions, and even allow us to second-guess her choices, has to be unprecedented among authors. It’s almost as though she’s letting us go through her old wardrobe, where we are guaranteed to pull out her parachute pants and tiny backpacks and squeal “What is this?!!!” And that’s a bit heroic.
Little known fact: MOOCs (massive open online courses) were invented by Vladimir Nabokov in his campus novel, Pnin, long before Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig launched their “Online Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” in 2011.
During a dinner party thrown by the novel’s scholar protagonist, the Russian émigré Timofey Pnin, a Waindell College colleague suggests “lock[ing] up the students in a soundproof cell and eliminat[ing] the lecture room….Phonograph records on every possible subject will be at the isolated student’s disposal.”
When one guest protests that the personality of the professor surely counts for something, another suggests that “One could have Timofey televised.” And thus was the seed of online education planted, to bloom years later with Udacity, edX, and Coursera.
Now the University of Iowa International Writing Program is getting in on the MOOC action. The storied program is conducting its first massive open online course this summer, a six-week, “interactive study of the practice of the writing poetry.” To deliver the first “video session” for its new MOOC, Iowa is piping in the former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass, which calls to mind his great line from “Meditations at Lagunitas”: “Longing, we say, because desire is full of/ endless distances.”
I have no doubt that the eloquent and witty Haas can bridge those “endless distances” with his presentation, but the Iowa course got me wondering about how certain fictional professors would fare in the world of online education. Which heroes of those quaint, insular works known as “campus novels” would be most adaptable to the MOOC format? Which—through eccentricity, incompetence, irresponsibility, megalomania, erudition or media savvy—could best attract the teeming hordes of online learners? I present seven candidates.
Timofey Pnin (Pnin): Laundry Hour
Pnin is delighted by the tongue-in-cheek proposal to televise his classes, logical given that he is a bit of an exhibitionist, “brazenly” displaying a bit of calf when crossing his legs in the novel’s opening scene. However, his “mythopoetic” mispronunciations and teaching style make him a less-than-ideal ideal candidate for a MOOC:
…he preferred reading his lectures, his gaze glued to his text, in a slow, monotonous baritone that seemed to climb one of those interminable flights of stairs used by people who dread elevators.
When Pnin does go off-text, he embarks on long digressions, “nostalgic excursions in broken English,” which endlessly amuse him while bemusing his students.
And yet he is not without potential for broader appeal. Perhaps a YouTube channel might be a better fit for Pnin, especially considering the slapstick comedy arising from his “constant war with insensate objects.” I for one would tune in to watch him indulge his “passionate intrigue” with washing machines. Despite being banned from using his landlord’s, he casts “aside all decorum and caution” and tosses anything he can think of into it “just for the joy of watching through that porthole what looked like an endless tumble of dolphins with the staggers.” Viral sensations have been built on flimsier conceits.
William Stone (Stoner): Copulating Verbs
Stoner’s initial dourness eventually gives way to a brightening gloom as the protagonist’s disappointments and suffered indignities mount. When a snide colleague quips that “To Stoner, copulation is restricted to verbs,” he inadvertently gets at the truth behind the mild-mannered Stoner’s long teaching career: it is a love story. The poem that sparks Stoner’s love affair with literature is Shakespeare’s Sonnet #73, whose subject learns “To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”
Though the novel begins with a clinical assessment of a man who never rises above Assistant Professor and whom students don’t remember “with any sharpness,” it gradually reveals the intensity of a love felt for people and grammar alike:
It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance. To a woman or to a poem, it said simply: Look! I am alive.
As his mistress and fellow teacher says at one point, “Lust and learning… That’s really all there is, isn’t it?” When taught by Stoner, the Latin Tradition and Renaissance Literature has never sounded hotter.
Hank Devereaux (Straight Man): Negotiation Strategies
Richard Russo’s Hank Devereaux, the “physical embodiment of the perversity principle,” seems the most MOOC-ready professor (despite suffering from what his doctor calls a “hysterical prostrate”). Variously known as Lucky Hank or “Judas Peckerwood,” he is the entertaining chair of an English Department at a small college in rural Pennsylvania whose antics make him into something of a local TV personality. His spiritual guide is William of Occam, whose eponymous principle holds that the simplest of competing explanations is the better. The problem for Hank is that he is in the middle of a giant farce, and in farce finding any explanation, however simple, for the multiplying mishaps is itself a tricky proposition.
In his valiant effort to secure an operating budget amidst funding cutbacks and shifting priorities—the campus is breaking ground on a new “Technical Careers Campus”—Hank grasps that he must fight farce with farce. Demonstrating how to be an effective negotiator in front a pool of reporters, he makes the following threat:
Starting Monday, I kill a duck a day until I get a budget. This is a nonnegotiable demand. I want the money on my desk in unmarked bills by Monday morning, or this guy will be soaking in orange sauce and full of cornbread stuffing by Monday night.
That he is wearing a novelty nose, and holding a goose instead of a duck, in no way diminishes the soundness of his strategy in dealing with benighted administrators or tight-fisted legislatures. In terms of professors making spectacles of themselves, Hank is rivaled only by David Kepesh from Philip Roth’s The Breast.
Julian Morrow (The Secret History): “The Terrible Seduction of the Dionysiac Ritual”
Moving from one charismatic professor to another, we encounter Julian Morrow, The Secret History’s Classics professor who encourages his Classics students to embrace their inner godheads:
If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn.
Set in a small New England College town, Hampden, Donna Tartt’s novel is about the bad effects of good education—or rather, a supremely, seductively good education. Guided by their brilliant teacher through the mysteries of the Greek canon, Julian’s tutees, beguiled by their teacher’s statements about the self-annihilating pleasures of Dionysian ritual, decide to try it for themselves. The unfortunate local man who is subsequently torn apart by the maddened cohort probably wishes they had majored in economics instead.
A marvelous, “magical talker,” Julian seems like the kind of Nietzschean “super professor” that critics of MOOCs fear they will create. As one of his students writes in his semester evaluation: “How…can I possibly make the Dean of Studies understand that there is a divinity in our midst?” What better spokesman for the bloviating apostles of disruptive online education than a man who can say with a straight face: “I hope we are all ready to leave the phenomenal world and enter into the sublime?”
One reservation is that Julian’s small coterie did serious damage with their orgiastic rites and fits of “telestic madness.” I shudder to think what would happen should Julian’s eloquent lectures inspire not just four students but a massive group to murderous states of Bacchic frenzy.
Jim Dixon (Lucky Jim): Facial Recognition
Jim Dixon, the protagonist of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, is an adjunct seeking to secure a more permanent position from his “incurable evader” of an advisor. As an academic, Jim displays an “enforced avoidance of anything ambitious,” though he does exert an impressive control over his pliable face, pushing himself to put it “through all its permutations of loathing.”
“I’m the sort of person you soon get to the end of,” Dixon admits to the beautiful fiancée of his advisor’s son, an admission belied by the inexhaustible supply of faces he pulls. Grotesque though they may be, they provide a creative outlet and demonstrate a kind of genius, both of which are lacking in his dissertation: The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485. There is Jim’s Eskimo face, his lemon-sucking face, his mandrill face, his Evelyn Waugh face, and an improvised face so savage it doesn’t have a name:
Gripping his tongue between his teeth, he made his cheeks expand into little hemispherical balloons; he forced his upper lip downwards into an idiotic pout; he protruded his chin like the blade of a shovel. Throughout he alternately dilated and crossed his eyes.
When Jim gets the girl and a plum, non-academic job at novel’s end—the luck has to change at some point—he has no corresponding expression. A smile, presumably, would be too pedestrian, so until he has time to settle into his new, sunnier life, he settles for his “Sex Life in Ancient Rome” face, which every online learner should have in his or her repertoire.
Professors Zapp and Swallow (Changing Places): Humiliation on a Massive Scale
It might seem perverse to mention David Lodge’s Changing Places in the context of MOOCs, given that no campus novel emphasizes the effect of physical presence on a campus—Euphoric State (UC Berkeley) or Rummidge (University of Birmingham)—on the personal and intellectual life more clearly than Lodge’s. Morriz Zapp, the author of “five fiendishly clever books” travels to England, while Philip Swallow, the stalled British academic comes to America to understand “American literature for the first time in his life…its prodigality and indecorum, its yea-saying heterogeneity.” The two professors, who begin the novel crossing each other on planes, end up with their respective wives/mistress in a hotel room, the culmination to the various kinds of cultural and sexual exchanges that occur throughout.
Though Zapp can reportedly “make Austen swing,” a better use of his and Swallow’s talents would be in a course on “Humiliation,” the parlor game made famous in Changing Places. In it, players admit to not having read a canonical book. The winning player is the one whose selection has been read by the most number of other players. That is, the winner is the player who has demonstrated the most embarrassing gaps in his or her reading list. (In the novel, a hyper-competitive professor cops to never having read Hamlet; he wins the game but loses his job.)
Picture it: “Humiliation” played on a massive scale, transformed from a parlor game into a sociological survey that could reveal once and for all the most famous text one has not read. What better way to unleash two of the Internet’s greatest powers, crowd sourcing and shame? I’ll start. The Grapes of Wrath. (This is anonymous, right?)
Image via mayeesherr/Flickr
This year I read articles about the San Francisco housing market and the Oakland housing market and the rise of the tech class and the death of the middle class, and I had anxieties. But I was fortunate to have a job, so I subscribed to three magazines, two of which I read. I read trend pieces in which I recognized myself because I have student loans and no car and no house and no offspring. I read online guides for how to introduce cats to babies, in case the latter condition should change. I read laments on the death of the humanities and felt morose. I read tweets where people said they didn’t like Frances Ha and felt misunderstood. I read the numbers on the scale and learned that I am fatter than I was the last time I wrote my Year in Reading. I read warnings about sitting being the new smoking and wondered if smoking will become okay by comparison. I read the ingredients in my lotion and wondered if they are giving me a rash. I read a WebMD thing about my rash and wondered if my lotion would be harmful for a baby. I read Amazon reviews for natural flea treatments and learned that there are none.
When I wasn’t reading a bunch of depressing shit, I read some strange and wonderful things. I read Dissident Gardens and thought it was so overwhelmingly wonderful that I read The Fortress of Solitude right away, and was underwhelmed by comparison. I read half of William Vollmann’s An Afghanistan Picture Show, which was not wonderful, and then I read all of his article about not being The Unabomber, which was. I read Ross Raisin’s Waterline. I read The Kindly Ones and wanted to talk to someone about it, but it’s old news and everyone is arguing about whether The Goldfinch and The Circle are bad or good. So I read four-year-old commentaries by Garth Risk Hallberg and Andrew Seal and had an imaginary talk with them both, and I think we all felt good at the end.
I read the memoir of Donald Antrim and felt very moved by his description of an outlandish kimono constructed by his mother, and wondered what it would be like to be the mother of Donald Antrim, or to have the mother that Donald Antrim had. I read an interview with Charles Manson, but did not care to consider what it would be like to be his mother. I read Tortilla Flat. I read Cannery Row. I read the Granta collection of under-40-year-olds and felt sort of stunned and worthless at the end. A story by Tahmima Anam about Dubai and falling continues to haunt me at odd moments. I read another story about falling, by Lionel Shriver, and got the spooky feeling I always get from Lionel Shriver, that she found the diary I would never actually keep, containing all my most awful thoughts. I wondered if Lionel Shriver is a witch. I re-read Of Human Bondage for the utter joy of it. I re-read Lucky Jim. I re-read Bridget Jones’s Diary. I got a cold and stayed home sick and re-read both memoirs of Beverly Cleary, and wished that I could stay home all week. I re-read Betsy was a Junior. I re-read The Adventures of Augie March, and wondered how it could have failed to show up on this list.
I read more things than I anticipated about Miley Cyrus. I somehow also read an interview with the woman whose husband committed infidelity with Kristen Stewart, accompanied by a picture of her nipples. I watched the music video for “Blurred Lines” and felt for a moment how very much people must hate women to come up with this shit. I realized that some of my favorite books by women are actually by men. I resolved to read more books by women. I felt obscurely annoyed at society for necessitating extra work on my part to correct its imbalance. I felt annoyed at myself for having this thought. I read The Group, which was a revelation. I read The Dud Avocado. I read The Conservationist and The Debut. I read The Affairs of Others and some good stories by Kate Milliken. Now I note that my reading list, like Ms. Cyrus, has a race problem–another thing requiring redress.
Next year I’ll do better, in this and all other matters.
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“HELLO MY NAME IS MARX,” read the candy cane colored name tag handed to me. One woman actually said that I looked like a Marx, the scruffy beard and omni-directional head of hair. Another teased that she and I ought to make Marx the latest mintage in Manhattan baby name trending by starting a blog to promote it. A University of Chicago grad said, “Go” — she was ready to talk me under the table with Marxist theory, and when I protested how little I actually remembered off the cuff, she said she would settle for Durkheim, Weber, or Mills. Wasn’t there someone? Goffman? I responded, Nietzsche: Down with the old gods, up with the mania for replacing them! Then our time was up. I joked about how I intended to use the event and number of dates I would meet as a chance to rally support for socialist thought and motion toward a groundswell to upend the capitalist system, which, didn’t they agree, had gone on long enough?
Nobody said they didn’t.
With doomed grandeur, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “there are no second acts in American lives” — not accounting, perhaps, for the fortune and fame that could follow publication of a memoir premised on there being no second act. Fitzgerald lived true to his word: his twilight in Hollywood, the mythic cradle of American radical self-reinvention, figured as a long wait for the notes of the nightingale’s song to sound. Marx, on the other hand, declared that everything that has ever happened happens twice: “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” The third time, fourth, fifth, and so on, we are on our own.
Not everyone knows, per Jonathan Sperber’s recent bio, that Karl Marx’s earliest manuscript was called The Book of Love. Student Marx composed the collection of romantic poems for childhood sweetheart and lifelong partner Jenny von Westphalen. Over the course of their lives together, his romance with Jenny transformed into a romance of a different kind, a belief in the inevitability of international revolution whose contours were somewhat hazy, if keenly felt.
This is what happened on the day before Valentine’s Day, 2013, a Wednesday, at the Housing Works Bookstore on Crosby Street just south of the Calvin Klein billboard in SoHo. A first ever. A good cause: “I Like Your Glasses: Literary Speed Dating.” Each participant found at the entrance a neon green envelope, including a library card in manila sleeve for taking notes on each “date,” and a name tag featuring the handle of a character from a favorite book (favorites requested earlier by e-mail). These would be our pseudonyms for the night. Each date would last an almost militantly enforced four minutes. A single case of lingering — whether affectionate, desirous, or uncertain — could cause the entire caterpillar crawl to go legs up. There was to be no lingering. Lingering is for books.
We each were to have brought one, a title to display for the sake of conversation. From my messenger bag I drew John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse. Each “date” station had a name — my point of origin dubbed Heorot for Beowulf’s banquet hall where Grendel was a regular gate-crasher. Café tables set in rows through the heart of Housing Works Bookstore’s assembly space formed the stations, solicitous waiters snaking around them to offer speed-date refreshment, tonic of composure or forgetting.
Two emcees spoke over a scratchy sound system by the bathrooms, raging like Dylan Thomas against the frenetic buzz of our voices. They joked we would hate them and use our hatred of them as grist for conversation with the strangers across from us. I succeeded at not mentioning them until my final match of the night, a brunette with an anchor tattooed on her bare shoulder. Her pseudonym was Estha, one plucked by the organizers’ naming committee from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. I looked at her and she looked at me, fleetingly at one in our total disdain for the emcees as they pleaded everyone be quiet. In that moment, I am sure of it, we both wished for their overthrow.
This was as close to authentic connection as I found. Estha was probably about five years my senior (although, impossible to say: she could have been 29, too, a lover of the wind and the rain and the sun on her cheeks). She said that she was bouncing back from a divorce to the guy with whom she had cofounded a restaurant in Brooklyn — the same restaurant, it turns out, I went to on my first date with the last woman to cohabitate with me. I was touched by the coincidence and the total lack of rationale for verbalizing the coincidence to Estha, as we had about a minute left in our exchange, and a top 10 rule of first dates, the real kind, is not to mention exes unless desiring to come off as a pet pitifully leashed to a station wagon pulling obliviously away and gaining speed.
My eyes might have gone a little fuzzy, all the same, and Estha took my expression of fuzziness for susceptibility, emphasizing how she always made sure to mention the name of the restaurant she and her ex founded when possible. I realized Estha, like me, was attempting to find a purpose for the evening, what it had really all been about, if it had not been what it was supposed to be about (the exceedingly worthy charitable cause, notwithstanding). What it had all really been about, I decided, was capitalism, making a product of ourselves and pitching it to strangers at four-minute intervals: life as an ad incarnate. Estha, at least, had the class not to be promoting specifically herself but a physical location in the world that she had played a part in dreaming a reinvention for, one that we, any of us guys carouselling by, could go visit.
There was also Karenina from Idaho — a girl from Idaho! — and June, who was quiet, and Ruth, whose pseudonym’s source text was, for me, a winner, and Grace, who knew her political and sociological thinkers, and Kit, who laughed at me or an awareness of the cool, amusing film through which we saw each other, the cattle stall of the standard speed dating experience retrofitted with funhouse literary mirrors.
I tried not to steal peeks at the next woman over both because it was rude to the woman I was speaking with and because I wanted every meeting to be a surprise with a genuine response, not performed or calculated. Though, Reader, I tell you, my naïve ambition became difficult to maintain as I stood up to move on to Calliope of the Marx babies, then Babette, who had the air of a cigarette-smoking beauty queen, and Anne, and Hazel, and Lizzy, and my consciousness of the fact that the more I repeated myself in response to the same questions, the less sincere I became, our comedian hosts droning on, their voices insistent, their words incomprehensible, the face presently across from me feeling more and more like a test-marketing subject for a new product which was My Projected Self. Shame at projections gone awry sloughed away as new conversation played immediately over old, like a new album in place of last year’s, with Daisy, who wondered whether or not she ought to read The Corrections, and Margaret Peel, who was significantly older and to whom I said I was probably not the guy she imagined meeting that evening, but what about her make-believe name, its literary origin? (Lucky Jim, she explained, our organizers having conflated her favorite author, Martin Amis, with his father, Kingsley, then named her after a character in Kingsley Amis’s most famous novel, a novel she had never read…although I had, I was reminded then), and Isabel, whose expression was like a runner’s in the early miles of a race, and finally, Estha, of the anchor tattoo and lovable Brooklyn restaurant.
One thing about capitalism, I have noticed, is that its appeal is never stronger than in the aftermath of a breakup, love spilling forth from the vessel that shaped it, all that energy and longing to be known and to know in turn seeking new forms to cleave to, things that did not previously define you. Conceivably a human being could live this way forever, making bonds, breaking bonds, and reaching out through expenditures of concentration and will to take on more trappings, assume other forms, a kind of perennial runaway from the prurience of small-town gossip and stifling judgment, glorying in the purity of the new.
There is what we forget and what we remember, and I cannot say for certain how accurately I have recalled an event now seven months distant, or where fiction, despite conscious intention, has blurred the edges of fact and so made them softer, the facts, but thematically more concentrated, molding from a chaos of temporarily overlapping paths something that reads as almost retraceable. A moment of possible return.
To find yourself speed dating is to acknowledge, at least to yourself, not without humor, a waywardness of romantic course, to become increasingly conscious of yourself as an advertisement for yourself, a mercurial herald, as you move from one table to the next, one consciousness and then another and another flitting by image-saturated eyes. In your remove, the recognitions you have but don’t speak, a story begins to build, refined by each new face, each curious glance, the unspoken attempt to find a hold in the world everyone shares. It is almost possible to believe that the world consists entirely of surfaces and that the ones presently before us are the only we will ever know.
If it is true that capitalism is the final organizing principle humanity will ever know, the snaking tables around which we are to carousel forever, but not just capitalism in the abstract, but this capitalism, where big companies merge with big companies, big publishers with big publishers — the fewer meaningful players on the field, the less actual competition, the closer our capitalism resembles Soviet Russia, a state ruled by one all-encompassing company whose elite direct the bureaucratic circus — then I might have been seeing symptoms in the material conditions of the speed dating scene, or the shape the material conditions gave my sense of self, those of us on the carousel that night in February. As we passed each other by, our personalities become weightless, the stories inside the books we carried felt more and more real.
Image Credit: Flickr/Alan O’Rourke
I would dearly love to be able to start this piece by saying that
The Poor Mouth is the funniest book ever written. It’d be a real lapel-grabber, for one thing, an opening gambit the casual Millions reader would find it hard to walk away from. And for all I know, it might well be true to say such a thing. Because here’s how funny it is: It’s funnier than A Confederacy of Dunces. It’s funnier than Money or Lucky Jim. It’s funnier than any of the product that any of your modern literary LOL-traffickers (your Lipsytes, your Shteyngarts) have put on the street. It beats Shalom Auslander to a bloody, chuckling pulp with his own funny-bone. And it is, let me tell you, immeasurably funnier than however funny you insist on finding Fifty Shades of Grey. The reason I can’t confidently say that it’s the funniest book ever written is that I haven’t read every book ever written. What I can confidently say is that The Poor Mouth is the funniest book by Flann O’Brien (or Myles na gCopaleen, or any other joker in the shuffling deck of pseudonyms Brian O’Nolan wrote under). And if this makes it, by default, the funniest book ever written, then all well and good; but it is certainly the funniest book I’ve ever read.
And I’ve read it maybe five or six times at this point: first as a teenager, then again as an undergraduate when I was supposed to be reading other much less funny things, and then again another couple of times while writing a Masters thesis – a terrific wheeze of a Borges/O’Brien comparative reading. And I’ve just now revisited it afresh, partly to reassure myself before writing this piece that it is just as funny as I remember it being. (It is, albeit with the slight caveat that it’s possibly even funnier.) The first time I read it, I was in school, and I remember being confounded by two facts: 1) That it was originally published in 1941 and 2) That it first appeared in Irish as An Béal Bocht. And if there was one thing that was less funny than anything written before, say, 1975, it was anything that was written in Irish.
To fully understand this, I think you would probably need to have some first-hand experience of the Irish educational system. This is a country in which every student between the ages of five and eighteen is taught Irish for several hours a week, and yet it is also, mysteriously, a country in which relatively few adults are capable of holding a conversation in the language in anything but the most stilted, self-consciously ironic pidgin. (After almost a decade and a half of daily instruction in the spoken and written forms of what is officially my country’s first language, just about the only complete Irish sentence I myself can now speak translates as follows: “May I please have permission to go to the toilet, Teacher?” I don’t think I’m especially unusual in this regard, although I’m aware my ability to forget things I’ve learned is exceptional.) I don’t want to get into this too deeply here, except to say that part of this has to do with a kind of morbid cultural circularity: the reason so few people speak Irish outside of classrooms is because so few people speak Irish outside of classrooms, and that there would therefore be few people to speak it to if they did. Also, very little literature gets written in Irish, partly because (for the reasons outlined above), relatively few people are capable of writing it, and also because, if they did, the readership for it would be correspondingly small. And so the stuff that gets taught in schools tends to be a combination of (as I remember it) unremarkable contemporary poetry and psychotropically dull peasant memoir.
The great canonical presence in the latter genre is a book called Peig, the autobiography of an outstandingly ancient Blasket island woman named Peig Sayers, which was dictated to a Dublin schoolteacher and published in 1936. Successive generations of Irish students were forced not just to read this exegesis of poverty and misfortune – over and over and over – but to memorize large chunks of it, later to be disgorged and explicated at the intellectual gun-point of state examination. The memoir begins with Peig outlining what a rigorously shitty time she had of it growing up in rural Ireland in the late 19th century, and this unhappy existence is narrated with a signature flatness of tone that is maintained throughout the whole grim exercise:
My people had little property: all the land they possessed was the grass of two cows. They hadn’t much pleasure out of life: there was always some misfortune down on them that kept them low. I had a pair of brothers who lived — Sean and Pádraig; there was also my sister Máire.
As a result of never-ending flailing of misfortune my father and mother moved from the parish of Ventry to Dunquin; for them this proved to be a case of going from bad to worse, for they didn’t prosper in Dunquin no more than they did in Ventry.
For a teenager, of course, the only appropriate reaction to this stuff is the most inappropriate one, somewhere between stupefaction and manic amusement. As real and as comparatively recent as the history of grinding poverty and oppression in Ireland is, it’s still hard to read this with a straight face – particularly if, as a youth, you had to commit great thick blocks of it to memory. There’s something about the improbable combination of sober causality and delirious wretchedness (“As a result of the never-ending flailing of misfortune”; “a case of going from bad to worse”) that comes on like an outright petition for heartless juvenile ridicule. “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” as Nell puts it in Beckett’s Endgame. We should take this point seriously, coming as it does from an old woman who has no legs and lives in a dustbin.
Beckett’s contemporary Flann O’Brien understood this, too: unhappiness is the comic goldmine from which he extracts The Poor Mouth’s raw material. He is parodying Irish language books like Peig and, in particular, Tomás Ó Criomhthain’s memoir An t-Oileánach (The Islander); but in a broader sense, he’s ridiculing the forces of cultural nationalism that promoted these books as exemplars of an idealized and essentialized form of Irishness: rural, uneducated, poor, priest-fearing, and truly, superbly Gaelic.
O’Brien’s narrator, Bonaparte O’Coonassa, is not so much a person as a humanoid suffering-receptacle, a cruel reductio ad absurdium of the “noble savage” ideal of rural Irishness promoted by Yeats and the largely Anglo-Irish and Dublin-based literary revival movement. A lot of the book’s funniness comes from its absurdly stiff language (which reflects an equally stiff original Irish), but that language is a perfect means of conveying a drastically overdetermined determinism – a sort of hysterical stoicism which seems characteristically and paradoxically Irish. The book’s comedic logic is roughly as follows: to be Irish is to be poor and miserable, and so anything but the most extreme poverty and misery falls short of authentic Irish experience. The hardship into which Bonaparte is born, out on the desperate western edge of Europe, is seen as neither more nor less than the regrettable but unavoidable condition of Irishness, an accepted fate of boiled potatoes and perpetual rainfall. “It has,” as he puts it, “always been the destiny of the true Gaels (if the books be credible) to live in a small, lime-white house in the corner of the glen as you go eastwards along the road and that must be the explanation that when I reached this life there was no good habitation for me but the reverse in all truth.”
Like many of the best comedians of prose, O’Brien is a master of studied repetition. Again and again, unhappy situations are met with total resignation, with a fatalism so extreme that it invariably proceeds directly to its ultimate conclusion: death. Early on, Bonaparte tells us about a seemingly intractable situation whereby his family’s pig Ambrose, with whom they shared their tiny hovel, developed some disease or other that caused him to emit an intolerable stench, while at the same time growing so fat that he couldn’t be got out the door. His mother’s reaction to this situation is simply to accept that they’re all going to die from the stench, and that they therefore might as well get on with it. “If that’s the way it is,” she says, “then ‘tis that way and it is hard to get away from what’s in store for us.”
Individual hardships or injustices are never seen as distinct problems to be considered with a view to their potential solution; they are always aspects of a living damnation, mere epiphenomena of “the fate of the Gaels.” It’s a mindset that’s both profoundly anti-individualist and cosmically submissive. The cause of suffering isn’t British colonialism: it’s destiny. On Bonaparte’s first day of school, his teacher beats him senseless with an oar for not being able to speak English, and to impress upon him the fact that his name is no longer Bonaparte O’Coonnassa, but “Jams O’Donnell” – a generically anglicized title the same schoolmaster gives to every single child under his tutelage. When Bonaparte takes the matter up with his mother later that day, she explains that this is simply the way of things. The justice or injustice of the situation doesn’t come into it:
Don’t you understand that it’s Gaels that live in this side of the country and that they can’t escape from fate? It was always said and written that every Gaelic youngster is hit on his first school day because he doesn’t understand English and the foreign form of his name and that no one has any respect for him because he’s Gaelic to the marrow. There’s no other business going on in school that day but punishment and revenge and the same fooling about Jams O’Donnell. Alas! I don’t think that there’ll ever be any good settlement for the Gaels but only hardship for them always.
The assumption that nothing can be done about it, though, doesn’t mean that ceaseless meditation and talk about the suffering of the Gaels is not absolutely central to the proper business of Gaelicism. True Irishness is to be found in the constant reflection on the condition of Irishness. (This is still very much a characteristic of contemporary Irish culture, by the way, but that’s probably another day’s work.) O’Brien’s characters think and talk about little else. Bonaparte, at one point, recalls an afternoon when he was “reclining on the rushes in the end of the house considering the ill-luck and evil that had befallen the Gaels (and would always abide with them)” when his grandfather comes in looking even more decrepit and disheveled than usual.
– Welcome, my good man! I said gently, and also may health and longevity be yours! I’ve just been thinking of the pitiable situation of the Gaels at present and also that they’re not all in the same state; I perceive that you yourself are in a worse situation than any Gael since the commencement of Gaelicism. It appears that you’re bereft of vigour?
– I am, said he.
– You’re worried?
– I am.
– And is it the way, said I, that new hardships and new calamities are in store for the Gaels and a new overthrow is destined for the little green country which is the native land of both of us?
O’Brien uses the term “Gael” and its various derivatives so frequently throughout the book that the very idea of “Gaelicism” quickly begins to look like the absurdity it is. This reaches a bizarre culmination in the book’s central comic set-piece, where Bonaparte recalls a Feis (festival of Gaelic language and culture) organized by his grandfather to raise money for an Irish-speaking university. The festival is, naturally, an exhaustively miserable affair, characterized by extremes of hunger and incredibly shit weather. (“The morning of the feis,” Bonaparte recalls, “was cold and stormy without halt or respite from the nocturnal downpour. We had all arisen at cockcrow and had partaken of potatoes before daybreak.”) Some random Gael is elected President of the Feis, and opens the whole wretched observance with a speech of near perfectly insular Gaelicism:
If we’re truly Gaelic, we must constantly discuss the question of the Gaelic revival and the question of Gaelicism. There is no use in having Gaelic, if we converse in it on non-Gaelic topics. He who speaks Gaelic but fails to discuss the language question is not truly Gaelic in his heart; such conduct is of no benefit to Gaelicism because he only jeers at Gaelic and reviles the Gaels. There is nothing in this life so nice and so Gaelic as truly true Gaelic Gaels who speak in true Gaelic Gaelic about the truly Gaelic language.
This is followed by more speeches of equal or greater Gaelicism, to the point where a number of Gaels “collapsed from hunger and from the strain of listening while one fellow died most Gaelically in the midst of the assembly.” From a combination of malnutrition and exhaustion, several more lives are lost in the dancing that follows.
O’Brien’s reputation as a novelist rests largely on the postmodern absurdism of The Third Policeman and At Swim-Two-Birds, with their mind-bending meta-trickery and audacious surrealism. But the essence of his genius was, I think, to be found in his extraordinary mastery of tone, in his skillful manipulation of a kind of uncannily mannered monotony. Repetition and redundancy are absolutely crucial to the comic effect of his prose, and it’s in The Poor Mouth that these effects are most ruthlessly pursued, not least because they are crucial elements of the kind of story he’s parodying here – a life of unswerving and idealized tedium, in which basically the only viable foodstuff is the potato. (Breakfast is memorably referred to as “the time for morning-potatoes.”) There’s a feverish flatness to the narrative tone throughout, a crazed restraint, and a steady accumulation of comic pressure that is like nothing else I’ve ever read. Bonaparte’s recollection of his first experience with alcohol – in the form of poitín, which is of course the potato fermented to the point of near-lethality – is one of the stronger examples of this in the book. It’s also, I think, probably the greatest of O’Brien’s many great comic riffs:
If the bare truth be told, I did not prosper very well. My senses went astray, evidently. Misadventure fell on my misfortune, a further misadventure fell on that misadventure and before long the misadventures were falling thickly on the first misfortune and on myself. Then a shower of misfortunes fell on the misadventures, heavy misadventures fell on the misfortunes after that and finally one great brown misadventure came upon everything, quenching the light and stopping the course of life.
The effort to identify the comic operations of any given piece of writing – what its technology consists of, how its moving parts fit together – is essentially a mug’s game. There’s a hell of a lot to be said for just accepting that something is funny because it makes you laugh. But there’s something about the flawlessness of this passage’s mechanism that makes me want to take it apart and lay out its components. Obviously, repetition is the primary engine here – just the sounds of the words “misadventure” and “misfortune” in such close succession is powerfully amusing. And, as with the spookily O’Brien-esque passage above from Peig, there’s the mix of sober causality and delirious wretchedness. Accumulation and enumeration is, as always with this writer, an irresistible comic force. But I think the real stroke of genius here – the element that really elevates it to the level of the sublime – is how he keeps going well past the point where the joke has done its job. The funniest word here, in other words – the word that always tips me over into literal LOLing whenever I read it – is “Then …”
And maybe this is funny precisely for the least funny of reasons: because misery and misadventure rarely stop at the point where their work is done. Even when misfortune – or life, or history – has already made its irrefutable point, there’s never anything to prevent it taking a quick breath and starting a new sentence: “Then …”
Image via Wikimedia Commons
We are living in a Hesiodic golden age for biographies. Name your favorite dead person, and I will give you the ISBN of a good biography of him written in the last 20 years. The obscurity of your enthusiasms be damned: I assure you that someone has written at least a short, competent life. Even the quixotic British parliamentarians Enoch Powell and Michael Foot, two of my favorite post-war politicians, have received the deluxe, 600-plus page treatment. (As I write this, a sly rogue named Rory Stewart is working on a joint biography of both men, having doubtless figured out that there are enough of us Powellite cum Footians to ensure that a few thousand copies get moved.) We now even have biographies sans bios, lives of non-living things: cities, chemical compounds, sex organs. For whatever reason people seem to read — or least purchase — biographies.
Unfortunately the biography boom has also proven the occasion of some very mean hack-work. People familiar with the facts who cannot write, and people unfamiliar with the facts who can, sign on with major publishers every day. The rise of the authorized or official biography, in which the subject or the subject’s estate cooperate, and I suspect in some cases even collaborate, with the writer producing the book, has seen a parallel phenomenon emerge: the unauthorized life. This is something like the shabby adjunct instructor to the authorized biography’s professor emeritus: it achieves what it can with it’s got, and considering the low pay, sometimes does a damn sight better than anyone would have expected. See Lord Jenkins’s 2001 biography of Churchill, which makes for much better reading than the single book abridgment of Sir Martin Gilbert’s eight-volume official epic. There are, of course, reasons (in some ways I am continuing my academic analogy here) why most unauthorized biographers never find better gigs: lack of requisite qualifications, impoverished Rolodexes, and, above all, a flooded job market.
Richard Bradford is a good example of an unauthorized biographer. He has found a sort of cottage industry writing unofficially about the lives of major figures in 20th-century British literature. Certainly one cannot blame him for having wished to improve upon Eric Jacobs’s dreadful Kingsley Amis biography, but the publication of Zachary Leader’s excellent (and authorized) life has made Bradford’s 2001 book superfluous. As for his more recent go at Philip Larkin, I can only say that, dissatisfied as I am with Andrew Motion’s sprawling (but authorized!) hatchet-job, it remains in many ways the better book, and that it is unlikely that a more successful biography of a man as private as Larkin shall ever be produced without further help from his estate.
I admit then to opening Bradford’s new biography of Martin Amis fils with some apprehension. Biographies about living people are always very suspicious affairs, especially when the subject is a writer. Amis may live to write many more novels. (Much of the preface to the American edition of Martin Amis: The Biography is devoted to Lionel Asbo, which was published shortly after Bradford’s book came out in England.) A living writer’s reputation is often far from settled. (Matt Novak recently dug up a 1936 poll that named James Truslow Adams and James Branch Cabell among the American writers we were all supposed to be reading in 2000.) Besides, the subject’s death and obsequies are usually among the most memorable parts of a great biography: see Michael Shelden’s Orwell or Churchill’s own Marlborough: His Life and Times.
Literary biographies published when their subjects are alive tend to be either hostile or overindulgent. In this case, Bradford is adulatory throughout Martin Amis: The Biography, even to the point of defending Yellow Dog (“The book is not flawless or unimprovable — nothing is — yet it is none the less ambitious and original.”) and The Information (“a novel of extraordinary complexity”), books that virtually no one liked. This is unfortunate. Amis’s reputation will eventually require sorting out, and it would be nice if The Biography (notice the authorized-sounding definite article?) offered us some kind of reasonable starting point.
While there is some excellent new material here (I was intrigued, for example, to learn that Amis did not read his father’s Lucky Jim until he was 18 years old), there is also a great deal, especially in the first half of the book, that has been handled much better elsewhere, particularly in Zachary Leader’s The Life of Kingsley Amis, in Kingsley’s Memoirs, and Martin’s Experience. Bradford also writes very badly. His first two sentences —
What makes a writer? Being born into what would strike most as a scenario suitable only for fiction might play some part.
— do an excellent job of establishing his book’s tone: awkward, overblown, imprecise. He has a strong ear for mixed metaphor (“someone whose magnetic amusing social persona belied a well-protected seam of hapless despondency”), tautology (“He was promiscuous and unfaithful”), and he tends to choose very strange adverbs (reviews of The Rachel Papers are “unflinchingly complimentary,” Northrop Frye is “quixotically impressionistic”). Even selecting the right conjunction gives him trouble: “The parallels between Martin’s and Kingsley’s first novels are tempting and misleading [italics mine].”
He is also very lazy. Paragraph after paragraph appears seemingly unaltered from conversations with Hitchens and Amis, who at one point cannot recall the name of a Kafka story. On page 63, Bradford quotes a letter from Amis to his father in which the 17 year old suggests that Gerard Manley Hopkins “doesn’t stand up to analysis” and calls Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” “almost my favourite poem”; on page 64 he tells us that “Martin at least thought ‘La Belle Dame’ a redeeming piece and enjoyed reading Hopkins despite the fact that under analysis he seemed incomprehensible.” At least a quarter of the book is given over to plot summaries, which should at least make it useful for reviewers who want to pretend that they have read all of Amis.
Bad writing often gets dressed up rather prettily: attractive cover art, “deckle edge,” a nice crisp font. A bit more work on this front might have gone a long way for Martin Amis: The Biography. First, there’s the cover. Here something is clearly wrong with Amis’s skin: either the picture was taken under a 15,000 watt lamp or the subject of this biography has a severe case of sunburn. The quote from The Spectator that appears on the back of the dust jacket has been lifted out of context from a negative review, and almost all the other blurbs refer not to Bradford’s biographical achievements but to Christopher Hitchens’s conversational prowess. (Hitchens, by the way, is mentioned as if he were still living throughout.) The paper on which the book has been printed is too thick for me to roll Gambler cigarettes out of but far too thin (and foul smelling) for a hardcover book. Type 50 or so spaces: that’s how many appear inexplicably between the words “terms” and “of” on the seventh line from the bottom of page 35. The Spectator review contains a catalogue of misspellings which I won’t bother to repeat here.
“My biography of Martin is not a hagiography,” Bradford told an interviewer. True enough, one thinks, but then again he didn’t set out to write a saint’s life, did he? Martin certainly comes across as a sort of smug jerk. But he is also treated as the author of a half-dozen great novels when one great (Money)and two very good (Time’s Arrow and Night Train) novels would be a more accurate figure. Oh, well. Better, I suppose, for Bradford to love Amis than nothing to have loved.
October kicks off with a mega-dose of new fiction: Ancient Light by John Banville, The Round House by Louise Erdrich, It’s Fine By Me by Per Petterson, The Heart Broke In by James Meek, In Sunlight and in Shadow by Mark Helprin, Live by Night by Dennis Lehane, and Have You Seen Marie? by Sandra Cisneros. And that doesn’t even include debuts Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, That’s Not a Feeling by Dan Josefson, and Safe As Houses by Marie-Helene Bertino. And there’s more: graphic novel master Chris Ware’s Building Stories, The Paris Review’s collection Object Lessons (we interviewed one of the Steins behind the book) and this year’s Best American Short Stories collection. Finally, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim is out in a new NYRB Classics edition with an introduction by Keith Gessen.
The first time I read Kingsley Amis’s classic campus novel, Lucky Jim, I did it to impress a girl.
I was in my early 20s, living in Seattle during my first year after finishing college, and had just started seeing a graduate student in English. Compared to me, she and her friends all seemed intellectual and sophisticated. I listened to Supertramp, they listened to Paul Hindemith, and the first time I saw a recording of Vaughan Williams’s “Five Mystical Songs” at the woman’s apartment, I pronounced the composer’s name “Ralph” and she had to correct me: “You say it ‘Rafe.'”‘
I’d been a voracious reader ever since I’d discovered the Hardy Boys when I was eight or nine but, compared to the woman I was seeing and those in her circle, I was woefully ignorant of literature. I had a degree in communication and, outside of what I’d had to read for school and a short time when I was a boy and my physician father, who’d minored in philosophy as an undergraduate at a Jesuit college, offered me dollar bills to convince me to memorize selections from The Great Books of the Western World, I had read little that was published earlier than the first decade of the twentieth century, and not much that wasn’t by an American writer. In truth, at that point, I had little literary interest beyond science fiction and the Beats. On the other hand, the woman and her friends took courses in Old English and seemed not only to have read Spenser’s entire Faerie Queene but could quote from it.
One day, perhaps to find some intersection between us aside from our being two young people in a strange city two thousand miles from home (I was from Ohio; she, Missouri), she suggested I might enjoy Amis’s book. “It’s funny,” she offered. So I borrowed her paperback copy and read it.
She was right: it was funny but, beyond that, I found I identified in many ways with the novel’s almost hopelessly inept main character, Jim Dixon. True, he was more a contemporary of my parents’ generation than of mine. Amis wrote the novel in the early 1950s (it appeared in the UK in 1954) and, like my parents, Dixon would have come of age during World War II. Putting aside the accident of dates, geography and occupation (Dixon taught college, I was a bank teller), however, I saw much of myself in him.
In the novel, Dixon is in his first year as a junior lecturer in history at an unnamed provincial college somewhere in the English countryside. His principle quality is that he is unsettled without any notion of what he wants to do with his life and seemingly no ability to affect its direction or express directly how he feels. As the novel opens, his primary concern is convincing the head of his department, Ned Welch, not to fire him – but he’s trying to hold onto a job he doesn’t particularly like. At one point, Dixon comments to another character, apropos of his discipline, “Haven’t you noticed how we specialize in what we hate most?”
Even in his personal life for most of the novel, Dixon is incapable of taking charge. Without intending to, he’s caught in a relationship with a woman, Margaret Peel, who’s adept at emotional blackmail; it’s a relationship Amis tells us Dixon was “drawn into” rather than one he pursued and it’s disastrous. Margaret precipitates fights because she craves drama for the sake of drama; she accuses him of slights he doesn’t commit; she either attempts a suicide or claims to (Amis is intentionally ambiguous on this point until nearly the end of the novel) but, in either case, Dixon’s perception of Margaret as fragile binds him to her all the more.
Beyond this, I found Dixon an engaging protagonist because he is clearly a fish out of water. His colleagues, especially Welch, celebrate the past and high culture while Dixon has no use for either, despite his job as a history lecturer. One of the pivotal sections of the novel centers on an “arty weekend” that Dixon attends at Welch’s home (to score points to help him hold onto the job he abhors), where the guests sing madrigals, perform a play by Anouilh in French, and listen to “an amateur violinist” perform Brahms. Dixon prefers jazz to part songs and downing pints at an English pub to the refined repasts at the arty weekend, where Welch “poured Dixon the smallest drink he’d ever been seriously offered.” Dixon, who cannot read music, fakes his way through a tenor part in one of the madrigals. Later, as he stumbles back from the pub he sneaks off to late at night during that weekend, he sings, enthusiastically, an American country ballad, fittingly, given his life, about a train wreck.
Despite Dixon’s bumbling, his behavior that, even against his own better judgment, seems to be sending his life along a track toward sure ruin — he will lose his job; he will never be able to extricate himself from a relationship with Margaret — because it’s largely a comic novel, it’s not ruining a great surprise to say that Amis allows Dixon a triumph at the end: he does lose his job (thanks in large part to an embarrassing public lecture an inebriated Dixon delivers to the entire college community) but at the book’s close it’s clear he’s set for a better life than it appeared he might have when we first encounter him on page one.
Thirty-plus years after reading Lucky Jim for the first time, I don’t remember exactly what I thought of the book, why it struck the chord it did with me, why it would turn out to be one of the most important books in my life.
I could say, perhaps, that the fact that Jim, for all of his bumbling, comes to a good end gave me hope for my own life, but that seems too pat, too much like something someone might write to wrap up, neatly, his relationship to a book he loved in his younger years.
What I do remember distinctly, however, is this:
I was on the bus I took home each day from the bank when I read the last sentence. Dixon is with a woman altogether different from Margaret in every way, the woman that Amis makes plain Dixon’s future lies with. They encounter the Welches on the street as the family is getting into their car and Dixon tries to say something to express his outrage against Ned Welch but cannot find the words. The woman tugs on his arm, and the book ends:
The whinnying and clanging of Welch’s self-starter began behind them, growing fainter and fainter as they walked on until it was altogether overlaid by the other noises of the town and by their own voices.
I remember being on the bus, reading that sentence, then reading it again and my eyes filling with tears at how perfect a last sentence it was.
Not long after that, I married the woman who loaned me the book, but we divorced more than a dozen years ago.
As for Lucky Jim, it’s still part of my life. I read it a second time not long after the first. Then I read it again. And again. Eventually, I did find a career — writing and teaching college — and, for most of the past two decades, I have re-read Lucky Jim annually to mark the start of the new academic year.
On a certain level, it’s perhaps an odd thing to read a book perhaps two dozen times and to plan to read it yet again. After all, the primary force that pulls us through a work of fiction is the desire to find out what happens next and after we’ve read to the last page the first time, we know the sequence of events that make up the narrative.
As a writer, I’ve often re-read work that I’ve admired so that I can figure how the author accomplishes whatever he or she does: How does Gustave Flaubert build the structure of Madame Bovary so that Emma’s suicide seems inevitable rather than melodramatic? How does Vladimir Nabokov convince me to feel connected to Humbert Humbert despite his desire for twelve-year-old Lolita? How does Stewart O’Nan make Emily, Alone or Last Night at the Lobster compelling novels despite the fact that little of seeming dramatic consequence occurs in them? How does Margot Livesey make The Flight of Gemma Hardy a fresh story despite its clear echoes of and debt to Jane Eyre?
Certainly, at least some of my trips through Lucky Jim have taught me something about how to build a novel: one of the reasons it succeeds is that Amis uses the comic moments more than merely for a laugh but as integral parts of what is really an extremely tight structure that allows us to accept that the unhappy and largely incompetent protagonist we begin with who is able, in only roughly 250 pages, to become the sort of man who deserves the happy ending he comes to, who deserves the good job and good woman he has by the final line that brought me to tears for its profound rightness that first time.
But two dozen times through? Is there profit in that?
Even beyond that question, I have come to see that it’s perhaps also odd to celebrate the start of another school year by re-reading this particular book since it doesn’t paint the brightest picture of life in academia. Not only does Dixon hate it, several times in the novel Amis has him say some rather bleak things about teaching and scholarship. At one point, for example, another character says to him,, “I’ve a notion you’re not too happy in [the job]. . . . What’s the trouble? In you or in it?”
Dixon responds, “Oh, both, I should say. They waste my time and I waste theirs.”
At another point, thinking about a scholarly article he wrote to try to secure his position, he cringes at his own work’s “niggling mindlessness” and “funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems.”
Lucky Jim is not unusual in this regard, of course, since so many campus novels would not go far as recruiting materials for the profession. Richard Russo’s hilarious Straight Man (in which Russo gives a nod to Amis, as his narrator’s nickname is “Lucky Hank”) is populated by a host of characters unhappy after decades in the professoriate, discovering they’ve settled for mediocrity and petty squabbles. John Williams’s brilliant and under-appreciated Stoner is flat out one of the saddest novels I have ever read. It begins, in part,
William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910 at the age of nineteen. Eight years later . . . he earned his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness. . . . Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now . . .
Then, of course, there are even darker visions of life in academia, like James Hynes’s collection of novellas, Publish and Perish, in which his lecturers and junior scholars face not only the tough road to tenure but threats from the occult, or the ubiquitous campus murder mysteries that suggest that those who work in higher education are not good risks on life insurance actuarial tables.
And so, given Lucky Jim’s pessimistic take on the career I’ve pursued and the fact that, after so many times through it, I know the novel better than any other I’ve read, I ask myself:
Why do I keep reading it every autumn? Why did I read it this year?
The answer is complicated.
On one level, Lucky Jim is a well-crafted novel that holds up even nearly sixty years after it first appeared; even after so many re-readings, its comedy still works, especially two long sections that center on misfortunes that Dixon has because of his drinking: The first occurs during the arty weekend, when he falls asleep smoking and causes a minor fire that damages the room he’s staying in at the Welches’, a small disaster he makes worse by one bad decision after another. The second, which serves as the novel’s climax, occurs during Dixon’s unfortunate public lecture in which he succumbs to a catalogue of missteps that makes his performance representative of the fears of so many who have to stand up and talk in front of groups of strangers.
Its merits continue to earn Lucky Jim praise long after books that sold far better the year it came out but which are out of print and nearly out of our universal consciousness. (How many of us, for example, remember Morton Thompson’s Not as a Stranger, which was the top selling work of fiction that year?)
Lucky Jim, on the other hand, continues to show up on list after list of the best novels of the twentieth century or the funniest novels of all time. In 2005, Time included it on its list of “100 Best English Language Novels” since 1923 (the year of the magazine’s first issue). A decade ago, the late Christopher Hitchens described it as the funniest novel of the previous half-century in an essay he wrote for The Atlantic and, in 2008, when the New York Times polled the editors at its Book Review, asking them to name the funniest novel ever, Lucky Jim got the most votes. (It’s interesting that so many of the novels on their list were campus novels: aside from Amis’s, others included David Lodge’s Small World, Russo’s Straight Man, and Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys.)
The New York Review of Books has even made Lucky Jim its “Classic Book Club selection” for October, saying that it is “regarded by many as the finest, and funniest, comic novel of the twentieth century.” NYRB, which resurrected Stoner for a new generation of readers when it returned the novel to print with a new paperback edition in 2003, is also issuing a new edition of Lucky Jim in October.
But there are many novels on those lists that I’ve read and appreciated, and read more than once and appreciated each time, but I don’t have re-reading any of them on my annual calendar as I do Lucky Jim.
Partly, of course, I re-read it because of the ritual; reading it is my own personal academic convocation that marks a call to another year in the classroom.
Partly, I re-read it because of what Walker Percy calls “repetition” in another of the most important novels in my life, The Moviegoer, another novel about someone trying to figure out how to make his way in the world. “A repetition,” Percy writes, “is the re-enactment of past experience toward the end of isolating the time segment which has lapsed in order that it, the lapsed time, can be savored of itself and without the usual adulteration of events that clog time like peanuts in brittle.”
As I read it, I am the young man on the bus, with no idea of the shape my life will have, hoping I can find something in the book to make the girl I am seeing like me a bit more.
As I read it, I am in my early thirties, walking into my first class as a teacher with little idea of what I am doing, in a fourth-floor room with a scarred wooden floor and beat-up desks in disorganized rows where nine women sit, assuming I will be able to organize some notions I have in a way that might help them become better writers. I’m in my mid-forties when my marriage to the girl who gave me Lucky Jim is ending and, reading Lucky Jim, I wonder if Jim were not fictional how would his life have turned out with the woman that Amis gave him at the end of the novel? This year, reading the novel, it strikes me that my youngest son is the age I was when I first read it, is roughly the age that Jim is in the book, and I think: we are connected by the experience of being young men in our twenties. And I think, where did the years go?
But even beyond its connection to Percy’s concept of repetition, I re-read the book every year because of that last sentence that moved me on the city bus in Seattle decades ago. I still find the sentence beautiful: “The whinnying and clanging of Welch’s self-starter began behind them, growing fainter and fainter as they walked on until it was altogether overlaid by the other noises of the town and their own voices.”
The words that make the final sentence work for me, seal up the novel once and for all, are the last three: “their own voices.” In the middle of the crowded, hectic town, Amis has isolated Dixon and the woman he’s with, has made clear that Dixon’s world is now separate from the miserable one he inhabited for nearly the entire novel.
It’s a sentence that closes the book up with a hopefulness that has eluded Dixon for nearly all of the roughly 250 pages that come before it and, every year when I read the novel, I know that the sentence is there, sitting on the last page waiting for me to come to it; its existence colors all of the absurd failures that Dixon endures before it.
Turning the last page, as I come to the sentence, I hold my breath as I read it and then, as I did the first time, I read it again.
It still moves me to tears.
A Word on Weddings
Like many people whose marriage impends, I have been initiated into the strange, febrile world of weddings — a world whose population is varied and ever-changing, a time-lapse version of the actual world. The wedding world is headquartered at sites like The Knot or Weddingbee, where the affianced and the “waiting” (for someone to put a ring on it) alike convene to commune in questionable spelling and reverent platitudes of surpassing banality: “marrying my best friend,” and “it’s not the wedding, it’s the marriage,” uttered in the course of a discussion about five-dollar chair covers.
Making fun of The Knot or Weddingbee is like shooting fish in a barrel, and most of the womens’ interest blogs of the sort I favor have taken aim. But Jezebel cannot tell me anything about tipping the caterer, while Weddingbee bristles with opinions on the subject. Moreover, long after I harvested the helpful hints I needed from Weddingbee, I return frequently to view the forums, which I have found absorbing to an almost debilitating degree.
It began with the unkind voyeuristic impulse behind something like The Hairpin’s Today’s Top Ten Wedding Bee Discussion Board Thread Titles. The Internet, more than travel, more than almost any other thing, gives you a glimpse of how other people live and what they care about. And with weddings being a widespread but mostly un-ideological phenomenon, a wedding website attracts a real slice of life. On Weddingbee there are the expected Marxian differences, as well as significant regional and hemispheric variations.
In spite of this, these boards are a friendly place. Women are frequently reminded by the world at large that they are catty and shrewish, but I am often struck by the fierce generosity demonstrated by groups of women unknown to one another (also by the speed with which a group of female strangers will turn to topics of contraception under the right circumstances). As in any community, some members are just assholes. But someone asks if she is too fat to see daylight, and everyone tells her no, no, no. Someone loses her job a week before her wedding, and the hive gathers round her in an online embrace.
Disdain for these sites is often of a parcel with another phenomenon the wedding-haver encounters — a sort of race-to-the-bottom humblebrag about the minimal expense of the interlocutor’s wedding, sometimes phrased so that the implication is that the success of a marriage is inversely proportionate to the cost of the shindig. “Had it in the backyard,” they say, and the Lord rained down gratis BBQ and compostable cutlery to reward their lack of pretension. Then there is Caitlin Flanagan, who characteristically manages to be right about a lot of things while sucking the joy right out of the world, reminding us that weddings are a colossal, farcical, tasteless, and needless expense representing a hollowed-out institution — just another example of our sick culture.
Everyone has their own line for what constitutes folly. I am not without my own strain of Flanaganism. But one thing I really like about weddings is that though they are a folly, they are to the best of my knowledge a relatively universal folly (and one of the few driven by some ostensibly joyful and optimistic instinct). Even in less libertine cultures than my own, they often represent a union in which not a shred of virginity, financial health, or, sometimes, likelihood of enduring love remains. Even so, we are going to get spruced up, create a festive atmosphere of one sort or another, and take photographs. In a thousand languages, people spend money, fight about the guest list, and try not to get any unsightly hives on the big day. Then, they try to stay married. We are unlikely to make ourselves less stupid than we collectively are, so we should have parties.
My own experience of wedding planning has been a very traditional cocktail shared with my beloved, composed of anxiety, guilt, and joyful anticipation. Like many people, I made a lot of lists of things and fretted too much about some things and not enough about others. I did things that were called “wedding planning” which were actually just mindless Internet trawling, looking at pictures of things that have no bearing on my life, and patting myself on the back for at least not being as x as the people who say y on Weddingbee.
What the wedding sites made clear to me about weddings generally and ours in particular is that they are inevitably one iteration of a thousand other weddings — a melange of logistical and aesthetic decisions dictated by social forces largely imperceptible to you. You find that choices you believed you had arrived at quite on your own are some current staple of Pinterest, totally characteristic of your particular station in life. My demographic, evidently, is very fond of the “rustic” and the “vintage.” And while I have grown to shudder at these terms (one wedding theme I read about: “vintage books”), part of it is the pain of realizing that you are part of a vast, rushing current, and your tastes are not your own.
I eventually resigned myself to rusticity and sameness, but one place where I thought I could assert my personality (without leaving my fiance totally by the wayside, or course), was the wedding reading. I was confident that Weddingbee could tell me nothing that I did not already know about a pithy piece of writing.
How Literature Failed Me in my Hour of Need
It is now customary in many weddings to write one’s own vows, tailored to fit the bride and groom’s individual quirks. Faced with this prospect, some dour inner Protestant stirred and grumbled. I could not picture us telling the assembled that we enjoy fattening food, Breaking Bad, and architectural boat tours. That when I mop the floor, I like to get drunk and listen to Groove Armada. When you sneeze, you sneeze five times. That I promise to always like the Redskins even when they are dismal. No, I am partial to “death do us part.” And brevity, ironically.
Thus the reading became the one place in the ceremony for a little customization and flair. My beloved also likes books, but I am bossier, and I took the reigns on this project. And since I find literature sufficient for expressing most of what there is to express about human life, the bar for this particular passage was very high.
As a bookish person, it felt like cheating to be searching for beautiful passages from the Internet. I preferred for it to happen more organically (so precious, so mistaken). I read books all the time, I thought to myself; surely I should have some interior commonplace book chock-full of beauty and inspiration to consult. But the only two poems I can recite in their entirety — Philip Larkin’s “High Windows” and “This be the Verse” — are so far from wedding-worthy it’s hard to imagine anything worse: “When I see a couple of kids/ And guess he’s fucking her and she’s/ Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,/ I know this is paradise.” (Or “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” obviously.)
I love “The Whitsun Weddings,” which is technically a poem about weddings. But while, contra Christopher Hitchens, I think its last line is romantic, the romance is that of life, not of individual human relationships: “A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower/ Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.” “Broadcast” is love poem, but a more sneering and cringing love poem there never was: “…Then begins/ A snivel on the violins:/ I think of your face among all those faces,/ Beautiful and devout before/ Cascades of monumental slithering.” Most unsuitable for a wedding. And anyhow, Larkin — more on him later.
My favorite poem is probably T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes,” the last lines of which reveal the haunting ordered chaos of the universe, but hardly warm the cockles: “The worlds revolve like ancient women/ gathering fuel in vacant lots.” In a book shop pawing through the poetry, I sensed this was a theme, in poetry in general, and especially in the poetry I like. Tomas Tranströmer seemed promising for a minute in “The Couple,” if a touch erotic: “The movements of love have settled, and they sleep/but their most secret thoughts meet as when/ two colours meet and flow into each other/ on the wet paper of a schoolboy’s painting.” But that ending: “They stand packed and waiting very near,/ a mob of people with blank faces.” It leaves an impression of a lonely echo in a hallway, a little like “Preludes.”
Googling had seemed like cheating, but I started to Google, and found, predictably, that I was hardly the first person to have had this problem. Book snobs abound. I went to the library and took out several anthologies, including a book of readings specifically for weddings. There are things I have seen before — sonnets, for example — but I like free verse. There were many things I hadn’t seen. Margaret Atwood has a poem about marriage called “Habitation,” evidently used in some weddings. I liked it, stupidly, because it mentions eating popcorn, which happens to be something that my beloved and I do together on a shockingly regular basis. But it seemed a little fraught for a wedding. The last line, “We are learning to make fire,” hangs at the bottom of the page, lonely as early man: I pictured us shivering in our damp cave.
I liked an excerpt from Toni Morrison’s “Jazz” — “It’s nice when grown people whisper to each other under the covers” — but that’s so private, and then the poem invokes an off-stage “chippie” and “stud.” I checked out Love Letters of Great Men, but the problem, aside from the sort of ethical weirdness of reading someone’s mail, is that great men tended to write romantic letters to a number of different women, which is not really on-message for our marriage (this was not in the collection, but I remember Malcolm Lowry once wrote one of his wives that he wanted to use her toothbrush instead of his own). I looked to the eminently quotable Flaubert in the pages of Julian Barnes’ wonderful Flaubert’s Parrot. Here’s a good one: “You ask for love, you complain that I don’t send you flowers? Flowers, indeed! If that’s what you want, find yourself some wet-eared boy stuffed with fine manners and all the right ideas. I’m like the tiger, which has bristles of hair at the end of its cock, with which it lacerates the female.”
Rumi figures in anthologies of love poetry. I like Rumi, but for a wedding I feel that the Sufis are off-limits. As far as I know, which is not very much, the beloved of whom they speak is likely to be God, or the young man who brings you your wine. Context matters. Also, my favorite line from Rumi is fiercely individualistic: “I drip out of a spout drop by drop — But like the deluge I crush myriad palaces.” (Rappers have nothing on Rumi). I toyed with finding something in Turkish — but it seemed to me that this was a moment for my mother tongue. And my knowledge is limited, and my favorite Turkish poetry is in any case a line written by the twelfth century poet Yunus Emre, too defiant for a wedding unless it was one disapproved of by all relatives: “What should the ignorant know of us?/ Greetings to the ones who know.”
Context matters, and that’s really what takes Philip Larkin out of the question: he loved Monica Jones so much he helped Kingsley Amis turn her into one of literature’s great hysterics, a caricature of a pain-in-the-ass female (Lucky Jim‘s Margaret Peel). When I think about literature I don’t typically dwell on the private life of the author, because it’s a slippery slope. But I found when looking for a wedding reading that I became more interested in whether the writer him or herself had been married and gave at least the appearance of contentment.
On love, Emily Dickinson basically sums it up: “That Love is all there is/ Is all we know of Love;/ It is enough, the freight should be/ Proportioned to the groove.” But love and marriage are not the same thing. Most unkindly, I wondered what the virginal shut-in would know of the long intimacy, the vaunted tedium of marriage. Bizarrely, I veered into some exclusionary policy regarding Auden and Forster, whose circumscribed personal lives were in the broad sense casualties of a bigoted and ignorant society. Nabokov was promising; he is known to have loved Vera, and wrote her poems. But the 1974 poem “To Vera” is just that, a poem to Vera, and seemed to have nothing to do with us. “How I Love You” is Nabokovian in a way that confounds a ceremonial reading: “…gnats:/ hanging up in an evening sunbeam, / their swarmlet ceaselessly jiggles…”
There is the religious angle — a friends’ wedding featured Isaiah 43:1-7, which I believe is a particularly badass selection from the Old Testament: “When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned.” But novels are my sacred texts, and we are in any case rather unclear in our feelings about the Lord. His brief invocation in Robert Louis Stevenson’s cheerful “Wedding Prayer” is enough: “Lord, behold our family here assembled” (which one could also read: “Oh Lord, they’re all here.”)
Poetry letting me down, I turned to the novels that I love. No passage suggested itself to me — unless you have a very certain kind of mind, you can’t survey the text of every book you’ve ever read all at the same time. And if it’s not cricket to go looking for a previously unencountered reading that somehow has meaning to you, it’s equally uncricket to read everything with an eye to appropriating some piece of it for your marriage ceremony. But I began to see that’s how I should have been reading for the entirety of the preceding year.
What had I read most recently? We Need to Talk About Kevin, for chrissakes, and a book about rabies. I reread Goodbye to All That, which Graves closes with “…marriage wore thin. New characters appeared on the stage. Nancy and I said unforgivable things to each other. We parted on May 6th, 1929. She, of course, insisted on keeping the children. And I went abroad, resolved never to make England my home again…” My fiance had most recently read Travels With Charley, and suggested I look there. But Travels With Charley is about a man and a poodle, and the poodle goes “ffft.”
I began to comb through my favorite novels, but from the outset it was clear that most would never do. There’s Burmese Days or Of Human Bondage, where goodish men are driven mad by worthless women, with differing outcomes. A Suitable Boy is a spectacularly romantic novel, weddings all over, but it portends falling in love with the man you can marry, in lieu of the one that you can’t. The Tin Drum, full of obscenity. Wodehouse, too facetious. The aforementioned Lucky Jim closes with a romance, but it is a revenge story, against all Welches and Margarets, rather than a love story about the well-formed Christine. Iris Murdoch’s novels are full of bizarre marriages and strange perversity. (The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, anyone?) Till We Have Faces, jealous sibling love and spinsters. I opened Possession, even Swann’s Way — they presented unyielding blocks of text. The closest I came was from A Dance to the Music of Time, and in fact explained why I was having so much trouble:
A future marriage, or a past one, may be investigated and explained in terms of writing by one of its parties, but it is doubtful whether an existing marriage can ever be described directly in the first person and convey a sense of reality. Even those writers who suggest some of the substance of married life best, stylise heavily, losing the subtlety of the relationship at the price of a few accurately recorded, but isolated, aspects…Its forms are at once so varied, yet so constant, providing a kaleidoscope, the colours of which are always changing, always the same. The moods of a love affair, the contradictions of friendship, the jealousy of business partners, the fellow feeling of opposed commanders in total war, these are all in their way to be charted. Marriage, partaking of such — and a thousand more — dual antagonisms and participations, finally defies definition.
It defies definition, and yet I wanted something romantic, weighty but not melancholy, in English, about marriage. It was finally Louis C. K. who drove it all home, how hard this is to do:
…Or you’ll meet the perfect person who you love infinitely and you even argue well and you grow together and you have children and then you get old together and then SHE’S GONNA DIE. That’s the BEST CASE SCENARIO, is that you’re gonna lose your best friend and then just walk home from D’Agostino’s with heavy bags every day and wait for your turn to be nothing also.
That is indeed the best case scenario, the lost best friend, that friend so abstract on the Weddingbee message boards, so real in practice. I listened to Donald Hall reading about the death of Jane Kenyon on This American Life and bawled my eyes out.
In the end, I stood again in a book shop, rifling through every poetry book they had. (In the course of the hunt I was descended upon by the proprietor, and because the last thing I wanted was someone’s advice on the matter, remained mute on the subject of the wedding and was thus compelled to read two suggested Bill Hickok poems while he stood watchfully at a remove.) Finally, I picked something, a poem by Billy Collins from his collection Nine Horses. I picked something, but what I thought was even better in that collection was something else, “Bermuda,” which is basically a poetic version of the Louis bit. A husband and wife lie together on a beach: “and the two of us so calm/ it seems that this is not our only life,/ just one in a series, charms on a bracelet,/ as if every day we were not running/ like the solitary runners on the beach/ toward a darkness without shape/ or waves, crosses or clouds,/as if one of us is not likely to get there first/ leaving the other behind,/ castaway on an island…”
It turns out that it was hard for me to find a good wedding reading because I’m a gloomy old bastard.
There, it would seem, is the rub. But I wasn’t going to put this foreboding stuff into the wedding ceremony. No, with several days remaining until the wedding I picked Collins’s “Litany” (“You are the bread and the knife,/ the crystal goblet and the wine”), which I thought was lovely and romantic and yet also conveyed the promised prosaic qualities of long relationships. It’s funny, but not too much. I find the long dashes of the last lines poignant: “You will always be the bread and the knife,/ not to mention the crystal goblet and — somehow —/ the wine.” There is an element of the sacramental which appeals to me, something that begins to approach the reverence I feel for my own beloved.
After all this, after the fretting and gnashing of teeth and weeping over sad poems and vases in empty rooms, I learned I could have found my reading on the Internet. It’s on a list of wedding readings compiled by Publisher’s Weekly, for one. I could even have found it on Weddingbee, where some fiercely unique soul, someone just like me, recommended it in a thread five years ago, lauded as a “a quirky expression of love, perfect for an English major who likes playing with metaphors.”
But I don’t care, I’ve got my love to keep me warm.
Image: Pexels/Caio Resende.