Thirty years ago, the late British author John Fowles, who spun such imaginative tales as The Magus, The French Lieutenant’s Woman and The Collector, wrote The Tree, recently reissued by Ecco to commemorate its anniversary, a thoughtful essay on the natural world and man’s relationship with it. In its ninety pages, Fowles takes the reader on a journey through the wild and untamed. He takes to task the Victorian obsession with categorizing and trying to tame the wild, and makes a case for experiencing nature and “green chaos.”
He also trains his eye back on himself as a novelist and creator. He lauds the 18th century attitude viewing nature as a mirror for philosophers and poets, evoking emotion. Art and nature, Fowles asserts, are two branches of the one tree.
The first chunk of The Tree doubles as a fascinating family memoir, with Fowles taking us back to his boyhood before and during the Second World War. In particular, he writes of his relationship with his father, who, in his tiny suburban London back yard, created an orchard. Fowles writes of the gulf that lay between father and son, with the young man rebelling against the precisely pruned suburban tree garden and beginning a lifelong love of the woods, of the forest. Trees, countlessly plural and wild.
Luckily, I have been keeping a list. I began the year with Tom Hodgkinson’s lovely How to be Idle, which is a very very good way to begin a year of reading. Immediately then to The Twelve Terrors of Christmas (Updike / Gorey). Thereafter, Kicking the Leaves, an old favorite. This is in my opinion, Donald Hall’s best volume of poetry. I have read it dozens of times. Then a short travel with a writer I had never read, Gyula Krudy, whose Sunflower, courtesy of NYRB was enormously pleasing and atmospheric. Then Botvinnik: 100 Selected Games, for those of you who read chess-notation with joy and pleasure. That old Soviet master had a fearsome will. Then Last Days by Brian Evenson, Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler, Life of Johnson by Boswell (wonderful — even the ambition of reading it and carrying it about with one is wonderful). Then Fowles, The Collector, and Out by the very resourceful Matsuo Kirino. Read Out if you, like myself and also the previously mentioned Evenson, spend time thinking about how bodies ought to be disposed of. At this point, I went to another old favorite, Robert Walser’s Selected Stories. If you must read something, please forget about what anyone else has to say and read Walser’s selected stories. There’s a lot of posturing about contemporary writing, but the truth is — most of it isn’t any good. That’s where Walser comes in, from the first quarter of the last century, riding the wagon from his Swiss sanatorium. He’ll fix your modern day ills with ease.
I went to Leonard Gardner next, and his Fat City, which I read in one sitting. Delicious! Do you like prize-fighting? I do. Then Zen Antics courtesy of Cleary, and Lolita while on a train to Michigan, and Hass’s Field Guide (not an actual field guide).
At this point we are partway through the year, and I am considering the class I will teach in the fall, a class on derive, which sends us into: Society of the Spectacle by Debord, Revolution of Everyday Life by Vaneigem, Nadja by Breton, The Character of Physical Law by Feynman, A Pattern Language by Alexander, Ishikawa, Silverstein, and Koolhaus’s Delirious New York.
I will leave you then, there with me in the summertime. Of later books, I will mention but one:
Bears: A Brief History by Brunner (a remarkable book). Do you like bears?
I have seriously mixed feelings about this book. First off, it is part of the group of post-war novels by/about American men who are peeved because getting old is boring and their wives aren’t very sexy. Please forgive my bawdy language, but let’s call them the My Dick novels, with major sub-genres My Dick is Great and I Feel Bad About my Dick. I used to read these without discrimination, but one day the veil fell from my eyes and I realized that these books could bring about a serious crisis of self-esteem for me, a lady who loves a man. One doesn’t need constant reminders that one’s significant other will stare in horror at one’s posterior fifteen years from now, and try to do it with the underaged person responsible for looking after the children for whom, theoretically, one will have compromised one’s parts in order to expel. Nor does one need to be told that, even if you should have the marvelous good fortune to keep your libido and your teeth and your satin skin and sense of humor, it won’t make a whit of difference, as the man in your life will be pulled inexorably toward sex with teens. I don’t care if these accounts are based on life’s hard facts, and are therefore imbued with a verisimilitude that some say makes art great. Some things are just tedious after the hundredth time.
I’m told that women get increasingly humorless as well as physically repulsive as the years go by, but I like these novels if they are really funny. The Water-Method Man, for example, is one my favorite novels, although John Irving is an important figure in the My Dick movement.
Deliverance by James Dickey, though, is the opposite of funny. The leather vest that Burt Reynolds is wearing on the cover of my copy is funny, but that is the only thing. Most people are familiar with the storyline, immortalized as it was by Reynolds and said vest. For those of you who haven’t heard the twang of dueling banjos, here’s what happens: the narrator has three friends, one of whom is very muscular (he’s the narrator’s favorite). The narrator also wants to fondle the girl who is a model at his ad agency and has a golden eye or something. The narrator and his three friends decide to go canoeing on a river without a map or a clue; they pack some beers and bows and arrows (naturally) and hit the road. It’s all very sinister from the get-go.
Then they’re on the river, and terrifying rednecks (who have done more toward furthering redneck discrimination than any other rednecks in art), rape one of them. The rednecks are about to assault the narrator, but the muscled one, Lewis, shoots one of them through the chest with an arrow. The other redneck gets away and hides, kills one of the friends, Lewis breaks his leg, and then it’s up to the narrator to stop being such a soft-living, house-having nancy all the time and find that bastard and kill him with his primal man essence. Which he does, after some feats of strength and things that sound like they hurt a lot.
All of this is told in a self-consciously poetic way, as if the author wrote it while sitting behind a duck blind with a camouflaged typewriter, looking at a picture of Walt Whitman and listening to Wagner. Sometimes I was (very marginally) enjoying it and sometimes I was thinking that if I must read about scary, disgusting things I’d rather get my copy of The Stand out from under the bed and at least have a good time. Then I wouldn’t have to read sentences like this one: “The standing there was so good, so fresh and various and continuous, so vital and uncaring around my genitals, that I hated to leave it.” Good grief.
Why is this book one of the best books of the century? Why, Modern Library? Really, the more I think about it the more I think it’s less “mixed feelings” I have about it than “fierce loathing.”
My main complaint is this: Bobby has been raped, Lewis the muscled one has killed the redneck, and they’re all four standing around talking about what to do, and the narrator goes ahead and says:
I moved away from Bobby’s red face. None of this was his fault, but he felt tainted to me. I remembered how he had looked over the log, how willing to let anything be done to him, and how high his voice was when he screamed.
What a super attitude to have about your friend who was sexually assaulted at gunpoint! Ecce homo! Basically the narrator is feeling pretty smug about not being the one to get “cornholed” (his charming term), and about the fact that dreamy Lewis was put out of commission and it was up to him to save the day! I’m not one of those literal-minded turds who thinks Lolita or, I don’t know, The Collector, are offensive, because I understand that you can write about things and not do them or think them yourself. It is not the novelist’s job to provide an edifying story or a lovable narrator. However, not only was I pretty lukewarm about the alleged Everyman of Deliverance, the writing style did not, for me, elevate things in any meaningful way.
It felt like a missed opportunity, in a sense. A novelist could use a moment like this to provide a neat example of how rape culture and victim-shaming hurt everyone, men and women alike. I mean, the narrator’s basic position on the issues is that sexual assault victims are embarrassing and gross, and the best thing to do is to a) shun them and b) kill everyone. There’s a lot of pithy stuff there.
I’m likely missing something. I think there is something zeitgeisty happening in the novel, something to which I’m not privy. Maybe it’s a generational thing. Maybe it’s a Vietnam thing. Obviously, it’s a dick(ey) thing.
On that note, Happy Thanksgiving.