Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Nothing Is Scary

Ira Levin’s masterpiece, Rosemary’s Baby, was published in 1967 and has aged remarkably well.  The references within the story are all very specifically located in time (the fall of 1965 until the summer of 1966), but that, perhaps counterintuitively, helps make the thing work so well today.  The minutiae of daily life that Levin presents are all clearly 1960s things(or are wearing 1960s fashions), but they still feel real and true, not like things that were added as stage setting to make the time period feel authentic.  The very ordinariness of the world he creates comforts and distracts the reader, allowing the frights to nudge their way inside quietly and almost unobserved where they can do the most damage.

I recently taught Stephen King’s novel The Shining, and the class spent quite a bit of time talking about how little happens that should really terrify the readers but they were still terrified.  As I pointed out, nothing overtly supernatural or horrific happens until around page 241 (of 447 pages).  Levin’s book has the same effect (and it is probably something that King learned from Levin), with a lot of largely normal conversations between husbands and wives and friends and neighbors, cocktails, dinners, work, house decorating, and other domestic duties filling the pages.  Nothing happens.  And nothing is scary.

Perhaps the tension derives partly from the expectations of the readers: we know this is a scary book, so we keep looking for the monster in the background to make its way to the foreground.  When it doesn’t, we get even more tense and worried, knowing that the big reveal will be terrifying.  There is more to it than that, though.  Saying, “This is a scary book,” and then giving us a lot of nothing is a cheap trick, and Levin is not playing cheap tricks on his readers.  Instead, he manages to invest each small, insignificant conversation, each throw-away gesture with that slightest whiff of the uncanny.  The uncanny, as Freud pointed out so astutely, gains most of its power from the way homelike things (the German term Freud uses is “unheimlich,” which means “not homely”–more on this in future posts) are rendered strange or unhomelike.  So, when Rosemary and her glib, shallow husband, Guy, have a conversation about whether or not to invite their nosy neighbors over for a party, there are tiny, almost imperceptible signs of stress.  We as readers become engineers of the human soul, looking at the tiny fractures revealed not with some high tech scanning device but through little human (or inhuman) touches.

The big fright at the end of the novel is the charming line, “He has his father’s eyes!”  The woman who notes this says it with such motherly warmth that we first fall for the cliché and think, “Well, isn’t that nice,” until the real meaning hits.  The cliché and the real meaning of the phrase occur nearly simultaneously, and this conflict–the comfort of friendly domestic inanities colliding with the horror of satanic rape–echoes and intensifies the unheimlich horror we have felt throughout the novel.

I mentioned King earlier, and his novel shares some important features with Levin’s.  In both, the authors create scenes of “ordinary” domestic terror.  In one, the worries and insecurities of a young married couple who may not exactly agree on the relative importance of career and family gradually darkens into a horrific allegory: the quasi-desired baby is, in fact, the spawn of the devil.  In the other, the young family faces the prospect of complete economic ruin brought on by the father’s alcoholism.  The Torrance family’s fears are made tangible in the Overlook hotel: it both welcomes them into its warm, homely embrace, but also threatens to smother them.

In many ways, real horror does not come from ghosts, zombies, vampires, or any other frightening freak our imaginations can conjure up.  If anything, these creatures might be a welcome relief from the uncertainties and insecurities that truly frighten us (should I leave my husband? is my child really ill?) because they are, paradoxically, something real that can be met with whatever talismans or apotropaic charms ward off their particular evil.  Not knowing is terrifying.  Nothing is scary.

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Domestic Vampires

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930) is best known for her short stories in A New England Nun, and her attention to the local color of New England culture and language puts her in the same category as other northeastern writers such as Sarah Orne Jewett and, yes, Stephen King.  I add King’s name here because he must be a fan of Freeman’s works, treading as they do the ground that King has found so amenable to his own dark stories: the insular New England towns filled with eccentric, borderline grotesque characters who are nevertheless palpably real and human.  Like some King’s vernacular stories (his novel Dolores Claiborne comes to mind), “Luella Miller,” first published in 1903, is told largely in the voice of one old woman in the town, who has seen everything with a sharp and unsentimental eye.

Lydia Anderson is another of Freeman’s nuns, and old woman who never married but has the history of the town–including (or esepcially) its scandals–right at her fingertips.  The story opens with a third person narrator speaking about the terror the townspeople feel for the abondoned house that once belonged to Luella Miller.  No on, not even cold and shivering vagrants, will enter the house if they know what’s good for them.  The house stands unmolested and solitary, and the children of the town are so afraid of it that they will not dare to break its windows or scrawl grafitti on its walls.  Once the house’s haunted bona fides are established, the narrator relinquishes the story to Lydia.

Lydia knew Luella Miller when she first arrived in town with the name Luella Hill.  She was a pretty, graceful, and dreamy girl who managed to land a job teaching school despite her inability to do any kind of work at all.  Instead, she has the oldest and brightest pupils take over the real teaching duties.  This continues for a time until Luella snags Erastus Miller shortly before she runs into the danger of losing her job; the couple moves in across the street from Lydia, who keeps her ye on them.

Soon a sort of scandal begins to color the perception of Luella.  She is apparently completely incapable of doing any work at all, including the basic domestic duties expected of all married women.  Although the town gossips about this development, it fails to generate any real feeling of ill-will.  Erastus takes on all of the house work in addition to his own work, and it is not long before he begins to fade away.  Soon he dies.

One after another, people from the town and neighboring communities come to help Luella take care fo herself, and one after another, the helpers fade and fall sick.  Each victim seems to be worked to death.  Despite the excessive mortality of her domestic help, Luella manages to hold a strong attraction for nearly everyone: people seem to be literally dying to help her out.

Finally the town catches on after Luella manages to kill off the handsome, dashing young doctor who was preparing to marry her.  No one will help her, and Luella begins to fall into the same sort of sickness that claimed the others.  Once, when she say how difficult it was for Luella to carry some items home from the store in her weakened state, Lydia gives her some help. Although it was only a small effort, it made Lydia desperately ill for weeks.

After Luella finally succumbs to her illness, the house stands, a monument to her life-sucking power.  Once a traveler who knew no better broke into the abandoned house to escape the weather, but he did not survive the night.  Later, after Lydia herself dies as an old woman, someone burns the house to the ground.

One interesting point about Luella’s predatory behavior is that she seems to be completely unaware of it.  Instead, she is portrayed as an innocent, childlike figure with her lovely blond hair and guileless blue eyes.  Nearly every description of her could instead be the description of a small child, incapable of fending for herself.  As such, she is a freakish woman who does not fit any models for femininity of the times: she is not the angel of the house nor is she the independent new woman.  She inhabits a space outside any recognized role.  Yet her insistence on maintaining some facade of domesticity places her in a dangerous spot.  She wants to take advantage of the life afforded by feminine domesticity but she is incapable of producing that.  Instead of nurturing life she instead seems to suck life out of anyone who attempts to help her.  Those who help her are only enabling her vampiric half-life.

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When I last wrote, I was about to get caught up in a storm of annoyances, mostly work-related: my department chair was leaning heavily on me to do her work for her, new committees were trying to seduce me into joining, and too many student essays awaited grading.  As a result, the blog took a hit.  Then intertia set in.  Then–most damming (not damning)–was the thought that if I returned to writing after a hiatus I’d have to explain it, and I hate that; it just seemed easier not to write.  So here I am, years later, explaining why I stopped.

I have a good reason now to resume writing, though, and it is a pretty good reason.  On December 21st, I turned in my grades for the fall semester, signaling the beginning of nine months off.  My sabbatical–delayed a year because of other commitments–officially starts with the new semester in the middle of January, but it really starts now.  During the sabbatical I hope to put in a lot of miles on my bike, but, more importantly, there is a book that is more or less patiently waiting to get written.  I know that it helps lubricate the writing machine to post some things on here, where the stakes are much lower and book editors are not casting a jaded, critical eye on my words.  I will talk more about the project in future posts, and maybe, if you’re all very good, I’ll even tell you the proposed title.

However, I want to start with a story that I just read and want to include in my analysis later.  The story perplexes me in some ways, and I want to try to play with some ideas and see how they do.  Throw things at the wall and see what sticks.

Madelene Yale Wynne (1847-1918) is hardly remembered today except for those of us who look into the dusty corners of nineteenth-century literature, and even I, a veteran dusty corner looker, had never encountered her before I picked up Alfred Bendixen’s anthology, Haunted Women.  Wynne is the daughter of the man who invented the Yale lock, and her largest accomplishment and source of recognition during her life was her talent for arts and crafts, especially metal working; she apparently wished to get other women invested in artistic production.  She seems to be a sort of female version of William Morris.

Wynne’s short story “The Little Room” was the most popular thing she wrote and first appeared in Harper’s Magazine.  Later stories did not satisfy her audience as much as this eerie little gem did.  Bendixen calls it “one of the most effective ‘puzzle stories’ ever written.”

The story is told entirely in dialogue and opens with a young woman talking to her new husband, Roger.  The young Mrs. Grant tells, with a mixture of fondness and the slightest foreboding, of her Aunt Hannah, who is “New England…boiled down.”  Mrs. Grant’s mother had recalled a small room in Aunt Hannah’s house, a perfect little room with a comfortable couch and small bookcase.  However, when she visted Aunt Hannah again, the room wasn’t there; in its place was a china closet filled with gilt-edged china.  Moreover, Aunt Hannah claimed there never had been a little room her niece had described–the china closet had been a part of the house for as long as the house had stood.

The little room and the china closet take turns appearing in the house.  Whatever room is currently in existence is the one that Aunt Hannah insists is the eternal room, and she vehemently disavows any knowledge of any contrary room.  When young Mrs. Grant appears with her husband, the little room she remembered as a child was gone, replaced by the china closet.  A few years later she enlists the help of a pair of friends, Rita and Nan, to find out the truth.  The two friends visit at different times and each sees a different room.  When the two discover their experiences with the rooms differ, they immediately set out to settle things once and for all.  Upon arriving at the town where Aunt Hannah lives, however, they learn that the house has burned down.

It is an odd, haunting little story that lodges itself in your brain much the way the memory of the little room takes up housekeeping in Mrs. Grant’s mind.  It did not occur to me until writing down the synopsis that the reason the house had to burn down is because the two women who had had opposite experiences of the room were going to arrive at the same time: the room would have to have two opposite appearances at the same time, and that would never work.  Solution?  Fire.

More to the point, though, the rooms’ characters appear different to women who are at different stages of their lives.  Mrs. Grant fondly remembers the little room from her childhood, but that memory is overlayed by the altered reality after her marriage.  When she is no longer a little girl, the young niece, but is a grown, married woman, the room becomes a china closet, an emblem of domesticity.  Furthermore, the china occupying the closet is gilt, indicating the false, glittering promise of adulthood that, when scratched, is only a thin veneer that looks much richer than it really is.  The little room, on the other hand, shows the allure of imagination (through the books) and travel (a piece of cloth with exotic provenance, a large sea shell), neither of which are the “proper” concern of a married woman.

This short analysis scarcely shows the depth of the story.  There are many other elements that I will have to consider more closely in my more formal study: the books, for example, all have brown leather bindings save for one bright red volume.  If you are interested, the story can be found in Bendixen’s anthology, mentioned above, or you can find it online here.

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Summer Update

Although I started the summer with some moderate ambitions, things haven’t quite worked out the way I had planned.  In my racing, I did fairly well early in the season, but I haven’t finished a race in over a month now.  Because of some sort of as yet undiagnosed problem, I’ve been feeling sick and tired and end up in too much pain to ride as hard as I would like.  Unfortunately, this tends to happen even when I’m not racing, so I’ve been off the bike entirely for a week now.  With luck, I’ll kow soon what the problem is, and I’ll be able to get back on the bike in time for some late summer and fall riding.

Yesterday was beautiful and sunny, and, since I’m not riding, Dorothy and I decided to take a walking tour of Manhattan bookstores.  She had found this tour on another blog, and thought it sounded like fun.  We skipped the Brooklyn part of the tour, as that seemd overly ambitious, which turned out to be a smart idea: even without the Brooklyn part, we walked something like 7 miles with increasingly heavy backpacks.

Our first stop was a small independent bookstore in the West Village, and then we wandered a few blocks over to a mystery bookshop.  After that, we wandered through a street fair near NYU before heading to two more stores in SOHO, one filled with new books, the other with used.  Then, we headed north and east, across the Bowery to another small shop.

Here is what I took home:

  • The Writing Class by Jincy Willett
  • The Book of Air and Shadows by Michael Gruber
  • Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley
  • The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley
  • The Death of a Joyce Scholar by Bartholomew Gill
  • Living by Fiction by Annie Dillard
  • Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
  • The Thoreau You Don’t Know by Robert Sullivan
  • Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

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The back cover of my copy of The Likeness compares French’s novel to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, so when I realized that Dorothy had a copy (in hardcover, no less), I pulled it off the shelves and found myself immersed in one of the most odd, ambivalent, happy, and annoyed reading states ever.  I liked the novel a lot while I also disliked it a lot.  I’m not sure which side is winning, but as I think more about how the narrative is structured, and as I see what Tartt is doing (or trying to do) with time and the setting, I sort of want to reevaluate my response and see the problems as strengths, or at least as intentional authorial choices rather than flaws in technique.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The novel begins with a short prologue that lets us know that the narrator and the rest of his insular group of college students killed one of their own several years earlier.  Once this tantalizing tease is set up, the narrator jumps back to fill us in on his background and the events leading up to the murder.  Richard Papen is a native Californian who longs to get away from his working class parents and their sharply circumscribed lives, so he, on a whim, applies to Hampden College in Vermont (apparently based on Bennington, where Donna Tartt was an undergraduate in the 1980s).  Once in Vermont, Richard endures many of the typical fish out of water experiences that mark college novels, until he falls in with a strange group of undergraduates who are all studying classics.  The classics prof is a wealthy eccentric who tutors only a small handful of students, on his own terms, using his own private classroom, all while thumbing his blue-blooded nose at the college administration.  Professor Morrow exemplifies the classics, with his deep knowledge of ancient history, languages, art, and culture and a corresponding disdain of modern philistinism.  He is a complete aesthete, and probably completely amoral besides.

Richard fellow students are all immensely wealthy, or make a good, Gatsby-esque show of being immensely wealthy.  He nevertheless manages to fit in with the group as they lounge in overstuffed chairs and speak to each other in pithy Greek epigrams.  Soon, though, problems arise in the group as friendships show strain from unseen horrors.  Richard learns that four of the group had been experimenting with Dionysian ritual and had tried to tap into the ancient ecstasy recounted in some of their texts.  The ritual is successful, in a sense, but a sort of tragedy (more on the “sort of” later), and one of the friends not involved in the experiment, a blustery New England prepster named Bunny, begins to blackmail the students involved.  When the rest of the Greek students can stand Bunny’s increasingly unhinged threats no longer, they push him off a cliff.

This novel is not a mystery–there is no doubt who killed Bunny or why.  It is also not a mystery because the police do not suspect foul play.  However, the five remaining friends, with guilty thoughts tormenting them and straining their relationships to the suicidal limit, never feel safe despite the lack of police interest.  The psychological stress each undergoes provides the real narrative impetus, and in that sense it is a satisfying novel.  I found myself obsessed with their torment and Tartt’s narrative strategy to release small pieces of information at a time made me keep turning the pages.

But.  But, but, but.  For some reason I was frequently irritated by this novel.  Part of it was the tone, which felt all wrong.  It was fussy and condescending at times, lending an almost anachronistic air to things; I had trouble believing Richard would write this way.  It is true that he is writing years after the events, after he has become an English professor, but the tone still felt awkwardly posed, mannerist, and contrived.  The characters were also far too odd and eccentric.  Bunny, who comes from a New England banking family with a very expensive reputation to maintain, talked, I thought, too much like a parody of Fitzgerald.  Did any college student in the 1980s (when I presume this was set–the timeline is not clear, either, something else that annoyed me) call his friends “old boy” like a bluff, dense, country squire from a Dorothy Sayers novel?  And then there are the class issues.  Richard is very poor, but somehow immediately blends in with the rich preppy kids, wearing tweed suits and vintage ties (really?) around campus.  Furthermore, in their Dionysian experiment, the four rich kids accidentally kill an old Vermont farmer.  Because it is done in the spirit of aesthetic and intellectual curiosity, the murder seems like no big deal.  Their professor, when he hears about it, is more excited that they were successful in their attempts to reach some ecstatic peak than in the death of some poor farmer.  It reeks of noblesse oblige and makes me more angry the more I think about it.

It was a good, interesting story, but it has left me in turmoil as I fight myself about its final merits.

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Damned Spot

A while back I was chatting with a friend on Facebook when she recommended Ron Rash’s newest novel, Serena.  I immediately opened a new tab, found the book online, and ordered it (yes, I am such a technical kind of guy).  Although it arrived quickly, I had to set it aside until after classes and graduation were over, and then I was still finishing up my latest excursion through the O’Brian series.  I finally got to it early last week, and my friend’s recommendation was very worthy.  It is a very haunting novel that plays with many of my favorite themes; there is a strong ecocritical slant to much of the novle, and the prose is beautifully evocative in a very naturalistic way.

In brief, the novel is set at the beginning of the Depression and is about the scion of a timber family named Pemberton who returns to the logging camp in North Carolina with the new bride he acquired in Boston.  I use the rather loaded and paternalistic term “acquired” very advisedly, and very ironically.  Serena is, after all, not the sort of woman who would let herself become the property of any man, and it soon becomes clear that Rash has a copy of Macbeth sitting at his elbow as he writes.  The opening scene is as bloody as the “fair is foul” introduction to the Scottish play.  The newlyweds step off the train and are quickly confronted by a tough mountain man, fortified with some Dutch courage, and his teenaged daughter, who happens to be very pregnant.  With Pemberton’s child.  The mountain man brings out his big pigsticker of a knife, Pemberton takes out his Bowie (a wedding present.  From his wife.) and the two duel.  Dueling is too nice a term, though, for something that ends with one thrust.  The old man crumples in the dust and Serena, who seems oddly aroused by this, takes the man’s knife (a rather nice one) and hands it to the girl, telling her to sell it for money, because she’s never going to get anything from the Pembertons.  In other words, Serena makes the average black-clad femme fatale look like a pale weeping Nellie with a bad case of the vapours.

So the Pembertons set out to build an empire on chopped-down trees.  When all of the trees in North Carolina are gone, they plan to move to Brazil to cut down all of the trees in South America.  Their hunger for trees is frightening, and their ever-more rapacious greed becomes all-encompassing.  They are violently opposed to plans, partly funded by the nearby Vanderbilts (Biltmore is just down the road from the logging camp) to buy up huge tracts of the Pisgah Forest and turn it into a National Park.  They begin to oppose the park plan not so much because of economic reasons but because they just want to chop down more trees and that just for spite.  The fight between the park and industry is really more about the fight for their individual identities.  Without the logging, the Pembertons cease to exist.

Rash presents an interesting dilemma here.  While he is clearly on the side of the park, he is also very sympathetic to the men who work in extremely hazardous conditions (it seems a logger dies on almost every page, either from a falling tree or some other disaster) and to the hundreds of desperate and hopeful men who arrive on the trains looking for a job in the camp.  He seems to be trying to find a way to achieve a balance between our need and desire for nature and our need and desire for economic stability.  When the Pembertons finish logging an area, they quickly move on to a new spot, leaving many of the old loggers behind, so their model is clearly not sustainable.  On the other hand, the government’s heavy-handed and bullying arguments about eminent domain ring hollow to the hollow-eyed men hungry for work and who see the logging camp and the only thing that could possibly save them from utter annihilation.

The land eventually becomes a hellish wasteland.  The hills and mountains are stripped bare, and the slash wood, the trees no good for logging, are torn down, piled up, and burned.  In Rash’s descriptions I see a Dantean landscape, inhuman, inhumane, fit only for the otherworldly queen of death riding on her white horse through the smoldering ash.  As the novel progresses, the normal, recognizable world becomes twisted and freakish.  Serena had ordered a Mongolian eagle, which she trained to the glove; the image of her riding through the smoky haze with this huge bird perched on her fist is surely the thing of nightmares.  Her sidekick is a nearly speechless man who lost his hand in a freak accident; Serena had saved him from death by quickly whipping a tourniquet around his wrist and now he follows her like a mute and fiendish hound, killing her enemies for her without even hearing her explicit wish that they die.

The only serious problem I had with the novel is its unrelenting bleakness, which may sound like a strange criticism coming from me, the fan of Cormac McCarthy.  However, it was not so much the bleak tone but the single-dimensional qualities that unnerved me.  Serena is powerful and even noble in many ways, but she is unhesitatingly, unstintingly evil.  There is no compassion anywhere.  With Lady Macbeth, on whom she is modeled, I get the sense that she feels remorse, and her “Out, out–” speech pretty clearly points to some regret or conscience.  Serena never has her damned spot moment, and that is to her detriment.  She would have been a more interesting character for it.

Nevertheless, read it.

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Operation Mirror

Last year I read Tana French’s debut novel, In the Woods, upon the recommendation of a friend.  I liked it quite a lot, and found it to be a good, tautly written, psychologically complex murder mystery.  It combined the exacting detail of the police procedural with some dark hints of the uncanny, all presented with sharp, fluent prose.  When I saw French’s sort-of-a-sequel, The Likeness, in my birthday bookstore crawl, I grabbed it.  The verdict is in, and it is very, very clear: although In the Woods was a great novel, The Likeness is exponentially better, perhaps one of the best mystery novels I’ve read.

I said above that it’s a sort of sequel.  In the first novel, the action revovles around Rob Ryan and, to a slightly lesser extent, his partner Cassie Maddox.  We learn a little about both detectives’ backgrounds, with the tantalizing hint that Cassie had worked in Undercover, where she was stabbed by a suspect.  This sets the stage for the new novel, with Cassie taking over the duties of the narrator and playing a multi-layered role as undercover cop, murder investigator, and bait.  In her days as an undercover agent, Cassie posed as a Dublin college student named Lexie Madison; in her dealings with drug dealers and users, she had been stabbed by a pathetic suspect, and, on the strength of her undercover work, she got herself transfered to the Murder Squad, where we find her in the first book.  In the sequel, she has transfered to Domestic Violence, almost entirely because of the trauma caused by the investigation featured in the first novel.

She is quickly dragged back into the world of murder and undercover by an early morning phone call from her boyfriend, a detective in the murder squad.  He is frantic, and asks her to come down to a murder scene as soon as she can.  When she arrives at the old cottage she is startled to find her old boss from her undercover days, Frank Mackey, there as well.  His appearance is explained when she sees the murder victim: a young woman named Lexie Madison.  Not only does the young woman bear Cassie’s old undercover name, she also looks almost exactly like Cassie.  Mackey, who loves to play rough with the rules, sees this as the prefect opportunity to resurrect Lexie the undercover agent, using Cassie to flush out the murderer.  Although Cassie is at first horrified at the idea, she soon finds herself oddly drawn to it, and agrees to the outrageous plan.

Lexie–the murdered girl–had been a graduate student at Trinity, and she lived in an old Georgian mansion in the village of Glenskehy with four other graduate students in a strange, idyllic intellectual commune.  Daniel, one of the graduate students, had inherited the mansion from his eccentric old uncle, and he immediately shared his new home with his friends, making them co-owners.  There the five stayed, cooking together, reading together, living a completely isolated but apparently satisfying life.  The scenes of this life are some of the most remarkable in the novel.  In many ways, it sounds like the graduate school dream that many of us had: the students are free from worry about their living arrangements, and they move from their classes to their tutorials to their quiet, studious home life as if enchanted.  Their evenings are filled with books, intellectual discussions, card games, gentle teasing.

Outside the house, though, the world lurks.  Whitethorn (the name of the house) had been the home seat of the March family in the days of the Anglo-Irish landlords, and the locals in the village (which is presented as an almost primitively isolated and insular community) still detest the house and all it stands for.  This leads to a number of suspects.  Was Lexie murdered by an angry villager who had had enough of the Big House persecution?  Was she killed by a real estate developer who wanted to turn the house into a luxury golf resort?  Was she killed by one of her housemates?

The plot is never obvious, and although I suspected the killer early on, I never had quite enough reason to believe my suspicions, and I was easily led to suspect others along the way.  The entire time Cassie is playing Lexie and living in the house, French slowly but mercilessly turns up the tension until the final dramatic confrontation and resolution left me worn and twisted in agitation.  I read the last two hundred pages at a feverish pace, turnign pages as quickly as my eye could scan the words, needing to find out what was going to happen.

The novel, though, is not just a good page-turning yarn.  The prose is crystalline, and Cassie’s voice as she gradually falls in love with the house and its inhabitants is immensely seductive.  She comes across as clear-headed and analytical but also deeply passionate and alive.  French also deals with the history of Ireland and its harsh conflicts with honesty and heart.  The cottage where Lexie’s body is found is one of the many “famine cottages” found across the countryside, a cottage abandoned in the 1840s when its inhabitants either starved to death or immigrated.  The relationship between the big house and the village is eerily recreated in the relationship between Daniel and his friends.  Always lurking in the background is the Celtic Tiger, the loud, vibrant, electrified European hotspot that Ireland had become early in the millenium, an identity that threatens to overwhelm and destroy an older culture.  The older culture, however, is not sentimentalized, but is shown with all its flaws and violence.

I can’t wait to read what Tana French has planned.  This is a great book–read it.

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The Afterlife

The first semester of college was a disaster.  Dorms were auctioned off in a lottery, and my number was so high, there was no hope I would get one, so I lived in a seedy motel for the first two weeks of classes.  I finally found an apartment in the basement of an old Victorian house in the hills on the north side of town, a little over a mile from campus.  It was a nice place, but I was isolated, an 18-year-old who didn’t know what he was doing or why he was doing it.  Complicating all of this was my major: I had enrolled as a mechanical engineering major, but I wanted to switch to English as soon as I could.  In the meantime, I was barely enduring the engineering courses.

My landlord had been a comparative literature major, and he had a huge collection of old paperback books, many of which he kept in a closet in my apartment.  He seemed to like mid-century modernism, and the closet overflowed with Cheever, Barth, and Updike.  I had read “A&P” in high school, and I liked that story a lot, so I pulled out Rabbit, Run one day when I did not want to do any more homework for my engineering graphics class.  I went on to read several other Updike novels, including The Centaur, and there was something I couldn’t quite define that captivated me.

The books saved me, though, from despair.  I was alone and lonely.  I didn’t have any friends in the engineering program.  I was 250 miles away from my girlfriend.  I once went two entire weeks without having any occasion to speak to another human being.  It is not stretching the truth to say that Updike soon became something more than another author to me.  He became a family member.

A year or so later, I was safely enrolled in English classes, one of which was a creative writing class.  We had an assignment where we all came up with an opening line for a short story.  We voted to select one of the lines, and then we all had to craft a short story around that opening line.  The was this: “People get the darkest tan right around their armpits.”  I wrote my story and was very pleased with the results.  The professor made copies (mimeographs, even) and the whole class read it.  One of the girls in the class said it reminded her of Updike’s “A&P.”  This remains the highlight of my writing career–a comparison to Updike’s short story!

I have continued to read Updike since then, and some novels–Roger’s Version, the Rabbit novels, and The Witches of Eastwick–have demanded multiple readings.  The strange thing about my relationship with Updike’s writing is I have never met another person who likes his writing.  Not one.  “Stuffy.”  “Effeminate.”  “Rambling.”  “Prissy.”  I’ve heard many words of condemnation, and they have left me feeling hot and scratchy with indignation and frustrated outrage.  I never could seem to muster up the courage to defend my author in the face of such implacable, insistent, and smugly positive criticism.

For me, Updike’s prose has always been crystalline, sharp and hard-edged.  He managed to induce fits of jealousy in me with his keen ability to find precisely the perfect phrase to capture a moment, an idea, a picture.  The things that we see every day but do not know quite how to describe unless we ramble on incoherently for pages Updike can nail in one well-turned phrase.  Some critics hated his attention to mundane details, and torched him for wasting his elegant, eloquent phrases on things like the irritation of a rough spot on your thumbnail, but the poetry of the minutia always made me smile.

When I heard today that Updike had died in hospice of lung cancer, I felt blindsided.  I was expecting to read his new novels for another decade at least.  I lost an old friend.

EDIT:  Here is a great essay in Salon by David Lipsky that says what I was trying to say but says it better.  He says this about David Foster Wallace’s charge that Updike is a narcissist:  “But to call Updike a narcissist (and this charge has gotten around) misses the point, since the impulse behind his self-examination is so basically generous:  Our smallest encounters and realignments of feeling are worthy of inspection; if Updike’s life is a story, everybody’s is.”   Exactly.

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It has been very cold around here lately. Yesterday I saw the lowest reading I have ever seen on my front porch thermometer: -0.6F. If you’re in Minnesota, that’s not very cold, but I’m a transplanted Californian living in New England, so that’s plenty cold. The larger problem for me is the road conditions. We have been receiving snow storms every third day or so, and the plows do not seem to worry all that much about actually, you know, plowing. Many of the back roads, the roads I usually ride on, have a lot of ice on them, making riding very hazardous.

Yesterday, instead of going for a long ride in the deep freeze, Dorothy and I headed down to New Haven, where we met the Suitcases of Courage at the Beinecke Rare Book Library on the Yale campus. If you have not seen the Beinecke, it is an architectural wonder. Built in the early 1960s, it has that sort of self-satisfied, clean almost to austerity look of modern architecture, but, like the best of modernism, it really transcends its time period. From the outside, it is a very severe looking rectangular box, a pale sepulcher with large pale panels of marble forming the facade. As you approach, no windows are visible. The five-story main part of the building floats in a sunken plaza above a ground floor faced with dark glass. Inside, a glass enclosed column rises the entire height of the building; this houses the main stacks, and you can see shelves upon shelves of old, leather-bound volumes. A reception desk is flanked by twin stairways that rise to the main exhibition area.

Once you walk up these stairs, the full effect of the building’s design hits. The marble panels on the facade are translucent, and, on a sunny day, they glow with a dark, creamy, textured light. The architect who designed the building, Gordon Bunshaft, wanted the structure to be plain and even harsh on the outside but a jewel inside. He compared it to a cathedral that has a forbidding appearance but a bright, welcoming interior. It truly is an amazing building, and well worth the trip.

Even better than the architecture were the treasures inside. The library is about to open an exhibit called “Book of Secrets,” an installation featuring important works on alchemy from the early modern period to the present. The books were fascinating, with illustrations of the strange mixture of occult speculation and rudimentary attempts to unlock the mysteries of chemistry. Drawings of dragons covered with emblems representing salt, mercury, and sulphur appeared next to diagrams of laboratory apparatus.

After browsing the collection, we headed for the Book Trader Cafe, a used book story on Chapel Street. Dorothy and I had been here once before, and I remembered finding many good books on the shelves. A used book store in a college town in a great thing, and I found dozens of books I could take home, but I limited myself to just a few. After this, Dorothy and Mrs. Suitcase went to Atticus Book Store and Cafe, while Mr. Suitcase and I went to College Street Cycles, the local bike shop.

The bike shop is a tiny storefront with room for a workshop area and a couple of bikes. The walls and ceiling fairly drip with bike things–tires, saddles, tubes, locks, and on and on. Basso, a large black Labrador, takes his job of greeting customers seriously, with a solemnity not often found in a Lab. He took a great liking to me, partly because I seemed to know just what parts of the Labrador ear to rub. We chatted with the guys in the shop for a while–we knew a lot of the same racers–before heading back to Atticus. After buying a couple more books, we were hungry and walked back across campus to Wall Street Pizza, where the battered, graffiti-carved booths fail to hint at the great pizza that comes out of the ovens.

Here are the books I ended up with:

  • The Tortilla Curtain, by T.C. Boyle
  • Sisters of the Earth, edited by Lorraine Anderson
  • Turn, Magic Wheel, by Dawn Powell
  • The Naming of the Dead, by Ian Rankin
  • The Autograph Man, by Zadie Smith (the UK edition, no less)
  • An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, by Brock Clarke
  • Ghost, by Alan Lightman

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Two things about Tana French’s masterful debut novel, In the Woods, bother me, and the main reason for the bother is because I can’t decide if these things are weaknesses or strengths. I’m leaning heavily toward strengths, though, which says a lot about why this novel works so well. The first bother is something I can’t really talk about because it might spoil a small part of the ending. Let me just say this: There are really two mysteries in this complex novel, and the way in which the two mysteries do or do not intertwine left me alternately hoping for a more overt connection and very happy that the fog of ambiguity remained dense and dark. I’ll get to my other bother later.

French begins with a terrifying story of three children who mysteriously vanished in the woods near a housing development outside of Dublin in the 1980s. One of the children was found, desperately clinging to a tree, his t-shirt shredded and his shoes filled with blood not his own. He has no memory of what happened, and he grows up to be a police detective. Armchair psychology would indicate that he became a detective to deal with the unsolved mystery of his friends’ disappearance and his equally mysterious deliverance, but French is too deft an author to let us indulge in such characterization. Ryan’s motives are much more complex, and as dark and muddled as any mystery he has faced in the line of duty.

Now, 20 years later, Rob Ryan, who carries himself with the mildly alcoholic swagger of thousands of tough, jaded detectives from Philip Marlowe to John Rebus, is assigned a murder case. The young girl, a promising ballerina ecstatic about her upcoming move to the national ballet school, is found in the same woods, her skull bashed in with a rock. Ryan soon starts to relive the days leading up to his friends’ disappearance and begins to think there may be a connection between the two cases. His partner, Cassie Maddox, thinks he might be right, and she acts–or tries to act–as a stable point for him to follow his unconscious fears as the clues lead in a number of terrifying directions.

The mystery is complicated, with leads taking us to the corrupt world of Dublin politics and the conflict between memories of the old, poverty-stricken Ireland and the new realities of the “Celtic Tiger.” At the same time, Ryan and Maddox must face the stomach-churning implications of pedophilia, possible serial killers, and the disturbing sense that even the police themselves might not understand their motives in attempting to solve the crime. Does Ryan want to find Katharine Devlin’s murderer because it’s his job, or is he really searching for his own deeply hidden tormentors? Does the case really lead to the highest levels of local politics, land deals, and community groups, or is the truth closer to home? Is there really a connection between the two cases, or is Ryan slowly losing his grip on reality?

French describes the summer Ryan and his friends had their adventure as unnaturally hot, with seemingly endless days of bright sunshine a mocking contrast to the terror the children faced. Despite this, however, the novel has a dark, damp, foggy feel to it. The few scenes in the woods (and this is my other very minor complaint–I sort of wanted a little more of the story set in the actual woods) are claustrophobic, with half-heard noises and briefly glimpsed shadows convincing the reader that something is waiting right over there, in the darkness behind that tree–is it really a tree?–is something unspeakable ready to pounce. In other words, she sets up something that at times read like the most terrifying horror story, some sort of frightening child’s story grown larger, with longer, nastier, pointier teeth.

Eventually, as in all good mystery novels, the truth more or less comes out. This is, however, a modern mystery, which means there is no comfortable unmasking of the mystery in the parlor, no pipe-smoking savant arrogantly explaining that any idiot should have seen the truth all along. Instead, the mystery is revealed in such a devastating way that nearly everyone connected to it–including the police–fall into a deep, stinking pit of anguish. French neatly deconstructs the main purpose of detective fiction. Instead of seeing the social order primly restored at the end, with Good triumphing and Evil perishing, we see the lines blurred, and Good does not necessarily win it all, while Evil (and is the evil in the book ever deserving of proper noun status) manages to survive.

Go out an read it. Leave the light on, though.

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