I am a huge believer that reading books should not be work. And that, conversely, there is a right time at which to read every book. And if you read a book at the wrong time, then you rob yourself of the chance to read it at the right time. That’s why I hate being assigned books for a class: the time for them is rarely right.
I just finished rereading To The Lighthouse. It was fantastic, and I enjoyed it so much more than the first time I read it, three years ago (when I don’t think I really understood what was going on). But, somehow, I think that the time for me to read it was still not right. I found my attention wandering. I wasn’t locked-on in the same way that I was for Mrs. Dalloway.
But, after finishing TTL, I picked up the used copy of Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club, which I got for free a month back, and I instantly knew that it was the right time for me to read this book.
First of all, I’ve read every Jane Austen novel.
Secondly, there’s just something about it that transports me back to a very specific time in my life: a time that I rarely think about. It makes me feel like I’m eighteen again, and it’s the summer before college, and my reading tastes are just starting to broaden, and I’m reading tons of these science fiction short stories that I have (quite literally) ordered in wholesale lots from eBay.
Fowler’s book is not science fiction. It’s a very realist novel. But there is something about the world of the novel that is very reminiscent of humanist SF from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. It’s a calm and clean world. Nowadays, science fiction is very busy and cluttered: so much is happening, there are so many eyeball kicks and fantastic technologies and strange slang words. But in the stories I’m thinking of—the stories of John Varley, John Crowley, Howard Waldrop, Nancy Kress, Maureen McHugh, Robert Reed, Joe Haldeman, etc—there was a sedateness and an orderliness that I found very comforting, without being able to really define it.
Those stories did not take place in amoral universes, not in the way that the stories of, say, William Gibson or Kij Johnson or Elizabeth Hand feel a bit amoral. Terrible things might happen to people, but those things were aberrations: the world was not of a piece with those things.
In the same way, the Jane Austen Book Club is about a world that is fundamentally nice. You might dip into peoples’ lives and see terrible things, but you also see them sitting around a fire and discussing Jane Austen and you know that they’ve found a way to endure and even prosper.
I think that’s a worthwhile thing to have in fiction. It’s true that we’re born alone and we die alone and that eventually the universe will destroy us all. But it’s also true that life is full of graciousness and decency and niceness. To The Lighthouse recognizes both of these things, but Woolf mixes them in an odd way, so that the tragedy is woven through with the grace, while Fowler’s book always makes sure to end things with a note of niceness.
In some ways, that is what marks Fowler’s book as a genre novel. I often joke that there are only two kinds of literary short stories: the ones what descend into a bottomless pit of sadness at the end; and the ones that descend really, really deep into the bottomless abyss of sadness, and then curve up just a tiny bit, so as to end on the most minute note of hope (for the best examples of the latter, see the endings of“Babylon, Revisited” or Gone With The Wind).
I don’t know why this is. I don’t think a happy ending is necessarily falser than a sad one. An ending is a very arbitrary thing, and since people do sometimes have happy moments in their lives, I don’t think it’s terrible to end a story while inside one of them.