Even when I can’t get excited about much else, I can get excited about reading

17402288I’m gonna let you guys in on a little secret: being a writer is not very eventful.

Like, seriously, nothing ever happens. I mean, I get a rejection every other day. And an acceptance every two months, maybe. And every few months there’s also some slow incremental progress on getting my novel published (hearing from my agent, sending him a revision, etc). But other than that, there’s really nothing. It’s actually kind of boring.

I suppose that you publish a novel, there are a few more events: you get requests for interviews and you give readings and you get fan-mail and you engage in Twitter feuds with other up-and-coming writers. But really, I think it’s probably still pretty uneventful.

Most jobs are not as uneventful as writing. Most jobs have meetings! And targets! And deadlines! And crunchtime on a project!

In most jobs, stuff happens every single day.

It’s definitely not that way with writing.

Sometimes when I am doing my writing, I think, “Huh, well. I guess I’m just going to, like…keep doing this. And it’s never really going to be that much different from this…”

It’s a very weird feeling. I think that’s why a lot of writers make their own excitement, by drinking alot or feuding with people or engaging in other crazy shenanigans.

Anyway, you know what is exciting?

All the books that I’ll get to read. Every time I get to the end of a book, I become so overwhelmed with the sheer sense of possibility: I could read any one of miiiiiiillions of books.

I’ve actually become very picky. I will read the openings of ten or twenty books (something that the Kindle makes very easy) before I find the one that I am in the mood for.

Recently, I finished Grahame Greene’s The Quiet American (which I guess is a spy novel? It is a very strange one, though), and began reading Jenny Offill’s Dept. Of Speculation. This is a pretty weird book. There’s sort of a story there–a love story–that’s mixed up with all these strange facts and asides, like the following:

I got a job checking facts at a science magazine. Fun facts, they called them. The connected fibers in a human brain, extended, would wrap around the Earth forty times. Horrible, I wrote in the margin, but they put it through anyway.

Random facts?! That’s all you need to tell a David Markson fan like me (although this sort of collage technique actually dates back at least the citizen chapter of Ulysses, and I’m sure that some nerd out there can find an even older example of it). Actually, I picked up this book after reading about it in the New York Review of Books, because that is just the kind of monster that I’ve become.

But anyway, the book is so short that I already get to think about what else I might read. Fun fun fun.

Living in the open air is a very different experience

I’m currently reading Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and I’m liking it very much. Graham Greene is funny, he made a distinction between his “serious books” and his “entertainments” that seems completely nonsensical to anyone except (presumably) for him. I think that The Quiet American is an entertainment, while The Heart of the Matter is a serious book, even though they’re kind of the same book.

Anyway, what I’ve been struck by in reading the book is how it all takes place in the open air. Even when you’re inside, the air and noise of the outdoors are flowing through your environment. It’s interesting. And very different from the way we live in the U.S. Here, the windows are almost always closed. Even now, when it’s relatively temperate throughout the United States, I imagine that most people are like me and are keeping their windows closed and their houses climate-controlled. The only place (that I’ve been) where people keep their windows open is California. I know that when I was an undergrad, our dorms had neither air-conditioning nor (I believe) any heating, so we tended to have windows open all the time.

There’s something atavistically satisfying about being able to feel the wind and smell the breeze and hear the birds. It’s not necessarily a comfortable thing (I wouldn’t and don’t choose to do it), but there’s a part of me that’s happy when I’m forced to.

Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene

What is the fascination that Catholicism has for prominent British thinkers? The list of prominent converts is a long one (Cardinal Newman, Evelyn Waugh, Tony Blair, G.K. Chesterton, Beryl Bainbridge, Thomas Merton, John Dryden), but, honestly, the whole phenomenon just baffles me a little bit. I don’t think we have anything like it in America. I mean, I guess in America, intellectuals would become evangelical Christians (since that is our rebellious yet conservative religion). But I don’t think that happens very often, does it?

Now, I went to a pretty decent Catholic school that was run by pretty open-minded monks, and I think that’s given me a much more positive view of Catholicism than is possessed by most non-Catholics, but I’d still never to become a Catholic. Even if madness was to strike me and I was to suddenly harbor a belief in the divinity of Christ, I think I’d probably become an evangelical Christian.*

But I think I come closest to understanding the appeal of Catholicism when I read the novels of Graham Greene. He is unflinching. He doesn’t stack the deck in favor of the Church at all. In Brighton Rock,** the Catholics are silly, strange and immoral and the non-Catholics are admirable and forthright.

For instance, the two Catholic protagonists of Brighton Rock are Pinkie, a 17 year old gangster who commits a reckless series of murders, and Rose, his 16 year old girlfriend. They both have a primitive, unreasoning belief in Hell and Good and Evil and in the ritual of Catholicism. They believe in the magical powers of the sacraments. Pinkie thinks that one confession can wipe away his sins. Rose thinks that she is going to hell because she doesn’t marry Pinkie in a church wedding.

Their primary antagonist is one of the world’s unlikeliest detectives, a bartender (rapidly approaching forty) named Ida. She is a sybarite who believes (in a simple, primitive way) that there is nothing after death and that living well is the only important value. However, she has a good heart that she opens to all passersby. And she has a simple instinctive understanding of the difference between Right and Wrong.

These come into play when she briefly comes into contact with a man, right before Pinkie murders him. When she reads about the death in the paper, she is touched by the man’s lonely plight and she decides to investigate his death. Slowly, inexorably, she chases down all possible leads (in between betting on horses and going on sprees with her boyfriend), and eventually ferrets out the truth.

The novel provides two main joys. The first is seeing the contrast between Ida’s worldview and that of the young lovers. Ida lives a clean, brief, uncomplicated life that contains much which is admirable. But you also see the value that is provided to Pinkie and Rose by their morbid, superstitious religious belief. They are as poor and lost as people can be, but their religion provides them with a sense of elevation. Catholicism has a place for them in a way that Ida’s secular humanism does not.

And the second joy is the setting. The novel takes place in Brighton, which is a somewhat-seedy seaside destination for 1940s British people. It seems a lot like Ocean City or Santa Cruz. In a place like Brighton, fun doesn’t mean relaxation…fun is something that you have to work for…fun must be pulled out of the arms of the grasping, heat-stricken crowds who are all searching for the same thing. Fun requires hustle and energy. It’s a grim (but somehow empowering) view of lower-middle-class leisure. These are people who aren’t really supposed to have vacations. And, as such, they’ve been given this horrible little place in which to try to relax. But they make the most of it. They have fun anyway.

And the subtle class distinctions are fascinating. For instance, Ida and Rose are neither of them rich. And they both work in food-service. But Ida is clearly from a somewhat higher class than Rose. For Ida, life is not the struggle that it is for Rose.

Brighton Rock was dark. Not dark in terms of its outcomes or moral universe…but physically dark. When I read it, it felt like all the action was occurring in the background of a faded black-and-white photo. It was an odd feeling…but one that was not without its pleasures.

 

* Protestant beliefs have always seemed a little cleaner, simpler, and more logical to me than Catholic ones. And evangelical Christianity seems a little more fun and colorful than mainline Protestantism. Although, realistically, I’d probably have to become an adherent of some mainline Christian church that’s tolerant of the gays, like Episcopalianism or something.

**I made this same observation in my post on Graham Greene’s The Power And The Glory.

The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene

            This book is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Like all great books, it’s about a lot of things but the thing that interested me most about the book was its defense of organized religion (and, in particular, the Catholic Church). It has an incredibly intellectual honesty. Graham Greene does not take any shortcuts and he does not make any excuses. He lays out his scenario with incredible skill and then he follows it to its most logical conclusion.

In my little socioeconomic slice of America, it is an article of faith that organized religion does not serve much of a positive purpose. Of course, religious faith is fine (some of us think it’s salutary, others think it’s silly, but everyone thinks it’s fundamentally acceptable), but all this stuff with priests and churches and bishops and tithing and catechisms and fasting on Fridays and catechisms and creeds and religious litmus tests is all kind of silly. Since religion is fundamentally irrational, why should any person be able to set himself up as being closer to God than anyone else?

In The Power And The Glory, Graham Greene writes about a 1930s Mexico that’s adopted much the same sort of belief. While it’s still permissible for people to personally retain their faith, the churches have been torn down, religious ceremonies have been outlawed, and the priests have been pensioned off, shot, or driven away.

The main character of Greene’s novel is an unnamed man who is perhaps the last active priest in a Mexican state where the persecution has been particularly savage. This man travels wide circuits on his mule, staying at each village for only a day or two, conducting masses and baptisms in barns and hearing confessions in horse stalls. And at the start of the novel, the governor of the state empowers an equally unnamed lieutenant to do anything–including taking and shooting hostages–in order to capture and execute the priest.

But this priest is not a saint. He is an alcoholic (and he spends a lot of time scheming to acquire alcohol, since wine and spirits are illegal in his state). He has fathered an illegitimate child. He haggles with the peasants over the price of baptisms and such. He’s a hypocrite. When he preaches, he tells peasants to do things that he doesn’t do himself. When he gives confessions, he tells them to refrain from sins that he is actively committing. There’s not that much compassion or understanding in him (there’s not that much of anything in him). And although he has faith, sometimes it seems like a shallow, rote sort of faith…not a faith that’s touched him very deeply in terms of his character.

More than anything, the priest is petulant, guilty, and bewildered. He doesn’t know how he’s found himself in this position. He constantly seeks to escape from his ministry (and leave this state entirely without clerics), but he keeps getting drawn back, almost as if serving God was a weakness that he kept succumbing to. It’s clear that he’s not accomplishing much good. He’s not organizing anything or changing anything. All he’s doing is fulfilling some silly forms that the local peasants require because his church has taught them that they’ll go to hell unless the right words are said. And he’s not even doing much of that: in the last year, he’s only said four masses and heard a hundred confessions. Mostly, he’s just running from this implacable lieutenant.

And the lieutenant is as virtuous as the priest is venal. The lieutenant loves children, he gives to the poor, he is personally honest. Although he kills people, he does not love doing so. He kills because he knows he has to. He believes that the Church has oppressed his people for centuries; that the Church is a tool which the landlords have used to pacify the peasants. He knows that stamping out the church is a necessary precondition of making everyone wealthier, better-educated, and happier.

But…out of this loaded scenario, Greene somehow manages to demonstrate the value of the Church. Neither the peasants nor the priest can understand what they’re doing, but the ritual observance is what keeps God alive. Greene shows how God withers when it is kept trapped up inside the heart, and how faith requires some kind of community in order to remain strong. And he shows the consolations of faith. He shows how even a very thin faith is able to ennoble this priest, whereas the lack of it has sapped the humanity from the lieutenant.

The most virtuosic performance in the novel comes at the end, where the priest is wondering whether he himself is going to go to heaven. Actually, the priest is not wondering at all. He knows he is not going to heaven. He knows he is damned. He’s sinned too repeatedly, and, what’s more, he’s not contrite about his sins. He knows that it would be the height of pride for him to forgive himself…it would just be another sin loaded on top of all the rest. The priest knows that what he needs is another priest–another man, acting using the spark of Godliness that is inside all men–to hear his sins and look inside him and tell him that even he is, somehow, worthy of salvation.

Are comedic novels supposed to be funny in the same way that stand-up comics are funny?

I like funny things. Well, not videos of cats. Actually, I avoid humorous Youtube videos of any sort. But I am generally capable of appreciating all other forms of funny media: musicals, jokes (even puns), stand-up comedies, sit-coms, etc.

But I’ve always been a little mystified by comedic novels. I mean, I’ve read and enjoyed fair number of ostensibly comedic novels….but I haven’t found them funny.

I find it easy to recognize some kind of similarity between the feeling I get from a good joke (even if I don’t laugh at it) and a comedic song. But that feeling seems, to me, to be so different from the feeling that I get from comedic novels that I hesitate to call them the same feeling.

Out of all the prose works I’ve read, there aren’t more than a handful that I’ve found to be really funny: Simon Rich’s Ant Farm; Pratchett and Gaiman’s Good Omens; and (at least when I read it like ten years ago) Dave Barry’s Big Trouble.

Almost all the other comedic novels I’ve read have seemed to me to possess nothing more or less than the typical qualities of a novel: complicated characters, interesting situations, well-observed social dynamics, etc. It’s true that in ostensibly-comedic novels, these things are exaggerated in certain ways, but most novels make heavy use of exaggeration and satirical elements as well.

For instance, 1984 is not considered a comedic novel, but in its cartoonish depiction of a world of doublethink, Big Brother, two-minute hates, and the like, the novel seems to be satirizing real world institutions in exactly the same way as, say, Catch-22.

As another example, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye (and, to some extent, Franny And Zooey) is about an intelligent but deluded fool who feels very estranged from the world in which he lives and goes wandering around a large city and criticizing everything around him; that’s also the same premise and technique of John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy Of Dunces. But the former is rarely described as a comic novel, while the latter is frequently described as one.

And that would be fine, if the latter novel was funny and the former was not. However, I don’t perceive that distinction. To me, 1984 and Catcher in the Rye are good in pretty much the same way that Catch-22 and Confederacy of Dunces are good.

I don’t recognize comedic novels as being funny, but there is something that I enjoy about them. I like their niceness and miniaturization. Most of life isn’t heart-rending and life-altering. Most of it is tea parties and little arguments. I think that ‘comedic’ novels tend to capture that pretty well and, in some ways, they feel more true than more ostensibly realistic novels.

The closest thing to a comedic novel is probably the romantic comedy film. Rom-coms are generally not that funny. Instead, they’re cute. They’re romances without passion. They’re dramas without bite. When I say it that way, it kind of sounds like I am slamming them, but I actually like the absence of passion and drama. I think that it’s an interesting way of portraying life. And since we don’t know quite what to call things that are ‘cute’ or ‘nice’ in this way, we call them ‘comedies.’

Recently, I have read five extremely good comedic novels and I am going to summarize my reactions to them below.


Vile Bodies
by Evelyn Waugh – One of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s a very fast-paced novel about petty English gentry in the inter-war period. I don’t think I’ve ever read another novel that was about precisely this milieu and time period. Or rather, perhaps I have (most of the Bloomsbury Group’s novels must be about these folks) but I haven’t recognized it because no one else has so skillfully drawn out matters of money and social relationships. This book is also told in a really interesting way. It’s composed primarily of very short–less than 500 word–scenes and has very abrupt transitions between scenes.

Decline And Fall by Evelyn Waugh – This is Waugh’s first novel (and my introduction to his work). I’m always surprised at the gall of some authors. Waugh wrote a novel that’s basically about an Oxford student who gets kicked out of college and goes on to do a bunch of things that are sort of like what Waugh did (like teach at a private school) but, of course, a lot sillier. I don’t think fiction ought to imitate real life in this way, because real life generally makes very little sense. This comes through pretty well in the novel. The only reason the main character does the next thing is because the author wants to talk about the next thing. Still, the novel turned out well (but I bet most novels that are like this one are pretty horrible). Also, Waugh’s

novels also tend to have horrific subplots that you should look for. People die between scenes for no good reason.

Our Man In Havana by Graham Greene – Because of his daughter’s extravagant pecuniary demands, a vacuum cleaner salesman in Havana agrees to become an informant for a British spy agency. But because he’s lazy, he just sends back doctored reports. This is only barely comic. Informants actually do this kind of thing all the time. But there’s something in the twisting desperation of the informant to manufacture a good life for himself and his daughter that is really interesting.

Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene – This book is about a boring fifty year old man (a retired bank manager) who meets his septuagenarian aunt for the first time and starts going on crazy world-spanning adventures with her. The most interesting thing about this novel is its sense of restraint. If I (or any other imitator) was to write a character like the aunt, we’d make her backstory outrageous and diverse. We’d put in everything into her backstory. We’d have her taming lions in Senegal and blasting off to outer space and saving the President from assassins in Tulsa. She’d basically be Pippi Longstocking. But although Graham Greene doesn’t reveal her entire past, he basically allows the reader to reconstruct a very coherent timeline from the aunt’s stories. Although she’s still a ridiculous character, her comprehensibility makes her seem much more realistic; she’s not just some crazy awesome Chuck Norris type who no real person could ever live up to.

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh – I also read Scoop. But I am blanking on what to say about it right now, so instead I’ll just transition directly into:

 

ASIDE: Is Dickens supposed to be comedic or what? I mean, do people find him funny? Do people find him dramatic? Dickens is so weird. It’s hard to know what to think about him. He’s pretty much his own entirely inimitable blend of the absurd and the dramatic. Nothing about Dickens is real and nothing about him is funny, but when you see his mannequins walk around, some kind of real emotion oozes up out of you. I guess that he’s sort of like a musical. If you stop to think about what musicals are (stories about people who just burst out into song in the most ordinary situations) then they start to seem really ridiculous. Maybe most forms and genres of media are pretty ridiculous if you’re not willing to embrace their conventions.

Woman as Financial Vampire

I’m currently reading (and considerably enjoying) Edith Wharton’s Custom Of The Country. But I am also disquieted by the novel. At its core, the story of this novel is a very familiar one. It’s about an ambitious woman who sucks dry a somewhat dreamy man with her incessant financial demands.

The cunning woman who only longs for fine society and fine objects and uses her beauty as a tool with which to entrap men into providing for her desires is an incredibly familiar figure in literature. She is so familiar, in fact, that I kept having these strange echoes while I read the book. I’d have a brief impression, and then I wouldn’t be able to rest until I remembered the other book that I was being reminded of.

I haven’t tracked down all the impressions of what I call “woman as financial vampire”, but I can name a few. There’s Emile Zola’s Nana, about a French prostitute who destroys the fortunes of her admirers. There’s Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, whose eponymous heroine eventually gets her husband deep into debt after issuing numerous notes and trying all kinds of financial manipulations with the village moneylender. There’s Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie: the main character has a paramour who engages in embezzlement to meet her monetary demands. There’s Becky Sharp, from William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, who bankrupts her creditors (and ruins her admittedly horribly husband) by knowingly borrowing huge sums and then running away from her debts. There’s Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind: who screws over her second husband in various business deals. There’s Grushenka in Dostoyevsky’s Brother’s Karamozov, who causes the central conflict of the novel by creating a large need for money in the oldest brother, Dmitri. There’s Polina in Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler, whose mysterious need for money causes the hero to take up gambling.

Perhaps the most nuanced and complex use of this female trope comes (rather surprisingly) from Charles Dickens. David Copperfield’s first wife, Dora Spenlow, shares many traits with the financial vampires described above: she’s spoiled, petulant, short-sighted, and used to being supported by wealthy men. And when she married David Copperfield, one is almost sure that she is immediately going to drive him to ruin. But she doesn’t. Their marriage is not precisely happy, but she does not destroy him. In the end, it seems like he genuinely loves her and she genuinely loves him.

Most of the examples I cited above are from a particular time period, and, indeed, I think it’s difficult to find more recent examples of the woman as financial vampire. An example from the fifties is Millie, from Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havana, whose financial demands cause her father to enter into the spying business. Another that springs to mind is Jorah Mormont in A Song Of Ice And Fire, who becomes a slaver and a mercenary in order to satisfy his wife Lynesse’s need for jewels and finery and parties.

There must be many more examples of this trope, but its frequent occurrence in my own reading is enough to satisfy me that it is definitely “a thing”.

But it does puzzle me. The occurrence and reoccurrence of the fantastically spendthrift woman in literature seems to suggest that she is being used to work out some sort of deep cultural anxiety. In many cases, her financial needs are coupled with a sexual unfaithfulness, which seems to suggest that they’re both part of some kind of fear of emasculation or loss of control.

But it’s the financial aspect that has always been more startling to me than the sexual aspect. After all, a woman can’t be spendthrift without her husband’s consent. In most of the above relationships, the man has to sign for each and every purchase. He is fully capable, at any time, of cutting the purse strings, but he is so ensnared by her charm that he is unable to.

It’s a strange sort of anxiety and I question how often women like this actually existed. She’s more like a monster than she is like a real person. She has an unholy power to glamor a man. And she has an unquenchable appetite for jewels, hotel rooms, meals, carriages, and dresses.

In some cases (as in Our Man In Havana) the financial vampire is just a plot device. She’s a way to provide the hero with a huge need for money without also making him seem greedy or repellent. But many of these novels are explicitly devoted to the psychology or origins of these women. It’s quite fantastic that so much ink has been spilled about the inner workings creature that can’t have been very common.

But it doesn’t matter that the financial vampire probably didn’t exist too often: what matters is that she ought to exist. Most of these novels conclude that mankind deserves the financial vampire. Halfway through Custom of the Country, a character rather explicitly says that America gives rise to these financial vampires because it infantilizes women and doesn’t allow them to have real pursuits: the reason they have no real concept of money is because they are not allowed to work, and the reason they ruin men is because they are taught that their virtue is measured in what they can extract from males using their beauty and charm.

Personally, though, I am not convinced by these pseudo-feminist morals. Despite the gloss that these novels put on what they’re doing, they are still trafficking in very charged, very sexist imagery, and I think that part of their emotional appeal, as literature, is due to the horror that these women arouse in men. If I created a movie where a mob of blacks rioted and raped a bunch of white women, I think I would still be playing to the racist anxieties of my audience even if I ended the movie by saying “They were driven to this by your racism!”