Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Science Fiction Roundup, July 2003

 [This ran as a column in the Washington Post Book World.  I came across the file by happenstance and, reading through it, found it full of novels and stories that I remain happy to recommend.]

            Ian R. MacLeod has published one previous novel, but is best known for his short fiction, particularly the brooding and densely textured novellas he has published over the past half dozen years.  The Light Ages (Ace Books, 456 pp., $23.99) is, like his earlier The Great Wheel, a long and meditative portrayal of an exotic society, fascinating in its unhealthy languor and seemingly imperturbable stasis.  But unlike the first novel, which was a clearly identifiable novel of the future, The Light Ages is a kind of Industrial Fantasy, a more recent (and very English) sub-genre, upon which MacLeod plays some striking variations.
            In a world whose history diverged from our own sometime in the seventeenth century, the basis for modern civilization is aether, a strange, almost immaterial substance that, properly controlled, can power machinery, hold up buildings, and produce a variety of exotic substances.  Mined in central England and sent by train to the enormous industrial centers of London, aether has been the making of enormous fortunes, and a generations-long force for social stratification and paralysis.
            This is a potentially interesting setup, if nothing terribly original, but MacLeod’s story – the narrative of a poor boy who rises in time to great wealth (for reasons that have to do with the terrible secret of an appalling social outcast), but finds his subsequent life haunted by an unattainable beloved whose very essence seems a mysteriously unanswerable rebuke – proves to have its own mysterious quality:  it bears a startling similarity to the emotional topos of Great Expectations.  Like Dickens’s Pip, Robert Borrows feels himself tainted by inauthenticity and an inchoate sense of guilt; he visits a bizarre house where an outlandish elderly woman and a beautiful young girl live seemingly beyond the confines of ordinary time; and finds himself repeatedly drawn to the rivers, marshes, and shifting margins of his mercantile and time-deadened world.
            MacLeod’s narrative does not closely follow the plot of Great Expectations, and the numerous points of correspondence often appear in a different order.  But the novel, “Dickensian” in other, more or less traditional ways (such its use of outlandish names, which include a nasty overseer named Stropcock who labors in the great factory Mawdingly & Clawtson), so powerfully recalls Dickens’s novel that its affinity – like the spooky aether, which glows in the dark yet somehow casts shadows by daylight – animates the entire work.
            The sense of loss that pervades The Light Ages would be immediately apparent even to a reader unfamiliar with Dickens’s novel, but for those who can hear the complex overtones produced by its interaction with MacLeod’s great predecessor, the result is deeply affecting.

            Ian R. MacLeod is also the author of the novella “Breathmoss” in Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Twentieth Annual Collection (St. Martin’s Press, 648 pp., $35 hardcover, $19.95 trade paperback), a leisurely, atmospheric tale of an adolescent who grows to adulthood in an idyllic far-future civilization that is (the reader realizes only gradually) virtually all-female and Islamic.  “Breathmoss” is, perhaps only incidentally, one of a number of stories in Dozois’s volume to deal with issues regarding matriarchy, one of traditional SF historic bugbears.
            Year’s best anthologies tend to produce such apparent trends, which usually prove more statistical quirk than bellwether.  Still, it is interesting to contrast MacLeod’s colorful, quietly intriguing story with Eleanor Arnason’s “The Potter of Bones,” whose off-world protagonists belong to a species for whom female dominance (with heterosexuality practiced only for breeding) is universal.  Arnason does not sit the reader down to explain which aspects of her characters’ behavior are genetically determined and which are socially constructed, but leaves it to her readers to sort through a text that pretends to be ingenuously straightforward, but is (like much of her fiction) a good deal more complex.
            Only John Kessel’s “Stories for Men” treats matriarchy as a political option, meaning a locus for controversy.  His story is set in a benign twenty-first century society whose champions claim, “We do not seek to change men, but to offer them the opportunity to be other than they have been.”  The sentence’s faint suggestion of coercion, and the problematic promise of transformation in (half of) human nature, contain the seeds for much conflict, which Kessel dramatizes with uncomfortable acuity.
            If there is another theme that runs through several stories, it is the coming bad times for aging baby boomers.  Geoff Ryman’s “V.A.O.” (the title refers to Victim Activated Ordnance, hardware to protect affluent geezers; but also to Very Ancient Offenders, because not all the elderly are rich) is an engagingly ill-tempered diatribe delivered from a high-tech rest home (I like especially the toilet that samples an aging resident’s urine then yells at him for not taking his meds).
            Ryman’s story makes a risky swerve from cynicism to sentimentality in its last pages, a move that Maureen McHugh’s “Presence” emphatically declines to make.  A harrowing account of a middle-aged engineer who watches her slightly older husband succumb to Alzheimer’s, McHugh’s story begins with the protagonist sitting in Ohio and remotely manipulating products in an empty factory in China, and continues to evoke images of displacement, emptying, and remoteness (it could have easily been called “Absence”) as the husband undertakes an experimental procedure that promises to grow new neurons in his “gap-ridden brain.” 
            Charles Stross continues the saga he began in last year’s volume “Lobsters” with “Halo,” which follows the mid-twenty-first-century adventures of Amber Macx, who was just being conceived as the first story ended.  Now an almost-teenager chafing under her mother’s domineering behavior, Amber escapes by indenturing herself to a Yemen-incorporated company owned by her own trust fund.  She intends to assume control of the company upon reaching adulthood and dissolving her contract, but her mother’s enraged countermeasures catch her by surprise.  Fast-moving, inventive, and very funny, Stross’s story takes Amber from the West Coast to the orbit of Jupiter, with the extravagant promise of greater vistas to come.

            Stross has also just published a novel, Singularity Sky (Ace, 313 pp., $23.95), which offers greater vistas in serious abundance.  He characteristically wastes no time getting under way:  the novel begins, “The day war was declared, a rain of telephones fell clattering to the cobblestones from the skies above Novy Petrograd.”  The opening sentence tells it all:  a low-tech world undergoing disruptive contact with advanced visitors, who want not to shoot, but talk.
            Stross’s novel about the Carnival, a moving front of interstellar vehicles that enter star systems and offer anything from their trove of self-replicating technologies in exchange for new information (When someone picks up a telephone, it says, “Hello?  Will you entertain us?”), moves quickly and with assurance, dramatizing the collision of seemingly immovable object (a reactionary regime that maintains power by suppressing knowledge) and an almost certainly irresistible force (unlimited dissemination of information and unregulated free trade, before which, as Marx observed, all that is solid melts in air).
            The book’s strengths include Stross’s considerable humor, his cutting-edge knowledge of modern science (he knows how a working interstellar vehicle would power up, and how quantum entanglement might be used to communicate faster than light), and a flair for moving things along.  Its shortcomings, or at least problematic aspects, include a series of satiric portraits (the reactionary regime acts like decayed Ruritanian aristocrats, while the radicals opposing them comically resemble a bewhiskered and wild-eyed batch of  pre-Soviet Bolsheviks) that play out their comic potential fairly early, and a pair of secret agents whose interaction becomes much less interesting once they fall in love.
            The intensity of Stross’s short fiction seems harder to sustain at novel length, and an alert reader can pretty much guess at any point how the rest of the novel will go.  But Singularity Sky is an unusually fun read, one that doesn’t waste the reader’s time or insult her intelligence. 

            For those whose fiction need not partake so insistently of high tech, Trampoline edited by Kelly Link (Small Beer Press, 331 pp., $17) presents twenty stories, skewing from science fiction – only one seems to be set in the future or outer space – to what the back cover calls “Fiction/Fantastic Fiction,” which can be decoded to mean that while the stories aspire to “literary” rather than “genre,” most partake in some wise of the fabulous.  (Even this is not dogmatic: Maureen McHugh’s “Eight-Legged Story” is fantastic only in that the narrator, troubled by her relationship with her husband’s son, imagines herself an evil stepmother, while Karen Joy Fowler’s moving “King Rat” similarly plays the world of children’s fairy tales against obdurate grownup reality.)  The authors range from those familiar to readers of SF and fantasy – McHugh, Fowler, Alex Irvine, and Carol Emshwiller have especially good ones – to several who have published in non-genre venues, or are new to print.
            The most remarkable story, however, is Greer Gilman’s “A Crowd of Bone,” a 76-page novella set in Cloud, the stony north-English landscape of her novel Moonwise.  A harsh and unremitting tale of the doomed attempt of a pair of young lovers to flee the wrath of the girl’s mother, Gilman’s story is dense, enjambed with archaic words and neologisms, most of them (“uncloudish”) formed from non-Latin roots.  The prose is sometimes limpid (“Far beyond, the sea shifts, turning its sleepless bed”) and sometimes forbiddingly extravagant (“Cast out of that cold sky in which my lucid soul was stringed, I did undo myself, redo: not Thea of the braided hair, but tangly Thea, tattery Thea, Thea of the grubby knees who crouched and plaited in a tinker’s petticoats”), but the story – complex, tangled in narrative as well as syntax, and very dark – rewards the most careful of readings.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Teaching "The Catbird Seat"

For the first class of ENG 102 we always read "The Catbird Seat" together aloud. None of the students has ever heard of the story, which is too bad--it was a high school staple forty years ago. But it's exciting to see a group of young and mature adults encounter it for the first time.

The discussion afterwards is always animated and engaged: it seems such a simple story--there are no critical essays written about it, presumably because it seems too straightforward to contain any subtleties or secrets--but in fact there are a great number of not-evident features that we tease out. Since the students don't know who Thurber was and don't know his reputation for misogyny, they don't "know" that "The Catbird Seat" is a misogynist story, so are open to the possibility that it is in fact essentially feminist (a very tenable interpretation). They wonder where Mrs. Ulgine Barrows's husband is, and though I usually have to point out that internal evidence shows that the story is set during World War II, they immediately take off from there. One student observed that the supposedly horrid Mrs. Barrows is in fact a white-collar Rosie the Riveter, venturing into a profession where women had rarely been seen and are perhaps not welcome.  This allowed someone to notice that there seem to be no youthful men in this company--it is all office boys and older guys. This opens up the possibility (not evident upon a first reading) that Mrs. Barrows is in fact doing the company a lot of good--that it is staffed and run by a bunch of inefficient fuddy-duddy old poops, who need the shaking-up that the protagonist finds so threatening.  The story’s doesn’t consider the possibility, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.

By the end of the discussion, we are noticing tiny details, such as the fact that Mr. Martin, called onto the carpet because his nervous boss cannot believe what he has been told about him, "allow[s] less than a second for his bewildered pause" when asked what he did after work the evening before. Mr. Martin seems to have returned to his former mousy self, but in fact he has not: he is pretending to be the mousy little man he in fact was until the night before, but he remains the "evil genius" (I suggest to the students that the term is not too strong) that he unexpected turned into, and will remain an evil genius pretending to be a mousy little man through the rest of his story--and, presumably, for the rest of his life.

Sunday, March 25, 2012


(Or, How to Teach the Difference Between “That” and “Which”)

After two years of trying to teach first-year college students how to distinguish between “that” and “which,” I found a method that works. When the discussion of restrictive and non-restrictive clauses and comma placement fails to bring complete enlightenment, I give them an example. Basically I tell them a story, one about Aunt Jenny and her apple pie.

I say:

“It’s Thanksgiving, and your whole family is over. You and your sister are in charge of dessert. While most of your relatives like ice cream after Thanksgiving dinner—something light after all that turkey and mashed potatoes—Aunt Jenny, who is your favorite aunt, is old-fashioned, and she still likes apple pie. So you baked her one.

“The main course is over, and you and your sister are in the kitchen getting out the dishes for dessert. You turn and tell your sister that the ice cream is in the freezer and the hot fudge is in the refrigerator. Then you add that ‘The apple pie, which is for Aunt Jenny, is in the oven.’”

I write that sentence on the board.

“Now, imagine a different Thanksgiving. Same guests, same deal, except that everyone wants apple pie. You have made four apple pies. However, Aunt Jenny is diabetic, so you made hers without any sugar. Since the pies all look alike and you don’t want them to get mixed up, you put hers into the oven first. As your sister is getting out the dishes, you tell her that the three pies on the counter are for everyone else, but ‘The apple pie that is for Aunt Jenny is in the oven.’”

And I write that sentence down.

Then we look at the two sentences, the second one below the first, and I ask the class, “Do you see the difference?” And they do!

At this point, you can explain the grammatical distinction in detail and they will understand it. I tell the students that in the first sentence, the speaker simply says “The apple pie” because there is no question which apple pie—there is only one. The bit about it being “for Aunt Jenny” is simply additional information. In the second sentence, the subject is “The apple pie that is for Aunt Jenny”; that is what is in the oven. You can’t eliminate the fact that it’s for Aunt Jenny without scrambling your meaning, which requires you to distinguish Aunt Jenny’s pie from the others.

I always give them one more example (involving, say, “The car that has a flat tire is in the driveway”), but it simply serves to confirm what the students have now gotten. For some reason, the story of Aunt Jenny’s pie nails it. The students stop making that/which errors, which previous classes have hitherto always continued to stumble over.

I don't know why it works, but it does.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Marguerite Young and Miss MacIntosh, My Darling

This review-essay appeared in the Washington Post Book World in 1994. A friend recently asked online whether I had ever read Marguerite Young, so let me post this as a reply.


Miss MacIntosh, My Darling
by Marguerite Young
Dalkey Archive, 1198 pp. 2 vols, $30

Angel in the Forest
A Fair Tale of Two Utopias
by Marguerite Young
Dalkey Archive, 331 pp. $13.95

Marguerite Young, Our Darling
Tributes and Essays

Edited by Miriam Fuchs
Dalkey Archive, 143 pp. $24.95

Inviting the Muses
Stories, Essays, Reviews

by Marguerite Young
Dalkey Archive, 246 pp. $21.95

by Gregory Feeley

The reception of Marguerite Young's enormous Miss MacIntosh, My Darling since its publication in 1965 has followed a pattern established by earlier American modernist novels of great scale and ambition: an interesting and mixed reception with meager sales, followed by long years of relative neglect (and often silence from the author) while the novel retains the ardor of a small but loyal audience who urge its virtues, decry its neglect, publish essays, and eventually see the book returned to print. William Gaddis's The Recognitions, Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, and (to a degree) Cynthia Ozick's Trust have experienced similar fortunes, but Miss MacIntosh, My Darling stands out: at three quarter of a million words, not only is it by far the longest, it is also the barest of incident, the most demanding of its readers' patience, and the slowest (to date) to win approval from critics or academia.

Withal, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling has had its partisans, along with several paperback incarnations over the past three decades, and has now found a patron in the Dalkey Archive Press, that indefatigable champion of avant garde literature. Readers who missed the last incarnation of Young's novel (a two-volume trade paperback from Harcourt Brace Jovanovich back in the late seventies) can now acquire the text in a handsome format (the pages photo-reproduced from the original Scribner's edition), which moreover allows one to follow the page citations in the essays being produced by the small but dedicated Marguerite Young industry. In publishing three books by or about Young this year (with a collection of her early poems soon to follow), the Dalkey Archive has radically enlarged the available material on Young, whose magnum opus has until now had to be approached solely on its own solitary terms, like a steep spur rising from the sea.

Despite the real interest of Young's 1944 Angel in the Forest (a study of the two utopian communities that successively settled New Harmony, Indiana in the early nineteenth century), and the three-volume biography of Eugene Debs, upon which Young has labored for most of the past thirty years and which will reportedly appear next year, Young remains very much a one-book author, and no one who hates Miss MacIntosh, My Darling (as Peter Prescott notably hated it in a prominent Newsweek review) should expect to find something more to his liking among Young's smaller works. Angel in the Forest may deserve a place among the important books on American social history, but the festschrift Marguerite Young, Our Darling and the occasional collection Inviting the Muses are at most minor satellites to Young's single and massive novel, whose readers have rarely had any but the strongest opinions.

Eighteen years in the writing, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling is an intensely phantasmagorical work, dream-like, repetitive, resolute in declining to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Its very plot resists summary: Vera Cartwheel, a young or perhaps middle-aged woman, is riding a bus to Iowa in search for Miss MacIntosh, her beloved childhood nursemaid, who drowned herself when she was fourteen. Whether Vera doubts Miss MacIntosh's death (her body was never found) or is simply seeking to trace the dead woman's origins is never divulged: although virtually the entire novel takes place with Vera sitting on the near-empty bus, obsessively recalling Miss MacIntosh and her own childhood memories, we do not learn anything of her plans, nor what her adult life has been, nor what year (or decade) it is. All we have are her swirling memories, and these can be unreliable as well.

Vera's mother lives in a great mansion on the New England coast, where she dreams away the years in an opium haze, holding conversations with dead friends, historical figures, her chandelier, and her drug bottle. In addition to her mother and Miss MacIntosh, Vera's recollections grow steadily to encompass a large cast of grotesques: Mr. Spitzer, her mother's devoted but spurned lawyer, whose dead brother seems occasionally to exchange identities with him; Cousin Hannah, a world-traveller, balloonist, mountain-climber and suffragist who claimed never to have wanted a husband but proved, after her death, to have left behind forty locked trunks, each containing a different wedding gown; a graveyard seducer with a noose's scars on his neck; Esther Longtree, a cross-eyed waitress who murdered her baby and is now perpetually pregnant; and lots more.

This sounds like a narrative cornucopia, but the reader who imagines that these colorful figures will be brought to life in the manner, say, of those in Allan Gurganus's Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All will be in for a shock. Miss MacIntosh, My Darling is virtually bereft of dialogue and outward incident: the long paragraphs recount everything at the same shimmery remove, like objects glimpsed underwater, dissolving any narrative elements into a vast sea of prose.

"Mr. Spitzer, still in a mournful mood, for someone was always dying, had carried this alpenhorn embossed with mother-of-pearl, heavy as a tree branch, along the foggy beach when Cousin Hannah was no more, when doubtless she had climbed her last mountain, the hailstones like buring cinders dashing in her face, and he had blown a few wandering notes like some old ghost calling to his lost love as he had heard, above the ringing waves ringing like silver bells, the ringing, tolling of the silver sheep's bell which had once rung to the lost sheep, hearing also, as he did so, the cries of the grey loons in the grey fog and the bah, bahing of waves breaking upon this shore of stone and fog as thick as fleece streaking with the golden rays of the moonlight, waves coming to pasture like sheep with moony eyes beamed upon the waves of darkness. . . ." (529)

Even a few hundred thousand words of this goes a long way, and I found the novel almost unbearable when I recently tried to read it straight through. Setting oneself a pace (even a leisurely one, such as most of the summer) proved intolerable -- the book's remorselessness and utter lack of counterpoint drive one to frenzies of impatience -- while twenty years earlier, I had no difficulty dipping into it at random and reading so long as my interest held. (Peter Prescott, who justified his trashing of the book by proclaiming that he had labored over it for two days, here earns a modicum of sympathy: few books are less suited to a reviewer's schedule.) Although Young's advocates insist on the book's "fugal" nature and careful construction, Anne Tyler probably speaks for more readers when she recalls the pleasure of browsing its pages at odd moments, a practice she gives the protagonist of The Accidental Tourist.

Although the structure of the novel may be eccentric--Vera's bus ride lasts until page 948, and her sojourn in a (characteristically unnamed) Indiana town is almost devoid of incident until the book's closing pages--the novel is plainly something other than the inchoate mass that an unsympathetic perusal suggests. Early chapters were published in anthologies and magazines throughout the 1950s, and to compare them with the finished text is to see how radically Young reworked her prose during the long years of composition: a 1954 fragment from New World Writing, which seemed very much of a piece, ends up scattered and recast through various early chapters, with few sentences persisting unaltered. Whatever logic governs the novel's structure, it is the product of long and careful labor.

One problem facing readers of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling is they are trained to read prose differently than Marguerite Young cares to be read. We prefer our symbols anchored by literal referents: the sea in Joyce may be the eternal thalassa, but it is also the Irish Sea, whose particulars Joyce knows well. For Young, however, the sea is everything: birth, death, eternity, mutability--she uses the word "oceanic" constantly, and "foam" and "tides" almost as much--and while we know that the sea here is the Atlantic Ocean, for the Cartwheels' seaside mansion is in New England, we don't know where in New England, and what few details Young lets drop convinces me that she doesn't, either. From Joyce to Nabokov (both in his novels and his essays) and Gaddis, we have learned to look for particularity in the elements of narrative; and the free-floating symbology of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling's strikes modern readers as overblown, just as the melodramatic acting style of the nineteenth century grates on twentieth-century audiences, who cannot but take their own era's style as a benchmark. It may take another generation before readers can look at this novel without finding its style of artifice a bewildering irritant.

Whether most readers will try, of course, is another question. Whatever its virtues, Young's massive novel is open to the objection that Leavis made about Clarissa: that the demand it makes on the reader's time is both proportionally and absolutely so immense as to be prohibitive. If one does not consider Ivy Compton-Burnett a major novelist one may concede that she is at least a very good one; but Miss MacIntosh, My Darling is either a great novel or it is nothing.

The contributors to Marguerite Young, Our Darling are in no doubt on this question. Expanded from a 1989 special issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, this volume is the work of true believers. In addition to a section on "Tributes and Recollections" and another of "Essays," the book offers a gratifyingly full chronology, which sometimes tells us more than its compilers may have intended. Most of the writers who have lauded Marguerite Young over the decades--William Goyen, Mark Van Doren, Anais Nin, Kurt Vonnegut, their words of praise quoted on each Dalkey dustjacket--prove to have been old friends, while many of the younger writers who contribute full essays turn out, in the tributes they have also written, to be longtime protegees. It would be unfair but unsurprising for the cynical reader to exclaim, "This isn't an oeuvre, it's a cult."

Although these pieces show Marguerite Young scholarship to be still in its early stages--its contributors defensive about their subject's exclusion from "the canon," and readier to advocate than to discuss--anyone who has read Miss MacIntosh, My Darling will enjoy the company. Miriam Fuchs argues interestingly for Young's use of "liquescence as form," while Susan Strehle proposes that the novel evokes a "women's time" in which teleology, the yoking of cause to effect, and linear progression are supplanted by "the time of female subjectivity." And Marguerite Young herself--still living in Greenwich village, where she moved from the Midwest in 1945--is evoked with clarity and affection by a surprising number of writers, including Stanley Kunitz, Anne Tyler, and Amy Clampitt.

Other critical issues remain unexamined. Many of the novel's mythopoeic elements--Mr. Spritzer's shared identity with a radically dissimilar brother, as well as Vera's mother's dreamflights through history and the eternally pregnant Esther Longtree--suggest affinities with Finnegans Wake that I would have happily seen explored. Young, however, firmly denies any influence by Joyce; and her respectful scholars leave the point alone. It may be that Marguerite Young criticism will only come into its own once the imposing figure of Ms. Young is no longer in evidence.

In the meantime, her monumental Debs biography--2400 pages, according to a recent interview--will appear next year from Alfred A. Knopf. Such a massive project, coming on the heels of a revival of Young's previous work, will doubtless attract much attention, and prompt attempts by reviewers to link the socialist's biography with the phantasmagorical cult novel and the utopian study before it. Even with the ground cleared by the Fuchs volume, they will have their hands full.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


I have been busy sedtting up a trust account for the Estate of Thomas M. Disch, a seemingly straightforward business save for the many forms required ("Letters Testamentary" and the like). On the day I brought all the stuff together, the bank representative went through the software options to establish the account. There was a drop-down option for the field for my name -- all sorts of forms of address proved available, including "Admiral." (I almost plumped for "Admiral Feeley," but decided to be serious.)

However, later on we had to putting in information for the other trustee, who will not be handling the account on a day-to-day basis but whose name needs to be on it. Entering data, the bank rep asked me for Ben Downing's occupation. Ben teaches and edits, but he publishes poetry regularly, so I suggested (not entirely winsomely) that she put him down as "Poet."

Sorry,the drop-down menu didn't allow for that one.

Monday, August 24, 2009

After Silence by Jonathan Carroll

I came across this old review by accident, and found that I didn't remember it at all. It appeared in the New York Review of Science Fiction some fifteen years ago.


After Silence by Jonathan Carroll (London: Macdonald, 1992; L14.99; 240 pages; New York: Doubleday, 1993; $21.00; 227 pages)

"Uh-Oh City," F&SF, June 1992

"The Lick of Time," in Monsters in Our Midst, edited by Robert
Bloch (New York: Tor, 1993, $20.95; 303 pages)

reviewed by Gregory Feeley

After Silence, Jonathan Carroll's sixth book-length narrative in six years, is remarkably of a piece with the earlier works: vividly and beautifully written, sketchily (if at all) integrated with the other four novels and novelette in the unnamed (and, one guesses, improvised) sequence, haphazardly constructed. As before, Carroll's virtues begin paying off at once -- his sharp observations and striking metaphors are evident from the first page -- while his weaknesses conceal themselves until late, as his structure leans vertiginously forward so that the reader is impelled into the story, beguiled by Carroll's ability to tell (or at least begin) a Tale into a confidence that the author shall bring his Tale safely to harbor that proves finally misplaced. Readers may gnash their teeth at his novel's conclusion (although they should, by now, know better than be surprised), but there is little doubt that they will reach it.

Max Fischer, a successful but rather unreflective cartoonist, finds his long-deferred desire to raise a family suddenly fulfilled when he meets Lily Aaron and her nine-year-old son Lincoln. At once in love, Max falls effortlessly into family life, and lives in contented bliss until the gradual accumulation of tiny inconsistencies in Lily's accounts of her past at last drives Max into an unwise investigation. Discovering an awful secret, he is able to maintain his happy life only by becoming complicit with it.

Like Carroll's other novels, After Silence offers an intensely-felt meditation upon the vulnerability of loved ones (here, as before with Carroll, dramatized in a hospital); like his earlier novels, it captures moments of tenderness toward children with aching clarity (Max, seeking to impress Lily and Lincoln on their first meeting, draws a magic-marker cartoon on the front of Lincoln's white teeshirt while the delighted boy wriggles "like a puppy getting its tummy scratched"). And also, with Carroll, we get his snobbishness, his love of celebrity and disdain for the common, the untalented, and the ordinary; his infatuation with exotic names ("Max" is exceptionally unfanciful for a Carroll protagonist, but the novel contains other characters, all special, whose parents named them Foof, Mabdean, Sullivan, Anwen, Elvis. It is only working-class people -- almost invariably portrayed by Carroll as unattractive and boorish -- who are given names like Mark Elsen and Ruth Burdette).

And like other Carroll novels, After Silence fragments like a flaming race car as it attempts to negotiate a final tight turn and crashes the fence. Max's discovery of Lily's secret, and his decision to make a separate peace with its particular horror -- to brick it up, like a monster in the basement, and return upstairs to resume his happy life -- is powerfully (if, in its extended confession scene, long-windedly) evoked. The jump forward of seven years, and Lincoln's unforeshadowed transformation from a happy ten-year-old to a sullen, hateful, and dangerous adolescent, is dramatized with wrenching poignancy. But this heartfelt and anguished novel's leap into the supernatural (it comes late and abruptly, on page 185) knocks its emotional center from the realm of indissoluble cause and effect into a slumgullion of Carrollian metaphysics that goes nowhere. The inevitability of consequence is asserted -- among the talk of guardian angels, time travelling, and two persons being one -- but it is not made real; and even a last-page attempt to punch back out of the supernatural (it apparently involves a suddenly unreliable narrator) is unavailing.

The problem with After Silence (and, to varying degrees, of the other five volumes of this inchoate sequence) is not simply a matter of plotting. Carroll's inability to cope with the novelistic business of keeping chronologies straight (he tells us that thirty-eight-year-old Max has a brother twelve years younger, then later gives that brother a marital history plausible only for a man of mature years) doesn't finally matter, any more than it matters that he cannot conceive of a human being who doesn't have a quirky and rewarding job, or a dog that isn't a purebred. What matters is Carroll's failure to achieve imaginative resolution: to create artistic closure for the dream he has conceived. Despite his recurring concern with the inseparability of heedless act from tragic consequence, Carroll cannot shape events into a fitting and logical whole, which surprise us with turns that seem afterward as right. Instead, he summons up an otherworldly (and plainly ex post facto) explanation of events as needed and then -- as here, as in Outside the Dog Museum and Bones of the Moon -- rings down the curtain in a shower of magical fireworks.

Carroll's inability to surmount this shortcoming (apparent since Bones of the Moon) has been evident in all his fiction, including short stories and novellas. "Uh-Oh City" (F&SF, June 1992) is a longer work than the volume Black Cocktail (Legend, 1990), and offers the same degree of tenuous connection with his novel sequence: the narrator's daughter, who appears only in a telephone call, is the former girlfriend (never actually seen) of Max Fischer in After Silence. The novella contains all of Carroll's carelessness with detail (the protagonist, a Melville scholar, misspells Moby-Dick; a closer study of his chronology than Carroll seems to have conducted makes sense only if he received his doctorate at twenty-one; the young woman whose suicide he helped provoke is apparently both a freshman and a graduate student) and seems, like much of Carroll's fiction, to have been begun before the author knew what he was about. Entire sub-plots languish neglected, while characters' motivations and range of abilities shift in accordance with plot requirements. Carroll's central image -- an overweight, middle-aged woman who is dying of cancer -- seems to have found its inspiration with the fat lady evoked in the closing pages of Franny and Zooey; but what Carroll has done with it . . . Actually, it's difficult to know what Carroll has done with it. No three scenes in the novella possess thematic or narrative coherence.

The novella -- it concerns a preternaturally efficient cleaning lady named Beenie who persists in turning up unwanted reminders from the protagonist's past -- starts out as a kind of domestic horror story, then swerves suddenly (the cleaning lady turns out to be God, or rather one of the thirty-six lamed wufniks who, in Carroll's version, constitute God) into an emotionally fraught tale of unwitting injury and attempted amends. As long as one is reading, the succession of firecracker revelations hold the promise of coming finally together; it is only when one looks at the work entire that it falls apart.

When Beenie presents the protagonist with the manuscript of a novel written by a student who had committed suicide years ago, the bewildered man quietly decides to send it to her parents. This unannounced action calls down a rebuke from the apparently omnipotent Beenie, who explains, "Things like that, you either throw away or you keep 'em. Never pass 'em on." A few hours later Beenie blithely contradicts this bit of philosophy when she produces a cache of love letters a student once wrote to the protagonist, which she promptly shows to his wife. Bewildered and angry (he knows that both manuscript and letters had long since been discarded), the hapless protagonist goes to confront Beenie -- who proves to be sitting up with the ghost of the student novelist; and the plot takes another lurch.

None of these disparate developments prove compatible with each other. (A small example: The protagonist's wife already knew of the love letters, but had been assured by her husband that they had all been destroyed, as in fact they had. Her distress upon being presented with a batch of them was because she could only conclude, not unreasonably, that her husband had in fact kept the letters. So why would Beenie summon these letters back into existence and show them to the poor woman, if its only effect would be to create a false impression? Carroll doesn't know; the next scene produces a new surprise, and the narrative drops the previous issue, never to return to it.) As with After Silence, everything changes in the last pages, and then again in the closing paragraphs. Approaching the conclusion to a story,
Carroll -- trapped like the man who has painted himself into a corner -- can create dramatic conflict only by successively reversing everything he has hitherto said. Save for the steadily mounting stakes (the stories' final revelations often end up featuring God or angels), there is no inner logic, no structure to these frantic reversals.

At 4000 words, "The Lick of Time" is too compact to tangle itself in its plot threads, although its references to other characters and milieux from Carroll's fiction do get it into minor trouble. (After an entire novel about the problems of the Sultan of Saru, Carroll refers in passing to the "Republic of Saru." If we encountered this in the work of a writer more skilled at drawing connections between texts, we would guess that Saru has had a revolution since the events of Outside the Dog Museum. With Carroll, however, we conclude merely that he is again forgetting himself.) The story's opening lines:

Before leaving her apartment, Erin turned on the new answering machine.
Several nights before, sitting down with the instructions and a glass of wine, she'd waded
through a long list of what-to-do's to make the expensive, high-tech-looking thing work.

is quintessentially Carroll, down to the haughty name, the expensive gimmickry, and the glass of wine. Its striking observations (listening to her first phone messages, Erin notes how callers "lost heart" when they realized that they were talking to a tape and not a human being), and the familiar mise-en-scene -- Erin had a "new job with the theatre group," and works with folks with names like Weber Gregston and Wyatt Leonard -- could almost come from an exceptionally skilled parodist. The protagonist, another articulate, sexually anxious yuppie who isn't very nice, develops an interesting psychological pathology as pressures mount about her (she ends up talking to her phone machine, leaving heartening messages and occasionally acting out responses she had hoped to hear from others), but the story springs a supernatural twist in the final page, and that's that.

Carroll's fluent style, his striking facility with metaphors, and the manifest seriousness of his concerns have struck a chord with many readers ("Uh-Oh City" was a Hugo nominee), but his sloppiness has escalated in recent years from a problem to an embarrassment. Carroll's narrowness of range and problems with narrative are not bound to length: neither short story, novella, nor novel has permitted him to marshall his energies into a coherent narrative, and the reader who looks past the colorful conceits (a "dog museum" that costs a billion dollars; the appearance of a giant stuffed animal in the shape of a childhood nightmare in "Uh-Oh City") will find fictions that are largely a shambles.

More prolific than in his early years, Carroll is notably less craftsmanlike, and has fallen into tics and self-indulgence even as he continues to coin phrases and sentences of startling beauty. A dozen years into a remarkable career, Carroll is wallowing -- apparently oblivious -- in a creative crisis that threatens to whelm it.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Truman Show: Another Retelling of Hamlet

In an earlier post ("Why Hollywood Movies Are Like Hamlet," May 4, 2008), I described the experience of seeing Iron Man and realizing that Hollywood was again giving us, whether it (or its audience) realized it or not, another retelling of Hamlet. As the tale of a brilliant, troubled young man who, pursued by private demons, acts badly -- especially towards women -- and finds himself (rather being roundly censured by those around him) having everyone wondering exactly is going on in his head (could it have something to do with his intimidatingly impressive father? or maybe the seemingly benign figure who has now taken his place?), its affinities with Shakespeare's 1601 drama seem obvious enough, at least to me. Tony Stark ends up triumphant, rather than dead, but that particular Hollywood revision -- that the hero, a roguishly charming bastard at the film's beginning who quickly turns into a roguishly charming hero, shows his redemption by doing the the Right Thing, at the certain cost of all he values most, but ends up not having to pay the cost after all, and is shown at film's end victorious and universally adored -- is so fundamental as to apply even to, say, Cars.

A few days ago I showed the first forty minutes of The Truman Show to my twelfth graders, who had just finished reading Hamlet. They picked up on the parallels immediately: The Truman Show tells the story of a charismatic young man of seemingly limitless promise, admired by everyone in his tiny clockwork community, who has recently fallen prey to a seemingly unaccountable malaise. Everybody wants him to feel better, and assures him that this will happen if only he stops asking questions about things. His mother wants him to stop worrying and enjoy life; so does the best friend who is choreographed into his path at every turn. The love of a fair woman is dangled before him, inducement enough, people seem to hope, for him to forgo his wish to be elsewhere. But there is some mystery involving his beloved father, who is dead -- or is he? A ghostly appearance one evening . . . .

I mean, that sounds pretty obvious, doesn't it? The Truman Show has two Ophelia figures -- one good, one bad -- and it conflates Horatio with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into one composite figure. But there is a true father (marginalized, indeed only problematically alive), and a would-be, seemingly benevolent father figure who controls all, and who wishes to control Truman as well. It ends in sappy triumph, rather than profound tragedy, but what recent movie doesn't? (Well, Sweeney Todd -- whose protagonist offers us another avatar of Hamlet -- doesn't, but it had its origins far from Hollywood.)

One of my students asked me whether The Truman Show had been intended as a modern-day riff on Hamlet. I told her that so far as I was aware, nobody had noticed the similarities but me. A few days later I checked online, and indeed, there are no references at all to such a parallel. They certainly seem evident to me.