Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice

Remember when Jane Austen’s Emma met contemporary high school culture in the 1995 film Clueless?  Then there was Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (book 2009, film 2016), featuring the Bennet sisters as masters of martial arts.  Now there is Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice, in which the Bennet sisters meet Yoga, Crossfit, and reality TV. 

There is also a pregnancy by artificial insemination, non-marital sex, a lesbian couple, a transgender character, and an interracial relationship.  The Bennet family is nothing if not up-to-date in Cincinnati.  At least the sisters are; the parents still need some convincing, especially when it comes to a transgender son-in-law. 

I saw a PBS interview with author Curtis Sittenfeld, and was immediately hooked.

Bingley and Darcy are medical doctors, as well as wealthy eligible bachelors, and Elizabeth writes for a fashionable and feminist New York magazine called Mascara. 

But, never fear, Mrs. Bennet is still firmly focused on traditional marriage to unattached men of means for her five daughters; Mr Bennet is his curmudgeonly self; the younger sisters are as superficial and silly as in the original; and there is the same irresistible combination of biting Austenesque snarkiness, romantic misadventures and misunderstandings, lovers’ quarrels, pathos, heartbreak, sidesplitting one-liners, comic absurdity, and, of course, all that ends well.

Jane Austen is well known for taking the popular courtship plot of the 18th century and transforming it into her own unique brand of incisive social satire combined with the enduring appeal of a romantic love story.  But what is it about Austen that inspires these ongoing adaptations and updates?

In the PBS interview Curtis Sittenfeld said it is the way Austen’s plots create sexual tension by throwing obstacles, misunderstandings, and bad timing in the path of powerful attraction.  You have these two characters who are obviously drawn to each other but who either resist that attraction or manage to miss every opportunity for any kind of consummation, even if it’s just that first confession of romantic feeling or that first kiss. 

As Shakespeare said, “the course of true love never did run smooth,” and Austen was a genius for dramatizing, not only that proverb, but also the sheer foolishness and comic absurdity that seems to accompany the human experience of either looking for love, stumbling over it, or missing it entirely.  At the same time, she could capture the authentic pathos of human longing and the joy of fulfillment.

In Pride and Prejudice, we have two characters, both determined to preserve their dignity while in the throes of a strong attraction; both caught in a web of circumstance, gossip, and misunderstanding; leading to a kind of love-hate relationship that raises the sexual tension to an extreme level, until neither the characters nor the reader can stand it no more.

This love-hate relationship is manifested in a martial arts duel between Elizabeth and Darcy in the Zombie version, and if anyone doubts the sub-text, it is fully revealed when Darcy’s sword slices off the buttons off Elizabeth’s bodice.  In Eligible Darcy and Elizabeth have what she calls “hate sex” because their mutual attraction is always masked by their constant conversational sniping.

But for all the humor in these romantic situations, Austen does not ignore the tears that lie just below the surface when human longing is frustrated or denied.  Indeed it is that depiction of genuine human suffering in romance that is a major part of her enduring appeal.

Similarly, for all the outlandish comedy in Eligible, like Austen, Curtis Sittenfeld recognizes the emotional pain that often accompanies the human drama of love and romance.  At one point Elizabeth, having finally admitted to herself her attraction to and longing for Darcy, is certain that Darcy is actually dating Bingley’s sister, Caroline.  She goes for her usual run, shedding tears most of the way, then collapses on a park bench, puts her face in her hands, and sobs.  A black woman passing by stops to check on her, and the normally reserved Elizabeth, exclaims to this stranger, “I am heartbroken!”  The woman responds, “Oh, honey, aren’t we all?”  I include the detail about the stranger’s race because it underscores part of the appeal of Jane Austen that Sittenfeld captures, namely her representation of human experience that transcends, not only race, but all the other social categories we use to divide ourselves from one another. 

And for all the spoofs, parodies, updates, and adaptations of Jane Austen, it is that universal human experience, whether it be comic, romantic, or tragic, at the heart of her novels that ensures her reputation and standing as, not only a perennial favorite, but as a classic writer of literature.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Under the Influence

The theme of deception, of illusion vs. truth, and of appearance vs. reality continues to fascinate.  See blog posts on The Goldfinch (Oct., 2015), “Eisenheim the Illusionist” (March, 2015), “and “A Game of Clue” (Jan., 2016).  Epistemology is more than an obscure philosophical sub-discipline; it is a challenge of daily life, whether we are following the news or navigating our own personal lives. 

How do we know the truth?  Even when relying on direct sense perception, we may be vulnerable to deception. Even when facts can be established and agreed upon, they may be open to multiple interpretations.  Even, perhaps especially, when applying strict standards of observation, logic, and rationality, we may overlook the unpredictable, often irrational human equation.  To what extent do we see what we want to see and believe what we want to be true?  It may even be possible to base our whole lives on a false belief (See blog post on Blame, Nov., 2015).

Joyce Maynard’s recent novel Under the Influence could just as well be titled Under the Spell, as the first-person narrator, Helen, a recovering alcoholic who has lost custody of her son because of her drinking, falls under the spell of a wealthy couple who “take her in,” not only in the sense of providing friendship and support, but also in the sense of deceiving her with their false show of glamour and goodness, charity, and kindness. 

Granted, Helen, a professional photographer, provides multiple services to the Havillands in return for their favors, but, even so, it is a bit too good to be true.  Does this couple have to use their wealth to buy friendship?  Blinded by her own neediness, Helen falls under the spell of this upbeat couple and their exciting, glittery life style, ignoring one red flag after another, abandoning her one faithful friend, and eventually choosing the Havillands over a dull but wise fiancé, who tries to warn her that “something’s not right here.” 

Helen’s greatest need is to get her son back.  She uses the couple, especially the husband, Swift, who admits he is a just a grown-up, fun-loving kid himself, to lure her son back into her life.  Swift teaches him to swim and keeps him entertained with toys and games, acting almost as a bribe to draw young Ollie back into Helen’s life.  Swift also promises to have his lawyer pursue the legal means for Helen to regain custody. 

Despite becoming Ollie’s favorite playmate and serving as the means by which Helen hopes to get her son back, when a tragic accident occurs involving his own grown son, Swift quickly turns on Ollie, trying to shift blame for the accident from his own son to Helen’s.

That becomes the wake-up call that Helen finally hears.  In the end she does regain custody, but as much because of problems in her ex-husband’s new family as the friendship with Swift.  Along the way she has lost her previous best friend and her fiancé.

Meanwhile, the Havillands crash and burn as financial irregularities are uncovered that lead to indictments for both Swift and his son, thanks to some behind-the-scenes sleuthing by Helen’s ex-fiancé.

In a recent commentary (, Joyce Maynard identifies her key theme as the seductiveness of friendship and The Great Gatsby (see blog post, June, 2014) as a key source of inspiration.

The traditional seduction narrative, as she notes, involves romantic relationships, but there can be a fine line between romance and friendship, and any relationship can, no doubt, be subject to the manipulation and deception often involved in seduction.

The traditional narrative also often ends in tragedy for the (most frequently) female protagonist, thus serving as a kind of cautionary tale of warning to its young female romance readers, and the novels Maynard cites in her commentary all involve friendships that go awry, often ending in tragedy, though the sympathetic protagonist may survive to tell about it, as Helen does.

It is really Ava Havilland, the wife, who takes Helen under her wing and befriends her.  The novel begins with a chance sighting that Helen gets of Ava years after the dissolution of their friendship.  Ava has become a tragic and lonely figure, sans Swift, sans glamour, sans Helen.  The rest of the novel is a flashback to their first meeting, the blossoming of their friendship, the increasing importance of Swift to Helen’s relationship with her son, the accident, the betrayal and end of the relationship, Helen’s recovery, and the Havillands’ decline.

“The painful dissolution of a friendship is a universal theme, “ Maynard states in the above commentary.  In my life,” she says, “the ends of certain friendships have hurt as much as the end of any love affair.”  Given that she kept a copy of The Great Gatsby on her desk as she wrote, it is tempting to see Gatsby with his wealth, glamour, grandiosity, and hidden dark side, as a model for the Havillands.

The friendship theme hasn’t received a lot of attention in Gatsby, though some have seen a same-sex attraction on Nick’s part.  Certainly Nick is as fascinated and drawn to Gatsby as Helen is to the Havillands.  Also, just as Nick is self-deceptive about his role in the dark underside of Gatsby’s romantic idealism, so Helen is self-deceptive in the way she rationalizes the Havilland’s behavior when those red flags go up. 

It is not just that appearances can be deceptive, but, all too often, we participate in our own deception.

Both Nick and Helen escape the worst.  Gatsby is murdered and the Havillands lose their lavish lifestyle, just punishment for the latter, perhaps not such just punishment for the former.  Nick leaves the East Coast and returns to the, in his mind, more “decent,” less corrupt Midwest of his upbringing.  Helen remains in California, raises her son as a single mother, and, as he prepares to go off to college, decides to call that ex-fiancé to see if there is any hope for rekindling their relationship.  We’re left in uncertainty about both Nick’s and Helen’s futures. Presumably, they’ve both learned some lessons along the way, about illusion vs. reality, about self-deception, about friendship.

Whatever comparisons and contrasts there may be between the two novels, Under the Influence does not rise to the level of The Great Gatsby in terms of literary quality.  It’s a B novel, at best, though it resonates with those universal themes.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Price of Salt

When I went to see the movie Carol, I thought I had read the 1952 novel it was based on by Patricia Highsmith, but I quickly realized I had not. The movie was disappointing to me. I thought the dialogue was superficial and the relationship unconvincing.  Perhaps the book would be better.  It was, but only because Highsmith is a good writer, who makes it worthwhile, despite the same unconvincing relationship.

The Price of Salt is presented from the point of view of Therese, the young, naive shop girl, who falls in love with the older, married, sophisticated Carol, and who, by the end, is well on her way toward a professional career. Though it is largely Therese's story, the emotional focal point is Carol, which somehow justifies the book being later republished as Carol. But that change sacrifices a unique and powerful metaphor, which captures what is best about both the movie and the book.

The novel is both a coming of age narrative and a coming out story. Therese is just 21, working as a store clerk while trying to build a career as a theater set designer. (In the movie she is just 19 and has not yet seriously begun to pursue a career in photography.) She has a boyfriend who wants to marry her, but she is unenthusiastic, to say the least. When Therese waits on Carol in the store, it seems to be her first same-sex attraction experience, and it's a powerful one. The two women begin to see each other, and Therese slowly begins to acknowledge that her connection with Carol is romantic. Carol, who is in the midst of a divorce and child custody dispute, is more experienced, but it is actually Therese who makes most of the explicit verbal advances, perhaps only half knowing what she is doing. (In the film Therese is more reserved but is clearly more interested in Carol than in any man.)

On a car trip west the two women eventually become sexually intimate. (In the film Carol is the initiator, but in the novel it is clearly mutual.) This relationship is a sexual awakening for Therese, but for Carol it becomes an undoing.  Her husband has had them followed by a private detective, who gathers enough incriminating evidence to use against Carol in court.  The love story hits the rocks as Carol returns to New York, leaving Therese behind, and ends up promising never to see Therese again, or any woman romantically, in order to have visitation rights with her daughter. (The film depicts the legal dispute somewhat differently, but in both cases Carol gives up the joint custody fight.)

Meanwhile, Therese begins to come to terms with her self-discovery, her loss, and her future. At one point, mourning Carol's absence, she questions. " would the world come back to life? How would its salt come back?" (The film makes no mention of this metaphor.)

But it is Carol who pays the highest “price of salt.” In the end she refuses to agree to all the terms of the divorce, sacrificing some of her visitation rights in hopes of being reunited with Therese, or, at the least, being able to live an authentic life. Therese, having returned to New York to pursue her career, at first spurns Carol's offer to live with her, but finally, perhaps having both come of age and come out to herself, perhaps feeling on more equal terms with Carol, perhaps simply unable to resist, perhaps all of that, returns to renew the relationship, knowing that there will no doubt be more price to pay in a world that is hostile to them.

So why do I find this relationship unconvincing? It isn't just the age, class, and experience differences; it's the superficial dialogue and seemingly superficial interactions. As good a writer as Highsmith is, she expects us to take the narrator's word instead of dramatizing any depth in the relationship. If we read a biography of Highsmith, we learn she didn't really experience a successful relationship herself. Could that explain her inability to make a fictional one believable?

Highsmith is better at description and narration than she is at dialogue.  Some passages are admirable as poetry. Others are striking in their unique word choice. In the following passage she captures the fragility of relationships, perhaps based on her own experience:

“Was life, were human relations like this always, Therese wondered. Never solid ground underfoot. Always like gravel, a little yielding, noisy so the whole world could hear, so one always listened, too, for the loud, harsh step of the intruder's foot.”

But, to what extent does that sense of instability in human relations derive from the realities of same-sex relationships in the fifties?  A primary value of the novel, and of the movie, is the way it represents the price historically exacted by society for same-sex love.

Although the novel is unusual for lesbian fiction in the time period by portraying a "happy ending," it's hard not to wonder whether Therese and Carol can sustain their relationship with so little social and institutional support.  In any case, there will no doubt be more price to pay for a world with salt.

Friday, January 29, 2016

"A Game of Clue"

In an earlier post on “Eisenheim the Illusionist” by Steven Millhauser (March 25, 2015), I explored the theme of “all may not be as it seems.”  Appearances can be deceiving.  In “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” deception is shown to be at the heart, not only of the magician’s art, but of life itself.   

In Millhauser’s “A Game of Clue,” two brothers, their sister, and the older brother’s girlfriend sit around a table playing the famous board game.  What could be more mundane? But, “all may not be as it seems.”  While appearing to be simply playing the game, all four characters are caught up in their own private psychological dramas.  Jacob is angry about his failing career and rocky relationship; Marion is angry at Jacob for being late to the family gathering to celebrate their brother’s birthday and for bringing his girlfriend unannounced; David, turning 15 and preoccupied with sexual fantasies, secretly wants time alone with his big brother; and Susan simply wants to be accepted by Jacob’s family. 

Meanwhile, on the game board, as they move from room to room, the suspects play out their own private dramas.  Colonel Mustard and Miss Scarlet are engaged in a game of seduction; Professor Plum is getting lost in the secret passageways; Mr. Green is paralyzed with social anxiety; Mrs. White is mourning the death of her murdered lover; and Mrs. Peacock, while pretending to console her friend, is harboring a dark secret. 

The murder mystery is popular entertainment, in fiction and film, on stage and television, as well as in puzzles and games.  Perhaps our attraction to this genre is a displacement of our own anxiety about death.  Though there is no real life murder mystery in the lives of the players, the brothers and sister are worried about their father’s health, though they avoid discussing it.  After all “It’s David’s birthday.” It’s fine to play a murder mystery game, but heaven forbid that the shadow of actual death should spoil the occasion.

Similarly, while a murder has occurred just the night before, only Mrs. White seems to have it on her mind.  Colonel Mustard and Miss Scarlet are preoccupied with their own sexual game, just as David cannot stop thinking about women’s bodies as he plays the game of Clue; Professor Plum is lost in his own world of secret passageways, just as Jacob is faraway in his own private world of personal failure; Mr. Green is stuck in a social situation in which he seems unable to act, just as Susan is trying to navigate the social dynamics of Jacob’s unfamiliar family; and Mrs. Peacock is guarding her secret, just as Marion (and the rest) put on their public “game” faces while harboring their secret attractions, resentments, fears, frustrations, jealousies, hostilities, even homicidal thoughts.

Just as the secret passageways are not visible on the game board, so a dark, psychic labyrinth lurks beneath the surface of both the players and the suspects.

The whole story is a multi-layered representation of a Freudian drama in which characters disguise and deny their id-driven pursuits of pleasure and power, their ego-driven rationalizations, and their superego-driven repressions and avoidance.  The surface may appear innocent, but the depths reveal our conflicted, ambiguous, chaotic psychic realities.

At another level, Millhauser inserts periodic descriptions of the bare, physical facts of the room, the table, and the game board, as if to suggest how facts merely scratch the surface of truth. Just as appearances can be mere illusions that hide reality, so observable facts can be irrelevant to hidden truths. 

The story seems to move toward a redemptive conclusion, as the game moves closer to its end, the mystery is about to be solved, and the players join together in a mutual sharing of birthday wishes for David, but in the Freudian world there is no redemption.  The ongoing psychic conflict is never-ending, mysteries persist, and the sense of redemption is just another illusion, perhaps the greatest of all.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

What Makes a Good Potboiler?

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (see blog post March 12, 2015) is still at the top of the New York Times fiction bestseller list.  Recently, I saw that some folks got it mixed up with another mystery/thriller published around the same time with a similar title, Girl on a Train by A. J. Waines, which attained bestseller status on the UK and Australia Kindle charts (

Curious, I read the Waines novel for comparison’s sake, and shortly after I read Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, which I had seen on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery, but really couldn’t remember very well.

Comparisons among the three got me thinking about what makes a good potboiler.

A potboiler is a work created for entertainment primarily to make money, not for artistic purposes.  But, of course, even the cheapest forms of entertainment require some artistry and, I would argue, often embody or represent a serious purpose.  Popular works can tell us something about the public psyche at the time and may even raise serious social and/or philosophical issues.

The detective story, for example, came of age in the 19th century at a time when there was public anxiety and philosophical inquiry concerning human nature.  Are we primarily rational beings, or are we fundamentally irrational creatures with a thin veneer of rational appearance masking our underlying penchant for hostility, aggression, violence, sex, and power?  Gothic fiction of the 18th century could be viewed as an expression of social anxiety over, not only irrational human nature, but also destructive forces in the universe beyond our control.  The detective story serves to reassure us that the use of our rational powers can overcome those forces and restore order to our world.

Most detective stories begin with ordinary, familiar, seemingly innocent reality.  The crime, usually of a violent nature, usually murder (because death is our greatest anxiety), disrupts the rational order, creating a sense of chaos, confusion, and fear, not to mention mystery.  It takes the careful, methodical, reasoned calculation of the controlled and rational detective to solve the mystery and restore order.

It struck me that all three of these novels raise questions about the power of disinterested logic and rationality as means to truth, and show how observation, intuition and, in the case of both Train novels, irrational passion and even neurosis can serve as means to truth.

As in the typical detective story, Girl on a Train begins with familiar reality, a young woman on a commuter train.  Her seatmate, however, is nervous and agitated enough to draw attention to herself.  Anna tries to work, but is continually distracted by the behavior of her nervous seatmate.  At one point they engage in brief conversation in which the seatmate discovers Anna is a freelance journalist who has done investigative reporting.  No doubt that is why, when she suddenly deboards the train, she gives Anna a desperate look, which the reporter interprets as a plea for help. 

Shortly afterwards, the train unexpectedly halts.  It turns out the young seatmate has presumably committed suicide by stepping in front of the train as it departs the station, and, later, it turns out she has left a clue in Anna’s purse.  ‘The reporter doesn’t believe it’s suicide and sets out to follow a trail of clues to unravel the mystery of her seatmate’s death.

Amazingly, both The Girl on the Train and Girl on a Train feature a character named Anna and use a shifting point of view, among Rachel, Megan and Anna in The Girl on the Train; and between Anna and Elly in Girl on a Train.

As in The Girl on the Train, the “detective” in Girl on a Train (Anna) is a female witness rather than an official detective.  Her experience as a freelance investigative journalist lends her some plausibility as a “detective”; however, as in The Girl on the Train, she seems irrationally driven to solve the mystery and takes some bizarre risks in the process. 

In Dead Man’s Folly, the detective is the renowned Hercule Poirot, who receives a strange call from a friend (who is also a murder mystery novelist) to attend an event at an estate because the novelist believes something is not right, though she can’t put her finger on anything definite.  The familiar Agatha Christie pattern unfolds, as a murder occurs and Poirot must rely on his unusual powers of observation and ability to put seemingly unrelated puzzle pieces together to make sense of what seems to be an impenetrable mystery involving numerous suspects.

Unlike the witnesses in the two Train novels Hercule Poirot is an experienced private detective who is driven more by intellectual curiosity than irrational compulsions. (It is notable that the “irrational” witnesses are women whereas the disinterested detective is a man.) However, Poirot does not follow a strict path of ratiocination.  He relies as much on observation of minute details and intuition as on logic and rationality.

Thus, unlike the formulaic detective story in which irrational disorder is defeated by the power of reason alone, all three of these novels show how less rational, even irrational, processes can lead to truth.

Regardless, a good detective potboiler relies heavily on, first, mystery, suspense, and the sense of an ominous threat in the world; second, a relentless “detective,” who leaves no stone unturned in his or her pursuit of truth; and, third, compelling characters with their own personal dramas.  In The Girl on the Train the female witness is driven by her own personal drama; in Girl on a Train the female reporter is sucked in to the victim’s personal drama; and in Dead Man’s Folly, Poirot himself is compelling in his eccentricity and all the suspects have their own personal dramas, which make them suspicious, and which makes one of them commit murder.

All three of these novels also rely on far-fetched situations, unlikely coincidences (not to mention behaviors), and highly implausible circumstances.   The Girl on the Train and Dead Man’s Folly are well crafted enough to engage the reader in a “suspension of disbelief,” whereas Girl on a Train is clumsily written in places and leaves too many loose ends to keep the reader from frequent eye rolls.  It’s entertaining enough, but doesn’t display the artistry that draws the reader in and makes us believe an unlikely plot.

So, in addition to mystery, suspense, a relentless detective, and compelling characters, a good detective potboiler needs to vary the traditional formula, make us believe the unbelievable, and offer some serious philosophical, psychological, or social issues for us to chew on.

Friday, December 18, 2015

"A Thanksgiving Visitor" and "One Christmas"

Truman Capote published three holiday stories based on his childhood experiences. 

“A Christmas Memory” (see previous post Dec. 2011) appeared in 1956 and is probably the best known.  It is the most nostalgic of the three, recalling his relationship at age seven with an elderly distant cousin, who is “herself a child.”  The two have formed a bond as outsiders in their household.  Buddy, as the older cousin calls him, helps his “friend” gather pecans, make fruitcakes, and prepare Christmas gifts.  Years later, when he receives word of his “friend’s” death, he recalls the kites they made for each other and imagines, “rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.”

“A Thanksgiving Visitor” was published in 1967 and “One Christmas” in 1982.  Buddy is seven or eight in the second story and six in the third.  These later stories are more complex than the first.  Though there is still some sentimentality surrounding Sook, the elder cousin’s name, as we learn in the second story, they both convey a greater sense of moral complexity, as young “Buddy” experiences more of the dark side of life.

From these two stories we learn that Buddy and Sook had both been taken in by relatives, who are busy running several businesses while Sook stays home, does the cooking and housework, and serves as a surrogate mother to Buddy, whose birth mother, having married young, had divorced the father, and left Buddy with family while she went off to pursue college and career.  In “One Christmas” Buddy makes a brief reference to her suicide by drug overdose in later life.

Having been abandoned by both parents at an early age, Buddy has already seen the dark side, but he is happy in his adopted family and especially in his relationship with Sook.  Both of these two later stories can be viewed as initiation narratives, as the young, innocent Buddy encounters the cruelty and selfishness in the world, including in himself.

In “One Christmas” it is questionable whether he recognizes the darkness in his own heart, but in “A Thanksgiving Visitor” he learns a painful lesson in the cruelty that he is capable of.

Though it was published last “One Christmas” takes place earliest in Buddy’s life.  He is unexpectedly invited to travel alone 400 miles from his home in rural Alabama to spend Christmas with his father in New Orleans.  Buddy barely remembers his father and is terrified of leaving his comfortable home with Sook to spend Christmas in a strange city with a strange man.

He makes the journey, though, and discovers first-hand his father’s somewhat profligate urban lifestyle of big-spending, partying, and pursuing older rich women, who subsidize him.  It is on this trip that Buddy also learns that there really is no Santa Claus, but he plays innocent and manipulates his father into buying him an expensive airplane with pedals.  Thus is Buddy not only initiated into his father’s profligacy but into his own ability to deceive and manipulate others for his own selfish ends. 

It’s unclear how aware the child Buddy is of his own capacity for taking advantage of others, but the adult Buddy, who is narrating the story, clearly presents the episode as a kind of fall from childhood innocence.

The story also suggests a kind of reversal of the prodigal son parable, as before leaving Buddy at the train station, his prodigal father begs his six-year-old son to kiss him and declare his love before returning home. 
Later, Sook reassures Buddy: “Of course there is a Santa Claus. It’s just that no single somebody could do all he has to do.  So the Lord has spread the task among us all.  That’s why everybody is Santa Claus.”

If Santa Claus is no longer quite the same, though, Buddy’s belief in God remains intact, and he imagines “the voice of the Lord telling me something I must do.”  He sends his father a postcard, in which he writes, “…I am lurning to pedal my plan so fast I will soon be in the sky so keep your eyes open and yes I love you Buddy.”

Is this our reassurance that, while Buddy may have lost his innocence at one level, he is able to reclaim it at another?  Or is Buddy deceiving himself about the state of his own heart?

One wonders too if, like that other son, Icarus, Buddy might be in danger of flying too close to the sun.

In “A Thanksgiving Visitor” a slightly older Buddy suffers the daily torments of an older bully in school, a boy named Odd Henderson, “the meanest human creature in my experience.”  Buddy confides in Sook the cruelties he is subjected to, but Sook, a developmentally challenged adult, refuses to believe anyone could be that evil.  She knows the large Henderson family and their struggles in rural Alabama during the Depression with a father in prison.  She decides to invite Odd to join their family for Thanksgiving. 

Buddy is mortified, treats Odd rudely when he arrives, and takes an opportunity for revenge.  While hiding upstairs he observes Odd steal Sook’s cameo from the bathroom.  As the family gathers for dinner, Buddy loudly and publically accuses Odd of he theft.  Sook immediately goes upstairs to check and returns to cover for Odd, stating that the cameo is safely in place.  Buddy is shocked, but even more so when Odd stands up, confesses the crime, returns the cameo, and excuses himself, thereby shaming Buddy, who had hoped to shame Odd.

Feeling that Sook has forsaken him, Buddy retreats outside to the smokehouse, where he fantasizes about hopping a train or committing suicide.  Later Sook consoles him, but imparts a hard lesson: “Two wrongs never make a right.  It was wrong of him to take the cameo…(but) what you did was much worse: you planned to humiliate him.  It was deliberate…. there is only one unpardonable sin—deliberate cruelty.”

As a six-year-old in “One Christmas,” Buddy may not have the self-awareness to recognize his own culpability in manipulating his father, but in “A Thanksgiving Visitor,” at seven or eight, he is forced to confront his own capacity for cruelty.

What Buddy is not aware of but Sook had discovered when talking to Odd’s mother is that, however cruel Odd may be at school, he is a great help and comfort to his mother at home.

Years later, just before Odd joins the Merchant Marines and Buddy is sent off to a military academy, Odd happens by the house and stops to help Sook and Buddy lift a heavy washtub of blossoming chrysanthemums up the steps onto the porch.  Odd ignores Buddy but is polite to Sook, who hands him a bouquet of flowers to take to his mother.  She calls to him as he walks away, “…be careful! They’re lions, you know.”  Odd would not have understood, but Buddy would recall how Sook often compared chrysanthemums to lions: “I always expect them to spring. To turn on me and roar.” Somewhat as Odd had sprung on Buddy in school, and Buddy, in turn, had sprung on Odd at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

This image of the dual-natured chrysanthemums, both beautiful and menacing, embodies the duality of human nature, capable as it is of both charity and cruelty.

Both stories function as quasi-confessionals from the adult narrator, looking back on his innocent and not-so-innocent childhood self.  Both portray the moral complexity of human nature.  Both testify to the wisdom and compassion of a developmentally challenged adult, whose own moral character surpasses that of a precocious child.

Both “A Christmas Memory” and “One Christmas” use the image of flying, two kites “hurrying toward heaven” and a toy plane in which Buddy imagines himself lifting into the sky.  These images convey a sense of transcendence over the darkness of death and human failure, just as, at the time of the Winter Solstice, we look forward to the return of the light at the darkest time of year.

Friday, November 6, 2015


I had panned Michelle Huneven's 2014 novel Off Course as “Loser Lit” (see Aug. 19, 2015, post), but Blame (2009) deserves to have been nominated for the National Book Critic’s Award, not only for its thought-provoking variation on a literary convention, but also for its unusual structure and noteworthy style.

One of her friends refers to Patsy's story as a cautionary tale or recovery narrative. I don't really equate the two, however. A cautionary tale usually ends in disaster, thus underscoring the story's warning against certain behaviors. A recovery narrative, on the other hand, typically ends positively after the protagonist has overcome illness, bad fortune, or poor choices. And usually the recovery is self-directed, testifying to the protagonist's strong character.

Blame is a recovery narrative with a twist, in that the poor choices and bad fortune turn out to be not quite what Patsy thought she was recovering from.  The title could just as well have been Guilt, since the novel mostly focuses on Patsy's efforts to make amends and redeem herself from a terrible mistake resulting in the death of two people. In the end she discovers she is less guilty than originally thought.

The most interesting question in this situation is what you would do if you suddenly discovered the assumption you had based your life on was false.  Would you second-guess every decision you had made? Would the false assumption negate the validity of the life you built based on it? Would it undercut your very authenticity?  Pasty doesn't take it that far, but she does make some changes as the truth of the past reveals some truths in the present.

Unlike the typical recovery narrative, this one leaves us, not with the sense of redemption so much as a sense of uncertainty, uncertainty about our responsibility for the past, our self-knowledge in the present, and our prospects for the future.

I say "our" because we all base our life choices on certain assumptions, which may or may not be true; we've all had the experience of suddenly "seeing the light" as the truth is revealed to us, of suddenly realizing what we thought was true was false all along, or conversely that what we thought was false was in fact true.  And we all know what it's like to have to question our lives, our expectations, and ourselves.  Just when we think we've got our act together, something unexpected throws us off balance. Real lives just don't easily fit the neat formulas of literary convention.

The first chapter of Blame is narrated from the point of view of a minor character, who introduces us to Patsy and later becomes the means by which Patsy learns the truth that has been withheld from her. The rest of the novel is recounted from Patsy's point of view. I found this shift awkward and puzzling, but it does provide some foreshadowing and a glimpse of the main character from another perspective.

Michelle Huneven is a good writer.  Her style is not particularly distinctive, but it’s not pedestrian either.  On almost every page there a striking image or turn of phrase that makes the reading experience worthwhile, even when you’re not terribly keen on the character or plot.

But what is most noteworthy about the novel is its haunting question: What if the assumption you had based your life on turned out to be false?  As one character says, “It does kind of set you up for a major life review.”

In Patsy’s case it leads to a newfound freedom in the present, uncertainty about the future, and lots of ambiguity about the past.