Sunday, December 18, 2016


This short story by Jeanette Winterson was first published in 1988.  It dramatizes contemporary gender wars by retelling one version of the myth of Orion, a mighty hunter, in which Orion meets Artemis, a mythic female hunter, rapes her, and is killed by her with a scorpion. 

Sounds like a feminist revenge fantasy, or at least a representation of an ancient, and ongoing, gender power struggle.  But it’s more than that.

Winterson knows the mythological literature in which heroes are typically male, often hunters or warriors, on a quest for an object or place in the world, or, in the case of religious heroes, for eternal life in another world.  Women in mythology, though they might be goddesses, are typically objects of desire (distractions from the quest), mothers, wives, or helpers to the male heroes.  While the men are out performing feats of strength and courage, women are more often at home tending the hearth.

Winterson explicitly presents the story of Orion and Artemis as “the old clash between history and home. Or to put it another way, the immeasurable, impossible space that seems to divide the hearth from the quest.”

If it’s a simple feminist revenge fantasy, then why is the story entitled after the male “hero,” and why is it Orion who gets immortalized in a constellation, where to this day “he does his best to dominate the skyline”?

If it is simply a representation of the ancient gender binary between quest and hearth, then how is it that Artemis rejects marriage, childbirth, and home-making in order to be a great hunter?  While the original story itself challenges this binary, it also reinforces the polarity as an either-or choice.

By invoking the myth Winterson also reinforces the ancient difference between male and female social roles, but she challenges it by having Artemis, not simply reject the traditional female role, but redefine it in terms of self-knowledge:

“She found that the whole world could be contained within one place because that place was herself… What would it matter if she crossed the world and hunted down every living creature as long as her separate selves eluded her?”

Artemis comes to realize that “Leaving home meant leaving nothing behind.  It came too, all of it, and waited in the dark.”  Quest and hearth are one.  The ultimate quest is the journey to the self.

This wisdom eludes Orion.  For him the quest is all about hyper-masculinity, power, and domination.  Thus his rape of Artemis.

Yes, Artemis kills him in his sleep, and while this act of revenge suggests a struggle between feminist power and masculine power, it is more than that.  After Orion rapes Artemis, he falls asleep, but after Artemis murders Orion, she wakes up:

“Artemis lying beside dead Orion sees her past changed by a single act…She is not who she thought she was.  Every action and decision has led her here.  The moment has been waiting the way the top of the stairs waits for the sleepwalker.  She had fallen and now she is awake.”

When she sees Orion’s body becoming food for lizards, she covers him with rocks to create a high mound, which, when she views it from a distance looks like a monument. 

By rejecting the social norms of her day, Artemis begins to awaken to self-knowledge and to recognize the false binary of quest and hearth.  The gender power struggle overtakes her, but, again, she awakens to new self-knowledge.  Her “burial” of Orion demonstrates respect for his humanity, despite his cruelty to her.  This act of redemption takes her to a new level: “Finally, at the headland, after a bitter climb to where the woods bordered the steep edge, she turned and stared out, seeing the shape of Orion’s mound, just visible now, and her own footsteps walking away.  Then it was fully nigh, and she could see nothing to remind her of the night before except the stars.”

The story offers three larger contexts in which to view the myth and the story that Winterson draws out of it. 

First there is the context of history: the ancient myth transformed into a modern feminist story in 1988.  What future transformations will unfold in history?  “Monuments and cities would fade away like the people who build them.  No resting place or palace could survive the light years that lay ahead. There was no history that would not be rewritten…”

Second is the context of medieval alchemy: “Tertium non data. The third is not given. That is, the transformation from one element into another, from waste matter into best gold is a process that cannot be documented.  It is fully mysterious.”  Artemis’s transformations from gender rebel to self-conscious individual to stargazer could not have been predicted, nor can future transformations to come.

Third is the context of astronomy:  “Every 200,000 years or so the individual stars within each constellation shift position.  That is, they are shifting all the time, but more subtly than any tracker dog of ours can follow.  One day if the earth has not voluntarily opted out of the solar system, we will wake up to a new heaven whose dome will again confound us.  It will still be home but not a place to take for granted.”  For now, Orion still dominates the skyline (though “he glows very faint, if at all, in November.  November being the month of Scorpio.”) But what of that “new heaven” to come?

This past November it seemed a new transformation was on the horizon, but it was not to be.  Orion still dominates the skyline.  But what of that “new heaven” to come?

Monday, October 31, 2016


A scent of ripeness from over a wall.
And come to leave the routine road
And look for what had made me stall,
There sure enough was an apple tree
That had eased itself of its summer load,
And of all but its trivial foliage free,
Now breathed as light as a lady's fan.
For there had been an apple fall
As complete as the apple had given man.
The ground was one circle of solid red.

May something go always unharvested!
May much stay out of our stated plan,
Apples or something forgotten and left,
So smelling their sweetness would be no theft. 

When I put my garden to bed last month, I left some of those small, yellow pear tomatoes on the ground.  There were more than I could use or even give away, so I left some behind, unharvested.  Perhaps some passerby would pick them up and take them home; perhaps some animal would take sustenance from them; perhaps, forgotten and left, they would decompose and make my garden plot more fertile for next year.

Robert Frost’s “Unharvested” celebrates that which goes unharvested, that which is forgotten and left, that which we might otherwise regard as failure, a “dead ambition,” a “relinquished desire” (Anonymous). And his comparison of “an apple fall” to the mythic Fall of Humankind suggests the Felix Culpa, or Fortunate Fall, of Christian theology, the idea that human failure was “fortunate” in that it brought us a Redeemer in Jesus Christ, the idea that human suffering is necessary for the achievement of human happiness, that evil can be turned to good and loss to plenitude.

If this interpretation seems to burden a simple and light-hearted poem with a heavy message, bear with me as yet more layers may be uncovered.

Let’s note first that the poem is a variation on a sonnet, fourteen lines of primarily iambic tetrameter (instead of the pentameter of a traditional sonnet), with an oddly asymmetrical rhyme scheme: abacbcdade edff, unlike any “sonnet” you would ever encounter.  Instead of the octet-sestet arrangement of a Petrarchan sonnet or the triple quatrain plus couplet structure of the Shakespearean sonnet, we have a ten-line description followed by a four-line commentary.  Perhaps it’s not a sonnet at all!  Perhaps it’s a playful variation.  Perhaps it’s an abject failure of a sonnet! Perhaps it’s a deliberate design to reinforce that theme of fortunate failure. 

Let’s note also the imagery: “scent of ripeness,” “routine road,” “apple tree,” “summer load,” “trivial foliage,” all suggesting a passerby in a natural, possibly rural, setting.  But then this tree, free of its “load,” breathes “as light as a lady’s fan.”  How does this image of cultured society fit into a nature poem?  Is it a mistake, an oversight, or is it a deliberate anomaly, meant to suggest our human world of imperfection?  

And then this “apple fall” is parenthetically, off-handedly, described as “complete as the apple had given man.”  Now that gets your attention.  We’re not just talking about a bunch of mundane apples on the mundane ground. Now we’re in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  And, in that context, when we read that “The ground was one circle of solid red,” it is difficult not to think of the “red” of passion, of violence, of blood. 

So the apples represent our fallen human nature, our imperfection, our capacity for wrongdoing, our unharvested goodness, our neglect and our failure.  But this human decay, if you will, is celebrated: “May something go always unharvested!”  How boring to be perfect!  “May much stay out of our stated plan....” How boring never to make a mistake!  There is something sweet in the scent of that forgotten “ripeness,” and to smell that “sweetness would be no theft,” that is, to value our failures, to see how suffering can lead to happiness, how loss can be a gift, how evil can be turned into good, is “no theft” from our human capacity for success, virtue, and betterment.

None of this is to say that we rejoice in violence, disease, cruelty, injustice, or pain, but, rather, that we celebrate the opportunities that human life affords us for redemption.

So much for the positive interpretation of Frost’s poem. But are there hidden ambiguities? 

For example, that sweet “scent of ripeness” will soon be a scent of rottenness.  Which is stronger?  Which lasts longer?  And what of that neglectful property owner?  What of the waste of nutritious food in a world where many go hungry?  To what extent is the idea of Felix Culpa a rationalization, an excuse to cover up, paper over, and unjustly exonerate us from our wrongdoings?  However you slice it, when I put my garden to bed last summer, I was just too lazy to clean off my plot and take those unharvested tomatoes to the nearby food shelf.

A tragic world view might suggest our positive interpretation of the poem is just Pollyannaism, that the poem illustrates our human tendency to lie to ourselves and deny the painful truth that indeed there is no redemption.  “Life’s a bitch and then you die.”  We are left with the image of that “circle of solid red,” the blood of billions who have suffered from evil at our human hands.

But surely this is way too heavy a burden for such a light and innocent poem to bear.  Perhaps Frost is just playfully making fun of our human habit of finding self-satisfying explanations for bad behavior. 

Then again, perhaps that seemingly simple poem captures the full complexity of our contradictory human drama. 

Monday, September 19, 2016


I heard Ann Patchett interviewed about her new novel on NPR. Having just blogged about my adopted state of Minnesota in Wintering (see previous post), I was drawn to the possibility of blogging about my home state since Commonwealth takes place partly in Virginia.

As far as the opportunity to enjoy another familiar setting, Commonwealth was a disappointment. The sense of place is as absent in Commonwealth as it is present in Wintering.  In addition, Commonwealth is not as compelling or well written as Wintering. It's a fairly commonplace, popular-style novel without great distinction. However, it has enough redeeming features to make it worth a read. I read it all in one day.

One thing I confirmed for myself is how much I despise reading about drugs and alcohol, especially when kids are involved. I almost stopped reading The Goldfinch (see Oct. 2014) for exactly that reason.

Like Wintering Commonwealth is a web of multiple storylines, flash-forwards, flashbacks, and memories that challenge the reader to keep track of characters, settings, and chronology. Like Wintering it's a family drama, but Commonwealth keeps its focus on just two generations. It begins with Franny Keating’s christening party and ends with Franny, as a wife and mother, remembering a private moment with her younger stepbrother when she was an adolescent.

In between, Franny's parents divorce, her mother moving to Virginia with her new husband, her father staying in California where Franny was born.  Franny and her older sister Caroline live with their mother, spending just two weeks each summer with their Dad, but their step-father's four children spend the whole summer in Virginia with their Dad, allowing for extended time as a blended family of eight.

Neither parent of this blended family is what I would consider very responsible in the child supervision department, and so readers are subjected to extended periods of holding our breath wondering if these mischievous, risk-taking, unsupervised kids are going to survive their multiple misadventures, which involve a gun, drugs, alcohol, and what I would consider generally dangerous behavior, especially for their young ages.

As it turns out a tragedy does eventually occur, and, as if divorce and disruption were not enough to scar these young lives, this tragedy continues to haunt them. Nevertheless, as we watch them grow into adulthood, it is amazing how well they turn out, despite some of their continuing misadventures.

So, we have the coming of age story of six young innocents, one of whom doesn't reach adulthood, living through their parents' messy lives, plus their own failures and missteps, five of them at least coming to terms, each in their own way, with the dark side of life, finally achieving some semblance of responsible maturity, even caring for their flawed, aging parents and step-parents.

More than a group coming of age story, though, Commonwealth makes a positive case, in the end, for the modern family, with all its complicated relationships, adultery, divorce, remarriage, etc., and the human resiliency, not just to survive, but to thrive. That modern family includes, not only the blended family, but also the multicultural family, as Franny marries an East Indian and one stepsister marries an African. The only thing missing is a gay couple.

What makes Commonwealth truly distinctive though is another storyline, in which Franny meets a popular author, falls in love, and, in need of reassurance from this man she has long admired, shares her family's personal story, which the author proceeds to turn into a successful novel. When her younger stepbrother coincidentally reads the novel and recognizes their family, he feels betrayed. Their private lives have become fodder for literary gain. A confrontation ensues and while Franny's relationship with the author does not survive, her relationship with her stepbrother and the rest of her family does, testifying to the strength of family ties that bind, even when they're not based on blood relations.

In her NPR interview Ann Patchett revealed that Commonwealth is based on her own experience growing up in a blended family. Thus the sub-plot of fiction based on personal experience becomes a meta-commentary on the ethics of the autobiographical novel, of exploiting the lives of real people for artistic purposes, and of invading privacy in general. It is curious how self-referential Commonwealth thus becomes, especially since the fictional famous author, for all his arguments on behalf of imagination over documentation, emerges as less sympathetic than the aggrieved family members. 

Without presuming to speculate on the significance of this storyline to Ann Patchett's own experience publishing a novel based on her personal family life, I will simply note how it gives Commonwealth a twist that raises it above the merely pedestrian popular novel.

To conclude, I'll just comment on the title. I was struck, of course by the reference to the "Commonwealth" of Virginia, but in a larger sense the novel captures the shared lives, relationships, and ties that bind; the shared history and shared guilt of extended, blended family; and it reminds us that it is the sharing, not so much what is shared, that constitutes the wealth.

Saturday, August 27, 2016


Speaking of winter (see previous post) this 2016 novel by Peter Geye will make you feel it in your bones, even in August. Unlike Amy Lowell’s indoor winter world of human society, art, and civilization (see previous post), the winter of this novel takes place on what in Minnesota we call the North Shore (of Lake Superior), in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), and in the fictional town of Gunflint, which Minnesotans will quickly recognize as Grand Marais.

Its central episode involves a canoe/camping trip into the BWCA that starts in October and finally ends in January.  In between a father and son battle the winter elements, get lost, struggle to survive, barely do survive a confrontation with their human enemy, and eventually find their way close enough to home to be rescued by passing snowmobilers.

That central episode is like a story within a story in a story that is really about stories as much as it is about a winter wilderness adventure.

The narrator is Berit Lovig, whose late-life lover, Harry, having lost his memory to the ravages of age, disappears one day into the wilderness and is never found.  The year is 1996.  Harry’s son, Gus, brings Berit the bad tidings and begins reminiscing about the family history.  Berit recounts, not only her own memories from the time she came to Gunflint from Duluth in 1936, but also the ones that Gus shares with her, including that wilderness adventure with his father in 1963 when Gus was just eighteen. 

Between the two of them, Berit weaves a tapestry of alternating stories, flashbacks, and memories that follow similar patterns of journeying out, getting lost, experiencing a turning point or moment of truth, then finding one’s way, and eventually arriving home, though, of course, there are those that experience a moment of lies, never do find their way, and are never found, marked only by traces left behind, sometimes in physical form, like the cenotaph erected in honor of Harry, sometimes in someone’s fading memory, sometimes in a story that may or may not bear any resemblance to truth.  Disappearance, it seems, is as much a part of the story as being found.

History and memory, fact and fiction, truth and lies, knowledge and false belief are the themes that tie these stories together.  Harry has lost his memory; Gus is a high school history teacher.  Berit recounts her memories and the local folklore while at the same time turning the building where she had lived and worked with Harry’s estranged mother into a museum of local history.  She discovers some letters written by Gus’s great-grandmother to her parents in Norway but never mailed.  The letters are historical “records,” but they contain the lie that she had married and borne a son, though everyone “knows” that Harry’s father was a “misbegotten” child of rape in a logging camp.   Harry had witnessed a murder, but it is reported as a tragic accident.  Harry’s rival and enemy, Charlie, whose own life was based on lies and deceit, disappears in the wilderness and is never found, but Gus knows where Charlie’s “cenotaph,” a pile of bones, can be found. 

The word “wilderness” means “place of wild beasts,” and Harry and Gus encounter a few in their wilderness adventure, along with bitter cold, blizzards, huge snow drifts, rushing water, fog, and ice.  But men can also be beasts that prey on one another, and they can be found in town as well as in the wilds.  Similarly, the domesticated life in town can be a wilderness of stories, some of which pass as history and in which one can get lost in lies and may or may not ever find one’s way to the truth.  Such is the challenge of both ordinary people and professional historians.

Wintering is also a coming of age story for Gus, as he pits himself against the elements and ends up saving both himself and his father.  For Berit it’s the story of her adopted family, the Eides.  Rebecca, who had abandoned her husband and son early on and remained estranged, had hired Berit, at age 16, from Duluth, to live with her and work in the local “apothecary,” the original lighthouse keeper’s quarters, which Berit later turns into a museum.  Rebecca’s son, Harry, also age 16, witnesses his father, Odd, disappear, never to be found, when the ice floe he’s fishing from breaks loose and floats away..  He takes refuge in the apothecary, which also doubles as the town post office, and meets Berit for the first time.  It means little to him, but she falls in love, and waits, until after Harry’s divorce, when he shows up at Berit’s door with a bouquet of butterworts, her moment of truth, or, as she calls it, fate. Berit never has children, but, clearly, she is like a surrogate mother to Gus.  Thus the novel is a family saga and a story of late life, “winter” romance, as well as a coming of age and a journey into the “heart of darkness” to be found in the wilderness as well as in the human heart and mind.

What is the significance of these stories, some true, some false in the world of the novel, all fictional in the world of the reader?  Can “truth” be false?  Can recorded history include that which is false and leave out so much that it is hardly the “whole truth”?  Can fiction be true?  Can stories, which may be factually false, convey a symbolic or metaphorical truth?  I have argued so repeatedly in this blog.

The stories in Wintering embody age-old universal myths of trial and quest, initiation, the fall from innocence, death and rebirth (being lost and found), journeys outward, journeys to the self, homecoming, romance, good and evil, crime and punishment, love and hate, truth and falsehood, discovery, and disappearance.  We all experience these stories in our own ways and we can thus reenact our own stories as we read these “fictions.”

Historically, Berit’s memories, stories, and artifacts represent the immigrant experience in North America, the leaving of home and family, the journeying out, the encounter with an alien world that can be both sweet and sour, the struggle to survive, the building of a new life, the making of a family legacy, and the creation of a new identity.

Even when these stories are based on lies, they give meaning to our human experience, which is why we love to tell them, to hear them, to read and write them.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

"Summer": A Meditation

Summer is an active time of year when we spend more time outside, enjoying nature, attending outdoor events, vacationing and, despite ragweed and mosquitoes, mostly reveling in the sensory pleasures of long sunny days and a green, growing world.  In mythology summer represents the prime of nature, vitality, fertility, and the fullness of life, before the decline of nature in fall and its “death” in winter.

According to this pattern I’ve been spending my summer gardening and appreciating the backyard pleasures of birds, blooms, and nature’s bounty, as one might surmise from the neglect of this blog.  In search of an appropriate reading to end this neglect, I began looking for a “summer” poem.  One interesting observation is that there seem to be more poems about the end of summer than about its full glory, perhaps because poetry is more contemplative than active, and the end of summer reminds us of the decline and fall to come, inspiring us to poetic meditation.

Amy Lowell’s 1912 meditation on summer (see previous post), however, takes us in a different direction, making the case for the indoor life of winter, of city life over “fields and woods,” of intellectual effort over sensory delights, of human interaction, art, civilization and the life of the mind.

Lowell invokes the ancient debate over rural vs. urban, body vs. mind, nature vs. the human realm of intellect, art, and society.  Of course, it’s a false dichotomy since it is no doubt natural for humans to gather in society, to think, to create artifacts, to “improve” on nature, and seek to mitigate the dark side of “tooth and claw.”  Nature is as fraught with death and danger in summer as it is with life and growth.  And, as Lowell reminds us, the world of art and civilization in winter can be full of “the pulse and throb of life.”

Curiously, though, Lowell’s poem, while it ostensibly favors the “human world,” seems to spend as much or more effort on the pleasures of nature at full bloom in summer as it does on the “labor,” “inspiration,” and “vivid life of winter months.”  The strongest images in the poem summon “the voice of waters,” “great winds,” “sunshine and flowers,” “moonlight playing,” a “sleeping lake,” “nodding ferns,” “the blue crest of the distant mountain,” and “the green crest of the hill…”  The power of the nature imagery seems to undercut the stated preference of the poem for city life and human society.

Yet the structure and style of the poem support the value of art and civilization.  Written in traditional blank verse, the poem parallels the Greek choral structure of strophe, antistrophe, and epode.  Lines 1-12 focus on those who find “inspiration” in nature and consider the city to be “a prison house.”  Line 13 makes a turn, renouncing the preference for nature but, in the same line, announcing, “I love the earth…” Lines 14-29 develop the speaker’s love of nature in lavish detail, but in line 30, again there is a turn; and the final 12 lines develop her preference for “the human world,” which is “like a lantern shining in the night/To light me to a knowledge of myself.”

The poem could be read as contradictory, perhaps unconsciously revealing a preference for nature in an argument for human society, or it could be read as representing a fragile balance between the love of both.  Despite her love of the active, outdoor life of summer, she longs for the contemplative, indoor life of winter.

So what?  Is “Summer” merely an expression of the poet’s perhaps conflicting preferences?  Or is there more to it?

The style and structure, as well as the stated preference for art and civilization over nature suggest a classic, somewhat aristocratic, certainly upper class, perhaps elitist, perspective.  Some readers may even hear a quasi-imperialistic message of Western dominance.  Others will note how, if there is such a message, it is clearly undercut by the honorific tone in the nature imagery, with its implicit celebration of the romantic, the democratic, and all that is wild and uncultivated. 

Contemporary readers may well note that nature is gendered as “she,” a traditional way of associating women with the body, as opposed to the mind.  Some may even speculate on the possibility of a subliminal message of conflicted sexuality.

Mythologically, the poem invokes the universal contrast between youth and age, life and death, body and mind, nature and art.

However you choose to read it, Amy Lowell’s “Summer” is more than simple self-expression.  It is more like self-reflection or an extended meditation, in which the speaker develops a complex identity with a complex relationship to her world.

And with that, I return to the pleasures of my summer, with greater anticipation of and appreciation for the pleasures of winter to come.


Some men there are who find in nature all
Their inspiration, hers the sympathy
Which spurs them on to any great endeavor,
To them the fields and woods are closest friends,
And they hold dear communion with the hills;
The voice of waters soothes them with its fall,
And the great winds bring healing in their sound.
To them a city is a prison house
Where pent up human forces labour and strive,
Where beauty dwells not, driven forth by man;
But where in winter they must live until
Summer gives back the spaces of the hills.
To me it is not so. I love the earth
And all the gifts of her so lavish hand:
Sunshine and flowers, rivers and rushing winds,
Thick branches swaying in a winter storm,
And moonlight playing in a boat’s wide wake;
But more than these, and much, ah, how much more,
I love the very human heart of man.
Above me spreads the hot, blue mid-day sky,
Far down the hillside lies the sleeping lake
Lazily reflecting back the sun,
And scarcely ruffled by the little breeze
Which wanders idly through the nodding ferns.
The blue crest of the distant mountain, tops
The green crest of the hill on which I sit;
And it is summer, glorious, deep-toned summer,
The very crown of nature’s changing year
When all her surging life is at its full.
To me alone it is a time of pause,
A void and silent space between two worlds,
When inspiration lags, and feeling sleeps,
Gathering strength for efforts yet to come.
For life alone is creator of life,
And closest contact with the human world
Is like a lantern shining in the night
To light me to a knowledge of myself.
I love the vivid life of winter months
In constant intercourse with human minds,
When every new experience is gain
And on all sides we feel the great world’s heart;
The pulse and throb of life which makes us men!
Amy Lowell ( 1874-1925)

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.