24 November 2008

Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie (1945). New York: New Directions, 1966.

Tennessee Williams's first major play and, as he writes, his quietest. It's also his lightest, a little story told in seven scenes of the Wingfield family, or what's left of it. The mother, Amanda, is living in a more palatable past of continuous gentleman callers, the days before she met the man who ran out on her and their two children: Tom, who runs out every night to "the movies" (which, this being Williams, is code for "seedy places in St. Louis where men can rendezvous with one another"); and Laura, who lives in a world of isolation, listening to the Victrola and fawning over her collection of glass figurines.

The play culminates in the arrival of Tom's co-worker—the gentleman caller Amanda's been waiting for—and it's here that Williams can't keep his love for symbolism from weighing the whole play down. Jim, the co-worker, starts to bring Laura out of her shell, and they begin to waltz around the sitting room to the music from a neighboring dancehall, only to run into the table (Laura's got a bit of a gimp leg) and knock over the glass unicorn Laura's just confessed is her favorite:
LAURA: [. . .] Glass breaks so easily. No matter how careful you are. The traffic jars the shelves and things fall off them.

JIM: Still I'm awfully sorry that I was the cause.

LAURA [smiling]: I'll just imagine he had an operation. The horn was removed to make him feel less—freakish!

[They both laugh]

Now he will feel more at home with the other horses, the ones that don't have horns. . . .
That's when we find out Jim's engaged, and the hornless unicorn is given new meaning. Get it? Can you see how the unicorn is a symbol for Laura's blah blah blah?

There's just something so inelegant about it, and I think the problem is that Laura is given nothing to attach to her character but her leg, the Victrola, and the menagerie. She doesn't even get a good monologue or soliloquy. This is supposedly the most autobiographical of Williams's plays, written to express his remorse for leaving a sister he had similar to Laura. But rather than leave us to weep over her unending tragedy, wouldn't it have been better to go deeper into her character such that she becomes human, rather than constantly shining heraldic beams of light on her such that she remains this mythic angel?

Make her a horse is what I'm saying. Everyone knows unicorns never existed.

Atwood, Margaret. The Blind Assassin. New York: Anchor Books, 2001.

I've read, now, three Atwood novels and none of them is A Handmaid's Tale. Not that I'm bragging or anything. But I've read, in this order, Alias Grace and Oryx & Crake, and now The Blind Assassin and all of them are just like so awesome!

This novel is three novels in one. Starting from the title, it refers to this work of sci-fi that's being spooled out—orally, basically—from one character to another while they're in bed together. Like post-coitally. She asks to hear a story (he's a sci-fi hack writer, among other things) and he tells her about these people on another planet who sacrifice young virgins once a year to "the gods" and the blind assassin who is sent to stop this ritual. The telling of this story is part of a larger novel, also called The Blind Assassin, written by Laura Chase, which was published posthumously and became a cult classic.

Laura died after driving off a bridge (whether this was a suicide remains a mystery throughout the book) in the 1930s. She was survived by her older sister, Iris, whose attempts to tell her and Laura's story becomes the third novel, the frame surrounding it all. She does this in the present, well into her 80s, and so part of the time she's writing about her life now, all the failures of her aging body, and but most of the time she's flashing back to almost ancient history at this point, she and her sister living together in their father (a button factory owner)'s manse named Avilion.

So you've got Iris's life now. Iris and Laura's life then. Laura's novel about this couple that meets for illicit trysts. And her (Laura's) male character's ongoing sci-fi narrative. It is, yes, a lot to keep track of and is also, yes, a good reason why this novel is more than 500 pages long.

But a page turner, too. To say anything of value, I'm going to have to ruin the book's mystery or central effects or whatever, so I'll try to change the font color, and if you have no plans to read this or don't mind spoliers, then just highlight what follows and don't say I didn't warn you.

Naturally, with so many layers of narrative, point of view is going to be a central concern. For the record, Laura's novel and the sci-fi narrative are told in the third person. Iris's narratives (both present and past) are told in the first person. And where these narratives intersect is in Iris's eventual confession that she wrote Laura's novel, after her sister's death, attributing it to her for two reasons: as a memorial, and as a mask. For once we know Iris wrote about this adulterous couple, we realize that the novel is completely autobiographical.

In telling the story of her life and Laura's, Iris mentions Alex, the man we come to understand she's had an ongoing affair with, but all we she reveals is that he once tried to kiss her, when she was very young, and she ran off. Shortly after, she gets married, and we never hear about him again. So it becomes a puzzle of sorts for her as a narrator: how to present herself as an authority while also hiding a certain part of the truth. And then how to reveal the truth in a way that doesn't feel manipulative to her reader (who, specifically, is her granddaughter; she's writing this for her granddaughter).

Iris handles this by keeping the focus on her sister. Also, it seems that she's assuming a familiarity on the part of her reader with Laura's novel. Atwood peppers this novel throughout Iris's own, so that our understanding of who these two lovers are happens alongside our understanding of what happened to Iris and Laura. In doing this, when the truth is revealed it's as though Iris never really did it, that we just came to understand it as she has. "As for the book, Laura didn't write a word of it," she writes (512). "But you must have known that for some time."

The question I have, though, is why wait to reveal this? If Iris's intended reader knew the story "Laura wrote," why not just begin with this fact?

On a narratological level I can't figure it out. But one thing is obvious: it makes for a far more engaging story. I tend to repeat myself a lot. And one thing I say again and again, even if I only write it, is that all good stories are mysteries of a kind. Atwood's stories are always among the most mysterious. And therefore by the transitive property they're the best.

18 November 2008

Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

I had some mixed reactions to the Bechdel book, a memoir of growing up with a closeted father. I thought at times she pushed so hard to connect the goings on in her life to some kind of historical or literary context. Her father was very Proustian, it seems, and her family's life was straight out of In Search of Lost Time, and also some James novels, and Gatsby. But throughout, Bechdel is critical of her need to make these connections. I mean, she's aware of what she's doing, and treats it, in her self-conscious narration, as some kind of tic she can't help. This assuages the obvious manipulation of experience she's got going on.

And then toward the end there's this great moment with Ulysses, which she reads in a winter-term course because it is her father's favorite, and yet slacks behind in class because she has better, more vital reading to do. Which is to say: books by and about lesbians. (Bechdel came out in college.) So I thought this was going to be some inevitable refutation of, like, the patriarchal, "big books" canon that her father somewhat forced on her, but no.

I think I only want to read memoirs in comics form, in the future. The great thing about the form is how economical it is with time. So many pages have panels next to one another that move from Alison as a toddler to Alison as a teen, then back to toddlerhood and then all the up to her near-present self. These sorts of moves would be either incomprehensible, in a written memoir, or so glacially slow and dull if the writer made sure we were following her jumps in time. This way, the comic can work a lot like how our memory works, which is so rarely chronological.

For a while I thought Bechdel's paneling and general structure was really straightforward, not really pushing the form anywhere, until I got to the "climax" of the book (or maybe it is the climax) on pages 220-221. To avoid runing the "plot" of it, what has been throughout the book a pretty loose and varied style of paneling becomes on these pages this lock-step grid where every image is the same. Just the dialogue changes. It's not only a great mirror to what's going on in that cramped little space of her father's car, but it also works, like I said, as a visual climax, some kind of epiphanic inevitability.

I like it when comic books let their art signal narrative shifts, I guess is what I'm saying.

11 November 2008

Highsmith, Patricia. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955). New York: Vintage, 1992.

I read this for a class I'm T.A.ing. It was good. A suspense-filled page-turner. This is exactly all I have to say about the book.

06 November 2008

Allison, Dorothy. Bastard out of Carolina. New York: Plume, 1993.

I Finished! this one a couple weeks ago. Maybe last week. The following evening I saw Dorothy Allison give a talk at UNL's annual GLBTQIAAQ??? dinner about ... well as with the first time she spoke here a couple years ago I can't quite recall what it was about, but I know it was incredibly moving and inspirational, in the way sermons probably are. Why couldn't her book be? At the dinner, she spoke about a woman estranged from her daughter because she (the daughter) was gay. She spoke about how happy she is that Nebraska has such a liberal Safe-Haven law, because infants aren't the only one who need last-ditch solutions.

Allison's central theme in the speech, and here in this, her first novel, and I think in much of the writing that's come since, is family. Indeed, a friend of mine had lunch with Allison on the day she spoke and the words "You've got to love your family" came out of her mouth at one point. And I do. I do love my family. But I also love...I dunno myself or my life enough to know that if that family ever betrayed me in any way I could take that love away and feel all the stronger for it. I'm aware that for anyone potential conditions exist such that they didn't have to love their families.

Maybe it's the uninterrupted love my family's given me that allows me to feel this way. One thing I know for sure is that Bastard out of Carolina is, in the end, a very conservative book. Its focus is on the family. Ruth Anne Boatwright is a girl born the titular bastard to a teenage mother, Annie, and an absent father. The mother remarries after she has another kid with a man who dies, and this man she marries—Daddy Glen—turns out in what has now become a cliche in the memoir/autobionovel genre to be abusive. First it's verbal/emotional, then it becomes physical/sexual. All the while, Annie turns a blind eye, or sees what's going on and gets really upset but then goes crawling back to Daddy Glen because she can't stand to be alone. The novel ends with this reconciliation between daughter and mother than rang, to me, completely false and sentimental. "You're my own baby girl," Annie says. "I'm not gonna let you go." And the line is so clearly another lie, yet Ruth Anne does everything in her narration to assert that this time she believed it, and therefore we should.

Another problem I had with the book was its point of view. I don't remember what the problem was, exactly, just that a problem was had. I think it had something to do with the fact that for much of the book Ruth Anne doesn't do anything but watch her colorful family members yell and lie at one another. And then this combined with the book's insistence that we never question Ruth Anne's perspective on herself and the events of her narrative. It's like this depressing by-product of the Victim Narrative That Resists At All Costs Being Labeled A Victim Narrative. I fully submit that this is a matter of personal taste, not one of literary ideals or whatever.

Like, I like my first-person narrated novels to be a bit more aware of the inherent unreliability of every first-person narrator ever. Bad memoirs are completely ignorant of this. "I" am witness, they say. "I" will tell you what you need to know. Novels, though, usually know better. Or, at least, they should.

UPDATE: This is unfair and snarky of me but I'm in the sort of mood where I can't resist. From a Goodreads review of this book (5-star): "To read what happens to her page after page literally cracks your heart open and I find myself begging in my mind with the author (even though it's far too late!) 'Please don't let her get raped'. She does get raped...."

Am I a dick to assert that there's something, well "wrong" about any novel that, if even unintentionally, drives a reader to beg for a main character not to get raped? Is it like begging for certain characters not to die by a novel's end? Or is it something else?