december 2014 books.

The Sot-weed Factor
John Barth
The back cover uses the word "Rabelasian," and I groaned when I saw it. I got about one-fifth into Rebelais before the Rabelasianness just got to me. So much peeing and farting and eating and having sex. However, I found this to be acceptably Rabelasian. There was indeed a lot of bodily functions, and the plot turned on genitalia, but it was not so much that I couldn't finish it. There was also a lot of philosophy, wordplay, politics, and secret identities. There was even character development. Our protagonist starts off a directionless poet. He is forced to come to Maryland to take over his father's farm, but he gets himself commissioned as the Poet Laureate of Maryland, even though he hasn't actually written any poems. He just emotes a lot. He's a selfish, bumbling nitwit who composes odes to great Maryland before he ever gets there. Then he has a lot of terrible adventures, because colonial life is freaking rough. He writes an actual poem (not flattering to Maryland) and becomes a man (in every sense, because Rabelais).

This was not intentional, but this book was a good choice to read so soon after the book about the Pilgrims. Set in the late 17th century, John Smith's secret journal was a plot device, so the language and the setting and the colonial politics were all familiar. I can't imagine the amount of research that went into this, just to write using that sort of language.

The style is verbose and twisting. The main characters are going around having adventures, but there are lots and lots of tangential stories. I enjoy this style, though it was confusing in this case because a few of the characters kept popping up disguised as other characters. It really paid off in the end, though, when the main story came together with all the little side stories. It was all very neatly done. So neatly, in fact, that the protagonist remarks that "Fate is a shameless playwright." Heh.

I wrote down a quote to give an example of how filthy and yet literary this book is: "...whose astrolabe had already taken the alnicanter of her constellation." I don't even know what some of those words are, but I understood that it was about a man taking a lady's virginity. I looked up "alnicanter" and discovered that it was an archaic spelling of almucantar. The third search result was an excerpt from John Smith's actual writings. See? That's a lot of research for a dirty joke.

The Awakening
Kate Chopin
An upper class wife and mother realizes that she is unhappy in this life, stops doing the things expected of her role, takes a lover, dies sad.

Edna sort of looks around at her life and isn't all that sure how she got there or if it's what she wants. This book was written over 100 years ago, and this still happens. When I was growing up, life seemed like a set of checkmarks. Since I was a modern woman, these checkmarks included things like college and a job (though not necessarily a career), and then marriage and children. I like lists, and I like checking things off, so it didn't occur to me that I hadn't really made the list in the first place.

When I was about to graduate from college, I tried to bring up the subject of marriage to my long-term boyfriend. He was pretty uninterested in that, to the point where we were not able to even have a conversation about it. The subject itself became taboo. I felt pretty frustrated and thwarted by this, because what else were we supposed to do? That was clearly the next check. Of course, he was very right not to want to get married, because our relationship was pretty busted at that point, as you might have figured from us not being able to even talk about our future together.

After we broke up, I realized that I had this idea that there was exactly one path to a happy and fulfilled life. I still thought that I probably wanted to get married and have kids someday, but those options were not open right now, so I would need to figure something else out.

So Edna has this same sort of realization, except she has already gotten married and had children. It being the time that it is, though, she definitely did not have many other options. I had lots of options, I just didn't really consider them. Edna realizes that she does not love her husband, and while she loves her children, she doesn't seem all that attached to them. Being the wife of a rich man, they have a nanny that seems to do most of the motherly type things.

Of course, there was much outrage at the book and at the idea that women might have desires and ambitions that were not fulfilled by motherhood. At best, reviews said that it was beautifully written but immoral. The book is set in Louisiana, where women were still legal property at the time, so you can see how the establishment might have been threatened by the idea of the property getting ideas. Chopin's career collapsed after publication, and she herself died not long after. Her work was basically forgotten until it was rediscovered in the 1960s.

I heard someone say once that art should be "uplifting." I am not sure what an uplifting version of this story would be. Once you figure out that you're miserable, where do you go? The best I can get to is acceptance, which is also not uplifting and smacks of condescension. Chopin is not lifting Edna up to be idolized, but rather to put it out there that women want to and could do other things. Maybe not all women should be mothers. An etiquette book of the time says that "if she has the true mother-heart the companionship of her children will be the society which she will prefer above that of all others." And if she doesn't? That possibility doesn't seem to be considered.

I think non-uplifting art is important. It's important that other women who might recognize themselves in Edna be told that they are not alone or not real women. They might even be able to make real changes in the world. And it's important that men are able to see it from the other side. Art is not just to uplift, it is to enable one to empathize.

Robertson Davies
This was my second novel of Davies, which I did not enjoy as much as his other one. He seems to like to take little groups of people who are thrown together in small cultures. In this case, it was a community theatre troup putting on a Shakespeare play. I have some experience in local theatre, and the characters and little dramas in this story are bang-on. There are the scandalous affairs, those pining in the wings, the power plays, and of course, the show.

Not much to say. It was a fun read.

A Fan's Notes
Frederick Exley

So, there is a genre of books that I call Sad Man books. I can read them, I think I understand them, but I can never really get on board with them. Sad Men often have fraught relationships with their fathers. They like women, but do not understand them or even necessarily see them as people to be understood. They drink a lot, and they are very lonely. Josh says that Sad Men think their solitude is part of being a man. A man does not need other people, except for Jack Daniels.

Exley is a Sad Man. He is a drunk and is possibly suffering from mental illness. He has several stints in a mental institution, but his only goal while there is to get out, and he doesn't say whether he thinks anything is wrong with him. He lives in the shadow of his father, who was a high school football star before becoming an upstanding family man and hero of the community and then dying young. Exley spends the whole book coming to the terms that he will never be a hero, like Frank Gifford, or even his dad. Why he can't become a pillar of the community is unsaid, though maybe it has to do with his likely depression.

Exley writes very well. He paints vivid pictures of the kinds of interesting characters you meet as a drunk. It's funny and poignant and sad. But a few chapters in, he tells about his years of seduction. By seduction, he sometimes means rape. He is having a lot of sex with women he doesn't care about, sometimes against their will, and then he wonders why it doesn't make him happy. And that's the momentous realization he gets out of it - it doesn't make him happy. At no point does it occur to him to consider how anyone else who was involved might feel about it. Sad Men are self-absorbed.

I didn't get the impression that he thought of what he was doing as rape, possibly because that would mean looking at it from the woman's perspective. He seems to believe that the women gave consent by coming to his apartment, and the fact that they were crying and saying "no no no" later doesn't matter. I don't think he would be alone in those assumptions, particularly for his time (50s and 60s). Anyway, he lost me at that point. I understand that this is a person that exists in the world, and as a fellow human being, I owe him my empathy and compassion. We need people who are adept with words to put these experiences out there, as eloquently as possible. And the fact that there seem to be several writers like this out there indicates that he's not alone. I still believe in art as a path to empathy.

But I did not enjoy his company.

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