Blue Angel — Francine Prose

Francine Prose’s Blue Angel (2000) bears more than a little resemblance to Richard Russo’s Straight Man (1997), which isn’t bad—both are smart, funny novels that use English departments as a launching rather than end point to explore politics, society, and life. Bad novels become mired in their time and place; good novels transcend them by making a particular time and place a metaphor or microcosm for something bigger. Sure, it’s easy to mock academic (or business, or families, or any number of other social configurations) life, as structure can easily ossify and become stultifying, but using these structures as a base instead of destination helps transcend them, as both Blue Angel and Straight Man do. From similar beginnings, however, Blue Angel and Straight Man diverge based on their protagonists’ decisions, and in Blue Angel the choice eventually leads to a hilarious and astonishing Kafka-esque tribunal scene.

Blue Angel is based around two theoretical premises: the fundamental imbalance of knowledge between novelists teaching creative writing and know-it-all, under-literate students taking said classes. I feel confident making the second generalization because I was one of those students—now I’m not in the classes but am otherwise similar. The second premise involves sexual politics and power, or lack thereof—while it’s wrong, wrong, wrong for professors to sleep with students, Blue Angel implies that it’s not always the professor who has the power. In addition, a plot point involving the latent sexual tension in many relationships is irresistible as a device in novels where very little else is otherwise at stake. And what kind of tension is going on in Blue Angel? Is it gender, power, class, or something else? They intersect and morph, much like in The Bonfire of the Vanities, and Prose leaves the battle lines deliciously ambiguous. I can’t remember who said it, but I read that one way of propelling a novel is to get two people who shouldn’t sleep together to do so and then see what happens.

This used to be easier, when sex outside of marriage was completely taboo and divorce led to societal suicide and extreme social censure. Now you have to go a bit further. Marriage plots don’t work nearly as effectively when most people aren’t virgins when they marry and quickie, no-fault divorces mean that a bed decision can leave you back in the same fundamental position you once were six months after accidental nuptials. Ian McEwan exploits the cusp of this revolution in On Chesil Beach, but writers who set stories in contemporary times have to deal with contemporary mores. Prose does effectively through the hothouse atmosphere of an English Department, where Ted Swenson finds that he’s teaching “[…] every Tuesday afternoon, [when] Swenson’s job requires him to discuss someone’s tale of familial incest, fumbling teenage sex, some girl’s or boy’s first blow job, with the college’s most hypersensitive and unbalanced students, some of whom simply despise him for reasons he can only guess: he’s the teacher, and they’re not, or he looks like somebody’s father.”

Is Swenson trapped? If so, by what, or whom, except himself? It’s not obvious, and Swenson is aware of the dilemma: “But like convicts who love their shackles, nearly all [professors] chose not to escape” Blue Angel and Straight Man imply one can leave this vast, masturbatory game if you have sufficient ironic distance to survive, perhaps tempered with the unpleasant realization that you might be too weak, timid, or self-satisfied. The game is more serious and less serious than it appears, depending on the narrator’s mind at any time, and this is made more difficult when writing teachers aren’t performing the first part of their jobs and have reasons—in Swenson’s case, “[…] once more he’s [Swenson] siphoned all his creative juices into a brain-numbing chat with a student. He’s ruined the day for writing, and his punishment is to face yet another of the problems with not writing, which is: how to kill all that time.” The reality is that Swenson isn’t a writer: if he were, he wouldn’t complain about writing, he would simply be doing it. In an interview Robertson Davies discussed how he produced innumerable novels while working as a publisher and, later, while teaching. Swenson is, like many of his students, simply making excuses.

He’s also not so different from Ruby, his daughter, than he’d like to think, though she is underdeveloped and a mere figure. This might be intentional, as recriminations over her place haunt the conversations between Swenson and Sherrie; perhaps this strained distance is the norm for parents and their children rather than the exception. There are some other problems than the portrait of Ruby—for example, as so often happens in novels, the scenes involving computers are poorly done. Ruby also says, “The Women’s Studies Department had to threaten a class-action lawsuit before they’d even investigate.” This makes no sense, because there is class or group of people to file suit—only a single organization or entity. Granted, it could be the character’s mistake, but Blue Angel doesn’t show this to be the case. Elsewhere, however, Prose nails details, as when Angela Argo, the improbable temptress, takes a class in “Text Studies in Gender Warfare.” Blue Angel could recursively be an assigned text in such a class, given its minute reading of the bizarre sexual politics overlaid on the wider culture in tun overlaid on whatever biological human instinct hides under the veneer of modern discourse. References to churches, religion, and Jonathan Edwards peter out towards the end of Blue Angel, which is a shame because they offered a rich vein of allusions for a novel with more than a little secular sin and, it implies, mindless persecution instead of the high-minded search for justice and truth that the university is supposed to cultivate. Blue Angel is far deeper than its premise suggests, and its self-aware humor gives it enough heft to bite into a situation that could easily degenerate into silly farce.

Life: thoughts on computers and tools

“Walking into Nathan and Kristi’s empty house was a reminder of why stuff doesn’t really matter: We make the inanimate objects come to life, and not vice versa. Similarly, it reminded me that the fond feelings I have for this place are all wrapped up in the people. There was certainly no charm to those bare walls, studded with hooks where pictures once hung.”

—Alan Paul, “The Annual Expat Exodus Never Gets Any Easier

This is an appropriate quote given a friend’s recent e-mail asking if I’d become overly enamored of computers, given what she called an “almost pornographic” shot of my desk. It’s not dissimilar from Faramir’s comment in The Lord of the Rings, when he separates tools from their uses this way in The Two Towers: “[…] I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend […]”

So too I feel about tools, be they computers or pens, or books themselves, which I see not as objects of reverence, but as bulbs that only shed light when read and shared. This could in part be a decadent opinion born of economic opportunity: five hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago, I might not have been so blithe, as books were far more expensive than they are today and have been declining in relative price for almost all of the 20th Century. Regardless of that, I’m lucky enough to live in a time when books are relatively inexpensive; though a book might have symbolic meaning, it is the thing or potential within, not the thing itself, that appeals, and it’s only to the extent that the exterior thing has the potential to manifest what’s within that I’m interested.

The Enchantress of Florence — Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence disappoints; Seldom has so great an ability to describe and so much seething talent been put to so little use as in this novel, where numerous sumptuous descriptions—though not so numerous or so skillful as Umberto Eco’s in Foucault’s Pendulum—add up to little more than yammering.

Take this artful idea, for example:

Travel was pointless. It removed you from the place in which you had a meaning, and to which you gave meaning in return by dedicating your life to it, and it spirited you away into fairylands where you were, and looked, frankly absurd.

Given that Jodha, who exists only in the mind of the king, says this, it works on multiple levels: she’s removed from the place where she would have meaning, and yet if she were removed from the emperor’s mind she’d have none because she wouldn’t exist—a neat paradoxical situation that nonetheless gets old a page later, when she says:

Now that the act of creation was complete she was free to be the person he had created, free, as everyone was, within the bounds of what it was in their nature to be and do.

That’s nice, but we’ve gone through pages and pages of meditation on what it means to be a creator and creative sort, and still more verbal games that become tiresome, especially with the double use of the word “free” in a situation that just doesn’t quite seem to merit it, even if we’re supposed to get the irony of her being “free” when by definition she can’t be free of his mind. Granted, she might eventually turn out to be a real person—this is magical realism, and I quit halfway after the fiftieth time I wondered, “What’s the point?”—but from here Jodha doesn’t go far.

Maybe there are more clever resonances among parts of the novel; the king thinks “No Man was ever free,” and yet the woman inside his head thinks she is free. Rushdie is striving for the intricate correspondence of Nabokov, but he doesn’t get there: the voice isn’t as firmly anchored to the characters as Nabokov in Pnin or Lolita, the characters are never quite so alive, and The Enchantress of Florence lacks that visceral sense of reality that a historical novel like Eco’s The Name of the Rose has. Adso of Melk sounds believable as a fourteenth century monk, immersed in the biblical culture that bound the thin educated class together at the time; in The Enchantress of Florence, we hear what could be a literary theorist natter, “They, too, saw their selves as multiple, one self that was the father of their children, another that was their parents’ child; they knew themselves to be different with their employers than they were at home with their lives—in short, they were bags of selves, bursting with plurality, just as he was.” What? Are we discussing modern workplace or family or feminist politics? And isn’t it obvious that the relationship one feels toward parents versus children is different? One could just as easily say, “You use different registers at work than you do at home.” Done. But I’m not sure Mughal kings were as concerned with this issue as middle-aged American accountants.

Yes, I understand what Rushdie shot for—Arabian Nights, The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron—except told through a post-modern, winking lens—and yet it doesn’t come together. Quotes from the novel don’t really show why, as much of the writing itself is good, but the plot at best meanders, and I feel like it shows utter dedication to the art of, say, cataloging obscure 80’s pop bands. Sure, you can, but should you? And does it matter? You can just imagine Rushdie pondering all the elements—mystical emperors, far off cities, narrative games, clever commentary on the point of myth versus legend—and all of them seeming so good and right. Then why did this omelette turn out so poorly when all the ingredients appeared so wonderful? It’s a question that, as I ponder, I can’t answer well.

The Enchantress of Florence comes with a bibliography, but this bit of scholastic detritus shows that you can study a period without living it. Contrast again The Enchantress of Florence with The Name of the Rose; the writer’s canard goes, “Write what you know,” and it’s often misinterpreted to mean that you should write autobiographically or something to that effect, but Eco has so long been immersed in the Middle Ages that he’s achieved the true writer’s alchemy and been able to live it as very few works of art do. By the same token, the marvelous TV show Friday Night Lights accomplishes the same effect with modern American high schools as few books or shows do; Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, despite its flaws, accomplished for boarding schools; and though many other novels try, they more often than not fail. To be sure, parts of Friday Night Lights, book and show, are no doubt exaggerated, just like Prep. One cannot fully recreated the Middle Ages in a novel, even one so wonderful as The Name of the Rose. Yet they have the verisimilitude in form and content that The Enchantress of Florence lacks. Eco knows the Middle Ages, Neal Stephenson knows hacker culture, and J.R.R. Tolkien knew Middle-earth better than I know Seattle. Alas: I’m not sure Rushdie knows the Moghul empire, the concerns of its people, and the age in which they lived. If he does, he didn’t prove it, and even if he did prove it, I’m sure that could’ve saved The Enchantress of Florence.

 


 

Rushdie visited Seattle recently, where he talked a little bit about The Enchantress of Florence and a lot about politics, both of the famous fatwah against him and the U.S. This was in response to questions, but given how little he spoke about his work and how little I thought of the book, I don’t have anything to write about that hasn’t been written about in more depth elsewhere. Search Google for his name, and you can’t help finding more concerning politics than books.

New workspace

A year and a half ago, I uploaded a picture of my writing space. Things have changed, and Nigel Beale’s challenge inspires me to post another:

Notable features include an Aeron, the ultimate chair, ink bottles, a backup hard drive used with Time Machine, a gargantuan, wonderful iMac, and a Unicomp Customizer keyboard that inspired this rave—it’s now the most trafficked post on my site.

From Nigel’s blog I went to the Guardian and found out that Alain de Botton has an Aeron too, which obviously enhances the psychic connection established when I shook his hand and discussed Cooper Minis with him in Seattle. His fun novel Kiss & Tell was on my senior year AP English exam.

Notice also the ink bottles hiding between the lamp, book, and base of the computer. I have an anachronistic bend toward fountain pens, and these days I most often use an ink mix of Noodler’s luxury blue blended with Diamine Mediterranean Blue. Juxtaposing inks that Chaucer might have recognized with the computer he probably would not seems an appropriate homage to old and new.

I’d post bookshelves pictures too were my books not substantially packed in preparation for moving.

How Fiction Works, and how this review doesn't

I keep citing James Wood’s How Fiction Works without writing about it directly because the book feels so whole that it lacks the typical cracks that offer handholds. It asks the right questions and, inevitably, can only offer partial answers, but those answers are far more illuminating than almost anyone else’s, and its contents are encapsulated by the epigraph: ‘There is only one recipe – to care a great deal for the cookery.’ Henry James said, and James Wood lives it.

For reasons opaque to me this book hasn’t come out in the United States yet and won’t in July, yet it seemed essential enough to buy it from the U.K., and now I perceive that decision as a wise one. How Fiction Works joins good company stretching back at least to E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, which is addressed, and it goes beyond that—the book is part how-to, part criticism, part literary theory, and part history, and all the whole is greater than their sum, offering much to almost every reader. If that weren’t enough, it also comes with potential reading list—for example, the affection Wood, along with Jane Smiley and others, shows toward Henry Green makes me realize I should read him. Some writers—like Dawn Powell and William Maxwell—seem destined to be remembered only by other writers, their secrets moving through the years with only thin strands connecting them from person to person, forgotten by teachers, academics, and other keepers of the past. I wish I had more than two short paragraphs to say, but this is the rare book that I can only recommend you read, and then perhaps you will understand why. The reviews I’ve seen so far—representative samples are here and here, though this is better—so miss their target, or at least so fail to really engage it, that I hesitate to add to clamor, rather than music. The critic whose writing is consistently music instead of bombast is too rare, and consequently, I encourage you to listen.

How Fiction Works, and how this review doesn’t

I keep citing James Wood’s How Fiction Works without writing about it directly because the book feels so whole that it lacks the typical cracks that offer handholds. It asks the right questions and, inevitably, can only offer partial answers, but those answers are far more illuminating than almost anyone else’s, and its contents are encapsulated by the epigraph: ‘There is only one recipe – to care a great deal for the cookery.’ Henry James said, and James Wood lives it.

For reasons opaque to me this book hasn’t come out in the United States yet and won’t in July, yet it seemed essential enough to buy it from the U.K., and now I perceive that decision as a wise one. How Fiction Works joins good company stretching back at least to E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, which is addressed, and it goes beyond that—the book is part how-to, part criticism, part literary theory, and part history, and all the whole is greater than their sum, offering much to almost every reader. If that weren’t enough, it also comes with potential reading list—for example, the affection Wood, along with Jane Smiley and others, shows toward Henry Green makes me realize I should read him. Some writers—like Dawn Powell and William Maxwell—seem destined to be remembered only by other writers, their secrets moving through the years with only thin strands connecting them from person to person, forgotten by teachers, academics, and other keepers of the past. I wish I had more than two short paragraphs to say, but this is the rare book that I can only recommend you read, and then perhaps you will understand why. The reviews I’ve seen so far—representative samples are here and here, though this is better—so miss their target, or at least so fail to really engage it, that I hesitate to add to clamor, rather than music. The critic whose writing is consistently music instead of bombast is too rare, and consequently, I encourage you to listen.

J.K. Rowling, sexism, and literary merit

Colleen Lindsay’s The Swivet is worth reading, and from it comes an article about women in science fiction and fantasy that uses Harry Potter as a launching pad to argue that sexism animates some attacks on Harry Potter and female science fiction and fantasy authors more generally. I don’t think it motivates Bloom’s criticism of Harry Potter, and it certainly doesn’t motivate mine. The first two novels, which I read, weren’t all very good because they were cliché-laden and deprived of magic sentences. Why they’re so much more popular than the rest of the voluminous fantasy pile is unclear, and I attribute it to the vagaries and mysteries of books and place. Alas, some attackers of Rowling are fools, like at least one Harvard student:

Writing in the university paper, the Harvard Crimson, student Adam Goldenberg rips into Rowling as “a flash in the pan”, “a petty pop culture personality” who “tricked parents into letting their kids read books filled with sex, murder, and homosexual role models”. Furthermore, “writing bedtime stories is lame”.

One can, however, reach the right conclusion—that Harry Potter isn’t very good—using faulty reasoning, and just because someone uses faulty reasoning doesn’t mean their conclusion is incorrect in and of itself. If the article wanted to make a larger point not by citing Harry Potter, but one of the less-known female fantasy writers it deals with in the fourth paragraph—none of whom I know well enough to comment on.

I suppose that, being male, my argument could somehow be latent sexism emerging, though it seems unlikely given that one of the greatest fantasy, science, and speculative fiction writers of all time is Ursula K. Le Guin, who I used as an example of one of the few transcendent science fiction writers. Jane Smiley is one of my favorite modern writers—her work is uneven, but Moo and A Thousand Acres are excellent—and Flannery O’Connor’s short stories and novellas are masterpieces. Perhaps the “subtle mechanism” described only applies to fantasy and science fiction, but even there I’m not sure it’s truly at work, and separating where the many legitimate attacks on Rowling end and the possible sexism begins isn’t an easy task. Because there are so many legitimate attacks to be made, I’m not sure it can be done save through critics aren’t all that serious in the first place.

As long Rowling is in the air, I will give her credit for her commencement speech at Harvard, which has gotten a tremendous amount of deserved attention in blogs and the media: it’s funny and deep, while the temptation to keep throwing on positive adjectives is difficult to resist. I only wish Harry Potter had been up to the standards of that speech, in which case this post wouldn’t have been written.

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