The Book of Ebenezer Le Page

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page is the kid you didn’t really want to befriend in middle school but liked well enough as a harmless oddity. The novel is a long account of Ebenezer Le Page’s life , a resident on Guernsey, a Channel Island. Le Page’s glory days, such as they are, occur mostly in the first half of the twentieth century and come slightly before the author’s, as G.B. Edwards died in 1976 with his only novel unpublished. This edition comes from The New York Review of Books, which appears to be using the story as part of the novel’s appeal.

Le Page is an insular man with some folk wisdom; he notes that “I have never known the rights and the wrongs [of some Guernsey residents…] That’s the trouble of trying to write the true story of my relations; or of myself, for that matter.” On the page opposite, he is merely strange: “I like my two china dogs. When I write down anything wicked, one of them look very serious; but the other one, he wink.” This lack of pluralization is apparently an example of the Guernsey patois, and it becomes comprehensible and even normal over the course of the novel. As for the china dogs, their symbolic appeal is obvious, though whether the narrator understands is not.

Among these bursts of ideas, however, are along recitations of occurrences on Guernsey. They become tedious as we learn about the couplings (mostly in marriage) and uncouplings (mostly not) of the people of Guernsey, and the results of this action. But I could never come to care about either, and to me the land itself and how it shaped the people seemed more interesting than its inhabitants. Oddly enough, I saw Guernsey mentioned in The Wall Street Journal not long after finishing the novel:

Though it’s registered in Guernsey, U.K., and trades in Amsterdam, Carlyle Group runs Carlyle Capital out of its New York offices. Early Thursday in Amsterdam, the shares plunged 70% to $0.83 each. The stock has lost around 83% since the company first disclosed its funding problems last week.

These would be the financial types Le Page rails against for changing his island from a rural, inward focused area to a hot tourist and financier destination. Guernsey’s former dialect seems to have been absorbed into general English and French since the events of the novel, and the destruction of its linguistic character seems unfortunate if inevitable. But maybe it will also reduce some of the smug satisfaction of residents like le Page, who learns he can’t sell his gold easily because of restrictions placed by Britain. In response, he says: “‘The balance of Credit? […] I haven’t the vaguest idea what that mean; but I do know whoever it was made that law are a lot of rogues and vagabonds! I worked for every penny of those sovereigns!’ I was real angry.” Maybe so, but even justified ignorance is seldom attractive, it should also be noted that the dropped words are in the original. On the same day, le Page says: “I slept like a log and woke up late.” The somewhat pleasing alliteration is not enough to make up for the cliche. It’s one I don’t think I’d see in Robertson Davies, who is an obvious comparison to Edwards in content and, to a lesser extent, style. In content the two share an interest in the rural and somewhat isolated products of Britain. But Davies became the better writer, though his Salterton Trilogy was weaker than much of his later work. Had Edwards produced later works, he might have shown the same upward trajectory, but we are left with an original novel that makes me wish it had led to second, third, and fourth novels that rendered this one a footnote in Edwards’ career.

Seattle visits from Price and Ferris

Richard Price will be at Elliott Bay Books on Friday, March 21 at 7:30; he’s the author of Clockers, which I haven’t read but the National Book Critics Circle loves, Ladies’ Man, which I read but didn’t love, and, most recently, Lush Life, which I plan to read and the New York Times loves.

Joshua Ferris will also be at Elliott Bay, but on Monday, March 24 at 7:30; he wrote Then We Came to the End.

Barring disaster, I’ll be at both.

The Magus

John Fowles’ The Magus is one-third to half again as long as it should be; that it is among the most uneven novels I’ve read is, I think, a consequent of length. At places its greatness nearly overwhelms, while in others melodramatic banality utterly underwhelms. I think the latter is a symptom of length and the necessity of having numerous reversals of character psychology. Each time we think the narrator, Nicholas, has uncovered the truth of the characters’ interactions, yet another layer emerges. Over time this became tedious, as declarations of love were made—again—only to have me glance at the thick stack of pages remaining and know without even needing to guess that the would-be lovers are not about to sail off the Greek island, back to England, and embark on raising two kids in the suburbs. Incidentally, this problem does argue well for something like the Kindle if for no other reason than not having a page count might maintain suspense, especially because so many sections in The Magus felt like they heralded “The End” only to have the marathon continue to the point of punishment.

The Magus begins with the end of a love affair between Nicholas and Alison, which coincides with a strange offer for Nicholas to teach at a boys’ school on a Greek remote island. The offer is taken and the affair ends, or perhaps the other way around, as it’s hard to track the order of events in a novel where so much and so little happens. Causes and effects become entangled somewhere towards the middle, when you lose track of what’s known and what isn’t and who has declared love and retracted it and who will again. Much of this is intentional: Nicholas takes the job and is entreated by a strange man who would be named Prospero if the Shakespeare allusion weren’t too obvious. Instead his name is Conchis, and he runs a game/theater on Phraxos, which appears to be a fictional island. I’m willing to roll with the premise, though I’ve yet to run into a megalomaniacal rich person who wants to play twisted emotional games with real people, which should be relatively easy given Seattle’s proximity to Microsoft. But I’ll assume that such people exist and that they have enough manipulation for 656 pages.

Like Nicholas, I kept getting caught on an unseen bramble when I came to passages like “The old man had surrendered” (359) or “‘It’s how you made me feel'” (363), only to know that all wasn’t well because of aforementioned stack of 300 pages left. All that is after a woman declares, “‘I don’t know what I feel, Nicholas. Except that I want you to feel like that'” (355). Ah, yes: the hardest travel of all is to the heart, but The Magus is a travel novel for what happens to its characters and because it would be an excellent companion—it’s fairly compact but very long and would be marvelous in exotic places like the ones it describes. In addition, you would have some opportunity to forget or forgive the more ridiculous passages and savor the meatier ones. The melodrama wouldn’t gall as much, and the overly cute bits could be taken with the seriousness they appear to shoot for. The Magus is clever but takes too many pains to be clever: I understand the commentary it makes implicitly and explicitly about the shimmering, leaping, uncertain border between life and art, but I just wish it weren’t so damn annoying about it. And that the characters would just get it on or break it off already.

Finally, on a personal note, the oddest thing about The Magus for me was the eerie resonance some passages had with some of the writing I’ve been working on. Especially in first third of The Magus, I kept having to shake off the bizarre feeling of being preceded by an author I’d never read and knew little about. And yet my novel is done, and so to find aspects of it in The Magus unsettles. But I do think I avoided many of its pitfalls and kept some of the qualities that made The Magus delightful.

Ladies' Man

Repulsive characters go a long way back before 1978, but I can’t help noticing the peculiar slime of a guy whose girlfriend has a 105 degree temperature, and then says: “She fell asleep in my arms and I lay there furious because she didn’t acknowledge my sacrifice, the comforting strength of my goddamn presence. I wanted her to say ‘Thank you’ or ‘I don’t know what I’d do without you’ or ‘Oh, Kenny’ or something […]'” Richard Price’s Ladies’ Man spans a week, and this thought occurs on Friday, but the object of his objection has already dumped him in more a de facto than de jure manner on Monday or Tuesday. Like Kenny, the narrator, I found it difficult to remember what happened on what day. This is in part because nothing major happens to him, in the physical, emotional, or intellectual worlds, though a man who thinks: “It was my ‘leisure’ time and I was blowing it. What leisure time? That’s all I had was leisure time” is an unlikely person to have a great epiphany.

Like Ladies’ Man, however, Kenny is not without some redeeming qualities; he “pretend[s] to watch a basketball game which had orange guys against green guys.” This predates The Onion’s hilarious, “You Will Suffer Humiliation When The Sports Team From My Area Defeats The Sports Team From Your Area,” which covers the same territory. But his lack of interest in basketball mirrors his lack of interest in most of the rest of his life, and he’s so ironic and distant and above the fray that I wonder if we should care about Kenny only as much as he cares about everything else. Even his relative humanity is insincere:

Nothing heavy. Just misty sadness. It was over. It had been the best and now it was over and nothing had ever felt as good. We had peaked back then, and all we’d been doing since was dying.

This is a 30-year-old reminiscing about sweaty high school makeouts. He’s self-indulgent in other ways: “No wonder I was so goddamn lonely. Friends, man. I didn’t have any fucking friends. And friends were the bottom line.” Well, yes, and we get 264 pages demonstrating exactly why Kenny has no friends. What’s he going to do when he’s, say, 50? Perhaps read The Sea, which is at least a higher level of melancholy wistfulness. Oh, and Max Morden is as nicer a person than Kenny as a golden retriever is a nicer animal than a cobra. One woman who Kenny picks up feels his bite, although it is one of indifference rather than venom. For a character with vastly greater self-absorption than Kenny who is also vastly less constrained by society, try John Self in Money, who is the king of these weak anti-Hemingways who are also created by Price, Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis.

I mention Hemingway because all three writers use devolved versions of his characters and prose. Kenny speaks without the classical background of Jake in The Sun Also Rises, and he has none of the restraint or passion of the characters in that book. Still, he whips out the occasional great metaphor in the pulp style: “For eighteen years that sound was an unnoticeable to me as my heartbeat” or “he had enough chest hair for a national park.” You can hear Elmore Leonard, or one of his models, George Higgins. These metaphors can’t redeem a long, awkward sex scene and lots of navel gazing or a character who can’t figure out that perhaps assholes are the only people who think everyone else is an asshole, as Kenny does at a bar: “Loud, suburban contractors and their wives, drunk Texans, Jap businessmen, medical students; assholes, all assholes.” We’ve been feeling scorn for the bourgeoise since Flaubert if not earlier, but now we have someone who doesn’t even recognize where his opinions come from, despite alluding to Joseph Conrad.

Kenny says things like “‘How many zorts that set you back?'” and wallows in the detritus of TV pop culture. Yes, we get it, but as the cliche goes, lie down with dogs and wake up with flees. Kenny, however, lacks the consciousness to realize this.

I read Ladies’ Man because I’d heard about Price’s Clockers and his new novel, Lush Life, both of which have been favorably compared to Ladies’ Man. I’ve read neither yet but intend to: Ladies’ Man is not without artistic redemption, and it sounds like Price’s bigger, better novels are worthier. Whether they live up to expectations remains to be seen.

Ladies’ Man

Repulsive characters go a long way back before 1978, but I can’t help noticing the peculiar slime of a guy whose girlfriend has a 105 degree temperature, and then says: “She fell asleep in my arms and I lay there furious because she didn’t acknowledge my sacrifice, the comforting strength of my goddamn presence. I wanted her to say ‘Thank you’ or ‘I don’t know what I’d do without you’ or ‘Oh, Kenny’ or something […]'” Richard Price’s Ladies’ Man spans a week, and this thought occurs on Friday, but the object of his objection has already dumped him in more a de facto than de jure manner on Monday or Tuesday. Like Kenny, the narrator, I found it difficult to remember what happened on what day. This is in part because nothing major happens to him, in the physical, emotional, or intellectual worlds, though a man who thinks: “It was my ‘leisure’ time and I was blowing it. What leisure time? That’s all I had was leisure time” is an unlikely person to have a great epiphany.

Like Ladies’ Man, however, Kenny is not without some redeeming qualities; he “pretend[s] to watch a basketball game which had orange guys against green guys.” This predates The Onion’s hilarious, “You Will Suffer Humiliation When The Sports Team From My Area Defeats The Sports Team From Your Area,” which covers the same territory. But his lack of interest in basketball mirrors his lack of interest in most of the rest of his life, and he’s so ironic and distant and above the fray that I wonder if we should care about Kenny only as much as he cares about everything else. Even his relative humanity is insincere:

Nothing heavy. Just misty sadness. It was over. It had been the best and now it was over and nothing had ever felt as good. We had peaked back then, and all we’d been doing since was dying.

This is a 30-year-old reminiscing about sweaty high school makeouts. He’s self-indulgent in other ways: “No wonder I was so goddamn lonely. Friends, man. I didn’t have any fucking friends. And friends were the bottom line.” Well, yes, and we get 264 pages demonstrating exactly why Kenny has no friends. What’s he going to do when he’s, say, 50? Perhaps read The Sea, which is at least a higher level of melancholy wistfulness. Oh, and Max Morden is as nicer a person than Kenny as a golden retriever is a nicer animal than a cobra. One woman who Kenny picks up feels his bite, although it is one of indifference rather than venom. For a character with vastly greater self-absorption than Kenny who is also vastly less constrained by society, try John Self in Money, who is the king of these weak anti-Hemingways who are also created by Price, Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis.

I mention Hemingway because all three writers use devolved versions of his characters and prose. Kenny speaks without the classical background of Jake in The Sun Also Rises, and he has none of the restraint or passion of the characters in that book. Still, he whips out the occasional great metaphor in the pulp style: “For eighteen years that sound was an unnoticeable to me as my heartbeat” or “he had enough chest hair for a national park.” You can hear Elmore Leonard, or one of his models, George Higgins. These metaphors can’t redeem a long, awkward sex scene and lots of navel gazing or a character who can’t figure out that perhaps assholes are the only people who think everyone else is an asshole, as Kenny does at a bar: “Loud, suburban contractors and their wives, drunk Texans, Jap businessmen, medical students; assholes, all assholes.” We’ve been feeling scorn for the bourgeoise since Flaubert if not earlier, but now we have someone who doesn’t even recognize where his opinions come from, despite alluding to Joseph Conrad.

Kenny says things like “‘How many zorts that set you back?'” and wallows in the detritus of TV pop culture. Yes, we get it, but as the cliche goes, lie down with dogs and wake up with flees. Kenny, however, lacks the consciousness to realize this.

I read Ladies’ Man because I’d heard about Price’s Clockers and his new novel, Lush Life, both of which have been favorably compared to Ladies’ Man. I’ve read neither yet but intend to: Ladies’ Man is not without artistic redemption, and it sounds like Price’s bigger, better novels are worthier. Whether they live up to expectations remains to be seen.

Romeo and Juliet at the Balagan Theatre

I kept expecting to hear a car backfire at the Balagan Theatre’s production of “Romeo and Juliet”, as the stage was in a basement reminiscent of a garage. This is not a bad thing: I liked the intimate space and the fact that they sell beer you can drink in the theatre. It feels more like being in the Globe, and, in addition, there’s something to be said for being just a foot or two from the action; I could see that Romeo’s shoes needed to be polished. There was no set and few props; a pillar was covered by what appeared to be actors’ copies of Titus Andronicus. The explanation came when Romeo (Banton Foster) ripped another few pages and pasted them on the “sycamore” (“A troubled mind drave me to walk abroad; / Where, underneath the grove of sycamore” Benvolio says). Romeo apparently tore pages from the book to show himself a melancholy artist in the Romantic mode; as portrayed here, he is a dreamy undergrad.

A few other choices surprised me: the nurse played the fool, and Tybalt (Mark Carr) was banal. In contrast, Mercutio (Ryan Higgins) lived up to his name, provided comic relief, and his death was much mourned by this audience member. The costumes went all over the twentieth century, from Paris in a tuxedo to Mercutio in a track suit to a plain yellow dress with black leggings on Juliet (Allison Strickland) to generic hipster clothes on many others. Still, Mercutio and Juliet transcended their costumes. Juliet was the obvious leader here, leading teasing, and enticing Romeo; together the two played being teenagers well, and I could see the walls of Verona being for Romeo what the walls of high school are for others. I also hadn’t realized just how narcissistic Romeo is, with much of his speech focused on himself and even his speech superficially focused on Juliet only going through the lens of his eyes.

But the adults’ coldness and cruelty shone through as well, and they were perhaps worse than the passionate youth, who are encouraged by their elders’ grudges. I’m reminded of the old version of Planet of the Apes, which implies no one over 30 should be trusted. The poison of their beliefs works its way through Shakespeare’s language, although discussing that fully is a longer essay than I care to write here, and you’re better off hearing the play from actors than reading about it on the screen or page. You could do worse than seeing it at the Balagan.

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