The Innocent — Ian McEwan

The Innocent is deceptively brilliant: for at least the first half of the novel it seems slight, thrillerish without the thrills, about a weakling and pushed-around fool. In the second half it explodes. The character violations that would normally damn the book instead make sense yet aren’t anticipated in advance, at least by me; much of the story is shockingly tense in ways that shouldn’t be. McEwan is very good at delayed resolution and gratification in a way most literary writers aren’t.

There are many essays to be written about The Innocent’s subtleties: about secrets, about sexuality, about the role of the unexpected, about fear, about pride, about loss, about the collision between fantasy and reality, about the instability of personality and its unpredictable development.

McEwan_The_innocentFirework sentences—the ones with elaborate metaphors or epiphanies or rhetoric—are relatively few, but almost all of them hum along and even the mundane sentences like “Maria reached for her skirt and blouse” are often given menace by their context. “Relatively few” does not mean none and some of the obvious ones stand out: “Leonard Marnham [. . . ] had never actually met an American to talk to, but he had studied them in depth at his local Odeon.” An Odeon is a great way to study foreign cultures, of course, a sort of science lab for the soul. Of Maria’s parents, she thinks or explains that “They still resented their daughter for the marriage she had made at twenty against their wishes, and took no satisfaction in the fulfillment of all their worst predictions.” Most of us find our prophecies wrong of failed.

Leonard is the innocent of the title, who discovers emotion at the behest of a woman. He is beset by apparently important work that conflicts with an inner life newly freed from his parents and the constraints of home, and after he meets Maria he thinks that “He knew that if only he had a little more leisure and were a little less tired he could be obsessed, he could be a man in love.” As if he plays a role: he could be “a man in love,” instead of more directly saying that he loves Maria. He needs that mediating, cultural desire to feel his own at this early stage of his development. As the novel proceeds things naturally change.

Without giving anything I’ll also note that the novel uses McEwan’s characteristic end-stage “zoom” effect, in which decades elapse in the final pages. Such a change is disconcerting, disconsoling—yet appropriate. It is brutal but in an acceptable way, or maybe just melancholy.

Here is James Wood on McEwan, though Wood does not share my love of plot. Here is Daniel Zalewski in The New Yorker.

Links: James Wood, news and fiction, sexuality and narrative, the paperback, bars and babysitting

* James Wood: “On Not Going Home.”

* “Is the News Replacing Literature?” Unlikely, but high-quality analysis of the news often has a literary quality. But quantity still has a quality all its own and writing 800 words, 8,000 words, and 80,000 words are all very different beasts and having written pieces of all three lengths I can say that what works at one length won’t at another.

I’m also fond of saying that not-very-good nonfiction can still be useful while not-very-good fiction rarely is.

* Someone on Reddit “capture[s] the vagaries of sexual consent through a series of personal stories;” many people have such stories but few share them widely, for obvious reasons. See also “The power of conventional narratives and the great lie.”

* The tooth fairy and the traditionality of modernity.

* “How Paperbacks Transformed the Way Americans Read;” ebooks are now doing something analogous.

* Smartphone sales growth slows, presumably for obvious reasons: when I first got one I used it for the same stuff everyone else does: maps, looking up random stuff, sending/receiving naked pictures, listening to music, and maybe one or two other things. With the model I have now I do basically the same stuff, as well as find Citi Bike locations and coffee shops. The new version does some of those things slightly better / faster, but were it not a business expense I doubt I’d bother.

* “Bars are too loud and cafes too quiet.” Mostly, bars are too loud.

* “My bad baby sitters year;” mostly a lost world, especially when it comes to finding forbidden objects / photos.

We all become close readers in romance

That evening, as he was returning home, Charles took up again one by one the words she had used, trying to recall them, to complete their meaning, in order to re-create for himself the portion of her life that she had lived during the time when he did not yet know her. But he could never see her, in his mind, differently from the way he had seen her the first time, or the way had just left her.

We all become close readers in romance, where words matter so much and yet are never sufficient. Charles is speaking early in Madame Bovary, which feels shockingly modern (especially read in conjunction with How Fiction Works); most capital-C Classics don’t. Lydia Davis’s introduction is helpful.

Novels in which I root for everyone and no one at the same time are rare, and rarer still in a novel in which most characters express commonplace sentiments like Charles’s. Those ideas work in the context of Madame Bovary. I wonder how and maybe always will.

All of us have had the moments of trying to take “up again one by one the words she had used,” although the gender pronoun will change based on orientation, and all of us have had those words feel inadequate as we try to “complete their meaning”—an infinite amount of commentary can’t complete meaning. In romance and art this is especially painful until it is accepted.

Warning: Don’t buy James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure: (Techniques And Exercises For Crafting A Plot That Grips Readers From Start To Finish)

I bought Plot & Structure because the issue of how a novel’s narrative moves seems to be understudied by academics, who tend to produce jargon-laden, overly analytical nonsense, and by novelists themselves. I’d really like an equivalent of How Fiction Works, but for an important matter that James Wood disdains (“the novel soon showed itself willing to surrender the essential juvenility of plot”). My ideal book would, as Wood says, ask “a critic’s questions and [offer] a writer’s answers.”

Unfortunately, Bell asks few questions and offers fewer answers. This is frustrating to me because, when I started writing, plot was a major weakness. The first two novels I actually wrote to completion had no real plots and thus weren’t very good novels (my Dad pointed out the former and let me infer the latter). Since then I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about plot, and being dissatisfied that I’ve never seen it addressed well elsewhere. Self-consciously literary writers and critics tend to discount it (as Wood does), sometimes to the detriment of their own work.

Genre writers tend to understand plot but either aren’t known to me, critically speaking, or write so poorly on a sentence-by-sentence level that their work isn’t interesting. To me, the best novels combine plot/story and language in a single, cohesive package. That, however, is difficult to do, and the difficulty may explain why we see so many arid academic-feeling novels about, oh, I don’t know, language and pure consciousness and What It Means To Be Alive Today, while so many genre novels with ticking bombs and handsome heroes and buxom heroines who put out surprisingly easily and simple words laid out in simple ways that won’t confuse anyone.

Not only is this dearth annoying because of my own flaws, but because I can’t point aspiring writers to a particular book and say, “Read this.” I can talk about some of my own techniques—I’ve written plot outlines for a number of books I admire, like an artist tracing his favorite paintings in order to imbibe their spirit and technique. With scenes, I’ve learned to ask what each character wants, what stands in his or her way, and why he or she is doing to overcome that barrier. I don’t always have answers—the characters often don’t have them, either—but at least asking the questions provides some structure to what might otherwise be a misaligned mess.

One can’t, of course, separate plot from character, setting, narrating, and other technical features in a novel. It would be stupid to try. But plot is a great blindspot in Wood’s criticism, and it’s a blind spot I aspire to see, or to see someone else seeing.

Bell, however, is blind.

Links: Back to Blood and James Wood, Amazon wipes Kindle account, school reform, computing, the female social matrix, and more

* “‘Back to Blood’: Tom Wolfe forgot his own rules: Almost 25 years ago, the author made a case for the realist novel. His silly new book suggests he should reread it.” In other Wolfe news, James Wood doesn’t like it either, although “doesn’t like it” is a pretty stupid phrase, but I can’t find or fashion one better at the moment: Wood’s review is really about how free-indirect speech, registers, and personality function not just in this novel, but in The Novel.

* “A couple of days a go, my friend Linn sent me an e-mail, being very frustrated: Amazon just closed her account and wiped her Kindle. Without notice. Without explanation. This is DRM at it’s worst.” Until there are more robust legal or contractual guarantees on Kindle books, I’ll remain reluctant to buy them. On the other hand, as of this writing, it’s possible to strip the DRM from your ebooks. And it works!

* “Why school reform is impossible.” Maybe.

* “As we watch computing become a central part of the language of science, communication, and even the arts and humanities, we will realize that students need to learn to read and write code because — without that skill — they are left out of the future.

* The Female Social Matrix: An Introduction.

* This is the Era of Nuclear Rejections.

* “How American Health Care Killed My Father,” and what to do about it. Unfortunately, we haven’t done the things we should have done and should be doing, as discussed in the article.

* “Write My Essay, Please! These days, students can hire online companies to do all their coursework, from papers to final exams. Is this ethical, or even legal?” This supports Bryan Caplan’s theory that much of education is about signaling.

Reading How Fiction Works

I finished re-reading How Fiction Works a couple days ago—it is always a good time to re-read How Fiction Works—and realized that, every time I read it, I recognize a few more of the author-characters it mentions. This time, Effi Briest caught my eye: what was once another blank reference, noted and moved past, had now become freighted with meanings and impressions. The experience reminded me of how I used to feel going into bookstores or libraries. The real question for the younger me was, “How can anyone possibly make decisions among ten of thousands of choices?” There were so many books with authors I’d never heard of. How do you find the one you want to read among all of them? By reading thousands of dust jackets?

Now, I scan the shelves of bookstores and see more than names and cover art: this writer I’ve already read and didn’t like; this one I’ve already read and liked, but I’ve read all her work; this one I heard about through a blog post; this other one appeared on Bookworm and made his book sound boring. The challenge has changed from merely knowing something about what’s on the shelves to finding something I could actually want to read among many books I know I don’t want to read.

When I first read How Fiction Works in 2008, I didn’t stop at every reference to an author I didn’t know because I never would’ve gotten through the damn thing. Plus, as much as I love Wood’s criticism, I’ve also realized how different our tastes are; Wood quotes from Adam Smith writing in the eighteenth century regarding how writers use suspense to keep interest and says, “But the novel soon showed itself willing to surrender the essential juvenility of plot […]” I find that deeply wrong: a novel without plot is veering close to badly done philosophy. So many, though by no means all, of the novels he loves aren’t likely to have much in the way of plot. When I read amateur writing, I often notice the lack of any plot and often suggest the writer think about things like what the main character is reacting to, what the main character wants and why he can’t get it, what subsidiary characters want, and so on. A writer doesn’t, of course, need to be able to answer every one of those questions, but I get the impression a lot of beginning writers don’t ask them.

Wood actually comes very close to suggesting something similar when he writes

The unpractised novelist cleaves to the static, because it is much easier to describe than the mobile: it is getting these people out of the aspic of arrest and mobilised in a scene that is hard. When I encounter a prolonged ekphrasis like the parody above, I worry, suspecting that the novelist is clinging to a handrail and is afraid to push out.

But Wood’s definition of “push out” is probably different from mine, even if the ailment he diagnoses is the same. And it’s amazing to realize just how many of the things I inchoately knew before I read How Fiction Works are discussed, described, dissected, elaborated in the book. And now, as I said, when I come back to it, I find my gaps in knowledge filled in. Here’s another example of that, this time dealing with a critic:

Gabriel Josipovici discusses Beckett in [. . .] On Trust (2000). He points out that Foucault liked to quote from The Unnameable, as evidence of the death of the author: ‘No matter who is speaking, someone says, no matter who is speaking,’ wrote Beckett. Josipovici comments that Foucault forgets that ‘it is not Beckett saying this but one of his characters, and that the point about that character is that he is desperately seeking to discover who speaks, to recover himself as more than a string of words, to wrest an “I” from “someone says”.’

Gabriel Josipovici: he wrote Whatever Happened to Modernism?, a book I half-liked and wrote about at the link. Maybe one day I’ll read the book, recognize every reference, and wonder whatever happened to that person who first read it in a relative fog.

Effi Briest — Theodore Fontane, with a side of James Wood and Samuel Delany’s Paris Review interview

Despite what I wrote in this post, I got a copy of Effi Briest. And you know what? I couldn’t finish it. There were some great lines—my favorite is Effi’s father saying, “There’s nothing so good for one as a wedding, provided of course it isn’t one’s own”—but I couldn’t take the rest, even though I stopped reading the very nice introduction by Helen Chambers after realizing it was prejudicing me against the book:

The sexual dimensions of the age gap [between Effi and her husband] remain beneath the surface of this discreet and allusive novel. They are suggested, as is much that is vital in the inner action, by the symbolic texture of the narrative. Effi’s sexual inexperience at the beginning of the novel is beyond question, and the premature loss of her virginity is prefigured by the twins calling her back to the garden through a window framed by Virginia Creeper

This explains why little seems to happen, since “remain beneath the surface” feels like another phrase for “buried so deeply that you need an even dirtier mind than mine to excavate it. In a Paris Review interview, Robertson Davies says:

I do not respond quite so immediately and warmly to writers in the United States, because their concerns are different from mine and their approach to them is different from mine. They seem to be infinitely concerned with very subtle details of feeling and life. I find this exemplified, for instance, in many stories in The New Yorker where whether the family will have pumpkin pie or something else on Thanksgiving Day is a decision with infinite psychological and sexual repercussions. I take this quite seriously. I admire their subtlety—but I get so sick of it. I wish they would deal with larger themes.

With enough subtlety, substance disappears, and I love his characterization of American Thanksgivings as portrayed in stories. Anyway, Chambers also says of Effi’s husband, “It seems that after years of self-discipline and mortification of the flesh Innstetten has regulated his natural urges into a state of atrophy.” In the margin I wrote, “Yawn,” a judgment that still seems reasonable a week later. Practically the entire text of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach could fit between the end of the wedding scene on page 26 and the next paragraph, which begins, “The day after the wedding was a bright October day,” as if one of the presumably major events of Effi’s life hadn’t just happened. And I’m not talking about the wedding.

I was thinking about Effi Briest when I read Samuel Delany’s Paris Review interview in the Summer 2011 issue. He talks about two characters in his work Nova who almost have an incestuous relationship. The interviewer begins this exchange:

Did you intentionally want to make something the reader could only speculate about, rather than be certain of?

Delany: Certainly as far as the incest goes. Suggestion is a literary strategy. But when, in 1968, works like Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring and Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover were legal to publish and sell in this country, the age of innuendo and the coyly placed line of white space, as the hero envelops the heroine in his arms, ended. Fifteen years later, AIDS rendered them permanently obsolete.

Today, I watch seminar rooms full of graduate students misread both [Alfred] Bester and [Joseph] Conrad, because they no longer have to wonder about the possibility of such illegal elements occurring in the story and the compensating possibility of suggestion as a writerly strategy for representing sex and violence.

I am one of those graduate students, and I evidently don’t have the exquisitely tuned sex detector that pre-’68 readers might have developed. This became especially clear in a seminar on Henry James’ The Golden Bowl, when one of my professors at the University of Arizona began to point out the many euphemisms and double entendres left by James, beginning with the name “Assingham” and proceeding from there. I mostly wondered what the big fuss was about, given the modesty of the phrases in questions, but I didn’t realize how generational my readings were until I discovered the Delany interview an hour ago.

Delany is right—I don’t have a lot of tolerance of “innuendo and the coyly placed line of white space.” That doesn’t mean I want every novel to be wildly explicit, or that I want pornography to merge with literary fiction, but it does mean that a lot of older books seem coy. Like Effi Briest. Today, when McEwan’s aforementioned novel takes those white spaces and turns them into entire works of their own, it’s hard to accept the white space, or an extraordinarily “discreet and allusive novel” where Virginia Creepers (or pumpkin pie) have “infinite psychological and sexual repercussions”

I didn’t expect to have my malady so accurately and suddenly diagnosed, however, and it wasn’t until I read Delany that I was able to write this post. He makes me want to be a more careful and considerate reader. Or maybe novels do have a sense of technological progression, or something like progress, or even progress itself. James Wood speculates on the subject in his review of Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered:

Does literature progress, like medicine or engineering? Nabokov seems to have thought so, and pointed out that Tolstoy, unlike Homer, was able to describe childbirth in convincing detail. Yet you could argue the opposite view; after all, no novelist strikes the modern reader as more Homeric than Tolstoy. [. . .] Perhaps it is as absurd to talk about progress in literature as it is to talk about progress in electricity—both are natural resources awaiting different forms of activation. The novel is peculiar in this respect, because while anyone painting today exactly like Courbet, or composing music exactly like Brahms, would be accounted a fraud or a forger, much contemporary fiction borrows the codes and conventions—the basic narrative grammar—of Flaubert or Balzac without essential alteration.

If literature progresses technologically, it still doesn’t do so in quite the same way as technology: no one would use a camera from 1925 unless they were a masochist, had a historical fetish, or were trying to achieve some very peculiar artistic effect. The rest of us use digital cameras manufactured in the last five years, or phones, given the obvious advantages of convenience. But many writers from 1925 still feel quite modern—Fitzgerald, most obviously, but many others too. Yet I don’t find that much 19th Century fiction really moves me (exceptions: Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter). Contemporary writers have a greater and perhaps infinite rein to express what they need to express, and by contrast older writers do seem coy, even if this is an unfair judgment on my part—or the kind of judgment that might be tempered by age. The more I think about the idea, the more I see how others have considered it. For example, this review of William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education is bizarre because it’s like reading about myself, right down to the love for Madame Bovary:

In 1990, William Deresiewicz was on his way to gaining a Ph.D. in English literature at Columbia University. Describing that time in the opening pages of his sharp, endearingly self-effacing new book, “A Jane Austen Education,” Deresiewicz explains that he faced one crucial obstacle. He loathed not just Jane Austen but the entire gang of 19th-century British novelists: Hardy, Dickens, Eliot . . . the lot.

At 26, Deresiewicz wasn’t experiencing the hatred born of surfeit that Mark Twain described when he told a friend, “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shinbone.” What Deresiewicz (who has considerable fun at the expense of his pompous younger self) was going through was the rebel phase in which Dostoyevsky rules Planet Gloom, that stage during which the best available image of marriage is a prison gate.

Sardonic students do not, as Deresiewicz points out, make suitable shrine-­tenders for a female novelist whose books, while short on wedding scenes, never skimp on proposals. Emma Bovary fulfilled all the young scholar’s expectations of literary culture at its finest; Emma Woodhouse left him cold. “Her life,” he lamented, “was impossibly narrow.” Her story, such as it was, “seemed to consist of nothing more than a lot of chitchat among a bunch of commonplace characters in a country village.” Hypochondriacal Mr. Woodhouse, garrulous Miss Bates — weren’t these just the sort of bores Deresiewicz had spent his college years struggling to avoid? Maybe, he describes himself conceding, the sole redeeming feature of smug Miss Woodhouse was that she seemed to share his distaste for the dull society of Highbury.

I’m 27. Maybe I’ll have considerable fun at the expense of my pompous younger self one day.

I bought A Jane Austen Education, which shouldn’t be surprising given my feelings about Deresiewicz. Maybe he will teach me to read Austen more kindly, more attentively (Wood has succeeded at least somewhat in that respect: his discussion of free indirect speech in How Fiction Works finally gave me the tools to figure out why people like Austen). I’m still not sure that it will bring Effi Briest to life, and even if it does, it might be more like reanimating a corpse (which, as genre fiction teaches us, is replete with dangers) than interacting with a live person.

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