On Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep

The Magicians reminded me enough of Prep in that both deal with what are effectively high school societies, and yet both somehow manage to transcend those societies into something more that I reread Sittenfeld’s book. Although both might lag a bit in the middle, their ends make up for them. Prep is uneven, Lee’s laboriously analyzing of the financial and social intertwining of status at Ault can become tedious, but the final chapter is stunning in its emotional payoff in a way that isn’t predictable early on.

For example, at a needlessly awkward student teacher conference—actually, “needlessly awkward” could summarize most of Lee’s high school experience, though she only realizes it in the novel’s last pages—a teacher winks and Lee thinks:

What was I supposed to do back? Didn’t she realize that this wasn’t a movie about boarding school, where the student and the teacher could have a little burst of chumminess and then it would cut to another scene, like the student at soccer practice or the teacher riding her bike back to her cottage on the edge of campus? No, we were still in the same room, both of us having to breathe and speak in the aftermath of her wink.

Sometimes, Lee, a wink is just a wink and the optimal strategy involves shrugging off what you perceive as a social protocol violation. Social protocols are there to make interaction easier and more predictable, and when they fail, they should be discarded: perhaps one issue in being a teenager is learning how to build new social protocols and transcend old ones. She could have learned that here and applied it later. But it’s her failure to learn from the incident with her teacher that’s most notable: adolescent Lee, although she’s being viewed from the future, doesn’t imbibe what she should imbibe—not until much later. That somewhat sophisticated point of view works incredibly well for the novel, as it does in few others; Ian McEwan can pull off variations of the same technique in On Chesil Beach and Atonement, but few others can.*

In another Prep moment that’s chilling for adults chiefly because of memory, rather than present conditions, Lee is trying to evaluate where she stands with a guy. Her roommate observes, “You need to talk to Cross […] You’re allowed to ask him stuff, Lee. And, at this point, what is there to lose?” The question is being asked during their senior year, but even during Lee’s freshmen year, the answer would still have been the same: nothing. Nothing at all. But Lee doesn’t realize it, not until those final two pages that are more than worth all that comes before, much of which is a delight anyway.


* McEwan also, I sense, feels a greater moral obligation to write well, but that’s only based on a comparison to Sittenfeld’s Prep: I haven’t read any of her other work.

On Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep

The Magicians reminded me enough of Prep in that both deal with what are effectively high school societies, and yet both somehow manage to transcend those societies into something more that I reread Sittenfeld’s book. Although both might lag a bit in the middle, their ends make up for them. Prep is uneven, Lee’s laboriously analyzing of the financial and social intertwining of status at Ault can become tedious, but the final chapter is stunning in its emotional payoff in a way that isn’t predictable early on.

For example, at a needlessly awkward student teacher conference—actually, “needlessly awkward” could summarize most of Lee’s high school experience, though she only realizes it in the novel’s last pages—a teacher winks and Lee thinks:

What was I supposed to do back? Didn’t she realize that this wasn’t a movie about boarding school, where the student and the teacher could have a little burst of chumminess and then it would cut to another scene, like the student at soccer practice or the teacher riding her bike back to her cottage on the edge of campus? No, we were still in the same room, both of us having to breathe and speak in the aftermath of her wink.

Sometimes, Lee, a wink is just a wink and the optimal strategy involves shrugging off what you perceive as a social protocol violation. Social protocols are there to make interaction easier and more predictable, and when they fail, they should be discarded: perhaps one issue in being a teenager is learning how to build new social protocols and transcend old ones. She could have learned that here and applied it later. But it’s her failure to learn from the incident with her teacher that’s most notable: adolescent Lee, although she’s being viewed from the future, doesn’t imbibe what she should imbibe—not until much later. That somewhat sophisticated point of view works incredibly well for the novel, as it does in few others; Ian McEwan can pull off variations of the same technique in On Chesil Beach and Atonement, but few others can.*

In another Prep moment that’s chilling for adults chiefly because of memory, rather than present conditions, Lee is trying to evaluate where she stands with a guy. Her roommate observes, “You need to talk to Cross […] You’re allowed to ask him stuff, Lee. And, at this point, what is there to lose?” The question is being asked during their senior year, but even during Lee’s freshmen year, the answer would still have been the same: nothing. Nothing at all. But Lee doesn’t realize it, not until those final two pages that are more than worth all that comes before, much of which is a delight anyway.


* McEwan also feels a great moral obligation to write well, but that’s only based on a comparison to Sittenfeld’s Prep: I haven’t read any of her other work.

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.

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