A wonderful book that I finished about a week ago is the above titled novel in Iris Murdoch's large fictional output from the early fifties till the seventies or eighties. She is an amazing writer, and I'm so happy to find that I have about twenty more novels of hers waiting for me. I've only read two, "The Sea, the Sea" being the other. Both these novels are extended studies of unreliable narrators, both middle-aged men who fall in love obsessively, and late in life. Neither knows his love-object at all. The narrator of "The Sea, the Sea," decides that the little girl he grew up with is really the love of his life; he looks her up and finds she's been happily married to the same man for almost forty years, and is now an overweight, gray-haired grandmother. The narrator of "The Black Prince" is a pudgy middle-aged man who falls suddenly and irrevokably in love with his best friend's daughter, who's almost forty years younger than him.
Like the grandmother of the first book, this young woman is nothing special. This fact lends credence to the obsessive quality of these narrator's loves; they are almost totally one-sided. The grandmother doesn't return the narrator's love; in fact, she withdraws from him and wants to avoid him, thinking him predatory and dangerous. The same is true of the young girl in "The Black Prince." Both women feel that they are in danger of being suffocated, having their identities obliterated, by these men with their all-encompassing obsessions. Both women are spirited away by the narrators to lonely cottages by the sea and end up escaping, running back home to their families.
Murdoch captivates us through both novels by the puzzle of how much we can believe these narrators. Both books keep us turning pages to solve the mystery of who these men are, and how their obsessions will end? Both narrators could either be saints or monsters; they have moments when they personify both.
Murdock intensifies the question of how reliable is the narrator in the second book, the Black Prince, by first letting Bradley Pearson (BP) tell his own story, giving us his autobiography, and how his life suddenly changed by falling in love. And then we hear from the characters around him: his family and friends. They narrate their own opinions about him after he's been imprisoned, and we don't know whether their judgments of him as a monster are because he lied to us in his own narrative, or because he was formally judged as a criminal by a judge. If we believe BP's family and friends, then he's a criminal, deserving of his life-sentence. If, on the other hand, we believe BP, as I tended to do, then there's another criminal /monster in our midst, and BP is truly a saint because he has forgiven this person for framing him.
Read these amazing mysteries. They will keep you guessing till the last page, and their settings are seductive and inspiring. Despite the less than savory characters, you want to be there.
This novel, Lamb's second, came out ten years ago, and I never got around to reading it. But over Christmas, I spied it in a friend's bookshelf and borrowed it. I had liked Lamb's first book, "She's Come Undone," because of his emphasis on psychological growth in his characters.
This second novel covers the same territory, showing the main character's growth from childhood to middle-age, embodying the uplifting message that humans are capable of substantial changes in attitude at any age. This novel is narrated by Dominick, who has a twin brother, Thomas. Dominick's dominant emotion is anger, and his brother's is sweetness. So Dominick is aligned with his stepfather, "the last of the genuine tough guys," who fought in both WWII and Korea, and thinks all generations since his are full of spoiled weaklings. He regularly terrorizes his wife and kids, is a petty tyrant that they all tiptoe around. But he's easier on Dominick, because D. imitates his toughness, his anger. And so he reinforces the behavior.
Thomas shares his mother's sweetness, and the two have secret tea parties together after the boys come home from school. They post Dominick by the front window, to warn them when Dad is pulling into the drive. One evening, Dominick doesn't warn them, Dad finds a tea party in progress, and sweeps all the cups and tea things off the table in a rage, then takes a belt to poor Thomas to "toughen him up."
Both Dominick and Thomas grow up hating their stepfather, but that doesn't keep Dominick from blindly fashioning himself after him, imitating his angry retorts and bullying ways. It's not until he grows up and loses his child and is divorced by his wife, that he realizes he's no longer being served by that behavior. He stumbles into the world of psychiatrists and social-workers because of his brother's late-blooming mental illness, and - in trying to negotiate his brother's care, must tell his own story to his brother's psychiatrist. She ends up treating him as well, and we learn about how twins depend on each other, compensate for one another, and must eventually forge their own independence.
Dominick is a great narrator, speaking for an entire generation of baby-boomers whose anger at their parents simplistic John Wayne values erupted in the sixties, catalysing them to come up with something more fully human. Dominick realizes that he's spent untold energy avoiding the kind of sweetness that makes Thomas loveable. He finds it in himself, and finally lets it out, thereby winning back his estranged wife and eventually forgiving his stepfather.
For any reader fascinated with family dynamics and psychological growth, this book is un-put-downable. But be careful; it's thick, weighing in at almost 1000 pages. And another hesitation I had besides its length is Lamb's titles. I've had trouble remembering both of them, and I can't seem to even be able to recommend the book to friends without it right there, where I can check the title. It's a slight nitpick in an amazing work, but it's important.
And now another tidbit for readers. Yesterday I did a booktalk at a local library, and over the lunch which followed, the library director told me that their circulation figures have sharply risen as the economy has declined. There's been a surge in demand for fiction, especially.
I've always heard that movies do well in bad times, because people want escape. But how wonderful that they're turning now back to books, the source of movies and other genres of entertainment. Makes one proud to be a reader.
I just got home after two weeks in Tuscon, Indianapolis, and Richmond, Ind. giving book-talks. When my husband picked me up at the airport in Manchester, N.H. for the two-hour ride back to Maine, I kissed him and then got into the back seat where our dog Cody was standing with his nose pressed against the window and tail wagging. He'd recognized me.
When I got into the back seat and took him in my arms, he gave an open-mouthed whine that sounded like human crying. He stepped across me on the seat and leaned against my chest, pressing me hard into the seat-back as if to say, I'm never letting you go. While I could hardly breathe, he stood with his head down, nose in my hands, crying and crying. He stayed like that for about fifty miles, through Exeter, N.H. and on past Portsmouth.
Once we got on the Maine turnpike, as if feeling that he could relax being closer to home, he finally lay down across my lap, and I stroked him the rest of the way. It was so good to sink my fingers into his husky-like coat, so thick and warm. I pulled an occasional tick from around his ears; this is the latest and coldest I've ever seen ticks. I cracked the window to put the ticks out.
When I began telling my husband about the trip, Cody drew back to lift his eyes to mine. He seemed to be re-memorizing my face and voice. I can't remember ever having a dog who looks straight into my eyes as I talk. This was one of the things we learned to teach our dogs at the obedience classes we took Cody to when we first got him, but I can't believe it really took. Yes it did, and it's a great way to feel closer to a dog. When I use words that he recognizes, like "go," "play with the doggies," "food," "treats," "walk," "leash," his pupils widen with lazer-beam attention. I know it sounds absurd or that my husband's falling down on the job, but it feels great to be so closely listened to.
When we got home, the first thing I noticed when I walked in the door was how warm the house was and how familiar it smelled. A vague, faintly musty smell, but clearly signalling home. It was so noticeable and welcoming, that I asked my husband if we could have some friends for dinner in a few nights. I wanted to enhance the homey smell with a thyme-scented slow-cooked potroast and root vegetables in red wine sauce.
Even though my husband and I were both too tired to clean house, we told our guests to just take us as we were, and when they walked in and ooohed and ahhed over the aroma of pot-roast and apple crisp, shedding their coats in our messy bedroom and coming into our living-room to join us by the fire, I felt my bones go gluey as all the tension of travel and meeting deadlines finally fell away. I felt profoundly thankful to be home.
And since I've come home, I want to pass on another blessing: Ian McEwan's On Chesill Beach. This is the perfect novel to read on cold winter nights in front of the fire.
Today on NPR, commentator Daniel Schorr called the Vice Presidential debate a draw because neither candidate fulfilled negative expectations. Palin didn't look naive and Biden wasn't too wordy. I earnestly hope this is true, because it looked to me that Palin won, based on my assumption that the portion of the viewing audience who decides things based on appearance far outnumbers those who have to step back, read, research, and reflect before they can decide.
Palin shows an impressive grasp of how to sell herself to this first kind of voter. She smiles often, talks readily and forcefully, and is almost always positive. This latter technique means that she almost never addresses problems, or if she does, she quickly summarizes them with a catchy phrase like "bridge to nowhere," and moves on to the sunny future McCain will give us. And so, while Biden answered the moderator's questions by identifying the problem so that we could follow the reasoning of his proposed solutions, Palin skirted the questions, going straight to bright futures. For instance, when asked how they would fix the economic crisis or end the Iraq War, Biden outlined policies of the Bush administration that got us into both messes to underscore how his solutions represent change. Palin then responded to Biden by saying something like "There you go again, looking backward. McCain is forward-looking, pointing the way to a better future."
And Biden replied to this with "The past is prologue," - and I wanted to turn off the TV. The number of viewers who don't understand what he means by that, or won't bother to figure it out, and who would rather hear palliatives like "a better future," far outnumber the viewers who want to hear problems clearly addressed.
I'm not saying this out of elitism or because I live in the liberal northeast or because I'm cynical or prone to seeing the glass half-empty. I'm saying this because of the last election, when Bush - who talks platitudes rather than problems - beat Kerry.
Another way Palin resembles Bush is that neither of them correct themselves when they mispeak. They just blunder on - with confidence. This is brilliant on Palin's part, because when she said things like "The toxic mess of mainstreet has spread to Wall Street," or misnamed the general in Iraq who replaced General Petraeus, she didn't blink. She went right on talking forcefully and with a smile. My ESL students, who aren't even fluent in English, noticed at least one of these times, and ventured that maybe Palin isn't smart enough to realize that she's made a mistake. I told them I don't think so, and I differ here from many of my friends, too, who say that neither Palin or Bush are very bright. I'm afraid this is wishful thinking. They are smart, to my mind, in knowing that they project strength, reliability, and know-how if they talk past their mistakes rather than saying "oops, I mean the toxic mess of Wall Street." It takes a lot of practice to perfect this sprightly flow of words, to rid oneself of any show of hesitation, even of any ums and ahs.
I think both these people are superb politicians. They have a sophisticated grasp of what pleases the majority, and that plus their ability to deliver it should never be underestimated.
I'm very surprised at the fact that since the death of David Foster Wallace, author of the postmodern novel Infinite Jest and numerous unforgettable essays, I've felt the loss of his voice, his sardonic-yet-compassionate take on the world, every day. Since September 13th, when I first heard the news on National Public Radio while we were off sailing, I've braced myself against a new silence, the weakening of a shared sense of absurdity - surely D. F. W. knows how ridiculous this is, my addiction to Roger Federer's footwork - when I smack up against a new subculture. So he was with me, albeit unconsciously, when I insisted to my husband that we interrupt our cruise to veer off to Rockland Harbor so I could spend two nights in a loud, mildewed-smelling basement poolroom of a waterfront sports-bar to watch key matches of the U.S. Open tennis tournament.
Only Wallace's passing has alerted me to the fact that I internalized something of his world-view, how it feels to stand on the threshhold of a new subculture, with its contradictions and absurdities winking at you, but also feeling a new sense of one's own frailties. And now with this new sense of missing him, I want to recommend three of his essays that lodged him so unobtrusively but firmly in my mind. Two are in his 1998 book: A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. The title essay is about a Carribean cruise on a Club-Med-like commercial cruise-ship that - like almost all his writing, surprised Wallace in what this subculture of excess showed him about himself. He wrote the piece for Harper's Magazine, I think, and he boarded the vessel with the assumptions of his audience: that the experience would be cheesy, gluttonous, and absurd, which he showcased by men in lurid leisure suits and women in lamay evening gowns oohing and aahing over the butter sculpture centerpiece that towers over the dining-room. After cataloguing such scenes in a colloquial voice that sounds like your funniest friend, he shows himself in his cabin getting ready for the last night's banquet, gaping at the tuxedo t-shirt he brought in place of the required black-tie, having second thoughts about his sardonic choice. He says that if you think it's easy being the only one who breaks a rule - no matter how silly - in a self-contained world that you can't get out of, think again. And as he chastises himself for being literally paralyzed, confined to his room by this sudden need to fit in, he underscores the fact that life is continually surprising, continually challenging to our idea of self.
The other two essays are about the tennis players Michael Joyce and Roger Federer. The first one is in the book of essays above, about the subculture of the sattelite tennis tour, the minor-league of professional tennis. The second appeared in the New York Times a year or so ago. Google "Roger Federer as Religious Experience." It's about the preternatural grace of Federer, and the experience of seeing him live as opposed to TV. In both these essays, Wallace deconstructs physical movement and the geometry of the court to make us newly appreciate what these athletes do while at the same time retaining the mysteries of the game. Such as the way Federer seems to float a foot above the court. The fact that he never gets injured, while most other players have to wear ankle, knee, or thigh supports, attests to what otherwise would seem just a fantasy or trick of the eye.
These pieces, and I'm sure all the rest of Wallace's work (I haven't read much more than this because I find the trademark footnotes of his fiction interruptive), show us a voice that is very funny in a sardonic and ironic way, and yet is never mean or mocking. We are so lucky that he's left this rare balance, a feat akin to Federer's footwork, behind.