The Fiction Faction - Archive - April-August 2010
Elizabeth Baines

April 2010
Beloved by Toni Morrison

Ann suggested this book because she had attended a lecture given by an American academic, in which he had advanced the notion that fiction is better at conveying the reality of historical moments and situations than 'factual' history. The two novels he cited as being excellent examples were Coetzee's Disgrace, which we have also discussed, and this 1987 novel set in mid-1800s Kentucky, when slavery was under attack from the abolitionists. The Beloved of the title is the baby daughter of escaped slave Sethe, whom Sethe killed with her own hands rather than have her taken back into slavery when the slave owners caught up with her - named 'Beloved' because that was all that was written on her gravestone - and who returns to haunt and disrupt her mother's house and claim retribution. The Author's Forward in my edition makes clear that the story is based on a real-life case, that of Mary Garner (whose slave-owner name, Garner, Sethe shares). Amazingly enough, in spite of the fame of this book, and the fact that Morrison has won both the Nobel and the Pullitzer, none in our group - or at least none present for the discussion - had previously read it.

Ann said that she hadn't found the book an easy read at all (at which everyone else nodded), mainly because of the structure of the novel which constantly shifts back and forth between both the viewpoints of the characters and the past and the present, but also because of the language Morrison employs: an intimate third-person which takes on some of the vocabulary and syntax of the characters' own language, and indeed at one point morphs into (a shifting) first person. However, Ann thought it was a very powerful book, and most of us strongly agreed.

Jo said she wondered why Morrison had written it in such a complicated way. I said I thought it was the only way she could have written it and achieved emotional veracity, since the story is about a suppressed history, in particular the subjective experience of slaves; the structure constantly resurrects the buried past into the present of the novel. Ann added the even more salient point that the characters themselves don't want to remember their past experience (since it is so painful). As a result the past is only revealed in layers: one scene from the past will be presented in a way which seems vivid enough, but then we will return to it again and a further detail will suddenly illuminate the scene in a new, and often horrifying, way. Thus we are forced constantly to reassess our own insights, and this, it seems to me, is the political force of the novel, and others agreed. There is one particularly horrifying detail, for instance, about the physical appearance of the character Paul D (who was enslaved with Sethe and now comes into her life again) which is revealed only at the end of the novel. The surprise is breath-stopping, and one is forced to come consciously to terms with the fact that for the length of the whole novel one's view of him has been partial, and that therefore one has underestimated his experience, as well as that of those around him.

I asked Ann what the American academic had said about why he thought fiction worked better than factual writing in conveying such histories, and Ann said it was precisely this, that it operates on the feelings of the reader by inhabiting the feelings of characters - a point with which I heartily agree. The structure of this novel in particular forces a kind of retrospective reading which most of us thought emotionally and politically powerful. Ann commented that another thing which makes the novel especially powerful emotionally is, paradoxically, the matter-of-fact way in which the horrors are conveyed. The contrast between the tone and the events being described, and the implication that for slaves this was day-to-day experience, is particularly shocking. Ann said that she had listened to a World Service podcast of an interview with Morrison who had said that she had made the conscious decision that she must avoid anger in the novel, and that the only character she could allow to be angry was the ghost (because she had been murdered).

John now said that it was interesting that we hadn't really mentioned Beloved up to now, although she was in many ways the focus of the novel. This wasn't really picked up for further discussion, though I think in retrospect she's a kind of medium, in the terms of the novel, for the conveyance of the past into the present of the novel. There was some discussion as to whether she was a real ghost or not - she finally materialises as the eighteen-year-old woman she would have been had she lived; and twice there is reference to the rumour of a young woman, kept as a sex slave, having escaped from a shed nearby - but our conclusion was that we were not meant to read the novel in these either/or realist terms, but to inhabit the mentality of the characters and their attitudes to an ambiguous spirit world. Some people, Ann in particular, wondered how differently Americans, to whom this history of slavery belonged, might read the novel. Ann said that in the podcast Morrison states that she made the decision to address her novel to black people (unlike the white abolitionist Harriet Beecher-Stowe, for instance, whose Uncle Tom's Cabin had been addressed to white readers) - although it seems to me that her technique of retrospective revelation is employed on ignorant white readers most usefully of all. John pointed out that it was ironic that as Mancunians we should feel a distance from slavery, since as a cotton port Manchester was intimately involved in the three-way cotton-sugar-slave trade. (A novel that explores that three-way trade is Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger.)

However, Trevor now said that he had had a lot of trouble with the language and complicated structure of this novel, and Clare said so had she. Trevor said that he'd even gone off and read something else in the middle as relief and then gone back to it.

We then recalled some of the horrors that the novel exposes, such as the fact that after the slaves are caught trying to escape, those considered of little use are beheaded and dismembered and their headless limbless torsos hung from trees, and the fact that the slave owner thinks of them as farm animals and talks of the 'breeding one' and her 'foal'. Ann told us the horrifying fact she had learnt from the podcast that the abolitionists had tried to get the real-life Mary Garner tried for murder, because if she were capable of murder then she would have to be acknowledged to be human.

Ann, or perhaps Jo, said that one impressive thing about the novel was the way that early on we are led to see the Garners as unusually philanthropic slave owners, but later realize that this is just a matter of relativity, and that they have their own cruelties. I said that one of the most horrifying moments for me, though, was not the out-and-out cruelty from which it's easy to distance oneself, but the incident towards the end when Sethe's living daughter Denver goes to the abolitionists' house to ask for work. Here she comes across something which horrifies her: a small statue of a black child with its head pulled back and its lower lip extended to receive coins casually thrown down, ready for paying tradesmen - a figure so like the Little-Black-Sambo collection figures that stood unremarked outside shops and in arcades in my own childhood, that I was pushed up suddenly against my own unconscious collusion in racism.

Then we talked about the fact that the TV Black-and-White Minstrel Show went on into the seventies, and that Robinson's golliwogs weren't discontinued until the eighties, and ended up, I think, quite subdued...


May 2010
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Warning: plot-spoilers. I have found it impossible to report our discussion without disclosing the outcome of the plot of this novel.

Clare suggested this book because a friend of hers who is an Irish professor of poetry had told her that Colm Toibin, none of whose books she had ever read, is the greatest writer, indeed prose stylist, in English alive today. Others of us were interested to read this particular novel, as it has had much praise heaped upon it: it won last year's Costa Award, and was the novel which has seemed to be most quoted in all the recommended and favourite-read lists that pop up all over the place.

This meeting was a particularly disorderly one, for some reason, with people constantly setting up separate simultaneous conversations, so it's not easy to pick out a coherent thread, but I'll do my best.

Brooklyn is a historical novel, set in the 1950s, and tells the story of Eilis, a young woman living in the Co Wexford town of Enniscorthy (which I understand is Toibin's own home town) where there is little or no work to be had, but who is offered work in America. The book follows, via a simple linear structure and exhaustive but almost clinical detail, her prior scant experience of work before the offer (one day a week in a local grocer's), her journey by ship to New York, her work in a department store there and the life of the Irish boarding house in which she lives with several other young Irishwomen, and eventually a dilemma. After some time in Brooklyn she becomes involved with Tony, a young Italian-American plumber, but the death of her elder sister Rose at home means that she must make a return visit. Afraid that she will not come back, he persuades her to marry him before she leaves. However, once she is back at home Eilis finds she does not want to return to America, nor to disclose to anyone her relationship with Tony and the fact that she has married him. Inevitably, she experiences social pressures to stay and take her sister Rose's place as her mother's companion, and meanwhile she becomes involved with Jim Farrell, a young man in the town. Thus her dilemma ensues...

Clare said that she didn't know after reading it whether it was true that Colm Toibin was the greatest living writer in English because she isn't that well read, but she certainly very much enjoyed and admired the book. The main thing she admired about it was the thing for which Toibin is generally praised: his plain, unadorned prose in which the motives and feelings of his characters are not explicitly stated. There was one moment, though, when the painful nature of Eilis's first experience of sex was described very explicitly and in a way that was very truthful - and Jenny and Jo chorused, yes, it is, and the fact that it can be painful is so rarely even acknowledged in literature! Clare had wondered how on earth a man could know such a thing, so she had read up about Toibin and had found an interview in which he said that he had asked a female friend who had described it to him. Mostly, however, the reader is left to infer the feelings of the characters, and it's all very understated.

At this point Doug said dryly that it was certainly understated, and it quickly became clear that, contrary to general critical opinion, several people in the room did not find this a strength in the book. John, who is never one to mince his words, said it was 'F******* boring.' Jo said she couldn't stand Eilis, she was just such a wimp: it wasn't just that Toibin didn't portray her feelings, she never expressed them herself when to do so would have allowed her to take charge of her fate. Indeed, she didn't even seem to have any feelings much: she just drifted off to America when other people told her to, she drifted into her relationship with Tony and married him when he pushed her to, and she drifted into her relationship with Jim Farrell. I said I had to agree that there were many moments when I wanted to wring her neck.

There was now however a chorus of objection from Clare, Trevor and Jenny, who appealed to social reality: that's how young women were in the fifties, they said: they very much felt that they had to conform. I said that it was true that there were great pressures on young women in that era to conform, but that didn't mean that they didn't have an internal life of passions - indeed, it seems to me that one's internal passions become the greater the more you are outwardly repressed, and Jo vehemently agreed. Where, in this book, I said, is the inner life? (For instance, when Eilis hears that her sister back home in England has died, the line we read after the news is 'Eilis said nothing', and that's all in this scene that we know of her reaction. It's true that later we are told - dispassionately - that she can't stop crying, but this leaves us very outside of her experience, and I certainly wasn't moved by her grief. There are other incidents when her emotional reactions aren't even touched on.) Clare said, the emotions may not be stated on the page, but you are meant to infer them. I said but that's not good enough, though didn't get the chance to say why: ie, that it's one thing for an author to imply an inner life without actually stating it, through diction, images etc and thus leave a reader in no doubt about it (indeed, it’s the best way), but if you leave out so much that readers need consciously to make inferences, they can be left in doubt, and the way our conversation(s) then went seemed to prove this point.

Jenny indicated that Eilis didn't have any real passions to infer, by saying that she thought this book was precisely about the fact that people do just drift through life without any real inner passions, marrying the first boring person who comes along etc and then suddenly finding themselves in old age having wasted their lives. Jo and I exploded with amazement. I said, of course people lead boring lives, but you can't tell me that most people don't have yearnings, and a sense of anguish if they feel those yearnings aren't going to be fulfilled. Jenny said, no they only feel anguish at the ends of their lives when they're disappointed. I said, Well, people do marry boring people, but they don't think they're boring, for goodness' sake: they fall in love and love is blind! They feel passion! and Jo and Doug cried agreement.

Jo said, but what was awful about Eilis was that she wasn't in love with Tony or Jim, she just drifted into her relationships with them. Then it turned out that people in the group had made opposite inferences about this, some thinking the same as Jo, but others thinking that Eilis was in love with both men and truly torn between them. (My inference was that she is both physically attracted to and fond of each of them, but not passionately enough in love with either to give up everything else for them. But it is simply how she behaves which told me this: I was taken by surprise when it becomes clear that her relationship with Jim Farrell is physically sexual, and I felt cheated of the emotional journey towards this point, and because I hadn't been on that journey with her, had to wonder consciously as I read it what it meant: has she fallen in love with him? Or is she simply giving in to lust and having a fling? Do I now need to reinterpret some of the scenes leading up to this?) I said that I did very much like the idea, which is actually spelt out in the book at this point, that once you leave home, the home you have left becomes an unreality, a dream, but that if you then go back home, the new life you have made for yourself can become the unreality instead; I have indeed experienced this myself. Others nodded, indicating that they had too. But, I said, I didn't find that it was satisfactorily conveyed in this novel in terms of Eilis's inner consciousness. I said also that although this book has been so praised for its portrayal of a woman, I really couldn't imagine a woman writing something so devoid (shy?) of the emotional dimension (John added: 'She's just a blank!'), and I had noticed that all the reviews I had read praising this book so profusely had been written by men. (Great credit, though, to the exceptionally sensitive men in our group who also missed the passion!) Clare said that she had in fact come across one appreciative review by a woman.

John said that, actually, Eilis struck him as not very Irish, and I agreed: she seemed, in her repression, much more like a young Englishwoman of the time. There was now loud communal objection: of course she was Irish! Very Irish! Irish women at that time were more repressed than English ones! My own appeal to social reality – that Eilis reminded me far more of my Welsh aunts when they were young than my feisty Irish aunt who’d actually been a nun – fell on utterly deaf ears (and I smiled sweetly and bit my tongue when Trevor – who, I hasten to add, has Celtic roots of his own - said that Celts were all the same). John said that the repression of emotion was a very English trait, and he wondered if this is why Toibin’s writing was so popular in England.

Doug said that actually, you know, Eilis wasn’t a wimp: there were times when she stood up to people, including the Brooklyn landlady. I said yes, and she did in fact make choices, (and Doug strongly agreed): there were several occasions when she thought hard about alternative courses of action and made the conscious decision to do nothing. (In fact, these were some of the moments when Eilis came over to me as dislikeable, rather mean-spirited in fact – another function, I think, of the novel having failed to make me identify with her). Now that this had been pointed out, Jo and others had to agree that it was so and there began to be general puzzlement, rather than disagreement, about how we were meant to take Eilis.

Ann now spoke up for the first time and said that she had found the book a really tedious read. All the detailed descriptions of the grocer's shop in Ireland, the lists of things on the shop shelves and the ways they had to be packed, of the voyage across and the berth in the ship, and of the department store in Brooklyn and the way all its processes worked, of the domestic arrangements in the Irish boarding house - all of this, as far as Ann could see, was just research which had been included for the sake of it. Clare, Jenny and Trevor and even Jo now said, But they had loved all that! They loved finding out, for instance, that one bathroom was shared between two berths on a ship, with a separate lockable door on each side, and that when your berth was deep down in the bowels of the ship you especially felt the force of the waves. They then spent some time recalling many such things in the book that they had relished. I said, But your interest in all these things is anthropological, and that's not relevant to whether or not they operate towards creating a powerful novel, and people did then generally agree. Ann said that the episode on the ship, with the relationship that's built up between Eilis and her berth-mate, seemed especially inserted for its own sake, leading nowhere in the overall plot of the novel, although it had been given enough attention and space and had been recounted in such a way (with detail and dramatisation) as to make you think it was going to. Ann said, Compare this novel with Toni Morrison's Beloved, which we discussed last time, where every single thing that was mentioned or portrayed was deeply significant to both the plot and the theme of the novel. I agreed, and said that for much of the time that I was reading Brooklyn I couldn't help thinking that this was a real-life story that Toibin had been told by an aunt about her own life, and had failed to shape satisfactorily into fiction, and Ann nodded vigorously. In any case, I said, unlike others I found much of the description too flat to be interesting in itself (and Ann, Doug and John nodded agreement). For instance, I said, one of the things I remember very vividly from my early childhood is the metal canisters containing bills and change that zoomed on wires across a department store in Barry in South Wales, from the counter to the high-up cashier's desk and back. But Toibin's description of this in the Brooklyn department store was so flat that I felt cheated. The others had said that they loved the description of the Sunday-night dance in Enniscorthy, but I said that I had experienced those small-town dances, and what I missed in this description was their overriding atmosphere of aching(a quality you wouldn’t miss, for instance, in a writer like Edna O’Brien).

Trevor now said that one thing that he found very frustrating about this novel was that in a book of 250 pages nothing actually happened until page 170 when Eilis gets word in Brooklyn that her elder sister Rose back home has died, and most people agreed. I said that this point was really interesting: whether or not nothing significant does happen up to that point. In fact, when you get to the end you do realize that some of what has seemed inconsequential is after all significant. This particularly applies to Mrs Kelly who owns the Enniscorthy grocer's shop where Eilis works before she goes to America: right at the end a connection will be revealed between Mrs Kelly and Brooklyn which will be Eilis's undoing. I did say that this was the one thing I found moving about the novel: the revelation at the end that in spite of the sense of dislocation and isolation in emigration, the world is after all a very small place and those controlling forces of home can't be escaped. However, it seems to me that the surprising revelation of this connection does not arrive for the reader with as much of the satisfaction (and shock) of underlying inevitability as it might, because of the lack of resonance in the way Eilis's time in Mrs Kelly's shop is portrayed, with an imbalance of clinical, list-checking attention to the details and processes of the shop. Jenny said, but what that description illustrates is the control of the older women over the younger ones in these small societies (and there was then some very interested discussion of this social fact, and the fact that in some apparently patriarchal societies it's actually the women who hold the real power).

This led on to a discussion of Eilis's mother at the end of the novel, and the way that she behaves when Eilis finally reveals that she got married in America. As with the question of whether or not Eilis is in love with Tony and Jim, people had different ideas about Eilis's mother's feelings and motives, and indeed were more uncertain about them. Some saw her as shocked by the news and consequently punishing Eilis, others saw her as merely upset and unable to cope with the fact that it meant Eilis would have to leave her. It turned out that several people had missed the fact that it wasn't actually news to her; that she had known, or at least guessed, all along, and had chosen to ignore the matter while Eilis said nothing about it. Her apparently resolute avoidance of asking Eilis anything whatever about her life in America is thus explained: it's a way of sweeping under the carpet an unpalatable fact which, if acknowledged, would in all morality have to take Eilis back to America and away from her.

How had she known, when Eilis had never even mentioned Tony to her in her letters? Well, there are clues, but the trouble is that the very flatness of the prose and the authorial refusal of evocation of emotion with which they are presented in the course of the novel, mean that they are submerged in the profusion of other detail which is of no particular narrative significance - which is why, I think, some in our group missed this major revelation. The book, it turns out, does have a subtext, but because it reads for most of its length as if it doesn't, it loses much potential resonance. Ann said that if she hadn't had to finish the book for the group she would have given up on it very early on as clearly leading nowhere, and several of us agreed.

Clare, however, stuck up for the book and repeated that she had enjoyed reading it very much.

June 2010
Cloud Street by Tim Winton

I've been struggling to do my scheduled reading as I'm very busy with my own writing, so when the group met in June to discuss this book (Doug's suggestion) I hadn't managed to find time read it, and John, who had already read it, dissuaded me from bothering , as he felt it would put me off my stride: there are enough similarities with the book I'm writing, he felt, to make me feel I ought to change mine (which he didn't think I should). In fact, of course, this made me curious enough to have a sneaky peek, and I immediately felt I would love it. And now I've read it - though it took me ages! - and it's true there are things which chime with my own, but not enough I feel to matter.

Like my WIP, it's a kind of family saga. In this case it's the story of two Australian families, the Pickles and the Lambs, who live one each side of a rambling, ramshackle house in Perth, bought with a win on the horses and inherited by Sam Pickles whose own life is directed and misdirected by a compulsion for gambling and a quasi-religious belief in luck. The Lambs arrive in the wake of a tragedy - one of their sons, the previously bright Fish, has been brain-damaged through near-drowning - and in the half of the house they rent they set up a grocer's shop. For many years relations between the two families are fairly strained, particularly between the two wives, beautiful drunkard Dolly Pickles and plain, hard-working Oriel Lamb with her Protestant ethic, but inevitably the lives of them all become entangled. There's a rich, rumbustious realism to this novel: as one critic has said, it's as vivid and concrete as a soap, and the character depiction is to my mind sublime; yet there are ghosts and hauntings. There's a windowless room with a piano that rings out middle C when no one's in the room, and the shades of the pianist and original owner, a cruel woman who once ran a missionary for black girls in the house, and the sobbing black girl who died there, probably from a beating; there's a singing, talking pig, there's an unearthly aboriginal man who haunts the family, especially Fish's brother Quick, and the whole story is watched from another dimension by Fish after his death, the true drowning he has in the end (and at the beginning of the novel).

As far as I remember everyone present for the discussion liked this book, though none were quite as bowled over as I'd expected them to be after dipping into the beginning. What was clear to me then was the impressive language: the use of a vivid and energetic Australian demotic, and the most striking and apt images: 'diesels throbbing like blood', 'the water was a flat bed of sunlight', 'the sky kiting over', and when I came to read the book, for much of its length I was hooked on this language and the way it successfully combines the earthy, realist elements and the surreal.

However, some people in the group didn't find the mix so seamless: it seemed to be agreed that the aboriginal man, for instance, was 'plonked in', someone suggested as a political sop, and some hadn't found the fact that the story is narrated by an after-life Fish particularly significant or memorable. In fact, there wasn't really much discussion at all: Doug said he also very much admired the language and Clare said that the book was notable for its generosity, the lack of judgement of the characters that you so often find in English novels, with which I heartily agree. But the conversation petered out, and John noted that the book hadn't given rise to the discussion of any issues, and it was generally agreed that there weren't really any issues to discuss; it was just the story of a pair of families.

Having now read the book I'd say that this is a book in which as in a soap much happens on the level of event - as you would expect in the story of two generations of two families - but as in a soap nothing much happens in terms of development of theme. The structure of the book is circular, beginning and ending with Fish's death, and you do very much get the feeling of not having moved on in insight, rather having simply watched a vivid tableau and got to know and love a set of characters. There are themes, those of luck and autonomy, guilt and responsibility, betrayal and loyalty, and the novel proper begins with a situation in which Sam Pickles and his family are in thrall to his sense of luck (the 'shifty shadow'). But the novel shifts focus (if entertainingly and excitingly) to other characters and other story strands, and any resolution of this theme is forced and indeed sentimental: the birth of a child which banishes the malignant ghosts of the house. In fact, I found the last part of the novel disappointingly sentimental, with a telling loss of rhythm in the prose and a certain coyness or perhaps formality creeping into the previously gritty diction. And I found I agreed about the narrative device: ultimately, I couldn't see any thematic point in the use of an after-life narrator.

At the time of the discussion it seemed to me that this book was likely to be great in the most serious sense of the word, and I asked the others if they thought it was. They didn't think so, but they thought it a great read. For much of its length while I was reading it I couldn't imagine how they could be so lukewarm, but having ended up disappointed I'm afraid I have to agree


July 2010
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Hans suggested this book because when his wife, who doesn’t normally like crime novels, had tried it, she’d found she liked it. He was interested therefore to know what the group members thought of it, and since it has been such a phenomenal best-seller, along with its two sequels, we were interested to know why, and chose it over the alternative suggestion.

It concerns Swedish investigative journalist Mikail Blomkvist, editor of the political journal Millennium, who is brought down by a capitalist he tried to expose and as a result becomes involved with Henrik Vanger, head of a business family with a shadowy past including Nazism and the disappearance in the sixties of Vanger’s sixteen-year-old niece Harriet who has never been seen again, presumed dead. Vanger engages Blomqvist, who has had to leave his editorship, ostensibly to write a history of the Vanger family but in reality to investigate Harriet’s disappearance. He is helped in this quest by an unconventional private investigator, the tough punk Lisbeth Salander, a computer hacker and previous problem child who in her twenties is still, according to the Swedish system, under state care.

It’s a long book – 538 pages - and one of the strange aspects of its success is that it seems to be generally agreed (on Twitter etc) that for the first 100 pages or so it’s pretty boring, with lots of expositionary backstory concerning the court case and the investigation which led to Blomqvist’s conviction and downfall.
Well, the gist of the meeting was that everyone thought it was pretty rubbishy but everyone liked it apart from John who found he couldn’t read it, and me, although I have to admit that for the sake of argument I was more negative in the meeting than I actually felt as outlined on my Fictionbitch blog.

The first person to comment was Jenny, who has read all three of the books, and who said she absolutely loved the character Lisbeth Salander, and there were murmurs of agreement. In fact, I didn't find Salander entirely convincing as a character, though I didn't say this: there seemed inconsistency rather than complexity in the way she was portrayed as streetwise yet now and then naive. Everyone pretty much agreed that the book was poorly written, and that indeed for the first 100 pages or so Larsson seemed to be learning, in a very fundamental way, to write. There is far too much exposition, much telling the reader instead of showing, and Larsson will suddenly launch into a non-novelistic essay informing the reader about such things as the Swedish state care system. Not to mention the author’s relish in the tedious details of computers which may have been state-of-the art at the time of writing, but which are now outdated. Although people had said they liked Salander, they all agreed that there was no real psychological insight in the book. And everyone, even accountant Doug, agreed that the end of the book, which deals with Blomkvist’s comeback and the details of the financial scandal he finally does expose, is even more boring than the beginning.

I said that it reminded me of nothing so much as reading Enid Blyton when I was a child, especially the way the food is described in such painstaking and often inappropriate detail. I read out this passage which occurs just after Blomqvist and Salander have escaped from a torture chamber, Blomqvist himself having been tortured:

She helped him off with his clothes and propelled him to the bathroom. Then she put on water for coffee and made half a dozen thick sandwiches on rye bread with cheese and liver sausage and dill pickles (my bolds)

and everyone fell about laughing.

As I said on my Fictionbitch blog, this is probably the first book we’ve read for the group that I didn’t find in any way disruptive to my own creative writing process, and everyone agreed that that was the point, it was meant merely as a diversion. Clare said it was like chocolate, just something easy to swallow, and Ann said she’d had some long train journeys recently and it had been great for that, to pass the time. I said that that was my objection, really: ultimately, I really didn’t want to read a book just to pass the time, but for something much more fruitful; to me it was a waste of time. John said I was precious, and from the reaction of the others he was speaking for them too, but it was really rich coming from him since he hadn’t even read past page 50 or so. And Ann added that she’d liked reading about the food and finding out about the things Swedes ate, and the fact that they drank so much coffee, and others agreed.

Then Ann addressed the question of why this book, above other crime thrillers, has been so very popular. She thought that certain crime series are popular because they happen to hit particular chords in the societies and times in which they are written, and there was a fair bit of discussion about other crime writers members had read. Jenny said that this book was about violence to women: indeed, the parts that the book is divided into are subtitled with quotes from Swedish statistics on violence to women, and the original Swedish title of the book was Men Who Hate Women. I said that in fact it ticked several of our current concerns to which the theme of violence towards women is somewhat subsumed: corruption in big business, the Nazi past with which we continue to be obsessed, and big-brother surveillance and computer hacking.

But I didn’t think it actually really addressed these issues, not on the psychological level I want from novels (in spite of what some critics have said about Larsson’s anatomization of the mind of a serial killer). What for instance, was Larsson saying about Nazism? (I can’t explain any further without giving the plot away.) There was a pause as people thought, and then someone said, ‘Nazis are bad.’ And I said ‘Exactly. Nothing deeper or more psychological than that.’

August 2010
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

This book was my suggestion, a book I had loved when I read it some years ago. It’s poet Sylvia Plath’s only novel, published originally under a pseudonym and confessedly and verifiably autobiographical.

It opens during the fifties summer that the Rosenbergs are executed for spying and first-person narrator Esther Greenwood, an A-grade literature student, is working out an expenses-paid job on a New York fashion magazine, the prize she has won, along with several other aspirant young women, with her writing. Acutely aware of the hollowness of the fashion world around her, disillusioned with her long-term medical student boyfriend Buddy, and sensing that her lifelong academic goals are equally hollow, Esther begins to be cut off in depression, the ‘bell jar’ of the title, eventually undergoing ECT and attempting suicide and becoming hospitalised. The book is striking for its wonderfully imagistic, witty and energetic prose, and moves at a great pace – the kind of book you really can’t put down.

I told the group how much I had loved the book previously, but said that this time I had a problem with it: I didn’t really know how to take it. The first time I read it I had entirely identified with Esther – apart from her suicidal impulses – but on this occasion I was shocked to find that I couldn’t always sympathise with her and indeed now and then I found I didn’t even like her. For instance, after the opening line, which is so striking that I had remembered it almost verbatim when I suggested the book: It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs… the prose moves instantly away from political engagement to a self-obsessed focus on Esther’s own emotional state: The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick. It’s not the Rosenbergs who have her attention in this paragraph so much as the idea of suffering electrocution herself, which, as Hans would point out later, is fulfilled when her own first ECT treatment goes wrong and she suffers great trauma. Indeed, she goes further in distancing herself from the Rosenberg issue and painting it rather as an unworthy and hassling trauma to herself: That’s all there was to read about in the papers – goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me , but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned all along your nerves (my bolds).

It would be possible to read this as self-ironic, were it not for the fact that we are clearly meant to take Esther’s depression and later trauma seriously, and of course should. On the other hand, there are clearly self-ironic moments: I decided I would spend the summer writing a novel./ That would fix a lot of people. There are occasions when we are clearly meant to laugh at, or at least with, Esther: at the way, for instance, she eats with unladylike greed at the Ladies’ Day banquet, and - embedded as a flashback within this scene - the way she cons her way out of taking a science course at college. But then we are not intended to laugh at the consequences and underlying currents: a traumatic food poisoning which symbolises the rot at the heart of this New York world and prefigures the deeper sickness which Esther will suffer, and the fact that, in spite of saying ‘I had to laugh when I thought about [the chemistry course]’, she admits ‘how scared and depressed’ she was about it. The drop in tone made me see the episodes retrospectively in a more serious light, which in turn, perhaps because of the earlier levity, made me see Esther as potentially simply greedy and self-centred.

It seemed to me that my problem with knowing how to read the book had something to do with the tone, but I wasn’t sure exactly what. John put in here and said that yes, on this reading he had found the first half too flippant for the grimness of the second half. I wasn’t sure I agreed with this. I wouldn’t say that the tone was ever flippant, and there are dark ironies I really appreciated. For instance, when Esther begins contemplating suicide she thinks that if you are going to jump off a building then the higher the storey the safer, since you are more likely to kill yourself, and that a gun is dangerous only because you are most likely to bungle the attempt and end up living.

I said that I was also surprised to realize on this reading something that I hadn’t noticed the first time, and which I have never heard or read anyone noting: that this is a story of suppressed grief. Esther’s father has died when she was a child, and Esther says quite clearly, though somewhat briefly, that she began to realize she had never been happy since she was running along the beach the summer before her father died. Suicidal and living with her mother, she visits the town she grew up in and her father’s grave:

…my legs folded under me, and I sat down in the sopping grass. I couldn’t understand why I was crying so hard.

Then I remembered that I had never cried for my father’s death.

It is immediately after this that Esther makes the almost-successful suicide bid that lands her in a psychiatric hospital.

Having become aware of this theme, it seemed the real one to me, but I felt it was somewhat subsumed in (and possibly, indeed, cuts across) the more overt feminist theme. There is the depiction of the brutality of male obstetrics: I thought it was just like the sort of drug a man would invent. Here was a woman in terrible pain, obviously feeling every bit of it or she wouldn’t groan like that, and she would go straight home and start another baby because the drug would make her forget how bad the pain had been. Buddy’s mother is described as turning herself into a floor rug for others to walk on, and there is a strong implication that Esther’s depression is a reaction to the fact that in a world in which she is expected to type dictated letters she wants to ‘dictate [her] own thrilling letters’.

I wondered therefore how aware the author was of this theme of suppressed grief, and if this is the source of an uncertainty I found in the novel. At this point I had become curious to see what others had written about the themes of the novel, and had done a brief bit of Googling. I didn’t find any mention of Esther’s grief about her father but was interested to find a fair amount of disagreement in particular about the end of the novel. While Marjorie Perloff sees the book as being about Esther’s need to find herself in a world that divides women from themselves (she quotes the extensive dismemberment imagery in the novel), and the ending as Esther’s rebirth, Diane Bonds argues that in fact at the end Esther dismembers herself in order to fit into society (quoting the wedding imagery that appears there). Personally, I feel that the ending is extremely ambiguous, and also that it’s hard not to read into it the fact that Plath did commit suicide not long after the book was written, which adds to my sense of the uncertainty of the whole. Therefore, I said, I would be interested in what the others in the group thought.

I was much briefer than this in my introduction and didn’t quote chapter and verse as I have here, so I probably wasn’t very convincing. Jenny said firmly that she had really liked the book, and Trevor agreed. Trevor said, You want to take no notice of that internet stuff, and said what he thought the novel was about, but I’m really sorry to say that I can’t remember what that was. I think he disagreed that the ending was ambiguous (one or two people had agreed that it was), but I don’t remember how he interpreted it.
Some saw the book as being simply about mental illness, I think, including Hans who said, But there isn’t a feminist theme in it, is there? I said, Well, what about the fact that Esther immediately identifies Marco whom she meets at a party as one of those men who hates women, and Hans said, Well there are men who hate women – implying, I think, that Plath wasn’t making any particular feminist point about this. Someone (maybe Trevor) pointed out to me that Sylvia Plath would never even have heard of feminism, and I said that that didn’t make her message any less feminist, but I didn’t get the feeling that I convinced. Jenny said that this book was taken up as feminist during the seventies and eighties because it hit a chord, and I think she was implying that its feminist slant was over-emphasised then. There was a fair bit of discussion about mental illness and its changing treatment, and changing definitions of depression and schizophrenia, which Jenny as a sociologist knew a lot about.

Jenny said that when she read it in the seventies she hadn’t liked it as much as everyone else, but that this time she had liked it a lot because now she can see how it fitted in with something which I think she called Symbolic Interpretation, which she said was a theory very current at the time of the writing of the book. She said that that thing about the Rosenbergs, for instance, was a comment on the world around Esther (ie as opposed to the way I’d analysed it). No one else knew what Symbolic Interpretation was, and I asked her to explain. She said it was a way of looking at the world in terms of symbols, and although I momentarily thought I understood, I don’t in retrospect: it seems to me quite simply that all writing is symbolic interpretation, although Plath’s imagery is certainly heavily symbolic.

All these different interpretations were serving to emphasise my sense of an uncertainty at the heart of the book. I asked people what they thought of Esther’s mother, as Diane Bonds interprets her as monstrous, which I hadn’t myself. Everyone agreed with me: they thought the mother was simply inadequate and over-conventional, and some even said that at moments they could feel sorry for her. Trevor said again that I shouldn’t bother with internet stuff, but I think it’s instructive that Bonds could interpret such statements of Esther’s as ‘My mother wasn’t much help’ as indicative of monstrosity, ie that this may be a symptom of a difficulty in getting to grips with the tone of the narration.

Ann said that she had enjoyed the book very much, but that she too had had a difficulty in knowing how to read it. Mainly she felt that it was just about impossible to read it without knowledge of Plath’s suicide very soon after writing it, and impossible to know how one would read it without that knowledge.

Jenny and Trevor said that they thought it was entirely possible to read the book without injecting that knowledge into it, and I felt that they thought it was wrong to do so.

Ann said, though, that she suspected that Plath's depression at the time of writing had actually affected the tone of the book: that the book was an attempt to rise above the situation with wit and a resolution, but it was undercut by her continuing depression, which also gives rise to the ambiguous ending. This, I think, hits the nail on the head.

Trevor, though, reiterated that you could read it without knowing about Plath’s suicide, and someone, I think Jenny, said, But it’s brilliantly written! – which, having taken it for granted, I had failed to say, and I quickly agreed, as did everyone. People then spent some time talking about the bits they’d particularly liked, especially the funny bits. Trevor loved the bit about Esther thinking her finger-bowl was soup and drinking it all up, the little flowers and all. Hans said he found it really funny when Esther was walking around with a yellow scarf tied to her neck, her first attempt at suicide, but was unable to find anything to hang it on to, and other agreed. I said, But that wasn’t meant to be funny, was it? And Hans readily agreed, as did the others, and I said, Well, this illustrates that there is a difficulty with the tone of the book.

Then Doug spoke up. He said that when he first read the book years ago he thought it was absolutely marvellous, maybe the perfect book, but that his reaction this time was far stronger than mine: he didn’t like any of the people in it. I said, But aren’t they all seen through Esther’s eyes? And he said, yes, but that’s what he didn’t like, the sneery, snobby tone of the whole thing - a quiet bombshell that more or less ended the discussion.


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