The Fiction Faction - Archive - July-October 2017
Elizabeth Baines
 

July 2017
Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

There's never a long discussion to report when we unanimously love a book - there's no disagreement and no criticism of the book itself - and this choice of Doug's was a prime example. Spufford is known to have wanted to write an 'eighteenth-century novel' set in New York, and we felt that in Golden Hill he has succeeded magnificently.

It opens in 1746 as Smith, a likeable and hapless young Englishman cast in the mould of the male protagonists of eighteenth-century picaresque novels, disembarks in New York, then a small town on the tip of Manhattan Island, and makes without delay for the house of a merchant, with an order for a thousand pounds that he wishes to cash. Needless to say, this causes a huge stir. Can he be trusted? And what does he intend to do with such a great sum (which in fact isn't that readily available as cash, causing the banker problems)? - a question that for most of the book both the inhabitants of the town and the reader are kept asking. In true eighteenth-century picaresque fashion, we follow his adventures as he is variously wooed by the inhabitants and punished for his lack of verification - at one point ending up, in a highly vivid episode, in jail - and becoming romantically entangled with the headstrong spinster daughter of the merchant Lovell.

The whole novel is entirely vivid, packed with the physical and social details of the town, colonised at the time by the Dutch and English. Spufford is a historian, and it is therefore no surprise that he should be armed with such knowledge, but what we found remarkable was the way that there is absolutely no sense of research - the novel simply lives and breathes the time and place in which it is set. We are never explicitly told, for instance, that smallpox took a while to be brought from Europe to the New World; instead we are shown the fact briefly but vividly through Smith's amazement, on first seeing the Lovell daughters, that their faces are completely unpocked. We felt delighted by such things. The novel is full of energy and extremely humane, touching and funny in its depiction of Smith and his antagonists, and we all agreed that we had found it great fun.

Someone, I think Clare, did say that she tired a little of the eighteenth-century locutions, but Doug and I thought that Spufford had created a remarkably successful hybrid register for his narrator, which is both drenched in eighteenth-century flavour yet reads with complete ease to modern eyes and ears.

But why, one might ask - and I did ask before I started reading - write a pastiche of an eighteenth-century novel? Spufford's agenda is in fact modern, and indeed political. It would give the game away to say in precisely what way, but suffice it to say that the injection of the issues of homosexuality and race into the template of the eighteenth-century novel makes for searing historical and literary comment. Following indeed in the mode of eighteenth-century novels, there is in fact explicit - and funny - comment on the novel form, other novelists of the eighteenth century, and novelistic modes. At the commencement of a card game of piquet, the narrator says - tongue firmly in cheek and clearly mocking those contemporary writers who wear their research on their sleeves: 'Now, it will be most necessary for the reader, in comprehending what followed, to possess a thorough and secure understanding of the rules of piquet,' but in trying to provide it bursts out: 'Wait - wait - alas the explanation is bungled, but it cannot be recalled and started over again, for the game has begun.' Similarly, while relating the progress of a sword fight: 'But really, this is useless, and no more enables the reader to see the battle than if I shouted numbers at you; which, indeed, I appear to be doing. The truth is, I am obliged to copy these names for sword-fighting out of a book, having no direct experience to call upon. I throw myself upon the reader's mercy, or rather their sense of resignation.'

There is a final twist at the end of this book worthy of any contemporary postmodern novel (I won't give it away) which tickled us all. We could see holes in it, but we didn't mind; like the impossible way that Smith, writing to his father in prison, manages somehow - presumably with an inkwell and feather! - to take down a verbatim record of the raving speech of a fellow inmate even as it's happening - it felt like part of the joke that this whole book is - a joke, however, with a serious and deeply humane message.


August 2017
The Men's Club by Leonard Michaels

I was waiting for a train on Dalkey station when I opened this 1981 novel now reissued by Daunt Books, and was so bowled over by the prose that then and there I was fired to start a new publishing company in order to publish such prose myself. (Next day I saw the folly of such a thought: last time I was a publisher I ended up having no time or headspace to write, so I won't quickly be making that mistake again.)

However, the book struck fewer sparks for our reading group back in England.

In a spare, ironic prose, the unnamed narrator, a Berkeley academic, recounts an evening meeting in the late 1970s to which he was invited and reluctantly attended, a male answer to the proliferating women's consciousness-raising groups of the time.
But I was thinking about good company. Some of my married colleagues had love affairs, usually with students. You could call it a regular social possibility. It included emotional chaos. Gonorrhoea. Even guilt. They would have been better off in a men's club.
Present at the meeting are his academic colleague and ex-basketball player Cavanaugh, a psychotherapist, a doctor, a real-estate executive, a lawyer and a businessman. Nervous at first of each other and the situation, and of the apparent requirement to discuss their lives, the men eventually loosen up over marijuana and a whole case of Zinfandel and more, and in a Canterbury-Tales type scenario (one of the men is significantly called Canterbury) they unwittingly reveal their own lack of emotional intelligence by telling tales of their encounters with women, several of them adulterous. Finally, in a desecration of the women's ritual they are aping, they raid the fridge of the huge spread prepared by the host's wife for her meeting the following evening, wreck the room, engage in occasional and vaguely homoerotic bouts of aggression towards each other, throw knives at a door and end up as one band beating their chests and howling like wolves.

Although everyone in our group agreed, I think, that the prose was stunning, there were some criticisms from, interestingly, the men among us, and also some differences in the ways they had read the book. John was perturbed by the fact that the book, dealing with such a serious subject - the lack of maturity and responsibility of apparently professional men - failed to engage him emotionally, a point with which everyone agreed: the ironic prose and objective stance of the narrator leaves one feeling distanced. For Doug this was not a problem, as he had read the whole thing as a broad comedy which had made him laugh out loud: it was the only way he could read it, he said, because otherwise it would have been just too horrific. Mark hadn't read it like that at all. He had indeed found it horrific but, from the perspective of the present day, unbelievable: any group of professional men beginning to behave like that in this day and age would have immediately been shown the door, and would never do so in the first place, and he took John to task for choosing what he considered an old-fashioned and irrelevant book. He did think that the stories the men told had worked very well, but he had no time for the overall narrative context in which they were placed. I felt a little baffled by this last, as the meanings of the stories are opaque to their narrators and they are often unfinished: the whole point therefore is the context of the stories, and what they reveal about their narrators. Ann went so far as to wonder if Michaels had had a series of stories up his sleeve that were all too similar - there are similarities: all of the men are similarly dense about and baffled by women - and simply found this way of stringing them together.

There is indeed perhaps a difficulty in knowing how this book should be read. Because of the distanced and ironic stance of the narrator, it is hard to see much separation between narrator and author, yet at the end the narrator joins in wholeheartedly with the behaviour of the other men. (John said that the other book of Michaels' that he had read, Sylvia, had the same effect: he wasn't sure that the author of Sylvia didn't identify with the self-centred and sexist protagonist). Consequently it's possible to interpret The Men's Club not as a criticism of the primitive and immature character of men, but, for instance, as Kirkus Reviews decided, as a sly sendup of 'women's lib' novels.


September 2017
Butcher's Crossing by John Williams

John thought it pretty ironic that after criticising his choice of The Men's Club as an old-fashioned and irrelevant portrayal of men and masculinity, Mark should immediately suggest a Western.

In fact, John Williams didn't want his publisher to label Butcher's Crossing as such, and thus fix it in a genre pigeonhole, and having read and generally admired his later and best-known book, Stoner, the rest of us in the group expected a subversion of the genre along the lines we had found in Cormac McCarthy's later and magnificent Blood Meridian .

To some extent our expectations were fulfilled. The chief way in which Butcher's Crossing subverts the genre, and which must have seemed fairly radical at the time of first publication (1960), is to portray the Wild West as utterly devoid of heroism and glamour, to present it rather as a numbing world of grime, hard graft and constant near-death. Protagonist Will Andrews is a university drop-out, a devotee of Emerson, filled with the vague and romantic notion of finding in the Wild West a truer life and his own truer self. In 1873 he comes to Butcher's Crossing, a new shanty settlement erected for the trade in buffalo hides. Due to the overhunting of buffalo, the source of hides is beginning to dry up, but it turns out that the hardbitten hunter Miller knows of a hidden untouched valley in the Rocky Mountains where the buffalo still roam en masse. In pursuit of his personal mission, Andrews sinks a good deal of his inheritance in equipping a hunting expedition by Miller, himself and two others to this valley.

We now embark with the four men on a gruelling trek with horses and oxen-pulled wagon as the stubborn Miller insists on leaving the watercourse for a straight course towards the mountains across a baking plain, seems to lose his way, endangering their lives, and eventually finds it. Following the perspective of the neophyte Andrews, we are taken through the minutiae of every gruelling process, the setting up of camps, the handling of the animals, the preparation and cooking of the meagre food, and the physical discomfort as they ride, Andrews' thighs chafing, in the baking sun. Finally they reach the mountains and - again, after worrying uncertainty - find the valley, and new gruelling experiences are in store: firstly, for Andrews, the killing and skinning of the buffalo, and then, for all of the others, the obsession of Miller who is unable to stop shooting the buffalo which, unused to men, simply stand to be picked off. The skins pile up, far more than they will ever be able to carry back on the wagon, and the autumn creeps on, bringing snow that will trap them in the valley all winter...

Andrews' reaction to all of this - his initial shock and his slow numbing - create a psychological dimension that is another subversion of the Western genre, but the whole thing is in many ways extremely traditional, a heavily event-based linear narrative with everything described objectively in the minutest detail. Doug, Jenny and I had found much of the detail very interesting - everyone was as fascinated as Andrews by the way Miller made bullets, for instance - but we all felt that there was far more of it than was necessary in a narrative, and that its accumulation amounted to tedium. For this reason Ann and John had both given up on the book fairly early on. I have to say it took me ages to read it - I found myself reading really slowly - and Jenny said that she hadn't actually liked it as she found the graphic descriptions - of the skinning of the buffalo, for instance - unpleasant to read. Doug and I were both amazed by the description of the way the buffalo behaved and fell once they had been shot, but I said that at that point I wondered: is it actually true, or is it simply a feat of imagination on the part of the author? I then realised that the book was prompting me to read it in the wrong way, ie as a manual rather than a fiction, and I felt I'd rather read the source material myself in order to know the veracity of what was being described. There was one moment when I stopped reading at the inappropriateness of such description. As a life-threatening blizzard comes down on the men, Miller frantically struggles to create shelters out of buffalo hide, and the way that he does so is described minutely in a way that is simply not compatible with the panicking psychology of the occasion - Andrews would probably have had difficulty even seeing what Miller was doing, leave alone carefully noting the process.

It was also thought that, in spite of Andrews' psychological journey, the other men were stock Western characters - Miller the tacit gritty John Wayne type, Schneider the bad-tempered loose cannon, and Charlie Hogue, the Bible-reading drunk driving the wagon.

I said that for all that actually happens in the book event-wise, and the simplicity of the psychology, it could have been done as a short story rather than the 330+ page book that it is. On the other hand, it would have been difficult via a short story to recreate the gruelling tedium which the length of this book certainly does, and there was a brief discussion of the difficulty of writing about tedium without actually being tedious.

People also started to feel that there wasn't as much veracity as at first seemed: why, if Miller was such a brilliant hunter, did he make the mistakes he did? Wouldn't he have known, for instance, not to pile the wagon so high with skins for the homeward journey - as I read it, I was thinking, no, no, I wouldn't pile it that high! - and wouldn't he have known that the river would have been too swollen with melting spring snow to cross with the wagon, and wouldn't he have avoided doing so? Clearly the authorial purpose was to subvert the way that in the traditional Western heroic cowboys always defeat the odds, but we felt it wasn't actually psychologically or factually realistic that Miller would get in such a situation. Why, if every detail of how the men subsisted had to be told, were the facts of defecation and urination left out, and why was Andrews, who had lived in the wild with these men for six months or more, prissily shocked when asked to urinate with the others in a kettle to soften leather for thongs? It seemed a bit like the squeamishness of an academic author... And when Andrews, who has for months been in close contact with dying buffalo, hunkers down in his buffalo-hide sleeping bag to withstand the blizzard, why is this the first time that he feels a parasitic insect crawl on his skin and bite him? People were very affected by the fact that when Andrews finally gets back to Buffalo Crossing and bathes, the dirt peels off him in scrolls and he is revealed to be covered in insect bites, but wouldn't he in fact be covered in living ticks and lice? And how did the horses and oxen survive when they had to be let loose in the valley for the winter, any grass left from the hot summer long buried in deep banks of snow? And, as Jenny said, where were the wild animals? Charlie Hogue lays strychnine for wolves, but they never see any, and why is there no mention of mountain lions or bears?

And where, asked Mark in provocative disappointment, were the Indians? (Although it was he who had suggested the book, circumstances had prevented him from reading it after all.) Jenny, laughing, told him off for his diction, and John - previously accused by Mark as a purveyor of old-fashioned masculinity - snorted. We did then however consider the lack of Native Americans encountered on the men's journey. At one point a small group near a watercourse watch passively as the expedition goes by, and Miller comments that they are 'not worth killing any more'. The implication is that the Native Americans had been defeated and cleared from the area before 1873 when the action of the novel takes place, but in view of the doubts we had above, and the fact that Native Americans defeated the army at the Battle of Little Bighorn only three years later, people wondered about the veracity of this too.

As John said, the theme of this novel mirrors that of Stoner in which the protagonist survives a life of disappointments through sheer stoicism. Butcher's Crossing ends in disappointment, and Andrews' mistaken idealism has been replaced by a stoical understanding of the futility of much human endeavour. However, although no one could deny that the prose of this book is superb, spare and understated but vivid and ringing with clarity, and that the descriptions of landscape and weather were breathtaking, as John also said, it lacks the passion of the (presumably more autobiographical) Stoner which by comparison is Williams' masterpiece.


October 2017
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

This was a bit of a whole-group choice, made in the absence of Trevor, who had been meant to make the next suggestion, and prompted I suppose by the recent MGM/Hulu TV adaptation. Since Ann was next in line to choose, she stepped in and took on the task of kicking off our discussion.

In the past there seems to have been a bit of a reluctance in the group to read books by Margaret Atwood (one of my absolutely favourite writers), I'm not sure why. John has considered her a bit 'long-winded' - he reveres economy above all, and her books do indeed tend to be lengthy, and packed with lush detail (none of which I consider extraneous, however). There is a bit of a resistance in our group to authors who it is felt have been over-hyped, yet we have read several books by male authors you might say would come in that category, and I have suspected there to be a bit of an unconscious prejudice against Atwood as an overtly feminist writer - she was once published by Virago, and her early books deal most pointedly with feminist issues. The one book of hers we did read as a group was the early and shorter Surfacing, but it didn't go down particularly well, being found to be rather feminist-mystical. However, people had clearly been very impressed by the recent TV series of The Handmaid's Tale, and they all wanted to read the book.

Written in 1984, it is set in a dystopian future when pollution and radiation in America have affected fertility and given rise to a fundamentalist-Christian police state, The Republic of Gilead, in which women have been entirely stripped of all rights and autonomy and those few fertile educated women co-opted, after the Biblical Leah, to bear children for barren ruling couples. Such women, of whom our first-person protagonist, Offred, is one, are virtual prisoners in these households, their only tasks to shop for the household once a day with an assigned handmaid partner, in their regulation voluminous red gowns and the white wings that eclipse their view of the world and prevent eye contact and discussion, watched over at various checkpoints by armed guards, and once a month to take part in the 'ceremony', in which, while the wife holds her, the husband performs the task of fertilisation. Reading is forbidden, and communication with others is dangerous - police informers, the 'Eyes', are everywhere. Handmaids are stripped of all identity and given the household patronymic - in this case, 'Of Fred'.

Ann said that she had never read the book before, but was very glad she now had. She said that she had read it in one sitting on a five-and-a-half hour journey, and was immensely impressed, and wanted now to read it again as she felt that there were layers and layers to be mined in the book. The air of menace is acute and there are sheer horrors - such as the hangings of subversives and renegade women - yet as Ann said there is such a light verbal touch - Atwood is a mistress of irony - that it is immensely readable. Indeed, it is Offred's intelligence and perception, and her irony and spirit of resistance that promote in the reader an ultimate sense of optimism.

Everyone in the room agreed, and felt the book was a masterpiece. Ann said that most remarkable was the prescience of the book, written in 1984 but resonating so strongly with the rise of right-wing factions today. Mark thought that the book must have been even more striking when it came out in 1985, but I have to say that in fact I found the book much more shocking and urgent this time round. In 1985 I read it much more as a projection and warning, but in the light of recent political events it seems much closer to home. Offred constantly looks back on her life before the Republic of Gilead, so we learn how people's rights were peeled away, and everyone agreed that one of the things they found most frightening in the book was the moment when 'Offred' discovers that her electronic cash card no longer works: everyone with 'F' against their name on the database has been stripped of their financial existence at the press of a button. It is worth noting that in 1985 credit cards were not electronic, nor as essential a part of our daily financial transactions as they are either now or in the book; touch-screen cards, such as Offred had, were undreamt of (except of course by Margaret Atwood). In 1985 I didn't think too much about this detail, but reading the book now and thinking of how all our financial transactions are instantly location-recorded, we all felt a distinct chill. Prescience, indeed.

Any accusations of crude anti-male feminism were roundly dispelled by this book. As Mark pointed out, men as well as women suffer in this patriarchal regime, male subversives rounded up and left to hang as public warnings, and the male members of the ruling class, including the head of Offred's household, the high-up 'Commander', are not immune to slipping up and dire punishment. Offred's view of the Commander is complex, encompassing his humanity, and her sexuality too complicated and subtle for the over-simplistic feminism of her long-lost mother and her feisty friend turned subversive fellow handmaid Moira.

Ann said that the fictional 'Historical Notes' that end the book also contribute to a sense of optimism, as they are the transcript of a conference taking place some hundred and fifty years after the events of Offred's story, and in which the Republic of Gilead is discussed as a long-gone historical phenomenon. The speaker discusses the provenance of 'The Handmaid's Tale' we have just read, and which exists in the form of once-subterfuge tape recordings, and speculates on the veracity and significance of the things it describes. Jenny felt that one purpose was to illustrate the contingency and incompleteness of history, and I felt that an important point was to show how difficult it is, from another era or culture, to empathise with the experience of cruel regimes, or see their relevance to ourselves - whereas the searing nature of the tale we have just read shows the urgent necessity of doing so.

So, a book we were all deeply affected by. And as Mark said, Margaret Atwood is very, very clever.
(Also let it be recorded here that I had a signed hardback first edition, which I lent to one of my son's schoolfriends and never got back - not that I begrudge it; I'm pretty pleased for it to have entered his life and mental landscape.)

 

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