David Mitchell, “Cloud Atlas”

2004

David Mitchell’s novel is probably the best thing I read all year. It was inspired by the interrupted narratives of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, but completes all its stories in a nested cycle. This arrangement of narrative, like an onion sliced in half, seems to thematize a postmodern collapse of history and boundlessness of space, forcing us to move first from history to the present to the future, and then back again. Far from being a negative quality, however, Mitchell seems to explore this as a means of creating a story so large that even he, the author, cannot make all its pieces match up (vs. Nabokov). This reminds me of Auerbach on Woolf – the characters being beyond Woolf’s authorial scope, and I want to compare this to The Waves & The Golden Notebook as British novels in 6 voices.

The novel’s complex nuanced overlaps of the pages of the atlas Mitchell creates remind me of the opening critique of the hysterical realist novel by James Wood: Several of the main characters have the same distinctive birthmark, like a shooting star. Mitchell has said,

Literally all of the main characters, except one, are reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies throughout the novel identified by a birthmark…that’s just a symbol really of the universality of human nature. The title itself “Cloud Atlas,” the cloud refers to the ever changing manifestations of the Atlas, which is the fixed human nature which is always thus and ever shall be. So the book’s theme is predacity, the way individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations, tribes on tribes. So I just take this theme and in a sense reincarnate that theme in another context..

Genealogy is also present throughout the text. Adam Ewing’s son Jackson edits the journals and is the person for whom Ewing wants to improve the world (he becomes an abolitionist). Luisa del Ray is rescued by her father’s friend. Zachry’s son ends the “Sloosha’s Crossin'” tale. Yet it is never a safe origin point, but rather a Foucauldian arrival point of results – it feels temporally lateral, and many  bonds are of affiliation rather than filiation, as in The Waves.

Another theme is the cloud atlas itself. Zachry ends his tale with “Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ the clouds” 308. Frobisher critiques Ewing’s journal for being too neatly structured (like Benito Cereno, but also Hawthorne’s birthmark theme?), but he doubts his own ‘gimmicky’ “Cloud Atlas Sextet.” Luisa Rey receives the letters, but the novel she appears in is fictional in the world of Timothy Cavendish. His narration, later made into a film, is an actual film when Sonmi sees it. Finally, Zachry believes in Sonmi as a god, but his son watches her on the recovered orison and doesn’t understand her language – she is just “beaut’some, and she ‘mazes the littl’ uns an’ her murmin’s babbybie our babbits. Sit down a beat or two. Hold out your hands” 309. (A ‘babbit’ is an unthinking middle-class man, as in the title of Sinclair Lewis’ 1922 novel, the same year as Ulysses). This central “ending” questions the whole enterprise of narrative – it is both a force so powerful that it leads us to bind all these lives together, and something so fragile that time can erase its legibility completely.

The structure of Cloud Atlas:

1: Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (1849 – American in Pacific Islands) – journal
2: Letters from Zedelghem (1931 – Englishman in Belgium) – epistolary
3: Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (1975- American in LA) – detective novel
4: The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (2000 – Englishman in UK) – film script
5: An Orison of Sonmi-451 (2200? – clone in Korea) – interview
6: Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After (post-apocalyptic – islanders in Maui) – oral story
5: An Orison of Sonmi-451 – Zachry’s tribe worships Sonmi; Zachry’s son’s children watch her orison.
4: The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish – Sonmi watches archived film version
3: Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery – Timothy Cavendish reads and critiques novel
2: Letters from Zedelghem – Sixsmith keeps them and Luisa Rey finds them
1: Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing – Frobisher finds in Ayrs’ library and figures out Henry’s plan (Melville)

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E.M. Forster, “Howards End”

1910

The Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen (and their brother Tibby) are half-German intellectuals living in London. They meet the Wilcoxes, wealthy capitalists who have made their money in colonial rubber and are less artistic but more common-sensical. Unlike their grander places in town, etc., Ruth Wilcox’s house at Howards End has been handed down from her family, rather than purchased with the new money of the Wilcoxes. She leaves it to Margaret on her deathbed in a moment of pity that she will be kicked out of Wickham Place (another Jane Austen reference!), but the Wilcoxes throw away the paper on which she writes it (like Middlemarch). The narrator:

“It is rather a moment when the commentator should step forward. Ought the Wilcoxes to have offered their home to Margaret? I think not. The appeal was too flimsy. It was not legal; it had been written in inllness, and under the spell of a sudden friendship… to them Howards End was a house: they could not know that to her it had been a spirit, for which she sought a spiritual heir” 114.

Margaret becomes close to Henry, however, and marries him, making the children dislike her. The Schlegels try to help the Basts, a poorer couple, and enlist the help of Henry Wilcox to get him a job. Helen sleeps with him out of pity when this fails and disappears the Europe.

Eventually, we discover that Helen is pregnant. She returns home and says she no longer hates Henry and sees why Margaret married him. She wonders why both times she fell in love it was for a night of loneliness and panic afterwards. Margaret confronts Henry Wilcox, having learned that he once had an affair with Leonard’s now-wife and abandoned her in Cyprus. Margaret urges him to see that this is the same as Helen sleeping with Leonard, but he will not admit it. When Leonard comes to talk to Margaret, he discovers Helen there as well. Charles, one of Wilcox’s sons, attacks him with a sword for his behavior, knocking him into a bookshelf, which falls on him and kills him because of his weak heart. Helen and the boy will live at Howards end with Margaret, who is given the house in the will. The novel ends with “Mr. and Mrs. Wilcox” reconciled (Margaret shivers to learn she was once bequeathed the house, but insists her husband did nothing wrong) and the others come in from the field which will yield “such a crop of hay as never!”

In bequeathing Howards End to Margaret, who will give it to her illegitimate nephew, product of Helen and Bast, Forster suggests a shifting sense of class and inheritance that nonetheless bind the house as a lasting sign of dignity and tradition in the English novel. The relationship between Helen and Margaret also reminds me of that between Jane and Lizzie Bennet in Austen, Ursula and Gudrun in Lawrence, Molly and Anna in Lessing. The heavy weight of (literary) English history is also what kills Leonard – the sword and the pen, the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels of the world united in his downfall.

Howards End parades as a Victorian “novel of manners,” but updates the genre in a number of interesting ways. The omniscient narrator operates more by direct and indirect discourse even than free indirect discourse, and offers Austen-like comparisons of how much different people would enjoy Beethoven’s Fifth, which “will be generally admitted” to be “the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man… Helen, who can see heroes and shipwrecks in the music’s flood, Margaret, who can only see the music…” 38. The fact that the plot does not end in Helen’s marriage, but a new kind of family, is more modern, as is the tragic and strange chance death of Leonard.

It would be interesting to place him in a tradition with Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, and Julian Fellows’ Downton Abbey. Sebastian’s charm leads Charles to the Marchmains, much as Paul involves Helen Schlegel with the Wilcoxes, giving on to Margaret’s fascination with first one, then the other parent. In Fellows’ show, the house (much grander) is more important than all of the American mother’s money used to save it – it confers “history” (what makes this show so strange). Mary and Matthew’s marriage is a sort of twist on the Margaret-Henry Wilcox match.

Doris Lessing, “The Golden Notebook”

1962

The Golden Notebook, often considered one of the great works of second-wave feminism (though Lessing thought it came too early for that and claims she had no such agenda) tells the story of the writer Anna Wulf and her friend Molly Jacobs. Molly has been married to Richard, from whom she has Tommy. Anna has been married to Willi/Max (she met him while in Rhodesia in the 40s) and has a child, Janet, with him. She also has a long affair with Michael, who does not requite her love, and Saul, a brash American who opens her writing up to new levels, but ultimately disappears and gives way to the next man in line.

Much of the work is a treatise on various social issues, despite Lessing’s insistent claims that this was a “misreading” of the novel. Anna and Molly continually try to reintegrate themselves to Party life, only to find themselves disenchanted and leave again. It’s hard to consider it a misreading when all of this is so plainly spelled out at every turn (‘this is what women are experiencing today’), and this is where the wonderful novel is at its weakest. It engages in gender essentialism, national and political stereotypes (mostly about Americans, Brits, communists, and ‘liberals’), and overstatements of feeling and thought that verge onto D.H. Lawrence’s sometimes overblown “novel of ideas” style.

 

Indeed, the opening scene shows the two alone, discussing marriage, relationships, and themselves as “free women,” restaging the beginning of Lawrence’s Women in Love. In fact, The Golden Notebook restages modernism in a variety of ways. Anna’s concern with representing her bodily functions (unisex and particularly female) resonates with Joyce’s Ulysses, as does the Molly/Marion pair who have both been married to Richard. Richard, a real square and a businessman who cannot express emotion, is reminiscent of Richard Dalloway, and Anna’s surname (Wulf), as well as Molly’s (Jacobs [Room?] can be no accident. Instead of the 6 voices of The Waves, we have 6 parts of Anna and her life.

The splitting of the self that the novel insists on seems to stem from Woolf’s persistent attempts to represent the female splitting and gathering self in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, as well as the passage in A Room of One’s Own where Woolf insists that to write as a woman is always to write multiply. Anna herself tells Tommy that she cannot write in one notebook because it would be an overwhelming chaos.

The novel has 6 component parts: the black, red, yellow, and blue notebooks, the golden notebook that tries to combine them, and the interspersed metanovel segments called “Free Women.” The four notebooks are in first-person by Anna (except the yellow one, where she is called Ella and Molly Julia). They each appear 4 times in the cycle, while the metanovel “Free Women” has 5 sections, and the golden notebook has just 1 section, which is the penultimate of the book and corresponds as a sort of “5th” occurrence of the other 4 notebooks, since it combines them.

The structure of the novel as repeating cycles seems to mimic both political waxings and wanings, the rhythm of everyday domestic life in motherhood, and the female body. Around the middle of the novel, Anna gets her period and continues to mention its inconveniences, pains, and awarenesses for several days’ worth of entries.

I’d like to think about this novel as an extension of the crisis of faith concerns in the works of Waugh, Greene, and Murdoch, but here the faith in question is, ironically, Marxism. I therefore want to experiment with aligning them with sections of the gospel and Eliot’s The Waste Land. The notebooks:

Black: Anna’s memories of her past in Rhodesia, as well as her record of finances (money/sources). (MARK: earliest source, travel, heroism, death) (Burial of the Dead – the difficulty of memory and prophecy, the struggle to express meaning.)

Red: Anna’s diary of her involvement in the Party. (MATTHEW: history, law, based on Mark, written to Jews) (A Game of Chess – sex as strategy, disappointment, disillusionment, concerned with matters of class and gender.)

Yellow: Anna’s own novel about Ella and Julia. (LUKE: longest, most evangelical and poetic, emotional and metatextual) (The Fire Sermon – a cleansing but collapsing of society as we know it.)

Blue: Anna’s diary, largely made up of dreams and fantasies, as well as day-to-day conversations and occurrences. (JOHN: visionary, salvatory, erratic) (Death by Water – the mystical possibility of death and rejuvenation in one).

Golden: Anna’s attempt to bind the other 4 together. (The Holy Gospel as an imbricated text.) (What the Thunder Said – combining fragments against one’s ruin, trying to revivify spirituality and love.)

I think it’s worth considering how this presages the narrative levels in Byatt or many of the “hysterical realism” novels. It also seems to me the first venture into postmodernism, except maybe Naipaul. It certainly implants the fragmented subject firmly in the British literary tradition where it does not seem to have existed before – would also be worth comparing with Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49. 

Iris Murdoch, “The Bell”

1958

Like Waugh and Greene, in The Bell Iris Murdoch takes up the problem of faith – once again, the Catholic minority. Dora Greenfield, a sort of midcentury reincarnation of Dorothea from Middlemarch, is married to the stuffy academic Causabon Paul Greenfield, who continually tries to suppress her. The novel begins and ends with her having left Paul, but focuses on a period during which she returns to him as he studies at a religious community at Imber. The lay people on the outside are experimenting with an almost cultlike ascetiticsm, but within the walls of the convent proper are sealed a number of nuns who never contact the outside world.

The novel is fascinated with these layers of impenetrability: the structure of faith (religious, interpersonal, the mechanization of “miracle” by Toby and Dora), the structure of narrative (“already Imber had become a story,” the constant narrativization and letter-writing, and the last line “tonight she would be telling the whole story to Sally”), the metaphor of the bell (which can either be a means of working inside out or outside in), the surface and depths of the lake – at once transparent and impossibly dark/ natural and manmade, the nature of sexuality (both surface and depth, both clear and muted like the bells). The miracle of all the doublings in the novel also sustains it – Catherine and Nick (muted and loud), James and Michael, Toby and Dora, etc.

Wikipedia’s key to chapters:

  1. Introduction to Paul and Dora Greenfield, Toby Gashe, and James Tayper Pace. Train ride from London to Gloucestershire.
  2. A drive to Imber Court, and introduction to much of the rest of the community.
  3. Paul tells Dora the legend of the bell.
  4. Conversation between James and Michael, and introduction to Nick Fawley.
  5. Dora’s tour of the grounds with Mrs Mark, and, with Michael, the discovery of Toby swimming.
  6. Michael’s nightmare, his background, and a business meeting at Imber Court.
  7. Michael’s history with the Fawleys.
  8. Peter, Toby, Michael, and Dora inspect the birds in the woods.
  9. James’ sermon, and a fight between Dora and Paul.
  10. Toby discovers an underwater bell.
  11. Michael and Toby travel to Swindon.
  12. Michael and Toby’s individual thoughts on their last encounter, and a walk in the woods.
  13. Toby’s thoughts on the walk, and his entry into the abbey.
  14. Dora’s sojourn in London.
  15. Toby sees Dora in the window, and later tells her of the Bell.
  16. Michael’s sermon, and encounter with drunken Nick.
  17. Toby and Dora raise the bell.
  18. Paul tells Michael part of the legend of the bell, and Nick tells Michael that Dora is having an affair.
  19. Michael receives advice from James and the Abbess.
  20. Noel and the Bishop come to Imber Court to christen the bell.
  21. Nick tells Toby to confess.
  22. Dora overhears Nick’s informing Noel, and rings the bell.
  23. The new bell is sunk in the water during a procession, Catherine attempts suicide, and Dora is rescued by Mother Clare.
  24. Paul leaves Imber Court to see to the old bell in London.
  25. James reveals to Michael that he knows about him and Toby. Nick commits suicide.
  26. The community is dissolved, and Michael and Dora work hard together. Michael is in pain. Dora says goodbye to Michael.

Evelyn Waugh, “Brideshead Revisited”

1945

The novel tells the story of Charles Ryder, who goes off to Oxford, befriends Sebastian Flyte, and falls in with the aesthete set, including Anthony Blanche and other homosexuals. There is a strong implication (“our naughtiness was high on the catalogue of grave sins”) that the two are lovers, but it is never disclosed. Charles loses touch with his family as he begins to adore the Marchmains, where he begins to paint as well. Eventually, Sebastian’s depression and alcoholism sideline him, and Charles continues to attach himself to the family via the sister Julia, who is married but divorced (unsuccessfully as it turns out). Charles returns to the house in the war to find it destroyed.

One of the most interesting things about the novel is how it self-destructs, driving Sebastian off to Africa, decentering the plot strands it has constructed, and ending in a half-hearted deathbed conversion by Mr. Marchmain and a lame marriage refusal by Julia in the name of godliness (as in Graham Greene). Thus, the prose parallels the imaginative experience of decay – Charles’ failure to replace his love for Sebastian with that of his sister, both practically and emotionally. The motif “Et in Arcadia Ego” signals the presence of death in the idyllic world Charles believes he has entered.

As in other postwar novels, the grip on ceremony and tradition seems to be a desperate and knowingly hollow grapple with a religion that is itself on its deathbed. When we arrive at Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, this becomes a political crisis of faith rehearsed in religious form.

D.H. Lawrence, “Women in Love”

1920

Originally of a set with The Rainbow, D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love exerted a major influence over later British novelists and critics alike. Lawrence rewrote the novel throughout the war, and its setting is largely that of Europe in crisis, even if we only see it at the level of philosophical thought, rather than physical danger. The characters themselves are types of the war, but they were also all to personal for Lawrence’s contemporaries, and he was sued for libel by Ottoline Morrell (Hermione) and others.

Wikipedia plot summary:

Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen are two sisters living in the Midlands of England in the 1910s. Ursula is a teacher, Gudrun an artist. They meet two men who live nearby, school inspector Rupert Birkin and coal-mine heir Gerald Crich. The four become friends. Ursula and Birkin become involved, and Gudrun eventually begins a love affair with Gerald. All four are deeply concerned with questions of society, politics, and the relationship between men and women. At a party at Gerald’s estate, Gerald’s sister Diana drowns. Gudrun becomes the teacher and mentor of his youngest sister. Soon Gerald’s coal-mine-owning father dies as well, after a long illness. After the funeral, Gerald goes to Gudrun’s house and spends the night with her, while her parents are asleep in another room. Birkin asks Ursula to marry him, and she agrees. Gerald and Gudrun’s relationship, however, becomes stormy. The four vacation in the Alps. Gudrun begins an intense friendship with Loerke, a physically puny but emotionally commanding artist from Dresden. Gerald, enraged by Loerke and most of all by Gudrun’s verbal abuse and rejection of his manhood, and driven by the internal violence of his own self, tries to strangle Gudrun. Before he has killed her, however, he realizes that this is not what he wants—he leaves Gudrun and Loerke and on his skis climbs ever upward on the mountains, eventually slipping into a snow valley where he falls asleep, a frozen sleep from which he never awakens. The impact on Birkin of Gerald’s death is profound; the novel ends a few weeks after Gerald’s death, with Birkin trying to explain to Ursula that he needs Gerald as he needs her—her for the perfect relationship with a woman, and Gerald for the perfect relationship with a man.

Though Lawrence is sometimes read as antifeminist, I treasure his novels because they explore female desire and sexuality at a wonderfully bodily, rather than symbolic, level. They also call attention to the vitality of female friendship and sisterhood, which accords with Woolf’s projects and with Doris Lessing’s, who begins The Golden Notebook with a reworking of Women In Love’s opening scene.

Like Howards End, Women in Love is a novel of ideas. Gerald, often read as an Ezra Pound or high modernist, is an idealist, whereas Rupert Birkin is more of a phenomenologist (or more Burkian?), not indulging sensuality as a hedonist, materialist, or aesthete, but suspending judgment for the sake of experience.

What I most noticed rereading the novel this time was the preponderance of the figurative language “like,” but especially “as if” – sometimes eight or ten times in a single page! Here are some examples from just a page:

[Hermione sang] in her low, odd, singing fashion, that sounded almost as if she were poking fun… [Ursula laughed], because Hermione seemed to be compelling her, coming very close to her, as if intimate with her; and yet, how could she be intimate?… [Hermione] spoke all the while in a mocking, half teasing fashion, as if making game of the whole business” 31.

To be sure, these linguistic figurations are hesitant similes, rather than sure, embodied metaphors, but they are also a clearer laying bare of the imaginative acts of thinking and writing. They form a kind of treatise with the reader, inviting engagement with the idea of the suspension of belief itself. This is compounded by Lawrence’s compound words and kennings – “mystic-real,” etc., highlighting language as an imaginative act as well.

The language even seems to infect reviewers – Walter Kendrick of the New York Times writes that the novel ends “as if Lawrence were annoyed with himself for failing to settle it.” In fact, the ending repeats the phrase as part of its imaginative inconclusivity:

“You can’t have two kinds of love. Why should you!” “It seems as if I can’t,” [Birkin] said. “Yet I wanted it.” “You can’t have it, because it’s false, impossible,” she said. “I don’t believe that,” he answered 473.

The mode of this figuration would stretch from metaphor (it is) to simile (it is like) to fictionality (as if), which seems to me one step away from the subjunctive storytelling of writers like Pynchon. In this way, they give on to a sort of utopian ideal, a fantasy of artistic hope, more than any actual belief that change will really occur. In this way, Women in Love exchanges one kind of idealism (Kantian or aesthetic, killed off in Gerald) for another (sociopolitical, still alive in Birkin).

James Wood, “Human, All Too Inhuman” & “Tell Me How Does it Feel

“HUMAN, ALL TOO INHUMAN” – August 30, 2001 – New Republic

Taking its title from the first work of aphorisms by Nietzsche (Human, All Too Human), James Wood’s review of Zadie Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, is most famous for its coinage of the term “hysterical realism” (a term of dubious value in any case, but especially, I think, because he coins it in reviewing a female novelist). Wood begins by diagnosing a “hardening genre” of novel in the tradition of Charles Dickens:

A genre is hardening. It is becoming easy to describe the contemporary idea of the “big, ambitious novel.” Familial resemblances are asserting themselves, and a parent can be named: he is Dickens. Such recent novels as The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Mason & Dixon, Underworld, Infinite Jest, and now White Teeth overlap rather as the pages of an atlas expire into each other at their edges. A landscape is disclosed–lively and varied and brightly marked, but riven by dead gullies.

(The image of the atlas here would make a fascinating comparison with David Mitchell… It’s so close to the goal of that book that one almost wonders if it was his inspiration!)

The big contemporary novel is a perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence–as it were, a criminal running endless charity marathons. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, as these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion. Inseparable from this culture of permanent storytelling is the pursuit of vitality at all costs. Indeed, vitality is storytelling, as far as these books are concerned.

Creating an imaginary description of a novel culled from many styles, James Wood jokes about improbable names like Toby Awknotuby (perhaps as in Pynchon), twins in Delhi with the same “genital mutilation” (perhaps as in Rushdie), the cult study of Wordsworth by Hell’s Angels (perhaps as in DeLillo), and weird character traits that occurred at specific moments in history (perhaps as in David Foster Wallace). The problem with this for Wood is that it occurs before the character has “done a thing, or thought a thought!”

Zadie Smith is added to this tradition because of her own twins, “silly acronym[s],” and farfetched scientific claptrap. “This is not magical realism,” Wood famously says, “It is hysterical realism.”

“Storytelling has become a kind of grammar in these novels; it is how they structure and drive themselves on. The conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted, and overworked. Appropriately, then, objections [by whom?] are not made at the level of verisimilitude, but at the level of morality [oh dear]: this style of writing is not to be faulted because it lacks reality–the usual charge against botched realism–but because it seems evasive of reality while borrowing from realism itself. It is not a cock-up, but a cover-up.

Underworld’s “calm profusion” has “a soothing sense that it might never have to end, that another thousand or two thousand pages might easily be added.” This fearful continuity (what I want to consider as vital to seriality and faceting), conceals a sort of mindlessness for Wood, as he reveals when he puns on the “lights are on, but nobody’s home” cliche: “Bright lights are taken as evidence of habitation.”

What are these stories evading? One of the awkwardnesses evaded is precisely an awkwardness about the possibility of novelistic storytelling. This in turn has to do with an awkwardness about character and the representation of character… they clothe real people who could never actually endure the stories that happen to them… they are stories which defy the laws of persuasion… what above all makes these stories unconvincing is precisely their very profusion, their relatedness. One cult is convincing; three cults are not.

I find myself rather confused about what it is, for Wood, that distinguishes these recent works from earlier postmodernism, such as White Noise, The Crying of Lot 49, even Pale Fire or The Golden Notebook! This obsession with network and profusion seems to me a hallmark of the fiction of the era, rather than a swerve of the 1990s. Take this description, which is not only a perfect description of The Crying of Lot 49, but also the essence of its genius (which Wood, apparently, does not admit):

An endless web is all they need for meaning. Each of these novels is excessively centripetal. The different stories all intertwine, and double and triple on themselves. Characters are forever seeing connections and links and plots, and paranoid parallels. (There is something essentially paranoid about the belief that everything is connected to everything else.)

What interests me in Wood’s critique is the way that his critique of these novels seems to me to be their very strength; he seems to want to hold to a model of the novel as a fixed, unchanging genre. And it’s not even so much that this is all new; it is rather its return to 19th century convention with a contemporary twist that irks him:

These novelists proceed like street-planners of old in South London: they can never name a street Ruskin Street without linking a whole block, and filling it with Carlyle Street, and Turner Street, and Morris Street, and so on.

In a mode similar to the social realist novel of the 19th century, these novels emphasize forces or ideas over characters, for Wood:

Life is never experienced with such a fervid intensity of connectedness… real humans disaggregate more often than they congregate. So these novels find themselves in the paradoxical position of enforcing connections that are finally conceptual rather than human. The forms of these novels tell us that we are all connected–by the Bomb (DeLillo), or by myth (Rushdie), or by our natural multiracial multiplicity (Smith); but it is a formal lesson rather an actual enactment.

Paradoxically, this is what I find so formally interesting about the novels Wood criticizes. In fact, I think their multiple characters, which drop in and out of lives, are more like a certain kind of realism (we try to make patterns around characters that disappear), and the emphasis on ideas and forces clearly has something to do with a rising awareness of and interaction with systems, technology, and globalization, which the novel cannot help but assimilate and explore. The novel, as Bakhtin points out, swallows up genres and ideas and modes of parlance. Its form of mimesis must change as the world changes (think of Benjamin’s argument about society, or Stendhahl’s mirror vs faceting…) What if the experiment of David Mitchell is the “Time Passes” section of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse taken to its most fecund point for a new age? Wood argues that these characters have no character (I almost think he means morality…):

All these contemporary deformations flow from a crisis that is not only the fault of the writers concerned, but is now of some lineage: the crisis of character, and how to represent it in fiction. Since modernism, many of the finest writers have been offering critique and parody of the idea of character, in the absence of convincing ways to return to an innocent mimesis. Certainly, the characters who inhabit the big, ambitious contemporary novels have a showy liveliness, a theatricality, that almost succeeds in hiding the fact that they are without life: liveliness hangs off them like jewelry.

Smith is ‘not as bad’ as some of the others, like Rushdie. Sometimes we feel sympathy and interest for her characters. “Clearly, Smith does not lack for powers of invention. The problem is that there is too much of it.” What he finally betrays is his distrust of the novels’ surfaces:

As realism, it is incredible; as satire, it is cartoonish; as cartoon, it is too realistic; and anyway, we are not led toward the consciousness of a truly devoted religionist. It is all shiny externality, all caricature.

Wood acknowledges that many great writers used types (I’m yawning at Dostoevsky and Tolstoy as the examples he gives, not only because it’s dull to extol the 19th century Russian writers at the expense of Dickens, etc., but because it’s not even true, especially of Tolstoy. Two writers could not differ more than they do…). The novels he offers as counterexamples include Buddenbrooks, “written by a writer only a year older than Zadie Smith” (yes! by Thomas Mann! In 1901!), as well as the “less great” Nausea by Sartre and Camus’ The Plague. Wood’s praise is that these engage the same “unreal, symbolic vitality” of hysterical realism, but attach it to ‘real’ characters.

Wood’s problem with the style of the contemporary novel seems mainly to lie in its abandonment of the Jamesian ideal of the individual bourgeois ego unfolding in a psychically complex way to the reader over time. The modernist novels he cites are all written this way; thus he implicitly endorses contemporary novels in the vein of Ishiguro and McEwan – replays of realism and modernism, for which I find them far less interesting – rather than the likes of Smith, Mitchell, and the American writers. (Where would Byatt fall, in his view? She does both so expertly…) Of course this is where we arrive at Dickens:

Many of Dickens’s characters are, as Forster [in Aspects of the Novel] rightly put it, flat but vibrating very fast. They are vivid blots of essence. They are souls seen only through thick, gnarled casings. Their vitality is a histrionic one. Dickens has been the overwhelming influence on postwar fiction, especially postwar British fiction [Spark, Naipaul, Smith].

Here again, Wood prioritizes Forster’s ancient idea of “flat” and “round” characters over any new and vital possibilities for the novel (he also folds Bellow and De Lillo in at this juncture). Here’s where it gets really rude:

One obvious reason for the popularity of Dickens among contemporary novelists is that his way of creating and propelling theatrically alive characters offers an easy model for writers unable, or unwilling, to create characters who are fully human… He shows a novelist how to get a character launched, if not how to keep him afloat, and this glittering liveliness is simply easier to copy, easier to figure out, than the recessed and deferred complexities of, say, Henry James’s character-making. Put bluntly, Dickens makes caricature respectable for an age in which, for various reasons, it has become hard to create character.

But it gets worse:

Yet that is not all there is in Dickens, which is why most contemporary novelists are only his morganatic heirs. There is in Dickens also an immediate access to strong feeling, which rips the puppetry of his people, breaks their casings, and lets us enter them.

For Wood, no one cries and has outbursts of feeling in these novels (I feel like we are reading different novels… What of all the tears in Zadie Smith? Or Jack and his wife in White Noise? Oedipa’s tears in Lot 49?) Here again with the priority of the individual psyche:

It is now customary to read 700-page novels, to spend hours and hours within a fictional world, without experiencing anything really affecting, sublime, or beautiful.This is partly because some of the more impressive novelistic minds of our age do not think that language and the representation of consciousness are the novelist’s quarries any more. Information has become the new character.

Wood doesn’t seem to consider that perhaps it isn’t that these authors can’t write a certain way, but that they want to explore the world this way. His horrible dismissal of pop culture and film makes it clearer still that he seems to fall on the aesthetic side of the curmudgeonly Adorno (rather than fun-having Benjamin): “It is this, and the use made of Dickens, that connects DeLillo and the reportorial Tom Wolfe, despite the literary distinction of the former and the cinematic vulgarity of the latter.” Zadie Smith heself, Wood points out, admits that “none of us” have yet gotten the balance of information and character right… yet.

Ironically, the moments of Smith’s novel that “glow” for Wood, that are “better” than Rushdie, are actually the descriptions of “a recognizable English type… receding,” another weird way in which even his valorizations (of an old white dude in a young novel bursting with multiculturalism) seem to completely miss the point of the text at hand.

About her, one is tempted to apply Orwell’s remark that Dickens had rotten architecture but great gargoyles. The architecture is the essential silliness of her lunge for multiplicities–her cults and cloned mice and Jamaican earthquakes. Formally, her book lacks moral seriousness.

Its best moments, for Wood, are again where it regurgitates the formal tropes of modernism:

When Smith is writing well, she seems capable of a great deal. At several moments, for example, she proves herself skilled at interior monologue, and brilliant, in other passages, at free indirect style:

There’s a disturbing way in which the novel seems to be unreal for Wood because he simply refuses to recognize the reality it seeks to portray. He refuses to enter the suspension of belief that fiction invites and entails. Characters “binging in any kind of allusion” might actually be what those characters think, but Wood does not want to be convinced:

Nothing we know about Samad… convinces us that Smith is telling the truth when she tells us that this hot-headed Muslim sat talking about women’s breasts; the topic seems, instead, to have been chosen by Smith from a catalogue of cliches called “Things Men Talk About in Bars”… The language is oddly thick-fingered, and stubs itself into the vernacular: that juvenile verb “squished,” for instance… corrupts… it is bewildering when… she seems to leave Samad’s interior, and watch him from the outside, satirically (and rather crudely).

Wood reduces all of these to the old dialectical binaries, erasing the multiplicity they try to represent: “And so it goes on, in a curious shuffle of sympathy and distance, affiliation and divorce, brilliance and cartoonishness, astonishing maturity and ordinary puerility.” When characters change their minds, there is no Jamesian depth; “It as if the novel were deciding at these moments whether to cast depths on its shallows, and deciding against.” Once more, we’re reminded that this is ‘even worse’ than Dickens:

It is quite clear that a general message about the need to escape roots is more important than Irie’s reality, what she might actually think, her consciousness…This is problem-solving, all right. But at what cost? As Irie disappears under the themes and ideas, the reader perhaps thinks wistfully of Mr. Micawber and David Copperfield, so uncovered by theme and idea, so uninsured, weeping together in an upstairs room.

“Which way will the ambitious contemporary novel go? Will it dare a picture of life, or just shout a spectacle?” For Wood, these are diametrically opposed values, and though the novel he’s reviewing contains both, it shouldn’t, mostly because he refuses to believe that it can.

“TELL ME HOW DOES IT FEEL” – October 5, 2001 – The Guardian

Lambasting Zadie Smith wasn’t enough for James Wood. Two months later, following the 9/11 attacks, in a bizarre rerouting of his theory, James Wood writes another article on the topic of hysterical realism. This time the subheading is “U.S. novelists must now abandon social and theoretical glitter, says James Wood.”

How we swerved from Wood’s first theory, originating in the work of Naipaul, Rushdie, and, above all, Smith in the UK and somewhat well-connected to Wallace, Pynchon, and DeLillo in the US over to a transparently anti-American theory of national artistic corruption that somehow has something to do with 9/11 – after the fact – is mind-boggling. Wood ironically enacts the same paranoid overconnectedness of facts that he critiques in fictions. The article begins with Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis saying they’re shamefully glad they don’t have a book coming out this month. In my mind, Wood should be ashamed he did have a review a month beforehand.

“Will the horrid alteration of America’s greatest city also alter the American novel?” Wood wonders (as if it could not). Stranger still, Wood claims a skepticism about the value of the information fiction he was already preaching before 9/11 even happened: 

“One is naturally suspicious of all the eschatological talk about how the time for trivia has ended, and how only seriousness is now on people’s minds – not least because the people saying it are usually themselves trivial and, as in McInerney’s piece, are thus unwitting arguments against their own new-found seriousness. Doubtless,  trivia and mediocrity will find their own level again, in novel-writing as in everything else. And besides, the “New York novel” – as opposed to the novel set in New York – is a genre of no importance at all. If I live the rest of my life without having to come across another book like Bret Easton Ellis’s New York novel, Glamorama, I will have very happily been what Psalm 81 calls “delivered from the pots”.

He goes on to admit that “there has, of course, been great fiction set or partly set in New York” – thanks, Wood, I really couldn’t figure that out by myself – glad we all have your blessing to agree. These are “already dark books” – how would they accommodate 9/11? Once again, their great value is that “their foci are human and metaphysical before they are social and documentary” – the modernist rises again. “They are stories, above all, about individual consciousness, not about the consciousness of Manhattan.” Once again, too, he attacks the “tentacular” Underworld: 

he DeLilloan idea of the novelist as a kind of Frankfurt School entertainer – a cultural theorist, fighting the culture with dialectical devilry – has been woefully influential, and will take some time to die.

The reviewer, mistaking bright lights for evidence of habitation, praises the novelist who knows about, say, the sonics of volcanoes. Who also knows how to make a fish curry in Fiji! Who also knows about terrorist cults in Kilburn! And about the New Physics! And so on. The result – in America at least – is novels of immense self-consciousness with no selves in them at all, curiously arrested and very “brilliant” books that know a thousand things but do not know a single human being.

This is a lot like the piece on Zadie Smith, and he goes on to attack her next. What’s so bizarre here is the mention of curry and Kilburn even as the insults fly toward specifically American novels – oh, and Zadie Smith. And Rushdie. And… What Wood hopes is that

This idea – that the novelist’s task is to go on to the street and figure out social reality – may well have been altered by the events of September 11, merely through the reminder that whatever the novel gets up to, the “culture” can always get up to something bigger. Ashes defeat garlands.

Wood again deploys a modernist image of backward-looking mimesis to claim an “explosion” that the contemporary novel already explores and values, though he doesn’t seem to see it:

Fiction may well be, as Stendhal wrote, a mirror carried down the middle of a road; but the Stendhalian mirror would explode with reflections were it now being walked around Manhattan.

He even takes on a Yeatsian “Surely, the Second Coming” tone as he wishes this change into existence:

Surely, for a while, novelists will be leery of setting themselves up as analysts of society, while society bucks and charges so helplessly. Surely they will tread carefully over their generalisations. It is now very easy to look very dated very fast.

He cites the irony of Franzen’s The Corrections, which ends with the line “disasters of this magnitude no longer seemed to befall the United States.” More death wishes:

he other casualty of recent events may well be – it is to be hoped – what I have called “hysterical realism”. Hysterical realism is not exactly magical realism, but magical realism’s next stop. It is characterised by a fear of silence.

And for the grand finale, Wood’s hopelessly modernism-loving conclusion:

It ought to be harder, now, either to bounce around in the false zaniness of hysterical realism or to trudge along in the easy fidelity of social realism. Both genres look a little busted. That may allow a space for the aesthetic, for the contemplative, for novels that tell us not “how the world works” but “how somebody felt about something” – indeed, how a lot of different people felt about a lot of different things (these are commonly called novels about human beings). A space may now open, one hopes, for the kind of novel that shows us that human consciousness is the truest Stendhalian mirror, reflecting helplessly the newly dark lights of the age.

Shoshanna Felman, “What Does A Woman Want?”

1993

Felman wonders whether feminists can reclaim Freud’s famous question in a letter to Marie Bonaparte: “What does a woman want?” The question is always male – a bemusement in the face of women’s resistance to their place in patriarchy, but can it be reclaimed? If so, what are its affordances? In examining the male texts of Balzac and Freud, Felman sees a common fascination with female resistance – to be appropriated, interpreted, or recognized.

Felman tells the story of how Simone de Beauvoir began The Second Sex not as a feminist, but as a woman situating herself, first through the eyes of others, then through her own eyes. de Beauvoir tells Sartre that she became a feminist less through writing than through the existence of her book in a community of women around the world. This idea of becoming a woman, becoming a feminist, is vital to Johnson. It is also, as Rich says, a re-vision of the past.

Felman’s chapter on Freud begins with Juliet Mitchell’s argument that Freudian psychoanalysis is not sexist. Felman agrees that psychoanalysis has a number of useful valences for feminist reflection, but does not think Freud is immune from mistakes and oversights that can be critiqued through a feminist lens. Ultimately, she argues that femininity is “the navel of psychoanalysis: a nodal point of significant resistance in the text of the ongoing psychoanalytic dream of understanding; a navel that, though ‘unplumbable,’ is also positively… [the] ‘point of contact with the unknown’… dynamic play… with its own self-difference” 120.

In the final chapter, Felman considers Woolf, de Beauvoir, and Rich as “autobiographers.” She begins by claiming the Interpretation of Dreams as Freud’s own autobiography. Freud’s value is of “a structure of address inclusive of its otherness,” but she begins to turn in her own autobiographical consideration away from men entirely. Like Woolf, she attempts to correct this: she is speaking to women with the knowledge that she is being overheard – she wants to make room for men, too (like A Room of One’s Own). Rich first accuses Woolf of an oversight in this sense. Felman encourages us to “read autobiographically,” “giving testimony to the unsuspected, unexpected ‘feminine resistance’ in the text” 133. It is a practice of “experiencing this feminine resistance as a joint effect of interaction among literature, autobiography, and theory, insofar as all three modes resist, precisely, one another” 133. Thus we must read ourselves with theory’s tools as a resistance to theory – a similar formulation as art and autonomy for Adorno.

Felman points out that in Rich’s famous poem, “Diving Into the Wreck,” the speaker says, “I am he, I am she,” breaking down the very binary that Rich uses to resist Woolf’s address. The poetry is “autobiography and resistance to autobiography,” as Woolf’s is as well, and as Felman notes, de Beauvoir’s too. Woolf’s way to autobiography is via the detour of fiction – she cannot be named in A Room of One’s Own – she is “Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please.” (This indeterminacy is also like Rich.) Thus Woolf births her own autobiographer – Mary – who allows her to look back to her mother and mother’s mother and Judith Shakespeare, and forward to the future as well. The “splitting of consicousness” she describes, also characteristic of Emily Dickinson and Doris Lessing, is genealogical as well as personal, then. The real child of Woolf’s autobiography is the “writer’s certainty” that things will be better in 100 years.

Virginia Woolf: “The Waves”

1931

The Waves unfolds over 9 episodes corresponding to the time of day, from sunrise to night: 1) childhood, 2) adolescence, 3) young adulthood, 4) adulthood (dinner/voices blend), 5) adulthood (Percival falls from his horse and dies, solace in baby for Bernard, art for Rhoda), 6) maturity, 7) midlife (crisis), 8) old age (dinner/common experience) 9) old age (Bernard alone speaks – language as a fight against death, experience moving beyond language to the direct). (One could also think of this as 9 months of gestation, a womanly cycle of reproduction.) It is loosely constructed, much more than by plot, by the voices of the 6 central characters:

Bernardlanguage & loquaciousness, sees personality constructed by others, not snobby (Forster?)
Nevilleorder & beauty, artistic, gay, classics scholar, in love with Percival
Louisinsecurity & ambition, depressive “T. S. Eliot” figure, Australian, becomes seamy, has affair with Rhoda
Jinny physicality & beauty, dancer, free, sexual
Susan – intensity & attachment, in touch with Nature (farm), maternal, classical figure of femininity
Rhoda – dreamlike abstraction, depressive, split from ordinary life, “Woolfian” suicide

There are also 2 main peripheral characters:
Percival – the “popular boy” the others are friends with, representing monolithic, white, paternal, phallic, British, colonial masculinity and power, the book is at once an elegy to him and an exploration of nostalgia for something one never should have loved. Percival speaks only once, to say “No.”
Old /Dr. Crane – the boys’ headmaster. compare to Mr. Keasey in Ulysses? (Also “service for man who was drowned” – 78).  Perceived as a Kantian negative pleasure, like a tooth removed when he leaves the room (50), pontificating on literature (58).

Woolf herself wrote in her diary that the “playpoem” was not meant to be read as a novel with distinct characters so much as pseudocharacters enacting multiplicity or demonstrating collectivity, representing facets of human experience and thought before they are made into types, characters, or performances. Bernard writes,

“I wish then after this somnolence to sparkle, many-faceted under the light of my friends’ faces. I have been traversing the sunless territory of non-identity… With them I am many-sided. They retrieve me from darkness… I see Louis, stone-carved, sculpturesque; Neville, scissor-cutting, exact; Susan with eyes like lumps of crystal; Jinny dancing like a flame, febrile, hot, over dry earth; and Rhoda the nymph of the fountain always wet. These are fantastic pictures, these are figments… Yet they drum me alive” 117.

I read this novel as a meditation on language as a surface and a representation that nonetheless orders and constitutes experience.

Bernard: “we are not single, we are one… I have little aptitude for reflection. I require the concrete in everything. It is so only that I lay hands up on the world. A good phrase, however, seems to me to have an independent existence” (68).

Woolf begins with the image of the sea,

“indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it… the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually” (7).

She goes on to call it “a thin veil,” “the green surface,” and a “surface” on the same page. When, after the sunrise interlude, the characters speak for the first time, Bernard sees a ring, Susan sees a slab of pale yellow, Rhoda hears a chirp, Neville sees a globe, Jinny sees a crimson tassel, and Louis hears stamping. Interestingly, the two “depressive” characters hear, seemingly a more spiritual connection with their surroundings (Re: Kant on how we hear reason speaking to us), whereas the other four see, and the girls see in color (Re: Kant on how we see the beautiful, and especially the sublime, and how the beautiful is more about the bounded outline, whereas color is merely an accessory – see 85).

Bernard and Susan often mirror/repeat each other as ideal types of British masculinity and femininity? Rhoda and Louis are more antisocial and demonstrate the artist’s tendency. Finally, Jinny and Neville both buck gender stereotypes, queering the possibilities of performance (dance, sex, criticism) that they engage in. Percival, who does not speak, seems to represent a sort of Althusserian ISA – a patriarchy or power never seen, but always present and part of one’s self-awareness or self-policing. At the end of the novel, Bernard thinks,

“And now I ask, ‘Who am I?’ I have been talking of Bernard, Neville, Jinny, Susan, Rhoda, and Louis. Am I all of them? Am I one and distinct? I do not know. We sat here together. But now Percival is dead and Rhoda is dead; we are divided; we are not here. Yet I cannot find any obstacle separating us. There is no division between me and them. As I talked I felt, ‘I am you.’ This difference we make so much of, this identity we so feverishly cherish, was overcome… Here on my brow is the blow I got when Percival fell. Here on the nape of my neck is the kiss Jinny gave Louis. My eyes fill with Susan’s tears. I see far away, quivering like a gold thread, the pillar Rhoda saw, and feel the rush of the wind of her flight when she leapt” 289.

This picks up on Clarissa’s faceting and her sympathetic experience of Septimus’ death in Mrs. Dalloway. Bernard’s final thoughts of his being are wonderfully feminizing: “Immeasurably receptive, holding everything, trembling with fullness, yet clear, contained – so my being seems, now that desire urges it no more out and away… now that he is dead, the man I called ‘Bernard'” 291. The book ends with Bernard having to confront materiality again and heading out “like Percival,” as a youth against death, to write. The last line is The waves broke on the shore 297. If the other six are one, Percival is the troublesome mirror they all look into: a kind of national ideology, sometimes lovely and leading, sometimes violent and brutish.

The characters emphasize divergent subjectivity but similar diction and expression. Their perceptions unfold as the idea from Woolf’s essay “Modern Fiction” of recording atomized experience in the order in which it occurs. I would like to compare their 6 similar but separated voices to the 6 parts of Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, all parts or forms of one Anna or the 6 different voices of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (who speak differently, but may all be the same psyche).

Surfaces:
The female body itself as a surface: Jinny after kissing Louis:

“Now I smell geraniums; I smell earth mould. I dance. I ripple. I am thrown over you like a net of light. I lie quivering flung over you” (13).

Louis on Rhoda: “Her shoulderblades meet across her back like the wings of a small butterfly” (22), like when he thinks “they skim the butterflies from the nodding tops of the flowers. They brush the surface of the world” (12).

Bernard: “rich and heavy sensations form on the roof of my mind; down showers the day” (26)/ “drop that forms on the roof of the soul in the evening is round, many-coloured” (80).

Faceting:

Susan: “I saw her kiss him… She danced in flecked with diamonds light as dust… Jinny’s eyes break into a thousand lights” (15).

Louis: “From discord, from hatred… my shattered mind is pieced together by some sudden perception” (39).

Bernard: “I am not one and simple, but complex and many… I am only superficially represented by what I was saying tonight. Underneath, and, at the moment when I am most disparate, I am also integrated” (76-7), see also 80.

As in other Woolf, the images around waves and water seem to concern solitude and drowning (often Rhoda). On the flip side, plants, leaves, and trees seem to connote connectedness – rootedness but also striving (see Louis, 11-12).

Language: 

Though the shifting perspectives are represented as things characters have “said,” much is internal, some is aloud. Importance of direct speech, vs. free indirect discourse? Stream of consciousness as a kind of speech (Woolf sees mind processing world, at least consciously, via language?). Bernard’s speech is imagined as a continually unfolding story (69).

Bernard: “we melt into each other with phrases. We are edged with mist. We make an unsubstantial territory” (16).

Susan: Rhoda dreams, Louis regards, Bernard moulds, Neville finished, Jinny spins, I am not afraid (25-6).

“Bernard says there is always a story. I am a story. Louis is a story” (37)/ “Among the tortures and devastations of life is this then – our friends are not able to finish their stories” (39).

Neville: “I shall be a clinger to the outsides of words all my life” (48). His elision of language around homosexuality (51).

Bernard: “My charm and flow of language, unexpected and spontaneous as it is delights me too. I am astonished, as I draw the veil off things with words, how much, how infinitely more I can say I have observed… images and images” (84).

Faces: 

As sources of misreading (30) – faces of people (affect) and clocks (time).

Misc.

Bernard on shopgirls (86)/ Kracauer.