In memoriam to identity, Kathy Acker

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Years ago, one of my daughters thought she’d be a writer. In fact, like Miles Franklin, she’d been writing stories all through her school years and reading them to her friends – I still have one or two in my bottom drawer. So for her 18th or 19th birthday I gave her the hippest, most up to date writing I could think of, Kathy Acker’s Pussy King of the Pirates (1996). It horrified her, may even have put her off writing, ended up of course on my shelves and I have read and enjoyed it a couple of times since.

At her (my daughter’s) age I was up at Melbourne Uni and had been introduced to the Beats – Allen Ginsberg and other poets I no longer remember, though I still remember these lines from a Beat compilation, “Farewell for now the tadpole said/and wrapped his tadtail round his head”, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. That was a pretty weird time culturally, and no I didn’t do drugs, not anyway until I was years into truck driving.

Of course I loved/love Kerouac’s On the Road but Burroughs was my favourite: The Naked Lunch, The Wild Boys, Nova Express, Exterminator!, The Ticket that Exploded. I have more! And The Naked Lunch movie starring Judy Davis (I don’t know who the guys are). The Beats were a movement that grew up around Columbia University in New York City in the late 1950s, by which time Burroughs was in his 40s, writing semi-autobiographical fiction about his drug addiction and homosexuality. In the radical abstraction of his writing, he is second only to James Joyce in all of (English language) Literature. JG Ballard, in his Introduction to Naked Lunch: The Restored Text (2005), calls Burroughs “the most important writer to emerge since the Second World War”.

Kathy Acker (194? – 1997) cites Burroughs as her greatest influence – and later in her life (coincidentally, they died in the same year) did some work with him, interviews and a documentary – and this is readily apparent in her writing. Australian author, Justine Ettler, whom I interviewed recently (here), in turn cites Acker as an important influence on her The River Ophelia (1995). [In memoriam to identity contains the line “the stupid girl whose clothes make a lot of noise caught in the weeds at the bottom of the river (Ophelia, that part of me gone, mourned for, transformed… )”]. Ettler has been categorized as ‘Grunge’, Acker as ‘Punk’, Burroughs as ‘Beat’, but it’s all one continuum.

In memoriam to identity is a reimagining of the destructive relationship of two French poets, R and V – Rimbaud and Verlaine – and then it isn’t. Then it’s the story of a young woman student, Airplane, in Connecticut who loses her virginity to a rapist, who becomes her pimp. Then it’s …

I have zero knowledge of French poetry so when the France of R and V is invaded by Germans I think Second World War. But in fact, we’re really talking 1871, Paris Commune, Franco Prussian war.


Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud (1854 – 1891) was a French poet who is known for his influence on modern literature and arts, which prefigured surrealism. Born in Charleville-Mézières, he started writing at a very young age and was a prodigious student, but abandoned his formal education in his teenage years to run away from home. During his late adolescence and early adulthood he began the bulk of his literary output, but completely stopped writing at the age of 21, after assembling one of his major works, Illuminations.

Paul-Marie Verlaine (1844 – 1896) was a French poet associated with the Decadent movement. He married 16 year old Mathilde in 1870 and was employed in the civil service. Wikipedia (herehere)


R comes up to Paris from his home town Charleville when the Germans invade and destroy Mézières (on the other side of the River Meuse), escaping on a Moto-Guzzi motorcycle – I didn’t say it makes sense – meets V, goes home with him to meet Mathilde’s aristocratic parents, gets thrown out.

Several days after V had thrown him out, V found R in a pile of dog shit. R was picking his nose without seemingly being disgusted. R spat at V and told V V was too disgusting, bourgeois, married for R to touch him.

V is torn between his love for R and his responsibilities as a husband, father and civil servant.

R and V again met, traveled to London, again split. This time because they were accused by close friends of being homosexual. They reunited in Brussels where V shot R in the wrist…

The judges of the Sixth Court of Summary Jurisdiction sentenced V to jail for two years.

We switch to Airplane. Airplane is at college, goes to a party out of town, the boy who takes her gets hopelessly drunk, Airplane wanders off, ends up in a farmhouse with some men, is raped.

After he had raped her, the tall thin man carried the girl out of the barn, into some sort of car, that moved by an engine, and she didn’t fight him. She even seemed to cling to him.

She was clinging to him because she had decided to survive. Somewhere in her sexuality was her strength. Later on, everyone would hate her for this…

“The next thing I thought to myself is that I could no longer live without the rapist.”

Throughout, the writing switches constantly between first and third person. First person is enclosed in quotes, but you have to look back to see the transition.

The rapist delivers her to a sex club, Fun City, where she works as a stripper, living with and handing over all her pay to her rapist/pimp. R now stands for ‘rapist’. In the club she performs in a ‘play’ where she begs Santa for sex. Santa is a doctor who manipulates her. They simulate sex. She says to herself that she enjoys it. Orgasms. “Obviously the fake fucking was getting good. At least for her. You can never tell what the other feels.”

At home she finds that she is free, “the rapist was at his job (he was now an editor in a book firm)”, but it’s months before she leaves him.

Lots of swearing: Capitol fucks all the boys in town, including her brother, maybe especially her brother, she fucks them because she hates them, or hates them, or loves them, because she fucks them. Her father drinks. Her mother suicides by pills.

Rimbaud, who may be her brother, argues with her father. Rimbaud gave up poetry and became a businessman. This made Acker angry (or so I read).  She writes Rimbaud, Capitol’s brother, as controlling, wanting to prostitute her.

If I had been another person, I would have mashed his face into red. Like some girls want to become ballerinas or have babies, I hoped that one day I’d have the ability to be totally independent and then I’d never again have to be nice to anyone or see anyone. Not someone who’s a creep.

Airplane takes a married man back to her New York apartment. The sex is rough. For the first time she sleeps with a man, takes him as a lover. William Faulkner whom I’ve never read makes an appearance [Suglia, below has an explanation]. Capitol is in New York too. Hooks up with a guy.

Both of them began making money out of their work. Not enough to pay, much less afford, the gigantic electric and gas bills of the city … But enough for real necessities: restaurants movies a thrift store clothing item and books.

So, the sex morphs into relationships and back into sex again. The back cover blurb says “a startling montage of history and literature, pornography and poetry.” I guess that’s what I think too.

 

Kathy Acker, In memoriam to identity, Pandora, London, 1990 (my edition – not the one pictured – Flamingo, 1993)

In researching this post – I didn’t want to be completely wrong in the connections I saw! – I came across this much more erudite review (here) by Dr Joseph Suglia.

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The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver

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The Poisonwood Bible (1998) which must be well known, my copy has ‘International Best Seller’ on the cover and elsewhere I see ‘Oprah Book Club’, has been sitting on my bedside cupboard for months, years even, but who gave it to me I do not remember. However, seeing it there every morning (every morning that I’m home, which is about half) at least prompted me to pick up the audio version when I saw it in the library.

The story is of a Southern Baptist preacher, Nathan Price, who takes his wife and four daughters to Kilanga, a village deep in the Congo jungle in 1959. No, that’s not quite right, the story is of the daughters, how they survive their father, how they survive the Congo, how the Congo becomes a part of them. Each section is introduced by Orleanna, the mother, back in Georgia in the present day, and then we hear, not in any order, the voices of the daughters – Rachel (15 in 1959), Leah (14), Adah (14) and Ruth May (5).

The girls all have slightly different voices, which made the book very easy to follow. Rachel is a Mrs Malaprop and Adah expresses her intelligence by thinking her sentences both forwards and backwards (it gets tedious after a while). Leah’s is the voice we hear most often. The author succeeds in making Ruth May sound young:

Mama needs her some Quick Energy. After Father went away with Leah in the plane, she went and got in her bed and won’t get up…

I told Rachel and Adah we needed some 7Up for Mama. Rachel does the radio advertisements from back home and that is one: ‘Bushed? Beat? Need ionizing? 7Up is the greatest discovery yet for getting new energy quick. In two to six minutes you’ll feel like a new you.’

We learn quite early from Orleanna that one of her daughters will die, so this is one source of tension during the first half of the book. The other source is family dynamics as the dysfunctional Nathan attempts to bring christianity to the ‘natives’ without any understanding of them at all, while Leah, Adah, Ruth May and to some extent Orleanna, become increasingly involved in community life. Rachel amusingly remains a southern belle, even in their early hand to mouth existence in Kilanga with all the dresses brought from Georgia turning to rags.

Barbara Kingsolver (1955- ) is a good woman, anti-war, pro-environment, an advocate of living close to nature (Wiki), and she has produced here a portrait of a man completely out of his depth, surviving only by the kindness of the locals, of which all the Prices are blithely unaware, and the desperate attempts of his wife and daughters to support him while living within the constraints of traditional village life.

Over the three or so years of producing this blog I have become increasingly interested in how literature reflects – and no doubt influences – black white relations. How books by white liberals, of which this is one, so often put modern white liberal protagonists into historical situations to yes, accept blame, but also to suggest how things might have been done better; and how the books of Indigenous Lit. and, in the US, African-American Lit., increasingly paint a completely different picture.

The Belgian Congo was a colony ruthlessly exploited by US and European businesses with the support of the Belgian government. In it’s early years as a colony, at the end of the C19th the Congo, 75 times larger than Belgium, was the personal fiefdom of Belgium’s King Leopold II: “along with the uncounted thousands who died of disease and famine, many Congolese were killed by Leopold’s agents for failing to meet production quotas for ivory and rubber, the territory’s principal sources of wealth before its diamonds, copper and zinc were discovered. Mr. Hochschild estimates the total death toll during the Leopold period [1885-1908] at 10 million.”*

By 1959 this was supposedly coming to an end, with the Belgians agreeing to withdraw, and in 1960 Patrice Lumumba became the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the new Republic of the Congo. However within a few months the US, which has always preferred right wing dictatorships to protect its commercial interests, engineered a coup. Lumumba was deposed by the head of the army, Joseph Mobutu, imprisoned, beaten and shot. The CIA’s instigation of the coup was confirmed by US Congressional hearings in 1975 (the Church Committee) – which Kingsolver refers to. Mobutu’s increasingly despotic rule lasted until 1997.

The second half of the book, which I didn’t find as interesting as the first, deals with the girls as they become adults and live separate lives, in the US, in the Congo/Zaire and towards the end, in neighbouring Angola, itself fighting to stay independent with the support of Cuba in the face of US/South African sponsored rebels. We also follow Anatole Ngemba who, when the Prices arrive, is the village school teacher, and later a political activist in the anti-Mobutu movement.

A lot of the book, most of it even, concerns the day to day problems of subsistence living in a small and remote village, in which the Prices must take part, having only a small stipend as missionaries and that gone with the flight of most whites at Independence; and of the confusion arising from Nathan’s inability to master even the rudiments of the local language. Kingsolver spent a few months in the Congo as a child but is otherwise constructing her story from research. The scenes sound authentic but we have no way of knowing how close they are to reality.

Where she succeeds is in telling a story which is both interesting in itself and which acts seamlessly as a vehicle for her political purpose – to excoriate her government for the ongoing harm it has caused the people of the Congo.

 

Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible, Faber & Faber, London, 1998. Audio version Brilliance Audio, 1998, read by Dean Robertson

see also:

*Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Houghton Mifflin, 1998, cited in NY Times, 21 Sept. 2002 (here)

CIA report: CIA’s Covert Operations in the Congo, 1960–1968 (here)

Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut

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Player Piano (1952) was the first of Kurt Vonnegut’s 14 novels. His most famous, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) which includes an account of the fire bombing of Dresden, which Vonnegut himself experienced as a POW, was, like Catch 22, an anti-war WWII novel taken up by the anti-Vietnam War movement. This one, however, ahead of its times, is anti-automation.

Vonnegut (1922-2007) was an important American author, writing Science Fiction mostly, though I think he is often claimed as a ‘cross-over’ into ordinary fiction Certainly he was no where near as prolific as some ‘pulp’ SF writers, but he was able to support himself and his young family after the War, writing short fiction for magazines.

I am reviewing Player Piano because I recently listened to it, and because its theme of man being replaced by machines is topical today – more topical today than when it was written probably. I had hoped I would find a paper copy on my shelves of old paperback SF, or failing that in one of my local libraries, but no luck. However, I did find that I owned a biography, or rather as I found when I began to read it, a ‘critical appreciation’, Peter J Reed’s Kurt Vonnegut Jr (1972).

The player piano of the title is coin operated and plays jazz tunes in a bar. It is incidental to the story but the fact that it plays itself – the keys are depressed by a rotating piano roll (wiki) – acts as a metaphor for workerless factories.

The novel is set not so much in a near future (future to 1952 that is) as in an alternative ‘present’. The society and technology are clearly of the 1950s. The difference is that after a major war in which tactical nuclear weapons were used, industry has been reorganized for the sake of efficiency on, although Vonnegut is at pains to ignore it, soviet central planning lines. Engineers are in charge and workers are progressively being replaced by machines. Consequently society is divided into well-off technocrats and a vast underclass who if they do not join the army, or invent little businesses for themselves, are given make-work in Reclamation and Re-construction (‘Reeks and Wrecks’).

All engineers and managers must have a PhD and school leavers are ruthlessly graded by machines into the few going on to College and the rest, though it helps to have a father in a position to ease your way through school and into plum positions. This is the 1950s, so it goes almost without saying that women PhD’s are in secretarial positions for that brief time until they become homemakers.

The story is located in (the fictitious) Illium, NY which Vonnegut used in a number of his novels (Wiki). Illium is probably based on Schenectady, NY, home of the General Electric plant where Vonnegut was at the time a PR writer, and which in turn was a model for the Illium Works. As Schenectady is divided by the Mohawk River so Illium is by the Iriquois, with the Illium Works and senior employees on one side and the underclass – mostly former workers – on the other, and one highly symbolic bridge separating rather than joining them.

Like much SF of this period Player Piano is bursting with ideas, but the characterisations and the writing are rather flat. The central character is Dr Paul Proteus, Illium Works Manager, whose father was “the nation’s first National Industrial, Commercial, Communications, Foodstuffs and Resources Director, a position approached in importance only by the presidency of the United States”. He is seemingly happily married to Anita, his former secretary, and in line at a young age for promotion to area manager, Pittsburgh. However, he is dissatisfied with his role in forcing out of their jobs men who were good at, and enjoyed, their work.

He starts going to a bar on the wrong side of the river where he meets out of work anthropologist James Lasher who is now a chaplain with Reeks and Wrecks. And he becomes interested in and eventually buys an old farm – no electricity, no plumbing – that has a preservation order on it and a grumpy old caretaker who turns out to be the last in line of the original owners.

His old friend and workmate Ed Finnerty, a hippyish heavy drinking bachelor, comes to stay just as Anita is planning a dinner with Paul’s boss (and friend of his late father). The dinner is a disaster. Finnerty disappears and is soon rumoured to be prominent in the Ghost Shirt Society of unemployed rebels (the idea of ‘Luddites‘ is all through this book though the word is never used). Dr Lawson Sheppard, Paul’s 2IC, is constantly attempting to undermine him and, as Paul spends more and more time at the bar and on his farm, Sheppard begins to visit Anita, until at a weekend retreat for senior managers from around the US, Sheppard is offered Pittsburgh, and has it off with Anita in the bushes, while Paul is shunted sideways on a special assignment to infiltrate the Ghost Shirts.

Paul soon finds himself on the national organizing committee, with Lasher and Finnerty, of an uprising to take back the factories. The uprising is initially successful in Illium and a couple of other cities, but Vonnegut is not a proponent of revolutions and has the uprisings descend into indiscriminate destruction and drunkenness, with the leadership group surrendering to the Army.

There is a subplot involving a ‘Shah’ being shown around America by Dr Halyard of the State Department, which acts as a device for describing this ‘future’ society where the minimum accommodation is an apartment with prefabricated steel walls and automatic washing machines and vacuum cleaners; and an amusing sub subplot where Dr Halyard incurs someone’s displeasure and loses his PhD and therefore his status because he can’t prove he completed the phys ed unit in his bachelors degree.

Reed takes four or five pages to get this far then another 27 pages analyzing Vonnegut’s style and issues that Player Piano raises. From:

The central conflict in the novel is between the machine and the human, between those forces which have brought about and espouse automation and those which affirm the dignity of man, the warmth and fallibility of his animal being.

Reed finally gets to:

Player Piano, for all its warnings and weariness and nostalgia, remains a funny book. but the mixture of pain and humour results in the kind of comedy which arises when people try to make light of frightening situations, so that here, too, the novel sustains its peculiar tension.

It is ironic that this book was written at a time when the industrial heart of America would go on for another half century employing millions of workers producing steel, automobiles, whitegoods, machinery of all types. Only now in this new century (already one sixth over) are automation and robotics taking over in a big way. Here in backwater WA, iron ore trains, 200 tonne dump trucks and loaders already operate without drivers  – which is why ongoing record iron ore exports are having no upward effect on wages; and the two biggest manufacturers, Mercedes and Volvo have driverless highway trucks well underway as well. However, Vonnegut’s idea of make-work and subsidised housing for all the displaced workers, the least that he thought a US government would provide, is these days not even considered. The Market will provide.

 

Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano, first pub. 1952. Audio version: Brilliance Audio, 2008, read by Christian Rummel

Peter J Reed, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, Writers for the 70’s, Warner Books, New York, 1972

 

Parrot & Olivier in America, Peter Carey

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There are some writers I really, really dislike, and I don’t mean just Colleen McCullough whose ambition (and sales) far exceeded her talent, but writers of real ability who let me down. First of these is Clive James, a man of prodigious intellect who chose to be a clown, and if you’ve seen his old shows about Japanese ‘reality’ television, a not even very funny clown and probably a racist to boot. Next, and more relevantly is Peter Carey, a very good writer, maybe even the best Australian writer of his generation, who wanted to be a World writer and got lost. There are others, Geraldine Brooks first among them, but let’s leave it at that.*

There was a time when I was a Peter Carey fan, The Tax Inspector is a novel I still like, and not-then-ex-Mrs Legend spent a great deal of our housekeeping budget to buy me Oscar and Lucinda in hardback as soon as it came out, but Peter discovered Magic Realism, thought after the international success of O & L that he was the new Gabriel Garcia Marquez, moved to Manhattan to mix it with the big boys, and Booker prizes notwithstanding started to write shit pretentious nonsense.

The Carey novels which are re-hashes of old stories – Jack Maggs, Ned Kelly, and in Parrot & Olivier, Alexis de Tocqueville – are not even good (ie. accurate) history, or illustrative of current situations, just stuff he’s made up and stuck on the bare bones of someone else’s story. I think Carey struggles to come up with plots, he certainly has difficulty fleshing out his characters, in developing protagonists the reader can identify with, and his women… they are very nearly non-existent. One reviewer wrote that each sentence is perfectly crafted, which is probably true, they just don’t make up a cohesive whole.

De Tocqueville (1805-1859) survived various iterations of French Revolution, Restoration and Napoleonism and in 1835 after touring the United States ostensibly to report on penal reform for the French government, came up with Democracy in America, a seminal study of American society and the evolution of democracy. Carey uses de Tocqueville as the basis for his Olivier character – Olivier de Garmont – the spoiled child of an aristocratic family, his grandfather beheaded in the Terror, his parents remote and preoccupied.

I had no doubt that something cruel and catastrophic had happened before I was even born, yet the comte and comtesse, my parents, would not tell me what it was. As a result my organ of curiosity was made irritable and I grew into the most restless and unhealthy creature imaginable – slight, pale, always climbing, prying into every drain and attic of the château de Barfleur.

Parrot is about 20 years older than Olivier, working class English, his father a journeyman printer who is hanged when Parrot is 12 for his part in forging French banknotes after which Parrot ends up in New South Wales, in a token nod to Carey’s origins, from whence he is ‘rescued’ by Tilbot, a one-armed, French Baron of no fortune, who seemingly lives on his connections to the surviving aristocracy.

The story is told in alternating sections by the two men, who describe over the course of the novel, both their times together and episodes from their childhoods. They are brought together by Tilbot who is a friend of Olivier’s mother. Olivier who has studied to be a lawyer is to be sent to America to report on prison systems. Parrot is to be his secretary and Tilbot’s informant.

We learn that Parrot is living in Paris with Mathilde, a painter, and that he has left behind in New South Wales a wife and son. Parrot persuades Tilbot to allow Mathilde and her mother to accompany him on the ship to New York. Carey enjoys himself describing the familiar streets of his new home town as muddy tracks, infested with pigs, the outer suburbs just paddocks dissected by lanes. Many of the characters too are larger than life, ‘Dickensian’ in many reviews, colourfully drawn but with little insight into their characters.

On board ship there had been much talk about the healthy breezes on Manhattan. They must have meant the wind blowing from the arses of New York pigs. Beekman Street stank like a shit heap, worse than the faubourg Saint-Antoine. We headed south, past Theatre Alley, into a smudgy charcoal sort of maze in which the high-haunched New York pigs mingled with New York clerks …

Mathilde and her painting are the focus of Parrot’s life in America, but Carey tends to describe scenes and events rather than people, and we learn little about her, though a lot about her painting. Olivier moves around New England, staying at the country homes of his various backers, marriage material for ambitious daughters eyeing a French title, until eventually he selects a bland, blonde girl and makes his awkward advances.

The strength of the novel is the tension between varying accounts of the same events by the two protagonists. The weakness of the novel, apart from its rambling plot, is that when the two are apart as they are for most of the second half, that tension is lost. Parrot & Olivier in America is not without its good points, but all the good writing in the world cannot make up for a disappointingly weak story.

 

Peter Carey, Parrot & Olivier in America, Hamish Hamilton, Australia, 2009. Audio version, Blackstone Audio, 2010, read by Humphrey Bower (17 1/2 hours)

The Guardian has a review by Ursula La Guin, so if you want a sensible, informed and literate opinion here’s the link.


*Kate W has suggested I make a list. I’m thinking about ‘Ten Writers I Really Dislike’, but I’d better offer at least partial justifications so it might take me a couple of weeks.

The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Scarlet Letter (1850) has long been a favourite of mine, one I had been thinking of reviewing, along with Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth as early, and rare, examples of stories about single mothers. So I was happy to find it in my (new) local library as an audio book. We all know the story. Hester Prynne, a young married woman in Boston in the earliest days of the settlement of New England by English Puritans, commits adultery and is sentenced to wear a scarlet letter ‘A’ for adulteress on the front of her dress for the rest of her life.

The Scarlett Letter is actually historical fiction, that is it was written 200 years after the events being portrayed took place. In a very long and largely irrelevant prologue, Hawthorne describes his own position in the Customs House in Salem, Mass., which was apparently his home town, though he had spent a long time away. In all the material for Americans who must have to study this book at school, there is a suggestion that Hawthorne’s ancestors were involved in the Salem witch trials in the 1690s. The premise of the prologue is that Hawthorne discovers some old papers in the attic of the Customs House which tell Hester Prynne’s story.

Hawthorne begins his ”introductory” with “It is a little remarkable, that – though disinclined to talk overmuch of myself and my affairs at the fireside, and to my personal friends – an autobiographical impulse should twice in my life have taken possession of me, in addressing the public” and then goes on to talk about himself for 40 pages. He should have been a blogger! But don’t get me wrong, I love old fashioned first chapters. My favourite is from Tom Brown’s School Days (1857) which begins (after a long preface): “The Browns have become illustrious by the pen of Thackeray and the pencil of Doyle, within the memory of the young gentlemen who are not matriculating at the universities… For centuries in their quiet, dogged, homespun way, they have been subduing the earth in most English countries, and leaving their mark in American forests and Australian uplands.” And so it goes on. It is indicative of the sort of books that I read and gave my children that I advised them that it was always ok to skip the first chapter when starting a difficult novel.

The Puritans, in Boston at least, were members of the Church of England who believed that the English Church, which had separated from the Catholic Church in the 1530s, remained too Catholic in its ceremonies. Up until the beginning of the English Civil War in 1642, 21,000 English Puritans emigrated to colonies on the east coast of North America. Brought up ‘low’ C of E as I was, I am sympathetic to the Puritans who were attempting to establish a rules-based society in reaction to the excesses of the Crown – Elizabeth, James I and Charles I. The problem of course is that any set of rules attracts people who enjoy enforcing them.

Boston, founded in 1630, would by 1642 still have been a quite rudimentary settlement, hemmed in between the dark forest and Massachusetts Bay. Salem, which plays no part in this story after the prologue, is 20 odd miles northwards along the coast, and was settled a few years earlier. A later passage illustrates the impression I have of Hester’s gloomy surroundings:

The road … straggled onwards into the mystery of the primeval forest. This hemmed it in so narrowly, and stood so black and dense on either side, and disclosed such imperfect images of the sky above, that, to Hester’s mind, it imaged not amiss the wilderness in which she had so long been wandering.

The novel proper begins with Hester Prynne being released from jail, holding Pearl, her 3 month old baby daughter. She is led to the town square, refuses once again to divulge who is the father, and is displayed – “pilloried” – for three hours on a platform which has been built for that purpose, although she is not held in the stocks.

Hawthorne seems fascinated by witches and they constitute a minor theme throughout the book. A crowd has gathered to witness Hester’s humiliation, as for an execution:

But in that early severity of the Puritan character, an inference of this kind could not so indubitably be drawn. It might be that a sluggish bond-servant, or an undutiful child … was to be corrected at the whipping post. It might be that an Antinomian, a Quaker, or other heterodox religionist, was to be scourged out of the town, or an idle and vagrant Indian… It might be, too, that a witch, like old Mistress Hibbins, the bitter tempered widow of the magistrate, was to die upon the gallows.

Misstress Hibbins subsequently invites Hester, on more than one occasion, to join her and her fellows in the forest.

The “SCARLET LETTER, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated on her bosom” can only have been intended as a defiance of the sentence imposed on her by the colony elders, and also the always bright clothes worn by Pearl, as she grows up, in contrast to the sober clothing of the Puritans. Yet, over the decade or so encompassed by this novel, Hester earns grudging acceptance from her fellows for her quiet, helpful and industrious ways.

The scarlet letter must also have been a very rare punishment, as towards the end, Hester is still been being pointed out by out-of-towners at a local fair.

The novel is an interesting precursor for the (Australian) Independent Woman paradigm. Hester is already married, but the whereabouts of her husband are a mystery. In fact, it is her getting pregnant in his absence that leads to her conviction for adultery. She lives a quiet and virtuous life, in a cottage on the edge of the settlement, supporting herself by her skill at needlework. We discover early on who the husband is, but he holds himself apart, and the lover, Pearl’s father, is not disclosed until near the end. Disappointingly, Hawthorne says very little about Hester’s problems in bringing up a child unaided, other than to say that Pearl is wilful and undisciplined.

The other thing I would say is that I found the writing very formal. More “old fashioned” than Austen and Walter Scott who were a generation older, or Hawthorne’s near contemporaries Dickens and Mark Twain, as I remember them. I am listening to Anna Karenina at the moment and find the flow of C19th writing infinitely soothing, though I suspect that the Tolstoy is a modern translation.

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, first published 1850. My edition (not the cover pictured) ‘Best Seller Classics’ from Award Books, USA, undated but maybe 50 years old. “This book is a reprint of the first edition … published in Boston by Ticknor, Reed & Fields in 1850”. Audio version: Dreamscape Media, 2014, read by Robert Bethune.

Big Brother, Lionel Shriver

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Well known – to other people – US author Lionel Shriver only came up on my radar during the Shriver Kerfuffle last year, when she insisted on her right to tell stories from any point of view that she chose. It is not a ‘right’ that I contest, but nor is it one which I endorse. I believe firstly that privileged writers should leave space for less privileged peoples to tell their own stories; and secondly, that as a reader/reviewer I should point out (if I can’t avoid them) stories which are ‘inauthentic’.

With Big Brother (2013) this raises an interesting question. The narrator of this novel is a woman, not a Mexican, nor even a man wearing a sombrero, but a plump Iowan housewife and accidental businesswoman. Still, Shriver in this role doesn’t feel right. My (hastily formed!) impression of her is that she is an angular, east coast intellectual. We soon learn that Pandora, the narrator is from LA – where her father had been the star of a TV sit-com, Joint Custody, about separated parents fighting over their three children – and had moved back to her grandparents’ (and parents’) home state after College, so that is a partial explanation for her not coming across as believably  ‘mid-western’. But as well, throughout the novel I maintained the impression that Pandora was describing feelings rather than feeling them.

In these times you might think that the Big Brother of the title pertains to government oversight, but in fact it is meant literally. When Pandora meets her brother at the airport after they have been some years apart, she discovers he has morphed into a barely ambulant 386 lb mound of blubber. The brother, Edison, is a NY-based jazz pianist who has fallen on hard times and has come to New Holland, outside Cedar Rapids, IA, for an extended stay with Pandora, her husband Fletcher, and her teenage step-children Tanner, 17 and Cody, 13.

There’s plenty to keep you occupied over the 370pp of this novel – Pandora and Edison’s firm conviction that their father’s TV family was more real to him than his actual family, and the way they in turn seemed to match themselves to their fictional counterparts; the success of Pandora’s business manufacturing individualised dolls (for adults), which has ‘gone viral’; the relative failure of Fletcher’s business as an arty furniture maker;  Fletcher’s obsessive bike-riding, food faddishness; the children’s attempts to mark out their own space and so on. And Shriver is a fine writer, you can feel the care with which she places each individual word.

The one aspect of our father’s show that I still admired was its representation of the way siblings live in a separate world from their parents, who for kids function as mere walk-ons. Joint Custody captures the intense, hothouse collusion between siblings, while [the parents] are played for fools. Often ashamed of tugging the children’s loyalties in opposite directions, the parents fail to grasp their kid’s salvation: the children’s uppermost loyalty is to each other.

In the beginning there are the usual marital tensions which arise from one spouse having a sibling to stay (says he who would often be jealous of the times not-then-ex-Mrs Legend stayed up late talking to her sister during her infrequent visits to Melbourne), let alone a sibling who smokes, raids the fridge, is unable to contribute to the budget, leaves his stuff lying around, and breaks the furniture. For two months!

But then Shriver takes it to another level, Pandora tells Fletcher that she is taking an apartment nearby with her brother to supervise his return to his teenage weight of 163 lb. Fletcher tells Pandora that in that case she is not permitted in his house. Not much negotiation going on here, nor any thought of how the apparent abandonment/effective ban on contact may affect the children.  And Pandora still regards herself not only as married, which technically at least she is, but as able to resume normal relations with Fletcher after, as it turns out, a year of almost zero contact.

Here Pandora breaks the news to Tanner, as he waits for his sister after school:

“That’s what I wanted to talk about,” I dived in. “And maybe it’s good Cody’s not here yet. I’ll need you to look out for your sister for a while. You know, the way you used to. I’ll still be a resource of course – “

“So you’re leaving Dad,” he said – matter of fact, with a trace of satisfaction. “Guess he brought it on himself. Least he’ll be the healthiest misery guts in town.”

“I’m not leaving anyone.” Hastily I detailed my grand plan – adding judiciously that I wasn’t at all sure it would work.

He heard me out. “So you’re leaving Dad.”

Rolling my eyes in exasperation, I spotted Cody across the street. She looked stricken. I never showed up in the car like this. Obviously, someone had died.

I waved, and she lumbered up with a pack as big as she was to their Meeting Tree. “What’s cookin’?” she asked warily.

“[the doll business] isn’t enough for her,” said Tanner, “Pando’s starting a fat farm.”

The next half of the novel concerns Edison’s progress towards his target weight on a diet of four protein shakes a day; the effect on Pandora of following the same diet; lots of sibling bonding; and at least some concern for Cody who is in the invidious position of pretending to both her parents that she is on their side.

There is a short, third part, a fashionable, bullshit post-modern ending which makes the reading of all the preceding pages a complete waste of time, which I don’t suppose you can avoid, but which you would do well to skip over.

 

Lionel Shriver, Big Brother, Harper Collins, London, 2013. Audio version read by Alice Rosengard, Blackstone Audio, 2013

Kate W’s review in booksaremyfavouriteandbest here (she likes it!)

The Last Runaway, Tracy Chevalier

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Tracy Chevalier (1962- ) is best known for her second novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999) set in C17th Holland. I listened to it some time ago and enjoyed it, but I haven’t seen the 2003 movie. The Last Runaway (2013) is her seventh (of eight) and is set in C19th America.

The plot is basically: Honor Bright, a Quaker woman in England is jilted by her fiancée and so decides to accompany her sister to America where the sister is to marry a former fellow townsman and Quaker who has established a business in a newly settled part of Ohio. Honor falls in with Belle, a milliner and an alcoholic, who is part of the Underground Railroad, sheltering and assisting the passage of runaway slaves from the South making their way to Canada. The biggest threat to the runaways is recapture by bounty hunters, of whom Belle’s brother Donovan is the most prominent.

After working for a while in the shop of her prospective brother in law, Honor marries into the Haymaker family, Quaker farmers in a nearby parish. The Quakers are anti-slavery but the Haymakers are frightened to assist runaways because they can be heavily fined under Federal law. Honor defies them and we go on from there.

I am interested that the date is around 1850 and Ohio is only partially cleared for farming, less so maybe than Victoria and NSW at the same time. I was thinking that settlement would have begun a couple of centuries earlier but in fact first settlement was at Marietta in the familiar year of 1788, with, according to Wikipedia, battles against the ‘Indians’ – who are not mentioned at all in this novel – throughout the 1790s.

Honor only slowly realises the scale of Belle’s involvement in the movement of runaways. After Belle shoots a snake in the back yard …

Honor thought about the man hiding there, almost three days now cramped in the heat and dark, and hearing the gunshot. She wondered how Belle came to be hiding him. When her ears had stopped ringing she said, ‘Thee mentioned that Kentucky is a slave state. Did thy family own slaves?’ It was the most direct question she had dared to ask.

Belle regarded her with yellowed eyes, leaning against the porch railing and still holding the shotgun, her dress hanging off her. It occurred to Honor that the milliner must have an underlying illness to make her so thin and discoloured. ‘Our family was too poor to own slaves. That’s why Donovan does what he does. Poor white people hate Negroes more’n anyone.’

Chevalier tries very hard to be colour-blind in a book about racial prejudice and has Honor chase after and attempt to befriend an older Black woman, Mrs Reed.

‘May I ask thee a question?’ Honor ventured.

Mrs Reed frowned. ‘What … ma’am.’ Honor did not wear a wedding band, as Friends did not need such a reminder of their commitment; yet somehow Mrs Reed knew she was married.

Please call me Honor. We do not use “ma’am” – or “miss”.

‘All right. Honor. What you want to know?’

‘What does thee think of colonisation?’

Mrs Reed let her mouth hang open for a moment. ‘What does I think of colonisation? She repeated.

Honor said nothing. Already she regretted asking the question.

Mrs Reed snorted. ‘You an abolitionist? Lots of Quakers is.’ She glanced around the empty shop and seemed to reach a decision. ‘Abolitionists got lots o’ theories, but I’m living with realities. Why would I want to go to Africa? I was born in Virginia. So was my parents and my grandparents and their parents. I’m American. I don’t hold with sending us all off to a place most of us never seen. If white folks jes’ want to get rid of us, pack us off on ships so they don’t have to deal with us, well, I’m here. This is my home, and I ain’t goin’ nowhere.’

I listen to lots of audio books but the reason I chose to discuss this one is because I am interested in novels about racism in the US and the light it throws on racism here; and more precisely, because of the difficulty I have with stories about honourable White people, doing the ‘right thing’. I have looked at this before in my posts on Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees and The Invention of Wings and Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. For another point of view,  Lisa at ANZLL has just reviewed another book on the Underground Railroad, The Mapmaker’s Children by Sarah McCoy (here).

I’m a big fan of the approach taken by Thea Astley: make it clear that modern Australian society is built on the atrocities that White settlers committed against Aboriginals, in historical times until right up to today – just look at Palm Island. Until we acknowledge those atrocities, and all the underlying injustices and unfairnesses that we use or used to make life difficult for Indigenous Australians, there can be no way forward, to genuine racial harmony.

So my problem with stories about honourable White people is that they allow White people today, and not just the White people who say, ‘don’t blame me I didn’t shoot and poison anyone’; they allow White people today to say, ‘well some of us were ok, we weren’t all bad’, and to slide out of acknowledging the great harm we have caused and perpetuate, and benefit from.

Coming home from Kalgoorlie with this review in my head I was listening to the Archie Roach album, Tracker. Lamenting the loss of Country in My History, Archie sings “And so I will only forgive when there is contrition.” I worry that stories like this deflect us from that moment.

The Last Runaway is not literary fiction, but it is a well-written story with an interesting underlying factual base, as is often the case with historical fiction (and, as a bonus for MST at Adventures in Biography, Honor is a quilter and there is a great deal of technical discussion about the differences between English and American quilts). Just don’t treat it as though it is the whole story, or even more than peripheral to the main story.

 

Tracy Chevalier, The Last Runaway, Harper Collins, London, 2013. Audio version by AudioGO, UK, 2013 (8 hrs 45 min). Read by Laurel Lefkow