Who ain’t a captive?

Ema, the Captive, was César Aira’s second novel and the fourth one read by me. I find Aira somewhat difficult, and I’m not sure how much I enjoyed reading Ema. But since I find him difficult, I tried to do an attentive job of it, and one thing seemed worth watching out for: the nature of Ema’s captivity.

At the time, that struck me as, I don’t want to say stupid, but I didn’t think it was a unique insight. I may have been wrong about that, in a way that reinforces the central absurdity of Ema. Sad!

The novel(la) opens on a wagon train traversing the pampa, dull with sameness of routine and landscape. The monotony is broken after a few pages by a bloody massacre (of viscachas): “It was a lively and even colorful operation, given the relentless monotony of the background against which it unfolded.” You can stop reading here, on page six, because that’s it, that’s the whole thing.

But you won’t.

At this point the narrative is roughly realist. We witness the viscacha hunt by the soldiers, then we’re passed on to the officers, where we find out there’s a Frenchman along on the trip, an engineer who emerges as the protagonist of Ema (which is a bit unexpected, but not without precedent in the history of the novel). It’s a frontier novel, perhaps a Western. Duval, our Frenchman, isn’t doing well out here on the way to Pringles, though he has a good time at stopping point Azul. There, we get our first idea of our destination.

The lieutenant, who had been away from Pringles for almost a year, asked for news of the town, but the others could tell him very little. Although they had all been there at least once, the officers in Azul regarded Pringles as remote and inaccessible, almost like Indian territory.

Pringles is “impenetrable,” and “ever more distant, like a planet drifting out of our gravitational field.” But the wagon train is on its way there nonetheless. Duval contemplates the local fauna while having existential thoughts and daydreaming of Pringles as “the wild and mysterious west…the sacred realm of impunity, that is, of human freedom, the exercise of which was something that he had not been taught in the old world and would have to learn in the forests of America, at the cost of his own dissolution.” More of Duval’s thoughts, I can’t resist:

He was trying to work out, approximately of course, how many breaths he had taken since he was born. He imagined the almost insect-like system of specific muscles activated over and over to draw in and then expel the air. It would not be hard to build a machine that would work like that indefinitely, but what use would it be? Set up, for example, on one of those vast plains they were crossing, it would be forgotten for a thousand years…Though a more artistic solution, he thought, would be to leave something to represent the machine: a stone, for example (anything would do); he imagined it oblong in shape, the size of a large rat…

Okay, now you can stop, right? (And now I’m surprised I didn’t enjoy this book more than I did.) And Ema has still not appeared.

She does on page 41 of the New Directions edition, introduced as the mother of one of the few remaining babies among the convicts in the wagon train; she is breastfeeding and immediately captivates Duval. He asks Lavalle later about the convicts, and Lavalle recites the entire plot of Ema, the Captive in the space of two pages (43-44). We don’t know that, of course, but we do find out that the women convicts are being transported to the frontier to help populate it, as well as to “‘circulate’ in all kinds of deals” as “a form of currency.”

“Could there really be crimes so serious as to merit such a punishment?”

“They’ve committed trifling misdemeanors, not serious crimes. The punishment is inversely proportional.”

“I don’t understand.”

With a grave air, Lavalle inhaled the smoke of his cigar. He declined to explain.

“It’s a commonplace in ethnology: the much-discussed exchange of women. When you see it for yourself, you’ll realize how harmless it is: an innocent spectacle, and rather pointless, really, like everything else.”

We seem to be getting away from realism here. That night, some of the women prisoners are unshackled for the soldiers’ and officers’ pleasure. Ema appears at Duval’s bedroll, despite his having moved it away from the orgy. “Duval knew that she had been sent by the Succubus,” and she puts down her baby nearby before approaching more closely. Eventually (page 56), the party reaches Pringles, and the narrative suddenly shifts to follow Ema, Duval nowhere to be found. And we’re on a different planet.

It is some short time later and Ema is installed in a shanty outside the fort at Pringles, five or six months pregnant by an unknown father and living with a soldier named Gombo. Their exact relationship is unclear: she doesn’t seem to be a prisoner, she comes and goes as she pleases, and she even has a lover. She doesn’t have to do much of anything except be at home when she expects Gombo to be at home and awake and do some basic cooking and cigarette-rolling. We don’t know whether he’s the father of her second child, and he doesn’t seem to mind the existence of her first. Though we know Ema is not a free woman, the scene at Pringles is almost edenic. Ema immediately falls in with the Indians who live in the neighborhood of the village around Fort Pringles, and she drops baby Francisco off with young girls who enjoy playing house while she lolls on the shores of ponds all day, making eyes at sexy painted men. Food is plentiful and lush, with lots of eggs, milk, and blood. And Gombo isn’t working much harder; from the sound of things, most of what goes on at the fort is gambling—and the commander is printing his own money and flooding the countryside with it, so even gambling losses don’t have much sting.

But before long, still heavily pregnant, Ema is captured once again, this time in an Indian raid. She’s tossed across a horse and made off with, a second time a captive. Now she makes her life among the Indians, but in much the same way. She travels for a while, ultimately to a faraway and powerful Indian court, where she is a minister’s concubine. Here too she is allowed to leave apparently as she pleases, and later to “marry” another man. At this point, she has three children, and “she felt herself vacillating, that indigenous feeling.” Her husband gives her two horses to return with her children to Pringles. There, she charms the commander of the fort into giving her an absurd loan of cash (printed on-demand) and land so she can start a pheasant farm.

The final 30 or so pages of Ema show her (pregnant a third time, not counting Francisco) finding Indians to work her pheasant operation, moving with them to the location and setting it up, and giving Pringles’ commander, Espina, a tour of the facilities. He remarks on the cruelty of the pheasants’ captivity; they walk around in their pens like zombies, many needing sedation, as they await or recover from a painful artificial insemination process. Ema brushes these concerns aside more than once. The last thing on the tour are the pheasant baths, where Ema must once again reassure Espina that the birds are not being killed.

“Not at all,” said Ema in a dreamy tone of voice. “Look carefully.”

Then Espina observed the game in silence…He felt as if he were gradually entering a dream or an otherworldly scene. The water made the workers and the struggling pheasants shine. The colonel felt a strange uneasiness growing within him, a disquiet, a sudden desire. This pheasant breeding was child’s play, a game without consequences. It scared him. It was sodomy incarnate. One false step could lead to annihilation.

The game without consequences is an idea that comes up again and again, which is to say, various people are always enacting it. At Pringles, the soldiers gamble absurdly, with worthless money. At the Indian court, life revolves around an etiquette that makes the impossible possible. There is also the exchange of women mentioned by Lavalle, a pointless spectacle enacted as Ema’s life.

Are others besides Espina horrified by it? If they are, I’ve missed it. Duval is one candidate; I’m not sure what to make of the last of his feelings we’re privy to, but the Succubus thing suggests it. The Indians, like Ema, who has learned so much from them, seem fine with the impossibility of life, as they put it, and even the last few scenes are proof—Ema’s farm is worked by young people, in many cases teenagers, many of whom has children of their own, and on the workers’ vacation to caves that closes the novel Ema wanders through caverns as her employees make love. Did I mention she’s pregnant again, and that the workers are able to go away right after the current batch of pheasants hatches, because their whole lives revolve around a reproductive cycle? Well, you get the idea.

Is Ema still a captive? She was a concubine again on her return to Pringles, before she had the idea about the pheasants.

Well, what difference does it make? (Cue Ishmael.)

After finishing Ema, as I frequently do, I read several reviews of it. Engagement with the question of the nature of Ema’s captivity was so poor that some reviewers actually wrote that Ema was “a white woman living tranquilly on the periphery of a European stronghold [who] is kidnapped by a band of natives and sold into captivity.” Several forgot that she was a prisoner before her arrival at Pringles (and thus during her residency there). Aira is apparently so successful that Ema’s captivity really does fall away—which is to say that some people react like Espina, and others do not.

I also didn’t see any consideration of the way both “sides” of the novel represent the same type of sameness of experience, but from the opposed perspectives of Duval, for whom this is a stultifying horror he literally cannot digest, and Ema, who is dispassion incarnate. He (futilely?) seeks the sublime, while she floats from experience to experience. These two perspectives are presented by various characters in the novel as explicitly masculine and feminine. Speaking of femininity, there seemed to be a lot of unexplored territory around Ema’s fertility and the fact that she imports a bunch of pheasants for breeding after being herself imported for breeding. (Sodomy incarnate!)

The idea that “life is impossible” also seemed missing from the bunch. Among the closest we get is Victoria Baena in Bookforum ascribing to Aira’s writing “a nearly absurdist tone.” Darren Huang in Music & Literature does explore the interplay of money, wealth, ritual, and meaninglessness in the lives of the Indians, though I don’t completely buy his analysis.

Christopher Urban in the Hong Kong Review of Books seems to get it a little more when he explores the way Aira “leav[es] readers to ask what it all means,” though he also seems pretty unsure of himself:

Ema, the Captive would seem to invite or even get ahead of this kind of criticism. At one point Ema witnesses an Indian ceremony and thinks it “Something that required a maximum of attention while rendering attention futile.” The same could be said for the book itself. It’s as if Aira’s managed to write the novel Duval dreamt about for a month on the pampas, a book solely based on observations of cloud patterns and the changing colors of the sky. “The resulting novel, a report on atmospheric colours, shifts, and flows, would be the apotheosis of life’s futility. Why not?”

Can you believe there was another line that illustrates the point so well? And that’s another thing no one seemed to talk about, Aira’s style, all they wanted to say was the books are short. Not that they contain themselves over and over. Instead, they talk about the “momentum in any number of his books, the ecstatic urge to move forward at any cost.” Forward, ha!

My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

If I had expected Eileen to be like Hot Milk, it was I Am Lucy Barton that actually reminded me of the Deborah Levy novel, and how. The title character and narrator is positively in thrall to her mother, though in this case it’s not exactly a lifelong condition.

strout-elizabeth-lucy-bartonLucy Barton is in the middle of spending nine weeks in the hospital due to an appendectomy and its complications, and her husband has invited her mother to spend some time with her there—even though they haven’t seen each other in years. So Lucy, depressed and lonely and missing her family, is suddenly confronted with her mother again, and is thrilled to be talking to her. She’s thrilled to hear all of her mother’s stories from home, gossip about family and neighbors. She constantly tries to please her, unpredictably takes offense at innocuous statements, and ends up literally begging for her love. There’s no word for it but pathetic. And clingy, childish, needy…

Unlike Hot Milk, and like Eileen, I Am Lucy Barton is narrated by an older version of the main character. But the older Lucy Barton doesn’t poke the same holes in her young self. She’s a more serious-minded person than Eileen. And Lucy’s dysfunctional childhood of poverty and abuse leads her to an utterly conventional adulthood. Married with two young children at the time she’s in the hospital, she phones her daughters, desperately repeating that she loves them—in obvious contrast to what she hears from her own mother on this score. The same neediness drives both conversations.

Unlike Eileen‘s narration, which is never really explained, that in Lucy Barton is: Lucy Barton is, throughout the novel, herself a novelist, and she describes at various points in the book her relationship with author Sarah Payne. She first meets Payne in a clothing store, where the two chat as strange women about a jacket. She’s read Payne’s books, though, and she’ll go on to attend a panel discussion featuring Payne and later a workshop retreat held by her in the Southwest. To the retreat, Lucy brings several bits and pieces of what will eventually become the novel we are reading—which, Lucy explains, she began writing after being inspired by Payne to confront the subject of her past. This stuff all gets thicker toward the end—the mother’s hospital visit over, Lucy quickly summarizes the rest of her life up to the writing of the novel.

So we have Payne’s philosophy of narration, and we know what she thinks of Lucy’s story:

Never ever defend your work. This is a story about love, you know that. This is a story of a man who has been tortured every day of his life for things he did in the war. This is the story of a wife who stayed with him, because most wives did in that generation, and she comes to her daughter’s hospital room and talks compulsively about everyone’s marriage going bad, she doesn’t even know it, doesn’t even know that’s what she’s doing. This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write his piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right.

Lucy seems to believe she has fulfilled this commandment, but I would have to disagree. She protects both of her parents, and she does it as part of the overall effort to protect herself. Her love prevents her from condemning her father as a child abuser, so she excuses this behavior by explaining it was really hard on him, feeling guilty about being a murderer for decades. Her love similarly prevents her from condemning her mother for standing by, and for failing to love her, so instead she cries out, “Pity us!” and chooses to continue the circle of suffering with her own daughters.

But Payne also told the class to “go to the page without judgment,” an instruction she and Lucy don’t seem to think is in contradiction. The reason not to judge is that “we never knew, and never would know, what it would be like to understand another person fully.” But Lucy the narrator goes directly from this point to more excuse-making for her father’s abuse:

We think, always we think, What is it about someone that makes us despise that preson, that makes us feel superior? I will say that that night—I remember this part more than what I just described—my father lay next to my brother in the dark and held him as though he was a baby, he rocked him on his lap and I could not tell one’s tears and murmurs from the other’s.

Both of their tears were caused by the father, though, not the son, who has just suffered yet another outrage at his parent’s hands. It’s Lucy’s choice not to judge him for that, and mine to judge her in turn.

This novel brought up a perennial bugbear of mine: ethical criticism. I don’t like criticizing I Am Lucy Barton for being a positive portrayal of a way-of-being-in-the-world I find distasteful—but the whole thing is I find it distasteful. I cannot find a line between the ethical and the aesthetic, these days.

It also brought up the Empathy Problem: sometimes, the more you learn about a character, the more alienated you become. You find out you actually don’t agree about right and wrong, how to act, or how to treat people.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen is the story of a 24-year-old woman who lives with her alcoholic father, a retired police officer, works by day as a clerk in a prison for boys, and doesn’t do much else. She went to college, but during her second year her mother got sick and she came home to care for her until her death. Ever since then, she’s been stuck in her childhood home, obsessing over her bodily functions, reading National Geographic magazine, and driving around with the windows down in a beat-up old car whose exhaust backs up.

moshfegh ottessa eileenWhen Frances wrote briefly about Eileen, she also blogged about Hot Milk, noting that she “loved [the latter] for some of the same reasons,” so I went into Eileen expecting to see similarities. There are some, of course, but a huge difference stood out: the narrator. While Hot Milk is narrated by Sofia in real time, Eileen is narrated by Eileen as an old woman.

So while there are some definite parallels between the characters of Sofia and Eileen in their 20s, those characters are treated very differently by their respective narrators. Sofia has no different perspective as a narrator than as a character. Eileen, though, judges her young self in all sorts of ways as she describes the events of her 25th Christmas. Eileen the narrator also presents her judgments of many of the other characters in the novel, describing both how she felt and what she thought about them at the time as well as her assessment now, decades older and wiser.

Her assessment of herself is critical, but not overly so. She gives herself a pass on many things, generally reasonably. But mostly she’s willing to laugh at her young self, or at least willing to see that self’s problems as small, to see that self as naive and sheltered still, even after a messy childhood and dysfunctional young adulthood.

This, in turn, makes her older self appear much more psychologically healthy. We don’t know how Eileen got out of X-ville, as she calls her hometown, but we know she got out and we know she’s a lot less neurotic, a lot more normal now—even if she’s not happy, per se, and even if we know she lives alone and not with a husband or children or grandchildren.

And this perspective also gives Eileen most of its narrative interest, which is in the suspense built by the tension between what the reader knows so far about 24-year-old Eileen and what the reader knows about Eileen 50 years later. When the narrator explains that she is describing “[m]y last days as that angry little Eileen,” it’s clear something is going to happen—but what? When she explains that “in truth I was always furious, seething, my thoughts racing, my mind like a killer’s,” the reader’s mind is bound to go straight to the most lurid of possibilities. But the action itself is slow, and one by one narrator-Eileen eliminates various possibilities. We find out she believes her older sister is still alive, that she only assumes her father is dead by now, that her coworker Rebecca, who has apparently changed Eileen’s life dramatically, has also not been killed at Eileen’s hands. What’s left?

Of course, something is left, and I’ll say only that it was a genuine surprise for me.

Hystopia by David Means

David Means’s Hystopia is an alternate history where John F. Kennedy wasn’t assassinated in 1963 and went on instead to seek a third term as president—and where Eugene Allen, a young Vietnam veteran with Stiller’s disease, commits suicide after completing the final draft of his novel, Hystopia.

means david hystopiaEugene Allen’s Hystopia is also an alternate history. In Allen’s novel, unlike in the “real” world of Means’s novel, there exists a drug called Tripizoid—a drug whose effects are not fully understood.

In Inner Hystopia‘s world, that’s what makes Trip a “drug”—Wendy, a nurse, specifies at one point that in her work she gave people “medications,” which were different entirely. Drug status isn’t necessarily a bad thing in this world, though: remember, it was Richard Nixon who started the War on Drugs, declared drug abuse “Public Enemy No. 1,” and implemented the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, and Nixon has never been president in either Inner or Outer Hystopia. Tripizoid is in wide use as part of a psychiatric treatment called “enfolding.”

People in this world are able to “enfold” a past trauma—along with an entire Causal Events Package leading up to that trauma, which might consist of almost their entire lives—by reenacting it under the influence of Tripizoid. Think Vietnam veterans taking part in staged battles across the state of Michigan, tripping balls, and afterward remembering none of it. Ignorance is bliss.

But there are also “failed enfolds,” and one such is Rake, who kidnaps a young woman named Meg—also enfolded, though not a veteran—and takes her on a killing spree, eventually depositing her with a war buddy who has secretly enfolded himself behind Rake’s back. This man, Hank, helps eventually free Meg (and himself) from Rake. Meanwhile, Singleton, a member of the Psych Corps, is having an illicit affair with a coworker (Wendy). As part of their job with the Corps, they end up hunting down Rake and finding Hank and Meg, and Singleton and Meg uncover elements of their past in a process of semicontrolled unfolding.

All this is framed by editor’s notes and interviews with people who knew Eugene Allen, laying out the differences between the two alternate histories as well as the inspirations for much of Allen’s novel. Meg is based on his own sister, who disappeared and was eventually found dead. Rake is based on a bad seed from their neighborhood, who by the time of his interview is in prison for murder. And so forth.

In the Atlantic, Amy Weiss-Meyer writes that “Allen’s subsequent suicide, we already know, means his own effort at retelling has failed to cure him. Yet throughout his feverish novel—the novel we’re reading—he’s interested in asking that very question through each of his characters.” My response to that is, “Yet”? Of course he is! It’s the point of Inner Hystopia: what would life be like if retelling could cure trauma?

Allen’s answer to that is, “Not much different.” Essentially, the very nature of the world—some part of the underlying structure of reality that Allen couldn’t knock into alignment with his alternate history—prevents people from curing trauma in this way. You simply cannot forget the bad things that happened to you and go on to lead a normal, healthy life.

Some of the reviews I read after reading Outer Hystopia failed to take the frame into account at all, and others acknowledged that Inner Hystopia was written by Allen but failed to really engage with what that meant beyond the most superficial. The difference I highlighted above—Tripizoid—is, I believe, the most significant, but there are many others. The exact date of Kennedy’s assassination was off by a month, though like in “real life” it occurred during the seventh attempt. The second great lumber boom happens only in Allen’s universe—at least, until sometime after Inner Hystopia was written, when a second great lumber boom does happen.

It’s probably things like this that lead Max Liu in the Independent to complain of Means’s “fairly well-worn metafictional tricks”; many people get bored of this stuff. But some of it matters, and that’s interesting.

In turn, what’s not different between the two worlds is significant. Inner Hystopia is in large part a criticism of a society that hypermedicalizes nearly universal personal problems. War may be terrible, but it is ultimately a common human experience. Losing a loved one, even violently, is simply a part of life, not a reason to wrap half a lifetime of memories in a Tripizoid fuzzball, inaccessible for the rest of time (unless you take some simple steps to unfold yourself, which will always be a temptation, of course, because ignorance is not really bliss).

The world Allen lived in also treated personal problems like teenage angst and social nonconformity like diseases to be cured. His sister Meg was institutionalized for being “unbalanced” and a “slut.” And then there’s Allen’s Stiller’s disease.

Eugene Allen had a tendency to self-isolate and was prone to bouts of Stiller’s disease, a common condition in the Middle West of the United States. Although the diagnosis is relatively new, still under study, symptoms include a desire to stand in attic windows for long stretches; a desire to wander back lots, abandoned fairgrounds, deserted alleys, and linger in sustained reveries; a propensity for crawling beneath porch structures and into crawl spaces in order to peer up through cracks and other apertures to witness the world from a distance and within secure confines, the reduced field of vision paradoxically effecting a wider view by way of a tightening sensation around the eyeballs and eyelids. …Stiller’s disease in older teens can lead to wayward tendencies, antisocial ideation, and profound spiritual visions leading to a desire for artificially induced visions.

So because a young Eugene Allen liked to sit in his grandfather’s attic looking out the window, he is suspect—at the very least, ill. And it’s probably why he killed himself. The reader will also note that this information is taken from the “extensive report” from the “standard postmortem psychological examination” of Allen.

I read a handful of reviews of Hystopia, and I also didn’t come across any discussion of the report-writing that becomes an obsession of Singleton’s by the end of the inner novel. Singleton is the most prominent character in the inner novel, and, in my reading, that novel’s representation of Eugene Allen. Singleton’s commanding officer in the Psych Corps, Klein, refers to advice he once gave Singleton about how to write an operations report, and tells Singleton that if he does so, he might find a pattern. Later, we find out what that meant.

His operation plan, attached to his report, would be written after the fact, postdated to cover tracks and make it seem preordained. That’s how it was done, Klein had explained. Orders in a plan have a snap and zing, a knowingness, a resonance ahead of the curve. Gumption is what you need to be a commander, Klein had explained. The gumption to go back and revise history.

For the remainder of the inner novel, Singleton is obsessed with the operations report—which he finally does write, and which itself becomes legend. What is the relationship between Singleton’s operations report and Allen’s manuscript—especially if Singleton represents Allen? Why is Singleton so preoccupied with it—with “this need to put everything into a system,” as Wendy asks?

Jonathan Sturgeon, writing in Flavorwire, may have part of an answer:

In Hystopia, he diagnoses America’s certainty about its own history—its sense of realism—as its own psychological evasion: a kind of sick faith in official narratives. In Means’ novel, realism is just a confluence of competing hysterias. And it reminds us more than once: “All cures are bogus.”

Teresa at Shelf Love, a fellow Shadow (Wo)Man Booker Panelist, was not so crazy about the frame and the competing alternate histories.

Means’s book resists a clear pattern. Elements of the alternate history don’t have a clear purpose, and the framing story adds messy complications. I’m not sure the character relationships are ever fully explained. But perhaps it’s supposed to be a mess. War and its aftermath are a mess. Trying to fit it into a neat story would be false somehow. Perhaps Means’s intention was for the chaos of Nam not just to seep home but to seep into his story. I may not enjoy reading that kind of book, but I can appreciate the effort.

An interesting counterpoint to Sturgeon’s suggestion about Means’s realism—and Allen’s, I think, for another similarity.

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

I’m the first to admit that I’m not the best reader of Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk. As each of the several positive reviews I read noted, it’s about a deeply neurotic mother-daughter relationship, which Sarah Lyall insists in the New York Times is known to “[a]nyone who has been a mother or a daughter.” But the “toxic dance of power, guilt, competitiveness, dependency and resentment” she describes is not, in fact, part of my experience of the world.

But why should that be a problem—I should be able to understand all this anyway via the empathetic magic of the novel, right? Well, let’s see.

Hot Milk is narrated by Sofia Papastergiadis, a woman in her midtwenties who has dropped out of a PhD program in anthropology and works as a barista, sleeping weeknights in a storeroom and spending weekends at her mother’s. At the opening of the novel, she is in Almería, Spain, also with her mother, who has mortgaged her home in London to pay for treatment at a private clinic there run by a Dr Gómez.

From the very first page, it seems clear that Sofia’s mother is driving her crazy.

Will I still be here in a month? I don’t know. It depends on my sick mother, who is sleeping under a mosquito net in the next room. She will wake up and shout, ‘Get me water, Sofia,’ and I will get her water and it will always be the wrong sort of water. I am not sure what water means any more but I will get her water as I understand it: from a bottle in the fridge, from a bottle that is not in the fridge, from the kettle in which the water has been boiled and left to cool.

levy deborah hot milkAs Sofia explains to a man at the beach who helps her, also in the opening pages, with some jellyfish stings, “‘Sometimes Rose can walk, sometimes she can’t.'” He asks her to fill in a form about herself for his records about everyone who seeks treatment, and she balks at the “Occupation” field. “It might have been the pain of the sting, but I found myself telling him about my pathetic miniature life. ‘I don’t so much have an occupation as a preoccupation, which is my mother, Rose.'”

Indeed. She goes on to explain that they are here so Dr Gómez can investigate Rose’s mysterious illness, which drew Sofia away from her PhD and involves Rose saying she can’t walk or feel her feet when she wants attention, and, when no attention is available, walking to the store all by herself to buy what she wants. Sofia claims to have been “sleuthing my mother’s symptoms for as long as I can remember,” investigating “for about twenty of my twenty-five years,” (it does not appear to be explained that Sofia also claims Rose “became ill” while she was in grad school) and that this is “good training for an anthropologist.” Other reviewers call out Sofia’s sharpness, but somehow she isn’t sharp enough to have realized none of her mother’s symptoms is verifiable, and they all mysteriously disappear whenever it’s convenient—for Rose.

So from the first pages of the novel it seems clear that Sofia is an unreliable narrator. She frequently becomes confused in public, has trouble having conversations with strangers and acquaintances, and narrates openly about how “I have become a good mind reader, which means [Rose’s] head is my head.”

It also seems immediately clear that her mother is abusive and horrible, and that Sofia is entirely in her thrall and extremely pathetic.

But why? How is one to have empathy with this mother-daughter neurosis if one has not already experienced it? When Sofia starts chanting about how “My love for my mother is like an ax,” I wish she’d just use it to chop her mother’s legs off. Or, honestly, I wish Rose would use it to chop Sofia’s foolish head off. Rose is the much less alienating of the two women.

So, all that happens within the first few pages, and the rest of the novel involves Rose’s treatment at the Gómez Clinic and Sofia’s awakening. By the end, Rose can walk (which I don’t feel like is a spoiler since it’s obvious right away that her illness is fake) and Sofia is asking her for a glass of water. Sofia has also had a couple of affairs, and gone to Greece to visit her father, stepmother (only a few years older than Sofia), and infant half-sister.

Other reviewers seem pretty positive on the whole thing. In The Guardian, Erica Wagner describes the situation thus:

She is in a rented beach house with her mother, Rose, in southern Spain—but if this sounds like a holiday, it’s not. Rose has remortgaged her flat to come here, to a mysterious clinic run by a man called Gómez: perhaps Gómez can cure the mysterious paralysis that confines Rose to a wheelchair and binds her daughter to her with chains of control and dependency. But there is no cure here—only strange pronouncements from a doctor who may very well be a quack; a chained alsatian on the beach that won’t stop barking; the relentless sun and a sea full of poisonous jellyfish.

This is true—from the perspective of Sofia. But Sofia is unreliable. There is no mysterious paralysis, and the only chains are in Sofia’s mind. Should I believe that the rest of it is real? The same review goes on to explain that Sofia’s “father’s new family erases her own past,” but again, that is only Sofia’s own neurosis. But writing something like, “Sofia is really upset because her parents got divorced over twenty years ago” doesn’t sound as good, I guess. (And no reviewer I saw noted that it was almost certainly her mother’s abusive codependence that drove Christos away all those years ago; it never occurs to Sofia either.)

In the Times, Lyall reassures that, “Perhaps this sounds tiresome or conventional, a typical coming-of-age story. It’s not.” It is. “It’s a pleasure to be inside Sofia’s insightful, questioning mind.” It’s not. I mean this kind of thing is subjective. This is taste. But how can you describe Sofia as insightful or questioning when the whole point is she’s going along with this absurd fake paralysis story—for years? From the same review:

As for the amusing Dr. Gómez, he may be an awful clinician, but he’s prone to sudden and surprisingly apt observations. “You are using your mother like a shield to protect yourself from making a life,” he says. Later he declares that he has lost interest in finding out what is wrong with Rose and is more concerned with Sofia. “My question is this,” he says. “What is wrong with you?”

The “awful clinician” cures both Rose and Sofia, and if that is a surprising observation, I don’t know what novel Lyall was reading up to that point. Gómez is not the only person Sofia meets who recognizes that her mother is taking advantage of her.

In the Financial Times, Lionel Shriver describes one of the funnier episodes of the novel (and it is funny):

When Ingrid gives her new lover a blouse, Sofia is thrilled to find that the German has embroidered the silk with the word “Beloved”. But later—I told you this book is odd—she discovers the embroidery reads instead, “Beheaded”.

I suppose it’s fair to call Ingrid odd, but by that point in the novel it doesn’t seem at all odd to find out Sofia has made such a mistake.

That Sofia is unreliable is not any reason dislike Hot Milk—and it can sometimes be funny, as above with the blouse. The gift of the blouse goes completely to Sofia’s head; she wants Ingrid to be in love with her. She wears it to feel sexy on her trip to Athens. Her stepmother asks her what it means:

‘What does what mean?’
‘The word on your top?’
I start to think about how to describe the word Beloved. ‘It means to be very loved,’ I say. ‘A true, great love.’
She looks confused. ‘I don’t think that’s right.’
I wonder if she thinks that being very loved is not right for me.
‘The word is more violent than that,’ she continues.
‘Yes, it is a forceful feeling,’ I reply. ‘When we call someone beloved, it is a strong feeling.’

Sofia has for the past few scenes been making Alexandra out as a lightweight, and we won’t find out until later that she’s wrong about the embroidery. You could read Sofia as bold and incisive, pointing out Alexandra’s patronizing cruelty…or as so anxious and self-absorbed she suspects this kind young woman of being stupid and/or mean. And in a later twist, we’ll find out Ingrid thinks Sofia is the cruel one, because she never gave Ingrid a gift in return.

Shriver also writes that “[a]chieving quite a feat of memory and imagination for an author in her mid-fifties, Levy gives convincing voice to the foundering, floundering sensation of the mid-twenties—the experimentation, the trying on of hats, the clinging to parents in the very throes of trying to let them go.”

I’m not saying my memory is better, or that everyone’s experience is the same, but what Shriver describes seems younger to me than midtwenties, and that may be something that didn’t really work for me about Hot Milk.

Of all the reviews I read, only Eimear McBride’s in The New Statesman* was willing to admit the obvious: “She knows, and we know she knows, what both the problem and the solution are, almost from the first page. It is difficult to remain patient with a woman who colludes in overly extending her own adolescence.”

I don’t know that it’s necessarily a question of patience. I just couldn’t take her very seriously—and it doesn’t seem like I was meant to, all things considered. And she was just a little bit too pathetic.

*McBride also notes, as I did right away, that “Interestingly, this is the second novel in as many years (Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island being the first) to feature anthropologists wielding their trade for alternative, and opposing, purposes.” Notably, both were on the Man Booker long list. Sofia even makes what could be a reference to McCarthy’s novel, noting that she “would rather work in the Coffee House than be hired to conduct research into why customers prefer one washing machine to another. Most of the students I studied with ended up becoming corporate ethnographers.”

“People whose consciences torment them are the exception”

[W]hy did she do that, they will say of you, why so much fuss and why the quickening pulse, why the trembling, why the somersaulting heart; and of me they will say: why did he speak or not speak, why did he wait so long and so faithfully, why that dizziness, those doubts, that torment, why did he take those particular steps and why so many? And of us both they will say: why all that conflict and struggle, why did they fight instead of just looking and staying still, why were they unable to meet or to go on seeing each other, and why so much sleep, so many dreams, and why that scratch, my fever, my word, your pain, and all those doubts, all that torment?

This passage appears at the end of the first chapter of Book II, Spear, and is repeated in full four more times by the end of Book VII, Farewell, with slight variations in the sequence at the end (extending as far as “why that scratch, my pain, my word, your fever, the dance, and all those doubts, all that torment”). Its last sentence (“why all that conflict and struggle…”) is repeated an additional time on its own.

Your Face TomorrowRepetition is not exactly unusual in Your Face Tomorrow*; Deza relies on it to make himself more clear, to orient the reader (and perhaps even himself) in his own stream of consciousness, to remind the reader (and, again, maybe himself as well) of the connections between things he’s heard and seen and thought before and what he’s hearing or seeing or thinking now, and as a way to triangulate toward a more precise conveyance of meaning. And, of course, the repetition hammers home the importance of the repeated idea.

And note what is important: it’s fair to say that this passage is a summary of the trilogy, so Deza is reminding the reader that nothing that happens in all these books is important, that none of the conflict and struggle has any point. Why did he narrate or not narrate, why did he do any of the things he narrated, and why so much? And why that spear, his fever, their dance, his dream, the poison, and the shadow? (This is not exactly a new issue for Marías; in Voyage Along the Horizon he constructs nested narratives around a novel-within-a-novel that, ultimately, “should never be published and should never have been read or listened to by anyone other than myself.”)

There’s more to learn from the context of the passage’s first appearance. Directly after the passage appears—that is to say, at the very beginning of the second chapter of Book II—Deza considers one of Tupra’s sayings, “It’s the way of the world.” Deza riffs on what this sentence might mean, before it actually appears in the chronology of the story. Tupra won’t actually say it to Deza until after Book II, because in Book II Deza doesn’t work for Tupra yet. That will happen in Book III, Dance, and that’s where Tupra will first have a chance to use his expression.

It’s something Tupra says when Deza expresses concern over something that’s happened—or over something Tupra has done, or something Deza suspects Tupra has done. As the two of them work together on assignments never actually explained to Deza, every once in a while his moral sense kicks in and reminds him that he’s allowing himself to participate in harming people, even if unknowingly and indirectly. But that’s the way of the world, Tupra tells him each time—fever and spear, scratch and dance, are the way of the world, and why pretend otherwise?

Still, Deza always has a sense that there’s more to it than that, and Sir Peter Wheeler, his mentor of sorts, offers a fresh perspective. He doesn’t seem to disagree with Tupra about “the way of the world,” but he points out to Deza that some people can live with things and others can’t. Deza, in fact, can, according to Wheeler—if he hadn’t thought that, Wheeler would never have invited him to work with Tupra at all. But Wheeler has intimate experience of someone who couldn’t live with knowing she’d done the kinds of things Deza had done, with tragic consequences. What matters is what you can live with.

I liked Your Face Tomorrow when I first read it, and I remember Voyage Along the Horizon as almost a guilty pleasure, but it’s impressive to see how strongly geared Marías seems to be to exploring themes and ideas of particular interest to me: the dangers of talking, the pointlessness of everything, the absurdity of the past receding, the incomprehensibility of the other. He deserves a more central place in my reading mind, and a better look into the way he’s developed these ideas over time.

*This time through, I compiled a pretty thorough list of mentions of what I call “the list,” that is, any of the items in the “scratch, fever, etc.” list above. At least two of these items appear together in 28 separate passages across the whole trilogy.

Post title from the line: “‘People whose consciences torment them are the exception, as are old-fashioned people who think: “Spear, fever, my pain, words, sleep and dreams,” and other similarly pointless thoughts.’”

Thanks again to Richard and Stu for hosting Spanish Lit Month once again, an event I’ve been privileged to participate in over the years. And I’d like to thank Richard especially for being my initial impetus to read Your Face Tomorrow the first time—which turned out to have been a for-me-surprising five years ago! It was certainly time for a re-read. I don’t often say that books “changed my life,” but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit this one had changed a lot about how I look at the world—a lot about my inner monologue. The second reading was as rewarding as I could have hoped it would be.

Fever, infatuation, and Colonel Chabert

I’ve been re-reading Your Face Tomorrow, in which Jacques Deza spends several months separated from his wife, Luisa. He is in London while she remains in Madrid, in their apartment, with their children, and he thinks about her every day. This, naturally, includes imagining what she might be doing without him—and with whom.

Toward the beginning of the first book, Fever, he considers:

And yet, illogically, I believe that Luisa will not take this new love or lover back to the apartment where she lives with our children or into our bed which is now hers alone, but that she will meet him almost secretly, as if respect for my still recent memory imposed this on her or implored it of her—a whisper, a fever, a scratch—as if she were a widow and I a dead man deserving to be mourned and who cannot be replaced to quickly, not yet, my love, wait, wait, your hour has not yet come, don’t spoil it for me, give me time and give him time too, the dead man whose time no longer advances, give him time to fade, let him change into a ghost before you take his place and dismiss his flesh, let him be changed into nothing, wait until there is no trace of his smell on the sheets or on my body, let it be as if what was had never happened.

marias javier infatuationsThis idea wasn’t one I’d remembered from my first reading of Your Face Tomorrow, and I believe I’ve already found one more allusion to it in the first volume. But I’ve seen Marías work it up into a whole novel: The Infatuations.

That novel also involves a woman named Luisa, and this Luisa is indeed a widow. The narrator is curious about the death of her husband, and becomes involved with Luisa and with a family friend named Díaz-Varela. The narrator’s death investigation is a significant part of the novel, but The Infatuations is also preoccupied with the fact of the dramatic changes triggered by a sudden, unexpected, and violent death.

The death’s effect on Luisa is the main thing, and there are conversations both real and imagined about what will happen to her. Will she see anyone romantically again, and if so, how long will it take? Will she kill herself? Will she ever “get over” her husband’s murder? And so forth. The main thing is, what effect will time have on her?

Díaz-Varela is sure that she will marry again, after an appropriate period of mourning. He describes how she will change over the next few years, first becoming used to the idea “I’ve been widowed” or “I’m a widow,” until, one day

“…she won’t be, and will say instead, ‘I lost my first husband, and he’s moving further away from me all the time. It’s such a long time since I saw him, whereas this other man is here by my side and is always by my side. I call him “husband” too, which is odd. But he has taken the other husband’s place in my bed and by virtue of that juxtaposition is gradually blurring and erasing him. A little more each day, a little more each night.'”

It is “odd,” but there it is, time can change “husband” from one man to another. As Luisa’s dead husband said in a conversation imagined by the narrator, “That is the awful power of the present, which crushes the past more easily as the past recedes, and falsifies it too without the past getting a chance to speak, protest, contradict or refute anything.”

Díaz-Varela explains to the narrator that he recently read a book, Balzac’s Colonel Chabert, “which agrees with me as regards Luisa, as regards what will happen to hear in the fullness of time.” A few years ago, when I read The Infatuations, I read this too. It’s about a French soldier in Napoleon’s army who is counted among the dead at the Battle of Eylau but is, in fact, saved. By the time he makes it back to Paris, his wife—his widow—has already married another man, and the last thing she wants is the return of a ghost who threatens her social position. Colonel Chabert struggles with his impossible existence, wishing he’d lost his memory along with everything else.

J’ai été enterré sous des morts, mais mantenant je suis enterré sous des vivants, sous des actes, sous des faits, sous la société tout entière, qui veut me faire rentrer sous terre!

I was buried under the dead, but now I am buried under the living, under contracts, under facts, under all of society, which wants to put me back underground!

The awful power of the present is such that it cannot readmit this figure from the past, and Colonel Chabert may have been better off dead.

“It’s what we want that we see, not what is

So a couple weeks ago I noted on Twitter that I was excited about reading some new fiction. I was probably around 50 pages into Lydia Millet’s Sweet Lamb of Heaven at that point, and I did what I often do when I’m excited about a new(ish) book: I looked for what other people were writing about it.*

It was an interview by Lily Meyer at Electric Literature that really caught my eye. Asked how she went about writing a novel “about language,” she says:

I wanted a reliable narrator, and really, my bailiwick in the past has been the flawed narrator. But here, because I had these outlandish conceits, I needed someone authoritative. She’s arch, she’s intelligent, but she’s pretty straight, and I needed that foil to play against ideas about the divine and the supernatural. You can’t really have a narrator who seems overtly untrustworthy, which is the kind of narrator that’s easier for me. But I wanted to have her be believable. I didn’t want the reader wondering whether she was just a kook. It wouldn’t have served my ideological or narrative purposes, and I think it’s sort of boring. I’m a little jaded about the Am I crazy thing that you see in a lot of horror movies. I tried to dispense with that, to say, This isn’t a story about unreliability.

millet lydia sweet lamb heavenI wondered whether Millet was messing with the interviewer at this point.** A narrator doesn’t have to be overtly untrustworthy to be unreliable, or to seem so to the reader. And I had definitely questioned the narrator of Sweet Lamb of Heaven.

Something about the book would be useful here. Anna, our narrator, is keeping a sort of diary or document of her experiences since an unplanned pregnancy led to the birth of her daughter, virtually ignored by her now-unfaithful husband. From the time Lena is a newborn, Anna hears a voice when she is nearby. She searches for explanations of the voice, and after some research (she does not tell any medical professionals what’s happening) she concludes that she is not insane but experiencing auditory hallucinations.

That’s a perfectly reasonable explanation, but by page 15 Anna is pointing out potential flaws with the theory. At this point, it’s a realistic novel: assuming Anna is hallucinating, whether she’s sane or not, the voice is the only thing out of the ordinary. Her husband, Ned, may be cold to her and the baby, but he hasn’t done anything. It seems to be written purposely to teeter between two possibilities, the one on the surface, where Anna has righteously left a bad man and taken her child, and the one where Anna is unbalanced and is kidnapping Lena. Again, early in the novel, Anna recounts the time they’d been hiding out on the Appalachian Trail, saw helicopters and decided to flee:

And I knew we’d been right to run when the cook, who had become a friend, called me. She said four men had come, two from each direction since the trail stretched out on either side of the cabin. They converged on it fifteen minutes after we’d left. They weren’t dressed for hiking: their shoes were shiny leather ruined by mud. So she told them only that we’d left the day before, and after some unhappy muttering and some prowling around the grounds and questioning of other guests, the four men went away.

This is the kind of evidence Anna has of Ned’s ultracreepiness—circumstantial. It all could be straightforwardly just as she says. But those could have been cops, FBI agents or whatever, chasing after a kidnapper rather than Ned’s henchmen—a word Anna later repeats to herself, “a comical word I’d never thought I’d have a use for.”

After fleeing the leather-shod men in the mountains, Anna and Lena end up spending the off-season at a motel in a sleepy town in Maine, giving us, as Laura Miller writes in Slate, “the skeleton—and no small amount of the flesh—of a Stephen King novel.” For a while it’s just them and the motel owner, but then a young woman named Kay arrives. Eventually the place is overrun with affluent men and women of all ages who, Anna will come to find out, have also heard the voice.

This throws her for a huge loop. Ned heard the voice once—a point that severely undermined her hallucination explanation—but this is much worse. (And how realistic is the novel now?) They develop a sort of support group to discuss the voice, and what they think it might be or mean. Kay has more ideas about that than the others.

“It exists in most things that live. It’s language, or the innate capacity for language, is a better way to put it. You could say it’s the language of sentience.”

“Trees don’t have language. Trees don’t have opinions,” objected Navid, kicking the floor with his toes.

Kay looked up at him. It was a different look from those she usually gave him, I realized. It was sympathy.

“It’s not that we’re the only ones who have it, or hear it, or are it,” she went on, so quiet that I had to strain to hear. “What’s different about us, different from how it is with the other animals and even the plants—what happened with Lena and Anna and in my case with Infant Vasquez? What’s different is that we’re the only ones it leaves.”

Kay’s argument is bolstered by Anna’s inclusion of one of many excerpts from Wikipedia, in this case from the entry on communication:

Communication is observed within the plant organism, i.e. within plant cells and between plant cells, between plants of the same or related species, and between plants and non-plant organisms, especially in the root zone … plant roots communicate with rhizome bacteria, fungi and insects in the soil. These interactions … are possible because of the decentralized “nervous system” of plants.

It’s fine to say that plants “talk to” bacteria in the soil to describe what’s going on when they exchange chemical and electrical signals, but I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to think this is about more than just a colorful way of describing such banal interactions. But I’m not at all sure what that more is, an it just ends up seeming like a childish misreading of the Wikipedia article. When Anna on the next page laments her inferiority compared to Kay, is that because she’s sane and Kay is perceptive, or because she’s depressed and afraid and doesn’t realize Kay is a total flake? (And there is evidence Kay is not well—Anna herself accepts that Kay is “mentally ill.”)

There might be a clue in an extended excerpt from a Huffington Post blog post by Peter Russell on the nature of consciousness.

But wait. That blog post is from June 9, 2011, and was updated on August 9, 2011. But Millet sources her excerpt to Peter Russell in HuffPo in December 2013. There’s also this post, under a different byline (Peter Baksa), published October 3, 2011 and updated December 3, 2011. And it’s just about word-for-word the same thing. Peter Baksa seems to have a book about The Secret; here are his and Russell’s Twitter feeds.

I’d be inclined to call this stuff “flaky” regardless, but even if you’re into The Secret, there’s something fishy going on with those identical blog posts. Did Millet know about them? (Did Anna?) (And was I really meant to take seriously a passage of research on the nature of consciousness pasted in from HuffPo? Is that really a straight, non-kooky narrator—or the research skill of a professor?) (And where is the version from 2013? It’s definitely not on Russell’s author page.)

Soon there is another Wikipedia excerpt, from an entry on panpsychism:

Panpsychism is one of the oldest philosophical theories, the view that mind or soul (Greek: ψυχη) is a universal feature of all things, and the primordial feature from which all others are derived.

But that’s not what Wikipedia actually says. It’s not what Wikipedia has said at any point in 2016, as the excerpt is dated:

In philosophy, panpsychism is the view that consciousness, mind or soul (psyche) is a universal and primordial feature of all things. Panpsychists see themselves as minds in a world of minds.

Panpsychism is one of the oldest philosophical theories, and has been ascribed to philosophers like Thales, Plato, Spinoza, Leibniz and William James. Panpsychism can also be seen in ancient philosophies such as Stoicism, Vedanta and Mahayana Buddhism. During the 19th century, panpsychism was the default theory in philosophy of mind, but it saw a decline during the middle years of the 20th century with the rise of logical positivism.[1] The recent interest in the hard problem of consciousness has once again made panpsychism a widespread theory.

Now, I don’t think those differences are significant in terms of meaning, but…what is up with that?!? (And yes, she even changed “psyche” to Greek letters.)

The next excerpt is from the entry on endangered languages—except that it’s not. Phrases like “now happening at a breakneck pace” should be a tipoff; Wikipedia is not supposed to sound like that. It’s much clunkier. Next a single sentence from the language isolate page is misquoted. Then the programming language entry.

Was I supposed to notice this? Was I supposed to check? I didn’t check everything, and I don’t really see a rhyme or reason to the choices—except that they do all sound much better in Millet’s version.

So there is a big hole in my reading of the novel. A few of the reviews I read suggested that I may be a poor reader of Sweet Lamb of Heaven due to my almost complete lack of experience with the horror genre. But I might also say that the following description of how horror works, from Miller, is a significant reason I dislike it. She describes Millet’s novel as having

a sturdy narrative engine whose momentum, however familiar it may feel, proves irresistible. It propels the reader toward the expected apocalyptic confrontation between good and evil. But Millet’s fiction inhabits a different moral universe from King’s. In his novels, the nature of evil goes largely unquestioned; what concerns King is the task of summoning the courage to confront it. Sweet Lamb of Heaven uses the same epic devices to put forth a new idea of horror.

I think it’s that lack of explanation of the confrontation between good and evil that makes horror seem a bit empty to me. But this novel seemed mostly empty too; I’m not sure about that “new idea of horror.” Ned seemed pretty meaningless—where does he come from, after all? Where does the “legion” of other horrors come from, and why?

I do think there is something there, even though the novel really suffered for me as I got toward the end. The idea that there’s one voice out there, and you can only hear whatever part of it you can hear, is interesting, as are Anna’s musings on loneliness. I’d been all set to write about how I often found Millet’s endings hollow, or at least unable to deliver on the promise of her premises, but when I looked at some of the weaknesses in this case—namely, the lameness of Anna’s reliance on these Wikipedia texts and her seeming descent into fear and flakiness the longer she is embedded in the hotel (or, better, the longer she’s cut off from society)—I found that they were a whole new anomaly. Perhaps one that should spark a paradigm shift in my reading of the novel? If so, I am not yet sure what it would be.

*I was going to link to them all for you, but now I can just send you to LitHub.

**Meyer also says she asked herself, “When’s the last time I read a novel this explicitly pro-choice? And I don’t know!” I’m not really sure what this is referring to; I don’t recall anyone getting an abortion or even considering one, and the events of the novel are touched off when the narrator chooses to carry a child to term despite earlier plans not to have children, at least at the moment.

Rebecca Solnit Doesn’t Explain Lolita to Anyone

Rebecca Solnit writes in The Lit Hub that she’s gotten what she considers ill-founded pushback on an essay she wrote in response to Esquire’s list of “The 80 Best Books Every Man Should Read,” specifically with regard to Lolita: “some of the men out there respond on the grounds that my opinion is wrong, while theirs is right because they are convinced that their opinion is a fact, while mine is a delusion.”

In my experience very few people, even among cultural and moral relativists, actually espouse a view from nowhere in most of their daily life, pretending essentially that they have no preferences or personality. And Solnit herself does not do so here: instead she falls into the unfortunate position of holding the strong opinion that it’s wrong for other people to hold strong opinions.

The essay irked me when I first read it on December 17, the day it was published, but it irks me even more that I’m drawn to write rebuttals of things that seem so ultimately boring. Over the next few days, I seemed to see more organizations sharing the essay, though, praising it as…well, I’m not sure. Because what’s really here?

The 2,900-word essay takes more than 1,100 words to mention Lolita, and by my count less than 400 words are (generously) about the novel. There are about another 500 that could be fairly characterized as comparing other books to Lolita. Gamergate and pickup artists get more than half as much space as Lolita itself. Most of the essay is devoted to theorizing about empathy and the emotional state of people (men) who made negative comments about her previous Lit Hub essay.

(The Lolita essay includes only four links throughout: one to her previous Lit Hub essay on 80 books no woman should read, one to a story in The Atlantic on college students and microaggressions, one to a 1988 essay by Arthur C. Danto, and one to an essay about “women’s stories being discounted and discredited. There were no links to anything written by anyone who disagreed with her. She does not even clearly say that this essay is a counter to responses to her essay on the Esquire list; perhaps all the criticisms she is talking about are in the comments to that, but she never says.)

So what does she have to say about Lolita? That should, of course, be the interesting question. There are two main points: that men say it’s wrong to “identify with” a character, and she says they’re wrong about that (she doesn’t explain whether it’s correct, necessary, okay, one possible thing to do, etc.); and that it’s a book about “a white man serially raping a child over a period of years.” At no point does she explain what that is supposed to mean.

It’s just when you identify with Lolita you’re clarifying that this is a book about a white man serially raping a child over a period of years. Should you read Lolita and strenuously avoid noticing that this is the plot and these are the characters? Should the narrative have no relationship to your own experience?

If the answer to both of those questions is “no,” then what? What does that mean about Lolita and why it shouldn’t be on a list of books men should read?

Challenged by one man with the idea that Lolita is an allegory, she responds: “It is, and it’s also a novel about a big old guy violating a spindly child over and over and over. Then she weeps.” What does that mean? There is not much hope of finding out. All she really said about Lolita in the first essay was that it was a “masterpiece of Humbert Humbert’s failure of empathy,” which makes me wonder if she forgot about the frame.

The other issue is the one of “identification,” and whether it’s—what? acceptable? necessary? To support that, Solnit draws on the “currently popular argument that books help us feel empathy, but” notes that “if they do so they do it by helping us imagine that we are people we are not.” But does that theory really do the work Solnit needs it to?

The idea is that by reading a novel with characters who are different from you, and learning about how they might think and feel and be in the world, you will empathize with them better. But Solnit seems to take that to mean that you will sympathize with them more. It doesn’t occur to her that empathy could breed anything else, but of course not all understanding brings people closer together. Sometimes understanding someone better clarifies how different you really are. I have frequently felt more alienated by reading novels with characters who are truly different from me; their stories prove we are far apart.

And that really goes to the heart of it: Solnit makes a lot of unsupported claims about what empathy does, about what it means for novels to induce it, about how readers and critics react (“no one gets told they’re wrong for identifying with Gilgamesh or even Elizabeth Bennett”), and most of all around what automatically happens to someone’s epistemology because they, for apparently the first time, needed to develop a theory of other minds.

Curiously, she seems to undermine most of her point about Lolita itself:

You can read Nabokov’s relationship to his character in many ways. Vera Nabokov, the author’s wife, wrote, “I wish, though, somebody would notice the tender description of the child, her pathetic dependence on monstrous HH, and her heartrending courage all along…”

This would suggest that there is not only a possible reading generally in line with the way Solnit thinks of the world, but that in fact it was there all along, intended by the author or at least discussed with his wife, who was well known as a major influence on his work. Perhaps, in fact, the whole point of Lolita (or at least a point of it, and an important one) is Solnit’s reading—so why on earth is she pissed that Esquire thinks people should read it? Why not, instead, talk up how valuable it would be for men to read it and identify with Lo?

Because that wouldn’t be playing a team sport, I guess.

A commenter on that original piece complaining about Esquire seems perceptive:

I disagree — I think the books named for the “80 Books No Woman Should Ever Read” list should be on an “80 Books Every Woman Should Read and Talk With Men About”. I initially agreed with the article, and then I went to Esquire list to see what other absurd tidbits I could pick up from it. But Esquire’s point about For Whom the Bell Tolls (a book I disliked) says men should read it not for the guns or drinking or sex but for “A lesson in manhood: Even when you’re damned, you press on.”

And that made me realize something: I didn’t get that from the book at all, but many men probably did. Whereas I saw dumb machismo, they saw perseverance and purity of purpose. I’d be interested to hear why intelligent men think Hemingway embodies manliness– is it the penis thing? Or is there something more profound that doesn’t occur to me because I’m coming at it from a different perspective? What is it about penis-gun-death that is so appealing to some people but so ugly to others?

Intelligent and curious women should read these books because we are fascinated about a perspective that is alien to us, and because, for whatever reason, many men we share this earth with DO love these books and see something valuable in them. Let’s ask what it is. Let’s start a conversation. Let’s really absorb and try to understand perspectives that repel us, rather than giving them a label that allows us to dismiss them.

The constant psychopathologizing is, let’s say, just not to my taste. Passages like this seem so obviously hypocritical that it’s hard to see how others found the essay:

Saying this upset some men. Many among that curious gender are easy to upset, and when they are upset they don’t know it (see: privelobliviousness). They just think you’re wrong and sometimes also evil.

If the entire piece isn’t about how her interlocutors are wrong and sometimes also evil, I don’t know what it is about.

Because I have no idea what Solnit thinks of Lolita and why. Perhaps if she herself had a clearer opinion on the book, she would understand better when others defend theirs like they actually believe in them.

Purity is very probably worth re-reading

Franzen Jonathan PurityI initially became a fan of Jonathan Franzen before The Corrections was out in paperback. After disappointment in Freedom, however, I hadn’t been in much of a rush to read Purity. It was a terrible nonreview—inane clickbait that made no reference to a single line from a single Franzen novel—that finally pushed me to do so.

It is the usual Franzen fare. Its frequently described as simply “domestic fiction,” but I see Franzen’s work more along the lines of Sam Tanenhaus’s “naturalistic story of domestic strife and estrangement (and sexual combat) within the larger workings of a ‘paranoid’ conspiracy.” Caleb Crain in The Atlantic emphasizes the relationships more, and how they are all engineered to drive one character or another toward what is called in The Twenty-Seventh City “the State,” that is, one of paranoia.

Most of the relationships in Purity are permanent. Not “lasting”—permanent. Some of these are romantic; others are parental. Motherhood in particular plays a prominent role in the novel.

The novel opens with a conversation between the title character and her mother. This dialogue seems to be most frequently discussed in the context of judging Pip’s line about “moral hazard” cute-funny or annoying-unfunny, but that small joke is actually just the first time the novel takes up the issue of loving someone who harms you because you have no other option psychologically.

Pip’s mother cannot stop loving her, no matter what Pip does: as her mother, she is simply stuck. And Pip has the same problem. Another character has it even worse: Andreas feels constantly manipulated by his mother, and lays out the problem several times, including at the beginning of the first section he narrates:

An accident of brain development stacked the deck against children: the mother had three or four years to fuck with your head before your hippocampus began recording lasting memories. You’d been talking to your mom ever since you were one year old and listening to her for even longer, but you couldn’t remember a single word of what you or she had said before your hippocampus kicked into gear. Your consciousness opened its little eyes for the first time and discovered that you were headlong in love with your mom.

Andreas stayed in love with his mom, no matter what she did, no matter how much he would have preferred to hate her—or be indifferent. His love is deep and physical and there can be no escape from it but death.

Pip doesn’t feel so oppressed by the situation, and late in the novel, when a newfound relative suggests to her that she should be angry with her mother for effectively abusing her, she mostly shrugs the idea away. There’s no question of her even really punishing her mother for anything, let alone ending their relationship.

Tom Aberant has another such relationship with his mother. He spends several years neglecting her—which basically amounts to treating her like an average person, about whom he’s not as crazy as he is about his new bride—but there’s no question he’ll be with her at the end of her life. And she, in her turn, even returns at that time to her childhood home, which she ran away from some 50 years before.

The nuclear family, a favorite of Franzen, is center stage in Purity, and certainly the many passages about nuclear disarmament—probably Pip’s only real “issue” politically—are a comment on it. “Fusion chain reactions were natural, the source of a sun’s energy, but fissile chain reactions weren’t,” muses Leila in the section she narrates. And, like parental-filial relationships, marital ones are also nearly impossible to destroy in Purity.

Take Anabel and Tom. They can’t even manage to extricate themselves after a divorce, and spend the rest of their lives obsessed with each other and their past together. Her existence follows him everywhere. In East Berlin, Tom “abandons” Andreas Wolf to return to his already highly problematic wife. Leila will always know that he loves Anabel more somehow. Leila, of course, herself will never leave her husband Charles (though he did leave his first wife, for her).

There is one prominent example of something different: the “New Testament relationship” of Leila and Tom.

Her life with Tom was strange and ill-defined and permanently temporary but therefore all the more a life of true love, because it was freely chosen every day, every hour. It reminded her of a distinction she’d learned as a child in Sunday school. Their marriages had been Old Testament, hers a matter of honoring her covenant with Charles, Tom’s a matter of fearing Anabel’s wrath and judgment. In the New Testament, the only things that mattered were love and free will.

Tom and Leila seem to be the ones to be admired; they are admired very much by Pip. She sees a healthy relationship and inserts herself as their surrogate daughter. But their lifestyle has its downsides. Tom and Leila do not have a perfect life, where they agree on everything like magic, so that constant choosing is, well, real:

She was remembering the old desolation and feeling it again now, the conviction that love was impossible, that however deeply they buried their conflict it would never go away. The problem with a life freely chosen every day, a New Testament life, was that it could end at any moment.

That’s not something most of Purity‘s characters have to face. Whether Leila is better off for it actually seems unclear to me. Sure, Pip admires her and Tom—but isn’t Pip kind of a dope in a lot of ways? The purity-obsessed Anabel may go on about Pip’s wonderful moral sense, but there’s clearly an element of maternal blindness to it just because Pip’s moral sense is anything but pure—should we side with her on this? After all, Leila is insecure even if it does all work out.

Most telling, to my mind, is Pip’s exchange with Cynthia, Tom’s older half-sister who tells Pip that she should be angry with her parents for not revealing themselves—especially with her mother, who kept the secret for much longer and who, effectively, had Pip as part of a long-term revenge plan against her ex. But Pip isn’t interested in holding her mother accountable for choosing to bring her up in such a self-serving way; she is instead happy to have been used.

Her mother had needed to give love and receive it. This was why she’d had Pip. Was that so monstrous? Wasn’t it more like miraculously resourceful?

The final scene was one of the most curious for me. Pip and her boyfriend are in a car outside the shack where a horrific argument is going on between Tom and Anabel.

The people who’d bequeathed a broken world to her were shouting at each other viciously. Jason sighed and took her hand. She held it tightly. It had to be possible to do better than her parents, but she wasn’t sure she would. Only when the skies opened again, the rain from the immense dark western ocean pounding on the car roof, the sound of love drowning out the other sound, did she believe that she might.

For now, at least, Pip and Jason are in a New Testament relationship—but will that last? Is it, in fact, the New Testament relationship that will overcome Tom and Anabel’s hideously permanent one? Or is it just sex winning out over screaming at each other? Or is it, perhaps, the choice to be a mother, however fraught that is, redeeming the “broken world” “bequeathed” to Pip by her own parents (that one seems like a stretch)?

I have never been quite sure what I think Franzen is getting at, other than saying “it’s really complicated.” But Purity was impressive enough, and effective enough, that I’m starting to think he’s worth re-reading. Maybe from the beginning.