Paolo Giordano, rising star of the Italian literary scene, who has recently published his debut novel, La Solitudine dei Numeri Primi, to thunderous acclaim, winning the 2008 Premio Strega, answers a few readers’ questions on the World Literature Forum (where I can also be found). Here is the link to the thread where questions, even of a frivolous and private nature (“Paolo, why are you so pretty?”) can be asked and where they will be answered by Giordano during the next few weeks. You need to register first, but it’s worth it, anyway. The reason why Transworld Publishers staged this event is because they will publish the English translation of the book (The Solitude of Prime Numbers) during the coming month. I’m currently reading the book and will post a review next week when I’m finished. It isn’t the first event of its kind at the WLF. Upon the publication of Niccolo Ammaniti’s The Crossroads, its publisher, Cannongate Press, already had its author answer a few questions here.
Ruth Padel, the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin, made history at Oxford when she became the first woman to be elected to the position of Professor of Poetry since the job was created in 1708.
But Padel’s election was marred by Nobel literature laureate Derek Walcott’s decision to withdraw as a candidate from the election after anonymous letters attacking him were sent to Oxford academics.
British newspapers reported that the letters made reference to an allegation of sexual harassment made against the St. Lucia-born poet by a former student in the 1980s.
The papers said the letters included references from the book ”The Lecherous Professor: Sexual Harassment on Campus,” by Billie Wright Dziech and Linda Weiner, which carries allegations against Walcott made by a Harvard freshman in 1981. At the time of his resignation, Walcott said he had never commented on the claims and would not do so now. But he called the anonymous letter campaign an attempt at character assassination.
Padel came under increasing pressure after The Sunday Times quoted e-mails it said she had sent to two unidentified journalists drawing their attention to the book. In a statement announcing her resignation, Padel acknowledged sending the e-mails. But she said she did not engage in a smear campaign, explaining that she had only passed on information already in the public domain.
”I acted in complete good faith, and would have been happy to lose to Derek, but I can see that people might interpret my actions otherwise,” she said in the statement.
Oh, they might?
Lessing, Doris (2009), Alfred & Emily, Harper Perennial
Before I embark on another one of my reviews, let me say this: Alfred & Emily is a thoroughly good and original book that I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone. Doris Lessing has never been a prose stylist sparkling with brilliance, turning out, at times, pages and pages of clunky prose. But in everything I’ve read of her, that part of her writing turns out to matter little. Despite her style, Doris Lessing is a great writer, with astonishing instincts. That is true for her books, but it’s evident even if you just look at her career. As she was on her way to full mainstream acceptance, she suddenly started to write Science Fiction. To make this kind of change takes guts and a very independent mind, two qualities that her work evinces as well. Alfred & Emily (2008) is Lessing’s first book after winning the Nobel prize and it represents another turn in her career, considering that the two books before that were novels set in a SF/Fantasy setting, if I remember correctly. This one, now, is about her parents (the eponymous Alfred and Emily) and, to a large extent, about Lessing herself. Au fond, it’s two books rolled into one, but cleanly separated, into a fictional part and a skewed sort of memoir.
Now, as mentioned, Alfred & Emily consists of two parts. Part one is called “Alfred and Emily: A Novella”. In it, Lessing imagines how her parents could have turned out if they had made other decisions in their lives, and, most importantly, WWI had not happened. In the introduction to the book, Lessing explains that her parents were profoundly unhappy, because “World War I did them both in”. In her re-imagined reality her parents do not marry each other; instead Alfred marries a woman that is kinder, more loving than Emily, qualities that the real Alfred had to do without. Emily marries the great love of her life, a doctor in the Royal Free Hospital where Emily worked as a nurse. The real Emily had to cope with the death of that doctor who “drowned in the channel” and married Alfred, who came, wounded in the Great War, into her hospital. He had lost a leg, and spent the rest of his life making the best of this and his case of what Lessing assumes to have been post-traumatic stress. Additionally, he quickly found himself with a loveless wife and a hardscrabble existence as a farmer in Rhodesia. That last thing, Lessing keeps. Since her father “wanted to be a farmer all his life”, she makes a farmer of him in her novella.
There is not, however, much that we learn about the imagined Alfred, due to the fact that, even though its title suggests something else, the book is more about Emily than about her hubby; the rationale for this imbalance is explained near the end of the book, in the second part:
Even as a child I knew his obsessive talking about the trenches was a way of ridding himself of the horrors. […] But my mother also needed a listener, and to her needs I tried to be oblivious.
Only later did Lessing recognize the validity of her mother’s tale, her mother’s complaints, her mother’s voice. This book, especially the first part, is in many ways a paean to her mother. In imagining her mother’s possible career in a world without the First World War, Lessing takes a couple of puzzling and striking decisions. The first one is the marriage she has Emily embark upon. Since the war took Emily’s great love away from her, Lessing offers her the hand of that doctor, “Dr. Martin-White from Cardiology”. From this premise, a reader would expect an account of a fulfilling marriage to follow, to have the outline of the happiness presented that real life stole from Emily. The usual tosh. Instead, we soon learn that Emily’s new husband expects, and practically forces her to leave her job as a nurse (because it wouldn’t be “proper”) and from that point on everything is caught in a downward spiral. What ensues are separate beds, general emotional cold, until finally, out of despair and boredom, Emily becomes a society lady, giving lush tea parties. It is not until her husband dies that Emily finally breaks free.
As Emily tries to find something to do, she uses her husband’s considerable funds to start a school for poor kids, that, in the course of the book, expands into a hugely successful series of schools with dozens of subsidiaries all around the United Kingdom. Additionally, she expands public libraries to include books both for kids and adults and, at the end of the first part, she starts a series of refuges for ‘disgraced’ women when she runs into trouble upon trying to have an unmarried yet pregnant girl stay at school. So, Lessing suggests, the only thing that stopped her mother from becoming one of the great social leaders of her time was the Great War and marrying the oaf Alfred. This is what I consider the second puzzling decision. Although Lessing’s book contains both an explanatory introduction and a short chapter called “Explanation”, this is a huge leap, that, in its magnitude, is completely unexplained and should be taken with more than a grain of salt. I assume that this suggestion, this change of hers is rhetorical more than anything; my assumption is supported by the fact that the Emily portrayed in the second part, the real Emily, is snobbish, vaguely racist, and aloof. She outs her daughter as a communist to her employer, because she considers her a danger to “public order”. This is not the Emily we have met in the first part. What happened?
Let me approach it from this way: Lessing is as much concerned with the social environment of her characters as with interior motivation. The fact that the imagined Emily marries upwards of her class, is disappointed by the elites, and, in due course, shocked by the way that poor people are educated does not have any counterpart in the biography of the real Emily, who is taken out of her environment and dropped into alien territory. Thus, the real Emily has no way of understanding how her class works within the references of British society. Instead, she is now, thrust into Persia first and then Rhodesia, almost completely bereft of references, and she’s called upon to created new connections. Even the imagined Emily, in the midst of London, has to be shown the “dreadful poverty” there, because she “had not been conscious of much poverty” and “servants were the closest she had come to London poverty”. She has to see, smell, experience poor people’s despair in order to understand it. Small wonder, then, that the real Emily never had the intellectual growth necessary for this understanding. Yet, however intriguing that aspect is, the imagined Emily’s encounters and altercations with class do not stop there.
Since WWI and WWII never happened, the British society has never experienced the turmoil that would lead to a gradual abandonment of old and traditional class distinctions (at this point, I should point out that much of this would be vastly more illuminating and interesting to a UK native, since references and allusions will largely be lost on me; additionally, my knowledge of recent British history is shaky at best), and so strict ‘Victorian’ morals are still thriving and powerful, which, with time, proves exasperating for Emily:
How very much they had enjoyed themselves, Emily recognized, those representatives of public charity, saying, ‘It was wrong. It is wrong.’
At that point of the novella, Emily has grown so much that she’s maddened by these onslaughts of moralizing by the rich heads of the charity funded by Emily herself. The real Emily, as depicted in part two, would have applauded the judgmental bishops and rich debutantes, society ladies with nothing to do, who provide a large part of the work and organization in the schools. The juxtaposition of the two Emilies clarifies to what extent our personality, things that we may consider incremental to our selves, depend upon just the right circumstances, and, finally, Emily’s meteoric rise as a social leader of sorts is more than just a statement about Emily’s potential. The whole book could be said to examine the potentials of groups that used to spend their time on the peripheries of power. There are also countless remarks and discussions of the dynamics of speech, sound and listening. The imagined Emily is far more than the re-imagining of a real person. It’s the re-imagining of whole world.
But, and this is why the book works so wonderfully well, Lessing never descends into caricature, into cheap hints and jabs. As smart and aware readers, we are all like the children in the novella, who complain about a storyteller, who cannot “prevent his voice deriding” his tales. The children protest: “Not like this. Read it properly.” In a way, this is my reaction more often than not when I am reading a very ‘clever’ and postmodern book that interrogates things. It’s often both boring and tedious. Lessing circumvents this by ‘reading it properly’, by writing a story that makes sense as a story, that explains its ideas on an immediate level as well as on a more abstract one. It’s always enjoyable to read, though; at times it’s bursting with brilliance, like the scene where she has her protagonist try on a dress for a dance (music and dancing plays an important role in the book, on multiple levels), and that dress doesn’t fit, but she still wears it. That scene is far more subtle than I make it sound, going on as it does over several pages, encapsulating both abstract ideas and direct experience.
The second section, which could be seen as a memoir, should be called “The Quest for Emily T.” because it’s an extended attempt to understand Lessing’s mother. In that sense, it’s quite autonomous. I maintain, however, that its main function is to provide a balance and a contrast to the first part, as my reading has demonstrated. Thus, the novella would constitute the main part of the book, which is interesting. Why is it called a novella, anyway? The most well known definition of the genre was established by the other Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who postulated that a novella is built around one extraordinary incident. Since this novella extends over several years and does not contain such an incident, one might look for the reason elsewhere. I would suggest, however, that the incident or even in this case is the lack of an incident or event. The Great War, the war to end all wars, it never happens, and the “shadow of the trenches”, as Lessing calls it, never falls upon the family. The desire to have a war, that was very loud in the years before WWI, Lessing brands it as problematic, the search for an event to define an epoch. Instead, the imagined epoch is defined by the quests of women like Emily, and not the fights of warriors like Alfred.
This book is complex, containing much more than I had time and space to go into, crammed with continuous explorations of themes like the value of reading and telling stories, like music, old-school Marxist issues, like labor. In the second part, we are told that “[w]hen it was agreed that there was a problem we shared, it was natural for us to approach it from literature.” Alfred & Emily is an attempt to make sense of a personal problem: of the trauma of WWI that shaped not just Alfred and Emily’s life, but Lessing’s as well. Her difficult relationship to her mother, the pre-eminence of her father for her work, her attempts to take refuge in books, making sense of her role and place in the world, they are all influenced by WWI, as the book makes abundantly clear. Yet, strangely, the fantasy is an attempt to erase herself, or rather, to lose herself in that picture of her mother. The whole book is an elaborate play of hide and seek, with Lessing looking out at us, and hiding again. For her last sentence, she breathes into her heart, retreats once more: “She was, they all said, a very good bridgeplayer”. Yet, however much she hides, Lessing’s beautiful mind shines in every phrase here, every sentence.
Marcom, Micheline Aharonian (2008), The Mirror in the Well, Dalkey Archive.
A few months ago, I reviewed a slim little book on this blog, Menis Koumandareas’ Koula. It’s an austerely told tale of a middle-aged woman’s attempt to break free from the corset of her society by engaging in an affair with a younger man. The affair is doomed, and Koula returns into the rank and file of her society. The telling of the story somewhat reflects this, in that it is highly traditional, dry, almost prim. Another tale about “unhusbandly cock” (quote from the book) is told in Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s novel The Mirror in the Well, which is somewhat longer than Koula, in terms of pages, but is also vastly more expansive in the way it treats its subject. It’s both simple and highly complex, it’s both a delightful, ecstatic postmodern fun-house and a tiresome “clever feminist novel”. One thing is clear: Marcom is a good, no, a very good writer. With that burden of ideas, a lesser writer would have collapsed midway, or produced a thoroughly dull exercise in dutiful thinking. The Mirror in the Well stays the course and even, towards the end, ups the ante, as the novel launches into a crescendo of voices and ideas that, in the final chapter, quietly implodes. Is it a good book? I don’t know.
As I look through the book now, I notice that it depends on my mood whether the good or the bad elements dominate my impression. See, the novel could be right up my alley. I love passionate, exciting books that are also clever and full of ideas. On these counts, the novel delivers. It tells us the story of a married woman’s sexual awakening, in a way that impressed me immensely. In contrast to the solution many writers choose, of letting the social expressions of the affair, like changed behavior, or inward expressions, like longing, desire (in a rather abstract way), jealousy etc. tell the story. In those books, the invariably erratic behavior of the cheating housewife points to her mixed up inner life, and various metaphors, hints, and even one or two chaste depictions of the sexual act are all that we are provided with when it comes to deeper descriptions or examinations of the woman’s motivations, of what it is exactly that ‘sexual awakening’ signifies. Make no mistake, I am not panning these books, there are many of them that are well worth reading or even masterpieces. I was, however, glad to see Marcom take a different tactic.
From the second page, we are not just talking about “a blurred picture of Eros”, we receive detailed descriptions of the sexual act and of the importance of that act. What we see is a woman’s first experience of cunnilingus, as she gets “her cunt licked and sucked”. The importance of having the man lie in front of her, prostrate, eating her, because “she doesn’t want to fuck”, but that act is far from an ersatz fuck; on the contrary, her lover’s mouth upon “her nether mouth” enables her to enjoy herself, opens up new vistas for her. It liberates her, or rather: it opens up a path to liberation for her. As she sways to and fro between her lover(s) and her husband, between different kinds of love, the fact that her lover will perform cunnilingus on her, and her husband will not, is an important and, in the end, decisive difference. On the contrary, as we learn in an aside, when they still had sex, she had to suck him off and have anal sex with him. Marital sex, we’re told, was all about him and not about her at all. Her lover, however, displays a great capacity for serving her needs, putting her wants and desires before, presumably, his.
All of this is not hid between flowerbeds of description and metaphor; although Marcom’s landscapes and other exteriors are highly sexualized, her depictions of the sexual act are descriptive, plain, detailed and highly explicit. We do not just read that he eats her, we are also told, in detail, how. Metaphors, when they are used at all, do not serve to illustrate the act, but to add other elements to the explicit descriptions already in place, such as is the case when the woman, dangling her cunt in front of his face, imagines her labia hanging down, “slapping” his face like the “hull of a ship”.
There are two things this image evokes, in the context of the novel. One, her shame as far as her own body is concerned. At that point, she has come a long way, from being “ashamed of her desires, her stink” to enjoying the “scent of her cunt” later in the book, so much, indeed, that, at one point, she rubs it under her nose for it to keep her company in the daytime. But her unease with the flesh never goes away. To Marcom’s credit, too, her lovers are never beautiful fashion magazine models, into which many writers are wont to turn objects of desire in their books. Instead, Marcom almost revels in the folds of the flesh, in the fat of bellies, in smelly breath, in piss and cum. For her female protagonist, it’s less a question of reveling than a constant struggle. Her acceptance of others’ flesh is, as with most of us, tied to her acceptance of her own flesh, this, however, is subject to constant changes. Whenever she feels guilty, when society digs its claws deeper in her psyche, she develops a revulsion for bodies, she even dries up, so that, at times, she ends up with a “desiccate and moral cunt”.
The other thing that the ship imagery evokes, is myth, in this case especially the tales surrounding and including the Odyssey and especially the complex relationships between wives and the returning husbands therein, the two most pertinent examples probably being Agamemnon and Odysseus. Myth can be hampering in books like this: feminist novels tend to contain a horribly tedious, well-meaning but ultimately hokey web of mythical stories that emphasize the Feminine, which, in terribly essentialist manner is taken to mean the creative principle, as opposed to the destructive, male principle, etc. etc. etc.. We all know the drill. This book, too, is a spendthrift where spiritual or mythical references are concerned, we even get a creation story which, for me, is the low point of the book. There’s just no way to employ these myths gainfully, or at least in a way that doesn’t suck completely (if there is, I haven’t yet encountered it). And, in The Mirror in the Well, it’s all over the place. The least obtrusive but ubiquitous way that it surfaces is in the way that, from a certain point on, the woman starts to refer to herself and her lover: as Gods. Although this, too, is somewhat hokey, it’s also the only reason why the myth-making doesn’t completely ruin the book:
See, at the end of the day, the novel is, in the (by now) traditional postmodern manner, about telling stories. From the first, the reader is on his toes, as far as narrative techniques are concerned, because of the way that references and address swivels around. For 4/5ths of the novel, the lover is referred to as “you”, except in phrases that have the woman as subject, where he turns into a “he” or “the lover”. The woman, too, has changing names. Sometimes she’s “the woman”, sometimes “the girl”. As these descriptions change towards the end of the book, we learn that it has to do with self-possession and control, which, by what feels like a very cheap meta-fictional ‘conceit’ (very chichi), is revealed at the end to include narrative control, which is all I’m prepared to divulge at this point. Yes, this strenuous cleverness is another weakness of the book, but the two weaknesses, myth and meta-fiction, provide support for each other, because they illuminate aspects that would not be clear otherwise. On the one hand, myth is not just a story that we tell ourselves, in the case of the woman, the power relations inherent in religious tradition are put to good use to illustrate the importance of cunnilingus in this novel, by showing, explicitly, how the telling of this story and its content are intertwined, which then lends a heightened significance to the meta-fictional devices.
In closing, I want to remark, however briefly, upon the writing. Marcom uses an extremely simple style, in the sense that I had the impression that she used a strongly limited vocabulary, evading any synonyms to words previously used. Thus, words resurface so often that they create a kind of music, really. This effect is amplified by the idiosyncratic punctuation, which does not primarily follow rules of grammar, but rather breathing patterns. Like a good poet, Marcom controls the speed with which the reader reads certain paragraphs or phrases. The resulting musical pattern is so close to ecclesiastic music, that I was not surprised to see poems from the Sufi tradition quoted in the book and quotes from, among others, the great Martin Buber, precede the novel. In connection with the celebration of her cunt and the spirituality, this can appear tacky to some readers. I enjoyed it, because it provides the novel with an almost manic energy.
Sure, this novel is not for everyone, but it’s certainly worth reading, if you can stomach the tackiness. Marcom fills her short novel with so much: class, race (I have remarked upon neither, but they are wildly important, too) and gender; her approach to sexuality is remarkable in that it’s neither prude nor cheaply pornographic, and her energy can be riveting. Sometimes, though, I can see myself hating the novel, because its faults do carry a certain weight, in my eyes. Yet, whatever the (de)merits of the book Marcom is clearly an excellent writer. Her reluctance to resort to easy solutions is praise- and noteworthy. That, in the end, in The Mirror in the Well, liberation may come at the cost of freedom, is perhaps the most remarkable, but not the only consequence of Marcom’s work as a thinker.
Jay Bennett died at age 45. Here’s a live clip with him with his former band Wilco.
It is late at night, cold and damp
The air is filled with tobacco smoke.
My brain is worried and tired.
I pick up the encyclopedia,
The volume GIC to HAR,
It seems I have read everything in it,
So many other nights like this.
I sit staring empty-headed at the article Grosbeak,
Listening to the long rattle and pound
Of freight cars and switch engines in the distance.
Suddenly I remember
Coming home from swimming
In Ten Mile Creek,
Over the long moraine in the early summer evening,
My hair wet, smelling of waterweeds and mud.
I remember a sycamore in front of a ruined farmhouse,
And instantly and clearly the revelation
Of a song of incredible purity and joy,
My first rose-breasted grosbeak,
Facing the low sun, his body
Suffused with light.
I was motionless and cold in the hot evening
Until he flew away, and I went on knowing
In my twelfth year one of the great things
Of my life had happened.
Thirty factories empty their refuse in the creek.
On the parched lawns are starlings, alien and aggressive.
And I am on the other side of the continent
Ten years in an unfriendly city.
Messud, Claire (2007), The Emperor’s Children, Vintage
In 2007 Susan Faludi published her most recent collection of essays, The Terror Dream, focusing on the effect that 9/11 had on feminism. The thesis she was putting forward in that book was that 9/11 set feminism back whole decades by making the nation revert back to more traditional patterns of thought. The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud’s third novel, published in 2006, ultimately explores a similar issue, although most of the book is over by the time the Twin Towers are hit by a pair of kidnapped planes. Faludi focuses upon the way that post 9/11 marketing effected these changes, how people and the mechanisms that people put into motion hurt whatever progress was achieved during the past decades by propagating “the consolations of a domestic idyll”.
Faludi looks upon the cultural aftermath of 9/11 more than upon what preceded it, which accounts for a few blind spots in her thinking and constitutes the major structural difference to Messud’s novel, which allows little room for the aftermath. Instead, it provides a masterful portrait of what a segment of society looked like in 2001, what it actually was that was supposed to have changed. And Messud does not care for broad sociological assessments, she directs her gaze at the individual level. The results are moving, striking and immensely readable. Not particularly insightful or enlightening, but then the novel does not, I think, attempt to be either.
The Emperor’s Children‘s strengths and weaknesses are rooted in the same quality of the book, which is its focus on characters. The book is spun around a handful of men and women in New York, all of whom, in one way or another, are part of the intelligentsia. Central in the tangled web of relationships is the Thwaite family. The head of that family is Murray Thwaite, a left-wing journalism legend who has made a name for himself as well as quite a large amount of money in all the years Thwaite spent publishing and teaching. His most recent collection of essays having been well received, he is now planning his future and deciding what to do with what he considers his opus magnum, “How To Live”, which, as a project, reminded this reader of Grady Tripp’s 2000 plus page novel (in Chabon’s Wonder Boys). The major similarity is that both books seem to have no restraints and no direction, they just accumulate pages and ideas and grow steadily.
Another unpublished book is the one that Marina Thwaite, Murray’s middle-aged daughter, has promised her editor to finish. In contrast to her father, her problem is not too many pages but too little. Although she has already done all her research, she cannot make herself start work on this book that explores the interrelationship between clothes and, basically, the conditio humana. Marina, like her father, is a well-drawn character, in the sense of being drawn in great and telling detail but, like all the characters in the book, ultimately, she remains a caricature: a former model and still endowed with stunning looks, she is not as smart as many of her friends, blinded by her beauty and charm, think. Messud makes this clear by, cruelly, providing us with a piece from Marina’s book later on. Her most defining trait, however, is the stupendous extent to which she’s self-absorbed, arrogant and egocentric. She is driven by a vague desire to be special, mostly because she is her father’s, to wit, the Emperor’s daughter.
The Thwaite household, and the father-daughter relationship, although not taking up the biggest part of the novel, which accords each of its five main characters roughly the same space, is central to the novel’s construction. All the plot strands intersect now and then in Thwaite’s house, and the two Thwaite family members often act as catalysts for the story. Additionally, the father-daughter relationship provides a foil to look at the smallest social unit, the family, in a way that evokes mythical stories told and retold through the ages. Although the novel appears to have been written in an upper-class social realism, Jamesian, one is almost tempted to call it, the fact that its characters are almost never anything else but caricatures points into a different direction. Every character appears to be a conglomerate of other literary characters and traditions, reaching up into contemporary popular culture. But, like Murray and Marina, where a mythic substructure is merely suggested, the other references, too, are rather low-key.
One of the few direct and strong reference, and possibly the most important one of all, is found in the description of an overweight college dropout called Frederick Tubbs, nicknamed Bootie. Bootie Tubbs is an autodidact who appears to be the spitting image of the Toole’s character Ignatius J. Reilly from his masterful debut novel A Confederacy of Dunces (the surname of a major supporting character in both books is Minkoff, another clue). Ignatius is as grandiose as he is rotund; he is possessed of an impeccable literary taste (as far as the classics are concerned) which is balanced by atrocious taste in other things, not least of which is fashion. Bootie Tubbs, too, neglects his appearance in favor of what he sees as his self-education, spurned by Emerson’s philosophy (In Messud’s novel, Emerson takes the role that Boethius has in Toole’s). The reader of both novels quickly suspects that both Ignatius and Tubbs, respectively, are not as smart, insightful and well-read as they may think, both are thoroughly unlikeable and loveable characters at the same time. Tubbs, more or less accidentally, changes everyone he touches, on a personal level. This is interesting, since Tubbs defines himself on the basis of his intellectual appetite, but is shown to be of no consequence in this regard. Here’s the first significance of the Toole reference: Ignatius, who considers himself a thoroughly cerebral creature, is constantly shown up by, for lack of better words, life, which happens to all of the five major characters in The Emperor’s Children, as well. And we see how bodily reality is resistant to vapid and fashionable theorizing. When one among their number is grievously wounded and scarred for life, he insists upon the autonomy of his experience, he resists his friends’ making sense of it in the terms of their way of reading the world.
If I haven’t mentioned yet what actually happens, it’s because it’s not very important. The usual, so to say. One woman marries the man she loves, another is engaged in an illicit tryst. We see some people’s fortunes rise, some fall; we see some writers being published, others not. These things do not seem to actually happen; on the contrary, Messud appears to be constantly quoting or paraphrasing traditional plots, deriving her effects from similarities and contrasts with her predecessors. But here’s where 9/11 steps up to the plate. It serves, like the scar, as a corrective to the life of the mind that the characters have been leading so far, which is not necessarily a good thing. We see a return of most characters to the fold, we hear that Murray Thwaite’s empty, but grandiloquent philosophy that he has been sketching in that mysterious manuscript, “How To Live” is probably going to succeed, and that a critical newspaper will not be launched in the foreseeable time.
A Confederacy of Dunces is titled after an epigraph by Jonathan Swift, “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” and truly, throughout that book, Ignatius is convinced that he is the victim of such a confederacy. In Messud’s book, we are, at first, led to believe that everybody is such a dunce, until everything crumbles like the Twin Towers, and we see the dunces emerge victoriously. It’s Murray and his daughter. That image, of the powerful head of the family rising above it all, and his daughter, returned, in a way, to him, rising, too, is an indictment of the state of a society at least as harsh as Faludi’s, but delivered in a much softer voice. Murray is the Emperor in more ways than one; the other way that the term is used is in the sense of the “The Emperor has no clothes” expression. This novel shows how a patriarchal society works, how it supports intellectual laziness, how its structured by a general sense of entitlement that’s strongest the closer one gets to the center.
Messud’s novel is dominated by light banter, and she’s an incredible prose writer. However, she amasses so many details, builds such complex, soapish plots, that the power of her ideas is somewhat lost now and then. It is still a very good novel, but digging through a huge pile of well-written but empty, because ultimately self-referential, sentences, can be taxing at times. Some readers may find the effort not worth it.