Anderson, W. Paul (2005), Hunger’s Brides, Carroll & Graf.
Everyone knows Randall Jarrell’s definition of a novel (“…a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it…”), which he wrote in his extraordinary review of Christina Stead’s wild and amazingly miserable masterpiece The Man Who Loved Children. Frequently, this quote is used to discuss the relative merits of shorter books as compared to longer books. The most perfect novels I know tend to be short of length, like Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier or James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime (possibly more of a novella, that one). The longer a book, the more writers are tempted to include mischief, to be undisciplined and a bit muddled. Hence Jarrell’s description, voiced in a vociferous defense of a novel that is both very messy and very, very good. Some of the book’s faults “are the faults a large enough, live enough thing naturally has,” he wrote. Me, personally, I prefer the messy, long and ambitious book to the short and disciplined one. I find it hard to overlook lapses and faults in a novel when it barely exceeds 150 pages, but a long book powered by literary ambition is much easier to forgive for its flaws and problems. Most of my favorite books are so-called doorstoppers, from Gaddis’ The Recognitions to A Glastonbury Romance. Not all attempts at voluminous ambition are as successful as those three, and yet I am always drawn to the big and alive books. Adam Levin’s gargantuan novel of Jewish prophecy and rebellion The Instructions was one of my favorite novels published that year and I still regret never having reviewed it. It’s very flawed, clearly longer than it should have been but ultimately, it’s precisely its length and implied scope and vision that makes that book such a joy to read. Even in genre fiction, size is a potent argument for me. Similarly, if I was to make a list of all the things wrong with Paul Anderson’s 1400 page behemoth Hunger’s Brides, it would far exceed the usual length of my reviews.
Having finished the book 1 ½ times I am not even entirely sure he’s a very good writer, but every time I browse the book I am itching to reread it. There’s just so much of it, and that statement exceeds questions of length and weight (I believe it’s much heavier than other books of similar length I own; this is a weapon, not a book!). There’s a novel-within-a-novel, a diary-within-a-diary, there are footnotes that are not instructive but integral to the story, there’s a film script, there’s poetry, there are scholarly discussions and there are, finally, translations from the work of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. And despite all of this potentially overwhelming surfeit of material and the years and years of complex work that have gone into the book, the author has managed to present us with not one, not two, but three gripping narratives. There’s a contemporary novel of detection and mystery, there is the narrative of a young student’s discovery of the importance of Sor Juana’s work and thinking for her own life and that of other women, and finally, in the center of the book, there’s the story of the stubborn and brilliant Mexican nun herself who, despite many difficulties, wrote poetry, prose and theology at a time when women were not supposed to be participating in the public conversation. Through this story, we are offered an intense view of 17th century Mexico, but through the other layers of the book, we can see how Sor Juana’s work and story reverberates through the centuries. And finally, there are pages and paged of footnotes, carefully detailing scholarship and reception of Sor Juana, footnotes that interrogate the narrative, but also contextualize it within the broader and very colorful literary history of Sor Juana. Not all of this is a success. There’s so much that annoys me about this book, and so much that isn’t fully achieved, and yet – it’s a stupendous achievement to put all of this into a book and have it be so eminently readable. If you have the time, go buy a copy and then read it. Take it to the beach.
The book itself, as I intimated earlier, is structured like an onion, stories wrapped in stories, wrapped in stories. The basic conceit of Hunger’s Brides is that it’s a collection of edited, narrated and footnoted documents found and assembled by Donald Gregory, college professor, adulterer and all around swell human being. The documents he found are the diary and manuscript of Beulah Limosneros (pronounced “BYOOlah LeemosNEHRos” as we learn in the book). He assembles and presents it as a kind of defense in the case of her disappearance, because as it turns out, they were lovers once and he may or may not have had a hand in her disappearance. Both Gregory and Beulah are a bit obnoxious in their own way, but the college professor’s overbearing style and manner surely takes the cake. Paul Anderson takes care to carefully balance a characterization of Gregory through his words and style with the task of giving us basic information about the situation. Gregory may be an unreliable narrator, but he is all we have – and that extends to the task of factchecking Beulah’s documents. The fact is, Gregory is also the one who wrote the footnotes at the back which both enlighten us as to other literature on the topic, and explain certain allusions and other opaque passages to us, as well as give us additional information about Gregory’s relationship to Beulah. Paul Anderson did 12 years of research on this book and he does not wear his research lightly – but he made the choice of letting his two protagonists carry the burden of being know-it-alls with a flowery diction and a dire need for editorial toughness. Anderson does an excellent job of controlling both his research as well as his characters, using the frequent infodumps and research humblebrags for great literary effect. With their help, he constructs two characters who are very dissimilar, but united in their obsession for scholarship, Sor Juana and the life of Beulah Limosneros.
The major source of research for Beulah is Octavio Paz’s magnificent book on the Mexican poet. If you want solid information on her, that’s the book you should read, or grab one of the many translations that are available. Hunger’s Brides is not interested in giving you the truth, if by “truth” we mean historically accurate and verifiable truth. Early in the book, Gregory offers us a disquisition on literary liars, by which he means novelists who have written books on a historical topic and who were less than truthful. He puts particular emphasis on noted teutonic trickster Karl May and concludes “if you want to better understand the true, study the liar.” I will say that the biography of Sor Juana is not a complete fabrication. Much of it dovetails nicely with what I read from Paz and some other sources, but Beulah, who is the ‘author’ of the story of Sor Juana, embellishes and, more importantly, fills gaps in the fairly spotty historical record. Her method is empathy, and part of her research involves an intense trip to Mexico. The journal that she keeps during that trip, before and after, is the second layer of the onion. Her writing is curiously purple, riddled with mixed metaphors and an entirely authentic intensity as you’d expect from a young grad student with very strong personal convictions. The first time we meet her is when she walks up to Prof. Gregory after a class and confronts him with weaknesses in his syllabus. He is attracted to this young student who doesn’t walk out but “sways out of the room”, and who has also read “everything [he] published”. Feeling flattered and sexually stimulated, Gregory quickly turns into the kind of professor readers remember from books by Roth, Updike or Coetzee and like those writers, the story quickly develops overtones of a male/female struggle for power. Paul Anderson brilliantly draws on these archetypes in order to interrogate some of their underlying assumptions. The figure and example of Sor Juana and the nuns who preceded her help him destabilize some well worn binaries of the campus novel.
The main contrast is the one of the young, passionate and nubile woman, and the old, rational and angry professor. Anderson has his protagonist grouse about his “horror of magical realism” and recounts his preference to “approach[ing] Beulah’s story […] scientifically, methodically”. This contrast, which we know even today as beig put forth by some writers on gender was particularly important in Sor Juana’s time, especially for a woman pursuing the kind of writing and influence she did. As Grace Jantzen points out, “Emphasis on the intellect marginalised women because they were considered to be ‘misbegotten males’, deficient alike in intellect and in morality.” Jantzen and Stacey Schlau point out how this emphasis on “charismatic” women, as contrasted with the more deliberate and intelligent men, served to put female theologies under constant threat. At a first glance, Hunger’s Bride’s writing seems to support rather than undermine such mindsets, as Gregory’s framing story and footnotes appear to be much more openly intellectual than Beulah’s documents, many of whom are emotional, empathetic searches for the real Sor Juana. Since much of the book’s excitement comes from following her mind down those winding roads, I can hardly detail them here, but what’s interesting is that Anderson takes care to constantly nudge us away from the binary view of Beulah as the natural, empathetic one and Gregory as the rational intellectual. Not only is Gregory’s comment constantly fraught with paranoia, self-love and fear, as he himself is trying to evade prosecution and find out what happened to Beulah; more, Beulah herself is frequently led to situations where she has to acknowledge the limits of her academic conception of reading and readers, and the ensuing economic assumptions. One particular striking encounter is the one with her guide through the mexican wilderness, Xochitl and her daughter. At one point, early in the book, she exclaims, in shock “You read books?” That’s not far from Saul Bellow and the Zulus, and yet she is presented to us as an enlightened young woman, well skilled in the theories of the day. This serves us to understand how these oppositions are not just entrenched, but also unstable and can shift. One is reminded of the poverty of today’s identity-focused discussions (in contrast to, say, theories by Foucault or Cassirer).
Moreover, it’s not as easy as seeing the diary as an inferior form of writing as compared to Gregory’s footnotes and commentary. The choice of diary as the form in which we encounter Beulah’s writing is actually quite inspired. As Felicity Nussbaum points out, “[women’s] journals, diaries and fragments of autobiographies may be devices to construct, imagine and declare an identity [and they] undermine ideologies of recovering and representing reality.” and Gillian Ahlgren states that, while it eventually came to be a liability, initially, the role of laywomen in charismatic, empathetic, experience-based discourses was a method to escape fixed roles. Hunger’s Brides is subtitled “A Novel of the Baroque” and the notion of the Baroque is rather helpful in understanding the way this novel works. Through Beulah’s diary and her story/novel of Sor Juana’s life, notions of truth and perception are jumbled. I think the term of the Baroque as used by Deleuze, with the figure of ‘the fold’ that reverses and confuses ideas of interiority and exteriority is apropos here. Sor Juana herself, we learn in Stephanie Merrim’s book on the poet, offered a very complex disquisition on knowledge and Holy Ignorance in a poem that’s sadly not in my selection of her work. Paz’ elegant and very learned book on Sor Juana has done much to emphasize the depth of her engagement with tradition and myth and literature, but he occasionally falls prey to the same condescension that many students of Sor Juana’s work have brought to the table. Her autodidacticism has kept many people from truly valuing her achievement, as Stephanie Merrim’s monumental study, which Anderson surely knew when writing his book, points out in exhaustive detail. There is a sense in Hunger’s Brides of us seeing this bias in Gregory’s writing and in Beulah’s strides towards knowledge and truth. At the same time, the woman we get to know in the diaries is not a genius, and I can’t help but feel as if Paul Anderson’s emotional protagonist Beulah is a strange foil to use in a discussion of the undeniably brilliant Sor Juana.
Because Sor Juana’s life and work really engages our ideas of feminity and writing, and because Anderson’s book is such an overwhelming grab-bag of ideas, locales, genres and characters, much of it seems to fit in one way or another. And this is not an exercise in guessing intentions, but we know from many sources like Frank Warnke’s lovely book on the Baroque that the theater, both as a genre as well as a trope and metaphor, were very important during that time. Is this enough to see the film script at the end as a clever commentary on, to quote Warnke, “the concern with the illusory quality of experience which runs obsessively through the literature of the first two-thirds of the 17th century”? Or is that just postmodern exuberance and a feeling of just trying things out? Reading the book and rereading it, I sometimes feel like it’s more the latter. Hunger’s Brides offers us a lot of ideas – but it also offers us a lot of space to spread those ideas. There’s a distinct lack of writerly and editorial discipline, and it’s not like in the similarly flawed (but more engaging) The Instructions, where the leisurely speed at least corresponds to the chosen genre. Anderson is clearly not on Sor Juana’s level, and the open ended, mystical way he deals with historical knowledge indicates that he knows this -but it still makes for a slightly awkward reading experience. I will say this. I don’t know that I would instantly grab whatever next book Paul Anderson publishes, but with all its flaws, Hunger’s Brides is a unique book, a large book by a writer with not quite that large a literary talent. Its faults don’t grate, however. They feed into the book, they add to its characters and they add to the overall fascination that book has with Sor Juana, with history, and with the quest of writing about yourself and about history. In a way, it throws up its hands about history, especially the buried, neglected and abused history of women in a way that reminds one of Absalom, Absalom: “It’s just incredible. It just does not explain. Or perhaps that’s it: they don’t explain and we are not supposed to know.” Go read this book. It’s a ton of fun. It really is.
If you, however, attempt to purchase the book, make sure to get the right one. The author and publisher have also published a second book that contains just one of the many narratives of the book. The two book covers are very similar, but the second version is a 750 page abbreviation, almost half the length of the original book. Going by the title of Sor Juana or the Breath of Heaven: The Essential Story from the Epic Hunger’s Brides, it contains the novel-within-a-novel about Sor Juana, but, judging from the summary, also portions relating to the present day. It’s not quite as radical an excision as The Whalestoe Letters, the very slim book of mother-son letters drawn from the larger and more difficult novel House of Leaves, but it clearly aims to present a “readable” version of the original novel. So be careful. The book’s existence itself is a bit of a puzzle to me since the original novel is not a difficult read, and is, overall, exciting and often even spellbinding. I understand the issue of length, but I don’t think the reading public is much more reticent to buyy into a 1300 page novel than into a 750 page novel. Danielewski’s Whalestoe Letters are a mere 80 pages, a significant enough difference that its excision and separate publication makes financial sense. And lastly, I take issue with the idea that there is an “essental story” to be cut from the larger body of Hunger’s Brides. The book itself, repeatedly, undertakes a defense of the baroque, the luxuriant, large project as contrasted to Puritan simplicity and discipline. It’s not just over-bordering richness, it’s also using the baroque as a figure to express larger aesthetic concerns with meaning beyond what’s easily put into words. The abbreviated book is an odd betrayal of the original novel that I am personally not convinced translates into significantly better sales.
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