Wednesday, October 19, 2011

What I read last summer, part 3

This is the third in the series. (Sorry it's taking me so long to get all of these out...) The first can be found here, and the second here.

One of my most enjoyable reads of the summer was Karen Lord's Redemption in Indigo. The story spins off from a Senegalese folk tale abot a foolish, gluttonous husband that the book begins with, casting the gluttonous husband's estranged wife Paam (who is a fabulous cook) as its "heroine" (the term the narrator uses to characterize her), in a conflict with Chance, a djobmi ("one of the undying ones"), whose power over probability (mostly referred to as "chaos") has been taken from him and given to Paam. Chance's "shadow" in the world wears an indigo skin, and the redemption in the title refers to Chance's redemption, not Paam's (for Paam is an exemplary human being). Since the narration takes the style of a folk tale, and the narrator adopts the role of storyteller, there are many generalizations about human nature, as well as lessons. Which works fine, though the narrator's recurring defensiveness is a bit irksome. I found this particular mixture of science with fantasy fresh and delightful. The style as a whole is gentle and good-humored, the writing lovely.

Fresh; gentle; entertaining. Recommended without reservation

I've read a lot of work by Jane Gardam, and I was pleased to see Europa bringing out one of her novels, since its editions are so handsome. Oddly enough, though, I didn't enjoy Old Filth as much as I've enjoyed her other books (several of which are collections of short fiction). "Old Filth" refers to Sir Edward Feathers (a name that kept making flash on Angela Carter's wonderful character named "Feathers"). In a set-piece dialogue, one of Old Filth's colleagues remarks about him: "Great advocate, judge and-- bit of a wit. Said to have invented FILTH--Failed In London Try Hong Kong. He tried Hong Kong. Modest, nice chap."

This is not Gardam's usual protagonist, and I suppose that's why this novel, of all her novels, has reaped loud critical accolades (and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize). It's also the reason, I suspect, that I was mostly bored by it. The book is a sympathetic portrait of a wealthy, privileged man whose childhood was traumatic and literally unspeakable (until, in advanced old age, he finds it necessary to make a confession of it to a priest). The narrative is discontinuous and jumps back and forth in time-- but never connects any of the dots, and never shows the most important moments of the protagonist's life. The mature Filth is pretty much oblivious to other people, except when he's annoyed by their presence or absence-- and by his dependence on them. He never bothers to learn the name of his devoted housekeeper, whom he calls "Mrs. Er..." (and whom the reader discovers, near the end of the book, has never been married and has been working for him for decades). The younger Filth (like the older one) is a prig and snob. Still, Gardam does get in quite a few good bits, which, along with her nicely economical style, kept me reading.

Recommended for people who enjoy British raj lit fic.

Pathological liars aren't exactly rare on the ground. I suspect that more people than not have had close encounters with at least one. And close encounters with such people usually leave a very bad taste in the mouth, if not a kind of soul-sickness. That's probably the reason they've been depicted so often in fiction. (Jane Austen depicted them brilliantly.) Curiously, in her book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, Sissela Bok characterizes the pathological liar as "quite harmless." That absolutely flummoxes me. I mean, she's a philosopher. I have then to wonder whether she's ever actually encountered one. I suppose this is her reasoning for calling them harmless: "There is an undoubted psychological easing of standards of truthfulness toward those believed to be liars. It is simply a fact, for instance, that one behaves differently toward a trusted associate and toward a devious, aggressive salesman." (134) Bok finds pathological liars so negligible, in fact, that she only brings them into her conversation to ask whether one is justified in lying to a pathological liar. I presume this is because she considers them both "harmless" and irrelevant to a discussion of morality, except insofar as how a moral agent behaves toward them: the point being that pathological liars cannot meaningfully be considered moral agents. (Similarly, children only figure in her book as "deceived persons.")

I unfortunately had the bad luck to have known a pathological liar over a long period of time because he married my mother, who, though usually very smart about people, took literally years to see through him (by which time he'd run through a lot of cash that she had toiled long and hard hour to earn). Basically, he continually told people anecdotes about himself that charmed his current interlocutors, or impressed them, or-- and this is the weirdest part-- intersected in (literally) incredile ways with their own past, long before they'd met him-- thus establishing a kind of fated connection with them. These stories changed every time he told them. But beccause he always believed them while telling them, he never noticed. That's the thing: although he was a big manipulator, the element of conscious calculation was missing. And that was just as well, because he was below average intelligence. At the time I met him, I had a memory like a steel trap. So just a couple of weeks after meeting him, I began to register the constant shifting and altering of details, and the contradictions between stories. (Which was probably why I was the first person in the family to fall out of the spell he had woven over all of us.) Once I tumbled to the falseness of the stories, I began to register other falsenesses-- ones less cunningly concealed and more obvious. I also began to realize that he lied almost constantly, even about trivial, insignificant things without any possible benefit to him. It was as though he had no continuous consciousness, no social or even personal memory at all. In short, I discovered there was no there there-- only a shallow, selfish, attention-hungry core that would do anything to keep people from seeing anything real about himself. (That this caused problems in my relationship with my mother is an understatement. I can't tell you what a relief it was when, after a ridiculous amount of time, other family members fell out of the spell.)

Austen's Mr. Wickham is probably one of the most famous liars in literary history. She doesn't have him lying about everything*, but she does get it right about his believing, absolutely, every lie he tells at the moment he tells it. Which is to say, he doesn't think of himself as duping the people he's lying to. That's a key aspect of pathological liars-- when called on a lie, they'll never admit that it's a lie; if really pushed, they'll insist that you've misremembered exactly what they said, and then come out with an altered version designed to accommodate the contradictions you've raised. I always wondered, when watching that television show about the experts on detecting lying whether "tells" or even changes in voice would ever manifest themselves in pathological liars, since their baseline is lying, and since they really do believe what they're saying. Deliberate, calculating liars work it all out in advance. People who aren't used to telling the truth are always ad-libbing, always living life as improvisational actors. Pathological liars tend to operate in a passive-aggressive mode. (Confrontation is just not their thing.) Conscious habitual liars, though, enjoy confrontation and operate most of the time in an aggressive mode. Lying, for them, is an act of aggression. (I'm not talking, of course, about the many lies most people tell to spare others' feelings. I'm talking about lies that make fools of the deceived [in the liar's estimation, that is] told mainly to prove to the liar how smart they are compared to other people, who "stupidly" (in the liar's estimation) fall for their bullshit more often than not.)

I mentioned that Austen's Wickham doesn't lie about everything (though, as is later revealed, he lies about a lot of things). That could be either because there are pathological liars who don't lie about everything (which would be a clever adaptation, since it would help them keep their interlocutors under the spell for much longer), or because Austen didn't want to spoil her plot, in which Elizabeth needs to be able to fling his "persecution" of Wickham into Darcy's face when he makes his arrogant proposal to her.

All of which is preface to my reaction to reading Justine Larbalestier's YA novel, Liar. It's purportedly narrated by a teenager, who is purportedly female and purportedly black-- and avows herself, from the beginning, to be a liar. This narrator (whom I'll refer to as "she," because that's how she identifies herself to the reader, without ever shifting from that identification) lies frequently-- but knowingly, with calculation. Which means, of course, that she isn't a pathological liar and has no problem keeping truth separate from lie in her own mind. Since she's the narrator, being a deliberate rather than a pathological liar makes her a lot less interesting, because it means that not only do her lies cast no spell on her interlocutors, but she also doesn't believe her own lies. If she did believe her own lies, merely in speaking we'd catch her lying, and there'd be something for the reader to parse. But in fact she changes the stories she tells simply to pull the rug out from under her interlocutor(s) (whom we never learn anything about)-- and, of course, the readers of the novel, who are situated in the place of that mentioned but never specified audience. Every time the narrator does that-- oops, sorry, here's another big lie I've been telling you, the narrator says-- it's like a bitch-slap flicked at the reader. (Remember: lies, for such people, are acts of aggression.) Such people, rather than casting spells, simply alienate people, because no one, even their original families, are able to believe a word they say and far from being charmed by their lies simply turn off after a point. (Either that, or they react to aggressive lies in the way they react to other acts of aggression: fight or flight.) Their friends are always short-term (unless the "friendship" is cynical and the "friends" not interested in having a personal relationship) because the problem with a habitual liar (whether pathological or conscious) is that there's no "there" there.

Habitual liars can of course be written about in fiction when they're described from the outside. But what does it mean to have a narrator who spends the entire narrative telling-- and then retracting-- one lie after another, and no other narrative voice for reference?

What it meant, for me, was after a point no longer being able to hear the voice of this fictional character speaking as "I" or to engage imaginatively with anything at all this voice claimed had happened: after too many retractions of too many lies, all I was aware of was of the author's presence in the narrative, of her fingers inside the narrator-puppet's head, moving it's mouth to simulate its speaking. I kept thinking: Oh, this is the author ventriloquizing the voice of a teenaged girl, using that voice to jerk the reader around. (Repeated conscious lies are acts of aggression.) Not that it was the lies, exactly, that first made me hyper-aware of the author's presence in the story. That happened in the first half of the book, before I gave up on believing in the narrator's existence, as I waited and waited and waited for the narrator to announce that the story was a variant of a particular trope (of a sub-sub-genre), which the narrator had been heavily implying it was from the first few pages of the novel. (Nudge nudge, wink wink.) (This is an otherwise ancient, worn trope that has been interestingly explored by several feminist writers over the last 20 years.) As I waited, I asked myself the author's purpose in playing nudge nudge wink wink for so many long pages. The first reason I came up with was that we were supposed to understand that the book was not written for genre readers-- which would in turn keep reviewers from talking about the book in an explicit way so as not to spoil it for those inexperienced readers who had never read anything in the sub-genre the narrator eventually invoked. At the same time, I knew this coyness was supposed to play into the theme of the narrator's lying-- which it wouldn't have had to do had the narrative been written in close third. But I also suspected it was a ploy to keep the book from being pigeonholed as genre, to make the book's potential audience wider. (This latter was merely the result of my annoyance at such coyness.) After laboriously (so many lies, and I've just never enjoyed lies, you know?) reading the book through to the end, though, I knew that I was meant to understand that the invocation of the trope might be a lie, too. (Well, duh!) And also, that in some sense, it didn't really matter whether the invocation was a lie or the truth, since the consequences were the same.

But here we run into the key problem characterizing the reading experience of this book: viz., that it's impossible to say what the consequences or even the acts that had consequences ever were, because nothing the narrator says has enough heft to grant even hypothetical reality to it, even if the narrator does remain consistent on a handful of things (i.e., gender, race, and age). Just because she didn't retract those few things-- her gender, for instance, or that she's a great runner, or that a teenaged boy was killed before the narration begins-- doesn't mean we have any reason to actually believe they're true. When anything can be true, nothing can be believed. It's a little like those "oh it was all a dream" stories, only in this one, the narrator claims to be writing the narrative for some specific mysterious person or persons she claims she wants to tell the truth to (meaning: manipulate). That might be true-- but then again, once I stopped hearing the fictional narrator's voice, even if it is true, it became, at that point, really "academic," as they say. That's because nothing in the narrative is verifiable. Certainly not the characters, or the events described, recanted, or reinterpreted. Perhaps, had we ever been allowed a glimpse of the supposed interlocutor, there might have been more than the author's voice left at the end. But that would, of course, have required the author's providing a frame for the narrative, which would have taken us outside the first-person pov. But because there is no frame, not even at the end, I can only conclude that that draining away of thereness and eventual flattening and disappearance of the characters is the whole point of the novel: delivering up the bitter lesson that novels are only words put on a piece of paper by the author. And that it doesn't matter how one interprets those words. Because they're all just lies, lies, lies, and although readers can tolerate a degree of unreliability in a narrator, they still must be able to believe some things without question. A rather cynical lesson, and a bit harsh for young readers. I myself prefer to be under a spell when I read the "lies" in a novel. It's that spell that allows me to build a world and embody a set of characters in my mind, to feel intensely, to analyze and worry over, in the way I might do about people I care for. Which is to say, for fiction, I prefer pathological to calculated lies. I'd rather not see the author's conscious manipulations, rather not see the author's hands moving the characters around like paper dolls or puppets-- unless those manipulations are actually part of the story (as in metafiction, they often are) and don't necessarily destroy the illusion of reality that stories so often offer. That's a personal choice. Many readers may enjoy this departure from the usual.

The disintegration of the story, for lack of believable anchors for constructing any kind of narrative at all (other than the reader's narrative: that you can't trust anything this narrator says), raises the question of whether Liar is actually anything that could be called a story at all. I think I'd have to answer that it is a story-- if only a meta-story-- because I, as a reader, ended up reminded that fiction is a game of pretend, and that if the author chooses to play a (second-level) game with that game, the story ceases to be about the fictional narrative and becomes all about the limits of the reader's ability to create a story from the text (which is what readers typically do with the tests of fiction). Here's a classic discussion of what a story is, from James Baldwin's The Devil Finds Work:
A story is impelled by the necessity to reveal: the aim of the story is revelation, which means that a story can have nothing --at least deliberately-- to hide. This also means that a story resolves nothing. The resolution of a story must occur in us, with what we make of the questions with which the story leaves us. A plot, on the other hand, must come to a resolution, prove a point: a plot must answer all the questions which it pretends to pose. In the Heat of the Night, for example, turns on a plot, a plot designed to camouflage exceedingly bitter questions; it can be said, for The Defiant Ones, that it attempts to tell a story. The Book of Job is a story, the proof being that the details of Job's affliction never, for an instant, obscure Job from our view. This story has no resolution. We end where we began: everything Job lost has been returned to him. And, yet, we are not quite where we began. We do not know what that voice out of the whirlwind will thunder next time --and we know that there will certainly be a next time. Job is not the same, nor are we: Job's story has changed Job forever, and illuminated us. By contrast, the elaborate anecdote of Joseph and his brothers turns on a plot, the key to which is that coat of many colors. That coat is meant to blind us to the fact that the anecdote of Joseph and his brothers, so far from being a record of brotherly love and forgiveness, is an absolutely deadly study of frustrated fratricide and frustrated (thought elaborately disguised) revenge.
I did see another way of reading Liar: as a failed attempt of showing us an habitual, conscious liar-- and a damaged personality-- in action. But that's something that can be done only from the outside-- maybe not entirely from the outside, but with occasional departures from the liar's "I." (A pathological liar would be another matter altogether.) Frankly, though, I'd rather understand the novel as a cynical metafictional lesson rather than as a failed attempt to anatomize a character who flattened and receded from view, retracted lie by retracted lie. As a reader, I desperately want to read the most successful book I can make out of a text, even if I've totally misunderstood the author's intention.

Recommended for readers with a reasonable tolerance for metafictional experiments.

I've liked some of Michael Blumlein's work, but The Roberts was a chore to get through. I picked it up in the Dealers Room at Potlatch, with relatively high expectations because it is published by Tachyon. (I hadn't realized it was originally published in F&SF, or might have given it closer scrutiny before purchasing it.) It's a merger of the story of Pygmalion (though not Shaw's) with the story of Narcissus. All about a "genius," Robert, who after a spectacular failure and the loss of an eye, no longer finds women beautiful, and so creates, as his muse, Grace, who is not only beautiful, but also made to want only Robert's happiness, Robert's love, and to not be hurt when Robert, busy with More Important Affairs (the result of his genius) ignores her for weeks or even months on end. (The other women he'd loved had all been hurt and left him because he forgot, while he was thrashing about in the throes of genius, that they existed.) But Robert then goes a step further-- and creates a second Robert ("Robert's Robert") to keep Grace company at home while he's busy out in the world. And Grace, at the same time, creates another Robert, too (Robert No. 3). Genius Robert is (inevitably) devastated with jealousy when he learns that Robert's Robert is having sex with Grace. But not to worry. All ends happily ever after.

At one time this story would have filled me with rage. Now I just find it pathetically fatuous (with a bit of an ick factor, since all the created humans have adult bodies with "infant" minds). Oh, and incidentally, it totally fails the Bechdel Test.

Not recommended.

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