Friday, September 22, 2017

Alien Reaches: The City and the River

Suttree 

Suttree

"A rat crept softly through the vegetation
Dragging his slimy belly on the bank
While I was fishing in the dull canal
On a winter evening round behind the gashouse."
- T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land


The city is Knoxville, the river is the Tennessee, and the story is about Cornelius Suttree. Suttree is a fisherman who lives on and off the river. We meet him as he lays prone "With his jaw cradled in the crook of his arm" as he "watched idly surface phenomena, gouts of sewage faintly working, gray clots of nameless waste and yellow condoms roiling slowly out of the murk like some giant form of fluke or tapeworm."(p 7) This is the milieu of Suttree and he does not stray from it very far throughout his picaresque journey chronicled in Cormac McCarthy's fine novel. His city is made of a "Curious marble architecture, stele and obelisk and cross and little rainworn stones where names grow dim with years."(p 3) His world is "a world within the world . In these alien reaches these maugre sinks and interstitial wastes that the righteous see from carriage and car another life dreams."(p 4)

As the novel opens Suttree, who comes from a prominent family, has abandoned his wife and infant son and has chosen to live on a houseboat near McAnally Flats, among the drifters and derelicts of the town. He keeps himself alive by fishing in the filth of the Tennessee River, but his existence is apparently meaningless, given over to destructive drinking, fighting, and carousing. As the narrator explains in the introduction to the story,
“We are come to a world within the world. In these alien reaches, these maugre sinks and interstitial wastes that the righteous see from carriage and car another life dreams. Ill-shapen or black or deranged, fugitive of all order, strangers in everyland.”(p 4)
Suttree has been accepted as part of this other world. He shares bottles, stories, and jail cells with the “ruder forms” that inhabit the region. They recognize that Suttree is different, has had opportunities denied them, but they never question his decision to live among them. To them, he is simply “old Sut.”

The reader follows him through apparently random experiences. The book is thus constructed in episodic fashion and depends on the cumulative effect of these episodes to develop its structure and identify its theme. Some characters come and go, touching Suttree only for the moment. Others, however, form a constant in his life, forcing him to come out of his self-imposed isolation and renew, in however meager a fashion, his connections with humanity. The themes hold the book together as they recur from time to time.  Most prominent among these is McCarthy's ability to use his Faulknerian prose to capture the essence of death. The book opens with a horrifying realistic scene of a suicide in the river - "as Suttree passed he noticed with a feeling he could not name that the dead man's watch was still running."(p 10) This reminder that 'life goes on' will be brought home again as Suttree passes through the "alien reaches" that he inhabits. In a later scene as he visits a cemetery he sees an old vault that nature as begun to dismantle. "Inside there is nothing. No bones, no dust. How surely are the dead beyond death. Death is what the living carry with them. A state of dread, like some uncanny foretaste of a bitter memory. But the dead do not remember and nothingness is not a curse. Far from it."(p 153)

Although the book is large and its contents rich and varied, several episodes do stand out as significant events in the sweep of Suttree’s life. While in prison for having taken part, unintentionally, in a robbery, Suttree meets Gene Harrogate, a foolish country boy who later follows Suttree back to Knoxville to become part of the marginal world of the outcasts. Although Suttree tries to avoid being involved with Harrogate, he often finds himself drawn into the boy’s irrational schemes, and on occasion has to rescue the boy. A couple of these scenes provide a broad sort of humor that I have not encountered in McCarthy's other novels. Other characters also place demands on Suttree’s humanity despite his best attempts to deny them, and he forms special relationships with a number of the doomed inhabitants of the region. Among them are Ab Jones, a giant black man who fights constantly with the police; an old ragpicker, whose wisdom and stoicism Suttree admires; the Indian named Michael, who offers Suttree a quiet and dignified friendship; and the pathetic catamite Leonard, who involves Suttree in a grotesque scheme to dispose of the decaying body of Leonard’s long-dead father. The longest episode in the book tells the story of a man named Reese and his bizarre family of shellfishermen who entice Suttree, despite his better judgment, away from Knoxville to the French Broad River with the promise of pearls and adventure. 

Although Suttree’s experiences are often horrible and degrading, the book ends with at least the possibility of hope. Nearly dying of typhoid fever, Suttree faces in his lengthy delirium the waste and cowardice of his life. When he recovers his strength and returns to McAnally Flats, he finds most of his companions either dead or absent. In his own houseboat, he discovers the rotting corpse of some unknown figure who has usurped his very home and identity. In death, however, there is new life, and Suttree leaves Knoxville, breaking with his past. His destination is unspecified. As he stands by the side of the road, a mysterious boy offers him a drink of water and smiles. Then a car stops for him without his making the effort to flag it. Both acts are, in one sense, minor, but they are also acts of grace.

This is a mighty epic in a modern sense and I recommend it to all readers who want to challenge their perspective through a visit to the "alien reaches" seldom seen from the comfort of their reading rooms.



Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Creature and his Creator

Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus: 
The 1818 Text 


Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus: The 1818 TextA Fantastic Story.

Fantastic, filled with both vivid emotions and exciting action, Mary Shelley's story of the haunted Victor Frankenstein, and his creation who does the haunting, still stirs the soul. Just as Goethe's Faust sought the secrets of arcane knowledge, Victor Frankenstein engages in the secrets of both licit and illicit science to bring a being to life. Once this is accomplished he immediately rues his action and spends the rest of the novel trying through a variety of means to atone for his mistake.

The novel is a classic tale of the uncanny which, according to the novelist and critic David Lodge, invariably use "I" narrators, imitating documentary forms of discourse like confessions, letters and depositions to make events more credible. Beginning with letters from Robert Walton, whose own search for the source of the magnetic north pole mirrors Victor Frankenstein's quest, the first book of the novel relates Victor Frankenstein's narrative of his youth and education. It surely was more than coincidental that Victor attended University at Ingolstad which was heralded as the original site of the Faust legends that Goethe adapted for his immensely influential drama.

'Monster' or 'Creature'?

The center of the novel continues Victor's story and that of his creation, the monster. At least that is what he calls his creation. While it is monstrous in the sense that it is larger than normal human size it is a creature made of human parts and, we find after some intervening events in Victor's life that the creature has some very human traits like the need for companionship -- one that is not met by his creator. Victor's emotions seem to swing from the the heights of elation to the depths of despair coloring his actions and clouding his reason. I found the monster's narration to be the most persuasive of the two. He pleads with Victor, " Remember, that I am thy creature: I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed."(p 66) Victor is unable to satisfy him and the monster who searches for acceptance throughout attempts to exert power over his creator as he tells him, "You are my creator, but I am your master; -obey!"(p 116) His words and actions only serve to speed the descent of Victor.

I saw the monster as a classic example of "the other", a precursor to modern images much as those found in Kafka. The action builds effectively through the third book of the novel building suspense and leading to an ending that involves a triangle of relationships between Victor, the creature, and Robert Walton whose narrative in letters bookends the tale. The power of the book, however, remains in the questions it raises; questions that we are dealing with to this day.

The Narrative:

A man is found while near death by Robert Walton.  Walton, an explorer, was on a trip to the Arctic where  his ship is stuck and surrounded by ice.  As they looked out on the enormous ice field, Walton and his crew saw a gigantic man being pulled by a dogsled. The following day they discovered another, smaller man, desperately ill, adrift on a sheet of ice. Walton writes that he brought the man onto his ship, allowed him to rest, and attempted to nurse him back to health.  That man was Victor Frankenstein who goes on to relate the story of how he came to be in this place.  

While at university, Victor became obsessed with the idea of bringing the dead back to life. He built the Creature out of body parts scavenged from charnel houses and graves. Victor succeeded in bringing the Creature to life, but upon seeing the hideous Creature Victor ran from the lab, abandoning his creation.  Alone and abandoned, the Creature spent two years hiding in the forest, aware of his ugliness. He learned to read in this time, and eventually he came to understand that Victor was the cause of his misery.  The narrative thus continues with the struggle of the Creature to find his creator and to end his misery.  The catalyst for the denouement of the story is Victor's realization of the mistake he made with his original creation.  Is this realization enough to save him and others?  I will leave it to other readers to answer that question for themselves.


Monday, September 11, 2017

Daunted Beginnings

Sons and Lovers 

Sons and Lovers

“Night, in which everything was lost, went reaching out, beyond stars and sun. Stars and sun, a few bright grains, went spiraling round for terror, and holding each other in embrace, there in a darkness that outpassed them all, and left them tiny and daunted. So much, and himself, infinitesimal, at the core of nothingness, and yet not nothing.”  ― D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers




On this day in 1885 D. H. Lawrence was born in Eastwood, outside Nottingham, the fourth of five children. Lawrence's autobiographical novel, Sons and Lovers, made famous the tortured conditions of his upbringing: his uneducated father's pit-and-pub life, his mother's contempt for this and her self-sacrifice to escape it, Lawrence's own conflicted feelings about both of them. It initially incited a lukewarm critical reception, along with allegations of obscenity, it is today regarded as a masterpiece of modernism. It certainly established some of the themes that Lawrence would explore in his subsequent novels.

Lawrence began working on the novel in the period of his mother's illness, and the autobiographical aspects of the novel can be found in his letters written around the time of its development. Torn between his passion for two women and his abiding attachment to his mother, young Paul Morel struggles with his desire to please everyone--particularly himself. The story develops against the backdrop of the author's native Nottinghamshire coal fields. The sensitivity of Paul is highlighted by the rough edges of the town and the other men in the family. When economic forces go against the family and their mining community his mother experiences even greater need to see young Paul break free. Lawrence's own personal family conflict provided him with the impetus for the first half of his novel — in which both William, the older brother, and Paul Morel become increasingly contemptuous of their father — and the subsequent exploration of Paul Morel's antagonizing relationships with both his lovers, which are both incessantly affected by his allegiance to his mother. Other women intrude on his life and in Lawrentian fashion the passions rise. This is his first successful novel and key in the development of modern fiction.

The issue of free will is important for Lawrence. He asks to what extent his characters’ environment influences their characters’ choices. We can see this made explicit in his descriptions. For example, when Paul begins to look in the newspapers for work, the narrator writes, “Already he was a prisoner of industrialism . . . He was being taken into bondage. His freedom in the beloved home valley was going now.” The modern industrial world, specifically as it manifests itself in the effect mining culture has on the Morel family, shapes the characters’ desires. This theme and his approach to it reminded me of the naturalism of Zola and Dreiser.

Even in this early novel Lawrence was explicitly depicting human sexuality. He flouted the moral conventions of the genre and of society, and his notoriety grew. At least one publisher refused Sons and Lovers because of its sexual content. Lawrence’s theories about human behavior revolved around what he called “blood consciousness,” which he opposed to “mental and nerve consciousness.” Lawrence also explores the class conflicts as they pertain to life in the coal community. Morel's mother, a school teacher, is sensitive to this and tries to protect her sons from becoming bound to the coal fields.

This is one of the best early modernist novels. The growth of young Paul Morel, both mentally and emotionally, combined with the depiction of the mining community and his family relationships makes this an enjoyable and entertaining read.


Thursday, September 07, 2017

A Life Frustrated

From the Terrace 

From the Terrace


“They say great themes make great novels.. but what these young writers don't understand is that there is no greater theme than men and women.”   ― John O'Hara




From the Terrace is a massive novel. Covering a period from the protagonist’s birth in 1897 to the postwar 1940’s. it presents power struggles at the highest levels of business and government against a background of sexual intrigue and violent death.

Raymond Alfred Eaton, called Alfred, is born into the upper economic and social stratum of a small Pennsylvania town, Port Johnson. His father, Samuel Eaton, owns the local steel mill. Alfred is deeply suspicious of himself, largely because of an occurrence during his boyhood over which he had no control. His elder brother, William, was the favorite son and was destined to succeed his father as the first citizen of Port Johnson until he died of meningitis at fourteen. Alfred’s father never is able to show his surviving son the same attention he lavished upon William. Two additional events reinforce Alfred’s sense of himself as a sort of jinx to others. He quarrels with his first love, sixteen-year-old Victoria Dockwiler, forbidding her to go riding in a borrowed Stutz Bearcat. She defies him and is killed in a car crash. Alfred then begins an affair with a family friend, Norma Budd, seven years older than he. Norma is later the victim of a married lover, who kills first her and then himself. Although it is irrational for Alfred to think that he corrupted Norma, he feels vaguely responsible later for her death.

Alfred attends Princeton University until the United States enters World War I. He serves with distinction as a naval officer but does not return to Princeton after the war. Declining his father’s offer of a job at the mill he and Lex Thornton, his best friend , start an aircraft company together. Alfred meets eighteen-year-old Mary St. John at a party, and here begins the sort of sexual triangle typically found in O’Hara’s later novels.

Mary is engaged to Jim Roper, a pre-medical student. Alfred is strongly attracted to Mary, more sexually than romantically, and he succeeds in winning her away from Roper. Their marriage in the spring of 1920 corresponds exactly with the death of Alfred’s father. The marriage is not a happy one. Meanwhile, Alfred has happened upon a young boy who has fallen through the ice into a pond. Alfred saves the child from drowning, thus earning the gratitude of the boy’s grandfather, James MacHardie. MacHardie is a rich and powerful Wall Street banker. He offers Alfred a job in New York, which he takes becoming an immediate success in banking, but he soon learns that he has relinquished his freedom of action. The image of MacHardie and Company is not to be tarnished by the divorce of any of its executives, so Alfred must stay married to Mary. At this point Alfred's life slowly declines through troubles with a mistress and at his job. The story would be a tragedy if Alfred had any heroic qualities. He never learns how to live with himself or others and gradually is isolated.

As the novel ends, Alfred is recovering from an illness brought on by the travails of his public and private life. He is unable to find another position, having cut himself off from the business and government arenas in which he previously thrived. He is financially secure, but he is not yet fifty and has no prospects in business or social relationships. This novel is an excellent example of naturalism demonstrating the dissoluteness of the upper class. As usual in O’Hara’s fiction, the physical details are flawless. The clothing, architecture, technology, and language of the novel’s succeeding decades are authentic down to the minutest point. Yet, perhaps due to the myriad details, it ultimately was a bit of a slog to finish. John O'Hara is at his best in his short stories and short novels like the classic, Appointment in Samarra.