Archive for December, 2014

Last week I had a conversation with an old coworker about being rehired at a former place of employment (different position, different supervisors, so it feels like a step forward, not back). She told me that the person I had been before would not do well in this position, and I told her that I’m not who I was four years ago. Apparently, I impressed her with that fact enough that she commented on it with a few other people. In thinking about it, the difference is in the way I understand who I am. Four years ago I had several props that I substituted for my own identity – my marriage, my faith community, my career – I don’t think I’m unique in having relied on those things to tell me who I am. But I could see how precarious it all was, and as my awareness of my homosexuality became more pressing, I could foresee the imminent collapse of my life and self. I lived in perpetual fear of ceasing to exist. I thought that without those things I would no longer be. Not death so much as disappearance, like in ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ when Prince Prospero unmasks the death figure and finds only an empty robe that falls to the ground. I would lose all my social masks and be revealed as nothing at all. And that was how this potential employer knew me before, as the consciousness on the verge of extinction, the damaged and endangered psyche. And then everything did collapse. I lost all of those crutches that my injured identity was leaning on. But I didn’t die (getting rid of the sleeping pills helped with that one), and I didn’t disappear. I came through it all just fine. It took a few years, but I’m better now than I have ever been in my entire life. I have fewer labels, but I don’t need them. I can’t describe myself as easily, but I know more accurately who I am. And if the paradigm shift called coming out didn’t destroy me, I know that nothing else can.

Milan Kundera’s Identity is about a similar issue: how we derive our identity from the people who love us. Chantal and Jean-Marc don’t split up as the ex and I did, but there are many elements of their relationship that remind me of ours. The relationship is marked by insecurity: they’re excessively afraid of losing each other, possibly through death, possibly through indifference, possibly through forgetting.

I see their two heads, in profile, lit by the light of a little bedside lamp: Jean-Marc’s head, its nape on a pillow; Chantal’s head leaning close above him.

She said: “I’ll never let you out of my sight again. I’m going to keep on looking at you and never stop.”

And after a pause: “I get scared when my eye blinks. Scared that during that second when my gaze is switched off, a snake or a rat or another man could slip into your place.”

He tried to raise himself a little to touch her with his lips.

She shook her head: “No, I just want to look at you.”

And then: “I’m going to leave the lamp on all night. Every night.”

This is what we had, and it’s what I don’t want to have again. I don’t want to be an enthralled captive; I want to be in love with someone who makes me feel free. I want to be with someone who wants me because he likes me, not because he needs me. Love shouldn’t make me feel trapped or afraid.

Part of the insecurity comes from inequality.

All at once he knows that the assertion he often made to Chantal is finally about to be confirmed: that his deepest vocation is to be a marginal person, a marginal person who has lived comfortably, true, but only under completely uncertain and temporary circumstances. Now suddenly here is his true self, thrown back among those he belongs with: among the poor who have no roof to shelter their destitution.

Chantal makes four or five times as much money as Jean-Marc, so he is maintaining a standard of living that he feels he doesn’t have a right to. She’s also a few years older than he is, and with an ex-husband and a dead child, she seems to have a world of experience beyond him. He seems to need her much more than she needs him. In the early days of my marriage, we relied pretty heavily on the ex’s parents for things like rent. We had known that neither of us would ever have money, majoring in literature and music as we did, but the reality of that didn’t hit until we were on the wrong side of the country in jobs that would never pay our bills. Then I went to graduate school and she got a good job, but she didn’t see my studying as work, so she had very little respect for what I was doing. When I finished school, though, I went to work and she stayed home. I’m not sure how much of this was conscious, but she felt all the insecurity of being dependent on another human being for the necessities of life. When she worked, she felt independent enough that she looked into divorcing me, and she was afraid I’d do the same. So she bound me to her with insults, reminding me how lucky I was to be with her, making me feel like no one else could ever want me. I worked at The Home Depot for a year and a half, and I was physically stronger than I had ever been, and I was the happiest with my body I’d ever been, but my muscles get flat instead of rounded, so I was also thinner than I had been in ages, and she’d tell me I looked like a Holocaust survivor and threaten to buy my clothes in the kids’ section. After our third child was born I wanted to go back for a doctorate so I could get a better-paying job, and she told me repeatedly that I was too old, too poor, and had too many children to chase after dreams. What I needed to do was get a shit government job for the next thirty years, give up ever being happy with my life, and content myself with what satisfaction there is in knowing that my abject misery provided the basic needs of my family. That’s what real men did. This is the kind of poison that comes from an insecure person in an unequal relationship. She tended to get between me and family or friends, interpreting and packaging me for them so that I felt like I couldn’t interact socially without her. I felt like Jean-Marc, even after I was the one bringing home the organic preservative-free bacon. And at first I did feel homeless and marginal; Kundera’s novel doesn’t show how it gets better. As I reflect on it now, I don’t wonder that I survived the divorce; I wonder that I survived eight years with her.

Y’know, my parents thought that it was important never to fight in front of us, so when they divorced it sort of came out of nowhere. At the time, I didn’t see it as a conflict between them so much as the natural state of things. People ran away from time to time; my brother did it, every teenager in a 1980s sitcom did it, it’s just what people do. The ex also thought it was important not to fight in front of other people, so we didn’t. Or at least, I didn’t. When she started yelling at me in front of the kids, I knew things were bad. But even when she only yelled at me in private, I felt like everything was ending because I had never seen people who love each other fighting. Right now I’m staying with some friends who have been together for more than thirty years, and they have their disagreements as people do, not in front of me though I can hear when they raise their voices, but I’m finally learning that not every fight ends in divorce, not every disagreement is final, not every frustration is the end of the world two people have built together.

One of the things that frustrates Chantal (and my ex) is what has become of the men in their lives.

Chantal thinks: men have daddified themselves. They aren’t fathers, they’re just daddies, which means: fathers without a father’s authority. She imagines trying to flirt with a daddy pushing a stroller with one baby inside it and carrying another two babies on his back and belly. Taking advantage of a moment when the wife stopped at a shop window, she would whisper an invitation to the husband. What would he do? Could the man transformed into a baby-tree still turn to look at a strange woman? Wouldn’t the babies hanging off his back and his belly start howling about their carrier’s disturbing movement? The idea strikes Chantal funny and puts her in a good mood. She thinks to herself: I live in a world where men will never turn to look at me again.

Then, along with a few morning strollers, she found herself on the seawall: the tide was out; before her the sandy plain stretched away over a kilometer. It was a long time since she had come to the Normandy coast, and she was unfamiliar with the activities in fashion there now: kites and sail-cars. The kite: a colored fabric stretched over a formidably tough frame, let loose into the wind; with the help of two lines, one in each hand, a person forces different directions on it, so that it climbs and drops, twists, emits a dreadful noise like a gigantic horsefly and, from time to time, nose first, falls into the sand like an airplane crashing. She was surprised to see that the owners were neither children nor adolescents but always men. In fact, they were the daddies! The daddies without their children, the daddies who had managed to escape their wives! They didn’t run off to mistresses, they ran off to the beach, to play!

Again the notion of a treacherous seduction struck her: she would come up behind the man holding the two lines and watching the noisy flight of his toy with his head thrown back; into his ear she would whisper an erotic invitation in the lewdest words. His reaction? She hadn’t a doubt: without glancing at her, he would hiss: “Leave me alone, I’m busy!”

Ah, no, men will never turn to look at her again.

Chantal seems to value the old days when Sean Connery was James Bond, when men would drop whatever was happening for a quick lay with whichever objectified female happened to be closest. There’s this weird equation of promiscuity with adult masculinity and paternal authority which seems to run counter to today’s accepted model of male behavior. As if authority can only be exercised at a distance, or as if he’s only a man if his cock is actually inside a woman at the moment. Well, there’s a price to be paid for gender equality – I know we haven’t succeeded in that goal yet, but it’s a useful touchstone just now – we all like to feel physically attractive (regardless of gender), but men have been taught that James Bond is just a fantasy, that real life is not a nonstop sexual buffet, so we don’t act like it is. In general, we’re more guarded in expressing the pleasure we take in the sight of people we find attractive, so attractive people get less external validation. Most guys don’t like to be thought of as rape-y, so we go in the other direction. [I wonder how sexual orientation affects self-esteem in this area. I can look at myself in the mirror and think, yeah, I’d fuck me, without feeling like there’s anything weird about that. Can straight people do the same?] When the ex and I got together, we were both really into changing traditional gender roles, but over time she became more religious, and she felt more strongly that she needed to submit to me (at least superficially), but I never wanted a fuckable child-care worker who has to resort to manipulation to get what she wants. I’ve always wanted to be with someone I felt was my equal, and I’m still not sure how the powerful feminist I loved became a resentful housewife, or why she chose that.

But I can say that the kids strapped to their daddies won’t care if they turn to look at a strange woman. I could use a urinal without waking the baby strapped to my chest; they can handle a slight turn of the torso. Yeah, I was a baby-tree for a while at first, but as I started working full-time, the ex trusted me less and less with the boys. I don’t have any strong memories of carrying my youngest through shops or down the street, though I’m sure I must have done it.

I spent eight years expecting my life to end at any second. Every day I’d wake up and wonder, is it today? Whenever the phone rang unexpectedly, I’d think, is this the call? For a while I thought she was going to kill herself before I got home from work. Then I thought she was going to die in a car crash or some other accident. Then I was afraid she was going to leave me because I was a worthless shit, and then I was afraid she was going to leave me because I was a gay worthless shit. Then she did. It wasn’t quite as I had imagined it; in many ways it was worse. I really want to be in love again, but I don’t want to go back to that constant fear of loss.

He was thinking not of her death but of something subtler, something elusive that has been haunting him lately: that one day he wouldn’t recognize her; that one day he would notice that Chantal was not the Chantal he lived with but that woman on the beach he mistook for her; that the certainty Chantal represented for him would turn out to be illusory, and that she would come to mean as little to him as everybody else.

Certainty is illusory, full stop. The only thing I’m really certain of now is that no matter what, I’m going to be okay. Even when I die, that’ll be okay too. But relationships end. Sometimes not until death, but death parts us all. When Chantal’s lamp goes out one night, what will become of Jean-Marc? He’ll rediscover himself, as I did. All the things that he didn’t do because she hated them will come back. He’ll seek out all the friends she didn’t like. He’ll watch the movies and listen to the music she hated. He’ll read the books she didn’t approve of and eat at the restaurants where she felt snubbed. But being fictional, he will never face that. There’s a losing that he won’t have to live with.

In the last three years, I’ve realized that the ex didn’t know herself very well when we got together. I was pretty unaware of myself too, so I’m not judging her for that. But when you don’t know yourself, you can’t present yourself to another person accurately. The person I fell in love with never really existed. Part of her was there, of course, but part of her was the person the ex thought she ought to have been and not who she was, and part was who I wanted to believe her to be. Part reality, part fantasy. It was hard when she left me and I lost her physical presence, but it was also hard when I realized just how much I had blinded myself to. She’s still beautiful and the type of person I can respect, but I cannot imagine being in love with her, let alone making her the mainstay of my own identity. If I passed her on the street as a stranger, I wouldn’t look at her twice. I’d forget her almost immediately. She’s an important part of my past, but as we are in the present, I don’t find anything special about her. Jean-Marc is afraid of this state of things, but I welcome it. Yes, it represents a loss, but it’s healthy to let go of the things that hurt you.

Kundera’s work often resonates with me on some deep levels, and this short novel clearly brings up a lot of things for me. It’s a little love story, and I suppose it could be read allegorically, but I hope not all love is like this. I want to be complemented, not possessed. I want a love that feels secure, without fear. And I have faith that there are other men who want the same thing. I just have to find them.

 

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In the United States, our understanding of Scandinavian history is pretty wretched. There were Vikings, also known as Norsemen, but we don’t really understand who they were or where they came from (formerly peaceful traders until the Christians blackballed them for being pagan). This is really shameful, because since the Vikings colonized most of Europe, we’re probably all related to them, and because the greatest hero in English literature, Beowulf, was Swedish. That’s why it took him so long to get to Heorot from Geatland – Geatland is in Sweden.

This book takes place in Stockholm, mostly in 1791 and 1792. King Gustav is trying to save Louis XVI from the revolutionaries in France, but his troubled relationship with the nobles of his own country lead to his assassination. In part, this is a novel about the world ending; some people try to maintain things as they are, others try to shape the new world that’s coming. I don’t think the world will ever really end; people always keep on living, even if the political situation changes dramatically. At least, the world won’t end until the sun expands and swallows the inner planets on its way to exploding in a fiery death.

This is a novel of women’s power. The main characters focus on traditional expressions of women’s wisdom: herb lore for healing and poisoning, divination and the occult, and fashion accessories and the manipulation of powerful men. Johanna Grey is in Stockholm running from an unwanted marriage set up by her excessively Christian parents. She starts as a barmaid, but becomes companion and pharmacist to the most powerful woman in town. She focuses on inhalants that induce sleep, but she’s a good girl so she’s uncomfortable when her boss makes her work on poisons. Mrs Sparrow runs a gambling house where she sometimes reads tarot cards or sees prophetic visions for her clients, including King Gustav and his brother Duke Karl. More on her reading anon. The Uzanne is a widowed baroness who is captivated by fans. She has an enormous collection, and believes that they have magical properties. You can read into this as much or as little as you like. The fans are beautiful works of art, regardless, and they can be very useful props in flirtation and seduction. The Uzanne establishes a school for teaching the use of the fan, but it’s really a front for her indoctrination of the girls with her political views and training them to manipulate men, not only for love, but for politics as well.

First-person narrator Emil Larsson is one of the best players at Mrs Sparrow’s establishment. They become friends, and she finds him useful in dealing with unwanted guests. He’s no bouncer; it’s just that no one likes losing all the time, and there are some methods of making someone lose at cards that also involve making him lose face. One day she has a vision for him, so she does an octavo reading. This is an invention of the author; it uses a special deck instead of the standard tarot, and points to eight people in the Seeker’s life that will influence him for good or ill. This first part is kind of slow: she only draws one card a night for eight nights, and he spends all this time mooning about some girl who doesn’t really care about him and isn’t in his octavo anyway. As he cultivates his octavo, he gets drawn away from his personal search for love and into the complicated schemes either to protect the king or to kill him.

A few years ago I made a break with the Christian church I had been involved in my entire life, and in the time since then I’ve been working on reading tarot. These cards were originally used for a popular card game in the Renaissance, but in the eighteenth century people started using them for divination, and now the occult is an American thing, and people still sometimes play the game in Europe. I don’t really believe in divination, any more than I do in prayer, but I find it comforting in the same way. It’s a bit like having a conversation with my subconscious, the same as in dreams. I look at symbols and try to interpret them. If it’s something important, I’ll read cards over the same subject for a few days and look for patterns. I think that it’s my subconscious mind that determines the outcome of events in my life, managing how well I perform at different tasks and which opportunities I create, so getting some information from it is generally useful. Card reading is important in The Stockholm Octavo, but as with the fans, is there any prophetic magic in it or are events shaped by people’s response to its self-fulfilling prophecies? In my own life, I’ve decided that the distinction isn’t a useful one. It doesn’t matter whether an event is a random occurrence or part of a divine plan; what matters is what does happen, and how I’m going to respond to it.

This may seem an odd complaint to make, but for a novel about women and women’s power, it suffers from a bizarre lack of lesbians. There’s one very brief moment when one straight woman flirts with another for shock value, but there’s no romantic love between women. Even our marriage-resister is just waiting for the right man to come along. The only LGBT connection is a man who occasionally dresses in women’s clothing, with his wife’s approval.

The publisher made a comparison with The Night Circus, but no. Just, no. Steampunk magical circus or political intrigues during the Reign of Terror, for me there is no question. The Night Circus is about using magic to make people happy, and the struggle is between people who eventually love each other. The Stockholm Octavo is about using magic to make people powerful, and the struggle is between people who absolutely hate each other. A few of them die; by the end, there’s poison everywhere. Emil leaves the town that he loves to find a woman he loves, and the story ends with possibility instead of fulfillment.

 

Yeah, I should have seen this coming. I know that Edith Wharton writes endings that are right, satisfying because you can’t imagine her stories ending any other way, but not happy. I often wish things could have happened differently, but no. They never do.

In some ways, this story felt a lot like it was written by William Faulkner. No stream-of-consciousness or insanity, that losing of one’s grip on the passage of time that is so important for him, but the plot and characters could be his, if he had been writing fifteen years earlier. Wharton generally gives us a view of wealthy society in New York around the turn of the century, but in Summer New York is only ever mentioned once, as too far away to be imagined. We’re dealing with very small towns in rural New England; Springfield, Massachusetts is the height of splendor in their world, a place that is important in the town imagination but that we never reach. The protagonist’s rich rival Annabel Balch lives there, and she and the town represent everything that Charity wants in her life but cannot have.

Once upon a time, a loose woman named Mary went on off up the Mountain with one of them, a criminal named Hyatt. (They’re all named Hyatt up there.) She lived out the rest of her life in poverty and squalor with the Mountain people. When her lover gets sent to jail, the lawyer decides to take their daughter and raise her in the town. Thus Charity Royall grows up with all the comforts of one of the best houses in town, and the acute knowledge that she doesn’t belong there. She’s one of the shiftless heathens from up the Mountain, and she’ll never be anything else because she lives in a gossipy small town with a long memory.

The story begins (as love stories should) in a library.

Suddenly the door opened, and before she had raised her eyes she knew that the young man she had seen going in at the Hatchard gate had entered the library.

Without taking any notice of her he began to move slowly about the long vault-like room, his hands behind his back, his short-sighted eyes peering up and down the rows of rusty bindings. At length he reached the desk and stood before her.

“Have you a card-catalogue?” he asked in a pleasant abrupt voice; and the oddness of the question caused her to drop her work.

“A what?

“Why, you know –“ He broke off, and she became conscious that he was looking at her for the first time, having apparently, on his entrance, included her in the general short-sighted survey as part of the furniture of the library.

The fact that, in discovering her, he lost the thread of his remark, did not escape her attention, and she looked down and smiled. He smiled also.

Back in the day when card catalogues represented the newest information technology, Charity reluctantly keeps the local library so that she can earn enough money to get out of her little town. Instead, she falls in love. Rumors fly, nothing stays secret, and at the end of the summer he leaves again. The story is simple enough, told many times, but Wharton uses it for a frank representation of attitudes toward sex. She’s writing in 1917, so we don’t get to watch like we did in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but her characters’ thoughts and actions seem rather contemporary. Everyone does it. Everyone knows that everyone does it. No one really feels bad about it. But they feel like they ought to make everyone else feel bad for doing it. The culture creates a situation where a man can sexually abuse the girl living in his house and still remain a pillar of the community, but if she has consensual sex with a boy she loves, then she becomes a pariah. The abortion clinic in the next town over seems pretty successful, financially speaking.

There are three kinds of women: bad women who do it shamelessly, decent women who do it privately, and old maids who don’t do it at all. But there’s only one kind of man: they take their opportunities where they find them without any thought for consequences.

Charity among her own people on the Mountain makes me think of Temple Drake at the Old Frenchman’s place. She has the same fish-out-of-water feeling that would become disdain if it could overcome its own shock. Isolated mountain communities are pretty much the same, whether they’re out in Yoknapatawpha County or up by the border with New Hampshire. They provide a cautionary tale, but like Annabel Balch, they’re more important in their effect on Charity than for anything they actually do.

This story interests me personally because I used to live there. I try to remember that period of my life sometimes, but I never come up with much. That was the last time we lived in a house that was really large enough for all of us, and I really feel as if I ought to remember when my youngest brother was born, but all I get is an image of looking down on what seems like twelve feet of snow from an upper-story window. When you’re little, everything looks big, and I was smaller than average until high school.

My parents are both from the Baltimore-Washington area, but in 1983 my dad was working for the Marriott hotel chain and they transferred him to Springfield. Less than a year later, we skedaddled back down to the South, but somehow my pronunciation got stuck. My family tells me that I had a real thick Boston accent at first; it’s calmed down to regular New England (I’ve learned to pronounce the letter R), but I’ve never picked up the Southernness that almost all the rest of them have. In 2008 I worked briefly with someone from Boston, and I could feel my pronunciation changing to match his, like iron filings shaping themselves around an electromagnet. I hear it in words like dog or talk, when in my mouth they become dowag or towak instead of dawg and tawk. But I do use a lot of Southern words for things, so in the end I don’t feel as if my speech belongs here or there. I try to place myself on a dialect map of the United States, and only come to the conclusion that no one talks like I do.

Summer is a nice little book, a bit sad but nice. It’ll do to while away a few hours in the tub, away from the nearly omnipotent social pressure that Charity has to deal with. I don’t think she makes good choices, but then, she doesn’t actually read the books in her library, does she?

This is not the kind of book I willingly pick up at the store. It’s hugely thick and tries to unite several genres, all of which represent humanity and the world as darker, scarier, more evil than I believe them to be. But when a student says, “I know you like novels, so I got you one as a going-away present,” I can’t refuse.

The last time I read a book this long from beginning to end, it was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Seriously, this book is fucking massive. There were a few times I mentally edited his prose to eliminate unnecessary words (I don’t believe in coincidences, especially in fiction, so the phrase “it just happened to be” really irritates me), but it’s not something I could do much of. His prose is fairly tight, and he keeps the story moving pretty quickly. Every now and again you get a glimpse of a lovely bit of figurative language, like

But there was nothing, just a gale of fear blowing down the lonely corridors of his mind.

but normally he avoids anything that isn’t literal. It is what it is, as it is, and there’s not much to say about it. What commentary there is, is often cynical and snarky:

nobody’s ever been arrested for a murder; they have only ever been arrested for not planning it properly.

Which happens early on, when it’s still a murder mystery, and sounds so very Dashiell Hammett that I can’t fault him for it.

We start with murder, then go on to spy thriller, end up at 9/11 conspiracy theory, then they all sort of get jumbled up together. It may seem that this genrebending might be the biggest narrative problem, but I think it’s his sequence. The first half of the book is weighted with flashbacks, and sometimes flashbacks within flashbacks, so that the order of events is rather confused.

I have the most difficulty forgiving Hayes for his first-person narrator/protagonist. The first problem is at the linguistic level. Pilgrim’s speech is almost entirely British, which is almost wholly nonsensical. He’s an American. He spent a number of years living in Europe, but as the leader of a supersecret spy organization, he wouldn’t have spent that time hanging out with Londoner chums or watching Doctor Who. For their linguistic patterns to rub off on him, he needs either to be interested in language for its own sake or to spend a great deal of time talking with Englishmen he likes well enough to want to blend in with them. Neither of those things is true for him. He’s so insulated and ethnocentric that the Britishisms just don’t make sense. My occasional British usage is more logical because most of my friends for the last two years are British, and I tend to adopt the speech patterns of the people I love; I’ve also been teaching English from British texts, so I’ve been confronting the basics of the language from a British perspective. Still, I know to use only one l in words like traveled or canceling (Brits use two).

The second problem is with his supposed identity as the agent so secret that no one can touch him. He makes so many mistakes that it’s kind of embarrassing. Most of them are necessary to move the plot forward, but if the plot demands that you make your superagent an idiot, maybe the plot needs to change. Pilgrim retires from the spy business and writes a book about his cases, changing the details and his identity to preserve state secrets. A New York policeman reads the book, finds the tiny hints he drops about his personal life, tracks down his real name, and follows him to Paris where he has been living in hiding for a few years. Really? Really? What kind of crap intelligence agency would let this book be published, or not track down their supposedly greatest asset when he is careless enough to publish all the clues you need to get at him? Seriously. If a homicide detective were better than the combined powers of the CIA and the NSA, then their entire personnel rosters would have been eliminated a long time ago.

Problem Three is misogyny. It’s a little like being in a modern James Bond movie, where all women are either useless or evil. There are one or two good competent women we don’t see much of, but the rule is that women are not to be relied upon. I should probably throw homophobia into the mix here, because there’s a killer lesbian (no gay men, sorry). She outsmarts Pilgrim, but she’s unremittingly evil. The book is largely about relationships between straight men, lots of father-son mentoring stuff and never-leave-a-man-behind-unless-he’s-dead values. The phrase “I love you man, no homo” practically drips from the pages.

Number Four is with the ethnocentrism I mentioned earlier. Pilgrim has a fairly extensive education, which normally has a tendency to decrease the belief in superiority based on nationality, but no luck for him. He then spends his adult life living abroad, and contact with other cultures also usually has a tendency to make people think better of them, but again, no luck.

These were the same guys Carter had described as garbage wrapped in skin.

He points this out not to contest it, but to agree that all Saudis are worthless. I’ll admit that his portrayal of Saudis angers me the most, because I’ve spent the last two years living among them and despite the systemic injustices, I’ve seen that they’re really very kind. I don’t think any person is really garbage; we’re all a mixture of good and bad things. Saudi men have been raised in a culture that values adherence to tradition over critical thinking, but that doesn’t make them bad men. They benefit from society without putting any thought or effort into it, much like white American men of the upper middle class (and by that I mean Protagonist Pilgrim). When you take into account the assumptions about the world that they have never thought to question, I think most of them are actually more worthwhile than their Western counterparts. Seriously, America/Europe: stop judging the rest of the world for not sharing your cultural ideals.

Another bit that’s kind of funny, but shows that the guy we’re reading is a bit of a dick:

On one particular evening he left a message while I was attending one of my regular twelve-step meetings. By this stage, I had switched my patronage to AA – as Tolstoy might have said, drug addicts are all alike, whereas every alcoholic is crazy in his own way. This led to far more interesting meetings, and I had decided that, if you were going to spend your life on the wagon, you might as well be entertained.

The Moriarty to this American anti-Holmes is called The Saracen. He’s a conservative Saudi disgusted by the laxity of Jeddah and Bahrain, so as a teenager he fights the Soviets in Afghanistan. He becomes a doctor too, then works for the advancement of his people. He’s very much like Pilgrim, only he has a family and faith in God. Unfortunately, those loves in his life lead him to engineer a vaccine-resistant strain of smallpox and unleash it on the United States, to weaken the enemies of Allah, obviously, but also to weaken the power of the al-Saud family, who had his father publicly beheaded. He wants to get back at them for what they did to his father and, in his eyes, what they continually do to weaken the nation’s devotion. He’s an extremist with a personal vendetta that involves killing entire continents full of people. He’s not typical, but despite comments like

At last the West had encountered an enemy worthy of our fear,

there aren’t any counterbalancing characters. The Saracen is compared to the guys who performed the September 11th attacks, but any typical Saudis/Arabs/Muslims are seen through his eyes, so Hayes can represent them as weak and compromising. Or through Pilgrim’s eyes, when they’re either comic relief or incompetent and corrupt.

Hayes seems to see corruption everywhere. I suppose there’s more of it than I imagine, but I don’t choose to believe that it’s the only constant in the world. Here’s the highest level of American government (only six or seven people are in the room):

The only thing they agreed on was that there should be no change to the nation’s threat status: it was at a low level and, in order to avoid panic and unwanted questions, it had to stay there. But in the two hours that followed, the atheists and the God-botherers took to each other’s throats on almost every idea, then suddenly teamed up against the president on several others, split among themselves, formed uneasy alliances with their former opponents, returned to their natural alliances and then sallied forth on several occasions as lone gunslingers.

Okay, so that isn’t the best example of corruption, but it doesn’t make the government look particularly effective or praiseworthy either.

Even when Hayes is writing about a concept I like, like love, he manages to make it seem bad.

People say love is weak, but they’re wrong: love is strong. In nearly everyone it trumps all other things – patriotism and ambition, religion and upbringing. And of every kind of love – the epic and the small, the noble and the base – the one that a parent has for their child is the greatest of them all.

That doesn’t seem bad, but love is the tool that Pilgrim uses to manipulate people. He’s a bit like Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin – to bring down your enemy, strike at the heart. Pilgrim doesn’t just use it on his enemies, though; he uses it on his friends and colleagues too. Love is strong, but it makes people vulnerable, and vulnerability can be exploited by an unscrupulous covert agent. It doesn’t affect him as much because the people he loves are dead. He’s loveless and cruel, but with a sarcastic sense of humor and an exciting story that keep us reading.

I suppose one of the baselines for the love of books is, Would you read it again? I don’t think that I would. I just don’t want to spend that much of my life in Pilgrim’s violent, corrupt world where America is everything and the rest of the world is only important in its interactions with the United States. Once was good, but once was enough.

According to Hardy’s own preface, this was meant to be a bit of a joke, a funny story between the more dramatic Far From the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native. Don’t let that make you think it’s any shorter than the others; it’s quite as long as any late Victorian novel can expect to be. And personally, I didn’t think the joke was very funny. I’ve spent too much time on the edges of society to be amused by the struggles inherent in the position.

In some ways, this book feels a little like a sequel; the exposition is pretty serious, as in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Four years ago, Christopher Julian was in love with Ethelberta Chickerel. He was rich and she was a butler’s daughter, so nothing came of it. Instead, she married even further above herself; her husband died a few weeks later, still a minor, so she was sort of adopted into the in-laws’ family. Now he’s fallen in the world; she’s the young, wealthy, beautiful widow Mrs Petherwin, and he’s just Kit Julian, the local music teacher and church organist. It seems like they’d be a good fit for each other, but one of Hardy’s jokes is the way that things build up and then come to nothing.

‘I thought at one time that our futures might have been different from what they are apparently becoming,’ he said then, regarding her as a stall-reader regards the brilliant book he cannot afford to buy. ‘But one gets weary of repining about that.

In the end, he gets a happy finish, a happier one than Ethelberta gets, I believe.

Ethelberta is not a woman to be envied.

A talent for demureness under difficulties without the cold-bloodedness which renders such a bearing natural and easy, a face and hand reigning unmoved outside a heart by nature turbulent as a wave, is a constitutional arrangement much to be desired by people in general; yet, had Ethelberta been framed with less of that gift in her, her life might have been more comfortable as an experience, and brighter as an example, though perhaps duller as a story.

She’s precisely the type that people enjoy reading about, but very few would actually want to be. She was always intelligent and sensitive, so her family gave her a better education than her brothers and sisters received. She became a teacher, then a governess, then married the boss’s son and became a lady. She’s acutely aware of how precarious her social position is and is determined to keep that position no matter the cost. During the first third of the story, she lives with her mother-in-law with a cover story to explain where she came from, so she’s fairly secure and has time to say things like:

Well, no; for what between continually wanting to love, to escape the blank lives of those who do not, and wanting not to love, to keep out of the miseries of those who do, I get foolishly warm and foolishly cold by turns.

But when the mother-in-law dies, she has to shift for herself. How does a single woman work without losing her social position? This is the 1870s, not the 2010s, so this is a serious question for her. The dilemma is easier to understand if we see the social position not only as a circle of friends, but as an identity. Ethelberta is struggling to maintain the vision she has of herself, to continue being the person she truly believes herself to be. It’s more serious than most modern readers would consider.

Persons waging a harassing social fight are apt in the interest of the combat to forget the smallness of the end in view; and the hints that perishing historical remnants afforded her of the attenuating effects of time even upon great struggles corrected the apparent scale of her own. She was reminded that in a strife for such a ludicrously small object as the entry of drawing-rooms, winning, equally with losing, is below the zero of the true philosopher’s concern.

She’s apparently not a true philosopher, because this is only a brief flash on her consciousness. She sets herself up running a rooming house for wealthy, respectable foreigners; since she can’t advertise too extensively (she can’t seem to need money), it never pays well. She supplements her income by becoming a public storyteller, one step removed from an actress. That one step preserves her respectability and position. Unfortunately, she doesn’t go about it sensibly; one show a week, or a fortnight, would keep her audience coming back and preserve the novelty of the entertainment. Going out every night, people get used to it. She loses her popularity and her position declines.

She stood there, as all women stand who have made themselves remarkable by their originality, or devotion to any singular cause, as a person freed of her hampering and inconvenient sex, and, by virtue of her popularity, unfettered from the conventionalities of manner prescribed by custom for household womankind. The charter to move abroad unchaperoned, which society for good reasons grants only to women of three sorts – the famous, the ministering, and the improper – Ethelberta was in a fair way to make splendid use of: instead of walking in protected lanes she experienced that luxury of isolation which normally is enjoyed by men alone, in conjunction with the attention naturally bestowed on a woman young and fair.

And thank God for the improper. They introduce the world to new possibilities. They may be shunned for their audacity, but they are eventually copied and end up setting the ton of the next age. There is no question for Hardy that the fact of her being a woman is the defining feature of her life. As a man, Ethelberta would have been able to fight up the social ladder through education and success in some public enterprise; as a woman, the education is indispensable, but success in public enterprise would prevent her attaining the position she’s after. For a woman to be a public personality is too vulgar. Her only avenue to success is marriage.

Which is why poor Kit doesn’t stand a chance. It doesn’t matter how she feels about him – he’s not moving in the right circles any more. There are several other suitors to her hand, but she doesn’t love any of them and she’s afraid that they wouldn’t love her if they knew about her family. The poor old woman who ‘owns’ the rooming house where she lives is really her mother; the cook and the housemaid are her older sisters; the footman is her fourteen-year-old brother. And her father, of course, is still butler to one of the gentry’s best families.

I could really feel where Ethelberta is coming from, for most of the book. My parents were not well suited to one another – my father started working on a farm when he was fourteen, and the highest he ever rose was to an HVAC technician, the kind of maintenance worker who fixes your heating and air conditioning. My mother studied French and Latin at school and became a teacher, one of the most respectable positions for middle-class American women in the late 1960s. But pregnant women couldn’t teach in elementary schools in the early 1970s, so she had to leave work before my oldest brother was born. Then followed more than a decade of poor financial decisions, six more children, and a divorce. I grew up with a sense of decayed grandeur, surrounded by the feeling that we’re somehow better than the other people in our economic position and the only way to get what I truly deserve is to get a scholarship to a good university, work hard, get a good job, and never come back to rural North Carolina again. I wanted my mother to be proud of me, so I did get the scholarship and work hard, though the rest of that hasn’t quite played out. Some of my siblings got out like I did, but others accepted the reduced circumstances and found work as electricians and auto mechanics. Ethelberta’s family accepts her snobbery and the inequality of their positions, but my family hasn’t been quite as successful. We’re all pretty sensitive, so the fact that our ambitions have led in different directions has created some possibly irreparable conflicts. I try to keep peaceful relations with everyone. It’s not always easy to mix with the more country siblings because I still talk like I’m from Massachusetts, but I find that the rewards are worth the effort. My oldest brother’s wife has invited me to stay with them when I come Down East for Christmas, and this weekend my youngest brother drove twelve hours in one day so that he could see me for about ninety minutes. He’s been listening to the news, so he’s been worried about IS detaining or killing me. He held me so tight – I have a hard time believing in my ability to produce such intensity of feeling, but I can’t doubt that it’s there. The friends I’m staying with were impressed with our similarities: they knew one of my more ambitious brothers ten years ago, and apparently #3 and I have enough resemblance that you can see it, but #7 and I look like we’ve spent years studying each other to get our mannerisms exactly identical. Yet he loves big trucks, Mustangs, and wearing baseball caps, and I read Thomas Hardy novels when I’m vacationing in Paris or São Paulo. Cultural differences that arise from economic disparity may determine whom we feel comfortable living with, but with a little forbearance and good manners, those differences don’t have to limit whom we love.

Hardy’s characters don’t necessarily practice the forbearance unless it’s within their own family circle. Ethelberta’s brother and future brother-in-law end up traveling together one night, and the carpenter and the peer don’t really see eye to eye.

If every man of title was as useful as you are to-night, sir, I’d never call them lumber again as long as I live.’

‘How singular!’

‘There’s never a bit of rubbish that won’t come in use if you keep it seven years.’

In the final third of the novel, Ethelberta’s secret is in danger of getting out, so she determines that a hasty marriage is the only solution.

Life is a battle, they say; but it is only so in the sense that a game of chess is a battle – there is no seriousness in it; it may be put an end to at any inconvenient moment by owning yourself beaten, with a careless “Ha-ha!” and sweeping your pieces into the box.

Hardy says this, but Ethelberta can’t own herself beaten. She can’t see her quest for social position as unimportant or a game. She’s serious; she plays for keeps. She angles for the guy with the highest title, even though he’s older than her dad and has a very low character. Toward the end the novel gets a little Radcliffean, with the vicious viscount in the castle with the beautiful young heroine married in ignorance and partially against her will, but it turns out all right. This book is supposed to be funny, after all.

There are some jokes I appreciated, but they’re generally one-liners.

Ethelberta breathed a sort of exclamation, not right out, but stealthily, like a parson’s damn.

Or

‘O Joey, you wicked boy! If mother only knew that you smoked!’

‘I don’t mind the wickedness so much as the smell.

Or

Like the British Constitution, she owes her success in practice to her inconsistencies in principle.

There’s one little piece that I enjoyed because it seems so realistic, and I think must have happened rather frequently, despite its absence from most novels. Two maids and a footman have just prepared the upper dining room for the dinner in the middle of a ball, and while the quality are dancing on the lower floor,

Away then ran the housemaid and Menlove, and the young footman started at their heels. Round the room, over the furniture, under the furniture, out of one window, along the balcony, in at another window, again round the room – so they glided with the swiftness of swallows and the noiselessness of ghosts. Then the housemaid drew a jew’s harp from her pocket, and struck up a lively waltz sotto voce. The footman seized Menlove, who appeared nothing loth, and began spinning gently round the room with her, to the time of the fascinating measure

‘Which fashion hails, from countesses to queens,
And maids and valets dance behind the scenes.’

One of the most important messages of the novel is the reminder that servants are real people too. They may be treated like furniture, but the only difference between them and their supposed masters is the accident of birth. Their emotional lives are as rich, their pleasures both as simple and as complex. A good servant can still be a man of feeling who takes a bit of fun when no one’s looking.

Hardy introduces some new vocabulary that I like, such as ‘man-famine.’ In the 1870s, young men were being sent out to the colonies to build the empire, so there weren’t many at home. Another example of the hidden effect of imperialism that Said talks about. He also gives us the word ‘indifferentist,’ which I rather like. It seems to imply not only that someone doesn’t care about a given situation, but that he’s studied his indifference and employs it as a tool.

There are also some passages that strike me as beautiful, even in a book that treats serious questions of gender and class as jokes. When Christopher Julian meets Mr Chickerel for the first time, he responds to the family resemblance without knowing that this is Ethelberta’s father.

Ethelberta’s face was there, as the landscape is in the map, the romance in the history, the aim in the deed: denuded, rayless, and sorry, but discernible.

I’m kind of surprised that this novel isn’t more popular with the critics. Hardy is more explicit in his criticism of social structures and gender strictures than in his other books, so it would seem that the Marxists and feminists would have been all over it. But I guess not; some people can’t understand the concept of serious comedy.