Posts Tagged ‘racism’

The promotional material (quotes, blurbs,) markets this as the book of Forster’s gay stories. That’s not always accurate, but it’s pretty close. Chronologically, these stories fall into a few different groups.

PRE-WORLD WAR I

Almost all the writing for which Forster is famous happened between 1900 and 1914. He wrote two collections of short stories during this time, though one was not published until the 1920s. Collected here are five previously uncollected stories, most of them unpublished, and probably with good reason. “Albergo Empedocle” is the one that made it, and it’s probably the best. It’s about an English guy who goes to the Mediterranean with his fiancée’s family, and he realizes that he lived in a Greek colony on Sicily in a previous life (Empedocles having favored the idea of reincarnation). However, the previous life takes over his current life, and he ends up in a mental institution speaking a forgotten dialect of Greek. Despite Forster’s comparative youth, there is some wisdom here:

Had she only realized that it is only hypocrites who cannot forgive hypocrisy, whereas those who search for truth are too conscious of the maze to be hard on others – then the bitter flow of her thoughts might have been stopped and the catastrophe averted. But it was not conceivable to her that he should forgive – or that she should accept forgiveness, for to her forgiveness meant triumph of one person over another.

I like the ability here to understand things from multiple perspectives, as well as the understanding that people who are really in the struggle to understand the world are gentle to those who misunderstand it, and that defining forgiveness as triumph instead of reconciliation leads to bad outcomes.

The first story, “Ansell,” reminds me a bit of Maurice, in that it’s about abandoning society’s ideals and living happily and naturally with a lower-class friend of the same gender. In these early stories, if you’re looking for homosexuality, you can find it, but it’s not obvious. There’s a point here that really irritated me:

Dead silence ensued, which was well enough for Ansell, to whom it merely meant that neither of us had any more to say. But to educated people silence matters: it is a token of stupidity and lack of invention.

I’m quite sufficiently educated, but I don’t often feel silence to be awkward. I don’t see the purpose of education or intelligence to be the obliteration of quiet with idle chatter. I see it as the exact opposite – good friends and intelligent people know when to keep their mouths shut. I have a lot of thoughts that I don’t express (and don’t want to), and I like being able to pursue a train of thought even when there are other people around. Most of the people I love are those who know how to sit quietly with me.

BETWEEN THE WARS

So, Forster wrote Maurice and World War I happened, and there’s a bit of a gap. He wrote his last novel, some say his greatest, A Passage to India, in 1924, and there were a number of other stories, but at one point he decided that he was writing the stories “not to express myself, but to excite myself” and he burned them all. So, there are some racy Forster stories that the world will never see because he thought they were blocking his creativity – he couldn’t write anything publishable because every time he picked up a pen gay sex came out of it. But after the burning, he kept writing stories without publishing them. The three stories in the 1920s become gradually more graphic, but they all have a solemn air – “The Life to Come,” “Dr Woolacott,” and “Arthur Snatchfold.” Gay relationships are punished pretty severely, too – by death in the first two and imprisonment in the last.

“Dr Woolacott” is a ghost story – a young invalid meets the ghost of one of the soldiers his doctor treated during The War, and the ghost casts doubt on his treatment, and as they come together physically the boy dies. “The Life to Come” may be one of the best stories, but it’s also one of the saddest.

Love had been born somewhere in the forest, of what quality only the future could decide. Trivial or immortal, it had been born to two human bodies as a midnight cry. Impossible to tell whence the cry had come, so dark was the forest. Or into what worlds it would echo, so vast was the forest. Love had been born for good or evil, for a long life or a short.

A missionary to an unnamed indigenous group tries to convince them of the love of God, but is only successful after he sleeps with the young chief. The missionary convinces himself it was an evil act, but the chief remains unconvinced. However, he does turn his whole tribe to Christianity in the hopes that he can “come to Christ” with the white man again, but it doesn’t turn out. The missionary feels too guilty, so he marries a woman and has kids and rejects the chief once he’s done using him to advance his work. Several of the stories have an anti-Christianity flavor, but this is one of the strongest. For Forster, religion does terrible things to people by making them ashamed of their natural sexual desires. The repressions that religion exacts warps people and leads to a great deal of unhappiness, such as imprisonment or murder. Typically, when there are this many bad endings to stories of gay love, we critics would say that the author is against them. However, I think in Forster’s case the bad endings are not so much an indictment of gay sex as an indictment of a society that rejects homosexuality. If gay love is love, how can it be bad? If God is love, why can’t he support all kinds of love?

The 1930s have a markedly different feel. I don’t want to speculate too much, but I wonder if the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover had anything to do with it. These stories have an exuberance, a joy, that is missing from the others. “The Classical Annex” is about a museum where all the statues come alive at night and fuck each other. But the small-town museum can’t afford more than miniatures, except for the one full-sized classical subject who goes unfulfilled every night. The townspeople made him a metal fig leaf for decency’s sake, and during the day it seems way too big for what it has to cover, but at night it’s suddenly way too small. The curator blunders in one night and is thoroughly shocked and heads back home. His son, though, goes to the museum to find him, and finds a horny gay Greek made of marble instead.

And in after years a Hellenistic group called The Wrestling Lesson became quite a feature at Bigglesmouth, though it was not exhibited until the Curator and the circumstances of his retirement were forgotten. “Very nice piece, very decent” was Councillor Bodkin’s opinion. “Look ‘ow the elder brother’s got the little chappie down. Look ‘ow well the little chappie’s taking it.”

So the youth is part of the statue magic now, and so is technically no longer alive. But it seems that he’s enjoying spending eternity ‘wrestling’ with the Greek, and Forster makes it into a joke on the dignitaries’ ignorance.

“The Obelisk” pulls a similar stunt. A newly married (but not quite happy) couple on vacation meet a pair of sailors on shore leave. They all head toward the town’s one tourist spot, an obelisk facing the sea. On the way there, they separate and the wife has her own Lady Chatterley experience with the nicer of the two sailors.

Yes, he was wonderful. She would have this gallantry to look back upon, especially at night. She could think of Ernest quite kindly, she’d be able to put up with him when he made his little wrong remarks or did his other little wrong things. She’d her dream, and what people said was false and what the Pictures said was true: it was worth it, worth being clasped once in the right arms, though you never had them round you again. She had got what she longed for, and it was what she longed for, not a smack in the face, not a sell. . . . She had always yearned for a lover who would be nice afterwards – not turn away like a satisfied brute, as handsome men are supposed to do. Stanhope was – what do you call it . . . a gentleman, a knight in armour, a real sport. . . . O for words. Her eyes filled with happy tears of happiness.

But, while she never makes it to the obelisk, she realizes later that her husband never did either, and probably for the same reason she didn’t. But it doesn’t impair their relationship – she actually thinks he’s more handsome and pleasant after bottoming for the sailor.

Forster’s morality tale “What Does It Matter?” makes his philosophy clear – sex is no one’s business but the people who are doing it. The president of a fictional eastern European country has a minister of police who wants to make a scandal, so he engineers a situation where the president’s wife walks in on him and his mistress. But there’s no scandal because the wife keeps her calm. Then the minister gets one of his men to seduce the president and has the mistress walk in, and she goes a little crazy, but the president’s wife talks her down. They all agree to accept the situation, and they publish an edict to that effect, that all three have had sex with the president and intend to continue, and why does that matter? The people take to the idea that sex doesn’t imply possession and it becomes the most peaceful nation in the world. No one will attack them because their sexual ideology is so contagious that they will transform any nation that conquers them. This may have something to do with the fact that Forster spent many years in a loving relationship with a married man, but the idea strikes me as sound. If sex is consensual, and that implies that all parties involved are mature adults, then why is it anyone else’s business?

AFTER WORLD WAR II

By the end of WWII, Forster was in his mid-60s. He’d been busy doing other things, because even if you’re as fantastic as he was there’s more to life than publishing fiction. There are a couple of other gay stories from the late 1950s, and they return to that 1920s feeling of “great” literature. “The Torque” is about a Roman from a newly Christian family who gets raped by a Goth, but in reality the sex seems more unexpected than unwelcome. They don’t speak each other’s language, so the Goth can’t really ask, and afterward the Roman seems to have enjoyed himself. Then later he imagines the Goth asking to be raped in turn, so I really have to question Forster’s use of the word. Rape means that consent is withheld, but in this story it’s only withheld until the rapist’s intentions are clear. This is not what rape is really like. It’s a horrible experience that leaves permanent scars. If the receiver consents, and I mean from the heart and not necessarily in words, then it’s not rape. Some people are pressured into consenting in words when they do not really want to do it, and that is rape. People have started talking about ‘grey rape,’ where the two parties are so chemically elevated that neither is sure whether they had sex or whether consent was given, and I don’t know how to judge that situation, and I’m glad I don’t have to. I do think that it’s a bad idea to have sex if either person is too far gone to judge the situation, but as the name implies, this is a grey area. And, as should be obvious, no one asks to be raped. The request implies consent. In the story, the Roman gets happiness and possibly mystical powers from the experience, not permanent psychological wounds. But Forster is back to hating on Christianity and its demand for chastity.

I didn’t quite see the full extent of Forster’s hatred of Christianity until I got to “The Other Boat.” Here, he not only blames Christianity for homophobia, but also for racism:

He spoke of the origins of Christianity in a way that made her look down her nose, saying that the Canal was one long genuine Bible picture gallery, that donkeys could still be seen going down into Egypt carrying Holy Families, and naked Arabs wading into the water to fish; “Peter and Andrew by Galilee’s shore, why, it hits the truth plumb.” A clergyman’s daughter and a soldier’s wife, she could not admit that Christianity had ever been oriental. What good thing can come out of the Levant, and is it likely that the apostles ever had a touch of the tar-brush?

In terms of Western Civilization, Christianity has been the winning team for about two thousand years. However, it’s not a European religion. It’s not an American religion. It’s from the Middle East. If most American Christians saw Jesus Christ today, they would think he looked like a terrorist. It’s interesting to me that she points out the racial Otherness of the Arabs, but here in the United States we define peoples of the Middle East as white, no doubt so that we can admit that Jews are white. Jewish people have played a large role in positions of power in American history, so of course they can be legally considered white. After all, we can’t go around Othering Jesus. But if we welcome Jesus as part of our group, we also have to admit Syrian refugees as white people, and Iraqis and Saudis and all the other people from the heart of Islam. Which creates a racial conundrum for some people, if they put any thought into it.

Forster juxtaposes racism with homophobia – the white Englishman is okay having a relationship with the ethnically vague foreigner as long as no one knows about it, and he enjoys it as long as he doesn’t think about it. But at the end he realizes the foreigner’s bribes are tipping people off, and he does spend some time thinking about it, and he kills the man he doesn’t love. Then he runs up on deck and jumps in the ocean, killing the other man he doesn’t love, himself.

Taken all together, this is kind of a weird collection because the stories are written at such different times in the author’s life. They can hardly be expected to present a unified viewpoint; we are all such different people at different stages of our development. Forster in his 20s and Forster in his 70s write in very different ways, and “Ansell” and “The Other Boat” don’t seem all that unified. But in some ways they do. Maybe people don’t change as much as I think (hope) they do. “Ansell” ends with the boys happy together because the rich, educated boy isn’t yet thinking of his future, but “The Other Boat” shows what happens when he does. There is an important distinction, though – Edward in “Ansell” loses all the books he needs to write his dissertation, so his love with Ansell grows up because he’s already lost the future he had planned. In “The Other Boat,” Lionel still has a lot to lose when he hooks up with Cocoanut, and he can’t face that expected loss when he realizes that their relationship isn’t the secret he thinks it is.

THREE COURSES AND A DESSERT

Speaking of weirdness. This four-part story was designed for four different authors, each taking a section. You’ll recognize the format from Naked Came the Stranger, as well as its for-charity descendants Naked Came the Manatee and Naked Came the Phoenix. The first author, Christopher Dilke, does a good job of setting up an interesting story, and Forster manages to match his tone and characters pretty well. But the third author, A. E. Coppard, is not their equal. Characters change drastically and become caricatures of themselves, and while James Laver does his best to mop up the damage in the epilogue, the first two parts cohere and the rest do not. I do appreciate Laver’s final twist – Forster ended his part with a murder, and Laver broke the fourth wall by placing Forster in the crowd and saying that the author did it. It’s a bit of a joke, but I think it was the only reasonable way to end it. It’s an unfortunate addition to a short story collection that, at 210 pages, was already long enough to publish. I’ve seen novels shorter than that published without any trouble.

This collection was a real delight. It satisfies the itch for a book like Maurice without being it – early twentieth century, well-written, normative gay romance with a little Lady Chatterley thrown in. No wonder I couldn’t put it down.

 

Oxford, in the rain:

The next day the weather broke. Early in the morning, before the first rays of light had touched the towers and pinnacles of the city, the rain began to fall from a leaden sky. When Nigel woke from a disturbed sleep the streets were already soaking, the elaborate and inefficient drainage systems of Gothic, Mock-Gothic, Palladian and Venetian architecture were already emitting accumulated jets of water on unwary passers-by: From Carfax the gutters streamed down the gentle slope of the High, past the ‘Mitre’, past Great St Mary’s, past the Queen’s, and so down to where the tower of Magdalen stood in solitary austerity above the traffic which ran towards Headington or Iffley or Cowley. Outside St John’s, the trees began to creak and whisper, and the drops rattled with dull monotony from their branches, while a few solitary beams of pale sunlight rested on an architrave of the Taylorian, glanced off southwards down the Cornmarket, and were rapidly engulfed somewhere in the precincts of Brasenose. The cinereous sky echoed the grey of innumerable walls; water ran in streams down the ivy which more or less shields Keble from offensive comment; paused and momentarily glistened on the wrought-iron gates of Trinity; gathered in innumerable runnels and rivulets among the cobbles which surround the Radcliffe Camera, standing like a mustard-pot among various other cruets. The eloquent décor of Oxford is bright sunlight or moonlight; rain makes of it a prison city, profoundly depressing.

And our featured professor of literature, Gervase Fen:

He travelled first-class because he had always wanted to be able to do so, but at the moment even this gave him little pleasure. Occasional pangs of conscience afflicted him over this display of comparative affluence; he had, however, succeeded in giving it some moral justification by means of a shaky economic argument, produced extempore for the benefit of one who had unwisely reproached him for his snobbishness. ‘My dear fellow,’ Gervase Fen had replied, ‘the railway company has certain constant running costs; if those of us who can afford it didn’t travel first, all the third-class fares would have to go up, to the benefit of nobody. Alter your economic system first,’ he had added magnificently to the unfortunate, ‘and then the problem will not arise.’ Later he referred this argument in some triumph to the Professor of Economics, where it was met to his chagrin with dubious stammerings.

Sometimes I think there’s something seriously wrong with me. I’ve been hitting the high culture a little hard lately – looking back, I haven’t read anything that could be considered an easy, relaxing read since October – so I went into the bookstore looking for something “different” (as I framed it to myself), and I came out with Dostoevsky and Kit Marlowe. I tried again a few weeks later, and I bought yet another Kundera novel and one of Joseph Campbell’s books on myth. I’ve also been feeling really tense lately, and I wonder if I even know how to relax any more. Fortunately, I approach the kobo differently. When I browse the website, I actively seek the less snobbish material that I can’t get reconciled to in printed form. Though really, I’m not sure if a book that uses such words as constatation and aposiopesis can really be considered easy, relaxing, or low-culture. I was sent to the dictionary at least five times, not generally a sign of low-stress reading.

Gervase Fen is a literature professor at Oxford, and uses his free time to solve crimes. He loves a good murder. Even though the narrator assures us he’s done this before, I think this is his first appearance in print. He’s delightfully eccentric, alternately exuberant and depressed, as the case progresses. Solving mysteries makes him happy, but the ethical dilemmas prompted by the solution trouble him. Is it right to assist in the conviction, imprisonment, and probable execution of a murderer who has killed someone that no one misses, and in fact most of the victim’s acquaintance rejoice in her demise? Especially when the murderer is an artist who could make a wartime world more beautiful? It’s a tricky puzzle. As much as I value human life and try to consider all lives equal, the damage that surrounds certain individuals makes me think that they and the world would both be happier if they were put out of the way. I’m not planning to murder anyone, I’m just saying that not all deaths are tragic.

The straight man from whose perspective we see the plot unfurl, Fen’s Dr Watson, is Nigel Blake, a former student who now works as a journalist. He quotes a lot, nearly as much as Fen himself, though in truth everyone does in this book. There is a veritable shit-ton of allusion, most of which I didn’t recognize and don’t feel bad about. I mean, how many people are reading Charles Churchill these days? Nigel’s quotations are more recognizable, usually from Shakespeare. The title itself is from King Lear, where he quotes the gilded fly as a symbol of lechery, when he’s praising venery for the illegitimate son who cares for him, as opposed to the honestly-got daughters who throw him out of his own home. One of the characters owns a ring with a gilded fly, a reproduction of an Egyptian artifact, and it’s found shoved onto the finger of a corpse. Hooray for literary theatre puns.

Along with the literature professor who solves crime, there’s a police detective who analyzes literature in his free time. Fen and Sir Richard disagree with each other’s conclusions, but the detective doesn’t play a large role. The Inspector, the more significant police presence, is an old man who is generally appalled and offended by the lax sexual mores of 1940. He spends his time being slowly authoritative and magnificently dense.

And then there are the victims and suspects, a group of theatre people and their hangers-on. The victim, Yseut Haskell, is a total bitch to everyone. She used to be sleeping with the playwright, but he’s moved on to the leading lady and the supporting actress hasn’t got over him. Oxford’s organist is hung up on Yseut, but she ignores him; the prop girl is hung up on the organist, and he ignores her in turn. There are other friends and relations, like the owner of the gun and the half-sister and the stage manager, and there’s more sex going on, but all of it offstage because we are writing in 1943 and things aren’t that lax.

This novel is written and set during World War II, yet the war doesn’t seem to invade Oxford. They have their blackout curtains, of course, and the war had a strong impact on theatre-going (which explains why a famous playwright and talented actors are leaving the West End to put on a show with a repertory company in Oxford), but most people keep doing what they had been doing, studying and teaching and performing, regardless of the Nazi Menace. I suppose if you’re not a soldier, wars don’t hold the attention very long. And since they don’t last forever, the activities that are not directly affected are in some ways more important. Of course, those activities could be ended by a war, but they’re not always. Art flourishes, even in unlikely places. And so does love.

So Nigel turned his attention back to what was left of Yseut. It was curious, he thought, how completely death had drained her of personality. And yet not curious: for her personality had centred entirely on her sex, and now that life was gone, that too had vanished, leaving her a neuter, an uninteresting construction of clay, suddenly pathetic. She had been an attractive girl. But that ‘had been’ was not a conventional gesture to the fact of death. It was an honest admission that without life the most beautiful body is an object of no interest. We are not bodies, thought Nigel, we are lives. And oddly, there came to him at that moment a new and firm conviction of the nature of love.

Yes, this contradicts Poe’s assertion that there is nothing more beautiful than a beautiful woman who has just died, but Crispin’s idea is better, healthier. In a book where sexuality runs rampant, he turns away from necrophilia and makes sure sex is only expressed in healthy, heterosexual ways. Nowadays, when we read that two young men didn’t hear the gunshot because they were listening to German opera and tone poems at high volume, we think that it’s to cover the sounds of gay sex, but they had all the windows and doors open, so less lover-like and more aggressively pretentious. Even in 1943 I imagine that Wagner and Strauss (Richard, not Johann) had a limited appeal. When I was in graduate school I tried listening to them for a class and my newborn son screamed and screamed. He was happy with Donizetti, but could not handle the Germans. But really, who doesn’t like Donizetti? They put some in a Bruce Willis film, and that scene is even more widely remembered and loved than the ending, which is a little anticlimactic. Granted, there’s a crazy electronic cadenza, but it’s still Donizetti.

Life matters. We are who we are because we are alive, and when we die this physical shell, this earthly husk, will become a thing of no worth, something we burn or bury, which is what we do to trash. A body with no breath, a human with no life, is not a thing of great value. Its only use is as evidence – we must find out who or what deprived us of this life. And that’s the conclusion we must eventually come to: Even Yseut Haskell’s life matters and contributes to humanity. Robbing the world of a life is a serious crime, one that people in my home country are only too happy to commit. Our murder rates are rising dramatically, which suggests that people in the United States do not value human life. There are too many bombs, too many shootings, and too much of it is based on identities. People get killed for being black, for being Muslim, for being gay, I mean this guy from Baltimore just ran up to New York because he wanted to kill a black person. Why do you think they’re insisting so much that their lives matter? Because white people think it’s okay to kill them. Yes, all lives do matter, but the majority of American culture does not question the value of white lives. Straight white male Christian lives, to be specific. I was in the mall yesterday, and there were several small-time entrepreneurs setting up booths and tables to sell things, and I heard one of the sellers demean both Jews and Blacks in the space of about twenty minutes. I suppose this is a good community for that, since there aren’t many non-white, non-Christians around, but what a horrible way to see the world. Life is precious, both your individual life and everyone else’s.

Objectively speaking, it has been said that Crispin’s murders are too convoluted, that no one would ever actually kill people in these manners. They’re too unrealistic. Yes, that’s very likely so, and I suppose it’s bothersome if you read mystery novels because you want to figure it out before it’s revealed, but I don’t. I read these stories because I think detectives are interesting people. Intelligent, brave, and eccentric – who wouldn’t want to spend time with them? Crispin’s mysteries, though, are probably best enjoyed by people who enjoy literary quotations and expanding their vocabularies. Like me.

BILLY BUDD

Billy Budd is sort of a gay Christian allegory. The Christian part is fairly obvious – Budd is falsely accused of mutiny and accidentally kills his accuser, a superior officer. Even though that officer was the only man on ship who wasn’t openly in love with Billy Budd, the captain has to kill him to maintain law and order.

And yes, it’s quite gay.

When Claggart’s unobserved glance happened to light on belted Billy rolling along the upper gun deck in the leisure of the second dog watch, exchanging passing broadsides of fun with other young promenaders in the crowd, that glance would follow the cheerful sea-Hyperion with a settled meditative and melancholy expression, his eyes strangely suffused with incipient feverish tears. Then would Claggart look like the man of sorrows. Yes, and sometimes the melancholy expression would have in it a touch of soft yearning, as if Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban.

This short novel wasn’t published in Melville’s lifetime, and it was written toward the end of his life, forty years after Moby-Dick. The big whale book has some clearly homosexual passages, and here Melville just drags it into the fore. The only “ban” against Claggart loving Billy is society’s ban against homosexual behavior, and in single-sex environments like a warship that ban is a little relaxed. After all, there’s an older Dansker who calls Billy “Baby,” and Melville just says that it’s for “some recondite reason.” Even casting my imagination back to 1891, when the story was written, or to 1797, when the story is set, trying to reason that there’s a nonsexual yet secret reason to call a grown man Baby is kind of complex.

Baby Budd is a great Christ figure, and after the book was first published in 1924 there was a rash of Christ figures in American literature. The classic elements are derived from him – blond, innocent, acting spontaneously from his own good nature. Billy is beautiful and charismatic, despite his naivete and tendency to stutter. Everyone loves him, and the one who lets that love get twisted is the only one who works against him. It’s a tragedy in that an innocent man has to die, but it’s also a tragedy that Claggart has to distort his entire character for some imaginary social code that no one else cares about and that he dies for it.

I am not certain whether to know the world and to know human nature be not two distinct branches of knowledge, which, while they may coexist in the same heart, yet either may exist with little or nothing of the other.

I think the world is beautiful and fascinating, and with the amount of traveling I’ve done, I could be considered to know something of it. But while I do all right understanding people in books, in real life I’m a little less skilled. Real people have all kinds of secret motivations and do underhand things, like spying on a significant other online or selling shoddy merchandise or plagiarizing an essay. I’ve been feeling a little taken-advantage-of lately; while that may just be the effect of reading about a Christ figure or two (remember The Old Man and the Sea), it may also have some merit. For a long time I’ve been worried about my mental stability, but I’m not going crazy. I’m struggling not to overreact, because I know I do that, but at the same time I know that I can trust my feelings. If I feel this way, there’s a problem, not with my brain function, but with the way I’m being treated. I wish I knew how to fix it.

THE PIAZZA TALES

The Piazza Tales is a short story collection that Melville published in 1856. Except the first, these were all written for Putnam’s Monthly Magazine. He was simultaneously publishing other stories in Harper’s, and those were collected after his death and published as The Apple-Tree Table and Other Stories. That later collection is now a little harder to find, but it contains the frequently anthologized “Paradise of Bachelors and Tartarus of Maids” and “Hawthorne and His Mosses.” Piazza has the stories that people generally think of, if they think of Melville short stories at all, “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno.”

The Piazza

Just to be clear, Melville loved Nathaniel Hawthorne. I mean, so much that after they met Hawthorne started avoiding him because there was something a little excessive in his fan-boy-ish-ness. NH sometimes used the first piece in a story collection to establish a sense of place, as in “The Old Manse” (Mosses from an Old Manse) or “The Custom-House” (The Scarlet Letter, which was originally conceived as the beginning of a short story collection). Melville gives this strategy a try here. He’s settling into a house in the mountains, and decides that it’s a real crime to have a spectacular view and nowhere to sit outside and enjoy it from, so he builds himself a deck facing his favorite view. He becomes interested in a spot on the mountain opposite, investing it with all sorts of fairy qualities from Shakespeare and Spenser, and one day he goes to see it. It turns out, there’s an isolated girl in a cottage there, and she spends her time looking over at his house and imagining how happy and magical his life must be.

There are a few ways to read that. People often say that it just means that our fantasies are all just illusions, and that if we get to the heart of what we really want there is only equal or greater unhappiness. But I’m feeling optimistic this morning, so I’d rather say, even in the least happy life there is magic, if we have eyes to see it. Glory and beauty are all around us; we just have to learn to look for them. We need to value what we have instead of letting familiarity breed contempt. And perhaps the good things are easiest seen at a little distance.

Bartleby

In many ways, I think this story is a response to Thoreau’s essay “Resistance to Civil Government.” We’re familiar with the idea of civil disobedience that has shaped protests in the West, particularly with the American Civil Rights movement, and so we typically see this as a good thing, a way to get stuff done. Melville imagines a passive resister in ordinary life. Bartleby isn’t making a political point or taking a stand on an issue; he just quietly says that he “would prefer not to” do anything he is asked. In other ways, this is a response to Dickens’s Bleak House, which began serial publication the year before “Bartleby” was published. The characterization here, with the quirky extreme personalities, is very similar to Dickens, and both stories tell about law-copyists. Before the Xerox machine, the courts still needed several copies of legal documents, so someone had to copy all those papers by hand. Scrivener is a dull, mechanical profession, and both Dickens and Melville try to humanize these machine-like people. Enter Bartleby, the copier who won’t do what he doesn’t like.

Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance. If the individual so resisted be of a not inhumane temper, and the resisting one perfectly harmless in his passivity, then, in the better moods of the former, he will endeavor charitably to construe to his imagination what proves impossible to be solved by his judgment.

The narrator, the lawyer who employs Bartleby, is an older, active gentleman who takes a paternal interest in his employee, but he cannot figure out all of this preferring not to do things. This type of polite disobedience leads to Bartleby doing some inappropriate things, like living in the workplace outside of working hours, eavesdropping on important meetings, and being insubordinate to his employer, to law enforcement, and indeed to everyone else. He clings to the secret dictate of his heart, just like Robinson Crusoe or Ralph Waldo Emerson, but “doing his thing” is doing nothing. Narrator can’t figure out what to do with him, so eventually he moves to a different office. The new lawyer who takes the office eventually has Bartleby arrested for vagrancy, and he dies in jail after refusing his meals.

I’ve been taking the lens of Transcendentalism, but you could also read this story as a warning against depression-induced inanition. Bartleby used to work in the dead letter office, burning all the letters that could not be delivered. If every letter represents a desire, a wish to connect with another human, the dead letters are the failures. After who-knows-how-long destroying all these wasted desires, Bartleby lost any desire of his own. There’s no implication that he’s looking to the future; he seems like a remarkably clear example of what clinical depression looks like. No active sadness, but no hope either. Just doing nothing, wanting to do nothing, until death. I admire Bartleby’s adherence to himself, but the result makes me sad.

Benito Cereno

Oh my god, the racism, the racism. I suppose you could argue that this is free indirect discourse, or a narrated monologue, so these terribly offensive opinions are Captain Delano’s and not Melville’s, but even so. The racism.

“Benito Cereno” is the most like Billy Budd, it being a naval story featuring The Handsome Sailor set in the 1790s. Captain Delano seems like what Billy Budd could have been, had he lived and advanced.

Considering the lawlessness and loneliness of the spot, and the sort of stories at that day associated with those seas, Captain Delano’s surprise might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of a singularly undistrustful good nature, not liable except on extraordinary and repeated incentives, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man.

This is also a classic Gothic tale – Captain Delano gets into a mysterious and vaguely threatening situation, until about two-thirds or three-fourths of the way through, when the real threat is revealed and he defeats it.

The threat comes from the extreme racism – think Heart of Darkness. Don Benito Cereno is captain of a merchant vessel carrying slaves along the coast of South America. They’re in distress and put in for water on the same island that Captain Delano has stopped at to restock his water supply. He goes on board to render assistance, and the Nordic-looking white boy (I always picture him as whiter than white, sort of glowing) is surrounded by Africans. His inner monologue is full of comments on the ethnic differences between himself and the Africans – he thinks of them as the perfect servants because of their (he thinks) natural stupidity and servility. He thinks of them as animals, little different than deer or monkeys. Even the few Spanish he sees are marked in the text as different, not quite as white as he is. He can tell that something fishy is going on, maybe Don Benito is plotting to murder him, but he quickly dismisses the thought because he’s such a nice guy (as some of my acquaintance would say, “It’s awful white of him”). Of course, the truth is that the slaves have taken over the ship and are much more intelligent than he had taken them for, but the intelligence is bent toward evil so the white captain is still better than they are.

This story is based on the real events that happened on board the Amistad, which were memorialized in the film of the same name with Matthew McConaughey and Anthony Hopkins. Africans who had been illegally kidnapped and sold into slavery took over the ship and forced the Spanish to sail them back to Africa, but the Spaniard turned the ship north and it was taken off Long Island. The film focuses on the trial and how the brave white lawyers overcame their own racism to rescue the poor black victims, so I think it’s still a little white-centric, but it’s better than Melville. “Benito Cereno” moves the story back into the time when slavery was legal in South America (The United States was about forty years behind the times when it came to abolition) and makes the Africans evil murderers and thieves, the worst of mutineers, slaughtering the beloved slaver Alexandro Aranda. Don Alexandro is Don Benito’s childhood friend – some people read the relationship as gay because they think Don Benito is effeminate, but the evidence is not as strong as it often is in Melville. They want to overtake Captain Delano’s ship too, but of course they are sufficiently white to conquer the former slaves quite easily, incidentally killing most of the remaining Hispanics in the process.

“Benito Cereno” is just as long as Billy Budd, but without chapter breaks, which helps build suspense and all but makes it harder to find a good place to stop. The sentences are also simpler, and it’s less allegorical, which will appeal to a lot of readers who aren’t put off by the racism, which is so intense I would feel bad quoting any of it.

The Lightning-Rod Man

A short piece about a man who makes his living by scaring people to death, and Melville’s “The Piazza” narrator is having none of it.

The Encantadas; or Enchanted Islands

A series of ten sketches describing the Galapagos Islands. They’re mostly volcanic rock, and while I’ve seen some really beautiful specimens of black glass from volcanoes, Melville sees them as ugly misshapen hellrocks. They’re called enchanted because sailors had some major problems with their navigation; people thought they moved around because they’d find them a hundred miles away from where they were expected. There are a few narratives, but this is mostly description – I would go so far as to say that it’s of limited interest. The descriptions are only partially original; he’s writing years after he came back to shore, so he did some borrowing from previously published accounts.

This group does have the second female character, Hunilla the Chola widow. She’s a mixture of Hispanic and Native American ancestry, which the Latins call Cholo (though anthropologists lean toward Mestizo). She was left on an island with her husband and brother, who both died. There’s some implication that passing ships would stop and the seamen would do unspeakable things to her, before Melville’s ship rescues her. Melville usually writes about male-only worlds, so he doesn’t do much with female characters, and this lack of practice is evident. He seems to understand that the lives of women are unnecessarily difficult because their dependence on men (and transportation by them) isolates them, but he seems incapable of realizing or understanding their characters. It’s like women are another species to him, as different as the Africans in “Benito Cereno.”

The Bell-Tower

This is another piece strongly influenced by Hawthorne. Think of the Promethean allegories, like “The Birth-Mark” or “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” A Renaissance architect builds a bell-tower. He goes way overboard, both with the height and the ornamentation, even making a mechanical man with arms like clubs to strike the bells. Like any good Frankenstein story, the attempt to create life leads to death, so it’s hardly cheerful, but then Hawthorne is seldom cheerful himself. In all his admiration for Mosses from an Old Manse, this is his closest approximation to one of those stories, which I suppose makes it a fitting bookend for “The Piazza.”

The Piazza Tales is a weird collection, indicative of the weirdness Melville got into after the failure of Moby-Dick. Pierre has a lot of that reaction, when Melville suddenly stops telling his story to complain about literary critics for several pages, but the insistence on writing what he likes to write instead of what paying customers might like to read is still evident, as is his problematization of ideals beloved by Emerson, Thoreau, and their attendant Transcendentalists, as well as his extreme admiration of Hawthorne. Very intertextual, sometimes engaging, interesting reading.

THE TOWN-HO’S STORY (CHAPTER 54 OF MOBY-DICK)

I guess whoever edited this collection for Signet Classics thought the project wouldn’t be complete without a little Moby-Dick, so here’s the obligatory excerpt. It works well as a stand-alone piece. It covers mutiny at sea, so it’s thematically linked to Billy Budd and “Benito Cereno,” but there’s a much stronger sense of destiny. This collection is arranged roughly backward, chronologically, so it seems that Melville’s interest in predestination waned over his lifetime, because here in Moby-Dick everything is predestinated or foreordained. The white whale is not just one face of God, as in Ahab’s “strike through the mask” speech, it’s the bringer of Fate. The whale decides men’s destinies at sea.

The Town-Ho is a leaky boat, which is apparently not unusual at the time. It’s a bit like my friends who have a fluid leak in their cars and just keep putting water in before they drive to town. You keep your men on the pumps and go where you need to go. Working the pumps can be exhausting work, so another type of The Handsome Sailor (but without the innocence of Capt Delano or Baby Budd) wears himself out and sits down for a rest. The ugly commanding officer tells him to get up and sweep the pig shit off the deck. Steelkilt replies that that job is for the little boys, who aren’t busy just now. Radney tells him to get off his ass and clean the deck. Now in one sense Steelkilt is right, cleaning the shit isn’t in his job description, but in another sense he doesn’t have the right to refuse a direct order. He refuses anyway, they get into a fight, and Steelkilt breaks Radney’s jaw. He starts up a mutiny, but the captain gets it under control. Radney gets to whip Steelkilt, who then starts plotting murder. Fortunately, the white whale comes along and removes temptation. Ahab may have lost a leg, but Radney got straight up eaten by Moby Dick. Steelkilt later gets everyone to defect and the captain never sees him again, but Ishmael swears that he has seen and spoken with him, I guess in a White Whale Survivors’ Club meeting.

Looking at the collection as a whole, it seems Melville had a real issue with authority – the artificial distinctions created by society keep us from acting toward each other as equals. Men are divided by arbitrary social roles, which leads to poisonous behavior. Maintaining a sense of freedom and innocence is a natural response, but when an underling does not conform there are unfortunate consequences. Similarly, when a leader abuses his power there are unfortunate consequences, because the abuse of power leads to rebellion. Love seems like a good answer, but it’s not always enough. We love and admire the extraordinary, but the world insists on conformity to usage, so it’s safer to be average. Don’t get noticed and you can lead a long, mediocre life. Be amazing and you die young. I don’t agree with this attitude, but it does seem to be what Melville is pushing. I get in the mood for Melville every so often, and Billy Budd is a much quicker fix than Moby-Dick, but this fatalism is not the direction I want to go in. I steer my course, and I’m guiding my ship to a happier port.

My inner tween is rolling his eyes and saying “Oh my Gooooooooooood this book wasn’t long enough.” It was published posthumously, so Lawrence may not have been done with it. More than half of this book feels like exposition, and once we get to the place where I feel like he is ready to get into the story it’s over.

The Virgin Protagonist is named Yvette. She grew up in this awful vicarage with a power-hungry grandmother and an overly judgmental aunt. Her mother ran off when she was young, so they keep throwing that in her face. Her father the rector is still in love with the woman he thought she was, so the aunt has to keep all her venom a secret, hissing at Yvette’s door when she’s almost asleep. Creepy.

Six young rebels, they sat very perkily in the car as they swished through the mud. Yet they had a peaked look too. After all, they had nothing really to rebel against, any of them. They were left so very free in their movements. Their parents let them do almost entirely as they liked. There wasn’t really a fetter to break, nor a prison-bar to file through, nor a bolt to shatter. The keys of their lives were in their own hands. And there they dangled inert.

She’s out with friends one winter day and they run across an encampment of Roma. The girls of the party have their palms read, and Yvette makes eye contact with one of the men. The grandmother tells her about a dark man who’s going to be important to her, and it really seems like she’s pushing Yvette into the arms of her married son. He doesn’t have a name until the last page, when Lawrence and Yvette suddenly realize that that may have been important. I’ve remarked on Lawrence’s unfortunate attitude toward ethnicity before, and here it’s at its worst. This man, mentioned in the title, enormously important in this girl’s life, and he’s just called the gipsy, because his ethnicity is the only important thing about him. He’s very sexy, he’s attracted to her, but. He’s rough trade, not someone you introduce to your parents unless he’s just selling copper pots.

In order to delay the inevitable, Lawrence has Yvette meet a disreputable couple from outside of town. He’s a beautiful young ex-army guy, and she’s a soon-to-be-divorced Jew. As with The Sexy Guy, her racial features are highlighted as her only distinguishing traits, and her racial otherness gives her the freedom to relax society’s strict code of sexual ethics. For Lawrence, you can do whatever you like so long as you’re not British. But wait, is the Jewish woman a citizen of the United Kingdom? Doesn’t matter. For persons whose ancestors come exclusively from northern Europe, country of origin is important. For others, not so much. Here in the United States, ethnic Jews and Roma are considered white, but Lawrence doesn’t treat them as such. He has to make them as different from the rectory family as he can, and racial characteristics are easy to focus on.

Lawrence is setting up an ideological contrast: the white English family is constricted by social codes, which they value more than freedom or life. Their law kills. The ethnically other characters reject and/or are rejected by society, but they have the freedom to do as they like. They are in touch with passion, the forces of life. Their anarchy brings life. I’m not saying this was the most culturally sensitive way to prove this point, like showing the value that minorities bring to society by perpetuating the stereotype that all Asians are good at math, but for the 1920s it was brave to cast these people as the goodies and the traditional British family as the baddies. In this book, Lawrence represents a step forward from where society had been, in terms of racial equality, but from where we are now, it’s a step back.

But, having read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, we have certain expectations regarding the representation of the sex act. The marketing for the book encourages these expectations: “The last and most provocative novel from the genius of D. H. Lawrence”, and “The minister’s daughter. Her father taught her about God. The gipsy taught her about Heaven.” But no. Just, no. She plays back and forth, will she act on her feelings for him, won’t she, but in the end she does nothing. The Roma are leaving town, and he comes back to say goodbye, even though they’re barely even friends. A flash flood tears through the valley where she lives, and he saves her by pulling her into the house. They run up to her room because it’s the most structurally sound. It’s February in northern England and they’ve been caught in a flood, so they have to guard against hypothermia, which they do by getting into bed naked together, but it’s not so much sexy as a medical emergency.

The vice-like grip of his arms round her seemed to her the only stable point in her consciousness. It was a fearful relief to her heart, which was strained to bursting. And though his body, wrapped round her strange and lithe and powerful, like tentacles, rippled with shuddering as an electric current, still the rigid tension of the muscles that held her clenched steadied them both, and gradually the sickening violence of the shuddering, caused by shock, abated, in his body first, then in hers, and the warmth revived between them. And as it roused, their tortured, semi-conscious minds became unconscious, they passed away into sleep.

Instead of having sex, they have a nap instead, and he’s gone before she wakes up. She finishes the book in many ways as much a virgin as she was at the beginning. The man himself, the act of making love with him, these concrete things are not important. It’s the abstractions that matter. He represents an ideal, a feeling that she wants to repeat and dedicate her life to. He wakes her up to the importance of love and sex, but he’s not the one to fulfill her desires. If one is inclined to read symbolically, the flash flood in a narrow valley could represent female sexual desire, or sexual fulfillment, but it’s dangerous, and could kill them both. The flood does destroy the house, so the rector’s family has to split up and move away for a time, so maybe Yvette’s sexual awakening is going to ruin her family as they fear, but the book ends before we see what happens. Lawrence suggests and gestures toward things instead of describing them explicitly.

If the book is provocative, or at any rate more provocative than Lady Chatterley, it’s in the representation of the church. This isn’t Scenes of Clerical Life where we see the private lives of pastors and their foibles that make them lovably human. Lawrence practically puts horns on Yvette’s father and claims that his religion is death. Life is in the mountains. It’s in nature, love, and sex. Abstaining from life-giving activities is a slow torture that leads to corruption of the self/soul and death. The respectable life of Yvette’s family is a form of voluntary pointless misery; she can choose not to perpetuate the unhappiness, but she has to choose to do it. We see her begin to choose life, but we don’t see the consequences; we don’t see her happier, freer life. I want this book to be only Act I, not the entire piece. Maybe she does move on, maybe she doesn’t. There’s so much indecision in Yvette’s character that I can’t say for sure what will happen now. But she’s begun, and that’s the important thing.

I think back over the men I was attracted to before I came out of the closet, celebrities, students, friends. I wasn’t ready for gay sex then, so any attempts would have ended in disaster. But seeing them, and especially seeing my response to them, taught me important things about myself. If Yvette were ready for sex, she would have taken that gypsy man without question. He’s definitely available. Even without consummation, she learns important things about herself: how she feels about her father’s house and relatives, what kind of man she finds attractive, and why she’s not attracted to the single men in her own social circle. When I look at this story as a reader who wants a repeat of that scene where Lady Chatterley and her husband’s gamekeeper do it doggy-style in the woods during a rainstorm, it seems like a lost opportunity. When I look at this story objectively, it’s probably the best thing that could have happened to her. Yvette is learning, but she’s not finished. When she’s older, when she’s ready, she’ll find a man to have sex with and I’m sure it will be lovely. Right now, she’s at a time of her life where near misses are enough.

When I try to remember the house where we lived when I was young, the thing I remember most clearly is a picture of a dog with enormous eyes that was hanging high up in the living room. Not big anime eyes, big 1970s eyes, the kind when someone wants to draw a picture of a sad dog that is going to make everyone who sees it just as sad because the dog watches them with a forlornness and a desperation that they can never comfort or heal. The picture always made me feel very small and afraid. But after we moved when I was twelve, I never saw it again. I’m not sure if I’ve ever spoken to any of my family about it; by now, I’m not even sure if the picture really existed or if I’m superimposing this image of a depressing decoration on my depressing childhood. I’m kind of afraid to bring it up; I’d prefer not to be told I hallucinated the whole thing.

Stephen King’s short stories are what you would expect from reading his novels or watching his films. They’re him in miniature, a workshop where he can see how ideas play out. I’m interested in the number of first-person narrators he uses; like Pamela or Dracula, these stories are interested in their own production; it’s not enough to tell the story, he also has to tell how the story is told. There must be eyewitnesses telling their account.

It’s a great relief to write this down.

And as a writer, sometimes that’s true. But it’s not always a great relief to read what’s been written.

It is not surprising to me that Stephen King originally published some of his stories in the more literary pornographic magazines. I’m not saying that they’re trashy (some porn is actually well-filmed; I like it when the director pays attention to the way light reflects on skin. Light is beautiful); horror and pornography share a common ideology: There are opportunities for the fantastic all around us that most people don’t notice or take advantage of. In pornography, those opportunities are for pleasure; in King’s novels, those opportunities are for terror. But I appreciate the reminder that there are opportunities for a life that is bigger and stranger than the one I habitually lead.

Speaking of the overlap of horror and daily life, King takes a few minutes to explain why people enjoy the stories he writes:

I remembered talking with a writer friend who lived in Otisfield and supported his wife and two kids by raising chickens and turning out one paperback original a year – spy stories. We had gotten talking about the bulge in popularity of books concerning themselves with the supernatural. Gault pointed out that in the forties Weird Tales had only been able to pay a pittance, and that in the fifties it went broke. When the machines fail, he had said (while his wife candled eggs and roosters crowed querulously outside), when the technologies fail, when the conventional religious systems fail, people have got to have something. Even a zombie lurching through the night can seem pretty cheerful compared to the existential comedy/horror of the ozone layer dissolving under the combined assault of a million fluorocarbon spray cans of deodorant.

Real life has quite a lot of horror in it already. Look at 2016. Artists who make us happy die by the truckload, while the least electable candidates are fighting for an election that a great many Americans just don’t want any part of. A workmate and I were talking about politics, and we agreed that while neither of us likes either of the mainstream candidates, I’ll vote for anyone who can defeat Trump and she’ll vote for anyone who can defeat Hillary. So when you’ve got this going on, a tiger in the kindergarten bathrooms seems familiar and reminds us that things must not be too bad if they could get this much worse.

In King’s stories, and I suspect in his mind, regular society is a pretty awful place.

The third thing that struck me was The Eye. You know about The Eye once you let your hair get down below the lobes of your ears. Right then people know you don’t belong to the Lions, Elks, or the VFW. You know about The Eye, but you never get used to it.

People are pointlessly cruel to each other, and I don’t comprehend it. For example, he tells the story of a 350-pound woman getting married. People laugh at her all the time, as if an obese woman is somehow amusing. I used to be friends with a woman who weighed more than this, but no one ever laughed at her. She always looked nice; the type of girl who never goes out without makeup and seldom wears an outfit twice. And in small-town North Carolina, she was always completely accepted. She even had a pretty busy love life. The United States today is pretty evenly divided into three groups these days: regular weight, overweight, and obese. That wasn’t the case forty years ago. People in the story are also pretty weird about race, which is more obvious to me. That was a struggle I have always been well aware of. This week, I was sitting in the university library and some kid started making Harry Potter jokes in my direction, and I kind of wanted to beat his ass and say, “Harry Potter didn’t wear a bowtie, mother fucker!” but then I remembered that all white people look alike, so he probably couldn’t tell the difference between me and Daniel Radcliffe.

I will say that Stephen King seems to honor and respect women, even though his genre isn’t known for that. For example, here’s a female character explaining the gender divide:

But in her heart what every woman wants to be is some kind of goddess, I think – men pick up a ruined echo of that thought and try to put them on pedestals (a woman, who will pee down her own leg if she does not squat! It’s funny when you stop to think of it) – but what a man senses is not what a woman wants. A woman wants to be in the clear, is all. To stand if she will, or walk . . .’ Her eyes turned toward that little go-devil in the driveway, and narrowed. Then she smiled. ‘Or to drive, Homer. A man will not see that. He thinks a goddess wants to loll on a slope somewhere on the foothills of Olympus and eat fruit, but there is no god or goddess in that. All a woman wants is what a man wants – a woman wants to drive.’

People are people, and are happier when they are treated primarily as a person. Gender is an attribute, it’s often the first one other people notice, but it’s not the most helpful in determining someone’s personality, goals, or desires. One of my sisters wanted to become an astronaut, and the other was a gifted athlete. The astronaut dream didn’t play out, but she’s now studying neurophysics, and the track star trained as a police officer. Either of them would be more handy in a fistfight than I would be, and they’re both more conservative politically. The science genius and I once talked about political labels as working more in a circle – extreme left and extreme right can actually be pretty similar if you let go of the party names. Which is why we get on so well.

That sense of doom had hung about the boy so palpably that there had been times when Richard had wanted to hug him, to tell him to lighten up a little bit, that sometimes there were happy endings and the good didn’t always die young.

The one thing that I differ from Stephen King the most on is the idea of a happy ending. I think that happy endings are much more useful than tragic ones, because I believe so strongly in integrating all elements of a society. People die in real life because they get sick or are in accidents. In real life death is random and unfair and doesn’t make sense. In fiction, people die because at some level the author believes they deserve to. Victims are in some ways as guilty as the murderers; it’s not random, it’s not an accident. The author kills them because he can’t fit them into the reintegrated world at the end of the story. So I think that horror authors must have a lot of people they’d like to kill (or parts of themselves they’d like to kill) because that’s what their imaginations enact when they sit down at the typewriter. In this collection, there are twenty stories and two poems. Happy endings, where I felt good about the story I’d just finished? Three. “Word Processor of the Gods,” which fits my own sense of justice. “Mrs Todd’s Shortcut,” where like-minded people end up together and live in a natural world of speed and divinity. And “The Reach,” where death comes as a big reunion where you sing with all your friends. Saying that the story that is most explicitly about a woman dying has a happy ending may seem odd, but I believe that death can be kind, especially when it comes to the old as a reunion with the lovers and friends they’ve missed.

So if I have such a hard time with tragedies, why do I read horror stories? Fear is familiar to me, as I’ve mentioned. But, aside from his troubles with humanity in general, Stephen King writes for someone that he loves, so when I read his prefaces and consider myself the Constant Reader, I feel that he loves me.

Grab onto my arm, now. Hold tight. We are going into a number of dark places, but I think I know the way. Just don’t let go of my arm. And if I should kiss you in the dark, it’s no big deal; it’s only because you are my love.

The language is often gruesome, but it’s also beautiful. He knows how to catch the light reflecting on skin. The skin more often covers a body that is dying horribly than on one that is fucking mechanically, but beauty is beauty, and it can be found everywhere. Find the awe, the wonderment. The opportunity is there, always. Daily life doesn’t have to be mundane. It can be ecstatic, or horrifying, or peaceful, or whatever you like. So make it what you like.

 

This one has been floating at the edge of my life for quite a while now. My ninth grade students had to study it this past spring, and now some of my intermediate language students are reading a simplified version. One of the advanced students retold it for her “Write a love story” assignment, so I decided to stop fighting the world’s tide and reread it.

One of the things that strikes me is how unified the play is. Typically Shakespeare gives a minor plotline that converges on the main story, like the Fortinbras part of Hamlet, or the Beatrice and Benedick love story in Much Ado. There’s some displaced focus when we think of the Capulets’ scheme to marry Juliet to Paris, but that part is so closely tied to Juliet’s despair that it doesn’t feel like an interlude.

When I was in grad school, my Shakespeare professor made the comment that things don’t make much sense to us in Twelfth Night because it’s a world run by teenagers, Olivia and Orsino being fairly young. I think R+J has the same feel, even though the parents are more adult. I’ve met some people who became parents as teenagers and have become unusually mature for their age group; I’ve also met some who abdicate responsibility for their children (giving them to Juliet’s Nurse, for example), and so they never really grow up. Lady Capulet is actually a sizable role, but she’s not the type of parent I want to be.

Reading it this time, my attention was centered on Friar Laurence. I suppose that’s because, as a teacher, he is the main character I have the most in common with. He wants to fix all of society’s problems, but in aiming too high he kills his students – an outcome I have avoided, and hope to continue to avoid. I was also struck with the similarity between him and Benvolio; they both try and fail to keep the peace, and they serve the same function, the innocent witness who reports the murders. And for all that he is typically portrayed as getting drunk with Mercutio at the Capulets’ party, there is something a little monastic about Benvolio.

I watched the video of a performance at the Globe Theatre, which I can now compare with the Zeffirelli and Luhrmann films. In this performance, Romeo and Tybalt are black; I can appreciate the effort to get some different ethnicities into the play (Friar Laurence is a nonwhite New Zealander), but did they have to make the two murderers black? And no one else? In terms of racial stereotypes, this is not exactly a step forward. I prefer Luhrmann’s choices, of using black actors as the authority figure and the victim. Mercutio gets caught in the middle of a fight between white people, which is sort of what happened to the entire continent of Africa. If Adetomiwa Edun were amazing as Romeo, like Harold Perrineau is as Mercutio, I might not have been too bothered, but frankly, I thought most of the Globe’s cast was fairly wooden. Romeo bounces all over the stage like a nutter on Ritalin, even when he’s supposed to be desperate because of Rosaline’s indifference. Benvolio is one of those guys whose acting style is, “The director told me to stand here and talk, and on this line he told me to walk to this point and watch Romeo talk.” There’s very little natural movement or heartfelt emotion. I was impressed with Fergal McElherron, who plays three of the minor parts but plays them all very differently, and their Mercutio, Philip Cumbus. The audience pretty much ignored the verbal sparring and laughed only at the sex jokes, but Cumbus managed to do both very well. I like my men to be a little cocky, and Cumbus and Perrineau both do Mercutio very well. That being said, I prefer Zeffirelli’s take on the death scene: in his film, Tybalt and Mercutio only play at fighting; it’s not serious until Romeo comes between them and Tybalt accidentally kills him. The Montagues laugh all the way through his “plague on both your houses” speech because they still haven’t figured out that he’s being serious, or that he’s been seriously injured. Luhrmann’s film is more violent in general, so when Mercutio gets stabbed with a shard of glass it’s upsetting but not surprising. The Globe’s fighting is always straightforward, which in some ways robs it of the shock that the other two films have.

I have never been terribly interested in Romeo. He’s always so generic. All anyone cares about is whether he’s handsome, and actors generally are, so there’s not much to say about him. I’m a much bigger fan of Tybalt. Especially John Leguizamo. He’s so badass. I suppose there’s a part of me that responds to Tybalt’s rage; for a single-emotion character, I always find him very appealing.

But what about Juliet? I find Zeffirelli’s Juliet completely forgettable (my apologies, but that’s the most complimentary I can be). Claire Danes is fine I guess; her Juliet is very similar to her Beth March, sweet and innocent and affectionate, the kind of girl every boy wants to marry. But Ellie Kendrick really makes Juliet interesting. Danes is educated and intellectual in her real life, but I didn’t see much of that in this performance. Kendrick’s performance is the first smart Juliet I’ve seen. Unlike most of the actors, with her I could tell that she knew what her lines meant. She doesn’t just reel them off as quickly as she can so that no one can understand her (Romeo and Benvolio, I’m looking at you); she puts thought and expression into everything. I found myself growing impatient with the scenes that didn’t have her in them; she was clearly the best part of the show. I especially liked the scene where Juliet learns of Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s banishment; I felt like I was watching a mad scene in an opera, as in Lucia di Lammermoor. Her Juliet has an Ophelia quality that most of them lack.   When Danes pulls the gun on the priest I’m always a little confused at her sudden intensity, but Kendrick makes a believable transition between happy innocence and suicidal grief. And yes, her characterization here is similar to her role in Being Human, so maybe she’s a cute nerdy girl in real life, but that’s not really a problem for me. Every actor brings to a character some aspects of her real self; the trick to good acting is knowing which aspects to bring to which character. Like any other art form, acting is a mode of self-expression.

No matter what people say, Romeo and Juliet is not the greatest love story ever. It has become one of the most recognizable, the most copied, the most archetypal, but never the greatest. Two kids fall in love and kill themselves a few days later – this isn’t a grand passion, it’s deranged. Let them live in love for more than a week. Let them overcome obstacles instead of faking suicide (and then really committing suicide) at the first hurdle. Capulet has nothing but good things to say about Romeo at the party, but Juliet never gives her parents a chance to approve of the match. Basically, these kids would rather die than tell their parents they’re dating. The behavior of the fathers at the end of the play makes me think that they could have buried the hatchet without their children dying – the marriage with no possibility of divorce (or annulment, since they consummated) would have done the trick. It’s not like they took ten minutes to think about it; they jumped straight into reconciliation as if they’d been wanting this for a long time without knowing how to do it without a pretext.

Maybe this play is like Oliver Twist; I’m getting too old to enjoy it. My own love stories are very different. I might be attracted to someone at first glance, but I need more than a few flirty puns to fall in love. And I can recognize the difference between infatuation and real love. I may fall in love quickly, but I’m not going to let it cripple or kill me. I’m determined to stay alive no matter what my emotional state may become. If getting divorced didn’t kill me, I’m not going to let anything else.

I know, I know. I just finished one of the masterpieces of the (Middle) English language, and now I’m back to reading zombie books. A feminist zombie book about complex identity issues, but it’s still a zombie book.

Misgivings are crowding in on her. She’s in uncharted territory, and she fears the blank, inscrutable future into which she’s being rushed before she’s ready. She wants her future to be like her past, but knows it won’t be. The knowledge sits like a stone in her stomach.

Melanie is a nice little girl in a prison school. Initially the book is about her and told primarily from her perspective, but as we shift into the middle of the book, things become a little more balanced. Sergeant Parks is in charge of security; he has a red-headed teenaged underling named Private Gallagher. Melanie’s teacher is a developmental psychologist named Miss Justineau, and the real authority at the base is a scientist, Dr Caroline Caldwell.

If the road to knowledge was paved with dead children – which at some times and in some places it has been – she’d still walk it and absolve herself afterwards. What other choice would she have? Everything she values is at the end of that road.

Because what are the ethics of a zombie apocalypse?

Back in the days of I Walked With a Zombie, the deficiently dead were a product of racial stereotypes and misogyny; this made them fairly easy to contain and defeat. Now, during the time of World War Z, they’re a product of natural phenomena, and science cannot be stopped. Now the zedheads take over the entire world.

In this version of zombies, it’s not a virus – it’s a fungus. It’s based on fungi that really do exist in nature – they infect an insect, eat out its inside and take over its motor control, then drive it to high ground so the fungus can erupt out of the bug and cast its spores to the wind. It’s horrible. These zombies either stand still or run, none of the shambling exploration of AMC’s zombies, who give the human characters time to argue for four episodes before taking any action at all (dullest horror series ever).

When dealing with a new world, authors tend to take a Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis approach: think about Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, or The Hunger Games. Carey’s Thesis is inside the base, which is part prison, part school, and part scientific research facility, where Dr Caldwell cuts up children’s brains. Melanie becomes the star pupil and develops a mommy-substitute crush on Miss Justineau, which is all fairly normal. But as the star pupil, Melanie is also Dr Caldwell’s prize specimen, so she needs some protecting.

Some things become true simply by being spoken. When she said to the little girl “I’m here for you”, the architecture of her mind, her definition of herself, shifted and reconfigured around that statement. She became committed, or maybe just acknowledged a commitment.

And Miss Justineau is the one to do it.

I’ve often wondered what the lives of British black people are like. I mean, the English don’t have Americans’ squeamishness about interracial dating, which makes it seem like race is less of an issue, but at the same time the English are known for being sort of xenophobic. They think of Europe as another place because they’re insulated on their little island; they fought a Hundred Years’ War with the white people on the other side of the Channel, and then they kept fighting them over and over again. That seems to have stopped since the two World Wars, when they banded together against another, different group of white people. How do black people fit into all this? They were kept as slaves in the British Empire, but unlike Americans, slavery was kept distant from most British subjects. They didn’t bring it home; it was an unfortunate occurrence that happened Out There, in the Colonies. I know that some immigrant communities remain isolated because they’re never quite accepted as being British. Is race an important thing to British blacks? Do they have a separate subculture? [I don’t understand why we’ve taken to calling them “urban” in America. I grew up in a tiny hicktown in the South with more blacks than whites, so there are plenty of rural blacks, and cities still have tons of white people.]

All of that to say, I don’t know why Carey chose to make Miss Justineau black, but it feel purposeful, as if someone who has been oppressed would automatically feel the need to protect other marginalized people, and dark-skinned femininity is shorthand for victim of oppression.

At the end of Act One, the zombies overrun the base and the group comes together and escapes. They travel across the post-apocalyptic countryside, idyllic as England would become if you killed all the humans and left nature alone for twenty years. It would be really lovely if there weren’t zombies lurking out there.

Melanie builds the world around her as she goes.

This is mostly countryside, with fields on all sides. Rectangular fields, mostly, or at least with roughly squared-off edges. But they’re overgrown with weeds to the grown-ups’ shoulder height, whatever crops they were once planted with swallowed up long ago. Where the fields meet the road, there are ragged hedges or crumbling walls, and the surface they’re walking on is a faded black carpet pitted with holes, some of them big enough for her to fall into.

A landscape of decay – but still gloriously and heart-stoppingly beautiful. The sky overhead is a bright blue bowl of almost infinite size, given depth by a massive bank of pure white cloud at the limit of vision that goes up and up and up like a tower. Birds and insects are everywhere, some of them familiar to her now from the field where they stopped that morning. The sun warms her skin, pouring energy down on to the world out of that upturned bowl – it makes flowers grow on the land, Melanie knows, and algae in the sea; starts food chains all over the place.

A million smells freight the complicated air.

The few houses they see are far off, but even at this distance Melanie observes the signs of ruin. Windows broken, or boarded up. Doors hanging off their hinges. One big farmhouse has its roof all fallen in, the spine of the roof making a perfect downward-pointing parabola.

She remembers Mr Whitaker’s lesson, which feels like a very long time ago now. The population of Birmingham is zero . . . This world she’s seeing was built by people, to meet their needs, but it’s not meeting their needs any more. It’s all changed. And it’s changed because they’ve retreated from it. They’ve left it to the hungries.

Melanie realises now that she’s been told all this already. She just ignored it, ignored the self-evident logic of her world, and believed – out of the many conflicting stories she was given – only the parts she wanted to believe.

Despite Gallagher’s abused childhood, I find Melanie the easiest to relate to. Her experience of the world seems most similar to mine; she’s a person who thinks a lot, has been told a lot from radically different sources, and now that she’s been thrust into the real world, she has to make sense of it. Which is hard, because it’s never quite what she imagines it to be. It’s more beautiful, more complicated, and more threatening. But mostly more beautiful.

Zombie movies seem to play on a fear most of us experience: that we’ve become slaves to routine, that we are in fact dead already. [Shaun of the Dead expresses this particularly well in the opening bit, I think.] Zombies are a teenager’s vague fear and a thirty-something’s nightmare; we’re locked into a routine that we can’t escape from, and we need something drastic to shake things up. Routines are comfortable; we wander into adulthood feeling inadequate, so we build a life of things we can do, that make us feel safe and competent and normal.

The houses all seem the same to Gallagher. Dark. Musty-smelling with squishy carpets underfoot, mouldering curtains and sprays of black mildew up interior walls. Cluttered up with millions of things that don’t do anything except get in your way and almost trip you over. It’s like before the Breakdown people used to spend their whole lives making cocoons for themselves out of furniture and ornaments and books and toys and pictures and any kind of shit they could find. As though they hoped they’d be born out of the cocoon as something else.

But there’s so little change that the life gets sucked out of our lives, and for some reason I’m thinking of Joe vs the Volcano, which doesn’t have any zombies in it. Consumption makes us feel big and important and worthwhile, but it doesn’t satisfy. Consumerism takes the place of nourishment, and we come to be defined by our lack, the void we’re trying to fill but just can’t because our culture only gives us a choice between praying and buying shit, and for some of us neither is effective. Sometimes there’s a happy ending; sometimes there isn’t. I like it when characters can find a new sort of normal, a life that has both comfort and meaning. Typically this has to do with love, as in Warm Bodies where love heals zombies and turns them back into people. That’s not quite Carey’s response, but the books still ends well.

Growing up and growing old. Playing. Exploring. Like Pooh and Piglet. And then like the Famous Five. And then like Heidi and Anne of Green Gables. And then like Pandora, opening the great big box of the world and not being afraid, not even caring whether what’s inside is good or bad. Because it’s both. Everything is always both.

But you have to open it to find that out.

The title of the book is a reference to Pandora, and that idea is important to the book. But it’s not just the world that Melanie opens to find hope amid the evils; it’s also herself. She’s at a prison school because she’s a zombie child. She doesn’t know that at first – she has to realize it and figure out what that means for her life. She has to face and accept her identity as something different from those around her, possibly dangerous to the one person she loves most. Some of the children can still think and act without the external stimuli necessary to move an adult zombie; some of the adult zombies carry on some normal activity as their brains fight back against the fungus, but nothing like the children, who can be completely normal right up until they smell a human being, a food source.

Something opens inside her, like a mouth opening wider and wider and wider and screaming all the time – not from fear, but from need. Melanie thinks she has a word for it now, although it still isn’t anything she’s felt before. It’s hunger. When the children eat, hunger doesn’t factor into it. The grubs are poured into your bowl, and you shovel them into your mouth. But in stories that she’s heard, it’s different. The people in the stories want and need to eat, and then when they do eat they feel themselves fill up with something. It gives them a satisfaction nothing else can give them. Melanie thinks of a song the children learned and sang one time: You’re my bread when I’m hungry. Hunger is bending Melanie’s spine like Achilles bending his bow. And Miss Justineau will be her bread.

And this is a more specific fear that comes on teachers and parents: that eventually the little maggots will consume us completely. They will demand and we will give until there is literally nothing left, just a bone husk as the miniature undead rip our flesh out with their teeth, devouring our essential bits and leaving the shell. I’ve got some students who talk and talk and talk nonstop (in Chinese), and I can feel their indifference sucking my life and willpower. My existence is draining away, a little every day. Teaching students who want to learn is invigorating and exciting; teaching students who don’t feels like dying slowly, consumptive and consumed, unnoticed and alone. In some ways I envy Miss Justineau; her children all pay attention and learn, like a bunch of little zombie geniuses. I could be okay with that.

I know, most of you who talk to me here are not really interested in zombies, but it’s a metaphor. And this is a really good and interesting book, regardless of the vehicle.