Tag Archives: novel

A Thousand Acres

A Thousand AcresA Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ll be participating in a workshop later this summer taking place at the Iowa State Fair and the World Food Awards. Part of the regional event is to give an understanding of locality and food production, and we’ll be exploring a bit of Iowa farmland. One of the organizers, in an email outlining our itinerary, suggested reading the novel A Thousand Acres as an introduction to rural Iowa farm life. I bent my “affirmative action” summer reading program slightly, considering that I need to read more novels by women as well.

Jane Smiley’s work is horrifying and profound. The book starts innocuously enough. There are three daughters (compared by some to the three daughters of Shakespeare’s King Lear), one of whom– the eldest– is the book’s narrator. Their father is a third-generation farmer on a tract of land that has grown over the years– through luck, diligence, and good sense– to a round thousand acres. The book begins with him deciding to retire and divide the land between his three daughters and their husbands. From this simple and sudden decision, a chain of events are set up in which the family slowly and painfully implodes.

The book was incredibly compelling to read, as painful as it was. It kept getting darker, which surprised me. I hadn’t read any Smiley, so I naively assumed this would be about a family’s love for each other and for their land and perhaps a struggle to preserve it. It was a good deal grimmer than that, though it was indeed about the land in profound and troubling ways. The story wound downward through madness, adultery, despair, and ultimately suicide and attempted murder. Along the way a past of incest and abuse was revealed that had slept beneath the surface like the drainage tiles that made the family’s thousand acres sound and productive land.

One of the things that made the work so compelling was the skill with which Smiley balanced her characters. There was no clear good guys or bad guys. There were only people with their own conflicting and often well-intentioned motivations. Whenever you thought the lines had been drawn fairly distinctly, a new wrinkle made you realize things were more complicated than you imagined. For the first portion of the book, it was easy to relate to the two older daughters and their struggle against their overbearing and increasingly irrational father. As the work progressed though, you started to see aspects of the sisters as well that highlighted their own pride and selfishness.

Throughout it all though, the land was a constant theme. The role of farmwife and farmer was highlighted and examined, as were the ideals of farming at the beginnings of large-scale industrialization, as the novel was set on the eve of the 1980s. Whatever ills their father had been responsible for, there was no denying he had made the land productive and was therefore admired by his peers. But the narrator links his dominance of the land with his abusive dominance of his family powerfully in the novel’s conclusion, a understanding that eventually results in her exile and separation from others who can’t see it in the same way.

There’s also hints of different ways to view farming and food production in the character of Jess, the outsider who wants to introduce organic farming methods but is ultimately ridiculed and rejected by his father. Jess is a weak alternative, futile, and– at this point in history– marginal to the way the farms are moving. Indeed, despite the dissolution of the family, it is the ultimate fate of their land that is perhaps the novel’s true tragedy. As dark as the novel got though, I couldn’t help feeling it actually had a happy ending in that the main character woke up. She had lived her life in a kind of captivity, and even though her ultimate salvation meant the loss of both land and family, she found it.

The Violent Bear it Away

The Violent Bear It AwayThe Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Why are Catholics so good at making monsters? Our friend Daniel Otto Jack Petersen might eventually have some good answers for us, but at this point– having concluded my audit of the twentieth-century Catholic novels course taught by my good friend Dave (okay, not quite concluded as I skipped Brideshead Revisited and fell off the boat before our final novel, Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins)– I can venture something along the lines of G. K. Chesterton’s “all is grist.” For the Catholic novelist, it’s all real and it’s all fair game for creation. There aren’t “bad things” off limits. All is useful for building stories, because all– even the dark and twisted– can be redeemed.

But the real, unlike for perhaps an agnostic or atheistic writer, extends far beyond the sanctity of matter to include the reality of the spiritual. Throw all that in the mix, and you get monsters out the other end. For a writer with the bizarre, piercing humor and science fiction tendencies of Lafferty, these monsters become the fleshy, jovial horrors of “The Hole in the Corner.” For the steady eye of Flannery O’Conner in the stagnant heat of southern woods, the monsters take on a stranger and more human aspect.

Because it seems to me that at the core The Violent Bear it Away is a story about monsters.

There are four monsters (five if you count the agent of the sudden, lurching violence of the penultimate scene). The first is the boy protagonist’s great uncle, who considers himself a prophet called by the Lord and who raises the boy to know the Lord’s work in a splendidly wild and woody isolation. His death at the beginning of the novel initiates the book’s plot. The second monster is the boy’s uncle, who considers himself the rational antithesis to the old prophet’s madness and who, when the boy finds his way to his doorstep upon the prophet’s death, sees the possibility of freeing the boy from the prophet’s mad shadow.

The third monster is the boy himself, who drinks himself to a stupor upon his great uncle’s death, refuses to bury his body, and instead burns down the home in which they lived before wandering into the city to find his uncle. It is this monster’s stubborn battle to resist both the compulsion to carry on the Lord’s work placed upon him by his great uncle and his “rational” uncle’s frenzied effort to reform him that forms the primary tension of the novel. The boy is taciturn, isolated, arrogant, and desperate to live out his denial of his great uncle’s holy legacy.

All these characters are monstrous, twisted, and unpleasant to observe. And yet O’Conner pulls us along with them. We are captivated by their misery, by their mutual hostilities, by their failure to accept any sort of redemption from each other.

And then there is Bishop, the fourth monster, the son of the boy’s uncle. Bishop is a child, an idiot “waste,” who can do nothing but follow along innocently– uncomprehending and unconcerned– as the boy fights against his great uncle’s imperative to baptize Bishop and his uncle’s determination to break him of this compulsion. Bishop is the pathetic eye of the storm and the focus of the only genuine moments of pathos and tenderness in the novel.

This is an Old Testament story, and the god looming on the horizon of the boy’s mind is a god of blood and fire and fury, despite metaphors of the bread of life– that tired, stale bread the boy refuses to eat. As with Graham Greene’s Heart of the Matter, the conflict here is primarily in the mind of the boy, but this makes it in no way less real. It makes it instead more tight and tortured. And it makes it all the more terrifying for where it leads.

This is not a book to read for pleasure, unless of course for the simple pleasure of reading good writing. For the story itself, the only pleasure might come in assuring yourself how far your god is from the dark and stormy god of the warm, stagnant forest and how far you are from the pathways of the boy’s own mind– until, of course, you actually read the Old Testament and are forced to ask yourself how thin the line between madness and holiness might really be.

The Girls of Slender Means

The Girls of Slender MeansThe Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Girls of Slender Means is straightforward and understated, but it’s a story built around a central riddle. The background to the riddle is a single summer in London at the conclusion of the Second World War in and around the May of Teck Club, a sort of group home for poor, young working-class women. (As Spark explains, everyone in England is poor during this period, even those who aren’t). A cross between a boarding school and an apartment complex, the girls go about their lives in a strange twilight between the bombed-out landscape of London on one hand and the growing certainty of peace on the other. This transitional period in time goes along with the transitional nature of the May of Teck inhabitants: besides the few seasoned spinsters, for the rest of the women it is an in-between place, in between girlhood and adulthood and halfway to a job or a career or a husband. No one will remain there for long. They’re all on their way to other places, eventually– a point emphasized by the fact that the narrative of this single summer is interspersed with snippets of telephone conversations as the grown women mull over the puzzle of those days and their outcome.

There are two threads woven against this background throughout the novel. The first is the mystery, more on which in a moment. The second is poetry. Joanna, one of the boarders at the May of Teck and the only daughter of a country parson, gives lessons in elocution, and the snatches of poetry overheard from the upper levels of the large house provides a constant baseline for the day to day activities taking place therein. Poetry haunts the story, sometimes foreshadowing but always giving an underscore to the wistful atmosphere Spark creates.

The second thread is the riddle of Nicholas, an aimless writer and half-hearted anarchist who wanders into the orbit of the May of Teck over the course of the summer. Within the first few pages of the novel, from the sketchy phone conversations Spark drops us into, we learn that whatever else has happened to Nicholas he at some point since this summer has become a Jesuit priest and was been recently martyred in Haiti. The news of Nicholas’s death spurs Jane, one of the inhabitants of the May of Teck that summer who was then an aspiring writer and is now a successful new columnist, to reflect on the events that led to his conversion. And a conversion of some sort it must have been, for he is not especially devout at the beginning of that summer of 1945 when his primary interest in the May of Teck Club seems to be trying to get Selina, one of the Club’s inhabitants, to sleep with him on the roof.

I’m reminded of Gene Wolfe’s short story “Suzanne Delage” in which the only remarkable thing about the story is that nothing at all remarkable appears to have happened even though something remarkable is implied. This novel has the same feel in that we know Nicholas’s eventual fate, but we see only hints of what may have compelled him toward it. Nicholas enters the novel as one drifting through life, wasting his time and perhaps his talents (though he has a book manuscript he is trying to get Jane’s publisher to publish), fascinated by the poverty and the communal life of the girls in the May of Teck Club (as well as the girls themselves). Besides the meandering philosophical conversations he has with particular members of the Club– with Joanna’s poetry constantly drifting down from above– we get only a single glimpse of a spiritual crisis in the sudden and unexpected catastrophe that concludes the novel. The entire explanation of Nicholas’s spiritual trajectory, which is the admitted impetus of recalling the events of this particular summer, remain obscure and out of the picture.

It is a novel lending itself to many interpretations, and we’re left with Jane to make of it what we may. One possible interpretation is that Nicholas is drawn to the Edenic aspects of the Club– their shared innocence of poverty and youth– and that he is driven to a spiritual crisis when the snake in the garden is ultimately revealed in the pettiness and selfishness of the Club’s final moments, contrasted with an example of faith and pointless sacrifice. His reaction here, and his telling realization that “No place is safe,” are perhaps all the answer we get to his ultimate fate.

The book is as slender and wistful as the girls who figure within it. And as mysterious. In the end, there are no clear answers. Nicholas is dead, and Jane is casting her memories back to that single summer in which their lives intersected. The War is over, and against that background of tragedy and celebration one man makes a quiet and secret decision to change the course of his life. We’re on the outside, trying to make sense of it, which is what makes the book so powerful: this is almost always our own perspective, trying to piece together the clues that might tell us something about the hearts of those around us.

The Heart of the Matter

The Heart of the MatterThe Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Greene is interested in the paradoxes that arise from pushing Catholic doctrines or dogma to their extreme logical conclusions. The epigram at the start of the book is a quote from the Catholic author Charles Peguy, who wrote of the selflessness we should have that would damn ourselves if it would save another. This is the apparent motivation of Scobie, the novel’s protagonist. He lives and works in World War II British West Africa, finding satisfaction in a go-nowhere police posting in a desolate port town beautiful for approximately five minutes each day. His wife is as drained and worn down as the town itself. Greene expertly shows the painful pity that motivates Scobie– who simply wants peace– in placating her and keeping her despair at bay. The everyday agony of their relationship, the weariness, the stratagems Scobie undertakes to distract and comfort her, is the driving force of the first third of the novel. Greene’s strength here is in the characters: the pained goodness and heavy generosity of Scobie, the faithfulness of his African servant, the machinations of the Syrian merchants of the town– all live (except for the enigmatic Wilson, who seems flat and patchy throughout the novel) against a sharply drawn background of the cloying West Africa Greene knew from personal experience.

In the novel’s second act, Scobie has found the peace he craved by making possible his wife’s passage to South Africa and settling into his own quiet routine. This peace is shattered by war though (a war which, even at its closest approach, remains a forbidding but distant presence over the horizon) as the survivors of a U-boat attack arrive in Scobie’s world. Here his pity (or what he represents to himself as pity) is captured by a young widow. Their quiet affair– whatever else it may have represented– quickly becomes once again a trap and loss of peace for Scobie, compounded by his wife’s sudden return. Greene has now set the scene for the excruciation of the third act, where the narrative action slows and spirals inward to a claustrophobic focus on the conflict warring within Scobie’s own mind.

Whatever Greene’s eventual and ultimate relation to Catholicism, this is unequivocally one of his Catholic novels, in which the conflict depends on the reader buying into– or at least buying into the character’s buying into– the reality of Catholic belief. Scobie believes he is in mortal sin but knows leaving it would mean abandoning someone who depends on him. He’s like the proverbial donkey starving halfway between two piles of hay, crucified on the horns of a dilemma. Whether divided by hunger, pride, or (as he makes himself believe) duty and pity, he can only conclude that both– that everyone– would be better off without him, who seems only able to cause pain despite his every attempt to avoid inflicting it. By this point of the novel, it’s difficult to have patience with Scobie as a character, yet we never lose faith with Greene as an author. Indeed, the telescoping conflict, in which aspects such as Scobie taking communion in a state of sin take on a heightened, almost delirious and certainly cinematic vividness, give the novel its sharpest moments.

The novel reaches the inescapable conclusion you see coming, but it feels all the more powerful for its inescapability. Scobie is trapped in his own mind, hedged by his own dogma, damned– in the paradox Greene relishes representing– by his own generosity. Greene provides no answers. He leaves us with only questions, which is what prevents the novel collapsing into a simple cautionary morality tale. Whatever Scobie’s motives (because it remains difficult to believe pity alone motivates the affair with the much-younger Helen), he is relatable and vivid in as much as anyone has felt trapped between irreconcilable conclusions, alone and cut off in the web of their beliefs. Whether he’s ultimately damned, he’s lost the peace he craved. In the construction of his isolation and misery– which Greene offers in magnificent detail– we get an illustration of how C. S. Lewis described hell: not as a place you go but as a place you gradually construct around yourself.

First Fleet #booktrailer

So this is exciting. The folks over at Retrofit Publishing have rolled out the book trailer for my serialized novel, First Fleet. Give it a look! It’s cool enough it makes me want to re-read it.

Part 3, Descent, will be released April 1st and is available for pre-order on Amazon now!

First Fleet

FirstFleet1b

I’ve dropped some hints before, but here’s the official blog unveiling: the first two installments of my novel, First Fleet, are now available through Retrofit Publishing!

Go to there! See it! They’re doing some pretty exciting stuff over there, and I’m humbled and delighted to be a part of it.

What business have I, you ask, who have never ventured beyond the short story or occasional novella, in writing a novel? I place the blame solely on the shoulders of my editor, who liked one of my published stories enough to contract for a novel based on the premises I started exploring in that first bit. And that first bit, retitled Bones (the awesome cover of which you see above), appears now as the teaser/intro to the novel proper, setting the stage and presenting the initial mystery of the First Fleet. The tone is Lovecraftian horror in space. The plot involves technology used to regenerate soldiers in a war going suddenly very badly.

You can (and should) download Bones. It’s free, and you can get it direct from the Retrofit website or from places like Amazon or Smashwords.

Wake (cover below) is the first installment of the novel proper, which follows the narratives of two women who get entangled in the mystery of the Fleet. I had a lot of fun building these characters and these worlds, as well as the technological systems that support them, and sending them off to solve the Fleet’s mystery. (I talk a bit more about the plot in a recent blog post at Retrofit.)

Besides the process of writing the novel itself, I’ve been blown away by how Retrofit has marketed and promoted this. The editing and formatting has been top-notch, and seeing the covers they designed (capturing perfectly the “old timey” pulp feel of the paperback novels I grew up reading) has been among the coolest parts of the process.

Take a look at the first two installments if you get a chance. If you’re a reviewer and you want a review copy of Wake, please let me know. It’s pulp scifi– with all the pulpy goodness of aliens, catastrophe, military espionage, and space ships you’d expect. If you’ve read my other pieces, you know short-form fiction, veering toward fantasy realism, has been my forte so far. This was an exciting and rewarding (and challenging) departure.

Descent, the second portion of the novel, is done and is due out in April. And I’m working on final edits to the third portion, tentatively titled Memory, as we speak.

Or I will be, as soon as I post this.

And maybe bathe the kids.

FirstFleet_Cvr2b

Viper’s Tangle

Viper's TangleViper’s Tangle by François Mauriac

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the things that always struck me about C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters is how effectively Lewis wrote in a demon’s voice. The character of Screwtape was believable, because Lewis understood how young Christians thought, the beliefs and desires that motivated them. He understood temptation enough to compellingly examine it from a unique and “alien” point of view that was at the same time disturbingly familiar. As strange a connection as that may be, I couldn’t help but compare the first portions of Mauriac’s Viper’s Tangle to Lewis’s Screwtape Letters.

In Viper’s Tangle we’re given a surprisingly compelling and (for me, at least) an uncomfortably familiar view into the mind of a bitter man nearing death and reflecting on his life. Mauriac’s character, Louis, lives in a state of quiet warfare with his family, whom he sees as hovering around him waiting for his death so they can claim his fortune. He knew love once– or thought he did– early in his marriage, but has for the past forty years lived in symbolic silence with a wife he believes neither understands nor appreciates him. He is embittered and hateful, and we as readers quickly become suspicious of his view of the world around him because it’s so colored by his own perceptions and beliefs. Are things really as bleak and tangled as he represents them? Is he correctly interpreting the present and past actions of his wife and children?

I certainly don’t believe I’m in a similar situation as Mauriac’s protagonist, who begins writing his account as an explanatory letter to his wife to be read upon his death. Yet the power of the account is what I felt years ago reading Lewis’s Screwtape: a certain amount of recognition. If I’m not as hateful and vindictive as Louis, I can see the seeds of such fruit in some of my own attitudes, in my own petty feelings of injury that can easily be nursed into a deep resentment, similar to those Louis uses to justify his attitudes and outlook. As embittered as Louis is, Mauriac effectively outlines how he became this way, and it’s a mirror to some of my own worst days.

This is the second novel we have read in the course I’m auditing on the Catholic imagination in twentieth-century literature. Mauriac’s Louis has nothing but contempt for the lukewarm religiosity of his family members (nominal Catholics) and takes a great deal of pleasure in antagonizing them. He sees them as hypocritical, unable to admit they care only for the same thing that drive him: their wealth. Yet whereas they are unaware of the misery obsession with money brings, he lives and breathes within the center of the web it has cast across his life. He sees clearly how little happiness it brings, and he doesn’t cloak his pursuit of it in any sort of noble or selfless terms, does not justify it with the trappings of middle class Catholicism as do the members of his family.

It’s compelling watching Louis in his own net of vindictiveness and self-destruction. Yet the book is ultimately about Louis’s transformation. This is not a simple Dickensian transformation. Louis does not wake up one morning, like Scrooge, a new man. There is instead one final plot of Louis’s to disinherit his conniving children as he realizes the tangle of vipers is not simply within his own heart but has extended to the actions of those around him. Louis’s final endeavor is concluded by an unexpected death, and then comes– near the end of the novel– the transformation in which his hatred abruptly drains away. Mauriac depicts Louis as paradoxically, finally, realizing the true object of his love in his own loathing for his fortune and his desire to become free of it.

What makes this more than a straightforward conversion tale is the skill Mauriac uses in detailing the weaving of Louis’s tangle of hate and weak, tired avarice. It’s a picture of the furious futility of a selfish life, of hatred that is simply an emptiness. It is believable. Yet there is also, all around Louis, the glimmer of a greater reality breaking in that reminds– like a brilliance glimpse around the edges of cloud– of the wonder of Chesterton’s world. Louis is aware of this, fleetingly, in the world he sees and in a few of the characters who love him unselfishly, uninterested in what they can take from him. This is a story of someone trapped in the wonder of a Chestertonian world and unable to perceive it from the prison of self-loathing until almost too late.

There is a final plot twist near the end of the novel, which enhances the narrative of Louis attempting to reconcile himself– or allow himself to be reconciled– to his children. The question of the unreliable narrator again emerges as we get a glimpse of the ways in which his children perceive his sudden transformation. Indeed, I thought the way Mauriac ended the novel, with letters by Louis’s son and his granddaughter, was especially effective. Each of them present a perception of who Louis ultimately became, and trying to work out which aspects of which were correct or at least understandable adds a final layer of intricacy to the tangle from which Louis attempted to extricate himself at his life’s end.