April 21, 2009

The Passion by Jeanette Winterson

I read The Passion by Jeanette Winterson as an undergrad in a feminist lit. course. I remember thinking it was all right, although I was absolutely conscious of the fact that I wasn't really getting it. Still, I liked it well enough to hang on to my copy for nearly ten years. Being at an absolute loss for something to read, I picked it up again and I'm incredibly glad that I did. This time I had enough experience and perspective to not only get it, but to actively enjoy everything that I had missed the first time through.

The Passion is, at its heart, a meditation on passion - sexual, spiritual, filial and emotional. The story itself is a simple one set in Europe over the course of the Napoleonic Wars. The first chapter follows Henri, a simple French soldier who follows Napoleon with unquestioning faith. The second chapter introduces Villanelle, a Venetian woman who literally loses her heart. The third chapter unites these two separate threads and the fourth chapter ties them together. But far from being cliched or even predictable, Winterson weaves the narrative with so much of the surreal, the questionable and the casually fantastic that the reader ends up feeling caught in a strange sort of tapestry. Her style turns a seemingly simple story into a grotesque and beautiful fairy tale told through a looking glass.

While The Passion is worth reading for the language and imagery alone, I especially loved Henri's ruminations on the nature of passion - that there is no hate like the hate that comes from passion disappointed, that to be in love is to live one's life in the service of the beloved, that the beloved bears a mirror, and only in that mirror can the lover see himself. None of these ideas are new, but to read them in Henri's vulnerable, earnest voice, to think of them after the book is done and his fate completely known is a lovely, melancholy experience, one that I couldn't have hoped to understand as a young, inexperienced girl.

Ultimately, The Passion can be read in many ways - as a magical realism, a fairy tale, a literary experiment, even, if one squints, as a feminist track, although, looking back, I think that the only reason it qualified for a course in feminist lit., is because Villanelle genders-bends and loses her heart to a woman. The queer material is presented casually, very much not the express point of the novel except in that it illustrates the way in which passion neither respects nor requires restriction (honestly, the fact that Villanelle has webbed feet is given more narrative attention).  That said, regardless of how you chose to read The Passion, regardless of where you place its weight, it is very much worth reading, if only as a doorway to ruminate on the role of passion in your life.

April 18, 2009

Disquiet by Julia Leigh

I have really, desperately wanted to read something good for the past while, good being loosely defined as anything ranging from very well executed pulp to the legitimately highbrow. Unfortunately, good in any shape or form has eluded me, so much so that I got tired of writing negative reviews, so I haven't reviewed the past couple of books that I've read. Then, yesterday, I came across Disquiet by Julia Leigh, an Australian author I'd never heard of, but whom Toni Morrison and J.M. Coetzee seem to think highly of. The volume was a slender novella just released in paperback, with a blurb that read "a haunting, mesmerizing tale of a family in extremis." Whether it was the blurb or the form that attracted me (almost no one writes or publishes single novellas anymore), I finished Disquiet in a two hour sitting, and it was very good.

Disquiet is about a woman, Olivia, who arrives at her mother's chateau on the run from an abusive marriage. She brings her children with her. Olivia's brother, Marcus, also arrives with his grieving wife, Sophie, after the birth of their stillborn daughter. What follows is a fragile unfolding.

The novella does this unfolding quietly, disquietingly, in fact. Leigh's prose is spare and elegant, with not a word wasted. She implies much more than she says and is all the more powerful for it. Her style is an elegant brushstroke through which Olivia's disconnection and despair become painfully clear through small actions and omissions. The other characters are drawn with equal, spartan care, while  Sophie's grief takes on grotesque proportions, contrasting directly to Olivia's painful flat-affect. In the end, both women undergo emotional crises at the hands of the other, forcing an end to their respective stagnations.

Disquiet is a very fast read, easy to savor and finish in a week-end, if not a day. As starved as I've been for good, and as good as Disquiet was, I wouldn't wish it into a novel - what made Disquiet so excellent was its brevity. All of its power and elegance are rooted in its form. To wish for more would be to spoil it. That said, having read it, I feel refreshed and content and almost relieved. Now I feel ready to continue the search for the next good thing.

April 6, 2009

The Arcanum by Thomas Wheeler

I'm not sure what my problem is, but I feel sure that I must have one. I feel like I should have loved The Arcanum by Thomas Wheeler, I feel like I should have gobbled it up like the diverting little confection it is, I feel like it should have at least enjoyed it. But I really didn't.  It's the sort of book I would have eaten for lunch five years ago, and then told everyone they should read it for a quick good time. But these days, it just made me feel impatient.

Some background: The Arcanum is a secret society of occult investigators, a supposedly brilliant quartet of unlikely heroes: Arthur Conan Doyle, Harry Houdini, H.P. Lovecraft and the voodoo queen, Marie Laveau. 

There are problems with the choice of characters in more than one way - too many ways in fact to go into in the space of a shortish blog post with very limited readership. Suffice it to say, the most glaring problem is that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was not his legendary creation, Sherlock Holmes. Nor was H.P. Lovecraft Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary creation, Sherlock Holmes (supplemented by a heaping brainful of paranoia and an obsession with the occult), and yet Wheeler insists on upon treating both characters as if they were. And Harry Houdini? Well, one can only ask why the hell he would want to secretly investigate the occult (a question that never comes close to getting answered). As for Marie Laveau, why the most feared and respected voodoo pracitioner ever must resort to lifting her skirts and pretending to be a prostitute every time the group gets into a tight spot is beyond my understanding.

Toss into this motley mix of unlikelyhood The Book of Enoch, Alastair Crowely, fallen angels, an annoying thug of a detective, and a far ranging plot to expose God's mistakes and bring about the end of the world, and you've got the makings for some good clean fun. Unfortunately, it's not. There's something in Wheeler's execution that falls flat, perhaps beneath the weight of his purple prose (Lovecraft could get away with this, Wheeler, sadly, cannot). But it's really the sense of everything being massively and incredibly contrived that made me squirm. Wheeler bends and twists his characters to suit his needs, mutilating all sense of narrative authenticity as effectively as the big, bad Evil kills its victims. Like I said, it made me impatient. 

I love a good, trashy romp - I really do. I just like my good, trashy romps to cop to what they are and do it in a genuinely trashy, not-trying-to-be-anything-else way. Unfortunately, Wheeler's The Arcanum fell short there. He managed to turn what could have been a fun and diverting diversion into a pretentious, unintuitive clockwork. That he used figures like Doyle and Lovecraft to do it just makes it feel all the more like an eldritch failure.