Monthly Archives: May 2013

A Victorian Parable for Contemporary America

the way we live nowThe thing that probably sustained me most as I made my way through Anthony Trollope’s 762-page opus The Way We Live Now was that it really is pretty much about the way we live now, in 2013, even though it was written in 1875.  That’s partly because the novel was written in satirical response to financial scandals of the 1870s, and we’ve just lived through a similarly worldwide financial meltdown with some of the same root causes: unchecked greed and irresponsible speculation.  Indeed, Trollope wrote that one of his reasons for writing the novel was to expose the way wealth corrupts social values: “Nevertheless a certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places, has become at the same time so rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable. If dishonesty can live in a gorgeous palace with pictures on all its walls, and gems in all its cupboards, with marble and ivory in all its corners, and can give Apician dinners, and get into Parliament, and deal in millions, then dishonesty is not disgraceful, and the man dishonest after such a fashion is not a low scoundrel.”  He would probably roll over in his grave to see the obeisance paid to Wall Street CEOs who, unlike Trollope’s protagonist Augustus Melmotte, seem to have pulled off their high-class pyramid schemes and escaped with the money.

Aside from its ruthless mockery of the pretensions of wealth, The Way We Live Now also offers some of the usual insights into the constraints imposed upon women, particularly women of class but no money, and the constant social and economic machinations of a class-obsessed English aristocracy.  The action centers around Mr. Melmotte, a banker of shadowy origins (possibly Jewish, of course, about which more later) whose tremendous wealth, which he parlays into social and political power, is revealed to be nothing more than an illusory pyramid scheme.  In the meantime, the perception of wealth draws a host of greater and lesser aristocratic characters into his orbit.  The sheer length of the novel demands that at least some of these characters pique the reader’s interest, and on this count Trollope doesn’t disappoint.  There is the sociopathic Sir Felix Carbury, who seems incapable of any human feeling other than a desire for unlimited funds to continue his dissolute lifestyle of hunting, gambling, and drinking to excess.  There is Lady Carbury, his equally sociopathic mother, who impoverishes herself in order to support her wayward son, writing partially plagiarized histories and trashy novels in order to make a few extra pounds that inevitably disappear down the maw of Sir Felix’s endless debt.  There are the various Melmotte hangers-on, all of them impoverished gentlemen eager to lend the credibility of their titles to the banker in exchange for the cash windfall they expect to follow.  And of course there are a whole host of minor characters with hilarious names: Mr. Squercum, a lawyer, sometime adversary of Mr. Bideawhile, another advocate; Mr. Flatfleece, the shady financier of a local club; Ruby Ruggles and John Crumb, a low-class couple whose romantic difficulties form a large subplot; and my personal favorite, the former Julia Triplex, now elevated by her marriage to Sir Damask Monogram.

victorian ladiesWhat the novel does not contain is many redeemable characters.  Interestingly, however, the one character who seems to have no negative characteristics is one of the many wealthy bankers who populate the novel, Mr. Brehgert.  The positive depiction of his character seems unusual not only because he is a banker, and has accumulated great wealth through banking, but also because he is a Jew.  We first meet Mr. Brehgert because he proposes marriage to one of the minor characters the plot follows, Georgiana Longstaffe.  The daughter of Sir Adolphus Longstaffe, a cash-poor gentleman with business dealings with Mr. Melmotte, Georgey is a bit of a snob who has managed to grow into her late twenties without accepting any of the marriage proposals she deemed inferior in her youth.  Now, however, it has become clear to her that her father can no longer maintain her in the style to which she is accustomed, and she becomes desperate to find a rich husband.  Unfortunately, however, she has agreed to stay the “season” in London with the Melmottes, and as a result proper society (including her old friend Lady Julia Monogram) shuns her advances and she finds herself unable to meet any eligible men.  Thus, when Mr. Brehgert, a fifty-one-year-old widower with five children, proposes to her, she overlooks his age, ethnicity, and occupation and sees only green.  The only problem?  Her parents, like basically every other self-respecting family of English aristocrats in the nineteenth century (and beyond), are ardent anti-Semites.  This is all handled in the same spirit of wicked fun as the rest of the satire, and we get to read things about Georgiana’s mother like, “[she] did not go down into the hall to meet her child – from whom she had that morning received the dreadful tidings about the Jew” or “when her daughter should have married a Jew, she didn’t think that she could pluck up the courage to look even her neighbours…in the face.”  Since Trollope has already made some relentless fun of said neighbors, we know how much that’s worth.

Aside from the delightful skewering of casual aristocratic prejudices, though, Mr. Brehgert does have an important place in the novel, as he seems to be its moral center.  This, of course, is in deliberate contrast to stereotypes of the greedy, morally corrupt Jew (think Shylock), and reverses the poles of virtue: here, it is the supposedly Christian gentlemen who are greedy and corrupt.  Brehgert, though he is a banker, appears to be an entirely scrupulous one.  He has also invested with Melmotte, but when he learns that Melmotte is a sham he takes his loss without complaint, and refuses to be party to any of Melmotte’s obviously criminal activities.  He also proves himself more gentlemanly than the gentlemen in his dealings with his intended fiancée.  After Georgiana’s father visits him in London to break off his daughter’s engagement, Brehgert writes Georgiana a long, thoughtful, complimentary letter in which he addresses the complaints against him (including the fact of his Jewishness) with grace and dignity and leaves the choice about whether to marry him entirely up to Georgiana.  Though not particularly romantic, Brehgert is affectionate and sincere, writing, “I have no doubt you believe me when I say that I entertain a most sincere affection for you; and I beseech you to believe me in saying further that should you become my wife it shall be the study of my life to make you happy.”  Considering that no one else much cares whether Georgey is happy or not as long as she is rich, this is a generous offer indeed.

Although afforded a rather small role in the scope of the book, in its last quarter Mr. Brehgert emerges clearly as the closest thing to a hero there is, suggesting that a better future – of ethical business dealings, sincerity in personal relationships, and greater egalitarianism – lies not in the traditional center of the aristocracy, but in the emerging margins of a professional class made up of those who have formerly been excluded from English society.  This, too, seems like a relevant notion at a moment in which the demographics of American culture are shifting and those who were once marginal – immigrants, gay men and lesbians, women, the poor – now lead the way on the path of civil rights and greater economic equality.

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Wherein I Become A Radio Star

This morning I aired on a local NPR series called Engines of Our Ingenuity.  You can listen to it here.  Enjoy!

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Ain’t Time a Goon?

A_Visit_From_the_Goon_SquadIn the early 2000s, a number of American writers (all male, which I think is significant, on which more below), in a conscious revolt against what they felt were the negative effects of literary theory and the academy on literary fiction, began to publish novels written in a familiar narrative vernacular designed to be accessible to the average reader.  Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex were the most prominent of these works, which Jonathan Franzen characterized as an argument for the novel.  There was also some anti-irony sentiment involved in this calculated turn away from both genre fiction and the literary tricks of writers like Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace.  Since that time, American fiction seems to have been divided into two camps, each of which sneers a bit at the other.  Either you are a postmodernist ironic trickster or a sentimental realist writer, and never the twain shall meet.

egan

Jennifer Egan

There are some writers (who tend to be among my favorites) that seem to resist this distinction, even embrace mixing the oil and water of realism and anti-realism.  Michael Chabon is one contemporary American writer who has done this successfully, writing novels that self-consiciously mix high and low literary styles, winking at us while simultaneously touching us deeply.  Jennifer Egan has entered that category as well with her Pulitzer-Prize-winning 2010 novel A Visit from the Good Squad.  She has produced a masterful literary hybrid that never declares itself precisely, locating its narrative both within and outside of linear chronologies and recognizable genres.

The title of the novel itself refers to its unconventional treatment of narrative.  Taken from a semi-comprehensible declaration made by a mentally unstable character – “Time’s a goon” – the title declares its intention to reconceive chronology and linearity.  And it is indeed a “goon squad” the reader is faced with here: a narrative that wanders back and forth in time, from character to character, slowly circling and closing in on – but never reaching – a definitive conclusion.  That’s not to say that the book never ends – it does, and elegantly, with a marginal character from the first section who is now the central character remembering that earlier moment – but that it gently, tenderly allows its characterizations and events to unfold, more like a flower than a timeline marked by eras and plot developments.

One example of the book’s unique treatment of time is the way in which events that would comprise the meat and potatoes of a conventional novel are often conflated into a sentence or paragraph, while the narrative itself focuses in detail on the interior lives of its characters.  Near the end of the book, Egan writes of a character we’ve seen both up-close and obliquely at various moments in her life, ”On another day more than twenty years after this one, after Sasha had gone to college and settled in new York; after she’d reconnected on Facebook with her college boyfriend and married late…and had two children, one of whom was slightly autistic; when she was like anyone, with a life that worried and electrified and overwhelmed her, Ted, long divorced – a grandfather – would visit Sasha at home in the California desert.”  That one sentence contains a whole Jonathan Franzen novel, but it is the tremendous accomplishment of A Visit from the Goon Squad that it doesn’t require this kind of conventional plot development and characterization to tell its emotionally real, sprawling story.

Instead, this novel – if it is a novel – plays with the conventions not just of time, but of narrative itself.  Written as a series of interlocking, non-linear vignettes with recurring characters and themes, it’s not even immediately clear that it can be called a novel.  Is it connected short stories? A new form?  Who knows and who cares?  The form is inextricable from its content, and meshes perfectly with the themes of time and linearity that are its central motifs.  The book also incorporates various genres, including journalism, speculative fiction, even a PowerPoint presentation, complicating our ability to classify it and calling into question the need for classification.  In the same way that it exists out of time, A Visit from the Goon Squad exists out of genre, playing happily with our notions of what a novel should be.

This joy in its own execution is part of what distinguishes this book from the angry realism of the early 2000s.  In this sense, Jennifer Egan also seems to be playing with some of the rigid and dogmatic ideas about the American novel that have been advanced in the last decade by some of its most prominent practitioners.  It doesn’t surprise me much that it is a woman writer who would challenge the parameters of the realist novel in such a playful, inclusive way.  It is often those writing on the margins (and if you do not think that American women novelists write from the margins, check this out) who are most clearly able to see the way forward, to incorporate disparate influences and minority voices and cultures into their work.  Michael Chabon, another pioneer of the anti-realist and genre novel, also consciously writes about marginal themes – even Yiddish, which is on the margins of the Jewish margins he represents.  In my mind, these are the American novels that are most of the moment – the ones that challenge our ideas about writing itself and bring us the unexpected, without dogma, without anger, and with the “careening hope” of both past and future Egan describes.

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