Monthly Archives: July 2013

Liking the “Unlikeable”

Recently, the writer Claire Messud attracted attention for her response to an interviewer’s question about the likeability (or unlikeability) of the female main character of her most recent novel.  Messud rightly pointed out a long list of mostly male unlikeable but iconic characters and noted, “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.”  A flurry of commentary on sexism and likeability ensued.  ImageI relate this recent anecdote as preface because it underlines the achievement of Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout’s 13 connected short stories about a small town in Maine, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 despite our literary culture’s apparent aversion to prickly or “unlikeable” female characters.  Olive, the title character, who is central to some of the stories but appears only peripherally in others, is angry, depressed, disagreeable, and short-tempered, yet she also proves to be loyal, wise, kind, and sympathetic, a woman with a rich inner life that is frustratingly out of accord with her outer one.

In addition to telling Olive’s story, the book tells the story of the town and many of its inhabitants, linked in complicated but quotidian ways.  Nothing much happens, but a lot always seems to be happening.  Marriages form and break up, people get sick and die, make friends, move away, remember their childhoods, which invariably include memories of Olive Kitteridge, who for many years was the math teacher at the local junior high school.  This links Olive to virtually every other inhabitant of Crosby, Maine, and makes her in some small way indispensible to many of the characters.  We learn of her hidden wisdom, sympathy, and understanding through the eyes of former students, who remember years later advice or comfort she once gave.

But these moments of softness are only punctuation marks to Olive’s aggressive, biting personality.  When her son gets married and she overhears her new daughter-in-law complaining about her, you feel sympathy for Olive but know that you would think the same if you were her daughter-in-law.  In fact, right after Olive hears her daughter-in-law making some  mildly critical comments about her son’s upbringing and the dress she’s worn to the wedding, Olive goes into her closet and draws on one of her sweaters with a black marker, then steals one shoe and one bra, just to mess with her head.  It’s incredibly childish, ridiculous even, but also very Olive.

So why do we want to read about Olive, or any other unsympathetic character?  For each of them there is probably a different reason.  Humbert Humbert’s a pedophile, but he’s a literate, passionate lover of Lolita; Raskolnikov’s a murderer, but he’s thoughtful about his crime; and Olive Kitteridge is a bitter woman disappointed in life, but one whose human capacity for emotion surfaces at exactly the right moments.  In a way, her own sadness allows her a measure of empathy with other suffering characters that offer them support or help no one else could.  She inadvertently interferes with the suicide of one of her former students when she happens upon him as he is on his way to shoot himself in the woods, slowly changing his mind, it seems, as she speaks frankly and presciently about her own father’s suicide.  In another story, when a number of the town residents encounter an anorexic girl who needs help, it’s Olive who gets through to her, recognizing that her own overeating comes from the same place as the girl’s need for starvation.  Like many tender moments in the book, this one is encapsulated in an almost inexplicably moving image: “Hesitantly, she [Olive] raised her hand, started to put it down, then raised it again, and touched the girl’s head.  She must have felt, beneath her large hand, something Harmon [the main character in this story] didn’t see, because she slid her hand down to the girl’s bone of a shoulder, and the girl – tears creeping from her closed eyes – leaned her cheek on Olive’s hand.”


Elizabeth Strout receiving the Pulitzer for Olive Kitterirdge in 2009.

It’s quite an achievement to humanize a character as difficult as Olive, but Strout manages to make her both sympathetic and likeable by the end, perhaps because she grows and changes, despite her age.  One of the lovely things about this book is its depiction of the inner lives and relationships of the late-middle-aged and elderly without sentimentality.  Like Olive’s character, the other, mostly older, characters in the book are shown to be fully human, not simple or doddering or having lost interest in life over time.  Like Olive, they don’t just want to live, but they want to live fully, despite the infirmities or inevitable losses of age.  Age is perhaps the least sympathetic character of all, yet in Olive Kitteridge, like Olive herself, it’s treated with honesty and respect.


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Looking Back (or Down)

ImageRereading a book you loved as a child is a little like visiting your old elementary school as an adult: the lockers weren’t always that short, were they?  Everything that once seemed huge and mystifying and tremendous looks, well, small.  It hasn’t changed, though – you have.  So I began rereading Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game with some trepidation.  I remembered, vaguely, that I once thought it was brilliant, that it changed the way I thought about the power and potential of words.  I feared that reading it as an adult might make me feel like I was standing in a familiar hallway looking down at the top of a locker I once looked up at.

It turns out that The Westing Game is not the brilliant literate mystery I once thought it was, at least not to an adult jaded both by years of cultural abuse and misuse of language as well as exposure to magnificent literature.  But it’s still clever enough to hold an adult reader’s interest, its linguistic puzzle still mystifying until the end (since I had forgotten both plot details and resolution).  And although I no longer felt the book unlocked the mysteries of language the way I once did, I found other things to appreciate (and, perhaps, to critique).

What I did not notice as a child was the book’s careful breakdown of racial, ethnic, and social stereotyping, although it seems only partially successful as a challenge to those stereotypes.  First published in 1978, its depiction of an apartment building with white, black, and Asian tenants from both professional and working-class backgrounds must have been somewhat unusual.  And it’s not just a token collection of diverse people and families – the book itself, and its characters, is self-conscious about the unusual group it assembles, and the Westing Game is at least partially designed expressly to bring together people who would never otherwise meet.  It’s also highly conscious of the potential pitfalls of its own approach.  Describing a meeting between the African-American Judge Ford and the pretentious wannabe aristocrat Grace Windsor Wexler, Raskin writes, “Proud of her liberalism, Grace Windsor Wexler stood and leaned over the table to shake the black woman’s hand.  She must be here in some legal capacity, or maybe her mother was a household maid….”  And no one is completely immune from Raskin’s critical eye – even the most seemingly virtuous characters are skewered, their flaws laid bare.

For all that, occasionally the book seems to resort to its own stereotyping either for comic purposes or simply because it tilts slightly into the realm of caricature.  But for the most part it’s a sympathetic, deeply human portrait of a group of people who aren’t much like each other and don’t really want to get to know one another, but when forced to spend time together become real neighbors and friends.  That, it turns out, was the real goal of the Westing Game, which I missed at the time.  Sure, it’s about language and puzzles and solving a mystery, but it’s equally about families, friends, neighbors and the way we see ourselves and each other.  It turns out there was another story sitting on top of the locker the whole time.

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Playacting History

ImageReading Wolf Hall, the first volume of Hilary Mantel’s fictional trilogy on the life of Thomas Cromwell, adviser to Henry VIII, I found myself wishing that Peter Jackson had become interested in sixteenth-century England rather than the fantasy worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien.  Because, despite all my initial misgivings about historical fiction, anything that occurred before the nineteenth century, and the English monarchy, I am now certain that I would much rather watch three 3-hour movies about Thomas Cromwell than about Bilbo Baggins.

Particularly because of the potentially stultifying subject matter – I know there are people who think that both history and monarchy are interesting, but they are not me – it is entirely to Mantel’s credit that this book is any good at all.  Luckily, Mantel shows her skill early; I knew the book was worth reading by page 15, the end of the first section, when Mantel describes Cromwell’s first view of the open sea: “a gray wrinkled vastness, like the residue of a dream.”  The book is full of details and descriptions like this, and they lend humanity and color to what is otherwise a humdrum tale of political maneuvering and religious schism.  It seems likely that Mantel could even make the current sorry workings of the U.S. government interesting, which is saying something.


Henry VIII, by Hans Holbein, who also makes an appearance in the novel. Check out that codpiece!

I have no idea how faithful Mantel is to Cromwell’s life, and so much of the novel is internal that much of it must be invented, but it is his uniquely sympathetic character that makes the events of the book come to life.  The plot of this first part of the trilogy focuses on the creation of the Church of England and its roots in Henry’s somewhat banal desire both for a legitimate male heir and to get into the pants of the virginal and mysteriously attractive Anne Boleyn.  At the same time, the novel charts the rise of Thomas Cromwell from his low breeding as a blacksmith’s son (the book opens with a terrific scene of his drunk father beating the crap out of him at age 15) to being, first, the confidant and fixer of Cardinal Wolsey, Lord Chancellor, and, by the end of the novel, Chancellor of the Exchequer and councilor to the king.  These developments parallel each other, as Cromwell survives the ouster of his first master, the cardinal, over matters relating to the king’s divorce only to become indispensible to the king’s fortunes, both literal and figurative.

Cromwell, who belongs both to the humble, proletarian world he comes from and to the aristocratic, noble world he has risen into, has a vision greater than either, and in his machinations in the king’s interest we see that he serves, more than anything, his own vision of England, a progressive vision that we might recognize.  The Europe of this period is poised on the brink of modernity: the printing press has been invented, ideas are beginning to circulate, people are learning to read, and both monarchy and church are challenged by the new developments.  Cromwell, it becomes clear, is the symbol of modernization.  Literate and self-taught, experienced in commerce and knowledgeable of the various languages and cultures of Europe, he is, quite literally, a Renaissance man.  Ridiculed by Stephen Gardiner, the king’s Master Secretary, for wishing to swear the English populace to an oath of loyalty to Henry and his royal line through Anne Boleyn, he responds: “Look at any part of this kingdom, my lord bishop, and you will find dereliction, destitution.  There are men and women on the roads.  The sheep farmers are grown so great that the little man is knocked off his acres and the plowboy is out of house and home.  In a generation these people can learn to read.  The plowman can take up a book.  Believe me, Gardiner, England can be otherwise.”


Cromwell as rendered by Holbein, in a portrait whose creation is also chronicled in the novel.

And though Cromwell serves the needs of the king – to secure his lineage, to legitimate his queen and his rule, to establish his control over the church in England – we see that it is this vision, of an England otherwise, to which he ultimately dedicates himself.  The idea of dual purposes, of appearing to be or do one thing while simultaneously, and secretly, working at an entirely different, although not necessarily mutually exclusive, goal, is the overarching theme of the book.  Repeated references to the theater, to acting, to plays remind us that half the work of governance is appearance, and that there is always something being concealed.  One reason for Cromwell’s success is his ability to conceal his hand, to control his reactions and emotions.  He reminds himself of Erasmus’ advice to “put on a mask, as it were” each morning as he leaves his house.  “He applies that to each place, each castle or inn or nobleman’s seat, where he find himself waking up.”  Part of the intrigue of the novel is that only we, the readers, know what Cromwell really thinks.

That is the glorious delusion of the historical novel, the idea that you can know or understand  people long dead whose thoughts and feelings are lost to history.  Like the machinations of government or the process of wooing a lover, the historical novel itself is a kind of play in which the roles have already been written but the lines must be improvised.  Wolf Hall, like Cromwell, understands that its success lies in the quality of that improvisation.

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A Defense of Difference (and Sentimentality)

ImageReading Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon’s epic tome on what he calls “horizontal identities” – conditions or situations that link people across familial, racial, and national categories – is a little bit like eating a gigantic ice-cream sundae: it’s delicious and you never want it to end at the same time that it’s overwhelming and at every moment you feel you might need to take a break.  What makes this book, which covers some very difficult topics in painstaking detail, both readable and enjoyable is Solomon’s gorgeous prose and his deeply empathetic sensitivity to his subjects.  Far From the Tree chronicles families contending with deafness, dwarfism, Down Syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, multiple disabilities, prodigiousness, children born of rape, children who commit crimes, and transgender issues.  Solomon operates from the premise that, as he puts it, “Difference unites us….to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state.”  And as I read each of his chapters, none of which have any direct bearing on my own life, I nonetheless found myself relating to the people he profiled through this very premise.  It seems the ways in which people are different end up being very much the same.

Part of the success of the book is attributable to Solomon’s method.  He uses both statistical and historical exposition and personal anecdotes and stories to illustrate the complexity of each situation he covers, because, as he writes, “numbers imply trends, while stories acknowledge chaos.”  The book, while clearly written and perfectly organized, does not wrap its conclusions up in a neat little bow, but allows the kind of difference which is its very center to proliferate.  No one responds in exactly the same way to the same situation, or maybe its that no one’s situation is exactly the same, despite similarities, and Solomon includes as much variation as he can.  It’s not exactly chaos, since he controls it with an expert hand, but it’s definitely as close as one could get to experiencing human thought and emotion in its infinite variety.

This is another long book (over 700 pages, plus notes and bibliography), and it would be impossible here to chronicle all the myriad ways in which is succeeds (and the few in which it is less successful), but suffice it to say that as I read, in particular, the chapters on physical disabilities, it caused me to question some of my deeply held assumptions both about deaf people and dwarves, say, but also about myself.  This is a book that is as much about parenting and families as it is about medical and social outliers, and in that sense almost anybody will be affected by its conclusions and revelations.  And insofar as Solomon’s primary premise, about the ubiquity of difference, is true, we all can also see ourselves in the differences he describes, though ours may differ by shape or degree.


Andrew Solomon

One of the greatest pleasures of this book, however, has nothing to do with its substance.  I’ve rarely read prose as rich or precise as Solomon’s; the only  other writer I can compare him to is Lorrie Moore, who is fearless in her prose in a similar way.  A tiny, tiny example, drawn from his chapter on prodigies, describing one of the musical prodigies he chronicles: “You may reach into his joy and pull out a surprising handful of sorrow, but when you examine that sorrow, you find it suffused with particles of joy.”  I mean, who writes like that?  It’s absolutely transcendent, and just the experience of reading the words on the page was often as great a delight as the things described therein.

It may sound strange to describe a book that chronicles such difficult subject matter, that I had to put down more than once out of emotion or frustration, as a delight.  But it transforms its difficulty into delight in a magical way that I can’t quite pinpoint.  This, of course, is the alchemy of truly great writing.  The magic is catalyzed by Solomon’s willingness to engage in (I won’t say indulge in, because it suggests a negative valence) sentimentality.  He writes, “I am unabashed by this book’s occasional whiff of rapture and reject the idea that beauty is the enemy of truth, or that pain can’t be the hare to joy’s tortoise.”  Insofar as he succeeds, yet another of the accomplishments of this book is that it repudiates myths of scientific and journalistic objectivity and a culture of irony at the same time.   The great strength of this book is its lack of embarrassment in the face of the rapturous, the sentimental, and the beautiful, all things we encounter far too rarely in literature or in life.

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