Monday, March 12, 2007

On tenderness

This week's job is to write an essay (a slightly overdue essay that must be finished by Friday) titled "Austen's Voices" for a volume of essays that will be published in honor of one of my dissertation advisors, but as I began rereading Pride and Prejudice this morning I found myself distracted by the ways that my topic there (which concerns voice, point-of-view and the processes by which Austen both thwarts and rewards readers' desires to identify with an appealing main character as well as tempting them to identify Austen herself with the novel's protagonist) resonates with some thoughts I've been having about the varied artistic consumption of the last week or two. Thought I'd better clear the deck, as it were, before returning to Austen, so here goes.

On Friday I saw the Signature production of August Wilson's King Hedley II. The play's not as strong, I think, as the other two they've done this season; also, it's set in the bleak 1980s, which limits the magic that can be performed. On the other hand, the writing's still wonderfully good compared to almost all of what you see around the place (the lines all ring true, it's just the structure of the play as a whole that seems a bit more problematic), and the production is quite extraordinary. Just wonderfully good acting, and that is magical; Russell Hornsby in the title character is quite amazing, but so is everyone else (everything about Cherise Booth's performance in the part of Tonya, for instance, is exactly right, not just her voice and body language but her actual physique and the costumes and everything--I mean, I was there in the 80s, this I really can recognize with a shiver for the presence of the uncanny!)

(Here's the Times review, if you're interested.)

Wilson is tender with his characters in one sense--their voices are lovingly rendered, at any rate--but brutal with regard to what happens to them; the ending of this one in particular wrenches away any sense of fruitful patterning you might have achieved over the course of the cycle of plays. The week before, I saw the Pearl Theatre Company's revival of William Saroyan's The Cave Dwellers. It's a strange play, really not to my taste at all, partly because of its sentimental fairy-tale-like aspect--I kept waiting for a cynical twist, it is almost impossible to believe the play's intended to work "straight" like this, and yet I believe it is. Not enough particularity of human character (human nature will not after all stand in for character development!), not enough of a sense of life as it's lived (at least lived and understood by me), a strange and unrealistic over-protectiveness towards the characters: and yet in many ways the writing is very good, just undercut by an impossible-to-sustain vision of human nature that leads to some sentimentalizing. The production is extremely good, though; a clear vision, I think, on the director's part, and remarkably good acting across the board. Interesting to watch and to think about, though I cannot say it gives me much of an urge to plunge further into Saroyan's oeuvre.

It's an interesting question to ask about the novels one cares about, what the orientation of the narrator is towards the characters. Austen's narrators often have a shepherding or protective relationship towards the female protagonists of their respective novels: it's very striking in Northanger Abbey, for instance, and in a different way in Emma. These thoughts were crystallized for me when I read Darryl Pinckney's piece in the latest New York Review of Books (subscriber only, I'm afraid, though I think that link will work if you're a Columbia affiliate and plug in your uni and password) on Edward P. Jones's All Aunt Hagar's Children.

Now, I'm a passionate advocate for that book, in fact it's my pick for best American fiction of 2006 (out of what I read of course), and I was taken aback by seeing Pinckney (whose criticism I find wonderfully compelling) reach such different conclusions about the volume than I had. Here's the last bit of his review:

Jones awards most of his characters a sort of moral victory, or moral comfort. All Aunt Hagar's Children has a sentimental mood running through it, because of the life-affirming endings that he has constructed. It isn't that Jones prettifies the history of black people in the South. One of his characters can hate the state of Georgia, "because it had executed his uncle, an armless man who was as innocent as Jesus Christ." However, there is a softness at the center of Jones's new work and it has something to do with the way that folklore can turn black history into an uplifting heritage lesson. "We want, we rage, we desire, we fail, we succeed. We stand in that long, long line. Where were you when they taught us that?"

Then, too, Jones's attitude toward his subjects has much to do with his gentle, caressing tone. He is the shepherd of his invented world; protective toward his flock, his people. "About these passioning souls he did not need to be ironical," Saul Bellow said of John Berryman among the mental patients. It's not that Jones likes them so much he can't make anything bad happen to them. Caesar, the ex-con returning to his neighborhood in "Old Boys, Old Girls," recalls once again the death of his beloved mother:

It was one thing for him to throw out a quick statement about a dead mother, as he had done many times over the years. A man could say the words so often that they become just another meaningless part of his makeup. The pain was no longer there as it had been those first few times he had spoken them, when his mother was still new to her grave.

But it's as though he saw it as his mission as the writer of their fates to compensate them for life's sorrows, to take them out of history or to give them victory over that history.

His language shields them, elevates them, transports them. He isn't a magical realist so much as he is a historical lyricist. Other black writers who have made the folkloric an important part of their tone can sound hammy and overdone when compared to Jones, whose prose usually carries everything before it. Or maybe Jones's work is another step in black literature, another register of the folk voice as a literary voice. The way he can make the strange occurrence seem like the most natural thing that could happen to a black person recalls the passion and grace in the work of Henry Dumas, the brilliant young short story writer who was shot to death by a policeman in a Harlem subway in 1968—but without Dumas's overt militancy.

Jones's cultural politics are conservative, by comparison, and maybe, in trying to reach for the universal in black wisdom, he invents a world that isn't as sharp and arresting and truly weird as in his earlier work.

I agree with the observation about the tender caressing tone, also the shielding-elevating-transporting component, but I differ radically in the emotional and intellectual response it elicits in me. Why is "sharp and arresting and truly weird" aesthetically and morally preferable to transporting? Surely "moral comfort" is exactly not synonymous with sentimentalizing? I find in these stories that the precision of the language and the clarity of the vision (each story makes you feel that you're entering a whole novelistic world--and yes, it is a world in which lives are patterned in not explicitly Christian but certainly spiritually meaningful ways, and this is unusual, and if you described it to me I do not know whether it would sound particularly appealing, but in practice I am enchated by it) works as a powerful antidote to any hint of softness towards characters. Anyway, Pinckney's words really struck me, and I thought some of you might be interested to read & think about them further.

And on an altogether more frivolous note, my brain was in such a sorry state on Saturday that I realized the only thing to be done was to seek out the absolutely perfect light reading. So I walked virtually in a trance over to the Columbia bookstore (it is ludicrous that I felt I needed to go and buy something, my apartment is full of appealing books to be read, but so it goes when the light-reading fit descends) and bought Robert Crais's The Watchman and consumed it in one single delighted long sip of reading. Oh, it's such a good book: features Joe Pike as the main character (I like it when these series-writing guys shake it up a bit, and of course Pike really is more appealing than Elvis Cole), with all the fantastical wish-fulfilling tough-guy good-guy protector fantasies that this sort of book taps into. It really is great (makes me want to be like Joe Pike, go for a 3:30am run in a canyon with coyotes lurking alongside & then run up a million flights of stairs and do pushups on my thumbs--I was reminded of the deep appeal of the Navy Seal training plan which my friend Adam sent to me, I really am almost tempted to set this as my long-term fitness goal only of course it is really designed for very fit guys in their mid-20s--that's not the actual link he forwarded, I can't seem to find it again--but really there is no way that I would be able to run five miles at a sub-7:30 pace, I mean I suppose it is just vaguely humanly possible but I think it extraordinarily unlikely....)

The only bad thing was that reading it made me immediately want another book exactly as good & perfectly satisfying, and of course that book is Lee Child's forthcoming Jack Reacher novel, which has the appealing title Bad Luck and Trouble. I must see if I can get an advance copy, it is not published until May....

(What really would be funny and delightful & totally over-the-top would be if Robert Crais and Lee Child went in together and licensed a "Joe Pitt-Jack Reacher" fitness boot camp thing, I would totally do it--with lurking satirical impulses of course--how Disneyfied!--but wouldn't it be hilarious?!? There would have to be a special trip to a firing range, even though guns are not strictly speaking fitness-related...)


  1. Maybe you would bump into Jack Bauer while you were there?

  2. Let me know if you have trouble with the Lee Child ARC.