Wednesday, September 12, 2007

On things with flaws

I'm not being a contrarian when I say that I like things with flaws, just stating something true about my sensibility. I will take the flawed and interesting any day over the aesthetically perfect (hmmm, except that it is true that I appreciate perfection in things like very beautifully iced cupcakes, or other attractive and miniature things whose perfectly-formedness is part of their appeal).

Anthony Burgess really was my favorite novelist for many a year, and while he is not any more his writing shaped me more than almost any other writer I can think of. Almost every book he wrote is flawed in one way or another, sometimes in multiple ways, and yet his work as a whole seems to me more stimulating and more energetic and altogether more enjoyable than the work of many greater novelists--70 strange and interesting and provoking books > 3-4 really perfect ones.

(Is any novel perfect, anyway? It's something against the nature of the form--it's kind of wrong for novels to be perfect...)

I think Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote the strongest defense of the beauty of flawed things, though his dappled things are nothing like mine in sensibility (the layout is not going to properly appear):
GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.
So, three flawed things that I loved:

1. A very strange, often ludicrous and altogether rather wonderful novel by Christopher Fowler, Roofworld. There is a far more tasteful and elegant alternate-universe version of this novel, sort of Matrix-like, in which a motley crew of dissident/dropout types dressed in Pradaesque black nylon jumpsuits use a secret system of cables and climbing tools to travel the rooftops of London and battle a warring gang. In the this-world version, there is also a ludicrously cliched Chief Inspector (still reeling from the bad publicity he received as "the officer in charge of last summer's notorious and controversial 'Leicester Square Vampire' case"), rather too many horror-movie scenes of impaling and flaying (there's a hilarious "keel-haul" scene that strained my capacity for plausibility, I do not think if you used this sort of pulley system thing to drag someone up and down fire escapes and a brick building that they would indeed end up in the condition described--oh, let me find the exact language, it is rather priceless, and by the way he really does use the word "keel-haul" which is delightful!--oh, yes...--"By the fifth floor he had bitten clean through the gag and his tongue as he left a bloody track up the building and the bricks rasped over areas already scoured clean of skin. When he finally reached the top and they had laid him out on the surface of the roof, he had mercifully lost consciousness. He lay, a bloody skinless puppet of raked meat, barely breathing, nose shattered, face unrecognizable." Strictly speaking, this is not at all good writing, and yet there is something attractively irrepressible in the phrase "a bloody skinless puppet of raked meat," this is a writer relishing his own powers!) And Hargreaves has a primitive computer system that tells him that the chief villain Chymes is steeped in the lore of alchemy and may be a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn! In any case, it is an imaginative and extremely exuberant novel, I enjoyed it very much... (Thanks to Brent for the recommendation.)

Oh, and a fortuitous illustration pinched from a recent story in the Times:
2. Robin McKinley's Dragonhaven. I pretty much loved this book, reading it was a minor illicit injection of mental health into an otherwise rather stressful week, and yet McKinley (it must be said) has dispensed with a great many of the features that we assume novels should have! Her narrative is rambling, chock-full of excessive and probably cuttable exposition, covers a number of years in a rather higgledy-piggledy way. Maybe more damagingly, many of the novel's elements reminded me very strongly of other books of McKinley's that may have used them in a more satisfying manner: for instance, the description of raising the orphaned puppies in Deerskin is probably more moving and more vivid than the descriptions of baby-dragon-raising here; and the novel's voice (also its basic premise, of supernatural creatures rather persecuted by an oppressive alternate-U.S. near-future-feeling government) is very similar to that of Sunshine, only it was more plausible as a mid-twenties female than as a teenage male, and there's more variety in that novel too; and the animal-conversation stuff in Spindle's End was also more fully worked out. (In case you can't tell from the way I talk about them, I have read each of these books at least five times...) And yet Dragonhaven is also one of the most enjoyable and satisfying novels I've read for a long, long time, in spite of these rather pronounced formal peculiarities. I think it will be fairly polarizing--the more animal-oriented of McKinley's fans will surely love it (there's some great stuff in here, esp. if you're interested in state parks and wilderness preserves and zoo-keeping!), the more romance- and fairy-tale-oriented ones maybe not so much.

(Thanks by the way to Gautam for his angelic ability to make books magically appear in my mailbox, a singularly cheerfulness-inducing phenomenon.)

3. Oh dear, I fear this one's a bit controversial. All weekend I've had the link in my browser and not quite known what to do with it. Madeleine L'Engle is dead. I loved her books in childhood and adolescence, the Wrinkle in Time ones and the Meet the Austins ones and indeed pretty much all of her others also are among my most-reread childhood favorites. (Like twenty-times reread!) She was a mesmerizing story-teller with a remarkable imagination and unusual levels of interest in the kinds of high-stakes question that are closer to theology than ethics, and this is a great part of what gives her books their interest. But I also feel it must be said that I do not find her finally in the first rank of children's book authors. Books of that vintage that I consider really superlative in terms of writing and so forth, and that I think stand up to the closest scrutiny (of course this is just a matter of taste, but I could show you what I meant if we were talking in person, and I have chosen ones written in quite different styles to hint at the ways it's not a question of genre preference): Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy; Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia; the best couple books by Susan Cooper and Alan Garner and E. L. Konigsberg. In contrast, there's something self-indulgent or wish-fulfilling about L'Engle's books. She's soft on her main characters in certain ways that detract from the achievement in a literary sense. But the way she makes things feel like they matter--that's what I always loved most about her writing, and in the end I suppose she becomes a greater writer than the actual writing in individual books might perhaps lead one to assess her as.

In closing, I will say that there are many reasons I find my life at Columbia rather magical, but one of them is surely that I am living very much in the (more salubrious twenty- or thirty-years-later version) of the Morningside Heights neighborhood L'Engle describes so well in The Young Unicorns and A Severed Wasp.


  1. I'm always tempted to say that The Great Gatsby is a perfect novel. Every sentence is so carefully formed! It is relatively brief--maybe that's its flaw?

    Moby Dick, meanwhile, is probably my favorite book that's all flaws.

    As for L'Engle, I see what you're saying, but for me the interest in big questions trumps what you nail as her way of letting her characters off easy. (But you're right: Harriett the Spy is really stiff competition--talk about an unforgettable voice!)

  2. Levi, that is so funny, I almost mentioned Gatsby in this post as PERHAPS THE NOVEL I MOST HATE IN THE WORLD to illustrate my point (ruined for me by reading it in HS English, that wretched green light...) but in fact its lack of obvious flaws is part of why it fails to endear itself to me, flawless in many cases equals ANNOYING; whereas Moby Dick really does seem to me just an extraordinary and crazy book, how can you resist...

    NB there are flawless narratives that I really love, but they tend to be short stories or novellas--Chekhov for instance...

  3. One 'perfect' book I don't enjoy: Madame Bovary. 'Flawed' books I like? I guess the Kafka novels, as all of them are not finished. And Bolano, a more recent example.

  4. wThere's no such thing as a perfect novel except in a very narrow context, but for me Gatsby comes close. I happen to be rereading it at the moment, and am astonished by how gorgeous it is.

    The question of perfectability: Orpheus/Eurydice.

    As to Bridge to Terabithia, I found the ending rushed.

    And as to what counts as good writing, 'strictly speaking' - well, we'll have to leave that to a long chat over a good wine. We'll need the wine to mellow our differences of opinion.

  5. Dickens' novels are mostly quite flawed, too.

    Several of Austen's novels are perfect, and I love them, so I suppose that's my exception. (Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Persuasion seem to me the most 'perfect' in this sense.)

    Yes, Madame Bovary has those properties--I do love it but I can easily see why someone wouldn't. Again, I can see the qualities of Gatsby that people respond to, it is just a temperamental thing that they make me extremely irritated as a reader. I do feel that in some important ways Fitzgerald's talents were best suited to the short-story form (hmmm, Hawthorne's another I feel that way about)--some of those stories are just extraordinary, I find them moving in a way Gatsby just isn't to me...

  6. Glad _Roofworld_ had enough in it for you.

    L'Engle - _A Swiftly Tilting Planet_ worked best for me of what I read of her opus. Probably the malleable reality bit did it.

  7. Jenny,
    I think I got lucky with The Great Gatsby: I read it in one sitting the night it was assigned in high school and was absolutely blown away.

    Having that reading under my belt enabled me to more or less ignore the excruciating explanations of the symbolism that we were hammered with in class in the following weeks. I got to experience it as a book first, rather than as a repository of easily mapped meaning.

    It's held up, too, to a couple of adult re-readings.

    And now I'm trying to imagine what Moby Dick would be without any flaws. A four-page story about an awkward night when Ishmael shared a bed at an inn with a pagan harpooner?