Atwood’s “Starved for You”

Just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s Kindle Single short story, “Starved for You” & while I am a great admirer of her work, I have to say Atwood seems to be coasting here, or that it is the first chapter of something longer that didn’t pan out. It certainly ends as if there could & probably should be something more. But beyond that relatively superficial level of plot mechanics, the fictional world seems a little thin here. One might compare it, for instance, with the opening chapter of Oryx & Crake, where Atwood is writing at the very top of her form, to see what second-level Atwood looks like. The writing in this story remains graceful & stylish, but the imagination falters.

The story is set in a near-future dystopia in which prison communities run by a corporation  have been developed in which citizens spend half their time living as prisoners and the other half as “prisoner-civilians” in the gated community that surrounds the prison. For the residents, once you sign up it’s a lifetime commitment. One month as a prisoner, one month as a civilian tending the prison & surrounding town — for the rest of your life. As in Oryx & Crake, life outside the confines of the corporate community has degenerated into a nasty amalgam of poverty, criminality, and disease. People go into the Conciliance (for so the town is called) program because it offers them security, though at the cost of their freedom. Instead, they are given a simulacrum of freedom.

Predictably, for some characters the simulacrum proves insufficiently stimulating & it is from that dissatisfaction that Atwood fashions her plot, which revolves around unapproved sexual desire. But the characters, particularly Max, are cartoons. (Ah, it just occurred to me writing that last sentence, this would have made a good graphic novella.) In an interesting twist, one of the characters whose sex drive seems to be trying to compensate for her loss of freedom, has the job of euthanizing prisoners who cannot be reformed. It is a job she takes seriously & performs responsibly, feeling no conscious remorse. No sense of guilt or complicity clouds her idealism in performing this task & the scene in which we see her at work is deeply creepy, certainly the strongest in the story. Would that the sex scenes rose to this level. Perhaps if this story gets developed into something more, that will happen. The final scene of the story certainly suggests kinky possibilities.

Nine-Headed Dragon River by Peter Matthiessen

I’ve been a fan of Peter Mathiessen’s since I discovered At Play in the Fields of the Lord in the 1970s. Unlike many of his admirers, though, I think I have liked his fiction better than his non-fiction. Maybe I just have a problem with “environmental writing” that spends most of its energy in describing the environment. I already know that the Himalayan wilderness is beautiful — I’m not sure what pasting words over it really accomplishes, except inviting a kind of smug moral complicity on the part of the reader. Well, that’s hyperbole, but I nevertheless prefer a writer like John McPhee, who tends to focus more on the human presence within the environment. Perhaps I am too on guard against sentimentality to appreciate real sentiment sufficiently.

In any event, Mathiessen’s book of Zen journals has several passages of very clear exposition of Zen principles, but much of this — as one would expect from a journal — emerges from very fine-grained and small scale descriptions of the writer’s interactions with his teachers and — especially in the third section of the book — his travels around Japan visiting various Soto temples. This final part contains some of the best “Zen writing” but also tends to get lost in paragraphs of landscape painting and descriptions of peripheral Soto places & personalities. My own preference is for Mathiessen’s historical anecdotes, as opposed to his contemporary accounts. For instance, in Chapter 11, visiting the Engaku-ji Temple in Kamakura, he relates the story of the 13th century nun Chiyono, who attained enlightenment while hauling water. Apparently, she had been studying a long time without experiencing kensho, but one evening her wooden bucket gave way & she “understood the great matter,” to paraphrase Master Dogen. To commemorate the event, she wrote a poem:

In this way and that I tried to save the old pail
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break
Until at last the bottom fell out.
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!

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The Year of Reading Massively

I stopped blogging last summer — not really consciously — because I was doing so much reading. I must have read a dozen books in July & August about cosmology & quantum physics & I may write something about those before long. Basically, what I learned is that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy. But mostly I’ve been reading fiction & in particular Henry James. I started with The American, then in quick succession read Washington Square (which I had read before), Portrait of a Lady, & The Ambassadors. I mixed in some of the shorter tales as I went along, including “The Figure in the Carpet” & a rereading of “The Jolly Corner.” I’m probably forgetting a few. And yesterday I finished Edel’s one-volume version of his massive five-volume biography. Along the way I read David Lodge’s Author, Author, which takes as its subject a five year period in James’s middle years in which he attempted without much success to write for the stage. Along the way I read Lodge’s essay, “Consciousness and the Novel,” which is mostly motivated by a concern for understanding James’s depiction of personality, though it ranges into modern neuroscience and philosophy as well. About half-way through the sequence just noted, I paused to read Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend in order to see what the novel had looked like in the decade before James.

And that was just one little piece of my reading in recent months. I think I’ll be using the blog in the near future to review a good deal of this recent reading, returning to the original impulse under which I started blogging, which was to record a writer’s notes on his reading.

The Elegance of the Philosophical Novel

On the recommendation of one of my students, I’ve just read Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. A lovely piece of fiction, I think, filled with great generosity & marred only by an occasional sentimental slip-up. Whether its vision of comity across the lines of class is realistic, I am not at all sure; but certainly, imagining such comity is a kind of blessed work.* The narration is split between a precocious twelve-year-old girl, the daughter of a haute bourgeois family, and the fifty-four-year-old concierge who works in their building, an autodidact of startlingly wide reading. The girl Paloma’s contributions are in the form of a pair of journals she keeps that record her alienation from her family and their values and her tone is a sometimes wistful, sometimes viciously satirical in manner; the concierge Madam Michel’s contributions feel more like traditional narrative, though at one point she, too, alludes to the fact that they are a written record of her life. This leads to what, in a traditional novel, would be a point of view problem at the end of the story, but that, here, seems designed to create a paradox for the reader’s contemplation.

The machinery of the interlocking narratives is not terribly subtle, but this is hardly a fault in a philosophical novel, where, presumably, the emphasis is in the reality of ideas rather than the realism of the setting & plot. It is clear from the beginning that the two narrators, living in different worlds in the same Paris apartment building, must inevitably be brought together; the way they come together is, however, both surprising and appropriate to their personalities. I thought the story sagged a bit about two-thirds of the way along, but it recovers itself quickly and rushes on to a surprising and, as noted, paradoxical conclusion. I am perhaps less sanguine than the author about the possibilities for communication and friendship across the boundaries of class and culture, but surely we ought to aspire to such intellectual and spiritual freedoms as this novel celebrates.

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*In this, as in other ways, The Elegance of the Hedgehog reminds one of another European philosophical novel narrated in the voice of a precocious girl, Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gaarder [NY Times Book Review, review of The Elegance of the Hedgehog  by Caryn James; review of Sophie’s World by John Vernon]