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.

*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]

Room by Emma Donoghue

Because I use the theme of childhood & Innocence / Experience in my freshman writing course, I’m always on the lookout for fiction dealing with those subjects. Emma Donoghue’s novel Room came up recently as a recommendation on Amazon, based, I think, on my purchasing history. I’d read a glowing review in the NY Times, so I ordered the book with the idea that it might work in my class. When it came I read the first twenty pages or so, then set it aside when I got busy grading, thinking that the story ran a serious risk of falling into an inevitable form of  sentimentality, given the subject and the point of view.

The story involves a young woman kidnapped and used for sex by an anonymous man who keeps her locked in a garden shed behind his suburban house that he has converted into the self-contained Room of the novel’s title, which is in fact a very effective prison. The young woman is 19 when she is kidnapped and within a couple of years becomes pregnant and bears a son. The tricky and audacious thing about the novel is that it is told in the first-person point of view of this boy when he is five years old. There are plenty of novels in the voices of children, but five years old is pushing against the downward limit of verbal ability for a narrator; still, Donoghue manages the difficulties with a kind of intelligence and grace one wouldn’t think possible, given the narrative situation she has set up for herself.

The narrator’s name is Jack and he is surely a verbally gifted child, but not so gifted as to seem implausible even to a reader (such as me) skeptical of this particular technical choice. The story develops in such a way that Jack’s verbal gifts seem natural: he spends a great deal of time talking to his mother and reading his five books and they also play a game called Parrot in which they watch TV and then the mother hits the mute button, Jack’s task in this game being to parrot back the whole previous sentence he has just heard whether he understands the words or not. They then discuss the words and their meaning. This game is only mentioned once or twice, but in the huge silence that is their lives (the room is soundproofed) language takes on a nearly magical importance. Continue reading

The God of War by Marisa Silver

I bought this novel because it is set very near to places I grew up in Southern California. Specifically, the novel is set in Bombay Beach, next to the Salton Sea in Imperial County, California. The book catches the desolation of the place and of the people who live there in language of Sopheclean directness. My grandfather lived in the Imperial Valley from around 1900 until his death at 94 about thirty years ago & I spent many school vacations baking in the 100 degree heat. No landscape moves me as much as that of western Imperial County, with its bare mountains of tumbled rock descending to the sandy floor of the valley. It is surely among the poorest counties in the state, same as the one I live in now, in Northern New York — both are far from the center, affording people greater freedom (of a certain kind) as well as greater risks than wealthier, more settled places nearer the capitals. The greatest risk, perhaps, is loneliness.

Silver’s novel demonstrates what can be accomplished with the basic materials of realist narrative and style. The story is recounted by Ares, now an adult but recalling events that occurred when he was twelve. The plot is rigorously chronological and the prose limpid and without a hint of authorial narcissism. Ares and his younger half-brother Malcolm, who is severely autistic, live with their single mother in a trailer in Bombay Beach, on the Salton Sea. Laurel, the boys’ mother, has fled the pieties and restraints of a Midwestern childhood and come to rest in the desolation of Imperial County. The novel’s plot is too delicate a machine to summarize, but from the opening pages it is apparent that some terrible event will divide the characters’ lives into a stark before and an after. If the heroes of the Greek theater were doomed by the capricious but implacable decrees of the Gods, the ordinary people in this story are propelled toward their fates by the implacability of mere chance. But Ares, the god of war, discovers comes to rest in the strength bestowed by integrity — his mother’s, his brother’s, and his own.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

I finished reading Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood last night. This novel is a sequel to Oryx & Crake, which came out in 2003. Oryx & Crake establishes and develops a near-future North American dystopia that is frighteningly plausible because it is so firmly rooted in the present. In a lecture at MIT shortly after the novel was published, Atwood describes the big scrapbooks of cuttings she compioled in order to ground the novel’s scientific and technological details in present knowledge and practice. She mostly concerns herself with genetics and economics in the first book, the technology of gene splicing and cloning leading to an economy based on the production of new organisms, which are given names like “rakunk,” a pet-like hybrid of raccoons and skunks, in Wikipedia’s phrase, and “pigoon,” a huge, balloon-like pig used to grow extra copies of human organs for transplantation. The names sound as if they come direct from the marketing departments of the industrial-scientific complex — cute and sinister simultaneously. Scientists and their families live in corporate “compounds,” gated and heavily guarded communities with their own stores, medical services, and social activities; the rest of humanity lives in the “pleeblands,” definitely ungated communities of varying degrees of squalor. Continue reading

Stone Age Flutes

Human beings seem to be inveterate makers of pattern, whether musical, visual, or verbal. The people who hollowed out the bird bones and cut holes at regular intervals were also making stunning pictures on the walls of caves and, I have no doubt, singing songs to their children and telling each other stories. All of these activities have pattern making at the heart. Other animals can recognize patterns in the world around them; human animals seem to be the only ones compelled to consciously create patterns — in the air, on the walls, with their voices.

I’ve just been reading Ellen Bryant Voigt’s delightful little book, The Art of Syntax — another in Graywolf’s really excellent The Art of series* — in which she makes explicit the patterns and variations in several poems serving as exempla.After all these years of writing poetry, Voigt’s little book excites me about what originally excited me — making shapes with words. With James Longenbach’s The Art of the Poetic Line, Voigt’s book would serve the intermediate student of poetry as a fine introduction to the art.

*Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext, another entry in this series, is a rich source of insight about the textures of literary fiction.