Monday, June 15, 2015

Euphoria by Lily King

Although I had previously read two Lily King novels and found them both very well told stories, I was really not prepared for the depth and profundity of her 2014 novel, Euphoria.

Based loosely on incidents in the life of Margaret Mead when she was in the territory of New Guinea in 1933, this short novel has much to say about anthropology and the arrogance of the western world and of power relationships between men and women—both those of the three anthropologists in the story (two men and one woman), and of the so-called primitive cultures that they studied.

Nell Stone is the character King builds from her meticulous research into the lives of Margaret Mead, her third husband, Gregory Bateson, and her second husband, an Australian social scientist. Andrew Bankson, the character King creates in the likeness of Bateson, has been alone in the field for many months, and he is lonely and depressed to the point of being suicidal when he first meets Nell and her husband Fen. Nell and Fen have recently fled from their study of a violent tribe, and with Bankson’s help are relocated with a people called the Tam, much more artistic and peace-loving than the culture they have fled. 

King begins her novel with two short quotes, one from Mead and the other from the wonderful anthropologist Ruth Benedict. Mead: “Quarrels over women are the keynote of the New Guinea primitive world.” Benedict: “Experience, contrary to common belief, is mostly imagination.”

As you read this excellent, fast-paced little novel, you will come to understand the relevance of both quotes, Nell and Fen settle into their study of the Tam while Bankson returns to his own tribe several canoe-hours upstream. 
Anthropology at that time was in transition, moving from the study of men dead and gone to the study of living people, and slowly letting go of the rigid belief that the natural and inevitable culmination of every society is the Western model.
Certainly, Mead was a central figure in that early progress away from the rigidity of western views. As Nell argues with Bankson in an early chapter of the book, there is no such thing as a purely objective view, subjectivity will enter, but we can at least try to step back, try to get a different, a larger, perspective on what we are viewing. 
She told me I sounded as skeptical as my father. She said no one had more than one perspective, not even in the so-called hard sciences. We’re always, in everything we do in this world, she said, limited by subjectivity. But our perspective can have an enormous wingspan, if we give it the freedom to unfurl.  Look at Malinowski, she said. Look at Boas. They defined their cultures as they saw them, as they understood the natives’ point of view. The key is, she said, to disengage yourself from all your ideas about what is “natural.”
While most reviewers understood the historical importance of this novel, they also had much to say about the love-triangle that develops between the three anthropologists. Nell is not allowed into the mens’ lodges, so she cannot observe or question/listen as she can among the women and children. Fen, is more interested in weaponry and machinery than in the social relations of the culture, and is jealous of the success of a book Nell has published to great acclaim. Mead, like Nell, published a book that became very famous, Coming of Age in Samoa. Bankson is more interested in Nell’s daily work with the women and families than is Fen, and adapts more easily to her constantly working lifestyle. While Fen says the constant click-clack from her typewriter is driving him crazy, and actually slams and then tosses the typewriter, Bankson insists that the background typewriting noises make it easier for him to think. Their work-habits are congruous, and from the start, Bankson has had a tremendous sexual attraction for this fiercely active and engaged woman. While I found the blooming love-affair between Nell and Bankson more sweet than steamy, no doubt the ménage a trois aspect of the novel accounts at least partly for its fame.

King takes the love-triangle aspect of her story in quite a different direction than Mead’s and Bateson’s own lives, and unlike the real-life events, perhaps ties her story up a little too neatly, but the tale she tells has a charm to it quite aside from the Mead/Bateson story.

One thing this book did for me is make me more interested in Mead and her views of anthropology, as well as her views on relationships. I will close with a longish quote from Nell reflecting on her ongoing study of male-female relations, and her mounting disagreements with her husband, Fen.
In her grant proposal, she claimed that she would continue her inquiry of child-rearing in primitive cultures, but the Tam were tempting her with something even more enticing. At first she dared not hope, but the data kept coming: taboo reversals, sisters-in-law on friendly terms, emphasis on female sexual gratification. Yesterday Chanta explained to her that he could not go to visit his sick nephew in the far hamlet because his wife’s vulva would go wandering if he did. They were grand on the world ‘vulva’. When Nell asked if an elderly widow would ever marry again, several people said at the same time ‘Has she not a vulva?’ Girls themselves decided whom they would marry and when. Fen disagreed with every conclusion she drew on this topic. He said she was blinded by her desire to see them this way, and when she laid out her evidence he said whatever power the women had was temporary, situational…Whatever she saw was a temporary aberration.

This is a fascinating novel both in the story it tells, and for its many layers of speculation on the nature of anthropology and the possibility of objectivity in and science, especially the social sciences. 

Monday, June 01, 2015

Intrusions by Ursula Hegi

Like many writers and authors before her, Ursula Hegi wonders whether a woman can be both a good mother and a good writer. In her 1981 novel, Intrusions, she spends an entire novel examining this question, and though she finds many women who say you must choose between your art and your children, she disagrees. 
You can’t have both. You must make a choice.I don’t want to believe that. It’s too easy a solution, an excuse for anyone who doesn’t want to try. I don’t want to make that choice. I want both. Dammit, I do.
Given that she has published seven novels, to collections of short stories as well as children’s literature and non-fiction books, we must conclude that she has succeeded in doing both. Intrusions (her first published novel) came out in 1981, and there has been a steady steam of work since. 

This novel is about a writer who not only has to live with the intrusions of two small children and her husband, but eventually with the intrusions of the characters in her novel as well. The book skips back and forth between the story of Megan Stone, writing madly whenever she can wrest a few minutes from her busy day, and the author, herself, who like her heroine has a husband and two children. The idea of a novel within a novel is not a new one, but Hegi is so clever in the ways in which she argues with her own lead character, Megan, and with Megan’s husband Nick. Hegi deals with intrusions on so many levels.

Megan says that were she to be asked by a reporter to define what was most important to her, “Megan would quite likely have replied: solitude, to be completely alone without even the slightest possibility of an interruption, without even the slightest possibility of the possibility of an interruption.” 
This was the year when Megan’s children were two and four, when she always felt surrounded by their needs even when she was not with them (which was very seldom), when ninety percent of her conversations hovered on the level of a two-or four-year-old, when she began to doubt if she had ever possessed any intelligence and, if so, worried that it was evaporating like fumes from an open can of cleaning fluid.
And when she does find a few moments to write, she feels guilty over what she perceives as neglect of her children. Having lost both of her parents and her brother at the age of six, killed in a plane crash, and raised by an aunt who is both prudishly strict as well as quite distant and cold, Megan is intent on being really there for her children, and yet she also feels compelled to write. Every stolen moment of writing brings guilt in its wake, and yet she must write.

Megan says she can feel the silent presence of her son just outside her study door, his very silence a weight she can hardly bear. And then even the characters in her novel begin to intrude, questioning her motives, her love of her husband and children. “The characters have moved in. They follow me around, even crowd my family at the dinner table. There isn’t enough room for all of us. I can barely move. Nobody but me is aware of them.”

While the problems raised and faced by both Megan and the author, herself, are serious and heart-wrenching, Hegi displays the dilemmas with a humor and lightness of hand that makes the novel easy and fun to read. 

I started this novel many years ago, right after reading Hegi’s most famous novel, Stones from the River. But, adhering to my own conviction that readers ought not stick with books that do not thoroughly engage them, I let Intrusions  fall to the side. I was surprised when I recently picked up the novel again (searching my ‘started but not finished bookshelf’) and found that I had read two hundred pages of this 270 page novel before moving on to other things. This time, I breezed through the novel in just a day or two, and was so intrigued that  it was hard to understand why I had given up on it earlier. No matter; such things have happened to me before, but I remain committed to finishing only books that hold my attention throughout. Too many good books to do otherwise.

What I think Hegi shows her readers in this novel is that one can be both a good, committed artist and a good parent, and that relationships between men and women can be good despite sometimes requiring balancing acts. Speaking of her book club, Megan says:
But the fiction we discuss tells us that to be a woman is to be a victim, that all men are villains. Why? It doesn’t have to be that way. There are good relationships between men and women, between men and their children. Aren’t there? I won’t let you be victimized by your husband, your children, your house, Megan, and I won’t let you keep a card file of rooms to be cleaned and silver to be polished. 
I found  this book to be wonderfully insightful and humorous, and Hegi has in her own life shown clearly that women need not decide between their art and their families; they can have both.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Old Filth, by Jane Gardam

I imagine that most compulsive readers worry from time to time that they are going to run out of books to read, or worse, suddenly lose their enchantment with the written word. How wonderful when one discovers a new author, even if she has been around for most of the reader’s life. Through a reader friend who slipped me a piece of paper in a grocery line with a name written on it, I became aware of a marvelous British author by the name of Jane Gardam. Maureen Corrigan of NPR describes Gardam as “the best British writer you’ve never heard of,” so I guess I am not alone in having previously missed out on her long career of writing. As soon as I discovered her, I quickly, and with passionate interest, began to read her. I’ve already read seven of her books, beginning with her Collected Stories, five hundred pages of stories she, herself, selected from the volumes of short fiction she has written over a lifetime. But today I want to focus on her exquisite trilogy, Old Filth, which consists of the title volume, Old Filth, followed by The Man in the Wooden Hat and Last Friends. All three are about British law practitioners who spend most of their lives in what was then called The British Empire. Indeed, filth is an acronym for Failed in London? Try Hong Kong.

Eddie Feathers, affectionately named Old Filth by his fellow barristers and judges, is a Raj orphan—one of many British children sent home from India (or Hong Kong, or some other country in the Empire) to be fostered by family or strangers until they are old enough to enter boarding school. The children are allegedly sent to England in order to prevent them from getting tropical diseases, but often enough the children are miserable in their foster homes, although in some cases, the children come to prefer their foster parents and simply forget their earlier lives with their biological parents. Gardam is a master of the language, and obviously knows a lot about the Raj orphans. Indeed, she dedicates Old Filth to Raj Orphans and their parents.

To me, the most fascinating aspect of the trilogy is that all three volumes include not only the same characters, but the same historical period, roughly from WW I to the end of the 20th century. The first volume is mainly about Eddie Feathers, a.k.a. Filth, and his wife, Betty, and a lifelong enemy of Feathers, Ed Veneering. Both Feathers and Veneering make reputations and fortunes as land attorneys and later judges. There were fortunes to be made in the distributing and redistributing of land and land-rights, mining rights, especially after WW II. The characters of Feathers and Veneering are as different as their histories are similar. Gardam gets at the complexity of her characters in ways few authors can match, and once a character is mentioned by Gardam, the reader can be sure that his or her life will be picked up again as a story in its own right at some point in the trilogy. In the final volume of the trilogy, Last Friends, a rather minor legal figure, Fiscal-Jones, who appears briefly in many of the stories/scenes in the earlier volumes, emerges as the last living member of a group of Raj orphans, and his life story is then meticulously stitched into narrative of the lives of the ‘main’ characters described previously. “Don’t introduce a pistol in a short-story or play unless you intend to bring it into the action later,” is an adage told to writers; for Gardam, it seems to be, “Don’t introduce a character unless you intend to develop him/her at some later point.”

The descriptions of life in Hong kong, and other cities of the Empire are marvelous for someone who knows as little history as I do. And because she takes her characters through their entire lives, the reader gets Gardam’s insights on aging, the end of Empire, parenting (or deciding not do parent), and the incredible changes in daily life over the past half century or so. Gardam is in her 80s, and so lived through the times of her characters, and she continues to enlighten us about those times. She is a master story-teller, on a par I think with the great Alice Munro, and, like Munro, most of her short fiction is dedicated to the apparently ordinary lives of rural North England towns. But, again like Munro, Gardam understands that the inner lives of ‘simple’ folk are anything but ordinary or simple. The complexity of her characters brings them to life in wonderfully rich ways. And while there is much sadness and loss in the lives of her characters, there is also humor and love and loyalty. As Old Filth, Eddie Feathers, lies on his deathbed trying to recall where he is and how he got there, he reflects:
Memory. My memory has always been so reliable. Perhaps too reliable. It has never spared me. Memory and desire, he thought. Who said that: Without memory and desire life is pointless? I long ago lost any sort of desire. Now memory.

Gardam, along with Penelope Lively, Barbara Kingsolver, Lynne Sharon Schwartz (and I’m sure many others), seem intent on reviewing for us the 20th century, looking again at its wars, its poverty and suffering; they give us such complex and insightful perspectives on the politics and events of the last century. They seem to be summing up, and I find their summing-up to be helpful and hopeful. I note that there are still sixteen books of Gardam I have not read, along with some children’s stories (which is how she was first published). I mean to read everything she has written; she is a wise companion to have in life. She tells us what she knows through story-telling, without didacticism or self-righteousness. I am quite certain I would admire her as a person just as I admire her as a writer.