Edward T. Wheeler
Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.
By this author
Some novels take us where we had rather not go. The strength of the narrative voice beckons onwards despite a sense that there will be moments of selective page-skipping, a blanking out of what is too unpleasant for the inner ear or eye. Yet we read on to take ourselves to places and experiences that we can never have. How often do our notions of aberrant states, criminal worlds, political tyranny or the stark shock of alien customs derive from fictional accounts? We rely on the author, make an unspoken contract with her or him, to represent honestly what we do not know. There is a complicity of acceptance – unless we feel misled through lack of authenticity or the poverty of style or the falsity of emotion.
I almost put down The Panopticon by the Scottish writer Jenni Fagan. The language was rife with Scottish dialect slang, and the more familiar Anglo-Saxon expletives; the setting was dark, and the young people represented formed a nightmare group of adolescents. I shuddered, imagining them as students in a class I had to teach. The novel presents a first person narrator, a Scottish orphan who has been the ward of the state for her entire fifteen years. Her language matches the abuse she suffers, driven by her drug use, and she records her deepest conviction and fear: that she is the subject of some “experiment” designed by the authorities to control her – hence the Panopticon of the title. Ms. Fagan writes from her own experience; she was an orphan in the care of institutions all her early life and, as she asserts in interviews, is determined not to cheapen or sensationalize the difficulties of such a life. The author’s success in transcending what might have maimed or even killed her, tempers the telling but certainly does not slacken the tension. Life for Anais Hendricks is constant dissembling, a defensive tactic she has to adopt if she is to retain her self-esteem and her freedom. The story opens with the threat of a criminal charge pending against her: assault and battery of a policewoman. Anais remembers nothing of the incident (her drugged state displaced her consciousness) but she is too aware of the consequences of conviction: incarceration in a “secure unit.” For the time being she is housed with other teenagers in the Panopticon, a circular prison with its central tower lodging guards who can inspect her at their choosing.
The unreliable or limited narrator filters experience; to represent this, a tortured or puzzling use of language embodying the speaker’s voice pushes towards incomprehension. I am thinking of the opening of Joyce’s Portrait; Stephen’s infant consciousness defies easy recognition of sounds, shapes, environment. The language Joyce employs in its incompleteness carries the meaning through denying it – on first glance. Faulkner does something similar in the opening of The Sound and the Fury – and we can name many more.
Rereading Jonathon Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn forced a consideration of narrative limitation to mind. Lethem’s Lionel, if you remember, suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome. Unlike Joyce’s Stephen, he will not mature to leave behind the prose that offers us infant sensibilities, and unlike Benjy in Faulkner’s novel, Lionel possesses a critical intelligence and verbal sophistication. As a narrator then, Lionel both speaks out of his Tourette’s plagued consciousness and reflects on its workings. He understands himself to be “twitch” or “tic” governed and, in his interior monologue that carries the narration, he reflects upon this state.
South Carolina native Marly Youmans has published four novels, two young adult books, and three collections of poetry. In A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, she offers a Southern Gothic coming-of-age novel, featuring the precocious, eleven-year-old Pip, a hobo who travels back and forth across Depression-era America.
A friend recommended Ali Smiths Artful, commenting on its ease of style and sharpness of perception. The novelist, he told me, had taken on serious topics in this work, a published version of a series of lectures, and that she had somehow made theory a pure joy as well as a pure good. Circularity takes over now: our library had the book but could not locate it; as an alternative I took out Smiths Booker Prize Nominee, The Accidental, thinking to acquaint myself with her work.
What is to be gained by showing the apparent theatrical mechanics of stage production in a film adaptation of a novel? Joe Wrights direction of Tom Stoppards screenplay of Anna Karenina asserts repeatedly that the social life of late 19th Century Russia is a spectacle. They achieve this by breaking the frame. The camera shows us a theater, and upon the stage, as well as in the wings and in the galleries, and on catwalks above the stage, the characters make their entrances and exits.
Mater dolorosa is certainly a title that can be applied to the Mary of Colm Toibins Testament of Mary, but the sorrow in her voice rests on a fulcrum of anger and fear. Permit, please the metaphor, to let me say the balance tips towards rejection, and the traditional role she rejects rises away, almost thrown from her grasp. Her novelistic end weighs heavily towards escape, if only imaginary, into a sensuous human realm: a city filled with wells and trees. The world has loosened, like a woman preparing for bed who lets her hair flow free.
Chance will have us discover patterns, but then we also believe that there are no coincidences. Do those two statements demand the admission that we read what we have to? To be less riddling: I posted admiring comments on Richard Fords Canada over a week ago. In particular I admired the narrative voice: Del Parson looks back after fifty years at his experiences at fifteen. Apparently irresponsible decisions by adults in his life had defining and inescapable consequences.
I reckon we all lay great store in compelling fictional voices. Coleridge summons this up in his Ancient Mariner who fixes the Wedding Guest with his glittering eye . . . He cannot choose but hear. The artistry of great story tellers lies in their ability to establish not simply a credible voice, but one which, for want of a better word, enchants. The commonplace (after Hemingway) is that Mark Twain in Huck Finn offered a paradigmatic American voice, ingenuous, colloquial, and convincing. Twain gives us something authentic: mimetic, unique, and yet representative.
I suspect that each of us wishes to pick up a book without being overly prejudiced one way or another about its worth. True, there is little hope of approaching a favorite author without positive expectations. A Booker prize winner is likely to have the same effect. But what happens when an author who is both a favorite and a prize winner publishes a work that you know has been negatively received by critics you admire? How do you give that book a fair reading? Ian McEwans latest novel, Sweet Tooth, has provoked mixed reactions.
I found myself a few weeks ago recounting a bit of family history to a friend. I tried to give a sense of the four sisters and one brother (along with estranged mother and father) who arrived in New York in the 1890s from Germany. My grandmother and great aunts and uncle, especially to the eyes of a child, were strange and awkward beings, living in an American world never really far from the Old Country, at least in their reminiscences.