Read-in-Progress: Beth Gutcheon, Domestic Pleasures

Nine pages into Domestic Pleasures, a character said, “I’m in a pay phone.” I flipped back to the copyright page and found that the original publication date was 1991. “First Perennial edition published 2001,” the page helpfully added, which means there was enough demand to reprint it.

Why? Domestic Pleasures is utterly disposable – possibly source material for a movie like Crazy, Stupid, Love, but nothing that ought to leap back onto the shelf. Seventy pages in, Raymond Gaver has been made out as a philandering sociopath who justly died when his plane exploded. When his divorce attorney Charlie goes to settle the estate with Raymond’s ex-wife Martha, and…

I guess they’re gonna fall in love. Meanwhile, by page 70 we’ve also had eight perspective characters, including a Phoebe and a Patsy, and a Connie and a Charlie. Few are necessary, and most aren’t terribly interesting. This is especially true with the bratty, racist teenager Phoebe, daughter of Charlie. Charlie takes Phoebe’s expulsion from school as a chance to bond with Martha, but that’s borderline unbelievable; they’ve already shared Chinese food after a pool-table delivery (god, don’t ask), but it’s a big leap from lo mein to parenting advice.

Gutcheon does give it some nice attitude in spots (viz. Sherry’s dropping a Dorothy Parker reference while hearing of Raymond’s death). This prevents Domestic Pleasures from descending into Kristyn Kusek Lewis territory. Other times, though – as with Phoebe’s racism, or Jack’s asking “Who’s this Leveque unit?” in vintage Totally Radical fashion – the attitude goes badly awry. And I’m suspecting, as the Hand of Plot pushes Martha and Charlie together, that the attitude is going to get scraped off like mold, leaving only the bitterly stale bread of cliché in its place. (That simile may not actually work.) I guess I’ll finish – it’s a quick read – but I’m dreading the conclusion.

The Centennial: August 24, 1914

Classes approached. Mildred was emailing for help planning her course. Students were requesting syllabuses and “I really need to get an A.” One confused sophomore asked if Eran would be his thesis advisor. On the other hand, Eran had a supplementary stipend for the year, his rent was holding steady, and Stefan had been uncharacteristically complimentary about the revisions to his spring seminar paper: One more round, and you’ll have a journal article on your hands. So things could have been worse.

But Eran wasn’t ready to go back to school. One last weekend, he swore, one last lazy Sunday before I have to grow up again.

Ian was of the same mind.

“Cam keeps telling me everything’s gonna change. No more nights out, no more days to ourselves. I don’t know. It’s just a matter of setting priorities, really. And we’ll have to do it. With the promotion, I’m going to be traveling. I won’t even be here half the time.”

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

Ian shrugged everything off. He could afford to. His leased, oddly stodgy Buick Enclave took the grooved pavements of Lexington as if it were cruising on fresh blacktop. He had already spilled at least three espressos on his console: Thank god for detailing, was his reaction. “We’ve gotta pay for the wedding. Plus the kid’ll need a college fund. Maybe private school. Study-abroad. Cam says she’s going to stay home – someone has to make the money.”

“So that’s your plan for the world? Let everything go private because you can afford it? To hell with the rest of us?”

Ian’s look was not without sympathy. “And how would you be doing, right now, if you could respond to the world as it is, not just as you want it to be?”

Eran lost every argument, and knew he deserved to. His case had at least some merit, but he got too irritated and brought it up at times when it wasn’t even relevant. Like today.

And then there were his biographical liabilities. The nonprofit social services group for which Eran had been operations manager – no advancement, but a living wage! Benefits! Purpose! – had folded during the recession, too obscure to draw the affluent donors that kept other orgs afloat.

Which was why, many Sundays, Ian the younger brother/success story paid for Eran’s lunch. Today it was Mai Village and pho.

“Why the past-life thing, anyway? Dad and Mom think you’ve had a psychotic break.”

“Illusion of control, maybe. If I can’t respond to the world as it is, maybe find a different world so I can?”

Eran heard himself say this and realized it was an exit line. He might, in fact, be psychic…

Some gardens had been spared, but not this one: boots tramping on it all night, and the men digging their feet in desperately as they were pushed into place. The German captain was lining them up by the wall.

Someone’s child had been torn away, was crying, would live. It might not have been anyone’s child anymore. Mothers and fathers had died, panicked and ran.

Things like this weren’t done to people like her.

I can’t believe it. They will.

(It was her thought and Eran’s. He was frozen. She…)

Her legs worked on their own. She passed the captain as if floating. Destination: husband. Him. They were beyond names, on to the irregular scar behind his ear and the blue stubble he could never scrape off.

I won’t. I won’t. To her ears she sounded determined. She might have been begging. (Eran physically tried to pull back. He couldn’t help her. They would make her face the guns.)

Whatever alchemy passed between her and the captain, she had never seen before. Mercy. A miracle. Her husband’s hand in her own: she was leading him away from the wall. A last thought for the men who had no one to plead for them – who were, perhaps, hating her as their last act – and they were free, he was trembling, she whispering: Lean into me. Don’t listen. Go.

Eran looked up at Ian.

“You’re looking confused, dude. Was that one?” Ian hardly tried to hide his grin.

“I just saw a bunch of people murdered.”

“Oh.” Ian looked down at his bowl and said the only thing there was to say. “I’m sorry.”

August 24, 1914: Massacre at Dinant, in Belgium. German troops kill civilians amounting to as much as 10 percent of the town’s population.

Read-in-Progress: José Saramago, Blindness

I’m not surprised that the movie adaptation of Blindness starred Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo. They’re the avatars of middlebrow indie: thoughtful, attentive to character, but neither innovative nor surprising.

Blindness is, similarly, middlebrow lit. Think Freedom, or (probably) The Hours, or any of those Brooklyn-y kind of books written by someone over 40. Its plot, in which people start going inexplicably blind and are forcibly quarantined by the government, includes a bunch of standard plot and character beats that have to be hit. People have to cast blame on each other. The army has to shoot innocent civilians. The blind have to bury the dead. At least Saramago works through the guideposts briskly. There’s no holding us hostage until he makes his point, which is good, because his point is right there.

I’m enjoying Blindness, but it’s nothing special, and I’ m not going to feel compelled to keep it around after I’m done. If you’re looking for a Portuguese novelist, Antonio Lobo Antunes is weirder and more fun.

The Centennial: August 16, 1914

The MRI was normal, so Eran’s parents asked him to get a psychiatric evaluation. “No problem,” Eran said. “Can I go to the shrink you made me see when I went back to grad school?”

If there was anything Eran hated most about his thirties, aside from all the other stuff, it was that he again related to his parents the way he had as an undergrad. All Can I borrow some money? and I’m sorry, you’re right.

HH (who asked that her name be pronounced hrngh, like a sound from Bjork’s Medulla) was a retired marine with an office at University and 280. She did some stuff that she called “est” and that Eran called “playing drill sergeant.” Still, she had never made fun of him for being an unemployed, old grad student. Yes, Eran had explained in their first meeting, he was embarking on years of low-paid, grueling study with a middling chance of sustainable employment afterwards, but it’s the least bad of my available options. And HH – who after all had probably been pinned down under rocket fire in Fallujah – had said, Sounds sensible. Call if you want to. So sometimes, with UMN health insurance, Eran did.

Eran took the Green Line over at noon. If there was anything he liked about his thirties – not “most,” just at all – it was that perpetual unemployment made it easier to fit appointments in.

“Yeah, but the dreams don’t bother you. They just bother your parents.”

“I guess they feel useful. Different, anyway. And they’re free entertainment.”

“Do you think your parents feel threatened by your burgeoning adulthood?”

“I think it’s burgeoned out and turning brown on the vine. Besides, Ian is way past me in the grown-up race and that doesn’t bother them.”

“But you’re the one they’re depending on, aren’t you? Ian went overseas for college. You stayed in the area. Ian travels for work. You’ve never looked outside the metro. Aren’t they maybe threatened by anything that might take you away?”

They had been spared the worst of it for the longest. The other forts went down first, and the town suffered. He had seen the damaged bridge, and that story about the jowly German pounding the pommel of his sword into the Citadel’s door had made the rounds. The waiting had been difficult. They had heard about, and heard, the artillery; they were in no hurry to live through it (“though it’d beat the alternative”).

But by the time it came to Flémalle…well. Eran had lived in some nasty apartments, but at least he could open windows (in summer, anyway). It wasn’t long into the bombardment before the fort became, essentially, a habitable toilet. Here he was thankful that his quantum leaps were delivered as zip files. He only had the briefest impression of the reek before they had moved on to the decision.

In the fort, they could only hope that they had lasted long enough to let the army do what it needed to do. They were ready to go.

“What a weird time for that to happen,” Eran said out loud.

“Was that it? If you hadn’t said anything, I wouldn’t have seen it.”

“Hmm. Something failed while succeeding. Story of my life.”

“Sounds like you’re ready for some more est.”

“No.”

August 16, 1914: Fort de Flémalle becomes the last fortress of Liège to surrender to the Germans. Liège’s unexpected resistance gave the Belgian army time to escape and the French army extra time to mobilize.

It Sucks: Jo Kyung-Ran, Tongue

“People come to restaurants for various reasons but everyone really wants the same thing: a delicious meal.”

Tongue is the kind of book that gives literary fiction a bad name. Plotless, lifeless, tedious, every page doused in an obsession of the author’s as if the reader will is equally obsessed. As light planes are to Coleman Francis movies, food and food history are to Tongue.

It’s basically a breakup story. Actually (spoiler), it’s basically Audition from Asami’s perspective. Mixed in with the tragic journey are asides about ingredients, knives, dishes, vegetarians… Food, like sex, is one of the great tripwires of writing; its symbolism and primal power inspire dollar-store philosophizing that rarely adds up to much. If a food book doesn’t make you hungry, it’s kinda doing it wrong.

Food is 50% of what’s wrong with Tongue. The quote above exemplifies the other 50%. Look, I really do put up with a lot of bad books for good writing. But I especially hate bad writing in good-writing drag. (Here I’m thinking of Ezra Klein’s comment that Dick Armey is “a stupid person’s idea of what a thoughtful person sounds like.”) The line I cited is bankrupt. “People come to restaurants for various reasons” is diametrically opposed to “but everyone really wants the same thing: a delicious meal.” If that’s what everyone wants, they don’t come to restaurants for “various reasons.” For that sentence to work, we need some examples of the various reasons – to fall in love, to break up, to settle a family estate – but simultaneously those reasons have to be overridden by the delicious meal. And if you’ve ever had a first date in a restaurant, you know the meal isn’t always the real point. Maybe it was better in Korean, I don’t know, but in English: fail.

My favorite thing about Jo Kyung-Ran is that she has written a book whose title translates to I Bought a Balloon.

The Centennial: August 7, 1914

Eran rarely remembered his dreams. The only exception from the past year was the one about the rabid mastiff with detachable legs who had forced him to date Taylor Swift. Of course, to him the war only felt like a dream.

He had thought he and his fellow soldiers would look smarter in their uniforms. One gentleman, robust and towering, had the exact proportions to look cigarette-card perfect in the rig. Everyone else’s collar was rumpled and askew. Their tunics drooped at the shoulders, as if the arms inside had been yanked off and the fabric were falling in. The calf-hugging puttees looked like those ridiculous silk stockings in 18th-century paintings. Someone was wearing cologne. Someone was breathing out onions. He hadn’t made any friends.

He wished he could have been there with Edward. When Eran dreamed this thought, a vision of Edward bloomed, spreading as if the filmstrip that obscured it was burning away. This host and Edward had had the idyllic Housmanian pastoral youth: what legions of postwar poets would attempt to claw back. But Edward was enlisting later. He would first see France alone.

Eran had a strong “Edmund” vibe from the host. It couldn’t be true. “Edmund” and “Edward” couldn’t belong to friends. So in his dream, he called the host “Rupert.” A young woman was in the mix somewhere – a fiancée who would wait.

Rupert was walking down a cobbled street, suddenly happy to be there. (Eran was too warm. It might have been the wool.) A Bertram beside him offered some words about his hometown, the name of which Eran hadn’t marked. They shared coffee. It was a sunny day. The journey was over, the adventure on.

It wasn’t the wool. Eran’s apartment was sweltering. He had turned off the air conditioner before bed, and the temperature and humidity had battled each other upward. He clicked his phone. It was 2:37.

That day the department had changed his fall teaching schedule: instead of assisting with a survey course, he’d be handling a standalone section of HIST 1000. And someone else was already doing World War I in that course. The dream seemed simpler. He reached for his laptop to write it all out.

August 7, 1914: The first wave of the British Expeditionary Force begins arriving in France.

Review: Radclyffe Hall, The Unlit Lamp (1924)

Radclyffe Hall is mostly known for the lesbian classic The Well of Loneliness; I haven’t read it, but I enjoyed the ambivalent walkthrough on its Wikipedia page. Political art is tough to do without devolving into tedious yelly-sloganeering. For an example, see Men’s Recovery Project’s anti-Reagan song, released half a decade after Reagan left office: “Fuck you / Fuck you / Fuck you / Fuck you / Ronald Reagan! / Your [sic] not my friend / Your [sic] my rear end.” I can see how, if the slogans are the only thing on your side, you’d be willing to overlook some glaring artistic flaws, and also why you wouldn’t feel good about it.

None of which has anything to do with The Unlit Lamp. Predating The Well of Loneliness by a few years, it’s the story of Joan Ogden, the daughter of an overbearing ex-military buffoon and a theatrical hypochondriac, and her developing relationship with Elizabeth Rodney. In the game of Victorian or Modern?, its social realism and depiction of an interlocking community land it squarely on the Victorian side. The good father Ogden was an Indian officer who came back to England for his health. His demanding nature has slowly worn down his wife, a process to which their daughters have been interested but scornful spectators. It seems likely that Joan and her sister Milly will end up stuck in their provincial town, until Elizabeth offers Joan a way out.

The gay subtext (virtually text in places) isn’t problematic anymore. But changing norms haven’t been only kind to The Unlit Lamp. A century after the fact, there’s an entirely different problem with the rela[tionship between Elizabeth and Joan, who, when the two meet, is Elizabeth’s underage pupil.

One day [Elizabeth] closed her book, folded her hands, and said: “Joan! If you love me you couldn’t make me unhappy about you as you do. Joan, don’t you love me?” For answer Joan fled from the room as if pursued by a fiend.

Uh…

 Never again could Elizabeth represent authority in her pupil’s eyes; that aspect of their relationship was lost for ever, and with it a prop, a staff that she had grown to lean on. But in its place there was something else, something infinitely more intimate and interesting. As she helped [Elizabeth] into bed, she was conscious of a curious embarrassment.

[Cough.]

“If it’s devotion you want,” said Joan gruffly, then you’ve got all I’ve got to give.”

There was a little silence, and when Elizabeth spoke it was in her matter-of-fact voice. She said, “I not only want your devotion but I need it, and I want more than that; I want your work, your independence, your success. I want to take them so that I can give them back to you, so that I can look at you and say, ‘I did this thing, I found Joan and I gave her the best I had to give, freedom and–‘” she paused, “‘and happiness.'”

They turned and clasped hands, walking silently home towards Seabourne.

“Hello, To Catch a Predator?”

In the introduction, Zoë Fairbairns argues that Hall didn’t recognize The Unlit Lamp as a story of lesbian love. But because of Joan’s age with respect to Elizabeth, I don’t think anyone would overlook it now. That makes it extremely awkward when Joan begins to explore making her leap away from home – with Elizabeth. Mrs. Ogden’s jealousy over Joan’s new confidant is the primary objection to the relationship; concern that a teacher is shacking up with her pupil hardly registers, and that makes for an uncomfortable read.

The Unlit Lamp neither Made the Shelf nor Sucks; I’m not keeping it, but I enjoyed it. Throughout, Hall is pretty clear-eyed about her characters and the ties that bind. The book’s primary asset is the ending. It’s a masterpiece of restraint, not where I thought it was going, but also obvious all along. I’m electing not to spoil it. It’s one where the destination only resonates if you’ve taken the journey.