Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Odyssey II: Reading forward toward the past

The second summer after I graduated from the University of Michigan with what seemed like a not very practical B.A. in English, I found myself in Boston, living in married housing.  Boston is hot and humid in the summer. One of our strategies for coping with very hot evenings would be to walk to the Boston Public Library, where we would make ourselves comfortable in the reading room until they kicked us out.  Having spent much of that year in Boston reading long Russian novels (War and Peace in two weeks:  two hours on the bus each day gives you lots of time to read), I decided on a much more rational (!) strategy.  Why didn't I go back to literature's foundation among the Greeks and work my way forward?  I wrote a letter to Ralph Williams, my theory prof. at Michigan, easily one of the most brilliant, well-read people I knew, and asked for a reading list.   But wise Dr. Williams never replied.  I worked away at anthologies in the BPL Reading Room, but didn't really benefit from the piecemeal approach that gave me no context for the snippets they provided.  I wisely abandoned the project and returned to the Russians, adding Jane Austen and contemporary German writers to my repertoire.  In short, I floundered, which is not necessarily a bad thing. One learns a great deal about literature, about oneself, about taste, about the world from floundering.  

But as a phase, floundering should perhaps be  resorted to those moments in your life you need to turn a corner or find an adventure. "The Accidental Reader" you might call yourself during those times.  Renting a cottage makes for great accidental reading experiences, where you find old orange-spined Penguins of authors you'd always meant to read and now could--or perhaps now had to, given that the book you brought has either fallen in the lake or proven disappointing. So does going into a book store in Paris and finding few books in English.  I found Charles Baxter in just such a book store in Paris, Woolf's Jacob's Room somewhere in Italy.

Right now I'm trying to be both opportunistic and deliberate in my reading, picking up something recommended by a friend or a book that won an important award that doesn't really sound like my thing, but trying to get through The Odyssey so that I have no excuse not to read Ulysses.  Reading The Odyssey also takes me back to my past, to that youthful plan when I was an underemployed young woman who needed to do something meaningful and purposeful. It makes me feel young, as if I still have the years left for the kind of rigorous reading program Woolf describes in her essays on reading.

At the same time, even without Professor Williams's help, through the years I've learned to my core one of the foremost rules of reading:  try to take every text on its own terms.  You will fail sometimes, simply because you cannot wrap your head around those terms:  you find them puzzling,  unthinkable, offensive, wrong-headed or just trite.  But perhaps what "wide reading" gives us, besides an education in being human, a dress-rehearsal for our own joys and griefs, and practice at imaginative compassion, is a tour of possible ways of conceiving the world. Thus literature teaches both head and heart if you are willing to read widely, outside the comfort zone that contains only works that do not challenge your own world view.  Asking "How does this world work?" strengthens the mental muscles you need when you find yourself puzzled by your own world.

The Odyssey demands that I try to understand at least a sliver of a Greek world view, particularly how the Greeks saw the place of the gods in their lives.  In Book 18, "The Beggar-King of Ithaca," Odysseus is home, but only his son Telemachus knows this.  Penelope remains grieving for her long-gone husband and tells her importunate suitors "Now my life is torment...look at the griefs some god has loosed against me!" (384).  There was something about this cry that made me realize how ancient and how contemporary Penelope is, for what she is articulating is that she wants to know the meaning of her life.  If all she understands is that "some gods" have loosed griefs against her, she has no way of understanding her suffering.  She is asking the question "Why me?  Why my husband or my child?" that everyone startled by death, extraordinary illness, or random misfortune asks.

There is another way that I am finding The Odyssey contemporary.  Of course I've often used the phrase "deus ex machina" in my classes, which roughly translates to "god from the machine."  Normally it refers to plot device which solves a problem.  The author has painted himself or herself into a corner, and pulls a new character or an unknown fact out of the hat to solve it.  I wonder if the phrase could be extended to moment when plot is excessively complicated in unconvincing ways.  For example, in Book 12, "The Cattle of the Son," Odysseus and his crew land on the island where Helios keeps his sacred cattle.  To kill them brings the wrath of the gods.  Odysseus originally wants to sail straight past the island, but night is coming, the route is unclear, and his sailors want to rest.  They promise him not to harm the cattle.  But then Zeus decides to send them no wind so that they stay on the island for over a month and use up all their food.  Hunting and fishing are not feeding them well enough.  Zeus then puts Odysseus into a deep sleep just long enough for the sailors to decide that anything the gods can send is better than starvation, so they kill some of the cattle.  Why Zeus decides to make the sailors' temptation to slaughter the cattle so overwhelming is never explained.  Do the gods want mortals to break their laws? Clearly this is a device designed to make Odysseus's return to Ithaca harder and yet more heroic.  He will be the only member of his crew to survive the storm sent by the gods as punishment. But some element of the gods' meddling in human lives remains tantalizingly unexplained. 

You know these plot devices from television:  the lengths to which writers and producers will go to stall a romance or a discovery and create a cliffhanger to bring you back in the fall.  But I'm also finding them in modern fiction, particularly two well-regarded novels I read early this summer, Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch and Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries.  (It is perhaps no coincidence that both of these novels would make nice door stops.) I have given my copy of The Luminaries away, so I can only approximate my reaction. Like other people who have commented on Goodreads, I felt it was way too long. While each particular section was always well-written and insightful, some of those sections didn't further the novel as a whole, but simply put off the denouement.  Like other readers, I liked Walter Moody and was disappointed at the way he was more or less dropped.  The astrological construction didn't impress me:  rather, it gave the novel the feel of an exercise in cleverness.  I know a lot more about Victorian New Zealand. I understand how a developing country organized around a resource like gold which is a value unto itself, though is no use for actual food or clothing, needs even while it lacks a justice system which protects the vulnerable and punishes the opportunistic.  But I'm not sure this justifies the 832 pages.

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is even more frustrating because it's more brilliant.  Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker survives a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but loses his mother.  Homeless (his father cannot be found), guilt-ridden (they were on their way together to his school for a meeting about his behaviour, and wouldn't otherwise have been in the museum), Theo is both saved and tormented by a small miraculous painting of a chained goldfinch that he takes from the museum after the bombing.  At its core, The Goldfinch is about Theo's quest to find the proper home for the painting and to create a family that will give him a place and purpose in the world. Theo's first-person musings are reflective, insightful, humane; he is a character one wants to spend time with.  As well, one of Tartt's strengths is to understand the complex interplay between character and world:  how some settings offer a character the chance to bloom while others stifle dampen spirits.

But I felt that Theo's adolescent relationship with Boris smacked of the kind of deus ex machina that loses control over the novel's coherence.  I understand how these two outsiders bond in suburban Las Vegas where parents seem to forget children need to be fed. But the number of times these two adolescents get drunk, drugged up, and violent seems unnecessarily, as does the plot to recover the painting, which involves Theo killing a hit man in a parkade in the Netherlands--only part of Boris's improbable plan to recover the work he'd stolen from Theo years before.

What has happened to the modern plot, even in novels that clearly seek and deserve the title "literary fiction"?  Are we catering to an audience that watches so much TV that we feel that we need to spin out romance, adultery, and vendettas (I'm thinking of Castle, The Good Wife, and The Mentalist, respectively ) to keep people's attention for 13 hours over 13 weeks?  (My taste is showing.)  Here is perhaps where we can read forward toward the past.  The month that Odysseus and his crew spend on Helios passes within a few sentences.  In the scenes that record his warnings and his reaction to their We learn much about Odysseus:  how much control he has over his sailors, where that control ends, how much more self-control he has of any of them, and how determined he is to get home.  Nuances of character are revealed on almost any page that shows Odysseus in action or records his words.  Although The Odyssey is long, Homer never loses control over what I found on my first reading to be the poem's central purpose:  to illustrate the complexities of character and to show these in the individual's purposeful relationship with other people and in the individual's sometimes vexed and sometimes amiable relationship with the gods and fate.

Of course, it's possible that I broke my own rules:  that I didn't understand either The Luminaries or The Goldfinch on their own terms. Except that I did find both books had an inner coherence and a world-view that I found intriguing and challenging.  I don't think I'm arguing with their vision; rather, I'm taking exception to the ways the constant drama of contemporary culture (whether we're talking about news or summer blockbusters is irrelevant) has shaped their sense of craft.  But then I get myself into a different dilemma: what is the relationship between a writer's vision and a writer's craft? Happily, I will have many, many more years to think this problem through. 

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