An entertaining book about a willful and eccentric writer and her three adult children, in Britain in the 1990s. The treatment of the characters is clAn entertaining book about a willful and eccentric writer and her three adult children, in Britain in the 1990s. The treatment of the characters is clinically cold; they squirm about like specimens in a lab, and the narrator's constant collusion with the reader ("what do you think X does?," "I'm afraid this is really what they think," "we'll come back to her in a bit but first let's..." and so on) brings out this detachment from the characters even more. Almost inevitably (is this right?), such a treatment makes every single character unappealing, even the characters who don't make themselves unappealing by their selfish or self-aggrandizing actions. (As evidence of this, I initially wrote "even the one or two characters who don't" and then listed them. I found I had to keep adding to the list so that by the end, there seemed at least four or five characters who qualified, even though when I finished the book my superficial impression was that there were no characters in it who were not pretty awful.)
The book is both a family drama, a sort of "family in decline" story like Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family, but highly compressed in both the span covered and the telling of the story, and also a biting social commentary. A reviewer quoted in the blurb mentions Waugh, and having just read A Handful of Dust, I can say that the comparison seems quite apt - even down to the strangely whimsical and fantastic endings to both books. (The ending of Drabble's book seems even more incongruous to me than that of Waugh's.)
[Re philosophy/philosophers in fiction: book opens with extensive discussion of Rawls. In fact chapter 1 is, punningly, entitled "The Vale of Ignorance," a mash-up of Rawls and Bunyan.]...more
There are some excellent books about slavery in the US that "tell all the truth but tell it slant." That is, they depict the institution in some otherThere are some excellent books about slavery in the US that "tell all the truth but tell it slant." That is, they depict the institution in some other way than through its archetypal manifestation in the public imaginary: a large white-owned Southern plantation in the several decades prior to the Civil War. This is one of them. (Another is The Known World.) Here we have a young African prince (or so his mother tells him) being raised by the wonderfully-named Novanglian College of Lucidity, a group of homegrown Boston philosophes, immediately prior to and during the Revolutionary War. Octavian is taught Latin, Greek, music, mathematics, and so on, and is rigorously monitored in all ways (everything he eats and excretes is weighed). He comes to learn that he is part of an experiment designed to test the intellectual capabilities of the "Africk nation," and that he is the chattel property of the head of the College, Mr. Gitney (or Mr. 03-01 as he prefers, using their 'rational' system of designations).
The book meanders and takes its time (my one criticism of it) and there is not, at least until the end, much of a story beyond the life of young Octavian. (The book is the first of a trilogy, so it may be that the grand narrative is just coming together by the end of this, the first installment.) But for all that, it is often shocking, and often moving. Major events include the observation of the transit of Venus, an event of great importance since it allowed, through the gathered observations of people all over the world, a good means of calculating the distance between the Earth and the Sun; a pox party, in which a number of people quarantine themselves and are inoculated against smallpox; and the opening salvoes of the Revolution itself.
As I say, the book is about slavery. Particularly, it is about the horrifying paradox that a country born in the struggle for liberty was a country built on slavery. Patriots send their slaves to take their places in the ranks of the militias. The supporters of the Novanglian College of Lucidity, and the patriots in general, are terrified by the prospect that the British will incite their own slaves to turn against them. So the struggle against the British is necessarily a struggle to which the patriots' slaves are both necessary as a resource and a feared fifth column, to be kept in subjection. The final section of the book, masterfully entitled "The Great Chain of Being," serves as a stunning climax to the treatment of this paradox. Mr. Sharp, a sharp, two-faced 'utilitarian' in the model of Mr. Gradgrind, who by then is running the College, explains to a now openly rebellious Octavian that liberty means the liberty to own property and engage in commerce. We see the portrait of an America (contemporary as well as historical) in which the cry of liberty is just the good face put on by a calculating defense of property, money, and the hegemony of the white man. The 'experiment' of which Octavian has unwittingly been a part was, not perhaps at its inception, but during the course of events, in fact designed to fail, to prove the necessity of slavery. The foolish and naive, yet also in his mild way vicious, scientist/philosopher has become a tool of the grasping capitalist, allowing his 'experiment' to be bought.
The book is mostly the recollections of Octavian himself, written in what seemed to me a very well-done faux eighteenth-century English, but these are interspersed with odd letters from others, newspaper clippings, and so on. In the third section, Octavian, who as a character has become largely mute at that point of his life in protest, has no role in the narration at all, and the bulk of it is carried on through the letters of a likable simpleton in the militia who delights in the name of Evidence Goring. Critics seem to be exercised by the way the narration is structured, but I think, on balance, that hearing voices other than Octavian's provides an important and necessary sense of perspective, as if, as in the case of the transit of Venus, we are triangulating, or telling it slant. ...more
This was a clever book, and had much to recommend it. It was well written and historically interesting, largely about the aftermath to the failed revoThis was a clever book, and had much to recommend it. It was well written and historically interesting, largely about the aftermath to the failed revolutions of 1848. The characters were good, and there was some very interesting reflection in it. Not the Hegelian stuff, which was kind of boring, but there was, for example, a letter quite near the end by James, talking about the nature of love, which I found affecting. I thought, however, the novel was far too long (it certainly lost a star just for that). Also, I found the authors' use of the epistolary format to be often confusing. I suppose it is part of the skill of constructing a narrative from letters to keep the narrative moving smoothly. I did not always find that in this book; I was often very confused, not just because the plot is complicated, which is fine, but because I did not feel the authors were guiding me through it adequately. ...more
I liked your review and read the book because of it. So I'm very grateful.
I agree with everything you say, especially the clunkiness of the "Now"Mike,
I liked your review and read the book because of it. So I'm very grateful.
I agree with everything you say, especially the clunkiness of the "Now" parts - what made that so bad was that the characters were completely one-dimensional and unconvincing and, well, annoying. I wondered whether there was any point in a contemporary counterpoint to the main story. Perhaps it did something - the idea of the few surviving signs of the story being around, and being understood, as when they find the Grasshopper Last Supper painting near the end, was moving.
But the main narrative just blew me away. One thing you don't mention, Mike, is that the book is also deeply about religion and love.
Besides LeGuin, what other first-contact novels are there, of the "anthropological" variety?...more