stymied again by the Hugo and Nebula Committee! I was at Goodwill today, looking for something pulpy to read, and I came across this book. An award-wi...morestymied again by the Hugo and Nebula Committee! I was at Goodwill today, looking for something pulpy to read, and I came across this book. An award-winning sci-fi book, at that. Right here! In MY neighborhood thrift store! I was pretty excited. But after I cracked open the bright purple paperback, decorated with some gooberish flying saucer/time portal/taj mahal montage fantasy clipart, and brushed away the decades-old marijuana debris, things went bad pretty quickly. A few preliminary puns misfired, and there were silly, terribly distracting references all over the place, from Descartes to the "Trobiand Islanders, the Papuans of Melanesia," which added nothing to the story. my consciousness is still recovering from all that expansion, dude.
and the writing was just not very good. it was either tense, as if with bad posture, or it moved too quickly, with rambling, drunken confidence. Here's a little nugget that was lodged in the middle of the page like a rock, and I stumbled right over it:
"Obviously, then, I was delirious. Comfort within the framework of my delirium seemed a desirable end, however." Alright, Henry James.
But wait, wait, not so fast. Could Henry James do.... THIS!: "Some upwelling in the dark fishbowl atop the spine later splashed dreams, patterns memory-resistant as a swirl of noctilucae, across consciousness' thin, transparent rim, save for the kinesthetic/synesthetic "DO YOU FEEL ME LED?" which must have lasted a timeless time longer than the rest, for later, much later, morning's third coffee touched it to a penny's worth of spin, of color."
Timeless time? kinesthetic/synesthetic? Pennies? I thought only Pink Floyd and the Scientologists were capable of such nonsense.
Hold on, I'm... this ... I seem to be... being interrupted... by a strange presence- BRRF#F11HHGK!!@#@@------<><> I am Zelazny: digital prose-bot! <><> I am cursed with no ear for rhythm! <> Please overlook the the word 'doubtless,' which appears on every page! It is an error in my programming! I am the interdimensional internet surrogate for my human pet, the owner of a comic book emporium in East Psilocybin, New Mexico! Please visit our website!<><>(less)
Virginia Woolf is unassailable. Really, there's no other way to put it. It's overwhelming, just reading her sentences; each of them like birds taking...moreVirginia Woolf is unassailable. Really, there's no other way to put it. It's overwhelming, just reading her sentences; each of them like birds taking wing, fluttering, refusing to roost; nearing a suitable branch and then *flap*, another semicolon, and the occasional reference (like snapped fingers in a dazed face) back to the sentence's initial subject, squatting somewhere at the beginning of a paragraph many lines above, as if to ensure that the reader is in tune with her before the next breathless tumble; her sentences are so lovely and long and thoughtful, confidently twisting around their mark in dozens of fanciful loops, before striking it clear in the center. And sometimes she just toys with timing and structure and word order, playing and making sentences that didn't seem possible before you see them. Like that friend of yours from grade school, who, during recess, showed you how to curl the edges of the tongue into the shape of a clover, only to be positively shocked when it became clear that the two of you didn't share the same flexibility. Like these:
'Ah, damn!' she cried; the needle had broken. Hat, child, Brighton, needle. She built it up; first one thing, then another, she built it up, sewing.
"She stood there: she listened. She heard the names of the stars."
That colon is so unusual to me. It would be so abrupt otherwise, the three small sentences, and so she uses a colon and subordinates that second pronoun. It makes sense. Even looking at it now, how could it be any other way? And how did the phrasing occur to her? Woolf's got style for miles- that's how.
I also love how noisy time is in Woolf's London. It's an important part of the story. Big Ben is always gonging the hour, and the sound of time spreads across the town, like the ripples of a wave. "It was precisely twelve o'clock; twelve by Big Ben; whose stroke was wafted over the northern part of London; blent with that of other clocks, mixed up in an ethereal way with the clouds and wisps of smoke and died up there among the seagulls.". This constant reminder of minutes passing; the noisy city chiming, rattling the air and eating conversation, the deafening bells mimic the erasure of time. Time itself converts the present into memory, just as the bells disrupt the doomed conversation anyway. Clarissa yells to Peter as he leaves, Remember my party to-night!, "having to raise her voice against the roar of the open air, and, overwhelmed by the traffic and the sound of all the clocks striking, her voice sounded frail and thin and very far away..." The words are already far away, receding like train.
The story is about a lot of things, but i was most interested by the way Woolf contemplates middle age: its open-ended nature, the different routes to the realized adult self, the detours that we take, the way that beauty, and especially class (this is early 20th cent. England, after all- and who am I kidding, class is still an issue everywhere, even today), promote us or degrade us along the way. One gets the feeling that Woolf is looking at life with a weird desperation: trying to uncover how people end up idling in these cul de sacs of mediocrity, and what the implicit value of accumulated experience is. For Peter Walsh, "the compensation of growing old was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained- at last!- the power which adds the supreme flavor to existence - the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it around, slowly, in the light." Ah, the supreme flavor... I love that little bit. I hope Taco Bell never copyrights the phrase for one of their meaty cheesy monstrosities.
Peter returns to elaborate on this very interesting thought later in the story; this image of a person with a jeweler's eyepiece, turning a lived experience like a gem in the hand, to check for flaws or appreciate the perfection of it. And although he is able to savor his time, other people seem to get lost along the way: the 'wild, the daring, the romantic Sally Seton,' the bohemian love interest and close friend of Clarissa Dalloway in her youth, is "the last person in the world one would have expected to marry a rich man and live in a large house near Manchester." And yet at the novel's end she arrives for the great party softened by motherhood, a rare presence in the bustling, vital city that she once dominated with her eccentric flair.
Others seem marked for a dreary fate from the beginning; Peter always noticed in Clarissa "a sort of timidity, which in middle age becomes conventionality, and then it's all up..." Peter is acutely aware of the long road to the middle, and is the most fatalistic about it. His years-long journey through India seems like it was an attempt to shake off the layer of dust which settles on one's life as they age. Before he left the country, he told his lover, who doesn't return his affection, that "they would change the world if she married him perhaps..." But at this point in his life, years later, "it was this; it was middle age; it was mediocrity."
Mrs. Dalloway is a wonderful meditation on how big hunks of time change us, and refine us, and allow us to enjoy the approaching moments in a different way, a more significant way, than our youthful selves could have ever foreseen. The irony of all this breadth is that the entire narrative occurs in a single day. Woolf seems to suggest that our entire life can be charted in a single day of our lives; the way that we live and make choices is established by repetition, by our learning; and our emotional lives are enriched by our memories, our minds constantly reaching back into the past for replenishment.
And the way that she writes so many perspectives into her story begins to make sense: so many characters, all interconnected, whether by an intimate past of shared experiences, or a passing glance. The way that Peter hears the wail of the ambulance as it drives off to attend to poor Septimus, although he's never met the man, and how all the heads on the street turn collectively to see the Queen's motorcade approach the Palace, including Clarissa Dalloway's. Woolf imagines that our conversations create momentary connections, "as if one's friends were attached to one's body, after lunching with them, by a thin thread... which becomes hazy with the sound of bells, striking the hour or ringing to service, as a single spider's thread is blotted with rain drops, and burdened, sags down." In Woolf's London, time makes a sound unavoidable, and our connection to others makes a physical web, a fabric.
Does time fray this fabric completely, or do our attachments to the world and to people transcend the rude clocks of the city? Mrs. Dalloway only says 'perhaps.' "Odd affinities she had with people she had never spoken to, some woman in the street, some man behind a counter - even trees or barns. It ended in a transcendental theory which allowed her to believe that since our apparitions, the part of us which appears, are so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, that the unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places, after death. Perhaps - perhaps."
Mrs. Dalloway is certainly one of the most unique novels i've ever read. Woolf's experiments with language, never corny or overbearing or ambiguous, and her insights into the human mind, her placement of it into the plane of society and the line of history, are masterfully combined in this novel. It's a splendid book.(less)