Jamie's Reviews > Pale Horse, Pale Rider

Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter
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's review
Feb 21, 12

bookshelves: 2012-reading-goals, read-in-2012
Read from January 19 to 22, 2012 — I own a copy

How on god's green earth hadn't I picked this up before? A girl I worked with and took classes with in college wrote her senior thesis on Porter's 'feminist' revisions of Faulkner, but I suppose I was so busy with my own thesis & worries about grad school that I didn't pick her up at that time and simply forgot about her until forced to read these three short novels (not "novellas", says Porter!) for a seminar last month. Books remain neglected on my shelves for years & years and nothing is better than to find myself in a state of wonder when finally meeting one as lovely as this.

"Old Mortality" and "Pale Horse Pale Rider" are at least tenuously connected by Miranda, a central character in each. As I recall, there's no tangible evidence that they're the same Miranda, but I think it's more interesting to consider them as such than not to. The first is a kind of coming-of-age tale; two young Southern girls confront their dynastic histories, particularly w/r/t a sexually non-conformist aunt, who was both beloved and despised by her family, and who met a tragic end that seems to have tidied her excesses enough to make her palatable for the 'dark romance' that surrounds her by the time the girls begin hearing stories about her. It seems too easy to suggest that the story transitions from a romanticized nostalgia to jaded realism, when so much of the story appears invested in the meta-politics of tale telling, to boot. Which story can be trusted when imagining the past? Seems to me to be a persistent anxiety in Southern literature, perhaps because of the fraught relationship Southerners have with their own not-so-far past.

"PH, PR" follows Miranda yet again, though now we're in the trenches of WWI and facing an influenza epidemic. Both of these terrors become integral to Miranda's story, for she's being hounded by nationalistic bondsmen and dating a soldier who feels as wary of the 'patriotism' of war as she does. Miranda moreover contracts the flu, and so a great deal of the short novel is in fact hazily stream-of-consciousness, though oddly more Woolf in flavor than Porter's more proximate contemporary, Faulkner. The prose in any case is stunning--do try not to become teary-eyed in those final paragraphs. Though Miranda and her soldier-lover remain fairly shadowy in terms of conventional character development (we learn really nothing of what has come before; only of the ways in which they grapple their presents), there's something quite delicious in this alienation, as though to be trapped in one's present-tense becomes a kind of self-distancing, a disorientation. To live entirely in the moment means, also, to have no past and no future, and, therefore, no coherent sense of stable selfhood. For what is identity except a kind of consistency or development across space and time? So the amputee sort of sensation becomes mirrored for the reader (or for me, I suppose) even as it's played out in Miranda and Adam. A stunning tale, really.

"Noon Wine" merits attention as well, though personally, it seemed somewhat out of place sandwiched between the others. If "PHPR" is somewhat Woolfian and "Old Mortality" feels something like a strange union between Faulkner and Edith Wharton, "Noon Wine" is Flannery O'Connor through and through. Of course, Porter, in point of fact, predates O'Connor, but I didn't think the story would have been out of place in Everything That Rises Must Converge. The end certainly has a kind of shock value in the best possible way, and the buildup instills a sense of lazy indifference, much as O'Connor will set you up so persistently in the mundane only to then demonstrate how fragile any stability in this world will necessarily be.

If you've any interest in Southern literature, read these. Now. Do it! I'm looking forward to working through more Porter, though I hear Ship of Fools is something of a failure. Might read that one next anyhow, if only because I'm curious to figure out why Mad Men has Betty Draper reading it on two separate occasions in the show.
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