Sunday, May 31, 2015

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1966)

This is the novel by Philip K. Dick that served as the starting point and majority framework for the movie Blade Runner. Presenting another version of the story—the first, obviously—it only muddies already muddy waters further. The question of Rick Deckard as unknowing android is much more clear—it's a point explicitly raised and not altogether dismissed. The heroic and tragic android Roy Baty is not nearly so clear-cut a character here. He's no more moral than Deckard anyway, where he is clearly the greater man (being) in the movie. In fact, Dick's whole point about empathy and lack of it is only donned as a somewhat minor plot point in the movie—technobabble explanation for administering the detection test—whereas late in the novel Dick goes off on a horrific scene with a spider to show us exactly what lack of empathy looks like, and it does not reflect well on the androids at all (at the same time it's Dick's way of demonstrating to us our own humanity). It is interesting to see for once Dick's legend eclipsed by arguably an even greater legend in Blade Runner, but it remains a solid Dick novel, from the period he was really entering into his own. Humans have never been "good" to androids, but that doesn't mean they are not a menace to humans, a point Dick weaves in and around quite expertly. There is a wonderful, classic Dick dislocation when it is revealed that the androids are secretly operating a phony alternate police force within San Francisco (not Los Angeles, note). Indeed, the androids are quite sinister and have made much further inroads against humans in Dick's novel. It doesn't look at all good for the humans in the end. As for the androids, due to technical difficulties (not nefarious human programming, note), they are limited to four-year lifespans, a casual but compelling existential conception. Otherwise, as in the movie, they just want what everybody wants—life and more of it, with all its pleasure and love and fulfillment. To summarize: Do Androids? is a very fine Dick novel, and Blade Runner is a very fine movie. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Barry Lyndon (1975)

UK / USA, 184 minutes
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Stanley Kubrick, William Makepeace Thackeray
Photography: John Alcott
Music: Franz Schubert, Antonio Vivaldi et al.
Editor: Tony Lawson
Cast: Ryan O'Neal, Marisa Berenson, Leon Vitali, Patrick Magee, Hardy Kruger, Steven Berkoff, Gay Hamilton, Marie Kean, Murray Melvin, Andre Morell, Leonard Rossiter, Philip Stone, Michael Hordern, Frank Middlemass

It's the 21st century, and Barry Lyndon is a 20th-century movie written and directed by Stanley Kubrick based on a 19th-century novel by William Makepeace Thackeray about a man who lived in the 18th century. Kubrick's picture, a modest success at best on release, has become so well respected now it rounds off the top 50 of the list of the 1,000 greatest films of all time according to the fine folks at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, a list that is based on a wide-ranging survey of movie critic rankings. But what is Barry Lyndon—what is it really?

Browsing the Internet for some help with this question, I was surprised to find the range of opinion on what I have always taken as a relatively straightforward (and quite well done) version of the upholstered movie, the kind of exercise Merchant Ivory perfected with approximately A Room With a View and Howards End, which has been so routinely abused since the '90s. I have looked at Barry Lyndon a certain way—our hero, named in the title, is a bit of a naïve fool, and something of a knave, but mostly he is a common man with a few uncommon skills trying to make his way in a cruel world. Come to find, others focus very hard on the knavery, with a minority more persuaded by the naiveté—and there are other interpretations as well. What's more, they often seem to work.

Thursday, May 28, 2015


With the letter G we reach the end of the musical scale, but most of the alphabet is still ahead, and that's something to sing about. G is another of the consonants that presumes more than a single sound to itself. There is the "soft" G, which sounds like a J, as in "judge" (and an even softer G found in "rouge"). And there is the "hard" G, a sound only this letter makes, which is a vocalized swallowing sound, a kind of spasm of regurgitation, as in "gulp." Go to the phrase "beige garage" for a look at this busy letter in action. Pretend "garage" is a verb and you can go "garaging" for a look at another sound G gets itself involved in, in combination with N. This sound is fairly common in English (it's right there in the name of the language, you see, and even in the word "language" itself), as among other things it denotes the gerund form: singing, bringing, binging (wait a sec). As with so many letters (e.g., F, X), G has found a way to be sexualized, in this case by its association with a woman's so-called G-spot, the mysterious source of non-clitoral orgasms. (Side issue: Does "orgasm" count as onomatopoeia?) G is certainly related to babies, who by reputation are always saying, "goo goo, gah gah," though I suspect relatively little documentary evidence exists for this. It is thus elemental and profoundly human, though it also seems somehow negligible. There are also times when it sits there and goes silent, as in "gnat," or "gnostic." K and P also volunteer for this psychological unknowable "function," whatever it is. And then there is the pact of silence G also holds with H, as in "right." And it can also makes an F sound, again when combined with H, as in "laugh." When does this letter sleep? In many type fonts the lowercase G is among the most beautiful of all letters, with its sense of the descender as a kind of liquid coiling pool. For all the work that it does, G doesn't have much significance on its own. Well, sometimes it can mean "thousands," in terms of money, viz., "That new boat set me back nearly 80 Gs." Astronauts seem to like G too, the way they talk about their peculiar intimacies with gravitational forces. Somehow the letter seems just a little old-fashioned now. Gee ... golly gee ... gosh golly gee ... gosh golly gee whiz, and so on. Poor little old-fashioned G, a letter already set back too far in the alphabet to distinguish easily. No one gets a G in class, and no one anywhere needs to know their GHIs. From here on out letters are more and more going to depend on the sequencing of the alphabet for their immediate identities. The second line of the alphabet in the form I learned it is FGHIJK. It's the only line with six letters; all the rest have five, probably because I and J are reasonably thin, even when they are capitalized. By contrast, G is among the biggest of all letters, so go figure.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The War of the Worlds (1898)

I've been through the movie and radio theater versions of this ambitious tale according to Byron Haskin, Steven Spielberg, and Orson Welles, but never until now the source novel by H.G. Wells. I struggled some with the ponderous language—among other things, Wells appears to be at pains to shore up his scientific bona fides with a lot of jargon and abstruse theorizing. No real problems there as long as a dictionary is handy. A little more troublesome for me is the "stay calm and carry on" tone in the face of a full-on assault on the planet by hostile aliens from outer space. That said, and recalling that this novel appeared well before either of the world wars of the 20th century, it's remarkably vivid in its conception and execution. I like, for example, how Wells takes into account the effects of the different levels of gravitational force on Mars and Earth, with "the Martians" (so blithely referred to all the way) visibly struggling with and attempting to compensate for Earth's much greater gravity. (As a side not, and I suspect I'm one of the very few who thinks in these terms, I'm always surprised when I travel that gravity is the same wherever I go.) I also like the loathing that the narrator bears these creatures, although, again, he's altogether a little too calm to be believed. The famous resolution—you probably know it, but in case not I will leave it as a surprise (it's in every version I've encountered)—is a shrewd and clever stroke. Otherwise, with such elements as "the Heat-Ray" and "Black Smoke," it's typical fanciful science fiction (of the more or less "hard science" type), an opportunity to illustrate in fictional context technology that doesn't exist, but might. Lots of science sprinkled all through—biology mainly, but physics and chemistry and more, including the ostentatious, such as spectrum analysis. Worth chasing down for fans of science fiction with some tolerance for 19th-century language.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Hark! (2004)

The thing about the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain is that they are insanely compulsively readable, as is perhaps true of any sustained genre series, until they are not—suddenly it may become all too familiar and stale. The only thing for it then is to take a break and come back later. Setting that aside (and I have been reading a bunch of them lately) I suspect with the titles that come late in the series that it's more the author than the reader losing energy. This is approximately the 54th in the series, and also second to last. So there's a lot of going through the motions going on here: another epic Deaf Man caper, which already makes it a Riddler-style comic book story, the kind of thing that has lost its charm for me (never had that much in the first place). The detectives seem to be going through semi-comatose paces: Steve Carella's mother and sister are remarrying, Cotton Hawes is involved with a television news anchor, Eileen Burke and Hal Willis start sleeping together. There's not much new or fresh here. Even the procedural details feel rote. But McBain is good enough to go with what works no matter how silly or incidental. Here it is the detective Richard Genero's contributions to brainstorming what the cryptic notes from the Deaf Man might signify—anagrams, Shakespeare quotes, palindromes, etc. Genero, of course, is largely a bit player in the series, a detective who is none too bright or brave. The stupidity he displays here as they try to dope it all out often strains credulity, but it's usually funny, and about halfway in you realize that's probably about the best you're going to get here. May as well enjoy it for the laughs. I think I'm also saying this is for diehards only, and save it for later, use the excuse that you're trying to read them in order. Conversely, if you've had a good long break from McBain, you might want to try it first. Maybe it's better than I think. You can always scurry back to one of the older reliable titles. I never thought I wanted more Fat Ollie Weeks, but he's an interesting character and too much relegated to the sideline here. The relationship between Bert Kling and Sharyn Cooke is an interesting thread, but even that feels a bit recycled. For example, once again Kling is tailing his lover. That and many other things here have been done.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Vespers (1990)

Vespers fits the model of many of the novels in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain (Evan Hunter, which wasn't his real name either), especially those that came along in the '80s: big (300+ pages in mass market size), multiple plot threads, and a title that presents a recurring theme for him to riff on. In this case that theme—"evening prayers," I guess—never entirely works to pull things together (as it does so well, for example, in Tricks). A priest has been murdered and there are multiple suspects, including a neighborhood gang of Italian-American teens, an African-American drug dealer, an abusive member of the church, a Satanic cult, etc. Nothing is as it seems, including especially the priest's private life. The movie Rashomon is invoked by name more than once, as versions of a pivotal event are recounted and revisited, its details altering with each new version. Meanwhile, for no obvious reason connected with the case, the romance between Hal Willis and Marilyn Hollis undergoes a major shift. Willis, you may recall, is the detective always identified as being nearly too short to qualify for the job, and Hollis is his girlfriend who used to be a prostitute in Buenos Aires. I had a hard time believing a lot of Vespers. The Satanic "church," for example, was mostly silly and buffoonish, evidently intended as comic relief (and of course convenient red herring element, as this is mostly a "mystery" type of case). And again the knife fetish is out in all its tedious McBain glory: the priest is stabbed to death, and there is another harrowing scene featuring a knife fight. Even weak McBain is pretty good in terms of readability—by this point I suspect McBain could have put them together in his sleep practically. Which, come to think of it, he might have done for this one. At least that's one possible explanation for the title and chief operating metaphor.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Poison (1987)

It's possible that Ed McBain might have been trying a little harder in 1987, when he published not one but two novels in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals, neither of them shorties. In fact, I think the second that year, Tricks, is one of his best. Poison, the first that year, is worth a look too if you are so inclined. It's focused on a case of serial murder in which all the victims have been involved with one woman, Marilyn Hollis, who immediately following her introduction becomes involved with one of the detectives on the case, Hal Willis. The other detective is Steve Carella, and there are few appearances by any of the others. It's mostly about the case. Well, honestly, I think it's mostly about setting up a major love interest for Willis, who I've rarely seen foregrounded so prominently. He is the detective who is routinely described as almost too short for the job, and some kind of expert in martial arts. Hollis is certainly bigger than life here, a former prostitute with a big sexual appetite and an exotic and mysterious past. The mode of most of the murders is nicotine poisoning, which affords some interesting trivia (as well as the title of the book), but one of the murders is by knife (oh, that again) and an attempt is made on Willis with a gun. It's fair as mysteries go—the who-did that did the whodunit is in play early, things point to that person, but the narrative distracts so it's all done well that way. I'm starting to think my favorite character in this series could well be the city itself, Isola (Italian for "island"), McBain's stand-in for New York City. Or maybe it is the months of the year. The more the stories feel grooved into place and time the better I like them. Here, it's a mystery story and love story that did not have to be the 87th Precinct. But that's OK, because this reminds me, among all else, that McBain is also a very good mystery writer. So I enjoyed it on that level. For the 87th in '87, the place you want to go first is Tricks. But Poison is a pretty good fix too.

In case it's not at the library.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Sadie When She Died (1972)

Basically another solid entry in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain, though with mostly all familiar elements: Steve Carella is the star, investigating the murder of a woman in her home by a burglar. Carella suspects her husband found her not dead yet and finished the job by dragging the knife she'd been stabbed with through her guts. He suspects this because the husband, a criminal defense attorney, expresses only loathing for her, and later seems to be taunting the police. The investigation turns up, among other things, episodes of adultery on the part of the dead woman. So the problem of the puzzle becomes how to prove the husband did it. Meanwhile, death by knife, wanton promiscuity—it's the usual McBain table setting in many ways. This one also gets more into detective Bert Kling's running hard-luck story with women, which can become so extreme, as here, that one is left thinking McBain treated it as something of a joke. That's all right. It's actually pretty funny. Meyer Meyer also makes a brief appearance here, and Arthur Brown an even briefer one. This one is essentially Carella on the case, with Bert Kling for something like comic relief. It's set in December, in the holiday season, and as always the city of Isola presents its own brooding presence. I'm getting closer to a saturation point now visiting and revisiting these old McBains. I think I might like this one even more if I hadn't just read a bunch of the others. It's pretty good because the main case is reasonably mysterious. At the same time, the knifing and the promiscuity are getting just a little overfamiliar. Maybe this is a good one to save for a rainy day, after a break from the series. Not a bad place to randomly dip into. Perfectly adequate. Yet not necessarily one to make a point of getting to. There's time for them all.

In case it's not at the library.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Eighty Million Eyes (1966)

I got the impression that this installment of the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain came under some influence of the upchuck of commentary occasioned by the Kitty Genovese murder in New York City, which occurred in 1964 and was generally taken as a key signpost of apocalyptic end times. From my point of view, and I think McBain's too if I’m reading this right, the event had much more to do with sociology and human psychology. Both of the main cases in this novel involve many witnesses to assault and murder, who may see the crime but are otherwise powerless to act, for different reasons. In the one case a man dies of poisoning on live TV (estimated audience 20 million households, one couple per household, which gets us to the title). In the other, a supervillain stalks and ultimately assaults a woman, along with various others who get in his way, including a somewhat hapless patrolman. That's the case Bert Kling is on, with McBain continuing to work his unfortunate love life—the woman in question, Cindy Forrest, immediately becomes a love interest for him, typically enough. The ridiculous spectacular TV celebrity murder case is handled by Steve Carella and Meyer Meyer, but there's not much going on there besides the case. Except for the increasingly unpleasant penchant for knife work, McBain generally keeps things believable. I thought he was running a little close to the line with this one, though it resolves satisfactorily enough for a mystery novel, and is enjoyable to read. Still, most of the energy seems to surround issues of witnesses of crimes and the difficulty for anyone really to know what to do in extreme circumstances, too easily assuming someone else, someone with more expertise, will do something about it—or more probably already has. In the case of the supervillain sadist, everyone thought getting a cop was the thing to do, right up until the cop was savagely beaten. Then they had good reason to be fearful. Still, this Kitty Genovese connection is all guesswork, so take as you will.

In case it's not at the library.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Con Man (1957)

The Con Man is another early entry in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain, and it's a pretty good one. A lot of the best of McBain's writing is already present—the basic thrust of the procedural, multiple storylines only tangentially related, inspired riffing around an idea captured in the title, and the characters we have come to know and like. In fact, the afterword McBain wrote for it many years later explains how this was actually a critical juncture for the detective Steve Carella's prominent position across the series. This may be the place where he became the de facto hero of it, along with his wife Teddy, who is beautiful, deaf, and communicates by signing—interesting and remarkable for a major character, especially then. I think what I like best, however, is the loose, swimming rush of words as McBain finds a way to make his rolling language fit within the strictures of genre writing. He knows how to do this, obviously—the setup for the climax, for example, is carefully constructed to let a scene of tremendous suspense develop and unfold naturally. On the surface, even so, he maintains the jokey, goofing tone that helps propel it and make it even more of a pleasure to read. The idea of the "con" is played with every way he can, continually and allusively, describing classic cons, including new twists as plot points, and working the metaphorical territory to good effect as well. I haven't thought that much of the '50s entries so far in this series, but this is a good one. Maybe even a good place to start for anyone who has never read him. You could certainly do worse.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Mugger (1956)

This slender novel comes very early in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain—only the second book, and it shows in some ways. He is still figuring out the pieces and where they belong. A couple of detectives here were not familiar to me (Havilland and Temple) and others are missing. Steve Carella is reported as being on a honeymoon, but no Cotton Hawes, no Andy Parker, no Arthur Brown. In many ways the narrative is what's called in comic books an "origin" story, as we see patrolman Bert Kling take on the investigation of a murder and end up promoted to detective by story's end. An undated preface by McBain (which Wikipedia has as 2002) is something of an apology by way of explanation for these deficiencies, or oddities, and others. As a novelist, he's just evidently not quite comfortable yet, hasn't entirely worked his way in to the grooves ahead. Some of the best features of the 87th Precinct novels, I think, are the natural narrative asides he develops, and also a knack he can have, admittedly to differing degrees, of tying things together with themes, puns, coincidences, and more strategies. He got to be very artful in these books, but The Mugger is not really one of them. It has some interest for its mid-'50s setting, and there is a twist to one of the stories, but not a very good one. Bert Kling is not that interesting, let alone a new love interest for him in Claire Townsend. Interestingly, it is exactly the new love interests for Bert Kling that would come to be one of the most compelling threads in McBain's larger tapestry. There's not much to see here beyond rudiments. I recall some of the '50s books as very good so I'm not writing anything off yet except this one specifically, and even then all I'm saying is you can wait awhile on this one if you're stacking up McBains to read. Put it close to the bottom of the stack. He's still in the middle of figuring things out. From the vantage of reading many of the later ones first, you get a better sense of what will be discarded, and then some sense into the thinking that put it all together, as it evolved.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, May 14, 2015


Correct me if I'm wrong but it seems to me that, even within my lifetime, the letter F has become best known as the euphemism for the heavy lifting of the single most reprehensible, offensive, not to mention the dirtiest word in the English language. I hear people saying things like this all the time: "I told him to get the F out." "What the F are you talking about?" "It's none of your F-in' business." And so forth. It's possible this is mere misperception on my part, as I recall similarly believing at one time that "motherfucker" was a term invented in the '70s, which happened to be when I came of age and adults started swearing around me. (Which reminds me—children, please stop reading this now.) Indeed, so common is it that more and more one sees it rendered as "eff" (get the eff out, none of your effin' business, etc.). I guess there's always been a whiff of the lewd in the way that F makes you bite into your own lower lip, however gently. Consider:fabulous flourishes often leave Flora's friends floored. There's a degree of erotic play embedded in the sounds of those words and the things one's mouth must do to say them. That's F all over for you! It's a fine, sturdy specimen of a letter. I like how straightforward and unpretentious it is about doing what it says it will do. Stands up straight and tall, points east. It's got a spine, balance and poise; no need for the lower bar of the capital E. No nonsense, no exceptions. It's the life of the party too. F makes such a popular sound that G and P have thrown in with H to get a piece of that action: "laugh," "phlogiston," etc. But F plays no such shape-shifting pronunciation-changing games as those, save winsomely doubling up on itself now and then (off, gaff, miff), which is the only hint that it may suffer any insecurities at all, or now and then pretending to be V, as in "of." Is there any such thing as a ludicrous "silent" F? No, I think not—it is always that touch of the front teeth on the lower lip. F represents not only the dirtiest word ever invented in the history of humanity, by the way, but also serves as the disgrace of failure in our education system. F is for failure. F is for flunk. F is for you're fired dumb fuck. But F is also for forget, helping with the kindness of putting all of that behind us and moving on. F is also for flute and it is even a musical note itself (the one, as it happens, for those in the Sound of Music know, that is a long long way to run, on the C major scale anyway). F—for fine folks everywhere.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985)

Oliver Sacks is a neurologist with a sharp sense for some of the stranger manifestations of brain injuries, bringing a literary flair to his write-ups of the cases he has worked on. Some critics have dubbed him "the man who mistook his patients for a literary career." It may or may not be true that he is an opportunist, but there's no question he's a good writer and storyteller. The some two dozen "clinical tales" featured in this one present all manner of bizarre results from brain injuries or conditions, often involving the right hemisphere of the brain. In the title piece, his patient suffers from an inability to assemble the visual details of physical objects into a wholeness that enables him to recognize them. Trying to figure out what a glove is, for example, he describes it as, "A continuous surface, infolded on itself. It appears to have five outpouchings." As to its purpose, his guess is that it is some kind of organizing change purse. In the incident that provides the title of the book, this patient looks at his wife in Sacks's office as they are preparing to leave. Some visual detail about her head—perhaps the roundness, or the color or texture of her hair—makes him believe it is his hat, which he attempts to grasp and lift to his head. Besides right hemisphere brain injuries, Sacks's cases also involve Korsakoff's syndrome (an inability to form new memories, the condition memorably riffed on in the movie Memento), a pair of illiterate autistic twins who play a numbers game and are able to identify very large prime numbers, and a drug-abusing student who suddenly finds himself in possession of an ultra-keen sense of smell. A lot of things combine to interest me about these cases and incidentally make me like this book very much. I have long been fascinated by stroke victims with impaired left hemispheres of the brain who have lost all their vocabulary except swear words. What is going on in that mysterious right hemisphere? Then there is the clinical way these reports go, like a police procedural, starting from the description of a disorder (or crime) and patiently sifting the clues and analyzing them. Yet often nothing is absolutely certain. Police procedurals tend to result in conundrums that are resolved satisfactorily one way or another (not always), but these brief case studies by Sacks are simply pieces of a puzzle, contributions to a methodical, larger understanding about how the brain works and doesn't work. We're still not there, 30 years after the publication of this book, and there is likely still a very long way to go. But as pop science books go, a favorite category of mine, this is a pleasure to read, much like well-crafted short stories or personal essays. It presents profound mysteries, even maybe helps to solve them a little. But more importantly it can leave one recharged with the wonderful sense of the strangeness of life. You can't ask much more from a pop science book.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, May 08, 2015

The Great Escape (1963)

USA, 172 minutes
Director: John Sturges
Writers: Paul Brickhill, James Clavell, W.R. Burnett
Photography: Daniel L. Fapp
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Editor: Ferris Webster
Cast: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Donald, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn, David McCallum, Gordon Jackson, John Leyton, Nigel Stock

Yes, I admit, a certain comfort level probably went into choosing this for my 1963 Movie of the Year—in many ways The Great Escape is exactly that, a great escape, perfect with popcorn and on family holiday occasions. It concerns World War II and evil Nazis, and more or less the triumph of good over evil, though not exactly. It's set in a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp with cross-sections of population representing many nations of vigorous Allied troops, who never say die and never stop thwarting damn Nazis. It is packed full of young movie stars, notably Steve McQueen. At nearly three hours (and could / should have been closer to two) it's typical of the Hollywood bloat of these times. And perhaps because of the generally overlighted and unimaginative way it is blocked and staged, it often feels like a TV production—Hogan's Heroes, to be specific, which lifted plenty off it. Even the chirpy, tootling music sounds the same.

But for an easy bloat job, I think The Great Escape is actually pretty good. It's all narrative, a giant caper movie—with the usual "true story" disclaimers out front to handicap the excesses (the explanatory note calls them "compressions")—telling the story of an attempt to break no fewer than 250 POWs out of the camp at once, with the basic idea of providing a disrupting influence in the war even from within the formal borders of Germany. I don't go for caper movies normally, but I like this one, which is so efficient about laying out and executing its plot elements. Of course, the Nazis aren't as witless here as they were in Hogan's Heroes, though their brand of evil is represented on simplest levels, making them look more like petty tyrant bureaucrats than ruthless cannibalizing monsters. No need to worry for the little ones, in other words. It works fine as family fare. These Nazis are not as smart as any of their prisoners and we all know how the war turned out anyway. If anything it's triumphalism with a side dish of indomitable American exceptionalism that is what's for dinner here.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

The Portrait of a Lady (1881)

This fat thing may be the best known work by Henry James—I think only The Turn of the Screw or Washington Square may compete, and they are both much shorter. Though Portrait is the usual business for James of various collisions between New World and Old World, it also stands out for other reasons. One that's often mentioned is explicitly making a woman the hero and central character—the American Isabel Archer. The Scarlet Letter may be another example, but they are relatively rare before the 20th century, certainly in novels written by men. Even more interesting, to me, is that all of the principals are American, though it is set in Europe and there are many European supporting characters. There is thus less about the confrontation between the two worlds and more about its effects. Many of the American characters, including Miss Archer, are brash, defiant, outspoken, and rather thick—thick-headed and thick-skinned both. But she undergoes a change when she encounters two Americans well adapted to scheming and manipulating within the European setting, and the tragedy (if that's what it is) begins. Portrait presents itself as a standard novel of manners, as first one and then another and another unlikely marriage prospect appears and the action is largely focused on who she will choose. Isabel Archer is a strange and unexpected character—mysterious, really, in her motives, which I never quite understand and halfway think James did not either. Daisy Miller may be a useful comparison; Angela Vivian, from Confidence, another. Portrait works very well as a novel of manners providing cover for a drama of cruelty. The developments are rarely less than believable and every time I have been through it I find myself baffled and absorbed by the strange predicaments all over again—baffled, but intrigued to know what happens next, because perhaps there is a seed of explanation. It's really kind of a page-turner that way, and leaves a lot to chew over, including pondering the person at the center of it all. In many ways, all the questions are posed and answered in the title, with its odd use of the definite and indefinite articles.

"interlocutor" count = 8/560 pages

In case it's not at the library.