by Naomi Shihab Nye
by Naomi Shihab Nye
I love Stewart O'Nan. Why isn't he as well known as, say, Jonathan Franzen? O'Nan deserves it. His latest is no exception. The Odds is the (brief) story of Art and Marian Fowler, married 30 years, and things aren't going well. There have been affairs, both have lost their jobs, they're at risk to lose their home, and in one last, wild attempt to reverse their fortunes and save their marriage, they return to the site of their honeymoon--Niagara Falls. There they hope to use what cash they have left to win big--and Art hopes to win back Marian, who's inclined to let the marriage die.
That's it. A weekend on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. A middle-aged couple, most likely invisible to the people around them, carrying the proverbial baggage. Flawed people, a mix of likable and not (like most real people), struggling to determine what's the right thing to do and the right path to choose.
One of the things O'Nan does so well is to shine a spotlight on a little-explored community or corner of the world, and one of the more mundane. Just like he did in Last Night at the Lobster, a short bittersweet book about the staff at a Red Lobster that's about to close for good, O'Nan brings some humanity into a place many would sneer at, and gives it a more wistful reality, even if it's still kitschy in places and downright trashy in others. (I should confess to having a soft spot in my heart for kitschy, tacky places; I always loved our family trips to the Wisconsin Dells.) In literary terms, not many readers view Niagara Falls (or Red Lobster) as a setting for a serious literary work, but O'Nan proves them wrong. Any setting can be appropriate in the right hands.
I suppose now I'll have to wait several months for the next O'Nan book. I've already read and loved Emily, Alone, Wish You Were Here, The Night Country, Songs for the Missing, and A Prayer for the Dying. Hmmm...but I haven't read The Good Wife...
If you haven't already, go check out this link he sent last week too: Literary Artifacts of Dickens. I'm particularly interested in this quote:
"Looking at them all, one wonders: how exactly did he manage it? What insights did he have into the complexities of human character that let him render his own so unforgettably?
"Especially because...Dickens’s characters are often rather two-dimensional. Poor orphaned Oliver Twist hasn’t a bad bone in his body and is unendingly sweet to everyone (even if he’s got to pick a pocket or two) while the barbaric Bill Sikes is never seen to do anything but spit, snarl, and wipe beer from his mouth with a handkerchief. Sikes beats his own bulldog until it needs stitches, murders his prostitute-girlfriend Nancy, and basically makes Breaking Bad’s Walter White look like a saint.
"The exhibit’s curator, Professor William Moeck, agrees that many of Dickens’s memorable characters are “melodramatically polarized,” explaining that he was “influenced by the fairy tales and allegories [he] read in his youth […] villains are exaggeratedly wicked, while heroes and heroines wear almost saintly auras.”
"But if this seems like a recipe for caricature and not character, then why are they so long-lived? Writer E.M. Forster struggled with this same question. While condemning flat characters in his Aspects of the Novel, he gave Dickens a pass. “Dickens’ characters are types,” he wrote, “but his vitality causes them to vibrate a little, so that they borrow his life and appear to live their own.”
"Is it his vitality that really makes them resonate, or our own? If Dickens’s creations are flat perhaps they are elastic, like balloons, waiting for curious readers to come and inflate them. Like the heroes and monsters in our greatest myths, there is ample room inside them for us to live. Perhaps the secret to Dickens’s success was that he did not set out to create characters, but curiosities, which readers worldwide keep leaning closer to examine."
What do you think? Many of us have joked about the saintliness of Old Woman Esther, and one could point to the guardian and Ava as other sources of extreme goodness. But even though Esther narrated this section, and was again her saintly self, those tiny hints of romantic distress in previous chapters have me a bit on edge and not as trusting that all is as well in her world as she'd have us believe. From that, I see a full character, and perhaps a more unreliable narrator than I first supposed. Is that what Dickens intended, or am I the curious reader coming in and inflating her character with more than is really there?
Some of the other characters could be described as two-dimensional--Mrs. Flite and Mr. Gridley, losing their lives and sanity to the Chancery, come to mind--and yet I can totally buy that they've given up the better parts of their lives to their obsessions (and I definitely agree with Esther that Richard is on the road to their future). The jury (or my jury, anyway) is still out on Mr. Bucket, that curious investigator.
What do you think? How does Dickens keep us interested in these characters when often, by modern standards, they don't seem fully fleshed out and human?
Other than that, I don't have much to add about chapters 23-25. Richard is definitely heading down a bad path, and Esther and Mr. Jarndyce can see it but are powerless to stop it. The scene of Esther helping Caddy and Prince tell their respective parents about their engagement was some much-needed humor. And I'll admit, I might have been a tad sleepy when reading Mrs. Snagsby Sees It All, because I'm not 100% clear on just what it was she saw. I did, however, guffaw at this description of her: "Finally, becoming cataleptic, she has to be carried up the narrow staircase like a grand piano." Maybe that's why I like Dickens so much--the man really knew how to turn a phrase.
That's it--we're officially on break! See you back here on Jan. 7, with chapters 26-29 (yes, that's 4 chapters). Enjoy whatever holiday you choose to celebrate, and may it be filled with wonderful books and plenty of fine beverages to enjoy them with!
But first: a couple of Dickens-related links for your edification and enjoyment. Commenter V sent me this one: Dickens literary artifacts. He also sent this: a Dickens online role-playing game. As I Lay Frying finds a way to illustrate Dickens with doughnuts.
Sorry for the delay! I usually read my Dickens portion over the weekend, but last weekend turned out to be full of errands and driving through snowstorms to see a movie about tornadoes and hear a Christmas concert. Followed by much shoveling. Which today seems moot, as it is all melting, much to my snow-loving heart's dismay.
Is anyone else starting to feel a little weary with the introduction of more new characters, no matter how cleverly they might be named? Pretty soon I'm going to need some kind of character tree. Don't get me wrong, I'm still really enjoying this book, but the delight I felt in earlier chapters when some new name appeared is waning. Rapidly.
Mr. Jobling, Mr. Bucket (did anyone else flash on the name Charlie Bucket at this point?), I'm sure you're both delightful. But personally, it was a relief to get back to the utterly dysfunctional Smallweed family (and you remember, they're a relatively new acquaintance too). Maybe my Dickens reading time was just too cramped this week.
Anyway, I by far enjoyed the Smallweed family chapter the most, and this is perhaps my favorite set of lines:
"Everything that Mr. Smallweed's grandfather ever put away in his mind was a grub at first, and is a grub at last. In all his life he has never bred a single butterfly."
Maybe my recalcitrance at keeping track of more names comes because I'm worried I won't remember them when I should. Surely Mr. Bucket has more of a purpose than just to find Jo and identify the now-unemployed Frenchwoman who used to serve Lady Dedlock. Just as Charley, the orphan trying to take care of her siblings, now appears to have more of a role, as she appeared in the Smallweed household as a much-berated and poorly treated servant.
And it's not to say Mr. Bucket wasn't somewhat amusing. What a player. He appears well-versed in the ways of dealing with any member of society. I loved the intrigue when he passes another officer on the street and they act as if they don't see each other.
So, I dunno. Maybe I just hit a slump this week, maybe I was just too pressed for time. Even Mr. Gorey's illustrations for this section failed to cheer me. Fortunately, we have only one week until our holiday break. Chapters 23-25 for next Monday, y'all!
If you want a book with a compelling, forward-driving plot, this isn't it. But if you'd like to spend some time with a couple of cranky but clearly intelligent old geezers while they shoot the shit, well, this is your book.
I mean that in the best possible way.
You & Me is a book made out of dialogue. Only dialogue. No plot, and we don't even know the names of the two geezers. There's no topic they consider off limits. Sometimes they agree, sometimes they don't. The book's intro is succinct and very accurate:
"Somewhere between Bakersfield, California, and Jacksonville, Florida--we think spiritually nearer the former and geographically nearer the latter--two weirdly agreeable dudes are on a porch in a not upscale neighborhood, apparently within walking distance of a liquor store, talking a lot. It's all they have. Things disturb them. Some things do not."
It's hard to explain (at least for me) why this book was so entertaining. Although only 194 pages and in very short sections, it took me a while to read. Probably because, as much as I enjoyed it, I only wanted to spend a certain amount of time with these dudes at any one time.
But when I did drop back into their world, I always enjoyed it. Sometimes it was irreverent and apparently meaningless:
"I'd like to see some flying dogs
Are there flying dogs?
Not that I know of. Seeing some would improve my mood tremendously, though.
I suspect it would. Mine too.
Cheer us right up, flying dogs.
Raining cats and dogs.
Like to see cats bouncing off cars.
Why'd they call combat air battle "dogfights"?
They wanted to see flying dogs too."
They talk about Jayne Mansfield and about language (sometimes making up their own words) and why people behave the way they do, including themselves, in all their faults. Sometimes they're melancholy, although never sentimental:
"Are we going to have fun today?
Are we going to live today as if it is the last day of our lives?
But we know from the testimonials of Close Callers that we should.
But we don't do it.
We can't conceive of how you actually do it.
No. Go ahead. Propose that we live right now as if this is our last day. What do we do? Where do we go?
I want to sit right here and think about The End.
See? Why don't you ACTUALIZE yourself? Have you been to Tahiti? No? Then you must go. Now. Be gone.
See? You see?
God wasted two whole spaces on us as human integers. We're nils in terms of becoming all that we can become."
Sometimes funny, sometimes dark, often thought-provoking, and all without plot. Quite an accomplishment.
For me, the best part of this trio of chapters was the very first one, in spite of the unfortunate reuse of the title "Esther's Narrative". In previous sections, I was starting to find Ms. Summerson a tad bit annoying and precious, but this chapter jarred me right out of that. Her short tale of Mr. Woodcourt, and his dreadful mother, and her narration loses some of its previous confidence and complacency:
"Mr. Woodcourt seemed a little distressed by her prolixity, but he was too considerate to let her see it, and contrived delicately to bring the conversation round to making his acknowledgments to my guardian for his hospitality, and for the very happy hours--he called them the very happy hours--he had passed with us. The recollection of them, he said, would go with him wherever he went, and would be always treasured. And so we gave him our hands, one after another--at least, they did--and I did; and so he put his lips to Ada's hand--and to mine; and so he went away upon his long, long voyage!"
Given that Esther is reporting this in the past tense from some unknown future point in her life, I get the uneasy sense that she's reflecting back on an unrealized love. If that's the case, then my sympathy for her definitely increases, and it explains the tone of some of her narration, as if she's trying to review why she might or might not have been worthy of the Woodcourts. Add in the forlorn little nosegay, and my heart aches for her.
But being Esther, she moves right along to the ever-mysterious Lady Dedlock. I have to say I found Dickens' writing a bit heavy-handed here. I get it--Esther looks at Lady Dedlock and sees herself. But still, Lady Dedlock is in her own way a rather wonderfully creepy character.
And Jo! Is he going to keep popping up? Will no one take that poor child under a wing and give him a home?
What was your favorite part of this section?
Next week, chapters 20-22. Only two more weeks until we take a two-week break. This week's Edward Gorey illustration is the Jarndyce wardens and guardians taking shelter from the rain with Lady Dedlock.
I picked up this book because I have two teenage sons who were Star Wars fanatics (and maybe still are, but hide it better). But now I'm not sure I can give it away. I want to say it's cute, but that doesn't seem quite right for a book about Darth Vader.
Maybe I should just say it's an affectionate tribute to the Star Wars world, in which Luke Skywalker is four years old and the joy (and at times the annoyance) of his father's world. They get ice cream, play checkers, go trick-or-treating. Luke complains about having a sister. There were many pages that made me chortle with delight. Like this one:
This would be a great gift for any Star Wars fan, young or old. Or yourself. As is possibly my case.