The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

 

It’s not easy to find novels about North Korea.

A Creative Writing professor from Stanford took a stab at it.  His name – Adam Johnson – is almost as American as apple pie a la mode but he did a pretty good job with The Orphan Master’s Son.

Johnson certainly was going for “epic” and his story sweeps a span of time and space beginning in the humble countryside that no one in North Korea ever sees and ending in the fantastical capital of Pyongyang.  There is love, there is hope, there’s blood and guts and glory, tragedy and horror.  There is also comedy – extremely dark comedy, of course.

Pak Jun Do is not an orphan, but he might as well be.  He works at an orphanage called Long Tomorrows under the management of a cruel and neglectful father.  Even his name Jun Do (“John Doe,” get it?) is a generic name taken from a roster of famous orphans.  The original Pak Jun Do was famed for loyalty.   His namesake, the hero of our story, lives up to it by being one of the most loyal and humble citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Jun Do rises through the ranks pretty quickly.  From professional kidnapper to a spy intercepting radio transmissions aboard a fishing boat he seems to make the most out of life and is uncorrupted by wealth or rewards.  “You’re a guy who doesn’t need much,” one friend remarks, “but when it comes to other people, the sky’s the limit.”

Jun Do’s bold and brave exploits land him a diplomatic mission to Texas to visit a senator and reclaim from the Americans something valued they took from the Dear Leader himself.  The mission takes some unexpected turns, and by the end of it, Jun Do disappears.  When he re-emerges, he is no longer Jun Do.  He is Commander Ga.

This is when the novel gets crazy.  In a mostly good way.   The first part of the novel (“The Biography of Jun Do”) is a straightforward narrative, but the second part (“The Confessions of Commander Ga”) is a series of events and crescendos building on one another with more and more significant recurring themes about identity, truth, and purpose – you know, ultimate issues kind of stuff.  Jun Do, now Commander Ga, has allegedly killed and assumed the identity of one of North Korea’s most formidable men.  He takes his place in the city of Pyongyang and has a chance to be close to the woman he loves: Commander Ga’s widow, the famous actress Sun Moon.  He also has to save Sun Moon before she’s snatched away by the greedy and lustful Dear Leader himself.

(Yes, Kim Jong Il is an actual character in this book.  And he even has a few appropriately outrageous lines, such as the following:  “This is the gui-tar.  It’s used to perform American rural music…It’s also the instrument of choice for playing ‘the blues,’ which is a form of American music that chronicles the pain caused by poor decision making.”)

The story of Commander Ga in Part 2 is interwoven with two other points of view.  The first, rather brilliantly, is a loudspeaker blasting its own propagandized version of Commander Ga’s story, beginning each day like an old time radio show: “Citizens, gather round…!”  It’s an almost theatrical motif you could imagine in a musical production.   The second point of view follows a nameless interrogator who is holding important characters in prison.  His kind and truth-seeking character is a foil to the unspeakably cruel people he works with – particularly a woman named Q-Kee who is the embodiment of the ruthless North Korean version of the Gestapo.

It can get confusing if you don’t read carefully.  The interrogator’s story happens in a different sequence of time from the story of Commander Ga and the propagandized version, of course, may or may not have happened at all.  There are a lot of shadowy characters who pop up and may or may not come back later.   Commander Ga himself does not seem to be sure who he really is or what his destiny is, for that matter.  But the loose ends are more or less tied up at the end, and whatever isn’t is left tantalizingly to the imagination.  If some of the major philosophical themes weren’t so subtle this could be a stunning opera.  Or a Hollywood thriller.   But the subtle and shadowy stuff makes it good.

Perhaps one of the most brilliantly strange things that Johnson manages to do is have a running reference in the story to Casablanca – Commander Ga and the actress Sun Moon are compared to Rick and Elsa falling in love in a dangerous and unstable situation.  Jun Do alias Commander Ga certainly is the melancholic lone wolf type who is bound in the end to do the right thing.  His love for Sun Moon is a bit larger than life and never really explained – but perhaps it’s because she reminds him of his beautiful mother who was a singer kidnapped to Pyongyang.  The haunting loss of his mother is perhaps the only real reason why he is mad enough to stay in North Korea when all his comrades are trying to escape:

How to tell [him] that the only way to shake your ghosts was to find them, and that the only place Jun Do could do that was right here.  How to explain the recurring dream that he’s listening to his radio, that he’s getting the remnants of important messages, from his mother, from other boys in the orphanage…His mother wants to get urgent messages to him where she is, she wants to tell him why, she keeps repeating her name over and over, though he can’t quite make it out.  How to explain that in Seoul, he knows, the messages would stop.

Of course when Jun Do – Commander Ga – meets Sun Moon he has a new reason to stay in North Korea.  But there are still ghosts everywhere in this story.  Ghosts of characters who die and vanish.  Ghosts of characters you never meet, like Jun Do’s mother.  Even living characters can seem ghostly at times.   As the narrator says at one point, “It was easy to make somebody disappear in North Korea.  But making them reappear – who has that kind of magic?”

As bizarre and surreal as the story gets at times, I think Johnson’s “ghostly” vibe running through the Orphan Master’s Son is a fitting one.  As hard as one tries to get the facts on North Korea, to the outside world it remains one of the ghostliest of places.  We can only imagine it’s ghostly on the inside too.

The Most Famous Book in the Philippines (and why it’s awesome)

Not many countries have a national hero who wrote good fiction.  

The Philippines got lucky – they have Jose Rizal. Rizal was only 26 years old when he wrote his magnum opus and sowed the seeds of a revolution. 130 years later, 3rd years in Filipino high schools are still reading it.

That book is none other than Noli Mi Tangere.

Imagine if George Washington or MLK wrote a novel describing the current situation in America and the need for justice with the imagination and irony of Charles Dickens.   Or if Gandhi did the same thing in India in the early 20th century. It would be a pretty big deal, right?

I read Noli expecting it would be an “educational” experience. It was that, but it was also entertaining, funny, tragic, operatic, and so many other things I was not expecting.

If there is one “definitive” novel you want to read in, on or about the Philippines, this is it.

Noli begins with a dinner party in the house of Captain Tiago, a wealthy Filipino who enjoys hosting and impressing others:

…at the time Captain Tiago was considered one of the most hospitable of men, and it was well known that his house, like his country, shut its doors against nothing except commerce and all new or bold ideas.

 The most hostile enemies to these “new ideas” are the friars, the de facto rulers of the towns – and the most hostile and tyrannical of these friars is Padre Damaso.   Padre Damaso is one of Captain Tiago’s guests and enjoys being a VIP and having the last word on everything. The tides turn when the captain introduces a special new guest: his future son-in-law, Chrisostomo Ibarra.

Ibarra is a kind and idealistic young man who has been studying in Europe and dreams of opening a schoolhouse. He also looks forward to marrying his lovely fiancée, Maria Clara and settling down to a happily ever after. The fates, of course, have other ideas.

Ibarra learns that there is something sinister behind his father’s death, and that Padre Damaso is a part of it. Padre Damaso happens to also be Maria Clara’s godfather and does not approve of Ibarra’s progressive views. The two are enemies from day one.

Ibarra tries to be a peacemaker and a compromiser, but the more he sees of the Filipinos’ inequality and the oppression under the dominion of the friars, the more conflicted he becomes. A mysterious new friend, Elias, tells Ibarra that bloodshed and revolution is the only realistic answer. Ibarra does everything he can to hold out and hope for a more peaceful path, but he finds himself at a center of controversy and persecution all the same.

If Ibarra is a tragic hero following the old Greek model, his crucial failing would be optimism. “Couldn’t a worthy enterprise make its way over everything, since truth doesn’t need to borrow garments from error?” he asks Tasio, the local sage, at one point.

To which Tasio replies, “Nobody loves the naked truth!”

Ouch. Reality bites.

Is Rizal saying that preemptive bloodshed and violence is the only solution? That would be ironic, because Rizal himself wrote this political novel as an alternative to bloodshed. What’s even more chilling is the fact that in the character of Ibarra Rizal prophesied his own fate. Just a few years after Noli was released, Rizal was accused of plotting and sedition and brought before the court.

The most triumphant aspect of Noli Mi Tangere is not the political dialogue but the variety of memorable characters and the vivid scenes that reveal 19th century Philippine life under the tyranny of the friars.

We visit a belfry where we see two altar boys accused by the sacristan of a crime they didn’t commit, a cock fight where two young brothers gamble their money to escape their poverty, and a bombastic sermon in church by the blustering Padre Damaso that defies his followers to stay awake. We meet victims like the tormented madwoman Sisa , dreamers like Tasio the Sage who writes in a secret code for future generations, and villains like Padre Salvi who lusts after women in spite of his sickly and pompous disposition.

Charles Dickens himself would be hard pressed to outdo characters like the terrible Doña Consolación with her whip and the comical Doña Victorina with her awful fashion statements – and their hapless husbands who get dragged into their hateful rivalry.

If Rizal was exaggerating the virtues, vices and contrasts of his characters, it could not have been by much, because his novel hit a note and sent the country reeling. Noli Mi Tangere means “Touch Me Not,” in Latin, and Rizal said that the contents of his novel were so sensitive and so controversial that no one up until that point in time was willing to “touch” them. The novel was the match that lit the powder keg and inspired the Filipino people to fight for their freedom. Nine years later, Rizal paid for the aftermath with his life in front of a firing squad.

Now that the Philippines is a free and much more prosperous country today, however – and thanks in part to Jose Rizal – there is no reason you shouldn’t touch Noli Mi Tangere.   It’s not every day you find a novel about justice, freedom, revenge, romance and secret identity that also shaped the history of a nation.

Mother-Loving Sons: This May Be the Last DH Lawrence Novel I Read For a While

DH Lawrence was a really weird dude.

I held my breath in reserve over the last two months as I journeyed through three of his most famous novels: The Rainbow, Women in Love, and Sons and Lovers. Now I can finally exhale and release a few spasmodic gas pains as I reel slightly from a head rush.

It’s not that Lawrence doesn’t have talent or interesting things to say. He has plenty of that. He can look at human relationships within the context of a changing culture and at a personal, nitty-gritty perspective at the same time. He can make you uncomfortable. He can make you realize, “Oh, I’ve had that experience too.” He can make you think about politics, God, art, sex, marriage and wonder if you got it right. But man, he is weird.

I officially concluded this after finishing his quasi-autobiographical novel, Sons and Lovers.

Sons and Lovers starts out as an intimate look into the life of a dysfunctional family: the Morels. Mrs. Morel and Mr. Morel ain’t exactly happy. It seems like they spend more time hurling accusations and pieces of furniture at each other than they do conversing. In spite of this Mrs. Morel finds out she’s pregnant with a third kid and bitterly resigns herself to the fate. The reader wonders, how the hey do people end up in these crappy situations to begin with? Seriously.

This is the brilliant part about Lawrence. He gives his readers the backstory on all his important characters, and over an arc of time we see how their personalities and choices form their eventual lives – for better or for worse.

Just take the Morels as an example. Mrs. Gertrude Morel as a young woman is intrigued by Walter Morel’s affable easy manners and excellent dance moves. Walter Morel is struck by Gertrude’s sophisticated airs.   Unfortunately Gertrude Morel is a serious, intellectual type of woman who expects too much out of her simplistic and even brutish spouse who supports his family as a coal miner while getting tippled on the side as often as he can. Soon Mr. Morel turns abusive. Newly married warm and fuzzies grow cold and brittle.   Poor Mrs. Morel, in early 20th century England, doesn’t have many options at this point.

Enter the chillins’.

Mrs. Morel’s sole joy is life soon becomes her four offspring. She especially has a soft spot for her sons, as she seeks to mold them into the men her husband should have been. Oh the psychological family drama begins in earnest now.

Son #1, William, brings home an uppity city girl who is modern parlance is something of a “poser.” Mom doesn’t approve, but has a fascinatingly diplomatic way of keeping the peace and using her gentle prompting questions to undermine her son’s commitment to his shallow girlfriend. We’re excited to see things play out, but tragedy strikes and Mrs. Morel is forced to shift the bulk of her hopes and affections on Son #2, Paul.   The other two chillins’, Annie and Arthur, get married and begin their own mundane journeys and that leaves Paul to be the center of his mother’s microcosm and the ultimate protagonist of the story.

Now things get angsty.

Paul has a crush on his childhood sweetheart Miriam, but Mrs. Morel doesn’t approve at all. Miriam is what you could call the opposite of down-to-earth: she fancies herself “a princess turned swine girl” and is waiting for the perfect relationship to come along that is all metaphysical and no physical. She and Paul are “lovers” for a number of years, even though they hardly even hold hands.   Paul is sexually frustrated (no kidding) and Mom uses his frustrated outbursts to let her son know she thinks Miriam’s not good enough.

Enter Clara.

It wouldn’t be a DH Lawrence novel without a bit of scandal, and that’s why we have the married suffragist Clara Dawes who is currently exploring life apart from her overbearing husband Baxter. Clara is sexy and beautiful like Miriam, but she’s also sexual and Paul finds this a welcome relief. They enter headlong into a passionate yet sad affair as Mrs. Morel looks on with a reserved sort of knowingness.

So which woman is Paul going to ultimately go for: his eccentric soul mate or the wordly modern woman? Apparently neither one, as long as Mrs. Morel is still alive.

“But no, mother. I even love Clara, and I did Miriam; but to give myself to them in marriage I couldn’t. I couldn’t belong to them. They seem to want me, and I can’t ever give it to them.”

 “You haven’t met the right woman.”

 “And I never shall meet the right woman while you live,” he said.

 Oh, that sneaky, baffling, twisted, sympathetic Mrs. Morel. She might be my favorite character (or least unfavorite character) in the story, if only because of those qualities. Does she truly want her son to be happy with the right girl, or is she reading from a stock script to throw her son off the scent? Is she even aware of her own twisted motives?

I really hate to use the term Freudian. It sounds so cliché and overused and even outdated. But as far as I can tell, Freudian is exactly what we’ve got going on in Sons and Lovers. We get whiffs of it in early childhood when Paul Morel is sad his mom is going to sleep in her husband’s bed after they have a fight. We get a taste of it when we read how Paul and his mother are on a holiday, “feeling the excitement of lovers having an adventure together.”   And even the staunchest deniers can’t help but raise their eyebrows when a distraught Mrs. Morel utters between sobs as she clings to Paul, “And I’ve never- you know, Paul – I’ve never had a husband – not really –.”

Wow.

So, is this a story about incest or what?

Not exactly. DH Lawrence was scandalous by early 20th century standards, but not so much by early 21st ones.   So no, there’s no epic Oedipal tragedy here where Paul sleeps with his mom and stabs his own eyes out (sorry if that spoils things).   But you could say there’s a more subtle tragedy in the way Paul’s over-attachment to his mother affects his relationship with other women.  Ironic family dynamics affecting future generations are something we can all relate to, for sure.

But in true Lawrence fashion, his characters are a bit off the wall. And by that I mean they are almost as weird as he is.

Let’s take Miriam, the “swine girl princess,” Paul’s platonic lover. Even though Paul treats her like crap at times while they’re growing up together Miriam believes they are destined to be together. She’s not interested in sex or even marriage necessarily, but still somehow thinks Paul will come round to her lofty terms and they two will become one in soul as they talk about books and religion all day long.   Sounds romantic, right? And during the times that Paul becomes so frustrated with her that he has to leave for weeks and months at a time she sits around blithely with no inkling of a concern that he might actually never come back! Miriam could stand to read a few self-help books on male-female relationships.

Then there’s Clara, the suffragist. When you first meet Clara you think, “Oh cool, the modern woman who will put her foot down and reign in some of Paul’s wishy-washiness– this is it!”   But Clara ends up as a sideshow, basically to feed Paul’s physical cravings while his spiritual, emotional and metaphysical cravings continue to be all over the place. Clara is “not deep, not a bit,” and Paul likes it that way.

Now to the main attraction. Paul Morel is probably the most confusing person in the whole book, and since he also gets the most stage time, that makes for some rather confused readers. Does he want to get married? Does he want to live with his mom forever? Does he have any healthy relationships with men at all, and is that part of the problem? Poor Paul doesn’t seem quite able to figure himself out, and that accounts for some of his crankiness towards other people. Some, mind you. He seems to “hate” a lot of people for a lot of different reasons, and in fact…

I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel full of so much hatred

I counted the word “hate” in Sons and Lovers over 110 times.   The swordsman Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride comes to mind: “You keep using that word – I do not think it means what you think it means.”

At some point in Sons and Lovers, almost every character hates someone else. Mrs. Morel hates her husband and her sons’ girlfriends. Paul hates Clara’s husband and he hates Paul. Paul has momentary feelings of hatred for Clara and vice versa. But no one hates anyone as much as Paul hates Miriam – and of course that’s because Miriam knows Paul better than anyone. Paul hates Miriam when she’s gathering flowers, when she makes his mom jealous, when she struggles to learn algebra, when she’s being his “conscience.” There’s basically not a time that Paul is not hating Miriam.

“Frequently he hated Miriam. He hated her as she bent forward and pored over his things. He hated her way of patiently casting him up, as if he were an endless psychological account.

Half the time he grieved for her, half the time he hated her. She was his conscience; and he felt , somehow, he had got a conscience that was too much for him. 

There was a long battle between him and her. He was utterly unfaithful to her even in her own presence; then he was ashamed, then repentant; then he hated her, and went off again. Those were the ever-recurring conditions.

 I could go on but I think you get the point.

Understandably, we can forgive Miriam when she in turn has a few moments of hating Paul.

But why, why all this anguish?! Is what I was subconsciously asking over and over as I neared the end of the novel but the characters hadn’t neared the end of their own struggles. I seriously want to whip these people in the face with their own soiled handkerchiefs. I know, I’m not being sympathetic enough. If I came from a dysfunctional family I would understand, and I don’t.

I do understand illuminating passages like this, where Lawrence shines the spotlight on human nature at its core:

The pity was, she (Mrs. Morel) was too much his (Mr. Morel’s) opposite. She could not be content with the little he might be; she would have him the much he ought to be. So, in seeking to make him nobler than he could be, she destroyed him.

Oh snap, remember the famous adage that women think they can change men? Perhaps this is where it all began to go wrong, and the battered Mrs. Morel is in some ways the perpetrator.

Sons and Lovers is a great novel if you’re looking for “Freud Lite” and want a closer glimpse at – and understanding of – tortured human relationships. This is one of those books, in fact, where the conversation (or even memory) afterwards might be more memorable than the reading itself.   If tortured human relationships and the gratuitous use of the word “hate” are not your thing, then consider Elizabeth Gaskell or anyone else pre-1890’s and definitely stay away from DH Lawrence.

For me, reading DH Lawrence is like cooking with cayenne pepper powder: it gives some great startling sensations and wakens my faculties, but if I eat (read) too much at once I’ll burn out. I know because I learned that the hard way.

7 Things to know about Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell is not exactly a household name, but perhaps it should be. Wives and Daughters is a great novel and personally, more enjoyable than anything I’ve read by Charles Dickens who happens to be much more famous. (I know, let the flame wars begin). So, if like most people you know nothing about “Mrs. Gaskell,” or if you are interested in learning more, here are 7 fascinating details.

1. Her childhood was a bit like Cinderella’s.

 

That’s right – the start of her life, not so much the end. She was the last of a series of children who had nearly all died in infancy. Her poor mother died herself of exhaustion soon after giving birth to her. Her father, perhaps out of resentment or pained memory, kept his distance and married again. To make it worse, her stepmother wasn’t exactly warm, either.

 

Things took another tragic turn when Elizabeth was 18. Her brother John was lost at sea, and her father also passed away. Luckily, she had an optimistic disposition and a foundation of happy childhood memories with her aunt.  She would go on to marry a handsome but rather austere minister, Mr. William Gaskell – not quite Prince Charming. Things started looking up after that, but Elizabeth’s trials weren’t over yet.

2. She started writing novels because her son died.

 

Who says housewives can’t write novels? That’s “all” Elizabeth Gaskell was until her son William died at the mere age of 9 months. Gaskell already had 3 other children, but it was still a devastating blow. She fell into a bedridden state of depression.

 

Mr. Gaskell was a pretty cool husband, luckily. He knew that his wife was good at writing because she had already penned some short stories. He suggested she try writing a novel as a therapeutic way to distract herself. Mrs. Gaskell took her husband up on the challenge, and the result was Mary Barton – her first of many more writings to come.

3. She was good friends with Charlotte Brontë – and she even wrote her biography

 

Gaskell and Brontë are more opposite than alike at first glance. Gaskell was extroverted, sociable and matronly, while her more famous counterpart was introverted and single. In keeping with her sage and matronly nature, Gaskell gave some handy marriage advice to Brontë that led her to eventually wed her suitor, Arthur Bell Nicholls.

 

Apparently Charlotte Brontë’s father, Patrick Brontë also had a high opinion of Gaskell. After Charlotte’s death he approached Gaskell with the hope that she would write Charlotte’s biography. Gaskell did just that, and The Life of Charlotte Brontë is still read and widely studied by historians today. 100% transparent it is not, but it was a singular achievement at the time because it was a famous lady novelist writing about another famous lady novelist. It was also original in that Gaskell chose to focus on Brontë’s character and personal life over her works. The biography created some controversy at the time it debuted but perhaps that’s not surprising. It was about the life of Charlotte Brontë, after all.

 

4. She sometimes butted heads with Charles Dickens

 

Imagine trying to balance a work and personal relationship with the most formidable and popular writer in the nation. Somehow Gaskell managed to do so with Dickens, and she was a regular contributor to his magazine, Household Words. In fact, he was impressed enough with her storytelling skills to refer to her as, “My Dear Scheherazade.” Sounds like they were close.

 

That doesn’t mean their partnership was all peaches and cream, though. Apparently Dickens was always wanting to edit and change her writing to suit his own preferences and at one point in total frustration declared, “If I were Mr. G, oh heavens, how I would beat her!”

 

Hopefully Mr. G never got wind of that.

 

      5. She loved people.

 

In 1850 the Gaskells moved into a picturesque Neoclassical home at 84 Plymouth Grove.   In a surviving letter to a friend, a giddy Gaskell gushes about how excited she is to make the place her own.   It seems she did, because soon she had a steady stream of visitors.

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84 Plymouth Grove today.  I would definitely invite people over if I lived here.

 

84 Plymouth became the sight for many parties and entertaining gatherings of luminaries and intellectual folk from near and far. In addition to Brontë and Dickens Gaskell also hosted Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charles Norton, Charles Hallé and John Ruskin. And for what it’s worth, she was also friends with Florence Nightingale.

6. Her novels became famous because they tackled subjects other authors avoided.

 

Gaskell’s debut novel Mary Barton raised several eyebrows as the subject matter dealt up close and personal with illegitimate childbirth and the inner life of a working class woman. Her novel Ruth was explored the seduction and downfall of a poor seamstress. Such subject matter written from the point of view of a woman was rather new territory at the time and in spite of some critical voices, it helped her books to sell well indeed.

 

Gaskell was very much preoccupied with helping the poorer and lower classes, and made a point of making personal visits to such people often.  She worked hard to represent the situations of the lower classes in her works, and to recreate their different accents and dialects authentically.

7. She lived life to the fullest.

 

When Elizabeth Gaskell moved to 84 Plymouth Grove she took along a cow. I personally think that’s both awesome and inspiring – what animal would you move into your new home after you made it as a bestselling author?

 

If you just look at the bare facts of her history you can see Gaskell was a person who delighted in a lot of different things and had a lust for life. She made a point of traveling often, and usually independent of her husband. She ventured as far as France, Italy, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland. She was equally happy in London and absolutely loved to be out of the house and calling on friends.

 

She schemed and dreamed her way up to the end of her life. She became worn out and exhausted from all her writing and other obligations and still she somehow managed to secretly buy a house to surprise her family with(!) It was at this very same house, in fact, where she dropped dead of a heart attack right in the middle of a tea party with friends.

 

If that’s not the way to go then I’m not sure what is.

 

Elizabeth Gaskell created a pattern of life that many of us – especially aspiring writers – could take a few cues from. Her life was not spared from heartache, and in fact it helped to mold her talent. Yet she was incredibly positive and energetic and, if I may venture to say so, an encouraging example among so many more bleak and depressing ones in the world of esteemed literature.

 

Whether or not you like her stuff, you can’t deny that Elizabeth Gaskell made something of her life. And if you haven’t read any of her works yet, perhaps this quick insight into her life and character will motivate you to do just that.

The Other Jane Austen novel

Wives and Daughters may be the most satisfying unfinished novel ever

The subtitle to Wives and Daughters is, “An Everyday Story.” The writer is Elizabeth Gaskell – during her time she was known to fans as, “Mrs. Gaskell,” because, well, she was a proper married lady and that was just the custom.

Meh, you might be thinking right now. Some old fuddy duddy Victorian lady writing boring stories about everyday life. I’ll pass.

 You do so at your loss.

Gaskell is actually one of the coolest under-the-radar Victorians out there. Incidentally, being from the Victorian times does not make you an out-of-touch prude. Gaskell had the stereotypical profile: farm girl grown into a robust beauty, married to a minister and mother to multiple children. The reality is, she was very intellectual, great with people, well traveled and passionate about life. Oh, and she could write a damn good story. About everyday life.

So let’s talk about Wives and Daughters.

Molly Gibson is the daughter of a widowed doctor who is quite respected in his community. The two of them have a very cozy relationship and Molly lives a carefree sort of life with no wish for anything further. Mr. Gibson, on the other hand, feels that he should become even more respectable and thinks of getting a mother for Molly. Enter the eligible, widowed Mrs. Hyacinth Clare Fitzpatrick.

Oh, so it’s going to be a Cinderella story, is it? Not so fast.

It’s true that the new Mrs. Gibson is both vain and self absorbed. [“Marriage is the natural thing,” she declares. “Then the husband has all that kind of dirty work to do and his wife sits in the drawing-room like a lady”). And she does indeed have a daughter of her own, which means that Molly now has a stepsister as well. But unlike what you might expect, Mr. Gibson does not die. And Mrs. Gibson is not wicked. In fact, she treats Molly quite well and favors her over her own daughter, the hotheaded beauty Cynthia. There’s a bit of power struggle, you see. And Molly and Cynthia – why, they become best friends.

So the guy…Prince Charming or whoever. Does he come onto the scene? Are there two Prince Charmings or what?

 In the old town where the Gibson family lives also resides the eminent old Hamley family. “The Hamleys of Hamley” who have been there since time immemorial, as their old fashioned and blue-blooded patriarch Squire Hamley loves to affirm. The Hamleys have two sons. Of course.

There’s a kind of a clash going on between the supremely handsome elder son, Osborne– who’s a bit more cosmopolitan and open-minded, shall we say – and his old man. Osborne is looked to as the shining star and the more promising of the two. He’s got a sensitive side and a knack for poetry. Good-natured Roger, on the other hand, loves crawling around in the outdoors and studying bugs. He and Ma Hamley help to mediate when the old Squire and Osbourne don’t see eye to eye.

Then Ma Hamley gets really sick and all of Hamley Hall is in a funk. And of course, Molly and Cynthia are involved as the drama plays out. But things don’t happen quite as you might expect, and Molly discovers a great and shocking secret about one of the Hamley sons that she must keep to herself.

Wives and Daughters, put simply, is a great story with a plot and characters that draw you in. And it translates to any age and any time.

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I know, there’s even something Jane Austen-y about Elizabeth Gaskell’s portrait.

 You know how Jane Austen stories have been adapted into contemporary and even multi-cultural film versions? Wives and Daughters is also one of those laugh-cry-laugh again whirlwind storylines that could translate into an awesome modern adaptation. I wish they would make one.

Mr. Gibson and Hyacinth’s blissful expectations soon turn into dysfunctional reality as they butt heads on how to run the household. I swear Gaskell must have had Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Bennett in mind when we see Mr. Gibson in the parlor, grumbling behind his newspapers as Mrs. Gibson prattles on.   Yet we never see Mr. and Mrs. Bennett have an uncomfortably real argument beside the fireplace as Gaskell so masterfully shows Mr. and Mrs. Gibson having.

Cynthia may also be vain like her mother, but we sympathize with her history because her mother emotionally neglected her. In front of men she is the stereotypical siren type who wears an “armour of magic” and exercises an “unconscious power of fascination” over those around her; but Molly knows who Cynthia is deep down and that’s how they are such friends.

One of my favorite lines is when Cynthia confesses to Molly:

“But it’s no use talking; I am not good, and I never shall be now. Perhaps I might be a heroine still, but I shall never be a good woman, I know.”

What was that famous phrase about good girls rarely making history?

Anyways, Cynthia is a mess at times, but we feel for her.   And we’re intrigued and a little intimidated by her mysterious suitor, Mr. Preston (yet another great character for the screen).

Molly may be the “good girl” of the story and the foil to Cynthia and her recklessness, but that doesn’t mean she’s drab. Unlike a 1-dimensional Dickens heroine who sits prettily in a chair all day and smilingly acquiesces to everything around her, Molly has a bit of fire in her. She is her father’s daughter, after all. And she’s always ready to save the day:

“He shall not!” said Molly, rising up in her indignation, and standing before Cynthia almost as resolutely fierce as if she were in the very presence of Mr. Preston himself. “I am not afraid of him. He dares not insult me, or if he does, I do not care.   I will ask him for those letters, and see if he dare refuse me.”

 I have a feeling Molly Gibson and Lizzie Bennett would’ve gotten along.

Lest you think this is a female-centric book with male characters as mere props, Mrs. Gaskell does a splendid job with men as well. Squire Hamley is one of her best creations: he’s an old codger, crusty, insular and even xenophobic and suspicious of anything foreign. We might hear a trace of an old red-necked relative of our own when Mr. Hamley says to Roger about his science book: “I should have understood it better if they could have called the animals by they English names, and not put so much of their French jingo into it.” He goes on to brag about how the British defeated the French at the Battle of Waterloo in a way that would make any liberal at the dinner table cringe.

But Squire Hamley is no hard-hearted villain or stock character. Like many fathers we know, he is very tender deep down and terrified of anything that could harm his family. When he is finally forced to face some of his worst fears we see the true Squire Hamley emerge and let’s just say…he just might be my favorite character in the whole book.

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Squire Hamley – you just gotta love him.  (Imagine from TheVillageSmith.wordpress.com).

Finally, Gaskell is just an all-round whiz at understanding human nature.

 I don’t know if it’s a specific attribute of 19th century female authors because women back then spent so much time in close quarters with other people, but Elizabeth Gaskell understood people. And she knew how to write about it – and make it funny.

Just check out this passage, describing a young man who is smitten with a vivacious and charming female:

He was at that age when young men admired a formed beauty more than a face with any amount of future capability of loveliness, and when they are morbidly conscious of the difficulty of finding subjects of conversation in talking to girls in a state of feminine hobbledehoyhood.

 I think, given the nature of this description I am 90% sure I can guess what “hobbledehoyhood” is. What an awesome word. I will need to start using that from now on.

A final thought about Wives and Daughters.

It was left unfinished due to Gaskell’s sudden death. But that doesn’t mean it’s not satisfying.

 You can see where things are going at the close of the novel. Without spoiling things, I will say this: the unexpected perk of the sudden and unfinished ending is that, depending on how you feel about the situation, you can imagine exactly the ending you want. Personally, for me that made it more gratifying. And for all I know, the ideal ending I had in mind is the same one Gaskell had imagined. Maybe not. Ignorance is bliss.

According to Wikipedia, (who is to be trusted about 50% of the time) Mrs. Gaskell was influenced by Jane Austen. The similarities are hard to deny and there definitely is an appeal there. But Wives and Daughters is absolutely worth reading for its own sake.

 

 

*Note:  Although this is a review for the book, the character images are taken from the BBC film adaptation.  This is because, well, photos of real people are nicer to look at than old first edition sketches.  Also, the BBC adaptation is pretty good.  But not as good as the book, let’s face it.   

High Court of Chicanery: A Review of Bleak House, by Charles Dickens

Is it a true classic or literary wiglomeration? The jury is still out.

After surviving Bleak House I am a Charles Dickens hold out.

You can’t say I didn’t try. Every day for two weeks, between 12:30 and 2 pm I watched over a room of sleeping 3-year-olds and with nothing else to pass the time I slogged my way through this 900-paged behemoth.

I tried to comprehend what was happening in the first chapter. I tried to understand what the Jarndyce and Jarndyce suit was all about. But once it became apparent that such an understanding was beyond hope – and besides the point – I gave myself up to the numbing chaos of the evil, swirling London fog and the rest of the novel passed before my eyes like disjointed scenes in a phantasmagoria in which I drifted in and out of consciousness and sometimes what even felt like a coma.

And no, believe it or not, the book isn’t all that “bleak.” It’s just mind numbingly oblique.

Part of the obliquity is intentional, for sure. The main premise (if there is one) is an ongoing lawsuit called Jarndyce and Jarndyce that no one quite understands. No, scratch that: no one remotely understands, and that is to include the reader.   We figure it involves an inheritance of money of some sort, because some of the characters are hopeful in benefitting from it, but for the most part, it’s a miserable mess. Dickens, true to his brutally repetitive fashion, slams us over the head in his opening chapter with the hopelessness and the futility of the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case and runs the London fog metaphor ragged.

Many fans of Bleak House point to the fact that in this novel Dickens’ outlook is darker and more cynical and mature, and he gives a scathing critique of the High Court of Chancery, the court of law at that time, and its hopelessly bureaucratic shortcomings.   He describes the members of the High Court of Chancery as, “mistily engaged in one of the ten thousand stages of an endless cause, tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee-deep in technicalities, running their goat-hair and horsehair warded heads against walls of words and making a pretence of equity with serious faces, as players might.”

Anyone who’s been through a divorce, a serious health problem or other unfortunate life event might well relate to the despair that comes with too much red tape. The message is important. But unfortunately, the most piercing and profound passages in Bleak House are tiny nuggets lodged in a mountain heap of descriptive rambling.

The narration is divided between a generic 3rd person observer and the 1st person observations of our heroine, Esther Summerson. The contrast between the darker 3rd person and Esther’s hopeful and guileless voice is no doubt intentional, and it makes for some admittedly interesting perspective. I found myself preferring Esther’s warmer and more personable voice – even though it is not as objective and omniscient – to the 3rd person vignettes concerned more with side plots.

Esther enters the story when her cruel godmother dies and she becomes the ward of Mr. Jarndyce and close friends to a pair of cousins, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare. Richard and Ada are also connected to Mr. Jarndyce and they hope to benefit from the lawsuit’s outcome. In the meantime, Esther lives a blissfully contented life as housekeeper to kindly Mr. Jarndyce and never utters a peep of complaint or negativity- even after her face is ravaged by smallpox.

Through both Esther’s eyes and the narrator’s we inspect a parade of various characters ranging from sweet to pathetic to absolutely grotesque. True again to Dickens fashion the parade is a long one, and the names are cartoonish and full of hard consonants – from Mrs. Pardiggle to Mr. and Mrs. Snagsby. You could almost measure the “caricature” factor from the names themselves: note that “Esther Summerson” and “Allan Woodcourt” are much nicer and more believable names, as they are nicer and more normal people.

Then there are the ambiguous in-between types, like the dogged detective Mr. Bucket and the mysterious Lady Dedlock and the sad and shocking mystery that surrounds her. Long as Bleak House is, it does have a beginning, middle and end, and I must admit, a fair and fitting conclusion that will not have the reader in stitches.

The novel, overall though, was a fail for me personally. I will try to highlight the main reasons I hold this opinion.

 

  1. The characters in Bleak House are mainly caricatures. Caricatures work fine for bad people, but not for good people.

 

It is debatable whether it’s good or bad (or neutral) for characters to be caricatures. Obviously there is a case to be made, otherwise Dickens, who is the caricaturist of them all, wouldn’t still be so bloody popular.

In some cases, the over-the-top-ness of his characters manage to induce a giggle or two while still revealing a truth about human nature. This is in the best cases. A good example would be Harold Skimpole, the bafflingly irresponsible and good-naturedly selfish “eternal child.” Harold is so out of touch with reality and all things normal and adult that he doesn’t pay his bills because he thinks money is silly. However, he has no objection to other people giving him money, either as a bribe or bail, and uses such absurd logic to do so that he actually surpasses hypocrisy to the point of being straight-up loony. The crusty detective Bucket calls him like he sees them:

“Whenever a person proclaims to you, ‘In world matters I’m a child,’ you consider that that person is only a-crying off from being held accountable and that you have got that person’s number, and it’s Number One.”

Unsurprisingly, Skimpole reveals his true colors in the end by lashing out at Mr. Jarndyce and calling him “selfish,” when in fact Mr. Jarndyce is quite the opposite and simply doesn’t cater to Skimpole’s bizarre sense of entitlement. Pretty sure we’ve all met a Skimpole or two in our lives who drove us almost as crazy.

Two other good examples of extreme negative caricatures are the pathetic parental figures, Mr. Turveydrop and Mrs. Jellyby. Mr. Turveydrop affects generosity to his son Prince for “allowing” him to marry Caddy Jellyby when in reality he is a shameless sponge who lives off his poor son’s hard work and really doesn’t have a right to stake a claim. It’s a shameful scenario in which the parent-child relationship is reverted, and one we have probably all seen but hope not to see again.

Mrs. Jellyby is even more wicked. The perfect picture of hypocrisy, she is absorbed in lofty charitable work in overseas Africa while ignoring the needs of her own children. She is cold, even emotionally negligent to her daughter Caddy, and Caddy’s friend Esther observes in Mrs. Jellyby “a serene contempt for our limited sphere of action.”

These are successful examples of extreme, even cartoonish and darkly humorous characters who exemplify the worst of human nature. Dickens has a bone to pick with such people and in Bleak House makes it abundantly clear that there is a special place in hell for anyone who oppresses children – especially their own.

The problem of caricature comes when we get to the good guys. You can laugh at someone who’s horrible, but a saint? They’re neither funny, believable or unique. Not unlike the famous sentence from Anna Karenina, “all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” you could say that while bad people can be bad in different ways, a perfect person is going to be boring because he or she will have every imaginable virtue with no exception.

Take Mr. Jarndyce. For the first half of Bleak House I kept waiting, almost with dread, for something unfortunate to rear itself in the man. He is just too nice and too kind, generous, patient and benign, almost like Santa Claus or God himself. And then I finally realized that was the point and that that Mr. Jarndyce is a God-like archetype. When he makes an incredibly generous gesture near the end of the novel that surpasses all his prior generous gestures you sort of do a double take. “Really? Who is this guy?” Clearly something who belongs in a snuggly fairy tale world of black and white.

Mr. Jarndyce has got nothing on our flawless heroine, Esther Summerson, however. Dickens has a reputation for unrealistically perfect young female characters that grates even on his fans, and Esther is no exception.

Here is an example in which Esther is singing the praises of her eternally gracious guardian, Mr. Jarndyce:

My thought was how could I ever be busy enough, how could I ever be good enough, how in my little way could I ever hope to be forgetful enough of myself, devoted enough to him, and useful enough to others, to show him how I blessed and honored him.

 When she comes to live in her new home provided by Mr. Jarndyce after her wicked godmother dies, she declares, “If a good fairy had built the house for me with a wave of her wand, and I had been a princess and her favored god-child, I could not have been more considered in it.” How…sweet.

Esther rejoices in the kindness shown to her by others, and in return passes along such kindness down to the poorest and most unfortunate souls with unflagging zeal. She has no care or consideration for herself in even the most important matters.   She is so self-effacing as a narrator that she focuses all her attention onto other people and events that she almost becomes invisible at times.   Her humility is refreshing to a point, but believable or relatable it is not.

I would argue that good, exemplary characters do not need to be without flaw in order to be such. It is insulting to a reader’s intelligence to think that they should be perfect if we are to emulate them in any way, but here it could be a difference in taste. And if Esther Summerson and Mr. Jarndyce had a taste, it would be that of bubblegum bonbons.

 

  1. Melodramatic vignettes with side characters get old fast

 

I have a serious confession to make. I actually scrolled through the Cliff Notes summary after finishing Bleak House because I just spaced too many of the scenes with the minor characters.

Normally I can focus. Normally I can at least attach a name to a person. But Bleak House has what feels like 137 characters and most of them are so outrageously weird and off-beat and so haphazardly slipped into the scene that if you blank out for just a moment or two, you might not even realize what’s going on. That London fog really must be potent.

When I try to recall the full cast of Bleak House, all I can recall mainly are snatches of lurid scenes and images: a dejected mother sitting at the fireside with a dead child in her arms, a drawn-out argument between two minor characters with goofy names ending in –iggle or – aggle or –uggle, a street urchin named Jo who is probably more important than I realize, a crazy old lady, a kid named Peepy who never seems to talk, and of course, Mr. Krook who spontaneously combusts and leaves gore all over his room. Some of this stuff is more central to the plot, but a lot of it is filler.

Cliff Notes was sage enough to point out that Bleak House was written before the age of TV and Internet, when such rambling side plot action would have been more entertaining than annoying. It sadly appears that I am too much a product of my time, although I do see how some readers might actually find the eccentricity enjoyable.

  

  1. The plot is flawed and the book is just too long. Sorry.

 

Sometimes it seems like Dickens had two ideas in his mind: one was a murder mystery, and the other a political rant. Ideally he should have tied them together, such that the murder and secret identity mystery were directly related to the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. With the build up of the sinister feeling around the lawsuit in the beginning of the novel you are really getting ready for something tangled and twisted, but in the end, it sort of fizzles out. There are some characters who are hurt by its outcome, but that’s directly due to the foolish decisions they made and it hardly seems tragic.

The murder mystery and secret identity plot also fizzle out and reach rather abrupt conclusions, and the emotions of the characters affected are surprisingly subdued. Perhaps such mystery plots were still new at the time and Dickens was fiddling and experimenting.   I can understand that.

But at the end of the day, the book is just too long. There probably are some books in this world that deserve to be 900 pages, but Bleak House isn’t one of them. The scope of action could be much tighter, more centered and impacting, and directly related to that, the characters would be fewer. But then it wouldn’t be a Charles Dickens novel and so we go back to differences in tastes.   One thing Dickens did have a talent for was the whimsical use of words, and I’ll part with this funny little rant of Mr Jarndyce:

The whole thing will be vastly ceremonious, wordy, unsatisfactory, and expensive, and I call it, in general, wiglomeration. How mankind ever came to be afflicted with wiglomeration, or for whose sins these young people ever fell into a pit of it, I don’t know; so it is.

 Whether or not Bleak House is an example of literary wiglomeration is up to you, but I will say, it’s a fun word I might start using from now on.

Book #24. The Beach. By Alex Garland.

Be careful what you wish for. It might make you temporarily insane.

I knew, ever since Yun and I began to plan our Southeast Asia trip, that I had to read this book.

Mention The Beach within a circle of travelers and you will probably see heads nod and eyes gleam. As far as I know, it’s the only famous backpacker novel in existence. Apparently Leonardo Di Caprio starred in a decent film version but I didn’t want to spoil the plot by watching the movie first. And boy am I glad I didn’t. You could say this book is the literary equivalent of a gourmet burger: exciting to plow through, but you’ve got to be sure to pace yourself, because when it’s gone, it’s gone.

The star of the plot is Richard, a roguish lone traveller who you could say is sort of a Gen X version of Humphrey Bogart. Richard sets out for an adventure in Bangkok but is soon bored by his touristic surroundings. That changes quickly when he ends up rooming next to a crazy guy who calls himself Daffy Duck. Daffy commits a gruesome suicide soon afterwards, but not before leaving Richard a handwritten map to a secret, unspoiled island. An opportunistic young French couple wants in on the action, and soon the three are paddling off in search of the alleged tourist-free Shangri La.

A duller and more literary book would have Daffy’s mysterious island tantalizingly out of reach and not quite real. But in The Beach it’s real. So real that cannabis farmers living on one side of it almost cross paths with Richard and his friends and the three barely escape with their lives. Only after stumbling along a bit further do they discover an incredible colony of like-minded expats, living in blissful and tropical self-exile.

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Although The Beach is supposed to be on an unnamed island in Thailand, there’s a well-founded rumor that Alex Garland drew his inspiration from an island in the Bacuit Archipelago, Philippines…  Possibly this one?

Sal, the enigmatic leader of the colony, welcomes the three newcomers and gives them tasks to earn their keep. Their fellow islanders seem more or less ready to welcome them in and life unfolds at a paradisiacal slow pace as everyone helps out with fishing, cooking, farming and building. But nothing is too perfect to fail.  In the case of the island (and its equally paradisiacal beach) things can actually go bad. Quite bad.

The Beach is like a psychedelic mixture of Lord of the Flies and Heart of Darkness with an extra shot of adrenaline but still enough ideas for a book discussion.  Is it a cautionary tale for those who are too eager to chase extreme forms of adventure? Is it simply an imaginative thriller? A bit of both? Certainly the narrative is deft and the writing is smart, in spite of a few plot holes and over the top scenarios – but isn’t that part of the fun?

Richard is an ideal narrator in many ways because he does not distract the reader with too many moral observations about himself or about those around him – you could say he is a truly reliable narrator. He is openly flawed, matter-of-fact, selfish, bored and honest:

Collecting memories, or experiences, was my primary goal when I first started traveling. I went about it in the same way as a stamp collector goes about collecting stamps, carrying around with me a mental list of all the things I had yet to see or do. Most of the list was pretty banal. I wanted to see the Taj Mahal, Borobudur, the Rice Terraces in Banave, Angkor Wat. Less banal, or maybe more so, was that I wanted to witness extreme poverty. I saw it as a necessary experience for anyone who wanted to appear worldly and interesting.  

Sound familiar? Many people whose weakness is travel may recognize these aspirations. I almost winced, like a mirror had been held up. Can even travel become…banal? With the wrong attitude, there’s no doubt about it. That’s why adventure junkies like Richard are perfectly primed for the self-destruction that lies behind a travel destination that is too good to be true. That’s not to say you need to be a backpacker or travel junkie to appreciate The Beach. It’s fast-paced, funny, lush, full of lurid yet likeable characters and it ends the way it should. Ideally it should be read in a gently swaying hammock overlooking a pristine a propos shoreline in the middle of the day. If you have no choice except to read it at night, though, you just may want to consider a nightlight.   The Beach is certainly entertaining, but it doesn’t shy away from the darker side of human nature.