The Journalist and the Murderer

Journalist and MurdererA few nights ago, I rewatched the movie Almost Famous, a favorite that I hadn’t seen in years. The movie tells the story of William Miller, a teenage journalist who follows an up-and-coming band for months in order to write a story for Rolling Stone. He joins them on the bus, at parties, and for all the backstage drama. Even though they know he’s “the enemy,” they end up treating his as a friend. And then he writes the story…

I kept thinking of that movie as I read this book by Janet Malcolm. Journalist Joe McGinnis had embedded himself with the defense team for accused (and later convicted) murderer Jeffrey MacDonald. He attended strategy sessions, went for runs with MacDonald, and seemed to all appearances to be a friend. MacDonald knew he was writing a book about the case, but he assumed the book would be favorable to him. When the book, Fatal Vision, was published in 1983, MacDonald was shocked to learn the McGinnis believed him guilty of murdering his wife and two children. And he sued McGinnis for fraud and breach of contract, claiming that McGinnis mislead him.

In The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm treats the case against McGinnis as a exemplar of the tricky line a journalist must walk when dealing with a subject. She opens with these words:

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and “the public’s right to know”; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about making a living.

I’m not sure I buy her categorizations of journalists’ rationalizations, but the charge of treachery? I can see that. It can seem like treachery for a subject to learn that the friendly listener wasn’t so friendly after all. Stillwater, the band that young William reported on in Almost Famous felt betrayed when their “private” conversations in his presence could become public knowledge. But a journalist’s duty to the reader is to be honest, to tell the story as it presents itself.

The question this book explores is that of the journalist’s duty to the subject? Is the journalist required to reveal what he or she is thinking during the investigation? Is it acceptable to outright lie to win the subject’s confidence?

McGinnis and MacDonald had a contract with MacDonald through which MacDonald would receive a portion of the book’s advance and royalties in exchange for giving McGinnis full and exclusive access and a promise not to sue for libel. Malcolm does not let on just how unusual this kind of deal is, noting only that another writer would find this profit-sharing scheme unacceptable. As a reader, I’m extremely dubious and hope that most journalists would run from this kind of arrangement. Surely it isn’t the norm? It seems to break so many lines and I have to wonder how representative the McGinnis case is of journalism as a whole.

Another issue with McGinnis’s case is that he didn’t just keep quiet about his own opinions or even just fail to correct MacDonald’s assumption that he was friendly to the case. When MacDonald was convicted—after McGinnis had decided he was guilty—he wrote letters with lines like this:

There could not be a worse nightmare than the one you are living through now—but it is only a phase. Total strangers can recognize within five minutes that you did not receive a fair trial.

I was, I have to admit, shocked at reading some of his letters, knowing he believed he was writing to a man who killed his wife and two small children. Perhaps that belief made him feel it was acceptable to lie. Perhaps he felt he had to be so extreme in his expressions of good will in order to keep the story.

I had a hard time feeling sympathy for McGinnis after reading the letter excerpts, but Malcolm largely keeps her precise views on McGinnis to herself, leaving the impression that McGinnis crossed a line without also suggesting that MacDonald’s suit has merit. She talks with other journalists who observe that honesty to the subject is not required but who also hint that McGinnis might have gone too far. Yet she also seems to recognize the allure of the story and the reason McGinnis strung MacDonald along so thoroughly and for so long. Also, even McGinnis’s words went too far, the idea that a journalist must share his or her vision of the story with its subject is even more troubling to me than the idea that a journalist might mislead that subject in the name of truth. It is a tricky dilemma.

These questions have been in the news quite a lot lately. I’d been wanting to read this book for a long time, but I was reminded of it when Buzzfeed recently recommended it to fans of the Serial podcast. Much of the conversation around Serial centers on reporter Sarah Koenig’s own relationship with Adnan Sayed, convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend years ago. Perhaps even more pertinent to this story is the recent debacle involving Rolling Stone’s failure to fact-check their story on an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia. There, the reporter let the subject have control over the story in a way that ultimately did not serve the story or its subject well. If there was any truth to the story, fact-checking could have cleared up discrepancies without damaging it so utterly. This is why a journalist’s ruthlessness can be a good thing, even for the object of that ruthlessness.

I enjoyed this book because I’m fascinated by the questions it explores. I worked briefly as a newspaper reporter years ago, although I was writing mostly fluffy features at a community paper and tended to be far too non-confrontational to be as good at the job as I would like. I’m also generally interested in questions of truth and perceptions of truth and ways we arrive at the truth. Some of the authors Malcolm interviews get into that question in interesting ways, making distinctions between lies and untruths, for example. I’m also intrigued by the justice system and aggrieved at how badly it sometimes seems to work. (I’m adding some of the comments in this book to my mental list of reasons smart people shouldn’t try to get out of jury duty unless it’s absolutely necessary. Seriously. It’s a civic responsibility.)

As fascinating as I found this book, I don’t think it’s nearly as good as Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, about the challenges of documenting the lives of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Malcolm quotes extensively from letters and court documents, and she interviews several people involved in the trial, but the story gets repetitive, and its organizational scheme wasn’t entirely clear to me. I also longed for more context—more examples of other cases and not yet another mention of In Cold Blood. If the relationship between MacDonald and McGinnis in is typical, I’d like to know that. And if it isn’t, I’d like to know that, too. I think it’s not at all typical, which may lessen its value as the test case Malcolm is making of it. The fact that it’s under 200 pages made its flaws forgivable, but it’s not as good as it could have been.

Fatal Vision was actually one of my first—if not my very first—exposure to the true crime genre. I remember watching the miniseries. My dad had a copy of the book, and although I don’t think I read it all the way through, I remember poring over the floor plans of the crime scene. I had no idea until recently that it was a subject of such controversy. As Priscilla at The Evening Reader noted in her review, this book does not address the question of MacDonald’s guilt or innocence in anything but a tangential way. Malcolm’s choice of emphasis suited me, but I may check out Morris’s book as well.

I’ve said in the past that if I have a guilty reading pleasure, true crime may be it. But the best true crime raises questions about how we understand and arrive at justice and truth. It’s hard to feel guilty about thinking seriously about these issues, and smart true crime that digs into the questions is worth my time—and maybe yours too.

Posted in Nonfiction | 14 Comments

The Translator

Translator Just in the nick of time, I’ve finished the last of the five books Jenny selected for me to read in 2014. I enjoyed this book by John Crowley very much, but I’m at a bit of a loss as to what to say about it. It’s a good book! It’s got poetry and conversations about the nature of language and whether true translation is even possible. There are flashbacks nested inside flashbacks and secret pasts that only slowly get revealed—and some that don’t. There’s the Cuban Missile Crisis and pro-Cuba demonstrations. There’s death—so much death—a sibling, a spouse, children. There’s a government agent or two (at least) and a mysterious death (or not). There’s a lot of story here, and Crowley juggles all these threads well, making the book feel coherent and whole. It’s elegantly put together and elegantly written.

I suppose I could just direct you to the reviews Jenny and Jeanne have already written. They say more than I can—and say it more elegantly. And they share more details about the story. I’ll say simply that the plot involves Kit Malone, a poet known in part for her translation of the work of the Russian poet Innokenti Falin, looking back on her relationship with Falin in the early 1960s, when she signed up for his poetry class almost by chance.

But writing about books requires me to say something of my own, doesn’t it? To translate my own thoughts to the virtual page. Jenny and Jeanne discuss the way the book considers poetry and language and the limits of translation. As Kit and Falin translate his poems into English, he notes how the translated versions miss some of the double meanings and cultural references embedded in the Russian original. These cannot be translated into English. The only solution is an explanatory note. Perhaps, though, it is better for the English poem to become a new poem that stands on its own, that tells something of the same story in a new way.

This novel is not just concerned with the understanding of words; it’s also concerned with the understanding of people. Just as language is limited, so too is our perspective on others. Time and circumstance can erode what ability we have to see other people, as Kit notes when she thinks of her brother, who died as she began college:

How can you know anything about someone when your memories stop just as you are becoming a person yourself? She thought Ben had been beautiful and strong, that his strength and his beauty were like a horse he rode: once a pretty pony, it grew into a tall stallion, then gone, bearing him away. That’s what she remembered, not knowing if it was true or false or neither.

Home from high school on a day in spring, taking off his watch at the kitchen sink to wash his hands; his thick dark hair just cut, what they called then a “Princeton cut” for some reason, just long enough to part and brush to one side. Pink button-down shirt, a Gant, only one of the brand names he was loyal to; an inch of white undershirt showing in its cleft, its sleeves turned back one graceful turn. People say I can remember as though it were yesterday, but you can never remember yesterdays as clearly as those moments that are not yesterday or any day, but always now.

Memory is, in a way, a form of translation. Perhaps that’s why this book includes flashbacks inside flashbacks, to emphasize that these are memories, translated from the past to the less-distant past to the present. Truth is lost in that translation, but is a different truth gained?

Kit’s memories of Falin, as recounted to a group of Russians who have very different memories of the time, are central to the book, yet the truth of their relationship is elusive. There is love there, but the nature of the love can’t be translated with a few simple words or pat phrases. It’s platonic and sensual at once. It’s a romance and a mentorship and a collegial partnership. And in the middle of the relationship that can’t be defined is a mystery about Falin’s presence in the U.S. Why was he allowed to leave Russia? For Kit, though, this question is important only insofar as other people bring it into her life. What matters is the present and whatever is between them in the moment. She may be missing a huge part of the puzzle, just as a translated poem would miss huge swathes of meaning, but the knowledge she has of him is true.

The Translator is a rich read, with lots of satisfying plot, but also lots of commentary simmering beneath, ready to be unearthed if you look. One of the reasons I like writing about everything I read is that it forces me to do that looking so that I can take even greater delight in a fine book.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 5 Comments

Terrible, Horrible Edie

terrible horrible edieThis book is the third in E.C. Spykman’s astonishingly good series of books about the Cares family. The first two (A Lemon and a Star and The Wild Angel) were so good I was absolutely indignant that I’d never heard of them, and considered writing a petition of some kind. They are the sorts of stories everyone likes to read: stories that get real children exactly right. Spykman is extremely funny, dryly and slyly funny, but she also understands childhood emotions. There’s the way sibling relationships work — how you can be completely and fiercely loyal, and still not be able to stand them another minute. Or the way a middle child can be uniquely lonely: the older children all have more freedom, and new concerns, and the younger children may be charming but they’re just too little to be any good yet.

This is Edie’s problem in Terrible, Horrible Edie. The entire Cares family of two parents, a governess, and six children ranging in age from eighteen to three, has come to spend the summer at their Aunt Louise’s house in Mount Harbor, Massachusetts, along with their livestock (a bird, a goat, a beagle, a second dog, and a spider monkey.) If you can think of one thing that could happen to such a family at the beach that doesn’t happen in this book, I will give you a dollar.

Ten-year-old Edie is strong and resilient and brave. She knows how to sail, and she knows how to observe, and she loves the world: the scent of the water and the roses, the slap of the waves, the sound of the player piano, her lazy brother Hubert. But no one will listen to her, or take her anywhere, or give her a chance. So Edie simply takes herself places, and doesn’t apologize afterward. This results in a death-defying sail with two small children on board, a summer sheep drive on an island, a hurricane (well, that might not have been all her fault), a burglar apprehended, and… I’ll let you find out the rest.

After Edie’s rebellious sail with the two youngest, during which she loses the rudders and nearly loses the children, she returns, and for a moment thinks that her punishment has something to do with her dog, Widgy:

“Have you seen my dog?” Edie asked.

“Sure, miss, I have him in the stove,” Cook said.

Edie went on down cellar to Aunt Louise’s old-fashioned laundry and the bath houses, which were under the piazza. There was nobody anywhere. For a few minutes she had to stop because her heart was beating so fast. If that G-nan had done anything to Widgy–!

But lucky for her she hadn’t. While Edie was listening to her heart she heard him scratching and whining, and she found him in the laundry tub that had a wooden cover over it. They were so glad to see each other that it took quite a while for them to quiet down. Edie went out with him and lay under the big honeysuckle vine outside the laundry. She let Widgy sit almost on her head and held him with her two hands. She had to scramble when G-nan and the children came around the corner, and Widgy was behind her back.

Miss Black stopped. “You shall have your dog when you can behave,” she said. “He is perfectly safe.”

“Thanks,” said Edie, getting up.

Miss Black stared at Widgy who was panting in the sun. “You are a very naughty girl,” she said.

“And you are an old hunk of blubber,” said Edie outrageously.

And if that doesn’t make you want to read this book, then I don’t know what to say to you. There’s one more book left in this series — Edie on the Warpath — and I’m saving it deliciously for last. But read them, read them. They are marvelous.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction | Leave a comment

The Ordinary Princess

Ordinary PrincessIn the foreword to this book, author M. M. Kaye recalls reading the Andrew Lang fairy books, which included fairy tales from all over the world, and noticing that the stories were populated with beautiful princesses. She wondered what the stories would have been like if some of those princesses had been “gawky, snub-nosed, and freckled, with shortish, mouse-colored hair.” And so Princess Amy of The Ordinary Princess was born.

Amy, short for Amethyst, is the seventh daughter of the king and queen of Phantasmorania. Seventh princesses were supposed to be lucky and youngest princesses the most beautiful, and so it seemed for Amy at first. But then, on the day of her christening, one of the fairies who attended gave her a gift that she said would “probably bring you more happiness than all these fal-lals and fripperies put together. You shall be Ordinary!”

And so Amy was—only not really. She retains the health, wit, charm, and cheerfulness bestowed on her by the other fairies, and those qualities serve her well. Her ordinariness takes the form of being an ordinary sort of pretty, with mousy hair that wouldn’t straighten and freckles that wouldn’t disappear. She also took little interest in her sisters’ hobbies of playing the harp, doing embroidery, and tossing a golden ball back and forth. Amy preferred to sneak out of the castle and climb trees and swim in the forest of Faraway.

This state of affairs is all well and good until Princess Amy’s older sisters are all married and the search for a suitor for Amy begins. Amy’s ordinary looks are a well-kept secret, so there’s no lack of potential partners. After all, the youngest princess is always the prettiest:

One after another, as the months rolled by, princes and Grand Dukes and Royal Highnesses and Serene Transparancies of every description, shape and size arrive at the palace of Phanff to pay a friendly visit, but in reality to meet Her Serene and Royal Highness the Princess Amethyst Alexandra August Araminta Adelaide Aurelia Anne of Phantasmorania. But none of them ever stayed more than one day.

Desperate for a solution, the King and Queen decide that the thing to do is hire a dragon, lock Amy away, and spread the story that the dragon stole her. After all, what prince can resist a quest to slay a dragon and rescue a princess? As long as Amy is kept out of sight, it’s a perfect plan. But before the Minister in Charge of Hiring a Suitable Dragon and the subcommittee for drawing up the draft of a suitably worded proclamation can get the plan underway, Amy learns of it and decides to run away and avoid all the ridiculousness.

This charming story is predictable is precisely the comforting way fairy tales so often are. We know from the start that somehow Amy will find happiness and that her very ordinariness will be the key. For Amy, ordinariness is indeed a gift that brings her more happiness than she’d ever find as a pretty princess.

My one complaint about this otherwise lovely story is that it’s unfair to the pretty princesses, making them really dull, which they really can’t help because they weren’t allowed to be anything else. If I were going to get all political about it, I could say that the pretty princesses’ dullness is as much a critique of the fairy-tale-princess system as Amy’s rejection for her plainness is. But maybe this story is not meant to bear this kind of analysis. Oh, well, I did it anyway.

Besides being overall a sweet and comforting story, this book is also quite funny, especially in all its jokes about palace politics and royal bureaucracy. There’s also just something so ridiculous about everyone’s despair at Amy’s looks that I couldn’t help but laugh, especially when, aside from a few wistful moments, Amy really doesn’t mind her looks.

Jenny from Reading the End sent me this book as a comfort read, and I spent yesterday afternoon curled up with it. It was a pleasure to read, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys old-fashioned fairy tales with a twist.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction | 6 Comments

A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing

Girl is a Half Formed ThingWhenever I read a book written in an unconventional style, I ask myself what the style contributes to the story. Is it just there to make the book seem avant-garde or to dazzle readers into assuming a book is ingenious simply because it’s difficult? (Count me guilty of this assumption at times.) Or does it contribute in a real way to the book’s impact? Would the book be lesser if it were written in conventional prose?

I often can’t figure out the answers to these questions, but sometimes I do get it. The nadsat lingo used throughout The Clockwork Orange, for example, gives readers some distance from Alex’s acts of ultraviolence, making it easier to sympathize with him later in the book. When I first began reading Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, I wondered if the language was meant to serve a similar distancing effect, to give readers a little room to breathe as they experience some of the horrors inflicted on the novel’s young narrator.

McBride’s prose is fragmented, impressions made on the narrator’s young mind, thoughts that come and go before she can analyze them deeply. What analysis she does is quick, often ending mid-sentence as she moves on to the next thought. We get the feeling that we’re right in the narrator’s head, seeing, feeling, and thinking along with her. Instead of creating distance, the prose puts us right in the moment with the narrator.

The often unconventional spelling and punctuation give emphasis to moments of high emotion. Here, the narrator remembers learning of her absent father’s death when she was 13:

She says I’ve something to tell you after all. Your father’s hmmm. Your father’s, sit down. What? Shush. Dead. A while ago I got a letter from his mother, once it was over and done. She said he took a stroke. Quick. Probate won’t be long. But you never told us? Why didn’t you tell us? There wasn’t much I could say, not like he loved you, us I mean, and now he’s dead. You’re provided for. It’s time to go about our business. What’s that? Moving house. Why? Because he bought this and I don’t want it anymore. But I don’t want to move Mammy. Don’t start. But we’ve always lived here. We’re. Moving. House. Because. That. Is. What. I’d. Like. To. Do. And. If. You. Don’t. Too. Bad. Because. I’m. The. Mother. And. You. Will. Do. What. I. Say. As. Long. As. You. Live. Under. My. Roof. You. Will. Always. Do. What. I. Say. O. Kay.

Toward the end, when the spelling goes completely bonkers, it’s clear that the narrator’s situation has become desperate.

Another thing I like to think about when considering the books I read is the significance of the title. In the case of this book, we watch how the experiences narrator has as a girl, when she is only half-formed, affect her growth into womanhood.

Many of the experiences of her youth involve her older brother, who had a brain tumor when he was a baby and still suffers from the after-effects. In fact, much of the novel is addressed to him. But equally important is her relationship with her uncle, a man who grooms and rapes her at that half-formed age of 13, just when her sexual feelings are starting to awaken. This early experience leads to years of confusion and self-destructive non-relationships (and a continued relationship with her uncle) as she pursues that intensity of feeling again and again. The interplay between consent and non-consent is particularly interesting here. Most of the narrator’s sexual encounters are consensual, even sought after by her, but her telling of the story leaves us with the impression that she was seeking them not out of love or even desire for pleasure but because of that early experience that she desired in her body but was too young to properly consent to. She was half-formed and what her uncle did was a formative experience of the worst kind.

Here, too, the style of the prose is significant because in describing her moment-to-moment sensations, we’re able to experience the pain and release along with the narrator. We’re able to know that what looks like freedom (from parental expectations, religious teachings, moral shame) is really bondage to feelings she doesn’t understand.

A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is a brilliant, startling, and upsetting read. It’s difficult, but the difficulty is less in understanding what’s happening (although that difficulty is there), but more in experiencing the narrator’s life along with her. Do also check out Stefanie’s review. Her praise of the book as she was reading made me move it to the top of my library pile.

Posted in Fiction | 12 Comments

Girl Meets Boy

girl meets boyI am generally a complete sucker for retellings of myths and fairy tales. I like them even when they’re not very good — I love watching what bits people leave out, and what bits they add, and what they think is most important about a myth at any given time. I like swans, and inflexible rules, and the insanity of fairy tales (of course there is a talking sausage), and the didacticism of them, and the patterns of third daughters and soldiers home from the war. So does it make sense that I’ve only read three of the seventeen books in the Canongate myth series? It does not. I must, must, must remedy that.

Girl Meets Boy, by Ali Smith, is a loose retelling of Ovid’s myth of Iphis. I’ve read the Metamorphoses, but I didn’t remember this one. So Ligdus goes to his pregnant wife Telethusa in Crete, and he says, look, if it’s a boy that’s great, we’ll keep him, but if it’s a girl, I’ve got no use for a girl and we’ll have to kill her. I’m sorry but that’s the way of it. Telethusa goes to the temple in despair and prays, and Isis appears to her, with Anubis hanging around in the background, and says, Not to worry, whether you have a boy or a girl, just bring the baby up and everything will be all right. The baby is a girl, but Telethusa names it Iphis (a gender-neutral name) and brings her up as a boy, and Ligdus (not the most observant dad around) never suspects a thing. Eventually, he arranges a marriage between Iphis and their neighbor girl, Ianthe. Well, the thing is that Iphis and Ianthe are really, truly in love, but Iphis is smart enough to know that the marriage is not going to go well as things are. She goes to the temple and begs Isis for help, pointing out that she’d said everything would be all right. Isis, true to her word, makes Iphis into a boy, the marriage is completed, and everyone lives happily ever after. And all of us are left looking at Ovid’s cheerful dissection of social gender norms and what sexuality and marriage mean and what parental expectations have to do with it, and…

(Before I go on, can anyone tell me what in the world the Egyptian gods are doing in this story?)

Let me tell you about when I was a girl, my grandfather says. This is the first line of Girl Meets Boy, and with it, Ali Smith introduces her beautiful, fluid, triumphant story of what gender is and is not and can be if we will open our eyes. The novel revolves around two sisters, Imogen (Midge) and Anthea. Both work for Pure, a Scottish company that sells bottled water. (The water serves as a metaphor in the novel: like gender, like sexuality, it is fluid, it has to do with human rights and needs, it cannot ethically be bought and sold, its marketability depends on its purity.) Both sisters have an outer appearance of respectability, but both — for quite different reasons — are deeply unhappy with their lives.

Anthea is hovering on the very edge of self-understanding and rebellion, and when she meets activist Robin, “the most beautiful boy I’d ever seen,” she falls in love and everything changes. Imogen has farther to go: she is mired in ambition, marketspeak, self-loathing, and rigid rules about what she has to put up with in order to succeed. The way this short book works itself out is simple — it is, after all, framed on a myth — and exactly right.

Teresa and I read Smith’s There but for the not long ago, and I loved her curious, playful writing and the way she formed her narrative. Here, too, she uses all sorts of little gears and ticking devices and bits of things to help make her point. There’s one passionate sex scene that never mentions a single body part:

…I was scent that could see, I was eyes that could taste, I loved butter. I loved everything. Hold everything under my chin! I was all my open senses held together on the head of a pin, and was it an angel who knew how to use hands like that, as wings?

In this version, no one actually has to become a boy to be happy, because happiness is not dependent on gender: we can be one gender or both or no gender at all and everything in the world together, and no one really has to pay very close attention.

And that’s just one example. There’s a long passage, for instance, where a man tells a story about standing up for justice when he was a girl at the turn of a century he could never have seen. It’s a new way of looking at things — and that’s one thing myth can be, fundamentally. Smith talks about story in this story: does it have to be true in order to be true?  The nature of myth is that it doesn’t. (Perhaps that’s what Isis and Anubis are doing there.) In this brief book, we learn something about saying what’s true outside the lines of what’s true, and standing up for it.

Posted in Fiction | 6 Comments

A Teeny Tiny Review of Little Face by Sophie Hannah

little face

Baby is swapped and the grandma’s a loser,

Mother is mad and the dad’s an abuser,

Who can be pulling these marionette strings?

These are a few of the Little Face things.

 

Dysfunction rules though the baby is tiny,

I’d like it more if the mom wasn’t whiny,

Why must I count up the desk-sergeant’s flings?

These are a few of the Little Face things.

 

Give me Rendell! Give me Highsmith!

Shirley Jackson too –

At least when I’m looking for well-written chills

I won’t have to reach for you.

(Abject apologies to the long-suffering Rodgers and Hammerstein.)

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | 15 Comments

The Feast of the Goat

When Herod the King heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. (Matthew 2:3)

feast of the goatThe dictator novel is a Latin American genre that examines the role of a dictator, or caudillo (political strongman.) This can be a historical dictator, as it is in The Feast of the Goat, by Mario Vargas Llosa, which examines the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, or it can be a fictitious dictator, cobbled together from several examples and the work of the imagination. The idea of the dictator novel, though, is not to be a political, economical, or sociological textbook. It’s to bring into question the nature of authority itself, including the authority of the novel, the narrator, and the reader.

The Feast of the Goat is woven of three narrative strands. Two are contemporaneous in time, during the last days of Trujillo’s life, and the third takes place about thirty years later. Each chapter lets the reader see through the eyes of a different character: Urania, the grown daughter of a high-ranking Trujillista official; Antonio de la Maza — a soldier planning to assassinate Trujillo — and his confederates; the dictator himself. The strands jump backward and forward in time and loop around to repeat certain events. Vargas Llosa uses the non-linearity of the narration to unsettle, including shifts between first-, second-, and third-person narration, but the book is never confusing. On the contrary, there are times when it is all too clear.

I don’t think I’ve ever read another novel that showed me quite so clearly what it might be like to live under a dictatorship. Vargas Llosa takes the audacious step of showing the effects of repression and brutality not just from the victims’ point of view, but through Trujillo’s own eyes.

Then he felt the heat run through his body, blinding him, urging him to punish their audacity. He gave the order on the spot. But the next morning, thinking that crazy people don’t really know what they’re saying and that instead of punishing Valeriano he ought to catch the comedians who had told the couple what to say, on a dark dawn like this one he told Johnny Abbes: “Crazy people are just crazy. Let them go.” The head of the Military Intelligence Service, the SIM, grimaced: “Too late, Excellency. We threw them to the sharks yesterday. Alive, just as you ordered.”

Trujillo’s concerns wander: the economy, how to kill the bishops who are rebelling against him, his prostate problems, the conspiracies against him, the political prisoners he is torturing, how to keep his cadre of officials in constant terror, his desire to bed yet another man’s wife, the crease in his perfect uniform. The equality of all these questions in his mind is shocking, appalling. It’s like reading a horror novel to be inside Trujillo’s mind. There are scenes of torture in this book, and they’re graphic and awful, but in my view, nothing achieves the level of disturbance of trying to understand a dictator from his own perspective.

Vargas Llosa is unsparing when he shows us the effects — short-term and long-term — of the Trujillo regime, as well. From censorship to loss of cultural identity to loss of religious freedom to profoundly racist implications, people under Trujillo — high officials as well as the poorest families — are marked for life. These effects ripple out over time, as well, long after Trujillo is assassinated, tearing families apart with secrets.

“That’s enough, that’s enough! Why tell us more, Urania?” her aunt shouts. “Come, let’s make the sign of the cross and pray….You’re full of rancor and hate. That’s not good. No matter what happened to you. Let’s pray, Urania.”

Unfortunately, despite the courage of the rebel bishops, prayer will not cleanse the secrets and the silence of the festering regime. Vargas Llosa shows the unnerving effect of renaming, never knowing the right word for what you want to say — the effect of fear and of an Orwellian desire to twist the truth:

She doesn’t remember a commotion like this in the street when she was a girl and Santo Domingo was called Ciudad Trujillo. Perhaps it didn’t exist back then; perhaps, thirty-five years ago, when the city was three or four times smaller, provincial, isolated, made wary by fear and servility, its soul shrinking in terrified reverence for the Chief, the Generalissimo, the Benefactor, the Father of the New Nation, His Excellency Dr. Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, it was quieter and less frenetic.

There’s one name missing from that list, of course: the Goat.

I wish I could have read this book in Spanish. Vargas Llosa is a Peruvian author, but he must have used a lot of Dominican expressions. Edith Grossman’s translation reads wonderfully, and I was riveted reading it, but I always want to know what more there is behind the lines. This was a terrific novel — terrifying, heartbreaking — wonderful. More of this, for me.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 4 Comments

Desperate Remedies

Desperate RemediesI sometimes wonder what the proportion of really good to mediocre novels was in the past. Today, it seems like most novels published are middling, good enough for few hours’ entertainment but mostly forgettable. I suspect that’s always been true, but the passing of time means only the better (or at least more interesting or note-worthy) novels remain in the public consciousness while the books that are merely moderately enjoyable fade away. Would anyone today read Thomas Hardy’s first published novel, Desperate Remedies, if he hadn’t followed it up with Far from the Madding Crowd? Maybe reading the lesser-known works of well-known authors can give a glimpse into what the more ordinary forgettable fiction of the past was like. (Or maybe not—I’m just throwing around guesses here.)

Anyway, Desperate Remedies is the story of Cytherea Graye, a young woman who has to figure out a way to support herself after her father’s death. She lives for a time with her brother, who is studying to be an architect, and falls in love with his colleague, Edward Springove. Edward is in no position to marry her, and she feels she must earn a living, so she takes a position as a housekeeper to the elderly Miss Aldclyffe. As it turns out, Miss Aldclyffe was a former love of Cytherea’s father, but their romance was cut off under mysterious circumstances, and he mourned the loss for the rest of his life.

The ending of Miss Aldclyffe’s and Mr Graye’s romance is just one of the many mysteries that appear in this novel. It’s a sensation story, full of twists and turns, most of them centered on Miss Aldclyffe’s unaccountable behavior. Why is she so determined to hire the seemingly unqualified Aeneas Manston as steward of her estate, and why does she put so much energy in manipulating the marriages of all the young people around her? The questions get thornier as the book goes on, although it’s not until the last hundred pages or so that the mysteries start to seem truly dangerous.

The plot seems like the kind of thing you’d find in a Wilkie Collins novel, but it’s not nearly as suspenseful a book as Collins’s great works tend to be. In trying to work out why this is the case, I think part of the problem is that there’s a lack of menace in the characters’ actions. Miss Aldclyffe is a busy body, and her way of manipulating those below her is troubling, but it doesn’t seem dangerous. And the characters are pretty bland. There’s no villain like Count Fosco and no heroine like Marian Halcombe.

That’s not to say that this book isn’t enjoyable. I wanted to keep reading and get to the bottom of the mysteries—although the reason for Miss Aldclyffe’s interest in Manston seemed obvious to me from the start. I was curious enough and entertained enough to keep reading. It’s a perfectly good book, just not a great one. There is a great scene involving a fire that shows Hardy’s promise as a writer and hits on some of his later themes involving the inevitable creep of disaster into the lives of the less fortunate. I think this book is mostly note-worthy because of who its author later becomes. But I wonder how typical it is of the fiction of 1871.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 18 Comments

Still Life

still lifeMy friend Laura has been recommending Louise Penny’s series of mysteries to me for some time. She thought I’d enjoy them for a variety of reasons — the writing, the thoughtfulness, and even the lovely setting near Montreal. When I was in the library the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I remembered her recommendation, but I figured the library wouldn’t have the first one (and yes, I always read series in order.) I wandered over to see if I could find out what the first one was, so I could request it. Lo and behold, the only one in the stacks was Still Life, the very first Armand Gamache mystery — and it takes place at Thanksgiving! (Canadian Thanksgiving, but what’s a harvest festival between friends?) It was obviously meant to be.

Friends, it was meant to be. I read this debut novel in about a day and a half, barely wanting to put it down for meals. In it, we are presented with a small, rural town, and the death of an elderly woman everyone liked, someone whose intense privacy about her art was about to change. Who could have been threatened by that, enough to shoot her with an old-fashioned bow and arrow?

A simple enough mystery, right? Well, that’s what you think. Inspector Gamache’s intelligence, compassion, and keen observation are enough to show the complexities of human nature, in both the quick and the dead. This well-written, interesting mystery is often funny, often touching, and doesn’t caricature its subjects (for a change.) It has its darkness — it’s one of the rare mysteries that allows us to see the grief of the friends and relatives of the victim — but it’s not despairing or gritty. One of my favorite storylines has to do with a trainee detective who blames others for her mistakes and bad luck. We get to compare her behavior to Gamache’s; this device is revealing of both characters, and it’s a clever introduction to our hero. It tells us quietly that this series will be more about relationships and possibilities than about breakdowns at the end of the line.

There are other really fun things about this book, too. Some mysteries are too food-heavy for my taste — as if the author would rather have written a cookbook than a mystery — but this one was perfect. Occasional references to excellent meals (not that anyone has to do much convincing to make me think that French-Quebecois food is terrific), or to perfect sandwiches, but not enough to slow down the plot. Just enough to make me hungry. Or the brief side discussions about politics — also quite authentic. Enough to be realistic, but not enough to bog anything down. This sharpened my enjoyment of the entire setting, which was already lively enough.

I put this novel down feeling as if I’d found a new favorite mystery author — and Laura assures me that they keep getting better! If I don’t binge on them all over Christmas, I’ll be lucky, because there will be some left for the New Year.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | 18 Comments