Thursday, April 30, 2009

Bleak House

Maybe it's just that the Dickens I've read has been so spread out -- beginning at some point with A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, and A Tale of Two Cities -- but I seem to forget from novel to novel how richly the characters are drawn and how funny he is. It's been quite a long time since I've read any Dickens, so Bleak House again surprised me.

One thing that struck me was how contemporary the social satire feels. I suppose people have hated lawyers ever since there have been lawyers, making this plot, which turns on a famous suit in the Chancery Court, immediately accessible to any reader awash in a sea of courtroom dramas and high-profile cases, where justice -- if it comes at all -- is too little and too late.

The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself. There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings. Viewed by this light it becomes a coherent scheme, and not the monstrous maze the laity are apt to think it. Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble.

The other primary target in Bleak House is the hypocritical do-gooders who are very interested in helping the miserable in far-flung places while ignoring the suffering close to home (Mrs. Jellyby); those whose chief interest is in lecturing the poor about their morals instead of offering material help (Mrs. Pardiggle); and those in power who argue about the problem but never do anything (Parliament). Meanwhile the destitute live evilly in slums like Tom-all-alone's:
In the midst of which dust and noise, there is but one thing perfectly clear, to wit, that Tom [personification of the poor] only may and can, or shall and will, be reclaimed according to somebody's theory but nobody's practice. And in the hopeful meantime, Tom goes to perdition head foremost in his old determined spirit.
Some sections of the story are told in the first-person narration of the protagonist, Esther Summerson, a rather saintly character with mysterious origins and a lonely childhood, who becomes one of the wards of John Jarndyce -- a wealthy, older gentleman who is a party to the most famous and long-running estate battle in the Chancery Court: Jarndyce and Jarndyce. It is the sort of case that has become a joke in the creaking machinery of the judicial system -- one that has ruined and wasted lives already and will also swallow up the youth of Richard Carstone, a Jarndyce cousin also in the care of the benign John, along with a young female cousin, the beautiful Ada, to whom Esther is devoted.

The central mystery of the novel is Esther's parentage and tied to that mystery is a murder. Solving these and tying up the loose ends of Jarndyce and Jarndyce speeds the last third of the novel along and brings to the forefront one of the best characters, Inspector Bucket. While Dickens isn't credited with being the father of the detective novel, he ushers the genre in by creating one of the first fictional detectives. Polite to a fault, garrulous, and with eyes everywhere, Bucket reminded me of no one more than the t.v. detective Columbo. He even has the wife who is much talked of, but who never really appears in the foreground. I couldn't get Peter Falk out of my head as I read!

Dickens is known for being a little over-the-top in pulling the heart strings, but I have to admit, it worked on me at least a couple of times. One instance in particular was touching because it came so unexpectedly: from a character, so rigid and pompous revealing an amazing capacity for compassion and forgiveness. Dickens created some great stock characters -- all of one virtue or vice -- but he was most successful when characters were allowed to show those contradictory impulses and traits that make them more fully human.

Bleak House is simply a treat if you don't let its length put you off. It has inspired me to work my way through the Dickens' oeuvre eventually.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company

This is the rather clunky title of Brian Hall's novel of Lewis and Clark, which for simplicity's sake, I'll refer to here as Company. First of all, let me admit that I'm more ignorant of Lewis and Clark history than I knew, rather embarrassing since I live in Louisville, home of the Clarks, as well as the Filson Historical Society, which is one of Hall's resources. I had to get some non-fiction guides to clue me in to many of the facts and to help separate history from fiction (although sometimes the "history" is fuzzy enough to admit fiction).

As I wrote recently, one of my favorite contemporary novels is Hall's The Saskiad, as different from Company as it can be. I loved it so well that it pains me to say that I nearly gave up on this one near the beginning. I stuck with it, and I'm glad I did, although I do think it's flawed. But I will say that even the flaws are indicative of Hall's talent, which takes some explaining.

In The Saskiad, Hall found the perfect voice for the young girl -- so note-perfect that you fell right into the story. As they say in theater, he never broke character. In Company, this talent of Hall's becomes the novel's flaw for me. He has quite an illustrious cast of characters, based, of course, on historical persons, which is quite a thing to pull off, particularly if you're trying to establish that authentic voice for each one of them and tell the story through multiple perspectives. Unfortunately, he does it so doggedly that I sincerely wanted to strangle Thomas Jefferson with his own cravat and hold Sacajawea's head under the Missouri just so I wouldn't have to hear her tell the story. This is surely not a good sign with characters that I am inclined to admire!

This is what I mean: To illustrate Lewis' impatience for Jefferson's longwinded, fanciful, and learned monologues on nearly everything under the sun (while the hopeful explorer just wants to study the maps prior to the expedition), Hall unreels pages and pages of our forefather's verbal meandering. Oh, it produces the effect perfectly that he must have imagined it to have had on Lewis, but perhaps at the expense of the reader as well, who just wants to get on with the story a bit. This is a mere quibble of the impatient, thought I...until it came to be Sacajawea's turn.

Hall (as he says in his notes at the end) tried to approximate the native voice as much as possible, choosing vocabulary picked up from Shoshone language guides and supplying a sing-song, dreaming quality to her narration. And if his goal was to show that a non-English-speaking native woman of the plains inhabited a world entirely alien from us, then he certainly succeeded. The problem for me is that much of it is nearly incomprehensible. With great difficulty, I pieced together the story she was telling and even lazier readers than I would be tempted to skip ahead. This, combined with the "earthy" vocabulary used, repetitively, to describe her world and her experience just had an unpleasant effect -- it's a veritable storm of cunts, shit, fuck, dirt, vomit, etc. Now, this might be mere prudery on my part, except it had the same effect on me as the passage with Jefferson, which was all noble subjects and high-flown language. It just became exasperating -- a little too much of a good thing. I wanted brush strokes and got ax blows instead.

Now, I will say that her sections became less irritating as I went along; either I got used to the style, or it became less dense, mirroring her growing familiarity with the White Men and her new milieu. And of course, the bulk of the narrative is from the perspectives of Lewis and Clark, and both of these "voices" are very well done. Hall subtly communicates the genuine admiration these two had for one another, but also the streaks of impatience, pettiness, and jealousy that must have colored their relationship. And, most importantly, he avoids two yawning pitfalls the narrative could have sunk into. First, he did not romanticize Sacajawea into some Disney princess or overdo her as Feminist Icon (or God forbid, cook up some romance between her and one of the principles). He simply gave her her due; her story is extraordinary without embroidering it, even in fiction.

The other thing Hall didn't try to do was overwork the theory that Lewis may have had feelings for Clark that were not entirely platonic. There are some reasons to think this could have been the case, but it's speculation, and Hall wisely leaves the idea to float out there on its own as an intriguing possibility.

I ended up liking it better as I neared the end, but Company isn't as easy a recommendation as The Saskiad. Hall sticks close to the historical record, but creatively fills in the gaps and shows admirable restraint with some of the more complicated material.