The Books of My Numberless Dreams


Posted on: October 1, 2007

September is over and I finished an armful of books, including Emma by Jane Austen which I finished in an all-day Sunday marathon. It’s made me more skeptical, if not in outright opposition, with critics (perhaps film directors and writers more pertinently?) who insist that Austen is a moral feminist before her time. I’ve now read all of her novels except Persuasion and all have her supporting the status quo in gender, class and value. Certainly she’s not the first novelist to portray intelligent female characters, if that’s what all the fuss is about, right? Her skill and style set her ahead of the pack, I can agree with that, but I could not help cringing at how Harriet Smith was eventually put in her place and prospects with Mr. Martin. Austen near shudders at the thought of people reaching too far beyond their social ken. (You can’t use Pride and Prejudice as an example because, as Elizabeth Bennett proudly asserted to Lady Catherine de Borough, she is a “gentleman’s daughter”.) So matters of finance can be breached but illegitimate children must be trundled off with kindly farmers. (I know that’s not the only reason she wasn’t suited for Elton, Churchill or Knightley but it was certainly a significant one.)

I did enjoy it though, more than I expected because it seems to be the novel after Mansfield Park that can go either way for readers. It was a refreshing change to read of an Austen protagonist allowed to be less perfect in significant ways than the usual. The writer of the introduction babbled on at length about the numerous switching in narrative voices or something like that, but I didn’t notice a thing, swept along in a cadence that feels as comfortable as Louise Bennet’s writings in Jamaican patois. It gave me chills.

One thing that puzzles me is how Mr. Knightley ever managed to become a romantic favourite among some Austen fans. I could understand Emma’s ardour, for she had lived with him her whole life and so gained a more complete experience with him. The reader, however, is only privileged to his tiresome lectures and moral observations over and over and over…I mean if that’s your type that’s fine but I don’t get it. I cheered loudly when during his proposal to Emma he said, “I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.” Truer words were never spoken! (I don’t lust after any of the Austen heroes, although I do find Mr. Bingley charming.)

I started Mulligan Stew by Gilbert Sorrentino, a novel I’ve mentioned here with dread in the past as one of those intimidating “experimental” novels. As usual, with these kind of books, I started out more or less sure that I’d understand nothing and it would all fly over my head. To the contrary! First of all it’s the funniest thing I’ve read in ages. Any one familiar with the contemporary “literary fiction” scene and academic criticism, with literary magazines, will be falling off whatever piece of furniture you’re sitting on regularly.

The main character is Anthony Lamont, a published writer blind to his own works’ faults and pretensions to a magnificent degree. It’s the only word for it. The novel opens with some of the most laughable, painful writing I’ve come across (painful because I recognised its kind before and it wasn’t a parody). I think it must take considerable skill and control for a novelist to produce pages and pages of horrid writing and have it show to your benefit and your character’s detriment. Anyway it was painfully obvious that Lamont was trying to write some kind of literary hard-boiled mystery. (Oh Hammett, I weep for your sake. Coincidentally I read a laughable bit of criticism in the Guardian that was trying to mimic that “hard-boiled” aesthetic. Or something. Just read it and tell me you didn’t laugh derisively. I couldn’t finish the damn thing it was so painful.) Unfortunate readers are treated to this work-in-progress, as well as entries in Lamont’s writing diary, letters to his sister. ex-girlfriend, and an English professor in which Lamont writes, with no shame, that “I have been giving a great deal of thought to and taking copious notes of my novels, and stories as well, to enable me to make up a kind of “source” essay that you might draw on for assistance”, and journal entries from the characters in his latest draft, who moan at the torture he puts them under, make feeble plans for escape, and through observations reveal more simple flaws in Lamont’s writing.

It’s too good, it’s really too good. Like Josipovici he tests the fiction reader’s expectations and tolerance for divergences that depart from traditional narrative style and content. In Goldberg: Variations it’s the narrative structure and styles, dialogue, exposition, descriptive, straight character biographical sketches, encyclopaedic titbits etc. that keep one engaged and excited. In Mulligan Stew, for me, it’s the humour more than anything else. Yes, I’m intrigued and tickled by the metafictional characteristics, the inclusion of letters and journals that really make the book something of a throwback, but a chapter in which five pages are comprised of lists and lists of book and journal titles…that isn’t, in and of itself, very interesting. But the titles…. Martin Halpin, the hapless, hackneyed unreliable narrator in Anthony Lamont’s draft, and his companion Ned Beaumont, are walking around in a house, the owner of which is unknown. The only thing they could discover was that he or she must be a “renaissance” man, otherwise the number and range of books he it could not be credibly owned “by any one person”. Some of my favourites were

1. The Truth About Vegetables by Harry Krishna-Rama (Reminded me of Kingslover’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life for no reason)

2. So You Want to be Jewish? by Saul Bernard Roth (self-explanatory)

3. Whores: Are they Human? by M.C. Puerco (Same)

4. Vaginal Imagery in the Later Poems of Thumbull Stickney by Lillie Bullero

5. From Burgers to Billions: The Saga of MacDonald’s by E. Coli

6. Fire Pail by Vladimir Papilion

7. Bitter and Vicious: A Study of the Later Writings of Gilles de Sorentain by H. Poloie

8. Repairing your Tree’s Crotch by Henry Thoreau

9. Hiroshima: An Act of Christian Charity by Rich Buckley

10. New York is Really Swell! by Ronald Paloma

11. Lesbianism in Western Ireland, 1886 – 1891 by Olive d’Oyly and Winnie Carr

I shan’t bother you with any more , though I defy you to choose a favourite journal title from Huh?, Zonk!, Nu? and The Review Review.

The only problem I have with it so far is that I can’t read as much as I like in one go because I’ll get a stomach ache from laughing so much. Anyway it must be read to be believed.

Next week I’ll probably take a break from Averno and write up on that Salkey novel I keep referring to. Also keep a look out for an interview I did with the indefatigable Geoffrey Philp who thought I was fascinating enough to feature in his series on “authors, book lovers, and interesting people in and from South Florida and the Caribbean.” His latest one is with Tobias S. Buckell, a SF writer. Chapters, the Canadian chain bookstore, sent me a press release about something, so if you’re interested you should probably visit their website and look for some reader community excitement online club…thing.


9 Responses to "Miscellanea"

You should read Persuasion because it definitely has something to say about class. I would disagree that Austen supports the status quo. Her romantic couples are good matches not because of class compatibility but because of personal compatibility. Some of that compatibility is obviously related to class (education, manners), but other than Emma and Knightley I think all her couples are mismatched in terms of class. Mr. Martin the intelligent yeoman farmer could do better than a simple girl with no name, but he likes her anyway and she likes him, and so they will be happy together. And you bring up Pride and Prejudice — to me it is a strong statement that a woman’s worth is not dependent on her parentage, fashion, or fortune, and that a sensible man will understand that. Elizabeth is nowhere near Darcy’s level, as everyone around him, and his own breeding, is quick to affirm, but he sees beyond class to the person that she is. How is that not a case against the conventional views of marriageability at the time?

I’ve read Lesbianism in Western Ireland, 1886 – 1891 by Olive d’Oyly and Winnie Carr, and it’s overrated. 😉

“indefatigable Geoffrey Philp” ?



Imagine yourself in the grand drawing room, the manner house of a local landed gentleman. Your very life depends on everyone believing that you are the very model of decorum and public virtue. How do your convey to those in attendance that you see their hypocrisy, their inability to think beyond received notions, to convey in terms others more discerning might recognize as the real configurations of power at work?

You can see the hypocrisy in Austin’s novels; there is no doubt where power lies, or what will happen to any women above the lowest class who does not secure for herself a protector of means. The whole game is about just that–women securing themselves protectors–else they are forced to sink into servitude or prostitution.

What could be more subversive, than Austin’s ability to portray this ugly reality with wit and humor and narrative grace sufficient to turn any discomfort of recognition (of those sharing her world) into subtle laughter? It is there. Exactly what you discount in her is the essence of her art–that under the skin of polite convention, the brutal reality of class and gender inequality are revealed by the very aesthetic means she employs to hide them.

Mulligan Stew sounds like fun. Those titles and their authors made me laugh out loud.

Sylvia *shrugs* maybe I don’t see it as that rebellious. It’s quite true that Darcy could do better but it’s only half of Elizabeth’s family that’s from Cheapside, and isn’t even the father, who matters most in terms of connection. And it’s strongly implied that the reason the parent’s marriage was doomed from the start was that they ignored matters of class and personality differences. I’m not saying that Austen depends only on class in her pairings, then her books would be shallow, but I think the modernity of her ideas are exaggerated.

Lee *whew*! I can mark that one off my list.

Geoffrey you don’t agree, I see. 🙂 It’s my blog so what I say goes here.

Jacob Russell you know, you’ve almost persuaded me, and I think what you’ve remarked on was more ably showed in the relationship between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill than any of her main couples. (Except Persuasion apparently.

Stephanie it is! Maybe you should try it.

Well, you’re making me want to read both Sorrentino and Josipovici. I’ve read lots of online reviews of these authors, but I’m most convinced I will like something when a blogger I feel I “know” a bit recommends them. You know what I mean?? Anyway, gender politics in Austen are fascinating — I read you and agree with you; I read Sylvia and agree with her — Austen is so hard to pin down, and my feelings about her shift around all the time.

Oh oh, please please please read the Josipovici. I’ve had a post sitting in drafts for months because I can’t capture to my satisfaction why Goldberg: Variations was one of my best reads of the year. I think I’ll just scribble the rest and put it out there, regardless, if it convinces someone to give it a look.

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