Monday, July 11, 2016

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE QUIET SPECTACULAR” by Laurence Fearnley (Penguin / Random House, $NZ38)
 Here are some basic rules of book-reviewing to which I always at least attempt to adhere when I review a new novel:
                   (a.) Books should be judged BOTH on their style [how well or badly they are written] AND on what they are saying [ideas and social values that they appear to promote or support or ridicule or satirise or dismiss]. I do not believe in an “art for art’s sake approach”, which looks only at style and leads to a sterile aestheticism. But neither do I believe any reviewer should applaud or reject books solely on the basis of their explicit or implicit ideas [which leads to a propagandistic approach]. For fuller exposition of these ideas, see my posting on Henry de Montherlant’s Les Jeunes Filles / PitiePour Les Femmes.
                   (b.) Authors should be given a fair go. A book is not to be dismissed or damned with faint praise because it has one or two questionable elements. [Which book hasn’t?] The whole text should be considered. The book should be read from beginning to end. One of the reasons I set up this blog in the first place was so that I could consider new books in some detail without the tight constraints on length that many magazines and all newspapers impose upon their book-reviewers.
                     (c.) It is often helpful to consider a new novel in the context of the novelist’s previous work.
                     As all this throat-clearing at the start of a review might have alerted you, I am being very cautious and stating my position clearly because I am about to deliver a very negative verdict on Laurence Fearnley’s latest novel The Quiet Spectacular. Please note that I come to this judgment after having read and duly considered the whole novel. My view does not come out of prejudice. As I noted before on this blog [see the posting TheQuality of Kindness], some months back I suffered an intemperate and foolish attack by a publicist who claimed that I was a malicious person who made it my business to destroy writers’ reputations for the fun of it. With regard to Laurence Fearnley’s previous output, please note that on this blog I wrote mixed, but generally positive, reviews of her novels Reach (2014) and the award-winning The Hut Builder (2011), as well as the memoir Going Up Is Easy, which Fearnley ghost-wrote for her mountaineer friend Lydia Bradey. (I had earlier reviewed her Room and Mother’s Day on platforms other than this blog).
                     Despite their many merits, I did, however, note the awful weight of overt symbolism and rather arch patterning in Reach; and the tendency to preach in The Hut Builder. And these tendencies run amuck in the over-patterned, over-symbolic and over-preachy The Quiet Spectacular, to the point where the characters become mere ciphers and walking ideas.
                     Set-up. Told throughout in the third-person, this is a novel written in three parts, each of which deals with a separate woman; followed by a fourth part in which the three of them join together.
                     First is Loretta, menopausal, living with her partner Hamish and her younger son Kit. (Her two elder children by a previous marriage have flown the coop). Loretta works as a high-school librarian and is used to dealing with frequently bratty schoolchildren, although she does have a vocation for getting youngsters into reading. As she taxis her son to all the interesting things he does (fencing, water polo etc.), Loretta remembers with regret the sense of adventure she had as a child, and how it has been washed out of her life. Kit is beginning to outgrow her; and her role as a mother is evaporating. It annoys Loretta that traditional adventure narratives centre on males. When she encounters The Dangerous Book for Boys [a handbook on interesting things boys can get up to], Loretta thinks of compiling a Dangerous Book for Menopausal Women. She’s already had the fun of relabelling a map of New Zealand with place names belonging to women explorers and pioneers rather than their male counterparts. Sometimes Loretta’s real-estate-agent friend Shannon (who disappears from the novel far too early, in my opinion) deflates Loretta’s dreams of adventure with a little healthy scepticism. Still Loretta aches for real adventure. While visiting some local wetlands, she finds a “den” built around a tree where somebody sleeps rough; and she begins to think of it as an alternative home. Perhaps here is the site for a real outdoors adventure.
                     End of Part One.
                     Part Two introduces the second woman, Chance, a very unhappy 15-year-old schoolgirl. Chance is frequently bullied by the cool girls at her high-school, including the vicious Michelle. Worse, Chance’s parents are useless. Her full name is Porsche Chance. That’s because her book-obsessed mother Trudy wanted to call her Portia after the wise woman in The Merchant of Venice; but when her dozy petrol-head father Bruce went to register the name, he didn’t know how to spell it and thought it was the name of the car, so Porsche she became. See, oh perceptive reader, how the author gives the poor girl a name neatly symbolising what she has to labour under? Chance is the one who has to make the dinner, be a household drudge and earn her pocket money at a boring job while her brothers are allowed to fool around with go-karts and the like. Oh the gender-inequity of it! Oh the stereotypical roles into which girls are forced!! Anyway, while Chance’s father is a dead loss (he doesn’t believe in anthropogenic global warming, so he must be), Chance’s mother Trudy is a controlling bitch. She wants Chance to be an intellectual, so she forces her to read intellectual and Nobel-Prize-winning novels and discuss them with her. Chance hates this. Chance rebels against her mother declaring:
I asked you to stop. Please. Don’t do that guilt-trippy stuff on me any more. It’s not fair. It’s not my fault I don’t like your books. If you want it to be fun, why don’t you let me choose what we read? And why do you always insist I read bits aloud and then criticise the way I speak? You’re always sniggering when I mispronounce words, and you spend heaps of time questioning me so you can tell me I’m wrong, and then correct me. It’s not fun. It’s never fun. It stresses me out and makes me feel stupid and I hate it.’ (p.135)
But when Chance seeks a book she would really like reading and discussing with her mum, she gets stuck. (At p.150 Laurence Fearnley has fun listing the type of books that pushy parents might deter their children from reading.) She needs help and discusses the matter with her school librarian. Who is of course Loretta. In no time, Chance is being adventurous and skinning animals to get into taxidermy and those other neat, adventurous things boys can do as it says in her brother’s discarded copy of The Dangerous Book for Boys. Also, venturing into the same wetlands that Loretta ventured into, she gets to meet the third member of the trio…
…Who is Riva, the single woman who is renewing the wetlands and who built the “den” that attracted Loretta. So to the third part, where we hear Riva’s backstory, which is filled with [literal] sisterly solidarity. Riva’s sister Irene had a masectomy and later died. Riva’s renewing and preserving the wetlands, and constructing a “den” there, are her tributes to her dead sister, honouring her wishes and especially her promise to do something “spectacular” on the anniversary of her death.
So it comes to pass. The menopausal woman who lacks adventure in her life and the bullied schoolgirl forced into stereotypical gender roles and the free-spirited lone woman all get together in the wetlands. And girls can do anything if they have good women to mentor them. And the oneness of women with nature is affirmed. And the caring of women for nature is contrasted with destructive males who are interested only in shooting birds rather than saving them. And the blurb (using a crass cliché I have rebuked before – see the posting Using the Shells of Genres) tells us that the novel “subverts notions of ‘man vs. wild’ ” by having women in the wild rather than wild-pork-and-watercress men, and women communing better with nature than men could. And we have all grown and affirmed the journey that is life and the quiet and constructive adventurousness of which women are capable.
I apologise that I have lapsed into something close to sarcasm in giving you this resume, but it was very hard to avoid. This is a book without nuance, without subtext, without psychologically credible characters – and it makes no difference that the author's note at the end tells us she has scrupulously visited real wetlands and spoken with their preservers.
That I have been able to summarise so easily what the novel says is because everything sits on the surface in loud, clear didactic colours. Dialogue is crowded by what amount to lectures – especially when Loretta and/or Riva are talking to young Chance. Thus we get conversational lectures on the preservation of wetlands, on women reading too many books by men and so forth. There are neat lessons in human relationships. When fifteen-year-old Chance speaks of her difficulties with her mother, wise middle-aged Riva tells her how she used to argue with her mother too:
Well, once I got older I let go of my feelings of shame and found it easier to detach myself emotionally from her outbursts. I also realised that my crappy childhood was nothing compared to hers and that she was a deeply troubled person, and so I was able to make sense of certain things.” (pp.182-183)
Take note, children.
Then there is Riva’s concise summary of her work, filling in backstory without effort:
I bought this land and created a wetlands sanctuary, invested in several businesses, became a mentor for women starting up a business, created a trust for environmental projects and land restoration….” (p.184)
Something for you to aspire to, children.
I admit that the novel does not divide its sympathetic and unsympathetic characters only by gender, and is not therefore a hard-core battle-of-the sexes work. The most consistently nasty character in the novel is Chance’s awful, manipulative mum Trudy; and Chance is taunted by the horrible Michelle (who earns a scene of neat come-uppance that seems to have strayed out of teen lit). There is also a very brief scene towards the end where Chance’s dodgy guardian Bruce does get one half-sympathetic moment where it’s clear that he’s afraid of the ferocious Trudy. Even so, men in the novel are mainly noises off or dead losses. This makes it easier to push the polemic about adventurous and caring women.
And then, with the subtlety of charging elephants, there is the symbolism. The partnered woman, the girl and the lone woman together in the wild make an “alternative family” unlike that suburban nuclear family in which women are cruelly trapped. Ah, dear old Hollywood. This “alternative family” motif as old as James Dean and Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo getting away from the grown-ups and forming their subversive “alternative family” in Rebel Without a Cause. Riva’s brainstorm, to make wild-weather gear that fits ample-bosomed women, is the old salvation-through-entrepreneurship that has fuelled a thousand bestselling novels and movies [start with Imitation of Life and move forward].
And oh dear! – the symbolism of that James Bond cut-out with which Riva adorns her “den”. See this icon of irresponsible male adventurousness? Well note how the women “subvert” it by covering in with flowers and painting its lips and putting a crown on its head to at once feminise it and neutralise it and deny its iconic power.
You do get the point don’t you? I hope you have been taking notes as there will be questions afterwards.
Now let me anticipate some possible responses to the review you have just read.
(a.) The reviewer is male and is older than the author. Therefore he’s a grumpy old baby-boomer who doesn’t “get” what the younger and female author has written.
ME: Bullshit. I get it. In fact I get it so loud and clear that it comes with a lot of distortion – which is the author’s dead obvious preachiness, symbolism and so forth.
(b.) The reviewer must disapprove of the author’s ideas.
ME: Again, bullshit. I’m happy to read a book singing the adventurousness of women and their desire to assert themselves somewhere free of men. I just don’t want to read one as stylistically clunky as this one.
(c.) The reviewer must have a grudge against the author. He must be acting from malice and trying to destroy her reputation. Doesn’t he realise she’s won awards and held academic posts?
ME: For the third time, bullshit. It’s my task to review or criticise the book itself, and not to make judgments on the author herself. In this task, the matter of previous acclaim is irrelevant. I believe that Laurence Fearnley has written better than this before, and I certainly hope that she does so again. So may this novel be an aberration.
I have the impression that The Quiet Spectacular will be praised by those who ignore the actual writing and approve of the message. But then this will be the propagandistic approach to literature which any balanced criticism should avoid.

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