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Aspects of the Novel and the limits of readers’ memories.

Midway through his famous discussion of “flat” versus “round” characters in Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster asks us to:

Suppose that Louisa Musgrave had broken her neck on the Cobb.

Forster has been evaluating the roundness of Jane Austen’s characters, so we can deduce that an incident from one of Austen’s books is being referred to; and toward the end of the next sentence, that book is disclosed as Persuasion.

I’ve read maybe a quarter of the books mentioned in Aspects of the Novel, and Persuasion happens to be one of them. Thinking hard, I reconstructed the scene: an excitable girl demands that her gentleman friend “jump her down” from the harbour wall to the pavement below; she miscalculates her jump, the gentleman misses, and (Austen females having the approximate constitution of ninety-year-old rheumatics) she spends the next few chapters on death’s door.

Aspects of the Novel was originally delivered, in 1927, as a series of lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge. Forster was confident not only that his hearers would recognize the allusion to Louisa on the Cobb, but that they would process it rapidly enough to give their attention to the fairly involved sentence that follows. Was he realistically gauging his audience’s recall – here, and on the many other occasions in Aspects where he takes for granted what I would consider a remarkable level of intimacy with these books?

Obviously, modern folks would be intimate with a different set of books than a 1927 crowd. Jane Austen remains well-known, though not so well that “Louisa Musgrave on the Cobb” will ring many bells. Henry James is still read; Oliver Goldsmith, less so; George Meredith, not at all.

No-one would today pick Walter Scott as an example of a novelist with “a trivial mind and a heavy style” whose continued fame relies on “happy sentimental memories” of having encountered him before our judgement had matured. Maybe Jack Kerouac or William S. Burroughs occupy a cultural space today comparable to Walter Scott’s circa 1927 – middlebrow relics evoking a bygone era of freedom and adventure, with enough residual literary cred that teenage readers are willing to pretend they’re not bored to death by them. But I doubt that Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty are one-tenth as widely known to modern readers as Lucy Ashton and Edgar Ravenswood would have been to Forster’s audience.

Perhaps Tolkien is a closer modern parallel to Scott. But before Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations came out, I don’t recall the names Gandalf or Aragorn being known to anyone outside nerd circles. In fact, when I try and think of literary non-title characters famous enough that a modern Forster could confidently drop their names – Tom Joad, Scout Finch, Mr. Rochester – most of them are famous at least in part because of the movies.

The 21st century schmoe remembers as many fictional characters as a 1927 Cambridge lecture-goer, but the memory slots that would once have held the members of Fagin’s gang or the murderers of Julius Caesar have been filled instead with Mos Eisley background freaks and Hogwarts house-elves.

***

The Introduction to my edition of Aspects quotes two esteemed Cantabrigians who in their youth attended the talks upon which the book was based: theatre director George Rylands, who was charmed by Forster’s undogmatic appeal to “the Common Reader”; and the critic and generally acknowledged lemon-sucker F.R. Leavis, who was “astonished at the intellectual nullity” of Forster’s ideas, and dismissed his fawning audience as “sillier dons’ wives and their friends”. Forster himself, in his Author’s Note, all but begs forgiveness for his unrigorous tone.

At any rate, it seems he wasn’t trying to be obscure. I wonder whether a modern lecturer would make such breezy assumptions about the Common Reader’s cultural literacy. Or would it be safer to aim at the level of the dull students imagined by Kingsley Amis in a 1967 essay on the consequences of dumbing down the education system:

You will use up less of your allotted time, and thus enable yourself to cover that much more ground, if you can say “As Eliot wrote”, instead of “As Eliot wrote…What’s the trouble? Oh, sorry. As T.S. Eliot – ee ell eye oh tee – the poet, dramatist, playwright, that is, and critic wrote…” While the thicks get what they need, the bright people doodle. [1]

Put aside whether we modern readers are more shoddily educated than our great-grandparents. Even if we’d been equally well-schooled in literature, and spent as much of our recreation time reading, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of additional novels have appeared in the past ninety years. Granting that most of those novels were worthless and quickly forgotten, the pool of “important” novels from which to choose is enormously larger now than it was then.

Picture what it was like at the other end of literary history. Taking Aristotle to task for his comment in the Poetics that “All human happiness or misery takes the form of action”, Forster forgivingly mentions that Aristotle “had read few novels and no modern ones – the Odyssey but not Ulysses“.

(…Which contradicts Forster’s earlier definition of a novel as “a fiction in prose of a certain extent”; but never mind, the Odyssey functions very much like a novel.)

Granting that the Odyssey and Iliad are novels – and that there then existed a handful of other verse epics, now lost – it was ordinary for a Greek gentleman of Aristotle’s time to have read one hundred percent of all the novels ever written in his language; and with a little more effort, that gentleman might familiarize himself with most extant plays, poetry, philosophy, and history as well. Thus it was easy to carry on a literary conversation with a fellow educated gentleman. You could be confident that when you mentioned Nausicaä doing her washing, or Hector’s frightening helmet, he’d get the reference.

By Forster’s day it was no longer possible, let alone desirable, for an educated Englishman to be familiar with every novel in his language. But avid readers had, of necessity, at least peeked into a broad sample of all the ones that mattered: there weren’t that many, and there wasn’t that much else to do. The odds of two people having read any given book were lower than in Aristotle’s day, but still high enough that Forster didn’t have to worry about the sillier dons’ wives losing the thread.

Forster in 1927 is nearer in time to us than he was to Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe; let’s say chronologically he’s at roughly the two-thirds point in the 300-year history of the English novel. But if you imagine him standing alongside a row of all the books ever published, laid end to end in order of publication, he’s surprisingly close to the beginning of the row. Because the earliest books have been around longest, and have had more time to influence the ones that came after, their importance is disproportionate to their small number; and Forster has read most of the books that, even now, matter the most; which is why we can still read him with interest. But with every passing year, the likelihood decreases that a lecturer and his audience – or any two readers of similar taste and educational background – will have peeked into the same books. The Common Reader has less and less in common.

At some point, as the frontiers of the subject recede further and further beyond the horizon, it may become impractical to talk broadly about literature in the way that Forster in 1927 still could. In an empire so vast, a single obscure province – young adult sci-fi by British women authors, say – will be spacious enough that a reader need never leave it; and the critic who presumes to generalize will, like a foreign correspondent who claims familiarity with a place based on a couple days hanging out in the hotel bar, risk exposing the breadth of his ignorance.

M.

1. “Why Lucky Jim Turned Right”, in Amis’s collection What Became of Jane Austen? And Other Questions.

Just a few weeks ago I built a long, depressing essay around a passage from E.M. Forster’s collection Two Cheers For Democracy and his favourite word, muddle. I shared my embarrassingly belated first impressions of the Odyssey last year. My negative opinion of the critic F.R. Leavis comes mainly from some sarcastic remarks directed at him by Clive James, mentioned in my 2012 discussion of the entangled afterlives of Allan Bloom, Saul Bellow, and Christopher Hitchens.

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Updike’s The Coup: Opposite possibilities.

An African official, in the act of organizing the non-violent coup which culminates John Updike’s The Coup, slyly invites the complicity of some visiting Americans:

“The channels of the mind, it may be, like those of our nostrils, have small hairs – cilia, is that the word? If we think always one way, these lie down and grow stiff and cease to perform their cleansing function. The essence of sanity, it has often been my reflection, is the entertainment of opposite possibilities: to think the contrary of what has been customarily thought, and thus to raise these little – cilia, am I wrong? – on end, so they can perform again in unimpeachable fashion their cleansing function. You want examples. If we believe that Allah is almighty, let us suppose that Allah is non-existent. If we have been assured that America is a nasty place, let us consider that it is a happy place.”

The official is advertising to the Americans his ideological flexibility, in contrast to his country’s dictator, the prophet of a macaronic anti-Western creed called “Islamic Marxism”. Putting aside the speaker’s cynical intentions, is there something to be said for entertaining challenging thoughts to activate the cilia in the “channels of the mind”?

It’s not a fashionable idea at present; witness (to pluck three examples from as many weeks of escalating Social Justice puritanism) the firing of Kevin Williamson by The Atlantic for carrying his anti-abortion beliefs to their logical conclusion, or the conviction of a Scottish YouTuber over a gag about his girlfriend’s Nazi pug dog, or the preposterously overheated responses to Jordan Peterson’s mild conservative nostrums.

Some of us are old enough to remember when the Left represented resistance to mob freakouts over sacrilege and indecency; we imagined this was a question of principle, not opportunism. Now it’s obvious that my young adulthood happened to coincide with a period of uncertainty between the collapse of one set of taboos, and the rise of another. For a half century or so, the skill of entertaining opposite possibilities was valued, idealized. Those of us who grew up during that half century assumed that keeping our cilia well-lubricated and flexible was healthy in itself. But maybe rather than the cilia, the fontanelles of the infant skull are a better analogy: they’re soft and yielding during the time of transition – the passage from one state to another, from pre- to post-natality – and then protectively harden. If taboos are a natural condition in human societies, thick-skulled acquiescence may be the healthiest option.

The Coup is a cilia-stimulating exercise in opposite possibilities, asking us to sympathize with the despot who, among other atrocities, burns alive a well-meaning American diplomat on a pyre of food crates intended for famine relief. His overthrow is possible because he takes leave of the capital to tour his country’s remote north, where he discovers an oil refinery, complete with an American-style suburb to house the native workers, has sprung up without his knowledge. He incites the locals to rise up and smash “this evil visitation, this malodorous eruption” of Western greed that is despoiling their pristine desert; his wavering mob is seduced away by the management’s offer of a free beer apiece at the refinery’s canteen.

Deposed, ignored, the ex-dictator winds up working as a short-order cook in a luncheonette, slinging burgers for the refinery workers. “[I]mmersed…relaxed at last” in the homogenizing, bourgeois End of History he had struggled to resist, he discovers subtle virtues in his deracinated countrymen:

There was no longer, with plenty, the need to thrust one’s personality into the face of the person opposite. Eye-contact was hard to make … The little hard-cornered challenges – to honor, courage, manliness, womanliness – by which our lives had been in poverty shaped were melting away, like our clay shambas and mosques, rounded into an inner reserve secret as a bank account; intercourse in Ellelloû moved to a music of disavowals that new arrivals, prickly and hungry from the bush, mistook for weakness but that was in fact the luxurious demur of strength.

I think in 1978 Updike assumed the reflexive anti-Westernism of the newly decolonized Third World was a last gasp, fated to be swept under in the inundation of pop culture and fast food and cheap consumer goods. I used to think so too; now I’m not so sure. Forty years on, Muslim opposition to the soft, seductive, soulless West of their imagination is more widespread, more entrenched than Updike could have foreseen; while in the West itself, impatience with the unevenness of our prosperity gives rise to new fanaticisms.

It remains to be seen whether we inheritors of the bourgeois order will prove to have reserves of unexpected strength on which to call.

M.

Shabby Russians, tidy Prussians.

Early in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel of World War I, August 1914, the Russian army advances into East Prussia, which has been evacuated in expectation of the invasion. Lieutenant Kharitonov and the men of his platoon marvel at the neatness and efficiency of the German farmlands they march through unopposed:

To think that there were farms supplied with electricity and telephones, and that even in this hot weather there were no flies and no stink of manure! Nowhere had anything been abandoned, scattered, or thrown down at random – and the Prussian peasants were hardly likely to have left their farms in such parade-ground order just because the Russian troops were coming! The bearded peasant soldiers were amazed. How, they asked, could the Germans keep their farms so tidy that there were no traces of work to be seen, everything put away in its place, ready for use? How could they live in such inhuman cleanliness, where you couldn’t even throw your coat down?

…And the uncannily spick-and-span towns and villages:

Soldau, like all German country towns, did not sprawl and take up good farmland as Russian towns do; it was not surrounded by a derelict belt of rubbish dumps and waste land; wherever you entered it, you at once found yourself passing neat, closely built rows of tiled, brick houses, some of them even three or four stories high, with roofs pitched to half the height of the house. The streets in these towns, as neat as corridors, were closely paved with flat, smooth setts or flagstones … Then equally suddenly the town would come to an end, the streets would stop, and only a few paces beyond the last house there would be a tree-lined highroad and precise, carefully marked-out fields.

Seeing all this evidence of German prosperity, they wonder:

And with so rich a country as this, what could have induced Kaiser Wilhelm to make a bid to conquer and take filthy, backward Russia?

As a Vancouverite, I’m used to hearing American visitors discussing my city in terms much like Solzhenitsyn’s Russian soldiers would’ve used to describe East Prussia – as a sterile tomorrowland of unlittered sidewalks and rational planning.

But every big city has a few neighbourhoods that seem to have been tidied by anal-retentive Prussians – along with a great many others, rarely shown to tourists, that appear to have been recently occupied by the Russian army.

I’m sure my city has some streets that would be up to Prussian standards. But imagine those Russian invaders transported a hundred years into the future and halfway around the world, and marched up the Fraser Valley into Vancouver. What would they think of the vast tracts of good farmland converted into empty parking lots? The suburban roads lined with used car lots, pawn shops, and run-down motels? The Downtown Eastside with its urine-reeking doorways, tents pitched in empty lots, alleys littered with used hypodermics?

Perhaps the invaders would wonder at the maniacs who, given all the extraordinary wealth and resources at their disposal, had built a metropolis as ugly, sprawling, and unclean as a pre-Revolution Russian peasant village.

Or perhaps they’d wonder how a society to all appearances as feckless and disorganized as tsarist Russia had managed to become so unfathomably wealthy.

Either way, they’d be just as surprised if they were transported back to modern-day Russia, and found its cities and towns looking pretty much like their North American equivalents. The blights afflicting Vancouver are in large part symptoms of modernity – cheap mass-produced goods, auto dependency, ever more potent narcotics, ever fewer opportunities for the non-brainy.

In Solzhenitsyn’s novel, after the Russians move into an abandoned town Lieutenant Kharitonov notices that it’s being “Russianized”:

A few men were rolling a barrel of beer. Others had obviously found poultry in the town, as bloodstained feathers from a plucked chicken were being blown along a pavement by the breeze, mixed with coloured wrapping papers and empty cartons. Spilled sugar and shattered glass crunched underfoot.

Soon looting breaks out, and buildings are set afire. But there’s no real malice to the occupiers’ destructiveness. The town is despoiled through boredom and drunken high spirits and the awareness that someone else will have to clean up the mess…an attitude hardly exclusive to Russian peasants.

M.

2011 vancouver stanley cup riot

Post-Stanley Cup riot, June 2011, Vancouver.
© Arlen Redekop / Pacific News Group.

No harm done: Racism and rape in Nevil Shute’s The Chequer Board.

There’s a small subgenre of mid-20th-century fiction concerned with black or brown men being railroaded by white authorities on charges of sexually assaulting white girls. Or at any rate, there are two famous instances that came easily to my mind, besides the much obscurer novel I came here to discuss – which together should be enough to wring a couple thousand words out of.

Set yourself to guessing which two famous novels I’m thinking of, while I tell you about Nevil Shute’s The Chequer Board, published in 1947. A lower-middle-class Englishman of no great brains or imagination learns that an old war injury will kill him inside of a year. He resolves to get in touch with three fellow soldiers who were kind to him in the hospital while he was recuperating from the wound. At the time all four had been at low points in their lives; the hero wants to see if the other three made it through all right, and if not, to attempt to repay their kindness during the time he has left.

It’s a pretty moving book, by the way. Among Shute’s several tales of stolid, decent, ordinary joes being dragged out of their routines into the wide romantic world, it’s the best I’ve read so far.

One of the men our hero tracks down, and the one whose story concerns us here, is a black ex-GI named Dave Lesurier.

Flashing back to the war years, we find Lesurier stationed near a village in Cornwall. He and his fellow black Americans, used to condescension and scorn from whites in their own country, are surprised to find that the English villagers treat them decently, and even tolerate them “walking out” with their white daughters. When a new white commanding officer arrives, he decides that these coloured boys are getting above themselves, and implements a more exacting regime to keep them in their place. The villagers side with the blacks, grumbling at the unfairness of the new rules.

Meanwhile, shy, tongue-tied Lesurier has developed a crush on a village girl, not quite seventeen, who works in the shop where he buys his cigarettes. Finding her friendly, but never having an opportunity to speak a private word to her, he approaches her on the street one night, intending to ask if she’d like to go for a walk. But when he tries to speak, things go awry…

Reading The Chequer Board, I wonder how the next generation, raised on current feminist orthodoxies, will interpret the scene where Lesurier “assaults” the girl. But before I get to that let’s consider the parallel cases in (did you guess?) Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and E.M. Forster’s A Passage To India.

***

We never receive an objective account of what happened to the accuser, Mayella Ewell, in To Kill A Mockingbird. Our narrator, Scout Finch, can only report what she hears from the balcony overlooking the Maycomb County courtroom where Mayella, her father, and her supposed assailant give their testimony.

Nevertheless, no sane reader is going to come away believing that the accused is anything but perfectly innocent. In the Ewells’ version of events, Mayella hailed a random black man, Tom Robinson, as he passed their yard, offering him a nickel to “bust up this chiffarobe” – chop up an old wooden wardrobe for kindling. Tom entered the yard and, when Mayella stepped inside to retrieve the nickel, followed her in, jumped her, and viciously beat and raped her. Her father arrived home to find a man “ruttin’ on” his daughter, and chased him away.

In Tom’s much more detailed account, he’d been well known to Mayella already, having done various small chores free of charge out of pity for the dirt-poor, lonely white girl. Mayella invited him inside, threw her arms around him, and:

“She reached up an’ kissed me ‘side of th’ face. She says she never kissed a grown man before an’ she might as well kiss a nigger. She says what her papa do to her don’t count. She says, ‘Kiss me back, nigger.’ I say Miss Mayella lemme outa here an’ tried to run but she got her back to the door an’ I’da had to push her. I didn’t wanta harm her, Mr. Finch, an’ I say lemme pass, but just when I say it Mr. Ewell yonder hollered through th’ window.”

What Mr. Ewell hollered, according to Tom, was “You goddamn whore, I’ll kill ya.” Tom ran off, leaving his supposed victim completely unharmed. What happened to her after she was left alone with her father, we can infer.

Mayella’s story seems to require her assailant to have been able to seize her by the neck while simultaneously beating her about the right side of her face, which Tom’s attorney Atticus Finch argues Tom, with his shriveled left arm, couldn’t have done. I doubt that a modern jury would disbelieve Mayella just because she was fuzzy on the details of her beating, or be moved by Atticus’s assertion that as a “strong girl” she should have been able to fend off her crippled but much larger attacker.

In fact, the reason we assume she and her father are lying, and that Tom Robinson is telling the truth, is simply that the narrator paints the Ewells as repellent racist cretins, and Tom as a noble victim. The same testimony presented minus the character portraits might lead to a different interpretation.

***

A Passage to India leaves more room for speculation, but not about the guilt of the accused: we’re told exactly what Dr. Aziz is doing at the time of Miss Quested’s ordeal in the Marabar Caves. Embarrassed over a moment of social awkwardness with his new acquaintance – Miss Quested has innocently asked whether Dr. Aziz, a Muslim, has one wife or several – Aziz ducks into the nearest cave to hide his confusion. Meanwhile the young Englishwoman wanders into a different cave, where…

“[T]here was this shadow, or sort of shadow, down the entrance tunnel, bottling me up. It seemed like an age but I suppose the whole thing can’t have lasted thirty seconds really. I hit at him with the glasses, he pulled me round the cave by the strap, it broke, I escaped, that’s all. He never actually touched me once. It all seems such nonsense.”

For all their blustering about this being the sort of thing that comes of mixing socially with the natives, the British authorities have every reason to assume Aziz’s guilt. He attempts to flee the arresting officers in a guilty-seeming way. The victim’s field-glasses, their strap broken, are discovered in his pocket. And he is found to have told his friends several small lies to smooth over the strangeness of Miss Quested abandoning the group without a word, scrambling down a hillside, and flagging down a passing car for a ride back to town.

Luckily for Aziz, the “queer, cautious” Miss Quested doesn’t share the prejudices of the local Anglo-Indians, and almost as soon as she recovers from her panic she begins to doubt her own memories.

I was reminded of Miss Quested while reading in the British press about three recent well-publicized rape cases that fell apart when exonerating evidence turned up. The barrister for one of the defendants commented:

I can’t talk about the psychology of those who make false accusations, but I do know that once a complaint is made and video evidence is recorded it is very difficult for a complainant to withdraw their allegations without facing prosecution. The whole thing snowballs. You can’t just go into a police station and say: “I was in a bit of an emotional mess at the time, I want to take it back.”

Despite her second thoughts, Miss Quested allows the prosecution to go forward: a skeptical observer comments that “[s]he has started the machinery; it will work to its end.” It takes great courage for her to dramatically recant her accusation mid-trial; she is shunned by the white community that had rallied to her so credulously, and exposes herself to the danger of a lawsuit from the outraged Dr. Aziz.

Still, something made the sensible young woman run in terror from the Marabar Caves that day. The question of whether she was in fact assaulted by a third person – perhaps the guide who disappeared immediately afterward, or “one of that gang of Pathans who have been drifting through the district” – or whether she hallucinated the whole thing, is left unanswered, and ultimately dismissed by Miss Quested as unimportant. She wasn’t harmed, after all.

***

One thing the accused have in common in A Passage to India and To Kill A Mockingbird is a complete lack of sexual interest in their supposed victims. Dr. Aziz feels it a disgrace “to have been mentioned in connexion with such a hag” as Miss Quested. Tom Robinson only feels sorry for Mayella Ewell, and is unwise enough to say so in his testimony; the comment doesn’t go over well with the white jurors.

The Chequer Board is a different case. Here’s what happens when Dave Lesurier, after standing around all evening waiting for her to pass by, finally spots the village girl he has a crush on:

He stood in front of her, and said, “Say, Miss Grace…” And then he stopped.

She said, “Oh, it’s you.” She smiled at him, a little nervously.

He said again, “Say, Miss Grace…” And then he stopped again, because it suddenly seemed silly to ask her to take a little walk with him one evening, at ten o’clock at night. And because he was uncertain what to do, and because he had to do something, he put his arms round her and kissed her.

For a moment she yielded, too surprised to do anything else. For a moment he thought that it was going to be all right. Then fear came to her, irrational, stark fear…

She started to struggly madly in Dave’s arms, to free herself. She cried, “Let me go, you beast, let me go.” And she cried quite loud.

Chagrined, and already ashamed, he released her. He said, “Say, I didn’t mean…Miss Grace, I guess I did wrong…” But she was gone, half running, sobbing with emotion and with fright.

When Dave hears the whistles of the American military policemen, he decides that the safest course is to scram – quite sensibly, as the MPs are prepared, in fact eager, to shoot the black rapist on sight. Eventually he’s cornered, and slashes his own throat in an unsuccessful suicide attempt, which is how he ends up in hospital with the hero of The Chequer Board.

The American officers are none-too-secretly pleased to have a black soldier to make an example of, but the locals don’t think much of the ruckus. A village girl brushes off the incident:

“[A] girl what’s got her head screwed on right doesn’t have to get assaulted, not unless she wants to.”

Even Grace’s father thinks it’s a lot of fuss over nothing:

“Be all right if her mother’d stop putting a lot of fool notions in her head. After all, many a girl’s been kissed in a dark corner before now, and will be again.”

***

Maybe it’s tacky to conflate these fictional cases, streamlined for dramatic and moral effect, with ugly real world crimes; but reading these blithe dismissals of Grace’s complaint, I thought of a story told by British Columbia’s then-premier, Christy Clark, a few years back.

In 1974, fourteen-year-old Christy was walking to her job as a waitress when she was grabbed from the sidewalk by a stranger and pulled into the bushes. She resisted, the stranger lost his footing, and she wriggled free and ran off. Arriving at work she slipped into her apron and went on with her day, never mentioning the attack to anyone. She later wrote:

I suppose I felt that if I hadn’t been physically hurt, people would think I was self-absorbed, overly upset about something that was just part of life for my half of humanity.

I told myself: Get over it. Bad things happen. It was trivial.

If this is really what Christy Clark thought at the time, it’s consistent with the ethos communicated by the authors of A Passage to India and The Chequer Board, who deem it a sign of moral fortitude among women as well as men to suck it up and move on. A kiss and a squeeze from a stranger? A little tug-of-war in a dark cave? No harm done, dearie. Get over it.

Maybe this ethos really did discourage girls like young Christy Clark from reporting “bad things” when they happened, but I’m pretty sure no grown-up even then would have advised her to keep her mouth shut about the attack. No doubt 1970s police were more skeptical when women turned up with unsupported sexual assault allegations, but in no era have cops been okay with strangers dragging young girls off the street. They might have decided that Clark’s story was too vague to pursue (she remembered nothing about her attacker’s appearance), but they might also have received other reports of a pervert skulking in the bushes, and pieced together something about his habits and whereabouts.

I’m not convinced that our modern culture of therapy and oversharing is actually healthier than the old one of swallowed emotions. Maybe Clark would have benefited from the psychological support that a modern police force would have scurried to provide, but the worst consequence of her silence wasn’t her mental trauma; she obviously turned out fine. It’s that a potential rapist was left free to traumatize other girls.

As for Dave Lesurier – we know he meant no harm, but Grace had no way to know. Nor did the military policemen summoned by her screams.

***

After Dave’s suicide attempt, the local innkeeper, concerned about the growing tensions between the black and white soldiers who patronize his pub, is moved to write a letter to General Eisenhower, describing the attempted rape charge as “a bit of humbug”. This results in a level-headed officer from the US Army’s Staff Judge-Advocate’s office being dispatched to investigate the case. He questions Grace about the kiss:

“What happened when you started struggling? Did he let you go, or did he hang on?”

She said, “I was ever so frightened. I don’t really know.” She thought for a minute. “I ran round the corner and bumped right into another man, that fat policeman.”

“That’s not what the lieutenant put in his report. He said that the Negro didn’t let you go until the policeman came. It makes a big difference,” he explained, “whether he let you go at once or not until the policeman came.”

She said, “I think he must have let go. I think he must have done. He wasn’t all that bad.”

With a little bit of time to reflect – and away from the influence of her overbearing mother – Grace decides that it was only a harmless misunderstanding after all. The charge is withdrawn; Dave stays in the army and, when the war is over, remembering the kindness of the villagers, makes his way back to Cornwall. When the hero tracks him down at the end of the novel, he’s living near the scene of the fateful kiss – and married to Grace.

M.

I’ve previously written about Nevil Shute’s autobiography Slide Rule (and evolving linguistic taboos) and his novel In The Wet (and the strange electoral reform scheme described therein).

A discerning elimination.

We’ll begin with Sam Spade sneakily entering a room in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon:

He put his hand on the knob and turned it with care that permitted neither rattle nor click. He turned the knob until it would turn no farther: the door was locked. Holding the knob still, he changed hands, taking it now in his left hand. With his right hand he brought his keys out of his pocket, carefully, so they could not jingle against one another. He separated the office-key from the others and, smothering the others together in his palm, inserted the office-key in the lock. The insertion was soundless. He balanced himself on the balls of his feet, filled his lungs, clicked the door open, and went in.

In Rex Stout’s The League of Frightened Men, the reclusive criminological genius Nero Wolfe answers a criticism from his assistant that he has neglected to follow certain promising leads in their current case:

“In the labyrinth of any problem that confronts us, we must select the most promising paths; if we attempt to follow all at once we shall arrive nowhere. In any art – and I am an artist or nothing – one of the deepest secrets of excellence is a discerning elimination. Of course that is a truism.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Yes. Take the art of writing. I am, let us say, describing the actions of my hero rushing to greet his beloved, who has just entered the forest. He sprang up from the log on which he had been sitting, with his left foot forward; as he did so, one leg of his trousers fell properly into place but the other remained hitched up at the knee. He began running towards her, first his right foot, then his left, then his right again, then left, right, left, right, left, right…As you see, some of that can surely be left out – indeed must be, if he is to accomplish his welcoming embrace in the same chapter. So the artist must leave out vastly more than he puts in, and one of his chief cares is to leave out nothing vital to his work.”

Wolfe is obviously correct, at least insofar as his observation applies to the art of writing. (How it applies to the art of detection, I couldn’t say.) But I would extend it by adding that the amount of detail the artist elects to put in or leave out is a question of style.

I’m not sure if the theorists of literature have devised a name for this element of a writer’s style, so let’s call it granularity. The fine-grained writer will include more details of his characters’ actions, of their inner thoughts, of their surroundings, while the coarse-grained writer will include fewer. The parodic extreme of the fine-grained technique would be Wolfe’s narration of the hero’s tortured progress toward his lover in the forest: “First his right foot, then his left, then his right again…”

(…Which, as shown by that excerpt from The Maltese Falcon, is not that much of a parody.)

Its polar opposite, the quintessence of coarse-grainedness, would be a bare plot outline: “She meets him in the forest. They make love. Afterward…”

This isn’t to say that the fine-grained style is more precise, let alone better. A fine-grained but clumsy writer will include every detail of a character’s action but the one that matters; a talented coarse-grained writer will include that detail and no others, and the reader will be perfectly satisfied.

The famous quip about Henry James, that he “chewed more than he bit off”, could be applied to most fine-grained writing. But while James may too often have tried to stretch a stare, a blush, and a fluttered eyelid into a four-course meal, he was no more fine-grained than hard-boiled, hard-drinking Dashiell Hammett. Fine-grained writers are alike only in their high estimation of their readers’ level of wakefulness. One may be fine-grained on matters of psychology, another on sociology, another on technology. The one who transcribes every flicker of a character’s flow of consciousness won’t say a word about that character’s appearance, while the one who’ll specify which hand the hero uses to pluck his keys from his pocket will expect you to deduce said hero’s emotions from actions alone.

Assuming a work of finite length, the more fine-grained the writer’s treatment of any aspect of the story – internal or external, personal or historical, metaphysical or concrete – the more coarse-grained must be the treatment of all the others. The trick is to choose the degree of magnification, adjusting to the length of readers’ attention spans and to the overall size of the story you want to tell.

By these means, a story of any size can be shrunken or enlarged to fill any number of pages. Nicholson Baker’s intensely fine-grained 1988 debut The Mezzanine describes an office worker returning from lunch, crossing his building’s atrium, and heading up the escalator to the mezzanine floor, reflecting on the mundane events of his morning. Many a science-fiction work has narrated the rise and fall of a galactic civilization in fewer words.

You might quibble with my use of the word “size”; you might say that The Mezzanine‘s visit to the CVS for a new pair of shoelaces is no bigger or smaller, literarily speaking, than Frodo and Sam’s march to Mordor. To me it’s obvious that stories do come in different sizes – that Ulysses’ wanderings around the Mediterranean are bigger than Leopold Bloom’s wanderings around Dublin in Ulysses, that To Kill A Mockingbird is bigger than Catcher in the Rye. A “normal-sized” story would involve two or three main characters, take place in an area no smaller than a neighbourhood but no larger than a city, encompass a timespan of between a few days and a few weeks, and have an outcome affecting people besides the characters themselves…but not too many people.

These parameters, you’ll notice, are distantly descended from Aristotle’s three unities, but unlike Aristotle I don’t mean to suggest that stories adhering to these rules are somehow superior. They are, I think, easier to write. To successfully tell a very small or very large story requires special skill as an author; for large stories, Nero Wolfe’s discerning elimination – knowing what to leave out – and for small stories, what I’m calling magnification – the enchanted lens that allows a Nicholson Baker to expand a broken shoelace or a stop at the men’s room to chapter size without losing his readers.

The master of magnification is that proverbial padder of word counts, Charles Dickens. In an old post on Sentimental Education I compared Flaubert unfavourably with Dickens:

[When Flaubert’s hero] fights a duel with a flighty aristocrat, or attends a ludicrous meeting of a radical political club, or serves an evening on duty with the National Guard, one wishes for a bit of Dickens’ comic expansiveness, his eagerness to digress, his concern to endow every character, no matter how minor, with a quirk or a verbal tic or, at the very least, a funny name. The fleas that harass Frédéric while he huddles in the guardhouse would have been good for a couple paragraphs in Dickens; Flaubert mentions them and moves on.

But whether you’re eliminating or magnifying, the key is to do it discerningly. Henry Fielding in Tom Jones compares a good writer to a tourist,

who always proportions his stay at any place to the beauties, elegancies, and curiosities which it affords. […] The woods, the rivers, the lawns of Devon and of Dorset, attract the eye of the ingenious traveller and retard his pace, which delay he afterward compensates by swiftly scouring over the gloomy heath of Bagshot or that pleasant plain which extends itself westward from Stockbridge, where no other object than one single tree only in sixteen miles presents itself to the view[.]

Inappropriately fine-grained writing, then, we might visualize as a slow, rattling buggy-ride across the naked prairie, with an overfamiliar driver directing our attention to every shrub and hillock as it passes.

Fielding is in my view guilty of the opposite impropriety, whipping his horses too briskly through the final chapters of Tom Jones, crammed as they are with revelations and reconciliations which the reader would enjoy the luxury of examining at greater length. Take the reaction of Squire Western upon learning that the penniless bastard Jones, whom he has been damning and blackguarding through the preceding 800 pages, is to be reinstated as Squire Allworthy’s heir. Western’s profane rants against those who would undermine his sacred right to tyrannize his daughter are some of the novel’s most hilarious passages; we chuckle as we wonder how he will step down from his habitual perch of enraged dignity. But Fielding only informs us that

No sooner, then, was Western informed of Mr. Allworthy’s intention to make Jones his heir than he joined heartily with the uncle in every commendation of the nephew, and became as eager for [his daughter’s] marriage with Jones as he had before been to couple her to Blifil.

One sentence! This is the same Fielding who expended four entire chapters on the life story of a random hermit Jones encountered on a hilltop outside Gloucester. Discerningly, my good man, discerningly.

M.

Robert A. Heinlein’s Crazy Years.

Before Stranger in a Strange Land made him a household name in the early sixties, Robert A. Heinlein was best known as the author of a string of juvenile sci-fi adventure titles – still worth reading – and a loose sequence of short stories taking place in a single timeline, now known as the Future History.

The chronology stretched from what was then the immediate future – the mid-20th century – out to the year 2210. Somewhere between World War II and the first man on the moon Heinlein prophetically placed the Crazy Years – “a gradual deterioration of mores, orientation and social institutions, terminating in mass psychoses in the sixth decade”.

In 1987’s To Sail Beyond the Sunset the heroine gazes back from the distant future on that era of mass psychoses:

So many casual killings in public streets and public parks and public transports that most lawful citizens avoided going out after dark…

Public school teachers and state university professors who taught that patriotism was an obsolete concept, that marriage was an obsolete concept, that sin was an obsolete concept, that politeness was an obsolete concept – that the United States itself was an obsolete concept…

Cocaine and heroin called “recreational drugs”, felony theft called “joyriding” … felonious assault by gangs called “muggings”, and the reaction to all these crimes was “boys will be boys”, so scold them and put them on probation but don’t ruin their lives by treating them as criminals…

Millions of women who found it more rewarding to have babies out of wedlock than it would be to get married or to go to work…

As disgusted as he was by hooligans, bums, and tenured anti-intellectuals, Heinlein actually cheered on most of the cultural changes that emerged from the sixties. He was an emphatic anti-racist, disdained organized religion, practiced nudism, and favoured open marriage. He foresaw and foreliked the reformation in sexual morals that progressives are now working to lock in: open homosexuality, gender fluidity, “sex work” as a respected career. Going by Heinlein’s prognostications, we shouldn’t expect the taboos against incest and polygamy to endure much longer.

But when I talk about Heinlein’s Crazy Years, I’m not talking about his politics or philosophy or sex practices, but the way those obsessions colonized and undermined his storytelling, starting in the late sixties – coincidentally or not, around the time the success of Stranger in a Strange Land meant he no longer had to tailor his writing to please anyone besides himself.

Heinlein had always specialized in seat-of-the-pants stories that careened his characters from one implausible scrape into another. This had led to a lot of efforts in the forties and fifties that would start out full speed, zip along at high efficiency, then suddenly break for the nearest exit as an arbitrary word limit drew near. In his best and most popular works he’d somewhat curbed this picaresque tendency – for example, he mentions (in an essay in Expanded Universe) that Stranger was one of the rare stories in which he’d “plotted every detail before writing it, and then stuck precisely to that plot.” And it shows! I’d guess Starship Troopers, Farnham’s Freehold, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress were also mapped out in advance. But sticking to maps had never really interested Heinlein – and it turned out, once he was liberated from commercial concerns, that even telling stories was only of secondary interest. What he really wanted to do was imagine his characters chilling in a future free-love Utopia, getting naked and bantering about sex.

The major flaw with late Heinlein, therefore, isn’t that his books became kind of aimless – they’d always been like that. The problem was that their already aimless plots were now broken up by lengthy scenes of characters bathing each other, trying on sexy clothes, and arranging who was to bed down with whom tonight. If that froth had been swiped away by an unforgiving editor, his final seven novels could have been every bit as good, on average, as his fifties and sixties classics. Heinlein never lost his knack for whiz-bang storytelling – he just grew bored with demonstrating it. Here are the first paragraphs of 1985’s The Cat Who Walks Through Walls:

“We need you to kill a man.”

The stranger glanced nervously around us. I feel that a crowded restaurant is no place for such talk, as a high noise level gives only limited privacy.

I shook my head. “I’m not an assassin. Killing is more of a hobby with me. Have you had dinner?”

Two pages later, the stranger slumps over the table, murdered by an explosive dart fired from offstage. Intriguing! But another two pages on, Heinlein is already making excuses, as the narrator – disgraced ex-military, now a hack fiction writer – grouses to his girlfriend:

“The total stranger who gets himself killed while he’s trying to tell you something – a cliché, a tired cliché. If I plotted a story that way today, my guild would disown me.”

A bad sign. Heinlein is able to simulate enough interest in his age-worn scenario to animate a couple hundred pages of entertaining space-hopping, as the hero and his girl escape from an orbiting space habitat, crash-land on the moon, shoot their way out of a moon-buggy ambush, and so on. It’s fast-paced enough that you can overlook the protagonists sharing a bed with an underage moon-maiden who snuggles up to the hero and asks to be spanked. But then around page 250, with our heroes under fire in a Luna City hotel room, the girl shouts something into a communicator, a portal opens up in the bare rock wall – and we’re whisked away to Heinleinland, the story waved to the background, while our hero spends the last third of the novel submitting to the advances of gorgeous naked lady geniuses.

***

How did it come to that? Let’s skip back to 1970’s I Will Fear No Evil, set in the Crazy Years (though not in the Future History timeline). The well-off have retreated into walled compounds, going out for an unprotected stroll being a virtual invitation to murder. An immensely aged, ill-humoured billionaire tycoon, on the verge of death, hires a mad scientist to transplant his brain into a healthy young body. (Brain-dead bodies being a cheap commodity in this anarchic world.) Against all expectations, including his own, the operation is successful, and the billionaire wakes up in the body of…wait for it!…his gorgeous secretary.

We can predict that the sexist tycoon will resent being stuck in this voluptuous female body…erm, no, actually, he adapts to it pretty quickly. He’ll struggle comically to walk on high heels, apply makeup, pee sitting down…no, it turns out Eunice’s consciousness is somehow in there with him, giving him instructions on how be a lady. He’ll attempt to reconcile his attraction to girls with his body’s contradictory sexual urges…no, he starts hitting on dudes pretty much right out of the gate.

One more try: the tycoon will track down his secretary’s murderers, uncovering evidence that he himself gave the orders that…oops, forget it. Eunice’s bodyguards took care of the random muggers already. The tycoon shows her gratitude by having sex with them.

Okay, okay. My ideas are all pretty humdrum. But they at least offer the potential for drama, conflict, suspense. What happens instead in I Will Fear No Evil?

The billionaire eagerly screws everyone. The end.

I’m only slightly exaggerating. One source of drama is a lawsuit filed by the billionaire’s parasitic grandchildren, claiming that the supposed brain-swap is a hoax being perpetrated by the secretary. That’s promising – how does our heroine prove she’s really who she says she is? But this subplot takes place mostly in the background and is wrapped up by the two-thirds mark.

The billionaire goes to pay her condolences to Eunice’s bereaved husband, whose new live-in girlfriend resents the arrival of what she sees as her predecessor’s reanimated corpse. Drama! …But this lasts only a page or two, before the three meditate together to chase off the bad vibes. Then they all get naked.

Look, I’m a fan of E.M. Forster, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot. I can verify that you don’t need spaceship crashes, blaster duels, and telepathic aliens to supply drama. But in the absence of those things, you need something – for instance, characters with clashing personalities and objectives.

Heinlein’s biggest weakness as a writer is his odd lack of interest in interpersonal conflict. When the action lets up, his characters don’t really have anything to do except get naked.

***

Overgeneralizing recklessly, I’d say Heinlein had three and a half character types at his command. Their names, professions, and biographies change from book to book, but their beliefs and behaviours don’t: any non-plot-related exchange between Richard and Gwen, heroes of The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, could be swapped into a Zebby-and-Deety scene in 1980’s The Number of the Beast and the reader would never notice.

(Am I being too hard on Heinlein? Philip Roth and P.G. Wodehouse got by with four or five characters. Kingsley Amis could draw on a multitudinous supporting cast but his narrators were all the same guy. “More characters” doesn’t equal “better”. If you like an author’s characters – find them interesting, I mean – you don’t much mind when they reappear under new names in a new book and a new predicament.)

The Omnicompetent Lunkhead is the basic-model Heinlein hero. He’s got a hands-on trade – engineering, soldiering, space-piloting – or, if still a teen, displays a precocious aptitude for one of the above. He can calculate the profit in a three-way business deal or the trajectory of a flight to Venus. When in danger of losing his temper, he’ll count backward from ten in an exotic foreign language.

Despite the OmniLunk’s evident near-genius IQ (which he would humbly disclaim), he’s weirdly clueless about history, politics, and philosophy. If another character (usually the Patriarch, see below) attempts to discuss one of these topics at the level of your average undergraduate lecture, the hero will reply “Huh?” or “You’ve lost me” or “I must be dense”.

The Genius Sexpot is the female version of the Heinlein hero. If the main character, she’ll have all the traits of the OmniLunk, plus fashion sense, maternal instinct, and an even greater distaste for abstract philosophy. If romantically paired with an OmniLunk, she’ll defer modestly to his masculine leadership, but in at least one skill – often math – she’ll surpass him.

She gets her name from her tendency – absent in her male counterpart – to discuss her sex urges in ickily straightforward terms:

“[T]here is nothing that beats the tingling excitement of lying back, legs open and eyes closed and bare to the possibility of impregnation.”
–Maureen Johnson, To Sail Beyond the Sunset

The Heinleinian Patriarch is the OmniLunk aged up and given a more philosophical turn of mind. In other words, the author’s mouthpiece. Given half an opportunity, he’ll ramble for a chapter or more about the problems besetting humanity – or formerly besetting humanity, back in the dark ages of the twentieth century. (People in the far future remain deeply interested in twentieth century affairs.) The Patriarch has retired from the active life and now writes, or teaches, or maybe bosses some large organization that puts him in the company of much younger people. A bachelor by temperament (whether or not he participates in some kind of plural marriage), he appreciates female beauty but doesn’t chase girls – they’re drawn to his rumpled charisma and constantly offering to crawl into his lap. He may harbour outmoded inhibitions about, say, walking around pantsless, or having sex with his female relatives. He knows these inhibitions are silly – he’ll tell you why at chapter length – and they’re easily shed.

(There are, of course, a handful of major characters that don’t fit into one of the above buckets – for instance, the All-Powerful Naïfs who propel the plots of Heinlein’s two best books, Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. But he tended to lose interest and kill off or sideline anyone who didn’t fit into one of the three categories above.)

The OmniLunk, the Sexpot, and the Patriarch will argue playfully. Sometimes they’ll even have genuine fights, which quickly end with one side or both apologizing for their bullheadedness. But they never really disagree about anything. If they don’t start out as gun-toting libertarian atheistic polyamorous nudist body odour fetishists, they take smoothly to the lifestyle when given the opportunity. Therefore all drama in Heinlein’s novels must arise from conflict with character type three-and-a-half:

The Booby is cowardly, conceited, irresponsible, and susceptible to gross mental deformations such as socialism, pacifism, race prejudice, and prudishness. Since the bulk of humans would be boobies in Heinlein’s eyes – I’m one; so, in all likelihood, are you – you’d expect this type to loom larger in his fiction. In fact, few of these feeble creatures are drawn with sufficient detail to qualify as “characters”. The brainless mass of boobies are there in the background, obstructing our heroes with their petty regulations, irrational taboos, and general unreason, but their representatives are rarely granted more than a line or two.

The trouble is that Heinlein can’t stand boobies. He finds them so exasperating that he’ll write them out of his stories as swiftly as he can. When a presumed ally or friend is revealed to be a secret booby, the reader perks up – maybe for once another character will stand up to our heroes, upset their assumptions, force them to defend their beliefs. The excitement never lasts. Boobies either get themselves quickly killed, or banished from the group, or are converted through firm yet compassionate discipline to non-boobyhood, at which point they cease to be interesting characters and fade into the scenery:

• In Stranger in a Strange Land, Jubal Harshaw’s salt-of-the-earth employee Duke objects to the customs of Harshaw’s Martian-born houseguest – specifically, ritual cannibalism. This earns him a chapter-long rebuke from Harshaw which cures Duke of his boobyism – and banishes him to the background.

• In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress an earth-born booby named Stuart LaJoie nearly gets himself killed by responding too handsily to a Lunar floozie’s advances. Our hero is luckily there to intervene, and to lecture the new arrival on Loonie sexual etiquette. Stuart starts out as an interesting character, but once he commits to the Lunar lifestyle he recedes into complacent blandness.

• In To Sail Beyond the Sunset Maureen’s youngest daughter shows her boobyhood not by hooking up with her older brother (she does that too, but Maureen approves) but by whining, lying, using drugs, and catching a venereal disease – by acting, in other words, like a real-life teenage girl. Her rebellion lasts only a few chapters before Maureen sends her packing to live with the ex-husband whose lax discipline ruined the child.

• In The Cat Who Walks Through Walls a homeless ragamuffin named Bill is hired by unknown enemies to lure our heroes into a trap. Seeing through his clumsy deceit, they take him into their custody – then, feeling sorry for him, decide to bring him along on their escape. Bill tags along willingly and mostly silently until, on arriving in Luna City, he pipes up to complain about being expected to pay an “air fee”:

“Nobody should have to pay for the breath of life! It’s a natural right and the government should supply it free.”

As the hero can’t let such idealistic ravings go unopposed, he reminds Bill that he has a full belly, and is partaking of Luna City’s expensive oxygen, and is alive at all, only because of the heroes’ charity. This leads to a fight between the hero and his girl, whom he accuses of coddling the booby. Girl and Bill storm off one way, our hero the other. That happens on page 190-91.

On page 196-97, the girl returns and apologizes:

“But you were right, dear. Bill’s attitude about paying for air reflects his wrong-headedness in general. … Bill has the socialist disease in its worst form; he thinks the world owes him a living. He told me sincerely – smugly! – that of course everyone was entitled to the best possible medical and hospital service – free of course, unlimited of course, and of course the government should pay for it. He couldn’t even understand the mathematical impossibility of what he was demanding. But it’s not just free air and free therapy, Bill honestly believes that anything he wants must be possible…and should be free.” She shivered. “I couldn’t shake his opinion on anything.”

The next time the booby appears, on page 208, he gets two brief lines, the last we’ll hear from him. On page 234 we learn he’s been secretly communicating with the bad guys. And on page 240 he’s among the gang of disguised assassins lurking outside the protagonists’ hotel room. The hero spots him and knocks him out – clear out of the story. Poor Bill! If he’d just kept his mouth shut about the stupid air fee, he too could’ve gone to naked lady heaven.

***

Let’s skip back again. The last entry in the Future History timeline, concerning the interstellar peregrinations of a cantankerous 213-year-old named Lazarus Long, was Methuseleh’s Children, originally published in 1941 and expanded to novella length in 1958.

In 1973 Heinlein picked up the adventures of Lazarus Long in a novel set two thousand-odd years later, Time Enough For Love. After lifetimes of intrepid roving, Lazarus has grown tired of the grind. Before he can kill himself he’s kidnapped by distant descendants living on a faraway planet – free-loving nudists, obviously – who insist that he record his life story for their archives. As he narrates his memoirs, and gets mixed up in the affairs of his extended family, his zest for life returns, and he accepts their offer to regenerate his body to youthful good health. Then, learning that they’ve mastered time travel, he decides to pop back to his own childhood in twentieth century Missouri where – obviously – he winds up having sex with his mother.

Time Enough For Love is quite readable, stands more or less on its own, and satisfactorily wraps up the saga of Lazarus Long. No-one – I assure you, absolutely no-one – has ever closed the book thinking, Gosh, I wonder what happens next to Lazarus, his crew of bare-ass time travellers, and their sassy sentient spaceship.

Therefore no-one was expecting The Number of the Beast, which came out seven years later, to reveal itself midway through as a stealth Time Enough For Love sequel. Beast starts out excitingly with four stock Heinlein characters – a widowed father, his adult daughter, and their respective love interests – narrowly escaping assassination by unknown enemies. The father has been working on a theory of six-dimensional spacetime, along with a practical method for hopping between parallel dimensions, the number of accessible dimensions being six to the power of six to the power of six, or:

6 to the power of 6 to the power of 6

Our heroes install the father’s gadget in their own sassy sentient spaceship and flee into the multiverse. Beast is heavy on clothes-doffing, open-mouthed kissing, and sexy dress-ups, but despite all that the first three hundred pages chug along pretty tolerably until our heroes materialize in what turns out to be the Land of Oz…and it becomes necessary, sadly, for me to describe to you the premise of what would come to be known as the World-As-Myth books. These are:

  • Time Enough For Love (1973, sequel to Methuselah’s Children, but can be read on its own)
  • The Number of the Beast (1980, sequel to the above)
  • The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985, sequel to the above, and to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress)
  • To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987, sequel to all the above)

Nothing about the World-As-Myth will be especially mindblowing to anyone who read those old DC comics where the Flash could vibrate into a parallel universe and interact with his creators, or for that matter the Merrie Melodies cartoon where Daffy is tormented by a sadistic animator. In short, all imaginary worlds are real; Heinlein and his books exist in the Number of the Beast reality; therefore Lazarus Long is a character known to our dimension-hopping quartet. By the time they run into Lazarus they’ve already blundered through Lilliput, Wonderland, the Lensmen universe of E.E. Smith, and, as mentioned, the Land of Oz, where Glinda the Good installed a pair of fully-equipped magical bathrooms in their spaceship. (No writer has ever lavished as much attention on bathrooms as Robert A. Heinlein.)

By the end of The Number of the Beast, the protagonists have all married into Lazarus Long’s extended family, and using time-travel and dimension-hopping have roped characters from a half-dozen other Heinlein works into their far-future pool party. The final chapter, concerning a pan-universal gathering of famous characters and their authors, most of them referred to by first names only, is so dense with in-jokes it seems like something meant to be read aloud for yuks at a sci-fi convention, not shared with a general audience. This is the low point of the Crazy Years.

***

Things got better. The eighties brought Friday and Job: A Comedy of Justice, both of them entertaining and mostly fully-clothed standalone stories (though Friday turns out to be linked, superfluously, to the 1949 novella Gulf). The hero of Job was something new – a rube from a parallel-universe Bible Belt America who believes in the literal truth of the Genesis story and sees no problem with killing witches…who finds himself bouncing unpredictably into a series of alternate Americas with radically different customs and manners. Job is like The Number of the Beast reconceived as a good idea. It’s kind of miraculous that Heinlein didn’t assimilate Job into the World-As-Mythoverse and wreck it.

After that, Heinlein made it through half of The Cat Who Walks Through Walls before being hit with the brainwave that the hero’s girlfriend should be Hazel Stone, the feisty grandma from the 1952 juvenile The Rolling Stones who was also the feisty kid in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, regenerated to her youthful hotness and sent back in time by Lazarus Long because…you know what, forget it. The first half is fun.

Heinlein’s final novel, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, trots out another endearingly hoary premise – naked woman wakes up in bed with a corpse, with no memory of how she got there – but the woman turns out to be Lazarus Long’s mother, the one he went back in time to have sex with, and the bulk of the book retells the incest-fantasy parts of Time Enough For Love from her perspective.

It turns out – who’da guessed? – his mother was a polyamorous nudist all along.

M.

 

Breakfast of Champions: Unsanitary ideas.

As I’ve explained already, over the last few years I’ve been systematically making my way through the books I own that, for one reason or another, I’d never gotten around to reading. It’s taken longer than it might have because simultaneously, but less systematically, I’ve been revisiting some of the books I loved as a teenager, trying to decide whether they’re worth re-reading – or whether they were worth reading the first time around.

A few days ago I came to Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, which was among the first “grown-up” novels I ever read – if it is a grown-up novel – aged twelve or thereabouts. [1]

If you’ve read Vonnegut at all, you probably encountered him, like me, pretty young, when his idealism, irreverence, and offhand eschatology seemed deep, and the Duplo-brick clarity of his prose made him a welcome alternative to Camus or Dostoyevsky or whatever woolly tome your older sister was lugging around in her backpack. As you aged up a bit maybe you spotted a Vonnegut paperback poking out of the rear pocket of your little brother’s low-hanging jeans and thought, gosh, well, maybe I’m too grown-up for that now. And maybe you’ve at last reached the age where you can un-self-consciously revisit the pleasures of your youth, but you’re not sure you’re capable of hearing Vonnegut’s voice over the stirrings of half-buried adolescent angst.

Or maybe that’s just me. I’ve now re-read Vonnegut’s novels in chronological order from Player Piano through Breakfast of Champions­ – roughly the first half of his career, when his most famous stuff was done – and, to my surprise, a couple of them I had trouble even finishing. But I’m not sure whether my impatience is with Vonnegut’s writing, or with extraneous factors.

Here’s how Martin Amis, in a generally sympathetic appraisal of Vonnegut’s career through the early eighties, summarized his subject’s reputation in highbrow circles:

[H]is work has remarkably little currency among the card-carrying literati; his pacifistic, faux-naïf “philosophy” is regarded as hippyish and nugatory; he is the sort of writer, nowadays, whom Serious People are ashamed of ever having liked. Cute, coy, tricksy, mawkish – gee-whiz writing, comic-book stuff. [2]

Why, then, might adult-me be resistant to Vonnegut?

Hypothesis One: The Serious People are right, and he’s not very good.

Hypothesis Two: The Serious People are wrong, but I’ve internalized their disdain, via sources like Martin Amis, and whenever I start to get caught up in Vonnegut I’m distracted by a tiny, haughty “pff” from my subconscious.

That was as far as my hypothesizing had taken me, until the other day, when I got started on Breakfast of Champions – which, to summarize, is about a successful Midwestern auto dealer who, under the influence of severe mental illness and a satirical science-fiction novel he unluckily reads, decides that he’s the only person in the universe with free will, all others being soulless robots placed on earth to test him.

Breakfast of Champions is probably best-known for the juvenile doodles that litter its pages:

breakfast of champions doodles

Some of them serve as punchlines for jokes, but the rest have no apparent purpose except as large-scale punctuation marks, places for the eye to rest. (I’m sure the doodles were a big part of what made the novel so inviting to twelve-year-old me.) Vonnegut explains in the preface:

I am programmed at fifty to perform childishly – to insult “The Star-Spangled Banner”, to scrawl pictures of a Nazi flag and an asshole and a lot of other things with a felt-tipped pen….I think I am trying to clear my head of all the junk in there – the assholes, the flags, the underpants. Yes, there is a picture in this book of underpants.

At several points, Vonnegut suggests that Breakfast of Champions is the record of some real-life spiritual crisis he has survived:

I was making myself hideously uncomfortable by not narrowing my attention to details of life which were immediately important, and by refusing to believe what my neighbors believed.

He writes an avatar of himself into his novel, lurking in the bar of a Holiday Inn where his characters have assembled, watching them through mirrored glasses (leaks – don’t ask):

“This is a very bad book you’re writing,” I said to myself behind my leaks.

“I know,” I said.

“You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did,” I said.

“I know,” I said.

(In the Amis profile, Vonnegut discusses the “legacy” of his mother’s suicide:

“As a problem-solving device, it’s in the forefront of my mind all the time. It’s like walking along the edge of a cliff. I’m in the country and the pump stops. What’ll I do? I know: I’ll kill myself. The roof is leaking. What’ll I do? I know: I’ll blow my brains out.”)

In his previous novel, the fabulously successful Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut had outlined a philosophy of perfect resignation, as expressed by his alien Tralfamadorians, who could see all points in time simultaneously:

“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.”

“You sound to me as though you don’t believe in free will,” said Billy Pilgrim.

“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will’. I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

Kilgore Trout, co-hero of Breakfast of Champions, writer of the sci-fi novel that will tip the mentally-ill auto dealer into violence, has arrived at a Tralfamadorian perspective on the misery and banality of modern American life:

But his head no longer sheltered ideas of how things could be and should be on the planet, as opposed to how they really were. There was only one way for the Earth to be, he thought: the way it was.

…While the Vonnegut avatar, watching his creations go about their mundane business in the bar of the Holiday Inn, follows the same logic to its pitiless nadir:

I had come to the conclusion that there was nothing sacred about myself or about any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide.

But by the end of the novel, the words of one of his characters have convinced the author that he’s wrong – that human life, all life, has value; while Kilgore Trout has learned from the auto dealer’s rampage that the ideas in his books, good or bad, have consequences in the real world. Trout becomes a crusader for mental health, “a fanatic on the importance of ideas as causes and cures for diseases”, is awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine, and dies a revered humanitarian.

Here’s the speech that jolts the Vonnegut avatar from his nihilistic despair. It’s delivered to the denizens of the Holiday Inn by a self-promoting abstract-expressionist painter in defense of his work The Temptation of Saint Anthony, a narrow day-glo orange stripe on a vast canvas of avocado green:

“It is a picture of the awareness of every animal. It is the immaterial core of every animal – the ‘I am’ to which all messages are sent. It is all that is alive in any of us – in a mouse, in a deer, in a cocktail waitress. It is unwavering and pure, no matter what preposterous adventure may befall us. A sacred picture of Saint Anthony alone is one vertical, unwavering band of light. If a cockroach were near him, or a cocktail waitress, the picture would show two such bands of light. Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery.”

So the ego, soul, self-awareness, whatever you want to call it, of every human, along with every other living creature on down to the cockroach, may be sacred – according to this fictional character who his creator admits is pretty much a baloney artist. You’d have to be awfully deep in the cosmic weeds for this insight to count as optimistic, but if it really did the trick for Vonnegut, good for him.

That’s about as uplifting as Vonnegut’s oeuvre gets. But I’m at least as big a sourpuss, so that can’t be my complaint about him.

***

Vonnegut dedicated Breakfast of Champions to an old mentor in the ad copywriting business:

She was funny. She was liberating. She taught us to be impolite in conversation not only about sexual matters, but about American history and famous heroes, about the distribution of wealth, about school, about everything.

I now make my living by being impolite. I am clumsy at it. I keep trying to imitate the impoliteness which was so graceful in Phoebe Hurty.

Here are a few of the things Breakfast of Champions is impolite about:

  • 1492: “the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill [Native Americans].”
  • “The Star-Spangled Banner”: “pure balderdash.”
  • Thomas Jefferson: “a slave owner who was also one of the world’s greatest theoreticians on the subject of human liberty.”
  • West Point: “a military academy which turned young men into homicidal maniacs for use in war.”

I doubt if even in the early 1970s there was any penalty attached to being impolite about these subjects. The New York Times review quoted on the back cover of the paperback – “He wheels out all the complaints about America and makes them seem fresh, funny, outrageous, hateful, and lovable, all at the same time” – suggests not. By the time I encountered it a decade and a half later, it never occurred to my baby boomer father that his twelve-year-old son should be protected from a book filled with drawings of assholes and “wide-open beavers”, let alone from rude comments about American heroes and institutions.

As for 2017…well, here’s a screencap from a recent Google News search for “star-spangled banner”:

The Star-Spangled Banner actually is racist so here are some (Ebony.com) ... Americans like me are programmed to respect the national anthem (The Independent)

Here’s what came up for “christopher columbus”:

Woman arrested in vandalism of Christopher Columbus statue (Los Angeles Times) ... Another Christopher Columbus statue gets vandalized in NYC (New York Post)

Which leads me to:

Hypothesis Three: Whatever the Serious People may feel about his writing style, Vonnegut’s philosophy, politics, and humour are so mainstream nowadays that he has lost whatever ability he once had to surprise us.

***

I share, or rather sometimes I share, Kilgore Trout’s belief that bad ideas are a kind of sickness. For every essay I post on this blog there are four or five I discard, often after many long hours of work, because I worry that the arguments I’ve made are untrue, or, even if true, unhelpful.

Here’s a premise for an essay I’d hesitate to upload, for fear it might infect some innocent bystander: that writers should be held responsible when their ideas are misinterpreted by weak-minded readers who go on to commit destructive acts.

Here’s another idea I’d be reluctant to disseminate: that even a fuzzy, apparently harmless platitude like “be kind” can lead to disaster, as people may choose to interpret “be kind” in crazy and unsustainable ways; and that therefore writers should just shut their traps altogether.

I’m uncomfortable with another idea, yet it’s one that Kurt Vonnegut was unafraid to promulgate in many famous and profitable novels: that the heroes, institutions, and symbols our culture holds most sacred should be mercilessly razzed, noogied, and farted upon.

Vonnegut, who despite the reservations expressed in Breakfast of Champions was apparently much more cavalier with his ideas than I am, didn’t worry that this one might backfire terribly. He seemed to think that once those old symbols were thoroughly trampled down and covered with profane graffiti, our culture would somehow end up wiser, saner, and more peaceful. I believed it myself for many years – because I had been exposed to the idea, by Vonnegut, at a very young age, when my immunity was low.

Over the years I noticed that while we were ever more free to ever more viciously ridicule the same old symbols Vonnegut had taken aim at – the national anthem, the Founding Fathers, the Bible – a new set of symbols had arisen which, for some reason, were exempt from ridicule. Try farting on the rainbow flag, or Anne Frank, or the Prophet Muhammad, and see how far it gets you.

I’m torn between two ideas: that we should feel free to fart on every symbol, no matter whom it might offend; and that we should be respectful of symbols, because people’s feelings can be hurt when we fart on them, and agreeing not to deliberately hurt each other’s feelings is one of the ways we make living together bearable.

I definitely don’t like the idea that we should consult the latest list, which can be updated by any maniac at any time, specifying which symbols are currently to be farted on, and which ones are exempt. I think that’s a terrible way to run a culture.

I’m not sure how Kurt Vonnegut or Kilgore Trout would have felt about it. I suspect they would’ve thought it was hilarious, and pretty much what us boobs deserved.

***

Getting back to Hypothesis Three: I shouldn’t claim that Vonnegut has lost his power to surprise “us”. As far as I know, his books are still pretty popular. The fact that he aims mainly at safe targets is hardly likely to limit his potential audience. And there’ll always be his unchallenging prose style and funny pictures to draw new readers in.

So let me move on to:

Hypothesis Four: Whatever I may feel about his writing style, my own viewpoint was so shaped by Vonnegut from an early age, that I have lost the ability to be surprised by him.

But that’s not quite right either. This essay proves that Breakfast of Champions still gives me lots to think about, and might do so again, in ten or twenty years, when I get around to reading it again.

M.

1. I’d probably read some science-fiction already – H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Robert Heinlein – and maybe Gulliver’s Travels and The Princess Bride, before arriving at Breakfast of Champions.

2. The Vonnegut profile is included in Amis’s 1986 collection The Moronic Inferno.

I previously found Catch-22 to be less great than I’d remembered and posted an unflattering picture of myself revisiting Catcher in the Rye.