Sunday, June 24, 2012

Review: More in Anger, by J. Jill Robinson

Fiction should never have a thesis. It should never hold an ax to grind, possess an agenda, or otherwise set to prove or disprove a hypothesis. When an author starts out on the creative path, he or she may have a ensemble of characters, an undercurrent of theme, perhaps a smattering of plot, but any interstitial value beyond these should arise organically out of the writing. A work of fiction should have a life force of its own, beyond even what its author wants for it. The creation of fiction should be as much an act of discovery for the writer as it is the reader; and an author undermines this tenet when she uses fiction to get a very narrow and inflexible point across.

I kept thinking about this as I read J. Jill Robinson’s debut novel, More in Anger – a book that does have a clear-cut argument at its root, and is much the lesser for it. The novel’s triptych structure presents us with the lives of three generations of women from the same family—Opal, Pearl and Vivien. The book sets out to show how anger and cruelty can be passed almost like a gene from mother to daughter granddaughter, and that this anger can be blamed on a single source: a deeply engrained patriarchy. This you can glean from the jacket flap. But while all three protagonists have the potential to be fully fleshed-out, three-dimensional characters, Robinson never allows them to escape the narrowly defined agenda she has set for them. She constructs each woman as if she were a mechanized toy, then winds her up and sets her off on her predetermined path.

The weakest of the three sections is the first. Opal is born in the late 1800s, and when More in Anger opens, in 1915, she is about to embark on a marriage to a young lawyer for CPR named James “Mac” Macaulay. Opal is both incredibly vain and breathtakingly na├»ve, and is thus caught flatfooted when Mac reveals his temper and misogyny after they are wed. Robinson wants to jar her 21st century audience with Mac’s ejaculations of ‘shut your trap’ (a well-selected anachronism from the period) and his opinions on female intelligence – too stupid to drive, too stupid to vote, etc etc – and how their place should be restricted to the home. Unable to penetrate the sarcophagus of Mac’s taciturn nature, Opal takes out her womanly frustrations on her children, particularly her moody, brooding daughter Pearl.

Yet there are some inconsistencies of character here. At one point, Mac implausibly purchases for Opal a fully furnished family home – complete with tea towels in the kitchen –  and she predictably unhinges at him because she won’t be able to decorate it itself. Mac’s act of gross insensitivity comes off like a false note because Robinson makes it clear he is a man who believes in clear boundaries between men and women’s roles. Why would he go to such pains to interfere in what he clearly sees as a woman’s domain if he’s such a traditional patriarch? The answer, I think, is that Robinson wants to make sure we know what a jerk he is, since this is a key component of the section’s thesis. It doesn’t seem to occur to Robinson that this isn’t likely something that someone like Mac would actually do.

The second section belongs to Opal’s now-grown daughter Pearl, who is driven to an almost psychopathic hysteria by the patriarchy that floats in the air around her. She hates her mother and everything her life represents. She grows to hate her husband. She hates her children. She hates that fact that she has children, that society made her have them rather than pursue her dream of being a teacher. She eventually goes back to school and becomes a teacher, and then hates her students and the drudgery of the job. She is in a perpetual state of suspicion and rage against everyone around her.

Now I’m not all that concerned that Pearl isn’t a sympathetic character, since I put little value on “sympathizing” with a character – that’s just not how I read. I’m not even ready to accuse her of being unrealistic. Even at her most enraged, I still bought into her as a fully formed person. (Her relentless fury and paranoia even reminded me of an ex-girlfriend or two.) But my beef with Pearl is the lack of nuance to her character. She seems to have a very myopic view on the world, and this again doesn’t strike me as organic. Rather, she’s a pawn in Robinson’s broader argument, and to give her a bit of shading would undermine what the book wants to accomplish.

The strongest section is the final one, where Pearl’s daughter Vivien takes centre stage. She is complicated and far more developed than her predecessors, and Robinson’s prose is much livelier in this section. Vivien ruminates on the complexity of her relationship with Pearl, and even tips her hat to her grandmother Opal’s experiences and how this lineage has shaped her own life. Yet the last 10 pages, in which Pearl has passed away and Vivien tries to make some sense of her mother’s existence, read like a bland summing-up, a reiterating of some underlying hypothesis. It’s like Vivien is saying, “Relationships between mothers and daughters sure are difficult,” and we as readers are there to simply nod and stroke our chins, since this is what the novel has been telling us all along.

In the end, More in Anger makes for a dull and uninspired read. Its trajectory holds no mystery, is never in doubt; its themes are decided for us; its “point” is hermetically sealed and does not allow readers to bring anything of their own to it. It’s almost like we don’t even need to be there. It’s almost like the jacket flap does all our work for us.              

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Review: The Rise and Fall of Communism, by Archie Brown (Unfinished)

 I can’t do a full review of this book, obviously, because I never finished reading it, nor do I intend to. I spotted this book last summer in England when I was there on vacation and was very interested in it. But rather than picking up the cheap mass market paperback at the time, I waited until I got back to Canada and found out that it was available only in hardback here.

I should have saved my money. While Brown’s examination of the history of international communism has its obvious model—William Shirer’s far superior The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich—it possesses none of the narrative drive and small details that make the geopolitics in that previous tome come to life. Instead of sharing what the real impacts of communism were (and still are) on real people, Brown mires us in page after page of pointless backroom dealings and back-stabbings that defined various communist regimes. He relies too heavily on the long lens, the bird’s-eye view of history, rather than the nitty gritty. He’s crafted a relentlessly dull narrative as a result. Reading this book, I found myself wanting to know such things as: What did Chairman Mao eat during his visit to Moscow in 1949? What was children’s television programming like in Poland in 1972? What was typical day in the life of a North Korean in 1985? I gave up when it became clear the book was not going to provide that kind of detail.

Regardless of whatever long-tail approach a work of popular history takes on its subject matter, it still needs to be filled with engaging people living through the clear and minute realities of that history. Brown’s book—at least the first 274 pages I managed to get through—was severely lacking. I wish I had my $39.95 back.

Side note:
Sorry it’s been so quiet on the blog over the last few weeks, especially since the announcement last month of my big news. All I can say is things have been quite (but wonderfully) busy around here, especially with the new book coming out and with all the awesome plans for the wedding later this summer. But I'll try to post more often - I promise!