Sunday, January 20, 2008


Boring Backgrounds and Mysteries

Last week a friend and I compared reading notes. I was bemoaning the fact that so much of what I've read in the last 12 months has been disappointing. I don't like being disappointed--I think of myself as a generally optimistic person who manages, despite the depressing thing I do, to gravitate toward being happy. Is literature changing or, like some addict, do I require greater and greater hits of my drug of choice to get high?

We've agreed to re-read an old favorite, Possession, by AS Byatt, to recapture some reading magic. A few pages in, I was reminded of something that has occurred to me before, but which I'd never noted. Here, are a few lines describing the protagonist:

He had arrived too late for things that were still in the air but vanished, the whole ferment and brightness and journeyings and youth of the 1960s, the blissful dawn of what he and his contemporaries saw as a pretty blank day. Through the psychedelic years he was a schoolboy in a depressed Lancashire cotton town, untouched alike by Liverpool noise and London turmoil. His father was a minor official in the County Council. His mother was a disappointed English graduate. He thought of himself as though he were an application form, for a job, a degree, a life, but when he thought of his mother, the adjective would not be expurgated. She was disappointed. In herself, in his father, in him.

Oh, the poor child of disappointed parents, growing up in a bleak town. The escape for our hero, Roland, is school, which is also disappointing in a way, until he stumbles on a long-buried letter and enters into a mystery.

Another favorite novel, The Magus, by John Fowles, opens like this:

I was born in 1927, the only child of middle-class parents, both English, and themselves born in the grotesquely elongated shadow, which they never rose sufficiently above history to leave, of that monstrous dwarf Queen Victoria. I was sent to a private school, I wasted two years doing my national service, I went to Oxford; and there I began to discover I was not the person I wanted to be.

I had long before made the discovery that I lacked the parents and ancestors I needed. My father was, through being the right age at the right time rather than through any great professional talent, a brigadier; and my mother was the very model of a would-be general's wife. That is, she never argued with him and always behaved as if he were listening in the next room, even when he was thousands of miles away."

Nicholas, the hero here, escapes his past by going to Greece as a teacher. Once there, he writes some poetry, undergoes a mystery.

Finally, there is this opener from Donna Tartt's The Secret History.

I grew up in Plano, a small silicon village in the north. No sisters, no brothers. My father ran a gas station and my mother stayed at home until I got older and times got tighter and she went to work, answering phones in the office of one of the big chip factories outside San Jose.

Plano. The word conjures up drive-ins, tract homes, waves of heat rising from the blacktop. My years there crated for me an expendable past, disposable as a plastic cup . . .

. . . I was consumed by a more general sense of dread, of imprisonment within the dreary round of school and home: circumstances which, to me at least, presented sound empirical argument for gloom. My father was mean, and our house ugly, and my mother didn't pay much attention to me; my clothes were cheap and my haircut too short and no one at school seemed to like me that much; and since all this had been true for as long as I could remember, I felt things would doubtless continue in this depressing vein as far as I could foresee. In short: I felt my existence was tainted, in some subtle but essential way.

Tartt's nod to Fowles is pretty well documented. At one point, it was said she wanted to title her novel The Godgame, which was also Fowles' initial choice for his own work. I assume that the kouros on the covers of both books are some kind of reference. And Tartt's hero, Richard, like Nicholas and Roland, also escapes into a world of books and mystery, though what he sees is, in some ways, far more terrifying than what the other two uncover.

I like the idea that books are one of the last ways we can have any kind of ritualized mystery. And, like all these protagonists in their very modern predicaments of boredom and longing, I want so very much to find the next book that will give me this, and to believe it will happen for the rest of my life.

Would you say that "marketing" campaigns like the one for Nine Inch Nail's 'Year Zero' offer another kind of ritualised mystery?
I originally made this a much longer post about the state of modern mysteries, then decided I'd rambled on and on enough and was in danger of sounding pretentious, and not really adding anything new! But, sure, I think the consensus is that performance and art are where we get some catharsis even today. And I'm sure that extends to Nine Inch Nails.
I think the author of Possession has remarked that the novel has replaced religion, and, I would add, sadly, poetry, in the custodianship of ritualised mystery. I suppose that in a meritocratic society disappointment is an endemic feature in a way it was not in the days of a less fluid society which gave little scope for upward mobility - or mobility of any kind. A world of opportunity inevitably creates the opportunity not to come "top", or anywhere near, and to feel disappointed. As a British post-war socialist minister once sourly remarked about the implications if education reform, the creation of a world of universal opportunity necessarily involves the opportunity to be unequal - a paradox for socialists,less so for liberals.
Well, now. That's an interesting point. I mean, supposedly, one of the reasons Christianity won out over Mithraism was specifically because the former--as religion and mystery--offered the same opportunity to absolutely everyone, women, the poor, etc. and not just some elitist Roman soldiers. So, the tug of equality goes very far back, and I'm too much of a western girl not to be in support of it. And, even though the developed world doesn't think much of religion these days, I think it's so fascinating just how much "work" religion has done on behalf of giving us these notions of equality and the importance of striving for it.

But, yes, it isn't really true that absolutely everyone gets to enter into a mystery and come out on the other end with some kind of fire. But I tend to think that this is because a life lived honestly and intensely is hard, and I'd still rather live in a world where the opportunity is there, than be barred from it completely. Of course, since I'm a girl, I might be more inclined to feel that way.

I seem to remember a part in the Magus where Conchis makes fun of Nicholas and tells him that there is something in the relationship between the sexes that is lost with all this modernity and openness. You kind of see this in period films, or foreign films and TV where traditional stresses on people produce all this tension and it's incredibly when it's finally released. A cynic would say we don't have that at all any more.
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