Sunday, January 09, 2011

Bibliobits: Robin Black, Debt in Middlemarch, & No Spending

Here are a few "bibliobits" on what I've been reading.

Robin Black.  By chance I picked up a copy of Robin Black's If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, a brilliant collection of short stories.  I began reading the first story, "The Guide," and entered a fictional world so perfectly imagined that I'm reminded of the work of two of my favorite writers, Elizabeth Tallent and Antonya Nelson.  Black has a gift for creating a mood with a few deft strokes, portraying strong characters and epiphanic moments in small, evocative scenes.  Her characters' gentle wit, as they distance themselves from sadness, is affecting.

In the first story, "The Guide,"Jack Snyder, the father of a a bright, observant, precocious 17-year-old blind girl, drives her to a house in the country to meet her first seeing-eye dog.  He is unwilling for her to have a dog, feeling it will emphasize her difference, though her college counselor insists it is the best way for her to manage college and adult life.  Jack feels bittersweet regret at his daughter's growing independence.  He is also distracted by memories of his lover, Miranda.  As Lila tells him she would never get a dog if she weren't blind, he thinks about sex with his girlfriend.  

"Really, Dad, they're so obsequious," Lila says, and Jack has to remind himself what they're talking about.  They're talking about guide dogs.  "The whole alpha-male pack-mentality thing.  Cats don't give a shit about anyone, right?"  Her father swerves around a pothole, and senses her sway beside him, unprepared.  It's an early-spring day and they are into the long weeks between the damage done by ice and snow and the repair work to come.
As the story unfolds, we learn that Jack deceives people in small ways.  And the accident that blinded Lila has dictated his emotional philandering and his wife's fears.  As we learn more about Lila and the dog, we begin to understand how little Jack understands them and the world.

In "If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This," the narrator poetically and fancifully addresses a neighbor who plans to build a six-foot fence that will block her family's view of the trees and hemlocks.  The story begins in the subjunctive mood.  In her mind she delivers an exordium about why he should stop and think.

"I would tell you that for all you know I have cancer...For all you know we have a brain-damaged son living in an inadequate institution thirty miles from our house.  For all you know, we agonized one long, cold winter night six years ago over whether to send him there."

She switches to the indicative mood, and though she brightly mocks the neighbor's obtuseness and indifference to the blight of the fence, she tells a very sad story.  The fence, which will also block their driveway so they can't get out of the car, symbolizes their nightmarish separation from other families.  

More about these stories later.  I like them so much.  And it was serendipity that I found them, because I knew nothing about Black.

Debt in Middlemarch. I spent yesterday in bed reading Middlemarch.  Sometimes it's good to shut the door and let the football-watching go on in another room.  

Middlemarch is so rich and entertaining that it takes me into another world.  It is Victorian and yet not Victorian.  Eliot has a strong, optimistic narrative voice, colorful, compelling plots, and a truth-telling gene that remind me very much of Tolstoy.  Middlemarch seems much more Russian than Victorian:  although Eliot alludes to Austen and Dickens, her books, like Tolstoy's, are so vivid that they convey a feeling of "reading" a movie.  Characters misunderstand each other--Dorothea, rather Emma-ishly, cannot believe that Sir James Chettam is courting her, not her sister--marry the wrong people--Dorothea earnestly marries an old man, Mr. Casaubon, a doubtful scholar who turns out to be able to teach her nothing- go into debt because of expectations of inheritance--Fred Vincy--and wait around for someone to die--all the relatives of Peter Featherstone.  

Eliot is never sentimental, but Fred Vincy's  expectations remind me very much of those of Richard Carstone in Bleak House.  Fred may inherit money from his uncle.  He is bright, charming, and miserable about his debts, more sympathetic than Dickens's fey, credulous  Richard, who devotes his life to a convoluted Chancery lawsuit.  Fred's life is complicated when he asks Mary Garth's father to cosign and the debt falls due.  Fred really feels terrible about this.  It takes Richard much longer to grow up.

Well, debt seems to be a popular theme of Victorian novels and certainly this comes up in Trollope as well.

No spending.  My new rule is to go to the library.  I've ordered everything I need for the next few months and hope to avoid collecting more books for the moment.
But I did find a copy of Ellen Gilchrist's A Dangerous Age for 25 cents at the library today.  Really, you can hardly beat that.

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