Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Past, by Tessa Hadley

The Past is beautifully written.  There’s nothing idiosyncratic or experimental or even surprising about the style—it’s just good writing.  Tessa Hadley is interested in the interrelationships of family members over three generations, how rivalries and issues that begin in childhood bubble up and flow down through generations.  She has a nuanced grasp of children—something most writers can’t manage.  In particular the six-year-old Ivy is a wonderfully drawn character.  Her brother is less well defined, but he’s still a believable child.

Ivy has a vivid imagination, and she involves her brother in her thinking about the “Women” and their power over events.

It’s difficult to describe the plot of this novel because there really isn’t any.  Rather there are a series of events, trends, that gain in momentum: a possible love affair that may occur, a seduction in progress, a marriage possibly on the wane.  But, as is the case with real life, events don’t always develop as we’d expect.  A growing sense of doom (or is this simply my imagination?) pervades the latter sections of the novel, yet doom never happens, except perhaps for one character.

The book is divided into three main sections—the first and the third are set in “The Present,” while the middle section is “The Past,” which mostly concerns the mother and grandparents of the siblings who are having their annual reunion in the first and third sections—those siblings are young children in “The Past.”  We know from the first section that certain events occurred in the past, and our knowledge of them suffuses the middle section with dramatic irony, a foreknowledge of events that haven’t occurred yet.

Coming from a family of six children, I enjoyed moments of recognition as I read about what various siblings in the family said and thought of one another.  This aspect of the novel, perhaps, was prurient.  Yet I experienced pathos as well, that sense of pity and despair for those who are about to, or who did, suffer physically and emotionally for things that happened in “the past.”

In ways The Past works in the same tradition as To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf) and Howards End (E. M. Forster).

Monday, February 01, 2016

Cow Country, by Adrian Jones Pearson (pseud.)

The faculty of Cow Country, by Adrian Jones Pearson (pseud.), are supposed to be representative of faculty at many American colleges and universities.  Cow College is an extreme, though.  Barely solvent, struggling to recover accreditation approval it was denied a year ago, the College is torn by the whims of accreditors, donors, administrators, and faculty. Its main attraction is an archery and shooting range.  In tribute to the industry that supports the community of Cow College, a statue of a mating bull and heifer is the centerpiece of the campus.  While the surrounding country side is dried out desert—the word desiccated is repeatedly invoked as the novel moves along—the campus is lush and green, the irrigation system apparently paid for by the financial gifts of donors.

Like many campuses, this one is riven by rivalries, gossip, and intrigue.  The faculty is bitterly divided over the issue of whether to have a Christmas party.  At the start of the fall term, new faculty are entertained at two parties—the one they choose to attend confirms their political alliance—one party given by the vegetarian and earth shoe wing of the faculty, a tantric yoga session—and the other a beer guzzling barbecue. And someone secretly deposits the bloody scrota of a cow on the desks of faculty who have somehow transgressed codes of behavior that no one can identity. Bessie, a secretary, admits to having had four husbands and a thousand affairs.  The College president is one of her ex-husbands.

This novel is frequently funny, but its author didn’t know when to stop.  There are brilliant comic moments, and then there are other moments that go on and on and on.  Characters are given to endless monologues on esoteric subjects.  Their concerns often seem to have no relation to reality.  They’re just caught up in solipsistic self-absorption. Most of them, especially the main character and narrator, are more like cartoon caricatures than human beings.

This satiric novel targets issues that normally would interest only those who have been in a higher education environment for years--accreditation reviews, strategic plans, fundraising, faculty burnout, administrators without academic backgrounds, faculty entitlement: a history professor who smokes his cigar and swills his bourbon beneath a “No Smoking” sign in a faculty cafeteria, a creative writing professor who grooms his female students for sex, mathematics faculty who party wildly all semester.  What this novel best illustrates is the isolation of college campuses and faculty from reality.

Rumors to the contrary, this novel was not written by Thomas Pynchon.