The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton
I think I read this at almost exactly the right time, so it was fantastic and totally devastating and I don’t think I can say anything interesting or insightful about it without revealing too much personal information1.
I will say that I love Wharton’s gossipy style of narration and it was super hard to just pick one quote.
She had a sense of deeper empoverishment—of an inner destitution compared to which outward conditions dwindled into insignificance. It was indeed miserable to be poor—to look forward to a shabby, anxious middle-age, leading by dreary degrees of economy and self-denial to gradual absorption in the dingy communal existence of the boarding-house. But there was something more miserable still—it was the clutch of solitude at her heart, the sense of being swept like a stray uprooted growth down the heedless current of the years. That was the feeling which possessed her now—the feeling of being something rootless and ephemeral, mere spin-drift of the whirling surface of existence, without anything to which the poor little tentacles of self could cling before the awful flood submerged them.
The Collective, Don Lee
Man, I do not know how I felt about this book. I kind of hated it because I have very little patience for starving artists2, and this is a book that follows the founders of an Asian-American artists’ collective from their undergrad years through their (mostly unsuccessful) 30s, so…perhaps not the book for me? The portrayal of life at a small liberal arts college and the semi-intellectual discourse about Art and Representation and all that shit felt so familiar; I currently have really mixed feelings about all of that, so I was certainly engaged, but also irritated, but also nostalgic, etc.
The main character was a bit of a cipher, which I think is a thing that often happens when you have a first-person narrator in these sorts of novels3–the (generally male) bland narrator is there to observe/idolize/play the straight man to the more fucked-up male characters and to obsessively pine after fucked-up and generally underdeveloped female characters. Also, I’m not sure how well Joshua’s suicide works as a framing device; it ends up feeling more like something the author put in because he felt the novel didn’t have enough plot to justify its existence, rather than the driving force that it perhaps should be.
During our four years at Mac, we would read Foucault, Hegel, Derrida, Saussure, Gadamer, Lacan, Barthes, Deleuze and Guattari—never the full texts, mind you, just xeroxed scraps and smidgens that still we would not understand, but from which we could lap up the lingua franca of pseudo-intellectualism. We’d sling around words like synecdoche and hyperbole, ontology and eschatology, faute de mieux and fin de siècle. We’d describe things as heuristic, protean, numinous, and ineffable. We’d discuss Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Plato’s cave and Godel’s incompleteness theorem, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Laffer’s curve and Schrodinger’s cat. We’d embrace poststructuralism and existentialism and epistemology, semiotics and hermeneutics. We’d see everything as an allegory or a metaphor for something else, and ultimately we’d deconstruct everything as divisive or patriarchal or sexist or homophobic or racist or neofascist—a product of heteronormative exclusivity, a metanarrative propagated by the oligarchy. We’d answer almost every question by decrying it as a syllogism, or a trope, or tautological, or phallocentric, or reductive, or hegemonic (undoubtedly our favorite buzzword). We’d come to believe that any text—be it Shakespeare or a comic book or a supermarket circular—had the same intrinsic value, and we’d insist that all truth was relative, that there was no reality without signifiers, that there was no there there, that nothing, in fact, really existed. We’d argue and rant, we’d foment for empowerment and paradigm shifts and interstitial hybridity, we’d make grand, sweeping pronouncements about subjects of which we knew nothing. We would become articulate, well read, sensitive, open-minded totally insufferable twits. We would graduate as nihilistic, atheistic, anarchistic, moralistic, tree-hugging, bohemian, Marxist snobs. We would love every minute of it.
Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
Weirdly, it was a struggle to get through this; calling something “boring” is a sort of unsophisticated criticism, but I just never felt invested in the plot or the characters, and the humor of Austen’s narration wasn’t quite enough to make up for that.
First, a digression that I promise will eventually lead back to my issues with S&S: I’ve been thinking about something that I will term Romantic Comedy Stack Theory. Because of Austen’s position in popular culture, it’s pretty likely that you know the central pairings of each of her novels, and even if you don’t, you can be reasonably sure who the heroines will end up with based on the Last In, First Out principle—eligible dudes get pushed onto the stack as we meet them and popped off as they reveal themselves to be unsuitable, until we are only left with one dude on the stack: the First Dude. For example, take Pride and Prejudice: we meet Darcy first, we push him onto the stack. We meet Collins next, we push him onto the stack, then pop him off pretty much immediately because he is awful. Then we meet Wickham and push him onto the stack. Note that as long as Wickham remains on the stack, Darcy is inaccessible—in the context of the Romantic Comedy Stack Theory, we need to discover Wickham’s unsuitability in order to pop him off and reveal Darcy. I mean, the computer science language is maybe a stretch; essentially, we’re talking about the idea, which is certainly not specific to Jane Austen, that what you’re looking for has been here the whole time4, but you need to experience (whether that means falling for or just interacting with) someone truly unsuitable to understand that.
Okay, so back to S&S. Marianne’s romantic arc certainly fits the Romantic Comedy Stack Theory trajectory; Colonel Brandon gets pushed onto the stack, Willoughby gets pushed onto the stack, Willoughby is revealed to be unsuitable and gets popped off, thus revealing Brandon’s suitability. But we never actually see Marianne interact with Brandon in any significant way, so the eventual pairing feels perfunctory and honestly a little creepy; yes, things were different back then, but Brandon is almost 20 years older than Marianne and falls for her immediately because…he sees something in her that reminds him of his disgraced first love? Based on what exactly—some small-talk and piano-playing or that hot 16-year-old ass? The description of Marianne basically acquiescing to marriage in the last chapter is interesting and I wish we could explore that dynamic more:
Precious as was the company of her daughter to her, she desired nothing so much as to give up its constant enjoyment to her valued friend; and to see Marianne settled at the mansion-house was equally the wish of Edward and Elinor. They each felt his sorrows, and their own obligations, and Marianne, by general consent, was to be the reward of all.
With such a confederacy against her—with a knowledge so intimate of his goodness—with a conviction of his fond attachment to herself, which at last, though long after it was observable to everybody else—burst on her—what could she do?
Elinor’s romantic trajectory is unusual, I guess, in that there’s only ever one dude, and that he gets popped off the stack (secret engagement = very unsuitable) and then pushed back on (never mind, it was all a big misunderstanding). But again, we don’t see Elinor or Edward interact much until the very end, and since Elinor is always playing it cool, we only get brief glimpses at the depth of her feelings for Edward, so it’s hard to get invested in that romance. And investment in the main romance is, at least to me5, a pretty key part to investment in the novel as a whole.
Would it work set in a modern American high school?
I want to say no, because its main plot points depend more highly on the specific social mores and class structure of the Regency era than some of Austen’s other works? Elinor and Marianne are actually canonically teenagers, so they have that going for them, but converting all of the marriage stuff into prom date stuff or whatever would really trivialize the relationships in S&S6. There already are several contemporary film adaptations7, although I don’t think any of them are set in high school.
It was rather a wish of distinction, she believed, which produced his contemptuous treatment of every body, and his general abuse of every thing before him. It was the desire of appearing superior to other people. The motive was too common to be wondered at; but the means, however they might succeed by establishing his superiority in ill-breeding, were not likely to attach any one to him except his wife.
1. But I cannot stop myself from oversharing so: I mean, okay, I’m still seven years younger than Lily Bart at the beginning of the novel, so who knows, it may become EVEN MORE POIGNANT in the near future. The marriage and society and physical beauty aspects obviously aren’t that relatable, but there is that whole thing of wanting to live in luxury/spend money frivolously while being unwilling to put in the sort of long-term work that is required for that lifestyle that I obviously deeply feel. And I’m kind of terrified that I too will eventually squander all of my opportunities and burn all of my bridges and end up alone and suicidal by my late 20s, so like…NOT GREAT, BOB. ^
2. Especially those who self-identify as Artists without having actually produced any successful Art. Especially especially writers/dancers/anyone who practices the arts but doesn’t actually like paint or draw introducing themselves as Artists, because yes, you are technically an “artist,” but come on. ^
3. By “these sorts of novels,” I think we mean contemporary literary fiction? The Secret History is the main example I have in mind, but I think Brideshead Revisited also counts and that’s perhaps not super contemporary. And also The Great Gatsby, I guess, which is even less contemporary. ^
4. TY, T.Swift. ^
5. Because I am shipper garbage to the core. But uhhh also…the whole idea of the marriage plot, right? ^
6. In a way that somehow didn’t apply to Emma and Clueless. Perhaps because Emma, canonically, doesn’t need to marry anyone for financial security and thus has the freedom to marry strictly for love, the stakes of her relationship with Knightley aren’t higher than those of the central relationship in any given contemporary romantic comedy. ^
7. I haven’t actually watched any of them, but according to Wikipedia we have: Kandukondain Kandukondain (2000), a Tamil musical version; From Prada to Nada (2011), an LA-based Latino version; Scents and Sensibility (2011), which may be a Lifetime movie involving magic lotion? ^