April 2016 Books


The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence is great, obviously, but writing about it is a bit of struggle. Anything potentially interesting to say about The Age of Innocence has no doubt been said so many times in the past 90+ years, as it is one of those books that’s a near constant presence on the 100 Greatest Works of English Literature lists put out by Time or the BBC or whomever. I mean, I’m not so deluded as to think that my insights on any of the other books I write about here are particularly Deep or Meaningful, but at least for the ones that haven’t necessarily entered the Classic Literature Canon, I feel at ease knowing that there haven’t already been millions of high school English papers written covering similar ground1?

So I guess I’ll just spew some feelings and quotes and not worry too much about the (lack of) intellectualism there. Our main feelings: Newland Archer is kind of a shit and we fully love him. Right, if he were a real person, we would probably have to take offense at his inconsistency and hypocrisy, especially with regard to his views on women, and blah blah blah Straight White Male Privilege. However, in a fictional character, it’s such a specific brand of impotent shittiness that I find totally endearing (see also: Mad Men’s Pete Campbell and Penny Dreadful’s interpretation of Victor Frankenstein).

Somewhat related to the first paragraph of this section, actually, we have this lovely excerpt:

“Newland! You’re so original!” she exulted.
His heart sank, for he saw that he was saying all the things that young men in the same situation were expected to say, and that she was making the answers that instinct and tradition taught her to make—even to the point of calling him original.

There is something quite relatable in Archer being disgusted with social conventions while at the same time being unable to really transcend them himself? He totally judges people for being slaves to convention, but he also totally judges people for behaving outside of social norms; it’s just this whole struggle between the ideas about what life should be based on societal expectations vs novels/plays/operas vs the even more distant concept “real2 people were living somewhere, and real things happening to them,” and fuck, do we feel that struggle.

I also just love this whole thing where Archer accidentally becomes, like, a feminist spokesman, and it’s almost entirely motivated his desire to sleep with Countess Olenska, with a little bit of spite/contrarianism thrown in:

Newland reddened. “Living together? Well, why not? Who had the right to make her life over if she hadn’t? I’m sick of the hypocrisy that would bury alive a woman of her age if her husband prefers to live with harlots.”
He stopped and turned away angrily to light his cigar. “Women ought to be free—as free as we are,” he declared, making a discovery of which he was too irritated to measure the terrific consequences.

His own exclamation: “Women should be free—as free as we are,” struck to the root of a problem that it was agreed in his world to regard as non-existent. “Nice” women, however wronged, would never claim the kind of freedom he meant, and generous-minded men like himself were therefore—in the heat of argument—the more chivalrously ready to concede it to them. Such verbal generosities were in fact only a humbugging disguise of the inexorable conventions that tied things together and bound people down to the old pattern.

Again, that level of unflattering relatability: am I also prone to making grand statements in the midst of arguments that I fully mean in the moment, only to look back at them later and be like, “huh, do I actually believe this?” Aren’t we all? And Wharton’s narration is so great here. There is that quality—also present in Austen3—of conveying the characters’ thoughts and feelings while also making it clear that they’re being dumbasses? But subtly? Well, this particular excerpt may be an instance where the character’s hypocrisy is more spelled out for you, but in general, there’s just that edge of irony/judginess coming through in the narration without actually saying “HEY LOOK THIS DUDE IS FULL OF SHIT AND THIS IS WHY.” Ugh, I can’t really articulate this in a way that captures he nuance of the tone, but, like, that’s why I’m not Edith Wharton or Jane Austen.

And man, the whole dissection of “niceness” throughout the book is just so fucking good, with Newland’s intial desire to marry a “nice” girl—i.e. a beautiful and respectable but essentially blank slate of a woman—in order to mold/educate her and then his almost revulsion at May’s “niceness” once they are together.


The young man was sincerely but placidly in love. He delighted in the radiant good looks of his betrothed, in her health, her horsemanship, her grace and quickness at games, and the shy interest in books and ideas that she was beginning to develop under his guidance. (She had advanced far enough to join him in ridiculing the Idyls of the King, but not to feel the beauty of Ulysses and the Lotus Eaters.) She was straightforward, loyal and brave; she had a sense of humour (chiefly proved by her laughing at HIS jokes); and he suspected, in the depths of her innocently-gazing soul, a glow of feeling that it would be a joy to waken. But when he had gone the brief round of her he returned discouraged by the thought that all this frankness and innocence were only an artificial product. Untrained human nature was not frank and innocent; it was full of the twists and defences of an instinctive guile. And he felt himself oppressed by this creation of factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow.


Archer felt irrationally angry. His host’s contemptuous tribute to May’s “niceness” was just what a husband should have wished to hear said of his wife. The fact that a coarseminded man found her lacking in attraction was simply another proof of her quality; yet the words sent a faint shiver through his heart. What if “niceness” carried to that supreme degree were only a negation, the curtain dropped before an emptiness? As he looked at May, returning flushed and calm from her final bull’s-eye, he had the feeling that he had never yet lifted that curtain.

Of course, there’s the whole thing where we’re only seeing May filtered through Newland’s eyes, but we can still probably infer from some of her dialogue and actions that she isn’t even that “nice”—e.g. the whole lying about her pregnancy and general social snobbery. The main thing that struck me, apart from the Newland Archer Feels, was how none of these characters actually know each other. They’re all projecting ideals/desires onto each other, and while Newland seems like the main offender by virtue of being the main character, he’s far from the only one. And this is true for, like, all human relations, but not all fictional accounts are as overt about it4?

Anyway, I really dug the ending of Archer choosing not to see Ellen when he visits Paris with his son, years after May’s death, presumably because there’s no way she could live up to the idealized image he’s built up of her in his head after all of these years. Again, not that he was ever even necessarily in love with the Real Ellen Olenska, but certainly after years without contact, she’s come to be more of an icon in his personal mythology than an actual person, and is it worth potentially losing that by revisiting the icon’s fleshy basis? (…maybe I’m the one beginning to project here.) That’s just like the last two pages, but they’re a very effective two pages.

Filth, Irvine Welsh

Possibly the only Welsh novel I’ve read that’s only told from one character’s POV—well, plus or minus his tapeworm and (spoiler) what appears to be the his estranged wife but is actually just his own fantasy whilst in drag. And it certainly made me appreciate his regular POV-switching more; Welsh tends to focus on his characters’ cyclical/habitual behavior, which is very effective (especially when dealing with drug addicts) to show how/why their lives remain shitty and whatever, but god, when you can’t even switch between the characters’ different shitty lives every 20 pages or so, it just gets to be a bit exhausting. Filth’s protagonist, Bruce Robertson, is a particularly vile character, which is totally intentional on Welsh’s part, so despite the humor Welsh mines from the depths of Robertson’s depravity and his skillful use of profanity, it doesn’t make for the most pleasant read.

Right, so the tapeworm—better to just show rather than try to explain what the fuck we mean when we talk about the tapeworm:


Basically, yes, the protagonist has a tapeworm and it weaves in and out of the narrative, occasionally covering up whole pages, and offering its own commentary on Robertson’s life. Which is delightful. There is probably this meta aspect to the tapeworm covering up large swathes of text, as a way of being like, “yeah, the actual content Bruce’s ranting is not super critical and you, dear reader, are not missing anything by having this chunk of it cut out.” Because it’s more about the overall effect than the individual words, I guess, of just being hit by this nearly 400 page monologue by this despicable dude, with all of the inane details of his eating-drinking-shitting habits and workplace power struggles. Meanwhile, the tapeworm is cutting through the petty shit and getting to the biographical details that the reader is actually interested in, the But What Traumatic Event Happened In His Childhood To Make Him This Way of it all.

So the tapeworm is certainly an enticing gimmick, and we could probably find arguments for both sides: that it’s a cheap and desperate ploy to make this book stand out, or that it is specifically significant to the storytelling. (Not sure we can say the latter for the inclusion of the crossword puzzle clues, but maybe that’s because we weren’t willing to put in the mental effort to solve them; it’s possible they contained a coded message?). In general, I’m pretty forgiving of that sort of formatting gimmick (see: my love of Douglas Coupland) because it does grab your attention and draw visual interest to what would otherwise be blocks of text without completely changing the media form, so why not?

I also watched the movie version, and since I only watched two movies in April, I may as well talk about it here rather than make a separate movie post:

Filth (2013)

It’s hard to judge any film adaptation of an Irvine Welsh novel—or frankly, any Irvine Welsh novel itself—without comparing it to Trainspotting. And that’s inevitably going to be an unfavorable comparison, because Trainspotting is just so fucking good. I don’t know, Filth has its moments of black humor and I appreciate anything stylized, it seems, but at the same time, the most effective stylistic flourishes and soundtrack choices end up feeling very much like, “you just really wanted this to be Trainspotting, didn’t you?” Maybe that’s fine, though. In any case, I get super annoyed at the critics/self-proclaimed cultural connoisseurs who do lazily compare things like that as if it’s at all insightful or interesting, so I should not be one of them. Plus, this movie gave the world James McAvoy stealing a kid’s balloon and flipping him double birds, which: YES.

It might not sound like it from that last sentence, but the movie definitely made Bruce more sympathetic than he is in the book, and it comes down to a few things:

  • He’s played by the innately charming James McAvoy.
  • We don’t have to deal quite as much with his bodily functions. In the book, a lot is made of his bad hygiene and the rash on his penis and just, like, the overall stench emanating from his person, both literally and figuratively.
  • The biggest one, probably, is how the murder case that opens the book and movie plays out. In both, Bruce is assigned to work the case of the (seemingly) racially motivated murder; in the book, the murder victim is a black journalist and we find out that Bruce actually killed him for having an affair with his wife, while in the movie, the victim is a Japanese student and the big reveal is that Bruce is covering up his role as a witness, since he was in drag at the time.
  • His suicide at the end of the book is delightfully spiteful, in that he wears a t-shirt saying “YOU CAUSED THIS” and deliberately times it so that his estranged wife will open the door to find him hanging (no such luck, as his daughter gets to the door first). Whereas the movie version of Bruce leaves a heartwarming suicide note/video to Bladesey and wears his police uniform and seems to be killing himself out of sheer despair after seeing his wife at the grocery store with another man (a black guy, which I guess is a nod to the changes from the book covered above), only to immediately regret his decision as the woman whose husband’s life he tried to save comes to the door with her son.

Weirdly, the movie doesn’t go into his traumatic childhood, which is the one thing in the book that might buy the audience’s sympathy for Bruce. I don’t know that the movie’s attempts to make Bruce a semi-redeemable character really work? It’s certainly not in the spirit of the book, and it almost renders him more generic. There is something unique about how shitty a dude Bruce is allowed to be in the book, and how we’re not really expected to suddenly warm up to him once we find out he had a bad childhood—it explains who he is, to some extent, but it doesn’t excuse it. And yet, I feel like it is harder to watch unlikable characters than to read about them, so it might have been a necessary adaptational choice. Given the particulars of the negative reviews the movie received as-is, it seems unlikely those critics would have reacted more favorably towards a more faithful to the book version of Bruce?

1. This is one of the main reasons why I ended up taking only math and computer science courses by the end of college; I found it immensely frustrating/intimidating to have to write papers about, say, Crime and Punishment, knowing that anything I could possibly write about the novel had been written before and better and just…what was the point, anyway? Unclear why proving theorems that have already been proven somehow feels more satisfying, but it does, it really does. ^
2. But, like, what even is real, mannn? Ugh, I have a whole thinkpiece/manifesto chapter inside me waiting to be written wrt the concept of the Real World because I am the obnoxious product of a liberal arts education, but I think one of E.M. Forster’s characters in The Longest Journey has already handled this quite well:

There is no great world at all, only a little earth, forever isolated from the rest of the little solar system. The earth is full of tiny societies, and Cambridge is one of them. All the societies are narrow, but some are good and some are bad—just as one house is beautiful inside and another ugly. Observe the metaphor of the houses: I am coming back to it. The good societies say, ‘I tell you to do this because I am Cambridge.’ The bad ones say, ‘I tell you to do that because I am the great world,’—not because I am ‘Peckham,’ or ‘Billingsgate,’ or ‘Park Lane,’ but ‘because I am the great world.’ They lie. And fools like you listen to them, and believe that they are a thing which does not exist and never has existed, and confuse ‘great,’ which has no meaning whatever, with ‘good,’ which means salvation. Look at this great wreath: it’ll be dead tomorrow. Look at that good flower: it’ll come up again next year. Now for the other metaphor. To compare the world to Cambridge is like comparing the outsides of houses with the inside of a house. No intellectual effort is needed, no moral result is attained. You only have to say, ‘Oh, what a difference!’ and then come indoors again and exhibit your broadened mind.

3. Okay, so probably a shit-ton of others as well, but Austen is who immediately comes to mind? ^
4. I don’t know, there are certainly works of fiction (whether books, movies, TV shows, etc.) that give the impression that the characters truly know each other. Whether that’s reflective of a genuine belief on the author’s part of the full potential of human intimacy or just a construct that makes for better and/or more satisfying storytelling is less clear. In any case, I suspect my own view on that topic is not universal, so I feel like a bit of a blowhard writing that anything is “true” for all human relations and yet…it is true? ^


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