3.20.2011

Familiarity and Contempt (What Was She Thinking? by Zoe Heller)

Good god, I forgot what it's like to read a book where each page takes less than 15 minutes! It feels strange to be in the realm of books one can read as an activity instead of a journey. Not that I mean I regret Ulysses - just sometimes it's nice to simply take a day-trip to the park, rather than hiking the entire Appalachian Trail.

If you haven't read What Was She Thinking (also called Notes on a Scandal, after the title of the movie it inspired), or seen the movie, there will be spoilers in these thoughts, because I'm really not sure where to end before ruining any surprises.  So, now then, only us spoiled or spoilable folks left? Alright, then...

The very first page of the book presents for us what appears to be an easily parsed framework for interpreting Sheba, the nominal heroine of the book: she is a woman who has had an illicit affair with a 15 year old boy. She has been caught. It's a nasty business. The news has introduced this particular character type, in the real world more than once (seemingly every time it happens), and in the beginning, there is a natural tendency, I think to assume that any further story will be simply the salacious details. The narrator, Barbara (in many senses, I think, the true protagonist of the novel), is much more of a mystery - she's older. She's loyal to this woman who has done something impardonable. She is a bit cold and bitter.

By the end of the book, Barbara has done her very best to show us that Sheba is a faulty, essentially non-evil woman who committed a horrible mistake. One can (if one wishes) pity her, sympathize with her. On the other hand, unwittingly, Barbara reveals herself to be, as most people I know describe her, very creepy. Sheba let her hormones overtake her. Barbara seems to have something very distrubing wrong with her.

The interesting thing to me is this: Barbara, I think, one knows fairly well by the end of the book, and one despises her. Sheba, who one is given the opportunity to pity, one knows in many ways LESS than they did on the first page of the book. The narrator is clearly not terrifically reliable, and obviously sees Sheba in a way that suits the fantasies she needs to uphold for herself - how are we to trust that anything she says really accurately reflects on Sheba's character? Take, for a moment, the mere facts apart from the very artfully applied layers of interpretation, and one has learned very little by the end of the book, really - some details of Sheba's family life. A rough timeline of how the affair went. A highly coloured personal account of some of the day to days of the end of the affair. A frankly unreliable account of second hand knowledge that we don't know if it's even accurate. The image of Barbara, is, inadvertently, more or less an honest one. The image of Sheba is a more or less dishonest, or at least dubious, one. And it's much easier to like Sheba than Barbara.

This particularly caught my eye because the way Barbara details her life reminded me in some ways of Ulysses (sorry, I know). Barbara, perhaps because she lives alone and has no particular center or direction to her life outside of Sheba, is left, in between the periods in which she is merely reinterpreting Sheba's life, describing her life in very exacting detail. By the end, one knows how Barbara gets dressed, how she feeds the cat, the manner of cook she is, the way she keeps her bedroom and living room, her personal grooming habits, the way she sleeps even. Bloom's journey through Dublin is told in the same exacting detail (we were not, perhaps, left with a description of how Ms Barbara goes to the bathroom - but she did comment on the menstrual habits of her coworkers, so I think this was more an issue of space and first person narration than any sort of actual fastidiousness). And I've heard more than one person who read Ulysses mention how surprised they were at how much they disliked Bloom, and in much the same way that one dislikes Barbara - he's a little off, a little bit disturbing. Revolting.

In many novels one gains a certain intimacy with the characters, and understand please that the comments Im about to offer are not belittling that. But most of that intimacy is only with their inner selves - in some sense I think this is what we turn to literature for, to look at someone and be able to see something more 'real' than the everyday. Joyce turned this around and presented the everyday as the framework of the epic, and so I think that it's easy to look at his characters and think 'how disgusting', because one must see all the detritus of their daily thought patterns. I daresay that many of our hero's thought patterns would be equally ugly if we took them in unexpurgated. In part, I think this is the problem with living in Barbara's everyday world - familiarity, as they say, breeds contempt (or horror, or disgust).

I am not everyone I know, I'm only me, but I will say that a tepid toe dipped deep in the stream of my consciousness would be equally loathsome. I say this as impassively as I can. I think any number of ugly, unpleasant things, I'm plagued by a discordant, disturbing mishmash of non-cohesive patterns of internal life, most of them worn deep enoguh that the groove has gone smooth with time. This isn't, I don't think, because I'm deeply secretive - I try to fairly honest and forthcoming (not that I always have in my life). It's simply that writing about one's self naturally condenses identity into something cohesive. Maybe this is a sort of innate dishonesty, for my own benefit - I need to believe there is a self to build an identity around, instead of a raucous blend of things, most of which should be ignored or suppressed in order to function in the world. I don't know, I wonder sometimes if the feeling is more universal, if perhaps many or most of us have internal selves that stoke at a fire of contradictions.

There are two points to this. In some ways, it is a simple one: simply that knowing a person might tell us things about them we might not be glad we learned, and that we should, thus, take our knowing with a grain of salt - not becaus what we know is necessarily untrue, but because it is confusing to know a person intimately that way. The everyday has a way of bringing up the tics and highlighting them, leaving us blind, ironically, to the virtues of a person - which ironically intensifies the tics in our subject themselves, and declines the influence of virtue. Theory of PErsonality Relativity, I guess.

The other point, though, is I think it's interesting that the repulsive Barbara is, in fact, a writer herself - her manner of writingis not simply narrative, it's 'writerly' - complex, beautiful, very funny at times, poignant at others. She is not a diarist, but a novelist. And what's interesting about that to me is that she is making a novel of Sheba. The difference between the book and a real novel is simply that the ACTUAL author works so hard to see the machinations of the false author in producing the false account of the protagonist - we see, in essence, the making up of a hero from scratch, from the eyes of the novelist, without her explicit awareness of the revelation. Which makes one turn back for a moment to all the heroes in all the other novels they've seen created. Jane Eyre, for instance - it's difficult in a moment of clarity not to see how much Bronte needed her to be a hero. Or Stephen Dedalus. Or any of a thousand others. Authors write heroes, as often as not, because they need the validation of seeing someone else worship their illusions.

I don't mean this as a dig against literature - clearly I'm not opposed to Jane Eyre or Ulysses. I think that in truth of truths, though, there is no 'true portrait' of anyone. To make others feel for a character, one must describe the character artfully, art implies passion, and passion, by definition, precludes dispassionate honesty. I'm not sure it's even really a 'warning' per se. In some sense, I will admit, I believe that this lack of clarity is wonderful, because when you really look at a person, you're not looking for a catalog of their attributes - a catalog of attributes, after all, is the whole problem with knowing someone to intimately. You're looking for a story, for someone to connect little cohesive webs that let you wrap your mind around a person. Those webs can't be complete images of a person, of course - a person is made of the paints the web stretches between, not of the threads that you actually see. But something like the way an artist will use a color that is absent in nature to produce an illusion that's realistic, this sort of skewed portrayal can be far more 'honest', in some senses, than a clinical description