Thursday, December 01, 2005

Faking it

The very long preamble
I wrote most of this preamble days ago, and most of what's below weeks ago, on the tail of having closed the book (My Life as a Fake, by Peter Carey), satisfied. I've grown increasingly dissatisfied since, however; not with the novel itself but with my ability to write about it, or any novel, along with the increasing awareness of my inability to read critically and in an informed way.

I previously noted that I do not review books, let alone critically analyze them; rather I allow myself to respond to them. (Nor do I see the point in writing a simple book report — basic plots are readily divined from book jacket blurbs, and the general public responses to books are widely known.)

Although I've been reading forever, and was exposed to some wonderful literature in high school and university, I can't say I've studied literature in any meaningful way. In university I took the required first-year English course — I remember Kafka's Metamorphosis; also Conrad's Heart of Darkness was on the reading list, but I have yet to finish it. I took a course on Utopian/Dystopian Fiction, because I love the genre. Also, a poetry workshop, conducted by Seymour Mayne, in which we wore black turtlenecks and berets — I don't recall on what basis I was accepted (a poem of heartbreak, no doubt), and my only inspiration for being there was the idea of being a poet. And Modern British Poetry, which was almost exclusively about The Waste Land, and for which I'm very, very grateful. Later, a course in 19th century Russian lit, in vague hopes of satisfying some yearning to connect to my Eastern European roots. That is all.

I didn't see the point in studying literature. This is something I do anyway, I thought, reading all the time. Of course, I was wrong.

It takes a long time to learn some lessons. I've learned that, really, I know nothing about literature, except maybe a little about The Waste Land. There are things I learned in studying The Waste Land that only now have any real resonance with me, particularly in regards to engaging with a text.

Slogging my way through A.S. Byatt's A Whistling Woman, I was slapped in the face:

The children looked blank. Bill said "No one knows the Bible any more."
"I shouldn't have thought that should bother you," said Daniel.
"How can they read Milton, and Lawrence, and Dickens, and Eliot without knowing their Bibles?"

There's a time (the time I spent at university) I might've argued with this. That a work should stand on its own, certainly apart from its creator's biography, but it should be able to stand outside of history as well. And I still believe this to be true, to a degree. One doesn't need to know the details of the foundation, the influence, the references in order to appreciate a book, but it makes the experience a hell of a lot richer. The books! — they're all talking to each other.

I don't know my Bible. Nor do I know Milton, Lawrence, Dickens, or Eliot particularly well, though I'm trying to rectify this.

Maybe I should've majored in English. Maybe I'm trying to make up for it now.

So. If you think I'm full of shit, you're mostly right.

The rest of it
I hungrily devoured Peter Carey's My Life as a Fake over the course of one (toddler-free) day. I've not read anything else by this author, although I've been meaning to for years on the recommendation of a former coworker whose taste in books I actually trusted.

The story at the heart of the story, and within which there's another story, is about a man who pulls a prank on a literary snob of an editor, submitting for publication the newly discovered "genius" poetry of a wholly fictitious mechanic. The hoax came to light, its author snubbed by the literary community and the editor publically disgraced. To add injury to insult, the editor was later prosecuted for publishing those very poems because of their obscene references.

(This much is actually based in literary history, the Ern Malley hoax, perpetrated in Australia. Carey uses snippets of Ern Malley's poetry in his novel, as well as borrowing from the trial transcript.)

Bits of Malay vocabulary, and some "unnatural" sentence structure, are sprinkled throughout, though personally I find this to be more distracting than flavour-enhancing.

We learn the story through the ears and eyes of Sarah Wode-Douglas, the editor of a London literary review. Her character is an excellent frame for the story of the hoax — her hunger to discover the next great thing. However, along with her professional demons come weaker, personal ones. While resolving the mysteries of her past, in particular concerning the events surrounding her mother's death, it's demonstrated how one person's perception or memory can wildly differ from objective reality, but these sections of the novel do nothing to enhance the themes already sufficiently present in the main plot.

It's a bit of a Frankenstein story, but we're never really certain to what extent anyone "created" anyone else. (And what happens if you are your own creation, turning on yourself?) When a mechanic presents himself as the fake poet, we don't know whether he's simply stark-raving mad, a real poet who's life story was stolen from him, or whether he even exists at all.

The most interesting review of this novel I've read is that by John Updike in The New Yorker, in which much is made of the fragility of our tangible world versus the organic and lasting quality of poetry.

I had read in books that art is not easy
But no one warned that the mind repeats
In its ignorance the vision of others. I am still
the black swan of trespass on alien waters.

Though the poems were composed as a spoof of modern trends, with less than subtle hints of obscure classical references, the question remains: does the poetry stand on its own? (Is it merely intent that differentiates between parody and "the real thing"? How much of the author's intent is relevant to the reader's experience?)

Not a perfect novel, but it's a really good and unusual story, and I couldn't put it down.



rachel said...

You know, Isa, for what it's worth -- I have always really enjoyed your reviews of books. You ask a lot of questions, and you don't answer all of them. It's a portrait of the questions the book left in your mind, and it's an interesting mind you got there. So don't be hard on yourself. Formal training isn't everything. In my experience, it can be as much a hindrance as a help.

Suzanne said...

I did study literature, and let me tell you, your analyses are far more nuanced and thoughtful than anything I could produce. This book sounds fascinating -- thanks for writing about it.

Gaelicgrl said...

Re: "I previously noted that I do not review books, let alone critically analyze them; rather I allow myself to respond to them."

Well, I think it depends on the writer: a mere book report may be imbued with insight, a technical review can inspire. A set of notes, coherent or disjointed, has value if it has value for the writer.

I believe that the difference between your reactions/responses and book reviews is one of presentation only. They're analytical and enjoyable.

Isabella said...

I didn't mean to sound as if I was fishing for compliments or reassurance. Obviously, I write what what I write because it does have value for me, to articulate my questions, make my connections.

If anything, I'm trying to express that I am, in fact, maturing as a reader. (And my frustration with the quality of reviews was fuelled by a blog discussion I came across earlier this week.)

And Suzanne: I hesitate to recommend books, as you all have your likes and dislikes that I'm only just getting to know about. But for what it's worth, it's the most inventively thought-provoking book I've read all year. Except maybe Don Quixote.

Julie said...

What a great post, Isabella. I also feel like I don't write reviews as much as personal responses, and I also feel like I'm "faking it" because I wasn't an English major. But part of the fun of reading reviews is what they reveal about the reviewer.

The Peter Carey book sounds fascinating. I loved his book about Ned Kelly.

callie said...

i majored and minored and MA'd in literature and your reviews of books are lovely to me. as you so perfectly said it yourself -- you provide us with how a book makes you feel -- how you respond to it. anyone who reads and loves books (either professionally or as a hobby) knows that at the end of the day, that is all that really matters. it is so refreshing to get it as you feel it, rather than read something that is so overwrought, overthought and painful to get through. seriously. you say you are maturing as a reader -- that is part of the love of books and the written word. i will continue to visit again and again for your insight....literature degree or no.

Anonymous said...

You might enjoy simply looking into the various ways in which a reading of a book might be given.
Regardless of how talented a reader you might be, I can understand your wishing you knew the canon or even just the basics of approaching a work of literature.
Not that it's taught much anymore, but there is a discipline, just as there is in science or math.
The approach you are talking about is called New Criticism. It's hardly "new" - this idea of letting a work stand by itself - but I like it too. There are other approaches - feminist, marxist, historical, etc - that are actually taught to English majors. What can it hurt to know them? Most of the authors probably did and were perhaps counting on their readers to do the same.

I enjoy reading your blog.