Thursday, June 09, 2005

Confronting oneself

I commented on a review of José Saramago's The Double shortly after its release in the UK.

Now that I've read the novel for myself, my comments stand.

The reviewer found that:
The difference between the spareness of the idea and the bulk of the finished book is made up by the contributions of an intrusive narrator. There are elusive truths which must be approached round three corners, but there is also such a thing as going all round the houses for no good reason.

Saramago goes "round the houses" because they are there. It's as good a reason as any. This is not a plot-driven book — deal with it.

The New York Times:
To judge "The Double" by the tenor of plot and theme would be to miss it. The countertenors are at least as important and, if there were such a thing, the countersopranos and -altos as well. Also the counterdog. (When Tertuliano stays overnight at his mother's, her Tomarctus comes sniffing at his bedroom door. "For what dogs most want in life is for no one to go away.") What Tertuliano and Antonio make and mangle of their situation would provide a one-dimensional fable, stunningly conceived and played out. Greek tragedy without the chorus would be a thin thing; the chastening humanity in "The Double" comes from those who witness and warn.

The Washington Post:
Throughout The Double there is an obvious archness, an authorial sneer at the fantastical subject matter that quickly distances the reader from any emotional involvement with either the character or his situation. As a result, we don't care what happens to Afonso or how he ends up.

What's more, if the subject of a novel is a dull man, there must be something at least a little interesting in his everyday existence to keep us interested. Unfortunately, in The Double it takes close to half of the novel's 300 pages for the protagonist to even get up the nerve to send a letter to the film company asking about this mysterious actor. Until then, we hear only about Afonso's dry-as-a-bone daily inner and outer life, his tepid love affair with a woman, and repeatedly about the inner conflict he has trying to decide whether to eat out or stay home and rummage in the refrigerator for a meal.

Not all reviews of The Double were favourable, as you can see.

Why not write about boring people? Tedium is a powerful tool, and in the hands of a skilled writer, can lure a voyeur into the intricacies of a mundane life just as well as the usual stock of character quirks and plot twists.

Is the narrator intrusive? He is as much a character with reflections and opinions as those people named in his story. The voice of Common Sense converses with Tertuliano; perhaps he is the narrator, inserting himself directly into our hero's life.

Some reviews hint that the novel should be read as a commentary on the implications of cloning. The "twins" do briefly entertain the notion of DNA testing to determine the extent of similarity between them, but the book is about neither science nor society (much). It's a novel about interior spaces — obviously, the sense of identity and where it comes from.

I admit I was slow to like this novel. I didn't care about the protagonist and didn't understand what motivated him to act as he did. I realize now that it is on the suggestion of his colleague, a math teacher, that the entire plot is set in motion. The plot is almost a mathematical exercise, following each action to its logical conclusion. It is not what he wants to do, but what he must. Tertuliano is purposely dull, without the strength of character to resist the course laid out before him.

They say you can hate someone only if you hate yourself, but the worst of all hatreds must be the hatred that cannot bear another person to be the same, worse still if that sameness should ever become total.

Had this sentence begun the novel, a proclamation in the style of an older literary tradition, rather than appearing near the end, I suspect the work would be better received.

It's a truth, in my experience, that we criticize in others those flaws we recognize (and fear, and deny) in ourselves. Saramago explores this phenomenon in the extreme.

Reading group guide.
Excerpt, but not a very good one. (It's from the opening pages, which failed to make an impression on me. In fact, the first 100 pages left me indifferent. In truth, I'd be hard pressed to find an enticing excerpt — there's little but to swallow the book whole for the desired effect.)

José Saramago appears this Sunday evening in Ottawa courtesy of The Ottawa International Writers Festival. (I'm still waiting for the publisher's publicity department to tell me whether an appearance is scheduled for Montreal.) To all of you in Ottawa: can I crash on your couch? If I can't make it: can you go in my stead? (You'd have to take careful notes — heck, videotape the proceedings — and get one of my books signed for me though. I'll pay for your ticket.)

It's said everyone has a double somewhere in the world. One assumes that double in on the other side of the world, not next door. When I first moved to Ottawa, I was several times stopped in the street by people expecting me to acknowledge them. "Mary?" No. (Maybe Mary will show up at Writersfest Sunday night.)

J-F encountered his double many years ago, before we'd met, when he was working in retail. An uncanny resemblance, he says. Though he reports feeling unsettled by the experience, it was business as usual.

Most people take it as obvious that our sense of self is derived from environmental factors and experience more so than genetics.

I'm reminded of an idea articulated by David Byrne that has obsessed me since I first brought Music for the Knee Plays home with me in the late 1980s (vinyl!).

Social Studies [Knee Play 4]

I thought that if I ate the food of the area I was visiting.
That I might assimilate the point of view of the people there.
As if the point of view was somehow in the food.
So I would make no choices myself regarding what food I ate.
I would simply follow the examples of those around me.
I would study menus very carefully,
Making note of important differences and similarities.
When shopping at the supermarket
I felt a great desire to walk off with someone else's groceries
So that I could study them at length
And study their effects on me.
As though if I ate their groceries I would become that person; until I finished their groceries.
And we might find ourselves going to the same places.
Running into one another at the movies
Or in a shopping mall.
Reading the same books.
Watching the same TV programmes.
Wearing the same clothes.
Travelling to the same places.
And taking the same pictures.
Getting sick at the same time.
And getting well again simultaneously.
Finding ourselves attracted to the same people.
Working at the same job.
And making the same amount of money.
Living identical lives — as long as the groceries lasted.

I play this game every time I do groceries (every time!): I form a character profile of the person in front of me at the checkout, based on the items they lay out on the conveyor belt. The time of day and the manner in which they arrange their purchases are also factors I consider. Whether they have families or live alone, are health-obsessed and indulge in guilty pleasures; what they do for a living, the hours they keep, the extent and quality of their social life.

I fear, too, what others might make of my basket.


Michele said...

Great post! Although, I expected no less from you. You really are "a good egg" Isabella

Raehan said...

I put this on Michele's comments first, but Michele has now asked us to come over and tell you that you are indeed a "good egg."

golfwidow said...

Michele says you are a good egg and I am certainly inclined to agree.

Shannon akaMonty said...

I have also come to tell you that you, indeed, are a good egg.
As opposed to a rotten one. :)

Anonymous said...

You read a 100 pages of a book that failed to grab you? Iron-willed you are. I've never taken a stab as far as a dozen pages over weeks for any book like that.

The 10 books that did the most harm are alarming that one would call thought harmful.

You seem like a good egg to me, even when the world's a little pear-shaped.

kenju said...

Good egg, indeed!

I play the same game in the grocery; makes for time passing faster, huh?

Karan Simpson said...

I do wonder what you might think of me were you behind me at the grocery... In order to entice the baggers to bag my groceries in the order I prefer I am quite selective in how I place them on the conveyor belt. I've been known to rearrange items once placed there just for that sole purpose. I laugh as I think about this now because I don't know that it actually helps my cause. I've never thought of anyone sizing me up over this; lost in my own little grocery world. I must be more careful lest I be thought not a good egg as you certainly are a good one!

Anonymous said...

I do the same thing in the grocery store. It is very interesting, especially when I compare what I have in my cart.

you're a good egg

guppyman said...

Well.... If all these people think you are such a good egg, I won't be the one to disagree with them.

Anonymous said...

I usually dread seeing someone I know in the grocery store for fear of them finding out what a bad mother I am for stocking up on cheetos and pop tarts!

I thought you were a good egg before Michele sent me.

Anonymous said...

Isabella...have you ever seen anyone who looked just like me? My double?


Anonymous said...

Yesterday I had tea and wine on the conveyor belt. Nothing else. The man behind me told me that I "shouldn't mix those two together!" I assured him that I wouldn't.

Grocery hijinks!

Shane said...

Hello Isabella, I liked this post a lot. I'm all for scrutinizing the minutiae of novels, play scripts and theatre performance. Your point about storying mundanity/tedium/dullness is interesting - which I suppose is a tad ironic. Reminds me of a polite disagreement that I had with an assistant director recently - he spoke in terms of 'giving the audience what they want' and 'completion' and was generally into arm-waving physicality on stage. I spoke in terms of 'still (taut) performances'. Again, it was interesting - to me. Ultimately, we agreed that such matters ought to be part-resolved or determined by the shape and size of the theatre that a work is to take place in.

I just wanted to mention that I'm a regular user of the term 'good egg'. In fact, I'd already used it in commenting on a post elsewhere yesterday before I noted Michele Agnew's reference to you.

Bidding you a good day.

Anonymous said...

Great post!

You are absolutely a very good egg!

Anonymous said...

golfwidow nice pic !

Suzanne said...

Can't help but join in the "Good egg" comments!

Ms Mac said...

Hi Isabella, you really are a good egg!

I love that phrase too!

John MacDonald said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.