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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Consolation and correction

I hadn’t read Jim Shepard's review of Lars von Trier’s work before I suggested he adapt Paula Fox’s novels. Shepard’s essay, published in the latest issue of Harper’s (not available online), makes it pretty clear that von Trier shouldn’t get close to them:
What may be most disturbing about von Trier’s work ... is the sense we get that when it comes to women, he’s working out some problems while we watch. His narratives simply refuse to let up on their female protagonists: things start to fall apart for Bess at the forty-five minute mark in Breaking the Waves, and she suffers through misery after compounded misery for the two hours that follow. Von Trier notes in one interview that women are always betraying people, that his mother was responsible for the greatest betrayal of his life, and that mothers are ‘people you ought to be able to rely upon.’

I’ve been puzzling over what consolation von Trier offers Emily Watson’s Bess at the end of Breaking the Waves: the church bells in the sky are definitely not ironic, but they’re not enough for me at the end of such a grueling film. I thought about what kinds of consolation are available in art as I read Lorin Stein's review of Mary Gaitskill's latest novel, Veronica, in The New York Review of Books (once again, not available online, so I’m going to quote sections of it).

Gaitskill is as spare an author as Paula Fox, but she’s got plenty of Linda Carroll’s and Courtney Love’s vagabond life in her writing, too. Stein’s article describes her life before her first book was published in 1988: she ran away from home at age 15 and worked as a street vendor, clerk, stripper, freelance journalist and occasional prostitute. Her first novel, Two Girls Fat and Thin, reimagines the sexual betrayals in Ayn Rand's Objectivist movement (called Definitism in the novel), which probably wouldn't go over well on the Ayn Rand online dating service, the Atlasphere. Her short story collections, Bad Behavior and Because They Wanted To, are excellent studies of desperate characters—the Lower East Side versions of Fox’s Brooklyn families. Stein writes,
Gaitskill has always been an austere writer. From the beginning, even her admirers wished that she'd broaden her scope, beyond what Michiko Kakutani (in a favorable review of Bad Behavior) called 'the narrow emotional bonds of the author's scummy, downtown world.' Because Gaitskill presents situations that we are used to seeing pathologized in fiction, she has sometimes been called a satirist. But few writers have made less use of dramatic irony. To a rare degree, she takes her characters as she finds them and grants them insight into their own conditions. Even their fantasies are things they tend to understand.

Stein argues that Gaitskill is unique among contemporary writers in how she offers sympathy and consolation to her troubled characters without punishing or fixing them. In this respect, he argues, “Gaitskill’s work goes against the corrective grain in American fiction, a grain that is deeper and more pervasive than it was when her first stories appeared. ...
When, in the novel Everything Is Illuminated (2002), Jonathan Safran Foer teaches his Ukrainian friend Alex the meaning of the phrases 'common decencies' and 'big fucking asshole,' he is acting out a definite impulse of the contemporary novel--to recall us to a set of shared values, the plainer the better. You can hear that impulse in the prose of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (1995), with its heroic attempt to drag a hyperliterate, media-saturated vernacular back into the realm of 'sobriety,' 'sincerity,' and 'humility'--moral categories that Wallace appeals to continually and without qualification.

You can see the same impulse molding the hero of Jonathan Franzen's
The Corrections (2001) from a sex-obsessed literary theorist into a family man; you can see it parodied in the class reunion speeches at the end of Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision (2005) and Sam Lipsyte's Home Land (2004). When Kunkel's narrator says 'I want to conclude with some vacuous statement we can all agree on,' when Lipsyte's narrator strings together a litany of garbled platitudes--'Volunteer in your community. Bathe the children in your neighbor'--the writers are making similar jokes, not about class reunions, but about our desire for uplift, our demand that new novels model a slightly better world than the one we live in.

Gaitskill shares these writers' interest in the everyday language of moral judgment. Her characters, like theirs, make sense of the world through a jumble of psychobabble, old-fashioned words like
pity and compassion, and what Wallace calls the 'quilted-sampler cliches' of the recovery movement. But Gaitskill never leaves these abstractions the way she found them. She is always testing them against the complexity of her characters' inner lives.

This is an excellent description of how Gaitskill’s characters are simultaneously unsympathetic and understandable. It's also a good explanation of why Definitism fails the two main characters of Two Girls Fat and Thin. I’m confused, though, as to how five similar writers (Foer, Wallace, Franzen, Lipsyte, and Kunkel) are enough of a study sample to comprise a “corrective grain” in contemporary American fiction. Who else works with these themes? What is the difference between consolation and correction?

The film adaptation of Secretary, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, was a disappointment to most Gaitskill fans because it worked so hard to offer the protagonist consolation. Gaitskill has written (somewhere, not sure where) that she was surprised to see such a likeable protagonist with a positive character arc: she finds true love and an outlet for her fantasies. The short story offers none of that. The secretary quits her job; her ambivalence isn’t rewarded with true love. In the final paragraphs, a reporter calls her to get dirt about her former employer. The reporter gives Debby a chance to exercise a corrective impulse, to punish her boss for his behavior publicly:
'Please don't be startled or upset. I know this would be a disturbing phone call for you, and it must certainly seem intrusive.' He paused so I could laugh or something. I didn’t, and his voice became more cautious. 'The thing is, we're doing a story on your ex-employer in the context of his running for mayor. To put it mildly, we think he has no business running for public office. We think he would be very bad for the whole Detroit area. He has an awful reputation, Miss Roe--which may not surprise you.' There was another careful pause I did not fill.

Even the reporter’s attempts at consolation are confusing to the protagonist, though, and she can only imagine inappropriate responses such as laughter. She hangs up the phone and considers the experience:
For some reason, I remembered the time, a few years before, when my mother had taken me to see a psychiatrist. One of the more obvious questions he had asked me was, 'Debby, do you ever have the sensation of being outside yourself, almost as if you can actually watch yourself from another place? I hadn't at the time, but I did now.

So is this final paragraph similar to what happens to Bess at the end of Breaking the Waves: a chance at consolation separate from the experience itself?

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Blogger Ben on Thu Jan 05, 06:36:00 AM:
I think the separation written-Maggie feels is not a type of consolation, but the sensation of not experiencing the tension of consolation-or-not; the absence of immersion in her life as story, an absence which makes life difficult to process.