Archive for June, 2011

June 29, 2011

Christopher Smart, Jubilate Agno

If our Left of Cool column is meant to celebrate anything it is the glorious and the weird. I read sections of Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno last year and fell deeply in love with it for just these traits. Rereading the whole thing a couple of weeks ago I found more and more things to make me happy; were I to start quoting every bit that made me want to share it, this post would get completely out of hand. The whole thing is here, though, and I can’t resist quoting the bit with the horns and beards:


For I prophecy that we shall have our horns again.
For in the day of David Men as yet had a glorious horn upon his forehead.
For this horn was a bright substance in colour and consistence as the nail of the hand.
For it was broad, thick and strong so as to serve for defence as well as ornament.
For it brightened to the Glory of God, which came upon the human face at morning prayer.
For it was largest and brightest in the best men.
For it was taken away all at once from all of them.
For this was done in the divine contempt of a general pusillanimity.
For this happened in a season after their return from the Babylonish captivity.
For their spirits were broke and their manhood impair’d by foreign vices for exaction.
For I prophecy that the English will recover their horns the first.
For I prophecy that all the nations in the world will do the like in turn.
For I prophecy that all Englishmen will wear their beards again.
For a beard is a good step to a horn.
For when men get their horns again, they will delight to go uncovered.
For it is not good to wear any thing upon the head.
For a man should put no obstacle between his head and the blessing of Almighty God.
For a hat was an abomination of the heathen. Lord have mercy upon the Quakers.
For the ceiling of the house is an obstacle and therefore we pray on the house-top.
For the head will be liable to less disorders on the recovery of its horn.
For the horn on the forehead is a tower upon an arch.
For it is a strong munition against the adversary, who is sickness and death.
For it is instrumental in subjecting the woman.
For the insolence of the woman has increased ever since Man has been crest-fallen.
For they have turned the horn into scoff and derision without ceasing.
For we are amerced of God, who has his horn.

TSG column here, and the unedited version below.
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So much of our language, when we wish to talk about things that are huge and overwhelming, is religious in nature. This is not because everything that is awe-inspiring has a religious connection (as an atheist it would be quite sad if I believed this). But historically religions have spent a lot more time talking about this sort of thing, which may be why religious literature is so often so very good at expressing it.

Take joy, for example. The most joyful piece of literature in the world is a long, religious poem whose title translates to “The Joy of the Lamb”. In 1757 Christopher Smart was admitted to St Luke’s Hospital as a lunatic patient. He was in the main in solitary confinement with only his cat Jeoffry for company. He was released in 1763. During his time at St Luke’s he wrote Jubilate Agno, a work in four fragments.

As far as I can tell, Jubilate Agno is basically a list of things that make Christopher Smart glad. What makes it wonderful is that Smart seems to think everything worthy of celebration.

Almost every sentence in the poem begins with the word “Let” or “For”, usually printed on opposite pages. The “Let” sections pair various names from the Bible with what amounts to a catalogue of living things – Smart provides lists of mammals, insects, birds, sea-creatures and plants in the form “Let Huldah bless with the Silkworm — the ornaments of the Proud are from the bowells of their betters.” or “Let Simon the Tanner rejoice with Alausa — Five days are sufficient for the purpose of husbandry.” (He’s not big on sex).

Occasionally more personal concerns will intervene. When he gets to the sea-creatures we have “Let Crispus rejoice with Leviathan — God be gracious to the soul of HOBBES, who was no atheist, but a servant of Christ, and died in the Lord — I wronged him God forgive me.”

This sudden switching between the cosmic and the personal carries over to the “For” sections which consist of a series of weird and wonderful aphorisms. Smart moves from universal, spiritual statements like “For the praise of God can give to a mute fish the notes of a nightingale” to “For I bless God for the Postmaster general and all conveyancers of letters under his care especially Allen and Shelvock.”

Here are some other things that Smart thinks worthy of praise:

Jeoffry the cat: The lines on Jeoffry are some of the most-extracted (and most adorable) in English. If there was room here I’d include them all. But I’m particularly fond of “For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.”

Beards: Twice we’re told that “shaving of the beard was an invention of the people of Sodom to make men look like women.” Later Smart explains that Englishmen should wear beards because beards are a step along the way to horns, and horns are good for “subjecting the woman”, which is why hats are a heathen abomination. Incidentally, Smart appears to have been clean-shaven.
Physics: “For MOTION is as the quantity of life direct, and that which hath not motion, is resistance. / For Resistance is not of GOD, but he — hath built his works upon it. / For the Centripetal and Centrifugal forces are GOD SUSTAINING and DIRECTING.”

People whose surnames resemble animal names: “For I bless God to Mr Lion Mr Cock Mr Cat Mr Talbot Mr Hart Mrs Fysh Mr Grub, and Miss Lamb / …For I bless God for the immortal soul of Mr Pigg of DOWNHAM in NORFOLK.”

Also worthy of praise are the alphabet, fresh bread, the thirteenth of August, libraries and booksellers, and simple machines.

I could quote Jubilate Agno forever. It is strange and hilarious and somehow conveys a massive, reverent joy that just makes the world a better place.


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“For I have seen the White Raven and Thomas Hall of Willingham and am my self a greater curiosity than both.”

June 19, 2011

Francine Pascal, Sweet Valley Confidential

Somewhere in my blog drafts there exists a post about sequels (particularly when they come a few years later, and/or are by different authors) as a form of literary criticism – in that they generally comment in some way upon the original text. This being my blog I was illustrating this with reference to the Pamela Cox Malory Towers/St Clare’s sequels and fillers. Some day I must see about finishing it. But this is what makes sequels inherently interesting to me (and is also a big reason for my championing fanfiction, but that’s another post).

I’m also deeply fond of the Sweet Valley High books. We have a long history together – I bought my first at the airport when I moved from England to India; I got into trouble at school a couple of years later with a certain teacher who thought she ought to be allowed to dictate what I read; I bonded with wonderful people (like the brilliant Anna) over them.
Recently I reviewed Sweet Valley Confidential, the ten-years-later sequel to the Sweet Valley High books. The review was here in last week’s TSG. The unedited version is below – I did think of putting some of my reactions while reading it up here, but the only point at which they really got funny was my outrage at Lila Fowler’s boob job (should I have put a spoiler warning here?). I will eventually put up a plot synopsis in crayon, though.

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There’s a sense in which all adaptations, sequels, and even fanfiction of a work of literature or film function as a kind of critical appraisal. This is inevitable –each of these requires commentary on and interpretation of the original work. So a “ten years after” sequel to a successful franchise, years after the franchise has run its course, and by the woman who created the characters and setting yet didn’t actually write the books, has the potential to be far more interesting than the book itself would indicate.

The Sweet Valley High series (along with its various spinoffs; Sweet Valley Kids, Sweet Valley University, and others) was conceived of by Francine Pascal. At the centre of the series were the Wakefield twins, Jessica and Elizabeth, beautiful and identical but with opposite personalities. The new sequel, Sweet Valley Confidential, revisits the same characters ten years later.

A sequel to the Sweet Valley books was never going to follow any sort of internal consistency. This would be impossible; while the original series allegedly took place when the twins were 16, the books existed in that strange suspended time as do a lot of long series. Multiple birthdays and Christmases passed without aging the characters in the slightest. All this means that Sweet Valley Confidential is able to pick and choose its history and it does so seemingly at random.

In this book the twins are estranged. Elizabeth works as a theatre critic in New York, cut off from her family. After a disastrous marriage to a jealous millionaire, Jessica is engaged to Elizabeth’s former boyfriend Todd.

The original readers of the Sweet Valley High books are all in their twenties and thirties now, and presumably well aware of some of the more ridiculous aspects of the series. So, it seems, is Pascal herself. It’s hard to imagine why anyone who hadn’t read the original series would pick this book up, and this knowledge allows Pascal to do more with the book than she could otherwise have done. The book is full of snarky references to the original series. It’s never outright parody, but there’s an arch knowingness to it – a signalling to the readers that both she and they know this is all very silly. A scene in which the twins’ mother is reduced to growling “bring out the fucking cake” is hilarious entirely because of its incongruity with the original series. At times the tone is outright sarcastic:

It was a fun wedding. Not a whole lot different from any Sweet Valley High dance, which, as everyone knows, is not a whole lot different from real life.

The book ends with an epilogue of the “where are they now” variety, in which we are given potted histories of characters who were not mentioned in the book itself. This is blatant fan service, but then, so is the whole book.

At times the mocking allusiveness can be genuinely uncomfortable. In veiled references that would be lost to anyone who didn’t remember the original books, Pascal reminds us of an attempted date rape and a false accusation of sexual assault that took place between couples who (in this book) are now living happily ever after.

The knowing tone is unpleasant, but it is not consistently maintained. At some points this seems a genuinely unironic sequel –the twins are still flawlessly beautiful and talented, fat people are still anathema, and everyone is still the same person he or she was in high school.

Then there’s the sheer badness of it all. Jessica’s ditziness is indicated by the dropping of anachronistic (Sweet) Valley girl “likes” into everything she says. Then there’s the sex; it’s odd enough to see characters from one’s childhood having sex, but Pascal makes it all quite needlessly terrible; in the first chapter Elizabeth’s heartbreak is so profound that “[s]he cried after every orgasm”. Or this, rather happier encounter:

When they made love, it was completely loving, full of such deep tenderness that the passion almost played second to the adoration.

But the passion was there, and once the love had been established, the excitement took over and spun them out into the wild reaches of the glorious.

At last Elizabeth knew the splendid, the marvelous, the amazing, the spectacular!

The over the top!

Over the top indeed.

Read without reference to the rest of the series, Sweet Valley Confidential is merely a bad book. With the knowledge of the context behind it, however, it is awkward, uncomfortable, and depressing. One can only hope that the forthcoming Sweet Valley High movie, to be scripted by Diablo Cody, is less painful.

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I do have questions. With the option of cherrypicking her series history, Pascal could so easily have not included the attempted daterape or the false accusation – just as she chose to ignore Jessica and Todd’s multiple affairs over the course of the series. Things like this make me wonder if the book is more thought out than it appears – which doesn’t stop it from being shite, but still.
June 12, 2011

Rachel Ferguson, The Brontës went to Woolworths

I expected myself to really love The Brontës went to Woolworths. When I did not, I did what any reasonable person would do; tried to make it more entertaining by reading it as a horror novel. Naturally.

Last week’s Left of Cool piece on it is here. Here is the original version; both may contain spoilers.
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If there’s one thing that people know about the Brontë family (apart from that the three sisters wrote books, of course. Or that story that Somerset Maugham tells of how Branwell Brontë died standing up.) it is that they spent their youths inventing fictional worlds. The siblings collaborated in the development of the kingdoms of Gondal and Angria. Branwell and Charlotte were responsible in the main for Angria, while Gondal belonged to Emily and Anne. In addition to the creation of maps, stories and histories, Emily and Anne were known to pretend to be particular characters themselves. This continued into their adulthood, and apparently shocked poor Charlotte.
The relationship of the Brontë siblings with Angria and Gondal is the sort of thing that was made for fiction. And so other writers have riffed off the idea. I’m particularly fond of Antonia Forest’s brilliant Peter’s Room, in which a group of teenagers try their hand at “Gondalling” and find it soon getting out of control.

Rachel Ferguson’s 1931 novel The Brontës went to Woolworths is another book that plays on the Brontës’ tradition of make-believe. The Carne sisters (Carne was the name of the Brontës’ cousins on the maternal side) live in a world of make-believe. The three sisters (Deirdre, Katrine and Shiel) and their mother have made up elaborate fantasies about a number of people whom they do not really know. Chief among these are the Judge Toddington (“Toddy” to the Carnes) and his less-remarkable wife Lady Mildred. Shiel’s governess, the comparatively dull Miss Martin, is alarmed by the entire family’s willingness to live a make-believe life. She is even more concerned by her young charge’s inability to tell the difference between the real and pretend.

It’s hard to decide how I feel about these books and the characters. On the one hand, the Carne sisters are frequently charming. Take this, from the beginning of the book:

A woman at one of mother’s parties once said to me, “Do you like reading?” which smote us all to silence, for how could one tell her that books are like having a bath or sleeping, or eating bread – absolute necessities which one never thinks of in terms of appreciation. And we all sat waiting for her to say that she had so little time for reading, before ruling her right out for ever and ever.

On the other (and quite apart from all the willful self-delusion and the borderline stalking of the Toddingtons) they are also rather despicable. Lady Mildred’s inferiority (imagined at first; real once they meet and befriend the couple) is signaled throughout by her vocabulary and pronunciation of certain words marking her out as Not One of Us. Katrine can seek a career in the theatre, but a man she works with is acknowledged to be an unfit partner. And governesses are contemptible – Miss Martin is dull for being uncomfortable with their games, but the governess who succeeds her cannot join in without getting it all wrong.

Yet these problems are resolved if you focus on one factor in the book – the Brontës (and those concerned with plot spoilers should stop reading now). The trip to Woolworths mentioned in the title actually happens. The Brontës appear in the story as ghosts. And the real Brontë sisters all worked as governesses.

I suspect my reading of this book might surprise the author. But she is dead; literally as well as in a Roland Barthes, Death of the Author way. And so in her absence I’m choosing to read The Brontës Went to Woolworths as a horror story. One that features charming, terrifyingly deluded upper-class child-women (the possibilities for psychological horror are immense) and real, live ghosts. And the governess, (like her literary predecessor in Henry James’ Turn of the Screw) seeing horrors all around her, and, (like her other ancestor Jane Eyre) quite possibly the only sane person in the place.

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June 5, 2011

Karen Joy Fowler, What I Didn’t See

A couple of months ago I reviewed Karen Joy Fowler’s short story collection What I Didn’t See for Global Comment. I’m reposting that piece here for the sake of completeness, and because apparently people are asking about brilliant female writers. Here is one.

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If there is one thing that is obvious from Karen Joy Fowler’s work to date, it is that she is interested in books and how they work. The Jane Austen Book Club, for which she is chiefly known (it spent quite some time on the New York Times bestseller list and was adapted into a movie in 2007) engages with the modern romance genre and with science fiction as well as with Austen’s novels. The Case of the Imaginary Detective, also published as Wit’s End, is a crime novel about crime novels. Sarah Canary, her first book, seems to change genre with each person who discusses it.

What I Didn’t See is a collection of Karen Joy Fowler’s short stories, the first such collection since 1997’s Black Glass. Most of the stories in this collection have been published elsewhere, with the oldest (“The Dark”) first published in 1991 and the most recent (“Halfway People”) in 2010. So it’s unsurprising that they don’t immediately form a unified collection. However, while it would be reductive to say that literature is Fowler’s subject, this is a frequently recurring thread that is useful to hang on to.

The title story, “What I Didn’t See”, was published in 2002. This story about a group of people on a gorilla hunt in the 1920s does not on the surface show allegiance to any particular genre. Despite this it won a Nebula award in 2003. While not visibly SFnal in itself, the story is in conversation with one of the great short stories of the genre, James Tiptree Jr’s “The Women Men Don’t See”. Tiptree’s story is about alienation, both with regard to race and (primarily) gender and to actual aliens. Fowler’s narrator, unlike Tiptree’s, is a woman who becomes in part complicit in the unseeing of women.

“The Halfway People”, “The Dark” and “King Rat” all engage with fairytale or folkloric elements. “The Halfway People”, first published in a collection of fairytale retellings titled My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, plays off the fairytale of the six swan brothers. In the Grimm brothers’ story, the brothers are turned into swans by a curse which is eventually broken when their sister weaves shirts for them. The youngest brother, whose shirt was left incomplete, has a swan’s wing for an arm. Fowler locates the fairytale in the mouth of a woman who loved this youngest brother, and makes of his story a bedtime tale for her son.

“The Dark” manages to combine a history of plague, the Vietnam war and feral children into a disturbing story which also contains references to the Pied Piper of Hamlin. “King Rat” is a simpler piece in which the narrator remembers a friend of her family, yet again the story of the Pied Piper and his attendant lost children lurks in the background.

“Booth’s Ghost” appears here for the first time. This is a story about the family of John Wilkes Booth after the assassination of Lincoln. Edwin Booth’s acting career is dogged by his brother’s crime, and he is equally haunted by the ghost of his father – so iconic an actor of Hamlet as to make it almost impossible for Edwin to play the role. Besides the Shakespeare connection “Booth’s Ghost” is in conversation with another text in the same book; “Standing Room Only” tells the events leading up to Lincoln’s death through the eyes of a young girl with a crush on John Wilkes Booth.

The intertextual nature of most of these stories adds depth and can be stimulating, yet most of the stories could probably stand quite well without it. Fowler is marvellous at evoking beauty and strangeness, and her narrators are odd enough to be real. The central character of “Private Grave 9”, a photographer at an archaeological dig competing with Howard Carter’s, stands out here. And the teenaged characters who appear in many of the stories are among her strongest voices.

Family also plays a major role in the collection. It can be a source of happiness and comfort, as in “The Marianas Islands” in which the young narrator explains the family history that led to her owning a submarine of her own. Family here is an unmitigatedly good thing; as the narrator says “the first thing you need to know is where you are”. In most of the stories, however, the family plays a more ambiguous role.

“The Last Worders” is a story about a town obsessed with poetry and a river that doesn’t exist. But it is also the story of a long-standing and uncomfortable rivalry between two sisters (and here again we have a fairytale staple) over a man they could both love. “The Pelican Bar” chronicles years of torture meted out to a girl who is sent to a horrific reform school by parents who never see her again. Parents are unreliable; the terrified child narrator of “King Rat” seeks out her father for protection and finds him annoyed with her. The parents of a pregnant girl in “Familiar Birds” force her to carry her child to term and put him up for adoption. In “Always”, a story about immortality in a cult of sorts, there’s the impression that the narrator is trying to escape a stepfather who “was drinking again” and a mother whose life “would have been so much better without me”. In “Standing Room Only” Anna’s discovery of her mother’s plot with John Wilkes Booth comes across as a betrayal.

And there are the lost children. They form the focus of the last story, “King Rat”, but really they are all over this book. From Norah in “The Pelican Bar” whose parents remain unaware that they have lost her to Paul in “The Dark” to the adopted child in “Familiar Birds”. The final passage of “King Rat” (and therefore the book) feels as if it were coming from Fowler herself; nothing could be more appropriate than that a collection so aware of stories should end by commenting on itself:

I hate this story. Vidkun, for your long-ago gifts, I return now two things. The first is that I will not change this ending. This is your story. No magic, no clever rescue, no final twist. As long as you can’t pretend otherwise, neither will I. And then, because you once bought me a book with no such stories in it, the second thing I promise is not to write this one again. The older I get, the more I want a happy ending. Never again will I write about a child who disappears forever. All my pipers will have soft voices and gentle manners. No child so lost King Rat can’t find him and bring him home.

What I Didn’t See is dark and often painful to read. Yet it’s also honest and weird and lovely. It has all the lightness of touch that you’d expect from someone who has spent so long dancing around the boundaries of genre.

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