July 25, 2005

He's Trying Way Too Hard to Be the Anti-Dickens

Well, since a) I'm trying to post more, and b) nothing all that interesting has happenned to me lately, but c) I have read a bunch of books, you're getting a bunch of book reviews. This one's really long and not all that coherent. More me trying to string my thoughts together on the book and getting tangled in the inevitable cat's cradle. Enjoy. Ish.


There's a scene in one of Beverly Cleary's Ramona Quimby books where a kindergarten teacher reads her class a classic picture book called, if I recall correctly, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. The plot of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel concerns the title characters' attempt to prove that a hoary old steam shovel is just as good as some newfangled type of shovel by digging an entire building's foundation in a day and a night. It's a heroic tale, and the whole class is enraptured by it, until one kid raises his hand and asks, "When did he go to the bathroom?" Because you know, good ol' Mike was digging all day and all night. That's a long time. The teacher tries to skip lightly over this question, but the kids just won't let it go. They are kindergartners. Going to the bathroom is a big part of their day. Any book which flinches away from the bathroom question is a text sorely lacking the gritty realism demanded by the contemporary kindergartner.

Michael Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White does not flinch away from gritty realism. It's a book set in London in the year of our lord 1875, and unlike authentic Victorian novels contemporary at the the time --- Dickens, Trollope, Thackery, the Bronte sisters --- people in Crimson Petal sweat. And shit. And piss. And fuck. So far no one's had a venereal disease, but I haven't finished it yet. [ed. note --- Finished it midway though writing the review, sorry for any confusion.] This book is groady.. It's nast, man. And in part I think, that's cool. London in 1875 was pretty groady. You had to walk through an inch of horseshit just to cross the street.

But then again, I think that while the reticence of the authentic Victorian novelist on the horseshit/bathroom question was in part due to how horribly repressed we all know (or at least think we know) the Victorians were --- calling chair legs "limbs" and covering them with a skirt anyway and so forth --- it's also a question of the quotidian. The things that always speak most authentically to us of the past are the very things that no one notices at the time because they are so ordinary. Someone writing in 1930 "there was a crowd of men on the platform," doesn't need to mention, "and they were all wearing hats and waiting for a train." Similarly, I writing now "he crossed the street," do not need to write "which was paved with asphalt and had a series of reflective white dashes painted down the middle." In both instances, these qualities are default qualities, of a modern street and of a 1930s crowd, respectively. So when Faber spends a paragraph on a guy narrowly avoiding a pile of horse shit while crossing the street, and half a chapter on him going to buy a hat, it doesn't feel like he's being authenticly of the era, it feels like's he's being terribly modern, pointing out every rank stench and vile shitpile to us like a perverse native guide delighting in shocking we slumming, lily-livered tourists.

Faber's well aware of this aspect of his prose. At the beginning of the book he indulges in a number of fourth-wall breaking asides where the narrator directly addresses the audience, informing us, for instance, that the prostitute we are about to meet, while interesting, is not the book's main character who will be along shortly, or coyly telling us to watch our steps or hold our noses. At first blush I thought this habit a rather disincongruous bit of post-modern smoke-and-mirrors (it's a text that knows it's a text! how meta!), but thinking about it now I suppose it's really no different from the license taken by real Victorian novelist's omniscient narrators ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," "Dear reader, I married him!") Either way, I found it unbearably twee. Ha-ha, yes, I'm reading a book. I'm well aware of that, so quit pointing it out and get on with the story. Fortunately, once the plot begins boiling the asides mostly fade out.

And what a story it isn't. On the one hand, for all my above bitching about the tone of the piece, I was interested enough in it to keep on plugging away for 800+ pages just to find out what happened. This ought to be bourn in mind. On the other hand, having just finished the thing I feel like a real Victorian novelist would have considered the events of Crimson Petal a rollicking opening to a novel, a really solid pin-'em-to-their-seats first third, but hardly enough for a whole book. And I tend to agree. I read the whole book wanting to find out what happened to these characters, and when I did I was not disappointed, exactly, but dissatisfied. Everything made sense, everything worked out, there was personal growth distributed to the undersized souls and comuppances all round, but the characters' eventual fates were left unresolved in a way that nagged at me.

Ah, but y'all don't even know who the characters are. Here goes: There's Sugar, a 19-year-old prostitute with a head for book learning, a bod for sin and a really nasty case of psoriasis, William Rackham, n'er-do-well heir to a mid-size perfume concern, Anges Rackham, William's wife, who unbeknownst to everyone else (and to the science of the time) has a brain tumor the size of an egg nibbling away at the soft sane center of her piddling brain, Sophie Rackham, seven-year-old daughter of the above, Henry Rackham, William's older brother, a stuffed shirt extrordinaire who'd like to become a minister if he didn't have the hots for one Emmeline Fox, a free-thinking theologian in her own line and paragon of the Rescue Society (fallen women being the ones in need of rescue). The plot is this: William falls for Sugar and takes her as his mistress. Sugar plots to worm her way as firmly into his heart and home as possible, in the process crossing paths with the steadily-losing-it Agnes, who takes her for her Guardian Angel. Eventually, Sugar does get herself set up in the Rackham home, where she forms a warm bond with the neglected Sophie; she little knows that the bumbling Henry and the well-meaning Emmeline are both traipsing close to the secret of her past. And that's about all I can tell you without ruing the denouement. Yeah, I know. Sad, isn't it? I mean, that's all set up, and frankly, the fact that I'm omitting the ending leaves room for a lot of conjectures that would be a hell of a lot more exciting than what actually occurs.

I can't tell if the people in this book feel wrong to me because they're just flat and unrealistic, or if they feel wrong because they feel out of time, modern silicon brains stuck into chickenwire and horsehair Victorian bodies. I think it might be a bit of both, perhaps. But I can't pinpoint exactly what about them makes me think this. Possibly the dialogue, but then again I can't point out obvious clunkers and anachronisms. This is not a Harlequin novel. In contrast, everything feels scrupulously well-researched. I'm sure that the subject of the boring sermons they hear whilst in church are exactly the type of things one would hear boring sermons about in 1875. But their thoughts about those sermons, and about the books they read, or various issues they debate, feel wrong. People in this book are constantly thinking to themselves about how things will be different in the next century, more like ...well, more like exactly what did happen in the next century, and I find it hard to credit that their predictions would be so frequently accurate. Or that, in 1875, they would even be thinking as much about the next century as they are; people are always wondering about the future, but when I was a kid in the 1980s --- heck, when I was in high school in the 1990s---the turn of the millennium seemed impossibly far away. I cannot but imagine that it seemed more so in 1975, and that the 20th century seemed equally distant to the people of the beginning of the last quarter of the 19th---twenty-five years, after all, is a generation. Furthermore, when Faber tries to deal with something that is peculiarly of the Victorian age--- Henry Rackham tying himself in knots because he thinks his attraction to the vivacious Ms. Fox makes him unfit to be a minister---it feels all wrong. I think it is because he seems to understand his own guilt to well; Henry is a terribly innocent character, fairly fuzzy on the details of what female genitalia actually look like. Yet his fantasies and dreams seem the very type of healthy red-blooded lust; you'd think that a guy who's never even seen the object of his desire would be a bit...well, more perverse and ignorant in is imaginings. Faber has a really nice bit where Henry gets a free peep from a bawdy streetwalker and worries that hairiness might be a physical manifestation of his spiritual degradation; the idea being that the more one give into animal lust the more ape-like one becomes, and bad news for Henry's hirsute self. This is exactly the type of muddled thinking that you'd expect a guilt-racked man in Henry's position and era to display. It feels true. Unfortunately, in all Henry's writhing it's the only moment that does, really.

I've said all this and I suppose someone reading it would think this was a terrible book. It's not. There's a lot in it that's good, starting with the extraordinary detail collected to highlight a thousands lost habits and tools and methods and customs in order to bring the era to life. And if it does veer off occasionally into Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Chamberpots and Were Afraid to Ask, well, most people, like Beverly Cleary's kindergarteners, do have a few tentative questions about the subject. And the character of Sugar, the central figure of the book, is never less the fascinating and well-evoked. I suppose my lasting criticism of it is that, for all its 800 pages, I wanted The Crimson Petal and the White to keep on going, to serve up new challenges to its characters and new facets of them to the reader. Which, when you come down to it, is more compliment than criticism.

Posted by Diablevert at July 25, 2005 08:10 PM

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