Friday, 15 June 2012

The Marriage Plot

I loved Jeffrey Eugenides's Virgin Suicides, for its kooky, gothic feel, and the beautiful pendulous, globular writing.

His next, Middlesex, meh, not so much. It felt to me like a novel-length splurge on a Foucauldian or Judith Butlerian problem. Perhaps a little precious of me, but it seemed dated, although apparently to the rest of the world, a thing of wonder. I also felt there were longueurs.

The Marriage Plot, which we have waited many years for, feels like, literally, more of the same. I found it meandering, for all the wrong reasons. If its title referred ironically to its own lack of plot, this raised little more than a tired lit crit eyebrow in me. I kept waiting for the motor to start, to get under way. I felt as though I kept being fed character synopses. Perhaps this was because he'd chosen to write a perspectival novel in the third person: we move from one of the three main characters' points of view to another, filling in gaps in the (very simple) plot until we have the whole thing straight in our minds.

What was interesting in it, and compelling, was the depiction of manic depression. The terror of revealing a mental illness, the attempt to cope with everyday life, the desire to regain a continuity with what others consider normality by playing with the dosage of the medication that is keeping Leonard 'normal', all these things were fascinating, painful to read about, important in a world that continues to stigmatize mental illness.

However, in the end the character capitulates to his own impossibility — he verbally divorces Madeleine, and runs away to the woods. What is going to happen to the brilliant student after the end of the novel? Isn't his the more important story? Does he end up proving that it is in fact impossible to live a normal life with a mental illness, that he is, as he most fears when his depression has its fiercest hold on his mind, broken, defective?

Eugenides seems to sanction this view of manic depression — or he, like his character, runs away from the really long-term consequences of it. Leonard's experiment with lowering his lithium dose until his energy and brilliance return goes wrong: he takes too little medication, and mania overwhelms him, until he is completely out of his mind. But we never see a time where his medication is stable. We are just left with the destruction his illness has caused. Madeleine's parents appear to be right: don't marry the nutter.

That Eugenides should think it compelling to write about the marriage plot spliced with the campus novel, in which the upshot is that no one ends up married or living happily ever after, and everyone apart from the loony just goes back to university, seems to me crass, and ultimately lightweight. Hooray! — it looks as though Madeleine will go to late '80s grad school as a single girl, and study more nineteenth-century marriage plots, and try to get over the madness of her abortive marriage to a manic-depressive. What, and emerge a strident '90s feminist? And it looks as though Mitchell will also go to grad school, and remain exercised about the meaning of life. And perhaps write a novel like The Marriage Plot later on? What does any of it matter? If that's the point of the novel, a sort of fin-de-twentieth-century nihilism, give me Dostoevsky any day.

The novel seemed to be more attentive to post-structuralist theory than to storytelling, and was the poorer for it. Not that I mind reading a depiction of what was, after all, almost exactly my own experience, only slightly earlier. Narcissistically, I'll happily indulge in a clever-clever book that features Roland Barthes's Fragments d’un discours amoureux, a book I loved myself. I'm quite prepared to believe that the first year after college is an immensely delicate, vital year which lays down ideas, patterns and vectors that operate for years to come — it's exactly what I experienced myself, and I feel that Eugenides had struck a rich seam in looking at this time of life. I even managed to have the delightful experience of reading most of the book on the Eurostar on the way to a delicious overnight stay in Paris, city of my intellectually star-struck youth. I wasn't sure whether I was inside or outside the novel at moments. But that isn't enough to make a novel good. One Day, with its superficial clicking through the years, was actually a better fist of a 'Days of our lives' novel than is The Marriage Plot.

I am more and more bewildered by the American craze for extraordinarily longwinded novels, reliant on a deliberately flat, understated style. Has no one noticed that novels, whose unit of rhetorical currency is the distended, multi-clausal paragraph, often seemingly downloaded undigested from the internet, are DULL?

The best thing I've read in years was Andrea Levy's The Long Song. And what gave that novel its coruscating brilliance was precisely what was left out. The American male-authored novel of the last couple of decades, Jonathan Franzen in Freedom, Don de Lillo, Philip Roth, seems to have gone down a path of blockbuster-length hyperrealist platitude. Does no one dare to edit them? Have they forgotten that novels are a craft, rather than a shopping list, or stream of consciousness depressive monologue? Perhaps they would all do well to revisit Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway: the point is that streams of consciousness are literary devices, performances written by authors who go back over their work, nip and tuck, select. Realism isn't actually reality. The traffic between external reality and internal reality isn't unimpeded, it's endlessly refracted: we're never quite sure what we're seeing, because what we make of reality is an interpretation.

Female writers spend years and years trying to give themselves permission to write, terrified of judgement because having endured it in their own minds and at the hands of others for so long. At the moment, however, there's a goodly crop of male writers out there who seem to have forgotten how to pass judgement on their own work, seem to feel that pedantic explanation is the same thing as storytelling, seem unable to remember the particular in the midst of their rambling generalizations. I want to scream at them: go and read Dickens, Flaubert, Proust, Sterne, Woolf, Wharton, Grenville, Mantel. Remember to plot!

Friday, 1 June 2012

Thinking fast, slow and exhausted

Daniel Kahneman was on Radio 4 today. The author of Thinking Fast and Slow set listeners a couple of logic problems. I put down the broccoli chopping and paid attention.
A bat and ball together cost £1.10. The bat costs £1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
I fell straight into the trap — the ball must cost 10p. I jotted it down, and waited for the next.
All roses are flowers. Some flowers fade quickly. Therefore some roses fade quickly. Is the logic right or wrong? 
WRONG! Just because some flowers fade quickly, it doesn't mean that roses are in that group automatically. And while some roses might fade quickly, it's not because of the reason that 'some flowers fade quickly'.

The latter I felt able to 'do': it was a syllogism, and its third part didn't follow from its first two, a logical fallacy.

The maths question niggled at me, I felt dumb, because I knew it must be a trap, but I literally couldn't think how to solve it: the ball probably cost less than 10p, but I didn't know why. Luckily Ed Vaisey MP got it wrong too, on national radio, giggling and wondering if the answer was 'zero'.

In the end I had to be put out of my misery. Of course! If the whole total is £1.10, then you have to subtract the pound, and halve whatever is left to give you a price for the ball and something to tack on to the pound. So the ball costs 5p and the bat costs £1.05. For Kahneman, I had thought too fast. Doh!

It was my daughter who stumbled on the fact that you have to halve whatever is left over after you subtract £1.00, to work out the answer. Her first answer was the same as mine, the ball must cost 10p. But her very next attempt was to say, "well, it must be less than 10p, so why don't we say 5p"? Bingo, she had the answer and the method — although she didn't realise it.

Such a stupid little thing, but I was so annoyed I couldn't 'do' it. That terrible feeling of brain going soft, just not being quite as quick as I was. There. I've said it.

I can justify my way out of it: pre-pregnancy, I still don't think I would have got the answer right immediately (I can only really do maths if I can translate it into Base Word, as opposed to Base 10). I have broccoli interruptions now. Other things on my mind. Sorting out arguments, homework, name labels, school run, playdates, birthdays, shopping, ironing, aaaaaarrgh, for example.

But it made me think about other logic problems that have got under my skin. The Cretan Liar's Paradox, for example.
Epimenides, a Cretan, said: "All Cretans are liars". 
As Epimenides is Cretan, this means that he is a liar too. But if he is a liar, then his statement cannot be true. Cretans must be truthtellers. Except that if they are all truthtellers, Epimenides, a Cretan, must be telling the truth by saying that they are all liars. But if Epimenides is telling the truth, and all Cretans are liars, what does that make him? A Cretan telling the lie (or the truth) that all Cretans are liars.

It's unresolvable, a paradox. A contradiction that cannot be collapsed. Pointless. Maddening. Pure theory. Is this what we waste taxpayers' money on? Etc etc. My daughter quite liked it, actually.

Proust specialized in paradoxes too: the one I have always loved, and use a lot, is:
[…] les "quoique" sont toujours des "parce que" méconnus […]
from A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, the second part of A la recherche ("althoughs" are always misunderstood "becauses"). He's painting a vicious portrait of the pompous diplomat Norpois, whose professional identity depends on his being all things to all people. Thus, Norpois focuses on individuals, not despite being so busy, but because of it; he is charming not despite being so much in demand, but because he needs to be everywhere at once. We call it 'working the room'.

Proust's paradox is a linguistic laser, shining from the outside of Norpois's head to its hidden workings. Suddenly Norpois, the slightly overbearing Polonius figure, who puts down the young narrator's writing with a thoughtless remark, is skewered into place, and, uncomfortably, we dimly see ourselves at parties, circulating, hoping not to be stuck with bores, smiling, smiling, trying not to be seen looking past our interlocutor for the most important person in the room, trying to be gracious and not dismissive. Proust's paradox is like a literary version of Gunther von Hagens's macabre plastination process, making the inside visible.

I wish I understood the word "psychology". Kahneman is a psychologist who writes about decision-making and economics (by which I assume he means negotiation, trading, at whatever level — maths in the marketplace, performative maths between humans). Proust was a novelist whose insights into the workings of the mind seem to me to rival Kahneman's, but do so through linguistic description.

In my own daily life, responsible for (or just standing around watching) the psychological formation of two children, I am aware of psychology as an infinitely mutating set of relations. 'Psychology' seems to be something that exists both within an individual's mind, and between individuals, as a constantly-rippling, always contradictory and conflicted relation.

I think perhaps I wasn't so aware of the relational aspect of psychology until I had children, because I simply had no experience of durational development, of meeting minds in flux — I had only theorized about it from well beyond that stage in my own life, with other adults.

Now in a state of near-permanent bewilderment and self-estrangement, I am only intermittently internally connected as I fight to engage with the children's fleeting, fairylike or demonic projections.

My psychology is now fixed, or much harder to change, while my children's is in the process of fixing. How that happens remains a mystery to me, because I do not yet know which of my moods, rules, refusals, omissions will leave a permanent trace in their plastic neural pathways. I must constantly put up and dismantle boundaries, keep them safe from themselves, anticipate but not pre-empt where their wildness will take them, let them invade or escape without harming themselves.

Now that's a paradox.

Let's all Jubilee. Except the working mothers.

Here's something a bit fascinating. I just looked up the definition of 'jubilee'. It comes from the Hebrew, yobel, meaning ram or ram's horn, the thing with which you proclaim a jubilee. In Jewish history, the year of Jubilee was:
A year of emancipation and restoration, which was to be kept every fifty years, and to be proclaimed by the blast of trumpets throughout the land; during it the fields were to be left untilled, Hebrew slaves were to be set free, and lands and houses in the open country or unwalled towns that had been sold were to revert to their former owners or their heirs. 
The Romans got hold of this concept, and then the Christians, so that in the Roman Catholic church during the Middle Ages, a jubilee is 'a year of remission during which plenary indulgence may be obtained by a pilgrimage to Rome and certain pious works'.

By 1526, it's come to mean 'shouting'.

By 2012, as far as this mother is concerned, it has come to mean this:
In the light of the extra public holiday in 2012 for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, the length of the school year in 2011/2012 has been reduced from the normal minimum of 380 half-day sessions to 378 half-day sessions (189 days). LAs and schools should plan for that school year on that basis.

This change is to ensure that school staff is treated the same as other workers, who will benefit from an extra public holiday.


The 2012 exams will be timetabled on the assumption that half-term will be in the week commencing 4 June so, unlike in a normal year, exams will be held in the last week of May.

So, today, Friday 1 June, schools are shut. This is, as the DfE tells me, so that school staff is treated the same as other workers. I think I'd find that statement slightly more credible if it were grammatically correct. As it is, a DfE 'worker' (presumably educated in Britain) can't work out when the term 'staff' should be treated as a single body or as a group of individuals.

Next week, there are going to be not one but two Bank Holidays to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. For all the working-from-home people in this land, it's an interruption of two whole precious working days, whether you are a Royalist or not.

For anyone who is forced to work around school timetables like I am (and please don't say "but it's your choice": I'm a writing mother), this has been extended backwards by a further extra day, and then extends forwards into a full week of half term (and please don't say, "it's lucky for you, in the private system they get TWO weeks off", I can't afford private).

So, school staff will benefit from the two days of public holiday everyone else is getting, because they will already be on half term. Why are they then entitled to ANOTHER day? That doesn't make any sense to me.

My cleaner has asked to work on Bank Holiday Tuesday — she needs the income. I need the income to pay the cleaner (and don't say "you could choose not to have a cleaner". I'm a writer, working round the school timetable, and I don't have the time to do the cleaning on top. I suppose you could ask why my husband doesn't do it, well, because he works full time. Tsk).

This year I have endured strikes, bank holidays, and training days, which teachers apparently need to take DURING the school term. I think it is completely disgraceful that teachers have this entitlement. Why? Because when I was a lecturer, we all worked through Bank Holidays when they fell in term time, because the term didn't stop for Bank Holidays — the work was much more important. Training during term time? No, training you do in your own time. How about in the thirteen weeks of annual leave teachers receive? Yes, of course, teaching is gruelling and exhausting, I know that from direct experience, I like, trust and respect people who work as teachers (I have to, they've got my children). But this? This is powerful unionization.

Nothing has moved me further to the right than seeing how the State education system works. 

P.S. For anyone wondering what my children were doing while I wrote this masterpiece, they were playing in the garden, making their own breakfast, tidying their bedrooms, and getting underway with their homework. So they don't have to do it in half term.