Together in Spirit

An online reading group ('TIS a reading group!) to bring together friends, and friends of friends, who aren't able to be in a conventional reading group due to constraints of time or geography.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

March's book suggestion

OK, I give in. Not only do we have Val suggesting Orange Prize winners, Helen S and Helen D being keen on the idea and Kirsty suggesting we read We need to talk about Kevin (most recent winner), but now Helen S tells me that Radio 4 is doing that book in March ( So, let's do We need to talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver for March. I'm expecting it to be very bleak - don't go blaming me if it is! But it looks superbly written, so let's give it a go.

But what have you thought of Memoirs of a Geisha?

Thursday, February 09, 2006

You'll wish you never asked...

Oh Helen, I think you're being far too charitable by ascribing anything as concrete as "conclusions" to me! You were possibly confused by my ramblings because I was confused myself in my thinking... But I DID think that your dissection of the flaws with whatever-it-is-she's-trying-to-do-at-the-end were spot-on. I think I dislike epilogues generally because they seem like a cheat, and my desire to know what happens next to the characters is generally best left unsatisfied. T S Eliot wrote of: "the torment of love unsatisfied/The greater torment of love satisfied". Certainly I think a really confident and talented author ought to be able to choose what the ending is and present it to the reader as the necessary/plausible/acceptable conclusion, and have the courage of their convictions, and not then start adding postscripts which undermine the effect of the first ending.

I, personally, need some hope in the ending, but it doesn't have to be wall-to-wall hope or implausible. There's usually SOMETHING one can emphasise to the reader which helps her hope, for example All Quiet on the Western Front, which I think had a masterly ending. Not remotely what I've have thought of for myself, but I'm not the author, so that's part of the point. And the sheer skill of the author helped reconcile me to the ending, and he wasn't so naive as to ignore my (not untypical) need for something to sweeten the pill. Life is, generally, like that, isn't it? Because complete despair never spurred anyone to any sort of positive action - you have to think there's something which could be salvaged, or could be better, to bother even trying. And if I've got a dash of hope in the end, that'll do. I think Patchett supplied that - implausibly, but perhaps not utterly so. Sometimes people ARE brought together by shared grief, and sometimes people CAN love again after bereavment, and sometimes music, or books, or people - or, supremely, grace - DO bring people out the other side.

I know of plenty of real-life personal histories where far more unlikely happy endings have occurred. I think my problem is with the epilogue format. I don't think it's the way to deliver a redemptive ending. I think that particular redemptive ending for that novel would only work if Patchett deployed her considerable skills and imagination to the project, and gave them more time (as experienced by the reader, and not just announced as having passed). Most things worth having take time, don't they? Patchett obviously wasn't committed enough to the material of the epilogue to delay it while she prepared us better for it, but I think it could have been done by lengthening the novel itself to include the material of the epilogue, after suitable and subtle bridging work.

So there you go Helen - my confusion has clarified itself, but into a completely different point, as I've been typing! (One effect I love from this sort of discussion.)

Monday, February 06, 2006

Epilogue problems

Fascinating post Emily. I found that thinking of Bel Canto as an "emotional " Marquez very helpful and made me more able to deal with my gripes about the novel.

However, being a "bear of very little brain" I was a little confused about your conclusions about the epilogue. If she is indeed going for a romantic-despite-tragic ending then her 'pattern' has taken us to heaven, brought us back to earth with a seismic bump and then tried to re-ascend us. This did not quite work for me. I feel that for this to be the case, either the idyll needs to have some flaws (enter the reality gripes we all had) or the siege had to be more merciful in the end (maybe, as you suggested, saving the teenagers). I don't think she can have both and still give us a "happy ending" that really works. I think you are either left with a realistic but bleak end (and I still posit the suicide of the warbler) or a Marquez love-can-conquer-all. I'm not sure I like either of these alternatives much but I think a feeble something-in-between is even worse.

Or have I misunderstood your point?

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Bel Canto, reprised

Full marks to Valerie, for making me go back to the text to substantiate my remarks... I can't, of course, find the particular bits where Patchett tells us that no hostages will be shot by their captors (I think that's what she said - the only version I can devise whereby she's right, and yet misleading) and where all the captors will die. I had remembered only the gist of the first one, which I think is one vital way in which Patchett, to answer Val's question, tells us and yet doesn't ruin the tension. She tells us enough to reassure us at that point (when we don't care for the captors so don't realise we ought to mind what happens to them), and then gambles that we'll forget that Carmen, Cesare etc are doomed. We therefore get involved with them wholeheartedly, thinking they might have a future. I think Patchett keeps the Generals more distant from us, and from the hostages, so we tend to see them, and them only, as the real captors. It's the Generals who seem fatalistic and ignore the negotiator's attempts to help them survive, wheras the younger captors are not shown doing anything reprehensible, and they act in hope of a future, so Patchett certainly had me keeping them in a separate mental box and hoping that the inevitable punishment would only fall on the leaders. Which I think is a way of side-stepping the issue of them being criminals, and keeping things like criminal acts out of the heaven-on-earth which Patchett has been carefully constructing.

It was this heaven-on-earth which was another way in which Patchett had me anticipating a merciful ending. She goes to such lengths to show hostages and captors being positively transformed by their experience: lengths which threaten readers' very acceptance of the novel. I can't see why she'd take such a risk unless it was utterly crucial to her purpose, and part of the ending.

I accept that hoping for a merciful ending was rather optimistic of me, but I think another reason for my hope was the echoes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as Val says. The South American setting and the transforming power of love (against all odds) were very "him". I think Patchett didn't do Marquez's magical realism in the same form - no people levitating or having second sight or whatever - but she certainly espoused what I would call an emotional version, whereby all sorts of traumatised and afflicted and trapped people suddenly find themselves wildly happy, fulfilled, loving and talented. Even singing scales, as has been noted, is delightful as a dawn chorus. This isn't normal, is it?

So, with such frankly unlikely things going on, I felt it would at least be internally consistent for an ending in that vein. I find with many works of art - whether written, acted or filmed - that what matters to me is the internal consistency rather than the actual plausibility, as long as I have been persuaded to suspend disbelief and buy into it. In the end, of course, I was wrong, and the "point" of the heaven-on-earth was not that it would continue. Instead it was wonderful while it lasted, but doomed not to last.

All of which is fine. Except the epilogue doesn't hold to that pattern. What happened to Gen and Roxanne was so horrible - and so cleverly unexpected, since Mr Hosegawa as a casualty had not been on my radar - that I think Patchett felt compelled to do something about it. However much the characters may have had their political awareness raised by their experiences, I think that would have been overwhelmed by their personal losses. This would stop them experiencing it as a positive experience, which would undermine Patchett's aim (which she risked so much to achieve). So, my revised view of her pattern is : romantic, leading to tragic, leading to romantic-despite-tragic. And, thereby the recreation, for some, of heaven-on-earth, as underlined by Thibault's reunion with his (now beloved) wife. One strength of the epilogue, I think, was the combination of the horrible things still having happened, but with a counterweight. Would you actually have enjoyed the novel with just the really bleak ending? Honestly?