Saturday 28 May 2011

What the?

A few weeks ago, I re-read Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. I don't know about you, but if I feel a bit sad or out of sorts, I find nothing more comforting than returning to a book I've really loved in the past, even one as hard on the heart as this one is.

The novel was much more painful, but also much more hilarious, than I remember. If you know the premise of the novel, you know why it's sad; if you haven't read it, you must, for it contains the single best adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet the world has ever known. I did a lot of laughing in public while making my way through this novel this time 'round. (Well, the first time around, too.)

The first time I read this book, I was in Philadelphia, PA for a conference. I was playing hookie from said conference and wandering around that lovely city looking for a book to buy and a place to read it where I could also bask in the sun. I found both - a Barnes & Noble directly across from a small but well appointed park. I bought the novel and had settled comfortably into a park bench and had barely made it through the first paragraph when...But wait, here is the first paragraph of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close:
What about a teakettle? What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up with me? I could invent a teakettle that reads in Dad’s voice, so I could fall asleep, or maybe a set of kettles that sings the chorus of “Yellow Submarine,” which is a song by the Beatles, who I love, because entomology is one of my raisons d’être, which is a French expression that I know. Another good thing is that I could train my anus to talk when I farted. If I wanted to be extremely hilarious, I’d train it to say, “Wasn’t me!” every time I made an incredibly bad fart. And if I ever made an incredibly bad fart in the Hall of Mirrors, which is in Versailles, which is outside of Paris, which is in France, obviously, my anus would say, “Ce n’étais pas moi!” (p. 1)
I believe I'd gotten approximately halfway through the second or third sentence when I heard this, coming from over my shoulder:
"Waaa-waaa-wha-at a-abo-oot a t-t-t-tee-ah-te-ah...ket....leh? Wh-at if the sp-sp-"
I looked to my right; a man with sadly undeveloped reading skills was giving the book a go aloud, from over my shoulder. I looked straight ahead in confusion; the fellow across from me, sketching in a notebook previously, was now having a good chuckle at my expense. I looked down in consternation. I didn't want to leave. It was so perfectly sunny and warm and comfortable and I already knew I was going to like this book. The shoulder reader kept reading while I tried to think what in gawd's name I could do.
"-spo-oot SPOUT! oh-oh...pen-ned and clo-zed weh-weh-"
And then I hit on a way of both not leaving and not hurting his feelings:
"I'm sorry, but I really prefer to read silently." 
I tried my best to look sheepish and apologetic. He then looked sheepish and apologetic, said he was sorry, and walked away. I continued with my book. And I soon began laughing out loud...and every time I did, this fella, who'd only gone a few park benches down, would loudly and exultantly announce to everyone outside in that sweet park on that perfect spring day:
She's lovin' it! She loves the book!!!!
It was so strange, but so right for this book somehow. Foer's gentleness for humanity is so lovely and enviable. This odd experience could only have been more perfect had I been reading it in NYC instead of Philly. In retrospect, I wish I'd offered to read the book aloud to him, as he was so clearly interested in text and not able to engage in a way I probably take for granted every day, even though I never stop being thankful for the world of books I'm so lucky to live in. In the extremely unlikely event that I ever again find myself in such a situation, I hope I'll do better by my fellow(s).

Tom Hanks non-sequiter
Damn his small, puffy eyes - Tom Hanks has apparently been cast as who the hell knows which character for the film adaptation of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. I can't think of who he could be - he's really too old to play Oskar's father and too young to play his grandfather. Grrr. The Hanks is also set to help ruin the film adaptation of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, which I find even more heart-breaking. Again, I don't know who he'll be playing because, again, his age doesn't obviously fit with any of the major characters - and I may never know, since I will refuse to see it on the grounds not only of over-Hanksification, but also for the horrifying casting choices of Halle Berry (Luisa Rey? Sigh.) and Natalie Portman (Sonmi? FUUUUUCK!).

I've been trying to think of film adaptations of books that don't completely ruin what's good about the books they adapt, and the best example I can come up with is Oscar and Lucinda (thank gawd for Cate Blanchett (generally) and Ralph Fiennes (before he started screwing Australian airline stewardesses and needing less and less make-up to play Lord Voldemort)). What film adaptations of books, in your view, don't suck?

Thursday 26 May 2011

There is a much higher justice than poetical justice

Martin Chuzzlewit is a novel about two characters named Martin Chuzzlewit; it is also a novel with two endings tacked one on top of the other, but I will save my thoughts on these strange dualities for another day.

Right now, I want to discuss Martin Chuzzlewit as a novel about a fellow named Tom Pinch. Tom is five and thirty years of age or so, not very handsome, not moneyed, not showy, and not successful in any conventional sense. He is, however, the novel’s impossible and idealized moral centre. That the novel's moral centre is not only not one of the Martins, but also not one of the many characters related to the two Martins, seems to confirm Dickens's gentle condemnation of the whole degraded lot discussed in my previous post. So, who is Tom Pinch, and what is he doing in the middle of this mess?

Tom is the laughably gullible assistant to the rapacious but gold-plated Mr. Pecksniff (cousin to the elder Mr. Chuzzlewit). Everyone but Tom can see what a scoundrel his employer is. Indeed, Tom not only cannot at first see Pecksniff’s severe moral failings, but he also venerates his boss to such a degree that he believes his otherwise lovely friends (particularly John Westlake) to be smitten with a peculiar moral blindness in relation to the man, when they try to warn Tom that he’s been taken advantage of.

Tom seems earnest, innocent, and trusting, all to an almost fatally extreme degree, but finds out how wrong he’s been about Pecksniff in a singularly painful fashion which I won’t reveal here. What matters is that his disillusionment doesn't change him.It hurts him, yes, and deeply, but he remains impossibly and endearingly good. Impossibly good and endearing characters are hardly rare beasts in Dickens's human menagerie, of course; what strikes me in particular about Tom is how Dickens highlights Tom’s love of books alongside his goodness. It’s not simply that Tom loves to read and is referred to as constantly doing so; it’s that he loves books as passionately as he loves people; bookstores are as holy to him as his beloved church organ and the object of his unrequited human love. Tom's devotion to books is first revealed in a rare trip to the shops in the bustling metropolis of Salisbury:
But what were even gold and silver, precious stones and clockwork, to the bookshops, whence a pleasant smell of paper freshly pressed came issuing forth, awakening instant recollections of some new grammar had at school, long time ago, with 'Master Pinch, Grove House Academy,' inscribed in faultless writing on the fly-leaf! That whiff of russia leather, too, and all those rows on rows of volumes neatly ranged within--what happiness did they suggest! And in the window were the spick-and-span new works from London, with the title-pages, and sometimes even the first page of the first chapter, laid wide open; tempting unwary men to begin to read the book, and then, in the impossibility of turning over, to rush blindly in, and buy it! Here too were the dainty frontispiece and trim vignette, pointing like handposts on the outskirts of great cities, to the rich stock of incident beyond; and store of books, with many a grave portrait and time-honoured name, whose matter he knew well, and would have given mines to have, in any form, upon the narrow shell beside his bed at Mr Pecksniff's. What a heart-breaking shop it was!
There was another; not quite so bad at first, but still a trying shop; where children's books were sold, and where poor Robinson Crusoe stood alone in his might, with dog and hatchet, goat-skin cap and fowling-pieces; calmly surveying Philip Quarn and the host of imitators round him, and calling Mr Pinch to witness that he, of all the crowd, impressed one solitary footprint on the shore of boyish memory, whereof the tread of generations should not stir the lightest grain of sand. And there too were the Persian tales, with flying chests and students of enchanted books shut up for years in caverns; and there too was Abudah, the merchant, with the terrible little old woman hobbling out of the box in his bedroom; and there the mighty talisman, the rare Arabian Nights, with Cassim Baba, divided by four, like the ghost of a dreadful sum, hanging up, all gory, in the robbers' cave. Which matchless wonders, coming fast on Mr Pinch's mind, did so rub up and chafe that wonderful lamp within him, that when he turned his face towards the busy street, a crowd of phantoms waited on his pleasure, and he lived again, with new delight, the happy days before the Pecksniff era. (pp. 68-69)
This is the kind of intense, almost pained love for books that I think only a true bibliophile can comprehend. I get it; I feel it constantly and I know probably most of you do as well. I initially thought this passage was meant simply to establish Tom’s mental and emotional distance from reality, that his inability to see others clearly was simply part of a larger tendency towards dreaminess and disconnection.

But Tom isn’t really disconnected, except in the one instance of Pecksniff; indeed, he’s infinitely more observant of human failing (except in relation to his boss) than others are; the real difference is, he is much more forgiving than anyone has a right to be. Because he doesn’t complain or reproach others, they believe he doesn’t see them for what they are.

Dickens begins revealing this unexpected depth in Tom's character when he begins making his way to London to seek his fortune. The first he does upon arriving in London-town is collect his sister Ruth from her own untenable employment situation. They set up very modest house together but Tom doesn’t know what he’ll do, but knows that if they’re to survive, he must find gainful employment, posthaste.

Dickens is so often unrelenting in his destruction of his kindest and best characters that I was certain Tom’s time in London would be short, brutal, and result in his and/or his sister’s tragic demise. But no! Before he even manages to write an advert for himself, Tom is offered a well-paying job organizing an incredibly large personal library. Tom is not simply not made to suffer very long for his blindness about Pecksniff, he’s actually rewarded for it by being offered a job that simply couldn’t suit him better. He spends his days organizing, cataloging, and repairing the thousands (!!!) of books his mysterious employer has left for him to handle:
Tom attended to his duties daily, and made considerable progress with the books; which were already reduced to some sort of order, and made a great appearance in his fairly-written catalogue. During his business hours, he indulged himself occasionally with snatches of reading; which were often, indeed, a necessary part of his pursuit; and as he usually made bold to carry one of these goblin volumes home at night (always bringing it back again next morning, in case his strange employer should appear and ask what had become of it), he led a happy, quiet, studious kind of life, after his own heart. (p. 567)
It seems that Tom, simply for being incredibly good, gets to make a living doing the very thing he adores most; in recompense for having his greatest illusion stripped ruthlessly away, he gets to be entirely and perfectly himself, all the livelong day. It’s the ultimate fictional fantasy that we all crave, but which most experience only when reading. Tom, it seems, is the ultimate fantasy of good being rewarded for being good - and up to this point, the fantastic is the dominant mode; never has Dickens seemed less allied with the realism of his French counterparts than in his construction of this character's life!

But Tom is not simply a cipher of goodness made to stand in sharp contrast against the Chuzzlewits' degradation of character; neither is he a literary mannequin set up to represent Dickens's romantic love of literature (although it is probably both these things). For Tom, you see, has no illusions about his chances of winning the heart of the woman he loves, and how he acknowledges this hopelessness to his devoted sister is telling:
`You think of me, Ruth,' said Tom, `and it is very natural that you should, as if I were a character in a book; and you make it a sort of poetical justice that I should, by some impossible means or other, come, at last, to marry the person I love. But there is a much higher justice than poetical justice, my dear, and it does not order events upon the same principle. Accordingly, people who read about heroes in books, and choose to make heroes of themselves out of books, consider it a very fine thing to be discontented and gloomy, and misanthropical, and perhaps a little blasphemous, because they cannot have everything ordered for their individual accommodation. Would you like me to become one of that sort of people?' (p. 700)
Tom is dreamy and naive, but among the other character in this novel he also has the most unrelentingly realistic view of himself. While the Chuzzlewits fail to see either themselves or others clearly at all for the majority of the action, Tom knows the difference between books, dreams, and reality most of the time. Tom is, as the novel's moral centre, a mirror held up to the Martins by which they may measure their own worth. And both eventually feel their wont of sense and feeling in the end; but this is intimately related to the issue of the novel's two conclusions, so I'll save my thoughts on this for (hopefully) my next post.

Monday 16 May 2011

The most confirmed obstinacy of character you ever met with in any human creature

The title of Dickens’s funniest novel (so sayeth the editor of the copy I'm reading), Martin Chuzzlewit, is deceiving. It should, rather, be called Martin Chuzzlewits, for there are two of them - a grandfather and his grandson - and at this point, neither is either more or less protagonist-ish than the other. In terms of personality, they are decipherable really only by their ages. Granddad Martin is ornery, contrary, capricious, selfish, paranoid, and foolish – the grandson is the same, but sports a rather better turned calf and hasn’t yet shed all his social graces.

Young Martin discusses his grandfather with the kind and generous Tom Pinch and reveals himself as he goes:
‘In a word,’ said Martin, ‘I have been bred and reared all my life by this grandfather of whom I have just spoken. Now, he has a great many good points — there is no doubt about that; I’ll not disguise the fact from you — but he has two very great faults, which are the staple of his bad side. In the first place, he has the most confirmed obstinacy of character you ever met with in any human creature. In the second, he is most abominably selfish.’

‘Is he indeed?’ cried Tom.

‘In those two respects,’ returned the other, ‘there never was such a man. I have often heard from those who know, that they have been, time out of mind, the failings of our family; and I believe there’s some truth in it. But I can’t say of my own knowledge. All I have to do, you know, is to be very thankful that they haven’t descended to me, and, to be very careful that I don’t contract ’em.’

‘To be sure,’ said Mr Pinch. ‘Very proper.’

‘Well, sir,’ resumed Martin, stirring the fire once more, and drawing his chair still closer to it, ‘his selfishness makes him exacting, you see; and his obstinacy makes him resolute in his exactions. The consequence is that he has always exacted a great deal from me in the way of respect, and submission, and self–denial when his wishes were in question, and so forth. I have borne a great deal from him, because I have been under obligations to him (if one can ever be said to be under obligations to one’s own grandfather), and because I have been really attached to him; but we have had a great many quarrels for all that, for I could not accommodate myself to his ways very often — not out of the least reference to myself, you understand, but because —’ he stammered here, and was rather at a loss.

Mr Pinch being about the worst man in the world to help anybody out of a difficulty of this sort, said nothing.

‘Well! as you understand me,’ resumed Martin, quickly, ‘I needn’t hunt for the precise expression I want. Now I come to the cream of my story, and the occasion of my being here. I am in love, Pinch.’

Mr Pinch looked up into his face with increased interest.

‘I say I am in love. I am in love with one of the most beautiful girls the sun ever shone upon. But she is wholly and entirely dependent upon the pleasure of my grandfather; and if he were to know that she favoured my passion, she would lose her home and everything she possesses in the world. There is nothing very selfish in THAT love, I think?’

‘Selfish!’ cried Tom. ‘You have acted nobly. To love her as I am sure you do, and yet in consideration for her state of dependence, not even to disclose —’

‘What are you talking about, Pinch?’ said Martin pettishly: ‘don’t make yourself ridiculous, my good fellow! What do you mean by not disclosing?’

‘I beg your pardon,’ answered Tom. ‘I thought you meant that, or I wouldn’t have said it.’

‘If I didn’t tell her I loved her, where would be the use of my being in love?’ said Martin: ‘unless to keep myself in a perpetual state of worry and vexation?’

‘That’s true,’ Tom answered. ‘Well! I can guess what SHE said when you told her,’ he added, glancing at Martin’s handsome face.

‘Why, not exactly, Pinch,’ he rejoined, with a slight frown; ‘because she has some girlish notions about duty and gratitude, and all the rest of it, which are rather hard to fathom; but in the main you are right. Her heart was mine, I found.’

‘Just what I supposed,’ said Tom. ‘Quite natural!’ and, in his great satisfaction, he took a long sip out of his wine–glass.

‘Although I had conducted myself from the first with the utmost circumspection,’ pursued Martin, ‘I had not managed matters so well but that my grandfather, who is full of jealousy and distrust, suspected me of loving her. He said nothing to her, but straightway attacked me in private, and charged me with designing to corrupt the fidelity to himself (there you observe his selfishness), of a young creature whom he had trained and educated to be his only disinterested and faithful companion, when he should have disposed of me in marriage to his heart’s content. Upon that, I took fire immediately, and told him that with his good leave I would dispose of myself in marriage, and would rather not be knocked down by him or any other auctioneer to any bidder whomsoever.’

Mr Pinch opened his eyes wider, and looked at the fire harder than he had done yet.

‘You may be sure,’ said Martin, ‘that this nettled him, and that he began to be the very reverse of complimentary to myself. Interview succeeded interview; words engendered words, as they always do; and the upshot of it was, that I was to renounce her, or be renounced by him. Now you must bear in mind, Pinch, that I am not only desperately fond of her (for though she is poor, her beauty and intellect would reflect great credit on anybody, I don’t care of what pretensions who might become her husband), but that a chief ingredient in my composition is a most determined —’

‘Obstinacy,’ suggested Tom in perfect good faith. But the suggestion was not so well received as he had expected; for the young man immediately rejoined, with some irritation,

‘What a fellow you are, Pinch!’

‘I beg your pardon,’ said Tom, ‘I thought you wanted a word.’

‘I didn’t want that word,’ he rejoined. ‘I told you obstinacy was no part of my character, did I not? I was going to say, if you had given me leave, that a chief ingredient in my composition is a most determined firmness.’ (pp. 89-91)
Martin is exactly correct in his estimation of his grandfather's character, so: peas in a pod, yes? They are each so focused on their respective desires, that not only are they unable to try to conciliate one another with regards to anything at all, but they are also both mortally offended by anyone else having any desires that don't align with their own. They are domestic and social tyrants, plain and simple.

It would seem that young Martin is correct to refer as part of the problem to his plucky lineage, for unpleasant personalities boast a long genetic history with the Chuzzlewits. Note the curious manner in which Dickens begins this tale:
As no lady or gentleman, with any claims to polite breeding, can possibly sympathise with the Chuzzlewit Family without being first assured of the extreme antiquity of the race, it is a great satisfaction to know that it undoubtedly descended in a direct line from Adam and Eve; and was, in the very earliest times, closely connected with the agricultural interest. If it should ever be urged by grudging and malicious persons, that a Chuzzlewit, in any period of the family history, displayed an overweening amount of family pride, surely the weakness will be considered not only pardonable but laudable, when the immense superiority of the house to the rest of mankind, in respect of this its ancient origin, is taken into account.

It is remarkable that as there was, in the oldest family of which we have any record, a murderer and a vagabond, so we never fail to meet, in the records of all old families, with innumerable repetitions of the same phase of character. Indeed, it may be laid down as a general principle, that the more extended the ancestry, the greater the amount of violence and vagabondism; for in ancient days those two amusements, combining a wholesome excitement with a promising means of repairing shattered fortunes, were at once the ennobling pursuit and the healthful recreation of the Quality of this land.

Consequently, it is a source of inexpressible comfort and happiness to find, that in various periods of our history, the Chuzzlewits were actively connected with divers slaughterous conspiracies and bloody frays. It is further recorded of them, that being clad from head to heel in steel of proof, they did on many occasions lead their leather-jerkined soldiers to the death with invincible courage, and afterwards return home gracefully to their relations and friends. (p. 1)
Dickens’s pair of Martins are Chuzzlewits through and through, never mind that their frays be of the metaphorically, rather than literally, bloody sort. But as Dickens asserts so strenuously in other novels, family does not tout court determine personality – Amy Dorrit, Nell Trent, Oliver Twist, Davey Copperfield – they all either become or remain steadfastly better than their origins would suggest possible. They may be exceptions, mind, but exceptions that make an easy correlation between nature and nurture impossible. Dickens brings up the Chuzzlewit family history, not to either explain or condone - or even condemn, to be fair - the Martins; it’s more just, I think, to show that family is the biggest cross either has to bear but for all their sense of life as abusive towards them particularly, it's really not a very big cross at all.

Whether or not they can shoulder their relations gracefully seems to be the subject of the novel – the comic subject, it’s important to note. At least, given how hilarious this novel is supposed to be, the family chaos should likewise be hilarious. But while certain members of the extended Chuzzlewit family are buffoons, freaks, or amusing disasters, the two Martins are none of these things. Both have hurt others significantly and at the end of the first 200 pages, are poised to continue to do so: Old Martin, to wound his adopted daughter and grandson whose marriage he opposes, and his grandson to wound his fiancée and his grandfather (even if the old man's reasons for feeling hurt are ridiculous).

Neither seems to care a flying fig enough to notice that they're harming others with their refusals to even attempt to resolve things more diplomatically than issuing stern ultimatums and cutting ties. If they did notice, however, they likely still wouldn’t care, for in their respective lives, there is room for only one person – themselves. Both could easily become tragic figures, and if they don’t do so yet, it may only be because the comic milieu in which Dickens has placed them proves to be even stronger-willed - shall we say obstinate? - than they are.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

Final and incomplete thoughts on Little Nell's tale of woe

I finished reading The Old Curiosity Shop ages ago; moreover, I wrote the post below ages ago. What can I say? I sit at a desk all day at work and don't want to do so at night, at home. It was especially impossible to contemplate blogging last night, for example, when my options were: 1) Sit on my expanding office ass some more, or 2) Go look at the cherry blossoms in High Park. Guess which one I picked, and how easy that decision was.

What follows marks the last of my thoughts on The Old Curiosity Shop, as incomplete as they are. I'm 330 pages into Martin Chuzzlewit, have written two thus far unposted pieces on it(!), and have both begun and completed a re-read of Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I'm not sure how I'm going to get caught up. I do know that I've challenged myself to finish Martin Chuzzlewit before going to my beloved Kingston on May 20. Can I read 420 pages in 10 days, while working full-time and exercising every day? Let's find out. Feel free to give me good pep talks!


Dickens makes almost countless references in The Old Curiosity Shop, both direct and oblique, to John Bunyan's 1678 novel/religious meditation The Pilgrim’s Progress. That Nell is both engaged in a pursuit for something higher, and infuses the struggles of those around her with spiritual meaning, isn't what's fascinating about this literary homage; Dickens could have done this either with or without reference to Bunyan. It’s the basic structure of the two works that makes Dickens’ use of this popular religious text most interesting to me.

In The Pilgrim's Progress, Everyman engages on a long, wandering journey, during which he meets with all kinds of personified obstacles and aids on his way to ultimate salvation. The Old Curiosity Shop follows an obviously similar structure but the question is – is it Nell or is it her grandfather who stands in for Everyman here? On the one hand, Nell seems entirely too good to be Everyman – she seems rather more like Help extending her hand unfailingly to all, including Everyman.

Grandpa Trent is certainly chock-full of enough base human failing to make a good everyman; he is not, however, capable of learning or changing from his experience the way Everyman is and needs to be. Grandpa, after a life of excessive emotional loss, an apparent tendency towards blind selfishness, and a debilitating brain fever, is no more than a child in need of constant care and will never be more than this again. What then of their respective destinations?

Plot Spoilers
Nell certainly attains salvation. Her last days are spent as the caretaker of a church, where she spends hours in quiet reflection, and in her new community helping others. Further, her goodness is not only celebrated, but is also so profound as to inspire others to be better than they are (her grandfather’s back-sliding into destructive gambling notwithstanding). She dies, of course; she's positively famous for her dying and the wretched pain and unfairness of it. (She's so good, and only 14 or so.) Granddad soon follows her, being absolutely helpless without her - but salvation, glorious salvation? I don’t know. He’s buried in consecrated ground, yes; but the kind of repentance, self-awareness, even full comprehension of his current reality (he awaits Nell’s physical return until he dies) - these he never even approaches, much less achieves. Union with God is never in question for Nell, while her grandfather’s seems incomplete because he's so feeble-minded.

But these two, even though they are the novel's heroes, aren’t the only wanderers. I’m thinking of the so-called "single gentleman," a character left unnamed for the majority of his time with us. We are never told his given name, and we only learn that his surname is Trent because he confesses to being Granddad’s younger brother almost at the novel's conclusion. He is identified but he is not socially claimed by having a name firmly affixed to him until it is too late. He spends most of the novel wandering, mostly in thought but also in body, looking for his lost relatives - and when he does find them, union is completely denied him as Nell is already deceased and his brother refuses (out of incapacity, rather than malice) to acknowledge him. He has nothing left to do but continue wandering, which he ends up doing alone because the kind schoolteacher declines his offer to travel with him.

The Old Curiosity Shop has two kinds of wanderer – one whose salvation is never in doubt, and another whose journey isn’t ultimately either convincingly rewarded or invested with any meaning. Dickens uses his 17th-century Bunyan's tale earnestly and energetically but then rejects his source text’s ending, leaving his primary seekers without closure. And this lack of comfortable closure applies even to Nell who, for all her Christian resignation to her fate, still very much wants to go on living.

Is Dickens suggesting that life is all sound and fury, signifying nothing? No, I don't think so. I think, rather, that while Dickens's narrator refers quite straightforwardly to God, his primary interest in Him is in how He is manifested in daily life – i.e., social interaction, and familial and friendly relationships are absolutely the mark and measure of God in everyday life, and the only thing about God that may actually really matter. This would explain why only Nell has a modicum of peace at the end of her journey; she focused on helping the Everymen around her rather than being one. The single gentleman seems similarly committed to helping others, but after too long a time away, he learns that sometimes you can't go home again - and there's no home to go to anyway, and hasn't been for generations. For Dickens, it seems, references to God aren’t theoretical – they are either practical and immediate or they’re meaningless.


I realize that my blogging in the post-bookshop, post-unemployment world is rather scattered. I seem to be noticeably lacking in conclusions, or even gestures towards conclusions, most of the time. This isn't what I prefer but it's what I seem to be able to do right now.

And yes, I absolutely loved The Old Curiosity Shop. I frankly don't get why some people complain about it. It's a Dickens novel! It's supposed to be absurd, hilarious, and make you cry, sometimes all on the same page!

Thursday 5 May 2011

Curious/Creepy: The tables turned!

Friends, on Tuesday I was the subject of a morning commuter’s curious/creepy! Not that he seems to have formalized the practice, as I have, but I was distinctly spied upon. Here’s what happened, long version:

I stayed up much too late Monday night watching as the results of Canada’s latest federal election came in. By 10:30 pm, it was clear that a 4-year right-wing nut job nightmare had begun in earnest but I couldn’t stop watching; there really is something to be said for that over-used train wreck metaphor. I roared in disbelief, I seethed, I wondered where I could sue for second citizenship, and all well into the wee hours. At 6 am, as usual, my alarm went off. I got up to get ready to go to the gym, but I had a headache, so I decided to get back into bed. After two minutes, I got up again and put on my gym clothes and went and worked out in pure rage and loathing for those who voted for the man with the dead, dead eyes.

So, I worked out in a rage, on approximately 4 hours of sleep. A short time later, I found myself commuting to work with a very downcast collection of commuting characters. I tried to console myself with some Chaz. Dickens but I literally could not keep my eyes open and I slept for a large segment of the trip. I hope I didn’t drool on myself or on anyone else, but I may never know either way. I woke up two stops before my transfer, as a fella in his 40s (50s?) sat down next to me. I sleepily noted three things: 1) While I had slept enough to dream a little, I hadn’t loosed my hold on my page marker in Martin Chuzzlewit; 2) The fella sitting down was trying to determine the title of the book I had in hand; 3) Said fella was also clutching a copy of Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors. As I eyeballed his book, he eyeballed mine.

In Toronto, the normal conclusion to such an awkward interaction would be uncomfortable silence followed quickly by a mutually agreed upon decision to pretend as though we weren’t even aware of one another’s existence; or, if late on a Saturday night (especially on the Vomit Comet), a fistfight. But as I am clearly not from Toronto, and neither could he have been, we spontaneously launched into a very enjoyable but short conversation about our books. He asked me how I was enjoying Martin Chuzzlewit; I said I liked it very much, but thought my previous Dickens (The Old Curiosity Shop – of which, more anon! I finished it ages ago) was better in spite of the critical dissatisfaction with it; that there was something wrong with the pacing of Martin Chuzzlewit. He agreed with my feelings on both novels and indicated that before reading those two, he’d read Little Dorrit – and I said ME TOO and we discussed how annoying Little Amy’s family was.

We went on to agree that reading Shakespeare over again was very necessary. We also gushed about how our favourite Shakespearean plays were Measure for Measure and Troilius and Cressida; I added The Winter’s Tale to this venerable list and he concurred, AND told me that it might be on the bill for performance in High Park this summer…I may have squealed in delight at this piece of info. But then we both remembered that we’ve neither of us ever actually enjoyed CanStage productions of Shakespeare’s plays in High Park and were sad. And then, it was my stop.

Really, this sort of spontaneous friendliness never happens, especially not in Toronto. People here are generally very mistrustful of friendliness; they think the smile will be followed by a punch in the neck maybe. But I was pleased. And it reminded me that C/C was really born of one such friendly and unexpected interaction: many years ago now, on a train from Kingston to Toronto, the passenger next to me spied on my reading and we ended up talking about books for hours and HE introduced me to the love of my literary life, David Mitchell. So people, yes, we all love books better than we love reality, but sometimes reality is good too.