Hazel McHaffie


Literary Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides book, Middlesex, is one of my top twenty favourites, so I naturally pounced on his third novel, The Marriage Plot, when I saw it in a bargain book shop for £1. But … oh dear … it was only my Mastermind rule, (‘I’ve started so I’ll finish‘), that kept me reading. It’s very long (406 pages of tiny type), very dense, and for me not very satisfying. I try to be positive in recognition of the colossal amount of work that goes into writing a book, but this time I’m afraid I have to share more disappointment than praise.

Eugenides bookEssentially the story is of a love triangle set in Brown University in the 1980s with three idealistic young people in love with books and ideas. Leonard Bankhead is a clever scientist and charismatic loner. Madeleine Hanna is intensely attracted to him. But her old friend, theology student Mitchell Grammaticus is convinced Madeleine is destined to be with him. So far so standard. But this is no classic Victorian romance, and the book is literary rather than commercial fiction; I knew that, so why was I less than thrilled?

Eugenides is without doubt an accomplished author – he’s won prestigious prizes too – and he set the bar extremely high with his first novel, Middlesex. In The Marriage Plot his inclusion of wide-ranging and erudite detail – of place, literature, mental health, science, psychology, politics, history – is impressive. There was even an aspect of the story that was of particular interest to me: the unravelling of an illness, bipolar disorder, or as it was back then, manic depression, which he handles with enviable authenticity and sensitivity. I’ve seen the devastation this illness can cause, and Eugenides has captured its modus operandi without allowing it to override the central narrative thrust … goodness, I’ve adopted ponderous language myself now! Sorry.

There’s plenty of humour in the book too. At one point an eccentric elderly female scientist is interviewed following the announcement that she’s just won the Nobel prize:

‘Dr MacGregor, where were you when you heard the news?’

‘I was asleep. Just like I am right now.’

‘Could you tell us what your scientific work is all about?’

‘I could. But then you’d be asleep.’

‘What do you plan to do with the money?’

‘Spend it.’

And plenty of clever throw-away lines:

‘ … he didn’t so much run the class as observe it from behind the one-way mirror of his opaque personality.’

‘… moving in her hovercraft way owing to the long hem of her robe …’

‘Chaouen was painted light blue to blend in with the sky. Even the flies couldn’t find it.’

But as I ploughed laboriously through it I could identify increasingly with the heroine’s sentiments. Early on she attends a Semiotics class and gets bogged down in the abstruse use of language. She goes to the library to grab an ordinary comprehensible nineteenth century novel ‘to restore herself to sanity’. Ah, here was a story she could understand without effort, with people in it, something happening to them in a place resembling the world as she knew it. ‘How wonderful it was when one sentence followed logically from the sentence before! What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative!’

At times with Eugenides’ book I felt myself drowning in the complexity of the allusions and profound thoughts. It just felt like too much hard work with too little reward. And I found it hard to care about the three central characters. Yes, I too wanted to escape into wickedly enjoyable narrative. How very low brow of me! But hey, come on, I did persevere to the bitter end. And the knitting for good causes grew apace.

As a reward to myself I bought a stack of more promising reading from another charity sale (it’s been a very busy week with special events for three charities I’m involved with). Goddard, Grisham and Coben are tried and tested favourite authors. Baldacci I’ve yet to sample. Joys in store … mmm.

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To write or not to write? that is the question

As I indicated last week, it’s an ongoing preoccupation with me – will readers want to immerse themselves in dark, melancholic tales? The issues I tackle all have this side to them, and each time I have to work hard at achieving a healthy balance; each time I worry: have I got it right?

Take Right to Die. Right to DieFor those of you who haven’t read it, it tells the story of a young man, Adam, who develops Motor Neurone Disease when he’s only 38. He knows he will die within a couple of years or so. Yep, plenty of scope for low spirits there, and I confess I still can’t read it without weeping myself. But then, I know Adam intimately. I lived with him for several years, and his spirit lingers with me. It’s personal.

the bookclub ladiesSo it was tremendously warming last Thursday to be invited to put in a guest appearance at a book club, and hear that, though they feared the worst, the members didn’t find the book at all depressing. They were so generous about it, and we had a wonderfully uplifting evening analysing why not, and teasing out the components of a book that ensure a good read. Yes, we did discuss the pros and cons of assisted dying along the way, but also what made Adam warm to the colourful Jamaican physio Lydia, but not the texbook perfect Veronique. Do exemplary GPs like Hugo Curtis really exist? Why did the cat have to die? What was really going on in that closed room between the GP and his patient? Do we smell romance between two of the principle characters? Very confirming. And such fun. I salute you, ladies! (Apologies for the poor quality photo – it doesn’t do you justice.)

This got me thinking about other books of a similar complexion. You know the kind of thing: Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin;  Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes; Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones et al. And no, those novels didn’t depress me either. Why not? Because the macabre subjects (teenage massacres, rape and murder) were handled so skilfully, the stories so well told. I was challenged but not crushed.

Which brings me to Jeffrey Eugenides. MiddlesexI read and loved his wonderful book on hermaphroditism, Middlesex, ages ago. So when I saw his earlier novel, The Virgin Suicides, I snapped it up. This week it rose to the top of my pile and I devoured it in two sittings.

It’s not in the same league as Middlesex, but still worth reading. Basically it tells the story of the five adolescent Lisbon sisters who all commit suicide. Dark material? Positively ink black. The girls grow up in an eccentric and isolated environment. They’ve become an object of fascination to the local boys who watch them from various vantage points, and even on one memorable occasion, entice four of them out a joint date – the only one they were ever allowed. The narrator is one of these lads who, now grown up, looks back at the unfolding saga as if he’s compiling evidence for what happened, and searching for a plausible explanation.

Hmm. Teenage suicide, self harming – definitely not cheery bedtime reading, I think we’d all agree, so why is it so entertaining? Well, the tone, the style of writing, the irony, the humour of each situation, bring a light touch that seems to take the sting out of the essential tragedy, diverting attention and setting a broader canvas against which the lives of these doomed girls are played. Hard to describe so I’ll try to illustrate what I mean.

We aren’t worrying all the time about terrible happenings jumping out at us just as we start to get attached to the characters. Come to think of it, I didn’t form an attachment to any of them. We know from the outset that they will all die as you can see from the opening sentence.

On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.

And we also know early on that we are in sure hands. From Eugenides’ account of the girls’ intentions:

And it was then Cecilia gave orally what was to be her only form of suicide note … ‘Obviously, Doctor,’ she said, ‘you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.’

… and even of the deed itself:

Through a side window we could see Mr Lisbon standing in the shrubbery. When we came out the front door we saw that he was holding Cecilia, one hand under her neck and the other under her knees. He was trying to lift her off the spike that had punctured her left breast, traveled through her inexplicable heart, separated two vertebrae without shattering either, and come out her back, ripping the dress and finding air again. The spike had gone through so fast there was no blood on it. It was perfectly clean and Cecilia merely seemed balanced on the pole like a gymnast. The fluttering wedding dress added to this circusy effect. Mr Lisbon kept trying to lift her off, gently, but even in our ignorance we knew it was hopeless and that despite Cecilia’s open eyes and the way her mouth kept contracting like that of a fish on a stringer it was just nerves and she had succeeded, on the second try, in hurling herself out of the world.

… and the funeral:

Only the family filed past the coffin. First the girls walked past, each dazed and expressionless, and, later, people said we should have known by their faces. ‘It was like they were giving her a wink,’ Mrs Carruthers said. ‘They should have been bawling, but what did they do? Up to the coffin, peek in, and away. Why didn’t we see it?’ Curt Van Osdol, the only kid at the Funeral Home, said he would have copped a last feel, right there in front of the priest and everybody, if only we had been there to appreciate it. After the girls passed by, Mrs Lisbon, on her husband’s arm, took ten stricken steps to dangle her weak head over Cecilia’s face, rouged for the first and last time ever. ‘Look at her nails,’ Mr Burton thought he heard her say. ‘Couldn’t they do something about her nails?’ And then Mr Lisbon replied: ‘They’ll grow on. Fingernails keep growing. She can’t bite them now, dear.’

This concentration on seemingly unconnected and disproportionately trivial points fits with the narrator’s original naive understanding of what was really happening. The tragedy of five teenage suicides in one family, of the subsequent disintegration, is subsumed under a welter of information about swarms of fish flies, and cats yowling, and unearthly smells, and protests about tree felling, and boys trying to glimpse girls in various states of undress – the preoccupations of adolescent youths. In this case a very clever tactic for counter balancing the horror of the Lisbon tragedies. The more adult understanding that comes from later interviews with neighbours, teachers, parents; the piecing together of exhibits which make sense of the seemingly incomprehensible, is titrated in as necessary in order to create a cohesive picture of what was really going on.

Reading this, analysing it, was like a mini master class for me. Would that I had this kind of skill. It also made me see that dark topics need not be off limits.


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Neither male nor female, bond nor free

It’s a long time since I read my last (and until now, only) novel about hermaphroditism: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. MiddlesexPerfect title, huh? But I loved that, so when I saw that another one on the subject had come out this year, it went straight onto my wish list. It’s Annabel by Kathleen Winter. A brave subject for any author to tackle, never mind as a debut novel. And it became my second read on a Kindle.

Annabel is set principally in the wild wastes of Labrador, populated by self-sufficient trappers and the women they leave behind. Kathleen Winter’s descriptions are amazingly evocative of a 1960s Canadian landscape and a way of life far removed from 21st century life in the central belt of Scotland.

AnnabelThe rather old fashioned, sedate prose seems to fit with the lives of these families. Restrained and economical. Caught in a time warp. Veiled references to ambiguity and its consequences, tucked into all sorts of corners and margins of the text – in descriptions of places and people, in experiences urban and rural, in relation to the psychological as well as the physical dimensions of its characters – reflect the ambiguity attached to the subject matter.

Treadway Blake is a silent, introverted but well-read trapper, more at ease in the wilderness than at the hearth. When he eventually finds out his firstborn child is ‘neither a son nor a daughter but both’ his decision is clear: ‘He’s going to be a boy. I’m going to call him Wayne, after his grandfather. We’ll get the doctor in and we’ll see.

Jacinta, his wife, is a city girl at heart, who is doing her best to adjust to the deprivations and restrictions of life as a trapper’s left-behind girl. Her maternal love accepts her child as he/she is; she is content to leave well alone, to let Wayne grow up ‘without interference from a judgemental world’; the two complementary halves giving him/her extra power, unusual sensitivity.

I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment of the story so I won’t give any more of the plot-line away but suffice it to say that it’s a tender and sympathetic tale, rather slow-paced but insightful. Much of it captures the normal mundane everydayness of life in a backwater in the 60s, but it also contains quite horrifying developments and experiences in Wayne’s life which shocked me into thinking in a different way about this complex topic.

Overall I felt I had a better sense of the confusion and consequences of gender ambiguity after reading it. And yet, there was no sense of the issue dominating the narrative.  And you know how this is an abiding concern of mine.

So if you’re looking for something different, something that will be discomforting at times, heartening at others, but will make you think, then this is one for your Kindle or bookshelves.

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed this week’s post is going out early. Next week it’ll be late. Explanations to follow in due course. Plus the latest developments in my attempts to convert my backlist to ebooks.

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Generosity and magic …

A friend of mine (now in her nineties) used to regularly cook drop scones (alias griddle pancakes) for our charity table at church. But sadly now the task is beyond her. Last week I visited her at home and to my astonishment, she handed me her precious griddle and her secret recipe.

I told her I devoutly hoped her magic was well embedded in the griddle because this particular culinary delight was not in my normal repertoire … well, it wasn’t then. But with a precious gift like this it feels incumbent on me to keep my side of the contract, so I’ve had a couple of stabs and been agreeably surprised by the results (although DJ says they’re definitely more anaemic than they should be). I guess it’ll take a bit of tweaking to get the balance of heat and time and consistency exactly right.

But in the process of all this beating and turning and tasting it occurred to me that authors bequeath us something of their skills and magic all the time, don’t they? Whenever we devour their goodies we can taste and analyse and mimic and learn from them even without knowing them personally; no special permission required.

I was reading a marvellous novel by Jeffery Eugenides at the time. MiddlesexMiddlesex tells the story of Calliope Stephanides who is an hermaphrodite (intersex is the preferred term nowadays), and starts with: ‘I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.’ Brilliant hook. A curiously topical choice of reading as it turned out, given this week’s verdict on the gender tests for the South African athlete, Caster Semenya.

When I was a midwife (about a hundred years ago) I delivered babies with ambiguous genitalia and agonised with the parents. What’s the first question everyone asks? Is it a boy or a girl? Imagine having to say, We don’t know. But as far as I’m aware, I’ve never encountered anyone with both male and female organs. And I knew precious little about the condition before I read this book.

Middlesex (neat title, eh?) explores the genetics, psychology, physiology, relationships, exploitation … oh, and so much more, in a wonderfully entertaining but thought-provoking tale. It deservedly won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize, in my opinion. I was gripped, but I also learned so much along the way. And Eugenides did all the slog, all the research, all the experimenting, so I can have it handed to me on a gold-rimmed platter. How generous is that?


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