The next book we will discuss is The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford. October 1, 2012 on twitter.
We are taking August off but will be back on September 3rd when we will discuss The Natural, by Bernard Malamud.
Today is the second session of the newly minted Dead Writer’s Book Group – this time we’ll be talking about New Zealand author Janet Frame’s first novel, Owls Do Cry. Here are some quickly-written thoughts (as bullet points this time) on the book, something that helps me prep for our Twitter discussion:
• The cover of my edition of Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry is from 1967 (the book was first published in 1961) and shows the silhouette of a feminine head, although bald, with puzzle pieces laid across the forehead and stretching up onto the top of the head. The head and the blank space behind it are done in a light blue; and the outlines of the head in a slightly darker blue. The puzzle pieces are done in vibrant colors with a floral motif. It’s a striking image and ties in perfectly with the last few chapters of the book. It also confirms (to me, at least) that while the book spends an equal amount of time on each of its characters, the person the reader is supposed to become the most attached to is Daphne. Because this disembodied head on the cover, with its downturned eyes and missing puzzle pieces, is most certainly Daphne Withers.
• Owls Do Cry tells the story of the Withers family – parents Bob and Amy, and children Francie, Daphne, Toby and Chicks. The first half of the book covers their childhood while the second half begins twenty years later with the adult lives of these four children. Actually, three of them, because one dies before becoming an adult. Although all four remain equally present in Part Two. That is just one of the curiosities of this completely unique book. In Owls Do Cry, childhood and adulthood are fixedly connected, and any attempt to separate the two causes pain and even madness.
• Despite the overall linear progression of the narrative, the book isn’t really all that interested in timeline. The stories of each of the children criss-cross somewhat, doubling back on each other as Frame gives us portraits of them as adults. The book plays a lot with the fluidity of time, and gives the reader a sense that the past and the present (and even the future) share the exact same emotional space. I found this extremely interesting, mostly because it strikes me that negotiating the emotional responses to past, current and future events is a particular task of the rational brain. Frame seems to be making a comment, or at the very least, exploring the rational brain and what we—readers, humans, sane individuals—expect of it.
• Although the book does tell a “story”—in that it looks at four individuals as children and then reveals their lives to the reader as adults, and then even goes beyond that in what is probably the most successful and fascinating epilogue I’ve ever read—it’s hard to consider Owls Do Cry as interested in “story” in the traditional sense. Frame puts together a series of portraits and arranges them somewhat linearly, and although there is this sense of showing what has happened to these children as adults, the overall effect is loosely conjunctive instead of flowing and coherent.
• Daphne seemed to be a focus of the novel, at least this is the impression I had while reading of her life as a child. And the second half of the book is extremely concerned with her, even while she is mostly missing from it. And yet, I found myself curious about Frame’s deliberate exclusion of any transition. We meet her as an intact child and then as a broken adult. I was nearly sad not to see the movement from one to the other, at the very least as a way to try and understand what had happened to her.
• Even a quick read of Frame’s autobiography shows that she dealt constantly with issues of mental illness; that preoccupation is certainly evident in Owls Do Cry. I’m curious if her later fiction (she has twelve novels total) continued to engage with this theme.
• Just a word on the style—Frame weaves a lot of poetry into her narrative, and her syntax is often a little dissonant. I think the dissonance works beautifully to make the reader aware that this is uncommon storytelling, that the book is more interested in the emotional truth of the images brought forward, instead of their logical truth. At the same time, it wasn’t an easy book to read and it felt at times that Frame wasn’t always in control of her imagery and language. I’ll be very curious to see how she developed her style in later works.
Hoping to spark some conversation here with these thoughts – either here at the blog or during today’s Twitter discussion. Please join in with the #ddwritersbkgp hashtag.
Tomorrow starts the very first discussion of this newly established Dead Writer’s Book Club—a discussion I’m very much looking forward to—and so I thought I would write out some of my thoughts on this first book, Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers, as a way to organize my thoughts before the lovely chaos of a Twitter and Facebook and blog discussion.
What strikes me first and foremost about Reflections in a Golden Eye is how contemporary it feels, especially in terms of language and style. Without some of the older dialogue formulations, I would have had to continually remind myself it was written 70 years ago, and not last week. Even the subject—a bizarre love triangle (actually a love hexagon or heptagon, depending whether you count the horse) set on an army base and leading to a murder is as classic as it is contemporary. There is obviously a reason that McCullers has continued to speak to contemporary writers and readers. She engages with timeless elements of human nature.
And yet there is something wonderfully particular about her writing. For me this comes from her fascination with loneliness and how it brings out the unusual, even the freakishly bizarre, in a person. McCullers makes loneliness as destructive and devastating as any kind of real disease. Her first novel, and probably her most famous, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, features five such desperately lonely people. I’ll never forget how McCullers renders each of those five characters, especially the young girl Mick Kelly and all that music floating around in her head and making her nearly crazy. Or Jake Blount who loses himself completely in an enraged attempt to communicate his understanding of the world to anyone who will listen. Of course no one does. This kind of loneliness portrait is done more quietly in Reflections in a Golden Eye, but it’s extremely sinister. Just look at these lines from early in the book, after Private Williams sees Leonora Penderton walk naked through her house before a dinner party:
The four people at the table had not been alone. In the autumn darkness outside the window there stood a man who watched them in silence. The night was cold and the clean scent of pine trees sharpened the air. A wind sang in the forest near-by. The sky glittered with icy stars. The man who watched them stood so close to the window that this breath showed on the cold glass pane.
There is a lot of paralyzed surveillance in the novel. Private Williams goes every night to the Pendertons, Captain Penderton follows Private Williams around during the day, Alison Langdon stares out of her window every night instead of sleeping. For different reasons and with varying levels of self-awareness, these three individuals are almost completely cut-off from all normal human interaction and McCullers reveals how painfully they suffer.
The different reasons for their isolation are fascinating to me. Captain Penderton and Alison Langdon seem to share a similar heartbreak; they both love and want something from life that they cannot have. Private Williams is infinitely more mysterious. Indeed, if I’m not mistaken, McCullers does not let her narrator go into his mind. She details his often peculiar actions—like riding a horse naked in a hidden meadow or sneaking into Leonora Penderton’s room to watch her sleeping—but doesn’t give the reader the satisfaction of an understandable motivation. It’s almost as if he has suffered an enchantment and the sensual has taken over the rational.
Thinking about the book in terms of McCullers’s thematic development as a writer is interesting as well. It was her second novel and she followed it with The Member of the Wedding. However, she stopped in the middle of that third novel to write her novella, The Ballad of the Sad Café. Thematically, there is a lot to connect these four works: the loneliness as physical and psychological destructor, the troupe of social misfits with unfulfillable wants, the idea of jealousy and vengeance, and finally, the problem of gender and sexual orientation.
For its publication date, Reflections in a Golden Eye is extremely forthcoming about sexual orientation. The word homosexual doesn’t appear once in the book, but McCullers asks some very direct questions about the painful nature of loving someone that society tells you it is wrong to love. Captain Penderton feels only disgust for his wife’s body and a passionate but painful longing for the other men in the book, especially Private Williams. Looking at this relationship with a view to the ending shows where the real tragedy lies.
I haven’t read her autobiography, Illumination and Night Glare, or what appears to be an excellent biography of McCullers, The Lonely Hunter by Virginia Spencer Carr, but from what I’ve gathered online and in articles about McCullers, she knew first-hand what she writing about. Reflections in a Golden Eye is actually dedicated to Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, a Swiss writer and photographer, who was openly gay. (N.B. I would highly recommend The Cruel Way by Ella Maillart—a famous Swiss adventurer and travel writer—it’s about her trip through the Middle East with Schwarzenbach and it details Schwarzenbach’s struggle with drug addiction as the two women traveled alone from Geneva to Kabul in 1939. It is a fantastic book.) McCullers and Schwarzenbach must have met sometime in 1940 and McCullers apparently fell in love, but Schwarzenbach didn’t. This is all I know and I’m curious what her autobiography and any biographies of her have to say further.
So without further ado, I’ll stop here knowing that tomorrow’s discussion of Reflections in a Golden Eye will bring me back in a few days with more thoughts.