Excuse Me While I Gargle

As a child I often pondered the stories my mother told me. They always had a vague moral, and it was a healthy exercise for me to sharpen my brain against them to puzzle out what she meant. For example, to encourage a young version of me to read more often she’d discuss her college days in Egypt; how they didn’t think she could major in English Literature since she wasn’t the child of an ambassador and didn’t grow up in an English speaking country. Supposedly, they underestimated her determination; “I would read several books at once.” I used to wonder about this oft repeated sentence. Other than informing me whose genes passed down my ADHD, the point was unclear. I recall trying to follow up by asking if that meant she laid a bunch of books down on the table and would read two pages of each, and only once she had completed two pages of several books would she then turn the page? She never elaborated on the technique for this multiple book reading, and as an adult I have to assume that as incoherent as her college years reveries were, the moral was something something something about determination (!) and self-improvement.

I’m only reading one book at the moment – Henry James’ Golden Bowl – but in the spirit of self-improvement I’ve been practicing my gargling as well. I’ve never been a very gifted gargler; sometimes it causes me to choke. Something about the Golden Bowl, however, drives me away from the book to try doing something, anything, else. I’ve decided to concentrate on improved gargling while I power through this thing. I guess I’m not all that invested in the star-crossed love of Charlotte and the Prince, or in characters such as the Colonel and Fanny Assingham. I’m just not into Princes in the same way that I have to tell Harry Potter fans that I’m pretty indifferent to wizards. Charlotte in Sex and the City bugged me, as did pretty much all of the other characters and the pseudo profounder of the voice-over narration. Really, though, my problem lies in James’ writing, particularly in his famous evasiveness. If Charlotte’s answers to direct questions are so annoying to the other characters that they have to turn around, walk to a wall and face it silently for several moments while they fume and pull themselves back together, then I suppose I’m equally justified in dropping the book, walking to the bathroom and gargling. If I’m writing “Charlotte is a HUUUUGE bitch” in the margins by certain paragraphs, that’s also a sign I need a few moments away from the book. You may ask, how can you hate James but enjoy books by authors who are deeply influenced by him, like Allan Hollinghurst? The answer is that Hollinghurst purposefully writes about unsavory protagonists and while he may romanticize them, he doesn’t shy from judgment.

While the plot is ostensibly about some Prince and a poor chick named Charlotte, it’s thematically about the conflicts that arise from marriages (into incesty families) that cross rank and income, or, as I like to call it, the ethics of mooching. Lots of novels are about this; think of all those passages you’ve skimmed over in books that outline how many pounds a year so and so lives on. Still, just to show I’m not hostile to either narrative or modernism, look here at how Lydia Davis addresses the ethical quandaries that arise from mooching far more efficiently in the following short story entitled, Finances:

If they try to add and subtract to see whether the relationship is equal, it won’t work. On his side, he is giving $50,000, she says. No, $70,000, he says. It doesn’t matter, she says. It matters to me, he says. What she is giving is a half-grown child. Is that an asset or a liability? Now, is she supposed to feel grateful to him? She can feel grateful, but not indebted, not that she owes him something. There has to be a sense of equality. I just love to be with you, she says, and you love to be with me. I’m grateful to you for providing for us, and I know my child is sometimes a trouble to you, though you say he is a good child. But I don’t know how to figure it. If I give all I have and you give all you have, isn’t that a kind of equality? No, he says.

See. “No.” That answers that, Trophy Wife! Note the economy of prose and the way she leaves haunting open questions. There’s a lyrical see-saw with the he-says/she-says. That’s the entire story. Literature doesn’t have to be “efficient,” of course. But it sure as hell doesn’t have to annoy the shit of a reader. Hence, this reader’s new policy:

Anytime someone recommends a crappy book to me, the well-intentioned recommender is responsible for reimbursing me for the cost of the book as well as for the time I’ve wasted reading aforementioned book.*

I’m not exempt from this policy. In the spirit of encouraging literacy in a friend’s pre-teen daughter, I recently suggested she buy the girl some of DC Comics’ new MINX imprint. On the strength of authorial reputation, I suggested Mike Carey’s Confessions of a Blabbermouth, co-authored with his fifteen year old daughter, Louise Carey. This suggestion was made before I actually read the book. Carey’s Lucifer was entertaining, and his X-Men comic is surprisingly high quality, packed with interest and action for an X-Men comic, yet it comes out on a regular schedule which almost feels too good to be true these days. I’m particularly enjoying his Vertigo book, Crossing Midnight, and felt confident about the recommendation.

What I didn’t know, however, was that Confessions of a Blabbermouth strongly intimates incest in a writing pair of father and daughter. Actually, I ended up admiring the book a lot more for that reason than I expected to, and decided that Mr. Carey probably has a pretty sophisticated relationship with his daughter. All power to them. However, I suspect that Elaine will probably feel that the book is more than a little inappropriate for her daughter. For my poor judgment, I now go on record with my willingness to reimburse Elaine $10 plus some change for the book as well as to throw in the costs for a couple of family therapy sessions.

* Going forward, this same policy will also apply to movies and comic books.

Addendum: I have been alerted that the girl was not permitted to read Confessions… Psychological injury averted.

Also, in the spirit of prevention, I direct my readers to the following public service announcement (thanks Ali). Be careful what you gargle:

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6 Responses to “Excuse Me While I Gargle”

  1. Patrick O'Connor Says:

    And the Golden Bowl doesn’t strongly intimate incest? So much more fun wondering about Adam Verver and his daughter’s feelings for each other than thinking about that cardboard Prince.

  2. darknessatnoon Says:

    What’s to wonder about? That score is pretty up front to start with. Charlotte has a lot of nerve being shocked about the whole thing, especially since she’s the exact same age as her step-daughter. If there’s nothing at all pervy about that age difference, then it follows that the incestuous relationship is perfectly natural.

  3. Victoria J. van Dijk Says:

    The problem with James, as I see it, as that no flesh-and-blood human beings ever talk the way his characters do, nor do they move as ponderously and slowly.I’m not sure why so many academic queens are so enamoured of James. All these affected people with their brittle sensibilities and secrets–only their secrets really aren’t all that exciting. It’s all like a peepshow in which there nothing worth peeping at. But then that’s probably true of most Jamesians as well.About a decade ago I went to a party at the home of a colleague from the university where I was then teaching–a real “get the guests” affair that would do Edward Albee proud. For a moment of respite from the goings on, I wandered into one of the more remote rooms and soothed myself by examining the contents of a bookcase, works that, for various reasons, the owner would probably not put on display in his living room. Then an insufferably queeny graduate student wandered in. Not only did he affront me by evoking the name of my insane former partner but he smarmily remarked, upon seeing these books, “Oooooooh, Elizabeth Bowen. How can anyone read her? She’s so Henry James-lite!” I gritted my teeth and replied that (a) the woman to whom he alluded was no longer my partner, and (b) I had something of a reputation as a Bowen critic. He somehow missed the clue to back off.In defense of Bowen, I would say that although her characters are thoroughly twisted, they are completely believable–I know from experience that “real people” can and will say and do the things they do. Furthermore, they are interesting. I’m not sure that I ever encountered a James character about whom I can say as much.I think I need to go and gargle.

  4. Mi Kyung Says:

    Three thoughts:1) I never understood people’s (especially women’s, of course) fascination with “Sex and the City” as anything more than bad entertainment. Charlotte was especially annoying. What was the message there? That the living stereotype of a prissy WASP princess could still be a slut? Oh sorry, liberated woman.2) Speaking of academics’ parties, do you remember that one we attended when you lived with Lyn? The one with the rabbits on the lawn? I distinctly recall martinis, cigars, and even tweed with elbow patches. Academics can be such profound douchebags.3) How do you propose to reimburse me for recommending Kathy Acker? I think it was “Empire of the Senseless.” I read the whole thing (like a damned fool). And by the end…well, you can finish the thought with some bad joke using “senseless”…

  5. darknessatnoon Says:

    Miky, email me the cost of the book. I will live up to my promise, and most deservedly in that case. Also, I remember that party. It was a goodbye party for Carl. The cake read “Fly With Grace, Carl.” Dat asked really loudly, “Is Carl going on a trip with a Korean woman?”Victoria, great story. I can see where the James-lite comment about Bowen can come from, however it doesn’t hold water. Take Eva Trout. Her blunt speech is almost a parody of a Jamesian character who can’t stop talking. Eva, on the other hand, can barely talk. And at least her characters have real emotions rather than substituting actual emotions with plastic dialog.

  6. Victoria J. van Dijk Says:

    Oh dear. I was at that party with you and Dat. (Some times I feel responsible for all the havoc you and Dat reeked on all and sundry.) In all truth, you two were marvels of wit and the only saving graces of that evening–pun intended. You two were the best behaved undergraduates there, though, granted, that’s faint praise.Between the absurd boy toy, an elderly and much venerated professor saying she wouldn’t drink iced tea because it made her think of piss, undergraduates grinding food into the carpet and otherwise trashing a tres expensive condo, that curious Englishwoman (I told someone that she was my girlfriend and that her name was Fay Weldon), and the wrath of the Jamesian bound for the Imperial[ist] Valley (as Dat called it), it was an experience I hope never to repeat. I don’t believe that I’ve ever completely recovered from the disgust I felt that night. Not towards you and Dat, but towards the honoree and his chums.(And, of course, this deconstruction of James queens would inevitably lead to CR.)CR and I got into the sort of snitty thing that can only happen between a queen and an ironic and disdainful lesbian. I’d gone out on the balcony to escape the not-quite-an-orgy going on inside, hoping the view of the Santa Monica Bay and the jets departing LAX would somehow soothe me. (I have always been able to lift my spirits by watching airplanes–deconstruct that. Perhaps Grace was going trans-Pacific on one of them, leaving without the guest of honor, who was indeed graceless that night.) Somewhere in the background Maria Callas was singing. For some reason he came out on the balcony to join me. (Damn! I was trying to get away from him!) He said, “What could be better than this? The moonlight, the sea, the planes taking off, and Maria Callas singing ‘Casta Diva’?” Without batting an eye I replied, “The moonlight, the sea, the planes, and Joan Sutherland singing ‘Casta Diva.'”Maximum points for dissing Callas in the presence of a supercillious queen. These days I might prefer Renee Fleming. But maybe not.Then there was the drunken puking “catamite” (as Dat called him) being dragged out in a semi-comatose state–such a charming end to such a charming evening. Henry James meets postmodernity.

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