Sunday, August 16, 2009

Fiction Review: "The String Quartet," Virginia Woolf

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

In “The String Quartet” (1921), Virginia Woolf went beyond simply trying to render the experience of music in stream-of-consciousness terms; she renders the narrator’s state of mind while listening. Along the way, she raises questions about the nature of that experience. Is it aesthetic and recreational, or is it simply a means of escapism? In the end, she answers in favor of the latter. The experience of art has become a respite from the disappointments and alienation of contemporary life.

Woolf begins the story with a string of impressions, much in the way that defined “Monday or Tuesday” and took up the bulk of “An Unwritten Novel.” There’s no rhyme or reason to them from the narrator’s standpoint. She reflects on the various means of transportation to the music recital she is attending, followed by a cataloguing of the minutiae of the news and local hubbub: international treaties, the flu this year, the weather. The impressions then shift from a general contemplation of the outside world to the particulars of the scene at the recital. The narrator considers the snippets of small talk around her, and she cannot help but feel that something is lacking. One thing leads to another, but it never seems to end in fulfillment. She muses:

It’s all a matter of flats and hats and sea gulls, or so it seems to be for a hundred people sitting here well dressed, walled in, furred, replete. Not that I can boast, since I too sit passive on a gilt chair, only turning the earth above a buried memory, as we all do, for there are signs, if I’m not mistaken, that we’re all recalling something, furtively seeking something.

The narrator can impose no order on her thoughts, as she has no passion for the moment, and the worthwhile is unknown and beyond her grasp.

But if order cannot come from within, it is found without. The quartet begins their recital, and the narrator gives herself over to the thoughts the music brings to mind. It is romantic imagery she sees, beginning with thoughts of nature and giving way to fantasies of princes and swordfights and chases through the castle. Chatter from the audience disturbs her, but only briefly. She dismisses it. “The tongue is but a clapper,” she thinks. The scene in the recital hall has taken on a new grace:

The feathers in the hat next me are bright and pleasing as a child’s ratthe. The leaf on the plane-tree flashes green through the chink in the curtain. Very strange, very exciting.

The music provides structure, and if the structure is agreeable, everything in the context it provides becomes comfortable. Unfortunately, that structure dissipates once the music is done. When that happens, the narrator’s feelings of alienation and the inadequacy of life assert themselves more strongly than ever.. On the street outside, she passes by someone who asks, “You go this way?” Her reply is a resigned “Alas. I go that.” Her own life holds no promise for her.

One surmises that Woolf’s point may be that while structure is a necessity for a fulfilling life, it has to be a structure rooted in passion; the structure created by a routinized existence simply won’t do. The latter creates a chaos. Alienation is a mindset of rejection; it doesn’t organize or build, and the consequence is experience treated like detritus, a notion that Woolf dramatizes brilliantly in the story’s opening paragraphs. The enjoyment of art in such a context cannot be a celebration of aesthetic achievement. Art has become the escape from modern alienation; it provides the passion-based structure missing from modern daily life.

The challenge for Woolf as an artist is to find a structure that captures both the joy of music and the disappointment of contemporary life. Her solution was an elegant one; she creates a counterpoint between the two. The opening paragraphs render the alienation of the narrator, and they build the reader’s sense of it quite effectively—one moves from the alienation from life in general to alienation from the particulars of the scene at the recital. Then the music comes in, with the narrator’s thoughts developing from a Wordsworthian love of nature to the sentimental Pre-Raphaelite fantasies of chivalric life long ago. Romanticism defines her mindset, with her musings taking on a progression that has history’s imprimatur. It is a clever touch by Woolf. If one is going to identify a pattern of wayward thinking with an aesthetic approach, why not have it develop along the same lines as the art? Getting back to the development of the story, Woolf moves from the presentation of the music to directly playing it off the thoughts of alienation; the irritating voices of the other audience members punctuate the narrator’s music-inspired reveries. Most impressively, the reveries transform them. As the narrator puts it, “I say all’s been settled; yes, laid to rest under a coverlet of rose leaves.” And when the fantasies reach their crescendo, the story comes full circle, and the narrator finds herself back in the alienating world away from the melodies. Woolf renders alienation and the escapist power of art by creating a prose symphony that dramatizes both.

“The String Quartet” is modernism at its finest. It captures the experience of modern life, doing so through the dramatization of a single perspective with all its idiosyncrasies on full display. Effects are built more through juxtaposition than traditional cathartic structure; the story’s elements are collaged and orchestrated. I cannot quite bring myself to say that it matches the achievements of her greatest novels, but among her short fiction it definitely stands out.

Other reviews of works by Virginia Woolf

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Comics Review: Swallow Me Whole, Nate Powell

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Nate Powell’s Swallow Me Whole is a tremendously affecting coming-of-age story, but it is not a hopeful one. Most work in this vein fits a particular pattern. It begins with the protagonist as a child or adolescent, and follows him or her through various travails and conflicts. The character comes out the other end as a capable, functioning adult. But Powell’s two protagonists, the stepsiblings Ruth and Perry, have a more difficult road than most. Both suffer from schizophrenia, and while they navigate their way through the usual stages of growing up--first love, the initial steps down the road to a career--they also have to live with the prospect of their condition taking over and destroying what they have. Worse, there is the prospect of going willingly down a self-destructive path if or when the time comes. And there is always the danger of being misdiagnosed, improperly treated, or an emotionally upsetting experience undoing everything medical treatment had largely set right.

The book begins with the two, both of middle-school age, taken by their parent and stepparent (her mother and his father) to see Ruth’s grandmother in the hospital. The old woman is suffering from dementia, but her delusional ramblings strike a chord with Ruth. When the family goes home for dinner that evening, we see why. The dissociative episode she has at the dinner table is only the start. Later, when she has gone to her room for the night, she compulsively reorganizes the jars of insect specimens she collects as a hobby. The specimens talk to her. At one point Ruth muses, “This has been happening all my life. It’s the only way I know our world. Makes sense to me.” The words hang over everything that happens, and they feel achingly true.

Perry has similar problems: a wizard figurine he keeps on the end of his pencil talks to him, and orders him to draw things. He occasionally feels the need to talk back to it, but, in general, his condition is nowhere as extreme as his stepsister’s. However, by the time the two are in high school, her dissociative spells are combining with depression, and her compulsive behaviors border on the debilitating. Following a terrifying hallucination in which she is overwhelmed by flies, her condition is diagnosed and she is prescribed medication to control it.

Ruth, though, is more fortunate than Perry. A doctor he sees around the same time attributes his hallucinations to stress. It’s a painful irony. Perry can function far better without medication than Ruth, but she is the one who receives it, along with the hope of a life unhindered by their condition. And in the months that follow, we see how that plays out. Perry is fairly aimless, while Ruth begins acting on her ambitions and laying the groundwork for a fulfilling life in college and beyond. But Powell's view of Ruth and Perry’s condition to sophisticated to leave things there. The illness can be controlled, but it cannot be cured. The possibility of the disease recurring or worsening sets the stage for a series of reversals that ends in tragedy. One of the stepsiblings ends up “swallowed whole” by madness, while the other will forever live in fear of the same fate.

The story is sensitively realized, and at times Powell’s handling of it seems almost miraculous. He doesn’t play things safe with a detached perspective or polite, understated visuals. He embraces an expressionistic approach that takes one right inside the protagonists’ diseased perceptions. It’s a method that is always at risk of lapsing into sensationalism, but he never falters. The hallucinations and delusions are frequently nightmarish, but they feel as organic a part of the characters’ lives as the more down-to-earth joys and disappointments. The handling of the book’s climactic sections is especially impressive. The descent into madness is given the pacing of a thriller, and the nightmarish climax manages to be both over-the-top and exactly right.

The secret to how it all works may be that Powell’s cartooning style tends to avoid emphasizing a dramatic point. Usually, a cartoonist’s approach to designing panels and pages is to convey exactly what one is to be paying attention to and how one should react. Powell doesn’t do that; his pages and panels are constructed around the principle of indirection. With many of his images, one’s eye has to wander around the composition a bit before one can determine what element one is supposed to be looking at. And if it is immediately clear what information is supposed to be taken in, the overall page design works against the presentation from seeming too pushy. Large areas of black, hatching, or white distract one from giving a particular panel one’s full attention.

Powell has shown no interest in large character ensembles or genre deconstruction, but in many ways his style is similar to filmmaker Robert Altman’s. Both favor unfocused compositions and staging, and Altman’s use of lavish visuals and sound recording to decenter narrative is remarkably similar to Powell’s design strategies. The audience is deliberately given more information than they can immediately process. And Altman and Powell get the same overall effect; their work has a lifelike texture and rhythm that surpasses anything one sees from their peers.

The foundation this style gives Powell allows him to handle just about anything successfully. He can make the quiet and everyday vividly true-to-life, but he can also introduce fantastic and melodramatic elements without making them feel discordant or overwrought. This capacity extends to the inclusion of abstract and hallucinatory imagery. Both are featured in Swallow Me Whole, and both feel organic to Powell's presentation. The ability to slow down the audience and make them work also gives him a remarkable control over pacing; when he shifts from the more meditative moments toward making the narrative hurtle forward, the contrast makes the latter all the more effective. The technique on display is brilliant, and Powell makes it serve his material all the way through. Swallow Me Whole is much more than an affecting look at growing up, or a powerful treatment of the tragedy of mental illness. It is the work of a blossoming comics master.