Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Fiction Review: "The Mark on the Wall," Virginia Woolf

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The closing story in Virginia Woolf's Monday or Tuesday collection exemplifies key characteristics of modernist style. It also argues against the romanticist ideal of engagement with the world, embraces it as a basis for fantasy, and showcases the author's delight in absurdist humor.

If modernism had a motto, it would be, “Everything is a matter of perspective.” Modernist art and literature render their subjects either with a multiplicity of points-of-view, or with a single one so distinctive it calls attention to its own idiosyncrasies. In some instances, such as with Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the approaches are combined: the novel’s narrator tries to make sense of his life from every vantage point possible, and in the process renders his own insecurity and obsessiveness--he effectively examines his circumstances through a kaleidoscope, one facet at a time, only to have the glass prove a mirror on himself. In Virginia Woolf’s short story “The Mark on the Wall,” which can be read to some extent as her version of Proust’s sprawling work, she creates a mirror only to turn it into a kaleidoscope: she fixates on a single point, the “mark” of the story’s title, and uses it as both launching point and anchor for her narrator’s reflections on life and fancy. The mark is the canvas upon which Woolf renders both her subjects and the perspective through which they’re seen. She takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride of meditations ranging across speculation about the previous owners of the narrator’s home, ruminating on the mystery and chaos of life, and thoughts on the masculine nature of war.

Woolf’s use of the mark (following Proust’s use of the tea-soaked madeleine) builds on William Wordsworth’s use of nature imagery--daffodils, for instance--as a spur for thoughts, memories, and perceptions. However, Woolf’s modernist goals are very different from Wordsworth’s Romantic ones: he’s looking outward, seeking to identify with the larger world, while she is looking inward, arguably in rejection of it. One passage in particular highlights her view that romanticist thought is quaint in the context of the modern world:

Yes, one could imagine a very pleasant world. A quiet, spacious world, with flowers so red and blue in the open fields. A world without professors or specialists or house-keepers with the profiles of policemen, a world which one could slice with one’s thought as a fish slices the water with his fin, grazing the stems of the water-lilies, hanging suspended over nests of white sea eggs…. How peaceful it is down here, rooted in the centre of the world and gazing up through the grey waters, with their sudden gleams of light, and their reflections--if it were not for Whitaker’s Almanack--if it were not for the Table of Precedency!

Wordsworth found beauty and awe when considering Nature’s order. Woolf sees only the stifling order imposed by men: rules, hierarchies, and authority figures. Thinking outward, she muses, “what an airless, shallow, bald, prominent world it becomes! A world not to be lived in.”

However, discordant notes like this aside, the story is all but a paean to the joys of imagination. Romanticism may reflect an outdated approach of engagement with the world, but the rustic imagery it idealizes makes a fine subject for fantasies. As Woolf writes at one point:

For years and years they [trees] grow, without paying any attention to us, in meadows, in forests, and by the side of rivers—all things one likes to think about. The cows swish their tails beneath them on hot afternoons; they paint rivers so green that when a moorhen dives one expects to see its feathers all green when it comes up again.

The bit about trees painting the rivers green hints towards a taste for absurdity, which is reflected quite strongly in many of the story’s other passages. The narrator draws analogies between the dust on her mantelpiece and the dust that “buried Troy three times over.” She’ll also liken life to a ride on the Tube, and then the ride to being “[s]hot out at the feet of God entirely naked!” Or she’ll come just shy, as she does near the end, of calling wood the be-all, end-all of life. Although she does mention worshipping her chest of drawers at times.

Woolf’s sense of humor is also present in her decision to structure the story as a bit of a mystery. Just what is the “mark”? Woolf returns to the question--and her speculations about the answer--again and again. Is it a hole or a rose leaf? Could it perhaps be the jutting head of a nail? The answer, which comes at the story’s end, plays like the punchline of a joke, and it is what gives the story its final charm: Woolf invites the reader to laugh along with the narrator’s implicit amusement at the pretentiousness of her flights-of fancy. The “mark” proves to be even more inconsequential than Proust’s madeleines.

There is something of an irony in this, though. For these writers, nothing is more consequential than these seemingly innocuous objects: they are the catalysts for nearly every word that appears on the page. They are the nothings from which everything comes. “The Mark on the Wall” is a testament to imagination: anything and everything is a starting point for it, and the most fecund minds can not only spin lead into gold, they can spin it from the very air itself.

Other reviews of works by Virginia Woolf

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Film Review: The American

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The American, the new thriller starring George Clooney, is an unexpected throwback to the action-adventure movies of the 1960s and ‘70s. The elements are all there: the amoral, taciturn hero; the deliberate, unforced pace; the melancholy, pseudo-existential, “that’s reality” atmosphere. Like those earlier films, The American makes terrific use of locations. The bulk of the picture was shot in and around Castel del Monte in the Abruzzo region of Italy, and the locale functions as a major character in the story. While it may seem a little beneath Clooney to take on a role that would have been tailor-made for Steve McQueen or Roy Scheider back in the day, he handles it comfortably enough. The American doesn’t strive to be anything more than an entertaining potboiler, but its style isn’t one that’s seen very often these days, and it’s refreshing.

Clooney’s character doesn’t really have a name. One character calls him Jack, he tells another his name is Edward, and a couple of others give him the nickname Mr. Butterfly. He’s an assassin and weapons specialist based in Europe, and it’s never made clear whether he’s in the employ of government intelligence, organized crime, or big business. He’s also a ruthless son-of-a-bitch, a person the filmmakers want seen as all but beyond redemption--less than five minutes into the film, he murders an innocent woman for no reason other than expediency. His work, though, is taking its toll on him. It allows for no friends, no family, and no home, and it’s clearly burning him out. The contact for his employer tells him take it a little easy for a while; he is ordered to set himself up in a remote Italian village and start work on a customized rifle for a fellow assassin named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten).

It’s clear that, despite the minimally demanding task, he has no idea of how to relax, even in such a loose, picturesque setting. His daily existence is quite spartan: an undecorated, minimally furnished apartment; morning exercise; work; occasional dinners and coffee at a local restaurant. Mathilde, whom he sees once every couple of weeks, is all business, and he has little contact with anyone other than her. The exceptions are an elderly priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and Clara (Violante Placido), a thirtyish prostitute at the brothel he frequents.

The story’s drama has two parts. The first comes from watching this Mr. Butterfly emerge from his cocoon, and seeing if he can find the redemption the opening sequence would seem to have put beyond him. He and the priest become friends (and in a nice twist, the priest plays confessor to him instead of the other way around). He also falls in love with Clara, who stops charging him for their sessions and starts seeing him outside of work. The second part of the drama comes from watching this budding happiness butt up against the reasons for his emotional cocoon in the first place. He’s more than justified in being guarded. As the story progresses, associates of the people killed in the film’s opening section track him to the village. Worse, he doesn’t know how they found him. Does his employer want him dead, and could they be his employer’s proxies, or could Clara have betrayed him to them? Questions also arise of whether he is Mathilde’s ultimate target, and is the rifle he’s building the intended instrument of his own murder? The tensions build to what is more or less a cards-on-the-table climax. Everything is resolved, although only as much as they need to be--some ambiguities satisfyingly remain. And one is glad to see the finale embrace the fatalism that gave the film’s antecedents a good deal of their unsentimental appeal.

Director Anton Corbijn does well by Rowan Joffé’s efficient script. (The film is based on a novel by Martin Booth.) The action is clearly staged, and Corbijn does a terrific job of integrating it with the gorgeous Italian locations. The casting is strong, and I especially liked the subtle way Corbijn plays Violante Placido and Thekla Reuten off each other. The two never have a scene together, but one is always aware of them as the two women in the Clooney character’s life. (The scene where the Clooney and Reuten characters test the rifle he’s building suggests the possibility of her being a love interest; there’s a palpable--though understated--sexual tension between them.) Reuten has an elegant beauty, but she’s cool and hard, with all the personality of a mannequin. The contrast between that and Placido’s warmth and expressiveness makes the Clara character all the more appealing. One wishes Corbijn and Joffe had found opportunities for Clooney to show some of his trademark charm and humor--he’s almost as heavy-spirited as he was in Michael Clayton--but one recognizes that levity isn’t much in keeping with the character. And Clooney is quite capable of keeping this action role interesting even without his smile.

One has to admit that The American is a retrograde film in most respects, and not terribly ambitious. Watching it, one occasionally gets the feeling that the filmmakers were following a checklist of the characteristics of the ‘60s and ‘70s films the movie recalls. However, I’ve always been fond of those films’ style, and that style is welcome even when it feels calculated.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Comics Review: Deitch's Pictorama, Kim Deitch, Simon Deitch, and Seth Callan Deitch

This is a revised version of a review first published in The Comics Journal #296. It first appeared online on Pol Culture.

Kim Deitch and his brothers team up in an ostensible effort to combine comics and prose fiction into a new form. But apart from an elegant autobiographical piece by Kim, the book never really comes together.

The five stories in this collection of work by Kim Deitch and his brothers Seth Deitch and Simon Kallan Deitch aren’t really comics; they are prose pieces that occasionally try to combine the two media. In his introduction, Kim writes that his ambition for the book was “to contribute toward a hybrid medium for graphic novels, better merging the written fiction and comics mediums [sic].” Kim’s “The Cop on the Beat,” which deftly mixes prose exposition with cartooned scenes and asides, is the only piece that succeeds in this regard. “The Sunshine Girl,” adapted by Kim from interviews with story protagonist Eleanor Whaley, handles the blending of media far more awkwardly. And “Unlikely Hours,” a prose story by Seth that Kim attempts to shoehorn into the format, would have been better served if it had been left alone. The interplay between prose and pictures often seems gimmicky. Worse, it frequently disrupts the flow of the story. “The Golem,” written by Seth with art by Simon, is an illustrated story in the traditional sense. Seth’s “Children of Aruf” is all but exclusively prose; the only illustration is Kim’s frontispiece.

The story quality is mixed. “The Cop on the Beat” is the best of them. It’s an autobiographical piece about an unrequited romance of Kim’s that shifts into a discussion of the musicians Kim loves from the 1920s and ‘30s. It ends with an amusing epiphany that ties the two parts of the story together. “Children of Aruf,” which imagines a world in which dogs can talk, is the most enjoyable of Seth’s contributions. “The Sunshine Girl” and “Unlikely Hours” are ostensibly autobiographical pieces (“as told to” with the former) that veer into wild fantasy, and they both have the same problem: the stories don’t effectively prepare the reader for the outlandish climaxes. This makes them seem absurd. “The Golem” recounts the Hebrew legend (in a Holy Land setting instead of Prague); its only distinction is in using shifting points of view to tell the familiar story.

The lettering in the book is a distracting flaw. Kim’s stories are both hand-lettered, and given the sloppiness, typesetting would have been preferable. There are numerous problems with baseline adherence, word spacing, and size consistency. The lettering also occasionally butts up against the pictures. These may seem like minor matters, but they make the book a needlessly bumpy ride.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Comics Review: Tales of the Green Lantern Corps: "Tygers," Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

This short journeyman piece from twenty-odd years ago is the inspiration for its publisher's most recent crossover-event project, but it still ranks among Alan Moore's ephemera.

While reading a recent interview with Alan Moore (click here), I was especially struck by these remarks:

It’s the paucity of imagination. I was noticing that DC seems to have based one of its latest crossovers [Blackest Night] in Green Lantern based on a couple of eight-page stories that I did 25 or 30 years ago. I would have thought that would seem kind of desperate and humiliating. When I have said in interviews that it doesn’t look like the American comic book industry has had an idea of its own in the past 20 or 30 years, I was just being mean. I didn’t expect the companies concerned to more or less say, “Yeah, he’s right. Let’s see if we can find another one of his stories from 30 years ago to turn into some spectacular saga.” It’s tragic. The comics that I read as a kid that inspired me were full of ideas. They didn’t need some upstart from England to come over there and tell them how to do comics. They’d got plenty of ideas of their own. But these days, I increasingly get a sense of the comics industry going through my trashcan like raccoons in the dead of the night.

The story Moore is referring to is "Tygers," a 12-page story that first appeared in Green Lantern Corps Annual #2 (1986). It also featured in the collection DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore. He produced it in collaboration with cartoonist Kevin O'Neill, who went on to be his artistic partner on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. After reading "Tygers," my immediate reaction was that Moore owed the creative personnel on Blackest Night an apology. Beyond that, his involvement in this story is hardly anything to brag about.

I'm not saying this as a reader, much less a fan, of Blackest Night. I have little interest in what DC (or Marvel, for that matter) publishes these days, and I've always been completely put off by these crossover-event storylines. The initial ones in the 1980s, Marvel's Secret Wars and DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths, were what prompted my teenage self to largely give up on either company’s new output. My experience of Blackest Night is based entirely on the synopsis from its Wikipedia page. It's clear from the article that, at most, scriptwriter Geoff Johns and cartoonist Ivan Reis used some ideas in Moore and O'Neill's piece as a springboard for their own story. Moore has one hell of a nerve complaining about this. "Tygers" uses the 1959 Green Lantern origin story in much the same way. Johns and Reis aren't stealing from Moore any more than he was stealing from Green Lantern creators Julius Schwartz, John Broome, and Gil Kane.

For those unfamiliar with the Green Lantern character, his real name is Hal Jordan, and he is a military pilot who becomes a member of an intergalactic police force called the Green Lantern Corps. Members of the Corps are armed with a near-omnipotent power ring with a green lantern insignia. In Schwartz, Broome, and Kane’s origin story, Jordan becomes a Green Lantern after encountering a dying member of the corps--an alien--who has crash-landed on Earth.

In “Tygers,” Moore and O’Neill use the alien predecessor’s moments before the crash as a framing device. The predecessor, whose name is Abin Sur, knows he is about to die, and he thinks back on a prophecy foretelling his death. A spaceship had crashed on a planet used to imprison a race of demons who once terrorized the universe. Abin Sur was searching for the ship and possible survivors. He encountered several of the demons, who promise all sorts of things if he would only ask. He takes up the offer of one who will give answers to whatever three questions he might have. His requests are for the location of the crashed ship, the circumstances of his death, and the worst catastrophe the Green Lantern Corps will face.

Rather surprisingly, Moore doesn’t do much with this set-up. The rescue of the crash survivor goes off without a hitch, and the predicted catastrophe is all spectacle and no drama. (The catastrophe material is apparently the basis for Blackest Night.) The prophecy of Abin Sur’s death is the only one crucial to the story. Moore uses it to construct the irony on which the story ends--Abin Sur realizes that his efforts to escape his foretold future are what have caused it to occur. It’s a tried-and-true story twist at least as old as Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, but in Moore’s hands it falls flat. He doesn’t build the suspense needed to make it effective.

Kevin O’Neill’s artwork is the story’s main point of interest. It’s considerably more grotesque than his work on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Grotesque is, if anything, the artwork’s defining attribute. O’Neill devotes a great deal of attention to the horrible deformities of the demons’ bodies--hideously contractured muscles, distended bones, and teethed orifices of various sizes appearing anywhere and everywhere. The intensely hachured rendering recalls Basil Wolverton, and the artwork often looks like something Wolverton would have turned out in the grip of a nightmare inspired by H. P. Lovecraft's stories. It garnered O’Neill a fair amount of notoriety after he turned it in. The Comics Code Authority, a content watchdog group set up in the 1950s by the newsstand children’s-comics publishers, took one look at the piece and declared O’Neill’s drawing style completely inappropriate for children. He was the first, and as far as I know, only comic-book cartoonist to be condemned by the Authority in these terms. Their response to his work was a major nail in the coffin of their power. It didn’t discredit them, but the piece’s almost immediate publication thereafter showed how toothless their judgments had become.

Overall, “Tygers” is an example of a historically significant work that, at best, is more important to know about than to read. The success of Blackest Night has ensured its place in DC’s story canon, and it marked a fairly noteworthy moment in the comics field’s history of self-imposed censorship. But on its own terms, it is a dull little potboiler by a creator whose career is generally made up of much better days. Moore once said that his interest in these journeyman efforts was in coming up with fun things for the artist to draw. O’Neill responded with gusto, but for most readers that probably isn’t enough.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Comics Review: Jessica Farm, Volume One, Josh Simmons

This review first appeared, in somewhat different form, in The Comics Journal #295. Material that had been deleted for publication has been restored, and other minor revisions have been included. It was originally published online on Pol Culture.

The first volume of Josh Simmons' scatological fantasy-picaresque is a tired, amateurishly drawn rehash of dream-surrealist tropes.

The episodes of Josh Simmons’ Jessica Farm are constructed around the dynamic of Snoopy Syndrome. In Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts, the Snoopy character has an active fantasy life. Living the stultifying life of a suburban pet, he imagines himself in more glamorous scenarios, such as being a World War I flying ace, or the ultra-hip college lady-killer Joe Cool. But he never finds satisfaction; his daydreams always end in disappointment. As the flying ace, his nemesis the Red Baron always shoots him down. And as Joe Cool, the “chicks” always ignore him. Jessica, Simmons’ protagonist, is repeatedly frustrated in her fantasy world as well.

She does find some enjoyment, such as when miniature musicians perform for her. But most of the scenes follow the Snoopy Syndrome pattern. Her favorite stuffed animal--it talks, of course--turns up butchered. A beefcake fantasy lover becomes a self-pitying crybaby just as their make-out session heats up. She is reunited with her grandparents, but their meal together is disrupted by Mr. Sugarcock, a naked weirdo with man-boobs who continually gropes his genitals and “seasons” the soup by dunking his scrotum in it.

Jessica Farm has pretensions of being a Surrealist piece, and it includes such hackneyed tropes as climbing darkened stairs and endless falls through space. Simmons, though, has a ways to go to catch up with Salvador Dalí, Djuna Barnes, or David Lynch. His narrative is clear, but it lacks tension, and the book is aimless and tedious. His art isn’t compelling, either. Simmons has a solid understanding of composition, and he’s a passable cartoon draftsman, but he hasn’t mastered treating the inking as part of the drawing process. His inept brushwork sits lifeless on the page.

It’s certainly possible to create a successful surrealist picaresque in comics. Just consider Chester Brown’s Ed the Happy Clown. But this requires stronger cartooning chops than Simmons demonstrates, and the story needs a sense of urgency. Simmons reportedly cartoons Jessica Farm at the rate of one page a month (this volume contains the first 96 pages of a projected 600), and he seems to forget the why of the story in between pages. The Snoopy Syndrome dynamic of the episodes seems more reflective of habit than intent. Jessica Farm doesn’t appear to know where it wants to go, and it doesn’t give the reader any reason to tag along.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Fiction Review: "The Trespasser," Bonnie Jo Campbell

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Bonnie Jo Campbell's treatment of a break-in's aftermath is a frightening little story about the most fragile of victims: one's sense of security, well-being, and identity.

“The Trespasser,” the opening tale in Bonnie Jo Campbell’s short-story collection American Salvage, is a chilling piece of work. The story begins with a shocking moment for the family at its center: they arrive at their vacation cottage, only to find that it has been broken into. The trespassers used it as a squat and a meth lab. The situation isn’t exploited for melodramatic suspense. All but one of the trespassers is long gone, and the one who stayed behind immediately flees the house. She never comes into contact with the family. Campbell instead uses the story’s circumstances to take the reader inside the sense of violation the family feels. Her rendering of those feelings isn’t superficial--she doesn’t mine the scenario for reactionary anger. Campbell gets at something deeper; the story dramatizes how people use the objects that surround them to define their identities. The family's life finds expression in their possessions, photographs, and diaries. It turns out the last trespasser has used their belongings as a focus for her thoughts and feelings as well.

Using a break-in to evoke feelings of anger and disgust in the reader is a simple thing for a storyteller to do. Campbell, though, doesn’t take the easy way out. She mitigates those feelings by making the sole remaining trespasser a figure of pity. The trespasser is 16, she’s suffered through years of physical and sexual abuse, and she’s now caught in the downward spiral of drug addiction. One can’t judge her harshly for the drugs. It’s obvious she doesn’t take them to get high so much as to make herself numb. The pathos of her life is powerfully rendered by her appropriation of the family’s things. She uses them to imagine the life for herself that she was never given the opportunity to have.

Campbell intensifies the reader’s sympathies for the trespasser by juxtaposing her life with that of the family’s 13-year-old daughter. The younger girl is the model of a well-adjusted suburban teenager. Everything she has becomes everything the trespasser never knew but wished for, and everything the trespasser has suffered is the brutality the other girl has been protected from. The feeling of oh my God, this trespasser could have been my daughter/niece/what-have-you is slammed into the reader's consciousness near the story's end, when the girl's parents discover that the trespasser had been used as a whore by the men cooking the meth. One thinks back on the trespasser's odd celebrations of the daughter's athletic trophies, or the rearrangement of the furniture into a conversation nook for her non-existent family, and one wants to cry at the meaning those objects have for her.

But the pathos of the trespasser's actions is accompanied by the reader's horror at the deeper implications of what she's done. She's infused things that are not hers with an emotional meaning that cannot be dismissed. One cannot deny her the right to her feelings, but those objects also hold meaning for the daughter, and that cannot be denied, either. The horror comes from the realization that the meaning of those objects--those expressions of ourselves--is relative. Others can appropriate those objects as expressions of their own identities, and even after everything is reclaimed, the awareness of that appropriation is still there. One has to wonder, do those objects really still belong to me? And if these totems of my life can be taken, can someone take my life as their own as well? Security is rooted in the sense of ownership over one’s life. Once that’s gone, what is there? "The Trespasser" is a devastatingly effective piece of work.

"The Trespasser" is featured in Bonnie Jo Campbell's short-story collection American Salvage, a nominee for both the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Fiction Review: "Kew Gardens," Virginia Woolf

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

For the text of "Kew Gardens," click here.

In what may be the greatest of her short stories, Virginia Woolf creates a structured, encompassing view of existence, one which includes people's thoughts and emotions, nature and human society, and even the movement of a random snail in a flower bed.

“Kew Gardens” is a great short story, perhaps Virginia Woolf’s finest, and certainly the best of those in the Monday or Tuesday collection. She starts with what may seem like the homeliest and most disparate of particulars--a snail moving along the ground, a man taking his senile father for a walk--and she binds them together to create a larger whole. In his poem The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot described his reflections on life as a “heap of broken images” and the “fragments I have shored against my ruins.” In “Kew Gardens,” Woolf finds the underlying order of the fragments she renders and builds them into an encompassing vision of life, one that unifies the worlds of humanity and nature.

At first glance, the story appears to be a series of juxtapositions between scenes of nature and moments of human interaction. The setting is the Royal Botanic Gardens in London in July, and the story begins and ends with descriptions of a flowerbed. There are five episodes in between. The first features a married couple with children walking along the paths; the husband and wife think back on the most emotionally significant moments of their past--moments that, ironically, have nothing to do with each other or their children. The third features the aforementioned man with his senile father, who are followed along the paths by a pair of working-class women. The men are oblivious to what the other is saying, and while neither of the women is impaired, they talk past each other as well. In the fifth episode, the characters are a young couple who are courting, but who have yet to make the breakthrough to a deeper relationship. The second and fourth episodes depict a snail as it crawls through the flowerbed.

Woolf seems to identify nature with movement. The snail is always moving, of course, and everything else she depicts in the flowerbed moves as well. The people, though, all seem caught in a state of psychological stasis. The young couple, particularly the man, is trapped by desire for the other and the uncertainty of what to do next. Woolf even creates a trope for their predicament: his hand is atop hers as, together, they push the end of her resting parasol into the ground. The emotional significance of this is unmistakable, and Woolf duly renders it in rhapsodic terms:

The action and the fact that his hand rested on the top of hers expressed their feelings in a strange way, as these short insignificant words also expressed something, words with short wings for their heavy body of meaning, inadequate to carry them far and thus alighting awkwardly upon the very common objects that surrounded them, and were to their inexperienced touch so massive, but who knows (so they thought as they pressed the parasol down into the earth) what precipices aren’t concealed in them, or what slopes of ice don’t shine in the sun on the other side?

The young couple are frozen in their anxieties, as is the old man in his senility, his son in the helplessness the senility’s presence creates, and the two women in their combined affinity and indifference to one another. However, the young man and woman are most complemented by the married couple, who are as trapped in their anxieties about the past as the unmarried pair is in thoughts of the future. The portrayal of the married couple is also where Woolf makes the dichotomy between nature and people most explicit. The husband is caught in his thoughts about times gone by, specifically how stymied he felt proposing to a woman he was involved with before meeting his wife. Contemplating the situation, he finds an analogue to his circumstances in the flight of a dragonfly that was there at the time. As long as the dragonfly is flying--in movement--the man is frustrated by the woman’s unwillingness to say yes to marrying him. However, if the dragonfly lands on her shoe, i.e., comes to a stop, that means she’ll assent, his thoughts and feelings will flow freely again, and their life together can progress. (The dragonfly, of course, never landed.) For Woolf, rendering nature means showing it in motion; depicting people involves showing them at some sort of standstill. The ironic trope for this is nature halting when people progress.

The greater irony of the story, though, is that nature, at least in the garden, is caught in a stasis of its own--a stasis created by humanity’s actions and humanity’s world. The nature in the story is the gardens, a man-made construct built within the larger man-made construct of the city of London. Woolf, in a brilliant (and subtle) stylistic choice, emphasizes the constructed aspect of the gardens by rendering her imagery of its fauna and flora as if she was describing painting it. It is all depicted in terms of shapes and colors, with verbs such as “marked” and “staining” appearing throughout the passages. Man and nature always contain each other, just as Woolf’s perceptions of nature are so conspicuously contained by her words. She finds a superb analogue for this state of existence near the story’s end: life is like a series of Chinese boxes, one within the other within the other and so forth, “on the top of which the voices cried aloud and the petals of myriads of flowers flashed their colours into the air.” At the center is the (Wordsworthian) view that people’s thoughts, feelings, and memories are contained by their perceptions of nature. However, nature as people know it is contained by the world humanity has created, just as the gardens are contained by London, where, as Woolf puts it, “the motor omnibuses were turning their wheels and changing their gear[...].” It’s left unsaid, but the box of the city is contained by the larger box of the surrounding world. What isn’t left unsaid is that even the city can once again be contained within people’s perceptions and feelings. The series of boxes can begin again and extend unto infinity.

The genius of the story is the structured view of existence it presents. Woolf captures the assorted chaos of life--internal ones like anxieties and disappointments, and outer ones like the comings and goings of the city and the natural world--and she finds the structure within it. She highlights where everything exists relative to everything else, and further, she recognizes that the only limits to one’s perception of things are the limits the person imposes. Thinking back to The Waste Land, one is struck by the contrast between Eliot’s vision and Woolf’s. Looking for the encompassing order in life, he dramatizes his inability to find it in what he presents, ultimately resigning himself to faith that, regardless of the chaos, God has an order in mind. In “Kew Gardens,” Woolf finds the order Eliot misses. Her peace, unlike his, doesn’t “passeth understanding”; hers contains it.

Other reviews of works by Virginia Woolf