Two Pairs of Novels (Part 1)

Commuting days until retirement: 220

Why two pairs? Well, of my recent fiction reading on the train, I found that four novels fell naturally into pairs which invited comparison with one another. I was drawn to each of the novels by their reputations, and warm praise coming from various reviewers. In each case I found that the reputation of one of the pair seemed to me better deserved than the other.

I haven’t finished writing about the second pair, so rather than holding everything up I’ll publish what I’ve written about the first pair now. What was originally to be a single post seems to have fragmented, with the previous one, into three.

My first pair are both American and 20th century − but the similarities go beyond that. Both are what you would call campus novels, in that the action is centred around the life of a university. Both give you a strong idea on the first page of what is to come.

The first is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History − a debut novel that was an outstanding success in terms of sales when it first appeared in 1992. The setting is informed by Tartt’s experience as a student of classics in an Eastern American university. The second has also been popular, but in quite a different way. Its quiet, cerebral author died in 1994 and this particular book, Stoner by John Williams, attracted only modest attention on its publication in 1965, but was reissued in 2003 and proceeded to enjoy a huge boom on both sides of the Atlantic. Again it derives from the writer’s university experience, but this time as a teacher.

The Secret History’s opening doesn’t waste any time. From the first page we have:

The snow in the mountains had been melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history – state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter… It is difficult to believe that Henry’s modest plan could have worked so well…

The Secret HistoryWell, full marks for grabbing the reader’s attention. The author proceeds to go back and trace how this central event came about, and later its consequences. And trace it she does, in very great detail − sometimes, I found, in rather too much detail for me. Her account certainly has longeurs, as the movement of the characters from one encounter to another is carefully choreographed and each event constructed − at times it’s as if the stage directions are visible. And while from time to time you feel twinges of sympathy for the narrator Richard Papen, he’s hard to like. Clearly Tartt intends this, but 600 or so pages is a long time to spend with a slightly irksome companion.

On the positive side however, Tartt’s major characters − a little outlandish but for the most part just about believable − are well handled, I felt, as is particularly the way they coalesce − or not − as a group. We are introduced to them as a tightly bound coterie centred around a charismatic teacher of Greek, Julian Morrow. We are given to understand that, while employed as a teacher in a minor north-eastern American university and devoting his efforts to a very small circle of hand-picked students, this man is immensely cultured and has been on intimate terms with many major twentieth century figures from show business to high culture. He remains elusive and morally ambiguous; and for me he never seemed to escape from the page as a rounded character, but remained a rather improbable collection of attributes assembled by the author.

However the group of students at the centre of the story did achieve life of a sort in my mind. As Richard, uncomfortably conscious of his working class small-town roots in the West, slowly succeeds in working himself into the circle, what appears at first as an impenetrable, other-worldly group bound together by its eccentricity is slowly teased apart as the foibles of its individual members and the tensions between them become visible.

There’s Henry, the dominant member, perhaps also the most intellectual and serious. Improbably, as we learn at the start, he is the prime mover in the murder that takes place. Bunny, the murder victim, seems the polar opposite of Henry, raffish and unpredictable, yet they appear to have a mysteriously close, troubled – but not sexual – relationship with one another. There is a gay member, Francis, another rootless soul; and the group is made up by the twins Charles and Camilla (did that pair of names have the connotations it does now when the book was written? − an unlucky coincidence perhaps). They are inseparable for much of the novel, and a faint suggestion of incest hangs about them. Collectively, the combination of a devotion to high classical culture and the dependence of nearly all the characters on alcohol and/or drugs seemed somewhat incongruous to me. And I was a little bored at times by the endless passages in which people are shuffled between social events and each other’s rooms; it’s rather like reading a play with an excess of stage directions.

The author does nevertheless exploit well the volatile blend of character and circumstance she creates. But the problem with a spectacularly eventful plot is that you are necessarily placing your characters much closer to the dangerous cliff-edge of credibility. Tartt’s novel, it seems to me, like her unfortunate character Bunny, falls victim to this brinkmanship.

That’s not a charge you could make about Stoner. Here’s the equivalent passage on the first page that gives us our first sense of its flavour:

William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: “Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues.”

An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

StonerPerhaps fittingly for a novel written by a professor about the life of a character whose adulthood is entirely spent teaching at a university, this introductory passage seems almost like an abstract at the top of an academic paper, in the way that it presents us with the boiled down essence of the narrative. Stoner’s life is viewed as if from a distance, so that the details can’t be made out; shrunk in this way it becomes insignificant, an impression which is heightened in the second paragraph. The tone is simultaneously flat and suggestive − inviting rather than compelling our sympathy and attention.

We then begin at the beginning and advance into the detail of Stoner’s life, and as we share his successes and failures, his moments of joy, of disappointment and of frustration, the distant and uninvolved perspective of the introduction stays in the back of our minds. I found this to be a strangely effective way of eliciting my sympathy. The plain, unshowy and dispassionate third person description seen in the introduction continues throughout the book, almost entirely from Stoner’s point of view. This sustained understatement reflects his own earnest, workmanlike character, and leaves us space to feel the emotional effects of his personal and professional high points and, rather more often, low ones. Stoner and his family, lovers and colleagues arise from the page fully formed; I was never aware of the mechanics by which they were created, or the stage directions. While, unlike Tartt’s novel, the story’s events are all too mundane and believable, I was gripped throughout by an emotional power that The Secret History never managed to invoke.

I wondered whether I was a little unfair in pitching the work of a young author against a more mature one; but checking up I find the difference is not that great: Tartt was 28 when hers was published, and Williams 43. We can perhaps point to the fact that The Secret History was a first novel, and Stoner Williams’ third. Either way, for me, Williams wins hands down in this comparison. In a word, I’d say that Stoner had soul − I felt a depth of integrity that was missing from The Secret History.

The next post will deal with my second pair – both English novels.

In Transit

Commuting days until retirement: 230

Among what would probably nowadays be called the commuting community − if it weren’t so hard to say, that is − things have changed over the years. In my previous incarnation as a commuter, before I spent a period working from home (something like 20 years ago) the range of train-bound activities was different. Most newspaper readers struggled with big broadsheets, trying vainly to avoid irritating their neighbours by obscuring their vision or tickling their ears as they turned the pages. Now they will either skim through a free tabloid (for London commuters like me there’s the Metro in the morning or the Standard on the way home) or skip nimbly through the contents of a morning daily on their tablet. If any were using mobile phones they could only at that time have been either texting or talking on them. The rumbling of the train was punctuated by the raucous piping of that horrible Nokia tune, or some other crude electronic noise. Reading on my journey now, I’m often startled by a sudden explosion of pop music, a brass band, a morning chorus of twittering birds or a concussion of breaking glass. It takes a few moments of perplexity before you come to and realise it’s just another ring tone.

Laptop computers in those earlier times were still sufficiently rare that one man I worked with avoided using one on the train because he was afraid everyone would think he was showing off. In the intervening years they multiplied rapidly for a while, only to have their entertainment functions largely replaced by tablets and smartphones. Of course there are still the laptop diehards, mostly using the train as an extension of the office. A discreet glimpse over one of their shoulders usually shows them to be working on a financial spreadsheet, or bent over some programming code. Such dedication! It may not save me from being a dull boy, but I do take care to keep my commuting time free of work − of that sort of work, anyway.

Many of course just lose themselves in music on their noise-cancelling headphones. There’s one man on my train every day, in both directions, whom I have never actually seen without a large pair of headphones on − and that includes his walk to and from the station. I often wonder whether they have been surgically implanted. And a whole new range of activities has sprung up that were not possible formerly, the most popular of all being just to play with your smartphone. That’s what I’m doing now, in writing this, if it counts as playing, which it probably does. From where I’m sitting now, on the morning train, just at my end of the carriage I can count four Metros, one Kindle, one book, one laptop, two phone-fiddlers (including me) and one handheld game console, right next to me. The iPads seem unusually rare today − although I have just spotted one up the other end of the carriage. That leaves two deep in conversation, one asleep, and two looking out of the window − earnest students of misty early morning fields, grazing cows, builders yards and back gardens ranging from the fanatically neat to the chaotically neglected.

And so the rows of heads comprising this very twenty-first century aggregation of social chit-chat, dreams, electronic jitterbugging and imaginary digital worlds sway in synchrony with the jolting of the train as it rattles towards the capital. In the meantime I am realising that this piece, intended as an introduction to a review of some of my recent fiction reading on the train, has outgrown its purpose and will have to be a post on its own. The reviewing will be coming next.


Commuting days until retirement: 238

If you have ever spoken at any length to someone who is suffering with a diagnosed mental illness − depression, say, or obsessive compulsive disorder − you may have come to feel that what they are experiencing differs only in degree from your own mental life, rather than being something fundamentally different (assuming, of course, that you are lucky enough not to have been similarly ill yourself). It’s as if mental illness, for the most part, is not something entirely alien to the ‘normal’ life of the mind, but just a distortion of it. Rather than the presence of a new unwelcome intruder, it’s more that the familiar elements of mental functioning have lost their usual proportion to one another. If you spoke to someone who was suffering from paranoid feelings of persecution, you might just feel an echo of them in the back of your own mind: those faint impulses that are immediately squashed by the power of your ability to draw logical common-sense conclusions from what you see about you. Or perhaps you might encounter someone who compulsively and repeatedly checks that they are safe from intrusion; but we all sometimes experience that need to reassure ourselves that a door is locked, when we know perfectly well that it is really.

That uncomfortably close affinity between true mental illness and everyday neurotic tics is nowhere more obvious than with phobias. A phobia serious enough to be clinically significant can make it impossible for the sufferer to cope with everyday situations; while on the other hand nearly every family has a member (usually female, but not always) who can’t go near the bath with a spider in it, as well as a member (usually male, but not always) who nonchalantly picks the creature up and ejects it from the house. (I remember that my own parents went against these sexual stereotypes.) But the phobias I want to focus on here are those two familiar opposites − claustrophobia and agoraphobia.

We are all phobics

In some degree, virtually all of us suffer from them, and perfectly rationally so. Anyone would fear, say, being buried alive, or, at the other extreme, being launched into some limitless space without hand or foothold, or any point of reference. And between the extremes, most of us have some degree of bias one way or the other. Especially so − and this is the central point of my post − in an intellectual sense. I want to suggest that there is such a phenomenon as an intellectual phobia: let’s call it an iphobia. My meaning is not, as the Urban Dictionary would have it, an extreme hatred of Apple products, or a morbid fear of breaking your iPhone. Rather, I want to suggest that there are two species of thinkers: iagorophobes and iclaustrophobes, if you’ll allow me such ugly words.

A typical iagorophobe will in most cases cleave to scientific orthodoxy. Not for her the wide open spaces of uncontrolled, rudderless, speculative thinking. She’s reassured by a rigid theoretical framework, comforted by predictability; any unexplained phenomenon demands to be brought into the fold of existing theory, for any other way, it seems to her, lies madness. But for the iclaustrophobe, on the other hand, it’s intolerable to be caged inside that inflexible framework. Telepathy? Precognition? Significant coincidence? Of course they exist; there is ample anecdotal evidence. If scientific orthodoxy can’t embrace them, then so much the worse for it − the incompatibility merely reflects our ignorance. To this the iagorophobe would retort that we have no logical grounds whatever for such beliefs. If we have nothing but anecdotal evidence, we have no predictability; and phenomena that can’t be predicted can’t therefore be falsified, so any such beliefs fall foul of the Popperian criterion of scientific validity. But why, asks the iclaustrophobe, do we have to be constrained by some arbitrary set of rules? These things are out there − they happen. Deal with it. And so the debate goes.

Archetypal iPhobics

Widening the arena more than somewhat, perhaps the archetypal iclaustrophobe was Plato. For him, the notion that what we see was all we would ever get was anathema – and he eloquently expressed his iclaustrophobic response to it in his parable of the cave. For him true reality was immeasurably greater than the world of our everyday existence. And of course he is often contrasted with his pupil Aristotle, for whom what we can see is, in itself, an inexhaustibly fascinating guide to the nature of our world − no further reality need be posited. And Aristotle, of course, is the progenitor of the syllogism and deductive logic. In Raphael’s famous fresco The School of Athens, the relevant detail of which you see below, Plato, on the left, indicates his world of forms beyond our immediate reality by pointing heavenward, while Aristotle’s gesture emphasises the earth, and the here and now. Raphael has them exchanging disputatious glances, which for me express the hostility that exists between the opposed iphobic world-views to this day.

School of Athens

Detail from Raphael’s School of Athens in the Vatican, Rome (Wikimedia Commons)

iPhobia today

It’s not surprising that there is such hostility; I want to suggest that we are talking not of a mere intellectual disagreement, but a situation where each side insists on a reality to which the other has a strong (i)phobic reaction. Let’s look at a specific present-day example, from within the WordPress forums. There’s a blog called Why Evolution is True, which I’d recommend as a good read. It’s written by Jerry Coyne, a distinguished American professor of biology. His title is obviously aimed principally at the flourishing belief in creationism which exists in the US − Coyne has extensively criticised the so-called Intelligent Design theory. (In in my view, that controversy is not a dispute between the two iphobias I have described, but between two forms of iagoraphobia. The creationists, I would contend, are locked up in an intellectual ghetto of their own making, since venturing outside it would fatally threaten their grip on their frenziedly held, narrowly based faith.)

Jerry Coyne

Jerry Coyne (Zooterkin/Wikimedia Commons)

But I want to focus on another issue highlighted in the blog, which in this case is a conflict between the two phobias. A year or so ago Coyne took issue with the fact that the maverick scientist Rupert Sheldrake was given a platform to explain his ideas in the TED forum. Note Coyne’s use of the hate word ‘woo’, often used by the orthodox in science as an insulting reference to the unorthodox. They would defend it, mostly with justification, as characterising what is mystical or wildly speculative, and without evidential basis − but I’d claim there’s more to it than that: it’s also the iagorophobe’s cry of revulsion.

Rupert Sheldrake

Rupert Sheldrake (Zereshk/Wikimedia Commons)

Coyne has strongly attacked Sheldrake on more than one occasion: is there anything that can be said in Sheldrake’s defence? As a scientist he has an impeccable pedigree, having a Cambridge doctorate and fellowship in biology. It seems that he developed his unorthodox ideas early on in his career, central among which is his notion of ‘morphic resonance’, whereby animal and human behaviour, and much else besides, is influenced by previous similar behaviour. It’s an idea that I’ve always found interesting to speculate about − but it’s obviously also a red rag to the iagorophobic bull. We can also mention that he has been careful to describe how his theories can be experimentally confirmed or falsified, thus claiming scientific status for them. He also invokes his ideas to explain aspects of the formation of organisms that, in to date, haven’t been explained by the action of DNA. But increasing knowledge of the significance of what was formerly thought of as ‘junk DNA’ is going a long way to filling these explanatory gaps, so Sheldrake’s position looks particularly weak here. And in his TED talks he not only defends his own ideas, but attacks many of the accepted tenets of current scientific theory.

However, I’d like to return to the debate over whether Sheldrake should be denied his TED platform. Coyne’s comments led to a reconsideration of the matter by the TED editors, who opened a public forum for discussion on the matter. The ultimate, not unreasonable, decision was that the talks were kept available, but separately from the mainstream content. Coyne said he was surprised by the level of invective arising from the discussion; but I’d say this is because we have here a direct confrontation between iclaustrophobes and iagorophobes − not merely a polite debate, but a forum where each side taunts the other with notions for which the opponents have a visceral revulsion. And it has always been so; for me the iphobia concept explains the rampant hostility which always characterises debates of this type − as if the participants are not merely facing opposed ideas, but respective visions which invoke in each a deeply rooted fear.

I should say at this point that I don’t claim any godlike objectivity in this matter; I’m happy to come out of the closet as an iclaustrophobe myself. This doesn’t mean in my case that I take on board any amount of New Age mumbo-jumbo; I try to exercise rational scepticism where it’s called for. But as an example, let’s go back to Sheldrake: he’s written a book about the observation that housebound dogs sometimes appear to show marked  excitement at the moment that their distant owner sets off to return home, although there’s no way they could have knowledge of the owner’s actions at that moment. I have no idea whether there’s anything in this − but the fact is that if it were shown to be true nothing would give me greater pleasure. I love mystery and inexplicable facts, and for me they make the world a more intriguing and stimulating place. But of course Coyne isn’t the only commentator who has dismissed the theory out of hand as intolerable woo. I don’t expect this matter to be settled in the foreseeable future, if only because it would be career suicide for any mainstream scientist to investigate it.

Science and iPhobia

Why should such a course of action be so damaging to an investigator? Let’s start by putting the argument that it’s a desirable state of affairs that such research should be eschewed by the mainstream. The success of the scientific enterprise is largely due to the rigorous methodology it has developed; progress has resulted from successive, well-founded steps of theorising and experimental testing. If scientists were to spend their time investigating every wild theory that was proposed their efforts would become undirected and diffuse, and progress would be stalled. I can see the sense in this, and any self-respecting iagorophobe would endorse it. But against this, we can argue that progress in science often results from bold, unexpected ideas that come out of the blue (some examples in a moment). While this more restrictive outlook lends coherence to the scientific agenda, it can, just occasionally, exclude valuable insights. To explain why the restrictive approach holds sway I would look at the how a person’s psychological make-up might influence their career choice. Most iagorophobes are likely to be attracted to the logical, internally consistent framework they would be working with as part of a scientific career; while those of an iclaustrophobic profile might be attracted in an artistic direction. Hence science’s inbuilt resistance to out-of-the-blue ideas.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein (Wikimedia Commons)

I may come from the iclaustrophobe camp, but I don’t want to claim that only people of that profile are responsible for great scientific innovations. Take Einstein, who may have had an early fantasy of riding on a light beam, but it was one which led him through rigorous mathematical steps to a vastly coherent and revolutionary conception. His essential iagorophbia is seen in his revulsion from the notion of quantum indeterminacy − his ‘God does not play dice’. Relativity, despite being wholly novel in its time, is often spoken of as a ‘classical’ theory, in the sense that it retains the mathematical precision and predictability of the Newtonian schema which preceded it.

Niels Bohr

Niels Bohr (Wikimedia Commons)

There was a long-standing debate between him and Niels Bohr, the progenitor of the so-called Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory, which held that different sub-atomic scenarios coexisted in ‘superposition’ until an observation was made and the wave function collapsed. Bohr, it seems to me, with his willingness to entertain wildly counter-intuitive ideas, was a good example of an iclaustrophobe; so it’s hardly surprising that the debate between him and Einstein was so irreconcilable − although it’s to the credit of both that their mutual respect never faltered..

Over to you

Are you an iclaustrophobe or an iagorophobe? A Plato or an Aristotle? A Sheldrake or a Coyne? A Bohr or an Einstein? Or perhaps not particularly either? I’d welcome comments from either side, or neither.