On Friday I’ll be cohosting a Classics Chat on Twitter about Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a Polish countess whose arrival threatens to disrupt the lives of the social elite in post-Civil War New York. Please join Kevin Smokler (@weegee) and me (@janiceharayda) at 4 p.m. ET, 9 p.m. GMT, on March 22 at #classicschat to discuss this great book. Kevin wrote Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, which includes an essay on the book. He and I will be talking about The Age of Innocence with Francesca Segal (@francescasegal) who won the 2012 Costa First Novel Award and the National Jewish Book Award for fiction for The Innocents, inspired by Wharton’s book.
March 16, 2013
October 14, 2012
A young writer faces a test of her faith when she cares for a dying man
What Happened to Sophie Wilder: A Novel. By Christopher R. Beha. Tin House, 256 pp., $15.95, paper.
By Janice Harayda
American novelists appear to be losing faith in faith as a source of literary inspiration. Nearly all of the leading fiction writers who have dealt seriously with religion are over 60, especially those who have explored Catholic themes. No obvious heir to the tradition of Flannery O’Connor and J.F. Powers exists among the generation of novelists that is coming into maturity, the children of baby boomers. Into the void have rushed authors of ecclesiastical thrillers inspired by The Da Vinci Code, books that don’t engage Catholic beliefs so much as distort and exploit them.
These realities may reflect a broader cultural trend: Young Americans are less likely than their parents to affiliate with a church, a reality documented in a report earlier this month from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. But the dearth of novels about Catholicism remains odd and disappointing given the deep impact on the faithful of the upheavals caused by issues such as abortion, sexual abuse by the clergy and the exclusion of women from the priesthood. You could hardly ask for more dramatic literary material.
So it’s heartening that in his first novel Chris Beha tells an intelligent, if not fully successful, story of a young female convert to Catholicism. In college Sophie Wilder fell in love with a student in her writing program, Charlie Blakeman, whose surname aptly embeds that of that skeptic of orthodox religion, William Blake. Sophie drops back into her ex-lover’s life when they are in their late 20s and finds him keeping company with self-consciously literary New Yorkers who think and speak in phrases like, “Alfred Kazin once said of Saul Bellow …” Since college, Sophie has converted to Catholicism while Charlie and his friends have made a religion their pretenses or, as they might say, “stories.” In this novel a man who asks, “What’s her story?” means: What narrative has she constructed about herself? Sophie, it seems, has reconnected with Charlie to tell him the story of her recent, troubling experience of caring for a dying man whose wishes tested her faith.
This novel represents Charlie’s attempt to make sense of Sophie’s tale. Antiphonal chapters tell the story from alternating points of view: Charlie’s first-person account in each case precedes a third-person narrative about Sophie that perhaps reflects his effort to see things from her perspective. Both versions of the tale have weak spots. Writing in the first person, Charlie often asserts instead of dramatizing facts about Sophie or offers awkward explanations for her actions. (“Perhaps because of her family situation …”) He says that male students were “enthralled” with Sophie and found her “unlike other girls,” but it’s never clear why this was so when she was rude, sarcastic and lacking the conventional beauty that might have offset those traits. Charlie also implies that Sophie had that blend of talent and drive that enables a writer to get a book published and become “briefly famous” soon after college, but he offers no evidence of her talent and little of her drive. The chapters not told in the first person have traditional third-person limited-omniscient narration when free-indirect speech might have better revealed Sophie’s character. All of this leaves a hole at the center of the story: You see Sophie from two perspectives that don’t coalesce into a whole. She never comes into her own.
What Happened to Sophie Wilder is ultimately Charlie’s story rather than Sophie’s, and as such, it deals sensitively with worthy questions: Why do we need stories, whether religious or literary? What do we gain or lose from them? At what point does an investment in story become irreversible? The great virtue of this novel is that it treats belief seriously. If the book shows the cost of Sophie’s faith, it never ridicules it, and it also reveals the cost of others’ misplaced devotions. Charlie and his cousin rent rooms in Greenwich Village from a man who has Victorian aquarium full of fish, “the most important thing in his life,” and who asks only that they care for it when he’s away. Consumed by their own interests, the young men are incapable of this simple task. Charlie realizes it too late, and in a rueful observation on their failure, suggests a theme of the novel. “We had been given something beautiful, asked only to watch over it,” he reflects. “We’d been careless, and now it was all in ruin.”
Best line: “Henry’s the Ted Hughes of management consultants.”
Worst line: “Tom … pursed his lips with a look of concern.”
A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide and discussion questions for What Happened to Sophie Wilder appeared on this site on Oct. 14. The guide to this book explores, among other things, some of the religious issues raised by the novel: for example, that Sophie converted after reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain and each of the main sections of the book has seven chapters.
Published: May 2012
Furthermore: The New York Times summarized the the report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life cited above. You may also want to read Sam Sacks’ review of What Happened to Sophie Wilder and One-Minute Book Reviews’ review of the nonfiction book Mr. Tibbits’s Catholic School.
Read an excerpt from What Happened to Sophie Wilder.
You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this page.
© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
April 23, 2011
“There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free”
The Age of Innocence. By Edith Wharton. Many editions.
By Janice Harayda
American novelists often condemn or ridicule men who dabble in love. Edith Wharton portrays such a dilettante with depth, complexity, and a sympathetic wit in The Age of Innocence, a book that her biographer R.W.B. Lewis rightly calls “one of the few really first-class works of fiction to win the Pulitzer Prize.”
Newland Archer tends to find more satisfaction in thinking about his pleasures – love among them – than in their fulfillment. This trait threatens his well-ordered life when the alluring Countess Ellen Olenska returns to New York on the eve of his engagement to the placid May Welland. But Wharton doesn’t seek to condemn her protagonist for his inability to resist either the newcomer’s allure or the dependable comforts offered by his fiancée. She aims to show how others conspire to keep Newland in line with their reverence for the “invisible deity” who blesses their opera boxes, ballrooms, and dinner tables adorned with women in towering ostrich feathers and men in patent-leather pumps.
Wharton’s post–Civil War New Yorkers call their god “Good Form,” the outward expression of their taste. Others might identify their deity as an overdeveloped sense of tribal propriety. The great theme of The Age of Innocence is the power of social custom to thwart the individual desires of both sexes. Ellen arrives New York seeking the freedom missing in her marriage to a callow Polish nobleman, but her free-spiritedness and impenetrable past quickly begin to shut doors to her. Newland has too much loyalty to his tribe to take the decisive action required by their attraction, and his ambivalence requires her to make her own decision about whether to stay or return to Europe.
The elegance of The Age of Innocence lies partly in Wharton’s refusal to cast Newland as a coward or a fool. He is rather a product of a society that has its own appeal for him. And he is too intelligent not to see the injustices and contradictions that its mores involve. At first Newland has hazy fantasies of awakening in May the intellectual curiosity she lacks, perhaps by reading the Faust story to her beside Italian lakes. He eventually concedes defeat with a droll awareness of his limits and hers. There was no point, he realizes, in trying to emancipate a woman “who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free.”
The Age of Innocence brims with such wry observations that help to justify its frequent billing as “a comedy of manners and morals.” Like the greatest comic novelists, Wharton knows that the finest wit comes not from topical one-liners but from ludicrous, incongruous, or absurd situations that reflect enduring human needs or wishes. Unlike Henry James, to whom she is so often compared, she is never windy or opaque but writes as clearly and economically as she constructs her plots. No one would say of Wharton that she was “incapable of offering a thought without pinning a flower in its button-hole,” as the biographer Leon Edel said of James’s letter-writing. And her instinct for clarity helps to explain the effectiveness of her wit. As in Jane Austen’s novels, you always know who is being tweaked.
In a defining scene of The Age of Innocence, Newland and May visit an exhibit of Early Bronze Age and other antiquities at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There they see glass shelves crowded with items labeled “Use Unknown,” a symbol the pointless customs of their circle. The ritualized expectations of upper-middle-class New Yorkers don’t lead to tragedy as in Wharton’s The House of Mirth, in which Lily Bart is unable to save herself from the consequences of her failure to marry. The customs instead inspire a banquet of observations that include Newland’s on his fiancée: “What could he and she really know of each other, since it was his duty, as a ‘decent’ fellow, to conceal his past from her, and hers, as a marriageable girl, to have no past to conceal?”
Best line: “There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free; and he had long since discovered that May’s only use of the liberty she supposed herself to possess would be to lay it on the altar of wifely adoration.”
Worst line: Newland Archer sees “a warm pink” blush rise on the cheek of his future wife as she sits behind two other women in a box on the opposite side of the Academy of Music, an opera house. It is hard to imagine how he could have seen so slight a change from such a distance without – and even with – opera glasses, which Wharton gives no sign that he has used.
Reading group guide: By far the best reading group gruide and discussion questions for The Age of Innocence appear along with other helpful material on Wharton on the site for the Big Read project of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Furthermore: This review is based on the 1992 Collier/Macmillan paperback edition of The Age of Innocence, which has an introduction by R.W.B. Lewis and uses the text from Novels: The House of Mirth / The Reef / The Custom of the Country / The Age of Innocence (Library of America, 1986). Wharton became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction when The Age of Innocence received the award in 1921. Daniel Day-Lewis starred as Newland in the 1993 movie of the novel. The website for Wharton’s Massachusetts home, The Mount, has more on her life.
You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.
© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
November 5, 2009
Paranoia with a side of wasabi cashews
Chronic City: A Novel. By Jonathan Lethem. Doubleday, 467 pp., $27.95.
By Janice Harayda
Do MacArthur Fellowships have a counterpart to the “curse of the Nobel” said to keep writers from doing their best work after they become laureates? You might think so after reading the latest novel by the “genius grant” winner Jonathan Lethem.
Chronic City draws on an idea that science-fiction writers have used for decades: simulated-worlds theory, which says that computers will someday become powerful enough to create a facsimile of the universe, full of people who really believe they’re alive – they don’t know they’re fakes. Lethem brings the idea to literary fiction in a surrealistic fable about Manhattan during the economic meltdown: You’re never certain whether his characters are real or created by forces beyond their ken. This premise might seem ideally pitched to novel born of a financial crisis that has caused many people to think: This is can’t be real. But the idea holds a trap: If you invent characters soulless enough to have been created by computer, how do you keep them human enough to support a novel?
Lethem doesn’t avoid that danger in this tale of two friends whose lives intersect with those of a billionaire mayor and others who can still afford cocktails with wasabi cashews and “a nice black-market unpasteurized fromage.” Chase Insteadman is a semi-retired actor, a man whose work involves selling illusions, whose fiancée is an astronaut trapped with Russians at a space station threatened by Chinese mines. Perkus Tooth is a paranoid stoner and former culture critic who believes New York has become unreal, a simulation of itself. Yes, those twee names are typical of this novel in which words seem to run away with Lethem.
The plot turns partly on Perkus’s efforts to ease his anxieties by enlisting Chase and others in his quest to obtain rare ceramics called chaldrons that may have magical powers. A subplot weaves in phantasmagorical elements such as a giant escaped tiger that is ravaging the Upper East Side, that bastion of old money and property. Many undergraduate theses will be written about all symbols-within-symbols in this novel. (Sample title: “Different Stripes: The Meaning of the Question ‘Who Made This Tiger?’ in William Blake’s Poem ‘The Tiger’ and Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City.) And worthy questions underlie its cat’s-cradle of pop-cultural references, including: Who owns New York? Those references support a theme that Chase’s fiancée suggests in one of her letters home from outer space: “we’ve defaulted to an illusion of substance.” She’s talking about the deteriorating condition of the trapped astronauts, but her words describe New York as a whole: In the novel the city has only “an illusion of substance.” The condition is chronic.
Yet Chronic City reads more like a simulation of a novel than the real thing. It has a turgid pace almost no conflict, suspense, or heart. Most characters appear soulless. And the writing is repetitive to the point of bloat and, at times, graceless. Critics have compared Lethem’s early novels to the works of contemporary titans, but Chronic City has more in common with Herman Melville’s numbing final novel, The Confidence-Man. Even a mayoral aide’s sexual encounter – described as “wildly odd and erotic” – fails to supply the missing spark. Lethem writes: “Remembering it, Richard’s crotch throbbed, grew hotter, the itching more intense.” A bit, perhaps, like the itching you may feel to put aside this book after many pages of sentences like that one.
Best line: “His mind’s landscape was epic, dotted with towering figures like Easter Island heads.”
Worst line: No. 1 (quoted above): “Remembering it, Richard’s crotch throbbed, grew hotter, the itching more intense.” No. 2: “It was my first green chaldron. (Like sexual positions or travel to distant locales, I’d been semiconsciously cataloguing seminal moments, breakthroughs.)” No. 3: “I wanted Oona in the morning. I could still conjure her slippery smoothness in my arms (and divergent cuppable breasts in my palms, where they left ghost trails of a peach’s weight), but Oona kept dunning lights and pulling curtains, and dressing and undressing stealthily, while I was at the sink or refrigerator, or asleep.” No. 4: “My shame took its place in a vast backdrop of shames – oxygen-starved astronauts, war-exiled orphans, dwindling and displaced species – against which I puttered through daily life, attending parties and combating hangovers, recording voice-overs and granting interviews to obscure fan sites, drinking coffee and smoking joints with Perkus, and making contact with real feeling unpredictably and at random, at funeral receptions, under rain-sheeted doorways.” No. 5: “Richard’s unrestrained sarcastic inflection of this last word served not only to reinforce what a poor selection he thought I’d made in Strabo Blandiana but to assuage Perkins that the two of them still spoke above my head, and so his promise of future listening was sincere.” [Note: As opposed to a promise of past listening?]
Published: October 2009
Furthermore: A good analysis of the pop-cultural references in Chronic City and of some of Lethem’s influences appeared in a review in Bookforum. Novelist Mark Lindquist says he loves the novel but warns in a Seattle Times review, “You can find more plot in a Jethro Tull album.”
About the author: Lethem has written seven novels, including The Fortress of Solitude, and Motherless Brooklyn, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award. He received a MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes called a “genius grant, in 2005.
You can follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where she has posted more of her thoughts on Chronic City.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
March 11, 2008
Jay McInerney Satirizes New Yorker-Style Fact-Checking in ‘Bright Lights, Big City,’ A Defining Novel of the 1980s
The book that put spring in the step of the phrase “Bolivian marching powder”
A lot of people have suggested that book publishers need to adopt the system used in the fact-checking department at The New Yorker, where Jay McInerney worked briefly. How does it work? McInerney sends up fact-checking — among many other things — with sardonic verve in Bright Lights, Big City (Vintage, 1984), his satirical tale of a young Manhattanite who by day works for an elite magazine and by night seeks relief from the pretension in drug-fueled revels. (This book put spring in the step of the phrase “Bolivian marching powder.”) Along with Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, Bright Lights, Big City helped set the tone of fiction in the 1980s and may be McInerney’s best book. Among its virtues: It shows the rare, successful use of second-person narration in a novel. That device works partly because it suggests its anti-hero’s estrangement from himself: He’s alienated enough from his life that he sees himself not as an “I” but as a “you.”
(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
November 30, 2007
June 30, 2007
What! You STILL want to read Holly Peterson’s The Manny after all I wrote this week about its cringe-inducing sex scenes? Okay, you can win my copy of this new novel about a Park Avenue wife who hires a male nanny to care for her 9-year-old son.
Here’s how to win:
1) Link from your blog to this post or any other on One-Minute Book Reviews (or add One-Minute Book Reviews to your blogroll).
2) Send an e-mail message that includes the link to the address on the “Contact” page on this site. Include your mailing address.
3) If you’re the first person to send a link I can verify and you live in the U.S., I’ll send you the book. (I’ll pay the postage.) This is the copy of The Manny that I used to write the review and reading group guide to the novel that appeared on this site on on June 26 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/06/26/. I don’t mark up books (I make notes in a notebook), so the novel in good condition except for a smudge on the cover (underneath the dust jacket, so I didn’t see it until I got it home from the store). You can read the first pages of the novel by going to www.randomhouse.com and clicking on the links for the novel and then on “Read an excerpt.”
4) You must be age 18 or over to enter. And you may NOT link from a porn site or have won another contest on One-Minute Book Reviews within the past 30 days. I decide what’s “porn.”
Because links can be slow in showing up on Word Press and Technorati, you must send an e-mail message to the address on the contact page to win. I’ll judge the winner by the times on the e-mails.
This is the fourth in a series of book giveways that I’ll be having on Fridays or Saturdays on this site this summer. Contests are announced between 5 p.m. on Friday and 5 p.m. on Saturday Eastern time. There may not be a giveaway every week, and not all giveaways may require a link. Some may involve explaining why you want the book.
(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.