Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Emily Perkins, _Novel About My WIfe_

About a year ago (July 21, I find upon checking), I was reading Tom McCarthy's Remainder, on the strength of its being Believer magazine's novel of the year for 2007, and I'd say now it was the strongest novel I read in 2008. I read Novel About My Wife on the strength of its being Believer magazine's novel of the year, and...enhh.

Not that it's a bad performance by any means. It has some of the same psychological interest Remainder did, although it's by a wide margin a less audacious book. The narrator, Tom Stone, is a struggling screenwriter, early 40s, living in London, and the book is his memoir of his wife, Ann, lately deceased. So, how, we wonder, did Ann die? Of complications of her pregnancy? Of an accident, like the Tube train derailment she survives in the early pages? Does the stalker whom Tom strongly suspects is imaginary turn out to be real, and does he murder her?

Well, all those factors come into play, but it turns out to be something else -- a combination of post-partum emotional chaos, the imaginary stalker's turning out to be a kind of fabulated "screen memory" for a real figure who played a traumatic role in Ann's past, and Tom's own impercipience, which goes deep enough to amount to a betrayal.

Tom, I'd say, is so little amiable as to seem to have wandered in from a Martin Amis novel. He is witty, he loves Ann as well as he is able, but he's a bit of a pill. A lot of his character development has to do with his realization (fairly common among those rounding 40) that by hanging on to the ideals and notions of integrity he adopted as a young man he has condemned himself to life of insecurity and want. He would like to sell out -- but those who decide to sell out quickly find, as Tom does, that they are in a buyer's market. Can't make the mortgage, kid on the way, Ann's mental health precarious... what to do?

His solution to this problem makes sense, but also leads to Ann's death.

A tale for our times... and Balzac's. It all seems a bit pat, though. The prose was strong, the narrative crafty, but I didn't find this one altogether satisfying.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Jennifer Moxley, _Imagination Verses_

HER FIRST BOOK, from 1996, written over the period 1990-95, as she notes in a preface. Already quite assured, though, I would say -- not much of the fumblings and stumblings of apprenticeship here, so far as I can detect. A rich, substantial, startling book.

The preface also notes the poems are written in "a variety of different free verse forms," and so they are, but here as in later work I keep feeling the iambic undertow, especially in the latter part of the volume. There is a pentameter beat deep in her music, produced perhaps by the same intimate acquaintance with the tradition that produced the two sonnets she calls "Duets," one a distillation of Wordsworth, the other of Keats.

One always heard it Pound, too, which is (I think) why his free verse felt liberated rather than sprawling. Moxley's "After First Figure" called Pound to mind for me, specifically "The Return," in which, as Hugh Kenner noted, no two lines are metrically alike, yet the rhythm of the whole is as balanced and complete as a Calder mobile. "The Return" was also a sort of poetic manifesto, announcing a modern vision of the classical, and "After First Figure" too seems to announce basic principles:

And as with imagination
there is no choice
being thought bound
the separate mind stands out, as matter
and maintains dreamily:
"I have been over to the words and they work."

Now, as to why the imagination is paraphrasing Lincoln Steffens, I can't say, but what a Moxleyan moment it is.

Also worth noting, the exploration of gender, sexuality, and power in "The Removal of Enlightenment Safeguards" and "The Ballad of Her rePossession." Rather fashionable topics for the first half of the 1990s, true, but how many of us can say our reflections on gender, sexuality,and power from the first half of the 1990s still sound interesting today? Not many of us...but Moxley's are.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Charles Wright & David Lehman, eds, _The Best American Poetry 2008_

OBVIOUSLY ABSURD PRETENSIONS of the title aside, I enjoy this series -- this volume not so much as some others, but it was nonetheless worthwhile as usual.

As for periodicals represented, Charles Wright seems to have gone more for the less adventurous ones: Meridian, Poetry, Virginia Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, American Poetry Review, Hudson, Kenyon... and thirteen (!) poems from the New Yorker. The New Yorker is inarguably printing more interesting poetry these days than it has for a while, but thirteen out of seventy-five?

In the hoot department, there is nothing in this volume quite as funny as Mark Halliday's "Best Am Po" in the 2007 volume, but Bob Hicok's "O my pa-pa" comes close: "Our fathers have formed a poetry workshop. / They sit in a circle of disappointment over our fastballs / and wives." The poets' fathers have been reading their sons' many disenchanted poems about them, and they are not happy: "[...] they've read every word and noticed / that our nine happy poems have balloons and sex / and giraffes inside, but not one dad waving hello / from the top of a hill at dusk."

I always hope for a new discovery or two from each volume in this series, and this one did not disappoint. Dave Snyder's "Hexagon: On Truth" intriguingly combined description of an astronomy telescope with Maeterlinck's account of the lives of bees, and Lynn Xu's "Language exists because..." memorably concludes, "I am not asking you to die for me. Say you will die for me."

I don't know why I thought this was cool, but the volume ended with a nice run of four Youngs: C. Dale, David, Dean, and Kevin.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Mischa Berlinski, _Fieldwork_

THE BOOK CLUB selection for June -- about which I knew nothing, and I don't think I even voted for it, but it turned out to be excellent.

The narrator -- one Mischa Berlinski -- living for a year in Thailand with his girlfriend, a first grade teacher, and making a desultory sort of living as a free-lance writer, learns of an American anthropologist, female and in her 50s, who committed suicide while serving a life sentence for murder in a Thai prison.

Who was she, who was her victim, what was the story? Like Citizen Kane or any ordinary murder mystery, the novel is the reconstruction of anterior events. Berlinski-the-author invents a rich panoply of family, friends, associates, and other witnesses for Berlinski-the-narrator to track down and interview as he assembles piece-by-piece the story of how Martiya van der Leun, an anthropologist single-mindedly devoted to understanding and recording the life-ways of the Dyalo tribe in northern Thailand, came to murder David Walker, ex-Deadhead and third-generation Christian missionary dedicated to the evangelizing of those very same Dyalo.

As the only Americans in the world with any deep interest in the Dyalo, Martiya and the Walkers have an extraordinary lot in common but also deeply conflicting agendas, the Walkers hoping to "rescue" the Dyalo from the very culture Martiya has so painstakingly analyzed. A clash will surely come -- and it does.

The plot thus has a certain foreordained quality to it, but it is nonetheless ingeniously worked out, and along the way Berlinski-the-author turns out to be no mean novelist-anthropologist himself, evoking with compelling clarity the worlds of Grateful Dead camp followers, of three generations of Christian missionaries, of anthropology grad students, and of course the (fictional) Dyalo.

Berlinski is a nimble stylist, his imagination fertile, and he's someone whose next novel I will be sure to pick up.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Jennifer Moxley, _Clampdown_

ANOTHER EXCELLENT VOLUME from Jennifer Moxley, although not a happy one. Does the title derive, I wonder, from "Workin' for the Clampdown," a song on The Clash's London Calling? Despite all the music's punch and energy, the song lyrics were mainly about the long, long odds against the success of any resistance mounted against the powers that be. Moxley's Clampdown too seems to be about struggles fought long and honorably, but not crowned by success.

Struggles to keep a marriage ("Mother Night"), the ideals of youth ("Clampdown"), the nation ("The Occasion"), and poetry itself ("Where to") alive and strong have left the poet exhausted and...well, not bitter, exactly, nor desperate, not even resigned, I'd say, but certainly tired, and wondering what she possibly could have left undone that things have come to this pass.

At the same time, Moxley seems to be pondering the strange fact that she is, in her world, famous. In an elegy for Robert Creeley, she writes:

We never think we'll outlive
the people we have chosen to believe
a necessary part of existence.
But we do.

After this thought comes the realization that she has become just the sort of poet for others that Creeley has been for her:

and then the final turn of fate: to find
that you yourself in midlife have become
another person's frail necessity.

There are not a lot of poems about the strange feeling of becoming a modestly successful and recognized poet, for the excellent reason that it rarely happens. Yeats comes to mind, but the lines at the end of Responsibilities ("While I, from that reed-throated whisperer") and "What Then?" mainly suggest how little the success, once attained, actually mattered. Moxley takes a similar tack. "The March Notebook," dedicated to Robert Kelly, almost seems to say that failure is the only success that matters (cf. Yeats, "To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing," to say nothing of Dylan's "Love Minus Zero / No Limit"). "Our Defiant Motives," the volume's next poem, begin by asking --

And what if we succeed? Then what. What if we,
who are fond of thinking that our lives have been
hindered vigorously by scheming statesmen
and entrepreneurs -- scummy down to the one --
find ourselves out on a stretch of open sea
with none but a smooth trajectory
that looks to be of our own making?

Unlikely, but if it does happen, don't kid yourself that your success was all down to your own efforts and redeems the apparent injustice of the society we live in -- or so Moxley suggest in the fine-grained irony of the next two stanzas, which take the point of view of someone complacently assuming his or her own prosperity is sufficient proof that whatever is, is right.

And then the very next poem, "The Quest," sends the last nail on this particular coffin home with its epigraph from Jack Spicer ("The Grail is the opposite of poetry") and its uncompromising conclusion:

In the end, nothing is certain
except that those who seek their own
salvation will betray their brethren.

No workin' for the clampdown here, friends.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Roberto Bolaño, _The Savage Detectives_

MY FAVORITE REMAINS By Night in Chile, but this one was worthwhile and memorable as well.

The novel is, in some respects, easily described. The opening 120 pages are the 1975 diary of Juan Garcia Madero, a university student in Mexico City who finds himself pulled out of his studies into the gravitational field of a group of young poets, the "visceral realists," captained by Arturo Belaño and Ulises Lima. More by chance than design, he winds up in a car with them and Lupe, a prostitute, when they take off to the Sonoran desert to (a) rescue Lupe from her pimp and (b) find Caesarea Tinajero, an obscure but legendary "stridentist" poet or proto-visceral-realist, whose main surviving work is a kind of Roger Price "droodle" that seems inspired by Rimbaud's "Le Bateau Ivre."

The closing 50 pages are also from Garcia Madero's diary, from January 1976, and record the seekers' finding Caesarea and their being found by Lupe's pimp, and what ensues.

In between are 400 pages that read like an oral history of Belaño and Lima, transcripts of interviews with people who knew them intimately or perhaps only crossed paths with them in the twenty years from 1976 to 1996. Neither prospers or even, it appears, does much writing -- basically, two unspooling tales of bohemian drift: drugs, unlikely temporary jobs, exasperated girlfriends, mysterious errands in remote places, dropping off the map.

It doesn't sound like much. Why is it so readable and intriguing?


For one thing, the pseudo-oral-biography section reminded me of Manuel Puig's Betrayed by Rita Hayworth in the extraordinary range of voices it is able to animate and turn into characters. The witnesses to Belaño's and Lima's 20-year-flameouts become interesting in their own right as Bolaño conjures them out of their monologues. In another way, it reminded me of Georges Perec's La Vie: Mode d'emploi in that it becomes as it goes along a compendium of stories; each witness has a story of Belaño or Lima, but also a story of his or her own, and their own stories have an autonomous life and energy that keep the reader engaged. Some of them -- those of Belaño's girlfriends, for instance -- are almost novels in miniature themselves.

The richest theme in the book, though, is the reckless commitment the young poets will make to poetry, to the hope that the real authentic saving thing is out there, that it may have to be rescued from obscurity or found by desperate tracking through the desert, but it exists and is sacred. Visiting a surviving stridentist (the 1920s movement that anticipated visceral realism), the young men fall silent and stand at attention as he reads the names of the Directory of the Avant Garde:

"And when I had finished reading that long list, the boys kneeled or stood at attention, I swear I can't remember which and anyway it doesn't matter, they stood at attention like soldiers or kneeled like true believers, and they drank the last drops of Las Suicidas mezcal in honor of all those strange or familiar names, remembered or forgotten even by their own grandchildren. And I looked at those two boys who just minute ago had seemed so serious, standing there at attention before me, saluting the flag of their fallen companions, and I too raised my glass and drained it, toasting all our dead." (202)

Belaño and Lima will fall as well -- the middle section is about the long spiralling arc of that fall. For the world does not love poetry. Not the real kind, anyway. The world stands ready with a baseball bat to dash in the brains of the poetry whenever it has the audacity to dart its head out of its hole. "We poets in our youth begin in gladness, / But ofttimes in the end come despondency and madness," wrote Wordsworth, who knew plenty about long, slow descents. Disgrace, obscurity, betrayal, humiliation await -- unless you are the kind of opportunist poet represented in this novel (not quite fairly, I'd say) by Octavio Paz, or shall we say anyone who has enough institutional clout to win a prize or gain a sinecure.

The novel is a monument to a youthful impulse that can end only in poverty and disappointment -- and, with a little luck, immortality. Ah, there's the thing.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Richard Yates, _Revolutionary Road_

I READ THIS as our book club selection for May -- the release of the film based on the novel no doubt had something to do with our club's choosing to read it, but I had actually been hoping for an occasion to get to it for a while, based on its reputation as a "writer's writer" novel. And you know what -- it really is remarkably good. Great, even.

Which makes me wonder, how did Yates ever come to languish in the relative obscurity in which he languished? Did excelling in Flaubert/James/Ford style realism amount to backing the wrong horse by the mid-60s, when Barth, Barthelme, and Pynchon began to rule the roost? Still, Updike and Cheever managed to make a go of it.

The book uncannily nailed its moment. At several points the dialogue and pastimes (e.g., amateur theatricals) threw me back to my childhood and overheard conversations among my parents and their friends -- my parents lived in Iowa, not Connecticut, and I can't imagine them deciding to move to Paris, but the chatter of the college-educated circa 1960 must have had a certain family resemblance coast-to-coast.

More impressive still is the book's awareness that _The Feminine Mystique_ is on the horizon -- to say nothing of _Ariel_. Frank's use of gender ideology to intimidate and control April (not that she is guiltless of occasionally doing the same thing to him) is so persuasively represented that a reader might think this is a novel about the early 60s written in the 80s or 90s, well after that vicious species of psychological manipulation had been exposed and anatomized.

And so skillfully narrated, too. Yates shows a mastery of the possibilities of narrative point-of-view that is positively Jamesian -- the holding back of locating point of view in Frank for a few pages as the play unfolds, the switch to the neighbors' points of view when the Wheelers decide to go to Paris, the withholding of April's point of view until that terrifying final episode, the striking absence of Frank's point of view in the closing pages -- it's Jamesian. I have no higher praise.

Ah me, what has become of the Jamesian? Who can manage it now? Edmund White, yes, Alan Hollinghurst on a good day...that's about it.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Martha Ronk, _Why/Why Not_

THE COVER OF Why/Why Not includes a photo of a room's interior wall, upon which a mirror has been obliquely placed, reflecting another wall of the same room. The effect is of a parallelogram-sized section of one image affixed atop the surface of another, different-but-related image. The photo acts as a visual clue to the technique of the poems inside. They are self-interrupting, frequently starting down one track only to jump to another -- or is it simply another section of the same track?

The man with the mistaken hair
has been remembering what I remember but he thinks
are intrusive except ones I can't stand.
("Odi et amo 2")

We get this effect most often in the earlier poems in the book, with their longer, sparingly-punctuated lines, unscrolling their way down the page without ever quite allowing us to determine whether they should be read as end-stopped or enjambed:

Unable to keep the spill from spilling over from concentration
to concentration the way a voice merges with a voice on tv
And I shouldn't have left the house never have left the house
weeks afterward the fallout the spinout she stopped dead
in your tracks without cause without a car on the road [...].
("Unable to keep the spill from spilling")

But then, in the last of the book's three sections, we have two longer poems -- "why" and "why not" -- or perhaps they are one poem? -- and "why not" is composed almost entirely in short, firmly end-stopped lines:

I don't want to know.
Anyhow I don't mind it.
What is predictable all the time and the cold.
Then backing and backing and backing.
What I said was I don't mind it
and I believed it when I said it.
(p. 76)

This leaves us with the feeling that something has happened. We don't know what it is -- whatever it is, it feels more resigned than reconciled, more a loss than a recovery, but somehow wiser and clearer. And it has something to do with Hamlet. At midpoint in the volume we have a section titled "act 3," in which the perceptions of Hamlet, Gertrude, and Ophelia orbit something unnamed and frightening, sometimes in the long, unscrolling lines of the first part of the book, sometimes in the abrupt end-stopped phrases of "why not."

A memorably unsettling book.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Sally Van Doren, _Sex at Noon Taxes_

WALT WHITMAN AWARD winner for 2007, and here I am finally getting around to reading it. Whitman winners are usually worth reading, this one being no exception -- though I will grant that the palindromic title is the most intriguing thing in the book, and turns out it was borrowed from the title of a painting by Ed Ruscha.

Each poem is fourteen lines long, though not all present themselves as traditional sonnets; a poem may be seven couplets, for instance, or two stanzas of seven lines. The poems are playfully and wittily self-aware, linguistically savvy.

I particularly liked Van Doren's syntax, which is usually graceful and clever. Pound says somewhere that poetry should be at least as well-written as good prose -- a principle he obviously decided to jettison by the time he composed the Cantos, but I wish more poets followed it more often. There's a honored place for the paratactic, of course, but I wish poets who do use ordinary syntax would pay it at least as much mind as they do their lineation, over which so many obviously agonize, meanwhile letting modifiers dangle and squint.

A likable book, though not an exciting one.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Mary Jo Bang, _The Eye Like a Strange Balloon_

A VOLUME OF ekphrastic poems -- though these poems do not describe works of art so much as they use them as points of departure. The journey thus inaugurated often rambles far and wide. Perhaps we should call them oneiro-ekphrastic poems, as they seem to be not about specific works of art, but about dreams inspired by those works of art.

The title poem, for instance, somehow started out from the famous Odilon Redon lithograph of the same title, in which a giant eyeball/hot-air-balloon lifts above the horizon, but the poem has no eyes, no balloons, but instead a disjunctive almost-narrative both precise and vague, directional and desultory, enigmatically exact:

Molecular coherence, a dramatic canopy,
cafeteria din, audacious design. Or humble.
Saying, We ask only to be compared to the ant-
erior cruciate ligament. So simple. So elegant.

I didn't compare each poem to the work of art that served as its starting point (although a helpful list at the back of the book permits the curious reader to do exactly that), as it soon became clear the poems were quite able to stand alone -- indeed, just about insisted on standing alone.

What I think I'll remember from the book is not the images, be they original or derived from paintings or photographs, but Bang's voice, its skittery syntax, its audacious (or humble?) leaps, its humor of a dryness so rarified it can feel scary.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Mark Lilla, _The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West_

NOT SURE WHY Lilla's name does not come up in my reading more often than it does, because he is stone brilliant no matter what he is writing about. Having marched through my share of Foucault, Zizek, and Butler out of sheer duty given the regularity with which their names ring out in the journals, I nonetheless have to say I get more out of Lilla. Not that he is one for radical re-formulations or bouleversements of ruling paradigms or such -- but he has such a grasp of intellectual history, such a deftness in unknotting others' arguments, such a lucid prose style...

...that may be the problem right there. If Lilla wrote in Continental Opaque, he might already be a revered figure. Or it may be his politics -- he's a comet with enough velocity that he has been captured neither in the Allan Bloom/Leo Strauss orbit nor the post-Marxist orbit nor the neo-con orbit nor any other. He doesn't seem to be on anyone's team.

Reading The Stillborn God kept making me think of Edmund Wilson, perhaps not least because it's a chunky but small volume that sits nicely in the hand the way paperbacks of To the Finland Station or Patriotic Gore did, but even more because of his confident intimacy with the ideas of his subjects and his ability to elaborate his book's narrative without ever losing its main thread. And there's the writing. Did I mention the writing? Why are grace and lucidity like Lilla's so obsolete? Why oh why did Adorno ever have to become the model for modern intellectually ambitious prose?

I haven't even brought up the book's subject, I look back and see. Shame on me. Well, Lilla's subject is the separation of church and state in the west, from Hobbes to (roughly) World War II. He seems to have been prompted by a certain vein of western commentary on the Islamic world, to wit, when will these people wise up and realize that modernity is secular? If Lilla is right, the western separation of church and state may be unrepeatable elsewhere. He casts it as an historical anomaly, very much due to peculiar circumstances (the terrifying religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries), not the inevitable consequence of modernization we have taken it to be.

Furthermore, once the west threw religion out the front door, religion found many ways of coming back in through one window or another, sometimes with catastrophic consequences.

And after all -- if laws and governments are based on our notions of what is right and just, and if for most people the right and the just are founded on some idea of "what God wants," how do you ever keep religion from mingling in politics?

Not only are we foolish to expect the Islamic world will eventually come to its senses and follow our example, but we are deluded to think we have successfully figured how to effect this separation ourselves.

No good news here, then, but what a great book.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Jon McGregor, _If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things_

"BOOKER-NOMINATED," ANNOUNCES the jacket. What does that mean, though? Do British publishers nominate their own books for the Booker, as publishers here do for the Pulitzer? Now, if it said "Short-listed for the Booker Prize," that would be another thing altogether. But "nominated"? Hmm.

But this novel seems Booker-oriented anyway, in that it concerns the long tail of consequences of a terrible event in the past, the exact nature of which the novel is structured to withhold until quite near the end (see earlier entry on Anne Enright's _The Gathering_).

The narrative is formally interesting, though. Chapters describing the ordinary doings of the inhabitants of an ordinary residential street in an unnamed English city on the day that the terrible event occurred alternate with chapters from the point of view of one of the witnesses of the event, a young woman, three years later, when she has discovered she is pregnant and has to to figure who to tell and how, how she will manage, and so on.

The terrible event -- a car hits and kills a boy, one of a set of twins, who is playing in the street -- is so elaborately foreshadowed that it is not much of a surprise, but that death turns out to carry as a near-immediate consequence the death of a quiet, lonely young man who also lives on the street, a death that goes unnoticed for days. This young man was silently and desperately in love with the young woman who three years later is dealing with her surprise pregnancy -- a love she knows nothing of until, in the midst of her quandary over her preganancy, she meets Michael, the twin of the young man, who eventually tells her the whole story...

...well, it sounds a bit hokey when one lays it out like that. What the novel did with time, coincidence, pattern, and delayed revelations was highly likeable, really.

The near-total exclusion of names was peculiarly effective, for some reason -- Michael is named, and we learn the name of the boy who is killed wehn he dies, but everyone else is anonymous, identified only by some distinctive trait, "the man with the ruined hands," "the tall girl with the glitter round her eyes." The inverted indentation trick in the young woman's chapters (first line flush left, subsequent lines of the same sentence indented a quarter-inch, as in Walt Whitman poems) seemed gimmicky at first but somehow shed a bit of dignity on her humiliating circumstances.

The conditional clause that serves as the title is on p. 239 completed by the man with the ruined hands, speaking to his daughter: "He says, if nobody speaks of remarkable things, how can they be called remarkable?" He is speaking of noticing, paying attention to, heeding the astonishing things always around us, even as we live our ordinary lives in ordinary circumstances, and he clues us in that the novel participates in the rich realist tradition of finding the remarkable in the supposedly unremarkable. Fair enough, then. Better than some Booker winners I could name, in fact.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Diane Setterfield, _The Thirteenth Tale_

I READ THIS because it was April's selection in the book club my wife and I belong to; it also happened to be the 2008 choice of the "One Book One Lincoln," our local community reading program.

So, I read it, but did I enjoy it? Hmm. Not much.

The novel is narrated by a youngish woman who works in a rare books store (owned by her father) and writes slender literary biographies of recherché subjects on the side. Vida Winter, legendary and revered novelist, contacts the young woman out of the blue with an invitation to become Winter's authorized biographer. Winter's past is famously mysterious -- what was the suppressed "Thirteenth Tale" removed from her very first book about? -- and she has been famously cagy and unrevealing with would-be biographers, telling each a different story. But now she will tell all -- but only in her own way, in her own sequence, taking no questions.

Interesting enough premise, I think. Touches on what I think are interesting questions: why do we care what an author's life was like? What assumptions about art imitating life, or vice versa, do we habitually make? Why do intriguing fictions lead us to think the experiences of those who compose them must be equally intriguing?

Unfortunately for me, none of these questions is pursued. The novel quickly settled in to Winter's telling of her story, which was a gallimaufry of situations and incidents from 19th century novels -- eccentric gentry in a vast mouldering country house, dark family secrets, foundlings, twins, madwomen in attics, the burning down of the house.

By the end, we know what the thirteenth tale was about, what injury left the mysterious scars. and so on, and are left with the feeling of having eaten a very large Victorian meal and plumped down afterwards in a very cushy Victorian chair.

On a fairly regular basis, some critic or other, usually James Wood, starts tub-thumping about getting back to the virtues of the old 19th century novel, Tolstoy and George Eliot, close observation and moral seriousness, sense of place and history, and so on, none of this metafictional gamesmanship and preciosity -- but really, most 19th century novels were more like The Thirteenth Tale than they were like Middlemarch, and I think the 19th century left behind a more than adequate number of them, thank you very much.