Reviews of Reviews pt 2

When I was in University I took a Victorian novel class. In that class we were assigned the Broadview* edition of Hardy's Tess of the d’Urbervilles**, which made mention of critics' struggles with Hardy's reliance on coincidence. To quote Walter Allen (as quoted in that edition):
"[Modern critics] have found fault with [Hardy's] extensive exploration of coincidence. [...] [The character's] creator cannot convince us that the Immanent Will, and not Thomas Hardy, is responsible."

Having just recently finished Jane Eyre I took issue with this critique. Shouldn't Brontë have been maligned for the same reasons? Surely the madwoman in the attic, the brother of said woman who shows up to ruin Jane and Rochester's wedding, the discovery of cousins, and the windfall of cash through Uncle John strains the reader's suspension of disbelief far more than the story Tess? I wrote a big ol' undergrad paper on the comparison of the two, coming down hard on Brontë, and giving a big thumbs up to Hardy.

I thought of these things as I read Steven W. Beattie's review of Run some months ago. Beattie's main criticism of Run is also the strain on credulity.
The degree of sympathy a reader will have for Patchett's novel will depend upon the degree to which that reader is able to accept the essentially contrived nature of the novel's plot. Although there are plenty of coincidences in Run, any one of these in itself would not be enough to damn the novel; coincidence is a part of life, after all, why should it not also be a part of fiction? But the sheer number of implausibilities begin to add up after a while, and, in aggregate, they can't help but take a toll on a reader's willingness to suspend disbelief.

While I agree that Patchett employs many "coincidences and contrivances" to propel her narrative, I didn't find myself questioning those tactics, nor did they seem too overt. Like in Tess, I just went with it, without questioning, and it worked for me. Unlike my experience reading Jane Eyre, were I kept talking back to the book, saying "Oh come on!" or uttering guttural sounds like "ugh," Run was smooth sailing, uninterrupted by jarring disconnects from reality (yes, even when Patchett employs a ghost to tell part of the story).

Taking these three books together, I did find some interesting similarities.
Run is set up like a lot of Victorian novels, in that there's a class-mingling -- or class-conflict -- at the centre of the book, which is the push for the narrative. Tess was a farm girl, raped by a member of the local gentry. Governess Jane falls for the rich Rochester. Tip and Teddy, in Run, are the adopted black sons of the former mayor of Boston, who were given up by a poor, single-mother. Perhaps in Victorian times, when the classes really didn't mingle that much (save for the home owner dealing with "the help"), there needed to be a large narrative coincidence to bring the economically disparate classes together. Run too, needs to challenge the reader with coincidence, in order to have the classes co-mingle. The premise of the novel, that the white mayor of an American city would adopt two black children, is (sadly) incredible to begin with. If the reader is to accept that, then what follows shouldn't be taken as surprising, or tough to believe. Rather, Run is a novel in which anything can happen, because the strangest thing already has. And it's a bit startling to realise that even in the 21st century, a novel about class, and class-systems, would have to use the same "tricks" the Victorians did, to make the narrative move forward. Which leads me to believe that we haven't come very far at all: the class-war exists in North America now as much as it did in Victorian England.

Beattie again:
And when a ghost appears to a key character in order to reveal yet another, supposedly ironic character relationship, all pretense to plausibility disintegrates[...]

If you take this in the context of Run being a kind of Victorian novel, the ghost actually makes perfect sense, since ghosts are a pretty standard Victorian/Gothic element. One need only think of Dickens' A Christmas Carol to see how ghosts tell the stories that the "mortals" in a book can't.

I enjoyed Run on first read, and have to thank Beattie for making me look a lot closer at a novel that I first just thought of as a good read. Now, I look at Run as a revival of a Victorian style of writing, that modern critics do indeed have a difficult time accepting. However, when it's done well, as it is with Tess and Run, the style has a lot to say about how classes, even now, simply stick to their own. A novel that has classes co-existing on such an intimate level strains the readers' suspension of disbelief, not because such novels rely too heavily on coincidence (though they do employ it), but because such things are still so very uncommon. The author creates implausible situations and solutions throughout to highlight the fact that the narrative situation is so odd in the first place.

Only in a strange world, where the normal does not apply, can the abnormal happen.

*I went to Uni in Calgary, where Broadview is based. As such, a lot of the textbooks we used were Broadview editions, and several of the editors of such books were profs at the U of C. I can't say enough good things about this publisher. They are beautiful editions of books, that consider the people using them: ie the margins are wide enough to write in, the paper is solid enough to write on, and the footnotes are at the end of the page not the end of the book. All good things for students! I highly recommend picking up a Broadview edition of a classic, if you're in the market for one. You won't be sorry.
**For the record, when asked, I always cite Tess as my "favourite" book.


Steven W. Beattie said...

And you said you weren't any good at writing criticism.

Panic said...

Out of practice, more like.

Thanks. :)

August said...

I was never so pleased with the Broadview editions. The scholarship behind them was always excellent, and I found the anthologies to be quite well made, but their individual critical editions strike me as second only to the Norton Critical Editions for ugliness and general bookmaking flaws. The typefaces seemed poorly chosen, the paper was a fine heavy stock but with too bright a finish, and the binding was usually too tight to read the book comfortably without breaking the spine. They drove me up the wall, and reading them gave me constant headaches.

Panic said...

That's so odd that we had very different experiences with them. Though it must be said, I was also reading a lot of margin-less, tissue paper Oxford editions at the time. So frustrating! I agree with you on the binding though; I'd forgotten about that.

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