R. R. Reno
I recently finished two novels. One is by Glenn Arbery, Boundaries of Eden. It’s a thoroughly engaging story set in the history-haunted South. One part Dickens in its arresting characters, one part Tom Wolfe in its splendid eye for social reality, and one part Faulkner in its evocation of the encroaching darkness of our sin-soaked past, Boundaries of Eden is a must-read.
The other novel I recently read is The Idiot by Elif Batuman. The opening pages feature mordant observations about elite miseducation that can be very funny. Batuman is a writer’s writer, creating a character who sees but does not know, observes but does not understand. Unlike the odious Jean-Paul Sartre, whose fiction is far too “philosophical,” and not unlike Walker Percy, Batuman captures the “lostness” of the human condition as a reality, not an idea.
A volume of interviews with Dana Gioia has come out from the University of Mississippi Press, in its Literary Conversations Series. Professor John Zheng is the editor, and he’s assembled interviews dating from 1992 to 2019. It’s a nice chronicle that incorporates the rise of the New Formalism, the impact of the “academic-ization” of creative writing, the decline of literary reading, Gioia’s eight successful years running the National Endowment for the Arts, and the fate of verse in the Digital Age. Here is a sample of what he says:
Contemporary society is alienated and detached from itself. A decadent sense of materialism pervades contemporary thinking on both the right and the left—a shared assumption that more stuff, more money, more physical pleasure will make people happier and society more just. Is it any wonder that people have retreated into private worlds where they are sedated by a constant and addictive stream of electronic entertainment? They need these digital narcotics because they can’t bear the reality they find around them—the chaotic clutter of our cities and our despoliation of nature.
Lauren Oyler’s timing is impeccable. Mere weeks after QAnon devotees storm the Capitol, she releases a debut novel about online conspiracies (among other things). In Fake Accounts, a young woman discovers that her boyfriend, whom she had assumed was extremely offline, is actually an anonymous Instagram conspiracy theorist. The tale that follows examines the many varieties of fakeness and the many kinds of accounts that characterize twenty-first-century life—the obvious fakery of social media personas and Tinder relationships, but also the fakery of feminist propaganda, identity-obsessed millennials, and the contemporary preoccupation with “authenticity.”
The result is both insightful and hilarious. Oyler is well-versed in irony, and the book is replete with witty, humorous observations about her own generation and milieu. She is already notorious for her criticism (recall her LRB takedown of Jia Tolentino), and her first foray into fiction does not disappoint.
Rumer Godden's In This House of Brede is a novel set in a monastery, and that’s why I put off reading it for most of a year. The choice of setting seemed cluttered with pitfalls, and I was skeptical it could be done without becoming trite, pious, boring. I was wrong. The first paragraph hooked me:
The motto was “Pax,” but the word was set in a circle of thorns. Pax: peace, but what a strange peace, made of unremitting toil and effort, seldom with a seen result; subject to constant interruptions, unexpected demands, short sleep at nights, little comfort, sometimes scant food; beset with disappointments and usually misunderstood; yet peace all the same, undeviating, filled with joy and gratitude and love.
The rest of the book doesn’t carry on in this style, but this difficult peace remains the central theme throughout. Godden quickly introduces us to her characters and their world.
Philippa is a successful businesswoman who enters the monastery later in life. Cecily is in her twenties and has left behind her childhood sweetheart to enter, despite her mother’s protests. The two women serve as foils to each other. Philippa has to accept her past in order to assume the maternal role the community needs her to fill. Cecily wrestles with her virginity—with respect to the lover she left behind, but also more broadly with respect to the instinctual innocence that characterizes her early scenes in the book.
Mother and virgin mature in the midst of crises both inside and outside the monastery: Brede’s abbess dies and the community encounters financial difficulties, people from their pasts come to visit, they are asked to help start a new foundation, and Vatican II takes place. One or two plot points did make me wince, but on the whole Godden deftly depicts the relationships that make up that uneasy monastic pax.
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