Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

It’s one in a series of dark and stormy nights where I’m at, and I’ve finally finished Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. My friend Brittany and I have made a sort of habit of buddy reading trash romance novels together, an activity that I suppose is the natural progression from our early friendship days writing filthy Harry Potter fanfiction half the night during middle school sleepovers. Outlander has been our latest such trash read. (No major spoilers are present in what follows.)

I actually wrote a review of the book a few days ago when I still had a hundred and some odd pages left to go, and it was a snarky review full of complaints about style, bewilderment at the novel’s obsession with prepubescent sexuality, and annoyance with the homophobic strain I couldn’t help but pick up on. Having finished the book, I still hold by my earlier thoughts that the writing is rubbish (why did no one think to enlist a good editor for this mammoth trash pile?), though that’s to be expected in a trash romance novel that’s really only a half-step up from cheesy Harlequins. I’m also still extremely confused about why we’re meant to find it endearing that one of the main character’s favorite ways of bonding with the young boys in his family is to teach them the ways of the Kama Sutra while they’re still toddling about on their ponies and crying for their mothers. And I still object to the fact that the novel’s two only two gay characters are evil, one of them tepidly so and the other so evil that he is the book’s primary villain, terrorizing our hero and heroine in a variety of ways but ultimately most horrifyingly via his sexuality. That was bullshit and lazy character building, in my opinion, and I object to it strongly.

However. There were also parts of this book that I quite enjoyed, and I can understand in this case (unlike in the case, for example, of the 50 Shades phenomenon) why the book, and the series of which it is a part, and the show based off said series, are so popular. Outlander presents us with a good story, and though it drags, enraged me with its shady gender politics, and, suspension of disbelief aside, is often exhaustingly over-the-top in its presentation of calamitous events which befall the main characters practically every hour on the hour, I found myself looking forward to picking it up at night (it’s been my bedtime book for the past two weeks or so).

For anyone who doesn’t know, the plot essentially revolves around a 28-year-old former army nurse named Claire who, whilst on a vacation in the Scottish Highlands with her professor husband Frank, makes a solo visit to check out some rocks and falls through a wormhole in time back to the eighteenth century. In the eighteenth century, Claire is immediately brought to the brink of rape and captivity after stumbling upon the dastardly British Captain Jack Randall, a far descendant of Frank’s who looks so much like him that Claire frequently struggles to distinguish between the two despite the two centuries removal between each man’s existence—an easy mistake. Luckily, dashing outlaw Jamie MacKenzie (not his real name, but no matter) comes to the rescue just in time and sweeps her off to the local castle where she becomes the resident doctor as well as object of suspicion. What follows is a lot of uninspired courtship and cringe-worthy exposition on what it’s like to live in eighteenth century Scotland, and then Claire and Jamie are married, able at last to face together as married people that evil Captain Randall (who crops up over and over again because seemingly he and he alone is keeping strong the British presence in Scotland in addition to his other full time job of exercising a mean vendetta against both Jamie and Claire for a variety of reasons).

The premise is, of course, not original, but I believe the scope could be. Gabaldon has done a fair amount of world building for a romance novel, and it was fun to have that piecing-together-the-vast-puzzle-of-this-world experience in conjunction with the usual romance tropes. This aspect seems to have led to the marketing of this book as highbrow romance, and while I think that’s more than a bit of a stretch, the breadth of the novel does add something to the reading experience. Is this enough to elevate the novel to a highbrow designation? Not so much. As I suggested toward the top, I do think this book was far longer than it needed to be (there were entire sections that felt written to fill in an episode of a sitcom about Highlanders and these sections didn’t seem always to match the mood of the rest of the book; I found them on the whole to be really quite irksome), but as a faster reader the superfluous length didn’t much bother me.

Perhaps my greatest problem with this book is that the two main characters are just, frankly, unlikeable. I’m not one of those readers who needs to feel some sort of affinity to least one character to enjoy the read—in fact, I quite enjoy novels in which every character is a monster or a caricature or what have you—but in Outlander—which is, remember, primarily a romance novel as much as it creeps toward the fantasy genre, too—one needs to like at least one of the two protagonists for the narrative to be effective. Jamie is a bore and a brute, temperamental and shallow. We spend a great deal of time listening to him tell a rapt Claire stories from his childhood and his life as a young outlaw, but all of these stories have beatings or whippings or threatened castrations as their focal point so that all we know is Jamie has been treated harshly his entire life and, presumably, that is why he treats Claire as repugnantly as he does much of the time. About Claire, we learn a great deal more—she was a highly confident field nurse during WW2, was in a happy but mildly lackluster marriage with a man named Frank, and Claire is an incredibly resourceful woman when faced with the prospect of living two centuries after her own time amongst a clan of war-loving Highlanders. She also makes about five billion foolish choices throughout the book and I frequently wanted to strangle her for her stupidity and obliviousness. Still, I’m much nearer to liking her than I am to liking Jamie, and, in fact, during the parts of the book when Jamie is away from her on business or in captivity or whatever it is he does variously, I found myself enjoying the narrative much more so than when the two were together. Still, it seems problematic when the best parts of a romance novel are the parts in which no romance is threatening to occur.

One of the tropes of romances, trashy or otherwise, is that of the squishy moment. Squishy moments are separate from erotic moments; they appeal forcefully to one’s sense of what Love is the way erotic moments appeal forcefully to one’s sense of what Amazing Sex is. Outlander has its fair share of sex, though for the most part it was less graphic/well written/actually erotic than the hype had led me to believe it would be. It also has more than its fair share of squishy moments but for the most part these squishy moments had a deadening effect on me. This is likely largely due to my dislike of the characters—Gabaldon relies for her squishy moments on moments of intimacy in which one character shares personal stories and is responded to with nurturing and understanding and implied unconditional love. This is fine, but the personal stories and thus the moments of squish-inducing intimacy are more often than not repetitive and/or bizarre.

For example, Jamie’s perpetual stock of stories about childhood beatings and horrible mistreatment at the hands of Captain Randall are told over and over again, and we witness Claire cradling his head and running her fingers over his mutilated back with such frequency that it loses its effect. Less is more, Gabaldon. Furthermore, the function of these stories is simultaneously to induce squishiness in the reader and to explain and excuse his often horrifically abusive behavior toward Claire and other women in his life, and nothing kills squishiness like the rationalization of abuse.

As an example of the bizarre squish moments, consider the scene during which Jamie is obligingly rubbing his pregnant sister’s feet while her husband and Claire enjoy with them a few glasses of elderberry wine around the fire. He asks his sister, Jenny, what it’s like to be pregnant. She responds by sensuously rubbing her nipples and waxing philosophical about the heightened sensitivity she’s experiencing while glancing significantly at her husband. Shortly thereafter, the two of them leave the room, obviously to make the beast with two backs, leaving their young son in the room with Jamie and Claire. Jamie and Claire, who have been rapturously aroused by Jenny’s description of pregnancy, start getting down to it, then remember the child in the room. Jamie brushes off Claire’s halfhearted objection to doing the deed in front of a small child by explaining that this will be a helpful object lesson for the child, and they quickly get down to business. One gets the sense that this whole scene is intended to be an illustration of intimate domestic bliss but to me (and to Brittany—probably our longest conversation about any one scene in this book was about this one) it was just odd and borderline incestuous and the opposite of an effective squishy moment.

Also, the ending of the book is just Fucking Weird. I don’t want to spoil anything by elaborating so I’ll just leave it at that. I’m not even sure I could manage a cogent summary of the last thirty pages or so. It was just too Fucking. Weird.

All that aside, I did enjoy the book. I take a perverse sort of pleasure in reading trash, though, and it was the creepy undertones and the happiness I derived from hating characters I wasn’t meant to hate and the good times gleefully mocking the novel with a good friend that made up a great deal of my enjoyment in this reading experience. I haven’t quite decided whether I want to pick up the next book in the series; I do fully intend on watching at least the first season of the show, though, and I expect I’ll decide after that. I’d recommend this book to anyone for whom tearing down trash lit is a source of great joy, but probably not so much to anyone looking for a serious romance novel reading experience.

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The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

In my last post, I talked about the joy of easily taking books down from my shelves which I knew would be good, despite having not yet read them, or, if not good then at least not trash. I don’t know how The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins came to be in my possession—that is, I know I bought it, but I don’t remember why as I have no memory of it being recommended to me and I usually avoid first novels by people who do not come highly recommended by a trusted source—but, delightfully, it was another such novel: a good one as yet unread.

In fact, The Library at Mount Char is very good. One of the best contemporary fantasy novels I’ve read to date (though I admit I don’t read as widely in this genre as I might, though I’m slowly pushing to change that). Our protagonist in this novel is a young woman named Carolyn (I seem to have been reading a lot of novels featuring Carolyns and Carolines lately) who has been raised by her father (actually not her father but a supreme deity of some sort) along with 11 other men and women since childhood to be apprentice librarians in his secret, otherworldly library containing all of the knowledge in this world and in others. Carolyn’s specialty is languages—the usual ones like French and Mandarin, but also animal languages, the language of storms, and that sort of thing. Her siblings all have their own specialties, too: warfare, healing, communing with the dead, et cetera. Each has their own color coded catalog from which they have been studying for most of their lives, and since to study in the catalog of another is very strictly forbidden, they are each highly specialized and highly dependent upon each other and their father (who, of course, has handwritten the entire library himself).

The novel opens with the reconvening of the siblings who have all been wandering the earth looking for their mysteriously vanished Father who has, in vanishing, blocked their access to the library which has been their home and, in a sense, the source of their knowledge and thus of whatever parts of their power not yet committed to memory. The majority of the book details their continued search for their Father, which brings them to the attention of law enforcement and introduces a smattering of other characters unschooled in magic but often helpful and always colorful nonetheless. In their quest, they enlist the help of everyone from a mortal tiger king named Nobununga to Mrs. Gillicutty, a lonely widow who bakes trays full of brownies for a son who is never coming home. We also learn the backstory of the library and how they all came to be there, of course, and the intricacy of this plot coupled with the dominant one following their quest is given to us slowly, tantalizingly, but always clearly and naturally. There’s little to none of that painfully orchestrated exposition that often leaves me rolling my eyes when reading fantasy novels.

Aside from a marvelously constructed and executed plot, what attracted me so much about this novel was, I think, the character Carolyn. She became one of my favorite literary characters (and, as a side note, I’m very pleased that this book sits on my shelf right beside Dalva by Jim Harrison because Dalva is another of my favorite literary characters and I like to think of the two of them becoming friends). It’s hard to put my finger on why exactly I like her so much: she’s brutal, often manipulative and blind to her own faults in a way that endangers a lot of people around her including ones she’s supposed to care very much about. At one point, she sends a father/daughter duo of lions to their deaths, and in pretty much any other circumstance, even the merest suggestion of unkindness—let alone cruelty—to animals is enough to make me hate a person, real or imagined. Despite all of this, though, I admired her and also just became genuinely fond of her over the course of the book—she’s brilliant and bookish and resourceful, self-sacrificing but not a martyr, generous even when circumstances dictate that she must also be selfish. She’s clever and flawed in ways that are so understandable, and I found myself relating to her in weird ways I wouldn’t have thought possible given our vastly different circumstances.

I don’t have any particularly poignant quotes to pull out from this book to demonstrate to you all the power it has to move one; this isn’t that sort of book, though I found it immensely moving. It is very much so plot and character driven rather than a demonstration of poetic prowess. The writing is though, as I have mentioned above, clear and natural and, important in a book of nearly 400 pages, always efficient. Hawkins doesn’t skimp on the one-liners, though, which does get a bit tiresome as the novel progresses, though I didn’t find it too distracting. But, again, I would recommend this book on the strength of Carolyn alone. I do wish some of the other characters had been fleshed out as well as she was, but I also concede that perhaps there wasn’t space. I don’t know that this book would work as a series, though the ending is left open to that possibility. I would have liked to learn more, too, about how the magic in this book works, and what’s going on with the other universes that are frequently mentioned but never discussed in much detail. The book is long as is though, especially for a first novel, so I can understand, even if I’m still frustrated by, the decision to end where it did and to leave some threads a bit unraveled.

I will say, in closing, that I sped through this book, wandering away from our unpacking to sit down outside for just a page or two and returning an hour later still wanting more time to read. If no other part of my glowing review has convinced you yet, consider this: I held the book up in front of my face to keep reading while I carried two weeks’ worth of dirty laundry down three flights of stairs and then again while I hauled it all back up those stairs. This book pulled me in hard, and I’m sure it will do the same for others. I cannot wait to get my hands on Hawkins’s next book and I fervently hope he’s hard at work on it as I write this.

New Library and Shirley Jackson’s The Road Through the Wall

Something I’ve noticed since establishing my library room is that I’ve been being a bit more selective when choosing my next read. Previously, I would examine the books uppermost on my teetering stacks and take into account ease of removal from said stacks as well as the quality of the book and whether I was in the mood to read in any particular genre, subject matter area, and so on. No longer am I limited to such a method! As my books were pulled from their boxes, some of which had gone virtually untouched since I packed them up upon leaving undergrad, I thought carefully about those poor unread volumes, purchased with care when I was very low on book-buying funds and then shoved out of sight for years and years. Which to read first?

I chose a book by Shirley Jackson which I hadn’t yet read (though I was sorely tempted to do a reread of The Haunting of Hill House which is one of my favorites ever and which is the novel that brought me firmly to the Shirley Jackson fandom) but I wanted something fresh to me in anticipation of Ruth Franklin’s new biography of Jackson (released just today!). The first Jackson novel I unpacked that I hadn’t yet read is her earliest published novel and the one least critically acclaimed, The Road Through the Wall. (A word of warning: there are minor spoilers ahead but this is particularly the sort of book for which the concept of spoilers is irrelevant; this book is much more about tone than about plot.)

The Road Through the Wall tells the tale of the various off-putting inhabitants of a street in a middle class Californian suburb during a summer in the ‘30s when all of the children are home from school. There is a very large cast of characters which includes nearly everyone in the neighborhood, from young Caroline Desmond, a golden haired toddler who is the seeming envy of every mother on the block, to old Mrs. Mack who recites Bible lessons to her dog every evening and seldom leaves her rather embarrassingly (in the consideration of the streets’ other residents at any rate) dilapidated home.

The plot consists primarily of unsettling anecdotal incidents, which Jackson always does better than just about anyone. The children, particularly the girls, bully each other mercilessly and often craft their barbs to mimic the racist and classist comments made by their parents who are nearly all portrayed as cruelly oblivious to the realities of anything but their own progress toward upward mobility. When their daughters are found to be writing innocuous love letters to the boys in the neighborhood, or when some of the girls are discovered befriending a man of Chinese descent who lives in a nearby apartment building, or when it is learned that one of the girls has been chummy with the Jewish girl on the street, the parents create brief moments of upheaval but otherwise the plot moves smoothly from bizarre social interaction to bizarre social interaction. The strangeness of these social interactions can be partly explained by the fact that several of the characters seem to be mentally disabled in some way and are taken advantage of or otherwise abused by the neighborhood, but otherwise there is little distinction made between characters’ motivations for acting as they do, and, indeed, the characters who seem most “off” emerge as the most understandable and likeable characters by the end of the book. As the novel draws to a close, some children disappear and one is found murdered; Jackson manages to make this outcome seem somewhat inevitable despite the relative mundanity of the narrative’s previous terrors. This is the entire plot of the book in its most basic outline.

As I said above, this is one of Jackson’s least critically acclaimed novels and it’s easy to see why. The cast of characters is simply too large for a book of this relatively short size. It is Jackson’s style to purposely leave many of her characters open-ended in their development—this is part of what makes her creations both so uncannily lifelike and unnerving. But with so many characters, none of whom seemed finished or even approaching satisfactory development, reading this book at times felt more like swimming through an early draft than reading an accomplished, purpose-driven novel.

That said, it read like an extremely good early draft. Jackson was obviously already an accomplished observer of life, and her ability to precisely and succinctly present oddities and outrages as the commonplace occurrences that they are, though no less uncanny and horrifying for their ubiquity, is strong in this novel as in others. The novel opens, for example, with this throwaway aphorism that’s borderline blood chilling: “No man owns a house because he really wants a house, any more than he marries because he favors monogamy…” (1). This sentiment put me in mind of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives (which, published in 1972, I imagine owes a great deal of debt to Jackson), and I settled in for a goose bump raising morality tale about the horrors of suburbia, but the novel closes on a distinctly Jacksonian note, highly reminiscent of the lessons imparted in “The Lottery.” The case of the missing children has been mostly solved to everyone’s satisfaction, and as the adults stand about awaiting the arrival of the police, the narrator observes that “Pleasure was in the feeling that the terrors of the night, the jungle, had come close to their safe lighted homes, touched them nearly, and departed, leaving every family safe but one; an acute physical pleasure like a pain…” (181).

I simply am unable to imagine how a reasonable enjoyer of literature could fail to love Shirley Jackson with the same enthusiasm as I do, and therefore I cannot imagine that someone might purposefully leave this book off their lifetime TBR. This is because, to me, to love Shirley Jackson is to be excited for and about all of her writing, even the early and marginally less accomplished stuff. That said, for those new to Jackson, this is most definitely not the book I would recommend embarking with. For new readers, or readers who have only had schoolroom experience with “The Lottery,” I would suggest beginning with The Haunting of Hill House or Hangsaman. In these, Jackson is at her undisputed best and it is of course always nice to first encounter one at one’s best, isn’t it?