"A hen is an egg's way of making another egg."

As I finished up James McClure's "The Artful Egg" (1984)I couldn't help thinking of a conference I recently attended. A woman participating in a seminar became somewhat agitated, almost leaping out of her seat as she inveighed against the persistence of the mind-body or soul-body duality. Finally she let forth an anguished and strident cry: "I am NOT a vessel!" Everyone in the room murmured appreciatively, although whether it was the point or the performance that they enjoyed was unclear.

Later that day, I saw the woman at a reception. She was carrying a tiny baby.

I don't want to overemphasize the importance of this to her stand. I am sure the mind-body duality has always been a source of outrage to her. But this certainly added a meaningful richness to her zeal.

Parenthood, as one might suspect from the novel's opening lines, is no small or carefree endeavor in "The Artful Egg." Children become full of guile and complexity as they age, and are cheerfully resistant to your social deceptions when they are young. To say more would perhaps reveal too much about this double-stranded whodunit, so I will simply summarize the premise: a progressive writer is murdered in apartheid-era South Africa. What was the motive? Her money? Her politics? Her thorny familial relationships? The police (riven with racial strife themselves) compete against each other to solve the crime, while simultaneously delving into the demise of an infamous interrogator's wife in circumstances that suspiciously mirror the "accidental" deaths of political prisoners.

I found myself troubled by the racial politics of the novel (this may be to be expected in any book about apartheid). The plot is explicitly subversive, as paradoxical as that phrase may seem, but the characterizations revel in a physicality of stereotypes that can be quite unsettling. So grotesque are characters of all ethnicities that the body itself, with all its racial codes, becomes a source of extremes, a vessel of disgust.

"The Artful Egg" (1984)
James McClure [who, I am sad to say, died earlier this year at the age of 66]

Baby Nub and the Twins

First of all, I have to mention my favorite (for this week) "acknowledgment" from the beginning of an academic tome, Branimir M. Rieger's "Dionysus in Literature." Hewing closely to convention, he thanks his colleagues, his editors, the contributors to the volume (a collection of essays), his parents, his children. And then, this, the final sentence:

"And to Katanga, Major Tom, Baby Schnupkin, Lothar, Mookie, Nub, Baby Nub, Pockel, the Twins, Mousie, Lobotz, and Tiniest Of ..."

Um. Wait, no, read to the end...

"for their feline encouragement, and especially to Molly."

Without commenting in depth on how delightful it is that Molly (if Molly is in fact human, as I suspect) is folded in to the long train of meowing supporters, I just have to say this: Tiniest Of! Best cat name ever. And the idea of acknowledging your cats in an academic work (particularly one that takes as its subject madness in literature) - Awesome.

Or in the new Britspeak parlance that my friend and I are trying unsuccessfully to adopt .... "Immense."

Contingencies in Casterbridge

"The Mayor of Casterbridge" gallops apace, although I approach it with a growing sense of doom since my flatmate Anthony told me that it was a terribly sad book. I don't know why I believed that, totally against form and precedent, Hardy would have written a Jane Austen novel in which everything ends happily after some witty convulsions of plot. But I did. And now I fear for these poor characters.

There is a strange aversion to implicitness in the prose that I hadn't remembered from my one other experience with Hardy, although it may very well be characteristic. An example, from a scene in which Henchard reads a letter from an ex while his wife lies in her sickbed:

"Henchard breathed heavily. 'Poor thing - better you had not known me! Upon my heart and soul, if ever I should be left in a position to carry out that marriage with thee, I ought to do it - I ought to do it, indeed.'

The contingency that he had in his mind was of course the death of Mrs. Henchard."

Of course. Thanks for the clarification.

This novel is pretty much the opposite of a Henry James novel. In Henry James you wade through miles of text and then think, "Wait, did that really just happen?", aware that if you returned to the passage you would find all evidence of the event to be tricksy and double-edged, yielding multiple possible interpretations. The Hardy of "The Mayor of Casterbridge" would follow up such a passage with a paragraph break and the statement, "And then they had sex. Twice."

Is this a conscious narrative choice on Hardy's part? If so, to what end?

A window into my compulsive reading life

I must admit to using my recreational reading as a carrot to encourage me to do work, alternating academic reading (divided into manageable chunks) with New Yorkers, novels, comics. This does not always yield the most efficient results, but it is highly satisfying. I have also developed a curious relay* method to organize my reading and guarantee that I don't favor any particular genre (reading nothing, as is sometimes my wont, but young adult novels). I read three books at any one time, going through a generic to-do list in the following order:

1) Book groups (I now belong, on Yahoo groups, to a Dickens group, a British Classics group, a Literary fiction group, and a Twentieth Century Writers group)
2) Young adult, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Crime, or Thriller
3) Book from the 1001 Books I must Read Before I Die list **
4) Comics/Graphic novels
5) Random fiction
6) Nonfiction
7) Drama

As a result, I am currently at work on two other books in addition to "The Mayor of Casterbridge:" Paul Auster's "The New York Trilogy," which has delighted me by referencing my favorite Poe character (William Wilson), and James McClure's "The Artful Egg." I will leave you with the pleasing (and then troubling, which makes it all the more pleasing) opening line of McClure's mystery:

"A hen is an egg's way of making another egg."

*My mind is on relays at the moment, since I just turned on the television to record the Carolina women's basketball and soccer games and discovered that Animal Planet is televising a delightful sport which sends a series of dogs over hurdles to a machine which shoots tennis balls into their mouths. Nothing (except lumber sports and a curious hybrid of kickboxing and wrestling that I like to call boxling) amuses me quite as much as dog sports.

**I should note that I have another newfound enthusiasm for a webpage called Lists of Bests, which allows you to create or adopt lists (of books to read, movies to watch, places to visit, people to meet, or anything else really) any track your progress through them. Here is the absurd group of lists I am ... pursuing.

Head colds and Hardy

I am spending the weekend curled up under a blanket, in my normal sickly way, catching up on TiVo and the many excellent books I am reading. I am perpetually behind in the numerous reading groups I have been drawn into by Yahoo, but (rising above my inadequacy as a participant) they continue to provide me with excellent books that would never otherwise have been a priority.

At the moment I am hard at work on "The Mayor of Casterbridge," only my second ever Hardy (after the grimmer "Tess") and a font of antisocial and macabre delights. The blurb on the back of the book is one of the worst pieces of literary advertising I have ever seen, mumbling drearily on about the honesty of the protagonist Henchard as a tragic hero. Meanwhile, the inciting action of the novel, an event worthy of a Victorian Jerry Springer, goes completely unmentioned, despite the fact that it occurs in the very first chapter: Henchard ("honest" Henchard), drunk and belligerent, sells his wife like a horse to the highest bidder in provincial market, sending her and their baby daughter off with an unknown (but apparently kindly) sailor.

Nonetheless, my favorite moment so far (I am about 13 chapters in) comes in the midst of Hardy's description of the Roman essence of Casterbridge's topogrophy and architecture:

"It was impossible to dig more than a foot or two deep about the town fields and gardens without coming upon some tall soldier or other of the Empire, who had lain there in his silent unobstrusive rest for a space of fifteen hundred years. He was mostly found lying on his side, in an oval scoop in the chalk, like a chicken in its shell; his knees drawn up to his chest; sometimes with the remains of his spear against his arm; a fibula or brooch of bronze on his breast or forehead; an urn at his knees, a jar at his throat, a bottle at his mouth; and mystified conjecture pouring down upon him from the eyes of Casterbridge street boys and men, who had turned a moment to gaze at the familiar spectacle as they passed by. Imaginative inhabitants who would have felt an unpleasantness at the discovery of a comparatively modern skeleton in their gardens, were quite unmoved by these hoary shapes."

What could I think of, but the skulls in the Museum of London?