Sunday, December 28, 2008

Crit List 3: Journal Of A Sad Hermaphrodite

Well, I hadn't intended to post another critical piece so soon -- but when Journal Of A Sad Hermaphrodite showed up in the mail, courtesy of James Benstead of Tallis House, it demanded my attention.

I knew going in that I wasn't going to be reading another Borribles book. And honestly, there's no point in referring to the Borribles when discussing Journal. They're opposite works in just about every conceivable way, quality aside.

Journal Of A Sad Hermaphrodite is a mature work. Its prose is polished and lucid to the point of being virtually invisible. (High praise in my book.) It's about writing, about the importance of art in life, about ambition -- in other words, it's about many of the questions that are currently occupying a good deal of my attention. I found it thought-provoking, frequently beautiful, genuinely useful, technically fascinating in its approach, and at times frustrating and disappointing.

But despite that last caveat I know this is a book that I'll return to. It's a wonderful thing for a writer to read. The author clearly sees the act of writing as an essentially heroic one, and the way the book has been constructed makes a convincing emotional argument for this position. It makes me want to write more and to be more ambitious -- and to take pride in ambition.

It would be an act of hubris for an author to make that thematic statement if they seemed to be holding up their own work as an example of greatness. But this isn't the way de Larrabeiti handles things. This isn't simply a novel; it's also an anthology of great writing in both poetry and prose, all carefully selected to support the story and its deeper meanings.

If I'd heard about this in advance I'd have been very dubious. But it works -- and as a result this book is rewarding on a number of different levels. Just as a collection of writing it's wonderful. But that writing has been put to use that isn't clever -- rather, it's deep and heartfelt.

Normally I'd read a book of this length in two or three hours. This one took me all day because I read many passages slowly and repeatedly, savoring them. There's writing contained in this book that is as good as writing gets -- and it's all in service to de Larrabeiti's statement. I'm very ambivalent about appropriation and name dropping in fiction but I loved this.

I mentioned that this book is good for writers; there are passages on how to write and on the enemies of literature that I'm considering tattooing on my forearm for convenient reference.

The plot is slight; it's in service to the theme of the book and as such is serviceable -- but it is badly hampered by what I see as the book's central flaw.

The plot deals with the relationship between a teacher and a gifted student; the book is broken into three interwoven sections -- notes from the teacher, quotes from the student's diary, and selected literary passages.

I found the sections written from the student's point of view to be thin and unconvincing. She remains nameless throughout the book -- and while I suspect that de Larrabeiti did this in order to emphasize her importance as a muse or an anima figure (one of the book's strengths is its use of classic mythology, which is fully and naturally integrated into the story), it seems to be part and parcel of her existence as a plot contrivance rather than a living, breathing person.

This wouldn't matter if everyone in the novel were cut-out figures but this isn't the case at all. She's a perfect foil for the protagonist -- and nothing else, and as a result her portrayal weakens the book substantially for me.

And unfortunately this is exacerbated by trick typography. Each of the three threads in the novel has been given its own typeface. Since the quotes are in the italic version of the protagonist's font they work together perfectly; the student's passages are in a sans serif font that would work well as a display font. It makes brutal reading when used for body type. It just looks ugly on the page -- and as a result it offended the visual artist in me.

I found the typographical experiment to be a failure; it made me all too conscious of the reading experience and not in an enlightening way. On the other hand, who's to fault the decision to make an experiment? I'd rather see a failed experiment than a conventional success, and most of the experiments made in this book succeed.

Despite these petty complaints I really, really liked this book. As I said, I know it's one that I'll reread in the future. If you are interested in the relationship between art and life it's well worth a look. Few perfect books are this good -- de Larrabeiti aimed high and achieved well.

(As an aside, a description of the myth of Narcissus made me conscious of how often our culture has misread mythology. In the myth, when Narcissus fell in love with his reflection he believed it to be the face of a nymph -- he wasn't self-obsessed, he was cursed with features that inspired love. And that made me think of Oedipus, who didn't have a mother fixation -- he just happened to wander into a bad situation. Now I'm gonna have to re-examine all the familiar myths I run across...)


robp said...

Actually, Oedipus may have been what is generally considered narcissistic - he married a woman who presumably was physically similar to him. Which I'm willing to accept, as I don't really buy this Narcissus/nymph thing; it basically kills the story if that's the case. That is, the primary meaning ascribed to the story for too many years to be corrected. Lucky me, my own ego has nothing to do with what I see in the mirror; oh god, him again.

Sean Craven said...

It would totally rock if I were in a position to determine what myths meant; alas, the culture always wins in these kinds of fights.

I have to wonder how many people
in the ancient world had any idea of what they looked like; I've never had a chance to check out one of those bronze mirrors they used, and I've never seen a reflection of myself in the water that I could -- well, I'd say comb my hair or shave by, but since I don't comb my hair or shave...

Anyway, unless Praxiteles or someone did a sculpture of you, how the hell would you know about your own appearance? I'm not really clear on how I look to other people. Of course I can make a few guesses -- slablike, disheveled, mangy...

(Oh, my. I'm cycling through the submission cycle in order to harvest the words from the verification box and 'mustee' just came up. Nothing like an archaic racist term to give one the faint sour taste of old and ugly America first thing in the morning.)

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