Thursday, August 02, 2007

Arguing about Marked Men

Olivia Macassey has written some eloquent criticisms of my review of David Lyndon Brown's new novel Marked Men; I've quoted and replied to her in this post. Buy Marked Men and decide for yourself whether I'm just a prissy socialist realist: even if you agree with me that the book has some shortcomings, you'll be thrilled and gratified by David's beautiful prose.

Olivia writes:

I can't say I agree with this review at all.

The example you give to support your contention that it is "a novel of surfaces" is a case in point.

I'm guessing you don't simply want the character to say "I sat on the bed and investigated my feelings and thoughts"; you want him to talk you through it - to deliver some kind of angst-ridden interior monologue. For me, the passage illustrates his inner state quite adequately - it shows us rather than telling us.

This non-didactic approach also enables a layer of uncertainty, ambivalence, fluidity - we infer, rather than know - even as readers we don't get to sit there like gods. For instance, again in this example, your interprettation of this scene as a crisis brought on by Sykes "infidelity" is worlds away from what I think it was about!

It's also significant that the passage continues:

Then I unplugged the telephone, climbed into the shower and turning on the water as hot as I could stand it, scoured my skin raw.

For you, the passage describes "the behaviour of a man who mistakes the objects around him for the feelings inside him". But I think that this way of seeing the book is only really possible if you maintain a fairly rigid Cartesian mind/body duality. And you seem to signal an allegience to this a little later in the review, by creating an opposition between balls and bowels on one hand and hearts and brains on the other - placing emotion on the side of the intellect rather than the corporeal.

David Lyndon Brown's work on the other hand refuses this distinction. I think Richard is right to bring up Merleau-Ponty in this context. Why try to enforce a separation between mind and body, between body and body, body and "objects" and world, when Marked Men so clearly establishes the correspondences (metaphors, figures, senses) between them? He does not suppress "the intellectual and emotional life of his characters"; on the contrary he expresses it in all its obliqueness and unknowability in everything his protagonist sees, touches, feels. Paradoxically, your review seems to be complaining of an absence because of what amounts to a saturation of presence.

I'm reminded of the end of Journal d'un curé de campagne: all is grace.

In reply:

The point isn't that the author shows rather than telling; it's that he doesn't show enough.

On the one hand we have inarticulate characters who have a profound lack of interest in the world and quite nihilistic patterns of behaviour, and on the other hand we have the desire of the novelist to write about love and imbue Sykes with a certain innocence and goodness.

It's not clear to me that either Sykes or the narrator is capable of love. At the very least, we need to know more about them, so that we can understand why they behave in the way they do. Why is Sykes rebelling against the world to the point of death? Why is the narrator so utterly uninterested in everything else, and yet so obsessively drawn to Sykes? The only answers we are left with are essentially biological ones - hence my reference to balls and bowels. I don't accept that love is the same as physical desire, though of course it'd be silly to go to an extreme and think that our brains weren't at some level sexual organs.

Here's a question for readers of the novel: were you shocked when the loveable, innocent Sykes committed murder, and the narrator didn't bat an eyelid? No? Me neither. I think the novel really presents what should be a cataclysmic event as a minor detail. It's certainly much less affecting, in the context of the novel, than Sykes' sexual betrayal of the narrator. This is what I mean when I say there is a moral vacuum at the heart of Marked Men. Such a vacuum wouldn't be a problem if the author wanted to write The Outsider, or a hardboiled Chandler novel, but it is a problem if he wants to tell a story about love, and ask his readers to feel sympathy for Sykes and the narrator.

Of course I'm probably utterly wrong and Olivia is probably utterly right: fight it out in the comments box. David Lyndon Brown is certainly a writer worth arguing about.


Blogger Richard Taylor said...

The novel is worth writing about - if perhaps not fighting about - as the writer is clearly of ability - whether that (his full potential - how can one ever know that?)is yet realised is a question - and criticism may help in his quest or development. It may not - but criticism is essential I feel.

I agree to a large extent with Maps here - although my point was also that he - that is David Lyndon Brown - is struggling (whether by design or by his inherent stylistic tendency) to present some kind of phenomenological thing - as in perhaps the Outsider - but thinking of novels of violence and so on - including theme of homosexuality and even nihilism (I contest that in a large part Shakespear was a nihilist BTW) - I recall reading the black US writer James Baldwin, who was gay, as a teenager - I remember a powerful sense of grief and love (I cant recall details of his books however; that was about 1965 or so); and I once read Jean Genet's beautiful (yet savage and almost nihilistic ) novel 'Our Lady of the Flowers': perhaps that grief and love is less evident, but it is itself a moving and powerfully poetic book.

I also have trouble with Sykes (in fact with all the characters in the book) - he rejects his parents because they were 'middle class' and and gave him a good home (!) and cornflakes (there is some small suggestion of conflict but all families have conflict (my parents were what would be called middle class - my father was an Architect who had risen from the working class morass by his own efforts - and I and he loved cornflakes(!)- and he and my mother gave us all a great start in life and so on - sure there were problems and there WAS dysfunction - but we need to hear or see that - (I could have become a kind of Sykes but it wouldn't be because of cornflakes!)** - now this means he character or the writer is dismissing many many good and complex people throughout NZ - undoubtedly flawed people (the funeral is a good scene - I relate to that - but who is at fault the celebrant for the queens who defile (or re-defile?) the body of Fabulina?) - but basically good people - of various social levels - Sykes (except as I think he could have become a very much more symbolic and developed character) fails to get me to feel anything for him - when he dies I feel next to nothing for him* - the murder of Rose I blinked over - the twins just seem bizarre (as I suggested they fail to become an leitmotif "Oscar"; as in The Tin Drum say) - there is lack of development and emotional depth - this is not a post modern novel such as something by Robbet-Grillet - it needs the hand of another writer of he strange - such as Patrick White. If we don't empathise with White's characters we are always fascinated with them.

One exception in Marked Men is Grace - she/he shows quite some love in action and concern - he is also empathic and has depth and is almost humoresque).

And the obsession with surfaces is I suspect a problem unique to many gays (but it can be strength, but Marked Men seems to me to neither go with this potentially fascinating mind-body thing - or to take us into the heart of the light of love etc as Maps suggests it should (it still could do) - it for me is a failure in life and art; but it is not the preserve of gays to fail thus and this 'failure' is indeed also a subtext or a text in this book - and it (Hollowness) almost gets through, almost works; but many seem to transcend this surface horror - others fixate on these surfaces - and yet, and yet, again...the novel has great potential and so has the writer and it is excellently written.

Apart from the interaction of the protagonist with Grace: some of the the most tender moments happen when Sykes and the protagonist are on the wharf on the island and Sykes
is fascinated by the phosphorescence - otherwise it is too much of the skin erotic and lacks the intensity of such as Baldwin and Genet. Why for example does the narrator want to be inside and joined to Sykes? Too much on this (potentially very subtle aspect) is left unspoken.
Nor does it get that intense sense of the powerful absence (or writerelyness - whatever the word is for it) - as in Robbet-Grillet's "Jealousy" for example.

Yet it attempts to show or bring us into this ambivalent world via the exterior and what surrounds the protagonist; which is reminiscent of Sartre's (main character's) abhorrence of Being in Nausea; but to get that right would necessitate almost zero comment.

But we get a sketchy "background" to Sykes. It gives us not more than something such as such as - his (Sykes) middle class family gave him a good upbringing and fed him on cornflakes - that weakens the novel...

Otherwise Marked Men is structurally strong and has much poetical writing. And the story is interesting and well told.

I also have great respect for the talent and sincerity of the writer.
The descriptive and imagistic power is as good as almost any writer I have read - there is no question of the ability of the author. Maps pointed out one of the many brilliancies: "deleting the parameters of time"..but there is much more. The book is afire with images and excellent shifts of narrative to conversation and back to moments of strange and almost disturbing stasis. The book is by a gifted, high voltage writer.

* But if were to take the 'angle' from the film "Apocalypse Now" (based on Heart of Darkness by Conrad, as is Eliot's poem, although that also references the murderers of Caesar and their moral failure and also the Gun Powder Plot - but these would be bombers in The Hollow Men are NOT the Hollow Men!); of 'The Hollow Men' (read by in the film by the eternally mumbling Brando); and then look at Eliot's poem again - then I did think this was one way that this hollowness could have become a powerful negative energy in the book... (But this MAY be one of those books or works that haunts me because of this apparent failure - its 'failure' being its success ..hmmm..)

** Of course I simplify here - it is deeply true that families throughout the world are in many instances the source of mental problems or unhappiness - these are not related only to economics or whether one is 'middle class' however. They are to do with communication and the expression and action of love in a family.

12:31 am  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

For the record. "Facts! Facts!" (Gradgrind in Dickens's 'Hard Times') The book by Genet I read was in fact
"The Miracle of the Rose".

12:39 am  
Blogger Olivia Macassey said...

Oooh catfight!

Just kidding - I've replied to your reply beneath the original post.

4:35 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You all seem to have overlooked an important element - light. The fall of light, tricks of light, changes of light - hardly a page goes by without some kind of lighting effect.

7:10 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Important to WHAT though?

3:45 pm  

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