Monday, March 24, 2008

flabbergasted

Mark Liberman has chosen Wiggins' The Shadow Catcher over Tom McCarthy's Remainder in the Tournament of Books.

Readers of this blog may not be aware of the full extent of my admiration for Mark Liberman - the only reason I don't link to several Liberman posts a day is that I assume everyone is reading them anyway. (A similar reasoning explains the rare links to Languagehat.) But I'm now baffled.

Look. Let's say you have a female character from a cultured family who is left an orphan by a freak accident. She travels out west with her young brother to stay with friends of her parents who have offered to take the children in. She is attracted to one of the family, a strong, silent man who keeps going off and disappearing for long periods. At one point he brings back a brass bathtub, supposedly as a gift for the whole family. They're all living together, crammed into the house; there's no privacy. One day, for some reason I now forget, everyone in the family except Clara goes off on some excursion; they'll be away for days; she has the place to herself! She fills the bath with water and bathes in it. The strong, silent man appears on the rooftop. She stands up so he can see her naked. He falls off the roof. She nurses him back to health.

You just can't.

You just can't.

Well, you can, obviously, since Marianne Wiggins did. And it is apparently possible to read this without howling, since ML seems to have found the story of Edward and Clara compelling.

But you just can't.

(Do they do the dirty deed, you ask? Now honestly. Need you ask? What would be the point of getting everyone else in the family conveniently out of the way, if not to allow the male and female leads some highly implausible quality time à deux?)

Readers who enjoyed Susan Sontag's In America would probably enjoy the book.

8 comments:

Anatoly Vorobey said...

She fills the bath with water and bathes in it. The strong, silent man appears on the rooftop. She stands up so he can see her naked. He falls off the roof. She nurses him back to health.

Reminded me of the scene in One Hundred Years of Solitude, where Garcia Marquez knew better than to have that nurse-back-to-health nonsense.

"One day, as she began to bathe herself, a stranger lifted a tile from the roof and was breathless at the tremendous spectacle of her nudity. She saw his desolate eyes through the broken tiles and had no reaction of shame but rather one of alarm.

'Be careful,' she exclaimed. 'You'll fall.'

'I just wanted to see you,' the foreigner murmured.

'Oh, all right,' she said. 'But be careful, those tiles are rotten.'

The stranger's face had a pained expression of stupor and he seemed to be battling silently against his primary instincts so as not to break up the mirage. Remedios the Beauty thought that he was suffering from the fear that the tiles would break [...]

Then, while she was drying herself, the stranger begged her, with his eyes full of tears, to marry him. She answered him sincerely that she would never marry a man who was so simple that he had wasted almost an hour and even went without lunch just to see a woman taking a bath. Finally, when she put on her cassock, the man could not bear the proof that, indeed, she was not wearing anything underneath, as everyone had suspected, and he felt himself marked forever with the white-hot iron of that secret. Then he took two more tiles off in order to drop down into the bathroom.

'It’s very high,' she warned him in fright. 'You’ll kill yourself!'

The rotten tiles broke with a noise of disaster and the man barely had time to let out a cry of terror as he cracked his skull and was killed outright on the cement floor. The foreigners who heard the noise in the dining room and hastened to remove the body noticed the suffocating odor of Remedios the Beauty on his skin. It was so deep in his body that the cracks in his skull did not give off blood but an amber-colored oil that was impregnated with that secret perfume, and then they understood that the smell of Remedios the Beauty kept on torturing men beyond death, right down to the dust of their bones."

(apologies for the long quotation)

william said...

Plus also: Straw Dogs, the Sam Peckinpah movie.

terrypitts said...

I could not agree with you more. Marianne Wiggins' book is really weak. How it wins awards baffles me. I wrote about it st some length last July on my blog Vertigo: http://sebald.wordpress.com/2007/07/21/lost-in-the-shadows-marianne-wiggins-the-shadow-catcher/

Ithaca said...

anatoly. YES. EXACTLY. It's not the nurse-back-to-health sequence that's the problem, really, it's the innocence with which this is offered to the reader, who is expected, presumably, to be as blind to cliche as the author. The fabulous thing about Garcia Marquez is that he is so acutely aware of whatever it is that gives cliches their power in the first place. He doesn't waste his time on something as boring as simply sending up the obviously ludicrous; he sees that the desire that gives rise to these cliches can really only be satisfied by a story that is actually impossible, embraces the impossibility, embraces the desire that displays itself in the popularity of the story . . .

Lee said...

The fabulous thing about Garcia Marquez is that he is so acutely aware of whatever it is that gives cliches their power in the first place. He doesn't waste his time on something as boring as simply sending up the obviously ludicrous; he sees that the desire that gives rise to these cliches can really only be satisfied by a story that is actually impossible, embraces the impossibility, embraces the desire that displays itself in the popularity of the story . . .

I've been doing a lot of thinking about the use of cliche lately, and this is wonderful!

Language said...

I'm a huge fan of Mark's too, obviously, but I didn't really understand why they picked him. Why would a linguist be expected to be a judge of novels?

Oh, and thanks for saving me from wasting any time considering whether to read the Wiggins book.

Matthew Tiffany said...

I agree. I thought Wiggins' story sounded a little bit ... "standard," for lack of a better polite word. Your brief summary confirms.

"Remainder" was brought back, though, and Wiggins was eliminated.

ghost said...

I shared your bafflement. I link regularly to Liberman posts at the log and I was happy to see him (and you) as judges in this year's tournament (not Hornby: Neither Bolano nor Remainder nor Tree of Smoke would have made it past the Funny Simpleton) and I had to read his judgment, which is awful, awful, several times before it sunk in.