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Inappropriate Guilt?

April 28, 2012

I seem to have misplaced two or three months here.

Blame it on the terrorist puppy, who is now a terrorist adolescent. We surely don’t deserve the behavior to which he subjects us. We aren’t in that superindulgent class of dog parents who give their mutt all-natural raw beef treats and scrupulously avoid the word “no.” Look, our boy doesn’t even have his own Facebook page. And we are firm believers in behavioral limits; for example, when he gets in the bed and wiggles under the covers, he is not allowed to put his head on my pillow and snore into my ear. Limits!

Perhaps I should say that such behavior is inappropriate—the term that has replaced bad, wrong, offensive, etc. It’s the word my 20-some nieces use when a middle-aged man (i.e., over 30) hits on them. I find it a strange word, in part because it connotes such a vague, shifting moral ground. It implies that the behavior might be OK if certain conditions were changed, if the timing were different, if …

Of course, an uncertain moral ground is perfect for fiction writers. Like an adventurous puppy, we like to stick our noses in those sticky, swampy areas. However, a book I just read makes me think that in some cases we may overreact to the muckiness by digging too hard and too deep for solid turf.

Think about recent tales that turn on a character’s guilt. Ian McEwan’s Atonement comes to mind—a narrative set in motion by a lie told by a 13-year-old, a nasty falsehood with tragic consequences. The man she accuses goes to jail, gets out only by volunteering for World War II, gets killed in the field. Still, the shameful deed was committed by a barely adolescent girl, in part because of her misunderstanding and wild imagination (she’s a budding novelist), so is it really appropriate (that word again) that she spend the rest of the novel, covering many years of her life, with a pressing need to atone?

The book I’ve just finished is Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. In this case the perpetrator of the nasty act is a 20ish young man, Tony Webster, who writes an intemperate letter to his ex-girlfriend who has taken up with his best pal, who later commits suicide. Not till page 161 of 163 do we finally grasp the consequences of this missive. By accident, the letter cursed the two lovers with a miscellaneous semi-prediction of something that more or less happened. As it turns out, the letter prompted the friend to do X, which led to untoward behavior with Y, which resulted in surprise outcome Z (loosely implied in the letter), which occasioned the friend to take the drastic way out of his predicament. We’re asked to believe that, with these truths revealed, the words of his long-ago rant will “forever haunt” Tony. He’s prey to a sharp remorse that, he reminds us, literally means biting again. Luckily he’s old by now, so he won’t be bitten for long.

I find it hard to conceive that a mature adult—and Tony is quite an ordinary kind of guy, as he readily tells us—would be haunted by a culpability established only through a long skein of consequences that verge on coincidence. “Imagine the strength of the bite,” he demands, when he discovers that his angry curses have come true; this “has a shiver of the otherworldly about it,” he claims (p. 151), but I don’t buy it. Regret, yes; stunned disbelief, sure. Everlasting remorse, no.

These two novelists—both British, both Man Booker winners (Barnes for this book, McEwan for an earlier one)—seem to be reaching for sins their characters can feel guilty about. McEwan’s attempt is more convincing, since the consequences are more direct. Still, I want guilt to be purer and simpler, rawer, less intellectual.

Thus an aphorism: Guilt without appropriate guiltiness is inappropriate.

Delicate Sensationalism

January 14, 2012

Cover of BLACK DOGSIn my disorganized reading of found books—volumes that turn up in the house with no invitation on my part, usually left behind by my wife, daughter, or a friend—the most recent was Black Dogs, a 1992 short novel by Ian McEwan, a writer I admire but can imbibe only in small doses. As is typical of McEwan, the story is unconventional, a bit weird, unpredictable. It’s a good read. Yet it indulges in a technique that my purist side deplores.

When pop novelists use bodice-ripping and gruesome slayings to spice up a plot, serious critics can dismiss the effort as mere sensationalism. But what happens when a top-notch literary writer employs similar elements, in a much more skillful way, and presumably to a higher purpose?

In Black DogsSPOILER ALERT, if anyone who hasn’t read this 20-year-old novel still plans to—the narrator, Jeremy, is writing a memoir about his in-laws, June and Bernard. The two have long been estranged, in part because of a transforming experience in 1946, on their honeymoon, when June encountered two large dogs in the French countryside. The animals provoked a revelation about good and evil that propelled her into decades of spiritual exploration, at odds with Bernard’s involvement in politics. Tantalizingly, throughout the novel, the author merely alludes to the key event. The explanation arrives in the last chapter with a vivid description of June’s being cornered on a lonely mountain path by feral dogs “of an unnatural size,” as big as donkeys:

she saw them as a juddering accumulation of disjointed details: the alien black gums, slack black lips rimmed by salt, a thread of saliva breaking, the fissures on a tongue that ran to smoothness along its curling edge, a yellow-red eye and eyeball muck spiking the fur, open sores on a foreleg, and, trapped in the V of an open mouth, deep in the hinge of the jaw, a little foam, to which her gaze kept returning. The dogs had brought with them their own cloud of flies. Some of them now defected to her.

The beasts slink forward to attack; June fights them off with rocks, a penknife, a rucksack and a distracting sausage.

But that’s not the real climax.

Later, in the inn where the newlyweds are staying, the proprietress and the mayor explain the dogs’ origin. During the war, the canines were brought to the region by the Nazi Gestapo to terrify the populace, which had supported the Resistance. Left behind when the Germans fled, the dogs have been living off the sheep.

Against the wishes of Mme. Auriac, the innkeeper, the mayor then proceeds with the story of a young woman, Danielle Bertrand, who had moved to the village during the war. She turned up at this very inn one day bleeding and gibbering, with her clothes torn.

Mme. Auriac said quickly, ‘She had been raped by the Gestapo. Excuse me, madame,’ and she placed her hand on June’s.

‘That was what we all thought,” the Maire said.

Mme. Auriac raised her voice. ‘And that was correct.’

‘It’s not what we discovered later. Pierre and Henri Sauvy—’

‘Drunks!’

‘They saw it happen. Excuse me, madame’—to June—‘but they tied Danielle Bertrand over a chair.’

Mme. Auriac slapped the table hard. ‘Hector, I’m saying this to you now. I will not have this story told here.’

But Hector addressed himself to Bernard. ‘It wasn’t the Gestapo who raped her. They used—’

Mme. Auriac was on her feet. ‘You will leave my table now, and never eat or drink here again!’

Hector hesitated, then he shrugged, and he was halfway out of his chair when June asked, ‘They used what? What are you talking about, monsieur?’

The Maire, who had been so anxious to deliver his story, dithered over this direct question. ‘It’s necessary to understand, madame.… The Sauvy brothers saw this with their own eyes, through the window … and we heard later that this also used to happen at the interrogation centers in Lyon and Paris. The truth is, an animal can be trained—’

At last Mme. Auriac exploded.

Though the proprietress goes on to accuse the mayor and his cronies of spreading vicious rumors, the lurid secret is out. The tale is told ever so delicately, with many hesitations by the characters themselves, the culminating words never actually spoken … but it’s sensational nonetheless, and in this moment the titular black dogs acquire their full load of symbolism for June and for the reader.

And at this point in the book, a dozen pages from the end, I was annoyed at McEwan.

Not that I mind hearing about monstrous things in fiction. But there’s a tawdriness in this teasing and titillating of the reader to build toward a revelation of appalling sexual torture. It doesn’t matter how fine the prose—which indeed is brilliant—and it doesn’t matter whether rape by trained dogs was in fact a Nazi method. Nor does the symbolic intention justify this device. The author is playing with the reader’s ability (and willingness) to be shocked, and in my snooty opinion that’s a low-class trick unworthy of the best fiction.

All right, I admit it: in literary terms, I’m a prig.

Now I’ll move on to the next found book, which an unidentified person just slipped through our mail slot: the peculiarly appropriate Dogs for Dummies—a donation inspired, no doubt, by our new terrorist puppy.