Sunday, July 05, 2009

Uncle Silas and Cambodia

Well, I got sacked again! Not enough work. But this leaves me some extra time to fix the house, which is slowly getting improved for sale: new tile in the bathroom, new light fixtures inside and out, stained cabinetry and ceiling trim, finished tin ceiling, repainting, new cabinet handles, plants weeded, etc... Also, I'm getting a lot of non-required reading done now, as I imagine my fall reading will be a combination of histories, historiography and student papers.

The two I just finished are in no way connected. Uncle Silas is a Victorian gothic thriller (not really a 'mystery,' as it is billed) by J. Sheridan LeFanu. And Cambodia: A book for people who find television too slow, by Brian Fawcett, is a work of 'fiction' which reads like a combination of personal essay and social commentary. I enjoyed Silas, but I fell in love with Cambodia.

Uncle Silas is very much in the vein of Ann Radcliffe's work, such as The Mysteries of Udolpho, and in fact the main character Maud mentions Radcliffe more than once. However, LeFanu is not prone to writing endless descriptions of the Pyrenees or inserting three pages of poetry, and so the work is 400 pages instead of 800 pages. LeFanu also jumps right into the mystery--but perhaps this is because 1860s readers had slightly less need of books that lasted through the entire winter months as perhaps Radcliffe's readers in the 1790s had need of? However, Radcliffe is more realistic in her portrayal of courtship, I think, and her scenes at Udolpho (with Count Montoni) are quite compelling--whereas the estate at Bartram-Haugh (and Silas himself) never reach the same level of hatefulness. It drove me nuts waiting for Emily to escape, but I didn't feel the same urgency for Maud until the very end.

One interesting character, Milly, is a new one to me: a young (16-18) lady of the upper classes who has been so neglected in her childhood that she has read nothing, speaks like a 'dairy-maid' and runs freely around the estate, giving people cheeky nicknames and trespassing on neighboring properties. Some of the characters in Uncle Silas are followers of Swedenborg, and while I originally got the feeling that this was supposed to cast suspicion upon them, in fact (luckily for Swedenborgians) both Bryerly and Austin Ruthyn are blameless in the novel. I'd say this is a great book to read beside the fireplace in the dead of winter, with a cup of hot chocolate and a kitty on your lap.

And Cambodia: A book for people who find television too slow, by the Canadian author Fawcett, was totally unexpected. First of all, it changed the way I define fiction. Fawcett's stories combine the essay form, history, commentary on recent news and events, conversations with dead people, speculations or hypothetical situations, detailed explanations of the mundane functions of bureaucracy, conversations with friends and personal experiences. And they are incredibly compelling, sometimes funny, and often chilling. And on the bottom third of every page in a smaller font is an essay about Cambodia (written around 1985 about the events, mostly post-Vietnam, leading up to the Khmer Rouge regime, the Khmer Rouge, and then the subsequent Vietnamese invasion--and also about the western response and portrayal of these events.)

At the very beginning and throughout, Fawcett is suspicious of, and maybe disdainful of 'subtext,' the 'global village' and other such burgeoning concepts of the '80s. He writes about the inherent divisions between the academic 'in the know' and all others, and the growing loss of personal political involvement, the uselessness of the bureaucratic decision-making process, the lack of national memory for events like the Kent State protest/shooting, and the way globalization (perhaps in its current/capitalist form) is detrimental to many (most?). And what I assume are some personal details sneak their way in... in "The Fat Family Visits the Fair," his friend Howard (to all appearances a real person) ends up 'creating' the (non-existent) Cambodia pavilion at the World's Fair, and subsequently commits suicide. And the abruptness and reality of it hit me like a sandbag. I was knocked over.

If this is fiction--and he says it is--have I been playing it wrong. And I thought: where has this been?--why haven't I seen this before? I can't sit here and describe the stories. They pack a much better punch when you just read them. So, just read them!

Rice farmers (mew)

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