Angelica, by Arthur Phillips

This is a puzzling novel from 2007. And deliberately so. It is billed as a ghost story, and it certainly is. And usually I do not like ghost stories. But as I began this work, I had to admit at how enjoyable it was. Even though it also had a suggestion of horror, which I like still less. But I realized I was enjoying this novel because it is so beautifully written. And it was also a family story, which I also relate to, a story of the tension between Constance and Joseph Barton, as well as between each of them and their daughter of four, Angelica.

Their story unfolds in the London of the 1880s, and is related from four differing viewpoints. First, from that of the wife and mother Constance, who believes the ghosts she sees are also being experienced by her daughter. And who sees these ghosts as serving the needs of her husband, who, she decides, wishes to win from her the affection of their daughter.

The next section is from the viewpoint of Anna Montague, a spiritualist who makes her living advising people how to get rid of ghosts. She is a very practical woman, whom this reader accepted at face value, as she makes the purpose of these ghosts seem, like her, more down to earth, more practical than mystical.

The third section we see from Joseph’s point of view. He is a research scientist who seems truly in love with his wife, and who appears to be a normal man legitimately puzzled by his wife’s new conduct, so different from that of the charming girl he married. And the final, and short, section is from the viewpoint of a mature Angelica as she tries to analyze what happened between her parents when she was a child.

But like Henry James, Phillips appears to want to turn the screw on his readers. Because before he begins his novel, the author quotes Sir Everett d’Oyly: “Haunting can emerge from the forgotten depths of our own past….Memories and ghosts are not so easily distinguished as previous generations have assumed.” And this is the fulcrum on which Phillips has poised this novel. Are the ghosts real? Are they only in the mind of Constance? Or should the memories of both parents be challenged? And what exactly are these apparitions that are distorting the reality of their lives?

The emotional lives of Constance and Joseph dominate this household. After giving birth to Angelica, and then suffering three miscarriages, Constance is warned that she risks her life if she has another child. So she has withheld herself from her husband for more than three years. Which prompts both anxiety in her and frustration for Joseph. And culminates in her leaving her marital bed in order to sleep in a chair in Angelica’s room, standing guard over her. For Constance has seen a ghost hovering over her sleeping daughter at night, a ghost which suggests her husband’s presence, and which seems to signal his sexual designs on the young girl. A conclusion which is re-enforced when Angelica tells Constance she wishes one day to marry her father.

The story then takes on a more practical bent. Anna Montague enters the house and offers Constance her practical advice on how to defeat these apparitions. She acknowledges to herself that Constance will be a fruitful client, but she persuades her, and us, that she believes there are truly ghosts to be removed from the house and that, in doing so, she will not take advantage of Constance Barton’s wealth. She also supports Constance’s belief that husband Joseph is likely behind these ghosts. One should note that in the novel’s time frame of the 1880s, spiritualism and ghosts were a commonly accepted presence in this Victorian world.

Joseph, on the other hand, is not aware of these ghosts, only that his wife is acting mysteriously. He is also persuaded by a Doctor Miles that women in general are flighty creatures and need to be handled firmly by their husbands. While this novel subtly probes the psychology of this family from a modern novelist’s perspective, this is the one point where it truly reflects the psychological beliefs held about women in the male world of London in the 1880s.

Thus, the first section ends with the reader suspecting that Constance is trending toward insanity out of sexual repression, but also not being sure whether there may or may not be real ghosts. The second section ends, however, with the practicality of Anna convincing the reader that either these are real ghosts or that she and Constance truly believe that the ghosts are real. While the third section convinces us of Joseph’s reality, that there are no ghosts, and that all is in the mind of Constance. Whereupon, the final brief section, from the viewpoint of a mature Angelica, tries to have it both ways. She has convinced herself, she says, that “there was a ghost,” and that her mother “struck down the man who invited that ghost into our home.” Which act “evicted” the ghost as well.

Indeed, that early scene in which Constance drives a knife into the ghost is perplexing. For we later realize that the three sections, of Constance, Anne, and Joseph, cover the same time frame and the same events—but are being described from their three separate viewpoints. The problem arises when the sections from Constance’s view and Joseph’s view seem to end so differently. First, because Doctor Miles, who has been called to the scene, seems to act differently. And, second, because the author introduces Third, a mysterious friend of Anne, who suggests, if only symbolically, the final act. But is it by Constance or by Dr. Miles and his colleagues? Which is why, although normal literary logic is on the husband’s side, Angelica has to convince herself in her quote above what she believes truly happened. And that Arthur Phillips uses her conclusion, in turn, to convince the reader. Or at least to understand what he, the author, has intended. Or does one? For Angelica says she has no memory of being abused, wondering if Constance pretended seeing the ghosts rather than admitting her husband’s actual abuse.

One reads this novel, first, because it is so beautifully written. And, second, to learn what is going on. The blend of memory, psychology, spiritualism, and family intrigue is also fascinating to the modern reader. But the resolution, as with James, is confusing. For if one has a sense here of what the author intended, he also makes sure we are not certain. (April, 2019)

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The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

This is an interesting and imaginative novel from 2016. It draws the reader in by portraying the horrifying world of its heroine, Cora, who begins as a teenager enduring the violence of slave life on a Georgia cotton plantation run by the cruel Randall family. She then evolves into a mature young woman after escaping from the plantation—inspired by the escape of her mother a decade earlier—after which she endures a variety of contrasting adventures that form the remainder of the novel.

Cora escapes from Georgia via the title’s underground railroad, which turns a metaphor into reality. For the railroad of this novel literally burrows underground through the Southern states in order to carry slaves north to freedom. It is a marvelous example of what an imaginative author can do. In this case, a verbal metaphor becomes a vividly described actual railroad. Its various stations have steel rails, tile walls, often-decrepit furnishings, an irregular schedule, and a variety of station masters, both black and white. Indeed, Cora’s final journey on this underground railroad closes out the novel in a beautifully crafted ending.

But once Cora has escaped the cruel Georgia plantation, with Caesar, a plantation colleague, the remaining portion of the novel becomes less dramatic. Cora’s first landing spot is a town in South Caroline that seems to be exploring how to integrate Negroes into their society. It is in stark contrast to her experience on the Georgia plantation, and she and Caesar, are tempted to stay there. But then she learns that the town is using their Negroes for a medical experiment, and on top of that a slave catcher named Ridgeway is in town, the same Ridgeway who had sought Ruby’s mother, and failed, after that woman’s earlier escape. So Cora has no choice but to flee what had seemed to be an hospitable town.

The next railroad stop brings Cora to the home of a station master, Martin, in North Carolina, where he hides Cora in his attic. For the slave catcher Ridgeway is still after her. Meanwhile, from this attic she can see the anti-Negro attitude of the town being dramatized below her on Fridays in public performances. And in doing so, Whitehead captures the anger and violence that marks the white society. This is in contrast to the South Carolina town she has just left, as well as later in Indiana, in which the slaves create their own self-governing community on a farm, and are accepted as human beings.

However, the contrasting attitudes found at these and future sites begin to seem arbitrary. They concentrate more on the different treatment of the Negroes than on what is happening inside Cora herself. Once Cora is betrayed in North Carolina, for example, and Ridgeway tracks her down, her subsequent adventures become far less dramatic. It is as if the author wishes to cover certain ground, certain life experiences of the slaves, and takes his eye off Cora herself. Indeed, he admits he did extensive research into the lives of the slaves of the 19th century, and it as if he felt the need to include much of that information in this work. Which results in the reader being less involved over the second half of the novel in the life and fate of Cora herself.

Whitehead also reveals a lack of structural discipline as he inserts short chapters or scenes in his account that have nothing to do with Cora, but merely provide a fuller history for certain other characters. In two occasions, he offers such short sections to tidy up loose ends regarding the fate of Cora’s mother Mabel, and that of Caesar, Cora’s companion in escape.

As suggested, there is a sameness to Cora’s adventures in the various locales she flees to. For while each locale reflects a different attitude, positive or negative, toward Negroes, as well as the different types of cruelty toward them, it is those difference that are the point of each of those locations, not how those differences change Cora’s attitude or her own future decision-making. Which, one suspects, is what appealed to the Pulitzer judges who honored this novel with their prize. That is, the message of the novel, the exposure of slave life in horrific detail, is what impressed them, rather than the story of Cora herself and any psychological impact these adventures might have had on her. Plus, these judges were also surely impressed with the imaginative travel the author uses, as well as the potential contributions that Negroes might bring to the country if truly integrated into American society.

In other words, for much of this book, after Cora escapes with Caesar, she is a victim of circumstance. She makes no real decisions herself, as she is moved from one location to another. She simply reacts to what is happening around her. She is, as I implied, more a symbol than a real person, more a typical black slave than an interesting individual. We do not get inside her to feel her hopes and fears, her sorrows or her happiness, or what various frustrations and successes do to change her.

I also do wish that Whitehead had made greater use of his concept of an actual underground railroad. For he does nothing with it in terms of his story. It moves Cora about, yes. But it has no influence on her actions or her fate. It merely enables her to move from Georgia to South Carolina to North Caroline, to Tennessee to Indiana, where she encounters different attitudes toward slavery in each location. What I wanted was for the railroad to affect her safety, such as having her take the wrong route, or for it to have brought her to people different from what she expected, good or bad, after she has perhaps misreads its schedule. That is, I would have much preferred to have the railroad directly influence her adventures or even determine her fate.

This appears to be more of a traditional novel than are other works of Whitehead. And the traditional usually appeals to me. But I sense that the author became too involved here in his message, and too committed to the considerable research he conducted about the life of 19th century Negroes, both the enslaved and the free. So after the first half of this novel, I stopped being caught up in the fate of Cora. I read more to discover what fate the author was going to devise for her. Which turned out to be unsatisfying, but nevertheless beautifully written. (April, 2019)

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

This 2012 novel is worth studying. By potential mystery writers. For its structure. For its twists and turns. For its shifts of reader sympathy from one character to another. For its psychological manipulation of two characters who are in major conflict. And for a resolution that resolves that conflict in one way, but perhaps not in another.

This is the story of Nick Dunne and Amy Elliott. The author, however, makes them tools of her structure, rather than normal, sympathetic characters. With the result that, from the moment they are introduced, I was unable to like either one and/or even to identify with either one. For they seemed too clever, too artificial, too sure of themselves. And it soon became clear why. For each is pretending to be what he or she is not. Nick becomes someone else in order to please Amy, and Amy hides her true character in order to turn Nick into a perfect spouse.

To complicate matters, Amy is a spoiled daughter of a famous couple who have written a series of children’s novels that feature a smart little girl named Amy. Meanwhile, Nick leads a pedestrian life. He owns a bar with his twin sister, Margo. And he is an unassuming writer who is ignored by others, except for brief moments when his emotions click on. As they do when he meets Amy. But after their sudden marriage such moments grow infrequent, and the two become a mismatched pair. Not least because they both lie. A lot. They even lie to us.

In any event, when Amy suddenly vanishes on their fifth anniversary, I was little interested in what had happened to her. What interested me was not the fate of either of these characters but what the author was going to do with this situation she had devised. Particularly when everyone suspects that Nick had killed his wife, and Nick discovers that Amy has set him up for exactly that. Indeed, in the guise of the author, she has been setting up the reader as well. For she is not the love-struck woman she has pretended to be in her diary that we have been reading, a wife who is becoming concerned about the conduct of her husband.

No, she is a manipulative woman who, when she discovers that Nick is having an affair, has decided that he is not worthy of her. And as any spoiled brat would do, she seeks revenge. In fact, the author builds this entire novel around her elaborate plot to destroy her husband.

But while the revelation of Nick’s affair is a major plot twist, even greater is the explanation of the seven-year diary that Amy has kept, a diary that suggests Nick has (mis)treated her during their marriage. And when this reader discovered that the story of her diary was not what he had understood it to be, I was ready to throw this book against the nearest wall. But it was such a clever twist, and this novel has become so famous, that I read on. I wanted to see how clever, how manipulative, the novelist herself was going to be.

And I will admit that further twists and turns kept me going. Especially when Nick begins to figure out Amy’s cleverness, and decides he is going to match her manipulative skills. Which prompts him to be deceptive too, to lie, in order to avoid both the media and the police. Now, we are reading about two liars. Two deliberate, desperate liars. And when Amy becomes alerted to her husband’s lying efforts, she ups the ante to counteract his strategy. And so they maneuver back and forth until the end, with cops and reporters and the media hovering nearby, with both of them still trying to control their now dark relationship, and first one, and then the other, getting the advantage over their mate.

In fact, as I approached the end of this novel, I began wondering who was going to come out on top. And would the fact that the author is a woman influence the outcome? In other words, I was still more fascinated by how she was structuring of this novel than by the outcome of the plot. Much less the fate of Nick and Amy themselves.

Tana French sums up this novel accurately when she writes: “Nick and Amy manipulate each other with savage, merciless, and often darkly witty dexterity. This is…about how the happy surface normality and the underlying darkness can become too closely interwoven to separate.” She also calls the novel “wonderful and terrifying,” and with this I do not agree. I could not get close enough to either of these characters to feel the emotional connection that she did.

In sum, this is an intricately crafted mystery novel that features a married couple who are trying to manipulate each other for their own ends. But it is the author who is crafting the greater manipulation. And she does it at the expense of her characters. She does offer intricate psychological observations about the reasons behind their conduct, but these emerge more as tools to explain the conduct she has devised for these characters, rather than as revelations that betray what is truly behind these characters’ devious conduct.

To sum up, I was too turned off by the characterizations of these two people, Amy and Nick, at the start of this novel, to become involved emotionally with them, much less be interested in their fate. And as a result, this work does not prompt me to turn to other novels by this author, as intricately crafted as past and future work may be. (March, 2019)