Friday, July 28, 1995

Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes

A review of the restored version of Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes (edited by Cheryl J. Plumb)
Published July 28th, 1995, in The Minnesota Daily’s Nightly Magazine

Classic Novel Nightwood Improved in Restored Version

Edited by Cheryl J. Plumb
Dalkey Archive, $23.95

Djuna Barnes’ classic 1936 novel Nightwood has influenced everyone from Thomas Pynchon to Jeanette Winterson, but among the general public it remains largely unread. Why? Because like James Joyce’s Ulysses or Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, it’s nearly impossible to read. For those who have made their way through it, it’s a life-changing experience, and for Cheryl J. Plumb, editor of this restored version, it was the foundation of an entire academic career.

Begun in 1927, Nightwood went through numerous versions until 1934, when Barnes submitted the finished book to editor T.S. Eliot. Eliot loved it but found much of it “unsuitable” for publication, and he proceeded to hack away considerable chunks of the text. After two years of editing, Barnes finally agreed to some of the cuts. The finished product has become a classic, but Barnes’ reluctance to the changes sparked debate over the artistic integrity of the published version.

Now, after years of studying the original texts, Barnes scholar Cheryl J. Plumb has restored Nightwood to its pristine version. In addition, Plumb has included twenty pages of annotation explaining Barnes’ literary and historical reference, as well as documented all the changes made in her own restoration. Plumb has also compiled seventy-five pages of original typed and handwritten drafts to illuminate Barnes’ creative process.

A work of art of the highest order, Nightwood is as groundbreaking in its content as it is in its style. It’s possibly the first lesbian novel to be published in America, and like Zora Neale Hurston’s centralization of African Americans, Barnes deals with homosexuals as normal people rather than as anomalies.

Of course Barnes doesn’t ignore the problems of homosexual life, but her treatment of them makes them seem universal, as immediate to the outsider as to the insider. This commanding presence gives her the freedom not only to write from a very central point of view, but also to disregard all existing notions of normality or centrality.

At the heart of all this is a love story. In telling Nora and Robin’s tale, Barnes re-examines love in a way that makes the reader think of it as a completely new idea. Her treatment of desire, memory, alienation, and fear all give love a new but frighteningly familiar face.

Nora’s obsession with the transient Robin reflects Barnes’ own battle to understand her past. Throughout Nightwood we see our own misgivings about the nature of love played out in this ill-fated relationship, and Barnes never lets the reader fall back on illusory notions of idealized romance.

Barnes never succumbs to misanthropy and cynicism, either. Her character are warped and often pathetic, but Barnes actually does care about them. They exhibit a rare humanity that lifts them above their awful crises (although it doesn’t necessarily save them), and even at their most grotesque, we recognize them as our own.

I have to admit that this is the first time I’ve been able to get the whole way through this novel, so be warned. It’s not easy, but the rewards for your effort are innumerable. If you’re willing to relinquish a large chunk of time (and sanity), this short book just might change the way you read novels.

—David Wiley

Friday, July 21, 1995

Independence Day, by Richard Ford

A review of Independence Day, by Richard Ford
Published July 21st, 1995, in The Minnesota Daily’s Nightly Magazine

Turning Point
Independence Day Chronicles an American Mid-Life Crisis
By Richard Ford
Knopf, $24

When Richard Ford’s wife asked him why he never wrote about happy people, he responded with Frank Bascombe, the “dreamy” protagonist of the 1986 novel The Sportswriter. Bascombe was proclaimed by critics and readers alike as one of the few truly decent characters in modern fiction, and now he’s back in a new novel, Independence Day, and he’s still happy.

In the first novel, I had difficulty understanding why Bascombe was so satisfied. His marriage had failed, he had a rotten love life, and his occupation as a sportswriter was profoundly ill-suited to his sharply progressive world-view, and still he was optimistic. I attributed this to a kind of early-’80s pragmatism in which real values took a backseat to dreamy contentedness. Like the rest of the nation, he had fooled himself into believing that everything was fine and that his own financial success signified a kind of peace.

In Independence Day, however, Bascombe seems to be coming out of his trance both personally and politically as he confronts the consequences of his successes and failures. After five years (the setting is 1988), he’s still unmarried, his love life still stinks, and he’s become, of all things, a realtor. To top it all off, his ex-wife has remarried, and his son, Paul, shows signs of becoming a delinquent.

In an attempt to deal with some of this, Bascombe takes an Independence Day excursion with Paul in which they “visit as many sports halls of fame as they can in two days.” Along the way, he blunders through the motions of fatherhood, trying to figure out who his son really is and rescue him from his imminent descent into adolescence.

There’s a feeling of impending doom in the background (the escalating battle between Michael Dukakis and the grimly laughable George Bush), as well as in the foreground (Bascombe’s floundering personal life), but Ford never lets his hero give in to nihilism or despair. Instead, Bascombe comes to terms with what he calls his “existence period,” in which he’d largely ignored reality. This is only part of the answer to his problems, though, and the novel portrays his small revelation as more of a turning point than a triumph. There is no evidence that things will get better for Bascombe, his family, or his nation as it opts for a four-year extension of the ’80s, but they’re all learning, slowly.

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is how Ford portrays real estate as the philosophy of the Reagan era. Everything can de divided, defined, and sold, including the American Dream, which close scrutiny reveals to be more like a nightmare. As Bascombe reflects on the meaning of the America around him, he finds himself appraising it rather than contemplating it. “Buy low, sell high” has replaced any meaningful kind of American ideology, and Bascombe seems to have become a living battlefield in which profits and humanity collide as he struggles to recognize his clients as something more than commissions.

Ford insists that The Sportswriter and Independence Day are two separate and independent books; that the first is not a prerequisite to enjoy the second—and he’s right. This novel stands wholly on its own. It’s funnier and maybe even a little wiser than its predecessor—which is a feat—and the richness of Ford’s prose evokes the very fabric of an America in search of true independence. This is a great novel.

—David Wiley