Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Magician's Wife

Plenty has been said about the recent phenomenon of putting "wife" or "daughter" in the title of a book: The Time Traveler's Wife, Ahab's Wife, The Bonesetter's Daughter, The Abortionist's Daughter, The Time-Traveling Whale-Fighting Bone-Setting Fetus-Punching Badass Motherfucker's Wife's Daughter, etc. Like putting women's pink high heeled shoes on the cover, it is a signal to potential readers that "This is for you," but also a means of warding off those for whom the book is clearly not intended -- a pink-papered invitation to a girls' night out. One might also argue that it's somewhat insulting to these invitees, placing them squarely in a supporting role to the men in their lives, but in a culture where this is sold and worn, and not as court-ordered public shaming, I guess I'll pick my battles.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is, obviously, not a book in the previous category. Clarke did not title it The Magician's Wife -- and why should she have? Arabella Strange, Jonathan Strange's wife, is tertiary in importance to these two main characters, and the story it tells is not, in any meaningful respect, hers. But when I think of the book, I do keep returning again and again to her character. I loved most of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and I feel strongly that it could have been a masterpiece. But there's something missing from the center of its wondrous world, and the hole is shaped like a magician's wife.

Jonathan Strange, according to the novel, chose to become a magician "to impress Arabella with his determination to do something sober and scholarly." Her disapproval keeps him from journeying on the otherworldly King's Roads behind the mirrors of the world. Her death changes him profoundly, severing his last real link to humanity, leading him toward black magic and madness. And the novel ends with their parting. In this sense, even though Strange is the active character, the protagonist, his relationship with Arabella is essential to the plot -- emotionally, at least, the driving force behind it. But to me, she never comes to life on the page. Take this paragraph, which introduces her character:

"She was about twenty-two years of age. In repose, her looks were only moderately pretty. There was very little about her face and figure that was in any way remarkable, but it was the sort of face which, when animated by conversation or laughter, is completely transformed. She had a lively disposition, a quick mind, and a fondness for the comical. She was always very ready to smile, and since a smile is the most becoming ornament that any lady can wear, she had been known upon occasion to outshine women in three countries."

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is filled to the brim with gorgeous, delightful visual images, of magical events, of course, but no less of people. A minor character, a Frenchman named Perroquet, is described like this: "...a very small man no bigger than an eight-year-old child, and as dark as a European can be. He looked as if he had been put into the oven and baked for too long and now was rather overdone. His skin was the color of a coffee bean and the texture of dried-up rice pudding. His hair was black, twisted and greasy like the spines and quills you observe on the less succulent parts of roasted chickens." I can see him so clearly. At the end of the first chapter, when Clarke describes how "Mr. Norrell's small blue eyes grew harder and brighter and his lips tightened as if he were seeking to suppress a great and secret delight within him," I can see him clearly too. But after reading this paragraph about Arabella, I am left with no images from this moment in the scene, no impressions of particular eccentricities -- nothing but the vaguely sick feeling one gets from reading senior quotes from lame Midwestern high school yearbooks, because that last line is just as bad as, "Your never fully dressed without a smile LOL Go Cyclones!" Which is to say it fuckin' sucks.

Now hold on a second: I do not believe that every book needs “strong female characters”; I do not believe that every book needs female characters at all, weak or strong. I do not even believe that every book needs “strong human characters” (I am a fan of Animal Farm) or “strong characters” (Invisible Cities, anyone?). But I do think that, when a novel sets a precedent of incarnating its characters through sensory detail, the effect of that choice is to make the reader anticipate the same degree of concreteness with all the characters.  And if a character is then rendered vaguely and/or in clich├ęs, the reader will inevitably take notice.  And, if it's being done for no reason, the reader will be justifiably pissed.

Everything in the above quote about Arabella is half-assed.  Numero uno: “moderately pretty”? Moderately pretty to whom? When Clarke describes Strange in an early section, writing, “Some people thought him handsome...[but] his face had two faults: a long nose and an ironic expression…[and] as everyone knows, no one with red hair can ever truly be said to be handsome,” she imparts three things to us simultaneously: concrete details about how Strange actually looks (long nose, ironic expression, reddish hair), a judgment by the speaker on those looks (handsome but with faults), and a hint that the speaker’s words should be taken with a grain of salt (unless, of course, the reader agrees that redheads are fugly). Here, though, “moderately pretty” just hangs out there like the generality it is.

Various reviewers, including the NY Times Book Review, have compared this novel to Jane Austen, but although Austen’s books may at times generalize like this about their female characters, those passages are balanced by their rich inner lives, opened to us in intimate detail on the page. Especially in Mansfield Park (to my mind her masterpiece), Austen goes out of her way to show that the personas of her young ladies – lively or prim, social or timid – are just that: personas, masks behind which their real selves strain and contort. In her novels, the complex and often contradictory desires of her women – for money, for sex, for friendship – animate them. Clarke, on the other hand, hopes to animate Arabella by simply showing us the scrim of her social graces.

And the trend continues throughout the book. One of the weirdest scenes comes shortly after Strange returns from the war, and he tells Arabella to sit down so he can look at her. After he stares at her for a time, she says, “I am sorry to disappoint you, but you never did look at me so very often. You always had your nose in some dusty old book.” The two laugh off this line as an affectionate joke, but it gives me pause. Is Arabella resentful of the distance between her husband and herself? Or does she appreciate the privacy it affords her? I don’t think Clarke needs an extensive close third-person with Arabella, because that might take over the book. But I would argue it should be possible to glean an answer to this basic question through the subtext of her actions and dialogue in the many scenes where she appears.

And the ending of the book is the weirdest part of all. Strange, having used his magic to return Arabella to the mortal world, now retreats into the Darkness he has conjured. Here’s how Clarke writes it:

“She did not offer to go into the Darkness with him and he did not ask her.

‘One day,’ he said, ‘I shall find the right spell and banish the Darkness. And on that day I will come to you.’
‘Yes. On that day. I will wait until then,’” Arabella replies.

My response to this is, “What. The. Hell.” It’s one thing for the two characters to realize they inhabit different worlds and part ways – that’s how I would have ended this. (A la Wendy and Peter Pan.) But if the Stranges’ passion is such that it can survive years of separation, why is it not strong enough to coax Arabella into the Darkness? Isn’t the Darkness a part of Jonathan, after all? There are possible explanations, of course, but none of them are offered here; instead, Clarke ends this scene on a bizarre rom-com note, with Arabella asking, “How shall I think of you?” and Strange answering, “Think of me with my nose in a book!” In other words, When we’re apart and you’re waiting faithfully for me, think of all the times we were together and I completely ignored you! Arabella’s response, of course, is to kiss him (one of the few examples of anything remotely sexual in the novel).  Huh?

In my opinion, Clarke never did the hard work of figuring out who Arabella is and what she wants. Instead, she uses the character as a device, a McGuffin to push Strange through the plot. And that's cheating. I wouldn’t recommend it for a book title, but would it have killed her to spend a little more time thinking about the magician’s wife?

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