I’m supposed to be grading papers, but Dom’s last post won’t get out of my head, so I’m taking a break.
We kind of thought we were done posting about the book and wondered if we wanted to ask Brendan questions (and Dom wondered if he would have questions for us), but it turns out my questions are for Dominique. In explaining why she doesn’t like Kerkow anymore than I do, she wrote: “Further, as a Canadian, I was annoyed by Koerner’s final, loving, pages about Cathy, because I felt he was valorizing the kind of self-serving, hyper-individualistic behaviour that so many people from other countries ‘hate’ about Americans.”
In as much as I’m always interested to hear what Dom thinks about American behavior, I’m particularly interested in this critique of the book and, by extension, American culture that she offers. I’ve just finished Sense and Sensibility with one of my classes and some literary critic (maybe Marilyn Butler) reads the novel as Austen’s critique of Marianne Dashwood’s hyper-individualistic behaviour. Marianne is guided solely by her sensibilities and puts herself and her family’s reputation in harm’s way as a result, but her life also turns out okay (Colonel Brandon isn’t my type, but he’s a good catch for a woman who has lost some of her original charm and isn’t fit for anything more than playing the piano forte and having babies). The conservative chattering classes of the nineteenth century had no use for the Marianne Dashwoods of their world, and I wonder if that model of woman exists in the twenty-first century English imagination or if she represents a stage in the nation’s development. Austen is writing during what Eric Hobsbwam calls “The Age of Revolution,” at a time when part of maintaining England’s social structure depended on young women like Marianne Dashwood accepting their responsibility to the collective good instead of to their own desires and sensibilities. There was no “Lean In” in the nineteenth-century.
I’m thinking of Marx’s claim in The Communist Manifesto that nations, like people, go through developmental stages that can’t be skipped or repeated and wondering if this is a way to understand the time period Koerner explores as America’s colonizing/hyper-individualistic stage. It makes me wonder if Kerkow represents not so much a type (eat-pray-love-piper-twerking-warrior princess) but a stage in America’s development as a nation. I also wonder what our twenty-first century modes of rebellion look like. Occupy Wall Street comes to mind, and it was a collective response against hyper-individualistic behavior, but I think we’re still too close to it to understand its impact. I wonder if the rise of gun deaths in the United States is a more apt comparison, particularly the “Stand Your Ground” culture enshrined in Florida law but part of the fabric of every state. I feel like I need to have drinks with Dom, Brendan, and some history and political science professors.
Dom also wrote: “The processes of racialization and ‘gendering’ in our society, and the hierarchies of privilege that they create, are all over this book.” I’m curious to know what this actually means (and why gendering is in quotation marks and racialization isn’t). On one level, I get it (and on one level my question is a friendly challenge to the jargon I see here), but I’d love to hear more. Because if Dom is suggesting a taxonomy for these hijackers, I can forget about Kerkow. Taxonomies are my most favorite thing ever (really). More than that, I’d like to not get sucked into thinking this is a book about her.
I really, truly would.
Dom saying I went nuts about Koerner mooning over Kerkow is accurate. In my last post, I wasn’t just pretending to talk to myself. That was, almost verbatim, a transcript of the the conversation I had with myself while I was working out in Fort Greene Park. As much as I scold my students for seeking “justice” in narratives, I fall prey to that need from time to time. There are literary characters I absolutely hate (Victor Frankenstein and John Knightly come to mind immediately), and Kerkow is/was a real person, so I’m a bit over-the-top about her. So much so that when Dom pointed out that Koerner “seems as […] just as enamoured* by the “feminine wiles” he described Cathy using to get what she wanted, and she wasn’t even there.” I’m pretty sure I yelled something like “Oh, shit! That’s so true!”
I was happily surprised when Koerner showed up near the end of the book. It’s like he anticipated all of the questions I had about how he put this story together, and, though I’m very much a member of the author-is-dead school of reading, having this author talk to the reader was just great. I was so surprised that I was willing to forgive him his crush until he went all goofy about her.
It occurs to me, though, that one of the reasons why I hate Kerkow is because Koerner is unflinching in what he presents about her. He has not offered a particularly flattering portrait of her; there aren’t hearts around every discussion about her in the story. Further, given that he couldn’t interview her, it’s interesting how he interprets her choices. And to be totally honest, this might be as much about just how cranky, hard-to-please I am as a reader. It’s possible, even highly likely, that if Koerner had mooned over Holder in a similar way I would have accused him of fetishizing Black Radicalism.
Partly, it’s that I’m an impossibly picky reader with little patience for modern literature. I don’t trust these living writers, and I’m always giving books the side-eye. Just last night I narrowed my eyes at 1Q84, and if it hadn’t been for the beer and fried whiting sandwich I was eating at Marietta’s that always makes me extraordinarily happy to live in my neighborhood, I might have started muttering at the novel.
On the other hand, when I love a book I love it with all of my heart. Chimanda Ngozi’s Adichie’s Americanah has me in raptures, I’ve lost count of how many people have gotten Colson Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York (and Sag Harbor and Zone One, which I’ve never read because I’m a chicken and just hearing him read from it one time gave me a nightmare) as birthday/Christmas/it’s Thursday gifts from me. And when I really think someone is a serious reader I’ll give her (or sometimes him) Mary Shelley’s second novel Valperga.
All of this is to say that I am intemperate about books. I LOVE a book or HATE it. There’s very little middle ground. And the more I love a book, the more I want to love a book, and I want the writer to have thought of every little thing I would have wanted to see. This is an almost impossible task.
This is not to suggest that I am tempering my hatred of Kerkow, but now, after reading Dom’s post, I am curious about the little hearts I see around Koerner’s introduction of Kerkow and where he places her at this story’s dénouement. Dom sees them too, so I know I’m not crazy, but I wonder just how deliberate their placement is in the novel book. Is he really under her sway? Is this simply a narrative technique? It is because we live in the age of movies, and this gives the book a Hollywood ending? I’m curious to find out.