Posts Tagged ‘Katherine Anne Porter’
Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools was the bestselling novel of 1962, and when you read it again today, fifty years later, it isn’t hard to see why. It’s kind of big, ambitious, socially relevant book that still wins awards and appeals to a wide range of readers, and it was one of the most anticipated novels of its era—its release was announced by its publisher on an annual basis, only to be repeatedly postponed by the author, who worked on it for more than twenty years. (It’s as if Jonathan Franzen had spent two decades, rather than one, writing Freedom.) And it remains an impressive technical achievement, a novel of five hundred dense pages that tells us something about thirty different characters on an ocean voyage from Mexico to Germany in 1931. Porter moves easily from one passenger’s thoughts to another, often within a single paragraph, and she has a keen eye for the telling detail or exchange that fixes a character vividly in one’s imagination.
It’s over the course of the entire book that the technique starts to pall. Porter’s characters are as fixed and unchangeable as the shades in the Inferno, but while Dante gives us a few unforgettable moments with each figure and then moves on, we’re stuck with Porter’s passengers for many more pages to come. Each character is identified from the start with a single personality trait—Baumgartner is a drunk, Denny a Texan boor, Rieber a ridiculous anti-Semite—and although we initially expect the author to gradually reveal their complexities, instead, they only become more fixed in their behavior as the novel progresses. Porter seems to be reacting against the idea that fiction has to be about change, when in fact people are trapped by history, circumstance, or qualities of soul; and perhaps it was just too difficult to convincingly render such a large cast. But the fact remains that of all novel’s characters, only two—Dr. Schumann, the ship’s doctor, and the aging but attractive Mrs. Treadwell—have any capacity to surprise us.
On that level, the novel struck me as a disappointment, and indeed, it isn’t nearly as highly regarded as Porter’s short fiction. But then I watched the 1965 movie version, and I realized that disappointment is a relative quality. Porter’s novel, while full of incident, comes off as tediously static, but at least she doesn’t overemphasize the story’s allegorical elements, although the temptation must have been enormous. The film, by director Stanley Kramer and screenwriter Abby Mann, has no such qualms: it shifts the setting from 1931 to 1933, in order to indulge more easily in historical irony, and takes Porter’s characters, who were already fixed and flat, and turns them into total caricatures. In the book, the only Jewish character, Herr Löwenthal, is self-righteous and unsympathetic; the movie makes him patriotic, humorous, and brave, a war hero with an Iron Cross, the better to score easy points over his evident complacency toward the rise of the Nazis. (At its low point, Löwenthal says: “There are nearly a million Jews in Germany. What are they going to do—kill all of us?”)
Porter, to her credit, doesn’t indulge in this kind of cheap effect, and the movie’s willingness to do so tells us a lot about the difference between the two kinds of storytelling. Ship of Fools is far from a perfect novel, but if anything, it errs on the side of frustrating our expectations: the characters remain in their moral and spiritual ruts, they don’t go out of their way to endear themselves to us, and by the end, nothing has been resolved. The movie version is the clear ancestor of Oscar-winning prestige pictures like Crash: technically proficient films that are judged largely by how they confirm our own social assumptions. We walk out of the theater, as David Mamet says, humming how virtuous we are. And this kind of moral simplification extends to the purely sentimental side. In the book, the love affair between Dr. Schumann and La Condesa, the ship’s beautiful exile, remains unconsummated, and Schumann’s heart condition stays in the background; in the movie, not only do they share a passionate embrace, but Schumann dies soon thereafter. If the novel doesn’t give us enough; the movie gives us too much, and then some. And looking at the movies and books we have now, fifty years later, it’s hard to see how anything has changed.
There’s a memorable moment in the novel Gravity’s Rainbow, set during the closing years of World War II, in which a Japanese naval officer named Ensign Morituri—one of the more effective of Pynchon’s deliberately bad character puns—strikes up a friendly conversation with Tyrone Slothrop, the novel’s ineffectual hero. Morituri says:
“I want to see the war over in the Pacific so that I can go home. Since you ask. It’s the season of the plum rains now, the Bai-u, when all the plums are ripening. I want only to be with Michiko and our girls, and once I’m there, never to leave Hiroshima again. I think you’d like it there. It’s a city on Honshu, on the Inland Sea, very pretty, a perfect size, big enough for city excitement, small enough for the serenity a man needs…”
The scene takes place in the summer of 1945. While this is a fairly obvious example, it isn’t the only time in which Pynchon uses the historical setting of his novel to create a fierce sort of irony for a reader who knows what comes next. And the trick of setting a novel or other work of art in the recent past, so the author can shape his narrative to look forward to future events, is a powerful tool indeed—although it needs to be treated with caution.
It’s also a very old device. Right now I’m reading Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, which takes place on a passenger ship crossing the Atlantic several years before World War II, allowing the author to indulge in such moments as when a German passenger, speaking of the travelers in steerage, says: “I would put them all in a big oven and turn on the gas.” On a much higher level, we see the same strategy in The Magic Mountain, whose characters debate the future of Europe in the years leading up to the Great War. The device allows the author to set up certain characters as insightful or naive, measured simply by their sense of what we know is coming, and it also gives the writer’s own pronouncements about the future more authority, since we know that at least some of them will come true. (In fact, the critic Edward Mendelson identifies this as one of the characteristics of the encyclopedic novel, which is nearly always set in the recent past. On a humbler plane, it’s also true of The Icon Thief and its sequels.)
The trouble is that a trick like this can easily be misused. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s tempting to feel smarter than characters who ignore the rise of Nazi Germany or the threat of Stalinist Russia, for instance, which conveniently overlooks the fact that much of the world made the same mistake. It also leads to books like The Help, which allows us to admire certain characters and dislike others simply by transferring today’s social attitudes to characters in the past. And a work of art like this can go either way. When I first heard the premise of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, I thought it was very clever: a television series about a cable news program set in the recent past, allowing us to watch characters work their way through actual breaking news events—the Gulf oil spill, the death of Osama Bin Laden—in real time. Such a structure yields countless opportunities for irony and suspense, which often boil down to the same thing: the viewer knows something that the characters do not. And when done properly, it could provide enough stories to fuel a series forever.
After watching the pilot, however, I’m a little skeptical about Sorkin’s approach. The show’s first episode centers on the disaster at the Deepwater Horizon, but instead of giving us characters who are scrambling to catch up with events, it shows them jumping ahead of them almost immediately. Within minutes of hearing the news, it seems, the protagonists have already foreseen the environmental consequences and have predicted, with incredible accuracy, how events will unfold over the following months—which makes them seem much smarter than the characters around them, yes, but only because Aaron Sorkin knows what did happen. This takes the easy way out (it isn’t hard to seem smart today when you have access to tomorrow’s newspaper) and it ignores a lot of potential drama. A show like The Newsroom works best when the audience knows more than the characters, not when the characters know more than everyone else. There’s a lot of promise here, and I hope the show improves, although I can’t say for sure. Because unlike Sorkin’s characters, I don’t know what will come next.