Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell- Part one Mrs. Bridge

The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books has a single entry for Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge, both by Evan S. Connell. They are highly related, even companion pieces. However, they are separate books. Should one discuss one without discussing the other? Mrs. Bridge had been part of my MFA curriculum, Mr. Bridge only being something I looked at later on my own. Obviously they were separate, but there was obviously enough connecting them that I was compelled to look at Mr. Bridge. I debated, and then decided to do both separately…but sequentially. Mrs. Bridge will be this week and Mr. Bridge on my next go. That seemed the best compromise to the situation.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, Mr. Bridge was 10th for Ethan Canin and Mrs. Bridge was 3rd for Denise Gess, and 4th for Meg Wolitzer.)

Mrs. Bridge is written in little episodes that depict an upper middle class white family in Kansas City, starting around 1920, from the perspective of India Bridge, Mrs. Bridge. Considering the conformity of class in that era? This is it. The characterization is marvelous. Mrs. Bridge strives, and frets endlessly for that. Her life is for the most part stolid, and we have to ask whether it is ultimately satisfying.

Her first name was India—she was never able to get used to it. It seemed to her that her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her. Or were they hoping for another sort of daughter? As a child she was often on the point of inquiring, but time passed, and she never did.

Mrs. Bridge has a good life overall, but it feels so stifling. She actually works for that consciously, but there are times where I felt that this was a product of environment and she wouldn’t have if she’d known better. Glimpses seem to shine through to her, but then something happens and they are gone.

Somehow, despite it being pretty much a good life, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Mrs. Bridge. There was so much more that life could have been for her. I feel sorry despite having not a huge amount to feel sorry about, and I think Connell makes me feel it pretty deeply. In fact, though I hate to give away the ending,

I’m going to quote from the ending section to show this. It shouldn’t matter. This isn’t the sort of book you read to find out a result. You read to see what happens along the way. In this bit, Mrs. Bridge is trying to back her car out of the garage. Her husband, the good but distant provider, is long gone. Her kids are out in the world living their lives:

Thinking she might have flooded the engine, which was often true, Mrs. Bridge decided to wait a minute or so.

Presently she tried again, and again, and then again. Deeply disappointed, she opened the door to get out and discovered she had stopped in such a position that the car doors were prevented from opening more than a few inches on one side by the garage partition, and on the other side by the wall. Having tried all four doors she began to understand that until she could attract someone’s attention she was trapped. She pressed the horn, but there was not a sound. Half inside and half outside she remained.

For a long time she sat there with her gloved hands folded in her lap, not knowing what to do. Once she looked at herself in the mirror. Finally she took the keys from the ignition and began tapping on the window, and she called out to anyone who might be listening, “Hello? Hello out there?”

But no one answered, unless it was the falling snow.

Talk about a freight train impact of an ending.

Mrs. Bridge was recommended to me for the skill in the characterization, and I have to agree. Connell’s characters spring up three-dimensional from just a few well-placed details. The craft behind that is impressive. If I’ve managed to absorb any of how Connell manages that I’ll count myself lucky. I mean, the characters make this book. It centers around one of the most small-minded women I’ve ever heard of. It should be utterly vapid and uninteresting. It isn’t. Mrs. Bridge is absolutely fascinating.

 

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Candide by Voltaire

Candide by Voltaire is another one of the classic novels that most people are familiar with but not enough people have read. More people have read Candide than many other classics firmly entrenched in the popular consciousness, but there are still a large number of people are familiar with it without having read it. That’s a shame, because it’s a good time and actually pretty accessible.

(Note: We’ll have to refrain from discussing herein the cleaver Voltaire didn’t have in 1484.)

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Julian Barnes, 10th for Clyde Edgerton, and 1st G. D. Gearino.)

Candide begins the story living a sheltered life in the paradise of a Baron’s household, schooled as an optimist by his mentor, Professor Pangloss. However, the mantra that Pangloss endlessly chants, “all is for the best” in the “best of all possible worlds,” doesn’t help them much as Candide and Pangloss are driven from the Baron’s household and suffer a litany of indignities and tribulations.

Pangloss was professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and that, in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of castles, and his lady the best of all possible Baronesses.

“It is demonstrable,” said he, “that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for all being created for an end, all is necessarily for the best end. Observe, that the nose has been formed to bear spectacles—thus we have spectacles. Legs are visibly designed for stockings—and we have stockings. Stones were made to be hewn, and to construct castles—therefore my lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Pigs were made to be eaten—therefore we eat pork all the year round. Consequently they who assert that all is well have said a foolish thing, they should have said all is for the best.”

Candide listened attentively and believed innocently; for he thought Miss Cunegonde extremely beautiful, though he never had the courage to tell her so. He concluded that after the happiness of being born of Baron of Thunder-ten-Tronckh, the second degree of happiness was to be Miss Cunegonde, the third that of seeing her every day, and the fourth that of hearing Master Pangloss, the greatest philosopher of the whole province, and consequently of the whole world.

One day Cunegonde, while walking near the castle, in a little wood which they called a park, saw between the bushes, Dr. Pangloss giving a lesson in experimental natural philosophy to her mother’s chamber-maid, a little brown wench, very pretty and very docile. As Miss Cunegonde had a great disposition for the sciences, she breathlessly observed the repeated experiments of which she was a witness; she clearly perceived the force of the Doctor’s reasons, the effects, and the causes; she turned back greatly flurried, quite pensive, and filled with the desire to be learned; dreaming that she might well be a sufficient reason for young Candide, and he for her.

She met Candide on reaching the castle and blushed; Candide blushed also; she wished him good morrow in a faltering tone, and Candide spoke to her without knowing what he said. The next day after dinner, as they went from table, Cunegonde and Candide found themselves behind a screen; Cunegonde let fall her handkerchief, Candide picked it up, she took him innocently by the hand, the youth as innocently kissed the young lady’s hand with particular vivacity, sensibility, and grace; their lips met, their eyes sparkled, their knees trembled, their hands strayed. Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh passed near the screen and beholding this cause and effect chased Candide from the castle with great kicks on the backside; Cunegonde fainted away; she was boxed on the ears by the Baroness, as soon as she came to herself; and all was consternation in this most magnificent and most agreeable of all possible castles.

This is pretty much how all the novel goes. There’s much more to it than that, but it seems like a good summary to me. Of course, we omit any discussion of the cleaver Voltaire didn’t have in 1484.

By the end, Candide and Pangloss (at least somewhat) have concluded that optimism is crap. Pangloss rails about it, but Candide ends up taking a pragmatic approach. All is not for the best, this is not the best of all possible worlds, but beating their breasts about it isn’t going to do any good. They still have to go on living, regardless of the nature of the world (or of the cleaver Voltaire didn’t have in 1484).

Candide, on his way home, made profound reflections on the old man’s conversation.

“This honest Turk,” said he to Pangloss and Martin, “seems to be in a situation far preferable to that of the six kings with whom we had the honour of supping.”

“Grandeur,” said Pangloss, “is extremely dangerous according to the testimony of philosophers. For, in short, Eglon, King of Moab, was assassinated by Ehud; Absalom was hung by his hair, and pierced with three darts; King Nadab, the son of Jeroboam, was killed by Baasa; King Ela by Zimri; Ahaziah by Jehu; Athaliah by Jehoiada; the Kings Jehoiakim, Jeconiah, and Zedekiah, were led into captivity. You know how perished Crœsus, Astyages, Darius, Dionysius of Syracuse, Pyrrhus, Perseus, Hannibal, Jugurtha, Ariovistus, Cæsar, Pompey, Nero, Otho, Vitellius, Domitian, Richard II. of England, Edward II., Henry VI., Richard III., Mary Stuart, Charles I., the three Henrys of France, the Emperor Henry IV.! You know——”

“I know also,” said Candide, “that we must cultivate our garden.”

“You are right,” said Pangloss, “for when man was first placed in the Garden of Eden, he was put there ut operaretur eum, that he might cultivate it; which shows that man was not born to be idle.”

“Let us work,” said Martin, “without disputing; it is the only way to render life tolerable.”

The whole little society entered into this laudable design, according to their different abilities. Their little plot of land produced plentiful crops. Cunegonde was, indeed, very ugly, but she became an excellent pastry cook; Paquette worked at embroidery; the old woman looked after the linen. They were all, not excepting Friar Giroflée, of some service or other; for he made a good joiner, and became a very honest man.

Pangloss sometimes said to Candide:

“There is a concatenation of events in this best of all possible worlds: for if you had not been kicked out of a magnificent castle for love of Miss Cunegonde: if you had not been put into the Inquisition: if you had not walked over America: if you had not stabbed the Baron: if you had not lost all your sheep from the fine country of El Dorado: you would not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts.”

“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.”

Candide is a delightful little book. Voltaire has a wonderful sense of humor (though obviously not the cleaver he didn’t have in 1484) that keeps me laughing amidst all the bad things that happen. I love how absurdly quickly and consistently things go bad, virtually for everyone in the book but particularly for Candide. I think Voltaire was more concerned about his message than his story, but I guess that is to be expected since he didn’t take novels particularly seriously. Candide is still a remarkable book.

Clarissa by Samuel Richardson

Today we’re going to talk about one of the true monsters (my copy weighing in at somewhere over 1533 pages) of English literature, Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. Or, The History of a Young Lady. Or, as I liked to call it, Clarissa Explains it All.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 1st for Emma Donoghue and 4th for Vendela Vida.)

Clarissa by Samuel Richardson is an eighteenth century epistolary novel about a young woman named, oddly enough, Clarissa. Clarissa’s family is newly wealthy and seeking entrance into the nobility. As part of that, they look to marrying the virtuous Clarissa with Robert Lovelace. However, her brother gets into it with Lovelace and then her family hates him, instead wanting to marry Clarissa to a man she despises. Due to an accident of circumstance, Clarissa ends up going off with Lovelace, though firmly committed to remaining virtuous, and the increasingly despicable Lovelace spends the rest of the book trying to undermine her virtue. He drugs and rapes her before eventually meeting his own horrible end, at least his being deserved.

I was once more offering the key to the lock, when, starting from his knees, with a voice of affrightment, loudly whispering, and as if out of breath, they are at the door, my beloved creature! and taking the key from me, he fluttered with it, as if he would double lock it. And instantly a voice from within cried out, bursting against the door, as if to break it open, the person repeating his violent pushes, Are you there?–come up this moment!–this moment!–here they are–here they are both together!–your pistol this moment!–your gun!–Then another push, and another. He at the same moment drew his sword, and clapping it naked under his arm, took both my trembling hands in his; and drawing me swiftly after him, Fly, fly, my charmer; this moment is all you have for it, said he.–Your brother!–your uncles!–or this Solmes!–they will instantly burst the door–fly, my dearest life, if you would not be more cruelly used than ever–if you would not see two or three murders committed at your feet, fly, fly, I beseech you.

O Lord:–help, help, cried the fool, all in amaze and confusion, frighted beyond the power of controuling.

Now behind me, now before me, now on this side, now on that, turned I my affrighted face, in the same moment; expecting a furious brother here, armed servants there, an enraged sister screaming, and a father armed with terror in his countenance more dreadful than even the drawn sword which I saw, or those I apprehended. I ran as fast as he; yet knew not that I ran; my fears adding wings to my feet, at the same time that they took all power of thinking from me–my fears, which probably would not have suffered me to know what course to take, had I not had him to urge and draw me after him: especially as I beheld a man, who must have come out of the door, keeping us in his eye, running now towards us; then back to the garden; beckoning and calling to others, whom I supposed he saw, although the turning of the wall hindered me from seeing them; and whom I imagined to be my brother, my father, and their servants.

Thus terrified, I was got out of sight of the door in a very few minutes: and then, although quite breathless between running and apprehension, he put my arm under his, his drawn sword in the other hand, and hurried me on still faster: my voice, however, contradicting my action; crying, no, no, no, all the while; straining my neck to look back, as long as the walls of the garden and park were within sight, and till he brought me to the chariot: where, attending, were two armed servants of his own, and two of Lord M.’s on horseback.

Here I must suspend my relation for a while: for now I am come to this sad period of it, my indiscretion stares me in the face; and my shame and my grief give me a compunction that is more poignant methinks than if I had a dagger in my heart. To have it to reflect, that I should so inconsiderately give in to an interview, which, had I known either myself or him, or in the least considered the circumstances of the case, I might have supposed would put me into the power of his resolution, and out of that of my own reason.

For, might I not have believed, that he, who thought he had cause to apprehend that he was on the point of losing a person who had cost him so much pains and trouble, would not hinder her, if possible, from returning? That he, who knew I had promised to give him up for ever, if insisted as a condition of reconciliation, would not endeavour to put it out of my power to do so? In short, that he, who had artfully forborne to send for my letter, (for he could not be watched, my dear,) lest he should find in it a countermand to my appointment, (as I myself could apprehend, although I profited by the apprehension,) would want a device to keep me with him till the danger of having our meeting discovered might throw me absolutely into his power, to avoid my own worse usage, and the mischiefs which might have ensued (perhaps in my very sight) had my friends and he met?

But if it shall come out, that the person within the garden was his corrupted implement, employed to frighten me away with him, do you think, my dear, that I shall not have reason to hate him and myself still more? I hope his heart cannot be so deep and so vile a one: I hope it cannot! But how came it to pass, that one man could get out at the garden-door, and no more? how, that that man kept aloof, as it were, and pursued us not; nor ran back to alarm the house? my fright, and my distance, would not let me be certain; but really this man, as I now recollect, had the air of that vile Joseph Leman.

I would normally hate to do this much of a spoiler, but I’m guessing that either you know all this already or you won’t read the book in any event. This is a book that is commonly referred to, but not so commonly read.

It surprised me that Clarissa was written by the same author as Pamela. Sure, Clarissa is a bit preachy in spots and can dwell on a few things that don’t really advance the plot, but the difference is astonishing. Clarissa is the far superior work, in my view.

Clarissa is actually moving, containing developed, human characters who come alive and engage the soul. Though I think Pamela would have been better if cut from 500 pages down to 150 or 200, I found very little in Clarissa that I would cut. Richardson apparently learned a bit between Pamela and Clarissa. Pamela is more of a curiosity piece as I see it, but Clarissa is a truly wonderful early example of what the English language novel could accomplish.

Of course, I don’t actually expect that you’ll read the whole thing.

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

I normally loathe reading unfinished works. However, I made an exception for Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol. A Russian novel published in 1842 where a mysterious character is going around buying dead peasants? How could I not read it?

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 9th for Mary Gaitskill, 8th for Ken Kalfus, 8th for Robert Pinsky, 7th for James Salter, and 1st for George Saunders.)

Seriously, Dead Souls has to be one of the strangest Russian novels I’ve ever read, particularly from that era. I mean, one can’t forget the wild works of Mikhail Bulgakov, but Gogol definitely gives Bulgakov a run for his money in this one:

“Look here, my good man,” said Manilov. “How many of our serfs have died since the last census revision?”

“How many of them have died? Why, a great many.” The bailiff hiccoughed, and slapped his mouth lightly after doing so.

“Yes, I imagined that to be the case,” corroborated Manilov. “In fact, a VERY great many serfs have died.” He turned to Chichikov and repeated the words.

“How many, for instance?” asked Chichikov.

“Yes; how many?” re-echoed Manilov.

“HOW many?” re-echoed the bailiff. “Well, no one knows the exact number, for no one has kept any account.”

“Quite so,” remarked Manilov. “I supposed the death-rate to have been high, but was ignorant of its precise extent.”

“Then would you be so good as to have it computed for me?” said Chichikov. “And also to have a detailed list of the deaths made out?”

“Yes, I will—a detailed list,” agreed Manilov.

“Very well.”

The bailiff departed.

“For what purpose do you want it?” inquired Manilov when the bailiff had gone.

The question seemed to embarrass the guest, for in Chichikov’s face there dawned a sort of tense expression, and it reddened as though its owner were striving to express something not easy to put into words. True enough, Manilov was now destined to hear such strange and unexpected things as never before had greeted human ears.

“You ask me,” said Chichikov, “for what purpose I want the list. Well, my purpose in wanting it is this—that I desire to purchase a few peasants.” And he broke off in a gulp.

“But may I ask HOW you desire to purchase those peasants?” asked Manilov. “With land, or merely as souls for transferment—that is to say, by themselves, and without any land?”

“I want the peasants themselves only,” replied Chichikov. “And I want dead ones at that.”

“What?—Excuse me, but I am a trifle deaf. Really, your words sound most strange!”

“All that I am proposing to do,” replied Chichikov, “is to purchase the dead peasants who, at the last census, were returned by you as alive.”

Granted, Dead Souls doesn’t end up being quite as strange as it at first seems. Chichikov mysteriously shows up and is treated like a prince. He begins buying peasants who have died but are still on the official census, costing their owners tax money until the next census. Turns out he’s doing this because estates are mortgaged based on number of peasants, a number which is never verified because bankers assume the births will offset the deaths. He plans to buy a tiny estate with a huge number of cheaply acquired dead peasants, take out a huge mortgage, and flee with all the money. However, the greed, rumors, and other foul aspects of society blow up and Chichikov is forced to flee.

Dead Souls ends up being more of a depiction of various examples of the Russian character, and the flaws and faults therein, than the progression of Chichikov’s schemes. Worse, the book is supposed to be in three parts. All we have complete is part one, two being only a fragment (four chapters or so in draft form that remained in Gogol’s papers, two supposed full versions having been reportedly burned by Gogol during his life, the last a week before his death) and three being completely nonexistent. The fragment of two even stops in the middle of a sentence. There is no way of describing how aggravating that was, needing to know how this was all going to pull off in a bigger picture.

Still, anyone I’ve known who has read Dead Souls has loved it, both fans of Russian lit and not. Whether much comes of it or not, you have to love a mid nineteenth century Russian novel about a guy buying dead peasants (suggested alternate title: 101 Uses for a Dead Peasant). It’s wild, the characters are wild, and the ride along the way is wonderful.

It’s just so tragic that we can’t ride Dead Souls all the way to the end. We don’t even get halfway there. What we have is amazing, but the full thing would have to have been absolutely incredible. We can only imagine.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (Not really. Actually Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith)

Me (Dave) again. Kim is taking the next two weeks.

Today I’m going to talk about Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Well, okay, not really. I’m actually going to talk about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith.

Why not? Pride and Prejudice may be my favorite Jane Austen novel so far (having read that one, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Northanger Abbey thus far), but what would I really have to say about it that hasn’t been said already? Pride and Prejudice was on our list, but we’d already done two Austen novels. Though I think it is a moving story of how imperfect humans (in other words, all) fall in love fully of sparkling wit, manners comedy, and a wonderful depiction of English society at that time, that’s all been said.

So why not let that all stand and look at Pride and Prejudice and Zombies instead?

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen was 3rd for Kate Atkinson, 5th for Michael Chabon, 6th for Robb Forman Dew, 4th for Alice Hoffmann, 5th for Norman Mailer, 1st for Claire Messud, 6th for Iain Pears, 9th for Ian Rankin, and 8th for Adriana Trigiani.)

After all, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies pretty much takes the original text and morphs it as it goes along, adding in zombies and such. It isn’t exactly a complete retelling, since so much of the framework is there. It’s more of a recasting, where it’s the background that has been recast as the English countryside overrun with zombies.

To give an example, let us compare the original Austen 3:16 (little wrestling joke there) from Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

with that from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a zombie in possession of brains, must be in want of more brains.

Little differences.

I enjoyed reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies more than I expected. Grahame-Smith manages to keep enough of Austen’s work alive in this while still creating an interesting new imagining. The framework is pretty much intact, but still creatively done with the addition of zombies.

The zombies can get a bit gimmicky, but then there is the Austen framework to fall back on. Admittedly, it doesn’t quite hit the heights of the heart or wit of Austen’s original, but I don’t think that would have been possible and this certainly wasn’t intended to be that kind of book.

The references to China and kung fu are a bit repetitive and overdone, and Grahame-Smith tries to stick in some sexual humor that seems horribly out of place for the characters. Still, overall I enjoyed myself. I think Pride and Prejudice and Zombies‘s interest is somewhat limited to those who know Austen, as there’s no joke otherwise, but who doesn’t to at least some degree?

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies manages to hold a conversation with Austen, and most decent literature is a really conversation with the world in one way or another…particularly with the rest of the world of literature. Grahame-Smith manages in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to do something both interesting and fun.

Kill Us On the Way Home by Gwen Beatty

Kim told me she was going to take a week to look at the new Stephen King book of short stories she was reading (The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, just in case you don’t know), so I thought I should take the next week (this one) to talk about something I’d read recently that I really dug. Gwen Beatty’s new chapbook put out by Passenger Side Books, Kill Us On the Way Home, immediately sprang to mind (and continues the short story theme no less).

I knew I was going to grab this one as soon as I heard it was coming out (and only $5 shipped made it an easy decision to confirm). I’d read a few of Beatty’s pieces before, and certainly wanted to read more. Passenger Side Books also immediately gets a vote of confidence from me. Considering the previous offerings that I’ve read from that micro press (Whatever Don’t Drown Will Always Rise, Murmuration, Infinity’s Jukebox, If There’s Any Truth In a Northbound Train, and Soft), I can trust that I’m going to dig anything new they put out.

That was certainly the case with Kill Us On the Way Home.

Given the nature of the book, I’m not going to quote as heavily as I normally do. Kill Us On the Way Home is a chapbook of six short pieces and quoting heavily would simply give too much away. I can certainly gush about the book though.

Let’s consider “The Most Important Part About Being Fake-Pregnant.” A young woman meets the pregnant wife of the Mormon ex-boyfriend who had proposed to her not long before. She lies and says she is pregnant too, not telling the wife who she is. Her new boyfriend helps her construct fake pregnancy belly after fake pregnancy belly as she gets closer and closer to the unsuspecting wife.

“It really is wild that we are only two weeks apart from each other,” Lorrie repeated over the next few months. We would laugh over virgin cocktails about the strange parallels between our pregnancies and lives. We would cry to each other about our inattentive partners. She told me everything about Mark. From the way he likes his socks folded, to how he was in bed. She told me everything that I already knew about the man she married. She told me exactly what my life would have been if I had been less like myself.

It’s a strange story, filled with a strange hard to hold for long yearning, and it definitely gets under the skin of the reader. All the stories in Kill Us On the Way Home do. I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite, though “The Most Important Part About Being Fake-Pregnant” would definitely be high on my list.

Of course, that list might also include “Seven Things About Hot Dogs.” Perhaps also “Knots.” Maybe “Memorial” too. Well, you get the idea.

Beatty writes words on the page in Kill Us On the Way Home like she’s carving faces into giant logs with a chainsaw. The words are spare, the writing sometimes harsh, but the phrases and people are bent and surprising (“Our Mother was dying and my sister Maxine and I were on a game show that wouldn’t quite save her.” from “Sphinx Moth”), and the emotions evoked can be extreme. These stories are strong, and magical. Kill Us On the Way Home is a must read chapbook from a must read press.

 

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry is kind of an odd book. It starts out with a guy remembering one of his friends and how he died. Then we flash back to that day and focus on that friend, as well as the two people with him. The guy who starts the book makes some appearance later, but not much. That’s probably an odd way to open discussion of this book, but Under the Volcano is a strange book.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for Walter Kirn.)

Geoffrey Firmin is ‘the Consul.’ Well, that’s what he’s called. He’s actually a drunk. He was a consul at one point, but still pretty much in name only even then. Consuls watch out for the business interests of their country. There wasn’t much of that in the small Mexico town Firmin was posted in, even before the UK severed ties with Mexico and pulled their people back. He was pretty much sent there to get him out of the way. When the UK pulled out, Firmin stayed.

We know from the very start of Under the Volcano that Firmin is going to die. We read to find out how, and in what manner his death occurs.

On this day, Firmin is drunk. He’s pinned between desperately wanting his former wife to return to him and wanting to be left alone to pretty much drink himself into oblivion. She comes back, wanting him to leave Mexico so they can form a life together again. However, he’s still pinned. He’s not going anywhere. His half brother is also there, making a bit of a love triangle.

But, most importantly, as I already mentioned, Firmin is drunk:

… The Consul, an inconceivable anguish of horripilating hangover thunderclapping about his skull, and accompanied by a protective screen of demons gnattering in his ears, became aware that in the horrid event of his being observed by his neighbours it could hardly be supposed he was just sauntering down his garden with some innocent horticultural object in view. Nor even that he was sauntering. The Consul, who had waked a moment or two ago on the porch and remembered everything immediately, was almost running. He was also lurching. In vain he tried to check himself, plunging his hands, with an extraordinary attempt at nonchalance, in which he hoped might appear more than a hint of consular majesty, deeper into the sweat-soaked pockets of his dress trousers. And now, rheumatisms discarded, he really was running… Might he not, then, be reasonably suspected of a more dramatic purpose, of having assumed, for instance, the impatient buskin of a William Blackstone leaving the Puritans to dwell among the Indians, or the desperate mien of his friend Wilson when he so magnificently abandoned the University Expedition to disappear, likewise in a pair of dress trousers, into the jungles of darkest Oceania, never to return? Not very reasonably. For one thing, if he continued much farther in this present direction towards the bottom of his garden any such visioned escape into the unknown must shortly be arrested by what was, for him, an unscalable wire fence. “Do not be so foolish as to imagine you have no object, however. We warned you, we told you so, but now that in spite of all our pleas you have got yourself into this deplorable—” He recognized the tone of one of his familiars, faint among the other voices as he crashed on through the metamorphoses of dying and reborn hallucinations, like a man who does not know he has been shot from behind. “—condition,” the voice went on severely, “you have to do something about it. Therefore we are leading you towards the accomplishment of this something.” “I’m not going to drink,” the Consul said, halting suddenly. “Or am I? Not mescal anyway.” “Of course not, the bottle’s just there, behind that bush. Pick it up.” “I can’t,” he objected—”That’s right, just take one drink, just the necessary, the therapeutic drink: perhaps two drinks.” “God,” the Consul said. “Ah. Good. God. Christ.” “Then you can say it doesn’t count.” “It doesn’t. It isn’t mescal.” “Of course not, it’s tequila. You might have another.” “Thanks, I will.” The Consul palsiedly readjusted the bottle to his lips. “Bliss. Jesus. Sanctuary… Horror,” he added. “—Stop. Put that bottle down, Geoffrey Firmin, what are you doing to yourself?” another voice said in his ear so loudly he turned round. On the path before him a little snake he had thought a twig was rustling off into the bushes and he watched it a moment through his dark glasses, fascinated. It was a real snake all right. Not that he was much bothered by anything so simple as snakes, he reflected with a degree of pride, gazing straight into the eyes of a dog. It was a pariah dog and disturbingly familiar. “Perro,” he repeated, as it still stood there—but had not this incident occurred, was it not now, as it were, occurring an hour or two ago, he thought in a flash. Strange. He dropped the bottle which was of white corrugated glass—Tequila Añejo de Jalisco, it said on the label—out of sight into the undergrowth, looking about him. All seemed normal again. Anyway, both snake and dog had gone. And the voices had ceased…

Firmin’s half brother hopes for things. His former wife hopes for things. Firmin has hopes of a kind, but they are disconnected from any actions he really performs in life. What is going to happen is going to happen. That’s just going to be it, tragic as it may be.

The prose in Under the Volcano is a little denser than is my preference, but I can’t fault the effects it pulls off. The images are vivid and the melancholy fatalism is beautifully stirring. Its structure is odd, but it works masterfully. Really, that’s all anybody needs to say.