Edward Haley, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College, attended a recent reading and Q & A in Newport Beach, California for This Vacant Paradise. A woman in the audience was vocally upset (TVP doesn’t exactly depict Newport Beach in the most positive light, and I was in her hometown), and Ed, along with others, provided a reasoning counterbalance. Her outburst provoked heated debate, and since then, Ed and I have corresponded through email. I decided to post our correspondence because of Ed’s astute insights, and also because it’s an example of the alchemy that can occur between reader and writer. Ed is intelligent, thoughtful, well read, and he still has me thinking about the mesh between art, meaning, and intention. Plus, now I’m reading Ivan Turgenev.
Ed Haley: It wasn’t easy [reading This Vacant Paradise]—not because of your writing, which is always good and sometimes terrific—but because of what you put your characters through. Sometimes, it was too painful to turn the page. I didn’t want to learn what would happen next because I knew it would hurt Esther. I felt as if I had seen a car crash and wanted not to look, to avert my eyes, not to find out how badly the passengers had been hurt.
At the end, Esther’s and Charlie’s lives are wrecked, maybe even over. Charlie has retreated into his newly inherited money—making his intellectual pretensions and personal beauty, which he turns into womanizing, even more absurd and shallow than they seem—and, of course he has also been more or less simultaneously promoted, and thus perversely “rewarded” by the system he claims to despise. Esther has been “punished” according to the same rules and system, and has retreated into poverty and powerlessness. Among other ways, you show this by noting the changes in Esther’s appearance, her only “treasure.” Neither has anywhere to turn to escape, no spiritual and intellectual reserves and, in Esther’s case, no energy.
All this in your story reminds me of Chekhov and Flaubert. Of Flaubert I have read only Madame Bovary and a little about Flaubert’s background; that he was a royalist in a republican and revolutionary time, for example, and despite a very comfortable, very bourgeois upbringing and life—he lived on and inherited family money—despised everything about bourgeois life and society. Madame B certainly makes that obvious.
I have read a great deal of Chekhov, actually everything he wrote except letters, if there are any. Chekhov creates sociological situations without an exit. The personalities and circumstances of the characters put them on tracks from which it is impossible to escape. Although they are emotional and spiritual and human, the tracks are almost physical in their iron limits and certainly pin them to their course. The route turns and turns, doubles back, rises and falls in emotional and existential ups and downs, opportunities come and go and switches appear, but they don’t change the course. The characters have no choice—as Charlie and Esther have no choice—but to go down the sociological tracks that Chekhov put them on.
None of this diminishes Chekhov’s stories or yours, but it does make them frustrating and full of anguish. Your book left me with much more to say—for example, you give Esther so much but take it away by denying her education and willpower, but you have to impose such very narrow limits on Esther in order to make the final outcome of the story plausible. Also, Dickens is very much present. For example: Esther’s unreal family is very Dickensian, and in the relationship between Esther and her grandmother I see Estella and Miss Havisham; Charlie might be Pip, who this time gets to sleep with someone at least as beautiful as Estella, lucky guy.
Do you think of yourself as a moralist?
Dickens certainly was and perhaps Chekhov. Their stories made moral points and had a moral basis to them, implicit in the criticism of society around them. Some of the great Russian writers of the 19th century were moralists, using their books and stories to criticize their society: one whose stories I love more and more all the time is Turgenev. On the other hand, I’m not sure Tolstoy’s greatest novels fit this mould. He became a sort of mystical apologist for his religious views late in life, but his later works don’t measure up to the early novels and are very different from them.
VP: Thank you so much for your response. I need to read more Turgenev, but as far as the other writers, I love Chekhov, Flaubert, Dickens and Tolstoy.
I agree that Esther is a tragic heroine, and that it is her tragedy and failure that matter.
While I certainly wanted to make a statement about the ramifications and damage wrought by a materialistic and superficial society, my goal with This Vacant Paradise was to bring alive on the page something like what John Gardner termed the “creation of a vivid and continuous dream.” A seduction of the reader that comes far more from artistry and storytelling.
I do believe that there’s inevitably a moral component, but I hope that the artistry and storytelling are at the forefront: in the control over the myriad of characters and themes; not only creating people but keeping created people alive and breathing within the reader’s mind throughout the progression of TVP to its conclusion.
I don’t think of myself as a moralist. I think of myself as a writer, as asking over and over what it means to be a human being. And just by asking, there’s a vein of sadness and fear, because there’s no solid answer.
While TVP is filled with a clear dislike of certain kinds of people and institutions and ideas, these act more as impediments for the characters that are seeking to become what they could be and what they desire to be, rather than moral signposts of “bad” and “good.”
On another note, I wonder even at the capacity of novels to influence moral character? I would guess that its minimal, especially when put up against the major influences of family, society, religion, schooling, etc. I believe the main power of a novel resides in its capacity to render reader-identification. That’s why the reactions can be so dramatic, like the woman at the reading. She was very upset because something had obviously rattled her to her core—she indentified on some deep basis that made her unhappy and uncomfortable.
EH: I think you’d like Turgenev. He is always ironic but he is gentler and less determinist than Chekhov. Sometimes in reading Chekhov’s stories I grow angry with him for not allowing his characters to escape or change. Chekhov’s way of seeing the world around him has a moral significance, and it was that I was thinking of with the question about your characters, especially Esther, and about you as a writer. Is the world as it is a friendly place for human beings? It was not friendly to Esther! Nor could it ever be, or so it seemed to me. Could it?
There is a wonderful book by Susan Neiman called Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, which addresses the way our sense of the world’s friendliness to human beings has shifted during the past three hundred years or so. Susan starts the book with the Lisbon earthquake in 1755, which killed thousands of innocents and came at a time of crisis in religious faith throughout the Western world. Dickens was certainly a reformer, if not a moralist, and believed that through mutual good will workers and factory owners could do away with the harshness of primitive capitalism that was all around him and make the changes needed without a revolution. Many of his stories make this point, some, such as A Christmas Carol or David Copperfield, make it fairly obviously. Chekhov used his writing to subvert the world around him and promised, at least implicitly, that something better was possible.
The interplay between the “meaning” of a novel or painting and the requirements of what makes good writing/painting is fascinating. Elaine and I and our daughter Kate just spent two weeks in France immersed much of the time in paintings we love. We kept running into the same tension between meaning and art. There is a spectacular Manet show at the Orsay. I wonder if you know the painting called “The Balcony.” It shows three people Manet knew well. One meaning could be that the three people are lost, that they have failed to find a sure place in the world, especially obvious with the woman on the right, a violinist, quite a good player, I recall, but not someone who made a place for herself as an artist. Her parasol looks like a violin; her expression is wistful, sad, vague, like her life. Morisot (lower left) was a fine painter, but never seen as in the first rank, and so on. If this is right, then the painting is about our loneliness and failure and the cruelty of the world. Art historians are very reluctant to attribute this or any kind of meaning to the people or the painting and prefer to talk about Goya’s influence on Manet (he has a similar painting) and the proprieties that Manet was defying by presenting his models in this way. I’m not so sure it’s possible to divorce the one from the other quite so easily.
VP: Thanks, Ed. In thinking about it more, it’s very difficult to disentangle what shapes a novel or story—Why did I write it? What was I trying to say? Was I trying to make a moral statement? What does it mean? And then there’s the whole mystery of why I write in the first place. What makes me feel this overwhelming need to write? I suppose I don’t really know. I do believe that writing is a way to honor life, the complications of being human, as depicted in the painting.