Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Ostensibly a Review, But More of An Imaginative Speculation upon Torrid Romances

Title: The Jane Austen Book Club
Author: Karen Joy Fowler

Being the incorrigible Janeite I am, it was inevitable that I would actually read The Jane Austen Book Club sooner or later.

I wish it had been later. Decades later, to be precise.

In fact, that’s the advice I’d give to anyone under the age of 30 wishing to tackle Karen Fowler’s eyeroll-inducing brand of chick lit: wait twenty years. Better yet, spend those twenty years sitting on a porch picking at your belly lint and toe jam. If you ever become bored and middle-aged, you’ll probably find the novel charming. And that’s about the nicest thing I can say concerning The Jane Austen Book Club.

Oh, I could write a 100 page essay about everything wrong with this book. It’s tempting, but I’ll refrain. Instead, I’ll concentrate my criticism upon a single Fowler quote, when she’s describing a character’s attendance at an annual dog convention:

[Jocelyn] attended panels entitled “Sight Hounds: What Makes Them Special?” and “Soothing the Savage Beast: New Modification Techniques for Aggressive Behaviors.” (Which was sad, as the proper quote was about savage breasts. Now that would be a panel!)

Reading that, my head exploded. I was groaning over the bad humor, and confused as all hell over the quote issue. This unstable combination induced combustion, and I spent the evening scrubbing pieces of my cranium off the wall, cursing.

Why was reading that so bad? Well, although Fowler is technically correct about the quote, I had no idea of this at the time. “Sooth[ing] the savage breast” comes from a random 18th c. play written by William Congreve entitled The Mourning Bride. But has anyone actually read this? I sure as hell hadn’t. Besides, everyone’s heard of “soothing the savage beast,” right? I needed more information, and Fowler wasn’t helping. Such sloppy writing irks me.

But you know what…who cares about the stupid quote anyway! Fowler’s exposure of our cultural error certainly wasn’t done in a way that was funny or meaningful. “Now that would be a panel!”…ugh. Those words made me shiver (which was a precursor, of course, to the subsequent combustion). Fowler was just trying so hard to be “hip” and failing so utterly that it actually depressed me.

This was only one example, but I could find one on every page. I’m not exaggerating. Once I got disgusted with the book, it was the only way I could keep myself reading.

Most importantly, don’t make the mistake of thinking that The Jane Austen Book Club is actually about Jane Austen. It isn’t. Fowler actually makes factual mistakes regarding Austen’s novels, and what little analysis does appear is shallow and trite. When the plot does evoke Austen’s world, it’s done in a manner that’s clumsy and transparent. The book is really about five mopey women and one mopey man finding mopey meaning in their mopey lives. I could give examples, but…

I’m bored.

I was bored reading The Jane Austen Book Club and now I’m bored writing about it. You’re probably bored reading this. So let’s talk about something much more interesting:

How cool would it have been if Jane Austen and Mark Twain had had a passionate secret love affair?

The only good thing about The Jane Austen Book Club is that it concludes with a collection of quotes from various writers and critics concerning Jane Austen. Of these, Mark Twain’s is the best:

I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read "Pride and Prejudice" I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.

As others have before me, I found Twain’s criticism of Austen deliciously ambiguous. There’s utter scorn and loathing in his desire to exhume poor Jane and batter her, but despite this hostility, he apparently can’t stop reading her. Is this not the very definition of a desperate love? Was Mark Twain, despite all his machismo, a closet Janeite?

I like to think he was, that he found her books so intoxicating – though frustrating – that he couldn’t stay away. I’m rather reminded of Ayn Rand’s Dominique Francon, who disguised her love for Howard Roark’s buildings (and Roark himself) by criticizing them vehemently in print. Although her criticism always appeared damning upon the surface, underneath, it was wildly praising. I like to think Mark Twain’s surface scorn for Jane Austen similarly is meant to disguise a passionate admiration. I think he was too shy and insecure – or, perhaps, had too much professionally invested in his persona of frontiersman – to admit his love openly.

Of course, they couldn’t actually have had a torrid affair, since they weren’t living at the same time. Still, I find the idea highly amusing and entertaining. It just seems so right, doesn’t it? Twain and Austen are polar opposites on the surface, writing about completely different worlds, and yet the way they both write about those worlds is so similar. Both have an extremely strong sense of place, a talent for biting satire, and a distrust of goofy sentimentality. They’re two sides of the same coin, which is always a great formula for attraction. They would be two people who deeply hated each other…except for when they were busy ripping each other’s clothes off.

There's an image to keep one up at night. *grins*

I wish someone would write a book, play, or movie about such an impossible, yet fascinating, love story. It could be the greatest literary romance that never was. It would take a genius, though, to do it right. Probably more than one genius, actually. Ah, well, I can hope. I’d even be satisfied if someone only created a series of letters between the two. Oh, to read such things…it would be heaven.

When I first started down this bizarre train of thought, I did some quick internet research and soon discovered that I wasn’t alone in indulging in this fantasy. We are a multitude (a multitude = 2). The only best article I found is one written by Emily Auerbach, a Jane Austen scholar. I really liked it (and stole some of Auerbach’s ideas for this review), but I do realize that everyone else isn’t as fascinated by literary criticism as I am. Still, it’s short and fairly entertaining, so if you want to join me on the Dark Side, here’s your temptation.

posted by Elizabeth at 8:32 PM


Blogger reyn said...

It is a rare occasion when I laugh myself to tears reading a book review, even an ostensible one. I'm just glad I didn't have to know anything about Jane to get the jokes.

8/17/2006 7:00 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

Yes, I was halfway through what would have been a legitimate review, when I realized that most people reading it probably wouldn't care whether Fowler was true or not to the Austen spirit. So I switched things about. Besides, this site needed at least one genuine flame. I probably won't write many more in the future, simply because i rarely finish books I dislike. But doing it this once was fun!

8/17/2006 8:58 PM  

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