“Henny, never speaking to him, heard him with fright; but she had given herself up entirely to despair; she said nothing, and it seemed to her that (now that the clouds had rolled away) she saw her husband for the first time: she had married a child whose only talent was an air of engaging helplessness by which he got the protection of certain goodhearted people – Saul Pilgrim, who was penniless, various old Socialists, of small property, and in the dim past, by the same means, her own father.” (p. 325)
The Resolution Project Season Two: For my New Year’s resolution last year (2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I got almost halfway through. I’ve decided to bull-headedly push on through and try and finish the challenge, continuing with the same caveat as before: I’ve exempted myself from reading books I’ve already read, leaving eighty-six or so left to go. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned if you’re the type to be bothered by that. It’s not really worth getting that angry about though.
Thoughts: So I finally finished this beast. As I mentioned before, I really did not care for this book at all. I will say though, that it got a little bit better, but that is really not saying much. Maybe it’s the Stockholm Syndrome talking, but once the Pollit clan moved out of Washington to “Spa House” in Annapolis, halfway through the book, it started to get marginally better. This is a book that was desperately in need of editing. Look at the quote I pulled above. That is one long sentence there, folks, Frankensteined together with count ‘em, seven commas, two semi-colons, a regular colon, a dash and a pair of brackets. And the whole book is written like this! It’s a nightmare.
I kind of started to compare this book to a movie like Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father in my head, as that too deals with a similarly rising dread throughout. The problem is though, the film takes 95 minutes to tell its terrible story, whereas The Man Who Loved Children is an agonizing 527 pages of overwritten handwringing, philosophizing, babytalking and insulting, delivered to us through a cast of characters who are all completely and totally unbelievable. Had the book been cut down substantially, we wouldn’t have to spend hundreds of pages detailing just how and why mother Henny and father Sam are so goddamn terrible. One or two instances would have been more than enough, as opposed to the relentless cavalcade of misery that is heaped upon the children, and by extension, whatever poor bastard decided he should read this book in a feat of literary masochism.
Jonathan Franzen, who I believe alongside Time 100 list creator Richard Lacayo is the only reason this book has any critical sway right now, tells us in 2010 that the character of Louisa is based on author Christina Stead. This must be the only reason that the character is an accomplished poet/martyr figure, because nothing in Louisa’s background and upbringing would suggest that. She’s a total Mary Sue-type character, an author stand-in and wish fulfillment fantasy. You literally have no choice but to side with her, and by proxy, the author. Note though that she is given substantial physical defects though, so it’s not a classic Mary Sue move. It’s absolutely ludicrous, though, that a twelve year old would be as well-read as Louisa is in the novel. In addition to that, the school scenes, featuring Louisa’s only friend Clare, are absolutely nonsensical and a complete waste of space, and also prove that she’s not getting some sort of amazing schooling to make her this way. It’s pretty unbelievable to me that Louisa and her friends compose an epic poem cycle about their teacher, alongside numerous plays and other pieces. I realize that before TV and video games people were more inventive, but come on now ;).
So, I get it. Sam Pollit is an absolutely horrifying man. He’s a symbol of the evils of American-style paternalism and science gone unchecked. One of my “favorite” running themes concerns his attitude towards eugenics and social planning; at one point the phrase “if I were a Stalin or Hitler” is dropped, as Stead decides to go so far as to invoke Godwin’s Law on her main character about 50 years early. There must have been a more elegant way of relaying this information to me.
Franzen’s right about how this book should be included in the feminist discourse, though. If only for the fact that it makes The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series seem like a nice place for a little girl to grow up. It’s about as strident an attack on patriarchal society as you’re going to get, although I’d argue that Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook does this in a much more interesting form, with much, much better writing. I am so glad to be done this book, you have no idea.
Similar books on the Time 100 list: If I was to be a real bastard and recommend books like this one to someone, The Golden Notebook for sure. I’m also assuming that people who “enjoy” this one would get something out of Revolutionary Road, although this is me saying this without having read the book yet, just based on the movie. Also, Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret would probably share some thematic similarities, but I kind of feel like a dick for grouping those two together.
Total pages read since January 1st 2011: 16452 pp. (1993 this year)
Total books on the Time 100 list read: 56/113, or 50% complete.
Next up on the Resolution Project: I am going to have to think about this one, it depends on what treasures the library makes available to me.