middlemarch, middlesex: some thoughts on gradual decline

Julia has added two new moods to asleep and surprised! – perturbation and delight. Perturbation, which is rare, is expressed in a series of stern bleats addressed to any person or persons suspected of withholding milk or cuddles. Delight is even rarer, and results in mild beaming. Mostly, though, she continues to be asleep or surprised!

So what do I do all day, with Claire at preschool and Julia sleeping contentedly in her sling? I read, and I think curmudgeonly thoughts. I caught up on what are supposed to have been some good recent novels: Empire Falls, Middlesex and The Hours. All three featured some nice unflashy realist prose that was completely undercut by wildly implausible yet cinematic deaths seventy minutes in. Literary fiction has dwindled into the film treatment.

I fled to the nineteenth century, where George Eliot took me in her arms. I haven’t read her masterpiece Middlemarch in fifteen years, and in that time I have almost completed the transition from Dorothea to (I hope) a Tertius Lydgate who made a sensible marriage. What an aggravating prig Dorothea can be. I actually feel very sorry for Casaubon, whose reach merely exceeded his grasp.

Dorothea should have married Lydgate. Would there, then, have been a novel? Lydgate’s gradual slide into debt and dishonour is brilliantly and convincingly portrayed, so much so that it made me anxious. The oddest thing about Middlemarch is that, to me, it reads more like Trollope’s best novel than anything written by the author of The Mill on the Floss or Adam Bede. I don’t mean that a woman couldn’t have written it; just that it examines Trollope’s real interests (and mine) – money and career – more than the somewhat sentimental affection for the landless that seems to dominate Eliot’s other books.

Rocket Boys was a Christmas gift from Jeremy. In the last days of this pregnancy we finally got the NetFlix queue moving again, and after three spectacularly good picks – The Station Agent, The Triplets of Belleville and The Barbarian Invasions – we watched October Sky, the film and also anagram of Rocket Boys. The script was so ploddingly awful I had to throw cushions at the TV to alleviate my impotent rage, but the book is engrossing, as much for its portrait of a dying West Virginia coal town as for the rocketry.

In order to get out, Homer Hickham had to go to college; and that basic truth underpins Locked in the Cabinet, the memoir of Robert Reich, labor secretary in the first Clinton Administration. Reich’s modest, funny, fascinating book (much better than Stephanopoulos’s All Too Human) plots the political failures of 1992-96: how deficit hawks killed Reich’s dreams of investment in job training and education to expand the skilled US workforce; how Reich’s own naivete undermined his position and left him isolated at the far left of the Cabinet; how Clinton’s early ambitions eroded before the pressure of securing re-election.

It is uncomfortable reading, especially when Reich describes the ideologues elected in the 1994 midterms. There was no negotiating with Gingrich and his cronies Armey and Delay, who came to Washington brandishing the Contract With America and determined to wrest power away from the Democrats for good. They succeeded. It was the beginning of the godawful mess we’re in now.

JFK was reading Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and some credit it with helping him keep his nerve. (The Bob McNamara documentary The Fog of War, another great Netflix pick, is terrifying on Cuba.) Tuchman’s The Proud Tower has a chapter on the anarchist movement at the turn of the last century, describing the theorists pressing in print for “the propaganda of the deed” and the bombers and assassins who took them at their word.

The parallels with Islamofascism (and Christofascism for that matter) – decentralized and feeding on a dispossessed and emasculated populace, practically impossible to contain – are unsettling. As Ian pointed out to me the other day, there’s no way to monitor what’s going on inside someone’s mind, and it’s amazing the kinds of havoc lone gunmen can achieve these days. Ah, progress.

Julia is awake. Julia is surprised!

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