Frederick Clegg is a shy and awkward man raised by aunts, a collector of butterflies and a forefather of Buffalo Bill (of Silence of the Lambs) and countless other twisted men whose heads novelists put us inside. Frederick’s interest in young Miranda is harmless until he wins a major lottery prize and decides to collect this beautiful specimen. His justifications are almost sympathetic – he knows she would never notice him otherwise. Frederick’s fantasy is not primarily sexual either, his greatest fantasy is that Miranda will come to love him. However, as Miranda repeatedly attempts escape, he comes to despair of this scenario and instead forces her to pose for salacious photos. Just as their conflict is building to a head, however, the narrative re-starts, now through the lens of the diary Miranda keeps during her captivity.
Fowles masterfully manipulates his readers – even as you know how this scenario must turn out, you are lulled by the descriptions of Miranda’s attempts to civilize Frederick (who tells her his name is Ferdinand, but whom she calls Caliban). She believes that if she can find some kernel of fellow feeling in him, she can convince him to let her go. This is not merely a conflict between a deeply damaged man and a smart young woman; Fowles makes quite clear it’s also a conflict between bourgeois middle-class desires to control, and thus deaden, the world and idealism, hope and most of all art. The novel was published in 1963, and certainly reflects conflicts of that era, but I kept thinking it was from the 1920s, mostly because the blatant class consciousness was so alien to me. While belief in the transcendant power of art feels a little dated now, the psychology of The Collector holds up well, and in eschewing the stomach-churning acts of The Silence of the Lambs, permits a sickening degree of identification with and understanding of Frederick.
Over the holidays, reading Byron in Love confirmed that I shouldn’t pick my own books. It was highly recommended in a review I can’t find now. All the ones Google pulls up confirm my assessment that it’s deeply unbalanced, providing way too little of Byron’s literary merits or even the non-sexual components of his relationships to flesh out the catalog of sexual perversity.
Santa, on the other hand, enabled me in my favorite rut, stuffing Edvard Radzinsky’s The Rasputin File in my stocking. Odd reading on a Belizean beach, but deeply satisfying and it provides an intriguing reinterpretation of Rasputin’s murder. The only thing I would have added would be more photos and reproductions of contemporary photos and news stories, since the contemporary publicity of Rasputin’s exploits was a significant factor in undermining the Russian people’s faith in their rulers and helped open them to the idea of Communist revolution.
Yesterday, I finished The Collector on the way to work, but everyone on the N Train was on a Blackberry or PSP, so it wasn’t until the ride home I was able to find a new book. The first person I sat next to was a woman about my age with a huge book spread open on her knees. I sighed a bit, since the long ones slow down my posting schedule, but a glance at the top of the page showed it to be Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth! Saved, I turned to The New Yorker (highly recommend last week’s review of a book arguing van Gogh didn’t cut off his own ear) and forgot to look for a new book until I’d switched to the R in Brooklyn, where a scruffy guy had a bright yellow book in hand. It turned out to be The Watchmen graphic novel, with the bleeding smiley cover obviating the need to see the title. The Writer happens to own the original printing of the comics in book form (as well as the original comics, but I wouldn’t dream of touching those), so for once, no need to wait on the NYPL.
So this book was billed, by no less than Augusten Burroughs, as a laugh-til-your-stomach-hurts novel, and the tweedy fellow I spotted with it was laughing out loud. But I never once laughed reading this book.
Sure, the characters were amusingly larger than life, but I felt the core conflict, between fraternal twin sisters and the coolly cruel man who marries one while in love with the other, had too much emotional weight for the ridiculous situations to be funny rather than poignant. The novel, with its twins, one a nymphomaniac, the other secularly celibate, reminded me of Half-Life, by Shelley Jackson*, which I really loved. Half-Life is narrated by one of a pair of conjoined twins, in a world in which such pairings are increasingly common due to nuclear fallout, and the desire to be separated and finally live alone. The narrator of National Book Award Winner has a similarly love-hate relationship with her twin, who completes her and yet imprisons her in their yin-yang dynamic.
An enjoyable read, but it doesn’t live up to its billing (though it does have really bad weather, so maybe a good pick for the next big snow). My next Subway Book Club pick, The Collector, is waiting for me at the library when I return from my holiday vacation. In the meantime, I’ll do a little personally selected reading, starting with Byron in Love: A Short, Daring Life.
*You may recognize her name from her Skin project, in which she enlisted 2095 volunteers to each have a word from her short story tattooed on his/her body without knowing what the whole story was in advance.
The latest book is The Collector by John Fowles. When I first spotted it on the R Train platform Monday morning, I was concerned that all I had was “The Collector” and a butterfly on the cover. I figured, that’s probably a pretty common title and who knew if the butterfly thing would help. This morning, I spotted The 19th Wife and figured I had it in reserve, but Amazon is awesome with all the cover shots of all the different editions and the correct book turned up second in a search for “the collector”. No idea what it’s about, but hope it shows up before I head off for my holiday travels.