Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Maggot

by John Fowles

A Maggoti tried reading this when i was 15, i think around the time it first came out. perhaps i was too ambitious, because the novel was too much for me, and i gave up. i suppose i just didn't get it. but i can be competitive - even with books, even with myself. so i promised young mark monday that the battle wasn't over, that i'd return to re-engage 25 years later, when i had become an old, wise man...and i would eventually conquer this one.

well, mark, it is now 25 years later.


...and so i promptly lost my original paperback right after i started reading it - after holding on to it for 25 frickin' years! it took time to get a new copy.

but now that i'm finished with this one, i'm not even sure what to say. a lot of different things went on in my head when reading this. it is pretty one-of-a-kind. i think i'll give it some time to sink in before i write a real review. overall: a fascinating, challenging, often off-putting, drily humorous, always intriguing experience. but after all the headiness, i think i need to read a kid's novel to rinse the intellectual palate, so to speak.


well, it's a few days after the above. today i've been enjoying my favorite Kate Bush songs on my back patio and at one point was surprised to recall that i had fully enjoyed these bizarre and challenging songs way back in high school, back when A Maggot was so intimidating. and so i became embarrassed at avoiding the review at hand. thanks Kate for the guilt trip!

the story

five figures in a landscape, traveling on horseback to an unknown destination. they do not speak; they exist, at first, simply as enigmas to contemplate. a nobleman. his faux-uncle, an actor. his manservant, or lover. a maid - or, perhaps, a whore. a soldier - or, perhaps, a lifetime liar. it is May 1736, in England. three will return, one will be found dead, the last will have disappeared without a trace.

the style

i have read many times over that Fowles has a style that is challenging... prose that is dense and oblique, narratives that often veer off confusingly into the metaphysical, a guiding hand that shows little to no interest in offering the reader their more traditional pleasures. A Maggot is all of those things. it is a journey that ends in a kind of transcendence; it is a narrative that has no interest in answering your questions, silly reader. and yet this is by no means a difficult book to read - the difficulty lies in digesting and understanding any or all of its myriad implications.

roughly three-quarters of the novel is in the question-and-answer format of a police interrogation and police procedural, except in this case the questioner is a curmudgeonly, reactionary, cynical old lawyer, with interests clearly vested in the keeping of station - the poor with the poor, the rich (his client, the nobleman's father - a Duke) firmly with the rich. there should be no challenge to the capable reader during these parts - the format allows all stories to be told in a reassuring first-person format, the tales told are straightforward (but only in the telling), and there are many acidic comments from the dear aged lawyer to enjoy, to roll around the tongue and then say out loud, with the utmost haughty, lawyerly disdain.

interspersed between, before, and after these long interviews are sequences that can best be described with that hoary adjective, Brechtian. these parts are striking in what they do not tell. they view the actions and words of our characters at a firm distance, as players in a play that the reader has stumbled upon halfway, the activities a tableau rather than a display of actual movement. it seems intended to distance the reader, to force contemplation, and in that it certainly succeeds. perhaps too well... the tactic can be off-putting. the intent appears to be to separate emotion from content, to allow the reader to decipher entirely on their own the motives and meaning of what they see displayed before them... and in that the method is clearly successful.

now i have to wonder why i was unable to finish this back in high school. this is not the most difficult of books. well, who knows. perhaps i was too shallow and more interested in fast-paced genre fiction. i suppose things have not changed too much on that front.

the ideas

so what is this novel about? well, now is the time to answer questions with questions.

is it indeed a police procedural? at that it succeeds, in spades. the mystery is palpable, the truth seems just around the corner. lies are told and liars are caught in them. the death is a suicide or a murder. the party of five are many things and none of them what they appear. at first it appears to be an intrigue of surprisingly cosy proportions. surely this mystery can be solved? the lawyer seems to think it all hinges upon a secret gay relationship between intense young nobleman and mute, well-hung manservant. silly lawyer!

is this a tale of witchcraft and dire deeds in a dark and eerie cavern? one of the tales told is explicitly so. it all becomes so clear to the reader accustomed to fantasy and horror during this very long sequence - at last, the truth comes out! it is a very well-constructed trap for the reader who demands an answer and who somehow equates vivid tales of perverse enchantment with an actual answer. and by "the reader", i am of course speaking of myself. it was certainly satisfying on the level of having an answer that turned out to be enjoyably dreadful, perversely erotic, and full of grim fantasia. it is an almost comfortably relayed tale of easily recognized horrors and i swallowed it whole - until i realized i was barely halfway finished with the book. i wondered: so now that the truth is out, what is left to tell? and then this familiar answer to the mystery began to seem unreal, the explanation began to unravel. it became a straw man, a paper tiger, a stalking horse.

is this a tale of time travel, the future not just looking upon the past, but stepping in to mold that past, to create the future? the vision of a silvery "maggot" - in essence, a silver spaceship, complete with futuristic dials and knobs, strange fabrics, and viewing screens that show scenes that could never be seen in the viewer's lifetime - is a wonderfully clever nod to the trappings of science fiction. alas, no doubt 'tis another feint.

is this a treatise on the inherent lack of godliness in any class-based system, in organized religion, in the lack of equality between the genders? yes, it is. dynamically so. angrily so.

is this a vaguely postmodern whimsy on the roots and beginnings of Shakerism? the end of the novel is nearly a love poem to one of the most fascinating religious figures i have had the pleasure of learning about - the Shaker proselytizer Anna Lee. have you ever heard of the Shakers, outside of their excellence at furniture-building? i have, but then in my early youth i was raised in some aspects of the Quaker faith, from which many of the Shaker tenets developed. if you haven't heard of the Shakers, look them up! their belief system is truly compelling, not least in their unshakeable conviction that equality between the genders was an absolute for truly living in God's world. an admirable belief! they even thought that Jesus may return in the form of a woman, which was surely a beyond-radical concept for the time (and may still be so). and those Shakers danced! thus the name "Shakers". they danced and sang in crazy, awesome concentric circles. just about the only thing that i find questionable about the faith is their determination that all forms of sexuality, of carnality, were the devil's work. so... no sex. ever. not even for procreation.

is this a tale of transcendence, a vision of the world as God intended, a reclamation of a lost soul, a transfiguration of sorts? such is the final tale, and no doubt the one closest to the truth. have our key players transcended, either shedding their physical form and earthly existence for the beyond or shedding the grossly carnal and materialistic forms of their current lives for something finer, something richer in spirituality, community, equality, and destiny? well, let me just tell you this: do not expect an answer to your questions. expect to be forced to think, and not to be led to the well to drink. expect a certain lack of satisfaction, a clear lack of narrative resolution. expect to be... frustrated.

the title

is A Maggot "a maggot"? in the intro, Fowles recalls the obsolete definition of the word: namely, "a whim, a quirk". this is perhaps the only interpretation with which i resolutely disagree. A Maggot is far from a whim. its intentions are too serious, its possible meaning too compelling, too multi-leveled. unlike a mere whim, it exists to be contemplated seriously. its ideas are no fanciful quirk; indeed, it is a puzzle for the mind (and soul), an almost brazen challenge from beginning to end.


apropos of nothing at all, here are my Top 10 Kate Bush songs:

Leave It Open
Running Up that Hill
Army Dreamers
Get Out of My House
Wuthering Heights
James and the Cold Gun
Hammer Horror
Coffee Homeground
This Woman's Work

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