“The ship drifted on the horizon like a symbol of escape”
“I wonder…when it was that the world first went amiss, and men forgot how to live and to love and be happy.”
I loved this book so much! It’s exactly what I needed right now. Daphne Du Maurier is so skilled in creating a perfect atmosphere, exciting plots, and dynamic relationships between her characters. This novel is escapism at its best.
Frenchman’s Creek follows Dona, a beautiful 30-year-old woman who is part of London’s upper class. Dona married Harry years ago and had two children with him. She never liked propriety, or the aristocracy, and would try to visit saloons and infiltrate other parts of society but it never felt enough, and it never felt right. The passion and love between Harry and Dona had faded many years ago (and never really existed in the first place) and Harry stopped trying, being completely inattentive to his wife. He was so preoccupied with his projects and hobbies that he might as well have been single. Feeling trapped, Dona decided to leave Harry for the summer and spent her days in absolute freedom at their summer home/cottage Navron House, right by the coast. We get a sense that Dona wants to escape. She wants absolute freedom and adventure. Upon arriving she thinks to herself as she stands by the coast:
“this was freedom, to stand here for one minute with her face to the sun and the wind, this was living, to smile and to be alone.”
Upon arriving, Dona finds all of her household staff missing with the exception of a rugged man named William. Rumours around town are that in recent months a pirate and his crew have been robbing the rich families around Navron House. Dona finds all this quite odd, until she comes face to face with the pirate ship hiding right by her house in a creek by the forest. Dona develops a friendship with the captain of the ship, who is a Frenchman (hence the title) by the name of Jean-Benoit Aubéry. The pirate is dark, handsome, French, and an incredible artist. He loves the sea, basking in freedom, and has a fondness for birds, naming his own ship La Mouette (the seagull). The novel picks up from there and there are so many escapades, and Three Musketeers-like fights, and adventures, filled with excitement and passion. The whole time Dona must reconcile her position in society with her longing for escape, and her role as mother and part of the aristocracy with her pirate adventures. There are two prevailing themes brought up over and over in this novel. The first is contemplating what it means to be happy and free, and the second is the realization that excitement and absolute ecstatic happiness can only be experienced temporarily. Good, nay, great things cannot last for too long or they lose their charm.
William says to Dona:
“a man is faced at once with a choice. He must either stay at home and be bored, or go away and be miserable. He is lost in either case. No, to be really free, a man must sail alone.”
Later Jean-Benoit and Dona discuss life as a pirate and she asks him if this life has brought him happiness, to which he responds that it has brought him contentment. When asked to explain the difference he says:
“contentment is a state of mind and body when the two work in harmony, and there is no friction. The mind is at peace, and the body also. The two are sufficient to themselves. Happiness is elusive—coming perhaps once in a life-time—and approaching ecstasy.”
The novel’s dominant feeling of uneasiness is best captured in this conversation between Jean-Benoit and Dona as she knows she must return from her first one-day escapade wishing their love-affair could last forever, and that her life could always be at sea. He says:
“you forget…that women are more primitive than men. For a time they will wander, yes, and play at love, and play at adventure. And then, like the birds, they must make their nest. Instinct is too strong for them. Birds build the home they crave, and settle down into it, warm and safe, and have their babies.’
‘but the babies grow up,’ she said, ‘and fly away, and the parent birds fly away too, and are free once more.’
He laughed at her, staring into the fire, watching the flames.
‘There is no answer, Dona,’ he said, ‘for I could sail away now in La Mouette and come back to you in twenty years’ time, and what should I find but a placid, comfortable woman…with her dreams long forgotten, and I myself a weather-beaten mariner, stiff in the joints, with a beareded face, and my taste for piracy gone with the spent years.’
‘and if I sailed with you now, and never returned?’
‘Who can tell? Regret perhaps, and disillusion, and a looking back over you shoulders…perhaps no regrets. But more building of nests, and more rearing of broods, and I having to sail alone again, and so a losing once more of adventure. So you see, my Dona, there is no escape for a woman, only for a night and for a day.’
To follow this story from Dona’s perspective and to know what she wants, what she is capable of, and to know that even those who ‘love’ her are not willing to join her in either adventure, or nesting, or misery is one of the ways in which this novel pulls at the reader’s heartstrings. The adventures she has are very Wendy-like: temporary. I would like to think that Frenchman’s Creek is almost like Peter Pan for adults. Both novels incorporate pirates, a woman trapped between a world of fun and one of responsibility, a woman longing for adventure, two younger children, and they are both filled with bird-references. (Totally cool fun fact, Daphne Du Maurier’s aunt was Sylvia Llewelyn Davies–the mother of the children who inspired Barrie’s Peter Pan). I don’t know if this book is too deep, or heavy in any way. It is light, and fun, with a bit of pain, but what makes this light narrative worth your time is that it’s very well-written. Daphne Du Maurier has such dexterity and uses language with such craft. The landscape alone will place the reader in an amazing state of mind. This is very much an escapist novel, and like Dona, the reader will temporarily go on an amazing journey. I highly recommend this book, it’s really fun, and has many funny bits (particularly when Dona pokes fun at the aristocrats in their faces without them realizing what she is doing).
I haven’t written for a bit but I have been reading, and I’m starting to have some feelings affecting my overall disposition and attitude towards books. I had my Goodreads goal set at 100. I’m now at 56, and I am sure I’ll reach 100 anyway, but numbers in general really stress me out. I like numbers at the end of a year so I can see what I liked, or what I picked up, but while I’m in the process they are overwhelming. There is an undeniable pressure on two accounts: the first is that I MUST reach that 100 goal, and the second is the rating. It’s a little complicated but sometimes I really enjoy a book, or it stays with me for a particular reason, but I wouldn’t consider it great literature. At the same time, others tackle extremely difficult subjects and important conversations must be had around them, but again, I wouldn’t consider it amazing. An idea worth a sentence or two stands out and I still remember it but I don’t know if I would read it again. I decided to set my count on Goodreads to “52” as if to say one book per week just so I don’t have to worry about it anymore, and from now on to review books without assigning them a rating on Goodreads UNLESS it is a 5 star-rating, or if it made me so mad I had to give it a low rating to emphasize how bad it was (rarely happens). I also need to keep my book-buying habit in check and spend less. I will try to focus on books I have, and use the library more. I am certainly doing better than last year, but it still requires some improvement. The majority of books however fall under the 2-4.5 ratings and the pros and cons add and take away on an individual level. I also learned something about myself and a particular pet-peeve I have lately which is this:
- Books (normally culture-based or gender-based) that have a topic but instead end up being an autobiography of the author (who is often not of interest to me), or a series of people’s experiences. These kinds of books are disguised as “non-fiction” but at the end you learn nothing except for one person’s experience of life, which most certainly cannot be replicated. This same thing often results in people trying to have academic or non-biased conversations around a topic and suddenly attach their personal experience with this topic which now skews the topic in their favour because attacking their stance, means personally attack their experience. I am going to use an example to where a book failed and one succeeded. First you have books like Spinster by Kate Bolick. It is a cultural non-fiction book meant to discusses spinsterhood (by choice or not). Instead we get really large portions of Bolick’s life story and it turns into an autobiography using spinsterhood as a frame while mainly discussing her dating history and upbringing, and relationship with her mother. Then you have books like The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains by Thomas W. Laqueur. The book follows burial practices from various cultures, using examples from each, ties it all together around geography, architecture etc. and how it affects us on a human level. At no point is there a long story about all the people in Laqueur’s life and how he coped with death etc. Turning a cultural topic into an autobiography IS NOT cool (to me). Others might like it, but that’s not how I read.
- “Self-Help” books that recycle everything from other self-help books but pretending that they’re original. This to me is a sign that the author didn’t read all that much (especially if they think they’re original). Sometimes it’s interesting to see how many people reach the same conclusions, but is it worth printing out so many copies and flooding the market and planet with hundreds of these?
- Books about other books that again have hardly any analysis or insight but are completely one-sided and irrelevant to anyone else. Example: Dear Fahrenheit 451
This has left me generally unenthusiastic about a big chunk of the books I read this year (and some from last year). Learning that will help me make better selections in the future, because obviously I’m at fault for picking these up. So here’s a list of books that I haven’t talked about in much detail but have been reading. A detailed post about Alan Watts will follow, and a full review of the Robertson Davies Cornish Trilogy. As for the rest, there is either nothing I can really criticize like in Naomi Morgenstern’s book and Not That Bad edited by Roxanne Gay, or the rest which didn’t have much of an impact on me but were “just okay.”
- The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater by Alanna Okun.—young woman discusses her passion which is knitting. She weaves in parts of her life, the people in her life who have passed away and how knitting helps her cope with many things. It’s a book about art mixed with life. The topic being so micro-focused made it all work out.
- The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai—book about a 26-year-old librarian who has a favourite young patron who is stuck in a religious family and is homosexual. She takes it upon herself to save him. Fictional work. The main character is weirdly a lot like me so it was nice to read from a very personal self-invested perspective.
- Lady Killers Tori Telfer—book about women serial killers. It hopped back and forth between: look how baddass this woman was! and: even when they kill women aren’t taken seriously, like they get hardly any jail time and get silly nicknames instead of cool ones like Jack the Ripper. Sometimes the wording made it sound like certain serial killers plead insanity as a cover-up…but people who murder repeatedly are mentally ill. There were weird lines where the author uses mental illness as an excuse for murder, or as if the murderers chose it to get away from real jail, and you’re never quite sure what the author thinks it’s right or wrong.
- Not That Bad edited by Roxanne Gay: individual accounts of rape and how it affects women differently and all the different ways rape exists. This is extremely difficult to read because of the subject matter, and it opens an important conversation.
- The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson: although it recycles many other philosophies it words it in a ‘bro-ish’ way for millennials using present-day examples and targeting out present-day anxieties. It was like an energy shot. Very quick, I liked the audiobook way better, because TONE is everything with this book.
- The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts—I’m going through an Alan Watts addiction phase right now. I will elaborate on him further. He is a philosopher who brings together Eastern Philosophy with Western Religion/Theology. He is in conversation with Buddhism, and the works of Carl Jung as well as several others. He’s currently my favourite person.
- The Wild Child: Intensive Parenting and Posthumanist Ethics by Naomi Morgenstern: this is an academic book that just got released looking at parenting and engages with several works like Room by Emma Donoghue, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Lioner Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, and a film called Prisoners. It is extremely well thought out and well-written, but again this is an academic work. The introduction alone engages with the works of Derrida, Philip Aries, and several other takes on childhood and child-bearing (particularly regarding scientific involvement) and Freudian psychoanalysis.
- The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies: book one of the Cornish Trilogy, follows a group of eccentric academics in Toronto following the death of Arthur Cornish who was a really interesting art and manuscript collector. It involves a lot of wit. Reading this is like reading a rap battle between Winston Churchill and Oscar Wilde.
- Shrill by Lindy West: Lindy West’s account and experience of being overweight, being a feminist, and how she exists or sees herself in mainstream media.
- Vampires: Afield Guide to Creatures that Stalk the Night by Bob Curran: a very short book on Vampires not going into much depth on any particular subject.
- Cities in Flight by James Blish: science fiction work where science is the new religion. Buddy-read this with a few people and everyone had a hard time with how dated and verbose this book was.
- Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson: the person who started the Zero-waste movement shares her experience with being Zero-waste when she is also a mother, fully employed, and applies this to her entire home with all her family memebers, showing people it is possible to live in the city and apply the Zero Waste Lifestyle.
- Starve Better—Nick Mamatas: explains the difficulties with writing, particularly science fiction and trying to make a living. He focuses much more on short stories and the craft of short stories, and/or the difficulties of selling short fiction
- The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. A fictional work about a “famous” actress based on the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and other women from the good Hollywood years, being interviewed by a young journalist.
There were others that had no effect on me which I haven’t mentioned, but here’s a full account of what I read this year if it’s of interest.
WHAT I’M CURRENTLY READING
- Book II of the Cornish Trilogy by Robertson Davies called What’s Bred in the Bone
- Listening to Out of Your Mind by Alan Watts on Audible
- Buddy-reading The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry with James Chatham
What I plan to Do from Now On:
- No more Goodreads Ratings, and ignore the count tracker
- No more reading cultural/gender-studies books. Either scientific or historical non-fiction, or fiction.
- Read better fictional works that have been around for a while and I know they are worth investing time in
- Three Reviews will come soon including: Apocalypse Nyx by Kameron Hurley, The People’s Republic of Everything by Nick Mamatas, and At the Teahouse Cafe: Essays from the Middle Kingdom by Isham Cook.
Perhaps it’s tough to step back in time just a little and see that David Foster Wallace saw the dangers of what is now on demand 24/7 media consumption in the form of Netflix and other film networks, YouTube, etc. While Infinite Jest is an attempt to present some of the dangers thinly veiled in fiction, it is a bit exclusionary by being over 1000 pages, serving a very narrow, elitist, academic crowd, taking Shakespearean strides and inventing too many new words hoping the reader understands, and has a fragmented structure with layers of references, meta-references, and irony. It’s certainly readable but it is intimidating. If I had to discuss David Foster Wallace, or give an introduction to him, I would start off with the first essay in this collection: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” It’s one of my favourite essays of all time, and one I re-read often. While this collection contains seven separate pieces (one including an academic discourse, an analysis of David Lynch’s films, a tennis essay, and a retreat), I will discuss in this post two of my favourite David Foster Wallace essays: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (henceforth I’ll refer to them as “E Unibus Pluram” and “Supposedly Fun”). I will highlight some of my favourite passages and add to it some of my experiences. This is not a review, or an analysis. This is me jotting down my favourite parts of these essays with a few notes from my annotations and what it reminds me of, as well as the feelings it stirs. Let’s call it a ‘reader’s diary?’
What has drawn me to DFW is my highly addictive behavior—something DFW himself struggled with, and a theme he incorporates in his fiction and non-fiction. Television, porn, and weed more than anything else (in Wallace’s work). We see traces of all these things in Hal Incandenza in Infinite Jest, the whole of “Big Red Son” focusing on pornography alone in Consider the Lobster, and television in this collection. I’ve always watched a lot of television as a kid, a teen, and in undergrad. Not only did I stream things continuously, I would watch several of them again and again. I would have it on in the background to avoid silence when cooking, cleaning, painting etc. By third year of undergrad I was on Netflix and YouTube non-stop but this time actively watching. I calculated that I had spent a total of 56 days of the year watching (24 hour days) when I put all the calculated time of all the seasons of all the shows I had watched in second year. Netflix made things even worse by automatically going to the next episode, something YouTube now does too—like an all-you-can-eat buffet of media. The strangest thing was, that I felt like I was doing some sort of artistic research, or like I was doing this for the purpose of learning something. Lost kind of put an end to my TV watching days because nothing ever compared, but the YouTube watching persists. You will immediately be able to see why this essay struck a chord with me. Wallace begins with:
“Fiction writers as a species tend to be oglers. They tend to lurk and to stare. They are born watchers. They are viewers. They are the ones on the subway about whose nonchalant stare there is something creepy somehow. Almost predatory…but fiction writers tend at the same time to be terribly self-conscious.”
This of course results in watching television as a voyeur, or ‘peeping-Tom’-ism hoping to see some human behavior and in on the secret lives of others:
“We can see Them; They can’t see Us. We can relax, unobserved, as we ogle. I happen to believe this is why television also appeals so much to lonely people. To voluntary shut-ins…lonely people tend, rather, to be lonely because they decline to bear the psychic costs of being of other humans. They are allergic to people. People affect them too strongly.”
The problem however, is that all of these lives that we are watching are not real. The actors know that they are filmed, it’s all a fakery. These behaviours transcribe later on into social media where everyone on you know presents only the best versions of themselves, and everything is filtered and edited on YouTube, and even to the extreme in Hollywood films and shows.
“The people we’re watching through TV’s framed-glass screen not really ignorant of the fact that somebody is watching them. In fact a whole lot of somebodies…they are on the screen engaging in broad non-mundane gestures at all…we’re not voyeurs here at all. We’re just viewers…television is pretending ignorance. They know we’re out there. It’s proffered—illusion…not real people in real situation. We’re not really even seeing ‘characters.’”
This seeps into the lives of celebrities as well. Wallace writes of our relationships with these celebrities:
“…we worship them. These characters may be our ‘close friends’ but the performers are beyond strangers: they’re imagos, demigods, and they move in a different sphere, hangout with and marry only each other, inaccessible “
In assessing these relationships Wallace states:
“This illusion is toxic. It’s toxic for lonely people because it sets up an alienating cycle (vis. ‘Why can’t I be like that?’ etc), and it’s toxic for writers because it leads us to confuse actual fiction-research with a weird kind of fiction-consumption.
We spend enough time watching, pretty soon we start watching ourselves watching. Pretty soon we start to ‘feel’ ourselves feeling, yearn to experience ‘experiences.’”
I think here is where this sort of disjunction occurs because since Wallace wrote this essay and killed himself in 2008, social media has sort of become the everyday person’s form and response to these celebrity lifestyles. Zadie Smith related that in her criticism of Facebook when she says that you behave like a mini-celebrity with ‘fans’ before becoming a full person, or becoming someone at all. The voyeuristic nature of our relationships to our immediate social network is just as detrimental as the pretend-voyeuristic nature of our relationship to television, because like these actors, people filter, and edit and choose which version of themselves they present to the world. The gap between the Wallace essay and “the now” comes in the form of Franzen-Smith in the conversations on Facebook (see my full essay on that here). The part that Wallace concerned himself with is the way this longing for experiences and a way into another human’s life becomes as addictive as a substance. He writes:
“An activity is addictive if one’s relationship to it lies on that downward-sloping continuum between liking it a little too much and really needing it. It both cases problems for the addict and offers itself as a relief from the very problems it causes…[television] is a ‘distraction’ –diverts the mind from quotidian troubles…television also purveys and enables dreams, and most of these dreams involve some sort of transcendence of average daily life…offering a dreamy promise of escape.”
The reality is you’re sitting on a piece of furniture inside a box staring at another piece of furniture in a box. In this essay though, Wallace isn’t only observing an entire culture’s relationship to television, rather he’s looking at how this lifestyle then becomes the contemporary American life, and then it ultimately gets placed into fiction and art. He writes:
“This culture-of-watching’s relation to the cycle of indulgence, guilt, and reassurance has important consequences for U.S. art…giving in to collective visions of mass images that have themselves become mass images only because they’ve been made the objects of collective vision…I want to persuade you that irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary U.S. culture that enjoys a significant relation to the television that has my generation by the throat.”
Wallace then says that when media makes ‘loathing oneself’ references and is meta-referential, then it’s a sort of permission slip for the viewer to continue to indulge. Now that you notice the hypocrisy and irony of it all you are somehow better than the masses, because you’ve noticed it, and we are giving you permission to keep going because look, you’re better than everyone else. The beginning scenes of Norton’s character in Fight Club come to mind–IKEA nesting and daily numbness. Anyone?
Wallace’s bottom line is that what this cycle does is create a society of lonely people. He writes:
“The well-trained viewer becomes even more allergic to people. Lonelier…. the viewer’s exhaustive TV-training in how to worry about how he might come across, seem to watching eyes, makes genuine human encounters even scarier.”
The second essay in this collection “A supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never do Again” is Wallace’s account of taking a cruise and ‘enjoying’ himself—but mostly capturing the pressures that exist on a vacation (as they do on birthdays, Christmas, summer and other such designed places, times, and spaces) to enjoy oneself. He writes:
“It’s more like a feeling. But it’s also still a bona fide product—it’s supposed to be produced in you, this feeling: a blend of relaxation and stimulation, stresses indulgence and frantic tourism, that special mix of servility and condescension that’s marketed under configurations of the verb ‘to pamper.’… You are excused from doing the work of constructing the fantasy. The ads do it for you…a seductive promise. The ads promise…. you will have NO CHOICE but to have a good time.”
But Wallace captures something in this essay that I’ve personally felt on every resort and every ‘pamper’-oriented trip or event. An overwhelming sadness, despair, and loneliness. Wallace writes it beautifully:
“There’s something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad…especially at night, when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased—I felt despair. The word’s overused and banalified now, despair, but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. For me it denotes a simple admixture—a weird yearning for death combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death. It’s maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it’s not these things, quite. It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die.”
By taking choice away from you the cruise-line has made decisions for you, and now you must be forced to enjoy them. The alarm comes from realizing that being on this vacation in itself was your choice and it’s a choice you are now stuck in and a choice you must live with, which becomes a metaphor for life at large. Wallace writes:
“It feels like much time has passed and it’s passing faster and faster every day. Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun and then I have live with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclose. And I’m starting to see how as time gains momentum my choices will narrow and their foreclosures multiply exponentially until I arrive at some point on some branch of all life’s sumptuous branching complexity at which I am finally locked in and stuck on one path and time speeds me through stages of stasis and atrophy and decay until I go down for the third time, all struggle for naught, drowned by time.”
Which reminds me of the ever-famous Fig Tree passage from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which is now framed on my wall.
Yes, I know this post was long. That’s why it’s called Infinite Text folks.