So you meet this boy. He’s from somewhere you’ve wondered about but never been, and at first, he captivates you. You hang out with him. You realise he’s not all that, but still, you like him. There’s something he does that you want more of as soon as you’ve had a taste. Maybe it’s the way he speaks. He doesn’t fuck around with ums and ers, his voice is soft and clear. He’s a bit naïve and a bit sad, like life’s already robbed him of something, but he’s tough too, like he has an old soul. When you’re not with him, you clean forget about him. But when you meet up, you have an awesome time, you fall into his space, you make up your mind that he is all that. You even start to fall in love with him.
Time passes. The boy disappears, or you disappear. One or the other is inevitable. You weren’t looking, but some other boy has stepped into his place. And this guy - woah. His brain is like seventy times the size of the first boy. His sense of humour is precisely 900 times bigger. And he’s less melancholy and more batshit insane, and you find both these things irresistible. So much so that you can’t not be with him. You wanna just like, fiddle, with him all the time. You know that this is a collision; it’s going to be quick and intense, and you’re going to part ways soon. Then he’ll be loitering in your head for a long time after, and since, as Stephen Malkmus said, ’you can never quarantine the past’, you’ll probably rose tint it instead. Meanwhile, you stop sleeping, eating, seeing other people, going to parties, making proper meals, because you want to do nothing but inhale him, his wisdom, his wit, and his filthiness, while this thing you have is still hot. Then you find a photo of the first boy. You can’t believe you slumbered through a quasi-relationship with him for so long. Dude’s middle name was ‘mundane‘. Your connection was childish, forgettable. What you have now - this is love.
Hmm. What I’m trying to do is find a way of not writing about The Heart is A Lonely Hunter in a GCSE style way. It’s a problem. The bullshit introduction above is something I’ve set up to let me off the hook (I'm aware that it's my illusory hook, but still) of discussing it for longer than a few short paragraphs - you‘ll see. It’s an analogy for comparative analysis. But in the meantime, here goes.
I was meaning to write up my thoughts about THIALH (hey - instant lisp!) a fortnight or so ago, but back then, I thought it was amazing, and because it’s so much harder to write praise than slag something off (at least in my experience), I had nothing more to say than that. Then I figured out the why of amazing, but banging on inarticulately about why Carson McCullers was able to do what Hemmo couldn’t (in ‘Arms’) - well, I’m outta practice. I can’t find the words. Besides, I’m not sure how much more is necessary than to illustrate just one thing - in THIALH you empathise with the characters. Which is what reading novels is, say, 95% about - going outside yourself, getting inside other lives, giving a shit about what happens to them. The human condition, maaaaan.
The six main characters in THIALH are drawn in such a way that their headspace is wide open, yours for the taking. I’ll just make a quick point before returning to that - ‘nuff readers can only wade into new headspaces if they’re armed with pre-existing categories and stereotypes that let them make sense of who/what they find. Especially in literature that's been earmarked for GCSE level analysis. Fr’instance, when I was reading around about the novel, I kept on finding these character summaries - Mick - sexually precocious, McCullers’ alter ego, Biff - blatant trannie, Jake - raging drunk, Dr Copeland - freedom fighter doomed to failure, a symbol, a victim of social injustice, Singer - mute, possibly gay and jewish. Antonapoulos - chubby mentalist. Okay, no-one actually said ’chubby mentalist’. But these labels, however correct they are, make me feel So what? If all you can draw out of the novel is that Biff likes wearing women‘s things, Singer must be gay and Dr Copeland is illustrative of the struggles faced by black people in the South in the 30’s then big wow. Sure, maybe these would make decent starting points for queer or postcolonialist interpretations of ye text. But, y’know, gaping yawn. Gaping yawn if you’re gonna respond to THIALH by writing about Biff’s burgeoning transvestism, which is a really minor aspect of the story. It ain’t luminously revealing of anything. It’s what it is.
It’s like when I wrote a thesis on Jane Austen’s shit-hot ’Mansfield Park’ and focused the whole thing on the few hints here and there that Sir Thomas Bertram owned a slave plantation in Antigua. An epic rant about a peripheral point. But I was righteous, had been abutted by the film adaptation which featured slaves giving Sir T blowjobs (it‘s a shocker), and thought the rest of the text wasn’t worth discussing. I liked the fact that if you’re taking a queer or postcolonial viewpoint (and I can’t believe I’m even using these terms), you can usually go somewhere juicy. They take you straight to the heart of what literature students know is supertrue - literature is about sex and power. Identity, gender, race etc - follow those routes and you’ll see they’re nice shortcuts to the weird, difficult and fascinating heart of the matter.
Except literature isn’t all about sex and power. There’s really no point in dissecting THIALH down lines of ‘what is McCullers saying, revealing, denying, whatever, about identity and/or sexuality?’ because that’s clearly not what the experience of reading it should be about. (I may be a little influenced here by Zadie Smith’s ideas about morality and fiction, cos I was reading one of her lovely, lucid essays on this subject recently). But also, what I’m about to say occurred to me in the shower, and it’s fact - and science - that what occurs to you in the shower is good and real and true. What’s worth discussing about THIALH is how and why McCullers succeeds in making us care about her characters, whether they’re mute, gay, gray, green, Daniel Johnston lookalikes, whoever. Cos the rest of it, the identity bits, the hints at this and that, while interesting, is incidental. Anyone disagree? Um…er…
So I’ve only got two answers for this. First, the novel, obviously, is about loneliness. C-Mac works and works on loneliness, kneading away at at that tricksy little bitch. All the characters, despite their surface differences, are the same cos they’re all lonely. They have no-one to talk to about what’s churning away inside. Hence Singer. They’re entrenched in their perspectives and unable to step outside them (except for Biff and Harry), which makes them all seem kinda emotionally stunted, but also pushes them into being increasingly frozen in isolation. And so, loneliness. Cha-ching! Who can’t empathise with that? ‘Nuff empathy points there. Anyway, having made an insight derived from the novel’s title alone, I’ll move on.
The other key awesome thing about THIALH is the fact that all the characters go around pedestalsing others and doing hardcore projection because they badly need meaning/validation in and of their lives. I don’t think the pathetic folly of projection has been more clearly pointed out in a work of fiction (as far as I know, though I’ve only read five books). First, the whole Singer deal. Yipes. If you’re a mute, you can’t tell the people who’ve decided to think you’re great that you’re (almost) as flawed and confused as they are. Although yeah, *SPOILER ALERT* shooting yourself might do it.
And then we come to Spiros. Spiros, Spiros, Spiros. You fat fuck. You lie around, gobbling up offerings from the dutiful Singer, throwing them away when their shiny appeal dulls, usually in under a minute, and you don’t even once say thank you. Not only because you’re a mute. Because you’re frakkin graceless. The sad and awful thing about Spiros is that Singer treats him not like a saint, as some people have suggested, but as god. Mini-example:
“Sometimes he thought of Antonapoulos with awe and self-abasement, sometimes with pride - always with love unchecked by criticism, freed of will”.
Singers’ actions are pure bhakti. But McCullers is like, hey, you chose the wrong dude to worship. Cos Spiros is a prick and you were too blinded by your hopelessly hopeful delusions to see that.
So where does this get us? Well, you empathise with a bunch of lonely people who project their illusions of greatness and godliness onto all the wrong things, and you begin to realise that you, too, have to be careful not to dress people up as you want them to be, instead of taking them for what they are. I need that lesson perpetually kicked into me. And, you can admire the clean, beautiful prose, and marvel that McCullers was just 23 when she knocked this baby out. (The bit when Singer goes to see Antonapoulos for the last time and is on the train is just awesome writing, and makes me wanna bomb ass-first into those cypress swamps. I’ve always been a sucker for the word ‘indigo-blue’).
But then I cracked open ‘Lolita’. ‘Lolita’ is the new boyfriend in the crap analogy above, the one that’s made me reconsider THAILH as a witless, dickless square. ‘Lolita’ is so damn poetic and naughty and funny that I wonder why I thought THAILH was ayyymaaaayzing. It ain’t. It’s just good and the prose is solid and does what it does well, and as my first dalliance with southern literature since I threw ’As I Lay Dying’ under the bed, bored and incomprehending, so I could play Championship Manager, back when I was 14, it is gorgeous and worthwhile in its slow, sad, extremely clever way, and I‘ll be back there soon, for sure. But Nabokov …well…Nabokov has just raised the bar. Nina used to wonder, shocked, why it had taken me so long to get round to reading London Fields and Lolita, and it wasn’t that I had anything against Amis and Nabokov. I just didn’t think they would be good. I’m an idiot.
Lolita, Lolita, a novel’s worth of poetry…