Repressed White Men
Why, Mr. Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?— Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
Books covered: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and John Cheever’s Journals
I said that I would focus on writers of color, but this first post will be all about the world’s Favored Demographic. I was finishing up a deadline for my masters when my phone was stolen, so these first few books are from my reading list.
It’s important to acknowledge that Ishiguro is not a white man. His narrator is, though, which makes me a little sad the same way that Ondaatje’s white protagonists make me a little sad. I wish their most popular novels were more focused on people of color, and I asked Ondaatje about that when I saw him speak a few years ago. He seemed offended that I’d written him off because of his characters when he’s still a man of color, getting published and winning prizes. It’s a tough call. I’ve been trying to feature more Indian-Irish characters because (correct me if I’m wrong! I would love to be proven wrong!) there are no Indian-Irish-American characters in literature. When that’s no longer the case, I’ll write about more varied demographics.
On to The Remains of the Day. This is a novel about a butler named Stevens, who works in a house that was owned by English nobility, Lord Darlington, through the Second World War. It’s currently owned by an American man–Stevens stays on after Lord Darlington’s death to work for the new family. On a vacation to visit the house’s former housekeeper, Stevens recalls the house before the war and his relationship with the housekeeper. It took me a few chapters to get into this book. I was annoyed by Stevens. I didn’t care about his tangents on the history of butlering, and I thought it was incredibly weird that he didn’t understand aspects of human interaction like humor. I couldn’t believe that anyone could be that disconnected from other people. Once I accepted that his repression was the point of the novel, I started to love it. If you haven’t read it or seen the film, go into it cold. I watched the film years ago with my family, and though I didn’t remember any details, I remembered one crucial aspect of the plot which is revealed much more subtly in the novel. As for the writing: Ishiguro structures the frame narrative flawlessly. The novel tracks Stevens’ progress from Oxfordshire to Cornwall, and the sections dip in and out of the past as though you’re chatting with him, or reading his diary. He apologizes for dwelling on events in the 1930s when he was meant to describe his drive that day. This keeps readers from forgetting when the novel is really set: in the 1950s, when Stevens is an older and sadder man. Part of Stevens’ repression is that he never acknowledges his emotions in his narration. We only discover that he looks upset when someone asks him if he’s okay, or offers him a tissue. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where the narrator revealed so little–I found it fascinating. It’s a testament to Ishiguro’s characterization that Stevens’ inability to process humor, which was so odd in the beginning of the novel, becomes endearing at the end. Just before he sets off to return to Oxfordshire, he decides to “pleasantly surprise” his American employer by finally learning how to tell jokes. He hasn’t learned to live for himself, and only we know enough to worry about him.
Speaking of people we should be worried about: John Cheever. I haven’t read any of his fiction, but I’m curious about it now. A lot of the journal entries describe how he revises his stories, and I’d love to read them and track how they got to their published format. (If you’re interested in that: I highly recommend Fitzgerald’s I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories. A lot of these were either never published or heavily, heavily revised before publishing. Each story is prefaced with background about how it was rejected by various editors and the feedback Fitzgerald was given, and there are also photos of his original drafts, which I’m very into.) The back of the Vintage edition I have describes Cheever’s journals as “startling”, and I have to say I only got about a hundred pages in before I had to stop. He is very depressed. I wouldn’t advise reading these if you aren’t doing well–nearly every entry involves alarming quantities of alcohol and detached descriptions of pain and illness. But beyond all of that, he writes gorgeously. These aren’t choppy, inarticulate sentences: “The contemptible smallness, the mediocrity of my work, the disorder of my days, these are the things that make it, to say the least, difficult for me to get up in the morning. When I talk with people, when I ride on trains, life seems to have some apparent, surface goodness that does not need questioning.” His journal flows. It’s a great study of stream-of-consciousness, description, and brevity. In one entry he writes: “I feel the way I used to feel as a soldier.” He doesn’t need to expand on that with specific emotions, because we know that being a soldier in war is a shitty, anxious, endangered state of being. You can open any page of the journals to find a beautiful sentence about unhealthy living. He is fascinating, but I’ll leave you with a more lighthearted quote, because Cheever was bi and several entries are quite sexy: “You could drive a Jeep down the shadowy division of the ladies’ breasts.” As much as I want to question this, I can picture guys from my high school saying this. Cheever is very Repressed New England.