Thursday, March 18, 2010

Babel Tower

Readers of this blog will remember that I'm currently reading A. S. Byatt's Frederica Quartet, the first two have already been read. That leaves us with the third, Babel Tower, the longest, and the one I've put off reading for so long. I finally finished it, and I gather my readers are dying to find out how I felt about it.

Babel Tower continues the story of Frederica Potter, now Reiver, who has unfortunately married a man, Nigel her total opposite, and in true Frederica spirit, has rebelled against him, deserting him, taking their son. The bulk of the plot is the build up to two trials; the first is the divorce, a very Draconian procedure in English law, and the second is an obscenity trial over a novel called Babbletower, published by one of Frederica's new friends, and written by a weird obscure man called Jude Mason.

While the first two novels in the Frederica Quartet are funny, honest, clever, intuitive, and perspective, Babel Tower is inward-looking, by which I mean it is only concerned with itself as a structure, an edifice of fiction, rather than as a piece of art, or a novel. In fact, the novel is so concerned with its own artifice that it creates a trial to judge its own merits as a structure. Yes, it's judging Babbletower in the novel, but really, Byatt is doing something bigger than whether or not a book is obscene.

Babel Tower is preoccupied, to the point of distraction, with the deficiencies of language. All of the characters at some point comment that language is insufficient to explain their feelings, their connections. Relationships between people, and how they communicate remains one of the primary themes of the Frederica novels. This time, however, language, what makes up a novel, becomes wholly unacceptable.

Much of the descriptions in the novel are to the point, brusque and very simple. It is only the essentials that the narrator has to get across. However, the characters are interested the other senses. Imagery, smell and sound mean so much to this novel, because, as the audience is repeatedly told, language is not enough. Jude Mason, the enigmatic author of the alleged obscene work is only ever described in terms of dirt and smell, of rank and dust.

To write a novel about how language isn't useful is not a terrible idea. It's just not something that Byatt is suited to. She has crafted a novel made of other novels, real and imagined. At the heart of Babel Tower is Babbletower, Lady Chatterly's Lover, The Idiot, and a host of other fine European literature. As always, Byatt uses a sophisticated "cut-up technique" that she has Frederica become interested in. Byatt's "cut-up" is of other great works of art. Since all novels are made up of words that have already been created, Byatt is making a novel made up of other novels.

It's unfortunate that this thesis is in direct contrast to the idea of language's insufficiency. Byatt cannot have it both ways here. Either the novel is good enough to explain all of human nature, or a tragedy unable to convey real emotion.

Babel Tower is so interested in how clever it can be, that the plot and the characters take a backseat. Byatt revels in a gigantic lexicon, references to the Fibonacci sequence, how that relates to snails and their spiral-like shells, and how all of that relates to the spiraling splendor of the Tower of Babel. It's very fascinating and interesting, but it's cold.

And perhaps, returning to the themes of the novel, is what is meant. But this means nothing to me as an audience. I can appreciate if Byatt is aiming for this, but I cannot enjoy, and that is a grave sin in the world of the novel.

Much of Babel Tower is work to get through, and that is not a compliment. While I enjoy Byatt's extremely clever pattern recognition, I found I was bored with the characters and bored with the plot. I desired to find out what happens at the end, but I wasn't as emotional invested in the novel as I was with Still Life. It seems Byatt's Frederica Quartet is a still life, stuck with pretensions of unusable language. It is in dire need of shaking up, of electrifying, pardon the pun, and hopefully the fourth, A Whistling Woman, will do just that. I didn't hate this third novel, but the quality is diminished in comparison to the first two. 

Thanks for reading as always.

No comments: