The Moving Target by Ross MacDonald
The Drowning Pool by Ross MacDonald
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
I've exhaustively catalogued my desire to revisit MacDonald over the past two months, so I won't go into that here. The Moving Target is the first Lew Archer novel and I believe MacDonald's fourth overall. The mystery itself is simple and his usual gaggle of greedy wealthy Californians turn out to be relatively innocent, which is bizarre, considering the author's ire for them in later novels. The prose is stellar. Moments of introspection or descriptions of weather leap off the page. I'm not sure what the fuck I was talking about all those years ago when I said MacDonald was lifeless. Instead, it's Archer's malaise and weariness that provides the flatness, an aesthetic flatness, similar to Didion and Bret Easton Ellis. It's affected. This was great, especially as a dry run to the existential unease MacDonald will go on to perfect.
What a huge improvement. The second Archer novel, The Drowning Pool, takes 70 pages before getting to the murder so luridly referenced in the synopsis, and takes long detours (literally and figuratively) throughout much of the plot, leaving behind the ostensible subjects of the investigation. Archer is initially tasked with identifying the writer of a blackmail letter but his employer is absurdly reticent to provide any helpful information or workable leads. Archer's mix of stumbles and intuitive guesses lead him from the oil-rich—and regular rich—county in California to across state lines in Nevada. He meets a mendacious chauffeur, a conniving wife and star of illicit pornography, two men coded as gay, a psychotherapist whose favourite method is hosing down his patients, among others. Some of what makes this style of detective fiction (in the Hammett/Chandler mode) so memorable are the oddballs and ne'er-do-wells the protagonist meets along the way. These weirdos show up only for a scene or two, so they're not in dire need of deep, textured characterization; in fact, the more weird and shallow they are, the more sardonic and witty the protagonist's rejoinders can be. Of course, the trade-off is a lack of thematic cohesion. Which this one suffers from, a smidge. The plot veers into this scary psychotherapist and loses a bit of the overall picture, but gamely sticks the landing. The epilogue and finale are completely devastating and speak to the humanity and morality these books traffic in. He still hasn't quite coalesced the mystery and the exploration of unhappy families the way he does in later books, but there's a more obvious sign of the genius to come with this second novel than the first. I gave the book 5 stars on Goodreads but it should have been 4 and a half (Goodreads does not allow ½ stars).
Recently, a customer in the bookstore where I work overheard me mention I was reading Little Women; she complimented me, exclaiming "a man? reading Little Women Well done!" I said nothing, other than some noncommittal murmur, but I felt a bit weird about it. How low is the bar set when I can be congratulated simply for reading a pivotal text of American literature? That reading works by women is in of itself a task worthy of celebration? I didn't tell the customer that I try to read 50% gender parity (even though I haven't hit that number in two years) and I didn't tell her that my collection of Virago Modern Classics is about to hit a total of 75 titles. I felt the need to do so, to almost defend myself, even though her surprise was complimentary. I felt almost compelled to dismiss the praise, to minimize it, but I knew it would accomplish nothing but make the conversation, the social interplay that much more sticky, more complicated. After all, our subject positions are different. What I should have told her, but didn't, is that I quite liked it, and its insights into a specific class of white women in 19th century Maine are fascinating and alluring, all the more so for the novel's glimpses into that which is heretofore inaccessible for me.
I wasn't familiar with the novel beforehand, I have never seen any film adaptation, and as I was raised a boy, it was never a part of the fabric of my North American childhood, though it has been for countless women. Thus, I was surprised how the first half of the novel is structured as a loose series of moral lessons, small easily digestible snippets of daily life, though intentionally instructive. Little Women is not shy about this, frontloading its intentions in the first chapter. Alcott deftly sketches her four protagonists, though nobody can fault her that the sheer dynamism of Jo overshadows the other three by a tremendous degree. Jo is easily one of the most endearing protagonists of 19th century literature I've so far encountered. Not even Dickens seemed capable of making a more likeable, yet flawed human being.
We sometimes talk about bravery in art, about the strength needed to open one's self up for consumption by audiences. What we're often referring to, when we collectively congratulate authors for their sacrifice, is bifurcated by gender: for men, we applaud them for showing us their worst behaviour; and for women, their revealed trauma. Bustle, the women-centric blogging site, made an industry of mining women for their trauma (see Gawker's essay about this here); many of these writers were called brave but few enjoyed literary success or critical commentary. But authors like Knausgaard (whom I've never read and never plan to) are deemed "brave" for their style of confessional writing, which is more rooted in their base and craven behaviour. "Brave" as semantic categories shifts depending on subject position.
Alcott, like countless authors who are autobiographical in their fiction, is brave for a different reason. While confessional in that we learn Jo hasn't always been the best behaved, Little Women isn't pornographically focused on Jo's faults or how she has been hurt. Instead, there's a bravery in that Jo is a complicated character, based on the author, who isn't perfect, who isn't always likeable, who is often infuriating. This is confession without the lurid excess of violence or pain. This is confession for emotional maturity, not rapacious clicks. And thus, I find it a type of bravery no longer fashionable. And completely alluring.
Likewise, the series of moral lessons is scaffolded by this gentle strain of melancholy, the kind specific to parents can't help but watch their children learn all the small cruelties of everyday life. It's inevitable, from the opening scenes, the fates of the characters: they must all grow up. The pain of adulthood is so carefully and expertly drawn. We all know childhood must end, but the parting is still sorrowful, even if under the happiest of circumstances.
Little Women is a terrific read, even if its idealization of narrow fields of femininity are a bit bunk. What a looming shadow this novel casts over young adult fiction!