Moral Universes

It’s been a hectic week or so, what with my son’s birthday, which coincided with him coming down with a flu-ey cold, and a lot of work at college. And so I was very happy to sink into a comfort novel, The Whole World Over by Julia Glass. It’s a novel that sprawls over a number of protagonist’s lives as they connect and intersect, moves between New York and New Mexico, and ties the personal in with the historical. It’s also well-written and engaging and for once I really enjoyed the fact that it was long and detailed, a book to get lost in.  But it also made me wonder a great deal about the difficulties that arise if authors refrain from passing judgement on their characters, and try to let their actions speak for themselves.

The main focus of the story is on a troubled marriage between Greenie, a talented chef whose career is on the up, and Alan, a psychotherapist whose client numbers are dwindling. They have a four-year-old son, the precocious George, who holds them just about together, whilst becoming the vehicle for their subtle competitiveness and for the excess love they can’t manage to give each other. The story begins as Greenie’s restaurant-owner friend, Walter, tells her he’s recommended her for a job with the Governor of New Mexico. At first, Greenie thinks this is a wind-up, but then the call comes for her to audition her culinary skills and, in a kind of whirlwind career romance, she finds herself agreeing to become his personal chef and break her small family apart, moving down south and taking George with her. Alan, as one may imagine, is not best pleased at what he sees is a unilateral and hostile decision, particularly when Greenie wants to sell it to him as a fresh start.

But Alan has worries of his own, beyond a crumbling marriage and a practice in the doldrums. Five years ago, after a row with Greenie, he attended a hometown school reunion alone and had a misguided one-night stand with an old crush. Now it looks as if that event may have had dramatic consequences in the form of another child. And whilst Alan rushes around trying to get to the bottom of this muddle, Greenie finds herself caught up with an old crush of her own and the possibility of a second chance at a relationship her mother nipped in the bud. This is a novel about venturing out and coming home, about taking risks in order to be safe, about the return of the past and the complete unpredictability of the present. Most of these concerns are played out through the prism of relationships and the search for dependable love. Revolving around the central nexus of Alan and Greenie are a number of other lonely or dislocated hearts. Walter, the restaurant owner, longs for the kind of settled relationship that the gay community doesn’t easily provide, although his attempt at this involves an affair with a man who is currently in such a long-term couple. This newfound love, Gordie, turns up with his partner, Stephen, in Alan’s consulting rooms as they argue over whether or not to try adopting a child. Also intertwined in the network of New York lives is Saga, a young woman who has suffered long-term damage as the result of a freak accident and can no longer manage numbers or her memory. Saga has been taken in by her Uncle Marsden, whose own children are less than happy about the arrangement, having a weather eye on their inheritance. Saga, however, simply wants to rebuild her life and gain some measure of security.

I must stress again at this point how much I enjoyed this novel. It was a really good read. But that doesn’t prevent me from becoming curious about its moral universe, which is to say its internal reward system for good and bad behaviour. All novels have a moral universe that is unique and powerful, and it is most clearly visible in the twists and turns of the plot and their ultimate conclusion. Who wins and who loses? Which actions make a difference? What constitutes happiness or success? What are the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) moral messages that the novel sends out? Part of the difficulty in grasping the morality of this novel lies in the fact that Julia Glass gives very little indication as to what we are supposed to think. Things just happen, and then happen some more, and she avoids scenes in which characters contemplate their actions or are seen from the outside by their fellow protagonists. But the unwillingness to judge goes deeper than that and makes for some odd interactions.

For instance, the issues that drive Alan and Greenie apart are never properly resolved, or even discussed. It seems strange that a man who is a relationship counselor should let himself fall into the trap of a one-night stand, unless of course he is not a good counselor, which would account for the falling-off practice and his own discontent. But that’s not the interest here. When Greenie finds out about his other child, she takes it calmly, too calmly, and returns to New Mexico instantly to commit to her relationship with her childhood sweetheart. The novel records her free indirect speech, assuring herself this is not an act of revenge, and yet are we to believe that? At the very least, Alan’s actions have released her from her marriage bond, or given her license to redress the balance. And then, shortly afterwards, George gets himself into a scrape, the kind of silly, foolish action that’s typical of his age, but his parents completely overreact. Alan rushes down to New Mexico, blames Greenie for not paying enough attention to him, and actually takes the child away from her. What are we to make of this? Except perhaps to see that if Alan and Greenie directed their anger and distress at one another, where it belongs, it would not have to be played out on the child. There are various hints in the story that the prank was wholly of George’s creation, that he may be developing an evil streak due to his parents’ estrangement, but George himself is always depicted as utterly self-contained and cheerful. And his father, the counselor, makes no attempts to get to the bottom of his behaviour. Later on, in a scene that is meant to be touching, George gets given a pocket knife. He’s five years old and with a history of recklessness. How can this be wise?

Although this is a novel with a definite plot, I had to wonder whether it wasn’t also episodic on the sly. While the events linked up, made patterns and echoes, the emotions surrounding them were compartmentalized. What happened in one part of a protagonist’s life was left quite separate from their feelings in another, which is I suppose what happens if we ignore the deep psychological dimension that binds all our actions, thoughts and feelings together. My experience suggests to me that our lives are all of one piece, all cut from the same cloth that is our soul and subject to the repeating flaws in its warp and weft. Events that happen to us may well be random, but our responses to them are consistently coordinated from the bedrock of the self. So I was most intrigued by a novel that turns this about face, finds pattern in events and eschews comment on the personal.

This is the first novel I’ve read that incorporates 9/11 into its structure, and coming as it does at the conclusion, I wondered what would be made of it. It functioned as a wake-up call, and again, I felt unsure. Is it right to use these great historical events as triggers for personal development, or is it right to leave them in their senselessness and waste? I couldn’t decide whether this novel was the result of an individual perspective by Julia Glass that invited her readers to do all the figuring out, to see her characters as driven by motives and emotions they were simply not in touch with. Or whether it was part of a wider, broader development in the moral universe of the contemporary novel, that looks outwards at the world, over and again, to find meaning and validation, whilst quietly side-stepping the internal configurations of the emotions as too complex, too hidden and too capricious to be meaningful?  I think it matters to think about this, because this kind of novel works hard to reflect a world we know intimately and recognise as being somehow ‘real’. What it tells us has much to say about who we think we are.

And I must repeat once again – I did enjoy reading this novel! I know it can be hard to separate out a literary critical reaction from a purely critical one, but it made me think and question and want to challenge it in a way that did not detract from my reading pleasure.

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10 thoughts on “Moral Universes

  1. You’ve been posting some thought-provoking pieces lately Litlove. As I tend to read your blog early in the morning I must say that I am not always quite prepared mentally for the challenge, but it certainly does help my brain wake up!

    I rather enjoy books in which the author refrains from making judgements on the charcters and leaves it to the reader to decide especially when the main character is morally suspect. I never take my reflections as the opinion of the author, though I am certain s/he has their own thoughts on the characters. How hard it must be to write without one’s personal opinion swaying the reader. What I find most interesting about books that refrain from judging their characters is the reaction of the reader. The majority in my experience make a snap judgement of their own, immediately declaring who is right and who is wrong which says a lot about their need for safety and closure and people fitting into well defined boxes.

    Then you have those, like yourself, whom I absolutely adore because of the willingness to entertain all the shades of gray and weigh all of the actions and sometimes allow there to be no tidy summing up of right and wrong. Being willing to play in ambiguity is much more fun and interesting than coming to a firm and unmovable decision. It opens up such a nice space to look around and ask questions and think.

  2. Dear Stefanie – your first paragraph did make me chuckle, not least because I wake up to blogs too, first thing in the morning. But the really sad thing is that I wrote this post because I was too tired to do a short one about something of universal interest, like how to choose a book to read. It seemed like that would take brain power to put together, whilst having something concrete to write about, like a book, looked easier. I think my brain is wired all wrong! :)

    I know just what you mean about the pleasure to be had when authors don’t spell everything out, or indicate things subtly. And ambiguity is a good thing, a real life thing. Most of life ends in mixed feelings and uncertainty. I agree wholeheartedly with you that being able to think around what happens in a story lifts a book into that hard-to-define literary realm. Although the book had definite endings to its story lines, and more uncertainty about what the characters felt. It was intriguing and frustrating and I do wonder whether it is an underlying direction in the novel.

  3. I really liked this: “My experience suggests to me that our lives are all of one piece, all cut from the same cloth that is our soul and subject to the repeating flaws in its warp and weft. Events that happen to us may well be random, but our responses to them are consistently coordinated from the bedrock of the self.”

    I would also wonder about the absence of self-reflection in a therapist (or the absence of our access to this self-reflection). But it does sounds like one I would enjoy reading.

  4. Pete – Thank you! The inclusion of the therapist was an intriguing choice at all kinds of levels. It was by no means a psychological book, and Alan was clearly depicted as a struggling therapist. In the end, he decides the people he works with are ‘not sick enough’ and sets out in search of fresh challenges. But I wouldn’t think this a great idea if the so-called ‘easy’ cases were proving unhelpable…? I don’t know how this all works in the world of therapy, of course. But it is a good read, and most enjoyable.

  5. I think it would be hard as a writer not to be judgemental in some way over their characters–or to guide them in some way (even if its on a path to destruction). I think as a reader I am probably pretty judgemental though I appreciate those shades of gray that I find all over the place in life, so can usually see the other side even if I don’t really agree with it. I think what would bother me would be the characters not really thinking about their actions and how they affect others. It seems the events in the book are pretty life altering and these sorts of decisions are never made lightly. I believe people do do these sorts of things but there has to be a certain amount of anguish involved and not to show it seems somehow odd to me the characters wouldn’t show it (if I’m reading your post correctly). It’s nice when a book is not only enjoyable but thought provoking as well. Certainly your post is thought provoking!

  6. I think I enjoy books more when the moral universe in them is more clearly defined — and let’s be clear about this, it is a moral decision to say that our choices have no moral weight or are neutral. To say “I don’t judge,” or “Judgment is wrong” is moral, too. I am thinking, for instance, of the difference between the books of Sartre and Camus. Sartre honestly believed that it was the action that made the difference, that caused you to *be* (rather than just float along, existing.) What the action was didn’t matter, and you shouldn’t regret it. Camus, however, thought that the action did matter. It had moral weight, whether you fought against the plague or didn’t. Personally, I prefer Camus’ books. I like to think that our actions matter (literary or not.) Even though I agree that ambiguity is part of real life, and that we often don’t understand ourselves or others — and that gets reflected in some novels — we can still proclaim that the understanding makes a difference, can’t we?

  7. That’s very thought-provoking, about moral universes … and it is so much of what makes a particular author recognizable. The moral universe of Iris Murdoch is a very particular place, and quite different from that of TC Boyle, for example. Even if they both sat down to write the exact same plot line with the exact same characters, the moral universe would be entirely different.

    The book sounds quite interesting, though simply on a “oh, for God’s sake” level, I’d have a lot of trouble getting past the names Greenie and Saga. But that’s the kind of petty aesthete I tend to be.

  8. Interesting! So is this book perhaps getting all postmodern on us on the sly, by implying there is no real foundational self that ties us all together into one person, and so we shouldn’t expect all the parts to make sense together? I’m curious if you have come across other books like this one; that would be quite the fictional shift if it is a trend and not an isolated incident. We’ve come quite a long way from the 19th C narrator, haven’t we?

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