Thursday, June 03, 2004

Enchanted Lonely Hunters Club

Recently finished The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers and loved it. I got interested in the book when I read an essay by Sarah Schulman in The Nation (way back in June of 2000, my god where does the time go?) and made a mental note to read her work. I tried twice to get my book group to read it, but they chose other books and I got sidelined. This is why I gave up the regular book group and now only attend à la carte, choosing groups around town who happen to be reading books I want to read, most of the time reading on my own again (and loving the freedom). When Oprah recently picked it, I thought I'd join in--it gave me an excuse to pick it up and a deadline. I was impressed with the online resources for the Oprah book club. I never went into the discussion forums (they're always disappointing in my experience), but the reading schedule with email reminders was helpful, and I liked the answers given in response to questions by their resident literary expert, Virginia Spencer Carr, a McCullers biographer. Not only did she treat the dopier questions with respect (the whole point of the Oprah club is to empower non-scholars to read the classics, after all), but when asked big, interpretative questions, rather than deflect with one of those "the meaning is what you make of it" answers you typically get from Lit. teachers, she gave actual opinions. How refreshing! (I was also fairly pleased with the publishing company's discussion questions, which were great for covering the basics.) On the other hand, I was very disappointed with the television side--did I miss a discussion episode? When I tuned in May 31, only half the show was devoted to books (the first half was lame celeb interview extras), and in place of discussion ordinary people participating, there was an interview with some celebs about the experience of being a deaf-mute (inspired by deaf-mute character Singer). An ok interview, but hardly a satisfying engagement of the novel.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a stunning demonstration of a young novelist's inexplicable abilities to cross all social categories (race, sex, age, class) through sheer imagination. The setting is the 1930s South, and the story concerns itself mainly with 5 characters' attempts to make connections with other human beings. Come to think of it, it's a central irony of the book that the story beautifully expresses frustration in making human connections when the author displays a consistent mastery of empathy. In fact, I think that's why I was startled by the way the plot's events finally unfold--McCullers' narrative example seems to promise something intrinsically optimistic, whereas her story expresses pessimistic doubts (with, notably, some strong glimmers of hope). But that's also an excellent example of the balance of this artwork, which is excellent from its underlying structural elements through its surface detail, as in the wonderful coming-of-age story of young tomboy Mick. Her sequences are filled with observation about pre-adolescence, with its not yet articulated longings, and the chapter about her "prom" is quite a setpiece. I especially treasure the writing about Mick's love affair with music, the way it awakens deep passions in her and the way she creates an "inner room" in which to celebrate and protect these feelings--I strongly related. The first time she hears Beethoven is one of the finest passages I've ever read. I was struck by how sensitive McCullers always is to human emotion. If, as many people have pointed out, the novel is like a work of classical music (for example, part two as a fugue), this handling of characters and their emotions is the heart of the musical approach, treating the flow of emotions like melodic lines.

Re-reading Schulman's piece greatly helped me understand the queerness of the novel, and helped put it in the context of McCullers' career and body of work. Both Mick and Biff (in some ways the most hopeful characters of Lonely) are described in terms of crossing gender boundaries, their sexuality subtly problematized. Apparently when these subtextual queer themes became overt in the later work Reflections in a Golden Eye, critics chilled towards McCullers (and it became the McCullers novel most likely to be out of print over the years), but good ol' Tennessee Williams championed her work all along, which is something to be glad of, anyway.



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