24 August 2011

2. "Trammel up the Consequence": A Review by David Berry & Comments by David Davidson and others

A member of my family who worked for several years in Botswana once told me about an English-teacher friend who was shocked to discover, in a class discussion of Macbeth, that his African students viewed the title character as a heroic figure who makes all the appropriate career moves but, tragically, suffers undeserved defeat at the hands of a jealous upstart.

The anecdote was meant to illustrate the enormous cultural divide between future African leaders and their Western schoolmasters – and, I suppose, show why it’s so darn hard to help some folks achieve democracy. But I’m perverse enough, and sufficiently troubled by cultural and racial generalizations, to feel that in a very important way these students had as good a feeling for the play, for what Shakespeare was trying to do, and what a good story is all about, as any of us who would impose a very different interpretation.

The hero of Macbeth, of course, is Macbeth. And what makes the play a tour de force is that he (together with his wife in that singular sleepwalking scene) is also the lens through which we experience the story, whether we ‘approve’ of his actions are not. The emotions classical tragedy is supposed to evoke – pity and fear – are for the protagonist, not his victims. Moral judgement is not so much made irrelevant as relegated to the background: we don’t sit through the play merely to be scandalized by bad behaviour, but to find out what’s going to happen next, and understand what it feels like to be in the middle of it. In doing so, we learn empathy, and surely that’s more worth the price of a ticket.

All of this is by way of trying to find a Macbeth connection to Trammel up the Consequence and its curious title – taken from that knottiest of soliloquies, in which the Thane of Glamis is trying to work up the courage to off his boss. Well, I think I’ve got it.

At one level Robin Wood’s novel is a shocker, containing graphic scenes of child abuse and rape, three-way-sex, murder and dismemberment, with arson thrown in to hide the evidence of the latter. (Plot-spoiler disclaimer: it’s not what happens that counts here, so much as who does what to whom, and why.) At another level it’s a well-sustained mystery, with the narrator, a sudden victim of amnesia, trying to reconstruct her past life as she tells her story in journal form. Appropriately for an author who was a celebrated film critic and devotee of Hitchcock, there’s also a strong suspense thread, with the heroine trying to determine whether she truly trusts her handsome but mysterious lover-benefactor, who’s equipped with a double-McGuffin: a hidden handgun and a bagful of banknotes.  What else is it? Oh, a road movie with some well-wrought set-pieces of noir Americana, as the main characters travel from coast to coast, complete with car breakdowns, a sojourn in a desolate desert motel, and a long, revealing flashback to a horrific childhood on a hard-scrabble farm.

What prevents all of this from becoming a hodgepodge is Wood’s skill in knitting it together through the narrator who, starting on the novel’s first page as a bewildered tabula rasa, grows steadily stronger and less passive as she balances the gradually emerging horrors of her past with the future life she enthusiastically embraces. Like Macbeth, or a good film, the unfolding is seamless, even relentless. It’s the lover, not the narrator, who gets to quote the phrase that provided the title, though I think a more appropriate (if ironic) line would have been from later in the play: "I am in blood / Stepp'd in so far, that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o'er."

Most importantly – and what keeps you thinking about this novel after you’ve finished it – is that the central character’s loss of memory is more than just a clever kick-start to the story, but an open-ended device that makes it easier to empathize with her.  The innocence it affords, and the possibility of redemption for her and her lover, make going forward a more positive choice for these characters than for Macbeth, despite what they may have done or what’s been done to them.  And by the novel’s end, they seem headed somewhere good – far beyond either the control of the author or the grasp of the reader. That’s as much as any good novelist could hope to achieve.

So…apart from all that, did I enjoy it? Well, yes. This is well-written, accessible stuff. To quote the author, quoted in turn in the introduction by John Anderson: “I am trying, as a writer of fiction, to reach a wide audience (rather than a bourgeois elite) using the modes of popular fiction to encompass radical ideas about our culture….The enormous gulf between the ‘great bourgeois novel’ and the popular melodrama has to be breached if concepts that are critical to any radical social change can become widely accepted. Therefore I write in a ‘Popular’ style (or try to)….”

Wood succeeds admirably in this. As well, apart from its success as pop fiction this is also, arguably, believable feminist fiction. Why is it that male writers, in spite of cultural strictures and low expectations, excel so frequently at this? (cf. Madame Bovary, Mildred Pierce, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and, in the best-seller realm, much of Stephen King. I’m sure other examples will come to mind. Maybe even Lady Macbeth.) Getting back to where I started, I guess it all comes down to empathy. Read it and see what I mean.

- copyright David Berry 2011

For Jonathan Rosenbaum's review of what he describes as "Robin Wood’s fascinating posthumous novel, an odd thriller involving amnesia", see http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.com/?p=27521

On Robin Wood’s posthumous novel Trammel up the Consequences (whose title comes from a Macbeth quote): the story starts with a women who find herself with amnesia (apparently from some trauma) in New York’s Grand Central Station who then has to figure out who exactly she is with the help from a kind male stranger. Or so she thinks he’s a stranger… The book has a few Hitchcock references – as you would expect – but they do not seem out of place, kind of like all the theatre references in Nabokov’s Lolita. The book also shows Wood equally as a good story-teller as a film-critic ; he is skillful when it comes to pacing, creating intrigue and providing plot-twists (one can see parallels with Stephen King, who Wood admired).

- David Davidson (2011)

What a remarkable book! I can easily see why so many publishers had a problem with its extreme sexual politics. (I wonder if Robin was familiar with Theodore Sturgeon's short story 'If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?') I was struck by just how personal much of it is - the ritual of the spreadeagle described on pp. 220-221 is taken directly from Robin's own childhood memories (he talks about this in his essay on Alice Miller in CINEACTION 19/20). In the introduction, John Anderson mentions Robin revising the book in 1998-99, but he must have revised it again some time later, as the main action takes place in 2001 (reference is made to George W Bush's presidency). This revision causes some problems and inconsistencies in parts of the text that obviously derive from the first draft, such as the suggestion that VCRs are a new technology in a sequence that now takes place in 1997! But this is a superb book, and one I look forward to reading again. Hopefully, it will sell enough copies to make the publication of Robin's other novels economically viable.

- Brad Stevens (2011)

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