Friday, 22 July 2011

BOOK: Carson McCullers' lost masterpiece - Clock Without Hands (1961)

Among the foremost writers of the American Deep South, Carson McCullers remains second only to William Faulkner, and has been compared to many of the finest writers in the English language. Generations of writers have re-discovered her, although curiously enough, for all the successive schools of literary criticism that have emerged, McCullers has never been claimed as a queer writer (say), which might have drawn more attention to what makes her so remarkable. Not that this is the best fit, by any means, since the predominant preoccupation of her stories, above race or “existential issues” are anxieties about gender and sexual identity, puberty, adolescence, and life as a heteronormative woman. To borrow a term from anthropology, we might say that McCullers excels in her exploration of liminality, although this may be a more abstract way of saying that McCullers' major concern seems to be with "passing" (a term of considerable importance in studies of race, and a comparable significance in queer- and gender-studies). Most critics have focused on representations of music, race, or freaks in her work, but none (that I am aware of) have suggested that these might be connected. As an unsuccessful musician, McCullers may have seen an analogy between “making the grade” and “passing (examinations)” and the performance of racial and/or sexual identity. The freak is one who cannot pass… and as such compelled to over-compensate.

Biographically, McCullers presents a counterpoint to a better known heroine of the melancholy teen intellectual, Sylvia Plath. Both were recruited for the long-defunct Ms. magazine; McCullers’ first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was an instant success, displaying a sophistication surpassing many another novel, let alone début novels. What drew attention at the time was its depiction of race, but it would have been apparent to a readership acquainted with Beckett and Joyce that here too was an existential parable of enduring resonance. At the centre of the narrative is a mute, John Singer, who accommodates the projections of an array of characters, each comforted by his silence, and inspired. Among these are a black doctor campaigning for civil rights, and a gynandrous young girl much like McCullers herself, determined to become a famous composer – a plan disrupted by her younger brother’s accidental shooting.

McCullers’ second novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye, confirmed her talent, but was not a huge leap. The protagonist hardly merits the word, having only ever made two or three conscious decisions in his entire life. There are echoes of Camus in the depiction of a mentally subnormal soldier who eventually commits a murder, but the novel is more interesting as an act of catharsis for its author, then entangled in an unhealthy relationship with a serviceman, himself a failed writer.

The Member of the Wedding, McCullers’ third novel centres on another pubescent female identified by one reviewer as a cousin of Mick Kelly. Frances Jasmine, AKA F Jasmine, AKA Frankie – one novel for each section of the novel – is if anything a more complex figure. The three names signal that the novel is a rite of passage, an anthropological concept with which McCullers was probably acquainted from the work of Arnold Van Gennep. As the title suggests, the novel explores FJ’s desire to be a “member of the wedding” that is to say, to be the third party in the marriage of her older sister and her fiancé. The allegory should be self-evident, but what interests me is the use of grotesquerie in this novel, much more than its predecessors, to express sexual anxieties. Images of the protagonist crossing the threshold of the kitchen carrying a knife foreshadow later sexual violence, and the visit to the freakshow reflects a prepubescent discomfort with the body. If I have my timeline correct, McCullers was by this point paralysed, and her husband’s drinking problems worsening. In the novel, F Jasmine’s sexual initiation is with a soldier on leave; not only statutory rape, but almost actual rape.

Grotesquerie is exaggerated to a fabular degree in the title story from McCullers’ best known work, the collection that followed. The Ballad of Sad Café stars a lesbian emotionally involved with a hunchback, and if it superficially lacks the pathos of earlier works, the author’s deliberate and almost callous emphasis on deformity reveals a growing contempt for humanity. Miss Amelia, the etymology of whose name – “limbless” – suggests both castration and psychical immobility – is not unsympathetic, but shown to be emotionally stunted. The fight resolves very little; it renders sexual violence comic rather than tragic, precluding notions about the nobility of suffering.

McCullers’ greatest literary achievement – displaying all the techniques of the earlier works at once – is Clock Without Hands, a novel currently out-of-print, but surely not lost forever. Like Absalom Absalom, the novel maps the socio-historic process of integration and/or assimilation onto a homosexual seduction or coming-out narrative. In fact, the seduction is never achieved, and Jester is unable to prevent the lynching of a half-caste, the son of a man his own father failed to defend years before, in his first and last court case before his suicide. I'll say no more, since that should be intriguing enough - it's well worth tracking down.

[updated from notes for a postgraduate seminar, from July 2005]

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