“Well he knew that loving a woman overmuch is evil, a thing to guard against, a taint of the flesh to pray away…”

And young Lias (Cean’s brother) steps with care into the world of marriage.  In my last post, I was a little dubious about this book, as the author, Caroline Miller, had flung me on the road with a bunch of characters I didn’t know or care much about.  I remain dubious—in some ways I think Miller’s working things out better than I’d expected, but in others I still feel like Miller’s mired in a plot that doesn’t seem to go anywhere interesting.  Lias is an excellent example.

Lias goes, with his father, his older and younger brothers, and his new brother-in-law, to the coast to trade.  While there, he meets and falls in love with someone I think we can fairly call a “tavern wench”—a pretty and daring young woman named Margot.  Lias is bewitched by her loveliness (and her worldliness?), Margot is clearly smitten by this country bumpkin, and he determines to marry her.  His father, Vince, warns Lias about Margot’s reputation, but Lias insists these are lies.  Vince considers, and ultimately rejects, telling his son that he knows from experience that the talk is true.  (Catch that?  From experience.  Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more.)

So they marry and everyone rides home together on the oxcart.  This is the most bizarre turn of events I could have expected, and Miller doesn’t seem to have any idea what to do with it.  On the one hand, she doesn’t play out any of the kind of psychological depth you’d expect here—the father’s a little socially awkward, I guess, but we don’t get even a moment’s puzzling from Margot.  It would take someone really supremely skilled to work this one out in a manner that avoids being tawdry and salacious—a skill on par with Wharton’s or Fitzgerald’s, I think, though with considerably less restraint—and Miller doesn’t evidence that she even thinks it’s worth an attempt.  But the other approach you’d expect—the Jerry Springer “she’s carrying his dad’s baby”, or even Sophocles’ “Lias is Margot’s baby and the gods have sent a plague upon his city that he is sworn to investigate“—doesn’t seem to arrive either.  Instead it’s a mild and unimportant complication that fades into the distance pretty quickly.

We could argue that Miller’s playing the long game, and that all these uneventful events—the snakebite, the marriage, the purchase of a white rat as a pet—all of it is designed to work together in some kind of fascinating denouement.  If it is, I will doff my cap to her.  For now, it seems like the novelist is afraid of the novel becoming too complicated, and so she’s rushing to resolve any signs of tension before they can build into anything of interest.  It’s not terrible writing, but it’s terribly timid and somewhat boring.  Where I left off, she’d finally intersected Margot and Cean in such a way that I finally understand why she spent so much time in both characters.  But this really is ten dollars’ worth of preparation for a dime’s worth of dramatic payoff.  She can’t do this for the rest of the book, or at least I dearly hope not.

She also is developing a bad habit of circumlocutions that insert into the narrative without warning…for example, Margot looks back at her home as she leaves it, and suddenly we spend pages with the backstory of the mother she never knew, and where this mother lived, and why her mother’s life went the way it did.  We then return to the plot with no indication that these bird-walks have any real relevance to the story.  I can’t plausibly defend that they’re the thoughts of the characters, since some of the details couldn’t possibly be known by the people present at the time of departure.  It’s just odd—like Miller had written up a lot of backstory and, by gum, she was going to get all her work on the page.

I’ll admit, there’s something likable about these simple folks—their lives are so humdrum that the least little things give them delight.  Certainly I’d like it all to work out for Lonzo and Cean, and Lias and Margot, and whomever ends up married to Jasper and Jake.  But I never managed to sit through a whole episode of The Waltons, and it’s difficult to see how any of these characters are even as morally complicated as John-Boy.  Margot, the reformed ex-tart, might prove an exception, but it’s hard to see how Miller plays that up without her having to play out Vince and Lias talking openly about having slept with the same woman, and short of two brain transplants or some folding chairs and a screaming audience, I really don’t see how she’ll do it.

One last note: the narrator, who is not a character, but is clearly omniscient and 3rd person, narrates in dialect.  It’s bad enough reading the silly dialogue, which is only in dialect when Miller remembers (seemingly, only when she realizes they are beginning to sound intelligent).  But the narrator occasionally dipping into dialect is worse.  It’s exacerbated further by it happening only occasionally—as you can see from the quotation that serves as the post’s title, the narrator handles tough prose fine much of the time.  But then out of nowhere we are told that Person A “didn’t much cyare” about Person B’s opinion, or something like it, and the “cyare” bangs in there like a wrong note at a recital and then just hangs in the air.  I know I’m too picky about language, but the early 20th Century American fascination with local slang crosses lines I think most of us can agree on.

So, Lamb in His Bosom continues onward, with very little occurring of note, and with me growing increasingly confused as to why the board picked something so trifling.  If Miller can’t get this plot on the road in the next few chapters, it’s hard to see how she’ll ever get me excited enough to read the book for any reason beyond a dutiful commitment to see this project to its end.

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2 comments on ““Well he knew that loving a woman overmuch is evil, a thing to guard against, a taint of the flesh to pray away…”

  1. I’m going to start a list of Pulitizers to skip. My suspicion is that my taste will match the recent selections much better than the early ones. You will be my guide to the old ones to save from the “ash heap” (reading Dickens at present, and I tend to think like whatever I’m reading. It’s pretty enjoyable when I’m reading Rushdie, since I end up sounding like a middle aged Indian guy).

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Haha, at last my blog serves a useful purpose! I think your read is probably accurate—there is, at least, precious little in the 1920s and 1930s (so far) that I could put with Rushdie stylistically. There’s a bit more like Dickens, but not a whole lot. Certainly even if the second half of Miller’s book turns out to be the lost ending of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, I don’t think it will be worth recommending. How many of the Pulitzers have you read, as yet?

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