Caroline Miller is taking Lamb in His Bosom pretty solidly into Jerry Springer territory, although her wobbly handle on the plot means that the novel’s not quite as satisfyingly cheap a thrill as an audience on their feet shouting “Jerry! Jerry!” while we watch working class families fight it out on stage under the supervision of “security guards”. I don’t know how much to delve into here—let’s just say we’ve got a baby born out of wedlock but raised by the married woman who had been cheated on, an ongoing affair between a grown man and a teenage girl, and the possibility that the number of Carver men who have slept with Margot has gone from two to three (Miller’s so absent-minded about plot events that she seems to have forgotten to clarify whether anything really happened).
My concerns about things like racism and sexism in novels continue—again, it’s not that I refuse to read a book with these elements in them. Society contains (and contained) these ideas, and people who backed them. I just mind a book written badly enough that you can’t get much out of it if you reject the basic premise. For example, most (but not all) people agree that Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is an anti-Semitic play, whether or not we then conclude that Shakespeare was personally anti-Semitic. But Shylock is a complex enough character that A) we can, if we like, find line readings that make him sympathetic (and therefore reject that the play’s message is anti-Semitic), and B) the play is clearly about a lot more than the simple question of prejudice against Jews (it takes on questions of deceit and honesty, and what it really means to be merciful, to name only two of the other elements present). I’m wrestling with whether this book has much to say beyond its being brutal to the women involved. The men behave so haphazardly that I can only really draw one of two conclusions: Miller either thinks all men are naturally inclined to hate and mistreat women, or she has no ability to write characters so that their decisions regarding how to treat women make sense. If it’s the first, it’s really hard to see what to get out of this at all, other than disgust at a bunch of cruel and one-dimensional male characters. If it’s the second, it’s hard to see why I’m bothering to try to get anything out of this.
It’s not a grotesquely offensive book—unlike that awful McLaughlins novel, I’m not asked to sympathize with a character who is, to put it kindly, a sexually manipulative and lethally violent fiend. And it doesn’t traffic solely in horrifying racial caricature, like Peterkin’s account of poor “Scarlet Mary”. So I guess it rides above those two.
But I’m frustrated by the book’s seeming disinterest in saying much of anything. Events occur for no reasons that I can discern. More confusingly, we are often set up for events that never pay off—Margot’s treatment of Jasper seems to be setting up an affair but then that line simply stops (not that they drift apart…Miller just loses interest and starts talking about other characters), the injury Lonzo’s mother accidentally does to Cean’s mother is alluded to about once every 80 pages but it’s not clear that it has any impact on any of the characters’ relationships, there’s a terrible drought which makes life hard for a while but then somehow miraculously Lonzo trades well at the Coast and they’re really not deprived of much of anything. It’s like the scene in The Princess Bride where Peter Falk stops in the middle of the eel scene to tell Fred Savage that the eel doesn’t get Buttercup, in case he was getting nervous. Imagine that, but a whole book of it. I just can’t work out why anyone would think it was good reading.
I really don’t think I can keep doing updates on this thing—it’s simultaneously too wretched and not wretched enough. If something remarkable occurs or I get a real epiphany, I may weaken and offer one more reflection. Otherwise, look for a review soon, since I’d like to knock it down quickly enough, and move on to something new by the weekend, if I can manage it.