1924: The Able McLaughlins, by Margaret Wilson

Literary Merit:

I wouldn’t want to claim that I had never read a worse book than The Able McLaughlins.  I believe I read a Babysitters’ Club book when I was young, and I know I have encountered a few books over the years that probably would have been worse had I been forced by a personal vow to finish them (as I was with Margaret Wilson’s execrable little story).  But this book’s level of wretched flies far above that endurable by the human psyche.  It ping-pongs back and forth between being a pitiful imitation of a poor copy of a mediocre novel, and being something truly bile-raising in its cruel attitudes towards women.

I concluded my slog through the book late last night—its ending, which I will not describe in detail lest I cause the angels themselves to weep, seemed to resolve one question, for me at least.  To the query “what was the intended central theme of this book, anyway”, I can now answer with some certainty “to explore whether it’s possible to feel pity for a man dying in agony, even though he raped the woman you have brow-beaten into marrying you”.  I assume this because, the moment we discover whether or not Wully is capable of such an emotion, the novel ends as abruptly as if a truck had hit Margaret Wilson in the middle of a paragraph.

This novel is bad in almost as many ways as a novel can be.  It is as ill-equipped for the work that fiction ought to do in the human heart as an unlaced boot is for the task of sending Americans to the moon while baking up a nice batch of pumpkin raisin bread.  Its plot only fails to be incomprehensible when it becomes reprehensible; its characters only cease to be wooden and one-dimensional when they discover the ability to oppress people weaker than themselves.  This is a book that believes violence isn’t the answer, not because “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”, but because blood poisoning killed the guy we wanted to hurt before we could get to him.  If this book expresses “the wholesome atmosphere of American life” (the alleged criterion for the award in 1924–see “How are the Pulitzer Prizes awarded?”), then America in 1924 was as wholesome as Mae West and had the poisonous atmosphere of the planet Venus.

It’s a book that does even the little things badly.  It turns interesting minor characters into caricatures, and sometimes struggles to present the reader with a grammatical sentence.  It alludes constantly and cryptically to future events that seem insignificant at the time (off-hand comments, for example, that “only 40 years later, his grandson would receive a warmer welcome in this very same living room”)…only to never clarify why an unimportant character’s grandson had any bearing whatsoever on the plot that had been so carefully set adrift in a hopeless sea.

I give Margaret Wilson’s novel the following compliments for style–and pay attention, for this is brief.  She creates one genuinely interesting character that she fails to later spoil, John McLaughlin, the little brother of Wully, who resembles Claude Wheeler strikingly and whose active mind is totally out of place on the farm.  She avoids spoiling him by sending him off to college at critical points in the narrative.  And Chirstie, despite how badly she was put together as a character, and how unbelievable she is as a human being, at times, captured a bit of empathy from me—for me to loathe Wully as much as I do for his treatment of his wife, Wilson must have done something right in describing her.  Other than that, see the above remarks.

Historical Insight:

The Able McLaughlins suffers here by an easy comparison–One of Ours, which, you may remember, I criticized a bit for its inability to vividly portray Midwest farming life, was light-years ahead of this novel in its account of real farmers.  The narrow world of Wilson’s story allows for nothing but the farm, and yet at the end of it, almost all of the characters I’ve encountered seem so unrealistic that I don’t believe the few emotions they’ve ever evidenced.  It’s possible I learned something about Scottish immigrants, but frankly I don’t trust the novel enough to believe it, even though it’s very possible that Wilson was meticulous about the “facts” of their lives.  Fiction has to engage the mind before it teaches, and this novel couldn’t get over that initial hurdle.

Rating:

I rank this book “Refuse to read this book, unless ordered at gunpoint”.  That last clause is important.  The book will (probably) not actively harm you.  There are far more pernicious sexist and racist screeds that populate too many bookshelves (though hopefully not yours), and I can certainly think of worse books to read.  But I cannot, for the life of me, come up with any scenario in which there wouldn’t be something better to do than read this book–if on a desert island with nothing but this book, just scratch all the lettering off the cover except the author’s last name, and carry on a “dialogue” with Wilson the book until rescued or dead.  Either way, the conversation you have with an imaginary friend will be more enriching to the life of your mind than reading The Able McLaughlins.

Last Word:

Normally, this is where I decide, in fairness, to give the last word to the author of the novel rather than taking it for myself.  But I can’t.  I just can’t.

Really.  Because I unthinkingly turned the book back into the library this afternoon, and don’t have it here to quote from.  Yes, I suppose I could try to find a scan (or even a list of quotations, if anyone has posted such a thing) online.  But I’m just not feeling it.  Wilson didn’t really have anything to say here, anyway.  It would be one thing if I thought she actively opposed women’s rights and believed in violence–then maybe the free-speech-absolutist in me could respect giving her a platform (however brief).  But I think she was either lazy or incompetent, and, regardless of which it is, I don’t think that merits giving her another shot.  I know I’ve been tough on this book—some would say too tough—but this is definitely not the kind of reading I signed up for.  If I have to endure more than one or two more of these on the road ahead, I don’t know if I’ll make it to Olive Kitteredge (or whatever the latest Pulitzer winner will be by the time I finish my quest).  Here’s hoping the next one is a lot better.

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Reflection XXXII: In which the author forgets what the story is about, and the reader thinks about other books

The weird thing about The Able McLaughlins is that, having established a story that revolves very much around the singular problem of Wully’s marriage to a woman who will bear a child less than nine months after the wedding, Margaret Wilson dispenses with that plot point by waving her hands and noting that no one cared very much.  And then moves on to a remarkably extended conflict between Alex McNair and his new bride which seems to be a joke about how stingy a Scotsman is…only strained and belabored over several chapters.  It’s as though we have fallen into the land that reason and logic forgot.

I suppose I know what she is trying to do.  She thinks this little society is fascinating, and that the everyday scandals and troubles of it (“Can you believe she would wear such a hat to church?”) will be utterly riveting.  There are a number of problems with this.  If you’re going to write that kind of light-hearted fiction, you shouldn’t open with 120 pages that explore essentially one relationship (right now, more than halfway through the book, I could not name for you a single one of Wully’s siblings other than his dead brother–the cast of characters remains about six, plus a bunch of nameless or nearly nameless folk who provide color, I guess).  And if you’re going to attempt that kind of episodic and not-too-tense approach, I think you almost have to be brilliant at interesting dialogue and good characterization…if the plot doesn’t grip me, then I ought to feel as though I’m close friends with the central figures.  But I’m simply not…Wully’s not even an acquaintance, really.  More a fellow I was introduced to at a party, once, who refuses to stop talking to me when we happen to run into each other in a bookstore.

Who does this well?  Off-hand, I’d say L. M. Montgomery, at her best.  Anne of Green Gables and its sequels (at least the first five or six: after that I stopped reading) are exactly thus—interesting characters whose problems consist of wearing bright colors to church and fearing that their house will never be as nice as Mrs. So-and-so, though of course Mrs. So-and-so is an old biddy so it’s not so tragic after all not to have ended up as her.  I find them sweet (sometimes cloyingly so, I’ll admit) and I like the main characters in general (and Anne in particular…my wife is fortunate that Anne Shirley wasn’t real, although my wife tells me I’m lucky Batman isn’t real, so it’s a wash there I suppose).  But no one could mistake Anne’s House of Dreams for The Age of Innocence, and even if Montgomery were an American novelist, I wouldn’t put her best book up for a Pulitzer.  It’s not that kind of writing: it doesn’t do what great novels do.  It does what a talented storyteller does, which is altogether different…and honestly, it’s really a young adult’s story, throughout.

That Margaret Wilson won a Pulitzer for a (much) lesser version of an Avonlea novel is therefore unsettling.  I fear what lies ahead.  I suppose I’m glad, at least, that I am not angry at it anymore.  I’m just tired of it—something like listening to a poor student at a music recital whose out-of-tune rendition of Go Tell Aunt Rhody leaves you staring at your watch, willing time forward with your mind.  I think this tells me something about writing, and about what I believe a novel should do or be.  But I’m not sure of myself there, not just yet, and will save those thoughts for the next post (which, depending on how fast I can swallow these last spoonfuls of cod liver oil, may be the review).

Reflection XXXI: In which men can make women do anything just by kissing them

I don’t think I can contain this becoming a long rant.  Be warned, those going ahead—I’m a bit fired up about this book.

This portion of the novel (I’m close to halfway through it, at this point) really brought out the feminist critic in me (admittedly, that’s not normally hard to do—I don’t know why, but I’m increasingly sensitive to sexism in novels).  I’ll summarize it thus: Wully runs to Chirstie’s house, but when she sees him, she runs away and finds a gun.  He’s confused.  I mean, clearly she loves him, since she was looking at him during prayer, and she kissed him that one time.  So she’s probably the one who’s confused.  Ah, that’s better.  Nice use of reasoning, Wully.

So Wully tries to figure out why she’s confused.  He learns, by merest chance (more on this later), that Chirstie was apparently the subject of “unwelcome advances”.  Actually, “unwelcome advances”, euphemistic as it is, is still way more explicit than Wilson is willing to be, and of course what has actually happened is that Chirstie has been raped.  Wully holds back from killing the man in question, but forces him to leave town.  Then he rushes to Chirstie’s side, hugs her, kisses her passionately, insists he’s made it “all better” and demands she marry him the next day.  Good one, Wully.

So, Wully rushes a wedding—his mother, for propriety’s sake, insists they wait an extra 24 hours—out of fear she’ll reject him again.  She does, in fact, tell him many times in those 24 hours that she isn’t willing to go through with it, but good old Wully just kisses her forcefully every time until she relents.  Which is, as anyone knows, the most sensitive way a man can deal with the woman he loves, especially one who has been sexually assaulted.  At the wedding itself, she won’t say “I do” until Wully says “Of course she will marry me.  Won’t she, dear?”  And kisses her.  And she nods and all proceeds in wonderful fashion.  Well, except for her fainting dead away after the ceremony.  Proof of her passion for you, eh, Wully?  Must be all that good kissin’.

Now, it turns out that her reluctance to marry him is because she is bearing a child, due in perhaps 5 months or so.  Wully seemingly knew about this all along (how? The girl has said literally a dozen words in the novel up to this point—a more mute central character I have not experienced).  He’s decided to claim that he and Chirstie conceived the child out of wedlock, rather than get into the whole assault thing (the attacker was a mutual cousin of them both), and tells his parents so.  As the narrator helpfully supplies, Wully wants to help “bear her shame” like the noble young man he is.  If you’re not angry yet, you and I react very differently to fiction.

And then there’s a little string of events where Chirstie’s dad comes home, and Wully’s parents are disappointed in him (his mother, in particular, who figures he’ll never be President now—I kid you not), and Chirstie moves in with the McLaughlins and finds the beauty of a loving and happy family.  It’s a marvelous little tale of joy and redemption, you see.  At least, it is at the half-way point.

I want to scream about seven hundred different things.  If we take the narration and plot at face value, and assume that all of these actions are reasonable, then Wully’s a monster, and Chirstie’s an appallingly victimized character whose life consists largely of being controlled and manipulated by men.  The point at which Wully uses forceful kisses on a rape victim to convince her to marry him was the point where I literally had the impulse to throw the book away from me in anger and disgust.  I was on the bus, though, and it is a library book, besides.  All that saved you, Able McLaughlins.

But of course the narration and plot are not remotely believable.  Let us say that Chirstie was attacked, and responded (as she apparently did) by hiding from the world to the point that, when she sees the man she truly loves (allegedly) she runs away crying, and hauls out a gun, either to save him from her (a “damaged goods” mentality is all I can suppose, abhorrent as it is) or to save her from him (a passionate fear of lustful young men seems a reasonable response, under the circumstances).  Either way, when Wully comes to her house after driving off her attacker, how does she know that he has done so?  And why would it matter to her, if he had—if her attacker’s left the neighborhood, how does that affect either of the possible motives for using a shotgun to keep Wully away?  And yet she not only doesn’t get the gun, she allows Wully to sit and hold her close until morning, telling her how much he loves her and that they will marry the next day.  I ask you, in what world do these people exist?

I have other problems with flat characterization and use of language, but they really pale in comparison with my major objections voiced already.  It’s enough to make me want to skip past the rest of the novel—to say that this wasn’t what I signed up for.  But the reason (well, one of the reasons) I decided to do this was not just to read good books, but to understand my country.  If this book was award-winning in 1924, it can only be because its readers at the time didn’t react as I am.  This is when my grandmother was a small child—was this the world for women at the time?  How long did it persist (I hope to Heaven that things are different now; I believe that they are different, but how would I really know)?  I have to hold even these unpleasant moments in my mind a while, and ask myself what it means that my culture valued a story like this: even if the Pulitzers aren’t a great reflection of popular taste, they reflect the taste of some group of powerful people, and presumably a lot of people read this book.  Soon I’ll be one of them—and hopefully one of the last.  I was irked before that KCLS didn’t own a copy of the book, necessitating an Interlibrary Loan.  Now I’m kind of glad this is obscure, and I hope my request doesn’t inspire them to put a copy on the shelves somewhere: there are too many good and happy books in the world for people to have to subject themselves to this.

Reflection XXX: In which characters behave inexplicably, and the reader and protagonist both contemplate suicide

I realized my last post didn’t really provide much context for the story.  I don’t want to get into the plot much, but I guess if any of this is going to make sense to you, I need to provide something.  So, the McLaughlins of the title are one of a confused network of Scottish families, all of whom are interrelated somehow—a society not unlike Wharton’s New York (in that one respect).  Their eldest son, Wully (whose true first name is either unknown or I missed it), is a soldier for the North who enlisted alongside his younger brother, and who watched that little brother die in battle.  Wully has often been injured or imprisoned–the details are always fuzzy.  A neighbor family, the McNairs, consists of a father (back in Scotland—and has been for years, despite the narrator giving only vague indications as to why), a mother (dies early in the book, having been preceded in death by most of her children), and three or four young ones, of whom the oldest, Chirstie, is perhaps 17 years of age.  Wully falls in love with Chirstie in a single conversation (which I related to you) before returning to the service for a few months more at the end of the war.

The portion I’ve read covers Wully’s return to find that—surprise, surprise—the girl with whom he exchanged almost no words (but lots of “fearless” kisses) behaves coldly to him.  Apparently while he’s spent months dreaming of marrying her, and has arrived home figuring they’re basically engaged, she’s not anxious to speed that along at all.  She, in fact, basically orders him out of her house, after his response to her coldness is to move towards her in pretty physically aggressive fashion.  A real model of chivalry, our Wully.  He cannot go on with life, and contemplates ending it all.  But, lucky him, at church one morning he catches her looking at him during prayer—which is, as anyone knows, an indication of unmistakable romantic interest.  So he sings the final Psalm loudly and happily, and then races to her house, only to discover her sitting on the porch in tears.  Wully is confused.  Poor Wully.

So, what has Wilson taught me about bad writing?  To begin with plot (since I’ve just related most of it, thus far), it’s clear that bad writing involves characters whose behavior is unjustifiable given the circumstances.  Every indication we have of Wully’s character suggests that he is the stable and rational child in the family.  I accept that “stable and rational” types can go overboard…but surely it would take more than a kiss standing by a well to do so?  I know, I know—a lot of movies and novels are built on the premise that every buttoned-down introvert is just a step away from behaving madly and wildly at the sight of a beautiful human being and the thought of romance.  But isn’t that more the way love feels than the way love truly is?  Wully just seems to be irrational when it serves the plot, and calm and composed when that’s convenient.  Bad writing.

And style-wise (don’t worry, I won’t include any excerpts this time, out of consideration for our digestive systems), bad novel writing seems to consist of disjointed moments.  Wilson doesn’t bother to set up emotional moments: she simply announces that they are happening.  Boring or mundane events are narrated in the same casual manner as critical and meaningful events, which leads to either apathy or a sense of frustrated anticipation.  Mostly, though, I am told over and over again “facts” that were blatantly obvious.  When someone sees the woman they are in love with, I hardly need to be told it is exciting for them.  If a mother sees that her son is ill, taking additional sentences to note that she’s concerned and hopes he will feel better soon seems pretty pointless—now, I can envision that a different author could use these sentences to reveal important things about their relationship, or the emotional state of the mother, or any of half-a-dozen other useful topics.  But Wilson seems frightened of writing a sentence with a comma in it, leaving me reading simple declarative sentences that would be useful if I was reading about the economy of Bolivia, but neither engage nor usefully inform me of anything.

Will Wully marry the woman of his dreams? (Uh, yes.)  Will Pa remember all the words to the Psalm after dinner? (Has he ever forgotten?  No.)  Will Chirstie’s father return from Scotland? (At a critical juncture that neatly wraps up the plot, almost as though he’s an actor waiting in the wings for his cue?  No, surely not!)  Reading this novel is like eating bacon that tastes like unseasoned green cabbage: it’s unexciting, it overwhelms me with an absence of taste, and despite its attempts to convince me otherwise, I’m pretty sure it isn’t good for me.  See you next time.

Reflection XXIX: In which our hero’s resolve is tested, and he makes an apology to Booth Tarkington

I’ve gotten into the habit—almost a “tradition” of sorts—of titling these posts with an apt line or two from the section of the novel I’d just read.  I think it keeps me grounded in the author, and it gives you a little taste of the book I’m reading.  I don’t think I’m strong enough to do that with The Able McLaughlins.  I’ll offer an example passage:

“If it is’na Isobel’s Wully!”  She shook his hand, and patted him on the shoulder, and reached up and kissed him.  He didn’t mind that.  She was practically an aunt, so intimate were the families.  In her silent excitement she brought him into her wretched little cabin.

And there stood another woman.  By the window—a young woman—turning towards him with sunshine on her white arms—and on the dough she was kneading—sunshine on her white throat—and on the little waves of brown hair about her face—sunshine making her fingertips transparent pink—a woman like a strong angel—beautiful in light!

Wully just stared.

I don’t know how you’re reacting to this section. Personally, I nearly threw myself out the bus’s emergency door.

It’s as though I’m reading, not a novel, but a message from a far-off land.  A land where they have read no fiction but stories that were rejected by the editors of Chicken Soup for the Soul, and the rambling journals of people who think being excited about something while you write means that your writing will be exciting.

I’m being too harsh, you might say…it’s been a long week, and clearly my patience is wearing too thin.  And maybe I just hit a particularly clunky passage.  Fair enough.  A good point—let’s see how Wully’s encounter with this radiant young woman goes…

“Chirstie!” he whispered.  “I didn’t know that you were here!  I didn’t know that you were the lassie for me!”  He kissed her fearfully.  He kissed her without fear, many times.  She said only “Oh!”  He held her close.

I should point out that the “conversation” between them is the first they’ve had for four years, and that when Wully left home, she was a girl of 12 or 13, while he was going off to fight in the Civil War.  He sees her ‘all grown up’ and can’t quite contain himself.  Oh! she says.  Oh, indeed.

I have three observations to make.  First of all, truly, I apologize to Booth Tarkington.  I was irked by him many, many times, but he never subjected me to this.  He never made me wonder if he had the talent sufficient to compose a greeting card or leave an amusing Post-it note on the fridge door.  I was entirely too hard on him.  Second of all, the tragic thing is that there’s a society here to tell a story about—a secluded Scottish community in Iowa where everyone knows everyone, and where the outside world does not come, until these boys go off to war and never come back (Wully’s brother is dead, and Wully just escaped a prison camp after being a POW for months).  I ought to be fascinated, but I can’t get past Wilson’s writing.

So, to my last point, where I ask your input—what’s wrong with her writing?  The choppiness of that last passage, for example, isn’t all that different from Hemingway, is it?  And yet his prose works and hers doesn’t.  I know that I’m exceptionally picky about style (if my reactions to my book group’s novels are any indication), but I think there’s something undeniably bad here.  Given that none of you have read this, pick a novel you’ve read whose writing style was so atrocious you couldn’t bear it.  What is it that we react badly to?  Is there anything definable about bad writing, or, like Potter Stewart, do we simply have to say “I know it when I see it”?  I have a feeling I’ll be thinking about that often as I continue–this book wants to stop my journey, but I won’t let it!  It’ll be a long stretch of road, though, I can tell you.

“The prairie lay that afternoon as it had lain for centuries of September afternoons…”

“…vast as an ocean; motionless as an ocean coaxed into very little ripples by languid breezes; silent as an ocean where only very little waves slip back into their element.”

Thus begins The Able McLaughlins, a novel by Margaret Wilson, the recipient of the 1924 Pulitzer Prize.  I don’t know about you, but that sentence doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.  It possesses a strange combination of effusive words and empty content.  My brief foray into the beginning of this book suggests that’s about how it goes.

I’ll admit, as much as I try to come into these novels without preconceptions, I’m skeptical of this one.  I’ve seen (mostly by accident) comments made about some of these early novels, and this one always seems to rank very low.  Furthermore, it’s about the hardest novel to acquire (of those I’ve tried so far), which suggests that history hasn’t been kind to it.

Maybe I’ll fall in love with the McLaughlins (all ten of them) and their prairie lives.  Maybe.  But I think it’s likelier that the McLaughlins in their “ableness” will make me pine for the Ambersons in their awful magnificence.  We’ll see.  If I can’t manage to enjoy it, I’ll strive to make my disappointment interesting and funny for you all, at the least.