Those who know me, if I am known at all, know me as a bit of a nitpicker (okay, more than a bit). Little details can often get under my skin. I was therefore disappointed to find problems on the very first page of Be Good, indeed with the epigraph itself. There are three quotations that open the book, the third being lyrics from “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” attributed to Johnny Cash. Johnny Cash did indeed record the song in 2003, and it was released in 2006, nearly three years after his death. Cash’s five “American Recordings” albums were all excellent, but he only wrote fifteen of the sixty-eight songs on those albums. All the rest were covers. “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” is a traditional roots song of the kind that used to be known as a “negro spiritual” and then later just a “spiritual”, and is better known as “Run On” or “Run On for a Long Time.” In his 1999 song “Run” Moby sampled a version by Bill Landford and the Landfordaires recorded in 1943, more than a decade before Cash first set foot in a recording studio (my own copy of the song, from a boxed set released by Columbia Records in 1992, was recorded by Landford and his band in 1949). It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Alan Lomax or his father John (or possibly even Harry Oster) had recorded other versions of the song as part of their studies of American folk songs that started in the 1930s. As good as Johnny Cash’s version is (it’s my personal favourite), his only real contribution to the history of the song was to introduce a unique rhythmic arrangement; he had no hand in the lyrics beyond inserting his name into a verse. This is symptomatic, I think, of the growing culture of downloading music, either legally or otherwise, rather than purchasing physical copies (of which culture I consider myself a part; I only know so much about this particular song because early American blues is my favourite music, and I have a massive collection of blues and roots albums—probably 200 or more—most of them recorded before 1960). When listeners acquire an album online, legally or no, they often no longer have access to the writing or recording credits for that music; what’s more, they just as often don’t care. I once heard, on the radio no less, the Cowboy Junkies’ cover of The Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” attributed to Portishead. Given the pseudo-nihilism of Morgan, one of Be Good‘s protagonists, the wrongly-attributed epigraph may be quite appropriate: what do the details matter, so long as you are getting what you think you want?
It’s difficult to know where to begin with Be Good, once beyond the epigraph of course. One hopes that by now critics have managed to learn that characters and narrators are not merely avatars for authors, because I could imagine Stacey May Fowles being quit chagrined if someone declared Estella or Hannah or God forbid Morgan or Finn her fictional analog (and if they haven’t learned it by now, fingers crossed that they do so by the time I finish my manuscript and find it a home, because I certainly don’t want to be confused with the bastard who narrates my book). They are liars and hypocrites and manipulators, they are spoiled and selfish and some of them are straight-up assholes. In other words, people. The action of the novel, such as it is, unfolds as a variety of narrators (including the cities of Montréal, Vancouver, and Toronto themselves!) compete for the reader’s sympathy or trust or even just attention, interrupting each other or providing commentary or contradiction when events are described from a perspective not their own. The result is a gloriously ambivalent mess of human emotion and complexity, though by the end I had lost sympathy for everyone except Mr. Templeton (whom I did not like at all, when I first saw him through Hannah and Morgan’s eyes). He is the only character with a voice in the novel not described by one or all of the others as beautiful (he’s also the only one out of his twenties), and apparently also the only one who has learned that I want is not sufficient justification (nor is I’m bored, the other great excuse for the young and beautiful to behave like assholes with impunity) for much of anything that has negative consequences for others. He seems, in fact, to be the only character to acknowledge that he holds any responsibility at all for the consequences his actions have for other people, and his fear of and for Morgan and their tenuous future. I don’t know that I like him much, but I can relate.
Hannah and Morgan and Estella are people I know or have known, and they burn as bright and as hot and as lethal on the page as they do out here in the world, thanks solely to Fowles’ sharp prose and unsentimental gaze. I feel I can know them and love them (and do, as I see their various bits and pieces in the women I know or have known), but I doubt I could bring myself to forgive them, nor I think would they want me to, and that’s as it should be. Be Good is the sort of book I want to mail to ex-girlfriends with passages underlined, not to say “see how you were?” but rather “I would have understood more than you think, it need not have been so scary for either of us.” Mr. Beattie’s suggestion that the three young women may in fact be the same woman drifted in and out of my consciousness as I read this book, the idea being more or less plausible at various points in the narrative; at the very least Fowles forces the reader to question their identities in relation to one another, thankfully without ever robbing their stories of their emotional heft.
The only character I have a problem with is Finn. He seemed real enough when seen through the eyes of the three young women, but when finally given his own voice, the wires were cut and my disbelief was no longer suspended. It was things like this:
There was a part of me that really did want to give her the opportunity to grow up, to be with me and become a better person. A part of me that knew that she had so much potential to become a calmer, more tolerable, version of herself. That was the part of me that finally let her come with me to the west coast. My influence on her meant she would dress better, speak better, act better. I knew that I was the only person who could do that for her and, despite my aversion to the pressure, I knew that she looked to me to be saved. (p. 78)
I read that, and immediately thought of what I had written about Dan from Courage My Love (as much as I hate to quote myself): “He doesn’t have a personality so much as he’s just repeatedly positioned in such a way that he irritates or offends Phillipa/Nova. We aren’t meant to like him, but he winds up being a generic roadblock instead of a real human being.” I have seen men like Finn in movies, read about them in books, but despite living the bulk of my life in an isolated, conservative rural community (where one would imagine such attitudes to be more likely found), I have yet to come across in flesh and blood a man of my generation who thinks that way, or at least would admit to having such thoughts, even to another man. But I have (and this is where I insert the caveat that anecdotal evidence counts only because it colours my reading of the book, and that I am in no way denying that such creatures as Finn might actually exist) met and even dated women who think that way and say those kinds of things about the men in their lives, even directly to the faces of those men. Finn’s character is sufficiently supported by the other narrators to keep him planted squarely in his role and the novel stays on course. I had very little interest in gender as an academic, and have even less as a reader and a writer, but I find myself paying greater attention to depictions of masculinity when reading work by writers who are known for or explicitly market themselves as being concerned with gender issues, feminism in particular (feminism and gender issues not necessarily being synonymous). Had I not been aware of Fowles as the publisher of Shameless, I probably would not have even noticed. For the record, I do consider this “added awareness” as a critical blind spot. My ideal is to read the book as it comes to me and demands to be read; I consider going in with an agenda in place intellectually dishonest. Like all of us (and like Fowles’ characters) I’m only human, and can be a hypocrite myself at times.
The book itself was quite beautiful, and the cover photo (by Spencer Saunders—I think that’s the same Saunders) looks suspiciously like the alley behind my apartment building. So much so, in fact, that I’m going to go out there tomorrow in the daylight, book in hand, and come to a definitive conclusion on the matter. I don’t have the spare cash to buy it right now, but Fowles has another book out at the moment, Fear of Fighting (with Marlena Zuber), that you can expect me to read and review sometime early next year. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with two interviews and link to Stacey May Fowles‘ blog.
Next: Pardon Our Monsters, by Andrew Hood.