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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 22, 2014

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Civility, Fikry, and Christian Hobbits

In the novel Rules of Civility, author Amor Towles takes on the challenge of The Great Gatsby -- he writes a complicated love story set in Jazz Age New York, with characters who are partly in and partly out of both the high life and the low life.

Normally I detest obvious themes, but in this case it works beautifully: The main characters read and are changed by George Washington's list of "Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation."

Because Towles refers to and quotes from this work frequently in the novel, it is included as an appendix at the end of the audiobook (beautifully narrated by Rebecca Lowman). George Washington's list not only reflects the mores of his era, but also reveals his aspirations and his keen awareness of his own outsider status.

This is a novel about people who are not content with who they are, and about the ways they go about changing their station in life. The comparisons with The Great Gatsby are obvious, but not oppressive.

When I say that Towles has written a better story than Gatsby, please understand the low esteem in which I hold Fitzgerald's novel. I have never understood why it is so admired by literature professors and those who believe them. As with so many other much-touted works, I find the story to be ultimately trivial; I don't find the revelation of social pretense to be of tragic dimensions.

Rules of Civility also turns upon such revelations, but I find the characters more believable and interesting than any of Fitzgerald's. Perhaps the strength of Towles's book comes in part from his choice to tell the story from the point of view of the young woman who wins the love of the Gatsbyish young man who is trying so hard to live by at least some of Washington's "Rules."

Unlike the narrator of Gatsby, who is nearly inert, Katey Kontent has aspirations and standards of her own. And Towles connects his characters to their prior lives -- they do not exist as Romantic heroes in isolation.

As I listened to the novel, I knew nothing about Amor Towles. Because the first name is rare, coming from the word for "love" in most romance languages, and because the novel was narrated by a woman, I assumed that the writer was a woman.

This led me to appreciate the way the author brought Katey Kontent through the experience of trying to puzzle out what was driving the man she had inadvertently -- and hopelessly -- fallen in and out of love with. Much of male-written literature is devoted to trying to fathom What Women Want; it seemed only fair for a woman-centered book to make several excellent attempts at figuring out the odd things men do.

When I realized Amor Towles was a man, the narrative approach was all the more remarkable: Now I saw that it was a man imagining the puzzlement of a woman.

More importantly, this is a novel about several men who are trying, either because of or despite their upbringing, to become Good Men. And, to my great relief, instead of being a cynic, Towles allows every one of them to succeed, in one way or another.

Being Good does not lead directly to "success" -- or happiness, either. But in the process of the story, Katey Kontent gives at least some portion of her heart to four men who, each in his own way, deserve the love of an honorable woman.

And that is what Katey Kontent turns out to be: Though she rarely thinks of her own life and decisions in those terms, she is wrestling with ideals of honor from beginning to end. She can be a rather harsh judge of those who behave dishonorably -- but she turns the same harsh judgment on herself when she sees that she has not met her own standards.

It is rare to read a novel that even attempts to deal with moral judgments; that Towles emerges with more than cynical or ironic non-conclusions makes him an unusual writer indeed. Towles seems to be wise about the ingredients of a happy life, and if his ideas of honor and mine don't overlap completely, I respect him for having treating the idea of honor seriously.

Not all the language and behavior in Rules of Civility are decorous; it is possible that some readers will be offended. I was not. On the contrary, I found the story excellent and truthful from the start, and, by the end, quite moving.

For a contemporary novel about the Jazz Age to be better than Gatsby is not all that remarkable. For it to be powerful, memorable, and honest is remarkable.

I look forward to reading the mini-sequel, a Kindle-only story called 'Eve in Hollywood," which presumably focuses on Katey Kontent's memorably willful friend Eve.

There is also a movie in the works, with Scott Newstadter and Michael H. Weber apparently attached as screenwriters. That they wrote Pink Panther 2 is not encouraging; but they also wrote (500) Days of Summer, which offers some hope.

It will be interesting to see if Lion's Gate allows the film to be faithful to the story in its simplicity. There are no tricks needed. Unfolding the story scene by scene, exactly in the order in which Towles tells it, will yield the best results. If the writers deform the story by trying to comply with the idiotic film-school "rules" that dominate the industry today, then the resulting movie will be worthless.

Fortunately, crippled movies don't erase the books they're based on. Don't wait for Hollywood -- this is a novel that is worth reading now.

***

I thought I really knew J.R.R. Tolkien's Hobbit literature. After all, I've taught courses on Tolkien and Lewis, and if you teach a subject, you must be an expert. Right?

In fact, you can never extract everything a great work of literature has to offer, and it's always possible for someone else to shine a light on it that will let you see things you'd never been aware of before.

I knew that Tolkien was a committed Catholic -- indeed, his faith was of great help in the conversion of his friend C.S. Lewis, who went on to become the great Christian apologist of the 20th century. Even on my first reading of Lord of the Rings in my college days, I detected Catholic doctrine.

For instance, in LOTR, the forces of evil cannot actually create anything -- they can only deform what was created by Good. This has long been the anti-Manichean view of Good vs. Evil in Catholic doctrine: The two forces are not evenly matched; Evil is parasitic, not creative.

But this was hardly enough to lead me to conclude that Catholicism was a pervasive influence in the Hobbit books. It is only in the short story "Leaf by Niggle" that Tolkien wrote an explicitly Catholic treatment of an afterlife with judgment and purgatory -- and there are no Hobbits in that story.

Otherwise, I have long relied on the brilliant, thorough scholarship of Tom Shippey to illuminate Tolkien's Hobbit-centered works. Tolkien has been well-served by Shippey's close reading, deep research, and clear writing. In Shippey's The Road to Middle Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology and J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century we have exemplars of literary explication and biography at their finest.

I don't know how anyone ever taught Tolkien's works without Shippey's help; and I wasn't looking for anything more in order to prepare for the next time I teach Tolkien.

Still, just because I think I've nailed a subject down doesn't mean I'm not open to being corrected. So when I ran across The Christian World of the Hobbit, by Devin Brown, I read it with considerable interest.

Brown is an English professor at Asbury University, where, like me, he teaches a course in Tolkien and Lewis. Unlike me, however, he is a scholar, and he believed that it was worth giving Tolkien's great works a close reading to see just how deeply Tolkien's Catholic faith penetrated his fiction.

That was an excellent idea -- a necessary one, in fact. I remember in graduate school being quite impatient with the utter shallowness of Milton criticism, because the critics seemed to think they could understand Milton by reading all the books in his library -- but without any serious reference to Milton's religious faith.

They missed the point that Milton actually believed the story of Paradise Lost -- and, more to the point, believed it to be the most important event in human history. He wasn't just executing the project of creating an epic poem; he was writing the epic.

Devin Brown has no illusion that Tolkien was doing that with Lord of the Rings. Indeed, Tolkien himself was quite clear that he had set out to write a saga, a mythos, to serve the English people. This was needed, he believed, because "Englishness" had grown from many different roots -- Celtic, Germanic, Nordic, Gallic -- yet none of their myths were directly ancestral to the English people in particular.

By no means was Middle Earth meant to represent England or Europe in some allegory of contemporary history. But nobody can read The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings without gaining an understanding of what Tolkien loved best about English life.

To him, the Shire was unspoiled England. Where the Shire was protected from the dangers of the outside world by the Numenorean Rangers led by Strider, the English way of life was protected by the sea.

The Hobbits that Tolkien depicted lived the idyll of his childhood -- villages, gardens, woods, and streams, with lots of walking for the sheer joy of it. Hobbits were appalled by the idea of "adventure" beyond the danger level of stealing mushrooms. They wanted life to go on without interruption or surprise.

This hardly sounds like the England that conquered India and half of Africa, and established dominance of the oceans of the world for centuries. There were plenty of people in history who wished the English would stay home and smoke their pipeweed.

But Tolkien wasn't writing the history of England; he was writing the aspirations of most Englishmen in his time. And his was the time when England had lost its lust for empire.

Yet both The Hobbit and LOTR are about times when these plain, home-loving Hobbits are drawn onto the world stage, where they have a role to play that is far beyond their aspirations or their abilities. They do not seek adventures -- instead, they are deliberately plucked out of placid obscurity precisely because they, who do not aspire to greatness, are the only ones who can break the back of Evil in the world.

Devin Brown looks behind the Englishness of the Hobbit literature to see how this everyman-saves-the-world story rests firmly on a Christian foundation. Yes, Tolkien and Lewis shared a love of what they called "northernness" in literature, and Tolkien's rich grounding in pre-Christian Nordic and Germanic storytelling shows up on every page of his books.

But Tolkien also loved God as he understood him through the clear lens of Catholicism, with its centuries of elucidation and examination. While Tolkien never aspired to be a theologian, he absorbed not just the superficial ideas of his religion, but also its deep philosophical and theological roots.

And that is what Devin Brown explores in The Christian World of the Hobbit. Brown does not write as a Christian enthusiast, finding evidences where none exist. Rather, with scholarly rigor he justifies everything he says from Tolkien's text.

Brown also writes with great clarity, in language that includes everyone. While this is respectable scholarship, it is not a closed conversation among scholars. Even if you never enjoyed an English class, and never felt a need to have anyone else "explain" Tolkien to you, reading The Christian World of the Hobbit is more like sitting on a sofa with a new friend who has found new treasures in a book you already love.

And if you've never read Tolkien, but merely seen one or more of the movies vaguely based on his books, Christian World might be a superb entry point to the fiction. Once you realize how much deeper and truer the written works are, maybe you'll realize it's time to leave the movies behind and plunge into the real thing.

I'm working my way through Brown's other works. He has written about Lewis as well, and I am quite sure my Tolkien/Lewis course this fall will be better for my having received as much of Brown's ideas as possible.

Brown has also indulged in a bit of popularization: Hobbit Lessons: A Map for Life's Unexpected Journeys. Using The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings as launching points, Brown explores these stories as wisdom literature, providing ideas for how to live a better and happier life.

This may be a useful book for many. My own view is that all fiction does indeed provide readers with precisely this kind of inner map -- but it is most effective when this aspect of the literature is not explored. That is, we read fiction out of a hunger for meaning, and the books we love are those that leave us feeling best-fed.

But they feed us precisely to the degree that they touch us unconsciously; if we are aware of their life-lessons, we are less likely to be transformed by them.

No literature of our time has been more nourishing than Tolkien's, and Brown's Hobbit Lessons may help many readers understand just how illuminating Tolkien's work can be. Personally, though, I prefer fiction to have its moral effects without mediation.

I've never met Devin Brown, but I now know him to be an audacious man indeed -- because this fall, he will release a new book, Tolkien: How an Obscure Oxford Professor Wrote The Hobbit and Became the Most Beloved Author of the Century.

It is hard for me to imagine what he can possibly add to Shippey's books on the same subject; yet I also don't believe he would have taken on such a project if all he had to offer was a summary of another scholar's work. So I've preordered it.

It will arrive in the middle of the semester in which I teach my own course at Southern Virginia University, so I'll already be up to my eyeballs in Tolkieniana when I read it. My hopes are high.

Meanwhile, though, I regard The Christian World of the Hobbit, by Devin Brown, as an excellent contribution to the ongoing conversation about the English language's greatest storyteller since Shakespeare.

***

Here's a recipe for creating a contemptible book: Fill it with characters who think adoration of lofty literature is the great separation between people-worth-knowing and the-scum-of-the-earth. Have them talk incessantly about books and build their lives around them.

The inevitable result is a book that is about itself; since everybody in the book is commenting on literature, the book itself becomes either the fruition or the disproof of their ideas.

So it was with cynical weariness that I realized, listening to the first chapter of The Stories Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin, that this book was going to be about Book People of the most annoying sort -- the ones who believed everything their English professors taught them in college about what "good writing" is.

Yet, to my gradual surprise and utter delight, even though this is a truish description of this book, the story transcends its characters' views of literature. Author Gabrielle Zevin builds the tale around A.J. Fikry, a True Believer in academic-literary fiction (I call it "li-fi"), who somehow finds himself operating a bookstore on a New England island with a largely tourist-driven economy.

Curmudgeonly and misanthropic, Fikry is not a likeable fellow when we first meet him, seen through the eyes of a young woman who has just started working as a publisher's rep. She visits him to try to persuade him to buy her favorite books from her firm's winter list -- only to be lambasted by an arrogant (and shallow) diatribe from a literary snob.

When the second chapter dropped the publisher's rep and revealed that this novel would actually be about Fikry himself, I almost despaired and switched to the next book on my Nano. I had, after all, just finished listening to Sense & Sensibility; why should I devote myself to the story of a literary snob?

Come to think of it, Sense & Sensibility is also, obliquely, the story of a literary snob -- though the literature Marianne Dashwood loves is that of the Romantic period, which has far more to recommend it than the self-loving little post-modern romps that pass for Serious Fiction today.

And there is nothing in A.J. Fikry's literary taste to make him even remotely interesting. Fortunately, despite all appearances, the novel is not about his reading, it is about his life. And while he himself has the delusion that his life is his reading, he is quite wrong.

His life, like everyone else's, consists of the people that he loves. That he doesn't realize how much he loves some of them is merely an honest aspect of human life.

Fikry started his bookstore with his wife, who then inconveniently died while pregnant with their first child. Fikry sinks into misanthropy and alcohol as his bookstore declines along with the economy -- but his erstwhile sister-in-law, who is married to a selfish, philandering author, remains involved in his life.

Then his copy of Poe's rare first book, Tamerlane, is stolen from his bookstore by a thief who, incomprehensibly, also cleaned his over-the-bookstore apartment. Shortly after, a baby is abandoned in the bookstore and the mother is soon identified -- by the police who recovered her body after her suicide.

After a few days, Fikry decided to keep the baby, partly because he recognizes that only if he devotes himself to caring for someone else will his life have any meaning. The plan succeeds -- but not just because of the baby.

Gradually, Fikry comes to understand that some of those people he despised have much to give his life. The local police chief who only reads detective novels that Fikry does not admire becomes a reliable friend; Fikry even seeks out that publisher's rep whom he treated so badly in the first chapter of the book.

The novel takes place entirely within the world I inhabit -- the world of publishers, bookstores, readers, and -- the most appalling creatures of all -- writers. Zevin skewers any romantic admiration for writers that readers might have, and even as she validates some of Fikry's literary snobbishness, she also undercuts it and allows him to find merit in books and stories that he ordinarily would have dismissed out of hand.

The result is that while The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is about li-fi, it is as much satire as paean. This novel is much better than the kind of novel Fikry most admires -- but it is exactly like the books that Fikry comes to love as he matures.

The baby Fikry is raising grows up to be an aspiring teenage writer, and here is where author Gabrielle Zevin pulls off her greatest feat: She includes the complete text of a story this character writes -- and which everybody else praises.

To have a character be an admirable writer, and then to show us a sample of her writing, is usually a disastrous choice, because the writing either isn't very good, or it isn't believable as something a person of that age and time and place might write.

In this case, however, Zevin's performance is flawless. The story -- a speculation about the character's mother's last day of life, and the reasons she sees suicide as her only possible path -- is deeply moving, yet also completely believable as the work of a talented teenager. (I can affirm this because we raised several talented teenage writers, and this sample would have been well within their reach.)

Early in The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, we are introduced to a memoir of such emotional power that it transforms the people who read it. Yet the book barely had any sales, and once Fikry is converted to it despite his prejudices, he becomes the book's greatest champion.

When he and the publisher's rep combine to put on a book signing for the author of the memoir, the whole thing comes off brilliantly -- not because it works as Fikry intended, but because Zevin picks that occasion to give us several wonderful (and fully earned) revelations that change the meaning of so many events that went before.

Zevin began her career as a Young Adult novelist, so it is hardly surprising that she is kind to that genre in The Storied Life. But this background also means that Zevin is experienced in telling stories to an utterly unforgiving audience.

The result is that while she is deft at bringing of whatever literary effects she chooses, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry never wavers in its clarity, its attention to character and story, and its well-earned emotional substrate. If you do not laugh and cry at this story, you have no heart.

Moreover, you do not have to be a literary snob like Fikry -- indeed, you'll enjoy the novel all the more if you are not. The novel turns out to be very kind to readers who simply read what they like, and rather harsh on writers who think that their talent entitles them to live outside the rules of civilized behavior.

I listened to this book as read by the ever-superb Scott Brick. Brick is so fine a narrator that it's possible the book is not quite as brilliant as I think it is -- almost everything is better when Scott Brick reads it to you.

But even if it's only half as good as I think it is, it's worth reading. And if you also listen to Scott Brick's recording of the book, you'll probably agree with my enthusiasm for it.

Overlook a few bits of bad language as you become acquainted with a wonderful cast of unforgettable characters. And if you belong to a book-reading group, chances are somebody has already put this novel on your reading schedule -- if only because the novel includes very kind treatment of the book groups in it.

Meanwhile, I've ordered everything else Zevin has written, to see if this novel is a fluke or if she really is one of the best writers working today.


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