Book Review: Hawkins, The Girl on the Train

Diary Index Book Reviews focus on the role and representation of diaries or journals in contemporary fiction. Warning: may contain spoilers.

Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train (Riverhead Books, 2015)
Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train (Riverhead Books, 2015)

I would describe Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train a “not-diary diary novel.”

Mid-way through the novel, one of the three main characters recounts how her therapist encourages her to keep a diary:

“[The therapist] … suggested in this afternoon’s session that I start keeping a diary. I almost said, I can’t do that, I can’t trust my husband not to read it. I didn’t, because that would feel horribly disloyal to Scott. But it’s true. I could never write down the things I actually feel or think or do.”

And that seems to sum up the novel’s attitude towards diaries: Diaries are true; they record “actual” feeling and thoughts. In a novel that is all about the instability of memory and the evasion of truth, diaries would appear to have no place.

And yet … and yet the novel has a very diary-like structure. Chapters are identified by the name of the narrator — highlighting their status as first-person narratives. Each narrator’s account is highly interior and self-revelatory; we are privy to shameful acts, deep secrets, and self-discoveries that the narrators hide from the rest of the world. And, chapters are structured according to dates, like most diaries.

This emphasis upon chronology is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the novel because of the parallel it introduces between the daily narrative and the daily commute. The first narrative voice, Rachel, initially organizes her “entries” according to her morning and evening commute on the train into and out of London. This emphasis upon dailiness is highly diaristic; Jennifer Sinor’s wonderful study of the diary argues that dailiness is “the single most defining characteristic of the diurnal form and the central quality that sets diary writing apart from other forms of writing like memoir, autobiography, or literature.”* The daily structure also introduces a serial quality to the novel and is one of the reasons the book is such an effective page-turner. I’m writing an essay on a 19th century serialized diary novel and thinking about the parallels between periodical seriality and diary seriality, which made me all the more aware of how well Hawkins exploits this effect in her novel. Just as readers of serialized fiction eagerly awaited the next installment in a multi-part story, so The Girl of the Train propels the reader forward by the unfolding of the mystery, as each new part of the text promises to reveal a hidden truth.

Is The Girl on the Train a great novel? I don’t think so. The “who done it” is telegraphed too emphatically to me. Despite all the comparisons, Gone Girl is head and shoulders above The Girl on the Train in terms of characterization and plot. But, The Girl on the Train is a fun read and another interesting iteration of the modern diary novel — despite all the ways in which it obscures its debt to the diary.

* Sinor, The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing: Annie Ray’s Diary (U Iowa, 2002), p. 17.

Book Review: Hustvedt, The Blazing World

Diary Index Book Reviews focus on the role and representation of diaries or journals in contemporary fiction. Warning: may contain spoilers.

In 1971, the art historian Linda Nochlin posed the question “Why have there been no great women artists?” She writes:

‘Why have there been no great women artists?’ The question tolls reproachfully in the background of most discussions of the so-called woman problem. But like so many other so-called questions involved in the feminist ‘controversy,’ it falsifies the nature of the issue at the same time that it insidiously supplies its own answer: ‘There are no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness.’

Nochlin proceeds to interrogate the assumptions that undergird the concept of the “great artist” — assumptions that resolutely link artistic genius to masculinity.

A few years ago I taught a women’s literature class that focused on representations of women artists and I assigned Nochlin’s essay, as well as many other works of feminist criticism that explore the challenges that women face in attempting to gain entrance into, let alone prominence within, the visual arts and literature. One of the most frustrating aspects of the class was that many of my students found the question, “Why have there been no great women artists?”, to have no urgency or relevance. They pointed to Beyoncé and Lady Gaga and concluded that things had changed. There are great, hugely accomplished, and wildly famous women artists now, they would argue to me, so these issues are outmoded and the questions unnecessary. (Lest we find the accomplishments of women in pop music satisfactory evidence, we need only look to the VIDA Count or this recent NY Times Style Magazine profile of little-known women artists for the other side.)

Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World (Simon & Schuster, 2014)
Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World (Simon & Schuster, 2014)

Siri Hustvedt’s new novel, The Blazing World, confronts the question head-on: A female visual artist named Harriet Burden, fed up with her marginalization, undertakes an experiment to test the gender biases of the art world. She shows her art under the names of three male artists and the shows are received with accolades and the artists declared geniuses. As a plot, there is not much more to it, but the structure of the novel is complex. It is, of course, a diary novel — or, perhaps more properly described as a partial diary novel, as Hustvedt employs a collage structure, placing a series of different genres against each other: academic prose, personal reminiscences, newspaper articles, interview transcripts, and so forth. Amidst these various texts are several sections from Harriet’s journals.

The faux “Editor’s Introduction” that opens the novel tells us that Harriet had an unusual journal-keeping practice:

She kept many journals simultaneously. She dated some entries, but not others. She had a system of cross-referencing the notebooks that was sometimes straightforward but at other times appeared byzantine in its complexity or nonsensical … Many of the journals are essentially notes on her reading, which was voluminous and darted in and out of many fields: literature, philosophy, linguistics, history, psychology and neuroscience. For unknown reasons, John Milton and Emily Dickinson shared a notebook labeled G. Kierkegaard is in K, but Burden also writes about Kafka in it, with several passages on cemeteries as well …. (4)

The editor devotes a great deal of time describing the notebooks as they are, from a scholarly perspective, a wonderful archive for reconstructing the life of the artist and her grand trick on the art world, about which some questions remain unanswered. I found the description captivating. I could imagine sitting at a library table with Burden’s alphabetically labeled journals spread out before me like a puzzle, waiting to be deciphered.

However, when Hustvedt provides us with a glimpse into these notebooks I found myself … bored. I think this response was brought about by the following: There is really no mystery why Burden did what she did, so gaining access to her motives and thinking did not feel necessary to me. There are other mysteries mentioned in the novel but they are held at arm’s length, and are not addressed in Burden’s notebooks. Basically, there are no big reveals, despite the structure of the novel eliciting an expectation that the journals (especially one that was hidden and discovered late) would provide precisely that. Also, having set the bar high in the Editor’s Introduction regarding the staggering erudition of the artist, as evidenced in her journals, the excerpts read instead like a lot of name-dropping, with little by way of earth-shattering intellectual insight.

Finally, I think Hustvedt runs up against a fact that many people would find surprising: most diaries are pretty boring. Diaries are so fragmented, insular, and repetitive that reading them is a challenge, particularly to readers who are trained to read for plot, character development, or themes — basically, if you’re trained to read fiction. Most writers of diary fiction err on the side of fiction; they imagine diaries that are remarkably novelistic and make moves that a real diary simply could not make. Hustvedt is to be applauded for following through with genre specifics — Burden’s journal does, to me, have the flavor of a real journal — but suffers the consequence of being just plain boring. Ultimately, that’s what I concluded about all the other genres that compose the text too; they are all really uninteresting — or, rather, they conspire to make what might have been an interesting story into a dry dissertation. Instead of conveying to me the agony of Burden’s experience — what it’s like to claw at the door for entrance, only to be denied because of gender — I felt emotionally disconnected from the character, even when reading her private journals.

One of the books I taught in the class on women artists in literature which, in my opinion, does a better job of capturing the plight of the woman artist and the kinds of ethically complicated schemes women undertake to become recognized as artists is Mary Gorden’s Spending. Not a diary novel (alas) but funny, sexy, and incredibly attuned to the way a visual artist perceives the world (texture, color, etc.) — it remains one of my favorites and the one I will assign if I ever teach this class again. Hustvedt’s The Blazing World will not, I think, make it onto any of my syllabuses, not even the course I am teaching in the Fall on diaries and diary fiction.

Book Review: Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

Diary Index Book Reviews focus on the role and representation of diaries or journals in contemporary fiction. Warning: may contain spoilers.

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014)
Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014)

Vandermeer’s Annihilation is a surreal but fascinating story about a team of scientists sent to explore a mysterious place that challenges all of their techniques of analysis and meaning-making. It is also a diary novel. Vandermeer employs a first person, retrospective narrative voice — the voice of a survivor or, in this case, the only survivor of the expedition. A few pages into the novel, we learn that we have access to this voice because are reading the narrator’s journal. It is a smart move: the narrator — who is known simply as “the biologist” — is compromised early in the novel when she is infected by an unknown spore, so her perception is suspect from the beginning; she is a quintessential “unreliable narrator.” Of course, in this novel, the notion of perception and particularly of reliable scientific knowledge is always under question. The journal structure of the novel allows us entry into the mind of this character and provides an explanation and justification for the fact that a narrative exists at all, while nonetheless playing upon the conventions of the genre: its deep interiority, lack of referentiality, and, yes, unreliablility.

The place the team is sent to investigate is known as Area X and its origins, boundaries, and purpose are represented as a mystery that eleven previous expeditions have attempted to decode, but unsuccessfully and with disaterous and deadly consequences. The teams are not allowed to take highly technological tools — certainly nothing involving digital or computer technology — and, as result, their experiences are to be recorded in journals which Vandermeer describes as “lightweight but nearly indestructible, with waterproof paper, a flexible black-and-white cover, and the blue horizontal lines for writing and the red line to the left to mark the margin” (8). As a manuscript geek, I love this attention to detail. Vandermeer places the biologist’s journal in the hands of the reader — we are to imagine that we are reading her handwritten account: “It was expected simply that we would keep a record, like this one, in a journal, like this one …” (8). The “one” referred to here is the book that the reader holds in her hands. But, are we reading a personal diary or a scientific record? The novel oscillates back and forth between these two roles of the journal: the biologist reveals portions of her past, her motives, and her memories — she also records her observations, questions, and theories about the strange sights she encounters. This use of the diary as scientific record evokes for me the history of early botanists and naturalists whose field journals served as fodder for their scientific writing — Darwin’s Beagle journal comes to mind. Vandermeer’s biologist is engaged in a similar effort to make sense of the world without recourse to the modern tools of analysis; the written word becomes her method, though it has a dubious value within the unstable terrain of perception depicted within the novel.

In addition to writing her own journal, the biologist encounters other explorers’ journals. In a pivotal scene, the biologist discovers a stash of journals, what she describes as “a kind of insane midden” (106): “a pile of papers with hundreds of journals on top of it — just like the ones we had been issued to record our observations of Area X. Each with a job title written on the front. Each, as it turns out, filled with writing. Many, many more than could possibly have been filed by only twelve expeditions.” This discovery causes the biologist to realize that Southern Reach (the quasi-governmental body that manages the investigation of Area X) has not provided complete and accurate information about previous expeditions and therefore none of the information Southern Reach provided can be considered complete and accurate. Evidence of so many hundreds of failed expeditions also indicates that the level of danger was much higher than she previously understood; the likelihood of survival is, at this point, revealed to be slim. But beyond these realizations, there is something particularly horrific about the spectacle of the pile of journals that, I believe, hinges upon the journal or diary genre itself. When the biologist is handed her black-and-white journal by a Southern Reach official, it is implied that her experience has significance and that it will become part of the growing body of knowledge on Area X. In other words, it will be read. But, the pile of abandoned journals suggests the opposite: her experience doesn’t have value, her journal will not be read, it will end up on a pile of decomposing trash. There is something so poignant about so many life stories left to molder — it echoes for me the existential anxiety of diary writing itself: Why keep a diary? Who will read it? Does the author’s life has value? The biologist calls the journals “flimsy gravestones” (110), the devalued markers of all the lives lost in Area X, but she could speak of diaries more generally: paper gravestones, always in danger of going unread and unappreciated.

At this moment, the biologist becomes not just the author of a journal but a journal reader, as well. She salvages several journals from the pile, including her husband’s (he had gone to Area X on the previous expedition). Yet she finds reading her husband’s journal difficult: “I had to resist the need to throw the journal away from me as if it were poison … He had meant to share this journal with me, and now he was either truly dead or existed in a state beyond any possible way for me to communicate with him, to reciprocate” (161). This statement — the biologist’s visceral recoil from her husband’s journal — is a wonderful encapsulation of what it is like to read another person’s diary. In my experience, it is almost impossible to not become overwhelmed by the absence of the author. Somehow, it is possible to read published books by deceased authors without sparing a thought to the fact that the author is dead but when you read a diary, the author’s absence — and the inability of the reader to cross the bridge and connect with the author, even as you read his or her intimate thoughts — is profound and sometimes paralyzing.

I have only read the first volume of Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy so I don’t know whether the journal format continues into the next two volumes. Certainly I hope that we haven’t heard the last from the biologist — though, given what I’ve seen in this first book, I don’t hold out hope that we will find the biologist reunited with her husband and living a quiet and still-human life on the island. Annihilation is equal parts beautiful and terrifying, and I believe that a great deal of its accomplishment depends upon the diary structure, which Vandermeer deploys with skill and insight.

Diary and Diary Fiction at MLA 2015

I’ve been deep in diary research the past few weeks as I prepare a talk for MLA 2015. I organized a panel on diaries and diary fiction, and was gratified by the large number of excellent proposals I received. My fellow presenters represent a variety of critical approaches to the study of diary and diary fiction, as well as different national literary traditions and time periods. I cannot wait to hear their papers.

My own talk is a bit of a stretch for me. Here’s how it came to be:

Me (in my pajamas, reading the New York Times Book Review on a Sunday morning, circa 2013): Huh. There’s another review of another novel that prominently features a diary. Isn’t that strange? (Adds book title to growing list.) I wonder why so many contemporary novelists are relying on the diary? What does it mean? Maybe I could write a paper about this?

Well, a few years later and I’ve been reading contemporary diary fiction and hopefully by Sunday I’ll have something productive to say about a selection of these novels. I will be talking about:

Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl (2012)
Tim Parks, Sex is Forbidden (2012)
Scott Hutchins, A Working Theory of Love (2012)
Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being (2013)
Stephen Lloyd Jones, The String Diaries (2014)

One of the questions I am considering is why, although each of these novels is set in the present, none of the diary writers keeps their diaries on a computer or blog or any other digital format. While I myself am dedicated to my handwritten diary and cannot imagine typing my diary onto a screen, the common theme across the five books of eschewing available technology in favor of the old fashioned manuscript diary really interests me. I have some theories about why this is and how it impacts each novels’ representation of a diverse range of media and technologies.

Something I’ve learned working on the talk: it’s very hard to discuss five novels in 15 minutes. Hopefully the audience will be understanding about my thumbnail analysis.

Here’s the line up …

Screen Shot 2015-01-05 at 7.53.03 PM

Vancouver, here we come!

The Discovered Diary Trope

Warning: Contains mild spoilers regarding Tana French’s In the Woods.

Screen Shot 2014-11-30 at 1.42.36 PMI was recently reading Tana French’s bone-chilling novel, In the Woods. If you haven’t read it, drop everything and do so immediately. It won’t take you long because it is one of those un-put-down-able, stay-up-to-3am mysteries. Late in the novel, the protagonist/detective finds the diary of the young woman whose murder he has been investigating, which made me think about that old chestnut, “the discovered diary trope.” You know it: a diary is discovered that contains crucial information that allows mysteries to be solved or truths to be revealed. I would characterize it as tired, overused, and narratively lazy trope, one that good writers steer away from.

I’m reminded of a wonderful work of short fiction from the middle of the nineteenth-century, Annie Frost’s “My Experience,” published in 1867 in Godey’s Lady’s Book. The story lambasts the stale conventions of romantic fiction of that era (which aren’t all that different from the stale conventions of contemporary romantic fiction). The narrator is an author who sets out to write her first novel, stocking it full of all the familiar formulas of her selected genre: “My plot was continually tangled into double knots and intricate twists, to be nicely drawn out and wound off in even threads, till every horrible mystery lay coiled in a nice little ball of explanation at the end.”

Here’s my favorite part, when the narrator describes one of the particular challenges with which she confounds her characters:

Heir to a princely fortune, [the male love interest] lives in a garret upon a crust, because his rich uncle’s will, instead of being filed at the lawyer’s, is tucked away in an old-fashioned writing-desk, containing unsuspected drawers. (I wonder it never occurs to heroes and heroines, under these circumstances, to smash all the furniture in the house — it is almost certain to pay.)

I love that parenthetical aside and the image it conjures up of characters across literary history willy-nilly smashing furniture in search of hidden wills that will turn their circumstances from poverty and hardship into wealth and opportunity.

Although Frost speaks here of hidden wills (c.f. the Trope of the Hidden Will), it shares some similarities with the Trope of the Discovered Diary. The discovered diary trope has several embedded presumptions about diaries:

  1. Diaries contain useful information.
  2. Diaries reveal the truth about the authors’ relationships, goals, thoughts, and values.
  3. Diaries solve mysteries.

Of course, diaries generally don’t contain what might be considered useful or truthful information — in the sense of authentically characterizing either the author or her subject matter. Diaries are generally so idiosyncratic, interior, and fragmented that their readers are forced to speculate about their real meaning. (This is what so much diary scholarship boils down to.) It’s hard to imagine an real diary containing a statement such as “If I am murdered, my killer is _____.” (Though I am tempted to write such a sentence in my own journal now.)

Discovered diaries need not be formulaic pap. In the hands of someone like French, the discovered diary trope becomes something else. In In the Woods, French turns the trope on its head (as she does throughout the novel with regards to multiple mystery/detective fiction tropes): the diary is not discovered by the detective but someone else, who hands it over to him; the diary doesn’t solve the mystery (it’s already been solved); and the diary does not guarantee that the guilty party is caught or punished (she isn’t). French’s discovered diary frustrates expectations by failing to provide resolution. In that sense, it is a wonderful citation of the trope, even as it subverts it.

EDITED to add: I’ve been reviewing my notes on diary criticism and stumbled across Abbott’s discussion of the “conceit of the found object” and the common framing device of representing a diary as a real document that is found and introduced by another. While not exactly synonymous with “discovered diary trope” I’ve addressed here, it’s still worth citing this useful source: H. Porter Abbott, Diary Fiction: Writing as Action (1984).

Book Review: Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer (Dutton Books, 2014)
Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer (Dutton Books, 2014)

Diary Index Book Reviews focus on the role and representation of diaries or journals in contemporary fiction. Warning: may contain spoilers.

Early in Wolitzer’s new young adult novel, five troubled teenagers are given journals and instructed to write in them regularly. They receive this assignment because they are members of a specially selected group of students in a Special Topics in English class at Wooden Barn, a school for teens like themselves – just angst-ridden enough for dramatic purposes but not so authentically troubled as to be unreachable or unrecoverable. There is a great deal of “specialness” in Belzhar and the journals play a key role in demarcating who possesses this quality: only a handful of teens are given the journals, which are magically imbued with an ability to transport them to an idealized moment in the past before their trauma has occurred.

In Wolitzer’s imagined universe, journaling puts one in a particular time and place, a place all the teens want to return to but one governed by rules they must slowly discern; they cannot control how long they remain in this place (which they call “Belzhar” in tribute to Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar) and, because the physical journal is finite, so too are their visits: they will only be able to go there a specific number of times. Journaling is imagined in a conventional way: the journals are red leather-bound books with lined pages and the students write in them with pen or pencil. It is consistent with the setting at Wooden Barn, where cellphones are banned, but it contributes to the quaint, old-fashioned tone of the novel that the moral seems to be that writing in longhand leads to self-discovery and healing. (I pity all the troubled teens who will be handed this book alongside a journal and exhorted to write themselves to mental health.) Moreover, journaling takes the teens to a place where progress is impossible: it is rooted in the past and no new things can occur there without dreadful consequences. Journaling is paradoxically an activity that keeps one resolutely and morbidly tied to the past, and yet also the necessary step towards future recovery.

I am a great fan of Wolitzer’s previous novel, The Interestings, which was set at a summer camp for talented and artistically-inclined teens – a setting that very closely parallels the special school for troubled teens in Belzhar. Comparisons between the two novels seem inevitable and much to the detriment of Belzhar. Belzhar reads like a formula: Take setting and characterization from The Interestings, water it down for a YA audience, add a dash of the supernatural and a lite intertextual reference to Plath and, voilà, a YA bestseller! The treatment of harrowing trauma as a mere passage in teenage self-discovery invites such a cynical reading. Journaling is the primary metaphor for this process of self-discovery, but it is not taken seriously as a creative, literary, or psychologically beneficial act – which is indicated by the fact that recovery is equated with no longer needing to journal. The teens hand over their journals at the end, having completed the assignment of wrestling with their inner demons – no longer in need of the tedious activity of writing because they are somehow, magically and improbably, cured. There may be some young readers who will buy this lesson but I think most will find the novel’s premise as flat and unpersuasive as I did.