Tuesday, December 6, 2016

On Reading William Trevor's The General’s Day Out

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“The General’s Day Out” is the third piece in William Trevor’s The Collected Stories. Much like with “Access to the Children” and “A Meeting in Middle Age,” Trevor uses the space to explore loss. In this piece, we focus on The General. This man holds himself in great esteem and expects those around him to treat him as such, yet at every turn, he is viewed like the unwanted, elderly grandfather. For what it is worth, The General strives for control. As a man of the military, he always seeks a systematic, purposeful existence. He is the man that wakes up and declares to his maid that he is going out to seek a lady and planning to bed that lady. Regardless of his personal desires, The General lacks the ability to carry out his plan or control his life in general: “He was beginning to feel low; the day was not good; the day was getting out of control” (36). A good day was a day he had by the horns, but at his age and current station: living as a single, elderly man in the English countryside with no local connections, these days do not occur often. He is no longer the man he used to be and the present can no longer deal with him: “The General smiled at some little joke. ‘I have not been myself for many years. Today is just another day’” (44). Like all days, he stumbles through, largely ignorant to community distaste and his current station in life.

In his opinion, military life had been kind to him, offered him a safe space, and a place to flourish. But in retirement he finds an existence devoid of both structure and glory. Thus he bounces around and expects the local populace to both revere and support him, something it is unwilling to do. In truth, they find the man to burdensome, irksome, and something that they strive to be rid of. In part, The General notices his awkwardness, his fall from grace, and even stares at it through his nakedness every morning, but then he puts his shell on, a shell he perceives to project excellence but only yields annoyance: “‘I do not like to offend people. I do not like to be a nuisance. You should have stopped me, sir’” (41).  He offends people left and right, chasing them off at each and every turn while maintaining his overall ignorance to his actions.
So The General demonstrates the hazards of aging and the loss of dignity. He will never be the man of his past again, he is now the man that Frobisher cannot stand: “‘Get the hell off my premises, you bloody old fool! ‘Go on, Suffolk, hop it’” (43). This man does not woo the women he encounters, he frightens them. He cannot instruct tennis at a girls’ school, because he had urges to instruct the girls in other matters. No one wants him, he is fully washed up and put out to pasture, only he has yet to come to grips with his new reality and where he will go from here.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Matt Bell's Scrapper: A Book Review

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Matt Bell has a way of setting the scene and bringing said setting to life. One of the more inventive and creative texts I have read in a while comes in the form of his text In The House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, a narrative that bends all the rules and dazzles the reader with complex, mind bending prose (see my review here). Bell’s most recent novel Scrapper explores a different angle entirely while still focusing on the setting of life more than the characters therein.

At the most basic level, Scrapper details a city in shambles, a city that is fading away one block at a time, and the collective elements responsible for this death. While the main physical character is the middle aged man Kelly, the true focal point is the city of Detroit itself. Published in 2015, the novel grapples with the reality of the world: it moves on. Detroit, a once shinning city of automotive greatness, has fallen from said precipice. In the wake of both manufacturing and fiscal collapse, men like Kelly are stripping the city to rubble. Thus the novel details rusting of the rust belt and the men aiding the oxidation.

Like Detroit, life was not always so hard for Kelly. He was the all-star wrestler with a college scholarship. He was the man who women lusted after, the man who eventually found love and cared for a son. But Kelly is the man with the jagged paternal relationship, and like with many broken souls, the pangs of this paternal past haunt Kelly to the present day, even as he seeks out a redemptive salvation within his sagging, aging experience.  

Kelly is the epitome of both the city and those who have faced similar economic plights. He lacks a college education, has a storied, complex past, and he does what he can to get by. As the novel begins, this getting by is characterized by going into abandoned homes and buildings and stealing anything metal. Cooper pipes and wire, light fixtures, whatever he can, and selling it for scrap. As Kelly journeys from place to place, he finds love in a woman with multiple sclerosis and, while scrapping a house, he discovers a boy imprisoned in a basement. Kelly seems dedicated to the preservation of these broken characters, for they, like himself, are struggling to get by. They, just like their home, have problems, and these problems are on full display whether through a limp or a kidnapping. He wants to save them, only they may not need saving, if they can be saved at all.  

Dark and dreary, at times Bell’s writing can make your skin crawl, at others he can inspire. While Scrapper does a bit of both, it tells a touching, if not tragic, story of American collapse. Kelly does not seek exceptionalism; he only wants to get by—his entire adoptive home follows suit. Perhaps in some sense, while we all want to be great, we really are following a similar path to the novel’s heart: plugging forward, day-by-day.

Favorite Lines:

  • “Anything he took from someone else’s life wouldn’t work forever but if he kept acquiring more maybe the feelings might remain, transferred across the overlap” (21)
  • “In the back of a child’s closet he found a scrawl of crayon reading I’LL BE BACK FOR YOU, written to the house, to whatever the child thought a house was” (23)
  • “Even if his parents had lived forever he would have found a way to orphan himself” (31)
  • “The last white family living in what used to be a white neighborhood. The last black family living in what used to be a black neighborhood. After both families were gone, only ghosts would remain. And what color were ghosts.” (104-105)

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

On Reading William Trevor's Access to the Children

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The second installment of   William Trevor’s The Collected Stories comes with his piece “Access to the Children.” This story follows a similar line of thought to “A Meeting in Middle Age” in that in rings with the pangs of loss and the pains of regret. At the center of the story sits Malcolmson, an aging divorcee at the end of his sanity. Like many who go through great change and upheaval, he has lost sight of who he is, where he is going, and what his true purpose is. The man, in the words of his ex-wife, has lost everything and been reduced to rubble: “‘You have lost all dignity,’ Elizabeth had whispered, in the darkness, at night. ‘I despise you for that’” (28). Malcolmson is not who he once was, and despite the fact the he still loves her, Elizabeth has grown to loathe and detest the father of her children. Devoid of respect for him, she can no longer even offer him her pity, and with these thoughts in mind, she is free to replace the man.
Yet, Malcolmson remains largely naïve to reality. While he admits he was the cause of the entire problem when he cheated on his wife by running off with Diana, an American woman he met on a train: “Diana she described as a flatchested American nymphomaniac and predator, the worst type of woman in the world,” he clings to the faint hope that time will heal all wounds and that Elizabeth will take him back (16). But the use of the term predator brings to light Malcomson’s problem: his ex-wife Elizabeth sees Diana as an animal who stole her husband, stability, and life in general. Diana killed it all, and as prey, Malcolmson gave in, fell apart, leaving behind only a carcass in his wake.  Of course the marriage was terminated, but said divorce came after Diana left for another man. The American murdered it all.
Thus Malcomson finds himself locked out of his old life. His wife both hates and blames him for their breakup, he lives alone in a flat he obtained to be with his now wayward lover, and he only has “reasonable access” to their children (17). He can see them when he wants to, but that want is only on Sundays at 3pm. So he dutifully arrives wearing the same suit and attempts to take them to either the Zoo or the same movie every time. Somewhere in the thick of it all he is fired from his job, he grows a beard, and begins drinking to excess at odd hours of the day. While he attempts to reason with his actions and his, he cannot see the reality of his predicament, thinking time would save him, time would bring him back, time would place him back in his wife’s flat and their old bed and their old life: “But he didn’t say anything, knowing that wounds had to heal” (17). But time is not on Malcolmson’s side, for yes time allows Elizabeth’s pain to fade and in doing so find and meet a replacement man. Malcolmson is haunted by the visage of his unknown other, his replacement. This replacement cements itself in reality of his wife’s new fiancé Richard, a man that will replace Malcolmson in all roles, crushing his spirit and sending him deeper into the spiral of depression.
As these events play out, Trevor captivates and inspires. He shows life through Malcolmson’s eyes only to yank away the curtain and thrust Elizabeth’s reality upon us: “It enraged her that he was sitting in an armchair in her flat with his eyelids drooping through drink and an unlighted cigarette in his hand and his matches spilt all over the floor. They were his children, but she wasn’t his wife: he’d destroyed her as a wife, he’d insulted her, he’d left her to bleed and she had called him a murderer” (26). And he was a murder, is a murder, for he destroyed their family and then himself. For he does not understand what reasonable access entails, for he cannot grasp the truths of reality and understand where he truly stands.