Wednesday, January 19, 2005


The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Joy Fowler, Read by Karen Schraf, Listen and Live, Inc., 2004

I have never joined a book group and have no interest in ever joining one. They seem to me to be filled with desperately lonely losers, opinionated cranks, busybodies, and utter wankers. I've been asked by any number of the above categories of people to join their little group-spank sessions, and I've luckily managed to dodge ever having to outright decline or, worse, attend. One thing an opinionated crank can't stand it's having to sit in a room with another opinionated crank; it's worse than when two women show up at a party wearing the same dress. If a portrait from life as I view it were Karen Joy Fowler's aim in writing The Jane Austen Book Club, then this book is a masterpiece of annoying twaddle.

The narrator, who doesn't introduce herself at the book's beginning or indeed at any other point in the novel, talks about all the characters and speaks about the first meeting in the royal "we." Perhaps it was just me being a bit tired when the book started or the problems with my computer, but I found this unnamed, unknown "we" exasperating. When the story regularly shifts to the pasts of each of the members of the club, the voice doesn't change any, yet how this odd narrator is supposed to have insights into another person's twelve year old mind is never explained. It just happens, and as a stylistic device or literary trick it wears quickly.

In one particular instance, after a long childhood reflection from the only male in the group, Grigg, and how his dad introduced him to science fiction, the narrator says: "Grigg didn't tell us any of this, because he thought we wouldn't be interested." Then how the fuck did you know, nameless narrator? When the women discover that he likes science fiction, they are snobbily aghast. The flashback with how Jocelyn met Grigg and invited him to the group is told in detail, followed by a similar disclaimer that no one in the group of "us" knew such a thing.

The group, six people apparently and the phantasm of a narrator, five women, one man, and one airy spirit, meet to discuss all six of Jane Austen's novels. As I've never been in a group like this, I find it stretching my credulity to imagine that in such a group all six people have a different favorite Austen novel. Not one person prefers the same novel as someone else. This would make Jocelyn, the organizer of the group, a master in reading people with whom she's never previously discussed Jane Austen.

The women are at once instinctively against Grigg, who everyone assumes Jocelyn asked to join the group as a means of setting up a romance, though they remain uncertain with whom. He comes in for regular bashing, while Allegra, the lesbian daughter of Sylvia, Jocelyn's oldest friend, seems to warm to him. This made me uneasy as the story unfolded. I didn't wish to see the character turn into a Lipstick Lesbian who only needed a good man to get her out of her gayness. The subject was dropped halfway through the book, but my uneasiness remained.

The literary snob-ladies are constantly turning up their nose in condescension against him, as though they were the bitchy sisters in Pride and Prejudice. When Fowler makes the characters we're supposed to sympathize with resemble Austen characters we loathe, it makes Fowler seem as though she's less knowledgeable of Austen than she makes out. Grigg does show them up with his erudition surrounding Northanger Abbey and its relationship to Udolfo, but it's a short lived comeuppance for the "us." When the group decides to read Pride and Prejudice next, and Grigg confesses to never having read it, the women are aghast, as though reading Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov instead were a grievous mortal sin — beating old ladies rather than donating money to UNICEF.

Now it's not as if I didn't have my own reading prejudices and snobberies. If you told me you'd rather read the unauthorized biography of Hillary Duff rather than Ulysses, I'd think you were an utter shit-for-brains who needed a beat down. But after Grigg shows up these snotty biddies and discusses the intertextual relationships in a post-modern framework, a little respect is in order. None is forthcoming.

Their first meeting at Jocelyn's house is rife with flashbacks to her high school days. The narration of this time frame, which the narrator isn't there to see, is curious and does little to illuminate us as to why Jocelyn so loves Emma. The reason for that we find out during the course of the present-time narration, which beggars the question of why we learn about Jocelyn's early boyfriends at all. What’s the point? Similarly, each person hosts the group discussion at her/his house and we are given lengthy back-story of when they did this, when they did that, and how this occurred. None of it is particularly informative or worth reading. Fowler seems to specialize in this. A late chapter of emails exchanged between Grigg's sisters tells us nothing we don't already know, while allowing us to listen to repeated readings of email addresses. Fascinating.

One of the only amusing stories in the book tells how Allegra's ex-girlfriend Corrinne wrote stories based on confessional tales Allegra told her. Corrinne wrote these in secret, showing only her writing group and not Allegra. When Allegra eventually finds out, she waits until Corrinne is asleep then pieces together three torn sheets of paper from the trash. These turn out to be rejection letters from magazines. This little aside includes the amusing consideration:

How dare Corrinne write up Allegra's secret stories and send them off to magazines to be published? How dare Corrinne write them so poorly that no onewished to take them?

The focus on high school teacher Prudy that comes when "we" discuss Mansfield Park is by far the least interesting part. She is not a terribly likable child or likable adult and the flashback to her childhood is filled with her awfulness and her appalling mother, the kind of childhood filled with head trips. That Prudy grows up to be the same kind of vicious headtripper does little to endear her to you.

But they are all awful people, the kind of old fussy women you get caught behind in line at the grocery store, the ones who always, always, always pick up items without price tags and try to use expired coupons. They are the bitter rind of the world.

When the group goes to a party that includes a mystery writer celebrating his latest book, Prudy attacks the writer for not having read any Jane Austen. Charming. In the middle of this party while the author is visiting them at their table, the long-winded member of the group, Bernadette, is encouraged by Prudy to tell a story, and she does, a long, long, long, long ramble that has no point, goes nowhere, and, as would be unlikely in any public setting, is completely uninterrupted by anyone or anything. Why exactly did these bitches show up again? Searching my memory, I wasn't quite sure it was ever explained or if it had been it hadn't stuck.

Kimberly Schraf reads the book without providing any discernment among the characters which doesn't make much of a difference anyway. None of them have enough depth for such a thing to matter. Such a book, as Dorothy Parker noted, shouldn’t just be tossed lightly aside, but hurled with great force.

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