Monday, September 15, 2008

Collected Madness

The Collector, by John Fowles, Little, Brown and Company, 1963.

I used to get confused a lot between John Jakes and John Fowles. While their last names share only two letters, you can see that there’s enough there similar to throw up a little smoke in the unfamiliar. Looking back on it, I can no longer say for certain if the eldest of three boys in whose house I lived with their Alpha-Omega mother was reading The Maggot or The Magi.

I still haven’t read John Jakes, though from what I’ve read, the remedy for this admirable deficiency has yet to be proposed. There is always the possibility that his books are available in audio format, but then, there is always the possibility that Jewel’s poetry is likewise available. Readers, a question: need we go there?

With an answer so obvious, it seems clear that moving on to John Fowles, is what we should be doing.

Many and many and many a reviewer or critic will cut this author, marking him down as a sensationalist who knows how to salt literary references throughout his ultimately low-brow material. As one who has pursued a lead or two out of the book, let me attest to the weak-tea nature of gripes by literary critics who hope to scalp Fowles on the literary tip. What strikes the average reader as solid debunking of an author’s literary sources is really just a cursory dismissal based on school affiliation. There is a snobbery to English critics that America is largely devoid of, though I’m sure there’s some “school distinction” whose ripple-effect cam determine a novel’s reception.

Needles to say, Fowles’ research is solid, his legwork commendable.

His novels, however, are rock-the-house exciting.

It was his sleeper classic The Magus that first excited me to reading more of Fowles’ work. I picked it up without really trying for a couple of bucks at Half Price Books, that reader salvation in this age of dying local book stores – or possibly that culprit.

That novel moved with the kind of excitement I felt outside the pulps, yet the same kind of deeper development of character that critics looked for and never seemed to find. Never mind that I could entirely relate to its occasionally repentant rake narrator. The novel had the solid core archetypal story of the young man who is indoctrinated into bizarre, possibly dangerous esoteric mysteries. Had the indoctrinator been any more professorial, I’d have sued under retroactive copyright.

What many and many and many a critic forget is that they were once pretentious, insufferable college students/graduates. The memory of that, either through years or the poignancy of precisely how insufferable I was at the time, is lost on me, so picking up the novel Fowles is known for among the intelligentsia is a different matter altogether.

The Collector, however, is a super creepy novel of the kind I really dig. At least half of the novel is told by the villain of the piece and the other half by his victim, though the perp takes the story’s reins at the beginning. This is a clever piece of structure, because we are first drawn into the web of lies and very bad things that are about to take place. Our sympathy is about to be evoked through a classic, if not groundbreaking unreliable narrator. And it’s about to be evoked to make the worst possible case.

Our narrator, Frederick Clegg, has major problems with women that are only hinted at in the novel’s opening pages. We learn, as time goes on, that he’s completely functional while at the same time disturbed enough to earn his own place in a high security mental asylum. While the book does tantalizingly address parental issues, Fowles is at least smart enough to keep grotesquely overt Freudianism off stage, using it only as a lead-in and then shunting it off the rails to only be brought back in by characters as explanations for behavior or to be sneered at as sick and wrong.

However, it doesn’t take long for our narrator to get straight to the point. We learn about his cellar prison he’s created for a young woman in quite a few details, including the strength of the door to keep her inside, how unlikely any screams are to penetrate the stone foundation of the cellar, and the furnishings he’s lovingly chosen. The house where he’s chosen to operate this abduction and capture is no more than the spoils of his lottery victory. He is an Everyman, chosen by the thin fate-thread of a modern lottery to become his own Pygmalion. He has chosen her, stalked her, elevated her to a station no woman could ever obtain. And by page 24 of 305, Clegg has Miranda Grey, his obsession trapped in his isolated house.

What follows is an exercise in moral culpability. Fowles is a talented enough writer to make Clegg sympathetic while still repulsive. He’s sick, but he’s not a pervert out for rape and murder and sexual thrills. Considering himself a romantic, Clegg sneers at Grey for her “dirty mind” because she believes that is what he is after. The novel is a claustrophobic trap inside the cellar as Grey tries every wile and trick she knows to make her escape. The second half of the book shifts to her side of the story, and it’s the moment when Fowles’ novel ceases to be just a skin-crawling thriller, but shifts into a character sketch. It is as if he too has decided, now that he has the woman trapped, to study her every facet.

We learn of her art school, her pretensions to greatness, her shallow romances and her deep abiding affection for a painter of some talent and renown. Fowles shows us scenes we’ve already witnessed, now from the “sane” character’s point of view – and they don’t come off as any less mad, though with far better motives.

And in a way, that’s part of the novel’s message, the now trite observation that the difference between what we consider sane and what we consider insane is mostly a matter of circumstances and abilities. Clegg is a decent enough sort at the novel’s beginning, a bit off, a bit fixated, but it is his winning of a lottery that endows him with the power to let himself off the leash of his fragile sanity. Likewise, Grey, the pacifist, all too quickly finds herself wielding a hatchet when push comes to shove. It is often said that in extreme circumstances you find out who you really are, but I think that is partly missing the point about human nature. You aren’t who you really are in extreme circumstances because extreme circumstances make up so little of our lives, less even that the sum total of time we spend in grocery store checkout lines – and who would admit that who they are when staring at tabloid covers is who they really are?

Frightening for its all too real sounding glimpse into a mind unhinged by madness, The Collector launched Fowles’ career. Even more so, it launched countless imitators. If it be true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then by all regards Fowles’ debut novel is very much admired. It should be.

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