Where Karen Joy Fowler Meets David Brooks.

The Jane Austen Book Club

Where Karen Joy Fowler Meets David Brooks.

The Jane Austen Book Club

Where Karen Joy Fowler Meets David Brooks.
New books dissected over email.
June 9 2004 9:57 AM

The Jane Austen Book Club

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Dear Steve,

Yes: Like you I found that the characters here seemed the same age and sex. Jocelyn, Bernadette, Prudie—all were nearly indistinguishable parts of a bookish, scatterbrained, Rhodesian Ridgeback-breeding/brie-eating artsy psyche. Even Grigg, with his holdout Y chromosome, is as girlish as his counterparts. Consider his much-envied (and much-discussed) long eyelashes; it's no surprise to discover that his house is full of candles. Now, do we find these characters indistinguishable simply because we're not in Fowler's demo, as you put it? I don't think so. Fowler could write "demo lit" that was, broadly speaking, sociologically accurate. Fiction persuades us, first, by means of the accuracy of its observations, and second, by means of insight into character (in the Austenite model, at least). And that's why the novel lost me, for sure, with Prudie.

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Alas, poor Prudie! She is, like me, 28. But if she's a convincing 28-year-old schoolteacher, I'm a Rhodesian Ridgeback. For much of the book I thought—assumed, despite evidence to the contrary—she was at least 40. There's her prim dourness, for one thing, and her queerly old-fashioned way of talking: She worries about a sophomore girl "giving it up" to a senior. She's intended to be a modern-day Fanny Price, stiff and uncomfortable. But that doesn't mean she would also be a total Luddite. Surely her dithering protests to Cameron, a high-school computer geek, about not wanting DSL (she thinks it's a kind of expensive computer) are more those of an artsy post-hippie in her 50s than a young professional woman. And she talks about the computer game Doom as if it really might produce teenage spree killers. Now, this is supposed to be a woman married to a man in his late 20s, for God's sake! Hasn't she ever had to pull him away from a game of Splinter Cell?

What Fowler does do very well is leave it to us to draw our own conclusions from the dialogue flying back and forth. This is something she's learned from closely studying Austen—and she can be eerily good at it. After all, the particular invention of Austen was to learn to represent consciousness—and irony—without relying as heavily on exposition as her predecessors did. Returning to Pride and Prejudice after the JABC, I found myself newly struck by subtleties of effect—and, better still, I got a feeling for how contemporary her insights probably were.

To answer your question about satire: To answer your question about satire: To me, the book seems neither to be brilliant Onion-esque irony nor Windham Hill mush. It seems more a variant on the David Brooks type of satire recently diagnosed  by Michael Kinsley in the Times. It goes for the easy joke; it suggests irreconcilable ideological conflict (sci-fi vs. Jane Austen) where, most likely, there is none. In an inversion of Brooks, she loves offering "eccentric" cultural emblems in place of something truly specific—then puncturing the original overblown emblem for effect. As a lesbian, Allegra is only an amused tweak away from stereotype: full of hatred for her father, obsessed with the economies of exchange in Austen, frightfully self-involved, quick to snort self-righteously about heterosexuals—except instead of being butch she is "so very beautiful."

Or take this passage, singled out for praise by more than one critic. The group is at Grigg's house when he says:

"Who's a heroine, what's an adventure? Austen poses these questions very directly. There's something very pomo going on there."

The rest of us weren't intimate enough with postmodernism to give it a nickname. We'd heard the word used in sentences, but its definition seemed to change with its context. We weren't troubled by this. Over at the university, people were paid to worry about such things; they'd soon have it in hand.

On first read this is kind of funny—a sly send-up of several different types (the theory-bound academic, the would-be intellectual, etc.) at once. No one looks good: Grigg sounds fatuous for saying "pomo" in this setting; the book club women indirectly concede that they are curious only about things in which they can see themselves (Austen, but not, say, J. L. Austin). Meanwhile, the scholars are off being paid to worry about words that mean nothing to anyone. Ha, ha! And yet the barbs are gentle—everyone comes off OK. There's no real poison, but there is more than a whiff of condescension—and a kind of complacency about her characters' viewpoint. That's the M.O. of the book; even the broken hearts are less broken than temporarily wilted. This is where Fowler is nothing like Austen. Remember the moment when we first hear the Bingley sisters discussing the Bennett sisters, their guests, in Pride and Prejudice? It's immensely shocking—and it's shocking because their cruelty may have a very material effect on the futures of Eliza and Jane.

Wouldn't the real Jane Austen have had some more pointed things to say about her own fans? D. A. Miller wrote a really interesting book last year, Jane Austen or the Secret of Style, which talked in part about Austen's popularity among young gay men. It's a fascinating argument about style and about Austen's relationship to her own happy endings. Speaking of which, I hope you'll get into the fact that Allegra calls Austen's romantic outlook "dangerous." What do you make of that?

Yours,
Meghan

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture editor. Stephen Metcalf is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review and the New York Observer.