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The Jane Austen Book Club

A disappointment? I can't say that Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club disappointed me. But it didn't surprise me, either. Neither the story nor the writing even began to live up to the aspiration proclaimed by the title. Because there is only one way in which a book of this kind could have achieved distinction, and to take it the author would certainly have thwarted its commercial possibilities, I don't really fault Ms Fowler for playing it safe. But I'm still waiting for a book that would merit her title. 

What do I mean by 'a book of this kind'? Take away all the references to Jane Austen - to her life, her work, explicit in the dialogue, implicit in the characterization and plotting - and what you have is a novel that's extraordinarily reminiscent of the late Alice Adams, only much thinner. It's been a while since I read Adams, and I won't be able to cite particular books, but from the first paragraphs of Book Club I was struck by a quite Proustian recollection of the older writer. Instead of a strong central character, there is a group of interesting people. That is, they would be interesting to know in life; as fictions, they are rather too photographic. The characters are solitary for the most part. There's the much-married Bernadette, the group's senior at 67. There are the fiftyish friends-since-forever, Sylvia and Jocelyn. Jocelyn breeds ridgeback hounds, while Sylvia, who married Daniel, one of Jocelyn's high-school boyfriends, comes from a Mexican family that was in California before the Anglos. Daniel has just left her, after thirty years, and, much to the disgust of their daughter, Allegra, a beautiful lesbian, Sylvia is taking her time getting over him. It is suspected that Jocelyn has not only put the book club together to provide her old friend with distraction in a painful time, but that she has invited the only man in the group, the fortyish Grigg, as a candidate for Daniel's replacement. The youngest member, Prudie, is a high-school French teacher in love with her subject, although she has never been to France, and, while her dishy husband adores her, she's not certain that she adores him. Alice Adams would have found room for an older man with a checkered past, but then she would also have written a longer novel, and one with longer paragraphs.

There is a quiet specificity about food and clothing that I find peculiar to 'this kind of book.' It's wrong to complain about it, perhaps, but in the itemization of well-chosen or properly-deplored accoutrements I find a smug sensuality, and I attribute this to the author's emphasis of her character's more attractive traits. The habit of omitting details (and brand names) that have no critical bearing on a fictional narrative is perhaps the salient distinction between literary and popular fiction. In Book Club, such gratuities as references to bourbon cake and the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria (where 'dessert' and 'library hall' would have sufficed, and not drawn our attention away from the characters) are dropped alongside much more important details of character background and psychological insight. The result, an unfocused triviality that, while representationally lifelike, is for the reader the very opposite of the inescapably immediate, is rendered all the more desultory by piecemeal exposition. That we are still learning fundamental things about some of the characters as the book draws to its finish makes it clear that interaction among the characters is secondary to, and never allowed to interfere with, the book's ambitions as a group portrait. While it would be unfair to say that nothing happens in Book Club, none of the consequences of what happens are irreversible, either - which is to say that from a dynamically fictional point of view they might just as well not have happened.

My hypothetically stripped-down novel could pass for a well-written, 'wry,' but not particularly edgy novella, filled with well-drawn but somewhat inert characters - you will remember them, but not what happened to them, at least within the novel's time-frame. From a literary point view, nothing could be less like Jane Austen's novels. Austen's characters are defined by their behavior, not by their good or bad taste. They are preeminently moral creatures, and nothing engages Austen's attention more than the perils of cutting moral corners. Every action has a certain gravity so clear and inescapable that it might almost be measured, and as befits this great student of Dr Johnson, virtue is largely a matter of taking life very seriously. Indeed the fun in Jane Austen comes from her young persons' wanting but not knowing quite how to take life seriously, as for example (consider Mary Bennett) from taking aspects of it too seriously, at the expense of others. Austen writes with such a fine mock-heroic voice that the heroic is not altogether mock, and we believe, for a while, that the events of which she tells have world-historical significance. Everything about Austen is intentional, disciplined, and purposive - and, as for long paragraphs, the heartiest of writers.

What precludes any comparison with one of Jane Austen's novels is Ms Fowler's unusual narrative voice. Austen writes with a personality so clear and distinct that she almost becomes one of the characters in each of her books. Ms Fowler turns this around by narrating Book Club in a first-person plural that is supposed to be the collective voice of the club's members. Because this voice can't be pinned on any one of the members, and in fact can only be imagined as coming from everyone in the group except for whoever it is who's being discussed, this trick, while intriguing, becomes nonsensically self-important, at least in the context of a mild and altogether unexperimental comedy of manners.

An utterly casual novel such as Book Club, therefore, cannot hope to compare even modestly well with Emma or Persuasion. I said at the beginning that there was only one way for such a book to succeed, not as an echo of Austen - out of the question - but as 'this kind of book.' That would have been for the narrative voice to take a caustic view of the six principal characters (one for each of Austen's novels), as book club members, highlighting their almost complete failure to incorporate the lessons of Austen's fiction into their lives. I will not make invidious distinctions between lovers of Austen and the so-called 'Janeites,' who in the past ten years or so have patterned one of the Internet's shinier stars on the surfaces of Jane Austen's world - the pitiless snobberies, the details of travel and household management, the bons mots - while disregarding rather such falls from grace as Emma's on Box Hill and Edmund's in the makeshift theatre. Having belonged to a Jane Austen listserv for a while in the mid-90's, I can assure you that there is plenty of material out there for a very rich satire, and I hope that someone will write it, preferably with this title (which will be meaningful to every Austen fan with Internet experience): The Fanny Wars. (June 2004)

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