What Do You Do All Day? (or "Stop Me Before I Volunteer Again")
Saturday, December 07, 2002
What I Finished Reading Today:
Babel Tower by A. S. Byatt
I'll admit right up front that while I was reading this book, I hated it. But it's our book group selection this month, so I made myself read 20 pages a day until it was done - an exercise I came to think of as "the daily slog." By the end, however, I didn't hate it quite so much, and had actually warmed up to a couple of the plot threads. But this didn't happen until about 7/8 of the way through the book, which is really is a bit too late to grab the reader.
Anyway, I haven't read any other Byatt books, though I've heard several friends rave about Posession, and I did see the movie of Angels and Insects. So I had pretty high hopes going in, and expected something quite smart and involving. Unfortunately, this story just never really came together for me, and as it jumped around between several different story threads - a technique that continues throughout the book but happens most often in the first half - I just couldn't warm up to any of them.
After the narrative settles down a bit, two major story lines come into focus. The first is a "present day" narrative, which takes place in the early to mid-1960s, and in which the main character Frederica Potter (whom I've since learned is also the main character in two other Byatt books - The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life) chafes in a bad marriage, is eventually driven from her home by her abusive husband, and then struggles to build a new life for herself as a single mother and teacher. The second story, which for most of the book seems to have no relation at all to the first, concerns a group of people who leave their homeland to settle a new utopian society...which turns out to be anything but. Eventually (somewhere around the half-way point in the book) we learn that this fantasy story is actually a novel written by Jude Mason, one of the people in Frederica's life, and after she helps him get the book published, both it and he are put on trial for obscenity.
Until I found out what the literal connection was between the two stories, however, and to some extent even afterward, I had a very hard time figuring out why Byatt chose to tell both these stories in the same novel - in other words, I just couldn't figure out the thematic connection, and what one of them might have to do with the other when thinking about the overall meaning of things.
I asked someone else I know who recently finished the book what she thought the overall theme was, and she said "censorship." But while censorship certainly plays a big role in the story - Jude's trial takes up a large chunk of the book's latter sections - it doesn't really have anything to do with Frederica's personal problems, which are an even more important part of the story.
So I sat down myself and tried to figure out the overall theme of the book - what it's really about - and I don't know that I did any better. Possibilities I came up with included morality, limits, double-standards (or, simply, the setting of standards, period, and how that occurs), and the question of excess (how much is too much?). Again, however, while all these themes are present in the story, I don't think I could say that the book as a whole is really about any of them. The best I finally came up with was freedom. Issues of intellectual, emotional and sexual freedom definitely take center stage in both of the major stories here...as do freedom of the press, freedom in education and many other kinds of freedom.
But when I tried to figure out what Byatt was really trying to say about freedom in this complex, convoluted story, I came up pretty empty again. "Freedom is good" or "Freedom is preferrable to enforced restriction" is about the best I could do...which doesn't seem at all enlightening. And perhaps that's why I just didn't enjoy the book. Sticking with it through all of its many narrative shifts, literary asides and hip-deep cultural references is a very difficult experience...and to be rewarded with nothing more than "freedom is good" for my efforts just didn't seem worth it.
In the end, I did feel a real sense of accomplishment for having made it all the way through such a long and complicated story...but I didn't feel any intellectual or emotional benefit beyond that. And for anything in the story to stick with me beyond tonight's book group discussion, I would need a lot more than "freedom is good." It will be very interesting to see how the discussion goes, however, to see whether anyone else got anything more out of this story than I did...and, if they did, whether what they got will convince me to reconsider and take another look at it before writing it off for good.