Tuesday, August 28, 2012

505. A Maggot – John Fowles

History: This book was written in 1985. Its title, as the author explains in the prologue, is taken from the archaic sense of the word that means "whim", "quirk", "obsession", or even a snatch of music (see earworm). Another meaning of the word "maggot" becomes apparent later in the novel, used by a character to describe a white, oblong machine that appears to be a spacecraft. Though the author denies that A Maggot is a historical novel, it does take place during a precise historical timeframe, May 1736 to February 1737, in England. It might be variously classified as historical fiction, mystery, or science fiction. Because of the narrative style and various metafictional devices, most critics classify it as a postmodern novel. 
Plot: The book opens with an objective narration about a group of five travellers traveling through Exmoor in rural England. They arrive at an inn in a small village, and soon it becomes clear that they are not who they seem to be. The "maid" Louise casually rebuffs the sexual advances of the servant, Dick Thurlow, but then goes to his master's room and undresses before them both. Bartholomew calls his supposed uncle "Lacy" and they discuss Bartholomew's refusal to disclose his journey's secret purpose, as well as fate versus free will. Eventually the narration stops and is followed by letters, interview transcripts, and snatches of more third-person narration, interspersed by facsimile pages from contemporary issues of The Gentleman's Magazine. We learn from a fictional news story that a man has been found hanged near the place where the travellers were staying.
The subsequent interviews are conducted by Henry Ayscough, a lawyer employed by Bartholomew's father, who is a Duke. The interviews reveal that Bartholomew had hired the party to travel with him but deceived them about the purpose of his journey. Variations of his story are (1) he was on his way to elope against the wishes of family; (2) he was visiting a wealthy, aged aunt to secure an inheritance from her; (3) he was seeking a cure for impotence; (4) he was pursuing some scientific or occult knowledge, possibly concerning knowledge of the future. He takes Rebecca and Dick to a cave in a remote area. Rebecca's initial tale, retold by Jones, is that he there performed a satanic ritual, and Rebecca herself was raped by Satan and forced to view a panorama of human suffering and cruelty. Rebecca's own testimony admits this was a deception to quiet Jones. She says that she actually saw Bartholomew meet a noble lady who took them all inside a strange floating craft (which she calls "the maggot"). In this craft she sees what she describes as a divine revelation of heaven ("June Eternal") and the Shaker Trinity (Father, Son, and femaleHoly Spirit or "Mother Wisdom"). She also sees a vision of human suffering and cruelty in this version of her story. Modern readers may interpret her visions as films and her overall experience as a contact with time travellers or extraterrestrials. Rebecca then loses consciousness; she wakes, finds Jones outside the cave, and they leave together. She then tells Jones the satanic version of her experience. Meanwhile, Jones has seen Dick leave the cave in terror, presumably to go hang himself.
Rebecca later finds herself pregnant. She returns to her Quaker parents but then converts to Shakerism, marries a blacksmith named John Lee, and gives birth to Ann Lee, the future leader of the American Shakers. The mystery of Bartholomew's disappearance is never solved, and Ayscough surmises that he committed suicide out of guilt from his disobedience to his father in the matter of an arranged marriage.
Review: The novel's narrative technique of using letters, interviews, a fictional news story (see false document), and real historical documents harks back to, and to some extent satirizes, the conventions in place early in the history of the novel, when the epistolary novel was the most common form. (Fowles' book is set in 1736, just a few decades after the first novels in English, and just a few years before Samuel Richardson's landmark Pamela.) Originally, these strategies were intended to strengthen the illusion of reality and mitigate the fictionality of fiction; Fowles uses them ironically to highlight the disconnect between fiction and reality. At several points in the novel, the characters or narrator foreground their existence as characters in a story, further highlighting the book's fictionality. Moreover, the novel resists many conventions of fiction, such as the omniscient narrator (Fowles' narrator seems omniscient but divulges little of importance) and the drive for climax and resolution. In particular, the novel resists the convention of detective fiction which satisfies the desire for a final solution.
The novel also examines the nature of history, historiography, and criminal justice, as Ayscough represents the historian/judge trying to create a coherent narrative out of problematic testimonies. The "maggot" itself, as a possible time machine, represents historians as intruders in the past who alter it according to their own desires and needs. The power struggle between Aysough and Rebecca to create the narrative of the past problematizes the objectivity of history, making it subordinate to interests of social class and gender. In the end, Fowles uses Rebecca and Ayscough as representatives of two classes of people, one subjective, intuitive, mystical, artistic (i.e., "right-brained"); the other objective, analytical, and judgmental (i.e., "left-brained"). See cerebral hemisphere.
Finally, Fowles explicitly positions A Maggot in an era which, he claims, saw the beginning of modern selfhood (see self (psychology), self (philosophy), individual). Rebecca is a prototypical modern individual experiencing the difficulty of breaking free from the restraints of society and convention in order to be radically self-realized. In this we can see Fowles' residual existentialism, though the novel as a whole represents a move beyond existentialism. His postscript both praises the struggle for modern selfhood and criticizes it for having been co-opted by capitalism to create excessive consumerism.
Opening Line: “In the late and last afternoon of an April long ago, a forlorn little group of travellers cross a remote upland in the far south-west of England.”
Closing Line: “I mourn not the outward form, but the lost spirit, courage and imagination of Mother Ann Lee’s word, her Logos; its almost divine maggot.”
Quotes: “Shall I tell thee why they scorn?” She is silent. “Because thou dost not scorn them back.”
Rating: Difficult to follow. Needs a reread.  

No comments:

Post a Comment