Lucy and Todd

The Pagoda in the Garden – Wendy Lesser

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 26, 2012 at 6:34 pm

THIS book by the editor of The Threepenny Review is like a novel-writing kit: inside are a few rudimentary characters, plot lines in need of development, the choice of three possible eras and three writing styles, bags of banal banter, a small assortment of intellectual interjections and the bare bones of jokes. Not bothering to read the instructions, Wendy Lesser has excitedly dumped all this stuff straight out on to the page. She’ll be painting by numbers next!

The book is divided into three different time periods — roughly 1901, 1956 and 1973. Into them Lesser inserts three intentionally similar heroines, annoying American expats in Cambridge, England, whose Anglophilia leads to a quite unwarranted amount of sightseeing. The number of place names mentioned almost beats Baedeker; we are spared only the Changing of the Guard. The three women all share literary pretensions and come mildly unstuck over social difficulties, the common element being the realization, a dullish one, that people, through the ages, have dissembled about their sexual activities. In Book 1 (1901), Charlotte, a prissy author vaguely in love with a more revered novelist called Roderick, has been invited to stay at his country house near Cambridge. (Coyly, Lesser never admits that these two are based on Edith Wharton and Henry James, but it seems they must be.)

On her arrival, Charlotte is dismayed to find that Roderick’s lover, Antonio, has just dropped in, unexpectedly, from Rome. Also, there are no clean towels. She sets about firing the servants and arguing with Antonio until Queen Victoria saves the day by dying, and everybody gets to go home. Though the plot’s absurd, and the recreation of Victorian speech and manners laborious, this section has some merit as a convoluted meditation on fiction and its relation to real life. The descent in tone between Books 1 and 2 is abrupt — the plop can be heard for miles. All complexity is abandoned in favor of an arid tale of unrequited love in the 1950’s.

Sarah, a recently divorced American living in Cambridge, puzzles over why a good-looking young man she’s only just met doesn’t cheat on his wife with her. Since she’s still bitter over her own ex-husband’s adultery, this home-wrecking urge of Sarah’s seems weird and inexplicable. At any rate, it’s not explained. You feel nothing but bewilderment combined with faint loathing for the woman. Book 3 concerns an American girl who gets involved with a British student at Cambridge in the 1970’s. Not only does he insist they keep their relationship secret, he astounds her by never having read Freud. Lesser is right to point out the English refusal to take on psychoanalysis, though she fails to connect it to their anti-Semitism: Freud might have been their salvation. The affair ends haphazardly. Despite their troubles, there is an emotionlessness about Lesser’s characters — you don’t feel for them much. That’s their business, but where is Lesser in all this? What is authentic? What is genuine? Her obsession with artifice and pastiche makes her various narrators not only unreliable but unreachable. What’s the purpose of the whole exercise? Irritation?

It’s certainly abundant. The historical settings ensure jarring incongruities and false notes, and the predictable array of anachronisms. Nobody in England talked on the phone to friends all morning in the 1950’s — hardly anyone had a phone, and local calls were never cheap. A human being cannot be another person’s ”physical antonym.” Saying ”as it were” does not make you a Victorian. And describing someone as ”well on the way to her third orgasm” is just plain, as it were, icky. Threads of plot are oddly discontinued, the reader’s expectations raised and cruelly dashed. There’s a promising disquisition on menstruation and the travails of managing it in a foreign country (Sarah gets Kotex pads sent to her from America) — a great subject, but it’s never brought up again. Later, roasting a turkey, Sarah has no idea how long it should be in the oven. Her friend doesn’t know either. In the hands of another novelist, several cases of salmonella would ensue. Lesser avoids such unpleasant consequences by forgetting the turkey altogether. So why tell us about it in the first place? We’re all busy people. Lesser also laughs at her own jokes, presenting her charmless heroines as witty and alerting us to any ”levity,” as she stiffly calls it, that may have issued from them.

These ”witticisms” would go wholly unnoticed but for the sound of the author chortling in the wings. Instead, when people say things like, ”Did you know the word shibboleth was itself used as a shibboleth?” and spout opinions on Susan Sontag out of the blue, or explain the connection between a Fuseli painting and Mary Shelley to a stranger in a museum, the novel begins to sound like one of Woody Allen’s more recent offerings. Humor appears only as a ghost.


New York Times, October 9, 2005


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