Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Scattered thoughts on Sopranos, Deadwood

A few observations on those fine shows, excerpted from bloggesque conversation with Bill Benzon of The Valve, whose excellent posts on The Sopranos provide the jumping off point, and which you ought to read, you know. I pull them out of the honourable anonymity of the various comments-threads in which they appeared for my own convenience, more than anything, so that I can do something with them if and when I get round to it.
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A starting place: "As the final season of The Wire moved past its midpoint I began reading assertions and arguments that it is one of the three best (dramatic) shows that has even been on TV; The Sopranos and Deadwood are the other two" [Benzon].
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I plump for Deadwood. "One advantage that Deadwood has over the other two (I agree superlative) shows, paradoxically in a way, is that it was cancelled after its third series. By luck or judgment the ending of the third series works, I’d say, on pretty much every level ... as a conclusion for the whole, I mean. Had the show been cancelled after series two it would have been a much lesser text. The Sopranos however was sublime for two series, precisely because it was at its heart a show about Tony’s relationship with his mother. Whilst she was still in the story it was unsurpassed telly; once she died, the show dragged itself through a number of contortions about what its focus now was, and being as popular as it was with audiences and advertisers the makers span it out and span it out. Diminishing returns. The Wire is into, what? Five series now? For me Deadwood wins."
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Mike Beggs disagreed ("I think the end of Deadwood was terrible, a classic case of commerce cutting a work short before the story was done") and that made me think:
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Do you think so, Mike? The ending of Deadwood, I mean? I’d argue it worked perfectly: which is to say, one of the joys of the show was the rich and subtle manner in which it played against the cliches of the Western: subtle in the sense that it wasn’t a simple inversion of the values of Frontier Heroism (ie ‘contrary to every Western ever made the Wild West was shit and everybody associated with it nasty’), any more than it was a simple re-heroising of those values. Instead it was a wonderfully expressive excavation of and ironic restatement of those tropes: the maverick lawman, the villan, the horse, the barfight or street-brawl, the gold mine and so on, all worked through Deadwood in ways that brilliantly played off against our conventionalised expectations. Since one of the strongest formal or narrative conventions of the Western, or popular cinema/TV more generally, is that everything builds to a climactic gunfight, I personally loved the way series three set that expectation up, moved towards it and at the last moment eucatastrophically simply knight’s-moved in a different direction. I don’t see that the planned two additional feature films would have added much. Though I’d have loved to have seen them. The only weakness in the third series, I thought, was the introduction of the strolling players: like Chris’s flirtation with Hollywood in the Sopranos, a slightly strained meta-textual reference to the business of making TV shows itself. Naturally for people who work in the media the processes of the media loom large, and they consider them enormously significant and important. Naturally they want to insert them into their work; but, as it happens, they don’t really fit either Deadwood or Sopranos, I think.

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Two other observations, these ones specifically on the Sopranos. In another post, Bill B. considers the show via some close-reading of series 1, episode 9, 'Boca'. He concentrates in particular on a scene towards then end, when Junior menaces his girlfriend (for revealing in her gossiping that he enjoys performing cunnilingus, and thus degrading his status in the mob) and eventually, instead of punching her, pushes a pie into her face. I said:
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The unfunny pie-in-the-face is interesting, isn’t it? It underlines that for this show the violence is never violence per se (as in, for instance, Clockwork Orange): it’s instrumental. It’s about coercing and/or (usually and) humiliating the other person. When a character in the show pops up who enjoys being violent for the sake of the violence the other mobsters are far from comfortable: I’m thinking of Ralph Cifaretto: Tony [sorry Bill, this is a spoiler for you; look away now] eventually kills him basically because Ralph enjoys killing for killing’s sake. He projects his own self-loathing at the violent life onto this violent other. Speaking broadly, the show succeeds, I think, to the extent that it refuses the standard tv-cinematic Jack-Bauer logic that violence simplifies situations; and in fact the insight that violence complexifies life actually beyond the capacity of the ordinary psyche to cope with is where the show opens. One of my favourite moments from the second series is when I think I’m remembering this right) Tony is talking to Melfi about sitting in his car whilst Furio, newly over from Italy, is sent into a shop to show that he has what it takes to administer an effective beating to somebody who owed Tony money. ‘What were you feelings?’ Melfi asks, as he looks back on this moment--the point being, of course, that Tony is obscurely sad about it. Tony looks wistful, as if remembering when he was young and there was a straightforward joy to be had in just beating people up before the burdens of command oppressed him, and replies: ‘I thought about the beating. I wished I was in there.’ Melfi’s then asks one of her most insightful questions: ‘giving it, or receiving it?’

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Finally one of Bill's best posts on this subject, 'The Sopranos: 5 Easy Pieces', asks a number of central questions, not least:
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What’s a Plot for? Aristotle tells us that a well-formed drama must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The Sopranos is all middle. To be sure, there is a first episode – for the whole series, for each season – and a last – for the whole series, for individual seasons. But they’re all middle. Does that mean that The Sopranos is without form? I don't think so. But how does that form function. For that matter, if The Sopranos can function without a beginning and an end, then why have beginnings and endings at all? The show is very much about character; those of the central players are contradictory and incoherent. What has this to do with plot?
These aren’t quite the right questions, but I don’t know how to formulate better ones.

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I replied:
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The Sopranos is all middle. This seems to me spot-on, as a description of the show, but also of the show’s appeal. Writing narrative like this flatters the audience (no tedious “for-the-hard-of-thinking” plot-exposition or infodumping for us: we’re clever) and is, I think, aesthetically more elegant ... the beauty of inflections (and just after) and all that. But it’s more than a random thing. This middleness, or this suspension between beginning and end, is kind of the moral point of the Sopranos: the delineation of a world desperately trying to avoid (repress) origins—all the Freudian, psychoanalytic stuf—and trying to avoid conclusions: the consequences of their terrible actions, about which they’re all in denial.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Richard Morgan, The Steel Remains (2008)



We all know that the American edition of Morgan’s last novel was renamed from Black Man to the less shocking Thirteen to avoid controversy. So I’m wondering what the USA will do with The Steel Remains. They can’t leave the title in that form, of course: what with the current dire state of the US Steel industry it would surely be too upsetting for an American audience. So I’m thinking they’ll go with Gay Elf Fucking. But there are various options. They could, for instance, rename it Brokeback Mount Doom. Or Hello I’m Julian And This Is My Friend Sauron. Or I’m the Only Gay on the Pillage. Or Elric of Meli-boner. Or Michael? More Cock! Or Robert Heinlein’s Glory Hole. Any of these would work.
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Well. Maybe not that last one.
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So here we have the first of a projected trilogy of sword and sorcery (via far-future SF) novels. and the first thing to say is that it's extremely good. Morgan is a gifted writer, and his gifts are lavishly on display here.
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What's it about? It's about Ringil Eskiath, a warrior hero swordsman who is gay. Now, one way of writing that last sentence would be Ringil Eskiath is a warrior hero swordsman who happens to be gay, but I’ve never liked that locution—it’s a heterosexual code for ‘… which I’m totally OK with, actually’, which in turn is code for ‘although secretly I think it’s all a bit icky’. If you need to remind yourself that ‘there’s nothing wrong with being gay’ then you are still, to a degree, in thrall to homophobia (nobody beds down with their wife or husband thinking ‘you know what? There’s nothing wrong with being straight … I’m totally OK with that’). Besides which Ringil is not a character who happens to be gay. Ringil is assertively, even aggressively in-your-face gay.
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He is a gay man living in a homophobic and persecutory society (Morgan puts this across well) and his sexuality is a large part of his being. He is gay, actually, in a 1980s stylee—I got the sense, actually, of a distinctly 1980s vibe to Morgan’s invented world, something I took to be a deliberate authorial strategy. What I mean is that, though set in the usual medievalised Fantasy realm, the novel seems to go out of its way to talk about how riverside warehouses have been converted to spacious apartments, or to mention patios [206] (this must surely be the first Fantasy novel to include patios) and merry-go-rounds and museums; to include wine-tasting (‘a dark Jith-Urnetil grape, late harvest pressing, of course, you couldn’t mistake that taste’, 197), and have a character go back to her flat where she keeps what amounts to an enormous, ungainly early-model computer. It’s like a Gay Fantasy Ashes To Ashes. (Asses To Asses, maybe). But this is not random. The point I'm making is that Ringil is not gay like the Spartan warriors at Thermopylae were gay; and he’s not gay like male lovers in the armies of the First World War (this isn’t a novel about the way societies at war become homoerotically obsessed with masculine strength and beauty, like Barker’s excellent 1993 The Eye in the Door and 1995 The Ghost Road). Ringil is gay in a loud-and-proud, vanguard 1980s sense. Plus he can chop your head off if you annoy him. Anyway, Ringil quests through Morgan’s fantasy realm to rescue a cousin who’s been sold into slavery, and along the way he fights, hacks and kills quite a few people, and has a certain amount of sex.
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Ringil isn’t what you’d call a likeable individual. He kills a lot of people, for one thing. Also he spends a certain amount of time posing in a selfconsciously ‘I am a man whose soul has been bruised by the cruel world, see me toss my hair and gaze mournfully away to the left whilst simultaneously noting how fantastically handsome I look in my leather outfit’ way; which struck me as a pretty cheesy pick-up strategy. Still he gets to have sex with the devastatingly good-looking, thrillingly cold-hearted dwenda Seethlaw, so I suppose that works out OK for him. Plus he’s also got a really big sword. No, really. It’s a broadsword called Ravensfriend, a name which should endear it to the Velcro City Tourist Board.

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There are two other strands to the narrative. One concerns Egar the Steppe Nomad, who used to fight alongside Ringil but now has returned to the Steppes to rule his people, where he is having a sort of mid-life crisis. The other is about Archeth, a half-human half-Kiriath woman acting as a sort of technical adviser to a very central casting Decadent Hedonistic Young Emperor. I took the Kiriath to be sort-of-elves, but this may not be right. Anyway these three strands come together, as we know they will, and the three former friends reunite to fight off an incursion by the Dwenda, superpowered fighters from another dimension. I took the dwenda to be sort-of gods (in the logic of the novel, I mean). Or maybe another kind of elves. This may not be right either.
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This is what I liked about the novel: I liked its excessiveness. I liked its edge of strangeness, something not easy to achieve in a genre as clotted with priors as heroic Fantasy. It’s as well-plotted, well-written and well-conceived as any Morgan novel, which is saying a lot. That said, I didn’t enjoy the first half of the novel so much as the second: there’s too much shuffling of narrative feet, and setting of scenes; a sense of Ringil and Egar being giving things to do (which is to say, given monsters to fight) to keep them busy whilst the novel beds itself in; and Archeth’s third of the book never really gels, since she mostly spends her time in lengthy plot- and background-expository conversations with her Decadent Emperor. But once we meet the dwenda things improve enormously. I particularly liked Ringil’s prolonged visit to Fairyland, a sort of ‘what if our world were their hell’ trope which works brilliantly.
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Here’s what I didn’t like. The tone has a sort of uncertainty to it. Don’t get me wrong here: Morgan is an excellent stylist, and his overall approach to the book is fine. What he tends to do, as a writer, is to work a sort of Velvet Underground or Pixies loudQUIETloud aesthetic: layering nicely understated pastels:

The sun lay dying amidst torn cloud the colour of bruises, at the bottom of a sky that never seemed to end. Night drew in across the grasslands from the east, turned the persistent breeze chilly as it came. [17]


with more crashing sections of scarlet and black:

The first runner took the lance full in the chest and fell back … scrabbling and spitting blood. Egar reined in hard, twisted and withdrew the lance, quadrupled the size of the wound. Wet, ropelike organs came out on the serrated edges of the blade, tugged and tore and spilt pale fluids as he ripped the weapon clear. [22]


Speaking generally, this is a very canny stylistic strategy. But as the book goes on I felt the crashing starts to drown out the crowded moments, and by the time of the climactic battle I felt a little numbed to it all.
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Of course Morgan is an extreme writer, and objecting to the extremes would be to miss the point of what he’s doing: if you don’t like ultraviolence, ultrasex and ultra-swearing maybe you should think about reading another novel. Nevertheless I thought his extremism wasn’t as well handled here as it was in Black Man/Thirteen. The swearing grates; instead of creating an emphatic and aggressive idiom of its own, after the manner of (say) Scarface or Deadwood, it feels forced, and overused, and on occasion even wincingly adolescent. The violence is very full-on all the time, which erodes its capacity to shock us with its visceral intensity. The sex, on the other hand (and despite what I’d heard by way of rumour before actually reading the book) is a more contained portion of the whole, and works much more effectively.
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But in places I wasn’t sure of the tone. The naming seemed a little off. So, Ringil fights hideous monsters called corpsemites, which I kept reading as corp-semites, which struck the wrong note with me (and wouldn't endear the book to the Jewish Chronicle). And then there’s Dwenda. I couldn’t work out if Morgan had picked that name precisely because it has a girly, Wendy or Glinda vibe to it: which is to say, because it sounds a bit Friend of Dorothy. Which I could understand, in a book like this, although tonally it seems wrong to me.
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It could be that I wasn’t tuning-in to the author’s sense of humour, my own sense of humour having, I regret to say, largely atrophied. When Ringil fights an urban thug who is armed only with a fruit knife, I wondered if it was a deliberate allusion to the episode of Blackadder 1 where Brian Blessed uses just such a utensil to fight his way back from the crusades, and if so, to what end. Is that funny? I don't know. I do know that the novel isn’t above channeling Calculon:

Nooooooooooooooo!!!!!!’ [217]

(Really? All those exclamation marks?) And I also know that occasionally the novel succumbs to a key danger of its genre—namely that individual sentences start out in English but end up sounding like the Swedish Chef from the Muppets:

Ringil thought back to the Kiriath he had known; Grashgal, Naranash, Flaradnam, Kalanak. [105]

Bork bork bork. Morgan goes to such lengths to subvert the clichés of Heroic Fantasy that the ones that still remain (‘a dark lord shall rise’) jolt a little. What else? Here’s how milkmaids talk in actual folk art:

‘Oh don’t deceive me.
Oh never leave me.
How could you use a poor maiden so?'

And here’s how milkmaids talk in Morgan’s universe:

‘Fuck it, I was on my sky-fisted way to your fucking yurt when I passed him. And, like I said, he just fucking shoves right past me. Face fucking screwed up like he’s pissed off about something.’ [152]

Which has, perhaps, slightly less charm. Plus I was puzzled by the way Ringil flourishes his broadsword like a fencer’s foil. [My puzzlement may be a simple expression of ignorance; check out the comments below, after which you may prefer to disregard the following sentences] Broadswords are very heavy objects indeed. They were used in battle as, in effect, big clubs, for battering more than chopping; and just being able to lift one up takes considerable strength. There’s some chaff about how kiriath blades are lighter than regular blades, but it didn’t persuade me. Gene Wolfe talks about how Severian’s broadsword is hollow and filled with mercury, to facilitate it being hefted and swung about. But this is to grumble unnecessarily. None of this detracts from the impact the book makes, which is considerable.
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The Steel Remains is not the first Fantasy book to make a big deal out of the homoerotic, homosocial and homosexual aspects of the genre. Delany’s Nevèrÿon books are more radical in their excavation of the sexual politics of Fantasy. Barker’s Eye in the Door, as I mentioned above (not a Fantasy novel, of course) does a better job of anatomizing how a society at war is inevitably interpenetrated by homosexual fascination and desire in ways it, or portions of it, cannot be comfortable with or acknowledge. But The Steel Remains remains a powerful turn-everything-up-to-eleven reading experience. It’s the most impressive Fantasy novel I’ve read in a very long time: a big, brave, bollocks-out and often brilliant novel. It’s not perfect, but it’s a major novel for all that. I can’t wait for vol 2.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (1880-81)

Critics like to challenge the reader’s automatic assumption that the lady of the title is Isabel Archer. Might we not (they say) take the lady to be Madame Merle? How might the novel read if we read it under the assumption that she is the heroine? But just for a moment I want to ponder a different emphasis embodied in the title—that the book is a portrait. That it is, in other words, about portraiture:
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I’m a recent convert to this novel, incidentally. When I first read it, as an undergraduate, I hated it. It ends well, but starts glacially, awkwardly and uninvolvingly, and the whole is vitiated (I used to think) by one huge flaw, Archer herself. What I mean by that is that everybody in this novel, male or female, but especially all the men, falls immediately and deeply in love with Isabel. I simply don’t believe it. As a younger reader, less wary of essentialism, I put it to myself this way: James as a gay man just doesn’t get what it is about some women that makes heterosexual men fall desperately in love with them. He thinks it is a mix of prettiness, sharpness of wit, and brightness of demeanour. It’s not. Actually this may not be as essentialist a way of looking at the question as all that. Proust, by contrast, was a gay man who very evidently did understand what it is about some women that makes some men fall crazily, stupidly, headlessly in love with them. Isabel Archer is very nice, and possesses many charms, but she is no Odette. She’s not even an Albertine. She's rather annoying.
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On the one hand, everybody has to fall in love with Isabel in order for the machinery of James’s plot to work: for Ralph to want to give her a fortune, for Warburton, Goodwood and Osmond to propose marriage. It is supposed to add piquancy to the tragic dilemma in which the book winds-up that such a thing could happen to an individual so delightful, with whom we (as readers) are so in love ourselves. But, on a first reading, I was much more annoyed than enamoured of Isabel Archer. It seemed a make or break feature of the book; more so than the equally annoying but savingly marginal couple of Pansy and Rosier, as irritating a pair of Dresden china figures ever lifelessly adorned a novel.
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I’ve just reread the novel, and I liked it much better this second time around. Having laboured a little establishing his artificial arrangement of individuals, James manages some smooth and rather wonderful effects later on. I still found Isabel entirely resistable, to the point of being actively irritating, but I was much more drawn-in to the central portions of the book. The way James writes Isabel falling in love with Osmond is, indeed, brilliant. Where another writer might portray Osmond as a charming man who only after marriage reveals his charm to be superficial, James shows the appeal of bachelor (widower, I should say) Osmond at the same time as showing him to be a selfish egotist more interested in possessions than people. It’s a tremendous sleight of hand, because we do believe that Isabel could fall in love with him, just as we do believe that she could later hate him. The latter half of the novel, with its exquisite handling of the woe that is in marriage—that in itself a remarkable thing in a High Victorian novel—is simply wonderful. We watch Osmond’s cruelty to Isabel with a fascination grounded in part by how elegantly it is prosecuted: no raised voices, no physical violence or loss of control. Maintaining self-control is the mainspring of the man, of course. And yet he continues cruel, and she continues to pretend to submit to him whilst constantly—of course we might wish to say heroically—resisting him, passive-aggressively. Here they are fighting chillily over whether Pansy (Osmond’s daughter, Isabel’s step-daughter) should marry Rosier, whom she loves, or Lord Warburton, whom she doesn’t but whom her father prefers on account of his wealth and title.
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“I have sent little Rosier about his business.”
“You were afraid that I would plead for Mr Rosier? Haven’t you noticed that I have never spoken to you of him?”
“I have never given you the chance. We have so little conversation in these days. I know he was an old friend of yours.”
“Yes: he’s an old friend of mine.” Isabel cared little more for him than for the tapestry that she held in her hand; but it was true that he was an old friend, and with her husband she felt a desire not to extentuate such ties. He had a way of expressing contempt for them with fortified her loyalty to them, even when, as in the present case, they were themselves insignificant. [622-23]

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I’ll come back to that tapestry in a moment. But there is something excellent in the way James makes clear that Isabel likes Rosier because her husband dislikes him. Which is to say --because this is the more important point -- that she is with Osmond because he thwarts her. That she loves him because of, not despite, the fact that she dislikes him.
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“My daughter has only to sit still, to become Lady Warburton.”
“Should you like that?” Isabel asked, with a simplicity which was not so affected as it may appear. She was resolved to assume nothing, for Osmond had a way of unexpectedly turning her assumptions against her. [623]

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There is a deal of misery for Isabel in this, of course; but it struck me reading the novel that this is also the reason she married Osmond in the first place. More importantly, this is why she returns to him at the end of the book: not out of a sort of deontic, Kantian über-duty, but because she wants to. She is in love with the miserable existence she has with Osmond – a state of psychological plausibility much more effectively rendered than the states of mind of any of the many men supposedly smitten with her. The essentialist way (again) of putting this would be to say that James understands, in a deep way, what it feels like to be in love with an impossible man; he understands how love can make you miserable without ceasing to be love. A less essentialist way of putting it would be to say that Isabel falls in love with Osmond because he is oblique; because he cannot be immediately fathomed and understood: “Osmond had a way of unexpectedly turning her assumptions against her.” The problem with her other suitors is that they are all too straightforward, too open, too foresquare. This, for her, won’t do. Like James himself (of course) Isabel is in love with implication and elegance; she prefers the beauty of inflections, even bitter ones, to straightforward statements. She prefers her conversations to be chess games. She loves depth. Who has depth in this novel? Not many people.
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[Isabel] was not indifferent to [the Countess Gemini], however; she was rather a little afraid of her. She wondered at her; she thought her very extraordinary. The Countess seemed to her to have no soul; she was like a bright shell, with a polished surface, in which something would rattle when you shook it. This rattle was apparently the Countess’s spiritual principle. [653]

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Not all the characters are as brittle as this, but all of them lack soul in this postmodern shifting-gleaming-surfaces way—except, perhaps, Osmond himself. Isbabel trapped in a world of surfaces, either the superficiality of the Countess or the deadening wysiwyg honesty of Warburton, of course falls for the man who has depth, even if (or perhaps precisely because) much of that depth is filled with a bulging 3D egotism.
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This is a roundabout way of coming at the distinctiveness of James as a writer. He is a writer famous perhaps above all for creating the illusion of depth, particularly, of course, the sense of hidden depths—of much more going on than first meets the eye. Profundites the reader can only infer because they are never spoken about directly. The important thing about this is not that it isn’t compelling (because it is), or not that it isn’t expertly done (because, again, it is) but that it is precisely an illusion. It is the use of perspective and shading that implies depth. Like a painting the world of the novel seems round but is actually flat: a glorious, rich, scintillating flatness, a tapestry or brocade. (It’s not exactly a criticism of James to say this, of course). As with any work of the visual arts the flatness is revealed when we tilt the canvas. From this perspective (Isabel’s paradoxical love for horrid Osmond) mirabile! It looks deep! But from this one (say the fact that all the men in the novel fall instantly and improbably in love with Isabel at first glance) aha! It’s a flat board with gorgeous designs upon it.