Thursday, June 6, 2013

What I'm Reading: A Death in the Family

A Death in the Family James Agee cover
This is the other novel on the TIME Top 100 list that has "Death" in the title. Needless to say, I'm not as immediately enthralled by this one as I was by Death Comes For the Archbishop. Part of the problem is that the author, James Agee, died of a heart attack before A Death in the Family had been properly finished.

On principle, I don't enjoy posthumous works. The genius in writing comes largely from the revision process, and anything released into the world without its author's full treatment, to me, cannot be trusted. I have so many awful drafts sitting on my hard drive that, were they to be suddenly published in their current state, I would have no other choice but to loudly and publicly disown them before changing my name and moving out of the country to languish in embarrassed early retirement. This is why I refuse to read The Pale King or the novel portion of Salmon of Doubt  I'd like to think that David Foster Wallace and Douglas Adams felt pretty much the same way.

 However, I didn't realize the posthumous nature of A Death in the Family until I had already checked it out of the library. Lacking anything else to read, I decided to put my rule about posthumous works aside. The good news was that since I had no prior experience with Agee as a writer, it was no great loss should I discover him to be, on early drafts, not so good.

The other thing is that, when reading a posthumous novel, I am constantly distracted interminable "what ifs". Would he have insisted on this run-on sentence, or changed it? Would he have punched up this long wall of text with a couple of paragraph changes? Would he have narrowed the focus?

The novel isn't without merit. Sometimes there are moments of sad, piercing insight that hit you right in the gut:

"And looking at himself now, [Ralph] neither despised himself nor felt pity for himself, nor blamed others for whatever they might feel about him. He knew that they probably didn't think the incredibly mean, contemptuous things of him that he was apt to imagine they did. He knew that he couldn't ever really know what they thought, that his extreme quickness to think that he knew was just another of his dreams. He was sure, though, that whatever they might think, it couldn't be very good, because there wasn't any very good thing to think of. But he felt that whatever they thought, they were just, as he was almost never just. He knew he was wrong about his mother. He had no doubt whatever, just now, that she really did love him, had never stopped loving him, and never would. He knew even that she was especially gentle to him, that she loved him in a way that she loved nobody else. And he knew why he so often felt that she did not really love him. It was because she was so sorry for him, and because she had never had and never possibly could have, any respect for him. And it was respect he needed, infinitely more than love. Just not to have to worry about whether people respect you. Not ever to have to feel that people are being nice to you because they are sorry for you, or afraid of you... 
And here tonight it comes like a test, like a trial, one of the times in a man's life when he is needed, and can be some good, just by being a man. But I'm not a man. I'm a baby. Ralph is the baby. Ralph is the baby."

No comments:

Post a Comment