The Dismantling and Reassembling of an Author’s Reputation–Karen Joy Fowler’s “The Jane Austen Book Club”

Once again, I had decided to read a book I was somewhat skeptical about because of all the hype it had received, and also because when a book has been made into a movie (as I understand this one has been) one has also the dual task, if possible, of being responsible for a comparison of the two, and I haven’t seen the movie.  But to forge on ahead–this book is not at all what I expected from what I had heard.  I had expected a sort of latter day imitation of Jane Austen’s world, in which (from what I had heard) the characters reading Jane Austen would begin to enact their own interior dramas and have relationships like those in an Austen novel, and would have happy or at least deserved endings, and then (as happens these days) there would be a reader’s guide to glance through for things I might want to think about, and then the book would be over.  A “good read,” but nothing spectacular, no fireworks, just a calm, if poignant, reminder of “our Jane” and her achievements.  A good read, be it understood, in the same way that Austen is a “good read,” requiring one’s wits for the piercing turn of phrase and one’s contemporary awareness that even Jane had her limits, mainly those of no longer achieving a sort of sexual politics we can nowadays feel comfortable with.  After all, marriage is no longer the only game in town.

But this book refused to cooperate with attempts to dismiss it (and I’m not sure now why I was trying to be so lazy), at the same time as it didn’t seem that well done, I couldn’t think why.  Perhaps it was because I was expecting a holistic experience, a standard “fourth wall realism” novel, in which (to borrow the term “fourth wall realism” from theater arts) the audience is allowed to maintain its fiction that it is looking at reality.  It’s not that The Jane Austen Book Club had any strange events, particularly, or departed from what we know of earth as described by basic biological tenets:  it was rather that the structure of the book itself bore a strange resemblance to something that had been dismantled and left on the floor or table in a partial state of reassembly.

True, there were six main characters in the book club, each of whom had a story in which they predominantly figured, and a book each which they were responsible for discussing of the six major works of Jane Austen featured in their discussions.  And, there were subsidiary characters who impinged upon their awareness and the plot itself.  But the six chapters of the months of the year during which they met, and the extra seventh chapter, and all the additional material included with the novel itself was a little confusing (the book had not a few odd pages of added random information stuck in here and there, and a strange editorial “we” narrative voice, apparently not representing any of the named characters, who spoke up now and then).  More and more as the novel went on, it bore the character not of a “fourth wall realistic” novel, which was what I had been expecting from the hype, but of a shattered experience known rather to the postmodern novel, with its characteristic disorientation of the reader and the reader’s presuppositions.

In truth, though I was a little bored with the novel proper, I found the overall tribute to Jane Austen to be quite valid and valuable and interesting.  And I don’t say I was bored because it was postmodern in its structure, but because the characters, along with the subsidiary characters who impinged upon their lives, added no real “flow” to the book.  It was largely a novel in which each character was briefly sketched, given some lines to say, and made to move toward some other character in the book.  The most significant sentence in the entire book occurs near the end of the novel:  it says, in the mysterious editorial voice (none of the named characters), “We’d let Austen into our lives, and now we were all either married or dating.”  This is presumably the “sop to Cereberus” of an Austen-like result that is meant to conclude the “business” of the tribute in the somewhat scattered pieces of the story line.  The after-material is another case, however.

I found that I was easily more interested in the editorial job Fowler had done with the Austen legacy and its documents than I was with the novel itself.  At the end of the novel, there is a “Reader’s Guide” (a brief and highly significant quoted paragraph); a quick run-down of the plots of Austen called “The Novels” (apparently intended to supply acquaintance and encouragement for those who haven’t read Austen yet); a section called “The Response,” which I easily found the most intriguing, composed of reactions from Austen’s contemporaries and family members and followed by those of famous writers and critics since; and then the inevitable “Questions for Discussion” and an index of “Acknowledgements.”  Once I had made my way through this material, I “saw [the book] steadily and saw [it] whole,” and this allowed a reassembling in my own mind of what I think Fowler’s purpose must have been:  I think it was largely an educational one, and though I don’t think the quality of the novel stands up to the quality of the overall project, I am glad I read the book, and can’t say I didn’t enjoy it, though I have expressed various reservations.

My suggestion to readers is this:  if you are a new reader of Jane Austen, read at least one Austen of your choice before you read this book.  Asking other Austen readers for a recommendation as to which one can be a frustrating task, because it seems that each novel has its own cadre of readers.  Maybe looking at Fowler’s section entitled “The Novels” will help you choose.  After reading the Austen novel, then read Fowler’s novel from beginning to end, for the purpose of comparing how a latter-day admirer of Austen may write, though I don’t think the two are comparable in quality (Fowler’s effort, though perhaps more familiar in its structure to our contemporary scene, seems a little thin and slapdash by comparison with Austen, and in having made her novel referential, Fowler has invited the comparison).  Lastly, and perhaps side-by-side with reading other Austen novels, read the rest of the whole of Fowler’s fine attempt to interest readers in the author whom she so obviously admires, and especially read “The Response” section:  everyone, it seems, has an opinion of Austen, and some differ widely (or wildly).  My guess is that all-in-all, you will come away with a similar affection for Jane Austen, and a debt of gratitude to Karen Joy Fowler, for having put your feet on the Austen reading path to start out with.

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8 Comments

Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

8 responses to “The Dismantling and Reassembling of an Author’s Reputation–Karen Joy Fowler’s “The Jane Austen Book Club”

  1. Having only read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in high school for English Literature, and of course seen the matching miniseries with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, I cannot claim a broad exposure to Austen and her literary tropes.

    Many an author out there is inspired to write by those authors they enjoy the most, and it is a lofty task to be equal to, or better than, their heroes. To create an enjoyable read from such a situation is an admirable effort.

    • Yes, to be “equal to, or better than” Austen is too much to expect, and I didn’t, but I did feel that admirable as Fowler’s effort was, it went a bit here, there, and everywhere fictionally. I can’t really imagine how they successfully made a movie of it and remained true to the spirit of the novel, because the novel was clearly postmodern, and the structure it followed was not one I would expect an average movie script to be able to use for dramatic purposes. I think they must just have taken the basic idea (of a Jane Austen literary group) and written their own dialogue mostly, and then tacked on the romantic matches that were made in the book, or created their own. Not that movies couldn’t learn something from postmodern novelistic structures, but most don’t. Still, I’m in ignorance here until I get a chance to see the movie, so this is all speculation.

  2. I have only read Pride and Prejudice as well, although i hope to get involved with Northanger Abbey soon enough. I don’t know that much about her works although they get more love than Dan Brown so that makes me happy.

    I can understand your scepticism and wariness to these type of books, so I think I will probably leave this until I have read Austen’s remaining novels and then give this one a go.

    • “Northanger Abbey” too is a work that refers to other works just as Fowler’s work refers to Jane Austen. Those works Austen’s work refers to are the much-read Gothic novels of the earlier part of the romantic period, which were very sensational and popular reading material that a lot of women indulged in at the time. Austen loved poking fun at them by making her heroine in “Northanger Abbey” judge things according to her reading habits rather than according to reality. Though this is a matter of common knowledge, it might be more interesting to you, reading “Northanger Abbey,” if you read a Gothic romance first (Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels “The Italian” or “The Mysteries of Udolpho” spring to mind, though the last at least is very long). I’m not entirely sure about all the dates, but in any case, there are scads of period Gothic novels around, not all of them good, clean fun (Lewis’s “The Monk” was in the category of rather tawdry works which caused a scandal at the time). Jane Austen being the pert and observant person she was, it must’ve been irresistible to her to poke fun at silly young things who judged life from books. My own personal favorite was “Emma,” and not only have I read the book numerous times, but I saw the movie (with Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam–the latter my favorite heartthrob) nine times. But as you probably know, everyone has their favorite Austen. “Pride and Prejudice” (and the movie version with Greer Garson and I think John Barrymore) is my second favorite, easily. I think it has some of her best and most pointed comedy. (If I seem uncertain about the Barrymore part, it’s because I know the male star in it by heart, but am having a senior moment and can’t place name to face–a famous star, anyway!).

      • Sorry, I just did a little research. The senior moment has been exploded–it was Laurence Olivier, not John Barrymore, with Greer Garson. How could I forget Sir Larry’s famous drooping eyelid and trademark look of something like nausea at the camera when things didn’t go just his way!

  3. I own The Monk and the Mysteries of Udolpho and the rest of the first half of your comment are exactly the reasons i want to read it next. I do love a book inspired drama, it is how I live my life.

  4. I loved it – not at first though but once I found out that she’s a highly regarded sci-fi author. I thought it was clever and a bit sly to have one character make his love interest read Ursula K LeGuin.

    • Yes, I thought the LeGuin bit was sly too, not only for the reason you enlighten me with (I had never heard of Fowler before this book, more shame to me!), but because of such recent sci-fi and steampunk mashups as “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters,” and with Tolstoy, “Android Karenina.” My hesitations and reservations about Fowler’s book weren’t so much because I didn’t like it or respect what it (finally) tried to do as because it kept falling to pieces on me. It seemed thin or badly constructed in places, though part of this problem was because of my expectations: I had thought it was a typical realistic novel, and it turned out to be (as I said above) postmodern. And now that you tell me Fowler’s a sci-fi author, I can see why, because sci-fi authors explore structure sometimes more freely than “fourth wall realism” authors. All in all, I enjoyed it, and wouldn’t have missed reading it.

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