October 2012

Josh Zajdman

The Forgotten Twentieth Century

The Bridge to Hecate County

I have a confession to make, and a distressing one at that. Sometimes I can be a very complacent reader. That's embarrassing to admit, but it's also somewhat universal. I think we all can be. I'm not going to shine the spotlight on you, though. I'll take the heat for this one. The truth is that we avid, maybe even slightly compulsive, readers tend to flit between different subjects or types of books. However, occasionally, we hit a little lull. This isn't a blame thing. Just a minor epiphany and a suggested course of action.

Let's face it: sometimes, quite often actually, reading can be frustrating. Like any sport, it has its ups and downs. Occasionally, you may feel like you're in a rut. This can happen around this time of year, too. It's the biggest time in the publishing calendar, with piles of capitalized names farming out new books. How do you shake things up? Get back to a less complacent, more attentive kind of reading. It seems simple: you read something different. Maybe even weird. Something that may bear a resemblance to your reading habits on the surface but is radically different as you submerge yourself in it. Boy, have I the book for you. The jacket copy refers to it simply as "the story of a man whose destiny was to seduce an American princess." I feel confident in saying that Edmund Wilson's Memoirs of Hecate County is the weirdest book you've never read, and just the ticket for you slowed-down intellects out there. Undoubtedly, that's offended you. Surely, there are readers out there who say "No, not me," or that I am simply misreading them, or even not reading carefully. Well, no need to get personal. You're entitled to your opinion. Even if it's incorrect. I am just advocating for a palliative every now and again -- keep the mind sharp, the eyes focused, the soul satisfied. Think of it as the mind gorging on a Thanksgiving dinner daily, and finally, given a digestif.

Maybe if we read professionally, we tend to gravitate toward one kind of book to write on, or another type to read guiltily in whatever spare time may occur. In any event, I realized that I had been reading the same stuff and the same authors for a bit more than I was comfortable with, both personally and professionally. That doesn't diminish the quality of these authors or books that shall remain nameless. I have to maintain some dignity, after all. But, here's an unfortunate truth. Any book starts to blur around the edges when you no longer experience that knee-weakening exposure to good writing. Read any of the greats for a prolonged period of time -- Melville, James, Wharton, Stein, Proust, Tolstoy -- and their tricks become apparent, you begin to take their skills for granted. This is not period or genre specific. You begin to feel as if you're slogging through a literary muck that has lost its capacity to evoke wonder and charm. And, if that's the case, we've lost the point of reading entirely.

It's at such a low point that I picked up Memoirs of Hecate County. The edition I have begins with "E.W." baffled by the treatment of his one novel. "Hecate County is my favorite among my books -- I have never understood why the people who interest themselves in my work never pay any attention to it." Chin up, Ed. There are a couple good reasons people don't "pay any attention to it." The primary reason being that, frankly, it's not very good. Don't be put off by this. Though it isn't a very good book, it's a surprisingly compelling and experimental one. In a sea of novels that dealt with similar post-war concerns, that's flat-out brave. It's strange and perverse -- maybe the type of thing John Cheever would have written, had he been dependent on absinthe. Wilson seems to be a more cosmopolitan Anderson with Hecate County serving as a well-heeled Winesburg, Ohio. Picture Westchester County if it were built on an Indian graveyard and next to a patch of peyote. It's strange and impressionistic and wonderful for the risk it takes. Hecate County isn't like a northern Yoknapatawpha or a more ethnic Tarbox, Massachusetts, though the influence on Updike is undeniable. So, what is it? Simple. Hecate County is a place where sex is had, regularly; desires (of many varieties) are gratified; much alcohol is consumed (openly or discreetly); dreams are crushed; and life, if you can call it that, is lived.

Originally published in 1946, Hecate County was banned shortly afterward. This was a full twelve years before Wilson's one-time friend Vladimir Nabokov would publish (in English) that book about the "light of [his] life and the fire of his loins." The book is less a novel than a collection of interrelated short stories, another progressive move on Wilson's behalf. There are six stories: "The Man Who Shot Snapping Turtles," "Ellen Terhune," "Glimpses of Wilbur Flick," "The Princess with the Golden Hair," "The Milhollands and Their Damned Soul," and "Mr. and Mrs. Blackburn at Home." The first three were published in The Atlantic Monthly, Partisan Review, and Town and Country, respectively. Each of these stories operates in a particular narrative fashion, and contains a bit of a wild card. I want you to experience that palate-cleansing bit of surprise that I did with each one, so I won't budge on the details. Suffice it to say that the narrator is an intelligent, somewhat skeptical, occasionally cynical, often disappointed, horny, vaguely alcoholic, and discontent man characterized by discomforting experiences, namely the urbane archetype that characterized post-war fiction, but that's where the similarities end.

Though "The Princess with the Golden Hair" is the story most responsible for the ban, due to its brazen depiction of sexuality, one can only laugh at Wilson's descriptive powers within it.

I had felt it so incongruous to watch her take off her stiff pink slip and to have her in her prosaic brassiere: the warm and adhesive body and the mossy damp underpants -- the mystery, the organic animal, the prime human oven of heat and juice -- between the cold afternoon sheets in the gray-lit Sunday room.

What once was banned would now earn a Bad Sex award. In the age of however many shades of Grey and Naomi Wolf's vagina, the tide has decidedly changed in terms of objectionable depictions of sexuality. However, the complexities of people, their ugliness and their occasional bouts of beauty, don't change. After all, that's what Memoirs of Hecate County is all about.