Monday, October 03, 2016

Giant Step Backward

I blogged about Maximum Security Book Club, the nonfiction book I've been reading about an English professor running (as the title implies) a book club in a maximum security prison.  And I talked about how I found the narrator slightly off-putting but wasn't sure about my reaction.

Well, kiddies, we got to the last chapter, where she picks Lolita as the book to share with her group.  I'm not at all against that decision--it's a brilliant book in so many ways--but there are a lot of things you can learn about someone's personality when you discuss Humbert Humbert.  The things I've learned about Mikita Brottman have me taking one enormous step backward from her.

This is a quote from her comments to the prisoners:
"I disagree that Humbert's only interested in sex. Sex always spills over into other kinds of experiences and emotions, like the need to be loved, or to express power, or to leave your mark. Remember, Lolita had a huge crush on Humbert at first. And she'd had sex before. If he exploits her, she also exploits him, to a degree. It's complicated, like all relationships."
 An exchange from the class discussion:
"There is no 'bottom line,'" I said. "This is a love story."
Charles, sitting to my right, muttered, "That's a crock right there."

"What's a crock?"

"What you just said," he sneered. "This isn't a love story. Get rid of all the fancy language, bring it down to the lowest common denominator, and it's a grown man molesting a little girl is what it is."

"But you can't do that!" I was outraged. "This isn't a court case where we're trying to work out what happened.  We can't throw out everything that doesn't matter. It all matters! This is literature!"
So, by the end of the chapter, she has a revelation that you're not supposed to blindly identify with Humbert Humbert, and that Lolita's suffering matters.  Reading the whole thing, I have to assume she was setting herself up as the fall guy there to make a point about the insight of the prisoners, because I have trouble imagining that no one had ever pointed out to her that the tension between HH's bewitching prose and his horrifying subject matter is most of the point of the book.

But even if she was exaggerating her feelings to make a point, just reading that chapter left me feeling dirty and kind of ruined my day.

Then there's the afterword.  Throughout the book, she feels this closeness to the prisoners; she describes a tension between the crimes she knows they committed and the connections she makes. But in the last chapter, she gets to know some of them outside of the prison and she realizes that they aren't the simple, wise, one-dimensional creatures she's imagined them to be.  What she saw of them was only one very small part of who they are.

I have to say that I'm curious whether most of the book was written before Steven and Victor got out of prison, and the afterword added on because she realized how much she'd oversimplified things, or if the afterword was always intended to be a part of the story structurally, and, as with the Lolita chapter, she was setting herself up as wrong so we could watch her learn about the world.

I have to say, though, I imagined the greatest moment that didn't exist here. When Mikita is talking about how hypnotic Humbert Humbert is, how one should empathize with his pain (and, I will point out, not just acknowledging this but actively denying Lolita's far more justified pain), I imagined this book club: a room full of convicted felons who have committed murder and spent years living with other violent criminals, sitting in a circle of folding chairs, listening to this pretty, enthusiastic college professor go on about how she identifies with Humbert Humbert.  I picture the men looking at each other silently around the circle and the knowledge passing between them--that she might just be the most dangerous person here, but there is nothing in the world they can do about it.

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