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Reviews

An Unlikely Beauty

Miss Benson’s Beetle
by Rachel Joyce
New York: Dial Press
368 pp., $18.00

Why read fiction? It’s life without consequences. Reading Miss Benson’s Beetle, a novel of manners that successfully mixes satire, farce, adventure, and mystery, reminds one of the value of imaginative literature.

Most of the action takes place after World War II, while Great Britain still suffered from severe shortages of foodstuffs, other goods, and men. Large, awkward, ill-clad and ill-shod, lacking charm and wealth, though not intelligence, Margery Benson teaches home economics in a girls’ school. She has no family: Her brothers were killed in 1914 and her parents are dead, her father having shot himself in grief. The severe aunts who saw her through school are gone. One learns of her tentative romance with a museum scientist that ended when she discovered the man was already married.

But Miss Benson has virtues and resources unsuspected even by herself. One is constancy. She has remained enamored of the Golden Beetle of New Caledonia, which her father had pointed out in a book. (That devotion to beetles is what drew her to the museum for research.) Moreover, she can react surprisingly and energetically. When her nasty pupils humiliate her beyond tolerance, she quits, deciding to search for the living beetle in a distant foreign land. No ideology underlies her angry reaction to her students or her sudden resolve; it’s the result of hidden character.

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above: Golden Stag Beetle, Lamprima aurata, photographed in Swifts Creek, Victoria, Australia in November 2007 (Wikimedia Commons/Fir0002/Flagstaffotos, GFDL 1.2)
 

With very little money, even after selling her aunts’ furniture, Miss Benson nonetheless must engage a companion for her journey. She has no experience in world travel and will need a beetle-catching assistant. Having placed a personal ad in a newspaper, she gets several responses. One candidate, who calls herself “Enid Pretty,” is initially eliminated merely on the basis of her written reply—suggesting an ignorant scatterbrain. Benson arranges to meet the others, separately, in a Lyons Corner House (a famous chain of British teahouses).

These interviews are delightful for their characterization and dialogue. A certain Miss Hamilton, properly dressed in “gravy brown,” interrogates her interrogator somewhat aggressively; despite the discourtesy, she agrees to take the job. Later, she withdraws her application, having made inquiries at the school where Miss Benson was formerly employed. Another candidate is a very strange man who leaves the table mid-interview, exasperated. In fact, he is fascinated with Miss Benson and becomes her disturbing, shadowy follower, stalking her halfway around the world. It is not revealing too much here to say that, like her brothers and father, he is a war victim, having suffered traumatically as a Japanese prisoner in Burma. His story is paralleled by that of a second wounded man, who lost a leg by friendly fire in training and suffers both pain and mental anguish. Like Miss Benson, however, these troubled figures are not poster children for causes.

Miss Benson’s only recourse is to hire Enid sight unseen. She had seemed a hopeless case but is eager. Her first appearance at the London train station with her yellow hair, pink traveling suit, sandals, and a red Gladstone bag, indicates only one side of her personality. The two women become close collaborators, overcoming one obstacle after another, with distractions and disaster often threatening.

As Miss Benson’s trials disclose strengths of character and body, so Enid reveals herself as intrepid, wherever she may be—on a train, on a ship, or in the jungle. She is a splendid comic character, a female picaresque figure: creative, spontaneous, and uninhibited. When necessary she displays charms honed in a dark past, one not of her creating. She too, it turns out, has a mission, serious yet pathetic. What might be rendered as melodrama by another novelist is here plausible and revealing. One understands why, during the stop in Australia, she goes off briefly with a man to a commune, a mistake of the sort she’s made before.

I was surprised by the literary merit of Joyce’s work. But why my surprise? Surely, you’d think, dozens of worthwhile novels must have appeared recently. Perhaps. One is hard put, however, to identify them; prizes and accolades often mean little. Recent trends are dismaying. What today passes for short fiction in The New Yorker is generally repellent. What are called “best sellers” are usually works by potboiler novelists whose strong points can be summarized by the word “facility”—John Grisham and James Patterson, for instance. Pulitzer choices are too often disappointing, as well.

Why this plethora of bad fiction? I believe that the subgenres of fantasy, science fiction, mystery, romance, graphic novels, and young-adult books have syphoned off talent and artistic dedication while tending to the commonplace. Consider something called Lovely War, a New York Times best-selling novel about the Great War, which I bought in an airport. War fiction is one of my scholarly specialties, and I overlooked the book’s aim at a young-adult audience. The ridiculous personae and organizational devices were no doubt adopted to cater to that clientele. The writing is poor, with awkward expression, grammatical errors, and elementary misuse of French (“la café”).

Social justice fiction is another publishers’ favorite, tailored to sell to a specific audience. Crafted to cast blame on exploiters and raise the oppressed to sainthood, most of it is mediocre. André Gide’s observation is germane: “It’s with fine sentiments that bad literature is made.” Barbara Kingsolver, for example, a winner of various literary awards, produces “soft” socially-conscious fiction—not bursting with rage or explicitly radical, but sentimental, and thus widely devoured. A few geniuses have produced exceptional protest literature. She is no genius.

Language, the most widely-shared community marker and the servant of culture, has been degraded terribly in modern fiction. Most publishers seem to care little about good writing and do not recognize the bad. That Maxwell Perkins at Scribner’s could help F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe turn their unwieldy manuscripts into outstanding novels seems extraordinary, something from a different country. The very notion of “fine style” is out of fashion. Especially in written form, language was formerly held in honor. Literature was, properly, viewed as an art, a cultural value.

The current devaluation—Gresham’s Law at work—is partly willed by barbarians who resent major European cultures as elitist. “Decentralized writing” is the aim today. Modes of communication and entertainment, especially electronic media, have accelerated the decline, operating serially, by changes rippling through the masses without identified agents or causes. Countless writers have methodically or carelessly adopted bad grammar, diction, and punctuation.

Additionally, the disdain for solid history (not the pseudo-stuff concocted by radicals) includes rejection of literary history and the masterpieces of the past, which should be models for apprentices. (Masterpieces? That will never do!) Coarse speech, vulgar sex scenes, extreme violence, deviancy, and hostility to anything formerly viewed as good and beautiful mark much contemporary fiction, leading, presumably, to good sales and keeping at bay accusations of being “too literary.”

Characterization, moreover, tends to the shallow. Authors become prestidigitators, using artifice to impress readers with sharp sayings and clever insights, passing for deep but too easy. Exposition is often sloppy. Whatever the narrative conventions, setting up the stage and story requires skill. A century ago, Percy Lubbock wrote that “the best form in fiction is that which makes the most of its subject” (an axiom that presupposes there is a subject). Thus no particular mode of exposition can be a model. But we recognize clumsy handling of information.

Happily, some novelists and poets today (though few dramatists) have refused to kowtow to this mediocrity, and Joyce’s Miss Benson’s Beetle is a salutary example. The postwar setting is well-evoked. Changes in location and flashbacks are handled well, and the author’s characterization is deft and thoughtful, her writing skillful and fluent. The comic mode prevails—Joyce pulls off antics bordering on a Three Stooges farce—and the hyperbole is adornment. But seriousness must interfere, especially in the matter of the war.

You will enjoy the episodes on shipboard, in the jungle, in island locales, and at the British consul’s residence in Nouméa. You will follow the threads of accomplishment, interwoven with failure and distress. Perhaps there are consequences to reading good fiction after all: in the end, you will applaud.

Catharine Savage Brosman

Catharine Savage Brosman

Catharine Savage Brosman is an American poet, essayist, and scholar of French literature. She is professor emerita at Tulane University, where she held the Gore Chair in French.

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