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27 January 2006

The Wolf Pit (2001)

By Marly Youmans

From the hardcover front flap: "A powerful yet intimate novel of the Civil War on the home and battle fronts, The Wolf Pit offers a griping portrait of two young Virginians forever altered by the violence and uncertainty of national unrest.

"Robin, a young Confederate soldier, battles from a valley of blood to a burning wilderness to labyrinthine trenches. He clings - despite the slaughter of his friends and the shattering of illusions - to what gives him strength, to the beautiful and the uncanny: psalms, pictures of loved ones, and an old tale about a pair of mysterious green-hued children found in a wolf pit. These he carries with him inside the very palisades of hell, the Elmira prison camp.

"Agate, the daughter of a hired-out slave, embraces the forbidden teachings of her mistress, Miss Fanny. But the images she has fashioned for herself shatter when she deeply offends her owner, Young Master, who carries out a swift and cruel punishment. At the Williams Home Place, Agate learns the meaning of her mother's cautionary tales as she struggles to survive loss and degradation and to pit knowledge and truth against evil." ©Farrar, Straus and Giroux

I cannot remember the last time I read a book as difficult as this. Here, I will define difficult as the following: a book containing impediments of any nature that stand against the successful perusal of its contents. My three "Summer of Faulkner" novels (As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, and Light in August) were challenging, but the stories, the puzzle of Faulkner's language, and his bizarre, engaging characters made for entertaining and worthwhile reads. On the other extreme, the trash history Emelie was unreadable in its comic implausibility and poor writing. The difficulties of The Wolf Pit lay somewhere in between - readable, but wearisomely so - which is why it lingered on my bedside table for a full two months. I only finished it last night.

If Tess thought In Sunlight, In a Beautiful Garden was slow, everyone should run screaming from the glacial pace of this novel. Detailed descriptions of almost every element of scenery, character, and memory grew tedious to the point where I found myself fighting to keep from skimming over excessively ornate passages. However, instead of providing an element of originality through creative and poetic turns-of-phrase, Youmans' descriptions read like a laundry-list of detail or synonym such as one would find in a nature journal or thesaurus.

Youmans, from her blog, mentions that she initially wanted to become a poet. I understood this about her writing long before stumbling on her website. The Wolf Pit contains a plethora of rich language, but none of it struck me as particularly unusual or innovative. I was comparing her style, perhaps unfairly, to that of Helen Dunmore. Even though I did not particularly like Dunmore's Talking to the Dead, I was continually amazed and amused by her use of language. Everything was a revelation of expression, sometimes to the determent of the plot, but there was value in the telling of the story.

Below is an example of dialogue from Youmans' book, typifying her extensive use of words in situations that make so much language unlikely. Keep in mind that the man speaking here, Beaufevre, has just met the men to whom he is speaking: Robin and Robin's cousin, Nash. They are captives in a prison boat bound for New York. The three men have exchanged exactly eight sentences before this massive passage takes place:

"The houses along the water and in town are not like ones father north but white and yellow and pink, with long green shutters and porches and pillars shaded by giant magnolia, pines, and live oaks tricked out in Spanish moss. The flowers are bigger than in other places with more startling colors - I didn't know that until I went to school in France. Then I learned it all over again when I joined the infantry and left home. I miss those colors, miss the mockingbirds caroling the sun up. Egrets and herons. Crawfish flittering about in a child's pail. I miss all that. In front of the sea are gardens and piers zigzagging out into the shallow water, with bathing houses at the end. Also there are swamps and low lakes and the brown Mississippi which sometimes breaks off a ledge of the land, occasionally with a house or close to one so that the people raise hue and cry and think about moving away for a time but nobody ever does, although sometimes they drag the house back farther away from the shore but not often" (207).

This goes on for at least as long again before Beaufevre takes a breath. Granted, he is the only character who speaks to this extent, but every other character thinks in this same lengthy, detailed manner. No one's thoughts read as different, and they all sound like the product of the same overly-wordy creator. Keven calls this "Tarantino disease," where every character in a Quentin Tarantino film speaks like he does. While somewhat forgivable and entertaining if you find that writer amusing, this lack of differentiation is otherwise quite frustrating. How can I care about characters that seem so interchangeable, even within the confines of their own private thoughts?

The other difficulty has to do with Youmans' dual narrators. Robin and Agate are interesting enough, but their situations are extraordinary. Why didn't I feel any sense of connection or loss in association with their trials? I experienced a certain level of disgust and a grudging appreciation for the research that Youmans must have undertaken to fill this novel with such accurate and detailed passages, but I had no emotional connection to them whatever.

Part of this, I believe, had to do with the nature of the book's structure and how it hampered the development of a driving plot. Robin's story is told by an omniscient narrator that reveals his thoughts and inner workings in a forward, linear progression. But what Robin knows, the narrator knows. We are firmly entrenched in his point-of-view. Youmans contrasted this scenario with the dualistic nature of Agate's story, which was told primarily from her perspective and in flashback, serving to dull the immediacy of the events she endured. Within the first few chapters, I learned that she is alone and mute. The only driving concern then became... how did she get that way? But the foreshadowing was too extreme, sapping a potentially powerful story of its driving emotional force.

The other dulling effect was Youmans' decision to alternate, chapter for chapter, the stories of her two primarily characters. Robins had a chapter. Then Agate had a chapter. Then Robin had a chapter. If any excitement or curiosity was built in one character's story, it was lost at the conclusion of that chapter. "Ah, and then Young Master arrived..." - but my desire to keep reading was stilted by the sudden shift back to Robin on a battlefield somewhere. The potential for building suspense and eagerness was lost with every chapter break. To use musical terminology, every chapter finished with a full cadence, indicating an unnecessary and stifling sense of conclusion, when a false cadence - where the completion of the action is delayed for dramatic emphasis - would have been more powerful and useful to the overall pacing, plot, and development of the work as a whole.

I kept expecting to be sucked in by this book, as other all-time favorites such as Dunmore's The Siege, Sébastien Japrisot's A Very Long Engagement and Ian McEwan's incomparable Atonement have done for me in the past. There is a moment in a truly quality work of fiction when I pass the point of no return. I am driven to find out how the book concludes. I feel obligated to put off every trivial chore in order to turn the last page. Slow novels sometimes yield extraordinary results for those patient enough to give them their due, and that moment of need - finding that I cannot resume my life until I finish the darn thing - is a beautiful experience. Last night, I realized that I had but 50 pages left in The Wolf Pit and felt no more connection to Robin and Agate, no more hope for their futures, and no more eagerness for the revelations of the last few sentences than I did after the first 50 pages.

For hardcore fans of Civil War historical fiction, particularly relating to the plights of slaves and prisoners of war, this may be a worthy novel to tackle. I, however, was simply relieved to return it to the library.

Blogger Mircalla said...

Some general observations:

"I found myself fighting to keep from skimming over excessively ornate passages."

But you didn't, did you? And you got to the end of the book even if you find it long. Pennac, who in *Like a Novel* categorised all the different readers, would say that you are one of those readers who want to get to the end, no matter how boring and unreadable the book is. He also believes that skipping pages is not a crime but a reader's right, as the right of not concluding a book. :o )

I liked your music analogy. This is something our prof at uni always encouraged to do: comparisons with science, music, etc.

From your analysis, it seems that those lenghty, indistinctive dialogues sounded more like the (omniscent) author's monologue indulging in the research of innovative words without remarkable or credible effects.

"Youmans' descriptions read like a laundry-list of detail or synonym such as one would find in a nature journal or thesaurus."

This is what my writing probably sounds. :o )

Technical note/query: do you think possible to archive in the side bar the posts per topic instead that chronologically? Such as categories of film, book,theatre, etc.reviews?

Blogger carrie_lofty said...

No, I did not commit the reader's crime of skipping passages or pages. If I book is that bad, such as Emelie, which I mentioned, then I just put it down. Why torture myself with something horrible that is meant to be enjoyable. I am not the kind who reads on, no matter what. I have set aside a number of books, but I always give them 50 pages to warm up. Karen, my best friend in Michigan, loves books and finishes EVERYTHING. I cannot bear to. This one, however, felt promising. I thought it would pick up speed, or at least strike me in a more realistic and emotional way, if I just gave it time. No such luck.

And yes, the narrator indulged her research. That is a good way to put it. Very intrusive, when everyone knows that people - particularly men - even in the most dire of homesick, war-torn situations do not wax THAT poetic.

Techincal: The chronilogical listing is an automatic javascript program, so I would have to make categories by book etc. manually. Do you think it would help if I titled them differently? Instead of "The Wolf Pit (2001)" it could read "BOOK: The Wolf Pit (2001)"?

Blogger Mircalla said...

Just wondering because it is something I would like to do for my blog as well and I think it would be easier and quicker to browse the archives to find old reviews. The other day I was looking for an old review you wrote and took me ages to find it.

Maybe entitling BOOK: etc. would have a quicker visual effect, but it is quite clear already what is a film and what is a book.

I'll have a look into the template. I know that Splinder is structured in this way. I could compare the two structures and see where the html code differs. Makes sense?

Anonymous guile said...

atonement.. i just love that book by ian mcewan :)..

Blogger Mircalla said...

I'll have to buy and read this book.

I gave it to my Italian friend as a gift and she found it a bit hard to read (she speaks English but she doesn't live in an English language country)...

Blogger carrie_lofty said...

Atonement? Yes, I would think it very difficult in another language, even one you understand very well. The only hint I had at its finale - the "twist" at the end - was a single, very unusual word he repeated twice in the text. After I read the book and understood it all, that one word - repeated - turned out to be a clue I had noticed without realizing its significance. Of course, if you haven't read it, I won't tell you what the word is :)

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