Tuesday, August 23, 2005

book report: Conjure Wife

I finished Lieber's novella last week. In a nutshell? It was good, but not life-changing. I've read a lot of good things about this story, so maybe it was over-hyped in my head before I got to it.

Through most of my reading I was really conscious of its datedness. It was written in the late 1930's, I believe, and you can really see that early-twentieth-century transition in style, from narrative to scenic emphasis. I found parts of it, especially the beginning, overly descriptive and info-dumpy, but considering the length of the work it was probably appropriate. Lieber summarized in a lot of places where I wouldn't have, but then I also read somewhere that the story was originally published in serial form. So that explains both the cliffhanger-endings of chapters and the tendency to step back from the action and rehash the setting at the beginning of each chapter.

Strangely, perhaps, I kept remembering that the story was written and set just prior to World War II--and for some reason hard-wired into me that I don't fully understand, all the machinations of witchcraft on a small college campus seemed unbearably trivial in the wake of what I knew was coming. I could make a case, if I were so inclined, that the whole book is about the triviality of academia--the descriptions of the professors and their social lives makes this point more than once. It also works as a satire of how deadly seriously some women take their petty little machinations. But other people have made those points, at length, so I won't.

A lot of people, when they talk about this story, point out the subtle sexism, if not outright misogyny. It is there, but mostly in the narrator, Norman's, point of view. To my ear, the story offers an ironic explanation for why every good man has a good woman behind him. I could make a case that Norman was actually the old-fashioned one, clinging to old ideas about wives and domestic hierarchy, but that would be a waste of time and is probably just my own baggage, anyway. I found myself thinking, at the end of the book, that Norman was probably in for a hell of shock, to find out he was being topped from below--I had the feeling there would be a seismic shift in the power balance of that relationship.

I enjoyed the story. There were a lot of genuinely creepy moments in there--the old-fashioned atmospheric chills without the Victorian verbosity and inverted sentence structure--thank God. Some of it was even suspenseful. The tone, and the balance of arcane and mundane, are exactly what I've sought to find in the Trace stories, and I remarked to Scott that I wished I'd found that book six months ago.

But at the end, it leaves me rather indifferent. It was clever, but I'm not the type of reader to get off on satire just because it's clever. I think Lieber handled the characters very well, with the right balance of interior and exterior development (a theory which I am developing elsewhere), but I never really bonded with any of them--not even Norman or Tansy. I would have liked the opportunity to bond with them, but the story was so rushed and plot-heavy (and so bent on making its point) that there wasn't time. It was a well-crafted and appropriate story. I will probably read it again, but it will be for study purposes, not enjoyment.

And you know what? I find myself wishing that it had been recommended to me by another reader, rather than an editor who had to make a point about how clever and theme-heavy it was. Theme is great, but it should be something to take away after, not a steamer trunk to bring on board.

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