I remember reading Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf back in high school. It must have been junior year, the same year I decided to become an English major. And Mrs. Dalloway took me completely out of my depth. I remember that 11th grade was the first time I’d even heard of stream of consciousness. I had no idea how to handle it. That same year we read The Sound and the Fury by Faulkner. Our teacher walked us expertly through Faulkner and I loved it. But Woolf floored me. And bored me. Getting flowers “herself”, for a party, this first sentence and background theme is supposed to impress me? Get outta here. I’ll be over here reading Fight Club.
Then we read Woolf this year and I thoroughly enjoyed it – I’d changed and could appreciate it, and could even hear it, distinctly, progress from one character to another. I was no longer lost.
And then came Novel on Yellow Paper. I have to say, as a better reader than I’ve ever been, I don’t feel outmatched (though perhaps that’s the natural arc of this entry I’m writing). Reading the novel, I felt as if a narrator was leading me happily around and astray. In the first few pages of the book, the best theme (mentioned twice) is that we should figure it out ourselves.
A 2009 review I found describes it in warm tones throughout. “When first published in 1936, it overnight turned Smith into a celebrity. It was swiftly followed by the first two collections of her poetry for which, today, she is better known. But the subversiveness of this novel has never lost its appeal, its greatness lying in its exuberant celebration of the uncircumscribed spirit.”
The article also relates Novel on Yellow Paper to Mrs. Dalloway, though it feels scant – like Mrs. Dalloway is the best known stream-of-consciousness novel known, so we unearth it to show we know what we’re talking about. To be fair, I’d say this post is doing the same thing – if not for the fact that Dalloway is an assigned book in this course. Dalloway had foil characters all striving towards the same goals, appreciating and despairing over the same themes. Novel on Yellow Paper feels like a medley of different tones and concepts. But what is the unifying force? A bubbly narrator? Does that count?
So am I a bad reader, still wanting my hand to be held? What is the payoff of reader frustration, and how does an author balance that alongside reader buy-in? Because buy-in is a real thing that ideas live and die by – a book that does not try to impress me should not be surprised if I walk away unimpressed. This is a real question. As they say, if you’re gonna jerk me around, at least buy me a drink.
The same article informs us, “”So blended and intertwisted in this life are occasions for laughter and of tears.” This line from De Quincey, which Smith quotes, perfectly describes Pompey’s condition”. Smith, our author, is literally dropping in her own quotes and giving them to characters. Which, yes, happens in some way in every novel – characters are based off real-life characters, novelists pull quotes from their friends and add them into dialogue. Hmm, I guess this thought doesn’t thread – I can’t dismiss Smith for transporting elements of her story from her poems and other works – all writers cannibalize from their lives.
I feel a fault line, and I’m trying to trace what it is that I feel. I have appreciated every book in this course up until this one – and I would love to know why.