by Michael Cunningham
230 pages, 4th Estate
Review by Pat Black
Beautifully-written, but ponderous novels tend to awaken the beast within me. The Hours is one such book.
To get the big stuff out of the way, Michael Cunningham's 1998 masterpiece boasts an intimidating array of literary gongs - among them the Pulitzer Prize. You'll also be aware of the 2002 movie adaptation, which gave Nicole Kidman a long-sought-after Oscar for Best Supporting Beak.
I haven't seen the film, but the source novel is an enviable machine; a well-constructed tale with vivid characters, extraordinary imagery and an almost effortless telepathy between reader and writer. It doesn't hang around, either. Much like its source material, it makes its point, bows politely and leaves.
And yet, I didn't care for The Hours. It's hard to say - to admit - why. The work occupies a chilly zone in my consciousness, living next door to Alice Sebold's similarly well-written but utterly execrable The Lovely Bones and across the road from several confessional memoirs I could mention. Thanks to Cunningham's delightful prose I lived in the skin of the three women depicted in The Hours, but couldn't engage with them. Some of the motivations, the thought processes, were so utterly alien to me as to have been written about another species altogether. The characters didn't remind me of any women I know in the real world.
The Hours refers to the original working title of Woolf's greatest achievement, Mrs Dalloway, and it takes the author herself as one of the three principal characters. We open with Woolf strolling into her watery grave with stones in her pockets; from there we backtrack to her thought processes on one single day as she tussles with the plot of Mrs Dalloway, encounters problems with narky servants and spends time with her adored but curiously distant husband. There's also a visit from her sister Vanessa, whom she is queasily close to, and her children.
While Woolf goes through this single-day journey (a framing device used most famously in Mrs Dalloway and James Joyce's Ulysses, of course), it chimes with one being made by a middle-aged woman in the late 20th century. Clarissa Vaughan lives in a fancy New York apartment, is a lesbian, has a daughter and is planning a party in celebration of a respected writer and friend, a gay man who is in the final stages of full-blown Aids. This "Septimus" of Clarissa's story also happens to be her former lover in a weird triangle involving another gay man.
Clarissa (her dying friend refers to her as "Mrs Dalloway" on account of her first name... CLUNK goes the allusion) seemed absolutely ludicrous to me. Her comically tangled life is a shooting gallery of relationships, crossing the lines of sexual orientation several times. I was reminded of a line from The Smiths: this woman's travails say "nothing to me about my life". She could have been a somewhat dotty aunt of the Sex and the City quartet, past her best and befuddled without a grain of the girls' humour. Indeed, she could have been an alien beamed down from an orbiting flying saucer.
Out came the beast; I wanted to leap into the page and seize this Mrs Dalloway by the throat. As she drifts through the park on a vibrant summer morning, carefree and empty-headed as a pre-schooler gambolling across a playground, I wanted to scream at her. How can someone so obviously intelligent, and yet at the same time so incredibly vacuous, actually exist? When she teases herself with the notion that two men she passes might rob her, I thought: Yes. Please rob her. And beat her up while you're at it; good lord, she needs some reality.
The book follows Clarissa's thought processes down to the smallest detail and it may be this technique that derailed me; few of our thoughts would make for compelling literature in that sort of fine grain, and while the modern-day Mrs Dalloway is a dreamer she's not a particularly interesting one. I think this is where Cunningham falls down, and where Woolf stands tall; the latter makes her famous literary day and its meandering progress through several minds more interesting than his.
In one scene, Clarissa meets a friend of her daughter's, a politically abrasive lesbian who clearly adores her (straight) offspring. Clarissa doesn't approve of... whatever this relationship is meant to signify. So without actually saying anything to each other, Clarissa and the stranger engage in a kind of telepathic brawl, denouncing each other's stances on what it means to be gay and clashing over what's best for Clarissa's daughter. They trade vicious swipes back and forth inside their own minds, all without communicating any of it beyond sour looks and painful silences.
This scene was absolutely bonkers. It reminded me of listening to someone describing an encounter with someone they loathe, and then referring to exchanges, "home truths" and even physical acts which quite obviously didn't take place outside the commentator's imagination. In a year when I read novels about prehistoric sharks and sentient flying gryphons, this was easily the silliest passage I came across.
The third main character is Laura Brown, the pregnant wife of a Second World War hero, struggling to bake a cake for her husband's birthday. This tale of domestic frustration, yearning and disillusionment was the book's most realistic strand, but it loses its way after a promising start. First of all there was a hint at buried sapphic desire involving a cancer-stricken friend; although this was thematically relevant to the unfolding story of the three women and the one first set down by Woolf, it felt tacked-on and unnecessary to me.
Unfortunately, Laura's day features another bizarre, forehead-slapping moment. Here, a furtive Mrs Brown leaves her young boy with a babysitter, steals away from the family home, hires out a motel room for one hour, lies back on the bed and... takes a quiet five minutes to read Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway.
What? I snarled. What?!
I can't find any excuse for my appalling lack of empathy. I'm no stranger to indolence and silly moments in life, but I simply couldn't sustain any warm regard for these women apart from, on occasions, Virginia. She at least has an excuse for her eccentricities in the form of mental illness.
Before you voice the dark doubt that I simply don't like women, let me say that this book does have big themes to be explored. One is freedom from domestic oppression, whether that's Laura's brief abdication of her responsibilities as a mother and housewife, or Virginia's small act of rebellion when she walks out of her Richmond home, intending to go on an adventure for the day in London. Virginia and Laura are restrained in many ways, and we want them to break loose from their shackles in life.
But many of the book's other weighty themes - death; suicide; the gnawing sense of growing older and becoming redundant; sexual politics - are undercut by self-absorbed stream-of-consciousness narration. Although it is often colourful, poised, nuanced and brilliant in its depiction of its characters, The Hours simply doesn't find enough interesting things for them to do. And then there's an age-old irritation; the stresses and strains of people who, beyond their own selfish needs, appear to have very little to worry about in life. Perhaps there, finally, my prejudice is exposed.
So, in a way, I'm happy to recommend The Hours. Lots of readers have loved it and loaned it out, and I cannot fault the execution. Michael Cunningham is a fine writer - he clearly isn't afraid of Virginia Woolf - and The Hours is, on a literary level, a satisfying read.
But it kind of punched me in the dick. Beast that I am, it didn't get close to capturing my heart, in its depiction of creatures I simply do not know.