28 February 2009

Pride and Prejudice (An No Zombies)

Pride and Prejudice (1813)
By Jane Austen

“Okay, Ryan,” you’re thinking, “what the hell is this?”

Why is a guy who loves giant monster movies, has read The Lord of the Rings fifteen times, adores outrageous pulp literature, and idolizes Westerns, deciding to write a review of a Regency social romance that has already gotten critically picked over for almost two hundred years, and which we all had to read in high school or college anyway?

Good question. Here is part of the answer.

The remainder of the answer: I come not before you now to review Pride and Prejudice so much as to review myself reading Pride and Prejudice. In particular, I have to confront the nature of “taste” and its connection to “opinion,” and how my view on both has changed over the years. I’m a more critical reader today than I was in high school, of course, and I might be a bit more mature as well, although I could debate that. When I first read Pride and Prejudice in high school, I hated it as a boring, pointless, obtuse load of nothing, and had no idea why anybody considered it a classic. I was a high school kid, and hadn’t yet developed more lateral thinking.

Now, having re-read the novel for the first time in twenty years, I appreciate Pride and Prejudice as a classic of literature. I understand why it has such acclaim, and why it means as much to some readers as The Lord of the Rings means to me. Jane Austen has an intense following of “Janeites,” and I think that’s great. I admire fannish devotion, having many fannish loves myself. Fans are awesome.

But do I actually like the book? In places. But on the whole, no, not much. I found it often too easy to drift off into other thoughts while reading it, losing track of who was staying at whose estate, and who was on the outs with who. Like much Regency literature, the novel’s scenes have a way of sliding into each other, and when the physical events of the novel are essentially dinner parties, balls, walks on lanes, and drawing room conversation, a reader like me—who has read most of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Dashiell Hammett—starts to tumble into a haze until a major moment leaps out. Austen gives a great psychological sense of place—this strange world as distant to us as an alien society in its rules of etiquette and decorum—but doesn’t provide the physical sense the way a modern writer would. I only just finished reading the book and couldn’t for the life of you explain what Meryton and Longbourn look like. Such writing does not fall into Austen’s character and dialogue-driven prose style.

However, when Austen hits a dramatic high point, she really nails it. The scene where Elizabeth rejects Mr. Collins’s suit, repeatedly, while he insists over and over again that she really is actually in love with him, is almost hypnotic in how well-written the dialogue is and the intensity of the passion underlying the outward gentility. Elizabeth’s rejection of Darcy’s first proposal, perhaps the best encapsulation of the two words of the title, also delivers magnificently in the drama. I felt myself most pulled into the story when it enters the final arc over Lydia’s elopement and the fallout and panic among the characters.

However, for whole stretches of the book, I started to dial in other frequencies, such as: “Should I watch the 10:30 a.m. or the 12:15 p.m. showing of Coraline tomorrow?” and “Hamburger or turkey burgers for dinner tonight? Depends on if I still have that bottle of Pinot Grigio…”

What I can appreciate the most about Pride and Prejudice is the portraiture of characters such as Elizabeth Bennett, Fitzwilliam Darcy, Mr. Bennett, Mrs. Bennet, and silly Lydia. Although, as I’ve said, the novel takes place in a world that might as well be Pluto as far as its similarity to our own, Austen’s characters are real enough to us today, their motives recognizable even if clouded with the strictures of the early nineteenth century. This, as Austen’s sharp wit about the casual war between the sexes, is what keeps people coming back to the novel again and again, adapting it for screen, TV, radio, etc. (And I did enjoy the 2005 film with Keira Knigthley perfectly cast as Elizabeth Bennett.)

It all comes down to taste. As a reader today, I can appreciate the qualities of a work of art but still personally not enjoy it. As a reviewer, this can put me in a tough spot. I think an honest reviewer perceives what about a work will appeal to a certain crowd, and if that crowd will enjoy it, even if the reviewer doesn’t. In the case of Pride and Prejudice, the novel does brilliantly a number of things, characterization and witty turns of phrase paramount among them. What it doesn’t have is an event-filled story, which is where Jane Austen and I part ways, because I’m a “story” fellow.

Is Pride and Prejudice a great book? Yes. But I think I’ll enjoy Pride and Prejudice and Zombies far more, because… well, I like what I like. And weird is often what I like. (Ironically, I’m not that much into zombies either, but the combo is what appeals to me here.)

Six years after Pride and Prejudice’s publication, another nice young woman wrote another pleasant comedy of manners. A little more my style.