Friday, 29 April 2016

Broadway Book Club Discussion of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers

This is one of the first novels in a long time that everybody loved- though the discussion was thorough, there was not a bad word said against McCullers' classic pre-World War II, Post-Depression story of isolation and frustration in a small Southern mill town. The novel follows a small community at the tail end of the depression and their battles with poverty, isolation and oppression. We follow the experiences of five lonely individuals and see their ways of coping with their situations and their trials.

We talked initially about the characters of the novel, the four individuals that gravitate towards deaf-mute John Singer and Singer himself. We discussed how Singer is a totally blank canvas- we know nothing of his past or personality. This leaves Mick, Biff, Dr Copeland and Jake Blount an empty space to pour their thoughts into, a man devoid of history that they can assemble and create for themselves, however they want him to be. Each projects a wonderful figure onto him, designating him a listener, a friend, a wise man and confidant. Singer's silence makes them free to say and do what they want. One reader pointed out that the four characters' relationship to Singer is wholly selfish kind of love- none of them make any attempt to get to know him, to understand him at all. They just use him as a receptacle for their worries, frustration and thoughts.

14 year old Mick emerged as most people's favourite. Musical and independent, she wrestles with the neighbourhood boys and takes care of her younger siblings. We talked about Mick's coming of age, how her ending is so heartbreaking. Poverty steals Mick's dreams and ambitions, as she is required to drop out of school and work for $10 a week at Woolworths. The music she has heard in her head, her symphonies and her dreams of snowy places are gone to her as she has to accept her lot in life.

Biff, the owner of the New York Cafe is an interesting though thoroughly mysterious character. He does not know or understand himself, which leaves him unable to confide in Singer in the same way as the other three characters do. He feels nothing when his wife dies. We discussed how Biff's most memorable behaviour is noteworthy because of its traditionally gendered associations. He takes pleasure in beautiful scents and fabrics. He demonstrates a skill for interior design, aesthetics and floral arrangements, all activities with feminine connotations. He expresses a desire to be a mother (not father or parent) to Mick and Baby, which is a striking choice of words for a middle aged man with such a masculine appearance that he has to shave twice a day. We decided that his 'love' for Mick was quite maternal rather than romantic and probably his way of coping with his isolation.

Jake Blount, with his overt communist ideology is a surprising character to find in an American novel of this period. We discussed how, if the novel was set or written 10-15 years later, this would not have happened, especially considering that McCarthyism, the Rosenbergs' execution and so on would take place not much later along the USA's historical timeline. Where Mick has her "Inside Room" and her "Outside Room" which she uses to compartmentalise her life, to escape her reality, Blount has booze to provide his escape. He's a fighter, a communist, a drunk, a philosopher and a would be revolutionary- and he's nothing at the same time. A drifter.

We talked for a while about Dr Copeland and his contrast with his children. It's interesting to see a narrative that seems to be (probably one of many) genesis points of the Civil Rights movement. It's fascinating to see such a defiant character- a black man who trains as a doctor in the North and returns to the South to build a practice of patients from the black community. He speaks with a white man's dialect, much to the horror of white men. He carries himself with the dignity that he is denied, which in itself is classed as civil disobedience and lands him a night in prison. The comparatively backwards attitudes of his offspring, with their slang and their religion and badly paid servant jobs contrasts with the figure of their father and his purpose. We talked about the contrast, how much more complicated it made the Copelands and how their difference really emphasised the disparity of the issues faced by African Americans in the South of the 1930s.

We discussed the author's use of pace in the novel and how opposite it was to most writers' approaches. There is no build up to key events- they just happen with shocking speed and a realistic abruptness. Biff's wife dies within a sentence. Mick's loss of virginity, Singer's ending. Baby's shooting. All these key plot events appear without build-up, fanfare or foreshadowing- it feels so realistic and un-novel-like.

We loved how everybody who is ordinarily voiceless (African Americans, the disabled, the young, the marginalised) are all represented and given a voice in this novel. Not only given a voice, but authentic, thought provoking situations that demonstrate their social difficulties and struggles. It was mentioned that modern novels such as The Help often attract criticism for their portrayal of black characters, but McCullers presents her characters as complex and flawed, frustrated and struggling against a unique and complicated set of problems. We talked about the sheer volume of empathy in this book- it's staggering how much understanding and perspective is demonstrated by a young, white woman in 1939. Her empathy with the oppressed, her understanding of the complexity of that oppression in incredible.

We praised the book's dream-like quality, the abundance of subtext and the beautiful prose that was kind of vague but compelling. It's a timeless novel that feels unanchored in time (despite references to the Nazis and fascism) very relevant today.

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