I’ve already complained about the cold, impersonal way I became aware of this new novel: I had to encounter it on a shelf in Barnes and Noble, of all places. This is in spite of the fact that I subscribe to the newsletters of every conceivable publisher and check the New Releases section on Amazon at least once a week. It’s true that I don’t read the New York Times Book Review as often as I did when I held a job at which the TBR was often lying around on Monday, but this is no excuse. I am not happy, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Consider yourself warned.
This is a boarding school novel, which means that I approached it with impossible standards, standards that it met and largely exceeded (more in a moment on the novel’s very odd ending). The year is 1926, and Morgan Wilberforce is in the fifth form at a British boarding school called St. Stephen’s Academy (equivalent to being a junior in an American high school). The novel opens in the school’s infirmary (called “the Tower”), where Wilberforce is receiving treatment for a dislocated shoulder after he made an ill-advised tackle of a student named Spaulding during a rugby match. No one can understand why he attempted such a suicidal tackle, and at first Wilberforce is at a loss to explain it.
In a fiction class I’m currently taking, we are discussing a technique the instructor calls “embedded questions.” These are brief moments in the action of a novel when a detail is dropped (but not addressed at all in the moment) that plants a question in the reader’s mind (think of the polar bear in Lost). They’re a form of foreshadowing, of course, except that other forms of foreshadowing, if they’re done well, are often not apparent to the reader on a first read, while embedded questions have to be apparent in order to work, as they are part of a novel’s suspense. Wilberforce is a model of how to use these questions well. As the opening chapters unfold, we learn that Wilberforce’s mother died during his first year at boarding school. We learn that even before her death Wilberforce was babied by his three older sisters, who also liked to tell him ghost stories that scared him and also made him ashamed of his fear (this becomes relevant when Wilberforce senses a “shadow” of some kind in the Tower). We are introduced to Silk Bradley, an older student whose role in Wilberforce’s first year in Boarding school is way too complicated to explain here (note the way I’m using an embedded question to explain how the author uses embedded questions). We overhear Wilberforce lecturing himself to forget the past: “He had to stop getting confused. He had to imagine that the past was the present. When something had a name and a date, it was history. The Glorious Revolution (1688), the Council of Nicaea (325), the Wreck of the Medusa (1816), the Gallowhill Ghastliness (1923), the Confirmation Catastrophe (1923). Now the Spaulding Smashup (1926). These events could be enclosed in parentheses” (10). We learn what the last three items of this list are, of course, and we also learn that these three items are not even the slightest bit “contained” in Wilberforce’s personal history.
In these opening pages, we also meet Grieves, a history instructor who shares the third-person limited point of view with Wilberforce. At first it is unclear why Grieves merits this role. Immediately following the short paragraph I quoted above, we get this: “These events had no business assaulting him in the Tower, reminding him, for instance, of the way Mr. Grieves had looked at him after finding the skull. [The skull? What skull?] Trembling, he’d asked if Morgan had done it, stolen the skull and the photograph of Gallowhill, put one inside the other and buried them in the archaeology pit to be discovered during the dig; purposely desecrated the memory of Gordon Gallowhill, Grieves’ predecessor, beloved history master and Old Boy” (10 – the bracketed interjection is my own). These sentences contain several embedded questions; they are also a pretty damn good model of what stream-of-consciousness can look like when it’s not being beaten to death by Faulkner or Joyce. The two 1923 events from the list above, plus the Spaulding Smashup and any number of other incidents, impact this novel at regular intervals without ever being perfectly summarized or explained. We know that Grieves and Wilberforce are linked to one another by something involving a skull and a photograph and an archaeology pit, and this incident figures often in the narration of the novel, both the parts from Wilberforce’s point of view and those from Grieves’.
Central to this novel is an idea that also gets quite a bit of air time on this blog: the idea that the past is never dead. Lining up the momentous occasions from Wilberforce’s school career does not prove, as Wilberforce hoped, that events in the past can stay dead; what it proves is that the past always has the ability to reach its clammy hands into the present. Never once in this novel, as far as I can recall, does Wilberforce contemplate a career prospect, consider which university he might like to go to, or even look forward to graduation and to the freedoms of adulthood; his entire being is focused on the present and the past. Similarly, Grieves does contemplate leaving St. Stephens and at one point does actually resign, but once he does so he seems unable to plot a future other than the one he originally intended.
Wilberforce is connected to Grieves not only by the “Gallowhill Ghastliness” but also by a few chance encounters in the first third of the novel. Grieves lives not on campus but in a nearby town – a town to which Wilberforce and his friends Nathan and Laurie like to escape once or twice a week late at night for some beer and flirting in a pub called the Cross Keys. One night, early in the novel, Wilberforce goes there alone, without his friends, and meets Grieves. Wilberforce finds this coincidence supremely unsettling (Teachers go to bars???), and this incident is one of many that causes Grieves to take an interest in Wilberforce, whom he sees as secretive and, in particular, secretly unhappy. Later in the first third of the novel, Wilberforce decides to run away (this is an exception to what I wrote above, I guess, about Wilberforce never contemplating leaving school – but his mental conception of what he will do after he runs away suggests that he is not running “toward” anything, just “away from” St. Stephen’s. This time, Wilberforce takes refuge in a garden that turns out to be adjacent to the rooming house where Grieves lives. Grieves sees Wilberforce and invites him inside, and they drink tea and talk well into the night before Grieves lends Wilberforce his bicycle for the ride back to school. This evening connects them even more closely, not only because of the confidences they shared over tea but also because the next morning they discover that they have missed an incident that the school is calling “the Fags’ Rebellion.”
I should mention that the author behind this novel’s wonderful verisimilitude is neither male nor British nor old enough to have been alive in 1926. She appears to be from a demographic similar to my own, which is to say that she is an American boarding school teacher somewhere in the neighborhood of forty years old. She may have spent time in England or have family connections there – who knows – but one of her most impressive feats in the novel is how unflinchingly she manages her use of the word “fag.” I’m assuming that my readers know that “fag” in this sense means a first-year student who is assigned as a personal servant of sorts to a senior student. I have heard multiple explanations of how and why “fag” (which can also refer to cigarettes, of course) took on its current meaning as a derogatory term for a gay man and I don’t know which source to trust, but it is generally understood that the servitude asked of “fags” was sometimes sexual in nature.
So anyway, the Fags’ Rebellion. Wilberforce’s friend Nathan has a younger brother in the first-year class named Alex, and at the outset of the novel Wilberforce, Nathan, and Laurie feel that it is their personal responsibility to “sort out” Alex. “Sort out” in this sense means to harass, haze, intimidate, or torture someone until they stop doing whatever behavior the sorter finds objectionable (I’ve caught myself using this expression a few times since I started reading this novel – a couple of times with regard to the cat, but also with regard to the mildew in the shower, an endless flood of difficulties involving Turnitin.com, and my dad’s defective hearing aids from the VA). Their attitude toward Alex is not entirely malevolent, though their actions sometimes are. Wilberforce has spent some summers with Nathan’s family and sees Alex as a younger brother of sorts, and he seems to have a sense of blind faith that failing to “sort out” Alex’s various behavioral issues would be a form of neglect. Fast forward a bit, and on the night Wilberforce spends in Grieves’ kitchen, Alex and a few other first-year students explode something in the chemistry lab, use melted wax to seal off all the locks on campus, and then take the school’s entire collection of disciplinary canes and burn them in a giant bonfire. Wilberforce and Grieves return in the morning to a school in chaos, as the adults in charge are threatening various things and classes are cancelled so all adult manpower can be devoted to “sorting out” the Fags’ Rebellion.
Wilberforce, having recently come to the realization that the reason he tackled Spaulding so insanely hard during the rugby match is that he would like to have sex with Spaulding, uses the down time after the Fags’ Rebellion to pursue said aim. Classes resume, but the administration continues to use student messengers to call students out of class to be interrogated, so Wilberforce and Spaulding start posing as messengers to pull each other out of class and have assignations in a place called “the Hermes Balcony” (which reminds me of a closed-off balcony at a school where I once taught, which went by the less-classically-inspired name of “JFK’s secret brothel,” but I digress). Their infatuation for each other develops rapidly, and Wilberforce and Spaulding soon start to plot to scare off Rees, another boy who is in love with Spaulding. Rees threatens suicide and then follows up with a note indicating that he has left campus to hang himself in an abandoned barn that is sometimes used for trysts. Unable to stay away, Spaulding insists on going to the barn and stopping Rees’ suicide, and Wilberforce comes along to supervise and assist.
Reluctantly, I am going to stop summarizing for a bit. The aftermath of Rees’ suicide attempt marks the end of the first of three parts of this novel. The parts are roughly equal in length. Parts 1 and 2 both begin with Wilberforce nursing an injury and end in a dramatic event at the abandoned barn, and even though this is a literary novel and extremely character- and language-driven, it is also a suspenseful novel and I don’t want to tell you everything that happens. What I want to do instead is jump ahead to Part 3, in which the novel kind of goes rogue. Parts 1 and 2 are so symmetrical; in the hands of many authors they would have been too symmetrical, predictably so, though in this case Cross builds these sections up with so much detail and insight into the characters’ interior lives that the symmetry becomes the least of one’s focal points as one reads. At the end of Part 2, a new headmaster has been hired at St. Stephen’s, and John Grieves is having a series of conniption fits because the new headmaster is a Person From His Past (Grieves refers to him only as “the person” and effectively stops functioning once he realizes that “the person” is present on campus). Since we have dipped into Grieves’ past quite generously during Parts 1 and 2, we know that Grieves spent long stretches of his childhood at the home of “the Bishop” and was raised nearly side by side with the Bishop’s son Jamie. These memories are generally characterized as positive in nature – though we know that Grieves became a Quaker as an adult and had to put distance between himself and the religious authorities of his childhood. We do eventually learn that the new headmaster is Jamie, the son of the bishop, though we never learn why Grieves is so deeply ashamed and horrified to see him. Since Grieves’ story often echoes Wilberforce’s story, my best guess is that Grieves and Jamie may have had a tryst of some kind and that it ended badly, but this is truly only a guess.
Grieves’ consternation makes more sense once we begin Part 3 and it becomes clear that Jamie is an asshole (a deep, deep asshole, in the words of a former professor of mine). His first act as headmaster is to remove Wilberforce from campus after Incident-in-the-Barn #2 and deposit him at the home of Jamie’s own father, “the Bishop” of Grieves’ memories. The headmaster promptly leaves, and Wilberforce has no idea if he has been expelled from school or disowned by his father or enrolled in a religious education program or what. He assumes that he has been brought to the Bishop’s house for a punishment of some kind and that the fact that no one mentions this punishment or arrives to inflict it is meant as an additional torment. Part 3 is fascinating (and I will tell you more about it in a moment), but it is also baffling, because in this section the narration largely stops swooping into the past. I am not going to claim that there is no reference at all to the Gallowhill Ghastliness or to other events of Wilberforce’s past, and Wilberforce definitely does think about Spaulding and others from school, but the notion that “the past is not dead; in fact, it’s not even past” largely goes away. Part 3 is rooted in the present. Wilberforce is drafted to help the children at a local orphanage prepare for a cricket match, and he finds he loves the kids and the experience of coaching. He goes for long, pleasurable, cleansing runs in the countryside. He reads. He verbally spars with the Bishop’s adult daughters and has a brief (and disastrous) tryst with one of the Bishop’s servants, and he also has long talks with the Bishop about who he is and where he is going in life – talks that sometimes send him into fits of guilt and shame but that also seem to help him to understand himself and free him from the pain of acting without understanding his motivations. But get this: after everything Cross does in Parts 1 and 2 to establish the fact that Wilberforce and Grieves are connected to one another through a series of coincidentally shared experiences and to establish the fact that something terrible happened to sever what had once been a pleasant relationship between Grieves and Jamie, Grieves is almost never mentioned in Part 3. There is one moment when Cross summarizes the things Wilberforce talks about with the Bishop, and the summary includes a statement that they talked about Grieves, but there seems to be no reference to the fact that the Bishop and Grieves once knew each other well. I can imagine that a stately figure like the Bishop might want to keep his own family’s personal history out of his counseling sessions with Wilberforce, but I can’t imagine why Cross chose not to follow through on a plot line that seemed so important at the end of Part 2. I did notice that the bio of Cross on the book jacket does say that “she is working on a second book set at St. Stephen’s Academy,” so perhaps a sequel is in the works that will answer some of these questions. But even books in series generally answer most of their central questions by the end – and then establish or hint at new questions that will need to be answered in the next book – and I was just stunned that this book did not do so. My estimation of the novel hasn’t gone down as a result, though I felt a little silly as I desperately read the last few pages, convinced even with only a few pages left that all the questions about Grieves’ backstory with Jamie and the Bishop would somehow be answered.
Before I move on to some final thoughts about the larger ideas in the novel, I want to say a bit about its language. I’m not sure if I have ever read another novel as dense with meaning as this one. If I have, it was probably one of Faulkner’s. There are hundreds of individual sentences in this novel that are entire short stories (or poems) in themselves, packed with layers of connotation and meaning: “The tide was turning, dangling before him a glorious opportunity to do for Spaulding what Spaulding could not do for himself in the life-giving radiance of Eddystone – the voice exhorted him to untangle his metaphor and reattach his brain” (154). Untangle his metaphor and reattach his brain. I don’t know what it means, but I doubt if there is a seventeen year-old in the world who would not be well-advised to take this advice. Then there is this rant of John Grieves’, delivered during a break in a day-long cricket match between current students and alumni on the day Jamie arrives at the school: “He might be a lowly undermaster, but he was still a freeborn Englishman with all the rights due him. Those rights included not being saddled with noxious Old Boys; not being issued directives (sort out the cricket) without why or wherefore; not having to bowl unaided for hours while an inebriated side fielded like a flock of mental defectives; and it included the right not to have pestilence from the past thrust up his nose at lunch sans explanation of any kind” (242). During the same cricket match, Wilberforce faces down his own former child molester, Silk Bradley (Playing cricket against his former child molester! This novel is SO good!), and when his bat connects with the ball, Cross writes that “his hands tingled like the time he had stuck a finger in one of Uncle Charles’ electrical sockets” (244). This last simile may be fairly average in and of itself, but what makes it great is that we already know that Spaulding’s first name is Charles but that Wilberforce doesn’t like to call him by his first name because it reminds him of his uncle – so in this one moment of bat connecting with ball we have the tormentor of Wilberforce’s past, the lover of his recent past, the perceived sexlessness of Wilberforce’s uncle, and the feeling of electricity running through everything. On the school’s departing headmaster, Grieves remarks, “Burton never had qualms about taking a set of verbal steak knives to whomever he chose” (274), and then there’s Wilberforce on Romantic poetry: “He didn’t know as much as he supposed he ought about Wordsworth; he knew that the man went stiff over daffodils and the French Revolution but otherwise spent his time mooning over fey, abstract subjects with other opium-eating characters like Shelley (a girl if ever there was one), Byron (a crackbrain and a rake), and Keats (also a girl, and a hypochondriac too)” (326). This rant on Wordsworth becomes even more entertaining when one realizes that it triggered by the Bishop telling Wilberforce to read “Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God,” which is a poem by John Donne that Wilberforce mistakes for a poem of Wordsworth’s. Then there’s John Grieves preparing himself to say goodbye to Jamie: “John spoke firmly to himself: this would pass. The person would presently depart. If forced to shake the person’s hand, he could allow his hand to be shaken. The person could say what he wished, but John need not respond. He need not, strictly, be present. His body was required, but not his essential self. That could adjourn into the evening sky, which the wind had scraped bare of clouds, making space for the sun to beat down” (248). That last passage should give you a sense of why I was so startled when the history between Grieves and Jamie was not developed in Part 3.
But now for some final thoughts. Part 3 of the novel does not do much of what I expected it to do – but it is nevertheless very compelling and does seem to have a moral or message of some kind. The Bishop is one of those wise, enigmatic adults that are always so appealing in coming-of-age narratives: the Robin Williams character in Good Will Hunting, Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy, various characters in the Harry Potter series (Dumbledore sometimes, when he steps outside of his headmaster role, but more often Sirius Black and the other adults who mentor Harry without holding official authority), and so forth. I’ll admit to a bit of envy, since in a way the Bishop has my dream job. He lives on a country estate with servants and a huge library, and every so often someone shows up on his doorstep with a Troubled Young Person whom he talks to and listens to and disarms, and through a long circuitous series of events this mentor figure manages to convince the young person that he/she is just right the way he/she is – that in spite of the years and years that we spend being told to listen to authority there are also times in life when the right course of action is to stop listening and just act, that they are correct in their perception that the world is full of bullshit.
For most of Part 3, the Bishop seems to be trying to move Wilberforce from Kohlberg’s stage 1 – in which a person is motivated by fear of punishment – into Kohlberg’s stage 5 or 6, in which we act out of principled conscience and a respect for the social contract. (Stages 2, 3, and 4 involve acting out of desire for a reward, desire for social acceptance, and/or respect for the human constructs of law and order, for those who missed that day in AP Psych.) I never stopped eagerly turning pages, but I did spend parts of Part 3 jockeying between cheering on the Bishop and wondering if this lesson in adolescent psychology was the best way to conclude such a rich, multi-faceted novel. And then something ABSOLUTELY BAFFLING happens – and now I don’t know what I think, and I really, really, really want to talk about this book with someone who has read it.
Someone? Anyone? Please?