Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Hours: A Clever Facsimile of a Classic Novel

I first got interested in Michael Cunningham's novel The Hours when it was adapted for a movie in 2002. The movie attracted a lot of attention because it stars three big-time actresses, each in her own story.

Nicole Kidman plays the great novelist Virginia Woolf on the day in 1923 when she begins to write her famous novel Mrs. Dalloway. Her title character, Clarissa Dalloway, a well-adjusted hostess and political wife living in London, is preparing to give a party that evening.

Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf
This and all photos are Internet grabs
Meryl Streep plays a modern adaptation of Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Vaughn, a well-adjusted hostess living in New York and the 'wife' in a gay marriage in the 1990s. She is preparing to give a party for a dear friend, Richard, who is about to receive a prestigious literary award.

Meryl Streep as Clarissa Dalloway
Julianne Moore plays a depressed and pregnant housewife living in Los Angeles in 1949, Laura Brown, whose young son, Ritchie, is already frightened of life. She is baking a cake for her husband's birthday, and later makes time to read halfway through Mrs. Dalloway.

Julianne Moore as Laura Brown with her young son, Ritchie
Making his novel turn back on itself, Cunningham has the frightened child turn up in Clarissa Vaughn's story as her poet friend, Richard, the one who is about to receive an award. He is off his rocker because he is suffering from AIDS. Richard is an adaptation of a character in Mrs. Dalloway called Septimus Smith, a veteran of World War I whose mind is shattered. He is suffering from PTSD. Both men end up committing suicide.

So there are stories about the author, the characters, and a reader of Mrs. Dalloway. Both the novel and the movie chopped these stories up and tossed them together like a salad, leaving it up to readers and viewers to figure out who's who and what's going on.

You could hardly accuse Cunningham of following a formula for popularity. On the contrary: The Hours is complicated and literary, not usually considered attractive qualities. Moreover, all three stories are about characters who doubt the value of living. The author himself has confessed to being prone to depression.

Yet The Hours was popular even before it was made into a movie; it was adapted for film because it was already popular. Not only that, but there was a big surge in sales of Mrs. Dalloway. Book clubs discussed the correspondences between the two novels, and where they diverge.

So we have two questions: What was Cunningham's motivation for composing this particular novel? And why is it appealing to readers?

Apparently the author's primary motivation was to create an homage to Virginia Woolf, one of the greatest and most under-read authors of the first half of the 20th century. Clearly her decision to end her own life haunted him, and he also felt challenged to imitate her innovative style.

Portrait of Virginia Woolf
Mrs. Dalloway was a ground-breaking, mind-blowing novel. Woolf herself used a trick devised by James Joyce in Ulysses of shaping the novel around the events of a single day—instead of telling a story with a regular plot—and following the inner life, the stream-of-consciousness, of the characters. In his homage, Cunningham used this approach to explore the inner life of three different types of women who live in different places and times.

As a writerly challenge, I can imagine that Cunningham enjoyed working up such a complex literary puzzle, and apparently the puzzle aspect of reading the novel turned out to be a major attraction.

But we also have to look squarely at the subject of depression. Virginia Woolf's depression was caused by bouts of mental illness, and she carried it to the logical extreme of suicide, which Cunningham imagined in detail in a prologue to his novel. In his novel, Clarissa Vaughn's literary friend drops out of a window because of his suffering from AIDS. These are external causes of depression. By contrast, Laura Brown is depressed because she made a bad life choice when she married and hates the role she feels obligated to play; we eventually learn that instead of suicide, however tempting, she chose to re-structure her life, leaving her frightened son behind. Like Laura Brown, Clarissa Vaughn feels constrained by her role in life, but she manages to pull it off by intentionally clinging to the life of the senses, obsessively noticing every detail of her experience.

So the novel was a way for Cunningham to work out reasons to live, to compare the value of living with the temptation of dying. And, therefore, we have to assume that a lot of readers identify with characters suffering from depression and are themselves trying to find some reason for living.

Diagnostically, there seem to be two causes of depression in this novel, discounting organic factors. First, all the characters are trying to shape themselves to meet someone else's expectation, or to convention, or to some impossibly high standard, instead of just being whoever they are without self-doubt and self-criticism. Warping their own behavior and suppressing their own impulses has sucked all the joy out of their lives. Second, all of their thoughts are incredibly convoluted—they watch and evaluate their own thoughts and reactions, and they imagine what others think of them and wonder if it is true, all while precariously trying to do ordinary things. Here's just one example: “She runs down the stairs and is aware (she will be ashamed of this later) of herself as a woman running down a set of stairs, uninjured, still alive.” I hate to think of anyone's mind being so congested.

Besides depression, another aspect of the novel that is trendy is the way it deals with homosexuality. The poet Richard is a talented gay man dying pitifully from AIDS. Clarissa Vaughn is in a gay marriage. Both Virginia Woolf, in the Prologue, and Laura Brown have treasured moments of intimacy with other women, and feelings they must hide. Cunningham treats all these characters sensitively and respectfully, and many readers may be longing to see different approaches to sexuality treated frankly but unsensationally.

The Hours has the pleasures and the drawbacks of Disney World or Las Vegas. It's cunning, clever, and amusing. It's carefully crafted and its themes are relevant. It is also studied, artificial, and contrived.  It is over-wrought and over-worked.

Stylistically, the worst problem with The Hours is excess verbosity. Instead of evoking an environment with a few salient details, Cunningham verbalizes every detail, far more than the character could possibly have noticed or cared about. Instead of describing a feeling with one powerful metaphor, he gives you a half a dozen, until the effect is diluted. It's as though he couldn't decide which wording he liked the best, so he just poured in the whole batch.

After I saw the movie version of The Hours, I was motivated to read the novel, and the novel motivated me to tackle Virginia Woolf, whose work had frightened me in my youth. If you compare her Mrs. Dalloway with The Hours, you see a great work of fiction contrasted with a clever concoction. I read Woolf's novel again not so long ago; click here to read my review: Mrs. Dalloway.

Now that Cunningham is rich and famous (he won the Pulitzer prize in 1999), do you think he still suffers from depression? Does he still struggle hyper-consciously to get through each hour like his characters?

Michael Cunningham
Maybe not. From his publicity still, I'd say he feels pretty smug. However, if he were to suffer from self-doubt (and worry about his self-doubt, and long to feel confident like other writers he knows, and chastise himself for worrying about his self-doubt), I could suggest that he might find life even more satisfying if, instead of writing a clever imitation of someone else's masterpiece, he could try writing his own novel in his own style and his own voice. I think all his elaborate layers of artifice are burying the novel he really needs to write.