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Sensation 

The Victorians are us

Wednesday, Feb 6 2002

Matthew Sweet is a writer on a mission. The Victorians -- those uptight, bowler-hatted, cane-twirling 19th-century snobs we love to hate -- were, he insists, much less uptight and snobbish than we think, even if they did wear bowler hats. In fact, argues Sweet, we may have deliberately misread their culture ”in order to satisfy our sense of ourselves as liberated moderns.“

This, as Sweet chooses to ignore, is by now a fairly shopworn thesis, thanks in large part to the pioneering work of American cultural historian Peter Gay, whose new Schnitzler‘s Century provides a decorous coda to his monumental five-volume study, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud. But the fact remains that Sweet’s often tendentious book is a much livelier read than Gay‘s latest offering, which rehashes much of his earlier material and suffers from a gimmicky structure that promises far more than it delivers. For one thing, Sweet, a freelance English journalist, is a terrific writer, with a snappy and sophisticated prose style. He’s also a first-rate researcher who delights in his findings. Whether he‘s writing about Blondin, the French tightrope walker whose exploits at Niagara Falls in 1859 make those of Philippe Petit between the twin towers of the World Trade Center look tame, or investigating the 19th century’s prolific use of opium by everyone from babies to granddads (”For the Victorians,“ he writes, ”opium was the opium of the people“), Sweet is clearly fascinated by his subject, and his enthusiasm proves infectious.

But his argument, which is that the Victorians were just as ”modern“ as we are, and as addicted to sensation, novelty, entertainment and technology, seems absurdly exaggerated at times, and forces him to emphasize the latter half of Queen Victoria‘s reign much more than its early years, and often to overshoot it altogether. (It’s fascinating to read about Thomas Hardy‘s dealings in 1911 with a producer who wanted to film Tess of the d’Urbervilles -- ”I confess that my chief thought was whether it would affect book-sales,“ Hardy later wrote -- but by then Victoria had been dead for a decade.) Sweet‘s overarching moral -- that we are foolish to despise the Victorians since we live in a world they created -- also makes less sense to a reader in L.A. than in London, where, as he points out, millions of people still live in Victorian buildings and commute through Victorian-built underground tunnels.

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Nonetheless, much of what he has to say is instructive, and whether he’s writing about Victorian freak shows, drug use, advertising, homosexuality or political scandals, he finds ingenious ways to tie his topics to the present, using everyone from Monica Lewinsky to Jerry Springer to do it. In light of London‘s heavily hyped ”Sensation“ art exhibit of 1997, for instance, it’s amusing to read how in the 1860s Victorians began using the word sensation to describe ”a new type of cultural product . . . By the end of the decade, the public had experienced sensation trials, novels, paragraphs, dramas, contortionists, diplomacy, and -- in a burlesque version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame -- a sensation goat.“ Too bad Damian Hirst wasn‘t there to saw the goat in half.

In St. Burl’s Obituary, his wonderful debut novel, Daniel Akst conjured up (among other delights) a Salt Lake City in which gay Tongans ran coin laundries and a sexy radical-feminist waitress served marijuana-infused lamb at a mysterious restaurant called the Grail. In his new novel, The Webster Chronicle, Akst takes us back to the child-molestation frenzy of the 1980s. The scene is Webster, a cutesy Northeastern town whose weekly newspaper is helmed by Terry Mathers, a 40-year-old pot-smoking stutterer who has spent his life in the shadow of his celebrated journalist father, Maury Mathers, whose ponderous thoughts on the state of nations are aired nightly on network TV.

The Webster Chronicle is a novel about middle age, desperation, guilt and greed. With his paper failing, Terry rashly decides to lend editorial credence to a couple of dubious charges of child molestation at the local preschool, Alphabet Soup, in order to drum up sales. Thanks to his editorials and the soothing interviewing skills of the county‘s attractive new child-sex-abuse specialist, Diana Shirley (with whom Terry has an affair), the previously good-natured town is soon staging a nightmarish re-enactment of its witch-burning Puritan past in which every other citizen comes under suspicion. The teachers at Alphabet Soup, accused of everything from burying children in the basement to making satanic videos, are bundled off to jail while Terry himself sees the Chronicle’s sales soar and his own mug land on TV as special correspondent for his father‘s show, which has broken the story nationally and is riding it into ratings heaven.

All would be well were it not for the fact that the child-molestation charges aren’t actually true -- a niggling little fact that dawns on a chastened Terry three-quarters of the way through the novel, although neither his father nor many of the town‘s officials seem to care. Terry does, however, and his efforts to amend the situation form the climax of the story. Akst, who writes for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal (and is an occasional contributor to the Weekly), sometimes sounds too much like a journalist in this novel, which is less successful than his first, but he has a compelling gift for character and drives his narrative at a rapid clip. ”When a man ceases to believe in God, he does not believe in nothing. He believes in anything,“ he writes near the end, quoting G.K. Chesterton, and at its best The Webster Chronicle is a persuasive imagining of small-town America caught up in a New Age, politically correct version of Puritan hysteria.

Patricia Highsmith’s Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, first published in the 1960s and now reissued by St. Martin‘s Press, will appeal to two different markets. For aspiring thriller writers, it’s an offbeat and interesting example of the literary how-to book, less practically helpful than some, perhaps, but a good deal wiser and more levelheaded than most. For Patricia Highsmith fans, however, it is something more: the nearest this most enigmatic of American thriller writers (she died in 1995) came to writing an autobiography -- so far as we know.

Although there are few personal revelations, the book provides an oblique but telling glimpse into the mind of the woman who gave us Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Two Faces of January and other inimitably dark masterpieces. (”I do not understand people who like to make noise; consequently I fear them, and since I fear them, I hate them,“ she writes in one passage.) Highsmith was an unusually pure example of the genus ”fiction writer,“ for although her novels were realistic, they seem to have sprung fully formed from her brain with scarcely a trace of her own rather solitary life attached to them. She did find inspiration in the world around her, however, and advises aspiring writers to use a notebook. In the chapter ”Mainly on Using Experiences,“ she describes how a group of noisy boys frequently disturbed her while she was living in a cold-water flat in Manhattan. On one occasion, she writes, they so terrified her that ”[I] was amused to find myself standing in the far corner of the room like a scared rat“ as the boys tore up and down the fire escape outside her window.

The incident provided the inspiration for a short story (”The Barbarians“) about an architect in Italy who is driven to distraction by noisy soccer players below his window. When he asks them to keep it down, they taunt and insult him. The architect eventually reaches ”such a pitch of nerves“ that, out of frustration, he drops a stone on a player‘s head, injuring but not killing him. Instead of reporting the incident to the police, however, the players use the event as an excuse to prey on the architect (who of course can no longer go to the police himself) by beating him up and smashing his windows and generally turning his life into a living hell.

This book may or may not be able to help the reader write suspense fiction, but it does give a sense of how its author did it.

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