Saturday, November 28, 2009

heavily trafficked, north-south, east-west

In lower Manhatten, between 17th and 15th Streets, Second Avenue, running north and south, cuts through Stuyvesant Park; and at this point Second Avenue enters upon the old Lower East Side. The island here is broad between the two rivers and heavily trafficked, north-south, east-west. Here, Third Avenue up to 18th Street is still the Old Bowery, with small rented bedrooms and apartments like ratholes, cheap overnight hotels, flophouses, ginmills, fish palaces, bowling alleys, instant shoe repairers, moneylenders, secondhand clothing stores, struggling cleaning and tailors' places, barber schools, cellers where some old man or woman sells flowers and ice in summer, coal in winter, dance academies up crumbling stairs, accordion and saxophone schools and such businesses as are carried on for very poor people by very poor people and so occupy a very small space in a very old building.

If A Little Tea, A Little Chat is a stark, strict, angry book, then The People With the Dogs is a generous, open one, polar opposite of its predecessor. Stead went from the bare-bones of Peter Hoag's life to this artifact here, all twists, curves, diversions, and abundance. We've jumped from the lone man looking down on the people-fleas to life among the people-fleas themselves, and it turns out that they do a vast number of things that Peter Hoag and the rest of the characters in A Little Tea wouldn't have been interested in for a moment. The Rabelaisian pile-up concludes with the kind of nursery-rhyme repetition that Charles Dickens (king of abundance) used to do so well: "carried on for very poor people by very poor people and so occupy a very small space in a very old building." Earlier there's another near-repetition: "north-south, east-west." She's giving the reader pleasure, she's letting her brain loose after the tight box she locked it in during Tea, she's seducing us. (To put it another way: she appears to be taking pleasure in her own energy, brain, power of invention, and that pleasure is seductive.)

This seduction continues all the way through the book. The characters spend half their time talking in jokes that aren't supposed to be funny to the reader, only evidence of these peoples' jaunty complacency. "H2O or K9P," says one, looking at a pool of liquid on the floor. There are rich passages like this:

The storms of rain passed on the other side, escalading the farther bluffs. Scarcely had they passed but vapors rising in the heat, from hollows and clefts, tall, slowly forming and moving, spirits, savage men, with weapons, daggers, things habited like the Rabbi, question marks especially, and puffs of smoke, rose out of the new wet earth and shaggy heads of trees and clots of water, rags of steam, began to tear themselves out of the woods and vacillating, tried to get up again in the moving air. Meanwhile, the nearer air became purple, the garden flowers took on the flat brilliancy of silks, the lawns changed and precipitated yellow and the trees blew with the strength of the storm: they moved as if frightened, birds were hurled from their boughs …

… and so on. I often see critics talk about Stead's themes, but I don't often see them talk about her language. Diana Brydon takes a moment to say that her prose isn't beautiful and then moves on. But she's a great seductress when she's in the mood and she's in the mood here.

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