Photo: Courtesy of Riverhead Hardcover.
Here's a silver lining on this rainy, foggy week in NYC: The grim weather is, at least, appropriate for the dreary mood of the first four chapters of In Paradise, this month's pick for the R29 Book Club (if you're just tuning in, catch the first post here — and everyone, join us next Friday, May 16, for chapters five through eight).
The maddening thing about this book is the fact that you never know quite how to feel. Though the story is based on an actual spiritual retreat undertaken by Matthiessen and others, and though he is presumably represented here by the cranky and rather snooty protagonist Clement Olin, the book itself doesn't seem to take any sides. This is a pretty rare feat for writing of any kind. While any analogies between TV and literature will always be clouded by the difference in media and consumption behaviors, this does bring to mind some recent discussion on the prevalence of the antihero trope in this Golden Age of television. Think about Breaking Bad, Mad Men, or House of Cards. These shows all benefit from great writing, but despite that (or because of it, depending on the episode) viewers are rarely able to truly internalize the evilness of their beloved protagonists. I'm guilty of it, certainly — though I know that Frank Underwood is pretty much the scum of the Earth, I'm still rooting for him to succeed. Perhaps it's just human nature to automatically side with the face that gets the most screen (or page) time?
If that's true, then it's only a further testament to Matthiessen's skill with this novel so far. Though Olin is obviously the main character, and our gateway to the story, we (or at least, I) have very little clear indication of who is in the right, here. Guilt over the Holocaust isn’t a new idea in literature or life — but it's this ambiguity that makes this particular treatment of the subject feel different. With such incomprehensible human tragedy, there's often a tendency toward bland, empty statements about how horrific things are, an almost cheap caricature of grief and loss, good guys and bad guys. Contrary to that, Mathiessen is painting us a more nuanced picture. One of the most uncomfortable (and powerful) moments is Olin's consideration that not every victim of the Holocaust could possibly have been a perfect person. As with any other group of people, there were innocent children, virtuous adults, crooks, liars, middle-of-the-road people, people just trying to get by, and men and women who pretty much embody every other possible combination of human qualities. That might sound offensive, but after sitting with it for a while, I concluded that it's actually much worse to automatically project some kind of innocence or frailty onto all the dead, homogenizing them into one great swath of martyrdom in a mythologized tapestry of a real, historical event. Another book that does an amazing job combatting that tendency is Art Spiegelman's graphic novel Maus, which, thematically, shares a lot with In Paradise (beyond the obvious common subject, it also deals with the historiography of the Holocaust, and its effects on the next generation).
So, essentially, at this point, Mathiessen has shown us that guilt is an emotion that spares nobody. Germans feel guilty by association and sometimes by blood relation. Americans feel guilty for not doing enough to help. The children of Polish immigrants feel guilty for not being born in harder times. Catholic nuns feel guilty for a variety of inscrutable but undoubtedly complex reasons. And, anyone visiting Auschwitz feels guilty for the fact that they can come and go as they please, and return home to a good meal and a warm bed at the end of the day. Most of all, these spiritual seekers feel guilty and, more so, confused by the implication they're visiting this eerie place in search of some personal satisfaction or gain. On top of it all — as evidenced by the way Olin's brief relationship with two generous locals suddenly turns sour and aggressive — no amount of grief or guilt ever feels like enough. Everyone seems perpetually at each other's throats, ready to pounce should someone say something off-color or somehow insensitive. The interesting question to consider as we read the rest of the book (and, in particular, the next four chapters) will be whether there is any chance for redemption. Can the spiritual seekers gain enlightenment from this retreat without being tainted by the darkness of the surroundings?