Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers was given to me by a friend who understands I have a fixation on American literature. Writers like Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepard and Donna Tartt illuminate the written page with astute studies of fragile individuals, sometimes ignoble, sometimes fatuous, but always accurate portrayals of the human condition in all its complexities.
I love it when a new writer is introduced to me and I have never heard about her, particularly one that is as highly skilled as this one. This writer specialised in dark gothic novels of repressed Southern passions. Her words give off a heat that permeates under the skin. She was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1917 and lived a relatively short life ending her days in Nyack, New York in 1967. By the age of 30, she had suffered three strokes but still managed to commit to paper a substantial body of material, four novels, a novella, two plays, 20 short stories, copious essays, a volume of poems and a book of children’s poetry.
Gore Vidal described her writing as,
One of the few satisfying achievements of our second-rate culture.
Vidal is not alone in his admiration; he is one of many erudite figures to praise Carson McCullers’ work, including Henri Cartier Bresson, Edith Sitwell and V.S Pritchett. This small novel is a narrative consisting of five people’s dreams, obsessions and failures interwoven. The setting for this atmospheric story is a peacetime army camp. The players of the piece, a Major and his emotionally delicate wife, Captain Penderton and his confident, coquettish, ball-breaking spouse, Mrs. Penderton, and the furtive loner, Private Williams.
The book at times reminded me of the films of David Lynch, where behind the everyday there is a darker hue that threatens to blot through and leave a nasty stain. Carson McCullers’ characters from a distance are like a very carefully chosen filter on Instagram, the final image that is produced is not necessarily true to the reality. Captain Penderton was, for me, the most compelling character: often working late into the night tanked up on wine, tea and cigarettes. A complex man who was captivating,
There are times when a man’s greatest need is to have someone to love, some focal point for his diffused emotions. Also there are times when the irritations, disappointments and fears of life, restless as spermatozoids, must be released in hate. The unhappy Captain had no one to hate and for the past months he had been miserable.
As I have written before in the review of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, great American literature is fermented in liquor and there is no paucity of booze flowing through these pages. The Captain often takes the drug Seconal and his escape through medication, pharmaceutical intervention is poetically depicted,
…it was as though a great dark bird alighted on his chest, looked at him once with fierce golden eyes and stealthily enfolded him in his dark wings.
The Captain – like all the other characters in the book – is a psychologically multifaceted creature. He suffers from an ‘unhappy restlessness’. One late winter evening he drives into a town near the post and walking the streets he finds a
…kitten hovering in a doorway….he picked up the kitten and felt it vibrate in his palm. For a long time he looked into the soft, gentle little face and stroked the warm fur. The kitten was at the age when it was first able to open wide its clear green eyes. At last the Captain had taken the kitten with him down the street, on the corner there was a mailbox and after one quick glance around him he had opened the freezing letter slot and squeezed the kitten inside. Then he continued on his way.
This description of the Captain’s nefarious action is absolutely shocking – all the more because of the manner that it is undertaken in a calm, calculated fashion. Never since I read American Psycho have I been so disturbed. The reader feels implicit in this action, you feel like you are watching, yet cannot do anything to prevent it. Carson McCullers employs this technique several times during the piece; clever writing that scars the reader. Like life, sometimes there is simply no explanation.
I read this novel in an evening and it left me with many questions that, as you would with a crossword, I kept trying to come up with a solution to. To grasp the characters’ reasons for their behaviour. At the moment the American political arena is proving to be dramatic, farcical and unbelievable. The great thing with this book is that it too presents crazy scenarios and people who are unbelievable but it is processed in prose that is poetic, philosophical and compassionate. The reflection may not always be golden but it is true and honest.