5th Discussion: Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch (21 Jan 2010)

Present:

Victor

Isaac

Timmy

Aaron

Characters:

1. Vivian has 50% of votes for being the favorite character although Isaac points out that we may be clouded by our sympathy for her plight. Aaron argues it is because she remains untainted, so loving, despite her circumstances that we like her. Victor wants to sleep with her.

2. Isaac likes Duncan because he sees himself in him and wants to screw him. Timmy, on the other hand, wants to bitch-slap Duncan because he’s a doddering idiot, wallowing in self-pity, refusing to grow up and move on. Duncan, Timmy adds, is the least realistic character as if Sarah Waters couldn’t imagine a gay man. Isaac defends Waters: it may be deliberate to write Duncan as if he were a shadow to show his character is in flux. Aaron asks, “But why choose to represent a gay man to be in flux? So stereotypical.”

3. Helen is the most hated character with an overwhelming vote of 3:1 because (we’re all saints so we can judge her) of her perfidy, her possessiveness and always playing the victim card although Aaron completely understands her insecurity and desire to be loved. Helen, like her namesake Helen of Troy who also went from one partner to the next, is very beautiful but she keeps describing herself as hideous and worthless.

4. Kay, having the savior complex, is well-liked for her righteousness, courage and fashion sense. When Aaron points out that Kay is one-dimensional, Timmy says that she is intelligent too, so that makes her 1.5-dimensional. Aaron thinks she’s too stereotypical a butch character while Isaac claims during her time, there is no other option. After the war, the energetic Kay leads an aimless, grey life, which is the novel’s aim in raising issues of the injustice of women’s inequality of having nothing to do during that period.

5. Julia is the third party to Kay and Helen. The trio’s relationship is very strange. Why does Helen leave the loving Kay for Julia? Why does it make a difference to Helen when she learns that it is Julia who loves Kay and not Kay who loves Julia? We talked about this in length – but too bad for those who didn’t come and listen to our astute comments.

6. We love butches who are named after Walt Disney characters, such as Mickey, and (Victor points out the pun) has a last name CARmichael who is a car mechanic and lives on a boat.

7. Aaron thinks that Helen is not so much a villain than Reggie and and Alec. Reggie abandons Vivian when she is nearly bled to death with the illegal abortion – how cruel is that. “Alec,” Aaron says, “shouldn’t have committed suicide. Why can’t he just be like Fraser and go to jail for pacifism? Or if he wants to die, then go somewhere else to die! Why drag Duncan down?” But Isaac claims that Alec is young and wants to make a change in the world. Alec’s death can be metaphorically read as the death of an era of art, Romanticism for example.

8. Like Kay and Julia are similar to each other, Fraser and Alec are similar. Fraser is charismatic and, in Isaac’s words, “a cocktease who flirts with anything with 2 legs.” Fraser is strange because he likes Duncan yet because Fraser is straight, he goes after Duncan’s sister whom he repeatedly remarks looks exactly like Duncan.

9. “Mr Mundy is a pedophile!” Aaron yells.

Isaac says, “But Duncan is 24.”

“Well, yes, but when Mr Mundy is 40, Duncan isn’t even born yet.”

But poor Uncle Horace Mundy, sad and lonely, comparable to the old married uncles who walk the dark alleys to cruise because in their time, there isn’t such a thing as gay rights.

10. Mr Leonard, Kay’s landlord, is the founder of scientology.

11. The story has no ending and so we think of the characters’ end. Helen will be so eaten up by jealousy that she will eventually break off with Julia and Helen will float from lover to lover. Julia will be together with the BBC-married-but-separated woman. Kay will roam the streets like Dickens’ ghost. Vivian will leave Reggie for Fraser, Fraser will have an affair. Mr Mundy dies lonely.

The only person we disagree on is Duncan. Aaron argues that at the end, Duncan leaves Mr Mundy with a devilmaycare attitude, raps on Fraser’s window, climbs in is a repetition of the scene when Alec comes to look for Duncan. Just as Alec commits suicide, Duncan will too. Isaac, on the other hand, claims that Fraser has “unstuck” Duncan and Duncan can live happy.

Themes:

1. Victor notes the theme of desertion occurring throughout the novel: by soldiers, husbands, lovers, friends.

2. Aaron asks why there are no positive male characters in this novel and wonders if the stereotype that lesbians hate men is true.

3. Courage/Cowardice – too long to type, too lazy.

4. Love: Victor notes that Helen and Vivian work in a matchmaking agency. Aaron suggests that it is because after the war, all relationships are haywired and dysfunctional and need help to repair.

5. War: It seems that it is during the war that the characters are truly living. After that, they are merely living “half-lives” (Isaac). But from the horrible ugly war, smart Isaac says, can emerge beauty too, fleeting moments but memorable, everlasting.

Style:

1. Waters’s philosophy of emphasizing “moments of being” (Virginia Woolf’s term) is in turn translated into her style where she focuses on minute details in a mundane scene, such as working in a candle factory. Though mundane, it is such moments that we remember forever.

2. Aaron notes the slow pacing of the first part of the book mirrors the lifelessness, the lethargy, the life that has already past for the characters.

3. Isaac says–and the group agrees–that the book is in real-time, reads like a script, can go onto screen immediately.

4. Simple language, no metaphors except for Julia who is a detective-story writer. In fact, _Night Watch_ can be read as a detective novel, tracing back the characters’ origins.

5. The book moves from post-war to mid-war to pre-war, a storytelling similar to movies like _Momento_ and _Irreversible_. Isaac says this goes back to the point of moving from the ugly to beauty although one must be cautioned that the characters will always be living in the past. Aaron says that such a way of storytelling prevents the characters from gaining any progress and transcendence, which is what Vivian says, “Nothing ever changes.”

Although such a method of narration won’t give the reader any surprise in plot, Waters’ prowess pulls this endeavor into a powerful book. Aaron, however, feels that there is something missing; he acknowledges the awesomeness of Waters’s writing but she is like Jennifer Hudson of the R&B, hitting all the right notes but lacking the oomph.

That being said, this is a wonderful, wonderful book. Deserves to be read.

I want to add that this is perhaps the most complex novel we’ve discussed so far.

One more thing:

Victor notes that Waters’s writing style is unstable, sometimes penetrating into the characters’ thoughts (omniscient narrator) and sometimes only skimming the surface. Aaron says that such a way of writing may be meant to mirror the queer style, to destablize the reader herself/himself.

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Filed under Lesbian, Sarah Waters, UK, War

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