Friday, October 24, 2008
Richard Wright: Savage Holiday (1954)
"He was trapped in freedom. How could he again make a foolproof prison of himself for all of his remaining days? What invisible walls could he now erect about his threatening feelings, desires? How could he suppress or throttle those slow and turgid stirrings of buried impulses now trying to come to resurrected life in the deep dark of him? How could he become his own absolute jailer and keep the peace within the warring precincts of his heart?" Erskine Fowler, a well-to-do white insurance executive, finds himself retired at the age of 43 due to corporate nepotism. Fowler's retirement forces him out of his secure routine and into an exploration of his unconscious desires and existential freedom (Wright at this point was living in Paris and friends with Sartre). One day after taking a shower, Fowler walks naked into his apartment's hallway to pick up his newspaper and gets locked out of his apartment. He plans to sneak back in by going to the floor balcony and climbing in through his bathroom window. But on the balcony he surprises his neighbor's neglected child, and the child falls from the ledge and dies. Fowler climbs back into his apartment and decides not to admit what happened (partially because he fears he will appear a pedophile). He decides to help the child's mother with arranging for the funeral and begins to pursue and judge the licentious woman. But his emotions vacillate between sexual desire and moral condemnation, and in a fit of anger he murders the woman. The narrative closely resembles that of Wright's "The Outsider" and "Native Son," where an unexpected event forces the protagonist towards existentially, morally, and psychologically unclear ground, and murder becomes a means to maintain or escape that position. What is unique about this book is that the protagonist is white - he doesn't flee the urban poverty of African Americans living on Chicago's South Side. Fowler is materially privileged to be on a permanent holiday from work. Yet Wright doesn't fully succeed in his portrayal of Fowler: his ventriloquism of Fowler's Christian moralism and corporate executive thinking feels like a parody, and Fowler ultimately remains far more distanced from the reader than Wright's other, far more murderous, protagonists. What really drags the book down and keeps it a minor work is the Freudian psychology that is heavy-handedly at the core of the narrative. Wright directly aims to show what happens when an individual discovers at a belated point in life that she has an unconscious (Fowler had repressed details about his prostitute mother abandoning him). The novel ends with a direct explanation of Fowler's actions (think of the psychological explanation tagged on to the end of Hitchcock's "Psycho), which informs the reader that Fowler had re-enacted a misogynist dream he had as a child in order to fully remember it. The novel also takes a long detour into explaining that the child who died panicked so much because the child was traumatized by seeing its mother have sex with numerous men, and therefore was exceptionally frightened by Fowler's naked body. Even if these two psychological explanations had been left implicit (which would have allowed a few more unnecessary critical essays on the book), they are too simple and pat. Their revelation comes across like the solution to a mystery novel, where we find out who killed whom how, though the unconscious is much less knowable than a crime scene. In the end, the novel feels less like a narrative informed by Freud's ideas than an imaginary case study presented to support Freud's claims.