Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 141: Edith Wharton, Xingu (#56)

Edith Wharton, "Xingu" (1911) from Edith Wharton: Collected Stories 1911–1937:

Much like Charles Chesnutt's "Baxter's Procrustes," Edith Wharton's "Xingu" is a pretty hilarious demolishment of self-important book clubs that aren't as booky as they think they are. This club is a much less formal affair than Chesnutt's, taking place in the houses of the women who belong; which seems natural considering how interested Wharton usually is in domestic scenes and the movement of things through domestic or domestic-style spaces.

(She's so interested in that general topic that she describes people's thought processes by modeling them on interior/domestic situations:
Such opinions as she had were imposing and substantial: her mind, like her house, was furnished with monumental “pieces” that were not meant to be disarranged...
Her mind was an hotel where facts came and went like transient lodgers, without leaving their address behind, and frequently without paying for their board.
I don't mean that Wharton is unintentional about this, as if she just falls into domestic and interior scenes. She's very deliberate about her interest in women's domestic and liminal spaces. Well, I'm off to read House of Mirth again. (OK, for the first time.))

Each of the women in the book club has her own issue, from the people-pleasing Mrs. Leverett to the nonfiction-minded Mrs. ... actually, I don't remember which woman that was. Plinth? It doesn't surprise me that I can't remember their names, since they all basically boil down to some caricature of a particular failure of reading, without much depth. Even the "heroine," Mrs. Roby, isn't very skilled as a reader, but at least she's not a hypocrite about it:
Mrs. Roby took this rebuke good-humouredly. She had meant, she owned, to glance through the book; but she had been so absorbed in a novel of Trollope’s that—
“No one reads Trollope now,” Mrs. Ballinger interrupted.
Mrs. Roby looked pained. “I’m only just beginning,” she confessed.
“And does he interest you?” Mrs. Plinth enquired.
“He amuses me.”
“Amusement,” said Mrs. Plinth, “is hardly what I look for in my choice of books.”

“Do they get married in the end?” Mrs. Roby interposed.
“They—who?” the Lunch Club collectively exclaimed.
“Why, the girl and man. It’s a novel, isn’t it? I always think that’s the one thing that matters. If they’re parted it spoils my dinner.” 
You may play a sad trombone now: our objects of ridicule, like Plinth, are women who read books as fashion accessories, with certainty that what/how they read is the right way; while our object-of-less-ridicule is the kind of person who only reads for entertainment and always wants a pat happily-ever-after ending.

When famous author Osric Dane comes to luncheon and the talk is strained, Roby's prank on the rest of the group is that she starts talking about something called Xingu, which everyone (including Dane) pretends to have read about. Is it a philosophy, a religion, a book, a culture? No, it turns out (after Roby and Dane leave) to be a river in Brazil; and the joke is that everything that Roby said about it could sound like either a river or something else. (It has many branches, it's deep in places, it's hard to get at the origin, you have to wade through it.)

Which, like Baxter's prank on his reading club, is a fun way to show up the shallowness of these readers and a clever switcheroo. But I can't help feel that this is the sort of story that appeals to people who think they are good readers, not at all like those other people who read improperly. That is: it's a story that satirizes people who think they know how to read and flatters readers who also think they know how to read. It's got that mean, flattering streak of an inside joke.

It is, however, incredibly funny:
Mrs. Ballinger is one of the ladies who pursue Culture in bands, as though it were dangerous to meet alone.
Mrs. Leveret felt like a passenger on an ocean steamer who is told that there is no immediate danger, but that she had better put on her lifebelt.

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