December 5, 2007

Evan S. Connell: The Diary of a Rapist

Posted in Connell Evan S., NYRB Classics at 1:25 pm by John Self

Now here is a title to conjure with. What’s a nice guy like me doing with a book like this? Well, I came across Evan S. Connell on Literature Map, when I was looking for authors similar to Richard Yates. His was the most prominent name I didn’t know, so I promptly investigated and found that he is the author of the books Mr Bridge and Mrs Bridge, made into a joint film starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward – imaginatively titled Mr & Mrs Bridge. But The Diary of a Rapist was more readily available, and had the added bonus of being published by NYRB Classics, my latest literary fetish.

The Diary of a Rapist

Here then is a book which inspires strong feelings – visceral as much as intellectual – not only when you’re reading it, but even when your eye snags on the title as it’s sitting there innocently closed. (Mrs Self has already decreed that it will not be displayed on the bookshelves once finished with.) To give it such a bold title, Connell has taken a risk – it catches the eye all right, but the fascination it evokes is ghoulish, and more will surely be put off, or uncomfortable picking it up, than will be drawn into reading. And once over the barrier and into the story, by calling it The Diary of a Rapist Connell has removed any tension or mystery, just as Bret Easton Ellis did with American Psycho. In fact that book, and Joseph Heller’s masterpiece Something Happened, were constantly in my mind as I read, though Diary predates both.

Connell’s narrator, Earl Summerfield, like Bob Slocum in Something Happened, doesn’t believe in easing us into his world gently, and gives it to us with both barrels from the start. He pities and despises his co-workers, but not as much as he hates his wife Bianca:

If it wasn’t for Bianca I’d have been able to make something out of myself by this time. She’s ruined everything. There’s no limit to what I might have done by now. She knows it too. I guess it gives her some sort of pleasure.

That’s on page 2. By page 7 Summerfield is already considering that “I think it’s certain mannerisms of women that makes us want to kill them.” He quickly warms to his theme, when he’s watching two schoolgirls that his wife tutors on a Saturday:

Don’t know why I despise them. They act so innocent but then something turns up in the papers like last week when one of these little innocents was “taken into protective custody” because police discovered she was earning about a thousand dollars a week between the time she got out of school and the time she came home from supper. … The little pig was rolling on her back squealing with pleasure every afternoon in somebody’s apartment or hotel room, earning more in five minutes than I make by working all day. Yes, but if you’d see her at school you’d assume she was a sweet little girl. Same as those two Bianca tutors. They’re probably up to the same tricks. Well, if I had them here right now in this room I’d teach them something they’ll never learn from B.

This is pretty hard to read, partly because it’s rare we encounter such undiluted misogyny in a character, and also because we are shocked by Summerfield’s apparently wilful interpretation of victim as offender. In his eyes, the only victim is Earl Summerfield (“I’ve decided she made use of me”), and it’s a moment’s work for him to twist this around into self-aggrandisement and revenge fantasy (“I’m going to be somebody one of these days, which means I already am somebody”).

He fixates on a beauty queen, Mara St John (“she looked to me like one of those professional sluts from Hollywood”), whom he first sees on Washington’s birthday. His obsession with her reaches its climax in a silent diary entry on Independence Day, where the reader is left to work out what Summerfield has done that is so bad even he can’t bring himself to write about it. But then, we already know from the title.

The holiday dates are significant, because Summerfield’s other obsession is the decline in America, and as his deteriorating mental state (“My head’s as full of light as a shower of meteors … Yes, I become more meaningful at night, my brain alert and flickering with bright perceptions”) is mirrored by reports in the news of beatings, murders and death row executions: he professes disgust at them while lapping them up. The introduction to the book tells us that Connell wrote the book after reading about a beauty queen who had been raped twice by the same man: and the second time he had driven her home to make sure she got there safely. Connell believes the rapist truly believed

that if she truly understood him, when she realized that he was a nice man, they could become properly acquainted, have lunch together, visit the zoo together, get married, and live happily ever after. I suspect that only in America could anyone be so deluded. Only in America, addled by the Puritan legacy.

If The Diary of a Rapist then is also a record of the failure of the American dream (“See American white with maggots, red with blood, blue with hypocrisy”), it is one which presents its case in full flood and with not much subtlety. On the one hand almost every line is quotable and in its right place; on the other hand they all seem very much the same and (again as with Patrick Bateman or Bob Slocum) there is not much that one would call character development. I can imagine many readers finding the whole conceit so repellent that they would abandon the book quickly. We do however get the occasional flicker of sympathy when we see Summerfield struggling to attain normality:

Decent life waiting for me twenty minutes from here. It’s that close! It’s that close to me and I can’t get to it.

Normality is impossible for him however, as I realized when wondering why Connell had decided to make Summerfield just 26 years old when his voice is that of a much older, worn-down and weary man. This must be so that we can’t presume he is an otherwise normal man who has been beaten by life once too often. At 26, he hasn’t experienced enough life to justify one percent of the bitterness and hatred he expresses. To verify this, Connell gives us a couple of flashbacks to Summerfield’s childhood, where he was exhibiting a taste for sexual violence even then. So we are to conclude that he must ‘simply’ by unbalanced. If that is a tenuously optimistic thing to take from it, then grab it with both hands and run with it: it’s the only optimism you’re going to get around here.

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13 Comments »

  1. kimbofo said,

    Sounds like a harrowing read. Reading your review I was reminded of John Banville’s The Book of Evidence, which I read when I was far too young to fully appreciate, but the thing that sticks with me, almost 15 years later, is the main narrator, who was repellent but fascinating in equal measure.

    I’ve not read American Pyscho, but it is in my TBR pile. I’ve just never quite been able to bring myself to crack it open…

  2. John Self said,

    There’s no denying that American Psycho is pretty tough going, kimbofo. Having said that, it’s well over 100 pages into it before anything grisly happens, so anyone looking for ghoulish thrills would be disappointed. Some of the later stuff is really sickening though. Curiously, it’s also funny, as all in all it’s a satire of American values at that time.

    The Diary of a Rapist isn’t explicit at all, but just as, well, ‘harrowing’ is a pretty good word in fact.

    As for John Banville, I think I must have been too young to appreciate The Book of Evidence too when I read it! I loved the idea – the unreliable narrator, the sinister intent, the setting – but it just didn’t gel for me. I’ve had mixed feelings for Banville generally I must admit.

  3. I just cannot bring myself to read American Psycho altho I saw the film. But if this one is even remotely similar I think I will give it a miss. Thanks.

  4. jem said,

    I think I need to read this book. I really like repellent / harrowing books that I really shouldnt enjoy but I do. ‘The End of Alice’ (A.M. Holmes) made me very uncomfortable but what compulsive at the same time.

  5. John Self said,

    As you’ve probably noticed in the cover illustration, jem, Homes provides the introduction to this edition: yes, I read The End of Alice too, and I’d say it’s right up her street!

  6. Gavin said,

    It’s a fascinating subject, isn’t it, books that are very worthy but, for some, are too repellent to read. Easton Ellis is a favourite of mine, but there are passages in AP I’ve never read, I’m just too sqeamish, yet I still class that book as one of the greats. The Book of Evidence, on the other hand, I’ve read thee times and adore every word as the violence is never explict, it’s more about the inner workings of a murderer with all the self-deceit. The End of Alice I’ve heard about, but, again, I don’t think I could face it.

    P.S

    Have you ever read Denis Johnson, John? I’d never even heard of him last week but the hoopla surrounding his new novel Tree of Smoke made me investigate and I’ve just experienced one of those thrilling moments when you discover a new writer who just seems *completely* in tune with you. I picked up ‘Resuscitation of a Hanged Man’ this week and finished it today and was left stunned by it. I don’t think I’ve underlined a book so many times in my life, but the writing is just phenomenal. I’m sure you’ve a massive To Read list but I’d be fascinated to hear what you and others thought of him.

  7. John Self said,

    Well Gavin, funny you should mention Johnson, as I too was rather caught up in the hoopla surrounding Tree of Smoke and picked up a copy a couple of weeks ago. I read about 80 pages before giving up – too early, but I just wasn’t getting much out of it. I had been very impressed with the first two short sections, but got bogged down in the third. I asked around and a trusted source told me it stayed pretty much like that; then I read this review by Adam Mars-Jones in the Observer. That put the tin hat on it I’m afraid and it was last seen in my charity shop pile! It’s probable I gave up on it without making enough effort but to be honest the relief of ridding myself of a 600-pager was reason enough at the time. I agree though that Johnson intuitively feels like ‘my’ sort of writer, and I am definitely going to look out his other stuff – and I am tempted by his previous novel The Name of the World, which is also only 144 pages!

  8. Gavin said,

    I really like Mars-Jones’ style of reviewing, and I think it was that review that put me off going straight to Tree of Smoke. Instead, I checked out the much slimmer Resuscitation… which I breezed through. It’s very taut, spare and tightly focused and, on the basis of it, I’ve snapped up his previous five books.

    I think I can wait for the Tree off Smoke paperback and, who knows, I might not be as impressed with his other work, but, right now, I feel a bit of an obsession coming on – the last time that happened was with the work of George Saunders a few years ago. And one man’s uneventful slog is another’s entrancing masterpiece, as this other review from The Guardian shows! :)

    http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,2199839,00.html

  9. jem said,

    Actually I totally missed the A.M. Homes reference on the cover!

    I’ve had Jesus’ Son by Johnson on a list for a while. Sounds like he is worth looking into further.

  10. Daniel said,

    hey, Jon, could you send me still this week those two paragraphs about the best book you read in 2007? ;-)

    cararock@bol.com.br

  11. John Self said,

    Sorry Daniel, I forgot – will get onto it!

  12. Matthew said,

    I have brought a few titles of NYRB with me to travel, including Contempt.

    As to Diary of a Rapist, I remembered months after I put down the book, haunting memories of it still lingered around my head. It’s a profound, harrowing and frightful examination of a diseased mind. Like someone has mentioned it reminds me of The Book of Evidence, but only more daring. Some parts of it, like how earl toys with the notion of crime and punishment and keeps a scrapbook if clippings on gruesome sex murders and their perpetrations, are more turbulent than others, which can linger on with not much of action. But I find the writing style very original.

  13. […] a title that will carry a lot ahead of it, and rather like Connell’s The Diary of a Rapist, it seems certain to bring about equal forces of attraction and repulsion in the bookshop browser. […]


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