Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Clock Without Hands by Carson McCullers

Clock Without Hands is set in the early 1950s in a small town in Georgia and features four principal characters. JT Malone is a forty year old pharmacist diagnosed with leukaemia and given twelve to sixteen months to live. Judge Fox Clane is a redneck judge with diabetes who is lame following a stroke and lives a life of quiet melancholy, mourning his dead wife and son. His grandson, Jester is a young boy gradually becoming aware of racial prejudice and the tensions in his community. And Sherman Pew is a black boy hired by the Judge to act as his amanuensis and to give him his daily insulin injections. There is an undercurrent of homoerotic desire in Jester for Sherman, but Sherman is increasingly fuelled by indignation at the treatment of blacks in the racist society in which they live. Jester’s father, the judge’s son, committed suicide many years before in circumstances we discover, later, which link him tragically to Sherman. Sherman’s father, we find out late in the novel, was hanged for a crime he probably didn’t commit. This is a novel, then, with a lot of backstory. The narrative meanders along for 180 or so pages before exploding – literally so, with a firebombed house – into life near its conclusion. Even now, though, there are no histrionics. Carson McCullers doesn’t do melodrama: she doesn’t need to.

This, McCullers’s last novel, is certainly the least of hers that I’ve read to date. That isn’t to say it is bad, but it is not a great work, like The Member of the Wedding or The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The McCullers trademarks are here: loneliness, disconnection, a skewed, black humour. But something is missing. There isn’t quite the heart that is in those earlier novels, the beautiful beating promise of human potential. I’m wary of saying there are no characters here who grab our sympathy the way that Frankie or Mick do, because it’s not that: I consistently argue against criticism of novels on the basis that characters should be likeable. And yet I found myself waiting for and wanting a Frankie to enter the narrative, somebody to anchor it in human emotion. Perhaps it is a sense of hope that is missing here. JT Malone, the nearest character to the central Frankie/Mick role in Clock Without Hands, is too passive. Jester, who could fulfil the role, is not well enough drawn. Sherman, who might have fitted the bill best of all, finally falls into caricature. He could be a cousin of Dr Copeland in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, wrapped up in himself and his situation, but he does not ring true in the way that the doctor does.

The judge is the most complex character in the novel. In lesser hands he could have been a caricature of the old south, a reactionary stubbornly clinging to the old ways and the old morality. And indeed, the judge is that. He has a history in the Ku Klux Klan; he has an insane passion to pass a Bill in Congress decreeing that old Confederacy currency (which he possesses by the million) be declared legal tender; his response to the events at the conclusion of the novel is chilling. And yet there is more to him than this. His devotion to Sherman, the young black boy, comes close to paternal affection. His view of black people – racist to the core – is imbued with a wrong-headed but nonetheless genuine intention to do them good. He is a man to be pitied. He is still mourning the death of Miss Missy, his wife who died of breast cancer, and his son, who committed suicide after the death of his wife in childbirth. He is an unhappy man, and his passions and cares and concerns feel genuine. It is possible to be simultaneously repelled by and sorry for someone, and in the judge Carson McCullers has created just such an individual. But it isn’t enough to carry the novel.

I think the biggest disappointment about Clock Without Hands is its evocation of mood. Mood is everything in McCullers. She creates worlds, little sad, hopeful places which draw you in, make you want to be a part of them, even while warning you of their incipient dangers. The mixture of melancholia and hope she conjures is miraculous. But somehow, in Clock Without Hands, it does not come off. I don’t know whether the principal reason is the subject matter, the racism of the south just before desegregation, the casual violence and thoughtless hatred. While there is a timeless quality to the loneliness of Frankie and Mick in The Member of the Wedding and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter the drama of Clock Without Hands now feels dated. It cannot beguile in the same way as her earlier works.

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