William Shakespeare is synonymous with greatness. Scholars might dispute the authorship of the work attributed to this name, but the name automatically conjures an idea of unsurpassed genius. Shall we compare thee, Mr. Shakespeare? No, for to do so would be somehow to limit you and to reveal our own smallness.
Harold Bloom, in his collected thoughts on the works of the great one, writes:
"The plays remain the outward limit of human achievement: aesthetically, cognitively, in certain ways morally, even spiritually. They abide beyond the end of the mind's reach; we cannot catch up to them. Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us"
And the greatest of these plays? Though some argument persists, many would choose Hamlet.
What does a writer do when the story she has to tell is his story? How does a writer face greatness and insist she has something of greatness to add? Maggie O'Farrell admits to wrestling with these questions as she considered what would become Hamnet, commenting at the Edinburgh International Book Festival that "his plays are untouchable, really" and acknowledging that she perhaps wrote three other books in an effort to avoid this one. But Hamnet persisted, and in it, O'Farrell has written one of the most powerful novels of the year, worthy of every accolade it receives.
At its base, Hamnet is a work of historical fiction, framed by what little is known of the death of William Shakespeare's son. Those familiar with the history have long connected this son with the tragic play of nearly the same name, noting that Hamlet and Hamnet would have been used interchangeably at the time. Scholars have excavated what they could from this detail, using it to explicate the play and the questions behind its creation. For O'Farrell, this synchrony snagged in her imagination, sending her not to the stage but to the home and family behind the curtain. Driven by a respect born of the realization that these were real people, she dove into the research that would ultimately open the story to her - and to us - in unexpected ways.
Looking into what documentation exists, O'Farrell began to feel that Shakespeare's wife, known to us as Anne Hathaway, has been sorely diminished by history. As the novel took shape, it became clear that Agnes (an alternate spelling of Anne, used by Hathaway's father in his will) would be its heart. While the novel is named for the son, the story would be one of love and of grief and of loss and of carrying on, between and betwixt siblings, spouses, lovers, fathers, and - most incredibly - mothers and their children.
Many have already pointed out the clever turns of this novel, the way O'Farrell never uses the playwright's name, the chapter that follows the pestilence on its devastating meander across the land, the richness of detail throughout. These elements, tremendous as they are, run second to the greater triumph of this novel: its emotional truth.
There are two kinds of emotional levers an author can employ, one vastly more accessible and thus more common. In the more common version, the reader is introduced to characters, comes to know them, perhaps even to care for them, and then something tragic or terrifying or unspeakably difficult happens, and the reader is shocked into emotion. The reader may cry for those characters and that pain, but then the story is over, and the reader steps back to real life. The feelings stay in the story.
In the second, less common version, the reader already knows what will happen. The events are not a surprise. You know the boy dies. And despite your best efforts to protect yourself against this truth, when it happens, and it always happens, you are caught up in its great truth which is the great truth of us all. Every birth carries with it the possibility, indeed the certainty, of a death. With Hamnet, Maggie O'Farrell has used these characters, these events, to show us our own loves, our own loss, and the grief that accompanies both. The feelings raised by this book, they linger. They are not bound up in the story. Instead, the story releases them.
Here is Agnes, explaining the unthinkable:
"She, like all mothers, constantly casts out her thoughts, like fishing lines, towards her children, reminding herself of where they are, what they are doing, how they fare. From habit, while she sits there near the fireplace, some part of her mind is tabulating them and their whereabouts: Judith, upstairs. Susanna, next door. And Hamnet? Her unconscious mind casts, again and again, puzzled by the lack of bite, by the answer she keeps giving it: he is dead, he is gone. And Hamnet? The mind will ask again. At school, at play, out at the river? And Hamnet? And Hamnet? Where is he?"
The question rings out. Like Hamlet's "To be or not to be," it is the question of one person's confrontation with individual mortality, and it is every question asked of every life and every death. That is the question, indeed.
O'Farrell, of course, could not have known that her novel set at the close of the16th century as the Black Plague advanced would be released just as a new pestilence was circling the globe. She could not have foreseen the ways fear and uncertainty would color so much of her reader's lives. Some have credited the timeliness of the events as partial cause for the book's success. I would argue this novel's greatness lies exactly with that of Shakespeare's plays: it is true, it is universal, it is not bound by time and space and circumstance. It is not that we are at this moment experiencing such a grief; it is that we are, ever, always, grieving. And ever, always, loving. The confluence of these two rivers is the reality of life. To drink of their waters is to be, always, both.
Shakespeare knew this. And here, Maggie O'Farrell has proven that she knows it as well.
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Humans crave power. This narrative has held for eons, bolstered by an endless litany of examples from history. As the twentieth century unfolded and the automobile took center stage, we eagerly accepted a merging of two truths: humans crave power, and cars give it to us. Matthew B. Crawford would agree. In his latest book, Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road, he celebrates the endangered skill of handling a motor vehicle well:
"In skilled activities, we sometimes recover the joy of childhood play, that period in life when we were discovering new powers in our own bodies. We may also regress to teenaged hooliganism and the unique pleasure that comes from enlarging those bodily powers through a mechanical extension of ourselves."
Crawford holds these merged truths easily and then asserts another: a future of self-driving cars threatens our autonomy and thus should be fought against. This book is his fight.
It is also deeply, profoundly wrong.
A few editorial notes before proceeding: I see my role, small though it may be, as one who celebrates the good and the beautiful and the true. The other stuff is out there, and I read plenty of it, but typically, I choose not to discuss it here. The world is indeed wide enough for people to love a title that doesn't speak to me, and I am comfortable leaving my voice out of it. On only one other occasion have I chosen to review a title in less than glowing terms, and it has startling overlap here. In both cases, I chose to speak out because of the dangers I see inherent in works such as these. In both cases, I have added my voice because few have publicly shared my view. Full disclosure: I did not read this whole book. I skimmed the latter third and read the conclusion in its entirety after a decisive moment when I knew I would not finish.
In a chapter entitled "Two Derbies and a Scramble," Crawford takes the reader to three distinctive automative experiences. In the first section, "Act 1: Demolition Derby," we look over his shoulder at the Warren County (VA) Fair, described by Crawford as "initiation into the Appalachian ethic of animosity." His thesis here is unclear though peppered with references to beer, pickup trucks, cornbread, and Iron Maiden. He paints this region as one of violence and ignorance without exactly condemning it, calling the violence "the sheer, Dionysian joy of destruction" before abruptly moving on to "Act II: Adult Soap Box Derby" in Portland, OR. For what it's worth, Crawford likes the people of Portland even less than the people of Warren County, judging them for their yard signs celebrating diversity and for the "art cars" and costumes on display. He disapproves of the men in Teletubbies costumes or the group of diapered men pushing a giant baby carriage; he describes the women as wearing "costumes of empowerment - black jeans, wife-beaters, and motocross helmets." Trying to mitigate his disapproval, perhaps, he grants a certain gallantry to the situation, arguing,
"The men create space for the women to feel fierce by vacating that space themselves"
before drawing a comparison to Louis XVI and the imminent collapse of a society.
Though I kept reading for a bit (especially the section a few pages later titled "An Ode to Redneck Women"), this was the moment when the wheels came off.
Up to this point, I had been made uncomfortable by several assertions, but such a blatant statement of misogyny embedded in a narrative celebrating power left me shaken. I found only one other reviewer who commented on these judgments, but while he critiqued the book (fairly in my opinion), he did not do enough to call attention to the grosser aspects of Crawford's narrative.
Yes, the argument is flimsy, built on a false dichotomy. Crawford would like us to believe that there are only two possible futures: one in which self-driving cars steal our autonomy and our very souls OR a motorhead paradise, where driver's licenses are issued in tiers determined, apparently, by your ability to lean a motorcycle dangerously close to an adjacent rock face or control a hurtling vehicle through intentional drifting or urinate directly into an overheated radiator. This Utopia demands we drive old cars we've rebuilt by scavenging junkyards. Anyone with the right skill and a small enough motorcycle is perfectly free to ignore the rules, and anyone who doesn't agree that faster is better is free to live elsewhere. The only mention to bicycles I noted was so caustic as to be laughable (a father who took his kid to school on a bike and had the audacity to get in the carpool line rather than skip the line and jump the bike up on the sidewalk).
But the argument is also flawed in quieter ways. Crawford rightly identifies the sense of individualized shelter our cars provide us, arguing that we feel safe in our cars, free from the judging eyes and demands of the world around us. He writes,
"In a society in which any moment of repose has to be justified against the ruthless logic of 'opportunity costs,' commute driving is perhaps the only real Sabbath left to us."
There is a certain point here, but this statement is only true if you define the Sabbath as being free from obligations and isolated in a bubble of your own desires. For many, the concept of the Sabbath is much deeper and richer than this definition. Crawford takes this celebration of the self to another level when he writes - at length - of a time when his barely rebuilt 1972 Jeepster Commando broke down in the middle of the night in 1987.
In the narrative, Crawford is the ruggedly independent hero: he has no phone, no GPS, not even a flashlight! After his radiator basically falls out of the jeep, he rigs it back up with a coat hanger and heads out in search of water, trekking across what might as well have been miles of desert in enemy territory. When he comes across somewhere inhabited, he hopes to avail himself of an outdoor spigot and falters when he realizes he is going to have to ask for help. He doesn't reflect on the fact that it is the middle of the night, that he is trespassing, that he might frighten the inhabitants. Instead, he just yells until someone comes out. The man gives him some water, and Crawford returns the way he came. Rather than expressing gratitude, he celebrates "having accomplished something by force of will and physical exertion," and goes on to reflect,
"I also felt pleased that I had prevailed over my inhibition to ask another human being to render aid, which was the most uncomfortable part. The arduous path by which I had arrived at that chain-link fence made it easier. I wasn't waving a handkerchief on the side of the road like some helpless incompetent. I had earned the right to ask that man for water, and he gave me water."
There are red flags here, and this is one of them. When we focus on self over community, when we assume that asking for help is a weakness rather than a gift, when we think having a certain skill or raw confidence gives you the right to assert your will over others, well, we end up here. In 2020. Where the #MeToo movement and the #BlackLivesMatter movement are forced to contend with a President who thinks it's fine to treat women as objects and a profusion of young men with semi-automatic rifles and a conviction of their own rightness.
This is not the place I want to live.
Crawford's vision is false. There are countless better ways, and almost all of them rely upon community and the ways in which we strengthen each other. What if humans don't crave power? What if, instead, what we crave is community? Perhaps we can put to rest that original lie and assert a better truth. One that realizes power has never been the answer and never will be.