Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Collector by John Fowles

This is not a feel good book. Nor is it one that I think anyone would say they had 'fun' reading. It is dark, it is blunt, and extremely compelling. This is one of the books that make me wonder how an author can do so much with so few pages. It is a concise narrative of obsession gone too far.

The eponymous entomology hobbyist, Frederick, is an impeccably clean young man; kind hearted and generous in his own way. He is boring, simple and while not uneducated he is without any strong passions in life; right up until he kidnaps an art student in broad daylight under the London sky. He thinks himself to be very smart and can justify his actions to the very end. He is socially inept and finds taking the woman who has captured his interest captive the only way that he would ever have a chance to express his feelings. Most disturbing of his character traits is that he sees nothing wrong with his actions.

I can't imagine a reader not sympathizing with Miranda Grey. After the terrible experience of being abducted she is treated like royalty and given everything she can ask for; expect her freedom. I think my own personal real life experience (I was once twenty years old for an entire year and have a bachelors and masters of the arts in piano performance--one of the arts Miranda is always talking about) inhibited me from caring about her as much as I should have. She keeps a diary during her captivity and in addition to current events she recalls much happier past times. Most of her recollections are about friends and a certain person--G.P.--whom she is in love with in all ways but physical attraction. G.P. is more than twice her age in addition to being a 'romantic' artistic figure: aloof, non-conformist, an ideal hero of the younger generation. She is most attracted to his skill as an artist but also his bohemian lifestyle, and his live for the day attitude.

About a third of the way through the novel, Fowles starts a loose commentary on certain intellectual issues via Miranda's journal: humanity, vague points on religion and incessantly art. Frederick has given no thought to atomic warfare, but has no qualms in stealing away Miranda's life. Miranda believes herself to be a pacifist as it is in line with her 'hippie'/counter-culture movement she was part of before her abduction. Meanwhile, she struggles daily with the thought of finding a way to kill Caliban, her name for Frederick, in an effort to free herself, not out of any desire to want to hurt another living thing. She has no faith--if for no other reason than seemingly it is the way the 'in' crowd believes--yet constantly pleads to God to let her live through her ordeal. The on going art debate was the most interesting of the three.

Miranda's love interest G.P is a hippie for all practical purposes. I knew such people when I was in grad school… and despised them. He is the anti-Frederick in every way from appearance to emotion. Miranda herself was a bit eyeball-rolling-inducing for me as she admits to having no personal life experience in any of the area's she harps on and is more impressionable than the average twenty year old. And then there is Frederick/Caliban, and his 'art' juxtaposed against what Miranda has learned in school, what G.P. has shown her from real world experience, and what life as a prisoner in a young man's cellar has taught her to be true.

Some of the points made were a bit to subtle to truly impact, others prematurely developed, but what I loved was the presentation of the idea gave the reader something to think about.

Miranda is never once physically or sexually abused, which only heightens her fear of an impending act. What she never understands, and keeps her in a justifiable state of terror, is the true extent of Frederick's obsession. Just having her is enough, he doesn't need to 'do' anything.

All three characters (we only know of G.P. Through Miranda's journal but he is central to the story) are unified by their conceit and arrogance, and blinded by what they would call intelligence. I'd be afraid to read a book with more, and stronger superiority complexes than the cast of The Collector.

One could argue that there is some deus ex machina in the beginning--which in itself is a break from the normal use of a poor device. Caliban manages to come into substantial financial security and see his family safe to Australia so he just happens to live alone in great wealth the rest of his life. Yes, it could have been chance, and that is the way it is presented, but it felt a bit too convenient to me. And despite all the sympathy any reader could muster for Miranda, it was a bit tedious to listen to a twenty year old ramble about what is and isn't art. Especially so as it becomes clear that she has no opinions of her own, rather she is swayed by most anyone with influence in her life. Finally, I don't know how convinced I was by any of Fowles arguments of the arts and humanity.

My perceived flaws are infinitesimal and easily out weighted by the novels strong points: three phenomenal characters and one extraordinary circumstance. Take note that I didn't say I liked all the characters--in point of fact, I didn't like any of them--but I don't want that to take away from the skill with which they are crafted or the execution of their presentation in developing a story. My initial perceived shallowness of Miranda's character may in fact only be the most convincing and solid aspect of Fowles' writing: he perfectly captured a fleet-minded, impressionable, twenty year old women. And to think that this is a debut work. Talk about making an impact with a first publication…

I don't do horror fiction or anything of that nature and that is not what The Collector is. But it should scare you. It's plot is too vivid, and it's criminal all too real. It's not commercial and it's not a 'cozy' page turner. It is, however, thrilling and it will keep you reading.


Anonymous said...

Wow. Well put. You said that you disliked all the main characters. What I found compelling about it is the opposite, that you truly sympathized with the two principals. Miranda is impressionable and arrogant, but you indulge her because she's young, unjaded by life, and going through a rotten ordeal; Caliban is monstrous in his cowardness and obsession, yet you feel for him because he's socially and intellectually "inferior"--childish, if you will (though I don't think he's truly in love with Miranda). The clencher is the access you have to both their innerselves with the double first person structure. Hitchcock said that a good story must have a strong villain. What's most detestable about Caliban is that he's a destroyer of beauty, of life (that sounds hokey, I know); his desire to possess means the death of his subject, and he remorselessly sacrifices. The book raises interesting questions about the nature of private collections, of the pleasure of owning and keeping to one's self, and of depriving others. Dwayne

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Terry Weyna said...

Chad, if you enjoyed this novel (well, "enjoyed" isn't the right word; if you found it compelling, well-written and interesting), I very much recommend that you try John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman. I think it Fowles's best work, and enjoy its recursiveness. Don't see the movie starring Meryl Streep until after you've read the book, but then do; you'll see how a clever writer and director used the bookishness of the novel to make a film about films. Great stuff.

Paul said...

Just finished The Collector. Call me what you will, but I wept at the end. If you can forgive and ignore some of the plot devices and aesthetic exposition, you'll realize that Fowles has created not only breathing characters but also one of the most terrifying characters in the post-war era. I have studied sociopaths, and Frederick (Caliban) is scarily real -- too real. Few writers have created convincing madmen in recent literature. Fowles is one of those few. The fatal flaw in Caliban is his narcissistic grandiosity, which is the fatal flaw in most sociopaths. Fowles understands this too well. At book's end I felt a part of my own humanity was robbed merely by witnessing the maniacal circularity of justification by a man who could, and in all probability does, live among us. Even more grotesque is that The Collector influenced and inspired two, sick sadistic serial murderers to rape, torture, and burn 25 victims. Cf. San Francisco, 1985. One of the killers admitted that his favorite novel was The Collector. Their m.o. was terrifyingly similar to Caliban's. For a debut work, it doesn't get much better -- or scarier.

Chad Hull said...

Can't say this one brought tears to my eyes, but it certainly left its mark.

Thanks for reading and chiming in.

Chad Hull said...

Thanks for taking the time to read my commentary. Thank you again for your kind words.

David said...

I believe The Magus was his first novel, but published after The Collector. It is a cruel yet tender book, and concerned more with the different frailties of English class (as are most of Fowles' novels) than any of the more obvious themes. Must be read alongside The Tempest. Fowles of course, is Prospero. Thanks for the review - I'm enjoying your blog. D

Chad Hull said...

Glad you found something you liked! I need to stop being lazy and do some more blogging.