Friday, June 5, 2015
Thoughts on Ship of Fools
If you remember, I picked up a lovely hardback copy of Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools at Gramp's Attic Books in Ellicott City. Recently, I got an e-mail from Open Road Integrated Media, which just put out an e-book version, and wanted to know if I'd spread the word. Consider word spread =) They have quite an appealing site, but I couldn't seem to find a search function, which was a bit of an issue. Most likely I am missing something obvious. (*edit* Search function is on the top right. Not sure how I missed it.)
Anyhoo. This brought me to start actually reading Ship of Fools. I read a synopsis and flipped through before I bought it, and I definitely wanted to support a long-lost classic from a female author in the early twentieth century. However...I feel quite complicated about it, now at roughly 180 pages into this nearly 500 page tome. It's very early twentieth century American, and it possesses the qualities that I both love and hate about early-to-mid twentieth century American literature. Frankly, I don't read a lot of it and tend to avoid it because I find a lot of it appallingly racist and sexist. I thought (judgmentally) that a lot of this was due to the books I'd read being by white male authors. Well, this particular white privileged woman has some of the same flaws--and gifts. What I do love about the prevailing style in that era is the big sweeping narrative with tons of characters and an omniscient narrator with wry insight into the characters' lives. And Porter delivers.
There are a lot of characters, but not too many that they're difficult to remember. The characters are of all different nationalities, genders, races, and religions, even, which is impressive in terms of diversity. The conceit is that they are all trapped on a ship from Mexico to Germany, and Porter examines the swath of characters typically found on this voyage. The whole thing is an explicit metaphor (stated in Porter's note at the front of the book) for us all being fools on the ship of life.
The diverse cast makes for equal opportunity slanders, at least. If an epithet exists, it's present in Ship of Fools. And I'm not saying, nor do I think that, Porter was racist and sexist. I don't know. In fact, I'd guess that by presenting such a diverse cast, she was trying to be open-minded and include many types of people. Most of her cast is non-American (albeit mostly European). But it's certain that many of her characters are racist and/or sexist, some explicitly and some more subtly. And, yes, Porter (or, rather, the narrator) presents them as flawed (they are 'fools' after all), but the presentation of Jews, Gypsies, Germans, and others is stereotyped in a way that has so far not been redeemed.
I read recently that a tip for writing diverse characters is to write them as if their difference is not their defining characteristic. Porter, unfortunately, commits this sin. It especially stuck out to me with how she writes her Jewish character. He thinks constantly of others as Gentiles and bemoans the fact that there are no other Jews on the ship. He worries constantly about unclean food. He sells Catholic paraphernalia, and yet reviles Catholics. I'm impressed by Porter's knowledge of Jewish dietary laws, but sad that she apparently can't see beyond her character's religion. Yes, ok, maybe he occasionally worries about kosher food in a way that a Christian character would not, but everything in his character is built on his religion (and stereotypes thereof) as if there is nothing else to him.
Porter has some insights that ring true, but I'm not really sure how I feel about the book overall. I think I'm still going to continue it, but I wonder: is it worth it to read a book so heavily steeped in stereotypes in this day and age? What redeeming qualities make such a book still worth reading?