Sunday, March 16, 2014

F is for Fowles

Twenty years ago, as soon as I finished reading The Magus by John Fowles, I can still remember my feeling of elation. It was my first Fowles, and I thought that I got mind-fucked by the novel. With its seamless transition between reality and fantasy, The Magus was an exercise in patience and stamina. Finishing it was a rewarding experience indeed. I never planned to read another Fowles novel, but I needed a letter F for my dead guy challenge. So, Fowles's debut novel it is. (Flaubert, I will tackle you another time. Promise.)

Ah, The Collector. What a totally satisfying thriller you are. You're still quite a suspenseful read, even though you were first published in 1963. And I now understand why you were the debut that brought Fowles to everyone's attention. You do remind me of those movies that feature deranged serial killers and psychopaths ("The Silence of the Lambs" and "Psycho"). But what sets you apart from these thrill-a-minute films is how erudite you seem to be. Reading you wouldn't just satisfy one's craving for a sickening story; you also allow us to go deep into both the minds of the characters—the captor and the captive.

The novel, all 300 pages of it, features just two characters. Frederick Clegg, the lonely clerk who collects butterflies in his free time, and Miranda Grey, the art student whom Frederick develops an obsession on. And Fowles just gives us 4 chapters. With the first chapter, it's all about Frederick's point of view. It recounts his unhealthy attraction to Miranda, his winning a substantial amount of money in a lottery, and his meticulous planning of Miranda's kidnapping. Frederick is the collector referred to in the novel for obvious reasons. We just know that, probably, not everything is right in his calculated mind. With his money, he buys a cottage with a basement where he keeps Miranda.

Cut to the next chapter and we get to know Miranda a bit more. The Collector isn't just about the battle of wits between Frederick and Miranda. It's more of an exploration of the minds of its characters. With Frederick, it's all about obsession and how he's determined to make Miranda a part of his collection. In Miranda's chapter, we read about Miranda's life before her abduction, her willingness to be romantically involved with an artist 21 years her senior, her plans of escape from Frederick, and her eventual desperation at the futility of all her attempts. Her chapter made us feel for Miranda, and we really hope that she would have escaped by the novel's end.
One just can't imagine what prison is like from outside. You think, well, there'd be lots of time to think and read, it wouldn't be that bad. But it is too bad. It's the slowness of time. I'll swear all the clocks in the world have gone centuries slower since I came here. 
I shouldn't complain. This is a luxury prison. 
And there's his diabolical cunning about the newspapers and radio and so on. I never read the papers very much, or listened to the news. But to be totally cut off. It's so strange. I feel I've lost all my bearings. 
I spend hours lying on the bed thinking about how to escape. 
Endless. [page 250]
The Collector messes up your brain too, in a beautiful way. The sexual tension between the two characters is just nail biting, even though Frederick and Miranda never really do it. Well, almost. There was this one time when Miranda attempts to seduce Frederick, but it doesn't go as planned. Frederick couldn't perform. Somehow, a psychiatrist has told Frederick that he'll never be able to do it with a woman. And it is at this point that you get to thinking—just what the hell is wrong with you, Frederick? Why couldn't you get it up? And why do you do a complete 180-degree turn when the object of your obsession offers herself up to you? All of a sudden, you think of Miranda as a charlatan.

I should read more John Fowles. Such a deft writer, that one. Comfortable in varied writing styles. Frederick's narrative is an exercise in control and in looming terror. Miranda's, on the other hand, spirals downward from being whimsical, introspective, and then surrendering. You literally feel her descent into madness and despair. It's a truly chilling account.

Read this book if:
  1. You love psychological suspense.
  2. You have an unhealthy obsession of things and, possibly, of certain persons.
  3. You know that that seemingly harmless dude sitting next to you in the bus keeps a woman prisoner in his basement.


Jack said...

Happy birthday, my old friend!

I've never read Fowles, though you have convinced me that I should. Wasn't there a movie based on this back in the 60s?

Hope you're having a great day!

Peter S. said...

Thanks, Jack! Yes, I think there was an adaptation done during the 60s.

Astrid (Mrs.B) said...

I love The Magus! It's one of my top 3 favorite novels. I didn't feel the same way about French Lieutenant's Woman though. I haven't read The Collector though I've seen the old film. Very weird. I've forgotten most of it so maybe it's time to finally read the book.

Peter S. said...

The Magus is just brilliant! It's a very satisfying read. Well, probably because of its length. I think you'll like The Collector, Mrs B.