Glenn Arbery, in “Bearings and Distances,” uses bizarre humor, well-drawn characters, a wider landscape, and unexpected twists to expand the reach of Southern Gothic to critique more widespread contagions of modernity: the superficiality of academia, the hypocrisy of conventional religion, the sour legacy of slavery, the suffocating spiral of promiscuity, and the terror of a culture that seems to be unravelling.
Bearings and Distances, by Glenn Arbery (544 pages, Wiseblood Books, 2015)
It took me some time to get hold of Glenn Arbery’s much-acclaimed novel Bearings and Distances and when planning to review it I stopped to read what others had already written, and was delighted with Carolyn Watson’s excellent review here—especially as Ms. Watson happens to be one of my parishioners in Greenville, South Carolina.
Digging further, I came across the reviews by another Greenvillian, Joseph Pearce. His excellent review and further thoughts are here. Unable to improve on Mr. Pearce’s and Ms. Watson’s opinions and meditations, I put on one side my own plans for a review.
But I could not let it go because of the Southern connection. Although I’m a Pennsylvanian, I had the curious experience of attending Bob Jones University, and after a twenty-five-year sojourn in England, returned to live in Greenville, South Carolina. Therefore, I consider myself an adopted son of the South. As such, I’m always tempted to get one of those bumper stickers available at Cracker Barrel, reading, “I ain’t from ‘round here, but I got here as soon as I could.”
On returning to the South I developed a new interest in the great tradition of Southern literature, and as Dr. Arbery’s novel is set just down the road in his native Georgia, it seemed good to look again and connect Bearings and Distances with that greater genre of literature and drama referred to as “Southern Gothic.”
Southern Gothic is a sub-genre and later development of the gothic romanticism of Europe. The style examines faith and morality through the use of the macabre, grotesque, and exaggerated supernatural. Rather than focusing on the preternatural and horrific for their own sake, the Southern Gothic writers use the decaying, often absurd, and dysfunctional rural communities to not only criticize the provincial culture and religion, but to also use their observations to reflect on the absurd and terrifying phenomenon of modernity itself.
Southern Gothic dances with madness, hypocrisy, despair, and decaying manners set among the South’s brooding legacy of slavery, racism, the loss of the Civil War, poverty, and a faded aristocracy. The decaying big house of the plantation replaces the windswept Gothic castle, and instead of nightmarish monsters, the place is inhabited by insane Aunties, freaks, idiots, and misfits with sinister secrets.
In addition to the obvious examples of James Faulkner, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor, the plays of Tennessee Williams should not be forgotten. He exploits the same shadows and subtle sub-themes. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof set in the ante-bellum mansion, A Streetcar Named Desire, and The Glass Menagerie all simmer with suppressed sexual secrets, family rivalries, and dark desires that bubble over into madness and violence.
A collection of films fit the category too. The 1964 film Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, set in a decaying Southern mansion, delves into disappointed love, secret sins, madness, and murder while the 1972 horror classic Deliverance traces the journey downriver of suburbanites tracked by psychopathic rednecks, inbred freaks, and rapists. While they are not set in the South per se, the classic melodramas Sunset Boulevard and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane capture the same elements of Southern Gothic. Confined to equally forbidding mansions in Los Angeles, both films also deal with insanity, a secret past, a sinister present, and a terrifying future.
To garner a fuller review of the plot and characters of Dr. Arbery’s novel, I refer those who have not read it to Ms. Watson’s review here. Although it is set in contemporary times, Bearings and Distances fits into the Southern Gothic tradition neatly. Braxton Forrest’s journey from a vacation in Italy to his hometown is also a journey in time from 2009 to his own dark memories of small town Georgia in the tumultuous summer of 1969.
Dr. Arbery fits the requisite components together into his Gothic drama. There is the crazy aunt living alone in the big house full of secrets, while the servants (Hermia Watson included), descendants of slaves, move like dark alien ghosts through the story. While we meet Braxton’s former friends and neighbors, each one seems to carry some wound or secret, and Braxton’s appearance is the catalyst that unlocks their haunted memories. Meanwhile, his own confusion, fear, and emotional incompetence are accelerated by his irresponsibility, lust, and lack of self-knowledge. He stumbles through the story like the protagonist of most Gothic tales: confronted with furies from the past and chthonic urges deeper than he understands that thrust him to confront a sinful past and a destiny he never expected.
While Dr. Arbery’s novel takes its place proudly in the Southern Gothic tradition, he avoids pastiche and the temptation to allow the externals of setting, mood, and atmosphere to dominate. Instead of dull imitation, Dr. Arbery’s novel transcends and transforms the genre.
Much like Walker Percy in The Thanatos Syndrome, Dr. Arbery uses bizarre humor, well-drawn characters, a wider landscape, and unexpected twists to expand the reach of Southern Gothic to critique more widespread contagions of modernity: the superficiality of academia, the hypocrisy of conventional religion, the sour legacy of slavery, the suffocating spiral of promiscuity, and the terror of a culture that seems to be unravelling—in which the center cannot hold, values shift, and every certainty sifts like sand through the fingers that clutch unsuccessfully at certainty.
Despite the novel’s length and complexity, Dr. Arbery manages to deliver with the expert novelist’s ability to keep the reader turning the pages. He not only builds the suspense successfully, but does so with a light touch, a deft style, and a sardonic observation that never descends to rancor, cynicism, or despair.
Best of all, beneath the disintegration of value, the selfish lust, betrayal, and greed, the scenes of surveying give one the sense of some objectivity at work. One discerns—running through the confusion and fear—the silver thread of providence—a trust that within, beneath, and above the intemperate and disjointed parts there is a hand that steers and a mind that engineers a heretofore hidden resolution and an unexpected reconciliation.
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The featured image is “Houses on a Hill” and is in the Public Domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.