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A Maggot by John Fowles

A Maggot (1985)

by John Fowles

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Showing 1-5 of 11 (next | show all)
This was a weird book, and I didn't always know what was going on. Still, it was memorable. ( )
  JBarringer | Dec 30, 2017 |
The way the book is set up makes us think about the nature of reality and how it depends on perceptual bias. Each character has a different experience experiencing the "same" set of happenings. ( )
  dbsovereign | Jan 26, 2016 |
The score so far -
Win Loss Tie
1 1 1

That’s how it’s been between John Fowles and me. French Lieutenant’s Woman - win. The Magus - loss. A Maggot - tie.

It begins with a straightforward narrative about a group of travelers who arrive at a rural inn and have lots of cryptic conversations and a mysterious rendezvous. Books are burned, servants are suspicious, confidences are exchanged and strange sex is had. It’s very intriguing in the story itself, but also the way it’s told and Fowles’s execution. If you don’t know anything about Fowles I’ll tell you this, he incorporates authorial asides and speaks directly to you as reader. He provides historical context or a view or opinion of the events of the past from the present. I enjoy that about his work and was glad he used the technique here, too. Some dislike these intrusions, but I think they feel as though you’re receiving an educational lecture of sorts. That in addition to the story, you get a historical frame and comparison to modern times. Here’s an example -

Rebecca gets to her room at an inn and needs to use the chamberpot so she lifts skirts and -

“She did not have to remove any other garment for the very simple reason that no Englishwoman, of any class, had ever worn anything beneath her petticoats up to this date, nor was to do so for at least another sixty years. One might write an essay on this incomprehensible and little-known fact about their under-clothing, or lack of it. French and Italian women had long remedied the deficiency, and English men also; but not English women. All those graciously elegant and imposing upper-class ladies in their fashionable or court dresses, whose image has been so variously left us by the eighteenth-century painters, are - to put it brutally - knickerless. And what is more, when the breach was finally made - or rather, covered - and the first female drawers, and soon after pantalettes, appeared at the beginning of the nineteenth century, they were considered grossly immodest, an unwarranted provocation upon a man, which is no doubt why they so swiftly became de rigueur.”

OMG! What was that all about? It’s probably the most blatant (and hilariously puzzling), example, but there are others. I don’t know the whims and wherefores of why Fowles included them, but they are different. Offhand I can’t think of another writer who does it.

So we’ve got an essential mystery of exactly what Lord B is up to and what this whole charade is for. Just when we’re getting somewhere and secrets are being revealed, that narrative ends abruptly and we move to the bulk of the novel which is made up of transcripts of a deposition. It seems the leader of the traveling group is a nobleman's son and His Grace wants to know what happened to him. He gets a lawyer (who is a colossal jerk) to track down the remaining travelers and get the truth out of them.

The thing is, their truths conflict and stretch the bounds of believability; for characters and readers alike. What starts out as an intriguing mystery soon turns into a treatise on how expectations shape perception and how social position dictates expectation. Each of our witnesses has a particular world-view that dictates how something fantastical and obscure is interpreted.

It takes an imaginative and conscientious author to wring personality from straight Q & A and Fowles does it. Each of the people giving testimony is distinct and I especially liked the pretentious cleric, Beckford. He brought some needed humor to the book. At first, so did Ayscough, but pretty soon his ugliness wore through politeness and he got to be pretty loathsome. Especially in the way he kept insulting Rebecca and holding her in contempt for being a whore, but in the next breath asking her for every salacious detail about her sexual encounters. I was glad she stood up to him so perfectly. In the end he was so disgusted at what he could not understand that he basically was happy to be old, so he could not be associated with the feckless young. Vicious hypocrite. And not a terribly effective direct examiner either; always leading the witness.

In the end I was baffled. The story Rebecca gives (started by Jones, but he only knew part of it and her attempts to throw him off the scent) is starkly unbelievable unless you invoke some kind of time travel or aliens (are you from the future?). Flying machines and cars, scythes and robes, none of it meshes into anything believable, but Rebecca is convinced of it. And there are people who are dead and missing, so something significant happened, but it doesn’t really matter since it was only a vehicle for the very end of the story. Here he lost me again in the sense that I can’t understand why the upshot of what he wanted to illustrate with the story was so quickly done with. That is to detail circumstances leading up to the birth of a religious innovator. A person so conditioned by her mother’s inexplicable experience and her Quaker roots. The combination begat the Shakers. I know, right? What? All that smoke and mirrors for some religious whackjobbery? Yep, apparently so.

The writing is fine though, assuming you can cope with the archaic language and spelling (and the weird newspaper reproductions, which I assume were also fictitious, but that I couldn't make heads or tails of and couldn’t find connections to the main story; weird). The fact that he used archaic language seemed at odds with the way he breaks the fourth wall and expounds on details and background and I was irritated that he used the antiquated convention of making certain people and places anonymous. Like Lord B________ or in the town of C_________. The anonymity seemed unnecessary since this tale was basically one long legal deposition, but now I’m thinking about it, the archaic speech would be appropriate. Anyway, I can’t really say anymore without either confusing myself more, misinterpreting things or giving away the plot. If you’re in the mood for a real brain twister, this is the book for you.

“Come nephew. Enough being the cynosure of nowhere.” ( )
2 vote Bookmarque | May 8, 2014 |
_A Maggot_ is an interesting novel. It can be approached as an historical mystery, a meta-fictional experiment of mixed narrative form and genre, and a meditation on the injustices inherent in the 18th century social, political and religious mindset. The story proper details a mysterious journey undertaken by five individuals across the English landscape whose destination and purpose is unknown. In addition to this each of the individuals is not what they appear, and may not even be what they themselves think they are. This ‘simple’ mystery plot form is expressed with a variety of narrative techniques: a somewhat distant 3rd person with occasional authorial asides taking place “now” interspersing longer passages of first person question-and-answer that are occurring in the “then” of 18th century England. As the story progresses the reader begins to see that even the genre boundaries of mystery and historical fiction are being crossed and significant possible elements of science fiction begin to creep into the tale.

Accepting this novel at face value as a historical mystery would be a mistake, especially since it seems to be a mystery whose whole purpose is not to be unravelled. Rather the mystery ‘plot’ is the vehicle which allows Fowles to show how each character’s own conception of this mystery of which they are a part, and its possible solutions, is determined by their own social standing and personal background, by the hidebound preconceptions they each bring to their experience of the world. These disparate characters allow Fowles to put on display a particular aspect of human society that he perceives as having been distinctly strong in 18th century society due to its make-up, but that still exists today: that we are determined by our perceptions and expectations. The question and answer segments are particularly useful in this regard for making explicit how differently each character interprets the same events; how they look to the expected, the known, or the conventional, in order to explain something that is beyond their experience. Even the visionary falls back onto traditional (to her) paradigms in order to be able to interpret her life-changing experience.

The juxtaposition of perceptions and assumptions of the modern era (as witnessed in the 3rd person intrusions) with those of the 18th century when the novel takes place are well done, and seem central to the novel. These are characters who very much feel like authentic inhabitants of their era. Their modes of speaking and even of thought are truly alien to the modern reader in many ways. As a result Fowles is able to use these differences to indulge in his thematic hobby-horses of free will vs. pre-destination, the fear of change vs. the need to progress, and unthinking acceptance vs. the belief that change can and must be effected. These are ideas that many of us take for granted, but Fowles shows how new and strange many of these concepts were when the novel takes place and they were still in their larval stages. Another major cultural difference between the reader and those whom the book purports to represent is seen in Fowles’ notion that their sense of individuality is not even close to our own (would not even be considered as “individuality” at all by our standards). Fowles goes so far as to draw comparisons between the constraints of people from this era and those of a character in a book, the “plot” of their lives pre-determined according to their role and function in society (certainly if born below a certain social level), and harps on the fact that this was utterly natural to them, something which the vast majority of the people of the day would not even consider an issue worth considering. It is an intriguing idea and allows the more obvious meta aspects of the narrative to gain a further level of depth. Ironically Fowles notes both explicitly and implicitly that that the “birth” of the individual, one of the key elements that broke up the injustices inherent in the 18th century social, political and religious mindset, was as much a blessing as a curse.

All that being said I still found the book to be one I felt more obliged to finish than one that carried me along with the rush of its passage. At times the question and answer sections of the novel seemed to carry on too long and the 3rd person narrative parts could perhaps have been more liberally interspersed into the text than they were. I can accept that not all mysteries have to have a solution, but the utter lack of any real understanding of what happened in that cave in western England, and the impenetrable nature of the young lord’s real purpose and end, is certainly frustrating. In the end I guess I would consider this a highly successful meditation on the birth of modernity and the ways in which we have both learned from, and ignored to our peril, the lessons of the past, but only a moderately successful novel. I think David Mitchell would have written something on the same subject and with the same elements with just as much depth, but that was much more interesting.
( )
1 vote dulac3 | Apr 2, 2013 |
I'm not sure that we can even call this a historical novel -- and perhaps not even a novel. It resembles both, but also differs in such key ways that it's nearly impossible to pin down. Not that pinning it down is necessary, especially if you are interested in a somewhat bizarre but beautifully written fiction.

Here's a tip though: don't read more than about a chapter (or what passes for a chapter) a day. The oddity of it's construction and the density of some of the prose will work against you. ( )
1 vote cornerhouse | Apr 3, 2012 |
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One night I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, down in the very middle of Los Angeles.
In the late and last afternoon of an April long ago, a forlorn little group of travelers cross a remote upland in the far south-west of England.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0316290491, Paperback)

In his prologue, John Fowles tells us that "A Maggot" began as a vision he had of five travellers riding with mysterious purpose through remote countryside. This image gives way to another - a hanging corpse with violets stuffed in its mouth - which leads us into a maze of beguiling paths and wrong turnings, disappearances and revelations, unaccountable motives and cryptic deeds, as this compelling mystery swerves towards a starling vision at its centre.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:59:54 -0400)

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