(We’ve read 7 out of 10 chapters, and we have a hell of a lot to say!)
Tom: I know we’ve both got a lot on our minds concerning this book, because it contains multitudes. Let’s start by talking about all these crazy time jumps. Right from the start, Robert Penn Warren has been playing about with time. The first chapter begins by letting us know the narrator, Jack Burden, is looking back to 1936 from three years in the future. As I mentioned in our first post on All the King’s Men, in that first chapter he was already presaging the downfall of Judge Irwin (which I still suspect will be the denouement of the novel).
THEN, we jump back even further, to 1922, when a younger Jackie Burden is working as a reporter for a newspaper and first comes across Willie Stark as a naive wannabe politician who is being manipulated by the more seasoned movers and shakers. We see Stark’s disillusionment and his steady rise to power, as he trades idealism and detailed analyses of societal problems for populism and easily digestible soundbites.
THEN, we travel even further back in time to PhD student Jack Burden, who was going to write his dissertation on the collected letters, journal entries and other ephemera of his ancestor, Cass Mastern, a man who became overwhelmed by remorse for an affair with a married woman that lead to one suicide and a slave being sold into prostitution. Burden never finished it, “because in the midst of the process I tried to discover the truth and not the facts.” The truth that Burden couldn’t bear to face is pretty significant to how he later discovers Judge Irwin’s dark secret, as well as to the tone of inevitability that runs through the book (even though I personally think the whole traveling back to the antebellum South was unnecessary and distracting):
“That the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more but spring out to fling the gossamer coils about you who have touched the web and then inject the black, numbing poison under your hide.”
THEN, we get a couple of chapters where we re-enter the 1936 time period (mostly), before going all the way back to a teenage Jack Burden’s love affair with Anne Stanton, it’s failing, and the subsequent marriage to the sexually compatible Lois (more on that later when we discuss character). First, why all the time jumps? And are some time jumps more significant than others?
Monica: These time jumps are a testament to the clever mind of Mr. Penn. For me, every chapter, every time jump, weaves the story closer. We discover (unlike the book jacket’s description) that this narrative is, as you say, not so much about the demagogue Willie Stark. It is the story of Jack Burden, that nihilistic narrator who seems to float through life while so sharply observing the world around him, and how it affects his own life. This whole novel is like freestyle jazz music, jumpy and discordant, but yet slowly becoming one gleaming piece of literature. I love how Burden starts off as a side character and yet slowly he becomes this nexus around which so many characters rise and fall.
As a side note, however, I agree that the weird blast into the antebellum past was an out-of-control, self-indulgent side note that wasn’t needed to make the point he was trying to make… which was that he once before delved into the past and didn’t like what he came up with. And that everyone’s history has a horrible episode of which one should not be proud. No one is incorruptible.
I think that this way of writing the story is actually more effective in drawing the reader into this kaleidoscope story, a bit like Alice wandering down the tunnel. The structure is confusing for sure though, and I do think the man overdoes it with the repetition in both the use of the same sentences and the metaphors. Those roads and cars… he’s quite obsessed with this idea of bombing down an empty highway, gleaming and well made in the middle of nowhere, reveling in the purr of the engine, the speed of the journey. I like the metaphor… I think. I’m getting tired of reading about roads. Also getting sick of reading about how aging women are so tragic. Lucy Stark. Ann Stanton. Sadie Burke. Alluring and powerful in youth, tragic as they reach over the hill. A bit too dated for my taste… though he also uses some colorful…. racial words…. that also make me squirm. What IS he trying to say about these highways though…. ?
Tom: Are you really expecting me to comment on the highways? You know how hard it was for me to get past those opening paragraphs about the road. It’s the road through life. It’s the journey we all must take. Insert cliche here. I’m being cruel and reductivist, but roads as metaphors are as old as the Romans, and should be retired.
The women definitely get a hard run here, no question. Nobody comes off as a good person – isn’t that part of All the King’s Men‘s essence, going back to your point about no-one being incorruptible? – but the women get an especial focus on their aging. HOWEVER, maybe that is because our narrator is meant to be a bit of a male chauvinist, as all true men were meant to be in this era. Again, I’m drawn to Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, who narrates in a very similar way to Jack Burden and similarly admits he just can’t understand women as a man, it’s beyond his skill to pretend otherwise – a very modern feminist viewpoint, according to some feminists.
But I’m getting off track. We’re here to discuss structure. And I believe each chapter is meant to encapsulate an episode: 1-the corrupt political present we are mostly living in, with foreshadowings of the future and hints of the past; 2-Willie Stark’s awakening to the reality of politics; 3-Jack Burden and his mummy issues, with more general thoughts on mothers and sons; 4-going back to the antebellum South, with reflections on the past and how it affects the future; 5-revelation of Judge Irwin’s misdeed; 6-the flashy hospital Willie Stark wants to build; 7-Jack Burden’s love for Anne Stanton. Of course there’s a lot more going on in each chapter – it would be a pretty simplified novel if there wasn’t – but each chapter is very much dedicated to a particular episode, and in that sense the novel is episodic. The chapters are very evenly divided, with almost exactly 10 percent of the entirety dedicated to each chapter thus far. Excuse me for being a math nerd, but that seems deliberate and significant.
Monica: Significant indeed sir, significant indeed. I don’t know exactly what the “10” means, but it does seem like a neat, even number. And I agree, each chapter is very focused on a very specific point in time and relationship. While all of the characters are constants throughout, it seems as if Robert Penn Warren shines a spotlight on each and dives deep into their characters. For instance, Chapter 6 with Adam Stanton was particularly striking because, throughout the rest of the novel, Adam was a paragon of moralistic values, put upon a pedestal, the man who doesn’t want money or fame. He simply, as Burden puts, “wants to do good.” That this is seen as a bit foolhardy by Burden (and also admirable), his ultimate fall is a compromise of perceived goodness when he signs on to Stark’s hospital, as Stanton is disillusioned by the failings of his own idols. Come to think of it, each chapter is the particular moralistic fall of each character. Anne Stanton and her breaking her promise to never hurt “Jackie Bird,” hence Burden’s high school reminiscences. The fall of the Judge. The fall of Willie Stark. The fading of Lucy Stark and moralistic corruption of their son. Burden alone is infallible, immune to the shattered veneer of morals as he lives in a nihilistic world, and therefore only privy to its failings.