Finally a novel has been given mainstream publication that has a principal blind character and is written by a blind author. Edward Hoagland’s In the Country of the Blind appeared late last year, but became available in audio only recently. Because I couldn’t comment until I’d been able to read it, I chose not to mention it in my recent post complaining about the lack of such fiction, which picks up from my detailed essay about works by blind writers. Now I have read it and can comment.
Born in 1932, Hoagland is best known for his essays about nature and travel. In the Country of the Blind is his twenty-fifth book. He wrote about his first experience of vision loss in an essay collection entitled Tigers and Ice (1999). In 2001, he released another collection, Compass Points, whose first essay, assigned the same title as his current novel, picks up on that earlier book but goes into greater depth about his experiences going from sighted to very low vision, and then from cataract operations to their successful aftermath.
Telling us he had a stutter into middle age, he shows how it caused him to avoid conversation and to seek engagement, instead, with the visual world around him. This habit of observation drew him to nature and travel writing, which in turn drew him deeper into his dependency on vision. There may be a particular poignancy in his having lost his sight, the way we say how sad it is that Beethoven had become deaf when his 9th Symphony was performed. Then again, we can’t really know how a similar event affects different individuals. An ordinarily talented person could experience an equally poignant sense of deprivation on losing a sense.
Regardless, the essay vividly, often movingly, depicts how loss of sight can be felt. Take this paragraph from the essay:
MY SENSE of divinity was visual, so I’d never bothered to learn many of the birdcalls in my neck of the woods, and knew my friends by their faces, not the barometer of the voice. I played great music drawn from several centuries all day long, but didn’t think of it as a radiant expression of humanity’s unique genius– not as great as the visual drama of the clouds and sun, the Hudson or another river rushing by, the pointing firs, fuzzy tamaracks, sheeny willows, generous sweet-sapped maples, or a hawk in a basswood tree.
Hoagland lost his sight a second time. In a piece he wrote for the New York Times’ “Disability” column in 2016, he says he had such little vision by the age of eighty that he needed a cane. This would have been 2012 or 2013. So, after three years of cataract-related vision loss in the late 1990s, he had at least a dozen years of decent vision before its final decline three years before publication of this novel.
For the following summary, the “spoiler alert” cliché would be in order except that the novel doesn’t build up to anything like a climax. It generates little or no tension, and to the extent it raises questions, they aren’t answered.
What plot there is goes something like this. When the novel opens, it is the 1970s, and a 46-year-old stockbroker named Press, after losing his vision, and then his wife to divorce, has moved to his cabin in rural northern Vermont.
He does have some vision. We get an idea just how much, or how little, in the first chapter: “Press … grittily [rode] a bicycle … on a road he couldn’t see, but felt the gravel along the shoulder crunch under his wheels and navigated by the telephone poles intermittently alongside, quite topsy-tilty on his retinas.”
This limited vision causes some confusion for the reader because it sometimes enables Press to do tasks on his own, such as go shopping, that at other times require him to seek assistance. But for the most part, the experience is of a man who can’t see to read, can’t make out facial expressions and can’t do much of anything else on his own.
He befriends a couple who help him shop and hires as house cleaner a grandmother named Melba who has a lurid sexual history with cowboys in the West.
He starts spending time at the Ten Mile Farm commune after Carol, a commune member twenty years his junior, befriends him. An artist who paints him in the nude, she allows him sexual liberties of the groping variety. In time their physical relationship becomes more two-sided, but she says she has a venereal disease that limits their options.
Carol sets him up with another commune woman, a leather maker who grills him about his background, determines his eye condition isn’t hereditary, and feels him up on the pretext that she plans to sew a belt for him. It turns out that she wants Press to inseminate her so that she can have a baby. Press goes along with the plan, even though he isn’t allowed to know her name and seems to get very little physical sense of her. As the unnamed woman and he go through the sex act (I use the formal term advisedly), Carol urges him on.
The police discover that someone has been using Press’s property for temporary storage of contraband drugs. Was Carol involved, as the timing of at least one visit suggests? The possibility is raised but never resolved.
In a kind of interlude, Press travels to Connecticut to see his ex-wife Claire, their children and his old country club friends. His friends encourage him to consider moving into an assisted living facility, an idea he takes seriously, and Claire speculates how she and her new man, Brad, might help with the cost. Eventually, Press decides against it in favor of returning to Vermont. He tells his children, “‘Money, money. They [in Vermont] don’t have it so they don’t care about it so much, except for surviving.’” (Later, he considers moving into an assisted living facility in Vermont. Visually impaired readers will be puzzled by this option even being considered by a 46-year-old man.)
A new friend of Carol’s named Chuck gets Press to accompany him on a “fish run” to Portland, Maine, where Chuck has some business to transact. He is much closer to Carol’s age, and later she admits to Press she has slept with him.
In the final episode, Chuck and Press take a second trip together, this time with Alabama as the intended destination. However, somewhere in the South, Chuck’s Chevy runs off the highway and turns upside-down. Both men survive pretty much intact, but with secrets to hide, Chuck leaves, promising as he goes to call for help in getting Press extricated from the car. We don’t know exactly what elicit trade Chuck engages in, although drug dealing seems likely. However, despite his desertion, Press protects him by holding back from the police any information that would enable them to locate him. It isn’t giving anything away to quote the novel’s last two short paragraphs, with Press still in that distant, unnamed city. He tells the police:
‘I’m blind as you can see. What else am I going to do?’
They kept him around for a couple of days before shipping him home to Melba.
Telling the police that blindness renders him helpless is a concession that most blind people would never willingly make. As a character, Press has made no progress from the novel’s beginning. Ending the novel this way is both abrupt and unsatisfactory.
Some of what Hoagland depicts fairly reflects experiences common to blind people. At the everyday level, as the novel describes, a standard method for keeping track of bill denominations is to keep dollar bills in one pocket, five-dollar bills in another, and so on. At a social level, it does seem that people open up to blind people with unusual frequency and that they might do so because they aren’t perceived as threatening.
However, Press is presented as a cork in the ocean, bobbing around wherever events and people push him. He exercises little will of his own. There are as many ways of experiencing blindness as there are blind people, and perhaps this is how some handle their lives. Perhaps it’s how Hoagland does. But it’s rarely what I’ve found among the blind people I’ve encountered.
In a similar vein, the novel is obsessed with mistakes caused by lack of vision. Although we’re told Press can dial the half-dozen telephone numbers he has memorized and call the operator for the others, at other times he needs help making calls. Eating is a torment: “Often eating took him considerable extra time since he could hardly see his food, groping with a fork or spoon, enforceably [sic] omnivorous.” Fair enough. Certainly for newly blinded people, many familiar tasks require adjustments.
However, the novel takes other aspects of blindness to extremes. A running sore throughout is self-pity. Self-pity can play a role in the lives of blind people, especially during the process of vision loss. It’s a subject fraught with questions about genuine versus false enthusiasm, success in overcoming obstacles versus denial, realism versus fantasy. But blind people I know are mostly impatient with it, both in themselves and in others. While the details may differ, a visually impaired person’s occasional self-pity pretty much resembles that felt at times by everyone else. When it turns into depression, the cause might well be psychiatric, as with any depressed person.
There’s the moment when Press asks his children, whom he apparently hasn’t seen in a very long time:
… if they preferred or not that he should visit school tomorrow and buttonhole their teachers. On the whole, no, presumably because of his handicap, although both agreed he could if it was important.
Note the absence of dialog here; just an awkward paraphrase of a conversation we’re supposed to believe took place. I can’t make that conversation play out in my head. Is it a realistic account of how a father’s children would react, or is Hoagland revealing a private fear of his own?
Overall the role the novel assigns to his children, Molly and Jeremy, is one of distant regret. Almost the last mention of them is in this passage, where he is a passenger in Chuck’s newly-purchased Chevy:
On the drive home, Press regretted allowing himself so little freedom of the road when he’d been young. The straight and narrow had claimed him. And even now, car jaunts with Jeremy and Molly were beyond him.
Not a thought for how he might try to relate to his children; just a preoccupation with himself and his loss.
Likewise, the unresolved storyline about the use of Press’s property for drug trafficking seems planted in the novel to highlight his vulnerability, if not futility. A man with sight would have noticed the activity, or so we’re led to assume. Except it takes place only during Press’s absence from home, such as when Carol takes him to the commune. After Press has been interrogated by the police, Melba (his house cleaner and increasingly his caretaker) tells him, “‘They got nothing on you. No judge would blame a blind man.’”
In resisting the novel’s relentless focus on self-pity, I’m simplifying a subject whose complexity is worthy of novelistic treatment, where, for example, several characters could reveal themselves in their different ways. Inclusion of a minor visually impaired character or two, or even just an occasional nod to the existence of other visually impaired people, would have improved In the Country of the Blind immeasurably.
Even in the seventies, before technology made an infinite difference to the work and leisure time of all disabled people, blind people underwent training explicitly designed to restore independence. Hoagland gives no hint of these programs, which would have provided Press with tape players for recorded books, touch-typing instruction for communicating, and other adaptive devices and training. The only reading Press does is the correspondence, bills and bank information that others read to him. Notably, the novel makes only three mentions of a cane. We never witness Press using it, although there is a suggestion that he does so while exploring the grounds of the inn where he stays in Connecticut. Is this another casualty of the novel’s confusing handling of Press’s partial vision?
With Press’s willful dependency comes a seemingly bottomless well of patience. For example, travel delays of hours and even days don’t disturb him. Patience is undoubtedly a virtue, except when it blurs into passivity. And Press is, as Melba might say, one passive dude.
I caught only two instances where Press has angry reactions, both over the same incident, and both times I could only infer it. The provocation is Carol’s telling him she has slept with Chuck. The next time Chuck proposes a trip, we’re told Press declines, and the reader is left to assume he is showing resentment in the only way he knows how. Even so, he soon consents to Chuck’s Alabama trip proposal. However, he opts not to tell Carol about this trip or that he might not return. His resentment has shifted from Chuck to her: “As for Carol, the more fretting she might do the better.” Had she given him reason to expect fidelity? Not really. Did it make sense for him to be upset anyway? Of course.
A reader might justifiably call these reactions passive-aggressive, but Press’s character is far more passive than aggressive. All in all, as with his response to the nameless woman who would have his baby, his emotions are hidden from us. To the extent we can fathom them at all, they feel askew.
From an artistic point of view, avoidance of confrontation is a curious decision on the author’s part because it denies the novel a dramatic climax. Carol simply exits stage left without so much as a wave.
A related question is why Claire and Press got divorced. The closest we come to enlightenment is when we’re told that Chuck “was amused that Press’s wife had kicked him out for going blind.” Such a shocking revelation deserves exploration early on in a novel where the protagonist’s divorce is one of the premises. Yet it appears on page 203 of a 212-page book. It isn’t explored or supported anywhere in the novel. I’ve known real-life couples whose marriages are rocked and sometimes founder on one spouse’s new disability or crippling illness, but it isn’t something to be assumed. The only other apparent difference between Press and Claire is that she belongs to money, something he has left behind except to the extent that, as with the Vermonters he returns to, it enables him to survive.
As for Press’s passivity in the face of his divorce, the sole explanation (sort of) comes near the novel’s beginning:
He had no idea how her [Claire’s] new relationship was going, but found he wished her well. Fatalism about his fading eyesight produced more generosity than bitterness he found.
Really? Is generosity the product of his fatalism about lost vision? Isn’t it, instead, resignation?
The reader yearns for Press to fight, to assert himself, to break out of his protective passive cocoon. At times he would surely lash out unfairly, but he would also regain much of the autonomy of which blindness has so far deprived him.
In the Country of the Blind feels like several overlays of material that don’t fit well together. The location of the story mostly in Vermont in the seventies, a decade when Hoagland lived there, leaves me feeling as if he pulled out episodes from that place and time to give some semblance of plot to his narrative. In itself, the concept is ingenious. Not only is Press trying to adjust to blindness, he is also undergoing culture shock at the commune. But we aren’t given enough sense of him as a once sighted stock broker and country club member to understand the extent of these adjustments. Nor, again, do we have much real sense of him doing any adjusting at all to his fading vision. It’s as if Hoagland’s late-life blindness has been superimposed on that of a middle-aged man. Perhaps Hoagland hasn’t sought out independence training, but a middle-aged recently resigned Wall Street stock broker surely would have. In my experience of rehabilitation agencies at the time, as well as today, he would have had to go out of his way to avoid them.
In that article published in the New York Times’s “Disability” column, Hoagland writes:
++But why am I not crankier? a friend asks. I’m helpless; I can’t be cranky. Blindness is enforced passivity. I have become a second-class citizen, an object of concern. Crankiness won’t persuade people to treat me thoughtfully. Disabled, that dry term once applied to so many others over my lifetime, now applies to me. As best I can, I’ll make my peace with it.
Reading this statement, a disabled person might well ask, if that’s all there is, why didn’t someone abandon me on a mountainside somewhere?
In fairness, Hoagland is now writing at an old age, where, sadly, loss of physical attributes, friends, mental acumen and so much more become preoccupations. But I must separate the work from the man, whom, after all, I don’t know outside his publications and some biographical details. Beyond my concern that In the Country of the Blind does an injustice to visually impaired people, many sentences (including some quoted here) and undeveloped storylines suggest, at a minimum, the absence of a dedicated editor.
Although I refer to Hoagland’s biography, most of this essay is about the novel. Unlike biographies and other presentations, novels allow for wide-ranging and open discussions about how the other side lives. With that in mind, I hope that despite its flaws, publication of In the Country of the Blind opens the door to more novels with blind characters by blind authors that have genuine artistic value.