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hamilton’s the midnight bell and the business of sex

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First things first. The Midnight Bell, the first novel in Patrick Hamilton’s trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, is a misogynist work. There’s no too ways about it. Wikipedia summarizes the plot thusly:

The Midnight Bell tells the story of Bob, a sailor turned bar waiter who falls in love with Jenny, a prostitute who visits the pub. Ella, the barmaid at the pub, is secretly in love with Bob. Eventually, Jenny loses interest once Bob has spent all his savings on her.

So an absolutely pathetic man, resolute in his affections but absolutely blinkered by them as well, loses it all in a doomed quest for a prostitute. Got it – and I’m sure you can imagine how it plays out… But is there anything else that we can take from the text beyond the fact that it’s almost hysterically gynophobic?

If we (temporarily, provisionally) subtract the misogyny from the text – the cliched gender roles inhabited by the two characters – what we find, I argue, is a tragedy of failed narrativization.

It’s not simply, as the summary above says, that Jenny finally “loses interest in Bob.” Rather, it’s the fact that she has lost the ability to maintain interest over time in the first place. One day she – probably truthfully, without lying – will tell Bob that, yes, she’s in love with him, that she wants to be with him, even one day to marry him. The next day, she would fail to make an appointment without an excuse. The day after that she would deny ever loving him, the day after that she would beg him to be hers. One day she is eager and happy to see him; the next day drunk and dissociative; the next day drunk and amorous, and so on and on just this way.

And it’s not, I think, cynicism or deceit that we are meant to see in Jenny’s behavior. Rather it’s a sort of temporal disability that comes of her line of business, of her selling her body for a living. Jenny’s dissociativeness, her nearly schizophrenic tendency to be one thing one day and another thing altogether the next – even to seem to forget from hour to hour what it should be impossible to forget – is what drives Bob mad in his efforts to construct a coherent story in which the two of them are together.

Just like when, back in the olden days, you’d have to adjust the vertical and horizontal hold knobs on your television set to keep the picture from sort of carouselling or ferris-wheeling around, it’s the temporal hold that is askew – broken once and for all – on Hamilton’s Jenny.

Bob – the barman who aspires to write – attempts to construct via Jenny a romance of redemption, saving the reeling woman from her sexual mercantilism (and underlying booze problem). But he fails because Jenny simply lacks (has had destroyed, has herself destroyed) her ability to maintain feelings or affections over time. Because she needs always to be available for the next selling opportunity, because of the meaningless succession of faux meaningful encounters, time and authenticity have both become unhinged for her. It’s not that she either does or doesn’t want to fit into the “plot” that Bob plans – it’s that the petty capitalism that rules her life and the temporality that is its prerequisite have rendered it impossible that she fit in.

Bob is ruined, in the end, by his naive belief in fictional conventions – not just the conventions of romantic plot, but the more basic belief in, say, the fact that human beings maintain emotions and stances over time. Some of the central things he thought human beings were, Jenny was most definitely not… And he had the stark misfortune of falling in love with someone not completely human, as least in certain senses. Rather, she is a harbinger of atomised capitalist schizo-subjectivity who trades in the trappings of care but is incapable of love or any other emotion not immediately redeemable for profit.

Again: obviously all of this can and should be plugged back in to the gendered reading of the text. But to skip too quickly to moralistic condemnation would mean to miss the horrifyingly interesting nuances of the drama in question and the very modern character type at the middle of it.

Written by adswithoutproducts

May 13, 2011 at 1:09 pm

Posted in hamilton

7 Responses

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  1. Tipping my hand here: this is meant, at least in part, to be read as a strange sort of fiction and a continuation (in a weird way obviously) of the previous “amor fati” entry. Thus the title.

    I was tempted to go further, insert fictitious matter – things that aren’t in the book but might well have been and to dramatize it all as a delivered lecture. A la Coetzee I suppose.

    But I pulled up short. Dunno. Can’t decide which would be better.


    May 13, 2011 at 1:12 pm

  2. “Rather it’s a sort of temporal disability that comes of her line of work”

    Except Hamilton goes to some trouble to make it clear prostitutes don’t ‘work’, in his sense of what constitutes labour – he actually says that, for a start, plus having her exist outside of the precise notation of time that characterises Bob and Ella’s lives, along with the odd middle/upper-class character who also has a free hand to set time, ignore time, etc.

    I like the reading of Jenny’s failure to fit into Bob’s life/plot as a result of the demands of her labour, but I’m not sure it can be sustained taking in all three novels. There’s the ‘sex work isn’t work but the rejection of work’ stuff, plus Hamilton pretty heavily focuses on her time-keeping, and it sliding, as a signal of her descent into a life of ill-repute in The Siege Of Pleasure.


    May 13, 2011 at 1:27 pm

  3. Yep. That’s right. I should be more careful with the “work” part of it.But in a sense isn’t she also the harbinger of “casual” “freelance” labour – closer to, say, a freelance writer who doesn’t need an alarm clock?

    I think anytime you have a writer writing about what does and doesn’t constitute work, you end up with this sort of over-determination and blurring.

    And yeah – that’s why I kept it just to the Midnight Bell.


    May 13, 2011 at 1:32 pm

  4. Just changed “work” to “business” – which I think is closer to right.


    May 13, 2011 at 1:33 pm

  5. I think the above criticism of Hamilton’s focus on Jenny’s line of work not being ‘work’ doesn’t detract too much from an interpretation of her as an “atomised capitalist schizo-” subject. Seems to fit in with the notion of “precarious work” which seems to be all the rage now in social critique of labour – imprecise notions of time, no specific workplace, atomised from any fellow workforce etc.

    I’m just riffing here, I haven’t read the book.


    May 14, 2011 at 1:10 am

  6. Interesting post- one might argue the chaotic nature of certain types of ‘work’ under capitalism actually introduces a crisis into the concept of character. All the realist C19th distinctions are broken in the ‘modern’ novel, as work and play, private and public, duty and pleasure all overlap and intersect in ways that destabalise narrative coherence and notions of character as something fixed. Might one ask whether ‘love’ is possible in the modern novel or if the romance plot is just an artifact from a bygone age resurrected by the bourgeoise preorgatives that continue to shape much literary fiction, despite everything else?


    May 14, 2011 at 12:50 pm

  7. Andreas O'Gruama

    May 17, 2011 at 9:05 am

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