The Repairer of Reputations: The Green Mouse by Robert Chambers
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
In The Green Mouse (1910), Robert Chambers treats his readers to a familiar format: a series of goofily optimistic romantic tales, all loosely linked together by some sort of haphazard narrative device. In this case, the stories begin with the tale of William Destyn and Ethelinda (eeek) Carr. Destyn has been crushed by a recent financial upheaval - Mr. Chambers' favorite tactic for upending sedentary noble types.
Despite four years at Harvard and a post-graduate degree in Engineering, Destyn "had not the vaguest idea of how to make money". However, he does have some skill as a stage magician - a handy knack that he developed in order to impress people at parties. Wisely, he realizes that card tricks are more useful than a Harvard degree and sets out to make a living as an entertainer.
Destyn practices in the park, where he has easy access to the small woodland creatures that are integral to his act. It is here that he meets the lurvely Sacharissa Carr, a struggling artist whose studio is based in his building. Their acquaintance is deepened when one of Destyn's prize performers, a green-dyed mouse scampers into Carr's studio.
It seems that there has been a bit of mistaken identity involved. Ethelinda isn't a struggling artist: she's proper old money that's slumming it with a middle-class studio. And Carr, who she assumed is an acceptable society twit, well... still is a twit, but one that's on the verge of taking a profession. Ethelinda marries William in the nick of time - had they fallen in wuv 24 hours later, he would have already been committed to doing something useful with his life.
Once married, it turns out that William did learn something in graduate school after all. He learned of psychical waves. Mr. Destyn helpfully expounds upon his theory:
"These new and hitherto unsuspected currents... are not electrical but psychical. Yet, like wireless currents, their flow eternally encircles the earth. These currents, I believe, have their origin in that great unknown force which, for lack of a better name, we call fate, or predestination. And I am convinced that by intercepting one of these currents it is possible to connect the subconscious personalities of two people of opposite sex who, although ultimately destined for one another since the beginning of things, have, through successive incarnations, hitherto missed the final consummation-- marriage!--which was the purpose of their creation."
Ladies and gentleman, we have ourselves a linking device.
The rest of The Green Mouse falls neatly into order. With the backing of his wealthy father in law, Destyn creates the first of his teleloveomitters and sets about the exponential growth of his business. The first step is to convince the rest of his family, and fortunately, Ethelinda's lovely older sister, Sacharissa (double eek!) is on hand for some experimentation. Skeptically, she gives herself over to the teleloveomitter in The Green Mouse's second tale.
Soon, Sacharissa (seriously, eek) finds herself overcome with psychical trauma. While her family heads off to the coast for a bit of New Year's frolicking, she mopes around their New York mansion eating chocolates and distressing the servants. Her maid, concerned that her mistress is showing human emotion, heads out for a doctor. In a panic, she brings back the wrong man - not a proper doctor but another twit. The twit, the "unusually attractive" heir to the Vanderdynks (really?!) gets trapped in the mansion's elevator and Sacharissa is forced to play hostess to him while the butler runs for a repairman. She is soon impressed by Vanderdynk Junior's steely resolve. "There he stood, suspended over an abyss, smoking a cigarette, bravely forcing himself to an attitude of serene insouciance, while the basement yawned for him!" The psychical currents have gone to work and the doubting Sacharissa has found her perfect wuvmate.
The family won over, the fledgling "The Green Mouse, Limited" is now out to find outside backers. Flipping randomly through the phone book, Ethelinda approaches Mr. Beekman Brown. He's a lawyer (and, like everyone else, a twit) and, although charmed by Ethelinda, he's naturally a bit dubious about the teleloveomitter. Soon though, he's swept away on the psychical currents and, of all things, begins to stalk a young lady on the streetcar. His friend, Smith, is a little upset by the entire situation - "People don't experience miracles in New York cross-town cars!" They were on their way to a promising house party in the country, but now Brown has gone nutty. Smith slinks off rapidly, as Brown is threatening to take his impropriety to the next level.
Without Smith's support, Brown reconsiders his position:
"He looked at the girl, strove to consider her impersonally, for her youthful beauty began to disturb him. Then cold doubt crept in; something of the monstrosity of the proceeding chilled his enthusiasm for occult research. Should he speak to her?
Certainly, it was a dreadful thing to do--an offense the enormity of which was utterly inexcusable except under the stress of a purely impersonal and scientific necessity for investigating a mental phase of humanity which had always thrilled him with a curiosity most profound."
He's saved from this disastrous social suicide by the young woman's cat, Clarence. Clarence, in his own contribution to destiny, leaps out of his basket and scuttles for freedom. This begins a comedy of errors in which Brown tears his pants, Betty (for that's her name) falls into a the coal cellar, Brown confesses the power of psychical rays, Betty tries to run for it (who wouldn't?), Brown passes out in a closet and, eventually, everyone falls madly in wuv and gets married (except Clarence). It all - mostly - makes sense at the time.
This brief interlude for Mr. Brown's conversation to the teleloveomitter is the one story that doesn't involve the Carr family. Mr. Bushwyck Carr, the widower head of the family, has five daughters, and damned if Mr. Chambers isn't going to marry off each and everyone. Not satisfied with Ethelinda (eek) and Sacharissa (double eek), Mr. Carr has inflicted upon the world a set of triplets: Flavilla, Drusilla and Sybilla.
Sybilla is the first to fall. She pokes about in her father's office following a fencing lesson and, bamf, inadvertantly triggers the teleloveomitter. She's barely 18 and her father is terrified that she's now psychically triggered some sort of horny young sex pest who will storm into their mansion like the Juggernaut. Sybilla is grounded and forbidden from joining the rest of the family at a party in Westchester, figuring that if he keeps her from the twits, she'll be safe. You'd think he would've learned his lesson from Sacharissa, but no - Sybilla is left alone and unchaperoned in the mansion.
Well, she's not completely alone. But fortunately the only other soul about is a workman, and Sybilla knows that, no matter what the psychical waves have in store for her, they certainly won't have paired her with a commoner. ALAS, the workman is a twit-in-sheep's-clothing! One strange and uninteresting glue-related incident later, Sybilla is en-wuvved.
After Sybilla falls, there's a brief expository interlude where Mr. Chambers describes the success of The Green Mouse, Limited.
"[A] great central station of white marble was being built, facing Madison Avenue and occupying the entire block front between Eighty-second and Eighty-third streets.
The building promised to be magnificent; the plans provided for a thousand private operating rooms, each beautifully furnished in Louis XVI style, a restaurant, a tea room, a marriage licence bureau, and an emergency chapel where first aid clergymen were to be always in attendance. In each of the thousand Louis XVI operating rooms a Destyn-Carr wireless instrument was to stand upon a rococo table. A maid to every two rooms, a physician to every ten, and smelling salts to each room, were provided for in this gigantic enterprise."
This is, if you're keeping track of such things, the opposite side of the city from the Government Lethal Chambers that Mr. Chambers posited in his earlier, much-different alternate history in "The Repairer of Reputations".
However, the success of the teleloveomitter isn't without its reprecussions. The Carr summer home is under siege by paparazzi, who are driving the elder Carr completely nuts with their constant questioning. Mr. Carr is further enraged when he learns that one of the journalists, the particularly-intrusive Yates, is woo-ing Drusilla, one of his triplets. In order to dissuade that prole of a pressman from ever laying a finger on his dainty daughter, Carr lures him into his office and springs the teleloveomitter on him. Except, drama of dramas, he points it the wrong way! Not only is Yates un-psychically-transmogrified, but also the grumpy widower is now enswooned! The reader can relax - everything resolves rapidly and positively, like a Disney special on fast forward. Yates, as one can rapidly guess, isn't a proper working man, he's another twit, and therefore the perfect wuv match for Triplet Number 2.
Carr suffers a few minutes of panic - "She may be m-my own l-laundress for all I know. She may be anything, Yates! She--she might even be b-black!" - but his racial and social purity are maintained when he falls for the thirty-something sister of another twitty family. Huzzah.
The final story is for the sole unwed triplet, Flavilla. By this point, the teleloveomitter has swept the land in a saccharine Apocalypse. In a strangely grim combination of 1984 and The Handmaid's Tale, the future of humanity is now completely in the hands of a corporate entity with the power of controlling human procreation. Flavilla is one of the last few hold-outs - she's having fun making mistakes, and doesn't want Friend Computer to make the match for her. Alas, she's not holed up in the mountains with fellow survivalists, she's prancing around with the other twits in upstate New York. "The Green Mouse, Limited" is holding a festival in its own honor. Flavilla, for no easily-explained reason, is playing a mermaid. She swims off to a little island to practice her singing, a particularly twitty young man is lured to follow and wuv is inevitable.
Teleloveomitter or not, one's destiny to wuv and be wuvved is unavoidable.
The Tracer of Lost Persons is somewhat salvageable in that its core conceit, "Mr. Keen", became a strangely-compelling archetype. That collection was also substantially more diverse - Mr. Chambers punctuated the fatuous society love romances with other, outside interests such as Egyptology and the occult. The Green Mouse has no such saving graces. The sole story with any interesting component at all is the initial romance between William and Ethelina. William's financial plight gives his situation a sense of drama and Ethelinda's secret studio makes her slightly more than a paper-thin character. Had that particular drama continued - with William accomplishing the unknowable and actually doing something with his life - The Green Mouse would have been infinitely better. Instead, this collection is a paean to Aryan twittery - an endless collection of superficial, useless lumps all magically pairing off and sparing innocent people.
The Green Mouse would have also been saved, if only for posterity, if Mr. Chambers acknowledged the utter worthlessness of his protagonists. Instead, he revels in it - an endless, unironic celebration of the absurd and the meritless. Even in his society novels - The Firing Line and The Fighting Chance especially - Mr. Chambers occasionally manages to sneakily insert some praise for the praiseworthy. In The Green Mouse, he never even bothers with this mild act of subversion. Those looking to damn Mr. Chambers for his shameless commercialism need look no futher. However, those looking to redeem him should bury this book even further from the public eye.
[Editor's note: The Green Mouse is available as a free ebook (with all the illustrations!) from Project Gutenberg. The Repairer of Reputations is our Quixotic attempt to redeem the forgotten works of Robert W. Chambers.]