I was having beers with a few of my buddies at a table in the corner of a towny bar last July, as we commiserated about how our jobs prevented us from doing that sort of thing more often, when I first heard a strangely compelling alternative rock song come soaring out of the jukebox: "This monkey's gone to heaven, this monkey's gone to heaven..." I turned to my friend Mike, who had put the song on, and asked who the band was. "It's the Pixies, man," he said. A few days later, I went out and bought the album Doolittle, and it remained in heavy rotation in my car for the rest of the summer.
I mention this because I have a similar feeling about that song as I do about The Waves. The lyrics of "Monkey Gone to Heaven" appear enigmatic at first, just a series of images: "There was a guy/An underwater guy who controlled the sea/Got killed by ten millions pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey." Now, it may seem obvious that Frank Black is writing about the environment here, yet it is the way he put it ("an underwater guy...got killed by...sludge") that caused the meaning to elude me for a long time; it was the simplicity of it that stifled my analysis. It's the same way that The Waves continues to cause problems for me in my reading. Here's Rhoda's take on the dinner party in Percival's honor:
Strangers keep on coming, people we shall never see again, people who brush us disagreeably with their familiarity, their indifference, and the sense of a world continuing without us. We cannot sink down, we cannot forget our faces. Even I who have no face, who make no difference when I come in (Susan and Jinny change bodies and faces), flutter unattached, without anchorage anywhere, unconsolidated, incapable of composing any blankness or continuity or wall against which these bodies move. It is because of Neville and his misery. The sharp breath of his misery scatters my being. Nothing can settle; nothing can subside. (88)
I think that there are several ways to approach this passage. We have no need to go to the dictionary for any of the words, and the sentences, though lengthy, are constructed plainly. We can look at the broad scope: Woolf is trying to convey the awkward discomfort or even melancholy that first arises in a mixed social setting, being forced to put on a congenial face and interact with people amiably, even though all parties know that they are merely exchanging formalities. It isn't hard to pick up on this aspect of the reading. Yet, when we examine each of the clauses on their own, Rhoda's emotion becomes abstract and indefinable: "Even I who have no face, who make no difference when I come in (Susan and Jinny change bodies and faces), flutter unattached, without anchorage anywhere..." Here, there are only glimpses of finite, understandable language; we know that Rhoda feels removed from Susan and Jinny, both of whom she perceives to be well adjusted: they "change" their appearances at the party to fit the setting. But the first clause, "Even I who have no face" can, to me, go one of two ways. Either Rhoda feels that she does not have the "face" suitable for a party, meaning she cannot feign enthusiasm among acquaintances, or she may mean that she feels diminished, faceless in the sense that she is overlooked, unrecognized. "Nothing can settle; nothing can subside," seems (and I believe that I can only say "seems") to reflect her restlessness, her discomfort in this environment.
It is not in spite of these complexities, but because of these complexities, that this passage (and indeed, much of the book) is bizarrely tangible. Woolf isn't writing literal events, she is contemplating emotions (the same way, I think, James Ramsay had the urge to stab his father, but didn't). I think back to that night at the bar now that I consider where Rhoda is coming from. There were certainly moments when shooting the bull about our jobs, or the summer Olympics, or about the Mets' bullpen, or retelling stories from our past would dry up. And, though friends, we'd each sip our beers or adjust our caps or chuckle uncomfortably. Although Rhoda's speech is ambiguous and complex, it is perhaps one of the best attempts in prose that I have read which seeks to defamiliarize something as common as a social setting, and truly flesh out the initial feeling of discomfort that many of us understand but have never tried to define in such precise terms.
It seems that I find strange parallels in my life sometimes. Last semester, my roommate, an avid hip-hop fan, said, "Dude, I have no clue what this song is about, but it sounds sweet." On Saturday, he came into my room and said, "Dude, you're still reading that?" Thus, I relate the Pixies' song to Woolf's book because both are stupefyingly simple, yet rich and puzzling; every time I listen to that song, or read the same passage of The Waves over again, I notice something I hadn't the time before. The same way that the riff of "Monkey Gone to Heaven" is a straightforward E-Fsharp-A-D, Woolf's diction is direct and elementary. Yet, the simplicity of each impeded my understanding of them. It's been a painstaking trudge through The Waves for me, but not because I can't read it. Beneath the simplicity of the language, it takes care on the reader's part to decipher the intricate emotions that Woolf is handling.