QueedAugust 2, 2013
It took me about a month to read Queed. I read it in bits, mostly during lunchtimes a couple of times a week. And there were days when I chose not to read it because the last bit seemed to signal bad things to come. But in the end, I liked it more for all the tension and discomfort. Henry Sydnor Harrison is so good, guys.
Queed was Harrison’s first book, followed a couple of years later by V.V.’s Eyes. And like V.V.’s Eyes, it’s set in a Southern city and occupies itself with young people, their ideals, and the rebuilding of the South. Also it’s kind of uncomfortably pro-Confederacy, but that’s to be expected, I guess.
Another thing it has in common with V.V.’s Eyes is its shifting focus. Just as V.V.’s Eyes was rarely about V.V., Queed splits its time between the title character and two others, Sharlee Weyland and Charles Gardiner West. Sharlee and West both have roots in the city, and are the “best type” of whatever it is that they are — well-educated upper class Southerners, I guess. West is a prominent citizen who has risen from a modest financial background to business success, but has further, loftier ambitions. Sharlee is Assistant to the State Director of Charities, but would not have to work for a living if her father’s estate hadn’t been appropriated by the trustee, the infamous Henry G. Surface.
Queed himself is a self-educated, self-absorbed sociologist working on a book that he intends to render all other books on sociology useless. He’s created a rigorous, capitalized Schedule for himself, in which he grudgingly allows himself twenty minutes for mealtimes, and his first formal meeting with Sharlee Weyland is, in a way, the Schedule’s fault: since he hasn’t given any time in his schedule to anything that will earn him money, he’s behind on his rent. And since Sharlee acts as a sort of agent for her aunt, who owns the boarding house where Queed lives, she first confronts him with the fact that he can’t stay there for free and then helps him find a job with the local paper.
Sharlee is probably the least important of the three main characters, but of the three she’s the most likable, and probably the best person. She has the fewest changes to make — she doesn’t need to grow as a person, or deserve a different kind of life than she has. I mean, yes, her family was cheated out of a lot of money, and if they hadn’t, she would be rich. But Sharlee doesn’t whine about it, or even seem to give it much thought, and Harrison never implies that the restoration of her fortune is a thing that’s important to the plot of his story. Basically, Sharlee is great, and everyone should like her.
West is perhaps the most interesting of the three. It’s tempting to say he’s kind of a lousy person, but he’s not, really. He just lacks firmness. He’s smart and talented and friendly and personable, but any convictions he has come from other people, and consequently he has a hard time holding onto them. Harrison is really good at showing how a character’s thought processes can simultaneously make sense to them and be objectively wrong, like a lesser George Eliot, and so West is incredibly compelling to read about, in a way that might make you cringe a lot. It made me cringe a lot, anyway.
The other thing Harrison is particularly good at is showing change in a person over time, and the fact that he’s using that talent on Queed is as good a reason to name the book after him as any. Queed, at the beginning of the book, is a person who can sit down to write about altruism without ever having considered doing an altruistic thing in his life, but that slowly changes as people chip away at his isolation and at the Schedule — mostly Sharlee, her cousin Fifi, the editor of the Post and a young man with a passion for exercise.
And that’s the story, really. Queed, much like Pinocchio, becomes a Real Boy, while he, Sharlee and West toss the editorship of the Post, the proposed state-funded Reformatory, and a couple of hundred thousand dollars back and forth between them. It’s detailed and thoughtful and full of feelings and loose ends in a realistically messy way, and also — again like Pinocchio — it’s a bit of a fairytale. I don’t know why I’m not reading Henry Sydnor Harrison all the time.