Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

mccann_let.jpgThere's a certain amount of temptation to apply to Hunter College's Creative Writing MFA, not because I have any pretensions of writing fiction myself, but just to have classes led by authors like Peter Carey, Nathan Englander, and Colum McCann. McCann is big news these days, having recently won both the National Book Award, and perhaps more lucratively, the spot at the top of Amazon's Best of 2009, for his fifth novel, Let the Great World Spin. In this extraordinary book, McCann tells a series of tales about disparate inhabitants of New York City, a city of loners that was connected for one day in August 1974 by Philippe Petit's famous Twin Towers tightrope walk:

Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful. Some though at first that it must have been a trick of the light, something to do with the weather, an accident of shadowfall. Others figured it might be the perfect city joke--stand around and point upward, until people gathered, tilted their heads, nodded, affirmed, until all were starting upward at nothing at all, like waiting for the end of a Lenny Bruce gag. But the longer they watched, the surer they were. He stood at the very edge of the building, shaped dark against the gray of the morning. A window washer maybe. Or a construction worker. Or a jumper.

Up there, at the height of a hundred and ten stories, utterly still, a dark toy against the cloudy sky.

Throughout the book there are interludes describing Petit's advance onto the wire, and even an extended flashback to his training for the event. But Let the Great World Spin is not just about this event, it is about this moment in time, about the city and the people thirteen-hundred feet below, who turned, transfixed, en masse, toward the Twin Towers for not the last time. Of these many millions, McCann has crafted a group portrait of a dozen or so whose lives are intertwined by more than just Petit's walk: an Irish street priest and his brother; a pair of prostitutes, mother and daughter, whom the priest was ministering to (in his fashion); an artist couple that survive a fateful car accident; a group of mothers who meet in each other's homes to discuss the sons they've lost in Vietnam; and the judge husband of one these women.

The novel opens with narration by an Irishman who has come to New York to see Corrigan, his wandering priest brother. He reminisces about their childhood, in which Corrigan always stood out as a bit unusual:

Nothing else was mentioned, until two years later he gave that blanket away too, to another homeless drunk, on another freezing night, up by the canal on one of his late-night walks, when he tiptoed down the stairs and went out into the dark. It was a simple equation to him--others needed the blankets more than he, and he was prepared to take the punishment if it came his way. It was my earliest suggestion of what my brother would become, and what I'd later see among the cast-offs of New York--the whores, the hustlers, the hopeless--all of those who were hanging on to him like he was some bright hallelujah in the shitbox of what the world really was.

In New York, Corrigan has chosen to live amongst a group of prostitutes working an expressway underpass in the Bronx, much to his brother's astonishment and regret. His nearby apartment is left unlocked so that the women can come and use the bathroom at their leisure, Corrigan's "little gesture" that already cost him a beating from one of the local pimps. Amongst the girls are a mother and daughter, Tillie and Jazzlyn, and when they get arrested on an outstanding robbery warrant, it is Corrigan who tracks them down. And it is Corrigan who dies in a car crash with Jazzlyn on the way back from her arraignment:

We have all heard of these things before. The love letter arriving as the teacup falls. The guitar striking up as the last breath sounds out. I don't attribute it to God or to sentiment. Perhaps it's chance. Or perhaps chance is just another way to try to convince ourselves that we are valuable.

Yet the plain fact of the matter is that is happened and there was nothing we could do to stop it...

From here the story pivots, seemingly without any connection (for now), to a fancy Park Avenue apartment where Claire Soderberg awaits a visit from a group of women with whom she shares the misfortune of having lost a son to the war in Vietnam. That is just about all it would seem Claire has in common with these women, none of whom live anywhere close to Park Avenue:

She has been to four houses over the past eight months. All of them simple, clean, ordinary, lovely. Staten Island, the Bronx, two on the Lower East Side. Never any fuss. Just a gathering of mothers. That's all. But they were drop-jawed at her address when she finally told them. She had managed to avoid it for a while, but then they went to Gloria's apartment in the Bronx. A row of projects. She had never seen anything like it before. Scorch marks on the doorways. The smell of boric acid in the hall. Needles in the elevator. She was terrified.

And yet it is Gloria whom she feels the closest bond with, despite the distance that their lives have put between them. It is in these unexpected intersections that McCann's novel thrives, illuminating the ways in which disparate lives can converge, if even for a moment, with tremendous consequences for better or worse. This is not a wholly original premise, the repeated criss-crossing of a small cast of characters, but it usually relies on such banal flukes as to drown the suspension of disbelief; see, e.g. Crash. Either because of the strength of his characters, his prose, or both, McCann's narrative rises above this peril.

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

brooks_people.jpgOn Tuesday, I reviewed Geraldine Brooks' debut novel, Year of Wonders, a deft portrayal of life in a plague-infested English village in the seventeenth-century. I was inspired to read it based on my enjoyment of Brooks second novel, March, which offered a revisionist account of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women from the absent father's perspective, and for which Brooks was awarded the 2006 Pulitzer Prize. Despite their vastly disparate subject matter, both novels displayed Brooks' knack for writing beautiful prose and crafting a story that fully employs her talent for historical research.

Brooks continued her successful streak in 2008 with her third and most recent novel, People of the Book. Just as the first two novels were inspired by historical models (the village of Eyam and Bronson Alcott, respectively), so this latest story finds its origin in one of the world's most valuable books, the Sarajevo Haggadah:

The Sarajevo Haggadah is an illuminated manuscript that contains the illustrated traditional text of the Passover Haggadah which accompanies the Passover Seder. It is one of the oldest Sephardic Haggadahs in the world, originating in Barcelona around 1350. The Haggadah is presently owned by the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, where it is on permanent display.

The Sarajevo Haggadah is handwritten on bleached calfskin and illuminated in copper and gold. It opens with 34 pages of illustrations of key scenes in the Bible from creation through the death of Moses. Its pages are stained with wine, evidence that it was used at many Passover Seders. It is considered to be the most beautiful illuminated Jewish manuscript in existence and one of the most valuable books in the world. In 1991 it was appraised at US$700 million

The protagonist of People of the Book, Hannah Heath, is a renowned Australian book conservator who, as the book opens in 1996, has been hired by the United Nations to work her magic on the famous Haggadah, which has miraculously survived the abundant violence and bombing that had recently shattered so much in Sarajevo. The first chapter finds Hanna making her first acquaintance with the precious volume, and her reverent exploration reveals both her passion for her work and the mysteries of the manuscript she is handling:

Slowly, deliberately, I examined and made notes on the condition of each page. Each time I turned a parchment, I checked and adjusted the position of the supporting forms. Never stress the book--the conservator's chief commandment. But ht people who had owned this book had known unbearable stress: pogrom, Inquisition, exile, genocide, war.

Each of the unusual characteristics that Hanna notes will play a key role in the book's development, from the insect wings to the wine stain to the trace of saltwater, as each element sparks a flashback into the manuscript's history. The plot thus proceeds on two tracks: the first follows Hanna as her investigation of the Haggadah leads her to various contacts and subject matter experts around the globe; the second proceeds regressively, each flashback leaping further into the book's past. A similar plot device was used in one of my favorite movies, The Red Violin, in which a violin appraiser's analysis of the title instrument is the frame for a series of flashbacks to pivotal events in 300 years since the violin was crafted.

The novel's title is a clever double entendre; the novel's characters are all, of course, people in whose lives the Haggadah has played a pivotal role, thus they are people of that book. But the more common meaning of the phrase comes from the Muslim Qu'ran, in which "People of the Book" is used to designate non-Muslims adherents of the older Abrahamic religions, e.g. Jews and Christians. And this sense of multiculturalism plays an important role in Brooks' novel. This is most explicit in the fact that it was Muslims who saved this Jewish manuscript at two key moments when it was threatened, during World War II and the Bosnian War. Brooks expands on this theme throughout the book, with flashbacks taking the narrative into the seventeenth-century Venetian Ghetto and the Spanish Inquisition on the eve of the Jewish expulsion. The story of the book is intertwined with the persecution of Jews down through the ages, this persecution being a prime motivator for the Mediterranean journeys the Sarajevo Haggadah took from its origins in Spain. Like the Jews, the book found a way to survive:

All over Aragon that night, Jews were being forced to the baptismal font, driven to to conversion by fear of exile. Ruti, exultant, defiant, had made a Gentile into a Jew. Because his mother was not Jewish, a ritual immersion had been necessary. And now it was done. Even as the emotion of the moment brimmed within her, Ruti was counting the days. She did not have very long. By the eighth day, she would need to find someone to perform his brit. If all went well, this would be in their new land. And on that day, she would give the child his name.

She turned back toward the beach, hugging the baby tightly to her breast. She remembered she had the book, wrapped in hide, slung in a shoulder sack. She pulled on the straps to raise it out of the reach of the waves. But a few drops of saltwater found their way inside her careful wrappings. When the water dried on the page, there would be a stain, and a residue of crystals, that would last five hundred years.

Once again, Brooks' flair for historical fiction shines through in this book. Each retrospective interlude is utterly believable, the characters thinking, speaking, and behaving in form true to the circumstances of their existence, be they a Muslim museum curator working under the thumb of Nazi overlords or a Venetian priest performing the church's censorship at the height of the Counter-Reformation:

In 1589, when Pope Sixtus V proclaimed a ban on any books by Jews or Saracens that contained anything against the Catholic faith, the young priest Vistorini had been a natural choice to work as censor of the Inquisitor. For seventeen years, almost his entire life in Holy Orders, Domenico had read and passed judgment on the works of alien faiths.

As a scholar, he had an innate reverence for books. this he had been required to subdue when his mission was to destroy them. Sometimes, the beauty of the Saracens' fluid calligraphy moved him. Other times, it was the elegant argument of a learned Jew that gave him pause. He would take his time considering such manuscripts. If, in the end, he determined that hey had to go to the flames, he would avert his gaze as the parchments blackened. His job was easier when the heresy was patent. At those time, he could watch the flames, rejoicing in them as a cleansing thing, ridding human thought of error.

In fact, Brooks is so good in these historical vignettes that, just as in The Red Violin, the weakest part of the narrative is the modern thread that ties the episodes together. Hanna's relationships, in particular her romance with the Bosnian curator and her lifelong clashes with her famous surgeon mother (sadly evocative of Grey's Anatomy), which are deemed so motivating in the choices she makes, ring particularly hollow in comparison to the kinship and liaisons portrayed in the stories about that precious manuscript.

Interestingly, though People of the Book was the third novel Brooks finished, this excellent feature on the author reveals that she stopped work on the book to write March, only returning to the story of the Haggadah after finishing the Pulitzer Prize winner. All in all, it is a marvelous work, continuing the streak of excellence Brooks has shown in all three of her novels, and leaving one imbued with anticipation for her next work.

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

smith_child.jpgDespite my passion for reading, there are some genres that have largely escaped my interest or attention; romance, Christian fiction, and self-help are aisles of the book store that I have failed to peruse. And normally, the mystery/thriller genre falls in there as well; aside from some John Grisham and Michael Crichton read as a teenager, that's just not where my enthusiasm has taken me. Probably the only reason I even heard of Tom Rob Smith's Child 44 was that it was longlisted for the Booker Prize back in 2008, a noteworthy event because genre fiction so rarely gets any attention from the literary prize panels. Still, even that was not enough to get me to buy the book. But when I saw a paperback copy sitting in the laundry room of my barracks in Kuwait, I grabbed it, with plans to read it on the plane back. Well, I mostly slept on the plane ride back, so it was until near the end of December that I finally got around to reading it.

Smith's is a detective story with a twist: the protagonist detective, Leo Demidov, is an officer of the Soviet secret police, a true believer doing the dirty work that kept Stalin's totalitarian regime running in the years following World War II:

His only ambition was a general one: to serve his country, a country that had defeated fascism, a country that provided free education and health care, that trumpeted the rights of the workers around the world, that paid his father--a munitions workers on an assembly line--a salary comparable to that of a fully qualified doctor. Although his own employment in the State Security force was frequently unpleasant he understood its necessity, the necessity of guarding their revolution from enemies both foreign and domestic, from those who sought to undermine it and those determined to see it fail. To this end Leo would lay down his life. To this end he'd lay down the lives of others.

As the novel opens, Demidov has been asked by his boss to handle a rather delicate situation. A junior member of the state security agency has recently lost a child, and he and his family are making noise with accusations of murder, despite the official determination that the boy was accidentally hit by a train. Murder being a supposed impossibility in the perfection of the Stalinist society, such accusations are wholly unwelcome to the government. Demidov's job is to make the family understand this:

Leo's mission was to quash any unfounded speculation, to guide them back from the brink. Talk of murder had a natural drama which no doubt appealed to certain types of fanciful people. If it came to it he'd be harsh: the boy had made a mistake for which he'd paid with his life. No one else need suffer for his carelessness. Maybe that was too much. He needn't go so far. This could be resolved tactfully. They were upset--that was all. Be patient with them. They weren't thinking straight. Present the facts. He wasn't here to threaten them, at least not immediately: he was here to help them. He was here to restore faith.

Yet in the endless depths of paranoiac conspiracy that infested the Soviet system, even as powerful a man as Demidov feels perpetually in danger. That danger becomes a reality as Demidov realizes that a workplace rival may be plotting against him:

Leo glanced across at his deputy, a man both handsome and repulsive in equal measure--as if his good looks were plastered over a rotten center, a hero's face with a henchman's heart. There were just the tiniest visible fractures in his attractive facade, appearing at the corners of his mouth, a slight sneer that, if you knew how to interpret it, hinted at the dark thoughts lying beneath his good looks. Perhaps sensing that he was the subject of attention, Vasili turned and smiled a thin, ambiguous smile. Something pleased him. Leo knew immediately that something must be wrong.

In a further example of the twisted web of deceit and betrayal that was fundamental to Stalin's regime, even Demidov's apparent victory over his rival is short-lived, and before long his own family is dragged into the matter, either to test Demidov's loyalty or to punish him, or perhaps both. At a certain point this all begins to raise questions in Demidov's mind about the slavish obedience he has paid to the state and its maxims, including in particular the notion that crimes like murder have been purged from the worker's paradise.

It is not hard to see why Smith's thriller got as much attention as it did. His prose avoids cliche, his characters are not cut from cardboard, and his plot has its share of twists and turns without resorting to illogical coincidence (though there are some convenient intersections). And considering that the main thrust of his narrative has to be the progress of the crime investigation, he does an excellent job infusing the story with the societal distortions inevitable to life in a police state, offering a literary element apparently uncommon to most such books. For those looking for a worthy point of entry for exploring the mystery/thriller genre, there are assuredly much worse places to start than with Child 44.

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

brooks_year.jpgOne of my favorite reads of 2008 was Geraldine Brooks' Pultizer Prize-winning novel, March, which portrayed the Civil War experiences of the absent patriarch of the March family from Louisa May Alcott's beloved Little Women. It was masterful work on two fronts. March was an example of the best kind of historical fiction, using thorough research and stellar writing to place a compelling story in an equally fascinating setting. It was also a brilliant revisionist work; many are the mediocre derivative works that seek to leech off a treasured masterpiece (Gregory Maguire has somehow made an entire literary career out of it). Not so with March, which adds a dark dimension to Alcott's classic while remaining true to the original narrative.

March was not Brooks' first novel (nor by the time I read it was it her most recent), so when I discovered that her debut novel was also a work of historical fiction, it seemed worth a browse. In Year of Wonders, Brooks tackled a rather more distant subject: an isolated English village which quarantines itself during the Great Plague of 1665-6. Based on the true story of the village of Eyam, Brooks frames her narrative through the memories of protagonist Anna Frith, a young widow who has survived the plague and continues her work as housekeeper of the local rectory despite the self-imposed seclusion of the rector:

At day's end, when I leave the rectory for home, I prefer to walk through the orchard on the hill rather than go by the road and risk meeting people. After all we've been through together, it's just not possible to pass with a polite, "Good night t'ye." And yet I haven't the strength for more. Sometimes, not often, the orchard can bring back better times to me. These memories of happiness are fleeting things, reflections in a stream, glimpsed all broken for a second and then swept away in the current of grief that is our life now.

The first flashback returns to the early months of Anna's widowhood, which preceded the plague. Indeed, her husband was killed not by disease, but by a collapse in the mine which he owned and worked, an occupation even more treacherous in the seventeenth-century than today. Left to fend for herself and her two young sons with greatly decreased economic means, Anna decides to take a boarder, George Viccars. A skilled tailor, Viccars has come to the village to make use of his trade, which he had most recently plied in several of England's larger towns. Before long, Viccars is a trusted member of the home, gaining the affection of Anna's sons and increasingly, Anna herself. But just as she begins to seriously entertain the possibility of a romantic relationship, tragedy strikes: Viccars falls deathly ill with the symptoms of bubonic plague:

I almost dropped the pitcher in my shock. The fair young face of the evening before was gone from the pallet in front of me. George Viccars lay with his head pushed to the side by a lump the size of a newborn piglet, a great, shiny, yellow-purple knob of pulsing flesh. His face, half turned away from me because of the excrescence, was flushed scarlet, or rather, blotched, with shapes like rings of rose petals blooming under his skin. His blond hair was a dark, wet mess upon his head, and his pillow was drenched with sweat. There was a sweet, pungent smell in the garret. A smell like rotting apples.

Despite Viccars' urgent request, with the rector's affirmation, that Anna burn his belongings after his death, many of his clients demand the return of the garments he was assembling for them. Thus goes out into the village the seeds of its own destruction. Unfortunately, some of the first blows strike too close to home:

I crooned to him as I climbed the stairs and laid him down upon our pallet. He lay just as I placed him, his arms splayed limply. I lay down beside him and drew him close. I pretended to myself that he would wake in the wee hours with his usual lusty cry for milk. For a time his little pulse beat fast, his tiny heart pounding. But toward midnight the rhythms became broken and weak and finally fluttered and faded away. I told him I loved him and would never forget him, and then I folded my body around my dead baby and wept until finally, for the last time, I fell asleep with him in my arms.

Understandably, these events put Anna into a shocked depression from which she could hardly have been blamed if she never recovered. Certainly these were deadly times, particularly for young children, as reflected in the advice of Anna's stepmother not to name or love a child before they could walk. Nevertheless, the trauma for a woman just eighteen years of age to lose her husband and then watch her two young sons deteriorate and die before her very eyes, in her own arms, must approach the limits of human capacity. Indeed, Anna seeks comfort in the local herbalist's hidden stash of opiate poppies. And yet slowly, Anna regains her humanity, with the help of the rector's wife, Elinor Mompellion, who reveals her own sorrows to Anna and joins her in an effort to understand the disease that is plaguing their village and seek any remedy or defense against it:

And so for the rest of that day, we pored through the books that Elinor had carried from the rectory, looking first for the names of plants said to be strengthening for any of the many body parts the Plague seemed to attack. It was tedious going, for the rectory's books were in Latin or Greek, which Elinor had to translate for me... When we had the names of the plants, we went through the herb bunches, trying, sometimes with great difficulty, to match the descriptions in the books with the drying leaves and roots before us.

If there is a flaw to Brooks' book, it is the underdevelopment of the characters other than Anna, and perhaps Elinor. Partly this is explicable by the novel's high mortality rate; most of the villagers die, either of plague, accident, or murder, before all that much can be said about them. But it does mildly blunt the impact of their fates, as well as the plausibility of some of the twists of the novel's plot. Characterization is one of the novelist's greatest challenges, however, so it is no great insult to suggest Brooks was still perfecting it in this first novel, particularly as I already know how well she does it in her sophomore effort.

Where Year of Wonders most splendidly forecasts the success of March is the shared beauty of Brooks' ability to evoke all aspects of her historical setting. If her characters are sometimes a bit flat, they never lack credibility as creatures of 17th-century England. Brooks faithfully renders the people and events of the novel in the times in which they lived, never stooping to portraying them as inferior or barbaric, from the villagers' fateful suspicion of the herbalist widow Mem Gowdie and her niece, to Anna and Elinor's quest to understand the basics of disease vectors:

There it was, our Plague-scoured village, the names of all its three hundred and three score sorry souls pinned to the map like insect specimens on a board. Under the names of near fifty, Elinor had drawn a black line. I had not conceived that the sickness already had undone so many. The map showed it clearly: the way the contagion had spread out from my cottage, a starburst of death.

Even the most barbaric acts in the novel are inspired by feelings of fear or desires for vengeance, which hardly separate those times from our own. Despite their superstitions and their scientific ignorance, these were fully-formed homo sapiens with the range of human emotions, and Brooks admirably presents them as such. It seems Brooks has a real knack for this historical fiction stuff, which she proved yet again in her third and most recent novel, People of the Book, which I will review on Friday.

American Pastoral by Philip Roth

roth_american.jpgIn a sense, 2009 was the year of the Pulitzer Prize for me. I read seven novels that won the award: William Kennedy's Ironweed (review here), Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres (review here), Anne Tyler's Breathing Lessons (review here), Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex (review here), Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove (review here), Carol Shields' The Stone Diaries (review here) and, finally, Philip Roth's American Pastoral. There were no truly bad novels in the bunch, with Smiley's book just on the border, but only Eugenides and McMurtry really impressed me.

Roth is capable of doing so; The Plot Against America was one of my favorite reads of 2006, and I was mostly impressed by The Human Stain when I read it earlier this year. Like the latter, the narration in American Pastoralis provided by Roth's oft-used fictional alter-ego, famous novelist Nathan Zuckerman. The occasion of the 45th reunion of his high school Class of 1950 finds Zuckerman reminiscing, in particular about a student/athlete who had been the king of the town during Zuckerman's New Jersey youth:

The elevation of Swede Levov into the household Apollo of the Weequahic Jews can best be explained, I think, by the war against the Germans and the Japanese and the fears that it fostered. With the Swede indomitable on the playing field, the meaningless surface of life provided a bizarre, delusionary kind of sustenance, the happy release into a Swedian innocence, for those who lived in dread of never seeing their sons or their brothers or their husbands again.

But for Zuckerman, the Swede was not just a mythical legend; he was the older brother of one of his friends and thus the first god to deign to acknowledge young Zuckerman's existence:

And then one day I shared in that glory. I was ten, never before touched by greatness, and would have been as beneath the Swede's attention as anyone else along the sidelines had it not been for Jerry Levov. Jerry had recently taken me on board as a friend; though I was hard put to believe it, the Swede must have noticed me around their house. And so late on a fall afternoon in 1943, when he got slammed to the ground by the whole of the JV team after catching a short Leventhal bullet and the coach abruptly blew the whistle signaling that was it for the day, the Swede, tentatively flexing an elbow while half running and half limping off the field, spotted me among the other kids and called over, "Basketball was never like this, Skip."

The reminiscence about Zuckerman's youth and the Swede's place in it is really a long introduction to two later encounters that Zuckerman had with the Swede. In a brief 1985 encounter, they run into each other at a Mets game, and Zuckerman is introduced to the Swede's son. More enigmatically, Zuckerman receives a letter from the Swede ten years later, asking to meet with Zuckerman to discuss the possibility of writing a memoir of the Swede's father. Though this is ordinarily the sort of request Zuckerman turns down cold, he can't possible refuse the Swede, and so they meet for dinner. In a very strange meal, the Swede talks about his health, his brother, his wife and sons, but never really gets around to the subject that had seemed to inspire the letter. Zuckerman leaves the meal concluding that the Swede, pleasant and sociable as he was, was nothing more, a man wholly lacking in drama or complexity. Later that year, at his reunion, he runs into Jerry Levov and finds out that the Swede has just died, and that it turns out Zuckerman had known very little about the Swede's life:

"The incessant questioning of a conscious adulthood was never something that obstructed my brother. He got the meaning for his life some other way. I don't mean he was simple. Some people thought he was simple because all his life he was so kind. But Seymour was never that simple. Simple is never that simple. Still, the self-questioning did take some time to reach him. And if there's anything worse than self-questioning coming too early in life, it's self-questioning coming too late. His life was blown up by that bomb, The real victim of that bombing was him."

"What bomb?"

It turns out that the Swede's daughter, Merry, his daughter from his first marriage, had blown up the local post office in a 1968 protest against... well, against the world, against Vietnam, against her father. A man was killed in the blast, but the repercussions certainly did not stop there. This revelation, shocking to Zuckerman who cannot quite figure out how he had remained ignorant about such an event, inspires him to reconstruct the Swede's life in the years leading up to and following the explosion that had torn his world apart. Thus the majority of American Pastoral is a novel within a novel, an imagining by Nathan Zuckerman of what life was like for Swede Levov as he married Miss New Jersey, took over his father's successful glove-manufacturing company, and raised a daughter who would eventually rebel against everything he stood for in the most violent way possible.

The early part of the book, in which Zuckerman discusses his childhood and own experiences with the Swede, is the novel's strongest section. Too much of what Zuckerman imagines about the Swede's struggles with his daughter, and his struggles with his daughter's crime, struck me as trite and cliched, from Merry's juvenile rantings about Vietnam to the machinations of Rita Cohen, the woman who shows up at the Swede's office demanding Merry's prized possessions on behalf of the fugitive girl before trying to seduce the Swede in a hotel room. Even worse, the book's frame story structure obfuscates responsibility for the banality: is this Roth who can't resist the urge to present the culture wars through platitudes, or it Zuckerman who is stuck believing in this hackneyed dichotomy.

The novel has its strengths: Roth's prose is always compelling. if nothing else, and American Pastoral does evoke many of the hotly debated issues of the late 1960s and early 1970s with verve and vigor. The novel is probably best enjoyed, and its social commentary most coherent, if read in conjunction with Roth's subsequent (and superior) two novels, I Married a Communist (set during the McCarthy era) and The Human Stain (set amidst the impeachment of President Clinton), which loosely form Roth's so-called "American Trilogy," each using its narrative to tackle the cultural divides that plagued a particular decade of post-WWII American public life.

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields

shields_stone.jpgIt is the unusual and extraordinary men and women who make it into the history books, mostly those who took some part in public life, be it politics, war, art, or science. As most of these fields were fully or largely closed to women for most of human history, the ordinary female life has been particularly under-examined. In her 1993 novel, The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields surveys just such a life, that of Daisy Goodwill. It is the only book ever to win the highest literary awards in both Canada (the Governor General) and the United States (the Pulitzer), with Shields being uniquely eligible for both as a naturalized Canadian citizen of American birth. It also won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

As its title suggests, the story is presented in the form of autobiographical diary entries by Daisy, whose mother's maiden name was Stone. The novel opens with an account of Daisy's birth, which necessarily entails an account of her parents, Cuyler Goodwill and Mercy Stone, and their life in a small town in Manitoba. Cuyler is a quarry worker (get it, stone?) who worships stone, routine, and coming home to his wife. Mercy is a woman so obsessed with food that her obesity hid from her the fact of her pregnancy until the day in 1905 when she went into labor:

All spring she's been troubled with indigestion. Often in the morning, and then again after her young husband has gone to sleep, she's risen form her bed and dosed herself with Bishop's Citrate of Magnesia. When she drinks ordinary milk or sweetened tea or sugary lemonade she swallows it down greedily, but Bishop's cool chalky potion she pours into a china cup and sips with deep, slow concentration, with dignity. She doesn't know what to think.

Unfortunately for Cuyler, Daisy's entrance into the world is also Mercy's exit, with her death in childbirth leaving Cuyler with the mystery of why his wife never told him of her pregnancy:

He admits to himself that his love for his dead wife has been altered by the fact of her silence. More and more her lapse seems not just a withholding, but a punishment, a means of humbling him before others who see him now, he imagines, as an ignorant or else careless man. What manner of husband does not know his wife is to bear a child?

He decides to build a stone tower in her memory, which will soon begin attracting tourists from all corners, while care of Daisy is taken over by the erstwhile neighbor, Clementine Flett, who seizes the chance to leave her unhappy marriage and start anew. She takes young Daisy to Winnipeg, where she moves in with her bachelor son who teaches biology at a local college. This domestic situation, portrayed through the inclusion of a series of letters written by Clementine and her son, Barker, lasts until 1916, when Clementine's death forces another life change upon Cuyler Goodwill, who has finished his tower:

A letter has come from Professor Barker Flett in Winnipegg concerning the breakdown of guardianship arrangements and the problem of what is to be done for Daisy's future care.

Another letter has come, only yesterday, from the president of the Indiana Limestone Company of Bloomington, Indiana, in the United States. Expert stone carvers are urgently needed. An extravagant wage has been named. A comfortable apartment on Cross Street in Vinegar Hill (whatever that may be) is available for his occupancy. Transportation will be arranged for himself, his family, and his household effects. Does Mr. Goodwill have a family?

And so begins what from the outside would appear a rather pedestrian domestic life (aside from the death of her first husband from falling out a window on their honeymoon). The chapters of the book reflect the traditional landmarks, from marriage to motherhood, work to retirement, illness to death, with but a single venture into the outside world, marking Daisy's first real personal satisfaction: the publishing of a gardening column in the local newspaper, a decade of her life presented in epistolary format as she receives encouraging letters from her editor, then her readers, before the whole endeavor is abruptly snatched away:

Ottawa, January 25, 1964
Dear Dee,
I'm so sorry about this misunderstanding. I realize now, of course, that telling you on the phone was a mistake. I knew you'd be disappointed, but I had no idea you would take it this hard. You've been talking about wanting more time to yourself, more time to travel, maybe a trip to England to see your daughter. Hope we can get together as usual on Tuesday and talk this over like two sensible people.

There is much to wonder, in this book, about how the first-person writer of this 'diary' is able to discern so much about the private lives and thoughts of those around her. This is particularly so of those who died during her childhood, such as mother and Clementine Flett. Is there is an element of omniscience that defies the ordinary? Or is Daisy simply using artistic license in portraying the inner voices of her friends and family? The closest she comes to acknowledging this enigma is in the opening chapter:

The recounting of a life is a cheat, of course; I admit the truth of this; evne our own stories are obscenely distorted; it is a wonder really that we keep faith with the simple container of our existence.

That is the struggle that Shields aptly portrays, the struggle to define ourselves, to find happiness or solace in the everyday. In the concluding chapter, Daisy's death is conveyed in scraps and pieces of her life: a recitation of organizations she had joined in her lifetime, a recipe she concocted, her illnesses, her grocery list, and the addresses of every home she lived in. All the ways of summing up a life without saying anything about it at all.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

tolkien_lord.jpgIt is hard to know what to say about a book like The Lord of the Rings. It is a bit like reviewing the Bible, really. Anyone with an interest is virtually certain to have read it, and those lacking such interest are unlikely to care much. Though I cannot disclaim a decently geeky childhood, my genre reading tended more toward science fiction than fantasy, and though I read The Hobbit as a child, I never picked up Tolkien's vaunted epic until much later in life. Indeed, it was not until the first of the recent motion picture adaptations was released that I picked it up. Actually, it was even later than that, as I did not see The Fellowship of the Ring in the theaters at the end of 2001, but sort of haphazardly added it to my Netflix queue and watched it during my first year of law school in the fall of 2002.

I was transfixed by the film, and simply had to know what happened next. The second film was not due to premiere until December of that year, so I made it my goal to traverse the 1000-plus pages by then. The book completely blew me away. I loved it, just loved it. Within months I was in full-on nerd mode, with copies of The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth and The Atlas of Middle-Earth gracing my bookshelf. I even made it through The Silmarillion, Tolkien's esoteric origin story of the Elves in Middle-Earth, and what do you know, I liked it even better. Suffice it to say, during law school I was a big Tolkien buff. When the "Extended Edition" DVDs of the film trilogy were released, I was all over them. I watched the movies, listened to the commentaries, watched all the documentaries. It was a great way to spend law school.

In the years since, the fascination has worn off a bit. I certainly no longer have the free time to sit and watch hours of DVD special features. But the book still retains its magic. This most recent reading was my third (I had read it again after the release of the last movie in December 2003), and it only gets better with increased familiarity. Reading The Lord of the Rings now is like visiting with an old friend. It is sad when it ends, but there is always next time.

Native Son by Richard Wright

wright_native.jpgThere are some novels which are shocking at the time and place of their publication, but are tamed by the passage and progress of time. Richard Wright's 1940 novel, Native Son, is not one of those books. One of the earliest novels to squarely confront the racial divide in America, Wright did not approach the issue tentatively, instead offering a raw depiction of the physical and spiritual poverty and oppression suffered by the black masses in America, and the violent desperation that results. A controversial bestseller at the time of its publication, Native Son has survived the test of history, and placed 20th and 27th, respectively, on the Modern Library and Radcliffe lists of the 20th century's best English-language novels.

In Native Son, Wright offers a young African-American protagonist who is living with his mother and siblings in bare poverty in a single room ghetto apartment on Chicago's South Side in the 1930s. Though a mere twenty years of age, Bigger Thomas is already filled with the anger and discontent of a much older man, living a life of petty crime and violence, directed as much as possible at the white people whom Bigger holds responsible for his despair:

"They don't Let us do nothing."
"The white folks."
"You talk like you just now finding that out," Gus said.
"Naw. But I just can't get used to it," Bigger said. "I swear to God I can't. I know I oughn't think about it, but I can't help it. Every time I think about it I feel like somebody's poking a red-hot iron down my throat. Goddammit, look! We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain't. They do thing we can't. It's just like living in hail. Half the time I feel like I'm on the outside of the world peeping in through a knot-hole in the fence..."

Wright does not blanch at the inevitable direction of Bigger's tragic life; by the end of the novel's first act, he has smothered to death the attractive young daughter of the wealthy white man who had just given him a job. And yet the death was an accident, caused by his fear at being caught in the young woman's room after having carried the intoxicated girl up from the car. And his subsequent grisly cover-up is similarly motivated by knowledge that no matter what story he told, a murder rap was the guaranteed result:

The reality of the room fell from him; the vast city of white people that sprawled outside took its place. She was dead and he had killed her. He was a murderer, a Negro murderer, a black murderer. He had killed a white woman. He had to get away from here. Mrs. Dalton had been in the room while he was there, but she had not known it. But, had she? No! Yes! Maybe she had gone for help? No. If she had known she would have screamed. She didn't know. He had to slip out of the house. Yes. He could go home to bed tomorrow and tomorrow he could tlel them that he had driven Mary home and had left her at the side door.

In the darkness his fear made live in him an element which he reckoned with as "them." He had to construct a case for "them."

I had several weeks to think about this first act, because the paperback copy of the book which I brought with me to Qatar went missing the time I arrived in country, and it was not until my return to the States that I was able to retrieve my hardcover copy and finish the text. Not only was the book sufficiently compelling that I was rather eager to finish it, but it was also so raw and shocking in its depiction of black life before the dawn of the civil rights movement. I certainly do not believe the racial divide has been wholly, or even largely bridged; but the time that Wright is depicting, the time in which he was writing, was an era that lacked not simply justice, but hope itself.

The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers

powers_gold.jpgIn a literary career spanning more than two dozen years, Richard Powers has carved a niche for himself exploring various scientific and medical themes in his novels, such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality. In 2006, he was awarded the National Book Award for The Echo Maker, in which he used a brain injury to his protagonist as an avenue for exploring cognitive neurology. In his third novel, The Gold Bug Variations, published in 1991, Powers explored the discovery of DNA in the 1950s, the intricacies of Johann Sebastian Bach's Goldberg Variations, and the consequences of love and loss on a lifetime:

I never said anything I wanted to say to anyone. I've misinterpreted the whole set from the start. That table of data in the nucleotides isn't about reading at all. It's about saying, out loud, everything there is, while it's still sayable. The whole, impossibly complex goldberg invention of speech, wasted on someone who from the first listened only to that string of molecules governing cowardice. Obvious, out in the open: every measure, every vertical instant infused with that absurd little theme insisting "Live, live," and me objecting, "But what if it should be real? What if it all means something? What if someone should hold me to my words?"

The novel contains two interwoven storylines, one set on the cusp of scientific breakthrough in the 1950s and another twenty-five years later in the early days of the computer revolution. The narratives are connected through the enigmatic figure of Stuart Ressler. In the early storyline, Ressler is on the cutting edge of scientific academia, exploring the frontiers of DNA and genetics. By the mid-1980s, Ressler is working the night shift at a firm conducting overnight computer processing. There he would have toiled in utter anonymity if not for the intervention of his coworker Frank Todd, who becomes curious about Ressler's past. He seeks assistance at the local branch library, where he finds eccentric research librarian Jan O'Deigh, who provides the bulk of the novel's narration. At the start of the novel, O'Deigh has received word of Ressler's death, inspiring a reminiscence of the day she met the inscrutable old man:

He wore a forgettable light suit, a narrow maroon tie not seen since the fifties, and an immaculate oxford button-down, carefully ironed but pilled to exhaustion around the collar. He emitted the aura--accurate, it turned out--that he found buying clothes too embarrassing. He was over the median age by twenty years. As I started, wondering if this was an assault, the figure said, in a voice rattling like a cracked distributor, "Excuse me, Miss. There's been a mistake." I hadn't a clue what he was talking about. Worse--the ultimate terror for my profession--I had no source to appeal to.

The strength of Powers' literature lies in his ability to explore intricate or advanced intellectual concept with grace and ease. The very concept of the common nature of the genetic code and the structure of Bach's composition is a thing of beauty, as is the parallel between Ressler's search to understand these mysteries and Todd and O'Deigh's quest to uncover Ressler's past:

For all that we finally discovered about him, Dr. Ressler still came from and returned to nowhere. His life was a cipher, his needs one of those latent anthologies, safe deposit boxes filled with tickets to urgent, forgotten banquets. Our sustained misreading of the man was my fault. Todd put me on his trail, and I went after him as an abstraction, a chemistry unknown that, mixed with the right reagent, reveals itself by going rose or precipitating. I looked fora postulate, completely missing the empiricist's point. Now, when it no longer helps, I see the person he stood for is the one who is gone.

Powers is oft-criticized, with a good degree of justification, for making plotting and characterization secondary to his ambitious intellectual themes and his lush word play. This certainly applies to Gold Bug; the pacing lags badly at several points, coming to a virtual halt for extended discussions of genetics or musical composition. The dialogue is often stilted, the character development either non-existent or subservient to the themes. But that is one gets when one reads Powers. As the original New York Times review put it, "the purpose of this plot setup is less to tell a story than to explore structural possibilities, codes, metaphors, ingenuity in language." At such exploration, there are few authors who can match Richard Powers.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

waugh_brideshead.jpgIn my discussion of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I referenced his feat of landing two out of the first three spots in the Modern Library's contentious list of the Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century. Another author with multiple titles on the list was mid-century British writer Evelyn Waugh (and let's get this upfront: EVE-lin WAR), with A Handful of Dust slotted at #34, Scoop at #75, and Brideshead Revisited at #80.

The latter title also made the Radcliffe list, published in response to the dearth of female authors on the Modern Library list, as well the similar Time Magazine list. It has also been the subject of two screen adaptations: an early-80s British miniseries (starring Jeremy Irons and Laurence Olivier!) and a 2008 feature film. It was a mass-market paperback copy of the book, published in conjunction with the recent film adaptation, which I found on the bookshelves in the barracks in Qatar when I had exhausted my own reading supply during my trip to the Arab emirate.

The basic framework of the novel is rather straightforward. As the book's subtitle ("The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder") suggests, the narration is provided by a British Army Captain who, in the midst of World War II, has just arrived with his unit for billeting at an old English aristocratic estate called Brideshead:

"Brigade Headquarters are coming there next week. Great barrack of a place. I've just had a snoop round. Very ornate, I'd call it. And a queer thing, there's a sort of R.C. church attached. I looked in and there was a kind of service going on--just a padre and one old man. I felt very awkward. More in your line than mine." Perhaps I seemed not to hear; in a final effort to excite my interest he said: "There's a frightful great fountain, too, in front of the steps, all rocks and sort of carved animals. You never saw such a thing."

"Yes, Hooper, I did. I've been here before."

The words seemed to ring back to be enriched from the vaults of my dungeon... I had been there before; I knew all about it.

As it happens, Brideshead was the home of the Flyte family, whose second son, Sebastian, was Charles' closest friend during his time as a student at Oxford. His wartime arrival at the home triggers a flood of memories of these college years, which occupy the first two-thirds of the novel. Raised in a rather sheltered home by his distant widower father, Charles entrance into the greater world would be largely shaped by this connection to Sebastian and his family, a relationship not entirely approved of by those looking out for Charles:

"I expected you to make mistakes your first year. We all do. I got in with some thoroughly objectionable O.S.C.U. men who ran a mission to hop-pickers during the long vac. But you, my dear Charles, whether you realize it or not, have gone straight, hook, line and sinker, into the very worst set in the University. You may think that, living in digs, I don't know what goes on in college; but I hear things. In fact, I hear all too much. I find that I've become a figure of mockery on your account at the Dining Club. There's that chap Sebastian Flyte you seem inseparable from. He may be all right, I don't know. His brother Brideshead was a very sound fellow. But this friend of yours looks odd to me, and he gets himself talked about. Of course, they're an odd family.

Charles' affection for Sebastian, which ambiguously skirts the line between friendship and romance, is tested by Sebastian's descent into alcoholism and alienation from his family, particularly his piously Catholic mother. Charles' growing intimacy with Sebastian inevitably draws him into the Flyte family circle, and Charles gradually becomes drawn into the internecine struggle for Sebastian's soul:

[S]ince Sebastian counted among the intruders his own conscience and all claims of human affection, his days in Arcadia were numbered. For in this, to me, tranquil time Sebastian took fright. I knew him well in that mood of alertness and suspicion, like a deer suddenly lifting his head at the far notes of the hunt; I had seen him grow wary at the thought of his family or his religion; now I found I, too, was suspect. He did not fail in love, but he lost his joy of it, for I was no longer part of his solitude. As my intimacy with his family grew I became part of the world which he sought to escape; I became on of the bonds which held him. That was the part for which his mother, in all our little talks, was seeking to fit me. Everything was left unsaid. It was only dimly and at rare moments that I suspected what was afoot.

Sebastian's increasingly eccentric behavior eventually leads to his departure from Oxford, and his eventual estrangement from his family, seeking solace in the cities of North Africa. Charles drifts away from both Sebastian and the Flyte family, leaving for Paris to study art. The book leaps forward ten years in its second section, now finding Charles unhappily married to the sister of another Oxford classmate, with two children. During a sea voyage back from the U.S., where an exhibition of his architectural paintings had opened to great acclaim, Charles encounters Sebastian's sister, Julia, who is equally unhappy in her marriage. They renew their acquaintance and embark on a serious affair, with many of Charles' long-standing feelings for Sebastian being triggered by family resemblances, and Charles being pulled back into the endless internal strife of the Flyte clan:

These memories are the memorials and pledges of the vital hours of a lifetime. These hours of afflatus in the human spirit, the springs of art, are, in their mystery, akin to the epochs of history, when a race which for centuries has lived content, unknown, behind its own frontiers, digging, easting, sleeping, begetting, doing what was requisite for survival and nothing else, will, for a generation or two, stupefy the world; commit all manner of crimes, perhaps; follow the wildest chimeras, go down in the end in agony, but leave behind a record of new heights scaled and new rewards won for all mankind; the vision fades, the soul sickens, and the routine of survival starts again.

In line with Waugh's mixed feelings about the British aristocracy, Brideshead Revisited looks at the decline of the landed class with a sense of critical nostalgia, and there were moments in the book that reminded me of Robert Altman's brilliant film, Gosford Park, with its searing depiction of an English country house in the interwar years. There are any number of social climbers and snobs running in and out of the book, and one of the text's many ambiguities is with whom Waugh's sympathies lay.

Another recurring topic in the novel is the Catholicism of the Flyte family, which places them in the minority in 20th-century Britain and particularly the aristocracy. The faith is approached with varying degrees of devotion within the family, with Sebastian's mother, brother, and youngest sister the most devote. His father, Lord Marchmain, converted for purposes of marriage, and then abandoned the faith at the same time he abandoned his wife for an adulterous life overseas. Charles was raised without religion, and for most of the book brings a great deal of skepticism to the religiosity of his adopted family. I am told, by various online reviews of the book, that Brideshead Revisited is heavily influenced by important Catholic themes like grace and reconciliation, reflecting Waugh's conversion to the faith, as well as the tensions within a religious Catholic family. I picked up on some of this, but I am not particularly well-versed in Catholic doctrine nor the history of Catholicism in England, and I suppose much of it must have gone straight over my head.

The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

hawthorne_house.jpgNathaniel Hawthorne was amongst the first great men of letters in the young American nation, with an ancestry linked to the tumultuous social atmosphere of the country's colonization. Born in 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, Hawthorne was the great-great-grandson of John Hathorne, a magistrate in the witch trials for which that town remains famous. Though it is disputed whether Nathaniel added the "w" to his last name to distance himself from these ancestors, it is clear this family history had an important influence on him.

In both of Hawthorne's most celebrated novels, there are overt themes regarding the oppressive nature of Puritan society, the lingering consequences of that oppression, and the injustice inherent therein. In The Scarlet Letter, of course, it is the persecution of the sympathetic Hester Prynne for adultery and the subsequent shunning of Hester and her daughter that raises a sense of unfairness. In The House of the Seven Gables, things are a bit more complicated. As it happens, the title structure, owned by the Pyncheon family, was not the first home to sit on the property. Instead, the site used to belong to a farmer named Maule, who engaged in a long land dispute with the influential Colonel Pyncheon over his title, a dispute that ended with Maule's remarkable death:

Old Matthew Maule, in a word, was executed for the crime of witchcraft. He was one of the martyrs to that terrible delusion, which should teach us, among its other morals, that the influential classes, and those who take upon themselves to be leaders of the people, are fully liable to all the passionate error that has ever characterized the maddest mob.

But Hawthorne does not stop with this simple retrospective condemnation of the errors of his ancestors. Instead, he makes pivotal to the novel's plot the possibility that Colonel Pyncheon's role in supporting this prosecution, implicitly for the purpose of securing the long-sought Maule property, would redound to his discredit:

[I]n after days, when the frenzy of that hideous epoch had subsided , it was remembered how loudly Colonel Pyncheon had joined in the general cry, to purge the land from witchcraft; nor did it fail to be whispered that there was an invidious acrimony in the zeal with which he had sought the condemnation of Matthew Maule. It was well known that the victim had recognized the bitterness of personal enmity in his prosecutor's conduct towards him, and that he declared himself hunted to death for his spoil. At the moment of execution--with the halter about his neck, and while Colonel Pyncheon sat on horseback, grimly gazing at the scene--Maule had addressed him from the scaffold, and uttered a prophecy, of which history, as well as fireside tradition, has preserved the very words. "God," said the dying man, pointing his finger, with a ghastly look, at the undismayed countenance of his enemy, "God will give him blood to drink!"

Unsurprisingly, Colonel Pyncheon quickly takes possession of the dead man's land, and proceeds to begin construction on the famous structure which inspires the book's title (Hawthorne was himself inspired by an actual Salem mansion owned by his cousins). Tempting fate by employing the executed Maule's son as his carpenter, Colonel Pyncheon oversees the successful building of his new home, only to be struck down on the very day the home is to be consecrated:

a little boy--the Colonel's grandchild, and the only human being that ever dared to be familiar with him--now made his way among the guests, and ran towards the seated figure; the pausing halfway, he began to shriek with terror. The company, tremulous as the leaves of a tree, when all are shaking together, drew nearer, and perceived that there was an unnatural distortion in the fixedness of Colonel Pyncheon's stare; that there was blood on his ruff, and that his hoary beard was saturated with it. It was too late to give assistance. The ironhearted Puritan, the relentless persecutor, the grasping and strong-willed man, was dead! Dead, in his new house!

Thus in the openings pages of Hawthorne's novel is set the sin and resulting curse which ensured the succeeding generations of Pyncheon residents in the great house would not enjoy the happiness and prosperity that Colonel Pyncheon had surely foreseen. By the novel's contemporary day, in the mid-19th century, the home is inhabited by a sole Pyncheon, the reclusive Hepzibah Pyncheon, whose financial straits are sufficiently dire that she has taken to opening a cent-shop on the house's first floor in an effort to increase her income:

A lady--who had fed herself from childhood with the shadowy food of aristocratic reminiscences, and whose religion it was that a lady's hand soils itself irremediably by doing aught for bread--this born lady, after sixty years of narrowing means, is fain to step down from her pedestal of imaginary rank. Poverty, treading closely at her heels for a lifetime, had come up with her at last. She must earn her own food, or starve! And we have stolen upon Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon, too irreverently, at the instant of time when the patrician lady is to be transformed into the plebeian woman.

She is alone in the home because her brother has been imprisoned for thirty years as the convicted murderer of their uncle, but Clifford is expected to be released soon. And she refuses any help from her successful cousin, Judge Pyncheon, who so closely resembles the original Colonel Pyncheon that portraits of his ancestor are sometimes taken to be portraits of him. The cast is completed by a mysterious boarder, Holgrave, who lives in the infamous house but keeps largely to himself, and by the arrival of young Phoebe Pyncheon, another cousin whose arrival at the home breathes new life into Phoebe and Clifford:

The young girl, so fresh, so unconventional, and yet so orderly and obedient to common rules, as you at once recognized her to be, was widely in contrast, at that moment, with everything about her. The sordid and ugly luxuriance of gigantic weeds that grew in the angle of the house, and the heavy projection that overshadowed her, and the timeworn framework of the door--none of these things belonged to her sphere. But, even as a ray of sunshine, fall into what dismal place it may, instantaneously creates for itself a propriety in being there, so did it seem altogether fit that the girl should be standing at the threshold. It was no less evidently proper that the door should swing open to admit her.

And thus enters the key to salvation that, as the novel progresses, offers the last hope to the last decaying occupants of the septuple-gabled residence. Hawthorne is clearly concerned throughout the book with his themes of sin, revenge, and redemption, and the resulting consequences that echo down through time. He raises the issue explicitly in his preface:

Many writers lay very great stress upon some definite moral purpose, at which they profess to aim their works. No to be deficient in this particular, the author has provided himself with a moral--the truth, namely, that the wrongdoing of one generation lives into the successive ones, and, divesting itself of every temporary advantage, becomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief.

Surely a worthy moral, but unfortunately Hawthorne pursues it with the blunt elements of curse, catastrophe, and coincidence, those hallmarks of Gothic literature (which I like no better in Hawthorne's hands than in those of Emily Bronte). I think it no matter that Hawthorne apologizes in advance, stating in his preface that "[w]hen a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wished to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material..." Perhaps that excuses Hawthorne from a charge that he has committed some "literary crime," as he asserts in the same preface, but it adds no luster to the quality of the work.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

joyce_portrait.jpgWhen the Modern Library released its controversial list of the Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, James Joyce was honored with the first and third entries on the list, for Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, respectively. This was quite the accomplishment, considering that no other author had two entries even in the top twenty-five. While a great deal of criticism was poured upon the list, and anyone can quibble with the particular ranking of books (or the nature of the project itself), there was little effort to deny the importance of Joyce's work. Even the Radcliffe list, published in response to the dearth of female authors on the original list, put both books in the top fifteen.

The earlier book, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is largely autobiographical, with many of Stephen Dadelus' experiences seemingly culled straight from the author's life: the alcoholic, financially destitute father, the education at the Jesuit Clongowes and Belvedere schools, the breach with Catholicism in favor of an artistic life. But the substance of this bildungsroman is not what set it apart so much as its style. Joyce is lauded today for his innovative literary techniques, presented most famously in Ulysses and most extremely in Finnegans Wake, and his resulting influence on the course of 20th-century literature. Many of those techniques are on display in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, though the more straight-forward nature of the underlying narrative renders the book substantially more accessible than Joyce's later works.

The books opens with Stephen as a small child, recalling a song his father sang, his childish understanding of the members of his family, and his early school experiences. Though presented in a third-person narrative, the narration is consistent with the capacity of Stephen's age, and presents his experience of the story rather than a simple recitation of that story:

It pained him that he did not know well what politics meant and that he did not know where the universe ended. He felt small and weak. When would he be like the fellows in poetry and rhetoric? They had big voices and big boots and they studied trigonometry. That was very far away. First came the vacation and then the next term and then vacation again and then again another term and then again the vacation. It was like a train going in and out of tunnels and that was like the noise of the boys eating in the refectory when you opened and closed the flaps of the ears. Term, vacation; tunnel, out; noise, stop. How far away it was! It was better to go to bed to sleep.

As Stephen grows older and gains a better grasp of the world around him, the narration becomes somewhat more sophisticated. Yet Stephen is still an impressionable young man, without any clear guidance in the world beyond the poor example of his father's failures, the blustering machismo of his schoolmates, and the rigid guidance of his church. Thus when his father's financial situation necessitates a family move to the city of Dublin, Stephen is ill-prepared to chart a middle path for himself. First he veers toward the abyss, wandering into a seedy part of town and having his first sexual experience with a local prostitute, setting off waves of paralyzing guilt:

A cold lucid indifference reigned in his soul. At his first violent sin he had felt a wave of vitality pass out of him and had feared to find his body or his soul maimed by the excess. Instead the vital wave had carried him on its bosom out of himself and back again when it receded; and no part of body or soul had been maimed but a dark peace had been established between them. The chaos in which his ardor extinguished itself was a cold indifferent knowledge of himself. He had sinned mortally not once but many times and he knew that, while he stood in danger of eternal damnation for the first sin alone, by every succeeding sin he multiplied his guilt and his punishment. His days and works and thoughts could make no atonement for him, the fountains of sanctifying grace having ceased to refresh his soul.

Now enrolled in another Jesuit school, Stephen's moral suffering continues and is exacerbated by an extraordinary dozen-page series of lectures on sin, judgment, and hell that utterly convince him that he must seek immediate salvation. Stumbling onto a neighborhood chapel, Stephen confesses his sins and uses this absolution as an opportunity to enter a new phase of his life, pivoting 180 degrees and focusing his efforts on pious devotion:

Every morning he hallowed himself anew in the presence of some holy image or mystery. His day began with an heroic offering of its every moment of thought or action for the intentions of the sovereign pontiff and with an early mass. The raw morning air whetted his resolute piety; and often as he knelt among the few worshippers at the sidealtar, following with his interleaved prayerbook the murmur of the priest, he glanced up for an instant towards the vested figure standing in the gloom between the two candles which were the old and the new testaments and imagined that he was kneeling at mass in the catacombs.

Stephen makes such accomplished strides in his newfound piety that the director of his school calls him to a meeting to discuss the possibility of entering the priesthood. Though Stephen toys with the idea, the prospect of merging the remainder of his life into the church actually has the opposite effect, shaking him from his unquestioned devotion. He decides to pursue a university life, and while awaiting news of his application, a walk on the beach results in an epiphanous encounter with a beautiful young woman:

Her image had passed into his soul for ever and no word had broken the holy silence of his ecstasy. Her eyes had called him and his sould had leaped at the call. To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life! A wild angel had appeared to him, the angel of mortal youth and beauty, an envoy from the fair courts of life, to throw open before him in an instant of ecstasty the gates of all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on!

Thus Joyce's protagonist progressed from the limited perceptions of childhood to the uncontrollable urges of puberty to the reactionary application of rigid self-restraint to a mature grappling with the beauties of the world in all its mystery and ambiguity. Stephen decides to pursue an artistic life, and to do so he feels he must break free of the ties that bind him to his homeland, pursuing foreign exile like Joyce himself.

The irony of Joyce's massive influence over the past century of literature is that his work, so raw and shocking at the time, cannot possibly seem so original or innovative to the 21st-century reader. The absence of quotation marks around dialogue, for example, is practically de riguer in modernist prose. Likewise the focus on the protagonist's subjective psychological experience of the world vice an objective narrator's portrayal of such. It is surely unfair to hold against Joyce the fact that his innovations have been splendidly re-rendered and slavishly copied by subsequent generations, but there it is.

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

allende_house.jpgIn November 1970, in his fourth consecutive campaign for the office, Salvador Allende was elected President of Chile, becoming the first socialist leader to gain power in the Western Hemisphere via the democratic process. He immediately began an ambitious plan to restructure Chilean society, nationalizing major industries and introducing the government into the administration of education, health care, and other areas of life in which Allende saw too great a disparity between the haves and have-nots. Less than three years after his election, Allende was overthrown and died during a military coup d'état supported by the United States and led by General Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet proceeded to install a military dictatorship which would rule for more than 15 years, oversee widespread murder and torture, and eventually result in Pinochet's infamous arrest in Britain in 1998.

In 1982, a remarkable debut novel, The House of the Spirits, was published in Barcelona to widespread acclaim. Its author, Isabel Allende, was a cousin of the late Chilean president (not his niece, as commonly reported, due to confusion in translation between Spanish and English), and was living in Chile before and during his presidency. She remained in Chile for several years after the coup, apparently assisting those wanted by the military in finding safe passage out of the country; in 1976, she herself fled to Venezuala. In 1981, upon learning that her grandfather was dying, Allende began writing him a letter.

That letter would become The House of the Spirits, a book that functions both as a roman à clef about the political upheavals in Chile and as a vivid example of magical realism, a sort of matriarchal counterpart to Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. Like Garcia Marquez's masterpiece, Allende's debut follows several generations of the same family, interweaving their lives with elements of Latin America's evolving politics, religion, and culture.

As the novel opens, the protagonist Clara is still a small girl, the youngest child of the Del Valle family, and the strangest as well: Clara is a clairvoyant, able to foresee future events and engage in telekinesis. As in other works of magical realism, these powers are recognized as rare, but not irrational or unbelievable. Clara's elder sister, Rosa, is famed for her ethereal beauty, and engaged to a young man who is slaving away in a distant mine to build his fortune, Esteban Trueba. Unfortunately, Chilean politics quickly introduces tragedy into both Clara and Esteban's lives, as Rosa becomes the unintended victim of an assassination plot against her father, who was running for Congress:

The night that Dr. Cuevas and his assistant cut open Rosa's corpse in the kitchen to establish the cause of her death, Clara lay in bed with here eyes wide open, trembling in the dark. She was terrified that Roaa had died because she had said she would. She believed that just as the power of her mind could move the saltcellar on the table, she could also produce deaths, earthquakes, and other, even worse catastrophes. In vain her mother had explain that she could not bring about events, only see them somewhat in advance. She felt lonely and guilty, and it occurred to her that if only she could be with Rosa she would feel much happier... She did not speak again until nine years later, when she opened her mouth to announce that she was planning to be married.

And married to none other than Esteban Trueba, her late sister's fiancee. In the intervening years, Esteban's personality had grown hard and angry, but he had channeled his passion into material success. He returned to the long-abandoned Trueba country estate, named Tres Marias. There, through sheer force of will, Esteban brings discipline to the tenant farmers and restores the hacienda to its former glory, as he relates in one of several interludes dispersed through the novel in which the third-person narration gives way to Esteban's own reminiscences:

No one's going to convince me that I wasn't a good patron. Anyone who saw Tres Marias in decline and who could see it now, when it's a model estate, would have to agree with me. That's why I can't go along with my granddaughter's story about class struggle. Because when it comes right down to it, those poor peasants are a lot worse off today than they were fifty years ago. I was like a father to them. Agrarian reform ruined things for everyone.

I used all the money I had saved to marry Rosa, and everything the foreman sent me from the mine, to pull Tres Marias out of misery, but it wasn't money that saved the place, it was hard work and organization.

This "by the bootstraps" experience would forever control Esteban's view of society. The poor, by his estimation, were stupid, lazy, or both; and they were largely at his disposal, as he engages in a reign of terror, violence, and rape on his hacienda in the years before he settles down and marries Clara. Later in his life, Esteban would successfully seek to put his conservative principles into broader action through political power, putting him at odds with the rest of his family who had gravitated in one way or another toward the reform movement. And when the reactionary forces he supports establish a violent military dictatorship, rather than a return to aristocratic republicanism, Esteban will suffer for the folly of his stridency.

But that is jumping to the end. In between is a long, tumultuous family saga involving Clara, her daughter Blanca, her granddaughter Alba, as well as two women who gave loving devotion to the family: Nana, who came to serve them from the Del Valle household after the death of Clara's parents, and Ferula, Esteban's sister who came to show a tremendous devotion to her brother's wife. Despite his efforts at controlling those around him, Esteban is never able to control these women. His wife is kind, but aloof, treating him with no greater affection or attention than anyone else. He becames violently jealous of his sister's relationship with Clara, eventually lashing out and banishing Ferula from the house.

Nowhere is the independence of these women more striking than in their relationships. Blanca, who splits her childhood between the family's city home and the Tres Marias hacienda, forms a friendship with the son of her father's foreman, a boy named Pedro Tercero Garcia. This friendship blossoms into love, and Blanca pursues the relationship even after her father drives Pedro Tercero from the land for spreading socialist philosophy amongst the farmers:

During the months that they were separated, Blanca and Pedro Tercero exchanged burning letters, which he signed with a woman's name and which she hid as soon as they arrived... Blanca spent the winter knitting a sweater made of Scottish wool in her sewing class at school, with the boy's measurements in mind. At night she slept with her arms around the sweater, inhaling the scent of wool and dreaming that it was he who spent the night beside her. Pedro Tercero, meanwhile, spent his winter writing songs on the guitar that he would sing to Blanca ... Both young people awaited the coming of summer with aching impatience. When it finally arrived and they met once again, the sweater Blanca had knit for Pedro didn't fit over his head, because in the intervening months he had left his childhood behind and acquired the dimensions of a man, and the tender songs he had composed now sounded ridiculous to her, because she had a woman's bearing and a woman's needs.

Eventually this relationship produced a daughter, Alba, and it is she that takes the story to its conclusion. Like her mother, she found love with her grandfather's enemies, this time with a young man named Miguel who supported the opposition party:

Miguel talked about revolution. He said that the violence of the system needed to be answered with the violence of revolution. But Alba was not interested in politics; she wanted only to talk about love... Out of love for Miguel, and not for any ideological conviction, Alba sat in at the university along with the students who had seized a building in support of a strike by workers.

Unfortunately for Alba, love was not enough during those times, and she was dragged half-willingly into the political upheaval that would eventually turn tragically violent. The consequences for Alba, and for several other characters who had no particular ideological involvement in the turmoil, vividly demonstrates the ways in which politics and revolution can strike into any life, even those motivated simply by love, compassion, or charity. Thus the novel is a study not just of a period of dramatic political upheaval, but also of love, family, devotion, and the intersection of each.

Of the many themes explored in The House of the Spirits, I was particularly struck by the importance of names. Most obviously, the names of the three generatiosn of Trueba women can all be translated as variants of the color white: Clara, Blanca, and Alba (as can the name of Clara's mother, Nivea). But there are further examples of the power of names, including Esteban's failure to give his name to any of his illegitimate children, and the renunication of the Trueba name by family members who seek independence from Esteban's hegemony. The numerous interactions between the Del Valle, Trueba, and Garcia familes also point to Allende's emphasis on the importance of taking the long view of history, a point made explicit near the book's end:

[M]emory is fragile and the space of a single life is brief, passing so quickly that we never get a chance to see the relationship between events; we cannot gauge the consequences of our acts, and we believe in the fiction of past, present, and future, but it may also be true that everything happens simultaneously... And now I seek my hatred and cannot seem to find it.

It is hard to resist the conclusion that Allende was speaking for herself in these lines, and that the writing of The House of the Spirits was in part an attempt to ensure that her experience of the Chilean tragedy was not left solely to the frailties of memory. In that effort, she has surely succeeded beyond measure.

The Human Stain by Philip Roth

roth_human.jpgPhilip Roth has always been a remarkably steady producer of literature, publishing fifteen books in the thirty years following his 1959 debut, Goodbye, Columbus. But he really knocked his prolificacy up a notch in the early 1990s, publishing a novel nearly every other year for the past two decades. And since 2006, it has risen to a book per year, with projected publication dates already set for volumes coming in the autumn of 2009 and 2010.

For many Roth fans like myself, and with no disrespect to his earlier and most recent works, the 1990s was his Golden Age (or at least his first Golden Age; who knows how many books he's got left in him). In the span of just eight years, Roth won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and two Pen/Faulkner Awards, each for a different novel. At the heart of this success was the so-called "American Trilogy" featuring Roth's fictional alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman and exploring the public and private spheres of post-war American society: the 1960s in American Pastoral, the 1950s in I Married a Communist, and the 1990s in the novel I've just finished, The Human Stain:

It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silk--who, before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at nearby Athena College for some twenty-odd years as well as serving for sixteen more as the dean of faculty--confided to me that, at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college...Her name was Faunia Farley, and whatever miseries she endured she kept concealed behind one of those inexpressive bone faces that hide nothing and bespeak an immense loneliness. Faunia lived in a room at a local dairy farm where she helped with the milking in order to pay her rent. She'd had two years of high school education.

The summer that Coleman took me into his confidence about Faunia Farley and their secret was the summer, fittingly enough, that Bill Clinton's secret emerged in every last mortifying detail--every last lifelike detail, the livingness, like the mortification, exuded by the pungency of the specific data.

As the opening paragraphs indicate, much of the book is devoted to the issues of political correctness and the tensions between public and private morality. The hypocrisy of American prudeness is a particular target of Roth, who has made quite a living off of delving into the morass of American sexual psychology. But for Coleman Silk (and indeed for the now 65-year old narrator Zuckerman, impotent and incontinent after prostate surgery), sexuality is just one of several areas of his life in which the public and private spheres have clashed:

It was about midway into his second semester back as a full-time professor that Coleman spoke the self-incriminating word that would cause him voluntarily to sever all ties to the college--the single self-incriminating word of the many millions spoken aloud in his years of teaching and administering at Athena, and the word that, as Coleman understood things, directly led to his wife's death.

The class consisted of fourteen students. Coleman had taken attendance at the beginning of the first several lectures so as to learn their names. As there were still two names that failed to elicit a response by the fifth week into the semester, Coleman, in the sixth week, opened the session by asking, "Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?"

Later that day he was astonished to be called in by his successor, the new dean of faculty, to address the charge of racism brought against him by the two missing students, who turned out to be black, and who, though absent, had quickly learned of the locution in which he'd publicly raised the question.

Silk had made his share of enemies on the faculty during his tenure as dean, and in the ensuing months of controversy even his presumed friends fail to come to his defense. Then, in the think of this battle, his wife Iris suffers a fatal stroke, sending Silk into an apoplexy of rage in the belief that it was the ongoing dispute that killed her. It is this rage which drives Silk to the home of reclusive writer Nathan Zuckerman:

There is something fascinating about what moral suffering can do to someone who is in no obvious way a weak or feeble person. It's more insidious even than what physical illness can do, because ther is no morphine drip or spinal block or radical surgery to alleviate it. Once you're in its grip, it's as though it will have to kill you for you to be free of it. Its raw realism is like nothing else.

This suffering last upwards of two years, until Silk meets Faunia and begins life anew. And things might just have worked out but for the baggage that both are carrying with them in the form of the book's supporting cast: Faunia's violent Vietnam veteran ex-husband, Lester, and Professor Delphine Roux, the young chair of Athena College's languages and literature program and Silk's last boss. Between Lester's gradually more-intrusive stalking and Delphine's accusatory letter ("anonymously" drafted in her readily-identifiable handwriting), the new couple comes under steady attack. That's before everyone else starts rendering their own moral judgments, including Coleman's own children.

And these people are already damaged goods: in addition to the abuse she suffered at the hands of Lester, and her stepfather before that, Faunia has also lost both her children to asphyxiation from a space-heater fire. And Coleman not only lost his wife and his career, he did so in circumstances of the most tragic irony. It turns out that while this is yet another novel in which Roth plumbs the meaning of American-Jewish identity, he does so in the most unusual of ways. Coleman Silk is not the man he claims to be:

He could play his skin however he wanted, color himself just as he chose. No, that did not dawn on him until he was seated in the federal building in Newark and had all the navy enlistment forms spread out in front of him and, before filling them out, and carefully, with the same meticulous scrutiny that he'd studied for his high school exams--as though whatever he was going, large or small, was, for however long he concentrated on it, the most important thing in the world--began to read them through. And even then it didn't occur to him. It occurred first to his heart, which began banging away like the heart of someone on the brink of committing his first great crime.

And thus begins the journey of a light-skinned black man, a dropout of Howard University, into a life in which he will cut off all contact with his mother and siblings, claim to be an orphan and an only child, and a Jew. All this unbeknownst to his wife, their children, any of his co-workers, indeed anyone at all until Nathan Zuckerman meets Coleman's sister at his funeral and starts putting together the pieces of this back story, which become flashbacks in his narration.

There are obviously quite a number of threads woven though this book, and particularly in the portrayals of Coleman and Faunia. Roth's great success in exploring their unlikely union, and the forces that brought them together, is only partially dampened by the shortcuts he takes with the supporting cast. Lester, with his Vietnam PTSD, and Delphine, with her subconscious envy of Faunia and her stilted, insular academic life, are realized in the book through a series of interludes which rest too heavily on archetype, and don't measure up to the creativity of the rest of Roth's invention. And really, why is it that older male writers find it so compelling to portray younger women in sexual relationships with senior citizens?

That said, The Human Stain does feature what Roth does at his best: capture the country's mood at a particular moment, and craft a narrative that conveys all America's glory and disgrace, its idealism and hypocrisy, its comedic ironies and its fundamental, continuing tragedies.

The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon

lazarus_arthur.jpgI seem to have stumbled into a string of novels rooted in real-life historical episodes. Russell Banks' Cloudsplitter (reviewed here) centered on the life of the violent abolitionist, John Brown. Then there was Julian Barnes' Arthur & George (reviewed here), which explored the events that led Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to publicly advocate for the exoneration of wrongfully-convicted solicitor George Edalji. There is something particularly satisfying about these types of books. Whether because they satisfy both my love of history and my love of literature, or because they present a particular type of imaginative blurring of the line between truth and fiction, I have greatly enjoyed these works.

Most recently I finished a work by Bosnian-American author (and MacArthur "Genius") Aleksandar Hemon, titled The Lazarus Project, which takes its name from the 1908 death of a young Eastern European Jewish immigrant at the hands of Chicago's Chief of Police. Lazarus Averbach was just 19 years old, a survivor of the Kishinev pogrom, and he came all the way to America only to be shot dead in the foyer of Chief George Shippy's home. The truth about Averbach's purpose for going to the officer's home is still disputed, but Hemon's opening chapter offers a portrait of Averbach as a dispossessed, wayward soul:

The young man descends the stairs, open the gate (which also creaks ominously). He puts his hands in his pockets, but then pulls his pants up--they are still too big for him; he looks to the right, looks to the left, as though making a decision. Lincoln Place is a different world; these houses are like castles, the windows tall and wide; there are no peddlers on the streets; indeed, there is nobody on the street. The ice-sheathed trees twinkle in the morning drabness; a branch broken under the weight of ice touches the pavement, rattling its frozen tips. Someone peeks from behind a curtain of the house across the street, the face ashen against the dark space behind. It is a young woman: he smiles at her and she quickly draws the curtain. All the lives I could live, all the people I will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is all that the world is.

More than eight decades later, Lazarus Averbach's mysterious death continues to fascinate Vladimir Brik, a young man who immigrated to Chicago from Bosnia in 1992, just before the disintegration of Yugoslavia turned most violent (like Hemon himself):

I am a reasonably loyal citizen of a couple of countries. In America--that somber land--I waste my vote, pay taxes grudgingly, share my life with a native wife, and try hard not to wish painful death to the idiot president. But I also have a Bosnian passport I seldom use; I go to Bosnia for heartbreaking vacations and funerals, and on or around March 1, with other Chicago Bosnians, I proudly and dutifully celebrate our Independence Day with an appropriately ceremonious dinner.

Brik's quest to understand Averbach's journey, and to eventually trace it back to Eastern Europe, makes up half of The Lazarus Project's dual narrative. The other half is occupied by the aftermath of Averbach's death, and particularly its effect on his sister, Olga. The villainization of Averbach by the police and the press (personified in the character of Mr. Miller), including the publication of grotesque photos of Lazarus' body propped up on a chair, duly reproduced in the novel, inspires a wave of anti-anarchist rhetoric and violence. Olga herself becomes the subject of police harassment and interrogation; her neighbors are beaten, and she is constantly followed and observed. All the while, this grieving women is trying to make sense of her brother's sudden disappearance from this life, as she tries to piece together whether he really did have some hidden anarchist life, or was merely a lost man in the wrong place at the wrong time:

She walks home through the frigid drizzle, her bones light with hunger and the sense that everything is turned inside out; her legs hurt. Why was Lazarus at Shippy's house? Isador took him to those anarchist meetings, but she thought it was all just angry talk--young men like angry talk. He could not have become part of some crazy conspiracy. He was always prone to fantasies, always with one foot in some other world, but he would never do anything about it; he was a dreamer. She did not listen to him when the told her about his ideas, thoughts, fears, stories he was planning to write; she was always too tired. He had no anger, no violence in him. He he would never hurt anybody. She used to go look for him in the evenings. She would shout his name, until he hollered back from the woods or the back alley, wherever he was waiting for her to come and get him--he did not see well at dusk. He was a child when she left him behind, he wasted his boyhood in a refugee camp in Czernowitz, he landed in Chicago as a young man. How did she miss it all? When was it that she'd lost him? How did he become who he was? Who was he?

The similarities between Brik and Averbach are obvious. Both fled from violent areas of Eastern Europe, both found themselves unable to happily blend into the supposed melting pot of America, ignored or misunderstood by the women they lived with, and both ultimately found themselves unable to conform to the expectations of the American experience. Yet beyond these facile parallels, it's not clear what Hemon is trying to say. That the immigrant experience of the early 20th-century was not that different from that of the late 20th-century? Surely true, but I'm hesitant to credit Hemon with originality on that point. That assimilation is difficult, or at least undesirable? Perhaps more interesting is Hemon's implied commentary on the role of the press in shaping (and inventing) the narrative of tragedy; surely it is no mere coincidence that the vile "journalist" who pesters Olga Averbuch shares a name with the gloryhound whom Rora escorts around Sarajevo.

Nevertheless, Brik is sufficiently narcissistic (he goes all the way to Eastern Europe on a grant to study Averbach and spends most of the time studying himself) and self-loathing, particularly in his cold attitude toward his more successful wife, that the chapters devoted to Olga Averbuch are easily the better half of the book. They plumb the depths of anti-Semitism in early 20th-century America, as well as the irrational frenzies of the anarchist scare that would sadly be just one example in a pattern that would recur when Communists, Japanese-Americans, and Muslims became the enemy du jour. Any novel that can find a way to work Emma Goldman into the plot can't be all bad.

Arthur & George by Julian Barnes

barnes_arthur.jpgSir Arthur Conan Doyle is rightly famous, of course, for his series of novels and stories featuring the inimitable detective, Sherlock Holmes. Less widely known is Doyle's devoted interest in Spiritualism, and its belief that the spirits of the dead can contact and be contacted by the living. Even more obscure is his involvement in the appeal of the bizarre prosecution of George Edalji, a solicitor of Indian descent who was accused of mutilating horses in the farms near his home. It is this latter episode which is given a fictionalized account in Julian Barnes' 2005 novel, Arthur & George.

Barnes structures most of the book in short chapters alternating between the lives of Doyle and Edalji, portraying the parallel if disparate biographies of the two men. As Doyle's father declines into alcoholism, the young boy designates himself as protector of his beloved "Mam." Sent off to boarding school through the benevolence of his paternal uncles, Doyle develops the skills, inherited from his mother, that will lead to literary fame and fortune later in life:

Early on, he began telling his fellow pupils the stories of chivalry and romance he had first heard from beneath a raised prridge stick. On wet half-holidays, he would stand on a desk while his audience squatted around him. Remembering the Mam's skills, he knew how to drop his voice, how to drag out a story, how to leave off at a perilous excruciating moment with the promise of more the next day. Being large and hungry, he would accept a pastry as the basic price of a tale. But sometimes, he might stop dead at the thrill of a crisis, and could only be got going again at the cost of an apple.

Thus he discovered the essential connection between narrative and reward.

George, meanwhile, endures a lonely, insular childhood in the Vicarage that his clergyman father inhabits. A product of the unusual19th-century union between his Indian immigrant father and Scottish mother, George's life revolves entirely around the family home. He develops a keen mind, but is unable to develop a social life to match his intellectual one:

He rarely feels the lack of what he does not have. The family takes no part in local society, but George cannot imagine what this might involve, let alone what the reason for their unwillingness, or failure, might be. He himself never goes to other boys' houses, so cannot judge how things are conducted elsewhere. His life is sufficient unto itself. He has no money, but also no need of it, and even less when he learns that its love is the root of all evil. He has no toys, but does not miss them. He lacks the skill and eyesight for games; he has never even jumped a hopscotch grid, while a thrown ball makes him flinch. He is happy to play fraternally with Horace, more gently with Maud, and more gently still with the hens.

This seemingly tranquil, if isolated, family life is interrupted in George's teenage years by the dismissal of a maid suspected of writing nasty letters to the family. This episode is followed by an even more curious one, in which an unrecognized key is found on the vicarage doorstep. George's attempt to return it to police is met with suspicion by the desk sergeant, and several days later George is physically accosted by the sergeant, who proceeds to accuse George of stealing the key from a school. When George's father complains to the constable, Captain Anson, he receives a reply virtually threatening prosecution of the teenager. Though merely disturbing at the time, these interactions would prove to be portents of even darker events to come for George and his family. The strange, anonymous, threatening letters continue to be sent to the Vicarage, and further objects as well, which George and his father attempt to intercept before discovered by his mother or siblings:

After the key and the milk churn, other items appear at the Vicarage. A pewter ladle on a window sill; a garden fork pinning a dead rabbit to the lawn; three eggs broken on the front step. Each morning George and his father search the grounds before Mother and the two younger ones are allowed outside. One day they find twenty pennies and halfpennies laid at intervals across the lawn; the Vicar decides to regard them as a donation to the church. There are also dead birds, mostly strangled; and once excrement has been laid where it will be most visible. Occasionally, in the dawn light, George is aware of something that is less than a presence, a possible observer; it is more like a close absence, the feeling of someone having just left. But nobody is ever caught, or even spotted.

And now the hoaxes begin.

Indeed, a series of fake newspaper advertisements, uninvited guests, unsolicited deliveries, and other pranks signal the commencement of a new phase of the harassment of the Edalji family. And then, suddenly, they stop. The letters, the items, the hoaxes, all of it.

Both Arthur Doyle and George Edalji emerge from the challenges of youth to seek professional degrees; Doyle pursues medicine while George studies law. Doyle meets and marries a young woman named Louisa and they begin a family. George begins clerking with a law office and even manages to make friendly acquaintance with a couple of the other young solicitors. There is no sense that these two lives will ever intersect; indeed, it will be more than halfway through the book before they do. But much earlier than this, there is a single short chapter which bears both their names, the first to do so. And this chapter describes the terrible act which will, several years in the future, link these two men together:

Still stroking and murmuring, the man slipped the feed-bag from the horse's neck and slung it over his shoulder. Still storking and murmuring, the man then felt inside his coat. Still stroking and murmuring, one arm across the horse's back, he reached underneath to its belly.

The horse barely gave a start; the man at last ceased his gabble of nonsense, and in the new silence he made his way, at a deliberate pace, back toward the gap in the hedge.

And with this horrific mutilation of a peaceful animal, just one in a series of such crimes to sweep the district, George Edalji's life would be irrevocably altered. For upon Inspector Campbell's arrival to investigate the crimes, an anonymous letter is received, claiming the mutilations were conducted by a gang, the latest perpetrated by "Edalji the lawyer." Thus begins a bungling investigation, leading inevitably to George's arrest and prosecution. And despite the best efforts of George's solicitor, and the lack of anything beyond innuendo, circumstantial evidence, and outright perjury, George is convicted and sentenced to 7 years confinement. The 50-odd pages detailing the prosecution are a frightening account of the systemic flaws in criminal procedures which existed even into the 20th-century in the country that gave birth to the common law (indeed, the irregularities in Edalji's case were a major impetus for the creation of an appellate system for reviewing criminal convictions):

Afterwards, Mr. Meek assured George that the second day was often the worst for the defence; but that the third, when they presented their own evidence, would be the best. George hoped so; he was struggling with the sense that, slowly yet irrevocably, his story was being taken away from him. He feared that by the time the defence case was put, it would be too late. People--and in particular, the jury--would respond by thinking, But no, we've already been told what happened. Why should we change our minds now?

It is only after George is abruptly released after serving just--just?--three years of his sentence, and finds himself unable to resume his legal practice because the conviction still stands, that Doyle learns his name. Doyle's life has been listing, staying technically loyal to his long-suffering invalid wife while establishing a platonic friendship with Jean, a young woman who rekindled many of the desires his wife's illness deprived him of. Yet with his wife's death, he finds himself adrift, no longer fired by a passion for Jean that he could finally consummate after her many years of waiting. Fortunately, at just this time he receives a package of articles from George Edalji, who has been unsuccessfully pleading his case for a pardon in the public forum. Doyle finds himself outraged by the injustice of the prosecution, and decides to re-engage with the world, as he makes clear in his first meeting with George:

"I am going to do something different. I am going to make a great deal of noise. The English--the official English--do not like noise. They think it vulgar; it embarrasses them. But if calm reason has not worked, I shall give them noisy reason. I shall not use the back stairs but the front steps. I shall bang a big drum. I intend to shake more than a few trees, George, and we shall see what rotten fruit falls down."

Doyle is a man of convictions, but he is also a man who convinces himself first and then seeks to have everyone else fall in line. This is even how he describes his method of writing, "beginning with the ending." And as he as convinced of the reality of Spiritualism as he is of George's innocence, there are certainly moments when it seems questionable whether Doyle's zeal is appropriate, or even warranted. There were undoubtedly serious flaws in George's prosecution, and there is never a serious doubt that George is innocent of the charges, but Doyle becomes equally obsessed with determining the true perpetrator of the crimes as he is of demonstrating the injustice of the original prosecution:

He is as good as saying I botched it, thinks Arthur. No, don't be absurd--it's merely that he's far more interested in his own vindication, and in making absolutely sure of that, than in Sharp's prosecution. Which is perfectly understandable. Finish item one before proceeding to item two--what else would you expect of a cautious lawyer? Whereas I attack on all fronts simultaneously.

And though Doyle makes mincemeat out of the so-called professional investigators (much like his fictional counterpart), the alternate theory he proffers is plausible, persuasive even, but ultimately still resting on the same foundation of hearsay, inference, and circumstance that saw George Edalji spend 3 years in confinement. Nowhere is the disparity between George and Doyle's approaches to the case more apparent than their handling of the issue of race. George, who was raised by his family to think of himself as English through and through, refuses to consider that any of his misfortune is attributable to his mixed origins. Doyle sees that as the basic truth underlying all the hostility and injustice that George has suffered:

"So if you are proposing that my ordeal has been caused by race prejudice, then I must ask you for your evidence. I do not recall Mr. Disturnal ever alluding to the subject. Or Sir Reginald Hardy. Did the jury find me guilty because of my skin? That is too easy an answer. And I might add that during my years in prison I was fairly treated by the staff and the other inmates."

"If I may make a suggestion," replied Sir Arthur. "Perhaps you should tr occasionally not to think like a lawyer. The fact that no evidence of a phenomenon can be adduced does not mean that it does not exist."

Perhaps most astonishing is the revelation in Barnes' author's note that aside from one letter from Doyle's second wife, "all letters quoted, whether signed or anonymous, are authentic, as are quotations from newspapers, government reports, proceedings in Parliament, and the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle." At first blush one might think this detracts from the splendor of Barnes' work; after all, has he not leaned rather heavily on the words of others? Unlike, say, the wholesale invention seen in a work like A.S. Byatt's Possession (reviewed here). But with due consideration, I think the historical origins of the letters and quotes actually adds to the glory of what Barnes has accomplished: first in recognizing that this was an inherently fascinating episode with words worth reproducing, and then for seamlessly integrating these letters and historical accounts into his narrative.

Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks

banks_cloudsplitter.jpgOne of the most colorful and controversial figures in American history went by the deceptively plain name of John Brown. A strident abolitionist, Brown would make his mark in history as a leader of violent actions during the years before the Civil War. He is remembered for his role in the struggle over Bleeding Kansas, with the Pottawatomie Massacre of five pro-slavery settlers using broadswords, and even more so for the raid at Harpers Ferry, where he and his followers seized a federal armory in Virginia in the hopes of inciting a slave revolt that would sweep the South.

Opinion on John Brown was dramatically split in the mid-19th century, and it remains so today. Heralded by some as a martyr in the struggle against slavery, and by others as a bloodthirsty terrorist, there is at least broad consensus amongst historians that Brown's actions played a substantial role in fanning the flames that led to open warfare between North and South. James McPherson devoted a number of pages to Brown in his seminal Civil War history, The Battle Cry of Freedom (reviewed here), emphasizing the disparate reactions to Harpers Ferry and the disbelief each side felt upon learning of the other's attitude:

Extraordinary events took place in many northern communities on the day of Brown's execution. Church bells tolled; minute guns fired solemn salutes; ministers preached sermons of commemoration; thousands bowed in silence reverence for the martyr to liberty... Perhaps the words of Lafayette quoted at a commemoration meeting in Boston got to the crux of the matter: "I never would have drawn my sword in the cause of America if I could have conceived that thereby I was helping to found a nation of slaves." John Brown had drawn his sword in an attempt to cut out this cancer of shame that tainted the promise of America. No mater that his method was misguided and doomed to failure... It was "the work of a madman," conceded Horace Greeley even as he praised the "grandeur and nobility" of Brown and his men.

The distinction between act and motive was lost on southern whites. They saw only that millions of Yankees seemed to approve of a murderer who had tried to set the slaves at their throats. This perception provoked a paroxysm of anger more intense than the original reaction to the raid. The North "has sanctioned and applauded theft, murder, treason," cried De Bow's Review. Could the South afford any longer "to live under a government, the majority of whose subjects or citizens regard John Brown as a martyr and a Christian hero?" asked a Baltimore newspaper. No! echoed from every corner of the South.

Historical opinion of Brown has been decidedly mixed, though the 21st-century has seen a revival of academic interest with a decidedly more sympathetic tone, including David Reynolds' John Brown, Abolitionist and Evan Carton's Patriotic Treason. The revisionist trend seeks to place the violence perpetrated by Brown and his group in the context of the injustice of slavery and the impending bloodiness of the Civil War, while emphasizing Brown's unique blend of racial egalitarianism and self-sacrifice.

Slightly ahead of the curve was novelist Russell Banks, who used Brown's life as the basis of his historical novel, Cloudsplitter. The book was published in 1998, just as Banks was gaining fame from the feature film adaptations of two of his earlier novels, Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter, both of which I have previously read. It might be more apt to say that Banks uses not John Brown's life, but that of his son Owen, as the basis for the novel. For Owen is the book's narrator, finally sparked in the late years of his life by a visit from an academic research assistant into reducing to writing his memories of his family, his father, and the tremendous, terrible things they did together:

I want to tell you everything--now that I have decided to tell a little. It's s if I have opened a floodgate, and a vast inland sea of words held back for half a lifetime has commenced to pour through. I knew it would be like this. And that's yet another reason for my prolonged silence--made worse, made more emphatic and burdensome and, let me say, made confusing, by the irony that the longer I remained silent, the more I had to tell. My truth has been held in silence for so long that it has given the field over entirely to those who have lied and risks having become a lie itself, or at least it risks being heard as such. Perhaps even by you. Thus, although I have begun at last to speak, and to speak the truth, it feels oddly and at the edges as if I am lying.

Considering that John Brown and his sons are most famous for their actions in Kansas and Virginia in the latter half of the 1850s, it is worth noting that the first two-thirds of Cloudsplitter's 750 pages are devoted to the Browns' lives before they were drawn to Kansas. His time spend amongst freedmen homesteaders in the Adirondack mountains, good for a mere paragraph in Brown's Wikipedia entry, occupies the bulk of the book. It his here, with Brown's efforts at that Banks conveys a sense of the righteousness of the man, without the ambiguities of his later violence:

The first thing we needed to do was survey and validate their claims, he told me: to keep the Negroes from being cheated by the whites, who had been squatting there for several generations--ever since the terrible, year-long winter of '06 had driven most of the original settlers out--and had come to think of the whole place as theirs alone. Father's motives were moral and idealistic, the same as had always prompted his political actions, and he described this move as essentially political--for he had visited North Elba alone the previous fall and had come away newly inspired by a vision of Negro and white farmers working peacefully together. His hope now, he explained to us, was to build a true American city on a hill that would give the lie to every skeptic in the land. There were many such utopian schemes and projects afoot in those years, a hundred little cities on a hundred little hills, but Timbuctoo may have been the only one that aimed at setting an example of racial harmony. This would be our errand into the wilderness, he said.

Banks' use of the medium of historical fiction also allows him to paint a portrait of John Brown as a man, as a father and a husband, in the kind of intimate terms unavailable to historians:

On reflection, I believe, also, that there was for Father yet another deeply pleasing aspect of the North Elba project, one that he hid from us then but which I understood later. Its force was stronger than the moral point that he and Mr. Gerrit Smith wished to make and more substantive than the poetic effect of the landscape on his soul. For many years, the Old Man's life had been cruelly divided between his anti-slavery actions and his responsibilities as a husband and father, and despite his unrelenting, sometimes wild and chaotic attempts to unite them, it was often as if he was trying to live the lives of two separate men: one an abolitionist firebrand, a public figure whose most satisfying and important acts, out of necessity, were done in secret; the other a good Christian husband and father, a private man whose most satisfying and important acts were manifested in the visible security and comfort of his family. He was a man who had pledged his life to bring about the permanent and complete liberation of the Negro slaves; and he was the head of a large household with no easy sources of income.

While offering this more personal portrayal of the man who set a nation ablaze, Banks does not shy away from political and social commentary through the voice of Owen Brown. Of particular interest to me were the justifications offered for the resort to violence; while it is unknown to me whether these were the actual rationale professed by John Brown or his son, they suggest a perspective on America in the 1850s lost to the modern consensus that views the decade as an inevitable slide toward war:

I showed them at the time and afterwards that if we did not slay those five pro-slave settlers and did not do it in such a brutal fashion, the war in Kansas would have been over. Finished. In a manner of weeks, Kansas would have been admitted to the Union as a slave-state, and there would have been nothing for it then but the quick secession of all the Northern states, starting with New England, and the wholesale abandonment of three million Negro Americans to live and die in slavery, along with their children and grandchildren and however many generations it would take before slavery in the South was finally, if ever, overthrown. There would have been no raid on Harpers Ferry, certainly, and no Civil War, for the South would not have objected in the slightest to the break-up of the Union. Let them go. We will happily keep our slaves.

When we went down tot he Pottwatomie, I believed all that. And in spite of my guilty feelings, I believe it still. No, I swear, I did not go down there for the pleasure of killing my enemies, nor did Father, nor my brothers, despite what the writers, North and South, puzzling over the causes of that event, have said in the intervening years. On that dark May night in '56, I truly thought that we were shaping history, that we were affecting the course of future events, making one set of events nearly impossible and another very likely, and I believed that the second set was morally superior to the first, so it was a good and necessary thing, what we were doing. We could slay a few men now, men who were guilty, perhaps, if only by association, and save millions of innocents later. That's how terror, in the hands of the righteous, works.

How persuasive that all is, right up to the last line in which one realizes that, for better or worse, this is indeed terrorism we are talking about. Of course, terrorism is a rather loaded term, even moreso in 2009 than in 1998 when Banks published this book. Perhaps it is simply easier to romanticize or at least forgive terrorism on behalf of a cause now universally lauded, such as abolitionism, rather than those still in contention. Could not, after all, the murderer of Dr. George Tiller make a speech not unlike the one above? Would that make his actions any less reprehensible?

Clearly Banks is working with some weighty, combustible topics, and he integrates them into the narrative with great success. The book drags at certain points, and certainly for those more interested in John Brown's acts of violence, it may be well-nigh impossible to wait more than five hundred pages to get to them. But the effort is worthwhile, for Banks has provided not just a vivid imagining of the life of John Brown, but a reflection on the intersection between public and private morality, the roles and responsibilities of family, and the workings of time on both the memory and the conscience.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

morrison_song.jpgWith last year's A Mercy (review here) a return to the form demonstrated most famously in her 1987 novel, Beloved (review here), Toni Morrison has resumed her elite standing among aficionados of literary fiction after a lengthy post-Nobel Prize slump. She even took home the coveted "Rooster" in this year's Tournament of Books. Though her first two books were certainly well-received, it was Song of Solomon which brought Morrison a truly national audience (inspiring no less than one Barack Obama).

Published in 1977 and presented with the National Book Critics Circle Award that year, Morrison's third novel takes its title from the short Old Testament book about love, also known as the "Song of Songs." The book follows the life of Macon Dead III, nicknamed "Milkman," from birth into middle-age. It also explores the lives of Milkman's family: his namesake father Macon Dead II, obsessed with money and property and cool to everything else; his mother Ruth, who feels that she has not been loved by anyone since the death of her father; and his aunt Pilate, who lives in the same Michigan town as her estranged brother, along with her daughter (Reba) and granddaughter (Hagar).

But though plentiful attention is paid to this riveting ensemble, the framework of the book is Milkman's lack of any sense of identity, as a man, as a black man, and as a member of a family with more than its share of secrets. For most of his youth and early adulthood, Milkman does his best to ignore this lack, this want, seeking to survive on ignorant hedonism alone. But little by little, the revelations of his origins and the realities of the external world catch up with him and refuse to be ignored:

Milkman lay quietly in the sunlight, his mind a blank, his lungs craving smoke. Gradually his fear of and eagerness for death returned. Above all he wanted to escape what he knew, escape the implications of what he had been told. And all he knew in the world about the world was what other people had told him. He felt like a garbage pail for the actions and hatreds of other people. He himself did nothing. Except for the one time he had hit his father, he had never acted independently, and that act, his only one, had brought unwanted knowledge too, as well as some responsibility for that knowledge. When his father told him about Ruth, he joined him in despising her, but he felt put upon; felt as though some burden had been given to him and that he didn't deserve it. None of that was his fault, and he didn't want to have to think or be or do something about any of it.

Milkman's method of studied ambivalence about the world around him is not matched by his childhood friend, Guitar (seen earlier in the novel getting evicted with his grandmother by their landlord, Milkman's father). Indeed, Guitar has become involved in a shadowy local organization called "The Days," which seeks to match attacks by whites against blacks with reciprocal violence. The group is comprised of seven men, each of whom is responsible for responding to any attacks that occur on a particular day of the week. Milkman fails to see how this cycle of militancy does anything to improve the lot of African-Americans:

Milkman frowned. "Am I going to live any longer because you all read the newspaper and then ambush some poor old white man?"

"It's not about you living longer. It's about how you live and why. It's about whether your children can make other children. It's about trying to make a world where one day white people will think before they lynch."

"Guitar, none of that shit is going to change how I live or how any other Negro lives. What you're doing is crazy. And something else: it's a habit. If you do it enough, you can do it to anybody. You know what I mean? A torpedo is a torpedo, I don't care what his reasons. You can off anybody you don't like. You can off me."

Amongst the family secrets that Milkman learns is that shortly after his father and aunt watched their own father murdered by white men intent on stealing his farm (an experience that forever scarred them both), Macon and Pilate hid in a cave and discovered a buried treasure of gold, which Pilate refused to let her brother take. More than half a century later, Macon convinces his son to travel back to Pennsylvania to see if the gold is still there:

Suddenly he felt ridiculous. What was he supposed to do? Put his suitcase down and ask the man: Where is the cave near the farm where my father lived fifty-eight years ago? He knew nobody, had no names except the first name of an old lady who was now dead. And rather than call any more attention to himself in this tiny farming town than his beige three-piece suit, his button-down light-blue shirt and black string tie, and his beautiful Florsheim shoes had already brought, he asked the counterman if he could check his bag there. The man gazed at the suitcase and seemed to be turning the request over in his mind.

This quest soon takes Milkman further south to Virginia, where there are the slightest hints of ancestry amongst the disconnected threads Milkman knows about his family's past. Somewhere along the way, this journey for his father's lost gold becomes a journey for his own soul, an odyssey into his family history, an inquiry into his place as a black man in a hostile world, and a reexamination of his role as a son, brother, and lover:

It sounded old. Deserve. Old and tired and beaten to death. Deserve. Now it seemed to him that he was always saying or thinking that he didn't deserve some bad luck, or some bad treatment from others. He'd told Guitar that he didn't "deserve" his family's dependence, hatred, or whatever. That he didn't even "deserve" to hear all the misery and mutual accusations his parents unloaded on him. Nor did he "deserve" Hagar's vengeance. But why shouldn't his parents tell him their personal problems? If not him, then who? And if a stranger could try to kill him, surely Hagar, who knew him and whom he'd thrown away like a wad of chewing gum after the flavor was gone--she had a right to kill him too.

Apparently he thought he deserved only to be loved--from a distance, though--and given what he wanted. And in return he would be. . . what? Pleasant? Generous? Maybe all he was really saying was: I am not responsible for your pain; share your happiness with me but not your unhappiness.

Though Milkman's story features most prominently in the novel, Morrison devotes substantial attention to his family and friends. Particularly striking are the female characters, most of whom suffers from a sense of abandonment. The most obvious examples are Ruth, who never recovers from her father's death, and Hagar, who is discarded by her lover. Both share biblical namesakes who similarly suffered from the realities of patriarchal society. And yet the story's purest character, the symbol of love and hope, is the ironically named Pilate, who somehow seems to exist outside the boundaries of the other characters and their society, yet is integral to virtually every piece of the story.

Morrison also heavily emphasizes the continuing ramifications of slavery, rendering as simple a thing as the protagonist's name a lingering example of white cruelty (Milkman's grandfather was given the name by a drunk Union soldier), while also incorporating into the plot real-life tragedies including the murder of Emmett Till and the Birmingham Church bombing. The most disparate reactions, as discussed above, are between Milkman and Guitar, one of whom prefers avoidance, the other retribution.

Song of Solomon is at once more ambitious and less successful than the two Morrison novels I mentioned at the start of this post. The novel seeks to speak to the complexities of black life, both in the family and in society, including a feminist critique of the treatment of women, a recognition of the pervasive influence of slavery and racism, and the bevy of various reactions to all of the above my individual black men and women. Perhaps due to this expanded ambition, the book lacks some of the coherence of A Mercy, and it never quite hits the emotional resonance of that book or Beloved, which retains my vote as Morrison's masterpiece.

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

desai_inheritance.jpgWhen I read John Keay's India (review here), I was perhaps most struck by the immense diversity of cultures on the subcontinent, particularly in the northern regions which saw constant migrations from virtually every direction. The many thousands of years of Indian civilization saw the rise and fall of hundreds of kingdoms, tribes, dynasties, clans, and the like, led by both the indigenous and the foreign-born. Of course the West's great contribution to this recurring cycle was the British Raj, the end of which saw not the emergence of a unified independent India, but an immediate partition, followed by a second partition, and the subdivision of the remaining Indian nation into a bevy of states and territories, based largely on linguistic boundaries.

One area that has seen more than its share of multi-ethnic traffic is the Indian state of West Bengal. Just by its name one can infer that it itself is a subdivision of the Bengal region, split during the 1947 partition. In addition to the long border with Bangladesh, the state also abuts Bhutan and Nepal, and it saw an influx of Tibetan refugees after the Chinese invasion of that country. The northernmost district in West Bengal is called Darjeeling, most famous perhaps for its namesake tea. With its shared border with Nepal, there is a substantial ethnic Nepalese population in the district, including many Gorkhas, who fought a border war with the British in the early 19th-century. The ethnic tensions never fully dissipated, and in the years following Indian independence there was a movement for a Gorkhaland state to be carved out, a movement that turned extremely violent for several years in the late 1980s with the rise of the Gorkha National Liberation Front:

"This state-making," Lola continue, "biggest mistake that fool Nehru made. Under his rules any group of idiots can stand up demanding a new state and get it too. How many new ones keep appearing? From fifteen we went to sixteen, sixteen to seventeen, seventeen to twenty-two...." Lola made a line with a finger from above her ear and drew noodles in the air to demonstrate her opinion of such madness.

It is in this tumultuous time and place that Kiran Desai set her second novel, The Inheritance of Loss, which was awarded both the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2006. The opening chapter finds Sai, an orphaned teenager, waiting at her home in Kalimpong (a subdivision of the Darjeeling district) for her mathematics tutor, Gyan. The home actually belongs to her grandfather, Jemubhai Patel, who retired to the district after a career as judge in the British and then Indian civil service. Residing nearby is their cook, whose son Buji emigrated (illegally) to America:

Out of his depth, he was almost relieved when the manager of their branch received a memo instructing him to do a green card check on his employees.

"Nothing I can do," the manager said, pink from having to dole out humiliation to these men. A kind man. His name was Frank--funny for a man who managed frankfurters all day. "Just disappear quietly is my advice...."

So they disappeared.

While the main story centers on Sai, her budding relationship with Gyan, and the consequences of his enchantment with the growing Gorkha independence movement, there are also two other important plot lines. The book is interspersed with chapters that follow Buji's struggling life as an illegal immigrant in America, shuffled from job to job, living on a cot in a crowded basement with others similarly situated, and greatly conflicted between his Indian heritage and his efforts to make a life in the New World. And, periodically, the retired judge's memory is sparked and we travel discursively into his time as a student in Britain or his extremely troubled return to India:

The he remembered a worse incident. Another Indian, a boy he didn't know, but no doubt someone just like himself, just like Bose, was being kicked and beaten behind the pub at the corner. One of the boy's attackers had unzipped his pants and was pissing on him, surrounded by a crowd of jeering red-faced men. And the future judge, walking by, on his way home with a pork pie for his dinner--what had he done? He hadn't said anything. He hadn't done anything. He hadn't called for help. He'd turned and fled, run up to his rented room and sat there.

All these plot lines seem to be rooted in the alienation of the characters, each grasping at some sense of self-identity in a world in which competing forces are pulling them either towards materialistic multiculturalism or xenophobic nationalism. It was quite telling that Buji's crisis about his Indian identity in America was not all that different from Gyan's struggle about his Gurkha ancestry in Kalimpong, perhaps an acknowledgment that such issues are not unique to immigrants in the West (though to the extent the Indo-Nepalese conflict is partially a result of British colonial line-drawing, it all might be traced back to us):

Gyan, who had been gathered up accidentally in the procession, who had shouted half facetiously, half in earnest, who had half played, half lived a part, found the fervor had affected him. His sarcasm and his embarrassment were gone. Fired by alcohol, he finally submitted to the compelling pull of history and found his pulse leaping to something that felt entirely authentic...

It suddenly became clear why had no money and no real job had come his way, why he couldn't fly to college in America, why he was ashamed to let anyone see his home. He thought of how he had kept Sai away the day she had suggested visiting his family. Most of all, he realized why his father's meekness infuriated him, and why he found himself unable to speak of him, h who had so modest an idea of happiness that even the daily irritant of fifty-two screaming boys in his plantation schoolroom, even the distance of his own family, the loneliness of his work, didn't upset him. Gyan wanted to shake him, but what satisfaction could be received from shaking a sock? To accost such a person--it just came back to frustrate you twice over....

As the above excerpts suggest, this novel descends into almost relentless bleakness. Every point at which the characters have a chance at happiness, hope or redemption is inevitably crushed. Each opportunity for moral choice finds the actor lacking. In each story line, from New York to Britain to India, nearly every revelation exposes further suffering, further cruelty. The modern world can be a bitter and lonely place, but surely it is better than this, no? But maybe that is Desai's point, to shake us from that belief. The book's review in The New York Times points out that "as Orhan Pamuk wrote soon after 9/11, people in the West are 'scarcely aware of this overwhelming feeling of humiliation that is experienced by most of the world's population,' which 'neither magical realistic novels that endow poverty and foolishness with charm nor the exoticism of popular travel literature manages to fathom.'"

Possession by A.S. Byatt

byatt_possession.jpgOne of my favorite films is The Red Violin, a 1998 Canadian film by director François Girard. The movie opens with the auction of an exquisite violin, before flashing back to the origins of the violin in 17th-century Italy. The remainder of the film alternates between the present-day, in which Samuel L. Jackson plays an appraiser trying to determine the violin's provenance, and various historical vignettes exploring the owners and adventures the violin has endured since its creation. Of course the highlight of the movie is its music, but I also liked the way the plot weaved back and forth, with the present-day mystery slowly revealed through the historical interludes.

I was reminded of this when reading A.S. Byatt's Possession, for which the author was awarded the Booker Prize in 1990. The novel begins with a visit to the Reading Room of the London Library by young scholar Roland Michell, who has come to look at a book once owned by (fictional) Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash. Ash is the subject of Michell's scholarship, such as it is, and Michell's boss, Professor James Blackadder, as well as Mortimer Cropper, curator of the Stant Collection at a university in New Mexico that houses much of Ash's estate. Michell quickly realizes he is likely the first person to open this book in many years, and finds stuffed inside a number of miscellaneous papers. Of particular interest are a pair of unsent letters addressed to an unknown woman:

Roland was first profoundly shocked by these writings, and then, in his scholarly capacity, thrilled. His mind busied itself automatically with dating and placing this unachieved dialogue with an unidentified woman...He thought he knew Ash fairly well, as well as anyone might know a man whose life seemed to be all in his mind, who lived a quiet and exemplary married life for forty years, whose correspondence was voluminous indeed, but guarded, courteous and not of the most lively. Roland liked that in Randolph Henry Ash. He was excited by the ferocious vitality and darting breadth of reference of the work, and secretly, personally, he was rather pleased that ll this had been achieved out of so peaceable, so unruffled a private existence.

He read the letters again. Had a final draft been posted? Or had the impulse died or been rebuffed? Roland was seized by a strange and uncharacteristic impulse of his own. It was suddenly quite impossible to put these living words back into page 300 of Vico and return them to Safe 5. He looked about him: no one else was looking: he slipped the letters between the leaves of his own copy of the Oxford Selected Ash, which he was never without.

Michell begins tracing the clues in the letters to determine the intended recipient, which he identifies as a more obscure Victorian poet, Christabel LaMotte, leading him to the doorstep of Dr. Maud Bailey, a LaMotte scholar at a university in Lincoln and apparently a distant relative of LaMotte. Together, Ash and Bailey embark on a literary quest to uncover just what connection there was between the 19th-century poets, and what that relationship might mean for the existing scholarship on their lives and works. This quest takes them to the ancestral home of LaMotte, now in the hands of Sir George Bailey and his wife (remote cousins of Maud), who don't look kindly on visitors. Maud and Roland eventually warm their way into the home, and uncover a hidden surfeit of letters between LaMotte and Ash:

The tapes fell away and the linen, many-layered, was turned back. Inside were two parcels, wrapped in oiled silk, and tied with black ribbon. Maud pulled at the ribbon too. The old silk squeaked and slipped. There they were, open letters, two bundles, neat as folded handkerchiefs. Roland did step forward. Maud picked up the top letter on each pile. Miss Christabel LaMotte, Bethany, Mount Ararat Road, Richmond. Surrey. Brown, spidery, decisive, known, the hand. And, much smaller, more violet, Randolph Henry Ash Esqre, 29, Russell Square, London. Roland said, "So he did send it."

Maud said, "It's both sides. It's everything. It was always there...."

In the meantime, Roland's relationship with live-in girlfriend Val is deteriorating, while Maud is keeping him at a cool arm's length. As they begin to uncover the truth of the Ash-LaMotte intrigue, their own relationship will slowly evolve. Despite their best efforts, the various comings and goings of the literary detectives do not go unnoticed. A colleague of Roland's who is also an ex-boyfriend of Maud's grows suspicious of the time they are spending together, and becomes the catalyst by which Blackadder and Cropper, amongst others, join the chase to uncover the riddle:

"I thought some letters were discovered."
"I should doubt that. I've never heard of any connection. Now, what do I know about Christabel LaMotte? There is something."
"Roland Michell discovered something."
Cropper stopped on the Greek Street pavement and caused two Chinese people to stop equally suddenly.
"I don't really know what. Yet. He thinks it's important."
"And James Blackadder?"
"He doesn't seem to know."
"You interest me, Dr Wolff."
"I hope to, Professor."
"Would you care for a cup of coffee?"

This is not a short novel, and it is easy to get bogged down in the mid-section, especially in the passages devoted to Victorian arcana or academic literary criticism. While I hate to ever advise someone to skim parts of a book, I think that is certainly a better course with this book than to simply stop reading out of frustration. The two parallel plots, the relationship between Roland and Maud and their unraveling of the Victorian mystery, are well-developed and nicely resolved, and it is not strictly necessary to struggle through the mud to appreciate the main storylines.

Quite aside from the merits of the work, it is worth contemplating the enormity of the endeavor Byatt set for herself. In addition to the several hundred pages of narrative, Byatt has populated the work with dozens of letters and diary entries written during the Victorian era, passing back and forth between that era and the present-day (like The Red Violin), as well as large sections of faux-Victorian verse ostensibly written by the two poets at the center of the book's mystery:

The Ants toil for no Master
Sufficient to their Need
The daily commerce of the Nest
The storage of their Seed
They meet--and exchange Messages--
But none to none--bows down
They--like God's thoughts--speak each to each--

These poems are works of art in themselves. And within the novel they are integral to shaping the characters of not just the poets, but also the scholars who've dedicated their lives to studying them. Ash and LaMotte's major works are referenced throughout, stirring the reader's interest until they are intermittently revealed in the latter half of the book. The interpretation of the poems changes as the scholars uncover the nature of Ash and LaMotte's relationship. Thus while this can be a difficult novel to read, it was undoubtedly more difficult to write, and there are certainly rewards for those who finish it.

Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres

bernieres_corellis.jpgIt was with some surprise that I learned Louis de Bernières was a native of Britain, born in London and inheriting his family name from a French Huguenot ancestor. Between the name and the exotic locales of his books (only his most recent book features any scenes set in Britain), I had figured him to be at least a continental. As it turns out, de Bernières' international exposure simply started a bit later in life:

After four disastrous months in the British army, he left for a village in Colombia, where he worked as a teacher in the morning and a cowboy in the afternoon. He returned to England, where he was employed as a mechanic, a landscape gardener, and a groundsman at a mental hospital.

de Bernières is the author of seven books, of which the most famous is undoubtedly his 1994 novel, Corelli's Mandolin. Unfortunately, most people are more likely to be familiar with the 2001 film adaptation of the book starring Nicholas Cage and Penelope Cruz, which was a terrible movie that did absolutely no justice to the text that inspired it. Like was done to Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient (albeit in a far superior fashion in that case), the novel was largely reduced to a love story for cinematic purposes. As I said in my review of Ondaatje's novel, I normally will not read a book if I have already seen the movie, unless the movie was so good that I wanted to experience the story more fully.

That was, of course, not the case with Corelli's Mandolin. Instead, strangely enough, I was swayed by the overwhelmingly positive reviews the book has received on Amazon.com. These customer reviews are not always a good measure, particularly when dealing with a book that people were drawn to because it won a recent award or was assigned in a class. But for a fifteen year old literary novel to have nearly 400 reviews, and to achieve such a high overall rating, is rather noteworthy.

And it is a good thing I took note, because this is an extraordinary novel. And one of the things that makes it so extraordinary is the complex layer of narratives comprised of fluctuating perspectives and forms. All of which was done away with in the reductionist screenplay adaptation. The book opens with an almost folk-story vignette of rural life on the Greek island of Cephalonia, as the local doctor (a medical autodidact) examines an earache in a half-deaf neighbor:

Dr Iannis tilted the old man's head and peered into the ear. With his long matchstick he pressed aside the undergrowth of stiff grey hairs embellished with flakes of exfoliated scurf. There was something spherical within. He scraped its surface to remove the hard brown cankerous coating of wax, and beheld a pea. It was undoubtedly a pea; it was light green, its surface was slightly wrinkled, and there could not be any doubt in the matter. 'Have you ever stuck anything down your ear?' he demanded.

The evocative details featured in this distasteful episode are one of de Bernières' hallmarks, and he puts this skill to good use in passages of the book both more and less pleasant than the opening pages. In addition to Dr Iannis, the early chapters feature a monologue from Mussolini, the village strongman (Velisarios) hitting a local fisherman (Mandras) with a cannon he fired while holding in the air, and the first of several chapters written by "L'Omosessuale," Carlo Piero Guercio, a young Italian man who has joined the army for a most unusual reason:

I knew that in the Army there would be those that I could love, albeit never touch. I would find someone to love, and I would be ennobled by this love. I would not desert him in battle, he would make me an inspired hero. I would have someone to impress, someone whose admiration would give me that which I cannot give myself; esteem, and honour I would dare to die for him, and if I died I would know that I was dross which some inscrutable alchemy had transmuted into gold.

Of all the problems with the film, the greatest disservice it does to the book is the diminution of Carlo's character. It is his love stories, first with Francisco, and then with Corelli, that are perhaps the more moving romances of the book, if only because they are undiminished despite being utterly one-sided and unspoken. It is his military service alongside Francisco, in the ill-fated Italian invasion of Greece, that brings the most horrific battle scenes in the book. In the meantime, Dr. Iannis' daughter, Pelagia, has become engaged to Mandras, the young fisherman who was brought to her father's home for care after being wounded by Velisarios' cannon. He too goes off to war, and returns a greatly changed man, eventually becoming a member of a militant Greek Communist faction that is focused more on hoarding weapons to stage a civil insurrection after the war then resisting the fascists during it.

Corelli himself does not appear until more than one hundred pages into the book, when Cephalonia is occupied by Italian troops after their German allies came to their rescue, the Greeks having handily repulsed the Italian invaders. Housed with Dr. Iannis and his daughter, Corelli's budding romance with Pelagia is certainly a wonderful part of the book. But this is also a novel about the effects war has on reluctant combatants, like Mandras and Carlo, reluctant occupiers, like Corelli, and the reluctantly occupied, like the residents of Cephalonia. And the madness of political extremism whatever its form, from the bloodthirsty fascism of the Nazis to the ruthlessness of Mandras and his ELAS comrades. And the toll that time takes on one's hopes and dreams. And so much else.

Death With Interruptions by Jose Saramago

saramago_death.jpgJosé Saramago has made quite a career for himself with fanciful parables involving a sudden irregularity in the normal workings of life. Saramago uses these occurrences as a foil by which to study some facet of cultural or political norms, often seeking to expose the flaws, weaknesses, and hypocrisies of modern society. Blindness involved an epidemic of countrywide sightlessness. Seeing (reviewed here) featured an election in which the vast majority of ballets cast are blank. His most recently translated novel, Death With Interruptions, is premised on the cessation of one of life's two supposed guarantees, and I don't mean taxes:

The following day, no one died. This fact, being absolutely contrary to life's rules, provoked enormous and, in the circumstances, perfectly justifiable anxiety in people's minds, for we have only to consider that in the entire forty volumes of universal history there is no mention, not even one exemplary case, of such a phenomenon ever having occurred, for a whole day to go by, with its generous allowance of twenty-four hours, diurnal and nocturnal, matutinal and vespertine, without one death from an illness, a fatal fall, or a successful suicide, not one, not a single one.

The first half of the book explores the country's reaction to this suspension of mortality. It is not, to be clear, a suspension of aging. And those who were on death's doorstep, the infirm, the comatose, do not recover from their wounds or illnesses; instead they are caught in a sort of stasis, hovering just this side of the afterlife. And as the aging process has not slowed, this would seem to be the eventual fate of all the country's residents. Thus the immediate reaction of joy at the seeming surrender of death is quickly replaced by quite a bit of anxiety. Saramago targets several groups in particular, notably the insurance companies, the undertakers, the hospitals, and especially the organized church, which realizes that "without death there can be no resurrection" and thus little need for a church.

Before long families are taking their near-death relatives across the country's borders, where death is still maintaining her regularly scheduled activities. When these foreign neighbors take umbrage at this practice, the country stations militia along the border to prevent further crossings, giving rise to a underground criminal enterprise engaged in the circumvention of death's interruption. Eventually, after several months, death sends a letter, notifying the country that shortly she will be back in business. On that day, death catches up with the more than 60,000 people whose demise had been postponed. But then another seven days go by without any further mortal departures:

The week-long pause, during which no one died and which, initially, created the illusion that nothing had, in fact, changed, came about simply because of the new rules governing the relationship between death and mortals, namely that everyone would receive prior warning that they still had a week to live until, shall we say, payment was due, a week in which to sort out their affairs, make a will, pay their back taxes and say goodbye to their family and to their closest friends. In theory, this seemed like a good idea, but practice would soon show that it was not.

Indeed, rather than use the remaining time allotted to tie up loose ends, the more common path is one of hedonistic excess, giving Saramago another opportunity to let loose against the failings of modern man. This transition in death's modus operandi also brings a transition into the second half of the book, which features death herself as the protagonist of sorts. She does not capitalize her name, to distinguish herself from the Death. She is, after all, just one of many deaths, with responsibility only over the human citizens in this particular country. And it is one particular citizen who is causing her trouble. The problem has to do with that little purple envelope she sends, the one that notifies each individual of their impending death. For one man, the envelope keeps getting returned to its sender. She tries again, and it returns once more. So death decides to make a personal visit to this man, to observe him surreptitiously in his home. She discovers he is a cellist in an orchestra, becomes somewhat infatuated with him, and decides to take human form and make contact with him:

The man didn't know her, but she knew him, she had spent a whole night in the same room as him, she had heard him play and, whether you like it or not, such things forge bonds, establish a certain rapport, mark the beginnings of a relationship, and to announce to him bluntly, You're going to die, you have a week in which to sell your cello and find another owner for your dog, would be a brutal act unworthy of the pretty woman she has become. No, she had a different plan.

The carrying-out of death's plan, which takes up the remainder of the novel, is certainly the better section of the book. The first half, with its focus on society's reaction to the suspension of death, is dull and small-minded and heavy-handed. Saramago takes a subject as weighty as death and uses it to silly effect, taking aim at such easy targets as morticians and nursing homes. But even the better half of the book is difficult to discern. Lovely as death's seduction of the cellist is, it is not at all clear what Saramago intends by the liaison. As one reviewer said, "Maybe this is just Saramago growing old. Writing novels is hard work. Or maybe even this committed novelist has thrown up his hands at modern life."

The Palace of Dreams by Ismail Kadare

kadare_palace.jpgIt is surely coincidence that in the past week, amidst the election turmoil in Iran, I have read two books in some part devoted to the perils of oppressive government. Yesterday I discussed José Saramago's Seeing, which explores the reaction of a right-wing government to the massive casting of blank ballots by the country's voters. The underlying presumption of the senior government officials is a distrust of the populace, and a belief that some mischievous conspiracy must be at work.

A similar sense abounds in The Palace of Dreams, a 1981 novel by Albanian author Ismail Kadare. The book was banned by Albanian authorities upon its publication, and in 1990 Kadare sought asylum in France to avoid being used as a tool of the country's communist regime.

The novel depicts the ultimate extension of government intrusion into the private lives of its citizens, via the workings of a mysterious institution: the Tabir Sarrail, the Palace of Dreams. It is here that the empire collects, sorts, and analyzes the dreams of its citizens, the subconscious of the nation, in an attempt to foresee important upcoming events. The story follows Mark-Alem, a young member of the powerful Quprili family, as he begins employment at the Tabir Sarrail. His very entrance into the vast building is imbued with Kafka-esque disorientation:

The corridor on the first floor was long and dark, with dozens of doors opening off it, tall and unnumbered. He counted ten and stopped outside the eleventh. He'd have liked to make sure it really was the office of the person he was looking for before he knocked, but the corridor was empty and there was no one to ask. He drew a deep breath, stretched out his hand, and gave a gentle tap. But no voice could be heard from within. He looked first to his right, then to his left, and knocked again, more loudly this time. Still no answer. He knocked a third time and, still hearing nothing, tried the door. Strangely enough it opened easily. He was terrified, and made as if to close it again. He even put out his hand to clutch back as it creaked open wider still on its hinges. Then he noticed the room was empty. He hesitated. Should he go in?

He does go in, and after a tense meeting with the director-general, Mark-Alem is given a plum initial assignment in Selection. This is where the thousands of dreams that are gathered from the reaches of the empire are sorted into those worthy of being forwarded to Interpretation, and those worthy of the dustbin:

He'd put aside forty or so dreams that he judged to be devoid of interest. Most of them seemed to have their origin in everyday worries, while others looked as if they were hoaxes. But he wasn't quire sure; he'd better read them again. As a matter of fact he'd already read each of them two or three times; but he still didn't trust his own judgment. The head of the section had told him that when in doubt about a dream he should put a big question mark against it and pass it on to the next sorter. But he'd already done this quite often. In fact, he'd rejected hardly any dreams as useless, and if he didn't keep back the present batch his boss might think he was afraid to take risks and unloaded everything on his colleagues. But he was supposed to be a sorter, employed to make choices, not to shift the responsibility off onto others.

Even as Mark-Alem is wracked with doubt about his abilities and his purpose in working at the Tabir Sarrail, he is making steady progress up the ranks, quickly finding himself promoted to Interpretation. Despite his progress, he fails to recognize the significance of a dream that crosses his desk several times and ultimately has tremendous consequences for he and the Quprili family.

This slender book is reminiscent of Orwell, Kafka, and others who explore the oppression of the individual under a totalitarian regime, and the dream-like qualities that suffuse life in those circumstances. There are several passages, particularly when Mark-Alem finds himself in the hallways of the Tabir Surrail, that are almost unbearably claustrophobic. This is frightening, powerful novel.

Seeing by Jose Saramago

saramago_seeing.jpgIn his 1995 novel, Blindness, José Saramago depicts a mysterious epidemic of sightlessness in a large, unidentified city, and the unraveling of society and government that follows. Much of the action follows the wife of an ophthalmologist who is solely exempted from the affliction, and the struggles of her and the small band of folks she is able to protect from the chaos that ensues. In 2004, Saramago published a sequel of sorts to his acclaimed novel. Set in the same city, Seeing opens four years after the epidemic, which remains a forbidden topic of discussion. The story begins with a parliamentary election, in which a morning of terrible weather threatens turnout:

However long the presiding officer and his colleagues took to scrutinize documents, a queue never formed, there were, at most, at any one time, three or four people waiting, and three or four people, try as they might, can never make a queue worthy of the name. I was quite right, commented the representative of the p.i.t.m. [part of the middle], the abstention rate will be enormous, massive, there'll be no possible agreement on the result after this, the only solution will be to hold the elections again...

The representative was correct, but not for the reason he stated. As so often happens in Saramago's novels, there is a sudden and curious turn of events:

[A]t four o'clock in the afternoon, an hour which is neither late nor early, neither fish nor fowl, those voters who had, until then, remained in the quiet of their homes, apparently blithely ignoring the election altogether, started to come out onto the streets...and all of them, absolutely all of them, the healthy and inform, the former on foot, the latter in wheelchairs, on stretchers, in ambulances, headed straight for their respective polling stations like rivers which know no other course than that which flows to the sea.

Even more remarkable than the abrupt outpouring of voters is the outcome of their votes:

It was gone midnight when the counting finished. The number of valid votes did not quite reach twenty-five percent, with the party on the right winning thirteen percent, the party in the middle nine percent and the party on the left two and a half percent. There were very few spoiled ballots and very few abstentions. All the others, more than seventy percent of the total votes cast, were blank.

This mass casting of blank votes is viewed by the reigning government (led by the Party of the Right) as spurious, despite the fact that casting a blank vote is a legitimate option under the country's elections laws. Several days later a re-vote is held, and the percentage of blank votes cast is even higher: 83%. The government, again, views the results as invalid.

The remainder of the book is basically divided into two parts. The first follows the machinations of the president, prime minister, and cabinet officers as they scheme to respond to what they view as a veritable rebellion by the voters, ultimately moving the government out of the capital and effectively sealing off the city with a military siege. With few exceptions, they display an utter distaste for the people they have been chosen to govern. Their motivating assumption is that the cause of the trouble is some conspiracy or defect in the people rather than the government, a none too subtle expression of Saramago's views regarding ruling elites. It is a particularly potent message considering recent events in Iran.

The focus shifts midway through as the government sends a small police team into the city to investigate a curious letter they received from a citizen, claiming that there was a woman who did not go blind during the epidemic four years before. Otherwise without any leads as to the cause of the current political crisis, the interior minister gains approval to interview the letter writer and explore his claims. A police superintendent leads the three-person team into the besieged capital. The woman, of course, is the protagonist from Blindness, now a suspect because her immunity to blindness is as inexplicable to the government officials as the mass casting of blank votes. They presume there must be some connection between these unknowns. The unknown, after all, is the most dangerous thing to an incumbent government elected based on the old, usual patterns of behavior.

While displaying Saramago's usual talent for prose, Seeing lacks a good deal of the bite of its sightless predecessor. The commentary on government and society is a bit obvious, and the cabinet officials and the meetings they hold sometimes descend into caricature, a danger implicit in allegory but avoided by Saramago at his best. And while plot is never the point with Saramago, the story told in Seeing lacks the drama and the tension that made Blindness such a well-rounded work of fiction, and the ending may disappoint those who've made it through both books.

Home by Marilynne Robinson

robinson_home.jpgFans of Marilynne Robinson's 1980 novel, Housekeeping, had to wait twenty-four years for the author's second novel. But what a book that was! Gilead, which richly deserved its Pulitzer Prize, is an exceptional rumination on family, faith, and mortality, and is the best fiction I have read in the past several years. Thus you can imagine my excitement when I heard that we would not have to wait another couple decades for Robinson's third novel. Instead, Home was scheduled for publication in the fall of 2008, after a mere four year interval. Even better, the plot summaries indicated the narrative would return to the city of Gilead, Iowa, and feature many of the same characters.

The dustjacket asserts that Home is an "entirely independent" work. I understand the urge to make this claim, as sequels are unlikely to attract those who did not read the first book. But I think it is misleading. While there is nothing in Home that strictly requires a prior reading of Gilead, the narrative is going to appear quite different to those who have read that book. How could it not? Gilead is a fictional autobiography, an effort by the dying Reverend John Ames to leave something behind for his young son, whose childhood will be largely fatherless once Ames' failing heart gives out. Much of the dramatic tension in that book is provided by the return of Jack Boughton, the son of Ames' best friend, fellow clergyman Robert Boughton (and Ames' namesake). Jack's departure twenty years earlier was under tumultuous circumstances, and his two decade absence was a source of continuing heartache for his father. Ames was understandably suspicious on his friend's behalf when Jack re-entered their lives, and the tensions posed by this situation challenge many of Ames' long-held convictions.

The narrative in Home covers much of the same ground, but this time from within the Boughton household. Jack's younger sister, Glory, has returned home to care for her ailing father, and to hide from the failures in her own life:

"Home to stay, Glory! Yes" her father said, and her heart sank. He attempted a twinkle of joy at this thought, but his eyes were damp with commiseration. "To stay for a while this time! " he amended, and took her bag from her, first shifting his cane to his weaker hand. Dear God, she thought, dear God in heaven. So began and ended all her prayers these days, which were really cries of amazement. How could her father be so frail?

Glory, of course, has mixed feelings about the possible return of her brother. As the youngest child, she was a witness to the tragic circumstances under which Jack left twenty years earlier, as well as the effect it had on her parents. She knows how much pain Jack's absence has caused her father, but recognizes that his homecoming is as likely to reignite and deepen this suffering as it is to alleviate it. Thus she waits with bated breath as her father opens a letter from Jack, the first contact in many years:

She thought he might be waiting for her to leave the room, and yet she was afraid to leave. He might be disappointed, or the note might really be from Jack, but upsetting somehow, written from a ward for the chronically vexatious, the terminally remiss. From jail, for heaven's sake. He had better have a good reason for rousing these overwhelming emotions in his father. He had better have a good excuse or exposing the old man to the possibility of inexpressible disappointment. Even if he was dead.

I find it difficult to view this book as "entirely independent" of Gilead. I think it actually quite important to have read that book first. What Gilead depicts, via Reverend Ames, is a life that is fundamentally at peace with itself. Ames' character is marked by a humble confidence grounded in his faith. There are tensions, and doubts, and challenges, but they do not overthrow Ames' core of spirituality, and his narration shows it. Home, by contrast, is riddled with anxiety. Jack is in large part defined by his lack of faith, by the lonely restlessness that this causes in such a religious home, by the distance this puts between Jack and his family, especially his father. For Jack, moments of comfort and certainty are the rare exception. He is the perpetual outsider, largely unable to cope with the stresses of life. And the stresses of Jack's adult life are significant, as readers of Gilead understand by the end of that book (another reason Home will read so differently for those unfamiliar with the earlier work):

He realized he did not please his father, did not know how to please his father. He would probably have liked to believe he had done something wrong so that he could at least orient himself a little, but she had told him a terrible thing, that he had done nothing to offend, that his father had found fault with him anyway, only because he was old and sad now, not the father he thought he had come home to.

One reason I consider Gilead to be such an exceptional novel is that spirituality is an exceptionally difficult concept to satisfactorily integrate into modern fiction, yet Robinson does so with extraordinary force. In Home, she has similar success with Jack's existential discomfort, yet it feels like a less singular accomplishment. The roster of great existential novels is, after all, much deeper. Still, Home is in many ways the necessary complement to its predecessor. Just as a prior reading of Gilead is essential to a proper understanding of Home, spending several hundred pages inside the Boughton home will alter the way readers of Gilead view that masterpiece. For the better.

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

garciamarquez_love.jpgOne of my snooty ways of judging the literary merits of a bookstore is to check whether they stock the novels of Gabriel García Márquez under M for Márquez, or where they actually belong, under G for García Márquez. If I recall correctly, Barnes & Noble gets it wrong while Borders gets it right. Incidentally, Borders also gets credit from me for following the practice of not segregating biographies within their own category, instead interspersing them in the appropriate genre (e.g. Lincoln in U.S. history, Einstein in science).

But I digress. García Márquez is one of the few modern foreign writers who has been able to transcend the bias against works in literature and establish himself firmly in the American literary canon. In addition to his Nobel Prize, García Márquez also earned a spot in the most recent edition of Clifton Fadiman's New Lifetime Reading Plan, and had two works chosen in a recent list of the 100 Most Meaningful Books (a feat matched by Faulkner, Flaubert, Homer, Mann, and Woolf, and bested only by Dostoevsky, Kafka, Shakespeare and Tolstoy; pretty good company).

Love in the Time of Cholera is the third of García Márquez's novels that I have read. I started with his most popular work, One Hundred Years of Solitude, which was a big hit amongst my high school friends who read it in Spanish class, but slipped by me until I read it in the spring of my first year of law school. I certainly enjoyed it and recognized the merit of the story of Macombo and the Buendia family, but must say that it did not meet my quite lofty expectations. Even more disappointing was his slim 1994 novel about 12-year-old Sierva Maria and the priest who falls in love with her, Of Love and Other Demons. How García Márquez managed to make such a mess of a book with less than 150 pages is beyond me.

Still, Love in the Time of Cholera is so widely lauded that it seemed a mistake not to read it simply because I was put off by one of the author's lesser works. And I am glad I did. While it does not match the majestic sweep of One Hundred Years of Solitude's multi-generational narrative, it displays the author's characteristic knack for imaginative storytelling. The book opens with the visit of Dr. Juvenal Urbino, a respected doctor in a South American port city on the Caribbean, to the home of Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, a friend of Dr. Urbino's who has just committed suicide. After observing the body and reading the shocking information revealed in Saint-Amour's farewell letter, Dr. Urbino leaves to attend a party and contemplate the events of the day. The chapter focuses so deeply on Dr. Urbino and his thoughts that it comes as quite an abrupt surprise to see his absurd demise come that very same day:

Dr. Urbino caught the parrot around the neck with a triumphant sigh: ca y est. But he released him immediately because the ladder slipped from under his feet and for an instant he was suspended in air and then he realized that he had died without Communion, without time to repent of anything or to say goodbye to anyone, at seven minutes after four on Pentecost Sunday.

Fermina Daza was in the kitchen tasting the soup for supper when she heard Digna Pardo's horrified shriek and the shouting of the servants and then of the entire neighborhood. She dropped the tasting spoon and tried her best to run despite the invincible weight of her age, screaming like a mad woman without knowing yet what had happened under the mango leaves, and her heart jumped inside her ribs when she saw her man lying on his back in the mud, dead to this life but still resisting death's final blow for one last minute so that she would have time to come to him. He recognized her despite the uproar, through his tears of unrepeatable sorrow at dying without her, and he looked at her for the last and final time with eyes more luminous, more grief-stricken, more grateful than she had ever seen them in half a century of a shared life, and he managed to say to her with his last breath:

"Only God knows how much I loved you."

It was a memorable death, and not without reason.

After Dr. Urbino's death, the story takes an unusual turn, after focusing so closely on Dr. Urbino and his deceased chess partner. For as contented as Fermina Daza may have been in her marriage, her relationship with Dr. Urbino was neither the first nor the last great love story of her life. Waiting behind as the other guests leave the funeral party at Fermina Daza's home is "a useful and serious old man" by the name of Florentino Ariza:

[B]efore she could thank him for the visit, he placed his hat over his heart, tremulous and dignified, and the abscess that had sustained his life finally burst.

"Fermina," he said, "I have waited for this opportunity for more than half a century, to repeate to you once again my vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love."

Fermina Daz would have thought she was facing a madman if she had not reason to believe that at that moment Florentino Ariza was inspired by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Her first impulse was to curse him for profaning the house when the body of her husband was still warm in the grave. But the dignity of her fury held her back. "Get out of here," she said. "And don't show your face again for the years of life that are left to you." She opened the street door, which she had begun to close, and concluded:

"And I hope there are very few of them."

Surely not the reaction Florentino Ariza had been hoping for. We soon learn that Florentino and Fermina were teenage sweethearts, and that Florentino has been waiting more than five decades for Juvenal Urbino's death to renew the pursuit. Those five decades fill much of the remainder of the book, as García Márquez details the origins of Florentino and his family, Fermina and hers, and how their clandestine epistolary relationship was abruptly halted by Fermina just as it seemed about to be realized. Florentino's professed love for Fermina never fades, despite her subsequent marriage to Dr. Urbino, her bearing of children, and the passage of decade after decade.

One of the great questions raised by the novel is whether Florentino's interminable affection for Fermina is an admirable example of love's durability or a cautionary tale about idealized obsession. García Márquez finishes the book with great panache, a talent sadly scarce amongst otherwise skilled novelists, so I am especially reluctant to discuss the final chapters which detail events after the night of Dr. Urbino's funeral party, but I think the conclusion leaves plenty of room to ponder the wisdom of Florentino's fixation.

I will note that I was rather bothered by the behavior Florentino engages in with América Vicuña, a 14-year old girl. Florentino, by then a quite aged man, is chosen by her parents as her guardian when she is sent to his town for schooling. He commences a sexual relationship with her but ends it upon the death of Dr. Urbino. The girl's subsequent emotional spiral and suicide come as little surprise, but seem to have relatively little effect on the old man. I'd like to give García Márquez the benefit of the doubt and assume this subplot is intended to demonstrate the moral depravity of Florentino, but the repetition of this theme in the author's later novel, Memories of My Melancholy Whores leaves me with some doubt.

Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien

obrien_going.jpgTim O'Brien's masterpiece novel, The Things They Carried (reviewed here), is a riveting look at the psychological experience of the Vietnam War, and living with the memories of the conflict. Written in 1990, more than a decade and a half after American troops left Vietnam, it is a classic of war fiction and one of the best books I read last year.

During a brief visit to Augusta, Georgia, on the way to a vacation in Charleston, I was browsing through a local bookstore and noticed a nice hardcover copy of one of O'Brien's earlier works, Going After Cacciato. O'Brien's second novel was published in 1978, in closer proximity to the end of the war, and was awarded the National Book Award the following year. I bought Going After Cacciato in large part based on my admiration for The Things They Carried, but unfortunately the older book does not compare favorably.

Cacciato is a young Soldier in an American infantry squad stationed in the jungles of Vietnam in 1968-69. On the second page of the book, word reaches the platoon leader that Cacciato has decided not to stick around for the duration of his tour:

"Cacciato," Doc repeated. "The kid's let us. Split for parts unknown."

The lieutenant did not sit up. With one hand he cupped his belly, with the other he guarded a red glow. The srufaces of his eyes were moist.

"Gone to Paris," Doc said.

The platoon leader gathers together the remainder of Cacciato's squad, including Specialist Paul Berlin, and sets out to track Cacciato down. The first chapter ends with the squad apparently cornering Cacciato on a grassy hill, preparing to storm his makeshift camp. With the second chapter, the story shifts abruptly. Now we are with Paul Berlin in an observation post located near the sea in Quang Ngai. The search for Cacciato is in the past, as Berlin is thinking about the event, about Cacciato's plan to flee to Paris with his squadmates trailing behind:

Paul Berlin, whose only goal was to live long enough to establish goals worth living for still longer, stood high in the tower by the sea, the night soft all around him, and wondered, not for the first time, about the immense powers of his own imagination. A truly awesome notion. Not a dream, an idea. An idea to develop, to tinker with and build and sustain, to draw out as an artist draws out his visions.

It was not a dream. Nothing mystical or crazy, just an idea. Just a possibility. Feet turning hard like stone, legs stiffening, six and seven and eight thousand miles through unfolding country toward Paris. A truly splendid idea.

Though it is not completely apparent at first, this idea fills the bulk of Going After Cacciato, the imagined journey of Berlin and his squad following Cacciato from Vietnam to Paris. This fantastic tale alternates with chapters set in the "present" in the observation post, as well as chapters which detail Berlin's flashback memories of the numerous deaths of comrades preceding Cacciato's flight.

There are parts of the book that work; in particular, the chapters discussing the traumatic experiences of Berlin and his unit are often searing, and resemble the best aspects of The Things They Carried. I was also impressed by the chapter titled "Atrocities On the Road to Paris," which features a surreal interrogation of the squad, arrested as they traveled through Tehran, by an agent of SAVAK, the Shah's security service:

"Just a war," Doc said. "There's nothing new to tell."

Captain Fahyi Rhallon smiled. "Not to contradict, but I must disagree... Each soldier, he has a different war. Even if it is the same war it is a different war. Do you see this?"

"Perceptual set," Doc Peret said.

The captain nodded. He was leaning forward over the table. His eyes were brilliant black. "Perceptual set! Yes, that is it. In battle, in a war, a soldier sees only a tiny fragment of what is available to be seen. The soldier is not a photographic machine. He is not a camera. He registers, so to speak, only those few items that he is predisposed to register and not a thing more. Do you understand this? So I am saying to you that after a battle each soldier will have different stories to tell, vastly different stories, and that when a war is ended it is as if there have been a million wars, or as many wars as there were soldiers."

Unfortunately, these quality passages are the exception, and are insufficient to tie the book together. One can surely sympathize with Paul's desire to invent an escapist fantasy to inject a modicum of hope into the otherwise bleak situation he finds himself in, pulling night duty in a remote observation post in Vietnam, haunted by the deaths of his comrades. But unless the reader finds himself presently in such a situation, it is hard to see what purpose is served by this framework; from very early on, it is obvious the journey to Paris is wholly imagined. There is never any question or tension about its imaginary nature. And as a result, the events of the journey make little impact. Surrealism is just not interesting as a commentary on the consciously imagined.

All the Names by Jose Saramago

saramago_all.jpgA couple of years ago I read a bizarre, extraordinary novel by Portuguese Nobel Prize-winner José Saramago titled Blindness. That book, which depicted the consequences of a plague of blindness descending upon an entire city, has since been made into an apparently mediocre film. Much of what struck me as most unusual about that wonderful book, the fabulous imaginings, the strangely sparse punctuation, turn out to be trademarks of much of Saramago's fiction.

Unfortunately, these stylistic calling cards, particularly the long unbroken paragraphs and lack of quotation marks (dialogue is divided only by commas), seem to deter many prospective readers or confuse otherwise intrepid ones. This is shame because a novel like All the Names, while unusual in form, is reasonably accessible in substance.

The story's protagonist is Senhor José, a clerk at the unnamed city's Central Registry, a government office that tracks the birth, death, and marriage of every person on individual record cards (José's last name is a mystery; it is surely no coincidence that the author's own last name was actually his father's nickname, mistakenly recorded as a surname by, you guessed it, the registrar). As one might imagine, the collection of records is unceasingly growing; the cards are segregated between living and dead, with the files for the newly deceased removed and taken to the farthest reaches of the preposterously expanding vault:

The papers pertaining to those no longer alive are to be found in a more or less organised state in the rear of the building, the back wall of which, from time to time, has to be demolished and rebuilt some yards farther on as a consequence of the unstoppable rise in the number of the deceased.

In addition to its wondrously archaic archives, the Central Registry also features a rigidly hierarchical personnel system, which manifests itself physically in the office. The eight clerks sit in a row of desks facing the customer service counter; behind them is a row of four desks for the senior clerks, then a row of two desks for the deputy registrars, followed by the Registrar himself. Furthermore, communication is only to be made by members of adjacent levels; thus the clerks never speak to the deputies or Registrar, and any messages they receive come through the senior clerks. The allocation of work should ring familiar to anyone who has worked in a government office:

The distribution of tasks among the various employees follows a simple rule, which is that the duty of the members of each category is to do as much work as they possibly can, so that only a small part of that work need be passed to the category above. This means that the clerks are obliged to work without cease from morning to night, whereas the senior clerks do so only now and then, the deputies very rarely, and the Registrar almost never.

Senhor José is by all appearances a diligent clerk, and perhaps the lack of promotion during his decades of service can be explained by the dearth of advancement opportunities. Though at one time all Registry employees lived in homes adjoining the Registry building, all but José's have been torn down. Senhor José has a single hobby that fills his free time: he collects clippings about local celebrities. Harmless enough at first, the hobby takes a provocative turn when he realizes his collection lacks some of the most basic information he has access to: the celebrities' Registry files. Using the long-abandoned door that leads directly from his home to the Registry, José begins making copies of the celebrities' records, until one fateful day when he brings back more than intended:

The card belongs to a woman of thirty-six, born in that very city, and there are two entries, one for marriage, the other for divorce. There must be hundreds, if not thousands of such cards in the index system, so it's hard to understand why Senhor José should be looking at it so strangely, in a way which, at first sight, seems intent, but which is also vague and troubled, perhaps this is the look of someone who, without making any conscious choice, is gradually losing his grip on something and has yet to find another handhold.

José quickly becomes more curious about this utterly unknown woman than by all the famous people to whom he had been devoted. From the basic information available on the card, José embarks on a curious quest to learn more about the woman, perhaps even meet her. This endeavor quickly takes on the aura of obsession, and the clerk gradually casts aside the structure of law and regulation that had previously governed his life. The adventure that follows, with José traveling to the apartment building the woman was born in, the school she attended, a pharmacy near her last school-age home, could in other hands easily seem boorish, even predatory.

Saramago shapes it into a vivid tale of modern alienation, a current that runs throughout his bibliography. The loneliness of the protagonist is obvious, with his scarce social interaction beyond the staccato encounters at work. But note also the inferred isolation of the unknown woman, whose life is depicted through the spare, clinical biographical details offered by the administrative records that survive us all.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

adichie_purple.jpgAs vast a continent as Africa may be, most Americans are woefully unfamiliar with any of its literature. And the state of the translation market being as weak as it is, what we are familiar with tends to come strictly from the English-speaking areas, particularly South Africa (Alan Paton, J.M. Coetzee) and Nigeria (Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka). Amongst the most promising young writers from the latter is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has been pursuing her education and career in the U.S. since she left Nigeria in 1996 at age 19.

In addition to a number of acclaimed short stories (and an upcoming story collection), Adichie has published two well-received novels. Her 2003 debut, Purple Hibiscus was long-listed for the Booker Prize, short-listed for the Orange Prize, and won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, and the hardcover remains in print six years later. Her 2007 novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, received its own share of award nominations and was awarded the Orange Prize. Last year, Adichie received a prestigious (and financially generous) a MacArthur fellowship (i.e. "genius grant") as she pursues a graduate degree in African Studies at Yale.

Purple Hibiscus centers on the domestic life of 15-year old Kambili, who lives in Enugu, Nigeria, with her parents and older brother, Jaja. The novel opens with a brief chapter, depicting an episode of disobedience by Jaja toward his father on Palm Sunday. What might at first appear to be a relatively routine outburst by a 17-year old young man is quickly understood to be a singular departure from the state of affairs in this particular home. The bulk of the book depicts the months leading up to this eventful day, with the final section focused on the aftermath.

Kambili and Jaja's father, Eugene, is a wealthy, successful businessman, the publisher of a oft-dissident newspaper, and a zealous Catholic. Warmly viewed outside the home and upheld as an example by the local priest, at home Eugene subjects his family to a brutally strict regime of religious purity. He refuses to allow non-Catholics inside his home, extending this ban to his own father. And while his children are well-fed, well-clothed, and well-educated, they must abide by a daily schedule crafted by their father to script every moment of their lives, with lofty standards of success not merely expected, but demanded:

I came second in my class. It was written in figures: "2/25." My form mistress, Sister Clara, had written, "Kambili is intelligent beyond her years, quiet and responsible." The principal, Mother Lucy, wrote, "A brilliant, obedient student and a daughter to be proud of." But I knew Papa would not be proud. He had often told Jaja and me that he did not spend so much money on Daughters of the Immaculate Heart and St. Nicholas to have us let other children come first. Nobody had spent money on his own schooling, especially not his Godless father, our Papa-Nnukwu, yet he had always come first. I wanted to make Papa proud, to do as well as he had done. I needed him to touch the back of my neck and tell me that I was fulfilling God's purpose. I needed him to hug me close and say that to who much is given, much is also expected. I needed him to smile at me, in that way that lit up his face, that warmed something inside me. But I had come second. I was stained by failure.

This regime continues with only minor perturbations until Eugene's sister, Ifeoma, persuades him to allow Kambili and Jaja to spend several days with their cousins in her home in Nsukka. The experiences they have there, the connections they made with their extended family and others, fundamentally alter the children's worldviews and liberate them from the strictures of their father's sphere. Of particular importance to Kambili is the friendship she builds with Father Amadi, a young priest who incorporates more of the native culture into his Catholicism than the imported European clerics favored by Eugene. Father Amadi, soon to depart for a mission to Germany, favors Kambili with his attention, cultivating and inspiring an emotional evolution in the young woman:

I stared at the dashboard, at the blue-and-gold Legion of Mary sticker on it. Didn't he know that I did not want him to leave, ever? That I did not need to be persuaded to go to the stadium, or anywhere, with him? The afternoon played across my mind as I got out of the car in front of the flat. I had smiled, run, laughed. My chest was filled with something like bath foam. Light. The lightness was so sweet I tasted it on my tongue, the sweetness of an overripe bright yellow cashew fruit.

These changes manifest most dramatically in Jaja, whose open disobedience toward his father opens the book and is all the more shocking once we have seen the abusive oppression Eugene cultivated at home:

"Kambili, you are precious." His voice quavered now, like someone speaking at a funeral, choked with emotion. "You should strive for perfection. You should not see sin and walk right into it." He lowered the kettle into the tub, tilted it toward my feet. He poured the hot water on my feet, slowly, as if he were conducting an experiment and wanted to see what would happen. He was crying now, tears streaming down his face. I saw the moist steam before I saw the water. I watched the water leave the kettle, flowing almost in slow motion in an arc to my feet. The pain of contact was so pure, so scalding, I felt nothing for a second. And then I screamed.

"That is what you do to yourself when you walk into sin. You burn your feet," he said.

The text offers a number of insights into the Nigerian way of life, particularly during the time Kambili spends in Nsukka, outside the walls of her own home: the food they eat, the community relationships, even the difficulty in traveling relatively short distances when there is such a shortage of fuel. The disparities in lifestyle between Kambili's own home and her extended family are striking, to Kambili as much as to the reader. Adichie also peppers the dialogue with a number of Igbo words; language itself is viewed as a reflection of status, as Kambili's father discourages its use in favor of English.

Adichie's portrayal of her teenage female protagonist is pitch-perfect, with a real sense of the wonder, the naivete, and the vulnerability of the character. Kambili truly comes of age in these pages. There is also a nicely interwoven undercurrent of the country's tumultuous politics, from the controversial efforts of Eugene's newspaper to the blacklisting at the university where Aunty Ifeoma lectures.

The only major misstep comes at the book's finish. Without revealing the final arc of the plot itself, suffice it to say that I felt quickly disconnected from a story I had become rather immersed in. The conclusion depends on a connection with Jaja which is simply absent from the preceding chapters. Whether because this is Adichie's first novel, the result of some pressure to finish, or simply another example of the inherent difficulty of writing a decent ending to a novel (which I adamantly believe to be the greatest challenge confronting a writer of fiction), the gratuitous and unoriginal flourishes at the end left me somewhat unsatisfied. Not enough, however, to dissuade me from looking forward to Adichie's other novel, her upcoming story collection, and whatever else her promising career brings forth.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

mcmurtry_lonesome.jpgLarry McMurtry has developed a rather mixed literary reputation over the years. On the one hand, he has written a number of critically acclaimed novels, including The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, and Lonesome Dove. The latter was even awarded the 1986 Pulitzer Prize. These books were also commercially successful, and each was adapted for film or television. McMurtry also shared an Oscar for co-writing the Brokeback Mountain screenplay adapted from Annie Proulx's short story.

Yet on the other hand, both times that I have picked up a McMurtry novel I have received raised eyebrows and skeptical queries from those accustomed to my "high brow" literary tastes. Perhaps this is because McMurtry is so prolific he defies the model of a serious author (and among his many books, there are plenty of reputed duds). Perhaps it is because his best novels were successful commercially. Maybe it is a result of his penchant for writing lesser sequels of his best novels (three sequels to Lonesome Dove, three to The Last Picture Show, one to Terms of Endearment). And it might be because his most famous book is a western, a genre which receives (and perhaps deserves) little respect.

While Lonesome Dove is undoubtedly a western, it surely stands at the pinnacle of the genre. A mammoth book, weighing it at over 800 pages, it tells the story of old cowboys Augustus "Gus" McRae and Woodrow Call. The book opens with the former Texas Rangers running a stable and occasional cattle-selling business on the Texas-Mexico border, in a small town called Lonesome Dove. They make quite the odd couple, with Gus a loquacious rambler content to pass his days on the porch with some conversation and whiskey, and Captain Call (as he is universally dubbed) the quiet workaholic who pauses reluctantly for meals and sleep:

The funny thing about Woodrow Call was how hard he was to keep in scale. He wasn't a big man--in fact, was barely middle-sized--but when you walked up and looked him in the eye it didn't seem that way. Augustus was four inches taller than his partner, and Pea Eye three inches taller yet, but there was no way you could have convinced Pea Eye that Captain Call was the short man. Call had him buffaloed, and in that respect Pea had plenty of company. If a man meant to hold his own with Call it was necessary to keep in mind that Call wasn't as big as he seemed. Augustus was the one man in south Texas who could usually keep him in scale, and he built on his advantage whenever he could. He started many a day by pitching Call a hot biscuit and remarking point-blank, "You know, Call, you ain't really no giant."

The relative calm of Lonesome Dove is interrupted by the arrival of Jake Spoon, a cowboy that rangered with Gus and Call back in the day but has since parted company. A known ladies' man, Spoon recently departed Arkansas under a cloud after the accidental shooting of a sheriff's brother. Spoon's arrival marks two significant developments: he quickly co-opts Lorena, the town prostitute, who gives up her trade for his attentions; and an off-hand comment about the potential profits of a cattle drive to frontier Montana quickly burrows into Call's mind. Call decides to lead the drive from Texas to Montana, and his word is practically law amongst his crew:

It was that they had roved too long, August concluded, when his mind turned to such matters. They were people of the horse, not of the town; in that they were more like the Comanches than Call would ever have admitted. They had been in Lonesome Dove nearly ten years, and yet what little property they had acquired was so worthless that neither of them would have felt bad about just saddling up and riding off from it.

Indeed, it seemed to August that was what both of them had always expected would happen. They were not of the settled fraternity, he and Call. From time to time they talked of going west of the Pecos, perhaps rangering out out there; but so far only the rare settler had cared to challenge the Apache, so there was no need for Rangers.

August had not expected that Call would be satisifed just to rustle Mexican cattle forever, but neither had he expected him to suddenly decide to strike out for Montana. Yet it was obvious the idea had taken hold of the man.

The long journey to the North occupies the bulk of the novel. Some might criticize McMurtry for co-opting many of the cliches of the western (both literary and cinematic), but this misses the point. For McMurtry takes these cliches, the stoic cowboy, the redeemed prostitute, the bandit Indian, and elevates them to another level; he perfects them. Particularly notable are the roles he carves for the novel's women, who normally serve as little more than decoration in the average western. Lorena suffers some of the worst the world has to offer, but survives with a strength most of the novel's male characters could not muster. The object of Gus' unrequited ambitions, Clara, proves to be more than a match for him when the novel finally reaches her Nebraska doorstep, and it is quickly apparent why Gus could not let go of his feelings even after more than a decade has past.

This is not difficult reading. The prose is simple, the plot straightforward if not always predictable. It is not a romantic novel; McMurtry does not gloss over or glorify the roughness of life in that time and place. All of the characters suffer, many of them die, and death often comes in the most sudden and arbitrary of fashions. By the novel's end, I was sufficiently invested in the characters that I was even tempted to read the three sequels/prequels that McMurtry wrote a decade later, just to postpone the farewell.

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

atwood_alias.jpgIn 1843, a 16-year old Canadian servant named Grace Marks was convicted for being an accessory to the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and was also suspected of killing the housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Another servant, James McDermott, was convicted of actually shooting Kinnear. Both were sentenced to death, though Marks' sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. The crime was widely publicized, with great controversy over whether Marks was a premeditated co-conspirator, as McDermott claimed, or merely an unlucky accessory after the fact. Marks served her sentence at the Kingston Penitentiary, with a brief interlude at an asylum for the mentally ill.

This historical snippet of true crime is the inspiration behind Margaret Atwood's 1996 novel, Alias Grace. The main narrative takes place in 1859, sixteen years after the murders. Grace remains imprisoned in Kingston, and is now employed during the day as a servant/seamstress by the wife of the prison's governor. Headed her way is a young American doctor, Simon Jordan, who intends to employ psychological observation to unlock the mystery of the murders, namely by filling in Grace's professed memory gaps. Most of the novel is told either via Grace's first-person recollections, third-person observations of Dr. Jordan, or through a series of letters between Dr. Jordan and various correspondents. Grace's perspective is at once the most direct, most powerful, and naturally the most suspect:

The reason they want to see me is that I am a celebrated murderess. Or that is what has been written down. When I first saw it I was surprised, because they say Celebrated Singer and Celebrated Poetess and Celebrated Spiritualist and Celebrated Actress, but what is there to celebrate about murder? All the same, Murderess is a strong word to have attached to you. It has a smell to it, that word - musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase. Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: Murderess, Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.

Murderer is merely brutal. It's like a hammer, or a lump of metal. I would rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices.

As he arrives and begins his afternoon interviews of Grace, Dr. Jordan is filled with ambition and scientific curiosity. He has plans to make his name and found his own asylum. Yet the further the story progresses, the more troubled he becomes. He becomes terribly entangled in the personal life of his landlady. He is also being subtly pursued by the Governor's daughter. And his lack of progress with Grace (a particular flop being his attempt to trigger Grace's memories about the bodies in the cellar by bringing root vegetables to the interviews) increases his self-doubt:

The trouble is that the more she remembers, the more she relates, the more difficulty he himself is having. He can't seem to keep track of the pieces. It's as if she's drawing his energy out of him - using his own mental forces to materialize the figures in her story, as the mediums are said to do during their trances. This is nonsense, of course. He must refuse to indulge such brain-sick fancies. But still, there was something about a man, in the night: has he missed it? One of those men: McDermott, Kinnear. In his notebook he has pencilled the word whisper, and underling it three times. Of what had he wished to remind himself?

This is the third of Atwood's novels that I have read. While Alias Grace does not quite rise to the heights of The Blind Assassin or The Handmaid's Tale, it is a cut above what most anyone else has been publishing over the past decade. Atwood has a particular skill for setting her novels outside the present day, be it in the past, like the mid-19th century in Alias Grace or the 1930-40s in The Blind Assassin, or the future, as in The Handmaid's Tale or Oryx and Crake.

I was particularly impressed at the way she portrayed 19th-century understandings of psychology. There are certainly indications that, if Grace's story can be credited, she may have suffered from a dissociative identity disorder. Dr. Jordan, for all his insights, remains limited by the nascent state of experimental psychology, and Atwood offers what appears to be a faithful rendering of the science a la 1859. Jordan's psychological explanations, limited though they are, are a tremendous advance beyond the Spiritualist explanations offered by Grace's other well-intentioned observers. And Atwood makes sure to leave enough ambiguity for even the modern reader, with all our wisdom about memory and psychology, to remain discomfitingly uncertain about Grace's true role in this violent chapter of Canadian history.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

eugenides_middlesex.jpgMy reading this year has seen a streak of Pulitzer Prize winners, having finished four in the past six weeks. Though I recognize that literary awards, like other awards, are often prone to biases toward the conventional, the politically correct, or the familiar, I have found the Pulitzers to be a convenient shortcut to notable literature over the last century. The list of winners includes such personal favorites as John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, and James Agee's A Death in the Family. In the last decade, the award committee has shown particularly gifted taste with selections including Jhumpa Lahiri's The Interpreter of Maladies, Richard Russo's Empire Falls, and Marilynne Robinson's Gilead.

Among this most recent run of worthy titles, the award in 2003 went to Jeffrey Eugenides for his second novel, Middlesex. His debut, The Virgin Suicides (reviewed here), made some waves for its somewhat taboo subject matter and unusual first-person plural narration, and was adapted by Sofia Coppola for her feature-film debut. Nearly a decade later, he returned with a book that pushes even further into societal taboos. From the opening line, Calliope Stephanides makes clear he is not a run-of-the-mill narrator:

I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

It is thus revealed up front that Calliope is an intersex individual, the single fact that drives the remaining 460-page narrative. Calliope, now Cal, is 41 years old and working in the U.S. Foreign Service in Berlin. That is the end of the story. The beginning of the story, as he tells it, takes us all the way back to 1922 and a widely-forgotten offshoot of World War I: the Greco-Turkish War. Calliope's grandparents, Desdemona and Lefty, are residents of a small village near Smyrna in western Anatolia, claimed by Greece as the spoils of war after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. And, by the way, they are brother and sister:

Joking but not joking, Desdemona and Lefty embraced. At first they just hugged in the standard way, but after ten seconds the hug began to change; certain positions of the hands and strokings of the fingers weren't the usual displays of sibling affection, and these things constitute a language of their own, announced a whole new message in the silent room.

When the tides turn and the Turks advance, Desdemona and Lefty flee to the shore with the rest of the new Greek refugees. As Smyrna burns and the flames advance, Lefty makes a desperate proposal: if we live, we marry. Desdemona, fully expecting to perish in short order, agrees. With little time remaining, Lefty makes use of his self-taught French to convince a wary French official to allow the two to be evacuated to Greece as French nationals. From there, the long boat ride to America gives them a much-needed opportunity to re-invent themselves and their back story:

On the eighth day at sea, Lefty Stephanides, grandly, on one knee, in full view of six hundred and sixty-three steerage passengers, proposed to Desdemona Aristos while she sat on a docking cleat. Young women held their breath. Married men nudged bachelors: "Pay attention and you'll learn something." My grandmother, displaying a theatrical flair akin to her hypochondria, registered complex emotions: surprise; initial delight; second thoughts; prudent near refusal; and then, to the applause already starting up, dizzy acceptance.

Once landed in America, the couple travels to Detroit where they convince their sponsor and cousin, Lina, to keep their secret. They share a residence with Lina and her husband, Jimmy Zizmo, and begin to build an American life. Lefty even does a brief stint on the assembly line with Ford:

Historical fact: people stopped being human in 1913. That was the year Henry Ford but his cars on rollers and made his workers adopt the speed of the assembly line. At first, workers rebelled. They quit in droves, unable to accustom their bodies to the new pace of the age. Since then, however, adaptation has been passed down: we've all inherited it to some degree, so that we plug right into joysticks and remotes, to repetitive motions of a hundred kinds.

But in 1922 it was still a new thing to be a machine.

Things do not go smoothly, however; Jimmy Zizmo becomes conspiratorial when the two women get pregnant simultaneously and appears to kill himself by plunging his car through thin ice on a frozen lake. Lefty and Desdemona grow apart, as she becomes fearful of reproducing after hearing the potential fate of inbred children. His basement speakeasy is hard-hit by the Great Depression, and Desdemona goes to work for the nascent Nation of Islam as a sericulturist:

Like a cleaning lady working in Grosse Point she came and went by the back door. Instead of a hat, she wore a head scarf to conceal her irresistible ears. She never spoke above a whisper. She never asked questions or complained. Having frown up in a country ruled by others, she found it all familiar. The fezzes, the prayer rugs, the crescent moons: it was a little like going home.

For the residents of Black Bottom it was like traveling to another planet. The temple's front doors, in a sweet reversal of most American entrances, let blacks in and kept whites out.

The lives of the next generation, married second-cousins Milton and Tessie, prove no less dramatic, with scenes featuring the 1967 Detroit race riot, in which Milton's business is burned (to his financial benefit via multiple fire insurance policies, the fate of Smyrna having been burned into his genes). And of course that brings us to their second child, Calliope. Largely presenting the outward appearance of a female child, with the family doctor failing to notice the unusual sex organs, she is raised without questions as a girl. It is only in puberty, when the other girls begin to blossom physically and menstruate, that anything seem amiss. Calliope falls in love with her best friend, referred to as "The Obscure Object" to protect her identity:

Her honey- or apricot-colored back tapered at the waist in a way mine didn't. There were white spots here and there, anti-freckles. Wherever I rubbed, her skin flushed. I was aware of the blood underneath, coursing and draining. Her underarms were rough like a cat's tongue. Below them the sides of her breasts swelled out, flattened against the mattress.

"Okay, I said, after a long while, "my turn."

But that night was like all the others. She was asleep.

It was never my turn with the Object.

Eugenides has somehow managed to craft a worthy addition to the canon of immigrant family sagas while also traversing the cultural taboos surrounding incest and intersexualism. While these topics certainly raise feelings of discomfort or awkwardness, they do not provoke the knee-jerk squeamishness that one might expect. Eugenides' is a sympathetic portrayal and brings the human elements to the forefront. The same holds for his forays into race relations, teen sexuality (also plumbed in The Virgin Suicides), and the immigrant experience. And though we know from the first page the exact point at which Calliope's sexual complexity will be discovered, four hundred pages later the moment is still suffused with tension and suspense. An extraordinary book.

Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler

tyler_breathing.jpgAnne Tyler's Breathing Lessons, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1989, centers on the nearly empty nest of Ira and Maggie Moran, their struggles through middle-age, and how each one copes with the disappointments life has shown them. The novel opens early on a Saturday morning in which Ira and Maggie will drive from their home in Baltimore to Deer Lick, Pennsylvania for the funeral of Max, the husband of Maggie's best friend, Serena. To add to the existential crisis, the very next day they are set to take their younger child, Daisy, off to college.

Things go awry right from the start. Maggie has to rush to the body shop to pick up their recently-refinished Dodge before they can head to Pennsylvania, and once in the car is immediately distracted by a radio talk show:

A soft voice on the radio said, "Well, I'm about to remarry? The first time was purely for love? It was genuine, true love and it didn't work at all. Next Saturday I'm marrying for security."

Maggie looked over at the dial and said, "Fiona?"

She meant to brake, but accelerated instead and shot out of the garage and directly into the street. A Pepsi truck approaching from the left smashed into her left front fender--the only spot that had never, up till now, had the slightest thing go wrong with it.

Fiona, as it turns out, is Maggie's former daughter-in-law. The dissolution of her marriage to Maggie's son, Jesse, and the subsequent removal of Maggie and Ira's granddaughter, Leroy, from their lives, is a gaping wound in Maggie's life that the intervening years have failed to heal. Maggie is convinced that Jesse and Fiona still love each other, and that she can bring about a reconciliation. Unfortunately, there is a striking imbalance in Maggie's ability to convince herself and her ability to convince others, and her perpetual meddling has netted few results. When Ira pulls off to a roadside cafe to check his map (he is convinced he can find a faster way to Deer Lick), Maggie spills her heart out to the waitress who serves her coffee:

"[Jesse] took up singing with a hard-rock band. He dropped out of high school and collected a whole following of girls and finally one particular girl and then he married her; nothing wrong with that. Brought her to live in our house because he wasn't making much money. I was thrilled. They had a darling little baby. Then his wife and baby moved out on account of this awful scene, just up and left. It was nothing but an argument really, but you know how those can escalate. I said, 'Ira, go after her; it's your fault she went.' (Ira was right in the thick of that scene and I blame him to this day.) But Ira said no, let her do what she liked. He said let them just go on and go, but I felt she had ripped that child from my flesh left a big torn spot behind."

Suffice it to say that Maggie's version of these events is rather selective, and her own role in the drama is largely ignored in her own account. As more of the family history is revealed in subsequent chapters, one gets the sense that Maggie's meddling, obvious from the start, often descended into outright manipulation. Without ill intentions, she has a way of choosing convenient facts, slicing up memories, and leaving out the rest in a way that blows up in her face time and time again:

So here she was alone. Well! She brushed a tear from her lashes. She was in trouble with everybody in this house, and she deserved to be; as usual she had acted pushy and meddlesome. And yet it hadn't seemed like meddling while she was doing it. She had simply felt as if the world were tiniest bit out of focus, the colors not quite within the lines--something like a poorly printed newspaper ad--and if she made the smallest adjustment then everything would settle perfectly into place.

While the events surrounding Fiona's departure (and the echoing consequences) are the underlying force driving the narrative, the details are held in suspense for much of the novel. In the meantime, Maggie and Ira arrive and attend the funeral, a bizarre re-make of Serena and Max's wedding, with funeral guests singing the same songs they sang at the wedding. Interrupting this narrative are frequent flashbacks, such as to the early years of Maggie and Ira's courtship.

Tyler temporarily shifts the narrative from Maggie to Ira in the second section of the book, giving us the opportunity to compare the couple's disparate perspectives in a way they themselves cannot. Ira's had his own share of burdens; just on the brink of setting out on his own path, his father announced his retirement at the family picture framing shop and handed the business to Ira. Ira also inherited the burden of supporting his sisters, one of whom is mentally handicapped and the other an agoraphobe.

One theme that emerges quite subtly is the strength of Ira and Maggie's marriage. They fight frequently and they have caused each other a great deal of grief. But their marriage has survived, and there are several scenes throughout the book which shows how well they fit together, even if they don't always realize it. It is a marriage whose strength manifests in the sort of ordinary, taken for granted, leaning on one another's shoulders kind of way.

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

smiley_thousand.jpgThere must be something about Shakespeare and farms. A decade and a half before David Wroblewski set Hamlet in a Wisconsin dog-breeding farm in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (reviewed here), Jane Smiley put the Iowa farmland spin on King Lear in A Thousand Acres, for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Larry Cook, an Iowa farmer, plays the part of aging patriarch. His eldest daughters, Ginny (who narrates) and Rose, live on the farm with their husbands Ty and Pete, respectively. Ginny, unable to carry any of her own pregnancies to term, dotes on Rose's two little girls. The youngest of Cook's daughters, Caroline, has eschewed the farm for law school and then life in the big city (well, Des Moines).

The book's title comes from the patriarch's empire, a substantial piece of farmland cobbled together over several generations by the work and luck of Cook and his ancestors. The final piece, combining his father's 640 acres with the 370 of the neighboring Ericsons, was the crowning achievement on Larry's lifetime of accomplishment. Still successful but grown weary of inheritance taxes, Larry springs a surprise on everyone. He wants to transfer his land to a corporation owned equally by each daughter:

In spite of that inner clang, I tried to sound agreeable. "It's a good idea."
Rose said, "It's a great idea."
Caroline said, "I don't know."

And as quick as that, their fates are sealed. Caroline is written out of the deal, setting her on a collision course with her sisters. The farming sons-in-law embark on an ambitious expansion and equipment upgrade. As one might foresee, it does not take long for Larry to feel restless in his newly subordinate position. As his behavior becomes erratic and Ginny and Rose try to exert some restraint, he spirals completely out of control:

He leaned his face toward mine. "You don't have to drive me around any more, or cook the goddamned breakfast or clean the goddamned house." His voice modulated into a scream. "Or tell me about what I can do and what I can't do. You barren whore!"

If Larry Cook's descent into madness and subsequent flight to his youngest daughter is reminiscent of Lear's fate, it is utterly devoid of the sympathy one feels for the fallen monarch. Here it is the father, not the daughters, whose monstrosity is revealed as the story progresses. The daughters are deeply flawed to be sure, but whatever missteps they take pale in comparison to, and may derive from, their father's crimes.

The novel deals frankly with a host of difficult or taboo subjects: miscarriages, cancer, suicide, insanity, incest, rape, adultery, and more. But except for Ginny's failed pregnancies, which are delicately shown to shape much of her worldview, these provocative and sensitive subjects are handled with neither care nor, apparently, much interest. The most shocking revelations are tossed out in a few matter-of-fact sentences with the same level tone used to describe mundane details about a tractor or dress fabric. Perhaps this is intentional, a symptom of Ginny's restricted emotional range. But the effect of touching the untouchable is severely undermined where the contact is treated so casually.

All in all an interesting effort that mustered ambitions it could not meet. Like Toni Morrison's Beloved and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, this is a book I read in high school and disliked, unable to summon much perspective beyond ignorant teenage malehood. Unlike those titles, which I've since discovered to be transcendentally brilliant, Smiley's effort still leaves me ambivalent. This time I feel a bit more confident that the flaws rest in the work more than the reader.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

mccullers_heart.jpgIn 1940, amidst the remnants of the Great Depression and the early years of World War II, twenty-three year old Carson McCullers published her debut novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The novel, which she had been working on while studying creative writing as a night student at Columbia and NYU, was a tremendous success upon publication, both critically and commercially.

More than fifty years later, this book was still so highly regarded as to rank 17th on Modern Library's controversial List of Best 20th-Century Novels. This achievement is particularly notable in light of the criticism the list received for having just 8 female authors (strangely, McCullers' novel was left off the list published by Radcliffe students in response). It was also listed in Time Magazine's 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.

Set in a small city in the Deep South, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter tells the story of five individuals, each burdened with a sense of isolation and yearning to be able to express themselves and be understood. There is Biff Brannon, the owner of a local cafe; Jake Blount, an alcoholic Communist who has wondered into town; Dr. Benedict Copeland, an African-American doctor yearning to better his people's fate; Mick Kelly, a teenage girl stumbling through puberty; and John Singer, a deaf-mute whose silence allows the other four (and the rest of the town) to project their needs and hopes onto him:

One by one they would come to Singer's room to spend the evening with him. The mute was always thoughtful and composed. His many-tinted gentle eyes were grave as a sorcerer's. Mick Kelly and Jake Blount and Doctor Copeland would come and talk in the silent room--for they felt that the mute would always understand whatever they wanted to say to him. And maybe even more than that.

The trouble is that Singer is no better off. Like them he is lost and lonely. Like them he is unable to express himself, unable to be understood. Like them he has projected his need for human connection to a deaf-mute, in this case his friend Antonapolous. The opening chapter depicts the companionship of these two men, which lasted ten years before Antonapolous starts to misbehave and his cousin commits him to an asylum. Singer is never the same, and his despair is no different from the four who sought solace in him:

He saw Antonapoulos sitting in a large chair before him. He sat tranquil and unmoving. His mad face was inscrutable. His mouth was wise and smiling. And his eyes were profound. He watched the things that were said to him. And in his wisdom he understood.

This was the Antonapoulos who now was always in his thoughts. This was the friend to whom he wanted to tell things that had come about. For something had happened in this year. He had been left in an alien land. Alone. He had opened his eyes and around him there was much he could not understand. He was bewildered.

One of McCullers' noted achievements in this book is her vivid, sympathetic portrayal of the African-American community and their continuing struggle just to survive, let alone overcome, the weight of history's oppression. Dr. Copeland is a successful professional, but he has failed in his personal life. His anger at his people's treatment leaves no tolerance for African-Americans who fail to share his ambitions to rise up and build a new world. He drove away his wife and children, and despite the intervening years, his frustrated rage has no end:

He felt the fire in him and he could not be still. He wanted to sit up and speak in a loud voice--yet when he tried to raise himself he could not find the strength. The words in his heart grew big and they would not be silent. But the old man had ceased to listen and there was no one to hear him.

The lonely struggle to connect portrayed in this book is universal, as McCullers demonstrates with her diverse cast. But the universality of this striving is apparent only to the reader, as the characters prove unable to recognize that each one is sharing the same struggle. When they coincidentally find themselves all arriving at Singer's room at the same time, awkward silence, rather than awed recognition, fills the air:

Always each of them had so much to say. Yet now that they were together they were silent. When they came in he had expected an outburst of some kind. In a vague way he had expected this to be the end of something. But in the room there was only a feeling of strain. His hand worked nervously as though they were pulling things unseen from the air and binding them together.

As a result, this is rather relentlessly bleak book, befitting the dark times in which it was published. Near the end of the last chapter, one of the character's experiences an epiphany that serves as the pearl of hope for the entire book: "a glimpse of human struggle and of valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and of those who--one word--love." But it is a mere glimpse, which quickly fades.

The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan

bunyan_pilgrims.jpgIt is daunting to try to say something new about a book that is oft touted as the world's bestselling title, after the Bible. In the 300-plus years since John Bunyan published The Pilgrim's Progress, it has never been out of print. It has had a tremendous influence as both a work of religion, offering an accessible presentation of Protestant theology, and as a work of literature. Think of William Thackeray's Vanity Fair (or the magazine), named after a location in the book. Or Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, in which the girls recreate the pilgrim's quest in their own home.

For those not familiar with the book, it is a Christian allegory depicting the path of salvation through two pilgrimages. The first part, published in 1678, follows Christian, a man who has left his hometown, the City of Destruction (e.g. Earth), on a journey to the Celestial City (e.g. Heaven). Through reading the Bible, he has become burdened by the knowledge of his sinfulness. He is guided toward the Wicket-Gate (e.g. Christ) by the helpful Evangelist:

Then said Evangelist, pointing with his finger over a very wide field, "Do you see yonder wicket-gate? The man said, "No." Then said the other, "Do you see younder shining light?" He said, "I think I do." Then said Evangelist, "Keep that light in your eye, and go directly thereto; so shalt thou see the gate, at which when thou knockest, it shall be told thee what thou shalt do."

So I saw in my dream that the man began to run. Now he had not run far from his own door, but his wife and children perceiving it, began to cry after him to return. But the man put his fingers in his ear and ran on crying, "Life, life, eternal life." So he looked not behind him, but fled towards the middle of the plain.

And so on, as Christian meets a variety of friends and foes and traverses a series of obstacles and sanctuaries. I must admit that at first, and at various times throughout the book, the allegory struck me as heavy-handed and naive. There is just something a bit childish about Christian being rescued from the Slough of Despond by a man named Help. But if the allegory is quaint or awkward at times, there are also passages of tremendous beauty and profundity. After Christian makes his way out of the Valley of the Shadow of Death and is joined by the aptly named Faithful, they encounter Talkative. As his name suggests, Talkative is more attached to words of faith than faith itself, and Christian warns Faithful against this doomed path:

[Saying and doing] are two things indeed and are as diverse as are the soul and the body. For as the body without the soul is but a dead carcass, so saying, if it be alone, is but a dead carcass also. The soul of religion is the practice part...This Talkative is not aware of; he thinks that hearing and saying will make a good Christian, and thus he deceiveth his own soul. Hearing is but as the sowing of the seed; talking is not sufficient to prove that fruit is indeed in the heart and life, and let us assure ourselves that at the day of doom, men shall be judged according to their fruits. It will not be said then, 'Did you believe?' but, 'Were you doers or talkers only?' And accordingly shall they be judged. The end of the world is compared to our harvest, and you know men at harvest regard nothing but fruit...

Dark though Christian's journey is, it ends well. But what of the wife and children left crying after him? Bunyan did not neglect them, and in the second part of the book, published in 1684, we follow them on a second pilgrimage. Inspired by her husband's efforts and ashamed of her treatment of him, Christiana sets out with her sons (and her neighbor, Mercy) along the same path her husband took. Though reflecting the antiquated 17th (and 18th and 19th and most of the 20th) century notion that women are the frailer sex and thus need a male escort (Great-Heart), this second part also highlights the spiritual needs and capabilities of women (as well as children, and the mentally and physically handicapped):

[W]hen the Saviour was come, women rejoiced in him before either man or angel., I read not that ever any man did give unto Christ so much as one groat, but the women followed him and ministered to him of their substance. 'Twas a woman that washed his feet with tears, and a woman that anointed his body to the burial. They were women that wept when he was going to the cross, and women that followed him from the cross, and that sat by his sepulchre when he was buried. They were women that was first with him at his resurrection morn, and women that brought tidings first to his disciples that he was risen from the dead. Women therefore are highly favoured and show by these things that they are sharers with us in the grace of life.

The second pilgrimage is warmer and more uplifting, reflecting the effect that widespread knowledge of Christian's journey has had on the countryside. In Vanity, the site of Faithful's dramatic execution as a martyr in the first part, a new era has dawned:

You know how Christian and Faithful were used at our town; but of late, I say, they have been far more moderate. I think the blood of Faithful lieth with load upon them till now; for since they burned him, they have been ashamed to burn any more. In those days, we were afraid to walk the streets, but now we can show our heads. Then the name of a professor was odious; now, specially in some parts of our town (for you know our town is large), religion is counted honourable.

The Pilgrim's Progress is a flawed, imperfect work. The allegory can be clunky and sometimes masks the underlying message. Bunyan's preaching is often strident, with Judaism and Catholicism coming under heavy attack, but it is clearly reflects a sincere espousal of his belief that salvation through faith alone is the one true path. The book should be required reading for its historical importance and literary influence, but as its enduring popularity suggests, it retains much to be appreciated in our own age.

The People's Act of Love by James Meek

meek_peoples.jpgWith The People's Act of Love, James Meek has written a rather unlikely novel. It is not merely that this Siberian epic comes from the pen of a British author. Meek, after all, worked as a journalist in Russia for nearly a decade. Nor is it the obscure historical nature of the book, set during the Russian Civil War and drawing its cast from the remnants of the Czar's army, the Bolshevik party, the infamous Czech Legion, and a fanatical Russian religious sect. What is so improbable is that this British author has taken these elements, conjured from them a tale of mystery featuring acts of castration and cannibalism, and nearly succeeded in the effort.

The novel opens with the origins of Kyrill Ivanovich Samarin, a young Russian orphan raised by his uncle at the end of the 19th century. At age 12, the boy asks to be called simply "Samarin," after his uncle refuses his request to change his patronymic. Like his uncle, Samarin steers clear of the turbulent politics of the time, until becoming entangled by Katya, a fellow university student. It is now 1910, the empire is teetering, and Samarin learns that much to his chagrin, Katya is involved with a violent revolutionary movement. Despite his efforts to dissuade her, she is arrested and charged with "conspiring to commit an act of terrorism."

This cryptic beginning is rendered even more abstruse by the chapters that follow. The story suddenly shifts nine years forward, and we find a man meandering along a river toward a railway in rural Siberia. This silent scene is interrupted by a train whistle. As he rounds the river bend and sees the rail bridge, he pulls a package from his coat and drops it into the river. The train appears on the bridge, the man observes that one of its wagons is "rocking from side to side," and a phantasmagorical scene of destruction follows:

The door of the wagon shot open and a man in army breeches and a white shirt was in the doorway, with his back to the outside, holding on with one hand and trying to catch the bridle of a horse with the other. The horse was rearing up and flailing at the man with its forelegs. There were more horses behind, their heads lunging madly towards the light. The man fell from the wagon as it rocked towards the river and toppled over the rail. He fell fifty metres into rocky shallows. His limbs worked as if he was trying at the same time to fly, to land feet first, and to brace himself for the moment of impact. His eyes were open and so was his mouth but he did not scream. His cheeks were stretched back and he hit the water belly down. The water lifted white skirts high around him and when they came down again the man was not moving, beached on gravel, lapped by quiet eddies at the river's edge.

The horses, five of them, tumbled out of the wagon after the man. They were caught between the moving train and the low rusted guardrail of the bridge. One fell off the edge of the bridge immediately, landing on the edge of the river close to the fallen man with a crack on the water like a mine going off. The others fought for space on the bridge parapet. One stocky chestnut got dragged forward by a wagon, her harness caught by a projecting hook, and was hauled trotting and skipping and struggling against the mouth of the tunnel at the far end of the bridge, where her neck was broken.

Further grisliness follows, and if this violence is too shocking then this is certainly not the book for you. There are scenes of warfare, murder, and mutilation throughout the book, though it is important to note that Meek does not abuse his narrative license. The violence serves a purpose, and while graphic is not gratuitous, even if it seems so at the time. This is a novel of horrors but it is not a horror novel. Indeed the violence most upsetting is not necessarily the most extreme, but the most mysterious. Consider the riverside observer's reaction to the horrifying scene he has just witnessed:

He went over to the soldier and picked up his right hand. He looked back upriver the way he had come, placed the soldier's wrist on a stone washed by a thin stream of water and cut off his hand, sawing through the ligaments and parting the joints be pressure rather than the sharpness of the blade. Blood darkened the stone, clouded out into the waters and swirled away into the current.

The man let the soldier's arm fall into the river, took the severed hand and ran into the woods. He walked for a mile away from the river and dug a hole with his hands through the mud and leafmould and earth. He buried the hand and covered it up. He returned to the river, cleaned his hands and began to climb the rocks up to the railway tunnel.

Hopefully everyone shares my initial response to this scene: what the hell is going on? Indeed the mysteries of this chapter resurface throughout the text, some remaining unsolved until the closing chapters, some remaining unresolved completely. We learn shortly that this man is Samarin, quite distant in time, space and mind from the student portrayed in the opening chapter, but the same man nevertheless. He soon encounters another of the story's main characters (and enigmas), Balashov, a pious but evasive man who claims to be the local town's barber and is horrified by the animals' deaths. While Balashov is distracted, Samarin rummages through the bizarre contents of Balashov's bag, stealing a bottle of liquor and a woman's photograph, leaving behind the surgical tools and bloody cloth. They then walk together toward the local town, Yazyk, where the remainder of the book is set.

What follows is an often unexpected, often implausible story of the intersection in this small town between a band of Czech legionnaires, led by the megalomaniacal Matsulov and his distrusted lieutenant Mutz, the disturbing religious sect led by Balashov, and the young widow Anna Petrovna, whose photo Samarin removed from Balashov's bag. Through the memories (real or imagined) of these characters, Meek takes us as far as a battlefield of World War I and an arctic Russian prison camp. At the center of the ongoing enigma is the interloping Samarin; he is detained by the Czechs after a shaman they'd imprisoned dies the same night Samarin arrived in town:

As Samarin told his story, making his careful rounds of the listeners, Anna wondered at how alive and guileless his pleading eyes seemed against the ugliness of the events he described. She became aware that she had already decided he was innocent, and wouldn't change her mind; innocent, that is, of what Mutz was trying to chip out of him. She was surprised that she had reached a judgment so quickly, and realised there was nothing so convincing as a man who could feel all the richness of the world - its worst, so presumably, if it could happen, its best as well - without losing his soul to any one part of it, and becoming attached to that part.

While Meek has clearly done tremendous research into historical elements, the presentation of this knowledge is less skilled. The appearance of the Bolsheviks is clumsily handled, as they act more like comic automatons than misguided revolutionaries. And those not versed in Russian history may feel burdened by an additional layer of mystery, as some of the dialogue and plotting assumes a familiarity with the Russian Revolution and its aftermath.

Meek successfully evokes an impenetrable sense of foreboding that drives the narrative through to its conclusion, overcoming the frustration of the book's perplexing early chapters. Whether he puts this ominous mood to satisfying effect is a different question. But though the story is sometimes inscrutable, it is always interesting. Meek has collected the elements of a great novel; he just fell a bit short of putting them all together.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

bronte_jane.jpgThe year 1847 saw the publication of a remarkable trio of novels by an unlikely trio of young writers, the sisters Brontë. Anne's Agnes Grey, Emily's Wuthering Heights (reviewed here), and Charlotte's Jane Eyre all went into print that year. Blessed as the sisters were in literary talent, they were cursed in health; Anne and Emily would be dead within two years, Charlotte within a decade. With the longest life (38 years!), Charlotte also had the most prolific literary career, publishing three novels before her death in 1855 and one posthumously. Jane Eyre remains the best known and most well-regarded, and it rests alongside Wuthering Heights as a staple of secondary school syllabi.

The outline of the novel's plot is well known. Jane is an orphan girl, raised alongside three spoiled cousins in the home of Mrs. Reed, her unloving aunt by marriage. Despite possessing significant material wealth, Mrs. Reed does the bare minimum to feed and clothe her niece, and only offers this much because her husband made Jane's maintenance the subject of a deathbed request. The first section of the book covers her suffering in this household and her efforts to retain an independent spirit in the face of physical and emotional abuse:

What a consternation of soul was mine that dreary afternoon! How all my brain was in tumult, and all my heart in insurrection! Yet in what darkness, what dense ignorance, was the mental battle fought! I could not answer the ceaseless inward question-why I thus suffered; now, at the distance of--I will not say how many years, I see it clearly.

Jane's virtual imprisonment in the Reed household ends with her removal at age 10 to the Lowood Institution, a charity school run by Mr. Brocklehurst, a clergyman who hypocritically emphasizes privation as the path to salvation despite the luxuries of his own life. Despite the hardships, however, Jane finds the first friendly faces of her life in the superintendent, Miss Temple, and her fellow student, Helen Burns. Jane spends an eight year span at Lowood, including two as a teacher, and emerges a unique creature: possessed of neither wealth nor connections, yet independent and well-educated nevertheless. She takes a position as governess to a young girl housed at Thornfield Hall, and there meets the man who will change the course of her life:

Mr. Rochester, as he sat in his damask-covered chair, looked different to what I had seen him look before; not quite so stern--much less gloomy. There was a smile on his lips, and his eyes sparkled, whether with wine or not, I am not sure; but I think it very probable. He was, in short, in his after-dinner mood; more expanded and genial, and also more self-indulgent than the frigid and rigid temper of the morning: still he looked preciously grim, cushioning his massive head against the swelling back of his chair, and receiving the light of the fire on his granite-hewn features, and in his great, dark eyes; for he had great, dark eyes, and very fine eyes, too--not without a certain change in their depths sometimes, which, if it was not softness, remind you, at least, of that feeling.

Jane's experience at Thornfield is a study in contrasts, between the simple, quiet task of tutoring young Adele and the constant drama of being courted by Mr. Rochester. The latter is considered a prime example of the Byronic hero: moody, brooding, enigmatic. Just the sort of guy every teenage girl thinks they want to rescue and spend their life with. This is in decided contrast to Jane's subsequent suitor, St. John Rivers (her newly discovered first cousin), who seeks Jane's companionship in cold terms of religious necessity. Unlike Rivers or Heathcliff from Emily's Wuthering Heights, another oft-cited example of the Byronic archetype, Rochester exhibits genuine, credible affection for his beloved. Though both are depicted as being physically plain, even unattractive, their banter is filled with wit and affection, he takes incredible (if questionable) measures to win her companionship, and while devastated by her departure he does not succumb to madness or vengeance despite the hardships that follow.

While containing elements common to Victorian literature, the novel breaks from convention on key points. Of obvious significance is the protagonist's forceful feminism. Jane is well-educated and well-spoken, intellectually curious. She seeks self-sufficiency. She thinks marriage should be a partnership of equals. She is not willing to wholly subordinate her desires for companionship, whether it be Rochester's pleading or Rivers' moralizing. And she does not think custom should stand in her way:

Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.

Religion is another sensitive subject that Bronte does not hesitate to treat frankly. Jane navigates a middle path in the application of faith to her personal life. Suffering under austere conditions in her childhood school, caused by Brocklehurst's theories of Christian sacrifice, Jane neither accepts this harsh asceticism nor uses Brocklehurst's hypocrisy as a basis for wholly rejecting religious doctrine. Befriended by the angelic Helen Burns, Jane admires Helen's ability to forgive without emulating her passive acquiescence. Jane refuses to live as a mistress to Rochester both on practical and moral grounds, but will also not subordinate herself to St. John Rivers' loveless demand that she marry him and join his mission to India, despite his puritanical zeal that reeks of self-righteousness:

"I shall be absent a fortnight--take that space of time to consider my offer: and do not forget that if you reject it, it is not me you deny, but God. Through my means, He opens to you a noble career; as my wife only can you enter upon it. Refuse to be my wife, and you limit yourself for ever to a track of selfish ease and barren obscurity. Tremble lest in that case you should be numbered with those who have denied the faith, and are worse than infidels!"

Once again Jane refuses to submit. Jane accepts the power of divinity and even ends her tale with prayer, but does not concede she must reject all that makes her happy in this world in order to live a moral life.

As mentioned above, the novel does adhere to some conventions of Victorian and Gothic literature, some of which have aged poorly. Of particular note are the supernatural conversation that Rochester and Jane share despite great geographical distance ("Jane! Jane! Jane!") and the extraordinary coincidence that finds homeless, wandering Jane wash up on the doorstep of the cousins she never knew she had. Yet unlike Wuthering Heights, which drowns in its morbid Gothicism, Jane Eyre is more than simply a noted example of a literary period. It is the story of an original female protagonist who defies convention without denying society, refuses patriarchal submission without surrendering to spinsterhood, and resists religious zealotry without succumbing to atheism or immorality. Not bad for a book they try and make you read in high school.

Ironweed by William Kennedy

kennedy_ironweed.jpgWilliam Kennedy's Ironweed has been on my "to read" list for years. I think I even owned a copy in high school or college but never got around to it. The winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as an entry on the Modern Library's Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, Ironweed had a surprisingly difficult time getting published, rejected by eleven major publishing houses. In addition to winning several literary awards, it was made into a film starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, and it was a movie tie-in paperback I found on the metal bookshelf that passes for a library in our little corner of Camp Arifjan.

Ironweed is the final book in Kennedy's "Albany Trio," tracing the stories of an interconnected set of Albany locals introduced in 1975's Legs and 1978's Billy Phelan's Greatest Game. It follows a few days in the sad life of Francis Phelan, a former baseball player and self-described bum who has returned to Albany in 1938, twenty-two years after abandoning his wife and children there. Just released from jail for registering to vote more than fifty times, Francis is given a day's work at the local cemetery to begin repaying the debt to his attorney. It is here, in the book's opening chapter, that we witness Francis' emotional first encounter with the grave of his son Gerald, who died just thirteen days old when he slipped and fell out of a diaper held in the hands of his father:

Francis found the grave without a search. He stood over it and reconstructed the moment when the child was slipping through his fingers into death. He prayed for a repeal of time so that he might hang himself in the coal bin before picking up the child to change his diaper. Denied that, he prayed for his son's eternal peace in the grave. It was true the boy had not suffered at all in his short life, and he had died too quickly of a cracked neckbone to have felt pain: a sudden twist and it was over. Gerald Michael Phelan, his gravestone said, born April 13, 1916, died April 26, 1916. Born on the 13th, lived 13 days. An unlucky child who was much loved.

This tragedy set the tone for Francis' violent and unfortunate life. This scene in the cemetery also sets the tone for this rather dark novel, which contains a great deal of death and violence. It features a series of passages seemingly offered from the perspective of those buried in the cemetery, including Francis' parents and infant son. Francis himself would be confronted throughout the book by the ghosts of his past, such as Harold Allen, whom Francis killed during a strike protest:

Why did you kill me? was the question Harold Allen's eyes put to Francis.

"Didn't mean to kill you," Francis said.

Was that why you threw that stone the size of a potato and broke open my skull? My brains flowed out and I died.

"You deserved what you got. Scabs get what ask for. I was right in what I did."

Then you feel no remorse at all.

"You bastards takin' our jobs, what kind of man is that, keep a man from feedin' his family?"

Odd logic coming from a man who abandoned his own family not only that summer but every spring and summer thereafter, when baseball season started. And didn't you finally abandon them permanently in 1916? The way I understand it, you haven't even been home for a visit in twenty-two years.

A wanderer in the years since, Francis has been accompanied for most of the past decade by Helen Archer, a fellow unfortunate whose prospects as a classical pianist were ended during her first year at Vassar College by her father's death and her mother's subsequent misappropriation of Helen's inheritance. Now sick from years of drinking and a stomach tumor, Helen is resolved to free herself and Francis from their co-dependency by whatever means possible. Francis' struggle, meanwhile, beyond the basic necessities of food and shelter, is to make peace with the resurfaced histories that come from walking the streets of his past, the fresh reminders of his culpability for his own choices:

Francis was now certain only that he could never arrive at any conclusions about himself that had their origin in reason. But neither did he believe himself incapable of thought. He believed he was a creature of unknown and unknowable quantities, a man in whom there would never be an equanimity of both impulsive and premeditated action. Yet after every admission that he was a lost and distorted soul, Francis asserted his own private wisdom and purpose: he had fled the folks because he was too profane a being to live among them; he had humbled himself willfully through the years to counter a fearful pride in his own ability to manufacture the glory from which grace would flow. What he was was, yes, a warrior, protecting a belief that no men could ever articulate, especially himself; but somehow it involved protecting saints from sinners, protecting the living from the dead. And a warrior, he was certain, was not a victim. Never a victim.

This is a grim novel and difficult at times. There is no shading the depredations of street living; Kennedy humanizes his characters without glamorizing them. He offers no Kerouac-esque sense of romance; these are not lives that one would trade for willingly. Yet if these people have disturbed memories, deranged minds, guilt-ridden souls, they are people first and foremost and Kennedy treats them as such. They have loyalties, prejudices, grudges, and pride; they feel hate, despair, tenderness and love.

The book's first epigraph comes from an Audubon guide, informing us that the Ironweed flower gets its name from "the toughness of the stem." The second comes from Dante's Purgatorio, with the pilgrim relying on "the little bark of my wit" to leave behind "a sea so cruel." Both are apt descriptions of the unfortunate but enduring life of Francis Phelan.

Last Orders by Graham Swift

swift_last.jpgI made no conscious plan to read consecutively a pair of books set amongst mourners in the aftermath of a man's death; they were just the next two books in the pile next to my desk. Yet Alice McDermott's Charming Billy (reviewed here) and Graham Swift's Last Orders both fit that niche. McDermott begins her novel with the whispered conversations at the post-funeral party; Last Orders opens with four men embarking on a road trip to carry out Jack Dodds' last request, that his ashes be scattered off a pier into the ocean:

He said he thought he should old Jack proud, he thought he should give him a real treat. Since it had been sitting there in the showroom for nearly a month anyway, with a 'client' who couldn't make up his mind, and a bit more on the clock wouldn't signify and it don't do to let a car sit. He thought he should give Jack the best.

But it's not so bad for us too, for Vic and Lenny and me, sitting up, alive and breathing. The world looks pretty good when you're perched on cream leather and looking out at it through tinted electric windows, even the Old Kent Road looks good.

Swift avoids one of McDermott's missteps by giving individual voices to the multitude of characters, rather than filtering the story through a single narrator. The structure of Last Orders bears an obvious resemblance to Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, what with the quickly shifting interior monologues amidst a journey to carry a deceased loved one to an inconvenient chosen resting place. Like Faulkner, Swift emphasizes the colloquialisms in his characters' speech, to which it takes a few pages to adjust. Swift simplifies the Faulknerian structure by giving one character a disproportionate share of the pages. Ray Johnson, nicknamed Lucky, can trace his friendship with Jack all the way back to the North African desert during World War II. It is through his eyes that we make most of the progress toward the beach:

We head on past the gas works, Ilderton Road, under the railway bridge. Prince of Windsor. The sun comes out from behind the tower blocks, bright in our faces, and Vince pull out a pair of chunk sun-glasses from under the dashboard. Lenny starts singing, slyly, through his teeth, "Blue bayooo..." And we all feel it, what with the sunshine and the beer inside us and the journey ahead: like it's something Jack has done for us, so as to make us feel special, so as to give us a treat. Like we're off on a jaunt, a spree, and the world looks good, it looks like it's there just for us.

The interior monologues are put to good use; as one reviewer said, "they contain what cannot or will not be said aloud... characters speak in confidence." The dramatic irony builds as we pool our knowledge of the conversations, transactions, emotions that the characters are shielding from one another. The four men in the car argue about why Jack's widow, Amy, has chosen to visit her institutionalized daughter instead of accompanying them; we hear not only each man's interior, unguarded answer to the question, but Amy's as well:

But I still think this is where I should be. My own journey to make. Their journey and mine. The living come first, even the living who were as good as dead to him, so it'd be all one now, all the same, in his book. And I've already said goodbye to him for the last time, if not the first. Goodbye Jack, Jack old love. They can say that June won't ever be the wiser if I missed this day with her for the sake of one last day with him, there have been missed days before, about a dozen of them once, long ago, and you don't ever get a second chance to scatter your husband's ashes. But how do they know she wouldn't know? And someone has to tell her.

If she won't be the wiser, he won't either.

The birth of their severely mentally handicapped daughter drove a permanent wedge between Jack and Amy. He refused to ever visit her, while Amy visited twice a week for decades. Still unfulfilled in the desire to be parents, they adopted Vince after he was orphaned by a German bomb during World War II. There was considerable tension between Jack and Vince, who rejected them as his parents and refused to follow Jack in the family business, as Jack had followed his father. Swift devotes a considerable portion of the book to their tumultuous history. This contrasts strongly with Vic, whose sons are already well-established in the family's mortuary business. The foursome is rounded out by Lenny, a man filled with great pain and anger; he is a "stirrer," in Ray's words, offering constant provocation to the other characters, and Vince in particular (with good reason):

Lenny says, "So how's your Kath?"

Vince don't answer for a long time. It's as though he hasn't heard or he's concentrating on the road. I see him looking in the mirror.

"Still working for you at the garage?" Lenny says.

Lenny knows she isn't, and Lenny knows Vince doesn't like "garage." It's "showroom" these days. It was Lenny who said one night in the Coach, "Showroom he calls it, well we all know what's on show."

One of the problems I noted with Charming Billy was how distant one feels from the novel's namesake; Billy is the dead man, but in the end we know little about him, despite the story's focus on his life's events. Last Orders shares that flaw; Jack Dodds is nearly as much a mystery by novel's end as at the beginning; Swift does not follow Faulkner by granting the ashes their own voice. It is less an issue here, however, as so much of the story is actually ancillary to Jack's own life; we are hearing the stories of Ray and Vic and Lenny and Amy, and Jack just happens to be the man who connected them in life, and in death.

Swift won the 1996 Booker Prize for Last Orders, and its not a bad effort. However, it seems this may have been the consolatory result of regrets for not giving Swift the award for his widely-acknowledged masterpiece, Waterland. This is not a unique occurrence; remember that Paul Newman won Best Actor not for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or The Hustler or Hud or Cool Hand Luke, but for, wait for it... The Color of Money, a minor speck on the canvas of his career. Even the Booker committee did it again, giving Ian McEwan the prize in 2001 for his desultory Amsterdam after snubbing his superior earlier works. With that precedent, Waterland should be an extraordinary read.

Charming Billy by Alice McDermott

mcdermott_charming.jpgWinner of 1998's National Book Award, Alice McDemott's Charming Billy starts at the end of its story: the friends and family of Billy Lynch gather for a party in a Bronx bar after departing the cemetery where he was just buried. Before food is even served, the debates begin about the merits and missteps of Billy's life, a life damaged and ended by alcoholism:

Not missing the irony of the drinks in their hands and the drink that had killed him, but redeeming, perhaps, the pleasure of a drink or two, on a sad, wet, afternoon, in the company of old friends, from the miserable thing that a drink had become in his life. Redeeming the affection they had felt for him, once torn apart by his willfulness, his indifference, making something worthwhile of it, something valuable that had been well spent, after all.

Redemption will be a theme throughout the novel, and its discursive weaving through the extended Lynch family history; it is an open question how much of the redemption is real, and how much hollow. Our narrator is the daughter of Dennis Lynch, Billy's cousin and best friend. Though a seemingly strange choice (and a not entirely successful one, as I'll discuss below), it reflects the reality that Billy had no children of his own, and that the story is as much about Dennis as Billy. In addition to being best friends, their lives were particularly intertwined at one pivotal moment. In 1945, just back from the war, they spend the summer fixing up a small Hampton cottage belonging to Dennis' new stepfather. While there, they meet and court a pair of Irish girls; lovely Eva casts a strong spell on Billy:

When did he fall in love with her? Probably it was the day before, before she had even come clearly into his view. But that afternoon he fell in love with the rest of his life, and that was better still. The days ahead when he would come to the beach here and the child he held, the children who ran to them, wet and trembling, would be theirs and when the flesh of her arms and her throat and her sweet breasts would be as familiar to him as his own.

At the end of the summer, Eva must return to Ireland. Billy promises to pay to bring her back and marry her, and takes a second job to save the money. Months later, after the cash is sent and no word is heard back, it falls to Dennis to deliver the tragic news to Billy: young Eva has died of pneumonia. The loss forever traumatizes Billy, despite his many friends and subsequent marriage to Maeve. It is this event that occupies much of the conversation at the funeral party, where his family debates the causes of his alcoholism and the depth (or lack thereof) of his love for Maeve. There's just one catch, which Dennis reveals to his daughter at the close of the first chapter:

In our car, crossing the bridge, he would listen with a smile when I told him about the debate that had gone on at our end of the table.

"Well, here's the saddest part," he would say, finally, wearily, as if he were speaking of an old annoyance that time had nearly trivialized, but not quite: "Here's the most pathetic part of all. Eva never died. It was a lie. Just between the two of us, Eva lived.''

Indeed, Eva had jilted Billy to marry her Irish boyfriend, and used the money he sent as the down payment on a gas station. Afraid of how the news will effect Billy, and unable to give him the news, Dennis delivers a lie that changes both their lives. As Billy descends further into alcoholism, it will be Dennis who feels obliged to help Maeve manage him, taking his midnight phone call rants, dragging him up from the gutter or stairwell into his bed.

As the book progresses, the story also travels backward into the Lynch family history: the narrator's grandfather, a boisterous street conductor much loved by his passengers; her grandmother and the German second husband whose beach cottage would prove such a meaningful locale; the courtship between Maeve and Billy, presided over by Maeve's alcoholic father; even the 1975 trip to Ireland in which Billy learns he has spent thirty years in false mourning.

McDermott does not rely on suspense to keep the novel moving forward; she has revealed all the drama up front. Instead she has simply offered up the quirks (and skeletons) that embroider an Irish extended family in 20th-century New York, and the way a single lie, a single mistaken belief, can seem to have such dramatic effects, and yet perhaps none at all:

As if... what was actual, as opposed to what was imagined, as opposed to what was believed, made, when you got right down to it, any difference at all.

The novel is marred by a few notable missteps: first, the narrator is simply ill-suited for her task. She is both chronologically and physically distant from the family history she presents (she is the only of Dennis' children to have moved away), and it is unexplained how she is able to give so much detail about events about which she can have no better than third or fourth-hand information. The best I can muster is that she is recounting oft-retold family myths, but this raises serious questions about the veracity of her account. There is also a silly conceit that she is directing the story to her own husband (periodically lapsing into the second-person), who she met at the same Hampton beach where Billy and Eva's stillborn relationship began. This is a too cute by half attempt to redeem the emotional hole left at the core of the story by that failed romance.

Most unsatisfying is that even by the end, we know so very little about Billy himself. This may be intentional. The man is, after all, dead. But so are many of the book's characters, yet we get a better sense of Dennis' three parents (father, mother, stepfather) than we ever get of him. He was no doubt a mystery in many ways to his friends and families, but I felt cheated at being offered so much detail about ancillary figures in the Lynch family history, and so little about the novel's namesake.

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

ishiguro_when.jpgKazuo Ishiguro is famous for offering masterful prose via supremely unreliable narrators. Each of his three novels I have read, The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go, and now When We Were Orphans, offers the perspective of a person highly delusional about the world around them, or their place in it. In The Remains of the Day, it was a butler who could not acknowledge his emotional needs or his employer's misdeeds. In Never Let Me Go, the narrator barely grasped the nature of her own existence. In When We Were Orphans, Ishiguro gives us Christopher Banks, a renowned English detective whose life is haunted by one abiding mystery, the disappearance of both his parents during his childhood in Shanghai, a fact he is in denial about from the book's first pages:

[I]t had become a matter of some irritation to me that my schoolfriends, for all their readiness to fall into banter concerning virtually any other of one's misfortunes, would observe a great solemnness at the first mention of my parents' absence. Actually, odd as it may sounds, my lack of parents - indeed, of any close kin in England except my aunt in Shropshire - had by then long ceased to be of any great inconvenience to me. As I would often point out to my companions, at a boarding school like ours, we had all learned to get on without parents, and my position was not as unique as all that.

Banks recites the gradual introduction he made into London society; after graduating Cambridge, he is slowly introduced to the London scene by old classmates. In so doing, he makes the acquaintance of Sarah Hemmings, an eccentric woman who he connects with as a fellow orphan, and whose path he would cross again. As he recounts his growing success and accompanying public reputation, Banks provides a series of glimpses into his childhood, especially the tension between his mother and father and his friendship with Akira, the Japanese boy next door. Even in these early chapters, we sense that Banks is presenting a rather selective version of his past, either by intention or by an incapacity to make sensible connections with the external world:

[W]hat I had taken exception to was his casual judgment that I had been 'such an odd bird at school.'

In fact, it has always been a puzzle to me that Osbourne should have said such a thing of me that morning, since my own memory is that I blended perfectly into English school life.

This disconnect becomes more obvious as the book progresses (when Banks encounters another classmate, he vehemently denies the assertion that he was a "miserable loner"). Though Banks repeatedly expresses his desire to return to Shanghai and solve "the big case," he fails to do so until 1937, decades after his parents disappeared. Before making the journey, he has convinced himself that not only can he solve the case, but that somehow his return to Shanghai might enable him to prevent the coming war, that the source of his parents' disappearance is also the root of all evil. He further deludes himself into believing that this idea originates not from him, but from a series of encounters in which others have suggested it is his duty to save the world from itself:

"What I mean to say, forgive me, is that it's quite natural for some of these gentlemen here tonight to regard Europe as the centre of the present maelstrom. But you, Mr. Banks. Of course, you know the truth. You know that the real heart of our present crisis lies further afield."

I looked at him carefully, then said: "I'm sorry, sir. But I'm not quite sure what you're getting at."

"Oh come, come." He was smiling knowingly. "You of all people."

Once Banks arrives in Shanghai, things get downright strange. He makes what appears to be a series of forward steps toward unlocking the mystery, but becomes entangled with Sarah Hemmings, caught in an unhappy marriage to an older man. Just as she convinces him to depart Shanghai without any concrete answers, he makes an apparent breakthrough in the case. He begins a surreal journey outside the International Settlement and into the frontline between the Chinese army and Japanese invaders, convinced he is about to find the house here he will find his kidnapped parents, alive and waiting.

The book largely begins to unravel at this point. The novel is consumed by a sense of unreality that favorable reviewers call "Kafkaesque." A better description would be "inexplicable." Just when Banks' quest seems at an end, the absurdity of it all is made so obvious that even he can no longer deny it. When all the answers are revealed, there is no sense of relief, accomplishment, or wonderment. A great mystery leaves clues along the way; here all of the clues were essentially misdirection, and the reveal is utterly disconnected from anything offered in the preceding narrative. The great variety of characters, from Banks' parents to Sarah Hemmings to the orphan girl that Banks abruptly adopts (and just as abruptly abandons to return to Shanghai), are all mere sketches. Wondrous sketches, drawn with Ishiguro's
trademark verve, but utterly hollow nonetheless.

Ishiguro's skill at word craft is undeniable, but he continues to struggle to find a narrative frame as successful as the one deployed in The Remains of the Day, which is still his unmatched triumph. Better to read that novel twice than to bother with this lesser work.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

kundera_unbearable.jpgMilan Kundera opens his most celebrated book in the unlikeliest of ways, with an extended exploration of Nietzche's theory of eternal return, which essentially posits that every act or event is destined to repeat itself an infinite number of times. If it did not, then any particular moment in time would be so transitory as to be light and meaningless, or so the theory goes. On the other hand, if eternal return does occur, then each and every choice carries the heaviest of burdens, as the consequences are everlasting.

But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?

The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man's body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life's most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.

Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.

What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?

That, more or less, is the question that defines The Unbearable Lightness of Being. As the opening section suggests, this is explicitly a novel of ideas. But it is also a book about four characters and the intersections of their lives. In lesser hands there might be great tension between the sections of the book that follow these lives, and the sections in which the narrator (Kundera?) offers his philosophical musings. In Kundera's, there is none. Instead, there is symbiosis. The philosophical elements give intellectual heft to the choices made by each character and the consequences that result; their life stories offer an extended opportunity to explore how our philosophical outlooks shape our paths.

The basic outline of the book is as follows: there are two couples (Tomas and Tereza, Sabina and Franz) and in each couple one partner is philosophically heavy (Tereza/Franz) and one is light (Tomas/Sabina). The heavier partner is perpetually concerned with the meaning and impact of their choices; the lighter partner is free of such cares, favoring detachment (and in Sabina's case, betrayal). Tomas is a renowned Czechoslovakian surgeon who keeps his numerous mistresses at arm's length to avoid unnecessary entanglements. Tereza is a waitress whose chance encounter with Tomas in a small leads her to pack a suitcase and leave her small town home (and mother) behind to land on Tomas' doorstep. Sabina is an artist, one of Tomas' mistresses, and his closest friend. After the Prague Spring and the resulting Soviet invasion, all three flee to Switzerland. There, Sabina meets Franz, a married Swiss professor who falls in love with his image of Sabina as a tragic exile.

Their stories are unveiled in chapters that shift in perspective and in time, often referencing pivotal moments in their lives that are left unexplained until later in the book. As their stories develop, the trajectories of the relationships depart. With great difficulty and uneven progress, Tomas and Tereza makes compromises and grow closer together; Tomas accepting the importance of some weight, Tereza allowing herself to feel moments of lightness. In a key moment, Tomas chooses to abandon his medical practice and his mistresses in Switzerland to follow Tereza, who has returned to Prague.

By contrast, Franz and Sabina only commit themselves further to the extremes, exposing itself nakedly in the moment they break. Franz finally reveals the affair to his wife, and flees to Sabina. They make love and are supremely happy: Franz imagining he is starting the rest of his life with the love of his life, Sabina reveling in the freedom of knowing this is to be the last time she will see Franz:

Making love, she was far, far away. Once more she heard the golden horn of betrayal beckoning her in the distance, and she knew she would not hold out. She sensed an expanse of freedom before her, and the boundlessness of it excited her. She mad mad, unrestrained love to Franz as she never had before...

He felt like a rider galloping off into a magnificent void, a void of no wife, no daughter, no household, the magnificent void of no wife, no daughter, no household, the magnificent void swept clean by Hercules' broom, a magnificent void he would fill with his love.

Each was riding the other like a horse, and both were galloping off into the distance of their desires, drunk on the betrayals that freed them, Franz was riding Sabina and had betrayed his wife; Sabina was riding Franz and had betrayed Franz.

The commitments to their respective extremes will be each of their undoing, perhaps Kundera's way of asserting that we should endeavor to keep our light and heavy elements in balance.

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

eugenides_virgin.jpgThe Virgin Suicides is the second novel I've read in recent months written in the unusual first-person singular ("we"), after Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End. In that book, "we" represented the homogenization and de-personalization of modern office culture. Here, Eugenides uses it to depict the shared memory and investigation of a group of men, now middle-aged, exploring a 13-month period in their teenage lives in which the five daughters of a neighborhood family all committed suicide:

Only one boy had ever been allowed in the house. Peter Sissen had helped Mr. Lisbon install a working model of the solar system in his classroom at school, and in return Mr. Lisbon had invited him for dinner. He told us the girls had kicked him continually under the table, from every direction, so that he couldn't tell who was doing it.

Set in the American suburbs of the 1970s, The Virgin Suicides opens with a reference to the final suicide, Mary, before returning to the event that started it all: the attempted wrist-cutting suicide of the youngest daughter, Cecilia. It is Cecilia's successful suicide, committed several weeks later during a party while her family and the neighborhood boys were in the basement, that haunts the book. The daughters do not drop one by one; instead the whole family begins to recede from the habits of daily suburban life, eventually holing themselves up completely in a house that goes uncleaned, unwashed, and unvisited:

No one ventured to the house anymore, not any of our mothers or fathers, not the priest; and even the mailman, rather than touching the mailbox, lifted the lid with the spine of Mrs. Eugene's Family Circle. Now the soft decay of the house began to show up more clearly. We noticed now tattered the curtains had become, then realized we weren't looking at curtains at all but at a film of dirt, with spy holes wiped clean. The best thing was to see them make one: the pink heel of a hand flattening against the glass, then rubbing back and forth to uncover the bright mosaic of an eye, looking out as us. Also, the gutters sagged.

Throughout this descent, the neighborhood boys grow more and more obsessed with the Lisbon daughters; they come to view them (collectively, as they admit being unable to distinguish between the girls at several points) as the very symbol of feminine mystery. There are a variety of attempts to breach the defenses placed by the Lisbon parents, starting with local teenage playboy Trip Fontaine's quest to date Lux, the youngest remaining sister. He finally succeeds in convincing Mr. Lisbon to approve her attendance at the Homecoming dance, on the condition that the other girls accompany them:

That was how a few of us came to take the girls on the only unchaperoned date they ever had. As soon as he left Mr. Lisbon's classroom, Trip Fontaine began assembling his team. At football practice that afternoon, during wind sprints, he said, "I'm taking Lux Lisbon to Homecoming. All I need is three guys for the other chicks. Who's it going to be?" Running twenty-yard intervals, gasping for breath, in clumsy pads and unclean athletic socks, we each tried to convince Trip Fontaine to pick us.

As the year comes to a close, and final suicides are played out, the intense obsession settles into a lifelong haunting. It is the Lisbon girls who are permanently etched as the female archetype, and it is through subsequent evidence-gathering and interviews in later years that the collective narrators have pieced together the story they present.

One of the novel's difficulties is how little is ever revealed about the Lisbon girls beyond the conjecture of the neighborhood. This is surely intentional; among the books themes are the unbridgeable distances between individuals, the enigma of the opposite sex, and the unreliability of accepted gossip. Yet by keeping the collective narrators at arm's length, the reader can get no closer. And in a book that works hard to subvert the expected, Eugenides gave the Libson daughters two caricatures for parents: a kindly but befuddled father who can't connect with his band of female offspring, and a cold, priggish mother who stunts their every attempt at independence. More provocative than evocative, the novel just never quite connected.

Seize the Day by Saul Bellow

bellow_seize.jpgMy stated effort to read 100 books this year has gone reasonably well, though a quick look at the list reveals a decided, if predictable, lean toward slimmer volumes. In some cases, this led to rich rewards: Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried weigh in under 300 pages, but rank among the best novels I've read of any length.

Other books suffer for their brevity, and Saul Bellow's Seize the Day is one of them. Written in 1956, the book came three years after Bellow's lengthy bildungsroman, The Adventures of Augie March. It was followed in the next several years by Henderson the Rain King and then Herzog, and in a number of key ways Seize the Day seems to be a short outline for these later, superior works.

It is the story of a single day in the life of Tommy Wilhelm, f/k/a Wilhelm Adler. Wilhelm has recently left his wife and children and moved into the Hotel Gloriana, a decaying storehouse of the elderly, including his father, Dr. Adler. He is out of place in this residence, and out of place everywhere else. He has left or been expelled from his family, his job, and his sense of self. He is financially and psychologically adrift, and the novel follows him as he spends the day flailing about. As always, Bellow reigns supreme in his portraiture:

Even when his spirits were low, Wilhelm could still wrinkle his forehead in a pleasing way. Some of the slow, silent movements of his face were very attractive. He went back a step, as if to stand away from himself and get a batter look at his shirt. His glance was comic, a comment upon his untidiness. He liked to wear good clothes, but once he had put it on each article appeared to go its own way. Wilhelm, laughing, panted a little; his teeth were small; his cheeks when he laughed and puffed grew round, and he looked much younger than his years.

Wilhelm has been disappointed by life; an aborted attempt to make it in Hollywood left him with little more than a changed name, and was an embarrassment to his father. His father's disapproval weighs heavily on him, and their relationship is a main focus of the text. Two encounters between the men bracket the day; the breakfast they share in the morning and a more angry confrontation late in the day. With his pride regarding material success, it is clear that Dr. Adler thinks little of his son, attributing his failures to personal defects and refusing to subsidize him:

"You make too much of your problems," said the doctor. "They ought not to be turned into a career. Concentrate on real troubles--fatal sickness, accidents." The old man's whole manner said, Wilky, don't start this on me. I have a right to be spared.

Perhaps seeking to make up for this dysfunctional paternal relationship, Wilhelm has grown close to another hotel resident, Dr. Tamkin. Dismissed as a fraud by Dr. Adler, Tamkin has given Wilhelm a great deal of advice, often speaking in psychological terms. In a desperate move, Wilhelm has given Tamkin a power of attorney to invest his last seven hundred dollars. Tamkin invested the money in lard on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and a great deal of the day's anxiety revolves around this investment, which has gone poorly in the preceding days. Wilhelm's faith in the man has been shaken, and he now views with skepticism the unlikely tales Tamkin shares about his past, his patients, and just about any other topic that comes up:

Wilhelm's face became ponderous again and pale. His whitened gold hair lay heavy on his head, and he clasped uneasy fingers on the table. Sensational, but oddly enough, dull, too. Now how do you figure that out? It blends with the background. Funny but unfunny. True but false. Casual but laborious, Tamkin was. Wilhelm was most suspicious of him when he took his driest.

Bellow surely broke ground in 1956 with a novel dedicated almost entirely to a single day's worth of psychological meanderings by a troubled, middle-aged man. But if the technique is innovative, its use is pedestrian. Yes, there are psychological and philosophical questions raised by life in the modern world; but what of it? Absent the book's 11th-hour epiphany (and I am a hard-wired skeptic of epiphanies), Wilhelm has spent the book standing still and flapping his arms.

Perhaps the verdict would be kinder if we didn't know that within a decade, Bellow would produce a pair of expansive takes on a similar theme. Eugene Henderson and Moses Herzog shared Wilhelm's displacement in the modern world, but look at what comes of it! Henderson's journey into Africa is perhaps my favorite novel. Seize the Day is a decent appetizer, but make sure to save room for one of the subsequent books as an entree.

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

morrison_mercy.jpgThe critics have not been kind to Toni Morrison in recent years. Of the two novels Morrison published after wining the Nobel Prize in 1993, Michiko Kakutani called Paradise "flatfooted and highly schematic" and Love "one of her slighter efforts" and "an awkward retread" of her earlier works. One could be forgiven for thinking that she had peaked in 1987 with Beloved, that spectacular novel about slavery, death, and haunting love.

But Morrison is not finished yet. She has just published A Mercy, a novel with a slenderness that belies the power within its pages. As with Beloved, Morrison takes us into the history of slavery, this time traveling all the way back to the late 17th century at the intersection of three cultures: African slaves dragged across the ocean, remnants of the Native American tribes decimated by war and disease, and immigrant Europeans looking to establish a paradise in a new world.

Morrison brings these elements together at the small Northern farm of Jacob Vaark. Vaark is joined there by his wife, Rebekka, imported from Europe, and three servants: Lina, the lone survivor from her Native American village; Sorrow, mentally imbalanced since being rescued from a shipwreck; and Florens, a young slave girl taken reluctantly by Vaark as payment of a debt owed him by a Southern plantation owner. The story of each of the five is given its due in chapters not subservient to chronology, rife with foreshadowing. In the first, Florens gives a child's recitation of her experience of being sold to Vaark; she feels betrayed by her mother, who offered Florens up in place of herself and her infant boy:

Me watching, my mother listening, her baby boy on her hip. Senhor is not paying the whole amount he owes to Sir. Sir saying he will take instead the woman and the girl, not the baby boy and the debt is gone. A minha mae begs no. Her baby boy is still at her breast. Take the girl, she says, my daughter, she says. Me. Me.

This sense of betrayal leaves Florens hungry for love and affirmation. It is a scene that will be revisited from other points of view several times in the book, a sort of Rashomon effect that reveals the complexity of the seemingly simple, stark act that opens the novel. Morrison layers the whole story in this way; bit by bit we get the history that brought each character to the farm, we begin to see the interdependence of these women, each a cast away in her own right. We see the burdens they bear for a man's ambition, and the struggle they face in his absence. As Florens' mother says, when finally given her chance to speak in the final chapter, "To be female in this place is to be an open wound that cannot heal. Even if scars form, the festering is ever below."

The histories of these women take us to the plantations, the slave ships, the auctions, the Native American village. There are encounters with religious pluralism and religious persecution. Like Beloved, Morrison has captured the essence of a tumultuous period of American history and managed to place a worthy fictional narrative therein. A stellar short novel that will reward each reading.

To Siberia by Per Petterson

petterson_to.jpgLast year's translation of Per Petterson's 2003 novel, Out Stealing Horses earned him rave reviews and several prizes (it was a New York Times Best Book of the Year and won the 100,000-euro IMPAC Dublin Award). I greatly admired the book when I read it earlier this year, and I quickly picked up a copy of his other work available in translation, In the Wake. That work, published in 2000, is a deeply personal novel based in part on the deaths of Petterson's parents and sibling in the 1994 sinking of the MS Estonia ferry.

The success of these works led to the recent republication of his 1996 novel, To Siberia, which I purchased the week of its release and read last weekend. The book follows a nameless female protagonist from her childhood in rural northern Denmark until the Nazi occupation of her homeland splits her family and prompts her to leave her home. She is the narrator of her own story, though she is looking back at her life at 60 years old, with a palpable sheen of melancholy.

In childhood, the girl is particularly close to her brother, Jesper, due to the emotional dysfunction of her parents and extended family; by the second chapter her grandfather has hung himself in the cowshed. One of her early memories involves sneaking out with her brother to spy into the windows of a pub, where they watch their grandfather instigate a fight with a local aristocrat. Jesper runs into the bar to join, only to be interrupted by the arrival of his own father, who is then taunted by their grandfather:

"Why don't you just go home if you won't drink with your own father? You were never like others, were you? You have never known why, born in pain and begotten in more than pain, a thorn in the flesh from the start. Go home to your warm house and leave the boy with me."

Jesper leaves with his father, though with some hesitation, a sign of the rebellious spirit that will drive him into the resistance against the Nazis later in the book. Both children dream of flight; he to Morocco, and she to Siberia, which she envisions as "open skies that were cold and clear, where it was easy to breathe and easy to see for long distances" (rumors that Siberia contains prison camps are dismissed as "Nazi propaganda"). This dream, however, is interrupted by the German invasion in April 1940 and the three-year occupation that followed. Her brother Jesper joins the resistance (which did tremendous work in saving Denmark's Jewish population), eventually forcing him to flee the country:

I feel myself stiffen. Of course he must get away. He cannot stay in this shack long, he must have food and drink and someone must get it out to him. No one knows when the war will end, and as long as it lasts he must stay hidden. It's no good. Sooner or later he would be caught. But it had not occurred to me.

Shocked and listless after Jesper's departure, she begins a nomadic life, leading first to Copenhagen, then Sweden, and then to Oslo, Norway. These wanderings make up the latter third of the book, which is notably less evocative than the early chapters, perhaps reflecting the protagonist's growing emotional distance from reality. As a child she noticed great detail in animals and nature; later in life she is barely moved by physical intimacy. Thus the melancholy becomes bleak, and her youth feels like a burden when her hopes and dreams are no more:

I was so young then, and I remember thinking: I'm twenty-three years old, there is nothing left in life. Only the rest.

Dark as it is, To Siberia is still superior to In the Wake. Though surely an important catharsis for the author, In the Wake was simply too detached to make much impact. But To Siberia lacks the maturity of the more recent Out Stealing Horses. There are a multitude of evocative scenes included early in the book which offer a stilted sense of mystery in her family's history, but these are left unexamined, unexplained, unresolved. The protagonist's personal interactions in the latter half of the book serve little function but to exhibit through repetition how broken she is. One hopes that Petterson's work since 2003 is next in the queue to be translated and published here.

De Niro's Game by Rawi Hage

hage_deniros.jpgOne of the better books I have read this year was Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses, which came to my attention through a number of positive mentions on literary blogs. I enjoyed it so much that I soon read Petterson's prior work, In the Wake, and I have just started his recently re-published 1996 novel, To Siberia. Part of Petterson's good press came from winning the IMPAC Dublin Award, which carries a hefty 100,000-euro purse. Thus when I saw that the 2008 winner had been announced, and was also getting some positive reviews, I thought it was worth a try.

De Niro's Game is the debut novel of Lebanese-born Canadian author Rawi Hage. Set in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the book follows two young friends, Bassam and George, who are stumbling toward adulthood in a society that lacks a rule of law or even basic behavioral norms. Readers of Khaled Hosseini's books will hear echoes of his depictions of Afghanistan, and surely there is are unfortunate parallels between any war-torn failed states:

Ten thousand bombs had landed, and I was waiting for George.

So the novel begins, with violence, and violence permeates the story through and through. When George arrives, it is to relay to Bassam a problem he has with a man monopolizing the parking in front of his aunt's home:

When he leaves, he still reserves the space for himself. I moved the two poles marking his spot so my aunt can park. So she parks, and we go up to have coffee at her place. This Chafiq fellow knocks at my aunt's door and asks her to move her car. It is his space, he says. My aunt says, It is a public space... He insults her... She shouts... I pull out my gun, put it in his face, and kick him out of the house. He runs down the stairs and threatens me from below. But we will show him, won't we, quiet man?

And indeed, later that night Bassam and George shoot holes in the man's car. Shortly thereafter, the man comes to George's aunt to apologize. And thus we see that for these boys growing up in a lawless city, violence is not just an option, it is an instinct. It is the first resort. George is and remains the more violent of the two, but as the novel passes the violence of both will escalate. It is how they interact with and understand the world; with merchants, with employers, with women.

The greater contrast is that while both are Lebanese, George is of Lebanon, he belongs to the country, feels a part of it, and has no wish to depart. Bassam's desire to leave Lebanon is made manifest in the third sentence of the book, and most of his actions thereafter are motivated toward that end: petty theft to obtain money, remaining unattached from any person or group that would hold him back. Much of the book is taken up with this quest, the challenge of obtaining enough money to depart, and the one attachment that Bassam cannot seem to escape: George. As George joins the militia and rises through the ranks, Bassam is drawn closer to that most dangerous sphere.

Hage excels at portraying this world turned upside down. Lebanon was one of the most prosperous, advanced nations in the Middle East, but a few years have utterly displaced its standards of civilization. Yet life goes on. Hage finds a strangely effective symbol of this paradox in the animals of Beirut:

Bombs fell, warriors fought, people ate, and the garbage piled up on the corners of our streets. Cats and dogs were feasting and getting fatter. The rich were leaving for France and letting their dogs roam loose on the streets: orphan dogs, expensive dogs, potty-trained dogs, dogs with French names and red bowties, fluffy dogs, well-bred dogs, china dogs, genetically modified dogs, and incestuous dogs that clung to one another in packs, covered the streets in tens, and gathered under the command of charismatic three-legged mutt. The most expensive pack of wild dogs roamed Beirut and the earth, and howled to the big moon, and ate from mountains of garbage on the corner of our streets.

It is this city turned on its side that Bassam seeks to flee, but it is not so easy to flee when the world is broken; he must endure the stress, the unexpected, and the violence himself. As with so many books, things are steady until the end, when a series of implausible revelations seek to overturn some of the reader's basic assumptions but succeed only in muddling the meaning of the acts that led Bassam and George to their eventual destinations. Still, worthy until that point and an author to keep an eye on in the future.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

ondaatje_english.jpgI have a standing rule that if a book I want to read has made into a movie, I try not to see the movie until after I have read the book. That's not to say I've never seen a movie and then subsequently read the book; Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys, Daniel Wallace's Big Fish, and Nick Hornby's High Fidelity come to mind. But in those cases, I had no preexisting desire to read the book; it was the quality of the movie that drew my attention to the source material.

In other cases, though, I have long delayed seeing a film in anticipation of first reading the novel. In the past year, I have made some real advances on that front, reading Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, Ian McEwan's Atonement, and Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha. Of the three, I have already seen Atonement, which I found to be a surprisingly effective adaptation.

Thus when I finished Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient this week, I made progress on multiple fronts. It was the 90th book I read this year, making this my most prolific year in reading yet. It was the basis for a widely acclaimed film that I put off viewing for over a decade but am now eager to see. And it won the Booker Prize, furthering my circuitous quest to read all the winners of that award.

Though The English Patient was published more than 15 years ago, and turned into a successful film just a few years later, I managed to remain ignorant about the content beyond its title character being a plane crash survivor with severe burns. So I entered the story with few preconceptions or foreknowledge of what was to come. And this is certainly the way to read a book like this; Ondaatje has made an art of the slow reveal. In the waning days of World War II, four people have been drawn together to a crumbling Italian villa. The English patient, whose identity is a mystery, and his Canadian nurse Hana are leftovers from the building's time as a military hospital. Hana refused to let her patient (or herself) be moved when the rest were relocated to safer confines, and she has been alone with him for some time:

Some nights she opened doors and slept in rooms that had walls missing. She lay on the pallet on the very edge of the room, facing the drifting landscape of stars, moving clouds, wakened by the growl of thunder and lightning. She was twenty years old and mad and unconcerned with safety during this time, having no qualms about the dangers of the possibly mined library or the thunder that startled her in the night. She was restless after the cold months, when she had been limited to dark, protected spaces. She entered rooms that had been soiled by soldiers, rooms whose furniture had been burned within them. She cleared out leaves and shit and urine and charred tables. She was living like a vagrant, while elsewhere the English patient reposed in his bed like a king.

They are eventually joined by Caravaggio, a friend of Hana's father whose skills as a thief were put to use by Allied intelligence; captured, mutilated, and released, he overheard talk of Hana's whereabouts while in another hospital and left his bed to join her. The foursome is complete upon the arrival of Kip, an Indian volunteer in the British Army whose job as a sapper has him roaming the Italian landscape in search of mines planted by retreating Germans soldiers:

At first he will not come into the house at all. He walks past on some duty or other to do with the dismantling of mines. Always courteous. A little nod of his head. Hana sees him wash at a basin of collected rainwater, placed formally on top of a sundial. The garden tap, used in previous times for the seedbeds, is now dry. She sees his shirtless brown body as he tosses water over himself like a bird using its wing. During the day she notices mostly his arms in the short-sleeved army shirt and the rifle which is always with him, even though battles seem now to be over for them.

From this point, Ondaatje uses his poet's touch to slowly unveil the stories of each of the four. The English patient's story is, of course, the most enigmatic, with hints of a love affair and wanderings in the desert unfolding as the others, particularly Caravaggio, converse with the patient. But I was particularly moved by Kip's tale, how he came to England as an outsider, despite the Indian nationalism of his older brother, how he was initially shunned as a foreigner but found a group to welcome him, only for that to end in tragedy.

These four people are linked not just by physical proximity, but a shared status as victims of trauma. Hana's work as a nurse exposed her to the extremes of death and destruction and she is still in shock over the death of her father. Caravaggio was mutilated by his captors. Kip fled to Italy to escape his own losses in Britain and constantly undergoes the stress of defusing bombs that might kill him. The English patient's physical wounds are obvious, but his psychological wounds are revealed to be equally damaging.

Their isolation in this abandoned villa heightens the awareness of their every physical movement; the lack of activity elevates the drama of their memories. The way they seek solace, distraction, and recovery in each other, within themselves, and the ways in which these attempts fail, is the heart of the book. It is an exploration of the meanings and consequences of warfare at an individual level, the lovely frailty of human bodies and human psyches and human interdependence. A book well worth your time.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

adiga_white.jpgAs I mentioned a few days ago, Aravand Adiga has won the 2008 Man Booker Prize for his debut novel, The White Tiger. As luck would have it, I purchased the book when the Booker shortlist was announced, and finished it the very day it won the award.

The White Tiger explores the prospects of social mobility amidst the caste prejudices that continue to linger in modern India. As the story opens, the first person narrator introduces himself as a small business owner in the city of Bangalore. Bangalore is known (in)famously as the Silicon Valley of India (or "the world's center of Technology and Outsourcing" as the narrator calls it), so this immediately connects the non-Indian reader to the rapid rate of modernization in the Indian economy. As with all such economic upheavals, change is accompanied by social and political instability, and The White Tiger touches upon each.

I mentioned the story is written in first-person, but there is a curious framing device as well. The entire book is divided into a series of letters from "The White Tiger" to Wen Jiabao, the Premier of China, who has announced an upcoming visit to Bangalore to meet Indian entrepreneurs:

Apparently, sir, you Chinese are far ahead of us in every respect, except that you don't have entrepreneurs. And our nations, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs. Thousands and thousands of them. Especially in the field of technology. And these entrepreneurs--we entrepreneurs--have set up all these outsourcing companies that virtually run America now.

The narrator, who soon identifies himself as Balram (a name given to him by a teacher, since his family just called him "boy"), considers himself the perfect example, and thus begins writing his letters to the Chinese Premier to educate him about Indian entrepreneurship. He begins by detailing his childhood spent as the son of a rickshaw-puller in the village of Laxmangarh, which he sarcastically describes as failing to meet any and all "standards set by the United Nations and other organizations whose treaties our prime minister has signed and whose forums he so regularly and pompously attends." The majority of the citizens in Laxmangarh live impoverished existences, and all of the valuable land and business is owned by just four landlords, known colorfully as the Buffalo, the Stork, the Wild Boar, and the Raven:

All four of the Animals lived in high-walled mansions just outside Laxmangarh--the landlords' quarters. They had their own temples inside the mansions, and their own wells and ponds, and did not need to come out into the village except to feed.

This dichotomy had already resulted in violence, with one of the landlords' infant sons kidnapped and killed by Naxals, Indian communist rebels. Public animosity between the politicians and the people, the haves and have nots will lead, later in the book, to the rise of "the Great Socialist" and the defeat of the ruling party.

These events are somewhat ancillary to the narrative, however, which follows Balram's rise to close proximity with this upper class. He convinces his family to invest in driving lessons, and through lucky coincidence gets hired as a chauffeur for Ashok, one of the Stork's sons. They are relatively generous masters, providing sufficient food and a covered room for Balram to sleep in, as well as "the thing that we who grow up in the Darkness value most of all. A uniform. A khaki uniform!"

"The Darkness" is Balram's term for the vast expanse of rural India where the masses suffer in povery and powerlessness, controlled by greedy landlords and corrupt politicians. Balram sees this suffering borne by the masses, and explains their acquiescence through the analogy of "the Coop":

The greatest thing to come out of this country in the ten thousand years of its history is the Rooster Coop... the roosters in the coop smell the blood from above. They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop.

The very same thing is done with human beings in this country.

Never before in human history have so few owed so much to so many, Mr. Jiabao. A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 percent--as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way--to exist in perpetual servitude; a servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man's hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse.

We learn early on that Balram has flown the Coop, so to speak; he is a wanted man, has taken a bag full of cash, and has slit Ashok's throat. With these revelations made up front, there is a fatalistic tone to the rest of the book, which follows Balram's work as the family driver, exploring the psychology of this role, constantly exposed to freedom and luxury but never able to taste it himself. Balram begins to idealize his master Ashok, comes to believe that there is genuine care for him as a servant, only to be devastated when it becomes clear that Ashok is little different from the rest of the upper class in his self-absorption. Along the way, Balram is frequently confronted with the stark contrast between the lifestyle enjoyed by his employers, and by those who slave away to create this world.

The problem is, there is little sense to why the Indian state continues to sustain this inequality. Adiga relies heavily on these analogies, the Light and the Darkness, or the chicken coop, which undoubtedly mask a greater complexity in this country of a billion people. Many of the characters Bulram encounters are mere caricatures, from the landlords to the police looking for bribes to the young revolutionary who instantly converts to greedy self-interest once he tastes power. Can all of India's ills be explained away by pointing at corrupt politicians? Even the overthrow of the ruling party simply changes the destination of the landlord's bribes. Is the only solution an individual one, whereby the White Tigers of the world muscle their way into "the Light" by any means necessary? This seems an unsuitably narrow view, but it is all the novel offers.

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

golden_memoirs.jpgDuring my last mini-deployment to Kuwait I was able to make it through more than ten books in three weeks. That, however, was during a lull in the election cycle, just after Senator Obama had clinched the Democratic nomination. Now, with the election heating up, I could not break away from the computer in the evenings in Kuwait, which is seven hours ahead of the East Coast. A lot of the news, speeches, and polls were being released as I was getting back to my room after work, and my total lack of restraint had me glued to the blogs when I probably should have been reading something a bit more enlightening. Even with these distractions, though, I was able to make it through 600 pages of Rebecca Fraser's The Story of Britain, and during one of my four flights back to the States I finally finished Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha.

Geisha was a runaway bestseller when it was first published a decade ago, and was made into an apparently mediocre film a few years back. It has been one of those books that hovers just on the edge of my must-read list, but never quite made it into the top-tier. When I deployed to Kuwait in June, however, I bought up a bunch of mass-market paperbacks to bring with me. Most of them were Bantam and Signet classics, but a few modern novels like Geisha as well.

The novel is really an uneven affair. Golden's great triumph is writing a convincing portrayal of Sayuri's life as a young female geisha in pre-WWII Japan despite being himself a middle-aged American man. Some of the better scenes in the book take place early on, in Saruyi's childhood just before and after she has been sold into servitude at a geisha house:

My thoughts were in fragments I could hardly piece together. Certainly it was true that a part of me hoped desperately to be adopted by Mr. Tanaka after my mother died; but another part of me was very much afraid. I felt horribly ashamed for even imagining I might live somewhere besides my tipsy house. After Mr. Tanaka had left, I tried to busy myself in the kitchen, but I felt a bit like Satsu, for I could hardly see the things before me. I don't know how much time passed. At length I heard my father making a sniffling noise, which I took to be crying and which made my face burn with shame. When I finally forced myself to glance his way, I saw him with his hands already tangled up in one of his fishing nets, but standing at the doorway leading into the back room, where my mother lay in the full sun with sheet stuck to her like skin.

Of course Mr. Tanaka has no interest in adopting her; instead he facilitates her sale to the Nitta okiya in the Gion district of Kyoto, where she is put to work as a maid in anticipation of a potential career as a geisha. Her arrival is met with great hostility from Hatsumomo, the resident geisha, and soon enough her future as a geisha is in great doubt. She accrues a large debt via various plots by Hatsumomo, and is removed from geisha training after a failed attempt to escape with her sister, who was sold into prostitution. At her lowest point, a chance encounter with a dignified businessman changes her worldview:

Ordinarily a man on the streets of Gion wouldn't notice a girl like me, particularly while I was making a fool of myself by crying. If he did notice me, he certainly wouldn't speak to me, unless it was to order me out of his way, or some such thing. Yet not only had this man bothered to speak to me, he'd actually spoken kindly. He'd addressed me in a away that suggested I might be a young woman of standing--the daughter of a good friend, perhaps. For a flicker of a moment I imagined a world completely different from the one I'd always known, a world in which I was treated with fairness, even kindness--a world in which fathers didn't sell their daughters. The noise and hubbub of so many people living their lives of purpose around me seemed to stop; or at least, I ceased to be aware of it. And when I raised myself to look at the man who'd spoken, I had a feeling of leaving my misery behind me there on the stone wall.

Without spoiling too much of the plot, suffice it to say that this man, the Chairman, plays a pivotal role in the rest of the book. He becomes Sayuri's idealized man; the idea of entertaining him as a geisha motivates her to seize the opportunity to restart her training, and to work diligently at perfecting the skills a successful geisha must possess. The road ahead of her is fraught with difficulty, not least because of the continuing hostility of Hatsumomo. But some of the obstacles are internal to Sayuri. She has experienced such dramatic swings in her fortune, dragged from an impoverished village life to the exotic world of high-end geishas only to be condemned to life as a maid, that her enthusiasm at a second-chance to become a geisha obscures the reality that a geisha's life is not her own. She remains in servitude, both financial and physical, to the men who patronize her.

The idealization of the Chairman, and her continuing desire to be reunited with him, conflicts with her relationships with other men, including the Chairman's friend and business partner, Nobu. While Sayuri's hopes fixate on the Chairman, it is actually Nobu who provides vital support for her at key moments in her life. Her relationship with Nobu actually seems much more central throughout the book, setting up serious tensions for Sayuri to resolve. It is in this resolution, one of the key moments in the latter stages of the book, that the book really falls flat. Golden misses the chance to explore the complex web of rights and obligations that a geisha, living a life of servitude, must attend to. Sayuri makes a number of self-serving choices, which she is certainly entitled to after years of subordinating herself to others, but is not forced to really face the consequences of these choices. Golden lets her off the hook, which might be temporarily uplifting, but is not satisfying as a conclusion to this woman's life.

The World According to Garp by John Irving

irving_world.jpgHaving finished John Irving's The World According to Garp late Saturday night, I have now read 81 books in 2008, matching my total for all of 2007 with more than three months still remaining. This should put me well on my way to meeting my original goal of reading 100 books this year, and within striking distance of 109, which would make a total of 400 books in the five years I have been keeping track.

It is hard to know where to start in describing Garp. I'm not the first to have this problem; after all, the New York Times review of the book starts with "This is not going to be easy to explain." The novel is at once large, full of characters, expansive in its "lunacy and sorrow," and yet also confined, intimate, familiar. It is more or less just the life story of T.S. Garp. But consider his origin: his mother, Jenny Fields, is a nurse during World War II who wants to have a child without having a relationship with a man. When Technical Sergeant Garp is admitted to her ward in a near-vegetative state after being hit with shrapnel, she nurses him, has sex with him, and after his death, gives birth to a son:

Thus was the world given T. S. Garp: born from a good nurse with a will of her own, and the seed of a ball turret gunner--his last shot.

Clearly nothing in Garp's life will be simple. His mother takes a job as a nurse at Steering School, an all-boys prep school likely modeled after Irving's alma mater, Philips Exeter. Here we are introduced to a number of characters who will play varying roles in the remainder of Garp's life: the wrestling coach Ernie Holm, his daughter (and Garp's future wife) Helen, Dean Bodger, the Percy family. John Irving has discussed the influence that Charles Dickens had on him as a teenage reader, and it shows in Garp: the elaborate plotting, the eccentric characters, and the way those characters reappear in unexpected ways as the novel develops.

Irving's work is noted for its recurring themes and Garp goes 7 for 7: New England, prostitutes, wrestling, Vienna, bears, deadly accidents, and a main character dealing with an absent or unknown parent. And it is no coincidence that Garp is a writer. If this book is about one thing, it is probably (as Irving notes in afterword) "about being careful, and about that not being enough." The anxieties of life, of parenthood, and the inability to fully control the fate of you and your loved ones. But if it is about two things, it is also about the life of a writer, the life of writing:

Garp discovered that when you are writing something, everything seems related to everything else. Vienna was dying, the zoo was not as well restored from the war damage as the home the people lived in; the history of a city was like the history of a family--there is closeness, and even affection, but death eventually separates everyone from each other. It is only the vividness of memory that keeps the dead alive forever; a writer's job is to imagine everything so personally that the fiction is as vivid as our personal memories.

Garp is motivated to become a great writer because that is what teenage Helen Holm hinted would be required to win her heart. He thus produces "The Pension Grillparzer," a story that even Garp will look back on as his best work, and proceeds to marry Helen. Irving uses Garp's work as a frame narrative, reproducing the story in whole (as well a later story, "Vigilance" and the first chapter of Garp's third novel, The World According to Bensenhaver); the content of Garp's writing foreshadows or parallels much of his own life. Yet Garp warns against the temptation to inquire about the autobiographical source of a fictional work:

Garp always said that the question he most hated to be asked, about his work, was how much of it was "true"--how much of it was based on "personal experience." Usually, with great patience and restraint, Garp would say that the autobiographical basis--if there even was one--was the least interesting level on which to read a novel. He would say that the art of fiction was the act of imagining truly--was, like any art, a process of selection... He wrote that the worst reason for anything being part of a novel was that it really happened.

Of course, to wonder whether Irving himself holds this position is to engage in the very inquiry Garp is condemning. Ironically, as Garp gets older and his life is filled with its share of experiences, and more than its share of suffering, his writing suffers. He finds that instead of "imagining," he is constantly "remembering." Considering the ordeals the man suffers by the novel's end, this is an understandable reaction.

Yet for all the pain, all the tragedy, all the death that the book holds (and it holds plenty of each), the book makes you laugh. Even at the pain, the tragedy, the death. Irving manages to make the most unfunny things funny. He does so, I think, at the cost of failing to fully grapple with the meaning of many of these tragedies, which is why this not a perfect novel. But he makes an effort few would attempt, to render comic the deepest sorrows of life, and succeeds where a more ordinary writer could not.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

wroblewski_story.jpgReading a book featured on the "bestseller" table at Borders is not a frequent experience for me. The last I can think of was Khaled Hosseini's superb A Thousand Splendid Suns. But there was something irresistibly presumptuous about a debut novelist transplanting Shakespeare's Hamlet to a dog-breeding farm in the woods of northern Wisconsin.

That one sentence almost says too much about the Daivd Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, considering how slavishly he adheres to the Hamlet framework, but there is no other way to describe it. Nevertheless, beware the dust jacket of this book, which could be Example #1 in my portfolio of book covers that ruin the novel's plot. They are getting to be as bad as Hollywood trailers.

For every successful reinterpretation of Shakespeare (think Kurosawa's Ran), several others fail miserably. Wroblewski has ambitiously endeavored to replay Hamlet's family drama in the Sawtelle household in the woods of northern Wisconsin, with a mute teenage protagonist. The first several chapters, which I think are the best in the book, tell the story of how the Sawtelle family originally came to occupy the land, how their project of engineering a new breed of dog was started, and how the current occupants, Gar and Trudy, endured great pains in their struggle to start a family before the birth of Edgar.

Dogs play an integral part in the book, and one of Wroblewski's big gambles is the devotion of several chapters to the perspective of Almondine, Edgar's faithful canine companion. I was surprised at how successful this proved, never falling into gimmick. From the earliest moments of Edgar's life, Almondine plays a central role in connecting this boy to the world:

The baby had no voice. It couldn't make a sound.

Almondine began to pant. She shifted her weight from one hip to the other, and as she looked on--and saw his mother continue to sleep--she finally understood: the thing that was going to happen was that her time for training was over, and now, at last, she had a job to do.

And so Almondine gathered her legs beneath her and broke her stay.

She crossed the room and paused beside the chair, and she became in that moment, and was ever after, a cautious dog, for suddenly it seemed important that she be right in this; and looking at the two of them there, one silently bawling, one slumped in graceful exhaustion, certainty unfolded in her the way morning light fills a north room. She drew her tongue along his mother's face, just once, very deliberately, then stepped back. His mother startled awake.

Right from the start, Edgar's life is intertwined with the Sawtelle dogs, as they are called, and Wroblewski's ability to give Almondine a believable inner monologue adds immeasurably to the portrayal of all the novel's canines. Wroblewski's other great success is his portrayal of Edgar and his sign language. It comes across so naturally that the only times we remember that Edgar can't speak is when Edgar remembers it, when circumstances lay bare the cost of a voiceless life:

He burst into the kitchen and yanked the phone off its hook. He stood for a moment, unsure of what to do. He pulled the zero around on the dial and waited. Almondine was in the kitchen with him; he couldn't remember her running alongside to the house or even following him down from the mow.

After the second ring a woman's voice came on the line.


He was already trying to make the words. He moved his lips. A sigh came out of him, thin and dry.

Having succeeded in credible portrayals of the mind of a dog and the linguistics of a mute boy, Wroblewski clears two of the three major hurdles he places before himself. The last hurdle is the whole scale relocation of a 16th-century Danish royal drama to 1970s rural Wisconsin. In some ways, Wroblewski achieves beyond expectations. The portrayal of Edgar in particular, is tremendous. Hamlet is a Danish prince who flirts with insanity and revenge throughout the play. That Wroblewski plausibly puts a mute American teenager in the same role is a noteworthy accomplishment:

He tried to sort out his feelings. There was the desire to run; there was the desire to stay and put himself in front of Claude the moment he returned; there was the desire to take his mother's explanations at face value; above all, there was the desire to forget everything that had happened, an aching desire for everything normal and familiar, for the routine of the kennel and reading at night and making dinners, just the two of them, when he could almost believe that his father had stepped out momentarily to check a new litter and would be right back.

But at some point, the faithfulness to Hamlet become servile; match the character to their Shakespearean counterpart and they will try to play their role. Yet not all of the Wisconsin actors live up to their Danish ancestors. Claude (King Claudius) never achieves the necessary ambiguity of character, and the creativity of the Almondine character suffers when wedged into Ophelia's part. The entire dog-breeding project, so well-established in the early chapters with Edgar's father, falls by the wayside when it fails to further any Hamlet parallels. Wroblewski's commitment to Shakespearean reconstruction comes at a cost.

This is a four-star book with a two-star finish. I didn't expect a happy ending; I have read Hamlet, after all. Nor did I need one. But this novel's conclusion lacks respect. Respect for the reader who has traversed 550 pages, respect for a protagonist whose journey deserved more than a four-page chapter, treated as a loose end to be quickly tied up. A tragic Shakespearean ending for a 14-year old mute boy requires more finesse than Wroblewski musters. The pacing is just wrong; this novel would be improved immensely if fifty pages were cut from the middle and expended on a worthy finale. A real missed opportunity.

First Snow on Fuji by Yasunari Kawabata

kawabata_first.jpgOne of the greatest rewards thus far in my effort to read the books listed in Clifton Fadiman's The New Lifetime Reading Plan was the discovery of the works of Yasunari Kawabata. After reading and loving Beauty and Sadness, Fadiman's choice, I quickly devoured the Nobel laureate's other major novels: Snow Country, The Master of Go, Thousand Cranes, and my favorite, The Sound of the Mountain. Kawabata's minimalist fiction looks at big themes of love or death through the small details, a tea ceremony, a game of Go. His novels inhabit the silences, the spaces between, and attempt little resolution to the tensions explored there.

I have found less pleasure in Kawabata's short stories. Some are cut from the same cloth of greatness as his best novels, and are worthwhile no matter the length (like the title story in The Dancing Girl of Izu). But in others, Kawabata's atmospheric glimpses of life prove too elusive to be captured in a mere dozen pages. So it is in First Snow on Fuji, where the best selections are two of the longest: the title story and "Silence."

The title story features a man and woman who were a couple before the war ("the war" is always World War II in Kawabata's work). When she became pregnant, her parents took her to the country where she bore the child, but was forced to give it up. Nearly a decade later, these two lives have moved on, with new spouses, new children, but a happenstance reunion reopens old wounds and sparks ambiguous emotions:

Jiro wanted to see Utako's face as it used to be. It was painful for him to look at her haggard features. And so from searching out the Utako he had known in the Utako before him, from trying not to see the Utako before him, his own eyes came to have a fatigued look to them. He didn't want her to feel that he was staring at her, but he didn't know where else to look.

After this chance meeting at a train station, they agree to travel together to a bathhouse. But while Jiro's attention remains on the physical changes their bodies have undergone, the toll that time has taken, Utako remains psychologically stuck in the past, haunted by the child they had together and lost:

Utako had not heard until after the end of the war that the child had died in the care of the person who took it.

"But--do you think the child really died?" Utako said.

Jiro looked away.

"Sometimes I think that it might still be alive, you know--possibly."

"I'm certain that it's dead."

"If it's alive, do you think if I met it somewhere--do you think I would know?"

As they arrive at the bathhouse and spend an evening there, Kawabata explores the passage of time and the human efforts to reach back through memory to recapture what is lost. He exposes the difficulty in reconciling the image of a person as we knew them intimately in the past with the altogether foreign person they have become after years of separation. And he hints at how much of our thoughts and emotions are lost on those near us for lack of effective communication.

Communication, the power of words and language, is the theme of the collection's best story, "Silence." In a plot with odd foreshadowing of Kawabata's later years (explored by the translator in his introduction), the narrator visits an elderly writer who has been crippled by a stroke. He is able to hear, but having lost the use of his voice and right hand, is unable to speak or to write effectively. He may, however, have very limited use of his left hand to write single letters, leaving the question of why he opts not to employ it:

It is strange, isn't it, that a man who has made his living for forty years using letters and characters to write words should, now that he has almost entirely lost those letters and characters, and consequently come to understand the powers they possess in the most fundamental sense, and with the greatest certainty--now that he as become able to use them with such knowledge--it is strange, is it not, that he should deny himself their use. The single letter "w" or "t" might be worth more than all the flood, the truly tremendous flood of words and letters he has written in his life. That single letter might be a more eloquent statement, a more important work. It might well have more force.

The narrator's visit to the writer's bedside, where the writer's daughter attends to him, raises further questions about language, communication, and understanding. One question is who a story belongs to, the speaker or the audience? The narrator and the daughter discuss one of the old writer's novels, in which a troubled youth asks his mother to read to him from a blank piece of paper that he thinks he has written upon:

No doubt the crazy boy thinks he's having his mother read some sort of record of his memories, something that he wrote himself--that's what he thinks he's listening to. His eyes sparkle with pride. His mother has no idea whether or not he understands what she's saying, but every time she comes to see him she repeats the same story, and she gets better and better at telling it--it begins to seem like she's actually reading a story of her son's. She remembers things she had forgotten. And the son's memories grow more beautiful. The son is drawing the mother's story out, helping her, changing the story--there's no way of telling whose novel it is, whether it's the mother's or the son's.

The same can be said of Kawabata's best works, when it often seems as if Kawabata is exploring our silences and our atmospherics. In several of the longer stories in this collection, Kawabata flirts with this power. In the remainder, however, Kawabata struggles to convey more than a whisper of what he seems to intend. There is little time to settle into the spirit of the scene and grasp the characters or the conflicts that are motivating them. If Kawabata reigns in the spaces between, it is because he has answered an essential question: the spaces between what? A prerequisite unsatisfied in too many of these stories.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

stegner_crossing.jpgWallace Stegner has a wonderfully diverse geographic background, and it is worth spending a moment describing it before discussing his last novel, Crossing to Safety. Born in Iowa, he spent most of his early life in the western United States, including Montana, North Dakota, and Utah. Though not Mormon, he became familiar with the faith and its history, and would later write several nonfiction books about LDS-related subjects. After graduating from the University of Utah, he married his wife Mary; their marriage would last 59 years until his death. He completed graduate studies at the University of Iowa, taught at the University of Wisconsin, and published his first novel. The novel's success landed him a job teaching writing at Harvard, after which he was invited to head the creative writing program at Stanford, which he did for a quarter-century. He also lived part-time in Vermont, where many of his novels were set.

Having grown up in Utah before heading east for school myself, I was rather drawn to this biography. All the better then that Crossing to Safety incorporates so many autobiographical elements. The narrator of the book is Larry Morgan, a novelist who has returned with his wife Sally to the Vermont estate of their friends Charity and Sid Lang. The couples had met decades earlier when Larry and Sid were young, untenured lecturers at the University of Wisconsin, and the book is largely filled with Larry's meditations and memories about this lifelong friendship. Like Stegner, Larry has an unconventional background for a professor at a Midwestern school in the 1930s; coming from Berkeley after studying at the University of New Mexico as an undergraduate:

I was a single cork to plug a single hole for a single season. My colleagues, instructors of one or two years' standing, were locked in and hanging on. They made a tight in-group, and their conversation tended to include me only cautiously and with suspicion. They all seemed to have come from Harvard, Yale, or Princeton.

Including Sid and Charity Lang. Charity, the daughter of a Harvard professor and niece of the former ambassador to France ("Roosevelt replaced him--fired him, I guess you'd have to say.") and a graduate of Smith, she met her husband during his graduate studies at Harvard. The Langs evidently come from money, while in the lingering depths of the Depression the Morgans are sharing a small basement apartment where "some bricks and boards" serve as a bookcase. Despite the odd couple(s) element at play, the Morgans and Langs hit it off immediately:

Coming from meagerness and low expectations, we felt their friendship as freezing travelers feel a dry room and a fire. Crowded in, rubbing our hands with satisfaction, and were never the same thereafter. Thought better of ourselves, thought better of the world.

The women find their pregnancies are nearly in sync, and Sid finds in Larry a confidante who encourages his creativity. The book travels forward through the years of their friendships, occasionally sliding back to the Morgan's present return to Vermont, occasionally traveling deeper into the past, such as Sid's first visit to the Lang estate (and his first encounter with Charity's mother, Aunt Emily, the forceful head of the Lang matriarchy). And that, more or less, is it. As one of the characters asks, "How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these?" Stegner has taken on the challenge of making art out of the usual, the normal, the common:

Since this story is about friendship, drama expects friendship to be overturned. Something, the novelist in me whispers, is going to break up our cozy foursome... Well, too bad for drama. Nothing of the sort is going to happen.

And yet the book is compelling nonetheless; it warms the heart, it breaks it. It is among literature's most authentic portrayals of friendship. And remember that this is a friendship of married couples. Thus it is also a novel about two long marriages, the different ways these marriages were tested, and how they evolved and endured in sometimes disparate fashion. I won't go into details about this, since it is a major part of how the story develops, but Stegner hints early on about tension in the Lang's marriage. Having just learned that one of his own stories will be published in The Atlantic, Larry challenges Sid for focusing on scholarly writing rather than his beloved poetry:

"Why is it so important to be safe?"

He must hear something scornful in my voice, because he looks at me sharply, starts to reply, changes his mind, and says something obviously different from what he has intended. "Charity's family are all professors. She likes being part of a university. She wants us to get promoted, and stay."

"Yeah," I say. "All right, I can see that. But if I were in your shoes I might feel like utilizing the independence I've already got, rather than breaking my neck to get promoted into a kind I might not like so well."

"But you aren't in my shoes," Sid says. It sounds like a mild rebuke, and I shut my mouth.

The way these tensions develop, the effect they have on the Lang-Morgan friendship, and the climactic moments near the book's conclusion are not only riveting but genuine in a way exceedingly rare in modern literature. Stegner does not resort to cliche, unlikely plot twists, or a deus ex machina. He knows academics, he knows writing, he knows friendship, he knows marriage, and he trusts in the power of the basic human experience, his experience. The novel carries this power throughout. A literary delight that I know I will return to many times in the years ahead.

Stegner was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Angle of Repose, published the year he retired from Stanford, and the National Book Award for The Spectator Bird, several years later. If either novel is as good as his last, Stegner will quickly earn a place on my shortlist of favorite authors.

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

ferris_then.jpgFirst there was Dilbert; then Office Space; then The Office. It seems that the recent boom in office-related entertainment has grown independently of (or perhaps inversely proportional to) the growth of the American economy. Early last year, Joshua Ferris claimed a place for himself in this niche with his debut novel, Then We Came to the End.

The book centers on the working lives of the employees at a Chicago advertising agency in the aftermath the dot-com bust. From what I can tell, Ferris has done a superb job portraying the modern American workplace, from the nitpicking over office furniture to the rumor mongering to the internecine feuds:

We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise. At least those of us who smoked had something to look forward to at ten-fifteen. Most of us liked most everyone, a few of us hated specific individuals, one or two people loved everyone and everything. Those who loved everyone were unanimously reviled. We loved free bagels in the morning. They happened all too infrequently.

It is true, as my wife pointed out to me, that I have never experienced life in an office quite like this, having gone straight from college to law school. By contrast, she spent three years as a paralegal before going to law school. When I was briefly at a law firm, it was a feast year; and now that we have hit a relative famine year, I have the security of government employment. Still, Ferris' depiction just has the aura of truth.

Much has been made about the novel's point of view, as it is written in first person plural. Though it gets clunky a few times, I was surprised just how well Ferris pulled it off. It is perfectly suited to the setting of the book: the employees' collective fortunes rise and fall on the success of the firm, individual opinions and rumors quickly become shared wisdom. There is added irony in that this is an advertising agency, which ostensibly prides itself on the creativity of the individuals who work there. As the economic slump continues, even the termination of individuals is viewed through the collective lens:

On the drive home we puzzled over who was next. Scott McMichaels was next. His wife just had a baby. Sharon Turner was next. She and her husband had just purchased a house. Names -- just names to anyone else, but to us they were the individuals who generated our greatest sympathy. The ones who put their things in a box, shook a few hands, and left without complaint. They had no choice in the matter, and they possessed a quiet resignation to their ill-timed fates. As they departed, it almost felt to us like self-sacrifice. They left, so that we might stay. And stay we did, though our hearts went out to them. Then there was Tom Mota, who wanted to throw his computer against the window.

This is often a very funny book. There were at least three or four times I audibly laughed, a relatively rare feat for literary fiction. I could probably name on one hand the number of authors who've written a novel that made me laugh out loud. Let's see: Joseph Heller, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Russo, Michael Chabon, Nick Hornby... okay, two hands. There are also some touchingly poignant moments as well, mostly involving Lynn Morgan, the boss who may or may not have breast cancer, and Janine Gorjanc, whose young daughter was recently murdered:

It was obviously a tragic thing. We knew about it, but how could we possibly know the first thing about it? Some of us discussed the matter to break up the routine, but most of us used the information to explain why she was quiet at lunch. Then we filed the incident away. That is, until Janine started bringing pictures of Jessica into the office and placing them on the credenza and the bookshelves and hanging them from the walls. The pictures crowded in, elbowing each other for room. A hundred pictures of her dead daughter in the seventy-five square feet of her office. The three on the wall facing her were the most mournful things we'd ever seen. It was also downright creepy. It got to the point where we tried to avoid entering her office. When we were forced to, for some pressing item of business, we never knew where to rest our eyes.

But for all the poignant moments, all the comedy, all the success in conveying a slow burning existential despair, Ferris doesn't really go anywhere with it. And that is what delineates a good novel, which is this undoubtedly is, from a great novel, which it is not. Ferris has spend so much effort building his ship, but he doesn't seem to know where to sail it. At the end, when he flashes forward five years into the future, most of the subplots have been tied up with neat little bows. There's too much of a sense that Ferris is suggesting it was the office itself that was causing the existential crises, thus the happy endings for so many who have left. I suppose that is possible, but our collective frustration with work is more likely a symptom, not a cause, of systematic flaws in our societal values.

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

obrien_things.jpgThere are, in my experience, two types of novels about war. There are the Tom Clancy fictional masturbations on guns and tanks and snipers; these were fodder for my adolescent romanticism about battle. Then there are the attempts to deal with the actual trials of warfare, the death and pain and memory and coping. Because war is at once so meaningful and yet so pointless, so primal and yet so unnatural, some of our best literature has stemmed from the ordeal of combat.

Obvious examples might include Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, Joseph Heller's Catch-22, and Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, four stalwarts of the American high school curriculum. From my own reading, I would add James Jones' The Thin Red Line, Howard Bahr's recent Civil War trilogy starting with The Black Flower, and now Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.

O'Brien's masterpiece is in many ways a "post-war story" rather than a "war story," to use his own lexicon. It is clear, even in the early chapters, that the book is being written by someone conveying troubled memories of Vietnam, rather than by an omniscient narrator. Though the first chapter begins with a recitation of the physical "things they carried," it quickly moves to less corporeal burdens:

They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing -- these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture.

As the book progresses, it becomes clear that the narrator is still carrying a heavy weight, a burden of memories, and that the telling of these stories is in part an attempt to deal with that millstone. Like all memories, the details shift with each retelling. Over the course of the interconnected vignettes that make up the book, O'Brien drop hints about certain events, only to contradict these when exploring the event in detail in a subsequent chapter. Just when you think the narrator has finally come clean, it becomes clear that there is no underlying commitment to what might be called objective truth, what O'Brien calls "happening-truth."

This is made explicit when O'Brien channels Calvino and seems to break the fourth wall and speak directly to the reader. In "Notes," in what appears to be his own voice, O'Brien admits the previous chapter was largely invented. There is, of course, no way to discern that this is O'Brien's real voice any more than the rest, which is the point. The previous chapter may be true, the "Notes" chapter may be true, they may both be true. First you have to define truth, and O'Brien is demonstrating the importance of fiction as a method of doing so, of exploring memory and of suitably conveying the combat experience:

I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.

Here is happening-truth. I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I'm left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.

Here is the story-truth. He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole. I killed him.

What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.

I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again.

This is one of the truest explanations for the value and necessity of literature I have read yet. O'Brien is tapping into the value of writing for the writer, a theme he returns to again and again, as when his daughter asks why, at forty-three, he is "still writing war stories." It is a way for him to confront and consider his own past, and an attempt to bring the reader with him. This insight applies not just to stories about war, but to any effort to use fiction to convey a meaningful experience in life to someone who has not shared that experience. The simple recitation of facts is usually not the only way, or even the best way, to share the heart of the matter with the reader, the listener, the viewer.

Thus we don't know if O'Brien really fled to within twenty yards of the Canadian border, like the narrator in "On the Rainy River," or whether this is simply a story that conveys the psychological conflict for many who suddenly found their names atop a draft notice. It doesn't matter. What matters is how personally the reader feels the anguished resignation when, floating out along the empty banks of the river, he chooses not to cross:

I gripped the edge of the boat and leaned forward and thought, Now.

I did try. It just wasn't possible.

All those eyes on me -- the town, the whole universe -- and I couldn't risk the embarrassment. It was as if there were an audience to my life, that swirl of faces along the river, and in my head I could hear people screaming at me. Traitor! they yelled. Turncoat! Pussy! I felt myself blush. I couldn't tolerate it. I couldn't endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule. Even in my imagination, the shore just twenty yards away, I couldn't make myself be brave. It had nothing to do with morality. Embarrassment, that's all it was.

The day was cloudy. I passed through towns with familiar names, through the pine forests and down to the prairie, and then to Vietnam, where I was a soldier, and then home again. I survived, but it's not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war.

Interestingly, the last chapter is largely centered on a death that occurs long before Vietnam; the book has no overarching story arc. But neither do most soldiers' experiences in battle; it is exactly this lack of a comprehensible arc that makes coping so difficult in the aftermath. Instead, the stories are threaded together into a continuous meditation on the functions of memory, the purposes and principles of storytelling, and the psychological impact of combat. I am confident O'Brien's work will stand next to that of Remarque and Heller in the annals of great twentieth-century war literature.

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

oneill_netherland.jpgMy wife and I share a love for the Booker Prize, and I have slowly but steadily been making my way through the past winners. Seeing as time keeps moving on, I keep falling further behind on this quest. This year, I decided to be a little pro-active. When the longlist was released, I ordered the two books listed as favorites: Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence and Joseph O'Neill's Netherland. With my luck, this practically guarantees a dark horse victory. But Netherland has also received widespread praise received from critics as diverse as Michiko Kakutani and James Wood, so it seemed worth reading anyhow. Despite this broad (though not unanimous) praise, Netherland is notable most for its unfulfilled potential.

The story has a way of appearing exotic no matter the reader. For Americans, it's probably cricket, a sport utterly unintelligible to most of us (O'Neill does little to remedy this). For the Brits who do know cricket, it's likely the immigrant streets of Brooklyn. For those born and raised in Holland and then transplanted to New York via London with a wife and child in tow only to find refuge in the subterranean immigrant cricket community... the setting might seem familiar.

The book carries an overwhelming sense of displacement. This is personified in the protagonist, Hans van den Broek, who is an immigrant twice-over. Dutch born and raised, he moved to New York after starting a career as a financial analyst in London and marrying an English lawyer. His wife, Rachel, was the catalyst for the trans-Atlantic move, but in the wake of 9/11 she took their young son and returned to England. In her absence, Hans discovers a cricket league and rekindles his youthful sporting passion. Cricket serves as a further venue for Hans' displacement, as he refuses to modify his style for the limitations of the New World field:

There was nothing, in principle, to stop me from changing my game, from taking up the cow-shots and lofted bashes in which many of my teammates specialized. But it was, I felt, different for them... They could, and did, modify their batting without spiritual upheaval. I could not.

As the book starts, it is 2006. Hans is reunited with his wife in England. The murdered body of his friend Chuck Ramkissoon has just been found in a New York canal. The rest of the book centers heavily on the time between Rachel's departure and Hans' return to England, his residence at the Hotel Chelsea and the motley crew of neighbors that surround him, and the arc of his relationship with Ramkissoon.

O'Neill has received numerous plaudits for his riff on Jay Gatsby in the form of Ramkissoon, the Trinidadian entrepreneur/hustler. Certainly, there is something to be admired in the attempt to transplant one of literature's most-famous characters from white bread on Long Island to West Indian on Flatbush Avenue. The allusion is sufficiently obvious and self-conscious that it necessarily fails by comparison to the original, but there are worse literary crimes than proving inferior to Fitzgerald. Indeed, Ramkissoon is the best drawn character in the novel, and the time spent in his world are the high points of the story.

It is Hans' marital situation that proves to be Netherland's ultimate undoing. Even James Wood can't help but take note of this misstep, noting that "Rachel's hostility seems a little undeveloped, and one suspects her absence from New York to be merely the necessary fictional trigger for Hans's hospitable sloth." This is classic Wood understatement. The truth is that Rachel's character is a superficial mass of cliches; she retreats from America because it's not safe after 9/11 and Hans failed her in some amorphous, undefined way; she refuses to return because of neocon imperialism:

[S]he told me, in the tone of a person discussing a grocery list, that she had definitely decided not to return to the United States, at least not before the end of the Bush administration or any successor administration similarly intent on a military and economic domination of the world. It was no longer a question of physical security, she said, although that of course remained a factor. It was a question, rather, of not exposing Jake to an upbringing in an "ideologically diseased" country, as she put it, a "mentally ill, sick, unreal" country whose masses and leaders suffered from extraordinary and self-righteous delusions about the United States, the world, and indeed, thanks to the influence of the fanatical evangelical Christian movement, the universe, delusions that had the effect of exempting the United States from the very rules of civilized and lawful and rational behavior it so mercilessly sought to enforce on others.

As a diatribe on the defects of America's recent foreign policy, this is powerful (if hyperbolic) stuff. But as the only explanation for Hans' extended family separation, this is ridiculous. Rachel separates her son from his father, Hans does nothing about it, and this is never justified by any decent exploration of Rachel's motives or Hans' paternal obligations (or his flouting of them). To make matters worse, their inevitable reunion, forecast from page 5, is comically simplistic; after years of living apart, she begins a relationship with another man. Hans moves back to England, they live apart for a year, she moves in with the other man, he jilts her, she gets back together with Hans, suggests marriage counseling, and that's it. I'm really not leaving anything out; this narrative exposition takes just a few paragraphs over several pages.

There is no doubting the intrigue of an entire sporting world existing in the invisible immigrant world of New York City. With O'Neill's international pedigree, and the mystery that cricket remains to America, this is a literary setting worth mining. O'Neill can be forgiven for trying too hard to turn Ramkissoon into a 21st-century Gatsby. But Nick Carraway is seamless as Gatsby's foil; Hans van den Broek's life is an unbelievable construct.

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

enger_peace.jpgDespite not being raised in an explicitly religious household, or perhaps because of it, I have had a lifelong attraction to questions of faith. I spent my teenage years in Utah, and had many friends firmly devoted to their Mormon faith. I then attended a university that while founded by Congregationalists, has since become thoroughly (if not excessively) secular; even there, I spent significant time exploring religion, from classes like "The Book of Job and the Joban Tradition" and "Theism and Moral Reasoning" to my studies at the Cambridge Zen Center. I have always felt a closer fellowship with the faithful, or with those seeking faith, than with the skeptical.

This affinity extends to literature, in a sense. I have no desire to read what is marketed as "Christian fiction"; the little I have skimmed simply does not qualify as worthy writing. Instead, what I seek is the author who can craft an excellent work of literature while also exploring religious devotion, dogma, or doctrine. Think Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, Par Lagerkvist's Barabbas, or a recent favorite, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead.

In his debut novel, Peace Like a River, Leif Enger incorporates substantial religious content into his plot. The novel begins with the narrator relating his own beginning; he was born without breath:

"Sometimes," said Dr. Nokes, "there is something unworkable in one of the organs. A ventricle that won't pump correctly. A liver that poisons the blood." Dr. Nokes was a kindly and reasonable man. "Lungs that can't expand to take in air. In these cases," said Dr. Nokes, "we must trust in the Almighty to do what is best." At which Dad stepped across and smote Dr. Nokes with a right hand, so that the doctor went down and lay on his side with his pupils unfocused. As Mother cried out, Dad turned back to me, a clay child wrapped in a canvas coat, and said in a normal voice, "Reuben Land, in the name of the living God I am telling you to breathe."

And of course, he does. The first time I read this passage, it seemed as if Mr. Land was intervening in defiance of Dr. Nokes invocation that "we must trust in the Almighty." Read it again. Is it not just as plausible to see this scene as "the Almighty [doing] what is best" through Mr. Land's intervention? Notice that he "smote" Dr. Nokes; other than "beget," there is hardly a more Biblical verb. And surely the echoes ring from this rather famous passage:

And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

Reuben identifies this breath as the start of his father's miracles. The second is the absence of brain damage despite being deprived of oxygen for the first twelve minutes of his life. The third comes eleven years later, on a family trip to North Dakota that lays the foundation for much of the story to come. The night of a hunting trip during which Reuben has killed his first goose, he wakes from a dream and needs to use the outhouse. As he gets outside, he observes his father pacing back and forth in the flatbed of a grain truck, praying:

And then, as I stood watching, Dad walked right off the edge of the truck.

I saw it coming--his knuckles jammed to his face, his steps not slowing at all as the edge approached. I meant to rush out and warn him, but something froze me tight. I stood there with my knees locked and my heart gone to water, while Dad paced over the edge.

And did not fall.

He went on pacing--God my witness--walking on air, praying relentlessly, a good yard of absolutely nothing between the soles of his boots and the thistles below. As he went, the moon threw his strangely separate shadow to the earth; a sleepy pigeon cooed from the barn; Dad's boot touched the tops of a thatch of tall grama growing up among the thistles, and they waved as if stroked by wind. I will forget none of this. Nor the comfortable, fluttery feeling it gave me, as though someone had blown warm smoke through a hole in my center. Dad went perhaps thirty feet, paused, and started back. His eyes were still clenched shut; I don't know whether he ever recognized how buoyant was his faith that night.

Though Reuben narrates the story, and is the center of much of the action, his father is the engine that drives the novel. After walking on air, it is not until the end of the book that Mr. Land flirts again with the supernatural. But his faith and his morality inform the story at pivotal moments along the way.

There is much to admire in what happens in the interim. Enger has crafted an interesting, if not entirely original plot in which he deploys his admirably drawn characters. A particular favorite is Reuben's younger sister Swede, who is (almost) unbelievably precocious in her production of epic poetry set in the Wild West; in her hands Zane Grey is somehow transmogrified into Homer. She joins her brother and father in their search for Davy, the eldest son who has fled from prosecution for a crime he undoubtedly committed. What the purpose of that search is, and what the family will do if they find Davy, are questions that drive the story forward.

The novel is strongest when it remains with this core, nuclear family. It is much weaker when the focus shifts to Davy's flight and the company he has taken up, and a minor derailment comes with the deux ex machina performed by one of these characters near the end of the book. Not calamitous, but off-key in an otherwise worthy novel. Enger has taken a simple plot, populated it with several wonderfully original characters, and injected a welcome dose of spirituality.

The Sea by John Banville

banville_sea.jpgJohn Banville writes beautiful prose, and his Booker prize-winning The Sea is no exception. Even those who disliked the book seem compelled to grant him that (Michiko Kakuktani excepted). In addition to a master of style, Banville also seems like a bit of a jerk:

'It is nice," said John Banville on Monday night, "to see a work of art win the Booker prize."

This, of course, moments after his book had won the Booker. An air of superiority is an expected sin with an artist, though not usually worn so openly as this. Is it deserved in this case?

Banville openly displays the breadth and depth of his intelligence in his writing, but a large vocabulary does not a great novel make (thus Kakutani's complaint that The Sea's narrator "talks like someone with a thesaurus permanently implanted in his brain"). The real question is whether Banville puts his words to worthy effect. The Sea is the second Banville novel I have read, having tangled with The Book of Evidence a couple years back. That novel, short-listed for the Booker, shares the lyricism of The Sea, but is notably more dark and dense, as one might except for a book narrated by a murderer from his jail cell.

The Sea has a more ethereal feel to it, much of it spent in self-conscious memories of the narrator's youth. Max Morden, recently widowed, has recently returned to Ballyless, the seaside village where his family summered when he was a child. He rents a room in a house called the Cedars, which in his childhood had been the vacation residence of the Grace family. After a brief, foreboding meditation on the sea, the narration begins with a foggy introduction to that family:

The first thing I saw of them was their motor car, parked on the gravel inside the gate. It was a low-slung, scarred and battered black model with beige leather seats and a big spoked polished wood steering wheel... The front door of the house stood wide open, and I could hear voices inside, downstairs, and from upstairs the sound of bare feet running on floorboards and a girl laughing. I had paused by the gate, frankly eavesdropping, and now suddenly a man with a drink in his hand came out of the house. He was short and top-heavy, all shoulders and chest and big round head, with close-cut, crinkled, glittering-black hair with flecks of premature grey in it and a pointed black beard likewise flecked. He wore a loose green shirt unbuttoned and khaki shorts and was barefoot. His skin was so deeply tanned by the sun it had a purplish sheen.

After this teasing glimpse the novel begins its jumbled and irregular rotation between three general timeframes: the youthful summer at Ballyless with the Grace family, the final months in the life of Max's wife Anna, and Max's present stay at the Cedars. The setting switches with little obvious structure, reflecting the troubled mind of the narrator in his struggles to make sense of the recent loss of his wife and the memories that haunt him.

It is only later that we get a fuller glimpse of the Graces: Carlo and Connie, their twin children Chloe and Myles, and Rose, the nanny (of sorts):

I first saw her, Chloe Grace, on the beach. It was a bright, wind-worried day and the Graces were settled in a shallow recess scooped into the dunes by wind and tides to which their somewhat raffish presence lent a suggestion of the proscenium... Mr. Grace, Carlo Grace, Daddy, was wearing shorts again, and a candy-striped blazer over a chest that was bare save for two big tufts of tight curls in the shape of a miniature pair of widespread fuzzy wings... The blond boy, the swinger on the gate--it was Myles, I may as well give him his name--was crouched at his father's feet, pouting moodily and delving in the sand with a jagged piece of sea-polished driftwood. Some way behind them, in the shelter of the dune wall, a girl, or young woman, was kneeling on the sand, wrapped in a big red towel, under the cover of which she was trying vexedly to wriggle herself free of what would turn out to be a wet bathing suit.. I noticed too that the boy Myles was keeping sidelong watch, in the evident hope, which I shared that the girl's protective towel would slip. She could hardly be his sister, then.

Indeed, that is Rose, whose connection with the family is only vaguely conveyed. The remaining pair, Mrs. Grace and her daughter Chloe, the soon-to-be objects of Max's boyhood affections, are given more extended exposition over the course of the novel. Indeed, the greater portion of the book is spent in memories of that summer, rather than the more recent scenes involving Anna, or the present return to the Cedars.

At first blush this seems odd: why emphasize that the narrator is recently-widowed if the majority of the novel will be spent in the distant past, before he had met his wife? It appears that Max can only approach his recent loss cautiously, tangentially, and for brief moments. The physical return to Ballyless is accompanied by a psychological return to the summer of his youth, which is basically just an escape from his grief and loss: a physical escape from the home he shared with his wife and a psychological escape from thought of her death. As the story of what happened that summer in Ballyless unfolds, it becomes clear why those particular memories remain especially vivid, and why they are brought to the front of his mind by the recent loss of his wife. Interspersed in this extended recollection are the fragments of Max's raw feelings about his wife's death as they bubble to the surface, the memory of his last months with her, and the state he has been left in by her death and his flight to Ballyless.

This study on the motives and machinations of memory is interesting and largely successful. It does seem to this reader that Banville's vocabulary, while no reason for the scorn heaped by Kakutani, unnecessarily weighs down the text. Banville is right to resist the anti-intellectual populist tendency to dumb everything down, but his overcompensation places esotericism on an undeserved pedestal of its own. This book is worth the effort, but bring your thesaurus.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

bronte_wuthering.jpgThere seems to be a consensus that Wuthering Heights is a book that must be read. So say high schools across this nation, the New Lifetime Reading Plan, and the authors who voted for the 100 Most Meaningful Books. As this book makes clear, however, just because something must be read does not mean it must be enjoyed.

The surface problem with Wuthering Heights is that the characters are just so horrifically unlikeable. There is simply no one to identify with: Mr. Earnshaw is a doddering fool who overtly favors his adopted child, Heathcliff, to the detriment of his biological children: Catherine, who grows up wild and self-centered, and Hindley, who grows up spiteful and bitter. It does Heathcliff no favors, either, giving him a taste of the glories of monied life before Earnshaw's death and Hindley's return doom him to the subservience his low birth would seem to dictate. The Linton children are weak, vain, and walk blindly into the wicked webs that issue forth from the Heights. Even the primary narrator, the servant Ellen Dean, is unable to fully scrub her own defects from the story, in which she is complicit in the interweaving tragedies that sweep the two families. It is only with the next generation, in the closing chapters of the book, that pity or hope seems at all appropriate.

Heathcliff, the driving force of the novel, defies the expectation that there must be some hidden romantic soul that will eventually break through his troubled veneer and make him the hero of the tale. Instead, his evil simply grows and grows, testing the outer limits of the reader's sympathy with each fresh atrocity.

Though this makes Heathcliff quite detestable by the book's end, it could work. There is, after all, no requirement that characters be likable. The length and depth of his Achilles-like rage is impressively portrayed. So if Heathcliff's thirst for vengeance were justifiable, or even just believable, the novel would really work.

But that's the problem that lurks beneath the surface. The entire plot basically hinges on one point: that Heathcliff and Catherine were truly in love. That is the only way Catherine's marriage to Edgar Linton is such a betrayal, the only way Heathcliff's multi-generational devotion to revenge bears any sense of justice. But it just does not seem true. There is nothing about the way Heathcliff and Catherine interact that strikes me as love. Mutated obsession, yes. But not love. The childhood scenes take place too fast, the shifts in the balance of power too sudden, to get any sense of why the Earnshaw household is the way it is, or how love could blossom under that roof.

And without real, genuine love, this is essentially a book about a bunch of psychological defectives torturing each other and their children. The book does have its strengths. As I said, the endurance of Heathcliff's villainy is breathtaking. The claustrophobic setting of the novel and the incestuous relationships of its inhabitants play off each other quite effectively (it's easy to forget there is even a world beyond the moors, let alone other people). These strengths, however, can not mask the basic defects of the plot.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

mcewan_on.jpgWhile traveling in London last month, one of my ambitions was to visit the Charing Cross Road and Cecil Court bookshops and bring home some literary souvenirs of our visit. Cecil Court has a small, but very impressive (and expensive) set of antiquarian bookshops. Unfortunately, like so many book-related nostalgias here and abroad, Charing Cross Road itself has apparently lost much of its magic. There were only a few independent bookshops left, and those tended to be super-specialized in fields outside my interest. The big hitters are still there, however, including Blackwell's and Foyle's, and the latter proved to be the one place I found a book worth bringing home: a signed copy of Ian McEwan's latest, On Chesil Beach.

This slim novel/novella is quintessential McEwan, with a slow focus on physical and atmospheric details that evoke the psychological story McEwan is really telling, that of the abbreviated young love of Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting. As demonstrated in Enduring Love and Black Dogs (but not, unfortunately, in Amsterdam), McEwan is at his best when he leaves intricate plotting to the side and goes in the for slow motion closeups.

This simple story of love undone and words unsaid works because the ambition is simple: show two sides of a relationship that rested half on love and half on deception and misunderstanding, in a time (the early 1960s) before emotions were worn on the sleeve and sex was freely discussed. McEwan captures the awkwardness, the anxiety, and the anticipation with skill, and conveys potentially graphic sexuality with the same matter of fact tone he has brought to death and dismemberment in the past.

If there is a fault to the book, it comes in the latter pages when the equality of the perspective is dropped and Edward's retrospective becomes the focus. Edward's view of the how and why are left unchallenged by any reply by Florence. Not a fatal flaw by any means, but a curious mistep in an otherwise finely balanced short novel.

Recommended for all readers of modern fiction, essential for McEwan fans.

Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara

ohara_appointment.jpgModern Library's list of the top 100 novels of the 20th Century was a revelatory reading list for me when it first came out several years ago. Though I now recognize the tremendous weaknesses of the list (most importantly that it only involves English language novels and grossly underrepresents female authors), at the time it was the best resource I had found. I might go so far as to say it was the inspiration that got me back into reading novels, after the first couple years of college had stripped me of the energy to read anything that was not assigned.

I immediately began reading books that I'd only barely heard of before, like Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon and Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King; the latter is now one of my favorite books. In the years since, I've greatly expanded my reading list, largely on the basis of The New Lifetime Reading Plan, so my progress through the Modern Library List has slowed. But I still have quite a few books from that list on my shelf, and last week I picked up #22, John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra.

Unbeknowst to me at the time, O'Hara's book is apparently one of the most controversial selections on the Modern Library list:

[W]riting in the Atlantic Monthly in March, 2000, critic Benjamin Schwarz and writer Christina Schwarz claimed: "So widespread is the literary world's scorn for John O'Hara that the inclusion... of Appointment in Samarra on the Modern Library's list of the 100 best [English-language] novels of the twentieth century was used to ridicule the entire project."

I'm not sure that its inclusion itself merits such ridicule, but certainly it's placement at #22, ahead of books like William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, is one of the list's many flaws.

Though overrated on the Modern Library list, the book has its strengths. Experiencing the slow boil of Julian English, particularly in his drunken internal monologues, is a bit like finally getting inside the head of one of Raymond Carver's alcoholics. There is a sad, unexplained inevitability to English's self-destruction, but O'Hara subtly avoids showing the worst of it until late in the book.

Until then, we see the build-up of English's discontent, but the narration quickly cuts away before the release, and we are left to hear about it from other characters or through English's reminiscences. The latter are brought up in English's confrontations with his unhappy wife, Caroline, some of the most powerful passages in the book. It becomes increasingly clear that English is not just losing control of himself, but is losing his sense of himself, and this dislocation is the driving force in his downfall.

Perhaps it is merely the proximity of my own reading of Carver that has me drawing parallels, but the shared subject matter of alcoholism and broken marriages seems enough to invite some comparison. Carver's minimalism leaves much unspoken just below the surface, while O'Hara dives forcefully into English's psyche. Yet for all that, English's self-destruction is no more explicable, and the reader is left to sort out why and how a man can so completely unravel in three short days.

Mildly recommended for fans of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and other purveyors of alcohol lit in the early twentieth century.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

morrison_beloved.jpgDespite the best efforts of my 12th grade English teacher, at 17 years of age I could not, or would not, appreciate the beauty, wisdom, and insight of works by a number of female African-American authors. Perhaps it was my teenage naïveté, or just plain stubborness, but I read Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and Toni Morrison's Beloved feeling rather defensive as a white male, as if the purpose of the texts was to paint as bad a picture of men, and especially white men, as possible.

Well that was pure stupid silliness, plain and simple. Embarrassing at best, but shameful seems more apt. Having re-read each of those books in the past several months, I can now see the pain, the repression, and the reaction that each book narrates. I can see the elements of the books that are universally human and the elements which are unique to African-American women in the South. More importantly, I can now appreciate and learn from those unique elements, and recognize the vital contribution that Hurston and Morrison have made.

Having just finished Beloved a few days ago, the power of the story lingers on in my thoughts. On the most universal level, it is a story about love and loss, the various ways to react to inexplicable tragedy, the power of family and community, and the shaping and re-shaping of self-concept.

Yet Morrison's story can not be separated from its time, the years immediately before, during, and after the Civil War. It can not be separated from its place, northern Kentucky and southern Ohio, the battleground between heaven and hell in the era of slavery. And it can not be separated from its characters, ex-slaves still traumatized by the power and proximity (in time and place) of their bondage.

Morrison's great triumph is in telling a story that touches the universal without sacrificing or short-changing a story unique to slaves. I believe Morrison has said that part of the purpose of the book was to give voice to those whose voice was taken away, or never recorded, and in this she has succeeded. In Sethe, Baby Suggs, and Denver, she has given three generations of African-American women a voice that is undoubtedly human, but undoubtedly their own.

The other aspect of Morrison's novel that gave me fits as a teenager, but now inspires admiration, is the challenging structure and style. While I might still rave about the spare simplicity of Raymond Carver's work, I am no longer allergic to literature that is challenging in its construction as well as its content. Morrison's use of flashbacks, alternating narrators and perspective, and stream of consciousness is not mere experiment or flash, it adds substantively to the work, makes it possible to convey feelings, visions, and the biases of multiple perspectives that could not be otherwise conveyed. Her structure, her style are indispensable to the success of the novel.

An essential book for readers of fiction.

Where I'm Calling From by Raymond Carver

carver_where.jpgFor many years, Robert Coles taught a class at Harvard called General Education 105, "The Literature of Social Reflection." It was widely and accurately perceived as a gut course, wherein the students read great books and then proceeded to sit around and talk about how the books made us feel. This was the course description:

An examination of selected novels, essays, poems, and autobiographical statements which aim at social scrutiny or at a moral critique of a particular society. Lectures emphasize the distinctive approach of the literary mind to a variety of social problems: poverty, racial injustice, historical change, the various tensions of rural and urban life. Authors studied include...

In fact, the authors studied varied amongst the small sections. While Dr. Coles gave the lectures, there were also weekly meetings in small groups led by a teaching assistant (TA), usually one of Dr. Coles' graduate students, and the TA's supplemented the skeletal required reading list with their own choices from a master list selected by Dr. Coles. My TA, who became a good friend, was particularly fond of Raymond Carver, and we were assigned to read several stories from Where I'm Calling From and several poems from A New Path to the Waterfall.

My performance in the class reflected the fact that I was it was fall of my senior year. In addition to senioritis, I was knee-deep in applications to law school, and had yet to decide whether to actually go to law school rather than immediately enter active duty as an Army tank officer. So I may have skipped a bit of the reading here and there.

While I missed out on some great reading at the time, I did not miss the point that this was important, moving literature. Our small sections were some of my favorite hours spent at Harvard, listening to other students' reactions to the books, as well as reflections on their own life stories. I have kept James Agee, Flannery O'Connor, William Carlos Williams and others on my reading list ever since.

High on that list was Carver's Where I'm Calling From. I'm a bit ashamed it took me five years to finally get around to it, but it was well worth the wait. Carver's reputation for minimalism is well-earned. The characters are utterly unexceptional, and Carver's narrators offer little guidance on what the stories mean or how the characters are to be judged. It is left to us to dig into the sparse prose and pull out deeper meaning.

This, of course, makes Carver's stories a goldmine for a course like Gen Ed 105. Every student brought a different perspective and many had wildly different reactions to the stories. Particularly with Carver's emphasis on broken or breaking families and alcoholism, those readers with divorce and/or alcoholism in their lives saw things quite differently from those of us spared such trauma.

Point being, what I loved about reading Carver was that I felt truly engaged by the work, without being made to feel stupid or tricked by an overly complicated literary style. It was the sparse simplicty itself that forced me, as the reader, to make my own judgments and grapple with the ambiguities and complexities of ordinary life.

Highly recommended for all lovers of thoughtful modern fiction.