Category: Contemporary Fiction

So Little Time

In an early David Lodge novel (I can’t recall its title), the narrator asserts that the difference between characters in novels and people in real life is that the characters have way more sex and less children.

I am hardly going to deny that contemporary novels usually feature more and better sex than most of us get to enjoy.  But the more striking wish fulfillment embedded in the novels I read is the abundance of time.

In A Little Life, the main character Jude is an accomplished pianist, an astounding cook (especially of pastries), takes long walks around New York City (at least until he loses his legs), works long days and most weekends at his law firm, maintains a variety of friendships, goes to art openings, the movies and plays, and oversees the renovation of at least two apartments and one house.  Not to mention the frequent trips to Europe, especially London and Paris.  If only . . .

There was brief period to time in my life when I was lonely and had time on my hands, basically the first few years of graduate school.  I did, in some ways, get more done in that time than I can, in memory, credit as possible.  The amounts I read and wrote are staggering to recall at this late date.  But even at that time I always felt pressed for time, always felt I was giving things a lick and a polish on the idea that I would return to them and give them their proper due, my full attention, at some later date.

That time in my life came to an end with the formation of some close friendships—and then my first marriage and my first job.  From that day until this, I have been deeply entangled in a network of obligations and commitments that leave little time to breathe.  Not that I am complaining.  I wanted desperately in my “out” years to move to the center of my time (a phrase from Thomas Hardy that has always been a touchstone for me).  But this busyness is always haunted by the sense of things not done, of interests left unexplored, or of tasks done in a half-assed way because of time constraints.  And it is that sense of constant hurry, or a total lack of leisure, that novels fail to portray.

Like the dyer’s hand, my nature is subdued.  I don’t think, at this point, that I am capable of doing something slowly, with pain-staking care.  I have become habituated to doing things quickly, to an ingrained sense of what is “good enough,” thus leaving time to move on to the next thing.  Just as I know that moving to the country in order to secure peace and quiet would be crazy for someone of my temperament, so the notion that I could settle into one or two activities pursued at length is most likely delusionary.  My attention span might be longer than that of our perennially maligned millennials, but I don’t want to disconnect any more than they do, even if my connections are not as often virtual.  I crave the constant input, the pace that is a little too fast for comfort, but frantic in ways that make me feel energized and alive.  Better manic than depressed any day.

Effortless Wealth

I have recently read two long novels, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas.  That I got through both of them is testament to their ability to grab a reader since, in my cranky old age, I now abandon novels sixty, eight, even a hundred twenty pages in, if I lose interest.

One striking thing in both novels is that the characters become wealthy way past ordinary dreams.  A thirteen year old son in the Wolas novel starts a software company that makes him a billionaire by the age of twenty-two, while his mother, the Joan Ashby of the title, just has to have her fiction submitted anonymously to a literary agent to secure million dollar advances and two million dollar movie deals.  In A Little Life the climb to fame and fortune takes a little bit longer (one of the novel’s strengths is its portrayal of young artists on the make in New York City), but the four friends at the core of the novel each succeed in ways denied to 99% of humanity, becoming a famous movie star, an acclaimed painter, a highly successful architect, and a top corporate lawyer respectively.  And they have the multiple houses and fabulous vacations to show for their virtue-gotten wealth.

Yanagihara is shrewd about the moment of the “turn,” the moment when her protagonists realize that they have “made it,” that they have stepped across the line into success.  But the shrewdness doesn’t extend to a realization that the “turn” happens to very few.  Most people slug along, with successes here and there, but without ever crossing that line, without even securing permanent fame or security.  They have “good enough” careers that are always a struggle, always retain the possibility of collapsing, don’t ever “make it” once and for all.  Just like very few people attain the levels of wealth that allow all money worries to disappear entirely.  Both novels do suggest that for people under forty these days, especially if your life is centered in New York City, it is obvious that being a millionaire doesn’t cut it.  Only hundreds of millions reaching toward a billion register in today’s economy—or today’s dreamscape.

Does this matter?  In one way, no.  If an author wants to take money and career anxieties off the table in order to focus on other things, that’s OK.  But in another way it does raise the question of the “realistic” novel.  Both of these novels tell stories about people presented as our contemporaries.  Both aspire to psychological depth and complexity.  They do aspire to be reports to readers about our current physical, mental, and spiritual condition.  So I can’t help but think that their wet dream visions of fame and wealth are telling in and of themselves.  It seems to suggest that what the two authors truly want is fame and fortune. Even if they, F. Scott Fitzgerald fashion, must rely on sheer magic to get to that promised land.  The rest be damned.

Wolas’s novel comes very, very close to making that point its main theme.  Her heroine, Joan Ashby, deeply regrets having sacrificed her art to family life.  Her “resurrection” comes with abandoning that family and, especially, her responsibilities as a mother.  Of course, she is rewarded by writing a best-selling novel and meeting a dreamy new lover.  Naturally, the new man is not just a hunk, but also a world-famous photographer. When we occupy such a blatant script of wish fulfillment, it’s hard to know how to credit the “truths” the novel clearly aspires to convey to us.

Even more confusing is the fact that the central event of the novel makes no sense at all.  Joan Ashby’s son (the other one, not the computer genius) steals an unpublished novel of hers and has it published under a pseudonym.  Somehow this is meant to assuage his horror at being the untalented one of the family.  But how?  Since the book is published under a pseudonym and he must refuse all in-person interviews or book signings in order to keep his nefarious deed a secret, what exactly did he expect to get out of this?

His mother, upon finding out, doesn’t confront him and ask why he has done this, but flees instead to India in hopes of meeting the Dalai Lama, who will bring her enlightenment.  But she also nurses a sense of deep grievance.  Her son has stolen her soul by stealing her novel, committing a sin that is irreparable.  But the remedy lies directly to hand.  Just announce to the world that the book was published under a pseudonym, but is actually the work of Joan Ashby.  There are plenty of hints, although never a direct statement, that Joan craves the attention and acclaim that comes with successful authorship.  It is that which the son has stolen from her since, after all, she has all the rest: the satisfaction of having written a well-received novel, the knowledge of having gained many readers, and all the money the book has earned.  Yet—and this is the kicker—the novel clearly expects us to sympathize entirely with Joan, to feel as outraged as her with what has transpired, and to see her flight (and refusal to deal with either her son or her husband) as not only understandable, but as heroic and noble.  The lack of any dissenting perspectives on Joan robs the book of the very depth to which it aspires.  Chasing fame and fortune trumps all else—and it is just assumed that, of course, readers will agree.  We will root for Joan and be thrilled when, in the end, she gets to have it all.

The Yanagihara novel is more complex.  It is, as its many readers and reviewers have noted, a melodrama.  Characters come in only two shades: black and white.  The one exception is the painter J.B., who drops out of the novel about half-way through.  But what the reviews I have read did not mention is how class-bound the melodrama is.  There is a wild America out there, the America of what we now think of as Trumpland.  It is a violent place, made up of sexual perverts and violent sadists.  It has no redeeming qualities and can only treat an innocent like Jude (the novel’s victim) with endless abuse.  But if you can sail from that hell into a liberal arts college and get taken up by the members and scions of the professional upper middle class, all will be well.  These people are so well-behaved, so well-meaning, so nice.  Except for one bad encounter with a violent lover, Jude is only surrounded by supportive, loving, non-violent people once he gets to college at age sixteen.  Niceness can’t overcome the traumas of Jude’s horrible childhood—which is why the New Yorker review found the novel so bracing.  Here was a writer brave enough to forego redemption or recovery for its victimized protagonist. But that’s not really how it happens.  Jude is saved by Willhelm’s love.  The author has to kill Willhelm off in a car accident to get Jude to the desired end: his suicide.  Daniel Medelsohn in the New York Review of Books thus proclaims the author the true sadist of this tale—and wonders why readers have loved a book that tortures its main character over hundreds of pages.

The lesson in Wolas’s novel seems pretty clear: money and a love of art will get you through.  Neither alone is enough, but if you have both, then you can survive this rough world.  There is more than that to Yanagihara’s tale.  What makes A Little Life such a moving novel (it is a very, very powerful melodrama, with the full Dickensian ability to make you cry) is its insistence that the real key—even though money and satisfying, well received work are essential—is friendship.  Neither novel believes (if that is the right word) in romantic love.  For Wolas, such love is a trap.  For Yanagihara, such love is only valuable the more it resembles, shades into, friendship.  Companionship is at the heart of A Little Life and the source of its emotional richness.  A disdain of companionship as weakness is what finally marks the airlessness of The Resurrection of Joan Ashby.

Some More Good Books

My previous post on some good books I have read recently is here.

Now I am going to talk about three old hands.

First up, Ward Just.  An American realist, author of some 18 novels, and the four or five I have read are all excellent.  Just finished Rodin’s Debutante, about Chicago just after World War II.  About race, class, and corruption.  It’s Chicago, right?

Next up, Thomas Mallon.  A favorite of mine, who has embarked on a series of novels about our recent presidents.  I haven’t read the ones on Reagan and George W. Bush—and don’t know if I can bring myself to have to relive those years, even in fiction.  But Watergate, his novel about the Nixon scandal, is excellent, while Henry and Clara, about the couple who were in the box at Ford’s Theater with Mary and Abraham Lincoln the night of the assassination, is one of the best novels of the past twenty years.  The story of Henry and Clara Rathbone is unbelievable from start to finish—but it’s all true.  Credit to Mallon to finding this tale that was hiding in plain sight.

Finally, the Australian novelist Thomas Keneally, known as the author of Schindler’s List, but strangely neglected otherwise.  He’s also an historical novelist, writing about both the US and Australia.  The ones I just read are set in Australia during World War II: Office of Innocence and Shame and Captives.  The first concerns the encounter between the Aussies and American troops who arrived in early 1942 as Australia braced for what seemed the inevitable invasion by the Japanese.  The second is set in 1944 in a prisoner of war camp where the Japanese internees mount a suicidal escape attempt.  (This one is based on—and follows closely—the historical incident that is its inspiration.)  Also highly recommended by Kineally are Daughters of Mars (about Australian nurses during World War I), The Playmaker (about the use of Australia as an open air prison by the English), and Confederates (about soldiers in Stonewall Jackson’s brigades).

Another recent read:  John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story.  Kaag joins his discovery of a treasure trove of books left by a Harvard philosopher who was the last torch-bearer for the greats—William James, Josiah Royce, and Charles Sanders Peirce among them—who founded American philosophy in the late 19th century with his own personal journey toward a rejuvenating love.  A sweet book.

Some Good Books

One sign of my advancing age is that I have a hard time finding books to read.  I go to the public library and bring home seven or eight novels.  I begin to read five or six of them, and put four of them down in boredom or irritation or worse.  I search around for non-fiction as well, but don’t find much that appeals to me.  I can’t get overly indignant about this.  Writing a good book is hard to do—and so we should expect good books to be rare.  That so many mediocre to bad books are published is no cause for outrage either.  As with any endeavor, you need the mediocre for the excellent to float upon.  If there weren’t a critical mass of people invested in the effort, despite their not being very good at it, the enterprise would fade away altogether.

In any case, for whatever reason, I’ve been on a winning streak.  I have read a number of very good books over this past month.  So it’s great to be able to share good news.

First up, David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks.  Mitchell is such a great straight-forward writer that I can only regret his sliding into the fantastic in his novels.  But that’s just the price of admission.  The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a great novel that captures the feel of colonialism tied to an absurd science fiction/adventure story.  Bone Clocks has as good a description of what it felt like on the ground in Iraq in 2005-2006 as one is ever likely to find.  And it has an equally compelling post-apocalyptic vision of our world after global warming and other disasters has destroyed it (circa 2040).  All of this great stuff mired in a complex fantasy world about some people who get to me immortal—with long tedious explanations of how it all works.  Still a great book—complete with the following stern warning:

“Five years later, I take a deep, shuddery breath to stop myself crying.  It’s not just that I can’t hold Aoife again, it’s everything: It’s grief for the regions we deadlanded, the ice caps we melted, the Gulf Stream we redirected, the rivers we drained, the coasts we flooded, the lakes we choked with crap, the seas we killed, the species we drove to extinction, the pollinators we wiped out, the oil we squandered, the drugs we rendered impotent. The comforting liars we voted into office—all so we didn’t have to change our cozy lifestyles.  People talk about the Endarkenment like our ancestors talked about the Black Plague, as if it’s an act of God.  But we summoned it, with every tank of oil we burned our way through.  My generation were diners stuffing ourselves senseless at the Restaurant of Earth’s Riches knowing—while denying—that we’d be doing a runner and leaving our grandchildren a tab that can never be paid.

David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks, pg. 560-61 (New York: Random House, 2014).

Next up: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.  This book, of course, has been receiving raves all over—and won the National Book Award.  It took me three weeks to read.  It is so intense that I had to put it down for four or five days before I could bear to pick it up again.  Whitehead, too, has his fantastic elements.  But, unlike Mitchell, he doesn’t feel compelled to explain them.  They are just there, another feature of a narrative that is, very often, disorienting.  Quite deliberately so, since that disorientation mirrors the predicament of the protagonist.  I won’t say anything more; it’s a great book.

Two more to mention now—and then I’ll be back with more in a future post.

Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside.  I quoted this book a few days back.  It’s about black on black homicide in Los Angeles—and not only details that horror, but also shows how most of our received ideas about it and its causes are wrong.  It’s a sad tale about racism, about our society’s failures, and about the dreadful trap into which many blacks, especially black males, are born.  Her story also has a few heroes—dedicated police detectives who need to fight an apathetic system, woeful underfunding and understaffing, and hostility form just about everyone they encounter in the attempt to bring killers to justice.

Finally, a novel called The Midnight Choir by Gene Kerrigan.  I very rarely read this type of book.  It’s best described as “noir.”  It’s about a number of policemen in Ireland, mostly Dublin.  As intricately—and perfectly—plotted a novel as you will ever read.  But it’s the characterizations and the setting of the scene that makes this novel so superb.  Absolutely compelling and convincing even as it plays fast and loose with the reader’s sympathies.  It’s such a pleasure to read a book so well-crafted while also so thoughtful and clever.

More next time.