A Literary Cavalcade

Literary comments by Robert A. Parker on a wide range of serious 20th and 21st century novels

Everybody’s Fool, by Richard Russo

This 2016 novel reads as if Russo has fallen in love with his characters of Nobody’s Fool, as well as being fascinated by the down-at-the-heels town of North Bath that he has created in upper New York State. And without any overall plan, has decided to re-apply his writing skills to that town and to explore the subsequent lives of these same characters. The result is a serious novel that cares deeply about its creations, but it does seems unfocused, as it follows these citizens around without an apparent purpose in doing so. And as a result, seems simply to create a world that is alive in the author’s mind, and which he is skilled enough to bring alive also to the reader.

And so we follow the parallel adventures of four male residents who talk to each other but whose lives do not affect each other, and who are not dependent on one another. We simply move from one character’s life to the next. These characters are Sully Sullivan, the main character from the earlier novel about North Bath, whose health is now threatened by a weak heart; Doug Raymer, the town’s chief of police, who is the most prominent character in this novel and who seeks to learn the identity of the man who was his wife’s lover before she died; Gus Moynihan, the North Bath mayor, who also has spousal problems but is less significant; and Carl Roebuck, the town entrepreneur, who never achieves the business success he seeks and also fades out at the end of this novel.

Each of these characters sees himself as failing to live up to his potential, just as their town has failed economically to keep up with its wealthy neighbor, Schuyler Springs. However, Russo helps the reader to identify with each of these characters, despite their human weaknesses, as it is clear that each of them is dealing with a personal trait or a family connection that hinders their search for happiness and fulfillment.

These four main characters bring substance to this novel, nevertheless, and give depth to this town. But it is other characters, less substantial, who drive the action of this novel. The most prominent is Charice Bond, a highly efficient black woman who is the aide to police chief Raymer, and with whom he has an emotional connection. There is also her unsettled brother, Jerome, with whom she has an even closer emotional connection; Rub Squeers, a hapless town handyman who tries and fails to be Sully’s best friend; and Roy Purdy, the most significant, a violent man who beats up people, especially his ex-wife and his former mother-in-law, the latter because she has had a long affair with Sully.

One means of probing the interior of these characters, lending them literary substance, is the use of humor. The most obvious source is Dougie, an inner voice of Doug Raymer who needles him, sees his weaknesses, and also acts as his conscience. Unfortunately, this italicized voice is overdone, and becomes too obvious a means of revealing Raymer’s inner thoughts. It also prompts an absurd moment when Raymer becomes a hero by grabbing a deadly cobra and putting it back in a box. Yes, a cobra is loose in town in one of the novel’s major absurdities.

But not the only one. There is also grave robbing. It seems Raymer has found a garage opener in his dead wife’s car, and he goes around town pointing it at neighbor’s garages in order to learn whom she had an affair with. Except, he then falls into a grave, loses the opener, and it is buried behind him. Voila, a grave robber. There is also more humor behind other human foibles, foibles resulting in a collapsed wall or a stinking basement, all of which bring out the ignorance, the pettiness, and the contradictions in the town’s residents.

That is, much of the novel’s humor evolves from the futility that marks these characters. Raymer is an incompetent police chief. Sully has a bad heart, and refuses to acknowledge it. Moynihan is a failure as a mayor, and Roebuck as a businessman. And handyman Rub is the most incompetent of all.

The casual exchanges among these men reflect the shallowness of their character, which, in turn, betrays why this town is a failure compared to Schuyler Springs. But these exchanges also reveal Russo’s sympathy for them, along with their incompetence; which, in turn, keeps the reader involved in their escapades and in this novel. And which also reflects the work’s facetious title, as it suggests the incompetence of everyone, especially in its focus on Chief Raymer.

The major disappointment I have in this novel is its looseness, its moving simply from the foibles of one character to those of another. The result is the portrait of a town and its failures, and yet not a commentary on the reasons behind those failures. For it likes its characters too much. That is, Russo does. Only the violent Roy is condemned. (Indeed, Russo says he took a shower after writing each of Roy’s chapters.)

A final disappointment is the ending, which brings peace, satisfaction, or happiness to these incompetent characters. It is too arbitrary for me, reflecting too much of the author’s sympathy for these people he has created. More appropriate for this town would have been some irony that continues the frustrations confronting these basically incompetent citizens.

As Russo approaches the end of his distinguished career, it is heartening to see him again take a serious approach to small town life. Perhaps the humor is intended to take the edge off the novel’s seriousness, and therefore attract more readers. I will accept that. I just wish the characters could have been more involved with each other, instead of living their own separate lives with their own separate problems. Perhaps such complexity is too much to handle for an author in the later stages of his career. Which does make one wonder how complex, how probing, future Russo novels will be. (November, 2017)

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A Painted House, by John Grisham

This 2001 work is a different Grisham novel, not a thriller, not one centered on the law. And this is precisely why I was drawn to it. It is the story of a seven-year old boy, Luke Chandler, who lives with his family in the cotton fields of Arkansas. Luke narrates the struggles of this farm family—presumably based on Grisham’s own youthful origins—as his parents and grandparents try to survive their hardscrabble life against a context of human evil and natural disaster.

The story encompasses just a few months in the fall, but they are key months to these farmers, since this is when the cotton is harvested. It is also when a family learns whether it has made a profit or sunk deeper into debt. But a family cannot harvest its cotton alone, and so the Chandlers hire migrant Mexicans, who come north to make money, as well as poor people from nearby hill country. This year, it is the Spruill family, who leave their Ozark home to earn money.

The arrival of these cotton pickers adds drama to Luke’s life. He takes his own family for granted—that is, his grandparents, Pappy and Gran, and his father and mother. He also has a young uncle, Ricky, off fighting in Korea. Since he has no one his own age to relate to, Luke regards the absent Ricky as just an older brother, and, like the whole family, yearns for him to come home. Luke is also taken with pretty girls, reflecting still more awareness of the world, and he is fascinated by teenager Tally Spruill. Although he is too young for it to be a sexual attraction, he is not too young not to be disappointed by her own subsequent betrayal of their friendship.

There is continual drama in this novel, but it stems from a series of interesting events rather than one dramatic development that grows more and more complex. There is the tension of picking the cotton on long hot days, and wondering what price one will get when one takes it into town. There is tension between the Mexican group and the Spruills, but also within each grouping, a tension that produces a brutal murder and a seduction and elopement. Then comes, separately, the tension of a birth everyone wants to conceal from town gossip. There is also tension, as the hot sun is replaced by rain, and then by a flooding that threatens the harvest. For without a full harvest, of course, the family finances will flounder.

Amid all this drama, there are also quieter moments that lend substance to narrator Luke and to his family. Luke is a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, and dreams of playing for them one day, just as other children dream of playing for their favorite team. Trips to town for either supplies or entertainment also lend variety and moments of escape. Finally, the unity of the family, and its idealism, is represented by the painting of the family farmhouse—thus bringing more continuity to this work, as well as the dreams that lurk within these struggling farmers.

What we have here is an old story, an innocent boy’s exposure to the harsh world of reality, a reality brought by the evil in men as well as by the reality of Mother Nature. It is also a reality that the boy Luke learns to accept, indeed is forced to accept. Which means that the sad and moving ending to this novel is colored by a vision of hope. And so, as life brings change, one senses that Luke and this family will survive.

One does wonder, however, if this was too much a positive ending, or a superficial ending, for literary critics. For, when published, this work did not receive many favorable reviews. It was welcomed as a literary attempt, but was faulted for its shallowness. It was criticized frequently for its lack of black characters and any racial tension. But that, clearly, was not what Grisham wanted to write about. He wanted to portray the difficult life of cotton farmers, and how they fought nature and worked around another kind of social tension—the tension between the middle-class and the poor.

In sum, these critics wanted Grisham to write another kind of novel. And so, when they addressed the novel he did write, they labeled it superficial. The family is also called stereotypical. Pappy’s leadership is unchallenged. Gran practices folk medicine and makes great biscuits. And mother has her vegetable garden. The social context is shallow, critics wrote, because there are no blacks. And the plotting is weak, they also wrote. They did not acknowledge that farming life itself is slow, since it follows the slow processes of nature—and one deals with an environment in which one must fight fatigue, the hot sun, and tumultuous rainstorms.

These critics are also looking for an adult world, not the world of a seven-year-old boy. This precocious boy, who is conveniently able to eavesdrop on the conversations behind adult decisions, is for them either too precocious or not precocious enough. Or old enough. But it is the boy’s innocence that Grisham also wishes to convey. And how that innocence slowly accommodates itself to the reality of cotton farming.

There are moments of high drama, of course. There is a beating the entire town sees. And the issue of how the perpetrator should be punished. There is also a brutal murder that Luke witnesses. Should he report it, after the killer threatens to kill his mother if he squeals? This is another interesting moral issue that the novel only touches upon. And there is the disappearance of Tally, and how this disillusions Luke, raising another moral issue. But such drama comes from isolated moments, a drama that has in common two alienated characters, two representations of evil, but offers no inevitable connection in which each act leads inevitably to the next.

Grisham’s subject, to sum up, emphasizes social tension, but it has nothing to do with race. One critic points out that blacks represented only three percent of the population of the county in which the real Black Oak, where this novel is set, is located. One may surmise, indeed, that Grisham chose this town for precisely that reason.

One may also conclude that Grisham has written here a novel of youth and innocence that earns him a certain literary status. It is not a great novel, but it is a worthwhile one. Indeed, here is a wish that he would more often leave the commercial world of trial lawyers and write more novels like this one. (November, 2017)

Gone the Dreams and Dancing, by Douglas C. Jones

I have long been a fan of Douglas Jones, not least because I have been impressed by his capture of the Indian experience, beginning with his tales of George Armstrong Custer and Sitting Bull. Those two novels worked because he imaginatively recreated the Indian world in tension with the white man’s world. Here, however, as the title suggests, he tells a different story, that of the proud Indians’ painful adjustment, after their defeat, to the white man’s culture.

This 1984 novel is beautifully written, as are all his works, and is a major reason I have long chosen to read Jones. But this novel is less successful in novelistic terms. Not, however, because it is told from the viewpoint of a white man, Liverpool (Liver) Morgan, a Welshman. He is a fine man, as well as an understanding spokesman for the author; and we understand why others trust him and his fairness, especially from his memories of the Civil War as a Confederate soldier, as well as his memories of his Welsh parents. These are often poetic interludes that do interrupt his current narrative with the Indians, but also demonstrate Jones’ imaginative probing into the depths of his character.

Liver first encounters the Indian leader, Kwahadi, as the chief leads his Comanche tribe peacefully onto the land the white man has reserved for them. The novel then takes us through a series of events that both bring Liver closer to Kwahadi and demonstrate the slow absorption of these Comanches into the white man’s ways. But as the Kirkus review sums up, it is a rich “if relatively undramatic, Jones historical novel.”

Kwahadi, the Indian chief, becomes Jones’ pathway into illustrating how the Indians have had to abandon two mainstays of their culture when they pledged themselves to a peaceful life. For that decision has denied its young men important elements of their warrior culture. That is, they no longer go into battle against other tribes; and, second, the buffalo, whom they eagerly pursued as a source of food and clothing, have vanished. And so, to enable these Indians to hold onto one key symbol of their way of life, Liver helps the Comanche leader retrieve a sacred lance that is symbolic of their warrior culture. Then, more practically, he helps the tribe obtain both the horses they need to explore the world beyond their reservation and the cattle they need to feed themselves.

Each of these steps illustrates a need these Indians have as they adjust to their new world. But there is no dramatic unity to these events. There are simply a series of problems Liver helps to solve, and by doing so helps slowly to develop his relationship with Kwahadi and his people. Moreover, that relationship grows quite personal, as Liver soon acts as a successful go-between for a young white army contractor who wishes to marry one of Kwahadi’s daughters.

And this relationship becomes even more personal, when Kwahadi, the son of a white woman who was kidnapped by the Indians and then recaptured a generation later, yearns for the mother he has lost. And because he trusts Liver, who knows the white man’s world, he asks Liver to find what happened to his white mother, and whether or not she is still alive. And this mission carries Liver through much of the remaining novel. Indeed, to re-enforce his trust, Kwahadi directs another Indian to protect Liver from a white man’s ambush. And, finally, the chief offers Liver, a widower, an Indian woman as a wife—to cure a loneliness he sees in the white man—and Liver agrees.

The final integration of the Indians comes with a trip to Ft. Worth, where Kwahadi and his Indian friends are to be honored. But it also ends with a tragedy, as well as with Liver fulfilling the mission that Kwahadi gave him, to discover the fate of the Indian’s wife. And so the conclusion of these two events helps to bring this work itself to an emotional close.

Except, there is an Epilogue, which suggests that Liver and Kwahadi were real people. It is not clear if this is true or an attempt to create verisimilitude. But I do note that Jones’ most successful early novels were built around historical events that really happened, and onto which he grafted his marvelous imaginative powers, powers that brought him inside the head of both Indians and white men. Did he need that verisimilitude again to give more substance to this work of fiction?

This novel did not receive the attention that reviewers gave his earlier work. Perhaps because it was not inspired by a specific moment in history. Instead, it presents the gradual assimilation of Indians into the white man’s culture. It may thus be appropriate to quote from my 2005 review of Jones’ novel Roman, that Jones “fails to offer a single, unified story that stretches itself into a greater complexity. Instead, he offers a picaresque series of adventures that offer no challenge to his hero, even as they immerse us into the daily activities of life on the range and in the towns, cities, and forts.”

Finding the fate of Kwahadi’s mother was not an easy task for Liver, but it was also not enough to tie this work together with any continuity. In part because it was achieved so easily. Liver knew the right person, who in turn knew the governor. One concludes that Jones is really committed here to the larger story, the assimilation of the Indians. He is less committed to the fate of his individual characters. Because this is the story about cultures rather than about individual people. The people merely illustrate the cultures.

This book has sat on my shelf for many years. I felt no urgency to read it, perhaps reflecting the reviewers’ lack of interest when this novel was published. But I am happy I finally picked it up. And it deserved to be published. For it covers an important element of America’s Western history. And we should be grateful that Jones decided to write this story of these two cultures that were so important to our country’s past. (November, 2017)

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

This 2014 work is a difficult novel to evaluate. Is it a straight novel, or a fantasy novel? For its first four of six sections, it is a realistic novel that tells the stories of real people, with a bit of fantasy hovering in the background. It is quite enjoyable. With the fifth section, however, it becomes a pure fantasy novel, with confusing characters whose unique powers relate more to each other than to the humans we know. And one concludes that creating this fantasy may be the real purpose of the novel.

What is revealed in the fifth section is that a war is going on between two different beings for the control of humanity. When one being, the Horologists, die, they are reborn forty-nine days later inside a child about to die. They thus live for many generations, many centuries. The others, the Anchorites, never age and never die, as long as they can kill and absorb a normal, living person. The former are the good guys, the latter the bad guys.

The confusion begins when the fantasy characters, throughout the novel, hide within either other fantasy characters or in the human characters. This occurs with Holly, an innocent young girl who will appear in many of the sections as she grows into an adult, even becoming famous when she writes about fantasy visions she sees of the future. Plus, early in the novel, she unwittingly agrees to have an Esther Little hide inside her. Eventually, this Little turns out to be an adored Horologist and a mentor to many others.

Each of the six sections is related by a different narrator. The first narrator is Holly, who, betrayed by her boy friend, runs away at 15, has visions, including of her beloved brother Jocko, then is assaulted, and finally is found by a schoolmate, Ed Brubaker. He says that Jocko has disappeared, and she must return home. The second section’s narrator is Hugo Block, a student and thief who flees to a Swiss resort, meets Holly as a bar girl, and falls temporarily in love; then, just as he believes the police are on his trail he meets two men who promise escape and eternal life. With the Anchorites.

The third narrator is Ed Brubaker, now married to Holly and with whom he has a child, Aoife. Ed is a war correspondent in Iraq, and the author contrasts his unworldly adventures there with the fantasy creatures who pop up at a sedate wedding at home. Ed finally accepts Holly’s visions when he naps, his daughter disappears, and he finds her in a hotel room with numbers that Holly speaks in a trance. In the fourth section, the narrator is Crispin Hershey, a failing novelist who tours the world trying to resurrect his career. In his travels, he meets Holly, now a popular author because she has written of her mysterious visions. Crispin confronts his fate when an unknown poet declares that mysterious beings are taking over mankind, and she wants Crispin’s help in revealing this.

In the fifth section, the world of fantasy truly arrives. The narrator is Marinus, a Horologist who once cured Holly of her earlier visions. These fantasy characters live in our world, but there are new relationships, all seen from a different perspective. The result: confusion. Finally, Holly learns her brother Jocko has been possessed by a Horologist leader, Xi Lo, and to find Jocko she joins Marinus in his fantasy world effort to destroy the Anchorites.

In the sixth and final section, the narrator is again Holly. She is now in her seventies, living in Ireland, and the world around her has collapsed. Global warming and authoritarian governments have brought flooding, storms, the rationing of power, and the failure of communications, world manufacturing, and world trade. And most disappointing, this author, a grand story teller, does nothing but describe Holly’s adjustment to this new and unsettled world of deprivation and violence.

Except, a dues ex machina arrives, deciding the fate of some human characters. But one asks: why this ending? Its sentimentality seems out of place, as we read about these human we followed but never identified with. And one also asks the point of the war in this world of fantasy. Yes, one side won, but the entire world soon collapsed in on itself. How did this happen, and what does it mean? One suggestion is that concern for the present led to the failure of the future. But the human witnesses did not affect this war, and this reader is left with a novel that seems to have no human rationale.

Yes, this is an absorbing novel, even if long and confusing. Because Mitchell has created a resonant world of reality, and brought it alive through the richness of his writing. Critics have even cited an additional level of richness. As Michiko Kakutani writes in the Times: “Characters and themes from Mr. Mitchell’s previous books also recur here…hints that all his novels somehow link together in a kind of ‘uberbook,’ though at this point, the reverberations and cross-references tend to feel more like clever high jinks.”

But while this approach adds connections, it also adds complexity. And adds neither richness nor depth. Moreover, James Woods cites in The New Yorker an additional distraction—from the humanity of this novel. “What occurs in the novel between people has meaning only in relation to what occurs in the novel between Anchorites and Horologists. A struggle, a war, is being played out, between forces of good and forces of evil, although how humans behave with one another appears to have little impact on that otherworldly battle…. Gradually, the reader begins to understand that the realism—the human activity—is relatively unimportant; it is the fantastical intergovernmental war that really matters.”

And this, I believe, identifies the problem at the heart of this novel. We read it for the story, but without any concern for the characters. Certainly we cannot identify with the all-powerful fantasy characters, but neither can we with the human characters. For they have no real relationship with one another, as they react only to the fantasy world, not to one another. Even the title of this novel separates the reader from these humans. The fantasy creatures call humans the bone clocks to remind them of their inferiority, because they are made only of bone and are subject to time and to death.

In sum, I will hesitate at reading more of David Mitchell’s fiction, unless he reverts more closely to the world of reality. (October, 2017)

Cain, by Jose Saramago

This atheist author, in the last year of his life, decided to abandon the detailed modern world of reality that characterizes most of his work and turn to a portrait of the god he despised. This lower-case god is a cruel, merciless, authoritarian being—i.e., one with very human characteristics. And Saramago, in 2009, creates this portrait of God through the story of Cain. But, except that Cain does kill his brother Abel, this is not the Cain who briefly appears in the Old Testament, but rather a time-traveling Cain who happens to witness many Biblical stories through many books of the Old Testament.

Once Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, the author makes an initial break from tradition. Adam and Eve are no longer seen as our first parents, for when they leave the Garden they are told by an angel that other humans exist. And so, they encounter a caravan of wanderers who take them in. Whereupon, Cain is born, followed by Abel. Which is soon followed by Cain’s jealousy of Abel, when the Lord accepts the younger brother’s offering but not that of Cain. Whereupon, Cain kills his brother, is given the traditional mark on his forehead, and is ordered to wander the earth for the rest of his life.

And, indeed, he does so—literally. For Saramago sends Cain wandering through the Bible for the rest of this novel. And during these travels, like in a time-travel fantasy, he emphasizes the horrors of Biblical history. That is, as Saramago deepens his portrait of the God of the Old Testament, he furthers his philosophical exploration of God in human terms.

First, however, he bypasses the Bible to tackle the legend of Lilith, which says that Eve was not Adam’s first wife. That it was Lilith, that she refused to be subservient to Adam, and that she left him to settle in her own palace. Whereupon, in his first wandering outside the Garden, Cain encounters Lilith, and becomes both her guard-servant and her lover. Indeed, Saramago here begins an account of Cain’s sexual life that will last until the end of this novel.

But even as the narrative of Cain’s adventures expands, Saramago uses techniques we are familiar with. That is, the human conversations, the negotiations, the down-to-earth details that characterize his novels set in the modern era—all are present here. Indeed, this is what gives these events of fantasy their reality. He is also, of course, emphasizing the humanity of the Biblical characters, particularly the human nature of the god Cain encounters—and whom Cain continually debates as an equal.

It is at this point that fantasy has truly entered. And along with it a critique of god that Saramago now introduces in earnest. For whether it is Abraham’s immanent sacrifice of his son Isaac, the creation and destruction of the Tower of Babel, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and all its inhabitants, or Moses’ revenge on those who adore the golden calf—every opportunity is taken to show the cruelty, the insensitivity, the arbitrariness of this god. Saramago, through Cain, particularly focuses on the innocent children who are slaughtered along with their sinful parents. Cain’s mistake, an angel says is “to assume that guilt is understood in the same way by god and by men.” That is, Saramago, through Cain, is continually comparing this god in human terms, unlike traditional scripture.

At about two-thirds of the way into this fiction, I considered abandoning it. But curiosity led me to continue. Where was the author headed? What was his point? And so I followed Cain to Jericho, where Joshua is laying siege to the city, and where more innocent people die.

But at least there is an explanation of Cain’s frequent time travel. It seems that each experience involves not an advance into a different future, but rather that Cain exists in a new and different present. And while he himself cannot explain why this is happening, there is an implication of a higher power. One wonders if it could even be the Satan who appears occasionally on these pages.

The climax arrives when Cain encounters Noah as he is building his ark. Again, Cain fits naturally into this human environment. Indeed, the ark’s women also find him sexually attractive. And Noah himself encourages his women to couple with all available men. For, since they are the last human survivors, is it not up to them to generate the new human race?

And at last we reach the point of this novel, which is that creating the human race has been God’s mistake. And so begins Cain’s final revenge on this God, a revenge which began when Cain killed his brother because God recognized Abel’s offering and not his own. It is a grand concept, I acknowledge, but Cain is acting for petty reasons, for human reasons. Saramago has blended his own denial of God with Cain’s jealousy of God.

And so Saramago ends his novel with a contradiction, just as he began it. He began with Adam and Eve encountering other humans outside the Garden of Eden, meaning they could not be the first parents. And he ends his novel with Cain refuting the human race, even though human history has continued and proven otherwise. The result is only cynical wishful thinking.

The overall impression I get of this work is that of an author having fun with tales that many believe reflect the weakness of mankind and the fairness and mercy of God. But since this author does not accept God, he attacks Him by ascribing to Him those very human weaknesses. Which is legitimate, perhaps, in literary terms, but certainly not in spiritual terms. Thus, every inconsistency Saramago, through Cain, encounters in scripture, he attributes to the stupidity or forgetfulness of God. This is how he makes God very human. Except, of course, God is not human. Which means that the believer, like Lot’s wife, looks back on these tales with a grain of salt.

And this is, note, a series of tales. It is not a novel in the traditional sense—if Saramago could ever write a novel in the traditional sense. My point is that he moves Cain through a series of disconnected tales, connected solely to enable the author to make a series of human points about God’s failings. Whereas, I much prefer those works of Saramago that challenge the everyday conditions of life and the failings of men. (October, 2017)

Nutshell, by Ian McEwan

I have read many novels by McEwan, often because I am fascinated by his premise, as I am again here. But I am often disappointed by his work, as well, because at the end I do not accept his frame of reference, his view of the world or of his characters. And both factors are again reflected in this work.

The fascinating premise in this 2016 work is that the narrator of this novel is an unborn baby. Which is made more intriguing because he is witnessing a plot by his mother, Trudy, to murder his father, John, her estranged husband. The disappointment comes for me in the execution of the baby’s narration. First, it is overwritten. It is too poetic, too descriptive, too intellectualized. I will accept that through the hearing of voices and sounds an unborn child might envisage some of the existence he is about to enter. And through taste and feel get even more of a hint about what his future existence will be like. But this unborn surmises far too much. He also thinks too deeply and interprets too broadly what his senses detect, far more than I am willing to accept.

On the other hand, Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times loved this novel, declaring that it “possesses all the verbal gifts of its creator.” That the narrator is, “by turns, earnest, mocking, sarcastic, searching and irreverent.” He is, indeed, all of those things, except it is not really him; this is McEwan’s, the author’s, verbal gifts. And the result for me is a false perspective that reflects an author showing off, showing he can get away with breaking literary rules, just as his two villains are breaking moral and legal rules. Indeed, at the end of her review Kakutani writes: “It’s preposterous, of course, that a fetus would be thinking such earthshaking thoughts, but Mr. McEwan writes here with such assurance and élan that the reader never for a moment questions his slight of hand.” Oh, yes, he does, he surely does.

What also works against this novel is that the two plotters, by both their nature and their actions, lack any sympathy. Indeed, it becomes a chore to read this overwritten narrative about these two manipulating people. I neither care about them nor admire their cleverness as Trudy, the baby’s mother, and Claude her lover, the brother of the baby’s father, conspire to murder John, the unsuspecting victim. Nor does it help one relate to the villains that Trudy is more enthralled by Claude’s sexual prowess than by his intelligence and sterling character. How, one wonders, can she prefer this dull, crass real estate mogul to her sensitive, if striving, poet husband?

Indeed, husband John seems such a straight-forward character that one wonders if the author will let the plot succeed. And then, once the couple have acted, they begin to disagree, and almost turn on each other. But such a reversal seems to come more from the author than from the villainous pair. And, indeed, as they seem to be more motivated by self-preservation, they become still more unsympathetic and more unattractive.

The author attempts a certain complexity when the unborn narrator contrasts a baby’s natural love for his mother with the hatred this one feels for what she is doing. Where do his loyalties lie? He moves back and forth between dreams of proving her innocence and worrying about a life in which he’ll be moved from one prison to another. But he also resents that, amid all her plotting, she thinks only of herself and her lover, and rarely of him.

But with all the narrator’s deep certainty about the complex world he is about to enter, he is not clear about other things. Or at least the author wishes us to be. Does his father John have a lover of his own, the poet Elodie, or is she honest in saying there was no affair? And does John still truly love his betraying wife, as he claims? But such issues do not equate to the complex fate of the narrator. Instead, they lead back to: will or will not the lovers execute their plot, and, if they do, will or will not they be caught?

Which leads us to the ending. And for me, more dissatisfaction. It seems intended to be inevitable. And also intended to give the unborn child a role in deciding the fate of the two villains. After all, he cannot be passive right through until the end, can he? The result is, for me an unusual ending, yes, but an undramatic one. And an unfulfilling one for a literary work. Like the entire structure of the novel, it is more in keeping with the structure of a mystery novel. Which it does evolve into at the end, in fact, when the police enter the scene. And when the reader is distracted from the fate of the baby to follow the fate of the villainous couple.

The nutshell of the tile, incidentally, is from a line in Shakespeare. It refers to the narrator’s confinement in the womb and the lack of movement he endures. Of which McEwan continually reminds the reader. As a metaphor, however, it is more provocative than meaningful. It is a reminder of how limited the narrator is physically, even as his mind, or is it just his consciousness, wanders far abroad. Reviewers also refer to the parallels with Hamlet, with the baby a questioning Hamlet and Trudy and Claude standing in for Gertrude and Claudius, while the quote’s bad dreams refers to their dastardly plot, the evil that exists in the world this baby is about to enter.

McEwan was surely pleased with this novel. One can envision him chuckling as he writes, relishing his witty comment on the complex world his narrator is about to enter. But wit can carry one only so far, even if the baby can select whatever he wishes to comment upon and stretch his thinking in any direction. For, there must be action, and the only action left here is the lover’s plot. Thus, McEwan loses control, and cannot help turning to the perfidious act to be performed, then to the justice to be administered and the role of his narrator in seeking such justice. He has lost, for me, his literary cache, and become himself trapped in what is basically a mystery novel. The emotional entanglement among the four actors, father, mother, son, and lover, as well as the morality of their actions, fades into a final theatrical act that is all drama, without a sign of further moral complexity. (October, 2017)

Sweet Caress, by William Boyd

I am always pleased with Boyd’s novels, and I am yet again with this 2015 novel. It is truly a professional work. It is similar to what he has written before, but it is also different. It is similar in capturing the full life of a person, not just a dramatic portion of that life. And it is different in two ways. More significantly, it stretches beyond the meaning of one particular life; it explores the existence of life itself in the context of the 20th century. Less significantly, it is about a woman, Amory Clay. She is a photographer, whose profession confronts her with the era’s many moments of history.

But it is less as a photographer that we get to know her. It is more as a woman, a wife, and a lover. What we do learn about her interior life comes from a 1977 journal, in which she reviews past events of her life at age seventy. But these journal entries offer author Boyd a second purpose, which is to give a perspective to her far ranging personal and professional life. And also to tie together those life experiences that have no real connection.

Thus, the reader first experiences her family life, highlighted when her father, suffering from a horrendous World War I experience, attempts asuicide drowning  in the family car, with Amory trapped inside. The family life is forever damaged. Then her photographic career takes her across the world: to sleazy Berlin of the 1930s, to the pre-war London and New York art scenes, to fascist riots in London, to D-day and beyond in Europe, to an unexpected encounter, and marriage, to a World War II soldier who turns out to belong to nobility, and finally to Vietnam and then to California in search of her daughter Blythe. What is remarkable is Boyd’s skill in creating the reality of each scene, especially in wartime Europe and distant Vietnam.

But while a photographic career makes logical many of these adventures, we never see Amory’s mind working as a photographer. We never witness what her imagination sees in an image, or when darkroom magic reveals it. We do see what are purported to be her photographs, as they are scattered through the book. But they are not truly artful. They appear to have been carefully researched—as if to substitute for showing us a photographic mind at work. Three images make this research obvious. In one, Amory is caught posing on a beach, looking directly at the camera, but says she does not know who took the picture. While another is a famous close-up of crossed legs in net stockings. Finally, another image, of a soldier at war, which presumably earned Amory a high award, is simply undistinguished.

In an interview, Boyd explains that he collects anonymous amateur photographs, and decided to use them here in this novel about a photographer. He says that he is “trying to make fiction seem so real you forget it is fiction.” He also says that he contrived a few scenes to match a photograph that he had at hand. But for me, an amateur photographer who has exhibited his work, these photographs lend an air of artificiality to this novel that is supposed to be about a highly skilled successful professional photographer.

As I said, more care is taken to portray Amory as a woman rather than as a photographer. Thus, we look frequently into the female side of her mind, as she describes people’ clothing and appearance, that is, details of more concern to a woman. We are also informed frequently about her emotional state, particularly as she takes on five, often conflicting, lovers during her life, as well as the raising of twin daughters. It should be noted, however, that one reviewer, Roxana Robinson in The New York Times, faults Boyd in capturing this female viewpoint, declaring that “all the descriptions of emotion are pretty unemotional.”

Boyd seems equally intent here to offer a portrait of the 20th century, at least its history surrounding three major wars, two in Europe and one in Vietnam. Is this why he settled on a photographer, as a way to cover such a broad expanse? If so, it was a wise calculation in the conceptual stage. It does allow him to cover a range of 20th century history. But it seems to be a stretch in detailing a full rich life for his heroine. The two final sections appear especially arbitrary, first when Amory decides she needs to go to Vietnam to prove to herself at age fifty that she can justify her life as a photographer, and second as she travels to California to rescue one daughter from a commune.

The meaning behind the sweet caress of the title is elusive at first. I read later that it is taken from a translated quote lifted from a hypothetical French novel written by one of Amory’s lovers, that is, a fictional character. But I completely missed this. I would prefer that it refers to Amory’s life experiences, which have been, in her words, “rich, intensely sad, fascinating, droll, absurd, and terrifying—sometimes—and difficult and painful and happy.” That is, she has had many fleeting experiences such as a caress implies, and that such experiences have been emotionally intimate and led to a sense of connecting with history. Life has treated her well, even as, at the end, she feels ill and vulnerable. Indeed, her journal entries at the end seem intended to give meaning to her life, to the novel, and to life itself. One suspects that this has been the reason for their existence, in addition to tying Amory’s adventures together.

There is a final scene in which Boyd attempts to have his cake and eat it, too. The ill Amory realizes she is nearing the end of her life. So she rationalizes that she herself should control that ending, and in her journal justifies taking her own life. And one infers that Boyd is speaking through her as well. It is a moment intended to add philosophical and psychological depth to the portrait of this woman. But then Boyd pulls a fast one, and reverses himself in an ending that I shall leave the reader to discover. But for me, not an adherent of assisted dying, it was a disappointing outcome. Perhaps, however, Boyd intended her introspection to mirror the early scene in which Amory’s father also attempts suicide.

Despite my criticism, Boyd is still on my list of favored novelists. I have not read all twelve of his novels, but I have enjoyed each one I have read. And I look forward to still more. (September, 2017)