The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides

This 2011 work is an interesting novel, and extremely well written. But it is too long. Eugenides delves too much into the back history of his main characters, and too much into these characters’ area of study. His narrative approach is interesting, as he advances his triangular story of two male students and one female, but then he often backtracks to explain why they are acting as they are in the basic narrative.

     The main character is Madeline Hanna. We meet her in her graduation year at Brown University. She is fascinated by the brilliant student Leonard Bankhead, even after she learns he is a manic depressive and his conduct varies enormously. Meanwhile, the steady Mitchell Grammaticus, another Brown student, has fallen for her but is hesitant to reveal his true feelings.

     We spend a long time at Brown, as these three meet and interact, before following them out into the adult world. We also meet Madeline’s parents, Alton and Phyllida, who do not want to see their daughter tied down with a manic depressive. But they do not understand their daughter, and do become unsympathetic characters.

     Eugenides makes palpable the years at Brown by having Madeline, an English major, probe deeply into semiotics and deconstruction. She becomes a feminist evaluating the Victorian novelists. One cannot help but think the author is taking advantage of his own education, and I do think he probes more deeply here than is necessary.

     We see most of this story through Madeline, and some through Leonard, but there is a significant portion devoted to Mitchell as he travels to Europe and then to India, hoping that Madeline will get Leonard out of her system by the time he returns. In India, he volunteers to serve with Mother Teresa. (Note that Eugenides also volunteered with Mother Teresa.) It is not a successful experience, but expresses the religious yearnings that have long motivated Mitchell’s life.

     Madeline, meanwhile, is living with Leonard on Cape Cod, where he has a basic science job in the field of genetics. But the science investigations he is involved with never attain the credibility of Madeline’s English studies.

     I also did not sense the atmosphere of the Cape, or of the Boston they visit, but the work did earn some credibility from me when the author has Madeline’s married older sister living in Beverly, where I grew up. But, alas, Madeline never visits there.

     This work did not receive the enthusiastic reviews that Middlesex and Virgin Suicides received. And I can understand this, for, as I indicated, it is overwritten. It should have been a shorter work. It bogs down too much in details. But with my own prejudice, I also wonder how much this poor reception was influenced by Mitchell’s (and the author’s) interest in religion. How much did that turn off some reviewers? Did it make Mitchell unworthy of either Madeline, or of their own interest in the outcome of this triangle?

     The treatment of Leonard’s problem is also excessive. Eugenides wants the reader to understand Leonard’s problem, but he goes too far in explaining manic depression. But, on the other hand, he turns around the reader’s reaction to this character that Madeline is devoting her life to—unwisely, Mitchell believes, in behalf of the reader. For at the end, we have considerable sympathy for Leonard, based primarily on his awareness of his own condition and its impact on others.

     This acknowledgement is the key to the ending. It is an ending which I fully accept, even if for some it might not be a real ending, not one readers expect from a story today. And yet it is a literate ending—a, for me, satisfying ending. Note that it is also an ending that satisfies an author’s ideal goal, for it depends not on the final paragraph, not on the final line, but on the novel’s final word.

     The title The Marriage Plot, refers to an English thesis Madeline is writing at Brown. It analyzes the endings of old-fashioned Victorian novels that normally finds the heroine ending up happily married. And, indeed, Madeline’s own life, and this very novel, will also refer to the validity of that kind of ending. Note that when she has this thesis published, she brings it proudly to Mitchell—an acknowledgement that it is he who matches her temperament and her needs most closely.

     One does wonder how much of Eugenides himself is written into his character Mitchell. Did he yearn for a fellow student while at Brown? Is some of Mitchell’s shyness and reticence his own? Was this the germ of his story? And did he put all his feelings for that woman into the character of Madeline? It is not impossible. And yet it might also explain why this work is not a complete success. That he was too close to the actual experience, that he did not have the proper distance. All, I grant, to be mere speculation.

     It will be interesting to follow Eugenides subsequent work, because he is such a fine writer, a fine stylist. And he knows how to create interesting characters. Each work has been different so far, the one unifying element being the response by his characters to moving from adolescence into adulthood. May we expect an author now in his fifties to change this element? I say this, knowing also that most literary works explore the experience of protagonists who are in their twenties, as he or she discovers love and the burdens of life. (October, 2013)

Raylan, by Elmore Leonard

This 2012 novel is a disappointment. Is it really a novel, in fact? It reads more like three interconnected novellas. In fact, I was not intending to comment on it, but…after all, Elmore Leonard is Elmore Leonard.

   This is the latest story about sharp-shooting U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens. The latest three stories. The first is about a nurse who carves out people’s kidneys, and holds the body part for ransom. The second concerns a ruthless female coal mine executive who handles environmental and community complaints. The third is about a Butler student coed who is a wiz at poker, and beats all the boys at their game. The book’s unity sems to stem from the fact that these three subjects of Raylan’s attention are all women. Smart women. And villainous women in the first two cases.

   What the work does is explore three different backgrounds in three different stories: the medical industry, the coal mining industry, and poker playing. The coal mining company is the main target of Leonard, as he exposes its indifference to both the environmental impact of coal mining and the negative economic effect of lost jobs. Viewed much more favorably is the poker playing industry, since Raylan is intrigued by the utterly frank and self-confident Jackie Nevada.

   Wait, there is also Delroy Lewis, an ex-convict who seeks revenge for being kicked out of a Florida town by Raylan in a previous case. We meet him running a team of three female bank robbers. They have nothing to do with Raylan’s three assignments, except Jackie Nevada is introduced when she is wrongly suspected as one of the three female bank robbers.

   Like any Leonard work, this one keeps moving. But it is as if Leonard no longer finds it easy to stretch out his tale with complexities, whether moral complexities or criminal complexities. So he puts three simpler tales together to produce one book. Which is not uncommon—see Graham Greene—for authors getting on in years and finding their imagination failing.

   What is particular regretful is that Raylan himself has no depth, and is not alive on these pages. He faces no conflicting motives, no moral issues, no capable rival to challenge either his actions or his thinking. He is simply reacting, going through the motions. He is known to be easy-going, but he is too easy-going here, even with some of the bad people. He has no impact on anyone, until he shoots one person at the end.

   Other minor characters pop up for amusing or narrative reasons. They include a black driver, a company yes-man, two bumbling brothers, their old drug baron father, and a millionaire poker fan. Some are killed, and the others flame up and are easily forgotten.

   Of course, Leonard may revert to form in his next work and create interesting and complex situations, but right now I would not be willing to bet on it. Even though I wish it would happen, for he has long created interesting people involved in the complex world of criminal activity. (October 2013)

A Rumor of War, by Philip Caputo

This is a brilliant book. From the opening pages of the Prologue, one is aware of this. Caputo opens with the lessons he learned while serving as a lieutenant in Vietnam from 1965 to 1966. He was on the front lines of a war that had no front lines. It was a war of tedium, fatigue, and hard-learned lessons, and he puts us on the ground and shows us how those lessons changed his life.

Wisely, Caputo begins with a portrait of himself and his middle-class upbringing in Illinois. How he became frustrated with life as a teenager, and how, immediately after graduating from college, he enlisted in the Marines. He wanted adventure.

And this memoir is the adventure he came to regret. We go through basic training with him, which was tough. But this toughness is what will enable him to survive the rigors of jungle warfare in Vietnam. On the other hand, he was also naïve, he admits, as were all his buddies, as they were shipped to Okinawa to learn the lessons of past wars, and then were flown to Danang in Vietnam to confront the guerrilla warfare of the future. As a lieutenant in charge of a Marine platoon, he is as unprepared for what he will experience as are the naive, gung-ho soldiers under him.

This is what they are unprepared for: the unrelenting heat, the humidity, the monsoons, the savage mosquitos, the surprise ambushes and firefights, their own artillery booming through sleepless nights, the constant threat of snipers, the rugged jungle trails, the forded streams, the mud, the foxholes layered with water, the rotting boots, diseased feet and legs, the strange language, the disguised Viet Cong, etc. Much less the officers’ demand for dead bodies, their overbearing discipline not appropriate for the front lines, the career officers thinking only of promotion, the soldiers only of self-preservation, the long waits and the tedium between patrols, the exhaustion, the lack of sleep, the Spartan food and living, and on and on.

But most of all, Caputo and his soldiers learned about death. That it is everywhere. That it is unexpected. And they see their young selves as mortal. For they see their buddies suddenly killed by a sniper, a land mine, a booby trap, and for the first time realize how vulnerable they themselves are. How death can and will strike like a whim of fate.

This awareness is, of course, what makes them good soldiers, keeps them on high alert—alert to hidden snipers, alert to each step they take in a mined trail or across a mined field. It also teaches them how much they rely on each other, need each other. It teaches them tenderness toward one another, introduces an intimacy that they did not know existed among men. It bonds them into a team that acts as one living unit, each part protective of the other.

And at the heart of this memoir is Caputo’s acknowledgement that this awareness of death brings out both the good and the evil in each person. Perhaps this awareness is a result of his Catholic upbringing, but he does not cite this. Yet it is a truth that this book illustrates. And he concludes his entire experience with a bold example of how evil overwhelmed even him in a moment of weakness—and how it resulted in his arrest.

It is a fitting climax, for this entire book illustrates how the war changes each soldier who survives. How the “body count” measure of success has turned them all into killers. How the fear of death has them shooting first and evaluating later whether the victim is a civilian or a guerilla. And how it has so dehumanized everyone who is serving there that a massacre, such as under Sergeant Calley, can occur.

As for the book’s narrative, I found the early days in Vietnam, after the troops are settled, to be the weakest part of the book. But these are barely a score or so of pages. Once the troops go out on patrol, once they confront the mysterious villages, the hidden enemy, the torture of the monsoons, the chatter of rifle fire, the call for artillery support, the frightening mine fields—once they do, then the narrative is engrossing. And each patrol, each adventure, is entirely different.

And, yes, in each case, Caputo puts the reader in the middle of the action, helps him experience the mud, the rain, the mosquitos, the exhausting hill trails, the lurking sniper, the tiredness, the sense of being alone in a strange, dangerous, and unknown world. It is so unreal, it often seems like a dream world. And, indeed, it inspires Caputo’s own wild dreams.

As Dunne writes in his review, this work forces the reader to wonder: “How would I have acted? To what lengths would I have gone to survive?” The work also challenges to reader to decide both on the overall morality of the war, and how it was conducted. Was it justified? Will lessons be learned? By individual servicemen? By the U.S government?

And Caputo’s conclusion? ”I don’t think so.” An answer indeed chilling. For those words were written in 1977, long before we failed to learn our lesson, long before our government entered other futile wars, other guerilla wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And yet no one who was in Vietnam at that time can forget the highs and lows of his time spent there. Caputo sums up the ambiguity of his own experience. “Under fire, a man’s powers of life heightened in proportion to the proximity of death, so that he felt an elation as extreme as his dread. His senses quickened, he attained an acuity of consciousness at once pleasurable and excruciating. It was something like the elevated state of awareness induced by drugs.”

In other words, it could be addictive, and he admits that the memory of his year there is what drew Caputo back to Saigon as a journalist in 1975. In his concluding chapter, he describes how he volunteered to cover the collapse of the American effort there.

And who would say it is not similar memories that a generation later has drawn many Americans back to Vietnam. As tourists. To, indeed, a friendly environment. How strange the world works. We lost our first war in history in Vietnam, and now many go back as tourists. We hate that war still, and yet we cannot resist the memories of the land, the people, and our own adventure there.

“[The book] is so honest,” Margaret Manning writes, “it makes the attraction of combat understandable. This is not a simple book. It may even be profound.”

It certainly is.

Here is how Caputo himself sums up the challenge he faced in writing this book. “How to find meaning in such a meaningless conflict? How to make sense out of a succession of random firefights that achieved nothing? And what heroes could be found in a war so murky and savage? Yet the task was necessary. In this book, I tried to give meaning by turning myself into a kind of Everyman, my experiences into a microcosm of the whole. My own journey, from the false light of youthful illusions, through a descent into evil, and then into a slow, uncertain ascent toward a new and truer light of self-knowledge, I hope, reflects our collective journey.”

For me, this book has lived up to its reputation. Interestingly, Caputo himself didn’t expect much of a response, certainly not that it would win awards and become a best-seller. Too much time had passed, he felt, and Vietnam was an unpopular war. But it made his reputation, and presumably is what allowed him to leave journalism for the literary world.

In summary, Caputo has written a classic of war, of modern war, a classic that is anti-war and yet salutes the bravery of the men the author served with. He cites “the angels in our nature” that the war revealed, as men died for each other, and also the devil in us that prompted violence and hate. He explores the changes that this inner conflict produced in each soldier, how the bright faces of those who arrived in Vietnam were turned within months to drawn faces of anger, exhaustion, and frustration.

The reader emerges from this book, from its world, with admiration for every man there, and yet with a conviction that “never again.” And yet with an awareness that such a lesson was not learned. Perhaps, Caputo suggests, because the men who have always made such decisions are never the ones to send their own sons off to war. (October, 2013)

The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

This is an excellent novel, not least because it has a straight through-line, from a horrible rape to the pursuit of the rapist. It certainly deserved the 2012 National Book Award.

And never have I encountered an Erdrich work that moved in such a straight line to its finale. There are few sidetracks, as we follow 13-year-old Joe and his three friends as they seek to learn the identity of the rapist, and then decide on their own kind of justice.

The rape victim is Joe’s mother, and his determination to seek justice grows as he sees her in shock, confining herself to her room, neither eating nor talking. The boys turn detective after learning the crime occurred near the Round House, a site of past Indian ceremonies on their reservation’s border in North Dakota. Since it is not clear which legal authority has jurisdiction over that site, and since the white men’s legal system is not that interested in tracking down a white perpetrator, anyway, Joe grows determined to find the man himself, and administer Indian justice.

But matters are complicated by Joe’s uncertain conscience as he plans his revenge. His father is a judge, and Joe has been trained to respect the law. Moreover, he and his three friends are nominal Catholics, and they have been bred never to resort to evil themselves.

Their investigation is sidetracked at first when the boys begin an amusing Huck Finn type scrutiny of a new local priest—and discover he is a seriously wounded vet who could not rape anyone. Later, their youthful naïveté increases as this priest chases Cappy all over town after Cappy confesses his desecration of the church with his girlfriend.

Cappy, who is more mature and the leader of the group, is Joe’s best friend. The other friends are Zack and Angus, who serve more as loyal followers. Although Joe himself heads their investigation, he still looks up to Cappy. Overall, the four boys exist more as a group, while Cappy and Joe exist as individuals.

The sense of Indian justice is enhanced by a legendary tale told in his sleep by an old Indian, Joe’s grandfather Mooshum. It is about a young boy and his escape from men who see his mother as an evil “wiindigo.” And its telling achieves two effects. First, it enhances the Indian atmosphere. But it also provides an indirect inspiration for Joe’s own pursuit of justice. For in introducing the idea of an Indian evil spirit that can take over one human body, which then devour other humans, it suggests to Joe the justice in killing an evil one to prevent further evil.

Note that after a few weeks, Joe’s mother does recover and seems to return to being normal. But this does not change Joe from seeking  retribution. He still wants justice to be done, and is determined to make it happen, mostly because the authorities are not yet willing to do so.

It is the details of the boys’ pursuit that keeps the reader interested. First of all, they are boys, and are continually entertaining themselves. With their bikes, their discussions of Star Wars, their pursuit of food, their skinny dipping, their awareness of sex (exposed to the grandmothers bragging about their men, and to Sonya’s awesome breasts). But they are not afraid to confront their neighbors for news. Indeed, these neighbors come alive, from Joe’s extended family, such as Clarence and Uncle Whitey, to various townspeople. There is Linda, for example, adopted sister of the suspect. We hear her life story, but it is less a diversion than a divulging of the background of the suspect.

This is also a coming of age novel. Joe is first introduced to reality through the vulnerability of his mother. But even more significant is his understanding of the professional limitations of his father, the judge.

That a judge who is an Indian on an Indian reservation in 1988 may deal with petty crimes, drunkenness or stealing, but his hands are tied when dealing with major crimes, especially when they often involve non-Indians.

This realization is what turns Joe toward administering his own justice, but it also makes him aware of his conscience—and a realization that actions have consequences, that he is no longer living in a kid’s world, that there are others more powerful whom he must deal with. And, finally, he learns at the end that he must live with guilt, with the knowledge of the justice he is responsible for.

The texture of this novel is enriched by three separate value systems. There is the Indian set of values, represented by Mooshum’s tale of the Indians’ belief in evil wiindigoos that devour people, and the right to kill them. There are the Catholic values, based on one’s individual conscience, and, according to the priest, a belief that good can come out of every act of evil. Finally, there are the conflicting set of political values when an Indian commits a crime versus when a white man commits a crime, and whether in Indian territory or in white man’s territory.

To sum up, this is one of Erdich’s most enjoyable novels, precisely because it is told in a straight line from a single viewpoint. And yet it encompasses a crime story, a coming of age story, a political justice story, and an exploration of morality and one’s conscience. It is a deceptively complex work, but one that is held together by Joe’s more mature recollection of the past, when he has become a judge himself.

One wonders why Erdrich used such a different approach from her previous work. Probably because it is centered on one catastrophic event. But perhaps she will now be aware that complexity does not depend on multiple narratives. The issue may then become whether or not her future works will be built around multiple events or a single event. To work, the former requires more social awareness; while the latter requires, as here, a deeper analysis of the inner life. (October, 2013)