Hamilton Stark, by Russell Banks

This early 1978 novel appears to be what is called metafiction. It is certainly Banks luxuriating in the possibilities of fiction. It is also a young author applying all that he has learned about the craft of fiction, as well as much of what he has learned about human relations. One senses that Banks is attempting to stretch the parameters of the novel. Or at least how far he himself can go.

The result is a novel that pays as much attention to technique as to content. That is, an interesting portrait of a middle-aged New Hampshire loner is probed from a variety of geographical, anthropological, psychological, and philosophical viewpoints. Not to mention that author Banks is writing a novel about an author who is writing a novel about a local named A, whom he calls Hamilton Stark in his book, and then learns that the subject’s daughter is writing her own book about her father, calling him Alvin Stock. And from her book Bank’s narrator appropriates much of his own content.            

Nor to mention that the narrator keeps confiding to the reader how he is constructing his novel, how he will provide certain information later, for example. Which in turn is Banks confiding how he is constructing what we are reading. As a result, we are often reading about these characters twice removed, a narrative about a narrative.            

The novel begins with the narrator calling unexpectedly on an old friend he calls A—not wishing to identify him, apparently New England reticence. He does not find A, but does find his car with three bullet holes in the driver’s side window. The rest of the novel consists of various characters speculating about what has happened to A, and in the process creating a portrait of A.            

Banks hints at the elusiveness of this novel by having his narrator immediately postulate three possible explanation of what has happened to his friend; and this, he says, is what prompts the narrator to start his novel. And like many a novice novelist, the narrator thinks it helpful to explain A’s (Stark’s) backstory. Thus, we read the geography and history of his town, then about his ancestors, then the story of his various relationships with his father and mother, his daughter, and finally his five wives. None of this advances the story of A’s fate, of course, and we soon realize that it is really the portrait of the missing man, Stark, that interests Banks.

Indeed, the remainder of this novel is that portrait, that backstory of a man who was selfish, incommunicative, and a loner. And hated by everyone, starting with his 26-year-old daughter Rochelle. As the narrator learns that Rochelle has already attempted to write her own novel about her father, about an Alvin Stock, as he appropriates some of her work with her approval, and as the novel delves further and further into Stark’s backstory, a structural problem surfaces. The story keeps moving backward, rather than forward. And this backstory is largely narrated, rather than dramatized, Which is a pity, for the dramatized sections, with their movement and dialogue, are particularly good.

Of course, this narrative (rather than dramatic) approach allows Banks to have considerable control over how he presents the man’s portrait. He can offer the salient points, without paying attention to the chronological order. Moreover, his narrator frequently tells the reader there is additional information he will reveal later; but if this is in order to create suspense, this strategy did not work for me. Also, inhibiting my interest are a few lists, the most obvious being the chapter, 100 Selected, Uninteresting Things Done and Said by Hamilton Stark. All these lists are simply Banks toying with his subject, and showing off to the reader; and in this particular chapter I skipped the last 75 uninteresting things.

What is interesting, in the absence of discovering what has happened to Stark, are his relationships with his father, his five wives, and his daughter. None of them like him, for he has treated them crudely or unfairly. But the narrator does not feel the same way about him. He admires Stark for being in control of his own life and enjoying that life—his guns, his drinking, his women.

Later, through the narrator’s friendship with a character named C, we probe abstractly, and a little too deeply for me, the intricacy of the relationship between men and women, as exemplified by the life of Stark. This appears to be the author expounding on his own knowledge, as much as it is the characters probing their understanding of human relationships as they apply to Stark. The idea is that women try to raise in men feelings of guilt, and this explains the attitude of Stark’s mother toward him. In fact, Banks gives this theory an ironic twist, when his narrator has an affair with Rochelle, and she then gives him a sense of guilt for using the material from her novel that she had previously agreed to let him do. But one cannot ignore that this irony is developed in a footnote that runs eight pages—as it shows Banks again playing with structure in order to squeeze in a mere sidelight.

While this portrait of small-town New Hampshire life is quite well done, this novel also lacks for me an emotional impact. Because it has been conceived on an intellectual level. This is revealed by its emphasis on both structure and the narrative technique—an approach that interposes that second plane of reality between the reader and Stark—a plane that hinders the reader from identifying with the emotions of Stark, or even that of the narrator. The inconclusive ending also re-enforces this impression, as if the author does not care what happens to Stark, that his point has already been made.

Of course, Banks might reply that the purpose of the novel is the portrait, and not what actually happened to the subject. But for me, that reveals an author too much immersed in his craft, and not enough in his characters. It is as if he understands the complexity of human beings, but is not yet able to, or else does not yet care to, convert that complexity into richly dramatic events. (April, 2014)

Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana, by Anne Rice

This 2008 novel by the author is her second novel about the life of Jesus. It is narrated by Jesus himself, who is now 30 years old. Rice begins this volume by attacking the issue of his sexuality. For some, this may seem to be sacrilegious, but my initial impression is that this is a wise decision for a fictionalized telling of Christ’s life. For he must above all be human if this treatment is to work, and what better way presents itself in today’s society.

The novel begins with Christ waking from, in effect, a wet dream about his cousin Avigail. Then two boys suspected of an impure relationship are stoned to death. So sex is front and center, as it often was in the Bible. And Jesus’ sexual life comes under suspicion by family and friends, for he is 30 and has not married.

Rice then establishes the local political situation, with the Romans exerting more control, sending in more soldiers. She also establishes, in passing, that there is a drought. This creation of the political and geographic climate is one of the strengths of the early chapters.

Jesus is then challenged by his brother James (son of Joseph’s first wife) to end all rumors—to marry, for example, the beautiful Avigail, whom he admires and who likes him. Jesus adeptly dodges the issue, and then more sincerely answers his mother that he does not know all his future, but he does know that he must not marry.

Meanwhile, in the political arena, the young men of Nazareth, under Jason, leave town to go to Caesarea and protest to the governor about a new sacrilege in Jerusalem. This leaves the town defenseless, and brigands sweep in. One attacks Avigail, then drops her while escaping; and Jesus comes to her rescue. Which sets up a new round of sexual tension. In which Rice expands on the unfair treatment of women, how they are “protected,” and suspected, by their men.

Because he has rushed to aid Avigail, Jesus is accused by her father, Shemayah, of taking unfair advantage of her. So her father imprisons her in his home—until she escapes, and in despair confronts Jesus, who again becomes aware of his sexuality. Whereupon her father emerges from a crowd and once more accuses her of indecent conduct with Jesus. Violence is about to occur, when Jesus asks God for rain, and the deluge sends all scampering to their houses. It is a double-edged deus ex machina, for it also ends the drought.

And as this rain calms the crowd, and the mood changes, as the people come to their senses, realizing that nothing untoward has happened, and also as Avigail becomes betrothed, we wonder at the emphasis on the community, on a romance in this community, while there is no treatment of the mission that brought Jesus to this earthly life. Indeed, Jesus himself wonders for a moment what it would have been like if he could have married Avigail—which many had anticipated.

Here we are, more than halfway through this novel, and we are reading a novel of love, of prejudice (against women), of political and environmental hard times. There is a rabbi, but no spiritual concerns except references to the Bible. And there is Jesus, but also no spiritual concerns.

What is Rice trying to achieve here? A portrait of Jesus as a human? But he is too human for me. His concerns are too human. It is as if Rice is trying to fill that empty history of his life with the human quality that we need to perceive in him if we are to truly understand and accept the sacrifice he made for all mankind. Because only a true man can make that sacrifice work; and here, she is saying, is the evidence that he was a man, that he was human.

Whereas, what I want to know is the conflict within Jesus. There must be, if he is human, and he is there to save all humans. Might he not wonder how he will achieve this? Might he not wonder if he is capable of achieving this? Is this not where a novelist should go?

And now there comes a report from John the Baptist. And all the community wants to go forth and encounter him. Are we at last arriving at the spiritual mission of Jesus?

Yes. And, surrounded by the thousands descending to the river to be baptized by John, Jesus has a revelation. He is filled with the memory of the acts of his entire lie, both pleasant and unpleasant. And realizes that this compares to the anguishing experience of everyone being baptized. And as they experience this because God is experiencing it as he forgives them, Jesus wonders how they can endure it. He wants to help them, “to be with each one of them as he or she comes to know.”

As he sees all these anguished memories being entwined, Jesus says to God, “I will be with them, every solitary one of them. I am one of them! And I am your son!” However, the moments leading up to that knowledge, to that revelation that follows Jesus being baptized by John, are very impressionistic. It is partly Jesus being overwhelmed, but even more, one suspects, Rice being not quite sure how to handle this new awareness by Jesus.

And the answer from God is that “you are absolutely alone because you are the only one who can do this.” And so Rice has brought Jesus to the realization that “It was inside me. I’d always known who I really was. I was God.” For the lack of certain knowledge has troubled Jesus since the first volume. And Rice knew she had to bring him to this realization before he begins his public life.

The question is: has she succeeded? Is it convincing that Jesus was not aware of his mission before? And is it convincing how he receives this knowledge? I am, frankly, not sure. First, that he did not know his mission until now. And, second, that the knowledge came to him through an intellectual deduction, and an emotional awareness. Yes, there is a certain human logic here, and Rice’s purpose is to make Jesus human. But a spiritual action, a spiritual infusion, is lacking.

Has Rice attempted the impossible here? To create a human man whose mission in life is completely spiritual. Is being true to the needs of literature allowing her to be also true to the portrait of this spiritual man?

And then, after the meeting with John the Baptist, and Jesus’ new awareness, the novel changes. We have left Rice’s imagination, and enter with Jesus into the incidents of scripture. The Devil tempts him three times. He drives the evil spirits out of Mary Magdalene. He cures the mother-in-law of Simon, and invites Simon to become Peter and join him. Other disciples follow, including Matthew, who has cared for Joseph when he died. But there is no flow to these events, no cause and effect, no inevitability, no developing understanding in Jesus’ mind of their connection.

After gathering his disciples, Jesus says he must attend Avigail’s marriage. So in a sense we understand the earlier emphasis on Avigail. Indeed, Jesus has one last fleeting thought of what might have been with her. Then we are off to Nazareth for the betrothal, and then to the groom’s home in Cana for the wedding feast. However, this extensive ceremony is told by Jesus very matter-of-factly. There is no emotion in his description, except for that one fleeing thought of loss, and then a moment of happiness amid the music and celebration of the wedding feast. Whereupon…guess what happens? Right. Water must be turned into wine. It is the first miracle of Jesus’ public life.

So, has Rice spent the first 75 percent of her novel just to set up that first public miracle? More likely, she has wanted to explore Jesus’ private life as a mature man, just before he entered public life. And then realized how that relationship with Avigail could lead to her ending.

But that portrait of his private life does not succeed for me, because she has not given depth to the man Jesus, has not probed his emotions, has not challenged him to speculate on what his life is leading to. She has created a tangible world, reflecting both considerable research and considerable imagination. But she has enlivened it with an unoriginal plot and then framed it with modern issues of Jesus’ possible sexuality and the treatment of women in that distinct culture.

My understanding has been that Rice cut short her planned treatment of the life of Jesus when, after this book, she became disenchanted with events in the Church, especially at the Vatican under Pope Benedict. That she lost her inspiration. But after reading this novel, I am having second thoughts. That she actually lost her inspiration because she saw how difficult continuing his life was going to be.

I surmise this because of the final quarter of this novel, when it finally turns to the events of scripture. For here is where I sense a lack of originality. No new meaning is given to the events in Jesus’ life. Nor is there any deep emotion. Or any issue of conscience. Much less, any deep fear by Jesus of his life to come. And because she uses Jesus himself as her narrator, this type of probing is required if this is to be a work of literature, rather than simply another religious treatise on Jesus’ life.

So my initial regret that Rice would not continue this series has subsided. Her heart was in the right place when she started, but with this work she seems to reveal her own limitations. And I see no reason for still another book relating the life of Jesus. Yes, she writes from Jesus viewpoint, but the risk of that approach does not pay off. First, she cannot come up with created events that show Jesus in a new light. And, second, when she recreates scenes from scripture, she does not bring us to a new understanding of those scenes. They are embroidered, but they are not given a deeper meaning.

I note that my comments on the first volume, Out of Egypt, were much more positive. That I had looked forward to this volume. Unfortunately, while Rice had the imagination to follow the more reactive life of a young boy surrounded by significant events, she lacks here the imagination to follow the life of a grown man who is more in control of his life. For the mature Jesus, she concentrates on sex and romance, which may be typical for the ordinary man but it should not be for him. Yes, it has to be raised; but then it has to be discarded for more spiritual content. And the reader not diverted to the romantic concerns of other members of his family.

Overall, Rice shows a lack of the spiritual imagination required for a new approach to Jesus. And my assumption that there will be no future volumes leaves me grateful for the first volume, but not disappointed if there should be no more. (April, 2014)

Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson

This is a quiet little book, a novella really. It was first published in the Paris Review in 2002. It is the story of a life, the life of Robert Grainier—who lives alone except for a brief marriage, who represents, in the variety of his adventures, the history of westward expansion at the start of the 20th century, and whose end symbolizes the end of an era.

His was an era of logging and lonely train whistles, of latent violence and quiet emotion, of bachelors in a womanless society, of sudden, unexplained death, plus howling animals in the night, of open landscapes, empty forests, and lonely cabins. It is a time of small, unimportant events beautifully told, of a daily existence that seems to lead nowhere and yet expresses a way of living.

Grainier’s life is not told chronologically. For example, his wife Gladys appears early, then we backtrack to their early courtship. He loses wife and daughter in a forest fire, endures the empty world without them, and then he imagines the return of both in a moment of magic realism. The only one of these moments that carries any drama is the forest fire, which also reverberates in later scenes. The remaining events are simply told. There are no stylistic flourishes, no deep introspection, only flat, realistic detail.

One is not impressed by this work while reading it. Indeed, one wonders at its purpose. One also wonders where it is going, and why it has received so many hosannas. Even the ending brings no dramatic fulfillment. Only when one sits back and thinks about what one has read, does this book come together. Does one see its perfection. Does one understand the completeness of this life. Does one realize how the small events have created the whole.

There are no false steps. Even though there is no linkage, no direct continuity as one scene flows into the next, as one chapter follows the next, the portrait of this one man is complete when we arrive at the matter-of-fact ending. And as one realizes that one has read the complete story of one ordinary life, one also realizes that it is a life that contains much of the history of the West. It is a simple tale, but it is also profound. Its reach extends far beyond its individual scenes.

For one does grasp that the ending of this life represents the ending of an era. The railroads have been built, the forests have been removed, more women have arrived, automobiles are replacing horses, planes are in the air, prosperity approaches, and men have lost their desperation. Each of the novella’s nine chapters hightlights an event in Grainier’s life. A Chinese railroader flees his execution. There is the fate of Arn Peeples, who sets off dynamite charges, and of the wounded William Haley leaning against a tree, and whom Grainier is too young to know how to help. There is Grainier’s ruined world after the forest fire, and then his realization that he is older and can no longer log trees, so he turns to trucking and to hauling trees. There is his belief in an imaginary wolf-girl, and the return of Gladys, in his mind, followed by the return of his daughter Kate. But few of these moments of drama are told in a dramatic way—as if Johnson does not want us to concentrate on these moments but on the entire story, not on the story of this man’s life, but on what it represents.

Anthony Doerr sums up this short work: “The novella also accumulates power because Johnson is as skilled as ever at balancing menace against ecstasy, civilization against wilderness. His prose tiptoes a tightrope between peace and calamity, and beneath all of the novella’s best moments, Johnson runs twin strains of tenderness and the threat of violence.”

This is a perfect, little introduction to the work of Denis Johnson. And in its brevity lies is perfection. It is not typical, however, for he often writes at a longer length. But its perfection makes it worthy of study by novice writers. Here is how to create universality through the commonplace. How to find meaning in the incidental. How to build emotion through unexpected moments.

I am interested in reading more works by this author, but I confess that this novella does not draw me to his more expansive fiction. (April, 2014)

Persuasion, by Jane Austen

This 1818 novel is, indeed, an admirable work. It is old-fashioned, yes, in its style, Telling the reader more often than showing him. And it is obvious in its story, for we know the ending from the first chapter.

But the wisdom of the author, the understanding of the human character, the ability to create drama out of ordinary events, and the awareness that the realty of this distant world does not require detailed, realistic settings—all this contributes to the effectiveness of this novel two centuries after it was written.

This is the story of Anne Elliot, who was persuaded by her family to turn down a handsome but the poor naval officer, Captain Wentworth, whom she truly loved. Now, by apparent accident, he has returned to her life, a rich sea captain, and her heart is all aflutter. Will she or won’t she? Will they or won’t they?

Much stands in their way. Her father Sir Walter Elliot. Her adviser Lady Russell. Her sisters, beautiful Elizabeth and vain Mary, both of whom are more concerned with their own lives. And a lost cousin, Mr. Elliot, who has his own ideas about Anne’s future. Indeed, Anne herself is in her own way, having lost the bloom of youth along with her only love.

In a work of less than 300 pages, the reader absorbs this life of a distant era. There is no world here outside family estates, a seaside town, and the resort of Bath. There is no London, no Napoleon on the minds of these middle-class families concerned mainly with money, love, reputation, and social niceties.

The novel is helped tremendously by secondary characters. There are Anne’s father and sisters Elizabeth and Mary at the Kellynch mansion, which they lease for financial reasons to Admiral Croft and his wife, sister to Captain Wentworth. At Uppercross Hall, where Anne Elliot stays because her sister Mary is married to Charles Musgrove, there is Mr. Musgrove, his wife, and daughters Louisa and Henrietta. There are also Captain Harville and Captain Benwick at the sea resort of Lyme Regis, where Louisa has an accident and is cared for by them. Finally, at Bath, Anne renews her acquaintance with a former schoolmate, Mrs. Smith, who will play a key role, as well as members of a vain Bath society, from Lady Dalrymple to Colonel Wallis.

What is also admirable are the three settings: the mansions of Kellynch and Uppercross, the sea resort of Lyme, and the social life at Bath. Austen uses the first to establish family relationships, the second to introduce the change in Anne’s outlook and appearance, and the third to contrast the veneer of social life against Anne’s common sense. But in each case there is a solid, physical setting—because of the reaction of the characters to it rather than a result of detailed descriptions.

The general tone of this novel is typical Austen, a critique of family values and social values, which are contrasted here with Anne’s integrity and Captain Wentworth’s steadfastness. Whereas, Sir Walter and Elizabeth spend the family fortune and endanger Kellynch, while Mary thinks only of herself. And Mr. Elliot is a scoundrel in pursuit of money and a peerage, while a friend of Elizabeth’s, Mrs. Clay, is in pursuit of Sir Walter. Only the mourning Captain Benwick, a fan of literature, is serious-minded, and the reader wonders if he might be the right person for Anne.

The various characters introduce delays or obstacles to Anne finding happiness, some of their encounters being natural and some coincidental or arbitrary. The latter reflect, I think, the lack of technical skills among novelists of two centuries ago. It may also reflect a more optimistic view of life than is common among authors today. Thus, we are more alert to an author’s intrusion to make a happy ending.

Perhaps this is also because we look back on that era as one of innocence, and certainly women like Austen did not have a knowledge of the world that women have today, much less the novelistic skills. And yet, she did understand character, which is the strength of any good novelist.

What Austen did not understand in those early days of the novel, however, is how a satisfying ending is achieved. It requires logical actions by the characters. Here, however, the climactic moment of decision is too abrupt. And achieved by, of all things, a letter. The letter is set up by a pertinent conversation, but then is followed by a lovers’ dialogue that recaptures/explains the past rather than advances the situation dramatically. And this is followed by a round-up chapter that carries the various characters’ lives into the future, to give the reader a sense of completeness. This is my main, and primary, criticism of this work.

The theme of “persuasion” is present but not strong. Apparently, Austen’s brother named the novel when it was published after her death. Yes, Anne was persuaded to refuse Captain Wentworth’s proposal, and many repercussions followed, especially her unhappiness and decline, and the family’s reaction to the change in her. And Mr. Elliot’s pursuit of money and a peerage involves deceptive persuasion. Not to forget members of Bath society trying to persuade each other of their importance.

This work ranks below Pride and Prejudice for me, but is far better than Sense and Sensibility. Perhaps because Austen as an author has become here more aware of how to portray people’s strengths and weaknesses. And perhaps because she understands the impact on readers of a troubled heroine achieving happiness, as she gains control of her own destiny. Just as the spinster Austen did. Indeed, there is a striking passage toward the end when Anne announces why she will not accept literature’s treatment of the emotional lives of women: “Ys, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

And this stands out for a woman who published her first book anonymously, a woman who had to earn her recognition in a male world. But, like her choice of a heroine, she believed in herself, in her own convictions. Yet was there a limitation? One does wonder how much the happy ending is because such endings were expected in her day.

Here is a perceptive view of all of Austen’s works by Adelle Waldman: “Austen’s portraits of people and their milieus are animated not by satirical malice or mere eagerness to entertain but by a sense of moral urgency. With a philosophical eye, she sees through fuss and finery and self-justification. She gives us a cast of characters and then zeroes in, showing us who and what is admirable, who is flawed but forgivable, who is risible and who is truly vile. Delivered economically, her judgments are not only clever but perspicacious, humane, and, for the most part, convincing. Her real subject is not the love lives of barely post-adolescent girls, but human nature and society. Austen wrote stories that show us how we think.”

Waldman is critical of Persuasion, however, which she says is not a polished work. That its characters are superficially good, middling, or bad, that its satire hits easy targets, and that it is not as funny as her other novels. That it is popular because its heroine is not young, appears defeated, and yet triumphs. All of which, she grants, may be because Austen did not have a chance to follow her usual practice of refining her initial draft, of producing a richer and deeper work. She died, at age 41, before she had the chance to do this.

And perhaps that is why I feel that much of the story is told to us rather than dramatized, rather than shown to us. Perhaps I am evaluating the intent of Austen as much as the achievement. But I am still impressed by this work. And it makes me more interested than before in Emma and Northanger Abbey. For I understand why this “old-fashioned “ novelist has such passionate followers. (March, 2014)