Aloft, by Chang-rae Lee

This 2004 work is a truly American novel by this Korean-born writer who arrived here at the age of three and is now completely Americanized. Unlike his first two novels, however, it is not about an Eastern hero adapting to American life. It is about another kind of immigrant, one Jerry Battle, a third-generation Italian encountering the normal travails of an American family seeking the advantages of a middle-class Long Island life.

Yet Lee does not completely ignore his own cultural integration. For Jerry’s wife Daisy was a Korean, but now has died and left him with two children, Jack and Theresa. And Jerry now has a former girl friend, Rita, who is Puerto Rican and whom he yearns for. Plus, his children, of course, are half Asian, and Theresa has an Asian boyfriend. And important also is Jerry’s father, Pops, now at an assisted-living home, but who also represents the Italian immigrant experience.

What captured this reader from the start, what involved me with Jerry and his family, was his voice. It is readily captured by Ron Charles, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, who describes a voice “that’s maddeningly self-absorbed, wonderfully witty, constantly conflicted, often wise, and ultimately redeemed.” He also writes that “Lee’s genius is this confidential voice, full of cultural analysis, ironic asides, sexual candor, and unconscious revelations…perpetually buoyed by wit and insight.” The reader is both inside that highly opinionated voice and stimulated by it, and yet also aware of Jerry’s failure to understand those in that world outside him.

Jerry confronts a number of problems in this novel, but his primary one stems from his aloofness from everyone, his refusal to involve himself in any situation, even the problems of his own children. Instead, he prefers to escape from them. This is represented metaphorically by his hobby, in which he flees to the airport to fly his small plane, enabling him to rise above the world and everyone in it. This hobby also prompts the novel’s title, and will lead to a climactic flying scene that is the dramatic high point of the book.

But Lee keeps the reader grounded as he writes about Jerry and his family, and their pursuit of the America dream—the dream for wealth, love, and happiness. While completely different from Jonathan Franzen’s novels, this work does share an interest in family life, what pulls a family apart and what brings it together. (Other reviewers have noted a link to Updike and Roth for their focus on family life, but those are authors not writing today.) In the Battle family (ne Battaglia), a masonry business that Jerry’s father turned into a landscaping business now has been turned by his affable son Jack into a home improvement business serving the wealthy. Because Jack has wanted to please his wife and impress his cold and aloof father. But his problem is that he has overextended in an economic downturn, and now faces bankruptcy. Meanwhile daughter Therese, the brains in the family, has returned from Oregon, to which she escaped. She is back with her Asian boyfriend, and now reveals she is pregnant and has a health issue.

So between Rita, whom he yearns for, and his two children needing help, plus an unhappy father at a nursing home he decides to flee, Jerry’s struggle to connect with them is real. And as he narrates these issues in a self-deprecating manner, revealing his self-awareness about his failure as a husband, father, and lover, he earns the interest and sympathy of the reader. The result is an interesting novel, one which might border on soap opera for some, but which drew me into this family and earned my concern for their fate—especially the fate of a 60-year-old man, not often the hero of a novel.

On the other hand, Lee avoids milking a dramatic scene at times. First is a grudge tennis match with a rival for Rita’s affections. Jerry risks his airplane on winning the match; and while the lead-up to that scene is brilliantly, even satirically, dramatized, we do not read about the final drama of the match. Likewise, Jerry dramatically lands his plane in the soup at New Haven with his daughter on board and about to give birth, but we do not witness what happens after he lands. Perhaps Lee wishes to focus on the effect of these scenes on family relationships rather than on the event itself.

However, there are also dramatic scenes from the past that Lee and narrator Jerry do recall. Foremost is the death of Daisy, Jerry’s wife, in their swimming pool. Jerry receives a new insight at the end about how it happened, which justifies an earlier and extended dramatic confrontation with her just before her death. He also recalls the drama of Pops struggling with the original business and the drama of the loss of Jerry’s brother in Vietnam—all of which serves to deepen these family relationships.

Perhaps what Aloft has in common with Lee’s earlier work is the theme of adapting to one’s circumstances. In this case, it is about a reserved father who finds it difficult to adapt to the needs of his own family. Who flies above it all whenever he can. Indeed, fatherhood offers the key to this novel. It begins with Jerry’s relationship with his own father, a philanderer who kept aloof from his family and taught his son to do the same. Which Jerry does, but then finds himself uncomfortable with the kind of freedom it gives him, freedom to travel the world, for example, and not commit himself to anyone or any place. He is uncomfortable with this life because he misses not being a real father to his children, not having a connection that enables them to come to him for advice or him to approach them if he sees them troubled.

Yes, I will continue searching out Lee’s novels, for I am drawn to characters who seek to accommodate themselves to a different culture. And Lee has not only the background to do that but also has the sensitivity to bring it to a personal level. And not least, to understand the specific, concrete symbols of that different culture— such as the details of flying, cooking, landscaping, travel agenting, nursing homes, middle-class living, and confronting death.

Ted Weesner, Jr. sums up Aloft, citing “characters who are precisely drawn, lovably human, painfully flawed, viewed in the deep and knowing manner of a caring parent [while] unspoken resentments, grievances, befuddlement, [and] failed expectations come to the surface.” (January, 2016)

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Ancient Light, by John Banville

I loved the writing in this 2012 novel, its texture, its rhythm, its metaphors, its precise capture of a mood, a character, a scene. That is what remains with me. Banville is a true stylist.

He is also here a provocative story-teller, but not truly a convincing one. This is the story of one Alexander Cleave, a moderately successful, but unfullfilled actor of about sixty who recalls an affair he had when he was fifteen with the mother of Billy Gray, his best friend. That summer comes to mind when he is unexpectly asked to play the lead role in a movie about a famous but notorious poet, Axel Vander.

Alex’s life has revolved around four women, the Mrs. Gray of his youth, his wife Lydia of whom we know little, his dead daughter Cass for whom he and his wife grieve, and the glamorous actress Dawn Devonport who plays opposite him in the movie. While this seems to be primarily a memory novel, it is divided between his youthful passion and the reactions of Alex today. And it is the ending that seems intended to move us.

However, I was not moved. The irony of the surprise ending was for me not only a letdown, but seemed to be contrived by the author to make a psychological point. That is, the ending was intended to capture the tricks that our memory can play on us. And the revelation that we do not always play the role in other’s lives that we think we do.

What the novel does achieve is the innocence of the passion that Alex recalls in his youth. Without once describing the details of the boy’s sexual arousal, Banville makes clear that passion. And also makes clear the mature perspective Mrs. Gray has regarding their affair. We witness the boy’s emotional twists and turns, and her aloof manner that so frustrates him even as she allows her body to satisfy him.

The portrait of Alex as a mature actor also succeeds. He is both an acute observer of the theatrical world, but even more he truly reacts to that world as an actor does. For example, he describes his profession as “this absurd trade in which I have spent my life pretending to be other people, above all pretending not to be myself.” He wonders, too, how his middling stage career has resulted in being chosen for this lead role in a major movie. (We will learn later that the explanation lies more with Banville than with the fictional movie’s producer.) Indeed, the author’s description of the premilinaries of script reading and rehearsal are so effective I had wanted to follow Alex onto the set for an actual scene or two.

But what matters more seems to be how the star actress becomes to him so suggestive of his daughter, who died mysteriously, perhaps a suicide, years ago in Italy. And in his effort to atone for the guilt he feels for her death, Alex takes the actress Dawn to Italy to visit the site of her death. In fact, as they enter an Italian hotel, one scene captured for me Banville’s brilliant, evocative style:

“How she managed to make her way through the lobby’s crepuscular gloom with those sunglasses I do not know—they are unsettingly suggestive of an insect’s evilly gleaming, prismatic eyes—but she crossed to the desk ahead of me at a rapid, crispy crickling pace and plonked her handbag down beside the nippled brass bell and took up a sideways pose, presenting her also magnificent profile to the already undone fellow behind the desk….I wonder if these seemingly effortless effects that she pulls off have to be calculated anew each time, or are they finished and perfected by now, a part of her repertoire, her armory?”

The novel ends with the arrival of dawn, the slow emerging of the light of a new day. (Let’s not forget the name of our glamorous actress, who will help shed new light for Alex.) I wonder if this scene inspired the title, or the title inspired this final scene. But it only works for me as a title if it is intended to suggest the new light that the ending casts on the fifteen year-old boy’s ancient affair. And, indeed, this seems to be the case, according to New York Times Book Reviewer Christopher Benfey. He cites Alex recalling “the ancient light of galaxies that travel a million—a billion—a trillion— miles to reach us.” That “everywhere we look, we are looking into the past.” On the other hand, it becomes unclear what is the central event of this novel. Is it Alex’s affair as a fifteen-year-old that he sees in a new light, or is it the death of his daughter Cass, which prompts the movie interest and the visit to Italy?

I say this because of what I also learned from Benfey. That Alex has appeared in two other Banville novels, Eclipse and Shroud. And the latter deals with Cass and her relationship with the poet Axel Vander, the man that Alex (note the anagram) is portraying in the movie in this work. This key link in the two time frames is, however, only implied in this novel. As if Banville thinks it is more effective, more evocative, to suggest rather than to convey. Yes, to the acutely perceptive reader, perhaps, but not to the general reader, I believe, like myself.

And this still leaves me with determining which of the two events in Alex’s life is the subject of this novel. And I don’t mean the movie. How is that youthful romance at fifteen intended to reverberate in the death of his daughter Cass, as if she is also a innocent victim of a mature lover—when we do not know the details of the daughter’s fate? Is there to be another novel in this series, as suggested by Alex in the final pages when he commissions publicist Billie Stryker to learn about Vander’s final days. Assuming they were with his daughter, are we to see different events or simply to have a different perspective on those events that occurred in Shroud?

There are certain commonalities in the three Banville novels I have commented on so far. Each represents a narrator looking back on his past. Each learns how his memory has not reflected the reality of that past. And each reality concerns the sexual life of the narrator. And yet, each novel is different, just as each encourages me to look forward to reading more of Banville’s work. Not least because of that rich style. (January, 2016)

Lost Memory of Skin, by Russell Banks

This 2011 work  is an excellent, provocative novel, with sociological and philosophical depth. After a while, however, it becomes difficult for the reader to get his footing, because it has two major characters, and it is unclear which one is more sympathetic and which one we are to be oncerned about. Not that these are ordinary characters, for the Kid is a virgin and yet a convicted sex offender and the Professor is a garguantian fat man, a genius who claims to have once spent years commiting illegal acts undercover for the government.

At first, it seems to be the Kid we are to identify with, not least because we are curious about how he is both a virgin and a sex offender. Then the Professor arrives, claiming that one of his undercover agencies is out to kill him before he betrays its secrets. He is, conveniently perhaps, researching a study of homelessness among sex offenders, and offers to help the Kid adapt to society. This reader’s focus was thus confused, because after being committed to the Kid, along comes the Professor as a much more interesting person, and one confronting a much more dramatic situation.

The novel is so interesting not because of any confrontation between these two characters, but because of the confounding situation each one is in and the mutual support they give each other. It is also interesting because Banks both draws a portrait of the underside of society through the Kid and suggests an underground society through a man who may or may not be what he appears to be. This is why the reader identifies off and on with each character. Until death intervenes, and we realize who the main character is.

All of this takes place in a vividly described southern state, much of it where a mangrove swamp meets the Caribbean. But while it is a specific, concrete world, it is not identifiable on a real map. Which does not matter. Because what matters is that it brings alive the reality of an underside of life hidden beneath a causway, hidden from society.

Yet on another level, reality is a key element that gives philosophical depth to this novel. For Banks continually juxtaposes the fake world of reality, represented by internet pornography, to the real world the Kid confronts. Indeed, Janet Maslin in her exellent New York Times review explains that the title refers to how “real flesh has been supplanted by the virtual kind.” She also notes Banks description of an internet culture “lost in the misty zone between reality and imagery, no longer able to tell the difference.”

Beyond this difference, Banks gets the reader to probe different realities by wondering how the Kid is a sexual offender without having had sex. And whether the Professor really was a secret government agent. Indeed, Banks even introduces a metafictional element. So, just as the Professor has created a story about his former life, Banks has created the Kid’s story within this novel. With the implication being if we agree to the reality of the Professor’s story, we should agree to the reality of the Kid’s story. More, that is, than its reality in this novel, but also its reality in the reader’s world.

This parsing of reality also evolves at the end as Banks through the Kid explores the difference between shame and guilt. Throughout the novel, the Kid’s fascination with pornography has been a part of his character. Indeed, this is what had led him into being arrested for a sexual offense. And for this he has always felt the guilt of being a bad person. But at the end, he discovers a difference between guilt and sheme. And realizes that what he has felt is shame for what he has done, which is the reaction of a good person. Which is what he is. Whereas guilt is what a bad person feels. Which he is not. And so he now faces his future as a convicted sex offender without guilt.

Banks also builds a fascinating discussion around the truth of the Professor’s past. Should the Kid believe him or not? Banks introduces a Writer at the end who prompts this discussion, for he believes the Professor’s story, while the Kid does not. For a while, I thought this Writer might play a role in the novel’s outcome, but eventually it is clear he is there to serve a certain function for the author. The discussion revolves around the difference between knowing something is true, having proof, and simply believing it is true. And the same question, of course, is being asked of the reader. Does he believe the Professor’s story or not? The Writer urges the Kid to “believe.” Which is to imply not spiritual belief, but a belief in mankind.

I had thought that Banks was going to leave that question unanswered at the end. But for the most part he answers it. He does, however, unnecessarily complicate the issue at the end. For he suddenly introduces emails from another character that opens up a possibility of a different secret life of the Professor, one that convinces the Kid that his friend’s backrground story is not true. Then the outcome of this pulls the rug from under the Kid’s belief. However, while I was not convinced by this sudden complication, Banks might have felt it necessay to make believable the Kid’s final decision.

One should note here Maslin’s perceptive comment: “the Kid’s growing capacity for self-knowledge becomes a driving force [as Banks] coaxes the Kid from helpless innocence to enlightened dignity, from all-consuming shame to glimmering self-knowledge.”

Helen Schulman’s Times review then broadens our view: “Banks remains our premier chronicler of the doomed and forgotten American male, the desperate and the weak, men whos afflictions and antagonists may change over the years but whose fundamental struggle never does.”

This is an unusually successful novel in its blend of drama, human characters from the underside of life, and an indepth probe of both human psychology and philosophical meaning. It is less an exploration of American society, even with the changes wrought by the computer, than an exploration of the internal lives we all live. A life of survival and hope. A life of guilt and shame. A life of reality and lies. A life of human contact and human denial. It is a marvelous achievment, one of the author’s finest works. (January, 2016)

The Fear Index, by Robert Harris

This 2011 work is a professionally written thriller about the world of finance. It speculates about what can happen when computers take over the stock market: how world finances might well run out of control. It is intended as a warning, and the possible reality is supported by the reference to a variety of financial experts listed in the Acknowledgements at the start of the novel.

This is not a serious novel, unlike much of Harris’ work. It is a thriller with a purpose. Yet it is a professional thriller, opening with a dramatic scene in which Alex Hoffmann, a wealthy computer genius, senses an intruder in his Geneva mansion at night. And it closes with another highly dramatic scene in which Alex seeks to escape a fire he has just set in order to save the world’s financial systems.

Like many a serious thriller, this work also presents a policeman, Leclerc, who works at cross-purposes to Alex. He also presents a contrast to the intelligent, high-strung computer genius that is Alex; for, near retirement himself, Leclerc moves slowly and deliberately as he tracks down suspects. Alex is not exactly a suspect, however, just one who is acting suspiciously. Indeed, there is no real villain in this novel, unless it is a computer algorithm Alex has created that threatens to run out of control.

The other main characters include Gabrielle, who loves but fails to understand her genius husband; and a mysterious Hugo Quarry, Alex’s partner who recruits the wealthy men who back Alex’s hedge fund, Hoffmann Investment Technologies. This firm has developed the algorithm that enables its computer to adapt to surrounding events and react to down markets faster than any human can. That is, create its own artificial intelligence that can take advantage of and influence the reality around it.

There is a maguffin in this work, a mysterious figure who has somehow taken over Alex’s computers, and is sending messages in his name that he claims he never sent. Alex says this figure is attempting to drive him mad, which is believable since he himself has been presented as a kind of mad scientist. This force, or figure, has the potential to be a villain, but he is more a maguffin, forcing the reader to turn the pages to learn who he is and why he is distorting Alex’s world. I call him a maguffin because the novel ends without the reader actually learning who he is. Is he actually Alex himself, or someone who has simply taken over his cyber world. And why? Unless I missed an explanation at the end, there is none, and this is the one disappointment of the novel.

Regarding the complexity of the novel’s financial world, it is sufficiently clear at the start regarding hedge funds and Alex’s motive in setting up his own. That is, we learn that a hedge fund bets on both sides of a stock’s fate, thus decreasing its money at risk, but clearing millions if it guesses right and bets more on the right side. But while the basic principle is clear, the algorithm that reacts to the financial world around it is not, especially during the climactic rampage when the markets across the globe suddenly run out of control.

The message of this novel concerns the greed in our financial system, and the fear of losing control over the technology that serves that greed—the Fear Index being a Wall Street tool that measures violent swings in the market. And then this novel explores how that fear is confounded when control actually is lost. But this psychological overlay, this attempt to give the novel depth, even including references to Darwin and his theories of evolution, did not work for me. Not least because I was so interested in Alex’s situation and Alex’s fate that I did not need it.

It is interesting how Harris in his various novels switches back and forth from historic worlds to the current world and its issues. But while his work is fascinating in the contemporary world, he is more successful in literary terms in the historic world. Perhaps because he can give depth to actual history through interpretation, whereas today’s scene must be regarded more speculatively. (January, 2016)