The Snow Queen, by Michael Cunningham

Cunningham seems to have put two ideas together here in this 2014 novel. One is to recreate the difficulty of creating art, in this case composing songs rather than writing novels. And the second is to write a novel about the love of two men, except, not sexual love but brotherly love—a kind of love that may have intrigued this gay writer, and a kind seldom explored in literature.

But since there is an abstract aspect to these two ideas, a quietness that does not immediately grab reader interest, he introduces a mysterious light that one brother sees in the sky as he crosses New York’s Central Park. What can it mean?

And so we have the story of Tyler and Barrett Meeks. The older Tyler is living with girl friend Beth, who is dying of cancer, but he invites Barrett, a gay man and a victim of many unfulfilled love affairs, to live with them. It is this act of brotherly love, the relationship that it reveals, that is the prime achievement of this novel. Less significant are Liz, Beth’s older friend who has joined her in running a kind of used clothing shop, and Andrew, Liz’ lover, whom Barrett yearns for.

Nothing dramatic will happen in this novel. Indeed, one moment of drama, concerning Beth, is deliberately avoided. The result is more a portrait of a small group of people, no longer young and unable to find their station in life and unable to accept their fate, and yet who still yearn for something—for, we can fathom, the unachievable. The mysterious light that Barrett has seen at the start of the novel is often referred to, but it is more suggestive than real. It is perhaps intended to symbolize the yearnings of these characters, for fulfillment, but it plays no role in this novel beyond that of a maguffin.

I have been a fan of Cunningham in the past, in part because he has explored new literary grounds. But he does not do so here, despite his ability to write interesting scenes and interesting conversations, and to capture the yearnings of characters who are no longer young and yet are surrounded by the culture of youth in their Brooklyn neighborhood. Bottom line for me, this novel has been a disappointment.

The disappointment begins with the mysterious light, of which nothing is made except inconsequential musings, and it ends with a poetic musing that conveys a transient mood, but no conclusion to our story. In between is an ex-Catholic’s musings about a mysterious (not divine) presence in our characters’ lives, a presence that one brother avoids through drugs and another through sex. There is even a surprise, with the revelation of an affair between two of the characters, which is perhaps intended to reveal the desperation within each partner, but which seems to have no consequences—despite its inclusion in the poetic ending.           

The critics have liked this novel, but I have not. I cannot relate to characters who have lost their way, fail to find an answer in sex or drugs, or even a moment of religion, and revert at the end to a dream world apparently out of reach. Compassion is heartfelt, but not enough by itself. (August, 2016)

John, by Niall Williams

This 2008 work is a remarkable novel of the imagination. Williams has immersed himself in the minds, the bodies, and the souls of the Apostle John and his followers, around 100 AD. From the time he and they are exiled to Patmos, when John is an old man and blind, to his discovery of peace at Ephesus.

But throughout this period, disappointment and frustration lurk. For John, and his disciples, are waiting for the return of Jesus, his Second Coming. It is what sustains him in his old age, and what seems to hold together his disciples. The reader knows they are mistaken, of course, in awaiting Jesus’ return, but their faith, their belief in Him will culminate with the understanding, the transformation, that will provide fulfillment to their life, and to this novel.

From the very first chapter, I found myself immersed in the reality of this primitive era and the tender care with which John’s disciples look after their frail leader. Not to mention their deep faith as they ready themselves for the return of Christ, the only conclusion they can see that justifies their political exile on this desolate, rock-covered island.

Also evocative of this ancient era is the style Williams has chosen to tell his tale. It is highly poetic, as is his style in all his novels, but beyond being beautiful to read, it also serves to render quite natural the biblical world in which these characters live. Moreover, it is complemented by brief passages even more biblical in feeling when John recalls moments of his youth when he walked with Jesus.

But, of course, this is also a novel. And a novel needs more than style. There must be movement, must be tension that allows the characters to interact. Which, in turn, carries the reader ahead. And so an unexpected death early on confronts these holy men, followed by an innocent confrontation with the devil, and, finally, rebellion. Indeed, these dozen or so disciples become more human as half of them turn against their leader.

Their rebellious leader, Matthias, argues that if they are to be abandoned by a Jesus who does not return, then John cannot be believed, and so they are foolish to follow him. In this way, Matthias convinces his followers that he knows the true path to God, and that they should strike out on their own, establishing their own community. And realize that Matthias is closer to God than John ever was. It begins as an effective portrait of evil; but as it goes on, it seems quite an obvious one.

My assumption is that this rebellion is a fruit of the author’s imagination, and is part of his novelization of this portrait of John. In any event, it fits perfectly. It underscores the weakness, as well as the humanity, of these men who see themselves as servants of God. It also raises the issue of doubt, which many see today as a constant ingredient of faith. Indeed, the positive response of the remaining disciples makes their own faith stronger.

Williams has written that the germ of this book came to him when he was in the middle of another book. It came in the form of this question: what was John doing the day before he wrote the gospel? “I was looking for…the man not the Apostle,” he writes. “I was drawn to the human dimension, the idea that John was most likely the youngest of the Apostles, maybe even a teenager, and that the most significant event of his life happened then, that everything else is aftermath. His is by most agreed accounts the last of the four main gospels written. So, why does he wait so long?” And after considerable research he found himself “writing John’s experience of banishment, his disappointments in the world, and his long enduring. I am writing of belief from the inside where the doubts are.”

The climax of this novel certainly reflects Williams’ moment of inspiration. But it also reflects the depth of his research. For while the desolation of Patmos was comparatively easy to portray, the portrayal of

Ephesus is much more complex. For it was a bustling city, with merchants hustlers, and charlatans everywhere. Indeed, John can make no headway in this city of commerce—and succeeds only when there is a transformation within him. Which follow the intervention of nature…and also of God?

What was John doing before writing his gospel? He was recovering from an earthquake, recovering slowly, all the while still waiting for Jesus to return. But just as earlier, he had rediscovered the importance of love and been inspired to dictate scripture, so now a violent thunderstorm, with brilliant lightening, helps him to realize the importance of light, and how it symbolizes what Jesus brought to mankind and to the world. Which is when he is inspired to write his gospel.

But neither Williams nor the reader can forget the novel’s focus on Papias, the youngest disciple who from the beginning has served the apostle, being the youngest and the strongest. And at the climax, he as well as John is near despair at the failure of Jesus to return. Indeed, he is suffering further, for he has unwittingly contacted the plague in Patmos, and now is ashamed of his physical condition and his failure to serve his master.

When John is revived, however, after the storm, he at once cures Papias of the plague—on the last page. I think this a misstep by Williams, as if he cannot leave this young man near despair at the end, and must save him with a miracle. One suspects that Papias is a fictional character, and Williams wanted to give him a similar crisis at the end of this tale, but he could have given him another different fate—and not needed a miracle. If he was an historic figure, I apologize, but I still regret the author resorting to a miracle.

Overall, Williams was right to see his tale as a love story. It is a story of John’s love of Jesus, which motivates his entire life. But it also about his love of his disciples. And their love of God, yes, but even more their love of this aged, infirm man whom they support and guide, and refuse to desert.

This novel once again demonstrates Williams’ beauty of style on one level and depth of humanity on another. It is a depth that stems from his recognition of and commitment to the spiritual nature of man. I shall certainly continue reading him. (August, 2016)

The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolano

This 1998 work is a provocative novel, and a perplexing one. Yet it is also fascinating. It is fascinating because it is about writers, poets, and artists, and their lives. In fact, its fine reviews by critics has been, I think, influenced by that factor. For they, as I, can relate to these characters who struggle to survive but who live for their art, especially when it is a literary art. Of course, many also enjoy this work’s challenge to literary convention.

The novel is divided into three parts. The first part is a narrative journal by 17-year old Juan Garcia Madero, who is an ambitious poet and is invited to join an inconsequential poetry movement called visceral realists. He also ingratiates himself with the Font family, where the poetry movement often meets. At the end of this part, during a New Year’s party, he escapes in the Font family Impala with two founders of the poetry movement, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, plus a prostitute, Lupe. (It’s complicated: she’s fleeing her pimp.)

Let’s skip the second part for now. The third part is a continuation of the flight in the Impala by the four characters. They criss-cross northern Mexico, fleeing Lupe’s pimp, yes, but, more importantly, seeking to discover what happened to a woman named Caesarea Tinajero, who was a forerunner of their poetry movement. It is a journey that seemingly has no further purpose than to provide a context for that poetry movement and to flesh out the obstinate pursuit of Lima and Belano. But it also completes the story of Garcia Madero, who has no role in the more significant part two of the novel.

Even the shoot-out at the end of part three fails to convey the tragedy it apparently intends, not least because of Bolano’s matter-of-fact style. And while some critics claim the futility of this out-of-sequence finale foretells the empty future of Lima and Belano that is to be the feature of part two, it leaves me more with a sense of Bolano’s futility in being able to bring a sense of completeness to his story. But Bolano is more interested, I think, in the reader completing his novel and seeing it as a whole. It is a modern view of literature, a rebellious view that helped make him famous, but a view that I find difficult to relate to.

The novel’s title apparently comes from part three’s search for the poet Tinajero. The three men, and Lupe, are the detectives. They are savage, however, only in the author’s eye, but they certainly are persistent, determined to find the missing poet. And some might say they are following clues as they drive back and forth across the Sonoran desert in their search. But I found the search itself to be less interesting than their persistence, and their final discovery of a fat unpoetic woman to be anticlimactic.

Part two of the novel, comprising 400 of the 577 pages, is the most important and most perplexing portion of the novel. It offers a portrait of the literary and art world of Mexico, as told by more than forty characters. And it was impossible, at least for me, to track these forty characters from one monologue to another. What Bolano focuses on through these characters are their encounters with Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano after their adventures in parts one and three. Their encounters take place across two decades, and occur not only in Mexico but also in Paris, Israel, Barcelona, and even San Diego. They also portray the many setbacks by these two poets in their search for personal and artistic fulfillment. And while there is no cohesive narrative, we gradually understand that these two poets are the main concern of this novel, not young Garcia Madero. And I suspect that Bolano does not worry if part one has led readers astray. He is a big-picture author, and undoubtedly wants the reader to work to understand his overall tale.

What is fascinating about these monologues is that many of them are complete short stories. And these stories encourage our sticking with such disparate monologues that have no connection with one another, only with their continuing revelations about the lives, often separate, of Lima and Belano. The narrators also differ in their view of the two men, often basing their conclusion on how much the men ask of them—such as money or a place to live— how superior to them the men act, and the final taste the men leave. And like the monologists themselves, we cannot tell if these two poets have become explorers of art or simply drug addicts.

One characteristic I noted in the journal entries of Garcia Madero, as well as in all the monologues, is that these narrators over and over say they do not recall the specifics of certain encounters. Such as the people involved, the sequence of events, etc. It is not one narrator that does this; it is all of them. This seems intended to enhance the elusiveness of the events surrounding both Lima and Belano, giving them a more abstract feel. Which is exacerbated, when we see Lima and Belano themselves only through the other characters and too briefly to establish any interacting relationship. The result gives almost a surreal effect to this elusive world that Bolano has created.

The poet Belano is obviously a nom-de-guerre for author Bolano, but the youthful Madero in Mexico City is also based on Bolano’s youth. For Bolano was himself a rebellious poet when young and led a somewhat dissolute life in Mexico before traveling, like Belano, to France and Spain. In fact, he died in Barcelona of liver disease at age 50. And so it is out of his own experiences that Bolano has created this youthful environment and its fascination with sex, power, literature, rebellion—and dreams of fulfillment abroad. Also appropriate is the colloquial style Bolano, and the translator, have given both Madero and the monologists. For while our heroes are poets, we never read their poetry, nor do the monologists use poetic expressions in their tales of Lima and Belano. Instead, they communicate their own down-to-earth perspectives of these poor but ambitious main characters.

This provocative work leaves me interested in one more Bolano work, his even longer 2666, which has earned even more praise. But I must give myself some space. Bolano’s world is too disparate, too conceptual for me to revisit it anytime soon. (August, 2016)

Purity, by Jonathan Franzen

This 2015 work is a confusing novel from a writer I have long admired. It is confusing because it moves back and forth among different characters and different time frames. It is a method authors often use today, chiefly to involve readers into figuring out what is going on and, not incidentally, to create suspense.

But I found myself asking too many questions. Who, for example, is the main character? Is it Pip (Purity), whom we encounter at the start of the novel. Is it Andreas Wolf, a German computer hacker whom we next meet in Berlin, and follow to Bolivia, where he is a WikiLeaks-type provocateur? Or is it Tom Aberant, an American journalist tied to Andreas by a crime and his investigative journalism web site, but who also endures a ten-year marriage to Anabel, a marriage of conflict that this reader also found difficult to endure.

Also, why do we meet Pip in the middle of her story? Why is her mother so afraid to tell her about her father? Why does Wolf entice Pip to come to Bolivia? What is the point of the disastrous marriage of Tom? What is the lasting connection between Tom and Andreas? Eventually, we do learn the answers to these question, but rather than work as teasers, these questions frustrated this reader, actually inhibiting his interest. As suggested, I am not a fan of presenting characters and their stories out of chronological sequence. What I wish is that the suspense come from the actions of the characters, and wondering what they will do next, not from wondering what the actions of the characters actually mean.

Franzen is obviously trying here to write a major novel of literature. A novel of generations. A novel of family hate and jealousy. A novel of relationships between parent and child. A psychological novel (the Killer who haunts Andreas). A novel of international scope and subterfuge. A novel of literary complexity and commercial surprise.

The ending, in particular, reflects that commercial aspect. Marriage partners reconnect, but there is no conclusive ending to their relationship. A love affair continues on also, but inconclusively. Perhaps the characters are intended to continue on in our minds, but one also wonder if they are being set up to continue in a sequel. Or is Franzen simply unable to imagine the future of these characters, once their basic drama has concluded?

The novel’s title. More than a name for Pip, it seems intended to be symbolic. There is a billion dollar inheritance being refused. Does that reflect a sense of purity? There is truth being hidden and being exposed. About a nuclear bomb, about a murder, about a paternity. Is hacking in the interest of truth, and is that for reasons of purity, as Andreas pretends it is? There is even a suicide that, for me, comes out of nowhere. Of course, it is Pip’s mother who named her, and she is living her own interpretation of a life of purity. But the title seems meant to go beyond that, and for me is a little forced as a result, as if the author wants to make sure we get his point.

As Colm Toibin suggests in his Times review, Pip seems for a long time seems to be a victim of circumstance and an innocent in the ways of the world—far from the qualities of a major character. Indeed, Toibin calls her “a damaged innocent in need of rescue and redemption.” But even when her central role is more clear, she remains for me a passive character, more a character used by the author to reveal the more significant actions of the other characters. This is again evident when the author uses her to build a final scene that goes nowhere.

Toibin accurately sums up this novel when he writes: “it dramatizes the uneasy and damaging relationships between parents and their offspring in white America, the strains within friendship, and the ways time and familiarity and human failings work at corroding a marriage.” Of course, this is very abstract, perhaps because a critic needs to avoid spoilers, but it accurately reflects the family relationships that are the concern of Franzen in many of his works

The long section of Tom and Anabel’s corroding marriage particularly aggravated me. Especially Anabel’s whiney one-upmanship, her insistence that she is always right. And Tom’s acceptance of her, because he loves her, and his refusal to free himself from her for ten years. Of course, we finally come to understand her, as we finally realize who she actually is, but it is a long slog, barely justified by Franzen’s revelation.

Many of the reviewers comment on the coincidences that appear in this novel. And at the same time, they praise the forward-moving plot. Of course, that forward movement depends often on the coincidences, which bring these characters together at key points and at other times help them understand the motives of others. Such as Andreas and Tom meeting in Berlin. Such as Pip working for Andreas and then for Tom. Such as Andreas and Tom ending up in the same profession, that of revealing secrets. Such as, on the other hand, Pip’s ignorance of who her father and mother really are, the premise of the entire novel. And, finally, such as Pip bringing people together at the end, but with inconclusive, unconvincing results.

I observed that family relationships have long been a concern of the author. And in telling his other stories, he would move among the family members and tell each story from different viewpoints. But there was unity, because he was always within that family. Here, however, he goes beyond that basic family. First, we are not even sure who the basic family is comprised of. And, second, he makes Andreas, an outsider, part of that family. And both these factors require him to move about in time as well as in geography, in order to tell us this complicated story. And they also require him to hold back on key information. In other words, his structure is at the service of the story he wishes to tell.

I shall continue my interest in Franzen, but I hope he discovers a simpler way next time to tell his story of family relationships. (July, 2016)