Death of the Black-Haired Girl, by Robert Stone

This 2013 novel begins disappointingly, matures into a thoughtful literary work, and then eases itself at the end into a simple portrait of life. As Claire Messud writes in her New York Times review, Stone, “demands an attentive reader as he explores, through superficially familiar narratives, substantial themes.”

The novel begins with an affair at a small, elite university in New England between a married university professor, Steven Brookman and his smart, attractive student, Maud Stack. And my reaction is: how trite can a novel get? It is truly a “familiar narrative.” Maud is the black-haired girl of the title, an aggressive, opinionated student who allows herself to be seduced and convinces herself that this man is the love of her life. One reads on, unable to relate to her (or to the selfish, womanizing professor), simply because one is curious about how she is going to die.

That death does become a mystery, but this is not a mystery novel. Maud is killed by a hit-and-run-driver outside the professor’s house, when she argues with him and then turns angrily away. What matters to Stone now is what happens to the people who knew her and were left behind. Theirs will be a tale of accountability, and the pursuit of absolution. But unfortunately, we get to know Maud on only two superficial levels, her mad infatuation with the professor and her violent, over-wrought defense of abortion. We do not get inside her, to learn about her relationship with her father or her faith.

Instead, we get to know her through her banter with her roommate Shelby, an older girl but not one wiser in the ways of men. Indeed, Stone allows getting to know about Maud and her affair to take up the first third of the book. Only then do we get to probe more deeply into various characters. Moreover, Shell herself will play no significant role in these characters’ concerns about accountability. Only her estranged husband John Clammer will play a role—that is, be raised by Stone as a suspect, as will also a local madman and the mysterious vision of a priest. Except, these are nothing more than the MacGufins that appear in many a mystery novel, which this is not.

More important is Maud’s father, Eddie Stack, a retired policeman in New York who has lost his wife and now loses his only daughter. He asks if this is retribution because of past cooperation with a corrupt brother-in-law. He is distraught, ridden with guilt, now compounded because he and his daughter have gone their separate ways. And so he seeks a kind of atonement by asking to bury his daughter beside his wife in a church crypt. But a conservative Catholic priest is reluctant to do this, perhaps because of the scandal of her affair but more significantly because she has spurned her Church and has written a pro-abortion column for the university newspaper.

Equally significant is the impact of the girl’s death on Professor Brookman and his newly pregnant wife Ellie. He is filled with guilt for the affair and the disrespect he has shown to his wife. And all he cares for now is to ease his conscience, and to control how his wife will react to the affair.

Outside looking in is university counselor Jo Carr, a mature woman whom everyone leans upon for advice. She was once a nun in South America, and lost her faith after witnessing the evil fostered by a priest who identified with the poor. Also present is Mary Pat, the wife of the university president, who has connections in the Church hierarchy and works to have Maud buried in the church beside her mother. The author himself was raised a Catholic, and here he offers a balanced interpretation, not often seen in the literary world, of the conflict between the beliefs held by the more conservative hierarchy and those by more liberal lay Catholics.

It is the impact of this girl’s accidental death on these people that matters to the author, and it represents the richest portion of this novel. As Messud writes, these “are certainly Christian narratives, but they’re ultimately examples of our human need to find meaning in what threatens to be incomprehensible events.” Basically, the unexpected death of Maud.

The impact of her death extends even to a local policeman, Lou Salmone. He once shared with Eddie Stack a New York beat. The major suspense of the novel is whether or not Stack will take revenge on Professor Brookman for the death of his daughter. And both Salmone and Jo Carr will take steps to prevent this. It is here, in the concealed emotions that impact all these characters, that the heart of the novel lies.

And so, will he or won’t he? That is, Stack take his revenge. The novel builds to his confrontation with Brookman. Whereupon we follow all these characters into the future, some impacted more than others by Maud’s death. But life continues on, the author seems to say. People adjust. This is what our existence brings. Moments of drama. Tragedy for some. And the accommodation to reality for others.

Michiko Kakutani sums up Stone’s intentions with this novel: “It explicates its characters’ hope that life is not completely random—‘people always want their suffering to mean something’—and their contradictory awareness of the dangers of religious certainty; their understanding that choices have moral consequences; and that innocents frequently are tangled and hurt in the crossfire.” All true, but not conveyed, I believe, felicitously by Stone. His work is too encumbered by the set-up that takes one-third of the novel. As well as by the complex emotions of Brookman, Stack, Jo Cobb, and policeman Salmone. Perhaps it would have been better to have concentrated only on Brookman and Stack, and gone still more deeply into their desire for redemption and absolution.

This is a predictable novel by an author nearing the end of his career. It is a kind of summing up. About life. About family relationships. About our trust in one another. But mainly about our faith and the meaning of our lives. It is also not a complex story, one that challenges the author intellectually or structurally. Thus, while he uses the structure of a mystery, with a death and a police investigation, he does not write a mystery. He examines, instead, the impact of the death of Maud on all the people in her life. Indeed, the “death” in the title re-enforces this intent. (April, 2017)

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The Confusion, by Neal Stephenson

In this second of Stephenson’s Baroque cycle of novels, the author continues his story of Jack Shaftoe and his new buddies, all of them slaves, and Eliza, his companion and lover from Volume One.  The Confusion, published in 2004, opens with Jack and his friends as prisoners of the Berbers in Algiers in 1689. Then shifts, in its dual focus, to Eliza maneuvering herself into the court of French King Louis XIV. These alternating scenes begin with Jack freeing himself from captivity with a thrilling move from being a galley slave to capturing a ship whose presumed treasure of silver from Spanish America miraculously turning into gold. It is an ironic metaphor for the alchemy that fascinates not a few historic characters that fill this volume.

Meanwhile Eliza inveigles herself as a double-agent into the complicated politics of the French court. Which becomes more complicated when she plots to turn paper notes into silver coins for French invaders to spend when invading England. How the invasion’s potential failure, which she hopes for, also brightens Eliza’s financial success is, however, difficult to follow. Indeed, the author is more fascinated than I by this blend of politics and finances.

Not to be ignored is the considerable research behind the vivid recreation of these scenes from the past. Which includes the interaction among the author’s fictional characters and actual historic figures, like the intellectuals Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. But more than in Stephenson’s Volume One, this is a fictional story woven through history, rather than one guided by history. It is also a story of the Enlightenment era, which prompts reverberations between its moment of fictional history that explores the development of mathematics and our current era in which the development of mathematics has evolved into our computer age.

Also of note is the author’s apparent delight in the use of language. This becomes obvious when he focuses on the swashbuckling adventures of Jack, first as he steals the new-found gold from a business partner of Eliza, then escapes by ship across the Mediterranean and survives an ambush in Cairo. Where, incidentally, he kills the father of the man Eliza has been forced to marry back in France. After we visit Eliza again—who is both seeking her illegitimate son, kidnapped by an enemy banker, and plotting to foil the French invasion of England—we find that Jack, unwelcome by the powers in Europe, is now penniless in India. Because a pirate queen has stolen his team’s gold, and he is surviving by donating blood to insects (don’t ask) in a hospital for birds and animals. The scene is gruesome, absurd, and presumably appeals to those with a sick sense of humor.

But it leads to another intricate plot in India, in which Jack and his buddies open up a trade route controlled by mercenaries. They do this by boiling camel dung and human urine to create phosphorous, and wearing the phosphorous at night to terrify the mercenaries. Jack is rewarded with a brief kingship, during which he constructs a great ship of teak, the Minerva, using gold re-invested by the pirate queen. And this soon puts our heroes, and the reader, on the road to the East. Many such scenes, whether in Cairo, India, France, or Germany, reflect the author’s endless fascination with finding new stories to dramatize his blend of history, adventure, and science.

Whereupon, we return to London, and to the Daniel Waterhouse whom we had met on the opening pages of the first volume. It is now two or so decades earlier than that opening, and Daniel is involved with long, impenetrable discussions with John Locke, Isaac Newton, and Nicolas Fatio. Frustrated by England’s financial uncertainty, Daniel is now planning to depart for Massachusetts, hoping to turn the intellectuals’ mathematical speculations into a machine that will be a forerunner to today’s computers. Meanwhile, his intellectual friends are forming a Juncto to tackle English finances. All of which seems to provide no link to the stories of Jack or Eliza, until the Juncto recognizes a need to establish a Bank of England to foster English commerce, and they name Newton head of the London mint. Which, note, Jack will be commissioned to destroy in Volume Three.

Still another connection to Volume Three is a young woman named Caroline. She is the daughter of a Prussian friend of Eliza. She is fascinated by science and becomes a friend of Leibniz. Indeed, it is this Caroline who has opened Volume One by urging Daniel Waterhouse to return from Massachusetts to Europe in order to resolve a scientific dispute between Isaac Newton and Leibniz.

This novel seems to be properly entitled, The Confusion. Not least, as Stephen Metcalf writes in the New York Times, because “we’re treated to endless levees, epistles, political-economical-metaphysical discursions, and Stephenson’s favorite, conspiracies.” Or as the book jacket says: “A great adventure ensues, rife with battles, chases, hairbreadth escapes, swashbuckling, bloodletting, and danger…that will place the intrepid band at odds with the mighty and the mad, with alchemists, Jesuits, great navies, pirate queens, and vengeful despots across vast oceans. Meanwhile, back in Europe…”

…We join Eliza, who is traveling into Germany to visit Herr Leibnitz in Leipzig but also her kidnapped son. To keep in touch in the 1690s, however, communication is by letter, even coded at times, and her constant communications with naval pirate Jean Burk and other officers, diplomats, financiers, and court figures allows the author to condense such financial maneuvering, still confusing, into summary reports, rather than having to dramatize such maneuvers at length. This is an easy way to cover a lot of ground, but its cumulative plotting is at the expense of clarification.

The remaining drama of the volume focuses on Jack Shaftoe. First, he heads south toward the tip of what is now India. Along the way, he is fascinated by the creation of Damascus steel. Or is it the author who is fascinated by still another blend of invention and history?

Stephenson continues here to be exercising his imagination rather than his intellect, changing the political, cultural, and/or physical setting in order to sustain our interest. For example, Jack enters a region dominated by a female pirate warrior, but their friendship has unexpected limitations. He then encounters a Japanese Jesuit, whose history he learns. Thus, there are few connecting links, little logical development from one story or confrontation or setting to the next. Except, some of those confrontations, such as the queen challenging him to swim with crocodiles, are dramatically powerful.

The Japanese Jesuit seems to be introduced in order that Jack’s new ship, the Minerva, might take our heroes back to Europe, via Japan. Jack is aboard, of course, with many of his ex-slave companions, all sailing under Captain van Hoek, a Dutchman. In Japan, they trade Indian goods for mercury (quicksilver), which is needed in the Mexican silver mines. They make an adventurous escape from a Japanese harbor, and enter an even greater adventure, beautifully described, of crossing the Pacific. They do so by following a wealthy Spanish galleon, which founders and sinks, leading to the rescue of a Jansenist priest and a court lady.

Both these characters will betray Jack in what is supposed to be a final twist—as will also one of his own companions. But the betrayals are unconvincing, more betrayals by the author of the reader, by pulling these surprises out of thin air. It is part of a final effect that puts Jack in severe jeopardy, before he is saved and commissioned to undertake a new mission that will be told in Volume Three.

Reviewer Andrew Leonard sums up in Salon the broad itinerary of his hero’s adventures: “Jack spends quality time bouncing around the Mediterranean, stealing gold in Cairo, laboring as both a peon and a king in India, gallivanting in Japan and the Philippines, and being imprisoned in Mexico. Our boy, Jack, gets around.” While Eliza: “is immersed in French court intrigue and experimenting with the new forms of finance that are maturing….Stephenson is as fascinated with the evolution of the concept and practice of ‘credit’ as he is with the sword-and-piracy shenanigans of Jack. And he is equally fanciful in his treatment of both.”

Stephenson blends bulldog research and a rich imagination, and combines them to create fascinating set-pieces—from palace and financial intrigue to naval battles, smallpox, hurricanes, and swimming with those crocodiles. But because of a lack of linkage, such scenes betray a failure of authorial discipline, at the expense of an integrated whole. As if the author is more intent on dreaming up enough drama to fill 800 pages than on bringing his story and his characters together, and satisfying the reader emotionally.

My reaction to this volume is quite different from my reaction to Volume One. I think this may be because the adventures here are strictly fictional. They have a basis in history, but the historic figures do not control this book, the fictional ones do. But also different because the author seems more interested in introducing new drama than in tying his dramatic scenes together. For example, the linkage between Jack Shaftoe and Eliza is close in the first volume, while here they live their separate lives throughout the novel. Nevertheless, I am still interested in Volume Three. I only hope it is more concentrated both geographically and thematically. (April, 2017)