History of the Rain, by Niall Williams

This 2014 work is an unusual novel, almost not a novel, just a searching portrait, though one beautifully crafted. But then it introduces its story, the story of the Swain family, and turns itself into a still unique but marvelous novel, marvelous because, not least, it makes a beautiful connection between life and literature.

“We are our stories,” the books narrator Ruth Swain announces at the beginning. “We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only now live in the telling.” Ruth is a bedridden teenager trying to bring her father back to life through his books. And she refers to many of his 3,958 books as she does this. “I’ve read all the usuals, Austen, Bronte, Eliot, Hardy, but Dickens is like this different country where the people are brighter, more vivid, more comic, more tragic, and in their company you feel the world is richer, more fantastic than you imagined. But right now I’m reading RLS. He’s my new favorite. I like writers who were sick.” And Robert Louis Stevenson was, like her, an invalid.

Faha, the town in Ireland where Ruth lives, lies on the banks of the Shannon, another character in her story—not least because it is a source of salmon. And fishing, a pastime of her grandfather, was passed on to her through her father, Virgil Swain. Indeed, with her memory of her father highlighted by his effort to be a poet, she suggests a poem created is like a fish caught. “A poem is a precarious thing,” she writes, “It is almost never landed clean and whole in one go. Virgil had a phrase, one bite, that’s all. But he wouldn’t let it go, and as poetry is basically where seeing meets sound, he said the phrase aloud…and found in repetition was solace of a kind.”

But before telling that story, she must tell how her English family moved to Ireland, about the town of Faha, the life of a farming community, the details of the house they lived in, and then about Virgil’s courtship of her mother Mary, and the birth of herself and her twin brother Aeney. And, finally, about the Swain family curse, the Philosophy of Impossible Standard, that one must always strive for perfection, even if it will never be attained.

We are now at the halfway point of the novel—and nothing has happened. There is no story. All is past. All is mood. And not just a literary mood, but the long Irish failure through history, the Swain family failures, and now the failure of Virgil to cultivate his farm, with its rocky terrain, and the constant rain that blocks out an invigorating sun. And yet, the reader perseveres, because the telling, the language, has been beautiful. And as Ruth finally warns us: “This, Dear Reader, is a river narrative. My chosen style is The Meander.” And later: “I’m not writing a book, I’m writing a river.”

We persevere because we are entertained by Ruth’s astringent style, such as describing her grandfather’s marital status in Ireland. He has sired three daughters, and not yet his son Virgil, and has becomes bitter toward his wife. “But in those days once you were wedded you were in Holy Deadlock, and in Ireland the priests had decided that once a man entered a woman there was No Way Out. The vagina was this deadly mysterious wrestler that could get you in a headlock, well, metaphorically-speaking, and then, boys, you were rightly stuck. That Will Teach You, was Number One sermon at the time. Number Two was Offer It Up.”

What Ruth believes in, and author Williams believes in, is books and literature. This novel is filled with the books that Virgil has bought and read, and that his daughter Ruth wishes to read to understand him—and to recreate him for us. This dedication becomes truly real when she refers to the title, edition, and publisher of each book she cites. But more significant is that she recalls certain passages that apply to her own life or to that of her family.

Thus, she felt a humming when her father read to her. “He just made this low thrum. John Banville would know the word for it, I don’t. I only know the feeling, and that was comforting. I lay in his lap and he read and we sailed off elsewhere. Dad and I went up the Mississippi, to Yoknapatawpha County, through the thick yellow fog that hung over the Thames or in through those dense steamy banana plantations all the way to Macondo.”

But there are tart references also. Following “Amen to him,” on the death of a despised ancestor, she suggests a counter-balancing “Awomen.” Or: “Look at Edith Wharton, she’s Henry James in a dress.” And then there are human insights, like when Virgil returns from his honeymoon to move in with his wife’s family: “Dad moved in with the baffled deepsea shyness of a character just arriving in a story already underway.” Or: “In a single moment the two of them shared a look that said those things in silent mother-daughter language, that would take a hundred books and more years to tell.” Or: “We tell stories to heal the pain of living.” And: “The fact is grief doesn’t know we invented time. Grief has its own tide and comes and goes in waves.”

These final lines come toward the end, when Ruth concentrates on Virgil, whose passion for reading has led him to pursuing poetry. But he is up against the Impossible Standard. Will he break the family curse, and allow himself to succeed? The final pages become truly beautiful, as Ruth imagines her father alive in the afterlife of her own book, this story she is telling.

“If I’m alive this is my book, and my father lives now in the afterlife that is a book….And my book will be a river…and be called History of the Rain, so that his book did not and does not perish, and you will know my book exists because of him…You will know that I have found him in his books, in the covers his hands held, in the pages they turned, in the paper and the print, but also in the worlds those books contained, where now I have been and you have too. You will know the story goes from the past to the present and into the future, and like a river flows.”

They cannot avoid the river Shannon that flows along the banks of the Swain’s farm, nor the rain that falls continually in Ireland. From clouds to rain to the river and back into the clouds. It is a natural cycle, not unlike the literary cycle from life to books to reading and then back to another’s life. Or: from life to death to eternity, and then back to living again through one’s books that survive. Ruth herself suggests this when she writes of “a river flowing ever onward between writers,” as she seeks to recreate her father’s life in order to understand him, and then present him to us. (August, 2017)

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The Sound of Things Falling, by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

This is an excellent novel, written with a blend of emotional, psychological, and poetic sensibility. It begins as a story of human relationships, evolves into a story of modern Colombia, and then returns to the human relationships, but on a less emotional, more rational level—a level perhaps meant to match the barren, isolated character of mountain-enclosed Bogota.

The narrator of this story is Antonio Yammara, a young law professor. He becomes fascinated by Ricardo Laverde, a mysterious character he encounters in a billiard parlor. Curious, Antonio befriends him. One day, he helps Laverde find a cassette player, sees him crying as he listens to it, and then follows him into the street to learn what prompted those tears.

Whereupon, Antonio’s life changes. For Laverde is assassinated on the street by two men on a motorcycle, and Antonio himself is seriously wounded—a wound in the groin which will slowly affect his marriage to his new wife, Aura. But the immediate question is: why was Laverde killed? And the more Antonio probes the stranger’s past to find the answer, the more the reader becomes involved in that mystery. As the Impac Dublin Award cites: “Through a masterly command of layered time periods, spiralling mysteries and a noir palette, [the work] reveals how intimate lives are overshadowed by history; how the past preys on the present; and how the fate of individuals as well as countries is molded by distant, or covert, events.”

The intrigue begins when Antonio discovers the cassette Laverde was listening to. It is the recording of a plane descending over the mountains of Columbia at night, and crashing. Why was Laverde so moved? Antonio then receives a note from Laverde’s daughter Maya, a bee-keeping recluse who has left behind cold and rainy Bogota for the hot and humid lowlands. She wants to know the last moments of her father’s life, while the professor wants to learn more about Laverde and why he was killed. Their journey into the past will flower, even if frustrated by a failure to communicate sexually.

The author delves for much of the book into that past, and a slow, process of discovery and revelation will follow rather than a chronological story. Maya describes how Laverde met her mother, an American Peace Corps worker named Elaine Fritts, and how they settled in the lowlands and raised Maya. The author also creates in interesting side story about how and why this American girl came to Colombia, and her reaction to helping its people. The girl also encounters other Americans, ambitious youth who later contribute their own efficiency to the drug trade, and whom Vasquez uses to implicate America’s involvement at both ends of the drug war.

But the focus is on the elusive Laverde. He is a pilot, and Antonio learns that a job of smuggling marijuana into the United States corrupted him. Which is when this novel becomes the story of Colombia in the last half of the 20th century. It is a story of suspicion and violence, of fear, helplessness, and change. Colombia’s loss of integrity, and of illusion, will be caused by the drug lord Pablo Escobar; but Vasquez will reveal the consequences through the story of Laverde, first his capture and then his return.

Except, Antonio still doesn’t know why his friend was killed in front of him. Indeed, the reader himself can only guess. For that death is not the point of the book. The point is what it symbolizes, the fear and violence that took over Columbia in the second half of the century, and the uncertainty that ruled people’s lives. Perhaps Antonio’s impotence that follows his own wounding is also a symbol of Colombia’s impotence during these drug wars, except it is carried too far for me in the novel’s final pages. We are apparently meant to see in the loneliness and helplessness of Antonio the same qualities in the life of his country. But for me, that climactic return to Antonio’s personal story leaves an open end, and a resulting emptiness.

It is really the telling of this story that raises this novel to the level of literature. Not the story itself, which is about the death of two people, one in the present and one in the past. It is in the multi-levels of the search for an explanation of those deaths. It is in that search, one by Antonio and one by Maya, for different reasons; and then the raising of that search to represent the search by all of Colombians for the answer to the uncertainty, the violence, and the lack of control in their daily life.

The sound of things falling also represents the many levels of this novel. It begins with the cockpit sounds when the plane is falling but includes Antonio’s falling when he is wounded, as well as lives falling apart, such as his life with Aura, Elaine with her American idealism, and Colombian society as a whole, with its own tears and its bodies falling in drug-related murders. The symbolic use made of falling also mirrors the many social and political meanings that the events of this novel represent.

Edmund White, in The Times Book Review, calls this novel “a page turner, but it’s also a deep meditation on fate and death.” As it surely is. The fates, especially, of Antonio, Aura, and Maya, are changed by the independent deaths of Laverde and his wife Elaine—with those deaths being separate on one level and connected on another. Just as the events of these personal lives are disconnected on one level to the lives and all Colombians, but yet are connected on another.

Indeed, Vasquez hits home to me when he writes: “No one who lives long enough can be surprised to find their biography has been molded by distant events, by other people’s wills, with little or no participation from our own decisions.” Thus, there are “subterranean currents” that shape our lives. Indeed, my own life was radically changed by the Korean War and then by a casual encounter with the girl I married. All of which re-enforces my justification of the arbitrary decisions that authors will make when they introduce something new into the lives of their characters. For in the world of fiction, the author is his own God, and is the arbiter of each character’s fate.

The strength of this novel lies in the complexity of a drug- contaminated society that has been distilled into the personal lives of a law professor, an airplane pilot, a Peace Corps worker, and a bee-keeping recluse. It is not a story of violence but of human relationships, and of the complex tie that links memory and trauma. (August, 2017)

where my heart used to beat, by Sebastian Faulks

This is an unusual novel, an ambitious one, a deep one, and almost a successful one. It is Faulks apparently summing up through a fictional story the world of the 20th century, a world he has lived in, has not fully understood, and whose meaning he is searching for here.

His hero seems to be a stand-in for the author. He is Robert Hendricks, a psychiatrist who seeks in the workings of the mind the meaning of the life he has lived. How the mind does work is an obvious interest of the author, for his most successful novel in my eyes was Human Traces, in which two doctors seek to learn how the mind works. One doctor sees a link between the physical brain and the mind, and seeks a physical means to cure the insane. While his colleague believes that insanity is inherent in the mind, and is the price mankind pays for being human. Both these theories are reflected in this story of Hendricks, a man who suffered both trauma and love during World War II, and who is haunted by the death of his father in World War I. Overall, one concludes that Faulks sees in the human mind a source to understanding the tumultuous century he, and we, have lived through.

Another theme that weighs heavily in Faulks’ major works is the impact of two World Wars. It is again present here. Robert Hendricks’ father, we learn, died in the horrors of trench warfare in 1918, while the son was shaken by the battlefront deaths he encountered in France, in Tunisia, and in the climactic battle at Anzio during World War II. Indeed, Robert has come away with a version of today’s post traumatic stress syndrome. For, even as he makes a career studying the mind and treating other people, he cannot resolve his own mental issues. Which is primarily reflected in his problems connecting to others, particularly to women.

Gradually, we learn, however, that he did have one great love, a beautiful Italian woman named Luisa, whom he met while recuperating from a war wound in Italy; and he lived with her for a few blissful months. But while their love was not to be, not least due to his own reticence, yet his memory of her has meant a subsequent failure at making a connection with any other woman.

And so this novel is less about the horror of war, as powerful as the war scenes may be. It is about human connections, and the search to give meaning to one’s life. Which this one man is seeking, but also, one thinks, the author as well. In any event, Robert receives a letter from a dying Frenchman, Alexander Pereira, who served with his father in World War I and who invites Robert for a visit to southern France to tell him more about the fate of his father. Our hero accepts this invitation, but resists knowing about his father’s death. In some way, he seems to fear that by learning how his father died he may become more disillusioned about the world they have both lived in. The reader, on the other hand, continues on, hoping to understand Robert’s approach to life, as well as to see his own world with a broader perspective.

And so this work takes on another level, its true subject: the meaning of life in this 20th century. In addition to Robert’s wartime experiences and his attempt to establish his professional reputation after the war, we therefore follow him as he travels back and forth to southern France to learn about his father and the first World War, and perhaps more about himself. Meanwhile, he explores his own thesis in a book, The Chosen Few, his subject being those who are insane. He seems to say in this book that doctors often ignore the patient’s physical illness and push their own theory of how the mind works, even as, given the events of the 20th century, “humans had tried to remake the world in their own insane image.”

Robert’s book reveals to him that he yearns for the innocence of life that existed before World War I. And the reader understands that he is dissatisfied with his book because such innocence has vanished in the wake of two World Wars. And that his search for that innocence in love will never be fulfilled, for he missed his only chance at it—because of a blend of his own reticence and the trauma of losing so many friends in the bloody Italian campaign. Which, as noted, became the key to his life, sealing him off from making a connection with other human beings.

As these various narratives intermingle, the novel advances our understanding of Robert’s life and heightens our interest in learning whether or not he will finally understand the meaning of this century and the life he has lived. The novel’s conclusion is a rather negative one, for it describes a heartless modern world that leaves men with no route to understanding life.

Instead, Robert learns the truth of his father’s death; and that connection with his origins stands in for the connections he has been unable to make with others since the trauma of the war. It is a satisfying ending in literary terms, as it seems to say: like father, like son. Both are disillusioned. But it is not satisfying in human terms. For it leaves them both with a sense of emptiness as they face the reality they live in.

One guesses that this will be the last major novel that Faulks attempts. Unless, like his hero here, he thinks he has failed to capture the true meaning of life in the 20th century, and man’s role in its decline. For he sees it as a world that, despite the marvels of new knowledge and new technology, seems headed toward failure, a failure to find a world “where my heart used to beat.”

Perhaps the major miscalculation Faulks has made here is with his hero, Robert Hendricks. Yes, he has been traumatized by the horror of war, and is haunted by the lack of information about his father. But he is too passive, beginning with his one great love affair and continuing after the war as he loses any connection with his wartime buddies and is unable to make any emotional connection with the women he encounters. Moreover, he lives too much within his own mind, searching for an intellectual answer to the emptiness he feels around him. Yet it is an emptiness that he himself is the cause of. In sum, Faulks have given us too much of an intellectual hero, and not enough of an emotional one. (August, 2017)