There Your Heart Lies, by Mary Gordon

The heart of Marian Taylor, this novel’s heroine, lies in Spain. And that is what drew me to this 2017 novel. Because my heart lies there as well. But also being a fan of author Mary Gordon, I was doubly drawn to this novel.

This is the story of a 19-year old girl who flees her Irish Catholic family in 1937 to become a volunteer nurse for the Republican forces. While there, she falls in love and has a son, but is never accepted by her husband’s family after he tragically dies. And, as in much of Gordon’s work, there is a parallel story, the story of her granddaughter Amelia in the first decade of the 21st century. Marian is now dying, and Amelia wants to understand her Nene better, especially what she never talks about, those years in Spain.

And so, this novel, this tender novel, moves back and forth between Marion’s life in Spain of the 1930s and Amelia’s conversations with her grandmother in Rhode Island in 2009. Until, Amelia decides herself to go to Spain to resolve Nene’s differences with the son she had left behind.

As a girl, Marian rebelled against the faith of her deeply conservative Catholic family. She loved especially her brother Johnny, but was distraught when he was exposed as a homosexual and committed by his shamed Catholic parents to a hospital— whereupon, rather than suffer shock treatments, he kills himself. Still more distraught, Marian wants nothing to do with her family, and flees to Spain. With Johnny’s lover, Russell, a doctor. It is a fake marriage, but their relationship gives the novel its interesting start.

Their story takes off when Marian and Russell arrive in Spain in 1937. Gordon has done her research, and we truly feel we are there. We sense the tension among fatalist Republicans unsure of victory, more tension between anarchists and communists, still more among the hospital staff, and finally tension that prompts Russell to flee the hypocrisy around him.

When Russell returns to the States, Marian is assigned to a new hospital near Valencia, and the novel comes into its own. For Marian falls in love with a local doctor, Ramon Ortiz, and becomes pregnant. However, he contracts sepsis while operating and dies. She is then taken in by his unsympathetic family, whose purpose is to assume control of her son and then indoctrinate him in their own conservative beliefs.

Meanwhile, the novel is shifting between 1937 and 2009. In 2009, concerned about her dying grandmother, Amelia gets Marian to talk about her early family life. For the first time, we see what motivated her to run away to Spain. We get inside her. We see the family conflict that we have heard about, but we now experience it.

The novel alternates between Marion’s memories of growing up and the years in Spain, when she has the baby and Ortiz’ mother, Pilar, turns the town against her. The young mother was miserable—for seven years. Until, in an ironic stroke of luck, she falls and breaks her leg. For she then meets her half-Irish saviors, a woman doctor and her brother, a priest.

Now Gordon returns to the Spain of 1946, when Marian is recovering from her broken leg. The doctor, Isabel, and the brother, Tomas, help to restore Marian’s belief in humanity after her cruel treatment by the Ortiz family. And then, luckily, Marian falls in love again, with Theo, a visiting American artist who will help her escape back to the States.

The priest, Thomas, plays an interesting role in this novel. He is a sympathetic priest. Yes, he has committed one outrageous act of self-mutilization, but this only makes him more human. What is interesting is that Marian takes to him, even if she has lost her faith. Moreover, this novel, permeated by “bad” Catholics, from Marian’s parents to Franco’s followers, portrays him as a good person. It is Gordon, I think, acknowledging that Catholics can be bad or good depending on their sense of humanity rather than how they practice their faith. This sensitivity also foreshadows a later discussion about whether heaven exists, and whether Marian and Amelia will one day meet again. The Catholic perspective remains in Gordon’s purview.

But to return toTheo. He represents the one weakness in this book. We get to know him only briefly. And we learn even less about Naomi, his and Marian’s child and the mother of Amelia. Why? Because, I presume, this is the story of Marian and her granddaughter. But it does leave a hole in this family story. A full generation wide.

Just as the final chapter also leaves a gap. For Amelia returns to Spain, intent on bringing Marian and her Spanish child back together. Thus, creating a full circle. It is a marvelous, atmospheric passage, blending a modern impression and a distant past. But the outcome changes the entire atmosphere of this passage. And changes Amelia as well. Too much and too quickly. As Gordon makes this moment the key to Amelia’s future life.

Yes, there will be a final tender meeting between the dying Marian and the new Amelia, which is right for a novel that begins with the focus on Marian and ends with the focus on Amelia. But Amelia’s new view of life has not been given space to breathe. She now understands herself, she says. She can say yes and no to others. But will she, as she faces new challenges? We hear her declaration, but we do not see her in action. Is she now too hard-hearted? No, you say. For she believes in the afterlife. Well, yes…the possibility.

At least this novel is not hard-hearted. Yes, its story is pervaded by the hard-heartedness of the Catholic faith. But its main characters, minus Pilar, think and act according to the laws of charity. They balance the evils of humanity with the good. They seek to understand and to love other human beings. And these are precepts that Jesus taught, precepts that the Catholic Church still preaches. That Gordon has not forgotten.

And yet I am curious. Why does she otherwise offer such a negative view of the Catholic Church? Only because it fits her story? No, I shouldn’t say that, because Gordon’s novels often consider how the Church’s values conflict with our humanity. It is more, I think, that Gordon likes to develop her stories through contrast. Another type of contrast she uses, as here, is to create a relationship between two characters, such as Marian and Amelia, in order to dramatize the human condition. And again it works. (June, 2018)

Advertisements

Revival, by Stephen King

What I like about Stephen King is that he begins his novels in the real world. In this 2014 work, it is the world of six-year-old Jamie Morton who is a typical kid in a typical Maine family. There, he encounters Charles Jacobs, a local minister fascinated by electricity, but who will lose his faith and leave town when his wife and child die accidentally.

Jamie is the hero of this novel, and the narrator. We watch as he grows up amid his family and discovers that he lives in what is often a deceptive world. It is also a real world, however, and, as the boy matures, he struggles to make his way into that real world. When the author grounds him as a rhythm guitarist in a series or rock bands, it is not surprising. King has long created fictional heroes familiar with rock music. Music, however, is no longer just atmosphere; it is now his hero’s profession.

But this is not a novel about music; it is more a novel about faith. Or, rather, about the tensions between science and faith. And about how that tension can drive men’s actions. Until it becomes an obsession. And how clinging to that obsession can drive one man into searching for a world beyond reality. A man like Charles Jacobs.

As Jamie make his way through the musical world, he succumbs to the temptation of heroin. But he also tracks down the former minister and discovers he is a flim-flam man at carnivals, and is using electricity as a come on to attract an audience. And so, when Jamie collapses from his last dose, Jacobs is there to help. He even takes Jamie under his wing and uses that same strange electricity to cure him of his drug habit. Which puts Jamie in debt to him. But also plants in Jamie some kind of link.

After they separate, however, Jamie begins to suffer side effects. And when, later, he learns that Jacobs has become a famous preacher, touring the land, performing miracle cures, and growing rich, Jamie becomes curious. What is Jacobs up to? His doubts increase when he learns that some of the cures have produced terrible side effects in a few of those treated.

Up until then, Jamie has lead a normal life on the rock and roll fringes. There is nothing about the horror to come, only teasers about what Jacobs is up to. All we already know is that Jacobs has lost his faith in God after the accidental death in Maine of his wife and son, and that he is fascinated by the power of electricity.

But as he begins to learn about the violent side effects to Jacobs’ miracle cures, Jamie decides he must confront the man in behalf of all those he apparently helped. At their meeting, Jacobs explains he has given up curing people, because he has developed a powerful, new “secret electricity.” But he will explain no more. He even tries to hire Jamie, but Jamie declines, because he does not know Jacob’s end goal. He also sees that, in his intensity, Jacobs has taken on the aura of a mad scientist, although neither Jamie nor the reader understands where the events of this novel are headed.

But that madness does become obvious in the final chapters, when Jacobs contacts Jamie, knowing the power of that old spell. But what he says is that he needs Jamie’s help. First, to cure Astrid, an ex-lover of Jamie from his youth. And then to use his secret electricity to actually raise someone from the dead. King himself has said his inspiration, in part, was Frankenstein. And, indeed, the patient in the second case is named Mary, as in Shelley. Jacobs says he intends to revive her, and so learn what being dead is like. It is his way of defying the faith he has lost, and using the power of science to discover the meaning of death.

But, as in Frankenstein, and in many horror tales, the experiment gets out of control. Now, death itself enters their laboratory—and King goes overboard in depicting the afterlife. Indeed, he confronts the reader with the most terrible horror he can conceive. What if death were like this he is saying, perhaps even chuckling inside. It is as far from the world of reality, a world King himself has established in this novel, that one can get. But I see it more as King testing the waters of horror than rejecting any religious belief in paradise. He is a horror writer here, not a philosopher. He retains his only touch of reality with the implication that there are people who will use religion to achieve ignoble ends.

This novel is more successful for me when it is in the real world, the world of Jamie as a six-year old and growing up in Maine in a loving family, then as an adolescent fascinated by sex with Astrid, and then succumbing to drugs as he makes his way into the world of rock. There are hints of miracle cures to come, but at first Jacobs is just feeling his way toward achieving them. King is so good at reality, at day-to-day life, at family relationships, that the reader is committed to his world—even as he suspects that King is leading him toward something…unworldly, perhaps even…awful.

Of course, when it comes, the fictional world of Jamie’s Maine that had so enthralled us vanishes. Instead, the revelation of the horror of the afterlife takes us beyond the world of reality. It is a world that reeks, even, of absurdity. Moreover, King needs a final chapter to explain what has followed that moment of horror—with its visions, its monster, its screaming, and its gunshots. And what has happened to Jamie as a result. But that chapter is a crutch too many author use to justify the sins of their imagination.

On finishing this novel, my message to Stephen King is to abandon the physical reality of horror. To, instead, create a reality that carries an implication of horror, like a dome or a time machine, or else to create the horror within the mind of his main character. If the reader has identified with that character, then that should be enough.

However, I have long thought that King could write a serious literary novel, if he wished. This novel could be a beautiful story of growing up. Why is he so attached to the horror genre? To please his audience? Surely, he has earned enough. Does he lack the confidence of such an attempt? Or is the interest simply not there? Because he has the literary tools. And he understands the whims and desires and fears of people. Ah, well, I have three more of his genre novels on my shelves. I must learn to be patient. (June, 2018)

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

This Man Booker prize novel from 2017 is certainly an original. And also unusual. Highly unusual. It is about the dead, about what happens after people die, a subject that highly interests me. But the direction that Saunders takes here is not a direction that I have followed in my own writing. I do admire his effort here, but it is too worldly for me, too concerned with the humanity of his characters, rather than any spiritual consequences. Saunders also introduces too many characters for me, as if to emphasize how death reaches across such a broad human experience. Indeed, one reviewer says there are 166 characters in this book. But my problem is less with the number of characters; it is more with there being no linkage among so many of these characters, which I will call the undead, as they roam about this cemetery setting—and as they cling to this residue of the life that they know, resisting their transition to an afterlife that they do not know.

As the title indicates, this is primarily a story about President Abraham Lincoln. He is distraught at the death of his young son Willie in the second year of his Presidency. And so he journeys to the cemetery the day after the funeral to mourn his son, and to alleviate a sense of guilt for not paying enough attention to the boy’s illness—a guilt re-enforced by the lives also being lost on the battlefield. However, it seems that, as he developed this novel, Saunders’ vision may have grown beyond Lincoln. As if he also saw the possibility of commenting on the human condition. And so he began exploring the lives and deaths, the relationships and fates, of these dead people who saw in Lincoln’s concern for his son a relevance to their own future.

These dead people are in a transitional state that Tibetan Buddhists call the bardo. And it is a state they are comfortable with, for they can leave their dead bodies, move around freely, and talk to one another. They can even invade the bodies and the minds of both the living and their fellow undead— and, in doing so, impact their thinking. In this case, they are trying to impact both Lincoln and his son.

In fact, Tomas Mallon suggests in The New Yorker that “when his father [Lincoln] lets go, accepts the boy’s death and helps to usher his spirit to a real afterlife, the consequences are world-shaping. Vollman and Roger Bevins [the novel’s main observers] perceive a Lincoln who now fully understands and embraces suffering, and feels a new bloody-minded determination to win the war.” This would seem, however, to be guided more by a literary decision than by historic facts. For Mallon grants that the history suggests that Lincoln did not reveal that determination until later. Instead, he suggests that Vollman and Bevins are indulging in wishful thinking, and that, as Bevins says, “we must do so, and believe in it, or else we were ruined.”

In short, this is an intriguing novel when it is focused on Lincoln and his son Willie, but less so when the relationships among the undead dominate.

And they often do. That is, Saunders will pay considerable attention to one group of undead characters who have a relationship with each other, and then move to another. But none of these groups will have a relationship with another group, much less with Lincoln or his son. And this disparity is often confusing. Why, even, are these separate groups present in this novel? I believe this apparent decision to expand the parameters and introduce a commentary on the human condition was a mistake. And even Michiko Kakutani seems to agree in her New York Times review, writing that the “supernatural chatter can grow tedious at times—the novel would have benefited immensely from some judicious pruning.”

How Saunders presents his characters is also highly original. As well as unusual. Each of his 166 characters contributes to what is happening, or comments on it, in just a few lines or a few paragraphs. The result is a kaleidoscope of opinion, often deliberately contradictory. A few of the quoted characters are figures of history, historians and biographers who lend authenticity to the reality of Lincoln’s character and his world. But most are undead fictional characters, who seem to concentrate more on their own lives and their own fates during their back-and-forth conversations. They are most effective, of course, when they discuss Lincoln and his son. But toward the center and the latter part of the novel, these characters address primarily their own lives, their own concerns. And while it expands the undead experience, there is still little or no connection among these various groups of the undead.

There is still more confusion when, toward the end, the reader grasps that not all these undead characters realize that they are dead. Now, I grant that if all did realize this, this would open the novel up to a concern about what was going to happen to them. Indeed, I have written myself of characters who are in a way station between earth and their fate in the afterlife. But Saunders is not interested in those ramifications, such as issues of penance and redemption. What concerns him and his undead is this troubled old man who is visiting this son, this innocent boy he has lost. And the undead wish to help both of them in their sorrow, thinking it may offer a key to their own future, although they are unsure of how to do so.

What many of them prefer is to remain in this undead status, where they are in control of their existence. And they also realize the danger of becoming emotional, that they could lose their undead status and explode in what Saunders terms a loud “matterlightblooming phenomenon.” What seems to have far more potential, however, is that this change is often preceded by what is called “future forms,” by an undead body being transformed into what it might have been like at key points, if he or she had lived out a normal life.

For me, however, my interest is not in the status of the undead, with their various emotional and psychological concerns. Or even in the absence of any spiritual element. What interests me is the psychological and emotional portrait of Lincoln. He is a troubled soul, troubled by the fate of both his son and the tens of thousands of soldiers who have already died in the Civil War. And Saunders, thereupon, has him come to an understanding that history suggests did not happen but which does work here in literary terms: that just as the president must accept the loss of his son, so must he accept the loss of what will become hundreds of thousands of soldiers—in order to save the Union. This realization leaves him in great sorrow, for which he is well known, but it becomes here the price Saunders says he must pay to preserve the freedom and the lives of millions more.

Colson Whitehead in his own Times review re-enforces this position when he praises this novel’s “luminous feat of generosity and humanism.” Of course, the humanistic aspect is what precisely troubles me—that the author chooses to explore only how our humanity continues after death. But if our humanity survives, should not the question be: what happens next? And Saunders has no interest in that. He is interested only in how these characters continue to be human in this way station. Which, granted, is a literary subject, and easier to accommodate in a novel than one’s spiritual fate.

And the generosity that Whitehead cites? That is expressed in the number and variety of human beings Saunders brings onto the scene.

Thus, Whitehead is also in sync with the author’s decision to explore so many characters in this world of the undead. As he states, the undead do crowd around this dead boy and his mourning father, seeming to hope that Willie, with his father’s encouragement, can move on peacefully to the next world. Of the love the father shows, one character, Reverend Thomas says, “It was cheering. It gave us hope.” Or, as Whitehead himself says, “If the spirits can persuade this boy to undertake his rightful departure to the Other Side, they might be saved as well.” And this farewell to one son, Lincoln’s son, Whitehead even says, foreshadows the farewell “to the hundreds of thousands who will fall in the battlefields.”

And he does make Lincoln seem reconciled to this. “Abraham Lincoln must stop being the father to a lost boy,” Whitehead writes, “and assume his role as a father to the nation, one on the brink of cataclysm.” And adds: “Survival depends not only on the captain, but on all aboard.” Which can explain, I grant, the presence of so many of the undead. But it is, again, an explanation in psychological terms or philosophical terms. But not in literary terms. Much less in spiritual terms. No, I still believe the few should have stood in for the many, not the many for the many. Unless they, too, were in mourning for their son—as they would be when the war went on.

This is Saunders’ first novel, after considerable success as a short story writer. But it does not, of itself, lead me to expect future novels from his pen. First, because it is so original in its concept, the expectation by critics of an even more original work might inhibit any attempt by the author to attempt another one. And, second, because its technique of advancing the story by means of brief quotations from a variety of sources suggests an imagination that is more comfortable with using shorter points of reference and outside sources. But if I am wrong, surely the length of my comments here suggests such a work will be worth exploring. (May, 2018)