A Literary Cavalcade

Literary comments by Robert A. Parker on a wide range of serious 20th and 21st century novels

Miller’s Valley, by Anna Quindlen

I have long liked Quindlen’s work, but this 2016 novel is a disappointment. It is about the Miller family, whose ancestors founded a Pennsylvania farm village named after them. The story is also about this village and its future, and is narrated by Mimi Miller, whom we first meet as a child in the 1960s. Unfortunately, her family appears to be an ordinary one, with its typical loyalties and typical disputes, typical silences and typical black sheep. And its members rarely impact one another or the world about them. Instead, they let things happen, from accidents to strokes, from being seduced to refusing to challenge others. And, above all, they never resist the major change the government plans to make in their lives.

The government has announced that the Pennsylvania valley where they live is to be flooded, that a dam is to be built for flood control, as well as to create both a new source of energy and a recreational area. The title suggests that the flooding of this farmland is to be the underlying theme that ties this novel together. But it does so only at the end. For most of the novel, this work is about the Miller family; and, as I said, this family, especially Mimi, mainly reacts to the events around them.

The structure of the novel follows Mimi, from her school days and school crushes, to a long affair and a desperate abortion, to a casual scholarship recommendation and the casual return of a lost love. She has to deal with her farmer father, Buddy, also the town handyman; her close-mouthed but wise mother, Miriam; her rebellious brother, Tommy; and her recluse aunt, Ruth. But while we learn a lot about this family, there is little conflict among them to draw the reader on.

In addition, there is a girl friend LaRhonda, who simply fades from Mimi’s life after high school. And there is also Winston Bally, who represents the government threat and is rather obnoxious; but he is eventually disposed of quite casually—and maybe ironically in the author’s mind. Perhaps Mimi’s mother is the most interesting character, because of her mysterious dislike of Ruth, but even more because she recognizes that her daughter must escape this town if she is to fulfill her potential.

In the foreground, meanwhile, Mimi is simply reacting to the people and the events around her, especially to her troubled brother Tommy. She herself does not strive to create her own future. It is the author who moves the reader on to the next stage in her life, rather than Mimi herself who does so. Such as not knowing her future, until a teacher sits her down and points to a scholarships to the University of Pennsylvania and then to its medical school. Such as delaying her career when her father suffers a stroke. Such as being pursued by the seductive Steve, and, later, tracked down by a man, Donald, who long ago faded from her life.

My reaction to this novel is opposite to my recent view of Prince Edward, by Dennis McFarland. There, I was very involved in narrator Ben’s family life (and note the similar structure of that family and this one). But I was not drawn into the local government’s resistance to desegregating its schools. Whereas, here, I was not at all interested in Mimi and her family, but was hoping there would be more involvement between her family and the government’s plans to flood their valley. One does wonder if the author deliberately made Mimi’a family so passive regarding the threatened flooding, intending it to reflect Mimi’s own passivity in her personal life. Or perhaps vice versa. In any event, passivity does not bring conflict; and that, for, me is the key to keeping a reader interested in a novel.

Quindlen does write an interesting ending, a poetic ending, a kind of summing up of these characters’ feelings about their land and their valley. I wish I had felt some of that emotion earlier, however, as the threat of the dam filled more and more of their future landscape. Yes, it is natural to feel helpless against the plans of the government, but that means there is no story, when no one is fighting the government’s decision. Instead, we have the passive Mimi, who mainly worries about, but does little to help, the rebellious Tommy. And he is fighting not the government but his own demons. Indeed, his story almost belongs to another novel.

There is also a tiny surprise toward the end. We learn why Ruth has been such a recluse. And it explains the actions of certain people in the family. But it has no broad repercussions on the life of Mimi or anyone else. Indeed, Mimi discovers the secret almost accidentally, and does not allow it to alter her opinions about anyone in her family. While the reader achieves a brief “aha” moment, and then moves on. It is merely the high point in a final chapter that rounds up these people’s lives, especially Mimi’s—a roundup that many authors think their work needs.

I should note that my response to this novel is completely opposite to that of Caroline Leavitt in the New York Times Book Review. She called the novel “mesmerizing,” and the characters “richly alive.” Which only goes to show how subjective book reviewing can be. Usually, I like novels in which a mature character narrates his or her youthful experiences, and how those experiences helped that person grow into maturity. But I did not find that here, as I have explained. Usually, I also enjoy reading fiction about a disappearing way of life. But I also did not experience that here. In part, because the threat was in the background for much of the book. As if the author was torn between two stories. One, about a family; and the other, about a change in their way of life. I simply think she did not sufficiently merge the two—although other critics have thought that she did.

This does not turn me away from future Quindlen novels, but I do hope she returns to family rivalries, family disputes, and stories of inner turmoil, rather than to sociologically significant subjects. Novels should be about people, and about their interaction with society, yes, but about what is happening in society only through their own personal stories. (May, 2017)

Prince Edward, by Dennis McFarland

I have enjoyed McFarland’s novels in the past, and I enjoyed the large portions of this 2004 novel whenever the author followed ten-year-old Ben Rome’s struggle to understand the dysfunctional family he is part of, the life of his black pal Burghardt who belongs to the separate society that exists around him, and the town’s white leaders who say they are acting in behalf of the world he is part of.

But the author also has a political story to tell here, and this kept interrupting the family story, the buddy story, and the story of growing up that so interested me. Indeed, the author writes that he was initially inspired by actual political events, when the leaders of Prince Edward County in Virginia decided in 1959 to close its public schools rather than integrate them, as the Supreme Court had decreed. Instead, the county decided to open whites-only private schools

So while I was interested in Ben’s experiences, as he tried to understand the adult world around him, tried to figure out what these adults, including his own family, were really saying, and tried to understand why the town’s leaders treated the black people as they did, the author kept distracting me with the political events of this small town of Farmville. Yes, these events would eventually come between Ben and his buddy Burghardt, but by then the emphasis was on those political events, rather than on Ben’s efforts to understand what was happening to his relationship with his buddy, and how the world he was so used to was changing.

Ben spends much of his life palling around with Burghardt, as well as working with him harvesting the eggs on his father’s egg farm. He also has a sympathetic sister, Lainie, who is troubled by her pregnancy, a mother who is cowed by an aloof father, an older brother Al, a thief who runs around with dubious pals, and a grandfather, Daddy Cary, both a big wheel in town and a sexual predator, who rules his offspring with an iron hand. Tension builds, as Ben’s family works on behalf of the new private schools, while Ben himself tries to figure out why they want to deprive his best pal of an education.

Each new development in the town’s campaign interrupts Ben’s story, whether it is moving the athletic field’s flood lights, collecting new books, or constructing new classrooms. The novel’s latter portion centers, in fact, not on Ben but on the town’s campaign to close its public schools and create new private schools that cater to white people only. There is even an epilogue that betrays the novel’s focus as well as its origins, since it concentrates on the legal outcome of the public school issue, and only incidentally updates the reader on the future or the fate of the various characters.

How I wish that McFarland had written a novel about a young boy trying to understand the racially mixed society around him. But the author becomes too involved with his inspiration for the novel, the county’s closing of its public schools, in defiance of the Supreme Court’s Brown decision, its illegal strategy to avoid having the black and white races mixed together at school.

Much more interesting, however, is Ben’s struggle to understand the real world. As Ron Charles writes of Ben in his Christian Science Monitor review: “Why, he wonders, do adults insist so strenuously that children tell the truth, when it’s obvious that the key to maturity and power is withholding it?”

But I take issue when Charles further writes: “The result is a novel that provides as much fresh insight into the social history of America as it does into the nature of adolescence, drawing us back with a degree of fascination and horror to the nation’s past and our own.” I take issue because, no, the role of fiction, the role of a novel, is to explore human nature, not to explore the political movements around its characters. The latter belongs as context, yes, but it should not drive the novel, as it does here.

I really enjoy novels that capture an adult’s recollection of a youth in which they seek to understand the world of adults. But that should be the inspiration, not the tool used to recreate a moment in time when society either changed or resisted change. Otherwise, the social change becomes the driving force in the novel, rather than the people in the novel who are causing, resisting, or trying to understand that change.

I would hope that McFarland in future novels gets back to his characters and their changing lives, rather than focusing on the changes in society that affect his characters’ lives. (May, 2017)

Taft, by Ann Patchett

This early 1994 novel by Patchett is interesting, daring, and not a little confusing. It’s interesting because of its cast of characters, most of them black. The narrator is John Nickel, an ex-drummer who now manages a bar in a black neighborhood in Memphis. It is also interesting because of his personal relationships, as well as among those who work in the bar. But it is even more interesting because of Nickel himself as narrator. From the very first page, he becomes real. His narration, in fact, reminded me of the narrators in many private-eye novels. He is very direct, very open and down-to-earth, from the very first sentence: “A girl walked into the bar.”

The novel is daring because this is a white author writing about a black man, as well as a female author writing from the perspective of her male hero. But it is also daring because this black man becomes fascinated by a young white teenager, Fay Taft, whom he hires right after she “walked into the bar.” He is aware of the racial issues this fascination may prompt, but he cannot help himself. He tries to fight her attraction, but this becomes even more difficult after she says that she has fallen in love with him.

And if a “romance” between a fortyish black man and a white teenager is not daring enough, there is the matter of Fay’s dead father, simply called Taft. For this brings a major structural shift. Taft abruptly jumps into this novel in the third person, interrupting Nickel’s interplay with the staff at his bar, especially with his smart bouncer Wallace and a brash waitress, Cyndi. But even more, it interrupts his yearning for fatherhood, and his estranged relationship with his girlfriend Marion and their child Franklin.

The purpose of these Taft sections is initially unclear, for they go back as much as a decade or more to recreate the life of Fay’s family, especially the relationships among herself, her father, and her brother Carl. Until, toward the end of the novel, when Nickel, half awake, imagines himself personally witnessing some Taft family events. The reader then becomes aware that, all along, Nickel’s fascination with Fay has been prompting him to imagine her life before he knew her. Has put himself in the role of her father. And this also appears to explain the title of the novel, Taft. That it refers to her father as well as to Fay herself, thus re-enforcing the role that Nickel feels is missing from his life.

Which is also what makes the novel so interesting, this two-fold yearning by Nickel for fatherhood. For he has lost something of his identity when he gave up drumming at his girl friend Marion’s request, on the promise that he could be a father to his son. Except, she than absconded with the boy to Florida. And now he wants the fulfillment of having his son back. But for that he needs to persuade the visiting Marion to remain in Memphis.

Meanwhile, he is torn by his fascination with Fay, this white teenager. She has moved to Memphis with her brother Carl after their father’s death. And the novel’s dramatic tension, already built around Nickel’s relationships with two young people, is magnified when Fay’s brother Carl becomes a regular at the bar, seems to attract new customers, and then turns out to be selling drugs.

This prompts a dramatic confrontation, whose consequences bring the novel’s high point. Except, the novel ends quickly thereafter, without resolving these figures’ lives. Even raising the possibility that Patchett may have been considering a sequel. This did not happen, but all of these characters would have been interesting to follow into their subsequent lives.

It is significant that the issue of racial relations remains in the background of this novel. Meaning that this is, first and foremost, a novel about a good man who is torn by his emotions and by his yearnings for fatherhood. While Nickel is highly conscious of the racial difference between himself and Fay, both he and Patchett are concentrating more on the human relationship he has with Fay. Indeed, this reader had to be reminded at times that Nickel was black, for he is so human otherwise. As are his relationships with his former girl friend and her family, and with the entire staff at the bar.

What the novel concentrates on is Nickel’s frustration at not finding fulfillment in his life. He gave up drumming, at the plea of his girl friend, and he now realizes he is not fulfilled with his job managing the bar. He yearns to be a father, to have his son back, which would bring one level of completion to his life. Whereas, Fay’s advances promise a fulfillment he is not prepared to accept, even as it makes him aware of how much he misses having love in his life—as well as how he might be a kind of surrogate father to her. So we find a contrast between the emotional connection he needs to make with his son and the emotional distancing he realizes he should make with Fay.

There is perhaps even more contrast behind his yearning for fatherhood. He was intent on his music, on himself, until he became a father. Then he changed. Franklin’s existence brought a new meaning to his life. But then the boy is taken away. And Nickel’s yearning, it seems, is transferred to white teenager Fay. Except, such love is dangerous for a black man. And so he begins to imagine her father’s life. He sublimates his emotional connection to her by identifying with her own father’s past love for her. He yearns to become two fathers.

Diana Postlethwaite sums up this novel in the New York Times: “Modern variations are played on old-fashioned Shakespearean romance: tragedy and comedy intertwine; broken families are mended; the dead are brought back to life; and what is lost is found again.”

This novel is both simple and complex. The yearning for love, for a human connection, for fatherhood, is simple. The transfer of this yearning to two children, to two races, to two families, is more complex. Patchett understands in this early novel the depth that can be found in the emotional life of a good but lonely man, especially a man on the fringes of society who yearns for fulfillment. (May, 2017).

Conclave, by Robert Harris

On reading the Harris novel, An Officer and a Spy, I suggested his next subject might be a story of the Russian Revolution. But he has denied me twice. He has chosen as his subject for this 2016 novel the election of a new pope. And he has projected the election into the future, rather than as an event of the past.

He writes the story from the viewpoint of Cardinal Lomeli, the Dean of Cardinals, whose role as dean is to run the election. And from the opening pages, when Lomeli learns of the death of a reformist Francis-like pope, I was immediately caught up by the cardinal’s sense of responsibility, his dedication, his integrity, his worthiness. And I remained comfortable with this viewpoint for the entire novel, as Lomeli offers both a human and a spiritual insight regarding each event. Insights so appropriate for a dedicated man of the cloth that I projected that the author was himself raised a Catholic, since he reflected such a complete understanding of this man of faith.

But as Harris himself explained to the Catholic Herald, “I was never baptized. I have always mildly resented this, as I have felt one should be plugged in from birth, just like one is given inoculations.” And adds: “I don’t think this book could have been written by a complete atheist.” Indeed, that he first submerged himself in the Gospels, as well as in Pope John XXIII’s Journal of a Soul, adds to the dedication to and achievement of this novel. That he has so submerged himself into the subconscious of a Roman cardinal that he makes not only him but this portrait of the Church entirely credible. Indeed, even the fear of loneliness on being elected pope rises on these pages.

The initial chapters also drew me into an appreciation of the additional research Harris pursued in order to write this work of fiction. And of the degree of cooperation he received from the Vatican, which he cites in his Acknowledgements. For we are inside these men’s minds and souls, inside the Sistine Chapel as these 118 cardinals cast their votes, and inside the mission of the Catholic Church that the Vatican sustains. Even the repetitive procedures that apply to each ballot, and there will be seven ballots, increases the weight that is given to the burden on these men’s shoulders.

And yet this is also a novel. So new developments must evolve to sustain reader interest. These are built around the fortunes of each candidate, as their electability rises and falls. They do so as a result of certain character revelations, revelations based on sex or bribery, revelations which, however, are not truly original. This is perhaps where this serious novel veers toward the popular side rather than toward the literary side. And it concludes with acts of violence that may have a factual basis in the world of today’s reader; but they reflect more an external force bringing this novel to its climax, rather than any turning point in the lives of these cardinals.

As for the ending itself, it operates on two levels. On the cardinals’ eventual choice of the new pope, I was not surprised. It is somewhat telegraphed. On a second level, we are offered a final twist, which reflects for me too much just that, a final twist. It is like an add-on by Harris, in which he changes one of the characters. One even sees Harris writing it with a smile.

On the cover are the words, “The power of God, the ambition of men.” And the novel certainly reflects this conflict. Ambition drives the actions of up to a half dozen of the cardinals in the conclave. In fact, even those who would deny ambition succumb to it at the end.

The candidates are three Italians: Cardinal Lomeli, the conscientious leader of the election process; Cardinal Bellini, an ambitious reformer; and Cardinal Tedesco, an ambitious archconservative. In addition, there are Cardinal Tremblay, a media-savvy Canadian who is ambitious for his own sake; Cardinal Adeyemi, a charismatic Nigerian conservative; and Cardinal Benitez, an unknown, modest Filipino. And the fortunes of these men will rise and fall as the election proceeds, falling either because of discoveries of their past, or because of their own aggressiveness. One might also note that these changes in fortune occur conveniently between each of the ballots, meaning they are carefully placed by the author to build his suspense. As well as to prompt the next shift in the leading vote-getter.

Unfortunately, however, we witness each candidate’s rise and fall more as representatives of their individual ideology than as fully-fleshed human beings whose private beliefs are probed. Which is why, as we dig further into this novel, the outcome of the voting becomes more pertinent than the fate of these individual candidates. Except, one might say, for the winning candidate. Which, as I said, involves a change more at the instigation of the author than it is of the candidate.

All of this works, however, within the secretive atmosphere that Harris has brought alive onto the page. As a former political reporter himself, as well as a novelist fascinated by the hidden machinations of power (see his Roman era novels), Harris says his initial inspiration for this novel came when he compared the faces on the Vatican balcony—“worldly, cunning, benign”—as the recent pope was announced, to the faces he imagined in Cicero’s senate.

Harris understands how ambition and power function in a complex organization like the Church. Especially when its leaders are brought together to choose one among them to be their chief. He also uses Lomeli to spell out the history and traditions of past elections, as well as the implications for today. Perhaps most powerful of all, he emphasizes the seclusion of these cardinals and the ritual secretiveness that each cardinal accepts. Finally, he balances the institutional and personal needs that confront these men.

Nevertheless, this novel fits more into the thriller category than into the literary category. It is more concerned with the outcome than with any change the outcome brings—either to the Church or to these characters. And yet it is a fine novel, because of its texture of secrecy, its reflection of the Church’s past in its art, its overview of Church politics, its clear understanding of ambition and power, leavened at times by one’s conscience, and finally by the sincere humanity of these cardinals. (May, 2017)

Phantom, by Jo Nesbo

This is a long, complex crime novel from 2011 that offers many dramatic scenes to offset a complicated plot that is often difficult to follow. Nesbo’s hero is again Harry Hole, an out-of-favor ex-policeman who becomes involved in the drug wars of Oslo when his illegitimate son, Oleg, is charged with the murder of a friend. Estranged from his son and his son’s mother, Rakel, both of whom he loves, he cannot help but investigate what happened.

The complexity begins with the reader’s discovery that some of the policemen Harry knows have been co-opted by a drug baron, resulting in a confusing perception by both Harry and the reader of the true motives of many of his former colleagues. Such as “burners,” policemen who are convinced to destroy evidence against the drug cartel. There is further complexity when the friend, Gusto, that Oleg is charged with killing begins relating his final moments as he is about to die. Which adds suspense to the story, but also seems somewhat artificial, since we first encounter him at the brink of death and then he backtracks his story to reveal what led up to his death.

Nesbo knows how to create such suspense. Whether with chase scenes, shifting motives, our changing perception of a character, violent confrontations, or methods for escaping from death. Except, some of the confrontations seem to end arbitrarily. Such as when the former alcoholic Harry escapes from drowning by sucking air out of an empty liquor bottle—well, that’s reality, and irony, stretched to its limits.

In this novel, Nesbo is dealing with a drug baron; a pedestrian policeman and his friend about to become the chief; a political seductress; a kidnapped girl and two of her brothers; a hired killer; Harry’s girlfriend and a lawyer who loves her; and a pharmacist who creates the special drug called violin, the cause of drug warfare and police corruption. Throughout the novel, Harry’s view of many of them changes, and so does the reader’s, especially regarding their involvement in the initial murder of Gusto. That is, who actually killed him? And, at the end, he suggests the future or the fate of each of these characters, although they are not neatly connected with each other.

But their fates do often seem arbitrary, beginning with Harry’s and ending with the identity of the actual killer. The latter becomes the least suspected person that all authors seek, and it, too, seems somewhat arbitrary. Especially when the actual murder is in some ways not a murder. There is a certain cynicism to this solution, but one has to grant that it is appropriate for a crime noir such as this. And even to the character of the killer.

What makes is novel work, beyond the continual confrontations, the deceptive shifting of suspicion, and the constant suspense is the character of Oslo and the character of Harry Hole. The dark side of the city and its corruption is perfectly suited to the noir atmosphere of this story. And Harry being an introvert continually makes him a distinctive character. For he is insecure about his ability to make a personal commitment, about his own worthiness to be loved, about the personal failings of his past, and he possesses a certain fatalism. As a result, however, we are more fascinated by him than willing to identify with him.

Some reviewers have been critical of the rat scenes that open the book, appear regularly, and nearly close the book. They certainly reflect the noir environment that Nesbo has created, but he uses them at the end to hint, to suggest, that a major character may not have died, after all. Which is an admirable purpose, I suppose, but it does undercut the impact of one of the final dramatic scenes. It seems to be a case of the author wanting to have his cake and eating it, too.

Nesbo himself acknowledged in an interview how he creates suspense in his crime novels, by shifting suspicion from one character to another, as he does here: “It’s like being a magician onstage. You are supposed to manipulate your readers. You are supposed to make them look at your right hand while you are doing a trick with your left. That sort of contract makes for a more intimate way of storytelling.”

Nesbo also says that after each book he gets tired of being with Harry “because it’s a very dark place to be.” Which perhaps partially explains the ending of this novel. But as a reader who has read only two of these novels, I am not tired of Harry myself. And I am particularly intrigued by the noir setting, the Oslo setting, and the Norwegian culture. So I look forward to more of Nesbo. (April, 2017)

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)

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)