A Literary Cavalcade

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

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)

Two Jake Brigance novels, by John Grisham

I have not read John Grisham’s legal thrillers, because of my impression that they are more thrillers than works of literature. But I had heard that his first work, written in 1989, was impressive, and that it had helped Grisham make an early mark in the world of fiction.

Well, those reports were correct. A Time to Kill is an impressive work, and can even claim the label of literature. Because it is about more than a legal case, about more than a courtroom drama, about more than an interesting lawyer acting under duress. It is about an entire society, the American South of the 1980s. It is about race and politics, about white and black relationships, about rape and justice, about demonstrations and violence, about ambition and doubt, about ethics and morality. In its own way, it parallels the work of Scott Turow, with the culture of the South here replacing that of Turow’s Chicago-like city.

A Time to Kill is about two drunken white red necks who rape a ten-year-old black girl, Tonya Hailey, in an opening scene that is blunt, graphic, and tough to read. The men are caught, and, in reaction, the girl’s father, Carl Lee Hailey, executes the two rapists in cold blood while they are being transferred from the courthouse.

From this point forward, however, the reader is pulled back from a close-up view of the events, and becomes a witness to a carefully crafted and complex story of lawyers, the courts, the public’s response, and the overall administration of justice. Beyond the complexity however, is an emotional level, for the reader relates to the father’s revenge, and is meant to, even as he also acknowledges that the murder of the two men was a criminal act. So the reader is torn by separate responses, one by his heart and the other by his mind. He is faced with a choice between true justice and legal justice.

The lawyer chosen to defend Carl Lee is Jake Brigance, a smart, honest, young lawyer in the small Mississippi town of Clanton. He dreams of the big time, and his local reputation has earned him this big case, which challenges his ability, his integrity, his patience, and his loyalty. His key problem is: to get Carl Lee off with a plea of temporary insanity. Around him are his elderly secretary Ethel Twitty; the disbarred lawyer Lucien Wilbanks, from whom he inherited his firm; Harry Rex Vonner, a ruthless divorce lawyer often in his cups; Ellen Roark, a brilliant, aggressive law student from Boston who steals each scene she is in; and Carla, Jakes’ wife, whom he sends out of town when local citizens threaten violence.

In town, Jake must deal with Ozzie Walls, the only black sheriff in the state; Omar Noose, a smart politician turned judge; Rufus Buckley, an ambitious DA; the Rev. Agee, leader of the local black ministers; and Stump Sisson, leader of the state’s Ku Klux Klan. Plus, a public audience of the protesting black community, the National Guard, and members of the Klan. Not to forget a crooked Memphis lawyer, Bo Marsharfsky, and a more aggressive NAACP lawyer, Norman Reinhold, brought in to defend Carl Lee.

At a low point, Jake complains about what he, his firm, and his family have endured. Now close to bankruptcy, he senses his case and his reputation lost. Moreover, his secretary’s husband has been assaulted and died. Klan snipers have shot and paralyzed a Guardsman protecting him. His legal aide has been assaulted. His house has been burned down. His wife may be divorcing him. And, finally, he expects his client, Carl Lee, to fire him.

In summary, these seem like melodramatic events. But they have happened progressively, as both black and white forces increase their public pressure on the court and on Jake. Which makes inevitable each move toward violence in this battle to control the outcome of the trial. Resulting, of course, in greater tension in the community, as well as in the novel. Jake is a fighter, however, and he resists every move to outwit him or to intimidate him.

If there is any disappointment, it is the lack of a strong ending. First, Jake is confronted with the need to make a strong rebuttal to a key prosecution witness challenging his insanity plea. And then he needs to make a strong summing up. Yet we see him make no effort to meet either need—until, suddenly, he does. Unexpectedly. And we never see him preparing. As a result, it is the reader who is unprepared. And Jake’s success seems hollow.

Second, after the verdict is placed in the hands of the jury, we follow them into the jury room, whereupon one juror suggests what she promises is a novel solution. Grisham then cuts away, so we do not know what that solution is. And when it comes, pages later, it turns out to be a letdown. For it becomes simply a sensible suggestion. Whereas, the reader has expected it to be something original, a brilliant interpretation of the law, or of justice, that sheds new light on the entire trial. Indeed, on the entire novel. But it does not.

What we have here is a brilliant novel that explores Southern society at a crucial point in its long history, a point at which racial equality is being demanded by one side and resisted by another. And, with many resisting the law’s move toward equality, real emotions swirl across this town.

In addition, this story of a society is complemented by individual stories of the people involved. Most prominent is lawyer Jake Brigance, who is both sympathetic to change and sympathetic as a person. He is on the right side. But his allies are not all upstanding figures, and his enemies are either smart or ruthless. There is real tension here and a believable adversary. There is also suspense regarding the jury’s verdict, but disappointment, as I said, in the novel’s resolution.

This work does not turn me on to Grisham’s legal thrillers. But I am interested in Sycamore Row, which he wrote twenty-five years later, and is a sequel of sorts to this novel. Does it also have literary ambitions?

What would be interesting to explore is why Grisham turned to writing popular legal thrillers instead of attempting to explore Southern society more deeply in subsequent works. Did he feel himself inadequate to do so? Did writing about the South in depth require more time than his family budget allowed? This novel was originally published by a small press, after being rejected by major publishers. Did the temptation of a major publisher and its marketing needs become too strong to resist? (March, 2017)

 

Sycamore Row, this second novel, from 2013, reaches the borderline of literary works, but does not quite cross it. It reaches it by adding its portrait of Southern culture, meaning whites vs. blacks, to its main story. In this case, Grisham’s return to Clanton, Mississippi, bring us not a story of murder, as in A Time to Kill, set three years earlier, but the strange writing of a will. There are also no violence, no demonstrations. There is mainly puzzlement, about why a rich white man, dying of cancer, could leave millions to a black woman, a housekeeper who worked for and cared for him during the last three years of his life.

Grisham here uses the complexities of law that characterizes his legal thrillers, but it is the racial angle that pervaded the South in the 1980s that distinguishes this work. As in A Time to Kill, the issue is whether a person, Seth Hubbard, a rich recluse, was of sound mind when he wrote by hand a will that disinherited his family. As a wealthy lumberman, dying of cancer, he had undergone chemo and was taking Demerol. Did that treatment affect his decision-making? Or did black housekeeper Lettie Lang persuade him to omit his children and grandchildren from that final will, a will which proposes to make her the richest woman in Ford County?

The hero again is Clanton lawyer Jake Brigance, who has recovered professionally from the murder case three years earlier, but not financially. But, again, his local reputation has earned him this new case. For, on the night before he hangs himself on a sycamore tree, Seth Hubbard writes his will and designates Jake as the lawyer to see that the will is enforced. Thus, as the lawyer for the estate, Jake is determined to see that it is applied. He is opposed by lawyers for Seth’s two deadbeat and selfish children, Herschel and Ramona, and his four grand children. Some critics feel these family portraits weighs the novel too heavily against Jake’s foes, but this works for a novel with a liberal bias. Finally, Judge Atlee, in whose court the will is challenged, is a fair judge, a smart judge, but a judge subject to Southern mores, and while he and Jake get along, Jake is not sure of him at times.

We spend some time reading about the opposing lawyers as they devise their strategy and discover evidence that will besmirch the character of Lettie—discoveries which also create suspense for the reader. There is also further tension, created by an aggressive black lawyer from Memphis, Booker Sistrunk, which recalls similar ill-timed disruptions in A Time to Kill by Bo Marsharfsky and Norman Reinhold. But Judge Atlee will not stand for Sistrunk, and Grisham returns his focus to Jake and his team’s effort to support the hand-written will. His team again includes Harry Rex Vanner, a divorce lawyer, and Lucien Wilbanks, from whom he inherited his law firm, plus a new member, Portia Lang, a young and ambitious black woman who is the daughter of Lettie.

Contributing to the texture that underscores this work are the legal steps that Jake must make to support his case. This means probate (proving that a will is valid), appraisal (determining the value of the estate), discovery (of those who will testify and the evidence to be presented), and the deposition (an overview of what witnesses or experts are to say). In other words, as Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times: “Mr. Grisham details the dirty tricks, data dumping, and witness dumping routinely used by a large legal team to flummox the other side.”

A side story, not that significant, concerns Lettie’s antagonistic relationship with her husband, Simon Lang. He drinks, has no steady job, and has been known to beat her. She is considering divorce, when he accidently hits and kills two young boys with his car. This sidetracks her, and distracts Jake in his efforts on her behalf.

In a more significant side story, Grisham sends Lucien off to Alaska to find Seth’s brother, Ancil, who is mentioned in the will but has long ago disappeared. And, as a perceptive reader might anticipate, it turns out that Ancil holds the key to this novel. For it is he who reveals why Seth left his fortune to Lettie. This produces an ending that the reader completely accepts, an ending that refers back to the South’s racial history, but it is also an ending that is almost too neat in how it brings a sense of justice to Seth’s final decision to change his will. However, Grisham then introduces an even higher sense of justice, when Judge Atlee makes a decision of his own. Yet, for me, this reflects an author merely deciding to deepen the satisfaction of his readers. It is a double ending, not unlike that of A Time to Kill.

The strength of this novel lies in its portrait of a determined and honest Jake, in the collaborative efforts by his team and the opposing team of lawyers, in the sense of anticipation felt by the rejected offspring of Seth, and in the racial culture of the South—which involves everything from the tension between the Hubbard and Lang families that goes back decades to the community friction between the races, highlighted in the jury selection. And, finally, there is the dramatic scene in which Seth revisits that day when, as a boy, he witnessed the historic, climactic events that gives the novel its title.

I do think this novel might have been stronger, if Lettie had become a more introspective character, if, instead of tracking her problems with her husband, we had been allowed to see inside her, to glimpse how she felt about the impending wealth that awaited her. But she is reserved, knows her place, and has learned not to anticipate any such benefit from the world she lives in. Indeed, Grisham pulls back from her when she tells Jake she has the answer to two adverse discoveries made by the opposing lawyers. But we never do get to hear her defend herself.

Perhaps because this novel centers on a will rather than a murder, it explores the legal world more thoroughly than does A Time to Kill. Of course, that novel also explored the racial tension in the community, whereas, in this novel, the cultural element, the racial tension, exist more at the family level, at the unknown relationship between Lettie and Seth and the known relationship that survives between Lettie’s family and Seth’s family.

One might also note another contrast, that this novel focuses on how a woman’s life might be transformed for the better by the outcome of a legal proceeding, while the earlier Clanton novel focused on how the figurative destruction of a woman’s life led to a lengthy legal proceeding, as well as to the destruction of two lives and to community violence. The earlier novel carried a larger significance. Lives were at stake. But this novel holds its own as an exploration of justice and the racial tension in the South. (March, 2017)

Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett

If one had asked me if I was interested in a brief multi-generation novel, I would immediately have said, no. Then I picked up this 2016 novel, and was immediately enthralled by the opening chapter, the description of a christening party in a house of cops and other middle-class people. During which there is a casual seduction scene.

Then the second chapter jumps a generation, and we encounter the father of the new-born child in chapter one being treated with chemotherapy. And we learn about both his divorce and his wife’s marriage to that seducer. Whereupon, in the third chapter we follow the six children of the two marriages, all of whom get along with each other—in fact, much better than they do with their parents. Where are we going, I ask, with all this? All I know is that I am again under Patchett’s spell. And am reminded that she is one of my favorite contemporary authors.

I am also reminded that that in the publicity for this novel Patchett acknowledged that she has used some of her own life story for the first time. It seems that her father, who was always the first reader of her novels, has now died; and she feels liberated, able to employ aspects of her own family story that he would not have been happy seeing in print.

This novel is about two blended families. In one family, Fix and Beverly Keating begin as the parents of daughters Caroline and Franny; and the novel opens at Franny’s christening party in California, where the two families live. In the second family, Bert and Theresa Cousins are parents of Cal, Jeannette, Holly, and Albie. Complications begin when Bert kisses Beverly in the opening chapter. Then we learn has married her, and taken both her and his own children back to his original home in Virginia. Which means the children move across the country alternatively each summer to visit their divorced parent—something the children delight in while the parents dread. These events are not related sequentially, however, which will prompt further discussion.

And then, about half-way through this novel, one becomes aware of a unique development. As the author moves us back and forth through disassociated parts of this family story, this has included daughter Franny’s unexpected liaison with a famous writer, Leon Posen. And then the reader learns that this writer has written a novel based on Franny’s family story. And has called it, Commonwealth. So here we have a novelist, Patchett, writing a novel based in part on family history about a fictional novelist writing a novel based on the history of a fictional family. How deep into metafiction can one get?

But while metafiction is behind the structure of this novel, it is not, I believe, the point of this novel. The point is the family story, the story of these two families and how the children blend together as a group. Which, as I understand it, has its inspiration in Patchett’s own story. And the message of these two families together is a message of human relationships—and how the relationships between two families can create a single family of relationships. Which, in turn, expresses not only how important family is, but how important human relationships are. This is underscored when the six children not only accommodate themselves to each other, but also learn to accept the parent who upset their home life in order to find a more compatible spouse.

My single reservation about this novel concerns how Patchett tells this story of these two families. It is as if she has studied the structure of the modern novel, which so often seems to involve a moving back and forth in time. Its purpose, I have written, seems to be to involve the reader more deeply in the novel—that is, by requiring him to actively bring the pieces together. With a secondary purpose of developing his interest in what is happening by forcing him to figure it out.

In this case, it means not only jumping ahead in time, as the first three chapters do, but also jumping back. How did Franny meet her lover, Leon? Why was Albie the black sheep of the Cousins family? But the primary jump back in time concerns the death of Cal at age 15. How did this happen? Did the four children he was with bear any responsibility? The answers are unveiled in multi-flashbacks, as the children debate their responsibility. It is a somewhat obvious technique to create suspense, but the final answer becomes incidental. It does help make the children more real, developing their togetherness; but it does not mark any turning point for this novel.

One strength of this novel lies in the various group scenes in which many characters interact. This strength harks back to Bel Canto. It begins here in the opening baptismal party, but also includes the Palmer House bar where Franny meets Leon; the summer house party of Franny and Leon, which is crashed by many of Leon’s colleagues; the fateful day when the four kids allow Cal to die; the errand of mercy by Franny and Caroline when Theresa falls ill; and even Beverly’s Christmas Eve party at the end.

There is also a grace note in the final paragraph, when Franny reveals that she concealed one family episode from Leon when she related the family history he used in his novel. “She had needed to keep something for herself,” Patchett writes in the novel’s last line.

It is a neat note on which to end this family story that otherwise has no real ending—neat because even though this family story covers 50 years, one is left with a sense of these lives continuing on. And, yes, it also recalls the novel’s metafictional element, which is why I say that as a reminder of Leon’s novel it serves as a grace note. That is, it leaves Franny with a private family experience that never became public.

I remain interested in where Patchett’s inspiration will take her next. (February, 2017)

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

This 2014 work was a difficult novel for me to get into. It is the story of a poor migrant, Lila, from the time she is stolen as a baby until she has a baby of her own. But the way author Robinson tells this woman’s story is frustrating. Even though its theme—of love and human understanding, of sacrifice and steadfastness, of moral and spiritual sanctity—is everything I could ask for.

For the story of Lila is structured like a stream of consciousness novel. That is, the narrative moves back and forth, as if in Lila’s mind. But the telling is in the third person. We see into Lila’s mind, but we are not inside Lila’s mind. But even though this approach did not appeal to me, I persevered, because of the critical reputation that all of Robinson’s novels have earned.

This is also largely a story of the underside of life as well as a story of loneliness. As a baby, Lila is stolen by Doll, a woman she remembers fondly throughout the novel. She is grateful to her because Doll saved her from a life of poverty and degradation. She also has fond memories because Doll was a good woman, and educated Lila to be one as well. Her one regret is that she does not know what happened to Doll, after the woman decided that abandoning her would be for Lila’s own good.

There is, of course, a connection between this novel and two of Robinson’s earlier novels, Gilead and Home. Gilead is about a minister, John Ames, and is comprised of a letter he is writing to his son. Home concerns Ames and his friend, a fellow minister, Robert Boughton, who also lives in Gilead. And Lila is the story of the young woman who married the elderly John Ames, and is the mother of the son the minister is writing to in the first novel.

Yes, the connection to the other novels adds depth to one’s understanding, but this work nevertheless stands on its own. It is about Lila and her troubled experience, one of suffering, abandonment, and rescue. However, these are not easy experiences to identify with. And this further hindered my entering into and identifying with this character.

Which was compounded by Lila’s mind jumping around in time. Indeed, so much so that I was confused at times if we were in the present or in the past, and, if in the past, what period in that past. For there are times in which she is in Doll’s care. There are times in which she is surviving in a whorehouse. There are times in which she is in flight, and times in which she arrives in the small Iowa town of Gilead, where she knows no one.

In Gilead where she meets the elderly John Ames. Whereupon, two events took me surprise. And, for me, lacked conviction. Not that the two marry, but that, first, she proposes to him out of thin air, and he considers it for about a page, and then accepts her suggestion. Because, apparently, he is lonely, like her, having lost his wife many decades earlier. Joan Acocella explains this further in The New Yorker. She explains that Lila proposes because she is bold and because she fears she will be abandoned again, just has she has been before. While he is both drawn to her boldness and sees, with her, an end to his own loneliness.

The second development that surprised me was Lila’s becoming pregnant. This event is important to her and is what sustains both her and the novel through its final pages. But there has been no suggestion that love has originally motivated them. It is more that marriage has been convenient for them both. There is a scene in which they are in bed together, she seeking his comfort, but it is after her pregnancy begins. It would have been helpful if this circumspect author had inserted that scene a little earlier.

However, the affection between Lila and the minister is real. We accept that they share much, even come to love one another, and we watch their devotion to their child engage them equally. Moreover, their connection, their humanity, is deepened, when they acknowledge that they do not completely understand each other. Indeed, the final pages are filled with both a human and a spiritual love, as these two sympathetic creatures share with the child the short time, given the minister’s age, they realize they will have together as a family.

Diane Johnson sums up this novel’s seriousness in The New York Times: “Central to all the novel’s characters are matters of high literary seriousness—the basic considerations of the human condition; the moral problems of existence; the ache of being abandoned; the struggles of the aging; the role of the Bible and God in daily life.” These are indeed the hallmarks of Robinson’s earlier works, and are welcome here in a literary world that seldom acknowledges them.

At the end of her review, Johnson says: “Lila is not so much a novel as a meditation on morality and psychology, compelling in its frankness about its truly shocking subject: the damage to the human personality done by poverty, neglect, and abandonment.” I would accept all but the word “compelling.” Entering into this woman’s mind and following her experiences has not for me been compelling. Is this because I am male? I prefer to think not. I prefer to think it is her life of loneliness, of sacrifice, of abandonment, of deprivation that I found so difficult to relate to.

And, of course, I recognize that many woman have faced such situations in our society. But this author did not draw me into this life, even though it offered a shared human experience that included love and sacrifice, tenderness and yearning, and a sense of our spiritual destiny.

I am now curious about Home, yes, but not enough to place it ahead of other novels I wish to read. (February, 2017)

Slowness, by Milan Kundera

This 1995 novel begins as a beautifully written, and translated, work. But it takes a long while to become a novel. We are with the narrator and his wife as they check into a chateau in the French countryside. Then he tells an anecdote about a seduction of two centuries ago taken from on an obscure novel called No Tomorrow. Which leads to ruminations that verge on being personal essays, essays that discuss the differences between the old days and modern life.

The narrator ruminates first about slowness, how it used to leave us time to experience each moment of living, and to remember it. But now all we care about is speed, on the road, at a movie, or with our lover, which leads to forgetting each experience. He also explores the idea of “the player,” those who dominate the public stage in order to attract attention. Finally, he establishes what is to be this work’s theme: seduction. And focuses on the novel No Tomorrow, in which a young 18th century chevalier is seduced by a worldly wife in order to throw her husband off the scent of her true lover.

The “essays” evolve into a narrative that brings sets of characters into competition. Pontevin, an historian, is jealous of an ambitious intellectual, Berck, seeing the latter as a dancer. Then Pontevin’s disciple Vincent, a modern man devoted to speed, is jealous of Pontevin, seeing him as a dancer. There is also an unnamed Czech scientist at a convention of entomologists who are meeting at the chateau where the others are guests—and Berck tries to advance himself by picking on this scientist. Meanwhile, we occasionally return to the narrator and his wife at the chateau. The narrator is a writer, presumably Kundera, who seems to be having writer’s block; and the reader wonders if these characters we are reading about are real or are characters in a novel the narrator is developing.

There is much potential here. The forgetful Czech scientist embarrasses himself, and a pursuing Berck embarrasses him further. But the author foregoes any intellectual seduction. He is more interested in real seduction. Berck rejects a woman who loves him, Immaculata, a television journalist. Vincent discovers a typist Julie who fascinates him and who does accept him for a night. But then complications arise. Berck does not love the woman, but her cameraman does. Except, she rejects him. Vincent tries to make love to Julie, but fails. In public. The implication being that, like Berck, like Pontevin, he is also a dancer, since he wishes to copulate in public. And like them he also fails. Suggesting that the quickie seduction of modern times is not as effective as the slowly executed seduction in No Tomorrow.

And then? In his earlier novels, Kundera relied on variations on a theme rather than on story. My sense here is that he is relying on too few themes in this château he says is filled with ghosts. The novel builds to a climactic scene at a swimming pool, with the failed copulation followed by a false attempt at suicide. It is a climactic scene reminiscent of high drama, but all is coincidental. The scenes have no link. And thus, no drama. And then the novel concludes with a scene in which a character from No Tomorrow and one from today confront one another, one happy about being seduced, one unhappy at his failure to seduce. To little effect, because their meeting is symbolic. It furthers the theme, but is not real. Angeline Goreau perhaps reflects all this when writing in The New York Times, “The speeding up of the farce at the end of this book is inextricably part of the point he is making. But, for all its audacity, I miss here the expansive feel of the earlier novels.”

Kundera would undoubtedly defend himself by saying that he sees fiction differently, that he is writing about ideas, not people. He is simply identifying his ideas with people. And illustrating them with people whose activities parallel each other but do not intersect with each other. And he certainly does this. But while each couple illustrates an example of seduction, the failure to connect among these seductions dilutes the emotional impact.

Also, these casual seductions, so baldly conveyed here, do not reflect my kind of fiction. Moreover, they fail to match the complexity of Kundera’s earlier novels, as if here his imagination has failed him. One critic suggests, however, that the brevity of this novel actually reflects the novel’s theme, that modern life is one of speed and forgetting. And that the length of this novel signals the short attention span of modern readers, who demand the ability to read a book quickly. (But not, I would hope, the urge to forget it.)

For me, however, this explanation goes against the parameters of novel writing. Michiko Kakutani discusses this approach in the Times, calling the work “an extrapolation of ideas and techniques….[it] is less a traditional narrative than a musical improvisation; it’s a series of variations built around a central theme and linked together by leitmotifs.” And later: “The novella is really concerned with the storytelling process itself, with the means by which the facts of real life are turned into fiction.”

With this emphasis on process, on brevity, to illustrate his theme, however, Kundera generates the very showmanship he decries. For when you seek effect, rather then reader involvement, you have become a true dancer. He even has Vincent speeding away on a motorcycle at the end, trying to forget. But has Kundera forgotten that you do not sacrifice real people and real motivation to make your point? Literature requires you to integrate your ideas and your people. In the end, his imagination has focused on his philosophical theme, at the expense of his fictional characters.

Actually, some critics see the value of this novel to be in its philosophical depth, in its being built around the concepts of slowness and remembering in the past world and speed and forgetting in the modern world. But for me, this is not the purpose of literature: to illustrate philosophy. The purpose is to illustrate the emotions, the desires, the frustrations, the thinking of individual characters in a tangible world.

In sum, I was disappointed in this novel, in part because I did not understand what Kundera was trying to do. And I thank the reviewers for explaining that. But I would also note that the reviewers I cite do not believe he pulled off his blend of theme and story. Nor do I. (January, 2017)

Volcano, by Shusaku Endo

This 1959 work is a symbolic and elusive short novel from Japan. It is also both provocative and down-to-earth, as it follows the daily routines of its characters. At its center is a volcano called Akadake, and the story is built around four men who are drawn to it. Indeed, this volcano holds the key to understanding the novel. It is a symbol of both death and the evil in mankind.

Endo creates a fictional Professor Koriyama, who establishes the symbolism: “What a mount of heartache it is. A volcano resembles human life. In youth it gives reign to the passions and burns with fire. It spurts out lava. But when it grows old, it assumes the burden of past evil deeds, and it turns as quiet as the grave.”

The four men drawn to this volcano are Jinpei Suda, section head at the Central Weather Bureau, from which he retires on the opening pages; Father Ginzo Sato, a local Catholic pastor who wishes to establish a retreat house on the volcano; City Councilman Aiba, who wishes to enhance the city, and his own wealth, by building a hotel near the retreat house; and Father Durand, an elderly, cynical, apostate French priest who can no longer relate to either his faith or to other human beings.

As the novel progresses, these four men live separate lives that are joined only by the volcano that hovers over their city across the bay. And the question the novel raises is whether or not this apparently dormant volcano will once again explode in fury, as in the past. Or will it remain dormant, like old men, as the distinguished professor says. For if it explodes, it will ruin, of course, the plans of both Father Sato and Councilman Aiba.

The cynical Father Durand believes it will explode, and the retired Jinpei Suda, who loves the volcano and has studied it for years, sees signs of that possibility even as he denies it. And, of course, the issue of whether or not it will explode leads the reader to anticipate that one or more of these older men might also explode.

Nothing much happens in this novel. There is office politics, a retirement party, a family squabble, trips to the volcano, holiday celebrations, dinner conversations, hospital visits, dreams, hallucinations, etc. What matters are the relationships that stem from the characters’ differing views—about the volcano, about civic growth, about one’s worth. About life below the surface of these pages.

One wonders how much of Endo’s own life influenced this and other novels of his. As a Catholic in Japan, part of a tiny minority, he surely had that sense of being an outcast that characterizes some of his characters here. Such as the retired Suda and the apostate Durand, the two key people in this work. Moreover, Endo himself fell ill after World War II when studying in France, and reportedly felt that adhering to his faith in a foreign land, plus anti-Japanese prejudice there, precipitated that illness. As a result, he endured a crisis of faith. And that faith survived. But what if…and we have Father Durand.

Endo is a major Catholic novelist who has been compared to Graham Greene. And so it is perhaps natural that he explores in his work the question of old age and death, as well as the question of evil. Toward the end, Suda recalls Professor Koriyama’s message, saying: “When we have taken on the years, we look back on our past, and even though we come to know the mistakes we made, there is no time left to live again and repair the damage. The tragedy of old age, after all, lies precisely in this, does it not?”

Thus, Suda introduces an awareness of one’s past and the wrongs one has committed, and speculates how one can make amends at the end. And, seeing his life paralleled with that of a volcano that seems to have died down, he decides to build the retreat house. While Councilman Aiba, who has adopted the same belief about the volcano, makes his plans for the hotel.

But we the reader are not that sure about the dormant future of the volcano. Not if there is meaning in the inner turmoil that Suda and Dormand endure. And perhaps also because this Catholic writer, a believer in original sin, accepts that evil does exist in the world, and often explodes within us.

There is also an emptiness to these characters’ lives. And a desperation within. No wonder they feel themselves to be outcasts. For they live alone, within themselves. Their main relationships are administrative and political. They are not friends. They share an interest in the volcano, yes, in its past history or its future role, but that is all they share. As translator Richard Schuchert writes, “Volcano depicts the sad state of human life when it is devoid of deep love. Suda, Ichiro [his son], and Aiba, and the other non-Christians show no trace of compassion. The Christian characters, like Durand and Father Sato go through the motions of Christian charity but without the spirit.”

As a result, there is a certain dryness to a novel when its characters are not infused with love. And have no personal relationship to others. Their common relationship here is with the volcano. And so we experience this novel on the more abstract level of humanity, rather than on the level of human interaction. Yes, there is significant meaning in its theme, but we encounter this early novel on an intellectual level rather than on an emotional level, that of identifying with its characters. We come away with the sense of the often elusive, often frustrating, meaning of life. As well as the meaning of death. And of how much there is a connection between the two.

This is the last of the Endo novels there are for me to read. Perhaps because it is an early novel there is more to the symbolism, the meaning, behind this novel, than there is to the richness of movement and character that I prefer. Its perfection, that is, is more in its message of life and death and evil than it is in the actual life story of its main characters. The prime memory one has of this novel is not of these people but of an inanimate (or is it?) mountain of earth. (January, 2017)