A Literary Cavalcade

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

Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

When this early novel appeared in 2015—describing the life of Scout Finch and her father Atticus two decades after their appearance in the classic To Kill a Mockingbird—reviewers jumped all over the work because of its portrait of Atticus. How could this lawyer who defended a black boy in the classic novel have later become a Southern demagogue who despises black people?

But I think they misread this earlier novel. For starters, the focus is not on Atticus. It is on his daughter. And I can understand why Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, advised against publishing this work at the time. Indeed, why she suggested that Lee turn to its flashbacks of Scout and Atticus of two decades earlier. Because she saw in those flashbacks a more heartwarming version of the South, one told by a child who adored her father and saw him acting in behalf of social justice. Of course, the editor also saw that in this work Lee otherwise had the skills of a true novelist. She could draw characters and scenes. She could create dialogue and human interaction and handle flashbacks. And, most important of all, she was prepared to tackle Southern society and the relationships between black people and white.

However, this editor also saw that Lee did not have here a real novel, certainly not the literary one her skills suggested she was capable of. But given that she did have a valid subject, the racial tension in the South, her editor suggested the warmer approach. That the novel’s flashbacks set in an earlier time still acknowledged the tension between the races, but might be more acceptable if explored from the viewpoint of an innocent child in more innocent times. Because a 1960s society surrounded by racial tensions would be unwilling to confront such tension if set near their own times.

Moreover, what the author had actually produced with this earlier work was a rather ordinary story. It is about a young girl of 26, now known as Jean Louise, as she returns from New York City to her home in Maycomb, Alabama, and discovers that she is uncomfortable with the world she encounters—and keeps asking herself why. Which, alas, the reader does as well. For the author spends the first 100 of 278 pages merely creating the Atticus family atmosphere and reminiscing about Jean’s past, but never introducing new dramatic developments to make the reader curious about the girl, her discomfort, or the old Maycomb that she sees with new eyes.

And then, confronted by post-war racial tension at a town meeting, our heroine is taken aback on witnessing white supremacists baldly preaching their beliefs. Indeed, the abrupt scene reminds one of similar generalities about family relationships and generational relationships that permeated Mockingbird. This author preached to us there as well.

At its heart, then, this early work is a message novel. And it has two messages—messages that the author has placed together rather than blended together. The first concerns Jean Louise, now 26, and the process of growing up as she returns home and reabsorbs the Southern culture. But after it evokes the girl’s innocent childhood, the novel fails to develop from within her newly discovered doubts about how she was raised—doubts that arise from the second message of the novel, the injustice behind post-war racial unrest and the social tension that follows. This hits home when Jean Louise not only sees blacks being treated unfairly, but is horrified that her father Atticus and her supposed fiancée Henry seem to support the town’s white supremacists.

Lee does try for editorial balance, offering the reader the response of Southerners to Jean Louise’s distress. Through Uncle Jack, she offers that the South doesn’t like having new laws and customs imposed on them by outsiders in Washington. While through the girl’s fiancée, Henry, she explains that to be a comfortable part of your local society, and to succeed in business, you need to support the laws and customs of your community.

The author’s major false step occurs, however, when Jean Louise has a no-holds barred argument with her father, accusing him of betraying her, of teaching her racial ideals he himself does not believe in. “You’re a coward as well as a snob and a tyrant,” she says. This is the dramatic climax of the novel, but it is too blatant. First, because Jean Louise’s point of view is stated too baldly. And, second, because it does not read like a natural argument between father and daughter. There is no human interaction between them; they are merely making political points.

Moreover, author Lee apparently felt unable to end her novel with this family tension. For Uncle Jack argues that “every man’s island, every man’s watchman, is his conscience.” And, he explains, Scout grew up identifying her conscience with that of a father whom she saw as perfect, not as a human being, not one merely acting “by the letter and by the spirit of the law.” In fact, Jack argues, the South now needs people like Jean Louise, people who can see through white supremacists’ fears that sharing facilities with blacks will result in the destruction of their white culture. And he is persuasive, leading Jean Louise to a closing meeting with her father.

If this novel’s end is calculated, it mirrors Lee’s calculating way of addressing racial issues. Which re-enforces my conviction that, on reading this manuscript, her editor, while recognizing that this author was addressing an important subject, also realized that there was not in 1960 an audience ready to confront her tension-filled portrait of the South. Whereas, the flashback to Jean Louise’s youth, her positive feelings then about her father—and Atticus’ own belief in the law and in justice—could prove a fruitful source of interest to contemporary readers.

One can understand why Lee did not publish this novel after the success of Mockingbird. It in no way reaches the level of that earlier novel. Should it have been published? I think not, except as a curiosity. For it reduces rather than enhances Lee’s literary reputation.

But what it also does, of course, is make the reader aware of the complex tensions that survived in Southern society. That many of its citizens were not willing to turn against the culture they inherited, and tried—with varying success, as black people insisted on their new-found rights—to remain a part of the world they belonged to. But this response becomes more a sociological rationale than a literary one. (January, 2018)

Advertisements

The Running Target, by Gerald Seymour

This is a superb novel from 1989, as well as an excellent thriller. It marries the literary and espionage worlds, as it creates a political and social environment, peoples it with complicated characters who have differences of opinion, and raises issues of morality and justice.

This is a story of competition between the British police and British intelligence, and of leaders who belong to the old school and the foot soldiers who see today’s reality differently. It also covers the struggle between Iranian dissidents and Iranian authorities under the ayatollah, and about whether the ends of justice justify the violent means. And, finally, it tackles personal pride vs. personal disgrace, personal decision-making vs. professional discipline, and one’s personal duty vs. professional judgment.

The novel begins with three stories, each one interesting but each in conflict with the other, with the novel’s richness arising from this complexity. The reader’s involvement increases, moreover, as the author jumps back and forth from one story to another, obliging the reader to orient himself to each one and to anticipate how these three stories will link together.

The first story is one of revenge. Charlie Eshraq is a young Iranian exile whose father and sister have been killed by the Iranian revolutionaries, and so he vows revenge on the men who carried out those deaths. To do so, he carries Iranian heroin illegally into England and sells it to raise money to buy the arms he needs to carry out his private executions back home.

The second story revolves around David Park, a young strait-laced leader of a British Customs team assigned to stop all heroin trade. His job in the novel is to find the supplier of heroin which killed the daughter of an important politician. The one lead he is given will lead him to Charlie Eshraq.

The third story concerns Mattie Furniss, who runs British agents in Iran, and who is sent, against all rules, into Iran by an aggressive boss to beef up the information their Iranian agents are providing. And, since coincidence can drive such novels as this, it so happens that Mattie knew Charlie’s dead father and regards Charlie as a virtual son, and so willingly helps him obtain the arms he needs to carry out his avenging murders.

The three stories kick into high gear, when Mattie’s presence in Iran is detected. He is kidnapped and cruelly tortured in gruesome scenes, after which he reveals both the names of his agents and, in a moment of weakness, that of his revenge-minded friend Charlie.

All this is accompanied back home by the story of incompetence combined with the story of justice. The incompetence occurs in a London familiar from many a LeCarre novel, when Furniss’ Intelligence bosses casually delay warning their Iranian agents that they have been exposed. Moreover, the Customs team, led by David Park, is ordered by these same bosses, who are using Charlie for their own purposes, not to break up Charlie’s efforts to fund his revenge by distributing heroin.

Further complications arise when, ridden by guilt for breaking down under the harrowing torture and betraying his Iranian agents, Mattie surprises his guards, kills them, and flees across Iran toward Turkey. He becomes the running target of the title. Now, to the growing suspense, the novel adds an element of morality and justice. For, once back in London, Mattie is lionized by some as a hero, while others debate that he broke down and betrayed his agents. And this conflict strains his conscience, as he resists confessing the truth to a close friend who is debriefing him.

Whereupon, the novel returns to David Park, who is assigned to accompany Charlie Eshraq back into Iran with his weapons. And so he is also conflicted. Should he help this Eshraq who has brought the ravages of heroin into England, and so betray his, Park’s, own personal sense of justice?

Such richness and suspense are enhanced by the novel’s multiple viewpoints, which range beyond the main characters to their colleagues, bosses, and spouses, and even to their enemies. And a new viewpoint may not be identified at the start of a scene, with the reader being forced to wait for the proper identification, and even at times bring forced to figure it out. Which draws the reader more deeply into the action.

This novel is also enhanced by the convincing presentation of the Iranian intelligence service. Both the investigator and his team in pursuit of Mattie and then holding and torturing Mattie are intelligent and consistent professionals. They are dedicated to their mission; they are not stock villains, but worthy adversaries who make the risks Mattie and his agents face all the more convincing.

But what truly makes this novel stand out from other works of this type are the complexities of all the main characters, particularly the moral complexities. First comes the dense British Intelligence director who orders Mattie to go to Iran and demand that his agents provide more information, his prime motive being to build his own reputation. But his orders break all agency rules, for it risks the safety of both Mattie and his agents in Iran.

Then, there is Mattie himself, and how much he should hold out against torture when he is captured, and the guilt he feels about whether he deserves praise or condemnation for that struggle. Plus, there is Charlie Eshraq, who breaks British law by selling heroin, but who is allowed to do so in order to the buy the arms he needs to execute his justice back to Iran. And finally there is David Park, the policeman who has a one-track mind, intent on stopping all drug trade that harms British society, even as his own government helps one of his targets in the interest of British foreign policy.

I have always been impressed by Seymour’s thrillers, the last being Field of Blood, which also concerned political violence, in that case during the recent conflict in Northern Ireland. And where Seymour again focused on the moral issues involved. For when his hero is imprisoned by the British, he shows both the Irish and the British being honestly dedicated to their cause. So, I will be alert to other Seymour thrillers on sale. For his works are literary thrillers, merging suspense with the richness of politics and with moral and emotional complexity. (December, 2017)

Everybody’s Fool, by Richard Russo

This 2016 novel reads as if Russo has fallen in love with his characters of Nobody’s Fool, as well as being fascinated by the down-at-the-heels town of North Bath that he has created in upper New York State. And without any overall plan, has decided to re-apply his writing skills to that town and to explore the subsequent lives of these same characters. The result is a serious novel that cares deeply about its creations, but it does seems unfocused, as it follows these citizens around without an apparent purpose in doing so. And as a result, seems simply to create a world that is alive in the author’s mind, and which he is skilled enough to bring alive also to the reader.

And so we follow the parallel adventures of four male residents who talk to each other but whose lives do not affect each other, and who are not dependent on one another. We simply move from one character’s life to the next. These characters are Sully Sullivan, the main character from the earlier novel about North Bath, whose health is now threatened by a weak heart; Doug Raymer, the town’s chief of police, who is the most prominent character in this novel and who seeks to learn the identity of the man who was his wife’s lover before she died; Gus Moynihan, the North Bath mayor, who also has spousal problems but is less significant; and Carl Roebuck, the town entrepreneur, who never achieves the business success he seeks and also fades out at the end of this novel.

Each of these characters sees himself as failing to live up to his potential, just as their town has failed economically to keep up with its wealthy neighbor, Schuyler Springs. However, Russo helps the reader to identify with each of these characters, despite their human weaknesses, as it is clear that each of them is dealing with a personal trait or a family connection that hinders their search for happiness and fulfillment.

These four main characters bring substance to this novel, nevertheless, and give depth to this town. But it is other characters, less substantial, who drive the action of this novel. The most prominent is Charice Bond, a highly efficient black woman who is the aide to police chief Raymer, and with whom he has an emotional connection. There is also her unsettled brother, Jerome, with whom she has an even closer emotional connection; Rub Squeers, a hapless town handyman who tries and fails to be Sully’s best friend; and Roy Purdy, the most significant, a violent man who beats up people, especially his ex-wife and his former mother-in-law, the latter because she has had a long affair with Sully.

One means of probing the interior of these characters, lending them literary substance, is the use of humor. The most obvious source is Dougie, an inner voice of Doug Raymer who needles him, sees his weaknesses, and also acts as his conscience. Unfortunately, this italicized voice is overdone, and becomes too obvious a means of revealing Raymer’s inner thoughts. It also prompts an absurd moment when Raymer becomes a hero by grabbing a deadly cobra and putting it back in a box. Yes, a cobra is loose in town in one of the novel’s major absurdities.

But not the only one. There is also grave robbing. It seems Raymer has found a garage opener in his dead wife’s car, and he goes around town pointing it at neighbor’s garages in order to learn whom she had an affair with. Except, he then falls into a grave, loses the opener, and it is buried behind him. Voila, a grave robber. There is also more humor behind other human foibles, foibles resulting in a collapsed wall or a stinking basement, all of which bring out the ignorance, the pettiness, and the contradictions in the town’s residents.

That is, much of the novel’s humor evolves from the futility that marks these characters. Raymer is an incompetent police chief. Sully has a bad heart, and refuses to acknowledge it. Moynihan is a failure as a mayor, and Roebuck as a businessman. And handyman Rub is the most incompetent of all.

The casual exchanges among these men reflect the shallowness of their character, which, in turn, betrays why this town is a failure compared to Schuyler Springs. But these exchanges also reveal Russo’s sympathy for them, along with their incompetence; which, in turn, keeps the reader involved in their escapades and in this novel. And which also reflects the work’s facetious title, as it suggests the incompetence of everyone, especially in its focus on Chief Raymer.

The major disappointment I have in this novel is its looseness, its moving simply from the foibles of one character to those of another. The result is the portrait of a town and its failures, and yet not a commentary on the reasons behind those failures. For it likes its characters too much. That is, Russo does. Only the violent Roy is condemned. (Indeed, Russo says he took a shower after writing each of Roy’s chapters.)

A final disappointment is the ending, which brings peace, satisfaction, or happiness to these incompetent characters. It is too arbitrary for me, reflecting too much of the author’s sympathy for these people he has created. More appropriate for this town would have been some irony that continues the frustrations confronting these basically incompetent citizens.

As Russo approaches the end of his distinguished career, it is heartening to see him again take a serious approach to small town life. Perhaps the humor is intended to take the edge off the novel’s seriousness, and therefore attract more readers. I will accept that. I just wish the characters could have been more involved with each other, instead of living their own separate lives with their own separate problems. Perhaps such complexity is too much to handle for an author in the later stages of his career. Which does make one wonder how complex, how probing, future Russo novels will be. (November, 2017)

A Painted House, by John Grisham

This 2001 work is a different Grisham novel, not a thriller, not one centered on the law. And this is precisely why I was drawn to it. It is the story of a seven-year old boy, Luke Chandler, who lives with his family in the cotton fields of Arkansas. Luke narrates the struggles of this farm family—presumably based on Grisham’s own youthful origins—as his parents and grandparents try to survive their hardscrabble life against a context of human evil and natural disaster.

The story encompasses just a few months in the fall, but they are key months to these farmers, since this is when the cotton is harvested. It is also when a family learns whether it has made a profit or sunk deeper into debt. But a family cannot harvest its cotton alone, and so the Chandlers hire migrant Mexicans, who come north to make money, as well as poor people from nearby hill country. This year, it is the Spruill family, who leave their Ozark home to earn money.

The arrival of these cotton pickers adds drama to Luke’s life. He takes his own family for granted—that is, his grandparents, Pappy and Gran, and his father and mother. He also has a young uncle, Ricky, off fighting in Korea. Since he has no one his own age to relate to, Luke regards the absent Ricky as just an older brother, and, like the whole family, yearns for him to come home. Luke is also taken with pretty girls, reflecting still more awareness of the world, and he is fascinated by teenager Tally Spruill. Although he is too young for it to be a sexual attraction, he is not too young not to be disappointed by her own subsequent betrayal of their friendship.

There is continual drama in this novel, but it stems from a series of interesting events rather than one dramatic development that grows more and more complex. There is the tension of picking the cotton on long hot days, and wondering what price one will get when one takes it into town. There is tension between the Mexican group and the Spruills, but also within each grouping, a tension that produces a brutal murder and a seduction and elopement. Then comes, separately, the tension of a birth everyone wants to conceal from town gossip. There is also tension, as the hot sun is replaced by rain, and then by a flooding that threatens the harvest. For without a full harvest, of course, the family finances will flounder.

Amid all this drama, there are also quieter moments that lend substance to narrator Luke and to his family. Luke is a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, and dreams of playing for them one day, just as other children dream of playing for their favorite team. Trips to town for either supplies or entertainment also lend variety and moments of escape. Finally, the unity of the family, and its idealism, is represented by the painting of the family farmhouse—thus bringing more continuity to this work, as well as the dreams that lurk within these struggling farmers.

What we have here is an old story, an innocent boy’s exposure to the harsh world of reality, a reality brought by the evil in men as well as by the reality of Mother Nature. It is also a reality that the boy Luke learns to accept, indeed is forced to accept. Which means that the sad and moving ending to this novel is colored by a vision of hope. And so, as life brings change, one senses that Luke and this family will survive.

One does wonder, however, if this was too much a positive ending, or a superficial ending, for literary critics. For, when published, this work did not receive many favorable reviews. It was welcomed as a literary attempt, but was faulted for its shallowness. It was criticized frequently for its lack of black characters and any racial tension. But that, clearly, was not what Grisham wanted to write about. He wanted to portray the difficult life of cotton farmers, and how they fought nature and worked around another kind of social tension—the tension between the middle-class and the poor.

In sum, these critics wanted Grisham to write another kind of novel. And so, when they addressed the novel he did write, they labeled it superficial. The family is also called stereotypical. Pappy’s leadership is unchallenged. Gran practices folk medicine and makes great biscuits. And mother has her vegetable garden. The social context is shallow, critics wrote, because there are no blacks. And the plotting is weak, they also wrote. They did not acknowledge that farming life itself is slow, since it follows the slow processes of nature—and one deals with an environment in which one must fight fatigue, the hot sun, and tumultuous rainstorms.

These critics are also looking for an adult world, not the world of a seven-year-old boy. This precocious boy, who is conveniently able to eavesdrop on the conversations behind adult decisions, is for them either too precocious or not precocious enough. Or old enough. But it is the boy’s innocence that Grisham also wishes to convey. And how that innocence slowly accommodates itself to the reality of cotton farming.

There are moments of high drama, of course. There is a beating the entire town sees. And the issue of how the perpetrator should be punished. There is also a brutal murder that Luke witnesses. Should he report it, after the killer threatens to kill his mother if he squeals? This is another interesting moral issue that the novel only touches upon. And there is the disappearance of Tally, and how this disillusions Luke, raising another moral issue. But such drama comes from isolated moments, a drama that has in common two alienated characters, two representations of evil, but offers no inevitable connection in which each act leads inevitably to the next.

Grisham’s subject, to sum up, emphasizes social tension, but it has nothing to do with race. One critic points out that blacks represented only three percent of the population of the county in which the real Black Oak, where this novel is set, is located. One may surmise, indeed, that Grisham chose this town for precisely that reason.

One may also conclude that Grisham has written here a novel of youth and innocence that earns him a certain literary status. It is not a great novel, but it is a worthwhile one. Indeed, here is a wish that he would more often leave the commercial world of trial lawyers and write more novels like this one. (November, 2017)

Gone the Dreams and Dancing, by Douglas C. Jones

I have long been a fan of Douglas Jones, not least because I have been impressed by his capture of the Indian experience, beginning with his tales of George Armstrong Custer and Sitting Bull. Those two novels worked because he imaginatively recreated the Indian world in tension with the white man’s world. Here, however, as the title suggests, he tells a different story, that of the proud Indians’ painful adjustment, after their defeat, to the white man’s culture.

This 1984 novel is beautifully written, as are all his works, and is a major reason I have long chosen to read Jones. But this novel is less successful in novelistic terms. Not, however, because it is told from the viewpoint of a white man, Liverpool (Liver) Morgan, a Welshman. He is a fine man, as well as an understanding spokesman for the author; and we understand why others trust him and his fairness, especially from his memories of the Civil War as a Confederate soldier, as well as his memories of his Welsh parents. These are often poetic interludes that do interrupt his current narrative with the Indians, but also demonstrate Jones’ imaginative probing into the depths of his character.

Liver first encounters the Indian leader, Kwahadi, as the chief leads his Comanche tribe peacefully onto the land the white man has reserved for them. The novel then takes us through a series of events that both bring Liver closer to Kwahadi and demonstrate the slow absorption of these Comanches into the white man’s ways. But as the Kirkus review sums up, it is a rich “if relatively undramatic, Jones historical novel.”

Kwahadi, the Indian chief, becomes Jones’ pathway into illustrating how the Indians have had to abandon two mainstays of their culture when they pledged themselves to a peaceful life. For that decision has denied its young men important elements of their warrior culture. That is, they no longer go into battle against other tribes; and, second, the buffalo, whom they eagerly pursued as a source of food and clothing, have vanished. And so, to enable these Indians to hold onto one key symbol of their way of life, Liver helps the Comanche leader retrieve a sacred lance that is symbolic of their warrior culture. Then, more practically, he helps the tribe obtain both the horses they need to explore the world beyond their reservation and the cattle they need to feed themselves.

Each of these steps illustrates a need these Indians have as they adjust to their new world. But there is no dramatic unity to these events. There are simply a series of problems Liver helps to solve, and by doing so helps slowly to develop his relationship with Kwahadi and his people. Moreover, that relationship grows quite personal, as Liver soon acts as a successful go-between for a young white army contractor who wishes to marry one of Kwahadi’s daughters.

And this relationship becomes even more personal, when Kwahadi, the son of a white woman who was kidnapped by the Indians and then recaptured a generation later, yearns for the mother he has lost. And because he trusts Liver, who knows the white man’s world, he asks Liver to find what happened to his white mother, and whether or not she is still alive. And this mission carries Liver through much of the remaining novel. Indeed, to re-enforce his trust, Kwahadi directs another Indian to protect Liver from a white man’s ambush. And, finally, the chief offers Liver, a widower, an Indian woman as a wife—to cure a loneliness he sees in the white man—and Liver agrees.

The final integration of the Indians comes with a trip to Ft. Worth, where Kwahadi and his Indian friends are to be honored. But it also ends with a tragedy, as well as with Liver fulfilling the mission that Kwahadi gave him, to discover the fate of the Indian’s wife. And so the conclusion of these two events helps to bring this work itself to an emotional close.

Except, there is an Epilogue, which suggests that Liver and Kwahadi were real people. It is not clear if this is true or an attempt to create verisimilitude. But I do note that Jones’ most successful early novels were built around historical events that really happened, and onto which he grafted his marvelous imaginative powers, powers that brought him inside the head of both Indians and white men. Did he need that verisimilitude again to give more substance to this work of fiction?

This novel did not receive the attention that reviewers gave his earlier work. Perhaps because it was not inspired by a specific moment in history. Instead, it presents the gradual assimilation of Indians into the white man’s culture. It may thus be appropriate to quote from my 2005 review of Jones’ novel Roman, that Jones “fails to offer a single, unified story that stretches itself into a greater complexity. Instead, he offers a picaresque series of adventures that offer no challenge to his hero, even as they immerse us into the daily activities of life on the range and in the towns, cities, and forts.”

Finding the fate of Kwahadi’s mother was not an easy task for Liver, but it was also not enough to tie this work together with any continuity. In part because it was achieved so easily. Liver knew the right person, who in turn knew the governor. One concludes that Jones is really committed here to the larger story, the assimilation of the Indians. He is less committed to the fate of his individual characters. Because this is the story about cultures rather than about individual people. The people merely illustrate the cultures.

This book has sat on my shelf for many years. I felt no urgency to read it, perhaps reflecting the reviewers’ lack of interest when this novel was published. But I am happy I finally picked it up. And it deserved to be published. For it covers an important element of America’s Western history. And we should be grateful that Jones decided to write this story of these two cultures that were so important to our country’s past. (November, 2017)

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

This 2014 work is a difficult novel to evaluate. Is it a straight novel, or a fantasy novel? For its first four of six sections, it is a realistic novel that tells the stories of real people, with a bit of fantasy hovering in the background. It is quite enjoyable. With the fifth section, however, it becomes a pure fantasy novel, with confusing characters whose unique powers relate more to each other than to the humans we know. And one concludes that creating this fantasy may be the real purpose of the novel.

What is revealed in the fifth section is that a war is going on between two different beings for the control of humanity. When one being, the Horologists, die, they are reborn forty-nine days later inside a child about to die. They thus live for many generations, many centuries. The others, the Anchorites, never age and never die, as long as they can kill and absorb a normal, living person. The former are the good guys, the latter the bad guys.

The confusion begins when the fantasy characters, throughout the novel, hide within either other fantasy characters or in the human characters. This occurs with Holly, an innocent young girl who will appear in many of the sections as she grows into an adult, even becoming famous when she writes about fantasy visions she sees of the future. Plus, early in the novel, she unwittingly agrees to have an Esther Little hide inside her. Eventually, this Little turns out to be an adored Horologist and a mentor to many others.

Each of the six sections is related by a different narrator. The first narrator is Holly, who, betrayed by her boy friend, runs away at 15, has visions, including of her beloved brother Jocko, then is assaulted, and finally is found by a schoolmate, Ed Brubaker. He says that Jocko has disappeared, and she must return home. The second section’s narrator is Hugo Block, a student and thief who flees to a Swiss resort, meets Holly as a bar girl, and falls temporarily in love; then, just as he believes the police are on his trail he meets two men who promise escape and eternal life. With the Anchorites.

The third narrator is Ed Brubaker, now married to Holly and with whom he has a child, Aoife. Ed is a war correspondent in Iraq, and the author contrasts his unworldly adventures there with the fantasy creatures who pop up at a sedate wedding at home. Ed finally accepts Holly’s visions when he naps, his daughter disappears, and he finds her in a hotel room with numbers that Holly speaks in a trance. In the fourth section, the narrator is Crispin Hershey, a failing novelist who tours the world trying to resurrect his career. In his travels, he meets Holly, now a popular author because she has written of her mysterious visions. Crispin confronts his fate when an unknown poet declares that mysterious beings are taking over mankind, and she wants Crispin’s help in revealing this.

In the fifth section, the world of fantasy truly arrives. The narrator is Marinus, a Horologist who once cured Holly of her earlier visions. These fantasy characters live in our world, but there are new relationships, all seen from a different perspective. The result: confusion. Finally, Holly learns her brother Jocko has been possessed by a Horologist leader, Xi Lo, and to find Jocko she joins Marinus in his fantasy world effort to destroy the Anchorites.

In the sixth and final section, the narrator is again Holly. She is now in her seventies, living in Ireland, and the world around her has collapsed. Global warming and authoritarian governments have brought flooding, storms, the rationing of power, and the failure of communications, world manufacturing, and world trade. And most disappointing, this author, a grand story teller, does nothing but describe Holly’s adjustment to this new and unsettled world of deprivation and violence.

Except, a dues ex machina arrives, deciding the fate of some human characters. But one asks: why this ending? Its sentimentality seems out of place, as we read about these human we followed but never identified with. And one also asks the point of the war in this world of fantasy. Yes, one side won, but the entire world soon collapsed in on itself. How did this happen, and what does it mean? One suggestion is that concern for the present led to the failure of the future. But the human witnesses did not affect this war, and this reader is left with a novel that seems to have no human rationale.

Yes, this is an absorbing novel, even if long and confusing. Because Mitchell has created a resonant world of reality, and brought it alive through the richness of his writing. Critics have even cited an additional level of richness. As Michiko Kakutani writes in the Times: “Characters and themes from Mr. Mitchell’s previous books also recur here…hints that all his novels somehow link together in a kind of ‘uberbook,’ though at this point, the reverberations and cross-references tend to feel more like clever high jinks.”

But while this approach adds connections, it also adds complexity. And adds neither richness nor depth. Moreover, James Woods cites in The New Yorker an additional distraction—from the humanity of this novel. “What occurs in the novel between people has meaning only in relation to what occurs in the novel between Anchorites and Horologists. A struggle, a war, is being played out, between forces of good and forces of evil, although how humans behave with one another appears to have little impact on that otherworldly battle…. Gradually, the reader begins to understand that the realism—the human activity—is relatively unimportant; it is the fantastical intergovernmental war that really matters.”

And this, I believe, identifies the problem at the heart of this novel. We read it for the story, but without any concern for the characters. Certainly we cannot identify with the all-powerful fantasy characters, but neither can we with the human characters. For they have no real relationship with one another, as they react only to the fantasy world, not to one another. Even the title of this novel separates the reader from these humans. The fantasy creatures call humans the bone clocks to remind them of their inferiority, because they are made only of bone and are subject to time and to death.

In sum, I will hesitate at reading more of David Mitchell’s fiction, unless he reverts more closely to the world of reality. (October, 2017)

Cain, by Jose Saramago

This atheist author, in the last year of his life, decided to abandon the detailed modern world of reality that characterizes most of his work and turn to a portrait of the god he despised. This lower-case god is a cruel, merciless, authoritarian being—i.e., one with very human characteristics. And Saramago, in 2009, creates this portrait of God through the story of Cain. But, except that Cain does kill his brother Abel, this is not the Cain who briefly appears in the Old Testament, but rather a time-traveling Cain who happens to witness many Biblical stories through many books of the Old Testament.

Once Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, the author makes an initial break from tradition. Adam and Eve are no longer seen as our first parents, for when they leave the Garden they are told by an angel that other humans exist. And so, they encounter a caravan of wanderers who take them in. Whereupon, Cain is born, followed by Abel. Which is soon followed by Cain’s jealousy of Abel, when the Lord accepts the younger brother’s offering but not that of Cain. Whereupon, Cain kills his brother, is given the traditional mark on his forehead, and is ordered to wander the earth for the rest of his life.

And, indeed, he does so—literally. For Saramago sends Cain wandering through the Bible for the rest of this novel. And during these travels, like in a time-travel fantasy, he emphasizes the horrors of Biblical history. That is, as Saramago deepens his portrait of the God of the Old Testament, he furthers his philosophical exploration of God in human terms.

First, however, he bypasses the Bible to tackle the legend of Lilith, which says that Eve was not Adam’s first wife. That it was Lilith, that she refused to be subservient to Adam, and that she left him to settle in her own palace. Whereupon, in his first wandering outside the Garden, Cain encounters Lilith, and becomes both her guard-servant and her lover. Indeed, Saramago here begins an account of Cain’s sexual life that will last until the end of this novel.

But even as the narrative of Cain’s adventures expands, Saramago uses techniques we are familiar with. That is, the human conversations, the negotiations, the down-to-earth details that characterize his novels set in the modern era—all are present here. Indeed, this is what gives these events of fantasy their reality. He is also, of course, emphasizing the humanity of the Biblical characters, particularly the human nature of the god Cain encounters—and whom Cain continually debates as an equal.

It is at this point that fantasy has truly entered. And along with it a critique of god that Saramago now introduces in earnest. For whether it is Abraham’s immanent sacrifice of his son Isaac, the creation and destruction of the Tower of Babel, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and all its inhabitants, or Moses’ revenge on those who adore the golden calf—every opportunity is taken to show the cruelty, the insensitivity, the arbitrariness of this god. Saramago, through Cain, particularly focuses on the innocent children who are slaughtered along with their sinful parents. Cain’s mistake, an angel says is “to assume that guilt is understood in the same way by god and by men.” That is, Saramago, through Cain, is continually comparing this god in human terms, unlike traditional scripture.

At about two-thirds of the way into this fiction, I considered abandoning it. But curiosity led me to continue. Where was the author headed? What was his point? And so I followed Cain to Jericho, where Joshua is laying siege to the city, and where more innocent people die.

But at least there is an explanation of Cain’s frequent time travel. It seems that each experience involves not an advance into a different future, but rather that Cain exists in a new and different present. And while he himself cannot explain why this is happening, there is an implication of a higher power. One wonders if it could even be the Satan who appears occasionally on these pages.

The climax arrives when Cain encounters Noah as he is building his ark. Again, Cain fits naturally into this human environment. Indeed, the ark’s women also find him sexually attractive. And Noah himself encourages his women to couple with all available men. For, since they are the last human survivors, is it not up to them to generate the new human race?

And at last we reach the point of this novel, which is that creating the human race has been God’s mistake. And so begins Cain’s final revenge on this God, a revenge which began when Cain killed his brother because God recognized Abel’s offering and not his own. It is a grand concept, I acknowledge, but Cain is acting for petty reasons, for human reasons. Saramago has blended his own denial of God with Cain’s jealousy of God.

And so Saramago ends his novel with a contradiction, just as he began it. He began with Adam and Eve encountering other humans outside the Garden of Eden, meaning they could not be the first parents. And he ends his novel with Cain refuting the human race, even though human history has continued and proven otherwise. The result is only cynical wishful thinking.

The overall impression I get of this work is that of an author having fun with tales that many believe reflect the weakness of mankind and the fairness and mercy of God. But since this author does not accept God, he attacks Him by ascribing to Him those very human weaknesses. Which is legitimate, perhaps, in literary terms, but certainly not in spiritual terms. Thus, every inconsistency Saramago, through Cain, encounters in scripture, he attributes to the stupidity or forgetfulness of God. This is how he makes God very human. Except, of course, God is not human. Which means that the believer, like Lot’s wife, looks back on these tales with a grain of salt.

And this is, note, a series of tales. It is not a novel in the traditional sense—if Saramago could ever write a novel in the traditional sense. My point is that he moves Cain through a series of disconnected tales, connected solely to enable the author to make a series of human points about God’s failings. Whereas, I much prefer those works of Saramago that challenge the everyday conditions of life and the failings of men. (October, 2017)