The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

This is an excellent novel, not least because it has a straight through-line, from a horrible rape to the pursuit of the rapist. It certainly deserved the 2012 National Book Award.

And never have I encountered an Erdrich work that moved in such a straight line to its finale. There are few sidetracks, as we follow 13-year-old Joe and his three friends as they seek to learn the identity of the rapist, and then decide on their own kind of justice.

The rape victim is Joe’s mother, and his determination to seek justice grows as he sees her in shock, confining herself to her room, neither eating nor talking. The boys turn detective after learning the crime occurred near the Round House, a site of past Indian ceremonies on their reservation’s border in North Dakota. Since it is not clear which legal authority has jurisdiction over that site, and since the white men’s legal system is not that interested in tracking down a white perpetrator, anyway, Joe grows determined to find the man himself, and administer Indian justice.

But matters are complicated by Joe’s uncertain conscience as he plans his revenge. His father is a judge, and Joe has been trained to respect the law. Moreover, he and his three friends are nominal Catholics, and they have been bred never to resort to evil themselves.

Their investigation is sidetracked at first when the boys begin an amusing Huck Finn type scrutiny of a new local priest—and discover he is a seriously wounded vet who could not rape anyone. Later, their youthful naïveté increases as this priest chases Cappy all over town after Cappy confesses his desecration of the church with his girlfriend.

Cappy, who is more mature and the leader of the group, is Joe’s best friend. The other friends are Zack and Angus, who serve more as loyal followers. Although Joe himself heads their investigation, he still looks up to Cappy. Overall, the four boys exist more as a group, while Cappy and Joe exist as individuals.

The sense of Indian justice is enhanced by a legendary tale told in his sleep by an old Indian, Joe’s grandfather Mooshum. It is about a young boy and his escape from men who see his mother as an evil “wiindigo.” And its telling achieves two effects. First, it enhances the Indian atmosphere. But it also provides an indirect inspiration for Joe’s own pursuit of justice. For in introducing the idea of an Indian evil spirit that can take over one human body, which then devour other humans, it suggests to Joe the justice in killing an evil one to prevent further evil.

Note that after a few weeks, Joe’s mother does recover and seems to return to being normal. But this does not change Joe from seeking  retribution. He still wants justice to be done, and is determined to make it happen, mostly because the authorities are not yet willing to do so.

It is the details of the boys’ pursuit that keeps the reader interested. First of all, they are boys, and are continually entertaining themselves. With their bikes, their discussions of Star Wars, their pursuit of food, their skinny dipping, their awareness of sex (exposed to the grandmothers bragging about their men, and to Sonya’s awesome breasts). But they are not afraid to confront their neighbors for news. Indeed, these neighbors come alive, from Joe’s extended family, such as Clarence and Uncle Whitey, to various townspeople. There is Linda, for example, adopted sister of the suspect. We hear her life story, but it is less a diversion than a divulging of the background of the suspect.

This is also a coming of age novel. Joe is first introduced to reality through the vulnerability of his mother. But even more significant is his understanding of the professional limitations of his father, the judge.

That a judge who is an Indian on an Indian reservation in 1988 may deal with petty crimes, drunkenness or stealing, but his hands are tied when dealing with major crimes, especially when they often involve non-Indians.

This realization is what turns Joe toward administering his own justice, but it also makes him aware of his conscience—and a realization that actions have consequences, that he is no longer living in a kid’s world, that there are others more powerful whom he must deal with. And, finally, he learns at the end that he must live with guilt, with the knowledge of the justice he is responsible for.

The texture of this novel is enriched by three separate value systems. There is the Indian set of values, represented by Mooshum’s tale of the Indians’ belief in evil wiindigoos that devour people, and the right to kill them. There are the Catholic values, based on one’s individual conscience, and, according to the priest, a belief that good can come out of every act of evil. Finally, there are the conflicting set of political values when an Indian commits a crime versus when a white man commits a crime, and whether in Indian territory or in white man’s territory.

To sum up, this is one of Erdich’s most enjoyable novels, precisely because it is told in a straight line from a single viewpoint. And yet it encompasses a crime story, a coming of age story, a political justice story, and an exploration of morality and one’s conscience. It is a deceptively complex work, but one that is held together by Joe’s more mature recollection of the past, when he has become a judge himself.

One wonders why Erdrich used such a different approach from her previous work. Probably because it is centered on one catastrophic event. But perhaps she will now be aware that complexity does not depend on multiple narratives. The issue may then become whether or not her future works will be built around multiple events or a single event. To work, the former requires more social awareness; while the latter requires, as here, a deeper analysis of the inner life. (October, 2013)

The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips

This 2011 work is a marvelous conceit. It also belongs to the new world of metafiction. It is about Arthur Phillips, a novelist, our novelist, who lives under the spell of his brilliant twin sister Dana and his equally brilliant father Arthur.

The son Arthur, the narrator of this tale, feels that he has to continually prove himself to his own father. This is a father who is constantly absent because he is in jail, sent there as a con man with an ego who time and again has created fraudulent, if almost harmless, plots to fool the public. For example, as a boy, the son had once watched his father create crop circles in order to suggest an alien invader.

This novel is about what may be the father’s greatest con. It is built around the question of whether the Shakespearean play the father has “discovered,” the tragedy of ancient King Arthur, may actually be real, may actually be by Shakespeare. The father gives the play to his son to have it vetted and published. But is it truly by Shakespeare? Arthur has his doubts, even when classical scholars begin to verify its authenticity.

What is Arthur to do?  Does he go ahead and support what he senses is a lie? Or does he withdraw his support and risk the trust of his publisher and perhaps his own literary future?

But what makes this novel truly work as literature is less the moral issue that the son faces than his complex relationship with both his father and his sister. The son Arthur is a quiet, insecure man who appears to have no ego. But maybe he does, for he is constantly dueling with his brilliant sister for his father’s attention, as well as seeking his father’s approval. Perhaps knowing his father’s attraction to Shakespeare, the son turns himself into a writer; and this work lists the actual books the real author has written.

There are interesting psychological connections to the relationship between father, daughter, and son. The daughter is continually ingratiating herself with her father, always believing in his love, and now accepting that the Arthurian tragedy was really written by Shakespeare. While son Arthur deeply regrets a dispute over the authenticity of the Arthurian tragedy is coming between him and his sister. This is compounded by more guilt feelings prompted by his failing hopelessly in love with Petra, the lesbian lover of his sister. This is a sub story that is not convincing, however, and really goes nowhere.

But most of all, the son, who since his boyhood has sought the love of his distant farther, and has long resisted the belief that his father loves him, now is persuaded that his father may have given him the manuscript of Arthur in order to demonstrate his love of his son. For the father has now given up all monetary rights to the manuscript, and has left his son a legacy that will make him and his mother and sister rich for the rest of their lives. Which, of course, troubles the son. How can he reap the benefits of what he believes is a fraud?

The novel that we are reading is the son’s solution to his problem. It is an introduction to the play that offers his evidence of why he believes the text is a fraud, even if he cannot actually prove it. But as a tantalizing aside, the son also comes to realize that by writing novels, he is in one sense no better than his father, for as a novelist he himself is creating a fraud, a fraudulent reality.

This novel itself is actually fun to read after its slow start in which the author establishes the family relationships and the father’s fraudulent career. One, in fact, wonders at first where this novel is headed. But once the Shakespearean play appears, first as a 1904 printed work, and than as a 1597 original work, both interest and suspense build. Is the text truly real? Will son Arthur be able to prove it either way? How will his relationships end, with his father, his sister, the lesbian lover? And how will the publisher Random House react to his conviction that the discovered text is a fraud?

The reader is offered brief, but to me unimpressive, samples of the Shakespearean work, as well as emails from the father defending the veracity of the work, and emails from an understanding editor at Random House questioning whether son Arthur really means the manuscript is a fraud. There are also emails and conversations with his sister, betraying his uncertainty, both regarding the manuscript and his relationship with his father.

At the end of 256 pages, the entire novel, is a script of the actual Arthurian play of more than 100 pages. I confess I did not read this. I have never been able to connect with a Shakespearean play by reading it, only by seeing it performed. So after dipping into it and seeing the same problem, the archaic and poetic language that made no conversational sense, I abandoned it. Anyway, I knew it was not real; it was Phillips’ own work. There was no reward in reading it, except to admire the author’s nimble exercise in literary egotism. Yes, it lends authenticity to the novel, and we see what it was all about, but I so enjoyed the novel, I did not need that.

What I admire about Phillips is his literary adventurism. Every novel is completely different. This one is the most daring, for it takes on Shakespeare. No, not takes him on, but rather takes off from him. (September, 2013)

The Girl at the Lion d’Or, by Sebastian Faulks

This 1989 work is a perfect little novel. The reader is drawn into the story of two fine people, and wonders what will happen to them. The novel does nothing else; it simply explores their story and probes their desire for human contact. While they belong to different social levels, their affair is not a metaphor of a clash between those levels. Nor, with one person being married, is there a reference to the morality of their situation.   It is simply the story of Anne, the servant girl at the Lion d’Or inn, and Charles Hartmann, a married, more wealthy bar patron at the inn. They meet casually and are slowly drawn to one another. She is alone in a world that has abandoned her, and he is married to a wife he no longer loves. Each seems to provide what the other needs, and they take advantage of a burgeoning friendship to fill the emptiness in their lives.

The reader wonders, given the couple and their situation, how this affair could possibly arrive at a romantic conclusion. One even wonders—remember the perfection—if this could be a modern version of Madame Bovary; that is, whether or not both Anne and Hartmann will survive their affair.

Indeed, it is clear from one late scene that Faulks himself considered the impact of the Flaubert novel. In that scene, one character picks up a knife, and the reader senses that person’s world about to end. What I think this scene is is a young novelist’s salute to Flaubert.

At the end, however, he resorts to neither romanticism nor tragedy, as he resolves with empathy the outcome of this ”impossible” affair.

The background is just substantial enough to highlight the difficulties that their affair represents. It is not the society that each belongs to that is in conflict, but the separate needs of this couple from contrasting backgrounds. That background is the 1930s in a France weakened by the world-wide depression, and a France that looks nervously on the threat from Hitler’s Germany.

In the background is also the terrible toll that World War I took on the manhood of France. And this is made tangible by the story of Anne’s father, who refused an officer’s order for a futile charge of the German lines. Anne has long kept secret her father’s fate, fearing that knowledge of it would create scandal and destroy her own hopes for the future. But as finally she reveals her secret to Hartmann, she becomes more human—and we realize the need she has for human commitment, as well as the need he has for a deep emotional connection to another human being.

Faulks probes just deeply enough in the psychology of Anne and Hartman to make their affair convincing. And despite the “impossibility” of their affair, he does make the resolution effective, as he explores the internal psychology that brought them together and now may or may not separate them. In one case it is the threat of abandonment, and in another it is a matter of conscience.

And whatever the resolution, the reader feels that both have benefitted from their affair. Both have profited from the kind of deep human contact that they had previously denied themselves. And both come to a better understanding of themselves as a result.

And yet the peripheral characters also have substance. We see the inn owner in a different, less dominant light, as well has the inn’s brutal manager in a softer light, at prayer. There is also the incompetent contractor Roussel, and the predator Mattlin who takes advantage of young women. And most of all, there is Hartmann’s wife, the patient Christine, a good but dull woman, who sees she is losing her husband and realizes she can only wait for the outcome. Her strategy is to rely on her husband’s conscience. She becomes a sympathetic character, despite our primary concern for the fate of the two lovers.

Perhaps the simplicity of this work is typical of an early novel, as Faulks focuses on his two main characters, particularly on Anne. Of note is that this is the first of three novels that Faulks set in modern France, three novels built around the emotional lives of three young women of need. The other two works, Birdsong and Charlotte Gray, are superior because they are conceived on a grander scale, particularly with their military environment. And their heroines face a far greater challenge than their search for love.

If this had been my first Faulks novel, it would have piqued my interest, but nothing more. Since it was not, it reveals to me the foundation of his later and more powerful work. (August, 2013)

Schindler’s List, by Thomas Keneally

This 1982 work is not a novel, as Keneally claims. It is closer to Mailer’s “history as a novel, the novel as history.” But whatever it is, it is magnificent, even moving as it describes Oskar Schindler life as his World War II heroism ends.

What Schindler did was save about 1,400 Polish Jews from death during World War II. He was a complex man, Keneally reminds us, a Nazi spy originally, later a briber and a blackmailer of both the SS and German industrialists in behalf of the incarcerated Jews, and also a liar and a seducer of women, a man who enjoyed the pleasures of life amid the horror around him, and yet a man who was kind and generous toward helpless Jews, the victims of war.

And for a reason the author cannot pin down, the debonair Schindler converted from being a greedy businessman taking advantage of the Jews to a savior of these persecuted Jews. Was it an ethical residue of a Catholicism he had long abandoned? Was it simply a recognition of the evil, the unfairness of the Nazis regime? Itzhak Stern, one of the men he saved, believes it happened after Stern reminded Schindler of a Talmudic verse: “he who saves the life of one man saves the entire world.”

Schindler worked with the Nazis as the owner of manufacturing firms licensed to operate in labor camps, using conscripted Polish Jews. His base was Krakow, and his labor camp was close to the Auschwitz death camp. In fact, those who were not healthy enough to work for him were sent by the Germans to die at Auschwitz.

The bulk of this work is a series of anecdotes dug up by Keneally’s remarkable research. He interviewed perhaps 50 former prisoners, who told him what had happened to them and to others in two labor camps over a period of about six years. The most evil man they encountered was Amon Goeth, the German in charge of the workers in the Krakow labor camp. He would take out a pistol or a rifle and shoot the Jewish workers for doing nothing, or at most irritating him—which became an enduring image from the great Spielberg film.

Schindler despised the pleasure-loving Goeth, but met his blatant needs and cajoled and bribed him in behalf of the Jewish workers. He also bribed many other influential Nazis with liquor, cigarettes, jewelry, money, and more black market items. But more significant here is the desperation of a dozen or more Jews: their efforts to escape punishment, seek food, obtain medical care, avoid the death camps, etc. In fact, it is these horrible experiences, not Schindler’s, that give weight to this book.

The result is the most complete report of the suffering of the Jews that I have read since Hersey’s The Wall. Which was also based on historic records. And I would put both on the same literary level. It is this narrow focus on a small group of people that produces each book’s powerful rendition of what it was like for the many that were persecuted.

At the same time, the cumulative evidence of such suffering, based on these former prisoners’ reports, underscores the significance of Schindler’s efforts. Schindler himself, however, rarely bragged about what he did. “You are safe with me,” is what he often told his workers.

The greatest example of his subterfuge was moving his entire labor force from Poland to Czechoslovakia as the Russians advanced on Poland and the Germans tried to destroy all evidence of the camps, including the captive Jews. Determined to save those he had been protecting, he first moved the men to Brinnlitz, to an abandoned factory, and weeks later the women endured a harrowing experience before they also arrived. These men and women were the people on Schindler’s list, although it is disputed who actually created that list.

Schindler continually protected his Jews by telling the Germans that he had highly skilled workers who could never be replaced. He also reminded his superiors that the new factory was producing top secret armaments, while in fact the workers deliberately miscalculated exact measurements and never produced anything that could be used. In addition, Schindler himself backed up his commitment to his workers by using his own money to feed, house, and care for them.

As powerful as are the scenes of German cruelty and Jewish suffering that comprise the bulk of this book, the final moments of the Schindlerjuden, Schindler’s Jews, as the Russians approach their camp, and the Germans flee, became unexpectedly moving. Schindler himself pleaded that the prisoners conduct no reprisals. Such as in one case when retreating German motorcyclists approached, but simply to ask for gasoline. The same prisoners even feared to walk out the camp gates. As for Schindler, he rode away in striped prison garb as his disguise, and while the Americans helped his flight to Switzerland, the French were suspicious until his accompanying Jews testified how he has saved them.

As to the question of the “novelization” of this story, this work is a narration; it is not a novel. Keneally relates every event based on the tales of his sources, but while each event concerns Schindler’s Jews, the events are not dramatized; they are reconstructed. And equally arbitrary are the sequence of events. There is no linkage between these events. They are separate. They do not develop reader interest by telling a story. The tales simply enrich the horror of the scene. Keneally also rarely uses quotes, and when he does it is usually without quotation marks around them. Again, reconstruction. Occasionally, however, he will break the narrative to step back and interpret for the reader either certain events or Schindler’s unique motives.

Keneally has used this approach to history before, such as in Gossip from the Forest. He in no way compromises his reputation here. He enhances it (September, 2013)

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

This 2005 novel is remarkable. But, half-way into it, I was puzzled by the book’s purpose. I was prepared to experience different stories at various time levels, but was not prepared to experience its various genre styles. At one point, I wondered if these different writing styles merely reflected the author showing off.

The story begins with Adam Ewing recording a sea adventure from the 19th century. Then it moves to an introspective study of a composer and his innocent student, Robert Frobisher, suggesting a similar account about a young man and Frederic Delius. Next, we move to a somewhat sinister tale of a reporter, Luisa Rey, who is tracking down a scientist fleeing a powerful energy company, which resorts to violence when the scientist claims its new atomic plant is unsafe. The fourth tale introduces Timothy Cavendish, a publisher who ends up fleeing London, only to find himself locked up as crazy in a rest home.

It is with the fifth tale, however, that Mitchell really suggests showing off. Set up as an interview with Somi-451, an android type, this is a science fiction tale set in a world the reader finds difficult to grasp as it begins underground in a controlled society, a society from which the android heroine attempts to escape to become a human. An entirely new vocabulary (and references) are introduced for the first time.

A new vocabulary continues in the sixth tale, set in a Hawaii of the distant future after a world calamity, for here the narrator uses a blend of slang and a Western cowboy accent to tell of a violent war between two tribes, plus a mysterious woman who may be ready to help the narrator’s side. This is the only tale which is told completely in one take. After one gets past the idiomatic narrative, however, it ends with an exciting attempt to escape across the Big Island to safety.

The other five tales have stopped abruptly, and now they resume, each reaching an exiting climax. As the Times review notes, the narrative sequence is 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, which underlines the deliberate structure of this work.

We return to Somni-451’s search to be human and the adventurous finish— except hers turns out to be a shaggy dog tale, as the author pulls the run from under our feet. Next to reappear is publisher Cavendish, whose fast-paced adventure rises to a climax with his escape from the home, except it then winds down gently.

By now the reader is wondering where Mitchell is going with these tales with the suggestion of a link between them. One link, a comet-shaped birthmark, suggests reincarnation. Another link occurs when, somehow, a book, a film, or letters fortuitously appear that refer back to a previous tale and enable the characters (and the author) to connect the various stories.

The most exciting return is to Luisa Rey, and the reader wonders what has happened to her after she has been run off the road and presumably killed. This return to Luisa Ray demonstrates how well Mitchell can write a clever suspense novel if he wishes. Luisa’s adventures keep moving as she escapes peril after peril, with surprising deaths hindering her along the way. Until, as in most mysteries, the corporate skullduggery is revealed and justice is served. Except, before we leave her Luisa receives a mysterious package with letters Frobisher wrote back in 1931 during his life with the composer.

These letters reveal Frobisher’s frustration both in love and in composing. His tale also reaches a definite, unexpected conclusion, as he culminates his short career with the Cloud Atlas Sextet. Except…he himself has discovered an old book in his room, propping up a bed leg. The book contains the second half of the Adam Ewing tale that began this novel.

Ewing’s tale returns us to his harrowing adventure on the high seas and a threat to his life. It also climaxes with an unexpected surprise, before offering a 19th century conclusion that says life is a struggle, often against evil, but that men must dedicate themselves to doing good and enjoying the fruits of that effort.

So what is Mitchell trying to achieve here? It appears to be a summary of human experience. Through six tales of adventure, he ranges from the 1800s to an unknown distant future. And in each adventure, his heroes and heroines confront evil, sometimes triumphing, sometimes not. Which, of course, is the human experience.

At the same time, Mitchell also decided to challenge himself. He will use different writing styles to relate different stories with different outcomes. The artist in him also suggests those links between the stories—either a comet tattoo, or the letters, manuscript, or film that advances the narrative to the succeeding tale. Except, I think that these links are decoration, an author’s maneuver to justify his six tales being brought together. It has nothing to do with the novel’s meaning.

What makes this book work is its cleverness: its fascinating adventures, its frequent surprises, its believable characters in every era, its shifting styles, its solid reality both in the past and in its world of fantasy. One review sums it up: “Cloud Atlas is a narrative about the act of narration, the ability of story telling to shape our sense of history, civilization, and selfhood.” Or another: “It knits together science fiction, political thriller and historical pastiche with musical virtuosity and linguistic exuberance.”

The one area that did not persuade me was the suggestion of a kind of simultaneousness to these stories, a suggestion that they exist outside of time and will repeat over and over. This is most obvious in a scene in which a bomb blows up an airplane, and a suggestion that the characters will return and meet again. This thought does blend with the idea of six separate time frames joined together in one book. But surely it is much less effective in raising a philosophical point than it is in being a technique to join these stories. Indeed. Mitchell seems aware of this, as publisher Frobisher rejects the mere idea of reincarnation in a manuscript about Luisa Rey

To sum up, I felt it was unnecessary to link these tales through letters, manuscripts, and film. The work does not need this. It is the range of the tales and their similarities that justify bringing them together. One similarity, for example, comes from each character striving against all odds to reach a goal, mostly succeeding, sometimes not. Still another is the narrator always trying to escape pursuers to achieve this. Finally, there is also a similarity, paradoxically, in each tale being related in a different literary style.

And yet the imagination behind this work is truly impressive. Indeed, while Mitchell had to receive pleasure in answering the challenge behind his structure, I cannot help but think that he also sought, through the narrative within each tale, to create maximum pleasure for his readers.

Is there another book like this one? Can there be? It would certainly seem that only this author could top this book. Which makes me truly interested in his future works, even as I suspect that the literary risk that he takes will not always work. Yet I cannot help but salute him for trying. (August, 2013)

Wicked, by Gregory Maguire

This 1995 work is a long and complex novel. Its narrative flows rapidly, but it also jumps over long passages of time, which produces about five separate stories. The consistent character is Elphaba, the Wicked With of the West, and the novel is about how this sympathetic, victimized character evolves, and how and why she becomes wicked.

The entire work was inspired by The Wizard of Oz, but is a rather free adaptation of the events that led up to the L. Frank Baum novel. Also, it’s for adults, not kids. Maguire interprets the events for his own purposes, one of which is to explore the existence of evil and the possible consequences in an afterlife. But in doing so, through the five stories, he creates a confusing narrative, as the surrounding characters change in each story and Elphaba herself changes.

Also confusing for a long while is the presence of Animals and animals. The former have human characteristics, but are not recognized as human by much of society, which nevertheless uses them. The lowercase animals are mere animals. Upper case Animals are close to the slaves of our past, but Maguire does not stress this.

The land of Oz consists of five separate governments, none of which trusts the other; and the Wizard as the villain apparently wishes to dominate Oz overall. (Note that his role is quite small; and he is no jovial, unthreatening Frank Morgan.) Thus, there is a strong political element to this novel, an element which for me offers an unwanted distraction from the adventures of the main characters. Although I do grant that some of the characters are deeply involved in this struggle for power.

In the first story, Elphaba is born to an evangelical-type minister, but has green skin, a temper, and a deathly fear of water. When a sister, Nessarose, is born, she is quite beautiful, but has no arms. She is her father’s favorite and Elphaba becomes jealous of her.

In the second story, Elphaba go off to Shiz University where she rooms with snobby and beautiful Galinda, watches over Nessarose, and meets other friends. There is a murder over the status of Animals, and Elphaba decides she must rebel and join their cause.

The third story, five years later, has Elphaba deeply involved in the underground. She has a futile affair, and, after failing to assassinate a target, she flees, mute, to a nunnery.

In the fourth story, seven more years have passed. Elphaba is called by her father to Munchkinland to help set “queen” Nessarose on the right path. Nessa promises to give Elphaba her magic ruby slippers when she dies. Elphaba wants these slippers because she has learned how to do magic. She is on her way to becoming a witch.

The final story, another seven years later, begins when Dorothy’s house from The Wizard of Oz falls on Nessa and kills her. Elphaba expects to get the shoes now, but Galinda, now Glinda, arrives first and gives them to Dorothy for the girl’s safety. Elphaba is furious; the slippers are rightfully hers. This turns Elphaba into the Wicked Witch of the West, as she plans to kill Dorothy to get the slippers.

Thus, Elphaba has become wicked, even though she has done much good in life, i.e., supporting the Animals and rebelling against the dictatorial Wizard. This contradiction is what enables Maguire to raise the question of evil. Are evil acts ever justified? Can/should a good person commit evil acts, and remain good?

At the end, Elphaba is evil. But how much has this grown out of her unfortunate circumstances: her green skin, her temper, her paternity, etc., and how much has been introduced by the author—both to conform in part to Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, and to enable him to explore the complexity of existence, such as whether there is a God (the Unknown God) and an afterlife. This is what might prompt one to reread this work. Knowing the conclusion, even though Maguire does not resolve those eternal issues, would one appreciate the issues better?  Would one also detect more clearly the author’s Catholic background?

I have not seen the musical, Wicked, but my impression is that Glinda has a more prominent role there than she does in the novel. Is it because the musical presents only part of the novel, the early portion when Glinda is more prominent? More likely it is a reworking, based on the realization that someone has to be in dramatic conflict with Elphaba.

To sum up, this is a story of fantasy, evil, and politics. Its content is the fantasy, its core is the evil, and its theme is the political struggle in Oz. Wally Lamb sums up this work quite well: “Maguire’s adult fable examines some of literature’s major themes: the nature of evil, the bittersweet dividends of power, and the high costs of love. Elphaba…is as scary as ever, but this time in a different way. She’s undeniably human. She’s us.”

Maguire achieves here what many authors strive for: a sympathetic villain. He creates sympathy with the good that Elphaba does in her family life and her political life. Then he confronts her with emotion and circumstance that twists her frame of reference. It is a twist I am still reluctant to accept at face value, even as I understand how it works in the novel. So A for effort; B+ for achievement. There is a certain confusion when the separate adventures, as entertaining as they are, do not flow from one story to the next. (July, 2013)

Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh

How witty and tongue-in-cheek can one get? This is a delightful novel written in 1938. It is a satire on the field of journalism, conveyed through the experiences of William Boot, a naive nature writer with no ambition who is hired in error as a foreign correspondent by the Daily Beast (now I know what inspired Tina Brown) and then sent to the fictional east African country of Ishmaelia.

The confusion begins when William Boot is contacted instead of fiction writer John Boot by the foreign editor, Salter, and the managing editor, both incomptents who are beholden to their authoritarian publisher, Lord Copper. The confusion lasts until the very end, when John is rewarded instead of William and Uncle Theodore is accepted to replace William.

But not only are the Beast people incompetent, so are the competing papers and fellow foreign correspondents that William meets in Ishmaelia. These correspondents are easily road-blocked and then sent on wild-goose chases by the local government of Ishmaelia, whose own actions are arbitrary and incompetent. Waugh, of course, is having fun with all of these people—with London society which fumbles it influences, with the newspaper editors out to please their boss, with the gullible foreign correspondents, and with the doctrinaire Ishmaelia government, a country run by one family, the Jacksons.

Some today will look back at the description of the men who run this country, and accuse Waugh of racism. Actually, however, he is having the same fun with these incompetent blacks as he is with London society and the journalistic profession. Such satire in those days, the thirties, was acceptable; but we look at such matters differently today.

The bitterest comment on the press is when both the bosses and the correspondents think that nothing is happening in Ishmaelia, so they had better come up with something to justify their time there. William, however, is too naive to understand this, and has to be taught by friendly companions both the hidden political life in that country and the meaning of the cables that he is receiving from his London bosses. Until the Scoop of the title—the scoop of what is really happening in Ishmaelia—has to be explained to him by others. A great example of his incompetence is when he meets the British ambassador and fails to inform him of what he has just learned about the plot against the Ishmaelia government—and fails to get his own resulting scoop in return.

This is Waugh at his finest, as he looks down on all these people, turning them into incompetent fools. It is perhaps characteristic of this author, who will later be revealed to be secure in his conservative faith, that here he writes with the smug attitude of a self-satisfied member of society. Unlike Greene.

Which may help to explain why Greene used his faith as the core of his early novels, because he had doubts about it; and these doubts provided the (internal) conflict that is at the heart of literature. Whereas, since Waugh had no doubts about his faith, he turned to society for his subject matter. And so, where Greene is deeply involved with his characters, Waugh is quite aloof.

The greatest fun with this novel is at the beginning, when the confusion sends the unprepared William to Africa, and at the end, when the Beast tries to reward him for his success. My favorite scene, in fact, is at the end, when Salter travels to rural England to William’s home in order to persuade him to continue working for the Beast and to attend Lord Copper’s banquet in his honor. His hike from the railroad station, his arrival unkempt (the family thinks he is drunk), and his meeting of this eccentric family—all this is delightful, Waugh’s devastating portrait of rural English society.

William’s success abroad is, of course, none of his doing. The result is a lot of byways in the early portion of his travels in Ishmaelia; and it slows the novel until the revolutionary activity is revealed. In the meantime, we are introduced to Katchen, a Polish girl without a country who is married (sort of) to a German who has disappeared into the interior of Ishmaelia.

Katchen is the “love” interest for William, who thinks he loves her but is not really interested in love. Neither is she, of course, except to get the Beast’s money she can finagle through William. Interest picks up when her husband returns, and they escape uproariously in a canoe William gives them. Her presence works, however, because her husband is involved in the search for minerals that interests both the Germans and the Russians and motivates the basic story, their attempts to take over the government of Ishmaelia.

And then there is the mysterious “Baldwin,” who travels incognito with William on his way to Africa, is helped by William, and then parachutes into Ishmaelia to save the day for the government—and William. He also provides an opportunity for Waugh, through exaggeration, to needle the Soviets.

Waugh spent time in Africa covering the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, and this novel is said to be inspired by that experience. Further speculation relates many of these fictional characters to real journalists, from Lord Beaverbrook (Lord Copper) to John Gunther (Jakes).

Waugh wraps up the fate of his various characters in the final two pages. It is clever and somewhat arbitrary, but it works, not least because it is in keeping with the aloof style of the rest of the novel.

To sum up, this is marvelous Waugh—to be appreciated especially by journalists, who are the victims of his satire. But he spreads the satire all around: to politicians, to high society, to publishers, to empire builders, to dictators, even to the Communists. The work is both witty and funny, witty in style, funny in subject matter. And most of all, its characters act believably even as they act deviously or stupidly. The naïve William is truly three-dimensional. The remaining characters are not, but they are alive on these pages because they are so incompetent. (June, 2013)