Joseph and His Brothers, by Thomas Mann


This has been a difficult read. And yet also quite rewarding. It has been difficult because it is very slow-moving. Perhaps because Mann wanted to make use of his considerable research, and explore how to use it imaginatively. But mainly, I think, because he presumed a familiarity with the story of Joseph. (Which I did not have.) And so, as a result, he concentrated on an interpretation of character and culture. Rather than on what was going to happen next.

So it took me a long time to get through these 1,200+ dense pages. The objective each time was to finish the current chapter, with no temptation to read on to see what would happen next. Mann also imposes himself between the reader and plot interest by discussing how and why he is treating both current and upcoming events as he does. This gives a perspective to the tale, but negates the immediacy that I would prefer.

One does wonder why the subject of Joseph appealed to Mann. He wrote it over more than a decade, from the late 1920s and early 1930s, as Hitler rose to power, until mid-1942, when, after writing other works in different locations, he wrote the final volume entirely in the U.S. It would not seem to be the religious angle that appealed to him, since religion itself does not impose itself on the reader, but rather the adventure of Joseph surviving and flourishing in a foreign country. Thus, it seems more likely that Mann was speculating on his own future. Did he foresee his subsequent exile? (Some also suggest he was conscience-stricken by the events developing in Germany.)

The result, however, is not, to me, as successful a literary work as it might have been. It is successful as a tour de force, as a unique interpretation of the life of this biblical character. But the reader senses more that Mann is following Joseph through his career than that Joseph is controlling his own career. (Mann underscores this when he addresses the reader to discuss how he is reporting Joseph’s life.) Thus, Joseph here is a servant of God rather than an independent person finding his own way in life. And so is lacking my criteria for the independence of a true literary character.

And yet, and yet, this work is a magnificent achievement. Despite my qualms, despite my reservations, I cannot ignore the richness, the scope, the detail of this work. Indeed, it is same scope and detail that slowed down my reading of this work. Perhaps I am too accustomed, too committed, to the modern novel of character and action. I am especially used to a novel that lets the character and action impart the context, rather than, as here, a novel in which the author explores the context and confides to the reader his reasons for treating the characters and the context as he does.

Why did Mann write this novel? Reportedly, he was introduced to the subject when he was asked to write an essay for an exhibit of paintings about Joseph’s life. In any event, what is clear at the end is that Joseph has been on a mission for God. That out of his travails, out of his sacrifice, is to come a world of good for his people. His father Jacob is distraught at the loss of his son, and is angry at a God whom he realized has asked for the sacrifice of other sons, such as Abraham’s. Joseph himself does not lose his faith in God, however, not when he is sold, and not when his is brought to an Egypt that his tradition has taught him is representative of the underworld.

He believes, instead, that he has been saved by God for a reason. So he simply acts as he thinks God would wish him to do so, and seems to wait to learn why God has put him in the position he is in. He does seem to come to understand that reason in the third volume, but this is not stressed enough for me. (It is perhaps a stretch, but is Mann asking why current German history is happening? Certainly, it also turned out for the good.)

For me, the overall telling of this magnificent story moves too much away from literature and toward biblical history. And the ability to identify with either Joseph or Jacob suffers, as does any dramatic tension. Mann deliberately does this. It is obvious. Is it because he is dealing with these biblical events that he presumes everyone knows? Is it because he prefers to be conservative rather than daring in literary terms? The result is that I am impressed with his detailed treatment of these historic events, but I am not convinced by his approach. Since this is a novel, I would much prefer more tension and more emotion.

I would also note that Jacob the father is nearly as important here as his son Joseph, despite the volume’s title. For it begins with Jacob as he creates the family of 12 brothers, and ends with his death and funeral procession. He does not achieve in his life what Joseph does, but he provides the bookends for this tale. Indeed, these details are proper for this story; they provide a context.

So how does one sum up one’s verdict of a work by a master, a work that many consider a masterpiece? In the past, the difficulty of reading Joyce did not hinder my evaluation of Ulysses. My chief problem here was the context, the extensive detail in the geography, the history, and the culture. Enough of this comes across during the actual events. But Mann appeared to want to add something to the story. Why else write it, he perhaps thought, if one did not project an explanatory context?

And what is magnificent, what remains magnificent, is the story. The story of a good man who retains his goodness even when betrayed by his own family, a man who proves himself in a foreign land and yet will not forget his original family, a man who not only forgives that family but thanks God for his entire experience. This is not a religious novel, but God is present here.

The Tales of Jacob (1933)

This work begins with a Prelude that creates the context for the tale to follow. It explores the family history that Joseph inherits, then the origins of man and his story: his original creation, the location of Eden, the Fall, the Great Flood, the Great Tower, the origins of writing and human thought, and the blending of the flesh, the spirit, and the soul of man. It culminates with a plunge into the past, which is, after all, the duty of every novelist.

This first volume is the result of considerable research and a fruitful imagination. But it begins with very little drama. It presents a narrative rather than a dramatization, and it is about Joseph’s father Jacob rather than Joseph himself. One senses Mann to be translating the events and people of the Bible into what he considers to be a modern novel, in order that we understand better our religious heritage. Except, its narrative form is not modern in terms of the 21st century, and is frustrating to the modern reader.

Some might say that this is Mann being Mann. Being very thorough in his portrait of the times and of Joseph’s family before Joseph himself arrives on the scene. Indeed, it takes more than 100 pages for the “tales” of even Jacob to start. There is intrigue, yes, but little drama, until Jacob’s mother finally plots to send Jacob off to give a blessing to his uncle, whom he initially works for. He then falls for, romances, and marries his daughter Rachel.

Or thinks he marries her. But his uncle pulls a fast one on him, just as his mother did on his brother. Is this retribution? By the family? By God? It all works out, but ironically, because Jacob’s children become born of Leah, and other women in the household, but not of the one he loves. Mann here introduces the idea of a jealous God, a developing God, jealous because Jacob has got his own way until then and thinks he deserves it. But I do not find this persuasive. It works literarily, perhaps, in trying to give a characterization to God, but it does not work theologically, since God for me is beyond characterization, being fully developed, eternally existent.

Rachel, meanwhile, is finally allowed to also marry Jacob but she bears him no children for a long while. When, finally, she becomes pregnant, Mann describes the painful childbirth in which her son Joseph is born. This prompts Jacob to negotiate a new contract with his uncle, a contract in which he takes financial revenge by outwitting this man who originally took him in as a poor boy. But his uncle’s own sons resent him becoming rich at the expense of their father, and Jacob decides to flee their potential plot against him. So he heads off with his large family and in a large caravan representing his new wealth. He is returning to his original family, which he no longer believes is seeking revenge for his earlier deception.

This volume concludes with Jacob going on with Joseph and his other children, but not with Rachel, who dies giving birth to another son, Benjamin. It is a name that reveals she knows she will die, and Mann beautifully captures her last moments. Indeed, in Jacob’s adventures since he has left his mother and his family the reader gradually becomes submerged in this biblical tale. One realizes that Mann has convincingly created not only this biblical era but also the people who inhabit it. He identifies with their suffering, their happiness, and their puzzlement at what it all means.

And for me this work finally becomes religious literature, even if not about religion itself. Whereas at one point I was so frustrated by the narrative technique that I was considering pausing between volumes to read other, more modern work, I am now persuaded to go on. I now appreciate as well as admire the research and imagination that has gone into recreating this distant era and these people who represent Jewish tradition, and who offer a prelude to the Christian era.

Here is a sincere work whose purpose is to bring alive this Biblical story that portrays our spiritual antecedents. And while it took awhile to achieve this, I am now committed to it.

Young Joseph (1934)

Joseph is now 17. But, again, Mann needs to set the scene. More narrative, that is. This time to show Joseph’s relationship with his mentor Eliezer, the latter’s background, and his instructions to Joseph about the measuring of time. Mann also reviews Joseph’s relationships with his brothers by Leah. Then he moves back in history to his ancestor Abraham and his changing relationship to God, and then forward to Joseph’s relationship with his true brother Benjamin.

And, all the while, Mann is addressing the reader, letting us in on his analysis of the Bible, and of history. So we are again continually aware that this is one man’s novelistic vision of the history behind our religious heritage. It is frustrating, however, not to get into the story of Joseph, which this volume is all about.

The story appears to begin when Joseph has a dream—of angels raising him to heaven to meet God. Which is followed by Jacob honoring Joseph by giving his son the famous multi-colored garment. Which upsets his brothers, and after a long and subtle discussion created by Mann, they leave their father and Joseph to raise their sheep elsewhere. Joseph soon pursues them out of guilt in another vivid, descriptive passage that again reveals Mann’s deep research and vivid imagination.

Mann also creates a deep philosophical discussion among the ten brothers about the effect of a dreamer, meaning Joseph, on their position in the family. So when Joseph appears it is believable when they immediately attack him, bind him, and toss him into an empty well to die. Fortunately, a passing Ishmaeli caravan saves him, even negotiates to buy him.

When the news reaches Jacob that Joseph has died, even though he has not, Mann extends his creativity as he explores the father’s reaction to the report. First, he discusses whether it is the spoken word or evidence, such as the torn and bloody garment, that is more convincing and/or more merciful. Then he explores, first, Jacob’s denial and acceptance of the report, and then his denial and acceptance of God for having allowed it.

As this second novel concludes, we realize the power of Mann’s imagination, how from the biblical story he has penetrated the hearts and the minds of these biblical characters. We feel their pain, we understand their deception, we accept their humanity. This final chapter, nay this entire volume to date, could have been written only by a mature man who had suffered life’s travails, who had come to understand and accept human nature, the evil that is in man and the good that is also in him, the joy that he feels and the guilt that he feels, the happiness that awaits him and the despair that engulfs him.

This is a slow-moving volume, because it is so penetrating. It is a humanizing of this story of the Bible, so that we may better experience it and so understand it. And it is interesting that Mann wrote this story of the Jews just as the persecution of the Jews was beginning in Germany.

Joseph in Egypt (1936)

Fortunately, this third volume begins with narration rather than exposition. Joseph seeks to earn the respect of the old Master who has purchased him They engage in such discussions as: is he a slave, is he a prisoner, or is he merely accompanying the old man on his way to Egypt to buy goods for resale back home? Joseph does learn that the old man is going to recommend him to be hired by the staff at the Pharaoh’s headquarters, and it seems to be a step Joseph is looking forward to. As is the reader.

However, chapter two is unfortunately back to exposition, not narration. We learn Egypt’s climate, history, and culture, as Joseph travels to the royal city. But even in Thebes, there is considerable description, reflecting more blending of research and imagination. Until finally Joseph meets its palace overseer and is accepted.

At this point, Joseph becomes aware of the self-confidence of his past, his blind assumption of his own worthiness that turned so many people off, including his brothers. He also realizes that he has a mission in Egypt from God.

Mann here steps back to write that there is no historical record of Joseph’s days in Egypt, that he must deduce how Joseph rose in his role with Potiphar, the Pharaoh’s colleague and head of the place guard. He writes that Joseph spent ten years with him, the last three involved in a one-sided affair with Potiphar’s wife, and then three years in prison. For those not familiar with the Bible, this acts as a kind of spoiler, but the reader continues, wishing to know how Mann will create the details.

Dissatisfied with his menial chores, Joseph “ambushes” Potiphar in the palace garden and, in a turning point of his life, so impresses Potiphar that he earns a promotion that will end with him managing the man’s estate. Thus, as time passes, Joseph begins to live the life of an Egyptian and is accepted by them. And over seven years, he becomes a handsome young man. In a long and tender section Mann describes the illness and death of the steward Joseph reports to. Joseph cares for him at the end, and the steward sees that Joseph will become his successor. It is the next turning point.

As Joseph’s eighth year with Potiphar begins, Mann turns his attention to the wife Eni, who famously became infatuated with Joseph. She was not a courtesan, he says; she was frustrated by her relationship with Potiphar because, Mann speculates, he was a eunuch. Aware she was attracted to the young and handsome Joseph, she pleaded with her husband to dismiss him, but he refused. And when the dwarf Dudu detected she was truly besotted, he plotted to involve them with each other, thinking to eventually destroy Joseph. As for Joseph, he was intrigued by his mistress, but kept their relationship businesslike, not personal. Which frustrated Eni.

What is notable here is how Mann treats the sexual tension among these characters. He is very old school. All is innuendo. He spends many pages delving into the internal musings of his characters, into their mental gymnastics, into their own consciences and their speculation about the reactions of others. In Eni’s case, it is that of her husband, the dwarf, and Joseph. There is no physical description here, only long paragraphs of musing. And they are very long, very 19th century musings.

As the years pass, the frustrated Eni first reveals to Joseph her love symbolically, then deliberately offers herself to him. Each time it is not through action but through internal thoughts and dialogue. Mann then describes seven reasons that Joseph remains chaste, such as his loyalty to God, to his master, and to his own father. Finally, when Eni throws himself on him directly, it is again through dialogue.

One wonders at the author’s reserved approach. Is it because of the times in which he writes? Is it because of his own distaste? Is it because he is respectful of the story’s origin in the Bible? Or is it simply German sensibility? In any event, one does not feel the emotion between these two people, such as the desperation of one and the fear of the other. The approach is too dry, too intellectual. To me, this is an example of this work at times being thought out too much. Perhaps the problem is that this is a familiar story, and that Mann sees no point in emphasizing the plot, is only intent on exploring the internal reality of these people.

Potiphar finally learns of his wife’s conduct from the dwarf, while Eni, first, threatens Joseph she will lie to her husband if he will not sleep with her, second, tells her women friends of her desire for Joseph, and, third, asks a witch to cast a spell over Joseph. But when the witch does, Mann curiously draws the curtain on the couple. He will not dramatize this most dramatic of scenes, he says, because Joseph reveals himself as an ass. How he does, however, is unclear to me. In any event, Joseph again refuses her, and she screams for help and has him arrested. Whereupon, Potiphar sends him off to the Pharoah to be punished, but with a plea for mercy. And the volume ends.

It is like the movie serials of yesteryear. The hero is in dire straits, and we cannot wait to read what happens to him next.

If only…. Because this work is as slow-movingly introspective as it can be.

Joseph the Provider (1946)

After a prologue set, it appears, in heaven, presumably because Joseph’s story is a story ordained by God, the final novel begins. Fortuitously, the prison camp Joseph arrives at is under a humane leader. He recognizes Joseph’s skills, and assigns him to similar duties as Joseph had with Potiphar. And soon Joseph is running the prison, just as he ran the household of Potiphar.

Three years later, Joseph’s fortunes change when a new and young Pharaoh, who identifies with religion rather than warfare, takes over. This Pharaoh has a dream about seven cows and seven corn stalks, and he summons Joseph, whom he has heard interprets dreams.

Mann spends a long chapter with Joseph and the young Pharaoh, plus the mother, in conversation. They tell each other stories, then Joseph explains the dreams, and then the three discuss what the Pharaoh should do, in light of Joseph’s interpretation. It is all conversation, no action, over 50 pages, presumably because Mann believes this new turning point in Joseph’s life needs to be justified in literary terms.

Now the volume’s title become clear, as Joseph is given a new administrative role because the Pharaoh has accepted his interpretation that the dream meant that good times would be followed by bad times. And so Joseph see to it that the regime will provide the people of Egypt with their needs, by storing grain as the changing environment brings those hard times. It seems at this point, however, that Mann is more intent on using his research to explain history than he is in writing a novel.

But now arises the drama. Egypt and the surrounding nations are experience a famine, and Joseph gets word that ten of his brothers are coming to buy grain. What should he do? Will they recognize him? Well, they appear, they do not recognize him, and they are told he will sell them grain only if they go back home and bring to him his youngest brother, Benjamin. When they do return with him, Mann intrudes too much for my taste. He compares what the Bible tells about these events to the tale he is telling.

The final chapters return, appropriately, to the personal drama of this family such as when the sons return to their father Jacob, and reveal that Joseph is still alive, and then when their father finally meets Joseph in Egypt. But there is still too much narrative summary about the significance of these events and then descriptions, instead of movement, of what follows.

The ending is quite satisfying, however, as Jacob, knowing he will die shortly, calls Joseph and his brothers to three meetings. In the first says he wants to be buried in what is now Israel, in the second he gives his blessing to Joseph’s two sons, and in the third he gives a farewell blessing or curse to the eleven brothers. And this is followed by a lengthy description of the embalming of his body as a mummy and an extravagant month-long procession in the finest Egyptian tradition to the tomb he desired in Israel. It is a fitting, and even moving, conclusion to these four volumes, as is Joseph’s final message to his brothers. He forgives them, for “God turned it all to good.”

This is the last Mann work I have planned to read. Its intellectual bent is perhaps due to Mann writing it toward the end of his life. Yes, all of Mann is intellectual, but this appears to have been truly written to be a masterpiece, to be a collation of all the recorded knowledge about a subject. I believe Mann succeeded in his own terms, but I still wish this work was a few hundred pages shorter. I might also note that the translation I have read is by H. T. Lowe-Porter, whose language has been criticized as archaic. But I do not think Woods’ supposedly “cleaner” translation would negate my basic criticism. (October, 2014).

Live by Night, by Dennis Lehane

This 2012 work is a gangster novel to end all gangster novels. It is Lehane being a serious writer again, producing a work far superior to Moonlight Mile, even if this is not quite a literary work. Why? Because it stresses action, which I like, but at the expense of character, depth, and human values.

It is the story of Joe Coughlin, a minor character in The Given Day—a story of the Coughlin family, and a novel that is literature.

Joe is the black sheep in the family, the son who is impatient, who is greedy, and who does not respect the moral standards his family claims it stands for. He does not, in part, because his father Thomas Coughlin, a severe Boston police captain, is not the upstanding man he appears to be.

The novel begins with a spectacular first paragraph. Joe’s legs have been put in cement by Tampa gangsters who are preparing to dump him overboard, and he recalls how everything began with his meeting a cool beauty, Emma Gold, as he robbed a Boston speakeasy of mobster Albert White. This sets up both the Boston and Florida settings, even as the reader wonders if this first paragraph, besides being a teaser, is actually telling us about Joe’s final fate.

This novel is thus in two parts. It begins in Boston, where Joe calls himself an outlaw rather than a gangster, as he rationalizes his rebellion from his father’s strict moral code. Nevertheless, he works for one Irish boss, Tim Hickey, who is in conflict with another, Albert White. And Joe’s initial fate is sealed when he falls for a woman, Emma Gould, who is the mistress of Albert White.

Joe’s partner in the Hickey gang is a boyhood chum, Dion Bartolo. Joe’s Boston fate is determined when he robs a bank with Joe and his brother, and they are betrayed. As a result, Joe ends up in jail in Charlestown, the most powerful section of the novel, where Joe’s fearlessness impresses Maso Pescatore, the incarcerated but powerful leader of a Mafia gang. Fearful of Maso’s threat on his own and his father’s life, Joe becomes subservient to Maso. And Maso, after Joe’s effective scheming in the jail, even against Maso, is impressed, and sends Joe off to Tampa, Florida, to run Maso’s operations there.

The Tampa section is more interesting than Boston’s, because in Boston Joe was following the orders of his boss, whereas in Tampa he is the boss, even as part of Maso’s empire. Thus, he is making the decisions rather than reacting to orders; and he is joined there by a loyal Dion.

While the dramatic highlight of the book is the Charlestown jail sequence, the Tampa section has a carefully planned robbery of guns from an American supply ship. The weapons are intended for the Cuban underground trying to topple Machado, the island’s dictator. Joe commits himself to this plot—it is here he meets Graciela—because he needs the local Cuban contacts for his gangster empire.

Many Cubans are at risk in this plot, of course, and, as elsewhere in this novel, when someone dies there is no sentiment involved—either from Joe or the novelist. Perhaps because this is a gangster world. Everyone, including Joe, lives with the expectation of death. And, note, it is without an expectation of reward or punishment in an afterlife.

As I said, Joe now meets Graciela, a Cuban beauty who wishes to accomplish good in the world, but is conflicted because she doesn’t believe good deeds can follow (Joe’s) bad money. She and Joe make an emotional connection, however, and he discovers he is over his love for Emma, whom he believes is dead. So Joe and Graciela begin living together, even as they work separately.

It is in Tampa that Joe’s character is hardened, for he reasons with some but is forced to kill others who threaten him or his friends. Not to be ignored is how Lehane has made us identify with and sympathize with this gangster killer. This is probably the book’s major achievement—getting the reader committed to a complex man who breaks all the rules of society even as he remains loyal to Dion, his closest friend, and to Graciela, his lover. This, in its own way, mirrors good coming out of bad.

I have two major issues with this novel. The first centers on police chief Irving Figgis and his beautiful daughter, Loretta. Figgis is introduced as an accommodating but no nonsense chief, and his daughter as an innocent. But she soon suffers an unexpected fate worse than death, and then responds unbelievably, while her father rescues her, then changes, also unbelievably.

My second reservation is the ending. After the Tampa power struggle has ended, Lehane moves his characters to Cuba for a quiet ending. Why, one asks? Nothing is happening. We witness the creation of a tobacco farm, and Joe resolves his love life. Then, on a return to Florida, a final violence seems tacked on, as if Lehane felt that some kind of justice needed to be meted out. I am not convinced, however. There is too much coincidence involved, plus an unconvincing perpetrator.

To sum up, this is an admirable gangster novel. It blends the evil of man and some of the humanity of man, with the former triumphant because this is a gangster novel. While it has a few interesting foregound characters, it kills off a lot of faceless people, producing a heartless novel, a novel of characters who live by a criminal code and accept their fate.

I will follow more Lehane, but I have had enough of the gangster milieu here. I think families offer a much richer environment for exploring the nuances of humanity. The gangster world is too black and white, even if Lehane attempts to mix that black and white. The family setting of The Given Day, on the other hand, offers built-in shades of grey, of good and evil, that provide for far greater character nuances. (December, 2013)

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides

This 2011 work is an interesting novel, and extremely well written. But it is too long. Eugenides delves too much into the back history of his main characters, and too much into these characters’ area of study. His narrative approach is interesting, as he advances his triangular story of two male students and one female, but then he often backtracks to explain why they are acting as they are in the basic narrative.

     The main character is Madeline Hanna. We meet her in her graduation year at Brown University. She is fascinated by the brilliant student Leonard Bankhead, even after she learns he is a manic depressive and his conduct varies enormously. Meanwhile, the steady Mitchell Grammaticus, another Brown student, has fallen for her but is hesitant to reveal his true feelings.

     We spend a long time at Brown, as these three meet and interact, before following them out into the adult world. We also meet Madeline’s parents, Alton and Phyllida, who do not want to see their daughter tied down with a manic depressive. But they do not understand their daughter, and do become unsympathetic characters.

     Eugenides makes palpable the years at Brown by having Madeline, an English major, probe deeply into semiotics and deconstruction. She becomes a feminist evaluating the Victorian novelists. One cannot help but think the author is taking advantage of his own education, and I do think he probes more deeply here than is necessary.

     We see most of this story through Madeline, and some through Leonard, but there is a significant portion devoted to Mitchell as he travels to Europe and then to India, hoping that Madeline will get Leonard out of her system by the time he returns. In India, he volunteers to serve with Mother Teresa. (Note that Eugenides also volunteered with Mother Teresa.) It is not a successful experience, but expresses the religious yearnings that have long motivated Mitchell’s life.

     Madeline, meanwhile, is living with Leonard on Cape Cod, where he has a basic science job in the field of genetics. But the science investigations he is involved with never attain the credibility of Madeline’s English studies.

     I also did not sense the atmosphere of the Cape, or of the Boston they visit, but the work did earn some credibility from me when the author has Madeline’s married older sister living in Beverly, where I grew up. But, alas, Madeline never visits there.

     This work did not receive the enthusiastic reviews that Middlesex and Virgin Suicides received. And I can understand this, for, as I indicated, it is overwritten. It should have been a shorter work. It bogs down too much in details. But with my own prejudice, I also wonder how much this poor reception was influenced by Mitchell’s (and the author’s) interest in religion. How much did that turn off some reviewers? Did it make Mitchell unworthy of either Madeline, or of their own interest in the outcome of this triangle?

     The treatment of Leonard’s problem is also excessive. Eugenides wants the reader to understand Leonard’s problem, but he goes too far in explaining manic depression. But, on the other hand, he turns around the reader’s reaction to this character that Madeline is devoting her life to—unwisely, Mitchell believes, in behalf of the reader. For at the end, we have considerable sympathy for Leonard, based primarily on his awareness of his own condition and its impact on others.

     This acknowledgement is the key to the ending. It is an ending which I fully accept, even if for some it might not be a real ending, not one readers expect from a story today. And yet it is a literate ending—a, for me, satisfying ending. Note that it is also an ending that satisfies an author’s ideal goal, for it depends not on the final paragraph, not on the final line, but on the novel’s final word.

     The title The Marriage Plot, refers to an English thesis Madeline is writing at Brown. It analyzes the endings of old-fashioned Victorian novels that normally finds the heroine ending up happily married. And, indeed, Madeline’s own life, and this very novel, will also refer to the validity of that kind of ending. Note that when she has this thesis published, she brings it proudly to Mitchell—an acknowledgement that it is he who matches her temperament and her needs most closely.

     One does wonder how much of Eugenides himself is written into his character Mitchell. Did he yearn for a fellow student while at Brown? Is some of Mitchell’s shyness and reticence his own? Was this the germ of his story? And did he put all his feelings for that woman into the character of Madeline? It is not impossible. And yet it might also explain why this work is not a complete success. That he was too close to the actual experience, that he did not have the proper distance. All, I grant, to be mere speculation.

     It will be interesting to follow Eugenides subsequent work, because he is such a fine writer, a fine stylist. And he knows how to create interesting characters. Each work has been different so far, the one unifying element being the response by his characters to moving from adolescence into adulthood. May we expect an author now in his fifties to change this element? I say this, knowing also that most literary works explore the experience of protagonists who are in their twenties, as he or she discovers love and the burdens of life. (October, 2013)

Raylan, by Elmore Leonard

This 2012 novel is a disappointment. Is it really a novel, in fact? It reads more like three interconnected novellas. In fact, I was not intending to comment on it, but…after all, Elmore Leonard is Elmore Leonard.

   This is the latest story about sharp-shooting U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens. The latest three stories. The first is about a nurse who carves out people’s kidneys, and holds the body part for ransom. The second concerns a ruthless female coal mine executive who handles environmental and community complaints. The third is about a Butler student coed who is a wiz at poker, and beats all the boys at their game. The book’s unity sems to stem from the fact that these three subjects of Raylan’s attention are all women. Smart women. And villainous women in the first two cases.

   What the work does is explore three different backgrounds in three different stories: the medical industry, the coal mining industry, and poker playing. The coal mining company is the main target of Leonard, as he exposes its indifference to both the environmental impact of coal mining and the negative economic effect of lost jobs. Viewed much more favorably is the poker playing industry, since Raylan is intrigued by the utterly frank and self-confident Jackie Nevada.

   Wait, there is also Delroy Lewis, an ex-convict who seeks revenge for being kicked out of a Florida town by Raylan in a previous case. We meet him running a team of three female bank robbers. They have nothing to do with Raylan’s three assignments, except Jackie Nevada is introduced when she is wrongly suspected as one of the three female bank robbers.

   Like any Leonard work, this one keeps moving. But it is as if Leonard no longer finds it easy to stretch out his tale with complexities, whether moral complexities or criminal complexities. So he puts three simpler tales together to produce one book. Which is not uncommon—see Graham Greene—for authors getting on in years and finding their imagination failing.

   What is particular regretful is that Raylan himself has no depth, and is not alive on these pages. He faces no conflicting motives, no moral issues, no capable rival to challenge either his actions or his thinking. He is simply reacting, going through the motions. He is known to be easy-going, but he is too easy-going here, even with some of the bad people. He has no impact on anyone, until he shoots one person at the end.

   Other minor characters pop up for amusing or narrative reasons. They include a black driver, a company yes-man, two bumbling brothers, their old drug baron father, and a millionaire poker fan. Some are killed, and the others flame up and are easily forgotten.

   Of course, Leonard may revert to form in his next work and create interesting and complex situations, but right now I would not be willing to bet on it. Even though I wish it would happen, for he has long created interesting people involved in the complex world of criminal activity. (October 2013)

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)

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)