Edward T. Wheeler
Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.
By this author
Emily Dickinson set a high standard for recognizing a great literary work. “I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off.” Something cranial but a bit less drastic occurred to me when reading Irish novelist, Anne Enright’s recent book, The Green Road. My head did not lose its top; rather it seemed to be displaced, removed into a way of thinking different from mine – disconcertingly different. The novel introduces us to the Madigan family, an Irish matriarchy ruled by Rosaleen who responds to the trauma she engenders by resorting, as her son Daniel terms it, to “the horizontal solution.” She takes to her bed, disappears from family life for days, only to explode from her chamber in rages that dwindle to fondling expiation. This tactic develops in multiple ways, appearing in manifestations that challenge her rare set of children. Here is the elder daughter, Constance, now a mother of three, waiting for the results of a mammogram. What mark has maternity left on her?
She was back on the road at Bunratty, cutting thought the field - the impossible ease of it – and she remembered the undoing of her own bones as the children were born. Her pelvis opening – there was pleasure in it, like the top of a yawn – as the baby twisted out of her. It was all so simply done. And the baby was such a force, each time. Donal, with a grumpy look on him, Shauna who came out in a blaze of red hair, and her sweet-natured middle son, Rory, who turned his mother into a bit of dual carriageway herself, at the last with such a bad tear. He took both exits, as she said to Dessie [her husband] at the same time.
The prose mimics the free flow of thought without resorting to stream of consciousness techniques. Enright’s ability to project distinct voices and the habits of mind is enviable.
The novel’s structure is one of chronological growth of the Madigans. We have an opening chapter that introduces the family, and then we follow the lives of Rosaleen and Pat and their children, in discrete chapters, over a period of thirty years. The novel jolts its way to an end with the Madigans various converging on the family home for a last Christmas dinner. Rosaleen, now a widow, intends to sell the site of so many family crises.The children gather with a sense of foreboding: what new confrontations await?
MFA studies at the Iowa Writing Program took Aviya Kushner from the intimate world of her close reading of Hebrew scriptures to a first time encounter of the bible in English translation. Luckily, the dissonance that she encountered, caused by translations, was met with understanding, nay happy encouragement, by her teacher, Marylynne Robinson. Their discussion led Kushner to write The Grammar of God over a period of many years. She shaped the book into a personal account of meeting an interpretive world that had only fleeting resonance with the Hebrew she knew from childhood.
True personality floats beneath surface consciousness, obscured by the fog of dementia or the fog of war. To meet what one is can affirm or destroy. This theme works its way ever so deftly through the parallel developments of two characters in Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations. Anne Quirk resides in a care home on the Scottish cost, west of Glasgow. Luke Campbell, her grandson, soldiers for a Scottish regiment in Afghanistan. Their self-recognition, respectively and jointly, is the climax of the novel’s plot; hence the novel’s title, the grand lighting-up of the English seaside resort of Blackpool.
O’Hagan is a writer of many voices: he impersonates Marilyn Monroe’s dog in his earlier Life and Opinions of Maf, The Dog, and a pederast priest in Be Near Me. [The latter a work of insight and justice.] His third person narrations in The Illuminations offer us the surface life of the failing Anne through fragmented speech in dialogue and in carefully observed gesture or facial movement. In effect, O’Hagan takes on the fears so many of us have – the blank of demented senescence. He offers a conditional hope mediated by great respect. His male protagonist is a soldier, an officer, committed to his men, if not to his mission. Certainly his fractured self is alive in marvelously sustained dialogue, the “slagging” vulgarity which constitutes the verbal shield under which his squad operates amid the ambushes, the haze of marihuana, and the deceits of the Afghan war. The novel alternates its scenes between Lochranza Court, Anne’s care home, and a mountain road in Afghanistan where Luke and his men are in convoy on a so-say humanitarian mission. The venture ends in massacre and disgrace – the ignominious fall of Luke’s mentor, Major Scullion, and Luke’s own disillusionment.
Chautauqua: a paragraph, perhaps a half-page, in my high school US History textbook; or Robert Pirsig’s term to characterize his self-communing in Zen And the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. And then there is The Chautauqua Institution of 2015, a gated village of 750 acres, host to thousands of people – some true Chautauquans - for a nine week summer program organized around weekly themes. History at Chautauqua is structural, certainly architectural: to enter the gates is to go back to the past, visually and communally. On brief inspection, one concludes that the average age of the participants stretches back more than two generations. This is a “senior world” (I include myself.), although there is no lack of families with children.
Well over a hundred years ago, Chautauqua began as a summer retreat for Sunday School teachers. It has transformed itself and its lake shore over the years. The major Christian denominations still have their residence houses, but one could almost be unaware of the thoroughly religious foundations of Chautauqua. There is, of course, morning worship services in the amphitheater, and the Department of Religion sponsors the major afternoon lectures, an Inter-Faith program. No one at Chautauqua balks at religious sentiments; and the politics are left of center, socially progressive. As for ecumenism: there are regular Catholic services and a Jewish center, offering a wide range of religious and cultural programs.
The entry way to Chautauqua looks something like the toll both approach to a turnpike: busy, crowded with cars, and confusing: We were part of a tour and had to claim our entry passes amid a crush of people at the ticket office, but once we found ourselves inside the fenced acres, we drove hesitantly down very narrow, tree shaded streets, passing wood frame houses, Victorian in look and, in some cases, in origin. The road sloped down to the shore of the lake, to the grand Athenaeum Hotel, a Victorian wooden hostelry that recalls Dickens’ depictions of hotels in Martin Chezzulewit. The density of the housing, the lushness of the gardens that encroach on to the streets, and contrasts of shade and light on the frame houses work a transformation, as does the omphalos – the Amphitheater – spreading its bowl-like shape to focus on a stage platform, roofed above but open at its sides to the winds.
The fiction of the Norwegian writer, Per Petterson, particularly his Out Stealing Horses, published almost a decade ago, has received general critical acclaim. Character, setting, mood and landscape open up a world familiar and strange. When I read him, I find a singular point of view, a consciousness shaped in a world in extremis – and all the more dramatically powerful for that.
The phrase, “I refuse” occurs three times by my count in Petterson’s new novel of the same name. It is spoken as an encouraging assertion of life over death – as in “I refuse to die.” So Tommy, one of the chief characters, to his mortally sick, adoptive father Jonsen – who dies soon after. It is also a denial of family or marital obligation. Tommy refuses to bear responsibility for his aged, abusive, real father; and a waitress, Berit, refuses to wear her wedding ring, despite her husband’s demands, to free herself for an assignation with Tommy. Refusing becomes a form of independence, an assertion of the self, against the constraints of family ties, vows, or the menace of death. In their contexts, the refusals seem desperate, and ultimately unfulfilling. The sources or motivation for the decisions “to refuse” lie unexplored, rather stated as facts. The Norwegian world of Per Petterson is not simply physically chilling, but deeply emotionally so.
This is a complex and teasing narrative, built around sharp disjunctures in time sequence and narrative voice. First person accounts by the two principals, Tommy and Jim, extremely close boyhood friends, reveal their chance meeting at the very beginning of the novel. They have not seen each other for over thirty-five years. There are third person accounts of the events that caused the break in their friendship and reveal how Tommy’s mother disappeared and how he came to be raised by Jonsen. Siri, Tommy’s sister, recounts her brief romance with Jim, and his painful, inexplicable rejection of her.
The plot, if plot there is, takes its energy from the first, chance meeting, and through time shifts, alternation of voices, works its way to the frustration of any future meeting, and suggests the major theme of the novel – the isolation of each of us, and the corresponding inability to know the other person. Deeper still, Jim, whose adolescent ability in school, and his blond good looks, appear to set him apart and give him the advantage over his rough and unpredictable friend Tommy, suffers deep emotional depression, and scarcely survives a suicide attempt.
One typical Petterson scene points both to the inscrutability of motive and the lingering effects of guilt.
Preparation for the Next Life, Atticus Lish’s extraordinary novel seems material for the perfect melodrama: a vet returned from the horrors of war, Byronic wounds setting him apart; the plucky immigrant woman, a survivor, canny and intent on saving the wounded hero. The backdrop: New York City where anything is possible. Given the pretext of the work, a reader can’t help but wonder if the love affair can not generate the compassion to redeem the soldier and make real the dream of the woman? Lish’s world is not that of melodrama: he subverts the expectation through unsparing realism. In the process, his vision leaves desiccated flabby assumptions about PTSD and the underworld of illegal aliens. Love simply is not enough to buoy the pair above the wash of the City’s violence and exploitation.
The novel has had high praise in many reviews, principally for Lish’s ability to create dialogue, or perhaps more accurately, the speech, demotic, of the outer boroughs of the City. The progress of the plot is almost cinematic – by way of montage, scene juxtaposed on scene. The abrupt changes of place and character create a sense of energy, almost manic energy, particularly in so far as Skinner (the Iraqi vet) and Zou Lei (the part-Uighur, part Chinese illegal) share an obsession with physical training. They literally pursue each other in sweat drenched, convulsive runs – or rival each other in squats and lifts.
In remarkable explorations Lish takes us into the shadow economy of undocumented immigrants – the punishing work in over-hot kitchens, or clattering rag-trade sweat shops. Skinner’s altercation with the son of his landlady puts him in the holding cells of a local precinct, and Lish manages to channel in rapid fire speech all the riot, aggression, taunting and fear of the men jailed. He has the same ability to convince that he knows the many different Chinese dialects and the Pidgin English that serves as common speech as well as the clannish tensions that push Zou Lei down the pecking order of kitchen hierarchies.
John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness asserts through its title that we will be confronted with a story of one isolated or excluded. The history is a confession, addressed to readers as “you” and by extension the history is a testimony. The narrator, Father Odran Yates, is a witness to the transformation of the Irish Catholic church – particularly to the esteem accorded priests and the institution of the church by lay people. At the end of his priestly career, Father Yates finds himself disillusioned and alone – divided in his self-condemnation and his remaining faith in his vocation and the church.
One would expect a hostile review of forty years of recent Irish Catholic history from a John Boyne who said in an interview: “my priests and educators made me feel worthless, and disparaged and humiliated me at every turn.” Indeed the author is gay, and records callous beatings and harsh spiritual strictures leading to extensive bouts of depression. His subject in the novel is the pedophile scandal that scarred so many boys and adolescents and which was willfully hidden, despite the risks to so many young people. The salvific aspect of the novel is that his narrator is a good priest, one who recognizes the strength of his own vocation, and in so far as he trusted the hierarchy which he obeyed he fell into the sin of omission. He refused in an unsettling denial to suspect those closest to him of “interfering” with children.
I use the word “salvific” carefully: the novel should be read as way to a just response to the great crimes of abuse. Boyne’s handling of Father Yates’s voice is the central achievement. The viewpoint is one of hindsight; the revelations of duplicity and complicity in suppressing the predatory treatment of children isolates Yates. He seems, in self-accusation, to lose affect, to view his ministry as one lived by false surmise – about the integrity of his superiors, the honesty of his fellow priests. The narrative tone resonates with the “loneliness” of the title; indeed, Yates might feel as if he alone did not see what was going on around him, particularly in the life of his oldest friend and fellow priest Tom Cardle.
I found myself disagreeing with Paul Johnston’s review (3/6/15) of In Paradise, Peter Matthiessen’s last novel. I fear that his sober, almost disappointed judgment, putting stress on the author’s failure to engage the Shoah with sufficient spiritual vision, will put readers off. Johnston asks for a novel that “requires us to remember – to insist- that the world is God’s creation and not our own, and that all people, including those unlike ourselves, are created in the image of God.” One can scarcely disagree with such a belief in the Incarnation, but Johnston is really posing a broader question: can literature, fiction, say anything adequate about the Holocaust? He raises a standard that is exclusive, and I would hold absolute in a way the hedges out the imagination. In the course of the review, I find that Johnston’s shows his own hesitation at the conclusion he reaches. While he admits Matthiessen achieves partial success, he notes that Matthiessen’s Buddhism keeps his vision from transcendence. As if looking back over his shoulder, Johnston can’t help but admire that struggle that is this artistic grappling with the past. The failure of the novel is what it says or doesn’t say to us and to those in the future.
In Paradise takes us to an interfaith retreat at Auschwitz fifty years after the liberation of the camp. The participants are Buddhists, Jews, Christians, atheists, relatives of former Nazi guards, local Polish residents, and Clements Olin, a Polish American academic with family roots in Oswiecim, a town near the camp. Olin is the center of consciousness, ostensibly doing research on a Holocaust survivor, Tadeusz Borowski, and author of This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. He is also attempting to discover his own family history, especially the facts surrounding his birth and sudden removal to the USA. The novel explores the holocaust through Olin’s interactions with the other participants and those residents of the Polish village of his birth. The plot structure allows Matthiessen to provide a chorus of voices, some pious, others abrasive, some accusatory, and other proprietary. In sum, the characters grope in speech to confront the events that took place around them fifty years before. The weight of genocide burdens those in silent vigil upon the entry ramps. Their evening statements of witness after long reflection in silence find not consensus but divisiveness, and provide real opportunities for the novelist’s characterization.
Ambiguity in response to a novel rests with judgments that test values - literary, stylistic and ethical. I read Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize winning Narrow Road to the Deep North ready to turn away from the page at the shock of his recreation of a WWII Japanese work camp in Burma; but I could not deny the power of the writing. The novel might cover the same territory as the Bridge on the River Kwai, but Flanagan’s account makes tactile the foul degradation and suffering. His characterization takes us into the minds of the Australian prisoners and their Japanese captors, in particular that of the officer Doctor Dorrigo Evans, the Aussie chief, and his counterpart, Captain Nakamura. On the one hand, the novel offers us the mentality of the Captain who can justify working men to death even as he demands they be beaten to insure their compliance; and on the other hand, the mentality of his opponent who encounters such treatment and yet does not collapse, rather finds the strength to accept cruelty, resist with caution, and remain generous. Such focus has little by way of sentimentality. The extremity of the situation is evoked in measured, unadorned prose. Flanagan gives us two men who reveal themselves in acts of self-justification. Each asks: am I a good man? Their answers lay out a moral spread that stretches from assurance to distrust. If a claim can be made for the novel’s stature, it is in its willingness to entertain such moral contrasts. This is fiction that takes us into dark places.
The vivid expression “earworm” suggests a voice, perhaps a song, or some phrase or fragment, that plays unwanted in a continuous mental loop. Subliminal sometimes it may be, but persistent, even distracting, as we might wish to concentrate all our attention on a problem or text. I think that times of stress brings the voice on. I have heard inside my head my voice audibly repeating the short prayers that the nuns in grade school would unselfconsciously tell us were "ejaculations." Those moments when anxiety threatens to screech its nails down fearful chalk boards – then I am likely to repeat as litany Domine adjuvanda me festina.
I have lately been reading through three of Philip Roth’s novels from the eighties and nineties, The Counterlife, American Pastoral, and I Married a Communist. Each has its striking virtuosity of voice and of perception. The energy of the prose and dynamism of the plotting and the voices (heteroglossia of the first order) can sweep a reader along. I had to stop, however, over a passage near the conclusion of I Married a Communist. The chief narrator Murray records experiencing an ear-worm like obsession in a moment of great anxiety. Murray has just left his brother Ira in his rustic shack in Pennsylvania. Ira is despondent, angry, homicidal. Murray knows how violent Ira can be, and he fears that his brother will soon attempt to kill his estranged wife. On the drive back to his home, unconvinced that he has dissuaded his brother despite taking his knives and pistol, Murray recounts his inner turmoil. He maintains his stability, more or less, by repeating a quotation from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. They are Feste’s words at the conclusion of the play: “And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.” Now you must know that Murray is an English teacher and an acutely sensitive reader. He is relating this experience to Nathan Zuckerman, his former student and now an accomplished novelist. Murray considers what his mind was doing with Feste’s words.