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
I reckon we all lay great store in compelling fictional voices. Coleridge summons this up in his Ancient Mariner who fixes the Wedding Guest with his glittering eye . . . He cannot choose but hear. The artistry of great story tellers lies in their ability to establish not simply a credible voice, but one which, for want of a better word, enchants. The commonplace (after Hemingway) is that Mark Twain in Huck Finn offered a paradigmatic American voice, ingenuous, colloquial, and convincing. Twain gives us something authentic: mimetic, unique, and yet representative.
I suspect that each of us wishes to pick up a book without being overly prejudiced one way or another about its worth. True, there is little hope of approaching a favorite author without positive expectations. A Booker prize winner is likely to have the same effect. But what happens when an author who is both a favorite and a prize winner publishes a work that you know has been negatively received by critics you admire? How do you give that book a fair reading? Ian McEwans latest novel, Sweet Tooth, has provoked mixed reactions.
I found myself a few weeks ago recounting a bit of family history to a friend. I tried to give a sense of the four sisters and one brother (along with estranged mother and father) who arrived in New York in the 1890s from Germany. My grandmother and great aunts and uncle, especially to the eyes of a child, were strange and awkward beings, living in an American world never really far from the Old Country, at least in their reminiscences.
I dont want to beat it and I dont want to leave him here alone, and so I quickly do the only thing I can think of and put my arms around him, pull him close to me and hold him tight. Very tight. . . . Arvid loves his father. It has never occurred to me. . . I dont know if I dare let him go. If I do, I will feel naked and cold and lost in this world.
I listen to audio books daily. I find them, in part, a type of ear-blinker, a vocal filter for the noise about. They (almost) replace (almost all of the time) the voice of the monologist inside my head but inadvertence, a disturbance like a falling leaf or an acorn dropping on my shoulder, can muffle the sound track and cause me to try to walk in reverse, as if to play back the narration I have missed. Yes, I listen while I walk: exercise and diversion, along back roads in the tangles of suburbia. I can associate fiddle head fern with Anna Kareninas leap into oblivion.
Condition of England novels were a recognized genre in mid-nineteenth century Britain. Works such as Hard Times captured the social tensions of the country, sampling the spectrum of class, industry, education and mores. The subtitle of Martin Amiss Lionel Asbo, is tellingly, State of England. Amis presents the novel in the tradition of Dickens, Gaskell and Disraeli. The title character, the monstrous Lionel Asbo, appears in hyperbolic form as the state of English society and culture.
When a book advertises itself as a police procedural and a psychological thriller, you can assume that you will be taken, step by step, through an investigation of a crime and an exploration of a criminal mind. Who-done-it? is not displaced by aberrant psychology, but the latter often provides a focus for analysis, sometimes ghoulish. The novelist can give access to the psychology of the criminal in many ways: revelation by the unnamed perpetrator interleaved in the narrative, a series of letters, diary entries, or direct interior monologue.
One might quip that A Hologram for the King is a state of the States novel except for the fact that it is set in Saudi Arabia and in the mind of the books protagonist, Alan Clay. David Eggers new novel, has a thematic force that places Clay between Willie Loman and Vladimir and Estragon. He has all of the failed salesmans dogged pursuit of success and the two clowns deferred expectation.
Philip Carey is so prolific and assured a writer that any new work of his must be a source of happy expectation. His latest novel, The Chemistry of Tears, does not disappoint. As he did in his early Oscar and Lucinda, Carey recreates Victorian times and shows himself effortlessly at ease with that world and with an eye focused on outsized characters and situations. But this is also a contemporary novel, one that works by parallels.
The book jacket of the recently reissued, Crusoes Daughter, asserts that the author Jane Gardam is the best British novelist you never heard of. This is a fair comment in that Gardam has published eighteen works of fiction (and three childrens books) to critical acclaim, but she has a small following in this country. The question should be not why so many American readers have missed her but rather what have they missed. Much, clearly. Gardams works stand quite happily next to those of her rough contemporaries, Penelope Fitzgerald and Beryl Bainbridge.