Saturday, October 25, 2003
The hectic travel of the fall has been good for getting some reading done. I have most recently been reading current or recent books (even as Russell's History of Western Philosophy glowers from the nightstand). There is a reductive school of the novel which constrains the proper form of the novel into one thing: a cleanly written and carefully observed study of realistic characters interacting and, through that interaction, developing, learning, and changing, hopefully for the better. I do not mean to be reductive about this type of novel--there are many excellent novels that fit this description, but they are not the only fruit. And, somewhat oddly, I think, a significant amount of criticism is leveled at books that are ambitious to depart from this model. Novels that are wholly fantastical, or allegorical, or are stylistic experiments, can sometimes be judged on their own terms, but those that present the semblance of obeying these conventions and then depart seem to be regarded with suspicion. I think of books like The Dive from Clausen's Pier or The Hazards of Good Breeding as good examples of successful character-driven novels, or Wallace Stegner, or Penelope Fitzgerald. And successful non-character driven novels--the titanic modernists--Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury, or Italo Calvino, or Saramago or Jeanette Winterson--forge their own space. Their success is in using something outside of character dynamics to illuminate fundamental human truths--they find a different way of telling the truth.

So recently I have been reading (not intentionally as a type), character-plus novels--largely character driven, closely observed, but with some additional element that is pulling against the realistic frame. They are both best-sellers, so they are hardly experimental or difficult, and neither has been pummeled for this shiftiness at the edges.

For Peace like a River by Leif Enger, (3 stars) the outside element is the straightforward presentation of miracles as real events offered without apology as events in the narrative like others. It helps, of course, that the writing itself is excellent--clear and sustained and evocative; the characters tangible and coherent, the plot peculiar in a realistic way and the whole thing sweeping briskly along. I don't mean to damn it with faint praise at all--it is an excellent book and I enjoyed reading it, and would certainly feel comfortable recommending it, but it was not astonishing, and I think more and more that I am craving astonishment from my reading--the books that yank you around and shove your face into the world and hold your eyes open to it. I'm not sure character-driven books will ever achieve this for me--as I read them I feel the frame around them and some part of me ceases to pay attention--maybe there is something in the ambition of it, or something in my own internal over-intellectualized prattling that holds me back from being moved by these types of books. It seems, somehow, like a different kind of reading, moving out on the spectrum towards reading to be entertained--in the direction of mysteries, or thrillers. Even the ones I really like (and I like the ones all mentioned above), I like in this more limited way--as good for this type of book, and I think Enger's book, for all of its accomplishment, does not reach escape velocity.

The second book, Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, is a different case for two reasons. First, it is less realistic--haddon's presentation of the rigidly logical perspective of an autistic boy is further removed from the realistic than Enger's. Second, as the parent of an autistic child, I have more personally at stake in the realism that he is pursuing through his experiment in voice and perspective. I think Haddon is quite successful at rendering this world not just coherent (which is not trifling), but charming, and sympathetic in its coherence--connecting enough to our own structures of order and our own reactions to bring it to life. And, perhaps best, his is able to use the flatness of the narrator's tone within a set of highly unusual observations and decisions to create striking warmth and emotional struggle. As with anything trying something this hard, there are a few clangers, but they slip past without jarring. It is, overall, a slight book, but with real force and unexpected power in it. 3.5 stars


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