Friday, June 8, 2012

Bookends: Brian Hall, Peter Cameron, Patrick Rothfuss

It's been a while since I've shared notes on books I've been reading (above and beyond the daily grind of religion-and-culture commentary).  And what I'm about to share may well be a big disappointment, since it's a set of scattered notes--and by no means a full-fleshed commentary--on several novels I've recently read or am now reading, which may or may not pique readers' interest (and which will, I fear, surely irritate almost anyone who reads these notes).  I offer these for what they're worth, as a long early-summer work week rolls to a close:

1. I recently read with great delight Brian Hall's novel about Lewis and Clark and their expedition--I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company (NY: Penguin, 2003).  Hall's premise is that Lewis's suicide several years after his and Clark's exploration of the Northwest had everything to do with unrequited love for Clark, and he makes a very convincing case for that judgment.

But the novel, which is first-rate historical fiction (and even to call it that reduces it in some way: it's first-rate fiction, period), is so much more than that.  I was particularly intrigued by Hall's device of using dialect and first-person narrative to get inside the cultural heads of all of the main characters, including Sacagawea, the French fur traders living among the native peoples of the Northwest, and, of course, Lewis and Clark themselves.

The novel is challenging from the outset, because the moment you start it, you're inside the head of Sacagawea, but if "you" happens to be "me," your own head takes some time to get around the unique way of perceiving the world and the unique cultural assumptions of a Shoshone woman of the early 19th century.  And the journey inside that unique cultural world is not made easier by the fact that you're reading an interior monologue written in a kind of extreme dialect that mimics what we may imagine native people heard, and then voiced back, when they heard European settlers of the continent speaking to them in English and French.  With the whole complex universe of cultural assumptions embedded in the terms "English" and "French" . . . . 

In some respects, what Hall does with these cultural encounters and clashes of language, meaning, and worldviews is not unlike what Brian Friel does in his stellar play Translations, which probes the interchange between native Irish speakers and English surveyors and mapmakers, as the latter "rename" the landscape of Ireland for the Ordnance Survey project.  English words overlap Irish, never quite achieving the same kind of meaning as the words they think, fatuously, they have neatly overlapped.

Reading the sections of I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company written in what I'm calling extreme dialect is, I won't deny, a stretch, and at times, the replication of dialect, of the phonetical transcription of what we imagine Sacagawea hears the Virginians saying, or what we're told rattled through the heads of the French traders in a kind of Frenchified pidgin English, can be downright vexing--as vexing as reading any dialect can be.

But it's worth the stretch.  This novel will change your understanding of early 19th-century American history and the significant interchange of cultures that took place with the Louisiana Purchase, if you stick with it.  And it's worth the entire novel to read Hall's hilarious, right-on-target description of a nigh unto crazy but stunningly brilliant Jefferson gangling about his office fiddling with this or that toy as he commissions Lewis's journey and dreams grand cracked dreams of discovered mastodons and feeds pet mockingbirds with sunflower seeds held in his teeth while the two pore over maps of the imaginary way to the Northwest Passage.

2. I also recently finished Peter Cameron's new novel Coral Glynn (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), and found it a great read--though a tad bit disappointing, for reasons hard to put my finger on.  Cameron deftly combines the novel of manners tradition with the atmospheric Gothic spooky-isolated-country-house tradition employed by writers as diverse as Henry James, the Brontë sisters, and Wilkie Collins.

And who couldn't like Ivy Compton-Burnett meets James, Brontë, and Collins?  But that may be precisely what left me wanting more when I'd read this novel of missed chances, sprung verbal cues leading nowhere due to the characters' maddening determination always to be obtuse about what might produce their happiness, and children's corpses hanging in the dark woods.  Ultimately, Coral Glynn is neither fish nor fowl, and one's appetite for either dish is slightly unsated after one has finished the book--as spry and lively as the conversation is (à la Cameron's previous fine novel Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You).  

And I have to admit, I might have felt entirely different about the book, had I read it on a dark and stormy late-fall night and not a bright and rose-scented late-spring morning.  With atmospheric novels, the atmosphere in which one consumes the the text means everything.

3. And then there's Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind (NY: Daw, 2007).  After I had picked this gargantuan novel up and weighed its heft in my hand several times at a bookstore in Salt Lake City last month, the person staffing the sales desk nicely (and helpfully) told me it was the best book, bar none, that he had read last year.  And so I bought and read it, and was happy the bookstore person had tipped me over the edge of decision, when I was considering adding it to my "to-read" list and might not yet have gotten the book at our local library.

For anyone who loves the Bildungsroman-quest genre with a science fiction twist (see: Ursula K. Le Guin, Earthsea series) and the magicians' tutelage-cum-university-life genre (see: J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter, and Lev Grossman, The Magicians and The Magician King), there's everything to love in Rothfuss's novel.  Of which Name of the Wind is the opening installment of a projected trilogy: I've already begun the second novel, The Wise Man's Fear).  

Magic.  Wandering troupes of singers and performers brutally murdered by cloaked villains sucking the life out of the air around their shrouded incorporeal presences.  Dragons whiffling through the night sky.  Villains galore.  Girls galore, ever demanding rescue.  Gruff, kind-hearted magician mentors and dark, mysterious ones who may eventually reveal themselves to be hidden heroes on whom plots turn.

As I say, there's everything to like about Rothfuss's novels, and yet I find myself quibbling with irritating details that distract me from my enjoyment.  To wit: why, oh why, can younger authors not learn, as everybody and his uncle learned when I was in school, that "lie" is an intransitive verb and "lay" a transitive one--and never the twain shall meet?  Because they have two different functions and are parsed entirely differently?

And why must bread baked in a quasi-medieval fantasy setting incorporate sugar--an ingredient no daily bread worth its salt incorporated in times past, and no daily bread worth its salt incorporates today?  And when did apple juice become cider?  Or the phrase "couple of" become plan "couple"?

I know.  I do know.  I'm a fusty old curmudgeon fighting entirely useless cultural battles about insignificant points of grammar and culinary usage.  Times change.  We change with them or we die.  The world doesn't hinge on how bread is baked or how language is used (and yet it does, does it not, and such minutiae matter ultimately, don't they?).

Still.  If you're going to convince me to suspend disbelief and enter a splendid fantasy world you've worked extremely hard to create for me (and Rothfuss has done this well), please at least try not to bleed my disbelief to death by one tiny cut after another that wrenches me from the quasi-medieval fantasy world you've spun for me back to the sordid world of everyday, A.D. 2012.

And then there's the rather off-putting heterosexism of the novels' protagonist Kvothe and the group he pals around with at university, which I find others noticing in these novels, too (see: Google), and which is so disconcerting to encounter in a literary genre, A.D. 2012, that has done so much for years now to dispel gender bias and hard-and-fast assumptions about sexual orientation (see: Ursula K. Le Guin, Left Hand of Darkness).

And, as you can see and as I warned you in the remarks prefacing these book notes, they are a disappointment and I have undoubtedly profoundly annoyed that same everybody and his uncle who popped up earlier in this wildly patchy and wildly disparate set of notes.  And I promise in conclusion to be less opinionated and kinder to the authors I read (and readers of this blog) in my next set of book notes, when I've finished Geraldine Brooks's latest novel Caleb's Crossing.  Because I have yet to meet a Geraldine Brooks novel that I don't adore.

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