Book Reviews

 
from Winter 2005 [Issue No. 5]

▪►Archived Reviews from 2004 [PDF]

▪►In This Issue

An Evening of Long Goodbyes, by Paul Murray ▪► Benjamin Chambers

The Eternal Quest, by Julian Branston ▪► Brett Alan Sanders


An Evening of Long Goodbyes ▪► Paul Murray

 Random House, August 2004

A debut novel by a young Irish author (the guy isn’t yet 30), An Evening of Long Goodbyes is a wonderful book. The critics have been appreciative, but in general, reviewers have misread it. I’m not talking about people working for neighborhood newspapers, either: I’m talking about people who should know better, getting it all wrong in places like The New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. All I’ve got to say is, "For shame!" (Well, it’s not all I’ve got to say, actually. One or two other points, fortunately for you, do occur to me.)

Summarizing any book worth reading inevitably does it damage, but the summary’s important in this case: Charles Hythloday is a rich young wastrel who spends his days mooning about his nearly-empty mansion, drinking and watching old movies. He lives there with his sister Christabel (Bel for short), their father recently dead and their mother off getting treatment for alcoholism. He has no ambitions except to live well and to meddle in his sister’s romances – for, although he would never admit it, she’s the great love of his life. His general cluelessness about life forces him from his beloved mansion and into a blue collar job in a bread factory (a transition he manages without aplomb), until, with great good luck and the indulgence of his enemies, he forces a climactic confrontation that … well, doesn’t exactly get him what he wants.

Now. This plot summary will inevitably remind you of works by other writers. Let’s try a recap, and see who comes to mind: the small family in a gloomy, untended house; the dead father who committed a mysterious crime witnessed by his daughter, Bel; the alcoholic mother; and an incestuous love between Charles and Bel. Gosh … does Tennessee Williams ring a bell?

Not that the book reads like a southern Gothic. But let’s try it from a different angle: the book’s tone blends farce almost imperceptibly with sadness; and at one point in the book, Charles bets his future at the dog track. Sound familiar? If you guessed J.P. Donleavy’s The Delightful Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman, you’d win the prize. (None of the bigshots seem to have noticed how much Murray owes Donleavy.)

Spin the bottle again, and you get: rich young wastrel, heavy drinker, does nothing, cloth-headed, he refers often to escapades with his friend Pongo McGurks and narrow escapes from policemen and cricket teams … Remind you of anyone? Okay, so that was a softball. In fact, it’s so obvious, that no one reviewing Goodbyes seems able to get beyond it. Publisher’s Weekly sums up the novel this way: "If Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster were plopped into the 21st century, his adventures might resemble those of Charles Hythloday, the buffoonish hero of Murray's insouciant romp, shortlisted for the Whitbread." Time Out (London) says, "The plot scuttles along with Wodehouse-like delirium. . . . Murray’s clearly having fun, but beneath the bouncy tone he manages to weave real depth into the characters’ relationships."

And let’s give some credit to old Time Out here – at least they see that Charles Hythloday ain’t Bertie Wooster. Yes, Charles can be a fathead, much like Wooster. In fact, sometimes he’s too dense to be credible. But check out this passage, and see if you have the nerve to tell me it sounds like Wooster:

"Most of the time I’d sit up in Bel’s bedroom and flick through her yearbooks, or old photographs predating her ban [on photographs of herself]. In one of them she sat with her arms thrown around the anonymous dog, as if pleading, on its behalf, for mercy; and I wondered if she’d never let go of that childhood idea of the world as a place where nothing could be held on to, where every step was on thin ice, where every sunset might be the last; if we’d never managed to convince her otherwise. Sitting there in an aureole of pale November sunshine, I’d look around the room as if seeing it for the first time, as every surface – the rosewood doors of the wardrobe, the ruched velvet of the curtains, the satin sheen of a half dozen formal dresses – became a tableau on which her image appeared and fled from just as my eye lit on it, dancing capriciously from point to point until I was too dizzy and tired to chase it anymore and I laid my head down on the pillow, with the sunshine like a friendly palm on my cheek, and the smell of her so close; and then I would smile, for how silly it seemed, here among her warm sheets, that she could be gone, how like a storybook with the wrong ending …

… Until one day I went in, and the things had gone back to being merely things. It was as if overnight some spirit had left them; I found myself in a roomful of anonymous objects, a rabble of wood and plastic that no longer had anything to do with anything, waiting to be gone through and put in boxes, or thrown away. That was when I realized I had to go."

If Bertie Wooster had it in him to write a passage like that, you can chase my Aunt Fanny up a gum tree. You want more proof? Okay. Charles is obsessed with the films of 1940s star Gene Tierney, whose life and career he relates sporadically throughout the book – a life story that is largely about decline, madness, and failure. At one point, he glosses her films like so:

People falling for ghosts, people falling for paintings, in more and more of her movies I found this secret tendency elaborated: a tendency for the movies to create spaces for her within them, interstitial spaces of one kind or another – as if, although she couldn’t make the movie hers, she had elicited a secret pact whereby she could escape into them and exist away from life, untouchably, as an image; as if in here, after all, she found her true domain: the illusory, the shadowy, the in-between …

If Bertie Wooster could do that – hell, if P.G. Wodehouse could have constructed that paragraph -- I’d eat my hat.

Still not convinced? (Admit it: you always were stubborn.) Mirela is a refugee from the war in the Balkans. She is a calculating manipulator who betrays Charles’ sister and several others. Despite all that, she manages to seduce Charles with a new trick: being honest. She tells him her life story, confesses that before the war, she had her own life, a lover, and that she lived honestly, without subterfuge. Then the war took it all away from her. Now she is in survival mode.

"I’m saying that this is what it’s like, when every man you kiss thinks he’s unearthed you, and everyone has a role for you to play, the brave little refugee, the obedient daughter, the foreign girl with loose morals .." Her hand made a quick mechanical gesture. "You do what you can with that. You can’t stop life from happening, can you? You don’t get to choose what parts you get. So you take your opportunities. You use the means available to you. Your life becomes something that takes you further and further away from yourself. It sounds cynical, I know. It is cynical."

He is touched by her vulnerability and mistakes her advances for tenderness. They make love; afterward, she briskly prepares to leave his bed for the man she plans to marry in exchange for British citizenship. When he protests, hurt, she is exasperated. After all, she’d explained it all to him beforehand. "None of this matters to me. Not you, not your sister, not the house you grew up in. I’ll act in the theater. I’ll go on the billboards if they want me to. I’ll try hard to be a success. But none of it means anything to me. I look at the people around me and all I see are the little cardboard counters in a board game." 

Her coldness and nihilism are reminiscent of Svidrigailov’s famous comment to Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, when he says, "We always imagine eternity as something beyond our conception, something vast, vast! But why must it be vast! Instead of all that, what if it's one little room, like a bath house in the country, black and grimy and spiders in every corner, and that's all eternity is?" Obviously, no wannabe Wodehouse is going to court that comparison.

It’s not that there’s no farce and fun in An Evening of Long Goodbyes – there’s plenty. The tone is often jaunty and the plot points are often absurd. There’s the last-ditch attempt to save the day by betting on a dog-race (albeit one in which the underdog is nearly disembowelled, viciously and pitilessly, by the odds-on favorite); there’s the postman, MacGillycuddy, who steams open everyone’s mail and sells his services as a private investigator (the All-Seeing Eye); there’s Charles’ plan to fake his own death and retire to Chile on the insurance money; there’s a dream sequence with W.B. Yeats; and several socially serious plays that are hilariously bad … But that’s no reason to assume that Murray’s trying to update Wodehouse. In fact, in my view, Murray doesn’t do farce particularly well – he lacks the over-the-top instincts of a J.P. Donleavy – instead, he holds back, not wanting to stretch our credulity too much or discredit his characters; so even the novel’s most antic passages are shot through with melancholy. Rather than limit himself to farce, he boldly displays literary influences that are varied, disparate, and self-evident. So why is it so hard for critics to take his novel on its own terms?

Stephen Amidon, writing in The New York Times, complained about those stretches of the book when Charles is away from Amaurot, the family home. "Only when Charles straggles home, considerably worse for wear, does the author regain his deft touch." What’s Amidon’s problem? Yes, it’s unlikely that Charles would so easily fit into the world of Frank, his sister’s uncultured, working-class boyfriend. But Murray’s language and plot remain as deft as ever – it’s just not lifted from Wodehouse.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s reviewer was irritated for much the same reason as Amidon: "Unfortunately, the novel comes to a satisfying conclusion about a third of the way through the book, while the rest seems as if the author is straining to stretch a brisk, wickedly pleasurable social satire onto a larger canvas. As a result, the self-absorbed, comically obtuse character of Charles grows increasingly tiresome over the course of several red herring climaxes before he is allowed entree into the ‘real world,’ here represented by the working class."

It’s as if these critics want Wodehouse so badly that they blame Murray for not delivering, even though it’s not Murray’s intention to imitate him. And for those who think Goodbyes is just "brisk social satire," or that its foray into Ireland’s working and unemployed classes is irrelevant – or at best a symbolic representation of the "real world" -- I’ve got two words: it ain’t. Didn’t you read the damn book?

Murray’s strength is melancholy. His imagery is never stronger, or more affecting, than when he’s on the topic. And its ubiquity in the novel isn’t lack of control over his material, but the very point: his theme is how people deal with loss. How they ignore it (Charles), drink it away (his mother), struggle with it (Bel), endure it (Frank, Bel’s working-class lover), write about it (Yeats), suffer for it (Gene Tierney), or lose one’s humanity to it (Mirela). This book is emphatically not about a group of rich upper-class boobs in a romantic farce, and its catalog of the varieties of human misery – distorted as it is by Charles’ blithe refusal to see what’s in front of him -- is not accidental, sloppy, or a strained attempt to critique western capitalism. Murray tries to cover a "larger canvas" because his book is larger. I now call to the witness stand Bel’s valedictory words to Charles:

"Because what you have to remember, if there’s one thing, it’s that everybody’s human, that’s the first thing they are, whether they’re beautiful or not, or rich or poor, or actresses from the 1940s or Frank … They’re all humans, the first thing they are is human, do you see? Do you see, Charles?"

Taken out of context, that quote seems too naked, too obvious. But it’s Murray’s strength that in context, these words are perfectly consonant with the moment, and what we know of Bel. Still, it’s here that Murray’s true ambition appears – he’s reading us the lesson that Charles learns, at least partly; the lesson that is reiterated, over and over, throughout the book’s many plot turns, climaxes, disasters, and jokes. (Perhaps Murray’s problem is that he’s too graceful at integrating these concerns into the text. I would’ve expected experienced readers to figure out that this paragraph was It, the Kernel of Meaning at the heart of the book. But no.)

The duality at the heart of the book – the protected, idyllic world in which Charles tries to live vs. the harsh banality and cruelty of the "real world" – is reflected in the book’s endings. Yup, there are two: one is upbeat, the ending best characterized by a rueful smile; the other is much sadder. Charles, typically in denial, chooses the happy one.

"You can take the alternative if you want, with the endless dreams of seaweed-braided arms, the countless glimpses of her in clouds, billboards, the faces of strangers. But this one is the version I prefer: the one where she lies awake at night, drawing up her plans; where she is set free from her life, from her unspellable name, and spirited away; in the MacGillycuddian universe, where people disappear only to resurface elsewhere, with French accents and false mustaches, where everything is constantly changing and nobody ever dies."

Charles is an untrustworthy narrator of the highest order; Murray is an artist of vast ability and stunning potential. He’s the real thing, and if we live in a world that is even partly just, his first novel will transcend the misapprehensions that surround it and his Goodbye will be only the first of many more.

-Benjamin Chambers


The Eternal Quest ▪► Julian Branston

London: Sceptre, 2003

Published in the United States as Tilting at Windmills: a Novel of Cervantes and the Errant Knight, due out from Shaye Areheart Books (or Random House - sources are contradictory) in February 2005

 

The central conceit of this book is the imagined encounter between Miguel Cervantes and a "real" madman, who is a sympathetic reflection of his fictional Don Quixote. Confronted with this Old Knight (Lancelot incarnate, he claims), Cervantes is also confronted with a question – quixotic to the core, a Cervantine riddle of chicken and egg: does nature imitate art, or art nature? Either way (and why choose?), the story's great strength lies in the human pathos of that encounter: a poignant, psychologically credible affection that grows up between astonished Author and Old Knight; their intersection enriches art and nature both.

The circumstance that brings Cervantes and Old Knight together in the flesh, outside of the original book, is this: the adventures of knight and squire, authored by Cervantes, have begun to make their rounds in serial form. The popular response is vast (silly maids found giggling in closets; grown men slapping their heads and laughing aloud as they walk down the street). Cervantes, excited by such a reception, is hurriedly working on the conclusion of his first book. Pedro, an amiable trader (Sancho's counterpart, clearly enough), encounters the Old Knight and unwittingly brings him and Cervantes into each other's acquaintance. The result is The Eternal Quest, which Cervantes kicks off by introducing the "new author" Branston, who is called to bring new clarity to the importance of Cervantes' literary creation: "Therefore the birth, progress, and resolution of the adventures contained in the following pages have my blessing but not my hand."

A central thread of the narrative is the jealous plotting of a rather bad and forgettable poet named Ongora (one wonders if this is a gibe at the Golden-Age Spanish poet Góngora, who was certainly neither so bad nor so forgettable). Ongora is positively rabid for the noble Cervantes' destruction. His conspiring turns the beautiful and embittered Duchess (whose husband, a soldier, was killed in one of the King's wars) against the gentleman author and ex-soldier Cervantes, whose book seems to mock her own sorrow. Eventually there ensues what the ironist Branston calls "the shortest love-affair in the world" – perhaps also the sweetest. It is in the context of this intrigue that Branston's Cervantes marvels that his simple comedy has attracted so much enmity (as the real Cervantes undoubtedly wondered at the venom of his imitator-slanderer Avellaneda). Yet there is nothing he can do about it: "the characters of his story," Branston comments, "were a genial reminder of the folly of all humanity, written with a divine spirit that he could not deny, and it would be foolish to try."

At the heart of this new interpretation of the Quixotic spirit is what Mark Van Doren might call the quest for one's true profession. For Branston's Cervantes, this is partially conveyed by his statement that "all [he needs] is the patience to endure the dictation of God, and [he prays] that there is time to fulfill the roundness of this work." Branston defines this more sharply in the plight of the Old Knight, who is thrown into an insane asylum before escaping, to our ultimate delight, for the purpose of chasing his destiny:

It was in his cell that he encountered the deeper and more troubling aspects of his – and perhaps anyone's – nature. He found himself scattered, like a mystic archipelago, with outflung islands and rocks of a previous unity, and the new ocean of an unfathomed and unrealised identity. He found that he was not himself many times over. And so, he required even more urgently a mission to consolidate, at last, who he would eventually be.

Later, reiterating this notion, the Old Knight (and future Lancelot) says to his warden, "If you mean that the state of madness is nothing more than the soul's objections to the sins of the body, then that is exactly how I perceive it. And to resolve the course of my life to an honourable end, I shall make a Quest for the Holy Grail."

But it is another statement of the Old Knight's, as he chats much later with a sympathetic Cervantes, that most brilliantly elaborates the search for his true profession, which is at heart a search for his true identity:

"I must tell you that I am, or was, or perhaps will be Sir Lancelot. Although I am far from convinced of this identity, as it is clear to me – as much as anything can be – that a name or a title is a temporary solution to the question of one's being." He stopped and looked at Cervantes fully. "It seems to me folly to try and place a name on the universe that exists within each of us."

Aside from all of this, Branston’s imitation of Quixote has the ultimate grace to echo, with fitting humor and charm, the linguistic playfulness of the original. Not only in terms of the metafictional overlay of a new narrative voice -- with a new author (like the old one) looking over his own and his predecessors' shoulders (Branston mirrors the real Cervantes' singular invention, the wise Moorish historian Cide Hamete Benengeli)-- but down to the smallest details.

There is the almost constant punning and word play, for instance. In an early scene, when the Old Knight encounters his demon, that demon speaks of "the infernal lowerarchies" and of the "fiend-ship" between them. Later, suffering his own derangement, the Old Knight speaks of another's "de-arrangement". Yet later, in a fit of mocking hilarity, an incidental character suggests to Pedro that his "business acquaintance the author" consider building a new town for his literary creations to inhabit should any more of them come to life; and another that they call it "Imaginopolis". These are just a few of any number of examples – and not necessarily the best.

If in the original we have Sancho's endless proverbs, in the imitation we have others no less charming, from Pedro: "Well, if you ask me outright, said the thief to the judge, instead of clapping me in jail, then I would have told you I was guilty"; "Now to complain when things are going so well is like throwing good fruit after bad, said the actor to the audience"; "Well, and as my old mamma used to say ... God created a busy world to keep himself out of mischief. And if he did not create a lot of busybodies like yourself who wish to comprehend him totally, then how would he have any holidays?" These examples alone come in almost a single breath.

Finally, what more can one ask than a display of the art of the florid insult, legacy of Cervantes as surely as of Shakespeare? Consider this, from the Old Knight:

"Come out from your dark and dangerous walls, O you scribbler of dread and evil verses. It is I, Sir Lancelot ... who has come to shake the devil by the ears! Rouse yourself from your sty, you stinking guillemot, for your neck shall meet my sword this very day! Ho within! Rouse your dark carcass, thou evil and besmirched buffoon!"

And there is also this charming little bit from the assassin that the evil poet Ongora is about to hire to take out Cervantes: "Shit in my shoes and I'll piss in your hat! ... Come with gold and I'll buy what I wish, and a conscience shall be the last thing! Now, you cursed, mangy, rotted maggot turd, deliver me your business, or I shall fillet you as you stand!"

This linguistic fidelity may in fact be Branston's most subtle homage to Cervantes' genius, which is so often overshadowed by the overwhelming popularity of his alter ego, Don Quixote. But the parallels don't end there. As with the original Quixote, Branston's Quest displays profound insight into human character -- the supremely tolerant, humane wisdom that sustains the vision.

-Brett Alan Sanders

 

 


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