Today is

   "A word to the wise ain't necessary --  
          it's the stupid ones that need the advice."
					-Bill Cosby

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Cheery reading for the New Year, or I read depressing books so you don't have to ...

I've read two books about grief and death since Christmas -- one, a gift from Scotty and Wonderdog (thanks, guys), was Booker prize winning novel The Sea, by John Banville, and the other was Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.

The Sea really bugged me. I've never read another John Banville novel, so I don't know whether this one is typical of his writing in general, but nothing irritates me more these days than a writer who has considerable gifts at his command who writes novels that function as elegant window displays for the considerable gifts at his command. The plot of the book, such as it is, finds middle-aged Max Morden retiring to a rented house by the sea, near the "chalets" where he spent his boyhood summers, to mourn his wife's death and think about the past. The first person account intercuts Max's memories of his wife's final months with his memories of a "significant" summer he spent by the sea, during which he became fascinated with the Graces, a family a rung or two higher on the social ladder than Max himself. I put "significant" in quotation marks, because I can't for the life of me figure out what's significant about Max's relationship with the Graces, other than the opportunity it affords Banville to display his considerable gifts, and -- what's worse -- I can't even fathom what's significant about his wife's death other than the opportunity it affords Banville . . . well, you get the idea. The premise of the novel seems to be "Hey, look at me, everybody, I'm the 'heir to Nabokov.' The back of the book says so. And besides, my book is filled with Beautiful Prose." The linking of Banville's name with Nabokov on the back of the book does Banville a considerable disservice. I kept expecting withering satire and a devastating prose style (Banville is good, but he's not that good), and all I got was the narrator's tendency to pepper his recollections with big, bloated words.

"Character-driven" novels are not of themselves a bad thing. Perhaps my favorite novel of the last thirty years relies more on character than on plot. If you're going to rely on character, however, you'd better make sure your characters are at least one, and preferably all, of the following: a) sympathetic; b) compelling; c) more than merely a place marker for inflated, if not particularly profound, ruminations on the Big Questions.

One of Banville's passages may illustrate what bothers me most about this book. In the passage, Morden describes the photographs his terminally ill amateur-photographer wife has taken of fellow hospital patients -- all of whom have, apparently cheerfully, consented to expose their scars, wounds, and afflictions for the sake of . . . photographic immortality? . . . the gratification of their exhibitionist desires? . . . the betterment of mankind? I got stuck, as I read this passage, trying to figure out why the people in the photographs had agreed to present their private suffering in so public a fashion. Then I realized they were props, placed on stage to be rearranged and remarked upon, to give the leading man something to do while he wows us with his method acting. Oh, come on, one might object, isn't Yorrick's skull a prop? Of course, but it's not merely a prop. We admire Hamlet's ability to make him live again, but that's just it. He makes him live again. Nobody really lives in Banville's novel, including his narrator, and perhaps that's not surprising in a novel that is mostly about death. What's more surprising, though, is that, for all his lovely style, Banville leaves us with very little impression that anyone in this book ever really has lived.

In the book's final passages, Max Morden likens the moment of his wife's death to a moment in his childhood when he had been lifted up by a suddenly surging sea, carried toward shore a bit, and then set down again. It was, he says, "as if nothing had happened. And indeed nothing had happened, a momentous nothing, just another of the great world's shrugs of indifference." That's what it feels like to read The Sea.

The Year of Magical Thinking ends with an image of the swelling sea as well:

I think about swimming with [John] into the cave at Portugese Bend, about the swell of the clear water, the way it changed, the swiftness and power it gained as it narrowed through the rocks at the base of the point. The tide had to be just right. We had to be in the water at the very moment the tide was right. We could only have done this a half a dozen times at most during the two years we lived there but it is what I remember. Each time we did it I was afraid of missing the swell, hanging back, timing it wrong. John never was. You had to feel the swell change. You had to go with the change. He told me that. No eye is on the sparrow but he did tell me that.

That's nice, I think. It's at least an image of Didion's life with her husband (writer John Gregory Dunne), and while it is certainly suggestive of larger themes and interpretations, it doesn't defer to them.

To be honest, I was prepared to dislike this book. I hate to admit that, since it's an account of the year Didion spent grieving for her husband and tending to her gravely ill daughter. It's a sad subject, made even sadder by the knowledge that Didion's only child died shortly after the book was finished. I suppose there are two reasons I wanted to dislike it. While I doubted that the book itself would be exploitive or sensationalistic, I thought Didion must surely be aware that there would be a ready-made market for a book like hers -- even people outside literary circles would be curious to find out how the well-known writer dealt with the sudden death of her well-known writer husband. I thought Didion, who famously remarked upon the writer's tendency to always be "selling someone out," should have refused to offer it for public consumption. Wasn't there something unseemly, I thought, about her willingness to dissect her grief? Wasn't there something self-absorbed about it? But that's insufferably, and even hypocritically, high-minded of me. Writers are inevitably self-absorbed -- even writers of shabby little blogs. Didion is a writer, a very good one. Why not write about one of her life's most important events?

Now let me try to explain the other reason I was reluctant to like this book. I had for some years been a great admirer of Didion's style, and I still am, I suppose. She is a master of detachment, a virtuoso of the flat affect. She has an unerring eye for the details of place and time, a fine ear for dialogue which juxtaposes the bizarre and the prosaic to achieve a kind of conversational surrealism. Recently, however, without actually rereading any of Didion's books, I have wondered whether her style wasn't a triumph of attitude over meaning. I was prepared to dislike The Year of Magical Thinking because of a kind of anticipatory disillusionment, an expectation that my suspicions about Didion's prose would be confirmed.

And I still haven't said anything about the book itself. It's a good book, a clear-eyed, almost clinical depiction of grief and its disorientations and disjunctions. If it resists the assignment of meaning, it doesn't embrace meaninglessness. Instead, it recognizes how heartbreakingly human it is to seek meaning, to view our lives with a writer's eye, and to treat the events of our lives as "authored," whether we actually believe them to be or not.


Blogger stewdog said...

I read a number of Joan Didion's books when in college and I respect her tremendously as a writer, although I am not in lock step with her politics. Funny that.

January 05, 2006 7:16 AM  

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