A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Plot Thickens

The following review appeared today in the Houston Chronicle:

PALACE COUNCIL
By Stephen L. Carter

Knopf, 514 pp., $26.95


Advice to novelists: Never make the protagonist of your novel a novelist, unless you can be sure that the reader would rather be reading your novel than the ones your character has written.

The protagonist of Stephen L. Carter's third novel, Palace Council, is a novelist who by the end of the story has won at least two National Book Awards and is one of the most famous writers in America. Carter is pretty famous himself. He's the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale and the author of seven very serious nonfiction books about religion, morality and the law, though he's better known for his bestselling thrillers, The Emperor of Ocean Park and New England White.

The milieu of Carter's novels is the one inhabited by the upscale professionals -- lawyers, professors and the like -- and the haute bourgeoisie of "the darker nation," a phrase Carter uses for African-Americans. In Palace Council, it turns out that the phrase was coined by the novel's protagonist, Edward Trotter Wesley Jr.

In 1954, Eddie Wesley comes to Harlem to work as a journalist after graduating from Amherst and spending a couple of years in graduate work at Brown; his father is a Boston clergyman and his mother has family connections with the Harlem elite. Before long he has fallen in love with the beautiful Aurelia Treene, but she decides to marry the prince of Harlem society, Kevin Garland. Eddie leaves their engagement party despondently and, while cutting through a neighborhood park, he stumbles over the body of a white man, Philmont Castle, a prominent Wall Street lawyer who had also been a guest at the party.

Palace Council
has a lot in common with Carter's earlier novels: The Emperor of Ocean Park centered on the Garland family, and New England White began with the accidental discovery of a body. And in all three books the protagonist is plunged into the middle of a mystery not of his or her making. But where the mysteries in Carter's earlier books unraveled over the course of months, it takes Eddie more than 20 years to figure out what the murder of Philmont Castle has to do with almost everything else that happens to and around him.

By the time the novel ends, the United States has gone through the turmoil of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the protest against it, Watergate and Nixon's resignation. Eddie's sister, Junie, has disappeared into the revolutionary underground of the 1960s; he has been investigated by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI and written speeches for John F. Kennedy; he has been kidnapped and tortured while reporting in Saigon; he has befriended Richard Nixon. And he has foiled a secret plot to seize control of the U.S. government.


What is original in all of Carter's novels is his focus on the "darker nation," on the role played by African-Americans in recent American history, and on the way the unique social institutions that the black upper class constructed in the age of segregation were changed by the fractures in racial barriers. In a year that has seen the emergence of the first truly viable African-American presidential candidate, that ought to be a rich theme for a writer to exploit.


But Palace Council keeps getting hung up on the intricacies of its rather improbable plot, which deals with a conspiracy based on, of all things, Milton's Paradise Lost. Between the thriller plot and the love story -- Eddie's infatuation with Aurelia continues through the book -- the several interesting things that Carter has to say keep getting lost.

The book does demonstrate that Carter is capable of clever writing. He gives us, for example, an aspiring Democratic presidential candidate named Lanning Frost who seems to be an amiable dunce manipulated by an intensely ambitious wife. Frost's public utterances are couched in a kind of Bushian bafflegab. For example, when asked about the student protests on campuses, "Lanning nodded importantly. 'Well, naturally, none of us really want our once-proud universities run by the kind of situation where anybody reaches the level of controversy we need to attain,' he announced.

"The crowd cheered."

But Carter is no satirist. Palace Council is a curiously toneless book, as if Carter the law professor were unwilling to let Carter the novelist betray a strong feeling or attitude toward anything. This is a novel in which J. Edgar Hoover, John and Robert Kennedy, and Richard Nixon appear, and are all treated with a bland even-handedness and given dialogue that barely characterizes them at all. (Nixon, in fact, speaks in choppy sentence fragments that sound like the elder George Bush.) At its worst, the novel sinks to cliché, as when Eddie meets a shadowy, implacable hired killer who greets him with a line that was tired when Ernst Stavro Blofeld first purred it to James Bond: "I think it's time we had a little talk."

Eddie Wesley becomes a successful novelist by writing books like Field's Unified Theory, about an African-American physicist's quest for the goal that eluded Einstein; Blandishment, the coming-of-age story of a black student at a New England college; and Netherwhite, about a social climber rejected by the black upperclasses. Is it inappropriate to say that all of these sound more interesting than yet another political-conspiracy thriller with an overcomplicated plot?

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Stripper and the Terrorist

The following review appeared today in the Houston Chronicle:


THE GARDEN OF LAST DAYS

By Andre Dubus III

Norton, 537 pp., $24.95

Novelists keep being drawn to the events of September 11, 2001, hoping to confine the heinous imponderables of that day into the shapings of fiction. Writers as various as Jay McInerney (The Good Life), Jonathan Safran Foer (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and John Updike (Terrorist) have made their attempts at it.

It’s hardly surprising that Andre Dubus III should join them with his new novel, The Garden of Last Days. Even before 9/11, in his 1999 novel House of Sand and Fog, he gave us a story that reverberated with the larger conflicts between America and the Middle East. It was a deftly constructed novel about the conflict between a somewhat feckless single woman and an exiled Iranian colonel. Oprah selected it for her book club and made it a bestseller.

Nine years later, Dubus has written another novel about a single woman, April Connors, who works as a stripper at the Puma Club for Men in Sarasota, Fla. She has a three-year-old daughter, Franny, whom she usually leaves with her landlady, Jean, while she works. When Jean gets ill, April is forced to take Franny to the club and let her watch Disney videos in the manager’s office before she falls asleep. But while April is entertaining a customer in one of the club’s private rooms, Franny wakes up and goes in search of her mother.

Franny is discovered at the back door of the club by AJ Carey, a construction worker who was kicked out earlier for getting too familiar with one of the strippers. His wrist was broken in the fracas and now, full of booze and painkillers, he has come back for revenge. What happens next is not good, and it messes up several people’s already messed-up lives.

So how does 9/11 come into all this? When Dubus read news reports that some of the hijackers had visited strip clubs and hired prostitutes in the days and weeks before their final flight, he thought about writing a short story about the encounter of a terrorist and a stripper.

It might have made a potent short story, but instead this encounter is wedged into a 500-page novel where it bears only a thematic relationship to the central plot. The Garden of Last Days takes place in early September 2001, and the customer April is entertaining in the Champagne Room of the Puma Club is a young Saudi named Bassam who, a few days later, will be one of the hijackers. (Dubus has fictionalized the terrorists’ names.) In a few lines of dialogue between Bassam and April, Dubus economically sums up one of the novel’s central themes:

“ ‘I should not like you, April.’

“ ‘Why shouldn’t you?’

“He lit another cigarette, inhaled deeply. ‘Because then I would be like you. And I am not like you.’ ”

Bassam, the terrorist, can’t fulfill his mission if he drops his habit of objectifying the enemy, if he treats non-believers like April as human beings and not as targets. The operative irony here is that April herself works in a milieu in which women are objectified -- treated as sex objects and not as human beings. But the problem is that Bassam has only a thematic role in the novel. He doesn’t fit into the plot; he affects neither its origins nor its outcome. And he doesn’t fit stylistically.

Dubus tells his story in discrete segments, each narrated from a point of view limited to one of the characters: April, Bassam, AJ, Jean and a bouncer at the club named Lonnie. He has richly imagined the way each of his American characters lives and thinks. But his imagination lets him down in the portrayal of Bassam.

Dubus roots Bassam’s fanaticism in some pretty thin psychology: a mixture of Oedipus complex (his last act before leaving to board the plane is to mail a letter to his mother) and sibling rivalry with his Westernized older brother Khalid, who died when he crashed his American car. Dubus lards Bassam’s narrative with Arabic words and quotes from the Qur’an, and he resorts to stiff, archaic syntax to emphasize Bassam’s foreignness: “So often he has asked himself why do these kufar have so much power?”

The result is that Bassam’s sections of the novel feel stagy and mechanical, whereas the emotional responses and moral dilemmas faced by April, AJ and Jean are real and touching. We learn of April’s ability to separate herself as Franny’s mother from the persona she adopts when she works in the club, and of her guilt and rage when Franny’s disappearance breaks down her tendency to compartmentalize. We enter into AJ’s confusion and desperation after he makes the impulsive decision to drive away from the club with Franny in his truck. And we experience Jean’s loneliness, her possessiveness toward Franny, the child she never had, and her distaste for April’s way of life.

Dubus’ novel makes a solid impact with its searching examination of its characters’ blind self-centeredness. But it would have that impact even if Bassam’s story had never been inserted into it. For his final act on Sept. 11 has no direct effect on the lives of the other characters. In fact, where the novel is concerned, only one of the characters, the bouncer Lonnie, is even indirectly affected by what happened on 9/11. The Garden of Last Days would have been a stronger, more coherent novel if Bassam had been omitted from it.