Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Bell - Iris Murdoch
Murdoch was preoccupied with serious matters, and this gives the novel weight. But she was a careless keeper of her literary house; there’s a lot of clutter for the reader to maneuver around. I don’t think prose or structure were of much concern to her; psychological and philosophical matters were. Though she gives her characters a human dimension, they do double service as props through which she can present her ideas. Murdoch’s mind was unique: dark, dramatic (sometimes melodramatic) and a bit childlike. She ends the book with an artful flourish - the last sentence suddenly opens up an intriguing new vista.

Time Will Darken It - William Maxwell
Maxwell can create a mood so palpable it seems to rise from the page. At its core is love for the sensuous world around us; he shows commonplace things with fresh eyes. He’s a moral humanist – people do not act without right and wrong being an issue, and he treats them with compassion. The beginning, which involves a visit by relatives, is a rich display of his gifts. But Maxwell’s problem is plotting, and the second part, in which the premise set up in the beginning is worked out, is weak. The final resolution is unconvincing and hurried, as if Maxwell decided to wrap things up – somehow.

Shuffle - Leonard Michaels
The book is composed of diverse parts, a lot of it a journal that gave me a too-intimate look at Michaels’ life; I stopped reading it with relief. But the long story “Sylvia” was very good, a study of a relationship that is intense and destructive. Though Sylvia is disturbed, I never felt that she did harmful things out of maliciousness; she seemed a sad victim of her emotions. Michaels portrays himself as passive, confused and almost helpless; to survive he succeeds in getting away from Sylvia. The ending, which is about the cost of his freedom, is harrowing. Part of the story’s success is the detachment with which Michaels tells it – flatly, almost clinically, like conducting an autopsy. Or maybe it’s the muted tone of one in shock.

Mason’s Retreat - Christopher Tilghman
The novel starts out nicely, with interesting characters and an engaging premise. But things begin to unravel when the house, depicted in a horrid state, is suddenly presented to the reader as a pleasant place, without the author showing us how it got this way. Then the father leaves the scene, depriving the book of its most complex personality. It’s as if Tilghman lacked the staying power needed to sustain a high level of writing. Loose ends and discarded characters abound. The affair the wife has is with a man too much like a romantic lead in a TV soap, so she loses credibility (and my respect). A drowning scene is very strong, again showing Tilghman’s ability when he applies the pressure, but after that the book limps along to a sketchy and uninspired ending.

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