Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Children of Dynmouth - William Trevor
Timothy is at the center of this book, holding it together with his frightening strangeness. I read with fascination as he doggedly, calmly, irresistibly moves toward fulfilling his delusion. It’s the mechanics of that fulfillment which are too pat. Each person he pursues has a convenient secret that he can exploit; there’s a predictability to events. Also, another character nearly as strong as Timothy would provide a balance; as it is, the rest of the cast serve mainly as his prey. I never understood Timothy, and understanding is Trevor’s strength. I believe that this young man – who is devoid of compassion – was alien to his creator, and Trevor could only convey dread for him.

The Octopus - Frank Norris
This is the first of a trilogy, and it’s clear that Frank Norris set his sights high. Taking on a theme of social importance, he used an enormous canvas and filled it with a large and varied cast of characters. Scenes such as the barn dance are teeming, sweeping panoramas. The prose, though it’s engaging and moves smoothly, is crude, as if hammered out at breakneck speed by a skilled carpenter (as opposed to a literary work composed by an stylist). At times the emotions come across as maudlin. Vanamee, with his mysticism, is a tricky character. Yet it all works. The crudity is a virtue – the novel’s sense of being hammered out in haste gives it momentum. The maudlin quality is acceptable because the emotions depicted are true; we care about the death of Mrs. Hooven and her daughter because the author makes us understand them and their plight. Vanamee’s spirituality is necessary to lift us above the harsh realities that fill most of the novel. What can be overlooked is Norris’s subtlety and intelligence. He doesn’t work in black and white; although greed, in the form of the railroad, is the octopus grasping with all its tentacles, the ranchers don’t wear halos. While reading this novel I was often moved and surprised (most notably by the transformation of Annixter – a great character). The complex, shifting world that Norris created is anchored by simple truths – he placed primary value on love and compassion. The Octopus is a major achievement in American literature. *

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