Friday, November 14, 2014

Tarry Flynn - Patrick Kavanagh
This is not (as I initially thought) just a comic look at Irish villagers in the early 1900s. When Tarry asks his sister what she thinks of a girl he’s interested in, her answer – “Isn’t she only a lump of dung like the rest of us?” – is both amusing and scathing. The melee going on in Dargan is partially an outgrowth of a repressive culture that distorts people who already have an abundance of flaws. While the novel cannot be easily categorized, neither can the main character. Tarry is selfish – he admits that he lacks genuine sympathy for anyone but himself – yet he’s deeply moved by nature’s glories. He’s a hard worker (the scenes of farm labor impart an authenticity), yet he’s a dreamer who writes poetry. He’s petty yet perceptive, a buffoon yet a questioner of the meaning of existence. Though he must escape from the village where he’s spent twenty-seven years of his life, he’s aware of those aspects of happiness and beauty that he’s leaving behind, and on the final page a poem evokes “the pain of roots dragging up.” Before that comes Tarry’s parting from his mother. This sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued woman had been a rambunctious presence throughout the book. A lesser author would have her say more than eighteen words. But if the eighteen words are the exact right ones, they can be heartbreaking. It’s called art. *

Preparations for the Ascent - Gilbert Rogin
There’s no forward-moving plot in Ascent, just a procession of highly idiosyncratic musings. A self-indulgent work like this (Gilbert chose to name his main character Albert) will run aground if the reader becomes disaffected with the person whose mind he’s in. Chapter Six begins with “The bedroom floor creaks alarmingly when Albert does his push-ups. What if it gave way and he descended, outstretched, into the apartment below like a poorly coordinated quattrocento angel?” A page and a half later he’s still on his imaginary descent, because he conjures up the idea that he’s falling through time, into the rooms of his past. Later Albert is standing in the shower “energetically shaking a bottle of shampoo under the mistaken impression it is Italian dressing.” Then he visits his twenty-eight-year-old girl friend, the Human Dynamo. He contemplates causality; his operative number is thirty-two, though multiples are admissible. His riff on numbers terminates in, “Now, making love to the Human Dynamo, Albert executes one hundred and twenty-eight strokes.” Gazing at the sleeping woman he thinks “So had Sardanapalus surveyed the tumult and wreckage of his life.” I took my sampling of vagaries from this chapter because it marked the point at which I had my fill of an author who was constantly insisting “See how inventive I am? See how I can find in the flossing of teeth a goldmine of imagery?” Rogin also puts his intelligence on prominent display; we get phrases in foreign languages, words like “sheolic” and “aposiopesis,” and references to literary and philosophical luminaries (Goethe, Baudelaire, Heidegger, Kant, et al). But he fails to make Albert more than an agglomeration of unlikely peculiarities. I began to ask practical questions, such as why this forty-five-year-old man doesn’t spend any time at a job, and why so many women pop into bed with him. Most important, is he experiencing pain and despair? This is purported to be the case, but it’s the book’s most glaring falsity; Albert seems mighty pleased with himself. A bit of research revealed that Rogin was managing editor of Sports Illustrated and later held a corporate editorial position for Time, Inc. When I learned that seven of the eleven chapters of this novel first appeared in The New Yorker I was moved to indulge in my own flight of fancy; it featured two Insiders in the world of publishing having a genial lunch at “21.”

Generosity – Richard Powers
Powers takes an intriguing subject – happiness – and explores it from three perspectives: personal, scientific and philosophical. The book opens with Russell Stone meeting his writing class at an art school in Chicago. One of his students – an Algerian named Thassa – radiates an ingrained joyousness. That this character is entirely believable and grounded is Powers’ major achievement. The early scenes had a glow, and at page fifty I was enthusiastic about this novel; by page one hundred, less so. Powers is an expansive writer; it’s not his nature to keep things small. So we get a scientist named Thomas Kurton who’s trying to find (and patent) a “happiness gene.” We get Tonia Schiff, who hosts a popular science-based TV show. And Thassa is propelled onto the worldwide stage; she even appears on the Oona Show. Think Oprah – and yes, this is a bit silly, mainly because Thassa wouldn’t expose herself to public scrutiny. But she must act (or be acted upon) in unlikely ways for Powers to enlarge the field of inquiry. The diverse strands he throws into the mix – DNA microarrays, exotic Middle Eastern locales, the pervasiveness of the internet, etcetera – amounted to so much white noise. If Powers the novelist had stayed in charge he wouldn’t have allowed Stone and Thassa to become less than they were in the classroom scenes, nor would he introduce a portentous and melodramatic tone. Unfortunately, Powers the thinker winds up calling the shots.

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