Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Fools of Fortune - William Trevor
The atrocity at the core of this novel is handled with skill. Initially the reader isn’t clear as to what happened, but slowly the facts emerge. More importantly, the human implications grow over time (especially in the way the mother is affected). An act of such destructiveness will never loosen its grip on the victims – it has a life of its own. Trevor is successful with the character of Willie, in a first person narration that makes up the bulk of the book and which covers Willie’s life from boy to young man. But the novel has an unwieldy construction (a common feature of Trevor’s work – one that may have discouraged many readers). Most confusing is that Willie addresses what he’s writing to a “you,” but it takes far too long before we know who “you” is. When she meant something to me I wanted to reread the sections where Willie talks directly to Marianne, but that would mean searching back through the pages. Also, it turns out that we’re reading a letter that was never sent, written by an old man. After the Willie section Marianne becomes the first person narrator. Maybe, in trying to make the voice of a young girl contrast with Willie’s, Trevor overcompensates; she comes across as a bit soppy. Next he presents their child, Imelda, in the third person. Imelda reconstructs the past in her imagination, using scraps of information, but this isn’t convincing; nor is her madness; nor is Willie’s lengthy exile; nor is the idyllic coming together of the lovers in old age. The book sags badly under the weight of too many false turns. I think Trevor felt strongly about this material, and at the end he tried to force his feelings on the reader. That never works.

Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness - Kenzaburo Oe (Japanese)
This book consists of four stories. I couldn’t read more than two pages of the first – it was experimental, very weird, and I hadn’t the energy or inclination to struggle through it. “Prize Stock” was readable and engrossing (and provocative in its depiction of the black airman as an animal – he’s the “prize stock”). It’s raw, gross, primal; when he’s working in this mode Oe hammers at the reader and pitches emotions almost to the point of hysteria (which is what many of his characters feel); but the stridency seemed unwarranted. Two of the other stories concern the event that came to dominate Oe’s life: the birth of his retarded son (call the boy autistic if you wish, but Oe uses much more blunt and cruel terms than “retarded”). Their bizarre premises and awkward plotting make them oddities. I think I’ve read Oe’s masterpiece – A Personal Matter – and I should give up on him.

The Stone Angel - Margaret Laurence
The clarity of the writing of The Stone Angel reinforces my belief that plot obfuscation and stylistic ornamentation are mostly just clutter. Laurence presents Hagar with such honesty and in such depth that she became someone I was emotionally involved with. The novel is framed so that we see an entire life unfold from the perspective of old age (Hagar is ninety). Her determination to be independent – something that she clung to willfully since she was a young girl – is eroded by infirmities; this she cannot abide. Old age is a loss of dignity, a loss of control, a disintegration of body and mind. The petty forms these losses take are shown to be of great importance. How we want to hold onto even our simplest powers! Hagar’s struggle has a nobility; that she loses this struggle is inevitable, but she fights to her last moment. And what of the life behind her? Hagar probably never said, to anyone,“I love you.” Not to her father, her husband, her sons. Much that she did and said was hurtful, critical, harsh. She’s to blame for all the missteps, lost opportunities, and disappointments littering her past. But I could understand her; in her father she had a bad role model, and early on we’re locked into a way of responding to others. During her final weeks she tries to express feelings of compassion (particularly to her beleaguered son), but her attempts are faltering, given grudgingly. She cannot do more, and that’s the tragedy of her life. *

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