The Golden Gate – Vikram Seth
To write a novel entirely in verse is a unique and formidable feat, but for me the feat aspect was too apparent. I was constantly aware of Seth trying to find words that would fit into a rhyme. His search leads him from obscurity (“catholicon” and “fissiparity”) to triteness (the beer is “Schlitz” to go with “it’s” and “pits”). At times the poetry imparts a nice airiness, but more often it has a pedantic quality; also, much of the dialogue seems awkward (“Hey, stop that – oh, it’s Phil – hey, hi . . .”/“Hi, John, I just thought I’d drop by.”) The book is set is San Francisco in the 1980s, and the yuppies who populate it are involved in complicated relationships. How complicated? Phil, divorced with a son, is bisexual; he has an affair with Ed; but religious Ed believes that to act on his physical urges is sinful; Phil winds up marrying Ed’s sister, Liz. I found all this a bit much. Besides arguments in favor of love and sexual freedom (and against war and small-mindedness), we get cats, a Café Trieste and a band called Liquid Sheep. Seth is an accomplished wordsmith, and this book obviously took a lot of effort to pull off. For those who find it to be a delight, I wouldn’t claim that their pleasure is unwarranted. It just wasn’t my cup of cappuccino.
The Indian Lawyer – James Welch
Welch is an American Indian who attended reservation schools; he also served on the Montana State Board of Pardons. Since this novel incorporates both the Indian experience and prison life, I expected something forceful and authentic. What I got was neither. Sylvester Yellow Calf is a successful lawyer who’s being urged to run for Congress. But this muted and conflicted man – a shadowy figure even in a novel about him – is a most unlikely politician, so that story line was unconvincing. As was another, introduced in the first chapter. Sylvester is a member of a board of pardons, and he votes against granting parole to Jack Harwood; Harwood then asks his wife to meet Sylvester and get to know everything she can about him; eventually he asks her to sleep with him (which she’s already done, after meeting Sylvester twice, once in his office, another on a dinner date). Patti Ann is no trampy moll; she’s portrayed as a wife who had stayed faithful to her husband during his seven years in prison. Since there’s no spark in the scenes between her and Sylvester, her tumbling into bed with him is just another example of the author’s failure to provide a basis for the actions and feelings of his characters. People plod along dispiritedly, doing things I didn’t believe in, and when Sylvester and Patti Ann start having love pangs, I had enough.
Ask Me Tomorrow – James Gould Cozzens
This is a watershed novel in which the author of Castaway and The Last Adam shows signs of becoming the author who would write Guard of Honor and By Love Possessed. I liked the first two books, I found the last two unreadable; the same can be said for the differing parts of this novel. The opening fifty pages are very good. Francis, while on a train trip in Italy, meets a young woman. He doesn’t find her attractive, he doesn’t even like her as a person. But he’s bored and has had too much to drink; so, after mostly combative chit chat, he makes her a proposition: “I think we should go to bed.” The woman is hurt; she knows she means nothing to him and, precisely because of that, he has treated her as something cheap. What makes this episode psychologically acute is that Francis recognizes every nuance of his bad behavior. I could believe in this person. I could also believe in his interactions with his employer, Mrs. Cunningham, and her son, whom he tutors. But I couldn’t relate to the Francis who’s in love with somebody named Lorna and who attends parties; though his conflicting emotions are dissected, it’s not done with the directness of the opening scene; all that emerges is a lot of people talking a lot. In these sections the influence of Henry James is apparent (even the prose gets denser and more convoluted). Cozzens would choose to follow in the path of the Master, which is a shame.
Pack My Bag – Henry Green
Green wrote this autobiography (at age thirty-three) because he believed he would die in World War II, and he wanted to take stock of his life. He didn’t write the book for me, or for anybody but himself. This can account for the fact that he reveals very little. I found the nine page Introduction by his son to be more enlightening than all of Pack My Bag (especially if you read between the lines). One barrier keeping the reader at a distance is the prose; it’s like an elaborate musical composition full of twists and turns. It’s the same prose used in Loving and Living, but in those novels the way the words were set down seemed to be an integral part of characters who were bursting with vitality. In this book vitality is the very quality that’s absent. When Green recounts his feelings and experiences, he does it a roundabout way that leeches it of immediacy. As for those he interacts with, not one single person – not mother, father, brothers, friends – attains a solid presence. Nor are there fully-developed scenes; just a myriad of truncated impressions. Much of the book concerns his stay at Eton, and I got a sense of life there, but only a vague one. It’s this vagueness that finally caused me to stop making the effort to follow the stylistic gyrations; I finished the last fifty pages in skimming mode. If you write a book as a private indulgence, and it turns out as constricted as this one, it should stay in your bag.