A gifted novel about a Wyndham Lewis-like painter visiting Canada from his native Britain during WW II, Damian Tarnopolsky’s Goya’s Dog was a nominee for the 2009 Amazon.ca First Novel Award, formerly Books in Canada First Novel Award. The book transitions from an initial state of what my mother used to call “cross questions and silly answers,” a state in which people are talking at usually unintentionally comic cross-purposes, through a series of vignettes in which the main character, the artist Edward Dacres, gradually realizes that he is a guest artist because he has been mistaken for someone else, to a finally quasi-tragic, quasi-uplifting ending.
From the first moment when I encountered the angry, frustrated, almost savage eye turned on Canadians and Canadian society by the main character Edward Dacres, as he repeatedly tries to make the best of his situation through amusing himself at their expense if nothing else, I was struck with his resemblance to another comic character of the early part of the twentieth century. Though I cannot claim that Tarnopolsky in fact had P.G. Wodehouse in mind when he wrote Dacres, Dacres reads very like an avatar, sadder, more cynical, more anarchic and down-at-heels, of the Bertie Wooster “man-about-town” comic creation. I say this with the proviso that I am not considering Edward Dacres’s indifference to the WW II effort as similar by design to P. G. Wodehouse’s own suspected collaboration with the Germans while in a European internment camp (a charge which was later fully investigated by MI5 in 1999 or 2000 and found to be baseless except for Wodehouse’s basic naïveté). Tarnopolsky’s farcical characters (farcical as seen by the main character, that is) jump into and out of relation with each other with nearly the same alacrity as Wodehouse’s, but with a deeper seriousness lurking beneath their interactions: for, Bertie Wooster’s pockets are well-lined; Edward Dacres’s are moth-eaten. It is only their desperation, their comic clutching at weak straws, which for a time makes them alike. We cannot imagine Tarnopolsky repeating his comic creation from book to book in different characters (as Wodehouse did, like a vaudeville performer with a “sure thing” of an act), or being called “a performing flea” as Wodehouse once was, though certainly unfairly. This is to say that while the satirical lyricism flows with the same easy pace as did the elder author’s, with his background in the libretti of musicals, the stakes and consequences are those tied to far more serious issues, such as the real issues of cowardice (Bertie Wooster only “funks it” in a humorous way), misanthropy, and the role of art in wartime. If forced to account for my sense of the elder comic genius lurking, I would have to say that the early sections dealing with women in general or one in particular (the main current romantic interest of the book, Darly Burner) have “comic turns” particularly situated around these relationships which are reminiscent of the earlier writer’s work. Dacres finds a woman attractive, with the woman playing the role (as in Wodehouse) of “straight man” who also finds him desirable, while Edward Dacres is the desperate eiron who is deceiving her or himself about something to do with his state, his prospects, his intentions, etc. The difference is that Dacres has a genuine tragedy in his background, the death of his own young wife of their happy mésalliance years before, in a car crash which he caused. This is the “problem” which I would liken to some neurosis that might emerge in psychoanalysis, like a squid from its sea of ink, only slowly. Though I have spent a lot of time on this authorial comparison, I don’t mean to overemphasize it, for this masterly and serious novel does not move as quickly as Wodehouse’s do almost from punchline to punchline. But the manner in which Tarnopolsky deals with the women’s other claimants, such as fathers, suitors, relatives, and social acquaintances, smacks of the older author quite strenuously.
I’ve said this is a serious novel, and part of the source of the sombreness and the sense of tragedy which looms over Goya’s Dog, instituting from the frenetic pace rather a tense agony mimetically on the reader’s part, is the forced wait to find out if the artist will ever be able to make himself paint again. There is the fact, for Dacres, that he simply cannot repeat the past, recreating one muse with another, and so the bittersweet ending is as much a victory and vindication as it might initially seem a defeat. There is the sense, at the end, that he will be able to return to work, though when and how exactly is left undecided. It does seem, however, that he is finally on his own tick, and will not be playing any more fool’s games with fate.
The sources of this novel are in fact far more complicated than I have given my reader to believe, up to this point, but I have emphasized the particular comic influence (which may or may not have been intentional) because it is what I am myself most familiar with. To quote from Tarnopolsky’s own words in his “Acknowledgments” (the whole of which I call to the reader’s attention), “The painter and writer Wyndham Lewis spent an unhappy wartime exile in Toronto, and his novel Self-Condemned, along with his letters and the comments of his biographers, suggested much of what happens to Dacres in the first half of Goya’s Dog–together with the Polish writer Winold Gombrowicz’s simultaneous, similar experiences in Buenos Aires, recorded in his amazing Diary. Dacres shares some attitudes with these men and uses some of their expressions, but he is not a portrait of either of them. I should note that the “suicide” scene comes from Chamfort, and I think it was Fr. Rolfe who was ferried out of his hotel room in bed; Ovid grumbled definitively about the natives in his letters from Pontus. And so on–“. Thus, I have named only one possible influence, which moreover is not one named by Tarnopolsky, for the quite excellent and humorous portions of his important novel, and have had to quote from his own words to explain that and the other parts, which makes me perhaps a less adept reviewer, but certainly makes him no less a creative genius on this, his first novel. There is in fact a great deal more to say, but I leave it to you, his other potential readers, to help bring about the conversation: this is such a fine novel that to call it a “fine first novel” is already to be reductive of its worth and importance in the related worlds of fiction and painting. Do give it a read soon: you will be amused by a character’s dilemmas, confronted by his demons, and finally, in reluctant agreement with what he does to save his own soul.
José Saramago’s masterpiece Blindness is one of the few novels I have read which manages to use extended metaphor in such a way as not to make me weary of the imposition of values on fact. What I mean by this is that extended metaphor, if sustained for long enough in a work, makes the work into a sort of allegory in which the reader is always busy imputing other values to literal words and things. An example is of course Pilgrim’s Progress, in which we are “clued in” to the values which must be read in by having certain words and names capitalized and used repeatedly to illustrate the point the author is trying to make. But the main value which Saramago uses in an allegorical way, or as an extended metaphor, is “blindness.” And he keeps the fear of blindness closely enough tied to the actual condition that we can perceive his characters’ predicaments for ones likely to be suffered by blind people in a real-life, literal setting. As well, the characters do not stand for abstract qualities, but are kept very closely drawn as real people, with realistic feelings and impulses. They have no names except for example “the doctor,” “the girl with the dark glasses,” “the old man with the black eye patch,” “the doctor’s wife,” etc. Thus, though their situation is allegorical, they are people whom we can see as very like us in a novel (meaning here “new” or “unprecedented”) situation.
The basic plot is this: one day, while driving in his car, a man is suddenly stricken with a new kind of blindness, not the “dark” blindness which people have always suffered before, but a kind of “white blindness” in which people see only a white mist before their eyes. From this uncertain beginning, the disease spreads, even affecting eye doctors and policemen and other people in every walk of life, while authorities try not only to stop the spread of the illness by guessing how it spreads (which no one is actually ever sure of) but also by confining to deserted public buildings those who have gone blind, in the suspicion that they may be contagious. Our focus is on a small group of characters who have interacted in an ophthalmologist’s office, who all happen to wind up in the same ward of an empty mental hospital used to confine the blind. The ophthalmologist himself has gone blind just as he was attempting to do research on this startling new condition, and only his wife, who has pretended to be blind so that she cannot be separated from him and can go along to help, is fully a witness to what is happening.
What happens, but very gradually, is that order breaks down and chaos reigns, as blind crooks lord it over the other inmates and make them pay with valuables and women’s sexual favors for their very food rations. The soldiers who are supposed to be monitoring the activity and the distribution of food are powerless (by choice) to affect change, because they are afraid to get too close to the blind lest the condition is contagious by sight of them. They in fact repeatedly threaten to shoot any of the blind who step too close. The halls are covered in excrement and other offal, including sometimes the bodies of those who have died, because there is no one in charge who can restore order and who will make sure that all the dead are buried. Thus, the halls of the mental hospital quickly become more and more polluted with things which actually are likely to cause contagion. The doctor as a figure of wisdom often has good ideas about what can be done, but it’s his wife who as a figure of mercy “steals the show” in the book. Because she inexplicably remains sighted, and resists or seems to have no selfish impulses, she is the moral compass of the book.
The characters’ blindness is basically the condition all humankind is in as it goes through its own petty or even important concerns from day to day, unaware of others or not taking them into account. Their new blindness forces them to calculate what others owe them and they owe others, and illuminates the human condition of desperation which can arise when there is not enough food, clothing, shelter. It is a question posed by life as to whether or not humans will become savages when they are driven into close competition for basic needs and services. They are only able to hear of the outside world when someone admits to having a radio, but then the voices from outside go dead, and the radio’s batteries are exhausted just after, so they must assume that things are chaotic on the outside as well.
Because of a fire, the seven characters find their way out of the hospital and into the broader world outside with the doctor’s wife leading them due to her still having her sight, but now they “see” that the mental hospital they were confined in is an apt symbol for the life outside in the world. Everyone has gone blind, domestic animals are eating from dead bodies, people are breaking into the homes of others in order to have somewhere to sleep safely. The doctor’s wife finds a small food store, and they are able to stay in a safe place, but their meetings with others everywhere are fraught with fear. They are afraid even to let others know that they have someone with them who can see, lest she have too many importunate demands placed on her or figuratively be torn limb from limb.
At this key juncture, I’m going to stop my synopsis, not because any highly unlikely series of events takes place and I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but because the novel is resolved with such feeling and compassion and insight that I don’t want to ruin your reading. This book is so deceptively simple as it moves from step to step, and we can understand each step in the series of events that take place. We can “see” and feel how and why the people act as they do; the motivations that Saramago gives them are easily accessible to our own feelings, as we put ourselves in their place. This book is a cautionary tale which asks humankind when it will begin to “see,” to respond to others adequately and to save itself thereby. From having opposed interests, you against me, the characters learn to cooperate and have lesson after lesson before them of what happens to those who cannot compromise. Above all, this work is a masterwork about ordinary people, even those among them who find it possible to be extraordinary. The doctor’s wife, the moral center of the book, is “sighted” in more than one way: she knows that it is through no virtue of her own that she has not lost her sight too, so she is always ready to help those who rely upon her, because she for some unknown reason has an advantage. This is not a matter of superiority of status or condition, but merely a matter of chance. Blind chance, as one might say. Thus, we all of us have some chance of someday being extraordinary because we are able to help someone else, and yet we will only be people with no particular status or name other than “the doctor’s wife,” “the doctor,””the girl with dark glasses,””the boy who cried for his mother,” etc. This is the promise and the state of all humanity, to be able to extend itself to others empathetically when necessary, if we only take advantage of the opportunity. This is the uplifting message of José Saramago’s book Blindness. I hope that you will have a chance to read it soon.
Though I was planning to post in a few days on another work entirely, today I happened to read Caroline’s post at BeautyIsASleepingCat , and was struck with an exchange she and I had about the material of a book she was reviewing, and which she is currently receiving comments on (for those who have read it or are interested in reading it, as am I). Her review topic was J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, and I’ll just repeat the part of our discussion that is pertinent to my own topic today: in effect, we talked about the way that sometimes, happy memories from the past can make us unhappy in the present because they are no longer a part of our current experience. This is part of the character’s experience in the book she is discussing, and for some reason–and it turns out to be a fairly good one–I was unable to dismiss my own faint memory of some other work, at some other time, which had been on the same general subject.
As it so happens, it was one of my favorite of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poems, short and to the point though it is, in contrast with his several lengthier poems which have won worldwide acclaim. The poem is “Tears, Idle Tears,” and I am able to give it here in complete form, because it is available elsewhere on the Internet as well:
“Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,/Tears from the depth of some divine despair/Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,/In looking on the happy autumn-fields,/And thinking of the days that are no more./” “Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,/That brings our friends up from the underworld,/Sad as the last which reddens over one/That sinks with all we love below the verge;/So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more./” “Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns/The earliest pipe of half-awakened birds/To dying ears, when unto dying eyes/The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;/So sad, so strange, the days that are no more./” “Dear as remembered kisses after death,/And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feigned/On lips that are for others; deep as love,/Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;/O Death in Life, the days that are no more!/”
I’ve always said that no one can milk an emotion like Tennyson! But how does the poem actually work? It seems to work by an intricate set of connecting words and phrases which rely on experiences everyone has either had or has imagined having, so that its universal appeal can easily be understood. In the first stanza, Tennyson begins with the rhetorical trope of paralipsis, or denying something that he is in fact going to affirm, when he first says, “I know not what they mean,” and then goes on to tell us exactly what they mean. The tears are “idle” only in the same sense that they are “vain,” not as in “vain’ equalling “empty” or “egotistical,” but “vain” as in “useless,” “hopeless,” “having no worthwhile issue.” The present “autumn-fields” are “happy,” but the speaker is sunk in recollection by what they call up to memory. There have been other autumn days and fields which were happier still.
In the second stanza, it’s not just the memories that are said to be past, but also what would be a rather eerie visitation by friends “up from the underworld,” were it not a welcome visitation. The beam of sunlight which the speaker can imagine “glittering” on the underworld sail as it rises is challenged in its “fresh” quality by the nearly concurrent “sad” quality (a word reiterated throughout the poem) which “sinks with all we love below the verge,” so that “the days that are no more,” the phrase repeated in the end of each stanza, has a focus on the distant horizon, whether in the rise of memories or their return to the underworld which apparently stores them, the horizon often being a symbol of life’s bourne, limits, and of death.
The subject of death having been well-introduced by now, the speaker makes a tie between an experience everyone has perhaps had, that of “dark summer dawns” and hearing “the earliest pipe of half-awakened birds,” and links it with an experience that awaits everyone but which only those who are already gone could actually have, “the dying ears” hearing the sounds, and the “dying eyes” which see the casement “slowly grow a glimmering square.” This stanza uses the word “sad” as well to describe this imagined experience, but whereas in the second stanza it was living persons watching those from the underworld approach and leave, at least in imagination, so here it is the imagined dying people who have the “strange” experience of watching the dawn of a day which they possibly will not live to see the end of. In this respect, the poem reminds me a little of Emily Dickinson’s poem “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died,” which also discusses a moment when “I could not see to see,” and purports to be talking from a time after that moment, to judge by its past tense.
Lost causes seem to be the subject of the fourth stanza, whether that of kisses that are no longer accessible, or fantasies about love and lovers that did not bear fruit, and the word “hopeless” emphasizes the whole tenor of the poem, which acknowledges happiness only to grieve its short tenure. The days that are no more are “deep as love,/Deep as first love,” which is another repetition emphasizing what is missing from the present that was available in the past, love itself, since the speaker seems not to anticipate any further happiness from the current moment or day. And then, of course, “wild with all regret,” whether of things not done at all or things that can be no longer done, we get the strongest statement yet of the speaker’s dilemma, “O Death in Life, the days that are no more!” Here, the grieving requires emphatic punctuation at the end of the line, and Tennyson caps off his line with an exclamation point, to emphasize that death is a main concern to the speaker, whether actual deaths that he is mourning or the loss of happier times which he cannot conceive will come again or be followed by more happy times.
Now, having written about this poem and having lived with it again for a short space, I can say that there is a sort of catharsis one experiences when reading a poem such as this one, so that as well as turning out an inspired bit of work, Tennyson has provided a vision with a workaday or utilitarian use. My older teachers in grade school and even in high school were excessively fond of poems with this quality, which in Samuel Johnson’s words could “point a moral” and “adorn a tale.” Their own confreres amongst the more exalted academic circles at the time of their own youth must have surely pooh-poohed this approach to literature, and it has its limits. But I do have to say that having re-read the poem after a long time of not seeing it in front of me, I do feel not only admiration and reverence for its aesthetic qualities, but appreciation as well for the cathartic release it engenders. I think it likely that the book Caroline is reviewing, A Month in the Country, may well have similar cathartic capabilities. Why not visit her site and see?
“The Hunger Games,” “Catching Fire,” and “Mockingjay”–or, Incitement, the Turn Against Repression, and Outright Rebellion
Once again, a younger person has been instrumental in getting me to read a fiction he has enjoyed, and once again, the person is my nephew, Charles. In this case, it was a slightly longer proceeding, because from the time I continually saw him sitting around engrossed in The Hunger Games trilogy to the time when I could pry the books from his fingers to read them was longer. I’m just joking, though, about his reluctance: he was quite enthusiastic about having me read the series. And as I read and let him know over the phone what book exactly I was on, he eagerly asked each time “How do you like it?” I was able to be just as happily engaged with the books as he expected, though I did point out that in this book as in others I’ve read in the YA category from time to time, the author has neglected to observe some grammar rules, such as the difference between “who” and “whom.” It happens to everyone from time to time, because our society has become so casual in its observance of some parts of grammatical precision that even quite well-read and literate people have been known to slip up. And of course, his rejoinder was to remind me of the last book he had me reading, The Wide Window from the A Series of Unfortunate Events series, in which a character named “Aunt Josephine” continually corrects grammar (I also reviewed that book for this site). So now, on to the review of the events of the books themselves, which will probably be shorter, however, due to the fact that I don’t want to have to issue spoiler alerts, but instead want to leave those who have not yet read the books or seen the movies to their own discoveries.
The first thing I noticed about the books, even early on, and which I was surprised about and would highly commend is that in them, Suzanne Collins didn’t pull her punches. Tragedies were not just things which took place in the past, well-drawn and well-liked characters die and suffer in the present as well, and even though there are repairs which can be made surgically to the competitors in the games, or to those fortunate enough to be able to afford them, more and more the sense grows in the books that some things can’t be changed, some misfortunes must be lived with, some bad things will have to be lived through again and again and again in the memories and sorrow-filled dreams of the main characters, those who survive, that is. This is a series of books which, with a few changes, a very few indeed, could easily be marketed to an adult audience. And yet, the difficulties approached by the characters are ones easily understandable and accessible to a youth audience: it’s just that the book makes no attempt, fortunately, to “dumb down” or “soft-pedal” suffering, no matter whose it is. There is no condescension in these books, and I can see why they have easily won a loyal following among parents and young people alike.
Next, I appreciated the slight amount of retelling that was necessary in the later two books in order to link them with the first. Often, authors make the mistake of retelling large swatches of the plot or of characters’ histories in series, in order to play to the market either of people who were not paying attention in the earlier parts or to pick up new readers who are too indifferent to begin at the beginning. Collins has clearly chosen to regard her audience as both intelligent and energetic enough to start with the first book and keep on going, and trusts herself to maintain their interest. That her trust is not misplaced is I think obvious in the great enthusiasm with which people discuss the series.
Finally, what people these days call “the story’s arc” is both very accomplished and very insightful about the nature of slavery, rebellions, and resolutions of conflicts. I have said the story begins with the “incitement” that the Capitol offers the known-to-exist twelve districts by forcing them to participate in the Hunger Games; follows this up with “the turn against repression,” which draws in some of those originally with the Capitol and aligns them with the gradually more and more rebellious people in the districts, which begin to revolt; and concludes with the picture of a whole society as it experiences “outright rebellion,” including quite intelligent assessments of both sides in the combat as first of all run by individuals with conflicting aims and desires, whatever their side. Among the thanks which Suzanne Collins includes to her colleagues, friends, and family in the back of the third volume, are these tributes: “Special love to my late father, Michael Collins, who laid the groundwork for this series with his deep commitment to educating his children on war and peace, and my mother, Jane Collins, who introduced me to the Greeks, sci-fi, and fashion (although that last one didn’t stick)….” Certainly, these dedications are quite apt, as the force of them shows everywhere in the books (even in the playful tweaking of the nose of the “fashion police” who appear in the series). I would gladly recommend these books for their teaching abilities and their warmth of heart, their ability to educate young people in both their methods of forming allegiances and their gradual and growing awareness of when something isn’t as it should be. These books, like the folk song taken from Scripture, proclaim “to everything there is a season…and a time to every purpose under heaven.” Only, having read them, young people may well emerge with a stronger sense of the right time for each and every purpose which confronts them. These books, far from being just for entertainment, are for the mind and the spirit as well, and I can think of nothing better to advise than that adults as well as young people read them, not just to keep an eye on what their children are reading, but to keep an eye on their own strengths, weaknesses, decisions, and impulses as well. This is a family book in the best sense of the term.
Failures of Family and Community Solidarity in Russell Banks’s short story collection “A Permanent Member of the Family”
This was my first exposure to Russell Banks’s works, and knowing that he is an award-winning author, I was eager to see what others had seen in his works that might represent the need for acclaim. Nevertheless, although the stories were quite insightful and profound in their treatment of various kinds of failure to maintain relationships, they were not what they had been represented to be in the blurb I read. The blurb had indicated that they were all about family and the interconnections therein, whereas they proved a little more often and a little more strongly to be about failures of marriages and community solidarities than about families plain and simple.
Not that there were not families in the stories. In the title story, “A Permanent Member of the Family,” a family divided by divorce but at first managing more or less amicably to “get along” with a two-household situation becomes permanently split up over the quite accidental incident when the father, in his truck and in front of his three daughters, backs over the very old, very incapacitated family dog and kills it. The father, one would think, is a permanent member of the family, but what happens is that he finds out he is out in the cold when the perhaps more symbolic but certainly loved dog, another “permanent” member of the family, is gone.
The tales mainly circle, however, around families who are falling apart due to divorce or who are already adults and have their own families, or significantly enough around groups of friends or strangers who have formed themselves into family-like units, or who at the very least owe each other some kind of humane courtesy as fellow humans. In “Former Marine,” grown-up sons must deal with their father’s secret behavior, and its aftermath; in “Christmas Party,” a cuckold must learn to accept socializing with his wife and his wife’s new husband, and desist from any attempt to take away from their happiness. In “Transplant,” an older man who has received a new heart finally accepts an emotional summons to meet the former owner’s mate. This is perhaps the one story in the collection which represents a positive rather than a negative movement. In “Snowbirds,” a woman must accept that her good friend does not mourn the death of her own husband adequately, and must turn away from deserting her own husband likewise, out of a desire to recover her own autonomy, however well worthwhile it is to have. “Big Dog” is a story in which a group of friends, all artistically or creatively inclined, in jealousy and spite turn away from a member of the circle who has had a sudden break of good fortune; this group of naysayers includes his own mate. In “Blue,” a woman with a strong sense of community abruptly finds herself deserted by the community, and alone with a ferocious animal, and no one to help her get away. “The Invisible Parrot” shows a man, down on his luck, who attempts to forge a tenuous bond with a woman down on hers, based on what he uses the force of imagination to “see” of her life, only to have her turn out to be incapable of the connection he is attempting. “The Outer Banks” is another dog story in which a man and a woman must make peace with their decision to be permanent travelers, and must find a resting place for their loyal dog. This sets them at odds, and changes the tenor of their trip. “Lost and Found” shows a man who is different away from home than he is when at home, and a woman who tries to rely on his “away self.” He has to make a commitment to one self or the other, and the story is about what he keeps, and what he has to give up. The story “Searching for Veronica” is a bit mysterious, in the sense that the narrator himself disputes an inset story he is told, and he is given the same first name as the author of the collection, to add to the uncertainty. He listens to a story told in an airport bar, but then argues that the woman and those she searches for are one and the same, seeming to prefer a more “literary” and recondite story than the one he heard. She is describing a failure of community from her own life, as well as a failure of family, but he himself encapsulates this failure by instituting one of his own, with her. Finally, “The Green Door” features people who are total strangers to each other, not family members, and who are driven by casual malice, concupiscence, and murderous hatred. Here there is the futility a bartender experiences of attempting community with others who are equally callous; what seems like a mere indifference to eccentrics in the beginning of the story emerges as a positive cruel viciousness by the end.
Thus, all in all, though Banks in this book largely examines bonds being broken, they are not as the blurb misdirected me to believe always the bonds of family per se, but also the links and connections of humanity and fellowship. The book is quite remarkable for stories which are so relatively short and condensed, yet so full of significance and emotive power as well. The language of the stories is usually quite simple, and where accents or dialects are indicated, the tactic is relatively subdued and not overdone. Overall, this is a fine book, one well worth the praise and attention it has garnered from many different corners of the critical world. Now if only blurb writers could learn to be a little more accurate in their assessments! But that misdirection is in no wise to be attributed to the book itself, which repays serious attention and will no doubt continue to do so for many a long year, long after the stories themselves have become dated in their references and facts, for the truths in the book are universal and timeless, though well-cloaked in the topical and temporal world.
When someone entitles a book Signs and Wonders–a phrase which I recently discovered comes from Passover, and is in Elie Wiesel’s A Passover Haggadah–we think we are prepared ahead of time for unusual events and mysterious happenings. But the fact of the matter is that Alix Ohlin illuminates the everyday event and ordinary life by showing the connection between them and the astonishing and predictive, the almost magical traces that we often call “coincidence” because we are afraid to call them “fate.” There are sixteen different fairly short stories in this book, and in every one of them we see people engaged in lives that are like those we know from our own experience or witness around us. But when we retell these sorts of events at parties, or gatherings, or coffee klatches with our friends, what obsesses us often is the magical trace, the thing that makes us feel “I should have known,” “It now looks so obvious,” “Of course, that was what had to happen.”
The title story, “Signs and Wonders,” has preeminent place in the book, coming at the very first possibly because of its thematic content. Just as one place of emphasis is the very last (and Alice Munro’s book Too Much Happiness, which I recently reviewed, had its title story in that ultimate position), so Alix Ohlin, another Canadian writer of note, puts her title story at the first. Briefly, the story is about an academic marriage which has run its course; but the wife cannot divorce the husband immediately because he is in an accident, and in all charity she cannot end things while he is in a coma. When their adult son, who has problems of his own, is informed of their decision to divorce after the husband returns to health, he becomes hysterical, and only the prayer intervention of a woman whom the wife has always hated and whose pet bird she tried to release into hostile surroundings helps him. As we are told in the last few sentences of the story, as the wife ponders in amazement at the fact of prayer come into their lives, “She couldn’t decipher [the signs and wonders]; she couldn’t read her life that way….But she could feel them all around her, the questions of her life, at times beating like wings, at times soaring clearly through the air, and she could only wonder how it was that she had never felt them before.”
As we continue throughout the book, we see other lives suddenly taken at a moment of attentive arrest in which “the beating of wings” of key or significant happenings can be witnessed. There’s a doctor dating a nurse, who “helps” her returned vet brother out of his addictive life, and who later witnesses something, a moment in time, which reminds him forcibly of the brother’s perspective, and his words, too late. There’s a stepmother who has a vision of one of her stepchildren dying, which she follows up on in spite of all pressure to the contrary, with astounding results. Two women in a park, superficially alike and dressed similarly, experience a moment of fate when one of them is mistaken for the other, and shot. Former assistants and interns of various businesses in New York hear of the death of a friend, and realize abruptly what their former life was like. And so on through the rest of the sixteen deceptively simple stories. Though death is sometimes the end or a major event in these stories, it is not really death in a depressing sense that these stories are “about”: Ohlin wants us to pay attention to other things as well.
As I think I’ve made obvious, the lives described in the book are those of people anyone might know, well-polished surfaces in which anyone might recognize his or her own face. What is crucial to each story, however, is the sudden intrusion of what Bob Dylan called “a simple twist of fate,” a funny or poignant or simply “there” little incident or fact which proves decisive in the lives of those depicted.
I said these stories are “deceptively simple,” and I think this is the mot juste for the author’s perspective and voice as well. It would take much longer than I have here, I think, to penetrate thoroughly all the rhetorical tactics and narrative ploys and gambits she uses to get her points across. But I think at least one point she makes is quite clear and lucid, and that is that we can never see the shape our lives are taking or the conclusion they are likely to have if we are too caught up in the moment or the quarrel or the obsession to take a look. And if we do look, and really see, what we observe may indeed be a sign, and a wonder.
I can remember the first time I was curious enough to mention Maeve Binchy’s Circle of Friends to another friend who reads, one whose tastes are perhaps a little less specialized than mine. She said, “You probably wouldn’t like her; it’s not really literary fiction.” I persisted, and she said “Well, it’s more like popular fiction, kind of gossipy and low-key. No big symbols or literary stuff to interpret, it’s mostly just about people’s lives in a small town in Ireland, and how they change when exposed to social currents from Dublin.” So, I thought, well, I’ll see the movie, which got some acclaim, and in which Minnie Driver starred, I wasn’t sure in what role; that seemed like a good way to approach the thing.
But something came up, and I missed the local showings of the movie, and by the time everything was over, I had gone on to something else. This made me all the more curious when a copy of the book fell into my hands from a free book shelf (don’t ever believe that it really happens that way–it didn’t “fall into” my hands, I regularly prune certain free book shelves with effort and abandon to get books I think I might like to read).
True enough, when I read the book blurb, it didn’t seem like my kind of book; for one thing, it was about a hometowny little friendship between two girls who go on to university together, and it sounded fairly humdrum. No Pulitzer or Nobel there. Then I started to read. I found other reasons not to get too excited about the book; for one thing, it seemed to have a number of places in which the dialogue that should logically have been in the mouth of one character came from another character, or there was a typo, or one character’s name seemed to be given for another character’s. This was a minor distraction, however, once I got involved in the story.
What I found was that the author was a penetrating judge of character, and though most of her creations were young and just starting out in life, she had a knack also for writing about the older people in the book and their conflicts and disappointments. Though the young university students and their cohorts are spoken of as the “circle of friends” once or twice in the book and are the central focus, by the end of the book the whole cast has become one whose lives have importance to the reader. It’s as if we are having a gossip about them all with the village maven. Every character, no matter how minor, has a fate or an ending, or a new beginning, and though there are no major surprises in the way they turn out, yet everything develops satisfactorily and in line with one’s sense of poetic justice. This treatment, though it is decidedly not literary in the sense of showing just how arbitrary life can actually be, and how ironies can multiply and interact, is still the source of a satisfactory read. After all, there are also instances in real life when people do get what’s coming to them, whether for good or for ill, and those can also be written about: not everything is some huge black catastrophic event or supplies a constantly pointed little fictional essay that baits the reader and leads him or her to expect what isn’t delivered and to be disappointed as a source of entertainment.
Which is to say, when all is said and done, that Maeve Binchy delivers no more and no less than the blurbs have contracted for: she is a reliable and percipient author who, though perhaps a bit lingeringly romantic or sentimental, never puts the romance or the sentiment in the position of having to carry the entire load of the plot effects. Circle of Friends, though not a book I would necessarily find it important to reread in order to get anything I didn’t get the first time, might become a soothing anodyne that I would read again because it reassures me about humanity in the main. I seem to remember that I read of Binchy’s death some time back, and I can now see why her devoted readers created such a stir about her potential absence: she has a kindly, open, wise, and perceptive mode of writing that while not pretending to be full of literary tricks and technical achievements is nevertheless full of human warmth and good humor. Now I suppose all that remains is sometime to watch the movie and see if the movie magnates have managed to capture the work of her great heart on film.