I’m a big fan of narrative-style history books, and it’s always fun to see a heavily researched piece of history that floats along like a novel. The problem with Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City is that it fails, at times, to feel like a strong account of historical events. The book follows two and a half storylines that intertwine, if only geographically, but never intersect. The backdrop is the World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893, a now forgotten event that transfixed the world at the time. Daniel Burnham is the renowned architect of the Fair, beset by meddlers and bureaucrats; H. H. Holmes, whose torturous schemes are at times hard to fathom in their cruelty, is a serial killer who haunts Chicago during the Fair; and Patrick Prendergast, to whom the book only gives over two dozen or so pages, is an increasingly delusional man whose obsession with Chicago’s showy political scene leads to tragedy. The plotlines in the book are fascinating, both because Larson lends them a cinematic flair and because there is a continual sense of wonder that history has managed to forget such vibrant characters. Despite, or perhaps because of, Larsen’s ability to craft such a readable story, the book does inspire some raised eyebrows at times. A scan through the notes at the end of the book reveals the times when Larsen speculates about his characters in the absence of hard facts. While I don’t necessarily disagree with this practice, these moments in the book tend to feel transparent. Likewise, the structure of the book is a bit flimsy as the three characters within share little but being in the same city during the same period of time, and the strenuous effort put forth by Larsen to connect these three characters tends to detract from the stories themselves, as each character is certainly worthy of his own book (even the poor, bewildered Prendergast). Despite these flaws, the book was still a delight to read, especially on my daily rides on Chicago’s elevated trains which still snake through the city as they did when the World’s Fair was held here in 1893.
Tragically, I had already arrived at the beach by the time my last essay went up (the one about a reading rut, for those of you who don’t keep a scrapbook). Like a fool, I had packed the William Vollmann, taking up space that could have been used for an economy-size block of cheese or some charming article of lounge wear. My beach day goes like this: Bud heavies and scads of potato chips. A crab encounter. Bocce injury, and several restoratives. A sand sandwich, and a sunburn. In this context, Europe Central was as useful, to use the bewildering colloquialism, as tits on a boar. Meanwhile, the wonderful suggestions piling up in the comment section of my post mocked me, in my bookless universe.
The beach rental, like a hostel, had a little library–a ragtag gang of abandoned holiday volumes. I found a Harry Potter, which was cold comfort, but easy to read while napping. Three hundred pages in, I realized I had already read it. Cedric’s death left me unmoved, again. The day before we departed the beach, I found and purloined, a water-swollen copy of A Perfect Spy. I love John Le Carre. Whenever I read one of his novels, I spend the whole time feeling as though I missed something crucial, but according to him in this marvelous article, that’s how the actual spies felt too. I had wasted five jobless days on warmed-over Potter, another week in the rut, While Edan was eating her frittata, I spent my holiday eating stale eggy-sandy from that restaurant with the yellow arches. Although I did develop the approximation of a tan.
When I got home, Nocturnes was sitting in my mailbox, a small package representing a great change in my fortunes. As I began reading, I felt the clouds breaking up above my trench. Nicole Krauss said a thing about Roberto Bolaño, a thing that I’ve seen so often on his dust jackets that it’s actually started to annoy me (like Updike on Nabokov writing ecstacially): purportedly, Bolaño made her believe “Everything is possible again.” I’ve made it clear before that a flame burns eternal in my bosom for Roberto Bolaño, but Krauss’ soundbite better describes how I feel about Kazuo Ishiguro.
It is a great thing to be surprised by a novelist. I don’t mean surprised like you feel surprised when Cedric dies, or when Lydia runs off with Wickham, or Piggy falls off the cliff. The surprise in a large part of Kazuo Ishiguro’s work is that he changes the very quality of the world in some subtle but deeply alarming way; suddenly the sky is a gray shade, your own voice vibrates at a slightly different frequency, and an atonal humming sound wafts on the breeze. Imagine the Pevensie children entering a wardrobe that led to an ordinary dining room, on another planet. That’s an Ishiguro Narnia.
The ease with which he shifts between the heimlich and unheimlich, within his oeuvre as a whole (say, from Artist of the Floating World to Never Let Me Go), and within a given novel (When We Were Orphans, or The Unconsoled, or here, in Nocturnes), is phenomenal. Truly, Ishiguro makes me believe in the limitless possibilities of the written word. And the thing that I love about Kazuo Ishiguro is that, for someone who tampers with the way the world is made, he does not sacrifice the cherished conventions of English prose. This means that, for me, he does not sacrifice readability. Anyone can turn things weird when he or she decides that pronouns are unnecessary and the second person singular is preferred.
Nocturnes, comprising five medium-length, loosely-related stories, is not a giant work, but Ishiguro manages to suggest a lot, while saying not a lot. It is brief and lovely and achy, like smelling a long-forgotten smell, or hearing a snatch of song you recognize (to borrow one of its themes). Nonetheless, it retains the bizarre quality of which I am so fond. To me, the world of Nocturnes is not the world; the people, simulacra.
I realized I’ve said about Ishiguro generally, and very little about Nocturnes specifically, but I don’t have much else to say. Like telling someone else your dream, describing the stories in any detail would be sort of incoherent, and boring. And I think, had I not been in my reading rut, that I might have felt bereft at the end of the book. It is short, and while I sometimes confuse length with quality, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that it’s a touch spare. But, given the listless summer I’ve had, Nocturnes was the perfect thing, a real rut-breaker. Acting upon me like an exquisite and prudently-sized hors d’oeuvre, it left me, finally, ravenous for reading and anxious to see what else is possible.
I’ve got a John Le Carre to finish.
Quinn Dalton’s recent collection Bulletproof Girl contains eleven stories about women in peril. Not physical peril in the tied to the railroad tracks “save me Indiana Jones” way, but social and emotional peril. Each story is a snapshot, a day or two in the life of a woman who has come up against something in her life that is big and hard to move. My favorite story was “Lennie Remembers the Angels” about an elderly woman who is paranoid about her neighbors but turns a blind eye to her son’s transgressions. There is a physicality to her language in this story: damp heat, dark apartments and overpowering food smells. Like “Lennie,” several of the stories in the collection could be mistaken for chapters in a novel; they aren’t self-contained. Dalton is very good at fleshing out her characters, and we know their individual histories. As she leads her protagonists through their hard times, we are given stories that are as character-driven as they are plot-driven. The long title story broadens the themes the Dalton explores in the rest of the collection. Instead of one woman, we have three: Emery, May and Celeste, three generations from the same family, all at difficult crossroads and alternately comforting and pitying one another. Emery is smarting from the loss of her boyfriend, her mother May has been driven to odd obsessive behavior ever since her husband moved out, and old Celeste the grandmother is vibrant, but will not sympathize with her daughter, and instead takes them all on a macabre errand.See also: Scott’s review and his interview with Dalton
Has there ever been another writer of dark, morbid, surrealistic fiction who is as warm and humane as Nathaniel Hawthorne? I just finished reading The Marble Faun, his final novel, and what struck me is how much he cares about the people in the story, how fully he feels their isolation and estrangement. From Poe to Kafka, from Melville to W. G. Sebald, alienation and the uncanny have usually come to us with a chill, a coldness that questions not only the nature of human relationships but even the possibility of them. So it was a shock to read this surprisingly rich story about alienated friends and lovers, who are eventually drawn closer to each other by the very coldness that has separated them during their heightened, trancelike experiences.
The Marble Faun was published in 1860, and it’s very different from anything in Hawthorne’s famous earlier novels – The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, and The Blithedale Romance. It deals with expatriates in Rome, and is generally considered the start of the “Americans in Europe” genre that Henry James would later develop.
It’s not a ghost story, and doesn’t draw much on the old gothic elements that Jane Austen, for instance, parodies in Northanger Abbey. The eerie, imaginative side of The Marble Faun comes less from the events than from the alertness Hawthorne brings to his characters’ perceptions. The novel is surreal largely because Hawthorne sees the world with disorienting vividness:
There is a singular effect, oftentimes, when out of the midst of engrossing thought and deep absorption, we suddenly look up, and catch a glimpse of external objects. We seem, at such moments, to look farther and deeper into them, than by premeditated observation; it is as if they met our eyes alive, and with all their hidden meaning on the surface, but grew again inanimate and inscrutable, the instant that they become aware of our glances.
This is a good description of how the novel works. Hawthorne catches his characters at the moments when they “look farther and deeper” into their surroundings, and then at the opposite moments when they feel everything grow “inanimate and inscrutable.” He is masterful at describing the psychology of guilt, the texture that despair can give to every detail. As part of this texture, he also excels at showing how the same street or statue or room can mean different things to different people at different times. Often the settings and the characters seem to seep into each other, merging and then coming apart.
The story revolves around a murder and its impact on the four main characters. Two American artists – the sculptor Kenyon and the copyist Hilda – become friends with the painter Miriam and a young Italian man, Donatello. Characteristically, Hawthorne describes Miriam, the novel’s heroine, as a walking illusion:
She resembled one of those images of light, which conjurors evoke and cause to shine before us, in apparent tangibility, only an arm’s length beyond our grasp; we make a step in advance, expecting to seize the illusion, but find it still precisely so far out of reach.
Nearly everything about Miriam’s past is unknown, and many important questions about her remain unanswered at the novel’s end. She has taken up a new identity in Rome after some unspecified involvement in some obscure crime. Hawthorne refuses to ever clear up the mystery, and pretends at one critical point not to know what Miriam is discussing with a monk who has started to follow her around the city.
Eventually, Donatello kills this monk because he thinks the man is persecuting Miriam and deserves to die. The murder – as impulsive and ambiguous as Billy Budd’s murder of Claggart – sets in motion the novel’s vision of guilt and despair passing from one person to another. Anticipating The Brothers Karamazov, Hawthorne creates a situation where everyone ultimately feels responsible for the murder, and where guilt spreads so wide and deep that nobody remains innocent.
Hawthorne traces the course of this guilt as it moves through the characters. The Marble Faun uses many of the techniques we find in self-consciously experimental fiction: unexpected time shifts, deliberately misleading narration, elaborate literary references, labyrinthine ambiguities, a constant awareness of conflicting viewpoints. Yet while reading the novel I never thought of it in these terms, because Hawthorne is so focused on using his techniques to deepen our understanding of the characters. It’s essential that the history of Miriam’s earlier guilt remain unclear, for instance, because this is how she experiences the past – she’s no longer able to say where her innocence ends and her responsibility begins. Similarly, Hilda develops a bizarre sense of complicity in the monk’s murder, even though all she did was witness it from a distance.
Hawthorne involves us in these changes with lavish conviction. I simply hadn’t expected the emotional and psychological fullness that the novel brings to the transformations of Miriam and Hilda and Donatello. The paradox of The Marble Faun is that it’s the most nihilistic of Hawthorne’s books at the same time as it’s the warmest and most sympathetic. The characters work their way towards each other through their worst encounters with desolation and self-doubt. As Melville recognized, Hawthorne is one of the great writers of negation. He is peerless at dramatizing darkness and loneliness and evil. Everyone in The Marble Faun becomes lost, wandering in destructive and hopeless alienation. Each character suffers from “an insatiable instinct that demands friendship, love, and intimate communication, but is forced to pine in empty forms; a hunger of the heart, which finds only shadows to feed upon.”
The novel offers no easy hope, no simple consolation. Miriam never escapes her guilt. Donatello goes to prison. Hilda’s doubts about her innocence and the darkness of the world stay with her forever. Yet the final paradox is that all the characters come together in their loneliness, and are united in their separation. They still have “only shadows to feed upon,” but they know this about each other, and they do their best to see beyond their individual tragedies and to share whatever comfort they can. Hawthorne loves them for this, and loves them for salvaging their humanity even after they’ve been broken by their nightmarish personal failures, and by the wild, irrational malevolence that haunts all the story’s events. The Marble Faun is intellectually rigorous in its refusal to surrender to the temptations of sentimentality, and emotionally rigorous in its even stronger refusal to surrender to the temptations of cynicism and despair.