I bought Brotherly Love, a discounted, yet signed, copy from the remaindered section of the bookstore where I used to work. At the time I was enamored by Pete Dexter, whose books Train and Paris Trout I had recently read. Both of those books are spare and menacing, at times brutally violent, but done in a masterful way. Brotherly Love is like those books, but to call the book spare is an understatement. Dexter takes his time – most of the book, really – fleshing out the main characters, cousins Peter and Michael Flood from a Philadelphia gangster family. As the plot slowly develops – or comes to a boil, one might say – it becomes clear that Peter wants out. But of course, Michael and his band of hoods keep dragging him back in. In Brotherly Love, Dexter doesn’t quite plumb the emotional depths of his characters as he does so effectively in Paris Trout and Train, and the reader is left with a book that feels empty and characters that feel doomed from page one.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the sweeping multi-generational family saga. I’m continually amazed that a good writer can will us to abandon one protagonist for another, the father for the son; we hesitate, but a hundred pages later, we’ve forgotten the earlier generations as quickly as history does itself. But there’s something a little cruel in this sort of book: it’s not history — it’s a novel, and its ironic circumstances are wholly constructed. The innocent early days, the invariable fall, the important details that get distorted and misplaced over time: the author is setting us up, and the book would be innocuous — even pointless — if we weren’t eventually let down. These books are inherently about loss: the characters we meet at the beginning will die, or if they don’t, something else will be lost to the passage of time.
Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel, The Stranger’s Child, is one of those sweeping multi-generational family sagas, and, of course, Hollinghurst is one of those writers who can do most things remarkably well. It’s as beautifully written as his previous books, but it feels like a departure: the last four have been relatively stationary affairs in comparison, centering around young, gay Englishmen with a lot of time on their hands, and the narratives are largely expository and internal. I’ve read three out of four — the friend who eagerly pressed Hollinghurst on me years ago agreed with the critics and told me to skip The Spell — and of them, the 2004 Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty had been my (well, everyone’s) hands-down favorite.
But The Stranger’s Child seems as if it’s been written for me — or, at least, someone with my proclivities — with its somewhat traditional subject and straightforward narrative, a plot that moves on dialogue rather than description, and a pervasive Englishness, reserved and class-bound, that encompasses whole swaths of 20-century British literature. Parts of it, to my delight, feel very much like Brideshead Revisited fanfiction — in the best possible way, of course. (Who didn’t want more of “those languid days at Brideshead,” to actually see what Charles and Sebastian were surely getting up to that summer?)
The book’s been repeatedly compared to the work of Evelyn Waugh, E. M. Forster, and, as with Hollinghurst’s previous novels, Henry James, as well as that of contemporaries like Ian McEwan (for Atonement, which, on the surface, has many similarities) and Kazuo Ishiguro (for The Remains of the Day). But Hollinghurst brings a precise elegance to the genre, building upon the novels that came before it. In an essay on Atonement written a decade ago, Geoff Dyer said that, “It is less about a novelist harking nostalgically back to the consoling certainties of the past than it is about creatively extending and hauling a defining part of the British literary tradition up and into the twenty-first century.” Hollinghurst, rarely transgressive, occasionally labeled as “fusty,” but an unfailingly extraordinary novelist, is extending and hauling Brideshead into the present day. (Dyer had high praise for The Stranger’s Child and its author: in a review, he wrote that “Hollinghurst, the gay novelist, might also be the best straight novelist that Britain has to offer.”)
The novel begins in the summer of 1913 at Two Acres, the home of the Sawle family in outer London. The initial Brideshead parallels are reversed: the family is middle class and their houseguest, Cecil Valance, is an aristocrat. He’s a mediocre but deeply charming poet, and during the visit he puts aggressive but rather tame moves on the impressionable Daphne, all the while having it off properly in the woods with her brother, George. Cecil is killed in World War I, as are other characters from the idyllic opening passages, and most of them fade into obscurity by the second part, set a decade later. But Cecil is remembered, even revered: celebrated as a minor war poet, he’s quoted by Winston Churchill in the newspaper and viewed, as with so much of the late-Edwardian canon, as prophetic.
The remaining three sections make similarly brash leaps forward in time: the mid-1960s, then the early ‘80s, and finally, briefly, in the present day. Nearly a century after the initial action, all of our old friends have died. It’s inevitable, but it leaves you feeling a little cheated. With each transition you struggle with momentary disorientation, taking stock of who’s still alive and the family entanglements that have grown more complicated in the intervening decades. In a book where sexuality is surprisingly fluid and loyalties often waver, deciphering the two families’ domestic affairs is a tall order, and at times, a frustrating one. The more interesting changes are subtler: with the passage of time, characters’ histories are rewritten. Those who survive — and a surprising number of early characters make it well into old age — come to be defined by the decades through which they’ve lived. But those who died remain crystallized in memories, tinted and warped with nostalgia or bitterness. Misunderstandings and assumptions in 1913 become reminisces in the ‘20s, memories in the ‘60s, vague recollections in the ‘80s, and all but completely forgotten in the present day.
At the heart of these rewritten histories is literature: this is, after all, a book about a poet, and eventually, a book about books. The fourth and, at times, most tedious section, follows a biographer’s somewhat incompetent attempts to unravel Cecil Valance’s short life. Valance’s brother, Dudley, who winds up marrying Daphne, is a writer as well, but by the ‘80s, his work has faded from public consciousness. Daphne writes a book that is dismissed for its factual inaccuracies; she thinks back later about how her memories, cloudy with years of heavy drinking, are just as inaccurate: “The fact was that all the interesting and decisive things in her adult life had happened when she was more or less tight: she had little recall of anything that occurred after about 6:45, and the blur of the evenings, for the past sixty years and more, had leaked into the days as well.” The elderly characters, with their shaky recollections, leave you immensely frustrated: “I was there!” you want to shout. “Four hundred pages ago! Don’t you remember?” And when Daphne continues on, worrying over lost memories, the resulting passage is heartbreaking:
She felt something similar, but worse in a way, about hundreds and hundreds of books she’d read, novels, biographies, occasional books about music and art — she could remember nothing about them at all, so that it seemed rather pointless even to say that she had read them; such claims were a thing people set great store by but she hardly supposed they recalled any more than she did. Sometimes a book persisted as a colored shadow at the edge of sight, as vague and unrecapturable as something seen in the rain from a passing vehicle: looked at directly it vanished altogether. Sometimes there were atmospheres, even the rudiments of a scene: a man in an office looking over Regent’s Park, rain in the streets outside — a little blurred etching of a situation she would never, could never, trace back to its source in a novel she had read some time, she thought, in the past thirty years.
A bleak epigraph marks the start of the book’s final section: “No one remembers you at all.” It’s from Mick Imlah’s poem “In Memoriam Alfred Lord Tennyson” (the phrase “the stranger’s child” is from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.”). Imlah passed away two years ago, and Hollinghurst has dedicated this book to him. There’s something so grim about the idea that even books will be forgotten: memory is fickle, sometimes faulty, but shouldn’t something printed and bound hold more permanence than that? In the final scenes, we follow a relative stranger into an antiquarian bookshop, and there’s a moment of hope that the characters that were scribbling away dozens of chapters ago will be remembered. At one point very early on, a character says that Cecil’s poems “will be read for as long as there are readers with an ear for English music, and an eye for English things.” A century later, this seems doubtful: he is known, but he is barely remembered. The First World War, which feels palpably less present with each step forward in time, is now firmly in the past.
A book of this scope writes its own history, and if you find that history compelling, you’re doomed to fall in love with it. This was the first novel in a long while that pulled me in wholeheartedly: I stayed in on the weekend, and didn’t grumble about getting stuck on the train one night, just to finish it faster. I’ve pressed it on people at work, on friends at parties, and on strangers in coffee shops. The majority of them have never heard of it, or even of Hollinghurst himself. When I finished it, I went to look it up on Wikipedia, to read about its influences (cross-referenced, I assumed, with all the historical cameos, Rupert Brooke and Lytton Strachey and the like). Instead I found a skeletal plot summary and a brief paragraph on the reviews (“generally received positively”). I was indignant. Why wasn’t it tagged as an “instant classic”?
We live in a time when things struggle to stick: competing influences, recommendations, and links, bombarding us and casting aside one new thing for the next. But perhaps one of the best lessons to be learned from The Stranger’s Child is that things have never stuck particularly well. People and their words can tilt the world on its axis, however briefly, but the world will always tilt again. Imagining not remembering a thing about The Stranger’s Child decades from now, of it falling out of print, of Hollinghurst fading into obscurity, is hard for me to comprehend. But Hollinghurst’s characters carried some version of Cecil Valance with them through the stretch of their long lives. It seems difficult to imagine that we wouldn’t take all of these characters with us through our lives in turn.
Ideally, the critic in any art form evaluates a work based on the quality of its content alone. Realistically, this is almost never the case; personal prejudices and the sociopolitical atmosphere easily work their way into reviews. The pitfall the critic must avoid is letting such concerns dominate the review in place of honest discussion of aesthetic and thematic worth. In the literary world, it is easy to dodge this trap with some works, the new middlebrow best-seller for instance, but harder for others, especially ambitious projects which arise out of a specific cultural moment. Womanthology: Heroic is such a book.
First, the timing of Womanthology, the first in a planned series spearheaded by Renae De Liz, could not have been more apt. 2012 has already sadly been marked by political warfare against women’s civil and reproductive rights, and those on the attack show no sign of easing up. Into this environment, De Liz and her editorial team offer 300 pages filled with short comics all written and drawn by women. Thematically, the focus is on the heroism and strength within all women. And the closing chapters are devoted to instruction and advice on creating comics and making it in the industry.
Second, Womanthology in many ways is a signpost for the ongoing evolution of comics over the past several decades. The comics world was for many years comprised of the superhero titles of DC and Marvel, two dominant, fraternal, meticulously run businesses, and a few other publishers for profitable niches. The key word in that sentence was “fraternal,” for the vast majority of creators working in the majors were men. Today, as any walk through one of the conventions will reveal, there are independent companies, digital distributors, and other channels all willing to take on stories from any genre, many of which would have once been considered not commercially viable by publishers. Moreover, the business model of creator-owned work, in which writers and artists have full rights to their material as opposed to the total ownership DC and Marvel have over their properties, made comics less oligarchic and more accessible to aspirants.
This shift, one which, far from over, is still breaking new ground, has allowed female artists to proliferate as never before. It is fitting that this rise is marked by a hardcover coffee-table-sized book under the imprint of independent comics giant IDW. And it becomes more fitting considering how the book features a varied spectrum of talent, from established Eisner winners to rising stars whose work has made its greatest impact on the Internet. And even more fitting when one considers how the proceeds from the $30 price tag, still a relative bargain for a title of this size, are earmarked for charitable institutions. This is not only a generous action, but also a savvy one that perpetuates the ideal of creation for the sheer joy of creating apart from profit, an idea in firm accordance with the book’s “anyone and any woman can do this” spirit.
These factors should not be overlooked, but simultaneously they run the risk of making Womanthology feel like a grand-scale project laden with significance that dares you to dislike it no matter how dubious its quality. Overlooking the trappings leads to one key question: Is the book any good?
A thorough discussion of graphic narrative must consider the art, the writing, and how they serve each other. And to begin with, the art is uniformly terrific. Reflecting the diversity of talent, Womanthology, already established as an all-female artistic project, doubles as a sampler of the full spectrum of possibilities within comics art. There are certainly many pages of traditional pen and ink art in the DC and Marvel modes, all of it technically accomplished and frequently lovely, but it sits side by side with a variety of styles. To name just three, a flip through the pages reveals the ornate hand-drawn Victoriana of Janet K. Lee, the elaborate digital creations of Lois Van Baarle, and the endearing black-and-white near-stick figures of Stacie Ponder (whose extended episode from her web comic RPG runs along the bottom border for the book’s duration and provides a witty counterpoint to the sometimes weighty main material).
The stories that the art tells are a different matter. Arguably, there has never been an anthology which one could count as a 100 percent success, as the personal tastes of the editor will not match those of every reader, and with 300 pages and 150 artists, there are a few misses scattered among the hits.
This is partly due to the book’s format, which favors the art in mixing stories with a maximum six-page length and single-page illustrations akin to paintings, putting less of a premium on the words. Some stories suffer because they feel incomplete, a larger narrative forced by necessity into a compressed space. At the same time, the interaction between words and pictures in comics, among its many advantages, allows for storytelling and theme to be conveyed through image as much as word. A number of the writers tell stories so unsubtle in their meaning that the panels have nothing to show, with the overall effect one more pedantic than artistic.
That the hits are far greater in number is a credit to De Liz and her editors Laura Morley, Jessica Hickman, Mariah McCourt, Bonnie Burton, Suzannah Rowntree, and Nicole Falk. The theme of “heroic” can be conveyed with so many different tones — inspiring, dramatic, humorous — that the book never becomes monotonous. And in choosing stories, the editorial team effectively switches back and forth between perfectly-realized miniatures which tell a complete tale in two to six pages (“Margarite and Leopold,” “The Little Stranger,” “Warrior,” and “Lost Treasure,” to name just four), and others that read like the enticing first installments of continuing series, leaving the reader pleasantly craving more (an untitled story from De Liz herself, “The Dream Weaver,” “Glimmer”).
Criticism of Womanthology: Heroic must end with a full-circle return to the aspects beyond content. For the artistic quality comes from a double motivation on the part of the artists involved: to have fun, and to create a book with a positive, timeless message. Much of the art and stories depict heroism not as part of a high fantasy or super-powered realm, but as a quality any individual can demonstrate every day to affect genuine change. Further, this message comes via a book celebrating the shape of graphic narrative to come from a vibrant sector of its community. There is little doubt that all 300 artists were working with an ideal audience in mind — themselves in their youth — working to forge another generation of female creators. This combination of fine aesthetics and noble aims makes the Womanthology a work of female empowerment more relatable and moving than any psychology or parenting text. It’s a book to be given as a gift for decades to come, as long as the period when the two majors ruled the comics world…by which time this specific need for a Womanthology may hopefully have passed.
In his memoir Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov considered the quandary he’d given himself, remembering his own life and putting it to paper:
They are passing, posthaste, posthaste, the gliding years—to use a soul-rending Horatian inflection. The years are passing, my dear, and presently nobody will know what you and I know. . . . So perhaps it is time we examined ancient snapshots, cave drawings of trains and planes, strata of toys in the lumbered closet.
Nabokov understood the transience of day-to-day life; the way a cup of coffee empties itself almost immediately after its pouring, a ring of moisture its only shadow. We must give over to decay, and what we leave behind—the memories we’ve created through interactions with other people—must serve as our authentication. Accepting our impermanence is both the most terrifying and most comforting thing we may have to do, both our mortal limitation and our eternal emancipation.
Anthony Doerr’s newest collection of stories, Memory Wall walks this perfect line of memorial trepidation. Doerr’s voice has no limits, and each of his six stories quietly probes the grasp we keep on our memories. He begins, rightly, with a tale of memory displaced and dispossessed. The title story allows us to observe the consequences as Alma, an elderly white South African suffering from dementia, preserves her memories on plastic cartridges, which line the walls of her Cape Town home like glittering seashells. Alma’s memories—particularly those of her late husband, whose attention to her dwindled as he became increasingly obsessed with archaeology—are like fossils partially unearthed, our portrait of her a composite at best.
As her memories are recounted (by the way of thieves digging through the cartridges, in the hopes of finding buried treasure), we come to understand exactly why each memory’s disappearance means so much to her, and why each cartridge demands such attention. “Water in a vase, chewing away at the stems of roses. Rust colonizing the tumblers in a lock. Sugar eating at the dentin of teeth, a river eroding its banks. Alma could think of a thousand metaphors, and all of them were inadequate.” This is what it is to lose the ability to recount your life; this is the loss of personal history. Doerr compounds Alma’s loss by making it unspeakable, by placing her recalling just out of reach.
Each of Doerr’s stories could be contained in one of Alma’s cartridges, each a testament to the desire to make memory into a tangible totem. “Procreate, Generate” imagines a couple’s difficulty conceiving, the trauma of having “seventy-five trillion cells in their bodies and they can’t get two of them together.” “The Demilitarized Zone” examines a man missing his soldier son during wartime, each letter received delivering a fresh blow. “Village 113” follows a woman preserving seeds even as her village prepares to be submerged to make way for China’s massive Three Gorges Dam. She sees history in every inch of the town: “Every stone, every stair, is a key to a memory. . . . Everything accumulates a terrible beauty.” The seeds she salvages become “as heavy as a child,” her cross to bear, her memories and the memories of the town made manifest.
Doerr’s voices are not all aged, or even fully matured; in “The River Nemunas”, he fully embodies a fifteen-year-old girl, flying to Lithuania after the death of her parents, and ultimately chasing down her mother’s ghost in the pursuit of a legendary sturgeon. “The urge to know scrapes against the inability to know. . . . We peer at the past through murky water; all we can see are shapes and figures. How much is real? And how much is merely threads and tombstones?” Finally, in “Afterworld”, elderly Esther suffers from epileptic fits that serve as blasts of clarity, bringing her back to her youth as an orphan in Nazi Germany, and to the fateful moment in which her life was miraculously, inexplicably, spared. The lucidity in the midst of her seizures crystallizes her understanding of the past: “Draw the darkness, Esther thinks, and it will point out the light which has been in the paper all the while.”
Doerr’s protagonists seem destined to suffer from their own memories at the same moment they create and thrive in new ones, but at least they never feel anonymous or generic. The language he employs to shape each character’s voice is so specific to that character’s circumstance, so fresh and precise, that he always keeps us engaged. Sometimes the metaphors Doerr employs are a bit trite—yes, fossils represent memories, we may have seen this coming—but each perspective is so genuinely articulated that snark doesn’t seem necessary. It is rare to find an author whose voice feels artless and sincere; even if the story might feel predictable, we have to applaud his guilelessness. Doerr’s is the voice of a natural weaver of tales, and it feels only right that his final thoughts would carry undertones of the Brothers Grimm: “Every hour, an infinite number of memories disappear, whole glowing atlases dragged into graves. But during that same hour children are moving about, surveying territory that seems to them entirely new. They push back the darkness; they scatter memories behind them like bread crumbs. The world is remade.”
In a world where so much meaning comes at the expense of innocence and wonder, the truths illustrated in the simplicity of recollection, of bringing memories hidden in murky water to the level of surface observation, prove as engaging as epic poem. Doerr’s voice, to be sure, will not be forgotten.