Life is impossible; it can’t possibly continue; and then it does. Existential despair accretes; time passes; the color of one’s despair changes. Time seems to change its velocity, its direction. Suddenly everything is different. The title story in Twilight of the Superheroes describes this problem so gently and bravely: “And yet, here he is, he and his friends, falling like so much landfill into the dump of old age. … Yet one second ago, running so swiftly toward it, they hadn’t even seen it.” Deborah Eisenberg’s stories remind me of William Maxwell’s; they are wise, kind, careful, benevolent.
They say that most novelists end up writing the same book over and over again: a truth which manifests itself differently in the work of different novelists. In the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro, it takes the form of an incredibly elegant formal unity.
Never Let Me Go, like The Remains of the Day and, to a lesser extent, When We Were Orphans, is a mystery in which a Martian-like, yet strangely affecting first-person narrator (a young female clone, an aging butler, a middle-aged celebrity detective) deciphers the dimly sensed evil (human organ-harvesting, Nazi collaboration, a family crime) underlying an idyllic quintessentially English institution (a beautiful manor house, a posh boarding school, the British colony in Shanghai). Despite the radically different settings, all the three novels share the same key formal elements: a painstakingly unraveled historical mystery, constructed on the time scale of a single human life; a journey to track down characters from the past who have survived, inconceivably, into the present; an unhappy love story; the haunting sense of a decayed idyll that remains, despite its historical rottenness, the locus of all the most beautiful and meaningful impressions in somebody’s life.
In Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro brilliantly and heartbreakingly executes the same retrospective plot in the unlikely chronotope of science fiction. This book made me cry for days. Did I feel a little bit exploited—did I feel that sci-fi rule-bending had been used to construct an otherwise inconceivably tragic story of doomed young love? I did, but it was worth it.
That is, before colleges offered courses in “flash fiction,” Davis was patiently crafting sentences “as clean as a bone” (to crib from James Baldwin) and joining these sentences together in small, miraculous assemblages. Here’s one from Varieties of Disturbance called “Collaboration With Fly”:
I put that word on the page,
but he added the apostrophe.
Here’s another, called “Lonely”:
No one is calling me. I can’t check the answering machine because I have been here all this time. If I go out, someone may call while I’m out. Then I can check the answering machine when I come back in.
Like the color fields of Mark Rothko or the sculpture of Donald Judd, Davis’ stories give off a disarming appearance of simplicity. However, as anyone who’s ever tried to work in her manner without collapsing into mannerism will attest, there is tremendous art behind the artlessness. These assemblages are, in fact, tools, their purpose to wrench us a little bit out of our habitual ways of moving through the world. The word Disturbance is characteristically apt and elegant – le mot juste.
As is “Variety.” Like Davis’ other sterling collection of this decade, Samuel Johnson is Indignant, Varieties of Disturbance intermingles stories in the classic Davis mode with longer and more unusual experiments. Several of these – “We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders,” “Mrs. D and Her Maids,” “Cape Cod Diary” – are among my favorite pieces here.
In Davis’ hands, things are both exactly what they are and not quite what they seem, and after an hour or so, Varieties of Disturbance starts to look less like a collection of experimental fiction and more like an adventure story: there’s no telling what the next page will bring.
(It’s also worth mentioning that this book has one of the best covers of the millennium.)
Growing up in Scotland, I knew several farmers who pronounced with Delphic confidence on the weather. On a clear December day they would forecast a blizzard; in the middle of rain they would claim a drought was coming.
In the spring and summer of 2001, people who were listening could hear The Corrections coming. This oddly titled novel, by this interesting writer, was finally about to emerge. It was published on September 1st. and, despite everything else that happened that autumn, there was an unusual degree of excitement around the book, not just among critics but among readers. People read it, people talked about it, people registered that something important had occurred.
The novel itself opens with a storm. “You could feel that something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder.” In the gorgeous, cascading pages that follow, those gusts blow through the Lambert family. Illuminated by Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant prose, bill paying, grocery shopping, depression, Christmas holidays, a walk to the corner shop become subjects of breathless interest and, often, wild humor. Over and over he gives us the deep pleasure of seeing the world around us – and the world inside us – in new ways. For once, the prophets were right.
Snow on the mountain. The winged horseman is coming. Read The Corrections.