Books June 2001

New and Noteworthy

Elegant novels of ideas, sparkling summer reading, travels with Dame Agatha
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Thinks ... by David Lodge
Viking, 352 pages, $24.95

Neuroscience, as Tom Wolfe pointed out in his essay "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died," is at this moment "the strategic high ground" not only in the academic world but well beyond it. Recent discoveries about the human brain, which show its workings to bear an unnerving resemblance to those of an analog computer, have thrown age-old ideas about the nature of human identity into question. Who are we? Do we really have a self, a soul, free will?

David Lodge, the extraordinarily clever and accomplished author of comic masterpieces such as Changing Places, Small World, and Nice Work, has always been a deft anatomist of intellectual trends. He, like Wolfe, clearly takes seriously the philosophical challenges posed by neuroscience, and in this book he has concocted a smart, seductive novel of ideas. The setting is a university in the west of England. Helen Reed, the author of several exquisitely sensitive, feminine novels, holds old-fashioned notions about consciousness: as a teacher of writing and literature, she makes a specialty of Henry James, and as a lapsed Catholic, she holds a residual, rather vague faith in the immortal soul. Her opposite number, who bears the Jamesian name of Ralph Messenger, is a cutting-edge, media-savvy cognitive scientist, confident, unsentimental, and extremely male. The self, spirit, soul, as far as he is concerned, "are just ways of talking about certain kinds of brain activity." "You're a machine," he tells Helen, "that's been programmed ... not to recognize that it's a machine."

From the archives:

"Right, Here Goes" (April 1996)
A review of David Lodge's Therapy by Scott Stossel.

What starts out as an intellectual friendship between the recently widowed Helen and the long-married Messenger soon heats up. The cheerfully amoral Messenger suggests an affair; Helen, still mourning her husband and encumbered with scruples about sleeping with married men, demurs. She is shocked by Messenger's skeptical interpretation of moral behavior. The uneasy sexual equilibrium is shattered when Helen makes a series of discoveries that disturb her complacent views. Liberated from guilt, she throws herself into passion and self-gratification—perfectly illustrating, in the process, Messenger's model of human motivation. But events take a turn she had not anticipated, and she must readjust her ideas about love, marriage, and self-interest all over again.

Lodge is one of the most readable writers now at work. In Thinks... he shows himself to be at the top of his form: his smooth gift for narrative has never been more in evidence; neither has his easy way with the theoretical, or his mastery of (as he once wrote of the late Kingsley Amis) "that combination of surprise and logicality that is the heart of comedy."

—Brooke Allen

Empire Falls by Richard Russo
Knopf, 512 pages, $25.95

ichard Russo first made his reputation with a series of blue-collar novels that suggested a more antic and expansive Raymond Carver. But by the time he published Straight Man, in 1997, Russo was clearly interested in breaking new ground, and that foray into academic farce showed off his comic timing and sneaky construction to superb effect. Now comes Empire Falls, the author's most ambitious work to date. The title refers to a down-at-heel town in contemporary Maine whose pulp mills and shirt factory have long since fallen silent, leaving the population to eke out a living along the economic margins—in bars, doughnut shops, greasy spoons. Russo attends to both the mighty (the plutocratic Whiting clan) and the meek (everybody else). Yet the focus of this post-industrial panorama is Miles Roby, the manager of the Empire Grill, who seems to preside serenely over the collapse of his personal and professional lives. His wife has left him for the local fitness-club mogul, and his restaurant, leased unto eternity from the rapacious Francine Whiting, is on its last legs. Miles, however, is a pathologically nice guy. And Russo gets the maximum mileage out of his protagonist's passivity, making it a source of laughter and melancholic recognition: "One of the odd things about middle age, he concluded, was the strange decisions a man discovers he's made by not really making them, like allowing friends to drift away through simple neglect." It may be that the author, a master of sweet-and-sour narrative, has allowed Miles's good nature to grow a little too sugary. And at just over 500 pages the novel feels overstuffed. Still, we sense that the protagonist's lengthy fuse will lead, sooner or later, to an explosion—and when it finally comes, Russo's slow-burn strategies prove to be smart ones after all.

—James Marcus

Never Change by Elizabeth Berg
Pocket Books, 214 pages, $23.95

he pain of loss and longing suffuses this story of Myra Lipinski, childless and unmarried at fifty-one. "You know people like me," she begins. "I'm the one ... that everybody liked and no one wanted to be with." The only child of emotionally remote Polish immigrants, Myra has been a loner all her life. At fifteen she decided to become a nurse, so that she could "offer comfort, especially when that comfort was so sorely needed, so sure to be taken." As one of her patients later says, "There's nothing worse than having all this stuff you want to give away and then not being able to find anyone to take it."

Now Myra is a visiting nurse in Boston. She drives an expensive car, cooks comfort food, buys herself birthday presents "the price of which must exceed $150," and dotes on her dog. She accepts what she calls her destiny. Then her high school classmate Chip Reardon, "every girl's dream boy," "the handsome star athlete with a good head on his shoulders," comes under Myra's care. She had a crush on Chip in high school, "a full-time longing" that seems scarcely to have abated since. "Now I can have him," she thinks.

That this classic adolescent fantasy should come true may invite readers' exasperation or disbelief, even allowing for its cruel price: Chip has a fatal brain tumor. And he is not a particularly persuasive character. But the rest of Myra's patients beguilingly demonstrate Elizabeth Berg's great talent for writing dialogue and portraying relationships. Among them is the irresistible DeWitt Washington, a drug dealer with a gunshot wound. In one scene he responds to Myra's sadness by asking if she is "pillowed." Astonished, she stops crying. "What?!" he says. "It's not such a dumb question. I seen plenty of womens act like you and the problem is? ... P-R-E-G-N-U-T!"

Toward the end Chip says to Myra, "I lived my whole life unable to make a vital connection. Not because I couldn't; because I wouldn't ... It's the same for you." Vital connections are Berg's primary concern. Readers of her earlier novels will hear echoes in the broad themes of Never Change. Like Range of Motion and Talk Before Sleep, this book is about the wisdom and closeness that crisis can bring. The narrative road that leads to them is funny, poetic, and moving.

—Martha Spaulding

The Dearly Departed by Elinor Lipman
Random House, 269 pages, $23.95

itty and wry, with tendrils of a suitable romance at its edges, this is summer reading at its best. On the occasion of her mother's accidental death, Sunny Batten returns to the tiny, unpicturesque town where she grew up. King George, New Hampshire, is the sort of place where the police chief (and part-time paperhanger), when breaking the bad news, suggests that Sunny might remember him from study hall, and the owner of the single motel turns the lights off after dark because she doesn't want to be awakened. There, along with discovering some secrets about her mother's happy life and growing to like a brash half-brother she never knew she had, Sunny learns a universal truth: Things get better after high school.

Lipman impressively harmonizes a large group of keenly observed characters and generously gives nearly all of them good hearts, despite their faults. The Dearly Departed entertains the reader with quirky details and amusing dialogue, but most nourishing is its picture of small-town life, in which everyone knows everyone else's business but they love one another just the same.

—Christina Schwarz

The Gospel of Judas by Simon Mawer
Little, Brown, 336 pages, $24.95

he priest whose faith threatens to collapse is a familiar figure in Western fiction. But in the hands of the British novelist Simon Mawer that figure takes on fresh, eloquent life. Indeed, Mawer's protagonist, Father Leo Newman, a biblical scholar based in present-day Rome, is a memorably hard case, shaped by a family background that taps into the heart of the Nazi-era nightmare, and possessing the intellectual tools that guarantee he'll recognize faith-shattering truths when they come his way.

Those truths emerge most vividly in a newly discovered "Gospel of Judas," found in a cave overlooking the Dead Sea. If genuine, it pre-dates all the Gospels of the New Testament and will change the premises of Christian faith forever. But other sorts of truth—sexual, psychological, vocational—also begin to wear down Leo's defenses as Mawer draws the disparate strands of his story together. The book's assured orchestration of linking imagery and parallel incidents (two troubling deaths, two love triangles) offers keen formal pleasure. And pleasure turns to deeper satisfaction as Mawer delves into the failed resurrections and flawed transfigurations that result from his characters' volatile desires, delusions, and deficiencies.

The Gospel of Judas is the second of Mawer's novels to be published in this country, and it fulfills the high expectations raised by his U.S. debut, Mendel's Dwarf, three years ago. Here we have another gifted British writer of idea-driven fiction, deserving of mention alongside Iris Murdoch, William Boyd, and Michael Frayn. Mawer's prose is admirably lyrical, playful, and precise. His greatest strength, however, is in crafting probing, puzzlelike narratives that yield compelling dramas of the mind and heart. Three of his earlier novels have not yet been published here. It is time to bring them out.

—Michael Upchurch

American Chica by Marie Arana
Dial, 309 pages, $23.95

n Cartavio, Peru, a four-year-old Marie Arana spies on her parents as they come home in the wee hours of the morning, presumably after a party: "My mother ... her long, gold hair throwing light like a tungsten filament; her all-American, Hollywood face alive with expectation ... my Peruvian father—black-haired, handsome, smiling and shouting Spanish over his shoulder, waving a bottle in his fist as if he were a carnival barker on opening day. His friends spill in behind them ... My parents are young. It is their moment ... When love seems infinite, the road feels free, and nights trip festively into day." With this gorgeous opening vignette the author's themes spring instantly to life. More than a memoir, this is a family history, made up of leisurely loops that Arana casts back to the Spanish conquest of Peru and forward to her North American present, conjoining the lives of her father's lordly Aranas and her mother's helter-skelter Clapps.

A person of a metaphorical turn of mind can read into this book the history of U.S.-Latin American relations, and if that's what you feel like doing, you'll suspect that Arana is abetting you. But the book also reads like a novel—almost. A fiction writer aiming for verisimilitude would have toned some of this material down. Surely no novelist would have had the narrator's mother marry so many times. And no one but Gabriel García Márquez would have dared to invent an adventurer uncle who lends the household a monkey and an anteater. American Chica tells a fantastical, spellbinding tale.

—Barbara Wallraff

Come, Tell Me How You Live by Agatha Christie Mallowan
Akadine, 207 pages, $18.95

o read Agatha Christie's memoir is to experience what her husband, the renowned archaeologist Max Mallowan, called "a loving and merry companionship." A favorite aunt takes one by the hand and, confiding the liveliest memories of her happiest years, evokes a vanished world that is oddly familiar today from mystery novels written before most of us were born.

With the reissue of Come, Tell Me How You Live we can once again join Christie in her travels with Max to digs at Tell Brak and Chagar Bazar in the late 1930s. She called it "a very little book, full of everyday doings and happenings." But it is not everyday to us. We are roughing it in French colonial Syria and Iraq, traveling, because the Mallowans were English, with aplomb and authority. Indeed, Max was paterfamilias to 140 workmen—Kurds, Turks, Armenians, and Arabs—and dealing with such un-English contingencies as the luring away of a pious lady brothel keeper's best girl by the Mallowans' servant.

And yet it is Christie's "everyday doings" that delight us, from the shopping problems of a middle-aged woman in London trying to outfit herself for Asian deserts to the difficulty of reprimanding a houseboy for drying dishes with a bed sheet. "But," he replies in extenuation, "it is not a clean sheet."

Christie finished this book in 1944, partly in order to brighten the war years. Crisply ironic, it glows with memories of a land where people once said of political trouble, "It does not touch us here." "It is good," she wrote, "to remember there were such days and such places."

—Alan Buster
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