Books October 2001

New & Noteworthy

A sly and sublime historical novel; disappointing Didion; coming of age in Hollywood

According to Queeney
by Beryl Bainbridge
Carrol and Graf, 224 pages, $22.00

For a decade now the British writer Beryl Bainbridge has reshaped the historical novel according to a less-is-more agenda. Not for her the lavish spectacle or painstaking sociopolitical overview. Instead she leads her readers, with few guiding lights, toward some tight and often perilous corner of the past—a Crimean War battlefield (Master Georgie), the Titanic on its way down (Every Man for Himself)—as if to see how we'll fare there. Hers is a grisly vision, with death coming for her floundering, blinkered protagonists sooner rather than later. And yet there's something transcendent in the human struggles she depicts, which touch on both the farcical and the sublime.

According to Queeney is about Samuel Johnson in the last two decades of his life, and it shifts the ground from the physical extremes of war and shipwreck to a setting of urban flux and clamor. But the same circumstances obtain: death looms everywhere, and a whole life is to be given meaning—books written, a past revisited, a final romance consummated—before the moment of extinction arrives. The tone, as always with Bainbridge, is complex: a kind of visceral, biting tenderness or wily, anguished admiration, as Johnson and his objet d'amour, Hester Thrale (the latter encumbered with a living husband, a dying mother, and numerous ailing children), fumble toward an understanding of their feelings for and expectations of each other. Snapping those fumblings into focus is Hester's precocious daughter Queeney, whose jealous temper has a simultaneously sharpening and distorting effect on her insights.

The novel's intent is evident in both its title and its structure. Each chapter recounting events from Johnson's life is followed by Queeney's impatient replies, years later, to queries from a would-be chronicler of Johnson's London. And each reply twists or refutes some detail in the passages preceding it. Bainbridge slyly puts readers at the same disadvantage as her characters, who are rarely clued in to the full picture; and this very constriction of viewpoint is what immerses readers so hectically in the lives and era of the novel. The result: Bainbridge never has to tell you where you are, because, by her own oblique and canny means, she has taken you there already.

—Michael Upchurch

Political Fictions
by Joan Didion
Knopf, 352 pages, $25.00

Not long after Joan Didion left southern California for New York, a Los Angeles writer compared her to a cut flower, severed from her roots. At the time, I thought that was just bitterness talking, but now I'm not so sure. In the thirteen years since Didion moved to Manhattan, her work has become flat, almost indifferent, disconnected from the world. The best essays in her collection After Henry (1992) are those dealing with Los Angeles; her novel The Last Thing He Wanted (1996) is as blank and mannered as a polished stone. It's as if Didion on the East Coast has retreated to a strangely insular landscape, devoid of interaction with daily life. Surely that's the case with Political Fictions, her fourth volume of essays, which, even while criticizing the American political process as "perilously remote from the electorate it was meant to represent," never overcomes its own profound disengagement.

There's a certain irony to this, and not just because Didion's remoteness mirrors the process she writes about. After all, Didion's main strength as a writer has always been her aloofness, her ability to stand back and comment on what she sees. In her best work—the essays of Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979), and the full-length nonfiction efforts Salvador (1983) and Miami (1987)—it is tempered by a participatory edge. Here participation tends to go by the wayside, replaced by a fuzzy ruminative quality most notable for its lack of nuance. American politics, Didion declares, is an industry, incestuous and self-involved. The issues that compel us are in no way organic but, rather, manufactured hot buttons, meant to mobilize an increasingly narrow range of swing voters, on whom electoral outcomes rely. Though it's difficult to deny the accuracy of such observations, they're hardly eye-opening in the manner Didion intends. Yet throughout Political Fictions she returns to these commonplaces as if they were revelations by which our understanding of politics might be transformed.

None of that might be so bad were there more reporting in these pages, more perspectives for Didion to navigate. The key failure of Political Fictions, though, is that except for "Insider Baseball" (which already appeared in After Henry) and "Eyes on the Prize," a deftly layered account of the 1992 Democratic Convention, it features virtually no reporting. Instead most of the essays function as extended book reviews, with Didion reacting to her material from the safety of a reader's chair. In "Newt Gingrich, Superstar" she laments the former speaker's influence through the filter of his books as opposed to his programs; in "Clinton Agonistes" she writes not of the journalistic frenzy that accompanied the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal but of how that frenzy was interpreted in, for example, the Columbia Journalism Review. If this were a starting point, a way of mapping out the territory, it could be useful—"History is context," Didion writes in "The West Wing of Oz." But in the end Political Fictions offers not history but historiography, which is a secondhand process at best.

—David L. Ulin

The Devil's Larder
by Jim Crace
Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 176 pages, $20.00

Jim Crace is one of the best novelists in Britain; in the United States he is hardly known. His work doesn't clamor for attention, like Martin Amis's and Salman Rushdie's; nor does it draw one in with conventional, reader-friendly narratives, like Pat Barker's and Ian McEwan's. On the contrary, its muted rhythms require a certain engagement from the reader, a willingness to read more slowly, to listen harder. Those who do so will be rewarded with fiction that is thoughtful, harmonic, and original. Crace never squanders a word or an image.

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