By Jeffrey EugenidesFarrar, Straus & Giroux, 544 pages, $26.00
By Robert ChalmersGrove Press, 568 pages, $13.00
By Rachel CuskPicador USA, 213 pages, $22.00
By Paul AusterHenry Holt, 336 pages, $24.00
The Damnation of Theron Ware, or Illumination
by Harold Frederic
Modern Library, 358 pages, $19.95
Don't be put off by the opening of this neglected American tragicomedy. True, the first chapter is written with a Hawthorne-like formality, and its subject matter—the closing session of the annual Nedahma Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church—seems tediously dated (the book was originally published in 1896). But if you persevere through these nine pages (appreciating Harold Frederic's sly commentary on the decline of religious leadership in the nineteenth century), you'll be rewarded. Reissued as part of the Modern Library paperback series that pairs classic texts with introductory essays by distinguished contemporary writers (in this case Joyce Carol Oates), this satiric examination of a naif led astray by sophisticates is a terrific novel. With an incisive eye for the power of ambition, self-regard, and self-delusion, Frederic mercilessly, albeit good-naturedly, exposes the weaknesses of his young minister, Theron Ware, by setting a trap for him similar to the one Sinclair Lewis set for Carol Kennicott in Main Street: Theron is clearly brighter than the provincials who surround him and who, to his frustration, fail to appreciate his talent. Yet he is so uneducated and so unworldly that he cannot help looking the fool when, believing he has "been invited to become a citizen" of a world in which "men asked one another, not 'Is your soul saved?' but 'Is your mind well furnished?,'" he tries to set himself above his dull flock. Certainly, elements of the plot—Theron's attraction, for instance, to the gorgeous and independent-minded Celia Madden—are predictable. However, she, together with her friends, a jaded priest and a dry scientist, plays an original and cruel game that is far more compelling than a simple romance. They charm Theron (and fascinate the reader) with intellectual discussions and, to him, radical views on subjects such as biblical history, Catholicism, the role of religion in America, music, the attitudes of the ancient Greeks, and women's rights. Revealing a markedly contemporary sensibility, as Oates points out, Frederic refuses to say whether Theron's new knowledge damns or enlightens him (hence the alternate titles), and the ending is no less than brilliant in its understanding of the shallowness and the consequent resilience of the modern American.
The Book of Illusions
by Paul Auster
Henry Holt, 336 pages, $24.00
"Hip intellectual" is an oxymoron in this country, and it is therefore appropriate that the hip, intellectual novelist Paul Auster should be a little less popular here than he is in France, where no such contradiction is recognized. Auster has always written from the head rather than the heart. All his novels are built on cerebral conceits, and in spite of his oft observed fascination with chance, coincidence, and contingency, his books are painstakingly constructed: characters are emblems as opposed to people; situations are created out of a feeling for dramatic symmetry rather than from the all-too-messy urgency of human passion. The results can be compelling, but they tend to be on the dry side.
With his new novel, Auster seems to be attempting to work in a more emotional vein, but the effort is not very successful, because the central catastrophe has occurred before the action begins: when we first meet the narrator, a professor of literature named David Zimmer, he is trying to recover from the recent death of his wife and two sons in an airplane accident. This is a subject that can hardly fail to harrow any reader, so our empathy with David is cheaply bought, allowing Auster to get away with mere formulaic breast-beating and hair-tearing before heading into the main part of the plot. This describes David's involvement with the silent-film comedian Hector Mann, who disappeared mysteriously nearly sixty years earlier and on whose career David is the only living expert. Hector turns out to be still alive, and as David gets drawn into the comedian's bizarre subsequent history, he discovers that their two lives have taken parallel courses. At the same time, he turns from death back toward life, aided by characters (or signifiers) with suggestive names like Alma and Frieda. The Book of Illusions is too allegorical to be emotionally affecting, and although it's perfectly readable, its prose is bland and undistinguished, its dialogue trite—every character talks exactly like David Zimmer himself. And, like all Auster's novels, it makes its careful architecture just a little too evident.
A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother
by Rachel Cusk
Picador USA, 213 pages, $22.00
Anyone who has ever been cornered at a cocktail party by a zealous "at-home mother" understands why most books on motherhood are such stinkers: the experience is so common that almost all observations about it are banal. For this reason, the novelist Rachel Cusk's new book on the old topic is a wonder. Cusk has written something fine and beautiful; the precision of her language and the depth of her insights lend such homey, unremarkable subjects as breastfeeding and engaging a babysitter an almost shocking newness. Motherhood is frequently a target for the broadest kind of humor, but although Cusk's book is sometimes very funny, she doesn't play for yucks, and this restraint brings a dignity to the subject and the experience that most of the other books lack. Her critical reading of modern child-care manuals—themselves an oft attempted and frequently botched form—is peerless. "Most of these books begin," she writes, "with a sort of apocalyptic scenario in which the world we know has vanished, replaced by another in whose principles we must be educated." "[Spock is] a fund of information on most things, having appointed himself a sort of missionary to aid those inhabitants of swamps, mines and oil platforms who are mysteriously beyond the reach of the medical profession. His prose is full of danger and emergency." "[Penelope Leach] has a schoolteacher's plain grasp of Freud and Winnicott ... Like Mary Poppins, like someone in a fairytale, she is on the side of children."
Rachel Cusk was troubled by new motherhood in a way that I was not—I embraced it like a giddy ninny, whereas she is an intellectual. Very smart women have always had some difficulty with motherhood, which is an assault on many things but primarily on one's ability to think and to be utterly independent of others. Like many other intellectuals, Cusk seems to lack a measure of common sense, which leads to some antic and amusing episodes: for example, her hiring—as a spectacularly unsuccessful nanny—a dapper little Slovenian man who during the job interview drank wine, smoked a cigarette, and described his dissertation on transportation links to London's airports. But nothing can compare with the book's observations about the difficult weeks spent at home with a new baby ("The days pass slowly. Their accustomed structure, the architecture of the past, has gone") or the high emotional cost of taking some time away from one's child: "When I leave her the world bears the taint of my leaving, so that abandonment must now be subtracted from the sum of whatever I choose to do. A visit to the cinema is no longer that: it is less, a tarnished thing, an alloyed pleasure." That A Life's Work seems not to be finding its audience is a pity; I can't imagine that anyone who is both a reader and a mother will be unmoved by it.
Phantoms of a Bloodstained Period: The Complete Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce
edited by Russell Duncan and David J. Klooster
University of Massachusetts Press, 352 pages, $19.95
"The real war," Walt Whitman despaired of our Civil War, "will never get into the books." With one honorable and merciless exception, he was right. To the very few writers who experienced the fighting and to the far larger number who didn't, the war was unfathomable, or at least indescribable. Ambrose Bierce, a fierce-eyed, extraordinarily brave soldier who fought with the Army of the Ohio for nearly the entire length of the conflict—at, among other killing fields, Shiloh, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, and Kennesaw Mountain—and who was later a reporter, an editor, and a short-story writer, produced the only truly honest writing to emerge from combat. Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period (the title is taken from Bierce's harrowing memoir "What I Saw of Shiloh") collects all of Bierce's writing on the war: his historical reportage on and astonishingly detailed memoirs of specific battles; his letters; and, of course, his surreal short stories (he used all these forms to convey the battle of Chickamauga). An hour with this superbly edited volume will cure any Civil War buff, for Bierce was, as H. L. Mencken declared, "the first writer of fiction ever to treat war realistically" and the first to grasp that soldiers in combat were little different from "bewildered animals dying like hogs in Chicago [stockyards]." Bierce disdained the North's sanctimonious notion of the war as the Battle Cry of Freedom no less than the South's romantic idea of the Lost Cause; he saw the conflict as a meaningless and murderous enterprise. Whether he is depicting wild boars eating the entrails of still-living battlefield casualties, or the incineration of a company of soldiers in the forest at Shiloh ("gallant gentlemen who had got what they had enlisted for"), or a boy coming upon his dead mother at Chickamauga, her brains blown out by a shell, Bierce's sensibility is sardonic, grotesque, hallucinatory, modern. And his short stories, which concentrate on single incidents at the edges of battle, some bounded by only a few minutes, are distinguished by their severity and concision, and by what Edmund Wilson characterized as their "sharp-edged and flexible style, like the ribbon of a wound-up steel tape-measure." Here is exemplary American prose, and here is the real war—without uplift, without virtue, without purpose.
Who's Who in Hell
by Robert Chalmers
Grove Press, 568 pages, $13.00
What if the obituaries became a vehicle for unapologetic heckling? That's the extended joke at the heart of Robert Chalmers's energetic debut novel chronicling the travails of Daniel Linnell, an obituarist at a prestigious London paper where death notices are packaged as popular entertainment. Daniel's days consist of perusing news articles for "the fatal hint"—anything from an actual illness to "a report that a star had been partying too vigorously." Gravitating toward famous subjects with lurid pasts, he takes a stash of unpublishably nasty obits and begins writing a compendium of the world's depraved, titled Who's Who in Hell. Outside the newsroom Daniel falls in love with a thrill-seeking American named Laura, and the two use his book advance to visit her home town of Bedford, Kansas. There they dine nightly with her repressed and disapproving parents and encounter various midwestern eccentrics, whom Daniel shocks with his ghoulish professional tastes.
Chalmers is clearly tickled by the Who's Who premise, and spends dozens of pages having Daniel consider the relative merits of including the Marquis de Sade, King Herod, Pol Pot, and Margaret Thatcher. But Daniel's flippant commentaries would need to be devastatingly funny to overcome his morbid subject matter—and they're not. Recently named one of The Guardian's young British novelists to watch, Chalmers has been compared to Nick Hornby. Their heroes share some qualities—they're young, English, hip, and male—and the authors share an interest in the comic potential of haplessness, but the similarities end there. Hornby creates fully realized protagonists, whose misadventures achieve a genuine poignancy, whereas Chalmers, even in his less frenetic moments, favors snappy comebacks over characterization. Laura, for instance, functions as a tireless, and ultimately tiresome, purveyor of wisecracks, a brassy raconteur who compares her mother's life to Belarus (both have "a history of eclipse and surrender"). Unfortunately, most of Chalmers's jokes are literary cul-de-sacs, laugh lines leading absolutely nowhere. Daniel's Who's Who is unceremoniously ditched in an abrupt half paragraph midway through the story (the book is apparently too libelous to print); by the time Chalmers reinvents his novel as an exploration of marriage, fidelity, and mortality, the reader has chased a few red herrings too many.
by Jeffrey Eugenides
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 544 pages, $26.00
Like its hermaphroditic narrator, Jeffrey Eugenides's long-awaited second novel is a hybrid—it's at once a Greek-American family saga and a picaresque coming-of-age narrative. Whereas the author's first book, The Virgin Suicides (1993), was closely woven, Middlesex is long and episodic, reaching back across the twentieth century and bringing in dozens of characters. Yet the organization is simple. Calliope Helen Stephanides—now the forty-one-year-old male narrator, Cal—tells us how he came to switch sexual identities; how he kept his secret; and what happens once his true nature is exposed.
Middlesex is consistently whimsical in its scene-setting and use of language, but despite its vaudeville exchanges and niftily isolated punch lines, it's rarely out-and-out funny. The narration is baldly self-conscious in its cleverness. In the beginning Cal refers to his brother as Chapter Eleven, and throughout the first half he interrupts the story to give us portentous glimpses of coming events. Likewise, and also in the manner of the picaresque, the author takes advantage of his loose structure and has the narrator recap in spots what's happened so far, as if, in all the commotion, we might have forgotten.
The reader spends much of the first half of the book anticipating the birth of its hero, yet when Calliope finally arrives, her early childhood flies by, warranting less than a dozen pages (which gloss over the question of why her mother didn't discover her secret while changing or bathing her). At this point, having established a historical sweep across several generations, the book noticeably shifts gears. The final two hundred pages focus on just a couple of years of Calliope's adolescence, giving Eugenides a chance to revisit the world of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, that he sketched so brilliantly in The Virgin Suicides.
Perhaps this is the author's true home territory, because it's here, in Calliope's sexual awakening, in the tensions of innocent and helpless desire, that Middlesex is at its best. At her private girls' school Calliope falls in love with another student, whom Cal calls The Object, and their teenage romance, with all its Nixon-era trappings, leads—through a series of improbable events—to her unmasking. The tail end of the book, covering her testing at the hands of a pop sexpert, her choice to become Cal, and a brief dip into the underworld of porn, is anticlimactic, though line-by-line the writing is always jaunty and sharp.
The action stops in 1975, with the now male Cal in contemporary Berlin. Throughout the book, in the briefest of vignettes, he's been trying to romance a photographer named Julie while paralyzed by fear of disclosing his true nature; but this is so undeveloped compared with the other sections that the reader never feels it fully. And such problems plague the whole novel: it's off proportionally, both section-to-section and overall, its two halves at odds, each interesting at times but neither truly satisfying, despite Eugenides's prodigious talent. Like Cal, it's damned by its own abundance, not quite sure what it wants to be.