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