Books March 2003

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The Master Butchers Singing Club
by Louise Erdrich
HarperCollins

Fidelis Waldvogel, a crack German sniper, returns from the trenches of World War I, marries a fallen comrade's pregnant fiancée, and then sets out for America, with a suitcase full of smoked sausages and carving knives, to begin life as a new and different kind of butcher. Any novel featuring a sniper turned butcher is bound to contain the occasional outrage, but not even Fidelis, proficient as he is, can run up a body count—or make such strangely tidy work of it—as Erdrich herself does in this, her latest dispatch from the fictional Argus, North Dakota.

"Tidy" because the seemingly complex gears that drive the novel's interlocking story lines are primarily just variations on that simplest of dramatic devices, death. From the very start almost every plot shift, major or minor, is occasioned by someone's or something's being struck down—on the battlefield or by cancer, on purpose or by accident, in the prime of life or in good time. And yet with each such occurrence Erdrich ever more determinedly affirms life, what she calls "a precious feat of daring." In compactly graceful prose she uses death to reveal the unexpected and quite often wonderful legacies of each life, any life, no matter how insignificant, accidental, or misspent that life may have appeared. (In a synthesis of themes, the story culminates in a near death that is at once the book's most gruesome scene and its most triumphant revelation.) But need so many die that Erdrich's laudable sentiment might live? After a time the novel slips toward melodrama, and the reader, among others, suffers a certain attrition.

Early on, in a typically felicitous passage, we're told of Fidelis's father's butchering skills: "His father, having practiced all his life, hardly seemed to move his hands as the animal fell into increasingly civilized circles and predictable shapes. On a block set before him, its creatureliness disappeared and it entered, as Fidelis saw it, a higher and more satisfactory form of being." Something similar might be said of Erdrich's characters, whom she too readily marches into the killing chute in order to serve up choice cuts of human spirit. The results, though civilized, satisfying, and life-affirming, make for a less than lifelike tale. —Jon Zobenica

Return of the Native

Almost There: The Onward Journey of a Dublin Woman
by Nuala O'Faolain
Riverhead Books

The Irish journalist Nuala O'Faolain's 1996 memoir, Are You Somebody?, became a best seller in America and a sensation in Ireland. Like Angela's Ashes, it was published during a momentous period in that country, when countless Irish people were uniting in outraged opposition to some of Ireland's most entrenched and brutalizing forces, including the Catholic Church, alcoholism, child neglect, and an oppressive patriarchy. O'Faolain's life was profoundly shaped by all these forces, and so many readers found a version of their own experience in her story that the book became politically important. "Ireland changed," O'Faolain notes simply and accurately in the preface to the paperback edition, "and I was to be both an agent of change and a beneficiary of it."

If O'Faolain's new memoir, Almost There, is far less powerful, that is only because her subject is minor: the book chronicles her experiences since the publication of Are You Somebody? "The story is a parable," she tells us, "about miracles that might happen to anyone in middle age." And indeed, much of the book is rosy. O'Faolain reports that she has surfaced from a deep depression in these past few years. By adopting some much-loved animals and then by reaching out to new friends and to her siblings, she has conquered the loneliness that marked so much of her life. Many of these anecdotes, particularly those about her siblings, who shared her desperately unhappy childhood, are affecting. O'Faolain writes so well and is in possession of such a keen intellect—not to mention that greatest of Irish traits, wit—that her remarks on a variety of subjects, from the indignities of middle age to the complexities of Irish America, are always engaging, even if they lack some unifying principle to give them a greater, combined effect.

However, although I admire O'Faolain's literary achievements, I find much of her behavior, as recounted in Almost There, questionable. For someone to identify herself as a feminist—as she passionately does—yet to have affairs with married men is, at best, hypocritical. Granted, she possesses more than the usual amount of self-knowledge about this contradiction: "It is an evidently wrong thing to do—for one woman to use her freedoms to secretly steal from a woman who is less free," she correctly notes. Still, her last affair ended not because she acted on this noble insight but because she got dumped.

Consider, too, one of the "miracles" she describes in the book's first chapter: she is at long last helping to raise a child. Whether that child—the daughter of the man who is the current object of O'Faolain's fickle sexual and romantic attraction—will come to regard her exposure to O'Faolain as equally miraculous remains to be seen. O'Faolain is intensely jealous of her lover's attentions, and she rails against the child's share of them: "I have no interest whatsoever in eight-year-old girls," she tells him at the beginning of one sickening harangue, and "We have to have Christmas the way she always had it or she'll be upset? Tell me you're kidding!" O'Faolain reproduces six of these ugly rants, apparently as a kind of public confession. But what about their effect on the poor girl who will surely read them one day, or on the girl's mother, who is helpless to protect her child from someone whose interests clearly run counter to the girl's? I must ask of O'Faolain and her kind: Why bother to cripple the patriarchy when women themselves are so eager to do the old, dirty work of humiliating wives and hurting children? —Caitlin Flanagan

Not Exactly Everyman

Any Human Heart
by William Boyd
Knopf

Like Boyd's The New Confessions (1988), a fictional autobiography, his new novel takes one man on a voyage through the twentieth century. In this case the voyager is an Englishman named Logan Mountstuart (b. 1906, Uruguay; d. 1991, France), who tells the story of his peripatetic, eventful, and not always dignified life through a series of journal entries. Mountstuart tends to be where the action is, sometimes unwillingly. He is a schoolboy in England during World War I and a student at Oxford during the postwar period. He is a hot young novelist in Paris during the glory years of the 1920s. He covers the Spanish Civil War as a journalist, is involved in naval intelligence in World War II, becomes an art dealer in booming New York during the 1950s, witnesses the war in Biafra, and, as a well-meaning valetudinarian, gets himself into a ludicrous pickle with the Baader-Meinhof gang. He marries three times, once happily. On his erratic way he runs into a motley group of celebrities that includes Picasso, Ian Fleming, Ernest Hemingway, Larry Rivers, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who play a sinister role in Mountstuart's life.

But the novel is very much more than a travelogue through the past century. It is a reflection on the shape of individual lives: the themes, the repetitions, the true and false friendships; the way we are inevitably diverted from the straight courses we wish to pursue; the near impossibility of imposing meaning onto our experiences. Boyd has named his book Any Human Heart, but Mountstuart is not exactly Everyman: he is far more generous, forgiving, and free than most of us. He is also more amusing, and more amused by life; he makes an extremely attractive central character. Boyd is one of the most skillful and appealing writers at work today, endowed with both a great natural vitality and an increasingly sophisticated humanism. —Brooke Allen

From Ingénu to Omnivore

Dorian: An Imitation
by Will Self
Grove Press

It was inevitable—and what's more, it's a piece of luck—that Will Self would get around to writing an updated version of The Picture of Dorian Gray. His fiction, from Cock & Bull (1993) through Grey Area (1996) and Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys (1999), has been full of doppelgängers and replicants, and the story of a depraved man who gets to keep his looks while his portrait ages was bound to appeal to a writer who, near the beginning of his career, posited a "Quantity Theory of Insanity," according to which "any attempts to palliate manifestations of insanity in one sector of society can only result in their upsurge in some other area of society." Oscar Wilde's novel is a similar zero-sum game, between Art and Nature.

In Dorian, which takes place from 1981 to the late 1990s, the painter Basil Hallward now goes by the nickname "Baz," and the oil portrait of the eponymous pretty boy has become a piece of conceptual art on nine video monitors; nonetheless, it works the same magic of surrogate decay. Hallward and Dorian remain in thrall to Lord Henry Wotton, a mannered, married, epigram-spouting arriviste, under whose lizardlike tutelage the new Dorian progresses, rather as before, from "ingénu to omnivore." He eventually far exceeds his mentor in every form of excess and depravity. And yet by the early 1990s it's Wotton who's in and out of an AIDS ward, while Dorian remains immune from the least wrinkle, let alone HIV.

Writing a whole fin de siècle later, Self has, not surprisingly, upped the sex-and-violence quotient beyond anything Wilde could have dared. It gives away nothing to say that Dorian (still) kills Basil Hallward, but what a difference a century makes when it comes to the corpse! "Had it not been for the red jagged tear in the neck," Wilde wrote, "and the clotted black pool that was slowly widening on the table, one would have said that the man was simply asleep." Self's Baz winds up as "a large helping of person purée."

If the gay sex in Dorian Gray was fuzzily implied (Wilde could even deny it was there from the witness box at his first trial), in Dorian it's generically explicit. Self writes much better about drug taking, a subject of long-standing personal experience and literary virtuosity for him. AIDS, in which drugs can figure along with sex, is a sort of chilling bonanza for this author, who produces some of the most arresting images of the disease since Adam Mars-Jones's stories in The Darker Proof (1988). Self writes,

The quivering shaft of Eros's arrow ... was loosed and flew up Shaftesbury Avenue, a deathly love missile aimed by the renters straight at the junkies who huddled outside Hall's the chemist. The junkies caught it, transformed it into a hypodermic and flung it right back down again.

Wilde, in a moment of thrill-seeking aestheticism, pronounced Dorian a "son of Love and Death"; in Self's book there's nothing abstract about the coitus and spawn of those two things.

Parallel hunting between one novel and the other makes for readerly pleasure (as near as I can tell, the pretty actress Sibyl Vane, thrown over by the original Dorian, has become Herman, the cute mop-topped addict), but Self would have no chance at all if he couldn't at least hold a candle to Wilde's nonstop cleverness and wordplay. A fool's dare for a writer? Probably; but Self stays in the game to a remarkable extent, pronouncing Dorian a "jaded raptor"; noting the Harrods mannequin "squeezed inside a ... tube of Versace"; telling us that the lights in Wotton's house "gushed wanness." He does his best to imitate the master's style ("Pleasure is Nature's credit rating"), and more than once has Wotton actually quote Wilde, with only the most minor variation and no attribution: "I shall have to die beyond my means"; "For Baz to have died once would have been unfortunate; for him to die twice looks like carelessness." It is pointless to think of this as thievery, because the modernized Dorian creates a world in which Wilde's existence cannot be allowed to have occurred. Had he ever lived, all the current characters would be on to the plot, not to mention the odd coincidence of their own names. Wilde's banishment amid the continuation of all else is a curious homage, a reverse index of immortal stature.

Like his precursor, Self has made the nature of wit one of his novel's themes. His Wotton defines a witticism as "merely the half-life of an emotion," and the AIDS-stricken Baz comes to think of epigram itself as a sort of disease: "He was being swept away by this snide cataract ... with quipsters vying for opportunities to torpedo meaningful conversation." Wilde famously prefaced Dorian Gray with an assertion that would later play a part in sending him to prison: "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all." This is the Wotton position, but Wilde actually had his doubts. The original Dorian insists that he was corrupted by Wotton's present of J. K. Huysmans's decadent novel À Rebours—unnamed in The Picture of Dorian Gray, but acknowledged by Wilde to be the work he had in mind when his narrator asserted that "Dorian Gray had been poisoned by a book." In Self's Dorian it's a nice touch, a deliberate tribute to verbal potency, that the corrupting gift is not some current literary analogue of Huysmans's book but still À Rebours itself.

The new Wotton doesn't give the new Dorian a copy of American Psycho—the book one almost expects will turn up, because Self sees the Bret Easton Ellis novel as a serious critique of society's moral decay. And moral decay is something Self has not been embarrassed to say he's bothered by. He has written of his belief in evil as something resident in the world and our natures; while discussing serial murderers, in 1994, he declared himself "inclined to see both the killers and the society that obsessively contemplates them as involved in a colossal fabrication of collective memory and moral perception." Wilde got much more agitated about hypocrisy than murder.

Even though Self is now past forty, his exuberant talents remain annoyingly free from certain kinds of editorial discipline. His narrative voice can be less stable than a unicycle, and he still has the tendency to get so bored with his own literary enterprises that he will light out, sometimes in midbook, for an entirely new plot or theme. In Dorian that happens only toward the end, in a variation on the old it-was-all-a-dream palinode. Self's epilogue reveals the wildly homicidal Dorian to have been a fictional send-up by Henry Wotton—that is, what we've been reading all along was the late Lord's meanspirited novel. The "real" Dorian turns out to be an entrepreneurial, PC, New Labour- voting, mainstreamed gay man with a "mature pride in homosexual identity —not a pride based on militant identification with an underclass, or a persecuted ethnic minority, but the true pride that came with assuming the responsibility proper to an era, when for the first time gay men and lesbian women were openly assuming positions of power." Which is to say, a puffed-up real-life type just begging to be satirized.

The Age of Diana, of which this third Dorian is a representative part, has in many ways, however incidentally, been Self's best subject all along. The novel runs from the princess's wedding to her funeral, and nothing fires up the author like the "Royal Fag Hag," whose "grazed heart [cries] out for a Band-aid, while she shops 'til every last equerry drops." But Self's closer-to-real-life satirical epilogue, where he can really go to town on all this, gets started too late, and even before its twenty pages are fully under way, the author retreats from social texturing back into phantasmagoria. This is a shame, because as good as much of Dorian is, the epilogue goes it one better.

Even so, no matter: Di's era will always be there, forever young on a million videotapes, for Self to come back to, long after its participants have gotten, as Nature intended, the faces they deserve. —Thomas Mallon

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