Making Things Better
by Anita Brookner
Anita Brookner has purged her novels of nearly all incident, creating a kind of anti-plot (the story line of Making Things Better is almost willfully inert), and yet her fiercely observant prose radiates dramatic energy. For the first 243 of these 275 pages nothing much happens to Julius Herz, an elderly, dutiful Londoner who questions his right to the most basic improvements in his life, such as moving to a new flat. "Home was such an emotive concept that he doubted whether he would be able to live up to it, to make a place for himself in a world where people exercised choices." Herz's circumscribed existence consists of nursing a ridiculous crush on an entirely indifferent young neighbor and reminiscing about his anxious, uneventful childhood. Only during the last thirty pages do his idle ruminations translate into decisive, unexpected action. Surprised by this turn, I recalled that long before publishing her first book of fiction, in her early fifties, Brookner had an entirely different career, as an authority on eighteenth-century painting—proof that it's possible to reinvent oneself at any time.
The secret animating Brookner's outwardly sensible protagonists is that they're hopelessly smitten with the charming, complacent, and largely oblivious relatives and acquaintances to whom they feel, often justifiably, superior. Her novels are ambivalent love songs to the world's victors, the kind of people who "appeared always on the verge of giving a party." One Brookner heroine "followed a girl in the street simply because she looked so lucky that I could not tear myself away from her." Herz also loves unwisely, finding the "utter selfishness" of his pampered cousin Fanny irresistible. Usually compared to Austen or James, Brookner, a more mild-mannered chronicler of displaced ambition and unrequited desire, is really Britain's answer to Chekhov. Herz's ardor for Fanny is akin to Vanya's restless passion for the tantalizing Yelena, just fussier and on a smaller scale.
Brookner's early novels, including the Booker Prize-winning Hotel du Lac, are frothy and girlishly confessional, but the tone of her fiction has darkened. For those who, like me, prefer the fizzier Brookner, Making Things Better offers plenty of compensations. Always an elegant stylist, she has grown steadily more refined in her writing; she artfully captures ideas that change in the course of a single, unhurried sentence. Her vocabulary, too, has evolved, metamorphosing into something frumpish and exacting, even inbred, and the fastidiousness suits her hermetic world. Herz's childhood apartment is "subfusc and dim," his great fear "inanition." Making Things Better is too lengthy (the middle drags), but the final pages gallop along as Herz finally claims a modicum of happiness for himself. —Elizabeth Judd
by T. C. Boyle
Boyle's ambitious but unsatisfying ninth novel takes place in 1970, when a band of California communards pile into a converted school bus and light out for Alaska before the local law and their own short attention spans can catch up with them. As utopians go, they're a pretty derivative bunch, borrowing their name—Drop City —from a more famous commune in Colorado, and self-consciously invoking Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters as they hit the highway. Half of Boyle's snidely amusing joke is that for all their thirst after the authentic, these junk-food-eating, fossil-fuel-burning hippies have all the authenticity of a Monkees lunch box. The other half is that when Boyle's flower children finally find their Alaskan promised land, somebody's already living on it: a sweet, resourceful trapper named Sess Harder and his devoted new bride, Pamela.
Anybody who takes Boyle for a misanthrope—and it's a popular reading of his work by now, encouraged by the author's black humor and fondness for apocalyptic scenarios—owes himself a night by the fire with Sess and Pamela. Boyle recounts their courtship and marriage with a romantic playfulness that's altogether charming. Since his earliest stories he's had a knack for describing arcane, sometimes imaginary subcultures in memorable detail, and Sess's indoctrination of Pamela into the beautiful minutiae of life below zero plays to his strengths. Did you know that bush planes go unpainted "because paint [adds] an unnecessary thirteen pounds to the total load"? Me neither—but it's the kind of irresistible insider's lore that keeps a story fresh and convincing.
The collision between Drop City's callow layabouts, who daydream of living off the fat of the land, and the Harders, who love the land but will be damned if they see much fat on it, touches off the crisis of the novel—or it should. But here's where Boyle goes wrong and, worse, soft. As most of the communards fritter away their provisions and descend into factional bickering, Sess and Pamela befriend a few of the less immature ones. Before we know it, all the sympathetic, well-rounded characters are palling around in one cabin, and all the selfish, underdeveloped ones are stuck downriver, too busy trading recriminations to pose much of a threat. It's a stacked deck. What shaped up as a promising if schematic showdown between selfishness and self-reliance dissipates into a wan retelling of "The Ant and the Grasshopper." Boyle's resourceful heroes have a better time of it come winter, as we knew they would, but the improvident "grasshoppers" prove too pathetic as antagonists to justify the contest. Boyle has to pile all kinds of symbolic freight on an implausibly evil bush pilot just to work up some climactic jeopardy, and the story's brittle frame can't take the weight. If a bush plane can't keep even a few pounds of paint aloft, a cargo of man's inhumanity to man will bring it down for sure.
When the story falters, Boyle's stylistic tics become more noticeable. He has always been a conversational writer, with an effortless, incantatory prose that throws off jokes without ever seeming to depend on them. But in Drop City violence increasingly manages to infiltrate even the most innocuous of images. We hear of "hills immovable and silent, transfixed on the spearheads of the trees." We see "the stars scattered ... like pustules on a broken-out face." "Whole armadas of ice," we're given to understand, "had come down to do war with the open water." And finally, "snow cracked under his boots like gunfire." Like gunfire? Really? Or is it merely the whipcrack of a good writer, mushing a mutinous novel toward the finish line, taking out his frustration on the scenery? —David Kipen
by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
"Horrifying" may be too mild a word for this true story of Puerto Rican teenagers growing up amid poverty, drug addiction, violence, and sexual abuse in the Bronx. At its center are Jessica, a seductive sixteen-year-old in 1985, when the book opens; her younger brother, Cesar, by age twelve already "busy sprinting around the warm-up track of a criminal life"; and Coco, Cesar's lover since they were both fourteen and the mother of two of his children. Jessica's Cinderella romance with Boy George, a free-spending heroin dealer whose business grosses more than $500,000 a week, wins her a seven-year prison term on drug charges. Soon thereafter Cesar begins serving nine years to life for manslaughter. Boy George is sentenced at the age of twenty-three to life without parole. Coco is left struggling to raise her five children, to relate to their four fathers, and to negotiate with schools and social-service agencies. Random Family is primarily a story of parenting—or simply procreating—in a world where children, however neglected, may be a status symbol or a means of one-upping a man's other girlfriends.
Adrian LeBlanc, having been a near constant eyewitness to these lives, reports crises and daily life alike with journalistic dispassion and a sometimes daunting thoroughness. Readers, however, may come to feel that the horrors of her story lie as much in the choices these young people make as in their circumstances. And because LeBlanc writes with the pacing of a novelist, they may occasionally be lulled into expecting a happy—if temporary—turn of events. Forget it. —Martha Spaulding
by Michael Collins
Michael Collins, the author of The Keepers of Truth (shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2000), returns to depressed midwestern America in his latest novel, an encyclopedia of familial despair, suffering, and cruelty loosely organized into the semblance of a plot. Into barely 300 pages Collins packs thievery, arson, polio, grave-robbing, murder, a coma, cancer, death row, insanity, child abuse (several varieties), alcoholism, trampled mice, and falling space junk. As in The Keepers of Truth, these plot complications are mainly window-dressing for the hero's gloomy, overwrought meditations on the darkness at the heart of the American dream. Here is the hero, Frank, contemplating his graduation day: "Our bloodlust survives our education, despite our attempts at civilization. We are not so far removed from our forebears, from the fur trappers who first wandered into this wilderness we call America." One wishes this were sly parody, but humor is not Collins's strong suit.
The tale of family dysfunction as a metaphor for the dark id of American culture has a long and perhaps overrich history in American literature, from The Scarlet Letter to the wealth of cathartic novels and memoirs churned out today. If handled with ingenuity and subtlety, this theme could remain fresh. Unfortunately, Collins betrays the limits of his imagination when he resorts to quoting popular television shows of the 1970s to create a sense of time and context; easy-bake cultural references of this sort are rapidly going stale. But Collins has a message to deliver, and such obvious devices serve his purpose all the more.
It's a shame, because he is undeniably a gifted writer, with an ear for certain registers of speech and a nose for the telling detail. Many have described his prose as "vivid," which is true if vague. His writing is naturally concrete; he eschews words like "vivid" in favor of relaying what he sees: "A neon cherry flashed on a martini glass that tipped back and forth on the sign outside a bar called the Well. Happy Hour All Night Long is what it said on the door, but nobody looked happy inside." One keeps turning pages, savoring pithy moments like this, long after wearying of the mouthpiece characters and their trumped-up travails. If Collins devoted less time to sermonizing and more attention to the mechanics of storytelling, he could produce something approaching the grandeur to which he aspires. —Scott Prater
The Great Nation
by Colin Jones
Here is a fresh approach to old-style history. Rather than focus on vast impersonal forces and long-term trends, or on (say) the goings-on in a village in Languedoc from 1736 to 1742, this magnificent history of eighteenth-century France—encompassing the ancien régime and the Revolution—emphasizes diplomacy, high politics, and high finance. Focusing on ministers, the court, and the exchange, Jones chronicles how the largest, richest, and most populous state in Western Europe attempted—and failed—to meet the challenges posed by economic change, demographic shifts, and unparalleled commercial expansion. Plainly if not gracefully written, this 600-page masterpiece synthesizes an enormous body of scholarship. It's the definitive single-volume account of its subject. —Benjamin Schwarz