Books April 2003

Other Reviews

Plotless Wonder

Making Things Better
by Anita Brookner
Random House

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

Life Below Zero

Drop City
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.

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