In 1967 the world-renowned if somewhat Dickensianly named sexologist
John Money was offered a case he couldn't refuse.
"Felisberto Hernández is a writer like no other," Italo Calvino
announced once, "like no European, nor any Latin American.
William Eastlake once gave William Kittredge a piece of advice about
writing as a Westerner. Never allow a publisher to put a picture of a
horse on the cover of your novel: "The people who buy it will think it's
some goddamned shoot-up. And they'll hate it when it isn't."
For more than a century, picking up a "western" meant caressing a myth.
The plot rarely varied. Decent folk who'd left behind the corrupt
world--always somewhere to the east--came to a land of primeval beauty
and promise and set about turning a little chunk of it into a nice,
prosperous garden. But there were a few corrupt souls lurking in the
vicinity, and before long they showed themselves: heedless savages,
horse thieves, men with pistols on their hips. The good folks had no
choice but to confront the bad guys on their terms--often with the aid
of a mysterious and taciturn stranger on horseback. Violence,
regrettable but necessary, ensued. The good guys were wounded. The bad
guys were killed. Our happy homesteaders returned to taming the
wilderness, cultivating their corner of paradise, a little less innocent
but having earned in blood their claim to the land. The taciturn
stranger was saddled and gone by morning, having left neither a card nor
a silver bullet.
Louis L'Amour wrote more than a hundred works of fiction along those
lines, 260 million copies of which are moldering on cheap pulp paper all
over the world. In the second half of the nineteenth century alone,
1,700 novels about Buffalo Bill were published. Our appetite for the
myths of law-bringing and wilderness-taming is as old as America itself.
The pulp western simply spruced it up with big hats, six-guns and blue
roan appaloosas. Hollywood seized on the concept and tinkered with its
variations for more than thirty years; John Wayne had one of the longest
runs of any male movie icon of the past century.
This is the seductive mythology serious writers in the West have to
grapple with as they set out to write the much messier, much less
uplifting story of the true Western experience. They also face an
Eastern literary establishment that is often indifferent or
unsympathetic to their aims. Norman Maclean couldn't find a major
publisher to bite on his masterpiece, A River Runs Through It.
"These stories have trees in them," he was told. And in a snotty review
in these very pages, Edward Abbey was called "puerile" and "dopey" and
was accused of arrogance and xenophobia.
Not that every literary effort to come out of the West deserved
canonization. Kittredge published a collection of stories, We Are Not
in This Together, that borrowed much from the old myth--except the
happy ending, which leaves a rather curdled vision. Despite a laudatory
foreword from Kittredge's friend Raymond Carver, the stories contain a
predictable mix of unfaithful women, barroom hijinks, cold-blooded
killings, guns and knives and whisky and tight-lipped men who, when they
deign to speak, do so not with or even at but past one another.
"My stories were mostly imitations about old men and wounded boys,
reeking of sorrow and sad romance about the ways love is bound to fail,
and could never have been enough anyway," Kittredge eventually admitted.
Thankfully, in 1978, Terry McDonell of Rocky Mountain Magazine
asked Kittredge to write an essay on the theme of "redneck secrets."
Kittredge said he had no idea how to write an essay. A friend who sat in
one of Kittredge's writing workshops at the University of Montana told
me that Kittredge recounted McDonell's advice this way: Give me five
scenes or anecdotes strung together with your own bullshit philosophy.
Five hundred words of anecdote, 200 of your own bullshit, scene,
bullshit, leading to a summation or revelation. It's that easy.
And for Kittredge, it was; turned out he could bullshit better than
most, and in a rugged, poetic and wholly Western prose style. He's since
written mostly nonfiction, looking at the West as a set of true stories
that deserve telling in all their complexity. Like this, from his very
first essay: "A Redneck pounding a hippie in a dark barroom is
embarrassing because we see the cowardice. What he wants to hit is a
banker in broad daylight."
Yee-haw! Now we're getting someplace.
Kittredge's first essay collection, Owning It All, published in
1987 and just reissued by Graywolf, is one of the quintessential books
to read if you want to understand the ferment of the modern West. He
followed that with Hole in the Sky, a memoir that recounted his
youth and early manhood on his grandfather's ranch in southeastern
Oregon, a backlands enclave in a "huge drift of country...pretty much
nonexistent in the American imagination," where "we knew a history
filled with omissions, which can be thought of as lies." Kittredge took
it as his duty to fill in the omissions, most involving violence done to
Native Americans, and he told his own story with astonishing candor: boy
buckaroo, teenage dandy, self-pitying young man, a ranch kid in a
swampland version of Eden that he and his family ultimately ruined
through a combination of greed, pesticides, overly ambitious irrigation
schemes and an overweening lust for property.
Over something like three decades my family played out the entire
melodrama of the nineteenth-century European novel. It was another
real-life run of that masterplot which drives so many histories,
domination of loved ones through a mix of power and affection; it is the
story of ruling-class decadence that we fondle and love, that we reenact
over and over, our worst bad habit and the prime source of our sadness
about our society. We want to own everything, and we demand love. We are
like children; we are spoiled and throw tantrums. Our wreckage is
All of this from a book with a horse on its cover.
Hole in the Sky placed Kittredge in a blossoming tradition of
Western writers who can be thought of as anti-mythological. They begin,
not surprisingly, with women--Willa Cather (read Death Comes for the
Archbishop) and Mari Sandoz (Old Jules)--and continue with
writers such as A.B. Guthrie, Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig, Marilynne
Robinson and Denis Johnson, whose novel Angels is among the
bleakest visions of the urban West ever committed to paper. And that's
merely a few of the white folk from the mountains and plains, a list
that leaves off the interlopers, Texans, Californians, poets, Hispanics
(Rudolfo Anaya, Jimmy Santiago Baca) and Native Americans (N. Scott
Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich) who have
enriched the region's literature.
Stegner dreamt of a West that had "a civilization to match its scenery,"
and no other writer did more to bring that transformation about. His
influence can be felt all over a fine anthology edited by Kittredge,
The Portable Western Reader, which Stegner didn't live to see but
would have appreciated as a marker of how far the storytelling culture
of the region had come. "The Westerner is less a person than a
continuing adaptation," he wrote. "The West is less a place than a
process." On the evidence of his new book, Kittredge is in total
In Southwestern Homelands, he tells stories from thirty years of
tooling the freeways and back roads of Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New
Mexico, mostly with his longtime love Annick Smith (another fine writer)
and often with a set of golf clubs in the trunk. He goes in search of
history and the earthy flux of the present, and he's as fine a travel
companion as a reader could hope for. I'm with him for all but the golf.
It helps to have friends to show you around an unfamiliar land, and
Kittredge had some good ones, including Eastlake, Abbey and Doug
Peacock, the renowned grizzly-bear expert and model for George Hayduke
in Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang. Eastlake once told Kittredge a
perhaps apocryphal tale in which he and Abbey drove the Southwest's
Interstate highways, felling billboards with a chainsaw. Whether or not
the tale is true--don't you like to think so?--it symbolizes the tension
at the heart of the region's history. What is progress? What are its
costs? And, to paraphrase Charles Bowden, can we not imagine a future in
which we have less but are more?
Everywhere Kittredge goes, these questions haunt the air. At Chaco
Canyon the Anasazi built immaculate pueblos across four square miles
between 1025 and 1100 AD. "The houses were fitted together from tons of
red stone cut in quarries and mortared into tapered load-bearing walls,
five stories high on the curving back side of Pueblo Bonito. Tens of
thousands of pine timbers were cut and trimmed with stone axes in
mountains sixty miles away and brought to Chaco by people without horses
or wheels." They built irrigation systems to channel rainwater toward
domesticated crops. Abruptly, around 1150, they abandoned all of it. To
this day, no one knows for certain why. Drought? Enemy siege? Whatever
the cause, their attempt at constructing a secure homeland failed. The
Anasazi drifted to the north and west. In Canyon de Chelly, they built
cliff houses accessible only by ladders, which they pulled up when they
One millennium later, dreams of an impenetrable fortress persist.
Phoenix, another human settlement fed by diverted water, spreads on the
landscape like a malignant tumor; its gated communities might be
compared to ancient fortified pueblos. One severe or prolonged drought
would also send that city's inhabitants scurrying to more hospitable
climes to the north and west. Aridity, as Stegner incessantly pointed
out, is the defining characteristic of the West. In some distant future,
tourists may gawk at the splendid, dune-covered ruins of Phoenix or
Albuquerque the way we seek out the spooky grandeur of abandoned cliff
The Glen Canyon Dam, on the Colorado River, is among man's most
ambitious efforts to compensate for a lack of rainfall. It flooded what
Kittredge calls "one of the most exquisite runs of landform on earth," a
labyrinth of canyons formed by 10-million-year-old sand dunes compacted
by wind and carved by running water. Abbey once wrote, "To grasp the
nature of the crime that was committed imagine the Taj Mahal or Chartres
Cathedral buried in mud until only the spires remain visible." Kittredge
consoles himself with the thought that canyons and species don't last
forever. I'm surprised it doesn't make him happier to think that dams
are even more ephemeral.
Gated communities, seething barrios, cross-border maquiladoras, crimes
against humans and nature--that's one side of the coin. On the other:
spicy food, entrancing native ceremonies, breathtaking landscapes,
hummingbirds flitting among the saguaro and art that soars into
timelessness, from the overcommodified Georgia O'Keeffe to Mogollon
Mimbres pottery. The exquisite care taken in crafting the Mimbres bowls,
decorated with imagery that made use of communal symbols and stories,
might even be a valuable example for careless book editors. In the
middle of a very moving passage, we find Kittredge viewing "my mother's
powered face that last time before she was interned." You might be
forgiven for momentarily thinking she was a robot on her way to prison
But if you hang with him, you discover him working through one of the
keystone moments of the book. "On Second Mesa, in the village of Walpi,
a man came up while I was walking the balustrade around the edge of the
mesa, and offered to explain the Hopi beliefs. I imagined he was hitting
on me, running some scam, and I turned away." His failure to connect
gnaws at him; he keeps brooding over Walpi until he settles on a
"message" from the ancients: "Be communal, join up, share your goods,
and once in a while give your sweet time away, no charge, pro bono, and
you'll be as close to home as you're likely to be." He could have merely
bought a trinket or a piece of Native art and moved on. Instead, and
despite his failure to connect at first, he was driven to seek some
cross-cultural pollination to take with him as he returns to his own
homeland in Montana. Which ought to be one of the points of travel for
anyone who does it seriously. "Intimacy with otherness is close to
impossible without taking some time to stop playing the game of
anthropologist," he writes. In other words, open up, drop your guard,
talk to strangers. The world awaits: desert and mountain, laughter and
tears, bedrock and paradox.
From the chair where I write this, in a fire lookout tower in the Gila
National Forest of southwestern New Mexico, I can see nearly 100 miles
in all directions. The landscape is multifarious: austere desert to the
east, rising into pinyon and juniper on the foothills and up to peaks
covered in aspen and ponderosa pine, before falling away to mesas and
grassland river valleys to the west. Hard to recall that just a month
ago I was a cog in the corporate journalism machine, a rearranger of
commas, scourge of the split infinitive. "Flight involves a spot of
reinventing the sweet old psychic self," Kittredge writes. Amen.
Everything out my window sings to my soul the way Beethoven's
Archduke Trio speaks to Kittredge's when he's on the road. Yet
the feature I find most intriguing from my perch is a man-made one on
the edge of Silver City: a giant open-pit copper mine that looks like a
gaping wound in the earth. Just above it, at the end of a shelf of
exposed rock, a solitary spire looms. The locals called it the Kneeling
Nun, and through my binoculars I can see why: It resembles the shape of
a woman wearing a habit, bowed in supplication to an ancient altar of
I like to think whoever named it also saw our need for forgiveness. All
across the West, man-made monstrosities punctuate the landscape--dams,
clearcuts, open-pit mines, oil refineries. Some of us silently seethe,
some of us protest, others work quietly toward a new definition of
progress. As we dream and argue our way toward the homeland of the
future, we could do worse than to take our cues from an old boy from a
ranch in the backlands of Oregon, a man who himself learned to take a
few cues from the ancients: "Everything evolves. Nothing lasts. Don't
destroy that which your people depend on. Take care, and plan for the
seventh generation, the long future."
If Canadian writer Yann Martel were a preacher, he'd be charismatic,
funny and convert all the nonbelievers. He baits his readers with
serious themes and trawls them through a sea of questions and confusion,
but he makes one laugh so much, and at times feel so awed and chilled,
that even thrashing around in bewilderment or disagreement one can't
help but be captured by his prose.
That's largely why I took such pleasure in Life of Pi, Martel's
wonderful second novel, which playfully reworks the ancient sea voyage,
castaway themes of classics like Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Swift's
Gulliver's Travels, Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient
Mariner, Melville's Moby-Dick and (in some of its more
fantastical aspects) Homer's The Odyssey, to explore the role of
religion in a highly physical world. What's more, it's a religious book
that makes sense to a nonreligious person. Although its themes are
serious and there are moments of awful graphic violence and bleak
despair, it is above all a book about life's absurdities that makes one
laugh out loud on almost every page, with its quirky juxtapositions,
comparisons, metaphors, Borgesian puzzles, postmodern games and a sense
of fun that reflects the hero's sensual enjoyment of the world. Although
Martel pays tribute to the past by using the typical castaway format
(episodic narrative, focus on details of survival, moments of shocking
violence and reflections on God and nature), his voice, and the fact
that his work is more fantastic, more scientifically sound and funnier
than that of his predecessors, infuses the genre with brilliant new
life. If this century produces a classic work of survival literature,
Martel's novel is surely a contender.
Life of Pi is the unlikely story of a 16-year-old Indian boy, Pi
Patel, adrift in a boat with a hungry tiger after the ship carrying his
zookeeper father, mother, brother and many animals sinks in the middle
of their journey from India to Canada. (It's the mid-1970s and Pi's
father decides to emigrate after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi starts
jailing her enemies and suspending civil liberties.) Pi is at once a
Hindu, Christian and Muslim (echoes of the pacific Mahatma Gandhi here)
who believes that all religions are about "love." But having grown up
among animals, he's also practical and grounded. Early in the book, his
three religious teachers meet, and Pi gets his "introduction to
interfaith dialogue," a big argument that ends only when he is asked for
his opinion. He quotes Gandhi, "All religions are true," adding, "I just
want to love God," which floors them all. Then he goes out with his
parents for ice cream. Most of the rest of the book is a challenge to
Pi's simple faith, as this sweet yet unsentimental hero experiences a
situation where, it would seem, survival is everything. Aside from the
detailed descriptions of hands-on survival techniques that almost rival
Ishmael's whaling lore in Moby-Dick, the book poses the
questions: Can faith survive in the face of doubt and suffering? Can the
love of God and one's fellows remain pure in an angry, violent world?
Despair sets in from the beginning. Not only does Pi lose his parents,
but he is facing life on the ocean wave with a tiger (named Richard
Parker), a zebra, an orangutan and a hyena. Pi watches them kill each
other, with Richard Parker finishing off the hyena. The boat is littered
with animal carcasses. As the days go by, Pi, a vegetarian, learns how
to kill with his bare hands, batter turtles to death and eat uncooked
flesh. He weeps. He is "dumb with pain and horror." But he survives,
marking his territory with his urine, as animals do, to keep Richard
Parker at bay, feeding him and finally teaching the tiger (by using a
whistle) that he, Pi, is master here.
It's true that his three faiths recede to a whisper on the boat. He
confesses that it is Richard Parker, and the practical matter of
avoiding being eaten by him, that gives him "purpose," even "peace" and
perhaps "wholeness," and thus keeps him alive. "If he died, I would be
left alone with despair, a foe even more formidable than a tiger.... He
pushed me to go on living." Pi keeps up with his religious rituals, but
he finds his faith wavering. In one funny scene, he yells out his
beliefs to make them more real. "I would touch the turban I had made
with the remnants of my shirt and I would say aloud, 'THIS IS GOD'S
HAT!'" Then he points at Richard Parker and says, "THIS IS GOD'S CAT!"
The boat is "GOD'S ARK!" The sea, "GOD'S WIDE ACRES!" The sky, "GOD'S
EAR!" But, he says, "God's hat was always unravelling," and "God's ear
didn't seem to be listening."
You might say he's trying to persuade himself. But it's clear that he
continues to appreciate the beauty of the sea and sky, and the sparse
life around him, in which, as a Hindu, he sees his connection to God.
There are wonderful poetic descriptions of the fish around the boat as a
little city, of Richard Parker's beauty and of a dorado fish that, as it
dies, begins to "flash all kinds of colours in rapid succession. Blue,
green, red, gold and violet flickered and shimmered neon-like on its
surface as it struggled. I felt I was beating a rainbow to death." Even
when his journey is "nothing but grief, ache and endurance," it is
"natural," he says, that he "should turn to God."
But religion is only one element of the book's exploration of faith.
Martel is also interested in the faith of his readers. He wants them to
believe his story. He has his narrator pose a larger, Keatsian "beauty
is truth" argument against the glorification of reason, "that fool's
gold for the bright." It's as if he were suggesting that storytelling is
a kind of religious experience because it helps us understand the world
in a more profound way than a just-the-facts approach (or by
implication, dogma, fundamentalism and literalism). Two passages that
some reviewers have picked out as the least convincing (for their lack
of literal accuracy!), I find illustrate Martel's attempt to show the
power of storytelling at its best. Fantastic, yes, but utterly
convincing. The first is Pi's encounter with a blind, cannibalistic
Frenchman whom Pi runs into at the exact moment he too has gone blind
for lack of nourishment. Their obsessive conversation about food is one
of the funniest and most farcical moments in the book. The second is
Pi's sojourn on a flesh-eating island, which is one of the most chilling
symbolic illustrations of evil I have read. (If the pious Swiss Family
Robinson finds utopia, the religious Pi finds dystopia!)
Good postmodernist that he is, Martel wants to use the very telling of
the tale--multiple narrators, a playful fairytale quality ("once upon a
time" and "happy ending" are mentioned in passing), realistically
presented events that may be hallucinations or simply made up--to push
at the limits of what's believable, yet still convince the reader of his
literary, not literal, veracity. He wants to prove that it's possible to
remain curious about and connected to the world, yet to accept that
there are always going to be aspects of life (and literature) that
Pi's doubts about his faith are mirrored by the seeds of doubt Martel
sows in the mind of the reader throughout the narrative. Every moment of
certainty is undercut by the potential for disbelief, and that's when
Martel seems to ask: Am I convincing you now? He sifts the story through
various narrators, beginning with an author-narrator that at first one
thinks is Martel himself but is only Martel-like, introducing the story
as if it were true. Martel has said in interviews that some of this
information is factually accurate. Like his narrator, he was trying to
write a novel about Portugal that wouldn't come alive when he got the
idea for Life of Pi on a trip to India. Martel also briefly
acknowledges his special debt to Brazilian Jewish writer Moacyr Scliar,
whose novella Max and the Cats also has a hero who survives the
sinking of a ship filled with zoo animals and spends days at sea in a
boat with a large cat, in this case a jaguar. Scliar's is the
mini-version that Martel fleshes out with more lyrical language and the
fruits of zoological research.
But there reality stops. There's the whiff of an old-fashioned quest or
allegorical tale in the introduction, for the Martel-like narrator first
learns the story from Francis Adirubasamy, a family friend of Pi's, who
tells him that Pi's story will make him "believe in God." And he plays
with the reader's sense of reality when he has Adirubasamy talk about Pi
as "the main character" whom the narrator proceeds to track down in
Canada. And just how believable is Pi? Now in his 40s, Pi apologizes for
his memory and tells the story as a series of out-of-sequence
events--jumping back and forth between his early childhood, his teenage
years and his time at sea. He can barely remember what his mother looks
like, but he appears able to recall whole conversations from his
childhood. He even asks the narrator to "tell my jumbled story in
exactly one hundred chapters, not one more, not one less." (He does.)
One begins to wonder if Pi made up Richard Parker. Despite his knowledge
that people anthropomorphize animals because of their "obsession" with
putting themselves "at the centre of everything," Pi seems
disproportionately haunted by the fact that when the boat hits Mexico,
Richard Parker takes off without a backward glance. Perhaps the loss of
the tiger symbolizes the greater loss of his family, or of his own
innocence. Perhaps Pi invented the tiger to keep himself sane. The
reader is left to decide.
In a final test of the reader's faith in the narrative, Martel has Pi
tell an alternate, allegedly more believable version of the story at the
end--lacking not only Richard Parker but also the humor, poetry and
detail of the tiger story--to please a couple of doubting Japanese
shipping officials. He asks them which they think is the "better" story.
Of course, the tiger story is the finer, more thoughtful literary
creation and therefore (Martel suggests) has a truth more lasting than
the second, more journalistic version, with its "dry, yeastless
Even if one accepts the twists and turns of the narrative, one faces the
further challenge of tracking down clues hidden in a warren of allusions
for more definitive answers to questions about Pi's religious faith, and
whether the narrator (and the reader) will be persuaded of the story's
original premise that it will make one believe in God. That symbolism is
important in this book is made clear at first by the most obvious symbol
of Pi's name, self-chosen because it's the short version of his real
name Piscine (after a family friend's favorite Parisian swimming pool),
and he is inevitably called "Pissing" by classmates. Nothing could be
grittier. In contrast, Pi is like ¼, what mathematicians call an
"irrational number," that is, 3.14 if rounded off, but with endlessly
unfolding decimal places if carried out. Martel couples this mysterious
abstraction with a concrete image--"And so, in that Greek letter that
looks like a shack with a corrugated tin roof, in that elusive,
irrational number with which scientists try to understand the universe,
I found refuge"--to show that, as a boy, Pi is in harmony with things as
they are as well as with his sense of the unknowable.
That Pi's attitude to religion may have changed after his ordeal is
buried in the hidden symbolism hinted at by Pi's college studies in
religion and zoology, described on the opening page as if to emphasize
their importance as a key to the story. (This is after the lifeboat
comes to shore in Mexico, and Pi goes to Canada to start a new life.)
His specialties are the sixteenth-century Jewish mystic Isaac Luria and
the sluggish three-toed sloth (symbol of the Trinity?) whose miraculous
capacity to stay alive, he says, "reminded me of God." (An echo of his
own survival, perhaps? A hint that God seems more elusive these days?)
More important, Luria's cabalistic ideas may hold the key to Pi's
experience at sea. His philosophy (Luria thought the secrets of the
universe lay in numbers) echoes the symbolism of ¼, and the formula
for figuring out the dimension of a circle and its radius (connecting
perimeter and center). Luria believed that God's light contracted from
the center of the universe, purging itself of evil elements, leaving an
empty space (a circle) in which human life developed. But God also sent
down a ray of light (like a radius) so that the few remaining divine
sparks could reconnect with Him. To achieve this fusion with God, and by
implication eliminate evil from the world, Luria believed, people must
live an ethical life. The original divine contraction is called
variously tzimtzum, zimzum or simsum. It's no
coincidence that Martel called the sinking ship Tsimtsum. Thus Pi at sea
was experiencing his own void (or withdrawal of God), in which elements
of evil fight with the instinct to do good. Richard Parker saved his
sanity, and Pi's goodness kept Richard Parker (and perhaps his own
faith) alive. By introducing this strain of mystical Jewish thought,
Martel not only further illustrates Pi's contention that all religions
are essentially the same in that they stem from love but he also uses
mysticism to underscore the profound ways in which literature can
present life's truths. Skeptics, however, might see Pi's study of Luria
as a move away from his earlier, purer faith toward a more structured
mysticism. That would explain his comment at the end of the book, when
he confesses his need for "the harmony of order."
Though one can read Life of Pi just for fun, trying to figure out
Pi's relationship to God makes one feel a bit like the castaway hero
wrestling slippery fish into his lifeboat for dinner. An idea twists and
turns, glittering and gleaming, slaps you in the face with its tail and
slips away. Did the story really happen? Does it make one believe in
God? What kind of God? Early on the narrator says, "This story has a
happy ending." But Pi also tells his interviewer, "I have nothing to say
of my working life, only that a tie is a noose, and inverted though it
is, it will hang a man nonetheless if he's not careful," which suggests
a man with at least some conflict on his mind. On the other hand, Martel
may also be suggesting that work is less important to Pi than God and
family--the narrator gives us glimpses of Pi's shrine-filled house and
his loving relationship with his wife, son and daughter. However, when
Pi is showing him family pictures, the narrator notes, "A smile every
time, but his eyes tell another story." I believe Martel's point is that
doubt inevitably accompanies faith. But the opposite explanation, that
after Pi's life-threatening experiences his faith is a mere prop for his
anxiety, might work just as well.
Does it matter that the answer to all questions in this novel is both
yes and no? One answer comes in the form of Pi's question moments after
the ship has sunk and he's sitting in the lifeboat, bewailing the loss
of his family and God's silence on the topic: "Why can't reason give
greater answers? Why can we throw a question further than we can pull in
an answer? Why such a vast net if there's so little fish to catch?" And
that, of course, is the nature of faith. One can't argue it through, one
just believes. Faith in God (as the younger Pi sees it) "is an opening
up, a letting go, a deep trust, a free act of love." It's also "hard to
love," Pi adds, when faced with adversity. The same might be true of a
good novel, as readers are taken to the edge of their understanding by
something new. If the reader lets go of preconceptions, the experience
can be liberating and exciting. Martel may be sowing seeds of
uncertainty about God, but there's no doubt that he restores one's faith
Much as I hate to, I'm going to start by talking about the damn money.
I'm only doing it because almost everyone else is.
It's not just the author profiles and publishing-trade columns, but
seemingly every other review of The Emperor of Ocean Park that
mentions, way before stuff like plot or characters, the $4.2 million
Knopf paid Yale Law professor Stephen L. Carter for this first novel and
another to come. Most, if not all, of these pieces seem incredulous that
an academic-of-color could reap the kind of dough-re-mi for thriller
writing that the John Grishams and Tom Clancys could command. Pundits of
both colors--or of what Carter's novel continually refers to as "the
darker nation" and "the paler nation"--sound pleasantly surprised that
an African-American male could earn some pop-cultural buzz by being paid
millions of dollars for doing something that doesn't require a ball or a
I'm guessing Carter has the grace to be appreciative about all this. But
I'm also guessing that the author of Reflections of an Affirmative
Action Baby is equipped with inner radar delicate enough to pick up
faint signals of condescension (or worse) beneath all this hype. Sifting
through the reviews so far, especially those taking Carter to the
woodshed, one detects glimmers of doubt as to whether the book or the
author deserves all that money and attention. No matter that Carter,
Yale Law's first tenured African-American professor, has established his
credentials as a legal scholar and public intellectual, having published
seven nonfiction books whose subjects include values (Integrity,
Civility), faith in public life (The Culture of Disbelief, God's Name in Vain) and, of course, race
(Reflections...). Black people have been through enough job
interviews to recognize the skeptically arched eyebrows in key precincts
of Book-Chat Nation over Carter's big score. The eyebrows ask: Is the
book worth all this fuss--and all that damn money?
The short answer is yes, though we'll get to the longer, more
complicated answer in a few clicks. First I want to address the other
recurring motif in the reviews so far: a belief that the novel's primary
value--if not the only legitimate reason for all that money--comes in
the way it foregrounds privileged reaches of African-American society.
As if Dorothy West, John A. Williams, Nella Larsen, George S. Schuyler,
John Oliver Killens, Charles W. Chesnutt, Lawrence Otis Graham and E.
Franklin Frazier, the Veblen-esque sociologist-satirist who wrote
Black Bourgeoisie, had never been born, much less ever bothered
writing books. To these weary eyes, such incredulity over class issues
reflects nothing more than the same-as-it-ever-was manner in which
novels by African-Americans are waved toward the sociocultural
checkpoint before they can compete for artistic consideration. And since
it's being marketed as a legal thriller/whodunit, The Emperor of
Ocean Park has the added burden of being stigmatized as a genre
piece. Hence the carping in some reviews over Emperor, whose
closing kickers spring merrily like tripwires.
Hello. It's melodrama. There are a lot of smart people who agree
with Raymond Chandler, who confessed to a friend in 1945 that he chose
to write melodrama "because when I looked around me it was the only kind
of writing that was relatively honest." Also as Chandler and other smart
people drawn to genre have repeatedly proved, it's possible to hang
lyricism, social observation, even political ideas on melodrama's broad
shoulders so long as you don't forget to play by the rules of the genre.
One more thing: Melodrama, when played at top speed, often can be
transformed into something very close to satire or, at least,
The Emperor of Ocean Park doesn't move quite fast enough for
that, which may be its biggest problem. Still, it is sophisticated
entertainment; witty, elegantly written (way better than Grisham or
Clancy, OK?), conceptually outrageous in a genteel way and flush with
conflicting ideas unleashed in the stick-and-move fashion of a
freewheeling sparring match. The surprise isn't that Carter can write
fiction. It's his showmanship in mixing up the car chases, chess
strategies, red herrings and gun battles with such dark, rueful
observations as this:
I suddenly understand the passion of the many black nationalists of the
sixties who opposed affirmative action, warning that it would strip the
community of the best among its potential leaders, sending them off to
the most prestigious colleges, and turning them into... well, into young
corporate apparatchiks in Brooks Brothers suits, desperate for the favor
of powerful white capitalists.... And the nationalists were right. I am
the few. My wife is the few. My sister is the few. My students are the
few. These kids pressing business cards on my brother-in-law are the
few. And the world is such a bright, angry red.... I stand very still,
letting the redness wash over me, wallowing in it the way a man who has
nearly died of thirst might wallow in the shower, absorbing it through
every pore, feeling the very cells of my body swell with it, and sensing
a near-electric charge in the air, a portent, a symbol of a coming
storm, and reliving and reviling in this frozen, furious instant every
apple I have ever polished for everybody white who could help me get
This passionately skeptical, somewhat self-loathing voice belongs to
Talcott Garland, who also answers to the names "Tal" and "Misha." (This
multiplicity of names is one of the little jokes that Carter threatens
to run into the ground.) A law professor at an unnamed Ivy League
university, Talcott is one of four children of Oliver Garland, a
conservative judge appointed by Nixon to the US Court of Appeals, who
might have served on the Supreme Court if his nomination hadn't been
derailed because he was seen hanging around the federal courthouse with
a college roommate named Jack Ziegler, a former CIA agent and a sinister
presence skulking in the dark alleys of American power.
As the novel begins, Tal's father, whom Time once dubbed the
"emperor of Ocean Park" because of his family's impressive digs in the
Oak Bluffs section of Martha's Vineyard, has been found dead in his
study. Tal is, at best, indulgent to older sister Mariah's suspicions
that their father met with foul play. Still, Tal suspects something's
afoot when, at the judge's funeral, Ziegler pulls him aside to ask the
whereabouts of some "arrangements" that the judge stashed away
somewhere. Knowing "Uncle Jack" all too well, Tal suspects that these
"arrangements" don't exactly fall into customary categories of
post-mortem details. By the time bogus FBI agents try to scare him into
telling what little he knows and the Episcopal priest who conducts the
funeral is tortured and murdered, Tal's paranoia has kicked into third
All of which Tal needs like root canal. Things are rough at the law
school with various and sundry colleagues intruding their personal
dramas onto his own. One of them, it turns out, is in competition with
Tal's stunning wife, Kimmer, short for "Kimberly," for potential
appointment to a federal judgeship. Kimmer frets and fusses about the
appointment, oblivious to her husband's concerns for their safety from
whatever or whoever is stalking them. She barely notices the shadow
stalkers, traveling long distances from home to make rain for her
high-toned law firm. Tal suspects Kimmer is having an affair, but can
barely keep her close by long enough to probe for concrete evidence. He
concedes being flummoxed in general by the nature of women, seeking
respite from such mysteries in "the simple rejuvenating pleasure of
chess." Indeed, the conundrums of chess, a game where, as in life, white
always gets the first move over black, play a metaphoric role in the
mystery, complete with missing pawns from the judge's own set and a
strategic gambit labeled "Excelsior."
A few words about Tal: He's the hero of the story, but he's not an easy
man to admire. Readers so far think he's at best an unjustly beleaguered
nerd or at worst an embittered brat, as self-absorbed as the mercenary
students, career women and secular humanists he slaps with his words. He
behaves badly at times, never more so than in a memorably chilling set
piece in which he bullies and humiliates one of his students, "an
unfortunate young man whose sin is to inform us all that the cases I
expect my students to master are irrelevant, because the rich guys
always win.... His elbow is on the chair, his other fist is tucked under
his chin, and I read in his posture insolence, challenge, perhaps even
the unsubtle racism of the supposedly liberal white student who cannot
quite bring himself to believe that his black professor could know more
than he.... I catch myself thinking, I could break him." And he
does, adding to the rapidly expanding ledger tabulating his
On the other hand, he loves his young son Bentley in a way that
frightens him, especially when he visualizes a future in which Kimmer
drifts out of his life with son in tow. He volunteers in a soup kitchen,
partly as penance for his transgressions, partly to turn down the noises
his own inner radar makes and submit to Christian values. He also yearns
for a grounded sense of family, though relations with his aforementioned
sister are strained and his brother Addison--the one Tal believes Dad
liked best--is a commitment-phobic radio personality who keeps slipping
from sight to avoid close scrutiny. (He has his reasons.) And there was
a younger sister, Abby, something of a family renegade, who died in a
car accident. "When Abby died," Tal recalls, "my father went a little
nuts, and then he got better." It's the book's most pithy line. Don't,
for a minute, forget it.
Carter is very good at evoking the wonderlands of American life, whether
the Vineyard, Aspen or Washington's "Gold Coast" enclave of wealthy,
powerful African-Americans. He's even better at describing the
machinations and intrigue in law school faculty offices--which shouldn't
be a surprise, though Carter's extended disclaimer (pages 655-57) begs
readers not to confuse Tal's spiky, tempestuous professional life with
his own. Still, from what readers know of Carter's ideas about religion,
ethics, politics and manners, it's not too much of a stretch to see Tal
asserting his creator's right to probe, confound and, whenever possible,
shatter conventional ideological boundaries.
At one point, Tal has a reverie about one of his father's standard
speeches to white conservatives, pointing to the overlap of their
opinions on such issues as school vouchers, abortion and gay rights with
those of the African-American mainstream. "Conservatives are the last
people who can afford to be racist. Because the future of conservatism
is black America!" Quickly, Tal's mind makes a countermove. "Because
there were a few little details the Judge always left out. Like the fact
that it was conservatives who fought against just about every civil
rights law ever proposed. Like the fact that many of the wealthy men who
paid for his expensive speeches would not have him in their clubs....
The Judge was surely right to insist that the time has come for black
Americans to stop trusting white liberals, who are far more comfortable
telling us what we need than asking us what we want, but he never did
come up with a particularly persuasive reason for us to start trusting
white conservatives instead."
For fans of the well-made thriller, these and other digressions may seem
like patches of glue. But for those who think the plot is, as with the
rest of the book, somewhat overstuffed with data, false leads, sudden
frowns and black-and-blue contrivances, Tal's asides come across like
flares of random, cheeky insight. As the quote above suggests, neither
left nor right is spared Tal's withering assessment, though if I were
keeping score, the liberal humanists get it in the teeth far more than
those with more spirit-based devotions explaining their identities.
Readers have become accustomed to books written by African-Americans to
come down hard on a sociopolitical point. Mystery lovers want airtight
solutions. The Emperor of Ocean Park fulfills neither
expectation. And that, as much as anything, earns both its money and its
respect. Novels of ideas, in whose company Emperor surely belongs
if I read my Mary McCarthy right, are supposed to be exactly that: About
many ideas and not just one. Someone, maybe the author of Anna
Karenina, once suggested that fiction should rouse questions, not
answer them. Once again, the defense calls Raymond Chandler to the
stand: "It is no easy trick to keep your characters and your story
operating on a level which is understandable to the semi-literate public
and at the same time give them some intellectual and artistic overtones,
which the public does not seek or demand or in effect recognize, but
which somehow subconsciously it accepts and likes."
The Emperor of Ocean Park is no Farewell, My Lovely. But
Carter is on to something. And he may someday deliver what Chandler
does, along with a hearty serving of something non-Chandler-esque. What
that something may be is hinted in a few lines close to the novel's very
"That truth, even moral truth, exists I have no doubt, for I am no
relativist; but we weak, fallen humans will never perceive it except
imperfectly, a faintly glowing presence toward which we creep through
the mists of reason, tradition, and faith."
Your move, Tom Clancy.
A young man of 16, visiting his cousins in Calcutta in a house in a
"middle-middle-class area," has just published his first poem. This
not-yet-poet from Bombay is the narrator of Amit Chaudhuri's short story
"Portrait of an Artist." The artist in the story is not the visiting
youth, however, but an older man, the English tutor who comes each week to instruct the cousins. This
man is respectfully called mastermoshai.
Mastermoshai has already been shown the narrator's poem. (One of the
cousins reports that the teacher was "very impressed.") On a Saturday
morning, the budding poet meets mastermoshai. He has a "very Bengali
face" with "spectacles that belonged to his face as much as his eyes
did" and "teeth that jutted out from under his lip, making his face
belong to the preorthodontal days." The cousins, and also the narrator,
wait for mastermoshai to say something about the poem. When two literary
men meet in Bengal, they do not indulge in small talk but instead
"straightaway enter realms of the abstract and articulate," we are
advised. Fittingly, mastermoshai's first question to the poet, in a
Bengali-inflected English, is, "Are you profoundly influenced by
"It was mastermoshai who first spoke to me of Baudelaire," the narrator
says, and there are other discoveries in this induction into the
literary life. When the older man takes the poet to an editor's house in
another part of Calcutta, Chaudhuri's portrait of the artist shades into
a portrait of private homes and of the city as a whole. In Calcutta, our
poet discovers, clerks and accountants nurture an intellectual or
literary life, not only in English but also Bengali. The city appears
provincial, but it also reveals, like Joyce's Dublin, its particularity.
The literary passions that this city with a colonial past breeds are
already obsolete elsewhere. Yet they inspire a romance that is real and
productive. That is what the young poet feels after the years have
passed. By then, mastermoshai has faded into the oblivion of insanity.
His interest in Eliot and Baudelaire is seen by the narrator as a
"transitional" time during which, after the early losses of his life,
mastermoshai had returned to his "youthful enthusiasms." You realize
that the story is not so much about the space of literature, which like
the city itself offers surprises that serve as a refuge from the general
claustrophobia and madness. Instead, it is about the patient and
sometimes crazy, and mostly anonymous, striving in the former
colonies--and also about the tribute we need to pay to mentors in a
literary culture that functions without the trappings of creative
writing programs and, in the case of the poor, even ordinary colleges
Chaudhuri's other stories in this debut collection, Real Time,
also concern themselves with the conditions under which art is born or
the circumstances in which artists live. The book's closing story is
about Mohanji, a gentle and gifted singer trained in classical
Hindustani music. He makes a living by teaching affluent housewives in
Bombay how to sing devotional bhajans and ghazals.
Mohanji's life now is "a round of middle-aged women" in Bombay's
affluent districts like Cuffe Parade and Malabar Hill. At night, he
takes the fast train back to his home in a ghetto in distant Dadar.
Lately, Mohanji has been feeling ill. He believes he has an ulcer. He
also suffers from tension. This tension comes "from constantly having to
lie to the ladies he taught--white lies, flattery--and from not having a
choice in the matter."
Mohanji's student Mrs. Chatterjee does not always have the time to
practice. But, she would like to sing. She tells her teacher that she
wishes she could sing like him. Mohanji is "always surprised" that the
rich had desires for "what couldn't be theirs." He is also amused that
"it wasn't enough for Mrs. Chatterjee that she, in one sense, possessed
him; she must possess his gift as well."
This sudden sharpness on Mohanji's part, like his illness, reveals a
malaise. The gentleness in the guru, a quality to which Mrs. Chatterjee
had grown so accustomed, is now shown to be the result of great
restraint and even artistic discipline. The story's presentation of
Mohanji's speech and his silence ushers us into the domain of criticism.
We get a clue here to Chaudhuri's own art. He belongs to a very small
group of Indian writers in English who are as good critics as they are
storytellers. This skill at criticism is not a result of close
reading--though that ability is in fine evidence in The Picador Book
of Indian Literature, which Chaudhuri has edited--but of a serious
search for a reading public. Chaudhuri's writing, both critical and
fictional, subtly demonstrates for this public (which is yet unborn) its
most responsible function.
There is a great need for such acts in India. Recently, at a literary
festival in Delhi, I heard a well-known writer telling her audience that
there were only two literary critics in Punjabi in the whole country.
But this wasn't the worst. She said that one of the two critics was a
university professor who was interested only in promoting the female
students who were doing their doctorates under him. The other was a man
in Chandigarh who wrote exclusively about other writers from his own Jat
caste. The writer said, "Since I am neither a pretty face nor a Jat, I
I thought about the Punjabi writer, and about Chaudhuri, who was also
there at the festival, when I was awakened past midnight in my hotel
room in Delhi by a call from London. It was someone from the BBC.
Earlier that day, V.S. Naipaul had been rude to another writer. Now the
BBC wanted to know if I believed that "Naipaul had lost it."
I wasn't able to provide gossip. But, as I lay awake in bed after the
call, I remember wondering whether I hadn't made a mistake thinking that
the problem of building a critical culture was India's alone. Did
Britain, for example, have a vibrant literary public sphere? Why then
was the BBC not rousing people from sleep to ask about the solitude of a
writer working in Punjabi, a language that is used by millions, and
endowed with a rich literary past, but now possessing no critics?
Fifteen short stories and a reminiscence-in-verse make up Real
Time. Not all the pieces are as strong as the ones mentioned above.
A few of the short stories, like the one in the voice of a humiliated
demon from the Ramayana, are clever sketches but call for a more
extended treatment in order to be satisfying. There is a first-person
account of a housewife who is writing a memoir--a story meant to mock
the Indian writing scene, where, it seems, a new writer is born every
day. But Chaudhuri's wit is suited to a more muted, or perhaps just more
nuanced, register, and here the mockery falls flat.
"Words, silences," a story about two male friends who are meeting each
other after a long time, contains a hint of a half-understood homosexual
exchange between them in their boyhood. But the story, in its reticence,
offers too little, the author's silence acting like a silencing of its
own. A couple of other stories in the autobiographical mode work better,
recalling the lyricism and humor of Chaudhuri's earlier fiction. His
first three novels, published in a single volume in the United States
under the title Freedom Song, won a Los Angeles Times book
award in 2000. That year Chaudhuri also published a novel, A New
World, about an expatriate Indian's return to Calcutta after his
A real gem in the present collection is the title story "Real Time,"
which along with the account of Mohanji was first published in the
British magazine Granta. This elegantly crafted story recounts an
executive's visit to a house in Calcutta where a shraddha, or
memorial ceremony, is being held. The ceremony is for a young married
woman who has committed suicide by jumping from the third-floor balcony
of her parents' house.
The visitor and his wife--the latter is related to the family--have been
able to find the house only with some difficulty. They have bought
tuberoses on the way, having bargained the price down from sixteen to
fourteen rupees. The rituals of mourning are not clear in the case of a
suicide. The narrative supplies very little conventional pathos, and yet
pathos is present in the story, always in tension with other quotidian
details that intrude upon the consciousness of the narrator. The visitor
spots an acquaintance and they fall into a conversation about "the
recent changes in their companies," their own children and even "a brief
disagreement about whether civil engineering had a future as a career
Death produces a great absence, but here, in the story, the absence has
more to do with the fact that the visiting couple know very little about
the suicide. They had learned of the death from an item in the
newspaper. Grief remains remote. More than death, it is this distance
that produces a blankness, which, however, slowly gets filled with
ordinariness, and even trivia. The narrative is so precise that it is
with a tiny jolt that the reader realizes that this inconsequential
ordinariness is what we usually call life.
Jacques Derrida has written that the Moroccan Abdelkebir Khatibi does
not speak of his mother tongue "without a trembling that can be heard,"
a "discreet tremor of language that undersigns the poetic resonance of
his entire work." The same can be said of Chaudhuri. In his prose,
history always happens elsewhere. It is like an earthquake in the heart
of the earth. What the writing registers is only the shock and the
In early 1993, a short while after the demolition of the Babri Mosque in
Ayodhya and the riots that had followed, Chaudhuri wrote a travel essay
about this return to India from Oxford. In that essay, he described how
the metal nameplates in the house where his father had lived in Bombay
were now all blank. This had been done to protect the Muslims living in
the building. "Small, accidental sensations, too small to be called
incidents," he wrote, "told me I was now living in a slightly altered
The trip on which Chaudhuri discovered the small detail of blank metal
nameplates sowed the seed for his novel Freedom Song. While
reading his earlier novels, I had been struck by the way in which
Chaudhuri's evocative, Proustian sentences accumulated visual details. I
thought of Bengali cinema, the moment of its modernity and the movement
of the camera recording the texture of middle-class life. But there was
also an aural element to this writing. It was punctuated with delicate
pauses that made the prose musical. The sentences were marked by spaces
of silence and filled with near-poetry.
It was only when reading Freedom Song, however, that I got a more
vivid sense of Chaudhuri's unique and flawed aesthetic. The rise of
Hindu fundamentalism and the changes ushered in by market liberalization
provide the immediate occasion for the novelist to examine the changes
that affect a small group of relatives and friends. These changes are
not overwhelming; they are subtle variations on a more settled routine.
The technique works because it saves history from the banality of a
slogan. At the same time, it also carries the danger of slipping into a
mannerism. Both the strength and, on occasion, the weakness are present
in the stories of Real Time.
In recent weeks, hundreds have died in India in religious riots
orchestrated by the Hindu right in retaliation for the burning alive of
fifty-eight Hindus in a train. These events have challenged the
democratic credentials of the Indian nation-state. But they also pose a
question for intellectuals and artists, and this is the question of
seeking a powerful and imaginative response to the carnage.
What is our response in "real time"? And how does this time find breath
in our writing? Chaudhuri, in his attention to the imaginative use of
language, makes the search for the answers a process of magical
discovery. Let me end with a passage from Freedom Song that
captures the inertness but also the dynamism of the life that Chaudhuri
sees unfolding around him:
It was afternoon. And in a small lane, in front of a pavement, with the
movement of a wrist, something like a curve began to appear, it was not
clear what pattern was forming, then the letter D appeared upon a wall
of a two-storey house, in black paint, and then U, and N, until DUNKEL
had been formed, in the English language, which seemed to blazon itself
for its curious purpose; then it began again, and I and M and F began to
appear in another corner. Afternoon; no one saw them; it was too hot; on
the main road cars went past, up and down; a few people rested; they had
eaten; beggars dozed, blind to the heat and shadows, their heads bent to
The third-year medical student held the intravenous catheter, poised to insert it into a patient's vein. Suddenly the patient asked, "Have you done this before?" As the student later recounted to me, a long period of silence fell upon the room. Finally, the student's supervising resident, who was also present, said, "Don't worry. If she misses, I'll do it." Apparently satisfied, the patient let the student proceed.
Breaking this type of uncomfortable silence is the goal of Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande, a surgical resident and a columnist on medicine for The New Yorker. As Gawande's collection of stories reveals, fallibility, mystery and uncertainty pervade modern medicine. Such issues, Gawande believes, should be discussed openly rather than behind the closed doors of hospital conference rooms.
Complications is surely well timed. In 2000, the Institute of Medicine published "To Err Is Human," a highly charged report claiming that as many as 98,000 Americans die annually as a result of medical mistakes. In the wake of this study, research into the problem of medical error has exploded and politicians, including then-President Bill Clinton, have proposed possible solutions. The message was clear: The silence that has too long characterized medical mistakes is no longer acceptable. Yet while Gawande's book provides great insights into the problem of medical error, it also demonstrates how there can be no quick fix.
What may be most remarkable about the recent obsession with medical error is just how old the problem is. For decades, sociologists have conducted studies on hospital wards, perceptively noting the pervasiveness of errors and the strategies of the medical profession for dealing with them. As sociologist Charles Bosk has shown, doctors have largely policed themselves, deciding what transgressions are significant and how those responsible should be reprimanded. Within the profession, then, there is much discussion. Yet the public was rarely told about operations that went wrong or medications that were given in error. Residents joining the medical fraternity quickly learned to keep quiet.
Indeed, when one of those young physicians decided to go public, he used a pseudonym, "Doctor X." In Intern, published in 1965, the author presented a diary of his internship year, replete with overworked residents, arrogant senior physicians and not a few medical errors. In one instance, a surgeon mistakenly tied off a woman's artery instead of her vein, leading to gangrene and eventual amputation of her leg. Doctor X pondered informing the woman about the error, wondering "just exactly where medical ethics come into a picture like this." But his colleagues convinced him to remain quiet.
One whistleblower willing to use his own name and that of his hospital, New York's Bellevue, was William Nolen. In The Making of a Surgeon, published in 1970, surgeons swagger around the hospital, making derisive comments about patients and flirting relentlessly with nurses. (Not the least of reasons for being nice to nurses was the expectation that they would help cover up young doctors' mistakes.) Interestingly, Nolen was subsequently excoriated both by surgeons, who believed he had betrayed the profession's secrets, and by the lay public, who felt he was celebrating the "callousness and prejudice" of surgeons toward vulnerable patients.
Perhaps the peak of this genre of scandalous tell-all accounts occurred in 1978, with the publication of The House of God, written by the pseudonymous Samuel Shem. Although fictional, the book draws on the author's raucous and racy experiences as a medical intern at Boston's Beth Israel Hospital. To Shem, medicine's whole approach to patient care was misguided. The book's hero, the Fat Man, teaches his trainees a vital lesson: "The delivery of medical care is to do as much nothing as possible."
Today it has become more fashionable than rebellious for physicians to describe the trials and tribulations of their training. Dozens of doctors (and some nurses) have published such accounts. Gawande is a prime example of this more mainstream type of physician-author. Even though he describes very disturbing events in his articles for The New Yorker (some of which have been reprinted in Complications), he uses his real name and that of his institution: Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital.
Gawande, however, has taken the art of physician narrative to a new level. He is a deft writer, telling compelling stories that weave together medical events, his personal feelings and answers to questions that readers are surely pondering. Most important, Gawande paints with a decidedly gray brush. There are few heroes or villains in Complications, just folks doing their jobs. Although some readers, perhaps those who have felt victimized by the medical system, may find Gawande's explanations too exculpatory of doctors, he has documented well the uncertainties and ambiguities that characterize medical practice.
Take, for example, his chapter "When Doctors Make Mistakes." With great flair, Gawande describes a case in which he mistakenly did not call for help when treating a woman severely injured in a car accident. Although Gawande could not successfully place a breathing tube in her lungs, he stubbornly kept trying rather than paging an available senior colleague. Eventually, Gawande clumsily attempted an emergency procedure with which he had little experience, of cutting a hole in her windpipe and attempting to breathe for her. It was only through good fortune that the patient did not die or wind up with brain damage. An anesthesiologist, called in very late in the game, managed to sneak a child-size breathing tube into her windpipe, enabling the patient to obtain adequate oxygen.
With typical candor, Gawande lists the possible reasons that he did the wrong thing: "hubris, inattention, wishful thinking, hesitation, or the uncertainty of the moment." All doctors, he is arguing, experience these very human feelings as they tend to their craft. The fact that lives are at stake may make physicians--as compared with other professionals--even more prone to such emotions.
Gawande also details how the surgery department addressed his error. The case was presented at the weekly morbidity and mortality (M & M) conference, where physicians discuss deaths and other bad outcomes. "The successful M & M presentation," Gawande perceptively notes, "inevitably involves a certain elision of detail and a lot of passive verbs." This clearly occurred during the discussion of Gawande's case, where, remarkably, no one ever asked him why he did not call for help sooner. Rather, his blunder was later addressed through another ritual, a private discussion between Gawande and the senior attendant he had not called. Games with language and secret conversations: These are the reasons Gawande has written his book.
In another chapter, Gawande provides a more provocative explanation for the type of mistake he made. Gaffes, he argues in "Education of a Knife," are part of how surgeons--and other physicians--must learn their craft. (After all, physicians don't perform medicine, they practice it.) In an anecdote resembling that of my third-year student, Gawande describes how he routinely caused complications when learning to place dangerous central-line catheters into the necks of seriously ill patients. Expertise, he explains, does not just happen. Physicians in training must victimize a certain percentage of patients to acquire the skills they will need to become competent doctors. Should we consider these events to be mistakes or business as usual? Deciding how to define a medical error is not the least problem.
In such learning situations, the necessary experience is best attained by keeping quiet. Using the "physician's dodge," patients are told "You need a central line" but not "I am still learning to do this." One ramification of this type of learning, Gawande notes, is the victimization of poor, less educated patients, who are often incapable of questioning doctors. Medicine's inclination to learn on "the humblest of patients" becomes especially apparent with Gawande's candid admission that he himself chose a more senior physician--rather than a more attentive cardiology fellow--to care for his son's heart problem.
Mistakes may be made not only by physicians but by patients. In the chapter "Whose Body Is It, Anyway?" Gawande asks what physicians should do when patients seem to make bad decisions. One especially compelling story, which I often use to teach medical students, involves a man who absolutely refused to go on a breathing machine after experiencing a complication of gall bladder surgery. Although the doctors explained that artificial ventilation would only be temporary and would likely save his life, the patient continued to object.
When the man passed out due to lack of oxygen, Gawande was faced with a devastating quandary. Does he abide by the man's wishes, which is what doctors are supposed to do, or immediately put him on the ventilator? Gawande chose the latter. I love to ask students what they think the man said when, a few days later, Gawande triumphantly took him off the machine. Invariably, half of the students predict that the man said, "Call my lawyer." But the other half, who guess that he said "Thank you," are correct. Gawande had surely averted a mistake in this case, but he was left without clear guideposts for approaching similar cases in the future.
Complications is filled with other stories demonstrating the capriciousness of medicine. For example, Gawande once detected a case of the rare, often fatal infection necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating bacteria) because he happened to have seen a case a few weeks before. He ultimately saved the patient's life, not through hard, scientific evidence but through a gut feeling and a willingness to submit a patient to possibly unnecessary surgery. "Medicine's ground state," he concludes, "is uncertainty." Other chapters examine why the medical profession so often hides the mistakes of impairedphysicians, and the questionable use of an operation to help morbidly obese patients lose weight.
In the wake of the Institute of Medicine report, experts have proposed numerous remedies for the problem of error. Most attention has focused on a "systems approach," which would produce a "culture of safety" similar to that of the airline industry. In such a scheme, sophisticated computerized systems would be put in place to detect impending errors, such as wrong medication doses, sloppily written prescriptions and dangerous drug interactions. This emphasis aims to revamp the current approach to medical error, which encourages finger-pointing and malpractice lawsuits.
Gawande's book demonstrates both the advantages and limits of such a systems model. On the one hand, by discouraging the stigmatization of medical mistakes, physicians may be more willing to reveal their own errors and those of their peers. The notion that the case of the obstructed airway could be discussed in an open and nonjudgmental environment, rather than couched in secrecy, is altogether welcome.
On the other hand, there is a reason decades of exposés like Complications have not led to significant change. Defining errors and ascertaining their causes is a tricky business.
So is dealing with the issue of blame. Gawande is willing to admit that he screwed up when he did not call for immediate help for his deteriorating trauma patient. "Good doctoring is all about making the most of the hand you're dealt," he writes, "and I failed to do so." But many physicians remain reluctant to come quite so clean.
"It's a great mistake not to feel pleased when you have the chance," a rich, disfigured spinster advises a frail, well-mannered boy in The Shrimp and the Anemone, the first novel in L.P. Hartley's Eustace and Hilda trilogy. The boy has won a hand of piquet, and the spinster has noticed that he has difficulty
enjoying triumphs. Miss Fothergill (like many of Hartley's characters, the spinster has an outlandishly characteristic name) foresees that her 10-year-old friend may not have ahead of him many occasions of pleasure to waste.
Rather than disobey Miss Fothergill, I will readily admit that I have felt pleased while reading Eustace and Hilda, and very pleased while reading Hartley's masterpiece, The Go-Between. It was a spice to my pleasure that even though the Eustace and Hilda trilogy was first published between 1944 and 1947, and The Go-Between in 1953, I had not even heard of L.P. Hartley before the novels were reissued recently as New York Review Books Classics.
I blame my ignorance on an academic education. Hartley is not the sort of author discussed in schools. He is in no way postmodern. He is modern only in his frugality with sentiment and his somewhat sheepish awareness that the ideas of Marx and Freud are abroad in the world, rendering it slightly more tricky than it used to be to write unself-consciously about unathletic middle-class English boys who have been led by their fantasies and spontaneously refined tastes into the country homes of the aristocracy. If Hartley belongs to any academic canon, it would be to the gay novel, whose true history must remain unwritten until the theorists have been driven from the temple and pleasure-loving empiricists loosed upon the literary critical world.
Hartley belongs with Denton Welch and J.R. Ackerley. The three have different strengths: Welch is sensuous, Ackerley is funny and Hartley is a delicate observer of social machinery. But all are sly and precise writers, challenged by a subject inconvenient for novelizing: the emotional life of gay men.
They met the challenge with unassuming resourcefulness, writing what might be called fairy tales. Hans Christian Andersen was their pioneer, as the first modern writer to discover that emotions considered freakish and repellent in adults could win sympathy when expressed by animals and children. Andersen also discovered that a plain style was the best disguise for this kind of trickery and that the disgust of even the most intolerant readers could be charmed away by an invitation to learn how queer characters came to be the way they are. Thus in Ackerley, Welch and Hartley one finds gentle transpositions--from human to animal, from adulthood to childhood, from health to illness--disarmingly exact language and just-so stories about strange desires. Once upon a time, a man fell in love with another man's dog. Once upon a time, a boy on a bicycle was hit by a car and could not find pleasure again except in broken things. Once upon a time, a boy was made to have tea with a crooked-faced, dying woman, and to his surprise he liked her. The effect is a mood of tenderness; the stories are sweet and a bit mournful.
Hartley loved Hans Christian Andersen, but it was another writer who provided him with a defense of gentle transposition as a novelistic practice: Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose daguerreotype by Mathew Brady is the disconcertingly austere frontispiece of The Novelist's Responsibility, Hartley's 1967 collection of literary criticism. In the preface to The Blithedale Romance, Hawthorne had described the novelist's need for a "Faery Land, so like the real world, that in a suitable remoteness one cannot well tell the difference, but with an atmosphere of strange enchantment, beheld through which the inhabitants have a propriety of their own." Hartley quoted the passage with approval.
Lost time was Hartley's fairyland. "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there," he wrote in the first, and most famous, sentence of The Go-Between. (He may have been echoing the first sentence of A Sentimental Journey, where Laurence Sterne had written, "They order...this matter better in France," which was Sterne's fairyland.) The remembered world could be as rich and vivid as the real one and yet would always stand at a remove. One could visit but not live there. As Hawthorne explained in his introduction to The Scarlet Letter, in another passage quoted by Hartley, there is something romantic about "the attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present which is flitting away from us."
The Go-Between opens with such an attempt. Leo Colston, a bachelor librarian in his 60s, has begun to sort his papers--apparently in preparation for his death, since he seems to have nothing else to look forward to. He starts by opening "a rather battered red cardboard collar-box." It is full of childhood treasures: "two dry, empty sea-urchins; two rusty magnets, a large one and a small one, which had almost lost their magnetism; some negatives rolled up in a tight coil; some stumps of sealing-wax; a small combination lock with three rows of letters; a twist of very fine whipcord; and one or two ambiguous objects, pieces of things, of which the use was not at once apparent: I could not even tell what they had belonged to." At the bottom of the box is a diary, and at first Colston cannot remember what the diary contains. Then he remembers why he does not want to remember it.
My secret--the explanation of me--lay there. I take myself much too seriously, of course. What does it matter to anyone what I was like, then or now? But every man is important to himself at one time or another; my problem had been to reduce the importance, and spread it out as thinly as I could over half a century. Thanks to my interment policy, I had come to terms with life...
A secret naturally arouses the reader's curiosity, but Colston's attitude toward his secret is a further provocation. The events in the diary, he implies, were both inconsequential and traumatic. He preferred a lifelong effort of forgetting over any attempt to come to terms; only by burying "the explanation of me" could he find a way to live. "Was it true...that my best energies had been given to the undertaker's art? If it was, what did it matter?" An unacknowledged wound, a buried definition of the self... The penumbra around Colston's secret is typical of a closeted homosexual, and yet what follows is neither a same-sex love story nor a coming-out narrative.
In the course of the novel, Colston does discover the facts of life and has at least an intuition of his oblique relation to them, but in The Go-Between Hartley was most intensely concerned with his hero's first experiences of sin and grace. This second, more surprising parallel with Hawthorne is the crucial one. Hartley once wrote that "Hawthorne thought that human nature was good, but was convinced in his heart that it was evil." Hartley was in a similar predicament.
Who would have guessed that the Edwardian sexual awakening of a delicate, precociously snobbish 13-year-old would have anything in common with the Puritan crimes and penitence that fascinated Hawthorne? Yet for Hartley, as for Hawthorne, the awareness of sin is a vital stage of education and a condition of maturity. At first young Leo Colston resists it. "It was like a cricket match played in a drizzle, where everyone had an excuse--and what a dull excuse!--for playing badly."
His moral code at the outset is the pagan one of schoolboys; he believes in curses and spells, and in triumphing over enemies by any means except adult intervention. But at the invitation of a classmate, Leo spends his summer vacation at Brandham Hall, a well-appointed Georgian mansion in Norfolk, and there his world is softened by love, in the person of the classmate's older sister, Marian. She is beautiful, musical and headstrong. Leo brings her messages from her fiancé, Hugh Winlove, Lord Trimingham, and billets from her lover, a local farmer named Ted Burgess. With her love comes sin--not because sexuality is evil, though it may be, but because after he has felt its touch, Leo can no longer think of the people he struggles with as enemies. The lovers make a terrible use of him, but he cares most about those who use him worst. In their triangle, he is incapable of taking a side; he is, after all, their go-between.
If you map Hartley onto Hawthorne too methodically, you arrive at the odd conclusion that Leo is part Chillingworth, part Pearl. This is not quite as silly as it sounds. Like them, Leo is jealous of the lovers he observes and is trapped in their orbit; nothing is lost on him, and he is unable to make emotional sense of what he knows. (His apprehension without comprehension is a boon for the reader, who through him sees the social fabric in fine focus.) But unlike Hawthorne's characters, Leo is a boy starting his adolescence, and that process, which he fears will defeat him, is at the heart of The Go-Between. Leo knows that the end of his childhood ought to be "like a death, but with a resurrection in prospect." His resurrection, however, is in doubt.
Like most fairy tales, the tale of how Leo becomes a fairy will not be fully credible to worldly readers. The Oedipal struggle will seem too bald, the catastrophe too absolute. Hartley was aware of this shortcoming. He knew that he found sexuality more awful than other people did, and in The Novelist's Responsibility, he wrote about his attempt to compensate for it while writing the Eustace and Hilda trilogy: "I remember telling a woman novelist, a friend of mine, about a story I was writing, and I said, perhaps with too much awe in my voice, 'Hilda is going to be seduced,' and I inferred that this would be a tragedy. I shall never forget how my friend laughed. She laughed and laughed and could not stop: and I decided that my heroine must be not only seduced, but paralysed into the bargain, if she was to expect any sympathy from the public."
Hartley's friend would probably have laughed at Hilda's paralysis, too. In the trilogy, Hilda is the older, stronger-willed sister of the exquisitely polite Eustace, who grows up in her shadow, a little too fond of its darkness. Their symbiosis in the first volume is brilliant and chilling, but her paralysis in the third is unconvincing. It is implausible that the demise of a love affair would literally immobilize an adult woman. Fortunately, it happens offstage, and a few of the book's characters do wonder if she is malingering.
However, the lack of perspective may be inextricable from Hartley's gifts. His writing is so mournful and sweet because he is willing to consider seriously terrors that only children ought to have, and perhaps only a man who never quite figured manhood out could still consider them that way. The second and third volumes of Eustace and Hilda are as elegant as the first, but not as satisfying, because Eustace's life becomes too vicarious to hold the reader's attention--and because the characters have grown up. Hartley's understanding of children is sophisticated, but he seems to have imagined adults as emotionally limited versions of them--as children who have become skilled at not thinking unpleasant thoughts. As a writer, his best moments are in describing terror at age 13 and the realization at 60-odd that one need not have been so terrified after all. In The Go-Between, artfully, the intervening years are compressed into the act of recollection, and the novel's structure fits the novelist's talents like a glove.
A few years ago I concocted a theory about John Grisham I was too lazy to prove. Here was the hypothesis: This bestselling author was the most successful popularizer of populist notions in American culture. His stories--on paper and onscreen--often pit small folks against malicious corporations and their anything-for-a-buck lawyers who manipulate a system that favors monied elites. In The Pelican Brief, a rapacious oil developer looking to drill in the environmentally precious marshlands of Louisiana funnels millions to government officials and bumps off two Supreme Court Justices to thwart a lawsuit brought by public-interest lawyers against his wildlife-threatening scheme. In The Rainmaker, a young lawyer battles a mega-firm on behalf of a couple screwed over by an insurance company that won't cover a bone-marrow transplant for their son, who is dying of leukemia. The Runaway Jury's bad guy is Big Tobacco. In The Street Lawyer, a corporate attorney bolts from his firm when he discovers it's been wrongfully evicting poor people from their homes. Justice for sale. Money in politics. Corporate greed and malfeasance. And millions of readers devour this stuff.
But not me. I was interested in this notion of Grisham the Populist, based on reading the book reviews and seeing several Grisham flicks. After tearing through The Pelican Brief--too breezy, too melodramatic, too unrealistic, even for airport fiction--I was not eager to do the heavy lifting necessary to confirm the theory (that is, read the books). Instead, I tasked an assistant to peruse some Grisham novels and draft plot summaries. In the meantime, I wrote Grisham and requested an interview to discuss the politics of Grishamland. Should face time be granted, I figured, I would crack open paperbacks in preparation. In the meantime, the summaries started appearing on my desk, and my assistant complained, "This is like reading television." But no word came back from Oxford, Mississippi. I deep-sixed Project Grisham.
Then recently the phone rang. A book review editor asked, "Didn't you once have some ideas about John Grisham?" "Well, uh, kind of, but I didn't really pursue it...." Yet that was enough for this editor: The new Grisham was being FedExed to my office. I was back on the case.
I was under no illusion that Grisham was a modern-day Steinbeck or Odets. He's not writing to send a message. And he does take his swipes at progressive-minded characters. The NAACP lawyer in A Time to Kill is an egotistical cad who cares more about money and power than helping a black man on trial for killing the two white men who raped his daughter. The anti-tobacco activists of The Runaway Jury use underhanded means to defeat the tobacco-industry lawyers. But by placing legal Davids in battle against corporate Goliaths to derive drama, Grisham has consistently presented an unflattering picture of the Enron class. However, his latest, The Summons, only marginally hews to such a story line. The main clash is not between the powerful and the screwed. It occurs within a family. There is an evil-corporations subplot, but it's mostly device, not driving force.
The setup: Ray Atlee, a 43-year-old law professor at the University of Virginia, receives a letter from his dying father, "The Judge," calling Atlee back home to Clanton, Mississippi, to discuss his father's estate. Atlee, estranged from Dad and the ancestral home, does not look forward to the trip. He's already in a funk. His ex-wife has married a millionaire corporate raider and borne him twins (conceived, all too obviously, while she was married to Atlee), and a lovely (and rich) third-year law student is teasing Atlee silly. So off he goes in his midlife-crisis sports coupe to the town he escaped. When Atlee arrives home, he finds Dad dead. Atlee dutifully starts organizing his father's papers and stumbles across a surprise: more than $3 million in cash hidden in twenty-seven stationer's boxes. Where did this poorly paid public servant get the moolah? What should Atlee do with all those Ben Franklins? Include them in the estate--which would mean the government would grab its share, his father's honor might be tainted and Atlee's alcoholic/junkie brother, Forrest, would claim half and be able to finance his descent into complete self-destruction?
This is a what-would-you-do mystery, and a how-would-you-do-it thriller. (We learn that three mil in hundreds fills three large garbage bags--and that poses logistical difficulties if you're driving a car with a small trunk.) Grisham throws in enough moral shading to supply Atlee reason beyond avarice to take the money and run. But greed hovers, even as Atlee tells himself he's not sure he's going to keep the loot. First, he has to uncover the backstory.
A warning to any potential readers of The Summons: There are a few plot points in this book, and to describe it further is to reveal precious twists. If you have an inclination to read this novel, do not continue beyond this paragraph. Skip ahead to the review of the Italian Baroque lady painter who specialized in blood-drenched scenes.
OK, now that the Grisham fans are gone, let me say that this book is much better than the improbability-ridden Pelican Brief, but it was still unsatisfying. The main dilemma is engaging--what to do with free, albeit probably tainted, money?--yet there's not much oomph to the tale. Perhaps that's because Grisham does not provide reason for readers to care about Atlee. He's a good-enough sort, plays well with fellow faculty members, has been hurt by a woman who done him wrong and won't sleep with a student until she graduates. He specializes in antitrust, but we're spared his views. He's not the Jimmy Stewart type, drawn helplessly into an alternative world of intrigue. He's a guy who likes flying and is coasting. Until he finds the cash.
Atlee then faces three immediate challenges: how to move the money without being spotted, how to determine whether it's marked and how to discover its origins. Of course, he's able to succeed on each front, but the trouble is that these tasks end up not requiring great ingenuity. Also, there's someone trailing him, and that unknown person wants the cash and is willing to use violence to get it. Atlee has to watch his back as he shuttles to various rental-storage lockers (where he keeps the money) and to various casinos (where he drops hundred-dollar bills, looking to see if the expert money-handlers will detect them as marked). As for the money's source, Atlee's investigation is too straightforward. In the judge's papers, the files concerning one case are missing. Atlee heads to the Gulf Coast to examine the court records. He then talks to the lawyer who won. And--bing!--that mystery is solved, a bit too easily.
It is this case that brings us the novel's hint of populism. Seems a Swiss pharmaceutical behemoth was selling an anticholesterol drug that had an unfortunate side effect: kidney failure. The company was aware of the problem but marketed the drug anyway. By the time Judge Atlee came to be presiding over a wrongful death suit, filed against the company by a widow living in rural Mississippi, tens of thousands of kidneys had been ruined. The judge showed the company's lawyers no quarter and in the end socked the pharma with an $11.1 million fine. "The opinion," Grisham writes, "was a scathing indictment of corporate recklessness and greed.... [The] trial was Judge Atlee at his finest." How did this lead to boxes full of cash? I'll leave that to your imagination. Here Grisham is in sync with his past us-versus-them plots. But The Summons does not dwell upon the malfeasance of the drug-maker. Rather, the book blasts away at the attorney who won the case, in what amounts to an indictment of mass-tortlawyers. The pages drip with scorn for attorneys who become wealthy by handling class-action suits against corporate malefactors, such as tobacco companies and asbestos manufacturers. "I worship money," this lawyer tells Atlee. Grisham takes the bogeymen of the Naderish left and the Chamber of Commerce right--corporate evildoers and trial attorneys--and places them in a state of moral equivalence.
But this is far from the point of the book; it's simply the point of my review, for there's not much to dig into in The Summons. The solutions to the few mysteries in it are not big shockers. The novel contains just enough elegant touches to make readers realize there should be more. Atlee's difficult relationship with his brother is rendered well. The impact of the found money on Atlee is interesting to watch. Yes, watch--this is like reading television. But the drama is not as intense as in A Simple Plan, which used a similar scenario. (Grisham does obliquely reference that book/movie in this novel.) Atlee's desire to hold on to the bucks ends up threatening his comfortable life, and Grisham throws in a much-yearned-for curveball toward the end. For a moment, it looks as if Atlee might actually be facing time in the slammer. But fate is not that unkind. And who is it that's after Atlee? A reader who looks at this book as an English parlor mystery, wherein the culprit has to be someone in the room, will not be hard pressed to conjure up the answer.
Back to the important matter: my take on Grisham. He's certainly not writing left-wing agitprop disguised as legal-drama pulp. But in his universe, lustful and reckless corporations often run wild until they are checked by a righteous judge or some other soul moved by ideals, not dollars. Trial attorneys might be scumbuckets who care more about champagne baths than about their clients. Still, Grisham has the novel's annoying millionaire ambulance-chaser tell Atlee, "It takes people like me to keep 'em honest"--a proposition that neither author nor protagonist rebuts. The Summons does not advance the unsteady justice-ain't-equal populism of Grisham's previous work. That's not its mission. But in general Grisham presents the tens of millions who glide through his popcorn novels with the view--in some books more than others--that life is often unfair for a reason, unfair by design, and that specific interests are responsible for this. Not quite a Nation editorial, but better than Sidney Sheldon.
On December 14, the German writer W.G. Sebald died, age 57, in a car accident in England, where he had lived for thirty-five years. He had published four remarkable books: fluid, melancholy novel-essays composed in beautifully rich and formal language, and studded with odd black-and-white photos rescued
from the oblivion that was his overwhelming theme. In each book, including Austerlitz, brought out just before Sebald's death in an English translation he supervised, a solitary traveler undertakes research into devastation (of trees and animal species, of human practices and populations) and conducts interviews among the bereaved, making himself into a kind of tribune of universal loss. About the traveler we know little but that he shares the main features of the author's life and suffers from precarious mental health, especially a "paralyzing horror...when confronted with the traces of destruction."
I had read Sebald with uneasy admiration, and learning of his death I felt jolted, brought up short. It wasn't only that he was in the middle of a great career; there was something in specific I still expected from him, and not until I happened to see a movie version of Hamlet could I formulate my question.
Act I, Scene 2. Queen Gertrude is remonstrating with her gloomy son: "All that lives must die," she reminds him, "Passing through nature to eternity." Hamlet: "Ay, madam, it is common." Gertrude: "If it be, why seems it so particular with thee?"
But we know why grief is so particular with Hamlet: His father has just died. Likewise, in Austerlitz, we discover just why the life of Jacques Austerlitz has been "clouded by an unrelieved despair." As Austerlitz reveals in one of several huge monologues, he was raised in Wales by a grim Calvinist couple and without any knowledge of his origins. Only as an adolescent was he told of his real name, and not until middle age, when he sits in a London train station slated for demolition, does he recall, in a sudden blow of anamnesis, that he had passed through this station once before, as a child of 4. It turns out that Jacques Austerlitz is the son of Prague Jews, saved from their fate by one of the Kindertransporten that spirited a few Jewish children to safety at the beginning of the Second World War.
Austerlitz's recovered memory, as always in Sebald, serves only to take the measure of his loss. In this way Sebald is the counter-Proust, despite his preoccupation with memory and the serpentine elegance of his precisely measured long sentences. Memories stand in relationship to forgetting as photographs to unrecorded time and Holocaust survivors to the 6 million dead: They are a small, exceptional minority. They refer, in Sebald, more to the absence of others than to their own thin presence. Page 183 of Austerlitz reproduces a photo of a towheaded little boy dressed in operatic costume as a queen's page, a picture Austerlitz's childhood nanny shows him when, searching for traces of his parents, he tracks her down more than fifty years later in post-Communist Prague. She tells him that it is himself looking out from the photograph:
As far back as I can remember, said Austerlitz, I have always felt as if I had no place in reality, as if I were not there at all, and I never had this impression more strongly than on that evening...when the eyes of the Rose Queen's page looked through me.
Of course, the reader doesn't know whether the boy pictured was really, like Austerlitz, the son of a Jewish opera singer. Fact and fiction go into Sebald's characters--even their documentary aspects--in unknown proportions, and to an interviewer he said: "Behind Austerlitz hide two or three, perhaps three-and-a-half, real persons." Sebald added the unreliability of fiction to the frailty of memory and made it seem a double wonder that anything at all should be plucked from oblivion and spared.
It is this way of representing what has been destroyed that is most moving in his work. That is the task of each of his four books, and it accounts in large part for their having been invariably called sublime. Typically a term of a vague commendation, it must nevertheless have come to mind in Sebald's case because of its precise, Kantian sense: the insufficiency of our faculties to what they contemplate. The sublime is what we know to be more than we can know, and thus the past--available only in fragments--is a perfect instance of sublimeness.
So, too, is the Holocaust, an event, in this sense, as sublime as it was obscene. The Nazis created in their camps and ghettos (to one of which, Theresienstadt, Austerlitz's mother was confined before presumably being shipped east to be murdered) "an infinite enormity of pain," as Primo Levi wrote, only a tiny portion of which can be apprehended by "our providentially myopic senses." Sebald's approach to the genocide is more direct in Austerlitz than before, but still exemplary in its indirectness: He depicts only the furthest, charred edge of the phenomenon, letting the sufferings of one comparatively very fortunate European Jew evoke, in the half-imaginary person of Austerlitz, the far greater and unrepresentable sufferings of the massively more numerous unlucky ones. And sometimes it is even as if Sebald matches the degree of indirection to the degree of horror, as when he writes of the notorious Nuremberg rally at fourth hand, the narrator recounting what Austerlitz said about what his nanny said about what his father, Maximilian, an eyewitness, had said. (But it's interesting to note that Sebald's third name was Maximilian and that friends knew him as Max.)
Sebald's art is exemplary in another way. The writers he explicitly identified with were Conrad and Nabokov, emigrants like himself, but his books' deepest affinities are with his native tradition of German Romanticism--its convention of the solitary wanderer, its love of fragments, its sense of the nobility of spiritual sickness, its hymns to night. Yet the same Novalis who wondered, as Sebald might have done, what life could offer "to outweigh the chain of death," also felt a keen nostalgia for "the beautiful and glorious time, when Europe was a Christian land, inhabited by one Christianity." Romanticism was a more political and longer-lasting affair in Germany than elsewhere, and its frequent enthusiasm for an "organic" nation-state and disdain for cosmopolitan reason supplied Nazi ideology with much of its spurious dignity, not least in its anti-Semitic elements. Sebald's is a romanticism, then, in which death and grief and wandering retain their strange prestige, but for which European Jews and other displaced people have become questing heroes chasing a lost past. Such a romanticism alludes relentlessly to the murderousness that romanticism once helped to underwrite, and so Sebald manages at once to preserve and to subvert a great literary tradition, to renovate it through disgrace.
It's impossible not to admire a feat like that. But to notice Sebald's romanticism is also to realize what is troubling in his work. Part of the method of romanticism is to find symbols of the self--its moods and truths--in the features of nature. Yet the landscape Sebald has before him belongs not to nature, but to history. It is easy enough to understand why Austerlitz himself would identify with the calamities of history: He has lost his past to them. And Sebald has taken the audacious and even ludicrous step of naming his character after a great Napoleonic battle. When Austerlitz hears a fervent account of the battle of Austerlitz, he naturally feels that his name has made him intimate with the sorrows of Russian and Austrian soldiers drowned in retreat. But why did Sebald make the damaged survivors of his books into his own army, and how is it that he heard in various historical crimes and disasters, above all the Holocaust, an echo of his own name? The grief his books describe is there in the world to be found, but why was it so particular with Sebald?
All we can say is that there seems to have been in him some unspecified pain that sought and found affiliation with the felled trees and vanished industries of The Rings of Saturn, with the dead hunter in Vertigo and with the scarred remnant of European Jewry in The Emigrants and now Austerlitz. At times he made fun of his insistent grief, as when he wrote of drinking a Cherry Coke "at a draught like a cup of hemlock." But more often this grief was simply his principle of selection, his lens. Because he didn't take its subjective character enough into account, permitting himself only the scantiest and most covert autobiography, his work sometimes had the effect--no doubt unintentional--of muffling the atrocities to which he was so curiously attracted. "Our history," he wrote, "is but a long account of calamities." The Holocaust and other historical crimes would belong very naturally to such a history, and might even seem its consummation. Yet history consists no more exclusively of calamity than any population consists of the suicides and other solitaries who are Sebald's characters. There might have been more truth to his work had it been less noble and self-effacing, and explained in some way not only how he came to speak on behalf of the lost, but how it was that they seemed to speak for him. It might also be that in books to come Sebald would have done just that. As it is, he died too soon, forced to illustrate the hidden motto of his work: that time destroys everything but mystery, which it conserves.