Monday, August 13, 2012

The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

I've had this book on my shelf for nearly a year, and just couldn't push past the first chapter. It was distanced, somehow, as though the characters were just not interesting to her. There was little of the exuberance of language I associate with her, and the people at the center of the story were so boring, unpleasant, aloof. It was hard to engage with this book.

I persevered, and finished it, but I'm not really willing to recommend it. Kingsolver is attempting some new things in this book, there are some formal innovations that are different from other works, and there are parts that zing with the obvious interest the topics have for her. However, too much of it feels like scaffolding designed to support those zingy sections, and it's a lot of work for not much pay-off. "Not much pay-off" being scaled entirely in relation to the other books of hers I have read.

The book follows the life of one (fictional) William Harrison Shepherd (1916-195?), the son of a (mostly absent) American father and a social climbing Mexican mother. Shepherd's mother has launched an affair with a wealthy Mexican landowner and has dragged her young son to the hacienda where she tries to divorce her American husband and entice her Mexican lover to marry her. Young Shepherd is left to his own devices mostly, so he learns to cook from the kitchen staff, he swims in the ocean, and he reads books in lieu of school. This is the dreary life of the first chapter, and it's really not promising. I had hopes for the titular "Lacuna" which Shepherd finds while swimming--there is a cave opening just below the surface of the water that goes through a small island and ends in a small natural well in the center of the island. It requires significant breath control and the assistance of the full moon to make the journey without drowning.

Of course, a "lacuna" is a gap, a space, a void, and Shepherd is himself the embodiment of a void, a character so devoid of character or action as to nearly be missing from his own life story. Because this book is his life story, told through the device of his life-long personal journals, most of which chronicle the world around him while failing to include his own thoughts and feelings. As such he moves through history, the cut-out of a human figure, conveniently turning up wherever Kingsolver wishes to record a historical event. After far too many pages chronicling Shepherd's lack of education and his dysfunctional mother, Kingsolver packs him off to a short stint in boarding school in DC in order to have him witness the Bonus Army riots. That accomplished, he's sent back to Mexico City, where he meets Diego Rivera and uses his baking techniques to mix plaster for Rivera's monumental murals. He ends up as a cook in the Rivera-Kahlo household and subsequently a typist as well during the residency of Leon Trotsky. He witnesses Trotsky's assassination, and again ends up in the US in time to be disqualified from active service in WWII due to (mostly theoretical) homosexuality.

Eventually he ends up a confirmed bachelor in a small house in Ashville, North Carolina, and he writes three novels drawn from the folklore of Mexico's past--Cortes versus the Aztecs, the Mayan migrations. These are presented as thrillers, but they are also barely veiled social commentary: soldiers bear the brunt of war, any improvement in weapons technology will foster an arms race, the kind of obvious "message" that the worst of third season Star Trek used to carry. During this period, he hires a secretary named Violet Brown who is a sassy Scottish hillswoman. It is this vaguely presented national background that (barely) saves her from being a cliche--she is neither a Sassy Gay Best Friend nor a Magic Negro/Sassy Black Woman only because she is an asexual white woman of a certain age. However, it is appallingly easy to imagine her being played by Octavia Spencer in Minnie Jackson mode (from The Help).

Predictably, Shepherd runs afoul of the HUAC during the Red Scare--he lived and worked with several of the most internationally well-known communists outside of the Soviet Union--and he gets hauled up before a Congressional Committee. He arranges his affairs, takes Violet on a trip to Mexico, and dies while swimming in the place he lived as a child.

Yes, of course there is no body. Kingsolver doesn't bother to be very subtle about making it plan that Shepherd fakes his own death and goes back to cook for Frida Kahlo. (He escapes by swimming into the lacuna he found as a child, and then presumably hides until the search for his body is called off, then works his way back to Mexico City and Frida.) Violet returns to North Carolina, where she prepares all the diaries into the book we are reading.

So, that's the plot--Everyman experiencing several major events of Historical Import. But there is surely more going on--this is Barbara Kingsolver we are talking about, and she doesn't just do pot-boiler, or survey of early 20th century Mexican-American relations. In the addenda at the back of the book, there is a brief interview with the author, in which she describes what she is doing as exploring the nexus of art and politics. How is it that Diego Rivera can be overtly political, while Shepherd is not? How do the shifting winds of political fashion affect the reception of art? The book is at its sharpest (and is most worth reading) in the passages where Shepherd muses on how the shared sacrifice of war efforts molded America into something closer to Trotsky's imagined utopia than the Soviet Union ever achieved. The end of the war is painted as an inevitable return to class strife, as manufacturers strive to grab the dollars that went unspent during the war. Shepherd realizes that as consumer goods become available again, they will go first to the wealthy who will pay premium prices for new refrigerators and cars, leaving behind the camaraderie of the war years where everybody shared in sacrifice for a better future.

The other section that is really worth reading are the years of the Red Scare. Kingsolver is very very good at capturing the ease with which public opinion is spun, how a quiet gentlemanly writer of light fiction can suddenly become a threat to the nation. A single line of dialogue in one of his books is pulled out of context and used to make Shepherd look like an incendiary revolutionary. How does this happen, Shepherd asks, bewildered by the sudden shift in the culture? Violet Brown describes it as the inevitable aftermath of winning a war, a need grown out of the fear of war to define what it means to be "American."

The testimony Shepherd is called to give before the HUAC captures beautifully the way hearings are staged to look like fact-finding inquiries, but are political theater designed to allow Congressmen to score rhetorical points in front of a national audience. Poor Shepherd is peppered with multi-part questions dripping with innuendo, and then commanded to answer only "yes" or "no." For example, this colloquy on Shepherd's role in accompanying several of Frida Kahlo's paintings to New York to assure their safe arrival.

Mr. Ravenner. Did you know precisly what you were transporting? Did you pack these crates yourself?

Mr. Shepherd: No. I had a roster with the names of the paintings.

Mr. Ravenner: You smuggled large crates of unknown content into this country? From the headquarters of some of the most dangerous Communists in any country touching our borders. Is that correct?

Of course the questioning goes on to cast Kahlo's paintings (which were not "smuggled" but legally transported, but these are theatrical times) as "Communist propaganda" and "concealed objects." Obviously, the purpose of these hearings is to make Congress look like it is successfully protecting the nation against dangerous criminals. And you have to find these criminals in order to look effective, even if you have to manufacture their misdeeds. Of course it is frightening to see how easy it is to use innuendo and charged words to change the meaning of whatever actions are being examined. With the assassination of Trotsky, Kingsolver points out how easily the newspapers could accept a story that Trotsky planned his own death in order to gain publicity for his cause. This twisting of "fact" to fit political fashion of the time not new, and Kingsolver tries to mine the abuses of yellow journalism for outrage, but doesn't quite manage it (for me) until the FBI starts "finding" enemies of the state.

There are clues that Kingsolver wants to connect the Red Scare to more current events--probably to the build-up to the Iraq War after 9/11 and the false case of WMDs. Certainly, Shepherd's books about the ancient Aztecs include commentary on the then-current issues like the use of nuclear weapons, and so one looks for ways in which this book uses the events of 1920-1950 to comment on 21st century politics. However, the parallel doesn't quite gel. The vivid way she writes about the perversion of mid-century witch-hunting and the twisting of fact to fit a political agenda should make us wary of what in the book is "true" and what is "interpretation"--yet I never got the sense that she intended Shepherd's impressions to be anything but honest reportage. He is too boring to be an unreliable narrator, at least in a literary sense. His view of world events might be limited, but they are never less than unbiased and clearly reported.

Which is a bit too bad--the themes of politics and art might have been more fun to sort through if her characters were slightly more twisty themselves.  On the whole, the book rather suffers from being just too earnest--Trotsky was such a nice man, surely his political theory would have been a nicer way to live--and straightforward.

There are hints that the book was perhaps a little bit rushed as well. Specifically, I sensed a missed opportunity for the kind of lush writing I go to Kingsolver to find. In the last quarter of the book, Shepherd travels to Chichen Itza to research Mayan culture for his third novel. There is a brief travelogue, with some rushed descriptions, but none of the lovingly detailed prose that she gave us in Prodigal Summer for example.

Then, sometime later, Violet Brown summons up a moment in flashback. Remember, she says, how we sat at the top of El Castillo at Chichen Itza, and suddenly the light changed. Everything was still the same, all the buildings, all the trees, but it suddenly all looked different. (Obviously, this is paraphrased.)  Imagine how this scene might have been rendered if Kingsolver had shown it to us as it happened, not a rushed memory used to make a point about McCarthyism, but if she had really described how the view from the top looked, and then what the shifting light did--how the shadows changed color or direction, how things that had been foregrounded seemed to efface themselves and revealed new mysteries, new perspectives. The woman who wrote about the lush flora of Appalachia in Prodigal Summer really could have brought this scene to life and made it a deeply memorable experience. Instead, she evoked it and discarded it only a few words.

I wish she had given us that scene. That would have merited her talents.

It's a fine book, it has some ideas to present, but it just doesn't shimmer like I expect a Kingsolver book to do. I enjoyed it as I read it, but it's definitely a lesser achievement from a writer who can do much more wonderful things.

I see that she has a new book coming out this fall, called Flight Behavior. It is set back in Appalachia, and has been described as taking on matters of faith and climate change. I'll probably read that one too, eventually, but I'm not going to put it on pre-order, not after the middling experience of The Lacuna.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Broken Harbor, by Tana French

The fourth book of the Dublin Murder Squad series, this book follows French's M.O.--select a secondary character from the previous book, and feature him/her; and use a murder investigation to document the psychological unraveling of that character.

In her brilliant debut novel In The Woods, French gave us the double mystery of what happened to Rob Ryan, as he tries to solve a murder with his partner Cassie Maddox. The current murder takes place in the area where Rob lived as a child, where he was found traumatized and bloody, where his two best friends disappeared and were never found. The Likeness gave us Cassie Maddox going undercover to impersonate a woman who was found dead, trying to solve that murder by recreating the dead woman's life and then living it. Faithful Place took Cassie's boss Frank Mackey, and force him to confront the fact that the woman he planned to elope with stood him up. Except she didn't. (Yeah, spoiler. Technically. There is no way Tana French wasn't going to twist that plot up.)

Now we have Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy, who I don't remember at all from Faithful Place. He's a rules guy, straight and narrow, which we learn over the course of the book is his way of dealing with the chaos of his life. It's almost talismanic, the way he counts on rules to keep him safe. Of course, over the course of a French book, the hero is going to find out that what he counts on to make sense of the world isn't going to work when placed in the pressure cooker of a murder investigation.

This one is hard, because there are kids. Two young kids, maybe 6 and 4, smothered in their beds, their parents stabbed in the kitchen downstairs. Against the odds, the mother may survive. Scorcher has a rookie partner, Richie Curran: he likes having rookies for partners, because they allow him more control over the investigation. He also has a past in this location--Broken Harbor was where his family would camp for two weeks at the end of each summer until the summer his mother walked into the water.

Twenty some years later, it's been renamed "Brianstown" by the developers who planned a glamorous multi-purpose, all-inclusive community until the market collapsed in 2008 and the left, leaving most of the estate unfinished and uninhabited. Only four families remained on the property, prisoners of a housing market where they owed more than the houses were worth, the developers cut corners and can't be located. And now the multiple murders of the Spains, Pat and Jenny and their two kids, haunt the eerie location.

Part of the pathos of the Spains' deaths is that they obviously were people who "tried." The house was beautifully furnished and maintained, they themselves were lovely, they seemed to be doing everything they were supposed to. So why were there holes cut into the walls all over the house? Why were there baby monitors scattered around?

As in her other three books, French is less interested in "whodunnit" or even "whydunnit" as teasing out the slow psychological disintegration that makes the unthinkable something that someone can think--and can actually do. What forces make decent people stop following the rules for civilized behavior and cross their own lines?

For Scorcher, it's the accumulation of pressures. Not only does he have this creepy case, which would be bad enough, he's also got the echoes of his own traumatic loss that resonate throughout the case. Plus he's got a younger sister who has an unspecified "madness" who shows up and demands his attention. In the four days covered by the book, he gets only a few hours of sleep, and he becomes increasingly disoriented as the pressures build. He needs to lean ever harder on his fundamental belief that if he toes the line, follows the rules, everything will turn out right.

But the Spains disprove that belief, because they did everything "right," they invested deeply into the way people are "supposed" to live. They met and married young, they adored each other, they had two beautiful children. Pat had a prestigious job that earned enough that Jenny could stay home with the children. They drove the right cars, had the right parties, wore the right clothes, invested in home ownership so they could get onto "the property ladder" because kids need a house and a yard to play in. Jenny made herself into the perfect housewife, even switching out scented candles with the seasons. Then the economy collapsed, Pat lost his job and couldn't find another one, and they ended up dead.

By my estimate, French uses the first two thirds of the book to establish the set up. We follow the police procedures as they try to make sense of the Spain puzzle. We get the slow buildup of threat--the way the house was beginning to collapse from its shoddy construction is a metaphor for Scorcher's life and the Irish economy. Shaky foundations can't be corrected by scented candles. But Scorcher can't confront the shaky foundation of his own life--he doesn't dare to. He has to believe that his younger sister's mental condition was caused by their mother's suicide. He needs to believe in cause and effect to keep faith in his own sanity, and so he begins to identify with Pat Spain, the man who played by the rules. So Scorcher resists the evidence that would implicate Pat as the murderer, and insists on pinning the deaths on a loner, Conor, who had loved Jenny since they were teens. Conor had his own personal financial crisis, and had taken to hiding in an empty building on the estate where he could watch Pat and Jenny enact the kind of perfect life he dreamed of for himself. Early on, he is arrested and then he confesses to the murders.

Even as he celebrates the solve, Scorcher can't stop questioning. There are too many loose ends, and anyway his partner doesn't think Conor did it. Curran wants to keep investigating Pat as the killer, and the pressure he puts on Scorcher isn't helping. Why are there holes in the walls, anyway? Who wiped the browser history from the computer and why? Why did the killer use a kitchen knife rather than bringing his own weapon? Scorcher begins to deviate from his rules--instead of accepting the simplest explanation, he spins a baroque fantasia about Conor launching a campaign to drive Pat insane, involving remote control mp3 players and speakers run into the walls of the house. Scorcher doesn't quite see that Curran is beginning to pity him, worry for him, and that compassion ruins everybody.

Because, of course, it wasn't Conor who killed the Spains, and it wasn't Pat either. It was Jenny. Jenny who caved into the psychological pressure of watching her husband become unmoored. Pat became convinced that there was an animal living in the attic, and he began posting at various websites trying to get some advice. And because this is the internet, as well as a French novel, the responses are indeterminate. As the months go by, Pat stops searching for work and slowly falls into his own obsession. He becomes convinced that his own worth as a husband and father is inextricably bound up in capturing this animal. Not boarding up the access hole in the attic, but capturing it. First he wants to protect his family, but as the weeks go by with no physical evidence of the animal, he needs to demonstrate to Jenny that it is real. He needs to show her that he is fighting a real wild animal, and as he hears it moving in the walls, he cuts holes and sets up video baby monitors hoping to catch sight of it. Obviously he has moved away from protecting his family--if this animal is in the walls, now it can get out at reach the family.

But Pat can't see that. He has become completely absorbed in this one-on-one battle with the wilderness, exemplified by this animal. Soon he moves into territory that would frighten me to death if I were Jenny. He buys a leg trap and sets it up in the attic. He buys live bait--a mouse from a pet store that he sticks to a glue trap and then places in the attic with the trap door open. His plan is to capture the animal in this enormous trap and watch it as it dies. This is where Jenny should take the kids and move to her sister's house, honestly. Pat is completely divorced from family life, chasing this animal and staying up all night watching the monitors and haunting internet chat rooms. Although they have almost no money left, he starts buying electronic equipment to capture this animal.

The final straw comes when Emma comes home with a picture of her house, and she has drawn a large black animal with glowing eyes in a tree in the yard. Jenny does not believe in this animal, and while she has indulged her husband's weird hobby, now he has tainted the children with it, and she no longer has any emotional reserves left. She snaps, and the mantra she has is "we have to get out of here." So she goes upstairs and smothers the children. She then goes into the kitchen, where Pat has stuck his own hand into one of the holes he's cut into the walls, using himself as live bait. In his other hand, he has a large kitchen knife. Jenny takes the knife and begins to stab Pat. They struggle, and although she is physically outmatched, she is determined and she gets lucky and kills him. However, she's exhausted, and she can't finish the job on herself. This is when Conor rushes in--he's seen the struggle from his hide-out, and he's too late to save his friend. Jenny doesn't want to live, and she asks him to finish her off. There is time pressure, you see--she wants to join her family before they move on without her.

He loves her, he loves Pat, and so he tries. But he's not ruthless enough, and so she survives. It is Conor who also tries to save Pat's posthumous reputation by wiping the computer history. His final act is to confess to the murders, to save Jenny the horror of realize what she has done.

Richie Curran has also traveled a morally ambiguous road. He knows that there is nothing the justice system can do to Jenny that is worse than her having to live with the deaths of her family.She is "already writing the note." At the first chance, she will finish the job and kill herself. Scorcher won't allow that--he's got his own issues with suicide, and he's determined to arrest her and convict her, in the hopes that she will get medical treatment and can come out the other end with something to live for. Richie wants to let her go, let her kill herself.

This is an interesting debate to have, as it completely reversed the "Golden Age" detective novel approach. In particular, there is a Dorothy Sayers novel where Lord Peter Wimsey asks the murderer to "do the right thing" to spare his wife and children the horror of being revealed as a murderer. The man walks into traffic and dies--and the clear authorial stance is that this was the Right Thing to Do. There is some nonsense wiht a piece of evidence--one of Jenny's fingernails and a thread from her daughter's pillow turned up in Conor's apartment. Curran found it, but didn't turn it in as he debated with himself the "right thing to do." He doesn't share Scorcher's fervent believe in the proper operation of the system, and he thinks that it might be better to let Pat be blamed for the deaths, and leave Jenny free to take her own life.

Of course, we already know that Scorcher has over-identified with Pat, and he simply cannot allow Pat to be thought of as a murderer--even through the man is dead and really, what would it matter to him? And this is where it all unravels. Because Curran got the evidence tainted, and that was enough to bust him back into uniform. Harsh and a great loss, since Curran was a very very good detective, very good at figuring out what happened. However, he was not a good murder cop, because he was not willing to play his role in the larger system. He wanted to act on his own recognizance, his own belief as to the "right" thing to do. You really can't have that or the system collapses.

So now Scorcher has to manufacture his own evidence, in order to put the case back on teh right path. He has to enlist Jenny's sister in the play of "discovering" a piece of Jenny's jewelry and "remembering" she had picked it up at the crime scene. And this is the destruction of Scorcher's career, because now he knows how easy it is to cross those lines, and he can't trust himself not to cross them again.

French is really up to more than merely writing a well-crafted detective story, and I kept sensing parallels to her break-out In The Woods, most powerfully the use of the unseen animal. In the first book, the young Rob Ryan was found frozen against a tree, his fingers digging into the bark. There was blood in his shoes, that soaked into his socks, and four tears in his shirt but no marks on his skin. There is some hint that perhaps an animal may have made the scratches, and that animal may have killed his friends, but the solution is never spelled out. Similarly, in Broken Harbor there is the unseen animal that Pat is chasing, there are even sets of scratch marks on the beams in the attic, but no corresponding animal tracks or scat.  They are both traumatized by something nobody else can see. They have both engaged in a life-and-death battle with the unseen and lost.

What can we make of this? To be honest, my memory of In The Woods is pretty spotty, and I find I didn't blog any of these books when I read them. But there is something edging around the procedurals, something that is entirely the opposite of the nature of a detective novel. There is wildness and disorder, and while the police bag and tag and assemble the facts, there is a spirit that can't be contained in the sterile procedures of forensics. I suspect that some of this is truly metaphorical--that these men stand as a last defense of order in the face of chaos, and their bespoke suits and natty ties are a means of rebuking the wildness of things with claws that scratch. I also think there is an element of wordplay here. Were the Spains killed by an outsider? No, their destruction came from "within their own walls." Similarly, In The Woods forced Rob Ryan to excavate his own forgotten past as he investigated a murder on an archeological site. That's almost straight past literary construction and right back to being literally obvious.

What makes killers strike? What is going on inside their heads that they can lose touch with civilization to such a degree?  Pat lost his family when he began to ignore them and obsess over "beating" this animal that only he could see. What led him to that level of madness? Would it have happened if he hadn't lost his job? Probably not. So once he lost the ability to protect his family financially, he had to protect them physically--but there was no solid enemy he could confront. It was a creature of smoke and mirrors.

There is a rot at the heart of both books, a corruption of the surrounding systems. It's the politicians and land developers who stand to make fortunes from land speculation and bribes when an expressway is planned. The past has to get out of the way of the future, as the archeological site is going to be obliterated by the new road, and no one will authorize moving the road to protect their history, because there is too much money at stake. Similarly, in Broken Harbor, the land developers sold a promise that they did not deliver, and they disappeared with the money. There is something venal and greedy at the heart of both these books that preys on the unwitting people who wander into its path. This could be what the elusive animals refer to as well.

Rob Ryan never understands what happened in his past. Scorcher Kennedy never looks at the video recordings to see if there ever was an animal at the Spains. I'm not entirely sure what Franch means by these undocumented animals, but she definitely means something.

I completely recommend the entire series of books. There is a lot going on in each of them, and I suspect there is a lot going on between them. Right now, I'm not smart enough to fully recognize what all that is.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Because I Am An Idiot

Back when velociraptors ran Blogger, I used to get an email of any comments posted to the blog. Somehow I didn't notice that had changed, and until I clicked on something I have never clicked on before, I didn't realize there were such thoughtful commenters reading this blog!

So I want to say thank you for reading, and thank you for posting. I would love to respond--now that I know you are there! I read every comment, and I will try to answer any questions.

But most of all--thank you!