In order to preserve my sanity while overdosing on (Scottish) Victorian anti-Catholic propaganda, I read some contemporary fiction:
- Richard Powers, The Time of Our Singing. There's so much going on here that this novel really deserves a blog post to itself; I certainly haven't yet thought through the relationship between its fragmentary, non-linear narrative structure and its theoretical disquisitions on time, for example. (The novel begins at the end and ends at the beginning; along the way, there's at least one event which takes place at the wrong time, as it were.) Along with time, the novel takes on the meaning of racial identity; the relationship between high culture--especially music--and history; and, indeed, the question of what constitutes history in the first place. "Race" in this novel is both unstable and fixed: physicist David Strom, a Jew who loses his entire family to the Holocaust, is simultaneously "white" and "non-white"; his wife Delia is African-American, but, as we are reminded more than once, she too has white ancestry. They try to raise their three children beyond race, a concept that makes sense neither to Delia's father (who argues that only whites can afford to erase race) nor to anyone else the younger Stroms encounter (who insist on categorizing them as one or the other). David and Delia attempt to force open a historical space for their children; their eldest, Jonah, a singer of preternatual power, turns to earlier and earlier music in order to find some moment "before" race, while their youngest, Ruth, becomes a radical. Joseph, the narrator, tries to find a middle ground for himself. As Joseph acknowledges, both he and his brother tend to miss what, in retrospect, are seminal events. The crucial exceptions, however, are the Watts and Rodney King riots; Jonah, the one who tries to immerse himself in the European past, finds himself magnetically drawn to them. Although, in the 1950s and 1960s, Jonah had worked spirituals and other African-American songs into his concerts, the violence of the riots promises access to a world he otherwise studiously avoids--but there's no room for him there, either. (He's assaulted both times.) Certainly, one of the novel's running questions is: to what extent can you make your place in history, given that the world is full of people making places for themselves as well? It's a gripping work, although it probably could have used some sterner editing.
- T. Coraghessan Boyle, Water Music. This is and isn't a picaresque historical novel about the explorer Mungo Park, interspersed with the life of petty crook Ned Rise. It is, in the sense that the novel is about Park's travels, but it isn't, in the sense that the novel is flagrantly and jubilantly anachronistic. (References to twentieth-century slang and literature abound; even some of the eighteenth-century events aren't quite in the right place.) The most sensible character in the novel is Park's guide on his first trip, the emancipated slave Johnson (a.k.a. Katunga Oyo, a.k.a. Isaaco), who at one point dryly and accurately points out that Park is an "ass." Park is, indeed, a fool--a genuinely driven fool, but a fool nonetheless--and Boyle is intrigued by the process that turns both Park and his travels into fodder for legend. The novel's cheerful disregard for historical accuracy echoes both Park's self-mythologizing and Ned Rise's ongoing and farcically unsuccessful attempts to invent new criminal identities for himself. While respecting Park's genuine passion for exploration, Boyle has fun with the mercenary and prurient motives that fund his adventures. I think this novel is what's called a "romp," and often wished that Boyle could have varied the tone somewhat. Still, most of the time it's undeniably funny.
- Sarah Smith, Chasing Shakespeares (see its webpage for the footnotes). This was the least successful of the three novels I read, not least because it's not really a novel. While it has some occasionally thoughtful things to say about class differences in academia--our narrator is a country boy doing graduate work at Northeastern; he becomes enmeshed with a rich girl from Harvard--most of the narrative consists of a long exposition of the Oxford thesis. The blurb overreaches quite a bit when it compares Smith's novel to Byatt's Possession. It was a quick read, but struck me as rather superficial. (If you're really interested in the "authorship problem," several of the novel's claims are indirectly refuted at the Shakespeare Authorship Page.)