BETWEEN

DANCES WITH DEATH

Morbidity stalks the best fiction by non-Canadians

JUDITH TIMSON December 7 1998
BETWEEN

DANCES WITH DEATH

Morbidity stalks the best fiction by non-Canadians

JUDITH TIMSON December 7 1998

DANCES WITH DEATH

Morbidity stalks the best fiction by non-Canadians

A part from the almost overweening ambition of Tom Wolfe to tell all (all!) in his 700-page-plus whopper A Man in Full, the most notable books of the American and British fall literary fiction season come from authors content to serve up their view of the human comedy (or tragedy for that matter) in measured portions-a satire here, a short story there, a rant on the run. In Britain, espe cially, it was a cool, dry season, with not all that much to warm the soul. Notwith standing Joe Black up on the screen, death was also a major literary character, showing up in various guises-death by murder, death on the battlefield, death from cancer, death even from a bizarre euthanasia pact. In fact, you could call the whole season death-affirming. Here are six of the most intriguing books:

JUDITH TIMSON

In Birds of America (Knopf, $32), author Lorrie Moore’s heartbreakingly funny collection of short stories, unsettled characters are dispossessed of everything but their wit: women drift away from unsatisfying marriages, men migrate from one outpost of the soul to the next, couples sink into sadness over their inability to reproduce, parents wrestle with their terror about a sick child’s wellbeing. But they all keep saying the funniest things. ‘Your friends put the ‘de’ in fin de siècle,” one husband tells his wife, after which Moore deadpans: “Overheard or recorded, all marital conversation sounds as if someone must be joking, although usually no one is.” Moore’s darkly comic vision takes in, among other subjects, a tense mother-daughter trip to kiss the Blarney stone in Ireland, a horrifying incident in which a woman accidentally drops and kills her friend’s baby, and the emotional seesawing of a mother whose child undergoes surgery for cancer. Yet the tragedies are not trivialized, and Moore’s serious thoughts are as memorable as her jokes: “There was nothing as complex in the world— no flower or stone—as a single hello from a human being.” If there is a flaw in these 12 stories, it is that people in real life are just not as

droll as Moore makes them out to be. Still, you wish they were.

Droll doesn’t quite describe I Married a Communist by Philip Roth (Thomas Allen, $35). It’s more like a witty rant, and a revenge-filled one at that. Roth, whose previous four novels have won four major American literary awards, is not at his best here, only at his angriest. He has a score to settle. Ostensibly, the author is continuing his portrayal of the American postwar years, this time with a complicated tale set in the McCarthy period. Iron Rinn (born Ira Ringold) is a radio actor and passionate Communist with an unfortunately brutal past, who falls in love with silent film star Eve Frame, an actress “steeped like a tea bag in aristocratic pretensions.” A renowned beauty with a difficult daughter, Eve betrays her husband with a tell-all book (“I Married a Communist”) and ruins his career.

The story of Iron Rinn’s exposure by his wife mirrors the real-life betrayal of Roth by his famous ex-wife the actress Claire Bloom, who two years ago published her own hissand-tell book, Leaving a Doll’s House, claiming Roth was a twisted misogynist who forced her to abandon her daughter. I Mar-

ried a Communist is rambling and vengeful, but it redeems itself with insight into how character can mesh disastrously with ideology, and with an eloquent meditation on the nature of betrayal (“each soul its own betrayal factory”). Even though reading this book feels similar to how one character describes his life (“like one long speech I’ve been listening to”), Roth’s writing remains a marvel of energy and wit.

Susan Minot, by contrast, is a cool, lyrical writer whose third novel, Evening (Knopf, $32), is filled with sense-satisfying images. Ann Grant, a beautiful woman in her 60s, is dying of cancer. As children from her multiple marriages gather in her New England home, and a nurse attends her, Ann floats in and out of morphine-enhanced reveries that are both piercing and tender. Married three times, Ann seems always to have been a wife, but what fully engages her as she nears death is a short, passionate encounter she had in her 20s with a man she has not seen since. They met at a summer wedding at which a tragedy occurred.

Minot goes deep inside her character to present a kind of emotional travelogue, with images that burn sensually through the mist of memory—a warm July wind, the smell of a fish cannery, an apple tree beside a yellow farmhouse. Hypnotically beautiful, Evening is about the fact that a searing romantic experience could have everything—or nothing—to do with the rest of one’s life. It is also about memory itself—how a life is lived, and then relived in the mind, up to the very last breath.

In British author Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam (Knopf Canada, $31.95), this year’s Booker Prize winner, more than a few last

McEwan; Minot (below): satire, emotionality

breaths are taken. This rather slight, satirical novel examines a long friendship, a misbegotten pact between a famous composer whose creative powers are waning and an editor whose usually respectable paper is about to out a cabinet minister in a major sexual scandal. The politician’s wife intervenes to save him. This being Britain, the cabinet minister is revealed as his own Monica Lewinsky, in full cross-dressing regalia.

In spare, compelling prose, McEwan deftly pits his characters not so much against each other as against their own catastrophic moral choices. There’s not much to involve oneself in emotionally here, but McEwan gracefully gets at the risk of exposure that these men of public substance and private frailty face: “We lie mostly submerged, like ice floes, with our visible social selves projecting only cool and white. Here was a rare sight below the waves of a man’s privacy and turmoil.”

Death in Summer, by William Trevor (Knopf Canada, $32.95), also shortlisted for the Booker, is a stunning novel about a series of deaths that change the life of Thaddeus Davenant, a country gentleman whose cool manner covers up a turbulent soul. The renowned Irish novelist offers a bit of compassion and warmth as he recounts what happens after Thaddeus’s wife, Letitia, whom he never really loved, dies, leaving him with a newborn daughter to raise, and a mother-inlaw who comes to stay. “No one can predict what living in close quarters with a man who married your daughter for her money will be like,” is Trevor’s way of saying life can be complicated, even in the serene English countryside. When a troubled street person aspiring to be the nanny shows up, suspense and tragedy follow. Death in Summer takes in the lives of the underclass as well as the gentry, and despite the deaths, offers hope and sweetness.

Beryl Bainbridge’s Master Georgie (Publishers Group West, $30.50), another Booker nominee, is a vivid and unsettling piece of historical fiction. Set during the time of the Crimean War, it is filled with grotesque images and characters who never quite command sympathy. The title character, George Hardy, is as elusive as an image in a faded old photo. He is a Liverpool surgeon and amateur photographer with complicated personal appetites—married to one woman, his children fathered by another, his real sexual inclinations are to wayward boys. George’s story begins in a brothel in Liverpool and ends on a Crimean battlefield. Bainbridge tells her story with X-Acto knife precision. In writing that is laconic and chilling, the details of George’s life are carefully doled out by three main characters: a servant girl, Myrtle, who is madly in love with him, Pompey Jones, the aforementioned street boy who shares his bed, and the bombastic Dr. Potter, Hardy’s brother-in-law. They wander around the brilliantly depicted carnage of a Crimean battlefield, trying to make sense of the insensible, as George Hardy hurtles towards—what else?—a bad end. □