Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Pornographer by John McGahern

Anyone looking for page after page of pornography will be disappointed, though there are certainly a few sex scenes in John McGahern’s The Pornographer. The story is about a young man who writes the traveling sexual escapades of Mavis and the Colonel in Ireland, but the thrust of the story is the relationship between him and a thirty-eight year old woman he gets pregnant. She wants to keep the baby, and he wants nothing to do with it and soon wants very little to do with her.

From a traditional moral standpoint (whatever that means) the title character has very little redeeming quality. Not only does he make his living by writing about wanton sex, but he seems to have no interest in new life; what’s around him already is all he needs. But this book is filled with opposites. He shows devotion and tenderness to his aunt Josephine, who is dying. He cares about his uncle, who runs a mill and buys farm land. Josephine’s husband Cyril, whom the lead doesn’t particularly like, has become a drunk and wants nothing to do with his wife, but she leaves everything to him. The pornographer brings a bottle of brandy to his aunt each time he visits her in the hospital, because it’s the only thing that she thinks is helping her.

As tender as he is with Josephine, he is as subtle as a hand job in his relationship with the woman he impregnates. Though she was thirty-eight, she had almost no sexual experience until she meets the pornographer in a dance club. Though initially reluctant, she acquiesces to his advances, but she doesn’t allow him to use condoms, explaining that she’s as regular as clockwork. When she becomes pregnant, he initially tells her that he’ll marry her, but his intention is to leave her once she’s had the child. He tells her he doesn’t love her and likely won’t love her. But she expects that once he sees the child, once he recognizes this change in his life, he’ll marry her.

I can’t say I particularly liked either of the main characters. No matter how many times the pregnant woman said he and she were “good people,” I was left unconvinced. She wanted to change a man who was not ready for change, he was a selfish pig. But neither can be said to have “no redeeming qualities.” She is capable of much love, despite her inexperience. She truly seems to love this man; he truly doesn’t deserve her. And the character a reader might best relate to is the pornographic publisher; he is the one who says the writer deserves to get his ass kicked – which eventually happens. He’s getting through this unsavory situation too easily. But even the publisher has his eccentricities, such as a dream of a baby stroller decked out as a coffin.

In the end, the pornographer has buried his aunt. And, having had another affair with one of his aunt’s nurses, he begins to change his opinion of his future. His uncles are moving forward with their lives. The new mother has overhauled her life due to him. And as the story closes, the pornographer begins to see new possibilities.

It’s the first book I’ve read by McGahern, who died this past March, and I don’t recall reading any of his short stories, though he’s highly regarded in that form. It’s a special talent to create characters that are both despicable and believable. I expect I’ll read him again.

Watership Down by Richard Adams

I hadn’t read this book since I was a teenager, which is a lot longer ago than I care to admit. Though the idea of a band of rabbits running away from their warren to save their lives and establish a new home sounds like a children’s story – and on certain levels, this is a children’s story – Watership Down has much more going on than that.

From a story standpoint, however, the tale is endearing and extremely accessible. To his credit, Richard Adams keeps his characters from having too many extraordinary attributes. Yes, they can talk to each other and other animals, which must be accepted in order to keep reading, but that’s not too tough for any reader of fiction. And, the rabbit known as Fiver has keen awareness – some might call it an extrasensory perception – that is really the genesis for the story. But beyond that, the rabbits embark on adventures through which they learn to rely on one another, to rely on their innate talents and skills, and to take risks in order to advance their society. These are human characteristics, but that’s what anthropomorphism is all about. And without them, the story is meaningless to the only beings that can actually read it.

As Adams explains in the introduction he gives in the 2005 Scribner edition I read, Watership Down began as a story he told his young daughters, and it was not intended to be about World War II, though the images of Efrafa and terms like “Owslafa” seem to suggest Nazi Germany. Moreover, the society the rabbits of Watership Down create is inclusive. They befriend mice and a gull and lead hutch bunnies into their group (in order to have a couple of does; hey, you gotta do what you gotta do.) And their reason for venturing to the harrowing warren of Efrafa is to convince its leaders that they can spare some does for the new warren.

Yet, all that aside, Adams’ storytelling keeps the story moving along. At 474 pages, Watership Down is not something an average reader knocks out in a weekend, but it’s easy to start the novel and soon find oneself 100 pages in. By that time, the “hlessil” (rabbits without a home warren, living above ground, in the Lapine language) have not only escaped their home warren of Sandleford but lived among a warren of rabbits that are the equivalent of the lotus eaters from Homer’s Odyssey. Indeed, the tale has epic heroes among its characters. Hazel is the crafty leader who leads his rabbits away from Sandleford, following the vision set out by his brother Fiver. Though he’s not the largest of the rabbits, Hazel earns the respect of his people through his ability to lead them through each trial – a small brook, hungry predators, a snare – and to trust the talents of those around him. Indeed, Hazel doesn’t have every answer, which makes him an even more believable and compelling character.

Thlayli, better known as Bigwig, is the largest rabbit of the group and a natural second in command. While he sometimes disagrees with Hazel, Bigwig carries out his leader’s decisions unflinchingly. He takes on the suicide mission of venturing into Efrafa, which is under the command of General Woundwort, a ruthless, wily leader who rules through fear and power, demands unyielding adherence to the dictates of his government, and refuses to order any of his followers to do something he wouldn’t be willing to do himself. Bigwig’s size and abilities are immediately evident to Woundwort – who may be a tyrant, but is not a fool – and because Efrafa needs new captains in its “Owslafa,” (like a powerful police force) Woundwort agrees to accept him. But his trust is misplaced, and with help from Keehar the gull, Bigwig leads an escape. In the final battle against the evil Woundwort, Bigwig defends the warren on Watership Down and saves his comrades and the escaped does. There he delivers one of the best lines of the book.

“Thlayli,” (Woundwort) said, “we’ve unblocked a run out here. I can bring in enough rabbits to pull down this wall in four places. Why don’t you come out?”
Thlayli’s reply, when it came, was low and gasping, but perfectly clear.
“My Chief Rabbit has told me to defend this run, and until he says otherwise, I shall stay here.”

Woundwort and his other rabbits are shocked. If Thlayli isn’t the chief, then there’s another, stronger rabbit nearby. The effect on the rabbits of Efrafa was immediate, and it was all Woundwort could do to keep his best rabbits from staying with him.

A reader doesn’t run away, however, and by the time the book closes, with Hazel joining the Owlsa of their mystical folk hero/savior character, they want it all to continue – to know more about the rabbits of Watership Down.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Saturday by Ian McEwan

Well written but slow moving, Ian McEwan’s Saturday takes almost two hundred pages to get to the action of the story. One of the blurbs on the cover was amusing in retrospect: “Read the final 100 pages at one sitting.” That’s because it takes so long to get to that you can’t help but continue reading.

That said, McEwan has drawn up three-dimensional characters and conflicts that linger long after you slip your bookmark between the pages of this 2005 novel. Henry Perowne, the lead character, is a neurosurgeon in London who awakes early on a Saturday morning feeling completely awake. He sees a plane on fire heading toward Heathrow, chats with his son Theo -- a burgeoning blues guitarist -- returns to bed where Henry and his wife, Rosalind, make love, then after a post-coital rest he heads to play squash. All this takes eighty-one pages, and we’ve still not arrived at a key moment; more than a quarter of the way in, the book has been all about character development.

The story takes place in February 2003, weeks before the beginning of the current Iraq war, and later that day hundreds of thousands -- perhaps two million -- will protest the inevitable war. But even that isn’t the story, exactly. At its heart, Saturday is about terror – witnessing it, anticipating it, experiencing it, and especially overcoming it. In some ways, the story has more in common with the American Airlines flight heading to the Dominican Republic, which went down from Kennedy Airport almost two months after 9/11 than the terrorist attacks that resulted in the deaths of thousands in New York, Washington, and the field where flight United 93 crashed.

For Henry Perowne and his family, the terror comes from a man named Baxter. To call him a thug is too facile, and McEwan makes the character sympathetic. Unattractive and suffering from what Perowne diagnoses from observation as Huntington’s Disease, Baxter is also intelligent and would forgo violence for a glimmer of hope to avert his fate: dementia, lack of physical control, death. Though he doesn’t use the poem, Dylan Thomas’s famous line “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” seems apropos.

Instead, it is another poem, Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” that carries the day. When Baxter and his crony, Nigel, break into the Perowne household, young poet Daisy (who has returned to her parents’ home from Paris with a galley proof of her soon-to-be-published collection of poems and a baby on the way) is inspired by her grandfather, poet John Grammaticus, to recite Arnold’s famous work. The poem enthralls Baxter, to the point that he fixates on what he believes is the girl’s work. In a sense, their lives -- even Baxter’s -- are saved by poetry.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Whether specifically in Arnold’s poem or in Saturday, McEwan’s message seems to be this: You should face terror the same way you face life -- head on. Protest. Debate. Create art. Anticipate death and do whatever is within your power to hold it back.

Saturday is filled with the mundane amid the truly horrifying. When witnessed, terror can be inaudible. When all around you is the noise of conflict, your personal horrors can pass unwitnessed. Like squash players, people battle on against time and physical deterioration. And in the end, a new day emerges as you’re still thinking about yesterday.