by Russell Banks
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2008
I am a huge fan of Russell Banks. One never knows what one will find between the covers—a coming-of-age story that will take a young boy to Jamaica; a family’s move to Florida with the hope of new life, intermixed with a young, illiterate Haitian mother; the aftermath of a school bus tragedy; an apparent hunting accident in a small town that throws up the past of its macho protagonist; an ambitious portrayal of the life and mission of abolitionist John Brown; a 60s radical wanted by the FBI, finding new life in Liberia about which we get a riveting history. One only knows it will be first-class prose which probes the very depths of its protagonists while pulling back to illuminate the big picture. How the details work to fill in a narrative puzzle which, as it’s being completed, reveals a much larger whole. Pretty much what good fiction is all about. Unfortunately, his latest doesn’t quite measure up to his best work, but it's still Russell Banks and still worth the read.
The setting is the Adirondack lake forests of the 1930s. Here we find the resort of the wealthy, whose private rustic paradise serves as a getaway. One such elegant resort home is that of Dr. and Mrs. Cole and their gorgeous, self-centered, twice-divorced young daughter, Vanessa. “Rangeview was the largest of only a half-dozen rough-hewn log camps, a few of which were elaborately luxurious, located in the forty-thousand-acre privately owned wilderness, the Tamarack Wilderness RESERVE. . . . The mountains and forests and lakes and streams were off-limits to strangers, tourists, and the inhabitants of the several hamlets in the region—except of course for the local people lucky enough to be employed by the members at their camps . . .”
Two “local people” become drawn into the elite sphere, specifically into the sphere of the seductress Vanessa. One man, Jordan Groves, is not an employee but rather a renowned, well-to-do artist also known for his far leftist politics. Jordan and his attractive German-born wife and two children live comfortably in the area, recluses from bourgeois society. Jordan has been invited by Dr. Cole to come see a collection of another famous living artist whom Jordan takes an interest in. But it comes as a surprise to all when Jordan flies in on his biplane, landing directly on the lake in front of the resort, breaking reserve regulations and making an entrance like no one before. (He’d been a pilot under Eddie Rickenbacker during W.W.I.) Vanessa of course is drawn to his daring.
And then there is the caretaker and guide, Hubert St. Germain, a quiet, young widower who loves the land and works for the rich as a means of staying on the reserve, where off-season he pretty much has run of the place.
Hubert and Jordan are friends. In fact, Jordan invited Hubert to his home for dinner where he learned of his history (local boy; young wife killed in car crash), and the two put in a good night of drinking. Rather like an all night booze-up between Hemingway and Oliver Mellows, though perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself and misleading as well.
A web, spread by Vanessa, is drawn around all concerned. What kind of woman is she really? We know she was once married to a German count. We know her father, a world-famous brain surgeon, once had her institutionalized in Europe. Is she a spoiled free spirit or mentally imbalanced?
As the lives of the characters weave ever tighter, things take a chilling turn when a murder—or is it a murder?—occurs on the reserve. Tough moral decisions must be made by all. Even by the keeper of the reserve who wants no scandal whatsoever for selfish reasons of his own.
These are the details comprising the narrative puzzle, the micro-world as it were. The bigger picture is huge and global and takes in the Spanish Civil War and the swastika-emblazoned Hindenburg, subject areas presented here in flash-forward interwoven chapters in italics. And as is typical in a Banks’ novel, the threads to the big picture often hang on chance as much as circumstance. Tess’s letter under the door came to mind, which is fitting since Hardy’s determinist view is one Banks shares. Fate, indifference, caprice—forces beyond individual will have as much power as anything else in moving the world.
I do have some hesitations. Partly because I found the main protagonists—Jordan and Vanessa—so smug and self-centered that I didn’t much care about them. But perhaps that could be overlooked if the prose didn’t lapse at times into such prosaicness. The sex scenes were particularly dire and read more like something from a romance novel: “She felt herself go out to him and was astonished by the speed and force of it. This had never happened to her before. There seemed to be a light in his face, as if someone in the room were shining a flashlight onto it.”; or: “Their passion rose slowly. His because he had never made love like this before, delicately, teasingly, fully aware of each slow turning, and though it frightened him a little, it excited him in a fresh way. Hers rising slowly also, but with her it was because she had made love in this fashion many times before and knew very well its effect on a man who was used to having his way with a woman quickly and efficiently without being conscious of having lost awareness of his body. Men like Jordan Groves, egocentric sensualists, men whose lovemaking left them with a sense of accomplishment, were rarely truly satisfied by a woman, unless she managed to slow him in his headlong rush.” Dear, dear. If he is imitating some of the prose from that era, I didn’t catch it, though the characters and the time put us straight in mind of Hemingway; but that prose appears to be all his, and if something else is going on here, I fail to grasp the purpose.
But there is fine prose, too, such as the descriptions of the landscape; and a good, timely reminder of the economic hierarchy of the day, such as how the locals, once independent, became hired help to the wealthy:
With the flow of outside capital gone dry, local people could no longer pay their debts. The banks downstate started calling in outstanding loans, and farms and homes, many of them heavily mortgaged, were repossessed or sold for back taxes, and land that had been in families for generations was sold off for a few thousand dollars an acre, some of it to [obscenely rich] summer people, the rest to the RESERVE. . . . In two generations a class of independent yeomen and yeowomen had been turned into a servant class, with all the accompanying dependencies, resentments, insecurity, and envy.
Banks is a marvel when it comes to writing about continental shifts, the title of one of his best books, an all-time favorite novel of mine, with a flawed protagonist our hearts go out to; shifts, based on fate, sweeping from the personal to the global. Although this particular novel left me a bit cold, it accomplishes that feat albeit not as powerfully as previous works. But as we finish the book, the unwritten is what lingers and that packs a punch: Hitler is on the rise and World War II looms ahead. That is the macro-world. Fate with a capital F. In the micro-world, it signifies what we know will be a leveler of class, the end of the Gilded Age (until, as Paul Krugman is keen to point out, it rose again under W.)
On a time line, the next lady we encounter in the Adirondacks (from Banks’ former novel, The Darling) is none other than a member of the Weather Underground. Read that one by all means, read Continental Shifts, and then work your way through the rest. The RESERVE may not top the list, but he’s still one of best writers in America today. J.A.
by Rivka Galchen
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008
Dr. Leo Liebenstein is a New York psychiatrist, married to a much younger, lovely Argentinean woman, Rema. The novel begins: “Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife Rema.” He is convinced that this woman is merely a “simulacrum” of his wife, an “ersatz Rema,” an “impostress.” For one thing, this woman entered the house with a puppy, and the real Rema doesn’t care for dogs. Leo explains: “I was then a 51-year-old male psychiatrist with no previous hospitalizations, and no relevant past medical, social, or family history.” This ersatz Rema says to her husband: “You are having your migraine?” And later: “You’re still mad at me, Leo?” What that refers to, we don’t know. Our only narrator is Leo, who is obviously unreliable. The entire novel is based on his search to find the real Rema.
Tied in to it all is a schizophrenic patient of Leo’s, Harvey. Harvey vanished just two days before Rema. So, most likely, our narrator concludes, “not a coincidence.” To quote Leo: “Harvey’s main ‘problem’—or some might say his ‘conflict with the consensus view of reality’—stemmed from a fixed magical belief that he had special skills for controlling weather phenomena, and that he was, consequently, employed as a secret agent for the Royal Academy of Meteorology, an institute whose existence a consensus view of reality would (and this surprised me at the time) affirm. According to Harvey, the Royal Academy dedicated itself to maintaining weather’s elements of unpredictability and randomness.”
And it gets even more convoluted. As Leo reports from his patient: “Opposed to the Royal Academy of Meteorology was an underground group known as the 49 Quantum Fathers (not confirmable as existent by a consensus view of reality.) The 49 ran self-interested meteorological experiments, in uncountable parallel-y processing worlds, and they financed themselves through investments in crop futures, crops whose futures, naturally, depended upon the 49’s machinations of the weather.” The Fathers, Harvey claimed, could move between possible worlds. “Like they can go to the world that is like this one but Pompeii erupts ten years later. Variables are altered . . . And you understand, of course, that knowing the weather means winning a war, that all weather research is really just war research thinly veiled.”
This disclosure comes on page 15 and put me immediately in mind of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, where a parallel postal system supposedly exists. There is also the number “49” and references to quantum physics. I suspect the author is playing around with this, and at this point I had high hopes for the novel, but whereas Pynchon’s novel is full of intrigue and keeps one turning the pages, this one moves slowly at times and not a lot comes from all the jabber about the Royal Meteorological Academy and the 49 Quantum Fathers. The point would simply seem to be that parallel worlds could exist, just as they do in the mind of a schizophrenic. And Leo would appear to be having a severe schizophrenic experience himself. Perhaps Rema had had an affair? There are wee hints of this, but perhaps it is all in Leo’s mind.
To return to the plot: Rema, who worked as a translator at the hospital where Leo practiced, is familiar with Harvey’s case. Harvey claims to be getting his “orders” from some high up authority at the Royal Academy of Meteorology, which sends him all over the country (and worries his poor mother to death as he is always disappearing). As to what he does exactly, he says he is “laboring atmospherically.”
Harvey claims that his father had been a top agent for the Academy and had single-handedly prevented a major hurricane off the Gulf of Mexico meant to knock out an entire mango crop. He says that the 49 Quantum Fathers had abducted his father many years ago and stashed him away in a parallel world. (If what the Royal Academy does exactly in relation to the 49 Quantum Fathers seems unclear, well, it is; one must simply hang with it.)
Rema had suggested that Leo pose as a secret agent of the Royal Academy of Meteorology and communicate to Harvey assignments from the “top Royal Academy authority” in order to keep Harvey’s weather work in New York. (He had been receiving his “orders” so far from The New York Post.) Leo opposes the idea at first on ethical grounds, but Rema is so adamant about it that he gives in. Leo decides to use the name of a real person at the Royal Academy of Meteorology, because, as Rema says “reality is good for deception.” He picks the name Tzvi Gal-chen. (A quote from him appears at the beginning of the novel; also, of course, his last name, one notes, is the same as the author’s. Playing into the game, I later googled this name and sure enough, Tzvi Gal-chen comes up, just as he is presented in the novel, as a researcher at the University of Oklahoma, who wrote the article: “Estimations of atmospheric boundary layer fluxes and other turbulence parameters from Doppler lidar data,” an article whose title appears in the novel. Of course, it is always possible that the author created a false web page. Worlds within worlds, and what is reality? Kind of fun, all this.)
So, one day during Harvey’s psychiatric session, Rema telephones Leo, posing as Tzvi Gal-chen to give “orders.” She chats on about mundanities, but Leo mentions El Niño and other weather-related stuff, and when he hangs up, he confesses to Harvey that he himself is a secret agent for the Academy and it is his duty to pass on to Harvey a new assignment, which has just come from the top authority, Tzvi Gal-chen. Harvey is silent for a while then asks how long Leo has been working for the Academy and if he ever received the “Symons Gold Medal, or the Carl-Gustav Rossby Medal.” Leo claims his work must remain secret. Harvey is ordered to remain in New York and that he does for the next 19 months.
Leo states: “Did I think I’d ever partner with Harvey in order to find Rema, rather than partner with Rema in order to control and deceived Harvey? I did not.” But so it will happen.
I must interrupt here to say that Leo speaks throughout the novel of the Doppler effect (Tzvi’s special area, as related to winds), and applies that effect to reality in general; i.e., maybe the impostress Rema is a kind of Doppler effect:
Let us imagine a door, from which a Rema look-alike emerges every second. If the door is stationary, and I am stationary, then every second, one of these Remas will pass by. But if the single observer, let’s say me [Leo], begins walking towards that door, towards the source of Remas, then a Rema will pass by me more frequently than every second, even though Remas are still exiting the door at the precise rate of one per second. From my perspective, there is now less spacing between the Remas, and therefore the wavelength has been affected, the perceived frequency has changed, has increased.
Yes, it’s a bit of a headache and there are several passages of this type which do not help in moving the narrative along, but just when you feel bogged down, it does pick up.
To jump to the present: now in Leo’s world both Rema—i.e. the real Rema—and Harvey are missing, and he is sure there is a relationship between the disappearances. In search of his true Rema (and somehow Harvey as well), Leo travels to Buenos Aires to seek out Rema’s mother. Rema has been estranged from her mother, so Leo has never met her, but he finds her and is welcomed into her home. This woman, Magda, is an analyst, “like so many people in Buenos Aires.” Leo claims to be a friend of Rema’s, and he says his job is in meteorology. Magda speaks of Rema’s husband, whom she supposedly once met. But is this another husband, Leo wonders, and not himself? Then he meets a dog walker on the street, another analyst who must supplement his income by walking dogs. More dogs, Leo thinks, is a strange thing. And was this man once Rema’s husband? And is his name Anatole? A name that keeps cropping up? Leo would appear to be losing the plot—and the reader is in danger of doing so too, but hang on!
While in Buenos Aires, Leo receives an email on his Blackberry from Harvey, who is in Oklahoma and says he is in need of contacting Tzvi Gal-Chen as Tzvi has been silent. Leo writes back that Tzvi Gal-Chen and he have been moved to “separate legions” and that Harvey should not make further attempts to contact Tzvi Gal-Chen directly. But then later, Leo receives an email from Harvey forwarded from Tzvi Gal-Chen, who agrees with Harvey that New York can get dull and he urges Harvey to consider himself “autonomous” from now on. Meanwhile Leo and Tzvi Gal-Chen develop an email correspondence themselves.
Oh yes, I forgot to mention that along the way Leo discovers that Tzvi Gal-Chen is now dead, that he died in 1994, but no matter. He must be communicating from a parallel world.
So: The Doppler effect applied to real people, parallel universes, lots of scientific gobbledygook—so much potential in this novel, but, for me at least, it almost caved in under the weight of its own devilishness and inexplicable “scientific” gibberish. And all for what? Leo is going mad, becoming schizoid like his patients; obviously has a fear of losing his young wife to a younger man. On the upside, there are some very good passages along the way, usually with Leo commenting on something or other, such as the difficulty of measuring the wind chill factor, or his past with Rema, or his musings on the “disappeared” in Argentina. It is worth recommending for the good bits. Nabokov and Pynchon it is not. Nor Borges. But there are hints of these masters, and if you’re prepared to go along for the ride and weather the “atmospheric disturbances,” you’ll find rewards along the way in this daring new writer. I definitely look forward to her next. J.A.
© tbr 2008
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