Orient, Christopher Bollen – A Review.

As we drive out of the city and into the suburban village of Orient, it might be that cool, clinical score that Thomas Newman provided for American Beauty (1999) that provides a soundtrack for the opening of Orient. Mills Chevern, a nineteen year old foster ‘child’, is arriving into Orient village on Long Island ‘mostly innocent’. Whatever your standing on prologues, a 10 page first-person prologue is the only time Mills gives his own account of what precedes in the next 590 pages. Mills is an outsider, outlier, a suspect before he is suspected as he asks in the prologue “what seems lost, In he growing storm of blame, is how I got there in the first place.” In a post, a couple of weeks ago, a precedent of this review in a way, I asked what is happening to the now not-so-comfortable lives of the suburban middle classes. There seems to be a return to a post-war kind of realism. We know who they are, but we don’t know what they mean in this post-recessional, post-postmodern age.

Mill is adopted by Paul Benchley, a long-time bachelor and resident of Orient. You wonder if anybody can be technically fostered at the age of nineteen, which the Orient community greets with a whispering frenzy on the day of Pam Muldoon’s garden party. The Muldoons are established Orientites, and In our close-knit villages we all know these locals who seem to hold a powerful nexus in their communities.

Not long after Mills’ arrival, deaths happen. It’s a foreboding atmosphere for Mills and the reader, and he is immediately one of the suspects. Who’s America is this? There are certainly elements of realism, where early modern Fitzgerald meets hypermodern Franzen. If, at the end of Franzen’s prologue to Freedom (2010), as the neighbours watch the dissolution of the afflicted Berglunds, “they just don’t know how to live yet,” Orient’s answer would be a much more cynical one than Freedom eventually offers. Like Freedom it is a long book, and although Orient has been eschewed by some as a thriller, there are a steady succession of ‘gripping’ events, but it would be unfair to linchpin it as a thriller. Instead Bollen builds up the drama at a sustained rate, increasing the suspicion and intensity. Mills is already in too deep in a world that is not made for him; the family world, the constant of Orient that is family, and as Mills is drawn into it, it’s apparent that he is bringing the unsettling storm with him from the city. There is a threat underlying the gleaming facade of American family life, and they’re desperately trying to eradicate it before they get eradicated. Away from the thrilling aspect, this is the real subject of Orient – ­ family.

Bollen uses Paul Virilio’s quote “The invention of a ship is also the invention of the shipwreck” as an epigraph. I’ve not read many books where the epigraph seems to frame the book so aptly, and the ensuing chaos that follows as Orient begins to fall apart. Orientation is ironically central to Orient; maps, geography and the conflict within it. Where does the conflict come from? Typically, everything points toward the nineteen year old orphan, and all his differences to the rigid straitlaced Orientites. At first, and echoing those films of the late nineties, there are homoerotic undercurrents, as Mills makes an advance on the Muldoon’s son Tommy. In the way that American Beauty did, it becomes something like the fantasy of the other that these rigid structures do not allow, the object of blame, and Mills is that. He is not just the hatred and the phobia, he is also the desire and the wonder of the other. “Tommy had taken him for some kind of street hustler, with his earring and his city background, and his trip out here under the charitable wing of an upstanding neighbour like Paul Benchley.” But then there is the disappointment, that these people we so firmly believe are different, are the reasons for our downfalls, are more similar than different, regardless of skin colour, background, affluence. It’s as if hate is the stock response. Mills is the provocateur without being provocative, a catalyst against everything that Orient is trying to preserve – “He felt suffocated by the mother in front of him and embarrassed by Paul’s display of protection,” as he himself is uncomfortable in this stable environment, one of the few times Bollen lets us inside Mills’ head.

Western liberalism seems to have a tag-line: how could this ever happen to us,and that’s what the murders on Orient do. As Bollen continues to dismantle Orient and many western myths as they search for the reason why (artists, terrorists, gays are all part of the blame), it is not the enemy within, but the enemy we create ourselves to cover up own fallacies. No matter what the derivation of the word ‘homicide’ is, it certainly sounds like it features the word ‘home’. As our western nations continue their wars of imperalisation, this seeps down into the psyche as the problem abroad covers up the one at home. As Tommy observes, America must be a superpower if, even when it loses its wars, it still remains a superpower.

Bollen asks Virilio-esque questions from his characters, “When do the defense measures of a paranoid country become their own agents of self-destruction?” The answer to that question would be that it seems to be happening. Beth, a one-time artist, and some-time mother strikes up a kinship with Mills as they investigate the murders, is married to a Romanian-emigre artist. By looking online, she diagnoses herself with Neurasthenia:
“At the bottom of the entry, a donning footnote: Americans were said to be particularly prone to neurasthenia, which resulted in the nickname Americanitis.” We self-diagnose ourselves with our own problems – we are creating the diseases we are trying to battle, like poverty and terorism. Beth is pregnant at the start of the novel, and is still pregnant at the end of it. Bollen seems slightly cynical of motherhood, but it is as if Beth is trying to delay the gestation and the arrival of a child into this world.

For all our beliefs in technology, how it is enhancing the world, for all our myths of connectedness that it brings, globalisation is the creator and the antithesis of it all, despite what its name implies. Beth is overriden by her motherly and creative instincts to Mills, how she wants to connect in a natural way but can’t,

One was to mother him, to buy him lunch or simply press her palms to his forehead. The other was to paint him…It had been so long since she had felt this way – inspired. She sped east on Main Road, racing toward the tip, afraid at any minute that she’d lose the sensation, this happiness for the company of a stranger who reminded her why she’d once enjoyed painting strangers in the first place. To love them, to – that horrible technological term now ruined for all time – connect (Bollen’s italics).

Only connect, which was of course central to Forster’s (1910) novel about the contrasting lives of social classes, it is ratcheted up from Howards End  and the homage to it by Zadie Smith (On Beauty, 2008). There is the sense of the new and the old in Orient, the conflicts of the city and its outskirts, art and the technological, and ironically in Bollen’s style, the conflict of the literary and the genre. His multi-layered narratives are as if to try and make these characters ‘live in fragments no longer’.

If the invention of the ship also means the invention of the shipwreck it also means the invention of a lot of similes and metaphors for Bollen to use. His prose really is enviable at times with a skill both for the polemical and the poetical: take this from the prologue “Each window was flooded with the reflection of water,” – superb. Yes, Orient is surrounded by water, and although geography is more important to Orient to any other book i’ve read this year, you can sometimes feel yourself drowning in the constant imagery of water and the elements that seem to occur on every other page. With this diverse cast of characters and subplots, you do sometimes feel that it is what is holding it together. But only rarely does the structure keep, and Bollen, to his own skill keeps it going.

This is a remarkable achievement though; an immensely satisfying experience by an immensely skilful writer. As there are elements of genre fiction, Bollen typically uses certain tropes of it, and maybe Bollen should be wary of not becoming a Joyce Carol Oates mash-up of the literary and the genre fictions, because he is an artist with potential for great successes. Many will not begrudge him though if he does.

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since, said Nick Carraway, the eponymous narrator of The Great Gatsby (1925). How the residents of Orient need that old fashioned, parental advice now.

Orient (609 pp.) by Christopher Bollen is released in April 2015 (£16.99 rrp.). Thank you to Simon & Schuster for providing a review copy

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Modern Day Marvels

If you have not seen American Beauty or Fight Club and do not wish to have the endings spoiled, then it would be advisable to watch them before reading this.

Midlife crisis: an easily applied term to any middle aged male of thinning hair who spontaneously buys a bright red sports car. That is probably what made Kevin Spacey the perfect (or unperfect person) to play Lester Burnham, a man seemingly going through the motions above. His droll, drab voice-over introduces you to his droll, drab existence as an advertising executive in middle class suburban America. Crisis itself is though seems to be the key word of our times.

Everything seems to be in crisis. In this material world everything about Burnham’s existence is grey, beige, lifeless – material; his house that he shares with his wife Carolyn (Annette Benning) is a dull mixture of creams and greys, and indeed she remarks in her job as a realtor trying to shift a house that is anything but what she says it palatially isn’t “a simple cream could lighten things up”, stood in a cream suit that does not lighten anything up.

The film’s narrative and Lester’s crisis is driven by the arrival of his daughter, Jane’s (Thora Birch) friend Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), as he watches a cheerleading sequence (in Chaplin-esque hats), that begins several fantasies of Lester’s involving Angela, and the film’s key motif – vibrant, red petals. Many allusions have been made to Nabokov’s Lolita and Dolores Haze, and whilst she represents the prohibited, repressed fantasy of a middle aged man, she is also perhaps a hark back to the age this film’s characters are trying to live. The age when advertising was an exciting, and believable venture; when white middle class American’s were the government’s people to lead the country forward, and not the varied, and diverse ethnicities and orientations that Carolyn shows round her house; when Coca Cola was becoming the worlds most prevalent and ubiqitous company, but a benevolent, representative one; the age when America and American’s, and even Britain had a true belief in their country and their principles.

Angela Hayes is not the only object of desire as Lester’s daughter Jane is continually filmed by her new neighbour, Ricky (Wes Bently) on his cam recorder. Ricky lives with his passive mother Barbara (Allison Jarney) and Bigoted ex-marine Col.Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper), who displays his attitude to all when he meets a gay couple who live on the street (“we’re partners” they say to Frank on the door who replys with “so what’s your business?”).

And so the Burnham’s comfortable suburban life they’ve forged for themselves begins to implode as Carolyn catches Lester masturbating in bed, off one of his many fantasies about Angela. American Beauty echoes the films of its time in this respect, particularly Fight Club (1999, David Fincher), as middle aged, middle class men questioning their existence bluntly tell their bosses they no longer want their jobs, using blackmailing powers to secure a good pay-off. Lester takes a job at a fast-food restaurant.

Rather than it being life changing decisions that affect the Burnham’s that some have noted (if anything they just become more immersed in the world they live in; Lester joining Mr Smiley’s, a stand in for McDonald’s if anything, but he is just lower in the chain) they submit to their prohibited fantasies. It is difficult to determine how cynical Mendes is being of fantasies on Freudianism, like Nabokov in Lolita was. Jane, who now seems so far removed from the nuclear family that American Beauty seems so intensely investigative of, finally begins a romantic affair with Ricky, about the time his relationship with Lester is developing. Ricky, who is obssessed with home footage (as if a precedent for the imminent, internet, youtube age) and filming Jane, shows Jane one of his videos, what he believes is the most beautiful piece of camcorder footage he has filmed – a paper bag floating in the wind. It is here that Jane submits to Ricky, and realises him for what he is. Not the weirdo, or asshole voyeur, but a man obssesed with finding beauty in his own way, tired of the grand movie projects he has undoubtedly seen in the media saturated age (Ricky’s room is like a black and white negative, filled with video tapes, and it’s the film with the plastic bag, that is one of the few pieces of colour that the characters watch, the utter banality of it rendered in colour. Television features a lot in American Beauty, but most of them are black and white images).Jane’s fantasy, like most other teenagers is to be beautiful, and the television and films, are the modes that are seen as beautifying, but here she has found a man and a medium that makes her beautiful for what she is, as the film is concerned with the typical archetype of beauty in Angela – a young, submissive blond nymph.

It is not just the Burnham’s who are submitting to their fantasies and projections. Col. Fitts is becoming concerned with his son, Ricky’s, behaviour. Going through his possessions (an inversion of what Ricky does to his possessions when finds the Nazi plate), he finds footage of Lester working out in his garage, a chance happening after he had been filming Jane. From this Col. Fitts deduces that his son is gay. As he waits for him in his bedroom, after Ricky has returned from Lester’s, and again, where Fitts mistakenly assumed that his son was performing an act of fellatio on Lester. Fitt’s hits his son, when Ricky baits him with a fake confession, and can embark on his on voyage of freedom with Jane to New York. Angela denounces this and in doing so Ricky uncovers her own primordial fear – the she is ‘ordinary’. She is no beauty, she uses friends like Jane to boost her  image. The next shot is of Angela, sat on the stairs viewed through the banister, evoking the recurrent image of imprisonment in the film. She is now trapped and condemned to this idea of beauty that she thinks she has forged, but rather what has been cultivated by those around her. She really is Low on the dotted line.

It is the revelatory, and maybe slightly cheap, fantasy of Fitts that brings the biggest shock. As Lester is doing pull-ups in his garage (mimicking the self-satisfying, and gratifying masturbatory action we see of Lester at the beginning of the film, Lester has found just another way to gratify himself rather than enliven himself), unaware of what is going on in the house around him, Fitts is seen approaching his garage. He opens the door to the torrential, biblical rain outside, perhaps reminiscent of another film of it’s time – Magnolia­ (1999, P.T.Anderson) – that also features flowers as its central motif, symbolic deaths and approaching deaths, to Fitts in a white t-shirt. Contrary to the violence we expect of Fitts, he kisses Lester, whom calmly turns him away. Fitts turns around, and walks away.

When we return to Lester’s death at the end with the denouement in mind, he is looking back on the rest of his life, philosophising on simple yet poignant metaphysics, that a reasonably educated, middle-class man might try to get at in wistful later life. But Lester’s mid-life crisis wasn’t in mid-life, Lester was at the end of his life; in fact going from his narration, orbiting the suburbs (god-like, ethereal, no?) he is already dead. Like the films of that era it focuses on these symbolic deaths, but unlike Fight Club, the gun is a very real embodiment that kills the character, and not his alter ego. Lester actually lives his alter ego, in an inversion of The Usual Suspects (also starring Spacey) where the narrator or creator of the illusion (also Spacey) has to create the creation of his other characters for his survival. Tyler Durden has to realise his creation, is subconscious (a film also heavy with homoerotic references) to finally exist as a person. Lester however must die for his creation, because he is the one who ultimately lives it.

So, unlike those films about men who don’t really exist, and about men who really don’t want to exist, who cannot exist in their manifestation, we are left wanting, and striving for Lester to exist, which brings the sadness in the denouement of the film. We’re not left wondering about the mystery of his existence because of his death, just what he could have finally made of it, and what we can make of our own mysterious plenitude, not in some grand, pseudo-revolutionary escapist style like Fight Club, just how and what makes our lives matter to others, in the small immaterial, and ultimately beautiful aspects of life.

Now as we move forward 15 years later, the subject, rather than the setting of the middle-class American home is a prominent one. In this post-financial-crisis globalised society, the problems seem to have become internalised in the home, using Gone Girl and the game-playing, killing instinct is within. I’m using Fincher’s, 2014, film version as an example; it’s as if the set from American Beauty is being used, dull, grey, life-less, but all the problems lie within the marriage. This has also transcended literature, as in front of me I have a review copy of a book by Christopher Bollen called Orient (released in April 2015, review coming up in the next few weeks). It Is distinctly set in the real-world middle class lives of Americans on the outskirts of New York. It is a sprawling work, touching 600 pages, that calls into the old cliché of the great American novel (or the great global novel it should now be called). To borrow a Thomas Kuhn term, the American novel seems to undergo paradigms, and right now we seem to be in the Jonathan Franzen paradigm, who seems to either be the most marketable, or the most suitable chronicler of the times.

American Beauty, as I suggest above, goes against the trend, because it is about a man who ultimately wants to exist but cannot, as if this is not the way the world works anymore (the black and white photos, the homoeroticism). It is preceding the idea that this comfortable world is coming under threat? The fantasies of the other maybe; terrorism, gays, immigrants, feminists, artists, orphans, absolute anything (Orient overtly touches on this), anything that threatens to destroy the sanctity of it. But it is as if the family is the last domesticity of the real. As we come out of postmodernity, artists now return to the family as a way of returning to the real. Franzen’s Freedom (2010) certainly did this after The Corrections (2000). What is being done is, is rather than the mechanics being broken down, the illusion is being created again, only to be dismantled in the way the realists an early moderns constructed and revealed the secrets lying beneath. But it’s as if now the family can not just go on as it is; it not just about the father’s who can just go out to work because there are all these other presences and antagonisms, and the fact that there are also no jobs to go to.

One of the key precedent’s set for this was Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (1997); Roth’s superb work about a successful man Swede Levov, inheritor of his father’s glove company who sees his daughter, Merry become political fanatic. As the blurb states ‘overnight Swede is wrenched out of the longed-for American pastoral and into the indigenous American berserk’, and that is what seems to have happened – the west’s safe capitalist pastoral has now been interrupted, maybe even shattered and what we’re witnessing is the wake of this. I think to quote at length the ending of American Pastoral would be sufficient (not necessarily a spoiler as such, but if you don’t want the ending spoiled don’t read this next bit)

“Marcia sank into Jessie’s empty chair, in front of the brimming glass of milk, and with her face in her hands, she began to laugh at their obtuseness to the flimsiness of the whole contraption, to laugh and laugh and laugh at them all, pillars of a society that, much to her delight, was rapidly going under – to laugh and to relish as some people, historically, always seem to do, how far the rampant disorder had spread, enjoying enormously the assailability, the frailty, the enfeeblement of supposedly robust things.
Yes the breach had been pounded in their fortification, even out here in secure Old Rimrock, and now that it was opened, it would not be closed again. They’ll never recover. Everything is against them, everything and everyone that does not like their life.”

There is obviously a great irony in all this. All these writers and directors are male, it’s as if their sanctity is under threat at the same time, and underscores the hypocrisy of the world they’re dismantling, but are still limited in their effect of. That passage precedes it all, and although Roth’s setting was 1968, it speaks a truth of now, written in 1997. Those final few paragraphs for me, set up what has followed in the past 15 years, and poses the questions that now novelists and artists try to answer. Will they recover? Is this why the world seems to have been Marvellised, why there are so many superheroes on our screen now, as we look for new heroes, new fantasies to save us, or at least save our minds, because like the picture above, maybe people are tired of the responsibility of being role models. Our fathers are not our heroes any more (look at the existential paternal anxiety of Don Draper in Mad Men). To paraphrase Franzen in The Corrections, who does this leave to be ordinary, in the grey, beige world of crisis.

A review of Christopher Bollen’s Orient is coming up in the next few weeks.

Stoner.

People like to forebode the book world, its impending doom as it converts to portable electronic devices, but this is one event that might cause those to reconsider their prophecies. Stoner, by the largely forgotten American author is a bestseller in the Netherlands (at the time of writing) and its revival seems to be predominated by the old fashioned word-of mouth-success, and new-fashioned word-of-mouth success, namely Twitter. Its not a 50 shades of grey kind of hysteria that asks you to break out of your comfort zone to be seen reading it in public, there is however, a sense of guilt  pervading the twinging joy of contemporary fiction fans and booksellers.

When it was first published it sold a meagre 2000 copies, even more meagre now considering the book was still a popular choice of entertainment. Television was on the rise though, and advertising was becoming the ubiquitous phenomenon we know it to be now (although emptier). Despite some voicing their bemusement as to why it was not appreciated at the time of its publication (Irving Howe for one) Stoner disappeared quietly into the annals of literary history. Williams enjoyed relative, later success with his 1973 historical novel, Augustus which won the National Book Award, but it was overshadowed by other novelists working at the time, like Thomas Pynchon, who holds a firm seat in the literary pantheon. The writers working then were changing the landscape. Williams style was amidst a frenzied, emerging movement of postmodernism, spear-headed by the likes of Pynchon and Vonnegut. Even Roth’s baroque and lewd Portnoy’s Complaint was only 5 years away and putting that and Stoner together they look to be conceived centuries apart. One built on repression of instincts, the other and absurd projection. Williams looked as if he was wanting to rekindle the past, not change the present.

It nod’s towards the Flaubertian style of realism; acute and precise free indirect discourse which was paving the way for modernist style of introspection and consciousness in an essentially Bildungsromman .There is an irony in the novel’s treatment from 1965 to the present day with the novel itself. It is about an ordinary, distinctly average academic from a simple pre-technological age who gets forgotten by his University and his students. The first paragraph lays all this out like a spoiler:
‘He did not rise above assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses… An older student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a simple question. Stoner’s colleagues who held him in no particular style when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers’.
Its as if it is setting up its own downfall when the trickery of a novelist to open with what is essentially, a spoiler. Who would want to read about an average man who lives an average life, in a unhappy marriage and dies, when they could read about sex and underground mail companies? Updike had paved this ground long before.

William Stoner comes from nothing, literal and metaphorical darkness. At seventeen, his shoulders are already beginning to stoop, since he had been working on his parents farm from six. There is a single light in the room which the family of three gather round on an evening. But then he goes to study agriculture at University, the first of his family to do so, but instead  he becomes enamoured with his compulsory English classes, and drops the study of agriculture and enrols full time in English.

An epiphany of sorts is provoked by his admiration of the hard faced English tutor, clearly averse to freshman blankness, as he picks on Stoner  to explain Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet. The whole class do not seem to know this when picked on by Sloane, and it inspires Stoner’s study. But why do the whole class not know what it means, and why would it inspire Stoner to drop agriculture and pursue the arts​​? None of them are able to shed a morsel of intuition on it. Here is the sonnet itself:

​That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long”

There is dispute as to what the sonnet actually means in scholarly circles, but from reading it is clearly pensive about life and death. There is a great dispute about the directedness of it and whether It is about the reader’s or the writer’s own life he is writing about. Some critics say that it is about the loss of youth. Is this Sloane’s personal choice rather than curricular? A later scene shows Stoner catching a glimpse of Sloane weeping at his desk after the end of WWI, maybe at the great loss of young life there.

The sonnet does not allude to a greater place after death, and focuses on the natural rhythms of nature. It slowly becomes something that the young students have no way of comprehending. If they were to know the meaning of sonnet 73 then it would expose them to a kind of depressing truth about life – that death is inevitably. And as we see Sloane weeping, it’s something that holds a truth for him. The sonnet however gives us some indication as the kind of existence Stoner leads: ““This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong/To love that well which thou must leave ere long.” John Prince (The Explicator, 1997) claims that this line is the greatest evidence that this is about the loss of the reader’s youth. Bitter Sloane, and naïve Stoner, the endured and the about to endure.

The sense of light and dark In the novel ,as metaphors for greater things pervades the novel. Williams plays with darkness both atmospherically but also as if it is a state of mind. Take this from early in the novel:
Sometimes in the attic room at night, he would look up from a book he was reading and gaze in the dark corners of his room, where the lamplight flickered against the shadows. If he stared long and intently, the darkness gathered into a light, which took the insubstantial shape of what he had been reading. And he would feel that he was out of time, as he had felt that day in class when Arthur Sloane had spoke to him. The past gathered out of the darkness where it stayed and the dead raised themselves to live before him; and the past and the dead flowed into the present among the alive, so that he had for an intense instant a vision of denseness into which he was compacted from which he could not escape and no wish that he could escape
He is then abruptly brought out of his reverie by a clanking radiator. It starts off with that question that overhangs the novel; in any other context cliché and banal, wondering whether life is worth living but descends into a sensual introspection of his mind. The dark and the light becomes a state of mind, dualist in essence as the physical and psychological inhibit different spheres as it ‘sucks at his body’ until he leaves it and becomes an inhabited consciousness. There is clear tension in his awakened consciousness, but the dark recesses of his unconsciousness continue to surface.

This is more evident in Stoner’s sexual exploits, especially when considering Edith; his sex is conducted in the dark, or in artificial light from a bulb. With his mistress, Katherine their sex is conducted under the natural light from the fire, and the heat it emits. His love with Katherine seems to be purely erotic but there is love with it: ” he began to know It was neither a state of grace nor an illusion [love]; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment, and day by day, by the will and intelligence of the heart”. It is the only thing Stoner seems powerless to control. With Edith, there is only one instance we are told of their love making, and that is to produce a child. Edith comes across as the Emma Bovary that didn’t get to tell her side of the story, (and inhabits the bourgeoisie ideals that Flaubert derided in Charles Bovary) when Stoner meets her, she comes across as a truly flat character. She displays apathy, and the reader is continually irritated by her neurotic ways, at odds with the sympathetic Stoner.

As if Freud’s two greatest drives of life were at odds, sex and death, we are continually reminded of the mortality of the characters. Stoner comes from nothing, and works on his parents farm that seems to produce nothing as if the land Stoner’s family harvest is the land that they will return to in death. Stoner is reminded at fatality initially at the death of his friend David Masters in WWI, a young confident mind, wasted which also maybe what we see a glimpse of Sloane weeping at. Stoner then has to confront death formidably when his father dies. He returns to Booneville which is portrayed as neglected when Stoner left, as if Stoner he only redeeming hope, “the town retained its bareness and its flimsiness …it was perhaps drier and greyer than it had been; not even a fleck of paint remained on the clapboard, and he unpainted timber porch sagged a bit nearer the bare earth” . At the funeral he looks at his dead father, who is not heavenly and peaceful looking on his way to a better place but is described with adjectives like ‘shrunken’, ‘tiny’ and ‘grotesquely’. And on visiting the small plot where his father is buried Stoner “Knelt in the field and took a dry clod of earth in his hand . He broke it and watched the grains, dark in moonlight, crumble and flow through his fingers”. Quite literally, ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

When Stoner is reminded of his rapid acceleration towards his own death. discussing retirement with life long friend Gordon Finch , Williams is gradually taking us towards the inevitable and it is not something that he ambiguously hints at. His life becomes purely sensual as the physical deterioration of his body leaves his mind loosely intact as he lays in the conservatory, a room that is subject to being lit through its transparent roof by the sun or the moon. That inner monologue displayed in his college office becomes the sole narrative now; the world once lived is distant sounds and then gone and Williams leaves us on the precipice of death or near languishing death.

The passage is broken by several “What did you expect? He thought” as if underwhelmed by death and the empty promise of after life, “He felt that he was waiting for something for some knowledge; but it seemed to him that he had all the time in the world.” And with that, we return to Shakespeare’s 73
rd sonnet. Was this the quest all along for Stoner? I think it was, and does he ever answer the question that Sloane first pitted to him that embarrassed him front of the freshman corpus? No. Cruelly though Williams does, in the fate of William Stoner. Lines 9-12 of Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet:
“In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on ashes of his youth doth lie
As the death-bed whereupon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by”
Williams perhaps produced the greatest answer to one of the many puzzling aspects of Shakespeare’s life in one of his most alluring sonnets.

Men of Mountains: Buddhaland Brooklyn, a review.

 Our world may appear more accessible an open, thanks to the lens of a T.V camera projecting us into cultures, in the safety of our homes, but we are arguably still as divided and ignorant as we once were. Building on the success and themes of his first book, The One Hundred Foot Journey, in Richard C.Morais fish out of water tale, from eastern recluse (to the western reader at least) to the  hubbub of the western world.

Unlike Morais’ first book though where food was the central metaphor, its scarcity and abundance, it is religion in Buddhaland. Reverend Oda (not Reverend yet, but to save confusion we’ll refer to him as Reverend Oda throughout) is surrounded by nature and the flowing of the Kappa-Gawa river. The whole first paragraph is a watery metaphor ‘it suggests there are times when we float lightly along life’s surface, bobbing from one languid, long pool to another’ and also immediately alluding to the Buddhist way of life.

Life is basic: living in the elements which all seem to be at conflict with one another; earth, wind, water and eventually fire. Along with  this, and the young Oda’s growing understanding of Buddhism, Morais uses his first chapter, which is almost embryonic – In a Bildungsroman fashion, Morais first introduces Oda to the west in the fashion of tourists,
“Buried deep into the world view she passed onto her children – unfathomable considering the nature of the family business – was a particular visceral disgust for Americans, those bumbling barbarians who somehow defeated Japan. She would rail about how they had ruined our beloved ancient culture, about the evils of their modern technology and the way they introduced twentieth century consumerism”.
There irony is of course that it is inevitable Oda will have to go to America, despite him expressing this level of xenophobia. Growing up with his family in the rural, mountainous  town of Katsaurao,
Morais obliges Oda with the metaphorical breaking of the ties of his family when they are killed in a fire. With the amount of water on display in the first chapter, the fire attacks the fragile structures of the homes to shocking effect, setting up Oda for his eventual alienation.

Orphaned, Oda moves to live in the local priesthood, where he immerses himself in the Buddhist teachings under the tutelage of the senior acolytes and on the provision of his painting skills and the prospect of residing permanently in the head temple at Mount Nagata goes to Tokyo University of Arts. The fish is slowly leaving the water and his predispositions to western culture are challenged again as ‘the european students were bovine at best…but it was through living in extremely close quarters with loud and drunk english students” Interestingly, whilst seeing the worst of western academia, he see’s some of the best, being introduced to the romantic poets of Keats, and Byron. Ironically deployed again, as Oda, on one of the few occassion’s experiences what he believes to be love is nothing but a fallacy and he recoils back into the purity of Buddhism, away from the seemingly western, commercialised creation. The love of his home and family seems be the only viable definition of love. 

After a slightly implausible jump in years, Oda is informed that he is to go to America to supervise the building of a Buddhist temple in Brooklyn, which comes after a timely earthquake. The world is gradually becoming more commercial and nationalised to Oda though. Before he leaves, his superiors driver round in ‘flashy German cars’ and not in the Toyota’s which would have course been native to Japan. In the developing style of the novel from, to use that word again, embryonic in the sense of its recluse, it could be determined that Oda’s gradually growing conscience is opening his eyes to this materialism. Oda’s departure is immediately consumed and in foreign territory ‘I moved to raise my hand in return, but before it was fully up the taxi was swallowed by the dark wet woods of the west’.

Morais has set Reverend Oda’s transmission from the secluded east to the busy west. The world he depicts when he arrives is immediate and Reverend Oda feels isolated in this busy world and where the river ran through his old town, in America this is a train line.
“After the long stillness of my life at the temple of everlasting prayer , Brooklyn appeared through the haze of my jet lag as a singularly beligerent attack on my central nervous system. It was the noise of smells of New York that in particular so overwhelmed me, and I found myself wincing or jumping nervously each time a train rattled by the window, or the upstairs neighbour came thumping down the stairs or the pipes in the building began to clang loudly.”
Reverend Oda’s, or even Morais’, America is one of many, different people, but it is one full of individuals, each caring for their own goals and achievements. This is most successfully evident with the construction of the temple, as the architecture of America imposes itself on the conscience of Reverend Oda ‘it hurt my neck to bend back like that and I felt quite alone in the world. The buildings looked to me like monsters striding across the earth; I was little more than a tiny insignificant animal scurrying around in their dark shadows’. If the temple was to be personified like that of the buildings already there in America, (the architecture and skyline of New York and Manhattan is recognisable to most people) then it is the small temple trying to build its reputation and structure like Reverend Oda himself. Reverend Oda is continually tackling bureaucracy, either from the government or from other members of the Buddhist’ sect in Brooklyn, determined to see the temple done in their way rather than Oda’s. Morais successfully depicts this western world of individualism. The over abundance of wealth and food, as Reverend Oda is continually put into scenes of over excessiveness andthe over examination of social situations involving a slightly implausible but comedic scene (one trepidates calling it postmodern) where he attends a fashion show in the company of the press.

Sometimes Morais, pleasing, if adjective abundant prose is Dickenesian, in its scope of Brooklyn and its characters and inhabitants, but then it can border on the clunky on banal. For instance, at the start of chapter 9, the end of the summer season is nigh, and the freedom of the lights and heat that the summer brings, as he juxtaposes a paragraph describing children playing in a fire hydrant with ‘But it was all coming to an end. The US stock markets fell’, and with that there is no implication of what this means for Reverend Oda, or the construction of the temple, and doesn’t add to the social context. He is also prone to continually starting a paragraph or sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But’ that comes across as lazy rather than stylistic

The first person narrative is quite restrictive in that the other characters that Morais’ creates are not fleshed out. They seem to be ushered in and out of Reverend Oda’s scenery to present problems to him when Morais needs to give him a moral dilemma. The biggest injustice to character is Michael who is eventually diagnosed as schizophrenic, and leads on from Morais misconstrued understanding of mental health in the first chapter. Morais gives too little time to this complex issue, and would have profited from devoting it as the main story,or leaving it out altogether. I believe there is definitely something to be said about religion and mental health and the way it is understood and treated in different cultures, but here was not.

Still, there is a lot to be gained from the novel. Morais has a good turn of phrase, and it avoids being a nauseating Buddhist self help book, even satirizing it. Besides this it is a good steady piece of contemporary fiction that boasts that summer read feel, and who knows, maybe beyond.


Buddhaland Brooklyn (282pp) is published by Alma Books for £12.99 and is out now. Thank you to them for their review copy.