Tuesday, September 05, 2006
In one chapter of his new memoir, Jonathan Franzen recalls his youthful immersion in the German language, which culminated in a grudging conquest of The Magic Mountain. It was, appropriately, an uphill battle. Thomas Mann's masterwork, with its jackhammer ironies and its Teutonic nerd of a protagonist, almost drove the Swarthmore senior out of his mind. Yet he recognized "at the heart of the book...a question of genuine personal interest both to Mann and to me: How does it happen that a young person so quickly strays so far from the values and expectations of his middle-class upbringing?"You can read the rest here. Meanwhile, I also reviewed Peter Behrens's The Law of Dreams for Newsday. This first novel got off to a shakey start--the opening paragraph was a virtual compendium of Hibernian cliches, complete with Farmer Carmichael riding "his old red mare Sally through the wreck of Ireland"--but what followed was weirdly captivating:
As readers will discover, that's also the question at the heart of The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History. Since Franzen is a superlative novelist rather than a sociologist, he approaches the question from some fairly oblique angles. But wrestle with it he does, beginning with the very first chapter, "House for Sale." The year is 1999, and Franzen, still many moons away from the matinee-idol status he attained in 2001 with his bestselling third novel, The Corrections, has journeyed to Webster Groves, Mo. There, in the wake of his mother's death, he has been charged with selling his boyhood home.
In an early poem, one still draped in the gauzy cadences of the Celtic Twilight, W.B. Yeats invoked the "great wind of love and hate." No doubt this chaotic breeze was meant to blow throughout the entire world. Yet there seems something specifically Irish about its intensity and destructive impact. Certainly it whips through the pages of The Law of Dreams, applying its invisible force to both the hero and to "the wreck of Ireland" itself.Stay tuned for further posts about The Mystery Guest, Calvino, Aaron Copland, the Who, James Schuyler's letters to Frank O'Hara, and my unhealthy new fixation on Beatles bootlegs.
The latter phrase can only be called an understatement. When Peter Behrens's first novel opens, in 1846, Ireland is in the lethal grip of the Great Famine. Starvation and typhus would kill more than 500,000 during the next five years and turn millions into refugees.
The protagonist, a country bumpkin named Fergus, hasn't yet grasped the impending catastrophe. Then the potato blight hits the hilly precincts where his family has long scratched out a living as tenant farmers. In a matter of months, his mother, father and siblings are dead, his home is burned to the ground, and Fergus, expelled by the landlord, is left with nothing but "the ancestral glow of tedious, unilluminating anger."
Thus begins his journey though the landscape of disaster. "Walk outside," he tells himself. "That is what you do in dreams. The law of dreams is, keep moving." And move he does, from the filthy enclosure of the Scariff Workhouse to a dreamlike interval out on the bogs. There he joins a marauding band of adolescents and loses his virginity to their chieftan (who only seems to be a boy).
This is, to put it mildly, a happy event. It also highlights one of the great strengths of the book: its resistance to easy sentiment, always a danger in a historical novel, where we tend to assume that self-consciousness is a modern invention. Fergus is delighted by sex, by intimacy. Yet he sees his own isolation for what it is: "It was strange how you connected with a girl, violence mixed with peculiar tenderness. And you thought you were deep inside, but you weren't. No one was. Other people, machines of independent mystery."
On and on he goes, both drawn to and repelled by "the unyielding, metallic otherness of the world." When the band dissolves--in a bloody shootout that the author handles like a soft-focus Peckinpah--Fergus crosses the water to Liverpool. He has escaped the wreck of Ireland. However, his adventures in the metropolis, drawn with fantastic, sooty precision by the author, are hardly less bizarre. The proprietress of an Irish bordello takes him in, restores his health, and prepares him for a career as a male prostitute. A shaken Fergus hits the road again, working on a railroad construction crew in Wales. Only then, having acquired a small pile of cash and a de facto wife, does he embark for his final destination: America.
Fergus's Atlantic crossing is one of the great set pieces in The Law of Dreams, all the more remarkable because we've seen it before, in almost every chronicle of the Irish diaspora. Behrens spares nothing when it comes to the dread and discomfort of the passage. At the same time, the details of shipboard life--say, a sailor high in the rigging--strike Fergus as portents of liberation: "He'd rather be living up there, in the high, than down below in the hold. All his life he had lived in holes of one sort or another: cabins made of stones and turf; scalpeens made of sticks, shanties, steerage holds. Burrows smelling of earth and bodies."
Will America offer him an escape from this burrow, which is also the downward tug of death and memory? Will the New World transform him? The answer is twofold. Fergus does lose his innocence, what little there is left of it. For a dizzying moment his very appetite for experience seems on the verge of disappearing: "I have eaten too much the world. I am not hungry no more." In the end, though, the law of dreams will not relinquish him. He must keep moving.
Happily this mandate of eternal motion applies to the author as well. He never lets his story go slack, never lets it eddy on the margins for more than a page or two. Then Fergus is carried along once again. This is not a matter of streamlined minimalism: no, Behrens has fashioned a beautiful idiom for his book, studded with slippery archaisms and mournful, musical refrains. Here and there he hits a pothole, a muddy patch. For the most part, though, the language and the things it describes seem to be spun out of a single material. And we move through it as willingly, or compulsively, as the protagonist, the wind of love and hate at our backs.