Wayne Johnston’s A World Elsewhere
Readers enter a world elsewhere, when Landish and Van meet on a bench at Princeton, in A World Elsewhere.
They enter a fictional universe, but if they’ve read other well-known works by Wayne Johnston (like the oh-so-sink-into-it-able The Colony of Unrequited Dreams), they expect some historical figures and places to take shape in the novel’s pages.
Here, not only do Henry James and Edith Wharton make an appearance, but they come to visit Vanderland, which is based on the beyond-luxurious Biltmore estate.
Both on the page (and in real life) Vanderland is a monumental creation – both beautiful and horrifying – built from things that have all come from elsewhere (even parts of the landscape have been moved from one part of the property to another).
Those who visit it (like James and Wharton) come from elsewhere and return elsewhere.
Well, mostly: some of them, once arrived, only dream of elsewhere.
“Landish said that Goddie would set records. Before she left Vanderland, she would be the richest person never to have set foot on a ship or train. Never to have seen a town, let alone a city. Never to have seen a thing her father didn’t own. Never to have set foot in or on something she wouldn’t own someday.”
Other characters, too, dream of others who are elsewhere. A sailor lost at sea. A son who chooses to inhabit a world elsewhere rather than adopt his father’s way of life. A boy whose father is elsewhere. (And, actually, another boy whose father is elsewhere.) Another boy whose sister is elsewhere. A woman whose lover is elsewhere (while her husband is all-too-present). Another woman who dreams of being elsewhere with her lover.
And, in many of these cases, “elsewhere” holds a kind of power; those who hold the keys to that kingdom hold another kind of power. And those who cannot gain access to it suffer. One questions whether banishment is a punishment or a reward.
Questions of loyalty arise and tensions mount — which readers might have guessed if they recognized the title’s reference, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.
There is yearning and sadness, devotion and determination in A World Elsewhere.
High. Longlisted once before (2006 Custodian of Paradise) and shortlisted twice (1998 The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, 2002 The Navigator of New York). If the Giller winner received a statuette, there’d be a good chance of it wearing a sealskin cap this year.
“I” Inner workings
Structure is straight-forward; readers revisit the past through memory and reflection, no fancy shifts in time/perspective. Characters are depicted through observation and dialogue, and minor characters remain at the margins until they’re required to play a larger part.
Love it or hate it: Landish Druken’s voice is drunk on wordplay. He burns every word he writes; he says “I’m more of a startist than an artist. I was once a starving artist but am now a raving startist.” (The passage about Charles Dickens novels makes me giggle just thinking about it: yes, I love it.)
The novel’s four segments are named for their settings: Dark Marsh Road, The Attic, The Ship, Vanderland; Landish’s father’s home in Newfoundland and Vanderland in North Carolina) only appear to contrast with the confinement of the other settings. It’s fascinating to compare.
Settles on the relationship between Landish and Deacon; readers who connect with Landish’s decision to father the young boy will engage whole-heartedly with the story which, otherwise, could be shadowed by Landish’s odd relationship with Van, which dates to their Princeton years.
“R” Readers wanted
You love a traditional tale but believe that the line between fact and fiction is blurry. You’re a social reader and a social drinker, and you don’t expect your characters to be likeable. And you expect some sadness in a good story…because good fiction grows from loss, regret, and betrayal.
Would you answer (or have you answered) that call for readers?
Jessica Grant’s Come Thou Tortoise (2009) (for the relationships between characters and words)
Michael Crummey’s and Greg Locke’s Newfoundland: Journey into a Lost Nation (2004) (for gorgeous imagery to accompany tales set there)
Pauline Holdstock’s Into the Heart of the Country (2011) (for more characters who build bridges between worlds elsewhere)