In the wake of my IFOA reading list and the literary prizelists of the season, my November reading felt relatively whimsical. Without duedates attached to the majority of my reading, it was a pleasure to slip into volumes which had sat untouched in recent weeks.
Each of these three volumes covers, in one way or another, a lifetime. Whether fiction or non-fiction, the lives on the page have an expanse, a reach.
The cover of Jared Young’s Into the Current makes you want to cock your head to one side just slightly: deliberately disorienting.
And it’s fitting: this debut novel will make your head spin a little.
First, as you follow airplane passenger Daniel Solomon as he plunges through the atmosphere.
Next, as he slips into some between-state.
“Don’t you find it the least bit suspicious that I’m describing it all in the present tense?
The extraordinary thing about this particular memory is that it’s not a memory. It’s not playing out, as memories do, on some candescent movie screen in the darkness of my conscious mind. Not, I am there! I am physically there, right there….”
It is extraordinary, if not suspicious. And even when an explanation is offered, it remains so. Ultimately, however, there are enough memories cascading past the reader to allow for some brief anchoring moments.
“Funny, these small moments that alter one’s trajectory. Dumb little decisions: turn left, turn right. Spontaneous statements; cursory commitments. I suppose if they kick you onto a different course, they’re not really that small, but they certainly seem that way in the moment they occur: just some vague promise to put someone in touch with someone else, whatever, no big deal.”
Some aspects of the novel are mundane; from carpet fibres to groping, a lot of detail goes into the scenes sketched across the years Daniel reinhabits. There is a fine between, here, between states of undress and states of unbeing. And at times the “bowel-twisting pocket of nothingness” threatens to overwhelm the narrative. “It’s a backwards paradox of fate: I am doomed to always do what I did, there’s no changing it.”
But as an exploration-of-self, Into the Current has some strong scenic elements and the desire to tap into a deeper search for meaning, for “this is the great tragedy of human life: no other person will ever fully understand what it is to be you; they’ll only ever know the abridged, desaturated, second-hand versions of our most important stories”.
Jane Smiley has long been preoccupied with the telling of “our most important stories”. Early in her career, she set out to write one of each major literary type and The Greenlanders did not scratch her epic itch: the Hundred Years trilogy is another work in that vein, with Early Warning the second installment, covering 1953 through 1986.
In some ways, Jane Smiley’s Early Warning is an excellent reading companion for Jared Young’s debut. Both books cross large swathes of time in the narrative, but whereas Young’s structure is chaotic (back and forth in time) and his focus insular (one mind’s memories), Smiley’s Hundred Years trilogy is constructed deliberately (one chapter for each year) and on an epic scale (there is a family tree in the front and readers must consult).
This volume, the second, begins with a family gathering, which serves as an excellent refresher for readers who have let some time pass since reading Some Luck. It doesn’t take long for key characters, like Roseanna, the matriarch, to take shape once more. She “doled out words and smiles like they were stock options” but some of the younger members of the family are a bit of a blur for a few more chapters (years).
An impatient reader might be frustrated with the details required to root the narrative as the years pass, but these are the anchors which hold the passage of time, from pigs-in-a-blanket and a carrot-raisin salad to a little girl dressed for a birthday part in a red velvet dress with lace-trimmed white socks and Mary Janes. (I’m guessing that neither othese menu nor wardrobe items will make an appearance in the trilogy’s third volume.)
Just as it is challenging to spot the growth of a child across the weeks (which inspired the pencil-on-doorway chronicle in many homes) while those who see them once a year on holidays are startled and amazed by the cumulative change, many elements which reside in this novel’s individual chapters and storylines are even more impressive when viewed across the work’s expanse.
Patterns are visible across the generations when, for instance, daughters muse about the men they intend to marry as compared to their fathers. In the first volume, Eloise muses about her daughter, Rosa: “You didn’t have to want to kill your mother and marry your father. But probably you did want to attract their attention once in a while.” And in the second, Claire believes she wants to marry a man who reminds her of her father but she makes a contrary choice in the end: “No, Paul was not a farmer and did not remind her of her father, but he was attentive and her goal was attained: since he was not like Frank, Joe or Henry, she would not be like Andy, Lillian or Lois.”
There are comparisons and contrasts throughout the characters’ experiences for readers to consider actoss the generations; these brief discussions of marriage are hardly spoilers against a landscape of interconnected and ever-shifting relationships. As an epic, it is the work’s breadth of scale at which readers are intended to marvel and this is indeed the case.
This quote from later in Some Luck summarizes it perfectly: “As if on cue, Walter turned from Andrea and looked at Rosanna, and they agreed in that instant: something had created itself from nothing – a dumpy old house had been filled, if only for this moment, with twenty-three different worlds, each one of them rich and mysterious.”
There are so many more of these worlds in Early Warning, that readers will put the family tree to good use; surely it will be a fold-out poster for the third volume.
“When on Monday, January 16, 1978, I first wandered into a Toronto courtroom for the start of jury selection in the first criminal trial I had ever covered, I had no idea I was beginning to serve a self-imposed life sentence.”
While on jury duty, I saw Christie Blatchford at the courthouse downtown occasionally; I didn’t recognize any other court reporters, but perhaps they, too, will have a book like this in a few decades.
Sometimes controversial and always outspoken, it’s interesting to get her perspective on her career at this juncture. Her style here is informal but attentive-to-detail; she is concerned with the facts but I’m most keenly interested in her personal observations and conjecture.
“Canadian courthouses are like far-flung island colonies of Las Vegas, where clocks are discouraged lest the guy in front of the slot machine or at the poker table look up and realize how long he’s been there, losing money.”
The book is structured around key cases which Blatchford covered in detail as a journalist, with five chapters titled “R v Betesh to R v Duffy”, “R v Abreha”, “R v Elliott”, “R v Bernardo” and “R v Ghomeshi”. Even if you think only one or two of them are familiar, you will quickly discover that they are more high-profile than you might have thought (or, alternatively, you will quickly understand why they were selected). After all, there is a whole world unfolding in the courtroom: only a handful of the 200,000 criminal cases in Ontario touch the media.
“Ours is an age of increasing demands for scrutiny – from government at every level, from politicians, police, publicly owned companies and even the mainstream press – yet the courts have escaped the collective notice.”
Certain cases are examined in detail (but sometimes refer to entire works devoted to them, for readers keen to follow up in even more detail) and sometimes it comes down to page numbers in a certain document and specific citations, but also included are anecdotal experiences and information shared by acquaintances and friends.
Perhaps for many readers, a specific case will be of interest, for instance Paul Bernardo’s. “For a good long while, back when it all was happening, it seemed improbable that Canadians would not always recoil a little at the mention of those two names. The country had never before seen crimes quite like theirs, and probably was never more sharply reminded of a few uncomfortable truths.”
However, around the discussion of specific cases are many broader matters of concern, like a consideration of the role of child welfare institutions, the role of the jury, the question of which trials are eligible for a jury and which evidence is submitted to the jury members.
Put enough books like these together and maybe we can come up with an alternative Lifetime Reading Plan?
Any of these in your stack or on your TBR? Which of the three do you suspect you’d most enjoy?