Insanity, angst, energy, grace, love

Five Novels For The Winter

January 06, 2002|By Beth Kephart | Beth Kephart,Special to the Sun

Last fall, when Jonathan Franzen's endless obsession with his own talent became the media's obsession, too -- when you couldn't pick up a newspaper without reading a breathless account of the bloated-ego author or of The Corrections, his equally bloated novel -- literature was dealt yet one more blow in a long, staggering series of blows. A crop of fascinating novels had been shoved aside in favor of a single seed. Franzen mania bloomed while the works of other authors withered.

But no one novel can or should ever purport to speak for the genre. A single novel can elucidate, prompt and challenge; novels, taken together, illuminate the human condition. Our ears are capable of hearing multitudes. Our shelves are meant to be crowded.

Recently, I sat down to read five of the new "hot" titles for this winter season. Some were very fine, others just intriguing. All five reminded me of the marvelous elasticity of the novel form, of its endlessly plastic and pliable qualities. All five reminded me, again, that we must make room for several voices.

Insanity or monomania courses -- more or less -- through all five books, a fair reflection, I suppose, of these strange times. It is a theme most overtly treated in Amanda Craig's In a Dark Wood (Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, 310 pages. $24.95), an odd concoction of a book that takes some getting used to as it wends its way through a landscape of manic depression and fairytales, abandonment and loneliness.

The narrator is Benedick Hunter, a newly divorced and out-of-work British actor who is full of pity for himself, aggressively so. Overanxious, preening, whiny, abrupt and deeply ungenerous, Dick's voice so grates that the reader (at least this reader) soon struggles to empathize even as Dick's thoughts turn to suicide.

And yet Craig, who hails from England, is a talented writer who manages to keep the story from sinking beneath the narrator's irritations by giving him a mystery to solve. Craig casts Dick out in search of answers about his own mother, a talented writer and illustrator of fairytales who hanged herself when Dick was a child.

Liberally interlaced with the mother's long, involving stories, Dark Wood soon becomes a meditation on the role of fairytales in civilization and on the life of children's authors. As Dick's quest advances, Dark Wood gains momentum. As Dick learns more about the past, his own life assumes the outlines of the darkest fairytales. Dick is not well, of course -- his disease is evermore apparent -- and though some readers might never grow to like the man, most, I'm sure, will want to know what happens.

Insanity storms through Jean Thompson's new novel, Wide Blue Yonder, (Simon and Schuster, 368 pages. $24) as well. Here Thompson, whose Who Do You Love was a recent National Book Award finalist, painstakingly constructs a fragile, explosive tale about the intersecting lives of four festering characters.

While the scenes depicting the tensions between 17-year-old Josie and her divorced mother, Elaine, perfectly capture the angst, distrust and anxieties that are too often the baggage of such relations, and while the fury of Rolando, an enraged and dangerous loner, is frighteningly stark and real, it is Josie's Uncle Harvey who proves to be Thompson's greatest creation here.

Convinced that he is the Weather Channel's "Local Forecast," Uncle Harvey is in and out of meteorological patterns and predictions, deep inside an interior world of clouds and bucking winds. Uncle Harvey's delirium, it seems, has something to do with a past horror, but Thompson does a clever job of keeping this past just out of reach. Meticulously engineered, Wide Blue Yonder boasts a wholly cinematic ending. Weather of every kind rains in; tenderness tints the horizon.

Don't look for tenderness in Gary Indiana's Depraved Indifference (HarperCollins, 336 pages, $24.95). Don't look for a clear narrative arc either, or for anything vaguely resembling order. Following in the footsteps of Three Month Fever, which was billed as a "nonfiction novel" (whatever that is) about Gianni Versace's killer, and Resentment: A Comedy, which was triggered by the Menendez trial, Depraved Indifference is another manic true-crime story.

This time, Indiana took as inspiration the real-life mother-son crime team of Sante and Kenneth Kimes, who gained notoriety after murdering a Manhattan socialite. Everything about this book feels splintered, hysterical, rushed, an affect the author no doubt intended but which nevertheless is hard to accommodate.

Metaphors get stuffed two to the long sentences. Facts get crammed in any clunking way. A lot of the lines end up sounding like these, which is not, to my ear, a melody: "Warren fretted about Devin. He worried that things were happening to Devin that would have an irreversible ugly effect upon Devin." Depraved Indifference will appeal to a certain kind of reader. I am not that kind of reader, but I respect the energy Indiana brings to the form.

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