I’m writing about two books in this post. Two l – o –o – n – n – g novels: The Son by Phillip Meyer (841 pages) and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (775 pages).
They’re both pretty amazing. Tons of research, funneled into the creation of characters who felt as if they could step off the page and talk to you. (Though whether you would want to is another question.) Still, the books are very different. Phillip Meyer’s model might be said to be Hemmingway or – forgive the Russian historian in me – Sholokov (as in Quiet Flows the Don/The Don Flows Home to the Sea). Donna Tartt’s model is unquestionably Dickens. Meyer’s prose is taut, flat, crisp, devoid of flourish or complexity, while Tartt’s is lush and complicated, convoluted even, yet nudging you so close to her characters you can feel their breath on your face. Each style can in its own way be poetic, and each author is firmly in control of his or her material. Myer is painting on a vast canvas, striding across some three hundred years of Southwest history; Tartt’s canvas, while not so restricted as the tiny masterpiece painting that is the sine qua non of her tale, is nonetheless smaller and more focused, the interactions of her characters spanning less than two decades.
The tale that Meyer tells is, frankly, devastating. Read “depressing.” The broad sweep of time from when Texas belonged to Mexico until today. Mexicans, Indians, Whites. How they clashed, fought, slaughtered, pillaged, chiseled – and sued – one another in their separate efforts to achieve power and supremacy. Told through the device of a single family through time. Land, sheep, horses, cattle, oil. How some won and some lost and yet all – in the final analysis – lost. It’s our story. (Certainly I, as someone who is part Indian and from Oklahoma, felt this way, but I suspect even New Yorkers might recognize the horror of their heritage in these pages.)
The tale that Tartt tells is quite different, of course. And in some ways it is equally saddening, however much it tries to provide some hope for a kind of rescue through art, through the love that we come to feel for certain kinds of perfections of effort to create beautiful things, from brushstrokes that capture the eye to sentences that dazzle the mind. It is a tale of our times, for sure, from terrorist bombs to widespread drug use, to frauds at every level of society; sometimes it seems almost an homage to the anomie and weakness of character which seems to afflict Americans in the twenty-first century. Be warned: the novel’s addictive. Once you start reading it, you can’t stop. You’ll think it’s not only the characters in her book who are hooked (on drugs, in their case), but yourself.
What these novels have in common is the amazing degree of totally credible detail they each provide about their separate concerns. From Tartt, about painting, I might have expected it. About the repair and re-creation of period furniture, perhaps. But I can’t even imagine how she knows so much about the drug culture, on an individual level or on the level of international transactions and crooks, but she does and she shows it. How can she deal so comfortably in the lingo? So much slangy Russian and Polish and Ukrainian! Is it accurate? The Russian that I know suggests it is, which gives me the confidence to trust everything else. And Myer! When he talks about Indian tribes! The names of things, the techniques! How they made their bows and their arrows. Exactly how. How they shot them, whether at rest or from horseback! Exactly how. So credible and detailed that you feel, with practice, you could have done this stuff yourself. Or: the savagery and variety of the tribes’ tortures; their customs of sex and war and love, adherence to and violation of; the individual animosities and struggles of particular tribesmen with each other; how a captive can become a full-fledged member of the tribe, and the cost of this. The cost. Always the cost.
Let me be clear. I’m not saying that the reader knows in some kind of proven, evidentiary way, that the details offered by both of these authors are absolutely smack-dab correct. I’m saying that each writes with an authority that is convincing, which is vital to the success of their stories. As Elizabeth Strout, editor of the Best American Short Stories of 2012, writes, explaining her choices, “. . . it had a great deal to do with voice. That sound – if it is working well – has authority, probably the most important dimension of voice. We really hope that the author knows what he or she is doing.”
Another thing that both novels share is that, structurally, they each move back and forth in time, though the shifts Myer makes are more radical and, while sometimes tricky to follow, completely germane to his purpose.
If I’ve made these novels sound like surveys or treatises or even histories, I apologize. They’re not. They are well-plotted stories, deftly and compellingly told, in ways that excite both the mind and the heart. Be prepared. Each is a big commitment, but well worth it.
BY THE WAY, if you weren’t able to attend my last reading – on Dec. 12 – both video and audio recordings of my performances are accessible from my website, jimcstory.com. HAPPY NEW YEAR!