Friday 26 April 2013

Crossing to Safety - Wallace Stegner (1987)

Crossing to Safety became a literary hit of sorts in Australia in 2012 when the First Tuesday Book Club panel unanimously praised it. All of the initial 2012 edition copies sold out around Australia and this tale of the friendship between two couples became a talking point at book clubs everywhere. I'd never heard of Wallace Stegner and I suspect that he had not made much of an impact in Australia during his lifetime. Stegner was an ardent environmentalist and an academic, and he combined the two to make a lasting impact on the way America thought about its wilderness areas. Stegner is known for his writings set in the American West and he published novels, non-fiction and essays between 1937 and 1992 before his untimely death in a car accident.

Crossing to Safety was Stegner’s last novel published in his lifetime and it is fittingly written from the perspective of old age. The narrator, Larry Morgan, looks back over fifty years of friendship with the Lang’s – Sid and Charity. They meet whilst teaching at university in the 1930’s and from the vantage point of the early 1970’s Larry contemplates the vicissitudes of their shared lives.

Crossing to Safety is a classy novel. Stegner’s prose is subtle, poised and flows like a gentle stream over rounded rocks. Relationships and friendships are standard fare in literature, but Stegner manages to offer a fresh perspective. His characters are authentic and well drawn and over-all the narrative is refreshing straightforward. Larry’s wife, Sally, is perhaps underrepresented, however this is mainly because Charity is such a strong presence throughout, leaving Sally to be more of a counterpoint.

As the novel progresses Stegner focuses mainly on the lives of the four characters and only alludes to historical events in passing. The characters’ individual triumphs and struggles are not presented as a microcosm of the wider historical perspective; instead Stegner’s themes are far more existential. In perhaps the only nod to post-modernism in the novel, the good hearted yet controlling Charity suggests to Sid that he should attempt to write a novel about ordinary peoples’ lives, rather than one contrived to be dramatic. Crossing to Safety is, of course, that novel. However Stegner cleverly and subtly brings in the universal existential struggle of humanity during a segment set in Italy. As the couples take in the artistic wonders of Italy Sid notes a certain look in the eyes of the men portrayed in the paintings of the renaissance greats. Then soon after Sid notes that same look in a simple laborer who has damaged his hand in an accident. A man in pain and anguish, yet who is proud and defiant and all the more human for it. This is Stegner’s wider theme; something we all share that is not confined to the movements of history but is universal. Does this mean that the title is ironic? That there is no safety to cross to, only a constant struggle? Perhaps, but I’d rather believe that it is defiant.

It is tempting to see Crossing to Safety as highly autobiographical, however Stegner remarked in an interview that he took cues from his own life, added the lives of others and fragmented it amongst his own creative license. This is no doubt a technique shared among many writers and it works well. The great thing about Stegner’s writing is that you can’t see the joins – his style is seamless.

What the novel does share with ‘real life’ is some of the mundanety of day-to-day living. Whilst I wouldn’t go as far as suggesting that the novel has mundane sections, it does sag a bit in the middle. The narrator mentions that there would be no bed hopping in this book, as if all effort must be made to avoid it from becoming a John Updike novel. But there can be a price to pay for this stance and Crossing to Safety skirts close for a while. Fortunately there is the payoff of the emotionally intense ending that is both psychologically revealing and extremely moving. The novel is worth reading for this alone, but there are many highlights throughout, all of which leads me to conclude that Stegner’s wider body of work would be well worth investigating in the future

Monday 8 April 2013

Iain [M] Banks

Today one of my colleagues at work told me that Iain Banks has terminal cancer and only has a matter of months to live. I was incredulous and deeply saddened by the news. A writer of rare ability, Banks has had two careers side by side. As Iain M. Banks he has been one of the greatest science fiction writers of the last twenty-five years or so. His Culture novels revealed Banks to be one of the most imaginative and playful writers in the genre.

As Iain Banks he has published literature, with a string of quality releases beginning with the left of centre classic The Wasp Factory in 1984. This was my first introduction to the brilliance of his writing and I still talk to people about that book today. However I’m more familiar with the Iain M Banks side of the story, with Use of Weapons (1990), Against a Dark Background (1993) and Look to Windward (2000) standing out as favorites.

Banks will be greatly missed, but he’s leaving behind an impressive body of work and for that he should feel satisfied. Thanks Iain, I’ve loved your books and I wish you a good end to this part of your story.

You can read Iain’s post about his illness and leave a message if you wish on his website here.

Friday 5 April 2013

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace (1996)

The ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club was televised, funnily enough, last Tuesday, and they ended by revealing that they would read and talk about Infinite Jest in next month’s show. I inwardly groaned because so far this book has defeated me. I bought it a few years back and initially I enjoyed both the style and the premise, but then I became bogged down and finally halted completely. I’m languishing on page 420, half way through 30 April / 1 May Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (this will make sense if you try and read it).

The late David Foster Wallace was an adherent of the so-called hysterical realism style, which basically involves over the top prose that is all encompassing in its attention to detail regarding plot, characters and the minutia of the everyday and the not so everyday. Basically you are up for pages and pages of detail spent on one issue or subject, during which any number of tangents is not nearly enough. Well, this is my interpretation anyway.

The premise is suitably intriguing, complex and amazing. Infinite Jest is party focused on teenage tennis players at a sport-focused American college and partly on the patients at a drug rehab centre. It also involves a video that is so entertaining that the people watching it will starve to death and defecate where they sit rather than stop watching. Oh and it also seems to be set either in the near future or in an alternative present, I can’t quite work out which.

So the question is - should I attempt to finish this book that is sometimes tedious and sometimes brilliant? Has anyone else had the same problem? Or is Infinite Jest a work of genius and I’m simply not up to its challenges? I know from briefly researching the book online that it undoubtedly has its admirers and that it is perhaps the ultimate cult book of our times. This is all very well, but I still can’t get enthused about finishing it. Perhaps I should just get on with it; after all, I kind of want to know what’s on that videotape.