No good novels?

An e-mail from a reader noted that I haven’t liked many novels over the past few months, and in looking back she’s right: the last novel I really liked was The Name of the Rose. More common have been flawed but decent novels like Richard Price’s Ladies’ Man. Fortunately, Ladies’ Man didn’t stop me from getting Price’s most recent work, Lush Life, which is amazing, gigantic, detailed, and many other superlatives thus far, although I’m only halfway through. It stalks the billion-footed beast (warning: .pdf link). It lives up to the hype. It deals with the rich, the poor, the cops, the pimps, the dead, the live, and the soon-to-be-dead (I suspect), and does so with linguistic flair.

Now I’m especially excited to hear Price on Friday.

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page is the kid you didn’t really want to befriend in middle school but liked well enough as a harmless oddity. The novel is a long account of Ebenezer Le Page’s life , a resident on Guernsey, a Channel Island. Le Page’s glory days, such as they are, occur mostly in the first half of the twentieth century and come slightly before the author’s, as G.B. Edwards died in 1976 with his only novel unpublished. This edition comes from The New York Review of Books, which appears to be using the story as part of the novel’s appeal.

Le Page is an insular man with some folk wisdom; he notes that “I have never known the rights and the wrongs [of some Guernsey residents…] That’s the trouble of trying to write the true story of my relations; or of myself, for that matter.” On the page opposite, he is merely strange: “I like my two china dogs. When I write down anything wicked, one of them look very serious; but the other one, he wink.” This lack of pluralization is apparently an example of the Guernsey patois, and it becomes comprehensible and even normal over the course of the novel. As for the china dogs, their symbolic appeal is obvious, though whether the narrator understands is not.

Among these bursts of ideas, however, are along recitations of occurrences on Guernsey. They become tedious as we learn about the couplings (mostly in marriage) and uncouplings (mostly not) of the people of Guernsey, and the results of this action. But I could never come to care about either, and to me the land itself and how it shaped the people seemed more interesting than its inhabitants. Oddly enough, I saw Guernsey mentioned in The Wall Street Journal not long after finishing the novel:

Though it’s registered in Guernsey, U.K., and trades in Amsterdam, Carlyle Group runs Carlyle Capital out of its New York offices. Early Thursday in Amsterdam, the shares plunged 70% to $0.83 each. The stock has lost around 83% since the company first disclosed its funding problems last week.

These would be the financial types Le Page rails against for changing his island from a rural, inward focused area to a hot tourist and financier destination. Guernsey’s former dialect seems to have been absorbed into general English and French since the events of the novel, and the destruction of its linguistic character seems unfortunate if inevitable. But maybe it will also reduce some of the smug satisfaction of residents like le Page, who learns he can’t sell his gold easily because of restrictions placed by Britain. In response, he says: “‘The balance of Credit? […] I haven’t the vaguest idea what that mean; but I do know whoever it was made that law are a lot of rogues and vagabonds! I worked for every penny of those sovereigns!’ I was real angry.” Maybe so, but even justified ignorance is seldom attractive, it should also be noted that the dropped words are in the original. On the same day, le Page says: “I slept like a log and woke up late.” The somewhat pleasing alliteration is not enough to make up for the cliche. It’s one I don’t think I’d see in Robertson Davies, who is an obvious comparison to Edwards in content and, to a lesser extent, style. In content the two share an interest in the rural and somewhat isolated products of Britain. But Davies became the better writer, though his Salterton Trilogy was weaker than much of his later work. Had Edwards produced later works, he might have shown the same upward trajectory, but we are left with an original novel that makes me wish it had led to second, third, and fourth novels that rendered this one a footnote in Edwards’ career.

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