Doctor Faustus

I tried to read and like Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus—I really did—but quit after perhaps 80 leaden pages. It wasn’t a bad novel, to be sure, but just one that never seemed to unshackle itself from the page. Alex Ross brought it to my immediate attention through his allusions to Doctor Faustus in The Rest is Noise, but that initial enthusiasm didn’t prove sustaining. High school travesties like Ethan Frome came to mind, as an endless bowl of unsweetened oatmeal becomes dreary, no matter its healthfulness.

That image of the endless bowl is apt given how many sentences in Doctor Faustus were long and tedious, without the sustaining beauty in Swann’s Way. From the start of chapter VIII, a page I flipped to at random: “But [Kretzschmar] had early felt the pull back to the Old World, from where his grandparents had once emigrated and where both his own roots and those of his art were to be found; and in the course of a nomadic life, whose stations and stopovers seldom lasted longer than one or two years, he had come to Kaisersaschern as our organist—it was only one episode that had been preceded by others (for he had previously been employed as a conductor at small municipal theaters in the German Reich and Switzerland) and would be followed by others.” Two words shy of 100, and all of it, so far as I can tell, irrelevant to understanding the character of Kretzschmar or Adrian Leverkühn or anything else. Sometimes digressive novels work fabulously well, as Cryptonomicon did, but in Doctor Faustus there’s so much artistry that I’m being stifled.

Another annoyance that starts small and grows: the constant tendency of the narrator to discuss how he tells the story. At the start of chapter IX, he says: “I shall not glance back—far be it from me to count how many pages have piled up between the last Roman numeral and the one I just wrote. A mishap—a totally unexpected mishap, to be sure—has occurred, and it would be pointless to indulge in self-accusation and apologies on its account.” Good: then don’t indulge in either, and don’t tell us about it. I will count how many pages have passed: 25, and in those 25 I skipped larger and larger blocks of text as I looked for something, anything, to happen. But nothing does, except for telling us how the story will be told and about the early life of a great composer. I never got to a point where I said, “Ah ha! This is where I would’ve started the novel.”

If you want to see a morally compromised figure interested music, try Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, where the surgeon Adam Staunton is also an amateur pianist whose music is associated with madness or otherworldliness. Its many pages flow like corrupt money through Willie Stark’s machine, and to me is a stronger work that begins with movement and never stops. What made All the King’s Men go and Doctor Faustus not is a topic I’ve been pondering; James Wood comes at it from the angle of character when he contemplates “[…] how to push out? How to animate the static portrait?” in How Fiction Works. Like him, I can’t formulate rules so strong that novels can’t wriggle out of them, and so I feel forced to observe what I can’t explain, like astronomers and dark matter. Yet, just as Supreme Court Justice Stewart said regarding pornography, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . [b]ut I know it when I see it,” so too I know problematic novels when I see them. Still, I’ve also learned to be wary of decisive conclusions on novels that have superseded their times and are still widely regarded as good, and so I’m keeping Doctor Faustus in anticipation of revisiting it sometime in the distant future, and I hope I don’t look back ruefully on this essay.

A Simple Plan

James Fallows reminded me of Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan, a novel that is anything but simple and about a deceptively easy opportunity for huge money. Taking the cash, however, cascades into hell like a modern version of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, published nearly 400 years earlier.

A Simple Plan follows societally unimportant men as they squabble for money each thinks will give him a place in the larger world. I don’t know whether Smith thought of the legend of Faust—which has also been covered by Goethe and Thomas Mann, but it is hard to miss the parallels, with power in the form of money coming at the expense of spiritual and moral well-being, ultimately leading toward an end that, as we are told early, is unlikely to be good. Within 30 pages, Hank says he might’ve turned the money in to Sheriff Jenkins “before it had a chance to unravel and entangle us all,” but his choices toward dancing with the devil eventually leave him with nowhere to go but forward into darkness.

Modern literature doesn’t necessarily need a literal manifestation of the devil to present his offer. Hank begins succumbing to the metaphorical lure even before encountering Jenkins, saying: “The dynamic of [the] relationship [between him and Jacob] had shifted, I realized. I was in control now; I was the spoiler, the one who would decide what happened to the money.” A page later, the vague sense of the supernatural is invoked when Hank says the find is “like a gift from the gods.” But the gods don’t often give gifts unencumbered by strings. This interplay among fate, power, and choice plays throughout the novel, with each choice making it harder to give up the money until finally Hank feels he can’t, leading inexorably to the end. This end is different than Marlowe’s Faustus but still a study in the ways of power, this one not from a pygmy rather than epic point of view.

A Simple Plan also implicitly argues that three can keep a secret if two are dead, as Benjamin Franklin said. Corpses pile up early and eventually to tragic proportions, leading one away from the real (how can cops miss so many?) and toward the traditional forms of tragedy. This interplay between old and recent literary developments, as well as the greed and compassion of the characters, gives A Simple Plan lasting resonance, as does Smith’s direct, understated, and mostly excellent writing (an exception: “My heart was beating thickly in my temples”). Most often, though, the prose never impedes and usually enhances the story, with Hank’s pathos mingling with monstrousness as he chooses a path that is at first horrifying and then, to the reader, more horrifying still as consorting with the devil becomes more normal.

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