Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams is as good as his novel Reunion is bad. They share some superficial characteristics: both are meditations on the nature of time, both are short, and both strive for depth. The key differences are that Einstein’s Dreams achieves its depth, while Reunion does not; Einstein’s Dreams illuminates the character of Einstein, while Reunion skims Charles, illuminating only the fundamental banality of his existence; Einstein’s Dreams makes us ponder the nature of time, while Reunion makes us ponder why we’re reading this novel.

In buying it I made two mistakes: I didn’t read the first page and I relied solely on the author’s previous reputation. The first three sentences might’ve spared me the six bucks:

Sheila lies on top of me, snoring, her heavy breasts heavy on my chest, her stomach on my stomach, her hair damp in the afternoon heat, a shard of light through the white shutters she closes when we make love, the slow beat of the overhead fan, the tiny sound of a radio from the street. I too am falling asleep.
I fly above mountains, dizzy, frightened.

What isn’t wrong here? I’m not sure—maybe that the sentences are easily parsed. The wrongness piles up: the weird repetition of the word “heavy,” the mere description of breasts as “heavy,” which is as much a cliché as “pendulous,” the next several clichés (“damp in the afternoon heat” and a “shard of light”), the awkward time shift inherent in telling us of the “white shutters she closes when we make love,” indicating that the event happened previously, and a generic scene that’s been described in thousands of novels and filmed in thousands of movies. “Light” and “white” are jarring slant rhymes. The idea of flying in dreams or reveries is equally hackneyed, and as a metaphor for time passing it fails.

I’m willing to continue. But the clichés of thought and language continue too, as when Charles tells us:

Just the other day I was reading some article about the relativity of values. I mention this because it applies directly to the question of the Honduran hurricane victims on TV. Even if they are not mere electronic data points, those people are not nearly as bad off as they seem.

Right: the people are far away and only presented on TV, and therefore aren’t as real. See, e.g., The Matrix (link goes to a fascinating New Yorker essay), Philip K. Dick, and too many others. The theme continues a few pages later when a hippie turned general is described here:

The Nick on TV wasn’t any more real than the Gulf War itself, a made-for-TV war, a video game, another digitized disembodied nothingness like the Honduran hurricane victims, created to sell deodorants and premium beers and cellular phones. On my sixteen-inch television screen, red boxes neatly circumscribed bomb targets.

That’s an easy point of view to take if you’re living in the U.S., but I’m guessing that the soldiers who were there and the civilians living in Iraq didn’t consider themselves digitized disembodied nothingness. The sheer self-indulgence of this “what is reality?” idea is frustrating because it repeats without amplifying or altering one made earlier in the novel. It’s so bad that I almost miss the one bright spot, which is Lightman’s use of the verb “circumscribed” to describe bomb targets, which is both accurate and unusual. Its resonance with the word “circumcised” is also appropriate, given the men in charge of wars whose target is so often other men.

Those are the first few pages. It doesn’t get better.

Reunion is built around an older man going to a college reunion, where he chiefly feels uncomfortable and then slips into a reverie about the girl who slipped away. He remembers their love affair; she might have a tawdry affair with a person in a position of power; the reader wishes that some scenes weren’t worthy of the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Award. In novels, no sex is always preferable to bad sex. As for this novel, you’re better off with John Banville’s The Sea, or almost anything by Ian McEwan, or Proust’s Swann’s Way, or any of the other innumerable novels about an older person remembering his or her affairs. It’s a justly rich and weighty sub-genre, and with so much to choose from, you could do far better.

In short, Reunion serves two related purposes: to show through contrast how good Einstein’s Dreams is and to remind readers who haven’t otherwise heard of that novel to read it instead of and not in addition to Reunion.

Charles Bock in Seattle and Beautiful Children

Charles Bock was more fun to hear speak than to read; alas, I began Beautiful Children with anticipation that went unfulfilled. Problems manifested early: descriptions of video games modeled on Doom sounded vaguely off, and I’ve never seen “hard drives the size of mini-fridges.” Yet I could ignore linguistic problems when I find also find a perfect description of many would-be artists: “He had aspirations to nothing less than the creation of sensitive, artistic, emotionally honest pictures that, just maybe, would get him laid.” In another section, evocations of common ground seem strained, as when the father of lost boy Newell Ewing says that “He got […] trapped in another Politics of Marriage Conversation.” Status is everywhere in Beautiful Children, but more often stated than shown, or shown via consumption. But whenever I was about to stop reading, I’d find something like this:

Propped up against the base of the casino wall like an abandoned doll, the body was bulky in places, but still frail enough to look as if it might be carried along by a good wind. Electricity glossed over its mess of hair—kinked and matted strands of indistinct, artificial colors, clumped in all directions.

Er: it’s almost right, but “electricity” feels wrong because it’s not electricity but electric light that illuminates hair. This is a microcosm of Beautiful Children: it feels like it should be more right than it is. Clichés distract—someone “was bleeding like a stuck pig” and elsewhere a stripper named Cheri goes on “about character arcs and emotional journeys until the friggin’ cows came home.” Perhaps this is how the character would think, but the problem of how banal, uneducated characters think and speak versus the literary needs of the author is never really resolved*. If teenagers sound like teenagers they’re often boring or vapid; if they sound like adults, they don’t sound real. If there is a satisfactory solution to this problem, it is not obvious in Beautiful Children; in other novels it involves a “precocious” or abnormally literary narrator. Instead, Beautiful Children opts for long transcriptions of teenage argot that eventually had me flipping pages in a quest for substance. It was hard enough to find when a character thinks, “You cannot possibly fathom an end to your observations about the status of your physical decline, a final finality. Such things are beyond you, as they are beyond anyone; and yet the evidence permeates your days, unavoidably present, oozing from the southwestern decor of a master bedroom […]” I can’t see Robertson Davies going into such despair. Perhaps John Banville would, but much more artfully.

Banville and Davies, however, wrote many novels over the course of their careers, and, at least in Davies’ case, his early novels were not as masterful as his later ones. Beautiful Children is a first novel that Bock says took 11 years to write and, presumably, publish, and I can’t help but thinking he would’ve been better served to finish it or have otherwise built his skills elsewhere. Beautiful Children is not a bad novel and perhaps it is even good, but not 11 years good. It has an admirable range of cultural references, from Blake to The Outsiders (a “young adult” novel assigned to me in middle school) to visual media detritus. Like Richard Price’s Ladies’ Man, Beautiful Children heralds better things to come. Now that Price comes to mind, Lush Life covers ground not dissimilar from Beautiful Children and does it better. And he wrote it in four years. Bock said Beautiful Childrentook so long because it was an “ambitious book, and I just didn’t know what I was doing for a lot of it.” Many novels gestate for a long time, and he rattled some off: Catch-22 stayed with me, but there were many others. Alas, I don’t think Beautiful Children will have the lasting power of Catch-22 or Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, another superb first novel. And in those novels, I doubt anything is “unceremoniously rejected,” as something is at the beginning of 3.3 in Beautiful Children.

Bock seems to have better novels in him; in Seattle, he said, “[Beautiful Children is] a dark book, but I believe the darkness is there to illuminate some of the wonderful parts of humanity […] also, I think there’s some pretty good jokes in there too.” There are, and he was wonderfully candid when someone asked why the dialog seemed so good and, by implication, authentic: “I have no idea.” Although he elaborated, I suspect the real truth came first. Still, I’m not sure I agree with the premise of the question: sometimes the dialog clicked and sometimes not, like much of the rest of the novel.

In another answer, Bock said he used Ponyboy because he’s an “iconic young adult character” and that he intentionally “recycles—Vegas is a place where they fake the Eiffel Tower and the great monuments of the world and turn them into casinos.” There is “no end to the uses of pop culture,” though he tries not to name drop. The recycling theme is heavy in Beautiful Children and perhaps a topic for some future graduate student. Today, someone looking for pleasure and depth could do worse than Beautiful Children—but they could do better. In “Books Briefly Noted,” the New Yorker has its own take on the novel’s problems, starting with praise and then moving to: “Yet [Beautiful Children] doesn’t quite achieve its intended emotional resonance; there is too much shaky dialogue and improbable Vegas kitsch (breast implants with candle-wax-filled nipples, for a pyrotechnic striptease), and the boy at the center of the plot is thinly drawn and so obnoxious that his disappearance is not unwelcome.” I read “Books Briefly Noted” after writing the first draft of this post, and realized that I structure my commentary the same way the New Yorker did its.

* The best description of I’ve read of this issue comes from James Wood’s How Fiction Works.

The Wonderful Past

I’ve mentioned Grant Writing Confidential several times recently and will do so once more again, this time because I wrote a post that my father and co-writer there, Isaac Seliger, suggested would be well-suited here as well. He saw the many literary references in The Wonderful Past—to The Name of the Rose, My Name is Red, Plato, and traditional Romance. To be sure, the post focuses on grant writing, but it also illustrates a tendency in literature and culture: idealizing the past or recalling a golden time that may or may not have ever been. Novels like The Name of the Rose wink at this, especially because Adso of Melk lived in 1321 and “wrote” from the perspective of sometime around 1380 – 1400, and the eras he recalled appear ridiculous to modern readers and are distorted by the limits of knowledge then. Nonetheless, this theme is developed seriously in many novels, it’s one that The Lord of the Rings deals with explicitly: the passing of the Elves and their works of great beauty at the end of the Third Age are a time of necessary sorrow. There are many references to fading, passing, and parting, as much of what was fair is subject to one of those fates, but the strength of The Lord of the Rings comes from its mingled sense of hopefulness, necessity, and remembrance, which keep it from becoming morose or sentimental. Its tone is tempered and balanced, with hope present even as the past fades.

Perhaps the most obvious example of an entire book devoted to idealizing the past, especially in comparison to a lessened future, is John Banville in The Sea. I began my commentary on it by noting: “It is not clear what we should take from The Sea.” Almost a year later I’m still not sure what we should take, but its sense of wistfulness over the past is the primary feeling I’ve taken away. As such, I have no good explanation about it, though for a novel that I didn’t love it is often in my thoughts, and I perceive similar themes to lesser or, rarely, greater degrees in so many novels. Yet any explanation I give for it will, I feel, be uncertain or overly speculative at best, but such thoughts about the past remain, and remain noticeable.

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