Summary Judgment: The Island of the Day Before, The Salterton Trilogy, and The Brief History of the Dead

“Summary Judgment” is a new and occasional feature not unlike the “Books Briefly Noted” section in the New Yorker.

* The more I read of Eco, the more I think of him as an author of extremes in terms of accomplishment: his great books have the shock, astonishment, inevitably, and beauty that make them great, while his weaker ones can descend into bland self-parody or simple boredom. The Island of the Day Before rests firmly in the latter camp. Like Robert Penn Warren or Melville, Eco’s best novels, like The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, more than excuse The Island of the Day Before. In this case, Amazon’s 448 used copies of the hardcover edition are available starting at $0.01 for a very good reason.

The unnamed “I” narrating the Island of the Day Before says that Roberto, a man cast on a dream-like abandoned ship in the mid-seventeenth century; Roberto is about to explore the dream ship, and on the verge of his exploration we are interrupted:

Or, rather, he does not set out at once. I must crave indulgence, but it is Roberto who, in telling this to the Lady, contradicts himself—an indication that he does not tell in complete detail what has happened to him, but instead tries to construct his letter like a story or, more, like a sketch for what could become both letter and story, and he writes without deciding what things he will select later; he drafts, so to speak, the pieces of his chessboard without immediately establishing which to move and how to deploy them.

Eco is describing the author’s troubles here, but its self-consciousness is more irritating than enlightening: save such disquisitions for literary essays rather than literature, where action should propel the reader to care before metaphysical blathering lulls him to sleep. It’s an intensely annoying affectation that continues throughout at least the first hundred pages. Who is the Lady ostentatiously mentioned? By midway through the novel, when I gave up, we hadn’t learned, and she remained a cloying illusive presence. Some novels use the layered story structure well—including The Name of the Rose, Heart of Darkness, William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, and some of John Barth’s novels—but The Island of the Day Before among them.

You can find good explanations of what Eco is attempting in Barth’s The Friday Book and Further Fridays, and when the explanation is better than the specific work of art manifesting a phenomenon, you know that work of art—in this case a novel—has failed its greatest test: to make you feel. If the ghost ship interruptions had been removed and the sections about Roberto streamlined into something more conventional but, for this material, probably more appropriate, I think The Island of the Day Before would’ve worked much better.

* I re-read Robert Davies’ The Salterton Trilogy, which tended to reinforce my initial impression of it being the least of his works, though still quite good. He doesn’t really find his legs until the second half of A Mixture of Frailties, the novel in which provincial Canadian Monica Gall ends up in England, discovering what art she had and how to free herself through music. She’s the most developed character in the trilogy, and if she is at times more passive than she should be, it’s at least forgivable.

The other two novels are mixed: the first, Tempest-Tost, is clever but has a tendency to interrupt the main story too often for elaborate backstory on characters, and this kind of thing is much more organic in The Deptford Trilogy. With Tempest-Tost, a community theater—er, excuse me, theatre—is performing The Tempest, which unleashes mini teapot tempests among many members of its conniving cast, most notably the floppy, self-satisfied math teacher Hector Mackilwraith, a man who is about forty but, as one character, says: “Spiritually—if one may use the word of Hector—he’s been seventy for years.” For that reason he’s one of the more interesting characters, a study in premature maturity. That he doesn’t realize it makes him officious, hilarious and pathetic at the same time. There’s a great speech about Mackilwraith that’s somewhat misplaced and also indicative of the novel’s problems:

I think it’s [I leave the “it” blank intentionally] the logical outcome of his education and the sort of life he has led. He’s vulgar. I don’t mean just that he wears awful suits and probably eats awful food: I mean that he has a crass soul. He thinks that when his belly is full and his safe, he’s got the world by the tail. He has never found out anything about himself, so how can he know anything about other people. The condition of the vulgarian is that he never expects anything good or bad that happens to him to be the result of his own personality; he always thinks it’s Fate, especially if it’s bad. The only people who make any sense in the world are those who know that whatever happens to them has its roots in what they are.

All of that is true, but it’s also somewhat awkward to have long, play-like soliloquies spout from characters in novels like . If this were an isolated example, one could let it pass, but the whole The Salterton Trilogy is filled with them. Davies’ later work has similar long commentaries, but they’re better integrated with the characters’ personalities and with the plot. This one is particularly noticeable because the sentiment expressed is interesting, but it’s easy to pass it as the scene it’s embedded in goes from person to person, each of whom diagnoses Mackilwraith’s psychological problems. Still, The Salterton Trilogy is fun, but read The Deptford Trilogy and the Cornish Trilogy first, both of which show Davies’ powers at their zenith.

* Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead isn’t so much a narrative as a series of vignettes about two worlds: that of the living, which has been swept by a plague that’s a convenient but not overly ostentatious metaphor for corporate greed (“The ice cap was already melting, after all, pouring into the ocean by the tankerload, and the corporation might as well take advantage of it while they still could”) and zombification, while the other follows an almost pastoral city world or holding chamber for those heading from one zone—life—to another, which is left to the reader’s imagination.

It’s a clever set up, but one narrative thread should have predominated over the other; the switchbacks make it feel too dead, too abstract, like the world of the dead who are stuck in their strange city. Although there’s space for anti-corporate screeds in novels, this one is particularly blatant. Coca Cola is, if not the bad guy, then at least a vector for the bad guy, implying that Coca Cola executives are, if not evil in and of themselves, are at least the somewhat witting agents of evil. Save it for your alt-weekly column and give us more story and less ideology.

* Mordechai Richler’s St. Urbain’s Horseman remains mostly confusion around page 100, but it doesn’t have quite the amusement needed to propel me to read on. The novel lacks a discernible backbone running through, while the tedium of continuing to track what, if anything, is happening outweighs the pleasure of occasional jokes. It’ll remain shelved next to Barney’s Version because it feels like it might have buried promise that I’ve yet to unearth.

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