Sunday, May 1, 2011

"The Northern Clemency" by Philip Hensher

Henry James said that the novel is a loose, baggy monster.  His novels may be baggy, but they are not loose.  Like an infinitely intricate puzzle, all the pieces of his novels fit together precisely.  There are just so many pieces!  Philip Hensher's "The Northern Clemency" is indeed a loose, baggy monster; unfortunately not all the pieces fit, despite the first line reappearing in the last paragraph like a cinch around the neck of a sack.

I often choose novels that are short-listed for the Booker Prize, as this one was, because they are almost always a good read, as this one is.   While Hensher's style is not distinctive, it is accomplished and moves along without unnecessary flourishes yet is not simplistic.  His attention to physical detail is precise and abundant, without devolving into gratuitous description for its own sake.  Hensher is a good writer, and I have no doubt we shall see more of him, but I have one quibble.  As a method actor might ask, what's the motivation?  Morton Densher wants to marry the dying Millie Theale so he can inherit her fortune and marry the penniless woman he loves.  Isabel Archer marries the odious Gilbert Osmond because she wants to rescue his motherless daughter.  "Clemency" is filled with compelling set-pieces that rise and fall from the surface of the novel like a spotlight searching out one actor after another, but to my mind these stories within the story do not connect organically.  I fail to perceive any cause and effect in what the characters do.  It is possible to read this novel with interest yet finish it with no clear idea why it went where it did.  Why does Timothy keep snakes?  Why does Sandra/Alex move to Australia, never to return?  Is it only her stroke that makes Alice believe her husband Bernie made a suicide pact with her, or is there some deeper undercurrent in their relationship that remains unexplored?  Why does Malcolm leave Katherine?  Why does he return?  Why is Francis so gormless and disconnected?

I am  tempted to compare Hensher to Jonathan Franzen, who has been criticized for the shallowness of his characters and the banality of their lives.  Hensher's characters are certainly shallow, their lives indistinguishable from others like them in their Sheffield neighborhood.  It is a photograph without shadows, where Franzen's shadows contain ideas and observations that provoke thought and ring true.  James said there are two kinds of knowledge: discovery and recognition.  A novel has the potential to discover novelty, but it doesn't have to in order to have weight.  What I look for in a novel is recognition--of a truth newly brought to light, of a human motive that I share or can imagine sharing, of an idea worth contemplating.  The dark tides of a marriage, a father's love for an impossible son, the temptation to do good by committing a crime--these scenarios promise an examination of human nature, not just the surfaces of behavior but the causes that underlie them. 

Ultimately, a novel is not like real life; it is an artifact, a simulacrum, a composed observation of the things real life contains.  We read novels--at least I do--in order to have questions about personality as well as action answered.  It may be that by their acts you shall know characters, but it is by getting inside them that you will achieve enlightenment.