Monday, August 25, 2008

An Ambitious Work for an Ambitious Nation

Thoughts on Ethan Canin’s America America.

Ethan Canin’s latest novel, America America, is the story of a political campaign interweaved gracefully with the stories of some of the American lives touched by it. The theme of the book, America, a nation both blessed and troubled by its history, is conveyed through a narrative of expansive range, a story that juxtaposes the personal and intimate with the impersonal and sweeping, and in the process closely examines the connective tissue between the two.

This is, if nothing else, an ambitious book. It touches an aristocratic family’s rags-to-riches beginnings in the 19th century, a chain of defining events in the politically turbulent early 1970s, and the present itself, against which these past events are reflected. Canin’s use of this well-worn technique is impeccable: the older man, given time and impetus to review and reconsider, and lacking the energy for vigorous living, recounts a story from his youth, a time imbued with dynamic change and action—and, of course, a profound string of events. This, I think—this use of time as both a frame for the events of the story and an emotional construct—is where Canin takes his biggest risk. He challenges us, here, to engage fully in the 19th century Scottish emigration and the stormy politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s, while at the same time identifying closely, in the present day, with the narrator/protagonist Corey Sifter, a modern man: a husband, father, newspaper editor, and mentor. His enticements are flowing prose and deep characterizations, both of which are compelling, but dependent in the end on the story as the final, irresistible draw.

Within each timeframe, Canin creates characters who effectively portray the many dimensions of America, what one recent presidential candidate has called “two Americas,” but what Canin shows us so clearly is actually a multi-colored tapestry, an infinite number of Americas, a unique country, in fact, for each and every one of us. The characters start with Eoghan Metarey, the first-generation immigrant who used guile and ruthlessness, rather than book learning, to amass the fortune that made later events possible. Then there is his son, Liam Metarey, the conflicted modern-day patriarch around whom the central tragedies of the story revolve. In the political middle frame of the story, the 1972 presidential campaign, there are Corey, a coming-of-age youth and protégé of Liam Metarey, the patriarch’s prescient wife June Metarey, the charismatic and fatally flawed senator and presidential candidate Henry Bonwiller, JoEllen Charney, his ill-fated mistress, the compliant yet wise columnist Glen Burrant, Corey’s loving working-class parents Grange and Anna Sifter, the next-door neighbor Eugene McGowar, and the Metarey daughters Christian and Clara. Many of these characters also play a role in the present day, but the central characters here are Corey, now a newspaper editor, his intern and mentee Trieste Millbury, and his wife, father, and Mr. McGowar. Remarkably, almost all of these characters are brought into nearly every part of the book, creating a weave of character arcs that connect with each other and with the larger arc of the story in sometimes subtle and sometimes profound ways. In two examples, Canin ties Corey’s own daughters to the unfortunate fate of JoEllen Charney, herself a daughter of loving parents (pp. 317–330), and he brings out the wisdom of the working men, Grange Sifter and Eugene McGowar, in a scene late in the book that exposes a joke on the robber baron Eoghan Metarey (pp. 434–436). In this last scene, he even uses the young Trieste Millbury as a vehicle, adding yet another strand to the weave.

The primary risk of such an ambitious timescale and range of characters, is that the story will drag, and frankly, for some people this one will. Canin’s prose style is anything but spare. I have heard him say of editing and trimming, “I just can’t do it.” He finds the writing itself so “excruciating,” he said, that he couldn’t even imagine going back through the text to revise it. (We in the audience didn’t press him on this question, so were left wondering whether his published books are all first-draft material, or if not, who it is that does the editing and trimming. A question, perhaps, for another appearance.) So if your tastes tend toward the likes of Hornby or Eggars, this book might not be for you. But if you are a person like me, who at the age of twelve sat glued to each and every hour of the televised Watergate hearings, and who regularly pores over volumes of historical nonfiction both large and small, this book will serve you as a lengthy and quiet pleasure. (And, just for the record, I also enjoy the likes of Hornby and Eggars.)

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

After the Fact I – The New Yorker Cover

Random thoughts on topics that have long since been flushed from the news cycles.

It’s just over one month since the flap ignited over the July 21 New Yorker magazine cover that depicted Barack Obama as a Bin Laden–worshipping Muslim and his wife Michelle as an AK-47–toting Al Quaeda insurgent. Admittedly, this is old news, but that’s what “After the Fact” is all about: I get to ruminate on something for weeks before positing an opinion. (Pssst. If you start your own blog, you can do the same thing!)

When I think about the flap over the cover, I get a little pissed off, as I’m sure a lot of living, breathing, thinking people out there do. But as I have thought about this, anger has evolved into its more rational antecedent, regret, and I have found myself distracted by two regrets in particular.

The first—and this is probably obvious—is that the flap occurred at all. I regret that because I first heard about the cover on the radio—long before I had actually received my copy of the New Yorker, seen the cover for myself, and experienced a reaction that would have been pure, unfettered, and uninfluenced by the likes of PBS reporters, talk radio hosts and callers, and above all, cable news “correspondents.” Now all I can do is claim to have found the cover hard-hitting, but in no way offensive; to have been amused by it in the same way NPR commentator Daniel Schorr was, according to his comments on the July 19th Weekend Edition program:

I saw it, my wife saw it, we looked at it and we thought, wo, that’s quite a parody on conservative views of Obama and his wife and all the rest of it…and we thought it was alright as satire, if you will, and then we began hearing things on cable television and all over and all of a sudden there were people up in arms over it…
Schorr goes on to say, “I guess what it shows is that we are in a state where you can’t afford to use satire because people will take you literally and get mad.” And, unfortunately, if that anger (or, one might say, stupidity) gets spread in the media, independent thought becomes the casualty. So I don’t know whether I’m responding to the cover or the flap over it, but in the end I couldn’t be more delighted that someone finally struck hard at the “Obama/Osama” idiocy that has all-too-easily found a toehold in the national discourse. I mean, sometimes you just have to stop coddling the stupid people—people like Ivan Stickles, a carpenter from Hopewell, PA, who was quoted in today’s national edition of the New York Times. Stickles referred to false rumors that Barack Obama did not shake hands with U.S. troops on his recent trip to Afghanistan:

“There’s this e-mail that he [Obama] didn’t shake hands with the troops,” Mr. Stickles said of the false rumor. “I don’t have time to check out if it’s true, but if it is, it’s very offensive.”
Stickles was interviewed in his driveway, where he’d been working on his motorcycle. Apparently the motorcycle and the spam e-mail he gets are more important to him than pesky little irritations like truth and accuracy.

That same Times article quoted another rank-and-file Pennsylvanian, George Timko, who illustrates my second regret about the New Yorker cover:
Mr. Timko is a burly fellow, with close-cropped white hair and a Fu Manchu mustache, and a gold necklace that rests on his bare chest. “Barack Obama makes me nervous,” said Mr. Timko, a 65-year-old retiree with a garden hose in hand. “Who is he? Where’d he come from?”
Now Timko may not be the kind of voter who would normally read the New Yorker (to say nothing of the two detailed autobiographies Obama has written), but if he had picked up the July 21 issue and looked beyond the cover, his questions would have been answered. Because while the media was burning news cycles talking every which way about the cover, another much more important Obama-related feature, Ryan Lizza’s article “Making It – How Chicago shaped Obama,” was going largely unnoticed. The article, a thoroughly researched and masterfully written account of how Obama crafted his unlikely and meteoric rise through the Chicago political machine, paints for Timko (and anyone else who isn’t too busy working on his motorcycle to read) a riveting picture of a young, ambitious community organizer who expertly and carefully created an image—in fact, some might say, a brand—that catapulted him not only into the Illinois State Senate, but also into the United States Senate, and if all goes according to plan, into the White House. It’s a top-flight piece of journalism in an era when the entire profession is in tatters. So because we were so all-fired paranoid about possibly offending people who are too stupid to see satire as satire, a real account with real information and real insight into the man Barack Obama has become, insight that can help us make informed choices about how to cast our votes, passed by with nary a whisper. (It’s still there, though, so take a hint: click here and read it.)