Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Julia Glass - The Whole World Over

I accept I must be missing something with Julia Glass’s The Whole World Over. It is fairly universally highly regarded and yet it fails to do anything for me.

It is, at heart, a study of relationships, in particular that of a couple, Greenie and Alan, ten years married and with a four year old son. It deals with those moments, those decisions which shape our lives, both those in our control and those outside it. To that end, it invokes the ultimate in unbidden moments, the 9/11 attacks, as a dramatic device with which to develop the action. This has been widely admired and applauded but, to me, it feels insubstantial and unsuccessful.

Greenie is a chef whose culinary skills come to the attention of the governor of New Mexico. He immediately offers her a position as his personal chef, which requires her to move from New York to Santa Fe. She is a Greenwich Village liberal and he is a right-winger – cue hackneyed, dull and pointless ‘debate’ about abortion – and she has a husband and child in New York, but she agrees to take the job. From such decisions lives are changed. Her relationship with her therapist husband, already strained, comes under severe pressure. He becomes resentful of her success and refuses to join her in Santa Fe, despite running down his own list of clients. In Santa Fe, Greenie meets a face from the past, a shy, decent lawyer with whom she has unfinished romantic business which now inevitably flares up again. Meanwhile, Alan still feels guilt over a one-night stand five years before, which may or may not have resulted in his fathering a second son. (Children and procreation are major themes of this novel.) Thus, as the story reaches its climax the question is whether or not Greenie and Alan will separate.

Running alongside this narrative are a serious of subplots featuring a variety of characters, some of whom are more successful than others. Some appear to be hangovers from her first novel, like the Scottish bookseller, and it may be that familiarity with that novel would help, because here the character, described by some reviewers as ‘central’, feels extraneous to me. The inter-relationships of these various characters gradually become revealed but not, for me at any rate, in any cohesive manner. Glass is clearly trying to suggest how inter-connected we all are, this human breed, and how vulnerable we remain, and how, sometimes, random acts of kindness and thoughtfulness can transform lives, as well as acts of chance or ill-will. This is an honorable theme, but I don’t honestly feel it comes off here. The characters and plotlines don’t cohere. There are characters who I still cannot really place and whose role in the novel seems wholly unclear. The only character who genuinely engages is Saga, a young woman still recovering from a catastrophic brain injury as a result of being hit by a fallen tree branch some years before which has resulted in memory loss and confusion. She is a delightful character and, since Glass clearly returns to old characters in subsequent novels, I would dearly like to read something devoted entirely to her.

But it is the decision to include the 9/11 attacks in the novel which most seriously undermines it. I think the problem is that, although there are the minor moments and decisions and actions of daily life which bring some of the characters together, it is not until the intrusion of the 9/11 motif that the full integration of the characters becomes clear. But this does not happen until well into the final fifth of a five-hundred page novel. As with the attacks themselves, this plot device comes out of a clear blue sky. And just as, in real life, that day felt too much, like a hideous mistake, so it feels unsatisfying in this novel. Ordinary life isn’t tidy, and little and major tragedies abound. Things happen out of nothing. Fate intervenes. Randomness abounds. But – at least, not since Thomas Hardy tortured poor, darling Tess – this does not make for decent literature.

I appreciate that I’m in danger of talking myself into Coetzee territory here, which is something I generally criticise. I don’t like novels where everything is tightly connected and any single piece of action or conversation appears to need to work on multiple levels. But here there is no apparent thematic connection at all, other than that life is random and the choices we make can have unanticipated consequences. The 9/11 attack just happens here. There is no context. There is no history, or politics, or attempt at understanding. Perhaps the author is saying this is how it affected the American people, who are notoriously inward-looking, but it is not really an acceptable answer. The fact that Glass herself has a character observing the attack and blaming the “A-rabs” tends to dilute the argument. (And the child’s ghastly conflating of the names of Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein as ‘Ossadam’ was a clever-clever contrivance too far, especially since Glass then goes on to explain exactly what she has just done – ‘out of the mouths of babes and innocents’ – in case we’re too thick to figure it out for ourselves.) The point is that, for good or ill, the 9/11 attacks may have come out of a clear blue sky, but they were not entirely without forewarning. But in this novel the plot twist of 9/11 feels pointless. For this to work as a novel, the attack would have had to be threaded in more carefully through the preceding narrative. It would need to have a meaning, in the novel as well as in real life.It doesn’t and, therefore, in purely literary terms the novel fails.

And, too, as an examination of 9/11 and how it has affected America, it achieves precisely nothing. The novel does avoid the usual 9/11 cliches but, because it occurs purely as a random act of malevolence, it says precisely nothing about its impact on the American psyche. All that has happened here is that a domestic drama has been framed by an international event. It is difficult to say which, as a result, is trivialised more.

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