Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Nick McDonell - The Third Brother

Nick McDonell is twenty-one years old. The Third Brother, his second novel, is remarkably assured and well written. It’s inevitable that this sounds patronising, but nonetheless I think it’s a point worth making. It would be easy to focus on the faults of this book and underestimate its strengths, and I think that would be an injustice to a writer who I believe has tremendous qualities. The Third Brother is uneven: the first section is relatively weak and the third becomes a touch too obscure, but the main second section, which depicts the 9/11 attacks, is extraordinarily good, easily the best depiction of those events that I’ve so far come across.

The first part, which I believe to be integral to an understanding of the later depiction of 9/11, intersperses the contemporary visit of a young man, Mike, to the seedy drug- and prostitute-ridden parts of stoner-tourist Bangkok with scenes from his early childhood. Mike is working as an intern for a friend of his father from Harvard days, Elliott Analect, and is asked to go to Bangkok, ostensibly to write up the stoner experience for Analect’s travel magazine in Hong Kong, but primarily to find another of his father’s and Elliott’s friends, Christopher Dorr, who has fallen out of contact with the world. Dorr, Analect and Mike’s father formed a youthful triumvirate, self-styled ‘three brothers’ who, along with Mike’s mother and Dorr’s sister, formed a close-knit group. Their experiences, largely sexual and revolving around the two women, grow increasingly dark as the first section progresses.

Unfortunately, the whole Bangkok set-up in this section feels thoroughly implausible. Initially the action is subdued and, frankly, uninteresting to anyone but aspirant stoner kids reading it as travelogue. The darkness, when it comes, feels cartoonish because the narrative hasn’t set us up for such drama. This is particularly the case with the ludicrous Heart of Darkness type meeting with Christopher Dorr, who is revealed as a kind of Kurtz character, ensconced among the natives (he even says ‘I walked into the jungle’) and chatting gnomically to Mike while, in the background, a dog is giving birth to puppies that then suffocate in their own afterbirth. In the end, I am still at a loss as to what the author was trying to suggest by this scene. The character never reappears.

What works much more satisfyingly in this section is the depiction of Mike’s childhood. His parents are baby boomer liberals, and McDonell drops several hints about the way they bring up their children and the impact this has on them. It is clear that this is a dysfunctional household, with the parents arguing violently and the mother a drunk and the father on sleeping pills. When Lyle is arrested for urinating in public, his father worries only that the experience might have scared him. His mother smiles. ‘Don’t worry,’ she tells Lyle. ‘Your father went to jail for drunk driving last night.” And so, it transpires, did she, because of her belligerent response to her husband’s arrest.

Lyle, in particular, seems troubled by their lifestyle, and his problems grow as the story unfolds. He manages to burn his face with a bottle rocket, he smashes a mirror and runs away for two days, and never reveals what happened. One senses that trouble awaits him. And so it does.

Finally, while Mike is still in Hong Kong, Lyle is the only survivor of a terrible fire which destroys the family house and kills their parents. He is badly burned and suffers post traumatic stress disorder, in which he invents a ‘third brother’, an evil sibling who he blames for the fire. This event forms the bridge between the first and second sections of the novel and it is at this point that it truly to life.

The main narrative of the second section occurs during the attacks on the World Trade Center. Both Mike and Lyle are in New York, and Mike is searching desperately for his ill brother. This section is tautly written, in sparse language with minimal detail, and yet it gets to the heart of the madness of that day. There was basic goodness – New Yorkers famously pulled together and helped one another – but there was also (understandable) selfishness – Mike at one stage leaves a man who has been knocked down and has broken his leg, although they cannot reach 911 to contact an ambulance, because he needs to track down his brother. He eventually makes contact and they meet up and return home but, on this day of global tragedy, further personal tragedy awaits them.

The final section, effectively a short coda, is ambitious but ultimately doesn’t quite work. It tries to get into the psyche of Mike, who has been much damaged by the death of his parents and the events of 9/11, and is an interesting examination of twenty-first century angst, but in the end style triumphs over narrative and it falls into an elliptical, opaque collage of moods and emotions through which it is impossible to attain any sense of empathy. It falls into a cod mysticism that it appears to be, at once, embracing and satirising. It is not quite clear what the author is trying to say. Take, for example, this soliloquizing conversation in the head of Mike:

“I want that girl,” I said.
Will you go to church with her?
It’s not important, to believe in God or not.
“I know.”
It’s no longer an abstract question. If you want that girl you have to go to church.
“I can’t go to church. I don’t believe in church.”
You can follow her on Sunday morning.

No matter how often I read that, I cannot work out precisely what it is trying to say. And that is a shame, because I think this novel is straining to say something interesting.

However, it remains a good novel, and the depiction of 9/11, in particular, is excellent. Where it succeeds over other attempts to depict 9/11 is that it attempts to map some context. Some previous efforts, for example Julia Glass’s The Whole World Over or Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (apart from the misjudged ‘terrorist’ interludes) have effectively ignored the context and simply used it as a backdrop for domestic dramas. Others, like Stephen McAuley’s Alternatives to Sex, try to establish some moral context but end up with nothing more than glib ‘aren’t we corrupt, aren’t we terrible’ navel gazing.

Here, McDonell uses the first section of the book in two interesting ways. Firstly, the depictions of Bangkok, although ultimately trite, do seek to examine the issue of American-induced global homogeneity and the importing of American beliefs and behaviours to countries around the world. (Transcendental spiritualism, for example, is bastardised into a cheap ‘yoof experience’.) However, McDonell doesn’t moralise – not much, anyway – and his occasional barbed comment about American culture feels reasonably in context and not shoehorned into the text.

Secondly, and probably more interestingly, in the depiction of the baby boomer generation and the children they bring up, McDonell makes some telling observations about the nature of American society. Mike’s parents, sixties liberals, die (possibly) because ‘the Ambien and whiskey’ made them such heavy sleepers they slept through the fire. Their response to Lyle’s arrest is shockingly complacent. Their Christmas presents to the boys are a guitar from “Robert Johnson” or a camera from “Margaret Burke White” rather than from Mom or Dad or Santa. But the result of such liberalism is two boys, and Lyle in particular, who are deeply unsettled. Whether or not one agrees with McDonell’s prognosis of the effects of sixties liberalism, it is refreshing to see them, and American culture, examined liked this.

And this is important, because aspects of globalisation, of the homogenisation of society, of American self-satisfaction and western permissiveness are pertinent to any study of 9/11. McDonell has brought these into his novel in a clever, organic way. Some of the thoughts of the central character are a trifle didactic, a touch overblown, but nothing like as much as other 9/11 novels, some of which appear to evince what can only be described as a deep self-hatred. Overall McDonell has found a way of dealing with the context of 9/11 which is far more successful than DeLillo or Foer or anyone else I have so far read. It conflates the global and the personal in a satisfying way, and through the prism of each, the intensity of the other is increased. This is a novelist with a bright future.

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