Wednesday, August 05, 2009

David Guterson - The Other

John William Barry, the protagonist of David Guterson’s novel, The Other, is the latest in a long line of disturbed, super-intelligent young men who drop out of education, drop out of society, seek a new way of living, see things differently from other mortals. It’s a fairly well-worn idea, this one of the ‘other’, the character who has an other-wordly aura. Think of Demian, for example; and a particularly apt comparison that happens to be, because’s Hesse’s novel played with ideas of gnosticism, which is in turn the driving force for John William’s retreat from civilization into a cave he hews out of a limescale cliff with his own hands.

John William is the reluctant heir to a banking and timber fortune, who early in the novel is seen to endure a chaotic, unhappy childhood (important this, remember it for the ending) which he mitigates by breaking free of a system in which, as he describes it, ‘the stuff they teach you at school is just so they can own you.’ And so he drops acid, smokes doe, goes on expeditions into the wilderness with no map nor provisions, all the while spouting gobbets of gnostic theory to his long-suffering companion, the novel’s narrator, Neil Countryman. Neil describes the gradual process of John William’s alienation, how he buys a mobile home to live in the wilderness and disappears from society so he can carve out his cave in peace. Neil even helps out from time to time and, ultimately, he conspires with John William to fake his disappearance into Mexico so that the authorities (or his parents) will no longer seek to find him and bring him back to a society he has by now completely rejected.

Meanwhile, John William’s increasing isolation is contrasted with Neil’s assimilation into society – wife, children, career, the accoutrements of ‘normality’. Even so, he never forgets his friend, nor fails to offer him support, while not, it seems, quite coming to understand the restless, gnawing sense of alienation which has overcome him. And nor does the reader, sadly, because for all John William’s expositions on gnostic theory, it never quite convinces. How many men (mostly men, it must be said) go through this sense of bewildered otherness in their formative years? Most of them, though – nearly all – come through the other side, gain some experience of life, lose some idealism, reconcile themselves to the facts of ordinary existence. But not John Wlliam, whose total rejection of all vestiges of civilization is so extreme as to be close to absurd. The conclusion of the novel seeks to provide some additional justification for his position, building on his painful childhood (remember that? I told you it was important) but this, sadly, is easily the weakest part of the book.

All of this sounds negative, and that is unfortunate because there is, as ever, much to admire in Guterson’s novel. His prose is beautiful – rhythmic and fluent – and the portrayal of the platonic love between the two main characters is finely drawn. But too much of the plot and, in particular, the motivations, feels slight. The gnosticism, too, feels tacked on, as though to provide a veneer of exotic otherness. And it doesn’t help that Guterson also plays with gnostic ideas, presenting us with Neil and John William, doubles, alter egos, light and dark, a typically gnostic conceit and then, in a case of de trop, presents Neil’s girlfriend (later wife) and her mentally ill sister, another gnostic doubling. It all begins too feel arch and, to work properly, the gnosticism needed to remain with John William, not invade the fabric of Neil’s thoughts too.

However, it is a fascinating read and if they pay-off feels a tad slight, Guterson pulls you relentlessly along on the journey.


Anonymous said...

Hi Tom Conoboy: I just finished in one day "The Other" - couldn't stop..... I have a question mainly to ask you re his narrative details.... I lived in Seattle for 20 years, and now live out in the Olympic Peninsula near Forks, etc. and am familiar with all the "places" of the book....the Hoh River is one of my most sacred spots... I found the book disturbing and suspenseful, but mostly, I was amazed at the photographic detailing, the minutiae of his descriptions of locations, book stores, eateries, in Seattle.... It was hard for me to distance myself from believing that this was nearly autobiographical.... (one of my kids went to Lakeside.... etc.) The descriptions of Laurelhurst... Seattle as a microcosm of our society's excesses and contrasted with the purity of the mountains and wilderness.... but the intricacy of details were almost bothersome...either laborious constructs or meaningful contrivances.... You read it from afar - what's your take? I like your blog - will read more in detail... BUT I disagree about Flannery O'Connor.... I wish I could write something like "A Good Man ....etc." Thanks for your great work..... Sylvia (77 YO retiree)

Tom Conoboy said...

Thanks Sylvia.

An interesting question. I was certainly aware, as I read the novel, that the landscape was beautifully described. Not knowing the area, I didn't realise that it was so accurate, but I'm not surprised. It didn't jar for me at all, though I can see how it might for you, being so well acquainted with it.

It seems to me there is a very strong strain of naturalist, realist writing about environmentalist issues at the moment, in which nature is amplified until it is almost a character in its own right. Marilynne Robinson has described it as cosmic realism. I think Guterson is an example of this type of writing: Snow falling on cedars was also intensely descriptive of place.

O'Connor - yes, I wish I could write something like A Good Man as well. O'Connor is one of three writers (McCarthy and Coetzee are the others) with whom I have a love-hate relationship. I think she is a brilliant writer, especially her short stories. But I just wish she had allowed them to think for themselves a bit more.