Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dresden, Tennessee by Carolyn Slaughter

Dresden, Tennessee by Carolyn Slaughter, is an ambitious psychological study of memory and guilt, both inherited and assumed, and what happens to private grief when public moments intrude. It’s certainly a brave novelist who would use the bombing of Dresden as their moral and historical backdrop after Kurt Vonnegut’s use of it for Slaughterhouse-5, although Dresden, Tennessee is entirely different in tone and approach from Kilgore’s masterpiece.

Kurt Altman is a man in crisis. He is a second-generation German immigrant whose mother was trapped in Dresden during its carpet-bombing by the British at the end of the Second World War. Kurt has suffered catastrophic memory loss and is prone to panic attacks. On a plane to Memphis he finds himself beside a woman who, in those fortuitous circumstances which only attend in fiction, is also a second-generation German immigrant and an expert in psychology. Even more fortuitously, she quickly develops an attraction to Kurt.

This sounds flippant, and in a way it’s meant to. Dresden, Tennessee is a good book, dealing with worthwhile subject matter, but the central details of its plot are ridiculously slight. It’s all too pat, too plotted, too contrived. Not only is Hannah German, she’s a German Jew, so able to both empathise with and analyse Kurt’s inherited guilt over his Nazi father. Not only is she a psychologist, she is a business psychologist, trained to spot fraudsters and psychopaths in business: and Kurt, we discover, was in business in his previous life, so she is doubly adept at analysing his troubles. On other words, she can understand him in every way. She is him turned inside out. If only life worked like this: if only, for every broken, frightened, damaged yin there was a dynamic, understanding, complementary yang just waiting to conjoin with it and lead it out of crisis and into salvation. If only every psychotic episode by every mentally ill person could not only be accepted, not only be understood, not only be helped, but actually be used in order to bring that person into the loving embrace of human companionship, then the world would be a beautiful place. But that isn’t the case. Mentally ill people are too frequently ignored, avoided, viewed with fear, disgust, incomprehension. In truth, Hannah would have run a mile from Kurt the moment they descended from the plane in Memphis. She certainly wouldn’t have ended up in his loving embrace within hours and, because of that, there would have been no novel. And, despite Dresden, Tennessee’s strengths, it cannot overcome that fundamental flaw.

Because this is fiction, so Herr Yin and Fraulein Yang travel through the outer reaches of Kurt’s psychosis in search of truth. What is the catastrophic event he is burying beneath this amnesiac episode? What is the linkage with the fate of his mother in Dresden? How is it that Kurt has come, in the words of one character, “to be carrying some of his mother’s history”? The novel is entirely readable, thoroughly enjoyable and, as it progresses, it develops a dreamlike connection between the past and the present which works most effectively. Indeed, when it is rooted in fable the novel is at its most engaging. It is in its presentation of reality that it misfires.

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