Monday, December 20, 2010

Double Vision by Pat Barker

Unlike Pat Barker’s horrible/wonderful depiction of war up close in her now famous Regeneration trilogy, her 2003 novel, Double Vision, has its setting far from actual theaters of war, but war and its effects on everyday people are still dominant themes. This novel is set in the English countryside and begins with the story of a sculptor, Kate, who has been commissioned to do a sculpture of Christ, though she is not herself a believer. Kate’s husband, Ben, has recently been killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan where he was on assignment as war reporter. In just the first few pages of the novel, Kate, herself, is badly injured in a road accident. Behind schedule and with a rapidly approaching deadline for completion of the sculpture, she is forced to hire an assistant, and thus begins one of the threads of this rather complex novel. We soon discover that Peter, the newly hired assistant, is more than fascinated with Kate’s work. In fact, he begins to display behavior much like that of a stalker, and this relationship between sculptor and assistant adds an aura of suspense to the entire novel.

Without giving away much of the novel, let me say that there are two other characters central to the story: Stephen Sharkey, a photographer who, like Ben, has covered 9/11 as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Justine, the daughter of the local vicar. Stephen is living in a cabin on land owned by his brother while he attempts to write a book on the role of war reporter and photographer, and Justine is hired by the doctor-brother and his busy career-oriented wife to help with the young children and maintenance of the main house.

Having been a rather close friend to Ben, it is not surprising that Stephen looks up Ben’s widow, Kate, when he finds himself in quite close proximity to her, and they begin a series of discussions on war reporting as well as their relationships with Ben.

Stephen is clearly in limbo, not sure that he wants to continue in his life as photographer of grisly war scenes, but unable to see beyond it. My hunch is that the character of Stephen allows Barker to address what is the central theme for her in this novel: namely, the motivations of war reporters and the role they play. Certainly, being around Kate and talking about her recent loss of Ben stirs up these questions in him, but it is the much younger Justine who asks him the tough questions.
‘You don’t give anybody the benefit of the doubt, do you?’
‘Not often.’
‘The truth is, you’ve been digging around in violence so long you can’t see anything else.’
‘I see you.’
‘Do you?’
Stephen sighed. This was a surprisingly married conversation to be having with a girlfriend. It had the intense acrimonious pointlessness that only comes from long years of cohabitation.
‘Why do you do it?’
She jerked her head at the girl who was talking to camera. ‘That. Be a war correspondent.’
‘Foreign.’ The distinction mattered. He was damned if he was going to call himself after an activity he despised.
‘You covered a helluva lot of wars.’
‘They were there to be covered. I didn’t start them.’
‘You know there’s a Barbara Vine book called A Dark-Adapted Eye? That’s what you’ve got.’
‘Now you’re being silly.’
‘No, I’m not. People get into darkness, to the point where it’s the light that hurts.’
‘OK,’ he said. ‘Why did I do it? Adventure, proving myself, proving I could take it—and once that wore of, which it does, very quickly, being in the know. That sort of thing.’
She was looking at him scornfully.
‘Yeah, OK. I know—pathetic. But why do you think people become doctors? Pure altruism? I don’t think so.’
‘Why then?’
‘Knowledge. Access to secrets. Power.’
‘Not the only reasons.’
‘There are plenty of good reasons for being a war correspondent. Witnessing. Giving people the raw material to make moral judgments.’
‘But you said yourself, the witness turns into an audience, and then you’re not witnessing any more, you’re disseminating.’
While there are many twists and turns to this novel, including a simple and convincing love story, I think Barker mainly wants to talk about wars and about the way they are presented to the so-called folks-back-home. The ways in which television homogenizes and sanctifies war, both by what it shows and what it omits.

I haven’t mentioned just how this novel evolves into a kind of mystery thriller, and I don’t intend to give anything away. But while the plot is interesting and the suspense palpable, it is really war and countries that wage war that is at the heart of Barker’s interest. Let me close with one other quote from the book on a day when Stephen is trying, not very successfully, to get on with his book.
On Friday he’d broken off in the middle of a discussion about the bombardment of Baghdad in 1991—the first war to appear on TV screens as a kind of son et lumiere  display {sound and light show}, the first where the bombardment of enemy forces acquired the bloodless precision of a video game. He’d found it disconcerting at the time, and still did. What happens to public opinion in democracies—traditionally reluctant to wage war—when the human cost of battle is invisible: Of course there was nothing new in strict wartime censorship: it had been imposed in both world wars. But, in the first, nothing could hide the arrival of the telegrams nor, in the second, the explosion of bombs. What had been new about Baghdad and later Belgrade was the combination of censorship with massive, one-sided aerial bombardment so that allied casualties were minimal or non-existent, and ‘collateral damage’ couldn’t be shown. These wars designed to ensure that fear and pain never came home.
I haven’t even mentioned Barker’s analysis of two-career with children families, nor her  beautiful take on why and how good relationships require faith and risks. There is so much in this novel. I’m glad I read it; I hope you will.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Vanishing and Other Stories by Deborah Willis

Once in awhile a writer comes along who is so good that it’s almost startling. Deborah Willis is one such writer, and I would be very surprised if she does not become a very well known and well respected author. Vanishing and Other Stories is her debut book; I would not have guessed this had I not read it on the cover.

All of the stories in this little book are quirky, edgy, sometimes even bordering on sinister, but all are convincing. Sometimes the lead character in a story is a girl or young woman, in others, it is a mature man, but no matter the gender or the age, one instantly believes in the legitimacy of the voice. Alice Munro (whom I consider the greatest living author) says of this fellow Canadian writer: “The emotional range and depth of these stories, the clarity and deftness, is astonishing.” Just so, and the astonishment continues through each story.

It’s always impossible to capture a book by reading a few key passages, but even more difficult (I think) when talking about short fiction. Nevertheless, let me try to describe a couple of the stories and to at least hint at their profundity. In one story, “Escape,” we are introduced to a middle-aged male research doctor whose wife has recently died after a four year struggle with illness. He has no real idea how to live, how to be. The lingering illness and eventual death of his wife has left him rudderless, almost faceless. He has no interest in old friends or his home, and very little even in his work; he spends a lot of his time simply driving in unfamiliar towns looking in on the lives of others. He has the sense that he is slowly disappearing, and is as unconcerned about this as about the rest of his life. Like so many characters in these stories, he is simply, almost painlessly, vanishing.

On one such outing, he drives into the parking lot of a casino in a small town that has very little other than the casino, decides to enter in order to use the urinal, and then drifts to a blackjack table and listlessly gambles for three hours. Though he is not really a gambler and has as little interest in winning as concern at losing, he becomes a regular customer—always seeking out the same table and the same blackjack dealer. “This is how he lived his life now; everything was accidental. Everything was inevitable.” He appreciates that no one there knows him, no one talks to him. “The staff deal with people the way they deal with money: with immunity, without judgment.”

Eventually, he becomes interested in a woman dealer, although interested is too strong a word. He finds her blandness, her indifference, oddly comforting, and in a sense he begins to stalk her. He follows her out into the parking lot when she goes for cigarette breaks, even follows her home one night, though with no real intentions of getting to know her. She refuses to give him her real name, although eventually she begins to talk with him on her breaks, tells him about a past life as a stage magician. She languidly performs card tricks for him, lets him find cards that she has secreted into his wallet or pockets. As he pressures her for her name, she asks his, and when he tells her it is Tom, she replies:
“I feel I’ve known you for my whole life Tom…It’s like we’ve been married for decades.”
“That’s probably not a good thing.”
“You must not be married…Or you’d know that marriage isn’t good or bad. You just fall into it, like any habit.”
Like all the stories in this collection, this one does not build up to some dramatic conclusion, some final exchange between the two that finally allows the man to escape his doldrums. And yet there is a kind of progress. She finally reveals her name, Mabel, and he goes back to his condo, cleans out his neglected fish tank, and seems about to emerge from his faceless state, to reenter life—a modest salvation perhaps, but a salvation of sorts.

My reader friends who claim to hate short stories because they feel somehow shortchanged or cheated, and the better the story, the greater the sense of fraud, will not, I fear, be cured by reading this book. As with Alice Munro, it seems that each story could as well have been a novel, and one that would have been wonderful to read. Fortunately, though I was once one of those who avoided short fiction, I now find myself tantalized by the very things that used to irritate or disappoint me. Turning a page to see how the story will continue, how the lives will sort themselves out, instead there is only a last page, a suggestive final line. And yet the story is better for that, better because there is no resolution. Like real life, there is no neat beginning, no resolution, no end. There is only life as it is lived. And sometimes, there is only sadness that one knows will continue. In the story “Sky Theatre,” a beautiful young girl, envied by her girl peers and sought after by the boys, is suddenly, unexpectedly, injured, paralyzed from the neck down. The lead character in this story, a not so pretty and not so popular girl is left to ponder permanence and change.
But suddenly we saw that life was not the still water we’d believed it to be. Mary Louise had been going about the same middle-class, suburban, privileged existence that we led—except that hers was even more privileged than ours. She must have had our same unthinking confidence in the future, until her destiny swerved like a canoe caught in a current. She’d once possessed something elusive and unmistakable, something beyond even beauty—maybe charisma, maybe grace—and that something had been wrenched from her. Fortune’s wheel had turned. I found this terrifying. I found it comforting.
And perhaps that’s where I should end; I found these stories to be terrifying; I found them to be comforting. I intend to read whatever this person writes.