Thursday, January 01, 2009

The novel as a filter for history

The last two novels I've read, Philip Hensher's "The Northern Clemency" and Junot Diaz's "Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" both filter the history of our times through their characters. This is not to compare the two novels, which other than being published in 2008, are very different beasts, but to think about this technique. It's not new of course - the novel can always step away from the action of history, or insert an actor into that history. As long as the reader believes in the intervention, then the history can come alive. What interests me is what this does for the novel - in other words, what is the artistic pay off?

I knew very little about the Dominican Republic or the despotic regime of Trujillo, until reading Junot Diaz's novel. His use of footnotes deftly provides a backstory that would probably intrude too much if its in the narrative. Diaz's main technique in this, his debut novel, is to filter the past through a family history. The main character, Oscar, is a fat, unpopular, sci fi geek in America of Dominican Republican extraction. He's the least likely of filters for history, in many ways, and indeed, he's not the narrator, its his only friend, Yunior, who takes on that role, Carraway to his Gatsby! Yet, there's something entirely appropriate - albeit satirical - about seeing the horrors of Dominican life as being almost like an SF/Fantasy world. We see, in Oscar, the end of line, the end of a line of trouble - "Fuku" as Diaz calls the curse that haunts Oscar's family (and is it just "Fuck you" in another language, we are left to wonder...)- yet there's also a sense that despite everything bad that has happened, something can survive, can live, even if its transplanted to an alien soil. The "filter" works; the Trujillo regime, and what follows it, is laid bare as a travesty, an aberration; and the scars still remain - in people's lives, in the land, and - it seems - mostly in the Dominican male psyche. For Oscar is an unusual Dominican, he has no success with the ladies. Yet, the Dominican male in this book is always seen as not just a womaniser, but a brutal one. Oscar, like Coetzee's Michael K, is somewhat the result of decades of brutality, and yet he remains a humanity to the end. But if the book has a fault, its that the contrast between the Dominican and American passages is so distinct. Diaz made his name as a short story writer, and this book is full of stories - mostly of the family history - in all of this, Oscar, filtered through his friend's testimony, seems hardly there at all - a useful fool, if you like; little more than a filter. The hip hop and geek speak is fun for a while, but Oscar is no Holden Caulfield; and when his sister takes up the narrative, there's little of the linguistic invention elsewhere. Interestingly the novel was originally a short story in the New Yorker in 2000. When I get the chance I'll try and read the shorter version.

In Philip Hensher's sizable Booker-shortlisted "The Northern Clemency", the timescale of the novel is from 1974-1994, undoubtedly a period of massive change in British provincial life; yet his protagonists, two sets of neighbours in a lower middle class suburb of Sheffield are hardly actors in their drama - unlike Oscar's family in the Diaz novel. When the Sellers move to Sheffield opposite the Glovers the families begin a dance of connectivity that sees their children change throughout the next twenty years even as the parents stay defnitely put. The key political event of the novel is the1984 miner's strike, particularly the Battle of Orgreave. Here's a history I do know something about, having lived through part of it, however tangentially. Where Hensher excels is in the minutiae of middle class life, even if, as if he's read too much Proust, he gives us every bit of detail however trivial. But somehow that triviality is the stuff of these people's lives, and there's such a richly drawn cast between the two families (and a whole load of minor characters as well), that you skip the occasionally page of hubristic description, to return to their lives. What succeeds as a "family saga" seems to fail as a "social history." Part of the problem is that by concentrating on the one class that was almost untouched by the horrors of Thatcherism, (and were, in the Midlands and the North, partly the reason for her electoral success), the main events of the age happen offstage. On the one occasion that this isn't the case - the battle of Orgreave - Hensher hardly does justice to this great affront to British civil liberties, by having a walk-on part for one of the Glover children, who has turned into a cartoonish Marxist agitator, presumably, one thinks, to enable him to turn up in this page of history.

I think it's fascinating that after a long period where novelists either hid in the distant past, or in a present unbothered by the political, there does seem to be a taste for something that is more relevant. I wonder how many readers of "The Northern Clemency" will Wikipedia the miners strike afterwards? Fewer, I imagine than readers of Diaz's novel will want to find out more about the history of the Dominican Republic. With the seventies and eighties now slipping into history themselves, for the first time I'm seeing my own memories crop up in fictionalised histories. It's probably a trite observation, but "The Northern Clemency" wouldn't have suffered much from ignoring the bigger picture, and concentrating on the domestic dramas; whilst although "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" continues to enthrall across all its timezones, Oscar, his sister, and our friendly narrator, remain unknown, unknowable, tied to their past.

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