Sunday, February 3, 2013

A Possible Novel? Faulks’s A Possible Life

I’ll start by saying I find it impossible to refer to Sebastian Faulks’s latest book by its official full name, so I’m shortening it: A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts. Call me whatever you like—primitive, reactionary, and/or uncreative—but without common characters or settings, either geographical or temporal, A Possible Life is, for me, a book of five stories of varying length.

The stories in A Possible Life are of varying quality and interest, too, and I’ve noticed that favorites among professional and citizen reviewers vary a lot as well. Each story is named for a character. They are:
  • “Geoffrey,” about a boarding school teacher, cricketer, and World War 2 prisoner of war. I thought this story, which tells of camp atrocities, the boredom of undercover work with the French Resistance, and the depth of emotional aftereffects, was by far the best in the book. It felt the most elemental and the best constructed.
  • “Billy,” the first-person story of a boy in Victorian England whose poor family gives him to a workhouse, where he meets his future wife.
  • “Elena,” which tells of an alienated scientist in a not-too-distant future that feels vaguely dystopian or post-apocalyptic. Or something. This story felt especially contrived to me.
  • “Jeanne,” the tale of a woman who cares for children and a household in rural nineteenth-century France.
  • “Anya,” the interminable first-person reminiscences of a British musician’s affair with an American folk singer. This story is dated 1971 and contains a gratuitous reference to Anna Karenina.
Faulks’s stories were almost fascinatingly vivid: they kept me just interested enough to read the whole book searching for common threads. The book’s back cover suggests that risk and searches for “the manna of human connection” link the pieces. I certainly can’t argue with that: each story includes a relationship or encounter that’s somehow risky, even taboo. There’s also often a feeling that chance—or fate, or the random factor, or whatever else you’d like to call it—affects characters’ lives.

What felt strongest to me was the force of characters’ memories. Memory is a particularly strong element in “Geoffrey,” where the title character remembers cricket matches to help stay sane in a concentration camp. Geoffrey returns to teaching after the war but memories eventually send him to a psychiatric hospital. There are some nice touches in “Geoffrey,” particularly the contrast of communal sleeping arrangements at the school, the camp, and the hospital. Mentions of Geoffrey’s linguistic abilities were interesting, too, including this, “‘The best way to sound French is to imitate someone,’ said Geoffrey. ‘As though you’re acting.’” Later, when Geoffrey is forced to interpret for new arrivals, he uses courtesy words and improvises when he’s left at a loss for what to say, knowing what awaits the group.

Wall Street Journal reviewer Sam Sacks wonders how readers will react to Faulks’s inclusion of details about the camps, concluding with this, “Some will be glad that Mr. Faulks has shrugged off the taboos that surround fictional portrayals of concentration camps to write them like any other historical experience; others may think it alarming that this singular event in human history is so open to being mined for popular fiction.” After reading Vasilii Grossman’s Life and Fate (post from my other blog), which felt more detailed, personal, and emotional in depicting a camp, I can’t say I found Faulks’s scenes as alarming as Sacks did simply because they were part of the story. I found the scenes memorable and effective. They were, necessarily, disturbing as they conveyed—with, I think, proper levels of respect and balance—a sense of how the extreme horrors of the war push the fictional Geoffrey to various forms of escape.

I think Faulks plays with memory on a deeper level in all his stories, too, presenting characters and situations that are so familiar I could see the plot twists coming. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: I love Vladimir Propp’s analysis of the basic plot elements of fairy tales. Unfortunately, I can’t say I thought Faulks was successful in creating a novel book of stories that I would call evenly transcendent or instructive in its use of archetypes. Put bluntly, most of the stories just weren’t interesting or unusual enough.

I do, however, recommend the book for “Geoffrey”—and I’ll keep the book because of that one story—though I should say, out of fairness, that many readers seem to praise “Anya,” the story I found most tedious. I cannot understand why... though I suspect a reader’s favorite or most admired story in A Possible Life may be the story that acts most on his or her deepest memories, be they literary or life-based, good or bad.

Disclaimer: Thank you to publisher Henry Holt for a review copy of A Possible Life.

Up Next: Therese Bohman’s creepy and smooth Drowned.

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