New Books, by Jane Smiley

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Since Don Quixote, the essential subject of the novel has been geography: what is out there, who lives there, how they are different from characters who live in other landscapes. Themes are always particular to place; style, too, derives its piquancy from dialect and locale. Three new novels extend this tradition, but they are as remarkably different from one another as the landscapes they explore.

The Good Kids of Benjamin Nugent’s debut (Scribner, $23) are never not aware of their self-consciously counterculture environment, a liberal college town in Massachusetts where on Language Day at the high school, Josh, who takes Russian, sells borscht a few feet from where Khadijah (who owes her first name to her mother’s “Sufi years”) sells mousse (she studies French). After the festival the kids go to the ethnic-grocery store, Gaia, and witness their parents Linus and Nancy kissing in the candy aisle. This revelation is soon followed by two divorces (“People don’t hold it against you if you get divorced in Wattsbury”). The unexpected connection at first gives Josh and Khadijah a sense of fellowship and then pulls them apart after Nancy and her husband break up.

Nancy moves to Cambridge, taking Khadijah; Josh and his father move to New York City. “Most of my friends from high school,” Josh remarks, “wound up in either Boston or Brooklyn, depending on whether their salient ambition was to be smart or to be cool.” Among the many things Josh holds against his father is that Linus blames parenthood for his own failure to follow his dream, which was to move to France and write essays in the tradition of Montaigne. Instead of doing that, Linus takes up with Allison (whose father funds Linus’s nonprofit), finds an apartment in TriBeCa, and eats macrobiotic take-out while Josh practices guitar riffs by day and hunts for “a future Patti Smith and a future Patti Smith Group” at a “bar or at an unsanitary party or in the apartment of a rich, pervy benefactor” by night. Josh understands that he is some combination of shallow and nerdy — he cannot make friends, and the few times he socializes he “would monologue about the way reverb functioned in an Olivia Tremor Control song, or about the varieties of Sonic Youth T-shirts designed in North Carolina by Tannis Root.”

Every day in Nugent’s novel is Language Day. Josh labels himself shallow because he can’t help being swept up by the ways people express themselves (and Nugent has an excellent ear for the clashing notes of our popular cacophony). Of L.A., Josh observes:

I liked how whorish it was, how fast. And when I arrived in Los Angeles, driving the lead wagon west, sun-dazzled, sweating in my Cat Power T-shirt, the city lived up to a shocking number of clichés regarding whorishness and speed and commerce and art, because so many people, like me, had just arrived and were determined to make it live up to those clichés.

Josh’s band achieves modest success when one of its tracks finds an audience; soon Josh’s style takes on a frenetic rhythm that is comic, anxious, doomed, and filled with brands, hip spots, nervous nicknames, edgy observations. People locate themselves as soon as they meet — not by saying where they live but by saying what they prefer. “Gordon says you’re indie rock. You should know: I’m not into that. Everybody’s like, ‘Neutral Milk Hotel. Fuckin’ Wilco.’ Ich. I like Jennifer Lopez and Destiny’s Child.”

Josh sometimes worries that he has gotten over Khadijah and sometimes worries that he hasn’t. The answer might be Julie, star of a science-channel show, Julie vs. Animals, but maybe not — as Josh and Julie, standing at their house’s adjoining bathroom sinks, get ready for yet another party, Josh looks into the mirror: “I saw a twenty-eight-year-old and a twenty-nine-year-old assessing the persistence of youth’s afterglow in their faces. I saw a couple calculating its worth in the eyes of the world.” Josh has felt the eyes of the world for as long as he can remember — in Massachusetts, in New York, in L.A. For him, these places exist as styles of rhetoric and self-presentation; they are places that, as Josh comes to understand, prevent him from locating himself in the real world.

In Lake People (Knopf, $24.95), Abi Maxwell also gives a nod to a certain counter-culture; Cici, from whom Maxwell’s protagonist, Alice, inherits a cabin on an island in a New Hampshire lake, is a former hippie who mysteriously appears in a small town “dressed in brighter clothing than anyone else from around here wore.” Maxwell’s landscape, though, is not modern culture but traditional folklore. We learn that the first of Alice’s ancestors in America was Eleanora: “She came alone from Sweden as a teenager, and by the time she arrived, she had faced some terrible trouble, and by the end of her life her trouble had not ended.” As in many Scandinavian novels, if a bad outcome is possible, it is inevitable. Eleanora’s daughter, Ida, is the first to drown, then her sons; then Eleanora goes “wild on that wild island.” Alice’s life begins with what looks like a curse — she is a foundling, left in a canoe floating beside a dock. Her father has been killed in a car accident; her mother has run away. Her father’s family, wealthy enough to take her in, refuses to do so. (Later, she will be abandoned for a third time by her adoptive mother.)

The natural world in Maxwell’s novel is perverse:

But now I have heard the call. . . . It does indeed sound like a loon, but the sound is, apart from all else, carried across the water and delivered to the listener in the softest of hands. As it travels, it splits the air open, so that only that call remains — stark and final and brilliant — and its listener can do nothing but float toward it.

And people offer no protection or solace. At sixteen, Alice is raped by an acquaintance of her father’s who later commits suicide. The only female friend she develops exploits her and threatens her by turns (the woman herself is regularly imprisoned and abused by her husband). Alice’s first boyfriend takes her away from the lake, to the hills. When he pushes her down the stairs it may be on purpose, and it may be because she is pregnant. Secrets are kept, secrets are told: no one ever fails to remind Alice that her background is suspect, her very existence a source of pain. In such an environment, she must find some method of embracing the world that will diminish its power. Her primary strategy is to employ a style of thought and discourse that turns experiences into myths and locales into symbols (Lake Country, Hill Country, The Village). When it comes to details of light and landscape, Alice is beautifully precise:

The ice was thick as an old maple, yet Ida had scarcely walked twenty steps upon it when the lake opened its mouth. First her feet dropped under, and then her hips came forward, in one slow, consenting wave. Her arms swept upward, and then, without sound, Ida dropped into the winter of the lake.

With Clay (Bloomsbury, $24), English novelist Melissa Harrison effortlessly inserts her modern dystopian tale of loneliness and urban decay into the history of English landscape writing, which includes such disparate sensibilities as Wordsworth, Hardy, and T. H. White. Harrison’s bit of nature is a small park near a high road in an unnamed industrial city. A few people enjoy the “common,” especially a Polish immigrant, Jozef, who works in a used-furniture shop and ruminates on his lost farm; and a widow, Sophia, who lives in a disintegrating housing estate even though her well-off daughter, Linda, wants her to move. “They had even offered to find her a little garden flat nearby — at considerable expense — but the old woman wouldn’t budge.” Sophia’s granddaughter, Daisy, age nine, prefers the park to her toys (“they were mostly pink, and they were all boring”), as does a child, TC, whose father has left, whose mother neglects him, and who skips school to investigate the flora and the fauna of the park. TC first befriends Jozef on his quest to assuage his curiosity about the natural world:

He decided to find out every single thing that lived there, so he could take care of it all. Already he’d seen blackbirds and robins and squirrels skittering crabwise up the trunks of trees, and he could hear a woodpecker drumming.

Jozef soon realizes that TC is hungry, and he starts taking him to the shop where he works and giving him food.

All these characters live inside the tension that is modern English life. Jozef knows that kindness toward TC will be viewed with suspicion by authorities and parents; Sophia’s love for her granddaughter must be mediated through Linda, who always preferred her father and resents her mother for a host of barely articulated reasons. The park itself, though well tended (Jozef eventually goes to work for the maintenance crew, and Sophia at one point replants all the daffodil bulbs so that they will grow in more graceful, less orderly groups), is the scene of a frightening episode of adolescent violence. The connections Harrison’s characters make are fleeting, and the ways in which they are broken are both poignant and unjust (after Daisy disobeys her mother and runs off to the common on her own, Linda blames Sophia, and Sophia loses Daisy).

But Harrison’s structure — chapters are named for the traditional English calendar, starting and ending with “St Bartholomew’s Day,” passing through “Shrovetide,” “Haymaking,” and “Pag Rag Day” — asserts that nature endures. Even Linda, whose life takes place on the road, eventually pulls over and goes for a walk:

It came to her from somewhere that felt like childhood that these [shoots] were bluebells, and that in a couple of months this tiny, forgotten corner of woodland would be a paradise, the cars speeding by unheeding as the wood performed a miracle entirely of its own making.

The traffic on the motorway is in the end “inconsequential” compared to “the ancient contours of the land . . . which would persist long after the roads had gone.”


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