Saturday, November 14

Considering David James Duncan's "The Brothers K"

I had a strange experience reading David James Duncan's The Brother K. I found myself having fun. How do I begin to describe the feeling, so foreign to me since the fourth Harry Potter at least? There's a certain lightness to the reading. You don't feel exhausted at the end but amazed that it's been three hours. I snicker out loud. That's not to say I haven't enjoyed Wolff, O'Connor, Borges and all the rest these past few months, but they are different. They're elegant and self-serious, and nothing puts an end to fun faster than that combination. You literally cannot read them for more than an hour at a time because you need a break from their explorations of good and evil, life and death, God and nothing, and all the rest. Not that Duncan avoids these topics. He explores them with as much passion as anyone else and as well as the best of them. He just lets us have more fun while doing so.

I put the blame for this fun most entirely on the language. Duncan cares about his themes but sees no reason to preserve them in amber like his predecessors. They are treated first with the voice of a middle-class kid growing up in small town Washington and obsessed with baseball and again in the voices of his family in their letters and journals. Irwin's freshman essay, The History of my Dad from his Birth up to Kincaid's, is replete with the character's silliness and humor. "My father Hugh Chance was born in 1929 in Chicago Illinnois on May 5 1929. He was no relation to Frank Chance the famous first baseman, Dean Chance the famous young pitcher, or Fat Chance the famous expression (ha ha)." And there has been no better description of heartbreak ever than "quack bisection of his heart."

Somehow though, with all of this energy directed toward the multitude of original voices and ambitious themes, characters are left behind. In the entire novel, there is only one character worth remembering: Hugh Chance, father of the titular brothers. His fall, his redemption and his fall again are powerful stuff. In his successes and failures, both large and small, he is real. The brothers themselves, excluding the narrator who disappears so effectively into the background that it's a challenge to remember his presence even while he relates the story, all fall so deeply into the types of the '60's, draft-dodging campus radical, nirvana-seeking Fulbright student, conscientious Vietnam grunt, that it becomes difficult to even care much about them despite the hundreds of pages devoted to them. There is incredible potential in many of the women, not least the fiercely Seventh-Day Adventist mother who retreats further and further into her faith as her life spirals farther out of control or equally fierce atheist mother-in-law, but the story is not about them. They are more symbols for the men to run toward or from than anything else.

This is rather unfortunate as I believe that more than any other element of story, character is the most important. Powerful characters are what turn genre fiction into literature. Without Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie would be just another mystery writer. Without Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, Jane Austen is just some romance writer. Why are Timothy Zahn's books the best of the Star Wars Expanded Universe? Grand Admiral Thrawn, Mara Jade, Captain Gilad Pelleaon and Talon Karrde, in that order.

So what do you do with a novel with all the trappings of a great work in its eternal themes but without the characters to give it force? In this case, go with it. The voice is powerful enough to carry all 643 pages of Brothers and probably another hundred or two more.

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