Monday, June 11, 2007
New England White
Our book today is “New England White,” the second novel by Yale law professor Stephen Carter, whose first book, “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” was the source of much controversy and the object of much critical praise.
A great deal of that critical praise was of a decidedly anxious nature, with reviewers not knowing exactly what to MAKE of Carter’s book. “The Emperor of Ocean Park” is gorgeously, intricately written, and lord knows the critics had no problem with that, per se. But the book was also not only heavily plot-driven but driven by a plot that was a) comprehensible, b) exciting, and c) expertly handled. Critics accustomed to slathering undeserved praise all over the latest precosities of Haruki Murakami, Charles Frazier, or Michael Ondaajte experienced a slight tremble at this kind of writing; a little plot (or, as writing workshops would call it, plot-structure) might be a good thing (might, mind you - plot does so get in the way of gauzy autobiographical maunderings), but this much? You could virtually feel them squirming, wanting to make some sniffing remark about Agatha Christie but restraining themselves because, well, the author received so much money for the book...
And it got worse for these poor scribes. Because not only was Carter’s book unabashedly plot-driven, but the plot was almost entirely concerned with black people. And not just black people but black people who consistently refuse to act like black people in fiction do: these were intelligent, elegant, articulate people, and they organized their intelligence, elegance, and articulation not along the lines of race, like any normal black person would do, but along the lines of tenure, commerce, and real estate - why, like the rest of us. Is it any wonder that most critics broke ranks and ran, when confronted with something like this? Most of them retreated into the Land of the Qualifiers - an astonishing debut, but, a remarkable success, but, an amazing new voice, but .... and so on, ad infinitum.
Actually, there’s no ‘but’ about it. Plot is not the dirty little secret of fiction - indeed, it’s only recently come to be seen as such, to the enormous misfortune of fiction-readers everywhere. Filmy vagaries and ill-formed plots are, after all, the accepted hallmarks of all ‘serious’ fiction. If it actually makes any sense, it can’t be taken seriously.
So let’s hear it for Professor Carter: he not only turned in a densely plotted, elegantly written novel in “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” but he’s done it again in “New England White.”
The setting is the same as before, the scenic New England college town of Elm Harbor (all due deference to the whole idea of author’s extending themselves, but we sincerely hope Carter keeps returning to Elm Harbor for the rest of his natural life), and the plot features campus and even national politics, intrigue, and a deliciously unfolded murder investigation. The plot also features two characters from the first book, Julia and Lemaster Carlyle, and they’re wonderfully realized with all their flaws. One critic described Carter’s characters as “the Huxtables written by Tom Wolfe” - which manages, in only two points, to get four things wrong. One hopes Carter isn’t inclined to drink.
In the meantime, he gets on about his business, and his business is, quite unapologetically, to entertain his readers. If we have to condescend and call this the return of somebody, it’s certainly not the return of Henry James - this is John Marquand, or maybe Louis Auchincloss, although it’s not really anybody, just as all great new voices in fiction aren’t really anybody that came before.
One of the most enjoyable parts of reading Carter is that you know, from virtually the first page, that every single thing he writes about, no matter how small or irrelevant to his larger plot. He’s like Robert Penn Warren in that way, but again, we won’t, we shouldn’t talk about so-and-so’s come again.
Here he is tossing off one quick paragraph in connection with the late stage illness of old patriarch Byron Dennison. It’s important to remember here, while you’re reading this great prose, that Dennison and his illness is relatively meaningless to the larger plot of the book. This paragraph is just gravy:
“Hiatus, because the nurse came in and fiddled and fussed and started making notes with a stylus on a handheld computer. Bay flirted without enthusiasm. The nurse smiled tiredly. The break was welcome, at least to Julia, because she did not know what to say. The authorities! Well, of course, Bay would think that, having long been part of the power structure himself. Julia remembered, when she was at Dartmouth, how the black students, herself included, would sit around and condemn any members of the darker nation who wielded real influence, on the insidious theory that their success was itself evidence of their disloyalty.”
The book barrels along, building momentum to a very satisfying multi-pronged conclusion (unlike most writers of fiction these days, Carter knows perfectly well that one of the adornments of any novel is the perfection of its endings) - there’s an intellectual climax, a moral climax, and a surprisingly visceral and effective physical climax.
Of course, “New England White” is a hardcover and as such hideously expensive. But if you’re short on cabbage, there’s always your nearest library - and Carter’s equally wonderful first novel is now in bookstores in a (relatively) affordable little paperback. If you don’t know this author, you should make his acquaintance
Just don’t tell Haruki Murakami.