One Enchanted Evening
J. Robert Lennon
- The Great Night by Chris Adrian
Granta, 292 pp, £16.99, June 2011, ISBN 978 1 84708 186 5
A doctor and former seminarian, Chris Adrian has over the past decade written three sprawling novels of unusual thematic scope and one collection of highly inventive short stories. His first novel, Gob’s Grief, was more varied in style and intent than some entire careers. Though it presents itself as an American Civil War picaresque (the opening line is: ‘Thomas Jefferson Woodhull was 11 years old when he ran away from home to join the Union army’), it gradually turns into a sort of steampunk horror story, featuring the reanimation of corpses and characters with names like The Urfeist and Colonel Blood. Its intertwined – or perhaps simply scattered – motifs draw on American political and literary history as well as science and psychology. The point of view shifts unexpectedly and frequently, and the broad cast of characters includes, among many invented figures, reimagined versions of both Whitman and Lincoln.
Vol. 33 No. 23 · 1 December 2011
J. Robert Lennon writes that ‘American writers are at the mercy of a publishing regime that does not, by and large, value middle-class experience’ (LRB, 17 November). He claims that white or deracinated middle-class fiction writers face the choice of cooking up extravaganzas of magical realist whimsy or writing memoirs in which, presumably, they will castigate themselves for past bad behaviour (Mary Karr), tell the sad tale of their parents’ fatal illness (Meghan O’Rourke), recount journeys of self-discovery and fulfilment (Elizabeth Gilbert), or mix some cocktail of the three (Dave Eggers). But Lennon neglects a third way that may be the dominant genre of the day: historical fiction. In these books – popular with book clubs – middle-class readers are congratulated for their rejection of old injustices like slavery (Toni Morrison), homophobia (Thomas Mallon) and McCarthyism (Philip Roth). Of course there’s always the shivering implication that it could happen again. Something else that could happen, the way things are going in Washington and on Wall Street, is the obliteration of the middle class. Among the many beneficial side effects, like the vanishing of MFA programmes, would be the resurgence of a literature of squalor. And at last Americans could return to the novel’s supreme theme: marrying rich.
Salt Lake City