Historical novels regularly try to hook you in to their unfamiliar worlds by some arresting initial display of their subject’s narrative potential. The technique goes back to Scott, and William Kennedy’s Quinn’s Book is orthodox enough in providing a sensational set-piece in its opening pages. He hasn’t deserted his habitual location of the town of Albany but has gone back to how it was in 1849, the date of a freak accumulation of ice on the Hudson River which briefly forms a huge iceberg before exploding through internal stress, flooding the adjacent wharves and indirectly causing a fire which destroys six hundred buildings. The real point of the episode, however, is that it brings together the novel’s main characters in bizarre conjunction.
Foolhardily attempting to cross the freezing waters is Magdalena Colon, famous for the sexuality of her performances in public and in private, and her niece Maud. Maud is saved by the water-rat Daniel Quinn, who thus acquires a first claim on her life; Maud makes him promise to steal her away – a pledge redeemed on the novel’s last page. Magdalena is given up for dead until rescued by sexual assault, ‘an abused flower ... resurrected from wilt by the sunny friction of joy’, as Quinn quaintly puts it. Magadalena continues her career energetically, reinvigorated by the company of her reviver, later the bareknuckle champion of the United States, but Maud is spirited away, leaving Quinn to get on with growing up.
Nothing could be more traditional as a novel’s subject than the hero’s struggle to establish an identity amid the welter of historical circumstance. In a manner entirely to be expected of a 19th-century hero, Quinn the orphan finds a home, a benefactor, and a start in life. These are provided by Hillegond Staats, whose sexual generosity parallels Magdalena’s, and her son Dirck, who works for the local newspaper; they’re the descendants of Dutch immigrants resident in Albany since the 17th century. The Albany Chronicle provides Daniel Quinn with both an education and a vocation. He discovers that he is what Dirck calls ‘a devotee of the word’. Dirck himself is another, but his words are recorded in a book written in a language of his own, its secrecy protected by a code not cracked until Dirck is abducted and his tongue cut out. When published, his revelations about the activities of a mafia-like organisation called The Society show, as Quinn says, ‘the power of the word’ to alter ‘the trajectory of history’s arrow’. Quinn apprentices himself to the word by becoming a reporter on the Chronicle, encouraged by its editor (in what one hopes is a quizzical tone) to take as his material ‘the nature of things’. Convinced that Quinn is ‘born to witness tragedy’, Dirck encourages his departure from Albany to cover the Civil War. Four years later his despatches have made him famous; we’re told that he has ‘a talent for the vivid scene’.
Quinn’s Book emulates Dirck Staats in its revelations of society’s appalling realities, and novelist and hero share between them (in a rather unstable mixture of first and third person) a number of unblinking accounts of Albany’s underside and endemic savagery. The murderous generations of the Plum family, the pitched battle between the Irish Ryans and their enemies and other labour troubles, the mob’s sadistic attacks on former slaves, the atrocious slaughter of the war – these confirm young Quinn’s apprehension that ‘violence was the norm of this bellicose world.’ And yet, as he realises at the end of his book, there was ‘an unconscionable pang of pleasure’ in writing about such things, however terrible – indeed Quinn’s or Kennedy’s treatment of the many physical brutalities they chronicle is only saved from being disgusting by a laconic and inventive precision. But something more is required from one who lives according to the word: and this seems to mean that Quinn ceases to be a reporter and resolves to become an artist. Quinn’s Book offers not only some spectacular chapters in Albany’s social history (including those which are more festive than gory) but also a variation on that old novelistic theme, how I became a writer.
At this point a certain unease sets in. Quinn’s ambition is to present the lives and deaths of others as well as his own ‘thrumming symphony of mysteries’ in such aesthetically authoritative terms that the secret harmony that underlies all contraries will be revealed. Such aspirations sound grandiose but appear to be endorsed by the author, who supplies an epigraph from Camus which speaks of art’s rediscovery of ‘those two or three simple images’ which first open the heart. In fact, the novel’s concern with its own historical appropriations and Quinn’s parallel affair with the word involve self-consciousnesses which distract us from the clearly urgent claims of Albany’s evolution and agonies. Quinn’s admission that he does not expect to solve the ‘mysteries’ of his life sounds humble enough, but it may be associated with an element of insouciance in the novel which is unsettling at times. The narrative becomes increasingly episodic, and the function of such sequences as Maud’s brief career as a spiritualist remains enigmatic. The question of how she gains her esoteric knowledge and whether it has any legitimacy is raised only to be dropped. A Celtic disk left by Quinn’s parents (dead from cholera) in the bottom of a birdcage is brought out for inspection from time to time and the ambiguity of its design is said to advertise ‘the wisdom of multiple meanings’ – a humane message, but its embodiment in a prop seems suspiciously handy. It prompts an oracularity of tone which is perhaps due to William Kennedy’s wish to pull together a proliferating narrative which, for all its local vivacities, loses concentration as it proceeds.
As a love story, Quinn’s Book has its own logic, but as a historical novel it verges on the desultory because one of the genre’s classic problems – how to combine the hero’s dual functions as protagonist and as witness – hasn’t really been solved. Quinn is involved in larger matters than Francis Phelan (the bum-hero of Kennedy’s Ironweed) ever was, but he seems a less authentic presence. The author’s awareness in the new novel of his period responsibilities deflects him from the demotic speech rhythms which gave such life to its predecessor. In Quinn’s Book, their place is too often supplied by idioms and effects which may be accomplished but which remain obtrusive. One is left wishing for more matter with less art.
The city of Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things is not located in either time or space, and this freedom from historical contingency enables him to construct a lean dystopian fable of unusual cogency and power. The novel’s epigraph – from Hawthorne this time – speaks of ‘the famous City of Destruction’, and its first forty pages or so report with a terse sobriety of tone a situation in which things are not only falling apart but disappearing by the day. The environment itself is unstable: houses and streets vanish; armed men set up arbitrary tolls; there are unexplained explosions. The city’s power supply depends on the methane produced from human waste, and the night soil collectors or Fecalists are accordingly treated as valuable civil servants. For those who wish to give up the arduous struggle to survive there are various modes of exit: the Runners train in bands to run themselves literally into the ground; the Leapers jump from roof-tops; the rich go to the Euthanasia Clinics; you can even join an Assassination Club which will arrange for a complete stranger to bump you off.
For those who struggle on, the quest for food or something to trade for it is unceasing. Perhaps as much as 20 per cent of the population keep themselves going by scavenging either rubbish or remains of various kinds which can be sold to dealers – known as Resurrection Agents – who store, reassemble and retail objects on the open market. The search for things thus becomes the means of life. As a result, objects get scarcer all the time and the need to find them becomes more desperate.
This introductory guide to the city is offered by Anna Blume in the form of a letter to an unnamed correspondent in the country Anna has left behind in order to trace her brother. However, the city seems to have swallowed him up, and Anna herself has had to become subdued to the element she moves in. She, too, survives by scavenging and is given a temporary home by Isabel, whom she saves from being trampled to death by the Runners and whom she tends during her final illness. Anna’s next refuge is in the National Library in which assorted scholars, religious groups and foreign journalists have been allowed to shelter. Among the latter is a colleague of her brother’s with whom she has what in happier conditions would have been an idyllic affair. They collaborate in an attempted history of the city, but the Library shelves have become too chaotic to supply reliable reference, and anyway its books have to be used as fuel during the terrible winter. Books, like everything else, disappear faster than they can be replaced. In this city being a devotee of the word is not something that circumstances favour.
Anna’s final resting-place is an institution called Woburn House, a last relic of private charity founded by a famous doctor and now run by his idealistic daughter. The inmates are people taken off the streets for a few days’ respite – washed, fed and allowed to rest – and then returned to the city so that others may benefit in turn. It is a doomed enterprise because it can only be funded by the sale of a finite number of inherited things. As these run out, Anna and her colleagues plan to make a dash for freedom in their last substantial asset, an ancient automobile. Since Anna’s letter ends at this point we can never know if they were successful. A happy ending is technically available but it hardly seems likely.
Taken simply as a narrative, In the Country of Last Things exerts a strong pull. Its incidents seem plausibly the consequence of the environment, and the milieu itself is put together with economy and consistency. The characterisation lacks depth perhaps, but in such extremities the elaboration of idiosyncrasy is something which it would hardly seem decent to have much time for. The final sequence, with the little band of altruists flying the flag of human solidarity until the very last, approaches the sentimental, but Anna’s own scepticism about the real value of their good works keeps that in check. Such personal eccentricities as are recorded point to concerns in the novel beyond the usual scope of the genre to which it apparently belongs (a possibility to which Paul Auster’s reflexive redaction of the private eye story in his New York Trilogy should anyway alert us).
One of the more degraded if still faintly Dickensian characters in Last Things is Isabel’s husband Ferdinand, once a sought-after sign-painter, now housebound and obsessed with making ever smaller ships to go into ever smaller bottles. These underline the novel’s pervasive sense of enclosure, any suggestion of escape being frustrated by the surrounding medium. Formerly moody, Ferdinand has become monstrous (he tries to rape Anna) – the master of the sign brutalised by his loss of occupation. In contrast, the survival of Woburn House largely depends on the good offices of Boris, who brilliantly flogs the family heirlooms by telling stories about them which are tantalisingly evocative of the lost world of which they were once a part. In making ‘inert things come to life’ he sustains, through the fantasising imagination, the richness of the connection between signified and signifier on which a community of meaning depends.
As Anna herself reflects, when things vanish ‘the memory of them vanishes as well. Dark areas form in the brain.’ The city is a place where whole categories of objects disappear, and after a while the words attached to them become incomprehensible in the ‘slow but ineluctable process of erasure’. Because such lacunae vary from person to person, language becomes increasingly private, communication more difficult. Paul Auster knows, as every writer must, that you cannot afford to divorce words from their agreed referents if you wish to be understood. What he has also demonstrated is how much our humanity depends on our experience of what is physically outside us and on the language we use to think, talk and write about it. At the end of her letter, Anna finds that her words are getting smaller and smaller because her notebook is now almost full – ‘so small that perhaps they are not even legible any more’. The fact that we can no longer read her, in any sense, is felt as a loss in the desolation of which we are all potentially implicated.