Here is a little family

Amit Chaudhuri

  • After Silence by Jonathan Carroll
    Macdonald, 240 pp, £14.99, June 1992, ISBN 0 356 20342 5
  • The Law of White Space by Giorgio Pressburger
    Granta, 172 pp, £12.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 14 014221 5
  • Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali
    Chatto, 240 pp, £14.99, May 1992, ISBN 0 7011 3944 7

The narrator of After Silence is Max Fischer, the famous cartoonist. At the Los Angeles County Museum, where his work is on display, his life collides with that of Lily Aaron, a divorcee with a son called Lincoln. Lily shows a womanly sophistication and cynical maturity that one presumes must come from her past experiences of ‘things not working out’, and a disarming, sentimental girlishness which surely must have betrayed her into a bad marriage in the first place. She is independent-minded, ‘very feminine and adult’, but eminently rescuable: the divorced mother with a child (one thinks of Superman III) is no longer a figure of despair but of a peculiar virginal charm, pulling at the heartstrings. And Max Fischer is charmed. He is genuinely in love with the idea of ‘family’, and Lily Aaron and Lincoln promise him the opportunity of having one without confronting the nitty-gritty of finding out, through marriage, what marriage is about, and what raising a child means. Here is a little family, already magically complete, and only in need of a man. The charm and potential eeriness of this situation could not have been possible fifty years ago: for then there were too few divorces, and when they occurred, they were, reassuringly, too much of a disruptive force to enter in quite such a deceptively innocent and romantic way into a novel. But After Silence is an utterly absorbing exploration of the disturbing complicity, even interdependence, between innocence and terror in America, between comic-strips, home-movies, Chinese restaurants, ‘being famous’, monster outfits, pizza parlours, Disneyland fantasy, fast-food shops, and private paranoia and public violence.

Contemporary American literature is where we go for the most delicate descriptions of the everyday, for the random magic of small-town and suburban humdrumness, and also for chronicles of the passing away of that treasured way of life, with its stable marriages, television sets and cartons of milk. One thinks of Garrison Keillor, David Leavitt, and John Updike, whose most luminous descriptions are located in ‘the post-pill paradise’ of pleasure, estrangement and divorce. Thus the ‘normal’, whether a word, a category or a quality, loses its Larkinesque dullness and takes on an impossibly romantic resonance in a country of sexual and racial ambiguity. With great novelistic skill, bringing together detail and movement, Carroll evokes, through the reminiscences of his narrator, his own version of the surreal everydayness of American life. In the Crowds and Power restaurant, people of various races tell each other jokes. Here, Max courts Lily; he makes friends with Lincoln and his greyhound, Cobb; they all become pals, and as Lily’s confidence in Max grows, the two take off for a holiday to France after, of course, they have had this refreshingly unself-conscious exchange:

  ‘Don’t you want to hear what I said to Lincoln?’

  ‘That’s a dangerous question.’

  ‘You know you’re dying to know. I told him yes, I’d be sleeping with you after you’ve had an Aids test ... Lincoln’s very paranoid about me getting Aids. He watches too much TV.’

In Carroll’s everyday America, conversations like this take place without anxiety; one hears in them, in fact, a cheerful practical-mindedness, even an unexpected affection. To the narrator, everything – baseball games or Aids tests – appears interesting, natural and essentially American. This happy acceptance of all the strands that are woven into American life enriches the first half of the narrative, while making it peculiarly disquieting.

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