Thursday, 9 October 2008

Art or Madness?

Dipping once again into C's birthday stash, another intriguing read is The Reserve by Russell Banks, author of the novel that became the memorable film The Sweet Hereafter.

Taking place in the summer of 1936, primarily within an isolated and exclusive resort for the rich (the eponymous "reserve") in the Adirondack Mountains of northeast New York state, The Reserve focuses on Jordan Groves and Vanessa Cole. The former is a self-made man, renowned for both his art and for the books that describe his travels and adventures in far-flung parts of the world. The latter is the troubled daughter of a rich family, recuperating from a divorce (and suspected breakdown) with her emotionally distant parents at their retreat within the Reserve. Despite the former having a wife and the latter possessing fragile mental health, the two are attracted to one another when Groves visits to assess the art collection of Cole's father. When Cole's father subsequently dies, her mother begins moves to put her in the care of European psychiatrists, and arranges passage for her across the Atlantic on the Hindenberg airship. However, somewhat unhinged and fearful of receiving a lobotomy, then a novel en vogue treatment, Cole kidnaps her mother and imprisons her in the family cabin at the Reserve. Quickly realising the limitations of her "plan", Cole then involves Hubert St. Germain, a local Adirondack guide, and Groves in it, with unintended but fatal consequences. Interspersing this main narrative are interludes with Groves' wife, Alicia, and St. Germain who, unbeknownst to Groves, have been conducting an affair. And bookending the novel's chapters are short flash-forward sections which follow Groves and Cole in the months immediately after the events of the main narrative.

While written well enough, the novels falls down for me for a number of reasons. For one, the two main characters don't work at all well. Groves is a rather over-achieving and over-blown caricature of an Ernest Hemmingway figure, while Cole is an unconvincing parody of the insane-but-alluring femme fatale stereotype. Neither is particularly convincing, nor are either engaging. It's left to more peripheral characters like Groves' wife, Alicia, and her obedient lover Hubert, to establish the novel's connection to reality.

Structurally, I found the intermittent flash-forwards rather cumbersome and damaging to the novel's narrative. While Banks tries to make their connection to the main narrative obscure at first, it doesn't take a genius to see what's going on. Furthermore, since the events that they describe are clearly heading towards a stereotyped tragic conclusion, they sort-of deflate the central narrative ahead of time. Using flash-forwards (or flash-backwards) is a not uncommon feature of modern novels, and is often used to good effect (c.f. Use of Weapons by a different Banks). But here seems a less skillful example that actually damages, rather than heightens, the central narrative. While they allow the conclusions of the events on the Reserve to coincide with the events that take place in the months that follow, that's about the only way the flash-forwards help here.

One niggling thing that bothered me during the novel was Cole's concerns about receiving a lobotomy. While it's been known for a long time that this procedure is basically serious brain damage that mostly serves to improve patient compliance, the first lobotomy in the US was only performed in 1936 (according to the WP). So Cole's fears about the procedure (justified, as it turns out) seemed somewhat anachronistic to me. Understandable now, but rather unlikely for a society heiress in 1936. It's probably just ignorance on my part, but knowing how slowly the negative aspects of novel medical procedures become clear even today, Cole's concerns seem to indicate precognitive powers.

Anyway, not a novel I'll be recommending any time soon.

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