Thursday, January 14, 2010

Can-Reads-Indies #1: Century by Ray Smith

Its sombre cover coupled with my misunderstanding that Ray Smith had eschewed story for higher principles would have kept me from Century: A Novel, were it not for Dan Wells' recommendation. I thought this was a book that wasn't for me, not only in a "not my cup of tea" sense, but that it was meant for a more erudite kind of reader for whom the act of reading is not meant to be a pleasure cruise ("Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song... Wallala leialala").

So it is my surprise to find I love this book, that it contains everything I look for as a reader, including that most unfashionable self-contained universe. That Smith may have eschewed traditional narrative structure, but he has done so only to compress a 500+ page novel into his first 98 pages, to represent the disintegration and disorder present in the universe the book contains, to have Century be what it's meant to represent. And that his writing possesses a sympathy for and understanding of women that I found surprising, and striking, and even (dare I suppose in a book such as this?) somewhat heartening.

Heinrich Himmler didn't shock me. Perhaps I'm just being defiant in my reactions, but Jane Seymour, the young woman in 197o's Montreal who receives his ghostly visitations in her bed, the nightmares in which he touches her naked body (but oh, I was struck by the details-- "the buttons on the cuffs of his sleeve caught on the sheet when he reached under to touch...")-- there is context for her, precedent. Of course, her friends suppose that she has undergone a trauma, perhaps she has been raped, which has led to the visions, which leads to her suicide. And that may be so, but the whole thing is the extreme end, I think, of how ordinary girls become obsessed with Nazism, which manifests in more usual terms with an Anne Frank fascination and YA books about the Holocaust. As a kind of dangerous experiment in empathy, though of course the Holocaust is so sanitized in such literature, but there is a thin line there, and I just think that Jane Seymour has crossed it for one reason, or for many.

But now I'm off on a kind of tangent. Kenniston Thorson, protagonist of the latter half of Century (and perhaps Jane Seymour's grandfather) goes off on something similar, its conclusions more succinct than mine, but this result, he is told, "comes not from your mind wandering, but rather from your mind turning its subject round and round as a sculptor considers his piece". Which is a good way to describe a reading and/or consideration of Century for two reasons: one, because it has so many angles, perspectives that I don't think it could be taken in all at one time, as one thing; and two, because in reading Century, the reader does become sculptor, a book so fragmented requiring its reader to engage by putting the pieces together, thus coming to recreate it in their own way (so I am very sure that your Century will be altogether different from mine).

"The truth is to be found in the way many different things fit together in relation to one another. In a sense, because the relationship, not the parts, has the truth, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." Though Century is doubly complicated in that its parts are so much apart, and yet this makes the relationships between them all the more remarkable. Between the first four stories in the book's first half "Family", which in various ways tell of Jane Seymour's family. The first story about the troubled Jane from the perspective of a male acquaintance who sees her problems as emblematic of women in general during these difficult times, the second story of Jane's brother and his reunion with his wife following a period of estrangement, the third of Jane's father after the death of his wife and at the end of a long career in African development and international diplomacy as he ponders what he has made of himself, and fourth about Jane's mother some years earlier and we learn that her husband truly didn't know her at all (and that though he suspects he didn't know her, he has no idea just how much).

The second half of the book "Continental" is in two parts, from the perspective of American Kenniston Thorson, in Paris 1892, and Germany in 1923. Written as a period piece meant to be Jamesian (and where all the women talk like women in TS Eliot poems, sometimes deliberately word-for-word), the pace is different here, story less the point. And though the concerns of Kenniston and other characters intriguingly overlap with those from "Family", I chose to see this part of the novel as a key to the first half. That is, in Kenniston Thorson's conversations and deliberations about art, music, history and even French Onion Soup, we achieve an understanding of what Smith is accomplishing in "Family", of how we might put its fragments together and regard them (or how we might choose not to and why).

But being a reader who seeks story, who traces plot, I did note the connection between Kenniston Thorson and Gwen Seymour, and I seized to that in order to steady myself. And though the plot was moving backward here, it didn't matter, for we look back at history in just this way. To see that Ray Smith has encapsulated a century (and not just "a" century, but "the" century) in a scant 165 pages, in the story of a family, of a marriage, of just one single woman.

And that woman doesn't even exist, "there never was a Jane Seymour." And as a reader who seeks story, who traces plot, this kind of trick didn't deter me one bit, because I am also a reader who tries with reading to make sense of the world, and such blurred metafictional lines are the best way to do so: "These encounters enable me to hold the phantasm and the reality in my mind at the same time; this is much more interesting than either one alone."

Century's is a pessimistic vision, "a world that bears too much truth". A world in which the weight of being a woman leads to suicide, where imaginary gardens are not enough to shore against one's ruins, where politics are an unchanging morass, and rapists are ordinary men, where "if man is only appetite: then all is barbarism..." And yet.

Always "and yet", because there is art at all made of it. Because at the beginning of the novel (which is close to the end in a sense, which is "now"), we find men and women finally not in opposition and that there is empathy; and because of the last line of the second story (which just might be the end, this is a novel in fragments after all and we can do with them what we may): "and they lived fairly happily for quite a while afterwards." Which is really the best we can hope for in this life.

And is Century a novel? I vote yes, because its truth indeed lies in how its pieces relate to one another. Because I read the Gwen story "Serenissima" on its own once upon a time, and it seemed to "just be another piece of improbable pornography", but it the context of the rest of the book, I knew everything about her and she broke my heart.

Anyway, it occurs to me that this response to Century has done it no favours. That its biggest problem is that no one is ever going to to say, "Hey, read this" with a snappy one-sentence reason why. That it raises questions without answers, and begins an engagement that is unceasing, and it's more like someone handing you pieces of a puzzle than recommending you a book. Except you get to rearrange the pieces over and over again, which is infinitely more interesting, but frustrating too.

It will be hard to compare this book to others, because its level of engagement is on its own kind of plane. I'm not sure whether this will be points for or against it when it comes time to rank it against the other books. Apples to oranges perhaps (though both are delicious). So I'm glad I read it first, and I'm glad I read it at all, and I do hope I'm passing something on of its spirit, and others are inspired to read it too.

Canada Reads Independently Rankings:
1) Century by Ray Smith