Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Writing you can stand on (Books - The Reserve by Russell Banks)

After a day of writing a paper about alpha-2 adrenergic receptor agonists and monoamine oxidase inhibitors I was really glad to fall into bed with Russell Banks' new novel The Reserve. At its core are a willful debutante, Vanessa, and a stubborn artist/political idealist, Jordan Groves. Groves lands his plane on the lake outside Vanessa's father's home in Upstate New York and takes her flying on the same night that her father dies of a heart attack. The story of these two people is interspersed with short italicized chapters set in Europe full of border crossings and forged passports. The book is said to be a thriller which I have to take on faith. In the 75 pages I've read it hasn't felt like one to me. What Banks seems to do in those pages is built two very strong characters from the toes up. Often he describes what he does and what she thinks. It feels a very 30s film idiom - the man of quick action, the woman who is strong because she watches everything and is very active too, but circumspect, social mores don't expect her to be aggressive.
Vanessa followed the two men, but kept a few feet behind them, silent and watching and listening, like a reluctantly roused predator, operating more on instinct than need. She liked the artist's hard concentration, how he stood before each painting and literally stared at it for long minutes, as if it were alive and moving and changing shape and color before his eyes; and she liked that he offered no comment, no praise, compliment, or critique; just looked and looked and said nothing and moved on to the next, until he had seen them all, then returned to three or four of the landscapes for a second long looks.

Banks really takes his time so that you can feel the time Jordan takes to look at those pictures and the time Vanessa spent watching him do so. His style is very...what, solid, you could say manly if you want to stay in the 1930s idiom. Lots of 'ands' and semicolons, as though he chopped his sentences out of wood. When he describes a thing he is damn-well going to describe it.

Now Vanessa could hear the airplane clearly and steadily. Though she could not see it, she knew it was coming in from the north, flying low, tracing the Tamarack River to the First Lake and one to its headwaters here at the Second. Suddenly the airplane appeared in the northern sky just above a line of black silhouetted spruce trees. It was rising in the distance over the water quickly, its gleaming belly exposed to the waning sun, as if the pilot had decided to take in the view of the entire lake and surrounding mountains and the darkening sky, when she heard the engine cut back. The airplane - a pale gray biplane with scarlet trim and two open cockpits, a goggled, hatless pilot in the forward cockpit, the other empty - slowed there, seeming almost to pause in flight and hover, when it banked to the west, heading toward the mountain wall that plunged straight into the glittering water.

It was a seaplane with two large pontoons, and she thought she was watching a man about to crash his airplane deliberately against the thousand-foot vertical slab of gray granite, and she forgot her cold thoughts and grew almost excited, for she had never seen anyone kill himself and realized that in some small way she'd always wanted to and was surprised by it. The pilot seemed about to smash the airplane against the rock face of the mountain, when, less than a hundred yards from it, he banked hard to the left, dipped the wings back to horizontal, cut the engine speed nearly to stopping, and swiftly descended toward the water. The airplane touched down at the far side of the lake, broke the surface, and slid into the water, unfolding high fans of silver spray behind the pontoons. Vanessa was relieved, of course, but felt a flicker of disappointment too.

I knew I liked that passage when I first read it, but I hadn't realized how much until I just typed it. Writing hewn of wood. It's deliberate, structural - like it is built and fastened with bolts - and when it's done you can stand on it. But a thriller? This writing takes too much time. It creates no cheap thrill. I'm not breathlessly turning pages, I'm hunkering down in a deep leather club chair with my scotch, the ice clinking, and reading that passage again.


Sam said...

I'll be curious to hear what you think as you progress through this one, Ted. I've heard more than a few negative comments about both the writing and the plot of this one...and even though I almost always enjoy a Russell Banks novel, I've been reluctant to buy this one because of that.

Ted said...

Sam - I'll let you know! So far so good.

LK said...

I've really liked Banks's The Swet Hereafter and Affliction (both also made into excellent films).