Thursday, March 31, 2011

The narratives that make us (Books - Rodin's Debutante by Ward Just)

I am a fan of Ward Just's writing - reflective, masculine fiction that often spans the lives of its central figures, exploring how the larger motivating forces that comprise their characters intersect with the contexts of politics, art, and the private realm to make up their lives. Exiles in the Garden, Just's last book concerned a photo journalist who turns his professional eye to art photography - does one find more meaning in life living inside the fray or out of it, this book asked. The Translator is about adapting to change both in the historical and the personal contexts. I found Forgetfulness a particularly masterful novel about living post-loss - do we best remember by seeking violent justice or through love?

Just's latest, Rodin's Debutante, has a four-part structure and a subtlety similar to that of The Translator, but like Exiles in the Garden it looks at the life of a creative artist in the context of the personal as well as the political spheres. Lee Goodell's family leave their small Illinois town in the wake of its first violent crime, a rape, and move to the Chicago suburbs. Lee attends Ogden Hall, a private all-boys school, coming of age by leading their failing football team to victory. These events are charted in an old-world, third-person narrative voice. There are two strongly formative life events that propel Lee into his adulthood, one is a meeting with Ogden's Hall's reclusive founder who attempts to share some life lessons with Lee. Chiefly he imparts that one's successes are more valuable than one's mistakes. The second is a Rodin bust, putatively of Tommy's Ogden's wife, Marie, in the school's study hall, which influences his decision to become a sculptor.
The day before Christmas robin's-egg-blue boxes arrived by special messenger at the homes of the twenty-two members of the Ogden Hall football team. They were from Tiffany's, New York. Each box contained a three-ounce silver cup with the boy's name and jersey number and the year engraved on the inside rim. The mothers noticed the stamp on the bottom that indicated sterling silver and said in astonishment, Well! My goodness! There was no notes with the box or any indication of who sent it, befuddling the mothers who insisted that their sons write a thank-you note at once; but there was no one to send it to. Lee Goodell knew, but he believed that Tommy Ogden was owed his anonymity, if that was what he wanted. He certainly did not want the old man to be inconvenienced, forced to read twenty-two notes of appreciation, all composed by hand in schoolboy script. The benefactor thus remained unknown. Lee was delighted by the gesture and wherever he went thereafter he took the silver cup with him in his shaving kit, wrapped in its yellow chamois sleeve. When ever he had something to celebrate he filled the cup with whiskey or cognac and gave the old man a salute before he drank it off; the vessel was identical to Tommy Ogden's. At such time he remembered the final game, Hopkins's two touchdowns and his one, the missed point-after, the cheering all afternoon, long-haired Willa jumping, Mr. Svenson's tears, and Tommy Ogden's open Cadillac idling beyond the far goalpost. A beautiful day, a beautiful season, and a secret to wrap things up. Yet it was also true that the day was never anything more than itself. If there was a metaphor present Lee never discovered what it was.
We then experience the birth of Lee into his adulthood, this related in the first-person. A violent crime also occurs around this time, but to whom and in what way I won't reveal to you. I wasn't always convinced of Ward's rendering of Lee's dialogue as a young man, so self-possessed did it sound. I also found it striking that, while the text could conjure up physical pictures of what female characters looked like, I could never envision the males. Although Lee is a memorable central character, I have no idea what he physically looks like. But Just writes beautifully solid prose that is compact while covering swathes of time. He tells stories about the ideas that form us - our taste, our morals, our politics - and reveals them through plot and structure.

The events that form us are clearly this book's refrain. Or more precisely, it's not the events themselves, but the narratives we develop of them. There is a handsome and pleasing neatness to the structure of Just's novel. Two beautiful events, and two violent events, each of which find eternal life as narratives. These narratives are, on the one hand, the psychological scaffolding of Lee's character and, on the other, creative works - like those Lee (and Just) make. It is not so much the veracity of the events that are vital to their power, rather that they capture what is of essence. Actually, the truth of the narratives' surface details are not the matter at all. Lee goes on to value learning from his mistakes much more than his victories, and the bust is not of Marie. The violent acts are, in fact, failed completely by narrative. They conceal more than they reveal and yet, their force is irrefutable, strengthening in the case of Lee and crippling in the case of the young women who is raped.

There is another notable theme in Rodin's Debutante, namely how mens' successes in our society are so often built on a foundation of cruelty toward women. Rodin's bust was, initially to have been of Ogden's wife Marie. But in an impotent gesture of revenge, Ogden denies his wife the money, building a private school instead. A young woman of lower class is raped, the precise events of the crime are not covered in the newspaper - as the illusion of stability and safety its middle-class residents survive on is more important to the men in power than the well-being of the crime's victim. Just writes of a world governed by men who careen between what they see as irresolvable choices: intellectuality and violence, brawn and kindness, pragmatic wheeling-dealing and reclusiveness, and remembering victories or losses. Lee learns the value of confronting both sides of his nature and tries to make something both honest and lasting out of that knowledge. His medium, as it is free of words, sometimes lies less, but as marble has less explanatory power it reveals less too and Lee seems content with that.


Thomas Hogglestock said...

I am a big fan of Just myself. I have Exiles in the Garden on my shelf but I haven't read it yet. Now he has a new one. I better get moving.

Ted said...

Thomas - What's your favorite of his?

And, by the way, I've just started reading a recommendation of yours - The Student Conductor.