This is a difficult book to reach a settled opinion about. (And yes, I know I ended that with a preposition. First of all, that’s not really a rule of English grammar. And second of all, “This is a difficult book about which to reach a settled opinion” sounded pretty pompous to me. Although maybe I tend to be pompous, regardless. But I digress…)
Lewis, in one sense, finally gets a hold of the book he wanted to write. Martin’s ability to recognize the bigness and unknowability of the world (as evidenced by the quotation above) is commendable, given how difficult that has been for him to accept, previously. The story takes an enormous turn as Martin’s work on phages (the work he failed to publish in time to become famous) becomes practically important. We zoom suddenly away from the U.S. to the Carribbean island of St. Hubert, where the plague has broken out, and Martin is needed. Lewis bursts into life—the exotic setting forces him to write some really beautiful stuff to help us imagine it. The politics on the island are somewhat complicated, and he creates some characters with at least a bit of depth. Martin’s position is complicated by the twin needs of salvation from plague and rigorous experimental design. And his position is further complicated by medical professionals on both sides of the issue, as well as Leora, who has accompanied him to St. Hubert for no very good reason, and who is forgotten by the plot too often, but who still plays a memorable role. There’s a nifty little story here—the tensions between human needs and scientific methods, the passing of an old order and the arising of a new one. It makes me wish Sinclair hadn’t drudged through a 350 page prologue to the short story he really wanted to write, since almost none of the background really matters to the story told on St. Hubert, and what little does play a role feels a bit forced. I can’t deny it’s been fun to read this book again, but it throws in somewhat sharp relief the dullness of much of what has transpired previously.
I don’t want to give away too much, since the end of the book is nearing. Suffice it to say that more than one character of some personal importance to Martin dies in this experience, and Martin rightly or wrongly feels a personal responsibility. I like the depth this forces out of him–his depression at his own failures is intense but totally consistent with the situation. It has, however, almost nothing to do with who he has been, and what he has done. I feel I can see a few threads tying the novel together, but as a whole it feels like a failure of purpose and vision. Lewis had the character of Martin Arrowsmith but not the sense of why his story needed to be told. He had some images of the life his character lived, but not a way to make the experience urgent and real. I have a little to finish here, and I hope it finishes strong. But the review I post (which will be my next post on the novel) will almost inevitably be an exploration of why a good novelist, with a good central character and a decent idea for a setting/theme, can somehow still fail to deliver a successful and rewarding reading experience. We’ll see.