“I wonder, will I ever walk up any road alone?”

A fair question, posed by George Apley in one of the rare moments of unfettered candor in The Late George Apley.  Unfortunately, I’ve hit about the half-way point in the novel, and I can’t say it’s growing on me: in fact, it’s losing ground, and I think I can articulate the reasons with some specificity.

The intrusion of the narrator, Willing, is as irritating as it was at the story’s outset: I recognize that Marquand must intend for the narrator’s limited idea of George Apley to be revealing of the society in which George lived, but the hand is badly overplayed.  Willing doesn’t reveal new biases or interesting insights into his own character as time passes…he just continually reveals the same weaknesses and limits over and over again.  At every turn, he is quick to inform us that George was more or less the perfect person—a man who enjoyed a good laugh (but always knew when to be serious), who was popular with women (but never crossed any line of propriety that a decent fellow should observe), who respected his parents (although always thought for himself, but not in that excessively independent fashion that is now widespread among the younger generations), etc.  I get that there’s a purpose to this, but the problem is that Marquand lets Willing be too effective: the net result is that I really have almost no way of knowing if George is inaccurately described.  He can hardly have been a boozy blackguard who cursed his parents openly—I know Willing’s not being blatantly false about his character.  But I have so little to work on, and Willing is determined to hold the reins the whole way through.

The best epistolary novels (this book combines a number of narrative approaches, but excerpts from letters generally predominate) are effective because they reveal character, but Willing is constructing the novel to conceal.  He almost never has the interesting letters available to him, and so we suffer through stuffy letters to George from his pompous ass of a father and his intrusive nag of a mother, both of whom cloak all of their advice to him in the trappings of middle-class morality and the importance of the family’s position.  They’re obviously crushing the life out of their son, but again, not in an interesting way.  The problems in these relationships are more or less static, and none of this is ground-breaking.  The whole novel is beginning to feel like a Rube Goldberg device of character development, piling up the most elaborate chains of documents to accomplish the most simplistic of revelations.  I knew as much about Newland Archer‘s family relationships and how they had shaped his character in about a tenth of the time.  I know Marquand isn’t trying to be Wharton, but for goodness’ sake, who is he trying to be?

Professor Butts and the Self-Operating Napkin

This image of Rube Goldberg’s “self-operating napkin” is only slightly less complex than the approach Marquand takes to showing me that George’s mother is a bit overbearing. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s just frustrating—most of the letters aren’t written by George, so we lose the chance to get his character in that way.  But pretty much all of the other letters are those written to him, generally by overbearing older relatives.  So we never see any of their inter-relationships, or rather we see only those aspects that they might reveal in a letter to a young family member.  It’s sometimes mind-bogglingly frustrating—I want to shout at the author, “This is FICTION.  You could have invented ANYTHING.  Why am I suffering through the most stultifying family letters your mind could devise?”  I mean, seriously, even a writer of non-fiction doesn’t choose their subjects haphazardly—they try to illuminate people who can be illuminated.  Even when writing about someone who wasn’t in a position of power—a more “average” person like George is—a historian bases their decisions on what documents are available.  When Ken Burns was picking diarists to use as material for The Civil War, he picked Mary Chestnut because she has something worthwhile to say about a lot of the events.  He wouldn’t have picked a woman whose diary consisted largely of notes about what she had for lunch, and which books she was sending to her niece for her edification.  Marquand, who can invent anything he likes, has even more latitude than Burns did, and yet somehow I am mired in the letters of a family that is remarkably uninspired in its correspondence.  They’re not witty, they’re not daring, and their style is (literally) nothing to write home about.  I wish he’d looked more closely at Thornton Wilder, whose Bridge of San Luis Rey handles correspondence and correspondents masterfully in the figure of the Marquesa.  I understand that Marquand is trying to send a message about the bland oppression of this family, but a novelist has to be able to write about bland people in a way that is not bland to read.

The other issue, which I think stems from the above, is that nothing really happens to George.  For instance, he almost gets involved with a young woman he shouldn’t….not a prostitute, or anything, just someone from the wrong sort of family.  And then he doesn’t, because his parents think he shouldn’t.  This makes him sad (we guess—Willing is very reluctant to raise the issue at all, and barely handles George’s side of it).  But he moves on.  And we’re left not knowing what to make of all this—we never see what their relationship was really like, how serious it really was.  Was this a fling destined to end badly, or a romance that should have been?  Was George a bit condescending in his talks with her, or was he really the kind of man who could shift between classes like that?  The combined problems of A) seeing, for the most part, only what George and his parents would say to each other in letters, and B) seeing, exclusively, what Willing thinks he ought to reveal about his beloved and deceased old friend means that all conflict is sapped out of the book.  I’m at the mid-point, and I honestly can’t figure out why I’m still reading.  On the rare occasions that I get George unfiltered (the notes to his kids about their family history, and an occasional letter to a friend), I get the impression that he’d be an interesting character to know, but even then, this is slim pickings for a novel, isn’t it?  I mean, let’s suppose that I get more material later on in the novel that helps me see him a bit better—more letters to friends, etc.  What will this book have been about?  A skilled novelist manages to introduce us to a fascinating character (more than one, generally) in the context of a plot that gets us somewhere.  In the absence of a plot, there’s usually something of value—a symbolic message about philosophy, perhaps?—to compensate.  But here I really don’t see what it is.

This is a perfectly inoffensive book—it does a few nice things, on occasion, with the juxtaposition of letters showing how a young man presents himself one way to his family, and another way to his friends.  Every time the boat rocks slightly, the narrator settles it back down again immediately.  I wonder if, had Marquand acted differently, I could have enjoyed and learned something about a George Apley who walked alone—who was presented to me via 3rd person narration, or at least an unreliable narrator who was more able to make unexpected revelations in spite of their intentions.  As it is this will land with a very soft thud among the “why bother” books of the Pulitzer list unless Marquand can get this ship righted swiftly, and short of having Willing struck by an omnibus, it’s not clear to me how on earth he’ll manage it.

“Henceforth letter-writing had to take the place of all the affection that could not be lived.”

I didn’t give Thornton Wilder much credit at the outset—I see that my initial post on The Bridge of San Luis Rey is honestly a bit disdainful of his talents (while praising the setting and theme, conceptually at least).  But I have to revise my assessment, because he really is drawing me in.

This “second part” of the novel (it’s in five parts, the first being a very brief introduction already covered in my first post) focuses on the Marquesa de Montemayor.  The conceit of this section is that we (the narrator and I, the reader) live in a world where the Marquesa is a famous historical figure—the letters she exchanged from Peru with her daughter in Spain are, if not as well-known as Shakespeare’s sonnets, at least on the level of Boswell’s Life of Johnson or the correspondence of John and Abigail Adams.  So the book explores her relationship with her daughter through casual references to letters we “already know well” but adding details and insights to flesh out the Marquesa as a real person.

And she’s fascinating.  The Marquesa is a physically unattractive (and fairly unpopular) mother of a beautiful and well-regarded girl, but of course the truth is that her daughter is a cruel and unfeeling person while the Marquesa’s affection for her daughter is seemingly unlimited.  When her daughter moves to Spain with her husband, their extended correspondence is a burden to the daughter, but a labor of love for the mother—the Marquesa devotes essentially all her conscious hours to finding delightful little stories to share, or phrasing wicked remarks about bloated political somebodies.  She’s whimsical, philosophical, and witty (though sometimes a bit acid with that wit).  There’s a strange distance from her, of course, because of Wilder’s convention about her as a historical character: it’s less like getting to know Elizabeth Bennett than it is like reading a good biography of George Washington.  No matter how vivid it is, somehow I’m always reminded that this happened a long time ago…that I’m not really there.

So, early on, I’m taken with the Marquesa as a figure but I don’t feel “alive” in her world.  As it happens, I’ve been reading on a ways, so I have more to say about her, but I think it’s best to leave that for a post later today.  Thornton Wilder, though, is starting to impress me….I don’t know why he’s chosen to focus so narrowly on this one woman at the outset, but I’m curious how all the lives of those lost on the bridge will ultimately weave together.