Benjamin Hale and the ongoing hand-wringing over the failure to award the Pulitzer for Fiction in 2012

I’d set this particular topic down weeks ago, but a blog I read steered me to this essay about the Pulitzer Prize by Benjamin Hale, a novelist (who was eligible this year, but he swears that isn’t influencing him at all—Ann Patchett swore the same thing in her diatribe written several weeks ago….no offense to either writer, but I think in both cases the writer doth protest too much).  I would have let him go by uncommented, but A) he takes a shot at Laughing Boy, the winner in 1930, B) he takes a broad shot at all the early winners, and C) he takes a shot at the very notion that anyone would dare consider themselves fit to award a prize for true art.  I think Hale makes a few very reasonable observations, but I think he misses the boat in a few other ways, and hey, this is the Internet, and we both get to have our say.  He talks to an audience of tens of thousands, and I talk to you, my friends, fellow lit-bloggers, and spammers (how’s that American Airways scam coming, by the way? you guys really seem to be pushing it hard this week).  But I’ll take you all over his New York literati friends, who seem to be a relatively nice lot, I guess, but they seem awfully self-congratulatory as well (or that’s how his piece came off when I read it).

Anyway, here’s my responses, in order.  Laughing Boy, I will grant you, is not a work of lasting cultural impact like Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, although I kind of doubt Mr. Hale has read it.  If he had, he’d know that, unlike Hemingway, Oliver La Farge was doing something really extraordinary in 1930—he was a white American man writing a thoughtful and serious portrayal of minority characters, in which white Americans figure as bit players (and mostly cast in the role of villains—or at the very least are negatively portrayed).  In fact, I am hard-pressed to name any other young white male author doing anything so culturally smart and open-minded in that era—if there are others, I’d like to know about them.  No, La Farge is not Hemingway or Faulkner.  But to single his one book out as the Pulitzer’s most scorn-worthy decision is really cheap, and frankly I think shows that Hale is unfamiliar with the work, which doesn’t really inspire confidence.  I could certainly give him Pulitzers to rant about, if he wants them.

Regarding his shot at the early Pulitzer winners, I think that he seems awfully smug about the “forgotten” early novels, given that he then spends much of the rest of his piece noting that artists are not always appreciated in their own time—in particular, he wishes that he could encourage the unappreciated-in-his-time Herman Melville.  I agree with him on Melville, but here’s my question for Hale: how do you know that these novels have been justly forgotten?  Isn’t it possible that many of them have been as wrongly neglected today as Melville was wrongly neglected in his lifetime?  Why should we assume that our tastes now are better than their tastes were then?  I know from experience the worth of tackling another age’s literature and trying to understand it.  Sure, it’s sometimes deeply disappointing—I think we are better at seeing and appreciating some things now (like the validity of minority viewpoints and experiences)—but at other times I have been truly and wonderfully surprised.  I somehow suspect I’ve read far more of the Pulitzer’s first 20 years than Mr. Hale has—I can’t match his credentials as a writer, but I’d thank him not to talk too loudly about novels whose worth he’s been content to judge purely by their current popularity among the  academics with whom he discusses books.  Perhaps in another decade, or century, Josephine W. Johnson will be received into the canon as an important American voice, and T. S. Stribling will be acknowledged as having been as perceptive about the South he tried to chronicle as the vaunted William Faulkner was about his South.  I’ll admit it seems far-fetched.  But then, many authors have languished for centuries in obscurity before being returned to the light by the right critic champion.  Anyway, the basic problem I have is that his own argument undercuts his dismissive attitude about the early Pulitzer winners.

Lastly….man, am I reluctant to come out swinging in defense of literary awards.  I didn’t choose the Pulitzers for this blog’s mission because I’ve always been such a big fan.  I don’t hang breathlessly on the National Book Award nominations, and I’ll confess that I probably couldn’t name five Man Booker winners if you held a gun to my head.  But Hale’s lengthy ramble hits all sorts of odd points—attacking the idea of twenty journalists handing out the Pulitzer Prize, attacking groupthink on awards committees in general, side-swiping the Grammys for never giving awards to punk bands, etc., etc.—and really got under my skin after a while.  Firstly, Mr. Hale, on behalf of book lovers and librarians everywhere, I would ask you to cut out the professionalization of literary opinion that has been disastrous for a couple of American generations of readers.  An MFA getting in high dudgeon because twenty journalists—I mean, can you believe it, journalists???—are issuing a prize for a novel (how dare they have an opinion?) is all of the things I hate most about literary snobbery.  Do you really think only MFAs and novelists should be allowed to hand out awards for novels?  That journalists should be denounced as “a roomful of people who don’t necessarily know anything about literature” suggests to me that Hale doesn’t think ordinary readers get to have their opinion, or else that their opinions are of no worth.  And I personally think that stinks.  The Pulitzers have never pretended to be anything but what they are—the journalists are all identified and the prize has always been awarded by them.  Hale doesn’t even know the prize’s terms—he’s angry that they’re choosing “the best”, when the Pulitzer is almost alone among literary prizes in that its criterion doesn’t include the word “best”.  It’s simply recognizing “distinguished fiction”.  It’s journalists selecting (with the advice of a group of literary-minded jurors) a novel that they think merits attention, and prize money.  Sure, there’s a “best” implied in the act, I suppose, in that they choose only one, but I admire the award’s humility in not claiming the word “best”.  If Hale thinks awards shouldn’t be given by “a roomful of people who don’t necessarily know anything about literature”, he’s welcome not to pay attention to their efforts, or to organize a group of top novelists who would issue their own award.  But to shout negatively about it is just going to continue the lousy atmosphere that’s crept up around “serious fiction” in the United States—the notion that it’s difficult, that it’s only for people with postgraduate degrees who donate money to NPR, that the common person can’t be supposed to understand it or have a well-informed opinion about it, etc.  The fact that he dwells on who’s giving the award, and their lack of qualifications (as compared with him and his literary friends) really sours me on his commentary.

Photo of Herman Melville

“Perhaps the hypos are getting the best of Mr. Hale. I suggest he sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And why is it journalists giving this award, Mr. Hale?  Because Joseph Pulitzer, that covetous old sinner, left money for prizes of all sorts, and in addition to encouraging other endeavors in the art of writing, he wanted there to be a prize for the novel.  Who does it hurt, Mr. Hale, that someone wins the prize?  No one that I can think of, off-hand.  But I know who it helps.  You see, while Hale is dancing around lamenting the fate of the poor, forgotten, neglected, penniless Herman Melville (who was all of those things, and whose fate was lamentable—I’m not disagreeing with him on the merits of that case), he’s forgetting that the Pulitzer is in part a way out for people just like Melville.  Thornton Wilder was an unknown boarding school teacher in 1928, with one failed novel to his name, when his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, won the Pulitzer Prize.  It drew attention to what turned out to be a remarkable little novel, and changed Wilder’s life—he left the prep school to teach at the University of Chicago, and went on to write many notable plays and novels, including the unforgettable Our Town.  Had it not been for the Pulitzer, it’s hard to know what Wilder’s life would have looked like…maybe a lot more like Herman Melville’s?  The point is that if Old Joe Pulitzer felt like leaving a little money and fame, to be handed out once a year to a reasonably accomplished American novelist, I can’t work out why Hale thinks it’s a bad idea.  Does he think the literary world overhypes the Pulitzer?  Okay, then encourage them to pay attention to other awards—or suggest that people read more broadly, or whatever you like.  But don’t pretend that what you’re doing in this essay is more noble than what Joseph Pulitzer’s endowment is doing.  Every year (well, er, except for 2012, and the other occasional years when the award isn’t given), a novelist’s career is impacted for the better by this prize.  Sometimes it’s a famous name, but when it’s not, it’s the sort of thing that changes their life.  If Hale doesn’t want artists dying in obscurity like Melville, I think he should want more prizes and awards, more outpourings of love for writers, not less.

I know I got a bit worked up over this, but Hale’s commentary was a train wreck [upon consideration, I think I was a bit over the line with “train wreck”, since I did think Hale made some useful comments—I’d replace the phrase with something more like “Hale’s commentary was weighed down too much by the things that bother me…”] of the things that bother me most, especially that portion of his rant that seemed to exclude anybody who didn’t have his credentials from having a worthwhile opinion about literature.  I think novelists, and the professionals in the field of writing and reading more generally, should be praising the idea that you don’t have to be a writer to like good writing, and the idea that there can be all sorts of legitimate and worthwhile responses to a novel.  Don’t box people into having to think “the right thing” about the “right writers”—if they hate Faulkner, or Melville, we should be encouraging them to say why they feel that way.  And we should let that conversation (intense though it may be) spur all of the people involved into being more thoughtful, more purposeful, more excited readers.  Hale loses track of that in his piece, and it’s a shame.  All right, enough of my playing Don Quixote on behalf of the Pulitzers—back to reading, and hopefully blogging in the near future.

“This is not all behind us now, outgrown and cut away. It is of us, and changed only in form.”

Josephine W. Johnson, and her narrator, Marget, know a lot about human beings—what we love and fear, how we learn to live the roles assigned to us, maybe most of all what it means to be a part of a real family.  Marget’s tense, tight-jawed father still looms quietly over every family dinner, and the small actions of his wife and daughters all operate in orbit around his stoic panic over the mortgage and the ability of the land to yield what they need.  Marget is convinced (and how can I not be, with her as my guide) that this summer defines their lives—that it certainly expresses all they’ve lived thus far, and given her experience of life thus far it seems all but certain that it will chart the course of their future.  The import of the summer being narrated is still not apparent to me, though the arrival of a new hired hand (Grant, the minister’s son) seems obviously significant on a farm with three eligible daughters in their late teens or early twenties.  It doesn’t matter.  Marget is bewitching as a narrator—frank about her shortcomings and misgivings, perceptive about the desires and anxieties of others, sharp-eyed for an image from the natural world surrounding them.  Johnson doesn’t have the knife-like wit of the authors most in command of the language (yes, this is me signalling once again that I don’t think The Age of Innocence will be displaced from my “favorite Pulitzer novel” position), but she is remarkably good, and the book is a joy to read.

Johnson and Marget are very reminiscent of Thornton Wilder, whose novel is narrated in retrospect by an unnamed character who gives away the ending for the sake of the plot.  Marget hasn’t done that yet, but she’s writing from “November” and it’s clear the book won’t be about the “how” of what happened in the summer, but rather the “why” or “what it means”.  Wilder eschewed dialogue for patient and calm imagery, and as I said at one point:

Wilder thinks that a person’s life moves at a much gentler pace than other novelists do.  Most writers tackle detail with a passion, revealing character in the thousand tiny moments that make up a day, a conversation, an encounter.  Wilder sees us as speaking our selves in the long cadence of our lives, an unbroken line of chant that arcs up and down over the course of years, of decades. . . . He reveals the details of a life carefully, stacking the dominoes gently and slowly, until when we reach those rare moments of dialogue (written dialogue occurs perhaps 5 or 6 times over 40-50 pages on Uncle Pio) we can see all the threads of his life weaving together in the simplest of sentences.  It heightens the tensions underlying every conversation because Wilder has established why that conversation matters.

I repeat that passage of mine because Johnson gives me the same feeling.  It’s not a perfect analogy—Wilder’s book traces characters over decades, while Marget’s framing of the story allows her (at most) a decade or so of flashbacks across their years living on the farm, and really most of the description and action is boiled down into six months or so in what I take to be a summer in the late 1920s or early 1930s.  But Marget has that same basic belief about people—that who they are is essential, that it is very difficult to change, and that a true understanding of a person allows us to interpret and make sense of their whole life by reading individual moments in the context of the larger landscape.

And I think it’s a testament to Johnson’s craft and ability that, despite my extreme “American family farm fatigue” (described in an earlier post), this novel is winning me over.  It feels modern in its treatment of the farm in a way no one else has, maybe because instead of making it sentimental or titanic, it captures the mundane terrors of depending on rain and sun and seed to be dependable.  For some reason, as I read I keep hearing a soundtrack in my mind, and it’s Nanci Griffith (too often overlooked, and a delight)—in part it’s because she sings so sweetly but truthfully about the small farmer’s life, and I’ll admit it’s in part because a lot of Griffith’s lyrics are eerily echoed in the novel (I hummed “I Wish It Would Rain” for hours after Marget comments “I wish to God it would rain”, and there are many other coincidences….so many that I wonder if Griffith read Now in November as a child and internalized some of the phrases).  That probably won’t make sense to (or appeal to) anybody but me, but if this blog isn’t a record of my personal idiosyncrasies as a reader, I don’t know what else it is.

I don’t want to say a lot more about the book right now—detailing plots or characters.  This novel works, and if you think you have any sympathy at all for a book that examines the crumbling American family farm in the Great Depression through the eyes of a sensitive and articulate farmer’s daughter, I really think you ought to go out and find a copy of this book in your local library or used bookstore.  Start reading it, post a comment or two here, react to my review (when it comes) in real time.  I think it’s worth it.  As one more little taste-test to try to entice you, here’s a little of Marget’s narration at the end of a chapter, where she’s been thinking about her willful and wild older sister, Kerrin, and is tying those thoughts into a larger idea [the ellipses in the quote are in the original]:

“I wanted to forget her, wanted to pretend a little longer that tomorrow—some time—she would be different.  Or gone.  It seemed at times that this feeling of waiting, of life suspended and held in a narrow circle, would go with her.  I knew that this wasn’t so, that nothing would really begin that had not its roots in ourselves, but could not help feeling she was the thing that caused this smothering.  There was something in her—or lacking—that kept her from seeing outside the warped and enormous ‘I.’  It came to me that she would do anything she chose, because she saw wrongly and did not need any excuse but desire. . . . What is sanity, after all, except the control of madness?  But it must be something more, too, a positive thing—inclusion of love and detachment from self. . . . I had to fight up thought by thought to things known and recognized all my life, and yet until this year never realized.  But until May the first fog of happiness covered up much of this, and stood between me and the real seeing.”

1928: The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder

Literary Style:

I’ve gone on at some length in previous posts about what works for Wilder, and why I wouldn’t have guessed it would work.  He finishes the book in that in-between place, where sometimes I can see why what he does is brilliant and emotionally gripping, and sometimes I feel a bit distanced from his platitudes.  Marianne Moore (I think it was) once said “a poem should not mean, but be”.  Not bad advice.  And I think it’s a good flashlight to shine on this book, since it’s at its best when Wilder doesn’t make it obvious what he “means”, but instead paints the landscape with light and lets us ponder the mysteries that lie in the shadows, or what may rest behind that ridge.  The Bridge of San Luis Rey is good at this in large part because he sets out to explain the unexplainable—why do some people die and others don’t?  What can make sense of the death of five people who were unfortunate enough to be standing on a bridge at the moment of its collapse?  Meaning is too hard to draw out of the situation, and I think he mis-steps (but only briefly) at the end when he tries to soar a bit, and explain what this all might be about.

Wilder has excelled at many aspects of the novel that I’ve found lacking in some other Pulitzer winners: perhaps most critically, he’s very good at creating engaging characters.  All of the characters we encounter, even the crueler ones, feel alive to me, and I would gladly have spent more time with each of them.  The Marquesa, in particular, has a charisma that I can’t deny—I don’t know what it is I like about her, but I could have read a whole novel just tracing her life.

Life-tracing is a good term, perhaps, for what Wilder does well: certainly the plot isn’t complicated.  We know everyone’s end before they begin.  But Wilder takes us along with them, slowly drawing the corners of their life together until we can see the whole thing with one sweep of the eyes, and even though we cannot explain why they die on that bridge on that morning, somehow we know that it came at the right moment.  There’s something about these lives that integrates death intelligibly: even those whose lives seem “interrupted” by death, who would not have said they were “ready to go”, go to their deaths in a way that gives peace (with tears).

I think Wilder’s to be commended for many things—he’s bold enough to choose a setting outside the U.S., to talk rapidly about Spanish court life and 18th Century Spanish drama without dumbing it down for an American audience, to tackle a huge issue (the problem of evil) without resolving it neatly and pleasantly.  It may be most bold of all to tell a story with no central character (though many recurring faces appear), no real central conceit other than that every main character will die (in the same manner) and that we want to know why.  It’s a strange novel…if he’d written it 40 or 50 years later, I feel sure he’d have stepped into science fiction, since his choice of 18th Century Peru was, I think, an attempt to free himself from his readers’ preconceptions in order to focus on the ideas (something I think is now very common in the best sci-fi) and let them drive the whole story.  But unlike a lot sci-fi authors, Wilder’s not prescriptive…it’s not obvious who he’s rooting for, or even whether or not he thinks these deaths are just ends for wicked souls (most of them have something to be sorry for, at least) or terrible, tragic losses of innocent life.  In the end, as a literary talent, I don’t know that a lot of other authors could (or should) emulate his approach in this novel, but I thought it was excellent.

Historical Insight:

I can’t give him high marks here.  It’s not Wilder’s fault—he didn’t know that I’d come along 80+ years later and want him to give insight into 1928 in the United States.  Nevertheless, it’s a criteria and one I can hardly see how to apply: perhaps the character of the flamboyant actress, Camila Perichole, connects on some level with the New Woman of the 1920s, but even that is a stretch.  And the meditative, thoughtful pace of this book, and its fixation on the very humble reality of death, really seem light years from the decadent, devil-may-care, last call year of 1928, where the U.S., perched on the brink of a precipitous depression, careened blissfully through the night towards the iceberg of Black Tuesday.  I expect the next few novels to reveal those cultural currents really starkly (I hope they will, at least), but Wilder doesn’t seem to have cared to engage with his society—not in this book, at least.


My ratings system is hard to fine-tune, but here’s my considered opinion: “I strongly recommend reading this book, in the right mood.”  I think it’s great—I really do!—but I also know that I needed to get about 20-30 pages in before I could tell that it was worthwhile, and I generally had to read it in moments of real peace, usually in solitude.  It’s not a great book for dashing through as you jostle elbows with folks on a crowded bus.  I’d rank this my 2nd favorite novel thus far, though, so if you don’t normally read in places with peace and quiet, find the place, make the time, and get this book.  Please.  I think you’ll be glad you did.

The Last Word:

It’s becoming a frequent complaint of mine that it’s hard to pick this last excerpt.  Maybe doing so is a bad idea?  I’m not sure.  At any rate, in this book particularly, it’s very hard to choose something from late in the book, since all the principal characters are dead.  So I’m going to back track (if that’s all right with you), and supply a piece of the last character’s section, Uncle Pio’s section, that I’d considered excerpting from in my blog post about him (but cut for considerations of space).  I hope you enjoy this little view into Uncle Pio and Camila’s work on her skills as an actress (and perhaps the view also includes Wilder’s own feelings about his art?), and I encourage you to vote in the poll just below this post!  And now, in conclusion, take it away, Thornton Wilder:

“The Perichole would fling her face and arms upon the table amid the pomades, caught up into a tremendous fit of weeping.  Only perfection would do, only perfection.  And that had never come.

Then beginning in a low voice Uncle Pio would talk for an hour, analyzing the play, entering into a world of finesse in matters of voice and gesture and tempo, and often until dawn they would remain there declaiming to one another the lordly conversation of Calderon.

Whom were these two seeking to please?  Not the audiences of Lima.  They had long since been satisfied.  We come from a world where we have known incredible standards of excellence, and we dimly remember beauties which we have not seized again; and we go back to that world.  Uncle Pio and Camila Perichole were tormenting themselves in an effort to establish in Peru the standards of the theatres in some Heaven whither Calderon had preceded them.  The public for which masterpieces are intended is not on this earth.”

“My dear, Uncle Pio is the most delightful man in the world, your husband excepted…”

“…He is the second most delightful man in the world.  His conversation is enchanting.  If he weren’t so disreputable, I should make him my secretary.  He could write all my letters for me, and generations would rise up and call me witty.  Alas, however, he is so moth-eaten by disease and bad company, that I shall have to leave him to his underworld.  He is not only like an ant; he is like a soiled pack of cards.  And I doubt whether the whole Pacific could wash him sweet and fragrant again.  But what divine Spanish he speaks and what exquisite things he says in it!”

This penultimate section of Thornton Wilder’s novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, focuses on the character of Uncle Pio, who I couldn’t possibly describe more succinctly or scathingly than the Marquesa just did in that excerpt from a letter to her daughter.

He is a delight.  His whole life is a poem, and I don’t want to say too much about it—I just want you to pick up the novel and read it.  The central aspect of his life is the complicated relationship he develops with the temperamental actress Camila Perichole (a woman who is woven in and out of this novel, beginning with her mockery of the Marquesa on stage and the subsequent astonishing apology), who he looks on with—what?  Love, yes, but what kind of love?  The whole question of love and humanity is present in everything Uncle Pio does, and Wilder soars to real heights in this section.  I haven’t quoted him extensively since he’s not normally turning phrases that demand to be shared, but he finds a rhythm and a style in this section.  Just look at this paragraph describing a social gathering he and Camila attend—

“All night they talked, secretly comforting their hearts that longed always for Spain and telling themselves that such a symposium was after the manner of the high Spanish soul.  They talked about ghosts and second-sight, and about the earth before man appeared upon it and about the possibility of the planets striking against one another; about whether the soul can be seen, like a dove, fluttering away at the moment of death; they wondered whether at the second coming of Christ to Jerusalem, Peru would be long in receiving the news.  They talked until the sun rose, about wars and kings, about poets and scholars, and about strange countries.  Each one poured into the conversation his store of wise sad anecdotes and his dry regret about the race of men.  The flood of golden light struck across the Andes and entering the great window fell upon the piles of fruit, the stained brocade upon the table, and the sweet thoughtful forehead of the Perichole as she lay sleeping against the sleeve of her protector.”

It’s not ornate like Fitzgerald (who would have taken far more words with this party, and forced me to the dictionary at least once), but it feels incredibly powerful to me.  I think I’ve discovered what makes Wilder work, and what makes this novel so different from the others I’ve read.  Wilder thinks that a person’s life moves at a much gentler pace than other novelists do.  Most writers tackle detail with a passion, revealing character in the thousand tiny moments that make up a day, a conversation, an encounter.  Wilder sees us as speaking our selves in the long cadence of our lives, an unbroken line of chant that arcs up and down over the course of years, of decades.  Some writers gloss past details that they can’t quite make work, hoping we’ll follow the plot past the speed bump, and for a while it seemed like that was Wilder’s M.O.—a long sloppy plot that hadn’t been worked out well.  But I see how this book works on me.  He reveals the details of a life carefully, stacking the dominoes gently and slowly, until when we reach those rare moments of dialogue (written dialogue occurs perhaps 5 or 6 times over 40-50 pages on Uncle Pio) we can see all the threads of his life weaving together in the simplest of sentences.  It heightens the tensions underlying every conversation because Wilder has established why that conversation matters.

There is more to say, but I won’t say it.  How Uncle Pio comes to the end of his life, and the shock I felt when I read the last vignette before his plummet from the bridge, need to be experienced directly, not through the filter of this blog.  The next post on this book will surely be the review—the last section is short, and will (I now trust) tie together these lives in a way that both clarifies and deepens the mystery.  Wilder’s trying to get a good hold on life, deep in the marrow, and see it for what it truly is.  I think he’s getting somewhere.  Go get the book and read it.

Something brief to tide you over…

I don’t know why spring break is a time not to blog, but it’s certainly been slow!  My apologies to those few of you who look in on me.  I just have a brief chance here (leaving work and on my way to a dinner appointment) to say that the weekend will bring you many things—a poem later today (courtesy of the mad Irish bard, William Butler Yeats), and at least two blog posts (I’ve read ahead of myself) on The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which is gripping, beautiful, and strangely aloof all at once.  I have plenty of thoughts, and will make enough time to share them.  So, until a little later, au revoir.

“On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.”

So begins the 1928 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel: The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder.  Yes, that Thornton Wilder, as in the author of one of the most performed high school plays ever, Our Town.  I’m afraid the authorial presence you get in Our Town surfaces early here, but more on that in a moment.

What I want to note first is that we have stepped outside of the United States for the first time in the history of the Pulitzer.  Okay, so Willa Cather took her hero for a stint overseas in World War I, and yes, some of the best moments in Arrowsmith consisted of an extended stretch in the Caribbean.  Before there has always been an American center to the novel—often a quintessentially American center—and Wilder at least has the daring to move outside that sphere for his setting.

The course of the novel is laid out pretty clearly from the beginning.  The collapse of the bridge was witnessed, we are told, by a Catholic missionary, Brother Juniper.  Brother Juniper is so convinced that God purposes all things that he decides to make a study of the five lives lost in the collapse of the bridge, since clearly their fates were foreordained.  He hopes, by careful examination, to prove God’s divine power to the “poor obstinate converts” he’s working with in Peru.  And, we are told, he believes he’s gotten to the bottom of the situation without ever understanding who the five people really were.  Our novel, then, will show what Brother Juniper did not see, and look into the question of whether human life is a fundamentally grim and pessimistic affair, or rather a beautiful (if subtle) mystery that connects us to a higher power.

This is a fascinating and promising premise for a novel—following five lives to a seemingly random and catastrophic death, seeking a clue in their details to the truth about the universe.  I’ll confess, it may be the best novel I’ve read yet, if we only consider how it plays as a paragraph (envision for a moment how The Age of Innocence would sound in a paragraph summary….I wouldn’t read it, on that basis—would you?).  But Wilder seems interested in writing this novel the way the Stage Manager narrated life in Grovers Corner.  The narrator refers to “you and I”, meaning me, the person reading the novel, and him—in fact he notes that a character doesn’t understand the things that “you and I” do.  We’re about one step from “dear reader” territory, here.  It’s possible to write an engaging story using that kind of narrator–the omniscient benevolent uncle, condescending slightly to the reader but in a good-humored way that makes you content with your cup of cocoa and the sweetly realized conclusions with their pinkish moral hues.  But I don’t think you can write a novel that examines the soul-scarring questions of mortality, fate, and free will in that voice.

I may be jumping the gun—Early Autumn, after all, began in not terribly promising fashion, and proved to be a really nice and well-constructed novel (in my opinion).  But I’m skeptical.  The novel at least has the merit of brevity (a little over 200 pages, and small, wide-margined pages, at that)….we’ll see how this goes.