Books read: 3/26. Weeks remaining: 48
Her name was Magda, like one of the Gabor sisters. Constantine lost himself in her the way a coin gets lost through a storm drain. With Magda he felt himself falling and then shining up from the darkness, a prize, hidden and hard to reach.
Michael Cunningham is the crazy-gifted author of The Hours, which the 2002 movie was based on, and Specimen Days, the altogether more peculiar but stunning novel that I read at university, no doubt for a postmodern literature unit.
At the risk of devolving into boring uni-speak, I would call this thoroughly modernist and thus very different from The Hours and Specimen Days, though I picked it up based on how good these were.
This is closer in style to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, though it came out six years earlier… a fat, glorious American family saga to curl up with, spanning the multiple generations that live between 1935 and 2035.
Constantine, a Greek migrant, works to achieve the American dream for his wife, Mary, and three children; but one by one, they reject everything he has tried to give.
What had happened? Someone like Billy, a man so well provided for, should be devouring the world. He should be striding through his life, able as a horse, smart as a wolf, squeezing the rich meek blood out of women’s hearts. When Mary’d given birth to a son, Constantine had imagined himself taking handfuls of the future and stuffing them in his mouth. Daughters, even the best of them, disappeared into the lives of men. But a son carried you. His pleasures included you; you lived in your skin and you lived in his as well.
Constantine and Mary do not understand their children or the pathways they choose. Susan, Billy and Zoe struggle to leave their never-quite-happy family home behind, but cannot altogether succeed. They and their own children carry its burdens everywhere they go.
She looked at the man in the wig, who stood like a crazy goddess of propriety and delusion, his sharp face jutting out from between the silver curtains of his wig and piles of colored bracelets winking on his arms. Zoe thought of Alice on the far side of the looking glass, an innocent and sensible girl. What Alice brought to Wonderland was her calm good sense, her Englishness. She saved herself by being correct, by listening seriously to talking animals and crazy people.
The 100-year structure gives a steady, driving force that anchors the dreamy delicacy of Cunningham’s prose, the sense of meanings breathing beneath ordinary things. He articulates the consciousness of all human beings, lonely inside their own skins and experiencing the world in ways they cannot describe to others:
Cunningham’s is the kind of writing I love most, the kind that must send would-be novelists into fits of despair and self-doubt. This is both a compulsive read and an exhilarating one: it’s soul-food.
It will take some self-control to move on to D, without just picking up the next Cunningham book on my shelf (A Home at the End of the World, in case you were wondering). But… what’s this? My friend Sturdy has just dropped off Robert Galbraith’s Silkworm! Perhaps an interlude is in order…
Keep it or let it go? Going to keep this one, and try to foist it upon loved ones one by one.
More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac here.