Prelude to Insanity
Cleaver by Tim Parks
Where do the humiliated hide out in the 21st century? It's not just a question for ex-governors and gadflies, since public personae flee the same thing that hounds us all in a more minor fashion—the constant swirl of the media and its appetite for scandal and vengeance. Is it possible for us to unplug from this electronic drip feed (not to mention our BlackBerries), and if we do, what happens to our minds?
This is one of the more pressing questions hanging over Tim Parks' agitated, engaging new novel, Cleaver. As the tale begins, its BBC television presenter hero Harold Cleaver has simultaneously experienced the apex and nadir of his public career. He just gave a rousing confrontational interview with President George W. Bush. He was then blindsided by his son Alex's damning roman à clef Under His Shadow.
Cleaver's response is swift and understandable. He drops everything and escapes to South Tyrol, a remote region of the Italian Alps. But he has trouble letting go. The book's early segments ring familiar and true chimes of the life of an e-mail addict. Climbing up mountains that inspired Wordsworth to write "The Prelude," Cleaver is far too busy holding one of his two cellphones to the sky, looking for a signal, to feel anything sublime. His first impulse upon finding an Internet café is to Google himself.
Parks is a clean, crisp writer and a terrific journalist, and in the early sections of the book it's hard not to feel that these two sides are somewhat at war with one another. The opening section feels a little too slick, the details of Cleaver's life falling into a ready-made template. Cleaver's lifelong partner, Amanda, is a former Guardian arts editor; his angry son's novel has been short-listed for the Booker Prize. The tug of the real world is strong.
But once Cleaver stops checking his incessantly buzzing text messages and moves farther up the mountain into a vacated cottage, the book becomes weirdly gripping. Unplugged, Cleaver's thoughts carom wildly across the page, interrupted by the fictional accusations hurled at him by his son's novel. Sentences begin in the third person and then skitter into Cleaver's voice, only to morph into sentences Alex published in Under His Shadow.
In his head, Cleaver answers Alex point by point, but it's hard not to be somewhat on the side of the son. Cleaver was a true cad, his lovers too numerous to count, his diet a death sentence waiting to happen. He lived like a Roman senator without even being elected, vacuuming up the booze and the sex and going back for thirds, fourths, fifths.
Not surprisingly, emerging from this banquet of self-regard, Cleaver finds the real world is a novelty, a fact Parks hammers home a little too insistently. "All over the world, while I was holding forth on television, men were doing those simple practical jobs," Cleaver thinks fatuously as he sees one of the villagers going about his everyday life. As for housework, Cleaver is close to useless. He can barely carry the milk and cheese he is given down the mountain.
There is an element of self-punishment to Cleaver's exile, and Parks plays that as well for small chuckles. The former occupant of Cleaver's cottage may have been a Nazi. All that remains to blunt his anxiety is a doll and a rheumy-eyed dog clearly homesick for the former occupant. It's not like Cleaver could do much about lust, should it overtake him—high blood pressure has made him impotent. And one of the only women he encounters is a teenager who is vaguely disgusted by him.
The hard thing about Cleaver is that even when Parks' hero has stopped battling and started doing what therapists like to call processing, it's hard to summon the pity. Arguing (in his head) with his son, Cleaver angrily wonders why the young man couldn't appreciate all the work his father did. He wonders why his son couldn't see how the death of his daughter Angela destroyed him, drove him toward a life of performing. Sad, and yet Cleaver remains incapable of imagining what it was to be his son.
In spite of all this, the pity does eventually come, and that's probably one of the book's biggest achievements. This self-important, completely unlikable man has—like all of us—true thoughts. A part of him lingers in delayed bereavement. His regrets about his dead daughter, buried though they are in free-associations, sink like stones into this seemingly light novel, their weight not apparent until Cleaver's story comes to an end, when he emerges from a fog of reflection and looks out across the Alps and sees nothing, nothing at all.
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
Toward the end of Jhumpa Lahiri’s mournful, deeply satisfying new collection of stories, two Bengali lovers visit a museum in an Italian town founded by Etruscans. There, amidst dusty sarcophagi, they discover shelves lined with terra cotta urns depicting the journey the Etruscans made to this landscape—a landscape since claimed and reclaimed by several other populations. “The sides were covered with carvings showing so many migrations across land,” observes Lahiri’s narrator, “departures in covered wagons to the underworld.” It is a beautiful, yet idealized, image of how people get from here to there. Nothing at all like the scattered, dislocating journey the narrator and her family made to the U.S.
Unaccustomed Earth is a profound meditation on the emotional undertow of these migrations. Ranging in setting from Seattle to suburban Boston, Rome to the clattering streets of Calcutta, Lahiri’s cast of mostly Bengali characters struggle to grow accustomed to their new homes, their new families created by loss sustained in faraway places. In the title story, a recently widowed father flies out to Seattle to visit his daughter, a new mother, ferrying a secret about a woman he has begun to see. “Once in a Lifetime” chronicles a brief time when the Chaudhuri family lived with friends outside Boston while searching for a new home. It later emerges that their house-hunting has a haunted edge: Mrs. Chaudhuri has cancer. The home they buy will be the place she dies.
Throughout Unaccustomed Earth, a younger generation begins a new life, new families, while their parents age, their traditions diluted by American spouses and education. An archipelago of elite American universities stretches throughout the stories, the arrival halls for the younger generation: Swarthmore, Harvard, MIT, Colgate. Here is where Lahiri’s characters meet, gravitating toward each other, sometimes pulling apart due to the centripetal force of parental pressure. Few writers of any nationality write a love story as heartbreaking as Lahiri. She did it in her Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies and she does again here, several times, especially in the three linked stories that conclude the book.
What makes them so devastating is how often the end of an affair isn’t just the collapse of love, but the loss of what that love represents. In the case of the narrator of “Going Ashore,” it is a chance to be whole again. Her parents, who moved to the United States, certainly knew they’d be giving up this sense of cohesion for a better life—but by insisting on an Indian husband they make the fatal mistake of assuming life from a world away can be safely imported into a new world without breakages or cracks.
This is an impossible theme to capture in miniature. So while Lahiri paints domestic life with her usual precision, her tales’ great power emerges from the way she compresses entire family histories into these stories. Like the work of Alice Munro and William Trevor, her tales read like miniature novels. Finishing them, you almost wish the characters could know that here—in these pages—their lives makes a beautiful, if terrible kind of sense.