Whether they consciously realize it or not, all the works of great novelists are testament to Sigmund Freud’s model of the mind. Hacks have it easy – apply some sparkly phrases to formula, stir, bake and sell. There’s nothing wrong at all with being a hack. As I have often said, whether the medium is books, music, theatre or designing cocktail napkins for posh gatherings, if you can manage to make a living out of creating stuff, good for you! You’ve won the game of life and may you feast well upon the banquet of your rewards.
(Have they all left now, those genre people? Oh good, now we can talk without hurting their feelings. Sit close anyway, just in case they overhear.) Great novelists, and by that I mean those who build a truly original story out of some flash of idea that raises their passion, that is a vastly more difficult task. That original flash, that “thing” in all its thingness, is pure Id. The writer feels compelled to feel it and explore within it for as long as it takes until every creviced nuance of its deep, long cave has been touched and smelled, every echo has been heard. This may take a very, very long time. In the case of Caroline Leavitt’s gold mine of Cruel Beautiful World (Algonquin) my information says that it took her eight years of underground labor to extract its wealth.
But why so long? After all it only took Christopher Columbus a jaunty little sail of ten weeks before he thudded into the Caribbean Islands, and so discovered a New World, disregarding the fact that its inhabitants had known it was there all the time. The problem for the novelist is that Columbus had faulty instruments and dodgy maths, hence he really didn’t know where in hell he was going. The novelist though is ironically burdened by exceptionally well-defined maps; and absolute virtual reality holograph as to what a novel should look like, what route to take to it and through it, and where exactly one should land upon reaching the final destination. That is the Super-Ego at work, insisting on the structure that the novelist must form-fit the Id’s passion into. This leaves the novelist herself as – you guessed it – the Ego, the great balancer.
I raise this point because in reading – I equally admired both the tangible love (and I choose that word not in haste, but with precision) Leavitt shows for the material, as well as the exquisitely precise craftsmanship by which the story is presented. In fact, I actually “did a naughty” as far as reviewers are concerned – and by the way, Caroline Leavitt is one of the few professional reviewers I actually admire. Most of the others are already dead; not by my hand, just in case you’re fearful. About halfway through my reading, I found Caroline on Facebook and messaged her, saying, “Your book has made me cry. Damn you and bless you in equal parts.” Point is, neither the pure emotion of the original idea nor the shrewd craftsmanship of Leavitt as an artisan take a back seat to the other. And that, my dear friends, is a hard nut to crack.
Speaking of nuts, here’s the shell of the plot, bearing in mind that I cannot and will not give away the massive swerve that happens halfway through. At the tail end of the 1960s, two young sisters – in birth order, Charlotte and Lucy – are orphaned and come to live with their quite older half-sister Iris in Waltham, outside Boston. Iris does not reveal this relationship as a sibling to them immediately, as the girls have quite enough on their plate. Lucy, at age 16, runs off with her high school teacher William to Pennsylvania where he teaches at one of those free-form, open concept/open mind schools that were all the rage 40-some years ago until the world realized they didn’t work very well as far as education is concerned. Neither Charlotte nor Iris know where Lucy is. Complications arise.
In very definite, clear ways Cruel Beautiful World is Vladimir Nabokov re-writing Theodore Dreiser with a screenplay by Ingmar Bergman. Or, you know, in Charlie Brown terms, you might just see a ducky and a horsey and have just as good a time as I did. However, I don’t throw in these gigantic names in order to generate Google hits. They are apt and deserve explication.
The influence of Nabokov, that beloved Butterfly Man of literature, is clear in the William/Lucy relationship. We were all taught by a William in high school if we were lucky enough to know him, and even more lucky to not know him too well. He is an archetype of the highest order; to paraphrase Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau in describing his character the Rev. Scott Sloane, William is the fighting young teacher who can talk to the young. The rebel teacher, ah long may he live! Damn the rule books, free thought for all … so long as there’s free love for me.
William is an unrealized self-irony and full praise to Caroline Leavitt for not beating we readers over the head with a shovel in over-elaborating that. This man who supposes to espouse freedom has captivity as his greatest desire. In Cruel Beautiful World it is never laid out as obvious, but William’s desire for the young mind and body of a student is the order for his feast of someone, anyone, he can actually control, shape, and grow.
And yet, Leavitt never allows herself to supply the reader with a ready-made judgement. Instead, and meal preparation is a cunning device that exists just underneath the conscious layers of her novel, metaphorically she never slaps a fast food menu in front of us; rather, here are the available ingredients, now you go make something out of them.
That too applies to the death in the novel, the swerve in the plot that I cannot give away. It is a shock swerve. At the point I messaged Caroline Leavitt, I was quite sure I knew where Cruel Beautiful World was headed because, well you know darling, I read. But I did not see this one coming, even though it makes perfectly good sense. And this is where the grim visage of Theodore Dreiser and An American Tragedy rises over the horizon like an angry Moon or a blood-minded Mars. If you have never read it, well for God’s sake stop wasting your time on my drivel, and go read something worthwhile! If you have already read Dreiser, then let’s carry on. The others can catch up later.
An American Tragedy was significant because it effectively took the murderer’s side in describing a crime; that the vise of fear and social pressure could lead one – Anyone? You? Me? – into bashing someone over the head with a canoe paddle. Leavitt’s character death is not quite that overt, and as such is in many ways better. Go ahead, after you read the novel ask yourself this: Whose fault was it that this character died? Hack novels answer questions. Mediocre novels ask them. Great novels cause you to create your own.
As to Bergman, Cruel Beautiful World resonates so much with that wonderful director’s Persona. We are who we are, yet who we are is buried beneath layers of who we wish to present to the world, even if in the latter that leaves us emotionally paralyzed. No one in Cruel Beautiful World is precisely who they pretend to be: Iris the sister who pretends to be an elderly aunt, Lucy the non-academically inclined who wants to be a writer, Charlotte the studious who wants boys to notice her, and so on. The drama – and it is deliciously delivered – is how each character finds his or her self forced to the surface, the truth bursting through the cocoon of the long-lived lie.
At the heart, and quite literally at the mid-point of the novel, Leavitt includes what would be – if stood alone – one of the most achingly beautiful short stories I have ever read. That is the story of Iris and her marriage to Doug, who is a closeted homosexual in a time and a society when there was really no choice other than to remain closeted. Iris comes to knowledge, accepts, comforts, and finds – if not a complete happiness, then certainly a happiness of itself.
I was, I admit, enormously glad when I found a slight flaw in Cruel Beautiful World, besides the title which I’ll admit to you doesn’t float my boat. If I hadn’t, I’d have to describe Caroline Leavitt’s book as perfect, and no one believes in perfect anymore. Somewhat late on in the novel, Charlotte is knocked down by the flu. Well, nothing unusual there, but she’s in a virtual coma for two weeks which made me wonder, “Why in hell ain’t she in hospital?” But if that’s the worst thing I can say about a novel, that’s a very good thing.
In sum, if you want perfection go look at mathematics or sunsets, don’t look to art. Art is never perfect. But by God – literally by God – when art comes close to perfection, art can surpass perfection itself. Cruel Beautiful World is one of the great novels. It is a portrait of our times, because it is a portrait of our minds. ◊
Hubert O’Hearn is a writer/editor born in Canada and currently living in Ireland. Author of four books, as a reviewer he has previously been on the editorial staff of Winnipeg Review, San Francisco Book Review, Le Herald de Paris et Cie and many other publications.