Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Book of Evidence

Novels which win the Man-Booker Prize have never been my cup-of-tea.  But I keep reading them wondering if my taste in books shall change.

This Everyman’s Library edition of two novels by John Banville is my latest attempt at self-enlightenment.  “The Sea”, winner of the Man-Booker prize, comes second in this volume.  I glanced at “The Sea”, but I decided that the author and publisher had put the other novel first for good reason, and so I decided to read their first choice first.  I have read “The Book of Evidence” slowly and with much reflection.  I have not yet read “The Sea” but I shall add to this review when I have finished that book. 

There are words which I like and other words which I dislike.  One of the latter is “chiaroscuro”.  I discovered this word when I was about thirteen years old, and I thought it was wonderful, but in the intervening years it has begun to annoy me.  It seems a phony word.  I can only recall it being used to good effect once or twice…the best use of it being when some author referred to someone’s “chiaroscuro parentage.”  Unfortunately, I forget the source of that little gem; but otherwise the word just rubs me wrong for whatever reason, and when I come across the chiaroscuro word in a book I usually toss that book away and find another book to read. 

John Banville uses the word chiaroscuro but I did not toss his book aside because he also uses so many other words which I really like but rarely see in print.  Take, for instance, the word “mewl”…as in “The seabirds mewled and swooped…” (which is actually from page one of Banville’s “The Sea”.)  Isn’t mewl a lovely word?  I am certain “mewl” has regal parentage.  It was wonderful to see that word again.  I could tell you of the other lovely words the author uses but I do not wish to ruin your fun.

“Redux” is another word I detest.  It’s as phony as the day is long.  Banville doesn’t use the word ‘redux’ but it was brought to mind by the Chronology which Banville provides at the beginning of this volume.  The chronology is quite interesting.  It begins with 1945, the year of the author’s birth, and it reminds us of what was happening internationally over the years since 1945 and of what books the author was reading through those years.

There is no mention of Homer’s Iliad or of Tolstoy’s War & Peace in Banville’s chronology, although I am sure the list of books is not comprehensive.  But one wonders why some authors are included here:  John Updike?  Not my cup of tea.  And Updike’s books are mentioned five or six times over the years!  This is the very same Updike who had the effrontery to use the terrible word ‘Redux’ in the very title of one of his books.  Egad.  Oh well, we learn from the chronology that Banville was taught by the Christian Brothers; perhaps that explains it.  Or perhaps Rabbit Angstrom was just too accepting of American government, American religion, American morals etc., for my tastes.

Freddie Montgomery, the protagonist of ‘The Book of Evidence’, is not so accepting of the government, religions, and rules and regulations presented to him by life as was Updike’s protagonist Rabbit Angstrom.  It’s not that Freddie Montgomery is a rebel…not in a million years would Freddie think of overthrowing a government or quarreling with a theologian.  It’s just that it all doesn’t make sense to Freddie.  Freddie doesn’t ‘connect’ to this stuff the way most of us do.  It all seems rather arbitrary to Freddie.  Other characters in the book have the same outlook…Freddie’s eventual wife, and Freddie’s eventual wife’s girlfriend and Freddie, for example, all find themselves in bed together at one point without much planning or forethought…it just sorta happens and they go along with the flow.  

At one point Freddie kills a woman for whom he has no animus, for whom, in fact, Freddie has no particular feelings at all.  No planning is involved; it just sorta happens.  (Freddie has stolen a painting which he feels is rightfully his, and this unfortunate maid was a witness.) And afterwards, Freddie doesn’t feel any particular feelings of guilt, but instead rather pictures his situation as that of a character in a crime novel who is on the run from the police.  Meanwhile, he goes about his day-to-day alcoholic peregrinations during which office-parties happen, unexpected sex happens, he talks to his mom, he recalls details of “between-you-and-me,-kid” adventures he shared with his father when he was young, which he later learned everyone knew about, etc.

And all this takes place in the form of a written document Freddie prepares for the court, not in explanation of his actions (which even Freddie can’t explain,) but rather informing the court of what life was like for Freddie leading up to the killing of the woman, and how (although he fully admits his guilt,) it appears to Freddie that the laws of the land are not exactly part of the same universe in which Freddie resides….that the laws of the land are rather arbitrary…which is the reason, for instance, that Freddie feels no remorse.

I have no sympathy for Freddie.  I doubt that any reader will have sympathy for Freddie.  But there is something curiously familiar about the way Freddie thinks and feels.  Don’t we all from time to time feel like Freddy?  At least a teeny bit?  It may disturb you.

The Book of Evidence is very well written.  Many lovely words await you word lovers out there.  But because Freddie is such a pathetic case, the novel itself is tough to love.  I give it 4 stars.  Eventually, I will read the second novel ‘The Sea’ and I will add a few words about “The Sea” which won the Man-Booker Prize.  Another word I detest is 'eschew.'  I may write a book one day and entitle it 'Chiaroscuro Eschewed Redux.'  It should win a Pulitzer at the very least.

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