Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Two books by Charles Baxter, "Believers" and "First Light"

Charles Baxter: "Believers" and "First Light"

The idea for looking at these two books together is to try to get a glimpse at the different moves Baxter makes as he goes from the short story to novella to novel form.

"Believers" is a collection of short stories and a novella. The two short stories this posting examines are chosen for their length: "The Next Building I Plan to Bomb",  is the shortest story in the collection at 12 pages while "Kiss Away" is the longest at around 35 pages. The novella "Believers" is around 100 pages, and the novel, “First Light”,  is about 300 pages. Thus, each piece examined (however incompletely) below will be roughly a third of the length of the piece examined after it.

I doubt that Baxter sets out to write to a given length, that he goes fishing for ideas and finds he's bagged a 12-pager and he had better write accordingly. I would think the form and length begin to suggest themselves as he writes his way in. (Although it would be interesting to know exactly how that process does work for him, having read the collection and the novel).  More time is covered in a piece, or less time. More characters play key roles in a piece, or fewer do. In any event, his writing is good enough so that the length of each piece feels appropriate and inevitable, as though from the beginning he had a good idea of how each one would shape up.  This is particularly true of the novel, which feels as though it must always have been a novel in his mind.

I read that Beethoven, when he came up with his musical ideas, knew right away what weight of form they could bear. Some themes were suited to a large scale work like a symphony, others to the more intricate and intimate demands of chamber music, while another group might be too insubstantial to be suitable for much more than a quick bagatelle.

That's a form of judgment I'd aspire to - and even better, to know which ideas to trash altogether. It seems that at Baxter's level can judge fairly quickly what weight of form an emerging idea can bear or even which form most allows an idea to be fully realized.

In any event, here is some of what I found:

First, the shortest piece, "The Next Building I Plan to Bomb". This one hones right in on a single main character and pretty much stays within a very limited span of time.  There is only a brief amount of history given for this character, and that in the form of his recollecting a session with his therapist. In the story, a banker has found a piece of paper on which may be scribbled a plan to bomb a public place. He wants to tell the authorities, he's worried people will be injured or killed and he could've prevented it, but he's also feeling paranoid, afraid that he, himself, will become the prime suspect. The bomb plan itself is both a vehicle for dramatic irony - he does not agonize at all over whether he should tell his girlfriend about his predilection for picking up young men and bringing them to hotel rooms for sex – and a metonymic object, a useful symbol (along with the story's title) for what's going on with him. The present-moment action in the piece spans only several hours with important information presented as analepsis in brief asides.
The long short story, "Kiss Away", has two significant characters rather than one, and two important peripheral characters who advance the plot or have thematic significance. The story stretches out over a span of several weeks. And since the story revolves around a relationship, time itself is needed to establish a rhythm in their interactions. Baxter's instincts here serves him well; I felt slowly drawn into the story of Jodie and how she connects with her new boyfriend, Walton. The time Baxter spends on this then makes the appearance of the potentially dark secret in this piece that much more effective.

This is a pattern in all four of these pieces - one question, or several, are either implied or asked in the narration, and each piece sets out to find the answers. In this piece, the question is whether or not the apparently likable, somewhat hapless miscreant Walton is, in fact, dangerous and psychopathic.

The motif of uncovered secrets and knowledge is woven throughout the piece: early on, Jodies sees Walton as the Joker figure in her pack of Tarot cards; Walton suggests the two of them go on a treasure hunt after a job interview; Jodie unintentionally awakens a self-styled genie in a diner who claims to be able to grant her wishes; and finally, a strange woman appears just a bit past midway in the story to warn Jodie off Walton.  (The appearance of a fairly important character this late in a piece is something I'm given to understand does not happen in novels.)

After the appearance of Walton's accuser, the story shifts from past tense to present tense as he defends himself. Jodie chooses to believe him. In the last section, the story has shifted into the future perfect, we are told she will accept his proposal of marriage, we are not told whether or not he has been, or will be, the violent, harmful man his ex lover claims he is, but there is the air of menace brought in by her thinking of the lines rape, murder, is just a kiss away from the Rolling Stones' song “Gimme Shelter”.  The connection to the story's title serves to accentuate this.

There is a particular trope in play here - Baxter gives us something right up front and the cause is later revealed. (This pattern is used again in the novel, "First Light", but there it is much more central.) In this case, it is Walton's limp, which Jodie notices at first sight. What has caused it? We find out, in the end.

There is some fine writing here. This, in particular, describing the first time she had sex with Walton: 

When she came the first time, a window shade flew up in her mind, and she could see all of her feelings waiting to be touched and moved, like passengers in a bus station. When she called out she realized it was Walton's name she was calling. She kissed all of his scars. She kissed his knuckles. 

Nice bit of foreshadow there, too.
“Believers”, the novella, takes even more time and space. Baxter reveals the end of the story first, the fact that the central character in the story was a priest, but has taken a wife, had a child, and left the priesthood. The novella then goes into the past to find out how this came to be. The main action in this piece spans several months, but the novella itself dips into three generations of the narrator's family and bits and pieces of their stories are told.
The focus gets fixed, however, on why this priest chose to disrobe. Here, the peripheral characters are featured much more prominently, are more fully fleshed out. The author spends several pages in different scenes describing how Ellen’s ears glow red at the tips with arousal when she is around violence, he’s able to dwell on the priest’s feelings about this couple and his odd attraction to them, he’s able to dwell on the priest’s own family and important scenes from the latter’s youth.
There is a particularly nice passage where the narrator's mother describes how his father had been towards her – just another person to look after in his parish – before the change had occurred in him that made it possible for him to desire her as a woman: 
There's a concentration men have when they're paying attention to you romantically. Like they're about to leap over a chasm and they're calculating how far they'll have to jump. Sort of a single minded look. He didn't have that. No. He'd look right through you. He was seeing God through you. In you. 

And so what happens to this priest so that he no longer sees God, so that now he sees with the more carnal eyes of the commonplace?  It is what he sees in that couple when he goes with them on a trip to Germany, circa 1937. (Note that again, there is something to uncover, or being uncovered, in this piece, as in the first two. But, then again, that seems to be the point of plot – at least, according to Frank O' Connor, to be the “hide” of the story.)
"First Light", the novel.

Each chapter is, in one sense complete, each offers a meaningful vignette, and each is contained within its own bounds of time and place. But, having established the characters over the first several chapters, Baxter does not have to re-establish them. Thus, his writing can go deeper and deeper into the layers of his two main characters' history without having either to repeat the basic facts (Dorsey is Hugh's sister, Simon is her husband, Hugh and Simon don't like each other, etc) or what has already been covered in the earlier chapters.

Baxter chooses to tell this story beginning at the end - Dorsey and Hugh are together with their respective families at the home they grew up in, and near the end of the chapter Dorsey announces her intention to "divorce" from Hugh, to break off their connection as brother and sister. In an ordinary book, we would expect this to work itself out, for them to come to some kind of reconciliation, but this novel is told moving backward in time, and the more we come to know the two, the more poignant this beginning becomes.

There are surprises here as the reader witnesses the changes in Hugh and Dorsey in reverse, how they move past each other as though on trains passing in opposite directions on a route from an open, more unbounded life to a more constrained, restricted existence. There is a poignancy in this structure, as we watch characters appear and then disappear in the narrative because the telling of the story has moved back to a  time before they came into one or the other's life. (For the most part, Dorsey's, is the life with the more significant relationships. For Hugh, the only truly charged relationship seems to be with her.)

There are specific types of adumbration Baxter uses, so that at most times several open questions - even if the reader is not always aware they are there - are raised and then answered in succeeding succeeding chapters. One of these is the question of who is the father of Dorsey's child? We find out only after several chapters that it is not Simon.

Another thing Baxter does is to make a few nods to the reader's experience of the piece. At the end of the very first chapter, we get Hugh looking for the keys he's carelessly thrown off the roof of a farmhouse. He knows he will find the keys soon, and the reader herself will also find the keys to reading this piece as soon as she goes into the second chapter.

Chopping the piece into discrete moments in time, gives each chapter some of the feel of a short story and each chapter intensely illuminates a moment, a particular aspect of character in each of the main players in the story, or illuminates part of their situation. Some of the brief chapters would not serve as complete stories - they are complete thoughts, though, in a string of thoughts that is this novel.

The demands on each chapter are less than they would be on a short story, but there is the need to keep the reader asking questions he hopes to have answered in later chapters. It is also noticeable that each chapter has an “aboutness” although sometimes this is something I can sense more than completely get.

The question I believe this book wants me to pose, wants me to seek the answer to, is why does Dorsey feel she needs to “divorce” her brother?  At first, quite frankly, I'm reading this waiting to find the moment someone has diddled her, perhaps Hugh, himself. That would be too easy and too cliché - I was thankful that such a revelation never comes in this novel - but I do feel that Baxter plays with this as an expectation on the reader's part. (If, in fact, Dorsey can be said to have a predator in her past, it's from her days as a graduate student when she falls – and stays fallen – under the spell of a brilliant but past-his-prime physics professor.)  As far as I can tell, Hugh has gotten fixated on the notion of protecting Dorsey but he must feel he has failed, especially given her pregnancy from her encounters with the enigmatic Carlo Pavorse and her unlikely marriage to the wildly and openly promiscuous (with both sexes) Simon.

Not that these isn't a sexual tension between Hugh and Dorsey. Hugh is always deaf not only to what is going on not only around him, but also within himself. There is a striking scene in the first chapter where he climbs on to the roof of their old parents' house, he thinks to check up on work he'll need to do. The fact that Dorsey's husband can see him from their bedroom, though, invites me to think Hugh's real purpose – whether he knew it or not – was to peek in on them, and it's likely this is why Dorsey makes her request.

As the book goes on in its backwards movement through time, there is the realization Dorsey has , much earlier on in both their lives, that Hugh's girlfriend and wife-to-be reminds her strongly of someone. That someone, she realizes with a sickening start, is herself.

There is some misdirection: waiting for the scene in which she is somehow ruined – or at least the seeds of doom are planted in their relationship – there are strong moments of physical connection or of danger between the brother and sister. In one chapter, in this one Hugh is the high school sports star and his sister is still a pre-adolescent with very little social confidence, Hugh and his pal her along on a dangerous romp into an amusement park that is closed for the season where she gets lost for a moment in the funhouse (a nod to Barth?). 

A climatic moment – and one of the shortest chapters – has Hugh out on the lake in a boat with his father not long before the latter's death. The father wants badly to tell him something, but in the end changes his mind.  What is it the father wants to say?

The form works perfectly in this novel, but as a whole it remains tightly focused on its initial (and climatic) moment, the "divorce" and because of the way the focus is kept fixed on Dorsey and Hugh, it retains some of the feel of his shorter work, it's easier to see how he's able to make that move into the longer form so that there's a sense of continuity between his writing in both forms.

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