Monday, March 21, 2005

The burdens of grief: Glen Duncan's latest novel

Today I read the latest novel by British writer Glen Duncan: Death of an Ordinary Man (Grove Atlantic, 2004, $13). I hadn't read anything of his and in fact ordered this book through my local independent bookstore after I saw an ad in the New York Times Book Review. I'm glad I ordered it from an ad, because I would have never purchased it in a bookstore -- the cover and back information are okay, but the first paragraphs (and indeed, the first chapter) is a total turnoff. ("Everything's all right, Nathan thought. Those first mornings in foreign hotels you opened your eyes and knew nothing: where you were, how you'd got there, who you were, even. You could be anyone./Like that, but without the hotel." (p1)) I'm glad I hung in there, though. I think you'll be too.



Here's another version of the summary in the back, which I found through Google. This one is better than the one on the Grove Atlantic edition:

"Nathan's gravestone offers a short and hopeful summary: At rest. But Nathan is not at rest, and knows he won't be until he can find out how and why he died. A spectral spectator throughout the day of the wake, he listens to his wife, son, daughter, father and best friend, getting to know them like he has never known them before. But there are two things he can't understand: a strange young couple on the fringes of the wake, whose presence fills him with dread; and a room in his house he never knew existed, with a door he feels compelled to open. A door that he knows will lead to a terrifying secret. Part detective story, part family portrait, part tale of the unexpected, Death of an Ordinary Man is an unflinching look at the margins of human experience, where the boundaries of fundamental feelings - love, grief, desire, shame and hope - meet and mingle, and no motivation is as simple as it seems."

The italics are mine -- this is the part that doesn't appear on the back of the American edition, but which really does justice to what the novel is about (and what makes it a worthwhile read).

I admit that I couldn't get into Death of an Ordinary Man until about 70 pages in, when the story really got started, the narrative got a consistent voice, and the author/narrator finally abandoned trying to make sense of the after-death experience and started actually telling the story of the characters.

Talking about his afterlife (and finally deciding not to analyze it anymore -- fortunately for us!), Nathan says:

"Nor did he feel he'd discovered anything momentous. Suppose your death delivered neither Reality with a capital R nor Truth with a capital T, but was simply relative to your life? No God for you. Perhaps his mother had gone where there was one? Paradise, with prelapsarian animals and the lame walking straight" (p77).

And so begins an examination of Nathan's life, through his contact with his children, his wife, his father, and his best friend. The novel finally clicked for me during a scene where Cheryl, Nathan's widow, is talking to Frank, Nathan's father, whom she finds pathetic and narcissistic -- Nathan is observing and commenting on the scene, and his comments resonated with me, probably because my maternal grandmother is just like Nathan's father, concerned only with himself, the center of the universe, regardless of what else is going on around him.

What I liked most about this novel is its examination of grief and its effects. What happens when it goes underground? How does it fester? And when you add guilt to the mix, what happens? Is grief bearable? Is guilt? The characters are, if not exactly likeable, at least complex; they are also familiar in uncomfortable ways -- the frisson of sexual awareness at inappropriate times; the desire to laugh when a loved one dies; the knowledge that you could transgress, but do you want to?

This novel also has some good bits about writing and the writing life (something that always interests me). Cheryl is a novelist who has been shopping her novel around, getting many rejections, until one fateful day she gets a letter from a publisher who wants to buy her novel. Nathan is disturbed; will she outgrow him now? Or just immerse herself in "[h]er other life, her writing life, [which] is already like a succubus or extra-marital lover" (p107)...

I'll post more on this later! (Is this a teaser? A cliff-hanger? Or just an annoyance?)

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