Saturday, March 24, 2012

Time well spent with Graham Greene (and others)

The last Graham Greene novel I read, back in 2008, was The Heart of the Matter; featuring one of Greene's insistently dejected characters, it's saturated with sorrowful observations—to the point, I thought, of being rather absurd and self-parodying. How many ways could the character express his misery? I can't locate any notes I made on the book, so the plot is a blur. Though I've heard the novel called one of Greene's best, Orwell ripped it apart in his 1948 New Yorker review, finding the character's motivations illogical and the Catholic angle frustrating (Orwell locates in the English Catholic novelists of the time a snobbishness, a way of writing about their sins as if those, too, made them superior).

The Comedians, which I just read, is better; you still have the sense, to borrow the observation John Gardner made of Protestant John Updike, that "you know who's buttering his bread," but unlike The Heart of the Matter's Scobie, the protagonist of The Comedians, the accidental hôtelier Brown, doesn't struggle so explicitly with his faith. A rootless man, he makes Haiti, under Pap Doc Duvalier, his home because his long-absent mother bequeaths him a stake in her hotel. He prospers for a time, but by the start of the novel, Haiti has become a complete horror, there are no tourists who might stay at his hotel, and he has spent months away from his lover, a South American ambassador's wife. There's little to like about him. Every choice he makes is tainted by selfish motives. Distanced from himself, he often reflects on how his rearing by the Visitation Fathers affects his judgment and views, but he sees religious faith in much the same he views the vegetarian "programme" of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, visiting Americans: an ineffectual worldview that fails to take into account the worst of reality. While Greene doesn't give this character a crisis of faith, he makes it clear that every other character not aligned with Duvalier is Christ-like (though he avoids such description), sacrificing something, believing in the possibility of things beyond themselves or even in false ideas of themselves (the nature of being a "comedian," a performer), while Brown never locates a belief worth dying for.

Greene's writing in this one is terrific, the sardonic and weary voice of a man who observes everything as if he were, at the same time, holding a glass he's just emptied of the last of the world's whiskey. Only rather late in the novel does his affair seem to provide him with any pleasure beyond the immediately physical, and even then, it's at a point when the affair is full of arguments and sour intimations. The woman of the piece, Martha, never quite comes to life, which I think is a common problem for Greene. She's an excellent foil, tossing out the proper bits of dialogue to challenge our protagonist on a host of matters, but as a human being, she doesn't entirely emerge. I suppose one could blame the narrator rather than the author . . .  As a novel, it builds slowly, but its concluding act works well, trying together the many strands effectively and dramatically.

Fables: Legends in Exile, by Bill Willingham and Lan Medina, is the first book in a lengthy, still-going series of graphic novels (well . . . comic books). Whether it inspired the current TV series Once Upon a Time, I don't know, but it shares some commonalities. Chased from the many lands of legend and fable (from every culture and time period), the survivors of a great purge now live among us, disguised as humans. The first story arc involves the disappearance and possible murder of Rose Red; Snow White, the icily tough public face of government (King Cole actually runs things), hired the Big Bad Wolf, a shabby shamus, to find out what happened. The goings-on are not for kids. The story features strong characterizations and sharp dialogue, and it has the feel of a long-running TV show.

For all the blood and violence of Fables, however, The Stuff of Legend (Book 1: The Dark), written by Mike Raicht and Brian Smith and illustrated (beautifully, and all in sepia tones) by Charles Paul Wilson III, is the more serious book, even though the protagonists are children's toys (and a dog . . . and the Boogeyman). Daring to venture where Toy Story has gone, the story spends little time on its trope of "toys talk to each other when the humans are looking" before going to far darker places. The human child has been drawn by black tentacles into his closet, and a troupe of toys, plus the boy's dog, go after him. While the dog remains himself, the toys are transformed into life-sized versions of themselves. Never was there a scarier Jack-in-the-Box; this one grows legs and evinces a fondness for hatchets in dispensing with his enemies. The story feels harrowing; the writing and art work together to create a suspenseful environment in which real pain and suffering is possible.

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