Read-in-Progress: John Gardner, The Sunlight Dialogues

Two years ago, while reading John Gardner’s Nickel Mountain, I noted this:

Gardner’s writing is tight in a way that I’ve come not to expect of American literary fiction. Every sentence does something; every word tries to be something. The introspection, the navel-gazing, isn’t there; Gardner’s characters think about themselves, but compactly, not at length.

The Sunlight Dialogues is four hundred pages longer than Nickel Mountain, and Gardner manages to maintain the prose quality. It’s the storytelling that doesn’t quite work.

TSD is structured around a series of tape-recorded (god, the 1960s) conversations between the doughy, hapless police chief Clumly and his archnemesis the Sunlight Man. The latter has a real name and a history in the smallish town of Batavia, NY where the action unfolds, but you have to wait to learn it.

As for his purpose? Keep waiting.

Why [the Sunlight Man] should get a new lease on life from teasing, perplexing, confounding an old man who sat half-asleep, witless and innocent as an ancient bull with a ring through its nose – who could tell?

That’s on page 408 (of 690). That far in, I was expecting one of two things to be the case. Either I’d know why the Sunlight Man was yanking Clumly’s chain – but I didn’t – or the motive would be a big reveal at the end of the book. But instead, it’s as if Gardner just threw up his hands and went, “Let’s say Moe.”

There might still be a big reveal, or I might have missed the Sunlight Man’s motive in an earlier section. But if neither is the case, then that’s basically Gardner destroying all the old-growth forests with a galactic shrug.

The Centennial: January 21, 1915

Five classes. What had Eran been thinking?

He had been thinking he’d love to finish his coursework and study for exams without having to make up a teaching plan three times a week. He had thought he might as well make the most of Stefan’s helpfulness while it lasted. He had, god help him, thought he might enjoy learning again.

That was before he remembered what it was like to handle a thousand pages of reading a week. Thank god for Kindle editions. At least he hadn’t broken his back heading to campus for a study session with Mildred.

“Stefan approved your proposal?” Mildred said.

“Xiaoyu approved yours.”

“Yeah, but I worked at mine.”

“There was work in mine. It was just bad work.”

“Mmm.” Mildred was teaching, but was taking a break from the extracurricular work of preparing for her dissertation. She hoped to take exams in the fall, which meant a summer-long slog of studying that she would need to be rested for. She was running toward the degree with her usual dedication, unlike Eran, who could never start running because he could never stop doubting.

“I’ll make it

They came in soaked, muddied, bloodied, heads lolling on shoulders. Eyes turned up into their sockets. Some still alive, staring dead ahead. Water ran in rivulets from their hair. Wringing out their uniforms would soak the floor.

He – an officer, an aide to the general, too clean and warm to be in the ranks – backed into the corner of the hospital. Letting the medics do their work. Staying out of the way.

“Is there anything to be done?” the general murmured. The host realized the question was for him.

Eran felt the words come. “There’s nothing. They say it’s a lake. They’re as much swimming toward the other line as advancing. They may drown in it.”

It was becoming a pattern. Casualties were arrayed in rows, from today, from early failures. Sheets draped over faces were a form of punctuation. Any man settled was not moving. The nurses and medics were frantic on the floor.

“I shall have to – shall have to ask – ” The general did not seem to know what to do with his hands.

“Yes.” At times like this a good aide was an indispensable source of support.

“I shall – ” The general did not seem to know what to do with his mouth.

He felt himself swell. He was the most important person in the room. The great man was not so great; he could not live without a support. “Yes.”

better in the… Sorry. I’ll fix it. The dissertation.”

By now Mildred recognized the signs. “Who was it this time?”

“I don’t know. Someone with delusions of grandeur.”

January 21, 2016: In the Battle of Hanna, General Aylmer’s forces founder due to inadequate artillery support and a flooded n0 man’s land, thus failing to take the Hanna defile.

The Centennial: January 11, 1916

Like the great bell of a church struck with heart-stopping force such a soundleap away that the wheel had returned to rest before the blow hit your chest – the world flexed. And Roos awoke.

The air sizzled with the aftermath of a somethingIt sounded like the memory of the days before they fled Ghent, when they had a house – before it was the five of them in one room, and Gaëtan not yet dead.

(Later, Eran rolled over, grunting.)

Like a handful of god’s pebbles cast into a great void, striking the wall where the  sky met its end – hollow blows on the roof, a floor above. Glass shattered.

Roos? Can you see?

Her father’s low groan – it took it out of him, avoiding the Germans every day – drove her to the window.

The sky over Eighteen Bridges was glowing.

The Germans?

(Eran shook himself, but stayed on sleep’s side of the border.)

Let me look, Roos said.

It could be an attack. It could be an accident. It could be their liberation. Her adventures, if that was what they were – dodging the Germans, scrounging for food, picking the odd pocket – had taught her not to say anything until she was sure.

Another handful of blows on the roof. Above them, one of the Dekkers screamed. Across the avenue, in another dismal warehouse of apartments, gaping faces stared back at her in the low light. They were as visible as ghosts.

Like a pond shaking off its ripples in the minutes after it accepted the falling star, there was only a descrescendo. The snap of guns, the booming of artillery, she didn’t hear.

Nothing.

Whatever had happened (handful of bricks), there was nothing new. She crawled back across the floor to her pallet.

And finally, the story winked out of existence and Eran was awake in his own room.

January 11, 1916: A German munitions depot explodes in the occupied city of Lille.

The Centennial: October 28, 1915

Fish or cut bait. Astoundingly, Eran would fish.

Stefan had once again offered Eran extra funding for the spring. Eran was starting to think Stefan meant to buy not his silence but his body. Eran wasn’t selling, but as his internship had given him an escape route, he took the money. One semester, no teaching – take four courses, and he’d be ready for his exam.

Eran strongly suspected he would feel differently about continuing once he scheduled the exam. But given his escape route, school felt less like prison. It was good enough for now.

In his carrel, Eran logged in to check the course listings for the spring. The English department was running seminars on the war poets and on postwar modernism. That’d round out his extradepartmental study. As for history – recent European nationalism, and maybe African social history. Maybe he’d even take a fifth class…

He was high off the ground…waving. The familiar sensation of being a passenger. A slim body in impeccable uniform, the hand in leather glove – hadn’t he been this person before?

A crowd generated a roar. The world tilted. The body seemed to know what to do. Eran understood that this had happened before; that it was dangerous, threatening; that the body was an expert. The body handled the reins – they were on horseback – and brought the world back into alignment.

And then the world shook itself into an angle again. The body lost the grip.

They were flying. Eran wondered if he would feel the pain.

He didn’t, but the body did. Shock, white exploded. Eyes wide, sightless. It was like falling into a dead man’s chariot, and being carried forward.

There were helping hands everywhere. Despite them, Eran sensed that the body couldn’t breathe. Was it the wind knocked out of him? Feeling that across the century? The body swayed, hands around for support, and somehow boarded the motor-car. The last duty: wave.

The body waved.

Eran shook it off. Him again? Of all the people to repeat. That was a weird one. Seems as thought it should have meant something.

October 28, 1915: King George V is thrown from his horse while reviewing troops on the Western Front. He fractures his pelvis in two places; the incident may also have contributed to the eventual decline of his health

Abandonment Issues: Ismail Kadare, The Siege

I enumerated my beefs with historical fiction before; no need to reiterate them here. (And yes, I realize my hypocrisy.)

I’ll just add that my least favorite historical fiction shares traits with my least favorite fantasy and science fiction: tiresome attention to the trappings of the different era or setting, and a failure to integrate them into a holistic experience. For those reasons, The Siege is not among Kadare’s best works.

The Centennial: September 25, 1915

In conclusion, there were many causes of the fall of the Soviet Union.

Options outside academia made Eran cavalier about grading. Late papers intensified the effect. He poised his hand to dash off a red F, but held the penpoint just over the page. Sigh. C+. Good examination of the evidence, but you need to evaluate it carefully and come to a conclusion. “Why do we Minnesotans hate concluding things?”

“I’m from Wisconsin,” Cam said.

“I’m from California,” Mildred said.

“You’re no help.”

“That’s a conclusion.”

“And you’re a Minnesotan,” Mildred added.

Beginning of a long week. Ian had taken Rosamund over to the ‘rents for a family visit. Eran, having taught that morning, was wrapping up grading the stragglers. Cam was working on a post for her new mommy blog. (She had only ten readers, despite naming it Bitch I’m a Momma.) Mildred had turned in her dissertation proposal. Xiaoyu would shred it, she said, out of insecurity that Mildred’s work was poor enough to call Xiaoyu’s advising into question, but then Mildred would punch through some revisions and everything would be fine.

Last paper. Why did the Soviet Union fall apart? The short answer: Because Stalin sucked. “Hey, this one might actually be good!”

Holding his gun like a crossbar across his heart. Shielding himself from harm. Fingers so tight he could never unclench to fire – what would actually shield him from harm. The end of three days. Boots pounding on shattered earth. If he could just make it back to the starting line…

His name was Leslie. He had a spaniel and never told his hunting friends that he liked to read. Among his things was a copy of Rupert Brooke’s 1914. He thought, I shall die, and they shall not think of me / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That may or may not be me.

(Eran was put strongly in mind of the young man who had bivouacked with the amorous local landowner.)

His 10th Gloucesters had launched three days before; had seen the gas released, the cloud blowing back over their own line; heard the coughing and retching. The panic. Equal parts fear of disgrace and fear of harm. He remembered the start. Awaiting the call, Leslie was held exactly in place by opposing forces. Fear of disgrace pulling him forward across the line. Fear of harm tugging him toward Amiens. How could they be exactly balanced?

Was it time? It was time. It was time. They ran.

The wire, which should have been cut by the barrage, was not cut. But someone found a way through. Leslie followed.

Three days had gone: noise, awake, smoke, duck, dead. Ranks thinning. Clutching his rifle. I must not disgrace myself. Even as he knew there was no one to see. I must not die. Even as he knew it was all too likely.

He was running. Back – back –

Safe.

Stalin codified the paranoid style of the Soviet Union just as Nixon codified it among the Republicans. Communism never stood a chance.

“Possible history major,” Eran said to Mildred – not a muscle betrayed what he had just seen – and turned to the front page to remind himself of the student’s name.

September 28, 1915: Following three days of fighting in the Battle of Loos, the first large-scale engagement of British New Army units, the British retreated to their starting positions.