Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Note On The Impeachment Of Abraham Lincoln (Carter) And Shake Off (Hiller)


I make, try to, a distinction in fiction between writing and literature, whether what's written can be called literary. (If I had to articulate what comprises literary I think I could but it wouldn't be immediately easy.) So John Grisham's is writing, nothing wrong with it, and George V. Higgins's is literature. 

Anyway, I a little while ago finished Tom Wolfe's 700 page+ Back To Blood and I judge it literary, very literary. And I finished Stephen L. Carter's earnest 500+ The Impeachment Of Abraham Lincoln, which I judge to be writing. 

There's a clear intelligence, sincere, prodigious effort and much research behind Carter's story, and the impeachment trial itself is excellently done--maybe the best thing in the book--adroit, precise, and knowing, as a representation of that kind of legal proceeding, Carter being a Yale law prof. And there is a good idea running through the book, the complexity of history at any given time as opposed to our tendency to hagiography for revered figures like Lincoln.

But the writing is stodgy to the point of stiffness. By their manner of speaking, the characters are indistinct from each other. There is virtually no point of view layered into the omniscient narration. The characters are so weighed down by the formality of their speaking that they lose any semblance of flesh and blood reality. The novel has no voice, any possibility for which drowns in the artificiality of the prose.

But then again I just finished a shorter literary book I highly recommend, Shake Off by Mischa Hiller, about a Palestinian operative who lost his family in the Shatila massacre. From the first sentence on, a distinct literary voice presents itself. The writing is spare yet evocative, perfectly informal with sensitive first person consciousness  about colloquiality as fits the character. There is here too a great deal of background knowledge, particularly about spycraft, but there's nothing laboured or imposed about how it's woven into the narrative. 

I don't want to say much about this literary novel for fear of giving anything away. But I will say that underlying the increasingly hectic pace of events and relationships is the brilliant deployment of the theme that, I'd argue,  inheres in all, or virtually all, literary novels, the theme of self discovery, of identity, of coming to terms with who, how and what one is. 

I hit on this novel by sheer good fortune on a deep dive into a remainder bin. Hiller was totally unknown to me. No longer.

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