February 16, 2011

Book 6: If the South Had Won the Civil War

If the South Had Won the Civil War
MacKinlay Kantor

The alternate history genre that arises from the everlasting intrigue of "what if" is, really, inherent throughout all manner of fictional stories, from those that project a certain understanding onto the otherwise "real" world to the tales of galaxies far, far away from our own. If the South Had Won the Civil War is, however, an example in the vein one would expect from the genre, as amply evidenced in its title. If ever it is appropriate to judge a book not by its cover but from its title alone, MacKinley Kantor's effort is the epitome of such easily-judged literature. With a point of departure originating from the game-changing Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg in July 1863, the book traces the brief continuation of the war and its aftermath until the time of publication, 1961. While there is nothing particularly shocking about the book, as it seems to exist primarily as a series of interesting postulations rather than as an exploration of Kantor's own reality, it is clearly well-thought out and dressed wonderfully.

That the book is engaging at all speaks to its wonderful engagement with its central conceit, and those times when the book goes a bit off script are jarring but in the amusing, overly explained way peculiar to alternate history. Posed as a brief centennial history written in 1961 (a nod to Kantor's own publication date), the book is complete with occasional invented footnotes and little details that flesh out its reality and at its best when subtly dropping sly hints to its core audience of Civil War aficionados. Unfortunately, the book does include the familiar, stereotypical traps of the genre, and while the posing of historical immutability at its introduction successfully and immediately lures readers with its camouflaged irony, the author offers numerous asides to the audience that do not play nearly as well. These nods to the narrator's own "what if" scenarios are few enough in number to be more annoying than actually troublesome, though they temporarily pull readers out of the narrative context and are particularly aggravating for readers who are less familiar with the original history's own particulars.

In Kantor's case, these winks tend to err on the side of tolerability because his knowledge of history is obvious through his meticulous concern to detail. The book is small but possesses a remarkable depth for those who have the background to recognize the many changed details within the book that characterize its wartime segment. Indeed, these are so numerous and trifling that readers less versed in the storied history of the 1860s may feel at times hard-pressed to continue amid the barrage of minor details that seems to reinforce such reader's claims of ignorance. Regardless, the general sketch of events hangs together well enough that the most meticulous portions of the book are worth its post-war vision of a tri-partite North America. It is here most obvious that Kantor has given his scenario a good deal of serious thought, despite a bizarre, wholly unlikely treatment of Lincoln's death. The post-war implications for racial segregation are briefly explained but not dodged, and indeed there are some sentences that seem to originate from a later sensibility than that of 1961 (I had to double-check the publication date after reading what I believed to be a sarcastic reference to presidential resignations), as well as the expected (but intelligently done) cameo appearance of the real-world Cold War. Despite a somewhat pedantic ending, the book satisfies with its enthusiasm and consistency. If the South Had Won the Civil War is a surprisingly rich novella, with bountiful rewards for knowledgeable readers on the subject and enough verve to sustain the merely curious.

Grade: A-

February 12, 2011

Book 5: Death in Venice

Death in Venice
Thomas Mann

Immortalized for many by the few final moments of its famous film adaptation, Death in Venice is an intriguing, slightly inaccessible look at beauty and the intoxicating power of raw emotion over otherwise rational individuals. The inevitable decline of protagonist Gustav von Aschenbach is at once flamboyant and timid, maintaining an uneasy balance marvelously evoked by Mann when his full attentions are on the task at hand. Though frequent philosophical digressions routinely adorn the text and leave little room for ambiguity, they are often detached from the story at hand and seem to operate independently of Aschenbach. The intention behind these detours is pretty clearly to illuminate the depth of complications arising from Aschenbach's solitude and his growing fascination with a pretty young thing, but Mann's extended meditations on the eternal conflicts between the desire for beauty and truth in art, between the intuitive and the rational, or between the unspoken and overt come at the heavy cost of readers' attention and interest. These passages are illuminating but demanding both in their placement surrounding, rather than really integrated into, the narrative and in the richness of their topics. Death in Venice may be a short novella, but it requires far more attention than most novels I have read, and any lapse is likely to send the reader into a vortex of inscrutable confusion. That the book is short should not be surprising, given the small scope of a plot (insofar as plot exists), that feels abbreviated even after its natural concision is taken into account. The result is that the slender volume feels quite inflated with the author's insights and editorializing.

Not quite a character study and not quite a philosophical allegory, the novella flails a bit while attempting to strike a balance between protagonist Gustav von Aschenbach's increasingly obsessive, and not a small bit creepy, infatuation with a young teenager and Mann's observations on the nature of the human psyche. Despite lacking interest for a general audience, the book does display some deft skill. There are the usual clever turns of phrase that decorate most esteemed literary works, but what is best conveyed throughout the novella is a sense of foreboding, at once overt and subtle. Mann is not shy about setting the tone and deploying an array of repetitive cues to signify Aschenbach's most important observations; when these do come, they are not despite their obviousness in any way obtrusive, and indeed it is refreshing to get inside the fictional writer's head rather than his real-life author's.

Mann may be forgiven for hitting the theme heavily in those moments when the story advances, and indeed his consistency is refreshing and grounds the text after so many distractions. His view of plagued Venice is deeply unsettling, but he is able to convey strong, severe images of decay without relying heavily on meaningless exposition. The inevitable sense of deterioration accelerates meaningfully with the plot, though these tandem developments could have been handled with more skill, and the overall effect of the novel is as deeply intellectual as intended. Like the book itself, the month or so that occupies the bulk of the story moves by with a kind of dreamlike quality, each revelation fading into another until an irrevocable decision is reached and a fate duly sealed. Though it is difficult to actually read and enjoy due to a surplus of attention to unwieldy intellectualism, Death in Venice is obviously crafted with skill and offers rewards for readers who will have a chance to probe its surprising density in greater depth.

Grade: B

February 6, 2011

Book 4: Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey
Jane Austen

Because the early nineteenth century is so far behind us, it easy to forget that the world of Jane Austen may in fact bear a striking resemblance to our own, if not in its particulars then certainly in some of the tendencies of human nature. To misread Jane Austen as predominately predisposed to epic period romances is perhaps to do her a slight disservice; though it is primarily concerned with romance and the follies and glories of love, Northanger Abbey is a hilarious, biting satire that should be lumped neither with Jonathan Swift nor with Fabio-adorned Harlequin romances. Set in Bath and then in the English countryside, the book is one of many faces, a richly textured work pleasing through both its social comedy facade and its frequent, finely pointed but never entirely mean-spirited wit. While Austen’s more salient points are offered by and large with little subtlety, her humor is effective and only rarely disrupts the plot. An offhand remark on the tendencies of gentlemen when wooing likely prospects often serves not only to satirize the silliness of enforced formality (and resulting uselessness) in courtship but also to disguise a more insidious, subtle remark about gender relations in the early nineteenth century. Blatancy is employed as a disguise and a diversionary tactic throughout the book, and readers will find themselves rewarded if they seek out meaning between the sharpest barbs.

Those lines themselves, however, offer no shortage of amusement and are reasonably unpredictable, though the ultimate conclusion will not surprise any seasoned readers. Though the novel suffers a bit from its awkward transition between the high society follies of Bath and the superbly gothic expectations of Northanger Abbey, its story is just cohesive enough to hang together. More importantly, nary a plot element passes by without comment, whether overt or subtle, from the author. From the opening introduction of her protagonist, Austen cranks the irony up to eleven, making comments throughout on the suitability of “heroine” as an appropriate descriptor of poor, na├»ve Catherine Morland. The author is full of snark, but is able to deploy it with enough subtlety that the novel is rarely overwhelming and, when overwhelming, is often at least amusing (a page or so about the merit of novels is entertaining and revelatory but ultimately misplaced in this particular narrative). Its population of characters displays an effective mixture of the expected and the nuanced, with caricatures such as Isabella and John Thorpe playing so effectively to type that they are nothing short of delightful. Indeed, Austen is at her best when openly riffing on the established norms of high society and of gothic novels, subverting each while deploying them effortlessly to create a novel that is, in some sense, at odds with itself. More than a period piece, more than another canned, predictable romance, and more than a bitter satirical jab, the book is enjoyable for its surface features as well as its deeper implications. All told, Northanger Abbey is nothing if not fun, often provoking audible laughter and wearing its age well by providing contemporary criticism of nineteenth century faults we are now quick to point out.

Grade: A