Sunday, October 19, 2008

Why do men then now not reck his rod?

If you haven't yet subscribed to Commonweal, you haven't seen my review of the new(ish) novel Exiles, by Ron Hansen, which was published in the October 10 issue (and available online only to subscribers). The title of the review, "How Fiction Fails," works better when you see it in the context of the magazine -- it follows a review of James Wood's How Fiction Works. But I'm afraid it's apt, even if the joke doesn't come through. I thought I would love this one -- a novel about Gerard Manley Hopkins (one of my favorite poets) and the shipwreck that inspired his most ambitious work! Promising premise. Disappointing execution. A sample of my take:
Hopkins, too, is a less inspiring hero than his poems suggest, but this is due to Hansen’s reluctance to invent where the record is silent. An anxious “author’s note” declares, “Care has been taken not to contradict biographical details or historical testimony.” The result is a novel with too much fact and not enough fiction, a story told by a narrator on less-than-familiar terms with his characters. We study Hopkins from a disorientingly uncertain and limited point of view, granted access to the poet-priest’s interior life only through excerpts from his actual correspondence.
...Late in the novel, after Hopkins’s priestly service has been all but spent in a series of inglorious assignments, Hansen allows himself, and us, to “imagine it otherwise,” outlining the life a more orthodox theologian or single-minded author might have had. It is the one true taste of fiction in an otherwise unimaginative recital of history.
Still, I enjoyed having a good reason to tackle "The Wreck of the Deutschland" again. And I am kind of excited about this forthcoming Hopkins biography...

Will this upstart critic ever like anything? Only time will tell!

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