This was quite the pleasant surprise. For some reason I was expecting a very heavy prose, morose industrial scenery, desperation and poverty – but, while my expectations weren’t entirely farr off I had forgotten one thing: it’s a post modernist novel. Which makes it – to me at least – a lot more pleasant and easier to digest…a bit closer to home, I guess. My considerations are rather more on the silly side, but most of the times I get silly about the things I like. And I liked this one quite a bit.
It’s just such a natural mixture of reality and fiction, of characters and historical figures, of narrative ambiguity spiced with humor and sarcasm, of symbols and straighforward storytelling that will surely get you hooked. (And that has surely left me at a loss, because I don’t know where to start 😀 )
We’re following the lives of 3 families whose destinies will bring them together in the unlikeliest ways possible. We have a white middle class family comprised of Mother, Father, Grandfather, Mother’s Younger Brother and Son, a poor immigrant family – Mameh, Tateh and Daughter and a black family Sophie, Coalhouse Walker and their (out of wedlock) child. The two white families are unnamed – probably because they are used as a exponents of their classes – and this got me thinking a bit about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road(which I haven’t read though – is it good? I’d like to give it a try someday). Maybe the fact that the back family is specifically named stands for it being a symbol of…revolt. After all, it takes place in a turn of a century America, when discrimination and racial issues were part of everyday life. Coalhouse’s destiny is proof of that: an honest, hard working man is driven to insanity and criminal acts by an injustice done to him by a a low class, uneducated, racist – an injustice in which authorities chose not to intervene. His reaction was extreme, but his humiliation – not at all uncommon.
As I read back, I realise I sound vague and confusing – but I don’t really want to give away the whole plot 😉
Apart from these 3 families, there’s a whole secondary character crowd and they all interact in a very Lost-like fashion. Bonus: most of these secondary characters are real: JP Morgan, Harry Houdini (to whom quite a few chapters are dedicated and his extreme obsession with his mother is largely exploited), Henry Ford, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung (short but very enjoyable cameos 😉 ), the archduke Franz Ferdinand, Emiliano Zapata, Emma Goldman (the anarchist) and Alexandre Berkman…and many others. And their appearances never look fake or forced – somehow, the novel is so perfectly constructed that you feel no rift between – say – a chapter dedicated to JP Morgan and his search for Ancient cultural heritage and a chapter dedicated to Emma and her speech in front of a workers’ crowd.
Plus, of course, you could have neverending talks over the themes and motifs of this classic – things like adjusting to change (Father’s trip to the North Pole – and his return to a household who has found a different rhythm in his absence), technological developments (Ford’s first assembly line made cars) or the ever present escape (Houdini’s whole life is centered around that).
In the end, the novel is not a search for absolute historical truth, but a search for a path, for stability during the messy birth of a new world.