The Camerons, Robert Crichton

The Camerons
This is one of those novels that I had forgot about, unearthed in the quest to catalog all our books on LibraryThing.

I read it in 1974 or ’75, shortly after it came out. When my old copy showed up in a box the other day, I had an instant jolt of recognition: ah, a good story. So I sat down to read it again, but very carefully. My copy is brittle and the binding is loose, but you most probably can find a hard cover copy at your library. I just ordered a used hardcover, as the book is long out of print.

So, historical fiction set in a mining village in Scotland. Maggie, born into a family that has been digging coal for generations, wants more. The first step, she believes, is to find the right husband, and that means going elsewhere. On her sixteenth birthday she sets off for a resort town where she finds and beguiles an empoverished highlander who lives on kelpie soup and seaweed, but he’s tall and blond and strong, and he can work. His name is Gillon Cameron.

She exacts a promise from him, that he’ll come back home with her and take up coal mining until they’ve saved enough money to move on. Twenty years later, their five boys are now working in the mines along side Gillon.

Gillon is the most intriguing character here. He makes a life for himself, reads books about coal, comes to understand the geology, stumbles across a tiny and unvisited library and begins to read more widely. He gains the respect of the town and the miners, and he acts quickly and courageously to save the life of a young man caught underneath a slab of coal.

Little by little he comes to a place where he understands he has to challenge to mine owners, which puts him in direct opposition to Maggie, who is so focused on saving money that she can’t bear the thought of any disruption. This is the heart of the story, and the resolution is not the one you might expect.

This is a first class historical novel, closely observed, excellent detail, but most of all, a story that works in all its parts.

Atomic Romance – Bobbie Ann Mason

[asa left]0375507191[/asa] I didn’t know about this novel until I caught sight of it on the new releases shelf at the public library. I like Mason’s short stories, and I liked the flap copy, so I took it home and now I’ve read it.

Probably I’ve read fifty books since the last time I posted a review. A book has to stand out in my mind for me to write about it here. If you’ve been here for a while, you’ll know that I don’t write a negative review unless there’s some larger point about craft to be made. And of course if I run into something fantastic, I will post about it here.

Atomic Romance is a good novel. A really good novel, in many ways. Engaging and beautifully written and observed. But it’s also missing something important.

This is the story of Reed Futrell, a guy in his forties, divorced, with two grown children. He’s got a mother who made a lifetime out of independent quirkiness; he’s got an on-again-off-again girlfriend with whom he shares a consuming interest in quantum mechanics and the Hubble telescope; he has worked for twenty years as an engineer making repairs at a uranium enrichment plant.

As is always the case, this story moves along on the power of conflict. Big conflicts, both present and past, small and large. Reed’s mother is sick and approaching the end of her life; he’s in love with Julia but they are always at odds about his job; and there’s the nuclear power plant that killed his father in a chemical accident, and is now constantly in the news because old sins are rising to the surface. Beyond the expected contaminated soil and slag heaps, it seems as though the company Reed chose to trust may not have deserved his loyalty. Through the papers the workers learn about beryllium and plutonium exposure. In a small Kentucky town dependent on the plant at the center of its economy, this news is more than unsettling.

Here’s the thing. Reed is a very engaging character. He’s likeable and interesting. As the novel opens, he’s lethargic. Alternately fascinated by science, and unwilling to really think about what’s wrong at the plant, and what repercussions he might personally be facing. Julia is outraged and worried, and he skates along trying to pretend everything is all right.

Mason obviously knows a huge amount about these power plants and how they work. I like novels that look closely at the relationship between a mind and the tasks it takes on, and this novel does that in a very closely observed way:

“Powerful electric motors sent the gas spinning and shooting through hundreds of axial-flow compressors and into converters, where barriers with tiny holes filtered out the heavier isotopes. . . . This was the system, his friend and his enemy.”

The problem is that in spite of the richness of characterization and the conflicts which are set up so carefully, the novel meanders. A lot of it simply takes place in Reed’s head, and key scenes between characters are summarized or left out. I like Reed and his thoughts, but I needed more movement. Even when the parallel crises come to a head (what’s going on at the plant, and his relationship with Julia) there’s little energy here. There’s so little energy that the resolution sputters unconvincingly, and in fact it felt as if Mason were looking for a neat way to tie up loose ends. Which is unusual for her, and a disappointment as far as this novel is concerned.

And oddly, I’d still recommend this. I’d be curious to know what other people thought about it.

point of view slippage

It has been a while since I’ve posted anything on craft, but over the last few days I’ve been thinking a lot about POV.

In every discipline there are some concepts which are particularly hard for students to absorb. In linguistics there’s the concept of the phoneme, or, on the syntactic level, the passive. I run into really intelligent people who are confused and frightened by the passive. On a few occasions I have used a napkin in a restaurant to do my little passive spiel, and almost always it’s like coaxing somebody out on a high wire with no net. Once that’s been managed, I sometimes trot out my second party trick, which requires another napkin: the great vowel shift, or the house/husband goose/gosling puzzle.

Back to POV. In introductory creative writing classes it’s often simply explained with who’s the camera? — which character’s head are we in (assuming third person limited POV), through whose consciousness is this scene being filtered?

Lately I’ve been noticing a lot of sloppy POV work. A scene opens with the POV character coming into a house where he’s never been before, meeting a person he wants to like. The details of what we as readers see can’t go beyond what that character sees and perceives. Which depends, in turn, on the character’s powers of observation, what’s on his mind, his background, and whether he got enough sleep last night.

There’s a famous writing exercise by John Gardner that goes something like this: character walking down a hill in a small city towards a bay. The weather is bright and warm. Describe the town and street from this character’s POV…

1. a woman who has just got a promotion she worked hard for
2. a teenager whose brother was just arrested for drug dealing
3. a man who has been spiraling deeper and deeper into depression
4. a five year old child on his or her way to the library with a parent

Each of these people will experience the street and the town differently. Of these four, only one is likely to notice, for example, that the crocus are coming up on the lawn outside the post office.

In the last couple days I’ve read passages in published novels where tough guys have observed things so counter to the characterization that I was pulled out of the story. Of course, a big bad detective could take note of the fact that the dead woman is wearing lilac pedalpushers, but then at some point you have to show me that he grew up doing his homework at the back of his mother’s dress shop, and has a quiet interest in watercolor. Otherwise it’s clear that the female author is observing and pushing her big bad male character to do the same. That’s classic author intrusion.

At different times, different POV approaches are fashionable among writers. First person narratives really had a strange hold on novels for a while there, but I think (I hope) that’s relaxing a little. Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, which won a lot of literary prizes and was widely read, is written in omniscient. I can’t remember the last contemporary novel I’ve read in omniscient POV. I was quite shocked, and then I settled down into the story and I admired the chance she took (which paid off).

Really, all you have to do is this: decide what approach you’re going to take, and stick to it. And hope for an editor who reads closely enough to catch this kind of slip.

The Love Letter — Cathleen Schine

[asa book]0452279488[/asa] This is one of those books I meant to read years ago and finally got around to, simply because it slipped out of a pile and fell on my foot, and I took the hint.

One of the basic rules about telling stories, or at least one of the rules I agree with, is that somehow, in the course of the story, the main character has to change. Not in any particular way or direction, but the story itself has to work on the main characters in some observable way. Cathleen Schine took a main character I didn’t like much — Helen, 42, divorced, the owner of a bookstore in a small New England town — and shook her up, and I liked the result.

This is a novel about a selfish, amusing, charming woman who is side-swiped by an inappropriate love affair with a man much younger than she is — someone she should be able to control, because she does that so well. Things get away from her. It’s gratifying to watch.

It all starts because she comes across an anonymous love letter which upsets her view of her world and paves the way for Johnny. Schine does an interesting job with Johnny; he’s young, but not shallow; he’s interesting but not quirky. Schine is just plain good when it comes to quick, vivid characterization. Here’s Helen’s mother:

“Lilian was severe and short-tempered with a throaty voice. She smoked in the bath. When Helen was growing up, her mother treated her like an adult who, for reasons no one cared to go into, was too small to reach the light switches. Helen trailed around after her mother in a soft haze of half understanding. Adult conversations, thrilling and somehow important, surrounded her, as indecipherable and compelling as new art. Lilian, propped against the pillows, would gossip mercilessly and good-humoredly into the telephone. Lolling on the bed, at the foot like a lapdog, Helen listened contentedly to her mother’s side of the conversation.”

The only problem I had with this novel, which is witty and wise and sharply observed, is that the pacing seemed very slightly off once or twice. Otherwise it’s a book I’ll be thinking about for a good long while, and thus, a success.