Every dipshit grad student boy you’ve ever met has fancied himself a kind of Thomas Wolfe in his own way…at least when they’re 23 and studying literature (and were me), even if they don’t know this novel or his story. It’s the story of leaving home, reckoning with it in a large experimental novel, and not exactly being welcomed back home….until you are, and it’s ruined for you because now they love you again.
This is an incredibly audacious novel. My copy comes in at 520 (tight) pages, but other editions count over 600 pages. The original cut is way longer. Famously dramatized in the Genius movie, editor Maxwell Perkins worked with Wolfe to cut it down.
But what is the novel? Yesterday I told someone it was basically TS Eliot writes a Faulkner novel. And I stand by that. That might sound amazing to you, terrible, or terrifying depending on your orientation. It’s a slow meandering, ruminative novel about life, childhood, one’s place in the world, and one’s place in the history of the world. It’s a lot like Karl Ove Knausgaard’s novels because of how much it’s about a narration of life itself than the plot of life. Plenty happens, but it’s not every event that matters much. Some sections are more experimental in form than others, but none of them are crazy. It’s a slow-burn, but it’s perfectly readable and comprehensible. It’s NOT Finnegan’s Wake or even Absalom, Absalom! It’s a complex novel about childhood and growing and feeling too big for the life you were born into and resenting the promise you seem to believe for yourself. It’s not an angry novel, and in fact the writing is often beautiful, but it is a kind forward-looking wistful. I will end with two long passage so you can see for yourself. It’s an endeavor to be sure.
“The mountains were his masters. They rimmed in life. They were the cup of reality, beyond growth, beyond struggle and death. They were his absolute unity in the midst of eternal change. Old haunt- eyed faces glimmered in his memory. He thought of Swain’s cow, St. Louis, death, himself in the cradle. He was the haunter of himself, trying for a moment to recover what he had been part of. He did not understand change, he did not understand growth. He
stared at his framed baby picture in the parlor, and turned away sick with fear and the effort to touch, retain, grasp himself for only a moment.
And these bodiless phantoms of his life appeared with terrible precision, with all the mad nearness of a vision. That which was five years gone came within the touch of his hand, and he ceased at that moment to believe in his own existence. He expected some one to wake him; he would hear Gant’s great voice below the laden vines, would gaze sleepily from the porch into the rich low moon, and go obediently to bed. But still there would be all that he
remembered before that and what if–Cause flowed ceaselessly into cause.
He heard the ghostly ticking of his life; his powerful clairvoyance, the wild Scotch gift of Eliza, burned inward back across the phantom years, plucking out of the ghostly shadows a million gleams of light–a little station by the rails at dawn, the road cleft through the pineland seen at twilight, a smoky cabin-light below the trestles, a boy who ran among the bounding calves, a wisp-haired slattern, with snuff-sticked mouth, framed in a door, floury negroes
unloading sacks from freight-cars on a shed, the man who drove the Fair Grounds bus at Saint Louis, a cool-lipped lake at dawn.
His life coiled back into the brown murk of the past like a twined filament of electric wire; he gave life, a pattern, and movement to these million sensations that Chance, the loss or gain of a moment, the turn of the head, the enormous and aimless impulsion of accident, had thrust into the blazing heat of him. His mind picked out in white living brightness these pinpoints of experience and the ghostliness of all things else became more awful because of them. So many of the sensations that returned to open haunting vistas of fantasy and imagining had been caught from a whirling landscape through the windows of the train.
And it was this that awed him–the weird combination of fixity and change, the terrible moment of immobility stamped with eternity in which, passing life at great speed, both the observer and the observed seem frozen in time. There was one moment of timeless suspension when the land did not move, the train did not move, the slattern in the doorway did not move, he did not move. It was as if God had lifted his baton sharply above the endless orchestration of the seas, and the eternal movement had stopped, suspended in the timeless architecture of the absolute. Or like those motion-pictures that describe the movements of a swimmer making a dive, or a horse taking a hedge–movement is petrified suddenly in mid-air, the inexorable completion of an act is arrested. Then, completing its parabola, the suspended body plops down into the pool. Only, these images that burnt in him existed without beginning or ending, without the essential structure of time. Fixed in no-time, the slattern vanished, fixed, without a moment of transition.
His sense of unreality came from time and movement, from imagining the woman, when the train had passed, as walking back into the house, lifting a kettle from the hearth embers. Thus life turned shadow, the living lights went ghost again. The boy among the calves. Where later? Where now?
I am, he thought, a part of all that I have touched and that has touched me, which, having for me no existence save that which I gave to it, became other than itself by being mixed with what I then was, and is now still otherwise, having fused with what I now am, which is itself a cumulation of what I have been becoming. Why here? Why there? Why now? Why then? The fusion of the two strong egotisms, Eliza’s inbrooding and Gant’s expanding outward, made of him a fanatical zealot in the religion of Chance. Beyond all misuse, waste, pain, tragedy, death, confusion, unswerving necessity was on the rails; not a sparrow fell through the air but that its repercussion acted on his life, and the lonely light that fell upon the viscous and interminable seas at dawn awoke sea-changes washing life to him.
The fish swam upward from the depth.
The seed of our destruction will blossom in the desert, the alexin of our cure grows by a mountain rock, and our lives are haunted by a Georgia slattern because a London cut-purse went unhung. Through Chance, we are each a ghost to all the others, and our only reality; through Chance, the huge hinge of the world, and a grain of dust; the stone that starts an avalanche, the pebble whose concentric circles widen across the seas.
He believed himself thus at the centre of life; he believed the mountains rimmed the heart of the world; he believed that from all the chaos of accident the inevitable event came at the inexorable moment to add to the sum of his life.
Against the hidden other flanks of the immutable hills the world washed like a vast and shadowy sea, alive with the great fish of his imagining. Variety, in this unvisited world, was unending, but order and purpose certain: there would be no wastage in adventure–courage would be regarded with beauty, talent with success, all merit with its true deserving. There would be peril, there would be toil, there would be struggle. But there would not be confusion
and waste. There would not be groping. For collected Fate would fall, on its chosen moment, like a plum. There was no disorder in enchantment.
Spring lay abroad through all the garden of this world. Beyond the hills the land bayed out to other hills, to golden cities, to rich meadows, to deep forests, to the sea. Forever and forever.
Beyond the hills were the mines of King Solomon, the toy republics of Central America, and little tinkling fountains in a court; beyond, the moonlit roofs of Bagdad, the little grated blinds of Samarkand, the moonlit camels of Bythinia, the Spanish ranch-house of the Triple Z, and J. B. Montgomery and his lovely daughter stepping from their private car upon a western track; and the castle-haunted crags of Graustark; the fortune-yielding casino of Monte Carlo; and the blue eternal Mediterranean, mother of empires. And instant wealth ticked out upon a tape, and the first stage of
the Eiffel Tower where the restaurant was, and Frenchmen setting fire to their whiskers, and a farm in Devon, white cream, brown ale, the winter’s chimney merriment, and Lorna Doone; and the hanging gardens of Babylon, and supper in the sunset with the queens, and the slow slide of the barge upon the Nile, or the wise rich bodies of Egyptian women couched on moonlit balustrades, and the thunder of the chariots of great kings, and tomb-treasure
sought at midnight, and the wine-rich chateau land of France, and calico warm legs in hay.
Upon a field in Thrace Queen Helen lay, her lovely body dappled in the sun.
Meanwhile, business had been fairly good.”
“Eugene was not quite sixteen years old when he was sent away to the university. He was, at the time, over six feet and three inches tall, and weighed perhaps 130 pounds. He had been sick very little in his life, but his rapid growth had eaten sharply at his strength: he was full of a wild energy of mind and body that devoured him and left him exhausted. He tired very quickly. He was a child when he went away: he was a child who had looked much on pain and evil, and remained a fantasist of the Ideal.
Walled up in his great city of visions, his tongue had learned to mock, his lip to sneer, but the harsh rasp of the world had worn no grooving in the secret life. Again and again he had been bogged in the gray slough of factuality. His cruel eyes had missed the meaning of no gesture, his packed and bitter heart had sweltered in him like a hot ingot, but all his hard wisdom melted at the glow of his imagination. He was not a child when he reflected, but when he
dreamt, he was; and it was the child and dreamer that governed his belief. He belonged, perhaps, to an older and simpler race of men: he belonged with the Mythmakers. For him, the sun was a lordly lamp to light him on his grand adventuring. He believed in brave heroic lives. He believed in the fine flowers of tenderness and gentleness he had little known. He believed in beauty and in order, and that he would wreak out their mighty forms upon the
distressful chaos of his life. He believed in love, and in the goodness and glory of women. He believed in valiance, and he hoped that, like Socrates, he would do nothing mean or common in the hour of danger. He exulted in his youth, and he believed that he could never die.
Four years later, when he was graduated, he had passed his adolescence, the kiss of love and death burned on his lips, and he was still a child.
When it was at last plain that Gant’s will was on this inflexible, Margaret Leonard had said, quietly:
“Well, then, go your ways, boy. Go your ways. God bless you.””