Thursday, January 8, 2015

Serena / A World Elsewhere

The Biltmore Estate 
figures in two recent novels

      I came across Wayne Johnston’s A World Elsewhere (2011) in the Olde Niagara Bookshop and picked it up because Johnston has won and been nominated for Canadian literary awards.  A World Elsewhere takes place in the 1890s in Newfoundland and then North Carolina.  A funny, touching, shaggy dog story that has a plot that feels a little like Silas Marner, but with a main character – Landish Druken –
that possesses a crazy-ass vitality like Donleavy’s Ginger Man.  

Building the American Dream, a.k.a. The Biltmore Estate
      The relationship between Landish and his ward Deacon is the strongest element of the book.  Where things go in a strange direction is in the character of Van Vanderluyden, the whelp of a family not unlike the Vanderbilts, whose dream and destiny is to build an estate not unlike the Biltmore.  Landish meets him at Princeton and develops a Mutt and Jeff relationship with him that Van later misinterprets.  

      The second half of the book turns into a dark comedy of bizarre manners, predicated on the eccentric and sinister vagaries of the very rich upon those they consider their servants, i.e. everyone but themselves.  Johnston comments sardonically on those who inherit, rather than achieving, great riches.  

      I read a review of Ron Rash’s latest short story collection in The New York Times and his earlier Serena (2008) was mentioned.  Then I saw it was turned into a movie with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper and thought I’d check it out.  The title character behaves as an all-consuming force of nature.  She’s the wife and very equal business partner of logging company owner Pemberton.  

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence
      The plot outline would sound like the verses of a mountain ballad.  Using extensive external detail in the Tennessee and North Caroline region surrounding what would become Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Rash shows the Pembertons and those working for them taking down much of the forest in the early 1930s.  Rash has resented being labeled as an “Appalachian” or “regional” writer because he feels (rightly) that critics don’t consider such writers as being universal and therefore as important.  However, as he explains, realizing an area in specific detail makes it universal.  He hasn’t been ignored; Serena was nominated for the Pen/Faulkner Award.  

A Scene from Serena
      Interspersed between the episodes dealing with the Pembertons and their financial and personal rapaciousness are those involving a crew of lumberjacks who comment on the proceedings and provide some essential plot updates in a couple of instances.  I thought of them as a Greek Chorus, but Rash actually was looking at them as a group of Rustics like something out of a Christopher Marlowe tragedy.  It does have an Elizabethan or Jacobean tone; the murders, assassinations, and revenge also resemble the works of John Ford and John Webster.

      Extraordinary both for its powerful momentum and wry, rugged humor, the book’s one oversight is in rendering Pemberton so opaque until nearly the end.  His eventual fate is not as profound as it might have been because it’s difficult to gauge him psychologically.  I’m not sure there was any way around this because Rash’s very appropriate method does not internalize any of the characters except for the mother of Pemberton’s child.  However, he comments on conservation, environmentalism, the class system of Appalachia, and the later generation of Vanderbilts in their smug, spoiled splendor, all of which is a very tall order and worthy of greater attention.

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