“Can’t repeat the past?” Jay Gatsby says incredulously. “Why of course you can.” The novel might seem to be a literary vehicle uniquely designed for revisiting the past, a smooth-running time machine, but not many contemporary American novelists would agree. They are contemporary novelists, after all—they are up to date, they write with the times. They are “color commentators,” as the New York Times book critic Dwight Garner said of them recently, “sifting through the emotional, sexual, and intellectual detritus of how we live today.” Their cultural references are timely, their political opinions are relevant, their dialogue a clear recording of current speech. If they don’t seem to care especially whether they are read in 20 years, they have the satisfaction of being read now.
But there is another possible motive behind good fiction—a white terror of forgetting. Although they are a minority, some of the best American novelists feel compelled to dig things out of the memory hole. Nathaniel Hawthorne was haunted by his “stern and black-browed” Puritan ancestors, who induced in him “a sort of home-feeling with the past.” The Scarlet Letter was written to atone for their “persecuting spirit,” by refusing to let them disappear into oblivion. “The past is never dead,” William Faulkner famously said. “It’s not even past.” His novels are populated by “garrulous outraged baffled ghosts,” who must tell the living, themselves condemned to be ghosts since they were “born and bred in the deep South,” about the “old ghost-times.”
Despite Garner’s observation, some present-day novelists continue this search for meaning in the past. One of the best is Ha Jin. A Chinese native, Jin first came to America 26 years ago to study English literature. He had originally planned to return home after earning his Ph.D., but the government crackdown in Tiananmen Square four years later convinced him that he could never go back. In six novels since 1998, he has written exclusively about China. His books include the National Book Award-winning Waiting (1999), have made him America’s most important émigré novelist after Vladmir Nabokov.
Nanjing Requiem (Pantheon, 320 pages), his latest, sets out to reverse what he calls “the Chinese fashion of forgetfulness, based on the understanding that nothing mattered eventually, since everything would turn into dust or smoke.” His purpose in Nanjing Requiem is to rescue a saint and hero from the dust and smoke. Although the novel recreates the Rape of Nanjing in December 1937 and January 1938—the “orgy of burning, rape, and bloodshed,” during which the Imperial Japanese Army murdered as many as 200,000 Chinese civilians—it is not an atrocity novel. For one thing, its scope is not determined by the six weeks of massacre, which take up less than half the novel. For another, it is not about rape and mass murder (though Jin does not spare the details), but about an American missionary named Minnie Vautrin, who sheltered more than 10,000 from the Japanese.
To write about a Christian missionary is unusual enough. To want her to be remembered for her good works is all but unheard of. A member of the Disciples of Christ (a mainline Protestant denomination), the 51-year-old Vautrin was the interim head of Jinling Women’s College when Japanese forces captured Nanjing, the capital of Chiang Kai-shek’s short-lived Republic of China. “Principal Vautrin,” as she is known to the Chinese, decides to transform the small liberal arts college into a refugee camp for women and children. Before long, the school’s buildings are packed, but refugees continue to stream in, lounging on the ground if they have to, simply grateful for a place to stay. Minnie is protected from official reprisal by her American citizenship, and her “foreign face” gives pause to marauding troops. But she does not hesitate to push herself between soldiers and their intended victims—the Japanese call them marutas, “human logs”—even though she is repeatedly threatened and struck.
The novel proceeds deliberately from the beginning of the Japanese siege until illness forces Minnie to leave China a year and a half later. During those long months, she passes up job opportunities and the chance to return to New York in order to stay with the refugees, “who regarded her as their protector.” Although she is extolled by the Chinese locals as “the goddess of mercy,” and though the nationalist government in exile awards her the Order of the Jade (the highest honor that can be bestowed on a foreigner), Minnie insists she is unremarkable. “I just did what I was supposed to do,” she says. “Any one of us would do the same given the circumstances.” Ha Jin does not believe this is so. Human greatness is not achieved by the pursuit of fame, he believes, but by the willingness to labor in obscurity for the sake of others. Fiction can’t do much better than making sure that such a woman is not forgotten.
William Kennedy is best known for his cycle of novels about Albany, one of which—Ironweed (1983)—won the Pulitzer Prize. All along his ambition has been to trace the “dead faiths” of “dead eras” that “once elevated men to heroism and bliss, reduced them to cowardice and sorrow.” Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes (Viking, 326 pages) is the eighth novel of the cycle.
The clumsy title suggests the form of the novel, which is a two-part invention. In the first part, newspaper reporter Daniel Quinn travels to Havana in March 1957 to meet two of his heroes—Ernest Hemingway and Fidel Castro. In the second part, Quinn is back home in Albany 11 years later to cover the race riots that break out after Robert F. Kennedy is gunned down in Los Angeles. What holds the two parts together is the figure of Quinn, the author’s alter ego. As a journalist he is a “failed witness to history.” And so, at the end of the novel, he turns to fiction as the more effective method to “reveal history in language graceful but hip, simple but sly, exfoliating with the essential stories he had tracked down and wanted to tell the world.” Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes is the explanation of how William Kennedy the newspaper man became William Kennedy the novelist.
Sentence by sentence, few novelists are more enjoyable to read. But Kennedy has always had a problem organizing his abundant materials—getting the sauce to bind—and never more so than in his latest novel. He wanders from the syncretic religion of West Africa and the Caribbean known as Santería to the erratic behavior and literary opinions of Hemingway to the shifting racial politics of jazz to the newspaper trade. The most interesting passages in Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes have little or nothing, however, to do with the main events.
Kennedy learned from Hemingway that “if you put politics into the novel, and if the book lasts twenty years, you have to skip the politics when you read it.” There is plenty to skip in Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes. The heroic portrait of Fidel Castro is dated even by the loose standards of the literary left. And the description of the Albany riot is not much better. “This was not your ordinary race riot,” Kennedy writes, “but a spontaneous exercise in anarchy, the aim being not reciprocal death among racial antagonists but multicolored and miscegenational chaos.”
The only real value of this misshapen two-hump novel is that, with any luck, it might incline readers to pick up his earlier novels, where Kennedy shows himself to be a more reliable “witness to history.”
At first glance, Jeffrey Eugenides does not seem particularly absorbed with the past. The Marriage Plot (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 406 pages), his first novel since winning the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Middlesex, is set in “the moneymaking eighties”: that is, a mere generation ago. Eugenides exhibits a solid historical sense—he knows the unemployment rate in the summer of 1983, he knows that homeless was a new political designation then, he knows the exact tones of Ivy League condescension to Reagan—but his attention appears to be elsewhere, especially on books and religion.
Yet few American novels have been quite so good at capturing a moment of epochal change—in this case, the Age of Theory that gripped college campuses in the early 1980s, when Derrida and Foucault became all the rage. Suddenly the search for truth became self-evidently farcical, God’s non-existence was common knowledge, and “the eternal affirmation of the spirit of man”—James Joyce’s slogan for literature—was turned upside down and inside out. Eugenides observes:
Almost overnight it became laughable to read writers like Cheever or Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about anally deflowering virgins in 18th-century France. The reason de Sade was preferable was that his shocking sex scenes weren’t about sex but politics. They were therefore anti-imperialist, anti-bourgeois, anti-patriarchal, and anti-everything a smart young feminist should be against.
The Madeleine of this passage, an English major at Brown University, is the young beauty at the center of the novel. Madeleine is a book lover with a special weakness for the Victorian novelists, and she is thrown badly off stride by the fashionable new thinking (as laid out by a classmate) that “books aren’t about ‘real life.’ Books are about other books.” Eugenides’s book is not about other books. It’s about bad ideas. The Marriage Plot studies their effect on an intelligent young woman who otherwise would never have been a candidate for the new gospel that sex is not sex, but politics.
The novel begins on the day in 1982 when Madeleine is to graduate from Brown. Her parents have driven up from New Jersey to see her, but she misses the ceremony. At the last minute she learns that her ex-boyfriend, a charming and witty biology major from Oregon named Leonard Bankhead, has suffered a nervous breakdown. She flies to his side, and does not leave him again. Leonard turns out to be a manic-depressive. His illness keeps him from graduating but does not prevent him from accepting a fellowship at a prestigious and high-powered science lab on Cape Cod. Madeleine accompanies him there.
Meanwhile, her friend Mitchell Grammaticus—who once, after glimpsing Madeleine’s “Episcopalian breast” on a Thanksgiving visit to New Jersey, has a vision that he is to marry her—graduates with honors and immediately heads off to India on a spiritual quest. Mitchell is a religious-studies major, an acute student of difficult mystical and theological texts. Madeleine marries Leonard, but his manic depression worsens; and Madeleine, whose unrealistic expectations of love were sharpened by Roland Barthes’s theoretical treatise A Lover’s Discourse, discovers what it is to live in misery. Mitchell returns from India, chastened and less given to ecstatic visions. The magical extension of their college years into post-collegiate drift and searching reaches its end when the three of them face up, at last, to the unpleasant realities of “real life.” Eugenides’s brilliant novel, The Marriage Plot, preserves the bad thinking that drove three young people a generation ago, so that no one might forget it or the damage it caused, and then releases them to find a better way.