Saturday, July 16, 2016

Garden of Literature: Kate Atkinson's 'When Will there Be Good News?" is the Best Book I've Heard...

... in quite some time. 
           Ah, the British voice. They sure know how to speak the language. Actually, of course there are a lot of languages spoken over there on the other side of the pond that all go by the name of "English." The characters in Kate Atkinson's novels speak most of them. 
          I'm thinking of the book that I just finished -- I can't say "reading" -- but "hearing" on a set of a dozen discs that may be the best medium for enjoying this quality in her writing. The book ("When Will there Be Good News?") is a read by a British actor -- I don't have his name here -- able to slip from one lingo, tonality, patois, regional or national intonation to the next without any audible stress or strain. 
           Maybe everything is simply funnier or more apt when you're hearing the words the way they are supposed to be spoken.
What makes for brilliant characters in a work of fiction? 
Is it that they have their own voice? And exactly a voice that suits their role in the fictional community they're part of?
           Listening to this book read to me as I drove the car, rather frequently inventing a reason to hop into the car purely for the pleasure of hearing it, I would welcome the turn of the narrative from one central character to another and think, 'oh good, we're back to so-and-so. After a while it occurred to me that I was thrilled to return to the trials and tribulations of every single one of these characters. I didn't have a favorite. They were all my favorites. It was like getting the latest update from a half a dozen great storytellers -- every day! One after another.
          Atkinson is a purveyor of what I'm starting to call "ensemble fiction." Her books don't have a 'main character.' They have a clutch (what Vonnegut called a 'karass') of main characters, each the hero of his or her own story, predicament, crisis, point of view on life, and sole possessor of her own 'voice.' Inevitably these characters cross paths, but seldom in predictable ways. We wait for these intersections; we don't always see them coming. 
These crossings don't necessarily resolve the action, solve the big problem, etc., but they intensify it. And not all the problems are resolved. Our lonely male private detective goes on being a lonely detective. Our obsessed female police detective anticipates leaving her 'perfect' husband, but it doesn't happen in these pages -- maybe in some other fictional universe (i.e. another book).
             "Good News" begins with the starkest of beginnings, a conventional nuclear family grouping (mother and three young children) attacked and murdered by a deranged stranger on a lonely country road -- except for "the one who got away." A child named Joanna will always be 'the one who got away,' the narrator tells us.  
             We live in the era of crime stories. In fiction, both pulp and high-toned, in film, press reportage, daily news flashes on TV, and the countless dramatic series we all watch on networks or Netflix. Truman Capote's ground-breaking study of the hideous criminal act of violence randomly visited on 'ordinary people,' (titled "In Cold Blood") -- a daring literary choice 50 years ago -- seems a humdrum plot premise today.   
            It's odd to think of top-drawer literary fiction writers routinely choosing to write "crime fiction," as Atkinson does, until I realize that crime fiction, an outgrowth of the traditional 'mystery' or 'detective story' genres, is increasingly the method of choice for exploring normal, everyday life for ordinary people in contemporary society. That is to say, what Atkinson is doing is exactly what "literary" fiction has long purported to do. Or realistic fiction. Or "serious" fiction intended to address social 'problems' or issues or conditions.

             Atkinson's fascination with survivors of terrible, random-seeming tragedies possibly mirrors the return of the ancient conundrum of fate. How do the survivors deal with it? How do any of us deal with the fact that somebody else 'gets it,' while we walk away unharmed. It's metaphysical rubber-necking.
           A quick look at the characters, and a few plot premises, illustrates this point. Insofar as it's Joanna's book, this is a story about what it's like to be a survivor.

           "Everybody's dead," laments Reggie, a young-looking sixteen, Scottish and alone in the world, aside from her hooligan brother, who is himself a harbinger of violence. She's also, as Atkinson allows somewhere in this book, "a force of nature."
To Reggie's lament, offered in her bright, false-enthusiastic Scots soprano, Atkinson's war-horse PI Jackson Brodie stoutly replies, "I'm not." That's largely because when Brodie was flattened by a literal train wreck, Reggie in her doughty juvenile do-the-right-thing innocence went searching through the victims until she found someone with a hint of a pulse able to benefit from her improvised resuscitation.  
           After the accidental death of her mother, and faced with living on her own, Reggie works as a 'mother's helper' for the medical doctor who the reader eventually realizes is the grown-up version of Joanna, the "one who got away" and now grounds her reason to live in the creation of her own family. 
           When Brodie appears, he's already the victim of a crime he doesn't yet know about. But Brodie is also a survivor of the random, senseless criminal sort of tragedy since his sister was the victim of a rape-murder in her teens. One of Atkinson's lessons about contemporary life (though this was no doubt always the case) is you never forget this kind of loss. You never 'get past it.' You're not a cripple; you 'go on,' as her characters say, but they always carry the weight. The writer's ability to make us understand the role of this weight in human beings' inner lives is part of the book's special value. It's the kind of thing we read books for.
           Then there's the police detective Louise, who apparently has popped up before in a book I haven't read yet, because she and Brodie have crossed paths in the past. Louise survived a different sort of loss, the absence of anything resembling an 'ordinary' childhood because her mother was a dysfunctional alcoholic. Louise, much to her own surprise, has a problem-free husband, but her own darker, fiercer sensibility keeps him at arm's length. And, as one of those police detectives who never leave the job at the office, she's obsessed with the perpetrators -- and the victims -- of terrible violence committed on helpless victims, whether they are completely random or all in the family.

           But their voices -- that's what keeps you glued to every word in this book. Keeps you replaying the segment of the disc where you might have a missed a single reply or caustic flourish of musing, or allusion to some bit of English nursery rhyme or grade school poetry, or line of Shakespeare, because the light changed suddenly or some idiot cut you off. 
             Several ranges lower than Reggie's tweety Scottish, Brodie sounds like a common man of the North, no soft, clever upper-class Southron presumptions. Yet his soldier-policeman-PI straight-forward man of duty appropriation of the common tongue is laced with a streak of self-questioning a railway wide and ornamented with a collection of verses he was forced to memorize in an oppressive working-class childhood by his hard-assed teachers. A remarkable percentage of the poetic allusions here come from him.
          Louise is from the North as well, and the way her hard-scrabble vision of the human predicament influences her speech is react to developments as if all news is 'likely bad.' Along with her absolute inability to soften her world-view to be 'nice' or get along. Along, also, with a complementary willingness to lie like a rug if it advances an investigation. 
            Joanna, the full-on loving Mom and devoted baby worshiper, is the one who takes the common sense route of making the best of things, seeing the ray of sunshine in the wintry storm in a plain unpretentiously sensible sound-of-today voice. She has also apparently absorbed all the English nursery rhymes and children's books in the English canon (or, perhaps, Atkinson has) and drops in their wisdom or apt illustrations lightly, as if to oil the surface of the planet's daily rounds.

          I can go on, as we say these days. But without spoilers, it's fair to say that all of these characters cross paths in completely engrossing, satisfying ways. And such fun to hear them narrate or even, perhaps, may we say 'sing' their own separate parts of the world's business exactly in key.