Thursday, January 20, 2011

SPARTINA by John Casey

One of the most satisfying novels I've read in the last year. I initially felt drawn to it for the direct, esoteric nautical information, and the vividness of the characters. Sort of feels like a working-class struggle-to-claw-out-of-misery story, like Upton Sinclair's THE JUNGLE. About a hundred pages in it veers into the subject of adultery, which brings about more ambiguity in the language and description (a good example of the sort of pretentious literary wordplay attacked by B.R. Myers in his A READER"S MANIFESTO), and get's so "deep" that it's hard at first to even gather that any sexual act has been committed. Kind of disappointed me when it took that turn, but it managed to maintain the characters vividness, and the plot continued to involve the sea-faring stuff that first pulled me in, and eventually the ambiguity of the writing about love and desire and infidelity developed into a tone that felt appropriate for the complexity and mystery of human psyches. Also, the book brings a happy sort of resolution that feels difficult enough to not be cheap.

One of the most interesting aspects of SPARTINA is the narration: told in third person but intimately, inseparably connected to the consciousness of the protagonist. The sentences capture his gruffness, his focus on the practical (despite the book's eventual wandering into the mists of human-relationships), but also show his intelligence and thoughtfulness. To create an intelligent character without giving any whiff of academia to him, it's a unique achievement.

Another interesting thing, related to this narrative approach, is that we are often given statements as if they are definitive, and then later we are given statements (with the same level of authority) that contradict the initial statements. A little confusing at first (I'm used to third person narration being 'infallible'), but unique in how it further reveals the mind of protagonist--he comes up with a perspective that is presented as if it's a golden truth, the sort that book's often hinge upon as their climax (an epiphany moment), but later that golden truth is replaced by a different one. The protagonist is wise, but fallible.

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