This is a powerful novel about love, family and cancer. Though it fully engaged me, I found little in it that was comfortable or consoling. It contains a good deal of wisdom and psychological insight, but for me it was also intense, painful, emotionally claustrophobic, irritating and challenging.
It is essentially a study of how an American family (parents and two grown-up sons) suffer under the tremendous stress caused by the much-loved mother's terminal cancer. But it's a skewed narrative in that it is told exclusively in the confessional first-person by the elder son Harry. As with all 'I' narratives, one has to read between the lines and be aware of unintentional irony - is one getting the truth of what happened here or is this a suspect account? Harry, a bisexual concert pianist, is obsessed by his mother; her illness not only shines a sharp light upon their love, it brings to the surface many of the hidden conflicts between them; he becomes fixated by the ups and downs of its progress, by the treatments she suffers from, by the slow approach of her death, and it brings him close to a breakdown. There's no happy end to this thread of the novel, just a bitter acceptance of the inevitable.
The story is also about Harry's futile search for sexual love. He has three main affairs of varying intensity during the two years of his mother's illness - with Bernard, gentle, patient and self-effacing; with Nick, a hunk but essentially empty; and with his best friend Helen. Her approach to love-making he feels is qualitatively different to his gay experiences; she alone has the insight to tell him what's really going on in his emotional life. In his dealings with these three he is often unfair, insensitive, confused, selfish, self-pitying; all this is faithfully mirrored in his long confession. Despite it, they all continue to love him. One wonders why - he does not come across as a likeable hero, which might be a problem for some readers.
In fact, the love note - it is the predominant one - is struck time and again, ad nauseum, as if the narrator has to keep hearing the word 'love' to believe it still exists, especially with his controlling, egotistical and spoilt mother. The absurdity of this becomes apparent in a later chapter when Harry is in bed with Nick. While Nick is engaged in vigorous sex with him, Harry is pouring out a highly loquacious and complex monologue on the philosophy of love. This is unrealistic; it's one of those passages where we are forced to question the veracity of Harry's account. Does anyone talk like this? And when making love?
Earlier, I used the word 'challenging'; for me this is doubly so and in a very personal sense. All readers bring to the text their own experience, which colours what they read, and it is no different for me. I too have watched a loved one (a partner) die slowly of cancer and my experience of it was very different to the one depicted here. In the face of death, we did not endlessly re-evaluate our lives and go on about the nature of love: all such talk became redundant; all arguments and conflicts died; the silence that surrounded the impending death was gentle and all-absorbing; only deep acceptance of it was required. Also, at birth I was separated from my mother and never knew that close bond, so perhaps I cannot fully experience Harry's obsessive and conflicted love for his mother and why it seems to dominate everything in his life.
And there's a third difficulty for me: somewhere in the book the narrator compares the emotionalism of the American response to grief with the traditionally buttoned-up approach of the English. Perhaps, being English explains why I often felt myself shrinking from the emotionalism of this American text, racing over the surface of many passages, especially towards the end, to avoid it.
A challenging book then, on many levels, one which attracts and repels in equal measure.
on 25 July 2013
Andrew Solomon, A Stone Boat
`A portrait of a rich, effete sissy-boy.' That was my verdict on The Stone Boat when it first appeared two decades ago. A second reading over four weeks this summer revealed the book as a worthy contribution to the Agony Memoir category of fiction. Solomon, who speaks here through the mask of a young talented pianist called Harry, has an obsessively introverted mother fixation. He is, to say the least, a self-pitying egotist whose world centres on his family. The book is, as Solomon says in his Acknowledgements, `above all a novel about love.' Indeed, the word `love' is threaded through every page, appearing no less than fourteen times on one.
The book is less novel than confession, and I wonder if it was the author's need to mask the `facts' that resulted in his choice of category. Certainly, as a `gay' novel it is not disgraced by a comparison with works by Gilbert Adair and Alan Hollinghurst, although here the character of Harry is conflated with that of his author.
The story deals with the traumas suffered by Harry and his family when the mother `regal as the Queen of Sheba' is diagnosed with cancer. Harry, jet-setting between concerts in England and America, seeks consolation in the arms and beds of various men - as well as family friend Helen in New York. The male lovers seem somewhat lay figures (pun intentional) being either macho types or sympathetic guys who can't stay long. Helen is always waiting in the wings with much sensible advice, forever offering a shoulder to cry on. Harry is as much torn apart by terror and grief as his mother is by her recurrent tumours and chemotherapy. The mother's brave but slow decline and Harry's reaction to the inevitable provides the tension: how and when will she die and how will he survive her loss?
The fact that this is more confession than novel is underlined by Solomon's occasional addresses to the reader; thus `In real life, people do not have deathbed scenes. Deathbed scenes are a matter for grand opera, and you will perhaps recall that my mother hated grand opera.' The narrator frequently confides his opinions and complaints to the reader: `That you cannot be monogamous and encompass both genders - this is one of life's gross cruelties.' Solemn, serious and self-wrapped, Harry (aka/Solomon - how appropriate except for the wisdom part, the name!) can become at times unintentionally funny. Thus he confesses, Woody Allen like, that he has been `practising all his life' for love.
All in all, then, although gripping and enjoyable, this is a pathological confession rather than a novel. Solomon's later work, all enthusiastically received, is sensibly in the realm of non-fiction.