Monday, July 14, 2008

USED BOOKS: Novels by Richard Powers and Mark Costello


1. The Time of Our Singing
a novel by Richard Powers
The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers is an amazing novel, an ambitious generational tale of an American family with a mixed heritage of African-American and German Jew, and covers the travails, triumphs and tragedies of this family. There are three children, one with a beautiful singing voice who opts for a classical music career, a daughter who becomes involved with the civil rights struggle,and a second brother who, though gifted as well, buries his ambition to bridge the gap between his siblings. Not a perfect novel--sometimes Powers' superb style turns into a list of historical events as a means to convey the sweep of time-- but the central issues of race, identity, culture are handled well within the story. He grasps inexlicable contradictions--there are scenes when one believes that prim and closested bigots are about to have their hearts changed forever as they listen to the heaven sent, transcendent voice of the young man, only to resort to their unshakeable racism once the music has finished--and offers up the idea that what prevents justice and good will from prevailing more often is because of the collective and individual fear that no one wants to admit their world view is limited, wrong, and harmful to life on the planet. The writing is generous and frequently beautiful, especially at the moments when the description turns to the music. Powers, as well as any one, describes how notes played the right way can make one believe in heaven and the angels who live there.


The Big If
a novel by Mark Costello

First, this author isn't to be confused with another fiction writer named Mark Costello, who is the author of two brilliant collections of short stories called The Murphy Stories and Middle Murphy.Those books, a series of related tales involving the title character, is a sort of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for a generation growing up in Illinois, and it is one of the most beautifully written sagas of dysfunction, alcoholism and despair I've ever come across. This Costello does things with the language that take up where prime period John Cheever or John Updike left off and offer up a virtuoso prose only a handful of lyric writers achieve; it is the brilliance and beauty of the writing that makes the unrelieved depressive atmosphere of the two books transcend their own grimness. The prose in these two books demonstrate the slopper pretender Rick Moody cannot help but seem. Buy these books and experience a devastating joy.

The otherMark Costello, a younger writer, has equal genius but a different approach to the world, and his novel Big If is quite good, and what makes it work is that Costello accomplishes the dual difficulty of handing us a small town/suburban comedy the likes of John Cheever would have admired, and the other is with the rich detailing of the other secret service agents who work with Vi Asplund. There is something of a domestic comedy seamlessly interwoven with a skewed Washington thriller, with the elements of each spilling over and coloring the underlying foundations of both. In the first part of the novel, we have an atheist Republican insurance investigator who has a habit of crossing out the "God" in the "In God We Trust" inscription on all his paper money, replacing the offending word with "us". Vi, years later, winds up in a job where "in us we trust" is the operating rational, as she and her fellow agents strive to protect their protected from the happenstance of crowds, acting out on intricate theories and assumptions that can only be tested in the field.

Costello is wonderful at the heightened awareness in the ways he presents his details , his comic touches, A beautiful agent who still receives alimony checks from her smitten ex husband carries on a correspondence with him via the memo line of the checks, where he continually writes "come back to me". She writes "No, never" each time, deposits the check, knowing that her ex will see the reply when he receives the canceled checks. The book is full of these fine touches. We have a sense that it's the small things, the small frustrations as much as the larger disasters that conspire against our happiness. A fine book.