You find in your hands a work of great beauty, like Michael Joyce’s novel, Liam’s Going (McPherson, 207 pages). It makes you uneasy. You feel like one of those Trojan elders chirping the perilous beauty of Helen. Send her back. You warily mention to a friend that you have discovered a 21st century novel of great lyric beauty. Right, she says, a baby born with a beard. That kind of fiction went out with Virginia Woolf. What about Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood, you say.
OK, moments of lyricism, but very provisional and nervous.Why don’t you let me tell you about this book?
OK, 300 words or less.
We have a husband Noah and a wife Cathleen. Cathleen is taking their son and only child to his freshman year in college. Noah is at home helping a very old neighbor Antoinette with an electrical problem. On the wall of Antoinette’s rustic lakeside Hudson Valley home hangs an extraordinary thing, a painting by Cezanne. Noah’s eyes fix upon it:
“Across the room on the wall opposite the lakes there was a small painting in blues and the faintest yellow green, a landscape like a faded lapis lazuli. Though of land, it spoke of water and seemed exactly right there, so extraordinary that the whole room seemed to float toward it.”
Noah paddles Antoinette in her canoe on the nearby lake. She recounts for him the winding family history that accounts for the presence of this object of extraordinary value in so modest a house. The painting is many things: an heirloom, a representation of natural beauty, a symbol of charmed age, a passage between land and water, a benign current of inward drift. It might serve as an icon for the whole novel.
Are you still with me?
Interested. 115 more words.
OK, Joyce’s magic tricks: indelible images; a syntax of rhythms within and across sentences, the way the percussionist talks to the strings; harmonic symmetries that tie the whole book together; recollections woven unconsciously into the intimacies of marriage; the history and topography of the Hudson River Valley, a spatial and temporal lode of romantic treasures. Also the subtle sheen of Eros polishing the texture of the book with a silken wash:
“The best of his stories . . . involved a woman named Alearda, a painter and wood sprite who lived alone in a cabin along the Hudson beyond the railway tracks near Rhinecliff and whom he wooed in Italian and pidgin and flute music and apple blossoms.”
Lush, but go on.
* * *
What is memory?
I don’t know, but I know how it works in this novel. I call it the music of memory. Three have resonant memories: Cathleen, mother and wife; Noah father and husband; and Antoinette, widow and owner of the Cezanne. A triad, each a different tone and timbre but together a beautiful chord. Minor key, elegiac, because what we remember we no longer have.
Tell the different sounds.
Cathleen’s a Panpipe. In her remembering you hear not just notes but also the breath and the lips passing over the pipes. On slopes above the Hudson River we are really in the land of Eros.
“She lay in the arms of her lover only twice and never on a feather bed or any for that matter. Once in an apple barn and a last time in a forgotten graveyard. O what happens when we die, she thought, what happens ever after.”
A bassoon. His lips a long bent reed away from the wind’s body, but he fingers the stops well. A cautious man but intense, in his youth taught deeply by a French woman.
“ ‘Do you love anything?’ The French woman had asked years before and, his own son’s age then, he did not know how to answer and for an instant then too all the world suddenly gaped like a dark cavern within him.”
A cello, closest to the human voice. A lament for a lost husband, victim of a belle dame sans merci.
“. . . he missed the road too much no matter how much he loved me. He drank himself away eventually, turned so yellow from the jaundice the children called him the Chinaman. Cirrhosis. . . . God he was handsome though, before he turned yellow.”
All very sad and sweet, but I never heard of a trio of panpipe, bassoon and cello.
Neither have I. But there you have memory’s chord—love, loss, mystery. And death, without which there can be no poignancy.
* * *
The last thing is storytelling.
Storytelling is simple, right? I’m kidding.
Listen. Cathleen is reflecting on stories of the Hudson River told by her lover:
“O the world is a series of stories, she thought, a gap in the wall, windows in windows, everything linked, the whole ball strung with unnoticed silk.”
Stories gain us admission to the withins within; and connect everything.
But when Noah thinks of stories, it’s different. He thinks about telling Cathleen about the French woman:
“It was . . . barely possible to tell the smallest thing before a story seemed to melt away. You would begin certain that there was so much to say and then, not halfway in, find yourself already there . . . “
Well, they’re very different people—poet and lawyer.
It’s more than personality. It’s about the essence of storytelling. Some stories reach out into the world’s body and knit it all together. Some distill the world into droplets. In this novel that counterpoint of expansion and concentration is masterfully handled.
Liam’s going is the long line on which the smaller stories hang. Cathleen’s story of her old love affair spans her whole life as poet, wife and mother. Noah’s story of the French woman is too rich and beaded to expand. It comes to us as sips of slant wisdom. The most delicate of all the stories in this subtle novel belongs to the old widow Antoinette—not the story of her family and how she came to own the Cezanne, but her coy courtship of Noah, all the more filigreed because she knows well it is only a game.
No. All the stories merge, not in a traditionally knotted ending but in a series of images. Here is one—Cathleen home from taking Liam to college, Noah home from his fay tryst with Antoinette, the apple orchard lover and the French woman submerged. The couple are bedded.
“She would lift the sheet up in a billow like a sail, settling it over them again . . . They would hold each other and moan for their lost baby, their son set sail across the mountains.”
A beautiful book.
Eugene K. Garber, author of The House of Nordquist, 2018