Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Book review: Heroes of the Frontier, Dave Eggers (2016)

This unfortunately flawed picaresque novel is nevertheless a tour-de-force of characterisation, with at its centre a small family unit surrounding Josie, who is forty and separated from the father of her children. There is Paul, who is eight years old and rigorously ethical, and fearless Ana, aged five. Paul is highly solicitous of his sister's welfare and Josie has a self-destructive streak that emerges from time to time. Carl, the father, has hooked up with another woman but he enters the narrative at various points through the stream-of-consciousness Eggers uses to convey the thoughts of Josie, through whom the narrative is solely focalised. The book is also a nice new work of cli-fi. It is set in an Alaska dried out by drought and beset with wildfires (the word they use in America for “bushfires”).

With Carl safely out of the way in Florida, Josie, who has lost her dental practice because of a lawsuit launched by an enraged patient who discovers she has mouth cancer – Josie didn’t pick up on it in time to prevent its spread – flees to Anchorage and rents a recreational vehicle (they call them “RVs” in the US), basically a camper van inside which the family can sleep at stops that are rented out along the route north they end up traveling. While a wilderness had beckoned, the trio find the countryside well populated by random characters who mainly turn out to be benign. It is a microcosm of America that we encounter on the road.

As with picaresque novels throughout history, the motion of the story is always forward, and it is a simple logic that brings the main characters in the end to the top of a mountain in a fierce thunderstorm that finally breaks the drought that had blighted the land. This final scene is ambitious but it had been foreshadowed by an earlier scene that had come close to trying to give form to anonymous forces beyond the individual’s control.

The three adventurers had turned off the highway to visit an abandoned silver mine, which they find has been left unattended. Josie breaks in with Ana’s help, and they set up set up house in the shack. The town is nearby and they walk there over the mountain one day to get food as their supplies had run out. There, they find the town busy with a celebration and Josie starts up a conversation with a musician named Cooper she meets on the street. She offers to do dental checks if he and his band will help her to write a song she has imagined in her mind but doesn’t have the musical abilities to realise alone. He agrees and the next day Josie takes Paul and Ana back to the town, where they visit Cooper’s house. There, Josie conducts the band through the thickets of incomprehension surrounding the gathering of musicians and coaxes into existence a tune that they all play until they are interrupted by the fire alarm: the town has to be vacated.

This scene where Josie tries to communicate her wishes to a group of people in the absence of the cognitive tools you would normally rely on to sustain such communication – knowledge of the key the tune is in, and of tempo, for example – is a kind of test the author sets himself. It is a test of his descriptive powers and, satisfied that he has passed it, he goes further and tries something even more ambitious in the final scene where Josie and her children are set the task of finding a hut at the head of a trail in a storm.

The elements raging around and in front of them are epitomised by a bolt of lightening that strikes and sunders in two a tree alongside the path through the woods. Things start to get out of hand and Josie and the children make their way across a landslide that has formed a slope of scree on the side of the mountain. But the fluidity that had allowed the reader to be drawn eagerly forward for most of the novel is lost and the action jumps about spastically within this circumscribed locus of activities. A new injury appears on Ana’s leg or on Paul’s face very second moment. Josie, meanwhile, is reduced to edging her way ahead lying on her back, as she finds the scree unable to support her weight.

The story ends with the three of them huddled in the hut with a fire burning and wet clothing drying on the hearth. They cower under a blanket on the floor, like cavemen, with everything domestic and salutary having fled in the conflagration that rages unrestrained outside. The elements, the author, suggests, will win in the end and we had better get ready now for a new Apocalypse.

But the fluid motion of the narrative had to be abandoned to get here. The flight scene in the storm is a complete failure and the book actually should have ended when Josie phoned Carl in the final town they visit and he had told her he hadn’t sent anyone to serve legal papers on her. Instead of ending on a note thus filled with plausible inevitability, Eggers confronts the reader with an impossibly fraught moment that attempts to encapsulate the whole within its tight confines. You feel trapped in such an airless space, one so at odds with the ease and freedom that had characterised the rest of the book.

It’s a shame things turned out this way because Josie, Paul and Ana are fantastic creations of a fertile mind. Eggers manages to bring to life three very different characters, each of whom has his or her own distinctive features and voice. The narrative turns effortlessly in new directions based on the actions of these creatures, and for most of the book the way they are involved in the plot is very finely realised. The interior monologues Eggers uses to advance the plot and enrich the characterisation is also very fine, notably in those early scenes where Josie has a bit too much to drink.

The novel contains the makings of an ethos of respect for the individual, if there is anything of this nature that can reliably be gleaned from a reading. The different characters are so particular each in their own way. There is no sense here that a “right” way to live or be exists. Josie’s interrupted childhood and subsequent life choices – she worked overseas in the Peace Corps for a while – set her up for a series of challenges and she seems to cope well enough despite some false moves (getting involved with Carl being one of these), but you sense that Eggers is aiming to give each of his creations a degree of dignity commensurate with its own individual sense of worth. In this context, the savagery that sometimes society responds to the individual is a matter for further contemplation. Do we really want to live in such a litigious society where the individual is completely atomised and alone? What is the nature of community for us all?

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