Friday, 30 November 2018

Book review: Upstate, James Wood (2018)

When I started to read this engaging novel I thought that it was just a tad underwritten. It was as though the writer had been unsure about where he wanted to go and of how to get there. There are odd transitions from time to time as the focalisation switches, sometimes in the middle of a chapter, from one character to another. (Focalisation is the common novelistic technique of channelling the narrative through the consciousness of a specific character. You get to “see” things through the eyes of Helen or of Alan.) These events were slightly disturbing and I wondered if the author had been aware of what he was doing as he did it.

But eventually things sorted themselves out. Although sometimes the characters seemed annoyingly unaware of the effect they have on other people, the rawness of the novel in the end turns out to be an asset. There is a freshness in the conception of the work and a vigour in the execution that are remarkable.

The story is also unusual because it takes place in or around 2006. It takes you a while to understand the timeline and I had to go to the computer to use the calculator to do the sums. There I worked out that Alan, the main character, was born in 1938 or thereabouts. His eldest child, Vanessa, was born in 1966 and when the book opens she is an academic and is about 40 years old. Vanessa struggles periodically with depression but it has coloured her whole life. Alan has been called from the UK, where he lives with his partner, Candace (who is ethnically Chinese and was born in China; the girls’ mother, Cathy, had left the family when they were children and has since died as a result of cancer), to a wintry upstate New York to visit his daughter. His other daughter, Helen, is a record company executive and lives in the UK although she travels to the US frequently. She is married to a man named Tom (who we do not meet) and has two children of her own, and also comes to New York to see her sister. Vanessa lives with Josh, who is American and a journalist who specialises in technology, and they are not married. They have no children.

Josh had emailed Helen to warn her about Vanessa’s illness and Helen had contacted Alan, raising the alarm. The way that this novel deals with mental illness is to do it with sensitivity and aplomb. Vanessa’s and Josh’s conundrum is real and problematic and the way that people around them deal with it (Alan not so well, Helen with a kind of detached resignation; Vanessa had had episodes before) is realistic.

The book also tries to grapple with larger issues – such as the internet and technology generally, and with the fallout from the twin Towers attacks – but in the end these things are of less importance than Vanessa’s health. But I thought it was insightful of Wood to place his drama in the year he chose because it was a pivotal moment in world events, being three years after Facebook was founded, the year before Twitter was established, and a time when the world was still coming to terms with Islamic extremism (and the reaction to it). The election of Barack Obama was just around the corner, as was the GFC. It’s as though, like Alan contemplating his fragile eldest daughter, everything was holding its breath.

The town of Saratoga Springs, where most of the drama plays out, is also waiting: for spring, which is just around the corner. The locales used in the book are depicted efficiently and with sympathy and intelligence. There is plenty of good, strong poetry in this book that is used to interleave the scenes that are enmeshed in the stories that pass through people’s minds. The simplicity of the cold, barren landscape is an effective foil for the involuted and sometimes suffocating processes of people’s diurnal thoughts.

The denouement is striking and subtle, hinging as it does on Alan’s relationship with his daughter, and it drops into your lap quietly, like a comment overheard in the lobby of a commercial office building that you happen to be visiting, or like a fall of snow in early spring that drops next to you on the pavement after falling off the roof of a house. Like a modern-day King Lear, Alan has three women (plus his elderly mother, who lives in a nursing home that he pays for) he must deal with, in addition to his own mortality.

I just wanted to comment briefly on the title of the book. Choosing this descriptor used for the location of the towns that form the backdrop to the book is of course efficient, but the title does more than this in the context of mental illness. Often people who meet people living with a mental illness advise them to “get over it” or to “buck up”, as though such suggestions could remedy what ails them, but the reality of mental illness is far more difficult. It cannot be overcome by mere force of will, as though you were getting over a poor exam mark or the loss of a job. On the other hand, many people living with a mental illness continue to function as active members of the community, as Vanessa does at her college. There is no easy answer, but there is also no single answer. Each person deals with it in their own way.

The setting for the film (in 2006) also highlights the meagre levels of resources that were dedicated at the time to illnesses such as depression compared to the huge quantities of money put aside by governments around the world at the time for “fighting terrorism”. We are more aware, now, of things life depression, but we still have a way to go.

Wood is a critic and is English but lives in the US. This novel reminded me for this reason of the 2017 novel ‘Eureka’ by film critic Anthony Quinn which I reviewed here on 31 August this year, and which I also thought was very successful as a work of art. While the works are very different in design and in style, in both Quinn’s and Wood’s books there is a protagonist who is a mature man who is surrounded by complex characters, with each character given space to feature as a credible source of truth. In both books there is also an abiding humanity that animates the whole.

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