Friday, 15 May 2020

Book review: Big Bang, David Bowman (2019)

I must’ve bought this volume at a charity sale, as there’s a sticker on the dustjacket saying “$5”. The author died tragically young about eight years ago. He was aged in his 50s. His novel was a major project; according to Wikipedia, which I must rely on for information, he worked on it for a decade. It comes with an introduction – which I didn’t read – by a more prominent American writer.

Bowman’s novel is packaged as nonfiction but it is clearly not such. A lot of questions arise when you read it. Some relate to the ability of the author to know certain things about the lives of his characters – who are all based on real people – but there are other things that are not clear, such as the present of the authorial “now”. On page 175, for example, you find this: “World War II remained alive in everyone’s mind in 1954 as 9/11 is still alive in 2013.”

But Bowman died in 2012, so he must’ve cast the “now” of the authorial present into the future, to a time when he might no longer be alive. This slippage is emblematic of the novel as a whole, a place where secrets and facts that are harboured by people – Howard Hunt, the novelist and CIA operative, Jacqueline Kennedy, Jimmy Hendrix, Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller, and Joseph McCarthy (among others) – exist in a penumbra of possibility, a place where being is still emerging in a vague locus of existence filled with small dramas that, at some point down the track (we know from history), will turn into action and appear as tonic events. The most important of which is the assassination of JFK in November 1963.

This is the magic of Bowman’s masterpiece – it is undeniably a masterpiece – a book so complex and subtle that it’s hard to know how to position him in the authorial fraternity. The title is equally hard to pin down. People keep having car accidents or getting shot. Or else the “big bang” might refer to the atomic bomb, or the post-war baby boom. Or the gunshots that took out the president. The author himself was born in 1957, which makes the title hint at another kind of release – in this case parturition – or, at least, from Bowman’s point of view it does.

‘Book one’ takes up just over half of the volume, and takes in the years 1950 to 1959. ‘Book two’ starts on page 365 and takes in the years 1960 to 1963. There is also an epilogue that continues the mystical tendency of the end of the final chapter. I was deeply moved by the complexity of Bowman’s poetic vision, by his ability to transport the reader from the concrete parts of individual lives, to universals such as eternity, history, and fate. There is something deeply otherworldly about this “nonfiction” novel, something both great and pathetic. That so much responsibility can be foisted upon one man, the hopes and aspirations of not just one nation but of the entire world …

However you categorise it, this is another one of those big, encyclopaedic American novels but you’ll never get bored as there are hundreds of individual threads of stories to unravel as you progress. All during your time with the book a sense of indeterminacy it engenders highlights a feeling that life is contingent on pure chance. You might wake up tomorrow, you think, or you might not.

While the prose is rooted in fact – each section starting out like a newspaper article and with details pertinent for the reader appearing, with a wry lilt (the footnotes are especially glib), at precisely calibrated points in the narrative – it is infinitely suggestive, like a curtain blowing around crazily in the gap created by an open window, through which you might, as the fabric drifts this way and that, glimpse the future beckoning.

With maybe a sound like angels. Whether they are angels of death or angels bearing another kind of message will depend on who you are.

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