I received this book through First Reads.
It isn’t easy to review This Languid Earth – and I mean that in an incredibly good way.
First, because of the way the story unfolds, almost anything to be said with regard to plot becomes riddled with spoilers – and this is not a book I want to spoil for you. There’s a reason why the blurb released for the novel is only one sentence long.
Second, although the cast of central characters is small, the themes are huge, immense, infinite. Imagine each “theme” as a spiral, each one not only spiraling in on itself, but also spiraling around and toward the others, finally interconnecting and creating new spirals and new connections.
Third, like the very best science fiction literature and TV series of the 1950’s and 1960’s, the story reveals itself slowly and carefully; never showing you anything past the curve upon which you are currently traveling. And, when you come to the end of that particular curve, you find another in front of you, and then another, and so on. Nothing in this book is extraneous; every detail contains within it the depth and eternity William Blake ascribed to a single hour of time. This somber, intricate, elegiac novel guides you deeper and deeper within itself until finally, you get to the core, to the truth.
Or do you?
In the movie “Something’s Gotta Give”, there is a conversation between Jack Nicholson’s and Diane Keaton’s characters, where he says to her: “I have always been honest with you. I have always told you some version of the truth”. To which she replies “The truth doesn’t have versions!”
But what if it did?
What if, contrary to what the disciple John said when he wrote “and the truth shall set you free”, the truth instead stripped away the comfortable trappings of your ignorance and gifted you with a reality, the starkness and heaviness for which you were totally unprepared?
What if, by doing so, you ended up questioning what reality really is? Or are there versions of that as well? And if there are versions of reality, can you make your own? Would you be happy if you could? Would knowing that you created it make it not “real”? Would that ruin it for you? What about dreams and memories? Are they real? Would you want them to be? Or would making them your reality make them seem, somehow, fake and, ultimately, disappointing?
How about love? That’s a huge theme with a whole bunch of spirals. What is love? When is it real? What happens when love is based on fantasy or born of discontent within one’s self? What happens when this kind of “fantasy love” devolves (as it must when it’s placed under stress) into obsession – which is all about satisfying one’s own needs while compromising or even sacrificing the well-being of others? Do the ends justify the means? Is that real Love? Or is that just real Awful?
This is just the tip of the philosophical and metaphysical iceberg in McCormack’s novel and he accomplishes all of this in a tight narrative structure that has no dross, no fat.
Ok, enough of the iceberg. Let me give you some sense of the story.
Lyle is just an ordinary guy. He has no particular talents or stimulating interests. Thus far, he has meandered through life, not becoming all that attached to anyone or anything. He goes to work every day, contributing the bare minimum. On his way home to his drab apartment, he stops for some fast food and spends the remainder of his evenings watching television, surfing the Internet and watching a little porn before going to bed. Sometimes he changes it up a little by going to the gym and engaging in some mild flirtation with a girl who walks the treadmill next to his.
That’s his routine until one day his life takes a turn for the unexpected when an attractive woman appears in the doorway of his work cubicle and lets him know they have met before and have shared many experiences and that he will understand all of this in time.
Nicola is a rather ordinary female (which she would take issue with) who has led a life of boredom tinged with a vague sense of disappointment over something not “quite right”. Something that didn’t happen as it should have. Until the day she decides to do some “surfing” of her own and embarks on a journey to bring life to her life and set things straight.
Hope…ah Hope. Well, she’s quite the enigma, the cipher. A small blonde 6-year-old clad in a dirty white dress who has a fascinating way of traveling within and between realities.
Moses, an itinerant musician, is another traveler with a backstory that you will want to read more than once. He is careful and circumspect, without friends, until one day he meets Irwin (aka Pastor Dave) who offers him a job playing the keyboard for the Pastor’s nightly radio show. For the first time in decades, Moses has a friend, and when Irwin asks him to share his life story, Moses, throwing caution to the wind, takes him up on it, presenting Irwin with a “truth” he may not have been prepared to see.
It is in how these beautifully drawn characters interact with each other, that McCormack weaves his intricate, cosmic themes. Each character has his/her own, distinct voice and the author literally adapts his writing style to express each one.
There’s a whole, whole lot going on in this novel. Alternate realities (not a spoiler – you learn this on page 1), time travel, shifting narratives…all these devices can be a huge recipe for disaster when an author can’t keep the structure tight and the prose lean and clear. I absolutely loved Kiese Laymon’s novel, Long Division, but I got so turned around in it, so disoriented, I had to take a pencil and paper in hand to keep it straight. You won’t have to do that with This Languid Earth. However, you do have to read slowly and carefully because, as I said, there is nothing extraneous in this book. Everything connects. But it’s all fascinating – there’s not one boring section. Sometimes Nicola can get a little pedantic, but I believe that’s part of her personality.
As you read, here are some suggestions I have for you:
Pay very close attention to Pastor Dave’s sermons because they are the forum for some of the novel’s largest themes and underpinnings. They are pretty entertaining as well as extremely insightful and thought provoking so this won’t be a hardship.
There are some very funny moments in the novel, don’t miss them. There’s a reference to G.W. Bush that is absolutely hilarious. I still laugh just thinking about it.
An explanation of the alternate realities and how universes are structured occurs midway through and it may seem long and a little confusing. If you start to feel that way, go back and read that section again. Or bookmark it so that you can refer back to it. It’s worth the extra review and makes a huge difference as the book proceeds. This book is practically all showing and not telling, so when you run across one of the few sections that “tell” more than “show”, pay attention.
The concept of Memory is a very huge theme so, when you read that word – and you will come across it throughout – slow down and take it in.
There is an elegant, very subtle symmetry in some of the metaphors that are used. I found them to be very beautiful. However, McCormack isn’t interested in populating a book with pretty sentences. We all have read books like that, particularly recently. It’s irritating in the extreme, almost as if a writer were writing in anticipation of being quoted in some lofty magazine. The beauty of the prose should develop organically. It should not feel as if it has been composed separately and then just artificially inserted into the story. The lovely, spare passages in this book come by their beauty naturally.
Here is a passage from late in the book, when Hope finds her way to a white Sea where time, realities and memories shift with the ebb and flow of the waves:
“Hope slipped off her shoes and ran up and down the shore, splashing through the time and Memories playfully. She lifted her dress to keep the hem from getting “wet” although she didn’t know if that was necessary or just habit…”. There was an odd sense of balance to everything. She knew how it all ended and it seemed appropriate in its own way. The wind had become a breeze blowing in off the great white sea of time and energy… She ended up just sitting, the waves licking up in between her toes, under the soles of her feet and licking her heels before scurrying back.
She remembered her tree and how it seemed to slowly swallow her up before. This was different. She didn’t feel as if she were a part of the ocean of Memories, hopes, dreams, time, space, matter and potential, but she did feel as if it were something she was meant to appreciate for its vastness and finality. She felt very small sitting on the shore in a way she imagined an ant felt small: that there were things so much larger than her, but that she was just the right size anyway.”
In preparation for this review, I reread the novel. If anything, it was even more satisfying and poignant than the first time. Small gems sprinkled earlier in the story took on even greater meaning and significance in light of what I learned in the first reading. I had greater awareness of, and appreciation for, all those little, subtle threads weaving their way throughout the story.
This is not a happy story, but then, some of the people we meet weren’t happy to begin with.
If you don’t possess the ability to be happy, if you don’t possess a richness of imagination, if your soul is lacking a sense of joy and wonder at creation in all of its strange forms and possibilities, if you can’t see a world in a grain of sand, what can you expect as you make your own life’s journey? Because…the one thing, the only thing, we take with us from place to place…is ourselves.
Initially, I was going to give This Languid Earth a 4-Star Rating; however, I still find myself thinking about these characters and the grand themes at work. I put myself in all of their places and wonder what I would have done, or thought or wanted or dreamed. I want to talk about this book with other readers. I want to ask myself and others those same questions: What is Truth? What is Love? What is Reality? What is Time? What is Memory? And how do our own inner strength, resiliency and conviction help shape the course of the answers?
That’s worth the 5th Star.
5 out 5 stars
(published August 2014)