Every writer sets out to tell you something, but only the reader can say what has been told, and often as not it bears little resemblance to what the writer had in mind. That’s why books are such a blast: reading is a re-creative experience and it’s a wise writer that gives the reader enough material to make up their own book. Daniel Klein is a wise writer.
Klein claims that the History of Now is ‘an old fashioned philosophically inclined novel’. It may well be. The fact that the Melville Block in the small Massachusetts town of Grandville is, quite literally, centre stage, suggests as much. But this reader took something else from the story, something far grander than philosophical inclinations, a gloriously warm celebration of small town life and small ambitions struggling to survive in a world where small is no longer beautiful, or if it is, it is being reduced to the mere picturesque, a backdrop for the posturing of people who want to play at lifestyle but aren’t much interested in the living that engendered the lifestyle in the first place.
‘Small town America’ is a phrase that will conjure the names of many writers, but if you’re into comparisons, the closest to Daniel Klein in terms of warmth, wit and affection with a good dose of realism steering us away from sentimentality is Richard Russo, or Russo at his best. Like Russo, Klein creates attractive, flawed characters for whom you want nothing but the best, but he isn’t afraid of treating them with a little necessary cruelty, thwarting their ambitions and putting them in some pretty dire situations from which they eventually emerge, bruised but not broken, in large measure thanks to and enriched by their own humanity and the links they forge with those around them.
The book opens with a bravura set piece narrative covering a life’s span and the experiences of several generations in a mere ten pages, at once setting the scene and establishing themes that are to be echoed throughout the book. This technique is repeated later, each chapter being prefaced by a discourse on superficially tangential material that will be explored more deeply in the subsequent events. It’s a neat trick and not one that’s easy to carry off with the grace achieved by Klein, but in every instance these mini-prefaces are fascinating in their own right, so the reader never reaches the italics signalling an alternative, sometimes more intrusive authorial voice, and thinks, “Oh, no, just get on with the story”. On the contrary, these apparent digressions are a pleasure and, no matter how engaging the principal characters, no matter how well-engineered the preceding emotional cliff-hanger, the shift in narrative voice is so well managed that one is always ready to take a break and follow Klein off the beaten track into terrain not strictly relevant to the central story. The overall effect is a layering of story and history that makes the personal narratives at once more powerful and more resonant, and gradually builds up a detailed picture of the big little world that makes Grandville grand.
Klein is good on rhythm, too, both on the large scale of narrative pace and the patterns of history that parallel and impact on his characters’ lives, and on the small scale, i.e. the rhythm of sentence length within paragraphs and the rhythms of small town lives that are echoed through the structuring of each chapter. In terms of tone, he does tenderness particularly well (notably the cack-handed caring of ordinary people muddling through as best they can), never straying into the saccharine, and he’s tart enough to do a nice line in skewering pretension, snobbery and vanity without sneering at what are lamentable but very human follies. There are also some deft reflections on commonplace pettiness, muted racism, and that shifty, dissembling schadenfreude to which most of us are prone at one point or another despite being unwilling to admit it, even to ourselves.
Does he get anything wrong? Yes. The idea of an internet-illiterate American teenager floored me with its implausibility, his adverbs are all over the place (or misplaced often enough to trouble an anal retentive like myself), and the South American sections seemed flatter and less fully realized than the rest of the book, perhaps because they require a more baroque, Latinate treatment than Klein’s self-effacing, New England sobriety. But those are quibbles.
This is a book that never fails to engage. I don’t know whether I’d call it philosophically inclined. But as a portrait of a particular group of people in a particular place at a particular time it’s nigh on perfect. Come the end, Grandville is somewhere you do not want to leave.
Causes Charles Davis Supports
Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace