Wednesday, April 03, 2013

the last book I read

A Stone Boat by Andrew Solomon.

Harry is a concert pianist, travelling round the world knocking out a bit of the old Schubert, Rachmaninoff and the like, and negotiating the upcoming recording of a CD of his work. He's in a nice safe relationship with an Englishman, Bernard, and still very close to his parents and his younger brother Freddy. The only cloud on the horizon is his mother's polite disapproval of his gay lifestyle, not a big enough problems to sour their relationship, but a source of some tension nonetheless.

At least, that's the only cloud on the horizon until Harry's mother is taken ill on a family trip to Paris and medical investigations reveal that she has cancer - almost certainly some form of bowel cancer, though the book is fairly coy about the details. The initial prognosis is encouraging, and Harry continues his nomadic lifestyle, flitting back and forth across the Atlantic between his various musical engagements in Europe, Bernard in London and his mother in New York.

Eventually, though, it becomes clearer that the first round of chemotherapy has not had the effect that everyone had hoped, and that the prospects are a bit darker than had been thought. At this point Harry ends his (always fairly half-hearted) relationship with Bernard, moves out of his flat and returns to New York to base himself there. As his mother's treatment continues and her condition deteriorates, Harry throws himself into the new York gay scene and has various fleeting hedonistic encounters, as well as branching out into boy-on-girl action for a brief but intense relationship with his old friend Helen, the demise of which inevitably results in a cooling of their friendship.

Harry's mother has planned ahead for the time when the general grimness of prognosis and the pain and indignity of day-to-day existence become too much to bear, and has been stashing away sleeping pills in readiness for a life-ending overdose while she's still capable of administering it herself. Eventually she decides that the time has come and summons her husband and two sons to her bedside for a few final words of love and wisdom - in Harry's case this includes apologising for her earlier suggestion that it was the stress caused by his lifestyle that brought the cancer on in the first place. Then, having made her peace, she scarfs down a lethal dose of pills and - a few hours later - dies.

And that's it, really. The first thing to say is that this, Solomon's only novel, is a thinly-disguised autobiographical account of the death of his own mother Carolyn (as far as I can recall the mother in the novel is never named). The second thing to say is that it's all very beautifully written. The third thing to say is that it's very difficult to find fault with a work clearly wrenched from some very personal grief and anguish (a bit like this one, say), but that I'm going to go ahead and do it anyway.

It is perhaps fair to say that a set-up involving a clearly very rich and privileged family - there's no suggestion that Harry's piano-playing career, as lucrative as it may be, is funding any of the family's New York flats or European holidays, they're evidently very wealthy entirely separately from that - is going to find that the bar is set a little higher in terms of eliciting sympathy for the characters. I mean, getting cancer, or even having a much-beloved mother get cancer, is a legitimate tragedy, of course, regardless of your social and financial circumstances, but agonising about what colour peonies to order for a party or whether to play the Schubert or the Scarlatti at your CD recording session are not concerns that are going to resonate that much with Joe Average.

The slightly prissy and fastidious tone is a problem as well, mainly because it had me mentally reading the book in the voice of David Sedaris, who is a prize-winning humorist and all but who I've always found fairly irritating. A more reasonable criticism might be that the refusal to go into any of the icky detail of either Harry's sexual adventurings or his mother's illness (which given its nature must have been intermittently messy and embarrassing) make it hard to engage with the characters, particularly as the mother is painted as improbably saintly anyway, even in the face of imminent death.

It's hard to say how much of this is a by-product of reading the book immediately after No Country For Old Men, a book not shy at all about icky details, and one whose tone is so stark and gruff that if it were any starker and gruffer would just be a series of guttural grunts and barks. The contrast in tone and subject matter is considerable, which is obviously not A Stone Boat's fault, but there it is; I don't make the rules.