lunes, 25 de julio de 2011

Temporary residents - a review of Waxwings by Jonathan Raban

Waxwings by Jonathan Raban succeeds at every level. It’s one of the best novels I have ever read. Its apparent simplicity continually reveals and interprets the complex, nuanced relationships we have with identity, individuality, family and aspiration. It’s how we manage our inescapable selfishness that seems to count.

The principal characters are not Mr and Mrs Average. Tom is a university literature specialist who does regular radio talks. He’s also overseeing an unlikely creative writing project for a man with money who is always in the air. Beth, Tom’s wife, is a high flier in high tech. She works for a Seattle start-up dot com that’s trying to bring navigable reality to an increasingly virtual world. She’s the type that gets paid in options, optionally, despite working every minute of her life. Their little boy, Finn, named in recognition of Irish links, survives the careering whirlwind of the parental environment extremely well. It’s easy to imagine the organised chaos of their old-style house, no doubt deliberately chosen for something Tom and Beth agreed to label character.

Chick is Chinese. At the book’s start, he has successfully stowed away in a trans-Pacific container aboard a ship being piloted into dock. Others in the black interior have died en route, the rest captured by immigration officials. But Chick is resourceful and motivated. He survives, a keen if illegal immigrant, prepared to make a life for himself. His pithy existence admits no free time. His devotion to self-advancement is tunnel-vision complete, even if it means occasionally eating out of trash cans.

And then there’s the apparently peripheral figures – the employer that happily watches his Sino-Mexican gang strip asbestos, the failed English hack who profitably reinvents himself as something hip, the college colleagues intent on asserting status, the dot com employees out for show. They are all superbly portrayed, perhaps with both sympathy and derision. Functional they may be, but they are never less than credible and suggest that each may be worthy of their own novel.

Almost as you would expect, Tom and Beth’s marriage disintegrates. It kind of flakes at the edges until the centre cannot hold. She buys a new condo, perhaps thus revealing her enduring but unexpressed and suppressed distaste of the old house. She soon has a new nest mate or two. Finn reacts as children do and his sharing out between the less than estranged partners complicates.

Tom, of course, falls apart, except in public, as does publicly the house he continues to inhabit. He drinks, takes up smoking, but never seems to miss a meal, especially when Fin is around. He hires Chick, the Chinese immigrant, who is now doing roofing jobs with his own Mexican gang. As a relief from the grind, Tom takes a long, self-absorbed, creative walk, an act that might just have changed everything. We meet a policeman with his own scores to settle with life. The richness of Waxwings’ canvas is staggering and thoroughly enriching.

But the masterstroke comes at the end and, for the ornithologist, it was there from the start. It relates to the habits of Waxwings. In their own way, all of these characters are passing migrants in the place that sustains them. Beth is part Irish, hence Finn. Tom is English, his family Hungarian refugees. Chick is Chinese. And everyone, individually is bent on stripping as many of life’s berries off the tree as they can reach. It’s a great study of the self.

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