Thursday, May 8, 2008

Tod Wodicka's "All Shall Be Well": Book Review

I've studied medieval literature, I've seen Prague, and I've wondered what motivates moderns to retreat into re-enactment of the past as a ritual and, in extreme cases, as a way of recovering a past way of life. So, this novel, which features Burt Hecker as somebody who travels to Central Europe to find his son, who's become estranged from him after he regards his father's eccentric refusal to live as if in 1998 as exarcerbating his mother's death from cancer, appealed to me. Although the blurbs play up the "comic" aspects of its protagonist, I found this fictional account sadder, akin more to works by Walker Percy or perhaps J.F. Powers (see my reviews of the latter here and on Amazon) in a subtler exploration of the costs of one's moral refusal to accept the predominant culture of capitalism, consumerism, and American mass-market, branded chain store, big-box mediocrity.

Wodicka intermittently succeeds. His dialogue works best when he conveys Burt in his drunken helplessness, and how he talks, or does not, to his similarly dysfunctional children June and Tristram shows Wodicka's skill at articulating the frustrations of a man too hard on himself and others. Yet, as much of the story takes place in Prague, you would not know it much. The possibilities inherent in the setting remain undernourished. Lengthy intrusions about a sub-plot of his wife, Kitty, and her travels back to her mother Anna's native homeland, the WWII & Cold War-demolished Lemkovyna, also lessen the force of the plot.

Anna, Kitty's mother, speaks in a stage-peasant diction, but if she came to America at eight, wouldn't she have lost this affectation? Her own determination to recover her past engages us less than Burt's, and the need for abandoning the first-person narration to convey Anna's memories and those of Kitty on her trip back there diminish what had been established as the driving force of the novel: Burt's own battles with modernity and his family. We need to understand Anna's own motivation, but the complex structure of the chronology as the novel enters its later stages does spin us off in what seem detours more than main roads that lead to Prague, a fuller insight into Kitty's sickness, and a clearer realization of why Tristan has left Burt to seek out the Lemkos and then Prague. His whole character, because of his reticence, remains difficult to flesh out, however intentionally; June's own repetition of her father's immaturity works better, although here too we are limited by Burt's perspective in explaining fully her own inner torments.

As it progresses, the novel keeps going back as much as forward, and this throws off the momentum. Even the big scene of a CTLR re-enactment appears to be itself described too generally, without the necessary precision; the accounts of Prague suffer from this same lack of felt details. The prose style can be wry and witty, and in characters, more than events, the novel succeeds better on the whole.

There's a minor mistake: Julian of Norwich, who provides the quote for the book's lovely title, gave it to us in her "shewings" or revelations of what transpired not in "AD 1234," (p. 260) but in May, 1373. True, this divergent path reveals what we need to know to understand the isolation that has consumed Burt as of 1998, but it also keeps us one step on, two steps back, and halts the energy that would usually propel such a tale of self-understanding hard won after years of pain and misunderstanding within what's a small but fractured family dynamic.

On the other hand, there's much to admire in this compact story. This novel does not read like one written around the time the author would have been only thirty. Percy and Powers come to mind, even though they tended to be older before the rather world-weary, recalcitrant, and fiercely moral characters they conceived came most fully to life in their mid-century fiction. Their protagonists could still rely on a Catholic church somewhat able to shelter them against the secular storms. For Burt, who never had a faith in the Church although from his childhood-- the orphanage that fostered his hagiographic fascination gets but a glimpse-- he determined to turn away from today as much as possible in his search for meaning, he founds what becomes a popular Confraternity of Times Lost Regained.

Anna Bibko, his mother-in-law, represents, as Burt realizes, his own devotion to times lost. She rails against the destruction of her Carpathian homeland; he inveighs against coffee as "out of period" for a re-enactor who lives the life of an idealized medieval man. Anna had inspired his own search backwards, but the courage that Wodicka gives Burt, at the end of his quest as he strives to re-connect with his children, shows the folly of such an anachronistic quest for today's lost souls. But, we do not laugh at such people, for Wodicka avoids easy caricature.

Burt recalls re-enacters and other lost souls seeking solace even though their New Age tendencies, as he knows, probably clash with the reality that their monastic role-model was likely as much of a Catholic "scold" as her fellow nuns. He notices the women of today chanting in the spirit of Hildegard of Bingen, with his lawyer-friend "non-ironically" humming, "standing seriously" under a sign: "Mysticism is the annihilation of the self in order to make room for God." By the graceful conclusion, Burt ambiguously awaits his own salvation, and the novel circles back to its beginnings with Hildegard's own childhood enclosure within a hermit's cell. She too awaits deliverance so as to achieve her potential.

For Burt, such a liminal state, to Wodicka's credit, seems to teeter on the line between admirable wisdom and dangerous delusion. Burt, true to his character as Wodicka creates him, remains despite the first-person narration rather enigmatic and forlorn. "In the same way that Anna Bibko showed me my future thirty years ago, demonstrating how I could dedicate my life to history, the dying old woman in the Lemko costume is now showing the end results of that dedication, what happens next, what is left: the fury, hopelessness, the rotting present of a life lived perpetually out of period. My heart breaks for both of us." (249) A man out of time, Burt by the end of this ambitious, uneven, yet finally graceful journey into an aging man's restless soul, manages to feel compassion in the true sense, guided by his medieval mystic predecessors.

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