History Meets Fiction And Smashes It Flat
Tuesday, April 3, 2007
By Kurt Andersen
Random House. 622 pp. $26.95
Sooner or later, every novelist in Washington, having divulged his trade at some drink-laden function, will learn, if he hasn't already, that a significant chunk of this city considers novels a grand waste of time. Because they're made up, for God's sake!
The upholders of truth very occasionally will open the door just a crack to let in historical fiction -- but only because it allows them to do what they consider most essential in reading: harvest facts. And more facts. These Gradgrinds are consequently the ideal audience for Kurt Andersen's "Heyday," a book so relentlessly pedagogical that, for long stretches, you can forget you're reading anything so base as fiction. Over the course of its 600-plus pages, the diligent reader can acquire such 19th-century arcana as the contents of a brothel's prophylactics cabinet, the time-zone difference between Buffalo and Detroit, the number of steerage passengers on a standard transatlantic vessel, and the scarification rituals of Maidu Indians.
Above all, the reader will glean a full month's salary of facts about New York City. Not the wireless modern metropolis that figured in Andersen's previous novel "Turn of the Century," but the much earthier 1848 version, where designated "pizzle-holders" assist gentlemen with their urination, and aborted fetuses are consumed by the local hog population, and the dining saloons of the Astor House proudly serve calf's head in brain sauce. Indeed, this "stinking, skimble-skamble" town is so much to Andersen's liking (and, God knows, it's alluring) that he whiles away roughly 300 pages there before he even bothers to set his main plot in motion -- or, for that matter, get all his principals in the same room.
Better late than never: Ben Knowles, a 26-year-old baronet's son who travels from Britain to America "craving vulgarity and strangeness." Timothy Skaggs, a daguerrean and journalist but, more to the book's purposes, an acid commentator on America's "great experiment." Duff Lucking, a Mexican War veteran, physically and psychically scarred, and an arsonist who, in true symbiotic fashion, works with local engine companies to put out the blazes he himself started.
And then there's Duff's adored sister, Polly, a rising actress (about to star in the stage version of "Dombey and Son") and a thoroughly modern Millie: In the midst of entertaining gentlemen at Mrs. Stanhope's brothel, she nurtures dreams of socialist bliss. When events force her hand, she travels westward seeking her Arcadia. Duff, Skaggs and the besotted Ben follow, and the second half of the book tracks them through "the heart of our national bedlam," bouncing from one visionary community to the next. Until Polly reaches the following epiphany: "Why should we not proceed to a wholly new place? A place far beyond what is, beyond the Mormons and the anti-Mormons, beyond the priests, beyond the upper-ten snobs and the revolutionist shouters, beyond the Whigs and the Democrats, beyond this world, a place of plenty where we might fashion our own world."
California, for want of a better word. Unfortunately, this promised land has already been transformed by a chance discovery in the American River Valley. "Gold by the ton, gold sand and gold pebbles and hefty gold rocks, glittering in the water and dirt and all free for the grabbing by anyone with the luck or pluck to get himself to the California hills right now."
Andersen's story at last kicks into life, and so does his true theme: the quintessentially American tension between Utopia and El Dorado. Even as they wrestle with that dialectic, the pilgrims of "Heyday" are being (implausibly) pursued by the Old World: a murderous French municipal guard officer who blames his brother's accidental death on Ben and is now tracking the "English demon" as if he were "a panicking boar in the swelter of a Corsican August." As harassment goes, that's nothing next to the real-life historical figures who insist on horning in: George McClellan, Robert E. Lee, Kit Carson, John Fremont, the Donner party. Skaggs, in his peripatetic career, has already met Frederick Douglass, covered Abraham Lincoln and witnessed the death throes of Joseph Smith. Ben, in addition to reading philosophy with Prince Albert, is related to Tocqueville and, at one overtly symbolic juncture, receives missives from both Friedrich Engels and Charles Darwin (who, in a not-uncharacteristic Andersen touch, enters the book farting).
How could any fictional being escape such a web of determinism? At every signpost, Andersen ensures that his creations are doing exactly what Encyclopaedia Britannica would have them do: listening to a new piece by Johann Strauss, dancing quicksteps and quadrilles, reading "Omoo" and "Vanity Fair" and "The Communist Manifesto." Even the simplest exchanges are primed to edify:
"Ben looked at Ashby. 'Saxophones?'
" 'An hilarious new horn,' Ashby explained, 'invented by a Monsieur Sax.' "
One more fact duly registered. Two more characters becoming less real. Nor do they turn appreciably more human when they serve as mouthpieces for Andersen's insights: "I've just realized now that [Newton's Third Law of Motion] explains the political events of this past year as well. . . . 'For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.' You see? A season of revolution, a season of counter-revolution."
One could argue that any historical novel blossoms or withers between the dueling imperatives of telling a story and re-creating a lost age. That's why Henry James believed the whole genre was condemned to "a fatal cheapness." "You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures, and documents, relics and prints, as much as you like -- the real thing is almost impossible to do," he wrote. Yes. But to the right of my computer sits (by way of random example) Sarah Waters's "Fingersmith," which so potently tells its story and evokes its Victorian period that it achieves what James thought such a novel couldn't: a "palpable present-intimate." By contrast, "Heyday" reads, as Ben Knowles himself describes it, "like an account in a history book." Surely that's not how history is actually experienced, in the living of it. Surely every novelist must, at some crucial point in his book's genesis, commit the rash, the almost suicidal act of throwing out his research.