EVERY NOVEL is a separate existence that has to be taken on its own terms. This is as true for the novelist as the reader. No passing trends or contemporary fads should penetrate a novel's integrity (unless it's about such), and none do if the novelist remains true to the widening development of lives in the life under his hands; Reynolds Price is such a writer. For the rare modern novelist, such as Price, who is embarked upon an immense project, however, there can come a time when, out of sympathy for his other half, the reader, he might say, "Some of this will have to go into another book." Price must have made such a decision in the midst of The Surface of Earth, as his new novel, The Surface of Light, reflects.
The central character is Hutchins Mayfield, who appears as an adolescent in the final portion of The Surface of Earth; he's the last of the Kendal-Mayfield clan, and, over the approximate year of this new nove, is 25. He is the central character, yet most of the action revolves around his father, Rob. Hutch and Rob have the unique relationship of as only son and father, a relationship unfathomably deepened by the death of Hutch's mother at his birth.
The book opens with Hutch and Rob bathing in (ironically) curative mineral springs before both set off on their separate courses: Hutch, who has been teaching at a prep school in Virginia, toward Oxford, England, for further study and to pursue the career of his calling, writing; and Rob, who has just learned that he is dying of inoperable cancer, toward the end that awaits him, without telling Hutch, since it might prevent his leaving.
Hutch feels he must leave, for the isolation -- from Rob, family, other attachments, the South -- and he leaves behind Ann Gatlin, his friend for many years and the person he comes closest to establishing a permanent relationship with; they are as much engaged as a couple can be without making it formal. In England, before Oxford opens, on a tour with Lew Davis, a Welsh roustabout Hutch has befriended on the voyage across, and with the focus of the well-loved Rob at the periphery, the novel comes perilously close to degenerating into travelogue. The momentum of the story nearly suffers a total breakdown during a semi-Edenic interlude on the Scilly Islands, with a young boy speaking as no child in this world ever spoke, and Hutch and Lew coming together in an affair.
Oxford is covered largely by letters, a device well-used in The Surface of Earth, and by the arrival of Strawson Stuart, one of Hutch's former students, with whom Hutch resumes an earlier affair. He also meets a young brickmason, a slight relative to Jude the Obscure, whose only daughter is affected by the separation of her parents, and on this man, as he comes to resemble Rob, the action of the book at its end will rest. Part of Hutch's quest is for the erotic, and he appears somewhat callow in this, in his treatment of Ann over another ruins-visiting interlude in Rome, at Christmas, and in his apprehension of himself and others: "They saw their bodies as hoards of treasure to be guarded unsleepingly; Hutch saw his as a nearly bare room, doors ajar."
He has retained enough of a Southern Presbyterian or Fundamentalist background to recite the names of those he loves as prayers, when at major points of arrival or departure, and to pray the Lord's Prayer, in a version that reduces it to merely "Thy will." In a letter to Rob, after several of Hutch's affairs, and an evening with a prostitute, he says, "So far as I understand the Ten Commandments, I've never broken one." Which is a further intimation of a callowness, since in the same letter he confessed, "I believe that the Gospel of Mark is a thoroughly trustworthy news-account of actual occurrences some years back but relevant still," when the message of the Gospel, or its good news, is that all are sinners, and none righteous, and yet Christ came to seek and save those that were lost.
As in the image of a bare room with doors ajar, there is an essential dimension lacking in Hutch. Indeed, most of the characters in The Source of Light come enveloped in an aura incomprehensible to anyone who has not read the Surface of Earth. They are rather too well-loved and doted upon, much as Salinger's Glass family became, in his later work, for reasons not every reader will find easy to discern. Nothing but the lovable, even when it concerns questionable characteristics, is communiated about Rob. His moving death, which Hutch returns to America for, is partly marred in its power because of this. And for other reasons. A shifting point of view that worked perfectly well for a cast of hundreds, in The Surface of Earth, here seems arbitrarily applied, when most of the book is centered around Hutch, and his relationship with Rob, ane one of the most disturbing shifts comes near the end of Rob's dying, at a crucial point of the book, from which its title is drawn.
Echoes and recurring parallels, which in and of themselves might be bearable (even in greater abundance) in a book in which all of the essentials to the story were present and clear-cut, tend to take on the feel, in this one, of being imposed from the outside. If something is mentioned once, it will be followed by a parallel soon, and ususally recapitulated in a dream. This book is filled with dreams. There is an endless play throughout on statues, dolls, children, and children with one or both parents missing; indeed, no child appears who isn't noticeably (momentously?) missing a parent or a parental relationship, as if to reflect Hutch's situation, or foreshadow his further state, after Rob's death.
Any of this, to any extreme, could be countenanced in a novel that, page by page, worked. For this reader, The Source of Light ultimately doesn't, though it might for those who come to it from The Surface of Earth; indeed, devotees of that book might well like the present one. But this shouldn't be; a novel should rest on itself as that separate existence previously mentioned. And just as extraneous fads should not enter into it, so one should not have to look elsewhere to fill in the spaces in it. The Source of Light arrives in wisps and fragments and stretches of brilliance, but without the interstitial substance that only The Surface of Earth can add.
To borrow from the imagery present in both books (and The Source of Light is divided into sections titled with terms from astronomy) an abundant amount of energy would be needed to warm and re-ignite the enormous Surface of Earth backward, and the present novel would have to be an even more burning, consuming source in itself to accomplish this, whether it were referring to Hutch as the bright point in the Kendal-Mayfield hopes, or all the way back to Christ. That this book doesn't bear this essential brightness is a disappointment to those who have come to respect and trust the bulk of Price's admittedly individual work, arriving as it usually does from the level of its own high standards.
Perhaps it is advisable for a novelist to put between two interrelated books a wholly other imaginative work that deals with radically different characters. For when a novelist has to say, "Some of this will have to go into another book," he sometimes also has to say, "But that will have to wait until I can see it clear." The Source of Light, as delicate as the dreams in it, like a mist above the surface of the earth, feels too tenuous and underlit for the world it must face, where readers and reviewers -- not yet won over by Price's people, and entering a story already underway -- approach with hearts and eyes of ice.