By Alan Wall. Thomas Dunne. 378 pp. $24.95 Alan Wall's cerebral new novel, China, has woven into the narrative the scaffolding of its own review. A running critique meant to describe the idling career of the fictitious jazz sextet Zeno, a group of middle-aged musicians around which much of the plot revolves, applies to the novel itself. Like Zeno's tunes, Wall's 10th book shows glimpses of "sudden fractured beauty," but it is hindered by the same emotional restraint that keeps the band from achieving the wider recognition it desires.
China's main story line is accessible enough, though frequent philosophical digressions and a strained subplot about anarchy mean that fortitude is required to get through some of the dryer passages. Still, this story of a womanizing, hard-living jazz trumpeter stuck in a cycle of perpetual bad behavior is, at times, affecting.
After his wife throws him out for serial infidelities, Theo Wilton begins careening. Days pass when orange juice mixed with liquor constitutes his only nutrition. He has no real means of income and a recent nine-month stint in Wandsworth prison outside London has done little to improve his prospects for finding meaningful work. Theo would like his wealthy father -- heir to the family pottery business -- to help him financially but is too proud to ask, particularly given that they have been at odds since the death of his mercurial Maltese mother.
The only thing keeping Theo from ruin is his music, a talent that his father, Digby, views as something of a curse. "Had he been better at it he might have made his fortune and had he been worse he might have realised the limits of his gift. Instead he was somewhere in between, scurrying across a wasteland of perpetual possibility and surely too old to be still waiting for the sound of opportunity knocking."
Digby, meanwhile, has been passing his retirement bunkered down indoors, declining all social invitations, fearful of even venturing next door to feed his neighbor's cats on account of an unpredictable bladder. He tunes out the modern world, avoiding newspapers, and he nearly lands himself in jail for refusing to pay his television license fee.
Digby has spent years tinkering with a book about the family business: Wilton Bone China: Two Centuries of Family Tradition. His research provides a vehicle for him to reflect on his childhood spent in Stoke on Trent, also known as the Potteries, as well as for some esoteric facts about the history of English china, an industry whose rise and fall neatly mirrors the history of the British empire. This may sound tedious, but actually much of it proves curiously engaging. The reader learns about the introduction of Utility Ware during World War II, as well as about the perceived threat posed by plastic tableware. And there are some interesting details to be gleaned about the manufacture of bone china, which, as the name implies, uses animal bones ground into powder resulting in a material whiter and sturdier than soft-paste porcelain.
The historical material even provides the occasional flash of humor: A presumed exchange of letters between Digby's great-great grandfather and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, we learn, inspired this elder Wilton to design a set of dishes commemorating "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Prior to his self-imposed house arrest, Digby pays a visit to an editor of Coleridge's Collected Works to see if any evidence remains -- or in fact ever existed -- of this alleged correspondence. Upon viewing a sample of the china, the editor asks:
" 'Why does he have that white budgerigar around his neck?'
" 'It's an albatross.' She stared over the bowl at him in undisguised amazement.
" 'This is the Ancient Mariner?' Digby nodded. A second later the editor put the dish back on the table and walked out briskly, shutting the door behind her. When Digby tiptoed over to the closed door and leaned his ear against it he could just make out her muffled sobs from the next room. Sobs of barely stifled laughter."
Digby finally switches on his television after the Sept. 11th attacks, a subject Wall handles with eloquence. Viewed from the distance of the English countryside, the splintered events unfolding on the screen have a surreal quality. Digby is reminded of the white dust in Giacometti's studio, which he once visited, and of the Swiss sculptor's gaunt, skeletal creations.
Despite patches of bright storytelling, China seems to be missing some emotional connective tissue. Wall's characters, from the eccentric jazz musicians to Digby's sex-siren neighbor, are well drawn but distant. Even as Digby softens into a likable crank, he continues to feel like someone we are observing at arm's length. And as Theo spirals downward, we never quite cross that elusive line between reading and empathizing.
As Zeno's piano player, Pete, notes in his assessment of the band's careful musicianship: "No one's freebasing on his riffs. We're moderate people. . . . If there's a climate for our music it's temperate. We avoid the tropics. We just tootle on in the old British way." The same might be said for China, which while surely accomplished, falls a chord or two short of entrancing. *
Susan Coll's novel "Rockville Pike" will be published in January.