Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Spectator Bird

It's hard to argue with Wallace Stegner's resume. Not only is there a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, three O. Henry awards, but he was awarded two Guggenheim Fellowship grants! When people talk of Stegner, they mostly speak of his 1971 opus Angle of Repose. I've heard amazing things about it, and in working my way up to it, I thought I'd read his shorter work The Spectator Bird, from 1976, which won Stegner his National Book Award.

The Spectator Bird is about Joe Allston, a former literary agent living out his retirement in rural California with his wife of forty something years. He's a cranky old man, full of complaints and arthritis and rage against the world. When a postcard from Denmark jogs his memory, he digs out his journals from when he and his wife traveled to Denmark to escape the pain of losing their middle-aged son. Allston reads the journals aloud to his wife Ruth, and they begin to remember the painful memories of the countess they lived with, and her dark familial secrets.

This is a strange novel. Written in perfect particular prose, this appears to be a novel about incest. There are two main storylines. In the present is the story of Joe and Ruth and their tenuous relationship to society. Joe is often angry, ranting about youngsters, novels, art, and everything in between. In the second storyline, we have the past, a trip to Denmark in the past which involves a countess, her incestuous family and Joe's infatuation with her. The Gothic story of the past features many discussions on the nature of eugenics before Hitler got ahold of it and made it fascist and racist. The countess' father was up to no good, but in the spirit of scientific discovery, of maximizing the potential of the human race through controlled and inspired breeding.

As I said, this is a strange novel. At first I thought this was a meditation on aging, on man's relationship to his past. There's many examples of Joe referring to classic authors and orators of the Hellenistic and Roman era. There is also a recurring image of a mummmifed Dane from thousands of years ago, completely preserved. All of these things led to me believe I was reading a novel about growing old.

But it turns out, there are two novels in this slim volume. One of a Gothic tale of incest and family secrets, and another about the tender blessings of a long and beautiful marriage.

It also about the nature of the observer. Not in the cool scientific meaning of the word, but as in the man who observes all and never partakes in anything. Only once, in Joe's view, does he ever actually do something, and it is a bad decision. So is this novel about the spirit of carpe diem? Who knows?

I'm not quite sure what to say about this book. I can't say I liked it, but I can't say I hated. Stegner's prose is exact and evocative. His characters were lifelike and realistic. But the plot was so unexpected that I wasn't sure if I was going to finish it.

For over half of this novel, I was consumed with the question of "why" as in "why was this novel written?" - "What is the author trying to tell me?" - "Why is author trying to tell me whatever it is?"

Perhaps the deeper meanings of The Spectator Bird are far too subtle for me. I thought it was an okay experience, but one that I will never willfully repeat. This doesn't change my desire to read his alleged masterpiece Angle of Repose, but it does fill me with doubts about the aforementioned novel's contents. Will I be treated to a same diverging essay about eugenics? I'm not sure. The Spectator Bird is a bizarre novel that seemingly has depth and is well-written from a aesthetic point of view. I wouldn't recommend it.

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