Wednesday, October 13, 2010

From the Terrace

I haven't posted in awhile, but that's because I was working, almost 40 hours in 4 days, which meant my time on the Internet was limited. However, the benefits of my job mean that I get to read. A lot. I powered through a 1000 page novel in a five days thanks to my job. That's the other reason why I haven't posted. I read From the Terrace by John O'Hara, and it was a big, long novel. I previously read Appointment in Samarra, and I liked it. So I decided to keep going with O'Hara.

From the Terrace is the life story of Alfred Eaton, born at the end of the 19th Century. He's the son of a mill owner, in a tiny town, and goes to a prep school, goes to Princeton, goes to war, goes into business, gets married, has kids, changes jobs, has affairs, gets a divorce, becomes a government official during the next war, and then retires.

Here's a social novel in the sense that O'Hara is obsessed with class, society, money and privilege. Of the hundreds of characters in this book, only a handful are poor, and they represent the servants and butlers of the main cast. But O'Hara doesn't simply tell a story of a rich people doing rich things. This is a nuanced character portrait of a man in changing times, or society in changing times.

I guess a lot of reviewers of the time complained of the obsession with sex in the novel. I can see how this problem would come about. Frankly, it's almost too much sex, but O'Hara doesn't labor the description, just says it happens and moves on. For the most part.

Even though this is a thousand page novel, it doesn't lag. It barrels through at an unrelenting pace. Conversations take up pages upon pages, and it's almost always engaging and entertaining. O'Hara really does have a genius-level talent for dialogue. It's amazing.

What impressed most about this novel was twofold. First, it always seemed like O'Hara was just making it up as he went, just writing and writing and writing and letting the story take him where ever it needed him to go. In most books, I'm more impressed by longterm planning and formalism, but here, the sheer size of the novel, and its seemingly improvised structure, made me more involved.

Secondly, and this goes with the first, even though it seems ad-libbed, O'Hara's professionalism was always paramount. Specifically, the role of the narrator. From the Terrace is made up of two narrative styles: dialogue and lengthy description of inner character. As aforementioned, the conversations go on for pages, and O'Hara never breaks up the flow. Each scene has its natural beginning, middle and end, each one a little one act play. Only after the conversation has come to its reasonable end, does O'Hara allow the narrator to speculate and explain the inner person, their thoughts, feelings, motives. But this is never intrusive. More often than not, it's done in the D. H. Lawrence style, that is to say pure emotion, not rote explication of attributes. It's extremely skillful.

There's also some Easter eggs to be had in this book. Julian English, main character of O'Hara's supposed masterpiece, Appointment in Samarra, makes a few appearances. Unfortunately, O'Hara indulges himself and lets the main cast discuss his suicide. This was unnecessary and detracted from the Samarra book itself. I would have preferred if O'Hara had left the opinions to the reader. I'm sure there's other characters from other novels too, but this is only my second read by him, so I can't be sure. There is a cast of hundreds, so I wouldn't be surprised.

If there was a major grievance to be had, it's the spectacularly anticlimactic ending. This might have one of the most boring and deflating endings I've ever encountered. There's no catharsis for the reader or the protagonist, and it just simply goes on. The last fifty pages devote themselves to introducing new characters and having them comment on things, and moving Alfred Eaton, the focus of the previous 950 pages, relegated to passive secondary character. It's frustrating and weak.

Other than the ending, From the Terrace was a gripping, enjoyable read. O'Hara's skill with dialogue and flow is practically unmatched, and I was never bored with the novel. It was, to use a cliché, unputdownable. I think I preferred this to Appointment in Samarra, if only because this was meatier, and less a collection of sketches. This was a solid "big" novel.

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