Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Look Homeward, Angel

    "Wherever you go, there you are," so the old proverb goes. In a way, that's what Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel is about. In another way, it's not about much of anything and in another way, I'm not sure what it's about. Not about much of anything in the sense that Angel is driven more by the characters and their conversations and connections than it is driven by plot. Not sure what it's about in that this is a book that I'm going to have to sit with for awhile and quite possibly re-read before I can get any kind of handle on it.
    But let's get back to that first one. This is a story about the places we're from and the people that bore us and how getting away isn't the same as being free. It's about how we're shaped and what by and what for. It's about so much more than that. It's about something too big and beautiful for me to explain without some more time spent, but the month quickly draws to a close and you were promised a review.
    Let's do this. Let me give you an excerpt from just over halfway through the book and see if it doesn't help. This is my expurgated version of a conversation that takes place between the main character's brother, Ben, and the family physician, Doctor Coker.
    "In Christ's name, Coker," he said, "what's it all about? Are you able to tell me? What in heaven's name are we here for? You're a doctor--you ought to know something."
    "Why?" he said deliberately. "Why should I know anything?"
    "Where do we come from? Where do we go to? What are we here for? What the hell is it all about?" Ben cried out furiously in a rising voice.
    "What do you want me to say?" said Coker. "What am I? A mind reader? A spiritualist? I'm your physician, not your priest. I've seen them born, and I've seen them die. What happens to them before or after, I couldn't say."
    "Damn that!" said Ben. "What happens to them in between?"
    The conversation that continues is, in many ways, Angel's ongoing conversation, but it's Ben's question about the "in between" that is the linchpin. It's not a question that Wolfe gives a definitive answer to, as the job of fiction is to ask the question, not to answer it. It is our job, dear reader, to wrestle with that question and to answer it with our lives. 
    Later in the book, we get a glimpse into Wolfe's thoughts on the subject when Ben asserts that "There is no happy land. There is no end to hunger." It's not an answer that I'm satisfied with, but it is one that explains the despair that hangs over big brother Ben Gant and the main character, Eugene Gant, and the entire Gant family. They are folks without a reason to get out of bed in the morning, and yet they keep getting up and out of bed. This is a story of strivers, not seekers, and it may be that man was born to seek more than strive. But that's me beginning to provide my own answers before you've even had a chance to read the questions yourself. Get the book. Read the story. Wrestle with the questions. Search for answers. Live them out. Do the work that books like this challenge us to do.

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