by Edeet Ravel
The River Swimmer
by Jim Harrison
In a notorious—and some would say misogynistic—essay in Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens, the late British curmudgeon, tried to account for why women, in his view, were not funny. He chalked it up to fear, among other things, of childbirth and infant mortality.
And because fear is the mother of superstition, and because they are partly ruled in any case by the moon and the tides, women also fall more heavily for dreams, for supposedly significant dates like birthdays and anniversaries, for romantic love, crystals and stones, lockets and relics, and other things that men know are fit mainly for mockery and limericks. Good grief! Is there anything less funny than hearing a woman relate a dream she’s just had?
Edeet Ravel’s latest novel, The Cat, focuses almost exclusively on a mother’s loss of her son. There are, by conservative estimates, close to thirty pages of dreams. The boy’s birthday is dwelled on repeatedly—he died shortly before his twelfth—and nearly every relic that came into his hands becomes an object of reminiscence for Elise, the boy’s mother, no matter how ridiculous it may seem. Naturally, romantic love is a motif—or Elise’s dismissal of it, to be exact. In place of crystals and stones, Elise caresses her late son’s laptop, “feeling its cool, polished surface” but remaining perennially afraid to open it for fear of revealing a sex site or some other unwanted glimpse at his life.
By page 211, where she finally summons the courage to open it, the reader almost longs for a raunchy gay porn film, or something to quell the pain. Alas, we’re disappointed with the mundanity of real life.
And yet something about this novel makes it eminently readable and, as if to spite Hitchens, quite funny. Mainly, it’s Elise’s dark cynicism—“it’s a myth, that all parents love their children”—and her cutting asides—“for Sherry [Elise’s ex-husband’s new lover, who’s taken up anarchism], a philosophy that ostensibly justified her various deficiencies must have seemed like a godsend.” Most trenchant are her stabs at those offering her solace. When flowers pile up on her door, which she refuses to open, the local Canadian police are called, and she explains, “I told them I didn’t want any visitors and they apologized for disturbing me. God save the Queen.” Where a Camus or Sartre would wallow in existential dread, Ravel finds humor in the bleak horror of everyday life, in the minutiae of laptops, fences, bad makeup, and cats.
The book’s certainly as nostalgic as Tennyson’s Memoriam, and no less melancholic, but unlike legions of other books written on loss, a sweet irony pervades it and makes the work fittingly beautiful, if not hapless to explain the grief that Elise endures. It’s no wonder that Joyce Carol Oates, a penner of similar sentiments, and a likeminded describer of worlds where violence haphazardly appears, blurbed that “Edeet Ravel is utterly, heartbreakingly convincing.” So convincing, in fact, that those seeking appeasement in the novel, or some explanation for life’s horrors, would probably be advised to look elsewhere.
Or they could read Jim Harrison.
Before discussing the problems afflicting Clive, the protagonist of Harrison’s Land of Unlikeliness, one of two novellas comprising his latest collection, The River Swimmer, it’s worth pointing out Clive’s background. Warning: plot spoiler follows. A successful art historian and critic, Clive teaches at an Ivy League college and resides on the Upper West Side. He’s been offered another job at Stanford, as well as other, less demanding positions. He’s taken “more than thirty trips” to Europe, the bulk of them in business-class seats paid for by the clients whose art collections he expensively appraises. He wears designer clothing from every European capital and was even complimented once by Tommy Hilfiger. In his spare time, he sleeps with lingerie models and the occasional diner waitress. He remains sexually potent, with his biggest problem being that of the adolescent slip-up. His first wife came with a trust fund, precluding any need for alimony payments, much less his emotional involvement. He can also return home, seemingly at will, to spend time with his ailing mother in their forty-acre farmhouse in Michigan, where he can dally with the trees and birds. Oh, and he’s an accomplished painter, not to mention a former high school linebacker, and yet one who can freely recite Wittgenstein and Wallace Stevens.
An everyman, basically.
Then there are his afflictions: a daughter he hasn’t spoken to in years (who, nonetheless, reconnects him with him painlessly); an ex-girlfriend from high school, the eternal “love of his life,” who scorned him formerly (but now offers to model for him au naturel); a belligerent sister who’s jealous of his success (and whom he manages to assuage by lending her tips about Europe); his cravings for high-end cuisine in the country (which are answered, fortunately enough, by mail-order); and, of course, his artistic struggles (which are magically erased one day after taking a walk through the woods).
Yes, it’s good to be Clive, who’s about as far removed from the anguish of Elise as one could fitfully be. At one point, just as Clive is beginning to paint again, he reflects that “someone had said that ‘technique is the proof of your seriousness’ but then of what worth is it, finally, if you are not engaged in what you are seeing? He knew a stylistically exquisite writer who did well but readily admitted that he had nothing whatsoever to say.”
The line calls to mind another “stylistically exquisite writer.” He has published, at last count, seventeen volumes of poetry, the bulk of them acclaimed. His works of fiction, of which there are simply too many to enumerate, have been published in 27 languages, as the book’s flap humbly points out. His work has been compared to that of Hemingway and Faulkner, with the latest Times review calling him “indelible.” He’s enjoyed a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation and a membership in the American Academy. He owns a couple homes, and, lest money be an issue, four of his works have been turned into major Hollywood films, most notably Legends of the Fall, starring Brad Pitt.
Yes, it’s good to be Jim Harrison.
And this is the problem with modern fiction, if you’ll allow me to preach. It isn’t that Jim Harrison isn’t an astonishingly talented wordsmith. Nearly every sentence in the River Swimmer swims off the page. His poetry, to the extent a layman can judge, is equally complex and riveting. The problem, with all due respect to the fawning reviewers of the Times, is that he doesn’t seem to have all that much left to say. Not after thirty some books. And it’s almost as if he’s conceding this, meta-fictively, in the novella, through the above admission from Clive. It certainly causes Clive grief—enough that he can express the Great Doubt, as he calls it, a quality ascribed to “artists, intellectuals, and writers,” and carrying with it the view that “mayhem rules and nothing solidly constructive can be done about anything.”
Unless, of course, you’re dating a lingerie model, in which case there isn’t all that much to fix.
In the Age of Branding, which has invariably infected the publishing world, big name authors, and by those I mean the ones peddled on Oprah, the cover of Time, the Times Book Review, and so forth, enjoy generous benefits, while others, namely Edeet Ravel, toil in quiet obscurity. Which is not to say that Jim Harrison is by any means a household name—not compared to Dan Brown or J. K. Rowling, whose works, it would seem, can only be appraised by posterity (or Amazon sales ranks). Nor is this to suggest that Harrison’s work shouldn’t be widely published, nor that it shouldn’t get the acclaim it so richly deserves. But there are only so many fish in the barrel, so to speak, and this one is dwarfing the minnows.
On the other hand, it’s equally plausible that most readers, including the late and discerning Chris Hitchens, whose own life bore more than a passing resemblance to Clive’s, opt to read about men entering mid-life crises and bedding younger models rather than older women mourning their sons.
Either way, both are fine reads and come highly recommended—even more so than Harry Potter VI, or whatever installment that enlightening series is at.