"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." (Francis Bacon)

Saturday, April 22, 2006

A Memory of War

Title: A Memory of War
Author: Frederick Busch

There are books we (if I may be so bold as to speak for others) end up liking in spite of ourselves or early doubts. There are also books that don't live up to the promise of their early pages. And then there are books that manage to be both. Like this one.

I wish I could say I didn't like it, but I did. Not all of it, but enough of it. Busch is a tough writer and this is a tough book to read, being one long stream of consciousness. The prose is a bit dense, though not all that much happens. Things are repeated, all from Alex's point of view. Alex is a shrink, obsessed with a patient (Nella) and with the presumed affair his wife (Liz) is having with his best friend (Teddy). Things are stirred up when the patient disappears and a stranger (William) tells him they are half-brothers by way of a shared mother. Alex, the Jewish son of Polish immigrants, is disturbed by this German apologist for the Holocaust.

Alex ruminates about facts. In clear "physician, heal thyself" tradition, he has caused as much or more harm to his patients as he's helped them. His mind wanders during therapy sessions, to other people, other times. We see his parents, and his mother's presumed lover through his eyes. We see his wife and his friend through his eyes. Ultimately, we have only his word for most of it.

What we know, or can reasonably think we know, is that Alex has had an affair with Nella, that Nella has disappeared and might be suicidal, that William is convinced that he and Alex share a mother, that Alex's parents spent part of World War II in England when Alex was a toddler and that German prisoners were held neaarby, that Alex's marriage to Liz is at a crisis point, that Teddy is concerned for him. Anything more are seemingly the bits of data Alex uses to fill the gaps in his knowledge, the assumptions and presumptions and possibly guesswork as he researches England during the war years and mines his memories about his parents and their relationship with each other and with him.

Busch makes a point (there's an interview with him and book discussion group talking points at the back of the book) that war (World War II for Alex's parents, Vietnam for one of his patients) that "War is the largest public convulsion we know. It cannot be ignored. It invades every aspect of the lives of citizens whose nation is at war or is a battleground." Yet oddly, Alex, the character who seems most dysfunctional, didn't experience war directly.

There are some awesome, evocative passages in this book. There are also pages of repitious rumination, awkward phrasings that my mind stumbled over and that lulled me into a stupor with their almost singsong rhythms. But bottom line, the book wasn't compelling for me. I kept reading out of curiosity to learn what if anything Alex would learn about himself and the "facts" he had to deal with. I can't quite say this is a book not worth reading, nor can I recommend it without reservation. I enjoyed his The Night Inspector and found that one difficult to read. This is tougher for the stream of consciousness that did suit the subject. Perhaps as I get older, I prefer books to be more straight-forward. And this is one of the few times I am simply ambivalent about a book.