Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Wally Lamb on Letting go of the Past

I wrote  previously that I had the pleasure of hearing Wally Lamb speak about his jumbo sized new novel, We Are Water, at Book Expo in New York. I couldn't wait to dive into it and really, really wanted to LOVE it so that I could send my review to Harper Collins. If you're familiar with his writing you'll know that he's at his best when delving into families, what makes them tick, how they interact, what they keep from one another and what they share. We Are Water has all of that and more. What it lacks, I'm sorry to say, is a tougher editor!

The novel unfolds as the artist, Annie Oh, famous for her dark, angry collages made from street junk and garbage can rejects, sits on her fiancée's bed pondering the choice of pricey Vera Wang gowns that have been selected for her to choose from, by her agent, friend, lover, and future wife, Viveca. Annie's doubts about the pending nuptials seem deep and foreboding, her mind constantly dredging up old injuries from the past, her failed 30 year marriage, her three very different children, even her embarrassment at Viveca's over-the-top excess as she plans and pays for every extravagance for their wedding day. And then Mr. Lamb hits rewind.

Back in the early '60's in his hometown of Norwich, Connecticut, a damn above the village burst one evening during a storm. The powerful river ripped through town taking all in its path. From the events of that night, Mr. Lamb has created a family saga that spans fifty years, testing our intuition and ability to discern truth from lie, or false memory from reality. In the tragic aftermath of nature's fury, Annie begins her treacherous path toward adulthood, her mother and sister drowned, her father lost to her by guilt and booze.

Meeting and marrying Orion, a gentle, patient psychologist, should have been the answer to all her prayers but the secrets she's kept from him and his unwillingness to prod or push, will, over the life of their marriage, suffuse Annie with a rage that's inexplicable to her children and unseen by her overworked man, it's only safe release to be found in the basement where she creates her art.

Families are complicated I've always said. Ironically, I was reading this book while in Ohio visiting my brother and his wife. I've often bemoaned to them my regret that we hadn't really known each other in a deeper way while we were maturing, becoming grownups. Our lives took such varying turns, theirs wrapped around their large family, mine trying to recreate myself as a single woman with a career, my sister searching for her niche, all of us in far flung states. Now, as we head into our senior years, we are reaching for each other again but memory, ah, that fickle state of reminiscing, plays havoc with us.

So, too, in Lamb's novel, does memory and the suppression thereof, play a huge role in the damaged lives of the family Oh. It seems so simple when one is on the outside, looking in, to see the mistakes as they're being made, but honestly, how do we know what we'd do in similar circumstances?

Wally Lamb's novel is full of every conceivable politically correct situation. Aside from the gay wedding, Lamb delves into religion in all its over the top, born again iterations, balanced by a deeper look at mature faith born of trials, as well as no faith at all, just innate goodness unprovoked by clerics. Child sexual abuse and its devastating aftermath are front and center, along with the physical and emotional trauma of war.

So how is it that a writer of such sensitivity and nuance failed so miserably in his handling of racial issues? I was deeply disappointed in Mr. Lamb's one dimensional portrayal of the black family that worked for Viveca and accompanied Annie to her wedding. In 2010 there are few, if any, middle class black families who speak as if they were characters in The Wind Done Gone. Dis, dat, dese and dose? Really?
This patois was especially surprising and offensive because the other main character in this book, Josephus Jones, was an unschooled artist whose unusual, disturbing work plays a major role in the story, as does his unsolved murder on the night of the flood.

This may seem like a small complaint in the overall scheme of things and, perhaps it is. I liked this book, I really did. I cared about the Oh family, Orion and Annie, Andrew and his veteran patients, Marissa and her Hollywood dreams, Ariane and her soup kitchen. I just have this sneaking suspicion that everything was just too pat, a tad too clichéd. Tell me what you think. I know you're out there readers!

1 comment:

TooManyBooks said...

I haven't gotten to it yet. Some of us are still working.:) I wonder if I'm ever going to catch up from moving! Are you still in the states? Hope Alan is doing well.
Hugs, ME