Saturday, September 09, 2006


A couple of weeks ago now, I read Mary Gordon’s (2005) novel, Pearl.
My feelings about the novel vary. There are aspects of it that I truly enjoyed, and aspects that I found weighty or hmmm… slow.
“Slow” is a death-knell of a word, in book reviews, so I want to qualify my use of the word here, because truly, Pearl is a book well worth reading, but one should maybe know a few things ahead of time.
Like, for instance, that the first few pages are a bit misleadingly promising.
By that I mean that they contain more real action in them than is to be found in the next 200! Admittedly, the book [I think] really gets the reader involved in its end pages, but these parenthetical highpoints bracket an immense amount of musings upon family, religion, and politics. A lot of nostalgic montage. Stuff that may call for toothpicks to hold open the eyes of some readers.
Secondly, the author has employed an all-knowing [God-like], yet totally unknown [to the reader] in the final analysis, narrator. In some ways it seems disappointing that we are never really shown who is telling the story. At one point, the narrator pops out from behind his or her curtain, and says, "Think of me this way: midwife, present at the birth. Or perhaps this: godfather, present at the christening."
Well… I don’t know. I think I would like to know which it is!
Maybe for some, this would be OK. But for me, I found myself unduly preoccupied with wanting to know who this narrator is.
Deconstructionist DeconSHMUCKtionist!
But thirdly, and positively now, I am a reader that enjoys good [detailed, onion-peeling] character development, and I think we have that here, in this book.

Here’s the gist of the story itself.
A New York Christmas night [not dark and stormy, that we know of…] the year, 1998. Maria Meyers returns from a party to find a phone message from the State Department, advising her to contact them. She learns that her 20 year old daughter Pearl, studying language at a university in Ireland, has brought herself to the brink of death by starvation and then chained herself to the flagpole of the U.S. Embassy. Motive currently unknown.
Maria is appropriately horrified. This is out of character for Pearl. A mother’s worst news! “She packs her bag.” [p.9].
Then she calls Joseph, an old family friend in Rome who thinks of Pearl as a daughter, and the two of them set off immediately for Dublin from their separate locations.
“Do you think she’ll die?” Maria asks.
“No, I don’t think she will die,” he says. “You won’t let her.”

The thing is, Maria herself is someone who is well-acquainted with protest, with activism. Sort of a flower-child of the ‘60’s, she marched and demonstrated and ranted as did so many others of that generation, in the turbulent days of Vietnam, Kent State, and the assassination of JFK.
Now her own daughter is staging this protest… willing to lay down her life in a cause that Maria does not understand.
The bulk of the book explores why Pearl is doing what she is doing… and we learn along with Maria [actually, long before Maria, thanks to our narrator who is way ahead of the airplanes] the cause of Pearl’s angst with life. She is sacrificing her life to “bear witness” to the death of a young boy, an event for which she feels partially responsible, as well as to make a political statement for the peace process in Ireland.
Martyrs, hunger-strikers, suicide bombers, terrorists. These deliberate self-orchestrations of death are something we are all familiar with. Like, if you own a TV, you are familiar with it. And so the novel raises [I think] a lot of important issues, and asks profound questions of its readers, and of its characters.
Is there anything truly worth dying for?
Is there anything worth living for?
Is it always desirable to live?
The strength of this novel [for me] is found in the portrayal of the changes wrought within Maria, Joseph and Pearl as they grapple with these universal questions. At one point, it is put this way: “Why is it that it’s life we want?” [p.341].
I found it compelling. Rich in its philosophical musings. I will always choose this, if the option is the BANG-SMASH-POW of pointless plot. I guess it’s my inner-Dostoyevsky, coming up for air!
Mary Gordon is successful at making me believe that for some people, the conclusion “Life is worth living” is not easily arrived at!

Recommended by Bookpuddle with a rating of 3 puddles out of a possible 5, and with the proviso that you remember that I am Dostoyevsky reincarnate!
You can purchase Pearl, HERE!



Anonymous said...

"What am I missing?"

Excellent review of Pearl. I read this book with my little book club and, though I really did like many of the same aspects you highlight here, I also had many of the same questions and concerns.
The narrative voice was particularly problematic for me. It seemed heavy-handed – didactic - and too importantly omniscient, conveying a tone better suited to the genre of the essay than fiction.

For me, it was the narrative frame that made the book - unnecessarily - slow.

As a rule I don't mind slow at all. In fact, lingering over prose and interior monologues is what I like to do.

But this narrator's insistent presence? I just didn't see why it was needed; Gordon already was supplied with a highly dramatic story line and conflicts that are inherently complex and challenging.

Can't we just leave it at that?

That overly enigmatic "Think of me as..." passage that you cite left me with a perplexed "Huh?" It led me to believe that the narrator would have some real function – some reason for calling attention to him/herself.
But if he/she did, I didn't see what it was. Rather than feel intimately connected with a cozy narrator, I felt imposed upon!

To my way of thinking, preachers preach.
But novelists tell tales and let the metaphors of the story speak to the reader in a highly personal and...non-ponderous way - with a light hand.

I feel as if I am harping on this one point, but it was unnerving because the narrative presence is always there! I wanted him/her/it? to leave for a while.

Maybe get a cup of tea and a piece of lemon pound cake at Starbucks or something. Relax, Narrator! We'll take it from here!

Like you, I wondered all the way through if it was "just me."
That's certainly possible. If any of your readers can clarify, I would love to know how they saw this narrative voice.

I loved the construct of the book though. And the questions raised most certainly DO lend themselves easily to a weighty essay format.

Thus, I too would recommend it simply for the questions it raises in the reader. Since I am a person who says that life is always "worth it," and that living dissidents can do more to change our world than dead martyrs, I guess I got a little impatient with Pearl occasionally.

But Gordon does a great job of stepping into the shoes of some really varied characters and bringing them together in a fairly compelling read.

Keep up the insightful work. Always great fun to read you.

cipriano said...

It is always nice when HAROLD BLOOM© responds to my blog, and then signs off with the word "anonymous".
Sweet Lord!
Love what you are saying anonymous. Just remember, all royalties from the proceeds of this Bookpuddle© blogpage, are MINE!
Mine, mine, mine.
Including "comment" thingies that are better than the original blog itself!

Yes, "the narrator's insistent presence", as you called it... like here are some examples: "Let us go back to September 1967," or "You want to know about Pearl's birth. Does it help you understand why she is where she is?" or, "I will use this time to tell you about her past."
I think that a lot of readers will be too jangled by this insistent narrator.
I love how one reviewer of the book so wittily put it, "No storyteller has spoken to me like this since Mom stopped cutting my meat at dinner."

But as you and I agree Harold, there are a lot of things admirable about the book.... the God-narrator aside!

Thank you for splashing in the puddle...
I know you have a busy schedule....

cipriano said...

And P.S., Harold.
As you can tell by my more recent [above] blog... I am certainly not on any sort of hunger-strike!

-- Cip