Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Review: Propinquity, by John Macgregor

The word propinquity describes the relationships people make, romantic or otherwise, through shared interests or activities. In other words, one is most likely to form a close bond with somebody they spend a lot of time with. And in the case of the novel, Propinquity, by John Macgregor, there are plenty of close bonds formed, between classmates and lovers. Propinquity's first half is largely about the relations between main character Clive Lean and his school buddies, Lake and Gilberte. A romance also brews between Clive and the lovely Sam. While some may complain these early parts are too much background, they are also the book's most entertaining, with some fun encounters involving Clive inheriting his father's failing business, and an experimental drug trip in medical school. It's the book's last half that draws comparisons to The Da Vinci Code, and this is where the book also, unfortunately, loses my interest.

Clive has ambitions to enter medical school, and the grades to do so as well. His closest buddies also share his ambition, but soon other interests get in their way. Lake has a spiritual longing to discover something that will give his life meaning, so he travels to the Australian country side and interacts with some aboriginal people there. Gilberte also loses interest in medical school and travels to Italy to become a bodyguard. A third friend, whose name escapes me, has more radical, socialist ideas and turns his desires to aid a revolutionary cause in Haiti. This leaves Clive distraught, as his core group of friends leaves him with his increasingly disillusioned goal of achieving a medical degree. The death of his father releases this from him as he inherits his father's business.

The business, however, only lasts so long and Clive is yet again on track to earning his doctorate in medicine, this time in Oxford. Here the true plot of the story begins to unfold, when Clive meets Sam, the daughter of the Dean of the Westminster Abbey. Sam teases Clive with some mystery concealed beneath said abbey, and Clive somehow finds this very intriguing. Unfortunately, Clive's enthusiasm failed to infect me. Macgregor very slowly, painfully slowly, prods this secret out from Sam, though he does, in the meantime, make some very amusing detours.

No doubt, the comparisons to The Da Vinci Code are meant to stir greater interest in Propinquity, which was actually written first, but was recently re-published. Not having read Dan Brown's best-seller, my own comparisons will be limited, but I can say both books have to do with the Catholic church hiding, for thousands of years, some secret that would supposedly transform the entire organization if made known. Unfortunately this is where the book becomes its most tedious. When Sam teases Clive with a sense of mystery, I felt a sense of dread that the novel was about to turn away from what had been making it so much fun.

And indeed it does. Part of the problem is that Macgregor does not clearly reveal what this mystery is, or what is truly at stake if its secrets are released to the public. The characters seem very excited to reveal their new discovery to the public, but their excitement also seems to mask a certain naivete. There have been many attempts to discredit firmly established Christian beliefs, particularly those that seek to disprove events in the Bible, but it makes no difference. Faith is not so easily shaken by claims made by even the most expert of historians and scientists. Such a document as Clive and Sam uncover is more likely to go unnoticed except by a very small minority of scholars. This wouldn't be such a problem, however, if Macgregor had set his sights on something more solid than "gnosis," which he never clearly defines.

Macgregor certainly has talent. It's a rare book that makes me laugh out loud as much as this one did. I can't help but wish Macgregor had continued along the same lines as at the novel's start, but then, I guess, where else would it have to go? Perhaps it's simply that this is not the type of story for me, which delves too heavily into an abstract philosophy that seems to hold no real practical value. In the end this feels like two completely different stories mashed together. The first is about a group of young men seeking themselves during college. The second is an action fantasy drama about toppling a major religious institution's beliefs. Surprisingly it's the first that's the most fun. I'd like more of that one.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Review: In the Skin of a Lion, by Michael Ondaatje

In the Skin of a Lion is a novel that only a narrow audience - those who value poetic prose above all else - will enjoy. It's a novel with very little structure, loose and random plot threads, questionable motivation, and a lack of compelling character development. Time passes quickly and then slowly. The story follows a character randomly only to drop him. There's a feeling that Michael Ondaatje wrote this with great purpose, dabbling a little bit in logging, in dynamite, in romance, in bridge building, in falling nuns, in communism, in terrorism, and a little bit of everything else, but by the end I couldn't help but feel a sense of purposelessness. And maybe that is part of Ondaatje's goal, to show a character attempting to make meaning where none can be found. Or maybe I just don't get it. That's possible; the story didn't intrigue me enough to make that attempt.

The story begins from the perspective of Patrick Lewis as a boy in Canada. He lives with his father, who finds work in livestock and then in logging, where he specializes in dynamite. Some of these early scenes are intriguing in the way they capture the life of a poor family working in extreme cold condition. Ondaatje's eye for detail provide great insight into a cultural world that very few belong to. We feel how difficult life must be, day to day, as loggers are under constant danger of being swept underneath logs floating in the river and drowning. Patrick's father in particular faces danger every time he must clear a log jam with dynamite. There's also the cold. Michigan gets cold, but I doubt it gets as cold as in Patrick's Canada.

Then the novel switches to a bridge builder named Nicholas Temelcoff, a fellow who seems at peace with life, having an innate ability to climb and swing beneath the bridge in the dark. Again, we get a sense of the hard daily labor a man must face. Yet this man, as well as Patrick's father, seems to be a master of his craft. These two approach their work, and their lives, with a contentment, yet it would be difficult to say they are truly happy.

Time passes quickly and we run into Patrick again, chasing after some missing millionaire and falling in love with the millionaire's mistress. This is where things get wonky. First of all, the novel takes us away from Patrick for a fairly extensive amount of time, and then it returns us to him much older. Second of all, too many questions pop up about his new circumstances (how he is able to seduce an actress?) that make the story less believable. Also, why should we care about all of this? Patrick is the least interesting of the novel's characters. He feels more like a blank slate than a fully-fleshed out person. Things happen to him. He does things, sometimes extreme things, only because Ondaatje wills him to do so. Motivation be damned. Bizarre things happen that make the story difficult to believe. Whenever I became enchanted with a character or with a description of a character's working life details, the story would go back to dull Patrick and the strangeness surrounding him.

Had the novel been about Temelcoff or even the thief, Caravaggio, who appears much later, it would have been much more enjoyable. Watching them at work at their craft was a lot of fun. Watching Patrick struggle to attain an identity felt too choppy, especially since the novel does break to show the lives of these other two more fascinating characters. Those who fall in love with the poetic quality of writing will likely enjoy this novel. Those who need a little bit more in terms of story will have trouble finding the motivation to continue reading.