A Setting of Customary Integrity

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The pleasure of many a novel lies apart from plot and character, in setting. To firmly situate itself in a specific time and place, a novel can draw on page after page of references and description. Novels that do this well make good movies: Think of “The Ice Storm,” which, like many of Ang Lee’s best movies, immerses its characters in a bath of accurate period detail. Similarly immersive is Julia Glass’s new novel, “The Whole World Over” (Pantheon, 528 pages, $25.95), which takes setting very seriously.

The drawback to this kind of fiction is that such specificity invites inaccuracy.We have to cringe, initially, at a novel that juxtaposes Greenwich Village with Santa Fe – two self-romanticizing locales that, in this novel, serve as tokens, if not of the “the whole world,” at least of the blue and red state spectrum.

Greenie runs a successful bakery in the Village. She has a decade (the 1990s) of gourmet detail in her little finger. Her husband, Alan, a shrink, represents a tired, older New York. When courting Greenie, then called Queenie, he complains it’s “the kind of name a boxer or a pimp might use.” Pimps are nowhere to be seen. Greenie’s friend Walter, a gay restaurateur, plays the soul of the neighborhood.

At first he seems like a joke of a gay man. He is witty. He worships his deceased grandmother.As he oversees the “nightly overhaul” of his restaurant, he compares his life to that of a ship’s captain. “He could imagine the sailors (delectable sailors) tightening screws and riggings, swabbing decks, polishing bollards (what in the world was a bollard?), scraping barnacles loudly from the hall.”

Ms. Glass borrows from stereotypes freely – even dutifully, as if in appeal to the middlebrow reader. Greenie, selecting a book for her 4-year-old, admits that she’s fallen in love with Dr. Seuss, “the way one customarily fell in love with a movie star: Andy Garcia or Kevin Costner or, if you were younger, Leonardo DiCaprio.” Thus everyone who’s younger but not enamored of Leonardo DiCaprio gets a chance to feel superior. Why does Greenie’s interior monologue go out of its way to mention these divisive stars?

Greenie’s thinking has been packaged for the reader.When we learn that “Greenie had long ago discarded her parents’ anemic Protestant rites,” we wonder whether Greenie really uses that word, “anemic,” when she is thinking to herself, Ms. Glass is editorializing, or, worse, she is simply providing the adjective the reader expects.

Ms. Glass’s whole novel has this air of careful completeness; like a tapestry, it hangs together. Greenie uproots herself and moves to New Mexico, abruptly, to serve as a Republican governor’s personal chef. But later we learn that Greenie was wanting this kind of diversion long ago, as she explained to Alan during their courtship:

I knew what I wanted to do with my life from the time I was five years old. I’ve had it easy. … But just because I’ve had it easy doesn’t mean I don’t wish sometimes that I got to this place by a road that winds a little more.

Like this, Ms. Glass’s characters prove their consistency and completeness. Sometimes even the way she tags her dialogue makes her sound a little character-proud: “‘Stuffy,’ Ben answered, with customary bluntness.”

This habit of stitching a character’s actions backward and forward, connecting and explaining, makes for rich reading, but with characters who feel slightly rigid. It also calls attention to the written-ness of the work – Ms. Glass’s fingerprints are everywhere. It doesn’t help that different characters sometimes have the same intimate quirks: Walter always finds ‘first silences’ between new friends memorable; Greenie notes that Alan, the shrink, was trained “to use silence the way the Old Masters used white. The surface of a pearl, the shaft of light from a window,the glint on a chalice or a dagger.”

In book-review parlance, it would be correct to say that Ms. Glass demonstrates craft. This is not quite a back handed compliment, but it should suggest that the not inconsiderable value of this book derives from Ms. Glass’s great skill, thoroughness, and intelligence, and not from the originality of her voice. I wish more novels were so involved, and so sound. Ms. Glass’s first book, “Three Junes,” won the National Book Award in 2002. But while Ms. Glass’s books may well deserve awards and a broad readership, they will leave the most demanding readers cold.


Of great note this month is “The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel” (Scribner, 432 pages, $27.50). Ms. Hempel rose to writerly fame under the tutelage of Gordon Lish, who also oversaw the career of Raymond Carver. These vastly different writers have in common a regard for “the sentence,” as Rick Moody puts it in his introduction to this volume. “The sentence” can make a silly talisman, but in Ms. Hempel’s hands it is a vehicle of temper, wit, and self-control.


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