The great Dorothy Parker thought ‘novella’ to be a wretched word and furthermore promised her mother she would never use it. On the other hand she also criticized American literary opinion by saying that quality is measured by the yardstick. Huge books must be good because they’re, you know, huge. Where I weigh in on all this is that the book is the right length when the story is finished. There is no good reason (and a lot of bad ones) to pad the pages with adjective-stuffed lengthy descriptions of Mrs. Buttermelon’s china; unless of course said place settings are all about to be smashed over the heads of the dinner guests. Then the journey is worthwhile.
Speaking of journeys, Henry’s Game is essentially the story of two, one external and one internal. The former, a long car trip from Winnipeg to Disneyland for Henry, his wife Cheryl and their two children, is accomplished quite successfully by David Elias, previous author of five books of fiction. The internal journey of Henry is equally interesting as the first, yet most unfortunately stumbles at the finish line.
The best of Elias’s story is Henry himself. I’ll go out on a limb here, however I do sincerely believe that the trickiest feat of fiction writing is maintaining a reader’s interest in an unlikeable character. It is much easier in non-fiction: the great villains of history always make for compelling reads: Hitler, Caligula, various Czars, Bolsheviks and demented kings among them.
So why should fiction be so different? I suspect that it is the intimate nature of the genre that makes it so. Except in the most experimental of historical narratives, one never ‘lives’ inside the mind of Adolf Hitler. In a novel though, the process of reader identification with the character definitely comes to the fore with the ever-present question being thought either consciously or sub-consciously: ‘What would I do?’ We make our decision, we compare to the character’s decision and if we’re in rough agreement, we cheerfully read on.
I don’t think either you or I would much care for Henry in real life. Caligula threw better parties and one would not likely get accidentally locked in the bathroom at one, with the host indifferent to opening the door. Henry is utterly oblivious to anyone’s needs other than his own. To be blunt, he is a selfish prick.
Cheryl has recently been diagnosed with a lump in her breast. Is it benign, is it cancer, if the latter have the lymph nodes been attacked, hell is his wife going to die? Quite understandably, Cheryl starts reading up on cancer, concentrating as fiercely as the victim in Samuel Johnson’s famous line, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Henry, on the other hand, exhibits all the empathy of a bucket of nails.
Reading that stuff won’t make any difference one way or the other. The test is the test. You have it or you don’t. Those are the only two possibilities. It’s all so much hand-wringing – what you’re doing. And for what? Imagine how foolish you’re going to feel when the tests come back negative.
Remarkably, the next paragraph does not include Cheryl braining her husband with the nearest frying pan or fireplace poker. No calls to the divorce lawyer, no snapping shut of suitcases as she leaves to return to mother; she just turns out the light on the conversation and her husband and goes to sleep. And while it may be more satisfying to the reader if Cheryl had kicked the bum out – there are several versions of this scene in the story – Elias got the reaction right. A husband growing into a numbed insensitivity over the course of a marriage is no rare thing in this world. As well, would any woman facing the abyss of cancer choose that moment to also end a marriage?
Henry – a chess columnist by trade – is indeed a monster of banality. On that trip to Disneyland, Cheryl and the children wish to take a side trip to see the Grand Canyon. Well who wouldn’t? Henry grumps that it is out of the way and once there not only does he not pay the fee to enter the gates, he does not even get out of the van. As you might expect, this does not go over well with the family. Henry feels badly after; such men always feel badly after, but he just keeps doing it.
The chess metaphor is a well-chosen one by Elias. Each short chapter begins with a description of a chess tactic which in turns sets up the chapter’s action, for example:
◊ a pivotal piece on the board that is stressed strategically, usually as a result of its need to assume a role beyond its capability—
Beyond that narrative linking device, the more one considers the chess aspect the more perfectly it comes clear. Each chess piece after all, despite seemingly moving within a co-ordinated team, is actually quite independent of the rest. One move at a time, one piece at a time, each isolated within a little square box. The game itself, like all board or card games, is best played with a complete lack of passion and emotion. Real life however begs to differ.
My only real complaint is that when Henry starts to see the light and realizes the error of his ways, it happens all so suddenly that it falls out with the rest of the book. It took three ghosts an entire night to punch Ebenezer Scrooge into submission; one serving of meatloaf in a soup kitchen really shouldn’t be enough to cause catharsis. Gas maybe, but not life-changing revelations.
Still and all, Henry’s Game is a reading journey worth taking. Elias writes in a clean, unelaborated voice that nonetheless never feels skimpy. In fact, there are some beautiful, poetically realized scenes in the book, particularly that side trip to the Grand Canyon and Henry’s dread memory of his only bicycle ride as a child. Elias is a writer well worth watching.
Hagios | 96 pages | $16.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1926710181