by Jonathan Dee
A review by James Marcus
Describing one of the second-banana players in his expansive new novel, Jonathan Dee writes that his "imagination was powered by a deep conflation of passion and irony." The same thing might be said of the author himself. Palladio, in fact, represents a pitched battle between the two, fought on multiple fronts. In one narrative strand Molly Howe grows up in Ulster, New York, a genteel hinterland that seems to her "not so much where she belonged as simply where she found herself." Like most suburbs in American fiction, Ulster is a hotbed of denial and familial dysfunction, and Molly absorbs the spirit of the place to a pathological degree. By the time she flees, at age eighteen, dodging the fallout from her affair with a married man, she has learned to handle emotions like hazardous materials. Here, in short, is a child of her time, which happens to be the flat-affect eighties.
Meanwhile, Dee tracks the career of a young adman, John Wheelright. With its bustling, meretricious energy, Madison Avenue gives a healthy jolt to the author's prose, just as it did in his novel The Liberty Campaign (1993). Yet John, like Molly, tends to fall short when it comes to passionate engagement: "Anything truly interesting usually became less interesting, even to him, when he heard himself trying to explain it." Suspicious, perhaps, of his own equilibrium, John abandons his agency for Palladio, a kind of advertising ashram in rural Virginia. There he joins a crusade to change the world by means of better, artier ads, to wipe the "wry smile of irony...off the face of our age."
Do the tales converge? Indeed they do, not once but twice — and because the first collision is a romantic one, the second is inevitably, satisfyingly tragic. Alas, Dee seems to lose control of Palladio as it moves toward the climax. First he relinquishes the point of view to John, whose rapidly eroding innocence is no substitute for the narrator's wide-angle wisdom. Then he splinters things even further, nudging various other characters to center stage and concluding with a confetti of slogans, captions, and ad copy. This last move is particularly damaging. It seems to suggest that all language, all feeling, all perception, must ultimately derive from the media. This is a postmodern pill that many readers will be reluctant to swallow, and Dee's accomplished and individual novel proves exactly how wrong it is — even if the book's messy architecture is anything but Palladian.
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