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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, August 17th, 2003



by Jonathan Raban

Settlers and Spoilers

A review by Robert Macfarlane

Waxwings is the first book in a projected quartet of novels by the emigre British writer Jonathan Raban. Considerable claims are already being made for the tetralogy: it has been compared, even at this early stage, to John Updike's Rabbit sequence, and one of the marketing tag lines for Waxwings is that "an English writer" has produced "a Great American Novel." Raban is best known for his travel books, but he has tried to avoid being pigeonholed as a travel writer. In interviews, he describes himself as a generic brinksman, who is "interested in the edge, the boundary between what is roughly called non-fiction and what is called fiction". In this respect, he is akin to the North American environmentalist and author Barry Lopez, who has migrated with similar ease between the memoir-travelogue and the novel, and who has also valuably exploited the frontier area between those genres. What sets Raban apart from Lopez and from other practitioners of the North American travel-writing tradition into which he has been partly assimilated, however, is his ability to reconcile a descriptive devotion to landscape with humour and human warmth.

Coasting (1986), the book which founded Raban's reputation as a writer, was characterized by its raspy wit and lyrical particularism, and this distinctive voice has sounded throughout Raban's career, most impressively in Passage to Juneau (1999), a hybrid travelogue-essay on nature, memory and loss. Waxwings, Raban's latest book, is a novel which chronicles a year in the lives of two United States immigrants, who have been drawn to the city of Seattle by different versions of the American Dream. One is Tom Janeway, an English historical novelist of Hungarian descent, who came to Seattle on a temporary fellowship, but has ended up marrying and staying. Bookishly solipsistic by inclination, Tom believes his eight years in America have taught him "to live in the present, more or less". The other is Jin Peng, a young man from Lianjiang in China, who has been smuggled into the US on a cargo ship by a "snakehead gang", for a fee of $37,000.

The narrative divides its time between the two characters, and the reader is left to watch as their lives become entangled. A similar counterpoint structure has also braced two important modern American novels: Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) and The Tortilla Curtain by T. C. Boyle (1995). In both books, a well-off and generally well-meaning white male is brought by chance (a car accident in both cases) into contact with a member of a disadvantaged underclass (an African-American from the Bronx in Wolfe, an illegal Mexican immigrant in Boyle).

The subsequent events are used by both writers to lay bare the connections between apparently separate areas of American society. Charles Dickens's obsession with cross-class connection clearly provides the model for Wolfe and Boyle, and to a lesser degree for Raban.

Jin's story in Waxwings is one of steady and successful acculturation. Having evaded the immigration officials, he sets about learning to survive in his new landscape. He renames himself Chick, buys a baseball cap and scavenges for food in Dumpsters. He then secures himself shelter in a tented camp underneath a flyover, and profitable work as a labourer, stripping out asbestos from a decommissioned ship. He toils in "a white fog" of lethal particles. As Chick's stock rises, however, Tom's falls drastically. His wife, Beth, becomes increasingly impatient of his dreaminess and, part-way through the novel, begins divorce proceedings. Tom is then falsely accused of a child-murder, and finds himself treated as a pariah by his friends and colleagues. Chick enters Tom's life at more or less its lowest ebb; by the novel's end, the two men have begun to find an uneasy solace in each other's company.

Chick's story is plainly intended by Raban as a contemporary redaction of American literature's oldest story the settler experience. Seattle is described by one character as the "Far West", and Chick's adopted name signals his symbolic role as a fledgling American, learning to survive in the urban wilderness. Contemplating the money he has to repay to the snakehead gang, Chick sees "the distance (to the) $37,000 as an endless, lonely trail, strewn with rocks and fallen trees, bogs and caves, up a great snowcapped mountain of money".

Tom is emblematic of another of America's more modern archetypes the "resident alien". When he becomes a suspect in the child-murder, his outsider status fuels public mistrust in him. The child murder subplot itself is used by Raban to dramatize America's duplicitous capacity both to absorb and to abhor the foreign.

Waxwings is an intellectually ambitious novel, but it suffers from several weaknesses. Tom's character is one of these; his dreamy scholasticism often stretches credibility (Raban asks us to believe, for instance, that a man who delivers weekly radio broadcasts on current affairs doesn't know what WTO stands for). Another flaw is the cultural-critical essaylets which pock the narrative; effortfully analytic asides on irony, or immigration, or Santa:

Santa, the obese clown-god of the winter solstice, now reigned. Santas... worked the malls...were stencil-painted in store windows, and rode illuminated sleighs on suburban rooftops. With his drunkard's cheeks and Abrahamic beard, Santa was patriarch and prodigal, half Jehovah, half Falstaff.

Raban is renowned as a stylist and there are some nice flourishes. Tom visits a set of new apartments and reflects that, with their vitrines and white cubical rooms, they are "more like commercials for the product than the product itself". But a sense of the author working too hard for effect is common; unwrapping a cigarette packet, Tom finds "nostalgic pleasure in disrobing the box of its cellophane."

That "disrobing" shows how the narrative voice labours to invest the nugatory with significance. Admittedly, since Raban plays throughout the novel with the free indirect style, some of this ponderousness can be attributed to Tom's donnish voice but by no means all.

Given Raban's reputation as a phrase-maker, it is a surprise to discover how often Waxwings fails at the level of the sentence. Phrase after phrase loses its nerve, or its wits. In the first chapter, Beth wearily returns to her laptop, with its "tangle of unedited copy about to ambush her". You can't be ambushed by something you expect, and certainly not by a tangle. Describing a sniffer-dog search of a cargo ship, Raban notes how "a beagle lodged its head in the crack and jubilantly yodelled, its tail beating as fast as a humming-bird's wings". "Yodelled" is good, but the simile claims an impossibility: a beagle's tail does not beat as fast as a humming-bird's wings (up to 5,000 times per minute).

The big themes of Waxwings are those abstract notions which have preoccupied Raban the travel writer nomadism, wandering and dwelling. But the novel also critically examines the ideas that have preoccupied Raban the journalist the ethics of a society, and self-fashioning in present-day America. These two distinct kinds of interest coincide in the novel's title: the idea of "wax wings" invokes the fate of the overambitious Icarus; while waxwings are migrant birds renowned for their restlessness.

Nomadism in its original form did not conceive of an economic underclass: this is what has made it so attractive to societal-model thinkers, such as Bruce Chatwin, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. In Waxwings, however, Raban is interested in a less admirable form of nomadism the destructive form of rootlessness which modernity has wrought in America. No one in this novel has a meaningful or sustained relationship with place: everyone is on the move. There is, in Heidegger's memorable phrase, "an insufficiency of dwelling". Tom is an emigre intellectual living off his wits within the information industry. Beth works for a "virtual reality" start-up company called GetaShack, which takes people who want to move house on a cyber-tour of their destination city. Chick is an opportunist whose first priority, understand-ably, is to himself and not to his surroundings. One pernicious effect of this perpetual migration, according to Raban, is that it burns off the nuance of culture:

In a fluid, ever-shifting society of people who were mostly strangers to one another, nothing was tacit, nothing could be assumed in the way of prior knowledge and experience. Everything had to be stated plainly and underlined. Irony was out.

Another potentially more serious effect is that it diminishes in individuals any sense of preservative responsibility to their environment, and Waxwings is in part an exploration of contemporary America's marred relationship with its habitat.

Hinted at throughout the novel, and made explicit in its closing pages, is the idea that a radical rethinking of the US's relationship with nature might be the only way to ensure its salvation. Ultimately, Waxwings suffers from an excess of thought and a lack of control. It reads like an extended wrestle between Raban's enormous sympathy for the benevolences of American beliefs, and his enormous anger at the way those beliefs can be administered and cynically channelled. In this first instalment, Jonathan Raban's burly intellectual energy is too great for the form within which he has chosen to enclose it. It will be worth watching whether he solves or compounds this problem of containment in the later books of the quartet.

TLS Aug 8th, p.17, issue 5236

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