Friday, January 11, 2013

Looking Backward

I had two problems with Irish author John Banville's beautifully written Ancient Light, and I think that they are both my fault and not his.

The first is that I accidentally did not start at the beginning. As I was reading, I felt that some of the pieces of the characters' back stories were missing, and I afterward discovered what the problem was. (I always like to read a book 'cold' and only read about it when I'm done). Some of the characters had appeared in two of his earlier books, “Eclipse” and “Shroud”. The main character, aging actor Alexander Cleave, looks back on his life, including the suicide of his only daughter Cass. I kept thinking he would expand on the circumstances that led to her death, but they had been covered in an earlier book. Likewise, Alex has been asked to play the part of literary critic Axel Vander in an upcoming biographical movie, and it is clear that Vander's life had some unsavory chapters, but he too was fleshed out in an earlier novel.

As Cleave prepares for his role he reminisces about his love affair at the age of 15 with the 35-year-old mother of his best friend. We see the drama solely from his perspective, he was the very definition of a callow youth, and for the life of me I couldn't figure out what she saw in him. I know, I know, it's no different from “Lolita” with the genders flipped, but I just wasn't persuaded that Mrs. Grey (as he calls her throughout) would be attracted to this pouting, headstrong, adolescent. The sex was great for him (as he frequently remarks) and I'm sure she enjoyed it too (although he wasn't terribly concerned that she did so), but it felt too much like a male fantasy to me. My 35-year-old self would have been creeped out by the whole idea of it. I guess I don't have enough Mrs. Robinson in me.

Banville is a wonderful writer, and his thoughts on the power and the limits of memory are beautifully expressed, but this one just didn't do it for me.

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