On Friday afternoon I took a short reading break to get some distance from a translation I was working on and picked a random, unread book from the shelf. I spent twenty minutes with Ethan Canin’s first novel, Blue River, and knew I would go back to it later that evening and read until I had finished.
Which I did, turning that last page sometime after midnight and just sitting quietly with my thoughts and impressions of these new characters and images. I haven’t enjoyed a book so thoroughly in months, perhaps since sitting in the garden with Kirsty Gunn’s Rain and getting as equally enthralled in the writing and the voice. In many respects the books are similar – first person narratives about a traumatic past. Where Blue River differs is that its past is a much more distinct and separate location, far removed (and purposely so) from its present.
The novel begins in the present – a morning in June when narrator Edward’s brother appears on Edward’s front porch. The two have not seen each other (save once) in fifteen years. Their interaction is understandably strained but it becomes quickly evident that for all the empty space and time between them (an easy explanation for their awkwardness), there is something much more substantial in the way. But Edward does no explaining. The visit continues – they go to the zoo with Edward’s family, they eat dinner…it’s an extended and bewildering scene, infused with Edward’s elegant and weighty tangents about his life and work. But the most remarkable element of this first section is Edward’s conspicuous fear. He is terrified from the moment he finds Lawrence on his porch to the moment he puts him on a bus back to where he came from.
And then Canin has Edward take the story into the past. Slowly, carefully Edward redraws his relationship with his older brother. Here is where the novel’s unique structure comes into play but also its risky decision to switch into the second person – Edward has gone into the past in order to retell the stories of their childhood to Lawrence. He stops addressing the reader completely. What’s also interesting is that this retelling isn’t just an attempt to excuse or absolve himself from their eventual estrangement, it’s more a desire to understand how he became the kind of person he is now and why Lawrence didn’t.
I’m a sucker for realism, I know, but this is the kind of fiction I enjoy the most – no madcap characters, no outsized events except the intimate, family ones which feel huge when they upset what we believed were firmer foundations, no writerly pyrotechnics. Just unique framing, careful scripting and breathtaking detail. There are a few moments when Canin might have eased off the confessional or let the reader make the connections without forcing them upon us with one or two excess lines of explanation. But in general the novel is a smooth and graceful movement through one man’s memories and self-reflection.
Other than several of his short stories from the collection The Palace Thief, this is my first time reading Canin. I’ve already ordered his second novel, For Kings and Planets, from bookmooch and am going to see if I can find his newest, America, America in the shop in Lausanne. I’ve become an instant admirer.