Saturday, May 12, 2007

A Changed Man

Review of Francine Prose’s A Changed Man. Was in the Toronto Star in early 2005.

A few years back, the novelist and critic Francine Prose provoked some literary debate with a Harper’s essay on fiction and gender roles. There’s an unspoken critical assumption, she wrote, that male writers are more likely to show ambition and innovation, while female ones are content to be unassuming and sentimental. To debunk that preconception, Prose highlighted contrasting passages from various well-known writers’ work – Flannery O’Connor versus Frederick Exley, say – and she had little difficulty illustrating that male and female “voices,” if indeed they’re distinct at all, overlap a great deal in both style and subject matter. (Some accused her of stacking the deck, but she certainly didn’t have to go far for her examples: all the writers she quoted were well known, and some, like Hemingway, were downright canonical.)

The essay may have raised more questions than it resolved, but it’s no surprise that the subject so exercised Prose: her own fiction is itself an eloquent rebuke to facile literary dichotomies. A typical Prose novel covers big ideas about ethics, art, and social structures, but presents them with minutely observed single-point-of-view narratives that emphasize a character’s day-to-day (and often minute-to-minute) thoughts and feelings. The first half of that equation tends to be more highly valued by prize juries and reviewers, but the second is arguably more crucial to aesthetic success in literary fiction. In any case, Prose at her best is both more readable and more memorable than alleged deep thinkers like Don DeLillo.

Prose’s new book, A Changed Man, fits the pattern above – except that it’s unusually nuanced in its negotiation between theme and character, and it may be her most successful novel yet.

At the story’s outset, a neo-Nazi skinhead named Vincent Nolan arrives at the Manhattan office of Brotherhood Watch, a human rights NGO, and offers his services with a rehearsed line: “I want to help you guys save guys like me from becoming guys like me.” Meyer Maslow, Brotherhood Watch’s founder and a famous author and Holocaust survivor, quickly senses the potential for outreach and publicity, and talks his chief fundraiser, Bonnie Kalen, into boarding Vincent while they figure out what to do with him. So the newly reformed neo-Nazi becomes houseguest to a suburban, Jewish single mother and her two sons, the older one sullen and the younger fearful and baffled.

The character of Vincent is tricky to pull off, since we’re meant to find him essentially sympathetic. So we quickly learn that his association with the Aryan Resistance Movement was only half-hearted; it’s put down to bad luck (he was adrift after losing a job and splitting from his wife) and the wrong crowd (he landed on the couch of his cousin, a more enthusiastic neo-Nazi). We also learn that Vincent’s conversion to racial tolerance began with a dose of Ecstasy at a rave, though he shows his public relations skills by inventing more suitable epiphanies at various points throughout the novel.

Some may accuse Prose of sweetening the medicine by minimizing Vincent’s history of hate, but I think she’s achieved a necessary balance in making both his dalliance with racism and his abandonment of it emotionally plausible. And late in the book, a section focusing on Vincent’s cousin does allow us into the paranoid, petulant thoughts of an unreconstructed neo-Nazi, who’s depicted as odious but not quite cartoonish.

Unlike many of Prose’s novels, A Changed Man is an ensemble piece, with point-of-view shifting back and forth between Vincent, Bonnie, Meyer, Danny (Bonnie’s older son), and other supporting players. All are deftly sketched, particularly the bewildered Bonnie, still recovering from a split with her swinish husband and now coping with her own feelings for the ex-skinhead in her spare room. Meyer Maslow, too, is a memorable creation, vacillating between frustrated idealism and wounded ego as he broods about the meaning of his work and his own declining celebrity.

In rendering these people Prose is not a striking, er, prose stylist – she does not do new things with language or serve up quotable bravura metaphors – but her writing is taut and confident nonetheless. Her strength is in character, in capturing the tortuous flow of inner vanities and insecurities, the tug between self-recrimination and –justification.

Prose records these mental meanderings so deeply and sympathetically, in fact, that readers may barely notice that she’s also lightly working in some heavy ethical questions. Books like Blue Angel and Hunters and Gatherers targeted specific hypocrisies (academic political correctness and new age feminism, respectively), and what they lost in subtlety, they gained in sting. A Changed Man is more shaded, less pointed, as characters ponder the nature of heroism, courage, and self-improvement, as well as the difference between genuine integrity and the theatre of surface charisma. On the latter point, it’s no accident that the story’s crisis moments all involve public-speaking events: a fundraising dinner, a TV talk show appearance, a high-school graduation ceremony.

That graduation concludes the novel with only a partial sense of emotional resolution. Closure is often missing from Prose’s work; many of her stories seem to end arbitrarily rather than organically. That’s somewhat true here, too, though not egregiously so. A Changed Man does leave a few loose ends, but if its finish is less than wholly satisfactory, it’s mainly because Prose’s characters have become so real that readers may wish to follow their lives a little more.

No comments: