Review: The Emperor Of Ocean Park By Stephen L Carter Essay, Research Paper
The loner in his labyrinth The Emperor of Ocean ParkStephen L Carter 660pp, Jonathan Cape To stumble upon one of the great, sprawling masterpieces of early 20th-century American naturalist fiction – set against which Stephen L Carter’s accomplished debut can stand some faint comparison – is to be struck, above all, by the sense of community. The people and their locales may be as removed in space and time as the Irish expats of James T Farrell’s inter-war Chicago, the prosperous bourgeoisie of Dreiser’s turn-of-the-century upstate New York or the dirt farmers of Steinbeck’s Depression-era Oklahoma, but the effect is the same: a set of protocols, etiquettes, patterns of collective behaviour; a free admission ticket to a series of teeming, alternative worlds, of whose existence the reader had hitherto been simply ignorant. No doubt this is a trick that all fiction performs, to a greater or lesser degree, but the American novel has always seemed to bring it off on the grand scale. The crowds are bigger, the horizons wider, the overall effect that much more deceptive, insofar as what exists at the heart of these crowded, pulsing landscapes is usually only a terrific loneliness. The point about Farrell’s Studs Lonigan, or Steinbeck’s Tom Joad, after all, is their aching detachment from the life going on around them. It’s a mark of The Emperor of Ocean Park ’s distinction that, written more than 70 years since the heyday of Dreiser, Farrell and co, it should share something of their animating spirit. On the one hand, and with characteristic matter-of-factness, it lifts a curtain on a world that, from the vantage point of the average British reader, is as alien as Tolstoy’s Russia: the world of upper-bourgeois, East Coast black (always glossed as “the darker nation”) America. On the other, the characters who wander through it are, by and large, watchful solitaries, keeping things – information, hopes, fears – to themselves because there is nowhere else to take them. There is an odd, and somehow defining, moment about a third of the way through (and this, it should be pointed out, is not a short book) when Tal Garland, its law-professor hero, having turned up another fragment from the shot mosaic of his father’s death, reflects that “the weird part is that there is nobody to tell”. Walking back to his law school through the grey of an early November afternoon – the novel is full of these ominous climatic shadings – he is alarmed by “how friendless an existence I have managed to create”. It is the ancient paradox, and the elemental disjunction, of the American novel: the crowd full of fearful, brooding loners. It is soon apparent that Tal, for all the comforts of his tenured Ivy League existence, his hot-shot wife and infant son, has a good deal to be worried about. On the most basic level, his life is a kind of object lesson in some of the ironies of the modern black American experience, or, as this is implicitly a novel about social and racial fragmentation, a part thereof. Tal’s father was a distinguished judge, whose much-coveted career peak was denied him when his Supreme Court nomination collapsed in scandal. Tarnished but still marketable, Judge Garland subsequently set up as a right-wing ideologue, the darling of the libertarian free-market hawks. Dead, supposedly from a heart attack, the old man has unleashed a whole pack of mysteries from the tomb. The sleazeball whose friendship guaranteed his fall approaches Tal at the funeral to mention some altogether mystifying “arrangements”. The FBI men who come calling turn out to be private investigators in search of sensitive client documents. A preacher friend gets gruesomely murdered, and it may be drugs or just possibly something else. Then, in the upper room of the family house on Martha’s Vineyard, whose lower reaches have been turned over by “vandals”, Tal discovers a farewell note – incoherent, but deeply sinister – in his father’s hand. Simultaneously, the anxieties nudged into being by this trail of subterfuge are compounded by the strains of Tal’s personal and professional life. Kimmer, his high-flying legal-eagle wife, who may or may not be having an affair with her boss, has her eye on a Washington judgeship. Her chief opponent, almost inevitably, is one of Tal’s colleagues on the faculty. Meanwhile, Tal’s sister Mariah, married to a white corporate plutocrat, is an avid conspiracy theorist, endlessly trawling the net for autopsy photographs. The intersections between the various compartments of Tal’s life are skilfully done, so much so that they soon cease to be distinct. Home life with the distant and ever-absconding Kimmer (”My wife, who is never political except when she is”); the tensions of the academic life (Tal bawls out a student whose dad just happens to be a wealthy alumnus); the tendrils that snake out to the dead man’s law firm and his old judicial colleagues; even the barely audible noises winging back along the jungle telegraph from Washington – all turn out to have a single point of focus. As might be expected, the trail – labyrinthine but engrossing – leads steadily upward into the grandest echelons of the US establishment. Yet it leads in another direction, too, down into the metaphorical engine room of environment, psychology and creative impulse that makes a literature what it is. Critics have been contrasting the kinds of book that get written on either side of the Atlantic since the days of Hawthorne. If nothing else, and whatever fashionable murmurings one may hear about the contemporary novel’s new global village, The Emperor of Ocean Park demonstrates the profound separation that still exists between certain kinds of British and American fiction. To read more than a couple of chapters of Carter’s lean, measured but in the end curiously decisive prose is to be struck by a kind of moral and intellectual toughness. It is not simply that uncoiling quietly in the background of all this mostly legal chicanery is a steely critique of modern American society – the polarisation of its political process; the collapsing of its hierarchies (Tal salves his conscience by part-time work in a soup kitchen); the collapse of its racial solidarities (achieved through “fancy college degrees and fancier money for the few”); the swindles practised in the name of education (Tal offers some withering observations of his “uneducated” students). Rather, it is that the wider battles – the struggles being fought in the ether, above the characters’ heads, so to speak – have a seriousness, a willingness to engage with the idea of how an advanced society ought to be run, from which the English novel tends to remain conspicuously aloof. On this side of the Atlantic, words like “liberal” and “conservative” have lost most of their meaning: much of their political and emotional baggage has merely disappeared. In Carter’s America, the stakes are higher, the implications for public and personal behaviour that much more clear-cut, more connected to the everyday world his cast inhabits. The most obviously “political” bits here, significantly enough, are those that take place furthest away from the White House or the courtroom. Inevitably for a work of this length – and one that relies for its effects on the forensic flourishes of the genre – it is not without its extended water-jumps and patches of boggy ground. There is, perhaps, a sense in which Carter thinks rather than feels about his characters, or rather that he does their thinking for them. Alternatively, the sense of a writer who is playing all the parts himself, resisting that illusion of individual separateness, may just be a result of the first-person narration. For a novel that hinges on the idea of social progress, however compromised that progress may finally turn out to be, the elegiac note is never quite sure of itself, never wholly confident that what is there, or once was there, needs elegising. Another key scene takes in Tal’s return to Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. This is the boyhood stamping-ground that gives the novel its title, old man Garland in his post-lapsarian solitude being its “emperor”. The island, Tal thinks, is “neither as tidy nor as friendly as it once was”. At the same time, despite the litter and the sense of dissolution, Tal tries hard to convince himself that Eden endures. If a few more candy wrappers are blowing along the streets, “I like to think it is because the new people have not yet learned to love an island – not because they do not care”. Elsewhere – ironically for a novel with an almost hectically ordered sense of procedure – Tal is in no doubt about the wider chaos. It is not being simply evasive, or even chauvinist, to say that, above all, The Emperor of Ocean Park is a profoundly American novel.