04 July 2009

Run, by Ann Patchett

Ah, my streak of mediocrity continues. Actually, to give Patchett her due - her prose is quite absorbing. There's just something, I dunno, highly readable about it. It's a pleasant enough book, and often emotionally compelling, despite its weaknesses, the greatest of which is the fact that it's utterly unrealistic.

To begin with, the characters are all way too good to be true. Everyone is noble and good and a bastion of integrity, even when they're irritated or selfish. The character who ought to be the most despicable, Sullivan, is so laden with pathos that he becomes a kind of tragic hero, an image that's only reinforced by his redemptive kindness to children. Likewise Tip, who is in some ways curmudgeonly and selfish is ultimately redeemed by his love of fish, which bespeaks a kind of warmth and aesthetic refinement. It's charming, in a way, but it turns the text into a kind of feel good fairy tale, where all these heroes grapple bravely with tragic events that seem largely arbitrary, despite being products of human creation. For instance, Sullivan's tragic car accident is presented as a complete blank, where he's no memory of it at all but is left to live with the consequences.

Secondly, the book is meant, I think, to be a kind of meditation on biological ties versus emotional ties, with an underlying interest in how dynamics of race factor in. You've got Tip and Teddy, the black adopted sons of Doyle, and then they encounter their birth mother and her daughter. The text ultimately moves to (SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER) the seemingly ├╝ber happy ending of one big family, except for that vaguely fucked up part, namely, that the problematic element, the poor black mother, has been conveniently removed from the picture. One could say that it's only fair, given that the white mother was herself killed off early on in the text, but that hardly seems sufficient. The text further tries to ameliorate this, however, by using her death as an occasion for political critique - would a rich white woman with insurance have been allowed to die of the same thing? - and even goes so far as to have Tip pursue a career in medicine. Then, curiously, it changes its mind, and tells us that Tip's medical studies have taught him that actually, what happened was actually exactly the kind of thing that one wouldn't notice, with fatal consequences, and that it might have had nothing to do with race. And then, to retreat from the cliche of the son becoming a doctor, he decides to abandon the career on the very day of his graduation. And then! Just when the book has seemingly disavowed cliche, it announces that Teddy has decided to become a lawyer and is currently working with the homeless. It's borderline ridiculous, and there's something vaguely offensive in that kind of idealism, in that it seems to shut down political critique.

So the plot is poorly structured. Actually, this is most glaringly obvious in the way that Tennessee, the biological mother, is treated as a character. The text seems to realize that leaving her out entirely would be problematic, so it decides to give her a chance to explain herself (ie, reveal herself as saintly by a supposed exposition of her deeply human flaws) and goes for a terribly ham-fisted supernatural intervention. Whenever a text that is otherwise secular resorts to the supernatural, it's a sign that something has gone awry in its composition. Here, again, there's a compensatory gesture, whereby good old Uncle Sullivan gets invested with Christian magic superpowers, which in turn allows for some of the standard reflections on faith, miracles, etc. It's all terribly clumsy.

Patchett has a talent for style and lovely descriptions, but the plot is horribly amateur and rather offensively removed from reality. You get the sense that she knows absolutely nothing about the worlds, and people, she's describing. Perhaps this has something to do with the racial politics involved, and a sense of discomfort on her part about being a white woman writing black characters. But ultimately, she didn't handle it particularly well at all, ending up with this strangely utopian work that is occasionally moving, but never convincing.

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