I returned from Montreal with three books, two pairs of earrings and a totem pole for MKS, but only one book for myself. However, that one book was what I had hoped to find, and proved to be every bit as good as I expected, Four Freedoms by John Crowley:

I have come to the conclusion that when we talk about good writing we are mostly talking about a set of overlapping binaries that look as if they should be cognate with each other but actually aren’t. There’s the good writing that is transparent, that is where the writing seems to place as little as possible between the reader and the story; and the good writing that calls attention to itself, where the prose seems more important than what the prose is telling. Then there is the good writing that is plain and simple, stark images presented in short declarative sentences that eschew most adjectives and all adverbs, as in Hemingway and Coover; and the good writing that is belle lettrist, composed of elaborate prose curlicues and complex metaphors, where the reader is meant to lose herself in the swirls of baroque imagery. And there is the good writing that is demotic, no nonsense everyday words that are meant to be instantly accessible to every reader; and the good writing that is hieratic, extraordinary Clutean vocabularies full of pomp and passion that are meant to surprise and stretch the reader. These are not necessarily the same things: transparent prose need be neither plain nor demotic; baroque imagery doesn’t need an unusual vocabulary or to draw attention to itself. But what these binaries do is exclude the middle, where 95% of fiction is to be found, and insist on an absolute, either-or response to the writing.

When you read really good prose, on the other hand, it generally fits into none of these binaries, and it calls upon a more relativist, both-and response. Take the following passage, taken more or less at random from John Crowley’s extraordinary new novel, Four Freedoms (and it would be no hard task to find similarly evocative and telling passages throughout the book):

Dark, rich. She tried to remember what god it was in ancient times who ruled over the land below the earth, which was always dark but rich, because he was also the god of money, of gold dug in the dark earth. Pluto. Plutocracy, a vocabulary word. Did she travel home through Pluto’s realm, money given and made, the great owners getting richer nightlong and every one else getting a little richer too, hoarding their money like misers and waiting? And the dead souls without rest among us, so many. Around her the standing men in their drab uniforms swayed with the train’s motion like wheat, so quiet in the dark. Some of them, she hoped, some at least were going home. (358)

Where does that fit? It’s not belle lettrist; the jagged lines – ‘And the dead souls without rest among us, so many’ (reminiscent of Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’?) – are not meant to wrap us in the smoothness of the prose. Yet neither is it Hemingwayesque, despite the repetitions of ‘rich’ throughout the first half of the paragraph. A word like ‘Plutocracy’ clearly is not meant to send us reaching for the dictionary (there are very few occasions in this novel when anyone with a moderate reading vocabulary would need to look up a definition); and there is something demotic in the endearingly awkward flow of metaphor (travelling through the dark, through the underworld, and the soldiers like wheat awaiting the scythe). And yet this is not a demotic passage, the sentence structure if nothing else (‘so quiet in the dark. Some of them, she hoped, some at least’) has the pleasing rhythm of poetry about it rather than a sense of the everyday use of language. And while Crowley definitely does not strive for transparency (story is only one of a number of pleasures in the novel, and we are not meant to see through those other pleasures to discover just the thrill of story), neither does Crowley try to draw attention to the prose, it has a purpose and its own fineness is not integral to that purpose.

Crowley’s novel, therefore, sits between the usual way markers of ‘good writing’, partaking to some extent of each but belonging to no specific grouping. And yet it is the prose above all else that makes the novel work. If for no other reason than that each metaphor is just the sort that the different characters are likely to be familiar with or to recognize, so that the metaphors serve two purposes: they not only ease our reading of the novel, they also further our awareness of the characters. And that goes for other aspects of the novel: it is not that there are no wasted words, it is that there are very few words that are not doing at least two jobs. It makes what is going on in the novel feel particularly real and vivid (though it is, when you analyse it, a novel filled with coincidence and romanticism) because we are so filled with both the world the characters see and the cultural context within which they see it. This is not, in other words, an historical novel in which the past is viewed through the lens of the present, but rather through the lens of the assumptions and beliefs of its own period.

What we have then is a romantic novel that works hard at being a rigorously realist novel. But romance it is, nonetheless. Our central character is Prosper Olander – Prosper-O, the cheerful mage who casts the artificial island of Henrytown in the midst of Oklahoma into something approaching a utopia for the women he encounters there. Like Shakespeare’s Prospero, Prosper is an ambiguous character: a forger and a womanizer. Born with a deformed spine, he is further incapacitated when a childhood operation to correct the deformity goes wrong and he must ever after wear braces on his legs and walk with the aid of crutches. In 1930s America there is no place for someone like Prosper, who gets by on the kindness of his aunts and the more dubious schemes of his uncles, but the war changes that. Suddenly, with able-bodied men called into the forces, but industry called upon to expand dramatically, both women and cripples are needed to fill the factories. Teaming up with an ex-salesman and political dreamer who calls himself Pancho – ‘Nothing’s perfect. You try to build the best world, the best society you can. I am not a utopian but a bestopian’ (10) – the pair head west and end up at the Van Damme Aero plant outside Ponca City, Oklahoma.

Henry Van Damme is something of a visionary himself, one of those peculiarities of 19th century history and American literature, the hard-nosed businessman and social reformer. When Van Damme Aero construct a new site at Ponca City in record time where they can build the new B30 Pax bomber, he plans the new town for the workers, nicknamed Henrytown, to fulfill all their social needs. Even so, it would be a pretty soulless place without the unfailing good cheer of Prosper. Crowley seems to have made something of a habit in recent work in writing about characters remaining cheerful and capable in the face of disability, in ‘The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines’, in Conversation Hearts, and now in Four Freedoms. And despite his crutches, despite his useless legs, Prosper seems to be pretty good at getting women into bed. And it is there, as we encounter their stories and they encounter his sunny optimism, that he introduces each of the women to their own version of Franklin Roosevelt’s famous four freedoms.

Tall Vi, star pitcher of the women’s softball team, learns to escape her fears and ends up leaving Prosper for another woman. Connie, mother of young Adolph, follows her errant husband to Ponca City and, on the assembly line, discovers a new strength that comes with escaping the various emotional and financial wants of her earlier life. While Diane, after a reckless life picking up soldier boys, learns independence and self-expression, allowing her to go after the one man she wants. The three women, and the many others that surround them both at Ponca City and in the flashbacks to their earlier lives, are subtly and sympathetically drawn. The result is a remarkable composite portrait of America on the cusp of war.

It is an optimistic picture – Pancho’s ‘bestopia’ – full of the strength of community, of individuals finding the support of others, of people helping each other out. On the home front, war was an opportunity for liberation, a good time. But it is not an unfailingly sunny picture. As war nears its end, we overhear business leaders planning the casual dismissal of the women and the disabled who have learned so much self-reliance through employment. Though the novel ends, ambiguously, before we know what the post-war years will bring. All we learn, through the voice of an unnamed, third-person plural narrator who opens and closes the novel and crops up once or twice within its body, is that the B30 Pax bomber never flew, that the carcass of one used to stand abandoned near Ponca City airport. The ruined plane feels symbolic of all that might follow the end of this brief, bestopian communality.

First published at LiveJournal, 14 August 2009.