Monday, September 22, 2014

In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin

The first time I sunk into one of Mark Helprin’s huge, atmospheric novels I wondered how it was this man was not better known. But he is well known as a maker of epics, I just didn’t know it then. That first brush with Helprin was A Soldier of the Great War which so enraptured me I thought I’d never read another that was as good. Later, a professor friend of mine told me he “couldn’t get through it.” Older now, I wonder if it isn’t the fantastical quality of the romance, or the steel thread of Ayn Rand-like self-reliance that runs through his work that put my friend off.

Helprin, having attended Harvard, Princeton, and Oxford, has had access to the lives of the moneyed classes and unashamedly uses that access to create lavish sets for his novels. His insights into this exotic world waltz us off into dreaming how it would be if…which might actually be more fun than actually living in that constrained and rule-bound world. To be reassuringly safe from the vicissitudes of having enough to eat or clothes to wear, this is the stuff of romance. I am less susceptible to those fictions now, but I can see its attraction for many.

This unabashedly romantic tale centers on a great love between a New York Brahmin and a New York Jew. We are treated to the lush scenery of a minutely-observed post-War New York City, and to the problems encountered by small businessmen trying to keep their businesses viable while paying out protection monies on a weekly basis. The outlines of Helprin’s characters are carefully and completely drawn, and are then filled in with great swathes of color and fabric and angled light—that sunshine and shadow comes at us from every direction.

What I noticed and celebrate again is Helprin’s unequaled ability to observe and then relate the way the water in the wake of a ship, for instance, curls and moves and vaporizes, indicating current, direction, wind speed, tide levels…so much is caught in his web of words we can taste the salt spray. It leaves me gasping.

Helprin takes his time over this novel, moving back and forth in time, as expansive on the state of play in the garment district of New York as on the honeyed beaches of Long Island. There is a brilliant set-piece in which the aspirant for the hand of the heiress meets her parents for the first time. They eat dinner at the beach house on Long Island and the conversation is so elliptical and constantly shifting that one feels the danger in the meanings behind the words like hidden shoals upon which one might be wrecked.

The cast of characters is large, but completely manageable in Helprin’s hands. We get Manhattan: the theatre district, the garment and financial districts, the shops, the bustle, the 1950’s coffee shops with menus and waitresses. It is a brilliant reconstruction that must tempt more than one filmmaker to try it on. But it is too large a thing for a film; others have already tried to make films of Helprin’s novels (Winter’s Tale), and they must realize it is too…hopelessly romantic for our hard-bitten and seen-it-all audiences today.

I listened to the audio of this novel, and it went on for days while I worked on endless tasks. The inflectionless voice of the narrator, Sean Runnette, was not appealing at first, but this is a long story, and perhaps his style is what was needed. It was a little like being read to by one’s parent at bedtime instead of by a professional reader. Not what one would have chosen, but it becomes familiar. Helprin is still writing epics and he has a unique viewpoint that gives us romance like no one else.

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