Numb after his son
goes deaf and dies, Jones needs friends
to help him survive.
I expected to love Was It Beautiful? by Alison McGhee. Her novel Shadow Baby is one of the finest American novels published this century (yes, I do mean in the last seven years). So I expected to be pushing Was it Beautiful? on all my friends, and talking about it everywhere I go.
But I'm not, and I haven't been. When I finished it, I set it on the shelf and didn't even loan it to my mother.
In many ways, it's every bit as well crafted as Shadow Baby: the characters are exquisite in their detail (and in their pain as well). Relationships between them are complex and rich and beautiful. The language flows like music: lines of melody weaving in contrapuntal patterns.
The opening scene is great: William T. Jones pushes open the door to a restaurant, setting off wind chimes. "Were there not already enough wind chimes in this world?" he asks himself as he slices the string and throws the chimes away.
But there simply isn't enough plot. Maybe it's been too long since I've focused on classic literature. Maybe I'm losing my taste for literary fiction (which this, undeniably, is). Maybe I've been spoiled by the thrill rides I've read recently. Maybe I'm just reading so much that I'm becoming pickier.
Regardless, I want something to happen in the course of the book! Most of the "action" here ended before the book started: William T. Jones' son lost his hearing and died in a tragic, hearing-related accident, and his wife divorced him.
Was It Beautiful? begins about a year after his son's death, when William T. has fallen into a pattern of moving numbly from meal to meal, from sunrise to bedtime. And that's pretty much what he does for the next 240 pages.
Oh, a few things happen, things I can't tell you but which you can expect from a man exhibiting his behavior (or lack thereof). And (as the flyleaf tells you), "the people around him (watch) over him, as patient and constant as the stars in the night sky."
The end is certainly satisfying, and I was pleased for the sake of characters I'd grown to love. But it's a quiet satisfaction, as the book itself is quiet. "Spare" (as the flyleaf puts it). And the emotions (those of both the fictional characters and the reader) are not intense or impassioned. Everything is understated: the emotion, the description, everything.
One of the most significant symbols, in fact, is the lack of something. It hasn't snowed, though it's well into winter in the Adirondacks. And that single change in weather has everyone off-kilter.
Over all, McGhee has done an incredible job capturing the deadness of clinical depression, the sense that any movement at all takes more energy than one has.
It just doesn't make for an exciting story.