Friday, August 01, 2014

Reading group: Ironweed by William Kennedy

Doug suggested this book, written in the late seventies but set in thirties Albany (one of a trilogy, 'the Albany cycle'). It features down-and-out Francis Phelan, who, many years ago, ran away from his wife and family after dropping and killing his baby son while probably drunk, and the various characters from his past, many dead, some by his own violent hand, whom he hallucinates and converses with as he tries to come to terms with his life and seek redemption.

At the time of reading the book I thought it was brilliant, but now I come to write about it I find it hard to recall, and at this point my recollection of our discussion is hazy, too. I think this may not be simply because I have been very busy, but also something to do with the novel itself and a chief conclusion about it that I do remember we came to.

I think everyone agreed with Doug that the depiction of the underside of Albany life under the Great Depression was wonderful - searing and vivid - and that the narrative voice, lyrical but sharp - 'gray clouds that looked like two flying piles of dirty socks' - was superb. We spent, I remember, a fair bit of time talking about this, and about Francis's character and motives at various points in the action - his violence and his kindness, his innate wit, his guilt and his need for atonement and redemption. But then I posed the question, What was the novel supposed to be about? I wasn't sure of the answer, and I had noticed that in none of the contemporary reviews I'd read had the question been answered either, with one or two reviewers giving what I thought undue significance to minor incidents, as if they were at sea with the meaning of the book. Doug had to think for a moment, but then said, Well, that, redemption, that was what it was about. It's true that this is a big preoccupation of the book, but it didn't seem entirely satisfactory as a summing up of its theme. At one moment in the action, after all these years Francis returns to his wife and family for an evening, and this indeed is Francis's chief way of finding redemption. A thought that occurs to me now, however, is that since he doesn't stay, and since the final section in which he returns and stays for good is, we decided, only a dream, any redemption is in fact somewhat shaky. Later in the discussion Ann would say that in fact she didn't find Francis's brief return to his family very believable, and now that everyone thought about this, they didn't either. I said that one strong idea in the book was that it's so easy to fall through the cracks in society - Francis was once the head of a respectable household and Helen, his companion, was once an upper-middle-class girl with a sparkling future as a musician ahead of her - though again this didn't seem to serve as a unifying theme. (I and others said we were moved to tears by the final, tragic scene concerning Helen, as well as other moments, but Jenny said she hadn't been moved to tears at all.) Someone said that they thought the point of the book was to depict the Irish-American society of Albany, which also seemed true.

By now we felt a bit lost, and the discussion was tailing off, Ann saying somewhat conclusively that she felt the book was somehow better in the sum of the parts than in the whole. John, not wanting however to abandon the novel, commented that the narrative voice - and Francis's hallucinations - made it very psychological: the interest is in Francis's state of mind, and in the state of mind of Helen whose point of view we take at one point - and that that's what makes it so dynamic as a social commentary: we share the emotional experience of those at the brunt of the Depression. John said that he thought this was a great feat for an author, Kennedy, who had trained as a journalist: unlike Hemingway, for instance, he was able to shift from objective social commentary to that deeply psychological dimension. The point John was leading up to then occurred to others of us simultaneously: that, in spite of this very psychological dimension, the book was nevertheless an essentially journalistic project - Kennedy is indeed on record as having said he wanted to map in his novels the stratum of Albany society hitherto ignored - and that this is why for us it lacked the unifying thrust and lasting emotional effect of a novel.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.

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