Ownership & Perspective: Diane Greco on Karl Iagnemma’s The Expeditions


the-expeditions

The Expeditions, Karl Iagnemma, Dial Press

The trouble with the family saga—or its great strength, depending on your point of view—is that one never really knows whose story it is. This problem is a double one, of ownership as well as perspective. How fitting, then, that Karl Iagnemma’s debut novel, The Expeditions, should be just such a doubled story of a prodigal son and the father who quests after him instead of waiting as such fathers usually do for the son’s return and that the story should be set in the American West of the early nineteenth century, when questions of ownership were never far from the minds of anyone engaged in the struggle to subdue the West and, of course, make it profitable.

As the novel opens, sixteen-year-old Elisha Stone, aspiring scientist and son of a preacher, has run away from home to join an exploratory expedition from Sault St. Marie. Nominally in search of a new species to discover, Elisha is actually just a young man in search of a mentor, a calling, and ultimately, himself. His father, a minister struggling to sustain his faith after the loss of his beloved wife, journeys after Elisha in search of a version of himself that he can reconcile with his wavering religious faith. “The life of sin,” Reverend Stone realizes, in a moment of clarity about his own failings, “was like a solo sail into an endless ocean, rootless and undirected,” (196) an observation with which Elisha would surely agree, except that for him the “solo sail” is a source of excitement, an opportunity for discovery. The towns through which Reverend Stone passes are hotbeds of religious oddity, packed with seers and mystics who rap tables and claim to speak with the dead, while the wilderness in which Elisha seeks his fortune seethes with strange flora and fascinating fauna—not to mention Native Americans, whose customs and language are a special point of interest for both father and son.

For the most part Iagnemma deftly handles the difficult history of the colonization of North America, in particular the violence and greed that fueled it. At the same time, the story is a classic father-son struggle that, being old as Oedipus, doesn’t really require the myths and history of the American West for its narrative power. Nonetheless, by linking the two strands, Iagnemma enlarges the old father-son theme, seeing it as a crisis of authority that is similar to those that comprise more familiar heart-mind dilemmas, as when the ordinary progress of normal science intersects with vicissitudes of popular religious belief. (Think of Galileo and the Church, or the fortunes of evolution in Kansas public school curricula.) Iagnemma, a mechanical engineer by training and a research scientist at MIT, is on familiar ground here; his 2003 short story collection, On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction, explored similar ideas.

Despite his sympathy for scientific idealism, he is not blind to the corruption to which science, like any endeavor, is vulnerable, in virtue of being a human project and not something else. In the end, Iagnemma wisely refuses to take a side in this old debate. Instead, he transcends the argument, giving up on both science and religion as sources of authority. While Iagnemma’s resolution to this dilemma is not new, his embrace of the independent authority of art, of responsible workmanship married to aesthetics, is satisfyingly well done. Staging a photograph on a city street after the titular expeditions have ended, Elisha reflects that “There would be a moment […] when the sun’s low glare would set the scene alight, and the soot and mud and grime would vanish into a shimmering golden light, unlike anything else in nature, unlike anything except itself.”

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Diane Greco is a novelist whose work has appeared, most recently, in Fence and the Saint Ann’s Review. She lives in Providence, RI.

Of Real & Symbolic Parenthood: Diane Greco on Samuel Shem’s novel The Spirit of the Place


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The Spirit of the Place, Samuel Shem, Kent State University Press

 

Orville Rose, a recently divorced doctor without borders and perpetual adolescent, is living impecuniously in Italy with a passionate Italian yoga teacher when he learns that his mother has died. The terms of her will stipulate that he will inherit a large sum of money, so long as he returns to his childhood home for a year and thirteen days. Broke, he reluctantly ends his Italian idyll to return to Columbia, New York, a town “plagued by breakage,” where anything that can go wrong, usually does—spectacularly. So begins The Spirit of the Place, the fourth novel by Samuel Shem, also known as Stephen Bergman, MD, the Boston psychiatrist perhaps best known for The House of God (1978), his bestselling novel about one man’s coming of age as a physician in a hospital that was by turns an erotic funhouse and a chamber of corporeal horrors.

 

Shem’s latest effort is not as raunchy as The House of God, but his preoccupation with the powers and limitations of healers persists in The Spirit of the Place. Having returned to Columbia and now living in a turret room in his mother’s house, Orville Rose also comes back to small-town doctoring encouraged by his old mentor, the quirky local physician Bill Starbuck, who encourages smoking in his office and whose cabinets are full of vials of “Starbusol,” a homemade nostrum that Starbuck hands out when a placebo is indicated (and sometimes when it’s not). When Orville is not ministering to Columbia’s sick and broken, he is fending off intrusions from his dead mother, who appears at intervals from beyond the grave in order to continue to make Orville feel guilty for not making her happiness his first priority just as she did in life.  

 

Superficially, Orville’s task is to vanquish his mother’s lingering ghost and choose between two lovely women—the tantric Italian of the book’s opening scenes and Miranda Braak, an amateur historian whose long view of Columbia and its history give Orville a new and much needed perspective on his own biography. Despite the pleasures of such a choice—we should all be so lucky—the task is harder than it sounds for the simple reason that Orville cannot get far enough away from his mother’s influence to know his own mind in affairs of the heart. However, Shem is too canny about the dynamics of families to blame bad mothering for his character’s problems and let fathers entirely off the hook.

 

In fact, the crux of the book—and its most moving scene—concerns the relationship Orville enjoys with Bill Starbuck, his accidental father. In this scene, Starbuck has had a stroke and his condition is deteriorating. Orville stands by, doing the small things that need to be done at such a juncture—in this case, he gives Bill a shave. This apparently small and simple job requires Orville to split himself, imaginatively and empathically—to feel both the razor in his hands and Bill’s face underneath it:

As Orville got into it, it was as if he were feeling his own stubble and the razor cutting through his own lather. And then, under his attention, it transformed again, so it wasn’t even that he was shaving Bill or shaving himself but that shaving was happening. […] The shaving became a suturing up, across a mirror, across a fleshy gap.

 

Empathy in ordinary life is at once so pervasive, so fleeting, and so unsettling that it is difficult to do much more than note it when it happens. Yet, Shem takes the moment and spreads it out for us anatomizing it as a good teacher might. Then, to make sure we understand what is at stake in such a charged moment, when subjects and objects dissolve into some third thing beyond selfishness and self-consciousness, Shem seizes the metaphor again and elaborates on it:

It isn’t his heart or my heart, it’s the human heart, the human journey, common and ordinary and a big deal and a small deal both and the only deal really and available to us all at no extra cost if we can face it, bear it, share it.

Shem’s point is a good one: nurturing attention can be a balm to a young person plagued by hunger for an absent parent, or by an intrusive one like Orville’s mother (or, worst of all, by both). Shem’s novel is a tender exploration of real and symbolic parenthood, of the power of benign authority to combine with simple empathic concern to heal old wounds and to support young adults (and the young-at-heart) finish the tasks of adolescence.