11 September 2007

Fuzzy Resolution

T. K. Welsh took on some daunting narrative challenges in writing The Unresolved, published by Dutton (which sent a copy to me). The novel begins with the fire and sinking of the steamboat General Slocum in the East River in 1904, a disaster that cost more than a thousand lives and was New York's worst until six years ago. Within two pages, furthermore, it becomes clear that the novel's narrator is the ghost of one of those victims.

Those choices present some difficulties in structuring a narrative. The story has already passed its most dramatic scene, the narrator's life is over, and there's no mystery about her new state. Where can you go from there? Well, Mallory wants justice for herself and the other victims, including members of her family. She wants her boyfriend not to be blamed for the disaster. And of course she has to adjust to being a ghost. So there is story potential.

The hidden problem for the narrative is that Mallory becomes omniscient. She's able to watch living people in different parts of the city, to discern hidden thoughts and feelings. She can see deep into the past and far into the future. That creates an intriguing narrator, but it turns out to be the undoing of the story.

Mallory can suddenly calculate business profits, which she never cared about before. She notices that almost everyone involved in a coroner's proceeding is male. "Such a thing would never have preoccupied me previously," Mallory tells us. We're no longer reading the voice of a 1904 teenager, nor getting to know that personality.

On page 23 Mallory's narration tells us:

I can still taste the zebra mussels that he [Arvin Brauer] had pined for as a young boy every Tuesday evening back in Schlüsselburg, with the flavor of wild onions, and the briny broth Arvin reduced over his potbellied stove in their small house by the Weser River, only a stone's-throw distance from the castle of the Weser Hills, founded by the Minden bishop Gottfried von Waldeck in the fourteenth century. How do I know all this?
Well, she knows it because she's a ghost. The bigger question is why we have to know it. This is a well-written passage, evoking many sensory experiences, but it's not clear why all these facts matter.

Every writer of historical fiction must fight the temptation to cram all of his research into the book. It's just so interesting, and he's put so much work into gathering it. But readers aren't interested in historical details for their own sake. Often a first-person narrator is a good check on an author's wish to share all his research, but what happens when that character has no limits on her knowledge?

The Unresolved contains briefings on the Haskalah movement of Enlightenment Judaism, the purchase price of Alaska, King Gillette's safety razor and other major world events of 1904. Looking into the future, Mallory discusses New Delhi and the surprise success of Manhattan Melodrama (1934).

But as vast as Mallory's ghostly knowledge and wish to share it appear to be, they're not consistent. She withholds information on what she's done and what she knows, including what caused the fire on the General Slocum. Despite her ability to see the future, she lets the book's villain sneak up behind her. These moments seem inserted to add drama to the story, but it's an artificial drama.

I was also left confused about what powers Mallory had to intervene in the world. Starting on page 99, or about two-thirds of the way through the book, she starts to make herself known to people. She expends a lot of effort to get her sister to go to her boyfriend to convince him to leave the safety of his hiding-place and confront the steamboat company's accountant. Why doesn't Mallory just haunt that accountant herself? She haunts other characters.

In the end, I found the language of The Unresolved to be its strongest point: poetic, interesting, and evocative of the turn of the last century. The writing and imagination were strong enough for me to put Welsh's second historical novel for young people, Resurrection Men, on my list of books to read. But in the end, I didn't think this novel succeeded at telling its story fairly and well.

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