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Cosmic Realism

The Boys in the Trees

By Mary Swan

(Holt Paperbacks, 224 pp., $14)

Words have become too self-conscious, too anxious, to sit still on the page. In a world blaring with YouTube videos and buzzing with blog posts, there is, especially in fiction, an apparent need to justify the extended use of text. Why write a story when you can film one? Why read when you can watch? Writers, when they react to this new instability, tend either to defiantly renounce the page or to defensively embrace it. There are the novels, always increasing in number, that comply with the rush, and eclipse or fragment language and compress plot into as few words as possible. These mysteries and romances may elicit emotion, but they rarely restructure the world. They are an entertainment to keep pace with the chaos. At the most extreme, cell phone novels--novels literally thumbed on a cell phone and distributed to and read on millions of others--accounted for five of Japan's ten 2007 best-sellers. With chapters averaging around seventy words, they can be read alongside life--you can read the first chapter on the way from your office to the restroom, and finish the whole book before you flush. Gone is the ancient scruple that reading should be an interruption in existence.

And then there are novels that fight the rush, that not only interrupt existence but aspire to overtake and even transfigure it. Instead of aping the technological torrent, these books wish to reinstate, and to reproduce, natural rhythms. In a review of Annie Dillard's The Maytrees last summer, Marilynne Robinson wrote that "its sea is wild and generative, its sky orders the constellations, and both are primordial, archaic, full of the fact of time past and persisting, unchanging, changing everything. If there were such a thing as cosmic realism, The Maytrees would be a classic of the genre." Robinson's labeling is cautious--perhaps because it approaches self-categorization. But the classification is inspired. In contemporary fiction, there is indeed such a thing as cosmic realism. It encompasses a range of description-driven novels steeped in transience and obsessed with iterations of ephemerality. Their substance is more thought than action, and the thought is almost as much perception as it is reflection. John Banville, Susan Minot, Per Petterson, and the essayist Jo Ann Beard have cosmic realist elements, as does Mary Swan's The Deep and Other Stories. And if Dillard is a classic of this genre, then Robinson's chiseled fiction is canonical.

Dillard--whose central characters have nothing but a shack and days that swell with time, and want nothing but the company of their thoughts--presses upon her cast the tides of the environment: "Sometimes by day or night he heard them breathe old as oceans-- experienced." Robinson--whose first novel is about a transient who settles in Fingerbone, Idaho to care for her two orphaned nieces, and whose second is written as a letter from an ailing pastor to his seven-year-old son--populates both books with characters who incorporate natural beats into the rhythms of their daily routines:

Sylvie took her coffee with two lumps of sugar, Helen liked her toast dark, and Molly took hers without butter. These things were known. Molly changed the beds, Sylvie peeled the vegetables, Helen washed the dishes. These things were settled. This perfect quiet had settled into their house after the death of their father. That event had troubled the very medium of their lives. Time and air and sunlight bore wave and wave of shock, until all the shock was spent, and time and space and light grew still again and nothing seemed to tremble....

Whether the rhythms are environmental or ritual, whether they are explicable or not, they ground the book in reality in a way that the characters themselves are sometimes incapable of doing. For in their interior efforts to appreciate time, cosmic realist characters often slip away from it--they lose the traction of ordinary life and spiral off into the depths of their thoughts. It is for just that reason that the twin protagonists of Swan's "The Deep" describe a morning disembodiment that lasts "until you splash your face with cold water and recognize it again in the mirror above the basin. Until you drink a cup of tea, breathe fresh air, let routine tasks draw you back."

On the basis of these rhythms, the cosmic realist novel develops a distinct syntax of its own. Typically, the prose is lyrical and crisp--rich without being lavish, sumptuous but not florid. These books find the fewest strokes with which to paint the freshest image. "She watched blue shadows on his white shirt stretch and shrink as he moved," Dillard writes. But the economy of language is not merely pretty. It calls to mind the classical Chinese poets-- like them, commanding attention by demanding it. This prose promises to be experienced as poetry. It engrosses when it engages.

Cosmic realism is not altogether new. Its modern ancestors were, in their ways, Woolf and Proust. Lingering over common objects, Proust traced their every emotional evocation; and Woolf, with deft angularity, was a pioneer in the aestheticization of consciousness, while also letting objects do the work of documenting time. (In the experimental "Time Passes" interlude of To the Lighthouse, the sensations of the winds over the household objects completely upstage the characters.) But more generally, cosmic realism is the late descendant of the Romantic and Transcendentalist traditions. Glorifying the ordinary and the outcast, the Romantics believed that natural objects unlocked the poet's spirit. "The passions that build up our human Soul," Wordsworth wrote in The Prelude, "Not with the mean and vulgar works of man,/But with high objects, with enduring things,/With life and nature, purifying thus/The elements of feeling and of thought,/And sanctifying, by such discipline, Both pain and fear; until we recognize/A grandeur in the beatings of the heart." The Romantics devoted themselves to the religion of individual aesthetic: literature was a self-originating and self-organizing process through which a writer sought, and sought to exude, his or her true identity. And one formulated this unique identity partially through original perceptions of the external world. "I have at all times endeavored," Wordsworth said, "to look steadily at my subject." By investing such an intensity of attention--by really looking--the Romantics hoped to discover the inner truth of an object, what Hopkins later called the "inscape," which divested the object of its subservience to scientific law and imbued it with its own life.

The Transcendentalists believed that intuition was the source of truth, and that individual perception illuminated the structures of the world. "In proportion to the completeness of the distillation," Emerson declared in "The American Scholar," "so will the purity and imperishableness of the product be." By capturing the essence of an object, Transcendentalist writers believed they could preserve it. But the Transcendentalists also strove to savor the moment. Admitting the difficulty of this, Thoreau, who rapturously studied natural objects and quotidian activities, wrote in Walden--an inspiration, certainly, for Dillard's numinous shacks--that "I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand at the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line." Improving the nick of time meant, with an awareness of past and future, focusing attention on the present.

Thoreau's declaration that "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach" could serve as the credo not only of many a Transcendentalist, but also of many a cosmic realist writer or character. Walt Whitman's poetics inspired R.M. Bucke's theory of "cosmic consciousness," whereby all matter had an eternal life that contributed to a cosmos-spanning collective consciousness. A lecture Robinson gave at Amherst last year, reprinted in this month's Harper's, echoes this camaraderie of spirit. "I have always felt that people somehow immortalize themselves in a landscape," she says, "that the mere fact of a specific human presence in a place leaves it changed. Walt Whitman was right about everything, never more so than when he celebrated the epic and melancholy beauty created in a place by all the transient multitudes and generations that pass through it."

While the cosmic realist mode of capture is more measured than the spontaneous exuberance of its forbears, cosmic realists believe that the forces of man and environment push against each other, so that a certain truth emerges from the natural organization of the writer's perception. "I do try to write the way I think," the pastor John Ames says in Robinson's Gilead. The statement is not much different from what Robinson told The New York Times about her own writing: ''You devote your life to books, and then in a way they sort of become what they will be.... It's a strange thing."

"Strange thing" is a signature phrase of Robinson's. In Gilead it appears six times within a hundred pages, and feels implied on many more. And throughout the book, "strange" makes no less than twenty-five appearances--only a few more than "remarkable," which has twenty-two mentions, and a few less than "wonderful," which has twenty-eight. The profusion of such words continues the Romantic and Transcendentalist tradition of turning to a religion of personal impressions in revolt against the prosaic realisms of science and sociology. In cosmic realism, science actually fascinates, but the attempt to discover the deepest truths moves beyond it, into the spiritualized self. "Everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world's true workings," Robinson writes in Housekeeping. "The nerves and the brain are tricked, and one is left with dreams that these specters loose their hands from ours and walk away, the curve of the back and the swing of the coat so familiar as to imply that they should be permanent fixtures of the world, when in fact nothing is more perishable."

To cope with expiration, the cosmic realists employ Romantic and Transcendentalist tactics. They fight the tyranny of time with the authenticity of description and the acuity of personal perception. The drive to document the perception of an object at a particular moment is in part the desire to be able to compare it with later perceptions and therein visualize the passage of time. But cosmic realism sometimes lacks the assurance of its ancestors. Emerson believed in the prophet-like power of individual vision precisely because he believed in the unity of creation and the inherent goodness of mankind: he had a philosophy, a metaphysical faith. Works of cosmic realism, by contrast, tend to address tragedies that shake this sort of faith. An unknowable providence pervades all things--borne with a complex optimism in Robinson, with acquiescence in Dillard, and with resignation in Swan.

One of the more recent contributions to the genre, Mary Swan's first novel, The Boys in the Trees, is more tragic than most. After William and Naomi Heath's three children succumb to diphtheria, they take a ship from England to Canada, where they do their best to raise a new family, two little girls named Lilian and Rachel. Pieced together from multiple perspectives over three generations, the novel repeatedly disorients the reader. That is, the text mimics its content, the continual dislodgment of the principal family. The stuttering of life takes a devastating toll on its characters. William is a good father, but his desire to make his family more comfortable leads him to embezzle money. After his first charge, the family relocates further north. When he is accused a second time, Naomi, bewildered, says, "I can't bear it, to start again." And so William does something to ensure that she will never have to: he murders his family, a crime so unexpected that the majority of the novel is about the community's struggles to make sense of it.

William acts out of a fear of failure beaten into him by the violence of his own father. But whence his father's rage springs, we will never know. Evil simply subsists in this universe, and although roots may be traced and leaves located on a stem, the seed itself is lost to the terrain. The repercussive tragedies, like most tragedies, saturate the novel silently, supplying the realism to the cosmic. The gun, the one William uses to murder his family, never sounds. It sits on the porch, "a small package ... a lumpy letter L," curiously noticed by the choleric daughter on whom it will later be fired. The next time we see it, it is lying limp in William's bloodied hand, out in the forest where he slumps at the root of a tree. It is as if the two still frames compel the action that links them, like a flipbook of line drawings, lovely and sparse, which our mind is left to animate. (Wordsworth: "Thou Soul that art the eternity of thought,/That giv'st to forms and images a breath/And everlasting Motion!") And this is how cosmic realism seizes our attention--not by piquing curiosity but by engaging the imagination. The scene that would be drawn out into the climax of, say, a thriller is in the cosmic realist novel left an open invitation to the reader.

Sentences do even more of this work than scenes. As the doctor's son watches William's hanging in horror, "sometimes everything pulsed with a rasping sound, sometimes just the black comma shape, swaying a little at the end of a thick rope." Swan's diction does not succumb to emotion. It remains even-keeled and aesthetically removed, while visually imparting an ominous pause--a comma, so to speak. By overlapping the two incongruous images of the hanging man and the punctuation, Swan defamiliarizes both, so that only an application of the imagination can reconcile them into a single head-slumped silhouette. Jo Ann Beard describes violence with a similarly seductive calm in her essay "Werner," writing that "deep inside the walls, three floors below Werner's apartment, a sprig of cloth-wrapped wire sizzled and then opened, like a blossom." And in Robinson's Housekeeping "the engine nosed over toward the lake and then the rest of the train, slid after it into the water like a weasel sliding off a rock." The incongruous aestheticization of tragedy challenges the reader to visualize the events and thereby to identify them. The inevitable bursting of the fuse and the hapless slippage of the train are understood, with a delightful snap, only after they play themselves out in the mind's eye.

The delightful snap is the experience of being pleasantly startled. As Robinson observes of Dillard's The Maytrees, "there is a resolute this- worldliness that startles the reader again and again with recognition." To startle is to seize attention and fix it in the present moment. The thrill of successful recognition-- "How much we overlook! What a world this is, after all!" exclaims Robinson--is, at bottom, the thrill of wonder. Wonder effuses in the immediate, most viscerally from familiar objects perceived and presented in unfamiliar ways. While cell phone novels deal in curiosity, a passion forever forward-thinking, which expires as soon as it is spent, cosmic realism deals in wonder, a passion of the immediate moment, one that continually regenerates intrigue. Even when dealing with the past, as these books so often do, the unique descriptions secure the reader's attention firmly in the instant. Cosmic realism invokes wonder not to press forward, but to repossess time for the present.

The Boys in the Trees has more plot than most cosmic realist novels, but because it is told in spurts, from multiple perspectives across a multitude of temporal registers, it does not feel driven by its events. Instead, objects possess an uncanny agency. Every other chapter, in fact, takes its cue from a central thing after which it is named--"Locket," "Gun," "House," "Button," "Knife," "Book." Here objects become vessels of time. "Time," Francisco Orlando observes in Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination, "makes things become cherished by force of habit and ease of handling, endows them with tenderness as memories and with authority as models, marks them with the virtue of rarity and the prestige of age." Of course time also inures by force of habit, strips objects of the memories they once cast, and taints them with the worthlessness of overabundance and the stigma of age. And so the perception of objects, varying over time across these extremes, encapsulates the full range of experience: power and powerlessness; determinacy and indeterminacy; worth and worthlessness.

To convey the impress of time, Swan archives objects--or more specifically, her characters' perception of objects. In "The Deep," she writes, "It began to seem, after a time, that everyone had something. One thing they'd seen or heard that they couldn't shake off, that they carried, would carry forever, like a hard, dull stone in the heart.... We thought if we could gather those things together, we would call it The War Book. And that would be the only way to communicate it, to give someone an idea of how it was." The same impulse has been applied in Swan's novel. Not only are her characters inclined to concretize experience-- William Heath's younger daughter, Rachel, illustrates a family book, while her best friend Eaton, the doctor's son, as an adult considers "leaving a record for his children, something they would one day be glad to have"--but throughout the book Swan records their concretizations for them. Lilian, the elder daughter, who is haunted by the past, notes that "My father brought home a blotter, tucked under his coat, for the surface of the table is uneven, scarred and gouged by people we've never known.... I wonder about the families.... Marks of their anger, their errors, the only things we have to know them by." She also describes, a little too preciously, "the little front room that was filled, like the whole house, with things other people had left behind. The worn spot on the arm of the settee where she sat sewing, the spot rubbed bare by a stranger's hand."

The trauma of loss, in particular, draws objects into relief against their surroundings. Recalling his wife's death, the elder Eaton "imagined that she had closed her eyes when the ambulance doors clicked shut, but at the time his mind was swept bare, only able to notice small, discrete things." The mind in distress absents itself from the fluidity of life and arbitrarily hangs on to things found in one's visual field, to fragments. When the novel flashes back to Eaton's childhood in the next chapter, Eaton is to be a pallbearer in Rachel's funeral. That morning, he nearly faints into his oatmeal: "Everything looked strangely sharp-edged, the sound of the cutlery echoing, the sound of Lucy's footsteps." Trauma draws discrete lines around the objects in Eaton's perception, as if trying to offer visual grips so that he may cling to consciousness. More habitually and extremely disturbed, Lilian has visions of her parents' previous children. But unable to cling to reality, her visions escape form. "The way I saw them," she says, "hard to explain, something like a thought that ravels away when you try to catch hold of it."

In order to archive experience so personal that it defies description, Swan reifies it into a vague shape--sometimes a curve, but often nothing more distinct or concrete than the word "shape" itself. Lilian maps her weekly routine against the contour of a mount: "Wednesdays at eleven o'clock I go across the road to Dr. Robinson, and I see the week like a hill now, sloping up to a peak and then sliding down again." Naomi similarly says of her first family, "I often thought, when Sadie was small, how I had my own mother until I was almost three. I thought of the things Sadie and I said to each other, of the shape of our days, the little games we played, and I couldn't believe that if I were to die, she would keep nothing of that."

Of course Naomi doesn't die; Sadie does. And her loss, along with the loss of her two brothers, presses almost supernaturally upon the daughter Naomi next conceives, the daughter to whom Naomi is subsequently "as close as thought." "Even if she doesn't know the details of all my secrets," Lilian says of her mother, "she knows their shape." In Swan's book, to recognize the shapes in another's thoughts is to forge, through understanding, an emotional bond. So when Rachel's teacher seeks to understand the emotions that led to her murder, the teacher looks to the little girl's drawings and tries to parse out the shapes. "Through the front windows, one up, two down, she sketched hazy shapes in one of the pictures, a glimpse of what was inside. Try as she might, Alice can't make out what the shapes are supposed to be." Sometimes the reader finds herself in a similar position, with an unsatisfying feeling of depth intimated but not explored.

The most literal cosmic realist object would seem to be the souvenir, which has no inherent status, no brand from which to glean its worth. A souvenir is only as valuable as it is emotionally effective; it owes its value to time, not to money. "Souvenir," after all, refers literally to actual remembrances--to ideas rather than objects, and it is when these souvenirs are used in this way that they are beautiful. Of the schoolteacher, Swan writes that her crush, the photographer, "asked her once how old she was, laughed and said he'd have to wait for her, and she wrapped the idea around herself like the woolen shawl." By transmuting the idea into an object, even a mental one, Alice can better covet it.

But with souvenirs that are actual objects, Swan sometimes overdoes it. In trying to imbue her novel with profundity, she amasses trinkets like a tourist anxious to fill a charm bracelet. There are all the cliches--photographs and buttons and books; a father's watch and a porcelain clock. There is Naomi's locket, containing the locks of the children she lost: "When she takes the locket off, she feels the empty space near her heart and as she gets older and her fingers thicken and stiffen it takes longer to do the clasp again, longer to feel that first cold touch, to feel it begin to warm." And there is the poignant example of William's father's knife, the one William broke and supposedly buried as a child, knowing that the "beating for a broken knife would be worse than for one that was missing." After the murders, a townsperson finds it while carting things out of William's house to sell:

It fell out from under a mattress, a folding knife with a yellowed bone handle, the tip broken off but the blade sharp, so sharp that his testing touch drew a thick line of blood that welled and darkened. Someone else might have wondered what it was doing there, might have called to the others, passed it around, and talk might have flickered through the town. But Bash just slipped it into his pocket, blotted his finger on the seam of his trousers and bent to heave the mattress again, last night's drink pounding in his head.... Bash just thought that he'd needed a knife and he'd found a knife, and that was the way things should work.

Unlike the locket, the knife is effective because it is couched in some of Swan's best details--Bash's wonderful blotting of the finger on the seam of his trousers, for instance. But after William's death, his knife is only a souvenir to the one person who retains any memory of it: the reader who can recall it from the novel's first chapter. And for the reader, the souvenir signifies something slightly different: not the memory itself as much as the humanity evident in William's having held onto it. Physical weight directly correlates with emotional weight. Despite William's refusal to discuss his childhood, the knife reveals his inability to suppress it.

But the weight of meaning that Swan imposes upon objects in her novel is sometimes too great for them to bear, and her book begins to suffer from its symbolism. The arbitrariness of destiny is annoyingly over-articulated in the symbol of the executioner's platform, which is made from "a tree that, growing, looked just like all the other ones around it, the ones that would make kitchen tables or a little boy's sled, the house that he lived in." Yes, without rhyme or reason this tree was given the power to punctuate life, was chosen to become the Ultimate Thing. We are only a step away from allegory here. Mr. Ultimate Thing pines and pines for Miss Profundity, who, to his great dismay, is soulmates with Mr. Subtlety. Oh, Mr. Subtlety! If only it weren't against his nature to exert his influence, how he would be appreciated here!

Much worse, however, is the chapter devoted to the "Button." The gimmicky teaser with which it opens--"There's nothing remarkable about it"--immediately contradicts itself with the overwriting that follows, all of which nonetheless does not dispel the unremarkableness. "It's only where it comes from that gives it meaning," Swan writes, "and how long will that last?" Teething on the rhetoric of reverse psychology, Swan insists that the button's power is fleeting in a naive attempt to make us think otherwise. "Still," she writes, "the button goes into a glass jar, and someone thinks, late at night, of the way that stories lose their meaning, just like objects do, as the years wheel on, as new ones take their place. Someone understands that this thought too will be gone and no one will know, no one will ever know." What was suggested so gracefully by aged objects is now mourned with a metaphysical righteousness. Swan's mind is sometimes too disposed to a kind of romantic reification. And so sometimes we get not profundity, but propaganda for profundity.

Explaining the rationale behind The War Book in "The Deep," Swan seems to offer her own interpretation of cosmic realism. "We all have those pictures in our heads," she writes, "those moments of memory caught and held, for some reason, and perhaps if we could string them all together they would make some sense of our lives." The onus of interpretation is left on the reader. And so too, more challengingly, is the onus of animation, of generating narrative momentum for oneself.

An exquisite example of it working on the micro level occurs in "The Deep." Of a wounded World War I soldier, heavily dosed with morphine, Swan writes,

When he was--not awake, he was never that--but semiconscious, he repeated a list of words over and over. Oak, beech, ash, elm, maple, oak beech ash elm maple..... [A]t first they thought he was naming trees, but then someone heard main and someone heard water and they guessed he was reciting the names of streets, the names of streets in whatever town he came from. His company had been hit hard; those who survived had been moved on, and no one in the hospital knew yet what town it was. Some of the men on the ward thought it was a small place, that he was naming every street in the town. But most of them thought it was a route he was walking. Oak-Beech-Ash-Elm-Maple-Main-Water. The way to school, maybe, or the way to his girlfriend's house. The way to his own house from the station. Over and over he walked it, Oak-Beech-Ash-Elm-Maple-Main- Water, and after a while we could see it ourselves: the tall trees leaning over the sidewalks, the shady verandas, the storefronts on Main Street, the cooler air on Water. If it was evening, we could smell the blossoms.

Masterfully shuffling street names before our eyes, Swan offers an example of how to make the words unfold in the mind. Several times in The Boys in the Trees, she repeats the performance. But asking the reader to fill in the frames at a larger level, to activate one's own interest in the narrative when the gaps are large and the blanks are many, may be asking too much.

This novel that seems so polished is also in a deep way unfinished. Layering frames, while sometimes providing poignancy, does not always sufficiently develop a character. It is with the somewhat gimmicky first words "And then" that Swan first ushers us into the cosmos of her novel. The perimeters, which are thick with rounded characters, hollow out to a center populated by paper dolls on pickets. Abby, the maid whom Eaton's father rescued from sexual abuse and whom he ultimately must dismiss because she incites his own desire, is layered into nothing more than a tinny mouthpiece for trite doctrines. When she enters into an affair with the town photographer (for whom she is a live-in assistant), Swan grants Abby a whole chapter for her metaphysical musings on the magic of photography and her supposedly deep desire for ignorance. Fondly speaking back the words of her lover, she remarks, "That's the wonder of photography, a record of the world just as it is instead of someone's idea of it." Here Swan's interest in objects flattens her character into one.

In The Boys in the Trees, Swan's style, which she voices through old Eaton, is panoramic. "You realiz[e] that all along it had been a different answer," he says, "another person glimpsed but passed over, who was the key to everything. Whatever everything was." And so The Boys in the Trees lingers on subsidiary Abby-like characters; it tries to look at everyone and everything. But the lockets and the clocks and the dear, dear trees that bracket the book are pious icons of time's passage more than they are evocative objects. For every brilliant description--for every Bash blotting his finger on a seam or for every silhouette shaped like a comma--there is another either inauthentic or so burdened by its Profundity that wonder is arrested and can no longer float the narrative forward. The realism is betrayed by the cosmic, and the democratization of attention, instead of invigorating the landscape, merely wearies the mind. When wonder fails, objects fall flat, and the reader's interest wavers. Instead of enjoying the present moment, the reader begins to look to the future--to the end of the section, the chapter, the book itself. The reader begins, you might say, to wonder.

Francesca Mari is the assistant to the literary editor of The New Republic.