An individual death has many consequences, touched us in many ways, ways we can see and identify — grief, loss, sadness, sorrow. But what if it...
by William Boyd
Knopf, 277 pp., $24
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How does a novelist come down from the glory of having written a decades-spanning, globe-hopping masterpiece?
If he’s William Boyd, he experiments with short fiction.
Indeed, Boyd’s short stories have often had something of the crazed tinkerer about them, in contrast to his novels which — however unusual in structure or subject matter — are reassuringly solid, even symphonic.
That said, the 14 tales in “Fascination” do show some thematic continuity with “Any Human Heart,” his recent novel that caught to perfection just how far a life’s facts and a life’s intended shape can be pulled asunder.
The stories in “Fascination” cover shorter time spans. But they often deal with characters who have fallen — or leapt — from what they see as their lives’ prescribed agendas. Some tales also make use of the journal or notebook as a narrative device, as “Any Human Heart” did. Several look at the chance methods by which works of art — a Brahms waltz, a Chekhov story, a book or film of Boyd’s own invention — come into existence (the narrator of “Any Human Heart” was a novelist).
Boyd, who divides his time between London and Southwest France, has shown a lively interest in cinema ever since his 1988 novel “The New Confessions” (another masterpiece). In 1999 he became a writer-director himself with a fine, taut film, “The Trench,” set on a World War I battlefield (out on DVD). So it’s no surprise that other stories in “Fascination” deal with war and its aftermath, while a number portray or allude to filmmakers. “The Ghost of a Bird” takes the form of a doctor’s diary as he studies a World War II soldier’s unusual brain injuries. It gradually becomes clear that one part of the soldier’s brain is intact enough to have a vivid sense of how much of his mind has been obliterated. He tries desperately to fill the gaps, but the straws of “reality” he grasps at turn out, in the most ironic way, to be fiction.
“A Haunting,” another highlight here, concerns an architect who, through actions he’s unable to control, starts to sabotage his life, his career, his marriage. The rogue spirit haunting him is of scarcely credible origin — but Boyd just manages to pull off the supernatural twist.
Divergences between mind and body are given a more comic spin in a tale called, aptly enough, “The Mind/Body Problem.” Its hero, Neil, a teenager suffering from asthma, psoriasis and “some form of near persistent arrhythmia in his heart,” sees himself and his body as “involved in a nasty little civil war.” He blames his parents for this — don’t all teens? — but in his case he has a point about his steroid-popping, gym-owning mum and dad and the frenzied body-builder clientele they encourage. Neil embarks on a weirdly benevolent revenge crusade against them all.
Sexual temptation/obsession is often the wedge driven between a character’s best intentions and his wild-card self in Boyd’s fiction, and he’s a master at capturing both what makes the temptation tempting and what’s at risk. He approaches this turf from every angle: a 12-year-old boy’s unhappiness and, eventually, resourcefulness in coping with his actress mother’s latest love affair (in “Varengeville”); a middle-age journalist’s simultaneously recalled adulterous overtures on the job and first adolescent love (in the book’s title story); an elderly, forgotten novelist’s fond, parodic flirtation with his housekeeper (in “The View from Yves Hill”).
There’s a melancholy at play here, especially when forgotten novelist Yves Hill concludes “it is the utter inadequacy of human contacts that makes us turn to art.” In a coda that only highlights that “inadequacy,” Boyd gives us Hill’s obituary, which captures almost nothing of his cranky yet kindly post-fame existence. It certainly has nothing to say about his habit of “conducting” symphonies on his stereo, “blubbing all the way through the adagietto.” Where the obit suggests a flame that long ago dwindled down, the story brings alive a man still awash in chaotic feeling.
A few pieces here veer close to mere guessing games, or else their enigmas are constructed so transparently to be enigmas that they fail to be mysterious. But the overall impression “Fascination” gives is of a narrative-inventing mind humming hectically away, brimming over with ideas, one of which — the mind/body problem, perhaps? — must almost certainly be the seed of Boyd’s next novel.
email@example.com. He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has also published four novels.