Saturday, February 9, 2013

Mr. Ives Christmas

As spring starts (at least in South Carolina!) to show signs of coming, here I am writing about a Christmas novel for a slightly embrarassing reason.  I started it in the fall, got about 3/4ths of the way through, life intervened, then I rediscovered and finished it.  Then writing it about took some real and lengthy consideration.

Mr. Ives' Christmas is about grieving and faith.  The topic drew me first.   The writing held me.

I tend to find other reviews before I write my own, probably to keep from embarassing myself by making some off-the-wall declaration, but despite the fact that I have some weird things to say about the book, things nobody else has hinted about, I'm going to say them anyway:

In a way, it made me think Slaughterhouse-Five meets the Book of Job.

First, for the Slaughterhouse-Five likeness, nothing deep, just a structural likeness.  Just as Vonnegut's Billy is "unstuck in time" and we bounce around his life at different points, so Ives' life comes to us in short non-sequential chapters and often memories, driven by what's on his mind and heart at the moment. Some critics disliked the patchy recanting of Ives' life events, but it seemed to me to be simply the way we remember, and the way we make sense of the present, with whatever pieces of the past our minds connect to.

Some critics say Edward Ives is too Good, but really, he's a believable good man, not a perfect one.  If Hijuelos intended a parallel to Job, Ives would have to be essentially blameless and yet have a gut-wrenching loss visited on him.  And he would be perfectly entitled to question, be baffled by God and "whys." He'd have to feel tormented and damaged.

And he is, both.  But in saying Ives is too good, I think some reviewers miss the very plausible fact that some people turn outward with pain and grief, but some turn inward.  From his unknown birth parents, to the kind, but somewhat emotionally distant, nature of his adoptive father, to, possibly, Ives' innate nature, Ives is clearly drawn all through his life to be one who turns pain inward.

He tries to forgive the killer of his son, and yet tries to keep that at an intellectual level, writing to the kid in prison, sending him books and encouraging him to change the path he was on, but resisting any meeting.  And when the meeting finally happens, he is quite believably untouched by it.  Ives is trying to find redemption through his support of the young man, and it works.  The man does turn his life around, and so Ives has succeeded at making some good come out of the tragic shooting, but it's done with the mind, and isn't a real solution to his pain.

His inner torment over the senseless death of his son manifests in troubled dreams in which he tears at and bruises his own skin.  Healing comes from a dream of his son -- who appears at the age he would have been, 43, not the 17 he was when he died -- questioning him: "Why are you doing this to yourself?" and pouring water on his arms. Ives awakes to find all the damage healed.

The power of God, the existence of the soul and afterlife, are concepts well-supported by the plot, but Hijuelos is way too good a writer to answer the question of faith with a bumper sticker (God did it and that settles it!).  Rather, when faith itself helps to heal, any reader can insist on this being the power of mind.  Whatever.

It's not Ives' only mystical experience, or the only one felt by several other characters.  In fact, his earlier, pre-tragedy, vision of God's loving presence in the world remains undeniable even during the decades that Ives remains emotionally numb over his son's murder.

This novel is not comfortable.  Characters are complex.  Answers are ambiguous.

What makes a novel wonderful?  Different things, to different people, but to me, those ambiguities are what let a varied audience of readers intersect with the characters and with the story, some in very different ways and at different points than do others.  I'm kind of in awe of the power a novel can have to be a place where some people together who otherwise never would, and am more thankful for fiction that grows from someone's soul, than I can quite put into words.

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