Read from March 17thto April 2nd2018
Richard Russo’s Empire Falls reminded me of John Edward Williams’s Stoner in more ways than one – of course, it is about different events, a different narrative structure and not in the least it is written in a different style, but in the end both tell the story of a luckless, lost hero who does nothing to escape his fate and whose sense of responsibility is somehow overgrown. Moreover, both novels have a genially deceitful title, based on wordplay: “Stoner” is not a state of mind or body but simply the name of the hero and “Empire Falls” is not a historical evocation of a falling civilisation, but simply the name of the town where the action takes place. In other words, grammatically speaking that is, “stoner” is not a common noun and “falls” is not a verb.
Nonetheless, Empire Fallsis an epic name for an epic story, but not in the sense the title a prioritricks us to think. Of course, a posteriori,you may always find a similitude between empires that fall when lives fall. From this point of view, the New England obscure town is as small as a village and as big as a country – a microcosm revealing the macrocosm. A town where nothing happens and all happens, which has its share of bad and good guys, boring or interesting, and is under the protection of a malevolent god, Francine Whiting who, (and this made me study the physiognomy of many a female colleague of mine J) “in the manner of a great many women of French Canadian ancestry, …lacked a chin, as if someone had already pinched her there.” (the original text is in italics)
The narrative, using the alternation past – present, is built in a plain, classical way, devoid of any technique that could confuse the reader, I mean not only the two axes of time appear in different chapters, but also the past is written in italics, maybe in order to emphasize the idea that the past is a story, whereas the present is an event – of course with the possibility to be someday translated into a story, too.
In fact, this apparently basic design has hidden depths, and I totally agree with A. O. Scott’s opinion, expressed in his excellent review of the book, that the author’s “manner is so unassuming that his mastery is easy to miss”. The novel is composed of 32 chapters distributed in four parts, a prologue and an epilogue. The Prologue is situated on the past’s axe, with an apparent respect for chronology, and sketches the portraits of the two characters who, while seeming an improbable pair, are both destructive – one voluntarily, the Francine Whiting I mentioned earlier, the other one mostly involuntarily, her husband C.B. Whiting, “a short man who disliked drawing attention to the fact” (again the italics are of the original text), long dead but inhabiting the present like a ghost, because of the long term consequences of his actions and decisions. But although the Prologue ends with a foreshadowing that suggests that the present of the narrative will begin with C.B. Whiting’s death some thirty years later, actually the jump in time is about another thirty years, and his death becomes the intersection point of the two temporal lines.
The story will go back and forth as follows: thirty-three years back in the eighth chapter that ends Part One, then twenty-six years or so in the fourteenth chapter that ends Part Two, again thirty-three years somewhere in the middle of Part Three (Chapter 19) and again twenty-six or –five at the end of the same part (Chapter 22); in Part Four the past continues to approaches – Chapter 26 is a mere 20 years from nowadays and will brilliantly catch up with the present in the Epilogue that sums up the sixty years, closing the temporal loop:
One thing is certain. By ending his life when he did, C. B. Whiting died in the mistaken belief that like his forebears, he had failed to kill his wife, which wasn’t entirely true. Had he lived, it would have surprised and perhaps even cheered him to learn that he actually had sealed her doom the year he proposed to her, not long after the dead moose washed up on his bank.
Thus the narrative buttons up like a well-tailored suit. Or to employ a more appropriate aquatic comparison, after many twists and turns, it returns like a river to its bed. Indeed, the leitmotiv of the river haunts a narrative in which the present’s flow is stopped or disturbed by the past that sometimes forces it change direction, and other times blocks it until it overflows. That decision C.B. Whiting made to deviate The Knox, because it had the bad habit to leave debris in front of his house, was definitely epic:
A sensible man, Charles Beaumont Whiting arrived at a sensible conclusion. At the end of a second hour spent kneeling at the river’s edge, he concluded that he had an enemy all right, and it was none other than God Himself, who’d designed the damn river in such a way—narrow and swift-running upstream, widening and slowing at Empire Falls—that all manner of other people’s shit became Charles Beaumont Whiting’s.
Epic, because it was a decision with many consequences, from his impulse to marry Francine because of a vague feeling of guilt (he had bought her parent’s land, necessary for the detour of the river, for a pittance) to his wife’s death in the waters of the same river. The last image of the book is glorious in a cruel, pagan way: the dead body of the woman whose life’s credo was “power and control” is carried away from her kingdom by angry waters, like an idol ritualistically offered, together with her familiar the cat, to more powerful gods by superstitious and slightly fed-up people:
…astride the body, crouched at the shoulders of the dead woman, was a red-mouthed, howling cat.Together, dead woman and living cat bumped along the upstream edge of the straining dam, as if searching for a place to climb out and over. Bumping, nudging, seeking, until finally a small section of the structure gave way and they were gone.