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52 Books #24: The End

July 2, 2011

All over the reviews of The End, Salvatore Scibona’s debut novel (Vintage), is the name Saul Bellow: Scibona is Bellow’s heir, the prose has Bellovian texture, etc. This is highly off-putting to me — as someone who kept trying to make myself like Bellow then decided life was probably too short — and I found the first few pages of this book, in which Rocco LaGrassa receives news of his son’s death in the Korean war, tough going: not, it turns out, because it has much of that inflated Bellovian density after all, nor even in the way Scibona uses the immigrant experience as an ever-present backdrop, but because I was primed to find it tough going. Lousy review quotes.

The novel is shared among several viewpoints. The first is that of Rocco, the Ohio baker, who reminisces about his failed relationship with the wife who nicknamed herself Loveypants (one of The End‘s only missteps, this is a pretty bathetic note to find amid the otherwise thoughtful, sensitive and lyrical prose) and starts to imagine that the news of his son’s death has been a mistake, a misunderstanding or a hoax: such is the subtle and persuasive power of Scibona’s text that when we get to the oneiric scene in which Rocco encounters a mysterious nude figure in the bakery coldstore and is convinced this is his son Mimmo come back to him, the reader too wobbles in his convictions: it can’t be Mimmo; we know that even if Rocco keeps trying to convince himself — or could it be…?

We don’t find out the identity of the coldstore exhibitionist until much later in this intriguing and enigmatic novel. Along the way we see through the eyes of four more characters: the elderly seamstress Mrs Marini, her teenage charge Ciccio — my favourite character, sullen but with a vivid interior life (I visualised equal parts Six Feet Under‘s Gabriel and Animal Kingdom‘s Joshua) — and an abortionist who is searching for an heir to her business, and hear each of their stories. And then there’s the mysterious and terrifying Forest Runner, whose grim story intersects with the others’ in surprising ways, right up to a shimmering and transformative conclusion which recasts his unspeakable misdemeanour as the outcome of  a coincidence and a tragic misunderstanding.

There are times when the reader feels the prose straining too hard for effect. Here’s Rocco’s earliest encounter with the hulking young Ciccio, for instance: ‘ The boy was more than a foot taller than he wa,s and while they spoke, Rocco found himself looking up into the dark cavities of the boy’s long and listing nose. The lips were fat, contorted, the eyes far too big, the ears too pointed; the gaze — which never fails to reveal too much — was suspicious, ashamed, exalted, pious, self-consumed, attractive, and mean. The boy was a picture of becoming gone astray.’ (p.22) (My minds-eye image of Ciccio, needless to say, rejects th”e Goyaish creature Rocco describes.) The desperation to impress eases off as the book goes on, which is not to say it isn’t rich in striking imagery and turns of phrase; this is one of those books reviewers love for being able to describe it as boasting fresh and surprising prose on every page. A pivotal car crash is caused by the driver falling asleep, “the effect… like the stuporous, chemical ease that follows sexual release” (p.177); Mrs Marini thinks back over the 1910s: “Once women had been allowed to exert their influence at the polls, the nation had been beset by eerie calm. Consider aeroplanes and the Great War and the influenza and the headlong rush to outlaw good times (booze, she meant) that had preceded this, the republic’s least interesting decade.” (p.77) — there’s the possibility of going on to quote great chunks, whole chapters, of The End.

It’s a dense novel of reminiscence, regret and self-flagellation; at times, too, the stories seem pinned through not by plot developments — which are few, bar the story unravelling in the Forest Runner’s sections — but by a sort of shared consciousness one might uncharitably suggest is a fault in the novel, the result of Scibona’s failure to significantly differentiate his characters. When the shared consciousness he renders is so exquisite, however, it’s hard to care too much. This is a totally beguiling novel, one of the finest of the year: The End‘s components fit together like a dream, and it reads like one too.

Other reading in Week #24

F. Scott Fitzgerald Flappers and Philosophers (Penguin Classics)

James Goss Doctor Who: Dead of Winter (BBC Books)

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