National Book Award Winners, part 18: 1968’s The Eighth Day, by Thornton Wilder.

28 Dec

(Listening to the new National record, the wintry and beautiful Trouble Will Find Me, while the girls run around and bicker over their Christmas presents.)

1.

In 1968, Thornton Wilder—one of America’s most famous playwrights—won the National Book Award for The Eighth Day. It is a grand, noble and excellent book.

Wilder is erudite, classically educated and his erudition appears on page after page with references to Greek and Roman thinkers, writers, poets. This book is filled with aphorisms, often spoken from one character to another:

 

“Get loving, you sons-of-bitches, or the world will turn cold.”

“He warned me to beware of husbands and wives who adored one another. Such persons haven’t grown up.”

He looked out over the fields. Beautiful is the earth.

It’s page after page of knockout writing, almost too much wisdom at times. The novel is now remembered as something of an oddity or misfire. This is an unfair assessment, and The Eighth Day seems ripe for rediscovery.

The Eighth Day follows two families—the Lansings and the Ashleys—from a small American town. The patriarch of one family, John Ashley, is accused of murdering the patriarch of the other, Breckenridge Lansing. And, in transport after a guilty verdict at trial, John Ashley is freed by six hooded figures. The central mysteries of the novel are whether Ashley killed Breckenridge and why; who liberated him; and what will happen to the children of both families?

In patient, learned and noble prose, Wilder will answer all of these questions and more. Wilder takes as his theme the big questions of human endeavor. Is there a pattern to a human life, a shape, a direction? Is there free will? Is there good and evil? How do we live a decent life? And what, if anything, matters when viewed through the cosmic arc of time?

2.

I came to Wilder with little baggage. As a child, I thought he was famous for writing the screenplay to Boystown[1], and I knew as a young movie fan that he had something to do with Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons. (I was wrong about this, too; it was Booth Tarkington who Welles adapted, not Thornton Wilder.)

Wilder had a huge hit in 1927 with his first novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. It’s a very fine, very short, very taut little novel about a priest attempting to decipher God’s plan after a bridge collapses and five people are killed. The priest investigates the five victims, looking for some type of system or plan. Does God kill indiscriminately? Do human lives fit any type of pattern, is there free will, or are we locked into our deaths at birth?

A decade later Wilder had an enormous smash of a play with “Our Town,” his small-town reverie that manages to be simple, straight-forward, and deeply moving.

He wrote other novels, other plays. Then he retired to the southwest, living a hermit’s life in small Arizona towns. He was in his sixties. And, in semiretirement and alone in the dusty west, he began to compose The Eighth Day. The novel took him two years to write.

He categorized the first section as Little Women imagined by Dostoyevsky. This is a very fine and fitting description. There’s a classic feel to the first section, following John Ashley’s abandoned family as they open a boarding house, flee to parts unknown and ply their hands at a variety of jobs, cities. I wasn’t sure where the book was heading, but soon figured it out. The Ashleys aren’t quite human. They are closer to robots, at times brutal and uncaring. The novel is in a sense the long thawing out of their chilly nature, the humanizing regeneration of an entire family. (Think The Royal Tennenbaums filtered through a long, meditative gaze.)

A very fine, elegant and noble novel.

A very fine, elegant and noble novel.

The novel follows the various characters in various settings, including a section following the escaped Ashley down to Chile, where he works for coalmining operations and the like. It’s fantastic. Take a read:

 

Several nights a week, in grimy overalls, he explored the city. He renewed a lapsed curiosity about the lives of others. . . . With the coming on of night he set out on long walks. He became an impenitent eavesdropper. . . . He turned about the homes of the prosperous as though he were planning to rob them. . . . . Everywhere prostitutes patrolled their exclusive territory, as bees are said to do. . . . At dusk the world fed; there were sounds of laughter and contentment. . . . By ten-thirty, however, the mood changed. An ominous current invaded the city. By midnight sudden cries filled the air, blows, pursuits, overturned furniture, sobbing and whimpering. In Coaltown, the report that men—particularly the miners—beat their wives was a matter for laughter. Here Ashley saw them. In a narrow alley he came upon a man striking a woman, blow after blow; she sank gradually to her knees, taunting him as no father, as a clown of a father. Another man was beating a woman’s head monotonously against the wall of a staircase. He saw children covering under blows. . . . Ashley hurried away. A hunted man is in no position to defend the persecuted. He longed to be at sea, to be on a mountain peak, on the Andes.

He waited.

He descended.

Damn good writing, with enough horror and decency in a sentence to fuel half a dozen weaker novels.

The novel keeps circling back to the two families in Coaltown, their struggles, and near the end the narrative voice shifts out of time. The story begins to give account of how the various characters will die, including one of the major characters—I won’t tell which one—moving to Nagasaki in the 1930s and looking out at the green gardens and reading a poem from the emperor. The narrator doesn’t say so, but it’s clear she will be incinerated by the atom bomb at the end of the war.

Hanging over it all is a speech given by a rationalist doctor on the first day of the 20th century. He’s in a bar, surrounded by drunks, and he speaks of the shape and nature of man:

 

The New Man is emerging. Nature never sleeps. Hitherto the sporadic great man, the lone genius, has carried the children of fear and inertia on his coattails. Henceforth, the whole mass will emerge from the cave-dwelling condition where most men cower still—terrified of encroachment, hugging their possessions, in bondage to fears of the Thunder God, fears of the vengeful dead, fears of the untamable beast in themselves. . . . Mind and Spirit will be the next climate of the human. The race is undergoing its education. What is education? . . . It is the bridge man crosses from the self-enclosed, self-favoring life into a consciousness of the entire community of mankind.

This is a grand vision, and it breathes through most of the life stories in this book. But its echoes of transcendentalism are undercut by an abiding melancholy, a persistent ache of the transience of mankind. The narrator again and again references the premature deaths of the characters, often in the middle of the drama.

Wilder uses this same schemata in “Our Town,” where the narrator shifts back and forth through time, commenting on the deaths of the characters who are enacting the drama. It isn’t disorienting. It isn’t confusing. It’s sobering, a stamp of mortality on fictional characters who can, in a sense, live forever.

It’s a cruel narrative trick, to throw the deaths of the characters we are following, rooting for and against and suffering with, in our faces—outside of linear time and expected decency—but it serves as a counterpoint to all the talk of spiritual progression and grand human evolution. What matters, in the end, isn’t clear, and the heroes and the villains die in equal measure, all pointlessly. The novel is an immense thing, important and holy in its way, but also cynical and self-destructive. It ends, for instance, with a sentence fragment of one word. Reading it you get the sense that Wilder was writing as if possessed, with his story running out of his fingertips and out of control.

3.

And in this way, The Eighth Day fits with the larger fictional trends of the late 1960s. Riots; assassinations; an unpopular distant war; an unruly, alien youth movement; homegrown terrorists; airline hijackings and so on—the chaos of the times percolated through the fiction of the 1960s and flowered into the violent (The Dog Soldiers), self-aware (JR), post-modern (Gravity’s Rainbow) 1970s. The old forms of the novel were exhausted, and the novel was undergoing another metamorphosis. The Eighth Day reflects some of this uncertainty through the flattening lens of history, but there’s a fractured narrative method at its core. The writing zips back and forth, there are little asides, and there’s the menace and threat of violence, even amidst the slow dawn of individual redemption. It’s a haunting read.

Wilder won the top award over Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, William Styron, Thomas Berger, Richard Brautigan[2] and Chaim Potok. He was the right choice.

Around the world, Marquez published his mammoth, hugely influential One Hundred Years of Solitude; Milan Kundera released The Joke[3]; William Golding published his intriguing, strangely flat The Pyramid; and J.G. Ballard continued his golden period with three novels.

Outside of Marquez, I think Wilder’s novel is probably the best I’ve read from the year. It’s a hell of a novel, elegant but wild, too. I would recommend it to anyone.

 


[1] I also thought Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, and George C. Scott were the same person. What an actor that would be!

[2] A real oddity in American letters.

[3] I remember reading this but cannot remember what it’s about; The Unbearable Lightness of Being is great.

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